Tids and Bits

Thirty years. Ten billion dollars. Launching on Christmas morning, the Webb telescope is finally off the earth and on its way to a point in space one million miles away where it will point its eighteen gold-plated mirrors into deep space, hoping to look back in time to the beginning of the universe. The Webb is far more sensitive, especially at the low infrared radiation frequencies than the Hubble Space Telescope. It is hoped it will succeed and surpass that amazing instrument to study the formation of the universe and the most distant worlds. It will take about six months to maneuver into position and be calibrated, ready for its first observations. Bon Voyage Webb.

General Mills just paid a $300 million dividend to investors and bought back $150 million in stock to enrich executives and investors. It pays its CEO $16 million a year. It makes $2.1 billion a year in profit. It is raising prices on breakfast cereal 20%. It blames “inflation.”

Kentucky Republican Congressman Thomas Massie tweeted a Christmas card picture of himself and his family holding guns around a Christmas tree, four days after four high schoolers were killed in a mass shooting in Michigan. By the end of the day the post received tens of thousands of “likes” as well as 9,000 retweets and about 13,000 comments as of Saturday afternoon, including criticism of his timing. 

Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota once derided the “giant handout” of federal funds. Now she is telling legislators that the $1 billion slated for her state is critical. Other Republican Governors, Senators and Representatives who fought the Democrats tooth and nail and voted against the big budget bill are parading in front of voters telling them what wonderful things they have brought back home to help their constituents. You can’t make this stuff up.

Scores of people in Kentucky and other states have been killed or injured or have seen their homes destroyed in recent tornados and other severe storms. Kentucky’s Senator Rand Paul has consistently opposed disaster relief for other parts of the county when they faced similar crisis, but his hand is out now, begging President Biden, who he criticizes daily, for money. You still can’t make this stuff up either.

Before they took telephone calls from American soldiers stationed around the world President Biden and the First Lady talked with children who had called into the NORAD Santa tracker to see where Santa was on Christmas eve. After a nice cordial chat with four children from Oregon, their father wrapped the conversation up with a vulgar slur against the President which has become popular in right wing social media and cable news channels.

The father, a 35-year-old former cop named Jared Schmeck, responded to criticism like that of one Twitter writer who posted, “Some of us celebrate Christmas Eve with gratitude for the birth of Jesus, others shout obscenities to entertain their son and @YouTube audience,” by complaining that it is HIS right to free speech which is being criticized.

‘Tis the season. Where’s the spirit?


Remakes. Why?

Have you ever seen a remake that was better than the original? Or at least as good as the original? Neither have I. So why do they continue to go down this road? Has Hollywood run out of new ideas?

The entertainment business is a land of superlatives. So, let’s get this out of the way. Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest film directors of all time. Stephen Sondheim is one of the greatest composers/lyricists of all time. West Side Story, in its various incarnations, the book of the 1957 Broadway musical the work of Arthur Laurents, is a modern implementation of the outline drawn by William Shakespeare in his drama Romeo and Juliet and as such, one of the greatest romance stories of all time. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music. Jerome Robbins was the choreographer along with Peter Cennaro. More of the greatest.

The Broadway musical shocked audiences and drew mixed reviews. But it went on to run for 732 performances, was nominated for six Tonys and won for best choreography and best scenic design and has been revived many times in venues around the world.

The 1961 film brought Robert Wise, another of the greatest American film directors, into the creative mix as he and Jerome Robbins, who shared the director’s credit, opened the staging to fill a wide Super Panavision 70 movie screen. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won ten, including best picture. Yes, it is regarded as one of the greatest musical films of all time. It is number ten on Scott’s 100 favorite films.

Despite the film’s success, there has always been lingering dissatisfaction with the finished product. Much of the singing was dubbed, sometimes without the knowledge of the performer. Natalie Wood, “Maria,” for example, knew her contract gave the producers the right to replace her singing voice, but wasn’t informed they were planning from the start to do so.

And as America moved into the new millennium, criticism of the entertainment industry for using white actors to play roles of various colors arose. In that light, the casting of Wood as a Puerto Ricans particularly rankled. It didn’t help that Maria’s brother, Bernardo, was played by George Chakiris, the son of Greek immigrants.

I get the message here. People of color are underrepresented in many fields, including entertainment. The casting of Wood and Chakiris as characters who are Puerto Ricans can be seen as offensive. But these casting criticisms miss the point. These are actors. They are playing roles. They adopt the characteristics of other, often fictitious people. It is their ability to lose themselves in the characters they play that is a mark of their excellence. How can we tie their hands with constraints that they be the character in real life? That’s not acting.

Do you want a rule that only a Puerto Rican can play Maria? Are you willing to limit Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones to Othello, the one Shakespearian role written for a black man? Must a gay actor only play a gay character? And vice versa? I thought not. And our new Maria, Rachel Kegler, is a 20-year-old actor from Clifton, New Jersy. Her family roots are Columbian.

So, let’s forget all this political correctness stuff and head back to the original question. Why? I haven’t been able to answer that one. It is true that New York City, the setting for West Side Story, is much more a character in this Spielberg version than in the original. It is dirtier, grittier, and truer to the Lincoln Square neighborhood of the 1950s. So what? It doesn’t add a thing to the story line.

And the more natural location shots, contrasted with the original film shot on sets built on sound stages, lose the high contrast, stylized, artistic feel of the original. Here movement is realistic to be sure. Every movement is just a movement. In the original, the motion feels like the ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins staged it to be. Here every movement is a work of art.

It was nice to have Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the original film, return as a new character, Valentina, widow of the original’s “Doc,” owner of the corner candy store and hang out. But to assign her the iconic “Somewhere,” originally consigned to Tony and Maria as an expression of their forbidden love? “There’s a place for us. Somewhere, a place for us.” This was most definitely not the place for Somewhere.

I’ve always believed West Side Story is a great American opera, and that the original film is the truest telling of that vision. From the opening dance scene through the dance at the gym to the rumble under the highway to the closing “mad scene” with Maria, standing over Tony’s body and breaking into spoken prose, a cappella. And that moment, in my option, is where Wood’s skill as a dramatic actress is worth the price of your ticket. I heard an interview with Bernstein once arguing that this stylistic change at the end is what takes the work out of the opera category. I have always wished I had been able to meet him and point out that Carmen, which I saw him conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, ends the same way.

Spielberg has directed a decent film. Writer Tony Kushner has delivered a more colloquial script. New York has shown itself off in all its gritty details. But they haven’t produced a work of art. For that, see the original.


Tough Turkey

There is probably no more unfortunate creature on earth than Meleagris gallopavo, the wild and domestic turkey of North America. Forty-six million, according to the National Turkey Federation, were eaten on Thanksgiving Day and I did my share. Despite its name, the web address of the NTF is “eatturkey.org” so I do not believe the foundation is on the side of the bird.

In today’s climate some of us delude ourselves about facts and history while others find it necessary to question everything and be suspicious to a fault. I tend to split the difference.

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“Vive La France”

President Joe Biden told French President Emmanuel Macron that France was an important friend and said the US was “clumsy” in the way the submarine deal with Australia that led to Canberra bailing on an agreement with France was handled. I, for one, breathed a sigh of relief.

Pouilly Fuisse, a white wine from the French region of Burgandy was one of the first wines I ever drank. I am no oenophile, but after decades of wine drinking it has remained one of my favorites. The thought, therefore, of a possible trade war with France as a result of the submarine deal was scary. As to the thought of America having offended French sensibilities, I could have lived with that.

In September Australia backed out of a $66 billion contract with the French to buy twelve new diesel-electric submarines. Instead, it announced plans to buy nuclear powered submarines from the United States, gaining access to technology until this time closely held by the United States and the United Kingdom. Outraged, France temporarily recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia.

It is anybody’s guess what most offended the French. It could simply be the loss of revenue for its defense industry, where $66 billion means a lot more than it does in the United States. There is also a sense of betrayal felt in Paris, a city I have always enjoyed. Critics of the Biden administration quickly dug out the old chestnut about France being America’s first and dearest friend. First yes. Dearest, I’m not so sure.

Yes, Franch support during the American Revolutionary War was critical. France shipped supplies to the Thirteen Colonies in 1775 and signed a Treaty of Alliance in 1778, which led to money, materiel and troops being sent to the United States. Viva Le Marquis de Lafayette!

But this should not give the French a permanent hold on America’s guilt complex. Our Revolutionary War debt has been paid back many times over. One need only look over the nearly ten thousand graves at the American cemetery near Normandy, France to realize that. And the French assistance during the Revolutionary War benefited France in its perpetual competition with the British as much as it helped America. Remember the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The problem for modern day France is that it won’t accept a world where it is no longer a major player. Its empire days are long gone. In a world where America shoulders the responsibility of being the preeminent superpower of the west, first standing against the Soviet Union and now facing China, it needs allies more than friends.

France claims to be such, former French ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud complaining, “They have negotiated [behind] our back for weeks! We are allies. You don’t do that to an ally.”

But France has never been willing to play a supporting role, backstopping the United States. As far back at 1958, 15 years after the coalition led by the United States and Britain liberated Paris and went on to unconditionally defeat Nazi Germany, French General Charles de Gaulle reserved the right to withdraw from NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization created in post war years as a deterrent to the Soviet Union.

The current French government of Emmanuel Macron sees the French role today as a “balancing power” able to maintain an independent position between the United States and China. A weak Australia, struggling to maintain obsolete French built submarines fits right into that strategy. Macron had support from none other that Donald Trump, who favored an insular America, withdrawn from the world stage.

But this is not in the long term interest of Australia, or of the United States. Chinese expansion must be met with resistance by the other nations of Asia and Australia is in a position to play a major role. To protect Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan requires coordination and a firm will. A deployment of strategic forces by Australia in partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom can provide the backbone the nations closer to the Chinese mainland need. And every ship and every base they deploy is one less that America must supply.


Colin Powell 1937-2021

Soldier. Diplomat. Politician. America’s First African American Secretary of State. America’s First African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Colin Powell spent a lifetime setting “firsts.”

President Biden ordered flags flown at half-staff until October 22 in remembrance of Powell, calling him “a patriot of unmatched honor and dignity.”

“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat. He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all,” Mr. Biden added. “Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else — in uniform and out — and it earned him the universal respect of the American people.”

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The First Monday in October

The first Monday in October does not get a special note on most calendars, unless you are in the government or parts of the legal profession. This is the day the Supreme Court of the United States usually begins its term. And this term is expected to be more notable than most for the government’s least visible branch.

The expectations are probably the reason several of the usually reticent judges who sit on the court have been unusually public in their comments and complaints in recent weeks following a three month “recess” which was also unusual for the amount of news it made.

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“Déjà Vu”

I’ve been trying to make sense of it because I’ve been here before. On the left, Saigon, April 29, 1975. On the right Kabul, August 16, 2021. In 1975 I was at my first post school job in the CBS newsroom in Chicago. The helicopters were evacuating Americans and Vietnamese who had worked with Americans as they fought the communists. In 2021, I’m at the other end of my career. The helicopters are taking out Americans and Afghans who worked with Americans as they fought the Taliban. Forty-six years between these similar scenes. It is eerie.

Yes of course there are many differences between the two events. But from my perspective, there are far too many similarities. We do not seem to learn from history. We just repeat it.

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