Talking the Talk

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In the early 1970s the #1 talk radio station in New York was WMCA and at night it broadcast a program called The Joanne Ginsberg Show. She wasn’t a relative but she had the same last name as I did, and since even then I longed to be in show biz I figured it was worth a listen.

Aside from the requisite celebrities of the era – like John and Yoko (Lennon, that is) – there were political discussions… lots of them. It was also the not yet end of the Vietnam War and the majority of American teenagers like myself were repulsed at the idea of living in a country that continuously bombed women and little children thousands of miles away to oblivion – and at that time we actually saw their bloody carcasses on the network news each night – in the name of what seemed to be…well…absolutely nothing.

Aunt Joanie

Aunt Joanie

Being even more mouthy than I am now – yes it’s possible and, after all, I was a teenager – I decided to call up “Aunt Joanne” one night when an Army general or veteran or sergeant (who can remember) was on singing the patriotic praises of America and how proud he and all of us should be at our armed forces and every time the flag was raised.

Really, I thought? Proud? I’ll show him.

Channeling my inner Wonder Woman #LassoOfTruth

Channeling my inner Wonder Woman #LassoOfTruth

So I got on the phone, dialed the number and waited half an hour to tell the guy off.

Yeah, I’d like to say something to your guest, I bellowed at Auntie Joanie when she asked what was on my mind and told me we were on the air.

I’d like him to know that as a young person I’m sickened every time I see the military and hear the national anthem playing. As for the American flag, we’re murdering hundreds of innocent people halfway across the world for nothing. It’s draped on the coffins of soldiers who died for no reason.   I don’t know how anyone can be proud of that. And our government is just trying to get out of it by saying it’s “peace with honor….”

I’m paraphrasing a bit but trust me – words like military, horrifying, death, disgusting, sickening and I’m pretty sure nauseating were used more than once. Sensing that there was even more to come the elder Ginsberg wisely jumped in and asked her guest what he thought about that.   To this day I have no idea what he said. All I can recall is that he never addressed my sentiments – at all.   I was looking to do battle and, strangely enough, he was choosing not at all to engage.

A pretty fair representation of my interaction

A pretty fair representation of my interaction

I recount this all in light of our current national pastime of electoral politics – or as we like to call it – the best damn reality show the world has ever seen. How was it that some 40 plus years later I was cheering for retired Gen. John Allen at the Democratic National Convention when he screamed about love of country, common values, defeating evil and protecting the homeland?

Uh, no – it’s not because I’m older or my politics have much changed. It’s because his short but very pointed argument was put in a context.

We writers, directors, producers and actors should take note.

The General at the DNC, flanked by veterans of ALL colors

The General at the DNC, flanked by veterans of ALL colors

Gen. Allen’s speech directly followed that of Khzir Khan, father of a dead Muslim soldier, who challenged Donald Trump’s patriotism for his proposal of “temporarily” banning all Muslims to the country as well as his nasty, jingoistic hate speech towards Mexican-Americans, women, and pretty much any other peer (of any color, faith or sex) who dared to strenuously disagree with him. Mr. Khan, an immigrant and a lawyer – and clearly a very good one – topped it off by pulling out his own printed pamphlet of the Constitution, offering to lend it to him to read, because clearly he hasn’t and has no idea what’s in it. He concluded by telling him that he knew nothing about sacrifice because he has sacrificed “nothing and no one.”

Oh yes he did

Oh yes he did

But back to Gen. Allen. In a post 9-11 world – that means a time when Americans understand what it means to be attacked on the mainland in one of its major cities and financial centers – blood and carnage does not seem as shocking. This is especially true given the almost weekly bursts of violence and death by guns by our own hands, not to mention the bi-weekly, monthly or bi-monthly mass terrorist attacks of late all over the world.

Still, the reason I, and many like myself, instinctively cheered on a military man is that his words were a rebuke to Trumpism – or as I define it – a jingoistic knee-jerk reaction in support of all things American.

What's that cliche... lipstick on a pig?

What’s that cliche… lipstick on a pig?

To be clear, the precise words the former Marine commander was yelling were phrases like:

Every American in uniform, in the White House or at home…must be a force for unity in America, for a vision that includes all of us… Every man and woman, every race, every ethnicity, every faith and creed, including the Americans who are our precious Muslims. And every gender and every gender orientation.

I also know (under Hillary Clinton) our armed forces will not become an instrument of torture, and they will not be ordered to engage in murder or carry out other illegal activities.

So we stand before you tonight to endorse Hillary Clinton for president of the United States of America…We trust her judgment. We trust in her judgment….We know that she – as no other – knows how to use all instruments of American power, not just the military, to keep us all safe and free.

With her as our commander-in-chief, America will continue to lead in this volatile world.

We will oppose and resist tyranny as we will defeat evil….America will defeat ISIS and protect the homeland….America will honor our treaty obligations….We will lead and strengthen NATO and the Atlantic Alliance, and our allies in East Asia and around the world whom we have sworn a solemn oath to defend. 

….We will stop the spread of nuclear weapons and keep them from the hands of dangerous states and groups.

…I also know that with her as our commander-in-chief, our international relations will not be reduced to a business transaction.

I also know our armed forces will not become an instrument of torture, and they will not be ordered to engage in murder or carry out other illegal activities.

You see most Americans are not as different from 1970s American teenagers, or even millennial teenagers and up, than one might think. Most of us don’t want war or anything to do with it. But we are also realistic and no longer live in a fool’s paradise. We’ll fight, or might be inclined to listen to a justification for fighting even if we don’t want to if we understand what the hell we’re fighting for.   Or against.

What we, the overwhelmingly reasonable majority don’t want to do is to fight for no logical reason.   Or with each other.

Please Bore Me

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Every semester I implore my writing students: please, don’t bore me. Not in a Miranda Priestly way. I like to think of myself as their sometimes nicely dressed angel rather than a devil in too hip designer duds waiting to take a bite out of their souls. They have plenty of time after school to experience the latter, if they haven’t already.

The same goes for my taste in art. I’d rather be offended by your creative output than have it put me to sleep. (Note: This actually happened during the second act of the Broadway musical Annie in the seventies but that’s another subject.). In truth, there is nothing that fires me up more and sparks my own creativity than a good homophobic, racist, or sexist rant.   Sure, I loathe them. But as a guy with ADD and a lifelong procrastination problem, I often need a push – make that a shove – in order to do anything about it.

Me at my most creative #differentsteven

Me at my most creative

This is what current Republican nominee Donald Trump delivered this past week and Hillary Clinton can never deliver.

But see, the actual world is not a fictional land that a writer (or any artist) can mold to their liking. That’s why one does creative work to begin with. So we can evoke the world as we see it – create one that reflects our point of view, that is of our choosing, not yours.

Nor are actual world leaders characters in a book, movie or TV show to root for or hate watch. Well, okay, you can hate watch them – as I did with Trump last week – or root for them – as I’ll do with Hillary this week – but that is not their primary function in our lives.

OK... but this was pretty funny

OK… but this was pretty funny

They exist to lead us, to enact and enforce a set of laws that bring people together and create some sort of existential order than enables us to achieve whatever we so choose and thus become the best of ourselves.

In other words, they’re not here to put on a show, they’re here to run the show.

And what they are also most certainly not put here for is our amusement.

I’ve always liked following politics but personally I’d find it as boring as Annie Act 2 if I were a real life politician – or worked for one. All the hand-shaking, broken promises, arm-twisting, behind-the- scenes maneuvering. Not to mention compromises. Constantly. Oh – and asking for money. Do you know politicians spend 50-75% of their time fundraising?

That's it, I'm going back to bed

That’s it, I’m going back to bed

And that’s the fun part. How about the endless hearings, crafting the legislation, engaging in ad infinitum drafts of bills that will look nothing like you imagined them to be – that is if they ever do get enacted. Not to mention you’ll also have to talk your bone-headed colleagues on the other side of the aisle into the milquetoast compromise you didn’t want in the first place and often smile sincerely enough for them to believe you at some point while you’re doing it.

Fine, this is not unlike being a screenwriter in the film business. Still, no one dies or goes hungry when our movies do or don’t get made. Not even us. Not really. And if an artist of any kind can go hungry or be permanently broke, the failure of our projects or constant unemployment do not have national or worldwide repercussions. Even though our egos are such that we are convinced this is the case on every single project we undertake.

A screenwriter's dinner isn't going to make itself!

A screenwriter’s dinner isn’t going to make itself!

Mr. Trump’s charm has always eluded me. Probably because I’ve always detested white, straight macho strongmen rich guys who flaunt their money with the same ease with which they flaunt the latest blonde on their arm. And honestly, I find gold–gilted anything quite tacky – especially when it’s a zillion feet high. No, I’m not talking about his hair.

Nevertheless, I got what he provided for others. A fantasy of luxury.   A mouthpiece to say all the things they couldn’t. Like – YOU’RE FIRED! Heck, who hasn’t wanted to say that at least once a week, or sometimes even once a day?

But experiencing Mr. Trump this past week and the foaming fervor of his supporters at the RNC grew from entertaining hate-watching to terror and panic once I got it through my head this was no longer just good badTV. The Washington Post breaks it down much better than I do so please click here and read.

... and just in case Trump wasn't scary enough, now we got this guy too #HELP

… and just in case Trump wasn’t scary enough, now we got this guy too #HELP

Suffice it to say 75 plus minutes of law and order rants in an undeniable Mussolini/Hitler like timbre was frightening – and not in the Dick Wolf-TV-Mariska Hargitay kind of way. It became much larger than life and certainly larger than any reality show that has ever been on TV. A man who alternately pleaded and shouted that he’d protect you and work for you as long as you gave him the keys and the codes to everything you own and didn’t ever ask him to give any details, or much of a clue, on how he’d do that.

Heck, I had lying, elusive, duplicitous boyfriends in my twenties (and more than a few) who gave me more actual specifics than that. Plus, they were a helluva lot better looking.

Then, on the other side, there is Hillary Clinton. We’ve known her for 25 years and, let’s face it, she’s seldom entertaining.   Okay, there was the Monica scandal and the dress and the brief period the country felt bad for her. And yes, there were those moments and memes as secretary of State when she was texting in her sunglasses pre-Benghazi when it seemed like she could never make a wrong move again. But mostly – not much fun on her own. Certainly not much fun to watch giving a speech.

... whereas this guy #goodspeech #wow

… whereas this guy #goodspeech #wow

Which does not mean she is not a good or effective politician. Or potential world leader.   Rather than getting into a litany of defense, here is the best compilation of facts and attributes I’ve seen in this dailykos article last month, which references other sources – both pro and con. But suffice it to say I remember 25 years ago when she was actually fighting for health care and telling the right wing to go stick it in their hats – a time they resented her simply for not staying home like a good, little first lady and tending the rose garden. Yeah, she was tough and mouthy but I was raised by women like that and always thought that behavior was kind of cool.

See, her kind doesn’t get cast as Secretary of State – we have the glamorous, desirable Tea Leoni for that. And if she does become our first female president, Julia-Louis Dreyfuss will be far more entertaining on Veep in any moment on any given part of the day to most of the world.

Lest we forget Miss Geena

Lest we forget Miss Geena

I can hear the naysayers from here – she lied, she’s crooked, she can’t be trusted! As opposed to um…the neighborhood billionaire? Any billionaire? This is not a defense of lying, or even an admission that Mrs. Clinton does or does not lie.   We’re simply making equivalencies here. The RNC didn’t just nominate Gandhi. Or even Ben Kingsley. Though their nominee is closer to an actor if he’s anything at all.

Which is the crux of the problem. We’re electing a commander-in-chief not an entertainer-in-chief. And certainly, not a clown – no matter how desperate we all are for a laugh. How desperate is that?   We’ll see.

Owning the room

“They can smell desperation a mile away,” was the harsh assessment from a very successful and wealthy (not the same thing) friend of mine years ago when I was going through a particularly dry employment stage.

“Screw you,” I thought, “I’m not desperate!  And even if I am, the projects I’m pitching are great and I am charming, funny and exude confidence no matter how I’m feeling.  So I know for a FACT you’re wrong and that it doesn’t have anything to do with that!”

“or ….does it?”

After all these years I hate to admit — Yeah, it does.

It’s easy to preach this sort of advice from high atop your pile of money or at your “A” table or house in the snazziest neighborhood in town.   Certainly easier than doing it from a broken down kitchen table in a crumbling studio apartment where you can hear your neighbors’ every footstep at all hours of the day or night.

Well, not necessarily.

The reality is – it’s all about ownership.  Of yourself, of the idea and…of the outcome – meaning you’re not even thinking about whether it’s good or bad, that’s how much you believe in what you’re doing or saying.  The latter is the toughest, especially when you’re desperate.  How do you pretend you don’t care when your very life and livelihood depends on it?  Because your life and livelihood never DEPENDS on it.  Repeat:  It NEVER does.

Workin’ it.

Former President Bill Clinton gave the master class in ownership this past week when he addressed the Democratic National Convention in a highly detailed 48-minute speech on economic and governmental policy that had most of the nation, and worldwide audience, at the edge of their seats.  How do you do that in an age where even the ratings of “30 Rock” and “The Office” have slipped while “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” is enjoying a never-ending ratings surge?

Consider the following wrong answers:

  1. Bill Clinton has a near genius I.Q. (approximately 137) so he can pretty much do anything.
  2. Bill Clinton is rich and not motivated by money so he doesn’t care about success or failure anymore.
  3. Bill Clinton is selling someone else (Pres. Obama) and everyone knows it’s easier to do that than to sell yourself.
  4. Bill Clinton was speaking to a crowd of people already on his side.  He was preaching to the choir!  There’s NO degree of difficulty there!!!

Really.  Isn’t this the guy who was impeached from the presidency in national disgrace, reviled by half of the country and most of its women AND nearly died from heart disease just a few short years ago?  How do you make a public comeback from that no matter how smart you are and how much money you have in our cynically cynical A.D.D. age of fact-checked, slogan-bloated, generically engineered reality?

Here’s a thought – by knowing what you’re saying and standing by who and what you are and what you believe no matter the outcome.

Let’s break those wrong answers down.

Piece of cake.

1. Genius and talent. As a person who has traveled through the businesses of entertainment, politics and academia through most of my life I’ve met some incredibly brilliant and talented people.  I mean, so smart that it might make you never want to utter a sentence again and so talented that you have the urge to never, ever even attempt to try to do anything original in your field because this person has already gotten there and done it way better than you could have ever hoped.

But what I also know is one of the finest female singers I ever heard, who was in my high school class, I’ve never heard from again in my adult life.  And that Van George Serrault, the brilliant artist, never sold a painting in his life. Also, that Sarah Palin was the nominee for vice-president of the United States (I’m partisan, get over it) and ——  – —– (too soon to be that partisan) was actually president.  Plus, there was also that teacher you got stuck with in college (or even high school) who convinced you that even you knew more about a given subject than they did. (Do I need to even mention his or her name?)

As my Dad so wisely told me, “there will always be people more and less smart (and talented) than you.”  The key is what you do with what you have and how hard you are willing to work.  What is it they say in the World of Dated Though They Shouldn’t Be Homilies – talent is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration?

Meaning Bill Clinton didn’t just get up on a podium and espouse a bunch of partisan talking points.  He had lots of statistics, research and thought to back it up.  But he also didn’t list a boatload of genius statistics and expect you to understand it.  He took the time to analyze and synthesize all of the information in order to make his points.  In fact, he did such a good job that even factcheck.org and countless other organizations found his speech to have a total of ZERO stats that didn’t check out.  Talk about arithmetic.

Former Clinton spokesperson Terry McAuliffe confirmed that on a vacation with Mr. Clinton more than a month ago the former president spent innumerable hours each day personally working on this speech, despite being rich enough to have a few other geniuses do the digging and at least one to write it.  And the freedom to not even give it in the first place.  Not surprisingly, he chose none of the above.

I’m rich, bitch!

2. Being rich means not caring about the outcome.  Seriously?  Well, I’ve met several billionaires in my life – that’s with a “B” – and the opposite is true.  A billionaire’s credo: every deal is personal and winning is the only acceptable outcome even if it takes years of double and triple dealing to make it so.  For most active, wealthy people, rather than retirees or dilettantes (because who wants to talk about them anyway), there is always something being worked on – a project or an argument or a personal desire to bring into fruition.  That’s often what made the person wealthy in the first place.  The determination and desire to win, communicate and/or prove the other guy wrong or yourself right.  It’s always personal and there is ALWAYS something at stake.  All the money in the world won’t change deep down inside the fact that – YOU LOST – even when you try your best to convince the world that you don’t care.

Note:  Now let’s not mistake losing for financial failure.  For example, I’ve met many famous (and less than famous) artists, myself included, who do a project that might not make a lot of money or receive mixed to bad reviews, who truly believe and feel that in the end they’ve won.   In the final analysis, the victory can be getting it done in exactly the way you want.  This is universally true for a section of both the wealthy AND the poor.   For the top 1% the loss is usually much more public.  But for the other 99% it can be equally humiliating, or perhaps even invigorating, depending on one’s point of view.

As for Bill Clinton, he’s made many mega-millions through memoirs and high-priced speaking engagements in the years since his presidency AND has even given away billions to solve worldwide problems through his Clinton Global Initiative.

But it’s also taken him more than a decade of hard work and dedication and image rehabilitation to emerge as the most popular living American political figure of 2012, according to recent polls.   All the money in the world can’t buy that.  Ask Meg Whitman, former EBAY CEO who is wealthier than Bubba but whose money couldn’t even lift her to the governorship of California that she so desperately wanted.  Or Ross Perot, whose presidential run against Elvis  Clinton cost him more money than Bill Clinton is now probably worth in total.

Shilling for a living, baby.

3.  Selling someone else is easier than selling yourself. Most writers, directors, actors or any other creative people in film who want to work will at some point find themselves on projects that, to put it kindly, was not their idea, choice or in any way their personal favorite.  In other words, it’s not uncommon in the world to be a “gun for hire” – employed to do the best job using your particular brand of expertise.  Often times you get paid, sometimes you’re doing it for merely the credit, and still other times you’re doing it as “a favor.”  (Yes, people still do those).

I can recall a particular low point myself going to work on a grade “C” Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.  Some designer friends of mine like to recant stories of lugging bags of cut rate underwear from a shopping mall in the middle of nowhere on a 100+ degree film shoot or stacking miniscule pill bottles in a fake pharmacy that will probably never be seen onscreen for a drug store commercial.  The take away here is not how dedicated we all were but that even if you’re working on the crappiest thing in the world at some point it dawns on you that your name will be on it and that, “screw this, I’m gonna make my part of this piece of crap slightly less crappy” even if it kills me AND them (hopefully, the latter).

This is not quite the case with Bill Clinton in his DNC speech since his wife is the President’s Secretary of State and by all accounts relations between the two Presidents have grown much more cordial in recent months.  So that means there is some personal investment. Still, here are several reasons why this speech had to be extremely important to a man who is no longer president:

  1. His wife is Secretary of State AND might herself want to run for president in 2016.
  2. His entire life has been about building himself and the Democratic Party up – meaning he truly believes the first two are what is best for himself and the country.
  3. All presidents are concerned about their legacy and are somewhat egomaniacal (who else would want that job?) despite what they might say to the contrary.

You might think this is “just a job” and “easy money” when you start.  But if you’re any kind of real, high-achieving professional, by the time you finish you’ll swear you were extremely overworked and way, way, way underpaid.

Preach Whoopi!

4. It’s easy to preach to the already converted.  In the early 1970s, my mother told me she was going to vote for Richard Nixon because he promised to end the Vietnam War and she didn’t want me to be drafted.  Well, you can imagine how this went down with me.  I couldn’t vote but was a Chicago 7 revolutionary at heart.  How could my Mom, the person who loved me more than anyone in the world and would swear on a stack of bibles I was innocent even if she witnessed me gun down a busload of senior citizens, betray me like this???  It literally still makes no sense to me.  Because despite my ample persuasive abilities – and as my friends, family and students will tell you, they are formidable – no amount of nagging, cajoling, intellectualizing, tantrums, facts, figures or even tears would change her mind.

Good god, Mother!

Lessons learned at an early age: no matter how friendly your audience is to you, it will take a lot of work to convince them of something they might not want to be convinced of.  You have to be crafty, mature and in most cases, over the age of 17.  (Especially when dealing with my mother).

Bill Clinton’s speech at the DNC certainly roused the attendees in the hall.  But he was shooting for a lot more than that.  He was shooting for undecided voters watching or reading about he said.  He was aiming towards dispassionate Democrats who didn’t particularly think working on this campaign was important.  He was addressing the rest of the world about what he, the President who presided over the greatest economic upturn in the last half century, thought would be the best strategy to solve the world’s problems.

Part of owning the room on any given day is taking nothing for granted and leaving a little bit but not everything to chance.  Compare the text of Bill Clinton’s written speech and the actual version of the talk, complete with 20 minutes of ad-libbing, as Sec. of State Hillary Clinton joked a few days ago that she planned to do.  Then consider Clint Eastwood’s almost totally ad-libbed address at the Republican Convention talking to an invisible Pres. Obama seated in an empty chair.   Several days ago Mr. Eastwood admitted to his local newspaper in Carmel that the idea for his speech came to him moments before he went onstage and that rather than massively prepare he had little idea what he’d do prior his entrance onstage.

Certainly both Mr. Eastwood AND MR. Clinton are hard-working icons who, on any given day, could take on each other.    And if on a film set and not on a political stage, Mr. E would, in particular, have the advantage.

But on that given moment, on those two arguably equal nights, who truly OWNED the room as they spoke?  Think about it.  Then, think about it some more.  Then, take some action of your own.