Friday, February 29, 2008

William F. Buckley: A Coda

William F. Buckley's professional achievements were well-known and well-documented long before his death on Wednesday at 82. What has struck me most about the tributes and remembrances to him over the past few days, however, is how much they concentrate on his personal achievements; his grace, gallantry, and generosity, and his large capacity for friendship. Below is only a smattering of the hundreds of such comments I've read about WFB over the last two days:

"I know only a fraction of his many kindnesses. But even I know of people who were able to buy a home because Bill put up the down payment or to put a child through school because Bill helped with the tuition; people who remember terrible times in their lives when William F. Buckley seemed to be the only friend who hadn't abandoned them. All in all, not a bad ticket to carry into eternity." - William McGurn

"I had known only his cool, sometimes aloof public persona for years when I nervously met him for the first time at some forgotten function in the mid 80s. I said to Catherine when I got home, in amazement, "But he's a sweetheart!" Utterly unpretentious, absorbed in whatever you had to say, he had the kind of manners that are so good that they cease being manners and become a warming aura. Yes, I know he changed the world, and I'm glad about that. But what so often occurred to me in his presence was that I was talking with an extraordinarily good man." - Charles Murray

"Bill had the capacity to make everyone feel that they enhanced his life. If you ran into him on the staircase, he would make you think that you had just capped his day. It need hardly be said that few men are great. But even fewer great men are so good. I weep." - Mona Charen

"Bill Buckley was the quintessential American gentleman." - John Derbyshire

"Bill Buckley was the most gracious and generous man I have ever known." - Kate O'Beirne

"When Jackie Onassis died, a friend of mine who knew her called me and said, with such woe, 'Oh, we are losing her kind.' He meant the elegant, the cultivated, the refined. I thought of this with Bill's passing, that we are losing his kind--people who were deeply, broadly educated in great universities when they taught deeply and broadly, who held deep views of life and the world and art and all the things that make life more delicious and more meaningful. We have work to do as a culture in bringing up future generations that are so well rounded, so full and so inspiring." - Peggy Noonan

"What I will remember most about him was the fact that he was the most well-mannered man I’ve ever met. He understood that manners are those things you do to make others feel welcome. The largeness of his soul amazed me." - Jonah Goldberg

"He knew well that he was the most important person in my life after the two people who had actually given me life. I will cherish hundreds of memories of his boundless acts of generosity, which changed my life forever." - Larry Perelman

"Buckley’s greatest talent was friendship. The historian George Nash once postulated that he wrote more personal letters than any other American, and that is entirely believable. He showered affection on his friends, and he had an endless stream of them, old and young. He took me sailing, invited me to concerts and included me at dinners with the great and the good. " -David Brooks

"His passing is a reminder to us, not only of the happiness found in good work for good causes, but in the gifts man is capable of bestowing to the world when blessed by God. Bill Buckley was such a man, and it was my blessing to know him." - Bill Bennett

"In public life he was a witty, devastatingly effective spokesman for conservatism and the founder of National Review, one of the most influential political magazines of the twentieth century. In private life he was considerate beyond compare, a charismatic host with a magical gift for putting his guests at ease and a passionate amateur pianist who played Bach with fair skill and much love....[a]t some point I will sit down and reread Cruising Speed: A Documentary, my favorite of his five dozen books and the one that best conveys his personality. But not yet: right now I want to think of him not as the great public figure he was but as the charming, funny man who once upon a time was unstintingly kind to an unknown young writer.

"I thought the world of him, and I cannot imagine the world without him." - Terry Teachout

"In illness, he became, if possible, even more gallant. At a party he gave a while ago to celebrate the publication of his brother Jim’s memoirs, he spoke with his usual wit, warmth, and eloquence—but seated on the stairs. He apologized for his ridiculous position, as he called it, explaining that he didn’t feel well enough to stand and would now go back to bed. Not so long afterward, he replied to the condolence note I had sent when his vivid and unforgettable wife Pat died. Its whole point was to make me feel good, an act of gracious generosity that, under the circumstances, took my breath away.

"When I heard of his death this morning, a phrase of Edmund Burke’s popped unbidden into my mind: “the unbought grace of life.” Many will write, in due course, about Bill’s towering importance in our nation’s political and intellectual life. But beyond that, his whole being provided an answer to that ultimate question, How then should we live? From first hearing him speak at my high school when he was a young man, through watching him in sparkling, imperious, and rather intimidating action as his guest on Firing Line, I saw his character become ever more clearly the unmistakable, irreplaceable Buckley: witty, cultivated, playful, urbane, gracious, brave, zestful, life-affirming, tireless, and gallant—the incarnation of grace. He taught many not only how to think but also how to be." - Myron Magnet

Founding Fathers

Bill Buckley, again

I am listening to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations as I type, in honor of Bill Buckley, who did the same the night before his death. Larry Perelman, a pianist and dear friend of WFB's, played the piece for him at a dinner at Bill's home in Stamford, Connecticut on Tuesday evening. Perelman reports "that it was just like any other Buckley dinner — i.e., it started with cocktails and ended with cognac," which I am delighted to hear. Bill Buckley enjoyed every moment of life until the very end. May we all be so blessed.

Perelman also reports that Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto was Bill Buckley's favorite. As it is mine. That doesn't mean a lot, I know, but there is something validating in finding that you share something in common with a great man.

Like all those who revered him, I've been suffused with thoughts about Bill Buckley since the news of his death came. I've spent the time since reading about him, discussing him, writing about him. I listened to his beloved Bach during my workout yesterday morning. I'll never forget years ago how delighted I was to find that the music I'd always thought of as the theme to Firing Line was actually the third movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. I didn't have the Brandenburgs on my iPod so I listened to some of Bach's Violin Concertos. As the sweat poured off me and the joy, the beauty, and the fun that is Bach poured forth, I had an epiphany: Of course! Of course Bill Buckley loved Bach! Bach was not just the theme music to WFB's television show, it was the theme music to his life. I've suggested in this space before that everything Bach did, secular music included, was an offering up to God. Just so with Bill Buckley. Chris Matthews also commented on this in a very moving tribute to him here; watch the whole thing through to the end to get to the part of which I speak - Laborare est orare. There was a pure spiritual joy about the man that came though in everything he did. His life's work, like Bach's, was his offering up to God.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bill Buckley, RIP

The announcement that William F. Buckley has died is less than four hours old but it has already produced an avalanche of tributes and remembrances; deservedly so, for he was a giant of a man. I can't possibly match the eloquence of the hundreds of those who knew and loved him. But I do have a Buckley story of my own.

When I was a very young man and my only source of political news came from The Washington Post and Rolling Stone magazine, I held conventionally liberal views. Not that I thought about politics much. But to the extent that I did, I accepted the liberal orthodoxy of the day that The Post was one of the leading purveyors of. It never occurred to me not to.

But The Washington Post made one mistake. They carried Bill Buckley's column on their op-ed page. As I became more interested in politics I began to read his column regularly. It became clear to me quite quickly that this was something different from the liberal pieties I was used to. Buckley's wit, humor, and clearly reasoned arguments blew right through those pieties. Everything he wrote made sense. So I started watching Firing Line whenever I had a chance. I'll admit that as a political neophyte a lot of the conversation went way over my head, but I found Buckley delightful - charming, funny, and witty while discussing the most serious issues of the day. Before you know it, I had subscribed to National Review and was carrying a copy of Keeping the Tablets around with me wherever I went. I was a conservative. Buckley, Ronald Reagan, and George F. Will became my mentors. But it was WFB who started me on the path.

So, as I said above, I will leave it to others much more capable than me to write the moving obituaries - I will read every one of them, and you should to. But for me, the most important thing I can say today, something I have in common with tens of thousands of others, is: Bill Buckley made me a conservative. RIP.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Day of Battle

I am about 350 pages into Rick Atkinson's The Day of Battle. It is the second volume of his Liberation Trilogy. The first volume, An Army at Dawn, which won the 2003 Pulitzer for History, covered the 1942-43 Allied invasion of North Africa. This second volume deals with the 1943-44 invasion of Sicily and Italy. The final volume will cover Normandy and the march into Germany. When I read An Army at Dawn upon its release, I thought it the finest book about war I'd ever read. Reading The Day of Battle, I may have to revise that opinion. It is equally good, if not better.

I don't intend this post to be a comprehensive review of the book. One of my failures as a blogger so far is that I attempt too much in a single post - I go on and on, adding and revising, trying to fit everything in. Before you know it the morning is shot and I've got a large unpublishable mess on my hands. Instead I will simply mention a few interesting points.

First, it appears that Atkinson believes the campaign in Italy was strategically unnecessary. Many believed it at the time; many still do. The Americans were against Operation HUSKY (as the Sicilian/Italian Campaign was dubbed) from the start. Roosevelt, Marshall, and the Joint Chiefs all favored maintaining "a mighty host in Britain. The subsequent [cross-Channel] invasion, a knockout punch aimed at the German homeland, 'should be decided upon definitely as an operation for the spring of 1944.'" Invading Italy, George Marshall thought, "'would establish a vacuum in the Mediterranean' that would suck troops and materiel away from a cross-Channel attack." Churchill and the Brits thought otherwise. Already facing a man-power shortage (by early 1943, more than 12 percent of the British population was serving in the armed forces), and already with over 100,000 battle deaths, the Brits feared the carnage of a cross-Channel invasion. Instead, they favored hitting 'the soft underbelly of Europe', Sicily first, then the Italian mainland. They believed this would knock Italy out of the war and force Hitler to divert troops from the eastern front in Russia. The subsequent compromise, an agreement to invade Sicily in return for a British commitment to the cross-Channel invasion in the spring of 1944, was a bit of a muddle. No Italian mainland campaign was specified in the agreement. However, events took on a life of their own; once Sicily was secured, the invasion of Italy became a given. The carnage which resulted from fighting an enemy entrenched on higher ground up the boot of Italy was predictable and probably unnecessary. Atkinson documents it all in his compulsively readable style. This is a book that never stops being interesting. You push forward page by page.

Again, I'm not finished with the book, but the Italian campaign, while perhaps not strategically necessary, was important in other ways. One, it gave the troops battle experience. Many of the troops deployed in Italy had not been involved in the North Africa invasion (Operation TORCH). Two, it provided a host of lessons learned to Allied commanders in preparation for the Normandy landings. The landings at Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio helped Allied leaders prepare the tactics and the material necessary for the cross-Channel invasion. Whether these benefits were worth the dear price the Italian campaign exacted on the Allies remains a subject of debate.

One of the things that separates Atkinson from most war historians is his ability to make complex battle tactics understandable to the reader. I read a lot of books about war. In many of them, the battle sections become incomprehensible to the lay reader. You read it, perhaps re-read it, and still come out confused. You learn to skip ahead to the author's final summary of the battle. But not so with Atkinson. He shines at this aspect of war writing. Always, the battle scenes are not only comprehensible, but fascinating. One feels involved in the battle, like an observer watching from higher-ground. The tactical successes and (more often) failures are clearly explained as they happen. The summaries of why a battle succeeded or failed get right to the heart of the matter.

Atkinson also has a talent for the short biographical sketches I love so much, the kind that nail a person down and give context to the rest of the story. There are dozens to choose from but I'll simply excerpt this passage about one of my favorite Americans:

A tall, austere man with sandy hair gone gray carried forth the American argument. General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, knew his mind on this issue even as he fretted over the president's susceptibility to British blandishments. Marshall was a clean-desk man, famously convinced that "no one ever had an original idea after three o'clock in the afternoon," and he disdained orthodoxy, sycophants, and the telephone. To Churchill he was "the greatest Roman of them all"; a British general described him as "a little aloof, dignified, above the battle, unbuyable....I never saw him show his feelings in any way." In fact, Marshall possessed a molten temper. He demanded that subordinates "expunge the bunk, complications, and ponderosities" from the nation's war effort, and his signature query, accompanied by the unblinking gaze of those icy-blue eyes, could terrify lieutenants and lieutenant generals alike: "Are you confident that you've thought this through?" Aside from horseback riding, gardening was his sole civil diversion; "the pride of his heart," according to his wife, remained the compost pile outside his Virginia home.

Finally, another of Atkisons's talent as a war writer, perhaps his most effective, is his ability to document the life of the ordinary soldier at war. He never lets the reader forget that war means death to young men; you're always aware of their sacrifice, and he tells their stories in vivid, moving prose. In a section that made me have to pause and gather myself, Atkinson tells the story of twenty-five year old Captain Henry Waskow:
Raised in the cotton country south of Temple [Texas], one of eight children in a family of German Baptists strapped enough to sew their clothes from flour sacking, Waskow was fair, blue-eyed, short, and sober - "a sweet little oddball," in the estimate of one school chum. "He was never young," another classmate recalled, "not in a crazy high school-kid sort of way." A teenage lay minister, Waskow took second prize in a statewide oratory contest, won the class presidency of Belton High School, and graduated with the highest grade-point average in twenty years. At Trinity College he joined the Texas Guard, in part for the dollar earned at each drill session, rising through the ranks on merit and zeal. At Salerno, Company B had fought with Darby at Chiunzi Pass.

"I guess I have always appeared as pretty much a queer cuss to all of you," Waskow had written in a "just-in-case" letter to his family as he shipped overseas. "If I seemed strange at times, it was because I had weighty responsibilities that preyed on my mind and wouldn't let me slack up to be human like I so wanted to be."

Now, after almost a week on Sammucro, the entire 1st Battalion was hardly bigger than a company, and Waskow's company was no bigger than a platoon. Ammo stocks had dwindled again; the men threw grenade-sized rocks to keep the Germans dancing. At nightfall on Tuesday, December 14, the battalion crept forward beneath a bright moon and angled northwest along the massif toward Hill 730, a scabrous knoll almost directly behind San Pietro. The trail skirted a ravine with shadows so dense they seemed to swallow the moonbeams. "Wouldn't this be an awful spot to get killed and freeze on the mountain?" Waskow asked his company runner, Private Riley Tidwell. The captain had a sudden craving for toast. "When we get back to the States," Waskow added, "I'm going to get me one of those smart-aleck toasters where you put the bread in and it pops up."

Those were among his last mortal thoughts. German sentries had spotted the column moving across the scree slope. Machine guns cackled, mortars crumped, and Henry Waskow pitched over without a sound, mortally wounded by a shell fragment that tore open his chest. He had never been young, and he would never be old.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

You're The Top! (Musical Journey, Part II)

Do do
That voodoo
That you do
So well

That's from Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me", from 1929 show Fifty Million Frenchmen. Three rhymes in one line - or is it six rhymes? And the line doesn't just rhyme for the sake of rhyming; it falls perfectly into place, the perfect line at the perfect time:

You do something to me,
something that simply mystifies me.
Tell me, why should it be
you have the power to hypnotize me?
Let me live 'neath your spell,
Do do
That voodoo
That you do
So well.
For you do something to me
that nobody else could do

Perhaps no one else in the history of American popular song could have written than line. Or this one:

Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea
of nothing to do

Fly, high, guy, sky, my, i-dea, there's six more rhymes in another perfectly placed line. That one is, of course, from "I Get a Kick Out of You" (from the 1934 show Anything Goes.)

Now, Cole Porter has been criticized for rhyming too much. Certainly, when written on the page, his lyrics could appear to be the rambles of some talented though frivolous rhymester run-amuck. But I find it hard to come up with an example of such when the song is sung. Fit to the tune, the lyrics always seem just right. It was part of his genius; fitting the perfect lyric to the perfect tune to fashion the perfect song. And what tunes they were! Cole Porter wrote some of the most memorable melodies of the age, melodies that to this day anyone even slightly versed in American popular culture will immediately recognize. Besides the two gems already mentioned, there's: "Let's Misbehave," "Let's Do It," "I Love Paris," "Night and Day," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "What Is This Thing Called Love?," "Anything Goes," "Just One Of Those Things," "After You, Who?," "You're The Top'" "Love For Sale," "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," "At Long Last Love," "Begin The Beguine," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "It's De-Lovely," "I Concentrate on You," "In The Still Of The Night," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "So In Love" - literally dozens of Porter's songs are mainstays of the American popular songbook.

Furthermore, Porter's songs were of a particular type. New York City songs, I call them. It's an oft-mentioned irony that the farm boy from Indiana came to represent the ultimate in urban sophistication. Listen to Cole Porter and you feel like an uptown cosmopolitan, tooling 'round the city, laughing with the boys, a beautiful dame clinging to your arm. The carefree, man-about-town, je-ne-sais-quoi quality in Porter's songs played a large part in their success. Who else but Cary Grant could have played him in the movies? Of course, that Porter wrote some of the most memorable love songs in the American popular music is another irony, for, though he was happily married to Linda Thomas Porter for 35 years until her death in 1954, Porter was a promiscuous homosexual.

Hollywood recently produced a bio of Porter's life, De-Lovely, starring Kevin Kline. I've yet to watch it and I'm not sure I will - I hear it's nearly complete fiction, and not a very good movie besides. Anyhow, his life is a lot less interesting that his music. No movie about Porter could possibly capture the essence of the man's talent as completely as Helen Merrill singing You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To, or Ella Fitzgerald singing Night and Day, or Sinatra singing What Is This Thing Called Love?

If I've piqued your interest at all, read Stefan Kanfer's excellent summary of the man and his music over at City Journal, the best magazine in America. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Musical Journey, Part I

I'm listening to Count Basie as I type, and it's simply outstanding. What a band! There's not a number on the record that doesn't swing. Next up is Bix Beiderbecke. I'm eager to get to it but the Basie record is so good it may be awhile.

I've been expanding my musical horizons for many years now. As a kid I listened to rock and roll exclusively - I grew up in the rock era after all. From the time I first heard "She Loves You" up until the mid-80s - i.e. from the arrival of The Beatles until Bruce's heyday, rock and roll was it for me. I still own about 800 vinyl LPs, almost all of it rock and roll. I lived with my older brother for a lot of those years growing up and he had another 300-400 albums. So we pretty much covered the era. Indeed, I had an encyclopedic knowledge of the music and its history, and opinions on all of it.

But I lost interest somewhere in the mid-80s. Since I was a young teen I'd been constantly searching for new music: reading about it, listening to it, flipping through albums at the record stores - it made up a large part of my life. But by 1985 I was nearing thirty and nothing new interested me. I'm sure I changed along with the music but I think the music changed more than me. After all, I still love and listen to the old stuff. But post 1980s, modern music devolved into nihilism and vulgarity, pap and formula. So I dropped out, just about all at once. As I said, knowing what was happening in that world once took up a good portion of my time but I pay zero attention to it now, and haven't for twenty years. My impression of it now from a distance is that it's pure garbage - childish, talentless, tuneless. The twenty-somethings of today listen to music that my generation would have sneered at.

So I had to look back and - since I'd pretty much covered rock and roll - I also had to look elsewhere. The advent of CDs and the Internet helped. It spurred record companies to look back in their vaults and release all of the golden old gems that had been sitting silent for years. Now, just about all of recorded music history is available to anyone who can access A music lovers treasure trove.

I've mentioned my introduction to classical music in this space before and I spent a good deal of time in the early 1990s researching and listening to it. I now have a deep appreciation of classical - especially Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. I listen to some others here and there - Shubert, Haydn, Brahms, Johann Strauss, - but the big three dominate. They are the most popular composers for good reason. I've heard it said that Mozart could make choirs of angels envious, and who would disagree? As for J.S. Bach, there is something holy about his music, even his secular music, as if God tapped Bach to be the vehicle to tell all the world, in musical terms, about His grace and beauty. Beethoven (to continue the religous metaphors) simply accepted God as his peer. He creates in his music an elevated world in which good always triumphs over evil, beauty over decadence. You can feel Beethoven hovering above his creations, ready to exact justice on the enemies of the divine. There is a grand majesty in his work. But why listen to me regarding Beethoven? Read this rollicking appreciation from H.L. Mencken, a section from his Prejudices series:

It was a bizzare jest of the gods to pit Beethoven, in his first days in Vienna, against Papa Haydn. Haydn was undeniably a genius of the first water, and, after Mozart's death, had no apparent reason to fear a rival. If he did not actually create the symphony as we know it today, then he at least enriched the form with its first genuine masterpieces - and not with a scant few, but literally with dozens. Tunes of the utmost loveliness gushed from him like oil from a well. More, he knew how to manage them; he was the master of musical architectonics. But when Beethoven stepped in, poor old Papa had to step down. It was like pitting a gazelle against a bull. One colossal bellow, and the combat was over. Musicians are apt to look at it as a mere contest of technicians. They point to the vastly greater skill and ingenuity of Beethoven - his firmer grip upon his materials, his greater daring and resourcefulness, his far better understanding of dynamics, rhythms and clang-tints - in brief, his tremendously superior musicianship. But that is not what made him so much greater than Haydn - for Haydn, too, had his superiorities; for example, his far readier inventiveness, his capacity for making better tunes. What lifted Beethoven above the old master was simply his greater dignity as a man. The feelings that Haydn put into tone were the feelings of a country pastor, a rather civilized stockbroker, a viola player gently mellowed by Kulmbacher. When he wept it was with the tears of a woman who has discovered another wrinkle; when he rejoiced it was with the joy of a child on Christmas morning. But the feelings Beethoven put into his music were the feelings of a god. There was something olympian in his snarls and rages, and the was a touch of hell-fire in his mirth.

It is almost a literal fact that there is not a trace of cheapness in the whole body of his music. He is never sweet and romantic; he never shed conventional tears; he never stikes orthodox attitudes. In his lightest moods there is the immense and inescapable dignity of the ancient prophets. He concerns himself, not with the transient agonies of romantic love, but with the eternal tragedy of man. He is a great tragic poet...

I've gotten off track again but I couldn't resist sharing the Mencken excerpt. To wander a bit more off my trail: has America ever had a greater prose stylist than Henry Mencken? It's not just that each sentence he writes has a logical essence to it that builds upon and adds to what came before it. It's that those sentences have a pulsing rhythm that seem to pour forth from him in a steadily increasing tempo, the logic and rhythm always in perfect harmony. The cumulative effect of reading Mencken is not unlike that of listening to Beethoven; he was the most musical of writers (he was an amateur musician himself) not in the sense that it was sweet or pretty, but in the sense that his prose had a rhythm, a beat. Reading Mencken is a vibrant pleasure.

Back to Beethoven. My favorite works by him are as follows: the first two movements of the Eroica (the third symphony), though especially the first; the whole of the C minor (the fifth symphony), though, again, especially the first movement; the slow movement of the seventh symphony; the entirety of the ninth; the first movement of the violin concerto; both the fourth and fifth piano concertos in their entirety; too many of the piano sonatas to mention; the entirety of the Archduke piano trio. I've more to go in my exploration of Beethoven - for instance, his string quartets, which many believe represent the pinnacle of his achievements. But those above will do for now.

This post is getting long so I will close this off for now and pick it up later with my discovery of the joys of the American popular song. But I'll add one more note re: Beethoven. As Mencken points out, he understood the dynamics and rhythms of musical composition better than anyone had before him. His music moves like no one else's had. If you're a lover of rock and roll and just getting started on classical music, Beethoven may be the best place to start. Pick up this recording and listen to the Fifth Symphony's first movement. Now, in this day and age, the first movement has been parodied to death but the recording I've directed you to gets beyond the parody to the essence of the music. It's the best version out there. Anyhow, put it on the CD player and turn up the volume. I defy you to sit still.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

McCain, Part I

But what of the Republicans? I may now be wallowing in schadenfreude regarding the Democrat's current troubles, but the odds still favor them having the last laugh in November. Super Tuesday made it clear that Mitt Romney, who had little support in the south, would have been a disaster in the general election, so in that sense it's good that he's out. But conservatives take little solice in having john McCain topping the Republican ticket. I have some sympathy for the argument that losing could be cathartic. It would give the conservative party a chance to reevaluate, to admit its mistakes, to get back to first principles. But I come to my senses when I imagine either Obama or Clinton as president working with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. So, given what losing would mean in this situation, winning is essential. And if we're going to win, it's going to be with McCain.

Like many conservatives, I've been coming to grips with that fact over the past few days. As Ace says, the fifth stage of grief is acceptance. So, okay, I've arrived there, though I'm not sure how long I'll stay there. McCain said a lot of good things at CPAC the other day but those of us who've followed him over the years are aware of the uncomfortable fact that John McCain holds conservatives in contempt. And it's a long time until November. While he is saying the right things in February, can his famous arrogance towards conservatism be held in check until the election? I doubt it. Still, we must get behind him so he can win - the alternative is just to awful to contemplate.

I'll be posting more thoughts on McCain over the next few weeks. Forewarned is forearmed.

"Fasten your seatbelts...'s going to be a bumpy night." So said Bette Davis in All About Eve and I have a feeling that it would be wise for the Democratic party to follow Ms. Davis' advice over the next few months.

The possibility of the Democrat's nomination process turning ugly increases daily, and will continue to so long as the race remains close. It seems impossible now that either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will arrive at their convention this summer with enough delegates to secure the nomination. This means that the so-called superdelegates will make the decision on who the nominee will be. And that spells trouble. Does anyone who has watched the Clintons over the past sixteen years really believe that Hillary will go down without a fight? Even among Democratic loyalists, the belief is that the Clintons would rather bring down the party than go down themselves. Nor does Barack Obama have any incentive to agree to some sort of deal (for instance, to accept the vice-presidency in return for stepping aside) so long as he has a good shot at the top of the ticket. Captain Ed had a terrific post on the subject a few days ago, and since then both Lisa Schiffren and Peggy Noonan have weighed in on it. Read it all. If Obama arrives at the convention with as legitimate a claim on the nomination as Hillary but ends up losing due to the greater influence of the Clinton's on the superdelegates, it could fracture the party. As Lisa mentions in her post, Donna Brazille has already threatened to bolt the party under such a scenario. She won't be the only one. Whatever happens, watching from the other side, it's going to be highly entertaining. I wish them all the luck they deserve.

Mark Steyn at CPAC

Don't miss Mark Steyn's CPAC speech. Mitt Romney and John McCain may have gotten the headlines from CPAC but if you want a clear and principled argument for conservatism, Steyn is the guy. Highly entertaining, as always.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Lives of Others

We watched The Lives of Others last weekend, and you should watch it this weekend if you haven't yet had the experience. It's that good. Set in East Germany in 1984 during the height of communist rule, its subject is a Stasi agent (The Stasi was the East German secret police) assigned to investigate an up-coming playwright and his actress lover. Though by all accounts the playwright is an avowed socialist, and though his works are ideologically correct, he comes under suspicion nonetheless. It's the nature of the regime - everyone is under suspicion. The Stasi surveillance of the couple's every movement is an Orwellian nightmare. Their comings and goings are tracked and logged - where they went, who they met with, what they did. Their friends and associates are investigated. Each room in their apartment is bugged, as is their telephone. If they use the toilet, or make love, the Stasi are across the street, listening in. It was commonly thought back in the 1980s that East Germany was the most relentlessly oppressive society on earth. The movie sets us deep into that society, and the oppressiveness is palpable. It's a claustrophobic world in which any idle comment or innocent joke could spell one's doom.

The movie portrays the Stasi's methods as so callously efficient as to be almost admirable. Halfway through the movie, the point is clear - there is no way out. In a society so wracked with fear, betrayal became a means of survival for many, and tragedy was often its consequence. Not to give the game away, I'll simply say that The Lives of Others is true to this reality. But out of the tragedy comes something more - redemption. The very act of making the movie is an attempt to look the evils of the East German past squarely in the face, to acknowledge it and come to terms with it. But The Lives of Others is also redemptive in the story it tells. In the end, it is a metaphor for the fall of totalitarianism, the survival of the human spirit, and the changing of the human heart. It's a great movie.

Goodbye, Katherine

My last post was titled 'Notes from the Weekend, Part I'. You'll notice there has been no part II. Busy week at work. Those things happen. Now I have a three day weekend coming up so I'll try to catch up.

I actually had written a Part II early last week. It had to do with Frank Sinatra and his development from a 1940s crooner to the individual stylist he became once he moved from Columbia records to Capitol. It was good stuff - perceptive, witty, urbane, highly entertaining. Well, maybe not. It was long though - I spent a lot of time on it. I just needed to polish it up a bit for publication. Then I tried cutting and pasting the content from one blog post window into another. Unfortunately, the paste didn't work. So I went back to the original post window to try it again - and it was gone. It was not in my buffer. I never cut and paste - I always copy and paste, just in case. Except for this time. I think I know what happened - no need to bore you with details. It has to do with this blogging software, which saves every few seconds. But the bottom line is, my Sinatra epic was lost. Stupid me.

Anyhow, as I mentioned in my last post, I spent last weekend listening to Frank and watching movies. I wanted to comment on two of the movies, one old one, one new one. The old one was Goodbye, Mr. Chips, starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson, which I believe a lot of people consider a classic. I could see the point through the first hour of the movie - it was utterly charming. The story of Chips and Katherine's romance - the ackward older gentleman, a confirmed bachelor who had never considered the possibility of love, falling so tenderly for the beautiful younger woman, and she returning his passion unrequitedly - is played out with such empathy that it enters into the realm of movie magic. We're in fairy tale land, and it's a good place to be.

Then they kill off Katherine. Now, I understand that the movie makers had to introduce some dramatic conflict. They could not simply have Chips and Katherine live happily ever after. But this was a jolt - it comes out of the blue and seems to violate the tone of the movie. I was charmed - then disturbed. Couldn't they have simply made Katherine gravely ill, only to recover? There could have been a segment showing Chips, scared of losing her, regressing back to the rigid and feared schoolmaster that he once was. Upon her recovery we could have had the cathartic scene in which he realizes his mistake. Katherine's presence in Chips' life had changed him. Now that he had her back he would never go back to being the old Chips. He would forever after try to live up to Katherine's ideal for him - that of the beloved teacher to his students. The movie could have proceeded from there with and Chips' large-spirited nature would have seemed more appropriate. Instead, Chips goes to teach his class immediately after Katherine dies out of a sense of duty, and we see him sitting at his desk staring dumfoundedly into the void for a few seconds - and then we're off to the next segment of the movie. But with Katherine gone the movie has lost something, and not just Greer Garson's luminous beauty. There's an emptiness about it that can't be made up for, even during the final segment when Chips, a very old man by now, comes out of retirement to head up the school during World War I. It seems almost tacked on in an attempt to prove once again Chips' noble and giving nature. But it occurred to me that if they had waited to just before this point to have Katherine die, if she had died of natural causes after a long life together with Chips, even this final segment would have played better. Chips could gather himself to do his duty even in the face of despair. It would be his final tribute to the school and to Katherine.

To reiterate, the movie would have been stronger, a pure delight, if Katherine had not been disposed of so soon and so tragically. I'd have done it differently.

I'll blog separately about the new movie we watched last weekend, The Lives of Others.