Monday, January 12, 2009

Inaugurating a New Year

THE INAUGURATION -- TO GO, OR NOT TO GO

This weekend, we’re heading for Washington, D.C., to partake in the inauguration and some of the associated festivities. Like many of our friends, we have long felt that this is an historic event and should not be missed. But to be honest, we’ve seriously considered avoiding it. Only recently did we change our minds and decide to join in. Our waffling about going there reflected our trying to weigh the good news with the bad news.

The good news is that we are going to watch history. The bad news is that so are one to four millions others (pick a number; nobody knows).

The good news is that we have a hotel room reserved, and it’s only a dozen blocks from the Capitol. The bad news is that to walk there on inauguration day (cars are out of the question), the hotel concierge has warned us not to leave any later than 5 AM or else we may not make it though the crowds and security checks in time for the ceremony or the parade.

The good news is that there will be a lot of security to ensure the safety of all. The bad news is that there will be a
 lot of security, meaning delays and inconvenience.

The good news is that we have a car reserved for the five days that we’ll be in Washington. The bad news is it may well be useless.

The good news is that we have tickets for one of the seven official balls Tuesday evening. The bad news is that 3,000 guests will be at each ball. That will probably make Donna’s dream of dancing with the president on inauguration night just that -- a dream.

The good news is that the presidential inauguration committee plans to have 5,000 portable toilets deployed on inauguration day. The bad news is that if one uses the guidelines of the US Army -- one commode for every 21 people -- even a low-end estimate of one million visitors would suggest a need for 48,000 portable toilets. (OK, no coffee, no water,
 nothing to drink on January 20.)


A COUPLE OF SURPRISE OBSERVATIONS ON THE ELECTION

Groundswell vs. stay-at-home: An article in the Dec. 18 issue of the New York Review of Books by Michael Massing highlighted an interesting result in Ohio. Prior to the election, the conventional wisdom was that the excitement engendered among youth by the Obama candidacy would greatly swell the vote total for Democrats in the election. Well, Obama did get 7% more votes than Kerry did in 2004, and that’s a non-trivial gain. But that wasn’t exactly a groundswell when contrasted with Kerry’s remarkably lackluster campaign four years earlier. As Massing points out, the real surprise in Ohio wasn’t so much the increase in Democratic voting but the decrease in Republican voting -- McCain drew 6.5% fewer votes than Bush did in 2004. In other words, the Republicans stayed home in Ohio. That was the story. It was as big a driving force in the Democrats’ victory, both in swing-state Ohio and nationally, as was the growth of the Democratic vote.

Picture 7

Modest national turnout: Another surprise to me was that contrary to earlier expectations – stemming from the huge crowds at Democratic election rallies – the national voter turnout of eligible voters was only modestly higher in 2008 than it was in 2004, 56.8% versus 55.3%. Going back to the 1960s, we regularly had voter turnout above 60%. My guess is that in addition to Republicans’ disillusionment with McCain, there was also a shortfall in Democratic totals, possibly attributable to some latent racism, and probably among older voters.

Picture 6


ON THE CULTURE FRONT

December and early January are not the optimal periods weather-wise to remain in New York City. Indeed, we and many of our friends often leave the city during the holiday period for warmer climes. This year, however, we decided to stay home and soak in the cultural scene in New York. Some comments:

MOVIES

Slumdog Millionaire – Wow, some movie! One can quibble with a few of the tough parts of this movie, as Donna did with torture and other upsetting scenes early in the film, but overall I agree with Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern who termed the movie “genuinely new and immensely entertaining.” While it’s not a great travelogue for Mumbai, it sure gives great insight into that city and its culture. Wonderful acting and directing.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – It’s based (very loosely) on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man who chronologically moves backward. He is born is an octogenarian, albeit in a baby’s body, and gets younger as the film progresses. Even with the enormous leap of faith required to engage one in the story, it was possible to get emotionally involved with the characters. The fine acting, remarkable digital makeup techniques, authentic New Orleans background, first-rate direction and screenplay all contributed to a rewarding movie experience. (BTW, among the other works that come to mind using the time-going-backward conceit are the movie Memento; the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along; and the Jason Robert Brown musical The Last Five Years.

The Reader – I listened to the book (on my iPhone) and saw the movie on the same day, a first for me. It’s a quite commendably done transformation of a novel that’s not easy to make into a film. Kate Winslet was remarkably good, particularly during the trial scenes, with a more impressive performance than in her more Revolutionary Road role.

Revolutionary Road – Donna enjoyed this more than I did, although I believe it was worth seeing as a good attempt at portraying a dysfunctional couple. (How novel! A dysfunctional family in a movie!) But I must say that I agree with the piece in the Dec. 27 Wall Street Journal that asked the question, Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs? Certainly director Sam Mendes is an old hand at exploiting this genre, with his 1999 American Beauty dealing similarly with screwed-up suburbanites.

Milk – the biggest story here is Sean Penn, who is simply a most remarkable actor. A well-done film as well, one that offers an excellent historical depiction of the gay movement.

The Pope’s Toilet -- No kidding, that’s the name of the movie, at least in its English translation from the Spanish. It’s an affecting story of life in a poor small town in Uruguay that was turned upside down by the visit there of the Pope (a visit that actually occurred in 1988). On reflection, I can now rank The Pope’s Toilet as my all-time favorite Uruguayan movie.

THEATER

The Seagull – After seeing sensational productions in London last fall of Chekhov’s Ivanov and Strindberg’s Creditors, we developed the itch to see more of the classics by the gloomy northern European playwrights of an earlier century. The current New York version of Chekhov’s The Seagull is simply terrific, not the least of it attributable to the stellar acting of Kristin Scott Thomas and a universally outstanding ensemble.

Hedda Gabler – We were three for three until we met Ibsen’s Hedda. Even though it has the same British director, Ian Rickson, as The Seagull, we were disappointed. To be fair, the play just began previews and we saw perhaps its sixth or seventh performance. It will undoubtedly get better by the time it formally opens in a couple of weeks. Nonetheless, the contrast in the casts of Hedda Gabler and The Seagull was vivid. Though Michael Cerveris performed well and Mary Louise Parker adequately in the lead roles, neither they nor the very weak supporting cast could pull it off.

Becky Shaw
 – A new off-Broadway play that just opened at Second Stage Theatre (full disclosure – Donna is on the board of Second Stage). This is a must-see drama, sharply and wittily written by Gina Gionfriddo and well acted by the entire cast. EvenThe New York Times’ Charles Isherwood was won over: “Ferociously funny… engrossing… a big box of fireworks fizzing and crackling across the stage from its first moments to its last…” (That’s known as a money review.)

Speed-the-Plow – I would gladly watch any play or film written by David Mamet. And this is one of his best. Well cast and well directed. There is no one who skewers Hollywood as sharply as Mamet, and he’s at his best here. The fastest and most entertaining 80 minutes on Broadway.

Road Show – Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s newest musical, directed by John Doyle. It follows the fabled Mizner brothers over four decades, their relationship with each other and their quest for the American dream. Some terrific songs, both melodically and lyrically, with wonderful performances by Michael Cerveris and Alexander Germignani as the brothers. After a limited run at the Public Theater, it will probably follow the path of earlier Sondheim works such as Assassins and Merrily We Roll Along that had short opening runs followed by greater public acceptance and longer runs as the years went by.

Pal Joey – A few top-notch songs by Rodgers and Hart (Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered; I Could Write a Book), potentially intriguing story (original by John O’Hara), but a difficult show to do unless it’s cast with the perfect Joey. The Joey in this production was okay, but he wasn’t Gene Kelly, who created the role in 1940. Still, it’s worth seeing.

Finally,
 Gypsy – one of the best musicals ever, and in its best version ever (and I saw Ethel Merman in the original and many since). This was our third time to see this production of the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical. It’s a star turn for Patti LuPone, and she makes the most of it. And with Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti in the supporting roles, it’s no wonder the show accounted for three of the top four Tony acting awards for musicals. Unfortunately, it closed January 11.

MUSIC

On New Year’s Eve, we enjoyed a
 New York Philharmonic Pops concert (not called that, but that’s what it was). It’s always a pleasure to hear a world-class orchestra play some of the best-known short classical warhorses. And the treat was enhanced further by guest performer and Met Opera star Susan Graham. By the way, next week we’re going to see Gustavo Dudamel guest conduct the New York Philharmonic prior to his taking over the music directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic next fall. Dudamel, of course, is the wunderkind (27-year-old) Venezuelan conductor who is electrifying the classical music world.

The only opera we saw during this frenzied culture marathon was the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Massenet’s
 Thaïs. (It was last produced 40 years ago with Beverly Sills in the title role.) If one can get over the creaky plot – and they don’t come much creakier than this – it’s worth it to listen to Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson at the top of their games. I have to admit that Massenet is not one of my favorite opera composers, but he did write one great tune that is featured in Thaïs. In fact, it’s a familiar melody (Méditation from Thaïs) that I and many others have known forever, but didn’t have a clue as to where it came from. Now I know.


TELEVISION

We indulged ourselves with British TV series over the last month. The
 House of Eliott [sic] is a 34-episode BBC series from the early 1990s involving two young women in 1920s England who start a fashion house. The series was conceived by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, the team that was involved in creating Upstairs, Downstairs a generation earlier. The production values, acting, and writing made it possible for me to sit through all 34 episodes and actually enjoy myself. (Donna, of course, lovedthe fashion.)

We’re now halfway through a four-episode series entitled
 Foyle’s War. It takes place in southern England in 1940 as the war in Europe is seriously threatening Britain. A local detective finds himself involved in cases that weave between local murders and war-related events. Absolutely spot-on, as the Brits might say, in every respect. My only regret is that it’s only four episodes, not thirty-four.

BOOKS

I just finished reading two business biographies.
 The Man Who Owns the News, by journalist Michael Wolff, an authorized biography of Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp. It’s an awkwardly written book about a truly uninteresting person – a person who has few discernible interests beyond his business. The awkwardness includes both the author’s writing style as well as the book’s organization -- chapters alternating between non-chronological biographical events and excruciatingly boring details of the Wall Street Journal purchase by News Corp.

By contrast, Ken Roman’s
 The King of Madison Avenue is a treat to read. (More full disclosure – Ken is a long-time personal friend.) The writing is crisp and entertaining, and David Ogilvy – one of the giants in advertising industry history -- is a hell of a lot more interesting person than Rupert Murdoch.


THE (MOST UNUSUAL) CLINTON FOUNDATION

Since its formation in 1997, the Clinton Foundation has been reluctant to disclose the names of its donors. But with Hillary Clinton scheduled to face confirmation hearings as Secretary of State, the foundation has finally relented to public pressure and has disclosed on its website
 the names of all 200,000-plus donors.

Following the disclosure, the press has focused primarily on the “controversial” donors, particularly the many Middle Eastern and Asian governments that saw fit to make donations (for whatever reason). But more interesting to me, particularly because of my involvement in a number of not-for-profit organizations, is the disclosure that a surprisingly large number of not-for-profits have made significant contributions to the Clinton Foundation. This revelation was brought to my attention by Martin Peretz, former
 New Republic owner and Harvard professor, in his December 23 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. Here are some of the donors to the Clinton foundation that he highlighted in his piece:

Cambridge University
Liverpool University
United Way (four of their organizations)
National Opera of Paris
Tufts University
Columbia University
Georgetown University
Iowa State University
University Of Texas
Brown University
Rensselaer Polytechnic
UCLA
University of Judaism
Maimonides Medical Center Brooklyn
Human Rights Watch
Feed the Children
World Bank
World Health Organization

Now my question, and Peretz’s, is what is the rationale for participating in a de facto fund-of-funds foundation? Why does a not-for-profit organization give money to another? When a donor contributes money to a charitable group, the donor doesn’t expect this organization then to contribute some of those funds to yet another organization. Among other issues, it results in the layering of expenses (and inefficiencies) of two organizations onto a single gift. It makes
 no sense.

Very strange, indeed. I wonder if the board members of -- or donors to -- any of these institutions is aware that their funds are being donated to yet another organization.


YOU DO WHAT YOU’RE NAMED

There’s a not-infrequent coincidence of people’s names coinciding with, or relating to, their activities. Personally, I’m amused by them. Witness:

The op-ed page of the January 10
 New York Times carried a piece on cocaine use, written by Charles Blow.

The former head of pain and palliative services at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center was
 Dr. Richard Payne.

The first American woman to take a ride in a space vehicle was
 Sally Ride.

The kicker/punter for the University of Southern Mississippi football team is
 Britt Barefoot. (I got a kick out of this one.) Alas, he kicks wearing a shoe.

I believe that there is a word that has been coined for this type of coincidence. Do any of you know it? Or do you have any more examples?


FOOTBALL: GOING FOR IT ON FOURTH DOWN

In my
 October 6th blog, in which I railed against the conservatism of NFL football coaches, I singled out “the reluctance to go for it on fourth down, choosing instead to punt…”

Imagine my delight when I saw in a December 12
 New York Times NFL Blog this quote from Kevin Kelley, head football coach at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas:

“I take a no-punt philosophy into each game. We don’t punt on fourth down, ever. We did not punt once this year.”

By the way, Pulaski Academy won the 5A Arkansas state high school championship.

My kind of coach.


MY FEARLESS 2009 PREDICTIONS

It’s the start of a new year. Which means it’s the season for making predictions -- no expertise or track record required. So for what it’s worth, here are three predictions – guesses would be more appropriate – on where crude oil, the stock market and the Euro will be by year-end. (Looking at my predictions, it’s apparent I wasn’t wearing my Rosen-colored glasses.)

Picture 4


FINALLY, A REMARKABLE (AND TRUE) GOLF STORY

A good friend and contemporary, Roger Berlind, recently related to me why he’s played only one round of golf in his life. Some years ago, playing for the first time, he managed to shoot an 18 on the par 4 first hole. On the second hole, a par 3, he hit a wild tee shot that caromed off a tree, bounced through the rough onto the green, then dropped in the hole for an ace.

He never played again.

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