Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Report from New York

As must be clear by now, I spent last weekend in New York, both to attend some business meetings and to appear on The Joey Reynolds Show -- as well as to imbibe the theatre district in my off hours on Saturday.

I was also there precisely a month earlier, to join a group of Georgetown theatre alumni eager to celebrate the off-Broadway directorial debut of one of our number, Rick Lombardo, who is the artistic director of the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Massachusetts. Rick is the director of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the story of the founders of AA, which is now playing at New World Stages on West 50th Street.

The mini-reunion was great fun, with classmates coming from all over the country to see the show and raise a toast after the curtain fell. It took such an event for me to see Mask & Bauble alumna Carolyn Patterson and her husband, Bob Goss, the proprietors of the Inn at Monticello just outside of Charlottesville. (Really, I promise to visit someday soon!) Others came from as far away as Minnesota, Missouri, and New Jersey.

The cocktail reception afterwards also gave me a chance to chat with Elizabethan scholar Scott Pilarz about Clare Asquith's book, Shadowplay, which I was just finishing at the time. Asquith's book (subtitled "The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare") posits that Shakespeare's plays are "coded" documents designed to support Catholic dissidents in an age of political and religious turmoil. Whatever the merits of Asquith's arguments -- and there is a sense that she overreaches -- I don't think I will ever take a Shakespeare play at face value ever again. Now that I have been introduced to the code, I will alway see multiple layers at work. (I have also realized that, for fun, the code can be applied to almost any piece of drama. Read Asquith's glossary and try it out yourself the next time you're at the theatre.)

Altogether, there were about 35 five of us. Thanks to the organizational skills of Trish Sullivan Vanni, we got a block of tickets to the show, and a vague suggestion of "let's all get together in New York when Rick's show opens" turned into reality.

My review of Bill W. and Dr. Bob is included in the essay below, which I submitted to The Metro Herald late last night.

And to all those M&Bers across the country -- let's do it again soon!

Report from New York 1:
The Big Voice – Company – Altar Boyz – Bill W. and Dr. Bob
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

(NEW YORK) --- Flying blind sometimes leads to interesting and delightful, if previously unimagined, destinations.

Such can be the case when buying a show ticket at New York’s TKTS both based on odd criteria, like the theatre’s location or the play’s running time, rather than on what critics have written or how long the show has been selling out its seats.

In this situation, I discovered The Big Voice: God or Merman? at the (off-Broadway) Actors Temple Theatre on West 47th Street. A bijou of a musical, this two-man show is made up not with precious gems but instead with semi-precious stones that make for a divertingly entertaining and touching evening.

Written by Jim Brochu (book) and Steve Schalchlin (music and lyrics), who originally played themselves (“Jim” and “Steve”), the cast now consists of Dale Radunz as Jim and Carl Danielsen as Steve.

The capsule summary of the show says a lot about New York, if nothing else. A Baptist boy from Arkansas and a Catholic boy from Brooklyn grow up, meet, and find spiritual fulfillment through musical theatre – and this on a stage in a theatre owned and operated by a synagogue. (Now that’s New York!)

Brochu’s book is strongest in the play’s first half, when it tells the separate stories of the protagonists’ youth and early adulthood, before they met and fell in love. As one might expect from a plot that cleaves closely to real life, the last third tapers off somewhat, as it pursues the middle of the “boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back” formula.

Schalchlin’s music and lyrics are workmanlike but not especially memorable. The melodies bear echoes of the music of Steve’s Baptist upbringing. (Like a disproportionate number of gay men of his age cohort, Steve is the son of a preacher-father and a piano-teacher-mother.) Still, the songs do what they must to flesh out the characters and advance the plot.

Some of the play’s most amusing moments revolve around Jim’s lifelong devotion to Ethel Merman, whom he met at age 12 on the stage of the Broadway Theatre after a performance of Gypsy. His story of epiphany and transformation could be lifted from the adolescent diary pages of countless musical theatre queens.

What is perhaps most striking about Jim and Steve’s shared story is that it is not one about youthful romance, but rather about mature love and marriage, and about the perseverance of older gay men through rocky times that include sickness, separation, loneliness, and anger.

The low-budget, off-Broadway intimacy of The Big Voice offers a fitting counterpoint to the big-budget, Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, just a block away on 47th Street.

Company, a breakthrough “concept musical” in 1970, has been tweaked and transfigured several times in the years since. This latest incarnation, directed by Tony-winner John Doyle, combines orchestra and cast so that each actor plays one or more instruments to accompany themselves on stage.

This conceit, also employed in Doyle’s 2005 production of Sweeney Todd, is somewhat distracting, at least at first, and one can come away with the impression that it is used throughout merely to achieve a particularly visceral and emotional payoff in the last five minutes of the show.

That said, this new production of Company is filled with excellent performances, especially from Raúl Esparza as Robert and Barbara Walsh as Joanne. (Esparza is being widely touted as the most likely winner of the Tony Award for leading actor in a musical – even by other contenders for the prize.)

Esparza, who made a splash in Merrily We Roll Along and in the title role of Sunday in the Park with George at the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration five years ago, shines here as well. His Robert is detached and cold, manifestly in pain. Through most of the play he delivers his lines with the flatness of David Sedaris reading one of his essays, as if compelled to hide from everyone – friends, lovers, himself – any human feelings he might have.

As the cynical Joanne, Walsh also is detached. (That the only instruments she plays are the triangle and orchestra bells – using a single hammer for each – speaks volumes.) While the other characters play whole phrases on melodic instruments – sax, clarinet, trumpet – Joanne just punctuates. She delivers her 11 o’clock number, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” with viciousness unequalled in previous Broadway productions, easily in the same class as the ur-Joanne, Elaine Stritch.

One quibble I have with this and other recent productions of Company (including the one the Four County Players recently mounted in Barboursville, Virginia) is the new scene in which Peter asks Robert about “homosexual experiences” in a clear attempt to make a pass at him. The scene seems hopelessly tacked on and adds little to either character’s back story. It almost seems like Furth’s answer to the persistent question of Sondheimophiles, “Is Bobby gay?” The answer is, as it ever was, no.

Company and The Big Voice complement each other in their reflections on relationships and marriage, although there is little question that Company is and will remain a classic piece of musical theatre while The Big Voice will merely be a pleasant addition to the community-theatre repertoire (except, perhaps, in small towns like Mammoth, Arkansas, where it could, alas, do the most good.)

* * * * * *

New World Stages on West 50th Street is an off-Broadway venue that has the architectural feel of a suburban cineplex. In fact, it once was the home of a multiple-screen movie theatre, which – now converted to showcase live performances – serves legitimate-theatre audiences well. Each auditorium, ranging in size from 199 to 499 seats – has stadium seating, meaning there is not a bad seat in the house – no obstructions, not even the beehive hairdos of the ladies who lunch sitting at the matinee in front of you.

Two shows currently at New World Stages – the musical comedy, Altar Boyz, and the drama Bill W. and Dr. Bob – make good use of the environment the theatre complex provides.

Altar Boyz, written by Kevin Del Aguila (book) and Gary Adler & Michael Patrick Walker (music and lyrics), pretends to be the final stop of a concert tour for a Christian boy band made up of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham. (Abraham is the one Jewish member among the four Catholic boys.)

Through a series of flashbacks and musical numbers, Altar Boyz reveals how the boys met, formed the band, and advanced through their careers.

Simultaneously a satirical look at the boy-band phenomenon – think N’Sync or Backstreet Boys – and Christian pop-rock, Altar Boyz scores on both counts. (It slips a bit in consistency when it makes some cracks about Catholic belief that are actually better targeted at Evangelical Protestants.)

The music and lyrics have wit and panache. The music offers pastiches of rock, pop, country and western, and Broadway show tunes. The lyrics have unexpected turns that unfailingly evoke laughter (sometimes giggles, sometimes guffaws).

The current cast members of Altar Boyz are all replacements for those who can be heard on the original cast CD. That does not reflect on their quality, for all five “boyz” turn in fine performances. Particularly noteworthy is Zach Hanna as Mark, the band’s closeted gay member. (Every boy band has at least one, right?) Hanna creates his character through subtle glances and gestures without a word to define what he makes apparent to the audience. (Apropos of The Big Voice, Mark’s object of affection, Kyle Dean Massey – who plays Matthew -- comes from a small town in Arkansas, where he once sang in the same church choir as Metro Herald contributor Tim Hulsey.)

Landon Beard (Luke) and Eric Schneider (Abraham) also offer well-tuned performances, as did Carlos L. Encinias, the understudy who played Juan on the night I saw Altar Boyz. Remarkably – and for this equal credit goes to the playwright as well as the actors – the characters are not homogenized. Instead, each of the five has a distinct personality and purpose, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

While Altar Boyz is playing in Stage 4 at New World Stages, Stage 2 hosts Bill W. and Dr. Bob (written by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey), a show as close to critic-proof as one might find. That is to say, even if the reviews are tepid or negative, audiences flock to see Bill W. and Dr. Bob, which tells the story of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. Given that New York critics, as a class, tend to disparage the uplifting and inspiring and to prefer the cynical and inhumane – not that there’s anything wrong with that! -- negative reviews of Bill W. and Dr. Bob have been expected. (Note, however, that this reviewer has read none of the notices for this show and is, therefore, open to correction.)

Director Rick Lombardo (full disclosure: he is a college classmate and onetime theatre colleague of mine) explains how word of mouth led to an extended run for Bill W. and Dr. Bob when it premiered at the New Repertory Theatre near Boston, prior to its being optioned for New York.

The cast and crew knew they had an unexpected success on their hands when, a few performances into the run, audience members spontaneously called out “Hi Bill” when Robert Krakovski (as Bill Wilson) stepped to the front of the stage and announced, “My name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”

The formulaic AA call-and-response repeated itself night after night.

“After a while,” related Lombardo to The Metro Herald (over drinks at Victor’s Café, a Cuban restaurant near the theatre), “we could predict what the overall audience reaction to the show would be by how many voices we heard say ‘Hi, Bill!’ We learned that alcoholics react very differently from non-alcoholics to certain scenes in the play.” As an example, he said, alcoholics would laugh uproariously at painful scenes in which the characters are dead drunk – a laughter of recognition absent from audiences with fewer AA members in them. The higher the ratio of alcoholics to non-alcoholics, the livelier and more vocal the audience could be expected to be.

The extended run at New Rep was supported by AA members coming back to see the show multiple times, bringing their friends with them, who in turn would bring their friends along when they came back a second or third time. It is no wonder that Bill W. and Dr. Bob has had the highest advance ticket sale of any show in the history of New World Stages.

One knows one is entering a different universe immediately upon seeing the set designed by Anita Fuchs. She has created a disorienting atmosphere by placing a sharply raked stage in juxtaposition to oddly-angled, movable panels that do not meet our usual expectations regarding spatial perspective. The set tends to make one queasy.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob is a six-actor, multi-character play. Four actors – Krakovski as Bill, Patrick Husted as Dr. Bob Smith, Rachel Harker as Lois Wilson, and Kathleen Doyle as Anne Smith – play single roles throughout, while Marc Carver as Man and Deanna Dunmyer as Woman play multiple roles, as the story is told through flashbacks and encounters.

While it may appear easy to play drunk, it requires a high degree of discipline, as well as nuance, to make it feel authentic. Krakovski and Husted can’t get away with simply imitating Foster Brooks. We have to see them sweat – and we do.

Harder than playing drunk, perhaps, is playing the drunk’s wife. The reactions of Harker and Doyle, who play (respectively) Bill and Bob’s wives, are measured and subtle. Either woman could choose to pick up and move away. Instead, they meet their marital challenges with fortitude and, in the process, create the forerunner to Al-Anon.

Word has it that director Lombardo had to cut 25 minutes from the play, which seemed bloated during its Boston run. It still has some problems in that, as the play draws to a close, audience members tend to check their watches. It drags a bit and could use some additional tightening. This, however, is a mere quibble in comparison to the satisfaction so many audience members obtain from the show.

The actors now performing in Bill W. and Dr. Bob are signed to six-month contracts, but we can expect the show to go on long after that August deadline comes around.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob continues at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, New York, between 8th and 9th Avenues. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or purchase online at For group sales, call (212) 933-0263. For further information, visit

Altar Boyz continues at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, New York, between 8th and 9th Avenues. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or order online at For further information, visit

Company continues at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, between Broadway and 8th Avenue. For tickets, call at 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250 or purchase online at For group sales, call (212) 302-7000. For further information, visit

The Big Voice: God or Merman? continues at the Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th Street, New York, between 8th and 9th Avenues. For tickets, call 212-947-8844 or visit and mention code BVBBX72. For further information, visit

(Photo and logo from The Big Voice courtesy of Keith Sherman & Associates.)
(Photo of Company and the Barrymore by Rick Sincere.)
(Photo of Robert Krakovski and Patrick Husted from Bill W. and Dr. Bob by Carol Rosegg; courtesy of Sam Rudy Media Relations.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Someone Is Waiting

Is this a case of life imitating art?

Last Saturday afternoon I saw the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. (I also saw Four County Players' production of the same play in Barboursville about two weeks ago.)

Then, in Monday's Washington Post, I came across the "Ask Amy" column, written by the successor to Ann Landers, my Georgetown classmate, Amy Dickinson. In it was this letter from a man who could easily have signed himself, "Robert in Manhattan":

Dear Amy:

I am a 30-year-old man and have never been married. I've tried dating and relationships but have found that I prefer to be alone. My friends and some co-workers, all of whom are married, can't seem to grasp this concept.

They often make comments or suggestions that I find somewhat insensitive, as if to say that a person can't be happy or fulfilled while alone.

I've told them my views on the subject, and yet they persist. I'm willing to wait for the right woman, but no one seems to understand this.

I don't want to come off as rude or callous, but how do I get them to back off about this?

Happily Single in Va.

And here is Amy's response -- is her first sentence meant as a sly reference to what I discerned in the letter?
Marriage loves company. (So does misery, but that's another issue, right?)

You're not callous or insensitive if you prefer to be single, though, as you've noticed, singledom does seem to make some married people uncomfortable.

When people inquire about your status, you can say, "It may seem strange to you, but I'm really happy with things as they are, but thanks for caring." If you are interested in dating, however, then get out there and do it. The right woman almost never comes along unaided.
My reviews of Company and other plays I recently saw in New York will be posted later this week.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Carnival Time

Some blog carnivals are pointing their readers here, with links to my piece last week on the book events for Brian Doherty and Neal Boortz. (Note that I was finally able to add photos from both.)

Good Sense (with the Burkean motto, "Good order is the foundation for all things") hosts the Virginia Blog Carnival this week.

And The Richmond Democrat has some nice things to say in its new edition of the Virginia Blog Roundup:

If you are interested in learning more about Libertarianism, its history and its current status in academia, then pay a visit to Rick Sincere.
Principled Discovery is hosting the second edition of the "Carnival of Principled Government," which, amidst many references to Thomas Jefferson, finally gets around to my post on Boortz and Doherty. (I humbly accept the juxtaposition.)

While it's not a blog carnival, this seems as good a place as any to mention that I was recently quoted in a story about hate crimes in the New York-based publication, Gay City News.

In "A Hate Crime without Hate," reporter Duncan Osborne describes an odd case in Brooklyn:
At a February 7 bail hearing for Anthony Fortunato, one of four defendants charged in the killing of Michael J. Sandy, Gerald J. DiChiara, Fortunato's lawyer, challenged the use of the state hate crime statute in the case. "There was no hate," DiChiara said.

Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, would agree.

"This section of the hate crimes law says that if you pick someone because they are a member of that class you can establish the hate crime," Hynes said last October. "You don't have to hate blacks or hate gays to be guilty under this statute. All you have to do is identify them as a class and victimize them because they come from that class."

While little of the evidence in the case is public, published reports have said that the defendants chose Sandy because he was gay and, they believed, less likely to fight back when they tried to rob him. Typically, hate crime prosecutions rely on evidence of prejudice as the motivation for the crime.

The law's use in this case is new, Hynes said.

"I think it's novel in the sense that there is no case law," he said. "We'll probably make new law... I'm comfortable with it."

Allegedly, one defendant posed as a gay man during an October 8, 2006, Internet chat and lured Sandy, a gay African American, to a rest stop in Brooklyn. The men allegedly tried to rob Sandy who was struck by a car when he fled onto the Belt Parkway. Sandy, 29, died on October 13.

Fortunato, 20, John Fox, 19, and Ilya Shurov, 20, are charged with second-degree murder, attempted robbery in the first degree, manslaughter, and assault, all as hate crimes.
As I understood the situation, the victim was not targeted so much for being gay as for being available -- a crime of opportunity.

What I concluded, from what little I knew about the case, is this: The perps didn't choose their victim because he was gay and they hate gay people. They chose him because they were able to use the medium of a gay chatroom to lure him to a place where they could commit a crime against him. Their motive was robbery; their means was the ruse that they wanted to meet the victim for a sexual liaison.

Still, I thought, it's very muddled.

If they had lured a heterosexual man through a dating site like by pretending to be a woman who wanted to meet him for sex, the "hate crime" element would not be a factor in the prosecution. But I can see such a scenario taking place.

This is how Osborne brought me in to the discussion, among others he identified as "experts":
In interviews, lawyers and activists cited crimes that could be prosecuted in this way, such as a mugger selecting Asian victims believing them to be passive and less likely to call police or a gay thief preying on other gay men because he knows that population well.

Are these hate crimes?

"I'm not so sure that the line dividing them is very wide," said Clarence Patton, executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. "I don't know that it's very far or distant from someone who says I hate gay people to someone who says let's do this to a gay person because it will be fun or easier. I don't think there is that much daylight between one and the other."

Richard E. Sincere, president of Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty, a libertarian group, and an opponent of hate crime laws, said Hynes was wrong.

"This seems to be rather an odd use," he said. "Using the stereotype of a gay man as less likely to fight back seems to be a means to the crime and not so much a motivation... I don't think it falls within any scope of a hate crimes statute."

Abt Associates' Shively, a supporter of hate crime laws, wondered if using a statute in this way would harm such laws.

"This would worry me about weakening the core intent," he said. "The majority of crime is intra-race. All the racial groups tend to be victimized by people of their own racial groups... Is the fact that there is a tendency to pick these victims according to these characteristics - does that make them a hate crime? I think the answer is no."

I suspect this case will be fodder for law review articles for years to come.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Me and Joey

As I mentioned earlier this week, tonight I was a guest on The Joey Reynolds Show, syndicated nationally out of the studies of WOR 710 AM in New York City. The interview was pre-recorded and I am told the segment will be broadcast later this morning from 4:00 to 5:00 o'clock a.m. EDT. (That means you'll still be awake in California or Hawaii, if you want to listen.)

It was great fun. The guests were an eclectic bunch. The conversation began rather seriously, with a discussion of the economic, political, and religious situation in China, stemming from the presence of guest William Hanbury-Tenison, a Shanghai based consultant who helps millionaires (and billionaires) buy and sell fine art. He was accompanied by a Joey Reynolds Show regular, comedienne Esther Goodhart, the daughter of a Korean Presbyterian minister who is a convert to Judaism and who recently performed in a television pilot for a show called "Tramp," which is about a Korean brothel, with Esther as a yenta-like madam. (It's a comedy, of course.)

The other guest was Clayton Clavette, who -- to the surprise of both of us -- grew up in Milwaukee. When Joey introduced me as having come originally from Milwaukee, Clayton thought he was reading from the wrong notes. (It turns out that Clayton grew up in River Hills and attended University School, while I grew up in Wauwatosa and attended Marquette High School.) Clayton is now based in Miami, where he runs a business called Lavish Living, the purpose of which is to rent mansions, automobiles, yachts, and jets to extremely rich people. He and I enjoyed a couple of drinks after the show back at my hotel, comparing notes about our lines of work and realizing we may have some synergy in the future.

And, of course, Myra Chanin -- "Mother Wonderful" -- was there adding her own special wit and TLC.

Joey introduced me by noting that they found me because I complained about his show being taken off the air at WINA-AM in Charlottesville. I spoke about blogging, about my Jesuit education, about my travels and my profession. It all went so fast, much of it seems like a blur. I remember more about my fellow guests' remarks than I do about my own.

I was given a CD with a recording of the show on the way out. If someone wants to teach me how to post a podcast to this blog, please drop me an email. Otherwise, you may be able to listen (if you're not listening on the radio right now) at the WOR web site.

All in all, this was an extremely pleasant and worthwhile experience. The camaraderie that one hears on the air when listening to this show is just as genuine when you are there in person.

I hope this edition of The Joey Reynolds Show gets good feedback and I get invited to return someday soon. If nothing else, it's another excuse to visit New York and see a couple of Broadway or off-Broadway shows (which is on my agenda for Saturday afternoon and evening.)

(I did get a photo of me with Joey and Myra, but I'll have to post it when I get back home to my own computer. The hotel business center desktop I'm using doesn't have a port for my memory card.)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Radicals for Capitalism ... Gotta Say It!

Two libertarian authors celebrated the publication of their new books over the past two days, speaking to enthusiastic and engaged audiences more than 100 miles apart.

Today at the Cato Institute in Washington, Brian Doherty summarized, in about ten minutes, his 800-page retrospective, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. Last night at the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville, syndicated radio talk-show host Neal Boortz spoke to about 200 fans and signed copies of his new book, Somebody's Gotta Say It. Boortz is on the fifth week of a six-week book promotion tour.

Introduced by executive vice president David Boaz as a former Cato intern, Doherty explained that the genesis of his book came more than ten years ago when he was working at Cato, the result of water-cooler conversations with other interns and with staff members. He noted that “a great sign of how much the libertarian movement has grown,” is that, in the early 1990s, “I was the PR department of the Cato Institute.”

Getting to the substance of his remarks, Doherty explained that “one of the great things about” the story he tells in the book is that it “has a great feminist hook,” in that three of the major intellectual figures of the movement were women: Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand. “We would not have the libertarian movement today,” he said, “without these three women.”

Paterson, Lane, and Rand all inspired Leonard Read, who established the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the first libertarian think tank.

Doherty explained that he “grew up in a world where there was a Libertarian Party and a Cato Institute, but that libertarian world did not exist” for people like Leonard Read. For them, living in the 1930s and 1940s, the libertarian world remained to be created. “The fact is,” Doherty said, “ these people had to forge something new for themselves – and that explains a lot.” Among other things, it explains why so many of the characters described in his book appear to be eccentric, or at least “strong-willed.”

In the early years of the libertarian movement, the movement was mostly about education, teaching people about individual liberty and personal responsibility. It was not until the 1970s, Doherty explained, that “organizations arose that saw the intersection of ideas and politics.” Among these were the Libertarian Party (LP), Cato, the Reason Foundation (which grew out of Reason magazine, then as now a major journal for the movement).

These organizations brought into public view ideas about limited government that included Social Security reform, school choice, privatization of municipal services, the end to the military draft, and the relegalization of narcotics.

“While we absolutely do not live in a libertarian dream world,” Doherty said, “the world is much improved since the 1940s,” the era explored at the start of his book.

Today we live in a world that his been influenced by such people as Ronald Reagan – who said libertarianism is the heart of conservatism – and Milton Friedman. Still, Doherty admitted, “there is no direct, 100% link between the success of libertarian ideas and the efforts of individual libertarians.” Nonetheless, “even the craziest and most adorable people have had their effects” in creating a world that libertarians aim for, one in which people can do “anything that’s peaceful.”

Responding to Doherty’s remarks was Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, author of Why Americans Hate Politics and other books. Dionne admitted that “it is indeed true that I once went through what a Catholic would call the ‘libertarian temptation,’ but I turned it back.”

Complimenting Doherty, Dionne said, “This is a really good book, a really important book, a fascinating book.” (This was a sentiment shared by several audience members, who expressed it during the question-and-answer period later in the afternoon.)

“One of the great values of this book,” Dionne said, despite libertarians oft-expressed disdain for tradition, “is that libertarians need to be aware of the rich tradition from which they came.”

Libertarianism, said Dionne, “is the latent and unconscious ideology of millions of Americans,” a position borne out by various public opinion surveys over the years.

Looking back at the high-water mark of the Libertarian Party’s presidential ambitions – the election of 1980, in which LP candidate Ed Clark won nearly one million votes across the country – Dionne offered this analogy: “Ed Clark was to Ronald Reagan what Norman Thomas was to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Reagan, he said, “was free-market enough to undercut the momentum of the Libertarian Party.”

Coming back to the present, Dionne suggested that there is now a “crack-up” between libertarians and conservatives because “six years of George W. Bush makes liberals and liberalism look very good” to libertarians.

During the Q&A, economist Arnold Kling asked why libertarian ideas have not “infected” academia, leading to two widely different responses from Doherty and Dionne.

Doherty answered Kling by saying that, thanks to the efforts of the Institute for Humane Studies, resistance to libertarian ideas in the academy is diminishing. Still, he cautioned, “most people, even when exposed to libertarian ideas, do not embrace them.” The bottom line is that “you have to have a revulsion about solving social problems at the point of a gun” in order to be a strong libertarian.

For his part, Dionne said, somewhat ruefully (by his own admission) that “libertarianism has made enormous strides in academia.” He pointed to how the law and economics movement, which did not even exist 30 years ago, has established itself in law schools across the country. He added that, again to his regret, “public choice theory is increasingly powerful in political science.”

Asked why libertarians are still marginalized in the political sphere, Doherty replied by saying that this is not the case, at least not compared to the situation of the 1940s. He mentioned having a recent conversation with a George Mason University student who pointed out to him that “in the world of Facebook, there are hundreds of thousands of young libertarians.” Consequently, Doherty concluded, “I am extremely optimistic about the libertarian future.”

The book forum at the Cato Institute was perhaps unusual in that so many people who are featured in Radicals for Capitalism were present. Obviously some of the influential characters in the book – Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek – are no longer with us.

But there in the Hayek Auditorium, listening to this brief history lesson, were people like Lee Edwards, who worked on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign; Don Ernsberger, one of the early Libertarian Party activists; Cato chairman William Niskanen, president Ed Crane, and executive vice president David Boaz; constitutional scholar Randy Barnett; draft-registration resister and citizen-empowerment activist Paul Jacob; and many others among the standing-room-only crowd. How rare it is to be able to have lunch with a book’s index.

* * *

Back in Charlottesville last night, “talkmeister” Neal Boortz – co-author of the earlier New York Times best-seller The Fair Tax Book – also drew an overflow crowd at an event cosponsored by the Virginia Festival of the Book and WINA-AM radio.

Joined on the dais by WINA morning show hosts Jane Foy and Rob Schilling, Boortz entertained the crowd for about 30 minutes with anecdotes and quips before autographing copies of his latest book, Somebody’s Gotta Say It, which is based on the program notes from his daily radio show and addresses a wider range of issues than his earlier book, which dealt only with tax reform.

“Charlottesville,” Boortz began, “is one of the radio markets I’m in that I get unbelievable support, which is amazing because it has to be the bedwetting capital of Virginia.” (The home of the University of Virginia is widely known for its liberal/progressive/socialist populace.)

Joking with former City Councilor Schilling, Boortz said, “All men are born with the same number of hormones; Rob has been using his to grow hair.” Retorted Schilling: “I am a hair libertarian.”

Replying to that in words that would be echoed at the Cato Institute the next day, Boortz suggested that “most people are [libertarian] but they don’t recognize it.”

Moving on to the topics of the day, Boortz proclaimed: “I am a global warming denier. When somebody explains to me how our carbon emissions are causing the ice caps on Mars to melt, I’ll start listening to Al Gore.”

Boortz explained that his new book was started over three years ago, even before The Fair Tax Book (which he wrote with Georgia Congressman John Linder, who has introduced the Fair Tax legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives). As published, he said, “the book is 100,000 words long – pared down from 250,000.” The original manuscript, if it hadn’t been edited, “was going to take 800 pages” (about the same as Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, as it happens).

On another issue – his opposition to the war on drugs – Boortz said that “this is one of the good things about the Libertarian Party and one of the worst things.” It’s one of the good things, he said, because the LP recognizes that “we would save tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars by treating drugs as a public health problem rather than as a law enforcement problem.” It is one of the worst things because, when the average American is confronted with the Libertarian platform, his first response is, “You’re the guys who want to legalize drugs” – as though that was the only principle on the LP’s agenda.

If we ended the war on drugs, Boortz explained, “you wouldn’t have the criminal element. We arrest 800,000 people a year for using or possessing marijuana,” which is safer than cigarettes or alcohol. “There is not one known case,” he continued, “of a death from an overdose of marijuana.”

In addition to these costs, he added, there is the “misery we force on people by denying them access to medicinal marijuana” to reduce the pain and suffering from terminal cancer, for instance.

Commenting on life in Charlottesville, Boortz joked that there should be a sign at the city limits that says: “Entering Charlottesville: Suspend Reality.”

Reality, he said, “doesn’t exist in a university town,” because when school is in session, the town is comprised of “people at the age who know everything and have all the answers.”

Asked how we can get Congress to pass the Fair Tax, Boortz related a story he heard from former Majority Leader John Boehner, who had told John Linder that at 27 townhall meetings in 17 states in the run-up to last year’s election, either the first or second question asked at each meeting was about the Fair Tax. “Across the country,” Boortz said, “we have to get people to hammer the subject” to their legislators, who do not like the Fair Tax because it takes power away from them and returns it to the individual.

Boortz asserted that the Fair Tax is the “most researched piece of legislation ever put before Congress,” and noted that “in order to criticize it, people have to change its terms” by, for instance, saying there should be exemptions or the percentage of the tax should be higher or lower.

The Fair Tax, Boortz said, “is a tax plan not devised by politicians. They’ve had their chance, and they screwed it up.”

Relating a story about a Brazilian politician who wanted to talk to him about the Fair Tax, Boortz warned that some other country “is going to do this [adopt the Fair Tax] and become the world’s number one tax haven, and the United States will have to play catch-up.”

Jane Foy asked Boortz what the most controversial chapter of his book has been, and he answered that it was his complaint that “teachers’ unions are a greater threat to the United States than Islamic terrorists,” which attracted quite a bit of media attention about a month ago.

Boortz went on, however, to talk about his view that “there is no right to vote in this country” – at least no constitutional right to vote in federal elections. There might be a right to vote in state constitutions, but not in the federal constitution, he said. Referring to the members of the Electoral College, Boortz suggested that “the state of Virginia could decide that the 13 best-looking Hooters waitresses in Virginia could be [our presidential] Electors.”

The question, Boortz said, is “who are we going to keep away from the polls.” The answer, he said, is to “limit the vote to people who know what the hell is going on.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Recognition - 3

I just discovered that the Carnival of the Decline of Democracy includes my post on the election reform conference at the American Enterprise Institute in its latest edition, hosted by Ken Goldstein.

That same post was mentioned by Professor Rick Hasen on his election law blog. (Hasen was one of the panelists at the conference.)

Also, during my spring break travels (more to come on that), I missed reading last week's Virginia Blog Carnival, hosted by Badrose, which also linked to that piece.

Recognition - 2

Back in December, I posted a little rant about WINA-AM canceling the overnight, syndicated radio program, The Joey Reynolds Show.

A few weeks later, to my surprise, I was contacted via email by Myra Chanin, the booking producer for that show, asking if I would be available to appear on The Joey Reynolds Show at some future date. One condition: Joey only does in-studio interviews, so I would have to be in New York to be on the show.

I accepted the invitation and we settled on the date of Friday, March 23.

My interview will be recorded before the show goes live, so I don't know exactly when it will air, but my best guess is it will be on during the morning of Saturday, March 24, sometime after the "Jewish Hour" (a weekly feature of The Joey Reynolds Show that showcases comics in the Borscht Belt tradition, as well as the program's idiosyncratic conversation).

Because of the show's freewheeling nature, there is no specified topic for my interview, but a possible starting off point might be "being picked out of the internet and ending up on a national radio show."

A description of The Joey Reynolds Show, photos, and podcasts of recent shows can be found on the WOR-AM web site. Those of you who are lucky enough to live in markets where the show can be heard, please listen in.

Recognition - 1

My February 2 post on "income inequality" has been reprinted (with my permission, of course) in the Casey Research on-line publication, What We Now Know.

The March 20 edition of WWNK also features an article by Doug Hornig on the Pentagon's latest Buck Rogers-style weapon (though this one is not science fiction) and a piece by WWNK editor Shannara Johnson on environmentalism in China.

Thanks to Casey Research for the vote of confidence in the expression of my views.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Across Five Marches

Monday marked the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

I remember clearly where I was when I heard the news that the actual war had begun: The evening of March 19, 2003, was the occasion of the last Washington-Lincoln-Reagan Dinner to raise funds for the Albemarle County and Charlottesville Republican parties. The after-dinner speaker was former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. The buzz about the war news spread through the banquet room at the Boar's Head Inn even as the keynote address was still being delivered. As soon as Mr. Thornburgh finished his remarks, nearly everyone skedaddled back to their homes so they could watch CNN or (more likely) Fox News. A post-dinner reception with coffee and liqueur for high-dollar donors with Dick Thornburgh was abandoned.

It was still a very successful evening and much remembered in local GOP circles.

By lasting four years and counting, the Iraq war has already leaped over the time the United States was involved in World War I, World War II, and the Korean Conflict. (Technically, of course, the war in Korea has not yet ended; there is a ceasefire that has been remarkably solid for more than 50 years, and the shooting war has not recommenced.) The Iraq war has spanned nearly the same period as the U.S. War Between the States.

Somehow, I do not think the Bush administration expected to still be embroiled in a conflict in Iraq forty-eight months after the invasion and the relatively easy toppling of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. It has often been commented that the administration knew how to win the battles, but was befuddled as to how to handle the peace that followed. "Peace," of course, is used here in a relative sense.

During the run-up to the Iraq war, I wrote a piece that appeared in several religious and secular publications that outlined how to approach the impending war through the lens of Western just-war tradition. It may be useful to pull that article up today to see how it stands in retrospect. I ask my readers: Have the criteria I discuss in the article been met? If not, why not? If you believe they have, feel free to elaborate as to why you think that to be the case. (Your answers will not be graded but similar questions may appear on the semester final.)

The "Just War" and Iraq
(from The Metro Herald, September 20, 2002)

(Charlottesville, VA) --- Each day, the United States edges closer to war with Iraq, with an aim of deposing Saddam Hussein and finishing the task begun in the Gulf War of 1991. The Bush administration seeks cooperation from U.S. allies in this endeavor, even as doubts about a new U.S. invasion of Iraq are being raised in many quarters, including among Republicans on Capitol Hill, most notably House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX).

Especially within the context of the broader War on Terrorism, we must assess the morality of this prospective situation in light of the "just war" theory. Although a minority pacifist tradition teaches that war can never be justified, the larger religious heritage of the West teaches that in certain circumstances the use of military force may be just, obligatory, or both.

Just war theory is the common ethical heritage of all the mainline Christian churches -- Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist -- embraced in international law as the right of national self-defense. While most of the criteria for the just war were refined in the Middle Ages by Catholic scholars, basic documents of the Protestant Reformation reaffirm the applicability of the just war doctrine. For instance, the Augsburg Confession says: "Our churches teach that lawful civil ordinances are good works of God and that it is right for Christians to engage in just wars," and the Westminster Confession speaks about wars that are "just and necessary."

Augustine of Hippo asserted that war must be fought only as a last resort, after other political or diplomatic efforts have failed. Thomas Aquinas added that war must be authorized by a sovereign (in our case, through the democratic process defined by the U.S. Constitution), it must be for a rightful cause, and it must be fought to stop evil or advance good. Three questions require answers:

* Is the objective of the action just? According to Western norms, military action taken solely to conquer or subjugate other peoples is unjust, while military action designed to defend one's own or an ally's territory against external aggression is justified. Neither is revenge alone a just cause.

* Are the means employed both just and appropriate? The force used must be proportionate to the objective: just ends can be betrayed by unjust and inappropriate means.

* Will the chance for justice be enhanced if the action succeeds? However noble the end and just the means, military action is not justified if it has little or no prospect of achieving its objective. Assessing the chances of success or failure is a moral as well as a political imperative.

Policymakers must translate abstract goals -- peace, security, freedom -- into more specific objectives so they can choose appropriate means to achieve them. Moral judgment must be tempered with a sense of political realism.

Given the not-so-secret aim of overthrowing Saddam Hussein's regime, it may be instructive to frame the "just war" question in another way.

Ernest W. Lefever, founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, turned to Abraham Lincoln for instruction on what to do when faced with a tyrannical regime. Lincoln offered philosophical and common-sense principles that Lefever summarized in this way:

People have a right to overthrow a tyrannical or utterly corrupt ruler or government when three conditions are met. First, they must have suffered the tyrant for some time; second, they must have exhausted all legal and peaceful means of getting rid of him; and third, the prospect for the tyrant's disappearing without their intervention must be bleak. Under these conditions, said Lincoln, the people have not only a right but an obligation to remove the tyrant, by violent means if necessary.

If a U.S. invasion of Iraq is considered as aid to the long-suffering Iraqi people, Lincoln's tripartite formula might inform the decision-making process.

But let's not fool ourselves. This is not a rescue mission. Whatever the political or humanitarian condition of the Iraqi people, no invasion will take place unless vital U.S. interests are at stake. And no invasion should take place unless all the conditions for a just war are met.

However we arrive at the decision, the default position must always be not to intervene, not to go to war. This is not a decision to be made capriciously nor -- as Thomas Jefferson wrote -- "for light and transient causes." Such a decision requires tough thought peppered with moral reasoning.

The job of the Bush administration is not merely to persuade our allies that the cause is just. It has to persuade the American people, as well. The administration must assure us that even if the cause is just, the war will be carried out with appropriate means and right intention, with the aim of promoting justice, peace, and security.

Readers, it's up to you: Did the Bush administration do the job I suggested in the last paragraph?

Friday, March 09, 2007

AEI, Brookings Sponsor Election Reform Conference

A veteran Congressman; local, state, and federal election officials; academic experts; legal specialists; and advocates for election system reform from around the country gathered at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington on March 9 for a wide-ranging discussion of prospects for election reform – and whether reform is actually needed.

Addressing the questions, “Is Our Election System Broken? Can We Fix It?”, the conference – part of an ongoing joint project of conservative AEI and the liberal Brookings Institution – heard very different answers from different participants, reflecting an observation of panelist Thomas Mann of Brookings, who compared the situation to Rashomon, the classic film that tells the same story from various points of view.

Mann said that people of good will and integrity can “view the world in different ways,” and gave as an example the issue of proposed legislation to require photo ID cards from voters. There is “a belief among Republicans that there is fraud” that needs to be prevented, while “Democrats believe there are accessibility problems” making it more difficult for people to exercise their right to vote.

Mann, among other speakers, noted that the question of election accuracy and integrity has become more salient in recent years because of heightened partisanship and polarization. Because close elections are becoming more common than in the past, there is greater scrutiny of election systems and a stronger demand that vote counts be precise and trustworthy. “Change will have to come through the broader political environment,” Mann cautioned, and not just through reform of election laws or systems.

In the first panel of the day, federal Election Assistance Commissioner Gracia Hillman gave an optimistic assessment of progress over the past several years. Looking back on last November’s elections, Hillman said there have been “many discussions” about what happened and what could be improved. “Every person involved in the election process,” she said, “ has learned lessons.” We are, she added, “going through a major transformation.”

A problem faced by elections professionals and officials, however, is that in our society “there is no tolerance for the time it takes to get things right,” and it has only been a few years since the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) began to be implemented in every state and locality.

Following along the same optimistic line, Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita stated flatly that he does “not believe our election system is broken.” He asserted that the United States today has the “most accurate, accessible, and fair elections our country – even the world – has ever seen.”

He bemoaned the fact, however, that “we have got to the point where elections must be ‘textbook perfect,’” an unattainable goal, since “we have never seen a perfect election.” The reason is that “in every election humans are involved,” and humans inevitably incur error.

Despite this inevitability of imperfection, Rokita assured the audience that “every state has backup procedures written into law or regulations,” which take effect when one or another component of the election system breaks down – anything from a battery on a voting machine running out of power to names missing from a voter registration database.

“Our processes these days,” he said, “are better than ever before in history.” Still, there are things we can do to make the system “more fair, more accurate, and more accessible.”

Addressing the central question on the minds of the audience as to whether there needs to be a wholesale abandonment of electronic voting machines in favor of some other system (such as paper ballots or optical-scan equipment), Rokita noted that “in Indiana, we have used electronic voting since 1986, and we have not seen any evidence that the machines have ever been manipulated” to change the results of an election. Moreover, he added, “in Indiana, there was no lack of voter confidence in the equipment” prior to the highly-publicized election problems in Florida in 2000.

With proposals in Congress to amend and update HAVA, which was implemented in stages from 2003 through 2006, Rokita said “it would be detrimental and irresponsible to make further changes until pollworkers and voters get used to the changes” that have taken place over the past several years. He emphasized: “We have got to stop being afraid of technology and using it in electoral processes.”

Rather than focus on the technology, he said, we need to “focus on the people.” Specifically, “we need more resources for pollworker training.”

Rokita concluded his opening remarks by saying, “We have got to remember that voting machines are not the election, they are a tool” to make the election happen. “It is the people in an election – the workers and the voters – who make the election.”

Offering a dissenting voice was Loyola Law School professor Rick Hasen, who offered three overarching standards for judging election success or failure: (1) meltdown, in which everything goes wrong and the trust of the electorate is lost, which is the least likely outcome of an election; (2) public confidence as manifested in opinion surveys; and (3) election administration competence.

Hasen noted there were isolated problems during the 2006 midterm elections, including a breakdown of voting centers in Denver and the 18,000 “missing” votes in Sarasota County for the election of a Member of Congress from Florida’s 13th District, a contest that is still not settled. (There were an unusual number of “undervotes” in the congressional race, leading to questions about the accuracy of the voting machines used in Sarasota.)

Hasen also brought the attention of the audience to an increase in litigation on election issues, from an average of 96 cases per year from 1996 through 1999 to an average of 254 cases per year from 2001 through 2004.

The litigation, he said, is taking place in the absence of empirical studies that prove the points of those on both sides of these issues. He cited a couple of cases regarding voter ID laws, in which the arguments are either voter ID prevents “impersonation fraud” at the polls or “deterrence of voters” who lack the necessary ID cards. Neither argument, he said, can be proven through existing empirical research.

Responding to Hasen and Rokita’s comments, EAC Commissioner Gracia Hillman said that “setting a goal of perfection sets you up for failure.” Instead, she suggested that “a goal of excellence is an achievable standard that provides results in the form of customer satisfaction.” Following up, Rokita reiterated his opinion that “fair, accurate, and accessible ought to be the standards.”

Between the first and second panels of the morning, U.S. Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-Michigan), the ranking member of the Committee on House Administration, offered some remarks. Ehlers is the only research physicist in Congress, and he has been responsible for several technological achievements on Capitol Hill, including the setting up of the web site for the House of Representatives and the establishment of THOMAS, the research tool from the Library of Congress that allows anyone with a computer and a modem to follow the legislative process. (Thomas Mann pointed out later in the discussion that, prior to THOMAS, one of the specialized services lobbyists in Washington could offer their clients was “I can get you a copy of that bill” – something far easier to secure now than then.)

Ehlers noted that “every election has errors; some are fraught with errors.”

Looking back on the 2000 election in Florida, he said, “what amused me were the attacks on punchcard voting. Because one community in Florida failed to clean out its machines before the election, the rest of the country had to get rid of” their punchcard voting machines.

In regard to proposals for a paper trail (VVPAT, or “voter verifiable paper audit trail,” in the jargon of elections), Ehlers said he believes there “should be redundancy but a paper trail is not the answer.” The paper trail could be in the form of an optical scan system that uses paper ballots, he said, but “the important thing is redundancy.” “I would also point out,” he added, “that punch card ballots are made of paper – thick paper, of course.”

Ehlers spoke at length about the situation in Sarasota and Florida’s 13th Congressional District, suggesting that the real problem was in the design of the ballot. Ehlers’ remarks were later challenged by an attorney for Christine Jennings, who (so far, at least) lost the election to Republican candidate Vern Buchanan. Once the contestants’ options are exhausted in state and federal court, the case will come before the House Administration Committee, on which Ehlers sits.

Ehlers said that based on his experience, “Secretaries of State, County Clerks, and City Clerks” charged with running elections “are extremely conscientious.” He cautioned the audience: “Do not blame election officials” when things go wrong. “They try hard,” he said, and “they know what they are doing.”

In regard to proposals to replace electronic voting with paper ballots or optical-scan ballots, Ehlers said that struck him “as being a good system, until I started looking into this.” He then gave a number of amusing examples of how large numbers of voters actually marked their ballots. For instance, in Los Angeles County in 2004, 3,616 people voting for president filled in nine out of ten ovals (instead of one out of ten) – which led to a puzzle for election officials: Were they showing their strong support for President Bush – the one oval left blank -- or were they saying “anybody but Bush”? Ehlers asked: “How do you interpret that?”

Asked whether various bills proposed to alter federal election law will progress through Congress, Ehlers answered, “I can’t say. You’ll have to address that to the new chairwoman [of the Administration Committee], Juanita Millender-McDonald. If I were still chairman,” the Republican said to laughter from the audience, “I could tell you.” He added, however, that he and the new chairwoman have “a good relationship” and he expects to work with her on any proposals that reach the committee.

The second panel of the day was moderated by AEI’s Norman Ornstein, who played an active role in the discussion. Ornstein started by saying “election reform is not rocket science” and listing a number of bills recently introduced by, for instance, Congressman Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois), and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York), and one planned to be added to the hopper by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

Panelist Doug Chapin, director of, began by noting the large number of people in the audience (well over 100) and described himself as a long-time “election geek,” a term, he said, that “connotes a sense of loneliness.” The large audience, he mused, is a sign that being an election geek may not be so lonely anymore.

In examining the “lay of the land” on election reform, Chapin pointed out that there are twelve new Secretaries of State (who serve as chief election officers for their states), eleven of them elected and one appointed. Those who were elected ran for office on election reform platforms, bringing a “tremendous range of experience” and “hitting the ground running [and] thinking out loud” as they pursue their reform agendas.

Chapin also brought attention to the “tremendous changes in Congress,” notably the shift from Republican to Democratic control. The “Democratic majorities change the climate” for election reform on Capitol Hill. “Now that the Democrats are in charge,” he said, “they have a responsibility to lead the debate on voting technology and voter registration” issues.

He said he has also noticed that NGOs (non-governmental organizations), including advocacy groups, have become more active in recent years. There is a split among these groups developing, he added, between those who prefer a paper trail (VVPAT) and those who want to scrap electronic voting in favor of optical-scan paper ballots. This changes the dynamic of the debate by diminishing what was formerly a near-unanimous position among the advocacy groups.

Ironically, Chapin said, “Congress is coming to a consensus just as the advocacy community is becoming divided.”

Even with the activity in Congress, Chapin added, the emphasis “will be on state capitals,” where experimentation with different models of reform legislation can take place. Moreover, at the state and local level, “nitty-gritty problems will drive the debate.” He offered as examples the fact that a voting equipment vendor in Indiana went out of business, leaving the localities that use that equipment without a support system, and a county in Pennsylvania that suffered extensive water damage to its voting machines and faces a fee of $100,000 from its vendor for recalibrating all its machines.

Before moving forward with new legislation, Chapin said, “we need better access to empirical data.” But “data doesn’t end the conversation,” he added; “it gives us something different to debate about.”

Washington Post reporter Zachary Goldfarb, the second member of the panel, spoke about the challenges faced by the news media in covering issues of election reform. “Many of the issues,” he said, “seem theoretical or potential,” even though we are dealing with “theoretical questions with practical applications.”

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution said that he urges “caution on using voter confidence as a standard to act” or not act. Voter confidence, he said, “has less to do with the quality of the system of election administration than it does on close elections. Winners will have a different level of confidence than losers.” (This view was borne out by some graphs shown by morning panelist Rick Hasen, of trends in polling data showing a Republican/Democrat divide on confidence in the system, based upon who won the previous election. The trend does not follow in lockstep, but it is very close.)

Mann asked, “How do we judge between the inevitable [minor] imperfections of the system and the [major] systemic issues that need tending to?” He argued that, “in general,” top election officials are “a little too defensive on this score,” and that “there is a legitimate question to be asked about national vs. state responsibility.” The fact is, he noted, “we are never going to go back to the era” of state-by-state choices with no overriding national guidelines or mandates.

Mann was not optimistic that legislative proposals will move through Congress. The bottom line, he said, “if you accept what I’ve argued, efforts in Congress to amend HAVA, to require VVPAT, to establish voter ID requirements … will be frustrated by partisan considerations” and perhaps even a filibuster in the Senate.

Because, on VVPAT, individual states are taking the lead, “slowing the process down may make good sense in Congress” because hasty federal action could frustrate lower-level efforts for reform based on new technology coming on board that can replace earlier technologies, while federal legislation might lock the older technology in place.

Echoing earlier remarks about partisanship and polarization, Norman Ornstein began the general discussion with the panel with the observation that, in contrast to the years in which most elections were decided by clear outcomes, “problems at the margins are now very important.”

Ornstein asked whether the decision by Florida’s governor to discard electronic voting machines “is a harbinger of things to come.”

Doug Chapin answered that “Florida is an indicator of concerns. Florida plays the same role for us that Britney Spears plays for the tabloids. Florida is the poster child for reform, both in identifying problems and in responding to them.”

Ornstein also sparked a discussion about ballot design, with several of the panelists noting efforts to improve ballot design. Chapin pointed to a “Design for Democracy” project from the American Institute for Graphic Arts, but added that design considerations often run afoul of state election laws. One example was during the California gubernatorial recall election, when graphics experts recommended that the “five top candidates” be given more prominence on the ballot while all the other candidates should recede – a solution in opposition to election laws that call for all candidates’ names to appear uniformly on a ballot page.

In response to an audience question about where this debate about election reform originated, Thomas Mann stated that “we tolerate more error (a) when we don’t know about it and (b) when the stakes are lower.” Florida in 2000 “changed things even though the overall administration of elections had not worsened” in the years leading up to that situation, and may have even been better. But “we discovered many imperfections we weren’t willing to live with.” Mann added that, if the media plays a role in all this, it is in the “breathless quality” of its reporting and its “lack of perspective.”

Zachary Goldfarb added to this point by reminding the audience of the “constant change in who covers [these issues] at most newspapers and magazines.” There is no “election law beat.” The media, he said, is “focused on what’s new and we’re dense about potential problems.” Moreover, “the media are responsive to crises,” so election officials and experts need to “provide context” to reporters, since “newspapers don’t have someone dedicated to this topic.” Goldfarb concluded: “There is no easy answer.”

The AEI-Brookings conference ended on that note, but the discussion will continue through this forum and others. On March 26, the top Mexican election official will be speaking on his country’s disputed election of 2006, which was even closer than the 2000 Bush-Gore contest. Ornstein invited the audience to attend that event, also sponsored by the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project to learn what Mexico is doing to deal with its own partisanship and polarization.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Kennedy Center Announces 2007-2008 Season

Just last month, fellow blogger Tim Hulsey and I had a wistful conversation, asking each other why nobody has yet produced the full set of August Wilson’s ten plays, set in each decade of the 20th century. Two of the plays, Jitney and Gem of the Ocean, had recent Washington productions (at Ford’s Theatre and Arena Stage). Sometimes called the “Pittsburgh Cycle” because of the setting of nine of the ten plays in the playwright's hometown, Wilson’s works as a whole offer a singular exploration and reflection of the African-American experience.

Or, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it in an obituary tribute to Wilson in October 2005, “In dramatizing the glory, anger, promise, and frustration of being black in America, he created a world of the imagination – August Wilson’s Hill District – to rank with such other transformational fictional worlds as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Hardy’s Wessex, or Friel’s Donegal.”

Now we have the prospect of having our wish fulfilled. At the announcement of the Kennedy Center’s 2007-2008 season on March 6, President Michael Kaiser revealed that, supported by a grant from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, “the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will present August Wilson’s 20th Century – the playwright’s complete ten-play cycle – as staged readings with costumes, lighting, and scenery in the Center’s Terrace Theater” from March 4 through March 29, 2008.

A distinguished cast of more than two dozen actors will appear in the plays, among them John Amos, Rocky Carroll, Keith David, and Phylicia Rashad, The directors of the plays will be Kenny Leon – also serving as the series’ artistic director – Lou Bellamy, Gordon Davidson, Todd Kreidler, and Derrick Sanders.

The Wilson cycle is only one highlight among many in the Kennedy Center’s upcoming season. In late December, a new production of My Fair Lady directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Matthew Bourne (whose ballet, Edward Scissorhands, played the Opera House last month) will arrive for a three-week run. Disney’s The Lion King will open in June 2008, and a new play commissioned by the Kennedy Center and developed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter (written by Julie Marie Myatt), will premiere in July 2007.

Programming the 2007-2008 season was complicated by the fact that the Eisenhower Theater will be closed for renovations throughout the year. As a consequence, more productions will be mounted in the Terrace Theater (which often is empty in comparison to the larger houses).

Another highlight of the season comes in February 2008, when a multi-disciplinary festival called “Japan! culture + hyperculture” arrives. For two weeks, Kennedy Center audiences will be able to enjoy theater, dance, music, visual arts, and film. There will be exhibits of textiles, design, and technology, as well as manga (graphic novels) and anime. A special offering called “Robotopia Rising” will explore the development of robots in Japan from medieval automatons to futuristic humanoids. (In fact, a Toyota-built robot opened the announcement news conference by playing “What a Wonderful World” on the trumpet, to the delight of the audience in the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater.)

“Ballet Across America” – which will bring ballet companies from across the United States for a five-day repertory season – begins a ten-year commitment to gather America’s best performing arts troupes in Washington. Supported through a grant from the Charles E. Smith Family Foundation, in future years the Kennedy Center will bring theatrical groups, orchestras, choruses, and other performers to the Nation’s Capital to demonstrate the depth and breadth of American artistic endeavor.

The new season also includes a tribute to Leonard Slatkin, in his last year as director of the National Symphony Orchestra, extensive offerings in jazz, and a special program of a capella music, which will include performances by Bobby McFerrin and the Manhattan Transfer, among others.

The foregoing paragraphs only skim the surface of what the 2007-2008 season at the Kennedy Center will include. For more information, visit

Friday, March 02, 2007

Friday Night Fish Fry

Some minor nostalgia wafted my way the other day when I came across an article in the Marquette Tribune, a student newspaper at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Written by Christopher Placek, the article (cutely headlined "Come fry with me") explains a unique Wisconsin custom, the Friday night fish fry.

When I was growing up in Milwaukee, Friday nights were precisely as Placek describes them:

Native Wisconsinites reserve Friday nights on their calendars for a special area custom, but the tradition is so ingrained in the culture they probably don't even need to write it down.

That's because the Wisconsin fish fry has become an assumed appointment with friends and family at the local watering hole, restaurant or social club. Experts say local fish fries became popular with the immigration of Europeans, especially German Catholics, to Wisconsin.

"In the old country, you used to bring whole the family into the saloons to eat, drink and be merry," said local author Jeff Hagen, who has written two books on fish fries. "It was just the way things were done, and that's the way things are done around here."

The fish fry is a generational phenomenon in Wisconsin, possibly unlike other states, said Hagen, whose first book, "Fry Me to the Moon," analyzed 125 Friday night fish fries in Wisconsin. The sequel, "Codfather 2," took Hagen to 200 fish fries throughout the Midwest, where underage bar restrictions prevent similar fish fry family traditions as in Wisconsin, he said.
The Friday fish fry is not limited to taverns, of course, though that is by far the most likely venue. I recall that on a monthly basis, there was a Friday fish fry at my elementary school, St. Agnes in Butler. It was sponsored by the Boy Scouts, I think, or perhaps the Knights of Columbus, and served in the school cafeteria, eat-in or take-out.

But the family-oriented tavern -- never "saloon," a word prohibited in Wisconsin by Prohibition-era legislation -- provided the most likely place to dig into fried fish, cole slaw, and French fries, generally served "family style" with baskets of food brought to the table and handed from one patron to another, just like in the kitchen at home.

In the 1960s and '70s, it was not uncommon to see kids as young as 4 or 5 underfoot at a tavern while their parents ordered a fish fry and a beer to accompany it. People outside Wisconsin tend to be astounded when they learn about this aspect of our state's culture. They think children and alcohol do not mix. If they had grown up as I did, however, they would not think this a strange phenomenon.

Placek reports:
Janet Gilmore, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of landscape architecture and folklore, said the Friday night fish fry presents an opportunity for people to socialize and celebrate the end of the week. The tradition of the fish fry in Wisconsin developed partly in neighborhood working-class taverns, she said.
(Permit me a digression: a professor of "landscape architecture and folklore"? What kind of combination is that? It makes me curious.)
At the turn of the 20th century, there were about 8,000 drinking establishments in the state of Wisconsin, Gilmore said. With Prohibition, many taverns began serving food, she said.

The fish fry also arose out of the meatless Fridays custom of Catholicism, now restricted only to the Lenten season as a result of Vatican II. But local fryers say that Catholics aren't the only ones who indulge in fish on Fridays.

"It's a Wisconsin thing," said Dave Schmidt, general manager of American Serb Hall, 5101 W. Oklahoma Ave., which hosts one of Wisconsin's largest fish fries.
Coincidentally, Serb Hall was also the place where my parents celebrated their wedding reception -- not that I was there, but I was told later. But I digress again.

We often enjoyed fish fries that had family connections. We regularly went to a West Allis tavern owned and operated by my Uncle Clyde's in-laws, Scottie and Mitz -- not German Catholics but brogue-tongued Scots immigrants. The front of the establishment was the bar, always bustling, while in back was a bare room set up with tables covered in plain paper. Some Chinese lanterns or Christmas lights were the only real decoration. But people didn't come for atmosphere -- they came for the food.

I learn from another family member that my Aunt Mary's
mom's "recipe" is now being served at a refurbished corner burger diner in West Allis run by Aunt Mary's nephew, and her sister JoAnne is frying fish there.
So the tradition continues.