In this ugly time, I tear up when reminded of the knowledge, the eloquence, the idealism of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
Sometimes, I entertain the fantasy that Mrs. Obama will offer herself as a candidate for President – not that I would subject her, or her family, to the viciousness of another campaign, another presidency.
Besides, any ephemeral hopes have been dashed by reading Mrs. Obama’s stimulating book, “Becoming,” which confirms what has seemed apparent: since she was young, Mrs. Obama has felt a visceral distaste for politics.
In her book, she recalls qualifying for the elite Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, which entails a long two-bus commute, but also introduces her to new friends like Santita Jackson. Sometimes, after school, she is invited to the Jackson home, which takes on a frenzy when the man of the house, Jesse Jackson, is in town, making plans for one campaign or another.
One day Michelle and Santita find themselves “conscripted” into marching in the annual Bud Billiken Day Parade on the South Side.
“The fanfare was fun and even intoxicating, but there was something about it, and about politics in general, that made me queasy,” she writes.
When she comes home that afternoon, her mother, the stalwart Marian Shields Robinson, is laughing, saying: “I just saw you on TV."
Michelle Robinson Obama has always known her own mind. She was enough of a realist to admit that she had fallen for a charismatic summer intern at the law firm she had worked so hard to join. Barack Obama had many plans and dreams, and in her telling, she had enough faith in him that she would change her own life around.
That is the first half of the book – how Michelle was raised by Fraser and Marian Robinson, and her older brother, Craig, a basketball star at Princeton, and strong-willed, talented relatives. The richness of her family life – the wisdom of her parents – challenges any stereotypes of African-American life that might get thrown back at the Obamas, to this day.
The second part of the book is about Michelle Obama’s reactions to her husband’s abrupt rise to presidential candidate. Mrs. Obama describes how campaign aides failed to prep her for public appearances, leaving her to improvise. She realized she was no longer primarily a lawyer or community organizer but a political spouse who can jangle a campaign with one impromptu phrase. A born organizer, she seems to have impressed upon the handlers: That won’t happen again.
She describes election night in 2008, when her husband, seemingly so confident, watched on television, and how her mother reached out and patted his shoulder.
Mrs. Obama describes how much she already admired Laura Bush from afar, for her poise and advocacy of books. During the transition, she quickly came to like Mrs. Bush’s husband, and has often been photographed hugging and laughing with him.
She describes life in the White House, how close the family – including her mom -- felt to the mostly-black staff, and how much she relied on advisors to help with her interest in nutrition and gardening and with her wardrobe.
She praises the President as a loyal husband and father. I know this is true because a journalist friend of mine, who often traveled on the Presidential plane, told me how day trips were planned to get the entourage back to Washington in time for the Obamas’ 6 PM supper in the White House.
How Michelle Obama really felt about being a White House wife comes out in one of the most charming anecdotes in the book: On the evening of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage, large crowds celebrated in front of the White House. Michelle and her older daughter, Malia, made a break for it, rushing past their guardians, finding an exit to a quiet corner of the garden, just to feel and hear the jubilant crowd. For a few minutes, they beat the system.
There are many sweet memories in this book (written with the help of a talented journalist, Sara Corbett): the entire family meeting an elderly Nelson Mandela in his home, and feeling so comfortable with Queen Elizabeth, who motions for Michelle to sit next to her, referring to palace protocol as “rubbish.”
The book includes gracious mentions of all the people who helped her, and minimal references to the candidate who tried to portray her husband as an illegal alien. I would have liked to hear what Michelle Obama really thinks of that man, but the Obamas live by smart lawyerly aphorisms:
“Don’t do stupid stuff.” And “When they go low, we go high.”
In its high-minded way, Michelle Obama’s book reminds me that this family has earned its independence, mostly out of the spotlight.
We were lucky to have them.
Barack Obama Gave a Speech on Television.
I had tears in my eyes.
I was sad for what we have surely lost – an intelligent, verbal president who speaks of values.
When the former president mentioned Michelle Obama and their daughters, I felt empty, as if thinking of good neighbors who have moved away.
He delivered a civics lesson at the University of Illinois, urging young people to vote -- clearly political but so rational and timely that it rose above partisanship, to become a warning:
Where have we gone? What have we done to ourselves?
He cited the white-power people who stomped in psychic jackboots through Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, in plain daylight, not even bothering with hoods. He evoked the man who is still president as of this writing, who claimed there were good people on both sides.
Barack Obama asked, plaintively:
“How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?”
My wife said that should be a bumper sticker.
A president who can write and read and speak his native language. Imagine.
On Friday in Illinois, he was at his best in the national and global bear pit -- Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare’s speech for Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar:” “So are they all, all honorable men.”
The previous president spoke against stereotyping people, saying he knew plenty of whites who care about blacks being treated unfairly, saying he knew plenty of black people who care deeply about rural whites. Then he added:
“I know there are evangelicals who are deeply committed to doing something about climate change. I’ve seen them do the work. I know there are conservatives who think there’s nothing compassionate about separating immigrant children from their mothers. I know there are Republicans who believe government should only perform a few minimal functions but that one of those functions should be making sure nearly 3,000 Americans don’t die in a hurricane and its aftermath.”
Like Shakespeare, he was making a bigger point: there is a malaise loose in the land. At one point he said Donald Trump is “a symptom” and not “the cause.”
In other words, Trump is an illness that has been coming on for years.
I nodded grimly, in my den, thinking of the McConnells and Ryans, who have sat by maliciously, allowing a Shakespearean character, the worst of the buffoons, the worst of the tyrants, to tear things apart.
Was I imagining, the other day, that these politicians were squirming in their seats in the cathedral, along with their fidgety wives, listening to the orations for John McCain, wondering if anybody would ever confuse them with patriots?
On Friday, Barack Obama gave notice to the young people of many shades and facial characteristics in his audience: you are the largest population bulge in this country, but in 2016, only one in five of you voted.
“One in five,” the playwright emoted, enunciating his own words. “Not two in five or three. One in five. Is it any wonder this Congress doesn’t reflect your values and your priorities? Are you surprised by that? This whole project of self-government only works if everybody’s doing their part.”
The television showed the college students nodding, or averting their eyes. Will they remember this warning at mid-term elections in early November? So many distractions these days. So easy to get lost, twiddling thumbs in the social media.
Shakespeare was borrowing stories from earlier centuries but Barack Obama has been active in public life. On Friday he returned to the stage to deliver artful words, dramatically delivered, surely from the heart.
How many reminders, how many chances, do we get?
The transcript of Barack Obama’s speech (really worth reading):
I respect John Lewis for staying away.
I respect the people – including some close to me – who are going to Washington on Saturday to protest.
I’m hunkering. I can’t watch the transfer of responsibility, of power, from the President to a reality-show host.
For all that, the dominant feeling I expect on Friday is relief.
This essay is being written on the national holiday for Martin Luther King, who went to Memphis in 1968 to back up striking sanitation workers.
It is written in honor of John Lewis, who went to Selma in 1965 to protest American segregation, and who, thank goodness, survived the beating and is still with us, calling the new President illegitimate.
How many people have been holding our breath since the election of 2008 – hearing in our hearts the lyrics by Dion DiMucci: “Seems the good they die young.”
Instead, came a more subtle version – what Justice Clarence Thomas might call “a high-tech lynching” -- conducted by Mitch McConnell, missing only the hood over his face, and Boehner and Cantor and Ryan, who could not coexist with a black President.
They screwed up the country, leaving a Rube Goldberg health-care bill that could have been so much better, and stalling on infrastructure and education. High-tech resistance.
For eight years, President Obama has conducted business with intelligence and dignity; he will walk away observing the rituals of democracy.
The main thing is, he and Mrs. Obama will walk away. I look forward to their books; I look forward to very rare glimmers of their children, leading semi-normal lives.
The country will now have to respond to the demonstrated rapacity of the new people. This new person has nominated people who cut deals with dicey nations to make money for themselves and shareholders, who demonstrate contempt for the majority as well as for government.
The current polls suggest that many people who voted for the man are now having misgivings. Did you see Charles Blow’s list of polls showing the people’s dis-satisfaction with the transition?
That’s right, the people out there who thought this guy was a fine religious gentleman and an American patriot and a savvy executive are now having misgivings. (Mike Pence, the token of the religious right, looks stricken -- the only man on his island.)
John Lewis is staying away. As always, John Lewis is way ahead on moral stances.
What plans do you have for Friday?
At this holiday of homecoming and giving thanks, I want to thank the Obamas for giving all people the image of a wholesome and functional American family.
Through all of it, they have been an example for positive, enlightened living. I am always touched that Marian Shields Robinson, the mother of Michelle Obama, lives with them, is part of so many activities.
I have a friend in the White House press corps who sometimes travels with the President. He once told me there is an Obama rule, when possible: home by suppertime. Excursions to American cities are often planned with a mid-afternoon getaway, so the President can be at the table to ask, "So, how was your day?" That may have changed as the girls grew older, but his priority for family life was a factor for years.
I will miss having a President who can imitate Al Green, sing "Amazing Grace," and preside over his last medal ceremony with such eloquence and knowledge -- about athletes, about scientists, about pioneers.
Michelle Obama has been a passionate advocate for education, for women's rights, for exercise and healthy eating. And she always has her husband's back, as an equal. I look forward to her next acts, and those of their children. I hope they enjoy this Thanksgiving,
I had this thought while watching the Democratic convention Wednesday night:
Are the young Trumps watching? Do they hear what Michael Bloomberg says about their patriarch?
Do they watch President Obama skewer their benefactor, their teacher, just about he did at that press dinner in 2011?
How do they react to the gentle jibes of Tim Kaine?
What do they think when Donald J. Trump asks Russia, invader of neighboring nations and clandestine drug pusher to its athletes, to hack the emails of Hillary Clinton?
Does the word “treason” cross their minds?
By genetic definition, these offspring don’t have all of Trump’s wiring – the disabilities that do not allow him to take in information, that make him lash out. Certainly the spouses do not. But have they absorbed Trump’s mind set?
Do all those Trump mothers’ genes kick in and make the next generation fear the rampage he is on?
Do they know right from wrong?
Is there room for embarrassment when the Clinton commercial is repeated on the tube, showing children watching and listening as Trump makes fun of women’s bodies, of a reporter’s condition?
(Serge Kovaleski is a friend and colleague, a terrific guy, who has a condition called arthrogryposis, which limits the motion of his arms but not his work, his life.)
Do they ever try to bring up these ugly acts to Trump – or would he cut them off without a dollar, as if they were a vendor who had done honest work for him?
Are they touched by the church ladies who have known tragedy up close but at the convention spoke of love and forgiveness while calling for gun control?
What do they think when Vice President Biden refers to his late son, and talks about how the Obamas have become “family?” Can they imagine feeling that way about other people -- or other people feeling that way about them?
What do the Trump scions feel when Michelle Obama reaches the whole world with her speech?
We have been told that one member of the Trump entourage admires Mrs. Obama – Melania Trump, who used several chunks of Mrs. Obama’s speech in her own talk at the Republicans’ fearful convention. Or was that a weasel way of explaining amateurish plagiarism?
Are they touched by Mrs. Obama’s intelligence and dignity – or do they carry the same racist contempt of the Obamas that can be found under the rock of the Internet – and, oh, yes, in Congress?
What do the young Trumps really think when Michael Bloomberg refers to their meal ticket as a serial welcher and cheapskate, who got his start with a $1-million loan from his old man? Are they impressed with Bloomberg’s billions-of-dollars charity, or do they think to themselves, “chump?”
The cliché is that the Trump kids seem okay, that they don’t have the bullying tactics of the old man. One reporter went hunting with the two older Trump sons and found them not obnoxious or repellent.
But is there room in their hearts for self-awareness? For shame?
Thank goodness for the Mets. That’s all I can say. They serve the ultimate function of sports – keeping the mind off real life -- and more power to them.
Right now the Mets are out west, which gives me license to ignore cable news in the evening and hope Bartolo Colón will hit another home run.
I caught that one live on Saturday -- Gary Cohen’s call was great on the tube; so was Howie Rose’s call on the radio; so was the Spanish call by Juan Alicea and Max Perez Jimenez.
All I can say is, if you are going to watch a man with a big belly lumber around with a smirk on his face, better to watch Colón than that trickster from Queens.
This is not escapism, this is self-help, not having to remind oneself over and over again that at least one third of America leans toward a lout from reality TV.
Let’s go Mets. The other night I saw Asdrubal Cabrera, who has reminded us what the position of shortstop can be, race down the left-field line to catch a fly ball over his shoulder at the edge of the stands. When a little boy in the front row leaned forward to congratulate him, Cabrera patted the boy on the head. There was more grace and humanity in those two gestures than I have seen from the front-runners in the grinding decades of this current political campaign.
(As an old Appalachian hand, I am available to advise Hillary Clinton how to talk to coal miners, but I don’t think that is happening.)
I’m burned out. I’ve been watching and reading about the primaries for way too long – and have few complaints. I just read the thoughtful essay in the Times about how pollsters and experts underestimated Trump, but I just want to say these are the same number-crunchers who reassured me President Obama was going to win in 2012.
(By winning, Obama endured, to deliver that wonderful graduation speech at Howard University last Saturday, a civics lesson for all. I am going to miss that man, no matter who wins this long slog to November.)
All right, the pollsters and others missed the Trump tsunami among the minority on the right, but I cannot fault The New York Times, where I used to work. It has given us tons of stories on buffoonery of Trump. (I saw a friend of mine from Queens quoted about what a nasty little boy Trump was; quite right.)
The Times has done fine (with the great Margaret Sullivan riding herd in her final months as media critic) and MSNBC has sent platoons of reporters out into the land. Chris Matthews, the host who doesn’t listen to his guests, is often susceptible to Trump’s flattery (we’re-a-couple-of-big-timers, you-and-me, Chris) but nailed him on his abortion silliness.
MSNBC has enlightened, with Lawrence O’Donnell and Joy Reid and Rachel Maddow and our household favorite Steve Kornacki. (I’ve lost my wife to Kornacki and Bernie Sanders.)
Brian Williams has been irrelevant -- hair and teeth and suit, on his work-release program with the network. When MSNBC veers into silliness, CNN is there. And thank goodness, our cable system carries the BBC and Euro News to remind us the world is still out there. Forget our networks. They gave up decades ago.
For the reading class, the web is full of informative articles, like the one by David Cay Johnston on salon.com about Trump bankruptcy maneuvers. Now Trump is proposing to run the country that unsavory way, according to Paul Krugman.
For all the hand-wringing, I do not think I am uninformed. Fact is, I am too informed. There’s only one more Breaking News I want – not too late on the evening of Nov. 8 -- the long national nightmare is over. We will have a president who is, at bare minimum, informed.
Meantime, the Mets are out west. Colón pitches Thursday night.
* * *
(In case you missed that wonderful talk.)
What’s the word for early nostalgia?
Every time I read the paper or turn on the tube, I am reminded just how much I am going to miss Barack Obama.
Separation anxiety sets in.
I see him comporting himself with dignity and wisdom, in Europe at the moment or wherever he goes - the thoughtful pauses, the complicated sentences, the deference to fact and reality.
Every time the U.S. locates a nest of crazies in the Middle East, or the jobless rate stays down or the stock market moves up, I say, “Yeah, he’s not doing anything.”
Real pundits have been saying the same thing recently. Brooks. Alter.
And I just discovered a wonderful piece by Jim Nelson in GQ. I like every word.
Pretty soon, even Mitch McConnell and that posse (Mitch and the Dull Normals) that stands behind him are going to miss Barack Obama, even though they have spent the last seven years resenting that a President of mixed heritage is the smartest man in the room.
Après lui, le déluge.
The other day I heard Trump making fun of John Kasich’s last name. Get this: a family that claimed it was Swedish, not German, making fun of a Croatian name, in front of angry whites who think they’ve gotten a bad deal. He's mocking them, and they don't get it.
Now I hear Cruz and Kasich are working in cahoots to divide the remaining states. Those two mugs couldn’t figure out how to split the check after lunch.
Recently I had the pleasure of voting for Bernie Sanders in the New York primary.
The other day our grandson sat up close to Sanders at a rally in Pennsylvania and sent a photo and terse note:
“Yeah, it was a little cookie cutter, but it was still really cool to see him.”
He’s voting for the first time this fall. It’s been wonderful to see young people drawn to a political race. I hope they stick around for November, when I will do my duty and vote for Hillary Clinton. For whom else?
I turned on the tube Sunday night and MSNBC was dredging up a canned Clinton retrospect. Yikes. For the next half year we are going to be hearing names like Linda Tripp and Paula Jones and Whitewater, emerging from the swamp, historical zombies.
Meantime, my wife gets Elizabeth Warren newsletters, explaining the economy, the state of the union. Sometimes we fantasize about Warren running for President, this time, right now.
John Nichols put it perfectly in The Nation:
I doubt Sen. Warren can do Al Green. The Prez did him at the Apollo -- even made a reference to Sandman Sims, the legendary comic who gave the hook to bad acts.
Where is the Sandman when we really need him?
Watching President Obama catch hell lately, I want to assess 15-yard penalties for piling on.
Much of his trouble stems from political opponents like McConnell, Boehner, Cantor, Paul, Graham, McCain -- rednecks in suits -- unable to cope with a smart president of mixed ancestry. But now, their malice and selfishness and, dare I say it, prejudice, are spreading outward.
The only time I winced during the summer get-him frolics was when the president was photographed apparently enjoying himself playing golf shortly after announcing the beheading of an American journalist by savages. He could not have been more dignified at his official appearance.
What was he supposed to do? Not get photographed, I guess is the answer. What if his children had made him laugh? Some things are best kept private.
I realized, my problem was with the golf. Why did it have to be golf, a compelling sport that nevertheless speaks of money, free time, money, lessons, money, equipment, money, ritual, and money?
People pile on presidents. I get it. If I didn’t like the policies of President Reagan, I made fun of his horseback riding. Ditto, George W. Bush, riding a bike while warning reports sat unread on his desk.
With more than a twinge of guilt, I remember reacting, as a snide teen-ager, to President Eisenhower’s playing golf, even when African-American children were being harassed for seeking an equal public education. Why didn’t he put down the damn putter and escort those children into school? (Ike looks better all the time, as Obama will, down the line.)
Just once, I would like to hear a president say, “Thanks, but I don’t play golf. Just never learned. I was too busy working my way through school, providing for my family, getting into government, and I never could find the time or money to go off for half a day and play golf. Now it’s too late. In my little bit of free time, I’d rather… (ride a bike, swim, work outdoors, jog, play a set or two of tennis, play hoops, or just take a walk to work off steam.)"
I know that lush courses and a chance to schmooze with benefactors are inviting. At least Obama plays golf mostly with people he likes, rather than with people who have been undercutting him since Day One. (“Really? Why don’t you have a drink with Mitch McConnell?” -- one of the great things the president has ever said.)
So, yes, I admit, my personal problem was with the way the president relaxed on his deserved vacation. I fall into the category of a certain Mr. Williams – Tony Soprano’s henchman from the Old Country, real name Furio Giunta – who expresses his view of golf during a shakedown on a course.
I’ve played eight or ten times, always visiting people, and loved every outing, and totally acknowledge golf as a challenging sport, but I was afraid of getting hooked. Plus, who can afford it? Certainly not a president who is catching hell for just about everything, even from people who should know better.
The pose looked familiar – Americans unloading water from an aircraft carrier to the stricken islands of the Philippines.
It brought me back to the United States of my early childhood, toward the end of World War Two: not so much the fighting, but the recovery. When I was five, this was one face of America – G.I. Joe passing out chewing gum to the children of Normandy. Later we saw photos of Americans liberating concentration camps.
Perhaps it was a simplistic image, maybe even manipulated, but it was what we thought of the country, of ourselves.
The Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, the post-war hopefulness, only reinforced that image. We took care of others; we took care of our own.
The news that the United States was dispatching the carrier George Washington to the east coast of the Philippines struck a familiar chord. Better than chewing gum – tons of water and medical supplies, delivered by helicopter to Leyte and Samar.
It reminded me that when the nihilists struck on 9/11, I got emails from friends in Japan and Mexico and France, asking, “Are you all right?” We were all in it together.
I am reminded of that when I hear an American president remind us what soldiers know. You take care of your own. The current president comes from that American heritage when he talks about the need for a more national health care.
Even with the technical glitches – SNAFU, they called it during the war – the goal is to keep all of us away from the emergency room, to address hunger and illness in the early stages, while there is still time.
The American president reminds me of G.I. Joe.
The people who sabotage him do not.
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All I can say is, this is what happens when a nation elects a Kenyan socialist introvert. It's all his fault, as usual.
I’ll be talking about my book, Stan Musial: An American Life, on Saturday, Nov. 10, in Harrisburg, Pa.
The talk will also be streaming live at 3 pm at:
The talk is part of the Harrisburg Book Festival, Friday through Sunday, at the terrific Midtown Scholar Bookstore-Café, 1302 N. Third Street in Harrisburg. Tel: 717-236-1680.
My appearance has been arranged through my daughter Corinna Vecsey Wilson, vice president of programming and host at PCN.
The book was a New York Times best-seller in 2011. For a couple of glimpses of Musial, please see:
Musial will turn 92 on Nov. 21, and is the icon of St. Louis. I will be linking his modest, hard-working persona to his Pennsylvania roots in Donora in the western part of the state.
Stan the Man was one of the great baseball players of his time, or any time. At first I thought the subtitle should be The Forgotten Man (reference to the song in High Society) but when I began researching his roots as an immigrant's son in zinc-and-steel-and-smog country, I realized the subtitle An American Life was much better. It is always an honor to talk about one of the sporting heroes of my childhood.
On Sunday our son spotted a utility truck near his home.
It was from New Brunswick, the one in Canada.
That night, his electricity was restored.
Think of it: workers from a country with socialized medicine turned on the lights in the woods of Long Island.
I am tired of stumbling around in the dark.
I am also tired of the campaign, which amounts to the same thing.
Earlier in the year I was reassuring my wife that I met that guy during the Olympics, and he could run the country if he had to.
She knew better, long before his 47-per-cent remark and the Jeep-to-China lie.
Now I read that Democrats would work better with a Republican president than vice versa.
I also read blather about Obama being such a terrible person because he is an introvert. Something going on inside. Awful. .
It’s a race. Workers from Canada vs. returns from 50 states.
Maybe on Wednesday this will all be over.
In this long and ugly campaign, I am getting tired of the suggestion that President Obama should imitate Lyndon Baines Johnson.
By that theory, Obama should have long ago grabbed his opponents and saboteurs by some vulnerable part of their anatomy and squeezed until they cooperated.
This thoughtful and active president has been catching hell for four years for the crime of PWB – Presiding While Black. We all know that race is the subtext for this campaign. Obama has had to deal with congressional leaders with the smirks of southern sheriffs and South African apartheid enforcers back in the bad old days.
Just the other day, when that great American Colin Powell endorsed Obama, John Sununu made the despicable suggestion that Powell was only doing it for racial reasons. (Piers Morgan, an outsider currently working in American television, did not know the territory well enough to push Sununu on this.)
Obama would only have made it worse by morphing into LBJ. Lately I’ve been talking to veterans who watched their companions die in Vietnam, and when they lived long enough to read memoirs and histories they discovered Johnson and his pals had known the war was not working.
Yes, give credit to Johnson for pushing through civil-rights and anti-poverty legislation, for muscling the southern tier, his own constituency. He was also a bully who could not face his grotesque mistake.
Obama did fine in his second and third debates against a candidate who swerves all over the place, as Colin Powell said. Reason and record -- and dignity -- will win out.
When I was writing about Levon Helm of The Band before his death on Thursday, I referred to the commonality of American and Canadian culture, pertaining to pop music.
I was not saying it all sounds alike, but that modern technology and communications have exposed all of us to various strains of music that we know and love.
The Band produced a new blend of rock, folk and country from all over the continent. Levon, bless his heart, brought Arkansas north of the 38th Parallel.
When the soul singer pictured above delivered the first note of Let’s Stay Together – the first high note! -- everybody knew he was doing Al Green. Of course, it was at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and “The Rev” was in the audience, and President Obama quickly made a Sandman joke (Sandman Sims, a noted tap-dancer, used to give performers the hook when the Apollo audience had enough.)
Not everybody watching the President got the Sandman reference, but who didn’t recognize Let’s Stay Together? It’s in the culture.
I’m an official Old Guy, and my iPod has Brazilian music, Latino Music, the Chieftains, Anna and Kate McGarrigle with Quebec accordions, Joe Williams at Newport, Lucinda Williams, Thomas Hampson singing Stephen Foster. Not one culture, but so many cultures, all out there in our ozone. When the American President can do Al Green, we are getting somewhere.
Response to Thoughtful Reader Brian – II
The other day I mentioned a double Yankee connection to Stan Musial. This was before I gave a talk about my Musial biography, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a lovely building on the Grand Concourse.
Brian asked: just what were those connections? Well, in 1938, when Musial was already signed by Branch Rickey’s vast Cardinal farm system, he told a scout from his home-region Pittsburgh Pirates that the Yankee empire was showing an interest in him.
Apparently an un-named Yankee “bird dog” had spoken to him, according to a Musial friend who was trying to get the Pirates interested in the local boy. But the Pirates couldn’t touch Musial because he was under contract, and the Cardinals quickly sent him to his first minor-league post in West Virginia, as a wild lefty pitcher.
The other Yankee connection? When Musial slumped in 1959 and manager Solly Hemus saw fit to bench him, the Sporting News ran a copyright story that the Cardinals might trade Musial to the Yankees for St. Louis home-boy Yogi Berra. Musial said it was ridiculous, nothing to it. He had already blown away a proposed trade for Robin Roberts a few years earlier.
The question is: how would Musial have done as a Yankee, either at the start of his career or at the end? Perhaps he would have gotten lost as a wild young lefty pitcher, and never gotten a chance to show his hitting ability. He only got to play the outfield regularly in the Cardinal chain after blowing out his pitching shoulder while making a diving catch in center field.
Years later, the Yankees found a position for a shortstop named Mantle, and they found ways for Berra and Howard to co-exist. My guess is the Yankees – or any club – would have discovered the kid could hit and they could have used him in left field or at first base, just as the Cardinals did.
In 1960, the Pirates turned down a chance to get Musial for their pennant drive. Could his bat have helped either the Yankees or the Pirates in that wild World Series?
Oh, yes, Musial visited Yankee Stadium in his first two World Series in 1942 and 1943 and he hit his last all-star homer in 1960 in Yankee Stadium.
Those are his Bronx connections. With impeccable good sense, Musial managed to spend the last 70 years in a grand baseball city that loves and appreciates him. He did fine.
Instead of writing the usual cluster of postcards from this past year, I am retaining one outstanding memory – the grace of two presidents, in the home where they have lived, and a handshake that remains with me to this day.
I got to visit the White House on Feb. 15, after a friend scored a special invitation (not a press credential) for the ceremony for 15 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including Stan Musial. My biography of Musial was almost done, and he was being flown in from St. Louis to receive his medal, at the age of 90.
On a cold, gorgeous sunny day, I met up with John Zentay, a Washington lawyer who in 1962 had escorted Musial to the White House to meet President John F. Kennedy. I told the story the next day in The New York Times, how Zentay was carrying a photo of young Stan the Man and young J.F.K., and how we spotted Musial being escorted in a wheelchair by his grandson to the security gate. While the old star waited for clearance, Zentay showed him the photo. Then another invited guest — a handsome woman with what could best be described as vigah — strode up and spotted the photograph.
“That’s my brother,” she said. It was Jean Kennedy Smith, the last Kennedy sibling, who was also to receive a medal that day. Musial, who is slowing down, did not respond, but Zentay and I were thrilled by her reaction.
What I did not mention in my column the next day was meeting Yo-Yo Ma, another medal recipient, at the gatehouse. Open and bubbly, he chatted with all of us as we waited. I thanked him for the Silk Road Project CD I have at home; I could have thanked him for dozens of other performances. What a nice guy.
The ceremony was also described in the Times — great sports figures like Jim Brown and Joe Morgan honoring their friend Bill Russell, and Musial’s family looking on proudly as he received his medal from President Obama.
After that came a reception — refreshments, mingling, casual introductions. I sought out President George H.W. Bush, who was also in a wheelchair that day, but had willed himself into standing when presented with the Presidential medal.
Because we were in the White House — smaller, more intimate, than you might think — I could not help remembering how my childhood friend Angus Phillips, the long-time outdoor columnist with The Washington Post, was once invited for a predawn fishing expedition with President Bush. Through a lapse in protocol, Angus found the president padding around his living quarters in a bath robe. Angus was mortified but President Bush was cool.
In 2011, President Bush was back, casually hanging around his old residence with the medal around his neck. I asked him about the whereabouts of his old George McQuinn first baseman glove that he wore for Yale in the College World Series of 1947 and 1948. He once displayed the mitt to a gaggle of sportswriters when we visited the White House to schmooze about baseball. This time the 41st president turned to his wife and said, “Hey, Bar,” and asked about the glove. Like any older married couple — I can relate — they could not remember where the glove was stored in Houston. Once again, I was reminded what a decent and approachable man he is.
This is the part I did not tell in my column. Not enough space. Too personal:
As the guests mingled, I heard a flurry of applause from a front foyer, where a military chamber group had been playing. I heard the hum of a cello, followed by applause and laughter, and I followed the sound. It turned out that Yo-Yo Ma had asked the military cellist if he could sit in for one movement of Dvorak, and when he finished, President Obama, still mingling with his guests, had given him a warm hug. Clearly, they are kindred souls as well as a couple of Harvard guys.
The president was tall and graceful and very much at ease as he started moving toward the hallway.
My friend, who had arranged my guest pass, introduced himself and asked the president about something they had in common. Politely, President Obama stopped, gave my friend his attention, and answered the question. Then he said: “I’m sorry, guys, but I’ve got to go. I’ve got some work to do.”
As any guests would do, the people nearest to him cleared a path, and in a chorus said, “Go! Go!” the way any guests would do for a host who needed to take care of business.
As the president strode toward a stairway, he could have picked up speed, looked straight ahead, but this was his borrowed home, and he was the host. As he walked, he made eye contact. I was pressed against a wall, just another guest in a dark suit, not about to interrupt him, but the president stuck out his hand and greeted three or four of us, who were clearing space for him. I felt his hand for a second, and then he was gone, up the stairway, out of sight.
As a long-time journalist, I have met a lot of people, and I force myself on people only when on duty. However, the glow of the offered handshake has stayed with me as I recall the short chat with President Bush, and the instinctive inclusion from President Obama. Nearly a year later, I still relish the brief exposure to their grace.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: