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.