Commentary Magazine


Topic: Memphis

A New York Battle

This is going to be fun. The “this” is the New York Democratic Senate primary, which is going to make up for that Rudy Giuliani vs. Hillary Clinton matchup that political fans were deprived of when Giuliani decided not to make a Senate run in 2000. A sample:

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is finally heeding New York Democrats’ advice that she get tough with Harold Ford Jr. — slamming the former Memphis congressman as an anti-gay-rights, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant tool of Wall Street money lords. The problem for Gillibrand: Ford is embracing New York’s slappy-face politics faster than she can generate the comebacks. On Monday, Ford dismissed Gillibrand as a party-controlled “parakeet.” For good measure, his spokesman told POLITICO that Gillibrand is a “desperate liar.”

Yowser. And it’s only January.

Now Gillibrand has some problems. She’s an incumbent when incumbents are out of favor. She hasn’t done anything memorable. And to a degree, Ford is right: she morphed from a moderate, somewhat independent-minded congresswoman into a loyal cog in the Reid-Pelosi-Obama machine, never raising a  fuss about the KSM trial or objecting to the ObamaCare deals that would have cost her state billions had we not been saved by the Massachusetts voters. (“The 39-year-old Ford, who relocated to New York after losing a 2006 Senate race in Tennessee, has repeatedly lampooned Gillibrand as being protected by her ‘party bosses,’ an argument that Ford advisers believe resonates with nationwide anti-Washington sentiment.”) Her gibes about Ford’s expedient transformation on hot-button issues ring a bit hollow given her conversion on Second Amendment rights (she became enamored of gun regulation only after her appointment to the Senate). You can see why Ford might think he’s got a real chance.

But Ford is not without his problems. The liberal-Democratic establishment has decided he’s too moderate and untrustworthy. For example, he eschews business-bashing at a time when that is de rigueur for Democrats.

The Republicans have yet to come up with a top-tier candidate, despite the giddy optimism circulating in Republican circles post–Scott Brown. But before we get to the general election, there should be plenty to watch and enjoy for those who love a good show. In some ways, it’s an interesting test for Democrats, just as the Florida Senate primary race is for Republicans. (Marco Rubio has come from far back to now lead the establishment favorite Crist in the latest poll.) No, neither is evidence of a “civil war” within the respective party. Rather, both will convey some key political information: whether the association with Beltway-establishment types is the kiss of death and whether a skilled challenger without that taint (Ford in New York and Rubio in Florida) can overcome the money and name recognition that also come with it.

This is going to be fun. The “this” is the New York Democratic Senate primary, which is going to make up for that Rudy Giuliani vs. Hillary Clinton matchup that political fans were deprived of when Giuliani decided not to make a Senate run in 2000. A sample:

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is finally heeding New York Democrats’ advice that she get tough with Harold Ford Jr. — slamming the former Memphis congressman as an anti-gay-rights, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant tool of Wall Street money lords. The problem for Gillibrand: Ford is embracing New York’s slappy-face politics faster than she can generate the comebacks. On Monday, Ford dismissed Gillibrand as a party-controlled “parakeet.” For good measure, his spokesman told POLITICO that Gillibrand is a “desperate liar.”

Yowser. And it’s only January.

Now Gillibrand has some problems. She’s an incumbent when incumbents are out of favor. She hasn’t done anything memorable. And to a degree, Ford is right: she morphed from a moderate, somewhat independent-minded congresswoman into a loyal cog in the Reid-Pelosi-Obama machine, never raising a  fuss about the KSM trial or objecting to the ObamaCare deals that would have cost her state billions had we not been saved by the Massachusetts voters. (“The 39-year-old Ford, who relocated to New York after losing a 2006 Senate race in Tennessee, has repeatedly lampooned Gillibrand as being protected by her ‘party bosses,’ an argument that Ford advisers believe resonates with nationwide anti-Washington sentiment.”) Her gibes about Ford’s expedient transformation on hot-button issues ring a bit hollow given her conversion on Second Amendment rights (she became enamored of gun regulation only after her appointment to the Senate). You can see why Ford might think he’s got a real chance.

But Ford is not without his problems. The liberal-Democratic establishment has decided he’s too moderate and untrustworthy. For example, he eschews business-bashing at a time when that is de rigueur for Democrats.

The Republicans have yet to come up with a top-tier candidate, despite the giddy optimism circulating in Republican circles post–Scott Brown. But before we get to the general election, there should be plenty to watch and enjoy for those who love a good show. In some ways, it’s an interesting test for Democrats, just as the Florida Senate primary race is for Republicans. (Marco Rubio has come from far back to now lead the establishment favorite Crist in the latest poll.) No, neither is evidence of a “civil war” within the respective party. Rather, both will convey some key political information: whether the association with Beltway-establishment types is the kiss of death and whether a skilled challenger without that taint (Ford in New York and Rubio in Florida) can overcome the money and name recognition that also come with it.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

In a must-read piece, Richard Haass, a self-described “card carrying realist,” gives up on “engagement,” declares himself to be a neocon when it comes to Iran and supports regime change there: “The nuclear talks are going nowhere. The Iranians appear intent on developing the means to produce a nuclear weapon; there is no other explanation for the secret uranium-enrichment facility discovered near the holy city of Qum. Fortunately, their nuclear program appears to have hit some technical snags, which puts off the need to decide whether to launch a preventive strike. Instead we should be focusing on another fact: Iran may be closer to profound political change than at any time since the revolution that ousted the shah 30 years ago.” Actually, the only “realistic” policy at this point is regime change.

More data for the Obami to ignore on how “dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, antipathy toward federal government activism and opposition to the Democrats’ health-care proposals” lifted Scott Brown to victory: “Health care topped jobs and the economy as the most important issue driving Massachusetts voters, but among Brown voters, ‘the way Washington is working’ ran a close second to the economy and jobs as a factor. Overall, just 43 percent of Massachusetts voters say they support the health-care proposals advanced by Obama and congressional Democrats; 48 percent oppose them. Among Brown’s supporters, however, eight in 10 said they were opposed to the measures, 66 percent of them strongly so.’”

Now Sen. Chris Dodd says the Democrats should take a break from health-care reform — “a breather for a month, six weeks, and quietly go back and say the door’s open again.”

For once the voters are with Dodd: “Sixty-one percent (61%) of U.S. voters say Congress should drop health care reform and focus on more immediate ways to improve the economy and create jobs.”

Not enough votes to confirm Ben Bernanke? Kind of seems as though all the wheels are coming off the bus.

In politics, winning is always better than losing: “The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) says Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts has yielded more interest and commitments from potential GOP House candidates to run for Congress in the midterms this year. . . . The Brown victory should give Republicans momentum going into 2010, as it will likely spur Republican political donations and conservative activism, as well as preventing Democrats from passing much of their agenda and putting President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders into a defensive mode. An influx of Republican House candidates would be an added boon.”

When it rains, it pours. Big Labor deserting the Democrats? “SEIU chief Andy Stern took a hard shot at Dem leaders just now for considering a scaled-down health care bill, strongly hinting that labor might not work as hard for Dem candidates in 2010 if they failed to deliver real and comprehensive reform.” Can’t blame them – unions spent millions and millions electing Obama as well as the Democratic congressional majorities and what have the Democrats delivered?

Seems as though union voters are already deserting the Democrats: “Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race was lifted by strong support from union households, in a sign of trouble for President Barack Obama and Democrats who are counting on union support in the 2010 midterm elections. A poll conducted on behalf of the AFL-CIO found that 49% of Massachusetts union households supported Mr. Brown in Tuesday’s voting, while 46% supported Democrat Martha Coakley.”

Obama complains of running into a “buzz saw” of opposition in Congress. Has no one ever disagreed with him? Did he expect everyone to simply sign on? I guess the presidency is really hard.

From the New York Times: “A Tennessee man accused of killing a soldier outside a Little Rock, Ark., military recruiting station last year has asked a judge to change his plea to guilty, claiming for the first time that he is affiliated with a Yemen-based affiliate of Al Qaeda. . .If evidence emerges that his claim is true, it will give the June 1, 2009, shooting in Little Rock new significance at a time when Yemen is being more closely scrutinized as a source of terrorist plots against the United States. Mr. Muhammad, 24, a Muslim convert from Memphis, spent about 16 months in Yemen starting in the fall of 2007, ostensibly teaching English and learning Arabic.”

In a must-read piece, Richard Haass, a self-described “card carrying realist,” gives up on “engagement,” declares himself to be a neocon when it comes to Iran and supports regime change there: “The nuclear talks are going nowhere. The Iranians appear intent on developing the means to produce a nuclear weapon; there is no other explanation for the secret uranium-enrichment facility discovered near the holy city of Qum. Fortunately, their nuclear program appears to have hit some technical snags, which puts off the need to decide whether to launch a preventive strike. Instead we should be focusing on another fact: Iran may be closer to profound political change than at any time since the revolution that ousted the shah 30 years ago.” Actually, the only “realistic” policy at this point is regime change.

More data for the Obami to ignore on how “dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, antipathy toward federal government activism and opposition to the Democrats’ health-care proposals” lifted Scott Brown to victory: “Health care topped jobs and the economy as the most important issue driving Massachusetts voters, but among Brown voters, ‘the way Washington is working’ ran a close second to the economy and jobs as a factor. Overall, just 43 percent of Massachusetts voters say they support the health-care proposals advanced by Obama and congressional Democrats; 48 percent oppose them. Among Brown’s supporters, however, eight in 10 said they were opposed to the measures, 66 percent of them strongly so.’”

Now Sen. Chris Dodd says the Democrats should take a break from health-care reform — “a breather for a month, six weeks, and quietly go back and say the door’s open again.”

For once the voters are with Dodd: “Sixty-one percent (61%) of U.S. voters say Congress should drop health care reform and focus on more immediate ways to improve the economy and create jobs.”

Not enough votes to confirm Ben Bernanke? Kind of seems as though all the wheels are coming off the bus.

In politics, winning is always better than losing: “The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) says Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts has yielded more interest and commitments from potential GOP House candidates to run for Congress in the midterms this year. . . . The Brown victory should give Republicans momentum going into 2010, as it will likely spur Republican political donations and conservative activism, as well as preventing Democrats from passing much of their agenda and putting President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders into a defensive mode. An influx of Republican House candidates would be an added boon.”

When it rains, it pours. Big Labor deserting the Democrats? “SEIU chief Andy Stern took a hard shot at Dem leaders just now for considering a scaled-down health care bill, strongly hinting that labor might not work as hard for Dem candidates in 2010 if they failed to deliver real and comprehensive reform.” Can’t blame them – unions spent millions and millions electing Obama as well as the Democratic congressional majorities and what have the Democrats delivered?

Seems as though union voters are already deserting the Democrats: “Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race was lifted by strong support from union households, in a sign of trouble for President Barack Obama and Democrats who are counting on union support in the 2010 midterm elections. A poll conducted on behalf of the AFL-CIO found that 49% of Massachusetts union households supported Mr. Brown in Tuesday’s voting, while 46% supported Democrat Martha Coakley.”

Obama complains of running into a “buzz saw” of opposition in Congress. Has no one ever disagreed with him? Did he expect everyone to simply sign on? I guess the presidency is really hard.

From the New York Times: “A Tennessee man accused of killing a soldier outside a Little Rock, Ark., military recruiting station last year has asked a judge to change his plea to guilty, claiming for the first time that he is affiliated with a Yemen-based affiliate of Al Qaeda. . .If evidence emerges that his claim is true, it will give the June 1, 2009, shooting in Little Rock new significance at a time when Yemen is being more closely scrutinized as a source of terrorist plots against the United States. Mr. Muhammad, 24, a Muslim convert from Memphis, spent about 16 months in Yemen starting in the fall of 2007, ostensibly teaching English and learning Arabic.”

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Flotsam and Jetsam

What would 1.5 million pennies look like? “It’s a school project spearheaded by seventh-grade Spotlight students currently studying World War II — with a significant focus on the Holocaust. Each penny would stand for one child lost in the Holocaust. ‘The pennies will be used in an online museum,’ Horn Lake Spotlight teacher Susan Powell said. ‘We will host a (virtual) room, and this is being done through an organization (Christian Friends of Israel) in Memphis. We are going to assist them. The kids are brainstorming on what to do with the pennies.’ ” Read the whole thing.

Arnold terminates his support for ObamaCare: “You’ve heard of the bridge to nowhere. This is health care to nowhere.” And the backroom deals this time are more noxious.

Liz Cheney has good advice for Obama: “If President Obama is serious about keeping the American people safe, he should reverse his irresponsible and ill-advised decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. He should reverse his decision to usher terrorists from Guantanamo onto U.S. soil. He should reverse his decision to bring the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to New York. He should reverse his decision to give KSM and other terrorists the rights of Americans and the benefit of a criminal trial in an American civilian court. He should immediately classify Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, as an illegal enemy combatant, not a criminal defendant.” (She also has some advice for Eric Holder, including halting his investigations of CIA officials and lawyers who saved American lives.) I’d wager that very large majorities of Americans agree with her.

Haaretz reports that Rahm Emanuel said he is fed up with Israelis. (It’s mutual, pal.) And the Palestinians. And the whole Middle East peace process. The White House denies he said it.

Larry J. Sabato’s take: “A multi-seat gain for the GOP in the Senate is now the best bet. … Now we can all see clearly why President Obama is pushing so hard for his agenda in his first two years. He’s unlikely ever again to have anything approaching his current 20-seat margin in the Senate and 40-seat margin in the House.”

Alert David Brooks: Sarah Palin is headlining a Tea Party Convention.

Mickey Kaus thinks Janet Napolitano actually helps Obama. “Loyal cabinet secretaries should take the blame–and the PR hit–for their agency’s mistakes. The President stays as far away from the bad thing as possible, even when the White House is in reality intimately involved.” I dunno. I think having dopey advisers — e.g., Alberto Gonzales — just fuels the “executive incompetence” meme.

When he’s not bending the cost curve: “President Obama’s budget guru has a secret love child — with the woman he jilted before hooking up with his hot new fiance [sic], The Post has learned.”

Big Labor spent millions electing Obama, and this is the thanks it gets: “President Barack Obama signaled to House Democratic leaders Wednesday that they’ll have to drop their opposition to taxing high-end health insurance plans to pay for health coverage for millions of uninsured Americans. In a meeting at the White House, Obama expressed his preference for the insurance tax contained in the Senate’s health overhaul bill, but largely opposed by House Democrats and organized labor, Democratic aides said.” Oh yes, that’s a lot of people making less than $200,000 who are going to get taxed, despite Obama’s campaign promise.

What would 1.5 million pennies look like? “It’s a school project spearheaded by seventh-grade Spotlight students currently studying World War II — with a significant focus on the Holocaust. Each penny would stand for one child lost in the Holocaust. ‘The pennies will be used in an online museum,’ Horn Lake Spotlight teacher Susan Powell said. ‘We will host a (virtual) room, and this is being done through an organization (Christian Friends of Israel) in Memphis. We are going to assist them. The kids are brainstorming on what to do with the pennies.’ ” Read the whole thing.

Arnold terminates his support for ObamaCare: “You’ve heard of the bridge to nowhere. This is health care to nowhere.” And the backroom deals this time are more noxious.

Liz Cheney has good advice for Obama: “If President Obama is serious about keeping the American people safe, he should reverse his irresponsible and ill-advised decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. He should reverse his decision to usher terrorists from Guantanamo onto U.S. soil. He should reverse his decision to bring the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to New York. He should reverse his decision to give KSM and other terrorists the rights of Americans and the benefit of a criminal trial in an American civilian court. He should immediately classify Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, as an illegal enemy combatant, not a criminal defendant.” (She also has some advice for Eric Holder, including halting his investigations of CIA officials and lawyers who saved American lives.) I’d wager that very large majorities of Americans agree with her.

Haaretz reports that Rahm Emanuel said he is fed up with Israelis. (It’s mutual, pal.) And the Palestinians. And the whole Middle East peace process. The White House denies he said it.

Larry J. Sabato’s take: “A multi-seat gain for the GOP in the Senate is now the best bet. … Now we can all see clearly why President Obama is pushing so hard for his agenda in his first two years. He’s unlikely ever again to have anything approaching his current 20-seat margin in the Senate and 40-seat margin in the House.”

Alert David Brooks: Sarah Palin is headlining a Tea Party Convention.

Mickey Kaus thinks Janet Napolitano actually helps Obama. “Loyal cabinet secretaries should take the blame–and the PR hit–for their agency’s mistakes. The President stays as far away from the bad thing as possible, even when the White House is in reality intimately involved.” I dunno. I think having dopey advisers — e.g., Alberto Gonzales — just fuels the “executive incompetence” meme.

When he’s not bending the cost curve: “President Obama’s budget guru has a secret love child — with the woman he jilted before hooking up with his hot new fiance [sic], The Post has learned.”

Big Labor spent millions electing Obama, and this is the thanks it gets: “President Barack Obama signaled to House Democratic leaders Wednesday that they’ll have to drop their opposition to taxing high-end health insurance plans to pay for health coverage for millions of uninsured Americans. In a meeting at the White House, Obama expressed his preference for the insurance tax contained in the Senate’s health overhaul bill, but largely opposed by House Democrats and organized labor, Democratic aides said.” Oh yes, that’s a lot of people making less than $200,000 who are going to get taxed, despite Obama’s campaign promise.

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Bookshelf

Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

Read More

Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

• Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) is the first (and, so far, only) biography of a rock musician that aspires to the same level of seriousness as a classical-music biography. The second volume, published in 1999, was inevitably less interesting, since Presley’s life after 1960 was an unedifying chronicle of public decline and private squalor. In Last Train to Memphis, by contrast, we see the young Elvis up close, and even those who take no interest in his music will find his story irresistibly compelling.

• I know of no finer biography of an American composer than Anthony Tommasini’s Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (1997). Among countless other good things, Tommasini brings off the difficult task of writing about a man he knew personally without lapsing into sentiment—or spite. I wish he would now turn his hand to writing an equally penetrating life of Aaron Copland!

• At 851 closely packed pages, Richard Osborne’s Herbert von Karajan: A Life In Music (1998) ought by all rights to be tedious. Instead it’s a page-turner, partly because Karajan’s complex personality was so fascinating, but mostly because Osborne is a lucid stylist with a comprehensive understanding of his subject and a highly developed sense of the relevant—three traits rarely to be found in the same biographer.

• Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven: The Music and the Life (2003) is the kind of book that can only be written by a great scholar who has spent a lifetime reflecting on a major artist. Though the subtitle accurately reflects Lockwood’s priorities—he devotes more space to Beethoven’s music than his life—he succeeds in integrating life and work into a single, fully unified treatment. The result, as I wrote in COMMENTARY four years ago, is “a profoundly humane work of scholarship that will—or at least should—appeal to specialists and generalists in equal measure.”

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Shopping for Iraq

President Bush has garnered much derision for telling Americans who wanted to know how to respond to the 9/11 attacks to go shopping to bolster the economy. That was hardly the kind of ringing call to service and self-sacrifice that might have been expected under the circumstances. But now it seems there is a way in which Americans can help us achieve a vital national objective by opening their wallets and their shopping bags.

Josh White reports in the Washington Post that efforts by the Pentagon to revive the Iraqi economy are faltering because few American firms are stepping forward to buy goods being produced by Iraqi factories. J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart have backed away from possible deals to buy clothes made in Iraq. But so far there is one exception.

Mike Longo, president of Memphis-based Shelmar Inc., said he has signed a contract to buy about $10,000 worth of boys’ shirts and jogging suits for his 51 stores in seven Southeastern states—the only U.S. contract of its kind so far. Longo, a West Point graduate and an infantry officer for nine years, said he will put most of the clothes on the shelves of his unbranded stores this fall, but will not emphasize their Iraqi origins.

It is hardly surprising that Long has an Army background, which suggests that he is doing business in Iraq for motives that are at least as much about patriotism as profits. It is a shame that other American firms aren’t joining in to do their small bit to help create employment in Iraq, which might give young men an alternative to joining militias or setting off IED’s. Given how many Americans say they “support the troops,” there should be money to be made marketing Iraqi clothing, perhaps with an “Operation Iraqi Freedom” label. This might be our 21st century version of the “liberty bonds,” which involved Americans on the home front in the larger struggle during World War II.

President Bush has garnered much derision for telling Americans who wanted to know how to respond to the 9/11 attacks to go shopping to bolster the economy. That was hardly the kind of ringing call to service and self-sacrifice that might have been expected under the circumstances. But now it seems there is a way in which Americans can help us achieve a vital national objective by opening their wallets and their shopping bags.

Josh White reports in the Washington Post that efforts by the Pentagon to revive the Iraqi economy are faltering because few American firms are stepping forward to buy goods being produced by Iraqi factories. J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart have backed away from possible deals to buy clothes made in Iraq. But so far there is one exception.

Mike Longo, president of Memphis-based Shelmar Inc., said he has signed a contract to buy about $10,000 worth of boys’ shirts and jogging suits for his 51 stores in seven Southeastern states—the only U.S. contract of its kind so far. Longo, a West Point graduate and an infantry officer for nine years, said he will put most of the clothes on the shelves of his unbranded stores this fall, but will not emphasize their Iraqi origins.

It is hardly surprising that Long has an Army background, which suggests that he is doing business in Iraq for motives that are at least as much about patriotism as profits. It is a shame that other American firms aren’t joining in to do their small bit to help create employment in Iraq, which might give young men an alternative to joining militias or setting off IED’s. Given how many Americans say they “support the troops,” there should be money to be made marketing Iraqi clothing, perhaps with an “Operation Iraqi Freedom” label. This might be our 21st century version of the “liberty bonds,” which involved Americans on the home front in the larger struggle during World War II.

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Bookshelf

• I spent the past month staying in a string of New England country inns, most of which were of the sort that have libraries—of a sort. These moldering collections typically consist of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (remember them?) and the best sellers of yesteryear, lightly sprinkled with the odd novelty. On occasion the novelties can be quite odd indeed. I passed a pleasant evening reading the memoirs of Lowell Thomas (remember him?) as I sat by the Atlantic Ocean a couple of weeks ago, and the very next night I stumbled across a copy of Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ in Lithographs, a 1934 volume abridged and illustrated by Hugo Gellert, a long-forgotten artist whose earnest prose breathes the air of other spheres:

But out of the East rises a new Prometheus. And all the Gods in the World cannot chain him! The great disciple of Karl Marx, Lenin, led the Russian workers and peasants who created the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. And these workers and peasants became the Masters of their own destiny. The Young Giant with his mighty hands builds the future of mankind and bright lights flare up in his wake . . . .

More often, though, I contented myself with mysteries and thrillers of varying vintages, the oldest of which was John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, published in 1963, mere months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy robbed a generation of Americans of their dewy-eyed innocence, blah blah blah. Not that the pseudonymous author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold had much innocence of which to be robbed, judging by the book’s denouement, which hinges on the complete and final disillusion of its grubby, self-pitying anti-hero:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.

As it happens, I’d never read a word of le Carré, and I was fascinated to find that he appears to be the man who introduced moral equivalence to modern espionage fiction. (Actually, Somerset Maugham beat him to the punch four decades earlier with Ashenden, but that book’s eponymous secret agent is not so much disillusioned as indifferent.) In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the Brits and Russians are interchangeably unscrupulous and cynical, and it is taken for granted that neither side deserves to prevail in the “long twilight struggle” proclaimed a scant two years earlier by the idealistic speechwriters of the soon-to-be-martyred architect of the New Frontier. It says something noteworthy about the emerging ethos of the Sixties that such a book was soon to become one of its emblematic literary successes.

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• I spent the past month staying in a string of New England country inns, most of which were of the sort that have libraries—of a sort. These moldering collections typically consist of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (remember them?) and the best sellers of yesteryear, lightly sprinkled with the odd novelty. On occasion the novelties can be quite odd indeed. I passed a pleasant evening reading the memoirs of Lowell Thomas (remember him?) as I sat by the Atlantic Ocean a couple of weeks ago, and the very next night I stumbled across a copy of Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ in Lithographs, a 1934 volume abridged and illustrated by Hugo Gellert, a long-forgotten artist whose earnest prose breathes the air of other spheres:

But out of the East rises a new Prometheus. And all the Gods in the World cannot chain him! The great disciple of Karl Marx, Lenin, led the Russian workers and peasants who created the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. And these workers and peasants became the Masters of their own destiny. The Young Giant with his mighty hands builds the future of mankind and bright lights flare up in his wake . . . .

More often, though, I contented myself with mysteries and thrillers of varying vintages, the oldest of which was John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, published in 1963, mere months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy robbed a generation of Americans of their dewy-eyed innocence, blah blah blah. Not that the pseudonymous author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold had much innocence of which to be robbed, judging by the book’s denouement, which hinges on the complete and final disillusion of its grubby, self-pitying anti-hero:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.

As it happens, I’d never read a word of le Carré, and I was fascinated to find that he appears to be the man who introduced moral equivalence to modern espionage fiction. (Actually, Somerset Maugham beat him to the punch four decades earlier with Ashenden, but that book’s eponymous secret agent is not so much disillusioned as indifferent.) In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the Brits and Russians are interchangeably unscrupulous and cynical, and it is taken for granted that neither side deserves to prevail in the “long twilight struggle” proclaimed a scant two years earlier by the idealistic speechwriters of the soon-to-be-martyred architect of the New Frontier. It says something noteworthy about the emerging ethos of the Sixties that such a book was soon to become one of its emblematic literary successes.

• Repellent though the message of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold may be, it at least has the advantage of being exceedingly well written, albeit in a style indistinguishable from that of Graham Greene. In 1963 many best sellers still aspired to the condition of literature, and as late as 1987, Scott Turow, the author of Presumed Innocent, was clearly doing his best to produce a serious novel. Would that his editor had thus insisted on a complete rewrite, since Turow is a chronic overwriter who should be forced to spend a full year reading nothing but the complete works of Elmore Leonard. To be sure, he is also capable of writing with admirably clear-eyed straightforwardness about the mixed motives of lawyers and lawmen, and Presumed Innocent, which I found on the shelves of a Connecticut inn last week, has a richness of observation that helps to bring it within spitting distance of seriousness. Alas, it is disfigured at clockwork intervals by patches of the deepest purple:

Whatever wild, surging, libidinal rivers Carolyn undammed in me by her manner and appearance, there was something about the tender attention she showed this needy child that drew me over the brink, that gave my emotions a melting, yearning quality that I took to be far more significant than all my priapic heat.

No doubt this sentence was written with a straight face, but that doesn’t make it any easier to read with one.

• Unlike Scott Turow, John Grisham makes no pretense of being a serious writer. Indeed, it would be an act of charity to describe his lumpy prose as functional, for it bears much the same relationship to his elaborate plots that the flavor-free iceberg lettuce in a Midwestern salad bears to the Thousand Island dressing in which it is drenched. Since I find it all but impossible to read an ill-written book, I’ve hitherto made a point of steering clear of Grisham, but I reluctantly confess to having rather enjoyed The Firm, the 1991 novel in which he recounts the protracted travails and ultimate triumph of an Ivy League law-school grad who takes a way-the-hell-too-good-to-be-true job with a Memphis law firm that turns out to be a wholly owned subsidiary of Mafia, Inc.

Needless to say, The Firm is all plot and a yard wide, but at least it’s full of interesting facts. (Should the need ever arise, I now know how to launder large sums of money.) Even better, it’s a lawyer joke blown up to book length. Did you hear the one about the hot young gun fresh out of Harvard Law who landed a job with a firm that gave him a BMW and paid off his student loans . . . then tried to murder him? That’s my kind of moral equivalence.

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