When integrity and compassion won the day in politics: Remembering Tony Beilenson

Beilenson

A former Congressman from my home state of California passed away this week and many of the friends and colleagues I’ve gotten to know during my 40 years in New York will most likely not recognize his name.

He was Anthony Beilenson. Tony. Remember that name. Repeat it.

And if, like me, you occasionally find yourself struggling to think of viable political strategies that might somehow lead us out of the living nightmare that is the Trump administration, say the name Beilenson again.

Learn about him. Read about his place in the turbulence and protests that marked Ronald Reagan’s tenure as governor of California. See what is possible when it seems that all the political ducks are lined up against you.

Tony Beilenson somehow made it out to California after an almost story book Eastern establishment upbringing.  If he had attended Groton instead of Phillips Andover, you could have read close to three paragraphs of his biography thinking you had accidentally turned to the entry on FDR.

Eventually, after over 13 years in the California state legislature, Tony served 10 terms in Congress. But I get ahead of myself. For a young kid in southern California with political aspirations, it was those terms in the state Assembly and Senate that provided unforgettable inspiration and lessons about persistence that would last a lifetime.

After Ronald Reagan took office in 1966, it quickly became clear that many of Governor Pat Brown’s greatest progressive achievements were in jeopardy.  For a student at the University of California, the achievement that meant the most to us — building and nurturing the greatest of all state University systems — was almost immediately at risk. Reagan’s political strategy included active and angry opposition to that great institution.

We were afraid. We were beleaguered.

And then came Tony.

Truth be told, at first we had no idea who he was, and I recall positions of his that had some of us running quickly in the other direction.  But something was going on in Sacramento, and while most of us were focused on a war on the other side of the world, Tony was pulling off the ultimate lesson in how to reach and realize a hopeless objective during  a seemingly hopeless time.

Over five years before Roe v. Wade, Tony had crafted one of the earliest abortion rights bills, and – after building support in the legislature – managed to convince Ronald Reagan to sign the bill. That’s right. Ronald Reagan.

Now every 17-year-old with political ambition wanted to know:  Who is this Tony?

The answer was even more baffling than his unlikely legislative success.

I won’t try to list some of the positions he held  that got him nowhere with young progressives. His positions on immigration were something that many of us were never able to accept or understand. But with all the contentiousness of those years, it was still a time in politics when rock solid integrity and honesty could earn you serious respect, even when that respect did not extend to every position held by a candidate. And he earned it quickly, as we got to know a man as guided by the core principles of compassion and honesty as any elected official in 1960s California.

Some of us even came to see him as a US Senate candidate we could enthusiastically support, but the same complexity and iconoclastic views that we admired didn’t translate easily into a state-wide race.  He lost the primary to Sen. Alan Cranston. In his 10 terms in the US House of Representatives, he could make deals with the best of them, but the most valuable political capital he accumulated and spent was his integrity.

What a quaint idea:  people on both sides of the aisle being willing to listen to someone simply because he could be trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth, and do it with unmatched civility.

And that’s why I was moved to write this tribute:  I am sick of truth-telling and integrity being quaint.  I am sick of elected officials who would rather launch personal attacks than engage in honest debate.

But even more, I want to remember — and perhaps even be inspired by — the memory of a man who walked into the ideological storm of Reagan conservatism and came out – drenched, to be sure — with what very well might have been one of the seminal achievements in the history of the fight for women’s reproductive rights.

Remember that name. Tony Beilenson. 

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“I do not concede.” A remarkably thoughtful and defiant response by Michael Cerveris to last night’s election .

michaelcerveris

 

This morning, a guy — me — who quite often and much too easily comes up with an embarrassing surplus of words to babble, was speechless.

It’s not that my mind wasn’t racing with rage, frustration, and the realization that so many voters — regardless of how they might now try to spin their vote — selected a man they knew was an enthusiastic supporter of loathing, sexism, racism,homophobia, and Islamophobia.

It’s that no words came.

And then I read the short essay below written by Michael Cerveris, a distinguished actor, singer and musician whose remarkable performance in the musical Fun Home,  along with the  the rest of an astounding cast, shed a blindingly bright light on the universal struggle we wage with all our “selves,” our families, and our memories to discover meaning and identity.

I do not concede.

Michael Cerveris

November  9, 2016

I do not concede.

I will not make nice with bigots and racists. I will not “reach out” to those who would oppress my brothers and sisters and take away their hard-won rights.

I will not cooperate with those who have shown their disregard for the laws of decency and civility and compassion.

I will not reward those who traffic in the politics of fear, hate and brutality in act or speech or thought with my allegiance or loyalty.

I will not forget, excuse or dismiss the despicable things you have said and done on the way to this ‘victory.’

You lied and scared people enough to win a statistic popularity contest. You did not win my heart or spirit or good will. You have done nothing to deserve it, and unless and until you do, you will NEVER have it.

Instead you have my promise that I will look for ways to defeat you at every turn. To whatever extent I can, I will not give my money or my patronage to those who support you or applaud you or think like you. I will stand between you and those of my brothers and sisters you mean to denigrate, disenfranchise and disregard. I will work for and look to celebrate your undoing–legally, but steadfastly. I will support all those who will stand in your way.

I will speak up and defy you.

I will call your sins by name.

Racist

Bigot

Misogynist

Elitist

Liar

Cheat

Huckster

Narcissist

Buffoon

I will hold responsible all those who followed you and made your rise possible by their collaboration–including the media and others on our side who neglected their responsibility to the country, profited by your ascent, and refused to stand up to you sooner

I will not “heal and mend” with the very people who have sickened the country, planted and fed the disease at its heart.

I will work to make a new one

I will remember and I will watch and I will wait and I will work.

I will never be united with you.

Uncommon Political Courage

“Authentic  acts of political courage are like blazing comets in the sky. If we are lucky, we might see one or two in our lifetime, a fleeting moment when the civic landscape is suddenly illuminated by  someone unafraid speak a harsh truth.
Those are the rare moments when, empowered by a sudden moral clarity, we can set aside our usual self-deception, jettison reluctance grounded in fear, and begin to slowly and boldly build  a just world.”
Prof. D.M.M. Veste
Doctorat de Droit
Faculté de Droit et Science Politique
Université Nice Sophia Antipolis
Nice, France
Two Acts of Political Courage
1. Joseph Welch, 1954
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“Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I’m a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. …. “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Joseph Welch, Chief Counsel for the United States Army, US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Washington DC, June 9, 1954, confronting Senator Joseph McCarthy,  who had cruelly and recklessly accused a young lawyer, Fred Fisher, of disloyalty.  This confrontation set  the stage for McCarthy’s eventual censure and defeat.
2. Khizr Khan, 2016
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“Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy … Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities … You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
Mr. and Mrs. Khizr Khan,  parents  of US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, Democratic National Convention,  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 28, 2016, asking that Republican leaders repudiate the virulent anti-Muslim hatred of a cruel and reckless Donald Trump.

Great Songs in Film #12: Ginger Rogers Sings Irving Berlin’s “Let Yourself Go” in Mark Sandrich’s “Follow the Fleet” 1936

In her ten films with Fred Astaire, the luminous Ginger Rogers only did one solo tap dance.

That dance was in the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film “Follow the Fleet” and the song was “Let Yourself Go,” one of three Irving Berlin songs that made it into the top ten of the  1936 hit parade.

Only five years ago, I learned that my grandfather bought my mom a replica of the Ginger Rogers costume so she  could  perform the song and dance  from the film.

This is an extended excerpt of Ms. Rogers singing the song, followed by a dance with Fred Astaire.

The energy.

And this is the solo tap dance:

Remembering Joe Viskocil: a great friend, Academy Award winning master of special effects, and lifelong maker of joy.

Giuseppe V. Academy Award

Joe Viskocil  1951 – 2014

Note: In August 0f 2014, we lost our good friend and Academy Award winning master of special effects, Joe Viskocil. Today I reprint my earlier post below, on what would have been his 65th birthday. The graphic above was shown on the air at the 2015 Academy Awards, during the portion of the program when luminaries from the motion industry who have passed away are honored and remembered.

Rest well, Giuseppe 

Yesterday, we lost an uncommonly talented artist, a gentle soul, and powerful life force who – through his work on so many major motion pictures — freely gave joy and pleasure to millions around the world. He was a true master of his craft.

He was the recipient of many honors, including an Academy award, yet my guess is that those who knew and loved him are probably not thinking very much about his credits or distinguished career. We only hear his infectious laughter, see the joyous smile with which he greeted his friends and colleagues, and sit around struggling to imagine a world without him in it. Because when all the lofty words about his talent have been exhausted, many of us will be left with his simple legacy of joy that easily transcends any awards or movie reviews or glowing magazine articles.

He created joy. He inspired gut-splitting laughter.  He was capable of absolutely glorious mischief, jokes, and teasing.  He relished the kind and generous gesture. And – most importantly for me, at least — he lived a life in which the ability to make, have and share fun was virtually a sacrament.

Who knew that, in all this fun, he was actually teaching us a lesson? Because in the way he lived his life, you slowly came to see that fun and laughter, shared generously and with love, was deadly serious business, nothing less than one of life’s fundamental fuels.  And, trust me; this was a guy who knew fun and laughter like nobody’s business.

Since we lost the comic genius Robin Williams yesterday, you may think I am describing him. A number of these details do apply. But this blog post is actually about someone else, a friend of close to 50 years and someone I wish you all could have known.

JoeViskocil blockade runner

Today, I write about my friend Joe Viskocil, Academy award-winning visual effects artist and master of cinematic pyrotechnics, who died yesterday in California at the age of 63. There are many places you can find out about his professional accomplishments, from the explosion of Death Star in the early Star Wars to the destruction of the White House in Independence Day. My purpose here is simply to note the passing of one sublimely nice fellow, a bringer of joy par excellence, and share just how much he will be missed by so many.

Joe had many friends, friends that I did not know. To me, Joe was part of a small group of 5 high school friends who attended South Hills High School in Covina, California together. For decades we have competed for each other’s laughter (the more raucous the better), written sketches and parodies in which we were both the writers and sole audience members, and been there for each other when laughter was the last thing on the agenda.

Now we are four.

If my hunch is right, a lot of other people who knew Joe are also now doing the same, profoundly sad mathematics of loss, taking stock of their lives, factoring Joe into the equation, and trying to figure out just what the world will be like when so much joy is subtracted. I wouldn’t pretend to do anyone else’s math, but I’d be willing to bet just one more dinner with Joe and the gang at Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd. that most of us – after all the subtracting – will still be left with more belly laughs and giggling than we know what to do with.

Rest well, Giuseppe.