Monthly Archives: September 2008

A Newman classic: ‘The Verdict’

In honor of the life and career of Paul Newman, one of my favorite actors, here is a piece I wrote eight years ago:

Ordinary noises, human sounds dominate The Verdict (20th Century Fox, 1982), the greatest courtroom drama ever filmed. Whether they are the bells of a pinball machine, the hiss and hum of a hospital respirator, or the clink of ice cubes in a whiskey glass, they serve a far more important function here than mere aural landscaping.

Director Sidney Lumet drapes his film in a shroud of stillness of grief, of regret. It’s dark. It’s Boston. It’s winter. There is no soundtrack in the movie to speak of — and extended sequences where no one talks. So that when we hear something as benign as the bumper of a pinball machine as the movie opens, we welcome the comfort it provides.

Otherwise, we are passing through a grim universe, an unyielding moral vacuum. The movie’s protagonist, lawyer Frank Galvin, as captured by Paul Newman, is a shabby, self-hating drunk, taken to chasing coffins in funeral homes. Few Hollywood glamour gods have ever allowed themselves to be portrayed here as Newman has — and he was wrongly denied an Oscar for his performance. An early shot, with his hand shaking so violently that he must drink whiskey by bending his head and sipping it, is part of an initial tragic suite of scenes: Galvin getting tossed from a funeral home, Galvin holding court at the corner bar, Galvin trashing his law office. They establish the character for what he is: a mess, a loser.

And the wonder of this movie is that, by the end of the film, he isn’t much different. There are no epiphanies, no 12-step programs, no sunrises and swelling of the orchestra. The movie takes great pains to show us that seeking justice for a few moments — and even getting well-paid for it — doesn’t transform you. It just makes surviving a hell of a lot easier.

As with most great movies, the plot doesn’t torture us with intricate details. Galvin has a single case — one that he has neglected for months. A young woman lies in a coma, brain-damaged while giving birth. To Galvin, it’s literally a no-brainer. He plans on snagging a quick settlement with the Catholic Archdiocese that runs the hospital.

An early scene shows Galvin visiting his client for the first time, as he sits on an adjoining bed in a constant-care ward. As the Polaroids of the comatose woman, tethered to a halo of life-perpetuating machines, take shape, we see that Galvin, maybe for the first time, is realizing that his client — and he — are human.

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An open letter to Congress

Hey Congress.  You really want to do something? You want to help?

Bail me out.

I’m serious. I’m working on almost 25 years of erratic judgment, poor financial decisions, questionable relationships, employment reversals. The list goes on and on. As a matter of fact, the other day, I bought this comforter that was on clearance at Target. Then I got home and realized that if it was draped on my bed and matched next to my area rug, my apartment would be like living inside of a kaleidoscope.

Not a good decision.

I’ve taken risks. And I don’t mind telling you that not all of those risks panned out. Like when I moved to a small town in Colorado with literally no plan for financial survival. Turns out food costs the same there as it does here. That really didn’t work out so well. Or that date. I had the leave the restaurant through the kitchen. Again, a roll of the dice that really didn’t go my way. Or when I thought I knew how to fix my iPod with no knowledge of electronics repair. Or those left-handed golf clubs. Or when I didn’t get insurance on that rental truck. I didn’t even know you could do that to another vehicle, didn’t know the metal skin of a car can peel off like the outside of an onion.

Bad plays, all of them. But you can’t be a high-roller without some pain in your game.

Okay, maybe I should have married that woman in college. She’s probably a huge success now. Or taken that job in Boston. Or not turned down that one in Los Angeles to move to Cleveland. Or flossed more. Or, you know, filed that income tax return. As it turns out, the IRS keeps track of stuff like that. They have computers. 

But Nancy, Harry, can we talk? You can help. Make it all go away. Wave the wand.

Bail me out. Hell, buy me out. You can have a share of the franchise. Like some of those derivatives and subprime mortgages, I might surprise you down the road and pay off. You can get in the ground floor, Congress. Pardners.

And let me tell you something, it’s not going to take any $1 trillion either. I am a steal at, I don’t know, let’s say, heck, $300 million. That’s a drop in the bucket. We just spent that in Iraq as I wrote that sentence. A steal.

Think about how you will be changing the lives of everyday Americans. Not just mine, but the lives of family members, friends and co-workers, all of whom in some way or another, have been along for the whole sorry ride, who’ve had to make the late-night pick-ups, had to look in the fields for my car keys, or come to the emergency room, the people who’ve stolidly stood by for nights of endless second-guessing and rumination. Borne witness to self-doubt and loathing, forced to mutter platitudes over and over again about how things will get better, how a few lousy decisions don’t ruin a man’s life. They are emotionally exhausted. They need some relief.

And yes, I understand there have to be some conditions. I’m not looking for carte blanche. I wouldn’t even know where to put it. So go ahead, create some new regulatory apparatus. Some kind of board or authority that I can answer to. If anyone needs a few new rules and regs promulgated, it’s me. Heck, you know what, just as our friends on Wall Street are doing, I will write them myself. Who knows me better than me? That way, you don’t have to do a thing.

In fact, I’m going to put the finishing touches on the proposal over the weekend and get you something early next week. Let’s say Monday. Then maybe we can whip that baby through the pipeline so you can get on home for campaign season and tell people that you have improved the lives of ordinary people just like them.

Thanks, Congress. I owe you one, buddy.




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Global warming ruins my day

Some days, the world spills in.

Take Tuesday for example. I came out of a meeting to find a message on my office phone. It was left by the woman who runs my 3-year-old daughter’s school.

“Please come and get your daughter,” she said. “There is a bomb threat. We are dismissing early.”

That’s all she said. Not your typical afternoon message. My daughter’s school is Columbia Heights, a neighborhood north of downtown D.C. It is propitiously lacking in terrorist targets.

So I take a cab in the middle of the day up to the school to grab my daughter, who is, thankfully, oblivious to the world we now in live in, where a crazy bomb threat can empty a few city blocks. She instead accused me of screwing up the days of the week and dropping her off on Saturday. In her mind, I had returned to rectify my error.

As we went to the subway, a Metro employee told me there the “bomb threat” had merely been a suspicious package. This, in fact, was the package:



I had seen this “person” earlier that morning surrounded by police and had incorrectly assumed it was a homeless man who was for some reason known only to him wearing a giant dog head. (You have to give the residents walking by him credit for being only mildly interested, as if seeing a homeless man dressed as a minotaur happens all the time.)

Instead, this wasn’t a person at all. It was a mannequin of a “homeless” polar bear, left there by as yet unidentified artist to protest global warming. Others have been popping up around the city.

The Washington police department was not edified. Instead it shut down the Metro station, emptied the block, and “defused” the bear. By the time I grabbed my daughter, the bear was already gone. And we had an afternoon to kill.

We went to the park. All dogs there had to be leashed. Bears too.

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DOUBLETAKE: Strong in the fundamentals

Doubletakethe summer sensation, is back for the new fall season. Join Tribune correspondents Jim Tankersley and Jim Oliphant every day as they tackle the mysteries of the political universe and, well, breed alpacas to make a little cash on the side, because face it, this gig doesn’t pay all that great.

Jim Tankersley: Good afternoon. Once again, we are unnervingly face to face. This must stop.       

Jim Oliphant: I know. Talk about ignoring the man behind the curtain. Our mojo, such at is, derives from the fact that we never have to be accountable to each other. In a sense, it’s like a long-distance relationship.


Tankersley: You mean, like the Fed’s new marriage to AIG?

Oliphant: Yeah, suddenly Big Government is everybody’s friend. Funny how that happens.

Oliphant: Do you realize that during the Bush administration, we have had three catastrophic events (four, if you count Iraq, five, if you count Katie Couric) and with each there has been a corresponding increase in federal spending, influence and bureaucracy? That is staggering for an eight-year stretch.

Tankersley: It’s not like we’ve never been here before. Astute Doubletake readers will recall the Chrysler bailout of the late 70s/early 80s, as the New York Times’ David Leonhart notes today.

Oliphant: The Chrysler comparison is a good one because again we are protecting a company from its own bad judgment. If only the government would do that for me. I never would have bought that guitar. And then there was that Internet date. . . . Continue reading

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DOUBLETAKE: The race goes up the creek

Doubletake, the summer sensation, is back for the new fall season. Every day, Tribune correspondents Jim Oliphant and Jim Tankersley take you around the Moon and back, metaphorically-speaking. Doubletake is also a floor wax and a dessert topping.

Jim Oliphant: So this is a little strange. For the benefit of those reading (that’s you, Dad), Tankersley and I never do this when we are actually face to face. But today both of us are here at the Tribune’s Washington bureau.

Jim Tankersley: It’s like a very special episode of Doubletake— a gimmick to celebrate our return from brief hiatus. Tomorrow, Shannen Doherty will guest star.

Oliphant: Hmm. I’ve heard she’s difficult to work with.

Tankersley: Tori Spelling was unavailable.

Oliphant: If there is one thing Tori Spelling is, it’s available. But I don’t know what is freaking me out more. Sitting here next to you or the fact that you are wearing a tie.

Tankersley: Huh. And here I thought that second sentence was going to be “the potentially imminent collapse of global financial markets or the possibility that Tina Fey won’t cameo on every SNL episode through Election Day.”

Oliphant: All in good time, my friend. It takes time to weave a tapestry. I would rather note that you are wearing a tie, with jeans. Which seems to me very Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men, even though I’m not sure whether he actually dressed like that. But we can talk about the, you know, collapse of the American economy too, I guess. Not that I can tell you what credit swap derivatives are–except that they are derivative of something. Continue reading

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Is Sarah Palin the new Clarence Thomas?


For days, I have been wondering why the Sarah Palin Experience has seemed so maddeningly familiar. Last week, I suggested this was all an an echo of the Harriet Miers debacle back in 2005. Well, strike that. Hit the reset button. After Palin hit the ball out of the park at her nomination speech last week, those comparisons left with it. Palin has revealed herself to be a master politician–at least on the stump. (We still don’t know about the press, but why is there any reason to think she can’t handle it?)

This morning, it hit me. This is Clarence Thomas’ nomination fight all over again. 

You will recall last week when GOP pundit Peggy Noonan was caught on an open mic in St. Paul saying that the Republicans were going to push narrative in this campaign instead of experience. That, in a nutshell, was the White House strategy after Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court by the first President Bush back in 1991. 

Thomas had only been a judge for a brief time on the D.C. Circuit appeals court, and before that had been an administrator at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And while Justice Thomas wrote in his recent autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, that Bush told him he was chosen because he was the best qualified candidate at the time, few believed it then or even now, 17 years later. 

Instead, it looked like a race-based pick. Thurgood Marshall had retired from the court and the thought of turning the bench back into a whites-only club may have seemed unpalatable to Bush–much less to civil rights advocates. But the truth was that Thomas opposed the agenda of those civil rights advocates in almost every way.

Regardless, Thomas was an almost bulletproof selection. Criticize his record and one opened himself to charges of racism–or at the very least, standing in the way of social progress. And as his critics tip-toed softly, afraid of stepping on land-mines, Thomas after his confirmation aggressively embraced and advanced the legal conservative agenda–and does to this day. 

The McCain campaign will tell you until its talking points scream for mercy that Palin wasn’t chosen because she’s a woman, that it was purely because of her record. Even if that was so, since she was tabbed, no one has forgotten for one second that she is a woman, not the press, not the McCain campaign, not anyone. And it appears she is benefitting politically because of her gender, if the polls are to be believed.

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Terre Haute: More images from the trail


Is this a shot at the media?

Is this a shot at the media?


Obama speaks on the Fannie Mae bailout.

Obama speaks on the Fannie Mae bailout.

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Obama: Images from the trail

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Obama on guns: ‘Not going to mess with them’

DURYEA, Pa.--At a campaign event here Friday, Barack Obama ran headlong into the one of the issues that dogs him in this battleground state.

“There are rumors going around that . . . you’re going to take away our guns,” said Joan O’Neil, a resident of tiny Susquehanna in northeastern Pennsylvania, a big-time area for hunting.

This gun issue that Obama has tried to deftly navigate throughout this long campaign and one that damaged him here in his primary fight with Hillary Clinton. And it’s one that could do even him even further harm in the general election, as he is matched against a pro-gun ticket that includes a vice-presidential nominee who has been photographed firing an assault rifle.

And indeed, several of the dozens of plant workers invited to Obama’s economic “town hall” here in this town outside of Scranton, Pa. nodded as the question was asked. Pennsylvania has the highest per capita rate of National Rifle Association members in the nation.

“I believe in the Second Amendment, and if you are a law-abiding gun owner you have nothing to fear from an Obama administration,” Obama said. “This has been peddled again and again. Here’s what I believe: The Second Amendment is an indvidual right. . . people have the right to bear arms. But I also believe there is nothing wrong with some common-sense gun safety measures.”

GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, now likely the most famous moose-hunter in the country, mocked Obama’s stance on guns during her nomination speech Wednesday, when she accused him of talking “one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco,” — a reference to Obama’s now infamous comment about some people in America who “cling to guns or religion.”

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Images from the trail


Obama adviser David Axelrod briefs reporters on the campaign plane

Obama adviser David Axelrod briefs reporters on the campaign plane



Obama campaigns at a hydroelectric turbine plant in Pennsylvania.

Obama campaigns at a hydroelectric turbine plant in Pennsylvania.

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