November 13, 2019
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has taken its fair share of bashing over the years from both the left and right. It’s was roundly criticized by the left for its history of foreign coups and a false “slam dunk” claim by a former CIA director about Iraq having WMDs. The right has accused the Agency of being part of the “Deep State” trying to undermine President Trump. Either way, the constant criticism overlooks the achievements of career analysts and agents who put their lives on the line every day to prevent terrorist plots around the world.
It’s easy to trash the CIA because it’s a secretive, covert spy agency and it’s usually their mistakes that make headlines. We seldom hear about the terrorist plots they’ve prevented because they operate below the radar. I don’t purport to defend the CIA because I don’t know all the covert operations they get involved in and if most their actions are commendable. But there’s good reason to believe that the vast majority of people who sign up with the spy agency are doing it for the right reasons.
The Library just obtained a new book that discusses the career of one such person. “Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA” by Amaryllis Fox is technically a memoir but more a tribute to the “grunts” of the CIA who go unnoticed and unappreciated by the general public because their work is so covert. Apparently, Fox’s motivation to write the book was due to the fact that most CIA employees don’t get enough credit for the exceptional work they do.
Fox’s story is probably similar to others who have been recruited by the CIA. Although she plays down her obvious high IQ, she was accepted at both Georgetown and Oxford. She was also a globetrotter growing up, exhibited little fear of going to regional hotspots overseas, and developed a strong desire to make a difference in the world. Her world was shaken several times in her life. She lost her best friend on the Pan Am Flight 103 terrorist bombing over Scotland, directly witnessed the aftermath of 9/11, and was friendly with Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl who was beheaded by ISIS. When the CIA recruited her she was willing to go for it.
For Fox, working for the CIA didn’t simply mean analyzing raw intelligence for possible terrorist attacks. She was also trained for covert work overseas. It meant that she had to have a “cover” and, with the exception of her spouse, her family and couldn’t know what she really did. It certainly explains why CIA agents tend to be married to other CIA agents but even those are no picnic.
“Life Undercover” is more fascinating than suspenseful because you know that Fox obviously survived since she wrote the book. But it doesn’t mean she didn’t put herself in danger. She goes into vivid detail of her efforts to recruit a weapons merchant from the Muslim world. There’s never any guarantee that a prospective adversary is going to turn and join the CIA’s network of informants. But Fox goes through the process in detail. It’s always a crapshoot.
Becoming a spy sounds like exciting work (and it can be) but these recruits give up a lot. It’s not James Bond where every moment is either a chase scene or romantic interlude. A lot of their days are very mundane. Fox spent years living in Shanghai under cover as an art dealer (while married to a fellow CIA agent). She even gave birth to her oldest daughter in China which is hard to imagine considering all her covert work. After ten years with the Agency she realized it was time to move on.
If Fox’s motivation for writing the book was truly to express appreciation for CIA employees she certainly succeeded. We tend to hear about the CIA only when it tortures people, overthrows a hostile government, or flubs up an operation. Most CIA employees give up a “normal” life to make the world a safer place. I once knew a lady who I assumed worked for the State Department and was actually with the CIA. These people have to deceive friends and family and keep all the world’s secrets to themselves. “Life Undercover” teaches us that there is another side to the CIA that we really don’t know about.
November 1, 2019
One of the reasons Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 is his mastery of television. He grew up in the video age and knew how to manipulate it for his own benefit. He was a celebrity all over New York because his name was in neon lights and he was constantly on TV. It eventually led to him hosting his own reality show (“The Apprentice”) and become a recognizable figure to a national audience. He was a star of his own making.
I mention the Trump phenomenon because there is a new book out that combines the history of television with the effect Trump had on it. “Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America” by James Poniewozik presents a good summary of how Trump took advantage of the medium to become larger than life. Trump was so attuned to the power of television that he realized the image of a successful billionaire businessman was more important than actually being one.
Poniewozik is certainly in a unique position to review TV and Trump. He lives in New York and has been a television critic for years. His understanding of television history is illustrated by how he is able to cite specific shows reflecting American culture over the years. Trump is the perfect symbol for understanding television and its development since he was born in 1946 when the industry was in its infancy.
It’s interesting to reflect on how TV saw itself in the 1950s and 60s. Poniewozik uses the acronym LOP (Least Objectionable Program) to describe the early years. That theory is a bit overdone but there is some logic to it. In those days the three broadcast networks’ (NBC, CBS, & ABC) main goal was to keep couch potatoes from wanting to get up and change channels.
That thought process changed with the advent of remote control devices, cable outlets, and the counter-culture of the late 60s. By the 70s the original broadcast networks were reflecting a change in bland programming with such series such as “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” No longer were issues such as bigotry, anti-war sentiment, and single working women taboo to the mass audiences.
This type of programming continued to reflect America’s changing tastes. Interest in the rich and powerful in the late 70s led to primetime soap operas such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty” with their “evil” protagonists J.R. Ewing and Alexis Colby. With cable in full-bloom by the late 1990s reality TV suddenly became the latest “thing” and produced the “anti-hero.” The popular HBO dramatic series “The Sopranos” reflected this phenomenon as well.
Donald Trump fit the changing television landscape to a T. He became the central figure on “The Apprentice” and the viewers fell in love with his tough, brash, billionaire persona and his signature “You’re fired!” line each week. It helped build his rich, tough, can-do-anything image that he enthusiastically cultivated. Add that to his name being plastered all over the world in neon lights and never meeting a camera he didn’t like and you have the “appealing” 2016 candidate for those people fed up with politics as usual.
Poniewozik goes into extreme detail describing the collision of Trump and television and sometimes it’s a bit much. He makes a salient point and then goes on ad nauseum about it. His book probably could have been cut in half. But despite the verboseness, I would still say “Audience of One” is worth perusing because it combines two major stimuli of our current culture (Trump & TV) and explains how and why they intersected. It may not be pretty but it’s certainly reality.
October 25, 2019
One of the worst things about Hollywood movies is “artistic license.” That’s when a director decides to embellish a true story in order to make it more dramatic or entertaining. Even though the actual narrative is usually better than the contrived one, a real problem arises when it falsely creates heroes or villains. Anyone who saw the feel-good movie “Rudy” about a wannabe Notre Dame football player probably has no idea of the hatchet job done on head coach Dan Devine (he was unfairly portrayed as the villain). We recently hosted a “Nights at the Round Table” program that dealt with a similar type of false narrative.
Exactly one hundred years ago major league baseball suffered through one of its worst chapters ever. In what became known as the “Black Sox” scandal, several members of the Chicago White Sox, including stars Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson, admitted to accepting bribes to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Most people who follow the game probably got their version of the scandal from the 1988 movie “Eight Men Out” (based on the 1963 Eliot Asinof book) which was highly sympathetic to the players.
The “villain” was White Sox owner Charles Comiskey who was portrayed as a cheap, tight-fisted dictator who treated his players like chattel. The film made it seem like Comiskey drove the players to cheat either out of desperation or spite. It turns out it was all fabricated.
The real story is much more fascinating than the “artistic license” version played out on the silver screen. Our guest speaker at the “Nights of the Round Table” program was award-winning author and historian David Pietrusza who spoke about the many misconceptions dealing with the “Black Sox” scandal, especially the one involving the embattled White Sox owner. Appropriately titled, “Fields of Myths: 100 Years after Baseball’s Black Sox Scandal, Finally Separating the Many Myths from the Reality,” Pietrusza explained why the players weren’t as innocent as the movie suggests.
One of the most dramatic scenes in “Eight Men Out” involves a confrontation between Cicotte and Comiskey. Cicotte, a White Sox pitcher, won 29 games that season and would have gotten a bonus if he won 30. He thinks he should still get the bonus because he was benched the last few weeks of the season and not allowed to win his 30th game. In the movie Comiskey just blows him off. In reality, Cicotte took time off for personal reasons and actually had an opportunity to win his 30th but lost the game.
Comiskey also had one of the highest payrolls in the game so it’s hard to see him as a “penny pincher.” Apparently every movie needs a “villain.”
The truth is the whole “Black Sox” scandal is complicated and involves several shady characters. There had been many stories and rumors even before this scandal broke of players being on the take. But major league baseball tended to look the other way. Maybe it was inevitable that a gambling controversy would blow up at some point.
Part of the sympathy in the movie is that the players were acquitted in a subsequent trial but then so were the gamblers. But it’s a fact that several of the players admitted to taking bribes. Baseball’s response was to appoint federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as commissioner and he swiftly banned the eight White Sox players implicated for life.
The most famous player involved, Shoeless Joe Jackson, is still being pushed by many supporters for entrance into the Hall of Fame. They point out that even though he admitted to accepting a $5,000 bribe he hit .375 for the Series. But he still took the money.
Every aspect of this scandal is complicated. Pietrusza shows that there are arguments and counter-arguments for everyone involved. Sometimes it’s hard to know which of the characters to believe. But having a “factual” movie that takes “artistic license” just complicates the situation even more and leaves the false impression that are heroes and villains. Sometimes that just isn’t true.
For those of you who missed Pietrusza’s presentation, it is scheduled to be on C-SPAN3 in the near future and then available for streaming through the C-SPAN website. You can find out for yourself that the “Black Sox” scandal is far from cut-and-dry. The only real truth is that it rocked baseball to its core and created change in the game that still reverberates today.
October 2, 2019
Today co-education is an accepted part of academic life at most elite universities. But it wasn’t that long ago that co-ed private colleges weren’t the norm. Up until the late 1960s most elite schools, especially Ivy Leaguers, were for men only. It wasn’t until 1969 that Yale, one of the oldest and most exclusive U.S. colleges made the decision to go co-ed. And it was anything but smooth.
For most of us, we simply saw that universities were going co-educational and accepted it as part of the process. We didn’t anticipate any problems that might arise. I had a high school classmate who was in the sixth women’s class at Yale and never heard any blowback about how difficult her experience was. Perhaps by then it was seamless. But the original class in 1969 was in for culture shock. Nothing was easy and they were combating a men’s world steeped in tradition, resistant to change, and dominated by too many male chauvinist pigs.
For one thing, Yale did not have a sister school nearby that would have helped make for an easy transition. Harvard had Radcliffe and Notre Dame had St. Mary’s. But Yale was so isolated that it bused in women from Vassar and Smith Colleges each week for Saturday night dances. The switch to a co-ed campus was bound to be traumatic.
The story of the first class of women at Yale is recalled in a new book by first-time author Anne Gardiner Perkins called “Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant.” Perkins is uniquely qualified to discuss these trailblazers since she graduated from Yale and became a historian. She tracked down 42 “pioneers” to find out about their experiences and how they adapted to Yale’s male-dominated environment.
It is not surprising that the introduction to co-education had some growing pains. After all, Yale had so much history as simply a men’s college. Its central mission was to produce 1,000 future American leaders each year and it was clearly successful at it. The Yale brand can be found at both the White House and Supreme Court. It had a proud record of achievement. There was concern that bringing women into the mix was going to affect the status quo in more ways than one.
The president of Yale at the time was a man by the stately name of Kingman Brewster, Jr. and he was powerful enough that he usually got what he wanted. He was a devoted Eli (Yale’s mascot), loved its traditions, and conservative by nature. He opposed the Vietnam War but otherwise had all the markings of a male chauvinist pig. He was willing to allow a token number of women into Yale but that was about it. He had no interest in gender-blind admissions standards (some women were rejected for less qualified men), increasing female faculty, or making the new co-ed students feel safe and comfortable on campus.
Women students faced the problems of isolation, harassment, lack of respect, and even sexual assault. The doors to their dorms didn’t even have locks. “Sexual harassment” wasn’t even a term that was invented yet. One girl came to Yale expecting to play field hockey and found out there was not only no field hockey team but no women’s teams at all. Yale didn’t prepare for any of that.
It can be argued that change should have been expected to come slowly to such a time-honored, male-oriented university. But it was difficult for the incoming women to think that way. After all, the late 1960s was the era of the counterculture, antiwar protests, sexual revolution, and rise of feminism. New Haven was a major university town so Yale was at the epicenter of all these movements. Traditions may die hard but that didn’t mean they would be accepted without dissent.
The stories of these pioneering women and how they dealt with the Yale administration and the whole culture of the time are beautifully recounted in Perkins’ book. Despite numerous setbacks, the women persevered and made their mark on the iconic Ivy League campus. Thanks to the Yale pedigree (you had to be smart to get in) most of this first class of women graduated and went on to successful careers. “Yale Needs Women” is quite a piece of history and one worth remembering.
September 23, 2019
Sometimes a novel comes along that defies conventional wisdom. It provides plot twists and turns that goes against the norm. It’s usually a good thing when this happens because it forces the reader to think outside the box when trying to figure how what’s going on. I had the pleasure of discovering one of these books recently where there was no discernable pattern to what would happen next.
“The Body in Question” by Jill Ciment provides a simple but intriguing premise. A high profile murder case is taking place in Florida and two members of the sequestered jury end up having an affair while the trial is going on. It opens up a can of worms because their dalliance could possibly affect the verdict. Admittedly, they are not into discussing the case but they are also doing their best to avoid letting the other jurors find out about their relationship.
Of course, trying to keep the affair secret is not going to be easy. The other jurors have their own personality quirks and being nosy applies to most of them. Besides, throwing six strangers and one alternate together for three weeks (most juries in Florida are six people, not twelve) usually means tensions will develop between them.
While the main premise is the affair and how it affects the jury, there are plenty of other major plot lines going on at the same time. The main female protagonist is married to a much older man whose age has caught up with him. That explains her susceptibility to a sexual encounter. Her marriage is examined in detail and it’s clear she has a complex and ultimately unsatisfying relationship with him due to their age difference (her “love affair” partner has the advantage of not being married so no similar guilt trip is involved).
The trial itself is far from cut and dry. It involves a home fire that killed a toddler and whether his mentally challenged teenage sister deliberately caused it. There is nothing “open and shut” about this highly publicized case and passions run high on both sides of the spectrum (hence the reason for sequestration).
Adding to the intrigue, Ciment initially refers to all the jurors by their juror number or the personality trait with which the female protagonist identifies them. The impersonal designation adds a bit of mystery to all the characters. You can’t easily get a handle on these peoples’ true selves. Deep down are they really nice people or total jerks?
Ciment also provides an education on how the jury system works. If you’ve never served on a jury it’s entirely plausible what she describes really goes on. Jurors often look at the defendants, lawyers, and witnesses and make judgments based more on their mannerisms than what they actually say. Jurors often fall asleep (even though that’s a no-no) because much of the evidence is so mundane. And, of course, what goes on in the jury room is entirely up to the jury itself.
“The Body in Question” never follows a systematic pattern and keeps you guessing right up to the end. It involves much more than simply the verdict but the public reaction, how jurors are treated, and interpersonal relationships on many different levels. Ciment has done her homework in writing this novel and has provided us with something that is both sobering and impressive. I highly recommend it.
September 4, 2019
Major league baseball has gone through significant turmoil the past 40 years concerning salaries, labor negotiations, rule changes, and performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). As fans it’s been hard to know who to root for since both sides of the equation (owners vs. players) leave a lot to be desired. The game appears to have survived and be in good shape financially but its history indicates that it’s always on the brink of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
For a long time the owners were so incompetent and lacking in business sense you figured they must have inherited their millions. The players weren’t much better. They went from being virtual slaves to making millions but in the process produced a union so powerful that it became more concerned with “winning” than what was good for the game, the fans, and player safety.
The bumps in the road began in the 1970s when long-time owners couldn’t see the handwriting on the wall when it came to free agency. There was something archaic called the “Reserve Clause” that bound a player to a team for life. That clause was going the way of the dinosaur but the old-time owners wouldn’t accept it. They were used to treating their players like chattel and weren’t going to change.
That formula blew up on them during the 1981 players’ strike as the splintered owners lost out to a unified players’ union and settled the strike on the players’ terms. The owners added to their incompetence by not bidding on free agents and being found guilty of collusion. They were forced to shell out $284 million to the players and further strengthening the union’s power.
A 1994 strike led to disastrous consequences as the owners (who say they were losing money) were finally as united as the players and wouldn’t back down. It forced the cancellation of the World Series and the threat of replacement players being used in 1995. A court order forced the regular teams back on the field but the damage had been done. Baseball lost a lot of its popularity.
The sport got its mojo back in 1998 due to an unexpected power surge as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa sought to break Roger Maris’s season record of 61 home runs. McGwire ended up with 70 and Sosa 65 but it was soon learned that their numbers didn’t come naturally. It turns out that steroids and other PEDs were exploding across baseball.
The owners began pushing for drug testing but the players’ union was adamantly against it citing privacy issues. They weren’t moved even when Congressional testimony produced stories of teenagers committing suicide after using steroids to enhance their major league prospects. It wasn’t until the public outcry and their own “clean” players complained enough that the union heads finally relented and a testing program was established.
The story of these controversies and other changes to the game, including revenue-sharing among clubs, interleague play, instant replay, and adding Wild Card teams to the post-season, are explored in a new memoir by recently retired commissioner Bud Selig. His tome, “For the Good of the Game: The Inside Story of the Surprising and Dramatic Transformation of Major League Baseball,” is his take on how the game hit rock bottom and was able to bounce back to be more financially healthy than at any time in its history.
It should be noted that Selig was not the most popular of baseball commissioners (actually, none of them were). He was booed everywhere he went including the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. It was during his watch that the 1994 World Series was cancelled, the PED era emerged, and an All-Star Game ended in an embarrassing tie because the managers let themselves run out of pitchers. Rightfully or not, he was blamed for all of these mishaps and perceived as a weak, bumbling leader.
Selig does a good job defending himself as he describes his life journey from boyhood fan to owner of the Milwaukee Brewers to the office of commissioner. He rightfully points out the crass, inflexible nature of old-time owners who wouldn’t accept change. And he also accurately describes the growing clout of the players’ union that became so diluted with power that compromise was no longer part of its vocabulary.
Whether you accept his conclusion that he was ultimately responsible for leading baseball out of its morass and leaving the game in a healthy state when he retired in 2015 is up for debate. In many ways he’s right but his pleading ignorance to the start of the steroid era still defies logic. The whole PED issue continues to be a major source of controversy to this day.
Why didn’t the owners go to the mat on drug testing during contract negotiations with the players once the scandal was exposed (i.e., locking them out)? If keeping the game clean is so important, why are players caught cheating today still allowed to keep their long-term, multi-million dollar contracts after serving their suspensions? It’s just an incentive to keep cheating. Selig doesn’t satisfactorily answer these questions.
In general though, “For the Good of the Game” is an enjoyable and educational read on the history of labor relations, the steroid era, and the modern changes to the game. Bud Selig was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2017 and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t deserve it. He left baseball in better shape than when he began.
August 16, 2019
I recall seeing a “Peanuts” cartoon many years ago where Schroder, the catcher, tells Charlie Brown, the pitcher, that one finger will mean a fast ball, two fingers will mean slow ball, and three fingers will mean the general area in-between. That description probably reflects how most people view the art of pitching. Anybody who follows baseball closely knows that it’s far more nuanced than that. Beyond the fastball and curveball baseball is known for many exotic pitches including the slider, screwball, knuckler, splitter, spitter, forkball, changeup, and sinker. How did something that appears to be a straightforward task evolve into such a complex and confusing art form?
We are fortunate that we have someone who has actually taken an interest in exploring this befuddling subject. National baseball writer Tyler Kepner has written a book called “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches.” It literally provides a history of our national pastime since the evolution of pitching is such a huge part of it. And for those that don’t know, “K” is the symbol used in baseball for a strikeout.
Kepner splits his book into ten chapters with each one focused on a different pitch. Sometimes it can get confusing. One pitcher might say he is throwing a slider while another says it’s a changeup. Terms such as “fork ball” and “palm ball” are also tossed around but they are generally just other names for “splitter” and “knuckler” respectively. If that’s not confusing enough, no two pitchers are exactly alike either. Even the most common pitch in baseball, the fastball, differs from pitcher to pitcher. We hear terms like “two seamer” and “four seamer” and think “Huh?”
Pitching is so intricate that a player’s physique often dictates the type of pitcher he will be. Having enormous hands can be a huge advantage since it’s easier to grip the ball. And some pitchers constantly fight arm stress while others have “rubber” arms. A pitch like the slider might ruin one pitcher’s elbow and have no effect on another.
Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell was known for his screwball but his arm was totally disfigured by the time he retired. Knuckleballers like Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhem, also Hall of Famers, pitched in the majors until they were almost 50 because their primary pitch put no strain on their arms. In the 1970s Tommy John wrecked his elbow but had an experimental surgery that resurrected his career. That same surgery is still used today and bears his name.
The best thing about the book is that pitchers enjoy talking about their craft. It’s no wonder that Kepner found writing it a labor of love. Even the most media shy pitchers would talk to him and describe in detail the “secrets” to their success or lack of it.
What we learn is that mechanics, experimentation, practice, and patience are essential to becoming a successful pitcher. Most prospects can’t just come in and throw the fastball and become a star. All major leaguers can hit a fastball so pitchers have to develop another pitch or two to keep the hitters off balance.
In the meantime, while we’re learning about all the subtleties that go along with pitching, such as the size of a pitcher’s hands, or how they grip a certain pitch, Kepner provides insights into certain games and situations that explain why a pitcher threw a particular pitch to a particular batter. There are even times during the World Series where Kepner justifies why a pitcher didn’t pitch around a great hitter when first base was open.
An additional bonus is discovering a distinct local connection. While conducting research for his book Kepner says he spent much of his time in the Baseball Hall of Fame Library. Many of the people he thanks in his acknowledgements will be familiar to you.
There are not enough good things I can say about this book. It not only opens your eyes to a side of baseball that most of us don’t truly appreciate but it’s a totally fun read. We learn how pitches evolved and why they work for some pitchers and not others. We also discover why some well-known pitches have basically become extinct. Kepner covers it all. “K” is a royal treat for any baseball fan.
July 24, 2019
When it comes to big-time college football the idea of the “student athlete” is considered an oxymoron. The notion that football players actually attend class and are interested in academics is laughable. They are recruited by multi-million dollar head coaches only for their ability to help the team win conference and national championships. Academics is secondary or a non-factor. The number of academic scandals that have plagued college football are endless. It’s usually a question of who gets caught rather than whether a school has been cheating on its players’ academic performance.
Before I go on, I would like to say that it’s possible for a school to win and stay true to its academic mission. Stanford and Notre Dame have proven they can run elite football programs and attract athletes that go to class and graduate. They are not alone. The best way to tell whether a university takes the idea of “student athlete” seriously is to see if they have athletic dorms or not. If they don’t have them (i.e., housing football players with non-athletes) then it’s a good bet their athletes are students as well.
It is always illuminating to find that “diamond in the rough” who excels at both. There is a new book out that presents one such case. “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football” by John Urschel shows what can happen when someone is dedicated enough to perform at the highest level on the field and in the classroom. It is the story of an unusual man with an unusual career path beyond taking Mickey Mouse classes like “Basic Pass Reception 101.”
To illustrate just how unusual Urschel is, he not only played pro football for the Baltimore Ravens but is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT. It is rare enough for anyone to simply be getting an advanced degree at MIT, let alone playing in the NFL at the same time. Urschel was able to combine the two “professions” because both were a labor of love instead of just a job.
It certainly helped Urschel growing up that his parents were brilliant, successful, and determined that their son take advantage of his educational opportunities. His mom introduced him to basic math puzzles when he was an infant. Urschel’s interest in football was first tweaked by a photo of his dad playing in high school even though his dad never talked about it.
Urschel describes how he developed his passion for math and football in alternating chapters as he goes through his biography. His mom had to learn to accept his love of football even though she envisioned him becoming a rocket scientist. His dad never pushed playing football but supported his decision and offered advice on technique whenever he felt it was appropriate.
Urschel could have attended an Ivy League school for college but wanted to play big-time football. He ended up at Penn State which only added drama to his narrative since his time there overlapped with the Jerry Sandusky pedophile scandal and the firing of coaching icon Joe Paterno. His thoughts on how those chain of events affected the football team are enlightening.
Despite the scandal and the lack of status of an Ivy League education, Penn State seemed to be the ideal landing spot for Urschel. The school had an exceptional math department and the football team was part of the Big Ten, one of the elite conferences in the nation. His ability to focus, organize, and compartmentalize allowed him to become an All-Conference lineman and Academic All-American.
One major issue Urschel discusses is CTE, the traumatic brain injury caused by concussions and too many blows to the head. Several NFL players have seen their lives destroyed because of CTE. Was it worth it for him to continue playing football when his “other” profession relies so much on mind and memory? That dilemma literally hit home when he suffered a major concussion during his second year with the Ravens.
There is a lot to like in Urschel’s unique autobiography. He proves that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. He also makes you appreciate how mathematicians can find the ultimate thrill in what most of us see as a totally cerebral profession (even if you can’t comprehend what he’s talking about half the time). The bottom line is that successful football and academic careers can coexist. It just takes perseverance and the right mindset. John Urschel’s story is inspiring.
July 12, 2019
We’re all familiar with McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that permeated this country in the late 1940’s and much of the 1950’s. The fear of communism was so great that the mere accusation of being a “Red” ruined people’s lives. Some politicians like Senator Joseph McCarthy used the issue to gain and abuse power. It was an ugly time when it felt like our Bill of Rights was under constant attack.
We survived that era but it’s hard to appreciate the effect on ordinary citizens who were caught in the wave of hysteria that engulfed us. Pulitzer Prize winning author David Maraniss, who has written on a variety of subjects from Bill Clinton to Vince Lombardi, brings a human touch to McCarthyism as the whole Red Scare affected his family in ways he never realized. His father Elliott was considered a subversive, called before the HUAC, blacklisted, and kept under FBI surveillance.
The fascinating thing is that Maraniss knew nothing about his father’s situation because Elliott never talked about it. By the time David was old enough to remember anything the family was pretty well situated in Madison, Wisconsin and his father finally had a job he wasn’t fired from. But getting to that point was a total nightmare for a “typical” American family of a husband, wife, and four kids.
Maraniss’s new book, “A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father,” is a biography of not only his father and David’s extended family, but several of the main players of that era. It even serves as a primer for the Spanish Civil War which most Americans probably don’t know much about. It is an amazing review of a time when not only hysteria overwhelmed common sense but idealism did as well.
Both of Maraniss’s parents attended the University of Michigan in the late 1930’s which is where they met and shared an affinity for leftist politics. It’s easy to understand how idealistic young people could be attracted to other economic systems besides capitalism because the country was immersed in the Great Depression. But it is bizarre they would use the Soviet Union as a model. They had to have an inkling of how brutal, murderous, and repressive the Stalin regime was.
Maraniss can only surmise why it took his parents so long to disavow that line of thinking. They never talked about it with him or his siblings. Perhaps it’s because the Soviet Union was our ally during WWII mixed in with a dose of naiveté. Whatever it was, his parents loved our country and never advocated anarchy. His father served with distinction in the US Army during World War II and rose from private to the rank of captain before being honorably discharged. And he loved nothing more in life than baseball.
But being an idealistic young communist was not going to win you any friends in Congress. An FBI informant fingered Elliott and he was called before HUAC in 1952 when they had a special session in Detroit. He took the 5th Amendment as he wasn’t going to name any names. He lost two jobs because of his affiliation with American communist organizations even though he was no longer associated with them. David Maraniss only has vague recollections of that time since he was just two when his father testified. But between 1952 and 1957 the family moved six times as his father tried to find permanent work.
Whether Elliott was naïve about the Russians or simply too idealistic is up for debate. What isn’t is the rank hypocrisy of the chief inquisitors of HUAC. Those investigators of “un-American” activities were mostly racist segregationists who were doing everything in their power to deny black citizens their basic Constitutional rights.
Maraniss adds some intrigue to his story by describing the adventures of his Uncle Bob Cummins and, of all people, the famous playwright Arthur Miller. The two of them were classmates at the University of Michigan, a couple of years ahead of Elliott. Cummins fought for the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War as part of the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” and Miller was motivated by McCarthyism to write his classic play, “The Crucible,” about the Salem witch trials.
Maraniss goes off on several tangents to describe a family history that was as new to him as it was for his readership. It is clear his story is not unique. Many American families were caught up in the Red Scare who were not a danger to this country but suffered dearly for associating with the “wrong” political philosophy. “A Good American Family” is not only spellbinding but provides an understanding of a time and place in our history which most of us probably don’t appreciate.
July 5, 2019
The most controversial personality in baseball the last generation was Pete Rose. He embodied everything you wanted in a ballplayer yet besmirched his reputation when he was caught gambling on the game as a manager. Despite his many accomplishments on the field he has been rendered ineligible for the Hall of Fame. Is it worth considering the thoughts and commentary of someone who represents the best and worst elements of our national pastime?
I mention this conundrum because Rose has just published his autobiography, “Play Hungry: The Making of a Baseball Player.” I was intrigued and attracted to this title because Rose is never at a loss for words and knows a lot about the game. Even if he spent 15 years perpetuating the lie that he never bet on baseball he finally owned up to it and that freed him up to be honest about his career and the state of the game.
If you can put aside any feelings you have about his integrity and whether he should be in the Hall of Fame, his book is a valuable addition to the lexicon of baseball. You cannot escape the fact that Rose took a non-exceptional athletic body (let’s face it, every professional athlete must be a good athlete) and willed himself into being a supernatural talent. Hall of Fame or not, he did set a major league record with 4,256 hits, a number that will probably never be equaled. When Rose talks about what makes a good ballplayer it’s a good idea to listen.
I must first warn you that if you’re expecting a mea culpa about his gambling habits Rose doesn’t even go there. He states in the first chapter that he has two regrets in his life, that he bet on baseball and that he didn’t take his education more seriously. The first one needs no explanation, and the second is a good object lesson for any kid who dreams of being a professional. The odds of making it are extremely slim and you better have something to fall back on.
Rose grew up with a father who pushed him to the extreme. He was one of those dads who if you got four hits in a game he would wonder what happened the one time you didn’t. At least he doesn’t appear to be physically abusive like many fathers who live out their fantasies through their kids. Rose says they were very close and he was always encouraging. His only demand was that you give 110% percent all the time.
One of the first disciplines his dad taught him was that he shouldn’t walk when he can run. It started a tradition of Rose running to first base after a walk and something he kept doing his entire career. It’s little wonder that he earned the nickname “Charlie Hustle.”
The only thing holding Rose back from becoming an exceptional athlete growing up was his size. He was puny until after his teenage years. He was so small that he was not invited to try out for the football team his sophomore year in high school. He was so demoralized that he stopped going to school and had to repeat that year. It also meant he couldn’t play sports as a senior because he was too old.
Rose goes on to describe his path to the major leagues which included having the right mentors in the minors and staying focused. Nothing came easy. Hard work, practice, and repetition were ingrained in him. Even then, simple determination wasn’t going to get you to the major leagues unless you had talent.
Rose discusses his years playing for his hometown Cincinnati Reds and is especially proud of the fact he was colorblind when it came to relationships. He grew up with black kids so he never thought twice about it. It wasn’t until he played in the South that he saw blatant discrimination and was shocked and appalled by it.
He talks a lot about the art of hitting, fielding, and the fundamentals of baseball. He regales us with tales of the Big Red Machine of the 1970s and his pursuit of Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record. Ironically, he spends little time discussing his remarkable 44 game hitting streak in 1978.
At times throughout the book and in a chapter at the end he laments the state of the game today. Everything he says is right on the mark. When he was growing up there were only 16 major league teams. Now there are 30 and the talent is not only diluted but players come up to the majors without having learned baseball’s fundamentals in the minor leagues.
Long-term contracts are another bugaboo to Rose. Perhaps the best line in the book was delivered by his former manager Sparky Anderson who said, “Give me twenty-five guys every year who go to spring training on the last year of their contract, and I’ll go to the World Series every year.”
There is a lot to like in “Play Hungry.” Rose may have a gambling addiction that tarnished his legacy but he played the game the way it is supposed to be played. When you watch major leaguers today and wonder if they seem like pampered millionaires, it’s refreshing to reflect on Rose’s approach to the game. Before his downfall he was a true icon and represented what baseball was all about.
June 27, 2019
TV news used to be a lot less complicated. We had NBC, CBS, ABC, and PBS and people generally got all their news from the same sources. Back in the 1960s, legendary CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite was considered “the most trusted man in America” and basic facts were not in dispute. Those days are long gone. With the proliferation of cable news and the Internet, “facts” are now in the eye of the beholder.
People are able to believe whatever they want and cable news provides the perfect portal to achieve this end. And the cable networks seem more interested in ratings than factual reporting. You can sense it every time you turn on CNN, MSNBC, or FOX News.
This conundrum has been brought home in a new novel called “Savage News” by former CNN White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Apparently the book is her way of exposing the way the cable news world really works. Professionalism and journalistic integrity have been replaced by sexuality and sensationalism. Reporting real news takes a back seat to ratings.
Yellin’s protagonist is Natalie Savage, an up-and-coming reporter whose goal is to become the chief White House correspondent for the fictional American Television Network (ATN). Savage thinks she gets her big break when she is asked to cover the daily White House press briefing in place of the regular ATN correspondent. Although the whole press briefing is one of “gotcha” questions and evasive answers Savage seems to be under the delusion that this represents the pinnacle of her profession.
The story devolves from there as Natalie discovers that journalism is no longer a credible profession. Everyone is out for the “scoop” whether it’s legitimate news or not. We discover that the most important moniker on cable is “Breaking News” even if it involves a hangnail. It gets the viewer’s attention. We also find out that on-air reporters who are supposedly on location for a “Breaking News” story may actually be 5,000 miles away. It’s less expensive for the networks that way.
If sensationalism and false reporting aren’t enough, sexuality is the other hook to draw in viewers. The male reporter must be a “hunk” who shows off his body and the female must expose her cleavage, wear the right makeup, and let her hair down. Humiliating or compromising yourself to get ahead is all part of the business.
Savage may be appalled by all this phoniness but she is still willing to play the game to reach her goal. It doesn’t matter that she is compromising her morals and ethics, or even sacrificing personal and family obligations. Professional advancement is the only thing that matters. It makes her a shallow and dislikable character even if she is a reluctant participant.
We don’t know how much of what Yellin writes is over-the-top but it basically rings true. We have seen enough of TV pundits to know that they are comfortable talking out of both sides of their mouths. If they can get a prime time show and million dollar contract then they are willing to sacrifice their integrity.
“Savage News” is really a mixed bag. The story itself is not very appealing because none of the characters are sympathetic or likable. But discovering how cable news works from the inside is extremely valuable. It’s worth putting up with the obnoxious personalities to discover how these “vultures” operate. Ratings are the only thing that matters and it spoils it for those of us who are interested in just getting unfiltered news coverage. Sadly, those days appear to be over.
June 20, 2019
Joe Namath is a football icon. Back in the 1960s he was known not only as an exceptional quarterback but as a sex symbol nicknamed “Broadway Joe” who took New York City by storm. He stiffed the more established NFL to sign a nearly half-million dollar contract with the upstart AFL New York Jets in 1965 and eventually helped bring parity between the two leagues. He is best remembered for guaranteeing a win in Super Bowl III and then leading the Jets to a stunning victory over the 18-point favorite Baltimore Colts, 16-7. It seemed like he was leading a dream life.
Of course, dreams are only in the eye of the beholder. Namath’s life has been a roller coaster. On the surface he did seem to have it all. He was an exceptional athlete with good looks to match. In that sense he was a perfect fit for NYC and its abundant nightlife. He was also ideally situated to take advantage of the commercial opportunities that abounded for sports “heroes” like himself.
But there was a downside. For one, football is a brutal sport and quarterback is a position that is targeted more than any other. Quarterbacks make the most money, get the most attention, and typically are the most vulnerable to vicious hits. Namath may have lived the glamorous lifestyle but he paid for it physically. His knees were completely shot by the end of his career and that doesn’t even include all the other injuries that left him a physical wreck.
On top of that, he drank to excess. It wasn’t so obvious to the public until he was interviewed before a Monday Night Football game in 2003 where he was clearly drunk and kept telling ESPN’s Suzie Kolber he wanted to kiss her. Kolber handled it well but Namath was so embarrassed by the experience that he quit drinking cold turkey after that.
Namath is in the limelight again these days because it’s the 50th anniversary of his iconic Super Bowl win and his pre-game “guarantee” of victory after being trash-talked by a Baltimore Colts fan. To celebrate the milestone he has written an autobiography with a twist. “All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters” focuses on Namath watching a tape of Super Bowl III as the he intersperses his game analysis with many memorable moments, both good and bad, from his life.
Perhaps the most interesting part is Namath’s upbringing in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania where on his side of the tracks there was a mixture of so many different ethnic groups and minorities that racism essentially didn’t exist. Namath’s first real friend at the age of four was his black neighbor who remains one of his closest friends to this day. He didn’t notice blatant racism until he attended college at the University of Alabama in 1961.
Namath’s life story is another reminder that you should be careful what you wish for. He certainly appreciated his athleticism, the fame and fortune it brought him, and the many friends he made during his life. But it came at a cost. He has two artificial knees and an artificial hip, suffered several concussions, dealt with alcoholism, and went through a difficult divorce. His “Broadway Joe” lifestyle suffered through several depressing episodes.
“All the Way” is an enlightening tome on many levels. For those of us old enough to remember Super Bowl III it’s a reminder of how the Jets were able to pull off a dramatic upset and bring respect to the AFL. It is also the story of how one of the biggest celebrities of his generation managed and mismanaged his success. Namath doesn’t pull punches and that’s what makes his memoir such a fascinating read. He always seemed to be a likable guy and his book does nothing to alter that belief.
June 13, 2019
It would be apt to say that Donald Trump is a controversial figure. People who love him aren’t going to turn on him. They love his brash, no-nonsense ego and feel his personality is the perfect antidote to all that is wrong with Washington. Those that believe in honest government, constitutional norms, or simple common decency abhor him. What do we make of this character that we haven’t seen in a president before?
Of all people, a sportswriter may have come up with the best way to explain Trump. Rick Reilly is a nationally-known sports columnist who has worked for both Sports Illustrated and ESPN. He is also a lifelong golfer that puts him on par with Trump. It all ends there though. In his just released book, “Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump,” Reilly goes into minute detail to describe how Trump has trampled on golf’s etiquette and traditions and translated that same attitude into how he runs the government.
Reilly has known Trump for 30 years so he can speak about the man from experience. He has also talked to a lot of people associated with Trump so it’s not like he is spewing rumors about Trump’s disrespect for the game. Simply put, Trump cheats and cheats all the time in every manner possible.
The great golfer Ben Crenshaw once said that what sets golf apart is that it has a conscience. It’s a gentleman’s game where the honor system is in full play. You usually report your own rules violations because there often isn’t anyone around to dispute them.
Trump doesn’t care about rules or traditions. He only cares about winning. It tops everything even if he has to cheat to do it. Reilly points out that he will kick his ball out of the rough, pretend like his lake shots miraculously bounce out, will throw his ball on to the green from a bunker, pick up a 12 foot putt as a “gimme”, and kick an opponent’s ball into the bunker. He carries spare balls in his pocket so he can replace ones that have bad lies.
He says he has won 18 club championships yet Reilly can’t authenticate a single one. In fact, he found out Trump has given himself credit for winning club tournaments he never played in. Winning trumps everything even if it’s all a lie. Reilly wonders how you can actually enjoy a sport when you spend your entire time cheating to win instead of challenging yourself to be the best you can be.
Of course, Trump’s attitude towards golf extends beyond the game and into the business of golf. He owns several golf courses in the U.S. and overseas and constantly promotes them as the best in the world even though they aren’t. He goes ballistic when they aren’t rated in the top 100 in either this country or the world. And he’s so into his version of esthetics that he destroys the natural challenges of his courses by adding fake waterfalls and making every hole as lush as possible. Even then he doesn’t respect what he does as he drives his cart over greens which is an absolute no-no to anyone who plays the game.
He is well-known to stiff contractors in his business dealings and that extends to his golf courses as well. He’ll bully or sue his way to get what he wants and it often works. But he leaves a trail of anger and bitterness wherever he goes. He has alienated communities ranging from a conservative Republican enclave in Rancho Palos Verdes, California to the entire country of Scotland. In the latter, where his mother was born and he owns two golf courses, they have nicknames for him that you couldn’t repeat in polite company.
The stories go on from there. Reilly even includes an anecdote where Trump disses a five year old. But Reilly is fair in that he includes stories from loyalists who are devoted to Trump and the puzzlement as to why he has to inflate the attraction of all his courses when a couple of them are actually worthy of praise.
But simply enjoying the game and being honest are foreign concepts to Trump. All that matters is winning. Those in the know say he is a 10 handicap (which is pretty good for a man in his 70s) but Trump insists he is a 3. It’s hard to know how a man can enjoy a sport he can’t play honestly.
When reading about Trump’s approach to golf it’s much easier to grasp his approach to politics. With golf he owns the courses so he can get away with whatever he wants. It isn’t as easy with the country even though he has a base of support for doing it his way. Rick Reilly is on to something with “Commander in Cheat.” It really does explain Trump and should be must-reading for anyone who wants to understand how our president operates.
June 4, 2019
One thing that most of us have no clue about is the history of the “Greater United States” where all the foreign territories we have annexed are discussed. That’s not surprising because as the beacon of the free world the last thing the U.S. would want to emphasize is its foreign conquests. It is certainly true that since the end of World War II we have been in a decolonization spiral but before that we were in an expansion mode and proud of it.
We are fortunate to have a new book by Daniel Immerwahr, a history professor at Northwestern University, which examines that part of our heritage called “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.” The impact of annexing new territories around the world has been immense and is still with us today. The end result has been both profoundly positive and negative.
The cover of the book presents a taste of our “greater” self and makes you realize how extensive our reach is around the world. Most of us are aware that Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines have been part of our expanded community, but splotches on the globe such as Saipan, Bikini Atoll, the Swan Islands, and Thule Air Base probably don’t register on anyone’s radar. All of these places play a strategic role in our place in the world.
A fascinating tidbit that we learn right off is that our initial expansion included claiming several uninhabited islands dotted throughout the Caribbean and the Pacific. These islands were rich in something called “guano” which I’m sure most of you have never heard of. I certainly hadn’t. It turns out to be bird excrement which makes for excellent fertilizer. It is obviously disgusting to extract but at least we weren’t directly stepping on anyone’s toes to obtain it.
The same can’t be said for Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Cuba, and Panama. Nothing is going to run smoothly when expansionists see indigent populations as inferior and needing to be civilized by white men. Considering our treatment of them you can understand why they grew to hate us. It was no different from what our European counterparts eventually discovered about all their foreign territories. We really weren’t welcome.
Some of the consequences of expansion never appeared in traditional history books. The idea that we could simply show up in a tropical nation and adapt without feeling the physical effects is impossible. We were susceptible to all the tropical diseases that we later learned GIs suffered from during World War II. Clothing that was brought from the mainland to the Philippines, for example, would literally fall apart because they weren’t meant for that type of climate.
Although there is something distasteful about forcing our will upon others, much good also came from our empire building. Expansion allowed us to have military bases in strategic locations all over the world which was especially helpful during World War II. The loss of access to raw materials such as rubber at the outset of the war forced our engineers to develop synthetics like nylon and made the need for raw materials less urgent.
Our global expansion oddly enough was partly responsible for the smashing success of the Beatles and the rise of Sony Corporation. The development of many lifesaving drugs probably wouldn’t have happened as quickly if we weren’t into empire mode. Sometimes the unintended consequences of becoming an occupier or global power can be a very positive thing.
For better or worse, learning our “greater” history is essential to understanding our place in the world. It’s debatable whether it can be viewed as a glorious undertaking or one that has caused more problems than it was worth. Whatever the case, “How to Hide an Empire” presents a vital part of our heritage. It’s a fascinating read.
May 23, 2019
The 800 pound gorilla in Donald Trump’s world is Jared and Ivanka Kushner. Because they are an integral part of his family and advisors without portfolios, they are able to operate in the relative shadows of the White House where accountability isn’t so obvious. Most people are aware they are part of the Trump Administration but know little about their background or influence in running the government. We’re fortunate a new book has just arrived on the scene that gives us a better idea of the impact that “Javanka” has on our political process.
Vicky Ward is an investigative reporter who has covered the Kushners for years. She has just published a book called “Kusher, Inc.: Greed, Ambition, Corruption” where the title clearly indicates what she thinks of them. Ward’s biographical sketch of the couple is admittedly a gossip-fest where “Javanka” would probably dispute practically every detail written about them. But wherever the truth lies, the book does provide a blueprint for understanding how much influence they really have on the Trump Administration.
We all know Ivanka’s background. She was born into money because her father, Donald Trump, inherited wealth from his father and expanded his empire and brand. Ivanka was always a favorite of her father and readily joined the family business when she grew up. It is not surprising that she wanted to be part of the White House when Trump won the presidency.
Her husband Jared is an Orthodox Jew who was also born into money. Like Trump, his father is a real estate tycoon but has a black mark on his career. He spent two years in federal prison for nefarious behavior and was ironically sent there by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie when he was a federal prosecutor. It helps explain why Christie, an early supporter of Trump, was axed from his position as head of the transition team and never got a job in the Administration. That decision apparently came from Jared.
Although Jared and Ivanka are not self-made millionaires and have their real estate expertise questioned throughout the book, the happiness of their marriage is never doubted. Ivanka even converted to Judaism in order to marry Jared. But they are portrayed as extremely ambitious and willing to use their positions in the First Family for personal gain and power. Although they both had trouble getting security clearance, nothing was going deter them from helping foment government policy.
It’s a bit confusing as to what Donald Trump thinks of the pair other than he adores them. He often insinuates that they would be better off living in New York and not being involved in the Administration yet he named Jared the head of just about everything from Middle East peace negotiator to domestic policy advisor. Ivanka acts as if she’s her dad’s executive assistant and stand-in whenever he is dealing with foreign dignitaries.
Jared and Ivanka’s outsized influence on government policy is constantly questioned by others in power due to their lack of experience and knowledge in both domestic and foreign affairs. Their agenda also always seem to be how decisions will benefit them personally or inflate their egos. There were many times the Trump Administration comes across as a Keystone Kops-style operation and Jared and Ivanka fit right in.
“Kushner, Inc.” is not the best written book in the world. It bounces around too much chronologically and often gets so detailed it becomes a boring read. But as an exposé it makes its point. Jared and Ivanka are powerbrokers in Washington and it’s important that we know what makes them tick. Vickie Ward provides the background on how the couple operates and uses their influence in the Trump Administration. We now have a better idea of the effect they’re having on our lives.
May 17, 2019
The FBI has been under a lot of scrutiny lately due to the Russian investigation and the firing of director James Comey by Donald Trump. An agency that is normally held up as a model of efficiency and professionalism has been pounded on all sides and is now having their legitimacy questioned by the Trump Administration and its allies. It is not a time when the morale at the agency can be very high.
One of main targets of Trump’s wrath has been former acting director Andrew McCabe. Trump is absolutely sure McCabe had it in for him. He made sure McCabe was fired a day before he planned to retire and collect his full pension. Apparently the fact that McCabe defended Comey, along with McCabe’s wife having received campaign money from a Democratic PAC, was enough for Trump to believe McCabe could not be trusted.
It is not surprising then that McCabe has recently published a book entitled “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump.” At first glance it would appear to be McCabe’s payback to Trump and to defend himself. When McCabe made the rounds to promote his book all the questions tended to swirl around his dealings with Trump. But the book is much more than that.
Naturally, Trump occupies a fair amount of space in his book. McCabe is understandably bitter and wants to present his side of the whole controversial mess that got him fired. But to read the book is to actually find out what’s it like to qualify for a job at the Bureau, how you are trained, and how you go about your assignments. It’s really a template for service in the FBI.
McCabe goes into exhaustive detail about the whole procedure for qualifying for FBI duty. It isn’t easy, involves a lot of paperwork, and means making less money than what you could probably make in private enterprise. You do not have your choice of where to live and you have to pay your own moving expenses. It is clear that FBI agents are motivated by the excitement and intrigue of working for the country’s chief domestic intelligence agency.
If you end up qualifying for the FBI you go through a training regimen that ultimately makes you instinctively think like an FBI agent. There’s a certain protocol one should follow if he or she is fortunate enough to become part of this special force. McCabe emphasizes over and over again how dedicated FBI agents are and how they do not let personal or political leanings affect the way they do their jobs.
McCabe described how he started off working on mob-related activities and then moved on to dealing with foreign adversaries and counter-terrorism. His discussion of 9/11 and how that whole experience affected his life and the country is mind-numbing. He has served in so many different capacities it’s not surprising that he was in a position to become acting director once Comey was fired.
If you are motivated to read the book by juicy tidbits about Donald Trump you won’t be disappointed. But there is much, much more to McCabe’s narrative than simply a vendetta against Trump. You learn what the FBI actually does instead of just relying on what you read in the media or by watching reruns of the old TV series. Whatever you think of the FBI, McCabe makes a compelling case for it as an intelligence agency full of hard-working, dedicated, and selfless people. “The Threat” is definitely worth a look.
May 9, 2019
Anybody who was around during the 1960’s can remember what an exciting time it was for the space program. We all followed it. Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite would broadcast his evening news from Cape Kennedy (i.e., Cape Canaveral) every time there was a space launch. Through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions we waited in anticipation of the first moon landing. It was 50 years ago, July 20, 1969, that Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon and those of us that witnessed it on TV will never forget it.
Apropos of the upcoming golden anniversary, the Village Library has a new film on this historic event. It’s called “First Man” and stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong. It’s essentially a biography of Armstrong but it’s more a history of the space program and the race to beat the Russians to the moon.
Sharing the story through Armstrong is a smart way to go. If there was ever a person with the right personality for such an historic mission it was Armstrong. He was as humble, competent, and straightforward an astronaut as you could find. In all the years he lived after his triumphant “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” experience, he stayed out of the limelight. He was a very private individual and lived his life that way.
The opening of the film in 1961 shows the difficulty of becoming an astronaut. Very few people have the physical qualities to qualify. Armstrong is test-piloting an aircraft and it’s dizzying to think that any human can cope in such a situation. It’s not surprising that NASA selected their astronauts from such an elite group.
In retrospect, it’s also very easy to forget that the race to the moon did not always run smoothly. We all remember the movie “Apollo 13” which was supposed to be our third lunar landing. A major malfunction put the crew’s lives in danger but NASA managed to figure out a way to bring them home safely.
Here on Earth that wasn’t always the case. A couple of astronauts died in a plane crash and the three man crew of the first Apollo mission burned to death during a test of the space capsule. Armstrong himself had multiple close-calls during training and on his first mission in outer space.
What makes the story of our successful moon landing all the more moving is Armstrong’s personal story. He and his wife Janet lost their daughter Karen at a young age and it constantly haunted them. Neil’s profession was also a continual stress on Janet since his life was always at risk.
As the nation followed the space program most of us always assumed that it would ultimately be successful. Naturally, there were some who argued that flying to the moon was a waste of money but that attitude didn’t win out. We didn’t fully appreciate that NASA was always dealing in unchartered territory and that no mission was ever a sure thing. But, in general, the path to the moon kept moving forward.
Despite the fact we knew it was coming, the moment of truth was still hard to fathom when it finally arrived. I remember running outside and looking at the moon and realizing that someone was actually on its surface. It’s a moment that has always stayed with me.
“First Man” is a superb movie. It’s understated but that simply reflects the personality of Neil Armstrong. Ryan Gosling does a first-rate job as the historic astronaut and Claire Foy echoes that performance as his devoted but anxious wife. You come out of the movie with an understanding of how difficult life was for the astronauts, their families, and those at NASA who are trying to reach the moon. But the ride there is as thrilling as it gets.
May 2, 2019
It has been called one of the greatest college football games of all-time. Harvard remembers it as its most memorable win and Yale as its most bitter defeat. The Harvard student newspaper blared the headline “Harvard beats Yale” yet there was one thing unusual about it. The game ended in a 29-29 tie.
If this whole episode sounds bizarre, it is. But it’s all true. In 1968, two of the oldest rivals in college sports (their annual matchup is known simply as “The Game”) met at Harvard where in a rare instance they both came into the contest with perfect 8-0 records.
Despite their undefeated seasons Yale was a heavy favorite because they had two superstars in their backfield, quarterback Brian Dowling and running back Calvin Hill. Dowling was thought of as a “god” on campus (he was the inspiration for the character B.D. in the comic strip Doonesbury) and Hill went on to an All-Pro career with the Dallas Cowboys.
The game went according to script for the first 59 minutes as Yale jumped out to a 22-0 lead and held a 29-13 advantage as the contest entered its final minute. Then in stunning fashion Harvard scoring 16 points in the final 42 seconds with the last 8 as time expired. It was an odd circumstance to see one team in a wild celebration at midfield while the other was walking off in a state of shock even though neither team technically won.
But Harvard’s comeback was viewed as a miracle. Their partisans never forgot it. Most Yalies have never gotten over it. Lightning struck in a bottle and it’s still hard to conceive 50 years later.
As fascinating as the 1968 Harvard-Yale game is to the rivalry’s lore, it is only one piece of Americana from a very disruptive and stressful time in our history. The contest took place during a year Americans were reeling from an unpopular war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and violence that got out of control at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A game that was supposed to provide a respite from a chaotic year ended up being as unforgettable as everything else that was going on in the country.
In remembrance of “The Game” and the chaos of that era, author George Howe Colt (who attended the contest as a 14 year old) has just published a book that brings everything about that time to life. Called “The Game: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968,” Colt describes not only the game, the season, and the players, but the scene on the campuses as the anti-war movement exploded. The players weren’t immune to what was happening and the effect on them is thoroughly discussed.
As an added bonus, several of the players became known for something beyond simply playing in “The Game.” Besides Brian Dowling and Calvin Hill, the girlfriend of Yale running back Bob Levin was actress Meryl Streep (attending Vassar at the time) and one of Harvard’s offensive lineman was actor Tommy Lee Jones. Several years later Jones appeared on the popular PBS television show, “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and was asked about a turning point in his career. He said it was the Harvard-Yale game in 1968.
It clearly helps your enjoyment of the book if you are a college football fan or went to Harvard or Yale, but any student of American history will be captivated by its time and place. Harvard and Yale were at the epicenters of the anti-war movement as well as being on the cusp of shifting from all male to co-ed education. “The Game” ends up being an all-consuming book and hard to put down. It’s about a lot more than a football game that ended in a “tie.”
April 26, 2019
It never ceases to amaze me how much U.S. history we continue to learn that had previously been accepted as conventional wisdom. In this instance I’m talking about the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson case in 1896 where the Supreme Court validated “separate but equal.” I always thought it was about separate schools but that was just a by-product of the decision about the constitutionality of separate railway cars. What is truly amazing is that the decision didn’t create any headlines and was accepted doctrine of 19th Century life in America.
The education angle is easy to misinterpret because the Plessy decision was used to legitimize all Jim Crow laws, as well as separate schools. The “separate but equal is inherently unequal” came out of the landmark 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision ending legal segregation in public schools.
I had always thought the Plessy verdict was a horrible decision that reflected a racist Supreme Court but it was a blip on the radar except in the black community and among sympathetic whites. The nation in general accepted separation as the natural order of things. Truth be told, even many anti-slavery Northerners saw African Americans as inferior and didn’t want to be forced to socialize with them. “Separate but equal” was fine with Northern whites even if “equal” was a fallacy.
There is a superb new book that looks at the whole history behind Plessy. “Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation” by Steve Luxenberg shows that the origins of “separate but equal” can be found as early as 1838 in the supposedly strong abolitionist state of Massachusetts.
Luxenberg provides a narrative that opens with the new railway system in the Bay State pushing the idea of separate cars for blacks and whites. It infuriated black riders as it was clear from the get-go that they were not only being treated as social outcasts but their accommodations were clearly inferior. Courts tended to back the railroads in providing separate cars since they were private businesses. It was a sign of things to come.
Despite fighting a civil war to eliminate slavery it didn’t mean that social equality was going to come along with it. There were certainly black intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass and some white legislators like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens who pushed for true social equality and civil rights but they were not in the majority. In many ways 19th Century Northern white society felt that getting rid of slavery was enough.
Luxenberg tells his story in a unique way. He provides a cast of characters who were intimately involved in the fight for equal rights. There are multiple biographies that interweave throughout the book. They include Supreme Court justices who decided Plessy vs. Ferguson, lawyers that argued the case, and black leaders who wanted to test the separate but equal laws regarding railway cars.
One of the things that is especially noteworthy is the focus on New Orleans where the definition of “black” was completely convoluted. French culture and intermarriage was so ingrained in Cajun country that mixed ancestry was a natural consequence of the population. There were several different French terms to describe the degree of “color” or ethnic background of the citizenry. In fact, every state in the South had its own definition of what qualified a person to be considered “black” or “white.” Especially in New Orleans, many “black” citizens were fair-skinned enough to pass for “white.”
The names that U.S. history classes tend to gloss over when talking about Plessy vs. Ferguson but are an integral part of Luxenberg’s narrative include Henry Brown, John Harlan, Albion Tourgee, and Louis Martinet. All four were major players in the “separate but equal” debate and provide a roadmap to American attitudes concerning race relations in the 19th Century.
“Separate” is an outstanding piece of history and extremely well written. Luxenberg has done a tremendous job not only articulating an underappreciated bit of history but relates it in such entertaining prose that it’s hard to put the book down. The only drawback is that we know the ending in advance, otherwise it would have been extremely suspenseful as well. It doesn’t matter because this masterpiece provides enough intrigue anyway. It should be considered a classic.
April 19, 2019
Much has been made about the ugly era of the Jim Crow South. The racism, segregation, and lynching that took place from Reconstruction through most of the 20th Century are a huge stain on our history. Segregation was so rampant that a travel guide was written for blacks called “The Green Book” which served as a guide to where African Americans could eat, sleep, and get services in the South. It was a stark reminder of how a country where “all men are created equal” was a myth instead of a reality.
We often get a taste of that history through Hollywood filmmaking. Nostalgic movies use the South as a backdrop for such big screen classics as “Gone With the Wind” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The latest effort is “Green Book” which relates to the aforementioned guidebook. The movie isn’t so much about the book but the friendship between a black musician and his white driver/protector as they travel though the South in 1962. It was inspired by the true life friendship that developed between the two men during their escapades.
Of course, as we all know, when a movie says it was “inspired” it means that the director can take whatever artistic liberties he wants and it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. The basic premise is that a world-class black pianist named Don Shirley has booked a tour that takes him through the Deep South. He knows he’s going to face some racial prejudice and hires Tony Lip as his driver and handler to protect him. Tony is a bouncer at the Copa Club in New York City and is in need of work because the club has closed for two months for renovations.
The two of them are worlds apart as far as their personalities and backgrounds (Don is very refined and dignified while Tony is street-wise and blue collar). Despite the dichotomy, they develop a bond during their two months together. Traveling through the South becomes an educational experience for both of them. “Green Book” becomes a feel good movie as they develop a friendship that will last a lifetime.
The two men face the traditional situations normally associated with these type of movies such as the racist bullies and Southern sheriffs who always show up at the wrong time. Tony keeps getting Don out of trouble and that only increases their bond. In a symbolic scene, they know they are out of the South when they get pulled over and the cop only wants to let them know they have a flat tire.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2018 but that in itself brought controversy. Many blacks thought it stereotyped them as needing whites’ help to survive. Most whites probably saw the film without noticing the stereotypes and were more focused on how the friendship developed.
I have to admit after seeing the film I was surprised it won the Oscar. Heartwarming stories often win Best Picture but in this case it might have been a bit much. The film was definitely okay but didn’t really stand out as an epic. I can recommend “Green Book” if you’re looking for pure entertainment but it’s too full of stereotypes to recognize it for any historical value. The best advice I can give is to appreciate the acting and the friendship and leave it at that. The film doesn’t provide any greater context but will hold your interest from beginning to end.
April 12, 2019
American history is a fluid concept. The more time passes the more we learn about our heritage and our understanding of it. What was once conventional wisdom doesn’t seem to apply as much anymore. We are constantly seeing new books published that add a twist to what we thought we knew and provide an extra layer of intrigue.
As an American history major in college I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the basics of our past. But that’s not necessarily true. The older I get the more I learn that I didn’t get the full spectrum of our history.
I mention this revelation because I have just read a fascinating book on a major cause of the Civil War that I didn’t realized carried such magnitude. We all know that slavery was the driving force behind the split between North and South and that the fight for abolition of the “peculiar institution” reached a boiling point in the 1850s where secession and war became inevitable. What I didn’t fully appreciate was the impact of fugitive slaves and fugitive slave laws as mitigating factors in expanding the divide.
“The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for American’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War” by Andrew Delbanco presents a spellbinding look at how the fugitive slave question may have been the most toxic issue when it came to causes of the Civil War. Northern states often passed laws that granted freedom to slaves if they were in their state for a certain period of time (usually six months). Southern states fought these laws with every fiber of their being.
I knew all about the 3/5th clause in the Constitution which, as one of my college professors indelibly noted, “tacitly legitimized slavery” because it made slaves “less than human.” I didn’t realize that the issue of fugitive slaves was also part of the Constitution as there’s a clause requiring their return to their lawful owner. It left open how that was to be done and many Northern states tried to make it nearly impossible.
One of the ironies of John J. Calhoun, the fanatically pro-slavery senator from South Carolina, was his belief in states’ rights and the theory of “nullification” where individual states could reject federal laws they don’t like. He felt the reverse when it came to fugitive slaves. It’s pretty hypocritical to be so passionate about states’ rights but then cherry pick when federal law should apply.
Hypocrisy wasn’t confined to the South though. Many Northerners may have been anti-slavery but they also saw blacks as inferior and didn’t want to associate with them. For fugitive slaves and even free blacks it was a double-edge sword. There were a lot of Northern abolitionists who believed in equality right down the line but it was far from unanimous.
It’s easy to think based on what we were taught in high school that once slaves escaped the South they likely escaped bondage forever. The ones we are familiar with like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were the exception rather than the rule. There are many cases of successful escapes for fugitive slaves supported by white abolitionists but there are more instances of fugitive slaves being returned to bondage and suffering brutal consequences. Even free blacks weren’t immune to bounty hunters kidnapping them back into slavery.
The anxiety and schism in this country reached a boiling point in the 1850’s. The last straw was the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case that not only determined that a slave was always property no matter where the owner took him but slavery couldn’t be outlawed in any state or territory, and blacks had no right to citizenship, free or not.
Delbanco not only presents a compelling argument on the impact of the fugitive slave issue but shows how easy it is, even today, for a volatile issue to divide the country. Whether it’s emotion, politics, or controversial laws, there are schisms that are often hard to overcome. “The War Before the War” teaches us that history repeats itself in many forms and that it would be helpful if we finally learn from it.
March 25, 2019
It’s somewhat amazing today what we accept in the moral fiber of a presidency. We would like our nation’s chief executive to be above reproach but it seems to have taken a back seat to his stance on the issues. It’s not only Donald Trump but dates back to Bill Clinton. John Edwards never made it to the top but the difference between his public image and reality is mindboggling.
By today’s standards what happened back in 1988 now seems rather quaint by comparison. The front runner for the Democratic nomination was Senator Gary Hart of Colorado. He represented what appeared to be the ideal resume for a successful candidate. Hart was charming, good-looking, bright, and articulate on the issues.
But in the midst of the campaign he took a detour to an extra-marital interlude and it blew up his chance to be president. In three weeks he went from leading the pack to withdrawing from the race. How could someone striving for high office take such a risk and destroy his political career in the process?
The issue is explored in an impressive new film, aptly titled “The Front Runner,” with actor Hugh Jackman playing the tortured Gary Hart who realizes his blunder too late to save his campaign. Why he would put himself at risk is an easier question to ask than answer. Apparently some men can’t help themselves and think they can get away with it.
Back in the days of JFK and LBJ it was simply accepted policy that dalliances may go on but the press wouldn’t talk about them. As far the public was concerned the president was a happily married man totally devoted to his wife. By the 1980’s that standard no longer applied. Gary Hart became the unwittingly guinea pig that proved the press could be vultures when it came to extra-marital affairs.
The film covers the 21 days when Hart went from the top of the world to leaving the race. He had a seemingly charmed life with a loving wife and kids, a beautiful home in a spectacular area of the Rockies, and an agenda for the country that could attract a lot of support. There’s a reference in the movie that he compromised his marriage several years earlier but had repented and all was well.
Obviously it wasn’t. During a solo trip to Miami he went looking for a social life and found it. The press got wind of it and it was all downhill from there.
The most glaring aspect of the film is that Hart’s downfall affected not just him but his wife, his kids, and the scores of campaign workers who believed so deeply in him. Jackman does a superb job of exhibiting the pain and anguish that Hart suffers after realizing that he flat out blew it for both his campaign and marriage.
At first Hart thinks that the public could care less about his private life but the press isn’t going to let it go. He wants to talk about the issues but the press prefers asking about adultery. Whether strong moral fiber is the most important attribute in a candidate may be up for debate but for Hart the lack of it was his downfall.
The one surprise at the end of the film is the notice that Hart and his wife are still together. That may be the one happy note for a political career gone awry. “The Front Runner” represented a turning point in the way the media covered the candidates. But here we are 30 years later and we may have come full circle. Does character really matter anymore?
March 14, 2019
Higher education has a myriad of problems starting with the cost of tuition. It’s insane that young people have to take on debt that will take years to pay off. It wasn’t that way 50 years ago and there’s no reason that the college experience should be so burdensome today. But the “money grab” seems to have become engrained in higher education and there is no more blatant example of this phenomenon than the way college athletes are treated.
The advent of ESPN and other cable sports networks has exploded the coverage of college sports to the point where almost every game is on TV. The popularity of football and men’s basketball has created a windfall where billions of dollars have become part of the process. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and the competition to win at any cost has become endemic.
Schools are raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new facilities to attract the best athletes. They are giving multi-million dollar contracts to coaches in the hope they will lead them to the “promised land.” In addition to attracting donations from ultra-rich alumni, the schools have entered into agreements with top athletic-wear companies like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armor to bring in more millions. It all sounds like a win-win situation, which of course it isn’t.
When you have so much money flowing into a system where the so-called “student-athlete” is not receiving any of the largess, corruption is bound to be the result. We would all love to embrace the concept of amateur “student athletes” who are happily performing their sport while receiving a great education. Then when they aren’t good enough to turn pro they will find a niche where they can use their degree to become successful in life.
Of course, that ideal is nonsense. The theory may work for all the minor sports where students are pursuing their activity for the love of it and actually using their scholarship to get an education. But the two revenue-producing sports that often support the rest of the college sports programs, football and men’s basketball, are a different animal all together.
Anyone who doesn’t believe that there are illegal payoffs to athletes and/or their families in order to get them to enroll in a particular university is living in a dream world. In basketball the vultures start hunting down prospects as early as grammar school. Whether it’s through AAU programs or athletic shoe-sponsored summer programs, the “agents” or “head hunters” are out there to influence the prospects and filter money to them one way or another.
Coaches are under pressure to win so they are always on the lookout for potential superstars. Many of them let their assistants take the low road while they take the Sargent Schultz mantra to give them plausible deniability. It has created a system that is rotten to the core.
A new book is out that examines the filth that has overtaken higher education called “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino: A Story of Corruption, Scandal, and the Big Business of College Basketball.” It was written by Michael Sokolove. Two years ago the FBI ran a sting operation where they uncovered a network of corruption in the recruitment of high school basketball players. Rick Pitino, one of the most successful college coaches ever, became the symbol of the investigation because his university, Louisville, had back-to-back major scandals (he professed his innocence but was fired anyway).
Sokolove’s book is just the latest tome on the swamp that college sports has become. From agents that take advantage of their prey to universities that offer bogus courses to allow their “dumb jocks” to remain eligible, we see a culture that can match wits with Washington politicians for unethical behavior.
The irony of this whole sorted mess is that in every book I’ve read on the abuse of the “student athlete” and how easily they can be taken in (Let’s face it, many of them are poor and will jump at easy money) not once has the school they’ve chosen been because it offers the kind of quality education they desire. Their school of choice is simply supposed to be a stepping stone to the next level where they will earn millions. Forget the fact that the reality is about 1% of them will make it in the pros.
The corruption of college sports may seem a far cry from the high cost of tuition for the average student but it really isn’t. It’s still all about money and taking advantage of the student when it isn’t necessary. College isn’t for everybody but those fortunate enough to experience it shouldn’t have to be underhanded or left broke from the process.
The exorbitant costs of higher education has had a perverse effect on society and somehow has to be reversed. There are ways to reverse the trend but it will take a real desire for change that doesn’t exist at the moment. But it better happen soon or we’ll be stuck in this morass forever.
March 8, 2019
Sometimes a nostalgic book comes along that you wouldn’t think has any connection to today’s world but then you discover a direct correlation. I stumbled across one of those when I found the recently published “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL” by Jeff Pearlman. Before any of you non-football fans lose interest in this column, it turns out the book is a fascinating character study of Donald Trump and how he operates. He was an owner of one’s of the USFL’s (United States Football League) franchises in the 1980s and he conducted himself the same way he does in his presidency.
For those of you too young or to remember, the USFL presented the concept of having year-round football. The idea was to have the league play in the spring and summer and co-exist with the established National Football League (NFL) which played in the fall and winter. The organizers felt that that professional football was popular enough to sustain throughout the calendar year. They lined up enough wealthy owners who believed in their concept and advocated a go-slow approach where franchises kept expenses down until the league had established itself.
What started out as a logical idea ran into the usual problem of an upstart venture. There are always owners who put their egos ahead of what is best for everyone. They immediately spend more on marquee players than what other teams can afford and the league blows up because of it. The USFL lasted only three years (1983-1985) and many blame Donald Trump for single-handedly destroying the league.
Normally, the way to succeed is very basic. A new league needs to have wealthy individuals who are willing and able to lose money the first couple of years. As with any new enterprise there are a lot of start-up costs, and the windfall, if any, will come down the road after you establish yourself.
The USFL started off in 12 mostly large and medium-sized cities and had a mixture of successes and failures. The ones that failed either had owners that really didn’t have much money, overspent, or didn’t draw fans. It simply meant finding new owners or moving weak franchises to other cities. The USFL was still in the process of finding itself but appeared viable for the long term.
Then along came Donald Trump.
After the first year of the USFL, he bought the New York-New Jersey franchise and began stocking it with expensive players who were NFL caliber. He wasn’t concerned with the success of the USFL. He wanted to be part of the NFL. Trump’s goal was to force a merger and have his team, the Generals, be one of the teams incorporated into the NFL.
Apparently Trump was very good at getting his way because he somehow convinced the other owners to go along with him even when they had reservations. Trump insisted on moving the league to the fall beginning in 1986 to compete directly with the NFL and have the USFL sue the established league as a monopoly and violating anti-trust laws. He assumed the USFL would win the lawsuit, force a merger, and allow his team to join the NFL.
The problem is that the whole thing backfired. Technically, the USFL won the lawsuit but the jury only awarded them $1 in damages. The league was in such disarray from overspending and poor management that it collapsed immediately thereafter. It never played again and all its players were released. The fortunate ones were able to sign contracts with the NFL.
Donald Trump is only one of dozens of zany characters who were part of the USFL. The history of the league is filled with many human interest stories, wild rides, and crazy happenings. The book also serves as a diagram of how not to start a new enterprise. Trump may have been the prime mover in the collapse of the USFL but he was far from the only one.
Despite its quick demise, the USFL has a rich history and those involved are still proud to have been a part of it. Jeff Pearlman, the book’s author, has always wanted to write about the league because he remembers being excited by the prospect of year-round football as a 10-year-old kid in 1983. That it failed does not do it justice. “Football for a Buck” is a fun romp through a bygone era with the added bonus of presenting a case study of our current president. It is well worth reading for both those reasons.
March 1, 2019
Sports books aren’t always about sports. When it comes to Hall of Fame African American athletes who finally get around to writing their autobiographies, you discover that what appears to be the “good life” is often far from it. These memoirs provide insights into American history with a personal touch that you can’t get anywhere else.
Elgin Baylor is the opposite of controversy and always remembered as a great sportsman. Young fans may not have heard of him but he was a pioneer in professional basketball. Baylor played for the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers for 14 seasons in the late 1950s and 1960s and remains one of the game’s all-time greats. However, there is much more to his story than simply being a standout basketball player. He relates it all in his autobiography, “Hang Time: My Life in Basketball.”
Baylor was born in 1936 and grew up in segregated Washington, DC during the Jim Crow era. Early on you realize the disparity in living conditions between blacks and whites. The whites’ public schools and parks were modern, pristine, and well maintained. The blacks’ schools and parks were literal dumps that were never maintained. Baylor learned quickly to keep a low profile as white cops were always looking for reasons to arrest blacks.
One time Baylor’s sister was taunted by a white girl who then spit on her with no provocation. His sister slapped her in response and the girl reported his sister to the police. The police came to Baylor’s house and threatened to arrest his sister unless Baylor’s father whipped her. His father actually went through with the beating to keep his daughter out of jail but the episode affected her the rest of her life.
This incident was just part of many painful childhood memories that pushed Baylor to escape DC and never look back.
On the positive side, he had his athleticism and love of basketball to maintain his sanity. He was such a standout basketball player in high school that he received a scholarship offer to play college ball at, of all places, the College of Idaho. Big time basketball programs were not recruiting black athletes. It explains why Baylor, who later transferred to Seattle University after the College of Idaho dropped basketball, and the great Bill Russell, who attended the University of San Francisco, ended up at small Jesuit schools.
Baylor discovered a shocking dichotomy between Washington, DC and Caldwell, Idaho. In Caldwell, black and whites intermingled and partied together. The same atmosphere existed at Seattle University. Baylor felt like a complete human being. It was the mid-1950s and not something that African Americans could take for granted.
When Baylor turned pro the National Basketball Association (NBA) was still young and seemed to have a quota on the number of black players in the league. In some cities such as St. Louis and Cincinnati, the racial taunts could be over the top. In one game in Charleston, West Virginia the team’s hotel refused to let the African American players stay there so the entire team stayed in a motel on the black side of town.
For basketball fans there is plenty to appreciate in the book about Baylor’s rise to the pinnacle of the sport and how the NBA struggled to achieve popularity and maintain it. Baylor spent his entire adult life in the sport as a player, coach, and general manager so he describes its history as well as anyone.
“Hang Time” provides a look not only at a superstar’s career but a stirring account of race relations in this country and the growth of a sport which now extends its reach to every corner of the globe. Baylor’s book is simply a well-written and impressive read.
February 21, 2019
On the surface it sounds like a great story: a major league baseball player who is also a spy for the U.S. government. The amazing thing is that it really happened. Mo Berg, a long-time major league catcher, was a genius who worked for the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner to the CIA) during World War II. His chief mission was to find and kill the German scientist in charge of developing the atom bomb for the Nazis. Would he be successful?
This premise is what’s behind the making of the movie, “The Catcher Was a Spy” starring Paul Rudd and a slew of other well-known actors. The problem is that the catchy title (a play on J.D. Salinger’s classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye”) may be the best thing about it. Although it is “based on a true story” that is compelling in its own right, the movie comes across as choppy and contrived. I assume Berg is supposed to be a sympathetic character but he never quite achieves that status.
The biggest problem is that we never really get to know Mo Berg. Maybe the director wanted to keep him a “mystery” because he was apparently a recluse for most of his life. We never get to know how he became fluent in at least half a dozen languages while also pursuing a major league baseball career. Or if he was a spy before WWII.
Apparently he was gay but perhaps bisexual because he has an ongoing love affair with a gorgeous brunette who unfortunately also remains mostly mysterious. The only consistent pattern throughout the movie is that none of the characters are fully developed.
The movie starts out by trying to illustrate Berg’s abilities as a great athlete as nears the end of his career. The baseball scenes literally don’t cut it. Fenway Park in Boston looks like a rundown minor league stadium rather than the baseball cathedral it still is. And none of the ballplayers, let alone Berg, look like major leaguers. Computer imaging can only do so much.
There is also a scene early on where he goes to Japan to play exhibition baseball with other major leaguers. I suppose the purpose of that part of the biography is to show that he is gay, multilingual, and a spy wannabee. But there is nothing the least bit dramatic in those scenes and they’re blander than any other part of the movie (and that’s saying something).
Berg eventually joins the OSS and gets tabbed for the mission to kill the head of the Nazi nuclear program. The plan is for him to take down the German scientist at a conference in Zurich, Switzerland. The main suspense is whether or not he can follow through because he has never killed anyone in his life.
Like the war scenes, baseball action, trip to Japan, and character development, the climax of the movie falls as flat as a pancake. When a film is said to be “based on a true story” it means that the director can take artistic license and spice up the dull parts. If that was the plan he failed miserably at it.
It’s really a shame because “The Catcher Was a Spy” has all the earmarks of a tense and fascinating drama, including a solid, talented cast. Surprisingly, I would still half-heartedly recommend the film because it’s very educational even if it doesn’t leave you on the edge of your seat. Perhaps it will inspire you to read the book by the same name because it has to be better than the movie. Mo Berg did live a very unusual and fascinating life.
February 13, 2019
Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) was one of the most controversial presidents of the 20th Century. As vice-president he came to power due to the shocking assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and produced major legislation involving civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, and the War on Poverty. But despite his successful domestic agenda he is best remembered for the Vietnam War, and that conflict undermined whatever he accomplished elsewhere. History has not been kind to him.
A lot has been written about LBJ. He grew up in the Hill Country of Texas and always had a fondness for politics. When he finally made it to Washington as a Congressman he outworked everyone else to learn the way the system worked and how to accomplish anything. At 47 he became the youngest Senate Majority Leader ever. When Kennedy tapped him as his running mate in 1960 he agreed even though the vice-presidency would curtail the power he held in the Senate.
But fate intervened after 3 years and he was unexpectedly thrown into the highest office in the land. It was a position to which he aspired and but wasn’t expecting so soon. It was also the 1960s, one of the most turbulent decades in our nation’s history. How he would handle it would shake this country to its core. The war and race relations would dominate headlines his entire time in office.
LBJ was a very complex individual. Growing up in the Jim Crow South he was instilled with segregation as a way of life. But when he achieved higher office he developed a sense of empathy that made passing civil rights legislation a national imperative. But for all his sense of fairness in domestic affairs, he was completely clueless on how to conduct foreign policy in Vietnam. He relied too much on others and expanded a war that became more unpopular each year of his presidency. It’s what caused him to give up his campaign for re-election in 1968.
Last year director Rob Reiner released a movie on Johnson called simply “LBJ.” Reiner is well regarded as a director and always delivers a high quality product. Versatile actor Woody Harrelson puts on a masterful performance as Johnson and brings an appreciation to a man that few today understand.
What’s so unusual about the film is that it covers a time in LBJ’s career that gets little coverage. It’s easy to focus on his time as the majority leader of the Senate or after he became president. But what about the time he spent as vice-president?
Becoming vice-president is considered the same as giving up public office. It’s usually a dead zone where you end up attending state funerals and new building dedications while serving as the lapdog to the president. It is not a fun time in a politician’s career unless you’re actually involved in making policy or are planning to eventually run for president.
Strong leaders rarely give up a position of power to accept the vice-presidency but Johnson did. Reiner presents that period of his life, how he went from Senate bigwig to someone who simply had no power base. While dealing with that humiliation he suddenly ends up in the Oval Office in a way he never expected. How he goes about developing the early days of his presidency is analyzed in depth, as well as the animosity that grows between him and Bobby Kennedy.
“LBJ” is an excellent movie. Besides Harrelson, the supporting cast is superb, and Reiner presents the film in such a way that it never gets too intense or over-the-top. It’s a chance to see the 36th president in a different light and appreciate what a difficult job he inherited. The experience is well worth your time.
February 1, 2019
Football is the most popular sport in this country. Baseball may be the national pastime but it doesn’t have a grip on the public like football does. It was not always that way. While college football abounded in popularity before the turn of the 20th Century, pro football took decades to be accepted after the founding of the National Football League (NFL) in 1920. It’s hard to believe that today’s billion dollar industry could have easily ended up in the dustbin of history.
There is a new book out that explores this phenomenon. “The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire” by John Eisenberg presents an early history of the league and how it struggled to survive. If it weren’t for the tenacity of the five “rivals” who put the league ahead of their own interests it would have probably failed. Pro football just wasn’t on anybody’s radar.
Back in the days of the Roaring 20’s it seems logical from today’s viewpoint that the success of pro football would be a given. After all, people loved college football. It ranked right up there with baseball, horseracing, and boxing as the most popular American spectator sports. The problem was that society tended to look at college football as character-building, turning boys into men. To pay someone to play the sport was deemed unseemly.
Even if that was twisted logic it was the rule of the day. It probably didn’t help that in the early days of the NFL teams tended to be located in small Midwestern towns a lot of people had never heard of. It explains why there is still a team in Green Bay, the only non-metropolis that has a professional franchise in the four major sports (football, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey). Green Bay survived by becoming a publicly-owned company while other “small town” franchises either collapsed or moved to a big city.
But the book is mostly about the five men who were determined to keep pro football above water. George Halas, one of the league’s founders and known as “Papa Bear,” ran the Chicago Bears for over 60 years. Tim Mara founded the New York Giants and kept the team afloat mainly because his two sons loved the team so much. Bert Bell owned the Philadelphia Eagles, then became commissioner and presided over the league during some of its most turbulent times. Art Rooney owned the Pittsburgh Steelers and defined the cliché, “nice guys finish last.” And, finally, George Preston Marshall, the owner of the Washington Redskins, despite being a blatant racist, suggested many of the innovations that helped the NFL survive its early days.
Like with most things, experimentation was the key to seeing what would help the league flourish. The original meeting to form the NFL was held at a car dealership in Canton, Ohio. Most of the owners didn’t have a lot of money. Teams played multiple games each week and tried to recruit stars such as Jim Thorpe and Red Grange, but still struggled at the gate. They even played one championship game indoors on a makeshift field because it was too cold outside. During World War II a couple of teams merged because there weren’t enough quality players to go around.
Through it all, it was the five main characters that kept the league alive through thick and thin. Their stories are a fascinating blend of determination and survival. Although they all came from different backgrounds, were very opinionated, and had distinctive personality quirks, they managed to put the common good ahead of their own personal interests.
Looking back it’s remarkable they succeeded. The stories that unfold in Eisenberg’s book are quite amazing. Today the NFL is worth billions but facing a crisis of survival once again due to the brutality and injuries affecting the game. The league could use some of the innovative minds from its early days to shepherd the NFL through its current dilemma. “The League” is a wonderfully written nostalgic tale.
January 25, 2019
For many of us tennis hackers, the professional tour is what dreams are made of. We weekend warriors and club players often like to fanaticize about whether or not we could have been good enough to compete at the sport’s top level. It’s easy to have these delusions and wonder if you could have been a “world class” player if you had dedicated the time and effort to lessons, practice, junior tournaments, and playing in college.
Tennis is a sport that invites this mindset because players come in all shapes and sizes. It is also an individual game so it’s all on you. Although extreme athleticism is helpful it isn’t a requirement. Coordination, dedication, discipline, and desire can make up for a lot. No two players are exactly alike. You don’t have to be built like a linebacker, jump 40 inches, or run like a gazelle. The ability to succeed on the pro tour comes in many forms.
There is also the added bonus that you don’t have to be an elite player to make a living at the sport. Tennis has not only the main tour but the minor leagues as well. These “Challenger” events pop up all over the world, allowing lower-ranked players to accumulate rating points and help them qualify for tournaments that the best players automatically get into. And if you fail at the Challengers you can always become a club pro.
All these elements make it okay to dream of the “bigtime” even if it’s totally absurd. Those of us who play the sport love the “what ifs” and appreciate those that excel because we can identify with what they’re going through, at least mentally. Tennis is a game unto itself: unique and easy to relate to.
I bring up the tennis connection because there is a new book out that brings together this odd mix of imagination, appreciation, and pleasure. It definitely comes to the sport from a different angle. I have read numerous autobiographies, books about life on the tour, and tomes dedicated to a “match for the ages.” But this latest concoction is by a writer who is more famous for poetry than sports writing. “The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey” by Rowan Ricardo Phillips mixes the author’s passion for both the written word and the sport. It is profoundly absorbing and informative at the same time.
Phillips lets you know in the introduction it’s not your normal tennis commentary. Usually an author is focused totally on a player, a match, or a tournament. He is someone who is right there with the combatants and provides the inside dope of what is going on in the sport. But not Phillips. He is usually watching the game from his perch in his apartment in New York or his home in Barcelona. He occasionally attends tournaments but as a fan and not a sportswriter. He essentially gives a macro view of tennis instead of the usual micro but with as much passion.
The subject of his book is the 2017 men’s professional tour with a few comments about the women’s tour thrown in. We learn why some players succeed and others fail. It is often subtle and often baffling.
Who would have guessed, for example, that at the opening grand slam in 2017, the Australian Open, all the top seeds would get knocked out but we were still left the aging, supposedly over-the-hill Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the finals. The two possibly greatest players of all-time produced a “Back to the Future” scenario that lasted the entire calendar year and beyond. Go figure.
Not only does Phillips provide the subtleties of the game and the men who play it but he sometimes goes off on tangents to explain why particular players are “jinxed” or play the sport even though they apparently loath it. He also goes off topic to describe the history behind clay court tennis. 99% of tennis fans probably have no idea.
For tennis aficionados “The Circuit” is pure pleasure. For those who follow the sport causally it is very educational. But the best thing about it is that it is written from a fan’s point of view and that’s something we can all relate to. Phillips has given us something different from the usual book on sports and it’s something to appreciate.
January 18, 2019
The Kennedys are one of those rare families that has had an outsized effect on American life. Like them or not, they have been part of our modern history. Beginning with their patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., they have indelibly left their mark on the American landscape. It is truly a clan that has attracted excitement, distain, and fascination unlike most others. It is hard to imagine another family in the public eye today that has undergone as much scrutiny.
We all know the stories of President John F. “Jack” Kennedy and his brother Robert and the tragic circumstances in which they died. Several other family members have died under horrible circumstances as well. Ted Kennedy died of natural causes but had his own peccadilloes. A family that is so wealthy, dedicated to public service, and suffered so much loss naturally attracts an enormous amount of attention.
One of the original nine Kennedy offspring that provides an intriguing case study is Katherine “Kick” Kennedy, the fourth child of Joe Sr. and Rose and their second oldest daughter. Here was someone who embraced England as her adopted homeland in the late 1930s while Joe Sr. was the U.S. ambassador to that country and fell in love with a British baron. It was a tale of forbidden love as it was a clash of Kick’s Roman Catholicism with the baron’s Protestantism.
As anyone who has followed the Kennedys knows, the long-term outcome for Kick was another family tragedy. She was killed in a plane crash in southern France in 1948 at the still-young age of 28. But before her life ended prematurely she experienced more of life’s dramas that one could expect in ten lifetimes. There have been biographies written about Kick but perhaps a new historical novel presents the most fascinating and sympathetic review of one of the most complicated of Kennedys.
“The Kennedy Debutante” by Kerri Maher focuses on Kick’s life from 1938 to 1945. Although it’s fiction, the book is based on true events and most of the people involved are real. Maher did extensive research so that the characters represent a true picture of the time and place. Joe Sr.’s politics, Rose’s devout Catholicism, and Joe Jr. and Jack’s skirt chasing (look up to see what “NSIT” means) are discussed. Everything we’ve read and heard about the family is open in plain view and just add spice to the novel. In other words, we get to know the Kennedys.
The storyline is pretty simple even though the issues involved are complex. Since Joe Sr. is in such a prestigious position as the American ambassador the family is constantly exposed to the elite of British society. The group that Kick socializes with at the age of 18 includes Billy Cavendish, the future Duke of Hartington. The two of them eventually fall in love and face the problem of clashing religions which neither family is open to accepting upfront. It is a daunting situation, especially after World War II intervenes. Will their love overcome all the personal and public issues before them?
One of the bonuses of the book is that we learn what life was like in England and the United States in the period leading up to and during World War II. Although it obviously concentrates on the upper class lifestyle, the reader gets a feel for how that era affected our lives. We get a taste of London, New York, and Washington D.C. during that hectic, life-altering period. As a nonsensical piece of trivia, I even discovered that “Debo” is a nickname for Deborah.
“The Kennedy Debutante” captures your imagination very quickly and doesn’t let go. For those of you into historical fiction, period pieces, or World War II nostalgia, it doesn’t get any better than this. The Kennedys are a remarkable family whose lifestyles keep you on the edge of your seat. Even if you know the eventual outcome to Kick’s dilemma there is constant suspense. Kerri Maher has hit a home run and her novel is guaranteed to keep you entranced.
January 11, 2019
Education has been a major concern in this country for generations. It’s always been that way. We seem to think it was better in the “good old days.” I can remember it was an issue when I was in high school but on reflection it wasn’t that bad. For all the problems with primary and secondary education it’s at the collegiate level where we currently have real concerns. How do young people today get a college education and the maturity that goes with it without amassing a huge debt?
These days it can cost $60,000 or more per year for a kid to go to college and it’s only getting worse. That’s insanity. In my day you could get away with spending less than $5,000 per year for the total experience at a four-year public university (including social life). What has changed to make college so unaffordable? Inflation hasn’t exploded that much.
There are many reasons for this phenomenon. Among them are bloated bureaucracies, more kids wanting to attend college, and pure capitalism. Universities charge more because they can. Since so many high school students want to go to college the rules of supply and demand apply.
But the number one reason for the explosion in college tuition is the severe drop in government money. Whether states are slashing public funding for universities through legislative action or ballot initiatives, the end result is the same. Less money for colleges means higher tuition. Can anything be done to stem the tide?
Back in the late 1970s I spent around $3,500 for everything my last year of college at the University of California. Clearly, that kind of spending was affordable and wouldn’t saddle anyone with life-long debt. At the same time I was finishing college the voters in California passed Proposition 13 which slashed property rates to such an extent that state funding for universities was cut drastically. After I graduated, tuition at the University of California jumped from $700 to $3,000 a year for in-state residents and has been climbing ever since. Today, tuition sits at $13,900 and overall expenses are estimated around $35,000 a year. Ironically, that’s cheap compared to some private colleges.
What many schools have done to make up the shortfall is to not only raise tuition but look to private benefactors. In many cases they have developed business relations with corporations. The companies end up donating money for buildings and research to help keep these universities on the cutting edge. It all sounds great but it has some major drawbacks.
When universities are publicly financed, the idea is that these institutions are dedicated to the public good when educating and conducting research. If a private individual or corporation is heavily endowed in a school it often comes at a price. The individual may want to dictate policy or the corporation may only want to fund research with pre-ordained results that make them look good (e.g., a tobacco company insisting that second-hand smoke isn’t harmful). Research money may dry up if the results criticize the benefactor.
There is a new book that has just been published that explores this phenomena. It was written by an investigative journalist named Joshua Hunt and it’s called “University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education.” It illustrates what can happen when a university gets in bed with an ultra-wealthy alumnus. The altruistic flow of money rarely comes without strings attached.
In this case the meeting of the minds was between Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, and his alma mater, the University of Oregon. After a state initiative passed in 1990 that slashed state funding to the bone, the university’s president looked to Knight to be the savior. Knight responded with millions of dollars in donations, especially for sports facilities, and turned Oregon into a national powerhouse in both football and basketball.
But over time the cost of doing business with him was the school’s reputation for independence and integrity. Hunt presents evidence that Knight and his Nike cohorts gained undue influence on who got hired in the administration, and that many scandals involving athletes were swept under the rug.
But the new business model of funding through corporate benefactors is one many universities have taken on. Whether it’s for research or improving athletic facilities (alumni are more apt to donate if its sports teams are thriving), universities are jumping on the bandwagon. It makes perfect sense since public money is drying up. It’s just that we’ve seen athletic scandals and compromised research studies due to the new business model.
We’ve reached a point where we have to wonder which schools are running truly ethnical programs in both academics and athletics. When universities feel they have to sacrifice their core mission in pursuit of the almighty dollar then we’ve all lost as a society. “University of Nike” is a glaring indictment of what higher education has become due to the loss of public funding. Unless we provide more public funding or find a third alternative to the status quo, exploding tuitions and loss of integrity may become a permanent part of the college experience.
January 7, 2019
Michael Moore is a very controversial figure. He is a documentary filmmaker with a decidedly liberal slant and his films are undeniably successful. Moore has tackled such touchy subjects as gun violence, universal healthcare, and the 9/11 terrorist attack and doesn’t mince words. He often gets footage for his films that most people haven’t seen before and nobody, even liberals, are immune to his wrath. Like him or not, he knows how to make a documentary that leaves an impact.
Moore’s latest film is “Fahrenheit 11/9.” The title is a play on his documentary “Fahrenheit 911” (which was adapted from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”). The date on his latest project refers to the day after the November 8th presidential election in 2016 when Hillary Clinton and her supporters discovered she had lost to Donald Trump. The documentary opens with that shock and dismay and then tries to go about answering the question of why it happened.
In pure terms, Donald Trump won because he captured the crucial Rust Belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania when most pollsters thought they were a lock for Clinton. Trump squeezed out enough votes in each state to narrowly win them and thus provide the margin in the Electoral College. Never mind that Clinton won almost 3 million more popular votes. Trump won where it counted.
There are many reasons that Trump triumphed against all odds. From the time he entered the race as a lark (according to Moore he paid “supporters” to be at his announcement) to his unlikely winning of the GOP nomination and his even unlikelier takedown of Hillary Clinton, Moore shows how it all came together. There were screw-ups by everyone on both sides and the stars aligned perfectly for Trump to pull off his election night shocker.
The GOP helped by running 17 candidates against him. Whenever they debated, Trump simply towered over them physically and they couldn’t handle his verbal barrages. They looked like wimps when they battled him on his terms and he took them down one by one. In the end they all collapsed and most ended up either grudgingly or enthusiastically supporting him.
Hillary supporters may blame the Russians or FBI director James Comey, but she did a lot of damage to herself. Moore shows how she just didn’t “get it” when it came to campaigning. While Trump was a major presence in the Rust Belt, Hillary was ignoring those voters while attending black-tie fundraisers. Her campaign staff was basically incompetent. Her optics were horrible. Just wait until you see Hillary’s bumper stickers.
On top of that, Bernie Sanders supporters felt screwed by the Democratic Party who they felt rigged the nomination for Hillary. Moore traveled to West Virginia and to find out why “Bernie Bots” there were so upset. Their answer helps explains why Sanders partisans were angry enough to sit out the general election.
One part of the movie that gets a disproportionate amount of attention is Flint, Michigan. It’s not really surprising since it’s Moore’s hometown and has become poverty-stricken over the years. Flint has been in the news lately because the source of its drinking water was changed unnecessarily and “poisoned” with high amounts of lead. Michigan’s GOP governor, Rick Snyder gets trashed in the movie and Trump, Clinton, and even President Barack Obama don’t get any accolades when it comes to their reaction to the tragedy.
In the end, Moore makes a strong case as to why the election ended up the way it did. Democrats won’t be happy because it makes them look like doofuses. Republicans won’t like it because it makes them look like villains. But the sad part is that it all rings true. The perfect storm created Donald Trump’s victory and Moore nailed it. “Fahrenheit 11/9” is definitely cringe-worthy but it’s also a documentary that should be seen by anyone who wants to know what happened.
December 28, 2018
There is no more glamorous position in football than quarterback. It is usually the most important person on the team, the vocal leader, the highest income earner, and the one who gets the best endorsement contracts. Kids often try to emulate them. But it isn’t all peaches and cream.
Quarterbacks are also among the most physically and mentally abused athletes in all of sports. Defensive linemen love getting a clean shot at them and making them feel it. Quarterbacks rarely finish a game without pain. If they’re underperforming they hear it from the fans and sportswriters. It’s not just a cliché that the most popular player on a team is the backup quarterback.
How do these specialists deal with the glory, fame, money, and all the pluses and minuses of being the face of the franchise? Best-selling author John Feinstein decided to investigate this phenomenon. In his new book, “Quarterback: Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League,” Feinstein looks at several “field generals” in-depth and how they handle success and failure. He doesn’t just look at the elite quarterbacks but ones that have experienced as many lows as highs.
I should first point out that Feinstein is a very compelling and entertaining writer. He has written about a variety of sports and usually focuses on an aspect that the public rarely sees. His books never drag and we learn a lot about how athletes act and react behind the scenes.
For his book Feinstein chose five players who brought a distinctive and unique flair to the quarterback position. Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl but came from a non-big-time football program, the University of Delaware. Andrew Luck had an NFL lineage (his father was an NFL quarterback) but went to Stanford, a university known more for academics than football. Alex Smith was not highly recruited out of high school but ended up leading Utah to an undefeated season and being the number 1 pick in the 2004 NFL draft. Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard and never expected to play in the NFL for 14 seasons (and counting). And Doug Williams was the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
What we learn about these players is that life is not easy even if the money is terrific. They earn what they get from all the brutal shots they take on the field and in the media. The fans also let them know what they think when they have a bad game. These quarterbacks know that if they get credit for victories they must also take the blame for defeats. Throwing teammates under the bus is not acceptable. But they also know it comes with the territory and there is nothing they would rather be doing.
We get to hear the backstories of how these players made the NFL. What is it like to constantly be referred to as a “black quarterback” than simply a quarterback? How do you deal with getting hurt and then never getting your starting job back? What is it like to be thought of as a “backup quarterback” throughout your career and bounce between seven different teams?
Answers to these questions and many others permeate the book. The effects of being in such a public position have enormous consequences for not only the players but their families as well. “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” is something they feel every week during the fall. The goal is always to get to the Super Bowl and it is a fleeting and far-flung achievement for most quarterbacks not named Tom Brady.
“Quarterback” is an insightful and engaging read. Feinstein knows how to bring out the most honest answers from his subjects. He doesn’t take any cheap shots and really educates us on what the life of an NFL quarterback is really like.
It seems like the dream of every kid who plays football to achieve the fame and glory that Feinstein’s quarterbacks experience. But that’s only half the story. The constant spotlight and brutality of the sport makes you wonder if it’s all worth it. It takes a special kind of person to put up with it all.
December 21, 2018
We are in a tumultuous period when this country is becoming more and more polarized. When we see that much conflict we usually look to the president to be a calm and steady voice of reason to bring the nation together. Absent that, we often turn to presidential historians who we hope can provide examples of inspirational leaders who have stepped up and showed that it is possible to boost the nation’s morale and confidence during difficult times.
One such historian is Doris Kearns Goodwin. She has studied several presidents and focused much of her writings on Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt (TR), Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), and Lyndon Johnson (LBJ). She was fortunate to know LBJ personally as she helped him write his memoirs so her coverage of him tends to be more direct and from the heart. What these four men had in common were great leadership skills and empathy and she writes about them in her new book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times.”
The country desperately needed guidance during their administrations due to cataclysmic events that were tearing the nation apart. With Lincoln it was the Civil War, with Teddy Roosevelt it was the excesses of the industrial revolution, with FDR it was the Great Depression, and with LBJ it was the civil rights movement. Why these men were able to rise to the occasion says a lot their leadership abilities.
Goodwin first provides a brief biography of each president. Despite divergent backgrounds and personalities, they were all hardworking and ambitious. Early on, they all appeared to be headed for a rendezvous with destiny. It was just a question of whether they would get there with no bumps in the road.
It turns out none of them arrived unscarred. Lincoln experienced failures as a state representative that caused a deep depression. TR faced the emotional turmoil of his wife and mother dying on the same day. FDR was afflicted with polio in the prime of his life. And LBJ suffered a stunning defeat in his first run for the Senate followed by a major heart attack. The distinct personality traits that developed from these setbacks were a grittier determination to succeed and a sense of empathy for the “little guy.”
Goodwin discusses these personal dramas and how these men were able to get their lives and careers back on track. She then goes into a case study on each president and how they were able to use their persuasive powers to succeed. With Lincoln it was the Emancipation Proclamation. With TR it was mediating a coal miners’ strike in 1902, with FDR it was the “First Hundred Days” of his presidency, and with LBJ it was the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Each of them overcame long odds to accomplish their respective goals.
She finally talks about the aftermath of their successful campaigns and what they were able to accomplish from there. Lincoln will always be remembered for freeing the slaves and preserving the Union. TR will be recalled for his “Square Deal” and trust busting. FDR will be remembered for the “New Deal” and guiding us to victory in WWII. With LBJ it was his “Great Society” legislation but his legacy will always be tarnished because of the disaster in Vietnam. According to Goodwin, unlike domestic affairs, he allowed himself to be influenced on the war by others instead of following his own instincts.
For any student of history, “Leadership in Turbulent Times” is a reminder of what makes a president a great leader and why our democracy has survived for 240 years. Although the acrimony exhibited in today’s political climate appears poisonous and without end, we can be comforted by the knowledge that we have faced grim times before and survived when a great leader has emerged.
December 14, 2018
William Shatner has been a household name for generations. It all started with his role as Captain James T. Kirk on the TV series “Star Trek” over 50 years ago. Since then he has starred in seven “Star Trek” movies, the TV series “T.J. Hooker” and “Boston Legal,” and has been the face of “Priceline.com” with its endless stream of commercials promoting the website. He is the embodiment of the Vulcan phrase “Live long and prosper” as he is still going strong at 87.
Shatner is also a successful author and (even if he sometimes employs a ghost writer) writes in an entertaining style that always has you coming back for more. If you’re a Star Trek fan then his “Star Trek Memories” and Star Trek Movie Memories” are classics. His autobiography “Up Till Now” and his tome on his 50 year friendship with Leonard Nimoy (simply called “Leonard”) are “can’t miss” pleasure readings.
What makes Shatner’s writings so readable is not just the “inside” stories of the TV series, the subsequent movies, and the interactions of the cast, it’s that they don’t come without some drama. Shatner freely admits that there was plenty of friction between him and his fellow cast members. It’s hard for “Trekkies” to fathom that dynamic since Captain Kirk is beloved by his entire crew and symbolic of all that is right with the universe. Trekkies inevitably hoped that the onscreen devotion transferred to real life (it didn’t).
George Takei, who played Sulu, was especially outspoken of his disdain for Shatner in his own autobiography, “To the Stars.” He makes it obvious that the entire cast outside Nimoy had an adversarial relationship with him. James Doohan, who played Scotty, wouldn’t even speak to him. Shatner acknowledged the polarization but was hopeful the others would talk it out with him. He was successful to a point but not with everyone.
Shatner admits in his tribute book “Leonard” that by the end of Nimoy’s life he wasn’t speaking to him either. He has no idea why. He keeps trying to figure it out with no luck. He wasn’t even welcome at Nimoy’s funeral. As much as he is celebrated by the public many of those who have worked with him want nothing to do with him. What gives?
Shatner’s latest book may provide some answers. “Live Long and… What I Learned Along the Way” is supposed to be Shatner’s musings on his “secrets” to a long and healthy life. In many ways it is. But he had many demons in his upbringing that could explain why he was a turnoff to so many of his peers.
For one thing he was ostracized. Once during a class valentine exchange he deliberately sent himself six valentines because he knew nobody else would. His mother was such a cold fish that he never got the attention that most loving families provide. Those kind of things can carry over to adulthood. It could explain why he had interpersonal issues with his fellow cast members. Shatner says he had no idea he alienated them that much.
The Nimoy situation is especially mindboggling. How can he not know what caused such a gigantic rift between them after 50 years of being best friends? There must be somebody in Nimoy’s life who knows and would be willing to tell him. Logically (heh-heh), there is a side to Shatner that must be off-putting.
It’s a shame because it’s obvious from his latest book that Shatner has made the most of his life even with all its ups and downs. It’s mostly light reading but he even manages to impart a few pearls of wisdom along the way. “Live Long and… What I Learned Along the Way” may not be a classic but it’s a nice way to pass the time for anyone who has followed Shatner’s career.
December 6, 2018
The biggest scandal to rock college football in recent years happened at Penn State. Even if you don’t follow college football you probably heard about it. In 2011, news broke that long-time assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was a pedophile and had been abusing young boys for years. It was also revealed that legendary head coach Joe Paterno was aware of the allegations as far back as 2001 yet nothing was really done about it? What gives?
The first thing you have to know is that Joe Paterno and Penn State are synonymous. He was treated like a god there. He was the head coach for over 50 years and set the record for wins by a college coach. He was known as much for being an educator as a coach and graduated 85% of his players. He put Penn State on the map as an academic institution because he gave so much back to the school and the community. Nobody was going to tell Paterno when to quit even as he aged past normal retirement years because he wielded so much clout.
Therefore, it was troubling to consider Paterno’s reaction when he was informed by a graduate assistant coach that he saw Sandusky in the act. The assistant coach was freaked out by what he witnessed. He didn’t know what to do so he ended up speaking to Paterno instead of the authorities. Paterno was obviously freaked out as well and unsure what to do. Instead of going to the police he reported it to the athletic director and one of the VPs at the school. Nothing happened and Sandusky continued to have access to the gym and locker room.
After the whole scandal blew up, Paterno’s legacy blew up as well. How could he have let this “monster” continue to go on with his daily routines as if nothing had happened? Was he trying to aid in the cover-up so that his legacy and football program wouldn’t be tarnished?
It’s really hard to know. It’s very possible that Paterno lived a very sheltered life and couldn’t even conceive that someone he knew so well could be so destructive. He basically stayed in hiding while the whole scandal exploded on the public. Several of Sandusky’s victims spoke up and the numbers and years involved were staggering.
The Penn State regents were stunned and left with a public relations nightmare. One of the first things they did was fire Paterno because of his failure to act in a responsible manner. The man who been lionized across the country for doing everything right was now crucified as someone who looked the other way when there was a pedophile in his midst. It says a lot about the Penn State culture and Paterno’s god-like status on campus that the students broke out into a full-scale riot when his firing was announced.
The ending to Paterno’s career, reputation, and life were sad and swift. In the same week he set the career record for wins, the scandal broke, and he was discovered to have terminal cancer. He died 2 ½ months after the whole sordid affair hit the airwaves. Paterno was a great example of what can happen when you put someone up on a pedestal. The fall can be very hard and leave both a community and a nation shaken.
The Village Library has a new HBO film called “Paterno” starring Al Pacino and directed by Barry Levinson. It covers the week that the scandal broke and focuses on Paterno and how he handles the mayhem. It tries not to make any moral judgments and simply shows how he is overwhelmed by events. Pacino, who looks the spitting image of the coach, presents a sympathetic portrayal of a man who never really seems to understand that he acted in an improper manner.
“Paterno” does a terrific job of putting the whole scandal in perspective. We meet a coach who was treated so much like a deity that protecting the football program became more important than doing what’s right. Paterno never really grasp the gravity of the situation and he and Penn State paid big-time for their negligence. The movie is a lesson in American cultural history that we should never forget.
November 27, 2018
John Grisham is a great novelist. His plots and prose have always set a high standard whether he’s writing a legal thriller or something as offbeat as semi-pro football in Italy. That’s why his last few novels have been disappointing. It’s almost as if he mailed them in. The plots were flat and his characters bland.
The good news is that he is back. His latest novel, “The Reckoning,” is intense, absorbing, and educational. The characters are complex and the plot leaves you pondering and wondering where it is all headed. It is not a novel for the faint of heart though. The intensity is unwavering and the book is hard to put down.
You learn immediately that it is not going to be a lighthearted read. It takes place in Mississippi in 1946 and the lead character, Pete, a solid citizen and war hero, is planning to murder his Methodist minister. Why he would want to do such a thing is the chief question that lingers throughout the novel. You soon think you know the answer but it can’t be that simple.
Pete’s wife Liza is in a mental institution and nobody, not even their two college-age kids, know why she’s there. He’s left strict instructions that nobody can visit her but him. Once he completes his dastardly deed with the minister he refuses to say why he did it even to his own lawyer.
The one thing that doesn’t make much sense is why he pleads “not guilty” when he offers no defense. Maybe he simply wants the formality of the trial to prolong his life while he gets his affairs in order. Everything with Pete is meticulously planned. It also gives Grisham an opportunity to explore the death penalty which he clearly has issues with.
The murder is one that shakes up the entire community. It makes no sense to anybody. Why would a decorated war hero, someone everyone admires, stoop so low as to murder a decent, moral man of the cloth? Pete won’t talk about it so the community soon loses any lingering sympathy for him.
Besides the minister’s family, Pete’s kids are the ones affected the most. They had a loving household while growing up, pursuing successful college careers, and now they’re losing their dad to the electric chair and their mom to a mental institution with issues they can’t even comprehend. What’s going on?
The first part of the book leaves the reader hanging and then shifts abruptly to the Philippines in World War II. It turns out Pete went to West Point in the 1920s and was in the cavalry for a while before being recalled for service shortly before the war started. He ends up in the Far East and is part of the Bataan Death March, a prisoner of war, and later a guerrilla fighter.
This second section of the book is extremely educational and illuminating for anyone who hasn’t studied the resistance of the American and Philippine soldiers to the Japanese occupiers. What these men had to endure was pure hell and Grisham holds nothing back.
The last part of the book returns to the “present day” and the effects of Pete’s bizarre and life-altering decision. You just know it can’t be as simple as what you assume it must be. Grisham does a great job in keeping you on the edge of your seat until the final page. “The Reckoning” is one of his better novels and proof that he is back on his game.
November 15, 2018
The following book review appears to be about football but it isn’t. To say this book is about football would be misleading. The story takes place in Texas during WWII so it naturally has football involved. Texas and football are synonymous. In reality, it is a story about life during a difficult era that has football as a backdrop. You don’t need to know a thing about the sport to enjoy this book. Trust me.
There’s an old saying that there are only three sports in Texas: football, spring football, and recruiting. It’s not far off. I’ve heard countless times of people flying over the state on Friday nights and all they see are pockets of lights in small towns where a football game is being played. The state even has six-man football for schools not large enough to field 11 players on a side. In Texas, football sometimes seems more of a religion than a sport.
Against this backdrop, the Village Library has acquired a new book that features Texas football but is really more about life. It’s a period piece that takes place in a small Texas town during World War II. In this instance football is more a conduit to the effects that World War II had not only on a small town but the nation in general.
“When the Men Were Gone” by Marjorie Herrera Lewis is based on a true story that occurred in Brownwood, Texas in 1944. When the assistant principal, Tylene Wilson, cannot find a football coach because all the available prospects have gone off to war, she decides to take on the task herself since she has followed the game since she was a little girl. What is fall in Texas without football?
Even more important, Tylene doesn’t want to deprive the seniors of their one last chance to enjoy “innocence” before they enlist in the war effort. There’s no need for them to grow up too fast. Every teenage kid in Brownwood dreams of playing for his school since he was five years old. Why not let them enjoy their boyhood to the fullest before reality hits them in the face?
Of course, Tylene’s decision is not that simple. We’re talking about Texas in 1944. Coaching football is considered a “manly” profession and no place for ladies. The blowback from the men in town is fierce. The opposing coach in the opening game would rather forfeit than play against a woman. The school board is considering cancelling the season. What is Tylene going to do?
Overcoming the dissension is only part of the problem. The players themselves aren’t exactly enamored with the idea of a female coach. Tyrene’s husband is very supportive (it was initially his idea) but he has a change of heart when he is criticized for letting her do it and she starts getting threats if she doesn’t quit. On top of that, the war is constantly interfering with their daily lives as neighbors return from the war either dead or missing limbs. It’s a torturous time for everyone.
As the book moves along you find out there are additional motivations for Tyrene not to let the season go. You begin to understand why it is so important to her beyond just letting the boys enjoy their youth to the fullest. The inside cover says that the story will make you laugh and cry and it is right on both counts.
I thought when I started the book it would simply be a period piece about a woman coach stepping up against all odds and having a successful season. That was far off the mark. Football is just a subset of a wide-ranging story of life during a difficult period. “When the Men Were Gone” is a very heartwarming story and one you won’t be able to put down. It will be an experience to remember.
November 8, 2018
Football is this country’s most popular spectator sport and a great diversion from all the stresses of modern life. Unfortunately, the stresses of modern life have infringed on the game in recent years. Concussions, assault, cheating, franchise relocation, and silent protests have all become part of pro football’s popular culture to the point where fans and the powers-that-be can’t ignore them.
College football has its own peccadillos but it’s in the National Football League (NFL) where the problems are magnified. Part of it is due to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the way he handles every controversial issue. It’s as if he applies Murphy’s Law to each situation. He just can’t get it right and gets booed by fans wherever he goes. He still must be doing something right because the owners won’t fire him and he reportedly makes over $40 million a year. To be sure, there have always been issues in the NFL, especially between players and management, but the five matters listed above have taken center stage.
Four years ago Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on video punching his then fiancé (now wife) and dragging her from an elevator. Goodell’s decision to suspend him for only two games produced a public backlash that the NFL didn’t take assault seriously enough.
This episode was followed by “Deflategate” which was a cute way of accusing iconic New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady of cheating. In a playoff game with the Indianapolis Colts, Brady was accused of by having the football deflated by team managers in order to produce a more comfortable grip. The whole sordid affair should have amounted to a molehill but Brady’s indignant attitude and Goodell’s determination to stick it to the Patriots (they had been found guilty of illegally spying on the New York Jets several years earlier) led to Brady being suspended for four games. Naturally, the outrage in New England was so pervasive that Goodell hasn’t attended a game there since.
If that were not enough, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to protest police brutality by not standing for the national anthem. Soon other players joined Kaepernick in kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner. The protest probably would have run its course but then Donald Trump decided to weigh in during the 2016 presidential campaign and make it an issue of disrespecting the flag and the military. Goodell didn’t know what to do so he simply exasperated the problem with halfway responses that pleased no one.
Franchise relocation became a big deal two years ago because three teams decided they wanted to move to Los Angeles at the same time despite the fact they were financially healthy and had loyal fan bases. They just wanted to make even more money and have new, state-of-the-art, billion dollar, publicly-financed stadiums built which their current cities weren’t willing to do. St. Louis and San Diego ended up in LA and Oakland in Las Vegas. Trying to put a positive spin on greedy, billionaire owners abandoning their cities and loyal fans is not easy. Goodell couldn’t do it even though he tried.
But the issue that resonates the most in the public consciousness is concussions. The NFL acted like the tobacco companies for a long time trying to deny a direct link between the head shots and loss of memory and dementia later in life. But as the connection became more and more obvious the NFL finally admitted a cause and effect. A 2015 Will Smith movie based on true events called “Concussion,” detailing how the whole connection to brain injuries came to light, helped educate the public on what was happening.
The threat of brain damage has caused many parents to no longer allow their sons to play youth football and the long-term effects on the NFL could mean not enough players for their league. There has been talk that the league could suffer and die a generation from now. Goodell hasn’t helped his or the NFL’s reputation by living in denial all these years.
All these matters and much more have been presented in a new book by Mark Leibovich entitled “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times.” Leibovich provides a unique assessment because he’s political journalist/commentator in his day job. He writes from the perspective of a fan, albeit one who grew up near Boston as a diehard Patriots partisan. But he does observe the league from a point of view that the average fan could easily relate to.
Leibovich manages to get personal time with many of the NFL heavyweights including Goodell, Brady, and several of the owners. Brady comes off as a good guy (which he probably is) but there is clear bias towards him by Leibovich. He thinks that “Deflategate” was totally bogus but ignores the fact that Brady didn’t exactly act totally innocent in its aftermath or during the investigation.
His discussion of Goodell and the owners is more spot-on. Goodell is more into protecting the NFL (“The Shield”) than admitting any problems. The owners qualify as good, bad, or ugly but even the good ones are first and foremost part of “The Membership.” In other words, they’re billionaires, part of an exclusive club, and better than the rest of us. It helps explain why they think the public should build them billion dollar stadiums instead of just doing it themselves.
“Big Game” is an insightful and entertaining read. Leibovich gets behind the scenes and lets you know how the NFL really operates and who the colorful characters and true powerbrokers are. The game may be too popular to get sidetracked by all its calamities but even a diehard fan like myself doesn’t feel quite as passionate as I once did. The NFL is suffering from a case of arrogance and I truly wonder if it will get beyond its “dangerous times” and seriously address the issues that confront it.
“The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy” by David Margolick tells of the profound impact these two icons of American social and political history had on our nation’s fabric. Although they had a complicated relationship, their unique bond captivated the populace until their assassinations 62 days apart in 1968. Their premature deaths changed our nation forever.
“Heart: A History” by Sandeep Jauhar discusses what makes the heart tick and educates us on all the advances in cardiologic research and technology that have improved our lives. Jahuhar delves into many fascinating stories such as the first open-heart surgery and first successful human heart transplant to remind us how special “the only organ that can move itself” is to our survival.
“The Digger and the Flower” by Joseph Kuefler provides a lesson in nature and nurturing using a construction vehicle and a seedling. When a flower that is being nursed along by “Digger” is bulldozed by another machine, he finds a way to rescue and preserve his injured “friend.” Readers have described this children’s picture book as “precious” and “a sweet story of compassion.”
November 2, 2018
I have often talked about books that fly under the radar, capturing a nugget of history that is unusual, bizarre or simply bewildering. A lot of these stories tend to revolve around World War II and I recently stumbled upon another one that is truly unique. The author, who had an interest in African American military history, stumbled upon the story herself when she read a line about a black nurse serving at a prison camp hospital in Arizona who eventually married a German prisoner of war (POW). How bizarre is that?
“Enemies in Love: A German POW, a Black Nurse, and an Unlikely Romance” by Alexis Clark is an extraordinary story. How in the world could something like that even happen? It is difficult enough to imagine interracial marriages succeeding in the U.S. during the Jim Crow era, even outside the South, but the idea of a black nurse marrying someone who fought for the Nazis seems beyond the pale.
When Clark discovered this unlikely tale the two protagonists had already died. It meant Clark had to reconstruct the whole story from scratch. Between exhaustive research and interviews with surviving family members and friends both here and in Germany she was able to put together much of what happened. As expected, it’s a mindboggling trip with many bumps in the road.
Elinor Powell was an African American nurse who ends up stationed at a hospital in a POW camp in Arizona. Elinor had the good fortune to grow up in Milton, Massachusetts where despite being the only black family in their middle-class neighborhood, she faced little or no racial prejudice. That changed after she got her nursing degree and joined the army.
The U.S. armed forces weren’t integrated until 1948. Blacks were stereotyped as inferior and most whites didn’t want to serve with them. They got the worst assignments which explains how Elinor ended up at a POW camp. Worse, it was in a desolate area of Arizona which was a Jim Crow state to boot. Elinor faced blatant racism for the first time in her life and it was numbing. How could the U.S. be fighting for freedom abroad when it treated some of its own as second class citizens?
Frederick Albert, the German POW, was never an actual Nazi. He came from a well-to-do German family that was strict and unloving to him and his sister. He was in the German army only because he had no choice. In a sense he was lucky he was captured quickly because he wasn’t mentally attuned to being a solider. He was also only 19 when he was captured and sent off to the POW camp in Arizona.
Why he was so attracted to Elinor is unknown. His only clear connection to African Americans growing up was through his love for jazz. It may have been because he was young, inexperienced and the only women around him were the black nurses. Whatever the case, he was enamored with Elinor and she came to enjoy the attention. It led to a love affair where they would find time to be together whenever possible.
When the war ended they knew they couldn’t simply just get married. For one thing, it would have been considered heresy if their affair had been discovered by authorities. As a POW, Frederick had to return to Germany. The two of them thought one way he might be able to return to the States sooner than later was if Elinor got pregnant.
Their scheme actually worked but before Frederick returned Elinor had to face the multiple hardship of being a single mom with a biracial baby, living at home with an unsympathetic mother, and surrounded by a skeptical community. There was also the lingering question of whether Frederick would remain loyal (after all he was still only 21) and eventually return. Fortunately, he was still in love with Elinor.
Although the couple did get married and have two children, it wasn’t totally a happy ending. They struggled to make ends meet and even tried moving to Germany with disastrous results. Finding a place where they and their sons were accepted was never easy.
Alexis Clark presents an amazing story with an in-depth look at what growing up and facing life in a segregated America and an oppressive Germany was like. Elinor and Frederick faced an uphill battle all their lives, even within their own marriage, but they stuck together. There were a lot of questions left unanswered because they are no longer with us but enough is known for us to appreciate their fortitude and devotion to each other. “Enemies in Love” is quite a history lesson.
“In Pieces” by Sally Field gives us a reflection of her life in this autobiography. Baby boomers grew up with Field as she appeared in iconic TV series “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun,” and won an Oscar for her performance in “Norma Rae.” Although she lived her life in the public eye it was not without heartache. One reader described her book as “honest, engaging, and illuminating.”
“Small Fry” by Lisa Brennan-Jobs tells the story of Steve Jobs’ daughter who grew up without her father and struggled with her mom to make ends meet. Even after her father became rich he seemed indifferent to her. She finally sought a relationship with him in high school but it was never easy. Brennan-Jobs provides an inside look at one of our country’s most accomplished and eccentric high tech gurus.
October 25, 2018
Politics and social media are a volatile mix. Campaigns were bad enough before the advent of the Internet, Twitter, blogs, and biased-based websites. It isn’t a question anymore of qualified candidates running for office and having their elections based on their public record or their policies. Now it’s all about taking them down personally with real or imagined stories that have nothing to do with their abilities. Why would anybody want to run for office?
This whole messy scenario is the subject of a new novel by Jo Piazza called “Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win.” The book would probably qualify as “chick-lit” because it’s about a career woman and mother who decides to enter a Senate race in Pennsylvania. But it’s a novel that should appeal to both men and women alike. It illustrates the “take-no-prisoners” attitude towards political campaigns today.
The premise is quite simple. Charlotte Walsh is a powerful executive in a highly successful Silicon Valley firm who grew up poor in a small town in northeast Pennsylvania. Through hard work and ambition she achieved an Ivy League education and worked her way to her present position of COO. She is also a successful author and someone who pursued expanding opportunities for women and providing generous maternity and family leave benefits.
Because Charlotte’s policies helped produce a happy and successful company, she contemplated the idea of moving back to Pennsylvania to run for Senate against a long-time, thrice-married conservative incumbent who was against everything she believed in. Charlotte really thought she could make a difference if she went to Washington.
On the surface she looked like she the ideal candidate. She was not only highly successful professionally, but she effused good looks, seemed happily married, and had three charming young daughters. Her resume indicated she had it all. The race appeared set to give voters a real choice between two distinct and competing philosophies.
But that’s not how campaigns work.
There are so many intangibles at play when it comes to running for office. Charlotte’s motives may be pure but moving to another state leaves open the accusations of “carpet-bagger.” Also, what will be the effect on the family to move when it moves from a comfortable lifestyle on the West Coast to a completely different one 3,000 miles away?
And those were the easy dilemmas.
Running for office means hiring a campaign manager and staff, raising money, and traveling around the state non-stop. Your time is never your own anymore. You have social media with anonymous tweeters and bloggers opining your every move. Your opponent is constantly questioning your fitness for office. Whether you like it or not you find yourself playing the same game.
As the campaign picks up pace it seems like issues and policy take a backseat to opposition research and intrepid reporters trying to get a “scoop.” Whatever skeletons are in each candidate’s closet are bound to come out. We’re constantly kept off-balance wondering what will happen next.
“Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win” is not only a suspenseful novel but an excellent primer on how campaigns are run these days. Everything that happens in the book rings true. Piazza not only reaches a fitting conclusion but leaves the reader in a reflective mood. It’s hard to ask for more than that.
“The Kennedy Debutante” by Kerri Maher is an historical novel based on “Kick,” the oldest daughter of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. When her father is appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom, Kick gets to become socially active with the British elite and meets Billy Hartington, a future duke and strict Protestant. It becomes a case of forbidden love for Kick, the devout Catholic. See how it all untangles against the backdrop of World War II.
“My Girls: A Lifetime with Carrie and Debbie” by Todd Fisher is a tribute to the mother and sister of the author. Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died within one day of each other and left Todd and their legions of fans stunned. “Equal parts love letter and family portrait,” Fisher describes the ups and downs growing up in the celebrity lifestyle and what it was like dealing with two icons of the entertainment age.
“Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship” by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes presents a warm-hearted story of a rescue dog who grew up thinking he would be a seeing-eye dog. Instead, he becomes a service dog to Jessica who has to deal with physical impairments she never expected. Together they conquer the world one step at a time. This inspiring children’s picture book was written by two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing and much of it is true.
October 12, 2018
Tennis is a very unique sport with lots of tradition and protocol. For better or worse it carries the air of a country club activity where proper dress and decorum takes precedence over winning and losing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because good manners and proper etiquette are fundamental to most occupations. At the professional level we see all kinds of behavior in tennis and much it is over the top. Players who scream and berate umpires are usually scorned while the ones who keep their composure and rarely complain are admired. We have seen the entire spectrum of behavior over the years.
The tennis world today does not have a lot of “jerks.” We still have a few men who get upset and tank matches or women who shriek annoyingly during points but for the most part there are no “personalities” who embarrass the sport. The two players who epitomize talent and exquisite behavior are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and they are admired worldwide. The same can’t be said for some of the players of yesteryear.
Tennis entered its “golden age” in the late 1970s. The sport had an abundance of talent, diverse personalities and television money that helped fuel tennis’s popularity. While the sport had its “good guys” like Arthur Ashe and Bjorn Borg who acted with class all the time, at the other end of the spectrum were Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase who epitomized the “bad boy” image the sport abhorred. This latter group were constantly harassing umpires, linesmen, and sometimes their opponents.
Ironically, it was usually the “good guys” who tended to burn out before the “bad boys.” Connors, McEnroe, and Nastase played well into their 30s (Connors was still playing the pro tour at 40). Perhaps it was because they let out their emotions. The reverse was true with Borg. He was the number one player in the world in 1980 and won 11 grand slam titles by the age of 25. Yet he retired less than a year later in the prime of his career. What happened?
There is a new movie at the Village Library that documents this process simply called “Borg vs. McEnroe.” The title is a reference to their epic 1980 final, still considered one of the two greatest tennis matches of all-time (the Federer-Nadal 2008 Wimbledon final is the other).
The interesting thing is that the movie is more a case study in personalities than a reprisal of a superlative tennis match. Although the feature length film is another one of those “inspired by true events” sagas (i.e., it takes some artistic liberties) the production holds true to form when describing what these two players were going through as they progressed through the Grand Slam tournament.
Borg may have represented the ideal of how a professional should act on the tennis court but in reality he was a tortured soul both on and off of it. He was the number one ranked player in the world but the burden was too much for him. He was a perfectionist. Once he reached the top of his profession he couldn’t handle the thought of not being the best.
McEnroe was a tortured soul as well but that was only because he felt all the umpires and linesmen had it in for him. He spent too much time complaining to actually enjoy his time playing. His behavior went beyond embarrassing at times. The British tabloids called him “Superbrat” and it was a well-deserved moniker. Fans often came to his matches more to see him lose his temper than to witness his immense talent.
The acting in the film is superb. Viewers may recognize Shia LaBeouf as McEnroe (he starred in “Holes” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”). He has McEnroe’s tennis strokes and antics down to a tee. Even better is Sverir Gudnason as Borg (he’s the spitting image of his character) who appears to have it all but can’t enjoy a minute of his success. His pained expressions throughout the film speak volumes.
You would think that these two incredibly talented tennis players would be in heaven making millions playing a sport they undoubtedly love. But that’s not the case. They may love the money but they can’t enjoy it. For totally divergent reasons Borg and McEnroe are not “happy campers” at the apex of their sport. “Borg vs. McEnroe” illustrates that success doesn’t always equate with happiness.
“When the Men Were Gone” by Marjorie Herrera Lewis provides an unusual look at the importance of high school football is in Texas. Based on a true story from 1944, this novel looks at a town that might have to cancel its football season because every man available to coach the team goes off to war. Into the breach steps high school teacher Tylene Wilson who learned all about football from her father. Despite blowback against the idea of a female football coach (remember it’s 1944), Tylene provides a life lesson nobody will ever forget.
“The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism” by Steve Kornacki explains why the political process in Washington has become so polarized. The problem can trace its roots to the election of Bill Clinton as president and Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House. Political compromise became less and less a viable option. The presidential candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 also illustrated the distaste of voters toward business as usual. Today’s polarization is a natural outgrowth of the 1990s political scene.
“The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo is a smorgasbord for anyone who loves poetry. Written in verse, this book tells the story of Xiomara, a 15-year-old girl growing up in Harlem, who writes down her thoughts but is afraid to express them openly. When the opportunity comes to join her high school slam poetry club Xiomara finds she can no longer be silent. This YA novel is a 2018 National Book Award finalist.
October 5, 2018
The Trump White House has been characterized as a daily soap opera where the traditional norms of an administration are thrown out the window. Donald Trump simply has a different method of doing things. We have already had books such as Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” that have provided salacious details of a dysfunctional White House but they seem more gossipy than substantive. That may have finally changed.
Based on excerpts put out before its publication date, Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear: Trump in the White House” initially sounded like more of the same. There were juicy quotes that combine the words “Trump” and “liar” in the same sentence and other derogatory remarks about the president made by aides behind his back. Those excerpts may have helped book sales but they don’t do justice to the book itself.
Woodward has actually done an extraordinary job of describing the day-to-day workings of the Trump White House. People who love the president probably won’t like the book because they regard any criticism, especially those attributed to members of Trump’s own staff, as “fake news.” But to those that are willing to look at this White House with an open mind, Woodward has provided a fascinating and realistic look into how the Trump Administration operates behind the scenes.
It should be noted that Woodward has impressive credentials. He and Carl Bernstein were the Washington Post reporters that unlocked the Watergate Scandal which led to the downfall of the Nixon presidency in 1974. Woodward has written books about all eight presidents since then. His books are usually in-depth and insightful and generally accepted as fair and accurate (except to those who don’t come off looking good). His reputation as a writer and reporter is pretty solid.
The juicy quotes that were highlighted in pre-publication excerpts are not emphasized in “Fear” but merely part of the narrative. They might raise an eyebrow while reading the book but they don’t stand out. “Fear” is really a day-to-day description of how the White House operates and what it attempts to accomplish. Although the book describes many of the controversies that involve Trump it does not try to make any conclusions. It just reports.
The surprising aspect of Woodward’s tome is that it is not all about trashing Trump and those that work for him. Trump’s mood swings, personal bravado, and disinterest in policy are evident but he is surrounded by advisors who truly seem to have the best interest of the country at heart and are simply trying to find ways to work with or around him.
Trump is clearly passionate about the Wall, trade policy, the Russia investigation, and getting out of foreign wars. He definitely has advisors who like to suck up to him but there are others who try to steer him towards a more realistic view of the world. The ones who come across as “grownups” are Gary Cohn, Rob Porter, John Dowd, John Kelly, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and Rex Tillerson. Admittedly, It may be a telling sign that Kelly is the only one left from that group that is still working in the White House (it may also hint at who are the sources for much of Woodward’s book).
In the end it appears that the Trump Administration is controlled chaos. It may not be traditional in that respect but Woodward is good at presenting why it is able to survive. Trump may not like the book but chances are he will be on speaking terms with Woodward when their paths cross. “Fear” doesn’t produce any bombshells but it does provides a window into a very different kind of White House. It’s worth pursuing.
“Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man” by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic recounts the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and its aftermath. The US heavy cruiser had just delivered the components of the atom bomb to the Pacific Islands before the bombing of Hiroshima when it was struck by two Japanese torpedoes. The entire tragic story, where its survivors were stuck in shark-infested waters and its captain wrongly court-martialed, is provided in meticulous detail.
“Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History” by Keith O’Brien reminds us that women are often overlooked when it comes to their accomplishments. When conquering the skies became a phenomenon between the World Wars, the only woman pilot from that era most people remember is Amelia Earhart. Several other women made their mark and their stories, along with Earhart’s, are chronicled here.
“Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction” by Jarret J. Krosoczka is a personal memoir of this popular children’s author. Raised by his grandparents, Krosoczka really didn’t understand his true identity until he was a teenager and could face his mother’s addiction and track down his long absent father. It is a story of survival after growing up in a non-traditional way. This book is for young adults.
September 26, 2018
This Sunday (9/30) at 5pm C-SPAN2 will televise the Village Library’s latest edition of “Nights at the Round Table” with author David Pietrusza. Pietrusza will be discussing his new book, “TR’s Last War: Theodore Roosevelt, The Great War, and a Journey of Triumph and Tragedy. The program took place at the Library on 9/18/18.
Our country continues to face a moral dilemma concerning the stereotyping of different races and ethnic groups. It’s always been that way. It’s a habit we can’t seem to break. It was bad enough that African American troops were segregated during World War II while we were supposedly fighting to save freedom and democracy. But discrimination didn’t stop with them. Every minority was treated suspiciously as if they didn’t measure up or weren’t patriotic enough.
Jewish American GIs during WWII, for example, weren’t segregated like African American but were ostracized and subjected to taunts and racism while in the service. Jews were stereotyped as unpatriotic and unwilling to fight for their country. The war provided the opportunity to prove that wasn’t the case but it wasn’t easy.
“Jew Boy” was a favorite racist remark used by other American GIs during basic training. It was the equivalent of using the “N” word with blacks. Many of the GIs had never interacted with Jews before. One Jewish recruit was branded with the nickname “Jew Boy” throughout basic training. The humiliation was never-ending. One Jewish airman developed a close friendship with his bunkmate until the bunkmate discovered he was Jewish. The “friend” never spoke to him again.
The story of American Jews fighting in World War II has been brought to life by a PBS documentary obtained by the Village Library called “GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II.” At the time the war broke out there were 10 million Jews living in the U.S. with half of them located in New York City. Most of them lived in Jewish enclaves so it was easy to get stereotyped.
Like all Americans, they jumped at the chance to serve. 550,000 Jewish men and women enlisted in the U.S. military. They had the dual purpose of fighting for America and for Jews worldwide. They knew that Hitler was trying to destroy their people. But they also had the opportunity to rid themselves of the undeserved stereotype of being unpatriotic.
The documentary provides a chronological description of the war with newsreels and interviews with many of the combatants, both men and women. Among those interviewed were Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Henry Kissinger. Brooks tells of one time he was standing in line at the mess hall during basic training and flattened another recruit for calling him a “Jew Boy.” Reiner was threatened by a white southerner for chatting with a black recruit.
One Jewish nurse who was serving overseas fell in love with an American airman. The airman finished his tour and came home with the intention of asking her parents for permission to marry her. When he found out she was Jewish he cancelled those plans.
While Jewish servicemen and women managed to overcome much of the prejudice by the end of the war, many of them still ended up witnessing the horror of the concentration camps after they entered Germany with the American army. Coming upon fellow Jews who were all skin and bones, and seeing dead prisoners piled up like slabs of meat instilled nightmares that lasted a lifetime.
World War II provided some of the most horrific examples of man’s inhumanity to man. But it also provided an opportunity to squash certain stereotypes. Men and women from different social and ethnic backgrounds were forced to intermingle and discovered they could get along. The war didn’t get rid of racism or ethnic hatred but it proved the stereotypes we often take for granted are more myth than reality. “GI Jews” is an eye-opening documentary that is well worth watching.
“Leadership in Turbulent Times” by Doris Kearns Goodwin describes four presidents who had the qualities to step up during times of crisis. Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson all had the essential leadership qualities to guide the country through difficult periods. Goodwin, who knew LBJ personally, is recognized as one of our preeminent presidential historians.
“Arthur Ashe: A Life” by Raymond Arsenault is an exhaustive biography of the legendary tennis player and social activist who died prematurely at the age of 49 after contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion. Ashe was one of the first successful African American professional tennis players and constantly lauded for his quiet dignity. Arsenault covers his rise to the top of his profession and how his life encompassed much more than simply being a three-time Grand Slam champion.
September 13, 2018
Soccer is the world’s sport. It’s called “football” just about everywhere but here and it’s the dream of almost every youngster to become a world class player. The ultimate goal is to make your national team and qualify for the World Cup which is held every four years. The 2018 World Cup took place this summer in Russia with France taking home the trophy.
International soccer is run by FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) and it is probably the most powerful sports organization in the world. It may also be the most corrupt. Bribery is literally a way of life for FIFA. The cheating and payoffs that go on are so pervasive that it’s difficult to find a person involved in the administration of the sport who isn’t crooked.
There is a new book out that deals with this whole issue. It’s called “Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal” and was written by an intrepid reporter named Ken Bensinger. It was not an easy book to research because under every scandalous rock was another rock that contained an even bigger scandal. Everyone in a position of power acted as if they were holier than thou and pretended to run the sport cleanly. But these “Puritans” have been fighting for a piece of the action for decades.
Once the powers-that-be discovered that televising and marketing soccer were a potential gold mine corruption soon followed. Individual power players decided to demand money on the side from communication companies bidding for rights to broadcast elite events. In addition to the World Cup, there’s the European Cup, the Copa Americana, and the Gold Cup just to name a few. For communication companies to gain access to these events they had to play ball with the power players.
Apparently it wasn’t enough for these chieftains of football to live a glorious life of six or seven figure salaries, travel first-class and stay in five-star hotels. They wanted a huge slice of the money pie that suddenly descended on the sport. Instead of being honest brokers and filtering the wealth down to the masses learning and developing the game, the “crooks” from the alphabet soup of FIFA regional organizations (CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA, AFC, CAF, OFC) only wanted to enrich themselves.
Probably the most obvious example of egregious behavior was when Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup. Why in the world would FIFA give the sport’s most prestigious event to a country that had no soccer tradition and is unbearably hot during the summer? Could it be because it’s an oil-rich nation that’s capable of bribing its way to hosting the event? There were already questions simmering about how Russia managed to wrestle the 2018 World Cup from favored England. Something didn’t smell right.
How the U.S. became the “guardian” of the sport is due to the perseverance of an IRS agent named Steve Berryman who happened to be a huge international soccer fan. His specialty was looking at banking records and wire transfers and he found enough suspicious deposits and money transfers to sound an alarm in his head. Encouraged by stories written by British reporter Andrew Jennings on the scandals within the sport, Berryman contacted an FBI official he knew and together they convinced the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue the case. Many of the wire transfers went through banks in the United States so they were within American jurisdiction.
There were many soccer administrators targeted in the scandal but the key player in the Justice Department’s investigation was American Chuck Blazer, the General Secretary of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) from 1990-2011. Blazer was originally targeted because he went years without filing a federal tax return. He willingly became a government witness due to his guilty conscience, to cut a deal, or both. The state of affairs in soccer had gotten so bad that when a clearly corrupt regional president was forced from office, his supposedly squeaky clean replacement turned out to be a bigger crook than he was.
The corruption in the soccer world is widespread and will continue to be. The U.S. investigation uncovered a lot but barely scratched the surface. That’s because they could only go after suspects that used American banks for wire transfers. FIFA has a new president and the organization promises a new direction but bribery is so endemic that it’s hard to believe it will ever change. We can only hope that in the long run “Red Card” will force an overhaul to how the sport is run.
“Lies” by T.M. Hogan presents a psychological thriller of a man named Joe Lynch whose entire life and marriage are blown up when he sees his wife at a hotel with her best friend’s husband. After confronting the man, Joe is suspected of assault and finds he can no longer trust his wife. It leads to twists and turns where Joe doesn’t know what to expect or where to turn next. One reader described the novel as “simply brilliant.”
“Every Day Is Extra” by John Kerry encompasses the life story of the former Vietnam War veteran, senator, and secretary of state. Kerry was involved in many of the events and policy-making decisions that have affected our country over the last 50 years. Here is an insider’s look at how government and military service formed one man’s view of the world.
“Crash: The Great Depression and the Fall and Rise of America” by Marc Favreau offers a comprehensive look at the Great Depression, its causes, and its aftermath. Meticulously researched, it provides many photos to go along with the narrative. Although it’s classified as a children’s book it will appeal to people of all ages.
August 27, 2018
Theodore Roosevelt is one of our most iconic presidents. He left his mark with energetic policies in both domestic and international affairs. We probably all remember learning in high school that he was a “trust buster,” loved the outdoors and expanded our country’s influence in the Caribbean and Far East. TR was so highly regarded at the time he was added to Mount Rushmore along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Was he really that brilliant and beloved?
There is a new book out about Roosevelt that delves into that question but really leaves the reader to make up his or her own mind about his legacy. It’s called “TR’s Last War: Theodore Roosevelt, The Great War, and a Journey of Triumph and Tragedy” and was written by David Pietrusza. It’s an in-depth look at the last few years of TR’s life and provides nuance to a man who was as complicated as he was physically active.
Most people remember Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. It cemented the idea that he was a man of courage and toughness. He ascended to the presidency in 1901 at the “tender” age of 42 after William McKinley was assassinated. His “Square Deal” was so popular that he was easily re-elected in 1904 and would have been again in 1908 if he hadn’t kept his promise not to run again.
His anointed successor, William Taft, disappointed him so much that TR ran as a 3rd party “Bull Moose” progressive candidate in 1912. He was the most successful 3rd party candidate ever but he basically allowed Woodrow Wilson to win in an electoral landslide. Roosevelt despised Wilson and was extremely upset at the lack of U.S. preparedness for World War I after hostilities broke out in Europe in 1914. It kept him fully engaged in politics and public affairs the rest of his life.
One of the basic tenets of the book is that as much as Roosevelt was involved in the 1916 presidential race he was reluctant to be totally committed as a candidate. He kept leaving the door open to both the Republican and Progressive (“Bull Moose”) nominations but only kept dropping hints about his interest instead of simply jumping in. It was as if he wanted the GOP to beg him to run and hand him the nomination on a silver platter. But it was not to be.
Once the U.S. did prepare militarily and enter the war, Roosevelt wanted to be a part of it. Whether it was his age or simply spite by Wilson, it wasn’t going to happen. As a consolation, his four sons all served and they paid a severe price. Two of them were wounded and TR’s youngest, Quentin, was shot down over Germany and died instantly. It’s likely Roosevelt never got over that loss.
Pietrusza opens up a Pandora’s Box of possible reasons that Roosevelt was such a public figure in his twilight years without actually committing to running for office. He may have simply enjoyed being an elder statesman but his passion for running the country his way seemed at odds with that attitude. He might have had too many physical ailments (he was shot in Wisconsin, suffered broken ribs after being thrown from a horse, and caught a tropical disease on a trip to the Amazon). He also might have suffered from depression. Whatever the case, he died at the relatively young age of 60.
What is not in question is that Roosevelt was an influential historical figure and a fascinating character study. Pietrusza provides a taste of his life and personality in his biography. “TR’s Last War” is an insightful read into what political and social life was like in our country a century ago. It’s well worth the trip.
As an added bonus, David Pietrusza will be appearing at the Village Library as part of our “Nights at the Round Table” series at 7pm on Tuesday, September 18. The nationally known author appeared here three years ago to discuss his book “1932: The Rise of Hitler and Roosevelt.” Pietrusza knows his subjects well and it’s a great opportunity to learn more about Teddy Roosevelt and a substantive era in American history. Please join us for what is sure to be an enlightening experience.
August 17, 2018
I’m finally getting to the debut of our new blog, “The Village Peephole,” formerly known as “Dave’s Blog.” The transition took longer than I anticipated because I inadvertently became an acrobat on my road bike. I don’t recommend that practice to anybody. It literally hurts! But that’s beside the point. I hope you find our new blog as entertaining and informative as “From the Librarian.” Any feedback is appreciated.
Not a lot of movies reach “cult” status where they remain popular for generations. It’s never easy to predict when it will happen. It just does. In fact, if you ever hear a movie is “destined to be a classic” it usually ends up the dust bin of film history. “Classics” are movies that for whatever reason provide something memorable that stay with us forever.
Back in 1980 the movie “Caddyshack” debuted and wasn’t an instant hit. It certainly had some well-known comedians, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, but it came across as shtick instead of a solidly-based storyline. At the time I heard enough good things that I took a chance on it. And I certainly didn’t regret it.
Despite the lack of a central theme, the two things that stayed with me were how funny Dangerfield was on the big screen and Bill Murray’s demented character trying to outfox the golf course gopher. There was also the “classic” scene of Murray swatting mums (flowers) to smithereens and narrating the “Cinderella story” of him winning the Masters. There was definitely something special about the movie even if it wasn’t an instant box office success.
“Caddyshack” may not have had a dedicated story line or been an instant hit but it somehow had staying power. Nearly 40 years later it is still popular. What happened?
There is a new book out that explains the whole story from how the movie was conceived, how the script ended up piecemeal, and how it eventually took on a life of its own. “Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story” by Chris Nashawaty describes the major players, the development of the film, and the aftermath of what practically everyone involved in the production originally thought was a complete bomb.
The back story begins in the 1960s when a new wave of comic geniuses were coming to the forefront. These were Ivy Leaguers who worked on the Harvard Lampoon and eventually founded the National Lampoon. Concurrently, there were Second City improv actors from Chicago who were headed to fame and fortune on NBC’s Saturday Night Live which debuted in 1975. Many of these characters came together to work on “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” a 1978 movie about a wild fraternity in the early 1960s, which was the mega-hit and classic they all hoped it would be.
The fact that these creators of “Animal House” were so successful gave them the opportunity to get funding for their next “big” project, i.e., “Candyshack.” The film was inspired by the backgrounds of several of these “comic geniuses” who had caddied as youths at exclusive Midwest country clubs. Harold Ramis, the comedic writer and actor from such films as “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters,” was allowed to make his directorial debut. Being a veteran of improv he had no qualms about allowing ad-libbing and completely going off script.
Filming “Caddyshack” in Florida became like a jigsaw puzzle. Scenes were constantly reworked on the fly if they suddenly sounded better. The producers discovered how naturally funny Dangerfield was so they kept adding scenes for him in the movie. Then there was the comic genius of Murray and his ability to make incredible scenes ad-libbing the whole way. When the filming ended it was left to Ramis and his associates to put together a film that bared little relation to the original script.
Adding to the confusion was the production was like one big party (except to Ted Knight) with drugs and alcohol flowing every night. They also had to fit a tight schedule with stars Bill Murray and Chevy Chase only available for a short time apiece. It’s no wonder that the result was total chaos and a film littered with potholes.
Ramis and company eventually came up with a finished product and the only question was whether it would succeed. One of the creators, Doug Kenney, was so demoralized at the opening press conference that he arrived drunk and embarrassed everyone with his negativity. Nobody was feeling good but in due time they could all take a bow. Despite its pitfalls, “Caddyshack” attained “cult” status.
Nashawaty’s book is a frolicking ride through a period of American cultural history that will bring back a lot of fond memories for those of us who lived through the ‘60s and ‘70s. It will be a great history lesson for those that didn’t. The best complement for the book is that it makes the reader want to experience “Caddyshack” again (or for the first time). The book and movie are both that good and are available at the Village Library.
“Clock Dance” by Anne Tyler describes the transformative life of a woman as she adjusts to several upheavals in her life. As she grows older, Willa Drake sets off on an adventure of self-discovery and “finds solace and fulfillment in unexpected places.” Tyler is known for exquisite character development and this novel is no exception.
“Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley” by Adam Fisher provides an oral history by the “hackers, founders, and freaks who made it boom.” Learn first-hand how Silicon Valley went from a valley of orchards to becoming the economic equivalent of Eden and the tech hub of the world.