By Al Giordano
In The Field’s December 22 analysis of tomorrow’s Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa, which was largely dedicated to how the media and its pundits underestimate former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s chances to rebound, I inserted this placeholder paragraph:
“Before concluding, I’ll say a few words about former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. He could still surprise in Iowa. With the graceless falls of Bachman and Perry, it’s now between Santorum and Gingrich as to who can possibly coalesce the Evangelical right behind one candidate in Iowa. But that would require a sudden Santorum surge in the New Year’s Des Moines Register poll.”
Well, that poll – the quadrennial gold standard when it comes to fixing Iowa caucus expectations – came out on New Year’s Eve. And it shows exactly that: the fickle grassroots Christian conservative base of the Republican Party has indeed begun to coalesce behind an Anti-Romney, but his name isn’t Gingrich, it’s former Pennsylvania US Senator Rick Santorum.
The Field now projects that Santorum will win the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday. But Caveat Emptor, not everybody agrees: Former Massachusetts governor Romney still leads in most polls and in the aggregate average of all polls. US Rep. Ron Paul of Texas led in the Public Policy Polling survey taken Saturday and Sunday. Nate Silver’s computers give Romney a 38 percent chance of Iowa victory, Paul a 34 percent chance Santorum a 24 percent shot (that’s up from 12 percent yesterday and will likely rise again overnight; yes, we can also accurately project what the projectors will say as reality sinks in) and Gingrich a 3 percent dark horse possibility. Santorum is also the only GOP candidate in Iowa that has not led in a single public opinion poll in all of 2011. But I think he’s going to win it, and I’ll tell you why.
The “Romney is inevitable” script is oh so reminiscent of what happened on the Democratic side four years ago, when the pundits told us that then-US Senator Hillary Clinton was a lead-pipe cinch to become the party’s nominee. Romney has benefited greatly from some of the same factors that drove the Hillary-as-Frontrunner mythology: the coalesced economic support from Wall Street interests, air support from the media organizations they own, and a large pool of primary rivals to divide those Democrats less enthused about her (remember that Obama had to contend with former US Sen. John Edwards, then-New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and US Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, none of them political neophytes, all good debaters, before he emerged, in Iowa, as that cycle’s Anti-Clinton).
In 2008, Obama did emerge, though, mainly because his campaign resurrected the seemingly ancient and forgotten practice of community organizing, both in his door-to-door grassroots field efforts, the intensive training of his volunteers in those arts, and the conversion of the organizing concept to what was then a new phenomenon in political campaign fundraising: the primacy of the small donor, multiplied hundreds of thousands of times and oiled by the speed of the Internet.
While none of the Republican candidates in 2012 have come close to the level of grassroots gravitas of the Obama ’08 campaign prior to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, we have to remember two things:
First, that prior to Obama’s emergence, the American leaders in grassroots organizing were not on the left or Democratic side of the spectrum. It was the Christian Right, with its Sunday church pulpits, phone banking, direct mail fundraising and house parties that had been the phantom field organization of the Republican party presidential victories in 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000 and, again in 2004, when that was the key factor in defending then-president George W. Bush’s reelection from Democrat John Kerry in key swing states like Ohio. That grassroots field apparatus is still there, even if it has fractured into many competing organizations and sectors that have not been able to – not until tomorrow night, anyway – coalesce behind a single GOP presidential candidate. But it’s still there, lurking, a specter that haunts Willard Mitt Romney and his “inevitability” claims.
The second thing to remember is that Obama’s grassroots and online fundraising really didn’t kick in to high gear until the night he won the Iowa primary and, a week later, the night he lost the New Hampshire primary to Clinton, was in fact the night that the Obama campaign broke all online fundraising records in US politics.
As we’ve argued for 20 months now, all it takes to derail the Romney Express is for the Evangelical Right of the GOP base to unite behind a single candidate. As hard as it is for political factions to come to alliance, the early caucus and primary process tends to force them into it. Americans are pragmatic when it comes to politics. They gravitate toward winners and electoral contests almost always boil down to two or three candidates who are perceived as having a chance to win. The votes and the money then drop the also-rans and follow those leaders.
While each of his rivals has enjoyed a brief stint atop the Iowa polls (in this order, over the past six months, it went Romney, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Paul and now back to Romney again), Santorum has been out there doing the grassroots organizing while the media paid almost no attention to him at all. As Bloomberg correspondents John McCormick and Tim Higgins report:
“The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, now in third place in the most closely watched Iowa poll, has spent more time in the state than any opponent, traveling to all 99 counties over more than 100 days. He’s trying to validate the campaign axiom of the Iowa caucuses: organize, organize, organize and get hot at the end.”
The conservative National Review Online’s Robert Costa also notices the late results of Santorum’s grassroots organizing:
“Des Moines, Iowa – On Sunday night, I stopped by Santorum’s headquarters in nearby Urbandale. The cramped offices were bustling. Supporters, from college kids to retirees, made phone calls and visitors were constant, most of them looking for lawn signs. According to an organizer, the campaign has enlisted over 1,100 caucus captains.”
The stylistic differences between the Santorum campaign and the Romney campaign are as stark as their ideological tendencies. Santorum has crisscrossed Iowa’s 99 counties in a pick-up truck, quietly convincing GOP precinct leaders and church ministers, while Romney has relied more on big-money “SuperPACs” to carpet bomb the airwaves and leaked big media reporter spoon-fed negative story “scoops” taking down successive frontrunners in a row.
Indeed, if Santorum has now boxed Gingrich out of the Anti-Romney position, it is because Gingrich did too much of his campaigning via the airwaves and did not devote the requisite time to grassroots organizing that Iowans respect so much. And Gingrich might have pulled it off – with Texas Governor Rick Perry and Minnesota US Rep. Michele Bachmann each following ex-candidate Herman Cain into electoral oblivion caused by their own erratic missteps under the glare of media attention – had Santorum not been working the field while everyone else was trying to manipulate the heavens of “conventional wisdom.”
Now that the Des Moines Register poll has signaled to GOP conservatives that Rick Santorum is up there in the first tier with Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, watch as Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann, and even Paul, each bleed support over the next 30 hours to the new Anti-Mitt. Paul had been the other candidate with a bona fide field organization, albeit most of it imported from other states from his boisterous male volunteers so adept at packing “straw poll” events over the past year, but face it: part of his December surge was entirely based on the perception by some conservative Republicans that he was the only one who could best Romney in Iowa. (And if you need any more proof that Paul is a lost cause, look no further than Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald, now desperately trying to sell Paul to “progressives,” and revealing his own ideological axes to grind in the process: Greenwald is a reliably wrong bellwether in the sense that any bandwagon he attempts to form goes quickly next into the dustbin of history; yes, he is that bad a prognosticator.)
To paraphrase Des Moines Register pollster Ann Selzer – nobody polls Iowans more accurately – after watching Santorum’s numbers rise night after night: Momentum, thy name is Rick Santorum.
None of this stops the national Republican Industrial Complex and its media allies from pushing the Romney-is-inevitable meme (just as the Democratic Industrial Complex tried to do for Hillary Clinton four years ago). Politico’s Roger Simon tweeted after the Des Moines Register poll showed Romney in the lead that the party faithful might as well surrender to Mitt and get on with its Florida nominating convention next summer: “It’s over. Let’s all head for Tampa.” They say that even if Romney loses Iowa he will still win New Hampshire next week (and he probably will, just as other Massachusetts pols from Dukakis to Tsongas to Kerry have triumphed in the Granite State as boy-next-door favorite sons; that’s practically a given).
Yet my Boston Phoenix colleague, political reporter David Bernstein, did some actual shoe-leather reporting this weekend and found that Santorum has been stealthily doing the organizing spade work in New Hampshire, which votes on January 10, just as he has in Iowa.
“I spoke this evening with Santorum campaign manager Michael Biundo. Biundo is a New Hampshire guy. He took Frank Giunta from obscurity to Congress. For a time he headed a coalition of grassroots conservative groups in the state. Back in the day, he was part of the team that helped Pat Buchanan win the ’96 primary.
“He knows New Hampshire, is what I’m saying.
“Biundo tells me that, in addition to some endorsements in New Hampshire, ‘we’ve had key people, in key communities, talking to people. We’ve done the ID work, done the calls, had people going door-to-door, been visible at all the Republican events.’
“In short, all the things Huckabee didn’t do before winning Iowa.”
And it seems that Santorum has been doing the same in the next big primary after that, set for January 21 in South Carolina, announcing he has campaign chairmen in 41 of 46 Palmetto State counties.
Gingrich and Perry, both claiming the role of putative “Southern Candidate,” will likely pull out all the stops to try and reemerge in South Carolina, too. And I may yet come full circle by then to my original instincts that Gingrich had the best chance of becoming the Anti-Romney. But for tomorrow, I’m projecting Rick Santorum in Iowa, in spite of that all the “computer model” data-driven prediction machines have him in third place. That’s because, especially in the early caucuses and primaries, polling can only tell us so much. It does not measure field organization. It does not measure the bigotries and prejudices that respondents hide from pollsters (in this case, the Evangelical discrimination against Mormons which drives the imperative to find an Anti-Romney). And in the Iowa caucuses, polling has always undercounted the eventual Evangelical candidate's final vote.
It seems almost strange that the Evangelical candidate, this time, is going to be a Catholic from a mid-Atlantic industrial state like Pennsylvania. But Santorum is one of those radical fringe Catholics who homeschools his kids, has long lobbied for creationism (what he calls “intentional design”) to be taught in public schools as an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution, thinks anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality are the defining “issues” of our times, and so he fits the Evangelical matrix like a warm and comfortable glove out to shovel snow on an Iowa winter’s day.
Santorum has also gambled that such “social issues” will triumph over Romney’s economic determinism. Romney has basically sought to run Reagan’s 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter, this time versus Barack Obama 2012, asking voters if they are better off today than they were four years ago. Never mind that a financial industry CEO from Bain Capital is about the poorest standard-bearer one could invent as the new defender of “the 99 percent.” The dirty truth about America in 2012 is that – tea party and “occupy” claims aside – its economy is measurably improving, its jobless rate is going down, and the very middle class that complains about how screwed over it is will still riot in the chain store lanes on Black Friday to buy the latest holiday gifts and then line up, after the rioting and looting, at the checkout counter to dutifully pay for the loot.
As Keith Lazar, 62, of the town of Washington, Iowa told Eli Salislow of the Washington Post, “Life is Good.” Salislow describes the reality on the ground in Iowa as GOP candidates tell voters that the nation is in “crisis” and economic disaster:
“This is the Washington with a 4 percent unemployment rate, with record-breaking hog and cattle production, with a new high school and a $6 million library, with a newspaper that doesn’t bother to print a crime blotter, with heated sidewalks in front of the bank so customers never have to walk in the snow… It is also a place where, day after day, presidential candidates make their case that the country is a horrific mess.”
Making the case that the United States is in an economic shambles has itself become a millionaire business from right to left, from Rush Limbaugh to Paul Krugman! Demagogues, all of them: preying on the guilt and fear of what is still the most comfortable land on earth. And that’s why Romney’s economic message will prove thin gruel to motivate and mobilize the Republican and Independent electorate even if he does become the nominee. And it’s also why “social issues” are, I project, going to carry the day tomorrow in Iowa, and push Santorum damn close to the top position, if not to first place itself.
Chances are you are reading this from a high speed Internet connection in the comfort of a heated shelter: proof enough that most of you are not worse off today than you were four years ago, and so most of you are going to vote based on issues other than economic worries. Heck, it won’t even necessarily be a vote cast on “issues,” but, rather, on which team organizes you best to vote for its guy. In Iowa on the Republican side, Santorum is the one – with an assist from pre-existing Evangelical organizations and organizers – who has apparently done it. Next November, it will more likely be the community organizing of the Obama reelection campaign. Or, to properly appropriate the electoral credo of 1992 to amend it for 2012 realities: It’s the Organizing, Stupid!
By Al Giordano
Hello Field Hands. It’s twelve days to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses to choose between Republican candidates for the US presidential nomination. I’ve been busy in Mexico and other lands in this 20ll, The Year of Civil Resistance. You can read more about all that the post below this one (and please do, you gotta know about the world around you to better understand where you are). But I heard a rumor that you have a presidential election gearing up in the United States, and – alas and of course – the political reporters and pundits seem as clueless and hapless as they’ve been every four years. So let's get down to business.
Remember this time eight years ago, when the polls and pundits were declaring Howard Dean a sure thing to win Iowa, only to be disappointed on caucus night by John Kerry? Do you recall four years ago, when, twelve days out, Hillary Clinton was up in the Hawkeye State by between four to 14 points according to five major polling organizations, only to be conquered by Obama at the actual caucuses?
Well, let’s see what the reliably wrong pundit class saying this year about the only contested caucus, the one on the Republican side.
Scott Galupo of US News & World Report assures us: “Romney poised for Iowa-New Hampshire sweep.”
Liz Marlantes writes in the Christian Science Monitor: “Rick Santorum, Iowa’s Dark Horse candidate, gaining ground."
Echoing the most common pack-journalists' spin we’ve heard this week from all corners, John Nichols, in The Nation, pronounces Gingrich’s Iowa hopes dead, that he’s “headed for footnote status.”
And Nate Silver, a few days ago, pegged Ron Paul with a 49 percent chance of winning Iowa. (He now has it down to 40 percent in a tie with Romney, but he sure got a Paul boom-let going and caused the political press corps to chirp along in harmony.)
During the 2008 cycle, The Field’s projections more often than not reached the same conclusions as Silver’s. He might be right. But I’m not convinced that Paul or Romney will win Iowa, or even if they do that either will go on to win the nomination, and here’s why:
Stuff happens in the final twelve days before the Iowa caucuses, and it’s hard to get accurate polling over the holidays. Then around New Year’s the Des Moines Register will weigh in with its own poll, which is typically given more weight by the rest of the media than all other polls. And in those last couple of days prior to the caucuses, party bosses and activists try to assess which candidates have a chance and there is suddenly momentum on behalf of two or three candidates, maximum, as supporters of the also-rans then gravitate toward the media-fed perceptions of who can win. Those are the hours when the supporters of candidates who aren’t doing well in the polls make their big jumps onto other more convincing bandwagons.
First, here are a few things we all need to know about the Iowa caucuses. 119,000 voters participated in them last round. I’d bet my bottom dollar that it will be under 100,000 – maybe significantly less – in 2012 because Republicans aren’t really happy with any of their candidates. Just look at the roller coaster ride of the past year from the Real Clear Politics graph of GOP candidate standings in the Iowa polls:
Now, I'm not sure what a "clusterfuck" looks like, but I'm pretty sure it looks something like that. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney led in Iowa polls until July, then Minnesota US Rep. Michelle Bachman jumped into the lead until September, when Texas Governor Rick Perry became the party faithful’s new darling, only to be replaced atop the polls by crazy Herman Cain in September until his November slide, then former house speaker Newt Gingrich arose with a roar. He became the target of massive negative advertising – especially by Romney’s friends in those shady super-PACs, which bumped him back down to earth, now below Romney and the current poll leader, Texas US Rep. Ron Paul.
In other words, the GOP electorate is unsure and fickle about every one of them.
Think of it this way: Iowa Republicans have already had more wives and mistresses than Gingrich in 2011 alone!
Evangelical pastor Kerry Jech is probably a typical swing voter on this affair:
Jech, the pastor from Marshalltown, said he’s choosing between the four candidates that addressed the forum: Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry, but both he and his wife Jane, who’s running for state senate, may not have a decision before they walk in to caucus on Jan. 3.
He said a splintered evangelical electorate that brings Romney a win or helps him do well here “continues to be a concern” of his and just late last month he met with other conservative evangelical leaders about trying to unite behind one of the candidates so that does not happen. However, now he’s just looking to God to help make his own decision.
Hear that God? Not only do you have to help Tim Tebow win on the football field every Sunday, but now you’ve got to instruct 35,000 Evangelical caucus-goers on who to back on the first Tuesday night of the year.
If you add up the average support for the four candidates most appealing to Evangelicals, it goes like this: Gingrich 17.3, Perry 11.8, Bachman 8.3 and Santorum 7.0. That’s a total of 44.4 percent of a bloc of voters that, should any one of these four individuals show momentum in the final Des Moines Register poll, it is very plausible that enough of them will coalesce around him or her to punch through to a caucus victory.
The Evangelical imperative to “stop Romney,” in 2008, was the entire reason they held their noses and began lining up behind John McCain, even as they considered him a screaming liberal by Republican standards. I know it’s not polite to say it, and they almost never say it out loud in public, but Southern Baptists and other kinds of Evangelicals just do not like Mormons. It's like this dirty little secret that the politically-correct press corps isn't allowed to utter a word about. And for part of 2011 they were even willing to back a black guy named Cain to stop the Romney train.
The formerly 300 pound gorilla in the room (now at a svelte 190 pounds) is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee – who won Iowa in 2008 with 38 percent support (what is now divided between the four horse-pols of the apocalypse, Gingrich, Perry, Bachman and Santorum) – who insists he will not endorse a candidate, but said something curious this week to conservative political columnist Byron York: “Huckabee suggested that Mitt Romney might benefit from a splintering on the conservative side of the party. But he still believes that, even with less than three weeks before the caucuses, another surprise or two might be in store.”
It’s true that if Huckabee did endorse one of them that person probably would shoot ahead to win Iowa. But I believe Huck when he says he won’t endorse. The guy learned at an early age that he has no poker face anyway so he tends to be a straight shooter. In fact, if it weren’t for his politics, I otherwise find Huckabee to be an appealing human being and electric bass player.
Still, that lack of a poker face tells us what Huck – and many like him – are really thinking. On his December 13 radio show, The Huckabee Report, the 2008 Iowa victor reviewed the December 10 debate between the GOP candidates. Read the transcription carefully:
“There was yet another debate Saturday, and for sheer entertainment value, it’s hard to imagine any of the current crop of movies topping it. It had all the makings of high drama: a new kingpin in Newt Gingrich, whom everyone was trying to take down. The squeaky-clean second in command, Mitt Romney, tempted by the dark side to turn dirty against Newt to save himself. And all the others, jockeying for advantage like the scheming lords in a Shakespearean play. The only thing it was missing was that welcome touch of humor that Herman Cain used to bring. But with the first votes in Iowa looming, the plot is thickening and there’s no place for comic relief anymore.”
Okay, can we all agree based on those words that Huckabee doesn’t like Romney and he’s fond of Gingrich? Read on to see evidence of a rather well-developed man-crush…
“As expected, the slings and arrows were mostly aimed at Newt Gingrich, but he did such a good job of knocking them out of the air, it was almost like watching a ninja movie. When accused of flip-flopping on supporting a health insurance mandate, he deftly explained his shift while accusing the accuser of getting the facts wrong. When the moderators brought up marital fidelity in an obvious attempt to throw him, Newt humbly admitted that he’d fallen short before finding redemption. That’s an answer that evangelical voters can relate to. And when he was attacked on the big manufactured outrage of the day, his comment that the concept of the “Palestinian people” was a fairly recent invention, he let the other candidates finesse their answers. Then he stepped up to the plate and shattered the whole PC web they’d spun around him by not only standing by his words, but citing specific instances of the Palestinian leaders’ ties to terrorism. He said it was high that time that someone told the truth about the Middle East in the same way that Ronald Reagan ignored all the warnings from soft-soap diplomats and called the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire that needed to tear down the Berlin Wall….
“After the debate, the analysts were sifting through transcripts, looking for turning points. Did Michele Bachmann entice any Cain supporters? Did Romney alienate the unemployed by offering a facetious $10,000 bet to Rick Perry? But most seem to have missed the real news. Maybe because media people are so awash in a sea of politically-correct weasel words themselves, they might not realize just how hungry many Americans are for someone who will tell it to them straight, instead of soft-peddling the facts and trying not to offend anyone. They were so busy being horrified at what Gingrich said about the Middle East that they didn’t hear the cheers that erupted coast-to-coast when he refused to back down from it. If there was any turning point in the debate, I’d bet that was it. But I wouldn’t put $10,000 on it…
“Newt Gingrich took a lot of friendly fire in his first big debate as the GOP frontrunner. But he appears to have sailed through in one piece. The latest polls show him solidifying his lead in South Carolina and Florida. But with that top tier status come attacks from all sides…
“Meanwhile, with the first Iowa votes now less than a month away, his rivals are turning up the heat. Ron Paul and Mitt Romney are running scathing ads against Gingrich. But strategically, that’s actually good for Newt. There was never any question that whoever was in front was going to be blasted. But Newt has been the candidate who, all along, refused to attack his rivals and reminded them to keep the focus on the job Barack Obama has been doing. If he’d gone into primary season as the candidate who obeyed Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment not to attack a fellow Republican, then violated that principle, it would reflect badly on him. By waiting until the other candidates attacked him, he can attack in return, but look like he’s just defending himself. And believe me, in this type of situation, it’s much better to be the one who responds than the one who attacks first. Voters often don’t hear the original attack, but they hear the frontrunner’s response.”
Thus spoke Huckabee. And that’s not bad political analysis albeit from a guy who seems to wish he was in the field even after he decided not to run.
Now, when Bachman, Perry and Cain fell from their fifteen minutes atop the polls, they handled it badly and the honeymoons were definitively off. Cain is out for good, and The Field does not see Bachman or Perry reemerging. I don't see either winning the Iowa caucuses.
Gingrich, however, is handling his late dip in the polls like the political “ninja” that Huckabee drooled over. Newt has done two smart things:
The first Newtonian chess move can be read in this CNN headline: “Gingrich lowers expectations, shoots for top three or four in Iowa.” He followed it with: "I probably will be in the top two in New Hampshire, and then to win South Carolina and Florida."
And that’s Gingrich’s ace up his sleeve: He’s got a firewall around the South’s winner-take-all primaries that General Sherman couldn’t march through, much less Mitt Romney. All Newt has to do is survive Iowa and New Hampshire, and then comes the Georgian’s moment in the sun with a string of victories below the Mason-Dixon line.
The other thing Newt did as his numbers started to slip was, from a tactical standpoint, very Reaganesque: He gave GOP faithful more red meat than the other candidates have been able to feed them to date. Now he’s threatening to invade the judicial branch of government from the executive, saying he’ll force the removal of court judges that issue rulings he and the conservative base do not like.
Even Huckabee is uncomfortable with Gingrich’s latest maneuver:
“Politically, he has a point — it’s a great applause line. I like Newt, and I think he’s a great candidate, but I’m very uncomfortable with some of the things he’s saying,” Huckabee said. “When you start talking about defying a court — you know, I was a governor for 10-and-a-half years — there wasn’t a month of my tenure that I didn’t have some court decision, either state, Supreme, or federal court that came and issued a ruling that I didn’t particularly like.
“That didn’t give me the opportunity to say: ‘I’m just not going to obey it,’ or ‘I’m going to call the judge in or one of the Supreme Court justices, and I’m going to call him up before the legislature and clean his clock.’ You just can’t do that,” Huckabee said. “In 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, there was a governor who stood at the schoolhouse door at Central High School and said nine black students couldn’t go through that door, because he didn’t like the court order — that’s not the way you govern — you change laws; you amend the constitution, but you just don’t just say: ‘I don’t like it; therefore, I’m not going to do it.’”
But guess what? Huckabee is a better person than most of the rank-and-file conservative Republican caucus-goers, many of whom think that the 1950s Arkansas governor was brave and right for blocking the schoolhouse door from black children! They’re gonna love this eggnog that Gingrich is pouring into their Yule cups!
Also in the news, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, a key bloc in the Christian Right, has now endorsed and says he will campaign in Iowa for Gingrich. (Other religious right leaders have joined a late surge for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and I'll get to that before this essay is done.)
And as if the specter of Romney wasn’t enough for the old Moral Majority crowd in all its current infestations and splinter groups, now they’re in a pincer-grip with their fear of Romney on one side being squeezed on the other by Ron Paul’s late surge in the polls.
I thought long and hard about whether to imitate Rush Limbaugh and create a 2011 version of “Operation Chaos” (when he instructed his listeners to take Democratic primary ballots to vote for Hillary Clinton in order to weaken Obama for the general election), and do as Andrew Sullivan has done (he endorsed Paul last week).
After all, the Doctor Jekyll part of Doctor Paul is damn good: Legalize drugs! Stop foreign wars! And a Paul v. Obama general election campaign could really push the President into surrendering to the inevitable generational change to come on drug policy. I would love to see that happen and probably a lot of you would too.
The problem with that scenario isn’t even the Mister Hyde part of Doctor Paul and his more whacky positions on other issues, not even his racist newsletter of yesteryears that the media has suddenly discovered (such “revelations,” in fact, can only help him with the GOP base). Rather, it’s this: Ron Paul can win Iowa and even possibly win New Hampshire, but he would still go down to defeat before the GOP nominates its 2012 candidate. He is not going to be the nominee. Take that to the bank. The Republican establishment would rally around anyone to stop him. And I would wager that Paul would not handle a fall from frontrunner any better than Bachman, Perry or Cain did. He’s not ready for that kind of prime time. I’m almost sorry to say that, because I have good friends that I respect that believe in Doctor Paul, and I hate to pop the air from their balloon at the dawn of their newfound hope. But if there’s one thing you get from The Field, it’s an honest assessment of what I think will happen before it happens, and there it is.
And while the “conventional wisdom” (the kind that is always wrong) spouts that a Paul victory in Iowa would hurt Gingrich’s chances, I would argue that it could be the best thing for Gingrich, because it puts Paul into play in New Hampshire where Romney otherwise should win there convincingly, and ties Romney down in the Granite State while Newt races ahead to plant the anti-Mormon land mines (yes, I know it makes some uncomfortable to hear any acknowledgement that there is still bigotry in the United States, but that's reality) in South Carolina and the rest of Dixie.
Paul, simply put, cannot withstand the scrutiny that would come upon him as an Iowa caucus winner. His ideas and positions, especially the best of them – the positions I agree with! – are too far outside the mainstream of thought in the far-right cauldron of Republican primary voters nationwide.
Gingrich knows this, which is why he can nonchalantly lower expectations for Iowa (which if he then wins it by “surprise” would make him the superstar Comeback Kid of the cycle, damning Romney before he even gets to New Hampshire). And so the mini-momentum of Paul provides another perfect foil for Gingrich’s red meat butchershop:
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich took a swipe at rival Ron Paul on Thursday, suggesting that the Texas congressman's political base consists of "people who want to legalize drugs."
During a radio interview with conservative commentator John McCaslin, the former House speaker also said Paul is naive about the war on terrorism and Iran's nuclear program. "This is a guy who basically says, if the United States were only nice, it wouldn't have had 9/11. He doesn't want to blame the bad guys. ... He dismisses the danger of Iranian nuclear weapon and seems to be indifferent to the idea that Israel could be wiped out. And as I said, I think the key to his volunteer base is people who want to legalize drugs."
And the average Republican caucus voter, especially that 44 percent of hard core religious righters that are waiting for God to tell them which candidate to support, seeing Romney on one side of them, and Paul on the other, are probably going to start to hear that bold and masculine heavenly voice, with the reverb turned to ten, sooner rather than later, telling them that Gingrich is the only of their “acceptable” candidates tough enough to dispose of both Romney and Paul.
Nationwide, Gingrich has dipped in recent polls but still leads by an average of 3.8 percentage points. He has a breadth of support that none of his rivals have throughout the country. Republicans may not like him that much, but votes are not a Facebook status update for these people. Thirty one percent of Iowa Republicans still believe that Obama was born outside of the United States! That’s who they’re obsessed with. And they'd take almost anybody they thought might defeat him. And the more his rivals put Gingrich in the position where he seems justified acting tough and aggressive (which is his true nature) the more Republicans are going to conclude that he’s the guy with the backbone and the upper right cut to bloody up Obama. Sorry, but Romney and Paul do not inspire that kind of gladiator imagery.
Before concluding, I’ll say a few words about former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. He could still surprise in Iowa. With the graceless falls of Bachman and Perry, it’s now between Santorum and Gingrich as to who can possibly coalesce the Evangelical right behind one candidate in Iowa. But that would require a sudden Santorum surge in the New Year’s Des Moines Register poll. Short of that, either the Evangelical right remains divided, allowing Romney or Paul to thread the Hawkeye State needle, or, as it has in the past (anybody remember Pat Robertson’s victory there in 1988?), it will have a late break behind Gingrich or Santorum, and so far, Gingrich has a huge advantage in the mini-primary to become the anti-Romney and the anti-Paul.
In conclusion: I’m not ready to call Iowa yet for Gingrich or anyone else. I want to see the Des Moines Register poll in two weekends, not because I think it will provide a perfect snapshot, but, rather, because it will fix the expectations and the perceptions of which candidates have momentum. It will be at that moment that opinion starts to break.
And even if Romney or Paul win in Iowa, I am ready to project that, win or lose the first caucuses, Gingrich is not going away, he is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the primaries down the stretch, especially in the South, and I still think, as I wrote here in April 2010, that the media – perhaps partly out of the intense personal dislike he provokes – has always underestimated him. I dislike him, too. But that doesn’t color the cold and rational projections that y’all rely on me to make. This should have been evident to all the “professionals” of the pundit class 20 months ago! Of all the GOP hopefuls, he’s the only man with a plan. That makes him armed and dangerous and nothing that has happened so far, not even his sudden dip in Iowa polls, causes me to reconsider my general sense that in the sum of all the primaries and caucuses of the coming months, Newt Gingrich is likely to carve his initials with a switchblade through Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, or anyone else he perceives as standing between him and the Republican nomination.
And if that works for Gingrich in the primaries, he’ll then bring that knife to the gunfight of the general election. And that will likely have a less stellar outcome for him. So, put the popcorn on the fire and let’s sit back and watch the Republicans, for a change, kick the crap out of each other in a contest that is practically designed for the meanest man to win.
By Al Giordano
(Yours truly at a May 2011 press conference of the Mexican Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity in Mexico City, with a team from the School of Authentic Journalism. DR 2011 Marta Molina.)
Dear Colleague: It’s been a while since you got a fund appeal from us; six months, in fact. And it’s not been for the lack of need. It’s simply that we have been too busy keeping up with the news and the training of sufficient journalists of talent and conscience to keep up with and report the amazing events of 2011, The Year of Civil Resistance.
If you’re one of the reliable year-in, year-out supporters of Narco News, The Field and the School of Authentic Journalism, you know that we write you today because once again we need your help, and you don’t need to read “the pitch” to do your part. You know that you can make a tax-deductible contribution to The Fund for Authentic Journalism online, right now, at this link:
Or you can send a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism
PO Box 1446
Easthampton, MA 01027 USA
We’d like you to know that up to $20,000 in your contributions will again be given matching support by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, another organization whose ideas' time had come in 2011. That means if you give $100 you’ll generate $200 toward our work, that $10 will equal $20, so on and so forth.
Thank you, in advance, for your contribution today. Still, you might want to read on, because 2011 has been a year to rejoice and never forget, and I’ll summarize for you here why our work, and your support, is now more vital and urgent than ever.
2010 seems an eternity ago. That’s when, among the graduates of the Narco News School of Journalism, Noha Atef, taught us all about the struggle in her country that was happening on the ground but ignored by the international media. And that’s when, with Noha, we produced the video, Torture In Egypt, that went “viral” (30,000+ viewers in English and 65,000+ in Arabic) only months before the January 25 revolution in her land that toppled a dictator, continues to dismantle the dictatorship, and inspired a global wave of nonviolent civil resistance that promises to grow even larger as 2012 is about to begin.
Before winter was over, Narco News TV director Greg Berger and I had found ourselves in Cairo, interviewing the young organizers and media makers of the Egyptian revolution for a series of online videos on how the revolution was won, focusing intensely on the strategies and tactics developed there.
From Cairo we headed to Madrid and led a workshop for independent journalists from the other hemisphere with the curriculum developed over the past eight years at the School of Authentic Journalism. And while we take no credit for it at all, we were thrilled to see, two months later, the civil resistance methods Narco News has championed for years – long before the rest of the media paid them any attention at all – take root throughout Spain and much of Europe with its still-young “indignados” movement.
When we were in Cairo a week prior, utilizing an apartment of a new friend half a block from Tahrir Square, Greg Berger said to me: “Can you imagine living a half block from where a revolution happens? I live in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Nothing ever happens there!”
We returned to Mexico on March 24. Three nights later, the Mexican poet and journalist (and decade-long friend of Narco News) Javier Sicilia lost his son to drug war violence near that city of Cuernavaca. The Cuernavaca city square – known as the zócalo – became the focal point for the birth of what is now, nine months later, the world’s largest mass movement to end the war on drugs and its first explicitly nonviolent one. Javier Sicilia wrote an essay at that moment of grief and despair that Narco News immediately translated to English – in it, he repreated the phrase, “We Have Had It Up to Here” – and which galvanized mass protests against the drug war within a few weeks in 27 Mexican cities and many throughout the world, too.
In many ways, this was the moment that Narco News and our reporting had been building toward since we began publishing on the 18th of April of 2000 (only weeks prior we had produced the viral video about the drug war violence in Cuernavaca, Spring Breakers Without Borders). Over that decade, Mexican public opinion had crystalized in opposition to the prohibitionist drug policy and with the poet Sicilia’s good works found its language and voice to speak it.
Those of you who remember when Narco News was born, in fact, may remember that we predicted this moment with our first words, almost 12 years ago:
“Mexico, unique among American nations, has the power to call Washington's bluff. The US blusters against Mexico daily, but its threats are hollow. The US armed forces cannot invade Mexico: the turmoil and economic damage that military intervention would cause inside the United States would turn even US citizens against their government. Nor can the US impose an economic blockade or boycott against Mexico: Every time the peso falls in relation to the US dollar, another million Mexicans stream over the border. And immigration, for US politicians, is a far more deadly issue than drugs.
“The US press corps has missed the big story out of Mexico. A Mexican drug legalization movement is, by whispers, assembling into a critical mass...”
A lot of people thought we were crazy then. You didn’t. Or even if you did, you still kept us reporting and training new generations of journalists to do this work. The truth is that this Mexican movement against the drug war is shaping history already whether or not TIME magazine declared Sicilia one of its persons-of-the-year last week. I remember last April, practically shaking other news media correspondents by the collar, telling them, “this is something big! Don’t miss the story of your lifetimes!” And they all told me, every single one, that I was nuts, that they didn’t see anything coming of it, that nothing ever changes in Mexico. Of course, today, they’re all looking at last week’s issue of TIME and kicking themselves for having missed the big story.
But Narco News did not miss this story. We have been the international media that has reported it most frequently, coherently and effectively at every step the Mexican movement has taken. We’ve also brought you an inside look into the strategies and tactics of the movement so that they may be replicated in other lands and have functioned, publishing all our works in Spanish, too, as an important communications system for participants in that movement. Our archives for 2011 are now the first draft of a making of history that continues into 2012.
Sicilia, long a student of the nonviolent strategies and tactics of Gandhi, understood from the moment he inspired the movement that protests, alone, do not make big changes. In less than a year, he and those who work alongside him, have introduced the ideas of nonviolence into a country whose political movements have long fetishized armed insurrections whether or not they achieved their goals. The Mexican movement in April began mobilizing, in May marched massively and silently on the national capital, in June led a caravan of hundreds north to Ciudad Juárez, the US border city and epicenter of the pain inflicted on the people by today’s drug policies. In September the movement led a similar caravan to the southern border with Guatemala.
If you’ve been reading Narco News’ extensive coverage, you’ve been with those mobilizations and caravans at every step as if you were physically there. And you also know that these public events are not even half the work that this movement is doing, that, beyond the lights of media glare it has quietly organized family members of more than 50,000 dead and 10,000 disappeared in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon declared “war” in December 2006. It’s not just a story of protest, but also about community organizing.
In many ways, Narco News came full circle in 2011. A decade ago, many read and supported our work because we prosecuted against the falsehoods of the war on drugs, a job that Bill Conroy and others on our news team continue valiantly doing, week in, week out, today. Some shook their heads when we began focusing on other kinds of social movements in Latin America. They didn’t understand what that had to do with the drug war. When we began, in 2002, recruiting (mostly young) journalists and communicators to train them in what we do through the School of Authentic Journalism, others, still, didn’t get it. In 2008, when, through The Field, I began covering US politics through the eyes of a community organizer, still others furrowed their brows and scratched their heads. And earlier this year, when we embarked from this hemisphere into the Arab Spring, we lost some important funding from longtime supporters who must have wanted us to focus more exclusively on Mexico and Latin America.
Well, truth is, for eleven years major funders have come and gone, but you, one reader, sitting at home or at work, keeping yourself informed on what is really happening South of the Border and elsewhere, and tossing us a few coins whenever we’ve asked, you’ve made us independent of reliance on any one source to do this work. You are the reason for this ongoing miracle of authentic journalism.
Suddenly, with the Mexican movement to end the war on drugs, all the different threads that may have once seemed as tangents from our work – exposing the drug war, reporting on social movements, studying the strategies and tactics of civil resistance, nonviolent campaigns and community organizing, and training an army of communicators who know how to report on those things - have come woven together into one gigantic wave that has you and us together on its crest, riding it forward into the future. And the most immediate battle ahead is the one we began with: Ending the drug war from the bottom up, from the land that has been most devastated by it in this young century. It’s really happening. Oh, right, you know that because you’ve been reading Narco News!
It’s been a lot of hard work this year. I can’t deny that. It’s why you haven’t received as many fund appeals from us in 2011. We had the need, but we didn’t have the time! But now, at the end of the year, a time of reflection for many, I ask you to reflect: Had we been nagging you all year long, how many donations do you think you would have made? One? Two? A monthly pledge? Think of what you have done in previous years. And then please consider rolling it all up into one year-end donation to keep this project working for you.
There are many worthy projects and causes asking for you help at this time of year. We respect that. But there is only one Narco News and only one School of Authentic Journalism. More than 1,100 people from every continent have written us this month for applications to our upcoming j-school in March 2012. They understand the importance of learning to do this work and are ready to give you their time – for many, it will mean dedicating their youth, or even their lives, to it – and now we need you to do your part and support them, and support us to train them and to keep a shining example of what journalism should be alive in an epoch when few media even come close.
This is your online newspaper. We do it for you and you have always been the one to make it possible.
You keep making it possible by making your donation – one that will be doubled by matching support – via this link:
Or by sending a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism
PO Box 1446
Easthampton, MA 01027 USA
If 2011 was The Year of Civil Resistance then help 2012 become the year that these effective strategies and tactics – including that of authentic journalism, which assures that they happen with the attention of the world upon them – emerge to put the drug war on the defensive as never before and bring us all giant steps closer to a more sane and less harmful policy throughout “a country called América” and the world.
You know what else a lot of people learned in 2011? That we’re not crazy, and neither are you. We were all just a little bit ahead of our times. But the hour has not yet come for anybody to rest on his or her laurels. Now is the moment to double down on all the time, labor and investment we have made, to remember the friends and allies we have lost to the ultimate sacrifice along this path of struggle, and to do them justice as we create a better world for our children and grandchildren.
Everything is possible.
And everything is to be done.
From somewhere in a country called América,
Founder, Narco News
By Al Giordano
I can’t verify that this alleged transcript of today’s US State Department daily press briefing is real, but it came across my desk and it sure does sound like those crazy flashback-plagued hippies down at Foggy Bottom:
US Department of State Daily Press Briefing – December 8, 2011
Thu, 8 Dec 2011 17:42:34 -0500
Daily Press Briefing
September 30, 2011
12:45 p.m. EDT
MS. NULAND: Afternoon, everybody. I have one thing at the top and then we’ll go to your questions.
This is with regard to the reported leak of covert State Department documents claimed today by Narco News TV in its release of a video offensively titled “Narco-Mania.” The US Department of State can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the so-called “Operation Oh-No” to break up the Sinaloa drug crime organization in Mexico by fixing up Chapo Guzman with Yoko Ono. However, we have two words for whichever public employee leaked this alleged document to Narconews.com: “Bradley Manning.” Got it?
Furthermore, Secretary Clinton has asked me to pass along her personal offense, as a lifelong Beatles fan, that Narco News TV chose the date of December 8 for release of this alleged video about our alleged covert plan. As everybody knows, today marks the 31st anniversary of John Lennon’s death. I am sure I speak for every American citizen over 60 when I deplore the tasteless choice of this solemn day to premier a video that parodies that classic American film, A Hard Day’s Night.
John Lennon himself, if he were here today, would surely denounce this video’s message of ridiculing the war on drugs, one that promotes the legalization of illicit substances while claiming that ending a war would “give peace a chance.” Furthermore, we emphatically deny that four agents of the US Embassy ever held a “bed-in for war” on the Mexico City Zocalo, as portrayed in this offensive video. We strongly urge all American and Mexican citizens: Do not watch this video. Do not click http://www.narconews.com/nntv. Do not turn up the volume. And, of course, do not use any illegal drugs while watching it.
Now, let’s go to your questions…
Oh my. Let’s see what the harrumphing is all about! This is the new Narco News TV video, directed by Gregory Berger, “Narco-Mania!”
Greg began working on the idea for this video late last year, and the first scenes were filmed in Mexico City last February. And I have to say, to imagine family members of drug war victims chasing US Drug Enforcement Administration and Embassy agents out of Mexico seems a more hopeful and inspiring message than shouting and chanting slogans about 50,000 dead from their “war on drugs.”
The short film shows how the declarations of war by Mexican President Felipe Calderón in 2011 sound too much like US President Richard Nixon’s discourse 40 years ago, before our filmmaker Greg (affectionately known in Mexico as “Gringoyo”) was even born! Forty years of fighting the drug war the same way – a prohibition policy enforced by police and armies that deploy weapons and prisons and other punishments - without an iota of success. We noticed that so many of today’s leading drug warriors – from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich – were once the very sixties hippies that Nixon targeted with his drug war and look at them now: They’re doing the same things to the next generations, too.
In this video, the US State Department cooks up a plan from their drug-addled brains to break up the Mexican drug “cartels” by fixing up alleged “cartel boss” Chapo Guzmán with Yoko Ono. The “expert analyst” in the film, one Jorge Martín, explains: “We have to remember that the US State Department is led by aging baby boomer Hillary Clinton and lots of other former 1960’s youth. And they all suffer from one traumatic, collective memory: The break-up of the Beatles in 1970.”
Watch as the fab four US agents try every dumbass thing they can think of to play Cupid to Chapo and Yoko (including an Easter “Bed-In for War” on the Mexico City zócalo reminiscent of Beatle John Lennon and Ono’s Christmas “Bed-In for Peace” in 1969) and it may occur to you, as it did to us, that these bizarre tactics are no less absurd than every other hapless way they are waging the so-called “war on drugs” today.
The video began shooting weeks before a Mexican citizens mass movement to end the drug war rose up in April of this year – a nonviolent movement that last week saw one of its own fledgling leaders, Nepomuceno Moreno, gunned down in Hermosillo, capital of the state of Sonora – and if the movement is going to keep growing and stripping away the institutional rings of support for the drug war, it is going to have to do what all successful movements have done: Learn to laugh as well as cry, to triumph as well as mourn. Ridicule and humor are among the most powerful nonviolent weapons available to those of us who understand that you can’t beat gunfire with gunfire.
This video is also an appeal to the hearts and minds of those of you elder folks who were once rebellious youth but now fill the halls of government, media, business and every other power: Would you please get your generation under control and stop it already with the hypocrisy of claiming to love the rebel music and celebrities of your era while doing the same terrible things to today’s youth that Nixon et al – look in the mirror, you’ve become him! – did to you and yours. Remember that the Nixon White House tried, in 1972, to deport the British ex-Beatle, and the “drug war” (his 1968 guilty plea to misdemeanor marijuana possession) was the pretext they used to do it. Maybe you cried when Lennon was gunned down on this week of 1980, even if you didn’t know him personally. Imagine how family members of 50,000 Mexicans killed in the past five years of the US-imposed war on drugs have cried as a result of the policies that you prop up with your silent consent (or, even in the case of too many who do advocate ending the drug war, your ineffective self-indulgent forms of “activism”).
In the United States, you have not succeeded in organizing a mass movement against this war, despite decades of trying. Your steps are as repetitive and unimaginative as those of the drug warriors you oppose. But in nine months, Mexicans have already done the job you did not want to do. This video aims, from their creative foxhole, at the heart of your stinking war on drugs and its policy of prohibition. The events in this video are so ridiculous and yet at the same time tell an awful truth. You may not know whether to laugh or to cry. But perhaps if you can laugh with us, together we can wield the weapon of ridicule to weaken the prohibition policy and gain more heart and strength to organize ourselves for the nonviolent battle required – and long overdue – to defeat it once and for all.
You can start by helping this video to “go viral” by posting it on your Facebook and other social network pages, embedding it on your blogs and email lists, and helping us to scout and recruit journalists and other talents to apply for the 2012 School of Authentic Journalism – we just announced this week that it will happen March 21 to 31 in Mexico, and completed applications are due December 28 (to receive an application write to firstname.lastname@example.org) - so that we can continue to multiply the number of people trained to do the kind of effective journalism and video creation that Greg and so many others of our graduates and colleagues do… eight days a week.
By Al Giordano
“hay una música
que sabe nombrar esa luz
que disipa la noche
y convoca a las palabras
a reunirse en el poema”
- Sergio Borja
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS, MEXICO: Thousands of locals, tourists, journalists, human rights observers, anthropologists, archeologists and more who live in or have passed through this mountain city enjoyed Sergio Borja’s voice, guitar and songs, but few knew him by that name. At Bar Revolución, Dada Club and other venues he was Capitán Flais, leader of the band. His profound influence on the art, music and poetry of this region, and on so many of the talents that create those works, is felt heavily now after a cardiac arrest that took him on Sunday, November 6, at the age of 48.
His words, above in Spanish, roughly translate as “There is a music/that knows how to name that light/that disperses the night/and calls upon the words to unite in the poem.”
At his November 7 wake, jazz pianist Patricia Reyes remembered to some friends the year, 2000, when she came to San Cristóbal from Mexico City: “There was almost no place to play jazz. The local clubs only wanted salsa or reggae. There were only two places to have an event, La Galeria and Las Velas. So concerts were organized at parties in people’s homes.” She met Flais at a monthly bonfire held on the full moon, “De Músicos, Poetas y Locos” (“Of Musicians, Poets and Crazies”). “Flais was important in that event and I also got to know his work through the magazine ‘Las Hojas de Huitepec.’ A lot of people knew the songs of Sergio Borja. Jazz, for him, came later. He always composed with lyrics and then discovered Coltrane and fell in love with jazz. He started composing songs without lyrics, of pure music.”
Today, in 2011, there are twenty bars and restaurants in San Cristóbal where a new generation of jazz virtuosos regularly perform. Capitán Flais was among the pioneers who blazed that trail and turned this remote burg into Mexico’s capital of jazz.
Some of the talents he mentored, like guitar wizard Fermín Orlando, a native of San Cristóbal, were teenagers when Flais turned them on to the music of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and the rest of the jazz greats. Others who came up through the ranks of la banda del Capitán Flais include bassist-cellist Otto Dadda Anzures, from Tuxtla Gutiérrez; drummer Enrique Martínez of Zinacantán, Chiapas; Jalisco-born trumpeter Rafael “El Viejito” Cervantes; Chicago jazz singer Kelley Gaunt; and local violinist Albán, whose bow brings the most amazing sounds from all thirteen Mayan heavens down to us puny humans on earth. These are accomplished improvisers who have filled halls from Mexico City to India and Europe. It was Flais who gave them their first, and best, pushes. All were featured soloists in Flais’ band in 2005, when the San Cristobal music scene swept your writer into its vortex.
Over the years, on any given night, Flais deployed the finest A-Team of musicians under the sun to interpret his catalog of original songs. On another, he would just as likely be flanked by novices trying to keep up with him. Flais took great joy in getting beginners out on stage to make them learn by doing. More important to him than technique or perfect sound was whether the participants were growing and advancing in their mastery of improvisational music: Every concert was a rehearsal, and every rehearsal, a concert.
By the time I began playing my own works in San Cristóbal’s clubs with the band Zapa-Sutra, there was a rich pool of talent to be recruited for musical projects with jazz and improvisational influences. Every talent I rehearsed and performed with was a better musician than I, which is one definition of a songwriter’s utopia. The cost of living here is low enough that for many of the local musicians, it’s the only job they need to have. They pick up 150 or 200 pesos ($11 to $15) a night, as well as a constant stream of new audiences, muses and opportunities from the flow of tourists in and out of town. Every day in San Cristóbal, musicians congregate, jam, rehearse, attend one another’s gigs, assemble new formations, compose and enjoy together. New blood is always arriving, a trumpet or a sax player, invigorating the creativity of all. And nowhere did that happen more regularly than in Flais’ rustic studio apartment. (Perhaps calling it “rustic” is gilding; his two-by-three-meter room was a chilly box on the top floor of an unfinished brick-and-mortar house, on the windswept hill of the barrio El Cerrillo.)
Young musicians would often step out from their start with Flais to form their own trios, quartets and such, creating and playing their own new compositions. Those musicians became the backbone of what today is the most vibrant jazz scene I’ve known in any locale, including New York or Mexico City. Drifting in and out of Flais’ ensemble at one time or another, simply for the pleasure that he made of the playing, the musicians always tended to gather at Flais’ apartment in the hours before showtime. He would strum a new or old chord progression on his nylon-stringed guitar and others would play along. And then we’d all fan out to conquer the night at simultaneous gigs in various locales.
Sergio Borja, a.k.a. Flais, was an aesthete whose daily life was a search for beauty, visual and audial. Passersby would see him on the street or in a park with his easel and paints, brushing Monet-like portraits and landscapes, sometimes tutoring a less accomplished painter. Bespectacled and skinny, wearing sneakers and often popping around town with his vinyl guitar case on his back, Flais was himself a reluctant tourist attraction who often seemed shy about public attention. When a new thought struck him, he’d write it down on any scrap of paper available. Later he might turn it into a poem or a song, or just leave it by his bedside as a reminder note.
“El viaje/no es sólo el viaje físico/de equipajes y autobuses/y habitaciones y espacios/de un cambiante caleidoscopio/que gira con la tierra.”
- Sergio Borja
Disinterested in material things, the Argentine-born Borja had lived 25 years in Mexico without a visa. This left him unable to travel outside of Mexico, or even very far within it. In his poem “El Viaje,” he wrote: “The trip/is not just physical travel/of baggage and buses/and rooms and spaces/of a changing kaleidoscope/that turns with the earth.”
Contacted by Borja’s friends after his death, his mother, 83, said she hadn’t seen her son in a quarter century, although they had spoken in the last year, and he had recently sent her one of his paintings. Flais’ entire clothes collection fit on two shelves, and was wrapped in plastic to protect it from soaking up the scent of whatever the ever-present gang of musicians, poets and painters were smoking. What few knickknacks and possessions he had were typically tidied up in small containers, each with its own place to park; glasses, sunglasses, guitar picks, and the omnipresent piles of notes he had written. He lived without a refrigerator (as many do in this cold mountain climate) and his diet was Spartan: a loaf of white Bimbo bread, a carton of juice, and hot dogs aligned neatly in a Tupperware box.
Some years back, I pleaded with Flais to join me for a meal in a restaurant. His gaunt frame and apparent malnourishment were worrisome. This required repeated insistence, and after a few weeks he grudgingly accepted, suggesting an economic family restaurant, Alebrije, by the city’s bustling mercado, instead of the multitude of fine tourist restaurants that fill the city. We made a party of it with some of the other musicians, and over lunch I made the mistake of expressing a preference for handmade, fresh-corn tortillas over the thinner machine-produced ones on our table. He pointed his finger toward me and then to the sky, lecturing: “All food is blessed!”
One thing many of his friends learned this week during his wake and cremation was that, as a younger man, Borja had entered the seminary and studied to become a Catholic priest. The lyrics to his songs were über-positive, rejoicing in what he saw as the essential goodness of all of life; they could in fact be credibly played in Buddhist temples or Christian churches alike. Sarcasm was not in his playbook. I never heard him say a nasty thing about anyone, despite the setting of this tourist town, where cruel gossip oft seems the favorite sport, and where the best defense is often a good offense. The one time I saw him angry was at a local cultural center, where he saw some dirty coffee cups and immediately took them to a sink to wash them. One slipped from his wet hands and shattered on the floor. I applauded and shouted, “Bravo!” To which he snapped back: “I NEVER take joy in other people’s disgrace!”
Despite those rare clashes between two of the older wolves of the local music scene, Flais and I got along splendidly. A lesser artist (and there have been many, many frustrated gatekeepers along this writer, journalist, organizer and musician’s road) would have felt threatened by the entrance of a new ringleader into his territory and begun circling the wagons. Flais, refreshingly, went out of his way to make me feel welcome as the newcomer who had begun playing with some of his most accomplished protégés. What was more important to him than his own position in the show (at Bar Revolución he always stood below the stage while conducting other musicians both on and off it) was the tutelage of his musical disciples: If they were learning and inventing new sounds, he was visibly happy for them. It was as if he were standing back and looking at his own painting while the figures on the canvas moved to rhythms and the paint itself emanated the most sublime sounds. He befriended other accomplished musicians and encouraged them to teach his crew, people like the above-mentioned pianist Patricia Reyes, the bassist-composer Ciro Liberato, and the guitar virtuoso Julio Flores, who left behind his life as a rock-star bassist for the Mexican ska musical sensation Antidoping to return to his home town of San Cristóbal and rededicate his unique talents to jazz guitar. (Those three and their trio, Ameneyro, played at the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism; they and the other musicians mentioned here are family to this publication.) Many of the younger musicians who learned from Flais are today schooling newer generations in the jazz renaissance of these mountains.
Sergio Borja’s status as an illegal alien prevented him from engaging in any political activity at all. In 2005, he accepted an invitation for his band to play at a public event of the Zapatista Other Campaign during the November Day of the Dead celebrations. On the eve of the concert, he canceled, citing his lack of a visa—and having lived through the expulsions of 400 foreigners (human rights observers and journalists, mainly) from Mexico in the 1990s because the government viewed them as supporting the rebel indigenous insurgents in the hills around this city, he was probably smart to do so. And yet I would define him as a true revolutionary, a vocation that he didn’t shout slogans about but, rather, lived. He didn’t rail against consumer culture; he kept it altogether out of his daily life. He didn’t shout slogans; he wrote gentle poems and lyrics and put them to beautiful melodies and arrangements. He painted impressionist works on canvas rather than graffiti on other people’s walls. He didn’t go around trying to show off how much he “cared” about others; he really did care, and he treated everyone in his path with kindness and the benefit of the doubt. He didn’t proclaim himself an anarchist, but he lived and survived a quarter century without registering himself with any government. He was a free man in militarized Chiapas.
Since the Zapatista rebellion of 1994, San Cristóbal has become a kind of Disneyland for nongovernmental organizations, human rights workers and journalists. Their organizations often compete for press attention, for funding, and for what they call “access” to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in its Spanish initials) and its elusive Subcomandante Marcos. All this made for a perfect cocktail of vicious gossip, backbiting, and sectarian quarreling among too many of the NGOs, political organizations and their staffers. I had things to do in that town in 2005 and 2006, leading up to and during the Zapatista Other Campaign and its national listening tour. The musicians provided a perfect escape and shield from the shrill cross-fire of political activists, a kind of underground passage, an invisible Bauhaus subway line through the city. Because of the name of my band, people started calling me “Zappa.” Beyond the great fun and meaning of composing and performing music with such worthy instrumentalists, the jazz scene provided cover. Sometimes strangers would talk to me about the journalist “Al Giordano,” and I seldom let them in on my little secret. A few I’d never met before claimed to be that writer’s good friend, and I’d ask them to arrange an introduction. I wasn’t exactly lying when I responded only, “I’m a fan.” People still approach me now and then to say, “I never realized that you were him.” I felt as if the musicians and the nickname they gave me had provided me with my own Anne Frank attic to evade the storm troopers of Political Correctness and the petty push-and-shove that too many activists dish out to one another.
Musicians are, of course, famous for hedonism, and most, if you gave them truth serum, would have to admit that the extra amorous and sexual attention that comes with the gig is one of the benefits. In a tourist mecca, that’s even more the case. But Flais was an anti-Lothario, of very few affairs, and those he had were serious ones in which he gave his heart wholly and sometimes got it crushed; the process of falling in and out of love was grist for his lyrics. There was once a dashing Parisian, Audrey Hepburn–esque femme fatale in town who most of the male (and some female) musicians were absolutely throwing themselves at, but it was the mild-mannered Flais whom she sought out. She would come to his apartment each day, and he’d write songs in front of her, at least one of them to her, but if there was anything more gossip-worthy going on, Flais never let it be known. He was nothing if not discreet.
Flais had another quality I really liked, too: He honored his elders, peers and predecessors: the poets Francisco Alvarez Quiñones, Javier Molina and Juan Gallo, of San Juan Chamula (each of whom he wrote about back in 1993), and the painter and saxophonist Arturo Pacheco, among others. Flais encouraged their intergenerational participation with his young and merry band. He got young people interested in them and their craft. A lot of locals outside of the bohemian music and arts subcultures knew Flais and appreciated him. Our colleague Mercedes Osuna and her mother, doña Paula, when I mentioned coming to town for his funeral, remembered a month years ago when he was editing a text in their store, a market for clothes and crafts made in Chiapas’ indigenous communities. He came every day around lunchtime, and the wily Flais took the entire month to finish the text. They were happy to feed him, day in, day out, and even happier to enjoy his upbeat company during those memorable meals.
“Mudarse/aunque sea un piso/es como llegar de nuevo/de modo que a los pocos meses/todavía se duda/de la ubicación de una mesa/del cilindro de gas/de las macetas/y sí/mudarse es concederse una renovación espacial/imprescindible/y de paso poner a prueba la inteligencia/la practicidad/el estilo/además de ser una forma de limpia y renuncia/ya que siempre un cambio/de domicilio o de altura/deja escapar –y con razón–/las cosas que ya no nos necesitan.”
– Sergio Borja
When Flais had to move a few years ago from the second floor to the third floor of the house-under-construction where he rented his room, he wrote this poem: “To move/even just one floor up/one still has doubts/about the location of a table/of a gas cylinder/of the flower pots/and, yes/to move is to concede a spatial renovation/indispensable/and in its steps to put intelligence to the test/practicality/style/as well as being a form of purification and resignation/now, that a change always/of home or of altitude/allows the things that no longer need us – with good reason – to escape.”
If moving his few possessions the distance of one short staircase brought that out of him, I can only imagine what was going on in his mind last week when he faced a deadline to leave his address altogether. I don’t know, but I imagine that his decision not to get a visa or to otherwise legalize his presence in Mexico served his dislike of traveling or moving around. It gave him perfectly defensible excuses for not doing so. He had already traveled extensively before arriving in San Cristóbal about two decades ago, but apparently he had decided to roll to a permanent stop here and channel his inner traveler through his flights in music, word and image.
And some may not forgive me for this particular expression of grief or how I say it, but here it goes, anyway: Everybody knew that Flais didn’t just live humbly out of a vow of poverty; he really was poor. Everybody knew that a diet of hot dogs and white bread does not nourishment make, and that he was shrinking thinner all the time. Everybody knew that he was being evicted from his 700-peso-a-month ($52 dollars) tiny room because the owners of the house had finally saved up enough to finish construction of the third floor, where he had his little closet and roost (some of his paintings are of the views of the city from his two windows; in addition to his daily hosting of musicians and other friends, he also spent a lot of time alone there, but people didn’t see that part of his day). Everybody knew that November 6 was to be his eviction date. After his death, a few of his friends mentioned that they knew that he had not been feeling well. He told one that there had been blood in his urine since a month ago. He told another it was coming out of his ass. He told yet another that he’d been bleeding from the nose and mouth. The rest of the community around him only heard these things after it was too late to encourage him to get medical help. After he died, friends found by his bedside the stained cup into which he had been spitting that blood.
The horror of it all is that this was a man who had devoted so much love and attention to creating and building a community of music and painting and poetry and friendship and culture, yet when the warning signs began, that community was not sufficiently alert to notice, much less to help him. There are certain kinds of people who don’t seek medical attention unless dragged by the ear to the doctor. This is not to point at anyone in particular. We’re all to blame – those of us who no longer live here but didn’t check in or ask the right questions of our old friend and teacher and those mutual friends who saw him almost daily. And there certainly were people who generously helped Flais materially, like his good pal, the British anthropologist and musician Tim Trench. Two days before his death, Flais bathed, combed his hair, put on a clean shirt and knocked on the door of drummer Enrique Martínez and his wife, the actress and theater director Barbara Guillén. In what must have been the hardest words for him to ever speak, he asked if he could come to live with them and their seven dogs, starting Monday.
They welcomed him immediately – enthusiastically! – to his new home and set to work planning the organization of his studio, far more spacious than his previous haunt. He said he wanted to paint a landscape on a wall that a neighbor had erected, which was blocking a view from the home. These, and many more, were the acts of a “real” community, or what the San Cristóbal artist’s community could be if it had more posture or more people who did. But one thing about living in tourist towns is that it hardens the heart. High seasons come and go, and with them the invasion of new people and talents. Everybody who has come here and stayed has, at one point, been flavor of the month and then later settled for being another in the cast of extras. Then come the low seasons; the hotels and bars empty out, and the year-round residents are stuck with each other – and with the knowledge that everyone else saw and gossiped about their high-season antics and affairs, because high season always brings a blessed dose of crazy – time and again. One ends up saying good-bye to so many people who were once passersby that the heart tends to harden, and in some, it becomes more mercenary, less able to give a damn about anything or anyone. Paradise may or may not be overrated, but without a doubt it comes at a high price.
“A través de esos grandes ojos/con los que también respira una casa/se disipa el miedo de las paredes/y se atenúan las fronteras gregarias/de la propiedad privada/una habitación despierta/se integra a la luz de afuera/deja de estar a solas y escondida/y se da cuenta de que está en una casa.”
- Sergio Borja
In his poem, “El valor de las ventanas” (“The value of windows”), Flais wrote: “Through those big eyes/with those that a house also breathes/the fear in the walls disperses/the gregarious borders of private property dissolve/the light from outside joins in/one stops being alone and hidden/and realizes that one is in a house.”
The local firefighter Inti visited Flais on Sunday to help him organize the movement of his things, but he found him deathly ill. Inti called an ambulance to bring Flais to the hospital, where, hours later, he died in Barbara Guillén’s and Fermìn Orlando's arms. This was on the eve of his moving day. And when friends went to clear out his room, videotaping every step and item to ensure the rest of the world that nothing would be stolen, they found only 300 pesos to his name. They clicked on the Walkman that connected to his little speakers, and found a lilting piano progression by Monk, which now serves as the soundtrack for that sad and lonely video.
Unfortunately for us as a species, we take our visionaries for granted while they are alive and lionize them only in death. Many of them have eccentric qualities, or they play the jester or other roles as part of their technique to bring the out the best in others. Many are addicts of one kind or another (Flais wasn’t into alcohol or hard drugs at all, but some did frown upon his smoking habits even as they went to hear and enjoy his singing voice). Flais at times seemed like the prototypical absent-minded professor, so buried in his quest for knowledge and beauty that he’d forget to take care of himself. He was so thin that a gale wind might have come at any moment to blow him up into the sky. Well, it kind of just did.
Visionaries don’t always make it easy to help them. They almost never ask for help; that would be humiliating. There’s no beauty in imposing on others. But I feel much as I did in 2004, after the suicide of our colleague-in-journalism Gary Webb, that the real dysfunction is not with the heretic, but with the rest of us. People talk about community, they talk about friendship, and they blather on and on about “caring” and altruism and good words and the importance of good deeds. Everybody claims to be a lover. But in the end, we’re a pestilent species of egoists and scared little weenies; almost every one of us is so self-absorbed and out for ourselves that even those who work hard at appearing to care are eventually revealed as selfish brutes.
Here was a guy, Sergio Borja, our very own Capitán Flais, who really lived the idea of community, who did unto others as he would have done unto him. He is the father of the most vibrant jazz scene on the continent, and he forged it from nothing! He rose up an army of jazz! But his attention to the wellbeing of others wasn’t reciprocal, honestly, was it? He never got to turn 50. And I can’t say that he would be alive today if the community had been more attentive and responsive to the reality that he needed us to take care of him a little bit better. But I’ll always wonder. And it’s a terrible feeling, the kind of existential question I would seek out Flais’ counsel on, looking to him for some kind of silver lining to the tragedy, one that would spring from his innate optimism and belief in people. His advice and philosophy are what we sought at moments like this one. But he’s no longer here to give it.
By Al Giordano
If James Wolcott’s Lucking Out: My Life of Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York (2011, Doubleday) becomes, deservedly, a movie, it will be an edgier East Coast cousin of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. This coming-of-age story brings to resurrected life the “semi-dirty” portals and characters through which a young writer evolved to become one of America’s foremost cultural critics, on the cusp of waves that his own prose helped to create.
Imagine if instead of cutting his teeth on redneck jam bands like the Allman Brothers for the pretentious Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, a writer had come up as the fledgling critic who sat at the bar at CBGBs scribbling John-the-Baptist prophecies on napkins to herald the coming of Patti Smith and Talking Heads, navigating the story through the shark-infested newsroom of the Village Voice (my god, it was as cutthroat as I’d always imagined it: “nobody at the Voice told you anything for your own good unless he was up to no good,” recalls Wolcott: “like the gangster families in The Godfather, the Voice convulsed into feuds every few years to purge the bad blood and begin a fresh cycle of animosities”), so that 14- and 15-year-old New York boys and girls, your correspondent included, could gobble up his prose and race down the Bowery for a front-table and a sloe gin fizz (we were never, ever, carded) in the opening rounds of what came to be known, later, but not yet, as “Punk.”
The wunderkind Crowe had Lester Bangs as a mentor, true, but Wolcott, we learn from Lucking Out, was caught in a love triangle with that brilliant and bombastic music critic and a mutual girlfriend during the final months of Bangs’ life. In the same 1973 when a 16-year-old Crowe was roaming the longhair frat halls of the Hyatt in Hollywood, the proverbial “Riot House” of established seventies rock stars and groupies, a 21-year-old Wolcott was waiting endlessly, over and over again, for Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television to get their guitars stringed to taste (“it always took them forever to tune up, bent over their guitars like car mechanics over a tricky transmission”). There, he would often step out the CBGB’s gate onto the sidewalk at the Bowery and Bleeker Street for some air. Let’s go take that walk with him, for Wolcott’s is a pen with superpowers – the kind that Stan Lee and Jack King Kirby assigned to the Marvel heroes that inspired our scribe as a boy – that transports the reader to places and times of legend:
“If nothing else, the seventies in New York taught me situational awareness, a vital attribute for every slow-moving mammal prone to daydreaming. Like so many who came to see Patti, I would sometimes glide backward to the street when the opening band began tormenting their guitars after tuning up on each other’s nerves for five or ten minutes. It wasn’t like cooling your heels out on the piazza. Bottles would be dropped from the Palace Hotel men’s shelter above CBGB’s, their green and clear glass smashing on the sidewalk, some of them exploding with pee, the contents recycled from the beer or Thunderbird that the bottles formerly contained. It wasn’t a nightly occurrence, but it happened often enough to keep you limber. Scraggly panhandlers who didn’t bother to work up an inventive line of patter to go with their outstretched palms would pester anyone stationary, even though the CBGB’s customers themselves were the very portrait of slim pickings and linty pockets. Abuse was shouted from passing cars, on general principle, not for anything in particular, and the occasional curiosity-seeker or casual-date couple would serenade by, open the front door for a peek, and get a face-ful of inchoate racket blasting from the stage – all the deterrence they needed to keep moving to find a different lovebird destination, assuming they weren’t eaten by cannibals before they got to Canal Street.”
That “situational awareness” would, in real life, prepare some of us to live and navigate in places like Mexico City, Sao Paulo or the Lacandon Jungle, but it readied Wolcott for an even scarier place: the offices of the New York media. Over the subsequent decades he has deliciously taken down the mighty knowns and risen up the worthy unknowns as a widely-read critic of – you name it – movies, music, television, politics, news media, bloggers, and classical ballet, among other contact sports for the Voice, Esquire, The New Yorker, New York mag, The New York Review of Books and his current longtime gig at Vanity Fair.
Too many of the “New York media elite” occupy its overpaid cubicle spaces and column inches with formulaic, banal, effete and careerist drivel. But every rule has an exception and mine, as a reader, is Wolcott. Reading his prose is as flavorful a venture as chomping on a slice of Joe’s Pizza on Sixth Avenue, and, no, not because he may have once in a while tossed a few literary bouquets my way. There are plenty who have been generous with praise toward this bad boy but if they have a new book out I still cross the street when I see them coming, cowering in horrific fear that they’re going to ask me to review it, which, gasp, would mean I’d have to read the damn thing first. I don’t even like books anymore! I used to love them, but then books, much like New York, changed.
I spend too many hours already racing through the well-lit hallways of the Internet, so the last thing I want to do during leisure time is stress these eyes even more. And if you’ve walked into any of the chain bookstores that have supplanted the mom-and-pop ones, you may, too, have noticed that fiction died in the 1980s and that nonfiction didn’t last much longer. It had been more than two years since I read any book, prior to Lucking Out, and I confess that I’m proud of to be part of such illiterati. Books come out too slow to be timely, and the publishing houses churn them out according to formulaic focus-group research of what book buyers think will bring them status, make them seem smart, or get them laid if they leave the product lying around the coffee table. The thousands of books that once cluttered up this mind were either sold on Rivington Street or given away before my ugly divorce with them. Books are heavy and clunky. They don’t fit in a pen drive. And if adventure is your calling you eventually conclude that they must be cut like ballast from Phileas Fogg’s balloon.
Yet when a review copy of Lucking Out arrived last week, conveniently while I was in New York (we don’t give out the address of the Narco Newsroom to publishing houses, because then they consider it permission keep sending all kinds of crap), I ripped open the padded envelope like a kid on xmas day. I knew it would bring me back through the doors of CBGB’s (Wolcott calls it “the only place where my memories are three-dimensional,”) and felt that tingly sensation I had each time I stepped across the threshold, with my high school buddies Philip Shelley, Emily Wasserman, Jon Frankel, Kathy Lamantia, Billy Johnson – people who remain in, or have returned to, my off-screen life 35 years later, none of us ever having quite recovered from such formative experiences – and so many more, into its long, dark cavern as a teenager. A truly great writer just published a book about events in seventies New York that he and I were party to, although we sat in separate sections of the bar, and that was enough to keep me in bathrobe all day on Saturday to devour its 258 pages. I opened the book around 8 a.m. and only got around to having breakfast at three in the afternoon. My hardcover-devouring girlfriend - who slipped an egg-and-cheese sandwich in the slot under the door - says that Wolcott should get the Nobel in literature for his contribution to world literacy: he got Al to read a book. “I’ve never seen you smile like that,” she said, “while reading something,” which is more often than not, a duty or a chore.
It’s been fifteen years since I’ve liked a book (there have been many) about those over-hyped days at CBGB’s, a place and time where everybody claims to have been, but when you ask a question that begs details, it turns out they saw it in a YouTube video or in a magazine. You could have fit us all into a thimble, truth be told (as I was boasting with Wasserman and her Brooklyn pals the other day, “there are photos of Emily and I at CBGB’s in 1975.” And that still isn’t considered credible until one adds, authoritatively, “and they’re on Facebook.”)
Fifteen years ago I wrote an impassioned Boston Phoenix review for Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk (1996). The previous winter I had enjoyed a bit of a re-run as a court scribe on the bus with the Patti Smith Group on her comeback tour with Bob Dylan, when Verlaine taught me the secret to better guitar playing – “drink a lot of coffee,” he said, pausing his phrases like Miles Davis’ silence-between-the-notes. (Then-media critic for the Voice, Cynthia Cotts, later commented, “that tour destroyed you as an employable commodity in this industry: you learned from Patti that you could become a kind of rock star yourself simply by acting like one.”)
My punk encore did indeed, very quickly, lead my journalism career to go up in self-immolation that year. Those moments were the Tunisian street vendor to my own personal Egyptian revolution, which spit me out of Boston and New York and hurtled me south of the border. Yet, in October, November and December of 1995, in Patti’s entourage, I was merely sweeping up the hallowed ground that Wolcott had trail-blazed twenty-one years prior: He had reported, for the Voice, on the night that Dylan showed up at CBGB’s to bestow his Excalibur sword to Patti, back in 1974, a glistening passage of prose that is revived for three pages of Lucking Out.
It’s so much fun to read Wolcott give a bit of justice in column inches to David Byrne and the Franzes of Talking Heads, and to Verlaine, art-rockers of “punk,” who were inexplicably granted slight billing by Please Kill Me. Wolcott writes of his crush on the (married, therefore perfectly untouchable) Tina Franz and his excited visit to the apartment where the Talking Heads lived back in the day:
“Byrne’s ambition was harder to spot at first because his voice broke like a choirboy’s and his head was always bobbling or askew, not Fixed in Purpose or rapture-lost. He was as willful as Verlaine, but his willfulness woke outward, toward the honeycombed world, whereas Verlaine’s narrowed to a shrinking portion of what he sought and fought to control. Byrne’s very accessibility, his approachability, set him apart from Verlaine and (later) Patti, whose don’t-bother-me-I’m-an-artist signs on their faces deterred those who might idly come knocking. One night a CBGB’s regular named Valerie, a gorgeous speed freak whose chat accelerated into gibberish the longer she hung at the bar, said to me, spotting Byrne, ‘I’m going to pick him up and swing him around.’ ‘That I’d like to see,’ I said. As David headed toward the stage area, nodding his bashful hellos, Valerie grabbed him around the chest in a skilled grappling move and twirled him around, and as he spun, he said, ‘Whoa!’ like a teenager on an amusement park ride, and when he stopped, he pretended to act a little dizzy, as if bopped on the head by a fuzzy hammer. Had she tried that with Lou Reed, he might have burst into mummy dust.”
Don’t even try to tell me that this book wouldn’t make a wonderful movie, if only so somewhere from the back row of Heaven’s Cineplex, Pauline Kael might see it and review it.
Kael was Wolcott’s mentor, and his memories of being taken in by, and learning the craft of criticism from, Kael dominate pages 53 to 104 of Lucking Out. Despite that the book gifted me a worthy reunion to my own times (and who doesn’t love a good jaunt down Amnesia Lane?), the Kael section was my favorite part of Wolcott’s latest work. It was a worthy homage to a mentor by a student, but, more tellingly, it stands as an eternal paean to, and roadmap for, the very concept of a mentor-protégé relationship. Unlike so many opportunistic what-have-you-done-for-me-lately ingrates, Wolcott remains fiercely loyal to his most important teacher and guide, a decade after Kael (1919-2001) passed away.
Movies may have been produced in Hollywood, but in the seventies (a golden age when directors enjoyed a renaissance of artistic freedom to control their own flick, a concept that, alas, does not exist today) they had to get through the lofty trenches of a few choice New York movie critics, generally, to have any hope of box office success. Kael was among the most influential, writing from her country house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Mountains, and commuting to the offices of The New Yorker (staying at the Royalton Hotel at 44 W. 44th street, and only at the Algonquin when the Royalton was full) for her six-month-a-year shift at the cinema desk. If there is a magazine, today, that would let a critic work for six months a year, I’d like to know about it.
Kael was much like those great seventies film directors in that she ran her own show. Movie companies would hold private screenings for her, to which she would bring a posse of fellow and sister critics, and other friends, to watch (always a “movie,” she detested calling them film, which she said was just a kind of tape that one put in a camera). In 1974, the 22-year-old Wolcott received an unsolicited phone call from the 53-year-old Kael, who invited him along for the ride simply because she liked his writing in the Voice. In the following years, Wolcott would go through various, as he called them, “serial monogamous” relationships with girlfriends until later meeting his wife, but the section about Kael in Lucking Out is a romantic platonic love story between the author and a unique New York character; authentically Big Apple, because Kael really didn’t care who she offended when expressing her opinion on their work (“she was blaspheming everything the New York Times Arts and Leisure section held hallow,” Wolcott recalls). After reading Lucking Out, I’m in love with Kael, too.
Reading those 51 pages on Wolcott’s years of opening doors for the five-foot-tall dynamo, of carrying Kael’s briefcase, and of walking her home to the Randolph after so many nights of film screenings followed by Algonquin round tables with her posse, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene from one of the Jurassic Park movies (not being schooled in cinema, I couldn’t tell you which one), in which a baby T-Rex is taught to kill its prey by its mother and Junior proceeds to bite off the head of one of the bad guys.
Over the years, Wolcott’s own critiques have exasperated actors, directors, musicians, choreographers, dancers, journalists, bloggers, politicians, and the agents, handlers and moneymen behind them. At times I wince when he savages some of my favorite artists and their art (Bertolucci’s 1900? the CBGB’s-born Blondie? and it takes a lot of guts to have publicly yawned, as he did, at a sacred icon like Bruce Springsteen at the precise moment when he emerged to conquer rock and roll), but mostly I’ve taken great vicarious delight in watching Wolcott turn effete snobs that pose as leftist or rightist gatekeepers into piñatas: Ellen Willis (cough), Newt Gingrich (double cough), Susan Sontag (hack, wheeze)… Lou Reed! Look up the word “iconoclast,” kids: Wolcott’s photo is in the Pictionary.
A particularly entertaining takedown of Reed, the former Velvet Underground front man, already an icon by 32, in Lucking Out, informs as it pleases. The point of the writing, in fact, was not to knock down Reed (although it does, like a bowling pin in a Bronx lane on a Saturday morning) but to rise up Reed’s ex-partner in creating the Warhol Factory soundtrack, John Cale, who once drunkenly strangled Wolcott with his hands along the bar at CBGB’s, over a misunderstanding on the slurred pronunciation of “Molson”:
“I didn’t take it personally. There was no repeat performance. In fact he (Cale) was unfailingly genial and chatty whenever I ran into him, and his presence on the scene, despite the sporadic aggro-surges, cast a more generous corona than that of his former co-pilot, Lou Reed, whose cool-as-shit sarcasms seemed to come out of a private loop of Bob Dylan’s surlier moments from Don’t Look Back projected on the inside of his sunglasses…
“One night Lisa Robinson, rock journalist extraordinaire, came up to me with the winged-Mercury enthusiasm of someone with some really good gossip to share and asked: ‘So, did you hear what just happened? Verlaine confiscated Lou’s tape recorder. Went up to him and demanded that he fork it over.’ Which Lou did, like a shoplifter surrendering a pack of cigs.”
For a decade or more after those years, our scene and we were forgotten: old news, yawn. We used to say, you had to be there, and I often got the idea that we were received like shell-shocked ‘Nam vets by people who didn’t ask and didn’t want to hear what it was like over there. Kurt Cobain would eventually generate some interest from a later generation, but New York “punk” got all rolled up, in popular culture, with other things that were really nothing like it: the British version of “punk,” the West Coast one, a “new wave” market niche along with artless “hardcore” and corresponding fashion statements associated with spiked hair and such. Thanks to Lucking Out (like Please Kill Me, before it, for which Wolcott’s book serves as a long overdue addendum reviving important parts that somehow got left on Legs’ and Gillian’s cutting-room-floor), the kernel of the idea is now better preserved. The 1970s works of the author and a precious few colleagues fast-forwarded us and prepared us to have Wolcott’s “situational awareness” that is now a survival skill in this treacherous media-dictated future that we live in, when Verlaine’s pioneering act – one just didn’t even consider taking away an icon’s tape recorder back then; Tom did – gave us a clue and pointed us toward the present-day skills we need.
Wolcott didn’t write only about these young pre-cyber culture jammers. And this is the most interesting twist in a book that begins with a 20-year-old cub reporter dropping out of college and coming to New York from the Maryland-Delaware border with nothing but a recommendation letter from Norman Mailer (given, it was not exactly “nothing,” but it still carried no guarantees). In Lucking Out, we read not only what he learned in his New York salad days, but more importantly, how he learned it, from his magnum-teacher Pauline Kael. In the pages of this book, we then watch Wolcott apply that knowledge in his first lasting journalistic venture: the promotion of Patti Smith and the CBGB’s scene around her, before it was clear that any of it was going anywhere.
Lucking Out teaches us all to be critics, with the proviso that the greatest thing a critic does is not to tear down, but to build up. All the tantalizing takedowns that authentic critics make merely establish the ground upon which, when they find something or someone really worthwhile to raise up, they can open the space for something truly new and interesting to happen. See that guy or gal in the back row of the theater, the one who hates everything that sucks and even some things that we don’t want to suck? Well he or she suddenly really likes something now! Let’s go see what the fuss is about!
Back to what the student, Wolcott, sponged-in from the mentor, Kael:
“One thing I learned from Pauline was that when something hits you that high and hard, you have to be able to travel wherever the point of impact takes you and be willing to go to the wall with your enthusiasm and over it if need be, even if you look foolish or ‘carried away,’ because your first shot at writing about it may be the only chance to make people care. It’s better to be thumpingly wrong than a muffled drum with a measured beat.”
And, thus, as Wolcott puts it, “leaning on the throttle to hurry up the future,” we read in this book an excerpt from his 1974 Voice piece that proclaims boldly that unsigned and largely unknown Patti Smith is the next big thing, a “knockout performer: funny, spooky, a true off-the-wall original. Like the character in Dickens, she do the police in different voices,” and the young writer went out on a very long limb to proclaim: “skinny schizzy Patti is on her way to becoming the wild mustang of American rock.”
There is no yardstick available on this mortal plane to measure whether Patti’s triumphs then happened because young Wolcott, the critic, wrote it. But nor is there any way at all to prove that it would have happened had the critic not done so. These things are in the realm of reasonable doubt from both sides of the pessimist-optimist divide. Such is the life of a critic. The crowd is always eager to blame you for killing something, but averse to credit you with the midwifery of anything demonstrably inspiring.
Beyond the secret histories from Kael to Cale, Lucking Out adds Wolcott’s memoirs of corners of seventies New York that had never captured my imagination: Classical ballet and porn among them. (His odes to the NYC pornography industry quickly segue into a theme of more personal interest: sex in Manhattan, even if I’m grateful that while all those guys were whacking away their afternoons in XXX theaters in Ye Olde Times Square, not a single one was, at that precise moment, competing for a real-life gal’s attention). But Wolcott does pull the dirty trick of making me think that maybe one day I’ll load up on nicotine gum and actually enter Lincoln Center – if they’d have me, I don’t know – to see what all his dancy-prancy fuss is about. That’s another sign of a great writer: one that can make you curious about matters that previously held zero interest.
I will assign Lucking Out to my own students and protégés, and not only to wave his pages on Kael in the air shouting, “this is how a mentor should be treated!”
And speaking of “lucking out,” a couple of weeks ago, while ushering some participants of a workshop on journalism and civil resistance through the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park (as we entered, Narco News TV director Greg Berger wondered who we’d run into and I confessed that in previous visits I had seen more than a few annoying activists from previous misadventures that I had the “situational awareness” to skillfully avoid), the first person I ran into was Jim Wolcott, chatting with one of the occupy media committee organizers. “I knew you’d be here,” he said, which was a good use of dry humor since he knows I live South of the Border. We talked about the challenges of finding the different-drummer stories in an event that has had been under a pack-media magnifying glass (who have written too much about drummers there, anyway), and he graciously gave his sage time to some of the scholars from our workshop. I have no idea what his coming Vanity Fair story on “occupy” will say, but I find myself clicking refresh waiting for it to happen.
When recounting the turf wars, rivalries and catty dialogue among the New York media newsrooms and hangouts, Wolcott extends a generous appreciation to just how vicious so many of the divas there had been to him and to each other:
“I resented being bullyragged for making a fool of myself because making a fool of yourself was one of the hard-earned liberties Norman Mailer had fought for in his boxing trunks. But I have to say, I don’t regret my days in gladiator school. Having your ego slapped around a bit helped the blood circulate and would prove a superb conditioning program for a future sub-career in blogging, where a tough hide would come in handy every time the Hellmouth opened. Every time I’m abused online with a battery of scurrilous remarks of a personal nature, I’m able to let them bounce off like rubber erasers, having been called an asshole by professionals, experts in the field.”
That counsel is pure gold for new and future generations of writers and critics. If I had a 35-cent New York City seventies subway token for every time a present-day blogger or aspiring journalist threw a whining tantrum when, for a change, he or she were at the receiving end of a critique or a putdown, I’d be able to buy the Huffington Post and the New York Times just to be able to padlock the doors and put them all out of their wussy pack-journalism misery.
So, you want to be a writer? A critic, you say? Then you can’t give a fuck about what people say about you after you’ve fired your keypad and crestfallen their fragile egos (or those of their sacred cows). In the few times we’ve spoken, Wolcott has struck me as gentle and sensitive, much more of an officer and a gentleman than Pauline Kael (“tough” she used to say when someone objected to her words, Wolcott remembers, often followed by “shit”). Really, he comes off more as the sort of mensch that rescues stray kittens from alleyways in his spare time, later to appear in his prose as the house ocicats of a tea-totaling domestic bliss. And yet I suspect in that uptown apartment he sometimes lets us peek into that one can still regularly hear the Jay Dee Daugherty backbeat to Patti Smith’s annunciation of “the sea of possibility… seize the possibility!”, a credo for authentic writers and critics anywhere.
Kael, the subject of his greatest homage to date, was able to summon and forge a healthy sense of detachment out of her young charge. One gets the sense that the brickbats and cruelties fired back at New York’s greatest surviving critic might sometimes hurt Wolcott’s feelings, but that his big liberal East Coast heart is gym-toned and plated with enough Bowery grit to save him from the trap of pulling punches or turning the volume down the next time he sits down at the keypad in his lifetime duel against the bores.
And for once, when, someday, some cinematic genius in Hollywood makes an irresistible motion picture out of Lucking Out, bringing its ageless, history-making characters to life on the screen, I’ll be able to murmur across some hissy uptown cocktail party salon, “but the movie wasn’t as good as the book,” and then let drop that I reviewed the original on its route to the left coast, with the immeasurable ever-so-New-Yorker suggestion, unspoken but hinted nonetheless as subtly as a sock in the nose, that perhaps this very review planted that idea in the director’s head. I’d never be able to prove it. And you’d never be able to disprove it.
That’s the magic to being a critic. Wolcott is the Merlin who has rescued and tended to those hexes and spells during decades in which the art of criticism has been battered and obscured by mercenaries who, try as they might, are no longer worthy to lift the sword from the stone. When we could distinguish between “uptown” and “downtown” and Fourteenth Street was still a kind of national border, he was able to traverse both sides and cross-pollinate between them. Now that all Manhattan has been annexed by uptown, and everything and almost everyone truly downtown was extinguished, pushed to the sides, or ran like hell, he’s still crossing the Bitfrost between Asgard and Midgard, mythical representations popularized by the Marvel comics that he soaked up as a kid. Today, this working class autodidact from Maryland patrols the streets of New York much like his childhood heroes, avenging the never-ending crime waves of banality that make the Son-of-Sam years look like a holiday. On second thought, he’s not Merlin. Wolcott isn’t old enough – he’s not even gray – for such a stuffy Arthurian role. In a media industry of mere mortals, look over there: he’s the dude with the hammer of Thor in his hands. I can’t wait to see where he hurls it next.