Monday, August 23, 2010

Consummation (on the LAOpera production of The Ring Cycle)

by Douglas Messerli

Richard Wagner Das Rheingold / LAOpera, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (the production we saw was on June 18, 2010)

Richard Wagner Die Walküre / LAOpera, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (the production we saw was on June 20, 2010)

Richard Wagner Siegfried / LAOpera, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (the production we saw was on June 23, 2010)

Richard Wagner Götterdämmerung / LAOpera, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (the production we saw was on June 26, 2010)

Over several afternoons and nights from June 18th to June 26, 2010, Howard and I attended the entire 16 hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Los Angeles Opera.

Much has been written about Wagner's overwhelmingly brilliant, often mocked, and sometimes hated achievement, and I do not care here to wade into the complex stories, myths, and psychological sloughs surrounding the work. The Ring, no matter what is thrown at it, is quite simply a marvelous human accomplishment, never quite matched in the all the years since its creation. Its mess of a plot, sometimes ridiculous characters, and forests of inexplicable riddles does not, somehow, diminish this work, and I think anyone—saintly or evil—who loves theater, music, and spectacle cannot help but admit to admiring it.

What I would like briefly to focus on, instead, involves another kind of quagmire of sorts regarding the extravagant costumes and sets by the notable designer-directors, Archim and Amanda Freyer and the musical direction by the much beloved Los Angeles Opera conductor, James Conlon.

Nothing I might write in connection with these issues is easy. For I highly admire the decision, which was strongly argued for, I have heard, by Conlon and General Director Plácido Domingo, to attempt this production. I also applaud their goal of bringing a completely new look and feeling to the great opera. That the company was almost destroyed in the process of bringing Wagner's four operas to the stage brings more blame, perhaps, on today's audiences and the high cost of such an undertaking than any misjudgment by the producers. It was and remains a noble act to present this work in a city always hungry for art, theater, and music, but not always appreciative of the particular manifestations of such.

Yet all that said, there are some important questions to be brought up regarding this version.I swore to myself not use my variation of Dickens' tired antithesis to describe my feelings about the LA Opera's Ring, but it continues to summarize my feelings: "It was the best of operas, it was the worst of operas."

The first evening began swimmingly enough with the Rhine Maidens dressed in the billowing robes of water which is their home. The Freyer's highly raked stage worked nicely to create a sense of the swelling water, undulating in time to their joyful teasing of the ridiculous Alberich, dressed in this production, as a masked troll. The combination of the grotesque and whimsy in Alberich and the Niebelungs later nicely fit a world where they are entrapped in the process of refining gold.

But already in the scene in Valhalla, we begin to become somewhat distracted by the costumes. Fricka's constantly outreaching hands may indicate her major activity of pleading with her husband Wotan, but to keep her character locked away in this position seems to allow no subtlety. She is, after all, not always pleading, but righteously correct her assessment of Wotan's own laws. The powerful giant brothers, Fasolt and Fafner, seem inexplicably to be alternating between dwarves and the incredibly tall construction workers by which the work defines them.

Wotan's head, locked in a square-boxed helmet, with his facial image reflected upon it, seemed to diminish the power with which the character is defined. Of course, he is a conflicted image, a God who is tempted, again and again, away from obeying the laws he has himself established. And there is no question that Freyer's costume implies this tension between his mind and apparition. At certain times, particularly when he stood at the top of the stage, however, the audience could hardly hear Wotan's (Vitalij Kowaljow) declarations, let alone tremble at the vocal power of his angry proclamations. At other times, Fricka (Michelle DeYoung) seemed somewhat distraught in her permanently outstretched position. Only Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) and Mime (Graham Clark) seemed comfortable in their dress.

By the time of Die Walküre—easily the most brilliant of the LA Opera productions—the problems of direction, costume, and set became more obvious. In some ways, Freyer's attempts to create his own series of private leitmotifs, helped the audience—particularly those who had never before encountered the complex series of characters Wagner presents—recognize and define them. But by so thoroughly defining them, he also took away most of their "humanity," stripping them of any empathy we might feel for their human-like achievements and failures and leaving them afloat in a mythological world that separated them from us. A student of Brecht, it is clear that that was, in part, what Freyer was seeking. But in a work such as The Ring, which has already built into it a sense of separation from our daily experiences, the actors and director must work even harder to, in some ways, to make us feel that these figures resemble ourselves.

James Conlon is a dedicated and highly committed director. And his lectures before each the four operas were filled with beautiful descriptions of how Wagner's music brought us into the action both emotionally and intellectually. In my encounters with this director, however, it appears that he prefers sublimity over the barbarous. He is not the kind of director, I feel, to do justice to Stravinsky or Berg. And here, although he described the dreadful power of certain of Wagner's refrains, we seldom heard them. The music (perhaps in part because of the near-burial of the orchestra beneath the stage) was often beautiful, but seldom intense, let alone earth-shattering.
Linda Watson sang and performed marvelously as Brünnhilde, but the constant dressing and undressing of her, as Siegfried later rips her gown away patch by patch, was more a distraction that an amplification of any substantive meaning, visual or otherwise.

By the time we had reached Siegfried we had lost touch with this world, strangely at the very moment when we encounter the most human character of the entire masterpiece. Like LA Times music critic Charles McNulty I suddenly felt I had entered a California amusement park instead of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Admittedly Siegfried is a kind of bumbling idiot, a true innocent whose only major attribute lies in his powerful muscles. But to portray him simply as a kind of blond-headed Michelin Man is to destroy any possibility of human redemption. And that is ironically, why Wagner vested so much power in this figure. In his innocence, he even seeks fear, without comprehending what might lie behind it. In the course of the work, Siegfried discovers love, treachery, hate, and even death. He is of a new race, and as such, to close him off as a laughable stereotype does a terrible injustice to the entire work.

For all that, the costumes and sets, even the ridiculous tilt of the stage, did create some memorable moments: among them the nightmarish underground world of the Niebelungs and the great battles (achieved through dozens of colored light sticks) of Götterämmerung. Perhaps I had simply grown more use to Freyer's methods by the last long work, but it seemed to me that the positioned costumes into and out which Gunther and Gutrune stepped well-fitted the mould of these opportunists. The orchestra itself, moreover, seemed to come alive and, still without the shattering thrill of sound one hopes for in Siegfried's death—a death which, as our opera-loving friend Bob Orr, in his deep Alabama accent, described it, signifies the end of the whole Teutonic universe—performed ably and even memorably. The audience, many of whom had never before seen a Wagner opera, was clearly thrilled. Despite my stated doubts, I too applauded joyfully with tearful eyes.

This is clearly a production that should be seen again.

Los Angeles, August 19, 2010

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Talking Head (on Rainer Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends)

The Talking Head
by Douglas Messerli
Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Christian Hohoff (writers), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (director) Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends) / 1975, released in the US in 1976

Despite its tragic ending depicting the death of its hero, his body begin robbed by young children, I read Fassbinder's 1975 film, Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends) as a dark comedy, a work that, in many ways, relates to his Petra von Kant, particularly in the melodramatic pitch of the latter’s language, which takes it to the edge of the theater of the absurd.

In Fox and His Friends, however, the hero, Franz “Fox” Biberkopf (played by Fassbinder himself) speaks in a completely naturalistic way, while those around him talk in the affected language of a British drawing room comedy; they are, after all, striving to represent themselves as coming from a kind of bourgeois notion of the upper class, at the same time that their accents, furnishings, clothing, and all other aspects of their lives reveal their middle-class roots.

Only Fox speaks somewhat normally, although he is regularly described as stupid and uncouth. He is, after all, a true man of the proletariat, a working-class clod who plays a character in the carnival act of his friend and lover, who in the very first scene of the film is arrested for tax evasion.

In the carnival Franz plays what is described as a “talking head,” a man who supposedly has lost his body, except for his head, which, as “a miracle of science” has been magically kept alive. Apparently, he talks to the audiences, answering their questions and explaining his unusual existential condition.

We never get to see the real act, but we do observe Fox going through the rest of his life as a kind of “hollow man,” an empty being whose only tool of survival is his somewhat street-smart skills which allow him to con friends out of money and to engage people like Eugen Theiss (Peter Chatel), his soon-to-be lover, with sharp barbs and quick-witted dismissals when he is accused as smelling badly and gaining weight (Fassbinder, so the story goes, dieted heavily before playing Fox)—all failures of the body.

Early in the film, as he insinuates himself into the lives of the seemingly wealthy young men he meets through a gay antique furniture dealer, Max (Karlheinz Böhm), that he might even outwit these nasty snobs; after all, he has just won 500,000 marks in the lottery, and his sense of new financial possibilities seems almost to make him able to stand up against their snooty dismissal of his clumsy and uncouth behavior. But, in the end, Fox is only, as his real name Biberkopf suggests, a "beaver-head," a hard-working mind that has the ability to assimilate little in the way of imagination. And it is precisely that lack of imagination that prevents him, despite his alcoholic sister, Hedwig’s and his old bar friends’ warnings, to see through the pretense of his new acquaintances.

Eugen, his new lover, has little skill when it comes to thinking, but is, compared with Fox, a person who celebrates the body, a handsome and fairly well-dressed—if you can forget some of the outrageous combinations of patterns and textures of his suits and ties, all of which betray his lack of any true sense of style—who has been taught to present himself in a comely manner, with a well-spoken voice in both German and, so he claims, French. When the couple later travel to Morocco, however, it becomes apparent that Eugen cannot speak the latter language fluently, while Fox communicates with an Arab hustler with a few words in English.

His only achievements of the mind relate to his and his family members’ abilities to trick those less fortunate out of their finances and possessions; if Fox is a busy beaver—working for the bookbinding company of Eugen's father even though he has loaned them the money for their survival and is now the legal owner—they are born vultures. And much of the second half of the film is a painful testament to how they cheerfully strip him of his money and any common dignity he might have had. First through the loan to save the company, then, when Eugen is thrown out of his apartment for housing Fox, through the purchase of a condominium and furniture—some of the most absurd combinations of period furniture, patterned wallpaper, and ridiculous objects (including a circular set of attached red-leather chairs, each facing slightly away from the others) imaginable. Fassbinder's set designer should have received an award just for uncovering these garish and tasteless creations.

Soon after, Eugen insists upon a new car. Later, supposedly to reignite their love, the two take the trip, as I mentioned, to Northern Africa. All is paid for by Fox.

Yet Eugen and his father take their abuse even further by replaying Fox's loan through his salary and forcing him to sign away the rights to his property. When Eugen explains the situation to Fox, the father responds to his son, "by principle you are right." This man—who unlike Fox's sister, who drinks at home, does his drinking at the office—can't even conceive what the word "principle" means. His only code of conduct is survival.

Soon after Eugen's former boyfriend moves into the apartment, and Fox is locked out.
Certainly these scenes do make us cringe. But we must remember that the money Fox has used to get what he hopes might represent love and propriety has been won on a fluke with a few marks stolen from the local florist, "Fatty" Schmidt, a character who clearly brings up Fox's sense of guilt later in the film as Fatty tries to console him; Fox strikes the man in what, to use a rephrasing of the original German title, seems almost to be a "fist-fight for freedom," the freedom, at least, from being reminded of his past.

Fassbinder's portrayal of Fox is brilliantly subtle, particularly as he begins to spend his money. His repetition of "cash, cash," as the bank teller queries him when he demands the 100,000 marks to loan to Eugen's father, is spoken with extreme nervousness and agitation; and later, as Eugen imagines the rooms of the empty condominium being filled with furniture, Fox turns away with a horribly sickened look on his face. It is as if, throughout his spiraling return to poverty, he is aware of what is happening but unable to prevent succumbing to his lover's demands. Like Petra in Fassbinder's earlier film, there is a kind of absurd joy even in the tortures of love. His busy head, filled with ridiculous aspirations, is slowly being drained of consciousness, and near the end of the film he goes as far as to visit a doctor, reporting his symptoms. Finding nothing outwardly wrong with his patient, the doctor proscribes Valium, a drug which may help to relieve his real anxieties, but which can result in further confusion and depression.

Broke, Fox returns to his old haunts, where he meets up again with two American soldiers he has once tried to pick up. Since they are now in his gay bar, he cheekily asks them once more if they'd like to join him, to which one of them asks how much he is willing to "pay." With that question, Fox, turning away and hanging his arms around a friend's neck, cries out, "Pay? Pay?" pointing up the irony and absurdity of the life he has led; once the hustler, he has become the consumer, a man, as it puts it, "who pays for everything," not only with money but with his life.

The very next scene is played out in an over-lighted subway where Fox lies dead, killed evidently from an overdose of the Valium. Two well-dressed young boys, vultures in the making, rob him of the money he has received for selling his car, a gold watch, and even his jacket. Two of his former friends, seeing the body and pronouncing him dead, quickly scurry away, not wanting to get involved.

How did this comic tale of an absurd life suddenly turn into a tragedy one has to ask? Of course, in many of Fassbinder's films, that is just what happens. People with such outrageously dramatic views of life, with hopes out of proportion to possibility or reality, true dreamers, in other words, who live in their heads inside of inhabiting their entire bodies, are often unable to survive. But it could also be as Jim Clark has suggested on his on-line review of this film (

That metro/subway stop is unnaturally—eerily—clean and
quiet. Everything is blue and white, even the clothes worn by
all the characters who pass through. ...Nothing earlier is as
stylized. So, is this just a "Valium-5"-induced nightmare vision?
...Has Fox learned, from his devastating experiences, that the
glitzy "lifestyle" he has just lost was what was destroying him?
So maybe—just maybe—Fox is ready to begin putting himself back
together.... If the final scene is just a nightmare.

It could be that Fox has finally been able to add some true imagination to the pipe dreams that have filled his head. But even if Fassbinder meant it as a "real" act, we have to remember that little else has been real in Fox's life.

Los Angeles, August 4, 2010

Monday, August 2, 2010

12 Last Days of the Soviet Union: Day Eight-Candies in the Snow

Candies in the Snow
by Douglas Messerli
Perhaps in reaction the some of our complaints, our bus trip to Riga, Latvia was interrupted with a visit the Nazi concentration camp in Salaspils. I imagine our American Guide intervened in this case, insisting to the In-Tourist guides that this was a necessary change in the schedule.

The German Stalag-350-s began as a camp for prisoners of war, and held approximately 43,000 Red Army soldiers and personnel. For that reason it was designated as a Arbeits-un Arziehungslager camp, a work and education facility; which meant than instead of being administered by the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel), it was subordinated to the HSSPF Ostland, the German police authority in the occupied Baltic countries. Himmler is said to have visited the camp often.

Sometime after its establishment, however, it began being used for Baltic civilians, and by the end of the war housed the largest population of Baltic citizens. Almost all but 192 individuals were killed in this camp of 50,000 to 1000,000 people. Early estimates of the population were continually upgraded as new information was discovered, but the number is still the subject of much controversy. By the time of liberation, the camp had been burned to the ground by the Nazis and most the records destroyed.

What has been revealed is that this camp was a particularly horrific place for children, of whom there may have been as many of 7,000. These were mostly the so-called "gang-children," young boys and girls without parents, housed in orphanages or working on farms. At one burial spot the corpses of 632 children, ages 5-9, were discovered. Eye-witness accounts report that numerous of the children were killed through medical experimentation, as many as 150 being killed every day. Others died of diseases and infection.

Most of us knew none of this when we arrived, and were startled, I think, to find a camp whose only evidence of existence lay in the small memorials on the ground. Here also there is a terrifyingly beautiful tradition of which we had not known. In the field where the children's barracks had stood, visitors had strewn hundreds of pieces of candy, small wrapped packages that glistened in the snow. Others placed toys at one of the children's burial spots. This was the only moment during the exhausting trip that I broke down.

The camp also housed a rather informative exhibition in a small concrete hall that had been built near the entry, with the words "Behind this Gate the Earth Groans" attached. Dismaying to most of us, however, was the horribly kitsch sculptures built by the Russians, titled "The Mother," "The Humiliated," "The Unbroken," and "Solidarity" located near the center of what once had been dozens of barracks.

I believe we were all appreciative of this side trip into the painful past.

Los Angeles,July 24, 2010

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Echo (on Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes)

by Douglas Messerli
Taylor Branch The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009)

The Clinton Tapes is a recounting of author Taylor Branch’s involvement with Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001 as he worked with the President to create a personal history of the presidency. Determined not to repeat the disastrous secret tapings of President Nixon, unable to carve out regular hours for written notes, and convinced that he would find it nearly impossible to speak alone into a tape recorder, Clinton ultimately suggested that his friend Branch visit him in the White House irregularly—usually by quickened summons—to ask him questions about events in his administration, which, in turn, stimulated the President to provide long, extended discussions and stories archived by twin recorders. Branch’s activities were kept as secret as they could be, and the tapes, perceived from the beginning as Clinton’s personal property, were hidden away by Clinton himself in the White House.

Branch, however, also taped records of each meeting and summaries of what the two discussed on his return home to Baltimore, and the contents of this lucid and entertaining book are the result of those recordings rather than a distillation of the tapes themselves, which, although serving as a resource for Clinton’s own memoirs, remain within his library, having not yet been opened to the public.

In that sense, The Clinton Tapes as a book represents less a record of Clinton’s statements as much as it is a memory and evaluation of Clinton’s perceptions and attempts to put himself into an historical context. As much as some readers may find this, accordingly, as a second-hand report of Clinton’s administration, it is all the more enlightening given the personal context in which Branch presents Clinton’s observations and ideas. One might almost describe this work as an autobiographical biography of history. As cumbersome as that may sound, it is in some respects far more revealing, I suggest, than would be Clinton’s comments presented without commentary.

That Branch, the noted historian of Martin Luther King, became involved in this project, was almost an accident. As Branch writes, “Our new venture had started with convenience and a dusty friendship.” He and Clinton had been friends in the South while coming of age in the civil rights movement, but had gone their different ways since 1972. Visiting Baltimore shortly after the 1992 election, Clinton told the Baltimore Sun reporter that he had missed several of the election night celebrants, including “Baltimore novelist Taylor Branch, a long-time friend.” “I’m just sick about it all,” concluded Clinton, “I’ll call him this week some time.”

Clinton did not immediately call, but several friends did, some teasing Branch about being called “a novelist,” others curious about his relationship with the new man in power. Shortly after Thanksgiving someone called from the transition office, suggesting that Clinton wanted to see him and his wife, Christy, and the two drove to Washington on December 7th to attend a dinner at Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s house.

That event, in turn, led to an assignment of Branch to write on the President for Life magazine during inauguration day, coverage the Clinton assistants had accepted. Within a day, Branch was sent to the Blair house to begin the pre-inauguration coverage and, almost before he knew what was happening, was drafted to read and comment on a version of the President’s speech. The president-elect was busy rewriting the first half of the address, while his aides and Branch—he, obviously, “off the record” since he was also reporting for Life—worked until four o’clock in the morning suggesting revisions. The fact that Clinton primarily wrote the speech himself just hours before the beginning ceremonies of Inauguration Day foretells the whirlwind of energy which surrounded Clinton in the years ahead. Only four hours later, notes Branch, “The Blair House foyer crackled with adrenaline…. From a national security briefing, Clinton went by motorcade to Metropolitan AME Church for an inaugural prayer service….”

Indeed, despite the 663 pages that follow, Clinton seems hardly ever to sleep, summoning Branch to him at all hours of the day and night, and, even when was sick or, after a serious injury, propounding on, evaluating, and foretelling major world events, all with the incredible detail that the man’s prodigious memory called up. As New York Times Book Review writer Joe Klein correctly summarized:

Bill Clinton is a one-man carnival—a magician, tightrope walker, juggler, hot-dog-eating contestant and burlesque show.

As Clinton himself proclaimed, “My only regret is that I have to sleep so much.” “I’d like to be awake all the time.”

Clinton was also absolutely brilliant, particularly when compared with the slow-minded Bushes on either side of his administration. Each of the numerous conversations Branch recounts are filled with analyses of national and international figures and events: detailed discussions of possible cabinet members are shelved between prescient observations of Palestine and Israeli relationships, accompanied with stunning summaries of the personalities of Arafat, Rabin, Peres, and Syrian president Asad. Evaluations, pro and con, of the North American Free Trade Agreement resolve into comments about Somali warlord General Adid. Precise assessments of the success of UN involvement in Bosnia flow into discussions of the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and summaries of Japanese politics.

Every encounter with Clinton becomes a scatter-gun commentary on the entirety of world events, revealing his total political involvement. More than any other President, except, perhaps, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Clinton loved politics, absolutely reveling in the confrontation and compromise necessary for successful political action.

Despite all of this presentation of Clinton’s complete immersion in history and politics, however, Branch also reveals very personal aspects of the man, his deep love for and involvement with Hilary (with whom, when she occasionally appears in the middle of their conversations, Clinton takes out time to intimately talk) and his devotion to his daughter Chelsea, for whom, on at least one occasion, he cut the discussions short so that he might help with her homework.

Branch also makes it evident, through Bill and Hilary's brief discussions, that she is just as committed and involved in the political life. Just overhearing some of their conversations as related by Branch, utterly exhausts one. For them love and work are simply inseparable, which helps to explain Hilary’s ability to put aside her husband's painful sexual philandering later in his administration.

Despite Clinton’s apparent unflappability with regard to politics, however, it is clear that he and Hilary were unprepared for the bitter hostility of some press members and the enormous waste of energy and time the Republicans and others devoted to their downfall, particularly with regard to Kenneth Starr’s seemingly interminable investigation into their involvement with the Whitewater scandal, a relationships with was tangential at most. Both Clinton and Branch, in fear that if word got out about their tapes they would be subpoenaed, resisted discussion of either Whitewater or, later on, Monica Lewinsky. But every so often, in his berating of press hostility, Clinton simply could not resist bemoaning the enormous amount of wasted energy, both by others and himself, on what he perceived as trivial issues.

Revved up, President Clinton continued with summaries of two recent trials in the Whitewater investigation. Should I remind him of our intention to save this legally sensitive material for a separate tape? Part of me bridled at censorship…. Arkansas accounted for a minuscule fraction
of the gargantuan losses that ensued across the national by mismanagement, fraud, or outright theft, and a small part of the Arkansas tab bankrupted thrift institutions associated with the Whitewater land development. The current prosecutions, finally, were not about correction or restitution for any of these failures, which fell against the taxpayers. On the contrary,
said Clinton, they were Ken Starr’s attempt to squeeze vulnerable bankers into making some kind of allegation against Clinton, on promise of leniency.

Clinton perceived, in his first term, they he had had some enormous successes, despite the hostility; but it soon became apparent that the Republicans were determined to vote against anything he or the Democrats might propose simply to claim that opposing party had no agenda. Clinton summarizes the polarities of American politics in terms that are terribly disturbing, but appropriate even today:

“Our politics are like Bosnia,” the president observed. Leaders were so tapped in cycles of payback for prior injuries and wrongs, with the press egging on every fight, that it was hard to see any larger context. He seemed blithely philosophical about this position. Then again, he suggested that a Bosnia could be the epitome of politics—if it finally could attain that rare higher plane….

No matter what one thinks of the man, it is nearly impossible to deny, after reading Branch’s book, that Clinton had a large agenda and saw his role in historical terms that related, in his mind, to that higher plane.. One of the most touching moments in this near-encyclopedic commentary is a moment in which, despite the obvious antagonism he must of felt with former President Nixon, Clinton readily admits:

A month ago today, he had received from Nixon a letter about Russia that Clinton called the most brilliant communication on foreign policy to reach him as president. Nothing else came close, he said. It was about planning for a “post-Yeltsin era,” with penetrating studies of political characters and fledgling countries.

One need only compare that magnanimous view with what the President relates of Robert Dole’s and John McCain’s vindictiveness.

Ultimately, what strikes one in reading this book in 2010 are the similarities between the Democratic administration of Clinton’s first term and that of President Obama’s. Both achieved significant legislation despite the refusal of the Republicans to embrace little but a policy of “no.” We have yet to see the results of the election of 2011, but we can suspect that it will be quite similar to the results of 1994:

Nowhere in the 1994 elections did a Republican incumbent lose for Congress or governor, while Democrats across the country lost eight senators, eight governors, and fifty-five representatives. Republicans gained control of both legislative chambers in the biggest midterm shift since 1946, the year Clinton was born.

The prospects of Obama, accordingly, who has faced the same political negativity, despite his achievements is disheartening, to say the least.

Obviously, Obama is not Clinton. He is clearly more conciliatory than Clinton, and hasn’t the lust for politics that Clinton professed. Issues of race also make Obama’s presidency more complex. Despite his evident intelligence and knowledge of political issues, Obama sometimes presents himself as a man of less experience. But the echoes one hears throughout Branch’s book are so strong that they suggest as a country we may never grow out of the Bosnia-like cycle of payback and refusal to participate in true political debate. As Clinton concludes in one of his last sessions with Branch:

Human nature drove candidates to seek efficiencies and shortcuts by catering to big money. This required callousness over time, even meanness. It was difficult enough to survive. It was hard to keep sight of public purpose, although he insisted that most politicians tried. His voice caught.
And it was so very hard to be progressive and win.

Los Angeles, July 29, 2010