Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Godspeed, Lady Bird Johnson

I was saddened to hear of the death of Lady Bird Johnson, widow of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States. I didn't know her, but I loved her memoir, A White House Diary, and very much enjoyed hearing her insights on the various documentaries and testimonials relating to her late husband. Of course, if you go to Washington, you see some of her handiwork--you come into town on the Lady Bird Johnson parkway. She was vitally interested in the creation and maintenance of natural public spaces.

Her greatest accomplishment was being the constant companion of the force of nature that was Lyndon Baines Johnson. She never had regular hours, never had a regular home, or routine, or job...she was Lyndon Johnson's partner 24/7. That meant first of all taking his initials on a permanent basis--she had been Claudia Taylor, but she became Lady Bird Johnson, just as her daughters were Lynda Bird and Lucy Baines, and the LBJ dog was Little Beagle Johnson(!). It also meant enjoying the highs, like LBJ's victories in his Congressional and Senatorial campaigns, and then trying to pick up the pieces and build her husband up to go back into the arena again after the losses, like the first Senate campaign against Coke Stevenson. Lyndon Johnson had a pendulum that swung so wide, it must have given her whiplash trying to keep him on an even keel.

She witnessed the crime of the century, riding behind JFK and Jackie on November 22, l963. She remembered wondering "what in the world had taken over our lives" on the way to the hospital, then proceeding with her husband, the new President, to Air Force One for the long, horror-filled journey back to Washington with President Kennedy's body in the rear of the plane. Memorably, she was present before takeoff before everyone realized that no one knew the oath of office word for word, not even the judge who was there to administer it. She winced a little bit before recalling that they had to put in a call to the Attorney General. "What an excruciating call...the Attorney General was Bobby Kennedy."

She made her cause the beautification of America, especially parks and highways. But she couldn't avoid politics when her husband plunged the United States deeper and deeper into the war in Vietnam. Lady Bird was giving a reception one day when the folk singer Eartha Kitt angrily accosted her in the receiving line, essentially for aiding and abetting her husband the war criminal. I don't think she approved of the Vietnam war, and I am sure the deaths anguished her. But she loyally supported her husband, particularly when he decided to give up the Presidency.

After LBJ died, she lived quietly at the LBJ ranch, supporting the causes she had championed as First Lady and tending to the Johnson Library, which everyone should visit when in the vicinity of Austin. It's great. She was loyal to old friends...I remember seeing her at Jackie Kennedy's funeral, hobbling along with the help of a cane. I hope she is reunited with her husband under much happier circumstances now...she ran the good race. Rest in peace, Lady Bird Johnson.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Holy parochialism!

The London Times is reporting this evening that the Vatican and its chief, Pope Benedict, have decreed that Protestantism and Orthodoxy are not "proper" churches, that they have significant theological "defects." The Vatican is its own state, but I guess its diplomats have been AWOL wasn't long ago that the Pope insulted Muslims, outraged native peoples in Latin America, and raised the hackles among Jews by expressing enthusiasm for the return of the Latin mass.

I knew that fundamentalism and particularism were gaining strength, but Benedict's predecessor certainly held out as long as he could, visiting the Rome synagogue, initiating dialogue with Orthodox clergy and believers...if he held conservative views himself, he certainly did everything he could to communicate his respect for others' beliefs.

No doubt the Vaticanites are preparing pull in the drawbridge and defend against the coming brickbats...oh, and summon the diplomats back from exile, maybe?!

Monday, July 9, 2007

More notable votes

So who are the best tourists in the world? The worst? The loudest? The quietest? You can find out with a mere click of the mouse, but it's no fair peeking. You have to make your selections FIRST and compare them with the winners/losers.

Wondering about the new Wonders

And the results are in...over 100 million people worldwide voted recently to update the Seven Wonders of the World. The new inductees into this unique category are...

Brazil's Statue of Christ Redeemer, Peru's Machu Picchu, and Mexico's Chichen Itza pyramid were chosen alongside the Great Wall of China, Jordan's Petra, the Colosseum in Rome and India's Taj Mahal.

The pyramids of Giza retain their status as wonders of the world outside this list.

What was more notable was the absence of...Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, the Kremlin and St. Basil's, Moscow, the Acropolis, Athens, Stonehenge, London. I'm outraged at the St. Basil's/Kremlin omission, but I understand it, because Russia makes visiting extremely difficult. You will pay dearly in $$$ and patience to behold what I think EVERYONE should see once in his life. But zillions of people visit Athens, Istanbul and certainly London...there's a distinctly third-world feel about the list, almost a whiff of political correctness about it, a deliberate rejection of European sites. Besides, I think the Taj Mahal is just terrible, a monument to schmaltz.

Am I the only one who perceives this, or is my Europhilia showing?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Remembering a great American on the 4th

Happy Independence Day! I hold the following truths about Beverly Sills to be self-evident. I was so sorry to hear of her passing, because she made high culture so much fun and so accessible for ordinary mortals, and did it so cheerfully and enthusiastically. Verlyn Klinkenborg of the New York Times remembered her in a particularly American way, managing to weave baseball, art and corporatism/administration in a fine appreciation of the late singer. His tribute reads, in part,

"Whenever I think of Beverly Sills, who died Monday at 78, I find myself imagining a baseball player — New York-born, raised on the sandlots, rising through the big leagues, M.V.P., Cy Young award — who then went on to become the commissioner. I don’t think Ms. Sills ever played much baseball, but I stand by the analogy.

She had that kind of popular hometown importance to her sport, which was opera. For many years, her singing career seemed to illustrate the tensions between the American League of opera — that is, the New York City Opera, where she got her start — and the National League — the Metropolitan Opera. And when she stopped singing, she took over the whole shebang and made Lincoln Center her enterprise.

The force of Ms. Sills’s personality, the extraordinary quality of her voice, the powerful dramatic presence she created on a stage and the ease with which she occupied her many public roles made her seem somehow inevitable. But there is nothing inevitable about someone who excelled at the highest level of her art and was able, at the same time, to make audiences unfamiliar with opera feel as though they had access to it through her. She represented her art as though she had been elected to the task, and she took the job of representing it seriously. Just how seriously became apparent when she became chairwoman of Lincoln Center."

What could be more appropriate on the day the nation was born than to celebrate the life of one of its most distinguished and accomplished citizens?

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Picking a 2008 candidate

(Drum roll)...I've finally decided on my 2008 candidate. It's Socrates for President for me. Well, maybe not, because there IS the issue of his being dead to consider. But I want the candidate closest to Socrates in his world view. I want someone who asks questions, listens to the answers, asks about the answers and their origins, asks about the questioners and the answerers and probes their respective motives and agendas. I'm not saying I want a confirmed cynic--I'm not into "they're all crooks and liars" at all. I want a skeptic, a cynic with a smile, who repeats over and over: "SHOW me."

I want a Socratic candidate. I also want someone with Robert Frost credentials. I want the candidate who can say, in so many words,

"I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain --and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night."

The auditions are continuing. Who can ask the best questions, and who is "acquainted with night?" Who has traveled extensively in the realm of doubt? I'm listening and watching...