Sunday, December 18, 2011

Last Voyages

Robert Louis Stevenson was a sickly man, probably owing to a bronchial malady that confounded nineteenth-century doctors. But in spite of his illness he was a cheerful man, well liked by all who new him. And of course he was a skillful and hard-working writer, who had published Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped before his fortieth birthday,

Stevenson, a native of Scotland, thought his homeland’s cold, damp climate was partly to blame for his poor health, and he dreamed of finding relief in the islands of the South Pacific. And why not? Royalties from his writing were substantial, and the world was waiting. So, in mid-1888, he set sail from San Francisco on a chartered 93-foot sailboat, complete with hired captain and crew. He first destination: the Marquesas Islands, more than 3000 miles southwest. Remember, this was 1888, when there was no radio, radar, sonar, or GPS. The sailboat, named the Casco, eventually made it, and Stevenson spent some time on the islands before sailing farther southwest, to the Tuamotus and Tahiti. Then, after spending months at a Tahitian village, the party headed north to Hawaii.

If “the party” consisted of a wealthy author, captain, and crew, this would be just another story of the sea. But Stevenson took along his wife Fanny, his mother Maggie, and his stepson. (His wife was married before.) His mother was barely 10 years older than his wife, who was 10 years older than RLS. With such a cast of characters, you can well imagine the chemistry on board the Casco.

Eventually, and after chartering two more ships, Stevenson explored the western Pacific, finally settling in Samoa, where he built a fine house – and died, at age 44. So Stevenson’s expedition was in fact a last voyage.

The tale is told in an interesting book called Treasured Islands, written a few years ago by Lowell Holmes, a Professor of Anthropology and an accomplished sailor.

Another “last voyage” is a 1960 movie of the same name, starring Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone. What makes this film notable is the fact that the producers, hearing that the famed liner Ile de France was headed for the scrap yard, decided to film the story of a sinking ocean liner aboard a sinking ocean liner. No mock-up, no computer graphics, no model ship in a Hollywood tank. This was the real deal. When the ocean bursts through the liner’s dining-room wall, it looks real because it is real. (Actually, fireboats were hired to shoot water through the walls.) Stack and Malone are a couple of vacationing passengers, George Sanders is the ship’s captain, and Edmond O’Brien is an engine- room chief. The movie is in color, which is only right, and among the shipboard extras you’ll see more than a few Asian faces, as the filming location was in the Sea of Japan.

The cast, by the way, really earned their pay on this shoot. O’Brien and Stack in particular had to slosh their way through sea water repeatedly, and the attractive Dorothy Malone was forced to play her role mostly submerged up to her chin. I doubt that these three ever had a more arduous assignment than The Last Voyage.

The Ile de France had achieved notoriety before, rescuing passengers of the Andrea Doria when she sank off Nantucket in 1956. But her movie debut was uncredited. The French Line understandably insisted that all references to the liner’s real name be deleted. The ship is called the Claridon in The Last Voyage.

The third "last voyage" I happened upon is that of the RMS Republic, which collided with the steamer SS Florida south of Nantucket in 1909. Most people associate the dawn of radio, or at least of its notoriety, with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, but three years earlier, thanks to the use of the new Marconi radio on board the Republic, 1600 lives were saved. Exactly 100 years later, an amateur radio station in Britain (GB5CQD) celebrated the centennial by contacting other amateurs, among them this one. I received the postcard confirming the contact and bearing a beautiful photograph of the Republic in happier times.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Television Discovers the Fifties

The fifties are hot. They are far enough away to be covered in gauzy nostalgia, and few of us really remember that much about them. I do, and they were great years, maybe the best decade of the twentieth century, for folks in the United States. Yes, the Cold War was on, and houses were being built with bomb shelters, but most of Europe and Asia had been severely ravaged by the war, and it seemed as if nothing could stop the USA. We had a bonafide hero as president. On television, still a novelty, we had Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, and the Bell Telephone Hour. And everybody smoked.

At least that’s how it looks on Mad Men, and that’s how I remember it. I was working on the periphery of advertising in the fifties, and the look of the fifties on Mad Men is exactly as I remember it. The dress, the hairdos, the music, the expressions all ring true. Mad Men is a well crafted show, at its best in the agency-client meetings at Sterling Cooper, at its most hackneyed in the bedrooms of the ubiquitous philanderers. (But hey, they have to have something for the 18-to-35 crowd.)

Mad Men isn’t the only program to mine the fifties. The BBC recently gave us The Hour, which was lavishly praised in the press. The Hour takes place in and around the Beeb’s studios in the 50s, the time of the Suez crisis. Egypt seized the Canal, and Britain and France threatened war, but Eisenhower, wasn’t buying. (I remember it as Ike’s finest hour.) Against this backdrop, the BBC is featuring soft news about London society, infuriating a young journalist whose priorities are more serious. Throw in rumors of a Russian mole at the BBC and an affair between the producer and the anchor of a new current-affairs program (called The Hour), and you have the ingredients of a juicy miniseries. It’s good entertainment, so good that BBC is planning a second installment, but it doesn’t have the period as well nailed as Mad Men does.

In the fifties I graduated from college, went into the Army, got married, bought my first house, had my first child. It all came out well, so if they want to celebrate the period on television, I’m buying.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Give My Regards to Buxton

Buxton, Maine is a small town on the Saco River, about 20 miles northwest of here. There is nothing especially noteworthy about Buxton, if you don’t count the fact that Tim Robbins goes there after being released from prison in The Shawshank Redemption. And if you don’t count Jennifer Porter.

Jennifer is the principal actress, singer, writer, composer, jazz pianist, and all-round impresario at Buxton’s little theater, a century-old Grange Hall that sits precariously on the east bank of the often-raging Saco. The little theater group that holds forth at the Grange Hall is led by Jennifer and her husband, Dana Packard. Dana’s mother collects the tickets, and the whole enterprise is more or less a family affair. Jennifer and Dana are both the kind of talent that attracts other talent found in the towns around Buxton, and, surprisingly, there is a lot of talent to be found.

If this calls to mind Mickey Rooney saying, “Hey, why can’t us kids put on a show at the old Grange Hall?” that’s not far off. The old Grange Hall is a second cousin to the barns that Mickey and Judy played, with minimal facilities. But the talent is there, and the good burghers of Buxton are smart enough to know talent when they see it, and Porter, Packard and Company always play to a full house. (Surveying the Grange Hall audience is almost as much fun as watching the performers on stage.)

The theater group calls itself The Originals, and they stage two or three plays a year. These are supplemented by concerts by classical pianists, operatic singers, and country musicians. The other night I attended a concert by Jennifer Porter, backed by four instrumentalists. Jennifer has a good voice, but it comes out better than that because she uses it so wisely. She sang, pre-intermission, songs by Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, etc. My kind of music. In the second act she broadened the program by adding country (Patsy Cline). Then it was on to a few operatic arias – the kind that she could handle, even with a cold lurking.

The quartet of instrumentalists were topnotch, especially Matt Langely on sax. Joe Arsenault. Jim Lyden and Dana Packard handled the keyboard, bass, and drums as if they have been playing together forever (which they may have been). Jennifer had her own keyboard, but a good piano would have given her more latitude to show off her skill.

As if the Grange Hall weren’t enough. Jennifer has just wrapped up a movie, a thriller called 40 West. It was written by Jennifer Porter, stars Jennifer Porter (and Wayne Newton), and it was directed by Dana Packard. It was filmed in (where else?) Buxton, Maine.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Let the Games Begin

The Christmas shopping season is about to begin, and the executives at Wal-Mart, Target, Amazon, Best Buy, J.C. Penny, Sears, Macy’s, and hundreds of other big retailers are ready to offer us all bargains that are absolutely irresistible, even in these tough times. You won’t see this, or anything like it, in Moscow or Beijing or anywhere else. It’s the magic of free-market capitalism. Yes, it has its flaws, but no one in all recorded history has ever found a better system for distributing wealth. You offer customers a better deal, you win; you don’t, you lose. Over the next month, we’ll see a lot of deals, and we’ll vote with our wallets.

This year there’s a different spin: The customers are hurting, but the retailers are hurting, too. In a nearby mall (see my blog “Overmalled”) the latest casualty is Lowe’s. That closure follows the shuttering of Old Navy, Chili’s, TGI Friday’s, and Linens and Things. It’s only a matter of time before other stores in that unneeded mall throw in the towel. So there will be signs of desperation in the sale prices. Sony and Panasonic have already cut back TV production under withering competition from Korea, and the pressure will be on to slash TV inventories.

Some say the national sport is baseball; some say it’s football. I say it’s shopping, and my guess is that, recession or no, this will be a barnburner of a Christmas season. The retailers’ bottom lines may not look pretty (free shipping costs money), but their top lines will look fabulous.

Will a robust Christmas season kick-start the economy? It’s possible. Pessimism about the economic outlook is sky-high right now, and a jolt of good news might be just the tonic we need.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

They're B-a-a-a-ck!

After Vietnam, Americans thought that if there were any silver lining in that awful cloud, it was the fact that this country had learned a lesson, that never again would we be snookered into a foreign war where national defense was not an issue. North Vietnam was obviously never going to attack our homeland, so the hawks had to invent a domino theory that they sold to the public and three presidents. Well, we hoped, never again!

But the hawks, now rechristened as the neocons, never gave up, and after 9-11, the ducks were in a row for them. All they had to do was sell the public a story about weapons of mass destruction, and once again we went to war against a far-away country that posed no credible threat to the United States. Over a hundred thousand lives and a trillion dollars later, we are skulking out of Baghdad and Kabul. Some of us were hoping that this time we had truly learned our lesson.

But no. The neocons are at it again. This time they have seized on an ambiguous UN report to make their case for an attack on Iran or at least to green-light an Israeli attack. In this political season, the Republican presidential candidates are all peddling a muscular response to Iran’s nuclear program. All except Ron Paul, who doesn’t see why we should start a new war with any country that doesn’t credibly threaten the U.S., especially after the experience of the past decade. But Ron Paul isn’t going anywhere politically, so the question on this voter’s mind, as I survey the Republican field, is this: Which candidate is most likely to initiate a new war? Who is the least likely?

It isn’t as easy as it sounds. The American psyche doesn’t automatically embrace peaceniks. Few politicians will call the Iraq War a mistake, because to do so would dishonor the brave soldiers who were killed in that remote land. Politicians like Chuck Schumer grandstand by verbally attacking the Chinese. And the anti-Iran hysteria is phrased, not as a call to arms, but as a noble defense of little Israel, surrounded by hostile neighbors. The politicians of both parties know that Americans want their leaders to sound heroic in matters of national security. Of course, it all depends on how one defines national security.

Last night I watched, once again, The Americanization of Emily, a terrific movie scripted by Paddy Chayefsky. As you probably know, the hero (or anti-hero) is a Navy officer in WW2, played by James Garner. Garner’s objective is to skate through D-Day without getting killed, and in the course of the film he delivers a powerful argument for survival, a case for not celebrating heroism, because that only feeds the pro-war propagandists. Garner’s apologia for survivalism might have come right from Ron Paul, if Paul were as skilled as Paddy Chayefsky.

Anyway, the Republican primaries are worth watching as a gauge of the national pro- or anti-war fervor. To measure the temperature, watch the neocons. Watch for op-ed pieces by John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and of course Dick Cheney. Do not sell them short. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are already fading.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Democracy and Catch-22

Europe has now captured the attention of the entire financial world. Here, the stock market soars one day, plummets the next, depending on the news from Greece or Spain or Italy. At the moment, the market is in plummet mode, as Italy’s 10-year bond yields have run up to over 6 percent.

The central problem in Europe is that the strong, mostly northern economies are unwilling to bail out the weaker, mostly southern members of the Eurozone unless these countries swallow some hard medicine, much of it involving tax-collection procedures and the size of their public sectors. In Greece, Prime Minister Papendreou said okay at first, then decided to put the question to the voters in a referendum. Most people expect the public to defeat austerity resoundingly, and that is the current crisis du jour.

Now, it is clear that Papendreou is putting austerity to the vote, not because he has an abiding love of democracy, but because he knows he is not strong enough to force his people to swallow the castor oil. Neither is Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister of Italy. So all a weak leader has to do is call for a referendum. Vox populi, right? The problem is, the public will vote, not for what is necessary to save the Eurozone, but for a continuation of what some call a Club Med culture.

That brings us to the Occupy Wall Street protests, in which the self-styled 99 percent want the other 1 percent to pay higher taxes. Well, of course they do, especially when half of them pay no income tax at all. If you put the issue to a vote, 80 percent would vote to raise taxes on 20 percent. President Obama knows this ("it's not politics, it's math") and is campaigning accordingly.

Democracy is a two-edged sword. That’s why the founders of our country designed a constitutional democracy, framed to prevent the 99 percent from ganging up on the 1 percent. But Thomas Jefferson and George Washington did not have to contend with polls, in which CNN and the New York Times and CBS tell us daily that 78 percent of the public believe such and such. With such precision, who needs elections?

The Occupy crowds, like the Greek voters, may not have the specialized knowledge needed to design a solution to a frustratingly complex problem. But they are loud, and in this political season their voices will be amplified by vote-hungry politicians. One hopes that there are enough sensible people out there to keep the world from sliding into a de facto pure democracy, because that way lies Catch-22 and chaos.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Lady Running IBM

This week IBM named a new CEO to succeed Samuel Palmisano, who transformed the old “business machines” maker into the world’s preeminent supplier of business solutions. The new chief executive is Virginia Rometty, who sounds like exactly the right person for the job.

You’ll remember that about 10 years ago IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo, a Chinese firm. You may also remember that when Sam Palmisano decided to build a services company, he used an acquisition – PriceWaterhouseCoopers Consultants – as his platform. At the time the acquisition was roundly criticized, but he made it work, thanks to the executive he charged with bringing the consultants on board. That person was Ms Rometty. “She did the deal, and she made it work,” Palmisano said.

Compare this smooth-as-silk transition to the recent fiasco at Hewlett-Packard. At IBM, the new CEO is a 30-year Company veteran who has proved herself and won the respect of the workforce, the Board of Directors, and her predecessor. H-P reached outside the Company for its last three CEOs. Of the tens of thousands of employees, none was deemed CEO material - not once, but three times. What does that say about succession planning at this iconic technology Company?

(Today, it was reported that H-P has decided to scrap its planned divestiture of its computer business. Its recently fired CEO had planned to follow the IBM paradigm, exiting the computer business and concentrating on services and software. What H-P lacked, apparently, was a Virginia Rometty.)

Virginia Rometty’s well deserved promotion raises another point: A good woman as CEO is a wonderful corporate asset. I was reminded of that this morning, when listening to Ellen Kullman, the CEO of DuPont, as she was interviewed on TV. Ms Kullman displayed a comprehensive knowledge of DuPont’s strategy, a razor-sharp ability to discuss the Company’s various businesses, and – most tellingly – the personality to stream all the DuPontiana enthusiastically and without once sounding brittle.

My late wife would have made a great CEO. Instead, she was a great stay-at-home Mom. I have two very bright daughters, either of whom would be a terrific company president. Some women, like some men, should never run companies. But I have a hunch that corporate America is discovering the formidable potential that is there for the taking in its female workforce.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Along with the trash that Hollywood shovels at us these days, there is the rare gem, the movie written and directed for thinking adults. Such a film is Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, written by Steven Zaillian and Andrew Sorkin, and directed by Bennett Miller. They deserve all the awards they can pick up. So does the supporting cast, especially including Jonah Miller and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Moneyball tells the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics, a small-market baseball team that must find a way to be competitive against the American League goliaths, New York and Boston. General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) decides that the key lies in statistics, as massaged by a young Yale economics graduate (Jonah Hill). And the new system that Beane crafts works. The Athletics have a fine season, along the way breaking the baseball record for consecutive wins. Of course, there is always resistance to change, especially in a tradition-bound game like baseball, and the tension between the old guard and the young rebels gives the film its edge. But the film is notable, not only for what it includes, but for what it does not. There is not a single sex scene. Robin Wright, as Beane’s ex-wife, shows up for a few milliseconds and appears on the posters, but anyone who is drawn to the movie by her presence is going to be disappointed, for her character could as easily have been played by the check-out girl at your Wal-Mart. And there is no violence, save for a few of Billy Beane’s temper tantrums, which don’t count.

What gives Moneyball its flavor is the honest portrayal of the characters in the front office, the back office, and all the offices in between. And “characters” is the word. It gives us a picture of the machinery of baseball that is lacking in any other baseball movie, including my ex-favorite, Bull Durham. Sorry, Crash Davis, but as of now you’re second best.

Moneyball is a feel-good movie. Well, maybe feel-better, since the Oakland team didn’t win the World Series or even the pennant in 2002. But that, in an odd way, is one of film’s strengths. If Billy Beane’s bunch of misfits had won it all, that would have been too Hollywood. Life is imperfect.

Inside baseball: Paul DePodesta, the young nerd played (under a different name) by Jonah Hill, is now VP for Player Development with the Mets. He also looks more like a movie star than a nerd, but the producer must have thought that one handsome guy was quite enough. (The producer was Brad Pitt,) Anyway, Jonah Hill is perfect in the role, providing a nice roly-poly contrast with the trim Pitt. Columbia, which had first dibs on the film, bowed out in protest over script revisions. (The script is one of the film’s major strengths.)

I don’t know how many Oscars Moneyball will win. Maybe none. Maybe, like the 2002 Athletics, it will have to be satisfied with having a good run. That counts in my book.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Stock Talk

In the years since I began writing this blog, I have refrained from commenting on the stock market. Some friends wonder at this, since I spent a quarter century as an intermediary between a fair-sized company and Wall Street, watching market behavior on a minute-by-minute basis. I have been silent on the subject for one reason: The more you know about the market, the less you know.

Still, certain principles must be respected, and they are these:

1. Day trading is idiocy. If you make money doing it, you have been lucky, not smart. The chances are you’ll eventually lose your shirt.

2. The same applies to short sales. I didn’t always feel that way, and I used to “pair trade” – balancing a long position with a short in the same industry. But now I realize that rule 2 is a corollary of rule 1.

3. If you believe that the dollar is overvalued because of investor nervousness (as I do), owning stock in a good company is wiser than owning dollars. Take Apple as a proxy for “good company,” an unarguable proposition. There are about a billion shares in Apple. So if you buy one share, at about $380, you own one billionth of the Company. No matter what happens to the dollar or to the stock market, your share will always be one billionth of the Company. (Dilution is a non-factor, since Apple has tons of cash.) Which would you rather own, a slice of Apple (or any other profitable, growing company) or dollars, euros, or bars of gold, given almost any political or economic scenario? (Full disclosure: I own Apple.)

4. Dividends matter. Why would any sane person accept 0.25 percent on a T bill or 0.75 percent on a bank CD when one can get 4 or 5 percent from a solid utility stock? Bonus: Dividend-paying stocks tend to behave better than growth stocks at times when the market craters.

5. Irrespective of the above, it makes sense to limit one’s exposure to equities. The older you are, the lower this limit will be. One expert suggests subtracting your age from 90, and setting that as your maximum exposure to the stock market, but I think the right number is whatever lets you sleep at night.

6. Never, ever buy stocks on margin.

7. Never buy a stock on a takeover rumor. Whoever is spreading the rumor owns the stock and is “talking his book.” The same warning applies to anything you hear from a CNBC talking head. I watch the channel, but often with the audio muted.

8. Buy what you know. This is the old Peter Lynch rule, and it makes sense. If you food-shop, be aware of what’s moving off the shelves. If you buy clothes, know what’s hot and what’s not. If you are a techie, buy technology. And don’t buy stocks in a business you know nothing about.

9. “Occupy Wall Street” makes a nice sign or headline, but it shouldn’t affect your investment decisions. Not because it doesn’t matter, but because it’s impossible to rationalize.

There. I put my oar in the water, and now I will pull it out again and return to matters I know more about, like books, movies, music, and plays.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Magic of Steve Jobs

Poll question: Which of the following luminaries has made the biggest positive change in the quality of your life?

George W. Bush
Barack Obama
Warren Buffett
Steve Zuckerberg
Nancy Pelosi
Bill Gates
Steve Jobs
Timothy Geithner

Most people would name Steve Jobs. That’s not the real surprise, though. The shocker is that no one else comes close. Do we have only one game-changer? I guess we do.

I am typing this on a MacBook Pro. My office computer is a Mac Mini. My music is stored in an iPod. It is only a matter of time before I buy an iPad and an iPhone. I, like hundreds of millions of others, live in a universe that was created by Steve Jobs. They are calling him a visionary, but that grossly understates his achievement. Any dreamer with a good imagination can have a vision; the hard part is translating a vision to reality, and Steve Jobs did that better than anyone in at least a century.

The talking heads are dissecting the magic of Steve Jobs. Some say it was his quest for perfection, some say it was his ability to sense the public’s taste, some say it was his passionate attention to detail. I have a different read. I never met Jobs, but Apple’s success speaks volumes about its CEO. It says that he had an uncanny ability to identify, attract, and inspire talent. You can’t build a Company like Apple without recruiting and motivating good people, people like Tim Cook and Jonathan Ive and dozens of others behind the headlines. Steve Jobs had a nose for talent, and he could tell the real McCoy from the many pretenders that inhabit Silicon Valley. And that’s how Apple became the most exciting technology company of the digital era.

There is a message here for our politicians. No politician, not even the President, has the knowledge or the skill to improve our lives except at the margin. The best thing a politician can do is make sure the entrepreneurs, the future Steve Jobses, have the freedom to follow their instincts.

A little encouragement wouldn’t hurt, either.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Reflections on the Baseball Playoffs

I’ve been a baseball fan ever since the days when Boston had two major league teams, the Braves and the Red Sox. As a matter of fact, I hustled peanuts and Cokes and ushered at both Fenway Park and Braves Field, and I still have an autograph book with the signatures of Boo Ferris and Tex Hughson and Whitey Wietelman. You never heard of them? Ah, well.

I was watching TV the Night of the Great Comebacks. By now everybody knows that the Tampa Bay Rays were down to the Yankees 7-0 with only six outs separating them from extinction, and, the Red Sox had the champagne ready, with closer Papelbon sitting on a 3-2 lead over Baltimore with two outs in the ninth inning.

You know what happened next, but you may not know that someone has calculated the odds of the Rays and the Orioles pulling both games out at 1 in 278 million. In the only game where “it ain’t over till it’s over,” the only game without a clock to end the contest, a miracle happened – twice, less than an hour apart.

The broadcasters and the sportswriters had a field day. But no one, not even the best of them, could capture the drama of last Wednesday night. It was one of those moments that you can appreciate only from a distance. They’ll still be talking about that night 20, 30 years from now.

So now it’s on with the playoffs, which seem destined to end just before the Super Bowl. There are eight teams still alive, which seems six too many to me. Finishing atop the league standings after 162 games ought to qualify a team for the World Series. But of course baseball is not the only offender here. All sports extend their playoffs, some to the point where it is possible for a team with a losing record to qualify for the post-season.

But we watch the games, so we can’t complain too much. And there is, occasionally, a brilliant double play or an exciting suicide squeeze or a sensational catch in the outfield. Baseball played by the best professionals is a beautiful sport to behold.

The extras are another matter. Heading the list of my pet peeves are the renditions of the national anthem. “Oh say, can you see,” the singer begins, splitting the word “see” into three notes. “See” is not a three-syllable word. God Bless America is more of the same, with the “love” in “land that I love” embellished beyond recognition. Three syllables seems to be standard, but I have heard four.

At one recent sporting event, management decided to replace the live singer with the Kate Smith recording of God Bless America. I wanted to stand up and cheer.

Let us not leave the subject of baseball without a moment’s silence in honor of the just-deposed Red Sox manager, Terry Francona. Life is unfair. Francona wasn’t the one who decided to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for the non-performers, but he will take the blame, because that’s the way the system works.

Now Red Sox Nation is all abuzz with speculation about the new manager. The possibilties include all unemployed managers, but I have my own candidate. He has never been a Big League manager, but I think he has the perfect temperament for the job, and he has obvious public relations skills. My choice for Manager of the Red Sox: Brad Pitt.

Friday, September 23, 2011


I’ve been reading the stories about the continuing saga at Hewlett-Packard with a great deal of sadness. That this once-proud Company has been reduced to a joke is nothing to cheer about, even if you’re a competitor, because the moral is that if it can happen to H-P, it can happen to anyone.

Back in the 50s, I worked for General Radio, once the world leader in electronic test and measurement and then engaged in a vigorous competition with a fast-moving upstart in Palo Alto. In a broader sense, the competition was between Route 128 and Silicon Valley, between MIT and Stanford, between private offices and cubicles. General Radio had a vast catalog of instruments, much larger than its size could justify, and HP would pick off one product line after another, first frequency meters, then impedance bridges, then microwave instruments. And they were usually very successful.

“Hewlett-Packard has just passed us in sales," I remember saying to one of our officers in the 50s.

“They’ll pass us again on the way down,” he answered.

But of course they never did, and eventually they became a test and measurement juggernaut. But Dave Packard, in reflecting on his career, gave full credit to General Radio, founded in 1915, for having blazed the trail. I am sure that Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett had a twinge of regret when GR foundered, just as I do today as I read about the debacle at Hewlett-Packard.

What is the lesson to be learned from H-P’s collapse? It is this: Being bigger is not the same as being better. The technology graveyard is filled with companies whose undoing was wrong-headed acquisitions. Owning the test and measurement market was not enough for H-P, so the Company jettisoned its heritage and became, via acquisition, a computer company, a leader in a business it has now decided to exit.

It is hard to resist the siren song of acquisitions. If you are the CEO of a large company, you are constantly serenaded by the M&A specialists from Wall Street, singing the anthem of synergism. By eliminating redundancy you will increase profits. Your company will move up in the Fortune 500 list. We are all taught that size equals power, and the larger your company is, the more powerful it is.

The old Hewlett-Packard and the old General Radio were all for growth, but it had to be organic, not the result of buying other companies. Both companies eventually succumbed to the siren song, only to find out it was a dirge.


For an account of the early days of the test-equipment industry, read The General Radio Story, available from

Friday, September 09, 2011

Seven Days in ?

Do you remember the movie Seven Days in May? If you saw it, either on its release in 1964 or on TV since, you probably have not forgotten the story. Four-star General James Matoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) attempts a coup d’etat, believing that the President (Frederic March) has been mortally wounded by his advocacy of a treaty with the Soviets. It is a good, suspenseful film, but most of us thought the plot was just this side of science fiction.

Well, maybe not. JFK believed that the plot described in Seven Days in May was plausible, and he encouraged Hollywood to produce the film. (The Pentagon is reported to have been opposed.)

I have long thought that, especially in the YouTube/Facebook era, presidents are weaker than the press makes them out to be. Let us suppose that Barack Obama decided to pull every last troop out of Afghanistan. And, for good measure, out of Iraq. Clean break, saving billions if not trillions of dollars and untold lives.

The scene: The Oval Office. General Blackstone enters, salutes his Commander-in-Chief. The President motions for him to be seated, but the General remains standing.

Blackstone: I understand you have decided to cut and run from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama: That’s correct, General.

Blackstone: It’s my duty to advise you that that would be a grave error.

Obama: I’ve discussed it with my team, and my mind is made up, General. As the head of our armed forces in that area, you would be expected to support my decision.

Blackstone. I will not, Mr. President. And I must remind you that, if it comes to a confrontation, the American people will not support you. Your poll numbers are terrible, while I have the overwhelming support of the United States Congress and, I believe, of the American public.

Now, I hasten to say that, as far as I know, all our top generals are staunch defenders of the constitution and would have none of such dialogue. But self-styled patriots are legion in Congress and the Pentagon. They were in power before 2008, and they are poised for a comeback. And they know from experience that what matters is not who sits in the Oval Office, but who has his ear. They have found out that most presidents are not like Frederic March, who in the final climactic scene faced down Burt Lancaster.

It doesn’t have to come down to a shoot-out, as it did in Seven Days in May. The pressure is exerted more subtly: Do you know, Mr. President, that if you close Guantanamo, three retired Generals will condemn your action on Fox News tomorrow? Or: Mr. President, the CIA has information that suggests that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not secure. Talks with the Pakistani government have been unproductive, and they recommend a quick invasion. The Joint Chiefs concur, and the CIA says it’s a slam dunk. What’s your decision, Mr. President?

It’s a setup. The whole conversation will eventually be revealed in a Bob Woodward book or in Wikileaks, and the safest course for the President is to go with the flow.

Once in a great while, the President decides to hang tough, as Truman did in his historic confrontation with General MacArthur in 1951. MacArthur was ousted by Truman, and MacArthur chose not to raise the stakes, although he was a bonafide hero and adored by the public. That was then. Now, with access to an ocean of digital media and cable TV, the General might have weighed other options.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Hour

I remember the so-called Suez Crisis as Dwight Eisenhower’s finest hour. I am sure that England, France, and especially Israel didn’t see it that way, but that’s how I saw it, as world affairs began to intrude on my young consciousness. The parallels to the Libya situation are obvious. Qadaffi is not Nasser, but in 1956 the flow of oil through the Suez Canal was to many Europeans a casus belli and today, for all the talk about human rights, Libyan oil is more than a trivial consideration. In the Suez affair, England and France expected the U.S. to join their anti-Egyptian outrage, but Ike was not buying.

What brings this to mind is the BBC’s six-part drama called "The Hour," now running on BBC-America. If you can tolerate the channel’s commercial breaks (hard to do), this is a good miniseries, revolving around Freddy Lyons, a young BBC firebrand who wants the Beeb to spend less time on celebrity gossip and more on the storm brewing in Egypt. The drama’s title is also the name of a new current affairs program, with an anchorman who has looks and connections but not much substance (sort of like the William Hurt character in Broadcast News).

Freddy Lyons is played convincingly by Ben Whishaw, and the equally credible anchor is Dominic West. The obligatory romantic triangle is rounded out by Romola Garai, as the producer of The Hour

I have seen only three of the six episodes, so my comments are subject to revision, but here they are: There is real irony here: In the play, Freddy Lyons is understandably frustrated by the BBC’s preference for the trivial over the consequential. Check. Then why on earth does The Hour spend so much time on the weakest story line, the aforementioned triangle, and so little on the main thread? Probably because the writers were afraid that the audience would not grasp the gravity of the Suez crisis. So they turned instead to the old “will she or won’t she?” formula.

Still, there’s more than enough grist to keep one interested, and the acting is topnotch, as it usually is in BBC productions. You can pick it up Wednesday nights at 10 on BBC-America, but at this point you will be hopelessly confused if you try to catch up, and you would be better off waiting for the DVD.

Besides, the DVD will spare you all those terrible commercials.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wanted: Leadership by Example

Our political leaders keep encouraging young people to study math and science, as indeed they should, because the national prosperity depends largely on the ability of its engineers and scientists to convert ideas into the products that keep the economic engine humming.

The business news of the week was the decision of Steve Jobs to relinquish the presidency of Apple, the company he founded. No one has done more to keep the engine humming than Steve Jobs. Some analysts have suggested that his name will in time be enshrined with those of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, and they are right. Even if you are not a Macophile like me, you must be in awe of his ability to conjure up one game-changing product after another.

But the cheerleading of the politicians rings hollow because they exhort by words, not by example. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is the message from the President, who might with more conviction have urged students to become community organizers. For that matter, if students followed the career paths of most of our presidents, they would all be entering law school.

That’s not fair, you may say; we need engineers but we also need politicians, and the two pursuits require different skill sets. Not necessarily. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, majored in physics and has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Wen Jiabao, Prime Minister of China, is a geologist who studied rare earths in graduate school. Germany and China are the most vibrant economies on their respective continents, while we have mostly lawyers running our government. (George W. Bush held an MBA, which is even worse.)

Maybe Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, or Andy Grove would have made a lousy president. Maybe none of them would even want the job. But just once, I would like to hear the President say to the nation’s young people, “I would like to see more of you studying science and engineering, just as I did.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Visit to Leningrad

Twenty years ago today a failed coup d’etat marked the collapse of the Soviet Union. On that very day – my wife’s birthday, as it turned out – Jill and I boarded a plane at Logan, bound for Heathrow, thence to board a cruise ship for Leningrad. Little did we dream when we left that we would be witnesses to history.

When we embarked our ship at Tilbury, a note was waiting for us. Here is what it said:

Dear Passenger,

Welcome aboard the Royal Princess.

I wanted to take this opportunity to assure you that the Company is closely monitoring the political situation in Russia with the U.S. State Department and British Foreign Office. It appears likely that we will be required to revise our itinerary unless the situation rapidly improves. For your information, our revised itinerary substitutes Oslo for Leningrad.

Captain D.H. Brown

It was a grave disappointment to everyone on board. Oslo would be nice, but it wasn’t Leningrad. The next day, as we rounded the Jutland peninsula, we kept watching TV news bulletins, hoping for a miracle.

And it happened. On August 24, we found the following note in our cabin:

Dear Passenger

I am pleased to inform you that the situation in the Soviet Union has stabilized to the point where the Royal Princess can proceed with her call at Leningrad.

As of August 23, 1991, both the U.S. State Department and the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued new travel advisories, which indicate that the situation in the Soviet Union is rapidly returning to normal. If you do choose to go ashore, please exercise caution and avoid any areas of crowds or unrest.

Captain David H. Brown

On Sunday morning, August 25, we walked down the gangway and into Leningrad. We would be in the city for two days, giving us time for four tours. Dour-faced Russian policemen took our passports and gave us temporary papers, and then we boarded a tour bus.

“Welcome to Russia,” said the pert Intourist guide. “We are given these booklets, which contain the approved answers to your questions. I am going to throw it away and give you my own answers."

And she did. At the end of the afternoon tour, as we entered the naval base where our ship was docked, the bus stopped at the gate, a man climbed aboard, spoke briefly with the guide, and exited.

“That was KGB,” the guide said. “He says that no one should take pictures in the docking area. But I say you can take all the pictures you want.”

This feeling of giddiness (“Look at us, we’re free!!”) was palpable throughout our visit, which included tours of the Summer Palace, the Winter Palace (the Hermitage), a ride on the subway, and a visit to a department store. We chatted with some young boys who were peddling leather belts. (See my blog entitled Sasha.)

A fitting finale to the drama occurred as we sailed out of the channel to the Baltic at sunset. We passed the huge Soviet Naval base at Kronstadt, and Royal Princess tooted a salute because, our Captain explained, the Kronstadt Commander was invited to join the attempted coup a week ago and said "Nyet." Good call.

Two weeks after we left Leningrad, the City was renamed St. Petersburg.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Shared Sacrifice (except Congress)

”We should be doing, not what’s right for the party or for the next election, but what’s right for the American people.” So says President Obama. So say Congressmen of both parties today, stalwarts by the names of Schumer and Boehner and McConnell and Reid.

What a flock of phonies! They are all posturing for the cameras, hoping that a few voters will believe they are sincerely fretting about our national debt. The debt, as if you didn’t know, stands at more than 14 trillion dollars. How big is 14 trillion? If you counted one dollar every second, you would still be counting when the only living things on earth were fish. But 14 trillion isn’t enough money, so they are looking for ways of authorizing a higher limit.

Pundits laugh at the bailout of Greece, because everyone knows that Greece doesn’t have a chance of repaying the new loans. Does anyone think the U.S. will ever be able to pay back 14 or 15 trillion dollars? Only when a Big Mac costs $1000.

Speaking of Congress, do you think we really need 435 representatives and 100 senators? That’s 535 highly paid public servants, each with a staff (which does all the heavy lifting), travel allowance, expense account, medical insurance, pension, and God knows what else. One wouldn’t mind if these were the cream of the crop, men and women of obvious intelligence and talent, the kind of people who could run companies in the private sector. But for most of them, politics is their only hope of making a living. If the size of the House of Representatives were cut from 435 members to, say, 200, would we notice? I don’t think so.

It is fashionable for politicians to talk of “shared sacrifice” these days. The poster boys for sacrifice-sharing are hedge-fund managers and people who fly on private jets. But have you heard one syllable about Congressional sacrifice? It would only be a token, of course, but what a token! A member of Congress is entitled to a full pension at age 62 if he or she has five years (!) of service. Who’ll be the first to file a bill dealing with Congressional Pork? Barney Frank? Chuck Schumer?

(Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has always refused to participate in the Congressional pension system, calling it “immoral.”)

Friday, July 01, 2011

The Separate States of Europe

What have we learned from the recent collapse of Greece’s economy? That the economic integration of Europe was doomed from the beginning. To think otherwise is to ignore centuries of history, centuries of turmoil, almost always because of economic frictions among countries of widely divergent national tendencies. It doesn’t help that the 700-plus people who live in Europe speak about two dozen different languages.

Greece, in area and population, is roughly the size of Illinois. Let’s suppose that Illinois people spoke their own language, a language that the folks in Indiana and Wisconsin and Michigan couldn’t understand. Would you say that the Illinois economy might have a problem?

Let us thank God for the British, who erased the Dutch language from New Amsterdam and the French from Louisiana and the Spanish from California. (I know, I know, they’re coming back.) Today, Illinois and the other 49 states share a common language. We take that for granted, but it’s a huge advantage.

Then there’s the matter of culture. Yes, there are cultural differences between Maine and Texas and California, but they are nothing compared with the cultural divides across Europe. Once Jill and I were on a tour bus in Portugal, and we were discussing an incident that morning, when someone robbed some fellow tour passengers on a trolley in Lisbon.

“It happens often in Southern Europe,” our tour guide said, “but hardly ever in Northern Europe.”

He was right. We had never encountered such incidents in Oslo, or Helsinki, or Stockholm or Copenhagen. I thought of that the other day when I watched the mobs of protesters laying waste to downtown Athens, while the police ducked under the flying bottles and backed away from the advancing hooligans. Could that scene have been replicated in Oslo?

Greece is bankrupt because, unlike Illinois, it doesn’t have an industrial base. It exports olives and olive oil. It has a shipping base. It attracts tourists, or used to until the tourists saw law and order, Athens-style, on CNN.

The Euro-zone countries, seeing no alternative, have loaned Greece enough money to cover their current expenses – money that Greece will never be able to repay. And so it goes. The dominoes are lined up, and investors are looking anxiously at Spain.

Europe is a continent, nothing more. Poles consider themselves Poles, and Italians consider themselves Italians. Europe has no national anthem, no ruling parliament or monarch. It has a wobbly currency, but the British must be breathing a sigh of relief that they voted to keep the pound and not embrace the euro.

With all our economic woes, the U.S. looks very healthy compared with Europe.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Two Cheers

In the field of investor relations (mine for a number of years), the key to success can be summed up in two words: manage expectations. Of course, everybody in the game – securities analysts, company executives, financial journalists – knows this, so a calibration goes on, and then a counter-calibration, and so on. Among today’s high-tech companies, it seems to me that Apple is the master. Everyone knows by now that Apple sets expectations low, so they inflate their estimates, yet Apple manages to beat most of the optimistic estimates. That takes real talent.

President Obama has caught on to the trick. So before last night’s speech on the Afghanistan troop draw-down, he allowed (some might say encouraged) the pundits to set expectations low – 5000 troops now, another 5000 next year, a rate his military chiefs were promoting.

Surprise! President Obama exceeded expectations by announcing a draw-down of 10,000 this year, 25,000 next. He thus cheered the rising tide of war-weary voters by appearing to side with them, even though by the end of 2012 there will be 68,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan, compared with 32,000 when he took office, after a campaign in which he trounced the ghost of George Bush by promising disengagement from foreign adventures.

Meanwhile, some members of Congress are demanding that President Obama honor the War Powers Act by asking Congress to authorize our actions in or over Libya. No, said President Obama and his lawyers; the War Powers Act doesn’t apply because the United States isn’t involved in hostilities (try telling that to the bombing victims in Tripoli), and the President as Commander-in-Chief has the power to act without Congressional permission. Does that sound faintly like “I’m the Decider”?

The reactions today were mostly favorable (save for the usual hawks), proving once again that managing expectations is the key to success, whether in investor relations or in politics. The most impressive commentary came from Robert Gates, in a PBS interview. Gates supported the President’s call, but he did it so thoughtfully, so intelligently, that I found myself again in awe of this man who has served as Defense Secretary under both Presidents Bush and Obama, in one of the trickiest situations in our military’s history. His soft-spoken manner, his knowledge of his subjects, his deft handling of the most challenging questions made me wonder why somebody hasn’t mentioned his name as a possible presidential candidate. We could do a lot worse – and probably will.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The War That Never Ends

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Jill and I used to ask ourselves why anyone would want the job, given the mess the country was in. Turns out we were right; the job is not one you would wish on your worst enemy. The economy is in shambles, and our relations overseas deteriorate with every passing day (or with every drone attack).

What’s a right-minded President to do? If he were strong enough, he might say, “enough, already,” and pull our military out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Yemen (yes, we’re in Yemen). His liberal base would cheer, but the hawks would howl. General Petraeus, whose approval ratings are sky-high, would appear on the Sunday talk shows to lament our lack of will. So it will not happen. Barack Obama is not strong enough, or confident enough, to do what he knows is right.

Here’s the math: We are spending $10 billion a month in Afghanistan. That’s about $230,000 a minute. It’s money we don’t have, money we have to borrow. But to do that, we have to raise the debt limit, already $14 trillion. How big a number is 14 trillion? There are about 31.5 million seconds in a year, so 14 trillion seconds ago puts you back at the dawn of time (31,746 BC).

Yet those who favor a “robust” foreign policy will not quit. Senators Chambliss and McCain, among others, are pushing back against any attempt to disengage. (Can you imagine what our foreign policy would be like under a President McCain?) And their point of view resonates with many, for fighting is popular among a certain segment of the population, just as brawling is the attraction for many who attend professional hockey games.

More than half a century after World War II and the Korean War, we still have thousands of troops in Germany, Japan, and Korea. Our military footprint is on every continent, and it is expanding. And it is expanding under a President who campaigned and was elected as the anti-Bush. Meanwhile, China, on track to become the world’s largest economy, keeps its troops at home. What’s wrong with this picture?

But there is hope. Republican Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina has broken with his party in cosponsoring an amendment to accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan – an amendment that drew the support of 26 Republicans, including three freshmen elected with Tea Party Support. Then there is Ron Paul, the presidential
wannabe who sensibly favors trimming our overseas military commitments.

After 10 years in Afghanistan, it is time to cut our losses and withdraw. Failure to do so is lunacy.

In the musical Miss Saigon, the Engineer (Jonathan Pryce in the original) sings about the seeds of the Vietnam War:

“Then it all changed with Dien Bien Phu. The Frogs went home. Who came? Guess Who?”

If there is ever a Miss Kabul, the lyrics might go like this:

“Then it all changed with Helmond Province. The Russians went home. Who came? Guess who?”

Monday, June 06, 2011

Where Have All the Ballads Gone?

The other day, while driving, I kept punching the SEEK button on my radio, looking for a station that played pop ballads. No luck. Just yelling, against a heavy-metal beat, plus talk, plus one classical music station.
Where have all the ballads gone? Where is Jerry Vale, now that we need him?

Musical tastes have changed dramatically, and not for the better, say I. The long, flowing melody lines, the cleverly drawn lyrics are out of style. They say that such things move in cycles, that ballads will come back into favor. Until that day, I will rely on my CD collection and on the iPod jack in my Hyundai to keep me entertained.

What kind of music am I talking about? Here is a representative list of some of the great ballads of yore.

All the Things You Are (Kern, Hammerstein)

A treasure, for its harmony and its lyrics. Every quality singer seems to have “covered” it.

If I Loved You (Rodgers, Hammerstein)

Should be heard as part of the famous bench scene from Carousel.

I Got Lost in His Arms (Berlin)

Berlin’s magic: Keep it simple. Almost every word in this gem is one-syllable long.

Moonlight Becomes You (Van Heusen, Burke)

A beautiful, underrated ballad, by two old pros. The “although” near the end is sheer artistry.

Dear Friend (Bock, Harnick)

From She Loves Me, this one is justly celebrated as lyric-writing of the finest order. Get this:

Couples go past me
I see how they look
So discretely sympathethic when they see
The rose and the book.
I make believe nothing is wrong
How long can I pretend?
Please make it right
Don’t break my heart
Don’t let it end
Dear friend.

And I Was Beautiful (Herman)

Not in quantity, certainly, but in style composer/lyricist Jerry Herman most approaches Berlin. This one, from Dear World, was well sung by Angela Lansbury. (“….and then he walked away, and took my smile with him.”)

This Heart of Mine (Warren, Freed)

Harry Warren it is said, is the most successful composer no one has ever heard of. He wrote a zillion singable tunes that were often undercut by pedestrian lyrics by Al Dubin and Mack Gordon. (Check the weak last line of “The More I See You.”) But this one, given an over-the-top treatment in the film The Ziegfeld Follies, is one of Warren’s best.

There are so many others, hundreds of them, now pushed off the airwaves by rock and rap. If you’re over 50, you probably have your own list of favorites. I know we’re not part of the demographic advertisers are looking for, but we do spend money. And fellows, we’re not listening to your radio stations these days.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

When Rapture is Not Enough

Front-page headline in today’s Financial Times: “Obama’s Speech in Westminster Affirms the Special Relationship, but Fails to Raise the Roof.”

Now, as we all know, Barack Obama is the very best orator we Americans have. If he can’t raise the roof, who can?

Benjamin Netanyahu can. Here’s yesterday’s New York Times, reporting on the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress: “Mr. Netanyahu received so many standing ovations that at times it seemed that the lawmakers were listening to his speech standing up.” It was, according to the Financial Times, “a rapturously received address.”

Talk about raising the roof! Mr. Netanyahu obviously is even a better speechifier that Mr. Obama, whose State of the Union address was received politely, at times even enthusiastically, but the adverb “rapturously” does not spring to mind.

How does Israel’s Prime Minister elicit the kind of rapture that no American politician, no business leader, no religious leader, not even the “American Idol” winner, can hope for? In fact, it is a good bet that Mr. Netanyahu himself would not encounter such an adoring audience in Israel. But Washington and Mr. Netanyahu were made for each other. The Times lets us in on his secret: “The lawmakers appeared eager to demonstrate their support for Israel as part of an effort to receive backing from one of the country’s most powerful constituencies, American Jews.”

So politicians will trade rapture for dollars; there is nothing new about that. We will survive the sight of members of Congress pandering to the Israeli lobby, or to any lobby that has enough power and money.

The real loser in all this is Israel. The take-away from this week’s events is that the U.S. has such a special relationship with Israel (much deeper that our special relationship with Britain, for instance) that we can no longer act as a credibly honest broker between Israel and Palestine. The peace talks, insofar as America is concerned, are dead. That much must be obvious to the entire Arab world, as it was to George Mitchell, who threw in the towel recently. Israel’s success in Washington comes at a price, and the price is increasing isolation on the world stage. A rapturous U.S. Congress is not enough.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Americanization of Emily

Julie Andrews says that of all the movies she’s made, The Americanization of Emily is her favorite. So says James Garner, her co-star. So says Arthur Hiller, who directed. Why has this movie, released in 1964, captivated so many people who know so much about movies?

There are many reasons, but at the top of the list must be the literary, highly pungent script of Paddy Chayefsky. Producer Martin Ransohoff spotted the William Bradford Huie novel in 1959. The book tells of a romance between an Admiral’s aide (the dust cover says it’s “the further adventures of Lieutenant-Commander James Monroe Madison of The Revolt of Mamie Stover”) and a British young woman in WW2 London, and Ransohoff optioned it, thinking it might make a pleasant enough romantic comedy. In time, William Holden was penciled in as the hero, and James Garner was slated to play Bus, Madison’s sidekick. Ransohoff’s choice to direct was William Wyler.

Then Wyler and Holden pulled out, Arthur Hiller was named director, Garner was given the lead, and, most importantly, Paddy Chayefsky was asked to write the screenplay. And what a screenplay he created! The book is a fairly routine love story, with the climactic D-Day invasion the only memorable action. Commander Madison is a writer whose skills as a procurer (of booze and broads, mostly) for Navy brass have landed him in the lap of luxury in London. Emily Barham is a volunteer driver attached to Madison’s unit. Madison and Barham fall in love and, after he makes a movie of the D-Day landing, live happily ever after. End of story.

Enter Paddy Chayefsky. He is not interested in telling a typical Doris Day/Rock Hudson love story. In his hands, Commander (now Charles) Madison is a practicing coward, whose overriding ambition is not to get killed in the war, and whose service as a valued “dog-robber” seems to guarantee survival. Emily Barham, who has lost a father, a husband, and a brother to war, is a Yank-hating moralist, who buys into the nobility of a hero’s death.

This is all Chayefsky. In the book, Madison is as patriotic as the next man, and when the Admiral orders him to film the invasion, he gets a camera crew and obediently joins the invasion fleet.

In the movie, Chayefsky writes a sparkling scene in which Madison and Emily’s mother spar over the reality of war and the folly of glamorizing it. In that one scene, Madison expresses his entire philosophy of life, sacrifice, and honor, and he makes his entire pursuit of survival sound sensible and almost noble. It is an absolutely indispensable scene – and yet, in the book, Ms. Barham never appears, and there is not an iota of dialogue about these subjects.

One shouldn’t be too hard on the book’s author. He was simply writing a different story, a much simpler story. Yet if the screenplay followed the book’s outline, the movie would have been forgotten long ago.

Arthur Hiller was a rookie Hollywood director in 1963, when he began shooting Emily. He would later direct some good movies, like The In-Laws, The Hospital, and Plaza Suite, but nothing, in his mind, to compare with Emily. Julie Andrews, of course, is everybody’s sweetheart no matter what she does, but she, too, singles out this movie as her best. And James Garner is an absolutely perfect Charlie Madison. The rest of the cast is solid: Joyce Grenfell as the dotty mother, Melvyn Douglas as the Admiral, and James Coburn as Bus. There is practically no music in the film other than the song Emily, which was ineligible for an Oscar because the lyrics were never sung.

Hard as it is to believe, The Americanization of Emily was made almost a half century ago. But it is still immensely enjoyable, and Paddy Chayefsky’s message still makes sense today.

Three collections of these blogs are available at They are, in chronological order, Searching for Joan Leslie, Lines from the Beachcomber, and Tides in the Affairs of Men.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Dancing on Graves

There was widespread jubilation in the U.S. at news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. One can certainly understand satisfaction, especially on the part of relatives of those killed in the 9-11 attack. But jubilation? One would have hoped that Americans would temper their celebration with the realization that a martyr has been created and vengeance is in the air. Satisfaction, certainly. Dancing on the graves? I don’t think so.

The day before, it was announced that NATO air strikes on Tripoli had killed Col. Qadaffi’s youngest son. While NATO people denied that “protecting civilians” has expanded to “regime change,” Senator McCain, said that if Col Qadaffi were to be killed, “that would be fine.”

The taste of blood is spreading, and it is no time to be a leader of a country in NATO’s gunsights. I am reading The Tourist, a novel about a CIA unit (the Tourists) that exists to eliminate people deemed worthy of elimination. The book was written by Olen Steinhauer, who lives in Budapest (ex-Virginia) and obviously knows the intelligence world inside out. As described by Steinhauer, it is a world totally devoid of morality, sentiment, or what we think of as human instincts. It is easy to imagine a tourist making his way through the streets of Tripoli or Islamabad or Damascus or Tangier, a Glock and a fake passport in his pocket, no expression on his face, intent on offing a head of government or a minister or just someone who knows too much. The book is chilling in light of recent events, as you will probably see on the big screen. (George Clooney has optioned the book.)

I suppose someone has to do the dirty work, and you don’t want to see how sausages are made, but neither do you want to take the inspiring principles that embellish President Obama’s rhetoric too literally, because Washington is one big sausage factory.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Last Station

The Last Station is a little-known movie about the last year or so of Tolstoy’s life, starring Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his wife Sonya. It is also a clinic in the acting art by two of the finest professionals in the field.

The conflict that animates the drama is the question of who will own the rights to Tolstoy’s work when he dies. Tolstoy and his legions of followers do not believe in private property. As they see it, the public at large is the rightful inheritor of his creative output. His wife Sonya just as strongly believes that Tolstoy’s primary obligation is to provide for the welfare of his family. A stand-off? No, because of the powerful influence of Chertkov, a leader of the Tolstoy movement and a friend and confidante of the master, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti. The title of the film refers to the station at the end of the railroad line where Tolstoy spends his last days.

The facts as portrayed by the film are as accurate as one should expect of a movie (I checked it against Henri Troyat’s biography). But the grabber here is not verisimilitude but the power of the acting. Plummer is Tolstoy. Mirren is Sonya. (Did you know that Helen Mirren was born Ilyena Lydia Vasilevna Mironov?) I have not seen an acting tour de force of this magnitude in a long, long time.

As so often happens in this house, my enthusiasm for the film led me to seek out Christopher Plummer’s memoir, In Spite of Myself. It is a long book, 648 pages in hard cover, and there is no evidence that anyone collaborated with him in the writing. Now, Plummer, Canadian by birth, is 81 years old, and the book was published in 2008, so one must be impressed by his energy if nothing else. But the writing quality is excellent, revealing an impressive memory and real wit.

The title of the book, I guess, refers to the fact that he has lived a successful life in his chosen career in spite of the fact that he was generally irresponsible, a drinker, a womanizer, and an ingrate. He rather cheerfully admits all this, and the gallery of the rich and famous whose lives intersect with his makes the book endlessly fascinating – in spite of himself.

I recommend the movie and the book, unreservedly. And now I will start Helen Mirren’s memoir, In the Frame.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In for a Penny......

Like millions of Americans, I watched the President’s speech on Libya the other night. As usual, it was an oratorical gem, logically written and delivered with conviction and poise.

But I didn’t believe a word of it.

That’s the curse of a great speech-maker. You listen so often to the mastery of the language and the style, and then you start wondering whether those tools are being used to seduce you. In this case, the speech was fine, but the arguments were specious.

We were involved in Libya, he said, because we were unwilling to stand by and let civilians be killed. But isn’t that what happens in a civil war? People get killed on both sides, and not all the casualties are combatants. Historians tell us that our bloodiest war was neither of the world wars, but the American Civil War. We are intervening in a civil war, and the fact that the government is a dictatorship is beside the point. As many have pointed out, the world is full of dictators, and civilians are being killed in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Ivory Coast. Yet only the dictator in Libya is worth our intervention.

The Great Orator was careful to set limits: “No boots on the ground.” Yet today’s papers tell us of a debate raging in Washington whether to supply arms to the Libyan rebels, with Hillary the Hawk leading the charge. The UN resolution to protect civilians could be broadly interpreted to encompass arms shipments, she says. By that reasoning, bombing Tripoli could also be sanctioned. Some people also wonder if arms shipped to Libyans will come back to haunt us, as it has in Afghanistan, where we armed the locals who fought the Russians.

The other night I watched a movie called The Special Relationship. in which Tony Blair pressured Bill Clinton to intervene in the Balkans. As the film ends, George W. Bush has just been elected President and Blair is about to apply his charm in a new cause. “You’re ready to fight for what you believe in,” says a Washington insider to Blair in the movie, “right down to the last American soldier.”

What’s an American President to do, when a British or French leader says that a civilian slaughter is imminent and only American action can save the day? A strong President might say, “You do it; it’s not in our national interest to intervene.” Weak presidents, unsure of themselves, often stumble into war; it sometimes takes nerves of steel to resist the passions of the moment. Barack Obama's stern rhetoric is a sham, and the odds are that his latest adventure will end badly.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

George W. Obama

Thousands of people stay indoors in their battered houses, because it isn’t safe to go outside. They don’t have electricity, and they’re running out of food and water. Many of them are old and infirm. The fuel to heat their houses is exhausted. That’s the way it is in Yamagata and other towns in the earthquake zone.

Meanwhile, President Obama, doing his best impersonation of George W. Bush, is on television, threatening Colonel Qaddafi of Libya with “consequences” if he continues battling the rebels in his country. It all sounds eerily like what preceded the invasion of Iraq. First it was Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Then, when the WMD proved to be a mirage, the story changed to “the world is better off without Saddam Hussein.' How long will it be before we hear how much better off we are without Muammar Qaddafi?

It’s easy to sound tough, and, when you’re the strongest military power on earth, it’s easy to drop bombs on people you don’t like. But it’s much, much harder to unscramble the eggs you have messed up. We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan ages ago, and we’re still there. Barack Obama was elected president as the anti-Bush candidate, but he has morphed into George W. Obama. The war rages in Afghanistan, the CIA still runs drones in Pakistan, we can’t seem to leave Iraq, and Guantanamo is still open for business.

And the starving and homeless in Japan? President Obama has pledged support, but little is visible in the coastal communities around the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Station. President Obama has other fish to fry in northern Africa. Today he is in Brazil. Next stop: Chile. Presidents like to globe-hop on Air Force One when Washington reporters might ask embarrassing questions.

The Japanese people are doing their best, helped by government agencies and private companies. They huddle together in their homes or in the crowded emergency shelters, waiting for assistance to come.

In my dreams I see hundreds of U.S. helicopters dropping thousands of cartons of food and bottles of water for those unfortunate people, but it’s just a dream, because our government’s attention is focused, not on Yamagata, but on Tripoli.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan: What Must be Done?

The video clips have been horrific. The sea sweeping everything in its path, the automobiles and trucks and ships just so many toys bulldozed by the onslaught, the survivors standing in shock, wondering what’s to become of them.

I have been to Japan many times, and I’ll confess to a deep admiration for the Japanese people – proud, polite, principled people. On one of my visits, I joined a farewell party for a manager who was being transferred to Europe. There wasn’t a dry eye in the restaurant as the assembly, about 50 people, sang “Auld Lang Syne.” The Japanese love to sing; karaoke is something of a national sport. Never have I felt so much kinship with a group as I did that night.

Here’s what I think: The world, and particularly the United States, should mount an all-out effort to help the Japanese rebuild. Money now spent killing people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq should be redirected to saving people in Japan. It would be an ironic twist if the only country ever to use an atomic bomb in anger now led an international campaign to help minimize the fallout from the nuclear power plant at Fukushima.

Two-thirds of the American people, according to a recent poll, no longer think the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. How many of us would think a worldwide effort to help the Japanese people is worth the cost?

President Obama, tossed this way and that by events in Libya, Bahrain, Pakistan, and Iraq, must be longing for a cause that he can embrace without talking out of both sides of his mouth. Here it is, Mr. President. But the time to act is now. Next week, China or Russia or Germany may step up to the plate, and then our moment will have passed.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Les Miz

There are those who believe that Les Miz is the greatest of all musical plays, and I am not going to argue with them. “The greatest” is by definition a subjective category, but people vote by buying tickets at the box office, and by that standard Les Miz certainly measures up.

Last night I watched the 25th anniversary concert version of Les Miz, staged at the cavernous O2 arena in Greenwich, with an audience that resembled what you might see at the Super Bowl, and a company seemingly almost as large. The previous night I had watched the 10th anniversary concert (I had taped it in 1995), so I had a fine opportunity to compare the two productions.

The similarities: A boyish-looking maestro conducted the orchestra in 1995, and the same man, still looking boyish 15 years later, held the baton in the 2010 production. Lea Salonga played Eponine, the waif, in the 1995 concert, but of course Lea is no longer a waif and played Fantine this time. And Jenny Galloway played Madame Thenardier in both productions. Otherwise, the two casts were different.

Alfie Boe, an operatic tenor, played Jean Valjean in the new concert, and I preferred his performance to that of the widely acclaimed Colm Williamson. Williamson was on hand for the reunion festivities at the end, but his voice is a bit frail now. Even in his prime, though, Colm did not have the horsepower of Alfie Boe, who is still relatively unknown but not likely to remain so.

For my money, the best role in Les Miz is that of Javert, the inspector who stalks Valjean mercilessly throughout the play. The material is so good that it is hard to misplay, and both Javerts were excellent, but the new Javert, an actor named Norm Lewis, was more than that; he was brilliant. He looked like a man you wouldn’t want on your case, and he sang powerfully and threateningly, as is demanded of the character.

Fantine, as mentioned, was played in the 25th anniversary concert by Lea Salonga, a good actress with a fine voice. Her daughter Cosette was played adequately by Katie Hall, but 1995’s Judy Kuhn had a much better voice.

The weakest member of the 25th anniversary cast was Nick Jonas, who with his brothers sets teen-age girls' heart aflutter in England and the U.S. He looked the part of the adolescent Marius, but his singing was marginal and his acting was, well, I am reminded of the critic who said of some actress that she expressed the whole gamut of emotions from A to B – in Nick Jonas’s case, unbearable pain. Michael Ball, the 10th anniversary Marius, is clearly too old for the role today, but he joined in the post-concert nostalgia, along with many other performers “from days gone by.”

The important character of Thenardier was taken by comedian Matt Lucas, who tried unsuccessfully to fill the shoes of Alun Armstrong, the master of the house in the ”dream cast” of 1995.

All in all, I thought the principal characters (Valjean and Javert) were stronger in the 25th anniversary production, and the secondary characters were better in 1995. Since Valjean and Javert really carry the play, the newer concert was on balance a stronger production.

But Les Miz is a must-see, whatever the production. It is a towering creative achievement, based on one of the great novels of all time. It’s a good bet that people will still be enthralled by the music of Claude-Michel Schonberg in the 23d century, when the 200th anniversary concert of Les Miz will be shown to the world on holographic video.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

They Came to Play

If you play the piano – even poorly, as I do – and you are looking for a good DVD to watch, I have a dandy for you. Actually, it’s a dandy even if you don’t play at all, because it’s a feel-good film about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

It’s called They Came to Play, and it lets you look in on a most unusual piano competition held every few years in Fort Worth and sponsored by the Van Cliburn Foundation. Now, you may have heard about the Cliburn Competition, which is the world’s series of piano playing. It is held every four years, and it is for young prodigies who have given their lives to the piano. At least two of these competitions have been the subjects of films, which are very good.

But They Came to Play is not about the Cliburn, although it borrows the name and the venue. This competition is strictly for amateurs, people who have “day jobs” and are over (in some cases, well over) 35 years of age.

One of the contestants is a doctor at a New York hospital. One is a lawyer from Phoenix. Another is a Systems VP at Lockheed-Martin. Another is a tennis coach (and former rated player) in France. Another is a German physicist retired from Siemens. Another is a jewelry trader, another runs a glass business. Some of them learned the piano as children, then quit for years to raise a family or go to medical school. You get to know the “back stories” of many of these people, and you can’t help but like them and admire them for the dedication that they bring to the game.

Van Cliburn himself is present, and he is a God-like figure. One Russian contestant says, “If you ask anyone on the street in Moscow today who Van Cliburn is, he will know.” Then he shakes his head and adds, “I am not so sure whether people in New York know.” There are other ties to the Cliburn competition, including several judges, among them Olga Kern, a winner in 2001 and now a successful concert pianist. (Her 2001 performance is captured on the DVD The Cliburn: Playing on the Edge). The amateur event lacks the budget of the more prestigious competition, and there are no piano concertos cum symphony orchestra. Still, for sheer enjoyment, you can’t beat the spirit and enthusiasm that fills every minute of this film. I’d tell you more, but I have to quit now to practice the piano.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Pixar 2, Facebook 0

I watched three movies last week: Toy Story 3, Up, and The Social Network. The first two were from the Pixar gang, which rolls out one fantastic film after another, with a hit ratio matched by no company other than Apple. The third film labored under a severe handicap: It had to deal with real people in real-life situations. Here are my takes on the three.

Toy Story 3 was easily the best of the lot. Written by Pixar’s plotmeister John Lasseter, it continues the saga of Woody the toy cowboy, Buzz Lightyear, the toy astronaut, and the entire menagerie of toys owned by Andy, a teen-ager now preparing to leave home for college. What to do with the toys? Andy decides to store them in the attic, but owing to a mixup they are carted off to a day-care center from hell. Woody eventually leads the Great Escape, but not before Lasseter has fashioned a variety of adventures, including a budding romance between two dolls named Barbie and Ken. As usual, Tom Hanks voices Woody, and Randy Newman composes the bouncy music. The Toy Story trilogy (there would seem to be no room for a fourth, but with Pixar you never know) is solid gold, and number 3 is the best yet.

Up is a bittersweet story that begins when a young boy meets an adventuresome young girl named Ellie, who dreams of traveling to exotic places like Paradise Falls in South America. (I was hooked when the little girl, rhapsodizing about the attractions of South America, said, “It’s just like America. Only it’s south!”) Eventually the couple marry and enjoy a long and happy life together – and then Ellie dies. The man, Carl Fredricksen, is now a 78-year-old curmudgeon, living in the same old house, an island of yesterday surrounded by skyscrapers and legions of lawyers offering to buy him out. Finally he has had enough, and he attaches a zillion balloons to his house and flies off toward South America. But he finds that he has a stowaway: a young boy scout eager to earn a merit badge for helping an old person, even an unwilling old person. The balloon-tethered house eventually makes it to Paradise Falls, where our duo encounter a series of hazards, notably including a storied explorer named Charles Muntz, who was the inspiration for Ellie’s odyssey of long ago. Muntz is now a madman with an entourage of vicious dogs (the Pixar animators do vicious dogs very well). All ends well, as you knew it would. The voices of Carl Fredricksen and Charles Muntz are supplied by Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer.

Now to The Social Network, about which I have mixed feelings. First, the good news: The screenplay, by Aaron Sorkin, is brilliant. Its machine-gun dialogue is just right coming from the mouths of computer whizzes, and the structure – a legal hearing, with flashbacks telling the main story – builds the tension neatly. The acting is terrific throughout. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, the creator (or was he?) of Facebook and is a valid Best Actor nominee. Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake also give memorable performances in supporting roles.

What’s not to like? The story. These are, for the most part, unprincipled people treating each other like dirt (or worse, if you include the few women in the cast). The ethical and legal questions at the center of the plot center on who shares how much credit for Facebook. If you take the characterizations as authentic – and one assumes that the producers had a regiment of lawyers vet the book and the script – you have to wonder why these young men are (1) worth wrapping a $40 million film around and (2) worth spending two hours of anyone’s viewing time. Facebook and its ilk are social phenomena, I will grant, and that’s a reasonable subject for a documentary. But a movie without any sympathetic characters is hard to classify as entertainment.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Super Bowl

Sunday night a good football game competed for the attention of the viewers with commercials and the halftime show. The football game lost, not because the other stuff was better, but because the other stuff was so bad. You knew it was going to be a rough night when Christina Aguelera destroyed the national anthem, first by shrieking the song as if she were in pain, second by departing repeatedly from the tune the composer had in mind, and third, by forgetting the lyrics midway through. That’s right; this poor excuse for a singer found “O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming” too much to handle, so repeated an earlier line (but she even botched that).

As for the much-hyped commercials, with very few exceptions, they were just awful. The worst of the sorry lot was an incomprehensible promotion for Doritos. The best were the car commercials; at least they focused on the product instead of computer graphics.

But back to Christina. Why, oh why are singers of the national anthem at sporting events so determined to avoid the melody as written? Is the song that bad? Or are they afraid that an as-written rendition would expose the inadequacy of their voices? One look at the faces of the Packers and Steelers during Christina’s solo told it all. “This is painful,” they seemed to be thinking, or “Let’s play football – please.”

I was rooting for the Packers ever since the Patriots were eliminated. It’s a matter of fairness. Pittsburgh has the Pirates and the Penguins. It is the City of Andrew Carnegie and U.S. Steel. It was Gene Kelly’s home town. Green Bay has the Packers. Period. And now they are the Super Bowl champs. Justice has been served.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Graham Greene's Movies

Graham Greene was a wonderful storyteller. More than that, his stories made wonderful movies, especially when he also wrote the screenplays. The Third Man is one of the most memorable films ever made – who can forget the long closing shot of Valli walking along the cemetery road, or the fat-faced little Austrian boy shouting “Murther!”? The Comedians is another of my favorites. How could it miss, with Alec Guinness and Richard Burton? Our Man in Havana, The Fallen Idol, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter – so many good stories, so well told.

Now a new Graham Greene picture is about to open: Brighton Rock, with Helen Mirren, Sam Riley, and Andrea Riseborough. This is a remake of a 1947 film noir starring Richard Attenborough. The original was good, but this promises to be better (at least the trailers look promising). Greene’s novels are the kind of stuff that film studios can’t stay away from. The End of the Affair was made in 1955 (with a strong performance by Deborah Kerr), but Hollywood, no doubt hooked by the title, remade the movie in 1999, with Ralph Fiennes. I have mixed feelings about the two versions. Ralph Fiennes was a much better Bendrix than was his predecessor, Van Johnson, but screenwriter Neil Jordan (1999) mangled the story as told by Greene. But sometimes the remake is far superior to the original. The Quiet American with Michael Caine was infinitely better than the 1958 version with Audie Murphy.

One of Graham Greene’s best spy thrillers, The Human Factor, was filmed in 1979. Directed By Otto Preminger, it starred Richard Attenborough, Nicol Williamson, Derek Jacobi, Robert Morley, and John Gielgud. Despite all this starpower (plus a screenplay by Tom Stoppard), the movie ran afoul of cold-war politics, and to this day no DVD is available.

Anyone interested in learning more about Graham Greene’s films can do no better than Graham Greene: The Films of his Fiction, by Gene Phillips S.J. Published in 1974, it does not cover the remakes, but it is good reading nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The President's Speech

Having been bowled over by the President's Tucson speech earlier this month, I was eagerly awaiting his State of the Union address. He had loaded the bases in Tucson; now all he had to do was hit the ball out of the park. A grand slam, with all the world watching!

It didn't happen. What we got was standard political boilerplate. We're going to attack the deficit (nod to the right), but not by cutting investments in education (nod to the left). And so it went, with the President endlessly talking about investment, without ever acknowledging that investment presupposes the availability of money to invest. The United States is in hock to China alone to the tune of $900 billion and is currently spending a trillion dollars more than it takes in each year. The word "investment" has a nice ring to it, politically, and that's where the President headed last night, and the result was a sad misuse of his rhetorical power.

Today the President flew to Wisconsin, where he commended a manufacturer of solar shingles. The company was unable to get bank loans, it turns out, so Uncle Sam came through. The banks apparently thought the company a poor risk, but the Government knew better.

Cynics might say that a Presidential visit to Green Bay two weeks before the Super Bowl had a political component. How could anyone think that?

The trouble with being a great orator is that your failures as well as your successes are magnified. The State of the Union address was a monumental failure, because so much was expected, and so little was delivered. If the speaker had been George Bush, it wouldn't have been so bad.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Of Builders and Traders

Andy Grove, ex-CEO of Intel and a recognized technology guru, was asked to comment on Steve Jobs the other day. “There are builders and there are traders,” he said, “and Steve is a builder.”

The builder/trader dichotomy has been with us for ages. In the last half of the twentieth century, the traders were ascendant. We didn’t call them traders, we called them venture capitalists, and they and the builders coexisted well. I worked for a bonafide builder, Alex d’Arbeloff, for many years. Alex was a good friend (and fellow Francophone) of General Doriot of American Research & Development, an iconic venture capital firm and an early investor in Digital Equipment and many other successful companies. General Doriot, a long-term holder, would never have thought of himself as a trader, but all venture-capital firms, including ARD, had exit strategies. Alex had no exit strategy; all his thoughts were on building the Company he cofounded.

Steve Jobs, when he was first told he had a serious medical problem, could have checked out and spent the rest of his years on Bora Bora. But that wasn’t in his DNA. Instead, he spent the next five years turning his Company into the most phenomenally successful story in the history of high tech. Today he could probably buy Bora Bora, but when his medical leave of absence ends, he will return to Apple, for he is a builder.

The American dream is based on creating a society that cultivates a steady supply of builders, people like Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, and of course Steve Jobs. If we have an edge on our global competitors, it is our capacity to produce and motivate builders. No other country approaches us when it comes to that. And the curious thing is, very few in our society object to the great wealth amassed by successful builders. “Americans aspire up and resent down,” The Economist editorialized once. When we start resenting up, that will be an ominous signal.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Orator Returns

January 12, 2011: On this day, in Tucson, Arizona, Barack Obama, the master orator who inspired so many of us on election night in Grant Park and then disappeared as he was overtaken by the hurly-burly of politics, reemerged to give what may have been his greatest speech yet. It was eloquent in language and tone, and entirely appropriate to the occasion. This, I remember thinking as I listened, is what oratory is all about.

The setting added to the drama. Arizona is hardly a blue state and certainly not in the President’s comfort zone. Boston or Chicago would have been more simpatico. Also adding to the drama was the President’s revelation that Congresswoman Giffords had opened her eyes that very day, for the first time since she was shot But a dramatic setting can take one only so far. The President could have milked the emotional points but did not. He walked the fine line between bathos and passivity with skill that cannot be rehearsed; it’s in his DNA.

Barack Obama has made some terrible blunders in policy and in politics. He has lashed out at fat-cat bankers and rallied his colleagues to "keep the drug companies honest.” He promoted his health-care program as a cost saver, admitting after passage that no one should have thought that 30 million Americans could be added to the insured rolls at no cost. So President Obama has much to answer for.

But give him his due: He is a giant among the orators of our time. This talent must not be underestimated or undervalued. The country is dangerously divided, and oratory ranks high among the leadership qualities the nation so desperately needs. On January 12 the President found his voice again, in a speech that will reverberate for a long time. One hopes that among those who take its message seriously is Barack Obama himself.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Death of Debate

Much has been written about the killings in Arizona, much of it centered on the overheated political climate in this country and the effect of so much vitriol on minds that are already unhinged. Convince a nutcake that a politician is guilty of treason, add a chorus of encouragement on the Internet, and throw in ready access to guns (even for the nutcakes), and you have a recipe for disaster.

All that is true enough, but there is another element worth mentioning: the death of rational debate.

People shoot their perceived adversaries because they don’t know how to debate them. It calls to mind the frustration of Billy Bigelow in Carousel, when asked by the heavenly star-keeper why he hit his wife. “We’d argue about something,” says Billy, “and she’d be right. So I hit her.”

A young man in Arizona thought of Gabrielle Giffords as an enemy. Maybe it was her stand on immigration, maybe health care, but he wasn’t capable of organizing his arguments into a rational discourse in that Tucson parking lot. So he shot her.

Rational discourse is not the stuff of FaceBook pages or 40-character tweets. It demands logical argument and a command of language. As a civilization, we're losing that, for a variety of reasons, including the coarsening of language. In so-called action movies, the heroes shoot four-letter words as fast as they shoot bullets. The same four-letter words, because they don’t know any other adjectives. Sad.

In my high-school days, debating was a big deal, and my best friend was the President of the Debating Society. We called him our golden-voiced orator, and not just because of the way he spoke. It was what he said for or against the proposition. He didn’t have to use four-letter words, because he had a rich vocabulary.

And he didn’t have to shoot people he disagreed with. He could mow them down with words.