This Week: Buchanan vs. Nader, Saunders in the Bardo, & Go Pats!
This week: Game time with Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime at our website.
Mary McGrath: Pardon the sports metaphors this week, folks. We called in hall of famers Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, two old pols with six presidential campaigns between them, to score the political game in Washington so far. Almost two years ago, well before the Trump quake was even a tremor, they told us what so many didn’t: that with gobs of his own money and a show biz touch, Trump could mow down the field.
The conversation was lively and fun with these old-timers who met in Nixon’s Washington 45 years ago. Pat was writing speeches for Nixon and Ralph was the fly in the government ointment with his citizen campaigns. (Chris was a rookie reporter covering it all from the New York Times Washington bureau, and I was a kid in the back seat of my parents’ Chevy Corvair, one of Ralph’s early consumer crusades, enveloped in a cloud of blue smoke.)
Both of our vets are suspicious of globalism and the Wall Street fat cats Tump has packed his cabinet with, but what they both fear most is a thin-skinned president, egged on by his hawkish advisors, who could spark a war with Iran if provoked. More and more, Steve Bannon looks the Darth Vader part he seems to want to play. “Darkness is good,” he says. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they (liberals) get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing,” Follow Bannon down his own rabbit hole here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. And for those following the palace intrigue, don’t forget Steve Miller and the stealthy Publius Decius Mus. Imagine the book-end narrative of the Iraq War calamity followed by the Iran War cataclysm!
Chris interviewed Stephen Kinzer at the end of the week. His new book, The True Flag explores the American debate over imperialism and traces it to the years between 1898 and 1903 during the McKinley presidency and the Spanish-American War. The nation had a fervent years-long argument — in public, in the press, and in Congress over whether America should be an expansionist power or an isolationist one. Both impulses reside in the American character, Kinzer, explains, and Chris had the ultimate example. Just look at John Kerry, he said, the guy who shocked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 with his question — how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? — and then becomes head of the very same committee and votes for the war in Iraq. Plus ca change…Look for that conversation soon; Chris brings some great Boston history into it — Henry Cabot Lodge, the Anti-Imperialist League, William James and more.
Read: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Zach Goldhammer: I hadn’t read George Saunders before this week, but after I picked up an advanced copy of his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo from the OS office (thanks Mary!), I was hooked.
Getting yourself oriented in the world of Saunders’s latest work can be a bit of a chore at first: the narrative voice alternates between a chorus of fictional, half-dead American ghosts and clipped quotations from Civil War memoirs and Lincoln historiographies (some of which come from well-known works like Team of Rivals, others are more obscure or even sometimes fictionalized). But the story that emerges from this strange mosaic is one that has real emotional weight.
The story is centered around the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie Lincoln on February 20th, 1862. But the critical action in the novel comes not from the moment of the death, but in the aftermath, when his father begins making regular visits to Willie’s Oak Hill crypt, sometimes cradling the corpse of his lost child in his arms. Building off of this image,which came from a story Saunders heard over 20 years ago, the novel develops an elaborate, liminal world where the Willie’s ghostly spirit, held in limbo, responds poignantly to the passing presence of his father.
Saunders title references the Tibetan buddhist idea of the bardo, an in-between state after death, that the author seems to have translated into a 19th century American context. It’s a conceit that might seem kitschy if these same Americans weren’t also obsessed with ghost-realms and mediums for contacting the dead (you can read my piece about Mary Todd Lincoln’s odd interest in “spirit photography” here). This mix of Buddhist cosmology and Civil War historiography never feels too forced — it probably helps that the author has deep interests in both topics.
Chris will be interviewing Saunders soon during his visit to Boston, so send along your questions on Buddhist ghosts, Civil War alternative facts, or any thing else that might pique your interests in the Saunders universe.
Susan Coyne: Paterson had two draws for me: its star, Adam Driver, perennial weird man loping through performance after brilliant performance; and Jim Jarmusch, weird director emeritus. Paterson, which takes place in the titular city in New Jersey, is centered around Paterson the man who drives a city bus by day, writing snatches of poetry on breaks, and then goes home to a strange artistic oasis he shares with his girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Laura is an artistic jill-of-all-trades, who spends her days painting upholstery in endless black-and-white polka dots (there’s a note of Yayoi Kusama here). Every night Paterson takes Laura’s bulldog for a walk, followed by a beer at a local quiet bar. It’s more or less a Groundhog Day scenario, and that seems to be Jarmusch’s point: that much of what we do is repetition, and time for art has to be stolen.
Jarmusch captures the realities of life as a dedicated but distracted artist (I related strongly to this). Making art often feels like facing constant interruptions, and much of Paterson’s day is interruption and distraction. But as a poet, he gathers these distractions for his work. I particularly enjoyed the scenes of Paterson’s eavesdropping as a bus driver. Eavesdropping in most films serves as a plot device — some important information will be revealed! — but not here. The conversations, as in most of the film, are easy, ambling, and kind of meaningless.
Paterson’s poems are interspersed throughout the movie, written across the screen, and the film itself feels like a poem. There’s nothing in particular to grasp onto, and even the climax of the film — Paterson’s conversation with a poetry-loving Japanese businessman — is so understated you might miss it. Given the past few weeks, this film was a very welcome distraction.
Next Week: Who the Heck are We Anyway?
For New Yorker nerds, next week’s anniversary cover (92 years) is curiously missing the monocled dandy, Eustace Tilley. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
We’re working on a show about the immigration question; we’ll try and take the focus away from you-know-who and dig into some history, context and culture. Send along any ideas for guests — firstname.lastname@example.org
Game On! Bring It!
Speaking of the Patriots, my home team obsessives point out that what I was calling the Trump Bowl this week wasn’t quite right. The epic Super Bowl upset was Trump over Hillary in November they said; the last couple of weeks have been more like “deflate-gate,” and the Tom Brady revenge tour on Roger Goodell and the NFL can remind you of the executive order blitz coming from the White House. America’s most hated team (owned, led and QB’d by yuge Trump supporters) is accused of cheating, lying, and promoting alternative facts, but is never counted out. Ahem. We don’t need Donald Trump to tell us that Tom Brady is a winner or to remind us what it’s gonna be like tonight to see Goodell hand over Kraft, Belichick and Brady the Lombardi trophy? Go Pats!
We’ll be wearing our TB12 Open Source tee-shirts to watch the game. You can have your very own with a small donation to the hardest working team in radio.
Till next week,
Mary, Zach, Susan and the OS team