Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's time for John Edwards to go away

Normally, I would not have seen the video clip (look about the 3:25 mark) of John Edwards being his smarmy self outside the federal courthouse in Greensboro Thursday afternoon. I would have read about this case instead of watching Edwards' performance, but I was at the gym, and I watched the show while I exercised.

Edwards had just been acquitted of one count of the six indictments against him, and he was thanking his supporters. He mentioned his daughter Kate, who had been at the courthouse with him every day (even though she couldn't bear to sit through some of the seamier testimony), his two young children and the son he lost years ago. And then he paused, contorted a pained expression onto his face and mentioned the daughter he had fathered with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter — the escapade that was in many ways the heart of this trial. TV news commentators sounded touched by and sympathetic toward Edwards' gesture. I was not taken in. The entire pause and expression seemed contrived and disingenuous. I've watched a lot of stage plays, and I've seen much better acting.

To appear to tear up over the mention of an illegitimate child while nonchalantly rattling off the names of your children from your marriage doesn't seem credible, nor does it seem reasonable. He didn't mention the wife he betrayed even as she battled cancer. That might have been a topic worthy of a tear or a trembling lip, but, no, the emotion was only for little Quinn. Was the faked emotion meant to ingratiate himself to Rielle? Is she suddenly playing hard-to-get? Perhaps it's admirable to claim and love a child born out of wedlock, although Edwards famously and adamantly denied fatherhood of the child on national television, but his show of emotion can't do much for a 4-year-old and might be interpreted as a slight to his other children.

In his comments, Edwards suggested he had other things he wanted to accomplish, even calling on the name of God, who "isn't through with me yet" (Jesse Jackson's famous line from the 1988 Democratic Convention). God might not be through with Edwards, but the American public surely is. The former vice presidential nominee is anathema to any politician and will never wield any political power again. His successful career as a personal injury litigator is probably also over. No matter how charming he might be, what jury could ever forget what a sleazebag he is? And he still has five indictments hanging over his head.

Federal prosecutors might choose to retry those five counts, but that seems unlikely. The jury's acquittal on the one settled issue raises doubts about the entire prosecution. Many have argued that this case never should have gone to trial, never should have been pursued.

You have to wonder whether this acquittal will have any political repercussions for George Holding, the former U.S. attorney who brought the charges. Holding won the Republican nomination for Congress largely on his inflated reputation from the Edwards case. With that case in tatters, Holding doesn't look nearly so dynamic.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

It's beginning to look like 1980 again

After you've followed a few presidential election campaigns, a sense of deja vu is easy to grasp. In an era of campaign consultants-for-hire, electronic media droning on incessantly and rising influence of money in politics, campaigns begin to look alike.

But this year, I've had a feeling, an intuition if you could call it that, a sense of having seen this before. The 2012 presidential race is shaping up to remind me of that race 32 years ago when an unpopular but earnest first-term Democratic president faced a tough fight against a lesser-known and somewhat underestimated Republican. Just as in 1980, the economy was a mess, and many of the Democratic administration's programs seemed like overreach or naivete. And the Republican opponent was regarded by many Democrats as a lightweight the voters would never trust.

Much is different about 2012. President Obama can gloat about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. President Jimmy Carter was frustrated by the capture of U.S. embassy personnel by Iranian militants and by the failure of his rescue mission. Carter's onerous "stagflation," a combination of rising prices and stagnant job creation, was painful but not nearly as devastating as the recession that began before Obama took office and persists today. His critics saw Jimmy Carter as a country bumpkin way over his head in the White House, but even Carter's low approval ratings cannot compare with the visceral hatred of Obama by some of his critics. Ronald Reagan was considered by some to be nothing more than an actor mouthing the words provided by advisers and speechwriters, but his oratorical skills were among the best of any 20th century president. Mitt Romney cannot match Reagan in oratory — not by a long shot — but he can deliver a speech and usually can avoid mistakes in off-the-cuff remarks.

Pundits tell us that the election will hinge on a handful of key swing states, of which North Carolina is one. In 2008, Obama's team organized North Carolina and turned out the vote. He'll need that effort again but is unlikely to get comparable results. I'll be surprised if Obama carries North Carolina again, but I was a little surprised by his 2008 success. The youth vote is not as enamored of Obama as it was four years ago. And the black vote is not as likely to turn out as it did in 2008 to elect an African-American president; in 2012, that's already been done, so the impetus to do the job isn't as great.

Monday, May 21, 2012

It was time for a new computer

It was time: time for a new computer.

The main family computer was six years old, a lifetime for a computer, and though its operating system had been upgraded with good results, its limitations were getting obvious. It was not capable of running the latest OS. Of greater concern was the other computer — the one I used for most of my writing, emailing and other tasks. It was 10 years old, or a little older. Its very design had been abandoned. And though we had been awed by it when we first bought it (the first new computer we'd ever purchased), it was so outdated and slow that it could not perform currently routine tasks. You Tube might as well not exist because the older computer's processor was too slow to run video.

Having used Apple Macintosh computers for more than 20 years, our choice of which new computer to buy was pretty simple. I only had to go to the Apple store and pick one. I had a few questions: What is the best way to transfer my data from one computer to the other? Will my email, music  and photos migrate intact to the new system? Will my existing WiFi network be compatible with the new computer's OS? Of course, I was assured. We're talking about Apple Computers here, not some needlessly complicated, error-prone, obtuse Microsoft system. So with a few mental notes from the instructions I received about how best to transfer data, I laid down my credit card, picked up my box full of new computer and walked out of the Apple Store.

After getting home, I set up the data transfer as suggested, linking the old and new computers via an ethernet cable and used the built-in Migration Assistant to do the transfer. It took a lot longer than I had expected, giving me time to cook dinner and take a shower while I waited.

After that was when the disappointment came. With the data transfer complete, I checked the computer and found a few things missing: My calendar, my emails, my music and my photos. For the first time in two decades, I was disappointed in an Apple product, but it was too late on a Saturday night to call Apple Support, so I investigated data migration instructions and prepared to redo the whole thing, one element at a time.

It was during this process that I decided to update some software, requiring me to restart the computer. When I did, I discovered something I had not considered: The new computer listed two log-ins — the old one that had migrated over from the old computer and the new one that I had created during checkout at the Apple Store. When I logged onto the old user ID, lo and behold, there was my data — all of it, just the way it had appeared on the old computer.

Chalk it up to Operator Error. And I am the chagrined but happy operator. The family has a new computer, capable of downloading pictures, editing photos, handling video production, etc., etc., all at blazing speed. My wife will be the primary operator on that computer. I will used the 6-year-old computer to do my writing, word processing, etc. at a pace that is several times faster than was possible on the aged 10-year-old.

I haven't decided what we'll do with that other log-in and user ID.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"Streetcar Named Desire" — a review

My review of Theater of the American South's "A Streetcar Named Desire." I attended the May 11 opening night. The review ran in the Wilson Times today (May 17).

            Theater of the American South’s initial run in Wilson opened with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and this year, founder Gary Cole’s creation has found perhaps its finest achievement with another play by Tennessee Williams, the most celebrated playwright of the American South.
            “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for Williams, won over the opening night audience Friday at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center with a performance that milks all the power, emotion and pathos from Williams’ script. This production arrives as “Streetcar” has been revived on Broadway with an African-American cast and just months after Edna Boykin, benefactor of the arts in Wilson, has been laid to rest. It’s a production that would make Boykin or Williams proud.
            Leaving the theater, it’s hard to imagine a more sympathetic, more tragic and more disturbing portrayal of Blanche Dubois than Betsy Henderson’s performance. She balances the conflicting elements of Blanche’s personality, her vulnerability, her self-deceit, her well-practiced false modesty, her manipulative flirtations, her lies, and her final tumble into madness.
            Henderson’s is not the only bravura performance in this “Streetcar.” Lilly Nelson as Blanche’s sister Stella Kowalski is exceptional. Her repartee with Blanche when her wayward sister first arrives is a delight of sibling cohesion, and her passion for her rough-cut husband is palpable. When Blanche’s madness manifests itself in screaming excuses about the loss of the family manor, Nelson matches Henderson in volume and emotion. Williams provides the finely crafted lines, and these two actresses turn them into a convincing reality.
            Stanley Kowalski is among the most recognizable characters in American drama, and as such is a challenge for any actor. Jason Sharp brings Stanley to life as a man shaped by his wartime experiences of male camaraderie and violence. He can be brutish as well as tender. He lives life with passion, passion for his wife and for poker. He is a man his manic sister-in-law cannot understand but is awed by and drawn to. And he is nobody’s fool, least of all Blanche’s. Sharp plays him as a multi-faceted man, full of flaws and qualities, but never as a domestic violence caricature a lesser actor could easily make him. Stanley and Blanche duel repeatedly, and each time Sharp and Henderson leave the audience gasping as their tension fills the theater.
            Jason Peck as Mitch is a sheltered momma’s boy, the least manly of Stanley’s bowling, poker-playing, beer-drinking Army buddies. He is the only one who falls under Blanche’s spell. The two are perfectly matched in neediness, but Stanley insists upon forcing reality into their illusions. Two scenes capture their budding, then withering relationship, and Peck and Henderson display every aching need and raw pain of their characters.
            Mary Floyd Page as Eunice Hubbell, the upstairs neighbor, provides a modicum of sensibility and sympathetic understanding toward both Blanche and Stella. The languid dialogue between Page and Nelson in the opening scene sets the play firmly in the South and establishes the verities of the characters. A supporting cast of Regenna Rouse, Miles Snow, George Kaiser, Nicholas Henderson, Page Purgar and Doug Nydick add all that is needed.
            In a production that it’s difficult to say too many good things about, a few errant irritations distract the audience. A very effective and well-utilized set designed by Chris Bernier is inexplicably impaired by the placement of a large trunk that blocks the view of the stage from the right side of the theater in a couple of scenes. Surely the trunk, which is integral to the script, could have been placed elsewhere. Otherwise realistic 1940s costuming designed by Jordan Jaked seems to unravel with Blanche’s suit, which looks more like 1962 than like 1947. Director Marc Fajer has created such a wonderful package, including era-distinctive cigarette smoke, it’s embarrassing to point out a gap in the wrapping.
            Nevertheless, this is a performance not to be missed, not only for the signature lines of “Stellaaaaaa!” and “I’ve always depended upon the kindness of strangers,” but for the entire powerful and lyrical script brought vividly to the stage by a troupe of very talented actors who give 65-year-old characters a new and timeless life. Rumbling and clanging, this “Streetcar Named Desire” will take Theater of the American South to new heights.
—Hal Tarleton

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Gasoline prices are headed in right direction

In the two weeks between my previous fill-up and the last one, the price of gasoline dropped 40 cents. The price went from almost exactly $4 a gallon to below $3.60 a gallon in the time I was burning about 12 gallons. That saved me about $5 on a tank of gas. These prices direct comparisons at the same stations in the same area between Wilson and Rocky Mount.

Fears of $4 a gallon gasoline and the political and economic upheaval that would cause have abated. As the highly touted "summer driving season" approaches, gasoline prices are falling, not rising. Let the slide continue! Realistically, I do not expect prices to fall a lot further. I'll be surprised if gasoline falls below $3 a gallon in the next year. But the trend, as economists say, is positive.

There are many explanations for the gasoline price slide, including a milder winter, an abundance of natural gas, reduced driving and others. I don't know the economics of gasoline pricing, but I do pay attention to gas stations as I drive from one place to another. So do a lot of other people.

President Obama has to like the gasoline price trend. When gasoline prices were rising, he was getting the blame from Republican presidential hopefuls. Now that prices are falling, he's not getting the credit. I don't think he deserved the blame or the credit. Gasoline prices, which are the result of worldwide influences, are not controlled by the U.S. president.

If prices continue to fall, it will be good for consumer confidence and the U.S. economy as a whole. The route out of the recession will be long and arduous. Housing prices and foreclosures continue to be a vexing problem. But lower gasoline prices should help a little.

The Louis Armstrong Review

Here is the review I wrote for the newspaper of "Backstage with Louis Armstrong," the one-man play that is part of this year's Theater of the American South, which continues through Memorial Day weekend:

            Forty-one years after Louis Armstrong’s death, playwright/actor Danny Mullen brings a fuller picture of the legendary jazz trumpeter to the Theater of the American South stage. There is more to Satchmo, it seems, than his megawatt smile and musical creativity.
            “Backstage With Louis Armstrong” depicts Armstrong in his dressing room after a show in 1957. Playing gracious host and history lecturer to an audience at Barton College’s Kennedy-Campbell Theatre, Mullen depicts Armstrong as a man reminiscing about his early life and angry over the news from Little Rock, Ark., where nine black children had been abused and mistreated by a mob of white people. His anger is so hot that he rants to newspaper reporter and jeopardizes his own career as a musician beloved as much by white audiences as by blacks, calling President Eisenhower a coward for not escorting the children into the school himself.
            Armstrong, it turns out, is a man willing to sacrifice his own success and offend his close friends to correct injustice. It’s a side of Louis Armstrong few people today remember.
            Mullen’s one-man script is filled with unexpectedly explicit sexual references and politically incorrect racial epithets, often accompanied by Armstrong’s hardy laugh. The script and Armstrong’s reminiscences hearken to a time when the N-word was as pervasive as darkness at night. It was a different time, racially. Armstrong recalls the advice early in his career to pick out a white man to be his protector and to let the world know that “Louis is a white man’s n----.”
            The racial and sexual language sometimes left Thursday’s opening night audience gasping in shock or chortling despite themselves. Recounting his first wife’s prostitution, Armstrong says bluntly, “Ain’t no trouble like ho trouble.” Mullen’s mimicking of Armstrong’s deep, gravelly voice fortuitously made some remarks unintelligible, and it was obvious which audience members were shocked and which had not heard the offensive phrase.
            Mullen captured well Armstrong’s bent-kneed, tippy-toed shuffle but could not duplicate the great white smile that seemed to take over Armstrong’s entire face. Along with the recounting of Armstrong’s childhood and tortuous road to jazz stardom, “Backstage” includes snippets of many of Armstrong’s most famous songs. No portrayal of Armstrong could be complete without his singing “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” or “Wonderful World.” The audience especially appreciated “Hello Dolly.”
            While Mullen’s impersonation of Armstrong is on-target, his greater achievement is in his script, which condenses nearly every little-known aspect of Armstrong’s biography into a show of less than 90 minutes. Mullen manages to capture the style of Armstrong’s vocals, but can’t quite match the original Satchmo’s timbre and range. He comes close enough, however, to transport the audience back 55 years to a very different era, an era that was not so simple as some might remember it, as the righteous anger, strong language and ribald humor remind us.
— Hal Tarleton

Monday, May 7, 2012

Europe and America ignore reality

Voters in France and Greece have said no to austerity measures imposed by the Eurozone. American voters and their leaders, meanwhile, have said, "What? There's a problem?"

The French and Greeks have turned leftward toward more socialistic parties in response to strict measures to ensure the viability of the common currency, the euro, which had been threatened by a debt crisis in France, Greece, and other European countries. The euro puts all of Europe into the same economic stew, and the generosity of Greek and French spending policies threatened to turn the stew into a bitter, even toxic, sludge. But French and Greek voters, convinced that the laws of economics don't apply to them, seem determined to satisfy their desires, even if it means the collapse of the common currency and the restoration of European divisiveness and deadly rivalries.

In America, meanwhile, Congress seems too focused on this year's election to recognize the dangers of its own economic crisis. Deficit spending tops $1 trillion a year. The public debt approaches $15 trillion, and neither Democrats nor Republicans have proposed a solution that would result in a balanced federal budget in the foreseeable future. Americans have been told for a generation that Social Security and Medicare in their current forms are unsustainable, and each year of delay in repairing the programs makes a solution more painful, yet both politicians and voters persist in ignoring the problem. Congress seems incapable of negotiating a compromise of spending cuts and revenue increases that will be necessary to fix the deficit.

Americans seem determined to replicate Europe's economic crisis.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

GOP staff heralds the new sexiness

Who knew Republicans could be so sexy?

For the second time in a week, a GOP legislative staffer has had to resign because of an "inappropriate relationship" with a lobbyist. I didn't know GOP stood for "Going Out Party."

At least these relationships had nothing to do with underage girls — or boys — furry animals, prostitutes or skanky campaign videographers. Leave those to Democrats with presidential ambitions. Mr. Speaker, it could've been a whole lot worse. No one violated any criminal statutes, the Mann Act or any proposed amendments to the state constitution.

And who could blame a few staff members if their eyes wandered a bit during interminable committee meetings or they found themselves having erotic daydreams while the honorable gentleman from West Podunksboro droned on for a couple of hours of floor debate. Can you blame a guy under those circumstances for thinking, "I'd like to get that bait on the floor!"

Time was, young people met their mates on the job. A little mutual attraction around the water cooler or across the cubicle wall, and suddenly the sparks fly! But that's "oh so seventies" now! You ask a co-worker to lunch, and you end up with a sexual harassment complaint, a negative fitness report and a ruined career. So what's a lonely legislative aide to do? Who can blame him for recognizing that there are women around the Legislative Palace who are paid to talk to him? And the longer the session drags on, the better-looking they get!

What I can't figure is why the lobbyists find the GOP staff so attractive. Power is the great aphrodisiac, as Henry Kissinger once said, but these staff people aren't exactly wielding thunderbolts or unleashing armies of bureaucrats. They're legislative staff, well-paid lapdogs and go-fers. In the new millennium, maybe that's sexy.