KILLING O’REILLY

I have known guys like Bill O’Reilly all my life, and they have all annoyed me. He’s Cathoic working class, just like me, just like a lot of guys I went to school with. He’s smart, but bombastic, smug, pugnacious, anti-intellectual, and on top of that, cynical. He always wants to pick an argument, and then prove you wrong. Having logged a lot of time with prototypes of his ilk, I can’t imagine wanting to spend an extra minute with him. And for as long as he has been on the air, I never have.

a50124456He has a sidelight: writing (co-writing with Martin Dugard? Slapping his name on?) a series of best-selling books about the deaths of famous people–Killing Kennedy, Killing Lincoln, Killing Jesus. Evidently unwilling to did too deep into the barrel–“Next up: Killing Tupac!”–he recently went farther afield, and began writing books about people who weren’t actually `killed’ in the way we understand the term, such as Killing Patton. O’Reilly’s latest is Killing Reagan, which is a stretch, since John Hinckley Jr. didn’t actually kill Ronald Reagan per se. Instead, argues O’Reilly, the wounds Kinckley inflicted required surgical procedures that weakened Reagan, and brought on the dementia that weakened his presidency and eventually killed him almost 23 full years later.

It’s a crap book, pretentious, full of vignettes that don’t actually figure in the story at all. This being gift-giving seasons, the book no doubt would have had its little run atop the bestsellers’ list, and then faded away. Instead, columnist George Will went after the book. But curiously, Will comes up short in his critique.

“O’Reilly “reports” that the trauma of the assassination attempt was somehow causally related to the “fact” that Reagan was frequently so mentally incompetent that senior aides contemplated using the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove him from office,” writes Will. “But neither O’Reilly nor Dugard spoke with any of those aides — not with Ed Meese, Jim Baker, George Shultz or any of the scores of others who could, and would, have demolished O’Reilly’s theory. O’Reilly now airily dismisses them because they “have skin in the game.” His is an interesting approach to writing history: Never talk to anyone with firsthand knowledge of your subject.Instead, O’Reilly made the book’s “centerpiece” a memo he has never seen and never tried to see until 27 days after the book was published. Then Dugard asked the Reagan Presidential Library to find it. . . .The “centerpiece” memo was written by Cannon at the request of former senator Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) when Baker was about to replace the fired Don Regan as Reagan’s chief of staff. The memo assessing White House conditions apparently included disparagements of Reagan from some unhappy Regan staffers. The memo was presented to Baker at a meeting at Baker’s home attended by A.B. Culvahouse, who the next day would become counsel to the president. Culvahouse remembers the normally mild-mannered Baker brusquely dismissing the memo: “That’s not the Reagan I met with two days ago.” Neither Baker nor Culvahouse considered the memo important enough to save. Meeting with Reagan the next day, Baker and others found no reason to question his competence.”

First. the question of Reagan’s mental competency does not rest on the memo. Those of us who were alive during his tenure know what we saw: an elderly man who often seemed mentally competent but who also seemed to have moments when he was slow and when he slipped up. In his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984, a halting, stumbling Reagan was so ineffective that he lost seven points off his lead. At one point in that debate, he said “people should understand that two-thirds of the defense budget pays for pay and salary, or pay and pension. And then you add to that food and wardrobe, and all the other things. . .” Wardrobe? We have all seen our parents have these moments; many of us have already had them ourselves. We don’t need a White House memo to know that there must have been days when he had troubles, particularly when such days came during a time when he was having prostate surgery and working through the Iran Contra scandal. I’d want to watch soap operas too.

Second, it’s not clear what the memo actually said, and since it is missing, there will be no knowing anytime soon. The memo, whose contents was widely reported and not disputed, reported that Reagan frequently skipped work, and that when he attended meetings, he seemed dazed and inattentive.James Cannon wrote the memo, and Howard Baker, the chief of staff, resolved to observe Reagan’s behavior for signs of incapacity. Baker’s rejection of the memo — “That’s not the man I met with two days ago”–ended the gossip and rumormongering.

But does it mean that Reagan was well? I once attended a meeting with the editor-in-chief of a magazine. I was trying to push a story about a Hollywood figure and his drug usage. The editor was discouraging me. He listed all the evidentiary hurdles the story would have to clear. With each objection, I pushed back, arguing that we could meet the standards. “You don’t understand,” the editor eventually said, “I don’t think you can ever write a story that is good enough.” And with that, I did understand. The director and the editor were social friends, and the editor wanted to kill the story without getting blood on his hands.

The absence of the letter doesn’t mean the letter was false. It did exist at one time, it was promulgated on the testimony of White House staff who believed that ad seen a dangerously weakened Reagan, and Cannon is not around to say why he has repudiated his entire letter. It could mean that Baker didn’t agree that Reagan was sick enough to warrant removal, and so he quashed the letter, and had everyone close ranks. It’s happened before. The health problems of presidents Wilson, Roosevelt and Kennedy were covered up by staff.

Howard Baker was an eminently honorable man, and a patriot. He knew that it would be traumatic to remove an elected president, even if that president wasn’t always functioning. Baker amy well have thought that his job was to help the president succeed rather than usher in a replacement. If that is what he did, it would have been humane, honorable, and arguably in the country’s interest.

It’s true that O’Reilly accepts at face value the contents of a letter he has never seen, but it is not the fulcrum of his argument. Rather, he uses it to represent an incident in a chain, including statements from Michael Deaver, Edmund Morris and Ron Reagan Jr that say that the presidents had episodes like this during his presidency. Without the memo, O’Reilly could still make the argument, albeit less dramatically, that Reagan had days as president when he wasn’t up to doing the job. Will has nothing to say about the other pieces of evidence; indeed, pointedly refused to try to refute the Deaver and Morris statements.

Instead, Will accuses O’Reilly of not being a true conservative, of doing the work of the left, “which knows in order to discredit conservatism, it must destroy Reagan’s reputation as a president.” It’s an amazing statement, both ill-founded and astonishingly revelatory. Reagan’s presidency can be attacked in many ways, but to argue that it can be undermined by saying that it is a product of dementia is unhinged; nobody would make the case, nobody would believe it. How does that work? Communism was undone because Reagan was senile? It makes no sense.

But Will is accurate when he grounds the legitimacy of modern conservatism in Reagan’s presidency, and its perceived success. And he is right: the left would love to persuade people that Reagan’s support of marketism and his delegitimacy of government contribute mightily to injustice and inequality in America. Conservatism does have to rely on Reagan, for otherwise, what is it? The terrible presidency of George W. Bush, the insubordination and paranoia of Cheney and Rumsfeld, the nihilism of the Tea Party, the woman-hatred and science-hatred of evangelicals, the sheer nuttiness of Palin and Bachman and Cruz, and the caudilloism of Trump.

No wonder Will feels he needs to overreact on Reagan’s behalf. He has nothing else.

THE SPECTRE OF. . . SOMETHING ELSE?

bond1074657_1280x720I saw Spectre. I was prepared to love it. I only liked it. This places me squarely in the company of such reviewers as Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald (“The opening is exciting, outrageous and a cheeky showcase of cinematic craftsmanship. So why is the rest of the movie so dull? Spectre. . . ,has an aura of finality to it, as well as a perfunctory, let’s-get-this-over-with feel) and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times (“the story itself is not convincing on its own terms.”) But my insightful friend Paul Lindstrom has sent me this piece by Darren Franich in Entertainment Weekly that makes the case that there is much much more than meets the eye about this film.

“So then Blofeld starts digging his little contraption into Bond’s head,” writes Franich. “I guess maybe he’s just touching nerve endings, maybe? That’s not what it looks like, and it’s also not what Blofeld’s stated purpose is. And is it just a coincidence that — right as the torture is at its most extreme — Madeleine suddenly tells Bond that she loves him? Just a coincidence that, right after that happens, Bond executes an escape that requires logical leaps totally absent from the past few movies: a talking killer who doesn’t notice his prisoner escaping from poorly tied wrist-straps, a top-secret facility rigged to explode in one big chain reaction? And is it just a coincidence that, after that incredible escape, Bond gets to live through a dream of constant catharsis that no other movie ever gave him: a damsel in distress, some pals who can help a friend in need, a damn helicopter-destroying pistol? This is the first time in any of Daniel Craig’s movies that he gets the girl. And not just any girl. . . .

“I know, I know: The obvious answer is that Spectre has a poorly conceived third act, rewritten into obscurity, struggling to balance the divergent necessities of retconning the past four movies into a saga and ending a saga and making some weird point about Bond’s job not letting him ever get close to anyone and letting Bond pull a Dark Knight Rises to run away with his climactic love interest. . . .”

Add to Franich’s list of oddities a few other uncharacteristic bits: Bond yells. Bond cries out in pain. And have we ever seen Bond plead, as he pleaded with Dr. Starr to avoid viewing the clip of her father’s suicide? Did he want to spare her the shock of seeing her father die so violently? Or was he ashamed of his complicity?

Kudos to Franich for his insights, but I’d prefer to think that he has drawn the wrong conclusion. Maybe I don’t feel that Sam Mendes would leave the series in such a muddle. Maybe Daniel Craig’s complaints about playing Bond are a big misdirection. Maybe we should listen closely to Miss Moneypenny, who early in the picture says “I think you’re just getting started.” Maybe Spectre is just a set up for something the series has never really had–a sequel!

DANCING WITH WILL CUSHING

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The lovely folks at the Putnam Valley Historical Society invited me to give my presentation on Commander Will. “You do an eclectic celebration of the dance! You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!… but you keep it all inside.”

THE CRACK-UP

These were sentences heard on Morning Joe on Monday, November 9th:

“This is sui generis. We’ve never seen anything like this.” “Confusing beyond confusing to any established politician.” “I’ve never seen anything like it.” “There is no logic to it.” “It doesn’t make any sense.”

deadstate-Ben-CarsonWhat Mika, Donnie Deutsch, Willie Geist and the others were discussing was a weekend full of comments from Donald Trump, Ben Carson and other Republican candidates. Carson was having to explain away some inconsistencies in his background, some of which seem fairly innicent (getting a scholarship’ to West Point, which all cadets attend for free), and some weirder (insisting that he did in fact try to stab, but instead hit the belt buckle, of a person whom he cannot produce and will not name. Trump was having a blast, pointing out that this was the first occasion when a candidate was turning down an alibi. ““Give me a break, give me a break, give me a break,” he told listeners during a rally. “He took the knife and he went like this and plunged it into the belt and amazingly the belt stayed totally flat and the knife broke. Anybody have a knife and want to try it on me? Believe me, it ain’t going to work. You’re going to be successful. How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?” And yet Trump was making no headway.

Perhaps the pundits do not recognize these phenomena is that they have not happened in any American’s lifetime. The Republican Party is cracking up. It has ceased to be a party that is interested in governing, but wants instead to establish a stasis, a paralysis, that serves those against social progress. In 1955, describing the purpose of the magazine he founded, William F. Buckley said that its purpose was to stand athwart history, yelling Stop. Today that takes the form of a balky GOP House of Representative that will not legislate, and this crazy collection of candidates who are almost entirely strangers to the truth. The Constitution was designed to protect the rights of minorities. The Republicans are interested in promoting the preferences of the minority, or thwarting democracy. of blocking the way ahead.

And we are watching them tailspin into irrelevance.