Tuesday, October 30, 2012


George McGovern (died 10/21) - It was only after the frenzy of the electoral campaign and the embarrassment of his landslide defeat in 1972 that America really got to know this fine person.  In 1968, he was the guy who came from nowhere (i.e., South Dakota) to try to claim the mantle of the martyred Bobby Kennedy and acted as a spoiler for Hubert Humphrey's nomination.  In 1972, he was the symbol of opposition to Richard Nixon's Vietnam War (which had--officially--expanded into Laos and Cambodia) that the Democrats found themselves nominating, the man who selected Tom Eagleton as his running mate without proper vetting, who ended up winning one state (Massachusetts) and 17 electoral votes.

It was a time when political passions ran higher than they do now, and he was furiously, and successfully, caricatured by his political opponents.  Nixon's dirty tricks crew broke into the Democratic HQ at Watergate in June, when McGovern had almost clinched the nomination. It wasn't McGovern they were worried about; they were hoping to get some dirt in case Ted Kennedy decided to make a late run for the nomination.  It was the great irony; they needn't have bothered, and without that error the fundamental, tawdry criminality of Nixon's White House would probably never have surfaced.
McGovern did win re-election to the Senate one more time, in 1974, before being turned out in the Reagan election victory of 1980.  What we eventually learned about him is that he was no un-American radical; he was just a normal liberal who saw the problems with the Vietnam War earlier than most, and he was a  World War II hero.  He distinguished himself in his post-Senate career and came to be a respected senior statesman of his party.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk (10/15) - Speaking of the war in Southeast Asia, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia (later King Sihanouk) was one of the most interesting players in the conflict. Though his ways were somewhat flamboyant, he worked hard to try to keep his country from being enmeshed in the conflagration chewing up his larger neighbor country, Vietnam.  He tried to maintain neutrality, but could not sufficiently maintain the integrity of his borders from infiltration by the North Vietnamese.  The Americans eventually lost respect for him and his country's territorial integrity and messed around with the country--they put in the palindromic anticommunist military man Lon Nol through a coup d'etat, and chaos ensued. 

The Khmer Rouge communist insurgency in Cambodia, which had been a minor force prior to the  coup, gained strength from the end of neutrality--and from the appearance by their side of Sihanouk himself--and eventually took power (America had lost interest by then).  What followed was one of the worst episodes in recorded history, as the Khmer Rouge rusticated the capital and massacred thousands of Cambodians. After the Khmer Rouge eventually exhausted the patience of Communist Vietnam, the Vietnamese invaded, overthrew them, and began a long occupation. 

Sihanouk went to exile once, twice.  His Second Act (or was it the third?) began in 1993 when he acted as guarantor for democratic elections and was named king in what was intended to be a constitutional monarchy.  He stayed on after the next coup by another strongman, Hun Sen, for another decade, before his health, which had been bad for decades, took a more permanent turn for the worse.  He died abroad, in Beijing. He had quite a life--dramatic, sensational, sometimes courageous--but may not be remembered particularly well by his people, whom he protected poorly from the violence of the region.

Arlen Specter (10/14) - Like Sihanouk, Specter was another cat with several lives. He was elected, repeatedly, as a moderate Republican from swing-state Pennsylvania.  In another era, he worked with the Democratic majority on many occasions..  When the Republicans controlled the White House, though, he showed different colors.  One of his most famed episodes was his hostile questioning of Anita Hill for the temerity she showed in challenging Clarence Thomas' alleged sexual harassment of her when he got the nomination for the Supreme Court.  Specter won that battle, and we all lost as a result.

Specter turned his coat inside out again in 2009, switching from the Republican side to the Democratic one, and thus giving the Democrats a short-lived filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes (they lost it when Republican Scott Brown won the special election to fill Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts seat).  He cited the intransigence of the Republicans at the time, but the real problem was that he saw the rise of the Tea Party and that he was going to be challenged, and likely defeated, for re-nomination.  As it turned out, though, the Democrats' acceptance of him was only temporary:  he was defeated for re-nomination on the Democratic side by Congressman Joe Sestak, who then narrowly lost the race for the seat to right-winger Pat Toomey. 

Specter had suffered from cancer for several years, and his health was probably a factor in his political decline in 2010. He will be remembered as a savvy politician with a mixed record, an old-fashioned Senate swing vote who showed that political leverage can come from the ability to take positions independently of the party line.

Eric Hobsbawm  (10/1) - Hobsbawm was one of the greatest historians of the modern era. His approach was a Marxist one that emphasized economic analysis and frequently focused on those who were not of the exalted elite.  His political stance made him a target for criticism, and then for the triumphalism that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union.  He defended his belief, though he didn't stand behind all the many mistakes of the Communist regimes.

Hobsbawm came to England as a refugee to the imminent World War II and made a home there.  Later in his life he became a close ally of Britain's Labour party.  I appreciated in particular his social economic history study of the Sicilian Mafia, its roots, and others of its ilk ("Primitive Rebels....") and his history of "the short 20th Century", from the beginning of World War I through the end of the Cold War, 1914-1989, "The Age of Extremes".

Alex Karras (10/10) - Karras was a Pro Bowl NFL offensive guard for the Detroit Lions who became a successful professional actor. He combined the two talents in a prominent role in George Plimpton's famed chronicle of his pretended attempt to make the Lions as a third-string quarterback, "Paper Lion". Karras was a big, strong man, but also an intelligent one, and someone who was willing to show a more gentle side on occasion.  My favorite among his acting roles was the one he performed in "Victor/Victoria", where he was a sort of foil to Julie Andrews' cross-dressing male drag singer (if you can follow that); Karras' character was a tough guy who later revealed he was gay.

In his football career, Karras was the rare offensive lineman who became a well-known face.  Partly it was due to his ability, partly to the role in "Paper Lion", but also because of his notoriety when he was suspended for a year for consorting with suspicious characters, back in the '60's when that kind of autocratic edict was possible for an NFL commissioner.

Andy Williams  (9/25) - For me, Williams was the best of an unpleasant breed, the '50's-style romantic male vocalist.  He could sing well, but what was more appealing to me, compared to someone like Sinatra, was his personality, which was humorous and self-deprecating.  I found myself surprisingly fond of his eponymous  late-'60s TV musical variety show.

After that, he had a rather dramatic episode or two, when his ex-wife, the glamorous Claudine Longet, killed her lover, the famed skier Spider Sabich, then charmed the Colorado jury into letting her off.  Williams had only a supporting role in that drama, but after that he mostly retreated from the public eye; he would appear in annual TV musical specials for Christmas for several years, and he bought a club in Branson, Missouri and used that as his base for performing thereafter.  He seemed to be genuinely popular in the phony world of show business.

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