Orson Welles Now: Part Two

Orson Welles II:
His Lesser-Known Films

Orson Welles directed numerous other films beyond the BigThree discussed earlier. He was especially known for his filmic meditations on Shakespeare, but since I'm often more bored than bowled over by the Bard, I offer my three non-Will favorites.

The Stranger (1946, 95 minutes) has three historical distinctions. First, its theme of bringing Nazis to justice anticipated the Nuremberg Tribunal by a year. Second, it was the first Hollywood film to incorporate documentary footage of the Holocaust into the narrative. Third, its climatic confrontation in a church belfry appeared a dozen years before Hitchcock immortalized such a showdown in Vertigo. The Stranger is a snake-in-the-garden story set in a pristine New England small town (the fictional Harper, CT). Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the vivacious offspring of local elites, is wooed and wedded by Charles Rankin (Welles), a prep school professor. He's ideal in every way: smart, suave, and devoted to Mary. Insofar as anyone can tell, he's rock solid except for his odd devotion to old timepieces–he's restoring Harper's 300-year-old mechanical clock, which stands silent on the town green. All is well until a investigator named Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) arrives to deliver the news that Rankin might be Franz Kindler, responsible for the murder of hundreds of Jews and part of a sleeper cell devoted to restoring Nazis to power. He and Mary's brother set a trap for Rankin, but is he the right man? Mary refuses to believe it. This film is exactly right at 95 minutes: taut and tense. Mary is a little hard to swallow in the wake of Second Wave feminism, but The Stranger is a nice slice of 1940s filmmaking.

Welles insisted that his directorial effort on The Trial (1962, 118 minutes) was his very best work, and it gets my vote. There are several reasons why it's not better remembered. First, though in English, it was a German/French/Italian production with a cast little known to most North Americans other than Welles himself and Anthony Perkins, who was Norman Bates in Psycho two years earlier. Second, The Trial was made in black and white at a time in which most movies shifted to color. Third, an adaptation of Franz Kafka's enigmatic novel had cachet with the art cinema crowd, but not the masses. Moreover, the initial reviews were mixed. Bah! This film is a dazzler.

For Kafka non-readers, The Trial recounts the surrealistic nightmare of Joseph K (Perkins), a bland bureaucrat in an unnamed police state. The novel/film are often misinterpreted as commentary on communism. Not so–it was written in 1914, three years before the Russian Revolution, and owed more to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and to the Absurdist movement than to political ideology. On his 30th birthday, K returns to his boarding house to find two police agents in his bedroom. They advise he is charged with a serious crime, which K vigorously denies though said crime is never specified. The K surname is key–individuals aren't citizens; they are interchangeable cogs in a gray, soulless State machine. K is thrown into an absurd legal labyrinth–call it Dickens' Bleak House times ten­–in which he seeks to clear his name. How? Don't look for logic. The point is there isn't any. The Trial is a desperate struggle against unnamed forces–a descent into stigmatization, despair, and madness. Characters drop in and out, many of them approaching K as if he were a plague victim: his want-no-trouble landlady Mrs. Grubach (Madeline Robinson), a neighbor who's probably a hooker (Jeannne Moreau), and his Uncle Max (Max Haufler), who passes off his nephew to Albert Hastler (Welles), "The Advocate," who opines he can get K's case delayed for eternity. K, though, is self-righteous and pursues vindication with the same zeal–and aimless ineptitude–with which he pursues Hastler's young mistress, Leni (Romy Schneider). It won't end well.

Welles offers a stunning interpretation of what many imagined an un-filmable novel.  The animation scenes–roughly sketched cardboard stills that are integral to the tale–look crude to modern eyes conditioned by splashy CGI, but their fuzzy black and white grunginess serve to remind that few things are in sharp relief in a world in which definitions and boundaries are arbitrary. Welles enhances this with weird camera angles that distort and disturb, and his portrayal of Hastler raises the bar for creepiness, though Welles' gestures are seldom more ominous than reposing in bed surrounded by food and drink like a Roman patrician at a Bacchanal. A truly astonishing scene centers on K's visit to Titorelli (William Chappell), a "court painter" who might be able to help K understand the court's inner workings. Titorelli lives in a loft studio hastily constructed of slats that allow light and the gaze of half-wild jailbait girls to pour in. When K flees in horror down a similarly constructed hallway, the cast of light and shadow crisscrosses his body like a prisoner's stripes. Fellini couldn't have filmed it any better. Viewing this film fifty-four years after it debuted remains a shattering experience.     

Most modern "magic" owes a debt to pioneering sleight-of-hand master Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-71), who famously remarked, "A magician is an actor playing a magician." He could have added that an actor is a magician prone to getting trapped in a role. Welles quotes Robert-Houdin in F is for Fake (1975, 88 minutes), performs some magic, shows us how they were done, and pledges to tell the complete truth for an hour. You will notice, though, that the film is 88 minutes long! F is for Fake is one of Welles' few films shot in color and is a pseudo-documentary–not a takeoff on the form, but an imaginative blend of fact and fiction. It is a movie abut art and artifice, something about which he knew—after all, he was at the heart of a great whooper himself: the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast that induced panic. By 1974–when he began filming–one could also argue that Welles had grown so comfortable in his public skin that he was more Welles the Persona than Welles the Person. This film began as editing project for a French director's short documentary on Elmyr de Hory (1906-76), possibly the most successful art forger of all time.  While he was making it, writer Clifford Irving was jailed for his hoax biography of recluse Howard Hughes—another Welles connection, as Citizen Kane was originally conceived (and then changed) with Hughes in mind.

F is for Fake was very much a contemporary cultural comment on authenticity, so I'd advise you to Google de Hory and Irving before you watch, as Welles presumed a familiarity with two figures whose notoriety has faded. Once grounded, though, you can't help ponder the myriad ways in which today's world elides truth, "truthiness," guile, and fabrication. Welles has a bemused twinkle in his eye for most of the film and he's clearly relishing his Jekyll and Hyde act as both narrator and trickster. This extends to the fact that his cinematographer is listed as Robert McCallum, who was actually Gary Garve, who shot more adult films than Hollywood blockbusters. Oh yes, Croatian actress Oja Kodar appears in several juicy roles. Discover her back-story for yourself!

Rob Weir


James Buchanan vs. Andrew Johnson: Pairing Presidents

Andrew Johnson vs. James Buchanan:
Pairing Presidents XVII

Welcome to the clothespin-to-the-nose segment. A few writers have tried, but there isn't much that's admirable about James Buchanan (1857-61) or Andrew Johnson (1865-69). About the best anyone can do is say that maybe Franklin Pierce was worse than Buchanan, or that Lincoln would be tough act for anyone to follow–even one less quarrelsome than Johnson.

How they were similar:

Both were accidental presidents. Buchanan only got the nomination because Pierce, an ally and erstwhile friend, was so awful Democrats knew he'd be defeated. Stephen A. Douglas would have been the logical choice, but he had far too many enemies to make it through the convention. So Democrats chose the non-entity Buchanan. He managed to win a confused 1856 election. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act destroyed the Whigs as a national party, but the spanking new Republican Party had not yet cohered. As it was, had a few thousand votes gone the other way, Republican John C. Frémont would have won. Former president Millard Fillmore also muddied the waters. He won almost 22% of the vote running as a Know Nothing (officially the American Party).

Johnson, of course, assumed the presidency when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865. He wasn't really a Republican and had only been vice president for five weeks. Lincoln's first VP, Hannibal Hamlin, was too closely associated with "Radical" Republicans seeking a punitive peace with the South. Lincoln, realizing that the Civil War was winding down, chose Johnson as sop to Southerners whom he hoped to reconcile with the Union. Johnson was a Tennessean and, as a U.S. Senator, the only major elected official within the rebellious states that refused to abide by his state's secession decision. When Tennessee was defeated, he was appointed military governor of the state. At heart, though, he was a Southern Democrat.

Neither Buchanan nor Johnson held much sympathy for African Americans. Buchanan asserted it did not matter what one thought of slavery, as it was a constitutional right. Johnson acceded to the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery but insisted upon the inherent inferiority of African Americans.

The issues they faced were dissimilar, but each was politically tone deaf. As much as one might wish politics to rest upon reason and morality, successful power brokers know which direction the political winds are blowing. That skill was lost on Buchanan and Johnson. Buchanan learned nothing from Pierce's downfall, especially in the Kansas-Nebraska Territory. He repeated his predecessor's mistake of recognizing the farcical pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution as the will of settlers rather than the imposed will of armed thugs. Buchanan wore his pro-slavery sentiments so openly that he encouraged violent opposition. Small wonder that his administration endured the trauma of Bleeding Kansas and John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Johnson badly read the potential of exploiting political divisiveness after the Civil War. He thought he could impose his will by allying himself with Northern Democrats and moderate Republicans to isolate Radical Republicans. He failed to realize that moderates disliked him more than they disliked the Radical faction, or that even many Northern Democrats thought him a closet Confederate. He had few allies when he was impeached in 1867.

Both men harbored expansionist desires. Buchanan thought Central America an ideal place to expand slavery. When it became clear that wasn't going to happen, he tried to buy Cuba. Johnson entertained war with France over its meddling in Mexico, where Napoleon III's puppet Maximilian established himself as emperor. He also sought to assert U.S. control over Wake Island. He scored one major triumph when he authorized Secretary of State William Seward to buy Alaska from Russia. At the time, though, that purchase was ridiculed as "Seward's Folly."

Both squandered opportunities to build political credit by squashing good ideas that had broad support. Buchanan vetoed both the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act. Lincoln made no such mistake and both became enormously popular with the electorate. (The Morrill Act set up land grant colleges that became the backbone of state universities.) Johnson tried to kill the Freedmen's Bureau rather than alter it, and he vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Neither of these was a particularly "radical" idea until Johnson's foolishness politicized them.

There was great sentiment to impeach Buchanan–especially when corruption charges surfaced–but proceedings never quite materialized. Johnson was impeached, though he was not convicted.

How they were different:

Call it the difference between passive and active ineptitude. Buchanan was a spineless do-nothing and Johnson a pigheaded battler. Here's a short litany of things that happened under Buchanan: Bleeding Kansas, the Panic of 1857, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown's raid, the secession of seven Southern states, and the seizure of federal property in the South. Here's what Buchanan did about them: nothing! His most aggressive action as POTUS was to send the U.S. Army to Utah Territory to do battle against the Mormons. Few people realize this, but Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy before Lincoln took office as POTUS. Another thing often overlooked is that all the federal forts in the South were seized under Buchanan's watch except Fort Sumter, SC. Buchanan sent a supply ship there, but South Carolina fired upon it and it sailed away. Guess who had to make the decision about whether or not to re-provision the fort? Thanks for nothing, JB.

Johnson would have fared better had he been half as inert as Buchanan. Instead he stubbornly interjected himself into a political fray that became his political flay. The details are complex but, in short, the Civil War's end in the spring of 1865 meant that the nation had to be rebuilt–a process known as Reconstruction. Lincoln's plans were incomplete at the time of his death and Congress was torn–and I simplify greatly here–between those who wanted quick reconciliation with the South on a forgive-and-forget basis, and those who desired to punish the South and rebuild its very foundations. The latter was the position of the "Radical" Republicans, many of whom were Lincoln Cabinet members that Johnson inherited. Had Johnson consulted Congress more or showed willingness to compromise, a political crisis might have been averted. As we've seen, though, Johnson sandbagged even moderate Reconstruction efforts with an eye toward quickly redeeming the South and returning power to the rebellious states.

A showdown was inevitable when, during the Congressional recess of 1866, Johnson unilaterally imposed his vision. Southern whites enacted a series of black codes that constricted the rights of African Americans in ways that replicated slavery in all but name. Just as galling, Southern whites returned ex-Confederates to their prewar Congressional decisions, including Georgia's election of CSA VP Alexander Stephens to his old Senate seat. Johnson's solo act and Southern intransigence succeeded in converting the Radicals from a minority to a majority faction. Johnson's plans gave way to Radical Reconstruction (1866-69), which divided the South into five occupied military zones, wrote the 14th and 15th Amendments, set down strict conditions for redeeming former-CSA states, and even stripped Johnson of the right to choose his own advisors (see Tenure of Office Act). When Johnson tried to defy Congress, the House impeached him by a 128-47 vote. He would have been removed from office, except that the Senate vote was 35-19 in favor–one short of the 2/3rd vote required under the Constitution. (That vote may have been bought!) Johnson finished his term, but remained defiant. Among his last acts as president was the decision to grant pardons to Jefferson Davis and Dr. Samuel Mudd, a physician who treated assassin John Wilkes Booth and was (perhaps) a plot accomplice.  


These two put the "rank" back into rankings. Historians currently place Andrew Johnson at # 40 and Buchanan dead last at #43. As noted, I could make a case that Pierce was worse than Buchanan, but really…. Was Johnson better than G. W. Bush or Warren G. Harding? Probably, but let's not name any public building grander than a latrine after any of them, okay?


Donald Trump Could Be Good for America

Before you start screaming “WTF?” and hurling things, hear me out. Donald Trump could be good for America if he is defeated soundly. An ease-by won’t do, but if Trump is thumped, it could pave the way for long overdue party reinventions.

Polls reveal an electorate fed up with both Republicans and Democrats, which is why the ranks of the un-enrolled is greater than those registered with either. The electorate still votes Republican or Democratic, understandable given that the United States doesn’t apportion representation as in parliamentary-style democracies. Personally I’d welcome a 21st century version of the Populists, but winner-takes-all and Big Money elections put a damper on third parties. The next bet thing is if Trump is soundly defeated and both parties are forced to rethink their respective missions.

Contrary to what Fox News and similar loonies tell you, there is lots of room for parties to expand their base—but to the left, not the right. This isn’t necessarily because Americans are becoming more liberal—though it’s probably true of younger voters, when they exercise their suffrage franchise. There's more room on the left because the USA has already shifted as far to the right as it can safely go without sliding toward fascism. Both parties are right of center these days—with “Reagan Democrats” espousing low taxation, strong defense, global capitalism, free trade, minimal regulation, and chest-thumping nationalism. To be sure, Democrats still place more emphasis on social issues, civil liberties, and diversity; Republicans speak of business, morality, and order. These “values” issues are what largely fuels passion and leaves voters susceptible to the lure of emotion-driven sound bites. But when we scratch deeply, the parties agree on quite a lot and that’s a problem. GOP memo: Ronald Reagan left office 26 years ago and it’s naïve to imagine that era’s politics as a blueprint for the future. Grab hold of this fact: since 1990, the US population has grown by seventy-five million, an increase analogous to the Baby Boom that took place between 1946 and 1964. Expect corresponding upheaval.

The road to 270
Were I Republican, I’d want Trump to lose badly so the party can jettison the evangelical and Tea Party conservatives that drag it down. Party leaders won’t say this, but economic conservatives actually run the GOP and they despise social conservatives—they’re bad for business. They rightly feel that the party’s pro-growth economic agenda plays best on the national stage. Values issues do well in local and state races when the voters are throwing hissy fits, but can you imagine someone like Paul LePage, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Michele Bachmann, Rand Paul, or Mike Lee in the White House? Of these, only Cruz is from a state (Texas) that matters. With today’s Electoral College, there are only two ways a Republican can win the White House: by winning at least a few blues states, or if the Democrats screw up.

Cartograph of where Americans actually live
Forget all those red states you see on the map. To put it bluntly, no Democratic candidate for POTUS quakes at the prospect of losing North Dakota or South Carolina—they simply don’t matter. Just five states—CA, IL, PA, NY, and PA—take you half the way to the 270 electoral votes needed. Republicans riding Tea Party waves aren’t likely to win those states. This means a Democrat can walk into the White House by winning the right combination of just 10 other states, which is easier now that population growth and immigration no longer make Florida or North Carolina reliably red, Virginia is now blue, and Democrats like Bill Clinton taught how to out-Reagan Reagan. A Republican reinvention begins with abandoning policies perceived as sexist, nativist, anti-choice, and personally intrusive. In other words, the GOP needs to disenfranchise the evangelicals Reagan courted.

The Democrats’ problem is they rely too much on math and often field very flawed candidates. Do you associate the word “excitement” with Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, or Hillary Clinton? Probably not; they as they appear to be: insider careerists. Clinton will probably win this fall’s election but if she has no coattails, will it matter? Democrats also need a makeover. Step One is to recognize that Bill Clinton’s blueprint is as outdated as Reagan’s, especially if Republicans shift gears. Republicans don’t need to go big—just a small shift makes them as “moderate” as most Democrats. 

The Democrats should heed what Bernie Sanders taught them: go progressive or go home. Democrats behave like it’s still 1972 and anyone speaking too forcefully is another George McGovern. They’d do better to recall New Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society—back when they actually knew America had a working class. Instead of acceding to the GOP’s Social Darwinian economic views, Democrats need to connect with average Americans, not just high-salaried professionals. They do terribly in poor states; the only explanation for why they can’t convince working people they won’t benefit from government by the 1% is that they’re not trying. A Democratic platform that addressed both the programs favored by professionals and the economic populism embodied in the Sanders campaign would make Democrats formidable. Merge that with ongoing appeals to immigrants and Millennials and you potentially have their most potent alliance since the New Deal coalition. The cost? Putting old warhorses out to pasture, building more of the grassroots organizations Barack Obama pioneered, and playing social class cards retired after John Edwards self-immolated.

The alternative is stasis, the likely outcome if the November election is close. A Trump victory encourages Republicans to become even more regressive; if Clinton squeezes through, Democrats will oil the same old machine. We are two and half decades into a new century. It’s time for Democrats to stop behaving like it’s the early 20th century and for Republicans to realize it’s not the late 19th. A Trump trouncing could be just the ticket.   



James Garfield vs. William Henry Harrison

James Garfield vs. William Henry Harrison:
Pairing Presidents XVI

Forty-three individuals have been POTUS (forty-four if you count Grover Cleveland twice). Scholars often rate just forty-one of them, though, as two–William Henry Harrison (March 4-April 4, 1841) and James Garfield (March 4-Spetember 19, 1881)–were in office too briefly to consider.

This makes good sense to me, so I too will refrain from ranking them.

William Henry Harrison:

The grandfather of the future 23rd POTUS, Benjamin Harrison, has the dubious distinctions of being the first Whig to be elected, of being the oldest person to take the Oval Office before Ronald Reagan, of being the first to die in office, and of serving the shortest term.

Harrison, who hailed from Indiana, walked to his inauguration on March 4, 1841. It was a rainy, raw day and he wore neither hat nor overcoat, but he harangued spectators for over two hours with what remains the longest inaugural address in history. Legend holds he contracted pneumonia from his ordeal–a folk tale, as either bacteria or (more rarely) a virus causes pneumonia. Harrison did acquire a bad cold that was probably complicated by pleurisy, an ailment from which the 68-year-old might have already been suffering. He died just one month into his term.

Two ironies come into play. First, Harrison, a war hero in both the War of 1812 and in Tecumseh's War (1810-11), would have been elected over Martin Van Buren four years earlier had not the Whig Party nominated four separate regional candidates that divided the vote and confused the electorate. Second, his election in 1840 was truly bizarre. The so-called Log Cabin campaign featured very few substantive issues, but sported a lot of pageantry and prodigious amounts of mudslinging. If you think the latter doesn't work, you're wrong—80.2% of eligible voters cast ballots.

What kind of president would he have been? In his inaugural speech Harrison pledged to restore the Bank of the United States, adopt a Henry Clay public works system known as the American Plan, and abandon the spoils system. He was probably serious about the last of these, having rebuffed a series of office seekers–including Clay!

There are those who assert he would have put the brakes on expansion of slavery into U.S. territories. This is probably wishful thinking as he lobbied for slavery in 1803, when he was governor of Indiana Territory, and argued against restrictions when he served in the U.S. House and Senate. Those arguing he changed his views base assumptions on a friendship he struck with African American George DeBaptiste, a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Harrison hired DeBaptiste as his personal valet and another legend (for which evidence is ambiguous) holds that DeBaptiste was with Harrison when he died. Most historians doubt Harrison altered his views on slavery.

Mainly the Harrison presidency reminds us that the vice presidency does matter. Maybe you recall your grammar school lesson on Harrison's campaign slogan: "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too."  Harrison's nickname, "Old Tippecanoe," came after winning a 1811 battle against Native Americans along Tippecanoe Creek. You should think more about the "Tyler Too" part. John Tyler was a Whig in name only and his racist presidency was not a shining moment in American history.

James Garfield:

James Garfield was the second president (after Lincoln) to be assassinated. He was the victim of Charles Guiteau, a man rebuffed in seeking a State Department job by Secretary of State James Blaine.

Garfield wasn't even supposed to be president. As the 1880 campaign approached, Garfield wasn't on any Republican list of preferred candidates. The Ohioan served in Congress from 1863 to 1880 and had served during the Civil War, but he had baggage. He angered party moderates by supporting the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and was also on the fringes of the Credit Mobilier scandal during the Grant administration. Although never directly implicated, those in the know felt Garfield's fingers were in the corruption pie. In 1880, though, Garfield supported GOP frontrunner, fellow Ohioan John Sherman, one of the most powerful politicians of his era. Sherman was done in by ongoing battles over patronage mentioned in earlier columns. In brief, Sherman alienated the pro-spoils system Stalwarts led by Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, who made sure Sherman was not nominated.

Garfield also opposed patronage, but exhausted Republicans finally chose the mild-mannered Garfield on the 36th ballot—probably because Conkling hoped to muscle him around to his way of thinking, as he did in forcing Garfield to accept Stalwart Chester Arthur as his running mate. The fall election was uneventful, with little difference between Garfield and Democratic candidate Winfield Scott Hancock. Garfield won the popular vote by a mere 6,000 votes, but easily won the Electoral College.

Garfield's troubles began when he took office. As it transpired, Garfield was more serious about civil service reform than Conkling had bargained. The appointment of reformer Thomas L. James as Postmaster General and Conkling's mortal enemy James Blaine as Secretary of State so infuriated Conkling and fellow New Yorker Thomas Platt that they resigned from the Senate. But this didn't end matters as office seekers badgered Garfield at every turn. One, alas, was Charles Guiteau, who was convinced Blaine rebuffed him on Garfield's command.

Garfield's effective time in office was two days short of four months; Guiteau shot him twice on July 2, 1881, surrendered, and bragged that Arthur would soon be president and restore order (by which he meant the spoils system). Garfield underwent a series of rallies and setbacks before expiring on September 19. Arthur took the Oval Office, but it was he who signed into law the Pendleton Act that began reformation of the civil service. After a failed attempt to use an insanity defense, Guiteau's days ended on the gallows 363 days after he shot Garfield.

What would a Garfield administration have portended? The only thing scholars can point to with some certainty is that he was also serious about supporting African American voting rights.

As in the case of Harrison, Garfield's time in office was too brief to rank him fairly. His death did inspire the tune "President Garfield's Hornpipe," a repertoire staple for fiddlers and devotees of the banjo and mandolin.

Rob Weir


Free Speech is More Precious Than Being PC


A Devil's Dictionary for College Campuses

Ambrose Bierce was a 19th century journalist known for his sarcastic Devil's Dictionary. Bierce didn't give a fig about what people thought when he wielded his satirical razor to slice into hypocrisy, pretense, or over-refinement.

I've been thinking about Bierce, as the wheel is turning on college Political Correctness. The University of Chicago launched the first salvo by advising this fall's students not to expect trigger warnings, ideological rigidity, or "coddling," the inference being that those who didn't want to grapple with difficult stuff should go elsewhere. Former Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, now the president of the University of California system, worries that campuses have eviscerated free speech, and quotes former UCal head Clark Kerr: "The University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas." She also quotes Thomas Jefferson: "We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." Although she's critical of the University of Chicago's "free speech Darwinism" and frets it could invite bullying, she's more frightened that, "[W]e have moved from freedom of speech on campuses to freedom from speech."

Let's imagine Bierce's take on all of this, a Devil's Dictionary for college campuses. Spoiler alert for the overly sensitive: This is satire; please Google the word. Or skip to the end to see what I really believe.

Administrator: A surrogate helicopter parent whose job is to comfort students whenever challenged by ideas more controversial than the number of keratin-based protuberances on a unicorn's forehead. They are expected to fire (immediately!) professors exercising their own rights to free speech or expressing opinions contrary to those of students.

Ageism: Discrimination against people based upon their chronological age. This term is never used by anyone under the age of 25, nor is it applicable to discrimination against those older than 40 (who are hoarding jobs). Rumor holds that the upper range will extend to 50 within the next 10 years.

America: The source of all unfairness and woe among developing nations–except in those places where America refuses to send troops because they're engaged in places where they shouldn't be.

Differently Abled: The term for an individual or class of individuals whose physical, emotional, or mental capacities are different from those of the privilege-defined mainstream. It is used even if those for whom it applies despise the term.

Free Speech: The right of faculty to utter officially sanctioned remarks. Faculty may express themselves with adjectives and colorful phrases or their choosing–as long as those words don't cause alarm among any historically oppressed groups. (See below)

Historically Oppressed Groups: Members of the college community feeling marginalized for any reason, even if the history of their oppression dates as recently as Tuesday, like a student group dedicated to saving wood-boring beetles from habitat shrinkage to due to woodpecker breeding.  

Jews: A group it's okay to dislike because Israel is so mean to Palestinians. Disliking Jews is the only form of discrimination that's okay other than America and white males. 

LGTBQLSMFT: This has something to do with sexual identity, though some of the letters might be related to a defunct cigarette ad. Who can keep up? Professors must pay close attention to this, even if they couldn't care less with whom their students are sleeping, and even though there has never been a recorded case of a professor willfully refusing to address students by any damn names they choose. One does wonder, though, if all this emphasis on sex demeans students identifying as asexual.   

Micro-Aggressions: A charge leveled against professors who say something that upsets someone not brave or smart enough to challenge it. It applies even if the professor is proven correct. Micro-aggressions are accumulated small disturbances in the Happiness Bubble and it doesn't matter if the professor was misunderstood and/or willfully misrepresented because micro-aggressions are passive-aggressive remarks uttered from privileged spaces. Professors learn of their sins by reading anonymous student evaluations written mostly by white children from the upper middle class. 

N-Word: The only acceptable way to reference racial slurs against African Americans. Students cannot even see the actual word–not even in documents from the past written by identified racists. Scientific studies–conducted under rigorous conditions in student forums–reveal that 93.47% of all students go into anaphylactic shock if exposed to the word. One should say "N-Word" instead because, as comic Louis CK revealed, no one ponders what "N-word" stands for. 

Person: Have you been living under a rock? The word "son" is embedded in this, sexist dog. Use "per," or go to hell in a specially designed container designed to carry one's possessions. 

Rule of Thumb: No! Pers insist it references an old English law allowing men to beat their wives with sticks thinner than their thumbs. You can't use this, even though no such law ever existed and it comes from brewers digitally testing the mash temperature.

Social Class: A defunct analytical category rendered useless in 1990, when the last known member of the working class became middle class. All 318.9 million Americans now belong to the middle class and enjoy equal access to wealth, property, and life chances–except when race, gender, or LGTBQLSMFT statuses are involved.

 Speech Codes: A list of things no one can comment upon because everyone is supposed to pretend they don't see them, like a per's appearance or what a per is wearing–even if it's a shirt that says: "HEY!!!! Look at What I'm Wearing!!!!!"

Trigger Warnings: Advising students there might be something objectionable or unsettling in the material they are about to study. They come with permission to opt out. Given that pretty much everything taught in college is challenging, some schools allow students to stay home. Diplomas are mailed upon receipt of four years' worth of tuition payments.   

White Males: A synonym for privilege, wealth, and those who cause mist of the world's woes. It is assumed that all white males enjoy this hegemony because that's way easier than unveiling the identities of the 1% who actually do. Besides, there is no social class (see above).  


Did some of this offend you? Good! Noam Chomsky observed, “ [Even] Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.” Got it?

What I Really Think:

1.    No code can protect against incivility. Bigots are always one step ahead.
2.    Codes are the refuge of those too lazy to fight for social justice.
3.    Those who cannot distinguish content from context shouldn't be in college.
4.    College is not a place to get comfortable. Ideas exist to unsettle, challenge, and help clarify what we really think about the world.
5.    That the antidote to hate speech is free speech.
6.    Before slapping a label on others, take a hard look at your own labeling.
7.    Stupidity and foolishness are found across all of society. Also wisdom and kindness.
8.    No one has a monopoly on oppression, or a license to oppress others in the name of one's own oppression.
9.    We'd be better off if we laughed at ourselves more.
10.  The National Park System has been called America's "best idea," but I think it's free speech.


Eight Days a Week a Ron Howard Masterpiece

Directed by Ron Howard
Abramorama/Hulu (97minutes—127* mins. with concert footage; Not Rated)

Think you know everything about The Beatles? Even if you actually do, see Ron Howard's stunning documentary spotlighting the band's touring years from 1962 to 1966. This film deserves to be ranked among the greatest music documentaries of all time, and it might be the best film Ron Howard has yet made.

Howard has made some decent films, but he can be like Ken Burns when he's more gee whiz than that's how it is. Not this time. The documentary's unstated theme is an affirmation of William Wadsworth Longfellow's dictum, "whom the gods would destroy they first make mad." Few filmmakers have before captured mass hysteria as well as Howard. His is a veritable Day of the Locust populated by swooning teens, paparazzi, clueless adults, and calculating music industry titans. It comes to us on–breathe slowly, graying friends–the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' last official concert.

Howard mines a familiar tale, but as the Brits say, it's what he's done with it. Howard assumes his audience will know a lot about the band's rise from the slums of Liverpool to Berlin to the top of the pop charts. For that reason, he chooses to mess with chronology. The film actually opens in 1963, and then flashes back or springs forward depending upon the threads he wishes to tease out. In this Howard accomplishes a delicate balancing act–he imposes structure on chaos. Once we get the idea that The Beatles were as much an out-of-control phenomenon as a highly polished musical act, Howard lulls us back to a more conventional narrative. There are, though, a few surprising insights, beginning with the fact that our four Liverpudlians were very ambitious–none more so than John Lennon. A few others emerge. Ringo Starr is sometimes maligned, but all three of his mates viewed him as the reason the band gelled. Perhaps the biggest revelation is that, without ever making an overt comment, Howard lays to rest the hoary myth that some sort of rift between Paul and John did in The Beatles. For three magic years (1962-65) the band could do no wrong: albums and hit singles flowed like wine, concert crowds swelled, and the money poured in. It's imprecise to say that hubris took over, given how successful and beloved The Beatles became, but the hidden costs of fame certainly exacted a toll. We watch four very close friends go from carefree to world-weary before our eyes. Or should I say their eyes? Their fresh faces, Edwardian sheen, and sparkling gazes gave way to worried brows, grungy appearances, and eye bags. Forget all those Yoko Ono the Destroyer stories; The Beatles unleashed a pop culture tidal wave that had to crest and crash.

George Harrison was the first to burn out, stating in 1965 that touring simply wasn't any fun any more. There is a marked contrast between the first Ed Sullivan Show appearance in February of 1964 and the 1965 Shea Stadium concert (which youthful Whoppi Goldberg attended). At Shea, the boys are like deer in the headlights. Ringo relates that they had no monitors and that the crowd was screaming so loudly that they couldn't hear each other and Starr kept the beat by watching the movements of John's rear end. No one else heard very well either. Shea was the first stadium rock concert and amps and mics were simply pumped into the stadium PA system! The sound editing for this film is terrific, however–you'll hear concert footage in your theater seat far better than anyone in the day could. But the overall craziness of the touring years was such that you wonder why The Beatles went on the road for as long as they did. Short answer: By 1965 they were no longer just as band; The Beatles were a commodity with as many shares in the hands of others as their own. And then they stopped. Aside from the famed 1969 appearance on Apple Corps' rooftop, The Beatles appeared only in studios–where they made some of the finest music Western society has ever produced.

Any movie that tells a story we already know and keeps us enthralled is a great film. If Paul Crowder doesn't win an Oscar for editing, the Academy should be collectively arrested for theft. He and Howard deftly patch archival footage, stills, interviews, and subtle animation in stunning ways. Watch carefully for moving smoke in several stills, and pay very close attention when the cacophonous opening of "A Day in the Life" starts, as it's the build up to a truly inspired piece of editing. 

This film will make Baby Boomers feel young again and might make Millennials suspect they missed something really special. They did! Pay no attention to snobby revisionists who whine that The Beatles didn't matter or that they were overrated. Howard's film drives home the depth of their mastery and impact. It also provides amazing insights into pop culture, who controls it, and what happens when nobody does. Oh yeah—think about the movie/song title after you see the film. Just make sure you do.  

Rob Weir

* The documentary is 97 minutes, but watch the credits. When I do an interview, I seldom get more complex than asking, "Is it okay if I tape this?" Count how many people were needed to do Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr interviews that are just talking heads, and ponder whether stars control their own destinies. After the credits roll, watch the 30-minute edited version of the 1965 Shea Stadium concert.   


Benjamin Harrison vs. Rutherford B. Hayes: Pairing Presidents XV

Benjamin Harrison versus Rutherford B. Hayes:
Pairing Presidents XV

Tallulah Bankhead (1902-68) is credited with quipping, “There’s less to him than meets the eye.” That witticism is tailor-made for Benjamin Harrison (1889-93) and Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81), two terrible presidents.

Full disclosure: I am a long time member of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE), headquartered at the Rutherford B. Hayes Center in Ohio. But no conflict of interest—Hayes gets no love from me!

How they are similar:

Both talked a better game on matters of race than they played. Both were Republicans, but neither did Abe Lincoln proud. Hayes came to the White House after the crooked election of 1876. There is no way to parse this: Hayes’s operatives flat-out stole twenty electoral votes (FL, SC, LA) even though his Democratic opponent Samuel J. Tilden easily won the popular vote.  The election was so crooked it made the 2000 Bush-Gore nightmare look like a model of democracy. Bribe money flowed through Congress like the fetid waters of a backed-up toilet. The only mediating factor was that Democrats also tried to buy the election; they just weren’t as good at it. Still, Hayes went to bed on election night thinking he had lost and recorded in his diary that he didn’t mind losing, though he felt badly for the “poor colored citizens” who would suffer under a Democratic presidency.

Hayes’s remorse didn’t last long. Once the fix was in, he signed off on the Compromise of 1877 in which Democrats agreed to allow Hayes to occupy the White House if Hayes removed all federal troops from the former Confederacy. This marked the official end of Reconstruction and the final triumph of Jim Crow segregation and second-class citizenship for African Americans. Hayes is the president who abandoned federal commitment to racial justice, the prevailing practice for the next 75years. Hayes wasn’t very good re: Native Americans either. Numerous tribes were dispossessed and forced onto reservations. Most infamously, Hayes authorized pursuit of the Nez Perce tribe led by Chief Joseph as he sought to remove his people to Canada. Their flight was stopped just short of safety, and Joseph’s surrender speech now stands as a metaphor for the tragedy that befell most Great Plains tribes. There are only two bright spots in Hayes’s racial record. He did veto the Chinese Exclusion Act when it came across his desk in 1879. Alas, his veto simply encouraged anti-Chinese hysteria, including attacks on Asians, and Congress passed it anew in 1882, after Hayes was out of office. His most outstanding achievement was the appointment of John Marshall Harlan to the SCOTUS; in 1896, Justice Harlan was the only court member to vote against the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision on segregation. 


The majority decision was written by Justice Henry Billings Brown, who was appointed by Harrison, and that tells you all you need to know about the depth of his commitment to civil rights. Harrison always claimed to be in favor of improving life for African Americans and even gave oral support to what would have been a 19th century version of the Voting Rights Act and another advancing black education. Both bills would have required a much stronger president than Harrison to get them out of Congress. You can imagine the fate of his proposed Constitutional amendment that would have overturned the SCOTUS 1883 decision that declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. Harrison didn’t even bother when it came to Indian policy. The Ghost dances and the massacre of Wounded Knee occurred on his watch. He also tried to annex Hawaii, but it was left undone when he left office in 1893, and Grover Cleveland quashed the effort. (William McKinley revived it.) 

Both men were pro-business and anti-labor. Hayes rightly earned the ire of wage earners. He was (probably) the first president to use the U.S. military to crush a labor strike, which he did during the nationwide Great Railroad Strike of 1877. There was very little violence until Hayes kowtowed to railroad robber barons and sent troops against workers. His craven act led to the deaths of more than a hundred workers. Enraged workers retaliated with acts of sabotage that led to the loss of untold millions of dollars. Worse, Hayes set the precedent that the federal government was no longer an impartial party in capital/labor disputes. Organized capital came to demand that action be taken to smash strikes. This made U.S. labor history the bloodiest of any Western industrial democracy.

Harrison was nearly as bad. The 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act was passed to curtail business monopolies; the Harrison administration seldom found business interests to be illegal restraints of trade, but it did apply tortured logic to crack down on labor unions. This established a precedent not fully overturned until the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. It also undid many of the workplace and ballot box gains made during the 1885-86 Great Upheaval. The Knights of Labor, the nation's largest labor federation, was reduced to near impotency courtesy of Harrison. Several very bad strikes nonetheless took place, including the 1890 New York Central strike and the 1892 Homestead Steel strike.

Neither president was much kinder to farmers. Hayes's decision to crush the 1877 railroad strike left intact the very industrial juggernaut that most repressed farmers. Moreover, his veto of the Bland-Allison Act kept the U.S. firmly on the gold standard instead of adopting bimetallism, which would have made it much easier for farmers to pay off their debts. Ironically, the bill would have also softened many of the monetary problems that plagued Harrison and Cleveland and contributed to the Panic of 1893. His signature on the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was too little, too late and hastened the onset of depression.

Harrison's high import taxes (McKinley Tariff) hurt export-minded farmers. He also did very little to combat a ban on U.S. pork (shades of a contemporary problem!), which was (falsely) thought to be unsafe. The allegation of the time–largely correct–was that GOP Congressmen personally benefitted from Harrison's pro-business/high tariff policies, and the House of Representatives– dubbed the Billion Dollar Congress–reverted to Democratic control in 1890. Harrison's presidency was the final straw that led to the formation of a national People's Party ("Populists") in 1892, one far more sympathetic to laborers and farmers.

Both men struggled with foreign policy, especially in Latin America. Hayes invoked the Monroe Doctrine to discourage French canal plans in Panama  (then part of Venezuela). He also authorized U. S. troops to enter Mexico in pursuit of bandito border raiders. On a positive note, he marshaled a diplomatic settlement of a war between Paraguay and Argentina.

Harrison nearly went to war with Chile when simmering disputes led to the deaths of two U.S. sailors of shore leave. His administration also endured tense relations with Canada over fishing rights off the coast of Alaska's Aleutian Islands and with Germany over Samoa. He also struggled (and often failed) to develop reciprocity treaties with European powers to counter the effects of his high tariffs.

How they were different:

Although both claimed to be in favor of civil service reform, Hayes tried to do more about it. He battled a GOP patronage faction (Stalwarts) led by Roscoe Conkling, who usually got the better of Hayes, but Hayes did succeed in removing several notorious grafters. Ironically, one was Chester Arthur, who later enacted important reforms. Hayes also fired Postmaster-General Thomas J. Brady, though he was exonerated of corruption charges. Harrison cooperated with the spoils system, though this led the Billion Dollar Congress to lose power, ushered in gridlock, and ended what little effectiveness Harrison had. Nor did it escape notice that the six new states admitted under Harrison (ND, SD, MN, ID, WY, WA) benefitted the GOP and provided patronage opportunities.

Harrison was more environmentally conscious and his longest lasting achievement was the Land Revision Act of 1891, which allowed the federal government to add abandoned lands to the public domain.

Harrison gave the pensions to disabled vets that Cleveland had been loath to grant.

Hayes is a minor folk hero among term limit advocates for keeping his pre-election promise that he would not run for a second term. 

Do you care that Harrison's was the first presidential voice ever recorded (wax cylinder)? Didn't think so.


Oddly, Hayes is currently ranked slightly higher (#25) than Harrison (#29). Sorry, SHGAPE folks, but Hayes is among our absolute worst presidents. One need look no further than the impact of ending Reconstruction and his assault on working people to see his as a presidency with long-term negative effects. In my mind, presidents whose actions have negative repercussions deserve to be ranked lower than those who are merely inept. Dump Hayes to the lower tier.

Harrison might have been better if he had more spine than a Teddy bear fashioned from Jell-O, but he didn't. Tallulah Bankhead's words resonate when I think of either man.

Rob Weir