Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Review FIRST PRINCIPLES by Thomas Ricks


Right from the get go Professor Thomas Ricks’ Pulitizer Prize winning book FIRST PRINCIPLES  moves to change your thinking about history.  He begins with the bald and bold statement that “I have chosen to use the term “First Peoples” rather than “Indian” or “Native American”  because  they were here well before this land was called the Americas.   He proceeds from there to  note that although there have been numerous studies of the lives of  George Washington,  John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and  James Madison, none of them have emphasized “what they learned, where they learned it, who they learned it from, and what they did with that knowledge”  He also admits up front  that he has a definite concern for the “faults of our founders” because, as he puts it,  we have had a system from the very beginning that has always had at least one political party or faction that offered a home for white supremacy. 

Let me also warn you that this is a challenging read and asks perhaps more familiarity with the works of classical Greece and Rome than is possessed by the average person.  Notwithstanding that it still does add to the perspective needed in order to face and understand the challenges the country faces in the third century of our governmental journey.  

Our first four presidents had different educational backgrounds.  Washington was not a learned man, but became educated more by experience. President Adams graduated from Harvard,  Jefferson from     William and Mary,  and Madison from Princeton.  Ricks outlines each institution’s educational mindset, and concludes that The Scottish enlightenment and Calvinist Reformation  had a tremendous impact on all of them. As someone who taught at a Scottish Presbyterian college for almost forty years,  I found this most interesting.   

Each reader will, I am sure, find items like this throughout the book that will resonate with their own experiences.  My expanded  list includes the continual reminder that three of the four first presidents were slaveholders and that the horror of the Civil War was literally sown into the fabric of the Constitution.   We see Jefferson at his best in the Declaration and Madison at his best in the Constitution. We are reminded of the Jeffersonian anomaly that a man who never ventured west of the Shenandoah Valley shepherded the largest territorial acquisition in the country’s history.  We see Washington becoming a successful general by way of several defeats. We see John Adams as the eternal curmudgeon.  We find out that Madison was sickly but had a healthy impact on the country  and that Jefferson loved the plays of Euripides and was single handedly responsible for the Classical look for our governmental buildings.

The middle of the book takes us from the founding of the country into a look at how the Classical models receded as we approached the 19th century.  Washington  warns early on that the young Republic should steer clear of foreign entanglements and the next years see the rise of more vicious  partisanship, factionalism, and political parties.  As the country expands geographically and commercially more attention is given to free enterprise and the importance of individual freedom and decision making.  A hierarchy is less important if you are on your own and trying to make it  in the wild west.  Becoming more dominant, however,  is the hardening of the opposition to slavery and the building forces that would culminate in the Civil War.    

That war continues to this day as once again we find that the truest test of democratic republic is the ability of the old leadership to turn over power peacefully without a war. The closing chapter starts with the assertion that all of the founders would be appalled by how money has come to dominate politics as well as enterprise.  None of them, says Ricks, wanted a  country ruled only  by the few and the rich.  In spite of all the challenges they still did manage to build a “durable system” of checks and balances that has withstood a lot of trauma over the years.  

His final observations and recommendations come in list form.

We must drop the idea that corporations are people and enjoy the same rights as citizens.  We must refocus on things that contribute to the public good rather than policies that seem only to encourage  private wealth.  The government should focus on health care, education, infrastructure, the environment,  public safety, civic duty,  and respect for our core institutions.

The government must protect our freedom of speech but must not protect violence in the name of freedom.  It is difficult to pursue “happiness” while looking down the barrel of a gun.

Congress, he feels, has been the most disheartening failure of all.  It has become hog tied into passivity and unable to legislate or assert itself as a co-equal branch.

Above all we must know and respect history. We must acknowledge mistakes and realize that they can be fixed if we see them as a way station along the path toward a more perfect union.  The country’s  biggest and most tragic mistake was to  build  slavery into its original genetic imprint.  Now, although we no longer have slavery,  the belief system that set it in motion still lives on and it is still to our peril.

jdy  1/26/21

Wednesday, January 06, 2021


Riedel, Michael   Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway

Theatre gossip is hard to turn down, so I was delighted to see Michael Riedel’s Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway in my Christmas stocking.   In an earlier book (Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway), he covers the 1970’s and 80’s with a focus on a consortium of powerful theatre owners and two English giants  Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. As they take-back  the Times Square area from the sex industry. There is no question that, as a long time theatre columnist for the New York Post, Riedel has had an insider’s look at the Great White Way for a lot of years.  Singular Sensation treats the 1990’s and the compelling rise of home grown talents to take over the once foreign dominated Broadway scene.  I’ve been a theatre guy for most of my life and this book tells me why I have loved it.  It is informative, engrossing, and of course full of plenty of juicy insider theatrical gossip.   What more can you ask for?

Riedel begins with the story of the rise and fall of the last of the big British produced musicals. “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” They are still running but Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Blvd.” is running into problems due to high stakes jockeying for its leading role by Glen Close, Patti LuPone, and Faye Dunnaway.  That show is then pushed out of the spotlight by the new American wave with a detailed treatment of the creation of Johathan Larsen’s “Rent” and the story of the tragic demise of its author. One item I learned was  that the title had a double meaning. The characters could not afford their “rent” and everyone around them was being “rent” by AIDS, drugs, poverty, gentrification, and alienation.”

Although we do get some treatment of the big  “stars” who could make and break shows all by themselves, people like Nathan Lane and Patti LuPone do  have to take a back seat. The emphasis of Riedel’s story is on the moguls who own the theatres, the producers who are searching for the “hit,” and the creators themselves who are writing the songs and the scenes.  We are let in on the inside maneuverings to get the right property into the right theatre at the right time. You see up close the machinations of the Shubert and Nederlander organizations and follow the rise of the upstart on the block, Jujamcyn.  As one wag said, the name seemed more like a prescription for an antibiotic than a theatrical organization.  I did learn that the weird name was chosen by the original moneyed angel William McKnight, who was a theatre lover and the chairman of  Minnnesota’s 3M company. Jujamcyn was actually just a combination of the beginnings of the names of his three grandchildren--Julie, James, and Cynthia.  Mr. McKnight, by the way, was also an early supporter of Minneapolis’ Tyrone Guthrie Theatre.  A group of talented young actors who were some of my fellow grad students at the U. of Minnesota in the sixties were called  McKnight Fellows. A number of them went on to become long term and loved resident performers for the Guthrie company.  

One of the larger than life producers who seemed to dominate the 90’s was Garth Drabinsky.  He was tough, reckless, and rapacious and spent money with an abandon that would make King Midas look like skinflint.  A theatre insider was quoted as saying about him, that  “Garth was the only guy I knew who could overspend an unlimited budget.”  Drabinsky created his movie and theatre empire on the back of receipts from the Canadian rights to “The Phantom of the Opera,” but finally lost his golden touch and ended up spending time behind bars for cooking his own books.

Nearing the end of the decade and the tragedy of 9/11, we are treated to the engrossing story of Julie Taymor and Disney’s “The Lion King.”  That is followed closely by Mel Brooks and the saga of “The Producers.”   It might seem that this entire volume is focused on musicals and it cannot be denied that musicals are the big ticket items that drive Broadway.  On the other hand, fans of drama need not be too concerned. There is more than enough treatment in the book of the contributions of shows by Tony Kushner, Neil Simon, and Edward Albee to at least recognize that drama without music was still around.   

In sum Riedel gives you the privilege of loitering in the back recesses of the green room in order to overhear the making of the most important theatrical endeavors of the decade. I was also reminded that the business of making theatre is tougher than a cheap steak and that picking a winner is as hard as picking the right murderer in an Agatha Christie mystery.