Don, Sleepy, and Gertrude, RIP

Over our many years in the writing obituaries for daily newspapers we noticed that January was the busiest time of the year on the dead beat, as many terminally ill people cling to life through one last holiday season. This young year has already brought obituaries for three very different individuals, and we think passing is worth noting.
The first obituary we noticed was for Don Larsen, who died New Years Day at the age of 90. Larsen was a journeyman baseball pitcher, just good enough to hang on through a journey of 14 seasons in the major leagues with seven teams before arriving at a career record of 81 wins and 91 losses, but he’s well remembered as the only man to ever pitch a perfect game in the World Series.
He’d been been knocked out of the second game of the ’56 Fall Classic in the second inning by a powerhouse Brooklyn Dodgers squad and didn’t expect to get another start, but New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel gave him the ball for game five, and Larsen went out determined to at least do better. He had a full count against future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese in the first but threw a third strike and retired the side in order, and after that he turned in the most flawless pitching performance ever seen, and on baseball’s biggest stage. Larsen got some help from one of Mickey Mantle’s signature spectacular defensive plays after Dodger great Gil Hodges slammed a likely single to the middle of the outfield, and the legendary Yogi Berra was calling the pitches from behind the plate, but Larsen earned his place in baseball history.
Back in Larsen’s day journeyman pitchers didn’t earn enough to retire to a life of leisure, and he spent of the rest of his working days as a liquor salesman and the a paper company executive. His second marriage lasted 62 years and produced a son and two grandchildren, he got to be in the stands when David Cone pitched a rare regular season perfect game for the Yankees, and he always had that one October afternoon of perfection. This gives hope to all of us journeymen journeying through life, so he’ll be missed, and we hope he’s safe at home.
We were also saddened to read about the passing of Sleepy LaBeef on the day after Christmas at the age of 84. If you don’t know the name that’s because you’re not sufficiently hep to cosmic American music jive, as LaBeef was as rocking and rolling a singer and guitarist as you’re ever likely to hear. His 6-foot-6-inch and 270 pound frame packed a basso profundo voice that could shake a honky-tonk’s roof, and he could do anything with the full-sized hollow body electric guitar that looked like a mandolin in his hands.
Born during the Great Depression in Smackover, Arkansas, as Thomas Paulsey LeBeff, or LeBeouf according to some accounts, he took his stage name from the droopy eyelids he had despite constant coffee drinking and his massive size and burly guitar licks. He grew up playing the black gospel music he loved, but first broke into the music business playing the rockabilly style that was hot in the late ’50s, and despite cutting some classic records for obscure labels he didn’t generate sell a lot of records at a time with the good-looking and hip-shaking Elvis Presley was the big deal. He kept at it long enough that he was around for the big rockabilly revival craze in the ’80s, though, and his Rounder Records releases and live appearances wowed all the aficionados around the world.
One hot August in the ’80s LaBeef played a four-night stand at the Spot Recreation Center, a notorious dive just east of downtown where we liked to hang out, and we were there for every minute of it. The music was as raw and real and rocking and rolling as we could have hoped for, and we got the chance to hang out with the man between sets. He was friendly and funny and turned us on to the gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all sorts of other fantastic musicians we’d been missing out on, and it saddens us to think of all the great American music that the young folks of today will be missing out on from now on.
The death of Gertrude Himmelfarb at the age of 97 is also worth noting, and perhaps more consequential at the moment. She was best known as the historian who came to the defense of the Victorian era, which had long been much derided for its puritanism and imperialism despite the great advances in social justice and modernization she demonstrated had been made, but she was also an important voice for conservatism in general, and wound up playing a role in America’s victory in the Cold War.
She was born in 1922 in a Jewish ghetto of Brooklyn, with immigrant and Yiddish-speaking parents who had no formal education but ambitions that their daughter would do better, and she became a star student of history and philosophy and economics at Brooklyn. While there she met and fell in love with Irving Kristol, a formidable intellectual in his own right, and they remained married until his death in 2009. Both were Trotskyites during their undergraduate courtship, but both gradually grew to recognize the error of their ways, and became leading voices of the neoconservatism that provided the intellectual underpinnings for President Ronald Reagan’s more aggressive and ultimately successful stance against the Soviet Union.
Back then conservatism was an intellectual movement, led largely by such bona fide intellectuals as Himmelfarb and such Nobel Prize-winning economists as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and such erudite commentators as Bill Buckley and Russel Kirk, and it saddens us to think what the kids are missing out on in an age when low-brow radio blowhards such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and such demagogues as President Donald Trump define conservatism.
It’s a rough start to a year when we could use the likes Larsen, LaBeef and Himmelfarb, but we’ll hope somewhere out there are those ready to step up and take their places in history.

Summing Up a Life in a Two-Column Headline

A friend of ours is a formidable theater and movie critic, and over the weekend he fulminated on Facebook that the Scripps National news service ran an obituary with the headline “Albert Finney, who played Daddy Warbucks in ‘Annie,’ has died at age 82.” We don’t quite share our friend’s affinity for Finney, but we well understand the annoyance.
Finney was indeed an outstanding actor, and he earned five Academy Award nominations over a five-decades-long career and starred in such memorable movies as “Tom Jones” and “Two for the Road” and “Miller’s Crossing,” and although “Annie” was a nice enough flick and featured a typically fine Finney performance we’re sure he’d have preferred some other headline. It’s as if Dwight Eisenhower were remembered as a “well known amateur golfer,” or Tom Hanks is sent off as the “star of TV’s ‘Bosom Buddies,'” or Harrison Ford’s eventual obit identifies him as “One of the Soldiers in ‘Force 10 from Navarone.'”
Alas, the headlines on obituaries rarely put their subjects in proper perspective. The late and great country crooner Charlie Rich cut such little-known classics as “Lonely Weekends” and “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” for the legendary Sun Records label, but when he died all the “lede” paragraphs mention the schlocky major label hits “When We Get Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” The late and great musician Doug Sahm got short but respectful mentions in the country music press and the rock ‘n’ roll magazines and the jazz and blues publications as well as the pages devoted to Mexican-American music, but no one put them all together to explain his extraordinary and eclectic career. Most musicians and actors and writers and athletes and politicians and businesspeople, as it turns out, tend to be remembered for work they’d rather forget.
Poor Monica Lewinksy could discover a cure for cancer, but the obits will still someday remember her as the femme fatale fellatrix of Bill Clinton’s infamous sex scandal, which will also surely be mentioned in the “ledes” and headlines when Trump passes on. Such notable statesmen as Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Sen. John McCain had historic careers that culminated in their parties presidential nominations, but the headline was that they lost the general election. Such athletes as Yogi Berra and the recently deceased Frank Robinson were noted for the record-setting achievements on the playing field, but you had to read several paragraphs into the obituaries to hear about their excellent character and lifelong devotion to family and friends. These days we expect a number of very creative people will be recalled for the time they made an unwelcome pass or told an ethnic joke that would have passed muster just a decade or so earlier. Writers’ obits, we shudder to notice, almost always omit their best stuff.
So it will probably be for the rest of us, too.
We started our journalistic career on the “dead beat,” as newspaper folk waggishly call the obituary desk, so we know all too well that it’s an impossible task. Even the most mundane lives can’t be encapsulated in column inches, even on the rare occasions when they jump to a later page, and the parents and spouses and children and longtime friends of the subjects never find them satisfying. The “last writes” — as newspaper folk waggishly call them — never fully convey the human faults nor the exceptional qualities of the dearly departed, and only God can weigh them in the balance. Still, we’d wish the “dethwriters” — are we’re known in newspaper lingo — will take more care.
One day on the “dead beat” at a Kansas City newspaper we had to write up the death of a Kansas City area man who’d been hit by a semi truck and dragged for several miles underneath on a highway outside Needles, California. After getting the accident report from the California Highway Patrol we were obliged to speak with the poor fellow’s widow, who told us that her husband was a talented welder who couldn’t find work in the recessionary Kansas City economy, which was why he was hitchhiking in central California and came to be hit by that truck. After conforming the spelling of all the survivors’ names and the details of the funeral service, we ended the interview according to journalistic best practice by asking if there was anything that people should know but we’d neglected to ask about. A pregnant pause followed, then she told us that “Well, he never was a lucky man.”
In some cases, we suppose, a life can be summed up in single sentence.
The great novelist Jospeh Conrad wrote such masterpieces as “The Heart of Darkness” and “Lord Jim” and “Nostromo” and “The Secret Agent,” but we have a particular fondness for a little known work of his called “Chance.” The novel defied the literary rule that everything in the plot should derive from the characters’ actions, as Conrad believed that pure random chance plays a bigger role in real life, and by chance we came across a second edition in a used book store. Conrad had an introduction to the second edition which responded to his editors and critics, who had complained that the story was overlong, which is a common complaint of both editors and critics, and we cherish his advice. Conrad rightly noted that with sufficiently rigorous editing the story of all humankind “can be written on a cigarette paper — he was born, he lived, he died.”

— Bud Norman

A Very Happy New Year’s Eve, to Whatever Extent Possible

The calendar on our computer screen says that today is the last year of 2018, and as hard as it is to believe we assume that’s true. Although it’s been a long and and hard slog through the past 12 months, the years still somehow seem to pass more quickly the older we get.
Longstanding journalistic traditions dictate that our New Year’s Eve essay be either a look back and the year that’s ending, or a look ahead to the year to come, but on this frigid Kansas night we can’t quite muster the energy for either desultory chore.
In keeping with our own recent tradition we’ll once again joke that we’re hesitant to look back on the past year for fear of being turned into a pillar of salt, an Old Testament allusion our more modern readers might not get, and this year the joke seems more apt than ever. We’re talking about 12 long months of President Donald Trump and the damned Democrats, after all, and all those screwy other countries and the business world and the broader popular culture and our own personal lives added little to savor. The obituaries were more brutal than usual, too.
The annus horribilis of 2018 saw the the passing of First Lady Barbara Bush and President George H.W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain, and we also sensed the passing of a more family values and war heroic and fact-based era of the Republican party. When the novelist and journalist and essayist Tom Wolfe died we failed to think of a new favorite living writer, and when the Middle Eastern expert Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton and triumphant-in-the-Cold-War Russian expert Richard Pipes of Harvard we knew there was no replacement, and the death of the imminent columnist Charles Krauthammer left the intellectual ranks of an increasingly anti-intellectual conservative movement seemed at least as severely depleted.
The ranks of the American popular culture that used to provide succor from politics were similarly depleted. The fleet-fingered guitar-and-banjo-picker and all-around country-and-western music entertainer Roy Clark died, so did the elegantly incisive and hilariously New York City Jewish novelist Philip Roth, as well as the long under appreciated television sit-com actress and big-time movie director and idiosyncratic sexpot Penny Marshall, and William Goldman, the guy who wrote the screenplay for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” as well as Stan Lee, the guy who invented “Spiderman” and a bunch of other still-hot comic book super heroes we remember from our comic book-reading youths. Judging by what we occasionally hear on the radio or see on television or watch on the internet or read from the last offerings from the bestseller lists, we don’t find any sufficient replacements standing at the ready.
Those far more hip and up-to-date folks at The Washington Post filled some space on a slow news day with a traditional list of what’s “in” and what’s “out” in the coming year, and we must admit we can’t make neither hide nor hair of it, as we still sometimes say here in Kansas. Out here in Kansas we hadn’t noticed most of what was apparently “in” in 2018, much less noticed that it’s soon to be “out,” and as of now we’re only vaguely familiar with what’s about to the “in.” It seems that the Marvel comic books’ superhero Captain Marvel is due to supplant D.C. Comics’ Captain America as the “in” superhero at your local cinema, and certain celebrities we’ve never hard are will surpass some other celebrities we’e never heard of, and so far none of them seem half so entertaining as the recently deceased Ken Berry, the minor sit-com star who memorably pratfall-ed his way through the short-lived but still-hilarious “F Troop” way back in the ’60s.
On the political front, we don’t need the more hip and up-to-date fellows at The Washington Post to tell us it’s going to a long slog through 2019. Trump won’t budge on his campaign promise from way back in 2016 to build a big beautiful border wall, the upcoming Democratic majority soon to be installed after a landslide mid-term election won’t give him a penny for it, and a partial government shutdown will probably dominate at least the first few days or weeks or months of the new year. Political gridlock will probably prevent anything else from getting done legislatively, that pesky special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” will persist, so we’ll hold out hope that the free market economy and longstanding governmental institutions that have somehow so far survived both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump will continue to prevail.
In the meantime we’ll focus on making our personal lives go somewhat better in the coming year, and urge you to do the same, as we can’t do much about the rest of it.  No matter how it works out over the next 12 months, have a most merry New Year’s Eve.

— Bud Norman

Barbara Bush, RIP

There was the usual torrent of news on Tuesday, including a Supreme Court decision regarding immigration that had Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch joining the liberals to overturn a burglar’s deportation, more resignation announcements by prominent congressional Republicans, intriguing developments in the North Korean problem, the usual tales of porn stars and Russian intrigue, and a right-wing talk radio host who finds himself caught up it in all. As much as we’d like to opine on  these important matters, the biggest news of the day was the death of Barbara Bush at the age of 92.
Bush was the wife of one American president and the mother of another, a distinction shared only by the great Abigail Adams, and that alone makes her passing noteworthy, but it also marks the passing of a far more dignified and admirable era of American politics.
By now both liberals and conservatives have plenty of plausible complaints with the policies of both Bush presidencies, and we’ve got a few of our own, but we still regard both men as honorable and dedicated public servants. We regard the Bush family’s most hateful critics on both the left and the right as a conspicuous part of our current problems, and think that anyone with anything bad to say about the Bush matriarch is just a hateful person.
Born as Barbara Pierce in 1925 to a well-heeled and and even better-respected Back East family, she was always a class act. Although she considered herself “shy” and “square” Pierce was an excellent student and much liked classmate in her girlhood at an elite all-girls’s prep school, and by the age of 16 she caught the eye of a 17-year-old guy who was a straight-A student and star athlete at a nearby elite all-boys prep school, and would go on to be a decorated Naval aviator in World War II, successful entrepreneur, United States Congressman, United Nations ambassador, Central Intelligence Agency director, Vice President and then President of the United States. She left the elite all-women’s Smith College at age 19 to marry George Herbert Walker Bush, and seemed to play a prominent and impeccable role in his extraordinary career. Even as her husband wound up losing reelection to an Arkansas hound dog, largely due to the intervention of a coarse and egomaniacal billionaire, the First Lady remained atop the “most admired women” polls.
She also bore her husband a son, George Walker, then daughters Robin and Dorothy, followed by sons John and Neil. The George Bush with the single “W” wound up winning two terms as Governor of Texas and two more as President of the United States, all of which will be hotly debated for years to come, and despite his travails the First Mother’s poll ratings remained high. Her son John Ellis, who preferred by the acronym “Jeb,” wound up serving two successful terms as Governor of Florida, and although she openly she shared our own concerns about political dynasties she wound up supporting his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency. Dorothy and Neil Bush are less well known to the public, but in this day and age we assume that speaks very well to their character.
The photographic evidence shows that the “shy” and “square” Barbara Pierce was quite the elegantly eye-catching beauty back when she first caught the eye of that handsome straight-A student and star athlete and future war hero and President of the United States, but her hair apparently started whitening not long after her beloved daughter Robin died of leukemia at the age of three. The Washington Post’s respectful and excellent obituaries note that she stayed at  her daughter’s bedside during the bone marrow transplants and other futile treatments that her war hero husband could not bear to witness, and although she would later fondly recall the emotional support offered by her grieving seven-year-old son George W. she prematurely aged. By the time her still-handsome star athlete and war hero husband was running for president she had an undeniably grandmotherly look about her, but their apparent love for one another and her undeniable class greatly enhanced the ticket.
President George H.W. Bush waged a splendid little war on Iraq but deviated on taxes and other issues from the true religion of President Ronald Reagan, and there was one of those  little recessionary blips in the business cycle at the end of his first term, and with the help of a coarse and megalomaniacal billionaire that Arkansas hound dog kept him from a fourth Reagan-Bush administration. Both George H.W. and Barbara Bush accepted the defeat with characteristic grace, adhering strictly to the time-tested rules about not criticizing the victors in an American election, and they even wound up having a cordial relationship with President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton that drove bot the left and right crazy.
President Bill Clinton and his harridan of a wife wound up doing all sorts of things that both the left and right criticized, and God knows we’ve still got our own complaints, but we never minded that the elder Bushes largely stayed out of it. That’s the longstanding rule that ex-presidents and ex-First Ladies have always adhered to, and as far as we’re concerned it’s one of the good ones, and in any case President George W. Bush’s heatedly contested electoral victory soon followed. How that turned out will be debated for years to come, and it undeniably wound up with eight dreary years of President Barack Obama, but somehow Barbara Bush, unlike the rest of us, wound up classy throughout the whole ordeal.
The eight dreary Obama years almost inevitably resulted in the past 16 dreary months of President Donald Trump, who eked out an electoral college win over President Clinton’s harridan wife by criticizing the entirety of America’s political history and promising a new beginning, but we think Barbara Bush was still classy about that. Even without a son in the race  she should have been opposed to such a coarse and egomaniacal billionaire and thrice-married to a nudie model trophy wife and bankrupt casino and strip mogul as Trump, even if Trump hadn’t absurdly maligned her husband as a “globalist” and her son as a  traitor who had lied America into war, and ridiculed her younger and better-suited-to-the-presidency son as “low energy,” we’re sure she would have offered her rare criticisms of the the even more more coarse and less classy megalomaniacal billionaire dominating the current coarser and less classy  political scene.
Ever since Trump won anyway the former First Lady and First Mother mostly kept her opinions to herself, and we appreciate that far more than than the president’s impulsive “tweets” about his past infidelities or foreign entanglements and whatever else is troubling him at the moment. For all the mistakes they indisputably made, Barbara Bush and her husband and children embodied a civility and civil-mindedness we already miss, and we’re sure that all those hateful people on both the left and the will eventually miss it as well. Shy and square and grandmotherly  and civil and civic-minded and elegantly beautiful are no longer in fashion, but they’re qualities due for a comeback.

— Bud Norman

The Year the Music Died

A presidential election offering a choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump isn’t the only thing that’s gone wrong this year. This annus horribilis has also taken a severe toll on the world’s dwindling supply of outstanding musicians.
The past week has added Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell to the long list of important music figures who have passed on to that great jam session in the sky in 2016. Cohen, who died last Monday at the age of 82, was a brilliantly brooding songwriter whose limited vocal range and homely voice somehow added an extra layer of earthy angst and spiritual yearning to his work. Russell, who died Sunday at the age of 74, came out of Oklahoma’s rich musical tradition and became a legendary studio guitarist and pianist in Los Angeles during the ’60s, working with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sam Cooke to The Monkees and helping to create Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” had a nice run of rock ‘n’ roll stardom as a headliner in the ’70s with a an idiosyncratic style that mixed country and jazz and soul and the sort of hard rock you’d expect from such a long-haired and bearded fellow, then happily settled into a career as the guy all the big names wanted on their recording sessions, and never did lose his Okie accent.
Some big name stars are among the year’s fatalities, including the artist known as Prince, whether he liked it or not, who was about as big as you can get back in the ’80s and ’90s with a flamboyant funk-based style, and retained a fervent fan base up to his death at age 57 last April. The similarly flamboyant David Bowie, whose theatrical style and gender-bending personas have proved all too influential, died in January at the age of 69. As a founding member of The Eagles, Glenn Frey sold about a gazillion or so records with a smooth country-rock sound before his death in January at age 67. Merle Haggard, who can simply be described as the greatest country singer there ever was and one of all-time greats of American music in general, died on his 79th birthday last April.
Other names on the death list that might be familiar to even casual music fans include John Berry, whose Beastie Boys combined hip-hop and heavy metal to become stars, and who died at age 52 in May. Maurice White, a founder of the hugely popular pop-funk group Earth, Wind and Fire, died at age 74 in February. Paul Kantner was a founder of Jefferson Airplane, the definitive San Francisco psychedelic rock band, but he also managed to reach 74 before his death in January. Bobby Vee, a more clean cut fellow who had some of the best of the teen idol hits in that brief interregnum between the greasy rockabilly of the ’50s and the long-haired psychedelia of the late ‘6l0s, died at age 73 in October. Frank Sinatra Jr., an underrated singer who could never escape his more famous father’s shadow, was 72 when he died in March.
The true music aficionados will also be missing some lesser-known but equally talented figures. Scotty Moore, the pioneering rockabilly musician who played the extremely cool guitar riffs you hear on the early Elvis Presley records, died at age 84 in June. The world’s greatest jazz harmonica player, Toots Theilemans, who would have been the best even if there had been others, was 94 when he died in August. The head-banging sorts of music lovers will fondly recall Lemmy Kilmister, bassist and frontman for the very hardcore heavy metal band Motorhead. If you’ve ever watched “West Side Story” and “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady” and marveled at how well Natalie Wood and Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn could sing, that’s because Marnie Nixon, who died in July at age 86, did all the singing for them and countless other musically-challenged actresses during the golden era of movie musicals. Last February also saw the passing of Dan Hicks, whose hippie hokum-revival band The Hot Licks was one of the overlooked delights of the ’70s.
We apologize if you’re a big fan of one of the many other notable musicians who have died this year, and we fear that the next month and a half will probably add some names worth mentioning to the year’s unhappy roster. At least the recordings live on, and the way things are going we’ll need them. There’s an ad that always pops at the National Review’s internet site that offers a sampling of the latest hits, which we’ll sometimes click on out of a curiosity about what the young folks are listening to these days, and so far as we can tell the same decline you see in our politics is also affecting the nation’s music

— Bud Norman

Two Obituaries for the ’60s

There were more than the usual number of famous names in Monday’s obituaries, including a comedian who used to crack us up and the lead singer for a band that some of our friends can’t believe we don’t remember, but the ones that grabbed our attention were for Bobby Vee and Tom Hayden. The juxtaposition of the clean-cut teen idol with the smooth pop sound and the unkempt activist with the radical agenda was jarring, as they represent the cultural extremes of the 1960’s, and their almost simultaneous passings are a reminder that the influence of that turbulent decade still hasn’t quite come to an end.
Born as Robert Thomas Velline in Fargo, North Dakota, Bobby Vee came right out of the rock ‘n’ roll craze of the ’50s, with his big break coming when he and his garage band The Shadows filled in for Buddy Holly and the Crickets at the nearby Moorhead, Minnesota, stop on the Winter Dance Party tour after Holly’s death in a plane crash. That crash not only ended Holly’s legendary career but also the promising 16-year-old Richie Valens’, in the same year when Elvis Presley was drafted and Chuck Berry was sent to prison on a Mann Act violation and Jerry Lee Lewis’s career was derailed by the outrage over him marrying an underage cousin while he was married to someone else, a sex scandal trifecta that even The Rolling Stones haven’t achieved, and after that the greasier and scarier sorts of rock ‘n’ roll stars were briefly supplanted by such wholesomely handsome and well-groomed and suit-and-tie wearing singers such as Bobby Vee.
Vee’s first big hit was a strikingly Holly-esque tune called “Suzie Baby,” with the first recording retaining some of the inspiration’s jangly guitar and rock ‘n’ roll authenticity, but by the time he re-recorded what proved to be a smash hit it had been ironed out to fit an early ’60s sense of decorum. He followed that up with a luscious “Take Good Care of My Baby,” written with old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley craftsmanship by Barry Geffen and Carol King, and such professionally rendered pop songs as “Devil or Angel,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” and “Run to Him,” which still stand out among the best of that brief interregnum in rock ‘n’ roll’s reign. Each had a bouncy enough beat and uptempo youth appeal to fit on American Bandstand’s roundup of the latest youth culture, but it was fare more redolent of those ’40s and ’50s crooners and their carefully polished-tunes and earnest politeness that were nearly wiped out by rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s how the ’60s began.
The decade ended with musicians smashing their guitars and setting them afire and playing psychedelic electric guitar versions of The National Anthem, and rock ‘n’ rollers were suddenly even hairier and scarier than those backwoods rednecks and urban ghetto-dwellers of the ’50s had been, and that was the era when Tom Hayden became a sort of celebrity. Born in 1939 to more or less middle class comfort in the placid town of Royal Oak, Mich., Hayden attended a Catholic school where the pastor was the infamously right-wing radio pundit Father Charles Coughlin, then wound up at the infamously left-wing University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he immediately began to acquire a left-wing infamy of his own. He was editor of the school’s suddenly radicalized student newspaper, jailed and beaten for his civil rights activism in the South, a founding member of the anti-Vietnam War and anti-capitalist Students for a Democratic Society, an author of the Port Huron Statement that became a manifesto for the New Left, and was one of the “Chicago Seven” brought to a widely publicized trial for allegedly fomenting riots at the 1968 Democratic Party’s national convention. This was lead-story-on-the-nightly-news and cover-of-The-Rolling-Stone stuff back then, so by the time the ’70s rolled around Hayden was a much bigger star than Bobby Vee.
Hayden wound up divorcing his first wife and a few years later getting married to Oscar-winning and impeccably left-wing actress Jane Fonda, with both soon heading off to Vietnam for a highly controversial photo-op with the North Vietnamese, and although they later divorced they were even more newsworthy than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie while it lasted. After the divorce he settled in the woman he would be married to until his death, and a rather routine career as a politician. He lost a California Democratic primary race to Sen. John Tunney in ’76, but won a State Assemblyman seat in 82, moved up to the state Senate in 93 and hung around Sacramento until 2000, and compiled a record that was undeniably left-wing but not conspicuously radical by California standards. He lost races for governor in ’94 and the Los Angeles mayoralty in ’97 and a seat on the L.A. City Council in 2001.
By the time the 21st Century rolled around Hayden was still reviled by the city’s growing Vietnamese refugee population and aging white Republicans, but newly regarded as something of a sell-out by the newer New Left. Hayden had written memoirs and articles confessing his regret that his anti-Vietnam war stance had spilled over into anti-Americanism, ruefully acknowledging that his Students for a Democratic Society had spawned the terrorist Weather Underground, and lamenting that the free speech and individual rights ideas of that crazy Port Huron statement had somehow led to a newer New Left that clamored for speech codes and group identity politics, and seemed to have forgotten the realism of the Old Left that Father Coughlin had railed against and Hayden’s generation had nearly wiped out, and even his impeccably left-wing voting record could not absolve his heresies or make him hip again. At one point in the early ’80s we caught Hayden’s act live, as we were on a hitchhiking trip up the East Coast and crashed at a friends dorm at Harvard University and went along to lecture Hayden was giving, and we still chuckle at how the crowd rolled its eyes at his saccharine shtick about his daughter’s fear of nuclear weapons and how a professorial looking fellow with a gray beard and patched elbows on his jacket shouted “Send in the Marines!”
Bobby Vee stayed married to the same woman for 50 years, despite the temptations that a good-looking pop star probably encountered, spent most of the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s making a good living on the oldies circuit, then settled into a quiet small town life in St. Joseph, Minnesota, then slowly succumbed to an early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Beatles covered “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Run to Him,” so the hottest band of the ’60s vouched for his coolness, and the same Carol King who wrote the former song had the biggest selling album of the ’70s with that great Tin Pan Alley hippie manifesto of an album “Tapestry,” and another big fan is the newly proclaimed Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. Back when Dylan was a small town Minnesota boy named Robert Zimmerman he had a short stint as the keyboards player with Bobby Vee and the Shadows, and we highly recommend his affectionate cover of “Suzie Baby.”
It remains how to be seen how the ’60s will ultimately play out, but we’re glad to note that this crazy election will almost certainly be the last to feature any of those damned baby-boomers, and we hope that the very best of both Bobby Vee and Tom Hayden will somehow persist, and that the worst of it will somehow fade away.

— Bud Norman

Two Sad Farewells

Maybe it’s the years we spent on the dead beat at newspapers in our youth, or maybe it’s the heightened awareness of mortality that comes with age, but when perusing the latest news our eyes are always drawn to the obituaries. This past week’s obits brought notice of the passing of two men who were important figures in American conservatism but otherwise couldn’t have been more different, and the very different reactions to their deaths says a lot about their lives.

One of the men, of course, was Andrew Breitbart, the new media mogul and flamboyantly unconventional political activist who died of a heart attack on Thursday at the age of 43. The “of curse” is added because his death was widely reported and much discussed, even though Brietbart’s name probably wasn’t familiar to the vast majority of Americans who are happily apolitical. Those who have been paying more careful attention to the news will agree that Breitbart’s exploits were the stuff of legend, however, even if they’ll forever disagree on whether he played the role of hero or villain.

Breitbart was the man who brought down ACORN by publicizing some hilarious video footage of two youthful conservatives badly disguised as a pimp and prostitute receiving business advice and encouragement from the community-organizing rascals. He was the man who exposed the even more hilarious Anthony Weiner photo scandal, then hijacked the podium at the disgraced congressman’s press conference to celebrate the victory. He also broke the story of the Obama administration’s politicization of the National Endowment for the Arts, exposed video of an NAACP convention cheering a Department of Agriculture official’s story about her past disdain for white farmers, and uncovered countless other stories that would have otherwise gone unreported.

In every case Breitbart pursued and presented the stories in ways that not only broke with journalistic traditions, but exploited the predictable reactions of the old media still bound to the old rules. The ACORN videos were at first released in an abbreviated form that was certain to provoke charges of selective editing, then more footage was released, and finally the full and un-cut version was offered, dragging the story out over weeks of coverage to a vindicating finish that made fools of his critics. Worse yet for the television and print news media, Breitbart also re-shaped the journalism industry by playing a key role in the formation of the powerful Drudge Report site, a favorite of conservative web-browsers, helping create the Huffington Post, unaware that it would become popular with the liberal internet denizens, and being the principal player in the influential Big Government, Big Hollywood, and Big Journalism web sites.

Oxymoronic as it might sound, Breitbart was an iconoclastic conservative. He adapted Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” for use by radical conservatives, defied the stereotype of the right as stodgy, humorless, and square by being brash, witty, and undeniably hip, and charged through life at a heart attack-inducing pace powered as much by the force of his personality as his ideas.

His life inspired much gratitude and affection by like-minded Americans, as is apparent from the genuinely grief-stricken remembrances in the conservative media, from talk radio to the august right-wing publications to the humble blogs. On the left he inspired fear and loathing, with some coyly insinuating that some personality defect led to his early demise, others more frankly exulting in his death, often with the foul language and seething hatred common to today’s liberalism.

There was a noticeably different tone to the coverage of the death of James Q. Wilson, the eminent social scientist and political philosopher who died Friday from complications from leukemia at the age of 80. The obituaries were rarer, shorter, and likely attracted far fewer readers, but even in the most reliably liberal outlets they all showed the respect that Wilson’s remarkable career commanded.

The New York Times and The Washington Post both emphasized Wilson’s “broken windows theory” of crime, which resulted in the community policing strategies that dramatically lowered crime rates in such big cities as New York and Washington, D.C., which seems apt. While many of Wilson’s ideas were controversial when being implemented, with liberals objecting to crackdowns on squeegee hustlers, panhandlers, and graffiti as an assault on civil liberties, the results were satisfactory to all but the most hopeless ideologues. Wilson’s groundbreaking work in criminology is one of the few examples of an intellectual’s work having a significant and measurable effect on people’s well-being in his own lifetime, and even the editors at those city’s papers know that Wilson is one important reason they haven’t been mugged lately.

There was far more to Wilson’s work than that, however, and it’s easy to see why the more traditional papers would prefer to be brief about it. The son of a salesman and an old-fashioned homemaker, he was graduated from little-known University of Redlands in California and then acquired an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the fancier University of Chicago, then spent 26 years teaching at Harvard before moving on to UCLA and Pepperdine University, a Malibu school affiliated with the theologically conservative Church of Christ. Wilson was one of the first academics to frankly discuss the sometimes unfortunate role that race plays in public life with “Negro Politics,” published in 1960 when the title was considered polite. He analyzed the inherent inefficiency of public administration in 1989’s “Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It.” He questioned the moral relativism of the post-modern intelligentsia with 1993’s “The Moral Sense,” the book he considered his greatest intellectual achievement.

The man was an academic giant and an unabashed conservative, as much as that might sound oxymoronic to the old-line media, and in his own way he was every bit the iconoclast. It was a very different way than Breitbart’s, though. Wilson achieved his fame by the strength of his ideas rather than his bespectacled personality, which by all accounts was genial, easy-going, and pleasantly unexciting. When he defied the norms of his profession it was by reverting to the older, stricter rules, and even his most strident critics could never question the rigor of his scholarship. James Quinn Wilson earned the heartfelt affection of conservatives, at least those familiar with his work, and it’s nice to note that he managed to do so without inspiring a commensurate disdain among liberals.

History will judge which man made the greater contribution, but for now both will be equally missed.

— Bud Norman