Monday, September 05, 2005

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

American Fatwah - What a country

Did you see where Pat Robertson issued a fatwah on Hugo Chavez's head? Jesus! Now, if Chavez he does get hit, either by a Born-Again doing the reverend's business or some crazy Venezuelan, we'll get blamed and there'll be Latino rucksackers on the Florida Gold Coast. And, you know, we're at a real disadvantage at this asymmetrical war stuff. You can't send a carrier task force against some suicide-belted guy up from the slums of Caracas. Not to mention, what happens if El Presidente dies of natural causes? I think I'll watch Bananas again and see how Cosell handled it.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Nonsense - Italian Style

As those who read this column know, I'm a liberal, and damn proud of it. But Giuliana Sgrena -- the former hostage in Iraq, who works for the communist rag Il Manifesto, pushes a particularly virulent form of Euroland paranoia.

She actually claims she may have been a target! in the accidental shooting of Nicola Calipari, the brave Italian security agent who died protecting her. It's pure nonsense -- even to entertain the notion -- we were gunning for her because the Italians paid ransom to terrorists. We may not like ransom payoffs, it is not our policy, but even the Bush administration is incapable (and that includes intellectually) of such Machiavellian contretemps.

That comes from an unreformed Scoop Jackson Democrat, thank you very much. And I'll just drop the Mc Auliffe line in here -- NUTS!

Sunday, February 13, 2005

In This Corner, The Radical Lefty Pinkos

The Motion Picture Association of America should take a hint. All that swirling controversy around Million Dollar Baby and you'd think maybe the MPAA would come up with some new ratings.

I was watching Inherit the Wind the other day, and Spencer Tracy was clearly promoting evolution, the pinko bastard.

And now Clint Eastwood pushing the liberal agenda with his 'boxing' picture. I mean I don't want to have to think when I plunk down ten bucks, now do I? Just give me that popcorn in a bucket and entertain me.

So Dan Glickman and his ilk (he's not in Kansas, anymore) ought to add to G, PG, PG-13, R, and the what is it, again, NC-17?

How about LT-25 (Light Thinking - adolescence are warned some material contains a soupçon of introspection)

And DT-65+ (Deep Thought - adults are strongly cautioned this film requires serious cerebral attention). Feel free to add your own.

Iraqi Voters: Dizzy from the Count?

Those eight million Iraqi voters sure in hell were motivated. Dashing through the Gelignite and into the polling stations, they were confronted by a mind-numbing list of party slates. And we didn't even get them all:

Islamic Da'wah Party
Constitutional Monarchy Movement
Iraqi Islamic Liberation Party
Iraqi Justice and Development Party
Iraqi National Accord
Council of Baghdad Notables [did they mean notaries?]
National Reconciliation Movement.
Islamic Democratic Current Party.
Islamic Movement of Kurdistan
Kurdistan Islamic Group
[Good ole'] Iraqi Communist Party.
Kurdistan Islamic Union
Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party
Kurdistan Toilers' Party [the sorrow and woe vote]
Ahl Al-Sunna wa al-Jama'a
Assyrian Democratic Movement
Assyrian National Congress
Assyrian Patriotic Party
Assyrian Socialist Party
Bayt al-Nahrayn Democratic Party
l-Da'wah Al-Islamiyah Party.
Al-Fudala Society.
Constitutional Monarchy Movement
National Democratic Party
Democratic Monarchy Alliance
Free Iraq Council
Free Iraqi Society Party
Al-Fudella Comedians Homeland Alliance [just kidding - checking to see if you read this far]
Democratic Monarchy Alliance [the bring back the Faisals guys]
Muslim Ulama Council
Free Democratic Homeland Party
Free Officers and Civilians Movement
Grouping of Free Iraqis
Higher Council for National Salvation
Independent Iraqi Democrats/Democratic Centrist Tendency [caused the ballot to present as a spreadsheet]
Iraqi Democratic Center Party
Iraqi Homeland Party
Iraqi Islamic Forces Union
Iraqi Islamic Party
Iraqi Justice and Development Party
Iraqi National Alliance (INA)
Iraqi National Congress (INC) [a.k.a. Ahmad Chalabi, Inc.]
Iraqi National Movement
Iraqi Officers Movement
Iraqi National Rally (INR)
Iraqi Turkoman Birth Party
Turkoman National Association
Al-Sadr II Movement. [Muqtada's band of merry men]
Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq
Turkomaneli Party

. . . Stop! There are even more - with descriptions, yet - courtesy of Kathleen Ridolfo

#30# (whew,finally)

Sunday, February 06, 2005

On Second Blush: Sistani Plays it Chill

From the beginning, the Grand Ayatollah Sistani played the game well, too well. He jawboned and outmaneuvered the 'coalition' into holding the election now. While Moqtada Sadr screamed, Sistani whispered. He looked like the the solid non-threatening cleric we could deal with. The nonthreatening 'Negro' -- Joe Lewis to Sadr's Jack Johnson. Will we take anything as long as there's no civil war? The Shia are making noises; there won't be too much Islam in the yet-to-be written constitution they say -- but in some parts of the south, local judges are already imposing Shariah.

At first blush the Iraqi elections looked like a victory for neo-con deep think -- was it? The outcome may be too early to call -- but it looks from here like creeping theocracy is the winnah!

Islamic Constitution in Iraq

Leaves and Conceits: El Restaurante Fidel


After the Cubans issued that ridiculous 50 Peso stamp in my likeness, I was deluged by e-mails asking about my association with Fidel. The rumor-mongering has reached such a fever pitch, both here in New York and in certain corners of Foggy Bottom, I feel compelled to set the record straight.

It was in the early '50's that I first met Fidel, and looking back on it now, I must admit, honestly, that I did play a role -- quite innocuously really -- in the revolutionary events that swept Cuba just a few, short years later. In those days I was working for the old New York Herald Tribune as the weekend restaurant critic. Fidel had come to my attention, not as politician or chef, but as budding intellectual who had established himself as an enfant terrible among New York’s literati.

One night at Norman Mailer's I was introduced to this intense young man. We spent the better part of the evening getting to know one another and debating our favorite subjects: food, baseball, and especially, politics. I recall at one point Fidel asked if I knew the difference between capitalism and communism. The old joke came to mind: “Under capitalism,” I told him, “Man oppresses Man; and under Communism, it's the other way around.” Fidel stared at me for a moment, and then laughed and laughed before announcing he could easily shoot me in “uno de sus testículos” with the zip gun he carried. After that, we became fast friends.

His appreciation of cuisine—French, German, Spanish of course, even Japanese—was phenomenal, and it came as no surprise that he wished to pursue a career as a chef. My inclination was to discourage him and I cautioned it would take years to become a master, even with his enthusiasm and expertise. Besides, at that time I felt the trend in foods was moving toward triple-decker finger sandwiches, and tuna on rye in a can. [later of course, I was proven correct].

To my surprise, a few months later Fidel telephoned and asked if I might dine at his new restaurant in the theatre district. Never for an instant did I dream the review which came out of that evening's repast, and is reprinted here, would have the most profound geopolitical consequences:

Full Course Dither

Two blocks west of Broadway and just down the street from Wizzo's Puppet Theatre, El Restaurante Fidel is humming softly. Its magenta neon sign and mock Carrara marble facade achieve a peculiar synthesis that beckons diners. And at the door, beaming, with cigar in hand and crouton crumbs sprinkled through a wiry beard, stands a relaxed and gregarious Chef Fidel. It is an attitude though he has failed to impart to his staff.

With its stark and minimalist style, the decor of El Restaurante Fidel is the antithesis of its rich and complex cuisine. Scattered among pieces of patio furniture and the occasional Che's lounge are glass-topped tables awash in the glare of massive flood lights (which appear to have been purloined from the set of ‘Stalag 17’). Ignoring this minor inconvenience, and the regular party of bandoleer-clad men in green fatigues who increase the decibel level a notch higher than a mahjong party at the Hadassah, the setting provides a unique background for a palatable dinner.

Chef Fidel, who worked briefly with Marcel at Restaurant Leslie before striking out on his own, often comes to the table to engage patrons in lively conversation. With his billowy white chef's hat worn slightly askew and a finger waving in the air for emphasis, Fidel will good-naturedly respond to diners' questions for hours on end, generally from a prepared text. Just as we think this delightfully large gnome of a man will never stop his incessant banter, and we are ready to faint straight away, out from the kitchen pour cadres of waiters with delicious cream puffs filled with buttery liver mousse. Only the most self-disciplined among us could avoid asking for seconds of this appetizer, or for that matter the chewy policastro rolls accompanying them.

Of course, one may quarrel with the piquant taste of the Chef's gazpacho, but for those who value the insouciance of a soup flavored to evoke an admixture of seven-alarm chili, it was effectively seasoned. Most of the entrees were as reliable as the appetizers. With few exceptions the restaurant uses the finest ingredients, and when a dish does not quite measure up, it is because Chef Fidel is preoccupied with his other duties: teaching the intricacies of samba to Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers, or committing to memory the complete works of Mickey Spillane.

One night for instance, while the strains of Cugat wafted rhythmically from the kitchen, Bertrand Russell stopped by and ordered lobster. When the entree should have been served, Raoul, the headwaiter, appeared and announced somberly that Chef Fidel had burned all the crustaceans. Russell was disconsolate, but eventually settled on the schnitzel. Raoul, puffing on a giant Havana, shook his head disapprovingly and whispered, “Try the halibut.” After some thought, Lord Russell shouted, “Yes, but I am already wearing a bib!” Raoul acceded to this elegant bit of logic and soon found another lobster—although it was short and squat and appeared to have wings.

Desserts, with the exception of a flaccid Banana meringue cake, were luscious and extravagant, particularly the crème brulee prepared by Chef Fidel himself. Not until we asked for Kaiserschmarren and Salzburger nockerl were we told they had to be ordered in advance, and then only if we brought Paul Muni's hat.

In the end, sadly, a brilliant chef is defeated by the shortcomings of a surly dining room staff. The service is unprofessional and rude, even when the restaurant is not full. One waiter insisted that it was our responsibility to tell him what was wrong with the food we left on our plate, “down to the very last fig.” And had Chef not intervened, we were prepared to leave the premises after two waiters appeared in zookeepers' uniforms and threw us mackerel from a bucket. While admiration abounds for our charming host, an evening at Restaurante Fidel is and ‘iffy’ affair at best.

New York Herald Tribune (1954)

Naturally, Fidel understood there was nothing personal in my review. Actually, he was quite gracious about it and laughed and laughed before he kicked me ‘en mis testículos.’ Almost immediately he set about to improve the restaurant. Fidel announced he would go to the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba—there he could find first-rate macaroons with which to prepare a russe that, in his words, "would change the way we view dessert." Fidel wrote me many times from those mountains. In the months that followed he was to grow increasingly morose, gradually abandoning his idea of ‘El Russe Grande.’

In the autumn of 1955 I received a last letter. Fidel had come full circle. He now rejected the notion of haute cuisine entirely, dismissing it as a bourgeois fantasy. In a final, bitter irony, he wrote: "How can I think of sumptuous desserts when the peasants are forced to eat ginger snaps from a tin? Yes my friend, it is only now that I come to recognize the dialectic nature of your review. I shall always be grateful to you for pointing the way."

The months have now turned to years. That little bistro two blocks west of Broadway has become Flo's Video Barn and Body Rub. And the truth of it is, in all that time I never heard from Fidel again.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Iraq: Abu Fizzles While Baghdad Yearns

Very bright. Maybe Abu (call me Musab) al-Zarqawi and Osama aren't that bright. It's a tad more obvious with the one-eyed Afghan dribbler Mullah Omar - the guy we seldom mention, the same guy who destroyed those Buddhist carved cliff statues, and anyone who had the temerity to look at Omar cock-eye. Him I can understand. Cognitive deficits. But Abu and Osama? They made George W. look good today. It may not last long, but what were they thinking? Blowing up Iraqis as they went to the polls, threatening to behead their children? Very appealing as a leaflet icebreaker. The guy's a foreigner, for Christ's sake. Zarqawi succeeded in focusing the wrath of the average Iraqi (including more than a few Sunnis) away from the U.S. 'occupiers' and onto his own band of Bush-league bullies.

The smart move would have been to go to the mattresses against the infidels in company C, not the infidel Baghdadis. Someone send him a DVD of the Godfather.

The Iraqis will now want some high flyer results, or the balloon deflates big time. Let's give it to them; they deserve it.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

At Sea in the Persian Gulf

There was a hyper paranoid film released at the tail end of the Cold War called “Red Dawn." In it, a band of midwestern teens fights to save America from invading Soviet forces. Not all those teenagers were young Republicans -- some, I suspect, were left-wingers with a few full-blown pinkos thrown in, to boot. Nationalism trumps ideology every time.

So what makes vice president Cheney think if we muscled our way into Iran, bands of Persian teens would be breaking out the garlands and flowers? Unless it's simplistic public psych-opp bluster, the administration is actually contemplating taking apart the Iranian nuclear program (such as it is). Another wonderful example of muddled non policy. Why did we go into Iraq, again? Wolfowitz et. al. must be gathering on the White House lawn nightly and howling at the moon.

We'll either change the face of the Mideast (as though they haven’t been trying for the last thousand years) or there'll be a second Bush's Folly. Left to their own devices, those Iranian teenagers may very well use those flowers to supplant the aging mullahs who have run Iran into the ground. So just let them do it.

The Brits were far better hegemons; we seem to be making a mess of it. To be honest, I had rather have a bit of Kissinger realpolitik than neo-con naivety.

Leaves and Conceits: George Burns at Hillcrest


I didn’t know him really, but I went to the funeral anyway. After all, it was the end of a show business era. The last of the great vaudevillians, Maxie Marko, was gone. There were others of course – Jolson, Burns and Benny, Fanny Brice, Jessel, Cantor to name a few. I did know some of them -- especially Nattie -- but that was later on. In the old days, these vaudevillians were real Broadway hounds, hitting all the hot spots from El Morocco, with its zebra pattern upholstered booths, to breakfast at a bustling Lindy’s, where tourists gobbled up the legendary cheesecake. Vaudevillians, for the most part, really liked to eat. And, yes, they liked to drink, too — but most of all they loved to entertain.

Not that life was always so glamorous in show business. Sometimes it could be downright dangerous. Why, the buck and wing man, Malachy Moore, was once shot in the leg by an irate customer outside the Belasco Theater because he wouldn’t do an encore. Of course, you couldn’t do an encore unless you were next to closing. It was right there in the contract. Moore bought a polished wooden dummy from Eddie Dale and became a ventriloquist so he could sit on a stool during performances. Dale got the dummy back pretty quick because the act died at the Morosco. But that was Broadway.

Years later, when vaudeville itself was dying, talent started moving to California where there was work in pictures and eventually television. That's where I first met George Burns -- his friends called him Nattie. It was 1956, and I was a kid doing rewrites at Fox. Now, Fox Studios was on Pico Boulevard just across the street from the famous Hill Crest Country Club.

Back in the 40's, most country clubs refused to admit members of the ‘Hebraic persuasion,’ so Jewish performers founded Hillcrest. Not many of them actually played golf, so I guess it must have been the principle of the thing. Ironically, as it turned out, The Hillcrest Country Club was exclusively Jewish -- Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, George Burns, Danny Kaye, and the Hollywood moguls Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer were members. Those two studio powerhouses didn’t always get along. One time Mayer punched Sam Goldwyn in the nose while they were taking a ‘spritz’ in the in the steam room. MGM was never the same.

When the club finally decided to open membership to non-Jews, they didn’t exactly push the envelope. Their first choice was Danny Thomas, a Lebanese Catholic, who looked -- well, very Jewish. I mean they weren’t asking Randoph Scott or Van Johnson or anything.

Anyway, I used to sneak into Hillcrest every morning for breakfast. I loved the heady atmosphere of the Club’s dining room, with its high-backed chairs and white linen tablecloths -- not to mention the terrific food and select company. One Thursday morning, I sat at a small table, settled in and ordered my usual. I still savor that breakfast because it turned out to be the best one of my life.

I had a cup of coffee and was eating smoked sturgeon and rye toast. Suddenly a hand reached in and grabbed a piece of sturgeon.

“Hey!” I shouted, turning around. It was George Burns.

“I wanted some of yours,” he said. “You know, the non-members’ food – it always tastes better."

“You're a real comedian.”

“No, I'm a straight man, that's why I wanted yours.”

“Mr. Burns, whose breakfast is this?”

“If you were eating it, it would be yours . . . Kid, I stopped by to tell you, you’ve got a good agent.”

“And you know this because . . . ?”

“Well, for one, apparently he’s booked you into the Hillcrest for breakfast.”

“That’s funny,” I said, meaning it.

“And second, Swifty Lazar is my agent, too, so he’s a very good agent. Oh, and third, he sent me over some of your material.”

“How was the third?” I asked, trying to appear nonchalant.

“I’m here, aren’t I? I could use another joke writer. That way when Groucho insults me I can tell him, ‘You wouldn’t talk that way about me if my new writer was around.’”

“Are you hiring me Mr. Burns?”

“Hire is a strong word, kid, but think about it. . . . You know, if you don’t mind maybe I could have another small piece of the sturgeon there?”

Well, I said it was the best breakfast of my life, not the biggest. I did think about it, how thoughtfully is open to question since I gave him my answer just as he was polishing off the last of the sturgeon.

“Mr. Burns you’ve got yourself a new writer,” I said . . . after that, I always called him Nattie.

Monday, January 17, 2005

American Lysenkoism

Creationism and one of its progeny, the hoch-sounding 'intelligent design,' seem to be a big hit these days -- in Pennsylvania yet. Parents Sue Schools over 'Intelligent Design'

That's Ed Rendell's state isn't it? It's a blue state. Are we all nuts? I mean Darwin had it right, after all. Those monkeys have 98% percent of our DNA. And we and the chimps should be damn proud of it. On the plus side, this raging Republican fundamentalism could serve up a swell ticket for the Dems in 2008. How about Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes? Well, who said I couldn't dream? Incidentally, for all those on the religious right reading this -- both of them - it's not exactly a terrific euphemism. I'm pretty sure Intelligent Design were the folks who redid my kitchen last year.

Titan tossed at the Times

It's amazing how underreported the Huygens landing on Titan has been. The Sunday Times Link had it buried on page 6: "Scientists Floored by Photos From Titan." Yeah, okay, so where were the pics? I suppose it could have something to do with ESA, the European Space Agency, being in the lead on this one. Not the French and Germans again?

The Huygens probe landing is a big deal. It ranks right up there with the Armstrong-Aldrin walkabout. Titan appears to be a living, breathing (if a tad hostile) place, with shorelines and lakes and water ice. At 300 below, just zip up the parker and suck up the methane. Still, what an amazing journey. It ought to play bigger than a nomimation for Tony Shaloub at the Golden Globes.