THE DAVID CHASE PRESIDENCY

TheSopranosTime was you watched a TV drama, the whole thing got wrapped up in a hour. Perry Mason would meet a client, Dr. Kildare would get a case, Charlie would call the Angels, and sixty minutes later, everyone could go to bed. But in the eighties, things changed. In Wiseguy and Hill Street Blues and other the other Steven Bochco shows, we got arcs–a story might get drawn out over several episodes. Then in the late nineties, along came David Chase with The Sopranos, where we learned to stop thinking about single episodes, and got accustomed to thinking about whole seasons full of interlocking episodes and, as we have seen most recently in Mad Men, the series from Chase’s disciple Matthew Weiner, ongoing themes. These shows have the habit of wrapping up their seasons with a crescendo. In the last episode of Mad Men, for example, Don and Betty broke up, and the agency dissolved and reformed.

What’s going on in Washington these days is the performance of a David Chase-like script. Frombarack_obama_mad_men_yourself_avatar Dick Cheney to Maureen Dowd to Jon Stewart to Saturday Night Live, President Obama has been criticized for doing nothing, or worse, dithering. This seems reminiscent of the complaints Sopranos fans had about the mid-season episodes when nobody got whacked, or mid-year screams of Mad Men fans when little happened except the mounting of angst.

But tomorrow, President Obama is going to finally announce his Afghanistan plan, and the Senate is finally going to take up the health care bill, meaning that we’ll likely have some kind of health care bill passed before the State of the Union address. (“On Afghanistan, all President Obama has to do is explain why doing more now will ultimately cost less. On health care, all he has to explain is why doing less now would ultimately cost more,” as Rick Klein cleverly puts on ABC’s The Note.) Assuming these loose ends tie up as neatly as Phil Leotardo getting shot and Tony reviewing the menu at Holsten’s, then we all owe Obama a big reassessment. As Jacob Weisberg argues in Newsweek, “If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health-care-reform bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more in his first year than any other postwar American president. This isn’t an ideological judgment. It’s a neutral assessment of his emerging record.” Along with passing health care legislation that has eluded every president since Harry Truman, Obama will have stopped the onset of Great Depression II with his stimulus package, and replaced “Bush‘s unilateral, moralistic militarism with an approach that is multilateral, pragmatic, and conciliatory.” And found time along he way to hold a beer summit, throw out the first ball at the All Star game, and get a dog, we might mention.

David Chase couldn’t have scripted it better.

THE GREATEST STORY EVER RETOLD

2jesus-gun1A couple of weeks ago in London, at a fundraiser for a prisoners’ rights organization Reprieve, the British writer Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy (better known in the US as The Golden Compass) unveiled an alternative Bible passage that suggested a different fate for Jesus. According to a report in The Telegraph, Pullman, an outspoken atheist, imagined what would have happened if Jesus had had a fair trial. Which is all well and good, but my question is, If you’re going to start mucking about with one of the world’s best known stories, why limit yourself?
*
Slowly Jesus opened his eyes, Where am I, he wondered. He listened; from the other room, he could hear the sound of water running.
Confused, Jesus stepped into the hallway and pushed open the bathroom door. He was shocked to see a man inside the shower. “Good morning!’’ the man beamed.
“Bobby?’’ the mystified Jesus responded. “Bobby Ewing?’’
“What’s the matter. Jesus? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost!’’
“Oh Bobby, it was awful! I had a nightmare! When I woke up, I thought you were dead!’’
“Go back to sleep, Jesus,’’ said Bobby gently. “It was only a dream.’’
*
Jesus looked deep into Ilsa’s eyes. “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not on it, you’ll regret it,’’ he said. “Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.’’
Ilsa’s eyes brimmed with tears. “But what about us?’’ she asked.
“We’ll always have Cana.’’
The couple turned towards Pilate. The urbane Roman consul shrugged. “Round up the usual suspects!’’ he barked.
*
Sprawled on the ground, bleeding from his wounds, the Scorpio Killer stared in the face of Jesus. His gun sat about three feet away. He knew it, and he knew Jesus knew it.
“I know what you’re thinking, punk,’’ Jesus said. “You’re thinking, `Did he recite all eight of the Beatitudes, or only seven?’ Now to tell you the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow you head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself a question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?’’
The killer lunged for the revolver, and Jesus fired.
“You forgot,’’ he said quietly to himself. “ Blessed are the peacemakers.’’
*
“I’m going back to Charleston,’’ Jesus said wearily, “where I belong.’’
Scarlett threw herself at him. “Please take me!’’ she begged.
“No, I’m through. I want peace. I want to see if somewhere there isn’t something left in life of charm and grace.’’
“Jesus, where shall I go? What shall I do?’’
“Frankly, my dear,’’ said Jesus, “I don’t give a damn.’’
“Then—who will?’’ Scarlett demanded. “You and your father—you’re the big damners. ‘’
For a moment, Jesus was dumbstruck. He had never thought of it that way. “Maybe you’re right,’’ he said tentatively. “Things would sure be different if there was less damning.’’
“More patience,’’ says Scarlett. “More encouragement.’’
“I could be a kind of a Live and Let Live Jesus.’’
“It’s worth a try, don’t you think?’’
“Well come on, then,’’ said Jesus, holding out his hand. “You going to have to help me explain it to Pop.’’
*
“Sit down, Judas,’’ said Jesus. “You have to answer for your actions. You fingered me for the high priests and the Pharisees. That little farce you played out in Gethsemane–did Caiaphis make you think that would fool the Son of God’’
“Don’t do this to me, ‘’ pleaded Judas. “I swear I’m innocent.’’
“Caiaphis is dead,’’ said Jesus quietly. “So is Pilate. So are the Sanhedrin. Barzini. Philip Tattaglia. Moe Greene. Tonight I’m settling all the family accounts. But don’t worry—I’m not going to make my sister a widow. Just don’t insult my intelligence.’’
“It was Caiaphis,’’ said Judas, weeping.
“Good. Now I’m putting you in a car to take you to the airport.’’
In the car, Judas sighed with relief. His shirt was soaked with sweat. He turned his head to see if he knew the man who was in the back seat. It was John, the Beloved Disciple, who at that very moment slipped his garrote around Judas’s throat.
*
They sped away in Osgood’s roadster. Everything had worked out. Joe and Sugar had found one another, and all of them had escaped the gangsters. But still Jesus didn’t feel right. Osgood was a decent man, and Jesus was ashamed that he had disguised himself and played on Osgood’s feelings.
“Osgood, I’m gonna level with you,’’ Jesus said. “We can’t get married at all. ‘’Why not?’’
“Well,’’ Jesus prevaricated, “in the first place, I’m not a natural blonde.’’
“Doesn’t matter.’’
“And I have a terrible past. For three years now, I’ve been living with a saxophone player.’’
“I forgive you,’’ said Osgood.
“And I can never have children! ‘’
“We can adopt some,’’ Osgood said calmly.
“But you don’t understand, Osgood! ‘’ Jesus finally exclaimed. “I am the Resurrection and the Life!”
“Well,’’ Osgood shrugged, “nobody’s perfect!

TIME TO TAX THE SPECULATORS

wall-street-casino-2Five years ago when I was at Jungle magazine, Ryan D’Agostino and I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Cramer, who at the time was merely a smart, shrewd, excitable market commentator on CNBC, and not the self-caricaturing mad man of Mad Money. I had admired his memoir of his days as a hedge-fund operator, called Confessions of a Street Addict, but I felt uneasy about the glib way he surfed the ups and downs of the market in search of a fortune for himself and his clients. “What’s the difference,” I asked him, “between you and a bookie?” He laughed and replied, “Nothing.”

This was an honest answer, and in its way, a profound one, because it gets to the heart of our economic distress. Wall Street has always had a claim to a privileged status in American life because it is supposedly the financial heart that pumps the blood through the entire financial system, backing innovation and supporting dreams of small business and creating jobs and all that stuff we Americans beat our chests about. So when these brokers and bankers have enjoyed a rich and privileged status, we explained the justice of the arrangement to ourselves by pointing to their smarts at allocating capital, and reminding ourselves what was in it for us.

What we’ve certainly learned in the last fourteen months is that when it comes to the hedge fund operators, this is a nasty myth. Bookies aren’t interested in which team wins a game, and hedge funds aren’t interested in investing in companies and helping them grow. The hedge funds just want to make money on the swings. “It’s true that what you do in a hedge fund is like betting on a football game,” Cramer explained to me. “If the Eagles are favored to beat the Giants by six, and you think the Giants will win, then you bet on the Giants. If a company is trading at eight times earnings and you think it’s worth 10 times earnings, buy it! If you think it’s worth six times earnings, sell! So basically, what I did is not different.” And some hedge fund operators don’t simply bet; they manipulate the line, as Cramer indiscreetly and unwisely explained in this video from Wall Street Confidential.

What it comes down to is that the hedge fund operators, who work only for the super wealthy in PD*27942404the first place, don’t add any more value to a company or a society any more than a bookie adds to a football game. Which brings us to Paul Krugman’s column in The New York Times today, in which he calls for a special tax on speculators that would serve to deter speculation. Krugman tells us that at the Group of 20 meeting this month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented a proposal to tax financial transactions as a way to discourage “socially useless” activities. “Such a tax would be a trivial expense for people engaged in foreign trade or long-term investment,” writes Krugman, “but it would be a major disincentive for people trying to make a fast buck (or euro, or yen) by outguessing the markets over the course of a few days or weeks . . . [and] would deter much of the churning that now takes place in our hyperactive financial markets. This would be a bad thing if financial hyperactivity were productive. But after the debacle of the past two years, there’s broad agreement — I’m tempted to say, agreement on the part of almost everyone not on the financial industry’s payroll. . . that a lot of what Wall Street and the City do is `socially useless.’ And a transactions tax could generate substantial revenue, helping alleviate fears about government deficits.”

It shouldn’t be hard to back this tax. All it should take is to remember that what killed AIG wasn’t the stable, regulated insurance business that it ran, but the wild, unregulated hedge fun that sat atop it, and that what killed Bear Stearns wasn’t it conventional investments, but the real-estate backed hedge fund that operated within the firm, and that what killed Lehman Brothers was the astonishing overlevraging of its investments designed to hype the profits of its bets. We need Wall Street to raise capital and to underwrite business. We don’t need a casino, and while we shouldn’t prohibit wagering, we should tax the gamblers and the bookies.

DEATH OF THE BOOKSTORE

borders_books_18In Britain, Borders UK has gone into administration, as they call bankruptcy, and the other big chains, most notably Waterstone’s, are not asking for whom the bell tolls. Meanwhile, in the US, both Borders and Barnes & Noble both posted quarterly losses, and, according to the AP, both “forecast a difficult holiday season, saying competition from discount chains and online retailers is stiffening.”

Having whiled away many a pleasant hour in various outposts of these chains, I am sad to hear of their problems, and the prospect of losing pleasant shopping experiences in well-lit, well-designed, welcoming spaces is most dismaying–although, truth be told, it would be more dismaying, if the chains hadn’t used their powerful economies of scale in a similar way to drive out so many independent book shops. The net effect of this was bringing the boom or bust mentality which governs film and TV and Broadway–something needs to be an immediate hot, or it’s on to the next thing–into the world of barnes_and_noblebooks. The old practice of slowly nuturing authors as they grew in talent and ability under the financial protection of lucrative reference books and crossword puzzle books and so, which had been one of the glories of the sleepy world of publishing, is long gone. Authors need to be an immediate it, and the lucky ones who have attained that status become name brands and get to keep publishing. That’s why you can still read the new Ludlum, even though Robert Ludlum has been long dead.

It’s sad to contemplate the death of the bookstore, but in this way, it follows what netflix is doing to theaters and what online shopping is doing to stores. Civilization’s greatest achievement has been the city, but all this makes me wonder whether three decades from now, cities will even exist.

SURVEILLANCE REACTION

banksy_2I am flattered that Boston blogger Brian Kane took a close interest in my Washington Monthly article on surveillance in the UK. He wasn’t entirely pleased–“I think Malanowski too readily dismisses the potential for significant abuse with the argument that there’s no centralization of all these surveillance systems at the moment,” he writes, and who am I to say he’s wrong? I certainly hope that people don’t let down their guard on the basis of my recommendation. But Kane adds to the discussion by citing new developments. First, “British company called Internet Eyes wants to launch a service where ordinary people are given access to the literally millions of CCTV feeds from all around the U.K. so that they can spend their time looking for people doing illegal things. The money is made by charging the people who own the closed-circuit cameras for this “service”, and the viewers are incented by a monthly £1000 prize given to the person who spots the most actual crimes being committed.” As Brian points out, here is a company that “demonstrates EXACTLY how they can all be linked up through their business model, and even offers to “crowdsource” the necessary manpower to create a much more active and coordinated surveillance.” Second, Brian cites a report that appeared in The Telegraph last week “that CCTV cameras are being fitted inside family homes by council ‘snoopers’ to spy on neighbours in the street outside, it was revealed today. The £1,000 security cameras have been placed inside properties but are trained on the streets to gather evidence of anti-social behaviour. Each device is linked to a laptop computer and accessible online by police and council officials 24 hours a day.” Good points, Brian, thanks, and thanks also to Bennett Gordon, who cited my article in a piece he wrote for The Utne Reader.

HIDEKI AND JOHNNY

DamonOldYankeeStadiumIn this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Roger Angell offers his customary valediction to the baseball season–the year’s not over until Angell sings. Although he rightly singles out Johnny Damon‘s at-bat in the top of the ninth of Game Four as the pivotal moment of the series, the great Angell punts the description a bit–he’s neither succinct nor poetic (and Angell can be wonderfully poetic; I still remember his description of the perfect play of my beloved 1970 Orioles, calling them The Baltimore Vermeeers.) Still, I’m glad he acknowledged Damon’s moment. Fortunately, he’s better in his salute of Hideki Matsui, and his six RBIs in Game Six, and his MVP award. “I can’t remember a closing performance anything like this, or the feeling, while it was happening, that I quickly needed to thank Hideki Matsui–with a bow or something–not just for tonight but for every game of his seven years of super-pro service with the1Matsui Yankees. His straight-back, left-handed stance, with that almond-colored bat held still; his borad-shouldered, slashing cuts at anything up in the zone; his slightly tilted vertical style of running; the trim black hair just touching the uniform at the nape; the cracked smile–we knew all this, certainly, but in some oddly formal and removed fashion, because he was Japanese, and because he didn’t speak English easily. His silence kept him old-fashioned: a ballplayer from the black-and-white newspaper-photograph days, before our heroes talked. ” Nice.

SO LONG, CAMERON

house-jennifer-morrison17House has been one of my favorite television shows lo these many years, in no small measure thanks to the contributions of Jennifer Morrison, who plays the very smart, very moral, very pretty Dr. Cameron. Well, it appears Cameron has been bid sayonara. In Tuesday’s episode she left the hospital, left her husband (the never very compelling Dr. Chase), and has apparently left the series. And she’s not exactly sure why, as she told EW.com, “I find the Ainsley_Hayes entire situation sort of confusing.” Which is too bad, since she is by far the most interesting of the now six diagnosticians House has had on his Princeton Plainsboro team. Here’s hoping Morrison lands on another series soon. And here’s also hoping that when she does, it’s with a show that suits her talents better than CSI Miami suits those of the smart and beautiful Emily Proctor, who was so brilliant as the Republican lawyer Ainsley Hayes on The West Wing, but who is so conventional in the CSI format.

THE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

2wolf hallPublishers’ Weekly has come out with its list of the ten best books of 2009. The fact that not one of the authors managed to be a woman would in itself require PW to do some energetic tap-dancing, but the fact that the single best book of the year has been written by a woman named Hilary Mantel is what emphasizes PW’s risible ignorance. And it’s not like Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall, is some obscure, twee literary exercise; it’s a big, robust novel set in Tudor England, and it just won the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

During a decade when books and films and TV shows about Henry VIII are almost as common as vampire stories, Mantel pulled off the most remarkable coup and found a new way to tell the tale. She focused her tale on Thomas Cromwell, who in all other stories is a minor functionary who does the bidding of the monarch. Mantel takes Cromwell and makes him a new man in a new age–a commoner, a Protestant, a man whose power comes not from ancient titles but a knowledge of new forces–the law, the emerging global economy, spreading literacy. Mantel’s Cromwell is a thoroughly contemporary character, the sort of wise and resourceful and if necessary ruthless man we see nowadays sitting on boards and advising presidents and hopefully saving the world from self-destruction. It’s interesting that Cromwell’s adversary here is a man who in most other tellings of this tale is a hero, that Man for All Seasons Sir Thomas More. Mantel’s More is religious zealot who is tied to Rome and to a set of beliefs in furtherance of which he ordered torture and execution; a fundamentalist and an ascetic set against Cromwell’s modernist, curious, man of the world. And not only does Mantel do a terrific job reimagining the tale, she tells it brilliantly, with language that immerses you in the story, and a kind of urgent, sometimes eliptical construction that kind of makes you lean in closer to follow what’s happening.

Mantel says she is working on a sequel, but that right now all she has is a box of notes. Ms. Mantel, I am waiting.

WHY DOES THE ARMY STILL HONOR TRAITORS?

Hood-viThis is most minor footnote to what is, after all, a terribly large tragedy, but last week’s shootings at Fort Hood reminded us of a question that has long rattled around in our heads: why does the U.S. Army continue to maintain so many bases named after Confederate generals?

Fort Hood is named after General John Bell Hood, a hard charging Kentuckian who commanded a brigade of Texans at Bull Run and Gettysburg, and who lost an arm and a leg in combat. Texas is also home to Camp Maxey, an Army National Guard training facility named after Samuel Bell Maxey, who parlayed an undistinguished military career into a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Texas is hardly alone in honoring rebel generals. Virginia has Fort Lee, named after Robert E. georgepickettLee, the south’s most distinguished leader; Fort A.P. Hill, named after Lee’s gutsy but frequently illness-wracked subordinate, and Fort Pickett, a Virginia Army National Guard installation, named for the George Pickett, anofficer best known for his disastrous attack at Gettysburg and his hair-do (perfumed ringlets).

North Carolina has Fort Bragg, named for Braxton Bragg, an irascible and largely incompetent commander. Louisiana has Camp Beauregard, named after Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a general with a natty name and neat goatee who commanded the forces that fired on Fort Sumter and started the war, and leonidas-polk-1-sizedFort Polk, named after Leonidas Polk, a bishop who was named a corps commander because of his friendship with President Jefferson Davis, and who is best known for being decapitated by a cannonball fired by an uncannily accurate Yankee gunner. In Georgia there’s Fort Gordon, named for John Gordon, a competent commander during the south’s declining years; Fort Benning, named after Henry Benning, whose troops fought well at Burnside’s Bridge, Devil’s Den, and other engagements where apostrophes aren’t required; and Fort Rucker, named after cavalryman Edmund Rucker, a colonel who was presented with title of general after the war stopped.

It’s not hard to see why bases were named after these men–tender local feelings, a desire to mend the nation through magnaminity, the invocation of a native son’s martial example. But as we get farther and farther away from the Civil War, it’s hard to see why we continue to honor men who, after all, did secede from the union, and who did fight for a racist government in the cause of preserving Negro slavery, and who did, ultimately, lose the war, thanks in part to strategic and tactical mistakes committed by these very generals. Surely the almost endless Nathan_Bedford_Forrest_smallconflict in which we have been engaged for the century and a half since the Civil War has produced heroes worth honoring who are encumbered by less baggage than these men, whose principle claims on distinction were for actions perpetrated against the United States and the soldiers in its service.

It could be more embarrassing. There was a time when there was a Camp Forrest in Tennessee, named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the slave trader, general, and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Lucky that’s been deactivated.