Archive for November 11, 2010

Lincoln on Hypocrisy (and Bush)

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I mentioned a week ago, under the heading Books I Won’t Be Reading, that you could be sure I wouldn’t be reading Bush’s memoir. (No link to it. I don’t want to encourage sales.) Monday, on the eve of its publication, Bush was interviewed on NBC by Matt Lauer. If I imagined for even a moment that Lauer might actually ask serious, tough questions, I might have watched, but Lauer and NBC aren’t interested in making waves, so I kept my distance.

I did break down Tuesday morning however. I read Alessandra Stanley’s NYT account of the interview, learning how pleased Bush was about waterboarding and how insulted that Kanye West didn’t like his handling of Katrina. I then turned to the WSJ, finding that the subject of its daily book review was the memoir. WSJ editor and columnist Daniel Henninger observes early on that “50 years from now only specialists will be sifting the archives on Katrina, earmarks and the rest” and concludes, “History will judge him almost solely by what he did after a single historic day, Sept. 11, 2001—in short, by the war on terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If in time they succeed, he was a good president. If they fail, his presidency falls. For everyone’s sake, one should hope that he was a good president.”

I might have thought the evidence is already in — they didn’t succeed, at least not on his terms, in his reign. If they do succeed, in whatever sense Henninger imagines, perhaps Obama should be the one judged a good president. Or Clinton. Or Palin. Or Jenna Bush. Or whoever the heck is president when both wars are finally over.

But let me not get distracted. I’m actually heading somewhere here. Next up, I turned on NPR just as some correspondent was wrapping up a brief report on the news that the Justice Department won’t bring charges against CIA officials who destroyed the torture tapes. Oops. Not torture tapes. She referred to “harsh interrogation.” (And in a similar vein, in the NYT report yesterday on the same story, reporters Mark Mazzetti and Charlie Savage, following the NYT’s dishonest and inane language policy, wrote that “Central Intelligence Agency officials will not face criminal charges for the destruction of dozens of videotapes depicting the brutal interrogation of terrorism suspects, the Justice Department said Tuesday.”) Mind you, the acts that NPR calls “harsh” and the NYT “brutal” are called torture by both institutions when done by other countries, as has been well documented.

The next NPR news item was a review of Bush’s proud approval of waterboarding, with his defense that it was legal, not torture; his lawyers told him so. This is rich. If not for the destruction of those CIA tapes, there would be evidence that waterboarding was being done prior to the administration’s hastily-obtained legal approval of it. This was all a charade. Yet Jay Bybee’s reward for directing the charade was appointment to a lifetime judgeship on the US court of Appeals, and John Yoo gets to be a law professor at Berkeley.

This was more than enough news for one morning. And I had to get to my office. But before leaving the house, I opened the latest New York Review of Books, only to stumble on James McPherson’s review of Eric Foner’s new book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. I didn’t read far. Just the first three paragraphs. But the third paragraph said it all. Writing about Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, McPherson explains that

In 1854 Lincoln made an even stronger protest, this time in the form of eloquent speeches against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s longtime political rival, had rammed this law through a divided Congress. It repealed the earlier ban on the expansion of slavery into territories carved out of the Louisiana Purchase north of latitude 36º 30′. Douglas’s actions opened these territories to slavery and sparked the formation of the new “anti-Nebraska” Republican Party, which would nominate Lincoln for president six years later. Douglas had said that if the white people who moved to Kansas wanted slavery there, they should be allowed to have it. “This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate,” said Lincoln in 1854, “because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself” and also “because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.”

I know Bush is not a reflective human being, but if he were capable of reflection, he might begin by reflecting on his declared indifference to torture, and indeed his covert zeal for it. Lincoln’s observation on slavery applies equally well here. Torture “deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.”

Hypocrites indeed.

Categories: Books, History, Torture

Finishing the Hat

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I had a post two Sundays ago about Paul Simon’s NYT review that day of Stephen Sondheim’s new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. Much as I love Sondheim, I wasn’t prompted to buy the book. This past Sunday, NYT business columnist Joe Nocera had a piece about the book in the arts section.

It turns out that Nocera is a Sondheim fanatic.

When I fall for something, I fall hard. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever fallen as hard for anything as I did for Mr. Sondheim’s music. His songs and shows became central to my life, insinuating themselves into my heart and mind. I’m a business writer, but I’d often find myself, in the middle of trying to write a tough-minded article, haunted by some Sondheim song that I couldn’t get out of my head.

Nocera writes movingly about what Sondheim has meant to him, and about what he learned from the book.

The discordant experience of listening to him while reading him made me think hard, in a way I hadn’t before, about why I found his songs so affecting. Why did his best songs make me cry?

My assumption had always been that Mr. Sondheim’s skills as a composer were the root cause. Back when I was first learning about him, I was stunned to discover that the songs in some of his early shows like “Company” (1970) were originally viewed by some critics as “cold.” To me his music seems the opposite of cold; his melodies have always seemed warm and inviting, while his harmonies have invariably stuck with me. I know nothing about music theory, but I do know that great composers use certain chords and rhythms and harmonies to evoke sadness or joy or melancholy. I suspect that if Mr. Sondheim were to write a book about his music, rather than his lyrics, he would explain just as clinically how he creates mood with harmony.

But reading “Finishing the Hat” made me realize that my assumption had been way too blithe; it was a way of letting myself off the hook. What I had long admired about Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics — what everyone admires, really — was their sheer gleaming intelligence. But what I had been missing — and what I could see, at last, on the page, as I listened to his songs — was their wealth of emotion, and how often they directly spoke to me.

On reading Nocera, I hesitated no longer. I ordered the book last weekend and it came yesterday. No revelations of my own yet. I’m just getting started. But after paging through the Sweeney Todd chapter last night and noticing the multiple appearances of the song Johanna, I couldn’t get its melody out of my head the rest of the night. And the photos are great.

Categories: Books, Music, Theater