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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

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Blogging the Chris Christie Press Conference

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. (AP Photo)

Epic presser this morning for the embattled governor, as many, including Jersey boy Jon Stewart last night, claim Chris Christie is finished as GOP candidate for president (and possibly in his current position) because of Bridgegate. Latest report: US attorney now looking into it, amid claim that at least one life may have been lost due to planned traffic gridlock.

One problem: Can he possibly go after his usual whipping posts in the press? And will he quote Springsteen? (Maybe “stalling on the back streets.”) Advice to Bridget Kelly: if Silvio Dante asks you a ride today, run the other way.

The irony: today is Richard Nixon’s birthday. And see Christie’s remark, below, with Nixonian echoes, “I am not a bully.”

11:07 Opens with apology to Fort Lee, motorist and state legislators, claims he is embarrassed and blames underlings. And apologizes for not “understanding true nature” of the problem until now. Fires Bridget Kelly for “lying to me.” Says he’s asked staff now for “any information” on the lane closings and gave them one hour to report, or he would go out at this presser and say no one knew anything beyond what has already come out. And his chief of staff also tells him “no one on my staff involved.” This he says is clearly a “lie,” as the press reported. And no justification for that. So he has fired the one guilty party.

11:10 He’s now doing one-on-one interviews with folks. Announces further exit of political boss/campaign manager Bill Stepien, whom he was pushing for GOP state chief. Blames others but says yes “I am responsible.” But then blames others again. “I was blindsided” after learning stuff yesterday “after my workout.” Will go to Fort Lee today and apologize to folks there.

11:20 Claims this is great departure from past four years, “the exception not the role.” Says has tried to act bipartisan and represent all in Jersey. “The political overtones in documents release not acceptable.” But “human beings are not perfect and mistakes are made.” Closes his remarks by emphasizing he had no idea about any of this at all and he was “stunned” by revelations. Says he has 65,000 people working for him so how could he possibly keep tabs on all of them? Now to questions from press.

11:23 Replying to first question, yes, he will cooperate with probes, even though he has denounced some of people doing them in past. “Heartbreaking that I wasn’t told the truth.”

11:26 Won’t change his style because “politics ain’t beanbag.” But “I am not a bully.” (Will this be his “I am not a crook”?)

11:28 Says he has no evidence that this goes beyond what he knows, but that could change—trying to cover himself for future bombshells. Says he “absolutely” did not authorize the traffic stops. Thought it was just a “traffic study.” Gets a little testy now when reporter interrupts.

11:30 Asked what this tells about him that he allegedly did not know about this, he says it’s been false claim that he is a “micro manager.” And repeats “no way anyone would think” that he knows everything going on. If you find that hard to believe—“I had no knowledge until after it was over.” Thought it was just a “traffic study” until yesterday. Claims he had not reason to punish the Fort Lee mayor, didn’t really care about his endorsement for governor, don’t think he was even asked for it.

11:35 Admits, amazingly, that he hasn’t gotten to “angry stage” yet, but may get there. Revealing. How could he not be angry if what he is claiming is true? Says he’s doing “soul-searching” and that’s it.

11:40 Claims he has “reputation for telling the truth” so apologizes (in this case) to his hated press corps for state not telling truth. And apologizes for joking to press in past about traffic tie-up. Reporters asked if he “fostered” this atmosphere revealed in e-mails. Replies: “I haven’t because I know who I am and I am not that person.” Again says not a bully. Claims he has taken “swift” action since only learning any of this yesterday.

11:55 Questions continue. Pushed out Stepien simply because he didn’t like tone of e-mails and “lost confidence” in him. Says he has no idea how this impacts his race for president. “My job is to be governor of New Jersey.” Nowhere near considering a run. “My focus is on the people of New Jersey.” Race for president just “hysteria” now. “Dominant emotion” he is feeling right now is “sad.” Still not angry.

12:05 Since Kelly and Stepien will testify before state committee (and for US attorney?), he doesn’t think proper to discuss his personal chats with them… “Awful” to hear that woman, 91, may have died because of bridge tie-up, but “what else” can he do now?

12:15 “I have absolutely nothing to hide.” And jokes: He won’t be suggesting any traffic studies in the future. Slips by saying, “I am out of the traffic study business,” quickly adding, “I was never in it.” Then: this cannot have “anything to do with politics” since he had no concerns about Fort Lee mayor at all. If someone had asked him about the mayor he would have answered, “Who he?” Adds: “Not to diminish him in any way.”

12:25 But Christie “happily admits” he was ‘trying to run up the score” in the election. Given his “soul-searching,” any thought at all of quitting? “Oh, God, no, or would I.” Adds: “There are going to be mistakes.” Continues to use terms “sad” and “disappointed” and “embarrased” but not anger.

12:40 Stresses for third time he is not mad or angry. Just sad, very sad. Oh, so sad. This is from low-boiling-point Christie. “It is a sad day for me.”

12:50 Still going! Christie, aping his hero Bruce, will now announce this is the end of his first set and he’ll be back after intermission. Then encores!

12:55 And now we’re on to the cable news analysis. One problem for Christie: Fox doesn’t love him so he won’t get the usual propaganda bump from them. NJ State Sen. Buono, who just lost to him in race: Christie runs “paramilitary org,” so no doubt knew about cover-up of Bridgegate.

‘Daily Show’ Mocks David Brooks for Hypocritical Anti-Pot Views

David Brooks

David Brooks (NBC/NBC NewsWire via AP Images)

If you watched The Daily Show last night, you probably enjoyed Jon Stewart’s two segments on the current pot legalization debate, ending with an epic putdown of New York Times columnist David Brooks.

You’ll recall that just last week Brooks revealed in a popular (and widely lampooned) column that he had been a toker and a smoker as a young man but “outgrew” it and now that opportunity should be denied others—or put ’em in jail.

Stewart read a lengthy quote from an unnamed writer, celebrating excess (including booze) and complaining about the elites who are too uptight to get wasted on one thing or another.  Finishing, he revealed that the writer was none other than our Mr. Brooks, to wild cheers from the audience.

You can watch the Stewart clip below, but I’ve gone back and located the full 2005 column and you can read it here. Here’s the key excerpt:

I blame the arbiters of virtue. Sometime over the past generation we became less likely to object to something because it is immoral and more likely to object to something because it is unhealthy or unsafe. So smoking is now a worse evil than six of the Ten Commandments, and the word “sinful” is most commonly associated with chocolate.

Now we lead lives in which everything is a pallid parody of itself: fat-free yogurt, salt-free pretzels, milk-free milk. Gone, at least among the responsible professional class, is the exuberance of the feast. Gone is the grand and pointless gesture.

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But at least we have New Orleans. After stumbling out of Antoine’s, some of us headed across the street to a piano bar run by Gennifer Flowers, Bill Clinton’s old flame. And there was Gennifer herself in a black leather miniskirt, belting out a song called “Ya Gotta Have Boobs.”

It was a reminder that no matter how dull and responsible you become, an alternative and much stranger moral universe is always just one slippery step away.

Read Next: Michelle Goldberg’s latest on David Brooks.

Activists Take Credit for Notorious FBI Raid That Spilled Secrets—Forty-two Years Ago

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It’s a mystery I covered from the start and now it has been solved.

A big breaking story this morning features startling revelations about the infamous raid by antiwar activists on the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, (yes, that’s the name) in 1971, on the night of the Ali-Frazier “fight of the century,” who are finally exposing themselves in a new book and film. The book is by the Washington Post reporter who received some of the leak files back then, Betty Medsger. The activists, none of them household names then or now, cleared out all the files there that day and this led to the first big scoops on illegal FBI surveillance and the notorious COINTELPRO program, which we covered so widely at Crawdaddy that decade.

One of the perps even waved to Edward Snowden on the Today show today and said, “Hi, from one whistleblower to another.” And The New York Times has now posted a thirteen-minute video.

Of course, by 1971, there had been rumors and personal reports about undercover FBI snooping, including use of electronic surveillance, for years but with little black-and-white official evidence. Hell, we even had a break-in at the Crawdaddy office that seemed suspicious and, as a longtime (if minor) antiwar activist, I always figured I might have drawn some official attention. But the Media raid proved incredibly valuable, even as it made many of us more paranoid.

Indeed, as NBC reports:

Among the stolen files: plans to enhance “paranoia” among “New Left” groups by instilling fears that “there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” Another instructed agents in the Philadelphia area to monitor the “clientele” of “Afro-American type bookstores” and recruit informants among the “the Negro militant movement.”

The raid and its results didn’t immediately stop COINTELPRO, then run by good old Deep Throat himself, Mark Felt. In fact, two of my closest friends—innocent but suspected of taking part in the Weather Underground bombing of the US Capitol—and regular Crawdaddy writers were closely monitored. As a frequent visitor to their mountaintop home in the Catskills I surely turned up in case reports.

We learned about the extent of the surveillance when the couple, Stew Albert and Judy “Gumbo” Clavir, pulled a homing device off the underside of the rear bumper of their car—the first one ever seized by a left activist in that period—parked outside Bill Kunstler’s apartment in the Village where they were staying. They called me over quickly to arrange for photographs. We’d gone to an Emmylou Harris concert in New York City the night before. Probably we were followed.

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They went on to sue the government, forcing release of files that revealed the extensive monitoring, which included bugs in their home (even the bedrooms) during a time when I visited them, with a girlfriend. They won the suit and a monetary pay out—allowing them to get a new roof on their house.

By then, the Media raid had finally produced some of the aims sought by the burglars. From NBC:

“These documents were explosive,” said Medsger, who was the first reporter to write about them after receiving a batch of the files anonymously in the mail. Her book traces how the stolen files led to a landmark Senate investigation of intelligence and law enforcement agency abuses by the late Idaho Sen. Frank Church, and eventually to new Justice Department guidelines that barred the bureau from conducting investigations based on First Amendment protected political activity.

After the burglary, said Medsger, “The FBI was never the same.”

Glenn Greenwald weighs in on today’s revelations. He is, of course, supportive of the 1971 action.

An interesting angle I hope to pursue:  the activists claim they sent the docs to The New York Times and members of Congress--in each case instead of acting the recipients gave the material back to the FBI.

For further updates, go to my Pressing Issues blog.

Read Next: How Tarek Mehanna went to prison for a thought crime.

As Al Qaeda Takes Falluja: Iraq War, the Sequel?

Zahra Naaim, 4, center, and Balqes Youssif, 6, left, stand next to a destroyed vehicle in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo)

Yes, it’s the era of the blockbuster movie sequel—but are you ready for a blockbuster war sequel?

On Thursday, The New York Times startled many—and should have outraged and depressed many more—when it reported that Sunni militants aligned with Al Qaeda were starting a serious uprising in Anbar province in Iraq and threatening to take over Ramadi and Falluja.

You remember those cities—scenes of so much bloodshed in the years after our trumped-up 2003 invasion. In fact, one of three American lives lost in the ten-year war expired in “pacifying” Anbar. Then there are the tens of thousands of Iraqi lives lost in that province, and the utter devastation of Falluja (and lingering health defects). What a tragedy, what a waste, even as war criminal Bush draws praise for his paintings of dogs and Cheney earns applause on Leno. The Times reported:

The violence in Ramadi and Falluja had implications beyond Anbar’s borders, as the Sunni militants fought beneath the same banner as the most hard-line jihadists they have inspired in Syria—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. That fighting, and a deadly bombing in Beirut on Thursday, provided the latest evidence that the Syrian civil war was helping breed bloodshed and sectarian violence around the region, further destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq while fueling a resurgence of radical Islamist fighters.

Then yesterday came word that Falluja has fallen to the Al Qaeda rebels and also the key town of Karma (yes, that’s the very apt name). One senior police official in Anbar said Saturday that “Falluja is completely under the control of Al Qaeda.”  Helluva job, Bushie.

Then, this morning, Richard Engel of NBC tweeted: “Both US and iran offering to help baghdad fight off al-qaeda in western Iraq. If attack on area comes, could be start of s/t big.”  All that's missing is Thomas Friedman predicting it will all be over in...six months.

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Secretary of State John Kerry claims: no boots on the ground, this time. But at minimum US activities there are sure sure to surge. And it would make little sense for America to drone-strike alleged Al Qaedas around the world and somehow not get deeply embroiled in a new stronghold. Senator Lindsay Graham and John McCain are already blaming the White House—the Obama White House, not the Bush White House—for contributing to this crisis.

Greg Mitchell’s book on how Bush, and the media, failed on Iraq, is titled So Wrong for So Long.

Read Next: Tom Engelhardt on how the US has bombed at least eight wedding parties since 2011.

‘New York Times’ Pleads for Justice for Edward Snowden—and Calls Government Officials Criminals

Well, I didn’t see this coming.

The Guardian today in an editorial called for a pardon for Edward Snowden, while a New York Times editorial, posted late tonight, labels Snowden (right in its headline) a true “whistleblower,” hails his contributions and pleads for clemency.

Pundits and politicians are likely to reject this view, but Glenn Greenwald quickly pre-empted via Twitter: “How many media people who object to NYT editorial on ground that ‘lawbreaking must be punished’ will mention Clapper, torturers or Wall St?” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweets: “Snowden exposed major misconduct. Others filing official complaints were ignored/persecuted. He should be pardoned.”

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic claims Snowden’s critics are wrong—clemency would not set a “dangerous precedent.” The WikiLeaks twitter feed simply observed that the Times had “finally” called Snowden a “whistleblower.”  Kevin Gosztola at Firedoglake asks the Times editors: "If Edward Snowden is a Whistleblower, What Does That Make Chelsea Manning?"   UPDATE:  The Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan probes the paper's reasons for backing Snowden now--and she adds her support.

Here’s the Times:

Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.

After logging many Snowden-related revelations, it concludes:

The shrill brigade of his critics say Mr. Snowden has done profound damage to intelligence operations of the United States, but none has presented the slightest proof that his disclosures really hurt the nation’s security. Many of the mass-collection programs Mr. Snowden exposed would work just as well if they were reduced in scope and brought under strict outside oversight, as the presidential panel recommended.

When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government. That’s why Rick Ledgett, who leads the N.S.A.’s task force on the Snowden leaks, recently told CBS News that he would consider amnesty if Mr. Snowden would stop any additional leaks. And it’s why President Obama should tell his aides to begin finding a way to end Mr. Snowden’s vilification and give him an incentive to return home.

And from The Guardian:

Man does civic duty, and is warmly thanked? Of course not. Should Mr Snowden return to his homeland he can confidently expect to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act and, if convicted—like Chelsea Manning before him—locked away for a very long time. For all his background in constitutional law and human rights, Mr Obama has shown little patience for whistleblowers: his administration has used the Espionage Act against leakers of classified information far more than any of his predecessors. It is difficult to imagine Mr Obama giving Mr Snowden the pardon he deserves.

Mike Calderone at Huff Post tweets: “Don’t know if NYT can sway Obama on Snowden clemency, but it is the editorial page that matters most in the White House.” David Frum asks: “What’s the NYT edit board’s win/loss rate on its recommendations being accepted by Obama administration?” Tim Karr of The Free Press: “Clemency would help this ; but we need to repeal the Espionage Act and strengthen whistle-blower protections to help future Snowdens.” More as reaction sets in.

Kurtz Sinks Further in Promoting Right-Wing Critique of ‘NYT’ Benghazi Report

Howard Kurtz was hardly free from criticism when he was chief media writer at The Washington Post, and with his own show on CNN, for many years but to see how far he’s fallen down the rabbit hole at his new home, Fox, just read his assessment today of this week’s major New York Times on the fatal Benghazi attack (Roger Ailes’s hobby horse for over a year) today.

It’s hard to believe that he would have produced such rubbish at the Post—right down to citing as a chief unbiased critic a fellow Fox guy, Adam Housley, now the network’s Los Angeles correspondent, whose bio reveals no time spent in Libya.

Housley’s also the guy, if you’ve forgotten, who admitted that he had often used as a source Lara Logan’s con man in her debunked 60 Minutes report. He only stopped after Dylan Davies asked for dough. Even after questions about Davies arose, Housley claimed that his 60 Minutes statements supported the Fox line.

Kurtz tries to strike a balance (which NYT reporter David Kirkpatrick already did in his piece) by saying that the article was not just propaganda, as right-wing critics (and Fox hosts) claim, but actually serious journalism. Note the classic view from nowhere: “I am not going to accuse the Times of having a political motivation, such as aiding Hillary Clinton’s reputation, any more than I am going to disparage the motivation of conservative commentators and Republican politicians who are taking serious issue with the paper’s report.” Of course, those critics could not be driven by ideology or politics—or embarrassment that they’ve now been fully exposed, not just by the hated Times but by most intelligence sources?

And Kurtz then closes by adopting the critics’ stance that, yes, it’s all about Hillary.

Here’s a Times editorial today defending their piece.

In a rational world, that would settle the dispute over Benghazi, which has further poisoned the poisonous political discourse in Washington and kept Republicans and Democrats from working cooperatively on myriad challenges, including how best to help Libyans stabilize their country and build a democracy. But Republicans long ago abandoned common sense and good judgment in pursuit of conspiracy-mongering and an obsessive effort to discredit President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may run for president in 2016.

Who knows: Kurtz may even believe that himself. But he gave up any real ability to say so when he made his deal with his new minders at Fox.

Among Greg Mitchell’s many books is So Wrong for So Long, on how the media failed in covering Iraq.

‘NYT’ Hails ‘Slow Demise of the Death Penalty’

NAACP president Ben Jealous speaks with the media across the street from the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison after visiting with then-death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis. (AP Photo)

Back in 2000, my second book written with Robert Jay Lifton (after our Hiroshima in America) was published, this time on capital punishment, titled Who Owns Death? In it, we boldly predicted that the practice would slowly expire in the United States, even though polls (and trends at the time) did not then offer firm evidence.

In many cases they still don’t, yet the death count (due to state murder) has been steadily declining.

As we noted back then, Americans like to tell pollsters that they back the death penalty, for justice or revenge or God’s will, but are uneasy about voting for it on juries, and judges (and lawmakers) often feel much the same. Also, we noted then, that the rising adoption of life-without-parole sentencing would have a major impact. What we didn’t foresee was that it would become increasingly difficult for states to obtain the chemicals needed to kill prisoners, partly because some manufacturers don’t like what they’re being used for.

Today, one of the few major media outlets to consistently oppose the death penalty, The New York Times, weighs in with an editorial marking the latest year of “progress” on this front. Here’s an excerpt. Also see my e-book on the subject, Dead Reckoning, including a compact history of death penalty in the USA and current debates.

In 2013, Maryland became the sixth state to end capital punishment in the last six years. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished the penalty, and it is dormant in the federal system and the military. Thirty states have had no executions in the last five years.


As it becomes less frequent, the death penalty also becomes more limited to an extremely small slice of the country, and therefore all the more arbitrary in its application. All 80 death sentences in 2013 came from only about 2 percent of counties in the entire country, and all 39 executions—more than half occurred in Texas and Florida—took place in about 1 percent of all counties, according to a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center. Eighty-five percent of all counties have not had a single execution in more than 45 years.

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Public support for the death penalty—an important factor in the Supreme Court’s consideration of its constitutionality—is at its lowest level in four decades, and 40 percent of people surveyed by Gallup say they do not believe it is administered fairly. Surely that is due in part to the hundreds of exonerations based on DNA testing—including 18 death-row inmates—which continue to reveal irreparable failures throughout the system.

Read Next: Remembering Delbert Tibbs.

Football at Ground Zero: The ‘Atom Bowl’ in Nagasaki (January 1, 1946)

The famed biologist Jacob Bronowski revealed in 1964 that his classic study Science and Human Values was born at the moment he arrived in Nagasaki in November 1945, three months after the atomic bombing (which killed at least 75,000 civilians) with a British military mission sent to study the effects of the new weapon.

Arriving by jeep after dark, he found a landscape as desolate as the craters of the moon. That moment, he wrote, “is present to me as I write, as vividly as when I lived it.” It was “a universal moment…civilization face to face with its own implications.” The power of science to produce good or evil had troubled other societies. “Nothing happened in 1945,” he observed, “except that we changed the scale of our indifference to man…“

When Bronowski returned from Japan he tried to persuade officials in the British government and at the United Nations that Nagasaki should be preserved exactly as it was. He wanted all future conferences on crucial international issues “to be held in that ashy, clinical sea of rubble…. only in this forbidding context could statesmen make realistic judgments of the problems which they handle on our behalf.” His colleagues showed little interest, however; they pointed out delegates “would be uncomfortable in Nagasaki,” according to Bronowski.

One of the most bizarre episodes in the entire occupation of Japan took place less than two months later, on January 1, 1946, in Nagasaki.  (For more on this critical period, see my book, Atomic Cover-up.)

Back in the States, the Rose Bowl and other major college football bowl games, with the Great War over, were played as usual on New Year’s Day. To mark the day in Japan, and raise morale (at least for the Americans), two Marine divisions faced off in the so-called Atom Bowl, played on a killing field in Nagasaki that had been cleared of debris. It had been “carved out of dust and rubble,” as one wire service report put it.

Both teams had enlisted former college or pro stars for their squads. The “Bears” were led by quarterback Angelo Bertelli of Notre Dame, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1943, while the “Tigers” featured Bullet Bill Osmanski of the Chicago Bears, who topped pro football in rushing in 1939. Marines fashioned goal posts and bleachers out of scrap wood that had been blasted by the A-bomb. Nature helped provide more of a feel of home, as the day turned unusually chilly for Nagasaki and snow swirled.

More than 2000 turned out to watch. A band played the fight song, “On Wisconsin!” The rules were changed from tackle to two-hand touch because of all the glass shards remaining on the turf.

Press reports the next day claimed some Japanese observed the game—from the shells of blasted-out buildings nearby.

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More than 9,000 Allied POWs were processed through Nagasaki, but the number of occupation troops dropped steadily every month. By April 1946, the US had withdrawn military personnel from Hiroshima, and they were out of Nagasaki by summer. An estimated 118,000 military personnel passed through the atomic cities at one point or another. Some of them were there mainly as tourists, and wandered through the ruins, snapping photos and buying artifacts.

When the servicemen returned to the US, many of them suffered from strange rashes and sores. Years later some were afflicted with disease (such as thyroid problems and leukemia) or cancer (such as multiple myeloma or forms of lymphoma) associated with radiation exposure. More on this and related issues here.

Greg Mitchell is the author of more than a dozen books on politics, history, nuclear issues, capital punishment and media, including Atomic Cover-up on the decades-long suppression of film footage shot by the US military in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When Leonard Bernstein Brought ‘Freedom’ to Berlin on Christmas Day

On Christmas day, 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted an international orchestra and choir in Berlin to mark the fall of the Wall, in a historic concert. As some may know, I have a special obsession with Beethoven. One of my pieces here explored longtime Nation contributor Edward Said’s co-founding (with Daniel Barenboim) of the unique and valuable West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of musicians, mainly young, from nearly all Arab lands, Israel and Iran.

Now here’s a piece that I wrote with Kerry Candaele. It’s partly drawn from the book we’ve written, Journeys With Beethoven, which in turn is based partly on his new documentary, Following the Ninth, which I co-produced and is currently showing in Chicago and other cities.

On a personal note: my daughter, her husband and young son are moving from Nantes to Berlin this week.

* * *

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony may be the most popular and influential musical creation around the world, but it has a special place in the life of the New York Philharmonic. Four years after it was formed, the orchestra gave the opus its American premiere in 1846, to help raise funds for a permanent concert hall. The Philharmonic this week completes a cycle of performing the Ninth for five nights at Lincoln Center, but the high point of its history with the symphony took place twenty-four years ago this December.

After the Berlin Wall started to come down in November of 1989, Leonard Bernstein traveled to Germany to twice conduct Beethoven’s Ninth, with its choral shout out to the world to find our common humanity across all borders, Alle Menschen werden Bruder (“All men will be brothers”). Portions of the filmed concerts appear in Following The Ninth as well as the celebration in the streets as the wall fell, and interviews with a young East Berlin woman who joined in.

When Bernstein traveled to Berlin he was 72 years old, and in failing health. In ten months he would die of cancer. “Lenny” was a magnetic and enthusiastic advocate for the belief that music could transform lives and in the process transform the world in some small way.

His first concert in Berlin was timed to end at midnight on December 23, when the border dividing the two Berlins would be fully open for the first time in twenty-eight years. Then Bernstein conducted the Ninth at East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus on Christmas morning, with an orchestra that included members from the Dresden Statteskapelle and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as from orchestras from the four countries that technically still occupied Berlin—the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris and the Orchestra of the Kirov Theater, Leningrad. The chorus was made up of singers from both sides of Germany.

While more than a thousand gathered in the hall, hundreds more stood in the square in front to watch the performance on a giant television monitor. On the live TV broadcast, Bernstein declared, “I am experiencing a historical moment, incomparable with others in my long, long life.” Indeed, the concerts were historic, as Bernstein wrote to a friend: “I’ll be reworking Friedrich Schiller’s text of the ‘Ode To Joy’and substituting the word Freiheit (Freedom) for Freude (Joy) Because when the chorus sings Alle Menschen werden Bruder, it will make more sense with Freiheit won’t it?”

The concert was broadcast live to twenty countries, to over 100 million people, with a popular recording to follow, Ode to Freedom: Bernstein in Berlin.

Bernstein was America’s first conductor/celebrity, audacious and at times self-adoring, so his changes to Beethoven’s iconic Ninth was to some the equivalent of painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. But those who had followed Bernstein’s career knew he was playing to the historic moment, to an audience of millions watching from across the globe. The massacre at Tiananmen Square (after Chinese students played the Ninth to rally their courage, also featured in the film) only five months earlier was horrifying. Unifying Berlin was a time for celebration and hope, words hardly worth uttering there only a few years before.

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And Bernstein’s identification with Beethoven was long-lasting, and more than just musical. His social activism for liberal and left causes began in his youth, and was consistent throughout his life. Reflecting on the Ninth in one of his popular television broadcasts early in his career, Bernstein rightly insisted that this symphony “ranges from the mysterious, to the radiant, to the devout, to the ecstatic,” but the words of joy and peace are hollow and ineffective when “we have not yet found ways, short of murder, to act out our suppressed rages, hostilities, xenophobias, provincialism, mistrust and need for superiority.”

For Bernstein, Beethoven’s Ninth contains within it struggle, a “struggle for peace, for fulfillment of spirit, for serenity and triumphal joy. Somehow it must be possible to learn from his music by hearing it. No, not hearing it, but listening to it, with all our power of attention and concentration. Then, perhaps, we can grow into something worthy of being called the human race.”

And finally, “As despairing as we may be, we cannot listen to the Ninth Symphony without emerging from it changed, enriched, encouraged.”

Lenny certainly knew this man and his music. And more importantly, he understood that Beethoven’s music contained within it both a way of life and an ethics guided by the composer’s own personal and social affirmation of what is best in human beings.

Watch the trailer for Following the Ninth here.

Greg Mitchell tells the story of Beethoven and the Tiananmen Square massacre.

It’s ‘Christmas in Washington’ Again for the Left (Courtesy of Steve Earle)

It’s time to take a (brief) break from guns and poses and get into the holiday spirit, so here’s one of my favorite Christmas songs—but still strongly political and still very much relevant to our times.

It’s from one of my longtime favorites, and star of stage and TV screen, Steve Earle. He wrote “Christmas in Washington” way back in 1996 with a Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, who was about to start his second term in a time of severe economic distress (some forget that these days) for working men and women.

It opens:

It’s Christmastime in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed
Gettin’ into gear for four more years
Things not gettin’ worse
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thanked their lucky stars
They said, ‘He cannot seek another term
They’ll be no more FDRs’

I sat home in Tennessee
Staring at the screen
With an uneasy feeling in my chest
And I’m wonderin’ what it means

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow

Later in the song he laments, “Killers on the highway,” “foxes in the henhouse” and “the unions have been busted.” Besides Woody, he wishes for the return of Emma Goldman, Joe Hill, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Note: Steve, early on, also wrote a fine, more traditional, Christmas song, “Nothing But a Child.”

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