Sunday, November 30, 2014

Crossing Rick Perlstein's Bridge

I recently finished reading Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge:  The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.  Below, you'll find my review, but first some disclosures.  Rick and I were at the University of Michigan together in the early 90s.  We were in different departments, but ran in the same circles.  We were - and remain - friends.  I cannot pretend objectivity here for a man who recently bought me drinks when he was in town.  I contemplated changing all the "Rick"s in the text to "Perlstein"s but that would be disingenuous.  At the same time, as a friend, I feel obligated to give Rick the most critical of readings.  He wouldn't expect less.  Also, I read the Kindle edition.  No page numbers available.  Sorry.  If you don't have time to read the rest of the review here's the TL;DR - Read the book.     

I was born in 1967, and grew up in a Democratic household in a neighborhood on Long Island in which such folks were rarities.  It was Al D'Amato's Nassau County, or more properly, Joe Margiotta's Nassau County.   It was the kind of place where, if you're aunt ran as a Democrat for Town Council, you were liable to have your family phone bugged.  It was Nixonland writ small, and whatever operative that was listening in was treated to lots of calls to neighbors houses by me asking if my school friends could come over for play dates.*  Among my earliest memories were of family arguments over Watergate in which my grandmother defended Nixon to the bitter end, learning the words to the Fixin' To Die Rag, wondering why everybody was freaking out over my oldest brother's lottery number (it was 1973, his was low but they weren't drafting anybody), and the Ford-Carter election.  If I remember correctly, Jon Hilsenrath (now of the Wall Street Journal) and I were the only two kids in our class who supported Carter.  My father, who worked on Wall Street, would return from Manhattan with crazy stories from those dark days as the city teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.  None was crazier than the bombing of Fraunces Tavern, a few weeks after he had taken our family for breakfast there on a day off from school.  The bombing, by Puerto Rican activists in 1975, killed 4 and injured 50 but only earned a half a sentence in Perlstein's book.  That's how crazy the 1970s were.  A bombing of THE Wall Street breakfast spot barely made an 800 page book on how America was falling apart from 1973-6. 

I suppose that's one of the reasons the book appealed to me.  In the book, for the first time really, the chaotic world of my childhood is fully explained.   Some critics have accused Rick of overkill, but I needed every word here.  I needed to understand why my impersonation of Jimmy Carter killed in a class election in 7th grade ("Hi, I'm not Jimmy Carter, but I do want to be your President," I speechified to my class mates in 1979).  I only know The Exorcist from MAD magazine.  I loved Happy Days, and covered my schoolbooks with bookcovers featuring Fonzie.  My mother disapproved of the show, although she approved of Fonzie because Henry Winkler was Jewish playing against type.  Rick explains my own childhood to me.  And this is the book's greatest strength.  It's also the greatest weakness of the book.  Childhoods run through the book thematically.  Specifically, Reagan's and America's.  Rick explores Reagan's childhood to find the future adult, somewhat successfully although he does not identify the source of the magic Teflon quality that everyone identifies with Reagan.  Bur Rick also uses childhood and innocence as a complaint.  Throughout, there is subtext that too often Americans don't want to deal with their problems, that they want to play innocents, that that they won't act like grown-ups.

No where is this more evident than in his disdain for the Bicentennial celebration.  I was there, of course.  Dad worked at 1 New York Plaza at the edge of Battery Park and his firm hosted a party for the families of the stockbrokers and other workers.  I watched the Tall Ships through borrowed binoculars.  We bought crazy souvenirs, among them plastic American flags with Lincoln on them that had a quote about government "of the people, by the people, for the people."     The Bicentennial made people feel good about America. Rick wants them to grow up, his sympathies are with the complexities of (war criminal) Henry Kissinger (!), rather than the Reaganites who see the world strictly in terms of good and evil.  He likes Betty Ford, Gerald less so, and there's a veiled disdain for Carter who comes off as the Democratic version of Reagan.  One suspects that Rick would have liked to have seen Mo Udall, "second-place Mo", "the man too funny to be President" win out.  Or maybe that's just me.  And always, there is Reagan.  Shifting from being a New Dealer to a Goldwaterite.  Selling out the Hollywood craft unions.  Stumping for GE.  Edging ever closer to the right people.  Or at least, the right people of the Right.

Perlstein's Reagan lacks any real convictions except the rightness of his own views, no matter how often he changed them.  And change them he did.  Reagan saw the world in binaries.  Good and Evil.  Commies and capitalists.  Housewives and feminists.  Binaries make for great TV but make for lousy governing.  And, argues Perlstein, that was Ford's problem.   He had to govern in the real world while Reagan and Carter got to spout platitudes.  (By implication, of course, he's also discussing Obama's problem.)   Ford is the grown-up in the room.  "Damned if he did, Damned if he didn't." 

And as the book closes in on it's Final Act, the chaos of the 1976 Republican convention, I started to recognize the names that shaped my adulthood: Rove, Helms, Rumsfeld.  And of course, this is Perlstein's point.  By the end of the convention, we have the birth of the modern Republican party: anti-ERA, pro-gun, anti-abortion, and anti-government.  Perlstein doesn't need to tell us what happened next.  We Gen-Xers are old enough to know what comes next.  But he did an exceptional job explaining my childhood to me and why somebody would tap our phone.  When you divide the world into good and evil, you'll do anything to stop evil, even if it means listening in on "Hello, Mrs. DeStaebler? Can Todd come over today?" 

*Years later my mother would get her revenge.  She and other family members, I wasn't present,  were vacationing at the same hotel as a Nassau County Republican retreat, a few years after my aunt's retirement from politics.  In a reverse ratfuck, she dug up one of my aunt's old bumper stickers and - with family help  - plastered it on Margiotta's car, the one with the GOP 1 plate.  He drove back to Nassau County before he knew it and was apparently livid when someone pointed it out to him.  He died never knowing who did it.   I suppose that Margiotta also did jail time for some of his crimes is also some sort of justice.  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Students do cool things

Like this:

Or this from some kids I taught or are currently teaching (not my class): 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

80s teen movies ranked

Last night I caught the end of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which is, undeniably the best of the 80s teen movie flicks.  However, most of my students have never seen it, although they've almost all seen most of the John Hughes films, including Ferris Bueller, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink.  Some of this has to do with what gets played in heavy rotation on cable.  The Hughes films are easy to watch, kind of funny, and very flattering towards teenagers.  Their whiteness and casual racism are selling points not distractions.  Fast Times, however, is a far more complicated film.  It's central relationships are flawed and end badly.  One of them culminates in an abortion (and the parents aren't told).  This is a warts and all view of (a still pretty white) teenage world.

Below please find my favorite 80s teenager films.  With a tasty quote from each.  Feel free to discuss in comments.

1.  Fast Times at Ridgemont High - An exceptional film, regardless of genre.  Human and heartbreaking. 

2.  The Sure Thing - Everybody remembers John Cusack, but this is as much Daphne Zuniga's film.  "I have a credit card."

3.  Heathers - A dark satire.  In a post-school shooting era, it would hit too close to home.  "I love my dead gay son."

4.  Say Anything - I'm a huge John Cusack fan.  (As will become even more apparent).  This is one of my favorite movies of all time.  "By choice".    "I gave her heart and she gave me a pen."

5.  Valley Girl - I love this movie as much for the soundtrack as for the plot, which is warmed over Romeo and Juliet.  Still, there is a lot more going on in this movie.   "If they attack the car save the radio."

Other films that I considered that didn't make the top five.

Risky Business - The movie that made Tom Cruise a star.  "I have a trig exam tomorrow and I'm being chased by Guido the Killer Pimp."

Footloose - Kevin Bacon dancing.  Lori Singer dancing.  Chris Penn dancing, eventually.

Movies that aren't so good that I am irrationally fond of in this genre.

Adventures in Babysitting.- "Nobody gets out of here without singing the blues."

Better off Dead - Another John Cusack vehicle.  More notable for individual scenes of surreal brilliance:  the Asian guys who learned to speak English by listening to Howard Cosell, Ricky's mom, a French person who is good at auto repair but most importantly a paper boy who is obsessed with his "twooooooo dollars."

The Patrick Dempsey Trilogy - Can't Buy My Love, Loverboy, and Happy Together.  Patrick Dempsey ought to dance in all his movies.  His extended dance sequence in Happy Together is terrific.  Can't Buy Me Love is a bit overrated.  My father was enamored of Loverboy and would watch it every time it was on.  "Extra anchovies."

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure - "So-crates"  And the whole mall sequence.

The Science Movies:

Weird Science - This was the one with Anthony Michael Hall.  A lad fantasy.  "The family jewels?  The family jewels."

Real Genius - Actually put a geeky looking kid in the lead.  And tried to make political points at SDI.  It didn't really work.  No memorable quotes.

UPDATE:  Commentators on Facebook mentioned two movies I missed.  Wargames, which I loved when it came out, but has not held up well.  I find the antiquated technology distracting.  The other movie is Vision Quest.  Nice little flick.  Good Madonna song.  

UPDATE 2:  How can I forget Gregory's Girl!  "That's not how you spell Caracas anyway."  "Do you know when you sneeze it comes out your nose 1,000 miles an hour."