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Impromptus
The way W. pardons. Thinkin' boycott. Mr. Carter regrets. Etc.


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Hey, kids: I’m writing this puppy on Tuesday — of necessity — so please forgive me if I’m not super-up-to-date.

I wanted to say something about the recent Bush pardons. Granted, I like Bush, and I’m one of those annoying Republicans who are always comparing the current president to his predecessor. No fair! people say (which is baloney). And tiresome! (which is a better point).

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Anyway, I just couldn’t help noticing: At the end of the year, Bush pardoned seven people. According to the AP, they were: a Mississippi man who tampered with a car odometer; a postal employee who stole $10.90 worth of mail; a Tennessee man sentenced in 1962 for making untaxed whiskey; an Oregon man convicted in 1966 in a grain-theft conspiracy; an Iowa man sentenced in 1989 for lying to the Social Security Administration; a Washington State man sentenced in 1972 for stealing $38,000 worth of copper wire; and a Wisconsin minister who refused to be inducted into the military, sentenced in 1957.

Now, those are GWB pardons — unlike you-know-whose. The contrast is just so overwhelming. This is a man free of corruption, possessed of rectitude, cognizant of what is appropriate and what is not. And the Republican party should be proud — I’m sorry, it’s just true.

You’ll have to trust me that I’ve never liked to mix art and politics. I mean, I’ve observed a kind of “strict separation.” I know what Wagner was, and what he wrote (in prose). But his music is another matter. I’m not an admirer of Herbert von Karajan’s conducting, but his membership in the Nazi party has nothing to do with it. (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf — now there was a Nazi to celebrate!) Dmitri Kabalevsky served a horrible function in the Soviet state, but I’ve always liked and defended his music. I find Daniel Barenboim’s politics obnoxious — but they’ve never affected my critical writing about him.

Etc.

In a piece a couple of months ago, I said something unflattering about Paul Robeson’s singing — and someone accused me of dragging the bass’s politics (which were Stalinist) into it! A silly charge.

Anyway, I must confess to a pang or two about going to see Steven Spielberg’s current movie. I’ve never been a boycotter (or much of one — hell, you can’t buy anything that doesn’t come from China, and perhaps even from Laogai, the Chinese gulag). But I happen to know a lot about Cuba’s human-rights abuses. I hear from dissidents and their supporters virtually every day. I have talked to a trembling man on the run, from Castro’s police. Problem is, I sort of “know too much.”

And Spielberg is a wretched apologist for Castro. In fact, he declared his huddle with the dictator “the most important eight hours of my life.” If it weren’t for the cover of people like Spielberg — arguably the most important moviemaker of our times — Castro would be easier to discredit in the world. Spielberg makes things harder for Oscar Biscet, Rafael Ibarra Roque, and hundreds of other political prisoners, not to mention Cubans generally.

I tell you, it’s sort of awkward, for me, to go and see that Leo-and-Hanks flick. I suppose I will. But I’m disgusted — not least at myself.

Let me hail one of the finest paragraphs I’ve read recently. It comes from a Jim Hoagland column in the Washington Post: “I flew high and wide over the Middle East. What to say, or do, about cultures that are incapable of creating skyscrapers, jet airliners, and modern financial systems on their own, but produce bands of people who use and destroy such inventions to murder others and then laugh? This cultural imbalance can destabilize everything.”

That Saudi prince must have thought he was being pretty slick when he contributed that half-a-mil to the Bush scholarship fund at Andover. That’s what mafiosi always do — distribute a few turkeys, pay a sick kid’s medical bills, construct a new church. Everything’s better, all’s forgiven!

Not, fortunately.

In a recent New York Times feature story, historian and Carter chronicler Douglas Brinkley said that the 39th president has always called it the “greatest regret of his life” that he did not meet Martin Luther King. “But in 1968,” observed Brinkley, “it was political suicide for Carter to even shake King’s hand. It’s the one thing that makes him really embarrassed.”

The one thing? That speaks volumes about the man’s priorities — about his blind spots (to go with that vision on race relations). I could add to his list of embarrassing facts — and, in fact, sort of have.

Which is worse? The non-handshake with King or the buss of Brezhnev (June ’78, Vienna)? A puzzlement.

A friend of mine pointed out recently — when Carter received his Nobel — that anti-Americans everywhere, but particularly in Europe, love Jimmy Carter. This should bother the former president; but it doesn’t. In fact, he openly glories in the exception that these anti-Americans carve out for him. It’s one of the things he’s least embarrassed about!

More Doug Brinkley: In an eye-opening piece in The New York Times Sunday Magazine — eulogizing Cyrus Vance — he wrote that Carter’s first choice for secretary of state had been, not Vance, but George Ball. I never knew that! It makes perfect sense! Ball was one of the great Israel-haters in the entire foreign-policy establishment.

Carter said that Ball had “spoken up when nobody else in government did about what was wrong with the Vietnam War.” Also, Ball “had the courage to question aspects of America’s attachment to Israel.” That’s an interesting word: attachment. Sounds like a psychological disorder, an unreasonable affection. How ’bout the fact that it is a sliver of a democracy in a vast desert of autocracy — a sliver founded, in part, by escapees of genocidal Europe — and a country under constant siege from those who wish to destroy it? No, no: Who can understand this perverse “attachment”?

Carter did not name Ball, however, because — as Carter put it — Ball’s “outspokenness on the Middle East would have made it difficult for him to pass confirmation hearings.”

Outspokenness? That’s a fine euphemism. I’m outspoken. David Frum is outspoken. Ed Koch is outspoken. What Carter meant, of course, is that Ball was anti-Israel — and you got that damn Jewish lobby, and all the other attachees.

It’s amazing we survived four years of that man.

It will not surprise you, chillun, that Frank Rich is one of my least favorite political columnists. He combines the wisdom of The Nation magazine with the meanness of . . . well, The Nation magazine. But the sumbitch can write. No doubt about it.

His piece on Milton Berle — in the same Sunday Magazine that contains the Brinkley article on Vance — is superb. (I should mention that, before ascending — if that’s what it was — to the Times’s op-ed page, Rich was the paper’s theater critic — and thus, of course, the most important theater critic in the world.) You recall that, a few weeks ago, we were doing Great First Lines — of books. Well, Rich wrote one of the finest opening lines of a magazine article I’ve ever seen:

“Uncle Miltie was many things, but avuncular was not one of them.” (I would have written, “. . . but avuncular he was not,” but never mind.) That is so true. And the rest of the piece is fantastic, too.

One more bit from that same magazine? Randy Cohen — who plays “The Ethicist” in those pages — memorialized Ann Landers, whom he called “a sort of stealth progressive.” (That, in fact — “Stealth Progressive” — is the title of the article.)

Excuse me? What in the world was stealthy about Ann Landers’s “progressivism”? She was many things, but subtle (or stealthy) she was not. She was in-your-face frank. I dare say she’d be offended at what Cohen has said.

The writer toasts her as “a defender of reproductive rights.” Hmm: reproductive rights. What could those be again? Oh, yeah: I remember.

It seems to me that people who think that abortion is no big deal — or not a big enough deal to outlaw — should have less trouble speaking plainly.

Was there ever a less grateful nation than South Korea? I mean, outside of Europe? Maybe even including Europe? Talk about biting the hand that feeds you! And rescued you, and has protected you for 50 years!

Sheesh.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out the interesting fact that Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.V.) is the only man to have voted against both black nominees to the Supreme Court: Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. This seems to me to illustrate a good chunk of the history of the Democratic party. Byrd voted against Marshall because he was a . . . well, the senator himself would probably use the N-word (or maybe he uses it now only with “white” in front of it?). And he voted against Thomas because he was a conservative Republican, and therefore, you know: not really black (although he’s a damn sight blacker than Thurgood was, isn’t he?).

This bears some pondering.

I’ll never forget Byrd at the Bork hearings. He said to the nominee, “I’m a con-ser-va-tive [that’s how he talked]; you’re a con-ser-va-tive!” — all buttery. And then he proceeded to paint the judge as an unacceptable extremist.

The worst Democratic actor, however, was Sen. Howell Heflin, who was one of those southerners who always act all liberal in Washington and all downhome back in the sticks. Explaining his “no” vote against Bork, he told a ’bama radio audience that Bork had been a komminist in college, and who can tell what he is now?

Ah, despicable.

Rubbed the scab off the wound, didn’t I (as Nixon would say — it was one of his favorite phrases)?

Hang on, I said the worst Democratic actor? It’s hard to name anyone else when Pat Leahy’s in the mix.

Okay, a little cultchur: I don’t know what you think, but I think the movie About Schmidt uses Rush Limbaugh — playing a clip from his program — in a most demeaning and derisive way. But I’m so nuts about Rush, and so suspicious of all things Hollywood, that I may not be thinking right. I don’t know.

Oh, yes, I know: Of course they were putting him down!

You may have read my crack/lamentation the other day about Time magazine’s People of the Year, who were whistleblowers — not that people (including Time) were too fond of whistleblowers during the Clinton-Lewinsky years.

A propos, check out a cartoon from the incomparable and indispensable Henry Payne: here.

Was in conversation with a friend recently, and he was recounting some project that was really hard: “I had had a tough time with it, and just as I was about to call no joy, something came through.”

Wha, wha: call no joy? What’s that? Had never heard it. My friend look at me incredulous. Didn’t everyone say “call no joy” (meaning, to give up, to call it quits, to admit defeat)?

I asked him where he got it: Was it indigenous to his home state, Illinois? Was it recent or old? Why was I so out of it?

Turns out he picked it up from Top Gun. Apparently, it’s a pilot’s term.

So, listen, kids: Don’t call no joy! As Churchill said in that famous commencement speech, “Never call no joy! Never call no joy! Never . . .”



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