Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mr. Rick's Smilin' Mug

This man has good reason to smile

I was distraught. Texas Governor Rick Perry's indictment on two felony corruption charges was more than enough to put a certain damper on what had been an otherwise pleasant day. My dream of Rick (or someone as delightfully goofy as he) being nominated at the Republican convention two years from now had gone up in a cloud of smoke. This can't be happening, I thought to myself. I was damned-near ready to pack it all in and start a blog about classic film comedy when who do you think should come to the rescue: None other than Chris Matthews!

In a very reasonable essay on his excellent MSNBC program, Hardball, Chris calmly explained to me something I should have been smart enough to understand at the outset. Far from disqualifying him from from obtaining the nomination in 2016, this major brush with the law will only enhance him in the eyes of the halfwits and crazy people who now make up "the base" of the Republican party. Of course it will! "I should have known better" as the Beatles said.

Although I'm not in the habit of coming to the defense of Mr. Rick, the details of this case are just a bit fishy. What it comes down to is this: The governor is charged with two felony counts of trying to force the District Attorney of Travis County to quit her job by cutting off funding for her office (which quite inconveniently had been probing corruption in Texas state politics). At one point the D.A, in question, Rosemary Lehmberg, was arrested for driving while intoxicated. Perry used that as an excuse to shut the office down. Ms Lehmberg was eventually convicted and served three weeks in the Travis County jail. It's interesting to note that had she carried a loaded, semi-automatic weapon into a crowded church service she would have been perfectly within her rights in Rick Perry's Texas. Weird!

Dirty politics? No doubt. But two felony charges? That seems a bit extreme to me. Democratic party or Republican, Texas is such a fucked up state - extreme and completely corrupt - you just never know with that place.

MEMO TO MY COUSINS, THE FABULOUS BARRAS FAMILY OF PORT ARTHUR: Get out while the getting is good, kids. Love ya!
So there is a bit of jolly good news upon the horizon. A half century ago someone as heartbreakingly dumb as Rick Perry would never have been taken seriously as a candidate for anything (let alone president of the United States). It's a different world today. The "party of Abraham Lincoln" (What would I do without quotation marks?) has lowered the bar into the sub-basement. You'll recall that in 2000 they nominated a nincompoop named George W. Bush, don't you? Apparently the bar has been lowered nationwide. Not only did he receive enough votes in the general election that he was able to steal that election, he was re-elected four years later! The day following that contest a British newspaper asked on its front page how fifty-nine million people could be so dumb. How indeed?

I wonder if the Founding Fathers ever dreamed that things would get as weird as they've gotten. Just a thought.

The real irony in play here is the startling fact that the only thing that is going to hurt Rick Perry with the lunatic base of that disgusting party will not be his appalling lack of vision and insight; it will not be his alleged corruption; nor will it be his very real intellectual limitations ("Oops!"). What's going to hurt Rick Perry in the 2016 primaries will be his occasional decency. You may recall that in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Rick offered shelter to the refugees of that disaster (most of whom being of the nasty non-white variety). You may also remember that during the 2012 primary debates ("Oops!") he told an audience of jeering yahoos that a state which refused to educate the children of illegal immigrants had "no heart". If anything kills his chances for the nomination in two years it'll be that

As the pundits and talking heads never tire of reminding us, two years is a lifetime in politics. In American politics it can be the equivalent of a couple centuries. It's impossible to accurately gauge where this is all leading to and how it will all end up. All I can tell you for certain are these two facts:

1. On Inauguration Day 2017 - for the first time since 1857 - one Democratic administration will hand over the reigns of power to another Democratic administration.

2. The campaign of 2016 is going to be a satirist's dream. If you thought that 2012 was a clown show, fasten your seat belts, kiddies!

We really do live in amusing times, do we not?

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


Here's a link to the Chris Matthews/Hardball segment mentioned above:


Matthews is as good as it gets.

A Little Family History

My father was part of a committee of local Democrats that met President Kennedy at Stuart Air Force base in Newburgh, NY in October of 1962. This was at the time the Cuban Missile Crisis was brewing up. Dad is in the background on the far right. At the time he was a candidate for the NY State Assembly. He did a bit better than I did when I ran for the state senate forty years later - although not much better.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

His Tragic Valentine

Alice Lee and Theodore Roosevelt

February 14, 1884 was the darkest day of his very crowded life.

On his twenty-second birthday, October 27, 1880, Theodore Roosevelt married nineteen-year-old Alice Hathaway Lee. He had been relentlessly courting her for a year and a half. "See that girl over there?", he once asked a friend, "I am going to marry her. She won't have me, but I am going to have her!"

The marriage was a successful one and both Alice and "Thee" (as he was known to his friends and family) were desperately in love with one another. By the late winter of 1884, the couple were expecting their first child.

On February 12, 1884, while Theodore, in his capacity as Assemblyman, was attending a session of the New York State Legislature in Albany, he received a telegram that Alice had given birth to a baby girl. A few hours later, he received a second, more ominous wire telling him to return to New York City at once.

When he arrived at his home at 7 West 57th Street, he was met at the front door by his younger brother, Elliot.

"There is a curse upon this house. Mother is dying and your wife is dying, too."

His mother, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, age forty-eight, died in the early morning hours of the fourteenth. Alice died late that afternoon while her husband held her in his arms. It was the fourth anniversary of their engagement. It was Valentines Day.

A few months later, an inconsolable Theodore Roosevelt memorialized his beloved Alice:

"She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; as a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had always been in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single great sorrow; and none who ever knew her did not love and revere her for her bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure and joyous as a maiden; loving, tender. and happy as a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be but just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her - then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart's dearest died, the light went from my life forever."

He virtually never spoke Alice's name for the rest of his life. He would never even mention her to the daughter who was named for her. Over thirty years later when President Woodrow Wilson remarried two years after the death of his first wife, Roosevelt was harshly critical of Wilson for doing so. It apparently evaded his memory that he had done the same thing when he married Edith Carrow in 1886; so completely had he wiped Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt from his memory.

Poor old Teddy thought his life was over on St. Valentine's Day 1884. He had no idea that the mountaintop was yet to come. 

When death finally came to him on January 6, 1919, he was young by today's standards; less than three months past his sixtieth birthday. And yet Theodore Roosevelt would pack ten lifetimes into those sixty years.
Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

TR in 1912

Edmund Morris' MASSIVE three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt was over thirty years in the making. I'm smack-dab in the middle of it at this writing. As you probably know (or have guessed) by now, Franklin Roosevelt is my favorite president. But if you gave me a choice as to which man I would prefer to spend the evening with sitting before an open fire and talking to, Teddy's my choice. FDR preferred small talk and gossip. TR talked about things that mattered - and everything else. He is - in my opinion - the most interesting person in American history - and the most brilliant.  


Here is the voice of Theodore Roosevelt from the long ago campaign of 1912:


Can you imagine a Republican talking this way today? I can't.

Dear Abbey

My friend, Abbey Arletto, has started a blog that showcases photography from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If she hasn't exactly strapped us into time machine, she has done the next best thing. Here's a link:

Once Upon a Town

It's like communicating with the dead. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams With Tears


This has almost been too depressing to even contemplate. I laugh easily, but it's difficult to make me really crack up. Robin Williams could make me howl. All I can tell you is that, as a lifelong connoisseur of comedy in general - and comedians in particular - his sudden, stunning death is indeed a milestone event. It's right up there with Christmas Day 1977, when Charlie Chaplin passed into eternity.

A few months ago I wrote a small tribute to Sid Caesar who died on February 12. I ended it by saying that he was the last of the great comedians of the twentieth century; that they're all gone now. A reader gently took issue with that statement. In a private email he told me: "You're wrong on that point, Tom", he asserted, "We still have Robin Williams!" I stood corrected.

Many years ago I read a book by Steve Allen called, "Funny People". Each chapter was an appreciation of a different comedian. At the end of the segment on Peter Sellers (who had only recently passed away), Allen said something that has always stayed with me. He wrote (and I am paraphrasing - it was over thirty years ago that I read this book): His talent as a comic actor was so unique that other comedians can only admire him. They cannot possibly emulate him.

The only other comic that ever walked this earth for whom that assessment would be true is Robin Williams. 

With Pam Dawber
Like everyone else over forty, my first exposure to the genius of Robin Williams was through the medium of television. I always refer to the nineteen-seventies as "the dark ages of American comedy". Mork and Mindy, like ninety-five percent of the sitcoms of that overrated decade, was a dreadful program - with a bad premise, awful writing, terrible acting - take your pick. The only thing that set that show apart and made it watchable, and the only reason I viewed it whenever I had the chance (I didn't always have access to a TV in those days) was because of the cosmic lunacy of Robin Williams. He would toss the awful script onto the sound stage's scrap heap, and let his imagination roar into the stratosphere. You could see at times his fellow cast members (Pam Dawber in particular) struggling to keep their faces straight while Robin let loose with a verbal meteor storm. It truly was something to behold. There had never been anyone like him before. 

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Williams was to comedy what Billie Holiday was to song. Lady Day had the unique gift to be able to take the most mediocre of material and turn it into a thing of beauty. So it was with Robin Williams.

His career in motion pictures was an evolution with few precedents in the history of that medium. His first film, a send-up on "Popeye", was a dismal flop. Within a few years, however, he would receive an Academy Award for his role in the film Good Will Hunting. The last time a "non-actor" won that coveted prize was when Bing Crosby received it for Going My Way in 1944. And let there be no doubt: Robin Williams will be remembered as one of the best actors of his era.

A lot of ink is being wasted this morning in a vain attempt to analyze why so gifted and beloved a performer would take his own life. Predictably, columnists and taking heads are discussing "the tears of a clown" theory. Let's call it "Pagliacci Syndrome":

Although I laugh and I act like a clown
Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown

John Lennon

I would venture to guess that the reasons behind Robin Williams' final, desperate act are a bit more complicated than that. Suicide is usually a lot more complicated than that - as is mental illness.  

There are times when something as awful as this may seem the anticlimax of a tortured life. Other times it may be a thunderous crash on what had been an otherwise blissful day. Whatever the circumstances, it leaves the survivors in torment and wondering: Why? Why? Why? We desperately seek answers we may never have to questions that are almost as elusive. 

Most people can whistle the M*A*S*H theme song. Very few of us know the lyrics. The title of that tune is, "Suicide is Painless". Don't you believe it for a second. Just ask any survivor.

Lenny Bruce
The sad fact of the matter is that the funniest people in the history of the human race were possessed of a darkness that, in many instances, destroyed their careers and prematurely ended their lives. The list is impressive: W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Max Linder, Charley Chase, Lenny Bruce, John Belushi - brilliant clowns whose God-given talent for making the rest of the world laugh was scalded by an inexplicable thirst for self-destruction. In fact, of the aforementioned comedic geniuses, only Keaton's life had a happy ending. George Carlin and Richard Pryor spent decades trying to overcome their problems with substance abuse; Jackie Gleason's chronic alcoholism was well known to most of us while he was still living; Both Peter Sellers and Jonathon Winters suffered periods of mental illness throughout their lives. Even Charlie Chaplin was subject to episodes of severe depression and melancholy.

The only two comedians I've ever known of who were fully secure in their beings seem to have been Laurel and Hardy. But then again, the definitive biographies of either of those two gentlemen have yet to be written. It wouldn't surprise me if we were to discover tomorrow that Stan and Ollie were also beaten down by the very act of living.

Robin Williams may have been in very good company, but it was tragic company to be in nonetheless. Maybe we should commission a reputable theologian to compose a "Comedian's Prayer". I believe they could use one.

We may never know why Robin Williams decided that the world would be better off without his presence in it (For the record: IT IS NOT). That he was a gifted, complex, and tortured man is well known. Perhaps it is the people who perceive life's comic absurdity most keenly are the ones most sensitive to humanity's tragedy and despair. That would seem to me to be the most logical explanation. The truth of the matter is, I just don't know. I wish I did. In the last eight months I've been seeking the elusive answers to some of these questions in my own life as well.

Robin Williams was part of our international consciousness for thirty-seven years. And while we were lucky to have him in our lives for as long as we did, the matter in which he died is just so difficult to accept. That's always the case when someone you love takes their own life, you know? It matters not if the victim is sixteen or sixty-three.

He was a true American original. One-hundred years from now they will still be talking about and appreciating the artistry of Robin Williams much in the same way we pay homage to Chaplin and Keaton today. His like won't be passing this way again. He's gone and he's not coming back. This is just so sad. Isn't that funny?

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


Here's Robin Williams on the Tonight Show in 1991 with Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. This is as good as it gets:


He was a hoot.


Here is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

If you have ever felt the urge, keep that number handy. Your friends and loved ones would miss you. Don't you know that you are loved? You are, you know!


For a more complete listing of some recent pieces on this site, please go to the link below:

"The Rant" by Tom Degan  

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Post #550: Random Observations

I should have been a teacher!
The following assortment of spastic commentary are selected from various things I had posted here and there out in the Facebooksphere or illegibly scribbled in my notebook.

Benny, don't be that way!
1. Israel's Teachable Moment:

I have this peculiar quirk in my personality: When I see a dead child, I don't label the body as a dead Muslim or a dead Jew or a dead Christian or a dead Seventh Day Adventist - I see a dead child. Israel didn't do itself any favors this week with its assault on the people living within the Gaza Strip. Please, spare me the propaganda line that tries to get me swallow the nonsense that they were defending themselves against Hamas terrorists. They blindly bombarded the place, killing hundreds of innocent people who didn't have to die. Benjamin Netanyahu is not only a bloviating hothead, he's a goddamned war criminal. The Obama administration should cut Israel off until it rids itself of the bastard. Seriously.

2. The War Against White People

“This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else. It’s part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008, continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare, all those kinds of things.”

Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama

As a white person I am sick and tired of the constant persecution.

Why can't I eat at the lunch counter of my local Woolworths? Why am I denied my right to cast a ballot for those who represent me? Why do I have to sit at the back of the bus? Why am I always referred to as "boy"? Why is my woman never referred to as ma'am? Why are my children forced to travel many miles to inferior schools? Why do I have to work twice as hard to be thought of as half as good as any black man?

 I'm sorry, I'll stop.

3. A Really Neat Idea from the NRA

The front page of the New York Daily News a couple of days ago said it all. They ran a photograph of the late Ray Charles holding a gun (a scene from the film, The Blues Brothers). The story that accompanied the photo said that Dom Raso, an online commentator from the National Rifle Association's website, is advocating a campaign to arm blind people. I swear to you I didn't even bat an eye when I read that one. I've come to expect that their ideas are going to get dumber by the day. Wait and see - next they'll be advocating the arming of toddlers. I almost hope the NRA has their way. Carnage is the mortal enemy of writer's block - and it's great copy to boot.

Suspects only
4. Murder in Goshen

Something dreadful happened in the village of Goshen, NY this past Saturday; something that hadn't happened in the memory of any living person: A human being was murdered in cold blood.  The victim's name was Helen Ann Mills. She was an eighty-one-year-old grandmother. The little house she lived in at 84 Green Street was then set aflame.

Having been born in Goshen nearly fifty-six years ago, having spent most of my adult life here, and having grown up a mere two minute walk from where Mrs. Mills died, I can say, without a moment of hesitation, that this is indeed the most horrific thing that has ever happened in this village.

I did not know Helen Mills personally, but I do recall her kind and gentle smile in chance encounters with her on the streets of the village. To her family I offer my sincerest sympathies.

Here is what needs to be said: Much wrath has been dispensed in the social media directed at the two young people who have been charged in this awful crime. Indeed, we would be less-than-human not to be outraged - even ashamed - by the hideous brutality of such a deed. But please, let's not forget that Devin Giordano and Jennifer Molyneaux have yet to be tried by a jury of their peers. They deserve a fair hearing. We deserve it, too.

5. All Sarah All the Time

So help me Mitch Miller I could scarcely believe it. SARAH PALIN HAS HER OWN TELEVISION NETWORK. Isn't that a scream? All Sarah all the time. The only thing more hilarious than the fact that this blubbering twit believes that there are people out there stupid enough to pay the $9.95 monthly fee is the fact that she's correct. It appears that they're signing up by the thousands! It's so amusing being a citizen of this troubled nation these days. It really is!


On American soil
There are three things that do not make for a good combination: A low IQ, a beer gut, and a semi-automatic weapon. This past week, some of the Cliven Bundy crowd, the clowns that threatened to shoot it out with US marshals in Nevada two months ago, have made their way down to the Mexican border. These cowardly assholes want to "protect" this grand and glorious land of ours from the children that are now fleeing for their lives from ultra-right wing dictatorships in Central America. Isn't that something? Most of them proclaim to be "Christian". I'm sure Jesus is just brimming with pride.

Something to think about: If the Tea Party jackasses ever have their way, a lot of us will be fleeing to Canada.

8. The Further implosion of Michele Bachmann 

Speaking of children seeking political asylum, our gal Michele this week said that President Obama wants them in America so he can use them for "medical experimentation". To paraphrase the late Molly Ivins:

If this woman gets any dumber we're gonna have to start watering twice a day. 

Strange days indeed.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


The photograph at the top of this piece was taken on June 5 inside of Mr. John Swanwick's high school class in Red Hook, NY. He asked me to give the kids a lecture on the life and career of Charlie Chaplin. I had more fun than the law should allow. I really should have been a teacher!


The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
by Edmund Morris

This first volume of a three part biography of TR is the best book on the man ever put to paper. Theodore Roosevelt was a force of nature: incorruptible as the rising moon, and our most brilliant president (I would give him a slight edge over Thomas Jefferson even). Old Teddy is a sad reminder of the lamented history of the once-admirable Republican party. The book covers the years from his birth on October 27, 1858 to the moment he became the 26th president of the United States on September 14, 1901 at the assassination of William McKinley. If you're half the admirer of Theodore Roosevelt that I am, Morris' trilogy is essential reading.

My own little homage to TR written six years ago:


He was as good as they get.