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.