Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Made in the USA

We are creating our own terrorists. Our natural resources have become homegrown assassins, grass roots mass murderers, and rank and file executioners. We have neither to import nor export our national product, we simply nurture and fester it. Indigenous Rage.

In Austin, Texas, a 53-year-old computer software engineer flies his small aircraft into an I.R.S. office, killing an innocent man as well as himself, injuring and traumatizing others and destroying federal property, because he’s angry—
really angry!—with the U.S. tax system. According to reports, he was also really angry about bank bailouts, big government, Catholics and unions. Prior to removing his hateful self from the earth he scorched, he burned his house down, rendering homeless a wife and daughter, whom, based on the evidence, ashes, must also have made him really angry.

In Wichita, Kansas, a 51-year-old airport shuttle driver, a born-again Christian, shoots a 67-year-old doctor who is serving as a church usher
because he performs abortions—not just any abortions, but third-semester! abortions. So much for the Sixth Commandment. At his trial, the “Army of God” soldier testified to planning the murder for 17 years, weighing pious deeds like opening fire on the doctor from his rooftop or chopping the doctor's hands off with a sword—the latter measure abandoned with unusual logic from a lunatic: because the maimed victim would still be capable of teaching others how to perform abortions. In the eyes of some abortion opponents, that “soldier” has risen to cult-hero heights.

And lest we forget, U.S. Army veteran Timothy McVeigh, recipient of the Bronze Star, had a grudge against U.S. domestic and foreign policy. He took it out on 168 strangers.

In each case, defense lawyers explained that their clients had grown frustrated.

When we were children in school, we learned about kamikaze pilots with incredulity. Now we find: kamikazis are us. At home we were taught to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Now, we have fellow citizens all too happy to kill to save life! We are a nation of sheep being led to slaughter OTHERS. What does it say about religion and politics in America—and Americans?

We are a nation of sheep being systematically shorn of our pride, our dignity, our civility. We are angry and hostile because we are prodded and pulled by forces we were brought up to believe in with blind faith and deeply want to trust. Clerics who do not practice or even mean what they preach. Politicians who divide and conquer the worst in us. Elected officials—elected to lead—who have so little respect for their followers they debase and demean them by assuming they have no intelligence at all and will believe anything they say, which they do!

Let’s not delude ourselves any more, that is, any more than we have—it isn’t going to get better until it gets worse, so much worse that political, clergical, business and civic leaders, talking heads and hate mongers, are forced to stop inciting the worst in human nature or face being devoured by it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Who But David Brown?

My perception of David Brown was his reality—he knew everybody. He knew people no one living is supposed to know.

When I mentioned using Irving Berlin songs for a musical about him, David said, “Ray, I speak to Irving on the phone every day. He won’t go for it.” When I mentioned I was writing a script about ballplayer-genius-spy Moe Berg, David said, “When Ernie Lehman [Oscar-nominated screenwriter] and I were cub reporters, we interviewed Moe at the Red Sox training camp in Sarasota.” And he unearthed a faded newspaper clipping from the ‘30s for me.

I’ve been introduced to some illustrious people by other illustrious people, but who but David Brown would take me by the arm and walk me across a ballroom to introduce me to Steven Spielberg? And introduce me in a way that Spielberg would remember me the next time our paths crossed? And take as much pleasure as I to learn that Spielberg knew and praised my two chief documentaries.

David was, in a word, gracious. When he heard I’d written my first screenplay, he called to ask, “Why haven’t I seen it, Ray?” When I answered, slightly embarrassed and on the defensive, “David, it’s not for you,” he said, “Ray, we’re friends. Let me be the judge of that.” He called within days of receiving it to agree with me—it wasn’t for him—but to say, “I want to see everything you write.” That’s a friend.

The one script of mine he became excited about was the one about Moe Berg. He suggested producing it with me and was briefly my partner, twice. As flickonomics would have it, he begged off—graciously—explaining he was just too overextended to do justice to “this very special” project.

In 1988, I produced an evening honoring David—and pounced on the occasion to lure a hard-to-get Shirley MacLaine onto the program. Capitalizing on her notoriety for her faith in past lives, her opening line was, “I’ve been in love with David Brown for two thousand years.” David called me the next morning to say, “Ray, you’re a great producer,” a great (disproportionate) compliment coming from a great producer when he could have stopped at thank you. Gracious.

And of course David would be one to call to make me feel like I was already a winner when one of those aforementioned documentaries was nominated for an Oscar.

I think of David every time I think of his witty opinion from his book, “Brown’s Guide To Growing Gray,” to wit, no one was ever offended by being over-tipped. And think of him every time I pass what passes today for the Russian Tea Room and wish we’d had a few more lunches together at the old Tea Room. Another former RTR habitué, agent Jeannine Edmunds, likened David to Fred Allen, “wise about the business,” adding choice words for him like “informed” and “attentive.” David was as good a listener as he was a conversationalist. His New York Times obituary referred to him as “courtly” and “urbane,” while London’s Guardian captured his charm in one succinct sentence: “Indeed, Brown was exceptional in his modesty and self-effacing geniality, traits rare in Tinseltown.” All in all, David was as kindly as he was courtly. And always, infallibly, a consummate gentleman.

The last time I saw him, he thanked me when I told him how good it was to see him, and then turned the conversation to me.

When David reached his ultimate destination, I’ll bet he was on a first-name basis with his greeter—and asked what he or she’d been up to lately.

Eminent Producer and social lion David Brown died on February 1st of this year. For his detailed achievements, please see

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jobs We Can Believe In

The landscape is bleak. We see a progression of crumbling bridges, collapsing dams, breached levees, decaying roads and desiccated farmlands. Stagnant water, wastewater, solid waste, hazardous waste. Dissolve to: abandoned homes, withering parks, collapsing schools, broken rails.

Sound like a depressing movie you don’t want to see? Neither do I. It’s no movie, it’s America. It isn’t over in two hours and you can’t walk out on it.

We have been looking at America’s vexing infrastructure—from afar and for far too long—and missing the blighted forest for the illusory trees. Ready for your close-up, America? We need a new New Deal. Yes, New Deal—the dirty words Republicans would be titillated to hear and Democrats are afraid to say even under their breath.

Accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency (July 2, 1932), Franklin Delano Roosevelt mentioned a New Deal for the American people for the first time. While depression-struck Americans in soup lines blamed their suffering on an alphabet soup of villains they identified as the three Bs—brokers, bankers, and businessmen, FDR set his sights on what he defined as the three Rs—relief, recovery and reform, the latter to alter and improve the financial system to preclude another economic collapse. He took to the radio to talk to the American people—to allay their fears, to rebuild their confidence, to explain what went wrong and how it might be corrected. Heartened and assured by the president’s “fireside chats” as if he were speaking individually to every man, woman and child, a needy nation eagerly waited for and welcomed them. Worth noting: the New Deal and its programs, as The Library of Congress “Learning Page” points out, “set a precedent for the federal government to play a key role in the economic and social affairs of the nation.”

In his State of the Union speech just two weeks ago, President Obama cited “the times that tested the courage of our convictions…” Like the Great Depression. He continued, “And despite all our divisions and disagreements, our hesitations and our fears, America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation, as one people. Again, we are tested. And again, we must answer history's call.” He subsequently added, “…it's time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength. And tonight, tonight I'd like to talk about how together we can deliver on that promise. It begins with our economy.” The president pledged to make “a million jobs the overwhelming priority for the coming year.”

We are privileged, I would even say blessed, to have an educated, articulate man for president. So what does the opposition hear? House Republican leader John Boehner called the president’s goals “job-killing policies.” I quote Bertrand Russell: “A stupid man's report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”

So, only yesterday, as the New York Times reported, President Obama and Republican leaders seemed to agree the two sides “might be able to work together [on] jobs creation.” But before you could say “brain-dead,” those “leaders” voted to block the president’s choice for the National Labor Relations Board. Labor, as in work! The same people who think Democratic is a three-syllable word ending with a “t” must think jobs and labor are antonyms, not synonyms.

Who could object to creating jobs, reducing unemployment and rebuilding America? We know who.

Maybe the solution to the Republicans' inability to grasp a thought as vital as this one is to write “jobs” on the palms of their hands.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What, and Get Out of Politics?

It’s one of those story-jokes like “The Aristocrats”—everyone tells it differently. This isn’t film and I’m not Bob Saget, so here’s my “nice” version:

An old vaudevillian is passing through a circus grounds when he spots another vaudevillian he knows from days of yore. “Sam!” he says, “What are you doing here?” “I work here,” says Sam. “Here, in the circus? You became a… clown, Sam?” “No,” says Sam, “I take care of the animals.” “You, Sam? You were up there with the best!” Seeing the crestfallen look on the man’s face, Sam quickly tells him, “It’s OK, my friend, really! Come, I’ll show you. I have to give the elephant an enema.” Taking the man with him, Sam grabs a tall ladder and props it up against the elephant’s rear. He grabs a fire hose, turns it on full blast, mounts the ladder, and shoves 12 inches of the hose into the elephant. The elephant gradually becomes so engorged with water he explodes, throwing Sam from the ladder in a wave of excrement. As Sam lies sprawled on the ground in a pool of dung, his heartbroken crony pleads, “Sam, you don’t have to do this! You can quit!” Sam says, “What and get out of show business?

It’s a punch line with a moral. Vaudeville is long dead, but electing to swim in shit is not. Witness anyone in politics. If, to quote a master shit-detector, Yip Harburg, “It’s a Barnum and Bailey world,” Washington is its big top—and Congress is the center ring.

Infantile men and women of all ages run off to join the circus. As a rule, they leave family responsibilities behind to assume public responsibility irresponsibly. They call themselves Senators and Representatives. By electing them, we enable them.

I’m proposing “New Conditions For Congressional Officeholders.” Let’s give it a catch phrase for the C-SPAN debates and the ad hoc press conferences on the steps: The Stay Home Amendment. I hereby propose: we elect congressional candidates for terms at home. Instead of sending them to Capitol Hill, we post them to their homes and their families—and their own beds. Instead of living in caucus, committee or sin, they can learn, first hand every day, what the rest of us unavoidably know: drugs, unwanted pregnancies, hunger, broken wills and shattered dreams, essential needs and unpredictable ill health, lurk or fester in everyone’s backyard.

Now, Congressman, let’s debate “public option,” “freedom of choice,” “right to serve”; “bail-out,” “paygo,” and the ringer of ringers, “socialism.” On the cesspool side of mini-mindedness, let’s see if we can skirt the corrosive detritus of the Birthers and Tea Baggers. Welcome home.

If you were fortunate to see President Obama’s commanding appearance last Friday before “The GOP House Issues Conference,” variously referred to as a Republican retreat, a House caucus, or from my impression, a staged reading of scripted talking points by 10 toadying Republicans, you saw how the president, hungry for dialogue, patiently forbore bore after bore. It was reminiscent of a carny side show as the champ took on all challengers, all of whom entered the ring swinging unskillfully, hoping to land a lucky punch. Flailing and failing, the hapless pols needed someone to stop the bleeding. Roger Ailes to the rescue! (What’s a side show without a fat man?) While every other major network naturally continued to carry “The GOP House Issues Conference” to its conclusion, Ailes, the Fox News’ boss, decided to ring the bell and throw in the towel 20 minutes before the contest was over. And then “began attacking the president for ‘lecturing’ to the lawmakers,” according to Politico! So much for Fox’s “fair and balanced” news.

Now here’s Ray Fox’s fair and balanced news:

Ailes had this to say about his decision: “I’m not in politics, I’m in ratings.” And this non-sequitur when asked why Fox (TV) cut away so early: “Because we’re the most trusted name in news.” Arrogant and unbalanced newsman.

Obama had this to say to the conference: “I don't think they [the American people] want more partisanship. I don't think they want more obstruction. They didn't send us to Washington to fight each other in some sort of political steel-cage match to see who comes out alive.”

Who would you rather listen to? Just like back-room politics, what started here with an old joke ends with anything but a laughing matter.