Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Shakespeare triumphs over time and place -- April 25, 2019 column


Visiting America in the 1830s, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville discovered William Shakespeare in the unlikeliest of places.

“There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America.” "I remember that I read the feudal drama of `Henry V’ for the first time in a log cabin.”

Shakespeare would have celebrated his 455th birthday this month, and people around the world ate cake.

Shakespeare was born around April 23, 1564, and left the earth 52 years, 38 plays and 154 sonnets later, also on April 23 – in 1616.

That we still read, argue over and perform his plays is remarkable for many reasons, not least because the First Folio of his plays wasn’t published until seven years after his death.

American settlers carried only two volumes on their travels west: a Bible and Shakespeare. What better company for their long, lonely journey?

Poet Walt Whitman, critical of Shakespeare as antithetical to the “pride and dignity of the common people,” ultimately came around and acknowledged his debt to the Bard.

“If I had not stood before those poems with uncover’d head, fully aware of their colossal grandeur and beauty of form and spirit, I could not have written `Leaves of Grass,’” Whitman wrote.

How much of our contemporary, throwaway culture will survive 400 years?

In our time of disposable tweets, we’re fortunate and grateful Shakespeare is alive and vibrant in towns and cities coast to coast.

I saw a rollicking performance of “The Comedy of Errors” last Saturday at one of my favorite venues for Shakespeare, the Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton.

The performance was hilarious and totally engaging. Do yourself a favor and catch a play at this treasure of a theater, now in its 31st year.

The theater will celebrate Shakespeare’s 455th with a free, family-friendly party this Sunday afternoon.

On Broadway, the acclaimed actor Glenda Jackson is playing King Lear. 

Jackson at 82 is proof there are second – and third -- acts in life. The winner of two Academy Awards, she spent more than two decades as a member of Parliament before returning to the stage.

She, who first performed Shakespeare in 1965, also played Lear in 2016 at the Old Vic theater in London. She told The New York Times he “is the most contemporary dramatist in the world today.”

Shakespeare asks three questions, she said: “Who are we? What are we? Why are we? No one’s come up with sufficiently satisfying answers.”

The Times praised her “powerful and deeply perceptive performance” and said the play “has never felt more vibrantly responsive to the moment, to a crisis in global leadership.”

We wonder whose birthdays future moderns will celebrate. Will Shakespeare still be No. 1 in 2419? Will people in that age know any of our 20th or 21st century politicians, authors, composers or video game developers?

Don’t scoff. A new video game called “Play the Knave” uses virtual reality to perform scenes from Shakespeare. Players control avatars through motion capture cameras and speak lines of the play karaoke style. The game has not been released to the public yet, but teachers are already using it.

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington invited the game’s co-developer, Gina Bloom, an English professor at the University of California, Davis, to give the Shakespeare Birthday lecture last Monday.

In the game, “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s dramatization of the 1609 shipwreck on the magical island of Bermuda of the Sea Venture, an English ship bound for the Jamestown colony, presents the spirit Ariel as a digital avatar.

So, Shakespeare is constantly adapting and being adapted to new audiences.

The National Endowment for the Arts expanded its Shakespeare in American Communities program to provide grants to theater companies to bring Shakespeare to juvenile justice facilities.

“Evidence has shown that these programs provide positive rehabilitative outcomes and prevention for youth involved in the juvenile justice system,” Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the endowment, said. Shakespeare can even help reduce recidivism rates, she said.

Shakespeare truly was, as Ben Jonson wrote in his tribute: “not of an age but for all time.” And for all places.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The populist is a millionaire -- now what? -- April 18, 2019 column


At the ripe age of 77, Bernie Sanders finds himself in an enviable predicament.

He lost the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 but became a bestselling author.

His book, “Our Revolution,” was published just after the 2016 election, and “Where We Go from Here” came out last November.

Mostly because of book advances and royalties, Sanders and his wife reported income above $1 million in 2016 and 2017 when they released 10 years of tax returns April 15.

In 2018, the couple had substantially less, but still hefty, adjusted gross income of $561,293, about $393,000 from book income. The Sanderses reported $19,000 in charitable giving last year.

And yet, all is not clover for the independent senator and leading Democratic presidential contender – at least until Joe Biden enters the race.

A headline in The New York Times said of Sanders: “He’s part of the 1%.”

Trevor Noah joked on “The Daily Show” that Sanders’s being a millionaire is like finding out Trump is secretly a Mexican.

Good one. But wait.

Yes, Sanders has railed for years against income inequality, a corrupt political system and “millionaires and billionaires” not paying their fair share. But he did pay his taxes. 

The Sanderses paid $372,368 in taxes in 2016, $343,882 in 2017, and $145,840 last year.

“These tax returns show that our family has been fortunate,” he said in a statement. “I am very grateful for that, as I grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck and I know the stress of economic insecurity.”

He said he won’t apologize for his best seller -- nor should he. In a Fox News town hall interview Monday night, Sanders also called on President Donald Trump to release his taxes, which Trump will never do willingly.

Congressional Democrats hope to force Trump to release his taxes, but the longer Trump delays, the more people wonder what he’s hiding.

Unlike Sanders who seems embarrassed by his own wealth, Trump’s returns might embarrass him by showing he’s not as rich or as charitable as he says, or that he’s found legal loopholes to avoid paying taxes.   

Everyone knows a turn in the White House can unlock a treasure chest. Forbes magazine estimated Hillary Clinton’s worth at $45 million in 2016, almost all amassed after she and President Bill Clinton left the White House. 

Michelle Obama wrote the bestselling nonfiction book of 2018. “Becoming” sold 2 million copies in its first 15 days and still occupies the Times bestseller list 21 weeks later.

Sanders, though, is proof that running – and losing the nomination -- can also boost one’s bottom line. In 2015, the Sanderses had adjusted gross income of about $205,000 – mostly from his $174,000 Senate salary and Social Security benefits for both.

His 2016 campaign captured imaginations with populist, “us versus them” rhetoric. 

Some 13 million Americans voted for Sanders in the primaries and caucuses, and he won 22 states. People wanted to read what he had to say -- and not just in the United States. “Our Revolution” has been translated into five languages, the Sanders campaign says.

Sanders needs to accept his good luck and stop sounding peevish. The self-styled democratic socialist denied on Fox his success is proof capitalism works. So much for winning disaffected Donald Trump voters.

And to The New York Times, Sanders said, “If you write a bestselling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”

It’s doubtful, of course, he’d have had best sellers or that Jane Sanders would have received an advance of more than $106,000 in 2017 to write a book about the couple’s public service, had he not run for president.

Even if he’s uncomfortable, Sanders did the right thing in releasing his returns, as have six other Democratic presidential hopefuls. Kamala Harris is a millionaire, and Elizabeth Warren is close. The other contenders need to release their tax returns, too, 
so voters know who they are voting for.

Populism isn’t defined by how much – or how little – money someone has in the bank. It’s defined by the commitment to creating jobs, improving education and other policies that ensure opportunity for all.    

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

A window for Obamacare -- April 11, 2019 column


After nine years of fighting Obamacare, congressional Republicans and the White House have a new bogeyman.   

Look, over there, it’s a radical, socialist scheme! A nightmare that will ruin the economy! It’s Medicare for All!

When independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont Wednesday introduced his revamped proposal to transform Medicare into a universal health program, he said Americans want “a health care system that guarantees health care to all Americans as a right.”

But to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, a “Self-proclaimed socialist . . . is proposing a total government takeover of healthcare that would actually hurt seniors, eliminate private health insurance for 180 million Americans, and cripple our economy and future generations with unprecedented debt.” 

The concept of Medicare for All is the latest danger du jour – and that, at last, opens a window for endangered Obamacare.

President Donald Trump has tried repeatedly to kill Obamacare by declaring it dead -- it isn’t – and Americans like it more than ever.

Fifty percent of adults surveyed last month had a favorable opinion of Obamacare while only 39 percent had an unfavorable opinion, the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll reported. That’s up from 46 percent favorable in April 2010.

Similar results among registered voters came from a Morning Consult-Politico poll taken March 29 to April 1.

Without a viable plan to replace Obamacare, Senate GOP leaders have moved on to fear-mongering about Medicare for All.

“This radical scheme would be serious bad news for America’s hospital industry,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the American Hospital Association this week. “You should not be the guinea pigs in some far-left social experiment.”

Four Democratic presidential hopefuls have endorsed Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, but he has only 14 cosponsors this time, down from 16 last year, a sign Democrats are more wary.

People like the idea of Medicare for All, polls show, until they’re told they may pay higher taxes and wait longer for care.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wisely says Congress needs first to protect the Affordable Care Act – the official name for Obamacare -- before it considers any Medicare for All plan.

The requirement to buy insurance stuck in Americans’ craw, but several surviving provisions remain popular.

About 11.4 million Americans get their health insurance through the law, and 12 more million more are covered because of the law’s Medicaid expansion.

The law protects people with pre-existing conditions – about half the population under 65 – from being rejected for health insurance or paying higher insurance premiums.

Young people under 26 can stay on their parents’ health care plans. Seniors save money on preventive care and prescriptions. Caps limit how much patients must pay annually or in a lifetime.

Trump’s obsession with obliterating all things Obama means he can’t admit there’s anything worth saving in Obamacare. His Justice Department has joined a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the entire law.

A federal appeals court will hear arguments in early July, and the case could reach the Supreme Court before the election.  

Trump promises a better, cheaper health care plan to replace Obamacare by and by. Sometime. Eventually. After the election. 

Democrats believe health care helped them win back control of the House. Polls before last November’s elections on which party would do a better job on health care policy found Democrats with an 18-point advantage over Republicans.

Democrats need now not to overplay their hand. Several iterations of Medicare for All legislation are in Congress. A key sticking point is cost. Some analysts say Sanders’ proposal could cost upwards of $30 trillion over a decade.

Medicare for All excites the Democratic base, but if Democrats want more than a campaign talking point, they’ll need to work deliberately and collaboratively and study the intended -- and unintended -- consequences of universal health coverage.

Now is the time to shore up Obamacare. A group of Republican senators proposes, in case the courts do invalidate Obamacare, to preserve parts of the law, such as protecting people with pre-existing conditions.

Even in the run-up to an election, saving the best parts of Obamacare is a worthy goal for Democrats and Republicans.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Appreciation: John Hall, an ally of the people -- April 4, 2019 column


In an era of “fake news” and the press as “enemy of the people,” let us today remember an ally of the people: journalist John Hall.

As a reporter, editor, columnist and bureau chief in Washington, he went to work every day for decades with the goal of informing readers about the nation’s capital and the world. He died of pneumonia March 26 in a Falls Church hospice at 81.

It’s not an exaggeration to say John changed my life. I couldn’t believe my luck when he hired me as a reporter in Media General’s Washington bureau, and I worked for him for about 20 years.

But if you were reading newspapers in Virginia and elsewhere from 1979, when he was hired to build the Washington bureau, until he retired in 2006, John may have changed your life too. 

He believed in the duty of a free press to educate the electorate, and he challenged his reporters by example to be fair and get the facts right.

He and Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Charley McDowell were unlike many Washington reporters then and now in that they didn’t follow the journalistic herd, and they were great listeners.

“We zig when they zag,” Hall would say.

The bureau was a window on Washington, and Hall used it as a base to open a window on the world.

One of the few American journalists to report from Iran during the hostage crisis in 1980, he courageously covered demonstrations in Tehran, where he faced a million people marching toward him, shouting, “Death to America.”

He wrote countless columns over the years on foreign policy, reporting from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, Poland, Great Britain and Western Europe.

Hall came up in the gravy days of newspapers, when print was king and papers were fat with want-ads and department store display ads. Local newspaper owners used the good times to hire reporters and editors, open state, statehouse and Washington bureaus, and start investigative reporting teams.

Travel and expense budgets were generous. Hall once gently scolded a young reporter who, after an assignment in New York City, submitted an expense report with a cheap lunch at an automat.  

“Don’t go back there,” Hall said. “You’ll make the rest of us look bad.”

He consistently put his reporters forward, often stretching the sense of their own possibilities.

Before the 1984 Democratic National Convention, my first, Hall asked if I wanted to rent a car in San Francisco and take a reporting trip across country, stopping to join bureau staff covering the Republican convention in Dallas, and continuing to Washington. 

Did I? I was on the road seven weeks.
Hall and McDowell were members of the Gridiron Club of journalists, and I later was invited to join as well. Hall was a prolific song-writer for the annual white-tie dinner that “singes but never burns” government officials. One of his songs was performed at Carnegie Hall.

As Gridiron president in 2006, Hall sat next to President George H.W. Bush at the head table, while Sen. Barack Obama was the Democratic speaker.

But Hall never forgot his roots in Philippi, W.Va. He fumed for years after a pompous member of Congress, on hearing where Hall was from, offered what amounted to condolences.

Married to his wife, Susie, for 60 years, Hall was the devoted father of two sons, Mark and Doug, and grandfather of five.

John did have a tornadic temper – mostly directed at himself. He didn’t suffer machines gladly; computers confounded and passwords perplexed him. To help him keep up with his appointments, he kept weekly engagement calendars.

One notation, Susie Hall told me, read: “ANNIVERSARY!! Don’t screw it up.”

But his reportorial instincts were spot-on. When a turret explosion aboard the USS Iowa in 1989 killed 47 sailors and the Navy blamed two young crewmen, Hall said the explanation didn’t smell right.

He headed home one Friday evening loaded with documents. After poring over the official reports and much dogged reporting, he wrote an award-winning series showing the Navy had scapegoated the young sailors.

John Hall was an ally of the people.

Don’t let anyone tell you the news media are the enemy.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 30