Ain’t nuthin’ but a mistake

Tom on the Backstreet Boys song It Was OK To Like:

“I Want It That Way” assumes, rightly, that you enjoy hearing these men harmonise around that title, and simply arranges itself to give you the maximum possible opportunity to do that, with slightly different emphases each time but no regard for whether all those swoonsome moments fit together. In between, the gaps are filled with a melange of phraselets that don’t fit whatever story the song is telling but which all sound fantastic sung, fist clenched on chest, by a handsome boy. “Fire….desire”, “you are you are you are”, “don’t wanna hear you sayyyy!”, “it’s to-oo-oo late”, all given their own lovely micro-hook and thrown into the song’s rising tide.

Months after it peaked as a hit, I heard a quartet of drunk dudes sing a note perfect karaoke version; like “Bye Bye Bye” eight months later, this was ubiquity at world-historic level. at the time I wouldn’t admit I preferred “Quit Playin’ Games (With My Heart)” and “Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely.” But those weren’t a miscellany of prenatal erotic slogans.

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Ben Bradlee RIP: the temptations of power

Ben Bradlee embodied the tension between the temptation of power and journalism. The Harvard graduate and friend of JFK who supported Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein could not bring his reporters into reaching obvious conclusions about Ronald Reagan after Iran-Contra. The roots lay here:

Mr. Bradlee’s friendship with Kennedy produced complex feelings that lasted for decades after the president’s 1963 assassination. Mr. Bradlee knew reporters shouldn’t become close friends with politicians. At the same time, Mr. Bradlee loved bright, lively, charming people, and he had great confidence in his own ability to stay straight journalistically in all circumstances. “If I was had, so be it,” Mr. Bradlee wrote in his 1974 bestseller, “Conversations With Kennedy.”

In an interview with Mark Hertsgaard for On Bended Knee the essential chronicle of press deference to the Reagan administration, Bradlee admitted:

The return to deference was part of the subconscious feeling we had…that we were dealing with someone this time who really, really, really disapproved of us, disliked us, distrusted us, and that we ought not give him any any opportunities to see he was right. You know, initially after Watergate the public was saying about the press, ‘Okay, guys, now that’s enough, that’s enough.’ The criticism was that we were going on too much, and trying to make a Watergate out of everything. And I think we were sensitive to that criticism much more than we should have been been, and that we did ease off.”

How Bradlee, who went to court with publisher Katherine Graham after the Nixon administration argued the Pentagon Papers leak undermined national security, thought the Reagan White House “really, really, really” disliked them after dealing with Haldeman, Ehrlichman, et. al, mystifies me; Reagan’s press manipulation was masterly. So do the soothsaying powers that led him to render a conclusion about what the American public was and was not ready to read about its government. Maybe it was another subconscious feeling.

Matters worsened when wife Sally Quinn wrote waspish columns about the bad manners and poor grace of Bill Clinton. In this column, she made it clear who belonged in the Beltway and who didn’t:

On this evening, the roster included Cabinet members Madeleine Albright and Donna Shalala, Republicans Sen. John McCain and Rep. Bob Livingston, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, PBS’s Jim Lehrer and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, all behaving like the pals that they are. On display was a side of Washington that most people in this country never see. For all their apparent public differences, the people in the room that night were coming together with genuine affection and emotion to support their friends — the Wall Street Journal‘s Al Hunt and his wife, CNN’s Judy Woodruff, whose son Jeffrey has spina bifida.

I wish this were a joke composed by Joan Didion. 2014 isn’t very different from 1998.

Bradlee doesn’t deserve all the criticism. Thanks to Jason Robards and Alan J. Pakula, his mythos encouraged a generation of reporters to spend Saturdays reading arrest reports and tracing in which banks foreign checks got deposited. Circulation and ad revenue swelled after Watergate. The state of traditional journalism will make his legend loom larger. But he didn’t always make the right calls when it came to adjudicating between the demands of journalism and the habits of sharing power in the world’s most powerful and smallest city. Few do. That’s the good thing about journalism: you can always get it right tomorrow.

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An American middle class: DJ Quik and Angaleena Presley

DJ Quik – The Midnight Life

His arrangements are models of integration, stealing from funk when he wants to get fonky, smooth jazz when he wants to give his plaints an erotic frisson, and from god knows where when he wants to use a banjo. Well. Give him a tuba and he’ll write “Let It Whip” on it. For at least fifteen years, despite modest sales (to which Quik himself alludes in “Broken Down”: “how did all my fans get replaced with critics?”), that’s what Quik has done. Since 2009’s collaboration his studiocraft has gone from peak to peak (2011’s The Book of David was my album of the year). Anchored by Robert “Fonksta” Bacon’s licks, his studio band is up to his quik triks. When he wants horn charts he knows where to go: “Pet Sematary” is like new Donald Fagen fronting a mellowed Funkadelic, confident and frisky and as pure an aural confection as you’ll hear anywhere, a match for Quik-Kurupt’s “The Appeal”. Crude he can be – Quik might be one of the last of the original West Coast rappers whose casual resort to a slur he assumes the audience will take for granted, and sometimes, as in the otherwise wonderful “That Nigger’s Crazy” he can throw you out of the song; but it’s a tic, by my ears an irritation mediated by a febrile mix that includes scratches, said banjos, and a yowling epicene voice reminding listeners that Quik’s acting a part. Son David Blake II isn’t playing a part, alas. El DeBarge, who co-wrote an airy jam on Rhythm-al-ism humbly called “El’s Interlude,” returns from purgatory for another.

Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class

Illusions she lost long ago. Dad never crossing the picket line as a point of rueful is one of the facts of life that singers don’t experience secondhand through songs; coming from this Martin County, Kentucky native it’s as political a statement as voting for Alison Lundergan Grimes. Good lookin’ guitar men knock up women and nephews steal pain pills from uncles – that’s what she knows as well as how much well wrought dolor to wring from a dobro. On first listen well wrought dolor is all I got. The proceedings could be faster. Then Presley’s tone of quiet supplication hooked me again and again. “Ain’t No Man” rides its simple, sweet mandolin groove until it runs out of words but its singers can’t stop singing. A guitar adds a sting to every word in the chorus hook in “Drunk.” Unlike Brandy Clark’s 12 Songs last year, in other words, it trusts tunes and performances to put over smart songs. And she wrote more than half of the album herself, a feat Miranda Lambert hasn’t matched since Kerosene. The album isn’t meant to be read. Timing and association means inevitable comparisons with Ashley Monroe’s Like a Rose and Lambert’s Automatic are inevitable. No syntheses of erotics and class like Annie Up‘s “Loved By a Workin’ Man.” The three women are self-aware. If Lambert is the hellion, Monroe the subject who imbues being treated like an object with pathos and agency, then Presley is the storyteller.

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The stakes

Here’s how it looks to Floridians. Gubernatorial candidate #1:

If an aide suggested to the governor that he lacked the legal authority to do this or that, he would snap, mockingly: “How many Supreme Court justices have you appointed?”

Staffers might spend hours prepping for key policy or budget presentations, and Crist would show up 30 minutes late, without apology or explanation, and then spend just five minutes giving orders for what he wanted. If anybody tried to raise a counterpoint, the governor, more than once, abruptly stood up and left the room without saying a word, leaving his aides staring at each other and wondering what to do next.

He had little interest in meeting with mid-level staffers with issue-specific expertise, either, preferring quick, broad-brush explanations from his most senior advisers. If an explanation went too long or involved too much detail or nuance, Crist was known to cut the staffer short, unleashing expletives. “I don’t care about those f—— details! This is the way I want it done!”

Where his predecessor, Jeb Bush, periodically spent hours surrounded by staffers debating and discussing the implications of major decisions, it was rare for Crist to carve out even half an hour for briefings. Crist’s aides often lacked sufficient time to give him basic pros and cons. If he wasn’t traveling, Crist typically showed up at the office after 11 a.m.and left before 3 p.m.

And #2:

This Rick Scott signed an elections bill designed to suppress Democratic votes — the courts and the public forced a retreat – and attempted a politically motivated purge of voter rolls. This Rick Scott abolished the state agency that tried to ensure smart growth management. What does any of this have to do with jobs?

And if jobs matter most, why did Scott turn down $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, the first leg in a statewide system? The line was projected to create 23,000 jobs.

Today’s Rick Scott also continues to hide political and personal business from the public, despite a promise of transparency and open access to all emails. Scott’s transition team claimed that meetings in public buildings were secret. Scott staffers regularly use personal emails to conduct state business. Scott refuses to say where he’s traveling on his private jet. And as the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times just reported, Scott’s federal financial filings show him to be much wealthier than he states in his financial disclosure forms, and his supposed blind trust may enable him to profit from decisions he makes as governor.

Because the Florida Democratic Party would look at FDR in 1936 and, terrified, nominate Al Smith, we got Crist. Nan Rich isn’t FDR. But she isn’t tainted by this record of a Republicanism moderate only by the standards of lunacy and bedlam. Between the lazy red leathered playboy and the plutocrat, give me the lazy playboy.

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The case of Gary Webb, Pt. II

The Washington Post‘s Jeff Leen tut-tuts at the claims made in Kill the Messenger, the new film about reporter Gary Webb and his discovery that the CIA treated Central America as an experiment in narco-politics. Robert Parry, the AP correspondent who co-wrote with Brian Barger one of the original (and ignored) stories in 1985, is having none of it:

Instead of diving into the reeds of the CIA and DOJ reports, Leen does what he and his mainstream colleagues have done for the past three decades, try to minimize the seriousness of the Reagan administration tolerating cocaine trafficking by its Contra clients and even obstructing official investigations that threatened to expose this crime of state.

Instead, to Leen, the only important issue is whether Gary Webb’s story was perfect. But no journalistic product is perfect. There are always more details that a reporter would like to have, not to mention compromises with editors over how a story is presented. And, on a complex story, there are always some nuances that could have been explained better. That is simply the reality of journalism, the so-called first draft of history.

But Leen pretends that it is the righteous thing to destroy a reporter who is not perfect in his execution of a difficult story – and that Gary Webb thus deserved to be banished from his profession for life, a cruel punishment that impoverished Webb and ultimately drove him to suicide in 2004.

But if Leen is correct – that a reporter who takes on a very tough story and doesn’t get every detail precisely correct should be ruined and disgraced – what does he tell his Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward, whose heroic Watergate reporting included an error about whether a claim regarding who controlled the White House slush fund was made before a grand jury?…

Yet, when Webb exposed what was arguably an even worse crime of state – the Reagan administration turning a blind eye to the importation of tons of cocaine into the United States – Leen thinks any abuse of Webb is justified because his story wasn’t perfect.

I wrote about the Webb case last week. Why does the WaPo care about debunking these claims? The premise of its debunking is flawed from its headline down. No one is interested in making Webb a hero. Those who start from this premise are the same mountebanks who when Edward Snowden gave the NSA secrets to the media in 2013 wrote “Hero or Traitor?” headlines.

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‘We’ve never had the super hurricane’

Longtime denizens of South Florida — I include myself — get smug about hurricanes because we survived Andrew. Katrina? A glancing blow. Wilma? Less glancing, a genuine pain of ass for hundreds of thousands of people who lost roofs and were at least ten days without power. But survivalhood isn’t enough anymore:

Miami’s vulnerability is well known, but emergency planners say generations of political leaders have failed to invest the billions needed to keep flood-control systems up to date.

“This is not something that just occurred overnight,” said Fugate, who dealt with nearly a dozen hurricanes as Florida’s emergency management director before joining FEMA. “A lot of decisions by a lot of people over a long period of time. It’s a shared responsibility. The question is: Is there the political will to start addressing that?”

Local leaders have been able to sidestep that question for decades because of the region’s incredible meteorological luck. Even when Hurricane Andrew tore through in 1992 as a top-rated Category 5 storm, it moved quickly, brought low storm surge, little rain and made landfall 30 miles south of downtown Miami.

Other hurricanes have either passed over the region as small-scale storms or just grazed the area. Hurricane Gonzalo developed into a raging Category 4 this week, but it’s turned toward the northeast. As this year’s hurricane season draws to a close, it looks like the region will luck out yet again.

“We’ve never had our system tested by an event that brings high winds and storm surge,” said Alex Barrios, manager of Miami-Dade County’s stormwater drainage design section. “We’ve always had one or the other. We’ve never had the super hurricane.”

Never mind rising sea levels. South Florida isn’t even prepared for a Katrina and its full impact.

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No romance without finance: Love is Strange

It is the privilege of straight white pundits to distinguish “social issues” from “economic issues.” Abortion and gay marriage are social issues, according to Chuck Todd types. The power of Love is Strange, the wonderful movie directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, is that it creates a situation that people who live in what used to be the middle class recognize. Matrimony and security are neither synonymous nor a cause and effect. But the movie doesn’t stop there. Love is Strange also shows how soaring real estate in cities have destroyed the bohemian life of art and music and literature. Capitalism curdles into an oligarchy indivisible from socialism: those who can afford two-bedroom apartments also get the good schools that teach geography and music. The rest have to hope to bump into the right stranger at a party ready to surrender a rent-controlled studio in the West Village. In other words, Love is Strange is about the way we live now.

Deciding to make their thirty-nine-year partnership legal, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) learn that Molina’s job at a Catholic elementary school in Manhattan is no longer tenable after the archdiocese’s investment in the fiction of don’t ask/don’t tell dissolves. Ben, a retired art gallery owner at seventy, has no income. They must surrender the co-op in which they’ve lived for twenty years. There follows a scene of exquisite awkwardness. During a living room heart to heart with Ben’s nephew Eliot and wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), Ben and George’s gay cop friends Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Cheyenne Jackson), and Ben’s niece Mindy (Christina Kirk), it becomes clear that the people who most love George and Ben aren’t quite ready to upset their scrupulously arranged lives. No one says anything, but silence says everything (Sachs is keen on establishing that it’s easier for friends and relatives to make claims so long as they’re not living with us). Moving with Mindy to Poughkeepsie is out of the question—it’s in the country (shades of Alvy Singer worrying about dead moths on screens)! Off-camera the decision is made: George will live with the cops, Ben with Eliot and Kate.

In its fealty to discretion, fascination with courtesy, and frustrated but genuine love for urban spaces, Love is Strange reminds me of Make Way With Tomorrow, Leo McCarey’s Depression-era account of seniors whose financial state makes imposing on their children impossible yet a nightmare from which there is no awakening; but also to the ways in which Yasujiro Ozu is alert to the shimmers of annoyance seen on a smiling relative’s face in Tokyo Story. Sharing a bunk bed with Eliot and Kate’s son Joey when the teenager is a pawn in the deteriorating relations between his parents is hell on Ben. For distraction he paints on the roof. For a subject he chooses Joey’s new best friend Vlad (Eric Tablach in a small but accurate performance). “That’s so gay,” Joey whines when he catches them, a remark that gains more instead of less irony when Kate explains it’s a catch-all for “stupid” while eliding the nature of Joey and Vlad’s own friendship. To the film’s credit, it confines itself to hints. Anyone who’s endured the kind, persistent questions from older relatives while trying to work will cringe in recognition at a scene when Ben asks the novelist Kate about her favorite short stories. Once again, Sachs does the unexpected: Tomei captures Kate’s cup-runneth-over irritation—she’s in the middle of writing when the interrogation starts—but she never blows. In the same way Sachs doesn’t concretize what the hell has got Eliot and Kate so pissed off at each other than his film commitments. Indeed, there’s a lovely almost throwaway moment when Ben walks in on a fraught discussion, refuses to take the hint, and lingers long enough in the hopes of being asked to join them for a glass of wine. He does, which provokes an impromptu valentine to a Busby Berkeley picture that Ben saw at a revival house and to which he had introduced Eliot on VHS years earlier. It made me like Eliot; it humanized him.

George’s situation is no less tense: the cops party like Glenn Frey and Don Henley in 1976. By nature a reserved man given to sudden eloquence when taking someone into his confidence, George endures late nights on the sofa that doubles as his bed. He understands the severity of their situation more than the dreamy Ben. Denied adequate conversation, he pours his intelligence into critiques of his music students’ work; he’s not cruel—he’s incapable of cruelty—but he doesn’t talk at the grade school level either, so one precocious girl studies him as if he were an exotic starfish. Love is Strange, honoring its title, stresses that Ben and George are only completely themselves with each other but this fact isn’t enough. It never is. And shouldn’t be.

Sachs, who directed 2012’s Keep Your Lights On and 2004’s Forty Shades of Blue, has little pictorial sense but he doesn’t much like close-ups—a blessing. I found Keep Your Lights On disjointed and diffuse, and Love is Strange does sometimes play like an exquisite HBO movie. This is the rare case of a movie often better written than directed. It gets poky in a couple of spots—mostly when Chopin played for long interludes—and the sunshine-on-a-cloudy-day ending courts kitsch, but I forgive Sachs because those spots happen to be when Georg and Ben are working (with a student and painting, respectively), and cameras so rarely gaze on characters doing what they love. The movie gains startling resonance with each plot crinkle. Favorite moments: over scotch and vodka tonics at Julius, a spontaneous mention of infidelity is staged and acted with a freshness and maturity I rarely see in American movies; and Joey’s yielding to suppressed grief on a stair landing, Christos Voudouris’ camera at a discreet distance. Lithgow and Molina have never been better. Give actors roles from which they can draw on their full intellectual resources and here are the results. And make movies which understand the interdependence of romance and finance.

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