Friday, July 31, 2009

Remembering Ernest W. Lefever

My habit of waiting until the late hours of the evening to read the early morning newspaper sometimes serves me poorly.

One such occasion was last night (about 3:00 a.m., actually), when I turned to the obituary pages of Thursday's Washington Post to discover that my mentor and first professional employer, Ernest W. Lefever, had passed away.

According to the Post's Adam Bernstein:

Ernest W. Lefever, 89, who founded a conservative public policy organization in Washington and was an embattled nominee for a State Department human rights job under President Ronald Reagan, died July 29 at a Church of the Brethren nursing home in New Oxford, Pa. He had Lewy Body dementia, a progressive brain disorder.

Dr. Lefever, a Chevy Chase resident, was an international affairs specialist with the National Council of Churches, a staff consultant on foreign affairs to then-Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) and a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution before starting the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1976. The center studies the link between Judeo-Christian morality and national and foreign policy.
Bernstein's review of the life of Ernest Lefever focuses, as one might have expected, on one of those episodes that could be categorized as either a high or a low in one's life, depending on your perspective.

That would be Dr. Lefever's nomination by President Ronald Reagan to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. Dr. Lefever eventually asked the President to withdraw his nomination after it had been entwined in controversy (much of it, in my opinion, manufactured) and political opposition. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Charles Percy (R-Ill.) was unhelpful in pressing the confirmation forward, to say the least.

Although Dr. Lefever's views on foreign policy (and particularly how human rights issues should be treated) were virtually identical to those of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had been easily confirmed as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, he met a roadblock thrown up by those who differed with those views.

To summarize those views, at the risk of oversimplifying: The United States should treat authoritarian and totalitarian states differently, because authoritarian states -- such as, in those days, Chile and Argentina -- are more likely to be reformed from within and become liberal democracies than totalitarian states (such as the Soviet Union).

Indeed, in the years that followed, Chile and Argentina, as well as South Korea and Taiwan, did reform themselves and became model democracies. Greece, Spain, and Portugal are also examples of reform from within, which were fresh in the minds of Lefever and Kirkpatrick as they were making their arguments in the late 1970s.

It was much more difficult to dislodge totalitarian dictatorships because they controlled civil society (or an ersatz civil society) as well as politics and the economy. In authoritarian states, there were usually autonomous sources of moral and civil authority -- such as the Catholic Church -- that were lacking in totalitarian countries.

In any case, Lefever's views were shaped by decades of experience, not of the ivory tower, but of on-the-ground research around the world.

As the Washington Post article notes, Lefever served in Europe after World War II repatriating prisoners of war and other refugees, working under the auspices of the YMCA. It does not note that he worked in the concentration camps set up by the Roosevelt administration for Japanese-Americans during the war, helping to comfort them in their time of distress.

Lefever often told the story of how his pacifist views changed to more realist views when, somewhere in what later became East Germany, he saw a graffito that showed a swastika and a hammer-and-sickle with an equals sign between them. He realized through his work in Europe that Nazism and Communism were equally oppressive.

Beyond his humanitarian work in war-torn Europe, Dr. Lefever was widely traveled throughout his life. I would guess that he visited nearly every country in sub-Saharan Africa, the major countries of South and Southeast Asia (including Vietnam), and much of East Asia, as well. The results of his travels and research can be seen in the 20+ books and countless articles he wrote for policy journals and academic publications.

The Post notes Lefever's association with Hubert Humphrey. It doesn't specify that Lefever was the principal drafter of the Democratic Party's platform plank on Vietnam during the 1968 Chicago Convention.

During the 1970s, Lefever became associated with a group of disaffected liberal Democrats -- he was one of them -- who became known as "neo-conservatives." Sometimes known as "Scoop Jackson Democrats," many of them came out of a New York-based social democratic tradition that insisted on opposing Stalinism and, later, Soviet expansionism and adventurism. They generally maintained, at least for a while, that the welfare state was generally a good thing, and they supported the Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

Among the prominent neo-conservatives of those days -- a time, as George F. Will recently put it, "when that designation was more relevant to domestic than foreign policy" -- were Irving Kristol (father of Bill), Midge Decter (mother of John Podhoretz), Jeane Kirkpatrick, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Max Kampelman, and others who ended up either serving in the Reagan administration or supporting its policies in the pages of Commentary, The Public Interest, and similar publications. Ernest W. Lefever was one of these intellectuals.

As an outgrowth of his policy activism, Lefever in 1976 founded the Ethics and Public Policy Center, initially as a part of Georgetown University and later an independent think tank.

It was shortly after the EPPC's founding that I met Dr. Lefever and joined the Center's staff. I was a junior at Georgetown, needing a work-study job and late in finding one.

On a bulletin board in the financial aid office was an index card advertising a part-time position for a research assistant at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which was completely unknown to me. Needing the job and with few other alternatives listed on that bulletin board, I called the number and set up an appointment. (In those days, "bulletin boards" were made of cork and hung on walls.)

Dr. Lefever interviewed me. I was unshaped politically at that time, as likely to follow Richard McSorley and the Berrigan brothers as anyone else. He asked me for writing samples; all I had to offer were press releases I had drafted for my community theatre earlier that summer (1979; the year of Fiddler on the Roof).

He took a chance with me, put me under his wing, and taught me more than I can estimate.

Through his example, he showed me how to write clearly and effectively. He would say, of course, that such teaching would have no impact on someone who did not already think clearly and write plainly, but I must demur. Whether he knew it or not, he drilled me on composition, from word choice to sentence shape to paragraph size. (His influence affected me quickly. Within a few months of my beginning my part-time tenure at EPPC, one of my professors gave me a lower grade on a paper than he otherwise would have, telling me "You write too clearly" -- like a journalist rather than like an academic. I took his criticism as a badge of honor, and shared a chuckle with Dr. Lefever over it.) The Lefever standard for good writing on public policy? "If an interested and motivated person who reads at an eighth-grade level can understand it, you've done your job well."

Two years after I was hired, when my first op-ed was published in the Washington Star, Dr. Lefever congratulated me and said that he could tell from the way I formulated my arguments that I had been a high school debater. Then he chided me -- as he should have -- for identifying myself with the Center when I submitted the article, without clearing it with him first.

Over the seven or eight years that I was employed by EPPC (I took one year off to pursue my master's degree), Dr. Lefever and I worked closely together. My desk was immediately outside his office. He had a secretary, too, but I was his "special assistant to the president for research." I watched closely as he drafted articles; I often typed them for him through numerous iterations.

When, in 1984, a manuscript on investment in South Africa had gone through three different authors and at least four different versions (all rejected), he turned to me and asked me to write a publishable book. I did, and it became my first -- The Politics of Sentiment: Churches and Foreign Investment in South Africa. Much of the shape of the book is actually his. It would have been fair for him to list me as co-author with him, but he generously gave me sole author credit.

Two years later, after we had hosted a conference about the Strategic Defense Initiative, he asked our colleague, Pete Wehner, and me to compile the papers and other articles into an anthology. He suggested that we seek out Zbigniew Brzezinski as a co-editor, so we could have "name" on the cover.

I bet him $5 that Brzezinski would turn down the invitation. I lost. My second book, Promise or Peril: The Strategic Defense Initiative, has four co-editors: myself, Wehner, Brzezinski, and Marin Strmecki (at that time Zbig's research assistant).

After I left the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1988, I temporarily lost touch with Dr. Lefever. He called me about 10 years ago or so, however, and asked me to help him learn how to use a computer for writing. He had a Macintosh and I spent several hours with him, showing him how to create document files, how to edit them, how to save them. (Throughout his highly productive life, Dr. Lefever typed rapidly with just two fingers, and until the 1990s he used a manual typewriter -- not even an electric one -- for drafting his articles and book manuscripts.)

EWL also liked working with his hands. He was an accomplished cabinet maker. (He learned that trade as a teenager.) I remember spending weekends at the office with him, reinforcing the massive table in our conference room. It was hard work, especially for someone like me who is generally all-thumbs when it comes to carpentry or home maintenance.

Dr. Lefever was not afraid of technology or technological progress. His first published piece of writing, at the age of 13, was a story about a boy who makes a trip to the moon. (This was in about 1931, of course.) He was an early media critic in the sense of finding ways to analyze the way the broadcast networks reported the news so that their bias (if it was there) could be measured. As late as five days before his death, Dr. Lefever's 1974 book about CBS News was cited in an article by Cliff Kincaid.

Forgotten in the Post's coverage is the singular achievement in which Dr. Lefever brought together Edward Teller, the father of the (American) hydrogen bomb and Andrei Sakharov, the father of the (Soviet) hydrogen bomb. The two scientists had never met (largely because Sakharov was forced into internal exile in the Soviet Union as a consequence of his human-rights activism) but, at Dr. Lefever's invitation, Sakharov was an honored guest at the dinner at which Teller received the Shelby Cullom Davis Award for Integrity and Courage in Public Life. (I have to admit that, as one of only three or four people in the room when Teller and Sakharov first shook hands privately, this is an occasion that I shall never forget.)

The Post's obituary also leaves out Dr. Lefever's impish side. His last book, published in 2006, was called Liberating the Limerick: 230 Irresistible Classics. For most of his life, EWL was an inveterate collector -- and composer -- of limericks and other light verse. Here's an example, from the book:
Without being oratorical,
Consider Kant's categorical
Should one treat one's friends
As means or as ends?
Or is the query rhetorical?
Maybe that's not the best. Here's a second, about another noteworthy who recently passed away:
The CBS newsman Cronkite
Claimed ten million viewers each night.
He slanted the news
To fit his own views.
He knew in "his heart he was right."
I last saw Dr. Lefever about two and a half years ago. He asked me to visit him at his Chevy Chase home so that we could discuss possible collaboration on a book that he had in mind. He took me to lunch at a local Chinese restaurant and we had a pleasant conversation. The project never developed, but I was flattered that he would think of me as a collaborator and impressed that, at 87 years of age, that he was still so active and ready to stay in the arena. (Had the book been written, it would have been hotly controversial.)

Since then, we exchanged a few emails, but my last one to him (sent in May) received no reply. Now I know why.

I have quite a few photographs of Ernest W. Lefever from over the years. Here are some of the memorable ones.

Here are the two of us, after one of the Ethics and Public Policy Center's formal dinners.

Ernest W. Lefever, Jack Kemp, and Shelby Cullom Davis

New York Mayor Edward I. Koch and Ernest W. Lefever

EWL leads Jeane J. Kirkpatrick to the podium
(This photo was taken at the same event featured in the video, below.)

EWL opens the luncheon that launched my first book, The Politics of Sentiment

The staff of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in the summer of 1981:
Back row, left to right: Steve (now Stephanie) Mayerhofer, Marion Frayman, Raymond English, Ernest W. Lefever, (unidentified), Rick Sincere, (unidentified), Mary Ellen Pohl (now Bork), Carol Griffith
Front row, left to right: Betty Marshall, Tom Tunney

EWL striking a goofy pose at an office picnic

EWL being playful during an EPPC staff meeting

EWL hosting the annual EPPC staff Christmas party at the Lefever home, early 1980s

Ambassador Margaret Heckler (former HHS Secretary) with Dr. Lefever at a June 2006 book signing for Liberating the Limerick

Margaret and Ernest Lefever in Arlington, Virginia, June 2006

One of the last photographs I took of Dr. Lefever, in June 2006, at a book party for Liberating the Limerick

Finally, you can see Ernest W. Lefever in action, in this promotional video for the Ethics and Public Policy Center that was released in 1985. (Apologies for the fuzzy and staticky conditions in parts of it; it was a copy of a copy before I digitized it.)

In addition to Dr. Lefever, speakers in this video include Jeane Kirkpatrick, Yonas Deressa, Senator Orrin Hatch, Linda Chavez, William Bennett, Ronald Reagan, Chester Finn, Robert Royal, Caspar Weinberger, and myself.

Ernest W. Lefever, rest in peace.

Besides the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times has published an obituary. The current president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Edward Whelan, has a remembrance on NRO's The Corner. EPPC has posted an official obituary here, accompanied by the most familiar formal portrait of EWL. (I have not yet seen a notice about a funeral or memorial service.)

Updates, August 5: The New York Times has an obituary, by Douglas Martin, in yesterday's editions. The EPPC web site announces there will be a memorial service for Dr. Lefever on August 22 in Washington. It also features a remembrance by George Weigel, who was the second president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Notable Anniversary

Only about two hours remain in the day, so it would be unfortunate to let them pass without mentioning today's anniversary.

Three hundred ninety years ago today, the first legislative body ever to meet in America convened.

As noted on the Jamestown 1607 web site:

By 1618, martial law was abolished and a legislative assembly was created. In April 1619, Governor George Yeardley arrived from London and recommended that two burgesses from each settlement be elected to represent the citizens. The first meeting of the 22-member assembly met on July 30 - Aug. 3, 1619 at a church in Jamestown.

Most of the laws passed during that first session involved tobacco and taxes and measures against drunkenness, idleness and gambling. They even approved legislation regulating relations with the Powhatans and mandatory church attendance.

On the last day of assembly, they approved the "greate Charter of 1618" that became the first Constitution of Virginia.

What is now the Virginia General Assembly is a direct descendant of the original House of Burgesses.

Let's raise a tankard in a toast to representative democracy!

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Conyers the Clueless

An item in Tuesday's Washington Times reveals the utter cluelessness of even the most experienced Members of Congress.

In the Inside Politics column, we learn:

Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, thinks it's ludicrous to expect members of Congress to read legislation before voting.

"I love these members, they get up and say, 'Read the bill,' " Mr. Conyers said at a National Press Club luncheon last week.

"What good is reading the bill if it's a thousand pages and you don't have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?" he asked.
Conyers, who has served in Congress since 1965, inadvertently reveals the core of the problem: Congress writes laws that are too complex for even Congressmen to understand.

The answer to this is not "read the bill," however useful this might seem. (And I do not disagree with those who propose that Members of Congress must swear under oath that they have read a bill before they can vote on it.)

The answer is to make legislation simpler and easier to understand.

Rather than introducing, considering, and voting on a bill of 1,000 pages or more, it should be divided into its constituent parts, with each of those parts judged on its own merits.

As Theodore Roosevelt once said, "It is difficult to make our material condition better by the best law, but it is very easy enough to ruin it by bad laws."

Complex laws are by their nature "bad" laws. If "two days and two lawyers" are not sufficient to understand them, they should be rejected flatly.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Chris Isaak on Restraining Government

In his introductory comments about performer Chris Isaak in Sunday's Washington Post, interviewer Joe Heim says

Chris Isaak may be the closest thing popular music has to a Renaissance man. The moody singer-songwriter's résumé includes stints as television and movie actor, talk-show host, artist, surfer, fisherman and Golden Gloves champion.
Isaak also has a disarmingly self-deprecating honesty. When Heim asks him about solving California's budget crisis, the musician replies:
I don't think we want a remedy for it. The less the government has to spend, the better off we'll be. But I should say that I, and the rest of entertainers, don't know a god-durned nothing about policies. We're too busy self-aggrandizing to come up with any solutions. It's amazing how many entertainers can find time between adopting children to tell you how to live your life.
Set aside Isaak's modest demurrer and focus on that second sentence:
The less the government has to spend, the better off we'll be.
That's the cutout quote for the future; that's what will end up in Bartlett's -- or at least should do so.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Happy 100th, Vivian Vance!

Today would have been the 100th birthday of television's foremost second banana -- I hope that is not taken as an oxymoron -- Vivian Vance, who served as an anchor to Lucille Ball's loose cannon on two comedy series of the 1950s and '60s, the beloved I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show.

Most reliable sources -- including the Internet Movie Database ( and Wikipedia -- agree that the actress was born on July 26, 1909, with the given name of Vivian Roberta Jones.

One of the primary resources for showbiz information, the Internet Broadway Database (, however, places Vance's birthday five years later, on July 26, 1914, but it also lists her first marriage as taking place in 1928, making her quite the child bride.

Vivian Vance was primarily a stage actress before she was cast as landlady/sidekick Ethel Mertz by Desi Arnaz for I Love Lucy. IMDB shows a gap of 17 years between her first movie, Take a Chance (loosely based on a Broadway musical of the same name), and her second, The Secret Fury. A year after that came her first television credit, I Love Lucy.

During the intervening years, Vance was on Broadway in several shows, including the original casts of Anything Goes; Red, Hot, and Blue; and Let's Face It (all with scores by Cole Porter, the first two starring Ethel Merman). She was also in a revival of The Cradle Will Rock, playing "Mrs. Mister." Over the years her costars included Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Marjorie Main, Nanette Fabray, Danny Kaye, Eve Arden, Jack Albertson, Jesse White, Will Geer, and Gertrude Lawrence. (Pardon me while I lift up my jaw from the floor.)

While theatre patrons, in New York and elsewhere, might have known Vance by name or by face, it wasn't until the advent of television that she became a household name. Not only was I Love Lucy a top-rated show throughout its original run on CBS in the 1950s, through syndication it may well have become the most-viewed television series of all time. (It is said, and probably correctly so, that somewhere in the world, an episode of I Love Lucy is broadcast every hour of every day.)

After her on-screen partnership with Lucille Ball ended, Vance did a few bit parts in movies and on television, and frequently appeared as herself on game shows and chat shows. She was on the road, performing before live audiences in summer stock and regional productions of shows like Arsenic and Old Lace and Everybody Loves Opal.

Because Vivian Vance was an accomplished stage actress and singer, she possessed the skills necessary to react appropriately against Lucy Ricardo's outlandishness. Like George Burns playing off of Gracie Allen, Vance was able to make Lucille Ball's comedy seem that much more funny, simply because she was so understated. She no doubt benefited from Arnaz's decision to film I Love Lucy before a live audience (as conventional as this seems today, this was a new idea in 1951), applying her experience from the theatre to enhance her ability to feed off an audience's energy and reactions.

I found a couple of clips on YouTube of Vivian Vance away from the Lucy sets.

The first is a segment from her debut film, Take a Chance, in which Lillian Roth sings "Eadie Was a Lady" (a Buddy DeSylva/Richard Whiting/Nacio Herb Brown song introduced by Ethel Merman). Vance appears at minute marker 5:45, just after Mae Questel (the voice of Olive Oyl and Betty Boop), singing one of the verses.

The second clip is from a March 22, 1965, episode of I've Got a Secret. Not only does Vivian Vance appear as a guest (with a secret), but Carol Channing, then appearing on Broadway in Hello, Dolly!, is on the panel along with regulars Bill Cullen, Bess Myerson, and Henry Morgan. Steve Allen is the host.

One thing that made my ears prick up as I watched this video comes toward the end and makes me wonder if Vivian Vance might have been a fan of Ayn Rand.

Why would I ask that, you may wonder. Well, when Vance takes on the "role" of a prosecuting attorney, she asks about a murder and, when pressed for details, notes the murder took place on "January 16th" (minute marker 6:50). Is this just a coincidence, or did this ad lib from Vivian Vance originate in her thinking about Ayn Rand's play, The Night of January 16th? Why else would she reference this particular date on the spur of the moment?

Sadly, we will probably never know, since Vivian Vance passed away 30 years ago, on August 17, 1979, at the age of 70, after suffering from breast cancer and a stroke.

It really is an intriguing question, isn't it?

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Was 1959 the Year Everything Changed?

This book review was written for publication in The Metro Herald of Alexandria, Virginia. (Look for it in next week's edition.)

Was 1959 the Year Everything Changed?
A Book Review
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

One could forgive a certain solipsism among readers born in 1959 who may think that Fred Kaplan's 1959: The Year Everything Changed is about them personally.

That it turns out not to be so does not diminish the book’s entertaining and informative readability. Yet what it lacks in particular egocentrism (the author himself was born five years earlier) it makes up in idiosyncrasy.

What is most unfortunate about Kaplan’s collection of loosely related essays is that it simply does not live up to its subtitle. Then again, it hardly could, since every year has been (and will be) pivotal in one way or another. Pick a year out of a hat and one could list dozens of discoveries, innovations, inventions, or events that “changed everything.” (1776? The Declaration of Independence and the Battle of Trenton. 1941? Pearl Harbor and Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. 1969? The moon landing and Woodstock. Try it yourself.)

What’s more, Kaplan stretches his pivotal year to include events that could properly be placed earlier or later.

Take for example, two scientific advances that truly did have titanic cultural repercussions. These two, in fact, were more influential with regard to how we live now than most any of the cultural, artistic, and political events discussed elsewhere in Kaplan’s book.

Kaplan devotes one chapter, “Toppling the Tyranny of Numbers,” to Texas Instruments’ introduction of the solid integrated circuit (or microchip) at an electronics trade show in March 1959 – even though the invention had been made by John St. Clair Kilby already in August 1958, when he demonstrated it to other TI scientists and executives.

Another chapter, “Andromeda Freed from Her Chains,” is about the birth control pill. Kaplan places this invention in 1959 rather arbitrarily, because the FDA hearing to decide whether to approve the Pill’s use for birth control purposes took place in late December of that year. But the Pill had already been approved for other uses and had been prescribed by physicians for two years by then; its final approval for specific labeling as a birth control drug came on May 11, 1960.

It is hard to imagine a 21st century without microchips – which make possible nearly all the devices that populate our daily lives, including the laptop computer used to write this book review – or the birth control pill, which really did unchain women and free them to pursue happiness and productivity outside of a narrowly defined role as housewife and mother, as well as continuing in that role as a matter of their own choice.

Kaplan may allude to the reasons for his book’s idiosyncratic choices late in its pages when, under the heading of “Acknowledgements,” he writes: “… several years ago, it occurred to me that some of the most important – or at least some of my favorite – books, movies, and record albums were made in 1959. Was this just coincidence, or was there something significant about that year? The more I looked into it, the more it struck me that this truly was a pivotal year – not only in culture, but also in politics, society, race, science, sex: everything” (p. 245).

For all his enthusiasm about “everything,” Kaplan has a crabbed view of society and culture.

For one thing, his book is highly – and almost annoyingly – New York-centric. On page after page, we are introduced to artists, musicians, philanthropists, publishers, and others who live in Manhattan and who meet each other at cocktail parties, jazz clubs, and museum openings.

It is fascinating, of course, to learn that Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Ornette Coleman, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer all traveled in the same circles, and that they and their friends and associates shared ideas, built upon them, and diversified them in their different genres. But Greenwich Village is not the center of the universe; it really isn’t.

Even when talking about arts and culture in New York, Kaplan has a narrow definition of what is important. He devotes two chapters (out of 25) to innovations in jazz by Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman and their associates, but he says virtually nothing about the theatre (on- or off-Broadway). This was the year of Gypsy, for instance, often called the best musical play ever written, and of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a pathsetting drama that broke the color barrier on Broadway. Neither are mentioned; nor are the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiorello! and The Miracle Worker, which made stars of Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft.

Similarly, when he talks about movies, he mentions popular Hollywood films only to denigrate them in passing. He focuses on John Cassavetes’ semi-improvisational film Shadows – shot entirely in New York City -- and suggests (though not in so many words) that it was the first independent (or “indie”) film, which it surely was not. It might have been innovative, but it wasn’t fundamentally so.

Except for a passing reference to the growth of television set ownership over the decade of the 1950s, Kaplan ignores television – as an art form or as a means of communication about news and public affairs – completely.

There are also irritating little slips in the text, some that could have been caught and corrected by copy editors or fact checkers.

In a list of the seven Mercury astronauts, for instance, Kaplan renders Deke Slayton as “Duke Slayton” (p. 73) and, several pages later, he refers to Fidel’s Castro’s visit to the “Lincoln Monument and Jefferson Memorial” (p. 95). Out of all the structures dedicated to presidents in and around the Nation’s Capital, only one is called a “monument.” Lincoln, Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt have memorials. Taft, Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt have bridges. Reagan has an airport; LBJ has a grove. Washington is the sole president with a monument.

There is also a strange bit of delicacy in his discussion of artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, of whom he says: “Soon they fell into an intense relationship, personally and professionally” (p. 174).

Well. In order to find out the whole truth – that they were gay and that they were romantic partners (the latter fact merely implied) – the reader must look up an endnote on page 289. Given that the endnotes are not marked in the conventional way within the text (that is, with a superscripted number to guide the reader to the note), it is unlikely that many will seek out this information on their own. Just whom is Kaplan trying to protect from this common knowledge?

We can grant that Kaplan can, and perhaps should, write about those subjects that most interest him (modern jazz, avant garde art, and Norman Mailer). If he chooses to ignore the wider culture in favor of a more elitist vision of arts, music, and literature, or to treat the rest of America as Saul Steinberg satirized Manhattanites in his famous “New Yorker’s View of the World” cartoon, so be it. That is his privilege as a journalist (and, perhaps, as a Brooklynite).

No matter how you look at it, however, Kaplan falls quite short in making the case for his hyperbolic claim that 1959 was the year that everything changed – or even the year that changed everything.

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

1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 322 pp. (including notes, photographs, and subject index). $27.95.

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

Rick Sincere was born on April 7, 1959, when everything changed for his parents and himself.

It is interesting to note, via a search of that there are other books with similar themes and titles, such as Bernard Diederich's 2007 book, 1959: The Year that Changed Our World, and Rob Kirkpatrick's book, released earlier this year, 1969: The Year Everything Changed, and -- even older -- 1998's What A Year It Was! 1959, by Beverly Cohn.

(Crossposted to Virginia Free Press.)

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Community Theatre - Part Five

Yesterday the world remembered the first time men set foot on the lunar surface, 40 years after that event took place on July 20, 1969.

Today a smaller number of people -- perhaps as small as one, but I hope more than that -- mark the 30th anniversary of the final performance of Fiddler on the Roof by St. Bernard's Studio Theatre in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, on July 21, 1979.

On previous occasions, I have posted photos and video of other St. Bernard's productions that I was involved in -- Meredith Willson's The Music Man (in two parts), Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend, and The Fantasticks -- and one production from before my participation, Hello, Dolly!

Our Fiddler on the Roof was, in a way, a 15th anniversary production, since the original Broadway show had been produced in 1964 with stars Zero Mostel, Beatrice Arthur, and Maria Karnilova. We didn't think of it that way, however; we made it our own.

I have so many memories of St. Bernard's Fiddler that I don't know where to begin.

Like how I ended up (I still don't know how) sharing the principal women's dressing room: Just me (as Motel Kamzoil, the tailor) along with Golde, Yente, Tzeitel, Chava, Hodel, Sprintze, and Bielke. And nobody raised an eyebrow.

Or that we were performing in an un-air-conditioned school gymnasium during the dog days of summer, dressed like peasants during a Russian winter -- and dancing in those heavy clothes, to boot!

Or how this was perhaps the most glaringly goyishe production of Fiddler on the Roof in history. (None of the men, except for the two actors portraying Tevye, wore beards. And nobody, to be sure, wore forelocks.) There was even a crucifix hanging in the boys' dressing room! At least we all kept our heads covered.

This beardlessness resulted in, for instance, the rabbi (played by John T. Lynch) looking more like a Catholic priest officiating at Motel and Tzeitel's (that is, mine and Patty Fricke's) wedding than he looked like a, well, a rabbi.

There could be one competitor to our vanilla version of Fiddler on the Roof: the Arkansas community theatre production of Fiddler, once described to me by Tim Hulsey, in which Tevye narrates in an unmistakable Southern drawl. At least the good people of Wauwatosa could speak in the vaguely mitteleuropäische dialect so typical of Wisconsin. ("Tzeitel, come here one time." "Tevye's cow is lame again, aina hey?")

Last year I found an audio cassette recording of one of the performances of Fiddler; I think it was our charity show on Wednesday, July 18. I integrated part of that audio with a slideshow and posted it to YouTube. Unsurprisingly -- given the limited scope of interest in photos of a 30-year-old community theatre production of a classic Broadway musical -- there have only been 77 views on YouTube since I posted it htere last summer. Nonetheless, for the sake of history and of those who were there, here it is:

The St. Bernard's production of Fiddler was reviewed by The Milwaukee Journal, on the front page of the Accent (lifestyle and entertainment) section:

Looking back at the photographs from that summer (when I was, gasp, 20 years old) brings back many happy memories. (That despite the gasoline shortages, hyperinflation, and general sense of malaise that most people recall when they think of 1979.) Here are a few extracted from the video slideshow.

That should give you a good idea of what a shtetl looks like in Wauwatosa.

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