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Still Amused, But Mostly Disgusted

Red Hot Patriot, which ends its Arena Stage run Sunday, met most of my expectations, even the rueful ones. Mostly, it reminded me how much I regret never having met Molly Ivins in person despite our having at least a dozen mutual acquaintances. Its particulars also evoked what is already regarded as the last heyday of the glorious/terrible American newspaper trade when it was still able to attract, nurture, shelter and, most of all, break the hearts, if not the spirits of romantics such as Molly Ivins.

Lest you think I’m being in any way dismissive, allow me an urgent shout-out to everyone I ever shared a newsroom with: Whatever good things you heard about Kathleen Turner’s performance can be verified in this shabby corner of the web, and if Red Hot Patriot happens to show up in your immediate neighborhood, you shouldn’t wait a second after it lands to check it out. You’ll come away with the same bittersweet regrets I did. But mostly you’ll feel as though you got to spend a bit of hang time with the real Molly after all, if by proxy.


It’s been weeks since I saw the show. Yet I’m only now writing about it because, as thoroughly as I enjoyed Patriot, there was something discomfiting that chewed at me throughout. And it was crystallized today by some random acts of idiocy occurring within the previous 24-hour news cycle that need not be re-hashed, except here. Or here. Or even here.

The point being that while Ivins was as capable as any reasonably sane human being of being infuriated by these yotzes (Oh, do stop! “Yotz” is SO a word! See?), she somehow managed to channel her anger into robustly sardonic humor – Think
Mister Dooley, with more barbecue sauce and cumin – that never indulged her targets, but somehow contained her progressive readers’ collective outrage. “Sure,” each Ivins column seemed to say, “these guys (and they were always guys) are assholes. And worse. But they’re the price we pay for all the other perks we get for our democracy. So slap ‘em around, but remember: There’s always another two or three comin’ from behind.”

I am trying harder than ever to maintain even that much equanimity as this year’s campaign-from-hell staggers and wobbles along the back-nine. Somehow, laughter, however sardonic or withering, seems too good for the Mourdocks, Akins, Palins, and Trumps. It certainly is too good for the crowd that agreed not long ago that African Americans were better off under slavery. Which is just about the time I stopped finding these zealots funny. Laughing at their monstrous idiocy may not be the same as sanctioning it. But it’s a distraction from acknowledging just how dangerous these zealots are.

My loss of equanimity is neither a joy nor a relief. I cherish the example of Murray Kempton, as fierce and funny a practitioner of the 800-word screed as Ivins though a much different breed of stylist who habitually probed beneath the darkest and meanest of souls to find a glimmer of good. But I like to think even he had his limits with yotzes. Ivins certainly did.

My Favorite Astronaut, or Zen & the Art of Laughing in Orbit


Neil Armstrong is dead, and so for the time being is any substantial effort by America to put people in space. People forget to be dismissive or incredulous about manned-space-travel when they realize the shuttle’s never flying again – or when someone like Armstrong joins the ancestors. His impulse to spurn the glare of celebrity-hood was duly noted and even praised by a culture that not too many years before (in part because of this semi-reclusive nature posthumously hailed as a virtue) would have easily mistaken him for any of the other men who flew during what we nostalgically term, “The Space Age.” If you asked the average American to name an astronaut from the 1960s, they would likely have mentioned Armstrong for being The First Earthling on the Moon, but more likely would have named that archetypical all-American hero John Glenn and even James Lovell, who was some guy Tom Hanks played in a movie.

 Fifty years ago tomorrow morning, just as I was heading off to school, the man who would become my favorite among all the astronauts took his turn to ride a Mercury spacecraft into orbit. Wally Schirra’s nine-hour, six-orbit flight about Sigma 7 wasn’t noteworthy for setting any world records. (The Russians had by then quadrupled our relatively meager number of manned orbits. It somehow seemed more fun in the days when we had some catching up to do.) Nor was it distinguished by any hair-raising crisis or daredevil flourishes. Indeed, the near-elegant perfection of Schirra’s Mercury flight from lift-off to his precisely-timed splashdown was far more appreciated by engineers than by the general public.

Even I didn’t take much note of Schirra’s flight until I paid closer attention to a recording of his transmissions. (You could actually buy this stuff on 45 RPM back then.) I was struck by how utterly unfazed he seemed with everything. He was not only joking with communicators on the ground, he was even…laughing! I don’t remember hearing any of his fellow Project Mercury astronauts laughing up there. Not Glenn, not Scott Carpenter, not Alan Shepard; certainly not Gus Grissom. And Schirra’s laughing wasn’t the nervous tittering you put on to make yourself forget how high and far you are from everything you know. He was messing with the solemnity expected of this occasion in the same manner he’d habitually mess with the ground crews or his peers. More than any of the others, he behaved up there the way I imagined my own father would: poking holes in other people’s uptight modes for perspective’s sake. As Tom Wolfe noted in The Right Stuff: “Schirra cut the jolly, fun-loving figure so well that people sometimes failed to notice how formidable he could be. But his emphasis, after all, was on maintaining an even strain, His pranksterish, rib-shaking, wild-driving gotcha intervals gave him plenty of slack when the time came to wind things up and get tight.”

Never was Schirra’s Ultimate Cool more conspicuous than on the morning of December 12, 1965 when he and Thomas Stafford were supposed to have lifted off the pad in Gemini 6 for a history-making rendezvous mission with Gemini 7. When the countdown reached zero, their Titan II booster abruptly shut down. For several long-ish seconds, no one was quite sure if this was going to be a replay of one of those awful 1950s-newsreel moments when the whole missile was going to explode. And why, an anxious America wondered, hadn’t the two pilots pulled their ejector rings? Apparently, Schirra, as command pilot, was exercising his prerogative to slow everybody’s roll rather than kill the mission – or, quite possibly, him and his co-pilot – over what turned out to be some kind of mundane plug glitch. “OK, we’re just sitting here breathing,” he calmly assured Mission Control. For this, he got another medal in addition to the one he received for carrying out the rendezvous three days later. Getting a medal for stillness rather than action – How very Zen!

I wish I could find among the hours of broadcast footage from that day the black-and-white video of Schirra and Stafford as they entered the so-called “ready room” where they climbed into their Gemini cockpit hours before the aborted launch. Broadcasters always told you how conscientiously clean that room had to be with all those white-smocked launch-team personnel making sure no dust or dirt entered the spacecraft with the astronauts. The first thing Schirra did when he got off the elevator was walk over to a far corner to rub his gloved finger over a rail. He turned in mock outrage to show an imaginary speck of dust to the crew chief. OK, maybe you had to be there. But this bit preceded one of history’s more frightening moments and here was Mr. Annapolis-grad-veteran-test-pilot performing low comedy as if it were beer call instead of T-minus-whatever.

Schirra achieved an above-average measure of fame for Gemini 6, and for commanding the first manned flight in the Apollo program in October, 1968 – when he caught the head-cold heard – or groused about – round the world. His name still didn’t glow in the dark as brightly as Glenn’s did, or Armstrong’s would. Still he got more famous after he quit the program to become an on-air analyst for CBS News; playing, if you will, John Madden to Walter Cronkite’s Pat Summerall throughout the lunar-landing phase.

He died in 2007 at 84. He would have been fun to hang out with, even though his politics were so deeply right-wing Republican that he said Glenn was the only Democrat he’d ever vote for (and I’m not altogether sure of that.) Still, laughing came so naturally to Schirra, as Norman Mailer once observed, that you were sure he could overlook any differences you had with him and chuckle over old times, his and yours.

And while I still haven’t found clips of that dust-mote gag, I did find among the CBS archival footage a pre-Gemini 6 interview with Schirra in which he’s asked the de rigueur question about duty and family:

BILL STOUT (CBS): Even though you’ve been there before, how do members of the Schirra family feel about the coming flight?
SCHIRRA: I’m sure there’s always a degree of apprehension. I hope there’s not fear. I hope to dispel fear by dispelling ignorance. And if I can explain the details of what were doing in our mission satisfactorily to you and to your audience, then possibly you know that’s what I’m trying to do for my family. To make them aware of what I am doing.


If I’m old enough to fondly remember Wally Schirra, then I’m also old enough to remember when dispelling fear by dispelling ignorance was a primary directive for everyone in American life regardless of where you stood on the political spectrum. It could be again, someday. In the meantime,  follow Captain Wally’s example and laugh at the scary stuff. It’s good for you.

Glengarry Glen Paladin

Fifty-five years ago this month, at about half-past-nine on a Saturday night over the CBS Television Network, a man pulled a pistol out of a fancy holster and pointed it at the audience:

PALADIN: I’d like you to take a look at this gun. The balance is excellent. This trigger responds to a pressure of one ounce. This gun was hand-crafted to my specifications and I rarely draw it unless I intend to use it.


That, of course, was the voice of Richard Boone (1917-1981) and the show was Have Gun Will Travel. It would last five seasons and its formula of a black suited cowboy-knight-errant was so durable and popular that no one ever wondered how a man wearing dark clothes while riding in a hot desert sun stays so imperturbably cool.

It has lately come to our corner store’s attention that David Mamet is expressing some interest in reviving Have Gun Will Travel complete with a new Paladin.

This made us wonder: How would one of America’s foremost playwrights handle this prelude? What would he bring to this classic introduction?

With our deepest apologies to Mr. Mamet (and our urgent warnings to the reader that the following filigree carries an “mature” label), we think…it would go…Something…Like…This:

PALADIN: You see this gun? You see this fucking gun I’m pointin’ at you? Nice, isn’t it? I mean, “nice”…Just a word, right? Doesn’t even do the work, that word. Like it’s too fucking lazy to try harder, right? “Nice!” Forget I even said the fuckwad word… Your sister’s “nice”! Your grandmother’s probably “nice”, too, right?…Shaddap! You don’t talk. I talk…
You have any idea what it’s like holding this gun? Are you even capable of imagining what I’m feeling when I hold this fucking gun? It’s like holding… My! DICK!…That’s exactly it!…Imagine how your joint would feel if you could let it roll around in your fucking hands as you hold it out like that! Like it’s not attached, but it still does whatever you fucking want, even if it’s ripped off your body. Ex-ACT-ly Like That!
Now…do you know how I came to own this gun? You know how such a perfectly balanced piece of machinery found its way into my right hand, pointed at both your fucking chins? Can your mouse-shit brain grasp what I had to go through to get this balanced to the point where if I whisper diRECtly at the FUCKING hammer, it FUCKING goes off? Do you know? Can you imagine?
Don’t bother answering because I already know the answer, you prairie scumbag! This gun is worth your whole fucking ranch and all your rat-sucking livestock five times over. Don’t even ask me what it costs! You know what it cost? EAT SHIT AND DIE! That’s how much it cost. You don’t deserve to know what it costs. You don’t deserve to imagine how it feels to hold your fucking dolphin detached from your fat, worthless pelvis with six chambers locked and loaded…

And do you know why you don’t deserve to know these things? Let me spell it out for you.
BECAUSE…YOU ARE A PIECE…OF SHIT! THAT’S WHY! A PIECE…OF SHIT…The bullets in these chambers cost more than your stupid cattle could fetch in the stockyards, you self-deluded prick! This gun…This…fucking gun can drive your goddam herd to Kansas Fucking City and New Fucking Jersey and back! By itself!! This fucking gun can read your whole goddam library of fake fucking books and give you a fucking test tomorrow…This…Where are you going? Where the FUCK do you think you’re going? I’m not through belittling you, you fat fuck! You wait till I’m done talking, you cheap bastard! You moronic douche-bag! You simple shit…

And that’s just the prelude. If Mamet gets his hands on this franchise, his episodes could go on for a while longer than the original’s half-hour run. If this works out, we could be around for a while, too.

One Hundred Years of Amuck

Today is Chuck Jones’ 100th birthday and they’re  having a party for him out in Glendale, California tonight to mark the occasion. That’s great, but I thought an even-broader fuss would be made over one of the greatest American filmmakers. (And don’t you dare say he “only” made cartoons, which is somewhat like saying Chopin “only” wrote piano pieces.)  If that clause requires justification, consider that three of Jones’  Warner Bros. shorts were among the films chosen by an army of critics and filmmakers in the recently-unveiled 2012 Sight-and-Sound poll of Greatest Films Ever Made.

If I’d had a ballot, I’d have made sure I put a Chuck Jones film on it.  But I’d have a helluva time picking one.  The three I’d found on the S&S list – “Duck Amuck” (1953), “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957) and (a mild surprise) “The Ducksters” (1950) – surely qualify.  But that leaves out so much: “The Draft Horse” (1942), “Tom Turk and Daffy” (1944) (“The yams did it!! The yams did it!!!…), “The Eager Beaver” (1946), “Mouse-Wreckers” (1949), “Long-Haired Hare” (1949) (“What do they do on a rainy night in Riiiio?….”)“The Scarlet Pumpernickel” (1950), “The Rabbit of Seville” (1950), “Two’s a Crowd” (1950) (The first appearance of the floppy-eared puppy whose yapping sends Claude Cat to the ceiling), “Chow Hound” (1951) (a personal favorite precisely because it freaks so many people out), “Bully for Bugs” (1953), “Duck Dodgers in the 241/2 Century” (1953)….

Sheesh! And even this leaves out so much: All of Pepe Le Pew, Marvin the Martian, Wile E. Coyote (and his Arcadian counterpart Ralph Wolf), that kitten-loving lummox Marc Anthony, the unwanted mongrel Charlie Dog, Sam the Sheepdog, the Road-Runner, Sniffles, Hubie, Bert and assorted other mice.

And why stop with the Warners Bros, stuff? There’s this Oscar winner from his MGM period that holds up as well as any full-length feature of comparable ambition. (I’ll think of one, eventually):

For me, it always comes down to two. This, for its sheer, unabashed entertainment value (and its solicitude for grammar):

And, most especially, this (which I think actually made the National Registry, though it should have won an Oscar):

I’m not sure there’s more to be said for these and other great, small works of Jones — except maybe to speculate that the reason why these keep killing us  from one century to the next can be found in their simplicity of intent. Mack Sennett, the silent comedy impressario who likely helped Chuck Jones the small boy become Chuck Jones he artist, once deflated solemn critical analyses of his productions by writing, “We merely went to work and tried to be funny.”  Jones often said similar things in his own interviews, but as “Dot and the Line” indicates, he was also intent on sliding low comedy to higher ground.  Sometimes, as with Chaplin, he was obvious about it; other times, as with Keaton, he was sneaky with it. (I preferred the sneaky stuff, which is to say, most of the Warner stuff from the 1940s and 1950s. )

Either way, he made it look easy. So easy, in fact, that no one today seems to be able to do it as well. Which is not his fault.

Clint Am Us, Part Deux

From the peerless Ta-Nehisi Coates: This too-obvious dispatch from the Carmel bureau — then again, maybe it’s not so obvious for some of you.

Merv Griffin, the Moist Happy Visionary

John Leonard and I were as one on many things, especially when it came to television. (Among our shared enthusiasms: The Rockford Files, Bill Russell’s NBA commentary, Dana Delany.) He, as much as I, believed deeply that Ed Sullivan was one of the indispensable figures of the 20th century for making his weekly variety show a spectrum of culture from Broadway to the Bolshoi to the Beatles to the Great Ballantine. But for all the props John gave Ed, he had little use for Merv Griffin, to my mind, as far-sighted and boundary-breaching an emcee as Sullivan.

“Charlie Brown in a Rep Tie” was the handle for John’s withering 1972 Life magazine column on Griffin, whose talk show had just gone back to syndication after a brief late-night fling on CBS. “Embarrassingly personal,” he wrote of Merv’s persona. “…[a] hybrid of Nelson Rockefeller, Kahlil Gibran, Little Beaver, Gunga Din and the Little White Cloud That Cried. Throw this man a security blanket!”

As with similar Leonard tantrums, this came as much from a keen sense of injustice (towards the ratings-besieged Dick Cavett, whom he – and I – preferred at the time to Merv and Johnny Carson) as from distaste. Griffin was indeed every bit as moist as Cavett was dry and I, too, can take only so much moisture on my screen.

But Griffin, as everyone now knows, was soggy like a fox. No one who became as wealthy as he did from inventing Jeopardy!  and Wheel of Fortune could be as needy or as naïve as he seemed to Leonard. Before he became a media mogul, the Mozart of the game show, Griffin was a cabaret/nightclub performer who’d seen a lot of great jazz, R&B, Broadway shows and glossy pop during New York’s post-World War II golden age. He couldn’t avoid bringing such paraphernalia to the mainstream. For instance, Play Your Hunch, the Goodson-Todman daytime game show he hosted from 1958 to 1962, included such cutting-edge legends of the moment as Jon Hendricks and, in this clip, songwriters Jerry Lieber and Burt Bacharach. 

Once he got his own talk show, Griffin took even bigger chances, bringing to the desk-and-couch format such unlikely visitors as Bertrand Russell, Norman Mailer, Abbie Hoffman, both Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick (She did most of the talking) and Phil Spector, who managed to piss off every other guest on the panel that evening – including Richard Pryor, who achieved his first nationwide exposure on Griffin’s show as did the more venerable Jackie “Moms” Mabley, whose renown had heretofore been mostly a “black thing” no white person could literally understand. Both would eventually appear on the Sullivan show, but one doubts either of those loose cannons would have made it there without Merv clearing a path to the mainstream.

If you want to know how truly…extraterrestrial Pryor was from the start. Check out this clip where he does some amazing contortions to “The Kid From Red Bank” — and later gushes all over Jerry Lewis. This was regular TV back then. Now it’d be an Event!

No Moms-on-Merv has surfaced yet on the web. except for this unnervingly treacly stream. (“My little Bobby”?) I want more of her on the couch. I used to love the way she would, in mid-gab, suddenly remember to lean to her right and say “Hel-lo, Aw-thuh” to Merv’s Veddy British sidekick Arthur Treacher, who always looked, at best, startled that she bothered to notice.

These days, wet-and-fizzy seems to be the order of the daytime talk show circuit with a new brace of hosts competing for the attention spans of Oprah Winfrey’s lost tribes. These hosts all yearn for the moistness of Merv, but, so far, seem to have little of his vision. They’re hugging the corners, bending over backwards to date people choosy about their fulltime dancing partners. Don’t count on Katie or Jeff or Steve or, for that matter, Ellen or Phil, mining the underground orcruising the cutting edge in search of today’s Edie Sedgwicks or Richard Pryors. Merv, whatever else you may think, was never worried about unnerving the straights. He liked going where no show bothered to go. Now,  these shows seem more interested in telling people what they already know (or think they want to know).


Personally, I think they all (hosts and audience) should  hang out more. Merv would.


Clarke Duncan is Dead, Long Live Clarke Peters!

 We all knew The Green Mile was going to be the first movie cited in Michael Clarke Duncan’s obituaries. It’s just that none of us expected to be reading those obituaries this soon. His seemed to be one of those careers built for the long haul; he was a solid screen presence audiences were always happy to see in as many movie and TV supporting roles as he could accumulate. Down the road, he could have headlined his own TV series, instead of merely providing support for somebody else’s. And it wasn’t at all unlikely that he could collect another Academy Award nomination to go with the one he’d received 12 years ago for playing John Coffey, the unjustly-condemned man with healing powers in Green Mile

Duncan’s riveting, affecting portrayal is a fine centerpiece to a too-brief career. Yet when I got the news of his death at just 54 years old last night, I didn’t think at first of John Coffey. I thought instead of Otis Jenkins, a small role in 2008’s Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, a family-reunion-as-slapstick farce in which Clarke played gruff-but-sensible elder brother to Martin Lawrence’s blundering talk show guru. In his few scenes, Duncan showed an ease of manner, a limber command of space that he rarely, if ever had the chance to show on-screen. One suspected from his self-effacing, warm-spirited public appearances that this persona was much closer to his real-life self than the by-the-numbers heavies he played more often in such films as 2003’s Daredevil or 2005’s Sin City.

I wish, in other words, there were a lot more Otises in Duncan’s curriculum vitae than Kingpins.

Once in a while, there would be a nice blend of these tendencies; notably (maybe solely) in 2000’s The Whole Nine Yards. I thought there would be more time for Hollywood to truly realize what it had in Duncan; that just because you’re big and black doesn’t mean you have to be perpetually cast as a Looming Threat, implied or otherwise. I should know better. Hollywood’s constricted imagination narrows even more when it comes to African-Americans. To say Duncan, as successful and beloved as he was, deserved better from the mainstream movie industry is to say it of any talent-of-color, on- or off-screen. Even Duncan’s John Coffey role, as beautifully rendered as it is, is redolent of what Spike Lee has sneeringly labeled the “magical negro” meme in which black characters are endowed with the kind of exalted, near-supernal gifts whose purpose is to somehow ennoble or absolve white characters. I don’t bring this up to demean or diminish Duncan’s life-altering, well-deserved moment in the spotlight. He had a wonderful life and an admirable career. It’s just another lament for lost opportunities. .

Speaking of both Spike Lee and lost opportunities, I got the news of Duncan’s passing over my phone just as I was about to put it to sleep before a screening of Lee’s latest, Red Hook Summer. I was prepared by advance reviews for an uneven movie and thus wasn’t surprised to find moments of brilliance and insight leaping like sparks from a generally muddled saga of life in a Brooklyn public-housing project as seen though the eyes – and I-Pad2 – of a middle-class boy (Jules Brown) from Atlanta spending a summer with his overbearing preacher-grandfather (Clarke Peters).

As with most of Lee’s films, Red Hook Summer is far more valuable for what it brings up than for what it resolves. The vignettes and extended visual takes of its eponymous neighborhood teem with vitality and engagement. No one shoots Brooklyn, or black people, quite like Lee, bringing out tones, colors, details and nuances you just don’t get in other movies with these same subjects. The state of Red Hook, its environmental and economic troubles, its stratification between low-income apartment dwellers and those who either cross the river to Manhattan or flit in and out to shop at Fairway or Ikea are enumerated in the grandfather’s sermons. You learn — and feel — a lot of illuminating things in static bursts, until an unexpected plot development lands with a discordant thud at the climax, raising many more questions than it answers. (I’m not going to give out the spoiler because I still think you should see the movie, warts and all; after all, these lives are so rarely seen in movies that Red Hook Summer gains its importance practically by default.)

The narrative is so diffuse that only two elements provide any kind of adhesive. One is the glowering throughout by Master Brown and the other is the performance by Peters, better known for his work on two David Simon HBO series: the cerebral detective Lester Freamon on The Wire and the bullheaded “Big Chief” Albert Lambreaux on Treme. Peters seems at first to have the thankless task of imposing his character’s aggressive piety upon both his grandson and the audience. It’s only when the air leaks out of his preacher’s rigorously virtuous aura that Peters takes the movie’s grappling to more contemplative and unnerving concerns.

If nothing else, Red Hook Summer establishes Clarke Peters as an actor magnetic and resourceful enough to carry a movie on his own. I’m neither able nor willing to believe the movies have arrived at a point where it knows what to do with such  forceful intelligence, especially when it comes from a middle-aged African American. Then again, Denzel Washington’s a middle-aged African American. And he’s been known to carry movies on the strength of his personality….

Maybe not. Only television knows how to adequately showcase someone like Clarke Peters. The living room, after all, is where the “real” people come to visit.

Folo: This Aint Exactly Atlantic City in 1964…

…nonetheless, it suggests that there’s probably more interesting stuff going on behind the curtain than we suspect. Take this. Or this

I don’t even want to think about what these people would have done to Fannie Lou Hamer.

Why I Choose To Run From Nominations

For a long time, I’ve wondered why news organizations, such as they are, bother sending reporters to political conventions. If all you’re doing is assessing performance for its own sake, then you should send critics and only critics. Theater, film, music – it doesn’t matter. The most seasoned professional spectators have keen, highly-cultivated senses of how a show is coming across to the rest of the audience. The best convention reports of the last century were filed by H. L. Mencken and Norman Mailer, who were, among many other things, first-rate critics. Imagine how better served the last few conventions would have been if writers as diverse and idiosyncratic as Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs had been allowed to review them as they would any bloated blockbuster or overhyped concert.

I’m afraid, though, even they would be challenged by this year’s product and the mass media knows it. There’s no sign anywhere of prime-time network coverage of this week’s Republican National Convention. Just reruns and “reality” programming. Who can blame them? I know I should be incensed about this blithe transgression of civic duty in favor of NCIS repeats, except that I’ve become one of those people who would just as soon watch Mark Harmon and his posse find another sailor’s mutilated corpse on the Anacosta River Basin (even when I already know who put it there) than listen to one speaker after another question Democrats’ patriotism. And lest you accuse me of bias (of which I’m otherwise guilty-as-charged), if next week offers a choice between a Modern Family rerun and another wonky stem-winder about saving Medicare from the clammy clutches of GOP Voldemorts, I’d just as soon enjoy another half-hour watching Dunphys humiliate each other.

There’s no joy or smugness here. Just the opposite. I used to love watching political conventions, even after they became little more than four-day infomercials for their respective parties. (Or do I have that last clause backwards?) Given the choice, when I was 12 years old, of watching a baseball game in person or witnessing a live platform-adopting session of a nominating convention, I would have immediately chosen the latter. Being so much older then and younger than that now, I’m now looking for ball games to go for the next couple of weeks. Doesn’t matter what kind of ball: rugby, lacrosse, mixed-doubles squash…Anything to avoid watching whatever happens in Tampa or Charlotte besides weather updates or NFC South scouting reports.

Only there is no “whatever happens” with conventions any more. And there really hasn’t been since…since…Well, I remember my late, lamented Newsday colleague Murray Kempton telling me that not since 1952 have there been political conventions whose outcome was far from certain. That year, it was true for both parties as Robert Taft and what was then the Republican paleo-conservative wing were still in position to hold off Dwight Eisenhower and his Eastern Establishment backers while everything was so up in the air for the Democrats that the now-forgotten Estes Kefaufer was holding off the likes of Dick Russell and Averill Harriman until Harry Truman reached into his hat and pulled out Adlai Stevenson. As I was still in utero that summer, I never got to see or hear any of these hi-jinks.

So why was I so hyped about this stuff in1964? Well, because it was the sixties and there was so much stuff happening all the time back then, most of it on live TV, that you were afraid you’d miss something if you weren’t looking. So I stared at the Republicans assembling in San Francisco that July as Bill Scranton, the Eastern Establishment’s pride-and-joy was about to get crushed by the locomotive momentum of the conservative’s newest hero Barry Goldwater. I actually watched the Democratic coronation in Atlantic City a month later as Lyndon Johnson toyed with Hubert Humphrey’s neediness for the vice-presidency the way a cat tweaks a mouse.

(What I didn’t know until many years later was that LBJ, who for some unfathomable reason was paranoid about losing southern states in an election that was already being forecast as his own private landslide, forced Humphrey to tell a renegade Mississippi delegation of black and white civil-rights activists to go home and give way to the segregationist regulars. If poor Hubert didn’t do it, it’s been said, Johnson would have tapped someone else for the ticket. No Dunphy went through as humiliating a hazing as Humphrey did by telling such courageous people as Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses that they’d come all the way to the Jersey Shore for nothing.  And you wonder what would have happened to Humphrey if he’d simply told Johnson that the vice-presidency wasn’t worth it. He and the rest of us might have all been better off in the long run, maybe… Anyhow, I digress here to explain how even the backstage stuff of conventions was more interesting in days long past.)

When the nominees were foregone conclusions, there was always something that leaped out of the corners, a breakout speech, an unexpected switch in the program. I remember when Gerald Ford was supposedly all wrapped up to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980 when just before Reagan’s nomination-night appearance, CBS’s Lesley Stahl broke the news that the deal with Ford was off and George H.W. Bush would be the running mate. (“Walter!” she said. “It’s Bush! It’s Bush!”) This year, I was secretly hoping Newt Gingrich would ramrod his delusions of grandeur all the way to convention time if only for comedy’s sake. He seemed to hate Mitt Romney enough to go through with it. But as with much else about Newt, this was empty bluster stoked by antediluvian romanticism.

Some sentimentalists believe that someday, somehow, there will be a presidential nominating race that wont be settled by the primaries. But there have now been at least three generations who have no idea why being “nominated on the first ballot” is such a big deal. And if we’ve gone this long without that happening, then the next question is, besides sentiment (and, of course, the local diversions), why bother having conventions in the first place? I never thought I’d ask such a question. But it’s going to be a loooong couple weeks of me holding the remote, grazing for true enlightenment.

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