charlie-446x413Until January 7th, I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo, but when Islamic terrorists broke into the offices of what was described as “a small French satirical magazine’’ and killed dozen people, including the editor-in-chief, four other cartoonists, two other editors, an economist, a mainterance worker, and two police officers, I instantly identified with the victims. After all, I spent the happiest, headiest days of my career at a small satirical magazine called Spy, so on a visceral level, I felt a connection to those people that I did not feel with, say, the poor grocery store owner who was also murdered in the same despicable wave of violence. Je mange du pain, mais Je suis Charlie.

Thus it came as a tremendous compliment when the cartoonist Ted Rall, writing about the killings in The Los Angeles Times, said, “The Charlie Hebdo artists knew they were working at a place that not only allows them to push the envelope, but encourages it. Hell, they didn’t even tone things down after their office got bombed. They weren’t paid much, but they were having fun. The last time that I met print journalists as punk rock as those guys, they were at the old Spy magazine.’’

People were quick to call Ted out for hyperbole. Former Spy editor Larry Doyle, never one to miss an opportunity to crack wise, said on Facebook, “ The most dangerous thing I ever did at Spy was take a call from Camille Paglia.’’ Matt Weingarten, Spy’s copy chief and an erudite musicologist, observed “There are many ways to characterize the old Spy staff that come to mind, but “punk rock” is not one of them.’’ Playboy editor Jimmy Jellinek tut-tutted “ Making fun of Anthony Haden Guest is not the same as being murdered for mocking the prophet.’’

Captain Obvious couldn’t have said it better. No, we never mocked the prophet, but Jellinek, who is actually an intelligent man, surely knows that Spy was about a lot more than shooting Anthony Haden Guest in a barrel. One reason that we never mocked the prophet is that it never occurred to us to do so, any more than it occurred to us to mock Osama bin Laden or Lindsay Graham or Kanye West. They all became topical after our time. When the first bombing of the World Trade Center occurred in January 1993, those of us who were in the founding group of Spy were half out the door and soon altogether gone. You cannot blame us for not taking on targets who were still beyond the horizon. We were satirists, not soothsayers.

More importantly, we differed from Charlie Hebdo, or at least its cartoonists, in our approach to satire. Charlie’s cartoonists tarred with a wide brush, making fun of groups and group characteristics. Not us. Making fun of groups—Jews, blacks, Catholics, etc.– was an older, discredited form of humor, and we were just too liberal to do that. Too liberal, and too sharp. We mocked people, institutions, power, and once in a while ourselves. But not group stereotypes. It just wasn’t smart enough.

Not only did we never mock the prophet, but apart from a few jabs at Cardinal O’Connor and Catholicism (writing the archdiocese to ask if it okay to use a pesticide that called itself “birth control for roaches,’’ that sort of thing), we never even mocked religion all that much. I wonder, had we been in business in 2006, whether we would have joined Charlie Hebdo in republishing the dozen cartoons depicting Muhammad that had brought such trouble to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. We might have, but quite possibly not. We would have been sympathetic to Charlie’s free speech arguments and would have wondered why Muslims insist on sacred cattlehood and can’t accept the kind of free-for-all that other religions and other institutions take for granted. But I don’t think we ever looked to become collatoral damage in somebody else’s fight. We preferred to make our own trouble.

We took on the targets that were in front of us. Some of them were manifestly dangerous people, like the KKK and mobsters. We wrote about mobsters a lot. I don’t believe we ever feared violent retribution from anyone. It is true that James Toback made some sort of ominous comment that caused us to hire a bulky fellow to man the front desk for a couple of days, but nobody went to ground. It is also true that Anthony Pellicano, the notorious Hollywood private eye who later did time in a federal penitentiary for the illegal possession of explosive, firearms and grenades, went to jail for bugging people, told my colleague John Connolly that he was going to kill me. In an entirely thoughtless and breezy manner I had mentioned his name in a parody film poster, and an unamused Pellicano took umbrage, and went out of his way to make sure that John gave me the message. Did I feel threatened? No, I felt baffled.

Far more realistic than violent payback was the risk of social and career retribution. The choice of targets cost some of my colleagues friendships and opportunities for social advancement And all of us played with our careers. All of us were young journalists, people who lived at least some of the time on our ability to access the rich and famous, and to be on the good side of their publicists and other representatives. All of us had dreams of working at magazines, writing books, getting into the movies, and yet we all chose to advance out causes by taunting the powers at the New York Times, Conde Nast, Si Newhouse, Tina Brown, Mort Zuckerman, Rupert Murdoch, Hollywood studio chiefs, television network execs, Liz Smith, and many other powerful people in the media who could affect our careers. In the end, the Spy association did not prove too damaging, although some of us occasionally paid a price. Even as recently as last year, I lost a significant publishing opportunity at the hands of someone whom I ridiculed at Spy a quarter century earlier. It was a painful loss, but I am entirely without regret. At least on one occasion the price we paid was a shot at real money; Mike Ovitz must have grown tired at being mocked in Spy once sent an underling to propose that CAA represent us in Hollywood. To their eternal credit, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter turned down the deal with the devil. And some us declined to pay the price: one of our editors became afraid that his association with Spy would damage his literary aspirations, and quit the magazine. I thought he was a coward then, and now, after reading some of his subsequent works, I still do.

So I think Ted Rall was right. We wrote for ourselves, and we didn’t care what anybody else thought. In that way, and quite likely in that way alone, yes, we were punk rock, and in that way, yes, we were Charlie. We were Spy.

THE TOP 10 OF 2014


I wish I had documented this observation, but this was the year when everything needed to happen twice: two trips to Home Depot to get a part, two trips to Daniele’s to repair a mirror, and so on. Much time wasted, but then again, what would I have been saving it for? One hopes 2015 is very different from 2014, which was mostly grind, little glory. Still, it is a poor year that brings no pleasure. Here are some jewels, personally chosen and wholly idiosyncratic, recovered from 2012:

1.) Our young friend Margaret Schmidt, talking about her job on Facebook: “I must be getting a raise, because now I’m supposed to be a mind reader, as well as being everybody’s bitch.”
jeter2.) In his last Yankee Stadium at-bat, Derek Jeter gets the game-winning hit in walk-off fashion. Almost nobody goes out the way he or she would like to. Jeter did, thrilling an entire city.sidse-babett-the-duke-of-burgundy_js
3.) Borgen. This year we saw a lot of good miniseries, but this one, a three-season story of a woman who is prime minister of Denmark, was excellent. Major reasons: the intelligent, beautiful Sidse Babett Knudsen.
4.) Westward Ho! Our two-week trip through the America that rawlinslies between here and Cheyenne WY, with stops at the Grand Old Opry, Graceland, the Badlands, with two priceless anecdotes to join the family repertoire involving allergies and cell phone usagephoto (10) in Rawlins.
5.) Commander Will Cushing.
6.) Staged readings of Carson: The Musical. Onward!
7.) The Wolf of Wall Street. An unflinching look at our greedy times.
8.) The family Christmas trip to see Cabaret
th9.) The Midnight Ramble Band with Billy Payne at the Capitol Theater, especially Teresa Williams‘ version of `Willin”’
10.) Odell Beckham Jr.’s catch

Bonus pick: The Polar Vortex

Downer of the Year: Losing Vicki


patrick_o_brian_1448977cOriginally published in The Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2014

Let us pause in the day’s labors to raise a glass, preferably containing Madeira or a rich, full-bodied port, to the centenary of the greatest historical novelist ever, and one of the best novelists of our era.

Patrick O’Brian was born Dec. 12, 1914—or, rather, Richard Patrick Russ was born on that date in Chalfont St. Peter, England, and grew up to become a novelist of middling success. O’Brian was technically born in 1946, when Russ adopted that pen name and went on to develop a new persona as an elusive Irish writer ensconced in the south of France.

Although O’Brian would produce much estimable fiction and nonfiction under his nom de plume, his signal achievement was the series of 20 novels set during the Napoleonic Wars and informed by O’Brian’s encyclopedic knowledge of nautical matters from that era. The heart of the novels is the friendship between the charismatic Captain Jack Aubrey of the British navy and the Irish-Catalan Dr. Stephen Maturin.

For those unfamiliar with the books, the two men meet cute. On the opening page of “Master and Commander,” the 1969 debut of what would become a fiction series with devotees around the world, Aubrey is attending a musical performance at the Governor’s House in Port Mahon, Minorca. A large man—his “big form overflowed his seat, leaving only a streak of gilt wood to be seen here and there”—the young lieutenant loses himself in the music and starts to keep time with gusto. This causes the small, dark man next to him, Dr. Maturin, to whisper, “If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.”

Aubrey broods on the rebuke and decides to challenge the man to a duel, though this is entirely a case of misplaced anger: He is far less bothered by the remark than by the dismal state of his career. Aubrey’s mood soars, though, when he receives unexpected word that he has been given command of a sloop. “There you are, sir,’’ says Aubrey when he sees Maturin the next day. “I owe you a thousand apologies, I am afraid. I must have been a sad bore to you last night, and I hope you will forgive me. We sailors hear so little music—are so little used to genteel company—that we grow carried away. I beg your pardon.”

The novel continues: “ ‘My dear sir,’ cried the man in the black coat, with an odd flush rising in his dead-white face, ‘you had every reason to be carried away. I have never heard a better quartetto in my life.’ ”

And with that exchange, a great literary friendship begins. Aubrey persuades Maturin to become his ship’s doctor, and off they go, to jungles and South Sea isles, around the Mediterranean and to the Galapagos, to an Algerian palace and a Parisian prison and the admiralty offices in London. They sink and get sunk, get captured and escape, enjoy splendid triumphs and more than a few reverses.

oBrianHunt - Surprise Marengo - detail 2 - smallAt first, the two have little in common except music, which is perhaps why they are such a perfect fit: Aubrey is jovial, confident, intrepid, a master of the human and seafaring complexities of the war machine he commands on the water, and rather inept in the family and business issues he confronts on terra firma. Maturin is ironical, sarcastic and skeptical, viewing his enemies with a “dangerous, pale, reptilian eye.” Along with his medical knowledge, he is a linguist and a natural philosopher who subsumes his Irish resentment of the British to join the fight against the despot Napoleon.

Aubrey is an apostle of duty, an advocate of order, and yet he knows that leading his men depends less on his power to punish them than on his power to inspire. Maturin has a far greater appreciation of freedom, rebelliousness, even anarchy, and yet possesses a fierce sense of right and wrong. Together they embody the values of freedom and democracy that allowed Britain to lead the world.

A significant source of the Aubrey-Maturin series’s appeal is O’Brian’s brilliant depiction of heroic characters who could be sadly unheroic. Aubrey is terrible with money; his bankruptcy lands him in the stocks. He has a poor relationship with his father. Despite his years in the navy, Maturin is eye-rollingly awkward—“lubbery”—when at sea.

O’Brian died in 2000, leaving a 21st novel partially completed. Many fans, this one included, moaned for a series finale that would have revealed how the lives of these characters played out. But the author seems unlikely ever to have provided that satisfaction.

“The conventional ending, with virtue rewarded and loose ends tied up,” says Maturin in “The Nutmeg of Consolation,” the 14th book in the series, “is often sadly chilling; and its platitude and falsity tend to infect what has gone before, however excellent. Many books would be far better without their last chapter: or at least with no more than a brief, cool, unemotional statement of the outcome.” As always, O’Brian knew best—with their stories unfinished, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin live on.


Originally published in The American Interest, December 9, 2014

cosIn October, when I began reading Bill Cosby: His Life and Times, by Mark Whitaker, the 77-year-old comedian was enjoying a bit of a boom: a new television series in the works, a new special set to get the Netflix treatment, an exhibition at the Smithsonian of 62 works of African-American art collected by Cosby and his wife Camille, not to mention this grand review of the man’s long and eventful life, written by an esteemed journalist who had been managing editor of CNN and the top editor of Newsweek.

Now, Cosby’s reputation has plummeted with terminal velocity. During a performance on October 15th, a comedian named Hannibal Burress said that Cosby had the “smuggest old black man public persona that I hate. He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ‘80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches. ‘I don’t curse onstage.’ Well, yeah, you’re rapist.” Burress was referring to allegations made by several women that Cosby had drugged and raped them, accusations that had been public for several years but that were nevertheless not well known. But in the uproar that followed, more women stepped forward, bringing the number of accusers to 19. No criminal charges were ever filed, and the one accuser who sued Cosby settled out of court. But in their staggering number and incriminating similarity, in the emotional strength behind the stories told, the accusations have a cold credibility. Perhaps under cross-examination all these stories would blow away like fairy dust. But in this era of media-accelerated justice, where Donald Sterling lost his business in a week because comments made in the privacy of his home were surreptitiously recorded, the presumption of innocence is a flimsy thing. Cosby has been judged guilty in the court of public opinion of being a serial rapist. Any comeback that he might achieve at this point would rival the Resurrection.

To read the entire review, click here.


120806_elizabeth_warren_605_apSenator Elizabeth Warren delivered this speech on the Senate floor last Friday night:

“Democrats don’t like Wall Street bailouts. Republicans don’t like Wall Street bailouts. The American people are disgusted by Wall Street bailouts

“And yet here we are, five years after Dodd-Frank with Congress on the verge of ramming through a provision that would do nothing for the middle class, do nothing for community banks, do nothing but raise the risk that taxpayers will have to bail out the biggest banks once again…

“So let me say this to anyone who is listening at Citi[group]. I agree with you Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces!

“If this Congress is going to open up Dodd-Frank in the months ahead, then let’s open it up to get tougher, not to create more bailout opportunities. If we’re going to open up Dodd-Frank, let’s open it up so that once and for all we end too big to fail and I mean really end it, not just say that we did.

“Instead of passing laws that create new bailout opportunities for too big to fail banks, let’s pass…something…that would help break up these giant banks.

“A century ago Teddy Roosevelt was America’s Trust-Buster. He went after the giant trusts and monopolies in this country, and a lot of people talk about how those trust deserved to be broken up because they had too much economic power. But Teddy Roosevelt said we should break them up because they had too much political power. Teddy Roosevelt said break them up because all that concentrated power threatens the very foundations up our democratic system.

“And now we’re watching as Congress passes yet another provision that was written by lobbyists for the biggest recipient of bailout money in the history of this country. And its attached to a bill that needs to pass or else we entire federal government will grind to a halt.

“Think about that kind of power. If a financial institution has become so big and so powerfulthat it can hold the entire country hostage. That alone is reason enough to break them up.

“Enough is enough.

“Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch. Enough is enough with Citigroup passing 11th hour deregulatory provisions that nobody takes ownership over but everybody will come to regret. Enough is enough. Washington already works really well for the billionaires and the big corporations and the lawyers and the lobbyists.

“But what about the families who lost their homes or their jobs or their retirement savings the last time Citigroup bet big on derivatives and lost? What about the families who are living paycheck to paycheck and saw their tax dollars go to bail out Citi just 6 years ago?

“We were sent here to fight for those families. It is time, it is past time, for Washington to start working for them!”

Right on!


130226_john_mccain_605_ap“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.

“Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored,” the senator added.

“I know, too, that bad things happen in war. I know in war good people can feel obliged for good reasons to do things they would normally object to and recoil from,” he said. “I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm. I know their responsibilities were grave and urgent, and the strain of their duty was onerous.

“But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend.”


Forgive me my breathlessness, but the Cushing November and December to Remember Promotional Tour has come to an end, leaving me exhausted. Three appearances! Nine days! Two states! Ooof!

First, on Saturday November 29th, I visited the Village Bookstore in Pleasantville NY, and helped get-attachmentsell books on Small Business Saturday. This is all because last year, the author Sherman Alexie challenged writers to give a hand to their local bookstores, and so when owners Roy Solomon and Yvonne von Cort invited me, I immediately agreed. What a good time! A great group of writers showed up, including Bob Minzesheimer, Marilyn Johnson, Rob Fleder, Ben Cheever, Joe Wallace, Rinku Bhattacharya, and Ben Lieberman. I sold about a dozen books, including about a half dozen Commander Wills, good enough to earn a prominent spot on the store’s bestseller list:

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown
LIVES IN RUINS by Marilyn Johnson
YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler

get-attachment-1On Friday December 5th, I visited my alma mater, Calvert Hall College High School in Towson MD. Frank Passaro, Chairman of the Social Studies Department and fellow member of the Class of 1971, arranged a whole day for me. I got to speak before two social studies classes, one creative writing class, and the History Club, and got to meet and speak with some very bright young men and with some very dedicated educators. It was great to go back and see all the changes, and to see that much has remained the same. The young men still self-segregate by class in the cafeteria, with freshmen by the windows and seniors at the opposite side, and the lettermen in the corner! I also saw a sight I thought I would never see: a hundred or more teenagers in the cafeteria, not one of whom was looking at a cell phone (the school forbids their use in the school building.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Sunday the 7th, the Briarcliff Manor-Scarborough Historical Society and the Briarcliff Library invited me to come talk about Commander Will. A wonderful group of about thirty showed up, and I’m happy to say I was on form and did a good job representing my man Will. Thanks so much to Shelley Glick for helping pull everything together.

(Pictured: Roy Solomon, Bob Minzesheimer, and Ben Lieberman; me at Calvert Hall; photo of me at the Library, courtesy of Gary Cahill.)


Chris Rock Portrait SessionFrank Rich interviewed Chris Rock this week in New York magazine. Rock was brilliant–creative, provocative, and enormously perceptive. He said things about race in a way that should change the discussion forever. Here is one comment:

“Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. . . . So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”

Take the time to read the whole interview here.