Sunday read: What would E. Howard Hunt think?

Image of the “three tramps” being led away after the JFK assassination. E. Howard Hunt may be the man in the hat. Or he may not.

Late last week, a former State Department employee and Trump appointee, Frederico Klein, was arrested on charges that he took part in the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection and assaulted an officer. And then Friday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) released a 2,000-page report that noted the social media activity of GOP members of Congress between the election and the riot.

I wonder what E. Howard Hunt would think.

Hunt, famously, was the former CIA agent who got wrapped up in Watergate as one of Richard Nixon’s “plumbers,” who were tasked with stopping administration leaks but ended up planning wiretappings and the Watergate burglary itself. He was a mysterious fellow who ended up as one of the threads Woodward and Bernstein pulled on to unravel the whole scheme.

Hunt had a history well before Watergate. He’d helped bring down the government of Guatemala in 1954. He wrote dozens of spy novels, some highly praised. And he may have had knowledge of John F. Kennedy’s asssassination.

The last, from a 2007 story in Rolling Stone, is at the center of my Sunday read.

Now, I’m an agnostic on the Kennedy assassination. It’s always seemed a little odd that an eccentric figure named Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed JFK on November 22, 1963. Surely he must have been connected to something — the Mob, the CIA, Texas oilmen, maybe the whole racket. On the other hand, it’s always seemed odd that an eccentric figure named Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and helped kick off World War I when the archduke’s car, having avoided a thrown grenade not long before, flukily went past him as he was waiting near a delicatessen. History is full of such improbabilities.

I’m not going to get into the details of Hunt’s confession — that’s why I’m linking to Erik Hedegaard’s story. I’m not even sure I believe much of it. Hunt very well could have been one of the “three tramps” in Dallas that day (many sources say otherwise), but he also fingers Lyndon Johnson as one of the conspirators, and having read the most recent volume in Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, I don’t buy that.

But as part of the CIA? Allen Dulles‘ CIA? The place that tried to get Fidel Castro’s cigars to explode? Which had an operative who met with Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy about their idea of smearing LSD on muckraker Jack Anderson’s steering wheel? I can see that. And Hunt himself was the kind of guy who didn’t flinch about such things.

“He was a complete self-centered WASP who saw himself as this blue blood from upstate New York,” says his son in the Rolling Stone article. ” ‘I’m better than anybody because I’m white, Protestant and went to Brown, and since I’m in the CIA, I can do anything I want.’ “

I don’t know what we’ll find out about January 6. There are many loose ends and unexplained events — Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s torn-out panic buttons, why folks are pushing off-the-wall conspiracy theories — that may lead to some dark places. Or they may lead nowhere at all. E. Howard Hunt died in 2007, so there’s no way to get his opinion on things. But he left behind some interesting stories.

You can read “The Last Confession of E. Howard Hunt” here.

Sunday read: This pretty much sums it up

Image from the Washington Post.

The 88 pages of the Jan. 4-Jan.11 issue of The New Yorker contain one feature article, a 39-page chronicle of how Covid-19 went from obscure coronavirus to the colossus of death that has killed 2 million human beings as of mid-January, including close to 400,000 Americans.

It’s my Sunday read.

I know, I know. You’ve had enough of reading about Covid. I’ve certainly had enough of posting about it. But — and this means no disrespect to the Atlantic’s Ed Yong or the diligent folks at Stat — this piece was written by Lawrence Wright, a terrific writer who wrote the best book on the lead-up to 9/11, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower,” and an excellent work on the Camp David accords, “Thirteen Days in September.” (In an eerie coincidence, “The End of October,” his novel published in May but written earlier, concerns a worldwide pandemic.)

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Sunday read: A scientist hero

Image from Cosmos Magazine.

I grew up in the 1970s, which means that my bloodstream and organs are probably full of contaminants that will take decades, if not centuries, to break down — long after they may have contributed to my death. I’m sure I’ve eaten my share of plastic, inhaled plenty of tar and nicotine, and probably consumed some radioactive heavy metals.

I’ve certainly been exposed to greater-than-healthy doses of lead (which is to say, more than zero), because until 1975, it was in pretty much every gallon of gasoline we pumped in America. That means it was also in every ounce of exhaust that our internal combustion engines produced.

But at least we’ve moved in the right direction — away from leaded gasoline. And, in part, we have Clair Patterson to thank.

Patterson, “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of,” is the subject of my Sunday read.

Patterson, who was trained as a chemist but practiced geology and physics, was an eccentric. His discovery that his laboratory was infested with lead prompted him to go to extreme lengths to clean it (as well as hypothesize where the lead came from), at a time before “clean rooms” existed. And that wasn’t all.

On smoggy Pasadena days, he’d amble across the quad wearing two different colored socks and a gas mask. He went distance running when distance running was a hobby for weirdos. He didn’t look or act like a professor. He wore t-shirts, khakis, and desert boots. He refused tenure. Later in his career, he soundproofed his Caltech office and installed two doors, two layers of walls, and two ceilings. As his colleague Thomas Church noted, Patterson was like his rock samples: He did not enjoy being “contaminated” by outside influences.

This made him easy to caricature for the corporate interests — oil and auto companies — that wanted to keep their leaded fuel in the pipeline. After all, it eliminated knocking!

And no-knock leaded gasoline was a small price to pay for all that lead in the environment. After all, miniscule amounts of lead couldn’t cause that much damage. Could it? The leading lead researcher certainly didn’t think so, and nobody was looking over his shoulder.

Kehoe also made mistakes that might have been caught had his work been subject to independent scrutiny. In one study, Kehoe measured the blood of factory workers who regularly handled tetraethyl lead and those who did not. Blood-lead levels were high in both groups. Rather than conclude that both groups were poisoned by the lead in the factory’s air, Kehoe concluded that lead was a natural part of the bloodstream, like iron. This mistake would grow into an unshakeable industry talking point.

That probably sounds familiar.

Mental Floss’ Lucas Reilly shows how indefatigable Patterson was. The scientist went to Greenland to take samples, then Antarctica. He took days to test each one. What they showed was undeniable: lead contamination had risen sharply in just a few decades. And then he went to a mountain in Yosemite and made his conclusions even stronger.

Oh, we’d polluted with lead before — just ask the ancient Romans — but this was of a scale that was frightening, not to mention unnecessary. After all, we weren’t making utensils, just stopping our cars from making noise.

You should read it all. Sometimes, even against entrenched corporate interests, science (and safety) will out.

Read “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of” here.

Review: ‘Reaganland’ by Rick Perlstein

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 by Rick Perlstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are more than 200 pages of endnotes in Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland,” and I have no doubt that the author – who concludes his four-volume history of postwar American conservatism and culture with this book – read every single book, article, squib, and cocktail napkin he mentions.

The work – all 700-plus pages of it (not including the endnotes, or the bibliography, or the index, or the acknowledgments) — is a marvel of detail and synthesis. I lived through the period Perlstein chronicles, having been 11 when Jimmy Carter was elected president and 15 when he was voted out in favor of Ronald Reagan, and I paid pretty close attention to the news (especially for an adolescent). I’ve also read much about the era since. But there are any number of incidents I’d forgotten about, or failed to realize the significance of, until I saw them woven into Perlstein’s ‘70s tapestry: the background of Love Canal, the early flailing of the 1980 Reagan campaign (John Connolly was considered a much more attractive candidate at one time), how far down Carter’s approval ratings were – and how much they rose after the Camp David Accords and the early days of the Iran hostage crisis.

But those events are only the surface. The real story of “Reaganland” is the creation of the conservative messaging subculture and its joining with the religious right, led by such figures as Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, direct-mail king Richard Viguerie, Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell, and anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly. Together, they helped build an ideology that’s still with us today, one that’s become more homogenous, well-funded, and powerful than they could have ever imagined.

The echoes – or perhaps klaxons – are with us still.

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Alex Trebek, 1940-2020

Image from Jeopardy Productions.

More than 30 years ago, “a student from New Orleans, Louisiana” — that would be me — appeared on “Jeopardy!” In the time since, whenever people find out about my quiz show claim to fame, they have two questions: “How did you do?” And: “What is Alex Trebek really like?”

The first question has a simple answer. In an exciting game, I went into Final Jeopardy with a narrow lead over the second-place challenger, missed the question, and left with some nice parting gifts, including a case of Pepsodent and several packages of dried prunes.

Entering the “Jeopardy!” lair in 1987.

The second was much harder, for Trebek — then in just his third year of hosting — had a reputation for standoffishness. In my very limited experience, he appeared only when the show started taping, kept to himself during the commercial breaks, and exchanged some small talk with us after the match was over. He seemed perfectly pleasant, very polished, and smart in a quiet sort of way. It would be years before his more casual, fun-loving side would come out on the show.

Alex Trebek died Sunday. He was 80. His death was not unexpected — he had announced last year that he was receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer, had taken short breaks because of that treatment, and said in interviews that he sometimes hosted the show in incredible pain — but it is still a tremendous loss.

I know it is for me, a longtime game show fan and player.

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Sunday read: Passing the presidential baton

Barack and Michelle Obama and George and Laura Bush, January 20, 2009.

Joe Biden is now President-elect Joe Biden.

Between now and January 20, he has to get a new administration more or less in place, hiring hundreds of officials and generally turning the presidency into one of the nation’s biggest start-up companies.

In this, he will likely get no help from the outgoing president or his people. That’s not necessarily new in American history, though it is in recent years, when the handover between administrations has been relatively smooth.

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Sunday read: ‘All I wanted was a full stomach’

Photo by Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times.

Next weekend is the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the new year. Because of the eccentricities of the lunar-based Jewish calendar, the holiday pops up at different times on the Gregorian calendar the Western world uses, which once made me say in front of a rabbi friend, “Rosh Hashanah is late (or early) this year.”

To which he responded, “No, it’s right on time.”

Time, we have learned this year more than most, is an elastic concept. The last six Covid-choked months have seemed to pass achingly slowly, as time does when your world is reduced to your immediate surroundings and any trips outside come with the caution of masks and hand sanitizer.

Psychologically, it’s brutal. So I can only wonder what it was like for someone like Henry Friedman, a Jewish man who spent months on end during World War II hiding in a tiny space in a neighbor’s barn with his mother, brother, and a schoolteacher.

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Belated Movie Review: ‘Trumbo’

“Belated Movie Review” is an occasional feature in which I review a movie that everybody else has already seen.

I’ve watched only a handful of Dalton Trumbo-written movies: “A Guy Named Joe,” “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus,” “Exodus,” “Papillon,” maybe a couple others. Of those, my favorite is “Roman Holiday,” which has the benefit of Eddie Albert with a beard, Gregory Peck playing Cary Grant, and Audrey Hepburn playing Audrey Hepburn. It’s witty, effervescent, and charming. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Other Trumbo films, such as “Spartacus,” did take themselves seriously — it was an important epic, ya know — but it’s also terrific entertainment.

“Trumbo,” the 2015 biopic about Dalton Trumbo, also takes itself very seriously, but with less of a payoff. It’s like one of those ham-handed documentaries they used to show in high school, the kind in which the filmmakers may as well have used flashing neon title cards.

“Trumbo” starts in the late ’40s, with our hero (Bryan Cranston) about to sign a contract with MGM to become the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. He appears to have it all: a movie in the works with good friend Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), a picture-perfect family (Diane Lane plays his wife, Cleo) and an excellent reputation.

But there’s a problem. A few years earlier, Trumbo had joined the Communist Party. Now, with the House Un-American Activities Committee holding hearings and a blacklist in the works, his position is threatened. (Helen Mirren plays the seething Hedda Hopper, constantly rallying Tinseltown against the Red Menace.)

To his credit, Trumbo stays true to his ideals when testifying and actually goes to prison for a time. When he gets out, nobody will hire him, and he has to find fronts and use pseudonyms; “Roman Holiday,” for example, is co-credited to Trumbo’s friend, Ian McLellan Hunter.

He signs on with a pair of B-movie producers, the King Brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root) and cranks out screenplays for a pittance. He brings in some of his blacklisted friends. He wins an Oscar under an assumed name. He’s befriended by Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger, who book him a major motion picture (Douglas’ “Spartacus”) and promise to give him a credit (Preminger’s “Exodus”).

JFK goes to see “Spartacus,” the blacklist is doomed, Hopper is furious, and Trumbo reclaims his honor. The end. Many of the heroes and villains are so obvious the movie should have been made in black and white.

What saves “Trumbo,” and makes it generally entertaining, are the performances. Cranston is terrific as Trumbo — a little glib at the beginning, but a man who acquires a few shades of gray as the movie goes on. Stuhlbarg doesn’t look or sound much like Robinson, but his agonizing — an avowed liberal, he still names names in front of HUAC — makes him sympathetic. Diane Lane has nothing to do but does her best to do it well. John Goodman is ballsy as Frank King and gets the best lines.

That’s all to the good, because the script — by John McNamara (who, I see, created the weird and underrated ’90s TV series “Profit”) — is paint-by-numbers episodic, and Jay Roach’s direction emphasizes the themes with a sledgehammer. Some characters go nowhere: Louis C.K. appears as an unnecessary composite of several blacklisted writers, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is a menacing inmate whose sole reason for being, it seemed to me, was to show that a big Black guy in prison wasn’t illiterate. After awhile, it seemed like a movie made by checklist.

Certainly, the blacklist was bad, HUAC was made up of grubby hypocrites, and Hedda Hopper was a harridan. But in its clip-cloppy way, “Trumbo” comes across as something you’d see on the History Channel, not the big screen. As a movie, it’s a missed opportunity.

I’ll give it a cautious recommendation for the performances, but if you have to choose between “Trumbo” and “Roman Holiday,” definitely watch the latter. It’s already in black and white, but it feels like glorious full color.