Richard Goodwin (1931-2018)
As I was leaving to get a coffee Sunday afternoon, for some reason I focused on the book “Remembering America” by Richard Goodwin on the bookshelf in the foyer. Just the title. It had meaning for Goodwin when it was published in 1988 amid the Reagan Revolution, which was undoing much of the good work he and Democrats had done throughout the century; and now, in the Trump era, it had even greater meaning. Was I thinking about reading it again? Or just getting it off the shelf? I did a day later when I heard Goodwin had died of cancer at the age of 88.
My copy wasn't even my copy—I'd forgotten that. It wasn't the copy I'd read and marked up in 1988. It was a replacement I bought in a used bookstore in Seattle. But I knew there was a quote in there that once had great meaning for me, and I was trying to find it. It was at the end of a chapter. An early chapter? Maybe even the one where he recounted his involvement in uncovering the game show scandal of the 1950s, which was made into the movie “Quiz Show,” where he was played by Rob Morrow? Or working the JFK election in ‘60 and then in the JFK administration? Or being LBJ’s favorite speechwriter and coining the phrase “The Great Society” and writing Johnson's “Voting Rights” speech? He split with Johnson on Vietnam. He abandoned LBJ for Bobby, then Bobby for Eugene, then Eugene for Bobby again. And on June 6, 1968, in Los Angeles, it all crashed.
The quote I was looking for was at the end of the book, of course. Its last lines:
If this book has any purpose at all, it is not to impose a guide on that future, but to remind that men and women can live as if their world was malleable to their grasp; and that, true or false, to live in this belief is to be the most authentically alive.
That felt profound to me in 1988. I particularly liked the “true or false” line, the implication that it's not true, that the world isn't malleable to our grasp, but fuck it, do it anyway, since it's the best way to live. I repeated that line a lot back then. If it feels less profound to me now, maybe that's why. It's part of my make-up. It's obvious because he made it so.
Here's the Times obit.
Shining City on a Hollywood Hill
It still astounds me that one of America's most successful industries is forever being disparaged by the political party that claims to care about American industry.
This is from two weeks ago on box office mojo:
Look at that. What other country can do that? None. I‘ve written about the box office of “Wolf Warrior II” and other Chinese films, as well as the fact that China is on the verge of becoming the world’s No. 1 movie marketplace. But Chinese films don't travel well. Few besides the Chinese go see them. The world goes to see Hollywood films.
Americans don't comprehend how much Hollywood dominates the world maybe because we‘re used to it and maybe because we’re too close to it, but it's stunning and has real-world consequences. China Daily just posted an article on the number of Chinese students who come to the U.S. to study. Their lede is about a young man from Henan province who became determined to study here after seeing a Hollywood movie (“High School Musical”). He's not alone. People don't come here just because there's greater freedom, nor just because within a generation your family is American. (Cf., China.) The shining city on a hill has a Hollywood sign on it.
Quote of the Day
“We’re supposed to provide back-and-forth perspective, so that you make the best decision based on science and based on the law. But that’s a pretty big struggle right now. ... I hunt and fish—I’m actually kind of a redneck. But I believe in the public good and public land. When Trump talks his B.S. about the ‘deep state,’ that’s who he’s referring to. I totally reject that kind of characterization. That’s how these guys see it: if you’re not a tool of the most high-powered lobbyists in Washington or following orders, then they really don’t want you around.”
Unnamed civil servant in the Dept. of the Interior, currently headed by Trump loyalist Ryan Zinke, in Evan Osnos' must-read New Yorker piece, “Only the Best People: Donald Trump's war on the ‘deep state,’” about how Trump is remaking the federal government in his image: with incompetent personnel whose main qualification is loyalty to him.
Movie Review: A Man of Integrity (2017)
Iranian writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof likes opposites. He began his 2011 film “Goodbye” with someone saying hello, and he begins “A Man of Integrity” with the title character, Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), engaged in an illicit activity: fermenting alcohol inside watermelons and hiding them below the floorboards in his small shack on his fish farm in northern Iran.
Immediately, two men appear asking about the watermelons. They search, can’t find them, but take away a rifle whose permit is expired. Are they cops or private contractors? At the outset we think the former but by the end we’re not so sure.
We’re not sure of a lot throughout the film.
Sleeping with the fishes
Where’s the “integrity” of the title? Here: Rather than pay a bribe to a bank official to delay mortgage payments, Reza sells his car and tries to do it legit. Things get worse from there. It’s like Serpico refusing the bribe; the corrupt in power no longer trust him. They need him to be one of them. And if he isn’t one of them, he must be excised.
That's when the fish in his fish farm begin to die. Eyes burning, Reza tracks things to Assad, his neighbor. He’s in the midst of pulling up the chains of a dam which may have kept fresh water from them when a figure appears over his shoulder. Next thing we know, Assad has a broken arm and Reza is in jail for assault. Frustrations now mount for Reza’s wife, Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee). Reza is supposed to be released after 24 hours, but there’s always a delay, or new rules or new charges, or prematurely closed offices. She brings in her brother to help navigate the corrupt system, and even then it takes five days. Finally back in his own bed, Reza, the next morning, awakens to fresh horror: birds swooping on his farm, attracted by the scent of dead fish. They’ve been poisoned.
For a time, I wondered what the movie would become. Would we simply watch Reza’s downward trajectory? From refusing to leave his farm to agreeing to sell it to being offered half of what it's worth? Or nothing? At every turn, the straightjacket is tightened. His wife is the head of a school, which Assad’s daughter attends, from whom she finds out Assad’s arm was never broken. Hadis sends a message to Assad through the girl. Assad sends a message back: He pulls the girl from the school.
I kept wondering about the watermelon-fermented wine seen in the first act. Was that a way out? No. It’s for Reza’s personal use—even though it’s been prohibited for Muslims in the Islamic Republic since 1979. He takes it to an underground spring—a literal man cave—where he drinks and rests and thinks. And plots.
Akhlaghirad has a handsome, powerful presence. His eyes burn. They burn in part because he can’t see a way out as a man of integrity; so he becomes its opposite. It’s a movie of escalations. Reza is trapped so he traps the well-connected Assad by framing him for drug use. Assad, from prison, engineers a response: He burns down Reza’s house. Reza then uses a corrupt prison guard to bring him poisoned drugs. Assad is killed, and, at his funeral, Reza attends and stares down his children with those burning eyes.
An offer he can’t refuse
“A Man of Integrity,” which won “Un Certain Regard” at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is beautifully art-directed but often slow-moving, and it uses a verbal shorthand to explain complex Iranian societal matters. For an outsider like me, much has to be guessed at, and even now, writing this, I’ve often got my hands in the air. One review mentioned that Reza was a former univeristy professor. When did that come up? And in what period was the movie set? Is it contemporary, or is that news footage of Khomeni on TV?
So what kind of movie does “Integrity” become? It’s a lose-by-winning movie. Reza wins but he doesn‘t. In winning, he loses. Just as Michael Corleone, in “Godfather Part III,” tries to raise his family above the corruption, only to find greater corruption among the legitimately powerful, so Reza, by defeating Assad, wins the admiration of the powerful and corrupt, and, in a final irony, is offered Assad’s position. Reza wants to be a man of integrity but the corrupt machine doesn’t allow it; and in the end he’s offered a prime spot in that very corrupt machine. It’s an offer he can’t refuse.
Of the Trump, By the Trump, For the Trump
“Trump’s antagonistic relationship to facts is no longer just a matter of politics. It now affects day-to-day governance.”
Here's a Cliff Notes version of Evan Osnos' must-read New Yorker piece, “Only the Best People: Donald Trump's war on the ‘deep state,’” about how Trump is remaking the federal government with people whose main qualificaiton is loyalty to him. It's scary shit. Please read the whole thing:
- Every President expects devotion. ... But Trump has elevated loyalty to the primary consideration. Since he has no fixed ideology, the White House cannot screen for ideas, so it seeks a more personal form of devotion. ...
- To vet candidates, the Obama campaign had used a questionnaire with 63 queries about employment, finances, writings, and social-media posts. The Trump team cut the number of questions to 25, by dropping the requests for professional references and tax returns and removing items concerning loans, personal income, and real-estate holdings. The questionnaire was speckled with typos ...
- Republican think tanks and donors succeeded in installing preferred nominees. The earliest wave arrived from the Heritage Foundation; subsequent ones came from Charles and David Koch’s network of conservative advocacy groups and from the American Enterprise Institute. But the White House maintained a virtual blockade against Republicans who had signed letters opposing Trump’s candidacy. ...
- The White House brought in an array of outsiders, who, at times, ran into trouble. As an assistant to the Secretary of Energy, the Administration installed Sid Bowdidge, whose recent employment had included managing a Meineke Car Care branch in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Bowdidge departed after it emerged that he had called Muslims “maggots.” In December, Matthew Spencer Petersen, a nominee to the federal bench, became a brief online sensation when Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, asked him a series of basic law-school questions, which revealed that Petersen had never argued a motion, tried a case, or taken a deposition by himself. Embarrassing details came out about other judicial nominees: Brett Talley, who had never tried a case in federal court, wandered cemeteries hunting for ghosts; Jeff Mateer had called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan.” ...
- Trump sometimes tested ethical standards in the hiring process. In January, shortly before the Justice Department named Geoffrey Berman to be the interim U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York—a position with jurisdiction over the headquarters of Trump’s business empire—Trump personally interviewed Berman for the job. Criminal-justice experts were alarmed. “I am not aware of any President in recent history that personally conducted such interviews,” Marcos Daniel Jiménez, a former U.S. Attorney appointed by George W. Bush, told me. William Cummings, a U.S. Attorney appointed by Gerald Ford, said, “In the situation where the sitting President has publicly been noted to be the subject of an investigation by the F.B.I. or special counsel, I think it is unseemly.” ...
- Last fall, Trump appointees in the department became frustrated by bad press over efforts to expand mining and drilling, and by Freedom of Information Act requests that sought details of their contacts with powerful industries. [Communications Director Matthew] Allen received another order: send FOIA requests about political appointees to the subjects themselves before releasing the results to the public. He was taken aback. “It was just a blatant conflict of interest,” he said. “The person who may be under suspicion, that they’re requesting records on, is going to be an approval authority in the chain. That just doesn’t seem O.K.” ...
- In one agency after another, I encountered a pattern: on controversial issues, the Administration is often not writing down potentially damaging information. ... For many in government, Trump’s antagonistic relationship to facts is no longer just a matter of politics. It now affects day-to-day governance.
- The White House has politicized work that was once insulated from interference, Schwab said. “We see that in the F.B.I. very publicly, and then I saw that at ICE from the highest levels of the White House. Who knows where else it’s happening in the rest of the government.”
Is there a tipping point? That's a key question. At what point is our federal government made up of such idiot Trump loyalists that the entire aparatus, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, does Trump's bidding rather than the country's?
Box Office: ‘Deadpool 2’ Opens Down from ‘Deadpool’
“Deadpool 2” opened in a better month than “Deadpool” (May vs. Feb.) and in nearly 1,000 more theaters (4,349 vs. 3,558) but did slightly less business opening weekend ($125 million vs. $132). That's still the third-best opening of the year, after “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity,” and the 30th-best all time. Nothing to sneeze at. But it's got to be a slight disappointment for Ryan Reynolds and Fox Studios.
Meanwhile, in its fourth weekend, “Avengers: Infinity War” fell 53% to rake in another $28 mil for $595 domestically. That's slightly ahead of “Black Panther”'s numbers in its fourth weekend ($561); but “BP” was falling much less fast. It actually grossed $40 million that weekend and $26 in its fifth. Don't know if “Avengers” can catch it. Right now “BP is at $697 million and grossed another $800k the past three days. I'm sure Buena Vista will push for the magic $700 million mark, which only two domestic movies (”Star Wars: The Force Awakens“ and ”Avatar“) have ever reached.
Speaking of magic numbers, the worldwide gross of ”Avengers“ is at $1.8 billion and climbing. That's fourth-best all-time. Ahead: ”Force Awakens“ and the two Camerons. Bigger question: Can it pass the $2 billion mark? I think it can.
The other new releases? Not much. The awful-looking ”Book Club“ (my favorite ‘70s actresses read ”Fifty Shades of Gray“) finished in third place with $12 million; the awful-looking ”Show Dogs“ (Will Arnett + talking dogs in a police comedy) finished in sixth with $6 mil; and the intriguing-looking doc ”Pope Francis: A Man of His Word“ grossed $481k for 16th place.
Better doc news, as Mark Harris tweeted this morning, is that for the second weekend in a row, ”RBG," the doc on SCOTUS justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, finished in the top 10. It’s grossed $3.8 mil, and is worth seeing, btw.
Next weekend is Memorial Day weekend. Han Solo gets into the act.
‘We Are Putting Our Country at Risk’
From Evan Osnos' must-read piece on the Trump administration's attack on the career civil servants that protect us:
Since taking office, Trump has attacked the integrity of multiple parts of his government, including the F.B.I. (“reputation is in tatters”) and the Department of Justice (“embarrassment to our country”). His relationship with the State Department is especially vexed. ... Sixty per cent of the highest-ranked diplomats have departed.
Veteran U.S. diplomats say that the State Department is in its most diminished condition since the nineteen-fifties, when McCarthy called it a hotbed of “Communists and queers” and vowed to root out the “prancing mimics of the Moscow party line.” McEldowney, the retired Ambassador, said, “I believe to the depth of my being that by undermining our diplomatic capability we are putting our country at risk. Something awful is inevitably going to happen, and people will ask, ‘Where are the diplomats?’ And the tragic answer will have to be ‘We got rid of them in a fire sale.’”
A Nothing Burger with Everything On It
Clinton email investigation:— Patrick S. Tomlinson (@stealthygeek) May 17, 2018
White Water investigation
-1 yr (so far)
In case you don't know: Trump and the GOP are trying to end the Mueller investigation after a year because it's a “nothing burger” and a “witch hunt.” But that's a lot of something for a nothing burger. And witch hunts aren't supposed to catch actual witches.
Today's revelation: Don Trump Jr. met with foreign reps, including an Israeli expert on social media manipulation and an emissary for two Saudi princes, as well as Erik Prince, the controversial former head of Blackwater who has denied involvement in the Trump campaign, on August 3, 2016 in order to win the election. From the Times:
The meetings, which have not been reported previously, are the first indication that countries other than Russia may have offered assistance to the Trump campaign in the months before the presidential election. The interactions are a focus of the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, who was originally tasked with examining possible Trump campaign coordination with Russia in the election.
It's a nothing burger with everything.