Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Gas Prices: How Much Is Too Much?

Waldo Jaquith posts a chart on his blog that suggests the minimum wage (per hour) is converging with the price of a gallon of gasoline and asks, "What happens when the minimum wage exceeds the cost of a gallon of gasoline?" (meaning, as one of his commenters notes, "when the cost of a gallon of gasoline exceeds the minimum wage").

Waldo does not find this scenario hopeful.

For me, he provides an opportunity to discuss gasoline prices, something I've wanted to do for some time now but just haven't got around to it. I think he frets too much.

The fact is, gasoline prices are not as much of a hardship as one might think, even for those few people who both earn the minimum wage and own a car to use for their personal transportation.

Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker notes on the blog he writes jointly with federal judge Richard Posner:

Gasoline prices have risen by about $1 during the past year to almost $3 a gallon. This is a very large increase over a short period of time, but it should be put in perspective. Spending on gasoline by the average household has risen from about 2% of its total consumer spending to a still low 3%-it reached over 4-1/2% of personal consumption spending in 1981. The real cost of gasoline, adjusted for changes in the price level, is less than in 1981. Since a typical family has a higher real income than it did 25 years ago, the burden of high gas prices is easier to bear now than at that earlier time. The higher price will pinch for families who commute long distances to work in their SUV's, but the price of gasoline does not have a major effect on the many poor families who take public transportation to work.
Meanwhile, Glen Whitman, who worked under me as an intern at the International Freedom Foundation (when he was a Koch Fellow and an undergraduate at American University in D.C.) and is now an associate professor of economics at California State University-Northridge, posts this graph on his own blog, Agoraphilia:

Glen explains:
So what can we see? Even looking at the poorest fifth of the population, the fraction of income required to buy gasoline is still lower than it was in the early '80s. Not surprisingly, the fraction has risen a great deal over the last few years, but it still has not surpassed its historical peak. The same holds true for every other income quintile, but the effect is more muted, since higher income means any given price difference will correspond to a smaller fraction of income. (If gas prices stay at their current price of about $2.90/gallon, however, then we could pass that early-80s high-water mark this year.)

How is it possible that the same qualitative pattern holds for both rich and poor, given the rising disparity in income? It’s true that the income gap has increased since the 1970s. But that’s not the same as saying the poor have gotten poorer, because in fact real incomes have risen for every income group over this period. The gap has grown because the rich have gotten a lot richer, while the poor have gotten a little richer.
Glen's explanation goes a long way to answering an unspoken question I have had on my mind: Why does demand for gasoline seem inelastic even in the face of what appear to be dramatic price increases? The reason is that, no matter what income bracket an American might be in, the price is not hitting the pocketbook as hard as it seems to do so on the surface.

Another aspect of the situation is this: As prices rise, despite short-run inelasticity of demand, consumption will decline (due to the substitution effect), and prices will follow. Here is Richard Posner replying to Gary Becker:
In fact the cause of the price spike is primarily, as I said, the increase in crude oil prices, and that increase is in turn primarily the result of rapid growth in demand for oil by China (now the world's second-largest consumer of oil) and India, a growth that has outpaced supply. The notion that this represents a crisis--that the world is running out of oil--is ridiculous. In the short run, with demand rising faster than supply, price rises steeply, producing "obscene" profits since roughly the same quantity is being sold at higher prices. In the longer run, consumption falls as consumers search out substitutes; supply rises as previously uneconomical sources of oil become economical; and so profits fall back to a normal level. . . .

From the broad national standpoint, we should welcome high gasoline prices because it is in the national interest to reduce our consumption of gasoline, and high prices will do that, dramatically so in the long run when more substitution is possible.
We'll leave the question of the minimum wage for another day, unless you'd like to visit my previous posts on it, here and here.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

I'm an Uncle!

This just in from California:

My sister called to tell me that, after 23 hours in the hospital and one hour of very serious pushing, I have a nephew. Still unnamed, he weighs in at 7 pounds 7 ounces and is 20 inches long.

Photo and updates to come.

Congratulations to the proud parents, Bryan and Cathy Biermann!

Update: The new nephew's name is Gavin James Biermann and he was born at 2:29 p.m. (PDT).

Photo Update: Unlike Tom and Katie (that's "TomKat" to the tabloids), my sister and brother-in-law are not shy about taking pictures of their newborn. In fact, there is proof that my nephew, Gavin, exists -- unlike the spectral Suri. Here are the latest baby mugshots:



Capitol Hill Eye Candy

Regardless of whether you're straight or gay, male or female, you will probably enjoy the faces and figures assembled by the staff of The Hill newspaper in their feature about the 50 most beautiful people on Capitol Hill. I'm not sure who the judges were, but they tended to have very good taste.

One has to wonder -- was including the House Majority Leader a form of sucking up? (And how did they manage to get a picture of him without a cigarette -- or two -- in hand?) How did Alabama Congressman Artur Davis get so many staff members on the list? My own question is, Why was Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake left off? Is youthful libertarianism too threatening?

One thing's for sure: There are more than a few congressional staffers who have a career in modeling waiting for them if their Members get dumped by the voters this November.

The Children's Hour?

Tim Hulsey sent me the link to this video, "Ernest and Bertram." Somehow Lillian Hellman's dialogue never sounded so poignant, nor so authentic. (Though for my money, the opening title sequence shows the subtlest wit.)

I have to wonder: What would Avenue Q's Rod think about all this?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Sparking the Virginia Blog Carnival

Spark It Up! co-contributor Kilo has posted this week's Virginia Blog Carnival, giving us some historical background on just what a "carnival" is:

The history of the carnival goes back to Egypt and the spring festival of Osiris celebrating the yearly flooding of the Nile and the renewal of life that it brought. In Athens, during the 6th century B.C. they celebrated the god Dionysus. Later during the Roman empire the carnivals caused civil discourse. The three major Roman carnivals were Bacchanalia, the Saturnalia, and the Lupercalia. The Catholic church adopted the carnival as the celebration before Lent. The one thing they all have in common is the feasting and fellowship. We bloggers and readers shall also feast. We shall dine on other's words. We shall glutton for knowledge and entertainment as our ancestors before us.
And, indeed, the past week has produced an intellectual feast, as Bob Bork might put it.

Of course, not everything is cerebral. Check out the video, "Chad Vader," posted at Commonwealth Conservative. And while you're at it, check out "Vader Sessions" at Bearing Drift -- not listed among the carnival entries. No wonder YouTube is so popular (and not just among copyright and trademark attorneys)!

Go, visit, enjoy!

A Lunar Memory

Today is the anniversary of the safe return to Earth of the Apollo XI astronauts. They landed in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, after two of them -- Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin -- became the first two humans to walk on the surface of the moon.

Two years ago, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the lunar landing, I wrote a madeleine for The Metro Herald that recalled my own feelings as a 10-year-old boy on the night of the first moonwalk. (Funny -- today, putting the terms "10-year-old boy" and "moonwalk" in the same sentence conjures up an entirely different image. But I digress.)

Here is that article, published in The Metro Herald's edition of July 23, 2004:

Celebrating Humankind’s Greatest Achievement
Richard E. Sincere
Exclusive to The Metro Herald

(Charlottesville, July 20) --- It was a sultry midsummer Sunday evening, warm even by Wisconsin standards.

Only recently had the Milwaukee archdiocese permitted local churches to expand their weekend Mass schedules beyond the traditional Sunday morning services to include Saturday and Sunday late afternoons and evenings. (The first time my family went to church on a Saturday for the new “vigil Mass,” the church bulletin had a headline, “Do you feel Jewish?”)

Despite the Vatican II reforms that had shortened the Sunday liturgy significantly, I was anxious for this evening Mass to end. Normally a well-behaved, quiet 10-year-old, on this occasion I persistently tugged my mother’s sleeve, silently asking, “When will this be finished? When can we go home?” She replied with a motherly, “Calm down. We won’t miss it.”

What was it I was so afraid of missing? What had transformed a languid, leisurely Sunday into a mess of preteen anxiety?

The date was Sunday, July 20, 1969. If that does not sufficiently explain my addled state of mind that day, you were probably born much later.

That was the day, 35 years ago, that man first set foot on the moon.

That was, perhaps, the last time the nation united as one to celebrate an accomplishment of peace and science. The New York Times reported the news with a front-page headline in 96-point type. (By comparison, this article you’re reading is in 10-point type.)

The entire country was riveted to its television screens. Normal programming was pre-empted by coverage of this momentous event. Lassie and Bonanza reruns would have to wait for another Sunday evening.

There have been other occasions when all Americans were as absorbed by a news event, so absorbed as to fear blinking on the chance that something might pass them by. But those events have been almost uniformly tragic ones: the Kennedy assassinations, Nixon’s resignation speech, the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

What made this event even more remarkable was that the nation was at war, not only abroad but, metaphorically speaking, at home. The Vietnam War had divided the country politically. Protest demonstrations often erupted into violence while American soldiers, sailors, and Marines were fighting and dying overseas.

Yet on that hot summer night, the fabric of the nation was noticeably unrent. We shared a communion of fascination that is unlikely to be repeated in the jaundiced age in which we live today.

There is a current comic strip called “Red and Rover” by cartoonist Brian Basset, which looks at the world through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy and his dog at about the same time as the moon landing. Young Red’s obsession with the space program may be exceeded in intensity only by his crush on Marcia Brady. To him, as to many of his contemporaries, the names Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were not just words in a history book – they were genuine, visible, vibrant heroes.

And Walter Cronkite, Frank McGee, and Wernher von Braun were not just television talking-heads – they explained and made accessible to youngsters and adults alike the wonderment of lunar travel.

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”: The words are as familiar – or should be as familiar – to Americans as “Four score and seven years ago . . .” or “When in the course of human events . . .”

Armstrong’s well-chosen ten words sum up the ingenuity, courage, and incredible virtuosity that took us to the moon – man’s destination from time immemorial – within a decade of the decision to go there.

Today we live in a world of technology we take for granted. Home computers, cellphones, iPods® are simply parts of daily life. A visitor to Cape Canaveral can look at the banks of computers in its 1969-vintage control room and shake his head in bewilderment at how such primitive technology could have taken not just one, not just three, but some two dozen men safely to the moon and back. (I know, because I was that visitor to Cape Canaveral just a few years ago.)

We have made many scientific advances in the past 100 years. Didn’t we just celebrate the centenary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk a few months ago? In the 65 years and seven months between that achievement and the moon landing, we saw the development of jet engines, the atomic bomb, television, and satellite communications. Since 1969 we have developed more technologies and inventions than anyone could count. The recent prospect of privately-underwritten space travel is exciting in an economic and political sense, but hardly awe-inspiring.

Really: In the past 35 years, has any scientific or engineering achievement been so dramatic, so earth-shattering, so emotionally satisfactory, as man’s first steps on the moon?

To ask the question is to answer it.

* * *

Richard E. Sincere is a noted author and regular contributor to The Metro Herald; he resides in Charlottesville, Va.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

An Echo, Not a Choice

I'm cheating.

On July 5, in response to some of the conversations and exhortations at the Sorensen Institute's Virginia bloggers' summit, F.T. Rea at SlantBlog proposed a "weekend without echoes":

I do think that notion of a group of bloggers trying to go for a brief spell without adding more noise to the echo chamber -- by writing original material and not merely cutting and pasting and linking -- is something to pursue. Some bloggers I know are already doing that, for the most part. At times I have saluted some of them in my comments on their blogs.

Accordingly, I’d like to propose that bloggers who want to participate in a little experiment, use the weekend of July 21-23 to show the rest of the blogosphere that it can be done. It would be a weekend vacation from copying, and piling on, and talking points ... a weekend without calling everyone with whom one disagrees a “liberal,” or a “conservative,” as if those are dirty words....

This will cost you nothing. Anyone can play. There will be no policeman to cite a blogger who seems to have violated the spirit of the Weekend Without Echoes. All you have to do is say, “OK, I'll try it, too.” Then do it.

I had almost forgotten about the proposal until Vivian Paige referenced it on Friday. So I decided to look at what people around Virginia were doing in terms of "original" work without the "copying, and piling on, and talking points."

I have nothing original at hand, but I thought it might be useful to visit various blogs and report on what they're doing right here, creating my own echo chamber.

Bryan Scrafford at Ambivalent Mumblings decided to do a "live blog" yesterday afternoon, engaging in a conversation with his readers on various issues they find interesting and important.

Jerry Griffin, who writes at the VB Dems Blog, has a post on Thelma Drake's proposal to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants, even if those children are born in the United States. He calls it "Disregarding the Constitution -- Thelma Style."

Waldo -- oh, Waldo! -- technically meets the letter of the "weekend without echoes" theme but somehow, I think, violates its spirit by recycling an article he wrote about the Democrats' way of managing voter lists for Campaigns and Elections magazine two months ago. Not that there's anything wrong with that (says the blogger who recycles articles he wrote in 1989).

At South of the James, Conaway Haskins has a tribute to his wife, Erika, and the inspiration she provides. (She blogs at Get Out There, Richmond!)

Contrasted with Jerry Griffin (who supports Phil Kellam in the Drake-Kellam congressional contest), "Insider" at Hampton Roads Politics posted a piece on yestereday's Thelma & Phil debate titled "Kellam flip-flops on war." (Aren't there a lot of flip-flops in Virginia Beach this time of year?) By the way, Hampton Roads Politics is one of the newest additions to the Old Dominion Blog Alliance.

Jason Kenney posts a picture of an offer for a "Free Subway ham sandwich" under the heading, "Links I Don't Trust." I don't blame him.

Marijean Jaggers
-- who blogs from both Charlottesville and St. Louis (is this some sort of Lewis & Clark thing?) -- writes about her dream about losing a tooth and what it might mean.

CR UVa, blogging at The Red Stater, has some comments about U.S. Senate candidate James Webb. The update, however, seems to be a bit of an echo.

ImNotEmeril posts a photo and a few paragraphs about the mother deer and her fawns who come to feed in his yard.

Vivian Paige has her own comments on yesterday's Kellam-Drake debate and also republishes an article her father wrote back in 1958.

Over at the blog he writes jointly with Delegate Kris Amundson, Delegate Bob Brink has a few thoughts on the temporary quarters of the General Assembly.

Diverging from the "weekend without echoes" theme but promising to make the effort later in the weekend (there are about 11 hours left, by my clock), Charlottesville's Semi Truths points us to an article about the moron vote and who might claim it.

Craig, musing at Craig's Musings, asks what Prince William County will look like five and ten years from now.

Thomas Krehbiel
is really taking this challenge seriously. He has not one, not two, but three separate posts meant to fit under the "weekend without echoes" theme. The first introduces himself and his blog and how it fits into the weekend's challenge. The second concludes, "When there's nothing to write about, write about it!" And the third addresses "the moral authority of the Bible," noting
Some people opposed to gay-friendly churches cite something in (or not in) the Bible for precedent. This puzzles me. It would surely have gotten me burned at the stake in the first millennium, but to my unscholarly way of thinking, the credibility of the Bible as a source of moral authority suffers a bit from the inherent contradictions within it. For example, how does one reconcile that "love thy neighbor," "kill the homosexuals," and "thou shalt not kill" all come from the same collection of books? That alone seems to indicate some human fallibility within the writings of the Bible.
(Oops! There's that echo again!)

Equality Loudoun has a long, analytical article with the title "The Abstract Model of Gender Polarity." The money-shot paragraph is this:
There are an infinite number of ways in which two people can be complementary that do not involve their specific roles in reproductive biology. Real marriages are each a unique example of complementarity, not merely reproductions from a one-size-fits-all template.
There's a sub-theme developing here, fully unintentional, as I have been visiting blogs in the order their writers posted to SlantBlog saying they would participate in the "weekend without echoes."

Writing at March to a Different Drummer, Bill Garnett has a report on Equality Virginia's training session at VCU for activists who will be campaigning against the Marshall/Newman Amendment this fall.

That's it so far. There may be other participants who are writing without echoes. (It looks like I'm not one of them.) Anyone else who has an original post they would like featured, please note it in the comments area, below.

Update: Through the magic of Google, I have discovered that Anonymous Is a Woman has decided to join the weekend's challenge, with a report on a meeting of the NoVa Labor Council. Melissa, one of the "Ditzy Democrats" also has a contribution. And Charles at TwoConservatives has what I think is a play-by-play report of a soccer game. (He doesn't name the sport.)

Friday, July 21, 2006

Beach Blogging

The highlight of my broadcast career (such as it was) came about 15 years ago, when I co-anchored a location shoot for Gay Fairfax, a weekly news magazine show that originated on the Fairfax Cable Access Channel (FCAC) in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Under the leadership of producer Bill Horten, a team of Gay Fairfax technicians, camera operators, and on-air talent spent a weekend in "the Nation's Summer Capital" -- Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, known as the most popular gay and lesbian beach resort between Fire Island and Key West. I remember, in particular, interviewing the owner of the Blue Moon, then (and perhaps still) a hot spot for happy hours, and the new Rehoboth Beach chief of police.

Although I worked on Gay Fairfax for more than a year and had, in the process, interviewed people like Congressmen Barney Frank and Jim Moran and D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, the Rehoboth shoot was the most memorable -- definitely the most fun -- and the only one I retain on a VHS tape.

When I was younger and still living in the D.C. area, it was not unusual for me to make seven or eight trips to the beach each summer. There were a couple of years when I even joined in on a group beach house. During the pre-Internet summer of 1992, in an effort to get away from the election campaign, I spent 10 straight days -- two weekends bookending a week -- at the beach house. Even then, though, the campaign intervened: George F. Will's article about Libertarian Party presidential candidate Andre Marrou, based on an interview with Andre in Will's office (at which I had been present as the campaign's foreign policy advisor), appeared in the Washington Post that week. So I had to read it -- but that was my only dose of political reality during that whole week.

To escape from Washington so thoroughly was a difficult task, but I aimed high. My romantic notion of beach life was informed, perhaps too much so, by Ethan Mordden's stories about Fire Island (which I have never visited) in his Buddies tetralogy. For example, in a story called "And Eric Said He'd Come" from the first book, I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore, Mordden wrote:

After lunch I excused myself for a solo flight in the Island manner and headed for the Pines, my favorite place. Here I learned to admire or tell off, here comprehended the pride of the beauty and the passion of the troll, here conceived the classes of gay and learned the nuances that separate tough from stalwart. I was a kid here, and grew wise. There are a number of stories that are assigned to each gay man's collection whether or not he'll have them: "The Day I Told My Parents," for instance, or "What I Saw in the Bars." There are perhaps fifteen such titles, and I think it notable that those with an urban, rural, business, or family setting can take place anywhere in America with acceptable resonance, every beach story must take place on Fire Island. For here we find gay stripped to its essentials. The beautiful are more fully exposed here, the trolls more cast out than anywhere else -- thus their pride and passion. The beguiling but often irrelevant data of talent and intelligence that can seem enticing in the city are internal contradictions in a place without an opera house or library. Only money and charm count. Professional advantages are worthless, for, in a bathing suit, all men have the same vocation. Yet there are distinctions of rank. Those who rent are the proletariat, those who own houses are the bourgeoisie, and houseboys form the aristocracy.
Romantic, yes, but with a certain tartness. Yet appropriate to the time-stands-still climate of a beach resort where ritual demands relaxation, sunbathing, riding the bumper cars, and taking advantage of happy hour drink specials.

I remembered those days, and particularly the Gay Fairfax shoot, yesterday and today as I came back to Rehoboth Beach after a long absence. (I think my last trip here was 1999, perhaps 2000.) Many things are the same as they were, but there are a lot of new things, too.

So here are some random photos from my brief, midweek stay at Rehoboth Beach.

I'm safely returned to Charlottesville now; my wi-fi connection at the beach was too weak to accommodate Blogger's demands. I had hoped to post this on Wednesday but it is already early Friday morning. But it's the beach -- who cares if it's timely or not?

Update: I found this great summary of Rehoboth's charms in the New York Times travel section:
On Fridays, the exodus from the nation's capital to the nation's summer capital, Rehoboth Beach, begins in earnest by 2 p.m. Back-ups are commonplace along the nearly 125-mile route, culminating in a final five-mile crawl along Route 1. Rehoboth, with its cedar-shingled cottages sheltered by tall pines, still has echoes of its beginnings as a Methodist camp. But its proximity to Washington's affluence and diversity has spawned a sea change in real estate values and its cultural landscape, too. Increasingly, the resort resembles Washington's bikinied and tight-T-shirted alter ego. During the day, straight and gay singles congregate on the town's public beaches. At night, they meet and greet at house parties or frolic in the nearly 75 restaurants with bars that blanket the one-square-mile town. Rehoboth's year-round population of about 1,500 swells to as many as 80,000 on a summer weekend, but, as its biblical name connotes, it does have room for all.
The article goes on to describe various restaurants, bars, and other attractions.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Sondheim Celebration Revisited

This month in Charlottesville, two Stephen Sondheim musicals are being revived:

At the Ash Lawn-Highland Opera Festival, West Side Story opened on July 8 and continues in repertory through August 13. And the Heritage Repertory Theatre will open Sunday in the Park with George on July 21, with nine performances through July 29.

Back in 2002, as the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration approached, I interviewed several experts on Sondheim and the musical theatre, one of whom was the University of Virginia's Robert Chapel, who is directing HRT's Sunday this summer. (I am looking forward to seeing this show, because it will be the first time I have seen a Sunday not directed by Eric Schaeffer -- and I have seen three previous productions over the past 18 years: The Arlington Players, Arena Stage/Signature, and Kennedy Center.) Note that, in this interview, Chapel lists Sunday in the Park with George as his favorite Sondheim musical "because of what it says about what it means to be an artist."

Given the fast approach of this ambitious production, I thought it might be appropriate to revisit that article, which also includes responses by GayPatriot's Dan Blatt and My Stupid Dog's Tim Hulsey in their pre-blogging days.

This article appeared as the centerfold in The Metro Herald on May 3, 2002:

A Sondheim Celebration: The Experts Speak
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

This year [2002] in Washington, DC, the Kennedy Center is presenting an unprecedented series of events and performances celebrating the life and career of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, a 1993 Kennedy Centers Honoree. The Sondheim Celebration—from May through September—includes new productions of six of Sondheim’s Broadway musicals, a Japanese production of Pacific Overtures, concerts by Barbara Cook and Mandy Patinkin, and a special children’s version of Into the Woods.

The Metro Herald sought out the opinions of several experts on theatre, music, and Sondheim himself to set the stage for this unusual enterprise, which has attracted worldwide attention. (The Kennedy Center reported ticket sales from 47 states and more than a dozen foreign countries within hours of the box office opening.) The participants are:

Karen Berman, Adjunct Professor of Theatre and Artistic Advisor of the Theatre Program, Georgetown University
B. Daniel Blatt, Hollywood-based screenwriter and (like Stephen Sondheim) an alumnus of Williams College
Robert Chapel, Professor and Chair, University of Virginia Department of Drama, and Producing Artistic Director, Heritage Repertory Theatre
Timothy Hulsey, doctoral candidate in American literature at the University of Virginia, who contributed a review of the new opera, Little Women, to The Metro Herald last summer
• Michael H. Hutchins, creator of “The Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide” Web site, and civil employee of the U.S. government

• • •

Metro Herald: Stephen Sondheim’s career has spanned more than five decades, he has won critical acclaim and major awards (including Oscars®, Tonys®, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Kennedy Center Honors), yet his is not a household name, like Rodgers & Hammerstein. To what do you attribute this split in Sondheim’s levels of success?

Karen Berman, Georgetown University: Interestingly, Oscar Hammerstein was a family friend who took the 15-year-old Sondheim under his wing for a short time. Sondheim, in fact, dedicated his A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to his mentor. Sondheim’s work contrasts quite a bit from his mentor, however, in that Sondheim is caustic rather than warm and fuzzy, rebels against rhyming lyrics, and progresses towards opera rather than simply musical theatre. While the critics find this daring and precocious, audiences have found his work distancing. He often asks his audiences to analyze characters and events rather than to become emotionally attached. His work is harder to listen to, and you certainly can’t go out humming and singing many of the tunes like you can with Hammerstein. The Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center, however, has the power to create a household name out of Sondheim.

B. Daniel Blatt, screenwriter: I think it’s because Sondheim’s songs are more classical than catchy. You can easily sing along to a Rodgers & Hammerstein song, but not so much to a Sondheim song. Also, I think Sondheim’s songs are a bit dark, more internal, sadder at times. In many ways he is closer to classical music than he is to popular music. You participate in a Sondheim song with your emotions; it’s a much more personal experience. . .

Robert Chapel, University of Virginia: Stephen Sondheim has spent his professional life focused on change and growth in his work—I do not believe he has been the least bit concerned with popularity. By this, I do not mean to imply that he hasn’t wanted his shows to be “hits,” but his constant exploration of new forms in regards to various stories, themes, and musical genres seems to have taken precedence over the necessity for finding accessible music that would appeal to the masses. That is not to imply that Rodgers & Hammerstein were primarily concerned with this—Oscar Hammerstein was one of Sondheim’s closest mentors, and I’m sure Sondheim was deeply influenced by their shows.

Timothy Hulsey, University of Virginia: When Rodgers & Hammerstein were writing shows, Broadway was a much more important part of pop culture than it is today. Remember that forty years ago, musical theater was broadcast on the Ed Sullivan Show. Now it’s on PBS.

In some respect, most of Sondheim’s career has been a response to the marginalization of theater (including the Broadway musical) as a cultural form. Sondheim began his career as a more mainstream lyricist, but eventually grew into the avant-garde. His choice of material and musical expression consistently challenges our idea of musical theatre, and a lot of his shows probably wouldn’t have happened if Broadway were still the hit-parade machine it was in the ’50s and ’60s.

It might also help if someone made a decent movie out of one of his shows, though it hasn’t happened yet.

Michael Hutchins, “The Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide”: This goes back to the ageless argument about whether success is determined by popular appeal or the quality of the work. In literary terms, how can the works of such household names as Harold Robbins, Danielle Steele, and Sidney Sheldon stand up to the relatively obscure Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom?

Sondheim’s critical success means merely that the high quality of his work is recognized within his chosen field by those who appraise his work (and by those who make it their business to dole out awards). His otherwise obscurity only reflects the narrow appeal of musical theatre in the average American household. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s name recognition today is based almost entirely on the film and television adaptations of their works.

With only a handful of exceptions, the Hollywood musical has been dying for the past 40 years, approximating the era of Sondheim, whose work has rarely been transferred to any medium other than the stage. And the Broadway stage, at that. (Remember that great line in Gypsy when Mama Rose is told that “New York is the center of everything.” She replies, “New York is the center of New York.”) I’m fully aware that there are many local and regional productions of his work (the Kennedy Center celebration is a testimony to that fact), but the frequency with which they are performed is entirely out of proportion to the quality of Sondheim’s work.

There is a misconceived notion that Sondheim is “difficult” or “too cerebral” when, in actuality, 90 percent of his work is totally accessible to the average theatregoer. This notion has prevented theatre companies from taking a chance with Sondheim when concerns for the bottom line supercede the goal of artistic achievement. But it doesn’t have to be that way. For example, a recent production of Company in Atlanta practically sold out its entire run. Sondheim surely does not write in a vacuum, because he wants his shows to have an audience. Why otherwise choose to work in musical theatre? But, I honestly feel that he is not writing to please the audience. If he can move them emotionally or intellectually, he’s done his job. He’s not failed just because they don’t leave the theatre humming his tunes.

Metro Herald: One could argue that the only composer for musical theatre who rivals Sondheim today is Andrew Lloyd Webber (born, coincidentally, on the same day as Stephen Sondheim, March 22, but 18 years later). Yet their styles are very different. What distinguishes these two composers, and what explains their different appeals to audiences?

Berman: Because of the many mainstream criticisms that Lloyd Webber’s work represents different plays set to the same tune, I shall opt out of this question of comparison.

Blatt: I think Lloyd Webber has simpler melodies and he chooses more popular stories to showcase his songs. Sondheim chooses stories that are psychological, introspective. Lloyd Webber takes popular, classical stories and heroines. Phantom of the Opera had long been a popular French story; it served as the basis for a few movies. Sunset Boulevard was based on a classic movie. Evita Peron had been beloved by the Argentinian people. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat comes from a Bible story. But, murderous barbers?

Note that one of Lloyd Webber’s unusual choices for a story, Whistle Down the Wind, based on a group of children who think that an escaped convict is Jesus, did not enjoy the popular success of many of his other musicals. . . It seems that this story is more like one from Sondheim’s repertoire (while West Side Story adapted from Romeo and Juliet has done quite well).

Chapel: Again, Sondheim has spent his life exploring different musical forms. I do not believe Lloyd Webber has—his music, while at times extremely melodic, has a sameness to it and does not come close to the complexity that Sondheim’s music conveys. While Lloyd Webber can be extremely pleasant to the ear, Sondheim, while many times being pleasant to the ear, is always challenging to the mind—Lloyd Webber, not always.

Hulsey: Some people say that Lloyd Webber is more emotional, while Sondheim is colder and more calculating. But I’ve always found that Sondheim moves me deeply, while Lloyd Webber leaves me cold. Perhaps that’s because Lloyd Webber tends to present uncomplicated emotions with a sort of inflated grandeur (LOVE! TERROR! ANGER!). Sondheim, on the other hand, is subtler, sadder, and perhaps even a little wiser than that. There’s a song in Company called “Sorry/Grateful” that expresses Sondheim’s basic ambivalence very nicely: “Good things get better, bad get worse./Wait, I think I meant that in reverse.” I can’t imagine anything like that in a Lloyd Webber show.

Hutchins: Yes, one could argue (and aficionados of both composers often do), but let’s not continue to beat that dead horse. It’s actually quite simple. Lloyd Webber’s music has the greater appeal because it appeals to a greater audience (duh!). No one can argue with a great melody. Perhaps Sondheim’s music requires more effort on the part of the listener. Perhaps Lloyd Webber’s intentions toward the audience differ from Sondheim’s. I personally feel that Sondheim makes a greater effort to make sure that his music serves the characters of the work. He does not write “songs” for their own sake. He writes musical numbers for characters to sing.

Metro Herald: Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II and served “apprenticeships” with Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Jule Styne, and other giants of the mid-20th century musical theatre. Has Sondheim had any protégés or, if not, who among current composers and lyricists have been most influenced by Stephen Sondheim and his work?

Berman: Sondheim’s sometimes dark and nightmarish themes have influenced all of postmodern theatre and musicals. His disjointed style, lack of storyline, societal barbs, questioning of meaning, and intellectual approach have had an impact on an entire era of MTV generation composers and lyricists. His existential questions about “who am I?” are pertinent in a world where truth is relative. Today’s composers and lyricists no longer feel compelled to write linear storylines and most of the Broadway musicals touring the DC area reflect this new thought.

Chapel: I have no firm data in regards to the answer to this question, [but] I would say that all young composers and lyricists are influenced by his work. Most young composers and lyricists that I have known believe he is the finest composer/lyricist of the 20th century, so of course they are influenced. I would say, specifically, that Michael John LaChuisa and Andrew Lippa (who competed with their respective “Wild Party” musicals a year or so ago) are both directly influenced by Sondheim’s work. But this is an assumption—it would be best to ask them.

Hulsey: My god, who isn’t? There’s a cabaret song by Alan Chapman called “Everybody Wants to Be Sondheim,” and it’s absolutely true: Anyone who’s writing in the American musical theatre today (except, of course, Mel Brooks) is clearly influenced by Sondheim. I could drop a few names here—Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, Mark Adamo—all young composers of opera and musical theatre who write in a Sondheimesque idiom. But ultimately, as good as these composers are, they’re not the best measure of Sondheim’s influence. I think everyone who hears and truly understands a Sondheim musical, regardless of the setting, is inspired and influenced by it, which is how we know we’re in the presence of good art.

Hutchins: I haven’t kept up with the current crop of musical theatre writers, so I really can’t say how Sondheim’s influence has manifested itself. I know that the late Jonathan Larsen considered Sondheim to be an influence though you never would have been able to tell from his work (Rent). Other names that have been tossed around include Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChuisa, and Jason Robert Brown, though I’m not familiar with most of their work.

Metro Herald: Which of Sondheim’s plays do you think will still be successfully performed 50 years from now, and which do you think will be set aside (if not forgotten)? Why?

Berman: Certainly, his debut as a lyricist at the age of 27 writing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story will be remembered for ages to come. The lyrics contemporize Romeo and Juliet in a universal way, which will remain relevant for many generations. The gruesome Sweeney Todd about a murderous barber, which some have decried as meaningless, may in fact gain stature as we turn more and more to Court TV for our fix in viewing trials of famous murderers.

Blatt: Well, since Sondheim addresses universal themes . . . Gypsy and West Side Story. I think Company will be performed and perhaps Into the Woods. Sweeney Todd may be set aside. But, this is all idle speculation. . . . We don’t know what the world will hold in the next 50 years.

Chapel: Remembered: West Side Story (one of the greatest musicals ever written—about a universal theme of human beings learning to live side by side with one another); Gypsy (an extraordinary book, a slice of Americana, and a story about a particular form of American theatrical performance, a wonderful score with wonderful Sondheim lyrics); . . . Forum (just very funny—Sondheim’s first, except for Saturday Night, as composer/lyricist); Follies (brilliant score—another history of past American theatre); Sweeney Todd (brilliant opera—grand guignol, bigger than life, wonderfully crafted with fantastic, bigger than life, characters); Into the Woods (wonderful music coupled with world-famous fairy tales that will be around as long as human beings are).

Probably forgotten: Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Company, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins, Passion. Of these, Company, Pacific Overtures, and Sunday in the Park are exemplary—but their stories/themes are possibly too time specific. The rest are simply not as wonderfully crafted as his other shows. Some contain characters, especially Merrily and Passion, that we simply cannot root for.

Hulsey: I think we’re just discovering that for ourselves. A few of Sondheim’s musicals have already been pretty much set aside—Anyone Can Whistle and Pacific Overtures, for example. Sunday in the Park with George will eventually fade from memory, not because it’s a bad show but because it’s so difficult to stage. And although the score from Follies will live, it will survive as a concert piece, simply because no one can afford to do it any more.

Since I think community theater is the best hope we have for preserving American drama (musical and otherwise), the Sondheim shows I think will be performed forever are the ones that community theater groups have already picked up: Forum, Company, A Little Night Music, and Into the Woods. (I suspect we may eventually see Passion on that list, too.)

Hutchins: Considering only the works for which he wrote both music and lyrics, Sweeney Todd has the greatest chance of surviving the 21st century. It’s a work that, both musically and dramatically, is ageless. Others that may prevail include A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George. The appeal of Into the Woods to a younger audience could keep it around awhile. Such “modern” pieces as Assassins and Anyone Can Whistle will date badly as the century progresses. And though I hate to say it (because it is one of my favorite Sondheim scores), Company will fall by the wayside as well. The only way it works (even today) is by presenting it as a period piece.

Metro Herald: Of all the actors who have created principal roles in Sondheim’s musicals over the years, who do you think has had the best “fit” to Sondheim’s style, attitude, and demands?

Berman: In my view, Bernadette Peters, who created the principal role in Sunday in the Park with George, has the vocal dexterity, intricacy, intelligence, and range to meet the demands of Sondheim. She can appear aloof and detached, and yet bring you inside the character.

Blatt: Didn’t he himself say Bernadette Peters? Elaine Stritch and Angela Lansbury also deserve mention. Honestly, I don’t think there is any individual singer or actor who has had the best fit, but there have been a number of amazing performances by a number of very talented individuals in Sondheim performances. I would also list Victor Garber among that number . . .

Chapel: Ethel Merman as Mama Rose; Elaine Stritch in Company, Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George.

Hulsey: That’s a tough one, because Sondheim has written so many different kinds of roles for so many different kinds of voices. Basically, anyone who can carry a tune and interpret a lyric can find at least one good Sondheim song that will show him or her off to best advantage. As for my favorite single Sondheim interpreter, I have to go with Bernadette Peters—no matter what she sings, she’s just fabulous.

Hutchins: If we do not consider Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett (since the role was written especially with her in mind, and it will be the one that most people think of first), I’m going to go out on a limb and choose Donna Murphy’s Fosca (from Passion). It’s a demanding role that requires such a delicate balance between hysteria and, well, passion that few actors can pull it off. Murphy more than met the challenge. Being a fan of Judy Kuhn’s work, I am greatly anticipating her performance of the role in the upcoming Kennedy Center Celebration.

Metro Herald: Suppose you were given the opportunity to perform any of the roles in any Sondheim play. Which role would you most want to play, and why?

Berman: I love art and I love the theatre, and I’m intrigued at how the visual and performing arts are interwoven into themes in which we question how art is made. Sunday in the Park with George does this, and I’m fascinated at how the costume designers created this ingenious world. I wish I could sing like Bernadette Peters and become part of the Seurat painting that inspired the musical by simply standing in the costume.

Blatt: I never really thought of performing any Sondheim role, and I can’t sing that well any way.

Chapel: Pseudolus in Forum, because it is the ultimate comic turn; Sweeney Todd because he is the ultimate operatic villain; George in Sunday in the Park with George because he is the ultimate questioning artist.

Hulsey: Sweeney Todd. He’s a ragged baritone, and I’m a ragged baritone. I’d also like to play the Baker in Into the Woods someday, although that’s about as far from Sweeney Todd as you can get.

Hutchins: Being single (and “being alive”) I’d like to try my hand as Robert in Company. It’s a role that has been called a “cipher” amidst the other characters in the piece, but I think the right performer (with a good director) can bring a lot more to the part than is apparent in George Furth’s dialogue. And besides, now that it’s been restored to the score, Robert gets to sing “Marry Me a Little,” one of Sondheim’s greatest cut songs.

Metro Herald: What is your favorite Sondheim song, and why?

Berman: Besides the favorite of many, “Send in the Clowns,” which is one of his more melodic, emotional, and hummable songs, I’d have to say his song “The Ladies Who Lunch” is my favorite. I heard it first when I was a rebellious teen searching for my place as a woman in society. From his musical Company, the song seemed a bitter diatribe against the boredom of an older generation of housewives. When I am up working late into the night, I still use the phrase to satirize women who have time to make luncheons their life’s priority. (Maybe I’m just jealous.)

Blatt:Being Alive.” It successfully captures the longing of a lonely person for an intimate, romantic relationship. The meaning of a relationship.

Chapel:Move On,” from Sunday in the Park with George, because it is the ultimate answer for any artist—“do your work, be true to yourself, do not worry what people say, move on to the next project. You can’t control how people perceive your work and an artist shouldn’t spend his time worrying about this—only then, will you be free to do your best work.”

Hulsey:Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along. There are two versions of this song: One has happy lyrics, suitable for weddings, and the other has bitter lyrics, suitable for messy divorces. Given a choice, I always perform the bitter version—and if there’s a better two-minute audition piece in musical theater history, I haven’t found it.

Hutchins: This will change based on the time of day, the phase of the moon, my mood, etc. . . . Put a gun to my head and I’d choose “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along. It has a gorgeous melody (take that, all of you who claim that Sondheim is “un-hummable”), and has the simplest lyrics (for those who claim his lyrics are too intellectual or pretentious) that passionately reveal the character’s inner turmoil.

Metro Herald: What is your favorite Sondheim musical, and why?

Berman: This is a difficult question, as my favorite seems to change as I change over the years. I think this is a positive reflection on the work of Sondheim. I was so impressed the first time I saw Sweeney Todd. It was at a community theatre in Arlington, and Sondheim Celebration producer Eric Schaeffer worked on the production, although I don’t remember if he directed or designed it. Later, I remember talking to Eric when we both worked together at Source Theatre Company (he was the technical director), and he told me he was ready to move out on his own. I believe the idea of Signature Theatre was in its infancy, and now he’s producing this entire festival of Sondheim.

Blatt: Tough choice between West Side Story and Gypsy. Well, the songs in Gypsy are better for singing along to . . . but West Side Story is such a universal story of love and societal factors working against it.

Chapel: I’m not sure I have only one—West Side Story and Gypsy are two of the greatest musicals of all time—but I’m not sure they are purely “Sondheim” musicals. I guess if I had to choose only one—I would choose Sunday in the Park with George because of what it says about what it means to be an artist.

Hulsey: The next one, because I haven’t heard it yet.

Hutchins: For the strength and brilliance of its score, for the amazing range of styles of its musical numbers, for the emotional depth of its characters, how can anyone choose any work other than Follies?

Metro Herald: Is there a book about Stephen Sondheim or his work that you would recommend to readers of The Metro Herald?

Berman: My favorite way of exploring theatrical and musical works is by watching the behind-the-scenes action by way of videos. I recommend the videos Stephen Sondheim’s Company, which documents Sondheim and Hal Prince directing a recording session of the musical, and Follies in Concert, following Sondheim’s direction of Mandy Patinkin and others. It is fascinating to watch the artists at work.

Blatt: The biography by Meryle Secrest is quite good.

Chapel: Sondheim, by Martin Gottfried.

Hulsey: No. Books about artists tend to have limited appeal to people who aren’t artists. Besides, all of Sondheim is in his writing, so the best place for you to discover him is in the shows themselves.

Hutchins: For a basic overview of his life, one can’t beat Craig Zadan’s Sondheim & Co. (it sorely needs an updated edition.) For a deeper approach to Sondheim, try Joanne Gordon’s Art Isn’t Easy: The Theater of Stephen Sondheim, a scholarly, yet readily accessible, examination of his work and their productions. Unless you have a degree in musicology (or are a Sondheim fanatic of the highest order), steer clear of Stephen Banfield’s Sondheim's Broadway Musicals.

In the past four years, we have seen Tony-nominated Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Assassins (which also has a sold-out production this summer at Signature Theatre, reviewed here by Tim Hulsey), plus a West End revival of Sunday in the Park with George this year (competing against the likes of Billy Elliot and Mary Poppins). The latest Sondheim musical, Bounce, never made it to Broadway despite largely successful tryouts in Chicago and Washington. What would our experts have to say now, given a chance to do so? (They are welcome to comment in the space below.)

My previous posts on the works of Stephen Sondheim include several 75th birthday tributes last year and an interview with the author of How Sondheim Found His Sound, Steve Swayne. (I have a few more old reviews and articles in the can, waiting for the right moment to be reposted.)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Couple of Carnivals

Last week's post on The Quotable Jefferson forum at the Cato Institute landed on two blog carnivals today, Carnival of Liberty LIII and, belatedly, the Virginia Blog Carnival.

Notes this week's Virginia Blog Carnival host Doug Mataconis at Below the Beltway:

This is the first edition of the Carnival under new management, Kat has officially taken over managment of the carnival from Chad Dotson. Chad did a great job starting up the Carnival and keeping it going over the past year, and I’m sure Kat will do a great job as well.
Meanwhile, over at Homeland Stupidity, Michael Hampton pays me the compliment of making my post the lead in this week's Carnival of Liberty:

Welcome to the 53rd Carnival of Liberty, where we celebrate the rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence.

Speaking of Jefferson, the Carnival kicks off this week with Rick Sincere at Rick Sincere News and Thoughts, who attended a Cato Institute book forum last week on The Quotable Jefferson, a collection of Jefferson’s writings, and reviews the book. Listen to the book forum (MP3 courtesy Cato Institute) and read Rick’s excellent review of The Quotable Jefferson.
The next Virginia Blog Carnival will be hosted at ImNotEmeril while Carnival of Liberty LIV will be available next Tuesday, July 18, at Ogre’s Politics and Views.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

'The Quotable Jefferson'

It's been a big week for me to interact with Thomas Jefferson. On Tuesday I visited Monticello. I also wrote about the Declaration of Independence.

Now today, I attended a book forum hosted by the Cato Institute, featuring the editor of a new book from Princeton University Press called The Quotable Jefferson. The editor, John P. Kaminski, is the founder and director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Kaminski’s remarks were followed by a response by Matthew Spalding, director of the Center of American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

The panel was moderated by John Samples, director of Cato’s Center for Representative Government, who pointed out that The Quotable Jefferson is “priced very nicely [listed at $19.95, but $13.57 on Amazon] for such a substantial book.” He described it as the “most comprehensive and authoritative collection of quotations” of Thomas Jefferson.

That should come as no surprise, given the editor’s background and experience. “I have known Mr. Jefferson for a long time,” he said, noting that he once introduced himself to an audience by saying “I’ve been living in the 18th century for the last 35 years.”

Kaminski is involved in a major project to gather together all of the surviving documents related to the ratification of the Constitution, a project that so far has lasted 50 years with a resulting 19 volumes, and he predicted it will continue for at least another 15 years (for a total of 65) before it is completed. There are 100,000 documents from the ratification period, he said, which need to be gathered, transcribed, and catalogued. It is taking 65 years to document “what the Framers did in four months [of drafting the Constitution] and the American people did in nine months [of debating ratification state-by-state],” he said.

Thomas Jefferson, Kaminski said, is among the “most widely quoted, most admired, and most condemned” figures of U.S. history. “Jefferson runs hot and cold throughout our history,” he remarked, and “today both spigots are on.” The reason for this bipolar approach is that Jefferson, unlike some of his contemporaries (such as James Madison) wrote down just about every thought he had, leading to contradictions, extremes, and positions easily taken out of context.

Another aspect of Jefferson’s writing, besides its voluminousness, is that he “is more interested in style and how a sentence sounds” than he is in adhering to convention or the accepted rules of grammar. Consequently, his writing has a poetic quality that creates a certain agelessness.

Kaminski asserted that “the single most important sentence in the English language was written by Jefferson,” the one beginning “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Those words, he said, and what Jefferson did with the rest of the Declaration of Independence, were the consummation of taking all of what had been written in the 18th century about political theory and governance – some 23,000 pamphlets in the English-speaking world, and some 5,000 pamphlets in North America in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Jefferson condensed all that thought into a few hundred words that come down to us as the Declaration. (And, I might add, how many of us can name, much less quote, any of those 23,000 pamphlets?)

The words, Kaminski said, are “Jefferson’s legacy.” He was an imperfect human being, as were all the Framers (and as are politicians today), but the words are what last and what have had the greatest impact, regardless of what one might think about Jefferson’s personal life or his personal decisions about, for instance, his slaveholding.

Closing his initial remarks, Kaminski told the 65 or so audience members gathered in Cato’s Hayek Auditorium that what he hopes “you’ll get from the book is the joy and pleasure and sense of edification from someone who writes poetically.”

In his response, Matthew Spalding acknowledged that his expertise lies more with the life and thought of George Washington than it does with Jefferson, but he said that “it is always a good thing to focus on the American Founders” and that “biography is in many ways the best way to teach history.”

Spalding said that, “when it comes to his political thinking, we have to grapple with the fact that Jefferson is the most difficult founder to deal with.” There is often a distraction, he said, stemming from Jefferson’s hyperbolically revolutionary rhetoric and his flirtations with the excesses of the French Revolution.

(Later in the program, Professor Kaminski mentioned the “Adam and Eve letter,” in which Jefferson suggested that democracy would be served well if, in every country, revolution killed off everyone except for one pair, an “Adam and Eve,” to restart society from scratch. That text reads, as recorded in The Quotable Jefferson on page 120:

[Speaking of the French Revolution] In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, & shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue & embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better than as it is now. --To William Short, Philadelphia, January 3, 1793.)
Spalding explained that various figures of the revolutionary and constitutional eras influenced and balanced each other. Madison, in particular, served as a moderating influence on Jefferson, stressing the importance of constitutional structures as opposed to revolutionary rhetoric. Spalding posed the question: “Does Jeffersonianism need to have Madisonianism or Hamiltonianism or even Washingtonianism?” He pointed out that, by putting the rivals Jefferson and Hamilton in his Cabinet, George Washington forced the two of them to work out their differences, moderated through constitutional structures. Both Hamilton and Jefferson, he said, needed to moderate the extremes of their rhetoric.

Summarizing Jefferson’s contribution to the “American argument,” Spalding pointed to the three things listed on Jefferson’s tombstone:

First, individual rights: The most important sentence for the American experiment, he said, begins with “All men are created equal.” Here is where the contradictions come in, because that “evocation of rights has to be squared with Jefferson’s ownership of slaves.” Yet those words became the “promissory note” that was redeemed through abolition and eventually through the civil rights movement of the 20th century.

Second, religious liberty: Jefferson and Madison, Spalding said, were the most vigilant of the Founders when it came to protection of religious liberty, which they recognized as the “cornerstone of every other liberty.”

Third, education: Spalding cited three components of Jefferson’s views of education – that there should be universal education across the board, at all levels, that there should be an emphasis on civic education, including teaching about rights and democracy, and that education includes higher education, concretized in Jefferson’s founding of University of Virginia. In all cases, Jefferson felt that education was a responsibility of government, that government should provide public education.

Spalding argued that, up until the Civil War, the centerpiece of American historiography was George Washington. After the Civil War, as Washington lost some luster, there was a greater emphasis – a greater debate – about other Founders, most especially Jefferson and Hamilton. Later leaders, such as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, would invoke Jefferson in promoting their own policies. In the process of this Progressive use of Jefferson, however, the focus on rights and rights rhetoric was lost. Consequently, the recovery of the principle of rights is central to the recovery of limited government.

During the question and answer period, Spalding noted how remarkable it is that, in the United States, political debate almost always turns on what the Founders might say about this or that issue. That is why, he said in response to a question about “false quotations” attributed to Jefferson and others, people are willing to make things up and put them in the mouths (or pen) of Jefferson or Tocqueville or other respected writers of that earlier era.

Cato’s executive vice president, David Boaz, asked, “What does it mean to be a conservative in a country founded in a liberal revolution?” Spalding replied that “it means conserving the liberal principles of the founding, principles about rights that are moored in human nature and moderated by constitutionalism.” He pointed out that the American conservative defends the “modern Enlightenment” as exemplified by Adam Smith, not the “radical Enlightenment” of Rousseau, Hegel, and later German philosophers.

Since the end of the forum, I have had an opportunity to leaf through The Quotable Jefferson, which looks to be an excellent reference book, owing in no small part to its extensive and detailed index, which runs to 38 pages, and a listing of all of Jefferson’s correspondents and brief descriptions of each (itself 17 pages).

The quotations are divided into categories, such as “Agriculture,” “Food and Drink,” “Freedom and Liberty,” “Life’s Difficulties,” “Slavery,” and “Women.” There are special chapters with Jefferson’s descriptions of other Founders, the Founders’ descriptions of Jefferson, and Jefferson’s descriptions of himself. John Kaminski has provided a succinct introduction that sets the context and chronology for the quotations.

Any writer who uses other, more general collections of quotations as a ready reference will find this book just as useful, and libertarian writers may find it even more useful than Bartlett's.

All in all, I’m glad I made the trip from Charlottesville to Washington for the event – more glad, I suppose, than Mr. Jefferson ever was when faced with the same journey.