Paddy Chayefsky, the real prophet

Image from Warner Bros.

The votes are being counted. I’m foolishly reading a lot about the process and its possible outcomes, though the usual suspects are saying what everybody knows: We’re a divided country, and regardless of who becomes president, we’re not going to easily fill in the chasm between the Two Americas. (John Edwards had it in terms of economics, but there are so many other indicators that split us. And what’s Edwards up to these days, anyway?)

But I keep coming back to “Network,” a 44-year-old movie which — despite its incredible wordiness and turned-up-to-11 performances — still resonates today. (I know, I’m always coming back to “Network.”)

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Sunday read: What it takes

Image from the Associated Press/Andrew Harnik via NBCnews.com.

I’m thinking about Richard Ben Cramer.

I met Cramer, a legendary journalist who died in 2013, in May 2004, when he was on a book tour for his work on the Middle East, “How Israel Lost.” If my faulty memory recalls correctly, our interview was supposed to be a brief conversation about the book, but Cramer never encountered a fellow journalist who didn’t immediately become an old friend, and he invited me to an event he was attending that evening.

Being the starstruck putz I am, I tagged along as he drank and smoked and talked and glad-handed and talked and smoked and talked some more, an entertaining companion with endless stories. At one point, I asked him who he thought would make a good president. He didn’t hesitate.

“I’ve always liked Joe Biden,” he said.

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But it’s good television!

I didn’t watch the debate last night. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stomach even 15 uninterrupted minutes of the person a friend calls The Only President We Have.

(“Uninterrupted.” Ironic word choice there, Leopold.)

Based on the ratings — the only yardstick The Only President approves of — it appears I wasn’t alone. The audience was big — about 65 million across eight channels — but that’s still substantially fewer people than the 76 million who watched the first debate between him and Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Still, the numbers may go up when other channels and the Internet are added in, and they’re still the highest for a television program in 2020 than anything outside the Super Bowl. And there’s a reason, beyond the fact that the future of what’s left of the free world depends on the outcome of this election, that debates featuring Mr. “Sir” President do so well: He’s outrageous. He’s his Twitter feed come to life.

He’s good television.

Maybe I should put that phrase in quotes, because “good television” seldom means good television. It means car-wreck television. It means that the so-called cool medium has become hot, and you can’t look away.

At its best — a rare occurrence — good television is immediate and meaningful, a live (or live-on-tape) event that crackles with the energy of live theater.

But usually, “good television” is the equivalent of bad pulp fiction, momentarily enjoyable but soul-suckingly, time-wastingly meaningless. Think your if-it-bleeds-it-leads local newscast. Think pro wrestling. Think reality shows.

Think of a person that term defines. He’s Lonesome Rhodes. He’s Diana Christensen. He’s television incarnate.

There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids. If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You’re television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. 

(Is it any coincidence that former GOP strategist Rick Wilson likes to say, “Everything Trump touches dies“?)

I hope the networks — particularly the cable news folks — are happy about the guy who’s given them spectacular profits. Sure, the profits may be Pyrrhic in the long run, what with the state of the country, the world and all.

But, hey, it’s “good television.” In the meantime, we’ll just keep amusing ourselves to death.

Weekend read: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Image from AP via Forbes.

A nice profile by Jeffrey Toobin.

Her dissent in Shelby County v. Holder (PDF p. 32).

Her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber (PDF p. 28).

Reading her majority opinion in United States v. Virginia (click on the “Opinion Announcement” link on the left side).

Rest in power, Justice Ginsburg. May your memory be a blessing — and an inspiration.

The devil you know

Image from the AP via the American Prospect.

A couple days ago, Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall — the man who keeps me sane — published a post, “Why Are Dems Nervous? Because They’re Dems” (paywall).

His reasons were many and familiar: Democrats are a much more diverse party, and it’s hard to hold its constituencies together. Democrats believe they don’t fight as hard as Republicans. Democrats are innately more skeptical — that is, more empirically minded and aware of weakness — than the GOP, so they worry more.

I’d add one more reason: People hate change, and Democrats are generally the party of change.

Hell, even when they’re the party of staying the same, they’re the party of change. Look at 2000, when Al Gore — almost unopposed in the primaries — was following Bill Clinton, who had presided over the best GDP growth since the Go-Go days of the 1960s. Gore’s proposals were actually fiscally conservative — remember the “lockbox”? — but claims of Democratic profligacy made headway, George W. Bush promised a tax cut, and too many people thought there was no difference between the pair.

As for 2016, there was this candidate who promised to “Make America Great Again,” so even though that sounds like change from the status quo — personified then by a Black president, a woman presidential candidate, and a woman speaker of the House — it was really sounding a retreat to a glorious, golden, manly era when everyone knew their place and Washington wasn’t a swamp. I’m thinking 1 million years B.C.

Anyway, the thing is, people will stay in bad situations because the alternative is unknown and scarier than the familiar. Hell, I consider myself a Democrat and I hate change. When my life feels stuck, I come up with Plans B, C, and Z, and tell myself that making the jump I’ll be in a better place than where I’m at. Yet even a single step in that direction feels like dragging my leg with a 50-pound anchor attached.

Right now, things are bad. People are still dying of Covid-19 — not at the rate they were a couple weeks ago, thankfully, but still at a higher rate than in most other Western countries. People are angry at police shootings and extremists with their weapons and again I want to post that “Network” speech from Howard Beale that leads up to “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” so I will.

And yet the Democrats are nervous because who knows if the polls are right and what about the swing states and he’s trying to take down the Postal Service and people are scared and, well, the president and his party are promising more of the same (and quite forcefully, too). And though more of the same sounds to me like staying in an abusive relationship, it can be hard to leave an abusive relationship.

After all, he did say “I love you.”

Sunday read: The soul of the party

Image from Reuters via Politico.

A few days ago, I ordered Kurt Andersen’s latest book, “Evil Geniuses,” about the wealthy groups that steered the Republican Party away from its Main Street, mildly libertarian outlook and into its anti-government, anti-science, anti-immigrant, ferociously pro-gun/fundamentalist religious absolutism. I may have to hold off reading it for awhile, because I’m not in the mood for horror stories right now.

Still, I’m reminded of the politician who helped make it all possible. No, not Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, though they played major roles. (Charles P. Pierce is fond of talking about the “prion disease” that’s been eating away at the GOP since Reagan started feeding the faithful “monkey brains.”)

I’m thinking of Newton Leroy Gingrich. How the former Georgia representative, short-lived House Speaker and current husband to the Ambassador to the Vatican (God loves His little jokes) managed to rip the fabric of America into tiny little angry pieces is the subject of my Sunday read, McKay Coppins’ Atlantic article, “The Man Who Broke Politics.”

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A lesson from New Zealand

Image of Jacinda Ardern from Getty via time.com.

Recently, after more than three months without a Covid-19 case, New Zealand got hit with a new outbreak two weeks ago. It’s a sobering reminder that Covid remains a challenge to control — New Zealand is still trying to figure out how the disease managed to re-emerge given the country’s precautions — and even after a vaccine is approved, nations and municipalities will have to remain on alert.

Nonetheless, the country of 5 million has done an excellent job of keeping Covid in check. Aside from its status as an island nation, giving it some built-in defenses, it clamped own hard with quarantines and testing. Even now, after the new outbreak, the country has tallied 1,665 total cases and just 22 deaths, a fraction of the rate suffered by others.

Still, there always has to be someone sneering “nyaah, nyaah, nyaah” in the back of the classroom. Could it be the classless man who has presided over 5.6 million cases and almost 170,000 deaths — almost one-quarter of the world’s fatalities?

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A bad case of school stomach

Image via Child Mind Institute.

Remember that nervous feeling you got before an important test in school? Your insides would turn to water and your mind would go blank. Perhaps you took some deep breaths in the hope of calming down … but, in general, that feeling of unpreparedness and anxiety didn’t go away until after the test was over.

My wife calls it “school stomach.”

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I ain’t goin’ nowhere

Last night, my wife and I watched “Ocean’s Thirteen,” with its glossy, colorful Steven Soderbergh vision of Las Vegas. (The film was OK; I’d review it for Belated Movie Reviews, except I’ve already forgotten most of it besides Soderbergh’s — uh, Peter Andrews’ — cinematography.)

I’ve been to Vegas a few times. I remember driving a lot and, during a couple ill-advised summer visits, going outside as little as possible to avoid the scorching pavement. (Best time to visit: February.) But one nice thing about “Ocean’s Thirteen” is that it captures the romance of the invented city, which is, after all, a bunch of skyscrapers, planned neighborhoods and neon plopped down in the middle of the desert. In fact, perhaps my favorite place to visit in Vegas is the Neon Museum, a literal graveyard of the city’s greatest signs.

We won’t be going to Vegas this year. Or anywhere else. Covid-19 has kept us at home.

I miss traveling. I’m not a constant traveler, and my preference is for nice-but-middling hotels and cheap diners over pricey digs, but I can’t remember a year when I didn’t go somewhere. When I was growing up, my family would pile into our car — the ’72 Gran Torino wagon, the ’76 Delta 88, the ’83 Delta 88 — and hit the road for Houston. Or St. Louis. Or New York. Or, in 1976, Montreal and the Olympics.

As an adult, I took advantage of a year at grad school in Syracuse to spend weekends in Toronto, Boston, Montreal (I love Montreal), New York, and Philadelphia, as well as a couple brief-but-memorable trips to Cooperstown, N.Y.

I’ve gone to several baseball stadiums. I visited Israel (via Lufthansa, which was an adventure in itself). I wandered the grachts of Amsterdam and took the bullet train from Paris to Nice. My journalism fellowship took me to Brazil, Argentina and Turkey.

Not my natural habitat.

This year was supposed to lead to somewhere new: Britain. I had plans — a Beatles tour, the museums, bookstores, perhaps a couple days in Scotland.

It will have to wait. Money’s tight, my wife and I are wary of spending several hours on a plane, and most notably we wouldn’t be able to leave our hotel room.

Traveling in the U.S. is equally fraught. As I’ve noted all too frequently, this country has done a crappy job of controlling the virus, so I’m not going to leave my house in relatively safe eastern Pennsylvania unless it’s absolutely necessary.

My wife and I did socially distance with friends at the Delaware Water Gap — a 45-minute ride — last weekend, so that was nice. And I take occasional trips to the Baker Street Bread Co. in Philadelphia to pick up their excellent challah.

But a real trip, with hotels and rest stops and serendipitous walks and somebody’s used bookstore? 2021 can’t get here soon enough. Preferably with employment and a vaccine.