Helen Garner: Everywhere I look I find words chiselled in gold

Preface: It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post: various reasons, including judging a journalism award; the birth of my fourth grandchild, a boy named Max (you can see him in a photo on my Facebook page); a brief hospital visit; keeping an eye on my team, the Sydney Swans, now with three wins and seven losses (sometimes it’s hard to write after a defeat); and waiting for a story I can really get my teeth into. I found one, it’s on racism, and I am starting to write that today. But in the meantime, I will publish my review of a book I finished reading a while ago. It’s been sitting here as a draft. Now that it’s subbed it’s about time I posted it. It’s by one of my favourite writers: Helen Garner.
Everywhere I Look (Cover photo above, Text Publishing) is a wonderfully written book by a great Australian author. In her delicious collection of essays, diary entries and stories, Helen Garner chooses her words carefully and teaches them how to sing.
I took notes and found myself writing “lovely story” at least ten times. The first note came after reading “Dear Mrs Dunkley,” a terrific yarn about Helen’s fifth grade teacher, a hard taskmaster who terrified her but showed her how to take a sentence apart and put it back together. Helen Garner wrote about her in an introduction to an earlier collection of her essays, describing a dream in which she wore “instead of your grim black 1940s wool suit, you were dressed in a jacket made of some wondrously tender and flexible material, like suede and buckskin, in soft, unstable colours that streamed off you into the air in wavy ribbons and garlands, so that as you walked you drew along behind you a thick, smudged rainbow trail.” The introduction prompted a reply from Mrs Dunkley’s daughter, who said she enjoyed her book and the introduction and sent her a photo of her and her mother. In this photo (in about 1960), Mrs Dunkley was dressed in black, and her daughter said in her letter: “My mother was an alcoholic.” It made Helen see her teacher as she really was: “… an intense, damaged, dreadfully unhappy woman, only just holding on, fronting up to the school each morning, buttoned into your black clothes, savagely impatient, craving, suffering: a lost soul.” Garner writes: “Dear Mrs Dunkley, You’re long gone, and I’m nearly seventy. But, oh, I wish you weren’t dead. I’ve got some things here that I wouldn’t be ashamed to show you … I would like to thank you. It’s probably what you would have called hyperbole, but, Mrs Dunkley, you taught me everything I know…” Mrs Dunkley made fun of Helen for being weak on arithmetic, and she would say: “Stand up, you great MOON CALF.” In her last paragraph, Garner says goodbye: “Dear Mrs Dunkley. I know your first name was Grace; I hope you found some, in the end. Please accept, in whatever afterlife you earned or were vouchsafed, the enduring love, the sincere respect, and the eternal gratitude of your Great Moon Calf, Helen.” Wow. “Dear Mrs Dunkley” is only four pages long, but every word is a gem, chiselled in gold.

Another yarn that earned my “lovely story” tag was “Notes from a Brief Friendship” about the writer Jacob Rosenberg (photo above: The Age, Simon Schluter). Invited by the publisher to write an endorsement for his book of memoirs about the Holocaust, Sunrise West, Garner sends a “humbled sentence” for the cover. Jacob writes back to thank her and suggests lunch. The first one doesn’t go too well, but he does ask her to launch Sunrise West. This leads to several more lunches and a brief friendship between a man in his eighties and a woman at least 20 years younger. Both wonderful writers. There was a gulf between them, Helen writes, but “when the chips were down, when his storytelling voice breathed freely and I heard it without defence, my respect and affection for him were unconstrained.” After the launch, Helen hardly saw Jacob again, but she did go to his funeral, a Jewish service, “deeply satisfying in its formality, tender in the beauty of its readings and tributes.” The “brevity and shyness of our friendship made me feel suddenly weak with sadness,” Garner writes. Soon after his death, she hears an old interview with Jacob on Radio National in which he says: “Suffering is so singular an art … I believe that nothing is lost in the universe somehow.” Reading his memoirs again, she remembers a dream she had many years before she met Jacob. It’s about a bush that grew on the lip of an abyss. I’ll let Helen finish the dream: “The bush grew right on the very edge of nothingness, and yet somehow its roots were holding. It had a grip that no wind could disturb; it thrived there, all on its own, this modest little plant, and while the abyss yawned beside it, it went on bravely, doggedly flowering.”
In her diary section, “Dreams of Her Real Self,” Helen tells fond, moving and sometimes painful stories of her mother and finds a letter in which her nine-year-old niece pays a wonderful tribute to her grandmother just before she died: ” But what I liked was often we would go into her room … and see all theese speicial (sic) things of hers some belonging to her six children one of which is my mum. I love all six of them and give them my best dreams of Grandma, dreams of her real self, the self with no evil diaseases (sic), the strongest part of her body and everyone should know it’s still here.” Helen Garner paints poignant portraits: the author Elizabeth Jolley, who wrote “flesh-and-blood letters, dipping an old fountain pen into a bottle of ink ..” adding “how much her books mean to me, the spasms of laughter they provoke, the quiet tears of recognition and relief.” (“My Dear Lift-Rat”); Australian of the Year and advocate for victims of domestic violence, Rosie Batty, whose son Luke was killed by his mentally ill father (“The Singular Rosie”); and a lively portrait of a company of Australian ballet dancers (“In the Wings”). Garner spends five days in the studios watching the dancers in scenes from Swan Lake and becomes a convert to ballet. The last sentence leaves you gasping with delight and wanting more. In any review of her books, Helen should have the last words; these are about the dancers: “They manifest the tremendous onwardrushingness of life, which has only one destination, and yet constantly renews itself, full of a joy that transcends words.”
PS If you’d like to know more about Helen Garner, read this excellent profile by the highly respected literary critic of The New Yorker, James Wood, published in the December 12 edition last year.

Winless in Sydney: Fears of a winter of discontent for the Swans

Shades of 1993. My favourite Australian Football League (AFL) team, the Sydney Swans, have lost their first four matches of the year, the most since that dire season of 1993 when the team set a record of 26 straight defeats. Last night, the Swans lost by 26 points to the West Coast Eagles in Perth, leaving the Grand Final runner-up in 2016 with a record of 0-4, and only 18 games left in the regular season. (Some of the unhappy Swans leaving the Domain Stadium ground last night above. Getty Images).
There is no joy in Sydney on Good Friday, except perhaps among fans of the Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Giants, who are premiership favourites and play the Swans at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) next Saturday.
But for those Swans supporters, like myself, who are not fair-weather fans, let me return to that awful season 24 years ago when the Sydney side not only lost the first four matches, but also only won one game all year. I remember the victory well as it was a Sunday afternoon in late June, winter Down Under, and we were playing Melbourne at the SCG. Ron Barassi, a football legend with Melbourne and Carlton, had just taken over as coach in May and the AFL Commission launched a rescue mission for the Swans (Ron Barassi getting stuck into the Swans in 1993 below). Only 109,590 spectators attended the 11 matches in Sydney that year and I was one of them.
We had good seats in the Brewongle Stand upstairs in the first row near the middle of the ground. The Swans players came out directly below us from the locker room. We weren’t expecting much, but we cheered for the Swans, called the umpires “Victorian Cheats,” and then it happened. The Sydney Swans beat the Melbourne Demons by 40 points, 149 to 109. It was Barassi’s seventh match as coach and the Swans’ losing streak of 26 games was ended. As the players came off the field, all the fans stood (there were only 8000 plus of us!), applauding wildly and I had tears in my eyes as Paul Kelly and his band of warriors filed into the rooms below us. It was a victory for the ages.
Now if you don’t mind, a slight detour in helping Swans supporters see light at the end of the tunnel in 2017. The next day I flew out of Sydney to Perth with a Channel Nine Sunday Program crew as I was producing a cover story about the future of Australian business with our guest reporter, John Button, who had retired in March after ten years as Federal Industry Minister in the Hawke and Keating governments. A long-time legendary Labor politician, John was also a passionate supporter of the Geelong Football Club. He knew the code of Australian Rules well. We had been traveling around the country, and John was interviewing the CEOs of major businesses to give Sunday viewers an insight into the industry he also knew well. As you can imagine, I was still over the moon about the Swans’ victory and had mentioned it a fair bit before he talked to the captains of industry in their offices and factories in the city.
After a long day of interviews and shooting, I was sitting in the back of the crew car with John on the return to our hotel. He looked at me, smiling, and said: “Tom, do you mind if I tell you something about the day?” “Of course not,” I replied, thinking he was going to praise me for setting up the interviews and my sage advice about how to do pieces to camera, etc. “Tom, we have been around the city talking to some of the most influential business people in Australia. Did you know that the West Coast Eagles won the premiership last year, and they are proud of their club. They wanted to talk about the Eagles, and you haven’t shut up about the Swans, not once all day.” We both laughed and I said: “John, when the team walked into the rooms at the SCG yesterday, I had tears in my eyes. It was like winning the Grand Final.” We didn’t see each other much after the story went to air on Nine’s Business Sunday, but when we did meet again he referred to me as “the Swans’ number one supporter.” John Button died in 2008 months after his beloved Geelong Cats won the premiership in 2007 — their first in 44 years. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke said the premiership meant a lot to John Button as he found out he had cancer soon afterwards: “It was a moment of great joy for him and it was very shortly after that that he got the bad news about the disease that very quickly killed him.”

So Swans fans do not despair that your team has lost its first 4 games of the season. After that disastrous 1993 season (and 1994, also a wooden spoon year), the Swans added Tony Lockett, Paul Roos, Leo Barry and Michael O’Loughlin in 1995, the same year Paul Kelly won the Brownlow Medal. And, of course, the Swans made it to the Grand Final in 1996, although they lost to North Melbourne. It wasn’t until 2005 that the Swans finally won the Grand Final under coach Paul Roos with “Leaping” Leo Barry taking that famous mark — and their first premiership in 72 years. The supporters of the South Melbourne Club whose team was moved to Sydney in 1982 welcomed the Swans to their Lake Oval home on that victorious weekend in 2005, bringing memorabilia of their 1923 premiership. Since then the Swans have played in four Grand Finals, and while only winning one have earned the reputation of being one of the toughest teams in the AFL as the South Melbourne Bloods were known in the VFL.
And in even better news given the bumpy road ahead for the Swans, five of their injured and ill stars are set to return next Saturday: Kurt Tippet, Sam Naismith, Isaac Heeney, Gary Rohan and Jarrad McVeigh.
While no AFL team has ever made it into the finals with an 0-4 record (North Melbourne did it in 1975 when it was the Victorian Football League), there is no reason why the Swans can’t create history. All they have to do is win 12 of the next 18 games. Easy peasy right? And all they also have to do is remember 1993 — and the winter of discontent.

Jimmy Breslin: ‘Thanks for the use of the hall’

Jimmy Breslin was called the guru of shoe leather by his colleagues because he used a lot of it. Even in his late seventies and early 80s, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist still climbed stairs because, as he put it, “the story is never on the first floor.” Breslin was a reporter’s reporter, much loved in the city of New York where he covered everything from civil rights to political campaigns to his own brain surgery in one of the best of his many books, I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me. Among his other volumes are The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a funny novel about a real-life Mafia gang in Brooklyn, Table Money, about an Irish-American alcoholic and his long-suffering and life-saving wife, and Damon Runyon: A Life, about another famous columnist and Breslin hero, who wrote about the guys and dolls on Broadway. Breslin was also champion of the working-class, and made it into journalism schools for his portrait of the man who dug the grave of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Instead of interviewing the high and mighty at the funeral, Breslin focused on the gravedigger who earned $3.01 an hour and though it was an honour to dig the slain president’s grave. The piece below is the one I wrote to accompany a cover story I produced with cameraman Richard Moran and editor Tim Wilson in 2007 for the Channel Nine Sunday Program. The video narrated by then Sunday presenter Ellen Fanning is now posted on the bottom of the story. Here’s a longer print version (updated):

When you Google the phrase “classic journalism,” you get at least 21 million, eight hundred thousand results – probably more by the time you read this.
But are there really nearly 22 million pieces of classic journalism on the Internet? Of course not. And that is the problem. Too many journalists are Googling, instead of using shoeleather –climbing stairs, for example — to get their stories.
There was a reporter who wrote classic newspaper journalism, and was not afraid to climb stairs – Jimmy Breslin, the legendary American columnist and author, who died at the weekend, aged 88. I thought he was 86, but his devoted wife of 34 years, Ronnie Eldridge, corrected the commonly made mistake. He covered everything from civil rights to Vietnam to politics and his own brain surgery. He also wrote a column for the Herald Tribune in 1963 that they still use in journalism schools about the man who dug the grave for President John F. Kennedy — Clifton Pollard:

Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in
Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers
Battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment
operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of
the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-
fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns
$3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.

Denis Hamill, a former columnist for the New York Daily News and brother of Pete, another famous American writer, explained why this Breslin column is still being used by journalism professors and editors: “People were running around interviewing the dignitaries of the world at the funeral, but he went to interview the gravedigger and what it meant to him, digging the hole where this man, this great president, was to be buried. And to this day, editors still ask reporters to try to find the gravedigger in any story, which is to find the kind of odd, unexpected kind of person who is connected to a big story, the smaller person.”
I went to New York City in the American summer of 2006 to profile Breslin for a television documentary, and the conversation always seemed to turn to journalism and good writing and what’s wrong with newspapers.
Jimmy Breslin said journalism is simple, which he learned from his early days as a sportswriter with The Long Island Daily Press. “Don’t fall into the trap of just say writing three paragraphs and then reiterating,” he said, “but go and do some work. The most important thing you have is your two feet. Your column is your two feet first … because the story is never on the first floor of the building. It’s always six flights up, with no elevator, so walk.”
Denis Hamill agreed that journalism is about climbing stairs, and nobody does it better, even then at the age of 78: “When you read a Breslin column, you’re reading twice the reporting that you read in anyone else’s. He puts an enormous amount of shoeleather in it … Last year he was doing columns where he climbed three or four flights of stairs in the middle of the night, and that was classic Jimmy Breslin stuff. He would go and get stories no one else would get … and always bring it to you with an unbelievable writing flair.”
Speaking of flair, this is an excerpt from a Breslin column in 1965 in the New York Herald Tribune:
Nothing ever again can be the same after yesterday in Selma, Alabama. Here on Sylvan Street, a rotting piece of the Negro section of a Southern town, simple little people stood up in the sun and asked for a thing which was theirs and never had been given to them because they are black. They are people who have been beaten because they are black. They have had friends and relatives killed because they were black. They have been laughed at and spat at because they are black, and they have been held down on the dust of their streets and made to be dirty and uneducated for all their lives because they are black.
Yesterday they stood up from the dust and they asked for the right to vote which is the start of the right to live. And they asked for it gently, and in prayer, and with the dignity of human beings. And then they left Sylvan Street, and they marched out onto United States Highway 80, and they put all the beauty of the march on Washington back into the civil rights movement, and now it never can be stopped. There was greatness in yesterday.

Vintage Breslin. Keep it simple. Richard Wald, who was Breslin’s former managing editor at the Herald Tribune and Fred Friendly Professor of Media Emeritus at Columbia University, explained: “The thing about those columns that makes them reverberate 40 years later is that they’re about a specific place and time and person, but the emotion they convey is in a relatively simple language. I’ll bet you Jimmy never used a semicolon key on any typewriter he ever approached. They’re all in straightforward English. They’re all in simple declarative sentences. There are never any words that try to evoke emotion in you, and yet they do, and that’s the trick. It’s a kind of poetry, it isn’t prose, it isn’t just simply recounting of the facts. It is a way of writing that is infused with the push from Jimmy’s head and heart that you sense just reading what is basically straightforward reporting, and I think that’s it.”
Straightforward reporting. That’s what you got from Jimmy Breslin and his contemporaries, like Steve Dunleavy, the Australian journalist considered by some to be the ultimate tabloid reporter. This is what Dunleavy wrote in the New York Post the day after September 11: “The response to this unimaginable 21st Century Pearl Harbor should be simple as it is swift – kill the bastards. No, I don’t mean hunt them, arrest them, extradite them and prosecute them in a court of law. I mean a far quicker form of retribution … A gunshot between the eyes, blow them to smithereens, poison them … and if Saddam Hussein makes so much as a peep, do him, too.”
Dunleavy was also a great admirer of Breslin’s shoeleather approach: “He wasn’t a guy who reported from behind the barricades. I remember just after a very, very big shootout during the Cleveland riots years ago, the African-American population was very, very angry, and it was very, very dangerous … and he was wandering around … from door to door. He ignored the hostile crowd, even though it could get ugly. So Jimmy certainly showed me his mettle at a very early age.”

A long-time rival of Breslin, Dunleavy was also a self-acknowledged legend in his own lunchtime, who says journalists aren’t what they used to be: “All journalists were hard drinkers, all smokers, and really that was their life. They only lived and drank newspapers. And that doesn’t exist under the young people. Certainly the younger reporters, they’re just as good, I’m not criticizing their performance, but they don’t live their jobs.”
Jimmy Breslin agreed, but he also blamed it on computers. And if you really wanted to get his Irish up, you only had to ask him if newspapers are dying: “Well, they’re dying of suicide, they’re not dying. Stultifying writing, the writing’s awful, and I think that comes from computers. It will change, but I hope that changes in time. But you had at one time, the New York Daily News, the New York Herald Tribune, at deadline time, the smoke was as thick as the old fight films’ boxing arenas, the noise was tremendous, like a subway train going through the city room because of the typewriters, all going at once, and out of all that noise, and out of all that smoke, came nervous energy, which is what words must have for a newspaper … They must be the product of nervous energy and they don’t have that now. And afterwards, of course, everybody went into the bar, and that was vital because they discussed the day’s work, ‘this is a great line,’ ‘that was good,’ they go over it. Instead now, you have these marvelous computers and they make no noise, so there’s no excitement to them.”
Jimmy Breslin (Photo above of his days as a drinker. Photo Michael Brennan, Getty) came from a hard-drinking school that included Pete and Denis Hamill. Denis, now a contributor for the Daily Beast, said he agreed totally with Breslin: “It’s kind of sad. You don’t get the old teletype machines and the people banging on the old manual typewriters, and people shouting across the room for copy, and people email each other, and it’s all silent, and it sounds like a typing pool of crickets … Newsrooms used to reflect the street corner, it sounded like a street corner when you went into a city room, right?”
Richard Wald said journalism needed people like Breslin now more than ever: “It is so easy to get information off the Internet. It is so easy to trade emails instead of going to talk to him or her that Jimmy has become a sort of guru of shoeleather. He is somebody who preaches literally about going out and seeing the people, not because he thinks that’s the only way to do it, because he does it that way, but because it’s becoming rarer and rarer, because technology has made reporting impersonal, and Jimmy’s reporting is personal.”
But Professor Wald, who was also president of NBC News, had a solid rejoinder to old hacks who claim newspapers aren’t what they used to be: “The minute you hit 50 nothing is as good as it used to be. And journalism is better than it ever was. It’s more honest, it’s more informed, it’s more interesting, it’s got more stuff in it. There are terrific problems in newspapers because the advertising is moving away, not because they are badly written. They were always badly written. There are always some good writers. But the economics is changing because the technology is changing and because the culture is changing.”

Wald worked in the Columbia School of Journalism offices on 110th St and Broadway and just outside stands the statue of the crusading publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, who left Columbia $2 million in his will to set up the school. (Breslin above at a press conference in 1986 after winning the Pulitzer Prize. Photo: Mario Cabrera AP) Pulitzer might have been spinning in his grave as I talked to a number of students on the campus lawns. Only one of four knew who Breslin was, which wasn’t surprising, given that he only wrote the occasional column then. While they still read newspapers, they believed they were under threat from the Internet: “Yeah, absolutely, for breaking news and those sort of things,” said one young articulate student. “I think they need to redefine themselves in commentary, in-depth reporting, investigating pieces, things like that. If they do style pieces … things like that, they will be able to go forward.”
Good writing, in-depth reporting, stories about people, that’s what Jimmy Breslin was all about, according to Mike Daly, a friend and former protégé of Breslin at the New York Daily News, now a columnist at the Daily Beast: “That’s what they want to see,” said Daly. “That’s also what television can’t do, what the Internet can’t do. One thing that newspapers do that nobody else can.”
Denis Hamill said his brother Pete credited Breslin with reinventing the Cityside column, which offered a point of view, with a lot of reporting. He spoke to a lot of people other people wouldn’t speak to. “You don’t need to go to journalism school to know how to learn from Jimmy Breslin,” said Hamill. “You just have to read Jimmy Breslin.”
And Jimmy Breslin was still writing about ordinary people until the end because he could identify with them. As Richard Wald put it: “He can go out to any place in America and sit down and start talking to people, and they’ll talk to him, because he really is interested in them, and this is just reporting. And too many journalists forget that.”
In his final days, Breslin continued to take up the cudgels against Donald Trump. His good friend Pete Hamill told the Daily News: “He was a bit addled by (President) Trump. He knew Trump’s father, because Trump’s father was a Queens guy and Jimmy was the poet laureate of Queens.” Hamill said Breslin saw the 45th President as the kind of guy from his old neighborhood who “is all mouth and couldn’t fight his way out of an empty lot.”
Breslin is survived by his second wife Ronnie Eldridge, a formidable woman and his constant protector, as well as four children, three stepchildren and 12 grandchildren. His first wife, Rosemary, died of cancer, and two of his daughters — Rosemary and Kelly — died in their 40s.
When Jimmy Breslin left Newsday in November 2004 after predicting that John Kerry would defeat George W. Bush in the presidential election, he farewelled his readers with an old Irish expression: “Thanks for the use of the hall.” Thanks for the memories, Jimmy, and for looking after the little guy.

Mr Trump, Your time is up

One of my favourite Henrik Ibsen plays is An Enemy of the People about the doctor of a spa in a small Norwegian town who discovers the Baths are contaminated. The residents praise him as an activist until they learn the baths will have to be closed for several years, costing their jobs, and when he holds a meeting, they call him “an enemy of the people.”
Doctor Stockman blames it on the town’s leaders: “I can’t stand politicians! I’ve had all I can take of them! They’re like goats in a plantation of young trees! They destroy everything!” Sound familiar?
But he takes a different view from Donald Trump on “the forgotten people”: “The most dangerous enemies of truth and freedom are the majority! Yes, the solid, liberal bloody majority – they’re the ones we have to fear! … Who form the majority in any country? … Yes, yes, you can shout me down. But you can’t say I’m wrong! The majority has the power, unfortunately, but the majority is not right! The ones who are right are a few isolated individuals like me. The minority is always right!”
After his patients refuse to employ him and the mob breaks his windows, Dr Stockman is tempted to take his family away but he decides to stay and re-educate the locals: “I’m going to experiment with mongrels for once. They’ve good heads on them sometimes.”
The latter-day Doctor Stockman, Donald Trump (AP Photo above), has decided that the media is the real enemy of the people in an extraordinary tweet: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @ABC, @NBCNews, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people!” That upset a lot of American people and one of Trump’s staunchest backers, Fox News. Respected journalist, and a moderator of one of the presidential debates, Chris Wallace, said on the Fox & Friends show: “Look, we’re big boys. We criticize presidents. They want to criticize us back, that’s fine. But when he said that the fake news media is not my enemy, it’s the enemy of the American people, I believe that crosses an important line.” It certainly did.
The remark prompted Fox & Friends to show a clip of Trump talking about past presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, fighting with the press. The show’s anchors asked Wallace if Trump’s poor relationship with the media was a big deal. Wallace replied, quoting Jefferson: “And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
One of the alleged enemies of the American people, the Washington Post, published a piece by reporter Amanda Erickson, explaining the history of the phrase: “The New York Times … labeled it ‘a striking escalation’ from a leader who ‘routinely castigates journalists.’ Gabriel Sherman, national affairs editor at New York magazine, described it as ‘full-on dictator speak’.” Erickson went on to write about the earliest use of the term about the Roman emperor Nero, a disastrous ruler declared an enemy of the people by the Senate, who planned to execute him. He took his own life after failing to flee Rome. Others to use the term, aside from Ibsen, included Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Chairman Mao. Yes, it’s mostly used by dictators.
One of Donald Trump’s major opponents, Republican Senator John McCain, took the opportunity to point make that point: “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and, many times, adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.” McCain said he didn’t think Trump was trying to be a dictator, but “we need to learn the lessons of history.”
One of the finest political analysts in the United States, E.J. Dionne (who’s regularly heard on ABC’s Radio National Breakfast with Fran Kelly), is a columnist with the Washington Post and a journalist who usually takes a moderate approach to American politics. So I was a bit surprised when I read his column in the Post last week with the headline: “Admit it: Trump is unfit to serve.” He begins with a bang: “Let’s not mumble or whisper about the central issue facing our country: What is this democratic nation to do when the man serving as president of the United States plainly has no business being president of the United States?” He goes on to say the forced resignation of national security adviser Mike Flynn “was the entirely predictable product of the indiscipline, deceit, incompetence and moral indifference that characterize Donald Trump’s approach to leadership.”
But Dionne saves his best for near the end. Like E.J., I have often heard the lament from Trump supporters that he should be given more time … more time to make things worse? I will give the last word to E.J. He deserves it: “It will be said that Trump was elected and thus deserves some benefit of the doubt. Isn’t it rash to declare him unfit after so little time? The answer is no, because the Trump we are seeing now is fully consistent with the vindictive, self-involved and scattered man we saw during the 17 months of his campaign. In one of the primary debates, Jeb Bush said of Trump: ‘He’s a chaos candidate and he’d be a chaos president.’
“Rarely has a politician been so prophetic.”
Right on, E.J. Right on.

Donald Trump: Maintain the rage until the final tweet

I’m a big fan of Blue Bloods, a US TV series about an Irish Catholic family of police in New York City, featuring the Police Commissioner; his father, a former commissioner; his two sons, a detective and a patrol cop, and his daughter, an assistant district attorney – their blue blood runs deep.
As well as the violence, arrests, interrogations and courtroom drama involving the Reagan family and miscreants, Blue Bloods zooms in on a Sunday dinner where the whole clan can discuss the moral rights and wrongs of policing the Big Apple. It’s motherhood, apple pie and 1950s America brought up to date. They even say Grace before dinner: “Bless us, O Lord, and these your gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.” (Disclosure: Yes, I still remember the words!)
Each episode has a morality theme, and last Thursday night, anger was the issue (how appropriate after Ten’s Cricket Big Bash League), particularly that of Detective Danny Reagan (Donnie Wahlberg), who has been known to bash a criminal to get crucial information. He was angry about a ten-year-old boy who had been shot during a confrontation with gang bangers in a tough neighbourhood. His rough handling of one of the suspects prompted his sergeant to order Danny to take anger management courses.
Danny was the prime suspect in a circle of cops in the first session when the counsellor said everybody needed to develop coping mechanisms. He asked Danny if he had any. “I don’t have mechanisms, Doc, I just cope.” “So, Danny,” the counsellor asked again, “what do you do with all your anger?” Danny replied: “Why is anger such a problem? Seriously, when does anger become such a bad thing in this world?” The counsellor said: “Anger is not a problem. It’s what you do with it.”
What would I do with it? Well, I’ve been struggling with the imminent inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States (Photo above: Carolyn Cole, LA Times). I was depressed about the election (that’s an understatement), but mostly angry about the fact that so many Americans voted for him. I’m not having a go at them, because their anger was justified to a certain degree. In the rust-belt states like Pennsylvania and Michigan which helped Trump win the election, factories closed, workers lost their jobs and they felt abandoned by their government. But Donald Trump is not going to get their jobs back. Technology will take over factories, and while infrastructure projects will help for a while, it won’t last forever. Look at what Donald Trump did in Atlantic City. Four Trump-related companies filed for bankruptcy in the historic New Jersey resort town, leaving thousands without jobs. But he did nothing to help them. He got out of the city before it was also on the edge of bankruptcy, congratulating himself on his perspicacity. Trump told Nick Bryant, the BBC correspondent in Washington, that he still had a “warm spot” for the people of Atlantic City. But they don’t have a warm spot for him, with the city voting against him in the election. It’s classic Trump. He pretends to have empathy for the workers, but he wouldn’t put himself in their shoes.
I have been watching the swearing-in of presidents for more than 60 years, and have covered inaugurations as a journalist since the 1970s. This one is different. Like Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 and his re-election in 1972, there’s a sense of foreboding about a man you can’t trust. Al Franken, a comedian turned Democratic Senator from Minnesota, said: “It’s really hard to trust anything that Donald Trump says … you can’t rely on anything he says.” Barbara Lee, a Democratic Senator from California, has decided to boycott the inauguration, and she’s not the only one. At least 12 California House Democrats will not be attending, along with a number of other members of Congress, including Georgia representative and long-time civil rights activist, John Lewis. The 16-term Congressman has been involved in a war of words with Donald Trump after he said the president-elect was not a “legitimate” president: “I don’t plan to attend the inauguration. It will be the first one that I miss since I’ve been in Congress. You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong, is not right.” Barbara Lee’s reasons for not attending the ceremony should make Donald Trump cringe (instead it just makes him tweet): “Inaugurations are celebratory events, a time to welcome the peaceful transition of power and honor the new administration. On January 20th, I will not be celebrating or honoring an incoming president who rode racism, sexism, xenophobia and bigotry to the White House. Donald Trump ran one of the most divisive and prejudiced campaigns in modern history. He began his campaign by insulting Mexican immigrants, pledging to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and then spent a year and a half denigrating communities of color and normalizing bigotry. He called women ‘pigs’, stoked Islamophobia, and attacked a Gold Star family. He mocked a disabled reporter and appealed to people’s worst instincts. I cannot in good conscience attend an inauguration that would celebrate this divisive approach to governance.” And to make matters worse for Donald Trump, thousands of civil rights activists have gone to Washington to protest against the inauguration. Many will be taking part in a Women’s March on Washington to demonstrate against Trump’s poor record on women’s rights on Saturday (Sunday Australian time), with an expected crowd of up to 400,000 people.
Last month I wrote a post wrapping up the presidential election, explaining why I could never trust Donald Trump – mainly because he will be the worst president since the disgraced Richard Nixon. I was determined not to write about him again until the inauguration this Friday (Saturday Australian time) when he will try to act like a president but you know he’d really like to say things like: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for Donald Trump.”
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I had to write something after watching the Golden Globes Award Ceremony in Hollywood where the odd pot shot was taken at Trump over the election result. For example, host Jimmy Fallon’s one-liner: “This is the Golden Globes. One of the few places left where America still honors the popular vote.”
Meryl Streep (photo above: Paul Drinkwater NBC) provided the piece de resistance in her acceptance speech for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Okay, it was political, but Meryl Streep has always been political and she wears her heart on her sleeve. More importantly, she tells it like it is.
She looked around the room, and pointed out that Hollywood was just “a bunch of people from other places.” Streep was born in New Jersey; Viola Davis in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina; Amy Adams in Vicenza, Italy; and Natalie Portman in Jerusalem. Streep couldn’t resist a Trump joke about the last two celebrities: “Where are their birth certificates?” She summed it up neatly: “So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”
Meryl Streep described the many powerful performances by the actors in front of her as breathtaking and compassionate: “But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.” I can understand why many commentators criticised Streep’s speech. As mentioned above, ordinary Americans are angry about the way their government has treated them, and Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” quote didn’t help her campaign. As journalist Caroline Overington, an award-winning journalist for The Australian, wrote on the day after the speech: “Trump won because the average American has had it to the back teeth with pious celebrities like Streep … telling them what to think and how to act, and what to do … Donald Trump has tapped into that feeling, and if the liberals, weeping and wailing since he won, don’t get a grip, Trump will get re-elected.” But I have to say many of us have not been weeping.
I mentioned to my daughter after the speech that Trump shouldn’t tweet about it, just be quiet for a change, but he couldn’t help himself. He called Meryl Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood,” and “a Hillary flunky who lost big.” In other tweets, he denied he had imitated the reporter: “For the 100th time, I never “mocked” a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him … “groveling” when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!” There is evidence to the contrary. Here’s a link to a CNN video which clearly shows him mocking a reporter: Talk about a president-elect in denial! I ask again: Can you trust him? And I am not going to mention Russian hacking, prostitutes, Vladimir Putin, Cabinet choices, conflicts of interests, racism, walls and phony billionaires.
Okay, that’s enough about Donald Trump. It could be a long four years, although I’m hoping he will be impeached or forced to resign by August 9, 2018 (Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, 201 days after his re-election).
And if a New York police counsellor asked me what I was going to do with all my anger, I would reply: “Maintain the rage until Donald Trump has posted his final tweet.”

Why I can’t trust Donald Trump

I knew it was time to chill out when I got into an argument at the TAB – the local betting agency – over Donald Trump.
All I said was I hope I have better luck with my bets on the races than my vote against Donald Trump. Out of the blue, a bloke I never met before said: “Give him time,” which prompted me to say Trump was the closest thing to Richard Nixon the US has ever had, and he will be impeached in a year or two. My new best enemy carried on, as did a TAB friend, who started to add his two cents. It was at this point, I said: “He’s a bully, a bullshit artist and a horrible human being.” I’ve said worse things about Richard Nixon. Then I left.
For those people who read my blog, you may have come across the post I wrote earlier this year where I said this about the President-Elect: “Donald Trump is likely to win the presidency on November 8 because not enough Americans will realise how awful he will be and vote for him. They voted for Richard Nixon who claimed he was not a crook. But he was a crook and a liar and he ruined a generation of Americans. He had to resign on August 9, 1974 because of the Watergate scandal, and it was one of the happiest days of my life … I think Donald Trump is likely to win because Americans are divided, angry, tired of politicians and political correctness, hypocrisy, broken promises, Wall Street and banks … I’m planning on going back later this year to the US for a university reunion, and I will be asking people if they’ll be voting for Trump. I think the majority will say yes. I hope I’m wrong.”
But no, I wasn’t wrong. I went back to the US to the 50th reunion of the Villanova University class of 1966, and this is what I found in my June post. After friends in northeastern Pennsylvania said they’d vote for Hillary Clinton, I asked at least two dozen alumni at Villanova who they’d vote for. Too many of them said, like Villanova nursing graduate, Lorraine Brewer: “Anybody but Hillary.” An old friend, Steve Freind, the president of the student body in 1966, and a former Republican representative for the Pennsylvania General Assembly, said yes immediately when I asked if he would vote for Trump. “Why?” I asked. He replied: “I’m not going to vote for that (a rude word describing Hillary).” The Chairman of the Class Committee, S. Curtis Seifert, said he’d vote for Trump: “I don’t like politicians and Donald Trump is not a politician.” Rich Galli, who’s an attorney in suburban Philadelphia, said: “I have to vote for Donald Trump. He’ll scare the foreign leaders and he’s not afraid to say what he thinks.” Joe McCauley, a retired bank vice-president, was standing next to his wife when I asked if he would vote for Trump: “My wife would kill me. I’m not going to vote, I think. I don’t think I’ll want to vote for Trump and I can’t vote for Hillary.” Another old friend, Tom Sproul, surprised me with his reply: “Who else am I going to vote for? I’m not going to vote for Hillary. She’s terrible on foreign policy.” An alumnus standing nearby chimed in: “I can’t stand listening to her.” Dave Banmiller, a former CEO of Pan Am and Jamaica Airlines, said he wanted to get Mitt Romney (more of him later) elected. I asked Dave again if he’d vote for Trump and he repeated he wished Romney would have run for president. He wouldn’t say for certain if he’d vote for him, but it seems likely: “I just wish Donald would tone it down a bit.”
These were white male and female, university graduates, and they were voting for Trump. After travelling around northeast Pennsylvania, I saw quite a few “Trump for President” lawn signs and a particularly nasty one: “Hillary for Prison 2016.” It was rust-belt country, where manufacturing jobs are disappearing, and an omen for the Clinton campaign in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. I thought Trump could win, but I never thought he could triumph in my home state. I stayed with Jim and Roz Morgan in the lovely town of Lake Ariel, and we visited Roz’s relatives in Scranton and had drinks at an Irish bar that would have made Vice-President Joe Biden feel at home. Both he and Hillary Clinton’s father were born there, and Pat McMullen’s pub reminded me of the Irish bars in Philly. And this is where I found the secret vote … Americans who wouldn’t say they were voting for Trump, until after the election. They cropped up in a page one story in The Weekend Australian by Cameron Stewart. They were the “Forgotten People” of the United States. That’s what Donald Trump called them: “the forgotten men and women of America,” and there they were in Scranton. In Pat McMullen’s bar, no one said they were voting for Trump, but some Scranton residents told Cameron Stewart they would support him. Paul Bidwell, a 32-year-old handyman and security guard, who works three jobs to look after his wife and kids (Photo below: Paul Bidwell with his children Aires and Audrijanna in Scranton. The Australian, David Joshua Ford) said: “At least Donald Trump is a billionaire … he owns half of New York City so if he can bring that business model to the United States, we can start making money again.” A lifelong Democrat and council worker, Patrick McNicholls, said: “I am done with the Clintons, they are a dynasty and they have been there too long and they don’t care about the middle class. I like Trump’s message about undocumented aliens and I want America to be proud again. We are getting kicked around and we not respected any more.” That’s why the polls were wrong: the pundits didn’t talk to the Bidwells or the McNicholls or even look at the anti-Hillary signs on the lawns of Scranton and other rust-belt towns in Pennsylvania. According to the US Census, the white population was 84.1% in Scranton in 2010, and the number of people in poverty was 22 per cent.
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I grew up in Philadelphia, about 160 kilometres southeast of Scranton, and it’s a Democratic town. Once an Irish and Italian stronghold, it’s now 43 per cent African American, 42 per cent Caucasian, 13 per cent Hispanic and 7 per cent. Many of those white residents have moved to the suburbs to get away from the minorities, allegedly ruining their neighbourhoods and bringing down house values. It was in the suburbs of Philadelphia and other US cities where the whites voted for Donald Trump, voicing the same kind of anger and disillusionment heard in Scranton. I heard it at my Villanova reunion, and I heard it in Pennsylvania, not as much in Washington, DC, which, of course, is a Democrat enclave under an Obama administration -– the beltway hated by Trump and his supporters.
I watched the election results on November 9 (8 in the US), a day that will live in infamy for the Democratic Party, but it started well for Hillary Clinton. Channel Nine’s political editor Laurie Oakes told presenter Karl Stefanovic about a prominent Republican Party operative who gave him the line: “Our only path to the White House now is if Bill and Hillary, when they move in, invite Mr and Mrs Trump in for lunch.” It looked good for Clinton and the Democrats until about 1.14pm Australian time when CNN’s John King, manning the electoral maps, commented: “Donald Trump voters are saying ‘We have a path (to the presidency)’. At 2.29, I switched to Sky News where an unhappy former Labor Party President and Federal MP, Stephen Loosley, said it was “Midnight in America,” what commentators had been saying about Trump’s gloomy convention speech. The Ohio-born, former NSW Premier, Kristina Keneally, added there’s “not a lot of good news,” agreeing with Loosley’s “Midnight in America” theme. Sky’s political editor, David Speers, said: “That’s where it’s at”: a huge voter block, angry, voting for change and wanting to “drain the swamp” in Washington … “Republicans are polishing off their victory speech.” At 3.21pm, Speers says: “It has happened, Donald Trump is on his way to becoming the next president of the United States.” At 4.26 pm, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said it was “a truly amazing story.” The first to call it — at 6pm (2am New York time)– was the ABC Australia’s Antony Green. John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, whose emails released by Wikileaks, hurt Clinton, came out to the 11th Avenue street party where her supporters gathered to celebrate her victory. There was no celebration. Podesta said Hillary would speak to them tomorrow but she did call Trump later to concede. Donald Trump then appeared on stage to give his victory speech, congratulate Hillary Clinton for her concession and her hard-fought campaign and appeal to Americans “to bind the wounds of division.” Division he had created after a career of lies and 18 months of insults, misogyny, arrogance, ridiculous promises and unproven accusations of criminal action against Hillary Clinton. The next morning, she was gracious and told her supporters they must accept that “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” The president-elect tried to use those words against her this week after she joined the Green Party candidate Jill Stein (ABC America photo below) in her vote recount in as many as three states, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. If he had lost the election, he would have been the first to ask for a vote recount. But he told Associated Press that he would have won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” without a shred of evidence.
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In November 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected president of the United States in a landslide, winning 49 states and nearly 61 per cent of the popular vote. His opponent, Senator George McGovern won only one State, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. In one of my favourite political biographies, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, author Rick Perlstein chronicles how Nixon only accepted four congratulatory phone calls and attacked McGovern for claiming the president would not end the war: “Wasn’t that fellow unbelievably irresponsible with his charges in the last two days?” Nixon then “congratulated himself for the unwarranted magnanimity of his victory speech: ‘You’ve got to be generous, don’t you think so?’” I’d like to think in a future biography of Donald Trump, someone will discover he said something similar to an aide after his victory speech, often described as magnanimous by his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, his incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and whichever one of his staff actually wrote the words.
The presidential election was all about trust: Many voters did not trust Hillary Clinton; but she did win the popular vote by nearly two million; therefore more people did not trust Donald Trump. I am one of them. The National Democratic Training Committee has asked Democrats to support an investigation into Donald Trump before he takes office. Why? They cite three reasons: Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women and multiple women have accused him of assault; he illegally donated $25,000 from the Trump Foundation to Florida Attorney-General Pam Bondi’s re-election campaign to avoid prosecution for Trump University’s fraud lawsuits in the state; and he has been involved in over 3500 lawsuits. Just last week, he paid off the victims of the Trump University lawsuit to avoid having to testify in court.
Mitt Romney, now being considered by Donald Trump as a possible Secretary of State, has described the president-elect as a “con man,” a “phony” and a “fraud.” In a speech in March this year, Romney said: “Look, his bankruptcies have crushed small businesses and the men and women who work for them. He inherited his business, he didn’t create it. And whatever happened to Trump Airlines? How about Trump University? And then there’s Trump Magazine and Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks and Trump Mortgage. A business genius he is not.” Of course, Trump claims he is a genius because he has never personally declared bankruptcy, but four times Trump-related companies, the Taj Mahal and the Trump Plaza Hotel, both in Atlantic City, the Trump Hotels and Casinos Resort, and Trump Entertainment Resorts, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy – allowing him to reorganise debt while the casinos and hotels stayed open. When the Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy in 2014, he was no longer in control of the casino, and reminded people of that in a tweet, saying it was “good timing.” The casino closed down in October, putting 3000 people out of work. How can you trust someone like that, Mr Romney?
Well, Mitt had dinner with Trump and Reince Preibus last night at a three-star Michelin restaurant, Jean-Georges, located in the Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan overlooking Central Park (AFP photo at the top, L to R: Reince Preibus, Donald Trump, Mitt Romney). After a superb meal, Romney told AFP he had been impressed by Trump’s acceptance speech and his preparations for office: “I think you’re going to see American continue to lead the world in this century,” adding he had “increasing hope that president-elect Trump is the very man who can lead us to that better future.” Talk about singing for your supper. Mitt, how can anybody trust you now?
I could go on, but you can see by now why I can’t trust Donald Trump, and why he is likely to be the worst president since Richard Nixon, the only one to resign, before he was impeached, and pardoned a month later by then President Gerald Ford to end “our long national nightmare.” Hunter S. Thompson in his obituary of Richard Nixon tells this story: “Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that ‘I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon’.”
How will American voters feel if Trump resigns, or is impeached, in 2018? According to professional prognosticator, Professor Allan Lichtman, who predicted a Trump victory, is now predicting that the Republican Congress will impeach him and put in Mike Pence as president: “I’m going to make another prediction. This one is not based on a system; it’s just my gut. They don’t want Trump as president, because they can’t control him. He’s unpredictable. They’d love to have Pence — an absolutely down-the-line, conservative, controllable Republican. And I’m quite certain Trump will give someone grounds for impeachment, either by doing something that endangers national security or because it helps his pocketbook.”
We live in hope.

All I want for Christmas is for Donald to disappear

In the streets of Philadelphia where I grew up, if you didn’t get picked to play in a half-court basketball game, you might say: “I’m taking my ball and going home.” Of course, it would have to be your ball, and it would not make you very popular.
Well, Donald Trump decided he was taking his ball and going home during the third presidential debate with Hillary Clinton. If I can’t win, he said, I’m not going to accept the result. And the day after the debate, he confirmed it, telling his supporters at a rally in Ohio: “I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win.” He sounded like a spoiled brat, and as a result he’s not very popular.
During the showdown in Las Vegas, Trump told moderator Chris Wallace he wouldn’t concede gracefully: “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?” Of course, it was not okay. It proved he was a loser, a grumpy Trump who claimed the election was rigged, before it even took place.
And at the weekend at a rally in North Carolina, Trump claimed the country’s leaders and the Obamas were the babies: “We have a bunch of babies running our country, folks. We have a bunch of losers, they’re losers, they’re babies.” He was responding to criticism by President Obama, who attacked Trump for trying to discredit the election process: “If you start whining before the game’s even over? If whenever things are going badly for you and you lose, you start blaming somebody else, then you don’t have what it takes to be in this job. I’d advise Mr. Trump to stop whining and go try to make his case to get votes.”
Donald Trump is a bully, a brat, a baby. That’s why he will probably lose the election. Hillary is no saint, but at least she acts like a lady. When they both appeared at the Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner at the weekend, a charity function named after the popular New York governor who ran for President in 1928, but was defeated because he was a Catholic, jokes were hard to find on the menu. The dinner at the Waldorf Astoria was hosted by Cardinal Timothy Dolan who described the atmosphere at the Manhattan hotel as the “iciest place on the planet.” In an attempt at humour, Trump said this of Hillary Clinton: “Here she is in public pretending not to hate Catholics.” He was booed when he called her corrupt and criticised the Clinton Foundation. Al Smith would have been spinning in his grave.
Hillary told the dinner she was no saint but added: “Getting through these three debates with Donald has to count as a miracle.” I have to agree with her. Each debate got worse, and more difficult to watch. An estimated 71.6 million Americans watched the third debate, down from 84 million in the first, but a substantial number of viewers tuned in to see what was billed as the decisive debate. Most pundits, except Donald Trump, thought Hillary Clinton, won the final debate, making it a clean sweep. But Trump’s description of his rival as a “nasty woman” didn’t help his chances, as the number of women alleging he had sexually assaulted them moved into double figures.
To demonstrate how out of touch Donald Trump is, he made the threat to sue all these women during a speech at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of one of the most famous orations of US history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettsyburg Address during the Civil War in 1863. President Lincoln, one of the creators of the Republican Party, was dedicating the hallowed ground where so many had died in a bid to unify the nation. Trump’s original speech idea sounded good: “President Lincoln served in a time of division like we’ve never seen before. It is my hope that we can look at his example to heal the divisions we are living through right now. That is why I’ve chosen Gettysburg to unveil this contract.” His campaign called it a groundbreaking contract with the American voter. But instead of trying to unite the country, Trump said the system was rigged against him, the media was corrupt and, worst of all, attacked his female accusers: “Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign. Total fabrication. The events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.” Not very presidential.
(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images of Donald Trump below)
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Hillary Clinton took the opportunity to point out Trump’s mistake: “I saw where our opponent Donald Trump went to Gettysburg, one of the most extraordinary places in American history, and basically said if he’s president he’ll spend his time suing women who have made charges against him based on his behavior.” (The photo at the top of this post shows Hillary Clinton with her vice-presidential running mate Tim Kaine – left – on her campaign plane. Washington Post/Melina Mara) Trump’s Gettysburg speech became a satirical hashtag on Twitter, like this one from Eric Wolfson reminding voters about the Donald’s criticism of John McCain: “Lincoln wasn’t a war hero. He was a war hero because he was assassinated. I like people that weren’t assassinated.” #TrumpGettysburgAddress Abraham Lincoln, like Al Smith, would have been spinning in his grave. It was, after all, Lincoln who delivered his famous “House Divided” speech in 1858, arguing against slavery: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The Republican Party must be thinking how close Donald Trump is to bringing the house down.
I’m not the only one who wishes this election was over: friends, family, pundits and politicians have expressed their disgust with the way the campaign has been conducted, on both sides really, although Trump takes the cake. Can he still win it? I think he has a very slim chance. Guy Rundle, writer-at-large for Crikey, former editor of Arena Magazine, a writer for the satirist Max Gillies, and author of numerous books, including Inland Empire: America at the end of the Obama Era, is one of my favourite commentators. He reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson, who puts the gonzo in my gonzomeetsthepress blog: brash, bold, outrageous, insightful and not afraid of calling a spade a spade or a Trump an asshole. (I’m sure he’s called him worse things, but asshole suits Donald Trump and Guy Rundle is a wordsmith.) This is what Rundle had to say in his Crikey column today about Trump’s chances:
“… Trump has not lost this yet. He may still be president. The tales that the Republicans tell themselves of skewed polls, etc, are largely bullshit. But they may be right, given three recent, Trump-favourable, polls — the IBD/TIPP. The LA Times tracker and the Rasmussen — may be more pertinent than others. These polls show Trump either leading by two points or at evens. If they’re picking anything up it’s this: that Trump has rearranged the map as he promised he would, bringing the rust belt and white-dominated northern states into play — Ohio, Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota — even as “new diversity” states — North Carolina, Arizona, and Florida — slip from their grasp. That would still be a difficult path to power for Trump, but not an impossible one. It would simply mean that polling, en masse, has been as unresponsive to the Trump revolution as has the rest of the body politic. Should that happen on election night, that’s how it will have happened.”
Are you scared yet? I am, and won’t be able to sleep well until he loses on Wednesday, November 9, Australian time. It would be nice if it were a landslide, but I’ll take an Electoral College vote of 270 electors. And then I hope Donald Trump’s face disappears from our tv screens, newspapers, and online publications, forever. Okay, that won’t happen, but that’s all I want for Christmas.
FOOTNOTE: The latest ABC News and ABC News/Washington Post polls show Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by 12 percentage points among likely voters, 50 to 38 percent, in the national survey, her highest support and his lowest to date in these polls. My Christmas wish is looking good.

An Award and Some Recognition — Tom Gannon Art

My cousin Tom Gannon has received a well-deserved award for his book of poetry, Food For a Journey, by a Canadian arts organisation. He has written a short blurb about the award and the recognition he has garnered from three alumni magazines on his website below (tomgannonart.com). I wrote a review last year and posted the above photo of Tom with an exhibition of his paintings. I described him as a renaissance man, and he certainly is. I highly recommend his book, and if you haven’t read the review, please do so now. You will understand why I was so excited about it, and why the Book Excellence Awards have given him this prize. Congrats, Tom.

vcm_s_kf_repr_161x241A Canadian arts organization, Book Excellence Awards, has informed me that Food for a Journey has been chosen as the winner of the organization’s 2016 Book Excellence Award for Poetry. A year ago, when the book first appeared, my publisher at Antrim House, Rennie McQuilkin, told me that he thought the book might win a […]

via An Award and Some Recognition — Tom Gannon Art

Hillary Clinton, watch your back: There’s a bully behind you

“Suppose they gave an election and nobody came.”
Okay, that was a paraphrase of a 1970s movie title, but it popped into my mind about halfway through the second agonising, awful debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
I was sitting next to my wife, who was groaning nearly every time Trump spoke, and I was taking a lot of notes. I was looking forward to the debate in St Louis, but it started badly. Before a boxing match, the referee tells the two combatants to shake hands and come out fighting. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton did not shake hands until the fight was over.
The result was ninety minutes of a prowler making faces and sniggering at nearly everything Hillary Clinton said. For the first time in 12 months of watching nearly every Republican debate and the party’s convention, I felt myself getting angry at Donald Trump. Why? Because he’s a bully. He looked like a prune with his sourpuss face, and Hillary responded with a steely gaze. She had to do something because he was trying to intimidate her by walking around and standing behind her as much as he could. (The AP Pool Photo below by Rick T. Wilking is an example.) It was as if he was trying to get her in his line of sight. Remember he’s a great supporter of the 2nd Amendment.
This was after he accused Bill Clinton of abusing women, and just before the debate Trump had an impromptu press conference with three women who claimed to be sexual assault victims of the former president and another who was raped at the age of 12. The man accused of the rape was represented by his lawyer, Hillary Clinton. One of the four, Juanita Broaddrick, said Bill Clinton had raped her and Hillary threatened her. During the debate, Trump mentioned that Juanita and three others, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Kathy Shelton, the woman raped at age 12, were in the audience. If you want more background on these women, you can find it on the Washington Post transcript of the debate, highlighted with annotations on various issues.
After the two candidates failed to shake hands, Trump was asked early in the debate if he understood the video released last Friday was describing sexual assault. The NBC 2005 video from Access Hollywood showed Trump bragging about how he could use his celebrity to do anything he wanted to women. His first response was bizarre to say the least: “I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker-room talk. It’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS.”
ISIS? Why the hell was Donald Trump talking about ISIS when the question was whether he had ever treated women as described in his “locker room banter” with then host Billy Bush (suspended from the Today Show yesterday by NBC for his lewd comments). The CNN moderator, Anderson Cooper, persistently asked Trump if he had ever done “those things,” before he finally answered: “No, I have not.” This after saying: “I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.”
Hillary’s reply was perfect: “Donald Trump is different. I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president and commander-in-chief. And many Republicans and independents have said the same thing. What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is.
“But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is. Because we’ve seen this throughout the campaign. We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to ten. We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We saw him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms. So, yes, this is who Donald Trump is. “
She added the killer line: “But it’s not only women, and it’s not only this video that raises questions about his fitness to be our president, because he has also targeted immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims, and so many others.”
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When one of the Town Hall audience, Gorbah Hamed, a Muslim, asked the candidates: “With Islamophobia on the rise, how will you help people?” Trump didn’t answer the question, saying, “We have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on, when they see hatred going on.” Hillary Clinton did answer: “My vision is an America where everyone has a place if you are willing to work hard and do your part and you contribute to the community. That’s what America is. That’s what we want America for our children and grandchildren. It’s short-sighted and dangerous to be engaging in the kind of demagogic rhetoric that Donald has. We want Muslims to be on the side of our eyes and ears.”
Donald Trump could hardly wait for an opportunity to attack Hillary Clinton over her emails, saying she should be apologising for “the 33,000 e-mails that you deleted, and that you acid washed, and then the two boxes of e-mails and other things last week that were taken from an office and are now missing.” Secretary Clinton said it was all false, but not before Trump said he would “instruct his attorney-general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there’s never been so many lies, so much deception.” President Obama’s former A-G, Eric Holder, said: “In the US we do not threaten to jail political opponents.”
Hillary Clinton tried to finish the discussion of the emails with this: “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”
As Clinton walked back to her chair, Trump quickly added: “Because you’d be in jail.” His supporters laughed and cheered.
It was at this point I wanted to throw something at the television, and I was hoping Hillary would get stuck into Donald. But I think she was a bit rattled by the bully. After such a weekend and such a debate, it’s no wonder the Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told his fellow party members yesterday that he wouldn’t campaign with — or defend — Donald Trump, and urged his members to “do what’s best for you” in the month left before Election Day. He told them protecting the Republicans’ House majority must be their priority. Trump’s poll numbers are plummeting.
As far as the debate was concerned, Hillary Clinton was good on policy, and Donald Trump was good on interjections, but it was not a quality encounter. I can understand why only 63 million people were watching on Sunday, compared to the 84 million who tuned into the first debate: NFL Sunday Night Football and the Major League Baseball playoff games were certainly more entertaining.
The legendary news presenter and journalist, Dan Rather, summed up the night eloquently on his Facebook page: “We have serious problems facing our nation, and our world. Our ship of state must be prepared to navigate the perilous shoals of our complicated world – and yet I feel tonight as if we have been hijacked into an alternate universe. This national nightmare will end one way or another and we will awaken to the same world from which we have been so disengaged. That is our challenge and it is a challenge from which none of us can opt out.”
Suppose they gave an election and nobody came. I’m still afraid if the campaign gets any dirtier, the voter turnout will reach a new low. And the national nightmare will be the election of Donald Trump … a nightmare which may haunt America and the world for years to come.
Footnote: I got an email from Hillary Clinton this morning, asking me to donate to the Democrats, which she does every day. But I can’t afford it since I’m not making any money. However, I have already voted for her by absentee ballot, and in this case, it was pure serendipity. It was as if she had read the post above and was replying to me. The subject line was: “I know how to take on a bully.” Here’s what she said (before she asked for a donation!):
“Tom, I can take whatever Donald Trump wants to throw at me — I know how to deal with a bully. But what I cannot and will not accept is the way this man goes after entire groups of Americans.
His comments about the way he feels entitled to grope women are deeply disturbing — but he says it’s just “locker room talk.” When pressed on Sunday, he doubled down on his excuses and refused to admit he’d done anything wrong.
When a Muslim woman at the town hall asked him how he’d address Islamophobia, he responded by blaming innocent Muslim Americans for some imagined failure to report terrorism.
And he once again questioned the intelligence of military leaders who employ tried and proven strategies to save civilian lives.
He’s shown us again and again how deeply unfit he is to be president. I’m absolutely unwilling to take even the smallest chance that he might win — are you?”

No, I’m not, Secretary Clinton. Thanks for your email. Keep fighting the good fight.

Memories of Edward Albee: A playwright who was not afraid of Virginia Woolf

(Photo above of Edward Albee in Sydney in 2009 by Renee Nowytarger, The Australian)
This blog post is a bit unusual as it’s been handed over to an old friend of mine, Dr Michael Nardacci. We first met fifty years ago as graduate students at New York University. Mike went on to get his doctorate in American Literature at NYU, I settled for a Master’s degree, teaching in Harlem and Sydney, and a long career in journalism in Australia. But this post is not about me, it’s about Mike and his lifelong interest in Edward Albee, the most influential American playwright of his generation. Mike interviewed Albee at his home in New York City in 1965 when he was a senior at Siena College near Albany, and the interview was published in the school’s literary magazine. Albee described it as “the best interview I have given,” and on his recommendation, it was published in The Playwrights Speak, a book by Walter Wager. Mike Nardacci (pictured below on the top of Sandia Peak, New Mexico) is also an accomplished caver, a veteran teacher of high school and college courses in English and Geology, and his column, Back Roads Geology, appears in the Altamont, New York newspaper, Enterprise. He is the author of a brilliant long poem about the celebrated cave explorer, Ghosts of Floyd Collins*, and an acclaimed play about the legendary Akhnaton, Fragments of the Pharaoh.
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Here are Michael Nardacci’s poignant memories of Edward Albee:

I interviewed Edward Albee with a colleague from Siena College, Walter Chura, in 1965 shortly after his play Tiny Alice had a successful run on Broadway, confusing and fascinating audiences as it continues to do today. Albee had become internationally known on the basis of his early one-act play The Zoo Story and the great success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Albee received us in his elegant town house on West Tenth Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. He spoke of his plays, dismissed much of the commercial Broadway theatre, and held surprisingly conservative views of the political scene and the then-raging Vietnam War.
He then escorted us to his garage in which was parked a Lamborghini he had purchased on a trip to Europe, along with the miniature castle from Tiny Alice — a beautifully-crafted, intricate piece of work. I wonder what became of it.
He often sounded like one of his more complex characters: well-spoken, thoughtful, with broad cultural knowledge. I told him that I aspired to be a writer and that I expected to attend NYU, expressing hope we might meet again if my plans came to pass.
They did. In the fall of 1966 I moved to New York and as a grad student at NYU I was put up in the venerable One Fifth Avenue Hotel on the corner of 8th Street near Washington Square; the One Fifth was owned by NYU and had two suites on each floor reserved for students. As I had no morning classes, often at around 11 at night I would take a short walk around the area close to the hotel, and on several occasions I encountered Albee who was out walking his dog “Pucci” at an hour when he was unlikely to be recognised. But I did — and to my pleasure — he recognised me. We would chat about the obvious things: the theatre scene and his own work. (His play A Delicate Balance had recently opened to good reviews and was enjoying a healthy run with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in starring roles.) Once or twice I offered to buy him a drink but as he had his dog with him, that never happened.
After that first year in New York, I lived for a year on Carmine Street and then in the legendary Judson residence on Washington Square South and did not encounter Albee but followed his career as he completed such odd experimental works such as Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao-Tse-Tung. The summer of 1968 my historical drama Akhnaton (since re-thought as Fragments of the Pharaoh) was performed by a local theatre company in Albany. I sent Albee an invitation to the premiere, and though he did not attend, on opening night he sent me a congratulatory telegram wishing me luck in this new phase of my life. Rest assured it was displayed and read to the cast and crew of my play!
Soon, however, Albee entered a dark period in his life. The characters in plays such as Virginia Woolf and Delicate Balance had serious problems with alcohol — and their creator followed a similar path. Until then, his only real Broadway failures had been the inexplicably awful book for David Merrick’s musical adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s — which closed in previews — and a stage version of James Purdy’s twee novel Malcolm. Now he had a series of failures, culminating in the vituperative Man With Three Arms — roundly denounced by the critics as “a temper tantrum in three acts” — and the impenetrable, unpleasant Lady From Dubuque filled with what might be the foulest language from a major playwright ever heard on Broadway.
But following a number of extremely nasty incidents in which his drinking caused major problems with friends and colleagues — which are numbingly detailed in Mel Gussow’s biography Edward Albee: A Singular Journey — he began a recovery which revived both his talent and his persona. There may have been a number of factors that led to the turnaround. He was hit by a car in California, an accident which nearly cost him an eye. His increasing debt might finally have awakened him to his self-inflicted precarious situation. But it was also in this time that he took up with a young Canadian artist, Jonathan Thomas, with whom he began a decades-long relationship, which ended with Thomas’s death in 2005. Albee himself attributed his recovery to Thomas’s influence. Albee’s homosexuality had long been an open secret, and caused some critics — William Goldman and Robert Brustein among them — to read all kinds of double meanings into the relationships between the heterosexual couples in his plays.
Albee deeply resented these inferences. He remarked acidly, “I know the difference between men and women,” and used legal manoeuvres to shut down productions of his plays — particularly Virginia Woolf — in which the parts were played by all-male casts. He was criticised by a number of gay and lesbian writers for not writing plays with gay themes. But his politically incorrect response was: “I am a playwright who happens to be gay; I am not a gay playwright.”
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Following his rehabilitation and vowing to abstain from alcohol, Albee’s career began to bounce back. His powerful drama Three Tall Women — written following the death of his adoptive mother, with whom he had had a difficult relationship — exploded on to the New York theatre stage and let the theatre world know that the much-admired playwright was back and in control of his medium. The play has since been performed in many countries and won him his third Pulitzer Prize. He followed this with three plays which were also critical and financial successes: the mysterious Play About the Baby, which ranks in its confusing storyline with Tiny Alice, and a comedy/drama The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?. After a long delay, his play Occupant about Sculptor Louise Nevelson was produced off-Broadway and provided still another powerful part for an actress.
It was around the time I went to see Occupant that I wrote Albee a letter. I re-introduced myself to him as the college-boy interviewer and expressed admiration for Occupant. I also told him that I would be honoured to take him to lunch some time when I was visiting New York City. To my surprise he wrote back, told me that he remembered me, and accepted my invitation, saying that spring was his least busy time (this was in the fall and he travelled a good deal lecturing.) I responded with a letter to which I attached a poem I had written about rafting through the Grand Canyon. He congratulated me on having written a “nice old-fashioned poem” — still not sure if that was praise or put-down! — and recommended a couple of changes in the wording which I gladly made.
But aside from a couple of Christmas cards which we exchanged, I never heard from him again. I wrote him a couple of lengthy letters, one after I had just seen a production of his The American Dream and The Sandbox at the Cherry Lane Theatre which Albee directed. I praised the production and inquired about new work he might be engaged in. I also sent him a copy of my play Fragments of the Pharaoh.
Silence.
Some time after that I read about a New Jersey production of a new Albee play titled Me, Myself, and I which was allegedly headed for Broadway. But the production never happened, and for the last three or four years there has been little news about Albee or any new work.
And then he died on September 16 at his summer home in Montauk on Long Island following a brief illness. Broadway theatre lights were dimmed a couple of nights later in his honour and no doubt there will at some point be a star-studded tribute to the playwright featuring readings from his works.
While a number of his works including some clearly experimental ones will probably not pass time’s test, there is little doubt that plays such as The American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women, and that tiny gem, The Sandbox, will be staples of the American theatre scene for many years to come. All of them contain sometimes extraordinary acting parts even though critics have quibbled over the internal logic of all of them. His more curious efforts, Ballad of the Sad Café, Tiny Alice, and Seascape among them, probably will be revived from time to time as works containing bits of overlooked brilliance. His more feeble efforts, The Lady from Dubuque, The Man With Three Arms, and his attempted stage dramatisation of Nabokov’s Lolita are perhaps best forgotten, being false starts in an otherwise highly interesting career.
But I will always regret that my invitation to take him to lunch, though accepted, never came to pass. The two hours I spent with him as an undergraduate and our brief conversations on Eighth Street in the late night were captivating. You knew you were in the presence of an intelligent, fiercely talented man whose long career –whatever its misfires such as the book for Breakfast at Tiffany’s — contained the work of a creative talent who was never afraid to try something new, never hesitant about exploring unknown territory, always willing to invest his work with his own singular sensibility. His passing leaves a sizeable gap in the American literary scene. But I will always be proud of the fact that Albee knew me by name, sometimes shared his thoughts and observations with me, and once critiqued one of my works. How many other aspiring writers can make that claim?
*I wrote a blog post about the Ghosts of Floyd Collins five years ago, complaining to the New Yorker and its then managing editor, Amelia Lester (now the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Good Weekend magazine), that they had never acknowledged receipt of the poem. It was their loss — Tom Krause.