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Sunday, August 30, 2009

‘Let Me Die In my Footsteps’: Ted Kennedy steps out from his brothers’ shadow

The meaning of the life has been lost in the wind
And some people thinkin' that the end is close by
"Stead of learnin' to live they are learning to die.
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground.

Of Rose and Joe Kennedy’s nine children, only three were ever truly destined for greatness. But with the death of Joe, Jr., the chosen child lost at sea in 1944, and the senseless slaying of John in 1963, and then brother Bobby five years later at the hand of an assassin’s bullet, the mantle of greatness was laid at the feet of the most unsuspecting Kennedy.

And while few had expected great things of him, he ended up surprising them all. In fact, he probably even surprised himself.

After the death of his more charming, more charismatic brothers, the last remaining son of Rose and Joe Kennedy could have retreated behind the whitewashed, perfectly mended fences of Hyannis Port. Instead, he stayed in Washington, staked his ground and found redemption by extending a hand to save those who—not unlike himself at the time—could just as easily have fallen through the cracks.

Without question, Ted Kennedy was a complex and conflicted soul— a rake, a womanizer, a drinker, a man who will forever be tainted by the names Mary Jo Kopechne, William Kennedy Smith and Michelle Cassone. But over the course of his half century in the US Senate, Kennedy by-and-large abandoned his aberrant ways and developed into a skilled politician; a child of privilege who became the trusted guardian of the poor, the oppressed, and forgotten.

Ted Kennedy stood up for those who could not stand up for themselves. Like the misunderstood, eternally misplaced Holden Caulfield, Ted Kennedy could always be counted on to stand at the edge of cliff and catch those who needed a helping hand before they disappeared into the abyss.

In addition to being a defender of the underprivileged, he was also an adept deal-maker; a man who made things happen. And if the was one thing Ted Kennedy wanted to make happen in his lifetime it was assuring affordable healthcare for all American citizens.

If there is any question that Kennedy’s passion for healthcare reform was simple political posturing, simply watch his speech at the 1978 Democratic Mid-election Conference. Kennedy’s impassioned plea is on par with any of the better-known speeches made by either of his two better-known brothers.

Kennedy's impassioned plea for healthcare reform at the 1978 Democratic Mid-election Conference

Moments after the announcement that Ted Kennedy had succumbed to his bout with brain cancer, the following made its way across the popular social media sites:

"In lieu of flowers, pass health care reform."

It’s quaint, it’s cute, it’s unquestionable heartfelt. And in the hours immediately following the news of Ted Kennedy’s death, it was the most re-twitted message on the internet.

And while it would be expected that liberal-leaning sites like ‘Political Packrat’ and ‘Radio KOS’ would jumped on the propaganda bandwagon, it was surprising that NBC Evening News anchor, Brian Williams, bought into the transparent ploy. But that’s precisely what happened last week when he, too, repeated the 8-word mantra as a way to remember Kennedy.

The irony, of course, is that Senator Kennedy would have reveled in the shameless use of his name to advance healthcare reform. After all, not a week had passed after the assassination of President Kennedy before Ted took to the airwaves to tell a nation that passage the pending Civil Rights legislation would be a fitting way to remember his brother's untimely passing.

The tactic worked. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

But whatever role the unabashed evocation of the fourth fallen Kennedy's memory plays in the looming debate over the president’s pending healthcare reform, Ted Kennedy can finally rest in peace knowing that he has finally stepped out from behind the long shadow cast by his more formidable brothers.

John and Robert Kennedy were two of the most exciting and vibrant politicians of the modern era. But after tolling in the trenches for an issue for close to 47 years (longer, it turns out, than either of his brothers lived) maybe the real takeaway here is that in the end endurance and experience can trump youth and vigor.

It’s not out of the question. Just ask the man behind the never-ending tour. At this pace, he'll likely outlast them all…

Go out in your country where the land meets the sun
See the craters and the canyons where the waterfalls run
Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho
Let every state in this union seep in your souls.
And you'll die in your footsteps
Before you go down under the ground.
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Sunday, August 23, 2009

‘Time Passes Slowly’: Dylan, Obama distance themselves from Woodstock

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains,
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains,
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream,
Time passes slowly when you're lost in a dream.

Over the past few weeks, there have been no shortage of articles written about the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. And certainly one of the most interesting is Jon Pareles’ story that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times two weeks ago.

Ironically, what made the article so striking wasn’t so much what was said about the Woodstock generation of 1969; it’s what wasn’t said about the Obama Nation of 2009. As Pareles observes: “Woodstock was as much an endpoint as a beginning, a holiday of naïveté and dumb luck before the realities of capitalism resumed.”

And while he draw no direct parallels drawn between the 400,000 people who went up the country 40 years ago August 1969, and the two million people who descended on the National Mall this past January, the correlation certainly exists. Just don’t expect the White House to make the connection anytime soon.

For the hundreds of thousands who stormed the gates of Yasgur’s farm, Woodstock was always more than a 3-day music and arts festival. For them, it was a movement that had been growing for the better part of a decade. And by the time they got to Woodstock, they were literally a half a million strong.

But it wasn’t just the artists and attendees who viewed Woodstock through rose-colored glasses. Thanks to the film released by Warner Bros. the following year, that’s the way most of the world saw it, too.

Of course in process of condensing 72 hours into a 4-hour film the studio would release, a lot was left on the cutting room floor. And it’s those forgotten pieces that tell not only the real story of Woodstock, but offer a cautionary tale for the newly anointed president.

So enamored are we with the mythology of Woodstock that we tend to overlook the fact that the promoters of the fabled 3-day festival completely lost control of their creation. The result? The site was declared a national disaster site less than a day into the event. And while Obama had the winds of generational change at his back last November, he, too, has walked smack dab into a national disaster. And just as the concert promoters had to be bailed out by the federal government, the Obama Nation has suffered the same fate to the tune of of a $787 stimulus package intended to assauge the beleaguered economy. The only difference is that while the Woodstock crowd got a free concert, the Wall Street looters who brought this country to its knees are the ones who got a free ride.

And what about the corporate greed? Again, the similarities abound.

In the case of Woodstock, the moment the contact high wore off, the feel-good euphoria sparked in those three days of peace, love and understanding immediately gave way to a perpetual commoditization. Not only the sense of community Woodstock engendered, but an endless quest to commoditize the Woodstock name itself.

Similarly, Barack Obama has suffered the same fate. His name, his likeness, his promise to renew our faith in our government and ourselves has become fodder for a seemingly endless supply of T-shirts, bumper stickers and faux campaign buttons. Said another way, in the months since his election, Barack Obama has become more than a president; he has become a brand. The commoditization of the Obama Nation has begun.

Just as that iconic image of that lone white dove on the guitar neck will always evoke a sense of idyllic idealism, Shepard Fairey’s equally iconic image of Barack Obama will be used for generations to come to evoke a similar sense of sanguine certainty that things will get better.

Much has been made over those who graced the stage at Woodstock. After all, the event wasn't the only thing mythologized over the last 40 years. Similarly, much has also been made of those who did not grace Woodstock with their presence.

Among the biggest stars not to trek through the mud and the sludge was Bob Dylan. Apparently, Dylan gave some thought to making an appearance (he was living in the neighboring town at the time, after all). But ultimately, Dylan couldn’t seem to get past his animosity toward the fans who had crowded in on his newly adopted domestic lifestyle by constantly dropping by his house at all hours of the night. Of course, the excuse Dylan himself gave was much more pedantic: his son was sick that day.

Whether it was overzealous fans or a child on the mend, in the end Dylan probably made the right decision not to attend Woodstock.

Sure, Woodstock transformed many of the artists who performed into cultural icons. But by 1969, Dylan was already an icon. And besides, part of the reason Dylan retreated to Woodstock in the first place was to shake that ‘voice of a generation’ label the folkies had pinned on him. What could he possibly have gained from being lumped in with 400,000 people whose biggest claim to fame 40 years later is that they managed to make it through three days mired in a cow pasture filled with mud and manure?

And so, as we peer through the purple haze of the past and peel back the layers of the Woodstock legacy, perhaps the real legacy of Woodstock has as much to do with excess as with idealism.

Interesting how history really does tend to repeat itself …

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight,

We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right,
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day,
Time passes slowly and fades away.
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Sunday, August 16, 2009

“Shelter from the Storm”: Bob Dylan comes in from the rain; finds his direction home

'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood

When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.

"Come in," she said,

"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Every fall, Beloit College releases its ‘Mindset List.’ Comprised of 75 cultural landmarks, the list offers a revealing glimpse into how the roughly 300 freshmen of this small, liberal arts college view the world.

Admittedly, even for those of us born after 1991 (the year Beloit's entering freshmen were born) it can at times be difficult to remember a world without the Internet; a world when wars weren’t fought on 52” flat screens in our living room; a world where Britney Spears wasn’t always a perennial staple of classic rock radio. But a world without Bob Dylan?

Welcome to the world as seen through the eyes of the Class of 2013.

Technically, Kristie Buble, the 24-year-old New Jersey police officer who failed to recognize the legendary musician last week should have been able to ID the iconoclastic singer. After all, Officer Buble was born in 1985, a good six years before Beloit’s incoming freshman class.

And while Empire Burlesque, also released in 1985, is hardly one of Bob’s most memorable offerings, his last two recordings—2006’s Modern Times and this year’s Together Through Life—both have reached #1 on the Billboard charts. Not to mention Bob has graced the cover of Rolling Stone—a magazine Buble has likely perused on more than a few stakeouts—three times in as many years.

In light of the fact that Dylan was found ambling aimlessly in the rain, disheveled and somewhat disoriented, the press has reveled in the reports that the 24-year-old rookie was unable to place the face of the "eccentric-looking old man" who just happened to be Bob Dylan.

To that end, much has been made of the now self referential 1965 lyric, “How does it feel / To be on your own / Like a complete unknown.” But maybe the joke’s on the J-men. Perhaps the fact that Dylan, one of the most iconoclastic people of the 20th century (and as a result one would also suspect one of the most recognizable) wasn’t recognized is the real testament to Dylan’s enduring eminence.

Because the truth is that there is another line nestled in middle of that the famous couplet that has been all but overlooked—

“How does it feel / To be on your own / With no direction home / Like a complete unknown.”

And while the lyric isn’t the most literal as it relates to last week’s incident, in hindsight it’s by far the most insightful.

Dylan begrudgingly began his career as the preeminent torchbearer for the burgeoning folk movement of the early 1960s. After going electric in 1965, he embraced the rock star status his new musical direction afforded, despite the self destructive toll it eventually took on him.

In the 1980s, he struggled with the growing enmity the burden of being labeled an ‘icon’ brought. But by the mid-1990s Dylan seemed to be at peace with himself, comfortable with the knowledge that he has spent a lifetime searching for not only for his roots, he’s spent a lifetime searching for America’s roots. And while the ultimate destination of that seemingly never-ending search still remains unknown, now more than ever Dylan seems doggedly determined that he's headed in the right direction.

For some, the notion of being mistaken as an eccentric old man by a 24-year-old beat cop who‘s come of age in a world where "Magic" Johnson is better known for being HIV-positive than his high-flying hook shot may seem like a slap in the face to the legendary performer.

But if you step back for a moment to consider the fact that Bob Dylan can remain incognito in an era where recognition has become a direct correlation to our perceived social currency, then perhaps the ability to blend into what Greil Marcus famously referred to as an “Invisible Republic” may be the most telling testament of all to the fact that after spending a lifetime scouring America’s musical and cultural landscape in an effort to unearth the essence of the American experience, Bob Dylan has finally found his way home…

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes an' blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
"Come in," she said,

"I'll give you shelter from the storm."
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Sunday, August 9, 2009

'Everything's Broken’ in Healthcare: A long, hot summer ahead for US lawmakers

Broken hands on broken ploughs,

Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,

People bending broken rules.

Broken promises, corrupt politicians, racial injustice, social inequality— when it comes to the issues that have shaped America's cultural conscience, there's little he hasn't commented on. Yet in the last five decades, Bob Dylan has yet to write a song about one issue that touches every American regardless of race, creed and color: healthcare.

The debate over healthcare has become the most heated and incendiary issue in recent political memory. And if last week is any indication, it’s going to be long, hot summer for US lawmakers, indeed.

Of course being jeered at, sneered at, even flat out shouted at is hardly new to members of Congress. But getting your hand slapped by a posturing colleague on C-Span in the wee hours of the night when no one’s watching is one thing. Getting an earful from an irate constituent—someone you actually have to listen to—is entirely different. And that’s precisely how members of the House and Senate are spending their summer vacation:
  • Close to 1,500 people came to the Tampa suburb of Ybor City last week hoping to hear Democratic State Rep. Betty Reed and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor state their positions on healthcare. The event quickly regressed into a near riot.

  • In Michigan, a ‘town hall’ meeting hosted by Democratic Rep. John Dingell underwent a similar metamorphosis when the forum turned into a shouting match as supporters and detractors of the pending healthcare reform bill butted heads and traded verbal barbs.

  • In Mehlville, Mo., a gathering organized by Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan and billed as a meeting on aging turned violent when St. Louis police arrested six people, some on assault charges.
Political protest has a long and hallowed place in our country’s history. And while the furor ignited by the current debate over healthcare hardly seems on par with Civil Rights, the Vietnam War or the other issues that defined Dylan's generation, how we take care of our sick and elderly is no less important, and will have no less impact on the future of our nation.

Chances are, however, Bob won’t be turning up at any of the healthcare town hall meetings singing “We Shall Overcome,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or “The Times They are A-Changin’” to demonstrate his allegiance for a populous that is rapidly agin’.

Instead, we’ll have to rely on the media to stir up the fervor and infuse the emotional resonance into the debate. And if you've been watching the nightly news over the last few days, you know they already have.

According to reports, many of the protesters have said that they’ve been urged to take action by conservative activist groups like the Tradition Values Coalition (TVC), a Washington-based conservative group who is letting citizens know when and where their US senators and representatives will be holding town hall meetings, and encouraging 'concerned' citizens to attend.

In response to charges that the TVC is taking advantage of those old, gray and in the way, Andrea Lafferty, the organization's executive director, defends the promotion of the events as an opportunity for Americans to voice their genuine concerns.

"It's summer,” Lafferty maintains. “Most kids haven't returned to school yet, and this will be a valuable civics lesson for your children, your grandchildren, friends, and family."

It’s ironic that the White House has shown such disdain for the demonstrations against those Democratic legislators who have suffered the slings and arrows of discontent. After all, the fact that Obama is even in the White House is largely due to his ability to mobilize over 13 million disenfranchised voters between the ages of 18 and 35 using many of the same techniques now being employed by 'agitators.' Funny how the fundamental, underlying right of American to assemble and speak freely becomes such a travesty when the tables are turned.

But whether the demonstrations are manufactured or an organic, grassroots reaction to the point that voters have to shout to be heard, both the White House and the media have missed the point of the protests entirely.

The issue here isn’t whether these demonstrations have been organized by special interest groups, concocted by conservative political action committees or orchestrated the pharmaceutical companies (let's be honest— chances are all have likely played a hand in the disturbances). The issue is that the disturbance of the status quo has done exactly what it’s supposed to do. It's pissed people off.

The issue of reconfiguring healthcare has struck a nerve in the American electorate. And that nerve is only going to become more inflamed as the debate drags on. The fact that we are dealing with an issue that is far too complex for most lawmakers, much less a majority of Americans to understand, only compounds the problem.

Certainly, no one—not Republicans, not Democrats, not the media—is condoning violence or advocating the use icons that conjure up images of hate and intolerance, though these techniques have been used at more than a few gatherings. But until the media starts doing their job and really “keeps them honest” as one cable outlet so piously professes on a nightly basis, the most reliable source in the healthcare debate will remain the public, no matter how unruly they become.

There’s no question healthcare is broken in this country. And while the town hall meetings might not be the best place to have a measured, reasonable discussion on how to fix this fractured and failing system, the politicians should be thankful that their kangaroo courtship of the voters has brought their constituents out in droves.

Now they’ll be able to see firsthand how truly out of touch they've become…

Broken dishes, broken parts,
Streets are filled with broken hearts.

Broken words never meant to be spoken,

Everything is broken.
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