Sunday, May 27, 2007

After Evita

Eva Peron was a legend during her time as Argentina’s first lady and a source of continuing fascination for years thereafter, but her fame exploded with the success of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber/Tim Rice musical “Evita.” The show was a big, big hit, deservedly so. Lloyd-Webber’s music is often scorned by sophisticates, but the man is a skilled melodist in the Richard Rodgers tradition, and in every show he gives you at least one ballad that worms its way into your memory for keeps. I can understand some condescension toward “Cats” and “Phantom,” but not toward “Evita.” It is a masterpiece.

The Eva Peron story was, of course, a goldmine waiting to be tapped. Uneducated girl from backwater town becomes girlfriend of General who becomes President with her help. She becomes the star of the Casa Rosada, the darling of the masses, a veritable saint. Then she dies at age 33.

The musical (opera, really) begins with the announcement, in a crowded movie theater, of Evita’s death. The body of the play is then a flashback, tracing the life of Eva Duarte, right to her death and funeral, with weeping crowds mourning “Santa Evita.” The staging was dynamite. The portrayal of Evita (by the likes of Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone) showed the glamorous lady the public adored, while a cynical narrator, Che, balanced the account by pointing out her flaws. The movie, with Madonna in the title role, was excellent. (Who knew?)

But neither play nor movie provided a hint of what happened after Eva Peron died. This was, after all, a play about Evita, not about Juan, who lived 22 eventful years after Eva died. But those 22 years could keep Lloyd-Webber and Rice busy for the rest of their lives, if they were interested in sequels. In fact, there was more dramatic content in the post-Eva years than in the years when she was the toast of B.A., the “Big Apple.”

Here is what Paul Harvey might call “the rest of the story.”

In 1952, three years after Eva’s death, Juan is the victim of a coup and flees to Paraguay, then to Panama. At a party in Panama, he meets a nightclub dancer stage-named Isabel. A month after meeting her, he is living with her, and he takes her to his next stop, Venezuela. (Exiles have to keep moving.) Then, when Venezuela gets too hot, he and Isabel fly to the Dominican Republic, which under Trujillo welcomes dictators on the run. Two years of heaven in the D.R., then, with Trujillo under pressure, it’s off to Spain. Which is where the story gets really interesting.

In Madrid, Juan and Isabel live in an apartment house. (Ava Gardner is a fellow tenant.) Actually, it’s a threesome, because Isabel has fallen under the spell of a man named Jose Lopez Rega. He is a spiritist, a cultist, an astrologer, and an all-round nutcake. But Isabel thinks he’s wonderful. Juan tolerates him, barely.

Now Eva reenters the story: When Juan was deposed in Argentina, the new regime, determined to stamp out all traces of Peronism, caused Eva’s super-embalmed body to “disappear.” Now, after a series of governments have come and gone, powerful people in Buenos Aires send feelers to Juan. Would he consider coming back? First, he says, find Eva’s body and have it shipped to me. They do. The cadaver is dug up from a cemetery in Milan, and it is shipped by truck to Madrid and to Juan’s apartment, where, according to one story, Lopez Rega has Isabel lie atop the coffin while he murmurs incantations designed to transfer Eva’s essence into Isabel’s body.

You think I’m making this all up. I’m not. But wait; there’s more.

Juan eventually returns to Argentina in 1973, after a 17-year exile, where he is appointed President by acclamation. And Isabel is appointed Vice President, also by acclamation! Lopez Rega is also on hand, manipulating Isabel, who manipulates Juan. Juan dies, Isabel succeeds him as President, and Lopez Rega, a certified kook, is suddenly the most powerful man in Argentina.

Now, what do you think Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice could do with that story? Isabelita, anyone?

By now you may be curious to know what happened to Eva’s body. It found its way back to Buenos Aires, eventually, and is today buried deep under the Duarte family monument in Recoletta Cemetery. It is protected by several feet of concrete. I visited the tomb and took the photo you see above, though of course I can’t swear that Eva is really there.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Here Come the Memoirs

George Tenet, the ex-CIA Director famous for calling the Iraq War a “slam dunk,” has just published his memoir, to mostly negative reviews. Thus the parade of memoirists begins. Douglas Feith, one of the principal architects of the war, is readying his War and Decision for publication this fall. Condy Rice has already dropped “when I write my book” into a conversation with a reporter. Paul Wolfowitz, another in the neocon big three (Wolfowitz, Feith, and Perle), just ousted from the World Bank, can be expected to publish his own self-glorifying story. Others will no doubt join the rush to print as soon as the Bush administration is gone and the coast is clear.

Winston Churchill is often quoted as follows: “History will be kind to me. I know, because I will write it.” And indeed he did, turning out what has become the definitive history of World War 2, a dazzling, six-volume work in which generals, admirals, and others are blamed for costly strategic and tactical blunders, while Winston paints himself as the heroic, wise leader who had to deal with their stupidity. In 1942, Japanese soldiers on bicycles rode down the Malay Peninsula to capture Singapore, while the fortress’s big guns were pointed seaward. Does Churchill accept blame for the fall of Singapore? You decide. Here is a letter written by him to General Ismay on 19 January 1942, as quoted in Churchill’s history:

“I must confess to being staggered by Wavell’s telegram of the 16th ….It never occurred to me for a moment……that the gorge of the fortress of Singapore, with its splendid moat half a mile to a mile wide, was not entirely fortified against an attack from the northward.”

Then, after railing about what should have been done and wasn’t done:

“How is it that not one of you pointed this out to me at any time when these matters have been under discussion?” (The Hinge of Fate, p.50)

It was all the fault of incompetent subordinates. That’s the way it is when you write the history.

(One wonders whether George W. Bush, after Iraq became a snake pit, ever wrote to Donald Rumsfeld, “How is it that not one of you pointed this out to me….”)

Similarly, Henry Kissinger, in his monumental memoirs, absolves himself for any responsibility in the overthrow and assassination of Chile’s President Allende, thus:

“I told Davis to keep the American Embassy out of the developing crisis. ….That conversation leaves no doubt of the state of our knowledge and of our intentions immediately before the coup. We were aware…..that the military….were seriously considering the takeover….But we were unaware of any specific plan or date. And we were party to none.” (Years of Upheaval, p. 404)

But a few years earlier there had been another coup attempt, this one engineered by Kissinger but (according to him) aborted at the last minute. Here is what Dr. Kissinger says of that episode:

“To assist such efforts seemed right to me then and seems right to me today. I cannot accept the proposition that the United States is debarred from acting in the gray area between diplomacy and military intervention, a shadow world in which our adversaries have as instruments a political party, their own infinitely greater foreign resources, and innumerable front organizations to mask their role.” (White House Years, p. 677)

Kissinger wants it both ways: His hands were clean in the matter of the successful coup, but justifiably dirty in the matter of the unsuccessful coup. Ah, the advantages of authorship!

That brings us back to George Tenet, who argues that his infamous “slam dunk” quote has been taken out of context. But Tenet is no Churchill, nor even a Kissinger, and others, notably Bob Woodward, have a different version of the scene, and they are more credible.

What will Wolfowitz write? Will he spice up his memoir by including a chapter or two on his relationship with Ms Riza? Probably not, though his publisher will surely lobby for it. Others being courted by publishers include the aforementioned Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz as well as Scooter Libby, Donald Rumsfeld, and the biggest enchilada of them all, Colin Powell. It is not enough that these people and others will dump their self-serving accounts on us; they will be all over the TV channels, with Larry King, Charlie Rose, Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly, and their ilk. There will be book signings at Barnes & Noble and reviews in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Some of the reviewers will have their own axes to grind: To review the Tenet book, for instance, the Journal assigned one of its favorite neocons, Douglas Feith.

I’ll bet you just can’t wait.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tricks of the Trade

As an old hand at speech writing, I have come to know all the tricks. In this silly season leading up to the 2008 elections, they are all on display. You’d think that the masses would have caught on, would be anesthetized by now, so that all the rhetorical sleight of hand wouldn’t fool anyone any more. Maybe that’s true. Maybe the voters have caught on, and the speechwriters don’t get it. More likely, though, there are still enough gullible listeners to make a difference.

To these people, if any of them are reading this, I offer the following field guide to the tricks of the speechifying trade.

The fact of the matter is……

Whenever you hear a speaker begin a sentence this way, it is safe to assume that what comes next will not be fact. It will be an opinion dressed up as a fact, as in “the fact of the matter is that broccoli is delicious.” The same applies to “the truth of the matter is…” Real facts do not need to be introduced in this way; they can stand on their own two feet. Never trust a speaker who starts a sentence with this construction – especially in the context of a discussion on global warming.

I just want a level playing field.

This bromide was worn out in 1932, but it just won’t die. I remember once, when I was debating trade policy with some industry people in Tokyo, I floated the notion of a level playing field. “Are you kidding?” a colleague asked. “If the playing field is level, we’ll get killed. We want the playing field tilted our way.” We were a small group, in a restaurant, where it was safe to be honest. At a conference the next day, he would plead for a level playing field. So today, when you hear the China-bashers talk about forcing the Chinese to strengthen their currency and thus “level the playing field,” don’t believe a word of it.

I just want everybody to pay their fair share.

Leaving aside the bad grammar for the moment, the concept of fairness is completely in the eyes of the beholder. So organizations with names like “Americans for Tax Fairness” should be recognized as lobbyists with a mission to stack the tax code in favor of their members. When you slice the layers of the onion, you will always find that fairness means that people whose income is higher than yours should pay more, and that you should pay less.

All the polls say…

There are so many polls today that a speechwriter can pick the one that best serves his purpose. Some polls try to achieve a measure of credibility by flying under the banner of a major newspaper or network (as in the New York Times/CBS poll or the Wall Street Journal poll). If by some chance the speechwriter can’t find an agreeable poll, there is always “the only poll that counts is the one in November.”

I believe in capitalism, but….

Or “I believe in free markets but…” Or “I believe in the sanctity of the family but…” The hope is that the speaker will disarm the opposition up front by declaring that he or she is on your side, but… It’s a shabby ploy, and when you hear it you must understand that what will follow is a renunciation of what the speaker allegedly believes in.

We are well positioned for the future.

I hauled this one in from my annual report writing years, but a politician might use it to rebut some short-term problem. What it means is that things are absolutely dreadful, so bad in fact that they could hardly get worse. Being positioned for the future is a safe quasi-promise, because the future could be next year, 10 years from now, or the next millennium.

The power of “but”

As we have already seen, the word “but” is the most powerful weapon the speechwriter has. It is especially useful in the windup of a speech, where one can alter the meaning of a sentence by the simple expedient of switching clauses from one side to the other of the word “but.” Consider the following example:

She’s a beautiful girl, but she’s dumb.

She’s dumb, but she’s a beautiful girl.

In both cases, we present two elements of information. The elements are identical in both sentences. But what a world of difference in the take-away thought!!

I’ll share more tricks of the trade in future posts.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Climate Change

There are times, and this is one of them, when it seems that the ship of state is foundering. It was like that in 1968, amid the trauma of the Vietnamese War, when anarchy threatened, and it was like that during the Depression, when riots sometimes required the Army to restore order. This time around, there is no draft, so the Iraq War has not sent the young into the streets as it did in the 60s. That aside, our political discourse is becoming unnervingly overheated. There are calls to impeach the President, as there were in the 70s, and Congressional attempts to choke off war funding, as there were then. The letters to the editor in the New York Times are weighted with vitriolic attacks on the President, and those in the Wall Street Journal contain equally vitriolic attacks from the other direction. On television, Sean Hannity can barely control his right-wing rants, and the left has its share of nutcakes, too, including the editor of Rolling Stone, who, on the Charlie Rose Show the other night, pronounced George Bush “the worst President in the history of this country, by far." Paul Krugman of the Times would no doubt agree, since he manages to slip that thought into just about every column.

In the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election, the attacks will undoubtedly grow more savage. There will be ad hominem (for Hillary, ad feminam) attacks, because they apparently work, and there will be counterattacks (the don’t-make-the-mistake-Kerry-made rule). Most of us will be sick of the TV debates and the robocalls and ads and mailers long before the elections, but there is no way to turn it off. You shouldn’t even think of turning it off, some say, because the functioning of democracy depends on the existence of a well-informed electorate. (Well-informed, yes; OD’d, no.)

There is no place to hide. The other night, I passed up the Republican candidates’ debate in favor of a “Live at Lincoln Center” concert broadcast by PBS. Surely a Lincoln Center concert would offer sanctuary from political diatribes. But no. A performer named Laurie Anderson chanted (rapped would be a better word) a long, heavy-handed polemic that managed to hit all the bases: weapons of mass destruction, detainees, and global warming (Al Gore’s Oscar included). Whatever the validity of Ms. Anderson’s points, the woman clearly had no business sharing a concert stage with the Juilliard Orchestra, Philip Glass, Wynton Marsalis, and Kelly O’Hara.

Recently – and depressingly – Barak Obama has been given Secret Service protection, probably because of threats in the air. A woman reviewing the film “The Assassination of a President” says her chief disappointment was that it was only a movie. Most Americans would regard that sentiment as repulsive, but the climate of hatred is spreading and intensifying, and that’s a dangerous thing. How dangerous? Within my memory, would-be assassins have shot at three presidents and killed one. That’s four out of the last eleven, so the crazies are batting .364.

The message, then, to the President and his staff and Cabinet, members of Congress, presidential candidates, journalists, op-ed writers, television commentators and anchors, talk-show hosts, comedians, rappers, film personalities, bloggers, and everyone else with access to a microphone, camera, or computer can be summed up in a simple, two-word plea:

Cool it!