Friday, December 31, 2004

Here's the Letter You've Been Looking for ...

Dear Friends and Family:

It's customary, I believe, for letters like this to be inserted into Christmas cards sent through the postal service. Instead, as most of you know, I simply inserted a card with a message to visit That is, I hope, what brought you here.

It's also customary, I believe, for letters such as this to be arranged chronologically.

Scratch that: What was interesting in my life in 2004 didn't occur chronologically. So I'll note things by a different sense of priorities.

The travel highlight of the year was my September trip to Las Vegas to attend my sister Cathy's wedding. Unusual in many ways, perhaps most notably by the fact that I met my future brother-in-law, Bryan Biermann, just a few minutes before the rehearsal dinner.

Most significantly, perhaps -- aside from the wedding itself, which was a lovely sunset ceremony in the courtyard of a wedding and banquet facility that caters to Las Vegas locals (no Elvis impersonators presiding at this ceremony -- was seeing so many family friends and relatives whom I had not seen in many, many years. There were people there I had quite literally not seen in more than a quarter-century. It was a real pleasure to catch up with aunts and uncles and cousins who live scattered throughout the country. (To be fair, there was a huge contingent of guests from Wisconsin, the ur-location of the Sincere and Michalak families.) Most everyone stayed at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, which must have delighted in hosting so many congenital gamblers among the wedding guests.

After all the festivities had ended, and I had some luck at the blackjack tables (thanks to my sister, the new Mrs. Bryan Biermann, who staked me to $100), I spent an extra day in Las Vegas just being a tourist and consumer.

I visited two museums the Monday following the wedding: the world-famous Liberace Museum on Tropicana and the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society. I had visited the Historical Society once before. It's off the beaten path for most Las Vegas tourists , located in the beautiful Lorenzi Park off of Bonanza, but it's well worth a visit. In fact, were I forced to choose only one of those two museums to tour again, it would be the Nevada State Museum. The exhibits are well-laid-out, the explanatory matter is easy to read, and there are many items of interest whether you are more interested in politics or culture or natural history. (There are dinosaur bones as well as "Rat Pack" displays.) Most fascinating to me was discovering how World War II, in addition to the building of Boulder Dam, was a key to the growth of Las Vegas.

I won't dismiss the Liberace Museum entirely. It's a microcosmic study of the immigrant experience in America, telling the story of how the son of Polish and Italian working-class immigrants can become the most fabulous entertainer in the world. If you like kitsch and camp, it's there. Considering the number of awards the Museum claims to have won, however, it was disappointing to see things like misspellings and grammatical errors on the museum's explanatory matter. And why, for instance, is a photo of Liberace with Ronald and Nancy Reagan (and a fourth, unidentified man) not captioned? It's clear the photo was taken in the late 1950s or early '60s, but some explanation would have been useful.

The material on Liberace's early life in Milwaukee was tantalizingly sparse. It showed some pictures of what purported to be Mitchell Street or another commercial district on the Milwaukee South Side, but it did not look familiar to me; it really could have been a generic photo from any future Rust Belt city in the 1930s, from Buffalo to Cleveland to Pittsburgh.

Nonetheless, I was charmed enough by the Liberace Museum to leave the gift shop with a CD recording of Christmas songs from the Liberace TV show of the 1950s, as well as a sparkly tree ornament, which is hanging now on my Christmas tree.

* * *

Politically, the most significant news of the year was my appointment to the Electoral Board for the City of Charlottesville. I succeeded Leroy Hamlett, who had served on the Board for more than 25 years, and he was kind enough to guide me in the month before I took his seat, as well as afterward, as my colleagues -- B. Stephanie Commander, Secretary, and Joan Schatzman, Vice Chair -- and I supervised two elections, the May City Council election and the November general election.

Although the local GOP ran two strong candidates for City Council, Ann Reinicke and Kenneth Jackson, who were both endorsed by the Daily Progress (Charlottesville's only daily newspaper), they were -- there's no other word for it -- trounced by the Democratic slate on Election Day. This really came as no surprise, since the Democratic Party has such a large majority in Charlottesville. (For example, Charlottesville voted 3-1 in November for Democratic congressional candidate Al Weed against incumbent Republican Virgil Goode, precisely the opposite of the two candidates' vote totals in the rest of the Fifth Congressional District.)

The past year has seen a robust debate in Charlottesville about the sort of electoral system the city should have. Currently, Charlottesville elects its five City Council members at-large in elections every two years. Rob Schilling, the sole Republican serving on Council, launched a discussion of reforming the system to allow council members to be elected by wards (districts), a system that was much more widespread until Jim Crow laws of the early 20th century eliminated ward elections and replaced them with at-large elections in a (largely successful) effort to dilute the votes of newly enfranchised blacks and recent immigrants.

A Task Force was appointed by City Council to explore the ward system and other electoral reforms. The Task Force sponsored a series of eight public forums in September and October to solicit citizen input, and its final report is due to be presented to City Council on January 3, 2005.

One of the perks of being on the Electoral Board is the annual meeting of the Virginia Electoral Board Association at The Homestead spa and resort in Hot Springs (Bath County), Virginia. The Homestead has been in existence since 1766, and it is one of the most elegant resorts I have ever visited. The VEBA meeting takes place in early March, so it is not possible to take advantage of all the activities the Homestead has to offer (at least in terms of outdoor sports, hiking, and so forth) but the indoor pool -- fed with natural hot springs -- and spa are enough to entertain anyone.

The State Board of Elections also held training in Richmond in May, which was informative, especially since the first head of the new federal Election Assistance Commission, Dr. DeForest B. Soaries, Jr., spoke at the luncheon. (Still, the conference facilities at the Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Richmond were not quite up to the standards set by The Homestead.)

In December, Charlottesville hosted a meeting of the Hart InterCivic users group. Hart InterCivic manufactures the voting machines used in Charlottesville and a few dozen other jurisdictions around the country. The meeting focused on a lot of technical issues, but it was useful nonetheless. It was particularly useful to speak with election officials from across the United States about problems they encounter and the solutions they devise. Comparing notes with people from large jurisdictions (e.g., Orange County, California) and smaller ones (several tiny counties in Washington State and Ohio, for instance) was quite informative.

Coming fast on the tail of the Hart users group meeting, also in Charlottesville, was the annual meeting of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia (VRAV). This meeting attracted registrars and assistant registrars from most of the 130+ jurisdictions in Virginia, and was ably put together and hosted by Charlottesville General Registrar Sheri Iachetta and Albemarle County General Registrar Jackie Harris. A number of election equipment vendors came to hawk their wares; whether any sales resulted remains to be seen.

At the opening banquet of the VRAV conference, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jim Heilman, the former registrar in Albemarle County, who now works as an international elections consultant. Earlier this year, he helped run the first democratic elections in Afghanistan, and he had just returned from Ukraine, where he was an observer in the disputed second round presidential election. He was planning to go back to Ukraine to observe the rerun election on December 26, which resulted in a victory for Viktor Yushchenko. (Small world department: I found out from a Wall Street Journal article by John Fund that Yushchenko's wife, the new Ukrainian first lady, is a Ukrainian-American named Kateryna Chumachenko Yushchenko. Back in the early 1980s, I worked with the then-Kathy Chumachenko at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, before she went on to take positions in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.)

* * *

On the cultural scene, I took advantage of my position as theatre critic for The Metro Herald to see many productions in both Charlottesville and Washington. (To be perfectly candid, I wrote reviews of fewer shows than I saw.) Among the better plays and musicals I saw this past year:

* The Producers at the Kennedy Center
* Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, also at the Kennedy Center
* Ragtime, at the Heritage Repertory Theatre in Charlottesville (my fifth time to see that remarkable musical
* Three Days of Rain, part of the Live Arts Summer Theatre Festival in Charlottesville, which includes the definitive monologue about the Oedipus myth
*Allegro, a scaled-down revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's ambitious 1947 flop, at Signature Theatre in Arlington
*The Highest Yellow, a great example of why the Broadway musical genre is not dying, with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, also at Signature

A letter I wrote in response to a cranky article by Terry Teachout about the decline of the Broadway musical appeared in the September issue Commentary magazine. I'll try to post the text of that letter later, since it's not easily accessible on the Web.

I also attended the Virginia Film Festival and saw far more movies than I could count. I have already mentioned Paper Clips (see entry, below, for December 17), but I was also quite impressed by David Gordon Green's Undertow, Nicole Cassell's The Woodsman, and Angels, a locally-produced movie by Oscar-winning director Paul Wagner still looking for a distributor. All in all, the Virginia Film Festival is one of the best cultural events Charlottesville -- indeed, all of Virginia -- has to offer.

As for bad movies, the worst I saw this year were Christmas with the Kranks and Troy. Troy had to be the absolute worst, since it was the only film I saw that I wanted to walk out of. I recall that, while watching Troy, I kept saying to myself, "This can't possibly get worse, this can't possibly get worse." But it did. Christmas with the Kranks might be justified as a lark, but Troy has no redeeming characteristics.

The funniest book I read this year was Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss. Originally a best-seller in the United Kingdom, who would have thought that a book about punctuation could be so gripping and so laugh-out-loud hilarious at the same time? The sad thing is, Truss's book shows how much we need better copy editors and proofreaders on both sides of the Atlantic.

I read three books in a row that, coincidentally, involved people I know (or knew). The first was The Lavender Scare : The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, by David K. Johnson (who happens to be a college classmate of mine). One of the key figures in the book is Frank Kameny, whom I also know and who is one of the pioneers of the modern gay rights movement, who fought the government Goliath and emerged a victorious David. The book, which I plan to review in full, tells the amazing story about McCarthy-era witch hunts against gay men and lesbians, who lost jobs in far greater numbers than anyone accused of being Communist did during the same period.

The second book in this series was The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics, by John A. Andrew. As the title indicates, the book traces the beginnings of the modern conservative movement. Although I should have expected it, the book is full of names of people I have known in my personal and professional life. One who looms large is the late Marvin Liebman, who practically invented direct-mail fundraising, but among other friends and acquaintances whose names come up in the book are Dick Cowan (who was at Sharon in 1960 and who later became national director of NORML), former Congressman Bob Bauman, John Buckley (my successor as chairman of the Libertarian Party of Virginia), and David Nolan, founder of the Libertarian Party. These are just a few of the familiar names in the text, people who were instrumental in the development of the modern conservative and libertarian movements.

The third book I finished was Bringing the Market Back in: The Political Revitalization of Market Liberalism, by John L. Kelley. This book goes back farther than Andrew's book on the Sixties and traces the roots of the conservative/libertarian movement to the 1940s, with Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom as a touchstone, along with his founding of the Mont Pelerin Society. In a rare move for an academic historian, Kelley focuses seriously on the history of the Libertarian Party as he looks at the rise of "market liberals" within the U.S. political system. He traces the "market liberal" movement through the early 1990s (the book was published in 1997) with a special emphasis on the Reagan years. Once again, there are many people I know who play important roles in the book, including former LP presidential candidate Ed Clark, the Cato Institute's Ed Crane and David Boaz, early libertarian activist Don Ernsberger (now chief of staff to U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher), and many others.

It should come as no surprise that I enthusiastically recommend all three of these books.

* * *

In addition to all this, I continued singing in the 11:30 Sunday morning Mass choir at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Charlottesville. Choir director Rob Schilling has put together a wonderful group of people, at least two vocalists for each of the SATB parts, as well as musicians who play a range of instruments, including the basic guitar and piano, as well as violin, flute, cello, trumpet, and tambourine. We sing a good variety of music, mostly contemporary, some of Rob's own composition, and it seems the congregation appreciates our efforts.

* * *

I am sure other things happened during 2004. Now that it's New Year's Eve, however, it seems more appropriate to look forward to 2005. Much will happen. You can rely on that.

Happy New Year to one and all!

-- Rick

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