Friday, June 27, 2008

Lamentation for Independence Day

The editorial board of the Jewish Daily Forward gets it exactly right in the June 26 issue, written in anticipation of Independence Day one week from now. Under the headline, "The Gift of Freedom," the Forward says:

Most of us seldom give much thought to the Fourth of July. It’s one of the most important holidays on our national calendar, one of the very few that is observed simultaneously by all Americans without regard to faith, origin or regional whim. It is, some say, the only holiday specifically dedicated to celebrating this nation. For all that, we mostly celebrate with barbecues or trips to the beach. If we seek some holiday spirit, we might watch a parade or catch some fireworks. A few of us might even get to thinking — some joyfully, others with mixed feelings — about patriotism, the flag or our soldiers overseas.
Ever since I moved to Charlottesville (with, I think, one exception), I have spent the morning of the Fourth of July on top of Mr. Jefferson's Little Mountain to celebrate Independence Day with new citizens as they take their oath of naturalization at the able hands of judges from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Over the years the speakers have included Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (in 2000; photo at left), author Frank McCourt, newspaper publisher Al Neuharth, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and actor Sam Waterston (in 2007, photo below) (I've been hoping that late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson will be invited soon; he became an American citizen in February and talked about the process on his show -- his pride in being an AmCit is palpable.)

I've been lucky in that some years I've gone as "press" (even before I was blogging) and usually had a great seat in the media corral. Consequently, I've got some terrific pictures and (last year, for the first time) video. In addition, Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville take turns, year by year, in setting up a voter registration table to grab the new citizens before it's too late.

I won't be going up the mountain this year, however, because although it was earlier announced that the speaker would be documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, today the word went out that Burns has been bumped by Bush -- President George W. Bush, that is.

It's not that I have any objection in principle to the president speaking. Under other circumstances, it could be interesting. But his presence is going to cause inconvenience of major proportions. What has been a rather informal, local event -- the Charlottesville Municipal Band plays patriotic tunes, local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts lead the Pledge of Allegiance -- will be turned into a circus.

Normally, anyone can attend the naturalization ceremony. It requires no ticket, no entry fee. People are free to wander the grounds. (The ceremony ends just before noon, so that those who wish to do so can walk down to Mr. Jefferson's gravesite to observe a family service commemorating the anniversary of his death.)

None of that will be true this year. Security will be at a premium. People will be searched, prodded, and scrutinized for their political opinions. It won't be fun, entertaining, or informative -- just a hassle.

It's not just the metal detectors and body cavity searches that concern me. When President Bush comes to a public event, those who disagree with him are discouraged from attending -- sometimes even prevented from attending by force. What will happen if someone shows up with t-shirts indicating support for Barack Obama or Ron Paul? Or t-shirts with slogans like "The Constitution Means What It Says," "Stop the War!," or "What Part of 'Limited Government' Don't You Understand?"? (Placards and signs of any sort will, of course, be forbidden, though t-shirts can be hidden under other garments and displayed at the right moment.) Will Albemarle County police be on hand to arrest people for exercising their First Amendment rights?

This won't be the first time a sitting U.S. President has spoken at Monticello on July 4th. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford was the featured speaker. Unlike our current president, Ford was modest in his approach to the office. (Churchill might have said he "has a lot to be modest about," but he would have been incorrect.)

Ford inherited the White House from another president who, like Bush, failed to understand that the Constitution provides for three co-equal branches of government. Like Bush, Richard Nixon tried to expand the powers of the presidency with utter disregard for Congress and the Courts. Like Bush, Nixon was paranoid and rigid, with little understanding for free markets or individual liberty. Nixon famously compiled an "enemies list" of those who disagreed with him on policy issues.

Ford, in contrast, understood that Congress and the Courts also had a role to play in the making of public policy. He rejected the "imperial presidency" model, although his chief of staff (later vice president) Dick Cheney took away from the Ford White House a festering theory of the "unified presidency," which manifests itself in such things as "signing statements" in which the President, rather than vetoing a bill as provided by the Constitution, signs it but explains what parts he feels the Executive Branch can disobey. (Ford vetoed more bills in a month than Bush has vetoed in the entire eight years of his presidency.)

One of the traditions at the Monticello Independence Day celebration is for the Clerk of the Circuit Court to read the preamble to the Declaration of Independence (the part that begins, "When in the course of human events ...")

Wouldn't it be delicious if this year, in addition to the preamble, he could also read the bill of indictment that makes up the core of the Declaration? For those unfamiliar with it, here are a few lines of reminder:
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good...

He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only...

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.

He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:...

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury:

For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses:...

For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments:...

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation...

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people....
While I would love to see the expression on George Bush's face as that text is being read out, I still prefer to spend my Fourth of July without being wanded by a security guard. So I expect I'll be as far from Monticello this year as possible. I may even head up to D.C. for the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival and the fireworks on the National Mall.

Leave it to this White House to ruin the Fourth of July.

Update, Monday, June 30: Monticello has announced that there will be a limited number of tickets available to the ceremony on July 4. Only one thousand free tickets will be distributed beginning at 7:00 a.m. on Wednesday, July 2. I wonder whether the friends and family members of the new citizens will be required to get those tickets, or if they have another means to attend the ceremony.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hunter Parrish, Hunted Celebrity

Hunter Parrish, who plays teen hunk "Silas" on the Showtime cable TV series, Weeds, is unusually popular these days. I have seen a rush of hits today (and in recent weeks) from people looking for him.

According to SiteMeter, these are the twelve most popular searches leading to my blog:

hunter parrish shirtless
circumcised celebrities
hunter parrish nude
hunter parrish gay
josh hutcherson shirtless
hunter parrish naked
tyler whitney
rick sincere
aaron carter drugs
us airways sucks
mark ellmore
"hunter parrish" shirtless
Republican congressional candidate Mark Ellmore must be pleased to find himself in eleventh place, directly behind "US Airways sucks" and close on the heels of "Aaron Carter drugs."

I wonder if anyone is having success in finding nude/naked/shirtless pictures of Hunter Parrish or his nearest rival on this list, Josh Hutcherson.

Update: Hunter Parrish continues to be unusually popular, especially on nights that Weeds is on TV.

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Mamma Mia! Comes to Washington

The national tour of Mamma Mia! (best known as "the ABBA musical") arrives tonight in Washington, D.C. The show opens at the National Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue for a two-week run.

I interviewed one of the members of the cast, Rebecca Covington, for the Metro Herald. Here's the result of that interview.

Mamma Mia! Comes to Washington:
An Interview with Cast Member Rebecca Covington

Rick Sincere
Metro Herald
Entertainment Editor

Mamma Mia!, the West End and Broadway musical with the songs of ABBA (written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus), comes to Washington for two-week engagement ending on July 13, just in time for the debut of the film version of the stage hit. (The film opens July 18 and stars Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan.)

Now in its tenth year in London and after six years on Broadway, Mamma Mia!’s national tour comes to the National Theatre from Denver and St. Louis, on its way to Philadelphia, Cleveland, Tampa, and Chicago.

Leading the cast of 30 is Susie McMonagle as Donna Sheridan, the independent single mother whose carefree past catches up with her on the eve of her daughter's wedding. Prior to Mamma Mia!, Susie could be seen on Broadway as Fantine in Les Misérables and in the National Tours of The Secret Garden, The Sound of Music, Les Misérables, and Pump Boys and Dinettes. Bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan is played by Rose Sezniak, who is a recent graduate of Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Her fiancé Sky is played by Geoffrey Hemingway.

Kittra Wynn Coomer and Michelle Dawson play Donna's best friends and former back-up band, Rosie and Tanya (respectively), who reunite with their best friend on the island for Sophie's wedding. The three men from Donna's past and Sophie's possible dads are John Hemphill (Sam Carmichael), Martin Kildare (Bill Austin), and Michael Aaron Lindner (Harry Bright). Sophie's and Sky's best friends are played by Rebecca Covington (Ali), Nicole Laurenzi (Lisa), Adam Kaokept (Pepper), and Anthony CeFala (Eddie).

The Metro Herald had an opportunity to speak with cast member Rebecca Covington, who was on the road with Mamma Mia! in Denver, about her life in the theatre, how she came to join this production, and her previous visits to Washington, D.C.

Covington was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, where she showed early signs of musical talent. She started playing the violin at the age of two. “My older brother was playing violin,” she said, “and I begged to play it. That’s why I started so young, because it was in the house.”

Playing the violin led her to a local school for the performing arts, where she was a “violin major” by the time she was in the fourth grade. That is when she had her first experience on stage. “I did a show called Big Moment, Small World,” which was a Disney revue, and “I played a fork in ‘Be Our Guest.’”

The turning point in her life – when she decided to move from orchestra pit to the apron of the stage – came when “my orchestra went on tour in Europe and I saw a West End production of West Side Story.” At that moment, she said, “I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Covington explains: “My mom was with me and she said afterward, ‘I saw you sitting on the edge of your seat the entire time.’ She knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

When the tour was over, Covington went back to her high school, where she became more involved in student theatrical productions. She went on to Belmont University in Nashville to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music and musical theatre. In college, she said, “I decided I was burned out on violin, but theatre was one thing I could not live without. So I decided to reroute my life.”

In college she participated in a series of shows: “Bye Bye Birdie, 42nd Street, Crazy for You, Smokey Joe’s Café, Hello, Dolly!, Oklahoma! – we did two musicals a year and we stayed pretty busy. Raisin in the Sun was my only straight play while I was in college.”

Covington’s professional career began when she went to the Southeastern Theatre Conference, which, she explained, was like “a mass audition.” Each performer had 90 seconds to sing and do a monologue. As a result, she was invited to do an audition for a non-Equity touring company of Thoroughly Modern Millie. “I was so excited,” she said. “We were on the road for ten months. We closed after the matinee on June 11 in Newark, New Jersey, and I moved to New York City that night.”

Once in New York, Covington signed up with an agent, and “that allowed me to get going professionally.” And fast, too: “I started a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in September.” Covington’s other credits include Aida and Hair.

Covington came to the cast of Mamma Mia! through her agent. She auditioned in February 2007 and was added to the cast in March. “I am so thankful to be here,” she said. “I’ve been on the road with [this show] for a year and three months.”

The engagement at the National Theatre provides Covington with her first opportunity in years to visit the Nation’s Capital. “My middle school took a trip to Washington,” she said. “I’m excited to go back, because I’ve never experienced anything like the Fourth of July in D.C.” The contrast with Independence Day a year ago will be sharp: “Last year for the Fourth, we were in Canada. So we’re going from it not being a holiday to where it’s the mecca of celebration!”

Traveling with a show means living out of a suitcase, which can be a drain. “It’s hard to sleep in different hotel rooms,” said Covington, but “you try to keep healthy. I try to eat as well as I can. I also go running at the gym, lift weights, and try to walk around as much as possible.”

What does Covington think of Mamma Mia!? “It’s the most fun you will have in the theatre in one night. The energy is crazy, and the audience is on their feet,” from start to finish. “It’s so exciting.”

One might think that cast members of the stage show of Mamma Mia! might be worried about competition from the film. Not at all, says Covington. “We’re very excited about seeing the movie and how they do it.”

There are currently eleven productions of Mamma Mia! running concurrently around the world (nine permanent productions and two tours). The original cast recording of Mamma Mia! is available on Decca Broadway. For information about Mamma Mia! around the world, visit

Tickets for Mamma Mia! may be purchased now through Telecharge only at or by calling (800) 447-7400. Tickets are priced $46.50 to $91.50 plus service charge, with a limited number of premium seats available at $151.50. Tickets go on sale at the National Theatre box office Tuesday, May 27. For groups of 20 or more, call (866) 276-2947. For more information, call (202) 628-6161 or visit

Friday, June 20, 2008

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid...

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Poodle Beach comes this summer blockbuster:

Gay Zombies - Watch more free videos

Will you be next?

Tainted Tomatoes

Salmonella is still in the news. Reuters reported earlier today:

U.S. food safety officials on Wednesday said more than 350 people have fallen ill in a Salmonella outbreak linked to certain types of tomatoes.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 383 people in 30 states have been infected with Salmonella Saintpaul, a rare strain of the bacteria.

The most recent report of onset is June 5 and at least 48 people have been hospitalized, CDC said.
Yesterday, the New York Times noted:
The Food and Drug Administration may never be able to pinpoint the origin of salmonella-tainted tomatoes that have sickened hundreds of people, an agency official said Wednesday.

“We may not ultimately know the farm where these came from,” Dr. David Acheson, the agency’s associate commissioner for foods, told reporters in a conference call. “Some trace-backs that we thought were looking pretty good have been falling apart.”

Dr. Acheson said he remained optimistic, but added, “I’m trying to be realistic.”

The agency is investigating a cluster of nine people who ate tomatoes at the same restaurant chain, but has not disclosed the chain’s name or location.
Finding the source may ultimately prove irrelevant as well as fruitless. (Can tomatoes be fruitless? That may be an oxymoron. But I digress.)

Last week in the Chicago Tribune
, the former head of the FDA's office of biotechnology, Dr. Henry I. Miller, lamented:
Unfortunately, produce growers cannot protect us 100 percent of the time. A several-month-old outbreak of food poisoning first linked to a rare strain of bacteria called Salmonella Saintpaul in raw tomatoes is tied to at least 160 cases of illness in 16 states in the West, Midwest and Northeast.

Modern farming operations—especially the larger ones—already employ strict standards designed to keep food free of pathogens. And most often they're effective.

But because agriculture is an outdoor activity and subject to all manner of unpredictable challenges, there are limits to how safe we can make it. If the goal is to make a cultivated field completely safe from microbial contamination, the only definitive solution is to pave it over and build a parking lot on it. But we'd only be trading very rare agricultural mishaps for fender-benders.
Dr. Miller, who is the co-author (with Gregory Conko) of The Frankenfood Myth, suggests there are ways of building confidence in the food supply while making it safer:
In the longer term, technology has an important role—or more accurately, it would have if only the organic food advocates and other food-kooks would permit it.

Irradiation of food is an important, safe and effective tool that has been vastly underused, largely due to opposition from the organic food lobby and to government over-regulation. "If even 50 percent of meat and poultry consumed in the United States were irradiated, the potential impact of food-borne disease would be a reduction [of] 900,000 cases and 300 deaths [a year]," according to Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota.
This point reminded me of an article I once wrote (history lesson alert) about the benefits of food irradiation. An early version appeared in The New York City Tribune in 1989; the version that appears below ran in The Metro Herald in August 1993:
The Benefits of Food Irradiation
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

Nearly 40 percent of the poultry sold in the United States contains deadly salmonella bacteria. According to Consumers' Research magazine, 40,000 cases of salmonella infections are reported each year, though experts believe this is only the tip of the iceberg—the actual number could be between 400,000 and four million. At least 500 people die each year from salmonella infections.

Salmonella is present in a wide range of food products—chicken, beef, pork, shellfish, raw milk, eggs, and fish. It is almost impossible to avoid. A relatively safe, cheap, and simple method to prevent salmonella infections, however, is now available: ionized food processing, also known as "food irradiation."

Because "radiation" is the Freddie Krueger of the anti-consumer network—the nightmare of those groups founded and funded by Ralph Nader as well as all manner of anti-nuclear activist groups—ionized food processing has not yet been fully accepted by American consumers. Still, after more than 35 years of tests and experiments, we know more about food irradiation than almost any other form of food preservation.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations recommends ionized food processing—which uses low levels of safe radiation to break down the DNA of infectious bacteria and fungi—as a means of preserving food for the hungry people of the Third World.

USA Weekend magazine reported recently (August 20-22, 1993) that the beef industry may begin to use ionization techniques if a study it is currently conducting shows consumer support for the process. Beef producers probably have nothing to worry about. When Florida approved the sale of ionized food, one Miami supermarket chain, Lorenzo's, began selling irradiated food at premium prices—and customers, pleased by its longer shelf life, quickly bought up all the stock.

Still, fearmongering and irrational beliefs about radiation have prevented the general use of food ionization, to the disadvantage of American consumers. David Rothbard, president of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), a grass-roots consumers' organization, has noted: "Opponents of this technology are well organized and have succeeded in misleading the public, as well as many of our elected officials. Relying on flawed studies that have been rejected by almost every credible scientist, these opponents have used scare tactics to block the widespread use of this needed technology."

CFACT and two other groups, the American Council on Science and Health and the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, have begun a nationwide campaign to encourage use of ionized food preservation. These groups work to educate consumers and grocers across the United States about ionized food preservation. Their message includes these points:

Food irradiation delays spoilage. We lose millions of dollars worth of produce and meats each year due to spoilage. Ionizing radiation can delay the spoilage of highly perishable fresh fish and shellfish, and prolong the shelf life of fruits like strawberries.

Food irradiation is a substitute for toxic pesticides. The American Council on Science and Health reports that "low-dose irradiation can kill insects in grains and other stored foods" and can substitute for fumigants like EDB (now banned by EPA regulations) that are hazardous to farm workers and food handlers.

Food irradiation eliminates trichinosis hazards in pork.

Food irradiation kills salmonella and other infectious germs.

Despite all these advantages, some vocal opposition to ionized food processing still exists. Explains Craig Rucker, executive director of CFACT: "While public demonstrations have intimidated some grocers to boycott ‘irradiated' food, the more serious obstacles to advancing the technology lie in the state legislatures. Most states have passed laws requiring companies to label ionized foods with the word ‘irradiated.'" The clear purpose of this legislation, he adds, "is to saddle ionized food with a negative nuclear connotation." (David Rothbard asks, "Why not just make the labels carry a picture of a mushroom cloud?")

Alaska, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, and other states are considering even more extreme legislation that would ban the sale and distribution of ionized foods; Maine, New York, and New Jersey have already instituted sales bans. These laws carry harsh penalties for offenders.

Fears of contamination from food irradiation are as foolish as fears about contamination from a microwave oven, a common household appliance. USA Weekend notes that despite opposition from some groups like the Beyond Beef campaign, "tests show no ill effects of irradiation." Every form of cooking is, in essence, a form of radiation. A barbecue uses the radiation from flames; sun-dried raisins use the radiation from the sun's rays; smoked salmon is preserved with the radiation of burning hickory; an egg is poached with electric stovetop radiation. To deny American consumers inexpensive, safe, and disease-free fruits, meats, and vegetables on the basis of anti-nuclear hysteria is simply bad policy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Richard Sincere, vice chairman of the Libertarian Party of Virginia, is a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates in the 49th District (Arlington County).
To be sure, irradiation is not a panacea that will prevent all food-borne illnesses, as Miller notes in his Chicago Tribune piece. (It will not destroy toxins produced by bacteria even as it destroys the bacteria themselves.) Still, Miller adds:
There is technology available today that could inhibit microorganisms' ability to grow within plant cells and block the synthesis of the bacterial toxins. This technology also can produce antibodies that can be administered to infected patients to neutralize the toxins and produce effective treatments for diarrhea, the primary symptom of food poisoning.
This solution may find its own opposition, however, because it involves recombinant DNA technology, also known as gene-splicing or genetic modification.

Who knew that Mary Shelley was really writing metaphorically about the attack of the killer tomatoes?

Hymn for a Sunday Evening

Sixty years ago tonight, television history was made. Or, perhaps, it would be better to say, television history began.

Philo Farnsworth and Lee DeForest aside, the raw cultural power of television as an entertainment medium arguably sprang forth from a show that premiered on Sunday, June 20, 1948, from a midtown Manhattan theatre that now serves as the home of The Late Show with David Letterman.

Yes, it was on that night that a newspaper columnist with no discernible talent as a performer became the most influential prime time television host of the twentieth century. Gossip columnist Ed Sullivan took the helm of a variety program called Toast of the Town and made Sunday night the first "must see TV" for the American family.

Over 23 years on the air, Sullivan brought opera stars, Broadway musicals, classical pianists, and Shakespearean actors into our homes -- along with jugglers, acrobats, plate-spinners, folk dancers, and a mouse called Topo Gigio.

So influential was the Sullivan show that it could make or break a Broadway musical.

In his memoir, The Street Where I Live, lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner explains how bringing the stars of Camelot to the Ed Sullivan Show brought that production back from the brink of disaster. CBS was an investor in Camelot, which made what happened all the more significant.

"I have always had one way of judging if a play has gotten over or not," wrote Lerner:

If at ten o'clock on the morning after the opening there is a line at the box office window, the play is a hit. If there is not -- trouble is afoot. At ten o'clock I called the theatre. Trouble was afoot. But we still had an enormous advance sale and unquestionably the play would have a run. But how long? Nobody knew.
William Paley, the head of CBS, commissioned a Nielsen survey that concluded the "show could not possibly run past May."

The play had opened in December 1960, and the advance sale was based largely on the reputation of My Fair Lady, which had, like Camelot, been written by Lerner and Loewe, directed by Moss Hart, and starred Julie Andrews, as well as the distinguished Welsh actor, Richard Burton. The first few weeks floated on that advance. But Lerner continued:
I returned in February to a bleak Camelot. There was hardly any window sale at all and people were walking out of the theatre not by the dozens, but some nights by as much as two to three hundred. The album was rising slowly in the charts, but the word-of-mouth was not good and the chances of recovering the investment seemed infinitesimal.
The situation seemed hopeless. But, as Lerner put it,
And then came the miracle.

Three weeks before, Ed Sullivan, who then had the most popular variety show on television, had decided to do a full hour devoted to Lerner and Loewe. He had honored other composers and lyricists in the past and, in fact, it was the second time he had so honored us. The occasion was the fifth anniversary of My Fair Lady. The program usually consisted of a scene or two from whatever show the authors may have had running at the time, and a medley of their previous hits. When Ed, Fritz, and I were having a meeting to discuss the content of the show, I asked if we might be allowed to routine it ourselves. Ed, one of the most gracious gentlemen in television, gave us carte blanche.

It had always been the custom to do only the briefest possible moments from a current play, in order not to give too much of it away. What I had in mind was to do very little from My Fair Lady and then spend the last twenty minutes doing all the best songs and scenes from Camelot, much more than had ever been prsented before from any play running on Broadway.

The Sullivan Show was Sunday night. During the previous week the cast not only rehearsed the T.V. show but, under Moss's direction, the cuts and changes in the play as well. On the television show, Goulet sang "If Ever I Would Leave You"; Julie sang "Where Are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood?"; Richard did "Camelot"; and he and Julie together did "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" All in costume. And they were a smash.

The following morning I was awakened by a phone call from an excited manager at the Majestic Theatre. "You better come down here," he said, "and look at this." "Look at what?" I asked. He answered, "Just come and see what's going on at this box office." I got to the theatre as quickly as I could. For the first time there was a line halfway down the block.

That night the audience came to the theatre and saw the vastly improved musical that Moss had rehearsed the week before. And at eleven-fifteen the curtain came down! The reaction and the applause were overwhelming. The people came up the aisles raving.

Camelot was finally a hit.
Given Sullivan's background as a journalist who wrote mostly about Broadway and the entertainment world, it should come as no surprise that, when he came to television, he became Broadway's biggest booster. So big, in fact, that "Ed Sullivan" is the primary lyric of a song in the 1960 musical, Bye Bye Birdie, called "Hymn for a Sunday Evening." (In a case of life imitating art, Paul Lynde sang that song on The Ed Sullivan Show on June 12, 1960; the other guests that night included Dick Van Dyke as well as Louis Prima and Keely Smith.)

Two of the guests on the first episode of Toast of the Town were Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. No doubt they tried to resuscitate their failed experiment of a show, Allegro, which was then in its death throes. (It closed weeks later, on July 10, after only 315 performances -- a major disappointment after the blockbuster status of Oklahoma!, which had closed three weeks later after a five-year run, and Carousel, which enjoyed 890 performances.) Or perhaps they were plugging a show they hadn't written, but produced: Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, which was in the midst of a three-year engagement of nearly 1,150 performances.

Television audiences who came upon Toast of the Town that first night would have seen the comedy team of Martin and Lewis -- Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, that is. And another comedy team, not so familiar to us now, called Goodman and Kirkwood. Other guests were John Kokoman, Kathryn Lee, Monica Lewis, Eugene List, and a dance troupe called "The Toastettes."

The Ed Sullivan Show went off the air on May 30, 1971, with a Memorial Day special. Generations of TV viewers have grown up without it, unless they have been fortunate enough to see individual episodes on DVD. (One set available for purchase, for example, includes the four episodes that featured the Beatles, whose debut on the Ed Sullivan Show was the biggest television event between Elvis' first appearance on that show and the moon landing -- which happened on a Sunday night (July 20, 1969), preempting Sullivan in favor of Neil Armstrong.) Sullivan's imprimatur made both Elvis and the Beatles (as well as the Rolling Stones, The Doors, and other rock acts) acceptable to Middle America.

While decidedly middlebrow in its approach, the Ed Sullivan Show brought highbrow culture into American homes along with the low-brow arts that appealed to the groundlings. Adults and children could watch together and know that, if what they were watching now is unsatisfying, they could wait five minutes and something more enjoyable would come along.

It's hard to believe it's been six decades.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Silent Flows the Don?

From Novosti, the Russian News and Information Agency:

A statue is to be unveiled to an enema at a health center in the southern Russia's town of Zheleznovodsk, the center director said on Monday.

The 1.5 meter-high bronze monument, weighing 350 kilograms (771.6 pounds), portrays "three angel-like children carrying above their heads a big pear-like enema," the Alexander Kharchenko said.

"This will be the first monument to an enema in the world," he said, adding that the initiative to erect the monument was proposed by the center's administration, where hundreds of similar procedures are carried out every day.

"It is high time a monument to an enema was erected," he said.

Considering all the odd things along America's highways and byways, it's rather surprising that the Russians erected the first enema monument.

At least we beat them to the moon.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Redpath Certified for Senate Ballot

The U.S. Senate race in Virginia now has a fourth official candidate: Libertarian Bill Redpath has been certified by the State Board of Elections. His name will appear on the ballot along with Democrat Mark Warner, Republican Jim Gilmore, and Independent Green Gail Parker.

Redpath is the national chairman of the Libertarian Party; he was re-elected to a second term at the LP's national convention in Denver over Memorial Day weekend. That same convention nominated Bob Barr of Georgia as the party's presidential candidate.

The Redpath campaign will be issuing a news release soon with more information about the ballot certification.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Doing It Later

Yesterday's "Sunday Source" section of the Washington Post has what appears to be an informative article about procrastination and how to overcome it.

It looks so interesting, I've decided to set it aside to read later, when I have some extra time.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Liveblogging the Tony Awards

Tonight's the night. After a season of ups and downs, the rivals are meeting tonight in a single arena to decide who will be the ultimate winner. Competition is fierce, of course; it is every year.

I'm prepared, too. I just returned from Kroger with an eight-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a package of chicken wings. I'll be settling into my easy chair to watch television, uninterrupted, for the next three hours.

The broadcast channels know what a big night this is, too, with all of them deferring to CBS. The CW has reruns of Everybody Hates Chris and Aliens in America. The local PBS affiliate is having a pledge drive. Fox has reruns of The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, and American Dad. NBC has a Saturday Night Live prime-time clip show, and ABC is running some basketball game.

That's because America is focused on the Tony Awards. Broadway's big night is here, hosted by The View's Whoopi Goldberg.

Isn't that worthy of live blogging?

8:03 p.m.: A production number from Disney's The Lion King (coming soon to Washington for the first time, at the Kennedy Center) opens the show. This season marked the show's tenth year on Broadway.

8:04 p.m.: Whoopi takes the stage in a crab costume from Disney's The Little Mermaid. The opening credits begin.

8:06 p.m.: Whoopi says, "Welcome to the 62nd Annual Tony Awards." She announces that there will be excerpts from shows that are not nominated (e.g., Young Frankenstein). She introduces the first presenter, Laurence Fishburne, and takes an unnecessary dig at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (eliciting some boos from the audience). (She implies that Thomas is not "black.")

8:08 p.m.: Fishburne presents the award for best featured actress in a play. The winner is Rondi Reed for August: Osage County.

8:11 p.m.: John Waters takes the stage. "Yes, I'm back. Can you believe it?" He's introducing a musical number from Cry-Baby, which is based on his film of the same name. He wonders if "there are actually prisoners watching the Tony show tonight. Talk about a new minority!"

8:15 p.m.: Musical number from the first nominated musical, Cry-Baby, ends.

8:20 p.m.: A spotlight on Jersey Boys, winner of best musical in 2006.

8:21 p.m.: Backstage with Whoopi, pointing out that viewers can go to to see the "Thank You Cam."

8:22 p.m.: Laura Linney presents the award for best featured actor in a play. The winner is Jim Norton for The Seafarer. It is his first Tony. He shouts: "I love New York!"

8:25 p.m.: Adam Duritz of Counting Crows announces the number from Passing Strange, set in an Amsterdam coffee house.

8:36 p.m.: Two-time Tony winner John Lithgow presents the Tony for best direction of a musical. The winner is Bartlett Sher for the first Broadway revival of South Pacific.

8:39 p.m.: Jack Klugman, who was in the original cast of Gypsy, for which he was nominated for a Tony, introduces a number from the latest revival of that show. Patti Lupone sings "Everything's Coming Up Roses," perhaps the most frightening song every sung by a mother to her daughter. (After seeing this, I really want to see Lupone's "Rose's Turn.")

8:45 p.m.: A number from 1988's Phantom of the Opera, with Whoopi as Christine.

8:51 p.m.: We return from a commercial break to the announcement of the special Tonys given earlier this evening to Robert Russell Bennett (posthumously) and the Chicago Shakespeare Company, as well as to best choreographer, best book of a musical, best orchestrations, best revival of a play (Boeing-Boeing).

8:52 p.m.: Big Brother's Julie Chen looks back at "the year in plays."

8:54 p.m.: Tony winner Duncan Sheik mentions how Stew won the best book of a musical award for Passing Strange, and presents the award for best score. The award goes to Lin-Manuel Miranda for In the Heights, the early favorite musical with 13 nominations. Miranda's acceptance speech is delivered as a rap. He says, "Mr. Sondheim, look, I made a hat/ where there never was a hat/and a Latin hat at that."

8:57 p.m.: Harry Connick, Jr., introduces a medley from South Pacific, which begins with the Seabee chorus singing "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." Then Paulo Szot sings "Some Enchanted Evening," followed by Kelli O'Hara and the female chorus with "A Wonderful Guy."

9:07 p.m.: A "Broadway Spotlight" on Legally Blonde; Whoopi flies in like (and as) Mary Poppins.

9:08 p.m.: Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth presents the award for featured actress in a musical. The winner is Laura Benanti for her role as Louise in Gypsy. She expresses surprise at seeing Arthur Laurents standing. "Stephen Sondheim," she says, "I just worship you. There are no other words." She describes her mother as "the anti-Mama Rose."

9:11 p.m.: Barry Bostwick, who was in the original Broadway cast of Grease, introduces a number from the revival of that show. The cast sings the title song, "Grease," which comes from the movie soundtrack, not the OCR. (Frankie Valli sang it -- words and music by Barry Gibb -- over the film's credits.) The medley also includes the finale, "We Go Together." So the cast gets to sing both the first and last numbers of the current revival.

9:21 p.m.: A Broadway Spotlight with the cast of the longest-running revival musical, Chicago.

9:22 p.m.: Brooke Shields takes the stage to present the Tony Award for best performance by featured actor in a musical. The winner is veteran Boyd Gaines, for Gypsy; this is his fourth Tony award after five nominations. "I am honored to be in this great American classic," he says, thanking the creators, Stephen Sondheim, the late Jule Styne, and his director, Arthur Laurents.

9:25 p.m.: Oscar winner Marisa Tomei, now on Broadway in Top Girls, offers a taste of the new musicals "that have eight nominations among them," starting with The Little Mermaid. Faith Prince sings a number from A Catered Affair. Megan Mullaly sings to Shuler Hensley in a number from The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein. (This segment seems an attempt by the award show's producers to spotlight tourist-friendly musicals that failed to get nominated in the "best" category.)

9:30 p.m.: I notice that the Internet Broadway Data Base ( is unusually slow in loading tonight.

9:35 p.m.: A Broadway Spotlight on George Wendt and the cast of Hair Spray. Then we get a look behind the scenes at the American Theatre Wing, featuring young actors from current musicals.

9:36 p.m.: Whoopi returns. She introduces a scene from the first nominee for best play, August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts, followed by a scene from Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, and one from Conor MacPherson's The Seafarer. Finally, she introduces a scene from Patrick Barlow's The 39 Steps.

9:42 p.m.: Gabriel Byrne presents the award for best director of a play. The winner is Anna D. Shapiro for August: Osage County. She has a tattoo on her upper right arm, not something you expect to see on a Tony-winning director. She pays tribute to the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago and her parents. She also thanks her six nieces and nephews, "who don't care about any of this; they really don't. They just wanted tickets to Little Mermaid. And I got them."

9:46 p.m.: A scene from Spamalot with Whoopi as the Lady of the Lake; commercial break follows.

9:52 p.m.: A Broadway Spotlight on Mamma Mia!, which comes to Washington's National Theatre later this month.

9:53 p.m.: Mary-Louise Parker takes the stage to present the award for best performance by a leading actor in a play. Despite her flat reading off the teleprompter, the winner is Mark Rylance for Boeing-Boeing. (In announcing nominee Patrick Stewart, she properly says "the Scottish Play" rather than Macbeth; to do otherwise inside a theatre, even inside Radio City Music Hall, would be to invite disaster.) Rylance wins for his Broadway debut and gives a dry, droll acceptance speech.

9:56 p.m.: Emmy winner Alec Baldwin presents the award for best performance by a leading actress in a play. The winner is Deanna Dunagan for August: Osage County.

9:58 p.m.: IBDB is slower than it has ever been.

10:00 p.m.: Whoopi introduces Lin-Manuel Miranda, who begins a number from In the Heights, joined by the rest of the cast. (Good timing; you don't want viewers to switch channels at the top of the hour.) John Kander has said he greatly admires Miranda's music for In the Heights; I'm not sure I could sit through two hours of rap-like recitative.

10:05 p.m.: CBS runs a commercial for Mamma Mia!, the film version of the long-running London- and Broadway musical. That movie opens mere days after the show arrives at the National Theatre in D.C.

10:09 p.m.: The design awards, presented earlier this evening, are rapidly announced to the TV audience. Do they really think that anyone watching the Tonys doesn't really care about these important awards?

10:10 p.m.: A non-nude Daniel Radcliffe and Equus co-star Richard Griffiths (also non-nude) present the award for best new play. The winner is, "as if by magic," August: Osage County. Playwright Tracy Letts accepts the award along with a large crowd of producers, cast, and backers. Letts says "I don't know all these people. I assume they are associated with the play." He adds: "This beats the hell out of auditioning for JAG." He thanks the producers for doing a remarkable thing: "They decided to produce an American play on Broadway with theatre actors!"

10:14 p.m.: Looking like he just stepped out of a production of Fiddler on the Roof as Tevye, Tony winner Mandy Patinkin accepts a special Tony award for lifetime achievement for Stephen Sondheim. Because the recipient could not be present, Patinkin reads a message from Sondheim, who thanks his collaborators. Sondheim says, "I would also share this award with Hal Prince, but he has one already."

10:16 p.m.: Patinkin goes on to mention the original production of Sunday in the Park with George, and introduces scenes from the new Roundabout Theatre Company revival. Jenna Russell and Daniel Evans sing "Move On." (I last saw Evans in his Olivier-winning turn as Charley in the Donmar Warehouse production of Merrily We Roll Along.) Am I alone in this observation, or does Evans look like Andrew Sullivan before Andrew grew a beard?

10:21 p.m.: A scene from last year's winner for best musical, Spring Awakening, with Whoopi and the cast; commercial break.

10:26 p.m.: A Broadway Spotlight on Avenue Q.

10:27 p.m.: Glenn Close presents the award for best revival of a musical. The nominees are Grease, Gypsy, South Pacific, and Sunday in the Park with George. The award goes to South Pacific. Producer Andre Bishop accepts the award. He thanks the daughters of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and Ted Chapin of the R&H Organization.

10:30 p.m.: Lily Tomlin takes the stage to the strains of "Put on a Happy Face." She introduces a scene from best-musical nominee Xanadu. She said she saw it the other night and "I L-M-A-O." She is obviously having problems reading the teleprompter. Tony nominee Kerry Butler, Tony Roberts, Cheyenne Jackson, and the cast sing "Don't Walk Away." Who would have thought that Xanadu, a campy 1980 movie with Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton-John could one day become a Tony-nominated, hit Broadway musical?

10:40 p.m.: A classic Tony moment: Madonna complains about a short microphone and says, "I'm being punished for not coming to rehearsal today."

10:41 p.m.: Whoopi presents the original company of Rent, beginning with Anthony Rapp, who in turn introduces the current cast in a production number, "La Vie Boheme." He then brings in the original cast to join him. Of course, they mention how Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm on the day of the first public preview of the show. Of course, they sing "Seasons of Love."

10:46 p.m.: It's Liza! Her lisp is more audible than ever as she presents the award for best performance by a leading actor in a musical. The Tony Award goes to Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot for South Pacific.

10:49 p.m.: Tony winner (for Curtains) David Hyde-Pierce thanks Rob Ashford for "giving me the greatest dance on Broadway ... unfinished business from last year." He presents the award for leading actress in a musical. The winner is Patti Lupone for Gypsy. This is her second Tony; her first came in 1980 for Evita. She sends out her love to her husband, Matt, and their son, Joshua. She thanks everyone who has helped her in the past 35 years. She calls Arthur Laurents "an inspiration to all of us in the theatre." She even thanks the ghosts of the St. James Theater (and there must be many, considering what's played there before). She yells at the orchestra, which is trying to play her off, "Shut up! It's been 29 years!" She talks over "There's No Business Like Show Business" before finally saying good night.

10:53 p.m.: Whoopi joins the cast of the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line in "One." Mario Lopez is at the front of the line. I knew he was in the cast; I hadn't realized he was playing Zach. (That's the closest thing to a non-dancing role in the show; Michael Douglas played it in that dreadful Richard Attenborough movie version.)

10:54 p.m.: IBDB is still slow. Very slow.

10:57 p.m.: Whoopi returns to the microphone to present the award for best new musical. "Seconds from now," she says, "this stage will be filled with producers." The big winner of the night is In the Heights. Producer Jill Furman accepts the award with a throng of producers and cast members.

11:00 p.m.: Whoopi calls this "the greatest night of an actor's life." She encourages the audience to "come to New York to see a Broadway show." The closing credits begin. CBS runs a commercial for "the summer's guilty pleasure," Swingtown.

User Fees to Fund Transportation

The idea of the superiority of user fees over taxes as a means of funding public services is widely held by libertarians and others who advocate free-market solutions to community problems. To others, however, user fees are an exotic concept and therefore suspect.

Seeing an article in the opinion pages of the Charlottesville Daily Progress this morning that supports user fees as the best means of financing transportation in Virginia came as an intellectually pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, the article -- by Old Dominion University economist James V. Koch -- does not appear on the Daily Progress web site (or at least it's not easy to find, if it is there). Fortunately, the same article appeared on Saturday in the Daily Press of Newport News, and it does appear on that newspaper's web site.

Under the headline, "For road funding, user fees just make sense," Koch writes:

I don't give it a second thought when I'm asked to pay an entrance fee to enter Yellowstone National Park. After all, the park's resources and facilities must be maintained and there is elemental justice attached to this fee because I'm the person using the park, not someone 1,000 miles away. Similarly, I don't object to paying an admission fee to Old Dominion University basketball games, or paying for a spot to park on campus, even though we all know ODU is a publicly assisted institution. Once again, I use the services and receive the benefits, so why shouldn't I bear most of the cost?

Somehow the fundamental justice associated with user fees gets lost when we begin to talk about how to pay for our roads. Many individuals believe they should not have to pay for the extent to which they drive on public roadways even though they know their own use gradually causes our roads to deteriorate and even though they know these same roads may be essential to their keeping their current jobs, or even to drive to church.

I can understand (though not completely agree with) someone who argues, "I don't even own a car, so I shouldn't pay." While I'd argue every citizen benefits from an efficient road system (even bed-ridden individuals rely upon our road system to deliver their food and medicine), one can understand the argument of an individual who doesn't want to pay for things she chooses not to use.

That's why transportation user fees are so attractive (at least relative to the alternatives). If I'm going to pay for something, I'd like it to be an item that I use and value rather than something I care nothing about. Transportation user fees (tolls, gas taxes) can be avoided completely by someone who chooses not to drive, or avoided partially by someone who decides to drive less, use a more fuel-efficient car, carpool, cyber-commute or use public transportation.
Dr. Koch also points out:
...user fees have other benefits. They'll cause us to drive fewer miles. This will moderate highway congestion, reduce highway deaths, and even dampen carbon-dioxide emissions. We'll be stimulated to purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles. Not such a bad combination! Note that increasing the state's income tax or sales tax, or imposing a grab bag of other taxes, to pay for transportation improvements would yield virtually none of these benefits.
He concludes:
...the real question is how we should pay for repairing our potholes and building the new roads we need. User fees easily are the best way to go. They provide us with incentives to change our behavior (and thereby avoid paying so much) even while they raise revenue. True, user fees (especially gas taxes) don't have lots of political sex appeal, but then legitimate, long-term solutions to tough problems seldom do. It would be a mistake to kid ourselves that somehow we will find a painless solution to our transportation challenges that will magically be paid for by "someone else."

A variety of elected officials seem to be pursuing that strategy. Let's get real. There's no free lunch to be found in the transportation arena. Let's increase user fees and stop digging our transportation hole even deeper.
There's little in Professor Koch's article with which I could disagree. The entire piece should be read by every member of the General Assembly who will be participating in the special session on transportation issues later this month.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Addenda to the 'Getting High' Series

Back in February, I posted four videos I called the "Getting High" series. Two of the videos were from Wisconsin (the top of the state capitol, the peak of Rib Mountain), one was from Michigan's Upper Peninsula (Copper Peak ski flying hill), and the last was from Los Angeles (the Getty museum complex).

I have two more additions to the "Getting High" series.

The first is archival footage I found in some old home movies taken by my grandfather, Chester J. Michalak, in the early 1960s. This film was made while flying over the resort community of Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, with its extensive chain of lakes. My best guess is that this dates from August 1960, but it could be a year or two older or younger.

The second is more recent. In March 2007, Richard Morrison and I made a trip to Las Vegas, and we visited the Hoover Dam, which rises from the depths of Black Canyon, impeding the Colorado River and creating Lake Mead. Some of the video is taken from inside the bowels of the dam, where the electrical generators are located, and some of it is from the edge of the canyon and from the top of the roadway that traverses the dam itself.

Getting High in Wisconsin, Part III

Getting High in Nevada, Part I:

Getting High in Nevada, Part II:

The videos from Nevada were taken just a few days after I purchased my digital video camera, so I was not as adept as I could have been in shooting the scenery. I have learned a lot since then, so I apologize for the intermittent shakiness and quick, unsteady zooms.

Looking into a Candidate's Soul

In their book Blinded by Might, Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas wrote "the marriage of religion and politics almost always compromises the gospel." On another occasion, Ed Dobson wrote:

The authority of the church is the power to change people and culture. By contrast, the authority of the government is the authority to punish wrongdoing and restrain evil. But the government has no power to change the hearts of evildoers; it can only incarcerate or execute them.
Daroid H. Morgan summarized one of the book's basic points in a review of Blinded by Might in the journal Christian Ethics Today:
The strength of this book is the repeated statement that it is only in the power of the Christian gospel, applied to the human heart, that transformation of people can take place. Legislation and manipulation of political position and power cannot change lives. The preeminent task of the Church is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Religious Right people have made a fatal mistake in making political power take precedence over the spiritual power latent in the Christian gospel.
Why is it, then, that Cal Thomas is now criticizing presidential candidate Barack Obama for holding non-orthodox theological opinions? Are Obama's personal religious beliefs about eschatology and personal salvation relevant to the office he seeks?

In contrast to his previous opinions on separating theology from politics, this week in his syndicated column, Thomas writes:
Mr. Obama has declared himself a committed Christian. He can call himself anything he likes, but there are certain markers among the evangelicals he is courting that one must meet in order to qualify for that label.

Some insight into Mr. Obama's "Christianity" comes from an interview he gave in 2004 to Chicago Sun-Times religion editor Cathleen Falsani for her book, "The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People."

"I'm rooted in the Christian tradition," said Mr. Obama. He then adds something most Christians will see as universalism: "I believe there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people."

Ms. Falsani correctly brings up John 14:6 (and how many journalists would know such a verse, much less ask a question based on it?) in which Jesus says of Himself, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." That sounds exclusive, but Mr. Obama says it depends on how this verse is heard. According to Ms. Falsani, Mr. Obama thinks that "all people of faith - Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, everyone - know the same God." (Her words.)

Evangelicals and serious Catholics might ask if this is so, why did Jesus waste His time coming to Earth, suffering pain, rejection and crucifixion? If there are many ways to God, He might have sent down a spiritual version of table manners and avoided the rest.

Here's Mr. Obama telling Ms. Falsani, "The difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and proselytize. There's the belief, certainly in some quarters, that if people haven't embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior, they're going to hell." Ms. Falsani adds, "Obama doesn't believe he, or anyone else, will go to hell. But he's not sure he'll be going to heaven, either." Again, that is contrary to what evangelicals and most Catholics believe.

Here's Mr. Obama again: "I don't presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. When I tuck in my daughters at night and I feel like I've been a good father to them, and I see that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they're kind people and that they're honest people, and they're curious people, that's a little piece of heaven."

Any first-year seminary student could deconstruct such "works salvation" and wishful thinking. Mr. Obama either hasn't read the Bible, or if he has, doesn't believe it if he embraces such thin theological wisps.

Mr. Obama can call himself anything he likes, but there is a clear requirement for one to qualify as a Christian and Mr. Obama doesn't meet that requirement.
If Senator Obama were running for president of the United Church of Christ (the denomination to which he has belonged for the last two decades) rather than of the United States of America, scrutiny of his theological views would be both relevant and appropriate.

Similarly, it would not be appropriate -- nor would it matter -- what the views of the president of the UCC are with regard to the Hatch Act or who should be appointed as administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation.

If the church should avoid being entangled in power politics, so should it avoid enquiries about what presidential candidates think about christology, missiology, and ecclesiology.

And, if Mr. Thomas is insistent on probing Obama's views on these subjects, he should direct his scrutiny equally to John McCain, Bob Barr, and the other presidential candidates. If Christian orthodoxy is a requirement for sitting in the Oval Office, the demand applies to all candidates for that seat, not just the one who has previously laid his heart bare on these topics.

How Congress Makes Us Fat

No doubt you have heard about the national obesity epidemic:

An estimated two of every three American adults, and more than one in six children and adolescents are considered overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rates have been on the rise since the late 1980s after being relatively constant in the '60s and '70s, said Dr. Cynthia Ogden, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The percentage of adults who are obese -- defined as having a Body Mass Index of 30 or more -- has doubled to 31 percent, or some 60 million people, over the past two decades, Ogden said.
While ill-suited diets and lack of exercise are mostly to blame for weight gain in individuals, it is also true that our government creates disincentives to good health.

A perspicacious editorial in today's Washington Times points out how Congress lays the groundwork for such disincentives by plying agribusiness with subsidies pulled from the taxpayer's pocket.

Notes the Times:
A Twinkie costs 15 cents, and a Gala apple at a grocery store wears a price tag of $1.25 - despite the fact that each Twinkie ingredient goes through the process of being crushed, baked, fermented, refined and/or reacted into a totally unrecognizable goo or powder with a strange name - all for the sake of creating a simple snack cake. Meanwhile, an apple undergoes two steps: plant and pick.

So why does it cost more to produce an apple than a Twinkie?

Well, your friendly Capitol Hill lawmakers persist in passing a farm bill every five years that hurts the taxpayer, grocery shopper and the small farmer.

Congress passed the proposed $290 billion farm bill on May 22, over-riding President Bush's veto and setting the rules for the American food system for the next five years. Approximately two-thirds of the bill funds nutrition programs such as food stamps and about $40 billion is for farm subsidies. An additional $30 billion goes to farmers to idle their land as part of other environmental programs.

The problem lies in subsidizing crops like corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat. Consequently, processed foods like the Twinkie - which consists of a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat - are scandalously cheap while the prices of healthy, unprocessed produce skyrocket.

The editorial asks the appropriate qui bono question:
So who actually benefits from the crop subsidies? The farm lobby likes to pretend that the small family farmer does, but that is not the case. Because subsidies are given based on level of production, mega-farms benefit the most. Though the latest farm bill attempts to limit this, it will add up to $26 billion in direct payments to mega-farms over the next five years.
It's been a long time since I've actually eaten a Twinkie -- at least the processed-food, creme-filled kind -- and I far prefer a Gala apple. (Actually, I prefer a Granny Smith or a Fuji, but Galas are tasty, too.) Now I understand why my grocery bill is so much higher now than it was when my basket was filled mostly with items from the snack aisle. (I can see the Google searches now: "cream-filled twinkie basket.")

So if anyone wants to know why the number one diet problem of the poor in America is not hunger but obesity, they need only look to Capitol Hill for an explanation.

For Flag Day

Today is Flag Day, which used to be celebrated as a national holiday commemorating the adoption of the design of the U.S. flag by the Continental Congress in 1777.

In honor of the occasion, I present this excerpt from the majority opinion in Texas v. Johnson, the landmark 1989 case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The majority included Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy. (Scalia and Kennedy, of course, still sit on the court; the others are deceased.)

Delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Brennan wrote (in part):

If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. See, e. g., Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S., at 55 -56; City Council of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U.S. 789, 804 (1984); Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., 463 U.S. 60, 65 , 72 (1983); Carey v. Brown, 447 U.S. 455, 462 -463 (1980); FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S., at 745 -746; Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U.S. 50, 63 -65, 67-68 (1976) (plurality opinion); Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 16 -17 (1976); Grayned v. Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 115 (1972); Police Dept. of Chicago v. Mosley, 408 U.S. 92, 95 (1972); Bachellar v. Maryland, 397 U.S. 564, 567 (1970); O'Brien, 391 U.S., at 382 ; Brown v. Louisiana, 383 U.S., at 142 -143; Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S., at 368 -369.

We have not recognized an exception to this principle even where our flag has been involved. In Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576 (1969), we held that a State may not criminally punish a person for uttering words critical of the flag. Rejecting the argument that the conviction could be sustained on the ground that Street had "failed to show the respect for our national symbol which may properly be demanded of every citizen," we concluded that "the constitutionally guaranteed `freedom to be intellectually . . . diverse or even contrary,' and the `right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order,' encompass the freedom to express publicly one's opinions about our flag, including those opinions which are defiant or contemptuous." Id., at 593, quoting Barnette, 319 U.S., at 642 . Nor may the government, we have held, compel conduct that would evince respect for the flag. "To sustain the compulsory flag salute we are required to say that a Bill of Rights which guards the individual's right to speak his own mind, left it open to public authorities to compel him to utter what is not in his mind." Id., at 634. [491 U.S. 397, 415]

In holding in Barnette that the Constitution did not leave this course open to the government, Justice Jackson described one of our society's defining principles in words deserving of their frequent repetition: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." Id., at 642. In Spence, we held that the same interest asserted by Texas here was insufficient to support a criminal conviction under a flag-misuse statute for the taping of a peace sign to an American flag. "Given the protected character of [Spence's] expression and in light of the fact that no interest the State may have in preserving the physical integrity of a privately owned flag was significantly impaired on these facts," we held, "the conviction must be invalidated." 418 U.S., at 415 . See also Goguen, supra, at 588 (WHITE, J., concurring in judgment) (to convict person who had sewn a flag onto the seat of his pants for "contemptuous" treatment of the flag would be "[t]o convict not to protect the physical integrity or to protect against acts interfering with the proper use of the flag, but to punish for communicating ideas unacceptable to the controlling majority in the legislature").

In short, nothing in our precedents suggests that a State may foster its own view of the flag by prohibiting expressive conduct relating to it. 10 To bring its argument outside our [491 U.S. 397, 416] precedents, Texas attempts to convince us that even if its interest in preserving the flag's symbolic role does not allow it to prohibit words or some expressive conduct critical of the flag, it does permit it to forbid the outright destruction of the flag. The State's argument cannot depend here on the distinction between written or spoken words and nonverbal conduct. That distinction, we have shown, is of no moment where the nonverbal conduct is expressive, as it is here, and where the regulation of that conduct is related to expression, as it is here. See supra, at 402-403. In addition, both Barnette and Spence involved expressive conduct, not only verbal communication, and both found that conduct protected.

Texas' focus on the precise nature of Johnson's expression, moreover, misses the point of our prior decisions: their enduring lesson, that the government may not prohibit expression simply because it disagrees with its message, is not dependent on the particular mode in which one chooses to express an idea. 11 If we were to hold that a State may forbid flag burning wherever it is likely to endanger the flag's symbolic role, but allow it wherever burning a flag promotes that role - as where, for example, a person ceremoniously burns a dirty flag - we would be saying that when it comes to impairing the flag's physical integrity, the flag itself may be used as [491 U.S. 397, 417] a symbol - as a substitute for the written or spoken word or a "short cut from mind to mind" - only in one direction. We would be permitting a State to "prescribe what shall be orthodox" by saying that one may burn the flag to convey one's attitude toward it and its referents only if one does not endanger the flag's representation of nationhood and national unity.

We never before have held that the Government may ensure that a symbol be used to express only one view of that symbol or its referents. Indeed, in Schacht v. United States, we invalidated a federal statute permitting an actor portraying a member of one of our Armed Forces to "`wear the uniform of that armed force if the portrayal does not tend to discredit that armed force.'" 398 U.S., at 60 , quoting 10 U.S.C. 772(f). This proviso, we held, "which leaves Americans free to praise the war in Vietnam but can send persons like Schacht to prison for opposing it, cannot survive in a country which has the First Amendment." Id., at 63.

We perceive no basis on which to hold that the principle underlying our decision in Schacht does not apply to this case. To conclude that the government may permit designated symbols to be used to communicate only a limited set of messages would be to enter territory having no discernible or defensible boundaries. Could the government, on this theory, prohibit the burning of state flags? Of copies of the Presidential seal? Of the Constitution? In evaluating these choices under the First Amendment, how would we decide which symbols were sufficiently special to warrant this unique status? To do so, we would be forced to consult our own political preferences, and impose them on the citizenry, in the very way that the First Amendment forbids us to do. See Carey v. Brown, 447 U.S., at 466 -467.

There is, moreover, no indication - either in the text of the Constitution or in our cases interpreting it - that a separate juridical category exists for the American flag alone. Indeed, we would not be surprised to learn that the persons [491 U.S. 397, 418] who framed our Constitution and wrote the Amendment that we now construe were not known for their reverence for the Union Jack. The First Amendment does not guarantee that other concepts virtually sacred to our Nation as a whole - such as the principle that discrimination on the basis of race is odious and destructive - will go unquestioned in the marketplace of ideas. See Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969). We decline, therefore, to create for the flag an exception to the joust of principles protected by the First Amendment.

It is not the State's ends, but its means, to which we object. It cannot be gainsaid that there is a special place reserved for the flag in this Nation, and thus we do not doubt that the government has a legitimate interest in making efforts to "preserv[e] the national flag as an unalloyed symbol of our country." Spence, 418 U.S., at 412 . We reject the suggestion, urged at oral argument by counsel for Johnson, that the government lacks "any state interest whatsoever" in regulating the manner in which the flag may be displayed. Tr. of Oral Arg. 38. Congress has, for example, enacted precatory regulations describing the proper treatment of the flag, see 36 U.S.C. 173-177, and we cast no doubt on the legitimacy of its interest in making such recommendations. To say that the government has an interest in encouraging proper treatment of the flag, however, is not to say that it may criminally punish a person for burning a flag as a means of political protest. "National unity as an end which officials may foster by persuasion and example is not in question. The problem is whether under our Constitution compulsion as here employed is a permissible means for its achievement." Barnette, 319 U.S., at 640 .

We are fortified in today's conclusion by our conviction that forbidding criminal punishment for conduct such as Johnson's will not endanger the special role played by our flag or the feelings it inspires. To paraphrase Justice Holmes, we submit that nobody can suppose that this one gesture of an unknown [491 U.S. 397, 419] man will change our Nation's attitude towards its flag. See Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 628 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting). Indeed, Texas' argument that the burning of an American flag "`is an act having a high likelihood to cause a breach of the peace,'" Brief for Petitioner 31, quoting Sutherland v. DeWulf, 323 F. Supp. 740, 745 (SD Ill. 1971) (citation omitted), and its statute's implicit assumption that physical mistreatment of the flag will lead to "serious offense," tend to confirm that the flag's special role is not in danger; if it were, no one would riot or take offense because a flag had been burned.

We are tempted to say, in fact, that the flag's deservedly cherished place in our community will be strengthened, not weakened, by our holding today. Our decision is a reaffirmation of the principles of freedom and inclusiveness that the flag best reflects, and of the conviction that our toleration of criticism such as Johnson's is a sign and source of our strength. Indeed, one of the proudest images of our flag, the one immortalized in our own national anthem, is of the bombardment it survived at Fort McHenry. It is the Nation's resilience, not its rigidity, that Texas sees reflected in the flag - and it is that resilience that we reassert today.

The way to preserve the flag's special role is not to punish those who feel differently about these matters. It is to persuade them that they are wrong. "To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence." Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 377 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring). And, precisely because it is our flag that is involved, one's response to the flag [491 U.S. 397, 420] burner may exploit the uniquely persuasive power of the flag itself. We can imagine no more appropriate response to burning a flag than waving one's own, no better way to counter a flag burner's message than by saluting the flag that burns, no surer means of preserving the dignity even of the flag that burned than by - as one witness here did - according its remains a respectful burial. We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.

I think it is important to include part of Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion, as well, because it expresses (especially in the first few paragraphs) some of the delicacy of addressing this issue -- the question of flag desecration -- when the Court knows how many Americans of goodwill find the practice repugnant, even when the law insists that such an expressive act is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Justice Kennedy -- who also wrote the majority opinion in this week's equally historic cases of Boumediene v. Bush and Al Odah v. Bush, which deal with the rights of prisoners held at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- wrote in Texas v. Johnson:

I write not to qualify the words JUSTICE BRENNAN chooses so well, for he says with power all that is necessary to explain our ruling. I join his opinion without reservation, but with a keen sense that this case, like others before us from time to time, exacts its personal toll. This prompts me to add to our pages these few remarks.

The case before us illustrates better than most that the judicial power is often difficult in its exercise. We cannot here ask another Branch to share responsibility, as when the argument is made that a statute is flawed or incomplete. For we are presented with a clear and simple statute to be judged against a pure command of the Constitution. The outcome can be laid at no door but ours.

The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like. We make them because they are right, right [491 U.S. 397, 421] in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result. And so great is our commitment to the process that, except in the rare case, we do not pause to express distaste for the result, perhaps for fear of undermining a valued principle that dictates the decision. This is one of those rare cases.

Our colleagues in dissent advance powerful arguments why respondent may be convicted for his expression, reminding us that among those who will be dismayed by our holding will be some who have had the singular honor of carrying the flag in battle. And I agree that the flag holds a lonely place of honor in an age when absolutes are distrusted and simple truths are burdened by unneeded apologetics.

With all respect to those views, I do not believe the Constitution gives us the right to rule as the dissenting Members of the Court urge, however painful this judgment is to announce. Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.

For all the record shows, this respondent was not a philosopher and perhaps did not even possess the ability to comprehend how repellent his statements must be to the Republic itself. But whether or not he could appreciate the enormity of the offense he gave, the fact remains that his acts were speech, in both the technical and the fundamental meaning of the Constitution. So I agree with the Court that he must go free.

When you fly the flag proudly today, or any other day, remember that your right to do so is only protected insofar as the right of someone else to burn the flag is protected as strongly.

Update: Who knew how timely this topic could become? An article posted on the Washington Times web site barely half an hour ago (at 7:33 p.m. EDT) notes:

Officials at a Northern California high school have reversed their decision to shut down a school newspaper that published a front-page photo of a student burning an American flag.

Shasta High School Principal Milan Woollard had said the newspaper and an accompanying journalism class would not operate next year after the "embarrassing" final issue of the student-run Volcano was published June 3. The issue also featured an editorial defending flag-burning as a form of speech protected under the First Amendment.