Friday, November 5, 2010

Election 2010: A Frank Farewell

Not much room
for a moderate
in 2010 America

I mourn the political passing of Frank Kratovil -- not so much for who he was, a conservative Democrat pandering as best he could to a Republican-leaning Maryland congressional district, but for the loss of his party's seat in the House of Representatives.

Not that it was unexpected. His election in 2008 was a fluke brought on by the first political earthquake tremors of the GOP's rightward swerve, as the respected moderate incumbent Republican Wayne Gilchrest lost in the primary to the extremely conservative state Sen. Andy Harris.

Hard feelings? In the general election, Gilchrest, a former high school teacher, crossed party lines and endorsed Democrat Kratovil to succeed him in the First District -- which covers Maryland's entire and largely rural Eastern Shore, but is overwhelmed in population by a largely affluent strip of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay.

Kratovil, a county prosecutor from the eastern side, won by a margin of less than 1 percent, and evidently not on the coattails of Barack Obama -- the district favored by a much wider margin the GOP presidential ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Two years later, the Gilchrest Effect seems to have faded. According to the unofficial election night tally, Harris took nearly 55 percent of the votes -- 146,272 to 111,237 -- in making Kratovil a one-term congressman.

It was one of the most expensive congressional races in the nation, as Democratic supporters put up millions of dollars in an attempt to save Kratovil's seat -- and Republican supporters similarly fueled Harris' campaign.

Harris, an anesthesiologist whose right-wing views set him apart even from others in the state legislature's minority party, among other things opposes gay rights and abortion, wants to roll back the Democrat-pushed health care reforms, and wants to make sure tax rates for rich folks remain low.

His television ads were subtly ugly -- the one that seemed to air most frequently even had a racist feel to it. Three figures shrouded in darkness, but one with distinctive-looking ears seems obvious... and as the scene slowly brightens, we see it is Obama, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Kratovil.

Kratovil voted with Pelosi, voted for Pelosi, voted with Obama, the ads hammered, despite Kratovil's reputation as a conservative Democrat and his own ads stressing a political independence that had dampened the enthusiasm of liberal Democrats for him.

Overall, voter registration in this congressional district is almost even divided between the two major parties... a few more Democrats, but just a few. This in a state that is solidly Democratic, by a 2-1 margin, and one of the most liberal in the United States. Yet the district has usually leaned toward Republicans.

So party affiliation is not the key determinant here. And it makes you wonder why Kratovil could suffer so major a swing from his narrow win in 2008 to so great a loss two years later.

The outcome leaves Maryland's entire Eastern Shore without its own congressman. The area, whose nine counties include some with the lowest per-capita income in Maryland, can look forward to representation by a defender of the rich from the other side of the water.

The poorest county in Maryland, Somerset, voted only narrowly for Kratovil (3,436-3,265). And the Democrat's home county, the much more affluent Queen Anne's, easily preferred Harris (9,410-8,537).

So what were the voters thinking? Is it an Obama thing -- two years down the road, they flip-flop back to the right -- or a money thing? Is it the rich wanting to keep on getting richer while the poor get poorer? Is it simply a matter of who came out to vote on election day? Was it the vanishing of the Gilchrest Effect?

Is it the magic of the boiling Tea Kettle, and the ability of Republican strategists to brand the enemy... voted for Pelosi, voted with Pelosi, voted with Obama... even if, sometimes, he didn't.

There was no room for independence in 2010 America, no safe middle ground for a Democrat like Kratovil. He should have seen it coming from two years away -- having been tarred and targeted as a one-termer by opponents from the day he was narrowly elected.

In trying to tiptoe through the middle, Kratovil failed to establish a brand for himself -- much as the Obama administration wasted time in its first few months trying to work with Republicans, only to lose its post-election momentum and the potential of its once-overwhelming legislative majority.

Kratovil could have embraced being a Democrat. Instead, he hunkered down and pandered as best he could to an unforgiving political right.

In my 30 years living in Anne Arundel County, on the western side of the Chesapeake, Kratovil was the only congressional candidate to knock on my door and personally ask for my vote. That was back around October, 2007, when the Queen Anne's County state's attorney had just embarked on his congressional quest.

Without hinting at my views, I asked for his on two of what I consider liberal bellwether issues -- gay marriage and, on abortion, a woman's right to choose. His answers were as vague as he could make them.

I voted for him, without enthusiasm, because having Andy Harris as my congressman was unthinkable.

Not much has changed two years later. But this time around, the unthinkable has happened and Harris is heading to Washington.

Elsewhere, Maryland election results ran counter to the national trend. Six of its eight House seats were easily retained by liberal Democrats (one district, in Western Maryland, remains a Republican stronghold); ultra-liberal Barbara Mikulski overwhelmingly won a fourth term in the U.S. Senate, declared the victor even as the earliest returns showed unknown GOP opponent Eric Wargotz leading by 1,000 votes; and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley won an even bigger victory than polls had predicted in a rematch against Republican former Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr.

O'Malley is already being talked about as a rising star in the Democratic pantheon.
Kratovil, meanwhile, is packing up his stuff and looking for a new job.

Maryland's Obama?

Among the keynote speakers at Gov. Martin O'Malley's re-election party Tuesday night, at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, was his African-American lieutenant governor, Anthony G. Brown -- a man of charm and eloquence, but apparently a little lacking in his geographic acumen when it comes to Maryland.

Brown, almost 49, told of his pleasure at traveling across the state over the past four years as lieutenant governor, from the mountains of Western Maryland to the sandy shores of Wicomico County.

Trouble is, Wicomico is a little lacking in sandy shores. It's Worcester, one county to the east, that includes Maryland's ocean beaches. And you could see a few people in the crowd below the stage turning to each other, open-mouthed, at the gaffe.

Brown proudly introduced his parents -- his Swiss-immigrant mother and Jamaican-immigrant father -- and embraced his daughter and son, who seem close in age to the children of President Obama. A colonel in the Army Reserves, he is the highest-ranking elected official to have served on active duty in Iraq.

There's a strong chance, some observers believe, that O'Malley could resign to take another job -- on the national stage in the Obama administration, or as successor to Barbara Mikulski should she not complete her next term. In January, she will become the longest-serving female member of the U.S. Senate.

And Anthony Brown would become governor.

If not then, he could run for the job in 2014 -- but he likely won't be the only state official looking to move into the governor's mansion.

Among the other elected Democrats crowding on stage at the O'Malley celebration was another 2014 possible, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who was unopposed for reelection. "Doug'' Gansler, 48, seems to style himself much like the late Bobby Kennedy, who was U.S. attorney general in his brother John's administration.

Look for both of them to make as much noise as possible the next two years, jockeying for position.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rallying for Sanity

All the crowd's a stage at Sanity rally. (Photo by David Ettlin)

View from the crowd
at Stewart/Colbert rally

'Moderation in Defense of Liberty is No Vice'

We traveled by train to Washington Saturday for the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

You might have seen us there, if you were looking down from a helicopter. We were the couple sitting on a bench near an oval of parked bicycles, close to half a mile from the stage.

But we didn’t see much of anything on stage. We were so far back, even the TV monitors and sound system set up for the nearly impenetrable crowd packing the National Mall, between Third and Seventh streets, did not reach us.

Still, it was worth every minute of a very long day, from the wait at the BWI station for our delayed, fully-booked 9:30 a.m. Amtrak train, to the mob scene at Union Station and the 5:20 p.m. return trip. At the stations and the hours between was the real celebration – people of all sorts, race, gender, religion, national origin, calling for a little sanity in a world more often depicted as out-of-control crazy and scary.

They came from across the country. We met and chatted with folks who traveled from the states of Washington, Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey, among others, to be part of the mob of reasonable people.

Not that all of them looked that reasonable, of course. There was a gorilla in a dark business suit, carrying a briefcase; there was a young woman costumed as a multi-fear combination vampire, witch and overzealous Christian; folks with painted bodies; a guy in a Captain Crunch outfit worthy of his own cereal box; a couple of red-and-white-dressed Waldos; an Army paratrooper (with a cleverly modified umbrella) accompanied by a curvaciously dressed red hotline phone; and witches galore spoofing Delaware’s Tea Party-Republican Senate candidate.

The signs many carried were a tribute to American creativity. Here’s a few:

God Hates Idealogues.

Fear Me / I Vote

We have nothing to fear but fear itself AND BEARS

Objective Journalism is Sexy

Moderation in Defense of Liberty is No Vice

Trickledown Economics is a Golden Shower

Palin Snookie 2012

No, I’m Hitler

Right-wing extremists should be killed … but in a nice way

Ich Habe Angst

All we are saying is give thought a chance. After 8 years, NOW you’re mad?

Colbert = Wit; Beck = Half-Wit

Go With Know/ Not No

On the train back to BWI, we met an elderly sex educator from New Jersey (Sex Educators for Sanity) who told of seeing this sign: Abstinence makes the church grow fondlers.

We arrived at the Mall about 10:30 a.m., and the rally viewing area was already jammed. So we kept walking, our backs to the Capitol and toward the Washington Monument. For more than an hour, people continued to stream into the Mall, from side streets and from the direction of the monument. By the thousands they came, a mist of sandy dust from unpaved paths rising from their marching feet. It was an unending parade of costumes, signs, and humanity.

Estimating crowd size is just that -- an estimate. My best guess is that it numbered in the hundreds of thousands, maybe approaching half a million. Call it the 400,000-Hippie March. Strangers talked to strangers. People made new friends. Lovers kissed. Two men walked hand-in-hand. A costumed couple carried their three-month-old twins… future social activists, one might guess, should they follow parental example. A woman in her 50s held up a sign for legalizing pot.

After we got home, we watched the rally on television – I had recorded the live Comedy Central production on our high-def DVR system.

Highlights? Who knew that Kid Rock could pen so moving a song, performing publicly for the first time, with Sheryl Crow, his lyrics about how we may not be able to solve the world’s pressing problems, but we can care.

And after much comedy, there was Jon Stewart’s closing speech -- which had its light moments, such as acknowledging some may have come to visit the nearby Smithsonian Air and Space Museum “and just got royally screwed.” But he had some serious points to make about the reasons underlying the event

"This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times."

Where in most of his Comedy Central “Daily Show” episodes Stewart skewers the media with sarcasm and satire, he admonished it at the rally.

“The country's 24-hour political pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder," he said. "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."

Ordinary folks in America work every today to solve problems, he said, contrasting that with the failures to do likewise in the Capitol behind his stage and on cable television.

“Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder,” he concluded, looking across the sea of people stretching far back along the Mall. “To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine.”

For our little part, two people invisible in the crowd, the pleasure was ours.

His entire speech is well worth reading – or hearing. Doubtless it will be posted soon on his Web site. It’s easy enough to find in a Google search for “Jon Stewart rally speech.”

For more rally photos, visit Bonnie’s Journeys blog. (The squirrel was really there.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Maryland politics: Does time heal?

Harry Hughes, left, and Marvin Mandel shake hands at Maryland Inn gathering. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Mandel, Hughes meet
socially, and sociably,
at press group reunion

Ex-governors not exactly friends decades ago

It was, many believed, an unlikely moment: The handshake, smiles, pleasantries.

Even the sight of these two men in the same small party room seemed unlikely – and some members of the old-timers’ press corps had expressed fears weeks ago that it would not go well.

The setting was the periodic gathering of the “Vintage Press Irregulars” – folks who had covered political news in Maryland’s capital city of Annapolis, some of them for decades. Many are retired now, as are some of the politicians and state officials joining in the low-key reunions.

Thursday afternoon, the mix included as guests two former governors who, since the 1970s, have been viewed as far less than friends: Marvin Mandel and Harry Hughes.

Hughes had been Secretary of Transportation under Mandel, and resigned in 1977 citing issues of integrity and alleging interference by a politically-connected contractor in the award of work on Baltimore’s subway project.

A few months later, Mandel was convicted on charges of mail fraud and racketeering centering on secret deals involving racetrack ownership and the award of racing dates. He served some 19 months in federal prison before President Ronald Reagan commuted his sentence, and in 1987 Mandel’s conviction was overturned by a federal judge on the basis of a Supreme Court decision in another case.

Were it not for Mandel’s legal controversies, Hughes might never have become governor. He faced off with three other major contenders in the 1978 Democratic primary, including the man who had served as acting governor during Mandel’s imprisonment. An influential state senator from Baltimore, the late Harry J. “Soft Shoes” McGuirk, famously described the Hughes candidacy as “a ball lost in tall grass.”

But in a strange twist, polling by the Baltimore Sun newspapers, which had endorsed Hughes, showed that people would vote for him if they thought he had a chance of winning -- and with that, his numbers rose rapidly and the polling pretty much became self-fulfilling prophecy on election day.

The Sun’s endorsement said the election would give voters a chance to break away from past political corruption that had included criminal convictions of the previous two elected governors – Democrat Mandel and Republican Spiro T. Agnew, whose 1969 departure to become vice president had paved the way for Mandel’s appointment and subsequent election to two full terms. (Agnew pleaded no contest to tax evasion in 1973, and resigned the vice-presidency.)

So that’s pretty much the background.

Mandel, the Baltimore native who rose to become speaker of the House of Delegates and by political happenstance and acumen, Maryland’s only Jewish governor. Hughes, a native of the state’s Eastern Shore and former legislator who upset what was portrayed as a rotten political applecart in succeeding him.

Thursday, when we arrived at the historic Maryland Inn meeting site within view of the State House dome, Hughes was sitting in the bar chatting with a few friends. Mandel arrived and sat in the party room across the hall, chatting with a couple of his friends. For about an hour, they were both in the party room, as close as 10 feet from each other and engaging in separate chats.

My wife, photographer Bonnie Schupp, was taking pictures of them and others, and wondering how and if the two governors might be brought together at least for a photo so she could pack away the Nikon D700 and flash weighing heavily on her sore wrist. I stood next to Hughes, looking for an opportunity, a break in his conversation… and there was a pause, just long enough, for me to ask: “Mr. Hughes, could you take just a minute for a picture of two governors together?”

He smiled, walked a few steps over to Mandel’s side and offered a hello. Then they shook hands, talked briefly, as Bonnie fired away. Click, flash, click, flash….

Joining the conversation, I learned about something else they had in common – besides politics and having been Maryland’s 56th and 57th governors, respectively. They had both played baseball as young men – Mandel in college, Hughes, as I had already known, in the Class D minor league. Both were pitchers. Both ended up going to law school. (According to the Web site, Hughes appeared in 16 games in 1949 with his local Federalsburg team, and had an 0-4 record and 5.54 earned run average; he hit .227 with 5 singles in 22 at-bats. Law school clearly was the right choice.)

And they’re both following the World Series when not working.

Mandel, 90, who won back his law license after the criminal case was overturned, remains engaged in his law practice.

Hughes, 84, chairs a state commission bringing together agricultural and environmental interests to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Last week, heading home from a weekend near Ocean City, we rode across a bridge named for him along Route 404 at the Choptank River, an important Bay tributary through farming country.

Did time melt away their differences?

Probably not. But at least they were polite.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Election 2010: A view from the crowd

Bill Clinton, speaking Thursday evening at a big-donors affair in the Baltimore Museum of Industry. (photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Clinton, O’Malley rally
features speeches
by the ‘gazillions’

In my four decades of daily journalism, I cannot recall a bigger turnout at a political rally – of politicians.

Four of Maryland’s eight members in the House of Representatives, both U.S. senators, Baltimore’s mayor, two suburban county executives (and a county councilman running for the top job), and the state’s comptroller, attorney general and governor.

Did I leave out anyone?

Oh, Bill Clinton. After these 13 folks had their turns, shortish and longish, at the microphone, the 42nd president of the United States was the keynote speaker.

Democrats all, they had assembled atop Baltimore’s historic Federal Hill park Thursday afternoon for a rally to turn out the vote on Nov. 2 – or sooner, since Maryland’s “early voting” opens today, Friday Oct. 22.

Most of the speakers are on the general election ballot, but they gathered under the banner slogan of “Move Maryland Forward” and the umbrella campaign of incumbent Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is facing a nasty challenge from the Republican he ousted from the job four years ago, Robert Ehrlich. (O’Malley and Ehrlich don’t like each other very much.)

About a thousand people, mostly supporters, turned out for the public rally – perhaps fewer than one might expect to see Clinton up close on a picture-perfect autumn afternoon, partly sunny, temperatures in the 60s, and a breeze strong enough to keep a giant Star-Spangled Banner (estimate, 16 by 24 feet) rippling and fully extended.

A few impressions from my notebook:

* Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot declaring that Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski “will stand up against the forces that are running this country.” (Whoops! The Democrats are in power right now, Pete – and the popular Mikulski is among the most senior in the Upper Chamber. Must have been post-traumatric stress from when the Republicans, or at least King George the Younger, were running the ship of state over the edge.)

* State Attorney General Doug Gansler (unopposed for reelection), looking much like a clone of the slain Sen. Robert F. Kennedy -- onetime U.S. attorney general. (Maybe it was the hair.)

* The brief but strident remarks of freshman Rep. Donna Edwards, a community and peace activist who two years ago ousted a longtime Democratic incumbent to represent her suburban Washington district. Young, lean, pretty – and, largely unknown in Baltimore, wise enough to know there was a long line of speakers behind her. (My favorite line was her admonition, “You can’t vote often, but you can vote early!”)

* Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a former Baltimore County executive seeking his fifth term on Capitol Hill, who movingly recalled serving as a Democratic National Convention delegate with his now-late father. I like father-son stories. (Dutch looks a bit slimmer, but still has a huge neck – not much different than when he served as Sergeant-at-Arms for my 1963 high school graduating class at Baltimore City College. He’s a big guy.)

* Speaking of father-son stories, Rep. John Sarbanes looks a lot like his father, former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, but sounds more exciting as a speaker. (“We started a great journey two years ago with our new president,” the younger Sarbanes declared.)

I could go on, but better to cut to my favorite of the day -- Rep. Elijah Cummings, the latest to hold title to what has been a historically black district since the election of the late Parren J. Mitchell as Maryland’s first African-American congressman in 1970.

“Look around you,” Cummings told the crowd. “This is a diverse group of folks. Diversity is not our problem. Diversity is our promise!”

Cummings spoke of his roots, one of seven children born to a couple who moved to Baltimore from South Carolina and settled on nearby West Cross Street – which I note is within a mile of the speakers’ platform and the scenic backdrop of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor skyline.

They came here, Cummings said, to have good schools for their future children and for his father to get a “union job” – not “work in the fields of Manning, S.C., for 15 cents a day.”

“Think about what I said – Daddy got a job. If you don’t have a job, it’s hard to take care of your family.”

He digressed from the family tale, saying, “We need to understand where we have come from so we can understand what we have achieved.” And that the Bush administration had not only put the country into a ditch, but one lined with quicksand.

Then it was back to family.

“No. 2, Daddy got some healthcare for his family – seven of us, that’s a lot of kids.”

So, Cummings said, his vote in Congress for healthcare was his most important. “I had one prayer, ‘Lord, don’t let me die before I vote for healthcare.”

“There are too many people dying because they cannot get healthcare,” Cummings continued. “We cannot let the Republicans take us back. There are too many people depending on us.”

Next up for Cummings, No. 3, was education, which he said, with growing evangelical fervor, “can transform a person, a family, a neighborhood – can transform generations.”

Cummings said he has concerns about the threat of Osama bin Laden and terrorism, but, “The greatest threat to our national security is the failure to educate every one of our children.”

Behind me, throughout, stood one of society’s failures – an African-American woman shouting out, louder than rally organizers felt comfortable with, a mantra of agreement with every declaration, but mostly fixated on numbers… whenever budget deficits, big banks, or Wall Street run amok were mentioned.

“Gazillions!” she’d holler out. “Gazillions!”

As the crowd waited nearly half an hour between the opening speeches and the arrival of the top entourage of Mikulski, O’Malley and Clinton, the woman sang out at the very top of her lungs with every rousing musical number piped over the sound system. Gospel, hip-hop, pop… she knew them all. And she was loud.

People were edging away from her, but I turned around trying to be friendly.

“I agree with a lot of what you were saying,” I told her, referring to her occasional shout-outs toward the speakers’ platform. “Do you vote?”

No. Not even registered. “They just put in whoever they want,” she said of the political system, adding that her son got “put away” for 27 years for drug dealing.

She just wanted to see Bill Clinton. She said she loved Clinton. He was the best. Then she gave me a big, smoky hug.

Somehow, it was just a big disconnect in her head between voting, participating, and adoring Clinton – who, along with Governor O’Malley and Senator Mikulski, seemed to notice with slight discomfort her intermittent shouts of “Oh yeah!” and “Trillions! Gazillions! Gazillions!”

Clinton spoke at length of Maryland being a leader in the national recovery from the recession, but mentions of numbers in any statistics he’d mention only seemed to incite another shout from the Gazillions Lady.

On safer ground, he offered parallels between television coverage of sports -- how the facts of what went on in baseball or football games are the basis of subsequent commentary by analysts, unlike commentary on matters of national importance.

“How much of this stuff you see on TV has anything to do with facts?” Clinton declared.

So one might presume he prefers Fox Sports over Fox News.

Clinton also spoke of the need for young people to be energized and participate in the election less than two weeks away.

“You are tomorrow’s America, and you need to show up on Nov. 2!”

Minutes later, Clinton, O’Malley & Co. were being whisked away in a motorcade to the Baltimore Museum of Industry for a big-donor affair – and where my wife, Bonnie Schupp, had been waiting for two hours as a volunteer to take photos for use by the museum.

I took a few pictures with my not-smart phone of Clinton speaking amid the crowd of office-holders on Federal Hill, but he’s just a tiny white hair-dot on the platform from my vantage point some 120 feet away.

Bonnie got a little closer at the museum with her Nikon D-700, and that’s one of her pictures up at the top. She even managed to get a glass of wine.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Movie Reviews: ‘Easy A’ and ‘Secretariat’

Teen sex flick
proves all talk
… and lots of laughs

Meanwhile, Disney goes to the races

Took in a Maryland Film Festival members’ screening last night of “Easy A” – a sort-of high school sex comedy.

When wife Bonnie alerted me to the emailed invitation and told me the title, I figured the “A” was for “Ass.”

But it could be “Adultery,” or simply a grade – like the one I would give this genuinely funny movie, except I’d have to call it “Easy A-Plus.”

The plot features the consequences of 10th-grader Olive (Emma Stone) Penderghast’s lavatory admission, under badgering duress by her best friend (I think they’re called BFF’s these days), to having had first-time sex with a community college guy. Except the guy didn’t exist, the weekend tryst never happened, and the false confession is overheard by a couple of not-friend catty gals.

Inevitably, the news spreads instantly in the communications-heavy teen world of cell phones, iPhones, email and old-fashioned whispers – and adorable extra-virgin Olive, who has never gotten into any kind of trouble, much less notoriety, in her upscale, small-town California world, gets caught up in a comic firestorm of controversy.

For a cute, smart kid who seems to have reached 10th grade almost unnoticed, the attention proves a little puzzling and pleasurable at first, but it grows uncomfortably large after Olive agrees to a favor for a homosexual friend – pretending, in a locked bedroom at a huge party, to have sex with him so the guys tormenting him will think he’s normal.

The complications deepen, even turn a bit sinister, as Olive begins taking gift-card payoffs from other gay guys so they can claim to have had sex with her, or at least to having reached second base. Meanwhile, the Christian student prayer circle takes on the cause of getting Olive cast out of the school – and she takes to wearing a bold cut-out fabric scarlet ‘A’ to accessorize her intentionally-slutty outfits.

And yes, her English class is pretending to read Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” (They don’t even bother with the ‘Cliff Notes’ version when there’s the Demi Moore flick rendition available.)

Amazingly, there’s not a lick of real sex – but just enough profanity to keep “Easy A” almost real, except for the broadly stereotypical characters, Olive’s too-perfect-to-be-true parents and little black adopted brother, and the fact that all these high school teens look a tad too old for the roles.

But they were so good.

The screening audience was almost entirely old enough to be Olive’s parents or grandparents. And they laughed, a lot.

I suspect teens will, too.

This is going to be a smash hit – and, I predict, it will rank up there with “Ferris Bueller” and “Clueless” as iconic teen cinema. It opens nationwide Sept. 17.

Check out the Web site at:

Horse tale

While I’m on the subject of movies without sex acts, Disney has a good one opening next month: “Secretariat.”

Based on the William Nack book, “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” the film focuses on the real-life tale of Colorado housewife Penny Chenery Tweedy, who takes charge of her dying father’s financially troubled Virginia horse farm and the fortunes of its prized colt – a son of Bold Ruler.

“Secretariat” in 1973 became the first winner in a quarter-century of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, and while leaving out a bit of the Chenery/Tweedy story, Disney’s version of the tale is dramatically interesting (Diane Lane being intensely believable as Chenery) and visually enthralling.

I did not notice the uttering of a single profanity, which seems more than odd given the race track conflicts, and the lone bedroom scene features a hospital bed and the dying father. But then again, the story is so focused on Penny and her horse – it works, magically.

Given that I prefer riding elephants, I’m a sucker for a horse story. After all, I grew up reading every “Black Stallion” novel the local library had to offer. “Secretariat” visually made me feel I was up there in the saddle. The races are riveting.

But the best little moment comes quietly, as the great horse matches stride for stride with Sham in the Belmont Stakes, then opens up a widening lead… five lengths, six lengths, seven lengths, the announcer calls to the pounding hoofbeats around the dirt track.

Then silence, a view from ground-level at the turn into the stretch, and you know what’s coming. You wait, fists clenched like a tight grip on leather reins, and then the horse appears above you, running… pounding... flying… one hoof at a time hitting the dirt… then every hoof in the air… and Secretariat wins the race by 31 lengths.

Backing Lane in the cast are John Malkovich as colorful trainer Lucien Laurin; never-heard-of-before-actor Otto Thorwarth as jockey Ron Turcotte; and the eerily familiar Nelsan Ellis as the devoted -- and rather two-dimensionally-depicted African-American groom Eddie Sweat. (Ellis is featured more flamboyantly in the HBO series “True Blood” as the gay cook and occasional drug dealer Lafayette, in scripts that take better advantage of his acting ability.)

Friday, May 14, 2010

My Dinner With Marvin

Better late than never,
longtime news reporter
meets long-ago governor

 At 90, Marvin Mandel seems sharp as a... rifle

In a newspaper career largely consisting of telephone journalism from the city desk, I interviewed and wrote about countless public officials but rarely met them face to face. I knew people more by voice than appearance – prosecutors, mayors, legislators, civic leaders, even an occasional governor.

But Marvin Mandel, the Jewish kid from East Baltimore who became Maryland’s most powerful politician as head of the state Democratic Party, speaker of the House of Delegates and then governor, was not one of them.

Doubtless I wrote many routine state government stories in the early 1970s quoting statements issued by the governor’s office, and worked on a few of the tales as his second elected term in office became mired in controversy – including a secret romance, sensational divorce, and eventual imprisonment on federal mail fraud and racketeering charges.

But meeting him? Well, that finally happened – Thursday evening, over dinner in Annapolis with a few of his media friends at the historic Treaty of Paris Restaurant after a reunion of former state house reporters to which we had both been invited.

He’s 90 now, still practicing law, but the great accomplishments as well as the crazy stuff that for many overshadowed them are all deep in the past.

His memories are rich, however, and over dinner vividly and entertainingly told.

The history is also rather entertaining:

Mandel, if you don’t know it, was chosen as governor by the General Assembly to succeed Republican Spiro T. Agnew when the latter was inaugurated as Richard Nixon’s vice president in January 1969. He won elections to keep the job in 1970 and 1974, when, amid his reelection campaign, Mandel announced he was divorcing his wife of 32 years to marry the much younger woman he loved.

His wife, whose nickname was “Bootsie,” pretty much booted him out of the governor’s mansion and Mandel moved into the Annapolis Hilton. The money ostensibly loaned to Mandel to settle his divorce became part of the pattern of favors federal prosecutors wove into the complicated corruption case that eventually ended his political career. He served 19 months in prison before President Ronald Reagan commuted his sentence, and a federal judge later overturned the conviction on grounds that the federal statutes had been too broadly applied.

So here, directly across the table from me, sits this slight, mostly bald guy with a hearing aid in his right ear, whose anecdotes flowed in and out of a wide-ranging, two-hour conversation, stuff like:

-- Imploring perennial candidate George P. Mahoney, who won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1966, to abandon his powerful, but racially-divisive, campaign slogan of “Your home is your castle: Protect it.” Mandel said he was chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party at the time, and warned Mahoney that the slogan could cost him support. The slogan was banished, but two days before the general election, Mandel said, it was back – and in revulsion, many Democrats turned away and helped vote Agnew into office.

(Agnew’s eventual criticism of black leaders for failing to stem the 1968 King assassination rioting in Baltimore brought him to Nixon’s attention. Agnew attained historical infamy in 1973, resigning the vice presidency as part of a no-contest plea to tax evasion stemming from bribes he took as an elected official in Maryland.)

Mahoney, by the way, never won political office despite many attempts.

But the kind of rhetoric his slogan encouraged, at a time of swift demographic change in Baltimore neighborhoods, lived on in Maryland in other voices, including the 1972 presidential primary won by Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace a day after he was shot and paralyzed by would-be assassin Arthur Herman Bremer on the Laurel Shopping Center parking lot.

-- Mandel said he was notified by phone minutes after the shooting, and immediately called R Adams Cowley, founder of the pioneering Maryland Shock Trauma Center, to assure that Wallace was taken to the best available hospital in the area. (Two days later, Wallace was photographed in his bed at Holy Cross Hospital outside Washington, holding up a newspaper headlined with his election victory.)

Cowley’s Shock Trauma facility was developed and expanded with the support of Mandel and, along with a major reorganization of state government, was among his lasting accomplishments as governor.

Ground had just been broken earlier Thursday on a $160 million, nine-story expansion of the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in downtown Baltimore, and I wondered aloud about my longstanding feeling that many of its patients are unnecessarily brought there with far lesser injuries than it was established to handle.

Mandel said he had encountered opposition to establishing the trauma center from only one group – the state medical society, which saw it as making emergency care increasingly expensive. (It also posed a threat to the emergency business of other area hospitals.)

“Do you want to make that decision?” the former governor asked me, on the issue of where to take an accident victim – as he said he had also told the opposing doctors. “What if it’s your wife, or your daughter, who needs treatment?”

Indeed, Shock Trauma is the best. But as a reporter and editor, I’ve observed a lot of patients being released the day after being flown there by helicopter.

Still, Mandel makes a compelling point. Who can make with any certainty the decision on taking a bleeding patient on an ambulance trip to the nearest hospital or calling in the helicopter for the flight to Baltimore or other designated trauma centers now part of a coordinated statewide emergency medicine network.

-- Mandel discussed his trip to prison – no, not the federal one, but the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore in 1972 to negotiate with inmates holding correctional officers hostage. According to news accounts (my memory bank is only so big), it was his second prison negotiation in a matter of days, following an uprising at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup.

Inmates were holding a prison captain in a tower, Mandel recalled, and he asked what they wanted to accomplish. He was told they were already serving life terms, and had nothing to lose if they killed the man. The issues were poor conditions, bad food, predictable inmate complaints.

Mandel said he assured the inmates that if they killed the man, he would call a special session of the General Assembly and win speedy passage of a law calling for them to be put to death.

“Can he do that?” one of the convicts said.

Years later, Mandel said, he was attending a public event when a young man approached and thanked him for saving the life of the prison officer – his father.

There was no discussion of Mandel’s own trip to prison, in Florida, the corruption case or the divorce hoo-hah – save for a mention one of our dining companions made of Baltimore attorney Arnold Weiner.

“He was my lawyer,” Mandel responded, smiling.

And I noted, adding to the very small talk, the long career of Weiner’s daughter Deborah as a TV news anchor in the city.

-- Mandel had a lot to say about gambling, and trips to Las Vegas, and explained his strategy: Taking $1,000 to gamble and, if it’s gone, to spend the rest of the trip in activities like relaxing poolside at the hotel. He mentioned one trip with late buddy Irv Kovens, a businessman friend (some say ‘crony’) who was among the group of alleged co-conspirators convicted with Mandel in the case that included supposed political maneuvering to add racing dates for a horse track secretly owned by the governor’s friends.

Mandel said he was $5,000 ahead on the Vegas trip, and handed the money to Kovens with instructions to give it back “when we’re on the plane.”

On another trip, he introduced to a casino manager he knew a man purporting to have devised a way to beat the games – and the manager, not all that impressed at such systems, offered that the only way to end up way ahead is to win big early and walk away from the table. Those who stay on invariably end up losers.

In Maryland, slot machine gambling -- once legal in only a few counties and then outlawed – is legal again under state legislation, but a couple of battles are raging over where the slots parlors will be located and who wins the potentially lucrative prize of operating them.

But while Maryland sat on the sidelines with its legislative fights on passing a law and the ensuing battles for a share of the action, the neighboring states of West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania have joined Atlantic City, N.J., in the Middle Atlantic region’s expansion of government-licensed slots and other forms of gambling – beyond the innumerable state and multi-state lotteries that years ago largely put the illegal numbers game to rest.

Mandel said in the days when slot machines were legal in Southern Maryland, a study was done on where the customers came from – by examining automobile license plates on the parking lots. Close to three-quarters of the patrons came from other states, Mandel said.

The question that raises is where the patrons will come from for Maryland’s slot machines, some 15,000 of them, which Mandel said are projected to make $400 a day each. His view: With legal gambling available in neighboring states, it will be more like $200, and the cash-starved local and state governments’ share of the profits will amount to far less than they expect.

-- On Army service in Europe during World War II, teaching soldiers “how to kill” in preparation for the North African campaign, and how his departure was briefly deferred so he could take and pass the Maryland bar exam. “If I had waited until I came back, I would not have passed it,” he said.

As his discharge from the service neared, Mandel said, he dismantled his Army rifle and shipped the parts home – reassembling it on his return.

“I still have it, I keep it in a closet,” Mandel said. “I took it out last week, and it still works.”

Something to keep in mind for any burglars in his neighborhood near Annapolis, the state capital.

He still lives in the eight-room house he shared with the woman he truly loved, second wife Jeanne Blackistone Dorsey Mandel, who died in 2001 after a long fight against degenerative amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“I only use two rooms,” said Mandel, “the bedroom and the TV room.”

At night, he reads until falling asleep.

May the dreams be as rich as the stories.

More on the media
Just over a year after the Baltimore Sun Massacre in which a third of the newsroom staff was fired without notice, the Writers Guild of America, East announced this week the launch of the Web site “Telling Our Stories: The Days of the Baltimore Sun.”

It contains memoirs written by those who were so rudely sent packing, some of them bitter accounts but others remembering the good times.

The announcement states:

Telling Our Stories is the culmination of a fellowship program funded by the Writers Guild of America, East Foundation and implemented with the collaboration of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. The Foundation’s mission is to perpetuate the art and craft of storytelling.

The fellowship program gives the laid-off Sun employees an opportunity to process their difficult experiences through creative work, asking them simply “to tell a story arising out of their personal experiences during their time at The Baltimore Sun.”

Some recall the pain of being fired; others recollect the challenges, joys, and spirit of newspaper work. Participating fellows include reporters, editors, critics, copy editors, photographers, designers, advertising salespeople and market researchers. In addition to the essays, poems, photos and videos featured on the site, former Sun employees also designed the website and edited the submissions.

“I think the important thing about this site is that it puts real people behind the numbers. It will let the readers of Baltimore know what they’ve lost,” said Steve Auerweck, a 24-year Sun employee who first worked as an editor on the business desk and then as a manager of newsroom technology. Auerweck contributed the piece on “Newsroom Humor” in addition to designing and building the site.

“The Baltimore Sun fellowship embodies the Foundation’s mission – to perpetuate the art and craft of storytelling. By publishing their personal stories on this site, the fellows’ voices can now be heard loud and clear by people not only in Baltimore but around the world. As writers, we understand the power of words. We’re happy this fellowship program and new website are helping these fellows harness the power of words to get through this difficult time,” said Tom Fontana, president of the Writers Guild of America, East Foundation.

The Baltimore Sun Fellowship was established in 2009 and funded by an anonymous grant to the Writers Guild of America, East Foundation. The Foundation partnered with the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild to establish the program and recruit the fellows. The collaboration included a mentoring session held in the late fall between the fellows and Foundation members, including Fontana, Barry Levinson, David Simon, WGAE President Michael Winship, Julie Martin, David Bianculli, and WGAE Foundation Executive Director Marsha Manns.

“Collectively, the fellows’ imaginative retelling of their days at The Baltimore Sun brings perspective to a difficult human experience and helps define and preserve a significant moment in American cultural history,” said Manns.

Fellows participating in the program also include: Paul Bendel-Simso, Chiquita Bolden-Heath, Danielle Bradley, Phyllis Brill, Tyeesha Dixon, Doug Donovan, Deborah Lakowicz-Dramby, Ray Frager, Patrick Gutierrez, Beth Hughes, Fe Fung Hung, Doug Kapustin, Chiaki Kawajiri, Jiho Kim, Fay Lande, Linda L. Linley, Monica Lopossay, Elizabeth Malby, John E. McIntyre, Sandra Nash, Rashod D. Ollison, Ebony Page-Harvey, Alan Perry, Gene Russell, Denise Sanders, Norine Schiller, Franz Schneiderman, Matt Tustison, Charles H. Weiss, Linda White, and Teresa Wilson.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Maryland Film Festival weekend

Line forms for Friday films. (Photo by Bonnie Schupp)

Indie film 'Night Catches Us'
examines 1970s racial divide
from an urban Ground Zero

'Wire' stars cast in familiar roles

Maryland Film Festival director Jed Dietz introduced it as a story no one else was telling, but he might just as well have called “Night Catches Us” the essence of what his annual celebration of filmmaking is all about.

The story by writer-director Tanya Hamilton examines a tense period in urban race relations from the perspective of an extended African-American household caught in the epicenter of violence in the aftermath of the Black Panthers movement in urban America – with killings of Panther members by police, and vice-versa.

It was not an easy project to bring to the screen, having taken a decade from the time Hamilton began writing it. Likely taking the least time was the actual shooting last year. “We had 18 days and a very tiny budget,” she told the audience after a screening at this weekend’s 2010 festival.

And it may prove difficult to reach the big biracial audience that “Night Catches Us” deserves when the film has its national release – which could come this fall. Hamilton announced to applause that her film has been purchased by Magnolia Pictures and could be in theaters by November.

A generation younger than the characters and situations she depicts, Hamilton nonetheless captured the tearing social fabric of a time just past the Black Power movement’s heyday and before black voices began having a major impact on political power. Interestingly, the vocal backdrop for the opening scene is Jimmy Carter in a 1976 presidential campaign speech, about returning power to the people.

The setting is Philadelphia, but could just as well have been Baltimore, Detroit or any number of cities with large but marginalized black populations.

A police raid crashing into the home of the central characters after the killing of a white officer had the feel of the real-life raids in Baltimore in the 1964 manhunt for the black Veney brothers for the killing of a policeman after a liquor store robbery, and the suspicion and hatreds between black and white fit the backdrop of the 1970 tensions here when police and politicians worried about an incident – any incident – sparking a rerun of the 1968 King assassination rioting.

Fear is never a good basis for communication.

The Maryland Film Festival gave a helping hand to director Hamilton, with early financial support through a 2006 Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship grant. Her movie also was shown to an audience of festival members as a work in progress, for feedback before final editing.

Hamilton relied on friends and favors in assembling a top-notch cast, which includes Anthony Mackie (seen most recently in “The Hurt Locker” and “Notorious”), Kerry Washington (who portrayed the wives of Ray Charles and Idi Amin in “Ray” and “The Last King of Scotland,” respectively); and two stars from the Baltimore-filmed HBO series “The Wire” – Wendell Pierce and Jamie Hector.

Hector, who gave menace to the character of ruthless drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield in “The Wire,” is cast as a young black gangster. Here’s hoping he doesn’t get typecast – I’d love to see him in other kinds of roles.

Pierce… well, as in “The Wire,” he’s a police detective. But at least we’re seeing him now in his native New Orleans as a struggling, and hustling, musician in David Simon’s new HBO series, "Treme."

He also attended and fielded questions from the crowd at the weekend screenings of “Night Catches Us,” and was effusive in his praise for Hamilton – noting the shooting of many of the scenes in just one or two takes, without a videographer’s assistance. “She had a vision of what she wanted,” Pierce said.

Hamilton said she drew in part on the 1969 Chicago police killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in molding her story, and the film includes – seamlessly – related historical footage.

She said the tight shooting schedule frayed some nerves, as the light of day would give way to evening fireflies. Asked if that concern about losing the light was an underlying factor in naming the film, Hamilton said the title really was derived from a saying in her native Jamaica that she often heard from her grandmother: “Don’t let the night catch you.”

Darkness is a powerful metaphor for this very powerful film. And its depiction of a stark racial division in America is a reminder in a time of other, equally difficult divides in society today.

Other films we caught

Lacking the stamina to handle three intensive days of films from 11 in the morning to late at night, we opted this year to resist the temptation of all-access passes and instead took advantage of the festival membership first-day, 11-to-6, all-you-can-watch open house at the multi-screen Charles Theatre north of Baltimore's rail station.

We started with a packaged group of seven dramatic shorts, some of which we won’t regret never seeing again. But an Israeli tale, “On the Road to Tel Aviv,” was totally compelling. Its conflict, in the wake of a bus bombing, is born of fear as passengers balk at staying aboard a mini-bus out of suspicion that a woman in Arab garb is a terrorist.

The program included a guest appearance by young Australian filmmaker Patrick Maxwell, who fielded questions about his short, “Mrs. Wright,” a mid-life married woman who encounters, longs for, and ultimately backs away from having a relationship with a younger grocery store clerk. (Aha! A cougar in Sydney!)

After a quick lunch in the festival’s Tent Village across the street from the Charles, we caught two feature-length films, the comic road trip “Bass Ackwards” and the bizarre and unsettling, darkly comic subtitled, Greek-made “Dogtooth.”

The former was directed by and stars young filmmaker Linas Phillips, who also co-wrote the script, and he chatted with his festival audience about the year of work involved – first from shooting much of the cross-country journey, then three days based in a city of convenience, Minneapolis, when actor-friend Jim Fletcher had the time for some quickly-produced scenes that became key to the story.

Another star is the vehicle itself – a VW microbus that, at some time in its past, had its middle removed and the two ends welded together. Phillips said it was found and purchased through eBay, and is now sitting on his parents’ driveway in Massachusetts if anyone wants to make an offer for the tiny four-seater.

“Dogtooth” is the tale of a family of five, in which the wife, man-boy son and two na├»ve daughters grow up sheltered from the world on a private, fenced estate, their lives directed by a sometimes-dictatorial businessman father. He brings in a woman security guard from his industrial plant to provide sex for the son, but she also brings on calamity in exchanging gifts – including some video movies – for sex in seducing one of the daughters. The result is, in a word, disturbing.

(For another view from the festival, check out the Journeys blog by my wife Bonnie Schupp.)

On other topics

Remembering a baseball legend

I could not let the passing last week of longtime Detroit Tigers baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell slip by without a mention.

I met the man once, briefly, nearly a decade ago at a patio lunch outside the Tigers’ spring training stadium in Lakeland, Fla. Harwell was kind enough to let me join him, giving me an opportunity to explain how his was the first baseball voice I could remember – from his 1954 broadcast work in Baltimore in the debut season of the modern-era Orioles.

Harwell was genuinely appreciative that close to half a century later, I could still remember and thank him for his Oriole radio broadcasts from a time when I was all of eight years old.

“We didn’t win a lot of games,” he recalled in that famous voice, smiling and pausing for a micro-second. “But we sure had a lot of fun.”

A nutcracker, sweetie!

Just in time for the occasion, I found the perfect Mother's Day gift for wife Bonnie: A dead man’s nutcracker.

I was driving home from the supermarket Saturday afternoon when I noticed a small sign at an intersection near our home: “Estate Sale.”

I drove down the long road toward some of the area’s finer waterfront homes, and it took about 15 minutes to track down the right driveway – almost at 3 p.m., as the sale was ending.

It was the home of a local business leader and electrical engineer who had died a month and a half ago from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He was 64 – just a few months older than me – and judging from some of the oddities left after the picking-over by an earlier throng of buyers, had the kind of sense of humor I appreciate.

So I bought a couple of crazy gizmos, like a battery-powered device that scrambles an egg inside its shell, and a Rube Goldbergish egg cracker. His niece told me he had ordered them from a catalog shortly before his death, and never had a chance to see them in action.

Then there was the nutcracker: A long, hand-carved wooden figure of a nude woman, with a small depression high between the thighs where the nut is placed between the spreading legs. Then you squeeze them together and – crack!

It’s so twisted.

But the real gift is laughter.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Milestones: 40 years down the road

Kent State anniversary
brings back memories
of other front-page news

The anniversary had skipped my mind, but an NPR interview reminded me: Forty years ago this week, my first front-page byline appeared in The Baltimore Sun.

The NPR story had nothing to do with mine, except that its subject – the Kent State University massacre – made the front pages of Tuesday May 5, 1970, historic. Newspapers ran the photo of runaway 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio crying out in anguish over the body of Jeffrey Miller, one of 13 students shot by National Guard soldiers during an anti-war demonstration. Miller was one of the four who died.

Disturbances in the college town of Kent, Ohio, had prompted its mayor to declare a state of emergency and ask the governor to send in the Guard troops to restore order. The campus demonstration was one of many across the nation – including the University of Maryland – in response to an invasion of Cambodia ordered by the Nixon administration in what was perceived as an escalation of the Vietnam war.

My story was the result of a similar mindset in Baltimore, except that the issue was policing and race relations.

About the time of the noon-hour gunfire in Ohio, I was arriving at the city desk as a young reporter and being handed an assignment: A priest’s complaint about the refusal of the city police to respond to a call for help from his rectory a few nights earlier. A man had knocked on the door that Saturday night, seeking help because he was being “terrorized” by a band of teenagers.

The priest called the police, but after more than an hour no officer had arrived. He asked a fellow priest, the Rev. Richard Lawrence, who had experience in police-community relations, to check on the situation, and the latter priest told me how he called the Chief of Patrol’s office and was informed the department would not respond to the rectory because it was in “a gray area” with a “racial problem” and police were “afraid that the car would be hit with rocks or bottles or overturned.”

The church on Old York Road was around the corner from a house on Cator Avenue that was reportedly the headquarters of a group called Making a Nation – and one of half a dozen addresses that police had linked to black militant organizations. Police Commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau had issued an order that no patrol officer respond to those addresses without the presence of a supervisor, but the directive was misinterpreted to mean no response to the wider “sensitive” or “gray” areas around them.

Just a week earlier, city police had arrested a dozen members of the militant Black Panthers in connection with a killing, and the day I was working on the “gray areas” story, Commissioner Pomerleau was testifying at a court hearing in opposition to a civil libertarian motion seeking to dissolve a judge’s order that had banned the distribution of infammatory Panther literature.

Baltimore was just two years beyond the rioting that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Pomerleau, asked in court whether the arrests had the potential to spark comparable civil disorder, replied, “I say no,” according to a story by a Sun colleague appearing elsewhere in the same edition as my front-pager.

My story was the front-page lead, with a two-column headline at the top right. It was adjacent to the image of Mary Ann Vecchio that won then-student photographer John Filo a Pulitzer Prize and added fuel to the growing antiwar movement.

The Kent State account topped the middle of the front page, and under it was the story on the emergency declaration by Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel that sent Guardsmen to the College Park campus. A downpage photo showed state troopers using tear gas to disperse demonstrators there.

Hardly anyone remembers my slightly overplayed story, which was clearly less important than the Kent State tragedy or troopers firing tear gas at Maryland student protesters who had blocked U.S. 1 in College Park for much of the day. (The war and race relations came together nine days later at Mississippi’s Jackson State, where city and state police gunfire on student protesters left two dead and 12 wounded.)

Forty years ago, Baltimore was a tense city just beginning to find its way in race relations and America was caught up in dissention over the Vietnam war. Much of the response on both fronts, as reflected in the front-page stories of May 5, 1970, seem in hindsight to have stemmed from fear.

Today, strangely, race still colors all too many aspects of life in Baltimore – including education, housing, health care, justice, politics.

And America is mired in yet another increasingly unpopular war.

There was a demonstration, of sorts, at College Park this year that brought a police response -- to quell the boistrous celebration after Maryland beat Duke University in a basketball game.

Prince George's County police were accused of brutality in the beatings of two students that night.

In retrospect, isn't that strange?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Movie Review: ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’

Indie film takes on
fly-by-night world
of the street artist

So ask yourself:

What is art anyway?

In the world of graffiti, when does vandalism become art?
For that matter, what is art?

These difficult questions are among the unanswerables explored with considerable irreverence in “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” an indie movie opening today in Baltimore and over the next few weeks at a modest number of theaters across the country – and which deserves more than it likely will get.

From its reported acclaim in a Sundance premiere to its almost underground marketing scheme, “Gift Shop” should be getting lots of buzz in coming weeks and much will be made of the questions it raises – even whether its documentary story line is true or invented, a mockumentary.

The story lines are a bit muddled, starting out with Los Angeles fashion entrepreneur and Frenchman Thierry Guetta’s fascination with video – and how he seemed to record every mundane act of urban living within his family and neighborhood.

Eventually, through a street artist cousin known as Space Invader, Guetta expands to recording the fly-by-night world of graffiti artists. A growing connection with the likes of street artist Shepard Fairey (creator of the iconic Obama poster) brings an introduction to the mysterious and reclusive British artist Banksy, and Guetta becomes a co-conspirator in taping him at work.

As his own fame leads to big money in the art world, Banksy asks to see the movie he believes Guetta is creating – and then is shocked, incredulous, at the mess of it all.

And so the tale turns around, as Banksy encourages Guetta to put down the video camera and try his hand at art – and the undisciplined filmmaker himself again becomes the focus of the tale as an untrained artist who at least knows how to think big. Very big. Very bad. Well, some of it, anyway.

Because what is art really is defined by what people believe it to be.

Like art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Guetta calls his resulting show “Life is Beautiful” – and whether or not you think it is art, he’s got that absolutely right.

The film was screened on the eve of its Baltimore opening for an invited audience including Maryland Film Festival members, with an appearance by locally-raised film agent Bart Walker, a partner in Cinetic Media and part of a group formed to market “Exit.” He said they are relying on the audiences of such preview screenings to spread the buzz.

Here’s mine: It’s a hoot and a half. Check it out. But go easy on the spray paint – not everyone has the talent.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Help for Haiti

Obama pledges $100 million;
a million Americans
could easily match it

I’ve got a cup of tea, some bread just out of the oven, a roof overhead, and a high-def, wide-screen TV which for hours has given me a window on the tragedy of a nation with virtually none of the above – just destruction and death.

I noticed on the CNN news-crawler at the bottom of the horrible scenes from Haiti that President Obama just pledged $100 million for emergency assistance.

The amount – well, it’s good start.

But I bet folks all cozy, like me, can add at least that much to the cause of helping a poor, besieged neighbor in the wake of an earthquake that is clearly among the worst natural disasters in recorded history.

Raising the money would be a snap – just a million Americans, donating at least $100 each, would match Obama’s $100 million. You can find a list at of organizations engaged in relief efforts in Haiti, and pick one or more to receive your contribution – or find another from any of the many listings compiled by the print and broadcast media.

I chose the American Red Cross ( , Catholic Relief Services (, IMA World Health (, and Doctors Without Borders (

Now, if just another 999,999 folks could join in this little effort – well, we’ll all be contributing members of an enormous organization: Humanity.

There’s no membership card, but gifts to most if not all of the relief organizations are tax-deductible. And when you figure out how much your tax savings amounts to, use that money for another gift later.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Remembering Mark Owings



for SF fan

I attended the memorial service today for my friend Mark Owings, a fellow founding member of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. His wife Jul noted that he died amid his collection of some 15,000 books -- appropriately enough, sitting in a chair with a volume he was reading in his lap. "He died with his boots on," she told friends attending the brief service at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, a short walk from their home in Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood.

Mark, who had a long white beard, had been scheduled to reprise his role as Father Time for Hampden's annual New Year's Eve ball drop, but died on Dec. 30 -- barely a month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

David Chalker -- the elder of two sons of another club co-founder, the late Jack Chalker -- kindly snapped the photo above with his iPhone: The box containing Mark's ashes, topped by his wizard's hat.

Not in the photo, but high above on the wall behind the altar, was a large painting of Jesus -- described by one of the science fiction friends in attendance as "another master of space and time."

I'm not particularly religious -- OK, I'm not religious, period -- but the wizard hat, the juxtaposition and the comment were wonderful. I'd rather smile than cry at a funeral.

Bon voyage.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What about (Socialist) Bob

Baltimore leftist
would have enjoyed
his last turnout

Baltimore’s best-known socialist attracted what may have been his largest crowd Wednesday afternoon, but wasn’t around to enjoy it.

A. Robert Kaufman, a far-leftist who had been tilting at societal windmills for more than half a century, died on Christmas Day after more than three years of declining health – a result of being stabbed by a deranged boarder in a building he owned in a rough westside neighborhood. He was 78.

More than 100 people from varied walks of life offered condolences to Bob’s elderly sister – his sole survivor – and heard tributes from former newspaper columnist Mike Olesker, from influential African-American minister Marion Bascom, from a printing company entrepreneur who for many years had Bob as frequent customer, and even from a young man who described himself as a revolutionary socialist inspired by Bob’s example.

I probably met Bob no more than twice, but talked to him regularly over the course of nearly four decades on the city desk of The Baltimore Sun. He called frequently, hoping to talk to editors. I was the guy usually answering the phone. It was a curious relationship. I’d hear what he had to say, and send a brief message off to whatever editor he wanted to reach (but who had no time or inclination to chat with Bob). Usually just a sentence, kind of a tweet, about this demonstration, that hearing, his latest filing for elective office.

There was hardly a public office that Bob didn’t run for – mayor, council, congress, president. The point was never about winning. It was about the forum that comes with candidacy, the chance to espouse his views that in the short run of a campaign or a decade were largely ignored or brought him mostly derision.

Crazy stuff, you know – starting in the late 1940s, as a white Jewish teen-ager joining in civil rights picketing outside a whites-only downtown theater. He opposed war, opposed the death penalty, favored legalizing drugs, spoke out for universal health care and affordable car insurance, and wanted big business to share the wealth.

Sometimes it was a chance to criticize the political system when, deemed a minor candidate, he would be barred from an election debate.

He was roughed up and stuffed in a trash can back around 1960 outside Baltimore City College, by a mob of students who also tore up his socialist leaflets. I missed the ruckus, but Olesker, who was in my 10th-grade homeroom, recalled seeing the mob that day. It might have been Bob’s biggest crowd before Wednesday’s memorial, we joked.

Bob was uncompromising in his beliefs. If there was movement on his issues, it was society that did the moving – as witness the election of a black president, debate on universal health care on Capitol Hill, growing disenchantment with the latest war, city council eyeing the high cost of car insurance for Baltimore residents.

But in his last two years, living in a nursing home, Bob was pretty much a spectator badly in need of a kidney – his own kidneys having failed as a complication from the knife attack and subsequent infections. He had nearly died after the attack. More recently, he had a stroke.

Olesker, in his remarks, said Bob “could really make people uncomfortable because we were not living up to our ideals” – and neither was America.

“He was bigger than most of the religions we practice,” said Reverend Bascom. “He was a consummate humanist. He walked where most of us feared to walk.”

After the brief program, horticulturist and retired veterinarian L. Bruce Hornstein, a friend of Bob since their childhood days, observed, “He was a pacifist, and he was fearless.”

For more on Kaufman, including his obituary and photos, check out these entries at The Baltimore Sun:,0,4426848.story,0,4271671.story

Another passing

After the Kaufman remembrance, I drove across town to attend another memorial gathering – this one for longtime friend Mark Owings, who was among the handful of founding members of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. He was the most gentle, soft-spoken human being I have ever known.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, I found myself at age 16 becoming close friends in high school with future novelist Jack Chalker and traveling by Trailways bus with him and a few other fans of the genre to attend meetings of the Washington Science Fiction Association. I suggested starting a club in Baltimore, and the first official meeting took place in the tiny basement of my parents’ Royce Avenue rowhouse.

We also started holding an annual regional science fiction conference, which initially attracted a few dozen people, but grew to major proportions over the years – 1,500 or more, and filling hotels. There’s even been a couple of larger world science fiction conventions here.

While I drifted away from active membership, Jack and Mark remained involved in BSFS and collaborated on a couple of book projects that drew on Mark’s strength as a bibliographer: The Index to the Science-Fantasy Publishers and The Revised H.P. Lovecraft Bibliography.

Jack died nearly five years ago. Now Mark, on Dec. 30, at 64 – mere weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

The last time we had our picture taken together was in 2003, at BSFS’ 40th anniversary party – held in its spacious clubhouse, a former East Baltimore Street movie theater building.

I offered this comment at the party:

“I have proof that time travel exists. There’s just two drawbacks – it only goes in one direction, and it happens too fast.”

RIP, Mark. And tell Jack I said ‘hi’.