At Whit’s End

“Fame can never make us lie down contentedly on a deathbed.”

— Alexander Pope, 1713

On the Monday following the death of pop music diva Whitney Houston, I was approached by a young woman who inquired whether I had heard that Ms. Houston had died.  I replied in the affirmative and, miraculously, somehow managed to refrain from saying something like, “Why are you surprised at the ‘sudden’ death of a person who had abused drugs for decades?”  I am glad that I held my sarcasm in check because the woman then said that the news was so upsetting that “she cried all weekend.”

I was stunned into silence and could only nod.  At the risk of sounding callous, the demise of Ms. Houston barely rippled the surface of my consciousness.  While I admit that I liked a few of the songs that she released in the 1980s and 1990s, for some time Whitney Houston had been little more to me than another pampered, drug-addled celebrity whose career had seen better days.  Her marriage to Bobby Brown and their reality television show did nothing to improve her image n my eyes.  Of course, none of this matters to the people who loved her before she became a star and, perhaps, in spite of her fame.  Their grief is real and deserves more respect than a soundbite on tabloid TV shows.

Perhaps we are too quick to accept the mortal departure of singers, musicians, comedians, actors, and other people who entertain us.  Do we expect — indeed, demand — that these individuals burn out in tragically spectacular fashion?  There are, of course, those stars who dance close to the line of self-destruction and are fortunate enough not to tumble irrevocably into oblivion.  (Yes, Robert Downey, Jr., I am talking about you.  And yes, I am eagerly awaiting the Avengers movie later this year.)  Redemption is big business, and always has been, especially in America.  Martin Luther understood that; and the rest is history.

The loss of Ms. Houston reminds us that prodigious talent often cannot shield those who possess it from the devastation of personal demons or bad choices.  To be sure, we mere mortals who cannot sing, act, or do anything else worthy of the blinding light of fame have many of the same burdens.  And with any luck, our secrets and slip-ups will never be the lead stories on the evening news or TMZ.

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I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People (Don’t) Like Me!

Mitt Romney must feel as if he has truly entered the Twilight Zone, or that he is Stewart Smalley’s evil twin.  He is accomplished, intelligent, (sometimes) well-spoken, attractive, focused, determined, and very, very rich.  His opponents for the Republican nomination include a brilliant, but erratic and irascible former Speaker of the House, a conservative zealot trying to revive a derailed political career, and a libertarian maverick.  By any stretch of the conventional political imagination, Romney should be the poster child for a resounding victory against a weakened incumbent Democrat in November.  (What would the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater have done with a hand of cards like these?)  And yet…he seems unable to close the deal.  Or rather, the Republican rank and file just do not seem to be convinced that he is the man to lead them to the Promised Land of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Indeed, the latest polls of Republican voters place former Senator Rick “Sweater vest” Santorum ahead of Romney. How can this be so?  By most accounts, Romney has done just about everything right in his pursuit to become the standard-bearer for the Republican Party: he has piles of money, a disciplined organization, and a message that should resonate in hard economic times.  (And he has fabulous hair!)  To be sure, he as made some foolish statements; but to my knowledge he has neither said nor done anything that has made him unelectable.  Some say that the reason for the unease about Romney is that he is “not conservative enough.”  Others think that there may be a lingering prejudice against Mormons.  (I suspect, however, that these may be the same people who persist in believing that President Obama is a Muslim.)  Still others maintain that Romney’s capitalist success story has made it impossible for him to comprehend the plight of the struggling middle and lower classes of American society.  I do not pretend to have an answer for this baffling state of affairs.  Many people with bigger brains and even bigger paychecks are working around the clock on this one.  I have little doubt that the Romney Machine will find a way into the hearts — as well as the minds — of the GOP faithful.  The Man from Massachusetts may get a little bloody, and his perfectly pressed shirt and blue jeans may show a bit of mud from the campaign trail; but he will capture the nomination — and perhaps even the respect and devotion of his fellow Republicans. But Romney may find the 2012 Election to be the “dark, drizzly November of [his] soul.”  Why?  He just might win.  As the old adage goes, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

Better Red Than Dead

Off we go into the wild blue yonder,

Climbing high into the sun;

Here they come zooming to meet our thunder,

At ’em boys, Give ‘er the gun! (Give ‘er the gun!)*

Down we dive, spouting our flame from under,

Off with one helluva roar!**

We live in fame or go down in flame. Hey!***

Nothing’ll stop the Army Air Corps!1 

1 Robert MacArthur Crawford wrote what is now known as the “U.S. Air Force Song” in 1939. The original title and lyrics contained the words “Army Air Corps,” which I have used here.

Last weekend I finally made time to see Red Tails, George Lucas’ long-awaited and much-discussed epic about the experience of Tuskegee Airmen serving in Italy during World War II.  I was vaguely aware of the controversy swirling around the film: Lucas’ difficulty in securing financial and promotional backing for a “Black” project that had nothing to do with Tyler Perry; the interracial romance between two characters; the less-than-impressive box office receipts, etc.  However, none of these things explained why I was slow to add my pennies to George the Great’s coffers.  Rather, I was already quite familiar with the story of the Airmen and believed that I would not learn anything new from the movie.  I was, it turned out, wrong.

On the night I saw “Red Tails,” the audience was small but diverse.  Several young people of color were in the crowd, a fact that assaulted me with ambivalence.  On the one hand, I was glad to see people who might have a slight interest in learning some history, albeit served up in a form “based on actual events.”  On the other, I was apprehensive that the assembled masses would engage in a running — and loud — dialogue with the movie’s characters.  (Do not act surprised.  Black people are famous such cinematic interaction.)  I am pleased to report that my mixed emotions soon melted away as my senses were overwhelmed by scenes of the beautiful Italian countryside and the exhilaration of flight.

The movie took me back to a time when the freedoms I now enjoy without the slightest thought were denied to people who look like me.  Racism was not a theory; it was real, terrible, and an accepted fact of life.  The intelligence, ability, and patriotism of African-Americans were openly questioned, even in the face of a world-wide struggle against the unparalleled evil of fascism.  Indeed, there were moments when it was hard for me to tell which enemy was more reprehensible: the American officers who doubted and belittled the Tuskegee Airmen or the ruthless German pilots whom the Airmen desperately wanted to meet in battle.

While it obviously depended upon certain stock traits and characters, “Red Tails” also managed to depict African-American men who treated themselves and others with the respect that American society had denied them.  They were highly-trained professionals who took pride in what they did — and were willing to give the last full measure for a country in which they were, at best, step-citizens.  Moreover, the movie reintroduced us to the concept of shared national sacrifice during times of crisis, a sensibility that has proven to be elusive in the wars America has fought during the last decade.

When the last of the credits had rolled off the screen and the lights came up, I found myself feeling grateful to George Lucas for using his enormous wealth and influence to remind us that America is still very much a work in progress.  In our current age of economic dislocation, social media inundation (and alienation), and bitter partisanship in the corridors of leadership, it is encouraging to know that our heroes do not always have to come from a galaxy far, far away.