Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Same as it ever was

Think today's deep-dish partisan divide is unprecedented? Just listen to episode 5 of Slate's Slow Burn, its deep-dive story of Watergate. It provides helpful context for the period we are living in now.

If you don't think supporters of a sitting President were ever this die-hard loyal despite all rational reasons not to be. If you think it's only the current bitter climate in which a party seems to be willing to self-protect at any price.

But most of all if you think that Devin Nunes' accusatory behavior - and apparent marching orders from the White House is some kind of aberrational anomaly.

In case you don't have the time to sit through the podcast, I will "spoil" some of it here, because it is historically important. And fascinating.

The most amazing nugget I took away from the episode was that the narrative I had always believed - that John Dean had come clean about Nixon's culpability, and then was buttressed when a White House staffer revealed that everything in the White House had been taped, was some kind of 1-2 punch of The Truth Tellers routing out the Bad Guys.

In fact, the only reason the tapes ever got exposed is much more happenstance - and only occurred because the Nixon White House was trying so hard to obliterate Dean's credibility that it overreached and unwittingly exposed its own secret.

(Not unlike the recent Nunes Memo which unwittingly undermined its own argument. Trying to assert that the Russia probe was bogus because it was launched by the Steele Dossier, it also included the fact that what really launched it was George Papadapoulos's earlier loose lips about Russia providing dirt on Hillary.)

John Dean testifies, 1973
White House attorney Dean wanted to testify in full to Democrats before any Republicans heard what he had to say, because he worried the White House would immediately hear his testimony from its compatriots mount a counter narrative. And it turns out he was right. Because as soon as he testified, the committee was given transcripts of conversations that Dean had in the White House to undermine his story.

But a savvy investigator (of course who, is, again, a partisan squabble, even today) was like, wait, why do you have these transcripts? Does someone have a really good memory? Or are there some kind of tapes we don't know about?

My memory of all this was that the White House guy who helped install the recording equipment in 1971, Alexander Butterfield, had heroically decided to come clean like Dean.
Butterfield testifying
That turns out not to be the case. In fact, when interviewed at age 86 he told the Washington Post in 2012, that he was willing to remain vague unless he was asked specifically about the tapes, and he doesn't like being thought of as a snitch.
“Frankly, I don’t like being known as the man who revealed the existence of the tapes. It makes it appear that I ran full tilt to the Watergate committee and told them eagerly and breathlessly the very information that Nixon considered top secret. That was not the case. I was facing a true dilemma: I wanted very much to respect Nixon’s wishes and at the same time to be cooperative and forthright with the congressional investigators. The wording of their questions meant everything to me. And when Don Sanders, the deputy minority counsel . . . asked the $64,000 question, clearly and directly, I felt I had no choice but to respond in like manner.”
Why wouldn't he want to be known that way?  Because of loyalty?

We are very lucky the overreach happened, and that someone thought to ask the question, or it may never have come out.

And without those tapes (which, as David Frost pointedly asked, why didn't Nixon destroy them?) Nixon would have continued to maintain his innocence.

And he had many True Believers.

As I write this, there's news from CNN and the NYT that Steve Bannon is refusing to speak to the House committee despite a subpoena. And one can't help wonder if he knows the John Dean playbook - that he wants to save the truth for Mueller and not give away what he knows to those who will run it immediately back to the White House.

Maybe that's not why this is happening. We may not learn the full truth for another 40 years. That's a slow burn indeed.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

"What Just Happened?"

This summer, I was tickled to read the oral history of one of the craziest episodes in TV history -- in which a dog who's digested marijuana makes off with the heart being brought into a hospital for a character's transplant.  Because I had been part of that creative process, as a story editor on season 6 of One Tree Hill.  

In fact I was kinda sad I hadn't been interviewed. 

I would have told the reporter the episode probably contributed to me not being asked back the following season, because when the creator, Mark Schwahn, pitched the dog-heart scenario, I blurted out "You can't do that!" 

Being told "no" was a trigger for Schwahn, who often reminded us he'd grown up in a trailer park and, with no showbiz connections, created the young-people smalltown soap opera and kept it on the air despite getting no respect from critics -- or even his own network.  Every season he concocted a finale that could double as a series finale, because he was never told in advance that the show would be renewed. Six seasons in, he bristled that he was still arguing with the higher-ups over his casting choices. In fact even though the show was produced by Warner Brothers, instead of being on the legendary studio lot the offices were on the lower-rent "Ranch" down the street, in a grim little trailer (a weird ironic twist given how far he'd come from his origins). 
Perhaps in retaliation, he made so many out-there nutty plot choices that the room had developed the catchphrase, "What just happened?" to remind us to think outside the box. While critics may have looked down on it, it outlasted, say, The West Wing by two seasons. 

So: when I blurted out "You can't," Schwahn bellowed back "Handelman! Never say 'can't'!" He was the king, and I was the peon. 

We both knew I was lucky to be there-- in fact he had rescued me from the scrap heap. He'd interviewed me for season 5 and not chosen me, and then my agents had dropped me. So a year later when they called to say he was looking for me, I landed the gig with no agents at all. 

So it was very hard to go up against him. And most of the other writers in the room were in similar positions --

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fact-checking the universe

The Deuce premiere. Gambling addict Frankie and his bookie.
1971 NYC. Yay! A Mets reference!  Seaver was my favorite! 
Tug? TUG??? 
My whole life, I've been cursed with a kind of OCD-level need to correct the universe.  I have an almost comic inability to enjoy something I am reading or watching or listening to -- even a museum note about a painting -- if there's a glaring error involved.

At least -- to me it's a glaring error. I'm sure most people gloss over it, or just let it go.

I've joked that since the rise of the Internet and all its sloppiness, I see my main role as its sole copy-editor.  But I DO send emails to writer friends about mistakes in their articles or headlines (since these days they can be fixed). I have tweeted to authors I don't know about their mistakes. I'm trying to keep the world safe from perpetuating - let's not call it fake news -- just ignorance.

It's exhausting. And I'm not proud of it. And it's probably cost me a couple of jobs where I just should have kept my mouth shut. I kind of think of it as my Wile E Coyote impulse. There's an old Roadrunner cartoon in which Wile E has programmed a piano to explode as soon as Roadrunner pecks on a certain key. He leaves sheet music on the piano. Roadrunner comes over and plays it wrong several times. After cringing, the increasingly furious Coyote bursts forth, pushes the bird aside and pounds out the correct sequence, blowing himself up. (Update: this was apparently the FOURTH time a Warner Bros. Cartoon used this joke, leading me to think Chuck Jones hated the song from childhood piano lessons.) 

With all the accusations of falsehoods bouncing around the world in 2017, easily fact checkable misinformation should not be out there.

I understand how this kind of oversight can happen in the rough and tumble of journalism, with its increasingly breakneck deadlines, but it's still no excuse -- like when, for example, my one-time employer and music bible Rolling Stone published a remembrance by Rickie Lee Jones about Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker, and she misspelled the other guy's name as "Fagan" instead of Fagen. Or, in the obit for Rod Temperton, initially called the hit he wrote with Michael Jackson "Rock with Me," instead of "Rock with You." (Both I sent notes about, and both now are corrected. Was it my doing?) I also corrected a friend's assertion about who had read a statement from Bill Cosby's wife after his mistrial. The friend was grateful, having had to file the piece from an airplane.

But it's always a little more confounding to me when an error pops up in a movie or a TV show. After all, not only did the people on the set all hear it and see it -- the script had to get through many incarnations and

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Triumph Lost and Found at the WGA Awards

 “I guess the WGA thought  it  would be fun for the children’s category to be presented
 by a foul-mouthed puppet—but  unfortunately, Sean Spicer wasn’t  available.” - Triumph
Awards shows might look glamorous on TV and in pictures, but in person, they're often a slog to sit through - even if you're nominated, but especially if you're just an audience member.  Long-winded thank-yous, irrelevant claptrap, long walks from the balcony to the podium.

But this year's Writers' Guild East Awards (a parallel ceremony was being staged live in LA simultaneously) - because of a perfect storm of host, presenters, political situation, nominees, victors, and honorees -- was remarkably rewarding and entertaining for me. Not just as a member, or as a TV viewer, but as a former journalist And it ended with a hilarious near-tragedy-turned comedy, involving Triumph the Comic Insult Dog's missing trophy.

Cobb (right) applauds Bernstein (center) 
Though I've been part of the nominated shows in the past, this year I was there as a member of the Guild's activities committee, working as a volunteer, drawn partly by the host - The Daily Show's Lewis Black - as well as the promised presence of Wire creator David Simon, on hand to present an award to his fellow Baltimorean John Waters, and I was hoping against hope as a TV viewer that The Americans, written and shot here, would finally win a much overdue award.

I had the happy task of ushering New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb, who produced the Frontline documentary Policing the Police and was being given the first Walter Bernstein Award,  for writers "who have demonstrated with creativity, grace and bravery a willingness to confront social injustice in the face of adversity." The award is named after the Blacklisted screenwriter hero - who is still sharp at age 97 and was sitting at the table with Cobb (left) - a living testament to standing up to governmental malfeasance.

From the get-go, the proceedings had a special charge to them. It's hard to explain how much harder the East Coast community of writers has to work to succeed in showbiz, which prefers everyone to be under its eye and thumb in L.A. -- and have stuck to their creative guns while doing so. Among those in the room: Simon, Waters, Tina Fey, Kenneth Lonergan, Jill Kargman, John Patrick Shanley, Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the staffs of John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Colbert,  as well as unionized broadcast news journalists like our President, longtime Bill Moyers writer Michael Winship.

The intro to Lewis Black - another inveterate New Yorker who I first encountered when he was staging plays by aspiring playwrights like Aaron Sorkin downstairs at the West Bank Cafe in the 80's - correctly stated, "He was the voice of Anger in Inside Out, and was also the voice of anger in literally everything he's ever done."

He spoke of watching Trump's recent press conference while trying to write his monologue, "and I was forced to realize yet again that we are living at the intersection of satire and reality."

I had one personal agenda for the night: Before the ceremony, I tracked down Steve O'Donnell, former Letterman head writer who was getting the Herb Sargent Award, who, with his twin brother humorist Mark, had written a piece for me at Rolling Stone

Thursday, February 2, 2017

My Father's Dreams of Obama

Walter Handelman (1931-2009) in the Navy circa 1954
Eight years ago tonight, my Dad, Walter, left a Super Bowl party and died in his sleep. On each anniversary, like others on Facebook who've lost loved ones,  I usually post a classic photo (like the one above) a brief tribute, and get a lot of sympathetic "likes."

But this year feels like something more is in order.

I realized it had to do with an email he sent me and my brothers after election night 2008 -  that I wound up quoting in his eulogy not two months later.  He died only 12 days after Obama's inauguration.

Dad was a lifelong Republican - but a bygone species of moderate sometimes referred to as "Jacob Javits Republicans" - who last voted for a GOP Presidential Candidate in 1968.

All my life, Dad hadn't been that communicative about his emotions. My mom (a lifelong Democrat, whose dad was a labor lawyer) was the, shall we say, expressive and dominating partner . The two of them were inseparable - literally. At some point we surmised they had never spent more than a few consecutive days apart their entire 49 years of marriage.

She died suddenly at 70, in October 2007, of an aneurysm, while swimming. (He had found her and had jumped in to the pool fully clothed trying to rescue her, but she'd died instantly.)

After all those nights in a couple, in his solitude he uncorked a new (or rather, hidden from me and my brothers) frankness that gave us a new relationship with him.  

He would often go to Mets games solo, leaving her seat empty rather than trying to replace her companionship. and confided to us that at bedtime he often "spoke" to her.

Here's the email he sent after Obama's election. 
Obama's win was an historical event in our country's history.  It is hard to overstate its meaning, the full extent of which will not be known, probably, in my lifetime. 
I feel proud of our country, in a way that I have not fully felt for many years.  Hope is what has gotten us through one crisis after another during the 20th century, and is what we can cling to into the 21st.   
And in Obama I think we have a president who has the intellectual capacity to seize the opportunities that make hope a reality  As someone who served in the armed forces, and who has made the ideals of Boy Scouting a central part of his lifetime, I am happy to see a  person in the White House who shares my belief that the leadership of our country on the world scene, as we had during World War II, is the most important gift we can make to humankind. 
I talked to Mom about this at length, aloud, last night, and felt her with me as I dropped off to a deep and dreamless sleep.
getting Eagle Scout award
I keep wondering what Dad -- an Eagle Scout who lobbied for years to try to get the Boy Scouts to accept gay scouts,  an ROTC Navy Lieutenant,  a private-practice estates and trusts lawyer who did pro-bono and reduced-rate lawyering for churches and prison education and homeless outreach, and a tireless local volunteer, including a 2-year stint as the mayor of my hometown -- would think of the pendulum swing that occurred this election.

I imagine it might be something like how my folks in their seats behind first base at Shea Stadium reacted when the Mets - inevitably -- imploded.  Let's just say, there was a lot of...expressed emotion.

As they headed to the parking lot, however, they did not swear off the Mets or baseball or the traffic jam forever. They knew the season was 162 games long. And if the Mets didn't make it to the playoffs, there was always next year.

I'm trying to keep that in mind.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Survey Says?

Family Feud prepped us for this. 
We are drowning in surveys. I'd be saying that even if it hadn't been the year of a Presidential election (one which, by the way, proved the utter ineptitude of endless polling). All month we've been getting what amount to survey results about movies, music, books, photos, stories of the year. (The Chicago Sun-Times email this week helpfully declared this the "Year of the Cubs and Trump.")

Our constant loop of feedback has weird consequences: Jan. 1 2017's Sunday Times just arrived with an entire printed section consisting of the "Most Read, Shared & Viewed" Stories of 2016 (reminding me of when TV shows used to run "clip" episodes with characters having flashbacks to save production costs).
For readers with no Internet?
When the Internet started, we were all lured into voicing our opinions: not just the things we bought on Amazon and eBay, but the sellers themselves. Not just a Facebook post or Tweet, but our comment on others'.

More recently, the convenience and economy of Uber comes with the price of having to rate our drivers - and be rated by them.  (The main result I've noticed is the increase in forced personal interaction with drivers.)

Bryce Howard's ratings soon go south (Black Mirror)
The "Nosedive" episode of Black Mirror earlier this year (right) took the social cost of such ratings to their illogical conclusion, where lives were ruined by bad numbers.

For a while, I gamely played along

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Pool Disrupter (An Election Parable)

Swimming is what I do for exercise and for mental health - the latter more than ever this election cycle when I've been working at CNN and having to immerse myself in the daily morass.

But I was reminded again this morning, there's one swimmer who keeps making it difficult for me to lose myself - and the situation has echoes of the campaign.

Public pool lap swimmers are generally a collegial, accommodating bunch. We all have our routines, but we understand that since we have chosen to exercise not on a lake or on a solo elliptical machine at the gym, we have to pace ourselves and dovetail with our fellows.  If there are two swimmers, you split a lane. More than two, you swim in counterclockwise circles. Some pools even designate "slow, medium, fast" lanes to help sort things out.

But some people just don't care - about others, rules or decorum.

Case in point: One day last summer I was at the excellent community pool in Durango, Colorado (left), and found 10 of the 11 lanes had two swimmers sharing. So as is customary, I stood at the end of the 11th, and when the lone swimmer arrived, I tapped him on the shoulder to inform him we'd be splitting it.

His reply was shocking. "I don't do well with splits." He turned and headed back into hogging the lane.  Instead of crowding two other swimmers, I waited for someone else to finish and took her place.

That was a one-time incident. But the situation at my neighborhood rec center pool in Harlem is chronic. I was ecstatic to discover the beautiful tiled space when I moved uptown 6 years ago, and I have adjusted my life to match the Parks Department's limited lap swim hours, during which orange cones are set up by the lifeguard to designate them slow, fast, medium, respectively.
Over the years a melting-pot group of regulars - African-American, Asian-American, Arab-American, Latinos, Caucasians - is usually partaking of the M/W/F 7-9am slot. Among the most memorable a 90-year-old woman who paddles the whole time on her back; a 90-pound woman who swims entire laps underwater along the pool bottom; a bearded guy who wears no goggles yet zooms past most of us; an elderly guy who works out with water barbells in the deep end, and a heavyset man who does some lackadaisical water exercise in the shallow end of the slow lane but mostly harangues anyone else in earshot.

Then there's the Big Guy.

When I first enter the pool room, I know what kind of workout it will be if The Big Guy is in the water. He's retirement age, well over 6 feet, pear-shaped, probably 300 lbs., and he swims a full 90 minutes three times a week.  His pace is very very very methodical (ie slow), taking elaborate, wide-swath flip turns at each end, which would be fine if he were in the slow lane. But

Monday, August 15, 2016

No Reply

Why hasn't she answered me? - Warren Beatty as John Reed

I think she HAS answered you. -- Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman (Reds, 1981)

Instead of any epic historical scene, the moment in Reds that has forever lodged itself in my brain is the above small, intimate exchange between Emma Goldman and John Reed near the end, when John is suffering and doesn't know why his wife hasn't written him back. The harsh lesson is, sometimes silence is the answer. 

I was reminded of the concept in a TV writers' room a few years ago when I was complaining to one of my colleagues about being besieged by people wanting to meet me for advice about TV writing.  

"Oh," he said. "When I get emails like that, I just never write back."
I was shocked. "What?" 
"That way, they never know if I read it, or even got it." 

Wow, I thought. That's harsh. 
But I am starting to see the wisdom of his approach. 
The latest one came this week via a LinkedIn email. With not so much as a how-d'ya-do, a complete stranger reached out with the subject line "Matt Santos meets Top Gun" (Santos is a West Wing character invented in the seasons after I left the show, but I doubt he clocked that).  

I have removed identifying details, but you'll get the gist. 
Good evening Mr. Handelman,
I am the Chairman of the Board of [redacted].
In addition, I have completed a novel that will be released next year - [title redacted].[Plot redacted]
It is a Tom Clancy-like techno-thriller. I think it is a great read -- but would appreciate your thoughts. 
If interested I would be happy to send you a copy of the manuscript -- as a pdf. It renders nicely on an iPad.
Thank you for your time -- I have enjoyed your work for a long time. 
Now, to my mind, if you're going to reach out to a complete stranger, you don't save the obligatory compliment of their work till the last line. And you don't shorten "Regards" to "Rds" because you're in a hurry. Does he want me to consider it as a screenplay to pitch? Or is he just looking for a free editorial consultation? But most of all, WHY ME? 

I composed several replies to him off the top of my head, the first being, 

Dear Sir: I have no experience in marketing but I happen to have completed a 400 page marketing proposal for a software company. It reads super easy on your phone. LMK if I can send it.
But then I realized -- I don't have to write back at all! 

Admittedly, his is an extreme version, but I get approached in similarly out-of-nowhere ways all the time.  It's the blessing and curse of having written for well-known publications and TV shows.

Don't get me wrong. I am not averse to helping others. In fact, I've tried to be a mentor to coworkers many times in my various jobs and careers. For example, at Vogue, I encouraged many underutilized editorial assistants - at least one of whom had a Masters in English - who were relegated to answering phones, fetching coffees and checking fashion product placements -- to pitch reviews and start writing. Several did and moved up the ranks; at least one went on to become one of New York's most long-tenured editors in chief. When a temporary ABC news job ended, I helped get my assistant her next gig. 

For a long time, I tried to be responsive to people who wanted to find out more about TV writing. Probably because I felt so guilty at my good fortune.  I got

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Doppelgänger Documentaries

By chance, this weekend I watched a pair of great sports docs made five years apart about the intertwined lives and careers of two pairs of athletes and was struck by the thematic parallels -- and telling differences -- and how they reflect issues of race and class that continue to haunt our national dialogue. 

McEnroe/Borg:Fire & Ice, an HBO sports doc made in 2011, depicts the short but intense rivalry between tennis's two top male players, tempermental John McEnroe and unflappable Bjorn Borg, at the turn of the 80s, which peaked quickly, then sent both men into different kinds of tailspins. 

Doc & Darryl, ESPN's latest in its stellar 30 for 30 series, charts the instant stardom and nearly as rapid descent into addiction and self-destruction of two young New York Mets phenoms of the mid-80s, pitcher Dwight "Doc" Gooden and slugger Darryl Strawberry. 

You can look up all the career stats somewhere else, but what struck me was this: 
  • Borg won Wimbledon at age 20, won it 5 more times and the US Open 5 times, but retired at 26. 
  • McEnroe won the US Open at 20, won it 3 more times and Wimbledon 3 times, then took a year off at 25, married Tatum O'Neal and never won another Grand Slam. 
  • Gooden was Rookie of the Year at 19, Cy Young the next year, and in the World Series the next. Then he started being suspended for drug use, and though he pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees at 31, never had a dominant season after he was 25. 
  • Strawberry was Rookie of the Year at 21. His productive years lasted a bit longer -- till he was 29, and he actually hit 24 homers as a Yankee at age 36. But he was suspended three times for drug use, was arrested for soliciting sex, and he too never matched his first few years' dominance. 
What both films make clear is that all four men became

Monday, January 11, 2016

Oh, Yoko. (Of Bowie and Photoshop)

We're all devastated today by the death of David Bowie.  Social media is full of sadness from those of us who survived adolescence learning from Bowie that it's not just okay to be different, it's actually more interesting.  As I commented elsewhere, There are only a handful of artists so iconic we take their eternal presence in our lives for granted. So when they die we are truly shocked they were mortal. 

So many artists chimed in with loving memories and feelings, like Annie Lennox, who sang at Freddie Mercury's memorial with him. (awesome rehearsal clip is here
Like a gazillion other people, I feel stunned by the news that David Bowie has departed this earth. At the loss of...
Posted by Annie Lennox on Monday, January 11, 2016

Singer Amy Rigby posted plaintively about her husband, Wreckless Eric, 
"I can't bear going upstairs to tell Eric about Bowie...I just can't. If I don't tell him I can pretend it's not true."
And then there's Yoko Ono. 

I am sure she meant well. 

But Yoko posted her own feelings today about Bowie's death -- well, it was all about David and John Lennon's relationship:

 "As John and I had very few friends we felt David was as close as family.

and she declared he'd been like a second father to Sean.

She chose to illustrate her post with this photo: 
Cool, right? 

Except a friend of mine had just posted the original photo, which seems to have been from the Grammys, and seems to have looked like this:
Let's give her the benefit of the doubt.