April 30, 2008


Sam Smith

Watching the missteps, misspeaks and misdeeds of politicians, one thing is soon clear: how important these incidents become is largely determined by grace of the media. There is often no particular connection to the seriousness of the mishap, no clear connection to any political agenda, and seldom a moral purpose. In these situations, the press is often like a drunk behind the wheel. Perhaps it will take us home safely; perhaps there will be a disaster. You tighten your seatbelt and hope for the best.

Barack Obama has recently experienced the media at its dysfunctional worst. The handling of the Irreverent Jeremiah Wright story has no basis in journalistic principle other than laid out by the late Senator Gene McCarthy: reporters are like blackbirds on a telephone wire. When one flies off, they all fly off.

To put some numbers to this, here are the Google hits from news publications in he past month on the leading presidential candidates and their bizarre religious connections:

Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright - 13,095

McCain and Rev John Hagee - 295

Clinton and The Fellowship - 37

In case you think that Hagee and the Fellowship can't hold a candle to Wright, consider this Wikipedia note about Hagee, who is close to McCain:

"Hagee denounces abortion, and stopped giving money to Israel's Hadassah hospital when it began performing the procedure. He has spoken out against homosexuality. In his book, Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World, Hagee interprets the Bible to predict that Russia and the Islamic states will invade Israel and will be destroyed by God. This will cause the anti-Christ, the head of the European Union, to create a confrontation over Israel between China and the West. A final battle between East and West at Armageddon will then precipitate the Second Coming of Christ"

And this about the Fellowship, by Andrea Mitchell and Jim Popkin of NBC, two of the rare major media journalists to even mention it:

"In his preaching, [Fellowship leader Douglas] Coe repeatedly urges a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. It's a commitment Coe compares to the blind devotion that Adolph Hitler demanded from his followers -- a rhetorical technique that now is drawing sharp criticism.

"'Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler were three men. Think of the immense power these three men had, these nobodies from nowhere," Coe said.

"Later in the sermon, Coe said: "Jesus said, ‘You have to put me before other people. And you have to put me before yourself.' Hitler, that was the demand to be in the Nazi party. You have to put the Nazi party and its objectives ahead of your own life and ahead of other people."

Coe also quoted Jesus and said: "One of the things [Jesus] said is 'If any man comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, brother, sister, his own life, he can't be a disciple.' So I don't care what other qualifications you have, if you don't do that you can't be a disciple of Christ."

The sermons are little surprise to writer Jeff Sharlet. He lived among Coe's followers six years ago, and came out troubled by their secrecy and rhetoric.

"'We were being taught the leadership lessons of Hitler, Lenin and Mao. And I would say, 'Isn't there a problem with that?' And they seemed perplexed by the question. Hitler's genocide wasn't really an issue for them. It was the strength that he emulated," said Sharlet. . . 'They're notoriously secretive,' Sharlet said. 'In fact, they jokingly call themselves the Christian Mafia. Which becomes less of a joke when you realize that they really are dedicated to being what they call an invisible organization.'"

So here we have three presidential candidates with substantial ties to dubious religious figures, but only one of them gets pilloried in the media for it.


One answer is because Obama is going through a special fraternity hazing to see whether he really the sort of fellow the establishment wants to have as its first black leader. Watching Obama struggle awkwardly with the Wright problem, I was reminded of Sammie Davis Jr playing golf with Ronald Reagan. "Do you want a handicap?" Reagan asked.

"Look," replied Davis, "I'm a one-eyed black Jew. What more of a handicap do I need?"

But Obama isn't just playing golf.

There is a long tradition of testing black leaders in this way. Under Clinton, for example, Lani Guinier flunked. And as with Obama, it is not unusual to use the Louis Farrakhan litmus paper. For the media watchdogs of the establishment, Wright was a welcomed addition to the standardized test.

Unspoken in all this is the understanding that there are good blacks and bad blacks. There is Colin Powell and then there is Al Sharpton.

From the start, the Washington establishment welcomed Obama with a sigh of relief. A well suited, well spoken, well educated non-controversial black who would let us change colors without changing policies. The enthusiasm was so great that the big guys forgot to conduct the test.

And then Jeremiah Wright appeared and, through him, the scariest black ghost of all: Louis Farrakhan. You could almost feel the sense of betrayal. And so the test began in earnest. Two months of the most intensive press coverage of an grossly irrelevant topic that we've seen in a long time.

One of Obama's real problems is that he takes himself far too seriously and, in the process, helped his critics elevate the Wright controversy. My thinking at the start was that the last thing you should hold anyone accountable for is remembering what their preacher said in a sermon. Obama might have even buried the whole issue by simply quoting another minister who said of such lectures: "The mind can only absorb what the butt can endure." Or turned it around on the press, demanding of George Stephanopoulos and his ilk: "Tell me what your minister said last Sunday and I'll tell you what I remember of mine." But when you presume to carry as much import as Obama does, such simple exits don't come to mind.

Obama desperately wants to lead the establishment, which is why he so frequently looks like he's auditioning for a lectureship at the Council on Foreign Relations or a fellowship at the Brookings Institution. But, in the process, he fell into the trap the establishment had set for him.

Black politicians aren't the only one to face the hazing. Consider the dismissive, patronizing press coverage of John Edwards, a white southerner with the best economic and social policies of the campaign who was treated as nothing more than an over-expensive haircut. In 2007, Clinton and Obama got included in over 90% of all two-candidate mentions in headlines, while Edwards only got into 15%. And those to the left of Edwards can forget about getting any mainstream coverage at all. For more than a quarter century, the mainstream media has consigned the left to oblivion, all the while calling itself objective.

Now let's look at the other side of the coin: politicians who do things they shouldn't and get protected by the media. The most dramatic example in recent years was Bill Clinton, about whom most Americans never heard serious accusations of drug use, rape and criminal connections. While Marion Barry went to prison on a minor drug charge; the prosecutor who got too close the Clinton drug story ended up living in fear of her life at a secret location. A similar contrast can be found between the heavily covered story of Obama's one allegedly crooked friend, Tony Rezko, and the near total censorship of information about Hillary Clinton's three business partners who actually went to prison: Webster Hubbell and the McDougals. Of course, the latter had no known partiality towards Louis Farrakhan. But then which is worse: sitting in a pew and listening to James Wright or sitting in an office and plotting with Webster Hubbell?

The foregoing only scratches the surface of the one of the deepest sins of the media: cruel and constant coverage of relatively insignificant misdoings by some politicians combined with consistent concealment of much more serious offenses by those who - through personality, ethnicity, ideology or class, or just plain power - are protected members of an establishment to which Washington journalists are desperate to belong - at enormous cost to the rest of us.

April 25, 2008


April 21, 2008


Sam Smith

Watching Clinton and Obama debate the other evening, I recalled a video I had seen in the 1990s of DC City Council chair John Wilson speaking to a class of University of DC students - some slouching, some with hats precisely askew, some adjusting their carefully contrived facial expression - and telling them that attitude wouldn't take them far in life. Wilson knew; the one time civil rights activist had made it far and it had taken a lot more than attitude.

I wish that Clinton and Obama had heard him because both candidates have constructed campaigns that are extraordinarily egocentric, overburdened with image manipulation and devoid of that arcane element known as issues that one used to find in campaigns. Of course, they are not the first to practice this sort of politics; it was, after all, Senator Clinton's husband who convinced her party that it didn't need to believe in anything.

Certainly Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos didn't help matters with their churlish questions. But, among the media, it wasn't only their fault. A few days later Teresa Wiltz raised the level of the campaign with this analysis on the front page of the Washington Post's Style section:

"There's Barack Obama, fresh from Wednesday's debate dust-up, beleaguered but still standing, acknowledging that he's taken some hits from his opponent, some mighty hits, but you know, it's okay, because that's politics. Ultimately, you've got to . . . And then he -- pay attention now -- brushes the dirt off his shoulders. Repeatedly. The crowd leaps to its feet, applauding and laughing. Talk about a major Jay-Z move. People, we're talking about a seminal moment in the campaign, the merging of politics and pop culture: in which a presidential candidate -- a self-confessed hip-hop head and Jay-Z fan -- references a rap hit and a dance move."

Consider the Gibson-Stephanopoulos knife jabs. If Obama had a serious plan to deal with the economic crisis, the environment or public education, even a lazy television head might have picked one of those topics. But what sort of question can you ask Obama? You ask him about anything serious and you'll soon be choking on the abstractions and the babble about hope and change. So it's too inviting to turn to malicious trivia. And if you're a journalist stuck for a lead, you happily make the major Jay-Z move.

Both Obama and Clinton have made themselves the only issue that matters and both are paying the price of it - with more of the cost yet to come.

In one case, the plan falters on the fact that a guy who was an unknown state senator only four years ago has, through the magic of cliches and public relations, transformed himself into an appealing mythical metaphor of multiculturalism. And as he put himself in The Audacity of Hope, "I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." Since writing that book the screen had remained remarkably vacant, demonstrating at least the audacity of Obama's own hope.

In Clinton's case, we have the myth of her 35 years of experience, largely undefined except for length, although it is likely that the GOP will fill in more of the gaps during the general election should she pull off the nomination.

While Bill Clinton got away with treating national policy as one long television commercial, it is worth remembering that he initially snuck in thanks to Ross Perot. Further, as a con artist, he is far more skilled than either his wife or Obama.

The Republicans, on the other hand, can put up a candidate as intrinsically weak as John McCain and still have him run neck and neck with either of the two Democrats, despite each having extraordinarily passionate constituencies.

The difference is that the GOP believes in something that transcends whoever is running for office. For nearly three decades, in fact, Republican mythology has so dominated political discussion that the media and the public accept much of it as the norm, witness in the war on terror and the limitless virtues of capitalism.

The fact that the GOP is wrong, heartless, stupid and mean about much of this merely adds power to the argument that it helps to believe in something.

Ever since Bill Clinton dismantled the Democratic belief system, his party has virtually forgotten what it thinks. It has no comprehensible plan for the economy, the environment, the Iraqi war, cities, education or who's coming for dinner. It has become just another House of Pancake Makeup, presenting what it believes will look good on television.

But if it is enough that Clinton is the icon of feminism and Obama the image of a new, younger, hipper America, why aren't they doing better?

Obama gave part of the answer, unintentionally, with his bitter analysis of small town America. Like any good postmodernist he could deconstruct the problem; he just couldn't reconstruct an alternative. And so he reduced the people he was meant to be helping to just so many more subtexts.

If the Democrats really want to win this election they have to come up with better reasons than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And they need the Obamas and the Clintons of the party to be able to express these reasons in a passionate, convincing manner that will appeal to voters. Among the useful side effects of this: who ate dinner with Obama ten years ago becomes far less interesting.

It shouldn't be that hard to argue that collapsing pension plans are more important than a few married gays in the neighborhood. Or that poor healthcare kills more people than abortion. Or that retrofitting America so our children won't have to live in an ecological desert isn't a bad idea.

But until people in the party's high places come to believe in something, the Democrats will continue to wallow their apathy over issues and wonder why the GOP does so well. And their perfect candidates will continue to lose and they will continue to wake up the day after the election mumbling, "It isn't fair"

FDR's campaign manager, Jim Farley, would sometimes tell unhappy members of his party: "Just remember, behind a Democratic candidate, no matter how bad, are other Democrats. But behind a Republican candidate, no matter how good, are other Republicans."

It was a good line because in those days everyone knew what a Democrat stood for. Today, nobody does.

April 17, 2008

BACK TO SCHOOL: Memoirs of a parent association president

My worries over being named president of the John Eaton Elementary School parents association in the mid 1970s were aggravated by reminders that I would be the first man to hold the post. I recalled a Howard University professor telling me how he had integrated a bowling league in the 1950s only to find that he subsequently felt obligated to bowl every week whether he wanted to or not. "I realized what I really wanted," he said, "was the right to be as bad a bowler as everyone else."

The problem with this recollection was that, as far as I could determine, there had been no bad presidents of the Eaton Home & School Association and there had been some fairly extraordinary ones including - I was also reminded - Joan Mondale, soon to find herself an even harder job.

Fortunately I was surrounded by a fine board, a wonderful principal, and a community that regarded the school as a favored garden, a place to plant children and happily watch them grow.

In between, that is, fund-raisers, meetings, crises, anger, desperate phone calls and so forth. Such as the distressed call I got from a member of the board who had started the school's first Christmas tree sale. Even before Christmas, a priest had shown up on the lot with a brown paper bag filled with needles he claimed had descended from his tree.

There were periodic fiscal crises and their consequences such as the inability to get any play blocks for the kindergarten. The downtown administration - which swallowed up three of every four dollars spent on our students before it even got to the school - was so bad at paying bills that the only play block company that would deal with it had sent blocks with splinters in them. In the end, the parents association bought the blocks from a neighborhood store.

There was also the highly visible - and similarly irate - journalist whose son's paper on Egypt had been failed by the teacher because it was 50 pages long instead of the required 15. And the substitute teacher who dozed at her desk, even through the students pasted a "Do No Disturb" sign on her back. And the teacher who sprayed smelly students with Lemon Zest and checked their armpits.

Most embarrassing of all, however, was our entrance into the citywide school safety patrol parade. The children had proudly chosen the slogan for the banner - WATCH OUT FOR CARS OR YOU'LL END UP ON MARS - and students and parents worked hard and long to create a fifteen foot high missile out of chicken wire stuffed with pink Kleenex to be mounted on a pickup truck. But as the Eaton safety patrol marched down Constitution Avenue with their badges, red shirts, and Sam Brown belts, what should have been applause became instead laughter and guffaws and pointing. I took another look at our entry and immediately realized the error. The Eaton contingent consisted of one extremely pregnant faculty advisor marching in front of her young troops and a truck carrying what seemed to many onlookers to be a fifteen foot high phallus. We won no prizes that day.

Because there were not enough parents in Cleveland Park who sent their kids to John Eaton and because the school had a good reputation, its excess desks were filled by children from around the city, most of them black, thus integrating an otherwise nearly all-white neighborhood between rush hours.

There were also a number of latinos and children of diplomats who lived nearby, including the son of a Yugoslavian official who, as far as I could tell, only learned two English phrases the entire year: "WWDC 1260 AM" and "Channel 20." A parents bulletin around that time reported 20% of the students to be native Spanish speakers. There were children whose families came from 34 countries and Puerto Rico and about 20% of the school was African American. Despite the linguistic and cultural variety, the school scored above national norms in reading and math in all but 6th and 7th grades (where a large number of the immigrant children were concentrated.) Even then, the scores slipped only slightly under the national average.

The ethnic mix was rounded out by a commune of born-again Sikhs who lived nearby. One of the boys would regularly stop at our house to join my son on the final four-block trudge to school. One day I opened the door to find Habajin in his blue turban, blue outfit, and blue running shoes complemented by a fish net on a pole precariously balanced on his headpiece. My immediate reaction at 8 am was that I was all for religious tolerance but this was pushing things too far. Habajin, perhaps sensing my antipathy towards blue Sikhs with precariously balanced fishnets early in the morning, quickly explained that he had found the icon in a trash can along the way.

Pat Greer, the newly appointed principal, would not have been fazed. If all our governmental institutions were run by people as pragmatic, sensitive, intelligent and imaginative as she, we would live in a much happier country. For example, when the potentially difficult issue of religious celebration arose, Pat adopted the principle laid down by the theologian Reinhold Niehbur, who said once that you don't solve the conflict between church and state by doing away with the church. And so the assembly before the year-end vacation included a traditional American Christian segment, a latino Christian portion, a Jewish presentation and, as a climax, Habajin, decked in full blue uniform but without the fishnet, telling the Legend of the Sword. Everyone had a good time and Pat and I agreed not to let the ACLU know what we were up to.

Similarly, I once got a call from Pat saying that she had caught two 8th graders using pot. (The school at the time, among its other innovations, went from kindergarten through 8th grade). She explained that she had called the 2nd District and asked them to send over an officer but that he was to do nothing but scare the hell out of the kids and then leave. Sounds good to me, I said, but of course those were the 1970s when we still naively thought teachers and principals knew more about teaching kids than cops, judges, and the President.

I gained even more respect for Pat's ability to maintain order after substituting in a first grade class for an ill teacher, the dimmest moment coming when - after trying every organizational stratagem I could imagine - a girl in a pretty dress walked sternly to the front of the room, put her hands on her hips, looked straight up at me, and announced without equivocation, "I hate you."

Twenty years later, in a speech to a global cultural diversity conference in Australia, Pat Greer, who is black, explained her approach:

"While the 1970s can be characterized as a decade where shared decision-making was not evident in schools, John Eaton school was different . . . Parent involvement and shared decision-making is alive and thriving at John Eaton School. And our students are thriving, too. Why? Because together with our staff, parents, community and students we have created a community of learners where students and staff alike are secure enough to take risks and dare to do things they never imagined they could . . .

"John Eaton School is child-centered. That means that we value and build on the strengths that each and every child brings to our school and to our classrooms. That is especially important to us in our multicultural environment. Our learning environment builds on the heritage and background of all of our children. The result is that our students are eager, curious students, students who are focused on learning and are responsible for their own learning. Long before children put pencil to paper, or fingers to computer keys, they are encouraged to think about what they are learning. Our emphasis is learning by doing, not rote memorization. We also stress relevancy; what students learn is relevant to their daily lives.

"Our parents, teachers and staff are caring, talented, resourceful and positive role models for our students. And I am a highly visible school principal. I know each student by name and I greet them each morning when they arrive at school, and again when they go home at the end of the day. I talk to my students; I visit their classrooms; and I sometimes work with them in their classrooms. And I welcome them into my office when they want to talk to me. . .

"If John Eaton were displayed as a jigsaw puzzle and you removed all the pieces that represented our parents, called the Home & School Association, there would be a large empty space in the centre of the puzzle."

The curriculum at the school was colored by two impressive biases. One was a prejudice towards writing. The kids were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches, advertisements. The school clearly understood the shortest route to good writing: do it. The other emphasis was the arts, particularly drama and music. With excellent teachers and adequate time, the kids threw themselves into their projects as though Broadway rather than high school was the next step. The encouragement came right from the top - not only from the principal but from Mr. Urqhart, her administrative assistant, who - dressed in his most colorful suit - would sing a single applause-stirring number in his mellow bass voice in each of the big shows - the only adult permitted to thus intrude.

I became conscious of how serious the dramatic side of Eaton was one day as I was taking a group of 4th graders home from an event. One kid stepped carelessly into the street and a companion called her back, saying, "Be careful, you could ruin your whole life that way.' Another added, "yeah, or even your career." Once safely in the car, there commenced the sort of surreal debate that only the young can withstand. The topic (clearly involving the stage rather than the lesser trades) was: what is more important - your life or your career?

By that time I was ready from anything from the kids. One boy had appeared on the McNeil Lehrer Show with his father to discuss child finances. I asked him afterwards how it went. He said, "Well, they seemed kind of nervous. I don't think they ever had a kid on the show before." The same young man once left us the following note concerning our hamster, Charmin II, whom I had thus named to discourage the young from squeezing him:

Charmin II died. I came in and found him dead in the cage. He is in the sandwich bag by cage so you can give him a proper burial. We went biking.

My greatest triumph came as the executive committee of the parent's association sat in the office of the regional superintendent of schools, a post we all thought had been created for the sole purpose of making our lives more difficult. The superintendent began the meeting by bragging about her office's new paint job, accomplished, she explained, with the aid of the whole staff volunteering over a weekend.

I listened respectfully and then asked one of the most important questions of my life:

"That's wonderful. Where did you get the paint?"

I could tell from her face that I had hit home. Indeed, the regional superintendent had raided the paint supply at the school warehouse and once having admitted done so, she could not refuse us similar access.

Which is how, one weekend, all of John Eaton was repainted by faculty, parents, and students without a hitch save for a gallon of white being up-dumped in the girl's bathroom.

One of the things you learn as a president of a parent's association is how differently the young see the world. This was reflected in a memo I wrote a few years later while serving on a committee planning a major capital expansion of the school. I wrote the committee chair about my interview with a focus group of two - an eight year old and a six year old. The results were humbling:

ME - They're going to fix up John Eaton. What would you like to see changed?
8 YEAR OLD - Nothing.

ME - What about replacing the play equipment with something new?
8 YEAR OLD - What's the matter with it?

ME - How about bright colored play equipment?
8 YEAR OLD - It wouldn't match the school.

I pressed the six year old in hope of getting amore favorable response to progress. His goals: "I wish they would chip off the paint and put the colors red, white and blue . . . I would like the sinks in the boys room unplugged 'cause it goes too slow . . . And could there be more soap? . . . Would like the water to stay on so you don't have to hold it . . . I want bigger cubbyholes. They're just about this small."

8 YEAR OLD - Bigger coat rooms
ME - How about the auditorium?
6 YEAR OLD - I want the floor painted brown again
8 YEAR OLD - They need a better gate. There's a hole in it and the ball goes through it and into the street all the time.
6 YEAR OLD - Can the kickball places be painted over so you can see where the bases are?

I wrote our committee chair: "The rather terrifying thought occurred to me that we might be embarking on a multimillion dollar project that the kids would do for a few thousand. Tough. They'll just have to suffer. I mean, where would the economy be if we grownups were as easy to please?"

At another DC public school a teacher asked the question, "What do people need to get along?" A student had written, "cooperation" and the teacher had crossed it out and written, "rules." In a few decades, the whole nation would try to run education that way, with lots of tests to make sure the instructions were being obeyed.

But it didn't work because it lacked the combination that on most days had made John Eaton work: competence, to be sure, but - just as important - cooperation, enthusiasm, and love.

April 15, 2008



Sure, Obama is an elitist. I thought it the first time I saw him. The tone, the dress, the moves, the constant pretense of being in deep thought, the patronizing explanation replacing impassioned argument. Another smart-ass from an Ivy League law school. The ones that talk grandly and carry a little feather. We've got a lot of them in Washington.

That's why many white liberals went for him. He was comfortably familiar in all but hue. They treat him like a prophet but in fact he's just another of the black ivies who are riding the political waves these days. For Obama and Patrick Deval it was Harvard, for Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia it was the Wharton School at Penn, for DC's Mayor Fenty is was Oberlin and for Newark's Cory Book it was Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Not bad if you can't have a mother who was Irish or latino.

But it's not as politically wonderful as it seems to some. St. Barack still can't get comfortably past one of the sleaziest politicians in his party's modern history and shows up weakly in matches against a guy who hasn't done anything worth remembering since Vietnam. His purported magnificence somehow fails to make the same impression at the polls as it does at the rallies and fundraisers of the well committed.

That's not surprising but it's worth noting and suggests a bit more humility in the Obama camp wouldn't hurt.

Of course, humility is not highly valued there. After all, it takes something beyond ordinary self-confidence to move from state senator to presidential candidate without even finishing your freshman term in the Senate.

On the other hand, Obama's not a corrupt and conniving cad nor a decrepit warrior looking for another dogfight, so it looks like he's the best we’re going to get.

And it's not totally his fault that he sees himself as God's gift to his party and his country. His elitism is not really the problem; it is the elitism of those who convinced him of this: the white liberals.

These are the people who couldn't stand John Edwards, the candidate who came closest to the New Deal and Great Society values of any Democratic leader in decades. But his policies didn't move them, only his accent and haircut.

This is not a new problem. I wrote about it almost two decades ago:

April 13, 2008


Sam Smith

A HALF CENTURY AGO , jazz musician Dave Brubeck became a star in an anomaly: some American foreign policy that actually worked. He recently was in Washington celebrating his participation in the Jazz Ambassadors program of the 1950s,which sent musicians abroad to show a different side of America. Among the other participants: Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Benny Goodman and Miles Davis.

In 1958, Brubeck visited 12 countries, including Poland, Turkey, East and West Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran and Iraq. As Brubeck explained it, "We were out 120 days without a day off, and it was rough travel. The water wasn't fit to drink, but you got so thirsty, you drank it. The State Department didn't want us to come home. They wanted us to stay out. They cancelled our concerts here at home."

In an interview with National Endowment for the Arts chair Dana Gioia several years ago, Brubeck told how the Voice of America had been his warm-up band: "Most of the people, when they spoke to you in English, sounded like Willis Conover from the Voice of America. His show came on every night worldwide. . . To this day . . . you can hear his voice. In Russia, people sound like Willis. If you listened to my recordings in the Soviet Union during the darkest days of the Cold War, you could be sent to Siberia or worse. They listened to my records, and they called it 'Jazz in Bones.' Using X-ray plates, they could record Willis Conover and get a fairly good recording. If you were caught with that, you were dead. But the doctors and the nurses and the students would very carefully listen to these recordings, and they had underground jazz meetings all the time."

Listening to Brubeck recall his tour under the prodding of Hedrick Smith at a Library of Congress event the other evening, it was clear that Brubeck had added his own flair for diplomacy. And not just from the stories. The Brubeck Institute Quintet played tunes between the anecdotes. The musicians were all 18-20 years old but the 87-year old Brubeck treated them with respect and enthusiasm, turning his chair to watch each solo and even at one point signaling to Christopher Smith that he noted the bassist hadn't got his solo. It's one of those things that happens to bass players so they both shrugged and smiled.

Brubeck himself only played one number all the way through and when it was time for his "Blue Rondo" he stood behind Javier Santiago and announced, "This piece is so damn hard that I'm going to have him play it." Santiago masterfully tackled the opening, relinquished the piano bench to Brubeck for the solo and then returned for the close. You don't see many legends do that sort of thing, especially when it's their tune.

As I watched Brubeck and the young musicians under his influence, I recalled being an 18-20 something drummer and buying a ten inch LP called "Jazz at Oberlin," which I would play repeatedly in my room and on my college radio station show, "Jam With Sam." Maybe I even played it while Brubeck was on his tour in 1958, my junior year. One thing is certain, for young college musicians and jazz fans of my vintage, trapped behind the Iron Curtain of 1950s values and culture, there was no doubt that Dave Brubeck revealed the meaning of life better than your parents or your professors. And if you were a young white musician, it was a sign that there was room for you, too.

Brubeck crossed the generations like it was just another national border in the Cold War. Matt Schudel of the Washington Post quotes the NEA's Gioia as saying: "There is no American alive who has done more extensive and effective cultural diplomacy than Dave Brubeck. Dave is not only one of the greatest living American artists, he's also one of the greatest living American diplomats."

Just the sort of guy you would have wanted to send to Poland in the midst of the Cold War. Brubeck told Gioa, "When we played in Poland in 1958, I had gone to Chopin's home, and I had seen the statue that the Nazis had almost broken. I had been in his home and seen his pianos. So that night on the train to the last concert in Poland, I composed in my head a song dedicated to Chopin and the Polish people. As an encore, we played it, and there was absolute silence in the auditorium. I thought, now I've ruined all 12 concerts. They're shocked that I would play in a Chopinesque kind of way. And then, the place went insane with applause. . . It's called Dziekuje, which means 'thank you' in Polish. Here it is 2005 - that was 1958 - and they still remember that piece."


It hadn't been easy getting to Poland. A Hedrick Smith documentary website notes:

"The tour also featured a stop in Poland, which required a journey into communist-controlled East Berlin. Because of a State Department snafu, the group didn't have the necessary visas. A tour official found a way to get papers, but collecting them required a risky illegal journey through Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and into communist territory. 'I was supposed to be in [music promoter] Madame Gunderlach's trunk to go through the gate,' Dave explains, 'And of course, there were plenty of signs telling you not to go through. Many people that had gone through into East Germany disappeared for about six months or longer. So I didn't want to be in that position.'

"Brubeck refused to ride in the trunk, but did crouch down in the backseat and was dropped off at a big, non-descript building. 'I sat there for two hours alone in this bare room,' he said. 'And this guy, very shabbily dressed came and sat next to me. He said, 'You Mister Kulu?' And I said, 'No, Mister Brubeck.' And he said, 'No, you Mister Kulu.' And I said, 'No, I'm Mister Brubeck.' So he took out a Polish newspaper and there's a picture of me. And under it, it says, Mister Kulu. So I figured it out - "Mr. Cool Jazz, that's what Kulu means. He thought that [was] my name. But he had the papers for me to continue on through East Berlin into Poland."

The problems didn't end there. Reports Schudel: "Later he climbed aboard an East German train bound for Poland with his wife, son, three band mates and a musician's wife. When guards demanded to know why the Americans were carrying so much luggage, Brubeck recalls, he had to pantomime drumming to explain that they were musicians traveling with instruments. His boom, boom' drew suspicious glares, but they eventually made it to Warsaw."

In India that Brubeck found only one decent piano - a 12 foot grand in Bombay with gold in its keys. He wondered aloud what he would play at a major event the next day. His hosts answered by gathering 20 men who lifted the piano and carried it to the stadium. In Afghanistan it was tougher. Kabul, recalled Brubeck, "was a hard place to find a piano." They located a terrible one, but Brubeck said it was okay; there were "just certain notes I won't play."


But Brubeck didn't just perform. He learned. In Turkey it was about 9/8 time. In India about a different standard for improvisation that Deepak Ram explained at the Library of Congress event: "We encourage improvisation after you have studied 12 years." Everywhere Brubeck went he not only played, he listened. Out of it came a number of tunes including Blue Rondo a la Turk based on the Turkish zeybek,

And he kept at it. Thirty years later, Brubeck had Mikhail Gorbachev tapping his fingers to "Take Five" at a break during a stalled summit meeting. The next day Secretary of State George Shultz gave Brubeck a big hug and credited him with breaking the conference stalemate.

But then this was a white musician who had won the first jazz poll ever taken by the black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. And Schudel tells the story of Brubeck and William "The Lion" Smith doing a tour in the Netherlands, during which Smith is asked by a journalist, "Isn't it true that no white man can play jazz?" Smith, Brubeck beside him, replied, "I'd like you to meet my son."

It was not unlike what Louis Armstrong said to Jack Teagarden on their first meeting: "You're ofay, I'm spade, let's blow."

It isn't that jazz musicians are better people; it's just they have better things on their mind than national and cultural anger. Finding these better things is the quickest way out of human conflict: the commonality of appreciation overcomes fear of the uncommon. Jazz has always been a metaphor for this: a place where everyone gets to solo but only if they also back up everyone else - that mystical blend of individual and community that makes some human societies thrive. One day we may even learn how to make it work for countries as well.






April 04, 2008



No, not the Robbie Williams album and song, but real life as played out by a growing number of stunningly ambitious and self centered figures ranging from the capital's school superintendent to the head of Bear Stearns and Barack Obama.

I first noticed it when I realized I had voted for the wrong candidate for DC mayor: Adrian Fenty. Son of longtime shopkeepers, child of the city, popular in all its parts although few could really tell you why, he seemed like the best of the lot. I put aside the qualms I had after he paid a visit to our neighborhood and stood talking to me one foot away as if there was a 37" HD screen between us. And the I'm the boss manner he handed an assistant his ringing cell phone as he spoke.

In office, Fenty began to treat everyone the way he treated that assistant. As I described it later:

Fenty sometimes reminds us of a fresh MBA trying to prove his leadership by following all the bullet points in some management book he picked up at an airport news stand. He has put an excessive emphasis on proving his decisiveness and virtually none on demonstrating judgment, working well with a variety of constituencies and understanding that certainty has no particular connection with competence.

It has only been a few months and he has already thrown the school system for a loop, ended all democratic participation in it, launched a direct assault on the city's home rule charter, made a number of lousy appointments and agreed to a sweetheart deal for a suite at the Verizon Center that would be illegal if anyone in power in DC gave a damn.

Add to Fenty's misdirected ego is the fact that he was far more beholden to downtown business interests and their guides, the Washington Post and the Federal City Council, then he ever let on during the campaign. There is a reasonable issue of integrity here. Fenty has not only failed us; he also fooled us.

At the time I thought it was just a character flaw. But now it looks more like a pattern. In February, his school superintendent, Michelle Rhee - who has proved just as carelessly arrogant - was on PBS with this exchange:

JOHN MERROW: Have you done anything that you regret?

MICHELLE RHEE: You know, I'm a very unusual person in that, in my entire life, I don't have any regrets.

And then this from Dana Milbank's coverage of the Senate hearing at which Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz testified:

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) asked the corporate-welfare recipient whether he shares any blame for his indigent circumstances. "Do you believe that your management team has any responsibility for the company's collapse?"

Schwartz could think of no missteps -- not even his decision to remain at a conference at the Breakers in Palm Beach while his firm was imploding. "I just simply have not been able to come up with anything, even with the benefit of hindsight," said the blameless chief executive, escorted into the hearing room by superlawyer Robert Bennett.

Then we have the man who was, until four years ago, an undistinguished state senator from Illinois being presented to us - with no little help from his spin machine - as the new John F Kennedy, if not Jesus himself. There is something about Obama's self absorbed self confidence, total lack of humility or even great consciousness of those around him - that reminds me of Fenty. And if he came to our neighborhood, I suspect that 37" HD screen would come between us, too.

What has he done? Not much. What are the policies he proposes that evoke such a passionate response? Still to be revealed. The other night I watched his Chris Matthews interview with the screaming students backed by cheerleaders at West Chester University and then, not long after, caught the latest American Idol. The grossly disproportionate enthusiasm of the audience was almost identical, but in the end I felt closer to Brooke White, David Archuleta, Kristy Lee Cook and Michael Johns - even Chris Matthews - than I did to Obama. I can't get over that sense that there's something not quite real going on in our relationship. After all, if David Archuelta wins, I don't have to listen to him. If Obama wins, I'm in for four years of something I don't know much about at all.

If you watch Obama, you can easily slip into the illusion that he has actually done something, that he has some great ideas, and that he can solve problems better than his opponents when, in fact, you're going to wake up some night at 3 a.m. and realize that he never really explained how to get out of the Iraq war, how he was going to solve the current fiscal crisis and so forth.

A while back I drew a parallel between Obama and Tony Robbins. It may not have been so far off. Obama's pal and mentor, Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts, will be taking time off from his public responsibilities to hustle a self improvement book. Here's how Matt Viser of the Boston Globe describes the project:

Governor Deval Patrick isn't merely penning his memoirs. The book proposal he submitted to publishers reads like the roadmap for a self-help manual, one in which he will celebrate optimism, rail against cynicism, and seek to inspire a nation with his own life story.

The 65-page pitch letter that led to his $1.35 million advance last week from a Random House imprint reveals, in its overflowing optimism and aggressive marketing plan, just how high the freshman governor is aiming when the book is published in 2010.

It details a strategy to sell at least 150,000 copies through a "vigorous media campaign," a nationwide book-signing tour, multiple speaking engagements, and efforts to persuade big corporations to buy the book by the carton, activities that promise to pull Patrick away from Massachusetts and the State House during the last year of his term. . .

The document describes an unusual business arrangement in which A Better Chance, the charity that lifted Patrick out of the South Side of Chicago and sent him to Milton Academy, will play an integral role in promoting and marketing the book through a ready-made network of national leaders, corporate supporters, and pre-scheduled events.

Patrick writes that major corporations are likely to buy tens of thousands of books.

"A Better Chance has numerous top-drawer corporate sponsors - GE, Sony, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Verizon, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, American Express (and many others) - who are capable of making significant bulk purchases of the book and distributing these copies among employees, business contacts, community leaders, students and others," the governor wrote.

In his proposal, Patrick dangles the promise of celebrity endorsers, saying he has the connections to persuade high-profile figures to put promotional blurbs on the book, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, former Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, Harvard Medical School professor Alvin Poussaint, and Senator Barack Obama, who by then could be president.

Patrick portrays himself as an inspirational figure who is already getting Massachusetts residents to see their world in a new way and is ready to carry his message to a broader audience. While he boasts that he is able to draw big crowds and energize young people, he says that America is tired of a culture of self-centeredness.

"No matter who or what may try to stop us, we can reshape this world together," he writes. "My life is a living testament to that truth."

Which is okay until you read the actual news about what's been happening in Massachusetts, such as Dan Kennedy's description in the Guardian:

Patrick, a former Clinton administration official and corporate lawyer, has been stumbling since his inauguration. Some of it has been over silliness, such as Patrick's decision to replace his state car with a Cadillac SUV and to order $10,000 drapes for his statehouse office. Some of it involved his inability to bend a recalcitrant legislature to his will on such good-government issues as closing corporate tax loopholes.

A lot of it, though, was about his misguided proposal to build three gambling casinos in Massachusetts. The House speaker, Sal DiMasi, had been signaling for months that he wouldn't go along with the "casino culture" and its concomitant increases in crime, traffic and various social ills. Late last month, DiMasi finally brought down the hammer, as the House defeated Patrick's casino bill by an overwhelming 108 to 46.

And here's where it went from bad to worse for Patrick. The governor failed to stick around for the vote, choosing to travel to New York on unspecified "personal business" rather than stand with those who'd stood by him. That, in turn, led to a story in the New York Times on March 27 - on page one, above the fold! - accompanied by the understated headline "Early dazzle, then tough path for a governor.". . .

In DC, Michelle Rhee, one of the new group of rock star school superintendents who typically come in at extraordinarily large salaries and stay an extraordinarily short time, isn't off to a good start, either - thanks in part to a tyrannical approach to matters general, telling one group of students they couldn't leave their high school during lunch, as well as proposing to close 23 schools and turning an uncertain number of them over for uncertain purposes, presumably some of which will make someone an awful lot of unearned money.

These examples only suggest a pattern, admittedly without proving it. My hunch is here are products of a generation that has sadly been given Clinton, Bush and Trump as role models and so - being among the most ambitious of their ilk - they sally forth with such guides and without the restraints and wisdom that gave power some balance before the second robber era - things like parents who had gone through the depression, moral pointers from both religion and a political activism that no longer exits, connections made through community rather than through Ipod and text messaging.

In each case, there is capacity for good and for evil. There is talent, yet there is an absence of a context for it. There is the ability to lead but only if those around them follow. And they come from a culture and live in a time when a failing Massachusetts governor can get $1.5 million to write a book to inspire others to be just like him. A time when logic doesn't play much of a role, but getting people to forget about logic certainly does.

In the end, if we had more leaders capable of regrets over the past, we might have less cause to have fears over the future.

April 03, 2008


During the Clinton years, liberals and their organizations developed a postmodern indifference to moral issues when the Clintons were involved. This virus turned into an epidemic under Bush and hurts us still. Your editor attempted to deal with the issue in this article:

SAM SMITH, PROGRESSIVE REVIEW, 1999 - Both the contemporary right, which views moral issues as immutable absolutes handed down from above, and the postmodern left, which denies the potential for a common moral code, miss the point. Values exist because human communities need them. We are seeing played out what happens when the moral consensus breaks down. Months ago a psychiatrist friend described the Clinton story as being one of the dysfunctional American family. A family that not only can't agree on a moral code, but on whether we need a one at all. No culture fares well under such circumstances.

I have spent much of my life in two places of strikingly different values: urban Washington and rural Maine. I can perhaps best describe the difference this way: I once bought a used car sight unseen for my son over the phone from David at R&D Automotive in Freeport, Maine. I figured I would do far better that way then I would in any used car lot in the Washington metropolitan area. The car made four and two-thirds round trips across the United States and was still worth enough that when it finally gave out in Moab, Utah, it paid for the bus and train tickets my second son needed to get to San Francisco.

I did not make this decision on religious or philosophical grounds; rather it was -- as subsequent events indicated -- highly pragmatic. I simply took advantage of one of the places left in America where a person's word is still considered worthy bond.

Washington, in my time at least, has never been such a place. One of the most distressing aspects of living here has been dealing with people incapable of relationships without intrigue, hidden agendas and exploitation. The Clinton affair represents these defects at their worst.

A study done of Quaker boarding schools and military academies found they have several things in common. There is, firstly, a moral code. Secondly, this code is not an immutable set of rules but rather something that endures the rigorous examination of daily application. Thirdly, the code is a topic of constant argument.

Such a living, pragmatic, regularly debated morality - - quite different from that demanded by the right and shunned by the left -- would make this city and this nation a much healthier and happier place. At least we would then no longer have to ask so often Washington's most frequent and self-revealing question: "Now, what did he mean by that?"


During the Clinton years, liberals and their organizations developed a postmodern indifference to moral issues when the Clintons were involved. This virus turned into an epidemic under Bush and hurts us still. Your editor attempted to deal with the issue in this article:

SAM SMITH, PROGRESSIVE REVIEW, 1999 - Both the contemporary right, which views moral issues as immutable absolutes handed down from above, and the postmodern left, which denies the potential for a common moral code, miss the point. Values exist because human communities need them. We are seeing played out what happens when the moral consensus breaks down. Months ago a psychiatrist friend described the Clinton story as being one of the dysfunctional American family. A family that not only can't agree on a moral code, but on whether we need a one at all. No culture fares well under such circumstances.

I have spent much of my life in two places of strikingly different values: urban Washington and rural Maine. I can perhaps best describe the difference this way: I once bought a used car sight unseen for my son over the phone from David at R&D Automotive in Freeport, Maine. I figured I would do far better that way then I would in any used car lot in the Washington metropolitan area. The car made four and two-thirds round trips across the United States and was still worth enough that when it finally gave out in Moab, Utah, it paid for the bus and train tickets my second son needed to get to San Francisco.

I did not make this decision on religious or philosophical grounds; rather it was -- as subsequent events indicated -- highly pragmatic. I simply took advantage of one of the places left in America where a person's word is still considered worthy bond.

Washington, in my time at least, has never been such a place. One of the most distressing aspects of living here has been dealing with people incapable of relationships without intrigue, hidden agendas and exploitation. The Clinton affair represents these defects at their worst.

A study done of Quaker boarding schools and military academies found they have several things in common. There is, firstly, a moral code. Secondly, this code is not an immutable set of rules but rather something that endures the rigorous examination of daily application. Thirdly, the code is a topic of constant argument.

Such a living, pragmatic, regularly debated morality - - quite different from that demanded by the right and shunned by the left -- would make this city and this nation a much healthier and happier place. At least we would then no longer have to ask so often Washington's most frequent and self-revealing question: "Now, what did he mean by that?"