Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Slice of the 2008 Election

Although the 2008 general election is now history -- for those of you who missed it, Barack Obama was elected President with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress -- the impulse to analyze (and sometimes microanalyze) its results is sometimes irresistible.

In the category of microanalysis is this tidbit that I found in my high school alumni magazine, MUHS, which landed in my mailbox this afternoon:

Setting aside for a moment the poor design of the graphic (the color-coding for the major-party candidates is flipped between the two pie charts), it is interesting to note the differences between the overall votes of the students and the faculty and staff.

The students of Marquette University High School -- who, it should be noted, are 100 percent male and 83 percent Catholic -- chose as their winning candidate John McCain by 87 votes. There are currently 1,065 students at MUHS, so an 80 percent turnout means there were 852 votes cast. Some of those votes were cast for Ralph Nader and Bob Barr, so Barack Obama received what looks like about 44 or 45 percent of the vote.

By comparison, Barack Obama received 56.3 percent of the Wisconsin vote in 2008, with John McCain receiving 42.4 percent. Ralph Nader took 0.6 percent while Bob Barr took 0.3 percent, according to the New York Times.

But look at the faculty/staff pie chart. Numbers are not revealed, but the current number of faculty members at MUHS is 67. If staff is included, one could presume that about 80 adults voted in this mock election. Their choice was overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. (The "other" category is not broken down as it was for the student vote.) It looks like John McCain received about 30 percent of the faculty/staff vote.

What does this mean? I do not want to jump to conclusions, but it seems to indicate that faculty at Marquette High School are not using their classrooms as a forum to inculcate political views in their students but, if they are attempting to do so, they are failing.

Just for fun, I decided to look into the results of the mock election we held at MUHS during my senior year. While there are no figures for faculty votes, the margin between the Republican and Democratic candidates in that 1976 mock election was astonishingly wide: Gerald Ford (who in the actual election that year lost the popular vote narrowly) took 62 percent of the vote to Jimmy Carter's 28 percent. Third party candidate Eugene McCarthy won 8 percent and "other" received 2 percent. According to the 1977 Flambeau yearbook, 80 percent of the student body cast ballots in the mock election on November 2, 1976; there were about 1,200 students at MUHS in those days, so turnout was around 960.

By comparison, voters in Wisconsin in 1976 gave 49.5 percent of their votes to Jimmy Carter and 47.83 percent to Gerald R. Ford, with 1.66 percent for McCarthy and 0.6 percent for "other," according to the U.S. Election Atlas. (Statewide turnout was just over 60 percent.)

See those 1976 results for yourself:

The "referenda" results from that mock election are interesting, too. They show that 60 percent of students supported a "registration of all hand guns and parts" while 64 percent of students favored decriminalization of marijuana.

I wonder what the results of those referenda would have been 32 years later.

This has been a (sort-of) Bicentennial Minute ...

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

If You Laid All the Economists...

There's an old joke that if you laid all the economists in the country end-to-end, they would still not reach a conclusion.

As snarky as that comment is, it is true that economists disagree about many things. Even those who agree with each other seem to disagree. (See what happens when you host a dinner party with Austrians, Chicagoans, and Virginians.)

President Barack Obama recently asserted that among economists, "there is no disagreement that we need action by our government, a recovery plan that will help to jumpstart the economy."

He was wrong, of course. There are plenty of economists who disagree that government action is necessary to pull the country out of the recession. Many economists, in fact, believe that government action will do more harm than good.

For evidence that economists do disagree, one need not look any further than today's New York Times, where there is a full-page ad signed by more than 200 economists (including Nobel laureates James Buchanan, Edward Prescott, and Vernon Smith) which says:

Notwithstanding reports that all economists are now Keynesians and that we all support a big increase in the burden of government, we the undersigned do not believe that more government spending is a way to improve economic performance.
More government spending by Hoover and Roosevelt did not pull the United States economy out of the Great Depression in the 1930s. More government spending did not solve Japan’s “lost decade” in the 1990s. As such, it is a triumph of hope over experience to believe that more government spending will help the U.S. today. To improve the economy, policymakers should focus on reforms that remove impediments to work, saving, investment and production. Lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth.
To see the complete ad, look here:

The signatories on that list do not exhaust the numbers of skeptics about the so-called "stimulus" package. Last Friday on his blog, Greg Mankiw wrote:
...skeptics about a spending stimulus include quite a few well-known economists, such as (in alphabetical order) Alberto Alesina, Robert Barro, Gary Becker, John Cochrane, Eugene Fama, Robert Lucas, Greg Mankiw, Kevin Murphy, Thomas Sargent, Harald Uhlig, and Luigi Zingales--and I am sure there many others as well. Regardless of whether one agrees with them on the merits of the case, it is hard to dispute that this list is pretty impressive, as judged by the standard objective criteria by which economists evaluate one another. If any university managed to hire all of them, it would immediately have a top ranked economics department.
Referring to Mankiw's post, the Cato Institute's David Boaz added this morning:
...of course Mankiw’s list isn’t comprehensive. There’s also former Treasury economist Bruce Bartlett, former Yale professor Philip Levy, former Ohio State and Federal Reserve economist Alan Viard, Russell Roberts of George Mason, and many more. Under the current circumstances, plenty of economists are endorsing large fiscal stimulus programs. But it’s just not correct to claim that there’s any consensus or that “every economist . . . from conservative to liberal” supports the kind of massive spending program that the Obama-Biden administration has proposed.
The next time the Obama administration tries to sell you the view that "all economists agree" about something -- anything -- just remember that old joke. It's a good reality check.

Update: NetRightNation has posted a searchable list of all the economists who signed the anti-stimulus statement. Use it to find your favorite economist, or to see if your alma mater is named.

Read my blog on Kindle!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

'Stop Dangerous ID' Rally in Richmond

Last week, while in Richmond on other business, I found myself among a crowd gathered on the grounds of the State Capitol to protest the federal government's attempt to impose so-called "Real ID" on Virginia and other states. The Daily News Record of Harrisonburg had a report on January 13 about how new Virginia drivers' licenses are being designed and deployed in a manner consistent with federal Department of Homeland Security's Real ID requirements. The Daily Press of Newport News published an AP article by Dena Potter on January 2 that laid out the objections that civil libertarians and others have with regard to the imposition of the Real ID Act on the states and citizens.

State Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax) and Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Prince William) have each introduced legislation designed to "stop dangerous ID" in the Commonwealth.

Cuccinelli's bill, SB841, has been referred to the transportation committee and would do the following:

Prohibits DMV or any other agency of the Commonwealth from using any type of computer chip or radio-frequency identification on licenses and identification cards and from sharing certain data with other states or with any federal government agency. Further provides that no biometric data will be gathered or retained.
Marshall's companion bill, HB1587, has also been referred to the Committee on Transportation, and it is summarized as follows:
Provides that the Commonwealth will not participate in the compliance of any provision of the federal Real ID Act and of any other federal law, regulation, or policy that would compromise the economic privacy or biometric data of any resident of the Commonwealth.
Neither bill has yet had a committee vote.

The speakers at the rally in Richmond on January 21 were passionate in their opposition to Real ID. I arrived a few minutes late, so I missed the first two or three speakers. I turned on my video camera just as Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League took the microphone. He was introduced (as were all the other speakers) by Patrick McSweeney, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.

Part I, featuring Philip Van Cleave:

Part II, featuring Hope Amezquita, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia:

Part III, featuring Herb Lux, the president of the American Patriots Committee:

Part IV, featuring Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America:

Part V, featuring Petey Browder of the Tidewater Libertarian Party:

Part VI features Sam Beatty of the National Veterans Committee on Constitutional Affairs:

Part VII features Jim Capo, state coordinator of the John Birch Society for North Carolina and Virginia:

Part VIII features radio host David Alan Carmichael:

Part IX features the patron of SB841, state Senator Ken Cuccinelli:

Parts X and XI feature Delegate Bob Marshall, the patron of HB1587. Marshall was the only speaker whose remarks lasted more than 10 minutes, hence the split in the video.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Robert Burns at 250

Earlier today I heard on the radio that this is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scots poet Robert Burns. Born Robert Burness on January 25, 1759, he died at the young age of 37 on July 21, 1796.

Learning this, I dug through some of my videos to find footage I took almost exactly ten years ago -- on January 30, 1999 -- at a Robert Burns dinner hosted by a Boy Scout troop in North Finchley, London. My friend, Steve Salinger, had been a member of this troop growing up, and he explained that it was the only Scottish Scout troop in London.

Steve had been selected to recite Burns' "Ode to a Haggis" (sometimes called "Address to a Haggis") and he did so with dramatic flourish, including a passionate slicing of the haggis with his dagger.

While Steve was dressed formally, the other Scouts in the troop -- who served the meal to the 150 or so people in attendance -- wore kilts with starched white shirts. There was plenty of food and drink, followed by dancing.

Those of you who enjoy bagpipe music will also enjoy this short clip of "Ode to a Haggis":

In case you have problems understanding the recited Scots verse, here is the text of the poem:
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great Chieftan o' the Puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see Rustic-labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn they stretch an' strive,
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Bethankit hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scronful' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bluidy flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whissle;
An' legs, an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye Pow's wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae shinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if you wish her gratefu' pray'r,
Gie her a Haggis!

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Most Persuasive Case Against Gay Marriage

Someone at uncovered an old educational film that makes the most persuasive case against gay marriage that I have so far encountered.

Get the latest news satire and funny videos at

Those folks in the '50s really knew what they were talking about.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Plus ça change….

One of President Barack Obama's opponents in last year's general election, former U.S. Representative Bob Barr, has an early assessment of what we might expect under the new administration in Wednesday's edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Noting, at first, that on the surface the political circumstances of early 2009 are far different than those of early 2008, Barr argues that things have not changed much at all -- unless they are just going to get worse, at least in terms of the expansion of the size and scope of government.

Writes Barr, who ran last year as the Libertarian Party's nominee for president:

Our civil liberties continue under assault by the highest courts in the land, by the federal government, by state governments and by local governments here in Georgia. What am I talking about? Well, let’s see:

Just last week the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in which now-former President George W. Bush’s two appointees were in the majority, ruled that evidence seized illegally by the police nonetheless can be used to convict someone if the police maintain they seized the evidence “mistakenly.” So much for the Fourth Amendment, which used to protect against such inappropriate police action.

Thanks to a law expanding the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) signed last July by Bush, the government may now legally monitor any international phone call or e-mail transmission without a warrant, regardless of who you might be communicating with or why.

You might have thought yesterday’s inauguration of President Barack Obama was a celebration. You’d be wrong. It was a “national emergency,” right up there with Hurricane Katrina.

Why was it a declared “emergency” and a “special security event”? Simple. Such designations enable government to spend more of our money and to exercise greater power to control and arrest people.

Think your DNA is private? Think again. The federal government and many state governments, including Georgia, are now developing vast databases of DNA information (including from newborns), and they are not asking “pretty please” before they take the samples.
Barr includes other examples of government overreach (such as the EPA's plan to tax farmers for the gas that comes out of the rear ends of cows, or "bovine emissions") but what I've excerpted tells the story well.

What's the moral? Remain vigilant. As Thomas Jefferson said, "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." He wasn't being merely descriptive; he was sounding an alarm bell.

Stay up-to-date wherever life takes you. Read my blog on Amazon Kindle.

Insulting Two Presidents

On the eve of the presidential inauguration ceremony in Washington, an advocate of affirmative action programs in higher education managed to insult both of the Presidents who will serve the United States during this 24-hour period, virtually without taking a breath.

On National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" on January 19, Shanta Driver, chairperson of By Any Means Necessary, a national advocacy group, was a guest discussing the future of affirmative action programs along with John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute. (Charlottesville's Dahlia Lithwick gave an overview of the issue earlier in the program.)

Just past the middle of the discussion, Driver said:

It obviously made a difference for Barack Obama to have been able to go to Harvard and without affirmative action programs, he wouldn't have been able to go there.
The only inference to make from that statement is that Barack Obama was, absent affirmative action based on race, otherwise unqualified to be a Harvard law student. What a low opinion Driver has of the 44th president! (That Obama had earlier graduated from Columbia University, spent several years after college as a community organizer, and then went on to become editor of the Harvard Law Review, belies Driver's insulting insinuation.)

Driver is, however, an equal-opportunity snob. She quickly went on to say about the 43rd president:
[Minority students] never have the opportunity to be able to get the same kind of education as lots and lots and lots of white students at those universities, who are there purely because their parents went there and their grandparents went there and they're legacy admits, as George Bush was at Yale, who are clearly not qualified to be at those elite institutions...
That's quite an accusation, considering that George Bush earned better grades at Yale than were earned by his contemporary, John Kerry. Bush went on to earn an MBA at Harvard (where he was not a "legacy admit") and had a life of ups and downs leading to the ultimate success of being elected President of the United States.

Let me make it clear that I believe that both Barack Obama and George Bush were qualified to be students at Harvard University, even without programs that tip the scales on the basis of some irrelevant characteristic such as from which gene pool the academic candidates emerge.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Friday, January 16, 2009

There's No Centenary Like ...

Ethel Merman Geoffrey MarkIt would be neglectful to let the day go by without remembering the 100th birthday of that great lady of the American musical theatre, Ethel Merman, the woman who made "There's No Business Like Show Business" the anthem of the theatrical profession. (She also made it into a disco record in the late 1970s, but that may be a fact better forgotten.)

Both the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB) list Merman's birthdate as January 16, 1908, one hundred years ago today. There is some dispute, however, as to the accuracy of this date, with some suggesting that Merman was born two years earlier.

In his fawning biography of the actress, singer, and diva, entitled (with a great deal of legitimacy) Ethel Merman: The Biggest Star on Broadway, author Geoffrey Mark writes:

...Ethel Agnes Zimmermann was born on January 16, 1906. When she made the big time in show business, years were shaved off to make it appear she was a mere wisp of a girl. The future Miss Merman would conveniently lie about her age the rest of her life, clinging to those lost years to give an illusion of youth.

Her parents seemed to be the loving, indulgent, nurturing people that were later idealized on television shows like "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Ethel was an only child, and Edward and Agnes Zimmermann adored their daughter. A bit chubby as a youngster, Ethel possessed a quick wit, dark flash¬ing eyes, beautiful skin, and the ability to learn a tune before she could talk. She was, indeed, their pride and joy.

The Zimmermann family never had to worry about finances, illness, or social deprivation. Edward earned a very comfortable living as an accountant, leaving Agnes to stay at home and indulge little Ethel. There were grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins abounding; the Zimmermanns were surrounded by love. The two families had emigrated from Germany (Edward) and Scotland (Agnes) two generations earlier. There were no funny accents or tenements in Ethel's life, nothing of which to be ashamed. Her family had a big house at 359 Fourth Avenue (neither it nor the street still exists), electricity, a telephone, steam heat, and indoor plumbing. For most Americans, these were still luxuries in the days before World War I.

Like many of their social stature, the Zimmermann family had a piano in the parlor, which Edward played with abandon. When it was learned that she could carry a tune, tiny Ethel was placed at her father's feet where she was encouraged to sing along. The louder she sang, the more Edward encouraged her. The more encouragement she got, the louder she sang. Ethel seemed to get an adrenaline rush from her parents' approval. This would last as long as they lived, and they lived until Ethel was almost seventy.

This approval seemed to give Ethel a confidence uncom¬mon in a child. No matter what she attempted, little Ethel was always certain she would be a conqueror. Failure was not in her vocabulary. Edward and Agnes should have written a book on how to build a child's self-esteem. Much of Ethel's child¬hood was enveloped in laughter and emotional intimacy. The incredibly healthy ego that grew inside of Ethel would be a boon to her career. However, it would later prove a disaster in her personal life.
Ego or no ego, Merman had an unmatchable career on the Broadway stage. She starred in more hit musicals than anyone else, even Mary Martin. (Martin won the Tony for The Sound of Music in 1960, the same year Merman was nominated for what was, by most accounts, her best career performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy. Merman's reported reaction? "You can't buck a nun.")

Merman worked with George Gershwin and Cole Porter, with Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim. Her career spanned at least two, if not three, major phases in the development of musical theatre. The list of her roles on IBDB includes 15 original musicals, plus a revival of Annie Get Your Gun and two one-night-only tribute shows on Broadway. Her first Broadway musical was Girl Crazy and her last was Hello, Dolly!, a show that was written for her but one in which she starred (as Dolly Gallagher Levi) only in the last several months of a seven-year first run.

Like that other Dolly, Carol Channing, Merman had a personality too big for the screen. Most of the roles she originated on Broadway were played by others on film -- most notoriously Rosalind Russell in Gypsy and Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun (a role that was almost played by Judy Garland). Others who took Merman roles to the movies were Lucille Ball, Ann Sothern, and Vivian Blaine.

Merman did appear in the first film version of Anything Goes and repeated her role as "The Hostess with the Mostes'" in Call Me Madam. She also had a memorable turn as a shrewish mother-in-law in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Her last film role was as (sort of) herself in the 1980 classic spoof, Airplane!.

Whether Ethel Merman would have been 100 years old today, or 102, hers is a life worth celebrating and remembering.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although the holiday commemorating his life and work will not be celebrated until next Monday (to give government and bank employees a three-day weekend), the actual birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., is today. Had he lived, he would now be 80 years old, celebrating his birthday on January 15. (As it happens, my father was born on the same day five years later. He would have been 75 years old this year.)

While many people remember the words Dr. King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or on the night before his death in Memphis, he was a prolific writer and speaker and many of his pertinent and poignant quotations have come down to us.

For instance, courtesy of Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists (compiled by James Geary), we have:

"The time is always right to do what is right."

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends."

"Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars."

"In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds."

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

"I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."

"A riot is the language of the unheard."
And, from a useful book of quotations compiled by George Seldes called The Great Thoughts:
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

"The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.... The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."

"The choice today is not between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or non-existence" [from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech on December 11, 1964].

"The Negro needs the white man to free him from his fears. The white man needs the Negro to free him from his guilt."
Finally, from 20,000 Quips & Quotes, compiled by Evan Esar, we have these two nuggets:
"I want to be the white man's brother, but not his brother-in-law."

"Segregation is the offspring of an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality."

Stay up-to-date wherever life takes you. Read my blog on Amazon Kindle.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Budget Transparency in Virginia - Take Two

Last year, a bipartisan coalition of delegates and state senators supported legislation to bring more transparency to the Virginia budget, by requiring state agencies to post all their revenues and expenditures on-line in an easily searchable (and Googleable) format. Under current conditions, even members of the General Assembly -- other than Finance Committee chairmen -- are sometimes forced to make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in order to obtain budget data from state agencies. (Imagine how much more difficult it is for average citizens to find out how their tax dollars are being spent.)

Unfortunately, last year's proposals failed to win approval by the General Assembly, so this year new bills are being introduced for the same purpose.

The bills are patroned on the state Senate side by Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Chap Petersen (both of Fairfax County)with SB 936 and on the House side by Delegate Ben Cline (R-Amherst) with HB 1360.

Yesterday there was a news conference in the state Capitol building in Richmond, sponsored by the statewide advocacy group, Tertium Quids, at which Cline, Cuccinelli, and Petersen spoke about the legislation. Tertium Quids president John Taylor -- who also hosts the monthly Tuesday Morning Group Coalition meetings -- introduce the legislators and also spoke about other legislative initiatives that Tertium Quids is supporting during this year's General Assembly session.

Taylor noted that similar budget transparency legislation at the federal level was pushed through Congress by the efforts of then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who reiterated his support for such transparency last week when, as President-elect, he gave a major speech on economic matters at George Mason University.

Obama had cosponsored the federal legislation with Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn. When the searchable database went live in late 2007, Obama made these remarks on the floor of the U.S. Senate (from the Congressional Record, December 13, 2007; pp. S15456-S15457):

Mr. President, I am very pleased to celebrate today's launch of This is an important day, an important milestone on the path to greater openness and transparency in the Federal Government. This site helps us to achieve a very simple and powerful vision: a vision that, in a democracy, the people ought to know what their Government is doing: how the Government is raising and spending money, how it is making and enforcing law, how it is supporting projects, how decisions are being made, and how results are being evaluated.

It is not a Democratic vision or a Republican vision. It is a commonsense vision of Government transparency and accessibility. It is a vision that rejects the idea that Government actions and decisions should be kept secret or classified. It is a vision that believes that information is at the heart of democracy and that we all must resist the dangerous trend of withholding or classifying or burying information that the American people have a right to know and need to know if they are to hold their leaders accountable.

I have been very troubled by the extent to which America has become a nation of government secrets. More and more information is kept secret or made intolerably complicated and inaccessible. More and more decisions are made behind closed doors with access limited to insiders and lobbyists. along with watchdog groups will give us all tools to help buck that trend. It will help by opening Government processes up to public view. It will provide a window into the Federal budget so all Americans can see how their tax dollars are being spent--how their Nation's resources are being used and obligated, where money is going as well as where it is not going. We will be able to see which grantees and contractors are receiving money and the congressional district where the contract's services are performed. We will see which agencies are purchasing what, from whom, and where. Technology makes it possible for every American to know what is happening and to hold elected officials accountable.

If Government spending can't withstand public scrutiny, then the money shouldn't be spent. If a Government agency isn't willing to be held accountable for the grants or contracts it awards, then that agency shouldn't have control over Federal resources. Whether you believe the Government ought to spend more money or spend less, you should certainly be able to agree that the Government ought to spend every penny efficiently and transparently. Democrats and Republicans can all agree that wasteful spending is unacceptable, whether it is by FEMA, HUD, DOD, or any other Federal agency.

Transparency by itself is not enough, but transparency is the first step to holding Government accountable for its actions. Transparency is a prerequisite to oversight and financial control. We can't reduce waste, fraud, and abuse without knowing how, where, and why Federal money is flowing out the door. is a very good beginning. The Web site does not yet deliver everything that it is required to under the law, but its limitations and shortcomings are transparent, and it will get better and more complete week after week. I am also confident that people will use the site and will provide feedback directly on the site's community ``Wiki'' function for collecting and sharing public comments. This will raise the expectations of all Americans for greater transparency, access, and accountability. Now it will be up to us elected officials to meet those expectations.

It is important to point out that this site would not have been possible without the grassroots efforts of watchdog groups across the political spectrum who lobbied for passage of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which Senator Coburn and I like to call the Transparency Act. The story behind the Transparency Act embodies the best of our democratic traditions--a bipartisan effort fueled by ordinary people who refused to accept that the Government couldn't make public information freely and simply available. Throughout this process, it has been an honor to work with Senator Coburn and to witness the dedicated work of the staff at OMB.

At Tuesday's press conference in Richmond, I was able to capture the remarks of Taylor, Cline, Cuccinelli, and Petersen on video. I posted the video to YouTube in seven distinct sections.

In Part I, John Taylor talks about Tertium Quids overall legislative agenda:

In Part II, Delegate Ben Cline discusses his budget transparency initiative:

State Senator Ken Cuccinelli takes his turn in Part III:

State Senator Chap Petersen offers his (brief) thoughts on budget transparency in Part IV:

In Part V, John Taylor takes to the lectern to summarize what's been said and then to open up the floor to questions:

Taylor, Cline, Cuccinelli, and Petersen take questions from the press and other attendees in Parts VI and VII:

Several news outlets covered the press conference. D.C. all-news radio station WTOP has a report by Hank Silverberg, who notes:

The bill has bipartisan support.

"I look at this bill kind of like that old Sy Sims commercial -- an educated consumer is our best customer," says Sen. Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax). "I believe that in politics."

A companion bill would also change state law to allow local governments to set up the same kind of database for their budgets. Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties have already expressed interest in doing that.

Both Richmond TV station WRIC (Channel 8) and the Lynchburg News & Advance covered the event, but I have been unable to find reports on their web sites. Perhaps those will be posted later today.

Update, January 14: I understand WRIC-TV used some images from yesterday's press conference on its noon news broadcast today, but I still haven't been able to find anything on the TV station's web site.

On the other hand, Cheryl Chumley has a report in today's Stafford County Sun, with a headline related to the news that the House of Delegates will now videostream its sessions on line. On the budget transparency issue, Chumley, a reporter with the News & Messenger, writes:
On Tuesday, two more Republicans united with a Democrat in a press conference at the Senate Building to promote and highlight upcoming legislation.

“Transparency,“ said John Taylor, from Gainesville, whose nonprofit issue advocacy group Tertium Quids was hosting the affair, “is an issue whose time has come.“

In attendance — and agreeing with that principle via sponsorship or support of various related pieces of legislation — were Sens. Ken Cuccinelli, R-Fairfax, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, as well as Del. Ben Cline, R-Amherst. All are pushing to require Virginia’s budgets and expenditures be posted online.

“It will help us by putting millions of eyeballs on our budget,“ said Cline, who added his passion for the open government measure stemmed from seeing a lottery ticket showing Donald Trump’s picture.

“I know Donald Trump doesn’t do anything for free,“ he said, and following what he described as a lengthy inquiry process, he finally learned the cost for this licensing agreement. “It was a quarter-million dollars. That upset me. That upset my constituents when I told them about it.“

The cost for posting Virginia’s budget was figured at $300,000 last year, Cuccinelli said. But “that estimate is outrageously high,“ he said, as other states post the same without any price tag to taxpayers. This year’s estimate is not yet available, he said.

The idea of an online budget has been brought before the General Assembly in past years. During the last session, one such bill was shot down largely due to efforts of Sen. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania, who is also chairman of the subcommittee that deals with Freedom of Information Act issues, according to speakers and audience members who recalled the vote.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Supreme Court History Lesson

St. John's Law Review has published the transcript of a fascinating panel discussion held in 2007, commemorating the 55th anniversary of the 1951-52 term of the United States Supreme Court. The panelists were law clerks who served under the justices of that term, including (via videotape) the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who clerked for Justice Robert Jackson. The panel was sponsored by the Robert H. Jackson Center and the Supreme Court Historical Society.

One thing leaps out at you when one looks at the appendix to the article, which lists the justices and their clerks from that term: All the justices on the Court at that time were named by just two presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman. By contrast, today's Court is made up of justices nominated by five different presidents (Ford, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43). Whether this difference has an effect on the intellectual diversity -- and hence strength -- of the court is something worth pondering and debating.

While the bulk of the discussion is devoted to one particular case -- Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, known as the Steel Seizure Cases -- it also touches on a number of other issues, including Zorach v. Clausen (regarding establishment of religion); Sacher v. United States (re: criminal contempt convictions of attorneys representing officials of the Communist Party of the United States); Adler v. Board of Education (re: teacher’s refusal to sign an anti-Communist oath); and Brown v. Board of Education and the other school segregation cases that were in 1951-52 coming to the Supreme Court.

The panelists were Charles Hileman, former law clerk to Justice Harold H. Burton; Abner J. Mikva, former law clerk to Justice Sherman Minton; James C.N. Paul, former law clerk to Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson; Neal P. Rutledge, former law clerk to Justice Hugo L. Black; and Marshall L. Small, former law clerk to Justice William O. Douglas. The moderators were Professor John Q. Barrett of St. John's University Law School and Dean Ken Gormley of Duquesne Law School.

The discussion included many revealing historical tidbits, including this one from James Paul:

Chief Justice Vinson was an extraordinary friend of Harry Truman. Harry Truman admired him greatly for all his political talents — as a congressman for twenty-two years, he served in the Roosevelt administration and briefly on the Court of Appeals, came back as Treasury Secretary under Truman. The Chief really liked that position. For the record, John, I am holding my fingers together, I did find quotes — this is what Truman said of Vinson: "He is a completely devoted patriot with a sense of personal loyalty seldom found among Washington’s top men." That says a lot, I think, if one knows Washington. And then again it sort of may seem strange to us today, but the President and Chief Justice Vinson loved to play poker. McCullough says that Truman was a “loose” player who liked to be in the pot but sometimes shouldn’t have been there. Vinson, on the other hand, was an expert and that was also something that Truman admired greatly. Also, a story is reported that one evening they were sipping away on their bourbon, and this time they were playing blackjack, Truman was dealing and Vinson drew a ten, and the other card, he needed — just one card more — not too high — anything below a queen would help him win this pot, which apparently was pretty big, and Truman dealt him the queen of spades, and he was out. And the Chief exploded and said, “Why you son-of-a-bitch.” And then he said, “Excuse me, Mr. President.” I guess that shows something of the relationship.

I want to close this by saying I once sent a book that I had written to Truman — I won’t talk about the book except it was about history in the politics in the Jacksonian period; I knew Truman was a great fan of Andrew Jackson as President, in fact that he used Jackson as a model, and I thought that this book at least was relevant to his interests. And he wrote back and thanked me and all that stuff, but when he wound up he said, "I hope you have a grand tour with the Chief Justice. I don’t know a finer man." All of that, to me, just epitomized his admiration for Vinson; he liked to be a folksy politician, yet underneath he was terribly shrewd and knew what he wanted and often got people to do it.
Paul relates a similar anecdote later in the discussion. This event occurred in the aftermath of the Steel Seizure Cases:
Justice Black and the other Justices threw a small party right after the decision and invited Truman. Black felt he owed it to Truman to do this, as a gesture of respect. Truman went, but he was a little grouchy when the thing started off, but then finally he said to Black, “Hugo, I don’t like your law at all but your bourbon is mighty good.”
Both of these stories are striking because, in today's environment, such intimate relationships between Supreme Court justices and personnel of the political branches would be nearly unthinkable (Dick Cheney's hunting trips with Antonin Scalia being the exception to the rule).

Still later, Neal Rutledge recalls what was likely an assassination attempt against Justice Hugo Black:
Justice Black made, just as Justice Douglas did, very copious notes about what went on in the Conference. And we were allowed — he kept those notes over in the secretary’s office. And of course he was appointed back in ‘37, so he’d been on the Court longer than anybody else there and he had more of these notes. All of the clerks had gone in and looked at his notes, which were superb. In fact, one of the notable things about my term as law clerk to Justice Black was that once at midnight I was working there alone. I had to go into the secretary’s office to get some of these Conference notes. I decided to go in through the Judge’s chambers because he wasn’t there. I opened the door, turned on the lights and walked into the Judge’s chambers and a shot rang out. A bullet came in through the window — whizzed right by my head. This was within two weeks of Mrs. Black’s subsequent death. So of course the Supreme Court police came up and investigated and couldn’t find who fired the shot. They immediately called Justice Black at his home to warn him somebody might be out after him. And he responded by enjoining the police. And he talked to me thoroughly and very sternly — he said, “I don’t want you to say a word about this to anybody.” He didn’t want it to get out and hit the newspapers because he didn’t want his wife to read about it because she would then be even more worried and he thought it might have an adverse effect [on her health].
At another point in the conversation, which was centered on the desegregation cases, Abner Mikva remembers an encounter with Justice Felix Frankfurter:
An interesting story that at least Marshall Small and I remembered is that there was a tradition of inviting a Supreme Court Justice down to lunch with the clerks. We had our own separate dining room so that we could talk about the cases and not be overheard by lawyers who wanted to know what was going on. And we would invite one Justice down each week to talk to us about what was going on.

One week we invited Justice Frankfurter down. It was just about this time of the year, May, and one of the desegregation cases had been argued in that Term. I don’t remember what it was—I think it was a South Carolina case—and clearly no opinions were being circulated. So it was clear the Court wasn’t going to decide the case that year because if they heard it in the fall, certainly the drafts of opinions are circulating among the Justices by May. And one of the clerks had the temerity to ask Justice Frankfurter, who was our guest, “Mr. Justice why isn’t the Court going to come down with a decision in the desegregation case?” This is 1952, May of ‘52. Frankfurter looked at us as if we were all wet-behind-the-ears recent law school graduates, which we were, and he said, “Why, don’t you realize this is a social revolution we’re talking about. You really want us to come down with a case like that in an election year?”

We all gasped in horror at the idea that the Court even knew when the election was, let alone would consider when to hand down cases based on the election date. I remember one of Justice Frankfurter’s clerks, Abe Chayes, was looking for a hole in the ground that he could fall into and not be there, he was so embarrassed. Then the same clerk followed up with, “Mr. Justice, we don’t understand. What does that have to do with whether the case should be decided or not?” Frankfurter explained to us the politics of it. “Here you’ve got these two candidates running for President, Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. Neither one will read the opinion but they’ll come down on different sides of it. One will oppose it, one be for it. Is that the way you want this important case to be put into the public arena?”

Well, I was a Stevenson Democrat and I like to think he would have read the opinion. I think he would have come out for it. President Eisenhower made it very clear later on, privately anyway, that he was very much opposed to the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But if he had expressed himself publicly in the campaign saying he was opposed to it, what would have happened at Little Rock, where the only way that the decision was enforced and the peace was kept was because President Eisenhower called out the troops to keep the peace in Little Rock, Arkansas? Perhaps he would have said then, if he had made it an issue in the national campaign and been elected anyway, which he would have been, what President Jackson once said — "The Supreme Court has got its decree, let them enforce it” — which would have been a disaster for the country. So over the years I began to think that Justice Frankfurter maybe had more sense than I thought he had when I was twenty-five.
I have highlighted some of the more colorful stories told by these former law clerks -- who all proceeded to have distinguished legal careers -- but the core of this article is a substantive discussion of how the Supreme Court works and of a case (Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer) that still has resonance today in terms of the limits of presidential powers.

The whole law review article is worth reading -- and, considering how rich and dense it is, it's a surprisingly quick read.

Letter to the Editor

Last week I responded to an article that appeared in the Charlottesville Daily Progress about the role former Senator John W. Warner played in obtaining funds to pay for the long-proposed Meadowcreek Parkway. (The idea for this still-unbuilt road was first raised more than 40 years ago.)

My letter to the editor appears in today's newspaper:

Referring to former Sen. John W. Warner’s obtaining an appropriations earmark to pay for part of the Meadowcreek Parkway, former Albemarle County Supervisor Forrest Marshall said that the parkway “wouldn’t exist had he not given us $27 million for the interchange at the bypass” (“John W. Warner Parkway? Idea has supporters,” The Daily Progress).

There is something wrong with that sentence. Unless that $27 million came from Sen. Warner’s own pocket, that money was, to paraphrase the legendary Tennessee Congressman David Crockett, not his to give.

Legislators cannot “give” money to anyone or for any purpose. They can only take the earnings of some taxpayers and redistribute it to others.

In this case, Sen. Warner arranged for taxpayers around the United States to pay for a project desired by the residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Concentrating funds that are collected from many people and then transferred to a few people is an example of what economists of the Virginia School (also known as “public choice”) call “rent-seeking” — using the political process to obtain money that is otherwise unearned.

None of this is intended to question the merits of the Meadowcreek Parkway project, but rather to remind us that government cannot “give” us anything.

It can only procure money from one group of people to benefit another group.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Charlottesville's Role in the Golden Globes

Two movies that had their local premieres at the Virginia Film Festival won big at the Golden Globe awards tonight.

Mickey Rourke won the best actor (drama) award for his role in The Wrestler, which has just recently gone into general release. The Wrestler also won the best song award for the title song by Bruce Springsteen.

Slumdog Millionaire
, director Danny Boyle's colorful story about a lower-class young man from Mumbai who wins the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, received multiple awards: best motion picture (drama), best screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (motion picture), best original score by A.R. Rahman (motion picture), and best director (motion picture).

I confess to not seeing either of these films at when they played at the Virginia Film Festival, knowing that they would be showing in cinemas by the end of the year. (I tend to go for the more obscure films that can't be seen elsewhere.) I hope to see both of them before the Oscar nominations are announced.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Review of 'West Side Story'

Last week, I posted an interview with actor/dancer Cody Green, who plays Riff in the new production of West Side Story, currently in a pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre in Washington, and I promised that I would later post a review of the show.

Here it is, as submitted to The Metro Herald for publication in its next edition:

History Repeating:
Una Nueva ‘West Side Story’ at the National Theatre
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

While in London ten years ago, I saw a revival of West Side Story at the Prince of Wales Theatre.

During the first act, Katie Knight-Adams, who was playing Maria, was having trouble with her voice. During the interval it was announced that she would be replaced in the second act by her understudy, Celia Graham. An amusing moment took place about two minutes into the second act when Rosalia says of Maria: "She looks somehow different." Laughter rumbled through the audience, which evoked puzzlement at first, then barely constrained smiles from the actors -- that line had been delivered hundreds of times in the past, and never before got a laugh. But that day it had a special meaning.

The line has special meaning, too, with the new production of West Side Story now playing at Washington’s National Theatre. And the “difference” is even more markèd, given that Rosalia’s line is now delivered in Spanish, rather than English, and that it is now part of a dialogue scene that leads into “Siento Hermosa” instead of “I Feel Pretty.”

Directed by West Side Story’s original librettist, Arthur Laurents, this production features both dialogue and lyrics spoken in Spanish by the Puerto Ricans – Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino, and the Sharks – while the Americans – Tony, Riff, A-Rab, Anybodys, and the Jets – continue to speak and sing their lines in English. More on that later.

Fifty-two years ago, the original production of West Side Story – conceived and directed by Jerome Robbins, music (and uncredited lyrics) by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Laurents – had its pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre. During that tryout period, West Side Story took on the shape and characteristics that have been seen by theatergoers for almost half a century.

Five decades later, Laurents decided that West Side Story needed to be shaken up, and he has done so – up to a point.

Acknowledging that ours is a more outwardly multicultural society today than it was in 1957, the biggest change Laurents has made is the translation of portions of the book and lyrics into Spanish. Initially, he planned on projecting surtitles in English translation for those audience members who are not Spanish-speaking (as would be done for an opera sung in Italian, for example). During the preview period of the Washington run, however, the director scuttled those plans, so that now the Spanish dialogue and lyrics are raw and untranslated.

The effect of this, while it may uphold some inchoate artistic integrity, is to exclude large portions of the audience from fully understanding what is said on stage. The only people who are able to comprehend it more completely are those who (a) speak Spanish or (b) have virtually memorized the book and score of West Side Story prior to coming to the theatre.

That aside, and though I expect an active debate about the merits of Laurents’ decision about language, the use of Spanish in the play seems somewhat arbitrary (while still far less arbitrary than its intermittent use in the original version).

In various places, Laurents chooses to have his characters switch from Spanish to English when an important statement is made. In the best example, assimilationist Anita forsakes English for Spanish after her boyfriend is killed by the native New Yorkers. This makes sense dramatically and would likely occur in real life.

But in another instance, when Chino (Joey Haro) comes to see Maria after the rumble, their conversation is entirely in Spanish, until he switches to English to say, with emphasis, “Tony killed Bernardo.” It seems that the opposite would be the case in “real life” – that the early part of the conversation could be in English but, when Chino wants to emphasize the bad news, he would switch to Spanish.

Later in the second act, when Maria and Anita are trying to deceive Lieutenant Schrank (Steve Bassett) by talking about Maria’s “headache” and fetching a remedy from Doc’s pharmacy, it would be much more natural for the two of them to speak in Spanish in front of the monolingual police officer. Instead, Laurents retains the convoluted English dialogue.

What this adds up to is that, whenever Laurents wants to ensure that the audience understands what is being said, he uses English, even if (dramatically and realistically) the use of English at that moment makes no sense. This ultimately undermines Laurents’ purpose, and the interposition of Spanish becomes just as arbitrary as its lesser use was in 1957.

Laurents has also taken liberty with other bits of dialogue, which is his privilege both as director and as playwright. Glad Hand (Michael Mastro), for example, during the dance at the gym, nasally repeats “Abstinence! Abstinence!,” setting up a joke in the second act. Yet, as funny as Glad Hand’s remonstrances are, they are decidedly geared toward a 21st century social reality and do not ring true as something a person in 1957 might say.

Mystifyingly, Laurents (and Sondheim) have not made an effort to change the made-up slang that they used in 1957, thinking at the time that if they used current slang, it would seem dated and outmoded in the future. They were wrong, of course, and both have complained later that the artificially constructed slang seems even more dated than the real patois of the era would have.

This would have been a perfect opportunity for the two surviving creators of West Side Story to fix something that they and others have acknowledged to be a problem. But we are still stuck with “spit hits the fan” and “motherlovin’ street” instead of words that any fifth-grader would use and understand. (Admittedly, the realistic equivalents of these words should not be printed in a family newspaper, but they are perfectly acceptable on a Broadway stage.)

There are other complaints made by Laurents and Sondheim over the years. Sondheim, for example, has said that he dislikes the lyrics he wrote for “I Feel Pretty” because they are far too sophisticated and witty for a girl of Maria’s social class and educational level. Whether Lin-Manuel Miranda’s translated lyrics solve this problem, I can’t say, because I don’t understand Spanish. (I don’t even know if Miranda’s interpretation is close to the original, or if it’s an entirely new construction that fits the mood and the music without literally translating Sondheim’s words.)

Laurents has also not overcome the most fundamental difficulty with the plot of West Side Story, one that is common to the source material, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.

That is, how can you explain the depth of romantic feeling between Tony and Maria (or Romeo and Juliet), who have their “love-at-first-sight” meeting in the middle of the first act and never have any time to get to know each other before the stage is strewn with dead bodies?

Shakespeare, at least, characterizes Juliet as a petulant, pouting, adolescent girl who stomps her feet and weeps in order to get her way. Juliet is a manipulative “daddy’s girl”. Similarly, Shakespeare gives us a randy Romeo who lets his hormones carry him away.

Laurents (or Robbins and Bernstein, who began work on West Side Story before Laurents and Sondheim became involved) doesn’t give us these kinds of characterizations for Maria and Tony. Maria is bland: pretty and charming, to be sure, but without any other discernible personality traits. She is starry-eyed and romantic, but without depth.

Tony, on the other hand, is down-to-earth and responsible. At the outset, he is shown as having grown out of the stage of teenage mischief and misbehavior. (He is the only one of his friends to hold a real job.) So for him to be the one who falls head-over-heels in love in a trajectory that leads to his death is completely uncharacteristic. One of the other Jets – Action (Curtis Holbrook), for instance, or A-Rab (Kyle Coffman) – who are explicitly angry and dysfunctional would be more likely candidates for Tony’s fate, yet they are alive at the end of the play.

What is even more indicative of the vacuity of Tony and Maria’s personalities is that, in this show that is so heavy on dance – energetic, dynamic, kinetic dance – the two “romantic leads” dance the least of anyone on stage. They are the most static characters of the ensemble, yet their story is the central core of the play. Is this intentional?

Oddly enough, all this quibbling about the core and structure of West Side Story seems largely beside the point, because once the music and dance are added to the mix, it is easy to forget the flaws of the piece, and to forget that Laurents missed his chance to fix them.

Joey McKneely has reproduced Jerome Robbins’ choreography, as most other revivals of the show have done. He has done so brilliantly, so that as familiar as these dance numbers are, they seem energetic and fresh. This does, however, bring up the question: If Arthur Laurents really wanted a radically new approach to West Side Story, why did he not seek to re-imagine the choreography as well as other elements of the show?

The production design, while echoing Oliver Smith’s original sets and Irene Sharaff’s original costumes, is also fresh, practical, and reflective of the setting: an improvement over the creaky and dated reproductions we have come to expect. David C. Woolard dresses the cast in gang colors – variations of orange for the Jets, variations of purple for the Sharks – that help us to discern the differences between the two groups without banging us over the head. His choice to put the Jets’ girls in miniskirts and the Sharks’ girls in more modest dresses was spot on as an attempt to express the cultural divide between the natives and the immigrants.

James Youmans’ scenic design works marvelously (except when one can hear the gears shifting under the stage) to evoke Manhattan in the late ‘50s, with one exception: Maria’s “balcony” looks out of place. Rather than using the fire escape for the balcony scene, Maria appears on an outcropping of painted wrought iron that looks out of place in New York but would be perfectly acceptable in the French Quarter of New Orleans or – dare I say it? – 15th century Verona.

The whole production is enhanced by the lighting design of Howell Binkley, who keeps us in a theatrical frame of mind when the script starts to compel us toward naturalism. Binkley plays with hue and intensity in such a way that we can understand why he is a multiple winner of the Helen Hayes Award.

Laurents has added a few new conceptual elements to the play that are (mostly) brilliant in themselves and help to hold the whole thing together.

With Youmans’ assistance, Laurents has directed a rumble scene that is far more claustrophobic than any we have previously seen. By bringing down a cyclone fence where one might normally expect an act curtain across the front of the stage, we can observe how the gang members feel trapped in their neighborhood, in their society, in their dead-end lives.

In the dream ballet, Laurents adds a new character, Kiddo (a role alternated by Nicholas Barasch, whom I saw, and Kyle Brenn), a boy soprano who sings “Somewhere,” which was originally intended by Bernstein to be sung offstage by an adult soprano. Kiddo’s presence onstage as part of a triad with Tony and Maria adds a degree of hope for the future amid the tragic circumstances of the play. Kiddo’s presence is long overdue.

One change that still seems a bit odd is at the end of the show. In previous productions, per the stage directions, the Jets and the Sharks depart the stage while jointly carrying Tony’s lifeless body with them, in the style of a funeral procession. While that ending had some problems, it worked well. The new ending – and this really is not a spoiler – is a tableau that shows Maria kneeling over Tony’s body, her head covered in a veil, in a scene reminiscent of nothing other than the Pietà of Michelangelo. This strains too far – but at least it lacks the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t cross-and-chain that Natalie Wood wore in the continuity-challenged last scene of the movie version.

The cast of this new production of West Side Story is uniformly excellent. Laurents has found a new international star in his Maria, Josefina Scaglione, an Argentine actress and singer. Scaglione is matched well with Matt Cavenaugh as Tony. That the two have chemistry is undeniable.

Karen Olivo brings bottomless energy, strength, and emotion to Anita, the play’s most fully-realized, multidimensional character, while George Akram as Bernardo expresses well the divided loyalties of a new immigrant in an unwelcoming society.

It may be unfair to be so analytical of West Side Story, which despite its detractors (such as critic Sheridan Morley) has come to be known as a musical theatre classic. While the show has its flaws and cracks, when it is taken as a whole – and this production in particular deserves to be seen as a whole – it is tremendously entertaining, emotionally moving, and inexorably memorable. I can wholeheartedly recommend the new West Side Story to audiences in Washington and, presumably, beginning on March 19, in New York.

West Side Story, directed by Arthur Laurents, continues at the National Theatre in Washington through Saturday, January 17. Tickets are on sale now at the National Theatre box office or through Telecharge at or by calling (800) 447-7400. Ticket prices range from $46.50 to $91.50, with a limited number of premium seats priced at $151.50. Group tickets are available by calling (866) 276-2047. For more information, visit

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!