Everybody's Fool: Richard Russo Never Disappoints

Richard Russo
Knopf, 477 pages

Here's a wile away mental game. Who is on your list of writers of whom you have read at least six of their novels? Aside from a handful of mystery scribblers, my list is short: Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, E. L. Doctorow, Thomas Hardy, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, and Richard Russo. Only Russo holds the distinction of having never disappointed me. Everybody's Fool kept his record intact. It grabbed me on page one and never relented. That statement is more profound than it seems on the surface, given that Everybody's Fool opens with a long description of/reflection upon the town cemetery! It sets the tone magnificently for the pages that follow–a skillful blend of droll humor, poignant moments, frolicsome hijinks, heartbreaking misconnections, and hopefulness rolled into one sprawling tale.

It's the sequel to Nobody's Fool, but Russo can't be accused of rashly jumping on the Second Act Bandwagon–it's been 23 years since part one. Russo returns to North Bath, New York, to update members of that memorable cast of characters that he hasn't planted in the local cemetery. If you recall Nobody's Fool (or the movie version of it) you'll remember that police officer Doug Raymer foolishly fired upon the book's crusty protagonist, Donald "Sully" Sullivan, a reckless act that led Sully to deck Raymer. Sully is now 70-years-old, sporting a wrecked knee and a bad ticker that could send him to perpetual rest at any moment. He's still the crankiest character since Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, but Everybody's Fool centers more on Raymer, elevated to North Bath police chief.

Locals mostly tolerate Raymer, though few respect him, but they're not accustomed to expecting much. North Bath—widely thought to be modeled on Ballston Spa–is where shit happens, both metaphorically and literally. How unlike its immediate neighbor, Schuyler Springs (Saratoga), with its artsy college, trendy cafes, soaring real estate market, and well-heeled citizenry. Raymer's life parallels that of his town, a place where dreams turn to schemes and fail miserably. Raymer lives alone in a seedy apartment complex, his wife having died in a fall as she was on her way down the stairs to leave him. All Doug has to soothe his hurt is a garage door opener that might be that of her unknown lover. Does Doug want to know who it is? Of course, despite the counsel of his assistant, an attractive and smart black woman named Charice, who often seems like she's coming on to Raymer. If only Doug could be as suave and smooth as her twin brother, Jerome—who, naturally, lives and works in Schuyler.

Sully still holds court at local dinners and bars where locals kvetch about how unfair it is that everything seems to go right in Schuyler, but their litanies have an air of resignation. It's a survivor's game in North Bath—quite different than a thriver's game. Reviewers have been too quick to assume that Raymer is the titular character. In my reading, Russo intends us to muse upon that question, as well as contemplate what constitutes a fool. Raymer has his woes, but he's not alone. Jerome isn't as cool as he seems; Sully's former lover, Ruth, wonders why she's still waitressing and why she's still married to Ralph, a seeming jobless loser supreme who spends his time scavenging every bit of detritus until their home resembles a salvage yard on steroids. But is either a bigger fool than their airhead daughter Janey, who has been inexplicably nice to her ex-husband Roy, just out the penitentiary for a series of burglaries and for breaking Janey's jaw? Is Roy a fool for thinking he has turned his life around, or still a petty con man with a penchant for violence?  

Other "fool" candidates include Sully's old friend/nemesis contractor Carl Roebuck, now divorced, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, reduced to renting a room in the house Sully inherited from his former teacher Beryl Peoples, and, recovering from prostate surgery that has left him impotent. Indeed, wouldn't only a fool worry more about his lost erection than the prospect of losing his company?  Or maybe the fool is Sully's hangdog hanger-on friend Rub—he of little brain and fewer prospects. Or maybe it's Sully himself, unexpectedly flush for life thanks to Beryl, but with as much aptitude for living away from life's margins as a kangaroo has for ballet. 

Mix this cast of goofballs, goons, malcontents, lovable losers, and disreputable reprobates together with some malapropisms, wisecracks, and bizarre situations. Toss in plot twists that involve dollops of every social problem in the book, including dealers of illegal exotic reptiles, and you've got one heck of a story. Parts of it are highly improbable and, on occasion, North Bath feels so desperate that it's painful to contemplate, but Russo's greatest escape act is to pull us back from the edge through controlled releases of hilarity and hope. There is no current writer who gets the vibe, the rhythms, and the essence of blue-collar life like Richard Russo. Like I said, he has never disappointed me. I ripped through this book faster than Sully could dream up barroom ripostes.

Rob Weir


Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson: Eggheads in the Oval Office

Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson:
Pairing Presidents XIII

Do smarts and ideals matter? Let’s compare brainiacs Thomas Jefferson (1801-09) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-21).

How they were similar:

Jefferson’s intellectual interests were so broad that he was akin to a younger, more Southern version of Benjamin Franklin. TJ was a leading political theorist of his day, one who could defend the ideals of democracy at a time in which many European intellectuals equated it with anarchy. Jefferson, of course, was the key author of the Declaration of Independence and a major figure during the American Revolution. Jefferson’s mind gravitated to many other subjects: architecture, philosophy, agrarianism, language, and religion. Jefferson believed fervently in separation of church and state and was deeply suspicious of all organized religion. Opponents called him an atheist, but it’s probably more accurate to call him an agnostic freethinker.

Wilson was no slouch in grey matter matters. He earned an undergraduate degree from Princeton and studied law at the University of Virginia, which was founded by none other than Jefferson. He also attended seminary and obtained a Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins. Among other interests were: rhetoric, political science, law, public administration, and German. Before he entered politics, Wilson taught at Cornell, Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and the New York School of Law. He also served as president of Princeton.

As sometimes befits eggheads, neither man had warm personalities. They did, however, get along with political and ideological rivals when necessary. Jefferson famously had an on/off/on friendship with John Adams, with whom he had very few political agreements. Jefferson probably should have been the second president, not Adams, but the Electoral College controversially pulled one electoral vote from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia to secure Adams’ 71-68 victory in 1796. Under the pre-12th Amendment Constitution, Jefferson became Adams’ vice president and served him well, though Jefferson vehemently disagreed with the Alien and Sedition Acts and Adams’ anti-French policies. He did, however, assure that future presidents got their own VP choices; the 12th Amendment was ratified in 1803!

Wilson was a dour man, but he maintained cordial relations with Theodore Roosevelt during the 1912 campaign. Although he was a Democrat, Wilson’s domestic policies were a continuation of Republican TR's Progressive Era reforms, as was his bellicose foreign policy.

One of the outstanding features of both men was their ability to act upon ideals they felt benefitted the nation rather than hewing to strict party platforms. Jefferson had been an Anti-Federalist after the American Revolution and a states’ rights advocate during the Election of 1800. As president, though, he did more to advance the power of federal government than any president of his era. There was nothing in the U.S. Constitution authorizing a president to buy land, but TJ’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States. It also took place over the howling protests of Federalist opponents. Less controversial, but also an expansion of presidential power, was Jefferson’s authorization of the 1806 Lewis and Clark expedition to survey the new lands—and used public funds to finance it. Much more controversially, when war erupted between Napoleon and Britain, Jefferson put aside his pro-French sentiments and enacted the Embargo Act of 1807, which forbade U.S. trade with either nation. Jefferson did so though he had opposed President Washington’s Jay Treaty, and with the full knowledge that an embargo would be horrible for U.S. trade. Jefferson did not feel the United States—just 24-years-old—was in any position to fight another war against Britain. He pushed embargo even though it was probable it would encourage the development of American manufacturing, which contradicted his agrarian belief that the U.S. should never develop a factory system. (He was correct in his fear.) He even inadvertently undermined states’ rights ideals by challenging Adams’ midnight appointments. The 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision established the Supreme Court’s right of judicial review, in essence declaring the SCOTUS as more powerful than any state governmental body.

Wilson transformed the Democratic Party by moving it further from its Jeffersonian agrarian roots. He was the first Southern-born president (VA) since Zachary Taylor in 1848 and the only Democrat other than Grover Cleveland to occupy the White House since James Buchanan (1857-61), but he did not cater to the Democrats’ rural Southern and Midwestern base. He did enact several bills favorable to farmers—the 1913 Underwood tariff lowered rates and helped farm exports, federal farm mortgages made property easier to secure, and the 1914 Smith-Lever Act set up farm extension services—but one does not associate the Wilson administration with farm policy. As a Progressive Era reformer, he continued the aggressive antitrust activity of his GOP predecessors, though his 1914 Federal Trade Commission Act moved those battles out of the courtroom and into the hands of executive branch’s FCC. Of all Progressive Era reforms, a good case could be made that the greatest was the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, which stabilized U.S. currency, regulated interest rates, and revolutionized the banking industry.

Jefferson and Wilson were horrible on race relations. Jefferson was a product of his time, but he invites today’s students to brand him a hypocrite because his stated opposition to slavery was so out of accord with his actions. He held several hundred slaves and emancipated only a few—almost all of whom were members of the Hemings family. Ignore all arguments to the contrary—Jefferson fathered at least one child to Sally Hemings, his slave. If it helps, Jefferson was a widower and the relationship appears to have been consensual/affectionate. But TJ practically invented the "I-hate-slavery-but-what-can-you-do?" dodge. He was a little better on Indian policy, though it too raises suspicion that Jefferson was a white supremacist at heart. As governor of Virginia, he supported relocation of tribes such as the Cherokee, Creeks, and Shawnee; as POTUS, he opposed it and hoped instead that those tribes would be “civilized” and assimilated. (That happened, but it wouldn’t prevent Andrew Jackson from expelling them.)

Wilson was an open racist—so much so that those writing counterfactual history theorize he would have been a future Confederate States president had the South won the Civil War. Wilson touted his beliefs in segregation and made sure his administration rigidly adhered to that ideal. Although it is true that segregation was legal during the time, Wilson was untroubled by racist groups such as the reborn Ku Klux Klan. He also allowed to stand—over anguished diplomatic protests from abroad—a California law banning Japanese immigration. He did, however, sign the Jones Act, which made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens.

Jefferson and Wilson each led the nation into questionable wars. Jefferson actually oversaw the first US adventure abroad, with his war declaration in the First Barbary War (1801-05). It was a sordid affair over piracy involving three northern African semi-states nominally controlled by the Ottoman Empire. U.S. merchant trade suffered and America endured its first hostage crisis. It ended in a quasi American victory in which American sailors were released, but only after a $60,000 ransom was paid. Jefferson hated the settlement and blamed diplomat Tobias Lear for sabotaging negotiations that left a usurper in charge in Tripoli (instead of his deposed brother). Piracy continued, which made the war look very bad in retrospect.

Wilson famously campaigned for reelection in 1916 under the slogan: “He kept us out of war.” That war is now labeled World War One and his pledge lasted only until April of 1917—a month after Wilson’s second inauguration—when a combination of German meddling in Mexico (see Zimmerman Telegram), and Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare led a declaration of war. Europeans had battled since 1914 (since 1910 in parts of the Balkans) and although Russia underwent the Bolshevik Revolution and sued for a separate peace, US involvement tipped the balance. American intervention was relatively brief, but over 116,000 GIs lost their lives, and the domestic toll was greater. Dissent was smothered by the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1918 Sedition Act, whose titles betray their effect of suspending the Bill of Rights. Other ill effects included a postwar Red Scare that justified attacks on labor unions and reformers of all sorts, and an influenza epidemic that killed over 650,000 Americans. Wilson was also a war casualty. He traveled to Versailles carrying his famed 14 Points that promised the recent conflict would be “the war to end all wars” and “make the world safe for democracy.” His plans were so eviscerated that Congress refused to ratify the peace treaty. Wilson sought to salvage the only point adopted—the creation of a League of Nations to resolve future conflict—but suffered a stroke in September of 1919 (possibly a follow-up to a suspected 1906 mishap) that left him an invalid for the remainder of his term and his global dreams in tatters.

How they differed:

Your first female president!
The times were very different, but Wilson had a higher view of women. He supported women’s suffrage, which was enacted by the 19th Amendment in 1920. Wilson also put the first woman into the presidency—no matter what happens with Hillary Clinton in November. The widowed Wilson remarried in 1915, and his second wife, Edith Galt Wilson, ran the White House from September 1919 to March 1921.

Wilson was also in office when Prohibition was enacted by the 18th Amendment. Both the 18th and 19th amendments would have been unthinkable In Jefferson’s day. Wilson had nothing to do with Prohibition, but he was very religious—a serious Presbyterian, many of whom were active in the crusade against alcohol. Jefferson, as noted, was a religious skeptic.

Wilson was the first president to deliver his own inaugural address since the practice was ended--by Thomas Jefferson!

Wilson was prone to imperialist ideals. He committed troops to Europe, and also sent them to Haiti (1913), the Dominican Republic (1916), Cuba (1917), and Panama (1919). In what is now seen as a trial run for WW I, he intervened in the Mexican Revolution and sent General John Pershing deep into Mexican territory in pursuit of bandito Pancho Villa. He also placed troops on the US/Mexico border—the first president to arm that border. Jefferson, despite the Barbary War, largely sought to avoid armed conflict.   

Historical Rankings:

Jefferson's slaveholding hypocrisy and Wilson's overt racism so trouble today's Political Correctness crowd that many want their names removed from public life and institutions. Although I share their abhorrence for racism, a get-over-yourself message is in order. Jefferson and Wilson had tremendous blind spots, but overall were simply too important to dismiss. If ever there is justification for hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner, it’s here. Being brilliant and being perfect don’t go together, but both men deserve credit for their idealism—even when it proved na├»ve. More importantly, each deserves admiration for subordinating some of their personal ideals for the greater national interest.

Scholars rank Jefferson as our 4th greatest president and Wilson as 7th. One could quibble a little bit, but radical reevaluation betrays contemporary judgment, not historical significance or the rationalism that both Jefferson and Wilson valued. Being smart doesn’t necessarily make a great POTUS, but it seems to correlate better than being dim.

Rob Weir   


Theo Bikel Retrospective Takes us Back to the Folk Revival

While I’m Here
Red House 286

Theo Bikel’s While I’m Here is a magical trip down Memory Lane. If this name rings no bells, your cultural/musical education contains a gap that this double-CD can bridge. Bikel (1924-2015) was a seminal figure in the middle period of the Folk Revival (1947-1965).

Bikel was born in Vienna, fled to Palestine during the Nazi years, moved to London to become an actor, immigrated to the United States in 1954, and became a citizen in 1961. His contributions to the Folk Revival notwithstanding, he was even better known for his acting chops. How many folk singers do you know that have been nominated for Academy Awards and Tony Awards, served as president of Actors’ Equity, and played Worf’s father on Star Trek? His is the record-holder for portraying Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof), and the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music was invented for Bikel to display his vocal prowess. Ever hear the song “Edelweiss?” Of course you have; it was penned by Oscar Hammerstein especially for Bikel

If it strikes you as odd that Bikel also picked up an acoustic guitar and sang at folk clubs, another short history lesson. During the Folk Revival, stories were as important as the songs, and no music devotee dreamt of yelling out, “Shut up and sing!” Who better than an actor to spin good yarns? To mention a few others who went a similar route, Alan Arkin was one-third of The Tarriers, who had several best-selling records; and most of The Clancy Brothers hit the boards before they hit the charts.  (Contemporary actors such as Steve Martin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Creed Bratton, and Kevin Bacon tread in these footsteps in reverse, and tons of actors rock or rap.)

Bikel hit the USA at time during the Folk Revival when Americans were discovering the world: Alan Lomax trotted across the planet to record international folk music, Pete Seeger whistled both traditional and revolutionary Chinese ditties, and country singers discovered that “Appalachian” music had English or Scottish roots. Bikel fit in well—he was the genuine article, a Jew with an inherited trove of Yiddish and Hebrew songs, facility with 21 languages, and a born shanachie. The first CD of While I’m Here is entirely storytelling—most of it autobiographical in content but spellbinding in nature. Imagine a Yiddish Garrison Keillor and you begin to conjure the worlds Bikel recreates. One could teach an awful lot of immigration history through Bikel’s words—especially the lure of America in the post-World War Two years.

Some listeners may find Bikel’s songs too mannered. This too was common during the Folk Revival, with Bikel fitting the mold of other “stagey” singers such as John Jacob Niles. He was not a songwriter; Bikel interpreted the compositions of others, including the album’s title track, penned by Phil Ochs. One of his signature songs, “The Lady isWaiting,” came from Paul Williams, and Bikel wasn’t particular about original sources, as long as he liked the song. Another favorite was “Pourquoi Je Chante,” from Egyptian-French-Italian-Greek composer Giuseppe Mustacchi. Bikel also fashioned sets that contained Yiddish songs, contemporary international folk, and show tunes. He cofounded the Newport Folk Festival (1959) and inspired such next-wave Folk Revivalists as Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow, and some guy named Dylan, as well as Jac Holzman, who went on to produce everyone from The Doors to The Stooges.

Bikel belonged to the generation of folkies defiant of the 1950s Red Scare and 1960s reactionaries. He was an unapologetic Zionist and remained an activist even when it passed from fashion (which is more than can be said of Dylan). The second CD opens with “Wasn’t That a Mighty Day?” which Bikel reworked to protest the ill treatment of Hurricane Katrina survivors. Bikel was a lifelong civil rights activist; hence the collection also contains “Oh Freedom.”

In brief, Theo Bikel was an important figure—an icon of artistic achievement, creativity force, and humanitarianism. Bikel passed last year, but continues to inspire folks such as Cathy Fink, who co-produced this retrospective, and Judy Collins, who wrote a loving tribute. If you already know about Bikel, spread the word; if not, time to complete your education, friend.

Rob Weir

PS: I’d recommend buying the CD, not a download, because the 24-page liner booklet is an education in its own right. 

You can sample some of his Israeli songs here.


Warren G. Harding and Millard Fillmore: Fools in the Oval Office

Warren G. Harding and Millard Fillmore:
Pairing Presidents XII

Call this one "Where Fools Dared Tread." The word fool connotes a person prone to consistent silly, imprudent, unwise, and/or rash behavior and it's tailor made for Warren G. Harding (1921-23) and Millard Fillmore (1850-53), two of the biggest idiots ever to disgrace the Oval Office. What about George H. W. Bush, you ask? His foolishness is legendary, but we actually associate Bush with several actions–as dumb as they might have been. Quick: Name one thing either Harding or Fillmore ever did. Thought so! Fillmore is so non-noteworthy that the only list he routinely tops is America's "most obscure" president!

How they are similar:

Neither was a Mensa candidate. Fillmore was poorly educated, though he was probably more intelligent than Harding, a man who reached his intellectual limits when he was an insurance salesman. I mean no disrespect to insurance agents—another measure of foolishness is being coerced into doing things that are beyond you, which pretty much sums up Harding's political career–from Ohio state senator to POTUS. He did contribute to the mangling of the English language, promising a return to normalcy if elected president. There was, at the time, no such word; he meant "normality."

Fillmore's fool act begins with his paranoid beliefs. He believed in conspiracy theories. As a young man he feared Freemasons, whom he believed were a secret cabal plotting to take over America. Then it was Catholics, and after his presidency it was immigrants. The latter, by the way, troubled him at a time in which the consensus view was that America needed more immigrants to settle lands taken from Natives and to work in expanding factories. Fillmore's final run for president, in 1856, was as the Know Nothing candidate. Some would say that was apt.

Harding held a conspiracy theory view toward labor unions and his administration made liberal use of court injunctions to get around the 1914 Clayton Act. The 1932 Norris-La Guardia Act would subsequently outlaw these blanket injunctions. He was also the first president to conclude that World War One vets didn't deserve early bonuses; in fact, he wasn't sure they deserved any payment at all even though the U.S. economy was still reeling from the war and vets could have used a lift. Harding vetoed the War Adjusted Compensation Act, though Congress overrode his veto. (Calvin Coolidge also refused early bonuses, as did Herbert Hoover, with disastrous results when the 1932 Bonus March ended in bloodshed and death.)  

Another definition of a fool is a person who is given information and fails to act upon it–especially when that person claims to know better! Fillmore was vile on the issue of slavery. He took the faithless fool's path of saying one thing and then doing another. He claimed he was opposed to the annexation of Texas as a slave state, but that the Constitution prevented him from doing anything about it. Really? It didn't prevent the man he succeeded, Zachary Taylor, from keeping a slave-owning Texas out of the Union. He also voted "no" on the issue when he was in Congress. He said the opposed expansion of slavery into territory taken in the Mexican War, but then sent troops to New Mexico Territory to dissuade Northern Whigs from enacting the Wilmot Proviso, which would have done exactly that. Although the Compromise of 1850 began to take shape during Taylor's brief time in office, guess whose signature is on the Fugitive Slave Act? Fillmore disapproved of Southern filibusterers (adventurers seeking to expand slavery into Latin American nations via personal conquest). Any actions taken to prevent this? Of course not! Need further proof of his passive aggressive racism? In 1864–during the Civil War–Fillmore supported George B. McClellan against Lincoln. (If there was a more inept fool than McClellan in all of North America, I don't know who it would be.) Fillmore's final waffle: he said he was against secession, but later favored Andrew Johnson's doomed Reconstruction plan, which would healed almost none of the problems that led to war.

Maybe Harding was simply too oblivious to see anything, maybe he chose to look away, or maybe he was too drunk to see things clearly, but officials in his administration stole everything that wasn't nailed down and a few things that were—like government-owned oil reserves. The Teapot Dome scandal is the most horrendous theft of his administration, but there were many others. Harding's Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall has the dubious distinction of being the first Cabinet officer to go to jail. Harding flexed his full fool tools when appointing executive branch officials. He either rubber- stamped hacks suggested by GOP operatives, or appointed drinking and card-playing buddies. He had four SCOTUS nominees, but don't look for any of them among the court's brightest lights, though William Howard Taft is the only man to go from POTUS to SCOTUS. His Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes and his Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover hated each other and engaged in constant power plays that bogged down decision-making. Bet you can predict what Harding did about this. 

Neither president did much re: the economy except let it roll merrily along. Harding enacted typical GOP tax cuts that had little effect beyond pocket lining. His tariff policy was deemed only slightly less foolish than pressing bankrupt postwar European nations to pay back their loans. (They couldn't. They didn't.)

There are no great foreign policy initiatives in either administration. Fillmore made a few Monroe Doctrine warnings to Europeans re: Latin America and told France to back away from Hawaii but luckily he didn't have to back up his bluster. About all that is remembered of foreign policy is that he did not give his support to Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth, though his cause was popular in the United States. This scant output exceed the "accomplishments" of the Harding administration. Harding campaigned against the idealism of Woodrow Wilson and, to the degree he had a foreign policy, Harding titled toward isolationism.

Both men were plagued by personal demons and quirks. Fillmore was said to be unnaturally attracted to spiritualism and his niece was a medium. As we have seen, he was also prone to conspiracy theories. Harding was a heavy drinker, a glad-hander, a party boy, and a womanizer. He fathered a child to his mistress Nan Britton while in the White House, but Ms. Britton was not his sole extramarital conquest. It was said that Harding's interests were, in order: poker, women, and booze. Re: the last of these, we should note that Prohibition was passed the year before Harding won the presidency, so let's add a shot of hypocrisy to his list of sins.

How they were different:

Mediocrity of this magnitude is a great leveler, so the differences were largely a matter of time and degree. Both men were disasters, with Fillmore presaging the Civil War and Harding the Great Depression. They were so bad that even the trivia surrounding them is mostly wrong. Fillmore was not the first president to have a bathtub installed in the White House and Harding's wife did not poison him.

Harding's one unexpected act was that he commuted the jail sentence of socialist Eugene Debs. Fillmore probably would have only thought about doing so!


A scholar I know and respect has written a work in which he seeks to exonerate Fillmore. Sorry, but this was wasted effort. The only way Fillmore looks good is to compare him to three of the next four presidents" Franklin Pierce (see George H. W. Bush), James Buchanan (Jamie the Vile), Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson. Scholars currently rank him 38th and I doubt anyone could write a book that successfully elevates him.

Harding's major accomplishment was that he died in office and didn't complete his term. Most scholars rank him dead last. I suppose one could argue that maybe Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, or George H. W. Bush was worse–but only if one has a very strong stomach. I can only say that we should all pray never again to see the likes of Fillmore or Harding–though I can easily imagine Donald Trump as the Return of Warren Harding.  


Orson Welles Now: Part One


Want to ward off the summertime blockbuster blues—that time in which the only films playing in most theaters are for 15-year-olds? How about rediscovering the films of a master? I put myself on an Orson Welles diet; partly because a local cinema was showing some of his films, and partly because Welles (1915-1985) was one of the first Americans to make the jump from radio to celluloid in ways that took full advantage of film's artistic possibilities. In 1949, the Hungarian-born cinematographer John Alton wrote the first serious treatises on his skill and called film "painting with light." Few have done this better than Welles.

Let's look at Welles's three most famous films: Citizen Kane (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); and Touch of Evil (1958). For the record, some film buffs rank The Third Man (1949) as among Welles' greatest, but Britain's Carol Reed directed that one–at least officially; film legend holds that Welles was the de facto director. Either way, I've restricted myself to film Welles officially directed. Here are some of my views on three films–feel free to chime in with your own thoughts.

Many scholars rate Citizen Kane (RKO, 119 mins.) as the greatest American film ever made. Is it? That's a tricky proposition. Seeing it again reminds me the importance of considering works of art in context and foregoing breezy labels. In its day, it was both path breaking and a downer few wished to see. Citizen Kane bombed at the box office and won a single Oscar (Best Writing). The titular character, Charles Foster Kane, was modeled on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, and he was not amused. Hearst papers denounced the film and refused to run ads for it, a major reason for tepid ticket sales. The lesson in this is that the 1% had a long reach back then as well. Ironically, co-star Joseph Cotten–one of the greatest under-rated actors in film history–claims that the script originally planned to parody Howard Hughes, but he was thought too powerful to take on. Kane is a study of Machiavelli's adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We meet Kane as an impoverished Colorado child. A secret benefactor–shades of Great Expectations–leads Kane out of Colorado and into a bourgeois respectability that he initially rejects in favor of becoming a crusading, reforming journalist. As Kane rises higher—to mogul, playboy, to politician, to recluse living in a dream folly called Xanadu–we watch ideals being shed like a dog's summer coat. Kane is ultimately a tale of hubris that raises the question of what is remembered when the final reckoning comes.

How does it stand up? Welles' pseudo-documentary style was revolutionary for its day. So too was the interspersing of fake and real newsreel footage. And maybe German filmmakers were using skewed camera angles, but most Americans pointed the camera straight ahead. Cotten is wonderful as Kane's advisor/best friend/screw-you-Kane sparring partner Jedediah Leland, but it's almost impossible to keep you eyes off of Welles, who undergoes physical as well as moral transformations. Citizen Kane remains a seminal film—one of the finest rise-and-fall portraits imaginable. Greatest film ever? Maybe not given how much has changed in the past 75 years. (My personal vote goes to Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Apocalypse Now.) But does the ranking really matter? Citizen Kane is, simply, essential viewing in one's personal cultural education. No excuses—if you've not seen it, you must.

 Welles often betrayed his time in terms of gender. Males are the movers and shakers in his films and women generally appear in one of the dreaded "D" roles: delicate, dutiful, domesticated, debauched, or duped. It's one of the reasons why I never warmed to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, RKO, 88 mins.), his follow up to Kane. It too is a study of power, a sprawling multi-generational adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel that traces the extended Amberson/Minafer family from its place as patriarchal Southern aristocrats to a fading afterthought. Tim Holt plays George Amberson Minafer, a spoiled man-child puffed up on privilege, duty, and selfishness. He lords over his mother like a rajah, and plots to keep the widowed Isabel (Dolores Costello) from her true love, Eugene Morgan (Cotten), even though "Georgie" is in love with Morgan's daughter, Lucy (a young Anne Baxter). Why? Because Morgan is "common" and actually works for a living–and because he's vicious and can. Hubris is a major part of this film as well, though Welles was forced to jettison his original tragic ending in favor of a "happy" ending. It's an obvious ands sappy tack-on.

This one is like a black-and-white Norman Rockwell. I liked it better this time, but I fail to see why it's so highly regarded. I also wish Welles, not Holt, had played Georgie. I found Holt too petulant and lacking in the edge Welles would have brought. Baxter and Cotton are the liveliest things in the film. I liked Baxter's spunkiness, but the rest of the female roles—especially Agnes Moorehead's histrionic performance–just felt too dated.

 Many have said that Touch of Evil (1958, Universal, 95 mins.) is better than Citizen Kane. I'd be tempted to agree except I'm a bit too modern to stomach Charlton Heston as a Mexican, Janet Leigh as one of the most clueless women who ever opened a forbidden door, or the over-the-top performance of Dennis Weaver as a browbeaten motel night manager. It's a murder mystery that takes place on both sides of the Mexico/Texas border. Heston is Miguel "Mike" Vargas (!), a Mexican drug enforcement officer who thinks Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) might be railroading a young Mexican lad for a bombing he didn't commit. Quinlan is, however, a border legend absolutely worshiped by associates like his partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia). The film is a power struggle/morality play between Vargas and Quinlan, with "truth" playing an ambiguous role, and Leigh a decorative and imperiled one.

Despite shortcomings of the casting, Touch of Evil is film noir at its absolute best. The Shadow couldn't do shadows as well as Welles did them and the weird angles, dancing light, and ominous press of the darkness in the film's pivotal scene has seldom been matched. It's so impressive you could turn off the sound and still be dazzled. Two other reasons to watch Touch of Evil: Marlene Dietrich's cameo turn as a world-weary madam who understands Quinlan better than he knows himself; and Welles' stunning portrayal of Quinlan. Watch this and then check out The Heat of the Night (1967) in which Rod Steiger reached back in time 9 years and simply stole Welles' performance.

Rob Weir