• Appreciating the Ancients: Susskind & Cavett & Buckley

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    Inevitably, this post falls down into the crevice between television history and YouTube recommendation. Such are the times, and the best I can offer in defense is that there is gold to be found in the archives for those inclined to dig and sift.

    Indeed, a time really did exist when highly intelligent, even intellectual persons with broad interests, deep curiosity and brilliant wit hosted talk shows. There weren’t a lot of them but there were several.

    This is meant in no way to diminish the entertainment ability of current television talk hosts, only to say, these were a different animal, and alas, confined to a moment in time.

    It wasn’t just the intellectualism of the hosts, it was the subject matter into which they delved, and the kinds of guests they exposed to a larger public.

    Dick Cavett, in three different television talk shows spanning a period from the late sixties through the early eighties was the most brilliant and multi-faceted of these. His comfortable, masterful felicity with current events, politics, music and the theatrical arts was unparalleled then, and remains so.

    Famously, for the bookish set, he moderated the dart toss that ensued between literary celebs Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, with Cavett and New Yorker writer Janet Flanner peanut gallery and participants both. The fact that public intellectuals and important authors would appear on a late night television show on a broadcast network to discuss something other than products newly on the market or consumer preferences is, in comparison to today’s environment, a shocking and disconcerting thing indeed.

    More than once, Cavett sat with Janis Joplin, spent an hour and a half talking with Lennon, talked to Hendrix, and the biggest names appearing at Woodstock fresh from their appearances there. Creative process, the direction of music, and the culture surrounding the Ur-music festival were the subjects covered, not album promotion or chat over renovated mansions (though I imagine they had them by then, or shortly would have. But it wasn’t something worth discussing).

    Anyone conversant with today’s chirpy, promotional, ingratiating sound bite interviews with members of the famous acting set would fail to recognize the kind of interview Cavett engaged legend Marlon Brando in, Brando thoughtful, ruminative and articulate, Cavett more than holding his own as always. Woody Allen’s Cavett appearance, Kathryn Hepburn’s, Groucho Marx’s, are deservedly classic television. And there are countless others. That Cavett presented such conversations on television on a nightly basis is still a marvel, and was in fact, all but a miracle.

    Richard Burton sat for three nights in a row on Cavett’s PBS show in the eighties, perhaps the most engaging raconteur I have ever encountered anywhere, Cavett, in no small way responsible for eliciting such remarkable storytelling. Author William Styron’s description of how it is to write, and the “obduracy of the language” was true and memorable. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than erudite and literate conversationalist Cavett conducting such a televised colloquy.

    David Susskind was a stranger bird. A press agent, a talent agent and a producer before he ventured into talking late at night on television, he was in fact a pioneer. His audience wasn’t as broad as Cavett’s, his show only syndicated. But he brought feisty, intelligent debate about the controversies of the day to television when no such thing existed anywhere.

    Respected and reviled, ogre and wit John Simon, the legendary film critic, a stranger bird than Susskind by a long stretch, memorably held forth of an evening on the Susskind show. When Vietnam was argued, the fighters were heavyweights. You knew in advance: there will be blood. But it wasn’t talking points, it wasn’t hackneyed, nor was it pundit hackery, and it wasn’t Crossfire. Susskind was urbane, and his urbanity seemed to shame his guests, if nothing else into aspiring likewise.

    But even more than Cavett perhaps, the syrupy-voiced Susskind liked to delve, and he did so with public intellectuals (a mostly extinct species now) academics, artists of every stripe, politicians, and carny acts, whose  flavorful idiosyncrasies he reliably managed to draw forth.

    And then there’s Buckley. William F. was famously elitist, famously the brainiest promoter of a new post-war conservatism, arch reactionary founder of the arch reactionary National Review. But his television salon Firing Line was extraordinary.

    As with the previously mentioned hosts, Buckley specialized in a rarefied kind of guest, the kind seldom, if ever seen on television. To watch a drunken, buffoonish Jack Kerouac, Village poet, Fug, and publisher Ed Sanders and an academic from the hinterlands discuss what the hippies were, and what it all meant with William F. Buckley was as a good a ninety minutes of television as you’re likely to ever get.

    Buckley wasn’t your millennial-era reactionary, a loudmouth with banally grating talking points firing away from behind a rock. Rush Limbaugh, for all his airwave bravado, remains scared to venture beyond his microphone and engage the enemy. Indeed, an earmark of today’s radical right Republicanism is its aversion to challenge, its fear of exposure and its wariness of the formidable (what’s left of it on the left), and the nearly pathologic, survivalist disengagement from anything smacking of fact, expertise or knowledge from books.

    Buckley had some unappetizing, and appalling views. But he wasn’t afraid to have them challenged. In fact, he wanted to have them challenged, and to have them challenged right on television. As unlike today’s rightist icons as it is humanly possibly to be, Buckley did not confine himself to the friendly audience, sought the strongest adversary he could possibly find and welcomed them to give him the best they had.

    The sparring between economist and liberal John Kenneth Galbraith and Buckley strikes one today as nearly sublime. His tête-à-têtes with liberal attorney extraordinaire William Kunstler, most famously defender of the Chicago Seven, were intellectual prizefights, Kunstler often the victor, as Buckley himself later in life would concede. Certainly I loved to root against him. And he lost more often than many, especially on the right remember,or at least acknowledge.

    You invariably felt wiser for watching. And win or loose, Buckley always conveyed the sense that he felt the same, amused and enlightened by the experience.

     

  • Obama, Decimator Of America, And Distant Lands, Or Not

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    In the imagination of the Republican caliphate, from elected officials to the glorious low-information base that drives it, President Barack Obama exists somewhere between, and indeed everywhere between a feckless, emasculated, simpering, cowardly example of utter abasement, and an omnipotent figure capable of changing the course of mighty rivers, besieging the land with plague and tyranny, toying with nations and continents, and even moving the celestial bodies around as the mood strikes him.

    One can tell how the enslaved Republican citizen suffers under the iron boot of repressive Obamaism from the testimonials of the afflicted heroically transmitted somehow from the hundreds or perhaps thousands of radio hosts still miraculously allowed to broadcast, attestations of the infamies of their tormentor conveyed by brave resistors from their hiding place on Fox News, from conservative newspapers and websites in the millions, reports of Obama tyranny managing to seep out in something like tidal waves and washes.

    Whether it is the dangers of nuclearization in Iran, or the use of chemical gases against the rebels by Bashir Assad of Syria, Obama’s porridge always is too hot or too cold, never just right. Regarding Syria, Obama has been savaged by the martyrs of dissent as the bastard child of Neville Chamberlain waving the Wehrmacht in, and Pee-Wee Herman with his shameful parts in his hand wanking.

    Whether the result of inferior memory, lack of resources, Attention Deficit Disorder or some other entirely inexplicable, yet benign phenomenon, little has surfaced in the Obama-dominated media about Syria’s Obama instigated and effectuated agreement, and its eventual follow through on that agreement to permit and collaborate in the removal of its chemical stockpiles. This is what a cheeky, cunning wag might refer to as a great Obama success.

    As concerns Iran, from the Sun-Tzu Axis of Bravado and Strategy in the swivel chairs and couches of Fox News and the combat trenches of congressional Republican offices, word comes that Obama has been complicit to the point of crouching with the Ayatollah to effectively light the fuse to the nuclear bomb that will destroy the Middle East and much of the rest of the world. In some miraculous occurrence of silence, inexplicable as the rain of frogs in the movie Magnolia, scant notice has been paid by the Obama-controlled American press, to Obama-initiated secret talks with Iran, which produced multi-nation negotiations leading to Iran’s assent to elimination of its enriched uranium gas under the auspices of international bodies, curtailment of its nuclear activities in exchange for the reduction of sanctions. In some cultures such a presidentially initiated and effectuated outcome would be considered a grand foreign policy triumph.

    Remarkably, accolades for this accomplishment, nor the sight of Republican naysayers and Obama hissy-fitters grazing on enormous troughs of crow in a well-lighted public venue have not materialized from liberalism’s megaphone and Obama’s propaganda organ, the American press.

    Domestically, the putatively Marxist Obama’s assault on capitalism has been noticed with enormous ire by every Republican breathing, or recently dead in the ground. It just hasn’t been noticed by capital. Capital has fervidly procreated, with the coffers of major corporations busting at the seams of bank vaults (notably not invested in job creation, though certainly invested) reported profits unprecedented, and the stock market unashamedly orgasmic.

    In March 2009, the stock market bottomed out for investors at a soul-depleting 6,547. It is higher than 17,000 now, more than 250% of gain and rising. To my knowledge, yet to be scheduled is the ceremony crowning Obama, King of Capitalism. In the wake of Obama’s merrily cutting a swath of devastation across the landscape of America’s economy, unemployment, at 7.8 the month Obama assumed the presidency has fallen to its current 6.1.

    Quarterly GDP declined by 7.8 percent the quarter preceeding Obama’s presidency. During Obama’s reign of horror, 18 straight quarters of growing GDP have occurred. 800,000 jobs were lost the month Obama assumed his presidency as the economy burned and shriveled in the consuming flames of Bush’s Great Recession. In the brimstone pit of Obama’s economy, there have occurred 50 months of job growth, 33 months of them in a row now. 288,000 jobs were created in June, 4.5 million during the Obama presidency. Such is life in the Apocalypse.

    And here’s some news: The budget deficit, which Republicans increase by staggering percentages when they retain control, and cry themselves to sleep at night in woe about when out of office, has been reduced from the 1.4 trillion President Obama inherited from his surplus-destroying predecessor, to a current 492 billion: from 10% of GDP to 2, though this has yet to be trumpeted by Republican mutes, or Obama’s fourth estate. Such is life through the Looking Glass of American media and political culture in the post-truth, post-factual age.

    20 million Americans have been insured under Obamacare.

    Most of this has been greeted by the liberal American press with the chirp of crickets and the rasp of cicadas.

    Republicans retort with an array of fresh ideas: impeach Darwin (right after Obama); eradicate the heinous science that is climatology; eliminate the wanton scourge of contraception; life begins when a man buys a woman a drink; cut the voting out; more reminders to victims of rape they are often sissies; coddle the rich evermore;  corporate impunity from sea to shining sea.

    Two theories pertain when it comes to Ukraine: A) Erstwhile Republican icon, Vladimir Putin looses the separatist thugs, turmoil breaks out in eastern Ukraine. B) Obama coughs, turmoil breaks out in eastern Ukraine. The press is undecided.

    John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz, and other oleaginous warriors of Christendom have traced Obama’s culpability in the Gaza feud back to biblical times, time travel and transmogrification among the supernatural powers the man commands when he’s in the mood.

    Liberty has been destroyed, except for the liberty of the Koch’s money, whose speech rights accrue exponentially with every court ruling.

    The chowderbrains contend that Obama is failed and wicked with the stolid conviction of fence posts.

    CNN and Politico hold firm on the narrative of the week like a dog with a dirty sock in its mouth. The narrative of late: Poor Obama.

    Strange times. Strange times.

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