Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#756)

It’s bean-bag season in America
by David Benjamin

“ ‘You’re not a politician,’ the man said. ‘You’re a public servant.’”
  —    New Hampshire voter at a Donald Trump forum, 8 Feb. ‘16

“This is real retail politics, the way it’s supposed to be…”
       —    N.H. voter Tom Lovely at the same forum

PARIS — Tom Lovely got it right.

Primary elections are politics. Donald Trump is a politician. And politics, as Mr. Dooley stated long ago, ain’t bean-bag.

Well, maybe this year it is.

When I was 17, I ran for vice-president of my senior class at Robert M. LaFollette High — a school named after a politician. My opponent was my best friend, Dick. By virtue of our aspiration to political office, we were politicians, although Dick never challenged my foreign policy credentials and I never made an issue of his dalliance with a buxom brunette named Julie (whom I had seen first). We were both “low-energy.” Neither Dick nor I thought to reassure our classmates of our integrity by saying, “I’m not a politician.”

That would have been a lie. Worse, it would have been supremely phony.

Dick, reprising what happened with Julie, won. He looked dashing in the yearbook photo with Patt, Tracy and the Rev. Mr. Black, our other class officers.

In every election cycle, there’s at least one candidate who disingenuously announces, “Hey, c’mon, folks! I’m not a politician.” Inexplicably, you then hear hundreds — thousands — of voters declare their childlike fealty because they cherish the illusion that this blatant politician is not what he obviously is.

I understand the rationale here. For centuries, American voters have been told — by politicians whose vested interest is to discourage voters from voting — that all politicians are crooked grifters who seek office solely to curry favor with the moneyed elites, to line their own pockets with ill-gotten booty and swindle all those non-voting voters who refused to vote for them because they’re politicians.

For these legions of cynical/gullible non-voting voters, the ideal antidote to not voting at all is to vote for an office-seeker who disclaims both the title and technique of “politician.” This one is different, he assures us. He’s neither senator nor governor, councilman nor elected committeeman. He’s just a regular slob. Like you and me. He’s a (small) businessman, or a simple dirt farmer, a “dealmaker” or the son of Greek/Polish/Italian/Irish immigrants. This self-effacing non-politician, according to the propaganda fomented by his crack team of non-political political operatives, is unsoiled by the grime, slime, duplicity and compromise of politics.

Pure. Like me and Dick. An amateur. An ingénue. A simple proletarian son — or daughter — of the huddled masses, yearning to help us breathe free.

Listening to these non-political political demurrals, it always strikes me that politics is that rare pursuit in which we seem to be reluctant to call an expert to do the job. We don’t ask a beautician to fix our pipes, or a hedge-fund manager to replace our carburetors. We wouldn’t ask a high-school physics teacher to disarm an atomic bomb. But we insist, sincerely, that it’s a great idea to entrust the trigger on 10,000 hydrogen bombs to a “non-politician” who knows bupkes about physics and nothing at all about international relations.

It’s hard to think of another realm in which we so eagerly prefer amateurism over competence. It shows up in a certain class of murder mysteries. Except that Miss Marple is a cozy figment of Agatha Christie’s imagination.

I guess, also, this amateur thing sort of ruled the Olympics before 1988. Except… who really ever believed that those broad-shouldered, hairy East German girl swimmers were anything but full-time pros?
Certainly, some of America’s great, larger-than-life anti-heroes, down through the years — from Boss Tweed and Huey Long to Joe McCarthy, Dick Daley and Rod Blagojevich — have been professional politicians.

However, if we hadn’t tolerated a few political pros throughout our history, we would’ve silenced a few grand figures and important voices, starting with the four guys on Mount Rushmore, plus John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, FDR, JFK, LBJ, the Gipper and Slick Willy, not to mention Ann Richards, Shirley Chisholm, Margaret Chase Smith, Tip O’Neill, Ev Dirksen, Jacob Javits, Bill Fulbright and Sam Ervin, Thurgood Marshall, Robert Brooke, John Lewis, Julian Bond, Earl Warren, Joe Biden… Even Fighting Bob LaFollette.

On a smaller scale, one of the most honorable men I’ve known was Bob DeLong, a Selectman in a small Massachusetts town. Bob was a conscientiously professional politician when he was running for re-election. He tried not to be political when he wasn’t running. But Bob was a Selectman, and people treated him that way. So, he never got to be entirely normal and candid. This is the fate of the professional politician.

Bob would have never said, “I’m not a politician.” That would’ve been flatly untrue, and Bob never told a lie that I ever heard.

Which brings me back to Trump, the largest current version of the non-politician politician, an office-seeker who – according to the fact-checkers who review his every syllable – lies to voters 75 percent of the time. That level of  bullshit suggests that Trump is not taking politics —  a serious profession – either seriously or professionally.

I wonder. Don’t any of those fans holding up their “Make America Great Again” signs even suspect — way down deep — that they’re being hustled into a game of bean-bag? By a fast talker named Donny the Dude, who carries around a personal set of custom-tailored bags, loaded with hand-polished Andalusian beans?

Me? I can’t help but feel a skeptical twinge when I hear a big, loud rich guy proclaiming that he isn’t what he is.

Or, to paraphrase Hermann Goering, when I hear the words, “I’m not a politician,” I reach for my seltzer bottle…

…and a very ripe tomato.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#755)

Donald and Sarah in
my mother’s living room

by David Benjamin

MADISON Wis. — I couldn’t help it. There on TV, broadcast from somewhere in darkest, dimmest Iowa, was the second coming of Sarah Palin, riffing and jiving, flapping her arms, cackling at her own jokes and speaking fluent bumper-sticker — while Donald Trump stood by, surreally silent and wearing an embalmed-corpse grin.

As I watched the Palin/Trump tag team, I couldn’t help recalling my evil stepfather, Randy, who might well have been their spiritual mentor.

Randy was a mean drunk. For the first decade or so of his symbiosis with my mother, Randy was always drunk, and always talking, always — by his insistence — the center of attention. When alcoholic rot finally forced him to stop drinking, he revealed himself to be the identical horse’s ass that he’d been when he was perpetually polluted. He gave sobriety a bad name.

As Randy turned out, his problem wasn’t booze. It was Randy, a human cesspool of bitterness, nameless recriminations, seething bigotry, misanthropy, misogyny and political nihilism. Every minute of every day, Randy foresaw the collapse of civilization beneath a swarthy horde of barbarians eating welfare caviar and driving pimpmobile Cadillacs. Randy loved America, mainly because he was American. Randy despised America, because it let too many other people be Americans.

But Randy’s hatred wasn’t strictly a matter of nationalistm. It was universal and ecumenical.

Entering a room where Randy lurked, sunk into an easy chair and scowling at the TV, was like finding yourself in a locked room with an abused Doberman. Though he might seem quiescent for a moment, you could depend on him to commence foaming through his lips and baring his fangs.

Randy’s rage had no rational source. By surviving World War II untouched, he’d earned a free Bachelor’s Degree on the GI Bill, plus cheap beer at the VFW. He was a tenured manager in a generous company, with a pension plan and free health care. He had an inexplicably loyal wife and a couple of nice kids by a previous marriage (not to mention three stepchildren who couldn’t stand him). He had money in the bank, a regular stool at his favorite bar, a big house in a nice neighborhood in a beautiful city, a late-model car and Mom to drive him around after the DMV took away his license. Despite himself, Randy had a piece of the American dream.

And he hated it.

An encounter with Randy typically began with an offhand remark that was outrageous, usually bigoted, always angry and visceral, and entirely devoid of reason, foundation or temperance. He was setting you up. Respond politely or hold your tongue and he would escalate, with a comment even more vicious and preposterous, daring you to talk back, raising your blood pressure, teasing out your indignation. He would keep up the flow of venom, slurring, spewing and slandering until — “JESUS CHRIST, RANDY!” — you’d snap. Everybody, eventually, snapped. Ghandi would have cracked. Martin Luther King would have resorted to violence. The Dalai Lama would have forsaken the lotus position to kick Randy in the nuts.

Once empowered by your anger, Randy owned you. He got personal, slinging insults, disparaging your character, brains and looks, your manhood, your worthiness to occupy space on the planet. He sneered, sputtered, muttered and upchucked a barrage of provocations so unjust and scurrilous that you began scanning the room for a blunt object heavy enough to obliterate his face and drive his teeth into his spinal cord.

Rather than that, you just fled, as fast and far as possible. I stopped visiting my mother, for 25 years, while Randy was in her house. The Elks Club, a sort of local refuge for obnoxious drunks, wearied of his act, refused him service and told him never to come back.

So, last week, I listened to Sarah’s dipsoid stream-of-consciousness in Iowa. I watched Donald waiting itchily for his turn to roar. And I thought of Randy. Couldn’t help it.
He would have loved these two.

Palin and Trump — like Randy — are geysers of inchoate grievance, erupting at predictable intervals to scald and inflame every living thing within range of their voices. Like Randy, they see a world that has betrayed them personally and dashed every cherished hope for every white Christian. Like Randy, Palin and Trump know whom to blame for America’s cowardly descent into a mongrel-breeding hellhole and a landfill for the scum of the earth.

And they’ll tell you. Over and over again. At the top of their lungs. ’Til you’re ready to tear your hair and run screaming from the room.

But here’s the part that momentarily had me puzzled. Nobody was fleeing that stadium in Iowa. Crowds were cheering. What’s wrong with these people?

But I think I’ve figured it out. Yes, Palin and Trump are the apotheosis of the obnoxious drunk. From a safe distance, however, a blowhard with a snootful can be strangely amusing. His rants, raves, calumnies, dark fantasies and free associations have a certain sideshow charm. And sure enough, now and then — like the proverbial infinite number of monkeys — the obnoxious drunk will say something you wish you’d said (if only you weren’t sober).

But as the gap shrinks between you and that bitter, overbearing, racist rummy, the less fun he seems. You stop laughing and you inch toward the exit.

I know. Trump’s not a drunk. He just acts like one, crying in his beer, blaming others for our troubles, pretending that he’s bigger, better, smarter, richer than he really is. Donald lets the booze do his talking without any booze. He gives sobriety a bad name.

Meanwhile, he’s getting closer. Closer to winning a primary or two, closer to nomination, closer to the White House. Closer to being right there, with you and me, in Mom’s living room, all the time, with no way out.

And he just won’t shut up.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#754)

A high-tech solution
to the battle over Roe v. Wade

by David Benjamin

MADISON Wis. — Visitors to this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, had a thousand reason to be distracted. They were buzzed by drones, dazzled by chrome-crusted cars that run (without a driver) on everything from Wesson Oil to isotopes, and hypnotized by wide-screen ultra-definition, four-dimensional TV with sound so piercing that no bodily orifice was safe.

I was there. I saw all this stuff. So I understand how 180,000 conventioneers managed to overlook perhaps the most politically significant high-tech breakthrough of this — or any — decade. The brainchild of a small Texas startup called Ayudi Solutions, a tiny gadget cunningly called Robo-Bort 3000 poses the potential to end America’s long, divisive debate over abortion rights and contraception.

To illustrate the genius of this amazing device, Dr. Fallopia Crenshaw, Ayudi’s CEO, held out a handful of raw arborio rice and said, “Go ahead. Find Robbie.”

(“Robbie” is Ayudi’s copyrighted nickname for the Robo-Bort prototype.)

Picking out this minuscule medical miracle from the rice grains proved impossible because “Robbie” is virtually indistinguishable in both size and color.

But what does it do?

“Right now, if I were to set Robbie loose,” said Dr. Crenshaw, “it would perform a perfectly safe, 100-percent infallible, painless abortion in a span of roughly 30 minutes, on a fertilized human egg as far as six weeks into gestation. And all this happens in the home, with no need to visit a clinic, without the intervention of any medical professional, while the consumer rests comfortably, reading a magazine or watching ‘Oprah.’ And she doesn’t feel a thing.”

I frankly found this claim astounding and insisted on more details about the Robo-Bort technology.

Happy to comply, Dr. Crenshaw gripped the infinitesimal gadget gingerly with a tweezers and placed it beneath a microscope. Revealed there, under 400-percent magnification, was a fully articulated advanced-tactical combat vehicle painted for intra-uterine camouflage, with tank treads and a formidable cannon-like tube protruding from its tiny turret.

“What we’ve created, through microtechnology advances unique to Ayudi Solutions, is an itty-bitty variation on the U.S. Army’s famous Abrams Fighting Vehicle,” boasted Dr. Crenshaw. “Right now, Robbie is dormant, because his little electric engine is hormonally sensitive.”

The Ayudi CEO said that the Robo-Bort’s power plant “starts to churn away — like an Energizer bunny — as soon as it gets a whiff of estrogen.”

Dr. Crenshaw explained that, after a consumer has registered a positive pregnancy test but opts against carrying her fetus to term, she need only tuck Robbie into the “appropriate opening” in her body. “And Robbie takes it from there!”

“Activated by the pungent ambience of estrogen, Robbie motors into mortal combat with that unwelcome zygote,” said Dr. Crenshaw. “His sensors are programmed to seek out that fertile embryo wherever it’s nesting in the uterus. Robo-Bort uses a triple combination of radar, sonar and lidar sensors — each less than one-hundredth of a millimeter in size — so hyper-sensitive that no egg can hide.”

Robbie, said Dr. Crenshaw, homes in on the chemistry of the incipient fetus “like a cheetah going after a gazelle on the Serengeti.”

Once the egg has been identified and targeted, Robbie becomes, in Dr. Crenhaw’s colorful description, “a suicide bomber.”

The Robo-Bort fighting vehicle, said its proud inventor, “empties its batteries, obliterating itself and frying the uterine invader in a fiery laser blast that wipes out every living cell within a one-centimeter radius.”

Dr. Crenshaw added, “But, of course, the woman inside of whom all this mayhem is taking place feels nothing. Not a pang. Not a twinge. Her only knowledge of what happened down there is — about 24 hours later — a stain on her panties.”

Dr. Crenshaw declined to discuss the political impact of Robo-Bort, but Raoul Spongeworthy, professor of contraceptive mechanics at the prestigious Polytechnic Institute of South Slovenia, called the Ayudi innovation a “game-changer.”

“This is an entirely digital appliance,” said Prof. Spongeworthy of Robo-Bort, which Ayudi packages in a sealed plastic capsule, bathed in sterile isopropyl alcohol. “You don’t buy it from a medical supplier or even get it at the drugstore. This miniature robot will be available at Best Buy, or online from Amazon or Big Lots. They’ll probably have these little assassins on sale in the checkout line at Piggly Wiggly, next to the breath mints and The National Enquirer.”

Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice organizations are aware of the Robo-Bort development but have thusfar refrained from comment, apparently awaiting the device’s official market rollout, scheduled for Mother’s Day 2016.

However, as one pro-choice advocate associated with one of the Democratic presidential campaigns, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: “This little doo-hickey might be smaller than a fish egg, but if it does what they say, there’s gonna be thousands of anti-abortion activists choking on it.”

Asked to provide contact information for more details on Ayudi Solutions and Robo-Bort, Dr. Crenshaw regretfully refused, citing past attacks by pro-life extremists.

The Consumer Technology Association also chose silence.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#753)

The Greatest Thing Since...
by David Benjamin

“Make a date today to see the U.S.A.
“And see it in a Chevrolet.”

                        — Dinah Shore

LAS VEGAS — Canned beer, go to your room.

Sliced bread, eat your heart out.

You have been eclipsed.

‘Cause Chevy has an EV!

(Electrified vehicle.)

This is big — so big that Bernie and Donald would call it yooge. I mean, YOOGE!

I’m wondering, why weren’t Bernie and Donald, Hillary, Ted and Marco here last week at the (huge) Consumer Electronics Show? They should’ve been because this is immense, colossal, presidential. (Plus, Nevada’s an early primary state.) It’s so big that General Motors chief Mary Barra — the First Lady of Detroit, Motown’s Big Momma, Empress of the EV — came all the way out to the desert, in the rain, to introduce the historic Chevrolet Bolt (that’s the Bolt, not the Volt, which is passé, last century’s semi-EV), to CES masses so massive that they snaked through the Westgate Hotel, stretching across the vast grounds of the Las Vegas Convention Center onto Paradise and all the broad boulevards of Sin City, and on, into the desert as far as Boulder City, Barstow, Marrakesh.

I mean, huge!

Even without Mary’s presence here, I could tell the Bolt EV’s unveiling was really, really ginormous from the sound effects. Mary was interrupted, repeatedly—  deafeningly — by seat-rattling eruptions of biker-bar Heavy Metal, crashing through the Westgate Theater and loosening the fillings in the salivating mouths of 500,000 eager, ready-to-believe CES pilgrims, including hordes of martini-bound Mad Men in their shiny gray suits and the eternally loyal legion of high-tech weenies in their ballcaps, Mohawks and flip-flops.

Above the roar of a hundred 50-foot woofers, Mary Barra boasted the unprecedented virtues of the miracle Bolt. Encomia poured from her lips like a pryroclastic flow from a Mackinac Island volcano-top. The Bolt has, tucked in its tummy, a humongous battery pack (it’s huge), seething with enough energy to propel this sucker 200 breakneck miles non-stop, after which a mere 60 minutes at the plug will re-charge it back to 80 percent of full strength. Overnight, and it’s ready for a fresh 200. Vroom!

And that ain’t all, Parnelli! This baby has flat floors (no hump), back-bumper video that feeds straight into the rearview mirror and a ten-inch touchscreen that guarantees both increased and reduced driver distraction simultaneously. You can actually crash into a bridge abutment straight ahead while monitoring everything going on to the left, right and behind, ‘cause the Bolt has cameras everywhere — and ten airbags so that when you hit that bridge it might not kill your family.

Wait. There’s more.

Bolt has a low-draw Bluetooth capability, enabling a Wi-Fi hotspot, and it has both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, making it a sort of teen-texting orgy on wheels. Plus, there’s On Star 4G LTE (whatever that is), a smartphone app that provides remote start, charge-state updates, climate control, service alerts and EV-centric mapping. And you don't have to be in the car to do any of this stuff. You can send your Bolt off by itself to play in traffic. Plus, this creampuff is only 30 grand (if you apply to Uncle Sam for a $7,500 tax green-energy tax bonus). Not only all that, but you also get “gamification,” the thrilling option that “pits Bolt drivers against each other for green driving awards or rankings.”

Whoa, Nellie!

No wonder the vast CES crowd sat numbed and silent in their seats and filed out meekly after Mary finally buttoned her lips and the turbo-throbbing trade-show synthemusic subsided, leaving behind only the piercing hum of falsetto tinnitus in 10,000 ravaged eardrums.

Or, maybe…

It’s just another car.

Electric, yes. But we’ve had electricity since Tom Edison’s bulb. And the Bolt’s electricity is likely generated by a coal plant spewing dark clouds into the ozone, or an oil furnace, or a salmon-killing dam a hundred miles away from a “green” garage equipped with Bolt’s special optional home-recharging unit.

A car with a 200-mile leash and then you have to go to bed and wait?

America wants this?

Maybe. But this is Dinah Shore’s USA, where every redblooded gearhead guy harbors in his heart the subversive dream of chucking it all, climbing into his Camaro and driving — all day and all night, 85 miles an hour, with Steppenwolf on the stereo turned All The Way Up — toward the far horizon, to end up sucking down rum punches with a beach babe in Key West, or matching boilermakers with Athabasca Dick in an Anchorage dive.

Is there really a demand, even among accountants and actuaries, for a “green-driving,” speed-limit, battery-life drag race? Are we all hankering for Hollywood to launch a series of Slow and Serious car movies?

Or was Mary in Las Vegas to warn us that henceforth we’re all going to have to look for our cheap thrills and macho validation elsewhere than behind the wheel?

Was it Mary’s job to break the news, with the accompaniment of stroboscopic explosions and HD Imax-video razzle-dazzle, that the front-seat party is over and the gearshift is no longer America’s most-loved, best-polished phallic symbol?

Is Mary stage-whispering to us that John Milner really is dead, his yellow deuce coupe has been recycled into windmill blades, and there ain’t nobody cruising anywhere anymore?

Did Mary come from Detroit to deliver the news noisily in Vegas — world capitol of excess, extravagance, waste and profligacy — that the time has come for every one of us to take our foot off the gas, lower our expectations and kick our smelly habits, lest we end up knee-deep in polluted sea-water, coughing up lung-chunks as we consume ourselves into Jurassic oblivion?

Does the Grim Reaper drive an EV?

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#752)

“Live long and prosper”
by David Benjamin

“To the moon, Alice!"
                             — Ralph Kramden

My wife, Hotlips, crack technology journalist, is in year-end listmaking mode. Everybody in the news biz does this. Among my favorite examples of this genre is the New York Times’ annual cavalcade of obituaries. The Times 2015 death march includes Leonard Nimoy, who — as Spock in Star Trek — portrayed one of the most memorable TV characters in history.

Spock got me wondering: Who might be the greatest television characters of all time, the Top Twenty in the TV Hall of Fame? I’ve been listmaking ever since.

My first chore was to decide my standards for eligibility. First rule: To make the list, a character had to originate on TV. This disqualifies both George Reeves’ and Dean Cain’s depictions of Superman, who started in DC Comics. It also eliminates literary lawyer Perry Mason, and classic antagonists Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. The Odd Couple was both a Broadway play and a movie before it hit TV.

As I plumbed my memory, I realized that the true test was whether I thought of the fictional character’s name before I could recall the name of the actor who played the part. For instance, who doesn’t struggle to recall the wonderful comic actress in I Love Lucy who played Ethel Mertz? (Vivian Vance.)

My list consists heavily of characters limned in the era of Big Three terrestrial broadcasting, before the explosion of cable, premium channels and online networks balkanized the viewing public into haves, have-nots and demographic silos. It’s hard to create a shared experience with a universal character when everyone has the power to customize his or her viewing tastes.

I also notice, with some chagrin, that my Top Twenty reflects the patriarchy of American showbiz, featuring more male than female icons. Since Hollywood has been building shows around male stars since Charlie Chaplin, this is an unavoidable imbalance. However, the No. 1 TV character of all time is, indisputably, the First Woman of television comedy, Lucy Ricardo. Lucille Ball’s bumbling, lovable Everywoman attained a timeless universality that can never be eclipsed.

So, here’s my Top Twenty TV Characters Ever, unranked, in alphabetical order. I do this with the humble awareness that I’m going to be told afterwards — by dozens of people — that I’ve left out somebody really important. Oh, well…

Sgt. Ernest G. Bilko, Phil Silvers, The Phil Silvers Show. America’s fascination with likeable rascals operating within the uptight military Establishment began here, with Silvers and the incorrigible Sgt. Bilko. His myriad successors include Bob Crane in Hogan’s Heroes, Ernest Borgnine in McHale’s Navy, Larry Storch in F Troop, Alan Alda in M*A*S*H, etc.

Marcia Brady, Maureen McCormick, The Brady Bunch. Marcia had forebears like Mary Stone (Shelley Fabares in The Donna Reed Show) and Patty Lane (The Patty Duke Show), but she was the quintessence for all time of the American bourgeois teenage princess. “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”

Archie Bunker, Carroll O’Connor, All in the Family. Just the name, “Archie Bunker,” evokes a host of political and social implications, a cascade of catchphrases, the face of Carroll O’Connor and the eternal ubiquity of family strife.

J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Dallas. No primetime soap opera fascinated America like Dallas did, and this was mostly Hagman’s magic. He created a larger-than-life villain who was strangely attractive — possibly setting the stage for his clone, Donald Trump, to rule the nation as J.R. ruled TV in the 1980s.

Sgt. Joe Friday, Jack Webb, Dragnet. Jack Webb’s wonderfully caricatured deadpan detective established the template for every TV cop who followed in his footsteps. In 60 years, the character has barely changed. On Person of Interest, Jim Caviezel is doing Joe Friday (although with tongue-in-cheek) all over again.

Fred Flintstone, The Flintstones. With Allen Reed doing his voice, Fred Flintstone was the first animated character to crack primetime, opening the door for Homer Simpson and all the wisecracking ‘toons who now populate cable TV.

Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, Henry Winkler, Happy Days. There has never been a comic outlaw more beloved than The Fonz. If Henry Winkler had not upstaged every other actor in Happy Days, the show would have died years earlier.
Leroy Jethro Gibbs, Mark Harmon, NCIS. Harmon — and the show’s creator, Donald Bellisario — accomplished the rare feat of devising a household name in the fragmented TV world of the 21st century. Of course, Gibbs’ similarities to Joe Friday are hardly coincidental.

Eddie Haskell, Adam Zolotin, Leave It To Beaver. Every other character on Beaver was a two-dimensional morality-play, whitebread cliché. Eddie Haskell, Wally’s smarmy, conniving sidekick, changed TV by introducing a touch of evil to the family sitcom.

Cliff Huxtable, Bill Cosby, The Cosby Show. Cosby’s Cliff was the synthesis of all the wise, middle-class TV dads who’d gone before, including Jim Anderson (Father Knows Best), Ward Cleaver, Danny Thomas, Andy Taylor, John Walton, Mike Brady, Steven Keaton (Family Ties), etc. But, by leveraging white-liberal guilt, Cosby built a me-too character into the last sacred sitcom father-figure.

Dr. Richard Kimball, David Janssen, The Fugitive. This landmark show was among the first continuous-plot TV dramas ever attempted. It altered America’s weekly schedule. The Fugitive succeeded partly because Janssen and Barry Morse (Lt. Girard) played off each other so well.

Alice Kramden, Audrey Meadows, The Honeymooners. I was going to give this spot to Jackie Gleason (Ralph Kramden), until I re-read a few scripts and realized that Alice — one of TV’s first, best, funniest standup strong-woman characters, got all the good lines. Gleason was Audrey Meadows’ straight man.

Kramer, Michael Richards, Seinfeld. The show was named after Jerry Seinfeld, but Kramer stole every scene he was in and starred in most of the show’s best bits.

Mr. Ed, with the voice of Allan Lane. A horse is a horse, of course, of course, but Mr. Ed, with Alan Young as his foil, Wilbur, transcended every other animal-based TV show ever made — including, yes, even Lassie (which reverted far to often to the Timmy-down-the abandoned-mineshaft plotline). Besides, Lassie started out as a movie, and the title bitch was played on TV by a male dog.

Paladin, Richard Boone, Have Gun, Will Travel. American TV has a great history of Wild West heroes, including Matt Dillon, Maverick, Gil Favor and Hoss Cartwright. But Richard Boone’s Paladin was both unique and the archetype.

Lucy Ricardo, Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy. If only for the chicken farming episode, Lucy’s adventures on the candy-factory assembly line, and her Vitameatavegamin commercial, Lucy Ricardo merits immortality.

Mary Richards, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary introduced the modern working girl to American television, without sacrificing femininity, vulnerability or Lucy-caliber laughs.

Jim Rockford, James Garner, The Rockford Files. Since Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the down-at-the-heels, smartass private eye has been a staple of American culture. Rockford Files creator Stephen J. Cannell distilled this great cinematic and literary heritage into the classic L.A. PI. James Garner added just the right measures of wit, cunning, slapstick and panache.

Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini, The Sopranos. Tony Soprano was the first super-character of the premium-TV era. He added to the television landscape an unprecedented depth of moral ambiguity, opening the door for love him/hate her characters like Don Draper (Jon Hamm in Mad Men), Walter White (Brian Cranston in Breaking Bad) and Patty Hewes (Glenn Close in Damages).
And, last but almost most, Spock, Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek. The ears, the relentless attachment to “logic,” the flashes of human frailty, all those mind-melds. There will never be a TV extraterrestrial so familiar and beloved.

Among other characters I considered were Bullwinkle J. Moose, Ben Casey, Jed Clampett, Beaver Cleaver, Columbo, Matt Dillon, Dr. Johnny Fever, Barney Fife, Flipper, Lt. Al Giardello, Gilligan, Dobie Gillis, Lou Grant, Bob Hartley, Jeannie, Capt. Kirk, Omar Little, the Lone Ranger, Perry Mason, Maverick, Jack McCoy, Barney Miller, Ozzie Nelson, Ed Norton, Radar O’Reilly, Rob Petrie, Homer Simpson, Samantha Stephens, John Boy Walton, Arnold Ziffel, and on, and on, and on…

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Weekly Screed #751

To drive or not to drive
by David Benjamin

“… Went around a corner and I passed a truck
I whispered a prayer just for luck
Fenders was clicking the guardrail posts
The guys beside me were white as a ghost…”

                  — Charlie Ryan, “Hot Rod Lincoln”

MADISON, Wis. — My mother was a debutante without a ball.

Despite straitened and regularly destitute circumstances, she maintained an incongruous hauteur that befuddled us, her children — for whom she was more a big sister than those grownup TV moms who wore pearls in the kitchen and waited with milk and cookies for kids named Bud and Beaver to come home from school.

Mom was a working single mother when that status was a synonym for “scarlet woman.” But in her formative years, she had somehow come to believe herself a princess thrust — by some epic injustice — among the peasantry. She might never escape the company of the rabble (among whom she included us, her very kids), but she could at least carry herself as though she was above it all.

Mom was born, in sum, to have a chauffeur.

This is why it was vital in our family that I should get a driver’s license as soon as I turned sixteen. Mom needed a driver and I didn’t object. Chauffeuring Mom and dropping her off left me in charge of our ’61 Fairlane (dubbed, by Ray Keener, the Brown Bomb) for hours of unfettered tooling around.

There are rumors abroad that the century-old love affair between American teenage boys and cars has finally ended. Nowadays, apparently, a horny 16-year-old would rather have an app-loaded iPhone. Well, OK. But in the manly Sixties of Thunderbirds and bumper bullets, car love was in full flower. Turning 16, passing your driver’s test, hitting the road — this was a rite of passage more profound, and definitely more likely, than getting laid by the prom queen.

Driving — even if only in your parents’ sedan once or twice a week — was freedom. It was range, setting you loose from the neighborhood, and it was speed. You could get to Shakey’s in ten minutes, rather than the exhausting hour it took on a three-speed Schwinn.

Driving was wealth, because you could get a job and drive to work. And it was prestige, especially if you had your own wheels. Besides the Brown Bomb, I got around after football games in Mike Webster’s classic ’54 Chevrolet Webmobile and in Dick Albright’s yellow ’57 Chevy Bel Air — possibly the  most envied automobile in the parking lot at LaFollette High.

And driving was, if course, sex. No guy had a chance without a car.

And driving cars, fixing, rebuilding and customizing them, painting them, racing them, even designing cars, was — for a lot of kids — a vocation and a dream. My brother Bill is a car guy. So is my daughter’s consort, Steve. I’ve never met a true car guy who’s not stand-up and salt-of-the-earth. There’s something about flushing radiators and gapping plugs that builds character.

Even Shakespeare foresaw the romance of the road when, in Hamlet, he wrote:

To steer — perchance to crash: ay, there's the rub!
For in that flirt with death what dreams may come…

Mom, of course, being a princess, wasn’t seduced. She resented the chore of driving and lived in constant fear of the fatal deer that would plunge through her windshield on Interstate 90. So she turned the wheel over to me, and then to Bill.

I realized recently that Mom lived too soon. Sometime early next year, Ford and Google (Foogle?) will be announcing a new generation of computer-driven “intelligent” cars, shaped like adorable warts, sans steering wheels, that taxi timid passengers hither and yon, on programmed routes, without undue speed, bereft of drama and totally devoid of any sex appeal (except, of course, you could actually have sex inside your Foogle while riding, oblivious to road, weather, traffic and all those fatal deer, to Grandma’s farm for Thanksgiving dinner).

If everyone were my mother, autonomous cars like Google’s glorified golf cart, would be the Next Big Thing tomorrow. But, even though car companies and Silicon Valley seers keep announcing new breakthroughs in self-driving auto-tech, I still think this Foogle’s going to be a hard sell — at least to guys.

I think of Hamlet’s NASCAR dreams. I think of Dead Man’s Curve and the Beach Boys’ four-speed dual-quad posi-traction 409.

I look at the Google car, a sort of pastel Teletubby on little toy wheels, and then I picture, say, a classic Camaro, James Bond’s Aston-Martin, Nash Bridges’ ‘Cuda, and above all, Steve McQueen’s Mustang, its phallic form plunging Bullitt-like into the welcoming maw of the Route 101 tunnel — where it overlooks the San Francisco skyline — and I think, “Not so much.”

I think of the closest common object in American culture to the blatantly priapic blend of form and raw power intrinsic to say, a ’73 slant-six Duster, with a gripper-wrapped steering wheel, four-on-the-floor, a compass on the dash, an optional roll bar and maybe a nice pair of giant foam dice hanging off the rearview, and what comes to mind?

Right! A gun.

It seems to me that even as millions like Mom will welcome the advent of cars that can get you there without the anxiety of steering, the ordeal of navigation and the fear of collision, there will rise up an equal, opposite and far more passionate enemy camp. Its millions will perceive the self-driving car as Big Business and Big Government conspiring to close down the open road, to strip from the beleaguered working class its last link to independence, to shred our gears and render every real American guy (plus Danica Patrick and Shirley Muldowney) effeminate, impotent and superfluous.

I see road rage. I see war.

I see Foogles forced into ditches by 30-year-old Dodge Rams. I see grease-monkeys learning to program, so they can hack into little old ladies’ (LOL) autotubbies, lock all their doors and send them, careening and infarcting in endless circles on traffic rotaries, around and around while the grease-hackers laugh out loud (LOL).

I see, above all, a resistance so deep and lasting that auto-tech issues will migrate from Detroit and Sunnyvale to park in Washington, where car wars will rage incoherently for years, where Congressional battles will cite safety and economy and ecology, freedom and government overreach.  But all the talk will really be about manhood, muscle and erectile function.

Because taking the steering wheel away from an American guy is going to be just as hard as getting him to give up his Smith & Wesson, his Remington 12-gauge, his Colt .45, and especially that classic ’55 Type 3 Kalashnikov with a hand-tooled mahogany stock, a night-scope rail and a 30-round clip.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#750)

It Can’t Happen Here
by David Benjamin

“He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts — figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”
                            ― Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here (1935)

MADISON, Wis.— Distrusted by a hard core of evangelical voters in Iowa, Donald Trump loses the caucuses there, but finishes a strong second to Ted Cruz. Then, Trump’s convincing victories in both New Hampshire and South Carolina propel him toward a yooge accumulation of committed delegates in the March 1 Super Tuesday sweepstakes.

Despite his early lead, political analysts remain dubious of Trump gaining the Republican nomination. His “ceiling” among likely voters, once estimated at 30 percent, seems to be stalling at around 40 percent. Among experts, the favorite theory is that, when the field shrinks to two or three survivors, Trump will fade fast, possibly withdrawing before July’s Republican National Convention (RNC).

Political veterans also cite Trump’s failure to build  a “ground game” composed of local campaign offices, neighborhood door-knockers and get-out-the-vote teams to literally prod Trump-leaning supporters to the polls.

However, as he campaigns in early primaries, a different sort of organization, informally known as “Trump’s Troops,” begins to coalesce. These fanatic Trump believers flock to his rallies and begin to actually follow him from city to city and state to state. At speeches, they cheer wildly and unleash their wrath, sometimes physically, on any anti-Trump protester who dares to speak up, or even carry a sign. More and more often, fights break out. Beatings occur.

When asked, Trump denies any official link to his “Troops.” But he adds that politics can be pretty darn emotional and when a great candidate has ideas that stir people to their very souls, well, they can get carried away. Besides, he says, “If negative people go around insulting and heckling me, and then my supporters rough them up a little bit, well, maybe they were asking for it.”

The first beating death at a Trump rally doesn’t happen ’til early April, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker deems the fatality “a tragic accident.” Walker visits the parents of the victim, a Black Lives Matter activist, assuring them that his “thoughts and prayers” are with them. No one is arrested.

Similar incidents follow in Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, Georgia, Texas and New Jersey. The media, however, remains hypnotized and thrilled by Trump’s outrageous statements and the horserace aspect of the primary campaign. A spokesman for Trump’s Troops gets a laugh from the “Fox and Friends” panel by referring to the dead protesters as “collateral damage.”

After a late primary surge by Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump enters the RNC in Cleveland just shy of the majority he needs for a first-ballot nomination. On day one, he announces a deal with Carly Fiorina, collecting her delegates in return for the vice-presidential spot on the GOP ticket. He adds to this the endorsement of Charles and David Koch, guaranteeing his election bid almost $1 billion in “dark money.” Trump’s nomination becomes a fait accompli.

Meanwhile, outside Quicken Loans Arena, clashes occur. A number of delegates loyal to Cruz and Rubio are hospitalized. Police are at a loss to identify their attackers, described only as “white males” who melted into a Republican crowd composed almost entirely of white males.

The turmoil of the convention and the defection of the center-right faction of the GOP puts Trump at a severe disadvantage in the race against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Millions spent on TV ads and direct mail seem wasted. Fiorina is a lame stalking mare for the poised and steely Clinton. Trump consistently draws thousands of screaming supporters but makes little headway with moderate Republicans and independents. Trump’s Troops, seen at first as a lovable bunch of rascals, start to frighten voters. As dead Democrats begin to pile up on the streets, Trump’s Troops even earn mild censure from the mainstream media.

As summer turns to autumn, Trump struggles against a double-digit deficit in the polls, insisting that insidious forces are rigging the numbers against him. “I’m a winner,” he shouts to delirious fans, “and I’m winning. The Clinton people, they can’t stand it. The media can’t stand it. So they’re lying to you all. Lying, I tell ya! Don’t believe it. I’m winning. And when I win in the end, oh boy! Are they gonna be sorry! I’ll be on top, where I belong, and they won’t know what hit ‘em!”

On Sunday, October 17, 2016, a Catholic cathedral in Chicago, a Protestant wedding party in New York, a black Baptist church in Mississippi and a bar mitzvah in Los Angeles are attacked simultaneously by teams of terrorists with automatic weapons. Each consists of three masked men in back combat attire, wearing keffiyeh and repeatedly shouting — over the roar of gunfire and screams of the dying — “Alamo akbar!” The death toll exceeds 100. The assailants escape. In all four cities, a spokesman claiming affiliation with both the Islamic State and Planned Parenthood calls a local talk-radio station, taking credit for the murders. Despite a national dragnet launched by police and the FBI, the killers appear to have melted into the crowd. Six months later, not one arrest is recorded.

Less than an hour after the attacks, Trump again proposes a “total shutdown” of Muslims coming to America. Twelve bills to that effect pop up the next day in Congress. Trump goes further, demanding the immediate construction of internment facilities to house “every Muslim on American soil, until each and every one of them can be investigated so hard that we’ll be able to trace the camel they rode in on.”

Trump shoots to the lead and, two weeks later, crushes Clinton in 48 states. The next day, he announces a “Billion-American March,” calling for Trumpniks to flood Washington, D.C. and stay there, “so that these unConstitutional bastards can’t take away my victory on some sneaky technicality.”

Dutifully, his fans fill Washington. Guarded by Trump’s Troops, they turn the capital into a sprawling, chaotic tent city and the Potomac into a sewer. Trump’s inauguration triggers 24 hours of riotous celebration, leaving a shambles that will require six months and $1.2 billion in clean-up and repairs. Trump uses the pandemonium in Washington and other cities to declare martial law, suspending Congress and sequestering its members, “for their safety.”

Trump, exercising his executive prerogative under martial law, announces the temporary Extraordinary Powers Act. It authorizes the president to take action against sedition both domestic and international, to root out anti-Americanism in speech, thought and deed, to suppress insurrection by all possible means and to take any action he deems necessary to protect the Homeland from the forces arrayed against it, wherever they may be.

As he stands on a soaring dais in Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the wind blows through his meticulously coiffed comb-over. President Trump scans a throng of 70,000 faithful packed into the stadium. His voice thick with emotion, he expresses heartfelt regret for the extraordinary temporary step of disbanding the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives and placing the Supreme Court in protective custody.

“But we have no choice!” he roars. “We have no choice!”

The cheers, lasting more than 20 minutes, can be heard as far away as Bethesda and Alexandria.