Featured Post

Click Here for Reviews of "The Tunnels"

Monday, January 23, 2017

Baghdad Bob and the Spicer of Life

After his bold face lies of the weekend, new Trump press secretary Sean Spicer is being compared to none other than the immortal "Baghdad Bob."

Baghdad Bob, of course, was Saddam Hussein’s minister of information, later immortalized on t-shirts, Web sites, and even a DVD for his optimistic, if fanciful, statements about Iraq’s triumph over the American infidels, right up to the point his boss left the building. Baghdad Bob somehow survived and later worked as an Arab TV commentator, sans trademark beret.

Here are a few Baghdad Bob classics from the spring of 2003. See if you can imagine them coming out of the mouth of Spicer, KellyAnne or the Donald speaking to the press today.


“Be assured: Baghdad is safe, protected.”

“The American press is all about lies! All they tell is lies, lies, and more lies!”

“They think that by killing civilians and trying to distort the feelings of the people they will win.”

“We are in control, they are not in control of anything, they don’t even control themselves!”

“The battle is very fierce and God will make us victorious.”

“Those are not Iraqis at all. Where did they bring them from?”

“No, I am not scared, and neither should you be.”

“I blame Al-Jazeera.”

“I would like to clarify a simple fact here: How can you lay siege to a whole country? Who is really under siege now?”

“We’re giving them a real lesson today. Heavy doesn’t accurately describe the level of casualties we have inflicted.”

“I can assure you that those villains will recognize in the future how they are pretending things which have never taken place.”

“They are becoming hysterical. This is the result of frustration.”

“I speak better English than Bush.”

“Just look carefully, I only want you to look carefully. Do not repeat the lies of liars. Do not become like them.”

“The United Nations … it is all their fault.”

“This is unbiased: They are retreating on all fronts. Their effort is a subject of laughter throughout the world.”

“The force that was near the airport, this force was destroyed.”

“They are achieving nothing. Our estimates are that none of them will come out alive unless they surrender to us quickly.”

“They hold no place in Iraq. This is an illusion.”

“My information came from authentic sources. Many authentic sources.”

“Once again, I blame al-Jazeera. Please, make sure of what you say and do not play such a role.”

“I will only answer reasonable questions.”

“These cowards have no morals. They have no shame about lying.”

“You can go and visit those places. Everything is okay. They are not in Najaf. They are nowhere. They are on the moon.”

“My feelings – as usual – we will slaughter them all.”

“We are in control. They are in a state of hysteria. Losers, they think that by killing civilians and trying to distort the feelings of the people they will win. I think they will not win, those bastards.”

“Rumsfeld, he needs to be hit on the head.”

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Me, Donald Trump, and Miss USA

Donald Trump refuses to let his beauty pageant past go.  This reminds me of my only brush with a beauty contest, before Trump took it on--back in 1974, when it was briefly based in my hometown of Niagara Falls, N.Y.   I covered the contest that year for my magazine, Crawdaddy, and wrote a much-too-long cover story, offending many in town with my pro-feminist slant.  I think the headline was something like, "Selling Boobs to the Rubes.'

What was cool that year was that in contrast to many recent winners, the reigning Miss USA (left) was a very un-glossy, intelligent, hip young woman, who was blessed (or blessed herself) with the name Amanda Jones--as in the Rolling Stones song "Miss Amanda Jones"--marched in peace rallies, was pro-choice, and spoken out about feminism (and against the contest itself) during her year on the job.  As she told Bob Barker on the night was crowned: "I'm not the [beauty pageant] type."  She even on occasion asked that she be referred to as "Ms. USA." Imagine that today.

When I interviewed her she was clearly ready to leave the post and promised a surprise for the night of the big telecast.  Sure enough, at the close of the ceremony, as she gave her "final walk" as queen, she looked straight into the camera (and, at that time, still a large TV audience) and gave the famous signal from the recent hit film, The Sting--indicating the whole beauty contest  thing was a sham, a "con."  Good times!  Studs Terkel later interviewed her for a book.  Her Wikipedia entry details it.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Bruce Meets Leonard Cohen

Amazing rarity, Springsteen and band cover live in 1967 Leonard's "Suzanne" in a rock version, actually quite terrific.  Bruce already with his "Backstreets" voice--or it's the recording.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Lego Version of "Dr. Strangelove"

Newly relevant under Trump:  A truly amazing version of Stanley Kubrick's greatest movie --via Legos.   Part II features the good doctor and the "mineshaft gap" scene. Yes, that's the actual dialogue (and voices of actors) from the film. (Also, see wild, original trailer for the film, which was axed by the studio.)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Samurai, I Am

New film out next month on one of the true greats, Toshiro Mifune, who needs no introduction here, I hope.  I met him very briefly once at the Japan Society in NYC, about the time I got one of the rare U.S. interviews in that era (1970s-1980s) with my hero, Akira Kurosawa.  Here is the trailer:

The Best of Townes

I've wanted to do this for awhile, so why not now?   As we mark anniversary of his tragic death.   Some of us--a few of us--consider the late great Townes Van Zandt one of the great American songwriters ever (and great American fuck-up).  You may have heard of him, or not.  You may have heard one or more of his songs, or not (or more likely heard them, even in True Detective, and not known it was by him).  So here's what I consider his greatest, in no order, both his versions or great covers of his songs by others.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Update: My Ten (or Fifteen) Best Movies List

Every year at this time I post my first tentative, incomplete list of best movies of the year--with a few additions to come. I see a lot of movies, including many indie, foreign and doc, but unlike "real" critics, I don't get invited to screenings and so, at this point, I have not seen all the contenders.  So, missing below--for now--are likely adds,  Toni Erdmann, I Am Not Your Negro, and Camerapeson, among others (maybe "Paterson," as well).  Also, I have probably forgotten a couple movies and docs from earlier in the year, and will also have to add them later...So here we go, from what I can say now, in approximate order.

Manchester By the Sea
Hell or High Water
The Witness
The Innocents
A War
La La Land
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The Lobster
The Tower
20th Century Women
O.J. Made in America
My Love, Don't Cross That River
City of Gold

Note:  Have seen Fences and Elle in past week and despite fine performances too long and disappointing. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

One Hooker to Remember

The late great John Lee Hooker with the astounding "I Cover the Waterfront," with a little help from Van the Man and, below that, his much earlier version.  John Lee also did greatest version of "Gloria," if you were wondering. 

A Socialist Who Nearly Won "The Campaign of the Century"

A famous longtime Socialist,  the white-haired maverick led a grassroots movement to unexpectedly challenge the Democratic party establishment in a raucous primary campaign.   His opponent was a well-known pillar of the party with many years on the national stage and as an official in Washington who was the natural frontrunner.   He and others within the party admitted that they rather liked the challenger, and that many of his ideas were good ones, but wildly impractical; and as the the Democratic nominee, he would drag the party down to certain defeat in November, even with a mass movement behind him.    If nothing else, the "Socialist" tag would doom him, even with a liberal Democrat presently in the White House.

We are talking, of course, of Senator Bernie Sanders--but also, famed muckraking author Upton Sinclair.    In Sinclair's case, the campaign was for governor of California.   The amazing grassroots movement was known as EPIC, for End Poverty in California.  And, surprise, Sinclair would win the Democratic primary, in a landslide.  His campaign would become one of the most influential of the century, echoing down to this day.      

The year was 1934; the president was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The economic crisis FDR faced was far worse than what President Obama confronts today, but some similarities exist.   Sinclair was not Bernie Sanders, but his campaign provides many lessons for Sanders supporters and opponents--and media analysts--today.

Of all the left-wing mass movements that year, Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) crusade proved most influential, and not just in helping to push the New Deal to the left. The Sinclair threat—after he easily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary—so profoundly alarmed conservatives that it sparked the creation of the modern political campaign in America. Profiling two of the creators of the anti-Sinclair campaign, Carey McWilliams would later call this (in The Nation) "a new era in American politics—government by public relations." It also provoked Hollywood’s first all-out plunge into politics, which, in turn, inspired the leftward tilt in the movie colony that endures to this day. 

Back in the autumn of 1934, political analysts, financial columnists and White House aides for once agreed: Sinclair’s victory in the primary marked the high tide of electoral radicalism in the United States. Left-wing novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a piece for Esquire declaring EPIC "the most impressive political phenomenon that America has yet produced." The New York Times called it "the first serious movement against the profit system in the United States."

Sinclair lost in November, but the inspiring success of his mass movement basically created the liberal wing of the state’s Democratic Party, which  endures to this day.   (My book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, has been published in new print and e-book editions.)

* * *
Nearly three decades after his classic novel The Jungle (1906) exposed dangerous and abusive conditions in the meatpacking industry, Sinclair decided, "You have written enough. What the world needs is a deed." Sinclair, who had moved to California in 1916, had written dozens of influential books while finding time to spark numerous civil liberties and literary controversies, get arrested and become perhaps the best-known American leftist abroad.

He had twice run for governor of California on the Socialist line, to little avail, but the election of FDR in 1932 encouraged him to give the Democrats a whirl. While he backed the New Deal, he saw that it did not go nearly far enough. Hugh Johnson, who ran Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, had allowed big business to subvert its codes, and a national textile strike loomed. Nearly one in four people was on relief in New York, with the numbers only slightly better in many other large cities. Adequate relief payments and some form of social security were promised but still unrealized.

So the country’s best-known member of the Socialist Party switched his affiliation to Democrat and used his pen one more time, writing and self-publishing a sixty-four-page pamphlet, I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty. Then he set out to make his fantasy true.

Although Sinclair could draw thousands of votes on name recognition alone, he considered a grassroots movement his greatest hope. Thousands quickly rallied to his cause, organizing End Poverty League clubs across the state.

Note to Obama: a detailed, step-by-step plan—"a way out," as Sinclair put it—and a steely will help. Recall the absurd limits and confusion of the Obama healthcare bill and then consider this promise: "End Poverty in California." It doesn’t obfuscate, qualify or compromise (at least in advance). And it doesn’t include an addendum, "if only we had the money or GOP support."

Sinclair, in a nutshell, outlined a classic production-for-use plan, where all of the unemployed would be put to work in shuttered factories or on unused farms, with goods traded, providing necessities. No one would go hungry or homeless. The elderly and infirm would get relief or pensions. Co-ops would receive state aid. Another plank in the platform: open up discarded studio lots and help out-of-work movie people make their own films. Naturally, this caused most of the Hollywood studio chiefs to threaten to move their operations to Florida.

Many who sympathized with Sinclair—including his friend McWilliams, the young California writer and future Nation editor—found some devil in the details, but the candidate promised to junk what didn’t or couldn’t work.

A pen his only weapon, Sinclair led an army of crazed utopians, unemployed laborers, Dust Bowl refugees and all-purpose lefties to take on "the vested interests." He noted, "Our opponents have told you that all of this is socialism and communism. We are not the least worried." I, Governor became the bestselling book in the state. EPIC clubs kept popping up like mushrooms, funded largely by bake sales, rodeos and rallies; and a weekly newspaper, the EPIC News, reached a circulation of nearly 
1 million by primary day in August 1934.

Sinclair swept the Democratic primary. Dozens of EPIC candidates also won races for the party’s nod for the State Senate and Assembly, including Augustus Hawkins and Jerry Voorhis, both future Congressmen. "It is a spontaneous movement which has spread all over the state by the unpaid labor of tens of thousands of devoted workers," Sinclair noted. "They were called amateurs but they have put all the professional politicians on the shelf." All that stood between EPIC and the governor’s mansion was a hapless GOP hack named Frank "Old Baldy" Merriam, who had become governor after the death of "Sunny Jim" Rolph.

Where did FDR stand? A few days after winning the primary, Sinclair took a train east to meet with the president at Hyde Park, under the glare of national press coverage. The White House was torn. Sinclair was a true radical and a loose cannon. Roosevelt and his political director, Jim Farley, feared that the president, already accused by the right of being a socialist—led by Father Coughlin, the Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh of his day—could not afford this taint. Those tilting to the left, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, were far more enthusiastic about EPIC. And then there was the rather significant matter of Sinclair being the party’s nominee in a year when controlling a major statehouse was vitally important. FDR believed the greatest challenge for the head of a democracy was not to fend off reactionaries but to reconcile and unite progressives.

During the Hyde Park meeting FDR suggested that "experiments" within the overall New Deal framework could be valuable. Sinclair was elated, but the president held off any public endorsement.

Meanwhile, EPIC organizing surged in California. The number of local chapters was now more than 800, and circulation of the EPIC News reportedly hit a staggering 2 million. Black precincts that had reliably voted Republican (the legacy of Lincoln) now split down the middle. Even a few Hollywood screenwriters, such as Dorothy Parker, who normally kept their politics under wraps in the right-wing movie colony, spoke out for Sinclair. So did Charlie Chaplin.

But "the vested interests" organized the most lavish and creative dirty-tricks campaign ever seen—one that was to become a landmark in American politics. There’s far too much to describe in this limited space (it’s the focus of my book), but it involved turning over a major campaign to outside advertising, publicity, media and fundraising consultants for the first time. What was left of the official GOP campaign was chaired by a local district attorney named Earl Warren.

California’s newspapers, led by William Randolph Hearst and Harry Chandler, covered only Merriam’s activities, while mocking Sinclair day after day with quotes from books and novels taken out of context. (Chandler’s Los Angeles Times referred to Sinclair’s "maggot-like horde" of supporters.) Hollywood moguls, besides threatening the move to Florida, docked most employees a day’s pay, giving the proceeds directly to Merriam’s coffers. Millions of dollars to defeat Sinclair poured in from business interests across the country, all off the books. And then there were the attack ads (i.e., newsreels) shown in movie theaters around the state, created by the saintly film producer Irving Thalberg, causing near-riots in some places.  (You can watch excerpts and other vintage video here.) 

FDR, displaying an Obama-like tendency, waited, refusing to make a bold move to help Sinclair ward off the savagely unfair assaults. As a result, Sinclair fell behind in the polls—and then the president was advised to not endorse a probable loser. Farley sent an emissary to California to strike a deal with Merriam: if the GOP governor promised to back the New Deal down the road, the White House would remain silent on Sinclair.

The EPIC fervor continued right up to election day. Activists, looking at their numbers and energy, were certain their candidate would prevail. Sinclair, in fact, would receive almost 900,000 votes, twice the total ever for a Democrat in the state, but would still finish about 200,000 votes behind Merriam. Revealing the true strength of the grassroots movement, however, two dozen EPICs won election to the state legislature, including Hawkins and Culbert Olson. The legacy of the EPIC campaign? Merriam did embrace much of the New Deal, providing at least some fresh help for suffering Californians. Responding to the Hollywood moguls’ outrages during the campaign, actors and writers turned left and feverishly bolstered their fledgling guilds.

On the national scene, Sinclair’s strong showing encouraged Minnesota Governor Floyd Olson to predict an agrarian revolt that would bring down "the profit system," and five left-wing Congressmen called a conference to explore a third-party bid. Lewis Schwellenbach won a Senate contest in the Northwest on the End Poverty in Washington platform. The La Follettes and their Progressive Party pretty much took over Wisconsin, where a modern maverick, Senator Russ Feingold, faces a tough re-election fight this year.

Emboldened by the results of the midterm elections and Sinclair’s strong showing, Harry Hopkins near the end of 1934 proposed a comprehensive program, dubbed End Poverty in America, which the New York Times said "differs from Mr. Sinclair’s in detail, but not in principle." Along with other popular movements—from the Townsend Plan pension crusaders to Huey Long in Louisiana—EPIC exerted a leftward pressure on the New Deal, strongly influencing FDR’s groundbreaking legislation on Social Security and public works. The "Second New Deal," which also included the Works Progress Administration and National Labor Relations Act, would be more prolabor and antibusiness than the first.

A lesson for today? Mobilizing to prove grassroots support for a "radical" option usually produces positive results, even if that’s not certain immediately. It wasn’t exactly an EPIC movement, but as Ari Berman showed in his book Herding Donkeys, Howard Dean’s 2004 race for president—and the once-mocked "fifty-state strategy" he carried out as Democratic Party chief two years later—led to Obama’s election in 2008. Berman also pointed out that part of Obama’s problem is that as president he ignored much of his grassroots operation, once in office.

Revealing another typical result, the EPIC campaign split over whether to remain in the election business or align with the co-op movement and other groups outside the party system. When Sinclair returned to writing books, the End Poverty League and the EPIC News slowly declined, revealing the dangers of depending too much on one inspiring figure to lead a mass movement. Of course, we saw this years later with Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, not to mention with Ross Perot and his "movement."

Still, a backlash against the GOP tactics in the ’34 campaign helped push Culbert Olson to election in 1938 as the state’s first Democratic governor in decades—defeating Merriam by 200,000 votes. Olson hired Sinclair’s pal McWilliams to direct the state immigration and housing agency.

Many years after the Sinclair race, McWilliams remarked that he still came across EPIC cafes "in the most remote and inaccessible communities of California" and EPIC slogans "painted on rocks in the desert, carved on trees in the forest and scrawled on the walls of labor camps." While he questioned Sinclair’s ability to govern, he hailed his "conviction that poverty was man-made, that you didn’t need it."

This is perhaps the greatest message of the EPIC campaign, but are Democrats listening today in Washington?  And as the Sinclair campaign showed, the Republican reaction to a popular grassroots campaign would be truly frightening.

In a New York Times column, Bob Herbert, with a touch of anger, declared a few years ago, "Election Day is approaching, but neither party cares to focus on the nightmare facing millions of Americans who have been laid low by unemployment, home foreclosures, personal bankruptcies, and jobs that offer only part-time work, lousy pay and absolutely no benefits…. Weirder still is that even Democrats who should know better are buying into this self-defeating austerity posture." Herbert concluded by calling on all of us to "take our cue from the best moments in American history, when the nation rolled up its sleeves and placed the interests of ordinary people at the top of its agenda."

Surely, the EPIC crusade of 1934 was one of those moments. But the eternal debate—work within or outside the two-party system?—continues, as well it should.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Click Here for Reviews of "The Tunnels"

Just a reminder that Crown has launched a cool site devoted to my upcoming book The Tunnels, and I have been blogging there, related to that, while continuing on other subjects here.  It includes videos, photos, excerpts from the book and posts derived from it (including U2 and Springsteen and an MGM drama), and naturally the latest early acclaim for the book and blurbs from well-known writers.   So far there's praise from the Washington Post, The Guardian and Christian Science Monitor, a "starred" review from Publishers Weekly, a rave from Kirkus, and blurbs from Bill Moyers, Alan Furst, Frederick Forsyth and others.