Friday, November 29, 2013

Santa the big-bellied bigot

Santa Claus is a bigot.

What else can one think when hearing him tell baby Rudolph that he’ll never make his sleigh team unless his red nose stops glowing?

I heard it myself during the re-broadcast of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

In 1964, the year this Rankin-Bass Christmas special premiered, the only viewers who might have noticed Santa’s bigotry were African-Americans who at that time were still called Negroes. Now, however, there are many people who can see themselves in Rudolph, discriminated against because they’re different from the majority.

Would Santa allow a transgender reindeer help pull his sleigh?

Would a fat reindeer be shunned even though Santa is fat?

Rudolph’s difference proves to be his strength in the end, but we have to endure 40 minutes of watching the poor animal subjected to abuse and ridicule before Rudolph’s bright nose saves Christmas for Santa. Sure, Santa learns tolerance, but only because it serves his selfish needs.

Is that really the lesson we want children to learn? I should think not.

It’s rather shocking that this show is still airing, in network prime-time, no less. This was the show’s 50th telecast on CBS.

Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963 . . . and beyond

It’s the 50th anniversary of three notable deaths. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, is often overlooked on the date of his passing because his fame is not as widespread as that of C. S. Lewis, the Christian apologist whose Chronicles of Narnia is read in classrooms. On November 22, 1963, the news that Huxley and Lewis would no longer put pen to paper was put on hold as television, radio, and newspapers (no one used the word “media” much back then) placed all of their focus on John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States who was assassinated in Dallas, Texas early in the afternoon.

I was six-years-old, a first grader at a parochial school where the principal announced the tragedy over the PA system. We stood next to our desks, said a prayer, probably a “Hail Mary” or something equally meaningless, and were dismissed early. Once home, I didn’t really grasp the reason for my mother’s tears. I knew JFK as an image on the black-and-white TV screen, someone not unlike Ben Casey, the doctor played by Vince Edwards on a series popular at the time. There were soon clues that Kennedy was more important than a TV doctor.

Once the news broke, there was no other news. Television covered the story around the clock for four days. There was the news of the assassination attempt, the confirmation that Kennedy was dead, interviews with tearful Americans, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, then Oswald's death at the hands of Jack Ruby, all culminating in Kennedy's funeral on Monday November 25 followed by burial in Arlington Cemetery. Kennedy's body was laid to rest, but his ghost has haunted the country ever since.

There are questions, not only about the possibility of a conspiracy in his death, but about his life and legacy. Was Kennedy a great president comparable to Lincoln and FDR? Or was he simply a great cultural icon, a political Elvis? One thing is certain: He was an inspirational figure to millions of people, including many who were not born in 1963.

Shortly after his father’s death, John Kennedy Jr was asked if he remembered him and where was he now?

"Heaven,” the little boy said.

In November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination, and Legacy of John F. Kennedy by Dean R. Owen, the author quotes Reverend Billy Graham who recalled visiting Kennedy only four days before his inauguration as president in January 1961. Kennedy asked Graham about the Bible and where he believed history was heading. Graham told the newly elected president that history would come to a dramatic end with the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Kennedy said, “I’m interested in that.”

Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Lying Bastard Johnson

In summer 1964 during one of my family’s visits to Euclid Beach, an amusement park in Cleveland, Ohio, cotton candy and roller coasters had to compete with politics for the attention of the patrons. Senator Edward Kennedy was present to do his democratic duty by supporting Lyndon Johnson in that year’s presidential race. The uncouth Texan inherited the presidency the previous November after Edward’s brother, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. On that day at Euclid Beach, Kennedy scribbled his indecipherable autograph for me, and I also got a white Stetson made of hard plastic with an LBJ campaign button attached to the headband. Setting the button aside, I often wore the hat in the years ahead, but I would imagine myself as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood when playing cowboy, not LBJ. Who would want to be him? Wayne and Eastwood did their own shooting even if they only used blanks on a movie set. LBJ used real bullets, but let others pull the trigger for him, not only in Vietnam, but, if a new book is to be believed, much closer to home.

“Lyndon and I both wanted to be president,” a tipsy Richard Nixon told political consultant Roger Stone, “but only he was willing to kill for it.” And he did kill for it, at least according to Stone whose book, The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ, was discussed one recent night on Coast to Coast with weekend host John B. Wells.

“Oh boy,” Wells repeatedly said as Stone shared one awful anecdote after another concerning the vile, despicable man who succeeded JFK as president. Johnson owed his political career to bribes, blackmail, threats, and murder, reaching the highest office in the land by engineering the assassination of the man he reluctantly served as vice president. You’ve seen the photo of LBJ being solemnly sworn in next to a shaken Jacqueline Kennedy. But have you seen the other picture, snapped seconds later, when a grinning LBJ winks conspiratorially at a friend in the rear, as if to say, “We pulled it off”?

Sure, he probably did more than any president in promoting civil rights, but, as Stone reports, Johnson was a nasty bully who abused his family, his friends, his associates, and even his dogs. A photo of LBJ picking his beagle off the ground by its ears made the rounds in the ‘60s and still alarms animal lovers. This is the man who painted his republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, as a right wing maniac itching to press the nuclear button while portraying himself as a man of peace who would bring the troops home from Vietnam. After his landslide victory in November 1964, Johnson continued and even accelerated the war.

Johnson and his policies were responsible for much of the violence that tore the country apart in 1968, including the riots that disrupted that summer’s democratic convention. By then, he was so despised even by his own party that he didn’t have a prayer at the ballot box. Rather than risk a humiliating defeat, he went on TV to announce he would not seek or accept his party’s nomination. You could say we have Johnson to thank for Richard Nixon.

It’s certainly no surprise to think that Johnson had a role in JFK’s assassination. Until Stone, however, few regarded him as the key figure that set the plot in motion with his Texas cronies. It was Johnson who insisted that JFK visit Dallas, a trip that Kennedy was dreading. And it was Johnson’s equally devious pal, Texas Governor John Connally, who insisted that JFK take the route he did. The assassins were lying in wait, and another Johnson chum, Jack Ruby, was waiting to silence the alleged assassin, the “patsy,” as Lee Harvey Oswald described himself, two days later.

You won’t hear any of this on television during the week leading up to the 50th anniversary of that awful day in Dallas. Television is doing its part to drown out all conspiracy theories and to continue promoting the lie. On Nova, George Clooney lovingly narrated an account of television’s coverage of the tragedy, even depicting Walter Cronkite as some kind of hero. Bill O’ Reilly, the chinless twit of Fox News, has already done his part for the cover-up by putting his name on Killing Kennedy, a book that is the basis for a movie on the National Geographic channel that resurrects the long discredited lone gunman theory. All the other familiar talking heads will also serve their corporate masters by concealing and even mocking the truth. We’ll hear the standard line trotted out to address and quickly dismiss the conspiracy theories: “People just can’t accept that a nobody like Oswald could change the course of history and take out a president, especially one as glamorous as Kennedy.”

No, people just can’t accept a story that is contradicted, and quite dramatically at that, by the evidence. The Zapruder film, unseen by the public until 12 years after the fact, completely demolishes the lone assassin story. To accept the Warren Commission Report as the truth requires even more imagination than I had when pretending to be a cowboy in that stupid LBJ hat.

Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The name's Friday

Who needs cable when there’s This, Me TV, and Antenna TV, all of them providing old movies and classics from TV’s golden age?

One of the classics currently airing on Me TV is Dragnet starring Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday. The influential and much parodied series which Webb both created and produced began on radio in 1949. In 1951, the TV version premiered on NBC and would run until 1959. Other than I Love Lucy, Jack Webb's baby was just about the most popular program on television during the era and even inspired a 1954 theatrical film that was among the year's ten biggest grossing movies. The original black-and-white episodes are rarely seen on television these days, but are available on DVD. The version airing on Me TV is the revival that began airing in January 1967 and ran for three and a half seasons before Webb voluntarily turned in Joe Friday's badge to focus more on producing. His Mark VII Limited productions was busier than ever in the 1970s, flooding the airwaves with such hits as Adam 12, Hec Ramsey, and Emergency, as well as such misfires as O’ Hara, United States Treasury (with David Janssen) and The D. A. (starring Robert Conrad).

A Dragnet episode that I caught recently took Jack Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday into the home of his partner, Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan), and was characterized by the kind of matter-of-fact dialogue that was one of the show’s trademarks.

Friday was spending several days at Gannon’s home while the latter’s wife is away. A couple of neighbors come by to play cards, one of whom is a Systems Analyst.

“What does a Systems Analyst do?” Friday asks.

“Analyze systems” was the reply.

The Systems Analyst looked familiar. Only when the credits rolled did I realize it was Jack Sheldon, the trumpet player in the band on Merv Griffin’s TV show who sang the title song in The Long Goodbye, and did a little acting on the side. That makes sense. Jack Webb was a jazz aficionado who made Pete Kelly’s Blues and cast his ex-wife, singer Julie London, and her next husband, musician Bobby Troup (who wrote “Route 66”), in Emergency, the last great success that Webb enjoyed before his death one day before Christmas Eve 1982.

A police drama isn’t a police drama without a crime, so the episode gives us a girl selling door-to-door magazine subscriptions. That’s not against the law, but telling potential customers that you’re paying your way through a non-existent college is. To the slammer she goes.

Watching Webb’s sometimes awkward manner and hearing his monotone speaking voice, I kept wondering who he reminded me of. Suddenly, it hit me. Charlie Brown! Listen to that voice, then listen to the voice of Peter Robbins who voiced Charles Schulz’s hapless hero in the earliest Peanuts TV specials. Joe Friday is Charlie Brown, all grown up. It makes sense. Charlie Brown was an honest, decent kid surrounded by often dishonest and frequently nasty children like Lucy Van Pelt. Joe Friday was an honest, decent man who kept the streets safe from drug dealers, thieves, and killers.

Dragnet is airing Monday through Friday at 4:00 p.m. (EST) on Me TV.

Brian W. Fairbanks