Sunday, September 24, 2006

Saturday night archived

Eric Deggans' media blog at touched off a night watching old Nat Cole clips on YouTube. I'm a bit older than Deggans, with dim but persistent memories of "The Nat 'King' Cole Show" and other variety fare from the late 1950s. Network TV would air jazz and classical music then because the programmers thought of their audience as sentient beings.

By 1956 Cole was a mainstream pop singer like Perry Como or Dinah Shore, yet NBC scheduled Cole with neither a synergistic RCA record contract nor a network sponsor. Advertisers feared a Southern boycott. The biography by Mary Ann Watson for the Museum of Broadcast Communications quotes an embittered Cole: "A man sees a Negro on a television show. What's he going to do — call up the telephone company and tell them to take out the phone?"

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pynchon's America

VinelandThomas Pynchon can be as arcane and non-linear as James Joyce. His California wine-country fantasy "Vineland" is more fun — a cross between Tom Robbins and Philip K. Dick — which makes "Vineland" worth exploring as Pynchon's new novel nears publication.

Mucho Maas, a ex-druggie with a Dubyaesque conversion experience, explains how the flower children of 1967 (those who hadn't become zombies) could lose their drug-induced clarity by 1984: "Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it's what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it's what rock and roll is becoming — just another way to claim our attention ..."

Pynchon's take on Reagan as Big Brother now reads as a foretaste of Justice under Bush. His alternate America supported state surveillance in the guise of keeping us safe, with the feds free to settle personal scores unchecked. At least until the tax cuts catch up with them.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Name the true democrat

Kathy CummingsKathy Cummings is a retired schoolteacher who has struck up pleasant conversations with me on my dog-walking trips to Humboldt Park. This summer she was circulating petitions to run against Cindy Soto as Green Party candidate for state rep.

I didn't sign -- Chicago's political insurgents, even the ineffectual Soto, seem more effective working within the party. And the Greens' spoilsport role in the 2000 presidential election still marks it as unsafe at any speed. But the political hardball playing out now in gubernatorial and Cook County races make the dreamy Greens look more appealing.

So I was glad to hear that Cummings had gathered more than twice the necessary petitions to get on the ballot, and disheartened by Ben Joravsky's report that Chicago Dems have successfully challenged those ballots.

Cummings went so far as to repeat her canvass with a notary in tow, so far to no avail. My signature squiggle most certainly would have faced challenge. So now it's personal: As a resident of Cook County, I have lost my right to petition.

Update: A federal appeals court has challenged the state's requirements for independent candidates.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Gronk's last stand

Lon Grahnke's obit ran when I was in Kansas City, and I finally learned through Dave Hoekstra's blog of Grahnke's death at 56. But Gronk would have appreciated that I was off on a White Sox road trip.

Better known as the Sun-Times' TV critic in the 1990s, he was also a meticulous editor whose style influenced mine, if for no other reason that it was right out there in red ink on copy paper stacked on my desk. As a copy editor in the suburban bureau I had to check that manuscript against what was in the computer, even though the reporter who had typed it for computer entry had made the same "CQ" checks.

Lon in fact taught me copy editing. He hired me from minimal clips, even knowing that reporter Jim Ritter, for whom he had been spilling much of that red ink, was my college editor. Lon lectured me about the gravity of the three errors I had made on his hiring test, never telling me that other applicants had performed abysmally.

Before I wrote my first headlines in the Sun-Times I practiced in pencil for Lon's review, at his instruction rewriting every line that ended with a preposition. His concern with such egregious breaches of style held me in good stead later in the downtown newsroom, even if hanging prepositions didn't seem to trouble the slot men there. By then Lon had graduated from reviewing movies for Suburban Week to editing Roger Ebert.

Lon's slide into Alzheimer's (he left the Sun-Times in 2001) was truly tragic. He likely remembered much more about those days 25+ years ago than I did, and much more than he knew of his own final years.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

History's fair deal to Truman

INDEPENDENCE, Mo.—Lincoln, Truman and George W. Bush graduated to the presidency from undistinguished military and business careers, and with parochial political histories. Comparisons of the three "war presidents" are hard to avoid on a trip to the Truman Library outside Kansas City.

Truman quickly faced bracing challenges — the Bomb, nation building, the Cold War, the Middle East. His public approval was low; the pundits were harsh. Truman has only grown in stature. Will the same be said of Bush?

The new Lincoln Museum reinterprets the 16th president for the age of the 43rd, notably rendering the 1860 presidential campaign as a series of TV attack ads. The Truman Library measures the 33rd president on his own terms, in handwritten notes. Truman's Oval Office (left) shows television as the newest piece of furniture, an untested political tool.

It's getting harder to imagine an age in which Lincoln could maintain open office hours, or Truman could campaign with whistle-stops rather than 30-second spots. But ex-Gov. George Ryan, sentenced today on corruption charges, is just one of many reminders of how politics combines grand and petty gestures. History favors politicians who distrust both impulses.