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Post-Racial

donaldsterlingSo much for a post-racial America.

Americans of color may have significantly more challenges to overcome with employment, education, health and housing than most white Americans, but it takes the racist rants of two old white guys to again bring into sharp relief the sobering fact that race is still the nation’s great unresolved issue. The optimists among us thought, for a moment at least, that the election more than five years ago of the first black president ushered in a “post-racial” new day. It didn’t.

If anything the nation’s struggles with race and class, not to mention gender and sexual orientation, remain as corrosive as ever. Fox News and a few pandering Republicans turned a deadbeat Nevada rancher into a “folk hero” before his own ignorant ravings about race showed every thinking person just what Cliven Bundy is really all about. While you can apparently get away with cheating the federal government out of a $1 million in lease payments by just waving around the Constitution, waxing nostalgic about slavery is, thankfully, still un-American enough to draw a belated rebuke from Rand Paul. Maybe Bundy should have read all of the Constitution, including the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

The case of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling is both more complicated and ultimately more troubling. Bundy is just the latest incarnation of the old John Birch Society/Posse Comitatius mind set that rises and falls periodically across the American West. The rise almost always occurs with a Democrat in the White House. With typical Bircher incoherence Bundy invokes the Constitution of a government he won’t recognize. He likes the 2nd Amendment just fine, but not those pesky provisions of the Constitution related to the power of federal courts. The Bundy mind set has found its perfect foil in the young, self-assured black man in the White House. Enough said, except perhaps that the Republicans who rushed to support this nut case still have plenty of explaining to do.

Sterling, the billionaire L.A. real estate developer, is a tougher case. He has apparently long been known for his racially tinged rants and has been in and out of court fighting discrimination cases that, among other things, alleged that he refused to provide repairs for his black tenants.

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” Sterling allegedly told his mixed race girlfriend in recording she apparently made. “Do you have to?”

Later, just to double down his racism with a gob of sexism, he added: “You can sleep with them, you can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that and not to bring them to my games.”

As the Washington Post reported:

“Sterling’s history paints a picture of a man who has let slip bigoted beliefs for years — and has, at least so far, sidestepped major repercussions. He was sued in 1996 for sexual harassment. In 2003 he testified in a separate court case that he occasionally paid women for sex. The same year, Sterling was sued by 19 tenants of a building he owned, along with the Housing Rights Center; they claimed Sterling’s employees refused repairs to black tenants and frequently threatened to evict them. Sterling settled the case for an undisclosed sum.

“In 2009, Sterling spent $2.73 million to settle another suit, this time brought by the Justice Department, which alleged Sterling refused to rent his apartments to non-Korean tenants, preferring that black and Hispanic prospective tenants look elsewhere. The lawsuit quoted Sterling as saying in sworn testimony that ‘Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building,’ adding that ‘black tenants smell and attract vermin.'”

The National Basketball Association is investigating. Of course they are. It sounds like they might have done some looking around a long, long time ago. How the Sterling matter is handled by the NBA and its new commissioner will be vastly more important in the long run than any shooting-off-the-mouth of Sean Hannity’s new best friend.

Sterling is, after all, a long-time member of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs – the 30 owners of professional basketball teams. Sterling’s team, until last week a serious playoff contender, is coached by a black man. The team’s and the league’s fan base is to a substantial degree minority. The league’s big name stars, many of whom quickly condemned Sterling’s remarks, are African-American. The Clippers low key pre-game protest where white and black players wore their shirts inside out is just a preview of what’s to come from a professional league that owes its popularity, not to mention the money it generates for owners like Sterling, to the success of “black people” like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

It’s not as though the NBA didn’t know about this guy. “Donald Sterling,” Paul Westphal, an NBA coach and great NBA player before that, told columnist Mike Lupica, “was always the worst-kept secret in the NBA.” Now, it’s get serious time – a teaching moment – for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Silver’s response and the response of the other 29 members of Sterling’s exclusive club will tell us a lot about a high profile big business in post-racial America.

The U.S. Supreme Court tells us a lot, as well. The Court’s 2013 ruling throwing out a major part of the Voting Rights Act and more recently upholding a Michigan law that bans race conscious admissions at the state’s colleges and universities are based either on wishful thinking that racial issues in the age of Obama still don’t bedevil our culture or that the courts simply have an extremely limited role in ensuring that all Americans are not merely created equal, but are treated that way, as well. Either explanation ignores today’s front page.

It seems self evident that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 not only failed to herald the arrival of a post-racial America, but rather stoked the long simmering fires of racism that were, we need to remember, originally written into the nation’s founding creed. An ignorant Nevada cowboy and the boob billionaire owner of a professional sports franchise certainly don’t represent the vast sweep of good and decent Americans of all races, creeds, colors and political persuasions, but they still represent too many.

“When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything,” Obama said of Donald Sterling. “You just let them talk. That’s what happened here.”

Oh, if only it were that easy.

 

Assessing LBJ

johnson200-62fbf6627cd90a3d7677dbcd0b201aa00477e8bb-s6-c30One of the best biographers of Lyndon Johnson, the presidential historian Robert Dallek, has often said that it takes a generation or more once a president has left office for us to truly begin to assess his presidency. Historians need access to the papers. Those in the presidential supporting cast, the aides, the associates, the enemies, need time to write and reflect on the man. Once those pieces start to come together, we can begin to form history’s judgment. LBJ’s time seems more and more at hand.

Dallek titled one of his volumes on Johnson – Flawed Giant. That, I suspect, will be the ultimate verdict of history. A big, passionate man with supremely developed political skills and instincts who was, at the same time, deeply, even tragically, flawed.

Frankly it is the juxtaposition of the greatness and the human failings that make the 36th president so endlessly fascinating and why contemporary and continual examination of his presidency – as well as his political career proceeding the White House – is so important.

All that Johnson accomplished as part of his domestic agenda from civil rights to Medicare is balanced – some would say dwarfed – by the tragedy of Vietnam. His deep compassion for those in the shadows of life is checked by the roughness of his personality. Johnson could both help pass the greatest piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War and make crude jokes about blacks. He could turn on his Texas charm in cooing and sympathetic phone calls to the widow Jackie Kennedy and then issue orders to an underling while sitting on the toilet.

Johnson presents the ultimate challenge to those of us who like to handicap presidential greatness. Does it automatically follow that a great man must also be a good man? Few would measure up to such a reckoning. And just how do to assess greatness?

I think I’ve read every major biography of Lyndon Johnson: Dallek’s superb two volumes, Robert Caro’s monumental four volumes and counting and wonderful volumes by Randall B. Woods and Mark K. Updegrove. I’ve read Johnson’s memoir The Vantage Point and Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream by the young Doris Kearns before she was Godwin. Michael Beschloss has dug through the Johnson tapes and produced great insights into the man and his politics.

You can’t study LBJ without going deeply into the American experience in southeast Asia. Biographies of Senators Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Mark Hatfield and Frank Church, among much other material, helps flesh out Johnson’s great mistake. More recently I’ve gorged on the reporting of activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, undoubtedly Johnson’s single greatest accomplishment.

Through all of this sifting of the big record of a controversial man I’m left to ponder how we fairly assess the Texan who dominated our politics for barely five years in the Oval Office and left in his wake both great accomplishments and the legacy of more than 58,000 dead Americans in a jungle war that a stronger, wiser man might – just might – have avoided.

The historian Mike Kazin wrote recently in The New Republic that LBJ doesn’t deserve any revisionist treatment for his “liberal” record because what really mattered was the war. “The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked,” Kazin writes, “that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.”

Historian David Greenberg, also a contributing editor for The New Republic, takes a somewhat different and more nuanced view, a view more in tune with my own, when he wrote recently: “No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slave holding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good. So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon.”

Peter Baker, writing recently in the New York Times, asks perhaps the best question about the on-going reassessment of Lyndon Johnson. Given the state of our politics today, the small-minded partisanship, the blinding influence of too much money from too few sources and the lack of national consensus about anything, Baker asks “is it even possible for a president to do big things anymore?”

For better or worse, Baker correctly concludes, LBJ represented the “high water mark” for presidents pushing through a big and bold agenda and no one since has approached the political ability that Johnson mastered as he worked his will on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The reassessments of Lyndon Johnson will go on and I suspect the “flawed giant” will continue to challenge our notions of greatness for as long as we debate the accomplishments and the failings of American presidents.

Oscar Takeaways

82nd Annual Academy Awards - "Meet The Oscars" New YorkPerhaps the reason we like to watch – and dish snark – over the Oscar television awards show is that most of the 6,000 odd (I use that term advisedly) members of The Academy are so unlike the rest of us. The big Sunday night show means we can all live for a few moments in a world of glitz and make believe – if three-plus hours of awards given mostly to people we’ll never see again followed by awkward speeches generally devoid of self-awareness can be characterized as “moments.” We are all Walter Mitty during the Oscars.

As Alessandra Stanley wrote in The New York Times this morning, “If the Super Bowl is a secular Christmas that everyone can celebrate, the Oscars are Easter: the dress-up parade and those long acceptance speeches are all part of the ritual. But some traditions, notably the Academy’s insistence on handing out technical awards early, are tiresome. It can start to feel like a high school graduation where diplomas are handed out alphabetically, and your child’s last name begins with Z.”

So, I admit I watched and if not actually enjoyed the annual spectacle I do recognize it for what it is – a snapshot of American culture played out in real (and reel) time on national television and, of course, Twitter. And, while host Ellen DeGeneres got the buzz for her “selfie” with half the audience, I think the best Tweet goes to the numbers geek Nate Silver who commented via Twitter: “Great product placement by

Here are my completely arbitrary takeaways from, if not The Greatest Show on Earth, then the longest show last night.

“12 Years a Slave” won the Best Picture award and deserved it. Hollywood tends to award “serious” movies that probes serious issues, or in the case of “12 Years” an historically correct issue – slavery (and race) – that is still barely below the surface of American life. As a measure of the importance of this film, I’ll predict people will still be seeing it and talking about it 20 years from now. If you haven’t seen it, steel yourself to watch a brutal and moving telling of the darkest story in all of the American story.

Oscar host DeGeneres mostly left me longing for Bob Hope or Johnny Carson. The role of Oscar MC requires the skills, generally speaking, of a late-night talk show host – sharp, topical and (mostly) clean jokes, self deprecation, ad-libbing ability, and a relentless focus on poking fun at the absurdity of the whole show. Next year give me Jimmy Fallon or even Kevin Spacey. Classy guys (or gals) who get the joke and can make one.

Given a show that is all about recognizing people who create and deliver powerful messages, the Oscar acceptance speeches are (generally) appallingly bad. As the Times noted, Matthew McConaughey, who won the Best Actor award for a movie about a guy fighting AIDS, “praised God, his family and himself, but didn’t mention people with AIDS.” The speeches are a litany of thanks to family, colleagues, producers and the fat cats who finance movies. Thank God no one, at least no one I heard, thanked their lawyer or accountant, as has happened in years past. The good Oscar acceptance speech is as rare as the short Oscar acceptance speech.

One of the few good speeches came from the writer John Ridley who produced the screenplay for “12 Years.” Perhaps it should be no surprise that a talented writer can make a good, short, emotionally powerful speech. Best Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave” also give a moving speech. “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.” That is a classy line, both true and self aware.

The visually stunning “Gravity” richly deserved all the praise it received and the awards, but while the film was highly entertaining it was not Best Picture worthy. The story was mostly unbelievable and the acting mostly overdone, but the effects were appropriately other-worldly. Perhaps instead of what seemed like endless clips of old movies – including the 9,000th tribute to “The Wizard of Oz” – the Academy could have commissioned a 90 second clip on how the special effects of a film like “Gravity” or “All is Lost” increasingly add magic and transform the movie experience.

I am gratified that foreign-born film makers – the Best Director is from Mexico and the director who made “12 Years” is a Brit – are finally getting some overdue recognition. Cinema is a world-wide thing and great movies are being made everywhere, not just in Hollywood.

Final takeaway: Cate Blanchett was far and away the Best Actress in any movie I saw in 2013. Her role as the emotionally broken down, once-rich glamor girl in “Blue Jasmine” was a performance for the ages. She now stands on nearly equal footing with the great Meryl Streep as the finest actress of our age. Here’s hoping she continues to get roles fine enough to match her very great talent. Her pitch to Hollywood to get beyond those “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not,” was also spot on.

If, as has been said, politics is show business for ugly people then the Oscar awards show is prom night at a very exclusive, very expensive high school were all the girls dress with the certainty that they’ll be the queen and all the boys have the cockiness that goes with being sure they are destined to captain the football team. This Academy teaches conspicuous consumption, ego maintenance and the value of cosmetic surgery, both done well and not so much. In this school a pizza delivery – how very pedestrian – is the stuff of high humor and an $85,000 bag of swag is just the most obvious benefit of showing up for  class.

I get it. I really do. When the Academy asks me to produce the big show next year my first decision will be to have Penelope Cruz present all the awards.

See you at the movies.

The World is Watching

1391446725-new_add_the_wordsIdaho is making national news again and again for all the wrong reasons.

A quick Google search this morning turns up more than 130 stories on the 44 protesters arrested Monday in the Idaho State Capitol in Boise. Typical was the story in USA Today, a paper/digital publication with the top circulation numbers in the country, that featured the headline: “Dozens of gay rights activists arrested in Idaho.”

While the issue of same sex marriage has turned into the new civil rights steamroller across the country with state after state abandoning old notions and embracing equality the Idaho Legislature has again refused to even debate the issue of bringing the state’s human rights law into the 20th, not to mention the 21st, century.

As if anyone needed proof of how quickly the moral and legal ground is shifting under Idaho’s extra-conservative lawmakers, Politico reports today that same-sex marriage advocates are establishing a national “war room” to coordinate the incredibly diverse political battles on marriage equality that stretch now from Oregon to Virginia.

Politico’s Maggie Haberman writes: “Adding a bipartisan dimension to the effort at a time when a number of establishment Republicans are moving to back gay marriage, the war room will be led by SKDKnickerbocker’s Olivia Alair on the Democratic-leaning side, and Brian Jones, the former Republican National Committee official and Mitt Romney adviser, of Black Rock Group.”

But, as Idaho human rights advocates have stressed for years, an even more fundamental issue exists in Idaho – will gay and transgender Idahoans be afforded the same protections under the law that the rest of us already have? It is really an issue of basic fairness and equity; should Idaho law include workplace, housing, public accommodation, transportation, and education rights for its citizens without regard to “sexual orientation” and “gender identity?”

For the moment in Idaho, as in Utah and Virginia among other states, we can set aside the same-sex marriage issue that admittedly remains a hot button issue for many conservatives. Lawsuits challenging state bans on same-sex marriage, including a case in Idaho, will eventually sort out those issues. Yet, normally clear-headed legislators like Senate President Brent Hill in Idaho have elected to dodge the fundamental human rights issue yet again because they say the marriage issue must be resolved first. That is as disingenuous a position as it is short sighted.

All across this big and diverse country the idea, at long last, that all our brothers and sisters deserve the same treatment under the law – not more protection or different protection, just the same – has started to roll down, as Dr. King might have said, like a mighty river. Idaho risks much by being seen as having been hauled kicking and screaming into this new and better day.

Having been around the Idaho Legislature for more than 35 years, I have more than a little sympathy for legislators of both parties who must have struggled mightily on Monday over how to deal with a few dozen protesters who were determined to make a point and risk arrest in the process. Idaho is not unfamiliar with passionate protest even in the Statehouse or on its grounds. And, while not all of us would have chosen to protest in the manner of as those did who were eventually taken from the State Senate chambers by Idaho State Police yesterday, these fellow citizens do share some history with other Americans who chose much the same path of civil disobedience.  That history reaches back to a drug store lunch counter in Greenboro, North Carolina in 1960 and a factory floor in Flint, Michigan in 1937.

Idaho has too often had a dodgy history on matters of human rights. Locals in Kootenai County and elsewhere were often quicker to react to neo-Nazi hate groups in the 1980’s than were state officials. A saintly Catholic bishop once had to shame lawmakers into providing portable restroom facilities for Hispanic farm workers. The state was a very tardy adopter of the Martin Luther King Holiday and some still seem to barely embrace the importance of such a day. The current protest over basic human rights issues, and make no mistake this is such an issue, has a long and resonant history in America. The Idaho Legislature had best brace itself. There will be other days like Monday as citizens petition their government to right a wrong.

Fifty-four years ago last Saturday four young African American college students took seats at a lunch counter in a Woolworth drug store where the prevailing law and sentiment told them they could not sit. Those protests ended a few months later with a decision to desegregate that lunch counter and a student civil rights movement was born. Once in a while the smallest gesture sparks a revolution. A move to the right side of history is a curious thing. Once it is done we will wonder why it took us so long.

[Photo credit: Boise Weekly]

 

If I Had a Hammer

media_5e1a5316516c4ed4913d398868313742_t607This picture – former Vice President Henry Wallace with folk singer Pete Seeger in 1948 – likely didn’t do Pete much good when he was summoned in 1952 to name names before the communist hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). To Seeger’s eternal credit he refused to play the silly game, was held in contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail.

The New York Post – as ridiculous as a newspaper in those days as it remains today – offered the headline: “Dangerous Minstrel Nabbed Here” in a story about Pete. Seeger had a particularly American attitude about a Congressional committee asking questions about his friends and associations. It was none of their business. Only a technicality kept him from prison.

Still for 17 years at what should have been the very height of his career Pete Seeger was on the entertainment industry’s blacklist, labeled a subversive and condemned as a mushy-headed pinko who couldn’t bring himself to admit the evils of Stalin. Much the same happened to Wallace, a brilliant, decent man and an awful politician who was too liberal for the times that ushered in Joe McCarthy and destroyed or badly damaged the careers of Pete Seeger and so many others.

Curious thing about the United States, as Adam Hochschild wrote recently in The New York Review of Books, “anticommunism has always been far louder and more potent than communism. Unlike sister parties in France, Italy, India, and elsewhere, the Communist Party here has never controlled a major city or region, or even elected a single member to the national legislature.”

When Henry Wallace ran for president the year he was photographed with Pete Seeger his Progressive Party, with American Communist support, captured an underwhelming 2.4 percent of the popular vote. Americans have never – even in the darkest days of The Great Depression – warmed to communism, yet the word and the association has always been awesomely powerful in our politics.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union made anticommunism passe, generations of American politicians, including presidents from Truman to Reagan, made fighting communism the centerpiece of American foreign policy. Careers were made and destroyed – Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas and their 1950 U.S. Senate race come immediately to mind – as a result of “The Red Scare.” Nixon and his henchmen dubbed Mrs. Douglas, a liberal California Congresswoman, “The Pink Lady” a label that had immediate and positive electoral impact for Nixon.  What she called him – “Tricky Dick” – was arguably the much more accurate and lasting label.

In the days before the National Rifle Association intimidated presidents and county commissioners and commanded fidelity from both political parties, one could hardly go wrong politically by being tough on communism. Being right on the Reds in the 1950’s and 1960’s was as politically safe as being in the pocket of the NRA is today.

Pete Seeger’s left-wing politics received mostly passing mention in many of the tributes that have followed his death on Monday at the ripe age of 94. Most of the stories, perhaps appropriately, have focused on the music he made and the influence Seeger had on singers from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. Still it seems impossible to divorce the man’s music from the man’s politics.

We’ve largely forgotten that prior to Pearl Harbor millions of Americans opposed U.S. involvement in World War II. Many thought another world war would inevitably lead, as the first one had, to diminished civil liberties and a more militarized society. Nothing good comes from war so the saying went. Pete Seeger was among the millions who believed that and sang about it.

When war finally came Seeger, like most Americans, fully embraced the need to fight Hitler and defeat Japan. In a 1942 song – Dear Mr. President – Seeger sang, as if to remind Franklin Roosevelt, about what Americans were fighting for:

This is the reason that I want to fight,
Not because everything’s perfect or everything’s right.
No. it’s just the opposite… I’m fighting because I want
A better America with better laws,
And better homes and jobs and schools,
And no more Jim Crow and no more rules,
Like you can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro,
You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew
You can’t work here ’cause you’re a union man.

Pete Seeger’s banjo was inscribed with the words “this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Seeger, the left-winger, spent his life preaching the gospel of non-violent social change through his music and he never gave up that wild-eyed dream. Even in the song where he signed on to fight Hitler he was dreaming of a more perfect union at home were civil rights were guaranteed for all. Pete Seeger, through all the blacklisting nonsense and the HUAC hearings, never let bitterness get the better of him. He kept singing about overcoming.

When Seeger did appear before HUAC in 1955 he steadfastly refused to play the political game of gotcha that Joe McCarthy and others had perfected. At one point he summed up his attitude telling the committee:

“I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”

Committee Chairman Rep. Francis Walter, a conservative Pennsylvania Democrat, persisted:Why dont you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?”

MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I dont want to hear about it.

More than the anticommunist witch hunters who tried to silence his banjo in the 1950’s, more than those who resisted civil rights in the 1960’s or defended American hubris in Vietnam, Pete Seeger’s long life was the essence of the real American story. He sang to prompt political and social action. Sang with a smile. Strummed his banjo with an honest, candid demand for a better, more tolerant America.

Americans were once optimistic enough – perhaps we will be again – to think that a better country is possible. Pete Seeger never gave up on that America; a country of better homes and jobs and schools. He was a folk music legend to be sure, but also the very best kind of American and, yes, his whole life – the life of a dangerous minstrel – was an incredible contribution.

 

For the People

lincoln_abrahamOne reason, I think, so much has been made of the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 is the pervasive sense of political longing for a time when, whether true or not, it seemed almost anything was possible.

Put a man on the moon in the decade of the 1960’s and return him safely to Earth – no problem. Create a Peace Corps and send idealistic young Americans to the world’s poorest nations to deal with hunger, disease and ignorance – done. Reach real arms control agreements that dramatically reduce the threat of nuclear war – possible and likely.

University of Virginia political scientist Dr. Larry Sabato is correct, as his new book The Kennedy Half Century makes clear, that the martyred young president – his style, rhetoric and easy optimism – has had more impact on American politics since his death than anyone else in the last half century. Arguably Kennedy’s 1,000 days lacked enduring accomplishment. His deft handling of the Cuban missile crisis notwithstanding, there is little in JFK’s abbreviated first term to suggest real presidential greatness, yet many Americans regard him as the best president since Franklin Roosevelt. That cannot entirely be written off to the glamour of Camelot.

And before there was November 22, 1963 there was November 19, 1863 – Kennedy’s death and Abraham Lincoln’s great speech at Gettysburg separated by almost exactly 100 years, but at the same time the presidencies of the two great martyred chief executives united in a way by what seems to me a hunger for what we might call a politics of meaning.

A brilliant Washington Post essay by Harvard president and Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust recently asked if our government “by the people and for the people” is truly alive and well in the United States. Faust reminds us that Lincoln used his his taut, elegant and enduring speech 150 years ago tomorrow to call on his constituents to “persevere in the ‘unfinished work’ before them.”

Another fearful year and a half of war lay ahead, with yet again as many deaths to come,” Faust wrote. “But Appomattox would not end the work he envisioned. It was the obligations of freedom and nationhood as well as those of war that he urged upon his audience. Seizing the full meaning of liberty and equality still lay ahead.”

Lincoln knew that the awful war had to result in something better, something greater or else all the blood and treasure lost and never recovered would surely condemn the still youthful American experiment to failure. Lincoln used the rhetoric of his presidency, as John Kennedy did a century leter, to summon the country to something greater, something bigger than mere partisan politics.

Is There More than Partisanship…

There is no doubt that Kennedy was late to the struggle for civil rights for black Americans and only came fully to what he eventually termed “a moral issue” after the protests in Birmingham and elsewhere turned ugly and violence. In his now justly celebrated speech in June of 1963 where Kennedy called on Congress to pass civil rights legislation the young president made the issue bigger than partisanship or even politics.

“This is not a sectional issue,” Kennedy said. “Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics…we are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.”

Near the end of his nationally televised civil rights speech Kennedy began remarkably to ad lib and in doing so his words became even more urgent, summoning images that still haunt America 50 years later.

“Today, there are Negros unemployed, two or three times as many compared to whites,” Kennedy said, “inadequate education, moving into the larger cities, unable to find work, young people particularly out of work without hope, denied equal rights, denied the opportunity to eat at a restaurant or a lunch counter or go to a movie theater, denied the right to a decent education, denied almost today the right to attend a State university even though qualified. It seems to me that these are matters which concern us all, not merely Presidents of Congressmen or Governors, but every citizen of the United States.”

As he had in his first speech as president, Kennedy was calling the country in 1963 to live out its potential and to not merely be content to act as though it were fulfilling its highest moral and legal obligations. Lincoln repeatedly did the same during the Civil War reminding Americans that in their country they did possess the “best hope” on Earth for a better way to live.

“These are responsibilities that belong to us still,” Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in the Post. “Yet on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s immortal speech, where is our stewardship of that legacy? After beginning a new fiscal year by shutting down the government, we are far from modeling to the world why our — or any — democracy should be viewed as the ‘best hope’ for humankind. The world sees in the United States the rapid growth of inequality; the erosion of educational opportunity and social mobility that ‘afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life’; the weakening of voting rights hard-won over a century of post-Reconstruction struggle.”

The Politics of the Short-Term…

Where indeed is the high public purpose in the politics of either of today’s major political parties; parties that are almost entirely focused on short-term tactical approaches designed only to address the next election cycle. With President Obama hopelessly bogged down in health care problems largely of his own making and, so far in his second term, failing to call the country to sustained action of anything the not-s0-loyal minority counters by offering, well, nothing.

“What we have done so far this year clearly hasn’t worked,” a GOP aide involved in 2014 planning sessions for House Republicans recently told Politico. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Republican aide said, “wants to take us in a new direction, which is good. The problem is we don’t know where we are headed, and we don’t know what we can sell to our members.”

We remember our martyred presidents not just because awful fate took them at the zenith of their power, poised on the cusp of leading us forward, but because they seemed able to give meaning to a greater cause, while urging a nation and its people to a higher calling.

Aspiration and a call to greatness are largely missing from public life today and therefore it is little wonder so many Americans long for leadership – the leadership of a Lincoln or a Kennedy – that is able to give real meaning to our politics; a kind of meaning where the “better angels of our nature” are summoned to do not for ourselves but for our country.

 

So Much and So Little Has Changed

march-on-washingtonThere must be some cosmic significance (or perhaps the gods of politics are just into irony) that the 50th anniversary of the great March on Washington in August of 1963 is being celebrated at the same time that the United States Justice Department is suing the great state of Texas over changes in voting rules that could well prevent minority voters from casting ballots.

The great theme in all the coverage leading up to the actual anniversary of the March and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarkable “I Have a Dream Speech” has been the phrase, “we have come so far and we still have work to do.”

Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was with King that day 50 years ago, told an Atlanta television station, “We’ve made a lot of progress, but we must continue to go forward and we must never ever become bitter or hostile, we must continue to walk with peace, love and nonviolence to create a truly multiracial democratic society. Our country is a better country and we are a better people. The signs that I saw before making it to Washington, they’re gone and they will not return, and the only places our children will see those signs will be in a book, in a museum or on a video. So when people say nothing has changed, I say come and walk in my shoes,” Lewis said.

The Congressman then adds that Dr. King would tell us we still have work to do. Indeed, America, we still have work to do.

Losing Ground

The Pew Research Center’s recent study on “Race in America” helps measure just how much work remains. Among the findings in the Pew study: Fewer than 50% of Americans believe the country has made substantial progress in the direction of racial equality since Dr. King envisioned the day when his “four little children” would live in nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” About half of those surveyed said a “lot more needs to be done” to create a truly color blind society.

What is perhaps most discouraging in the Pew study is the retreat – not the forward progress – that has taken place on key measures over the last 20-plus years. For example, the gaps between whites and blacks on measures like median income and total household income have actually grown in that period when measured in 2012 dollars. Put another way, there is work to be done to get back to where the country stood in 1980. There’s more. Black Americans are three times more likely than whites to live in poverty and black home ownership is 60% of that for whites. Black rates of marriage are lower and out-of-wedlock births higher than for whites.

It is hard to look at all these numbers and wonder why John Lewis maintains his optimism until one remembers that he was nearly killed marching for voting rights in Alabama in 1965. He’s the first to say that such politically motivated violence has – mostly – disappeared in America. What hasn’t disappeared, it would seem, are efforts to make it more difficult for people of color, poor people and the elderly to vote and participate in a meaningful way in our politics. Texas is currently ground zero in this debate since the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision threw out the requirement that Texas and other mostly southern states need to gain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before changing election laws.

Texas hardly waited until the ink was dry on Chief Justice John Robert’s opinion wiping out a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act before implementing a new voter ID law that many observers believe will make it more difficult for some folks – minorities, the poor and the elderly – to vote. Texas is also going forward with a redistricting plan that many believe is stacked against minority voters.

In announcing the Texas lawsuit Attorney General Eric Holder said: “The Department will take action against jurisdictions that attempt to hinder access to the ballot box, no matter where it occurs. We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement. We are determined to use all available authorities, including remaining sections of the Voting Rights Act, to guard against discrimination and, where appropriate, to ask federal courts to require preclearance of new voting changes. This represents the Department’s latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last.”

The political reaction in Texas was predictable as Politico reported. “The filing of endless litigation in an effort to obstruct the will of the people of Texas is what we have come to expect from Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama,” said Gov. Rick Perry. “We will continue to defend the integrity of our elections against this administration’s blatant disregard for the 10th Amendment.”

“Facts mean little to a politicized Justice Department bent on inserting itself into the sovereign affairs of Texas and a lame-duck administration trying to turn our state blue,” Sen. John Cornyn said. “As Texans we reject the notion that the federal government knows what’s best for us. We deserve the freedom to make our own laws and we deserve not to be insulted by a Justice Department committed to scoring cheap political points.”

Consider this tidbit from the earlier mentioned Pew survey. “Participation rates for blacks in presidential elections has lagged behind those of whites for most of the past half century but has been rising since 1996. Buoyed by the historic candidacies of Barack Obama, blacks nearly caught up with whites in 2008 and surpassed them in 2012, when 67% of eligible blacks cast ballots, compared with 64% of eligible whites.” We know, of course, that blacks tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. The black vote was critical in both Obama’s elections for the White House and helped turn once solidly Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina competitive for a Democratic presidential candidate. Many experts think Texas is next, but only if the fast growing African-American and Latino voters in Texas have a chance to vote in growing numbers.

The More Things Change

In 1949, a young United States Senator from Texas made his maiden speech on the floor of the Senate defending the southern use of the filibuster to turn back all manner of civil rights legislation. In that maiden speech the young senator talked about federal legislation to outlaw the poll tax, which was of course in an earlier day designed to keep blacks from voting, when he said such heavy handed government intrusion was “wholly unconstitutional and violate[s] the rights of the States.” The south, the senator said, certainly didn’t discriminate, these things were being handled and whats more the south really didn’t appreciate the federal government interfering with its business. State’s rights and all that.

It’s almost as if Lyndon Johnson in 1949 could have been writing Rick Perry’s press releases in 2013. Johnson, famously and historically, changed over time and signed the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Still, from 1949 to 2013, the similarity of the political rhetoric from the young Lyndon to the blow-dried Rick Perry is stunning. Neither one talks about race, but it is all about race.

Under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” There is nothing in that amendment about “sovereign states” or that states “deserve the freedom to make” their own laws. The amendment is not ambiguous. It doesn’t require a lot of analysis. The words speak for themselves. The Voting Rights Act was the means Congress chose in 1965 to enforce the amendment until the Court’s recent ruling. So much has changed and yet so little has changed.

For much longer than a century the basic act of citizenship – the right to vote – was systematically denied millions of citizens. If we consider nothing else as we mark the anniversary of that historic March on a hot August day 50 years ago, we would be wise to consider, with all the work that remains to be done to “perfect” our Union, that we cannot tolerate policies and politics that actually cause black Americans to lose hard fought ground; ground we should all be proud we have gained since that great March.

 

Judicial Radicals

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Lyndon_JohnsonWhen Lyndon Johnson finally decided to double-down on civil rights legislation in 1965 and push for a federal voting rights act he began the political effort by delivering one of his most eloquent and important speeches.

Having already conceded that passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would cause his Democratic Party to lose the south for a generation – a prediction that has turned out to be way too modest – Johnson, the former Congressman and Senator from Texas, did what politicians too rarely do. He appealed to Americans to live up to their proud ideals and then he put the power of his presidency behind voting rights for all Americans.

“Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult,” Johnson said in a television speech on the evening of March 15, 1965. “But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”

Congress debated Johnson’s proposed legislation throughout the summer of ’65 with both the president and the Democratic leaders of Congress knowing that Republican votes were essential to passage since southern Democrats were almost to a man opposed to a federal voting rights act (VRA). Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois is a political hero for his role in securing passage of the historic legislation. In a striking parallel to the dilemma national Republicans face today over immigration legislation, Dirksen realized in 1965 that the stakes were enormous for the GOP if it failed to secure passage of a law to help African-Americans gain full citizenship.

“This involves more than you,” Dirksen told one of his colleagues, as recounted in Neil MacNeil’s wonderful biography. “It’s the party,” Dirksen pleaded. “Don’t’ drop me in the mud.”

Dirksen eventually rounded up the GOP votes necessary to end a filibuster and the Voting Rights Act passed the Senate by a vote of 77-19. The House vote was equally lopsided – 333-85 – with virtually all Representatives and Senators from the south voting “no.” When Johnson went before Congress to press for his legislation – here’s a segment – you can catch a glimpse of southern members, like North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, refusing to applaud some of LBJ’s strongest lines.

(Here is one other historical footnote: Then-Idaho Congressman George Hansen, an ultra-conservative Republican, was alone among Pacific Northwest members and one of  just 85 House votes against the Voting Rights Act. Most who voted “no” contended the law was unconstitutional because it intruded on state’s rights to establish voting procedures.)

In 1970, again in 1975 and then in 1982 and again in 2006 four Republican presidents – Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush – signed extensions of the Voting Rights Act. In each case Congress voted overwhelmingly to keep the Act in place, including the controversial “preclearance” provision that was at the heart of the recent Supreme Court decision that effectively ruled the law invalid.

So extensive was the Congressional work on the Voting Rights Act extension back in 2006 that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg cited the record in her recent dissent in the court’s 5-4 decision.

 “The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held 21 hearings, heard from scores of witnesses, received a number of investigative reports and other written documentation of continuing discrimina­tion in covered jurisdictions. In all, the legislative record Congress compiled filled more than 15,000 pages,” Ginsberg wrote. “The compilation presents countless ‘examples of fla­grant racial discrimination’ since the last re-authoriza­tion; Congress also brought to light systematic evidence that ‘intentional racial discrimination in voting remains so serious and widespread in covered jurisdictions that section 5 preclearance is still needed.’”

Ginsberg also noted pointedly that the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870 in the wake of our bloody Civil War, specifically grants to Congress “the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” The Voting Rights Act was that “appropriate legislation” in 1965 and remained so until Chief Justice John Roberts and the other conservatives on the Court substituted their judgment for that of the U.S. Congress.

From the days of Earl Warren’s tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, through every presidency from Johnson’s to Bill Clinton’s, conservatives have railed against the scourge of “activist judges,” who “legislate from the bench.” Countless speeches have made from the local Rotary Club to the floor of the Senate condemning “liberal” judges who did not merely interpret the law, but “make the law.” It was good political rhetoric and arguably, at least once in a while, it was true. But the recent split decision on the Voting Rights Act should once and forever put the lie to the charge that  it is only liberal judicial activists who wear the black robes.

Chief Justice Roberts opines in the case Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder that America “has changed” since 1965 and that continuing to apply the same standards to evaluate voting fairness for African Americans in the states of the old Confederacy (and a couple of others) fails to take into account those changes. What the very conservative Chief Justice does not confront is the political process, the hearings, the testimony, the reports and first-hand experience that informed the Congress first in 1965 then in four subsequent sessions to keep the landmark law – and the precleareance provision on the books.

There is no nice way to say what Mr. Justice Roberts did other than to admit that he, and his four like-minded conservative colleagues, substituted their judgment for that of the Congress and a conservative Republican president. That action should forever re-write the definition of “judicial activism.”

“When confronting the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination,” Justice Ginsberg wrote, “and the most fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress’ power to act is at its height.” An eloquent way of saying – leave the lawmaking to the lawmakers.

Regardless of how individual members of Congress feel about the Voting Rights Act, and we can assume based upon the legislative history that the vast majority of members support the Act, any Congressman or Senator should be taken aback by the level of  judicial activism of the Roberts Court. (One wonders what Idaho’s two lawyer-senators think of this ruling both on political and Constitutional grounds. I have yet to see them questioned on the subject.)

Rare in modern times has the expressed will of Congress been so manhandled as in Shelby County decision. In light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, President Obama’s recent remarks on race in America and the fact that several once-covered jurisdictions – Texas, for example – have already moved to change voting requirements in a way that many experts believe will make it more difficult for many Americans to vote, it is worth remembering more words from Lyndon Johnson on that night in 1965 when he spoke so profoundly about the right to vote.

“There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem,” Johnson said. “And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.” Progress has been made, but we have more distance to go to solve that problem and again, as in 1965, Congress must act.

 

Jim Crow’s Playmates

One of the best things about the new film about baseball great Jackie Robinson is actor Harrison Ford’s portrayal of baseball executive Branch Rickey, the man who found the guts in 1945 to sign Robinson to a minor league contract with the Montreal Royals and then in the 1947 season, against all odds, brought the first African-American player to the major leagues.

By all accounts Mr. Rickey, as everyone called him, wasn’t much of a ballplayer himself. He only played in the majors for four seasons, had a career batting average of .239 and hit only three home runs. Granted it was the “dead ball” era, but those numbers don’t get you to Cooperstown.

Rickey got to the Hall of Fame on the strength of his success as a baseball manager and executive. He had a hand in three great and enduring innovations – the establishment of the farm system to identify and nurture talent, breaking the color line with the signing of No. 42 and late in his life helping start the Continental League, a proposed third major league that failed to get off the grass, but nevertheless ushered in expansion of baseball to new markets.

The great sportswriter Jim Murray said Rickey “could recognize a great player from the window of a moving train” and the great man’s nickname, “The Mahatma,” was recognition of his pioneering ways and the deep Christian faith that he wore on his sleeve. One contemporary said when Rickey met you for the first time he wanted to know everything about you, then set out to change you.

In the wake of seeing the Robinson movie – it’s a must for any baseball or history buff – I read a splendid piece by another great sportswriter Red Smith. Writing in 1948, the year after Robinson broke the Jim Crow barriers around baseball, Smith was reporting – and not with any surprise – about how little support Rickey had received from the other leaders of the national past time.

“A curious sort of hullabaloo has been aroused by Branch Rickey’s disclosure that when he went into the ring against Jim Crow, he found fifteen major league club owners working in Jim’s corner,” Smith wrote. “It is strange that the news should stir excitement, for surely it couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.” Those other owners – Red Smith called them “Jim Crow’s playmates” – were worried about alienating fans, suffering public abuse or hurting their investments. Most likely all three. Questions of morality often get snagged on the sharp edges of commerce. Morality wins, as it did in 1947, when a big man – make that two big men – act with a sense of righteousness and with history on their side.

It’s hard, I think, perhaps even impossible, for anyone born after the awful era of Jim Crow to grasp the degree to which economic, political and cultural forces were aligned to keep black Americans from jobs, health care, public services, the ballot box and the sense of decency that goes with simply being respected. It was a shameful, nasty and profoundly disturbing period of American history. One reason for young people to see the Robinson film, in addition to the well-told heroic story, is to get a taste of the appalling racism that Robinson and so many other Americans of color deal with every hour of every day.

A spectacular new book by Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson expands on the political implications of the Jim Crow era, and yes the implications still echo today, by exploring in detail the Faustian bargain Franklin Roosevelt entered into in order to push his New Deal agenda through a southern dominated Democratic Congress in the 1930’s. The Robinson story fits squarely in the history lesson Katznelson tells so well.

As Kevin Boyle wrote in reviewing Fear Itself in the New York Times, “[FDR’s] calculation was simple enough. Thanks to the disfranchisement of blacks and the reign of terror that accompanied it, the South had become solidly Democratic by the beginning of the 20th century, the Deep South exclusively so. One-party rule translated into outsize power on Capitol Hill: when Roosevelt took office, Southerners held almost half the Democrats’ Congressional seats and many of the key committee chairmanships. So whatever Roosevelt wanted to put into law had to have Southern approval. And he wouldn’t get it if he dared to challenge the region’s racial order.”

Franklin Roosevelt, Katznelson argues, made a “rotten compromise” with the southern politicians of his own party who dominated Congress in exchange for being able to govern effectively in a time of depression, war and deep and persistent fear. While FDR didn’t challenge a segregated culture, ironically the New Deal served to both prolong Jim Crow and made its demise inevitable. FDR’s “rotten compromise” fails as a profile in courage, but the Hudson River valley aristocrat who fancied himself a Georgia farmer eventually made so many changes in the way we use and view government that his New Deal made Harry Truman and eventually Lyndon Johnson possible.

In the same way that Branch Rickey, The Mahatma of baseball, saw a wrong and tried to right it, first Truman and later Johnson, fully understanding the political consequences, abandoned the old Democratic Party of Jim Crow and ushered in the civil rights era; an era of unending struggles, that still dominates politics and culture today.

Every time I read or hear about another effort to make voting more difficult for minorities in America or hear a politician suggest that “American exceptionalism” makes it clear we don’t have to worry about race and class in this “post-racial” time in our history, I’ll remember Jackie Robinson’s one-time Brooklyn Dodger teammate from Alabama Dixie Walker. Walker, a fine ballplayer and a career .306 hitter who lead the league in hitting in 1944, also led the push back against Robinson playing with the Dodgers. Walker demanded to be traded and drew up an anti-Robinson petition that he and other Dodger players were determined to present to club president Branch Rickey.

Dixie Walker’s career dried up after 1947. Rickey traded him to the lowly Pirates and he retired in 1948, but would come back to coach in the majors often working  without issue with black ballplayers. In his 2002 book The Era, the great writer Roger Kahn quoted Walker as saying: “I organized that petition in 1947, not because I had anything against Robinson personally or against Negroes generally. I had a wholesale business in Birmingham and people told me I’d lose my business if I played ball with a black man.”

Fear is a great motivator. History has a tendency to reward people who push back against it. Rickey and Robinson are in the Hall of Fame. Truman’s stock at a great president continues to rise. Johnson’s place as the president who sacrificed his party’s once invincible regional base in the south in exchange for civil rights legislation is secure. Dixie Walker told Roger Kahn the anti-Robinson petition was the “stupidest thing he had ever done,” and he regretted it for the rest of his days.

Dixie Walker was by all accounts a devoted family man who, as Harvey Araton wrote in 2010, was “without much formal education, [but] he was curious and informed. Representing N.L. players, he helped devise the major leagues’ first pension plan, suggesting its revenue be generated from All-Star Game proceeds.” None of that has helped erase the stigma of what Dixie Walker did when driven by his own fear during the season of 1947.

Time may heal wounds, but reputations are much harder to repair. The playwright said it:  “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Fear itself stands in the way of so much.

 

Baseball on Film

I hope the new biopic about the great Jackie Robinson is as good as the hype, but even if it’s not I’m looking forward to seeing the film about No. 42 for a variety of reasons. It’s a great story and certainly Robinson deserves to be widely remembered and praised for his role in tearing down the awful barrier that existed prior to the 1947 season that prevented black players from reaching the major leagues. I’m also looking forward to the Harrison Ford portrayal of another hero in the story Branch Rickey. For at least a couple of hours this die-hard Giants fan can root for the Dodgers.

Another reason I hope 42 is worthy of becoming a classic is that there are relatively few really good movies about baseball. I think I’ve seen all of them. From the loopy Major League, best remembered for Bob Uecker stealing the show – “just a little outside” – and Renee Russo looking like, well Renee Russo, to the pretty awful Babe Ruth Story starring a classic actor, William Bendix, miscast as the great Yankee. As one description of that film put it Bendix “resembles Ruth slightly in looks and not at all in baseball ability.” That pretty much sums up the movie.

I remember watching The Stratton Story with my baseball loving dad. Jimmy Stewart played Monty Stratton, a successful real life Chicago White Sox pitcher who loses a leg in a hunting accident and makes a determined comeback in the minors. The movie wasn’t bad, but the trailer with narration from the adorable June Allyson, who plays Stratton’s wife, is a 1949 Hollywood classic. You can watch it here.

The laconic Gary Cooper looks a little better in pinstripes than William Bendix and does a passably good job of playing the great Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees. The moving story of Gehrig’s career and tragic death has to be on any must-see list of baseball films. The real Babe Ruth along with Yankee greats Bob Meusel, a lifetime .311 hitter who probably belongs in the Hall of Fame, and catcher Bill Dickey, who is in the Hall and deserves to be, make appearances in the film looking very much like the aging stars they were when the movie was released in 1942.

But none of those films make my top five. The best of the best baseball stories on film are not about real players, but often about the game, its rituals and the fact that baseball more than any other sport has a mystery and rhythm to it that has been, at least a few times, translated very well on the big screen. Here in descending order are my five best baseball movies:

5) Field of Dreams is a classic for the sentiment and its myriad connections to literature, history and baseball lore. I was lucky to play catch with my dad and debate Shoeless Joe Jackson’s guilt or innocence. What baseball fan hasn’t? And, of course, “If you build it, he will come,” is a line that has passed into movie lore and found its way into everyday usage. To me the line and the film are really references to a fanciful dream that comes true and wonderful dreams are good, even if they sometimes don’t pan out. Who wouldn’t like to see the 1919 Black Sox playing on your own diamond out by the corn field? Enough said.

4) Bull Durham is a classic baseball movie (and, yes, a little raunchy, too) that is also about life, love and second chances. OK, maybe I like it a little because Susan Sarandon stars as the groupie who haunts the Durham Bulls Class A team. Kevin Costner plays aging catcher Crash Davis who once made it to “the show,” but now observes baseball’s curious rules in the low minor leagues. His “I believe in…” speech delivered to Sarandon and the dense, wild but fast pitcher played by Tim Robbins is great. “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone,” he says, “I believe there ought to be a Constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter rule…” Need to see it again.

3) A League of Their Own makes my top five list for Tom Hanks’ outrageously good performance as the manager of a woman’s professional baseball team in the 1940’s. Also for Genna Davis’ sweet acting job as the team’s talented catcher and for some seriously funny and memorable lines. “There’s no crying in baseball” has entered the ballpark vocabulary and will stay there forever. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are both believable as players and are wonderful as teammates. Hanks explaining to one of his players the importance of hitting the cutoff man is a priceless scene.

2) The Natural is, well, a natural. Robert Redford plays “the natural,” outfielder and big stick Roy Hobbs, who mysteriously shows up in the major leagues after, as he says, waiting “16 years to get here.” The screen adaptation is of the fine novel by Bernard Malamud and is very generally based on a real life incident involving Philadelphia Phillies player Eddie Waitkus. As with all these films a woman – or several in this film – play as big a role as the baseball does.

1) For my money the single best baseball-themed movie is the hauntingly beautiful screen adaptation of Mark Harris’ novel Bang the Drum Slowly. A young Robert DeNiro turns in a superb performance as a less-than-bright catcher, Bruce Pearson, who is dying of a terminal illness. Michael Moriarty is his pitcher friend, Henry Wiggins, and the film’s narrator. The fine character actor Vincent Gardenia is very good as the crusty manager. (Isn’t every baseball movie manager crusty?) The film is set around baseball, but it’s really about friendship, respect, teammates and ultimately living and dying. I love the film and particularly Wiggins’ last line – “from now on, I rag on no one” – which he delivers after telling us that none of Pearson’s teammates had bothered to show up for his funeral.

Three of these all-time greats were made in the 1980’s. Bang the Drum was released in 1973 and A League of Their Own in 1992. Here’s hoping the acclaimed Robinson film ushers in a new golden age of the baseball movies. I’m headed to the movies.