Dear Diary: Why hast thou forsaken me?

Sorry about the headline, but I wanted to get your attention. It comes from Psalm 22.1: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The psalm Christ recited on the cross.
My cross is much less of a burden. It’s just trying to decide if it’s worth going through more than 30 years of diaries to write a memoir on my career in television. Every time I turn to the literary pages of The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Los Angeles Times, another memoir pops up. Among the most recent contributors are journalists or politicians: Mike Willesee, Peter Greste, Hugh Riminton, Mark Colvin, John Simpson, James Jeffrey, Janelle Wells, Sarah Ferguson, Chris Patten, Joe Biden to name a few.
Would my meagre memoir attract the attention of publishers who have already rejected my novel about television? My wife has always said my factual journalism is better than my fiction. Last year I wrote a post about a diary on the death of Princess Diana and posed a question to readers of this blog: “Would you prefer a novel or a memoir?” The majority said memoir (my wife is always right), but do I make it an autobiography or a diary a la David Sedaris, whose latest bestseller is Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002? It’s only Volume One so there’s a lot more to come. Sedaris, who was in Australia recently, writes in his author’s note: “If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you’re interested in … you keep the diary you feel you should be keeping … the point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person.”
“To thine own self be true,” as Shakespeare put it. Well, I’m making my final pitch to readers. When I moved from newspapers to television in 1983, urged on by a friend and journalistic colleague, Matt White, to keep writing, I chose a diary as my guardian wordsmith. Here’s an excerpt of the diary (photo above) which began nearly 35 years ago, when I became the foreign editor of the Seven Network in Sydney:
September 12, 1983
“Nervous to begin with, but the welcome by Cliff Neville (deputy news director) and Vincent Smith (news director) combined with the quiet professionalism of Paul Dougherty (producer) quickly got me over any nerves (all three are deceased). Learned about all the feeds and usual problems associated with Monday mornings. Paul makes the point: “Ninety-nine per cent of the time the words take care of the story.” It’s nice to know in an industry focusing on pictures, words still count. Friendly atmosphere at the news conference: I’m the “new boy.” The worst mistake you can make in an intro is to repeat what is said on tape: it makes the newsreader looks stupid. Ten to 20 seconds is best length for a normal intro. Most important news of the day appears to be NBC at 8.30am, when the LA bureau sends the feed. A quiet day and I’m home early (6.20pm).”
September 13, 1983
“Today is the day of Andrew Fowler’s (see photo below) interview with David Hackworth. (Andrew is a mate of mine from my days on The Australian, and the author of a new book on surveillance: Shooting the Messenger: Criminalising Journalism, and the late Colonel David Hackworth was the most decorated American soldier in the Vietnam War.) It runs 21 minutes and Andrew has put a lot of time and effort into it. Although he continues to battle for what he believes in, Andrew seems a lot happier and more fulfilled than at News Ltd. It’s a disease which I hope is catching. It’s a superb interview and there is instant reaction on the phones near the 11AM desk, including a call from a wife whose husband is a “war-mongering colonel in the Australian army.” I call Hackworth and he tells me he knows my friend Bill Dolon, a Villanova graduate and a paratrooper in the 101st US Army during the Vietnam war, and adds “the difference between a fairy tale and a war story. A fairy tale begins: ‘once upon a time,’ and a war story begins:’No shit, man. This really happened’.” I watch Paul Dougherty cut a grass car story — a funny from NBC — and learn what a jump cut is, a jump in the footage that’s noticeable: “Use cutaways to avoid jump cuts.” Other advice: write down the beginning of the news script and the end words, aka the outcue. I learned a great deal from Paul. Vincent Smith grabbed me before the news and gave me this brief: “A foreign budget for each one of the programs and I want new ideas and plenty of them.” Gordon Westcott, producer of 11AM, said the same thing, asking for up and coming authors for interviews. That night I attended the Australian/Vogel Award at Len Evans restaurant in the city and told the literati and the editor of The Australian, Les Hollings, and managing editor, Arnold Earnshaw, how happy I was.”

September 14, 1983
“Wednesday began with a hangover and Andrew and Paul filling me in on Vincent’s unhappiness with G. Westcott. It seems everybody but Vincent likes Gordy’s work, so it must be a personality problem (Gordon is alive and well and one of the best producers I worked with. The last time I saw him was at SBS in 2013 when he was the Weekend Chief of Staff. He’s still very helpful). Andrew shows me Vincent’s memo, saying the Viet execution scene was gratuitous and ruined an otherwise excellent report. Paul Lyneham rang from London to say congrats and fill me in on what was happening. It’s imperative to keep him happy. He wants Beirut to be his bailiwick, and I agree. He mentions memos going astray and I must keep an eye on that.”
September 15, 1983
“Today was the day I gave up my newspaper notebook for a legal pad and cut my first story. It was Lyneham’s story on Vice-Admiral David Leach shopping for carriers in Liverpool. Despite all warnings, the intro didn’t reach me until I had already written one for 11AM. There were no problems cutting it for 11AM, it was much harder for 6.30, a tighter program. I gave my first suggestions at conference today and people actually listened and followed up. Andrew Fowler, who has been agonising over whether to reply to Vincent’s memo, finally did so. He said memos go on your record — I must remember that — and he was very helpful. I call CNN and learn what a rundown is all about. It’s a good guide when a big story is running or an advisory on an exceptional press conference is coming. Late in the day and out of the blue, Reporter Laurie Brennan asks me over a can of Carlton Light: ‘Why does everybody like you so much? Is it because you’re likeable or because you’re such a good writer?’ A good question.” PS Thirty-five years later, I still can’t answer it.
Well, that’s a sample. Only about 10,000 more entries to look at and edit. What say you? As I mentioned in my post on Princess Diana last year, the late journalist and author and mate, Ian Moffit, used to say: “We are all living on borrowed time.”

Comic duo Laurel and Hardy’s moments to remember: Tales of Hollywood stranger than fiction

Laurel and Hardy were two of my favourite comedians. Every year on Thanksgiving, a US TV network played one of their old films. We laughed at their jokes and slapstick, with perfect timing and the sheepish face of Stan Laurel and the exasperated reactions of Oliver Hardy providing moments to remember.
What brought back that memory? A brilliant new novel by John Connolly, a former Irish journalist who’s written 15 books about a fictional American detective, Charlie Parker, a crime series that started with a plane crash in the state of Maine and has branched out into an epic story about Hollow Men, the Brotherhood, a Monstrous Mother and a criminal empire. I’ve read most of them and noticed on Connolly’s website that he was publishing a novel reimagining the life of Stan Laurel, one of the great screen comics, with his jolly, overweight partner, Oliver Hardy. He is a work of fiction, but it’s based on an enormous amount of research, outlined in the Author’s Note, including four seminal Laurel and Hardy biographers and the letters of Stan Laurel, a prodigious correspondent whose missives can be found in Stan’s Correspondence Archive Project, along with a brief biography. Connolly loved Laurel and Hardy because they were part of his childhood. My childhood.
The novel begins in the Oceana Apartments by the sea in Santa Monica, California where Stan “chases butterfly memories” in the last days of his life. He remembers Oliver (Babe) Hardy: “Babe is always with him … But now Babe is gone, and he is alone.” We get to read more of Stan’s memories throughout the book (and this post). It’s a short first section, like the 202 remaining chapters, but it encompasses the life of the comic duo from Stan’s childhood in northern England where his father, Arthur Jefferson, aka AJ, managed theatres and was also an actor and director to Babe’s upbringing in Georgia carrying a sandwich board advertising specials at the Baldwin Hotel run by his mother. Along the way, Connolly tells tales of Hollywood and its stars (imagining what Stan would say): Chaplin for one, who has sex with 15-year-old girls; who takes actress Paulette Goddard to bed, believing she is 17, and ‘is disappointed when she reveals that she is twenty-two;” who is the greatest comedian Laurel has ever seen; and, last but not least, according to Stan, “Chaplin is a monster.” Harvey Weinstein comes to mind.
Stan Laurel had a Chaplin complex. He was Chaplin’s understudy at Fred Karno’s comedy company when he was only 19. Stan travelled with Karno to the US in 1910 and 1912. The company split when Charlie moved on to become a star in motion pictures in Hollywood. When Stan’s common-law wife, Mae Dahlberg, told him he was as good as Chaplin, he replied Charlie was the best that has ever been. Babe Hardy was working with movie producer Larry Semon, who wanted to make pictures like Chaplin’s and didn’t care who the Little Tramp was screwing. Babe believed Chaplin should be in jail. But Chaplin is Chaplin (often repeated in the novel). Semon had no vision and his company collapsed. It led Babe to sign a contract with Hal Roach, one of Hollywood’s most famous and successful movie magnates, and the partnership of a lifetime with Stan Laurel that began in 1926.

While Stan and Babe had a great partnership, it didn’t mean they always chose the right partners in marriage – not to mention their affairs. When Mae returned to Melbourne, Stan married Lois Neilsen in 1926. They had two children, a daughter Lois, and a son who died tragically nine days after his birth. They were divorced eight years later and Stan married Ruth Rogers. But Stan continued to pine for Lois, who refused to remarry. The marriage to Ruth lasted three years, who told Stan: “You’re just a child. You have no idea what you really want at all.” His next partner was a mad Russian actress and singer, Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, accompanied by Countess Sonia, and Roy Randolph, the Dancing Master. Stan and Vera had three wedding ceremonies. Connolly writes: “He (Stan) will spend most of 1938 drinking, for reasons not unconnected to their marriage.” Years later at the Oceana Apartments, Stan remembers Vera: “He remembers that Vera was a drunk. He remembers that Vera couldn’t sing … He remembers that Countess Sonia’s perfume smelled like cat piss … He remembers driving the wrong way down Reseda Boulevard, intoxicated and crying and only (his lawyer) Ben Shipman’s bamboozling of the jury keeping him out of jail.” There’s more. He remarries Ruth in 1941. That lasted until the end of the war, when he met and fell in love with Ida Kitaeva Raphael. When Ben Shipman read about their wedding in a newspaper on May 6, 1946, he screamed: “Jesus Christ, he’s married another Russian.” But this marriage endured until death did them part nearly 20 years later.
Babe Hardy had a similar chequered marital record, starting with Madelyn Saloshin, who played the piano at a theatre where he was singing in a quartet. They had a dog and a monkey. Babe said it wasn’t a marriage. It was a zoo. It was short, followed by a longer, but not much happier union, as his second wife, Myrtle Reeves, was a drunk. He had a lover, Viola Morse, but he continued to look after Myrtle, who did things like escaping from a sanitarium, sneaking out of her sister’s house and trying to drink herself to oblivion in a hotel. A policewoman talked her out of jumping out the hotel window, and Myrtle was arrested. Every newspaper in the country had the story. Still Babe found it hard to leave her, although he spent a lot of time at the races in Santa Anita. He sought comfort from Myrtle with other women, but eventually got a divorce and paid hefty alimony bills. Although he’d been with Viola Morse longer than Myrtle, Babe finally met his true love, Lucille Jones. Despite Viola’s pain, Babe and Lucille married … and she cared for her husband until he died in 1957.
Somehow Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy managed brilliant careers in spite of their marital problems and family tragedies. They made short films for Hal Roach, released through MGM, during the silent era in the late 1920s and took to audio like ducks to water. Their first sound movie was a success: Unaccustomed As We Are in 1929. With their traditional bowler hats, suits and ties, mixing sight and sound gags (mostly written by Stan), the Pom from Ulverstone and the Yank from Georgia enthralled American audiences during the Great Depression. Laurel and Hardy won the first Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Comedy, in 1932 for The Music Box, a revision of their silent film, Hats Off.

Later that year, Laurel and Hardy decided to take a vacation and made a deal with MGM: ten days of publicity, the rest of the time to themselves. They travelled by train to New York via Chicago and took what they thought would be a leisurely cruise on the RMS Aquitania to Southampton. Stan and Ollie were amazed by the thousands of people who waited for them in Chicago, just wanting to touch them, shake their hands. It was worse, and scarier, in New York when the Broadway multitudes did not let them pass. They had to hide in Minsky’s Music Hall and were smuggled aboard the Aquitania. Much to their surprise, Stan and Babe had become two of the most famous men in the world. In Britain, thousands greeted them from London to Leeds and Birmingham, to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Stan spent time with his father, AJ, who wondered why his son changed his last name from (Arthur Stanley) Jefferson to Laurel. Stan had no satisfactory explanation; it was Mae Dahlberg’s suggestion.
Laurel and Hardy made 105 films between 1926 and 1951, when they retired from movies. Laurel met Charlie Chaplin at his house in Beverly Hills, and they reminisced. Chaplin said: “Who else like us is left”? Stan “cannot help but admire Chaplin, even as he wishes him more capable of truth, and more worthy of affection.” He never saw or spoke with Chaplin again. For Babe, his moment in the sun was taking part in a John Ford touring production of What Price Glory, a fundraiser for the Order of the Purple Heart. Among the cast were John Wayne, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr and Jimmy Cagney, who told Babe he was so good that if someone hadn’t held him upright, he would have fallen on the floor laughing. Hardy sat in the club car of the train on the way to San Francisco, regaling the famous actors with tales of old Hollywood, with Duke Wayne’s eyes and ears wide open. Connolly writes: “They were listening to me, Babe says. Can you believe that? All those great men were listening. To me.”
Stan and Ollie toured England in the early 1950s, to dwindling audiences, until May 18, 1954 when Babe had a heart attack. The tour was cancelled, and they returned to the US where Stan worked on scripts for television. In 1955, he had a stroke, from which he recovered, but Babe had another heart attack and a stroke, was paralysed and lost his voice. He died on August 7, 1957. At the Oceana Apartments, Stan pays tribute to his partner: “Babe is with him and of him … he knows that he loved this man, and this man loved him, and that is enough, and more than enough.”
Stan continued to write jokes and sketches for fellow comedians, and was recognised with a special Oscar for his creative pioneering work in cinema comedy in 1961 (Photo above from LettersFromStan.com). The actor Alec Guinness wrote Stan a letter which had a prominent place on his desk, congratulating him on his Academy Award: “For me you have always been and will always be one of the greats.”
In his Author’s Note, John Connolly says Stan Laurel “kept his telephone number in the Malibu directory because he enjoyed being visited and had no fear of those who might make their way to his door.” Among those visitors were Dick Cavett, Jerry Lewis and Dick Van Dyke. Stan Laurel died on February 23, 1965 and Dick Van Dyke gave the eulogy at the funeral: “The halls of heaven must be ringing with divine laughter.”
John Connolly admits his novel and his depiction of Stan Laurel might not meet with unanimous approval: “All I can say is this: by the end of the writing of this book, I loved Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy more than ever, with all their flaws, in all their humanity, and my admiration for their artistry had only increased.”
As a reader, I felt the same way.
He, John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton, 453 pages
PS: If you’re interested in watching some of the old clips of Laurel & Hardy films, you can find them on their official website: http://www.laurel-and-hardy.com/ The BBC has produced a biopic of Laurel and Hardy’s final tour of the UK in 1953, titled Stan and Ollie, starring John C. Reilly as Ollie and Steve Coogan as Stan. No release date has yet been announced, but fans of the famous comedy duo won’t want to miss it. A preview by indiewire.com and photos of the film have been released on Twitter.

The Buttons: Speechless but never at a loss for words

It’s taken me a while to read Speechless, a lovely book about speechwriting by James Button, Walkley Award-winning journalist and author and son of John, a senator and a former minister in the Labor Governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It’s not only a story about speeches but a father and son relationship, the public service and former prime minister Kevin Rudd. (SMH photo above, Left: James, John and Nick, at Geelong match.)
James Button worked as a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd when he was PM in 2009 and later with the Strategy and Delivery Division (SDD), part of the Australian Public Service (APS), where acronyms abound. The reason it took me so long to read Speechless was simple: I enjoyed it so much I wanted to savour every word. (The late Bob Ellis called it “a quiet masterpiece, to be savoured.) It’s also about words and even has a chapter devoted to clear writing in the public service called The Dejargonator, a blog Button’s boss asked him to set up so that people could post examples of “grisly official prose and have a crack at writing clear alternatives.” Button learned from the Great Dejargonator, Don Watson, and his books on jargon “lacerating bad language” that “we are all dejargonators now.” But he also discovered why jargon persists: for the government, it’s about managing risk. He writes: “a vast effort is expended to make sure nothing bad happens, which creates another form of risk: that nothing happens at all.”
As a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd, Button realised the PM rarely gave good speeches: “He could or would not find the connection with his audience. Yet, it’s strange, for he gave one great speech. It had people in it.” In his Apology speech in 2008, Rudd described Nungala Fejo, an Aboriginal woman taken from her family by welfare worker who never saw her mother again, as “an elegant, eloquent and wonderful women in her eighties, full of life, full of funny stories, despite what has happened in her life’s journey.” He spoke of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report on the removal of Indigenous children: “There is something terribly primal about these firsthand accounts. The pain is searing; it screams from the pages … These stories cry out to be heard. They cry out for an apology.”
But as James Button points out in his Acknowledgements in Speechless, it’s his father’s story as much as his. They had difficulty talking about the death of James’ younger brother, Dave, from a heroin overdose. They came close when James showed his Dad a draft of a long piece he had written about Australia’s future for Time Magazine in 1992. John replied: “It’s very long. It’s pretty bleak. And I don’t think you’ve quite caught the spirit of innovation in the economy.” That, of course, angered James who wrote a letter to John saying he had read the piece as a politician, not as a father. A few days later, John told James after a meal at a restaurant: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” a famous line from the English poet Philip Larkin. The anger disappeared. But ten years later, he helped his father write a Quarterly Essay on the Labor Party, both working hard for a week. His Dad spoke at the launch of the essay, thanking his son only in passing. His anger returned but he never told his father what he felt: “I should have said something to him! … I had robbed him of the chance to explain why he didn’t mention it … And we would have grown closer.” James then writes one of the key paragraphs of the book: “We were two articulate men, friends, who loved words and talking together about words. Yet in these respects, we were speechless.”
James still had questions about his father’s memoir, As It Happened, and his mother pointed him to a profile of his Dad in a book of interviews he did with a Melbourne University political scientist, Alan Davies. The psychological profile of the 26-year-old John Button paints him as “tense, troubled, self-absorbed,” a snapshot James recognises: “He seems to be saying, ‘I am a plain man, there is no bloody nonsense about me.’” Later James reads As It Happened again and goes to the last page where his father is musing on his life in politics: “He has regrets, but no complaints: rather the curiosity of wondering what life would be like if he had done something different. And that thought – what if he had done something different? – makes him think of his father: “From my father, I acquired the instinct of taking what comes in life and learning to cop it without complaining. As a child I learnt this the hard way. In later life I was grateful. I’m sure I helped to keep me sane.” James writes: “There it is, hiding in plain view, like the letter on the mantelpiece in a Sherlock Holmes novel. His father is the last person in his book. He has written the book he had to write. He won’t write another but it doesn’t matter. He has made peace with his father.”

I’m only sad because I didn’t have a chance to go to a footy match with John Button, a lifelong supporter of the Geelong football club. James describes walking beside his father at a Geelong match with his brother Nick: “I would hear a constant hum: ‘That’s John Button’.” In his obituary of his father published in the May 2008 edition of The Monthly, James talked about his Dad’s love of Geelong: “He was seriously, battily, obsessed by football, and by the Geelong Football Club. More than once, in the Geelong changing rooms, I caught Dad staring a little too intently at Gary Ablett’s thighs. Week after week, year on year, he would draw an oval on a sheet of paper and compile his team in his crimped handwriting, which a secretary of his once compared to the scratchings of a chook. Sometimes he would mail them to the coach; always he would mail them to Nick and me. I think football was a great release from politics. More than that, though, it gave him a chance to be with his two sons, and I know that his love of football was also a love of us.”
I was fortunate enough to produce John Button for a cover story he was reporting for the Channel Nine Sunday program (later moved to Business Sunday) in 1993, and wrote about it on my blog in April. He was a gracious, humble man who loved his footy and was loved by all the CEOs he talked to about the future of Australian business. He got along well with the workers as well, this “plain man” with “no bloody nonsense” about him. He even talked the then Prime Minister Paul Keating into doing an interview with him for the program, and it was a privilege for me to sit in Kirribilli House and listen to these two Labor veterans talk intelligently about politics and industry, and produce a few headlines for Channel Nine.
If he were still alive, I’d send him an email or a text, saying may the best team win in tonight’s finals match between Geelong and Sydney. But, of course, my team, the Swans will emerge victorious. I only know James as a fellow journalist, but he has written a wonderful book about the Geelong Football Club called Comeback: The Rise and Fall of Geelong, a profile of the Cats’ three premierships in five seasons from 2007 to 2011.
Author and cricket expert extraordinare, Gideon Haigh, reviewed Button’s book in The Weekend Australian last September, saying Comeback is “notably free of needless grandiosity. There are no special claims, for instance, about the bond of club and city: rather, Geelong is an ‘ordinary club in an ordinary town that has done extraordinary things.’ In what Button says he is never other than thoughtful; in what he excludes, the surfeit of repetitive, rigidly chronological detail that retards so many sports books, he may be even more effective.”
James, your father would be proud of you. May the best team win tonight.
Update: Unfortunately, from a Swans supporter’s point of view, the best team was Geelong, who beat Sydney by 59 points last night in a sudden-death final, and go on to play Adelaide in a preliminary final next weekend. The season is over for the Swans. The Button family will be happy.

A producer’s diary: The night the People’s Princess died

Matt White was a show business legend, from his days on Fleet Street after his stint in World War II in the Intelligence Service and later on The Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph in Sydney. He wrote about films and television and movie stars, many of whom were his friends. Matt was also a great mentor. Whenever I had a problem at The Australian, I would look for him at the local pub, The Evening Star, and ask for his advice over a beer or two.
When I decided to leave The Australian to become foreign editor at Channel Seven, I asked Matt what he thought about the move. “Well,” he said, “how many words do you write a week? You’re the literary editor and TV critic for The Australian, and write author interviews, book and tv reviews and profiles of famous celebrities.” I thought about it for a few seconds and said: “Probably about 3000 words in a normal week.” Matt replied: “How many words will you write when you go to television? You’ll write intros to news stories and voiceovers for packages and the morning foreign news list. You’ve got to keep writing every day, longer pieces.”
That made sense, so I thought about it and decided I’d keep a diary of my days in television. I started the diary in September 1983 and kept going until my last full-time journalism job in 2013, as a series producer for The Observer Effect, hosted by Ellen Fanning, working at Shine Australia and putting it to air with EP Paul Steindl on SBS. This blog began when I was working as supervising producer on Ten’s Meet the Press in 2011, but the diary still haunts me. I wrote a novel that was rejected by three publishers, mainly, I was told by those who read it, because it concentrated too much on television and not enough on the story. I’m still working on the third rewrite, but the diary notebooks are still there, and I decided to look up what I wrote in my diary on August 31, 1997. It was 20 years ago today when Princess Diana died in a car crash (photo above of Princess Diana: AAP; photo below of the car: AFP), and I was putting the Sunday Program to air. It all started on August 30 because I always worked from Saturday morning about 8am or so until Sunday afternoon when the show was finished, and the paper work and the political guest transcripts were completed.
Here’s an edited version of that day and a half, with some additions that weren’t in the notebook!
Saturday, Aug 30, 1997
“In early and I cut down the Stuart Diver piece with (gun editor) Ross Wilson and was finished by 2pm. Everything else was going well. The power piece was being cut by Cindy Kelly and it was finished by midnight after all the sound work by Cindy. I got the news feed in from Darwin at 10.30 to 11, thereby missing the end of the Swans game – which they managed to lose again (Editor’s note: Things have changed since then!). While waiting for Cindy to bring up the tape, I wrote a news story, and after that I got about 40 minutes sleep.”

Sunday, Aug 31, 1997
“Up at 5.10am, and as soon as the news editor Ross Chilvers was ready, he cut the Darwin package with Jim Waley’s voice on it. After a difficult night, I was just starting to relax in the control room at 9.30am (the show started at 9am), when Jim said on the floor via the IFB (Interrupted Feed Back): ‘Princess Diana’s been seriously injured in a car crash.’ We didn’t have any pictures from Paris yet (remember this was 20 years ago), and I was worried about how we were going to cover the story. All this occurred during (Nine’s political editor) Laurie Oakes’ interview with the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Shane Stone, so I had to write a back announce for Jim, saying Princess Di and Dodi Fayed had been seriously injured in a car crash in Paris and we would bring viewers the latest details as soon as they came to hand. After the 13-minute interview, Shane Stone turned to Laurie and said: ‘I don’t think we’re going to be on page one tomorrow.’ I then sent a message to the Nine News executive producer of the day, Anthony Murdoch, asking if we could get a two-way with reporter Danny Blyde in London, who he just woke up. Jim had asked for a voiceover to write at the end of the next segment, but we still didn’t have any pix. Jim had to do a long live read, and he wasn’t happy we didn’t have any pictures from the scene. Ross had cut some Princess Di background, but that was all we had. At 10.55am, with only five minutes left in the show, Anthony let us know Dan was there, with Michael Usher on his way to Lausanne for a SOCOG (Sydney Organising Committee for the 2000 Olympic Games) meeting! It was a brief two way: not many details were coming out of Paris. We went over a bit due to the breaking news, driving the presentation director bananas. It was that kind of morning. I was stuffed and sure enough, Diana and Dodi were both pronounced dead by one pm Sydney time. I turned on ABC radio and the veteran newsreader, John Hall, presented the sad news for the first five minutes of the bulletin, and then said: ‘In domestic news, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Sharon Stone, told Nine News …’ I don’t remember what he said after that I was laughing so hard at John’s slip of the tongue, and I immediately called Laurie Oakes and said: ‘Did you hear what I just heard on the ABC? The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Sharon Stone?’ Laurie was laughing, too, and confirmed it.’ It was a laugh we needed after an emotional and very sad morning.”
I then wrote: “Wait till next week.” I was thinking how big the funeral would be for the People’s Princess on the following weekend. I wrote in the diary on Tuesday, September 2: “I had my work cut out for me this week with Princess Di’s funeral on Saturday night our time. It meant a ‘That was the night that was’ story, suggested by Jim, followed by an extended breakout written by me, and cut by Bruce Inglis, a former BBC producer, who covered Di’s last tour here. So we were okay on that one.”
The next Saturday Princess Di’s funeral was watched by 2 billion people around the world and all hands were on deck for the Sunday Program of September 7. We had to squeeze an obituary of Mother Teresa into the packed show. She died early on Saturday morning Australian time. The diary for Sunday, September 7 reads: “I didn’t get any sleep, but I knew that would happen anyway … It was a good show, a good week, and Father’s Day.” (My daughters used to call it half-jokingly Anti-Father’s Day because I was always working.)
Dear Diary: Thanks for the memories. Now a question I have to ask myself: Is it time to go through the diaries, and write a novel based on them, or make it a memoir? As another old mate, no longer with us, the wonderful journalist and author, Ian Moffitt, said to me when I asked about writing a novel: “We are all living on borrowed time.”

Scaramucci does his last fandango for the White House

Anthony Scaramucci is being divorced by his wife, was fired by the president and is now reportedly dead. Okay, rumours of his death have been greatly exaggerated as Mark Twain once said, but it’s been that kind of a week for the sacked White House communications director. The New York financier was removed from his job overnight at the request of new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
According to the New York Post, reports of Scaramucci’s demise came in the Harvard Law School alumni directory, which placed an asterisk after his name meaning the 1989 graduate of the prestigious institution (where Barack Obama also graduated), had been designated as dead since the book was published in 2011. Harvard apologised to Scaramucci and said the error would be corrected in subsequent editions.
But Scaramucci (AP photo above) might as well be dead. He managed to get the former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus sacked for allegedly leaking administration secrets, forced the popular Sean Spicer to resign as press secretary, and alienated the president and just about everybody else for his profanity-laden interview with Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker. The most quoted Scaramucci line of that piece was directed at Priebus: “Reince is a f…ing paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac.” He dropped the “F” word a number of times and said he would kill all the leakers “to get the President’s agenda on track so we can succeed for the American people.”
Scaramucci did sound like President Trump in that interview but the latest (and unlikely to be last) White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the media: “The president firmly felt that Anthony’s comments were inappropriate for a person in that position.” She went on to say that President Trump didn’t want to burden the former Homeland Security secretary, General Kelly, with that line of succession. It was certainly some succession. You wouldn’t want to work in the Trump White House unless you had the courage of a Medal of Honour winner. Ironically, General Kelly attended a Medal of Honour presentation after the sacking, smiling and taking pictures of guests while the president tweeted: “A great day at the White House.”
Apparently a great day at the White House is one where you fire the chief of staff, the communications director, continue to attack the attorney-general and then claim there is no chaos in the Oval Office. The President tweeted: “Highest Stock Market EVER, best economic numbers in years, unemployment lowest in 17 years, wages raising, border secure, S.C.: No WH chaos!” Press secretary Sanders had the best spin of all in denying there was any chaos or ill-feelings on the part of the sacked communications director: “Mr. Scaramucci felt it was best to give Chief of Staff John Kelly a clean slate and the ability to build his own team. We wish him all the best.”
On an optimistic note, Alain Sanders, a political analyst, told the New York Post General Kelly was trying to restore a sense of order to the White House: “It’s at once surprising and unsurprising. Surprising that a communications director would serve for only 10 days, but unsurprising, because Mr. Scaramucci was quite unconventional, and there was that strange performance last week. It’s also not surprising that cooler heads would prevail at the White House, and may mark the beginning of a greater sense of purpose by the general.”
I hope he’s correct for the sake of America and the world. But I hear my 8-year-old granddaughter asking in that mock manner: “Seriously?” and I would have to reply: “Only in this White House.”
The last word should go to Democratic Congressman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, who tweeted this not-so-fond farewell to Scaramucci: “Thank you Anthony @Scaramucci for your service. I speak for a grateful nation when I say ‘has it really only been 11 days?!?’”
PS: It’s only been 10 days, Congressman Schiff, but it does seem a lot longer.

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.”

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.

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.