Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In Memoriam: Ted Kennedy (1932-2009)

I knew when the brain cancer was announced last year that Senator Kennedy would not be with us much longer, but the news this morning still came as a shock. Kennedy was one of the rare larger-than-life figures in U.S. politics, and it is hard to believe that he is now gone.

One can easily find a detailed list of his legislative accomplishments on the news Web site of one’s choice. Television today will certainly be dominated by remembrances and testimonials. As for me, I would like to recount the four things I will always admire him for.

The first is his presidential candidacy in 1980. Kennedy and then-President Carter were both Democrats, but when faced with an ineffectual leader who was unsympathetic to his political vision, Kennedy did the right thing: he mounted a primary challenge. It was something I wish we would see far more of. An elected official should always have to answer to his or her constituents, and that should never be trumped by questions of party loyalty. To those who claim that Kennedy’s challenge cost Carter reelection and opened the door to Reagan, my response is to study the history more closely. Reagan did not lead in the polls until after the debate between him and Carter. He was also dogged by the third-party candidacy of John Anderson, a rival for the GOP nomination. Anderson ended up getting nearly seven percent of the popular vote, and in a normal political year, that would have sent Reagan down in flames. Carter’s loss was Carter’s loss. All Kennedy did was admirably act on a basic principle of representative government.

Kennedy’s greatest moment for me was his leading the charge against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. A crank who had shown himself to be an unprincipled toady during the Watergate scandal, Bork never should have been allowed on the federal judiciary in the first place. Stopping his ascendancy to the Supreme Court was of paramount importance. An hour after the nomination was announced, Kennedy delivered an incendiary speech denouncing Bork. He demanded, in no uncertain terms, that the Democratic Party stand foursquare against the nomination for the good of the country. Which they did, and Bork’s nomination was defeated. Kennedy’s actions were a textbook study in political leadership: Take a stand on principle, and define the debate on one’s own terms.

The defeat of Robert Bork will always be the triumph I most admire, but his “Where Was George?” speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention will always be the moment I most enjoy. It was a hilarious, masterly delivered polemic about George Bush the Elder’s evasions about his involvement in the Reagan Administration’s litany of scandals. The best tribute to the speech I can think of is to show it, but it is unfortunately not available online. It was brilliant in its simplicity. Kennedy recited one Reagan scandal after another, ending his broadside of each with the refrain, “Where was George?” The crowd in the convention hall caught on immediately, and before the speech reached its halfway point, they were reciting the question for him. The evening ended with the question—and accompanying laughter—echoing in one’s brain.

The only downside of this terrific oratory was that it led to Kennedy keeping his political head down after Bush the Elder was elected President. Bush made no secret of how much he resented Kennedy for the speech. Looking back, it is fairly obvious that, for political reasons, the Democratic leadership did not want to antagonize the notoriously thin-skinned Bush by reminding him of it. (Kennedy was heavily involved with the negotiations over the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, but he had to deal with Bush through proxies.) Kennedy exited the political limelight, and other Senators, such as Russ Feingold, Bernie Sanders, and the late Paul Wellstone, eventually assumed the roles of spokespeople for the liberal perspective in the Senate.

But Sanders, Feingold, and Wellstone will always walk in Kennedy’s shadow, and that brings me to the fourth—and most important thing—for which I admire him. He was the standard-bearer for the legacy of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. Sadly, he often found himself fighting a rear-guard action against the efforts of Reagan and the GOP to roll back those programs and their accomplishments. But for all of that, he still managed to extend and refine them in many ways. Examples include the Family and Medical Leave Act, COBRA, and the aforementioned ADA. No one fought harder to make this country work, and not just for the rich, but for the vast majority of its citizens. He once said, “Sometimes a party must sail against the wind.” He did that when circumstances demanded it, and despite opposing winds, he was occasionally able to sail further than any legislator had before.

He was a great leader, and he will always be remembered.

Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009. Rest in Peace.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Comics Review: Nate Powell, Swallow Me Whole

If you are interested in buying a copy of Swallow Me Whole, by Nate Powell, click here to purchase from Powell's Books.

Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole is a tremendously affecting coming-of-age story, but it is not a hopeful one. Most work in this vein fits a particular pattern. It begins with the protagonist as a child or adolescent, follows him or her through various travails and conflicts, with the character coming out the other end as a capable, functioning adult. However, Powell’s two protagonists, the stepsiblings Ruth and Perry, have a more difficult road than most. Both suffer from schizophrenia, and while they navigate their way through the usual stages of growing up--first love, the initial steps down the road to a career--they also have to live with the prospect of their condition taking over and destroying what they have. Worse, there is the prospect of going willingly down a self-destructive path if or when the time comes. And there is always the danger of being misdiagnosed, improperly treated, or an emotionally upsetting experience undoing everything medical treatment had largely set right.

The book begins with Ruth and Perry, both of middle-school age, taken by their parent and stepparent (her mother and his father) to see Ruth’s grandmother in the hospital. The old woman is suffering from dementia, but her delusional ramblings strike a chord with Ruth. When the family goes home for dinner that evening, we see why. The dissociative episode she has at the dinner table is only the start. Later, when she has gone to her room for the night, she compulsively reorganizes the jars of insect specimens she collects as a hobby, and the specimens talk to her. At one point Ruth muses, “This has been happening all my life. It’s the only way I know our world. Makes sense to me.” The words hang over everything that happens, and they feel achingly true.

Perry has similar problems: a wizard figurine he keeps on the end of his pencil talks to him, ordering him to draw things. He occasionally feels the need to talk back to it, but, in general, his condition is nowhere as extreme as his stepsister’s. However, by the time the two are in high school, her dissociative spells are combining with depression, and her compulsive behaviors border on the debilitating. Following a terrifying hallucination in which she is overwhelmed by flies, her condition is diagnosed and she is prescribed medication to control it.

Ruth, though, is more fortunate than Perry; a doctor he sees around the same time attributes his hallucinations to stress. It’s a painful irony. Perry can function far better without medication than Ruth, but she is the one who receives it, along with the hope of a life unhindered by their condition. And in the months that follow, we see how that plays out. Perry is fairly aimless, while Ruth begins acting on her ambitions and laying the groundwork for a fulfilling life in college and beyond. Powell, though, has a far too sophisticated view of Ruth and Perry’s condition to leave things there. The illness can be controlled, but it cannot be cured. The possibility of the disease recurring or worsening sets the stage for a series of reversals that ends in tragedy. One of the stepsiblings ends up “swallowed whole” by madness, while the other will forever live in fear of the same fate.

The story is sensitively realized, and at times Powell’s handling of it seems almost miraculous. He doesn’t play things safe with a detached, objective storytelling perspective or polite, understated visuals. He embraces an expressionistic approach that takes one right inside the protagonists’ diseased perceptions. It’s a method that is always at risk of lapsing into sensationalism, but Powell never falters. The hallucinations and delusions are frequently nightmarish, but they feel as organic a part of the characters’ lives as the more down-to-earth joys and disappointments. His handling of the book’s climactic sections is especially impressive. The descent into madness is given the pacing of a thriller, and the nightmarish climax manages to be both over-the-top and exactly right.

The secret to how it all works may be that Powell’s cartooning style tends to avoid emphasizing a dramatic point. Usually, a cartoonist’s approach to designing panels and pages is to convey exactly what one is to be paying attention to and how one should react. Powell doesn’t do that; his pages and panels are constructed around the principle of indirection. With many of his images, one’s eye has to wander around the composition a bit before one can determine what element one is supposed to be looking at. And if it is immediately clear what information is supposed to be taken in, the overall page design works against the presentation from seeming too pushy; large areas of black, hatching, or white distract one from giving a particular panel one’s full attention.

Powell has shown no interest in large character ensembles or genre deconstruction, but in every other way his style is the comics equivalent of filmmaker Robert Altman’s. Both favor unfocused compositions and staging, and Altman’s use of lavish visuals and sound recording to decenter narrative attention is remarkably similar to Powell’s design strategies--the audience is deliberately given more information than they can immediately process. And Altman and Powell get the same overall effect; their work has a lifelike texture and rhythm that surpasses anything one sees from their peers.

The foundation this style gives Powell allows him to handle just about anything successfully. He can make the quiet and everyday vividly true-to-life, but he can also introduce fantastic and melodramatic elements without making them feel discordant or overwrought. This capacity extends to the inclusion of abstract and hallucinatory imagery; both are featured in Swallow Me Whole, and both feel organic to Powell's presentation. The ability to slow down the audience and make them work also gives him a remarkable control over pacing; when he shifts from the more meditative moments toward making the narrative hurtle forward, the contrast makes the latter all the more effective. The technique on display is brilliant, and Powell makes it serve his material all the way through. Swallow Me Whole is much more than an affecting look at growing up, or a powerful treatment of the tragedy of mental illness; it is the work of a blossoming comics master.

Reviews of other work by Nate Powell: