CAMELOT SELLS A LOT
As television’s future hegemony was beginning to be imagined, the revisionist conceit surfaced that Walter Cronkite might indeed serve as the nation’s town crier. With the public square already cobbled-out into a million hearths in a million invisible homes, this was less a well-considered organizing principle as a catch-up proviso. Cronkite became our polis-by-default, the most trusted face in a fait accompli—or was it a slow-motion, televised palace coup? That his paymasters happened to sell detergent for a living was routinely glossed. That the airwaves ‘belonged to the people’ and were merely leased to the networks was an even-greater farce wrapped in un-actionable abstraction.
We counted our blessings nonetheless. Bill Paley was at least half-pregnant with the notion of journalistic integrity. In his frequent dust-ups with Murrow, he mirrored the uneasy patrician sensibility of republican (lower-case) CIA Director Richard Helms when the latter uttered in 1971 to the incredulousness of democrats (lower-case) everywhere: “You’ve got to trust us. We are honorable men.” No matter; since television was such an unparalleled money-machine, civic exactitudes were not for television to champion. That would have been the People’s job had they only taken it up. If anything, television, the medium, was best served by perpetuating a mixed message. Public Services Announcements (PSA’s), the unquestioned televising of important presidential addresses, etc. were the means by which television covered its rapacious tracks.
Televised coverage of political conventions arrived in 1952. Television wasted no time working its distortive magic on this event such that by 1956:
“…both parties further amended their convention programs to fit better the demands of television coverage. Party officials condensed the length of the convention, created uniform campaign themes for each party, adorned convention halls with banners and patriotic decorations, placed television crews in positions with flattering views of the proceedings, dropped day-time sessions, limited welcoming speeches and parliamentary organization procedures, scheduled sessions to reach a maximum audience in prime time, and eliminated seconding speeches for vice presidential candidates.” [from Encyclopedia of Television: Second Edition, Volume 3]
Hey fellahs, we only wanted you to televise the proceedings not alter the American political landscape. Jeez already. These grand gestures hardly supplanted the imperative for robust, off-camera civic involvement. Yet they did to a large degree. Telegeneic features now feature high in the vetting process. The watchable of all stripes belong to the Televisual Party. The voting booth is mediated before the curtain is drawn. Politics must first be seen before anything can ever hope to get done.
TV’s good and bad guys are often not our own. Within the mind’s eye, we find ourselves fighting against television to assert our intellectual positions. There are times the mind’s eye must exist alongside the TV-eye in a state of permanent irresolution. When we speak of the power of television, we are referring, in part, to its ability to overturn the mind’s eye for an alternate ‘vision’.
There is the Kennedy clan that resolves to the intellect. There is the Kennedy clan promulgated by television. These two clans share some things. These two clans are poles apart. Nixon exists in a similarly immobile two-form state. TV-Nixon is evil-incarnate. This is mindless reduction. This is caricature in the worst sense, a Marcusian one-dimensional three-card-Monte. TV is conducting a flimflam. The TV-eye is drawn to the wrong shell. More important, the eye reaffirms its primary allegiance to television. Independent thinking suffers a defeat.
There were glimmers of hope for TV-Nixon, alas perhaps too late-arriving to usurp the 1960 debate-frame. For instance, McLuhan reports in Understanding Media that:
“On the Jack Paar show for March 8, 1963, Richard Nixon was Paared down and remade into a suitable TV image. It turns out that Mr. Nixon is both a pianist and a composer. With sure tact for the character of the TV medium, Jack Paar brought out the pianoforte side of Mr. Nixon, with excellent effect. Instead of the slick, glib, legal Nixon, we saw the doggedly creative and modest composer. A few timely touches like this would have quite altered the results of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign.”
–from ‘Understanding Media: The Extension of Man’, by Marshall McLuhan, p. 269, 1966
Maybe there’s something about the tickled ivories, art in motion, which humanizes the subject. Jack Kerouac was similarly captured to sympathetic effect by Steve Allen’s light-jazz piano as he recited passages of On the Road. Even more interesting, by ‘knowing’ the TV-Kennedy’s, we come to believe we know the Kennedy’s of Hyannis Point. Here we find Heidegger at his dispirited best. He would say the two clans don’t become one-and-the-same or even complementary so much as they annihilate one another. The Kennedy’s are up-close. The Kennedy’s are at afar. They are, to use, Heidegger’s term ‘distanceless’. They no longer exist. Nearness and farness collapse into oneness. This is nihilism. Being has been crushed into non-existence. TV eradicates distance and proximity by making them a flatland, which is no-thing at all. TV is in service to Heidegger’s standing reserve. We are no longer Human Beings. We are Human Resources.
In Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, Heidegger finds colloquial expression in the thoughts of Chance the gardener:
“Everything on TV was tangled and mixed and yet smoothed out: night and day…near and far.”
Television chews everything up and spits nothing out. However just because something isn’t there, doesn’t mean it can’t exert profound cultural influence. The insistent power of the televisual rendition is a continual revelation. The mind finds itself putting down TV-eye insurrections, or else acquiescing. Intellectual rigor is not a hallmark of the TV-eye. The couch potato has few data sources outside of TV. His soul-murmurs are easily buried. The Kennedy/Camelot televisual-mythos is a high-pitched example of the mind’s struggle with TV. There’s no reason to believe this struggle isn’t perpetuated every watching hour at unregistered levels of low intensity –as a function of the disputed event’s scale and import. As Adorno said of psychoanalysis, “only the exaggerations are true.” Certainly the exaggerations amplify the observable effects. TV’s effects are vividly exhibited in the Kennedy-Camelot mythos and the Nixon-Richard III villain-frame. There is something irreducible in these associations that intellect alone cannot assail. The televisual leaves an imprint beside the intellect and not necessarily of like-mind to it. Nothingness has a way of sticking around.
We cannot serve two mediators, even when one is hell-bent on oblivion. Books subvert TV hegemony. The couch-potato is wise to jettison them as they can only cause acid reflux. In praising David Foster Wallace, Tim Jacobs gives indirect voice to these differing mediation approaches:
“…[Wallace] worked extra hard to put a recognizably mediating voice in your head (television, by contrast, disingenuously disguises its mediation).” –from ‘The Fight’, Rain Taxi, Winter 2008/2009
Disingenuousness is a primetime feature of television. In the old days, they called it lying. Nor can we allow psychopathology to cloud our leisure. The Mafia is killer-good fun. The mind-defying, TV-eye mirage can make hellfire walk on water. Of course film and TV share this baton. The Mafia is a cross-media project. Yet whatever the screen, people can’t get enough of chopping the body into twelve parts, stuffing it in an oil drum and then serving linguini with clam sauce on-the-fly over a makeshift drum-as-table (because dismemberment works up a killer appetite) before sending the whole concoction –femurs, fingers and clam shells-- out to sea. We have to be crazy to derive so much pleasure from psychopaths.
Now, take the good looks of the Kennedy’s, throw in Prohibition scotch, mountains of ill-gotten gains, Hollywood broads and TV loved it. You can overdo the ‘Nixon had beady-eye’s’, anti-telegenic stuff real fast. That’s just TV piling on because it already knows what it wants. Looks aren’t everything, even on TV. Storylines count. Vegas dancers are a plus because that line of work makes the tits fall in line. Jiggly relevance is a ratings bonanza.
Nixon was a Quaker. As a kid, he attended four church services on Sunday and engaged in endless prayer sessions and Bible studies throughout the week. Thank God Friday arrived because that’s when the Nixon clan really got its game on, provided no dancing, drinking or gambling ensued. Try to imagine Nixon palling around Lake Tahoe’s Cal Neva Lodge with Frank Sinatra. You can’t. TV can’t either. Already cathode rays are deserting the box in droves for the excitement of CAT scans. Nixon was TV poison six ways to Sunday, and especially Sunday given his fearsome religious obligations.
My dad was a big JFK conspiracy buff. He’d read all the books. You might say he corrupted me into it. We used to shuffle the bad actors like a deck of dog-eared cards. It sure beat talking about all the things father and sons are supposed to talk about. (By the way, what is it exactly that fathers and sons are supposed to talk about?) So I’m versed in all the Baskin-Robbins flavors: the KGB, Krushchev, pissed-off Cuban exiles, Castro, LBJ, Jimmy Hoffa, the Federal Reserve, Jack Ruby, Clay Shaw, David Ferrie, the CIA, Hoover and everybody in the top-tier of the Mob. Beyond these singular entities, an almost infinite array of alliances enjoys cachet with one conspiracy faction or another. That there were large puddles of slime all about during this era is now received history.
Fiction-writer James Ellroy takes strong exception to the lost innocence trope that feeds much of our post-Camelot, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam political funk. What is a funk anyway but a baby with a broken rattle? Heartsick idealists are weaklings that get put off too easily. America, Ellroy insists, was never innocent. Just ask Thomas Jefferson’s dark and dispossessed children. Rather it’s the ease with which pre-televised America could hide it sins that allows the myth of a prelapsarian America to persist. Ellroy calls the 1963-68 period, “the last gasp of pre-public-accountability America.” The nation needed a press agent, not a priest. Like a slow-motion Truth Commission, TV helps conduct the alleged fall from grace on every front. However it conceals too with equal dispatch.
Eyes wide shut. Like a shell-game with windows, television often has us see so that we might no longer see. The starkly visual can, in an odd sense, insist upon its own logic. Subterfuge is offered an even safer passage. DeLillo and Sontag suggest image-logic promotes a separate reality that can seize center stage if the potato is not careful. And when is a potato ever careful? The relentless Kennedy-Camelot misprision, abetted by TV, provides a wonderful foil for not seeing Joe Kennedy Sr. for what he is, the scion of an organized crime family who, having secured his fortune, is eager to expunge his sins through his sons’ political advancement. Of course Joe Sr. falls back on old friends and habits to accomplish the appearance of transformation. The karmic rebound is wicked-hard and often referred to as ‘the Kennedy curse’.
Evil men loathe hypocrisy, perhaps more so than good ones. Once their hell is traversed, you must inhabit it with them. You are corrupt now too. Your corrupters will not let you forget this. In the first scene of The Godfather, Don Corleone expresses mild umbrage at the undertaker Bonasera’s sudden gestures of patronizing friendship, after the latter has expressed no prior interest in the Godfather. Evil is an accrued stack of chips to be wielded by fallen men in exchange for other men’s souls. Well-schooled in the calculus of malevolence and fear, the Godfather is, in a strange sense, sensitive to those who would avail his loathsomeness without some ritualized gesture of respect. In the den, we are witnesses to a Black Mass. Sick with grief and hungry for revenge, the undertaker --himself a profiteer of the dead-- demands death for the men who disfigure his daughter. However the Godfather, a Mephistophelean high-priest, is more measured in his justice. He will not mete out death because death has not been done. Groveling before Corleone, kissing his ring, Bonasera collapses back into the only world that ever really existed, Ellroy’s seedy, seamy America. The ‘light of his life’, his own Lady Liberty in tatters, the undertaker reacquaints in the darkness of the Godfather’s den.
He is there to bury his vision of Camelot, his naïve immigrant dreams of America. He is there to be bathed in darkness, old world evil, where he has been all along. He is owned by the Godfather. He has always been owned by the Godfather. With calculated disdain, Corleone gently chastises Bonasera for thinking that he had arrived in Paradise. For those souls who forget, they are brought to recall in dimly-lit moments such as these: Paradise no longer exists. Good and evil have not been repealed in America. Both are alive and well, though it pays to be wary. Evil can employ potent imagery to simulate good. The Godfather knows himself. He knows the country he inhabits. He is a man of no nation. He is a man of two nations. Knowing thyself, good and evil accomplish the Jungian trick of reconciliation. Corleone is Bonasera’s shadow. Later, together, they prepare Sonny for his final viewing. Sonny’s bullet-riddled body is dressed by one father. He has fallen to assuage the sins of another.
The split-screen, the box that infernally parrots as though it knows, is a weakness that men such as Corleone do not indulge. They will not be dictated to. They are authors, authoritarians, over their own existence. Duality is a pitfall and a failing. They do not dart about. Smaller men enter their chambers. The Godfather’s den is where all conflicted souls must one day rendezvous, where lesser mens’ sparks of divinity, yet to congeal into univocal souls, converge. Good Catholic fictionist Flannery O’Connor lectures us that everything that rises must converge. Jungian man falls in order to gather up his devil. He is Orpheus, travelling the downward path of the imagination. His convergence is made in the descent. Am I going to hell?
It’s fair to say Corleone is a lapsed Catholic, whereas Bonasera is a fool waking from a televisual dream in what is still an untelevised age. Television did not invent American bumper-stickers. It displays and propagates them with unparalleled facility. Must we remind that Corleone is a Marlon Brando dream, an emanation of pure imagination that Coppola enlists in a movie with genuine tragic import? The Godfather tracks closer to Aeschylus than to television drama. Not that this fact has slowed TV’s expropriation tendencies for a New York minute. Dozens of Godfather-lites have flit across the TV screen in the ensuing forty years. Had they only been contemporaries, Kerouac and Coppola might have considered a class-action suit against TV on the grounds of shameless cultural theft and dilution. Or is it the Mafia that should consider a suit against Coppola for portraying an irresistibly romantic enclave that all but ensures heightened FBI scrutiny in the post-Hoover era? Sometimes it’s hard to know where the mimetic begins and ends in the American hall of mirrors.
Like Bonasera, Joe Kennedy Sr. is a dart-fish, though writ larger. His megalomania moves between moral spheres with impunity. Perhaps he is a psychopath. Good and evil are means to an end. Joe Sr. is blissfully bifurcated. Hell-bent on absolving his criminal past, he sets loose his Harvard-boy progeny to accomplish the task with a breath-taking arrogance that all but mints a surfeit of enemies. In the 1959 McClelland hearings, Bobby treats Jimmy Hoffa like a street punk. You can cut the air with a knife. The hatred between both men is palpable. A psychopath who had killed by age 15, Giancana is probably the wrong man to accuse publically of giggling like a little girl. These gratuitous displays of public humiliation are televised. Had Bobby forgotten whereof he came?
Jack and Bobby, rehabilitative knight-errands, seem devoid of the usual Oedipal push-backs. The father’s influence is suffocating. Evil is an atmosphere. The elephant is the room. In the final scene of The Godfather Diane Keaton watches her husband Michael get swallowed into that eclipsing den of darkness. (Michael is the real Godfather to which Brando plays but a preparatory John the Baptist role.) Son Jack is an Addison’s Disease-riddled horn-dog, a shadow of his dead older brother, Joe Jr.--the Odysseus who fails to return. Joe Jr. is the tragic hero. Moloch is mollified only with the blood of the first-born. TV couldn’t care less. He is dead. He is beyond the reach of the camera. Jack is hurriedly conscripted into the father’s master plan, though a clear second-choice. According to Seymour Hersh (in his book The Dark Side of Camelot), a phone is installed between Joe Sr. and JFK. The calls are apparently frequent. Hersh speculates that, given the power-lust of the father (and his own failed presidential ambitions), Joe Sr.’s influence on the Kennedy administration is substantial. No records are kept. The electorate’s fear, fueled by anti-papist prejudice, of a hotline from the Vatican to the Oval Office is misplaced. No one had a considered a hotline to the Irish Godfather.
At first, Bobby Kennedy confounds. Is his air of sanctimony a lapse from family-form? Just how loose a cannon is he during the McClellan Commission Mafia witch-hunts and subsequent pit-bull antics as his brother’s Attorney General? What compels him to bite the Mafia hand that had won the old man a stay of execution back in the Detroit Purple Hill gang days and Prohibition and a second time when Joe Sr. reneges on agreements with Frank Costello? Giancana intervenes on Joe Sr’s behalf a second time. The contract on his life is rescinded, especially when Giancana sells Costello on the advantages of a Mob-friendly White House. For this, Giancana extracts two huge concessions. Joe Sr. pulls Bobby off the McClellan Commission --and off the Mafia’s back. Bobby is made campaign manager of his brother’s presidential campaign. However, more important, Joe Sr. trades on his son’s impending Presidency to save his own life. This is a Faustian bargain of the highest order. ‘Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo!’ David Amaruso, author of Mafia: The Book the Mob Wouldn’t Want Published , reports Joe Sr.’s startling promise to Giancana as this:
"If my son is elected president, he'll be your man. My son, the president of the United States, will owe you his father's life. He won't refuse you, ever. You have my word."
Giancana tips Chicago and West Virginia to the Kennedy’s with money out of his own pocket. Bobby as campaign manager knows exactly who the benefactors are. Bobby’s brother is President because of the hated Italian mob. He also knows the family is perilously extended anew in an unsavory, albeit familiar, direction.
The Kennedy’s have another problem. According to Seymour Hersh, they need a rapid diversion as Hoover could cause them fatal damage. The FBI Director has collected election fraud and bribery evidence on the Kennedy’s in no less than eleven states. Thus the administration could end in acrimony and scandal before it even begins. To cement things with Hoover, JFK reappoints him as FBI Director the day after the election. In his position as Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy stops all election fraud investigations before they can get started. The government bureaucracy seems well in-hand.
There’s a prevalent myth that St. Bobby, tireless Mafia nemesis, is a lone moral gunman acting outside the imprimatur of the paternal directive. This is inaccurate. He’s not swimming against the gene pool. He’s attacking the sharks before they attack Jack. Joe Sr., Jack and Bobby comprise a well-oiled triumvirate between whom daylight dare not shine. They know the Mob must be rooted out before it calls on the Oval Office for some really big post-election favors.
Sam Giancana sees the Kennedy betrayal for what it is –a preemptive gangland strike by the Irish mob against the Italian mob. In this instance however, the Irish mob has secured the best capos that power can buy and money can’t: the FBI, the IRS and Justice Department attorneys. Chuck Giancana quotes his brother’s grudging admiration for the double-cross:
"'It's a brilliant move on Joe's part,' [Sam Giancana] said ruefully. 'He'll have Bobby wipe us out to cover their own dirty tracks and it'll all be done in the name of the Kennedy ‘war on organized crime’. Brilliant. Just fuckin' brilliant.'"
Still, Bobby Kennedy’s outsized enthusiasm for the task distends the narrative arc. Bobby may well be the first of the Kennedy’s to be baptized in the sixties. His trip through Appalachia in 1968 clearly affects him. A social conscience is forming. Was Bobby breaking from the unremitting inclemency of his father, becoming his own elephant in his own room, having a Kerouac On the Road moment: "For the first time in my life the weather was not something that touched me, that caressed me, froze or sweated me, but became me.” The only brother to have answered the father’s challenge to avoid cigarettes and liquor until his 21st birthday, he possesses a moral composition that differs from the others. Perhaps he is part-crusader driven by a subconscious desire to expunge a father’s sins. I choose to see transformational glimpses in Bobby between 1960 and 1968. This is Birkert’s ‘watchword’ for Rilke’s elegies, a word that he equates with Keats’ soul-making. Of course he has buried a brother in the interim, perhaps with some vague sense of culpability. But the times they are a changin’ too. Bobby’s public tears are a Dionysian effusion the father would never allow or condone. This is generational progress. The irresistible visual impact of Bobby Kennedy’s poverty tour spurs a poverty tour cottage industry. There is television pay-dirt in sad, empathic gazes cast over desperately poor people. TV succeeds in beating all sense of moment into rote attendance. The Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project notes that:
“Bobby Kennedy's tour of the region was not a unique event: his brother John had planned to come in December of 1963, Johnson came in 1964 and, in later years, Nixon, Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Paul Wellstone, and Jesse Jackson all conducted "poverty tours" that included eastern Kentucky.”
Perhaps I over-psychologize. In his book The Kennedy’s: Dynasty and Disaster, John H. Davis calls Bobby Kennedy’s transformation, “an extraordinary metamorphosis of personality.” In the end Bobby Kennedy’s motivations remain tantalizingly murky, even contradictory. Certainly the latter would be consistent with a transformational arc.
However back to an ocean away, 1960, where the Faustian deal is as stark as it is tempting. Mafia intervention carries an obvious upside (the Presidency) and an obvious downside (a looming Mafia quid pro quo sure to dangle over the Kennedy White House like a sword of Damocles). Ramsey Clarke is never in the running for the job. Bobby is the only real choice for Attorney General or, if you endorse this Coppola trope, family consigliere. He strikes fast and hard. Indeed few realize just how hard the Mafia is hit in the early days of the JFK administration. The Justice Department’s organized crime unit hires 60 more attorneys, a 400% increase. From 1960 to 1963, IRS man-hours devoted to organized crime cases jump from 9,000 to 88,000. These are significant steps designed to hit the Mafia where it hurts.
The Mafia soon realizes that, far from receiving favors from their Boston-Irish brethren, they are going to be destroyed unless they retaliate with full force. Don Corleone would be reeling from the almost pathological depth of the betrayal. In the eyes of the Mob, the nature and scope of the treachery is stunning in two key respects:
"Bobby Kennedy's war on crime was more than an assault, it was a betrayal, a double-cross that violated the core of the Mafia ethic. Having enjoyed the beneficence of the mob, the Kennedys then spurned them. The mob's reaction was inevitable. As Rosselli exhorted Sam Giancana, "Now let them see the other side of you."
–from ‘All American Mafioso: The Johnny Rosselli Story’, by Charles Rappleye and Ed Becker.
Though you’ll never hear it on TV the cleanest hands in this 1963 sewer-rat milieu belong to none other than ole tricky Dick himself. Despite my father’s progressive leanings, he always admired Nixon. Perhaps he saw a kindred striver achieving against all odds. He spoke of Nixon’s unstoppable tenacity and raw courage. As for Nixon’s storied paranoia, I must join Pop’s sympathies here: look at the cesspool he swam in. Nixon was paranoid and they were out to get him. He was robbed of the presidency in 1960. Nixon knew this, but he couldn’t say. So he bided his time.
Nixon is a poke in the eye of the TV-eye. He is gangly, awkward. Even in victory, he seems unable to hold his arms above his head with uncompressed exuberance. Peace signs thrown to the sky, he resembles a frog lying on its back awaiting dissection. There is nothing unchecked about Nixon. Television hates the sight of him. He is forever cast in sallow-faced, sweaty shadows and shifty eyes. The Republican candidate’s permanent five o’clock shadow allows TV and Giancana to drag JFK over the finish line, though the election is a photo-finish.
In the early days of television, there was the young boy who confides to a TV personality that he prefers radio to TV ‘because the pictures are better.’ That kid of course grew up to be a Nixon supporter. People who listened to the Kennedy-Nixon debates gave the debates to Nixon. People who watched favored Kennedy. ‘Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!’ What does the latter ‘see’ that the former cannot ‘hear’ and what are the implications for leadership in the TV age?
The Kennedy-Nixon debates and the radio-TV perception differential offer a fascinating glimpse into the market-altering effects of TV in politics. We have since accumulated a trove of TV-age cautionary tales. President Obama makes a considered decision to remain in the White House for much of the BP oil spill clean-up. Maybe he’s aloof and disconnected as some say. However maybe he decides that his time is better spent conducting the operation from the White House where he presents less of a distraction. If the latter, oh how he under-estimates (or is too intelligent to engage) the expectations of the TV-eye. There is an immediate outcry. People want their President in galoshes, standing on the beach, staring the oil down. Television has trained the TV-eye for spectacle. The substance of direct executive coordination beyond the camera’s gaze is discarded for the symbolism of reversing the tides with optical fortitude. People clamor for this reversal. They don’t want Moses so much as Cecil B. DeMille. Harvard-educated pundits decry a leadership void without the requisite dog-and-pony show. The danger is this: In the TV age, numerous empty-suits will reach for the galoshes instinctually, their predilections more presentational than substantial. Zelig’s will proliferate. King Solomon’s will stumble. One-note Charley’s for security, the Secret Service will disperse oil clean-up teams from the beach so that TV can safely capture the Presidential moment. This is a black-slick corollary to DeLillo’s white noise. Symbolism spills across substance. The nation serves television. The beach stays dirty longer.
Witness the modern era’s lights-camera-action in action (or is it well-lighted inaction?) An NBC First Read article from August 15, 2011 (‘Perry Outshines Bachmann’) summarizes NBC’s Jamie Novogrod’s take on the lighting at a Waterloo, Iowa event. Both Republican hopefuls gave speeches at the same locale. What did they say? No one can remember. The tungstens wasted no time stealing the show:
“Both campaigns set up their own lights – [Rick] Perry's a set of tungsten lights, and Bachmann's a set of HMI (daylight) lights, according to an event organizer. The organizer says the Bachmann campaign directed the house to shut off its HMI lights during Perry's speech. After Perry's speech -- and just before [Michele] Bachmann took the stage -- the HMI lights were restored. The campaign confirms that request was made, and attributes it to production reasons. The campaign says you can't mix HMI and Tungsten lights at the same time, and asked the house to use each set during each candidate's assigned time. The HMIs are certainly brighter, and the lighting in the room changed dramatically before Bachmann's speech.”
As for who won, the nation’s pundits called it: Galoshes, 2; Substance, 0. Even odder (or not, given the production values that precede us everywhere in the televisual age), The New Republic reports that Bachman refused to take the stage until the lights were changed, thus delaying the delivery of a substance no one recalls anyway due to the light-bulb dust-up. In better lighting they say the social security funding gap looks less scary. Let’s hope so. The demands of image are endless. Image covets lighting of iridescent complexion, seeming light-years away from daily walkabout shadows. One only hopes the Russians will be patient with us during the next missile crisis.
Of course it’s great sport lambasting the politicians for their superficiality. However kingdoms of supposed substance can appear to turn on a dime or, in the case of 2008 Presidential contender Hillary Clinton, an apparent imperious, arched eyebrow. In an earlier book of mine I noted how the fairer Clinton’s fortunes appeared to sink in New Hampshire aided at least in part by a less-than-golden arch. Here is an extended passage:
“The other day on C-SPAN I watched Hillary Clinton getting roundly booed by Obama supporters. The most noise came during those moments when she offered her own rendition for bringing change to America. And this was at a New Hampshire State Democratic event. Hardly a hostile crowd, it was nonetheless an audience savoring the demise of an 'in-house' dynasty and relishing the prospect of change. But just how unpalatable had the Democratic status quo suddenly become? After all Hillary Clinton had been the crowd's favorite just hours before. What really had changed?
Later that evening, Republican pollster Frank Luntz assembled a room of New Hampshire voters to solicit their impressions of the Democratic debate held earlier that day (and after the event described above). Remarkably almost the entire room had switched from Clinton to Obama over the intervening days and hours. So much for Clinton's thirty-five years of public service on Democratic-friendly causes. That had all slid behind a storm in a teacup. The crisis du jour? Clinton's visible irritation with both Obama and Edwards' characterization of her as a status quo figure during the evening's debate. Inquiring minds wanted to know, had her arched eyebrow flashed anger, irritation, arrogance or entitlement? How could such an eyebrow be allowed to inhabit the Oval Office?”
–from ‘How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable?’ by Norman Ball
In the same essay, I cite Bill Clinton’s rather brilliant encapsulation of his wife’s political predicament at that precarious moment. Speaking in a TV interview soon after the New Hampshire primary, he refers to Obama as a symbol of change and Hillary Clinton as a proven agent of change. Clinton goes on to pose, rhetorically, whether the Democratic Party is not better served by a proven agent rather than an untested symbol who may –or may not—possess the necessary agency skills. Given a vote, TV gravitates towards discrete, frame-able symbols, snapshots in time; whereas forty years in public service is not a reducible frame. Experience is a clutter. Accumulated wisdom doesn’t pose for photo-ops. Now, in late 2011, there is a growing chorus among Democratic leadership circles about the nomination ‘error’ that was committed. The symbol has lost its luster. Experience matters.
The point is we get the televisual rituals we deserve. We need look no further than at ourselves for our leader’s unnatural preoccupation with unnatural lighting. Frivolity breeds frivolity.
For now, in 1960, we are light years away from competing light sources. The TV-eye is still in the infancy of expectations. For the moment TV seeks few favors beyond soap sales. The richest intrigue still occurs off-screen. Sam Giancana’s looming demands may be so onerous as to endanger the Kennedy presidency. Is the liberation of Havana’s casinos too much to ask? He is right to expect a favor or two. Instead he gets an audit. Carlos Marcello is illegally kidnapped and dumped in Guatemala. He is not a US citizen. These guys are majorly pissed. More important, they possess the clout and the inclination to actuate their animus.
The conspiracy theories are a Rorschach test within which active and passive participants abound. As Ellroy notes, it’s hard to think of Kennedy-hater J. Edgar Hoover as an assassination plotter. However he could easily be a passive-conspirator, picking up, for example, through his myriad bugs:
“...great glimmers and imports of resentment against John Kennedy and perhaps prophes[ying JFK’s] coming assassination and then [doing] nothing about it. Hoover might have sensed that it was coming and did not warn the Kennedy White House.”
With the Kennedy’s the outlandish sense of entitlement is a form of madness that draws enemies like flies to a wounded Fisher King and his less-wounded sons. The better question to ask, especially given the long list of enemies with a motive, is who liked the Kennedy’s --besides television and its legions, Wallace’s watchers? Of course television is one of the best last friends to have. In the end, the Kennedy mythos is the seduction of form over criminal enterprise. The media fixation on the underworld is a glorification of psychopaths and horribly truncated human beings. Why does TV revel in parading dead souls? If fathers know best why do they insist on conducting their sons to Hell? (Leviticus 18:21 ‘And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch’)
The madness of kings and their entitled playboy-princes is lashed impudently to Arthurian legend. There is even a soundtrack. Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot, opens in 1960 winning four Tony’s. The musical at first is tepidly received. Ed Sullivan, a musical buff, invites Lerner and Loewe onto his very big shoooh in March 1961. TV inspires interest. The show goes on to sell a record $3.5 million in advance tickets. Many associate it with the Kennedy Administration. In 1963 the musical receives a further boost when it is revealed by Jacqueline Kennedy that one of the late President’s favorite songs was the reprise. This is a proto-multimedia fusion of immense power. The narrative arcs of life and art are fused forever in death:
‘Don't let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot,
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.’
This brief moment, brought to furious shine by television, lasts all but a thousand days. The Kennedy administration ends. Television magnifies the legend and marginalizes all who might attenuate the signal when really this confluence of sharp elbows and roundtables requires a split screen. The Kennedy’s are no strangers to keeping up appearances. Their family code is built on moral bifurcation. There are wives and there are Hollywood whores, New Frontier ideals and the grime of Tammany Hall patronage, Camelot elegance and Vegas lounge-act seediness, Robert Frost and Frank Sinatra. Television selects the narrative best suited to its own dead-eye purpose --eyeballs fixed forever on its screens. The box has no love for anyone. ‘Moloch the loveless!’ TV’s interests happen to align with Kennedy aspirations. Nixon is not so lucky. TV casts him as Richard III to the end. Hunched beneath the rotor blades and with an awkward tragicomic wave, he proffers his kingdom for a slow-departing helicopter. Call it the tyranny of irresistible image, but Camelot is where politics forms its first telegenic hard-on.
Poetry can lead the way and is particularly instructive in the Kennedy era. I often think somewhere between the street and the summit there exists a nice middle-altitude for the craft. Our understanding of the hurly-burly of rancid politics benefits from the poet’s presence. Ginsberg was particularly fruitful during the 1954-66 period as attested to by his frequent eruptions throughout this essay. The following extended excerpt is from an earlier book of mine, The Frantic Force. The name in fact comes from a Roger Rosenblatt 1986 Time essay where he collapses the distance between poets and other polemicists:
“…Rosenblatt is inviting us, I believe, to weave poets and poetry into the crude fabric of Main Street. Why shouldn’t they have to contend with a lousy commute like butchers, bakers and candlestick makers? We live in perilous times. If poets are saved unduly from the fray, soon enough there may be no fray left to save. When frantic force is applied against received wisdom, new dialectics reveal themselves. Let’s give eccentricity a chance. Linearity, the brainchild of aesthetic Socratism, has been such a resounding failure.
President Kennedy is not deaf to poetry. There are overlaps in his call to youth and the Beats for instance. He seems to grasp its Orphic mission, especially in dark times. In his 1963 speech at Amherst College, in memory of Robert Frost who had died earlier that year, he offers a rare modern instance of politics acknowledging the potency of poetry; heck of politics acknowledging the very existence of poetry: However Kennedy’s inference that poets act in the interests of ‘richness and diversity’ to curtail power while politicians pursue power–only to succumb to arrogance—is, I believe, naïve in the extreme; Nietzsche would say, as Rosenblatt also implies, the will to power is no less insistent in poets than it is in politicians. Why should it be otherwise?
“In pursuing his perceptions of reality, [the poet] must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored in his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths.”
I wouldn’t argue that the poet often is a contrarian figure. But politicians can be mavericks too. So where’s the contradiction? Rather than relegating poets to Mount Parnassus—in effect elevating them into benign irrelevance—our efforts should involve dragging their odd contrarian natures through the muck in an effort to find new approaches to old problems. Perhaps a singularly eccentric figure offers us the only chance at upending the old hierarchies --and who more eccentric than some guy who crafts stanzas for a living?
Kennedy allows himself another backhanded slap at poetic popularity. Frost, the President implies, is popular only because he is misunderstood, largely because his darkness exceeds the capacity of the popular imagination to perceive it. Was Kennedy expressing a premonition of the ‘darker truths’ that would engulf him less than a month later? The darkest truth of all is the omnipresence of money. All human endeavors are drenched in it. Art is no exception. During moments when the straight way out resists concise, linear recitation, poetry’s long way round may be the shortest distance between two points.
–from ‘The Frantic Force’, by Norman Ball
Joe Sr. by contrast is a strident, linear figure, blissfully un-endowed with a poetic sensibility and, in my estimation anyway, oblivious to poetry’s darker truths. The universe may have been listening. After the invention of the cathode ray tube, and perhaps for one brief shining final moment, Zeus overrules television. Joe Sr. dies in 1969, a broken man, having been forced to live through the violent deaths of three sons; John and Bobby in some karmic sense by his own hand, the hand of hubris. TV suspends Aristotle’s rules of tragedy. Euripides is the father of the reality show. Nietzsche’s slayer of Attic tragedy embargoes Dionysus, paving the way for Hulk Hogan. How does everyone really live? Show me my everyday concerns from the vantage of another every-day guy. Let’s see how our mirrors compare. In Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Why Don’t You Dance’, a recently divorced man turns his house literally inside-out, setting up the bedroom furniture in the front yard. This is a sitcom stage –a regular schmuck with his life on parade. The man runs an extension cord out to power the lamps and the TV: “Things worked, no different from how it was when they were inside.” Television is a cockroach with rabbit ears. No environment is immune to its predations. Some bumper-stickers come to mind: Lose a wife, gain a neighborhood watch committee. On the road it ain’t, but maybe a bunion in the right direction. Each long journey begins with a coffee table under the dogwood tree. No hag, will travel. But first, let’s set a canary-yellow loveseat atop the bare spot in the yard.
The man leaves to attend to some boring details of his disintegrating life, or at least to buy things that will help him forget the boring details of his disintegrating life: sandwiches, beer and whiskey. A boy and girl happen by. They test the front-yard bed. As the girl approaches the front door to see if anyone’s home, the boy, “[sits] up and stay(s) where he (is), making believe he (is) watching the television. Lights come on in the houses up and down the street.” The community, long-since cured of catharsis and its nasty aftertaste, still likes to draw furtive peeks. Keeping up with the Kennedy knock-off’s on Falconcrest may be a lost cause. However the Smith’s still want to think they’re still out front of the Doe’s next-door. Reality TV helps notch the belt. Euripides deserves an Emmy.
Meanwhile Camelot is a purposeless video loop and a leading-man vehicle for Robert Goulet. Bonasera’s opening line (“I believe in America”) is the book-ended companion to Wallace’s last line in E Unibus Pluram (“Are you immensely pleased”). All that follows (and precedes) undermines the veracity of these posterized appeals. Who is completely immune to television’s seductive charm? Images of white-suited, frolicking Kennedy children on the White House lawn are both indelible and unassailable. No gangland image can usurp this favored narrative. Child’s play covers a multitude of grown-up sins. Joe Sr.’s early time in Hollywood is time well-spent. It requires no small amount of intellectual exertion to usurp these powerful images: Jackie’s haute couture, the yachts, Hyannis touch football, the elegant state dinners. We are reminded of Wallace obsequiously kissing television’s ring: “genuine human worth is not just identical with but rooted in the phenomenon of watching.” Held against the Kennedy’s audacious bid for flight, the Mafia kingpins are low-ambition thugs. Even worse, they look like low-ambition thugs. In the television age, that may be the greatest sin of all. Just ask Nixon.
The much maligned Warren Commission does its job admirably. In less than a year, an 888-page report is delivered to President Johnson. The book gets closed expeditiously if a bit raggedly. History however is always open to renewed inspection and revision. No Soviet nukes land on our heads. The country is not riven by nasty divisions. Business-of-sorts returns to normalcy. Hey, a belated thanks, fellahs. Oh, that small matter of the truth? Well we know lots of people prefer the word capitalized. But that’s always a maddening quest. There’s a rumor God covered up the Abel murder in order to move on to Exodus where things really start heating up. Earlier in the day, three other figures are spotted at the crime scene, one named Carlos. No one follows up. The Angel of History speaks through her attorney: She will not be turning to face questions, subpoenas or cameras. Whose book really can you trust?
Oswald’s birth certificate turns up in a Dead Sea Scroll. Israeli scholars refuse to release it for fear Jack Ruby’s witness protection identity as an irate west bank settler is exposed. Besides, Yul Brynner can’t wait forever. Pharaohs are busy men. He’s been promised to another movie. No soundstage is an island. No story is a hermetic knoll. The lone gunman hypothesis gets us to ’68 where we are served up two more lone gunmen. The loneliness is stacking up.
As for Oswald, no screen would have the balls to create him. So he creates himself. He is fatherless, a dysfunctional drama queen. Hardly a week goes by where he isn’t notching an event. He is a walking, breathing Godard jump-cut. Like a series of American Express TV-ad outtakes, he turns up everywhere reasonable paying Americans don’t want to be. He is Zelig without the magnetism and Woody Allen’s commitment to coherent plot. He is a latchkey kid, a truant. Texas-born, he moves with his mother to New York City for high school where he is teased for his funny accent and western clothes. He has an uncle in the New Orleans mob. He strikes his mother, pulls a pocket-knife on a family friend. This may be the profile of an assassin. This may be the profile of a disturbed patsy. This may be the profile of a large swath of dispossessed Americans.
In the last eight years of his life, starting with Marine Corps basic training in October 1956, Oswald is anything but a couch potato. His longest continuous stays anywhere are with the military and two-and-a-half years in Minsk, Russia. The former is probably due to the fearsome penalties for desertion; the latter, to the repressive nature of the Soviet Union. In both instances, movement is tightly restricted. Otherwise he is a Mexican jumping bean even popping up in Mexico City. He is court-martialed, twice, spends time in a military brig; attempts suicide, twice. Then there’s the darting about: Atsugi, Japan; South China Sea; El Toro, California; back to New Orleans, then off by boat to London; Helsinki, Berlin, Moscow, Minsk. While in Minsk, Oswald works at a precisions parts factory, making radios, televisions, and military and space electronics (Ginsberg prophesies this in 1956’s ‘America’.) Oswald can’t take the stasis. He’s got a movie to make. In a letter he says the Soviets provide him ample money, but there are no bowling alleys or movie-houses to spend it in --so much for Workers’ Paradise.
He writes the US Embassy in February 1961, wanting to come ‘home’, whatever home means to Oswald. He takes a Russian wife, Marina. Preferred ideology? He gets bored in one spot. Maybe an ADHD diagnosis had yet to catch up with him. He is under constant KGB surveillance while in Russia. Forget the natural oppressiveness of this Marxist-Leninist regime. If you had this nut-job in your country, the first defector to your nation, you’d keep close tabs on him too, comrade.
He returns to the US, spends time with his brother Robert in Fort Worth, a couple of jobs, a couple of addresses; then Dallas, a couple of jobs, a couple of addresses; New Orleans, a couple of jobs, a couple of addresses, distributes leaflets for a pro-Castro group, Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC); then off to the Soviet and Cuban Embassies in Mexico City to attempt to obtain travel visas to those nations. He is declined, but not before a Manchurian Candidate hypothesis is seeded; then back to Dallas (or perhaps a Soviet agent purporting to be him), another job, his last, at the Texas Book Depository. The rest, as they say, is history with all the black holes thereunto appertaining.
Kevin Bacon’s got nothing on Oswald. Lee Harvey’s six-degrees just keep stacking up like a protractor on fire. Bacon can only fire back weakly with Kevin Costner. The degrees part is a breeze: Kevin Costner was in ‘JFK’ with Kevin Bacon (1991). But Oswald’s sort of got ‘JFK’ covered thanks to the Warren Commission, Oliver Stone and a poor man’s Jim Garrison played by Costner. In December 2010, UPI reports the following:
“Byron Meyer and his mother were going through papers damaged by Hurricane Katrina when they found a 1969 note from Oswald's mother saying she "would be so honored to act as 'godmother' for the new baby," The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reported Monday. "It's weird. It's bizarre. It's freaky," Meyer said of the note to his mother, Lora Lee Meyer. "She was going to be my godmother -- the mother of the assassin of one of the best presidents in the history of America. It was so close." Oswald never became Meyer's godmother because she feared authorities wouldn't let her leave Texas even though the assassination of John F. Kennedy happened more than five years earlier.”
It turns out Marguerite Oswald has another reason for wanting to leave Texas in 1969. She’d formed a pen-pal relationship with Mick Jagger. They both desperately wanted to exchange marriage vows on-stage at Altamont. Damn. You can’t always get what you want. Thrilled with the prospect of catching a Jumping Jack garter, the Hell’s Angels’ sign on as wedding ushers. Their electric kool-aid really takes a spike when the nuptial deception is revealed. Tempers flare. Barely into ’Sympathy for the Devil’, the Stones stop as a fight in the crowd erupts. They restart the song, reaching the penultimate line:
“I shouted out
Who killed the Kennedy’s
When after all
It was you and me.”
The sixties end with bloodied pool cues, mountains of flower-children trash and not enough Port-a-Pots. Ellroy would argue the sixties never started at all. So they couldn’t really end. Conspiracies tend towards show business and paranoia. But there really are smoke-filled rooms too. Ellroy characterizes the Kennedy assassination conspiracy as a series of vaguely overlapping interests in which most vested interests play at best a passive, monitoring role. Sounds like a great working definition of America.
Even videographers get the blues. The iconic Zapruder 8 mm footage of JFK’s assassination has traipsed across TV screens more than any death-procession has a right to. No one can put the king back together, no matter how many times the film is run backwards, no matter how many persons of interest skulk across the infernal knoll. Jackie tries desperately to gather parts of her husband’s brain, a spectacle that should defy the camera’s lens. The curse for ghoulish voyeurism is unassailable mystery. Pictures magnify controversy, setting in motion a thousand words. Nothing is settled. Abe Zapruder, forever haunted by televisual happenstance, leaves too many bullets around the house. When he sells the film rights to Life magazine for $150,000 he insists that the ‘impact frame’, number 313, be withheld from the public. More gap, more lost time. Media abhors a black-out in this creeping age of exposure. DeLillo might ask if a frame is withheld, does the moment of impact exist? JFK’s hunkered down with Hitler and Elvis in Argentina. As the image never dies, something in our brains has the bodies languish, of necessity, somewhere out of view.
A poetic sense of reticence carries through. Zapruder’s kid becomes a poet with an acquired eye for sullied moments and Camelot’s under-fire:
“In old black and white documentaries
sometimes you can see
the young at a concert or demonstration
staring in a certain way as if
a giant golden banjo
is somewhere sparkling
just too far off to hear.”
–from ‘Global Warming’, by Matthew Zapruder
You can hear it in the lines --poignant, dinnertime discussions on the visions withheld from frame. Keith Richards, a grainy Altamont menace, drowns out the giant golden banjo, its myth anyway, with a five-string guitar tuned to Robert Johnson at the crossroads. The Zapruders chronicle aftermaths. The sixties were in the can before the legend went Aquarius.
Indeterminacy is a bitch, pleasing neither movies nor television. Discrete mugs on wanted posters are the camera’s preferred angle. Just ask Osama bin laden. The American TV-eye is trained for Dr. No on a secret undisclosed island or the Ocean’s Eleven crew rehearsing tightly-synchronized, micro-detailed rip-offs:
“Good evening Mr. Oswald. History has been expecting you. Allow me to introduce you to the nefarious kingpins who will be assisting you in this operation. Shall we start at the back of the oblong table?
That fat old guy with his shoe off is Krushchev –hey Nikita, I just had the onyx resurfaced. Go easy with the peasant boot. Next to him is Mr. T. He’ll be handling explosives and jocular quips with the KGB. Giancana’s over there polishing the hubcaps of the getaway cars. Hoover’s doing wires and surveillance. LBJ and his oil men buddies are in charge of securing the route. See that La Tumba Francesa group set up in the corner? They’re Cuban, in charge of all grassy-knoll distractions. Kerouac’s leading the unidentified hobos on the hill. E. Howard Hunt’s in charge of sandwiches. Jack Ruby couldn’t make it. But he told me to tell you he’d catch up soon enough.
Can I get you something? A beer? A Swiss-cheese alibi?”
Oswald is the everyman actor, the nebbish, a vacuum towards which all loci of power rush to fill. Answering a call for ‘journeyman patsy’, he is lifted from us. Disparate interests place him in the Book Depository where, today, the trail falls ever fainter. Because there are no longer any books. Because books are now electrons, contrails of controlled dust. Books that displease have all electrons confiscated. Books that displease don’t exist. Brick-and-mortar promontories collapse under evil schemes cloaked in ‘inescapable’ macro-economic realities. The fossil record, in all its permutations, impedes a clear way forward. Present-day control derives no advantage from the scholarly rehash, case studies in the totalitarian near-misses of the past. Today’s gunmen must make do with flatland screens. Tomorrow’s targets will have no names. There is the matter of the Cloud that separates us from them. Firing into a cloud, you succeed in striking only the atmosphere, the elephant’s expansive room.
That’s us on the grassy knoll, our collapsed City on a Hill, milling about, awaiting a Presidential moment in a motorcade. We are Wallace’s most earnest watchers, called to Dealey Plaza by residual civic pride, primate curiosity. Or else we have a role to play. The knoll is a rise of hidden screens and nefarious dreams. The hobos are not hobos. They should be watched. They are the most cunning actors, deployed to watch the watchers.
The TV-eye requires a discrete form, a framed excuse. But life is a river, not a motorcade of just-so rocks. The infinite jest? It’s how laughably far the TV-image-stream of rock-to-rock departs from all that flows around us. The TV-eye is trained to look away. The keepers of the world misprision with scripts made for television. Mander says the screen is a perma-glow of evasion, the ultimate shell-game for the unconnected. Watching is losing. You watch, you cannot see:
‘Said the Network skeleton
Believe my lies
Said the advertising skeleton
Don’t get wise!’
–from ‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’, Allen Ginsberg
Sensing an elemental moment, time and space converge to a pin-point. The Kennedy boys –flawed striving princes of a mad king-- are manning the ‘Good’ or close enough for government work; certainly as close to Good as the highest reaches of power will allow. With impudent simultaneity they poke each hydra-head in its best serpent-eye. Their father has told them the Kennedy’s are invincible. ‘Overreach’ is not in the Kennedy vocabulary. Hubris is a family ethos. The seven heads, normally off on separate missions, snap to attention. Seven strains of evil become trained on one prey. The Kennedy’s are high achievers. They achieve the hydra’s undivided attention. The hydra is Moloch in serpentine form, the cobra that spits venom always aiming for the eye. No one should envy them. The devil is fully engaged. This is where the conspiracy theorists lose the plot and go single-thread trying to forge narrative onto a multi-headed form. Like Wallace, they cover themselves with footnotes. Delve the details and the affront’s blunt truth is lost. The struggle is within the soul beyond the reach of alibi. Factoids are for surface-dwelling obfuscators, the piecing-together of docu-drama. Which hydra-head deals the fatal bite? Which one is the prime satanic mover? On this portentous day, the beige hats lose. The black hats win. That should say enough.
This is a malignant convergence. We have the gods’ attention. Oswald is an incidental Petri dish in a plan of existential import. What is the color of his hair? What are his favorite movies? The cult-of-personality subtracts by shrewd design. The TV-eye wants names and numbers. This is how it cannot see. The CSI Crime lab sifts bone fragments and DNA samples. In so doing, it imparts a diversionary criminal message: the ultimate crime lies in the forensic details. The trees are at risk of confounding the forest. The devil enjoys the flit of details paraded across the screen. TV won’t be pieced together. Nothing adds up. No action is taken. Action is abolished. TV movement freezes action. Power is served. TV wins.
This is Patrick Harpur’s soul, the grassy knoll of indeterminate composition that lies at the center of all things. Oswald is a portmanteau, a nebbish with a revolving-door passport, fourteen vectors converging on empty space. He is a patsy pointing an Italian Carcano bolt-action rifle towards a President. There are few things more historically determined than a presidency. Oswald finds an anchor. In Nick Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, alien Thomas Jerome Newton is watching a wall of TV’s. The wall is a garish parody of movement. ‘Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!’ There are hints of Oswald everywhere as he seems to dart from screen to screen. We steal glimpses. We can’t follow him. There are too many TV’s. Our eyes flit, propelled by Birkerts’ restive sense of mission. We are conspiracy hounds. There must be connective tissue. Who stands behind screens one, two and three? We are the eyes through which God sees. Our mission lies beyond the wall, within ourselves. TV-eye is our double-blind. Our vision’s fairly closeted.
We belabor vision when there is also sound. Thomas Jerome Newton, space-alien played by alien god of noise, David Bowie, falls to earth in an anechoic chamber. He is an auteur of silence. John Cage writes his ode to silence, 4:33, after an anechoic experience where he reports hearing two sounds. An engineer explains the high sound is the nervous system. The low sound is the circulatory system. These are creaturely sounds. Somewhere deeper still is the murmur of the soul. The soul is the signal. We are Gnostic transmission-points. We are being usurped. Our sound is being interrupted by noise. The potato is pulp and starch.
‘Said the Media skeleton
Believe you me
Said the Couch-potato skeleton
What me worry?’
–from ‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’, Allen Ginsberg
The imposition of an inanimate object metaphor is an intended soul-killer. Few people can spend more than ten minutes in an anechoic chamber. The sense of self is deafening. Our tolerance for silence is waning. Cacophony has us.
Someone out there someone owns cacophony. They pipe it in. Elevators and gas-pumps, the circulatory systems of commerce, have, in recent times, acquired nervous systems. The dull grind of mechanics has been joined by the earnest, piped-in appeal. I am angered by the Asian man who greets me at Shell service stations: “It’s good to see you.” He is a liar. He cannot see me. I am angry at an actor, a liar, because he is lying. I am angry at a screen. But he is a man too, stretched across a ravine, showing no obvious duress. Shell was a gig. His paycheck now offends millions. Has he no shame? Has he no soul? The impudence of the master-slave topology is that we register opprobrium. Tomorrow’s Cloud will be even more impervious. For now, they allow us smiley-face emoticons.
The domestic uplinker was raised on the idiot-box. We have little to report back. That was by design. Is Catcher in the Rye still on the library shelf? I don’t know. My life is a Blockbuster evening. Decades of manufactured consent have truncated predilections to the point where there is no longer any great wellspring of desire for Catcher in the Rye. Gilder is perhaps naively optimistic when he suggests the desire for higher things is merely suppressed. What if it’s withered away?
Can souls evaporate from infrequent use or do they stand forever ready to spring back? Christians would argue the latter. All souls are redeemable. No soul is irrevocably lost. Nonetheless it’s a troubling question. The voice of conscience, a wellspring of the soul, is increasingly bedeviled by ambient noise and elevator music. Noise infects language. Neurotics, like good little shut-off engines, keep on parroting the appeal even when the pitch is beyond earshot. Harold Pinter gives voice to his silences:
“One [is] when no word is spoken. The other [is] when perhaps a torrent of language is employed. This speech is speaking a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of what we don't hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smokescreen which keeps the other in its place.”
One silence conceals the other with noise. TV loathes Pinter’s first silence. The idiot box is a mocking smokescreen. A mesmerism-project, like any bad spell, is ever-vigilant for the white witches of extended reflection. Silence is the launch-point (Heidegger’s clearing) from where Keats’ divine sparks bid for soulful footholds. Here, Howard Nemerov notes the noise even in the announced pause:
‘The polished box alive with silver light
And moving shadows, that incessantly
Gives voice, even when pausing for this message.’
–from ‘Watching Football on TV’, by Howard Nemerov, Poetry magazine, August 1975
TV is the smokescreen. Language is locked beneath it. When the noise breaks down, it’s pandemonium in the control room. Immediately some caption relates the experience as a ‘technical difficulty’. In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron gives voice to the cacophonous silence of the boob tube on all matters important. It’s TV’s loud-mouthed mission that, not only the revolution, but all attempts to interrogate the status quo, will not be televised.
The soul hopes for exactly these technical difficulties as the silenced sales pitch unseats the commodity and makes a clearing that allows for the re-ascendant heraldic device. Here is Robert Duncan:
Blooms in the house, all the para-
phernalia of our existence
Shed the twitterings of value and
Reappear as heraldic devices.”
Beyond alighting, years early, on the product name for yet another chatter-box instrumentality (Twitter), Duncan suggests that silence-avoidance is a tactic employed to install and prolong our fixation on product, his so-call paraphernalia. Heraldic devices are higher-order things. Not souvenir-stand merchandise, they are our precious keepsakes and momentous gifts, forever immune to the machinations of economic value-assignment. This is a very Heideggerian notion. The clearing offers a silence where, “our attention [is redirected] from objects to being.” TV seeks to foil these recognitions.
Realpolitik interests are served by TV. TV exists to hide realpolitik from the TV-eye of the viewer. Power can be assisted by relative silences. Silence can be pregnant with deceit. In fact modern American history may well hinge on two quiet intervals. Less than 24 hours after the assassination of President Kennedy, a 14-minute conversation occurs between now-President Johnson and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Experts later establish the tape has been erased. Some portions of a transcript surface. It includes this tantalizing excerpt:
LBJ: Have you established any more about the visit to the Soviet embassy in Mexico in September?
Hoover: No, that’s one angle that’s very confusing, for this reason—we have up here the tape and the photograph of the man who was at the Soviet embassy, using Oswald’s name. That picture and the tape do not correspond to this man’s voice, nor to his appearance. In other words, it appears that there is a second person who was at the Soviet embassy down there.
Suddenly the Chicago boys in the Mob are looking like comfortable shoes. At least they speak our language. Zelig has a doppelganger. A KGB assassin expert happens to be in the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City at the time of Oswald’s visit. A Nicaraguan agent comes forward to say he saw ‘Oswald’ accept assassination money in the Cuban Embassy. How do you see someone receiving money in an Embassy? Do they have teller windows? The plot thickens. It is a lumpy pot. The melting was a myth. Actors line up for a role in this drama. The LBJ-Hoover silence grows deafening.
Ten years later. Watergate. The gaps have evolved longer silences. Wile E. Coyote needs more game to straddle the expanding ravine. On June 20, 1972, three days after the Watergate break-in, President Nixon and his Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman (later convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice, he will spend 18 months in jail) are talking in the Executive Office Building. Suddenly, silence breaks out for 18 ½ minutes on Tape 342. Loyal Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods offers an explanation. She is startled by a phone call while transcribing the tapes. During the phone call, she presses a wrong button while her foot remains on a pedal for the entire duration of the erasure. The exaggerated posture required to perform this feat is recreated in a hearing. It’s a tough silence to swallow, an improbable stretch across an oceanic desk.
America lurches forward on the smoking gun of twin silences where shots are occasionally fired. James Ellroy becomes a millionaire histo-novelist glossing the gaps and ginning the rude silences. This is all very well. It’s America after all, land of milk, honey and blood-money. I am an essayist, hardly a historian, allowing myself shameless liberties within the indeterminate frame of half-concealed facts. But who the hell killed the Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King? Jagger nails it. You and me, followed of course by nobody. Asked in a recent interview to name his favorite lyricist or librettist, Tim Rice, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s frequent collaborator, offers Ole Rubber Lips himself as number one, saying this:
“Jagger's underrated as a lyricist because he's such a brilliant performer. The Rolling Stones, probably because they came from the London area, were much more sophisticated than all the Northern groups in their lyrics.”
A man of wealth and taste indeed; Alan Jay Lerner makes number five on Rice’s list. Lucifer owns Camelot.
(This piece, Chapter 3 of Between River and Rock: How I Resolved Television in Six Easy Payments, n.p., is published with permission from the author.)