Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Elizabeth McCord Goes to Washington and becomes "Madam Secretary"

WashDC Gadfly with #POLITICOPlaybookLunch 
(19 September)
by LMHawkins

Over the years, WashDC has become more and more like the world of Hollywood, with Hollywood itself  behaving more like DC. From John Boehner's permanent suntan to Nancy Pelosi's perpetual smile, to "activists" George Clooney, Sean Penn, and Leonardo diCaprio, not to mention those actually elected to office: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura and Clint Eastwood -- both of these towns now seem almost interchangeable.

Last Friday, downtown's Hyatt Regency played host to Politico Playbook Lunch's popular event series featuring the lead actors and producers of CBS television's newest political drama 'Madam Secretary'. It centers on former CIA analyst-turned-college professor Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) drafted to take on the task as US Secretary of State. Attendees in the packed auditorium eagerly listened as cast and creators discussed the intersection of politics and entertainment. Following on the heels of successful dramas 'West Wing' and Netflix's 'House of Cards', 'MadSec' kicks off the 2014-15 TV season sandwiched between the long-running '60 Minutes' and audience favorite 'The Good Wife'. Does TV really need another Washington-based, government-centered show? Actor Morgan Freeman, one of the executive producers, commented: "I think we're all concerned about what happens in our government." 
Did they consult with our most recent Madame Secretary, Hillary Clinton? The creators researched all three previous female Secretaries of State and Tea Leoni discussed how she also drew inspiration from the many strong women in her life. "Though it's incredible to be Secretary of State, it's not so incredible when you think of the long hours, stress, etc. But I wanted to limit my research......and there will be no brooches!" to the audience's laughter. "We're used to seeing powerful women and behind them are supportive men." 

Secretary McCord's home life comes up for inspection; she and her college professor husband Henry (played by Tim Daly) are raising two teenage children (Madeleine, Condoleeza and Hillary didn't have to contend with child-raising) and, when asked by one of the Politico moderators about being 'the supportive spouse', he weighs in on "the grace to be unintimidated by her. They are two people passionately committed to duking it out and making it (their marriage) work." 

Producers Barbara Hall and Lori McCreary are especially focused on keeping the show as reality-based as possible. "We're pulling back the curtain on the State Department." Hall states. "It would be good for the American public to see what goes on behind the scenes." asserts McCreary. 

Having grown up and lived in "the shadow of DC" (Chatham - "the prettiest little town in southside Virginia), "it felt like I was coming home to that world," said Hall. "One of the things we want to do is to show politics as a process, to show how difficult procedures are." She hopes the program will change public perceptions of civil service. 

"The show itself is non-partisan,"she asserted. But a drama of this sort can't be entirely impartial, can it? Inevitably it will slant in one or another direction. Knowing the proclivities of Hollywood, I believe it's not hard to guess which way! Ms. Hall did her homework thoroughly, speaking to White House policy directors and advisors. Following Secretary McCord's stint at the CIA (she'd decided to leave for ethical reasons), she moved on to teach at the University of Virginia in rural Charlottesville, worlds apart from the Beltway.  Settling into her position at the State Department after university life she needs to learn diplomacy and politics, which will pose some especially juicy conflicts between the earnest, nonpolitical McCord and White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek)

The show actually films largely in New York. Why? "Great crews. Great double for DC. And great tax incentives!" [Hey Washington - did you hear that?!] More scenes will be filmed on location for the second season. [And maybe DC will get the tax message.] But watch for one scene in the premiere episode that takes place on location in the vicinity of the Capitol where Elizabeth discusses a crisis with a former CIA colleague.  

Playbook Lunch with Madam Secretary.

It was enjoyable watching the rapport between Morgan (Driving Miss Daisy, The Bucket ListShawshank Redemption and others too numerous to mention) and Tea (The Family Man, Spanglish). They both worked together in 1998's sci-fi disaster film Deep Impact and appear to appreciate working together again. I'd like to have known how and why Mr. Freeman made the leap into production; perhaps one distinguished career wasn't enough! 

Ms. Leoni's paternal grandmother was president of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF for 25 years; she herself became a Goodwill Ambassador, frequently working and travelling for them. She landed the 'Madam Secretary' script after her return from a trip to Jordan and considered it "a sign from G-d". Tim Daly is also carrying out the work of a grandmother - his worked for the CIA and had other DC connections. Daly became a member of The Creative Coalition in 2007, a "nonpartisan, politically active group formed of members of the American film industry" and became its President in 2008. He's co-produced a documentary on - what else? - the confluence of Hollywood and Washington, explored in 2009's Poliwood: The Collision and Collusion  Between Politics, Hollywood and Media. 

From the premise and the video clips shown at the event, the series certainly has possibilities if its primary focus remains on the political drama. In the first episode, two American college students (brothers) are convicted of espionage and jailed in Syria, a clash ensuing between Russell and Elizabeth on the best strategy to free them. It seems compelling and authentic enough. 

My problem is the done-to-death portrayal of the super-career woman balancing work and family. Too often the depictions lose an important degree of truth in the authenticity department, be it in the movies, on TV or in books. It's almost become a cliche that, especially in the post-9/11 world, it appears more trite and less than compelling, perhaps because it's not always probed realistically, meaning real - not exaggerated - examination of the workaday world. 

The universe of Foggy Bottom and international crises isn't the world most of us inhabit, which resembles Roseanne more than the White House! The producers spoke of exploring McCord's personal life as much as her world of high-power-politics. Highlighting Oval Office statecraft while meshing the family-sphere aspect will be the compelling - and authentic - challenge. If both are portrayed convincingly, then 'Madame Secretary' may work its way into 'West Wing' popularity. 
Stay tuned!


'Madam Secretary' - Series Premiere
(21 September)

This pilot show was written and filmed a year ago: two college brothers kidnapped and jailed in Syria. After this past summer of horrors in that very region, the subject is certainly pertinent. Tea Leoni exudes capability and sincerity in her role as Secretary of State to President Conrad Dalton 
(Keith Carradine). Tea reminded me at times of the Kennedy women, Caroline Kennedy in particular springs to mind. 

There was a degree of predictability in the drama and interactions; it's a bit formulaic in the PC mode. The series turns on the character of Elizabeth McCord, a competent and honest person. Where it lost me somewhat in the believability factor was the scene in Elizabeth and husband Henry's bedroom. 

Their marriage is rock-solid; Henry is extremely supportive and understanding. She brings up not having had relations with Henry for awhile but interestingly, he doesn't appear fazed! Since she is still new to the position, there must be a learning curve of several exhausting months and not merely a few weeks as it seems to be depicted here. With children and dinner duties - I hope the latter is covered for her on most nights - not to mention a major crisis, it's tough to imagine that this could be such a critical issue at that particular time. A MORE convincing scenario: the husband feeling put out because the wife/Secretary of State simply craves a good night's sleep!

OK, the show is worth re-visiting because the situation and characters are intriguing and worth getting to know. And I will return next Sunday night (or watch it ON DEMAND or streamed or whatever 21st-century apparatus works). It sure beat 'The Good Wife' which I decided to check out for the first time and didn't much like. Relentlessly slick, shallow, and somewhat perverse. I'll stick with 'Madam Secretary' and wish her Good Luck in her new enterprise. And a bit more intimate time with her husband.

(c) L.M.Hawkins

Monday, August 25, 2014

Time to Stop Playing the Quisling? (The Untimely Death of James Foley)

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Not only do our U.S. military overseas and those at home (our local police) contend daily with holding the barbarians at bay. We don't usually think of many stateside journalists as being in the same category as our armed forces (read the beginning of Michelle Malkin's apt "The Ferguson Media Feeding Frenzy" http://www.vdare.com/articles/the-ferguson-feeding-frenzy) but there are those who fearlessly put themselves in the line of fire to tell the stories of those who can't speak (worldwide) for themselves. 

One such person was James Foley and by now you probably know as much, if not more, than I about his life and death. It's ironic that he worked tirelessly for many years in the Middle East being kidnapped, held, and released after 44 days in Libya (April 2011), then snatched again in northern Syria near the Syrian-Turkish border on Thanksgiving Day, 2012. He had assured his mother, Diane, that he would be home in time for Christmas.

There are, disturbingly, reputed to be more than 80 reporters kidnapped with about 20 deemed "missing". Not only the United States but western nations such as France, Denmark and Spain are some of their home countries. Many are believed to be held by ISIS and one journalist, Steven Sotloff (USA) captured in August 2013 and shown on video, will be the next victim if the United States continues its air strikes in Iraq. 

An escalating war in the Middle East is the opposite of what was expected in 2011 when the bulk of our troops returned home. The knowledge that it puts more of our prisoner-journalists over there at greater risk is greatly unsettling. It's easy to shrug one's shoulders in smug complacency while intoning self-righteously "they knew what they were getting themselves into and - bloody hell - that's their job anyway". What a gutless response! Especially from the comforts of a still-sentient American city desk. Foley, Sotloff and Austin Tice (a former Marine turned journalist who disappeared in Syria, August 2012) take dangerous risks as freelance reporters in the world's most treacherous places, too often underpaid if indeed they're even paid at all! And too many online news sites are reluctant to commit to genuine salaries for these gutsy correspondents. 

It's ironic that a handful of dedicated reporters, willing to hazard their safety and sanity in the toughest of territories, literally toiling in the trenches, are largely unknown to mainstream readers until the ultimate catastrophe occurs. Many of us simply hadn't known or read James Foley's reporting until last Tuesday's (19 August) ghastly video emerged. We weren't aware, until now, that fellow colleagues Steven Sotloff and Austin Tice have suffered lengthy imprisonments. Ironic again that it takes a horrifying death to make us aware when we should have been paying closer attention. 

It's long past the time when we can continue to play the Quisling. It's disgraceful that the 9/11 attacks haven't sufficed as the ultimate Wake-Up Call! If the West (Europe-USA-Canada-Australia) and our allies (India-Israel-Japan) will not fight to WIN, then a similar fate awaits us all. And that's something to which even a Quisling might give second thoughts.

Rest in Peace, James Foley. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"The Buck Stops with Hamas"

Drama: The Middle East Conflict or The Neverending Story
Act ??? (started late 19th century): "The Buck Stops with Hamas
Time: 12 Noon, 17 July 2014
Place: Farragut Square, in the heart of Washington DC
Event: Stand Strong for Israel Solidarity Rally
(1) Washington DC-Maryland-Virginia Jewish community members
(2) Code Pink protesters led by co-founder "Medea" (Susan) Benjamin
(3) Guest Speakers
(4) Security, SWAT, Police Personnel
(5) Reporters, VideoCam Recording Operators


(Times Approximate)
12:30 pm - Scene I
The crowd on the small square was thick when I arrived about 30 minutes past the start of the JCRC-sponsored (Jewish Community Relations Council) Stand Strong for Israel Solidarity Rally, just in time to hear the Canadian Embassy's Deputy Ambassador Denis Stevens receive a very warm welcome. No surprise there, as Canada has been one of Israel's major supporters during this latest round of the [65+ year] ongoing conflict. 

"Canada stands unequivocally with Israel today. Israel has the right to defend itself, by itself, from Hamas terror. We urge Hamas to cease these attacks - the buck stops with Hamas. Negotiation is the only way forward. We (Canada) believe in a two-state solution." The appreciative throng applauded as assorted security personnel - police, SWAT members - looked on steadily, walking about and ready to spring into action.

"This is definitely a time of crisis in Israel.....In 2005 (after the Israeli pullout from Gaza) approximately 11,000 rockets were fired into Israel!" At the time Israel removed its settlers from Gaza, bulldozed the homes of those same settlers and destroyed its own military bases, 38 years after its capture in the Six Day War. Apparently that wasn't sufficient for Palestinians or their leaders, who needed to show their joy by lobbing missiles nonstop. 

1:00 pm - Scene II
The throng appears to be enjoying itself; it being lunch hour, there's much eating; chatting; cheering on the speakers and overall good spirits despite the critical situation in the Holy Land. We're told that the crowd has peaked at about 1,000 participants. Many cheers. The sun is hot but overall it's not uncomfortably humid for a summer day in DC; it's actually quite a beautiful one and perfect for causes of all stripes. It's fun to see passengers on double-decker tourist buses waiting for the light, giving us broad grins and a "thumbs up".

And lo! Surprise (not). From somewhere close by, a counter-demonstration of protesters runs parallel to the gathering on the square. Though much fewer in number, their speakers almost succeed in drowning out those on the podium. Wading through the crowd, I saw the group (of about 25 people) lined up at 'I' & 17th Streets. Several are wearing rosy-colored clothing: shoes, sweaters, accessories, hair, etc., most holding placards with names and information, written in Arabic, of Palestinian casualties. But the ongoing tattoo of singing and spewing anti-Israel invective dilutes the message of many dead Palestinians and makes it difficult to hear the main speakers. From time to time the almost-constant cacophony subsides briefly and allows for a much-needed respite! 

It certainly lets us hear with more clarity the American Friends of Lubavitch's Executive Vice-President Rabbi Levi Shemtov. He speaks forcefully in strong, no uncertain terms. "If G-d doesn't watch the city, the watchman is wasting his time." Ezekiel? Isaiah? No, actually Psalm 127:1: "If G-d doesn't build the house, the builders only build shacks. If G-d doesn't guard the city, the night watchman might as well nap." As the rabbi urges Jews to "increase in Torah (study), Tefillah (prayer) and Tzedaka (charity)", the counterpoint of the opposition group on the sidelines continues with chants of "Stop the Gaza bombing! Stop the bombing now!" 

Admitted: I'm unabashedly in support of and sympathy with the State of Israel. One of my children is living in Jerusalem and the past near-fortnight since the hostilities resumed is nonstop unnerving though I know it pales in comparison to what Israelis and Palestinians must endure daily. No matter who the perpetrators are no parent can easily look at reports about casualties, especially those of children and young adults on either side of the Gaza divide. 

I walk over to the south edge of the square on 'I' and start a chat with two young women who appear to be in their early 20's. Both manage to be articulate in spite of the din, explaining that "the Palestinians have no weapons; they are turning to Hamas for self-defense.......We (also) believe in a two-state solution." 

It's tough to enumerate here on the finer points of Hamas misleading their own people and my own skepticism re. today's oft-invoked "two-state solution". With their terrorists entering Israel via tunnels from the Strip - at last count, 34 terror tunnels and 5 cross-border attack tunnels, not to mention rumours of ISIS operating in Gaza - the two-state solution may be well-meaning but not at all a viable option as long as Hamas/ISIS remain in the picture. It's a no-go for the safety and security of Israel's population. But with circumstances as they stand now, what's the difference anymore? 

1:05 pm - Scene III
Congressman Trent Franks (R-Arizona) has spoken and there appears to be a somewhat brief but lively exchange with - I finally discover but probably should have known - it's San Francisco-based, social activist group Code Pink! I later discover that the Blonde Woman in the Pink T-shirt, who appears to be the Leader, is "Medea" (Susan) Benjamin, American political activist and co-founder of the organization. "We ache for all the mothers, Israeli and Palestinian. I sing for all mothers," she claims. 

I wonder why Ms. Benjamin calls herself the infamous "Medea" of ancient Greek mythology and playwright Euripides' classic drama. That certainly raises a few red flags! A mother who intentionally murders her two small children due to her husband's infidelity?? Odd choice for an anti-war peace activist.

Pro-Israel participants try to overpower Benjamin and her group by singing and chanting Psalms and Prayers for Israel and for Peace. 

1:15 pm - Scene IV
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) arrives to great excitement. "This is an existential war. There is no moral equivalent between terrorists and Israel. I agree with what they're chanting: 'Stop the Hate'. Stop celebrating and lionizing terrorists! And stop directly supporting these terrorists -- these murderers are celebrated as heroes!" (re. kidnap and murder of three Israeli teens last month) He radiates conviction and the crowd is with him totally. 

He continued: "I filed a bill in the Senate (Foreign Affairs Committee) to prosecute those who murdered (American)-Israeli Naftali Frenkel. It passed the Senate floor unanimously......there is a $5 million reward for the killers." [Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, introduced similar legislation in the House, co-sponsored by Rep. Brad Sherman, D-California.] 

The senator is also introducing legislation in the Senate to impose sanctions on Iran to cease and dismantle their nuclear weapons program. "Bullies and tyrants don't respect weakness. Appeasement doesn't work!" the Senator asserted to much applause. Congressman Brad Sherman followed and reiterated that much tougher sanctions on Iran were needed. 

1:45 pm - Scene V
The crowd has noticeably thinned out, perhaps many returning to work. The rally is ending and the real confrontations begin, as with several heated "discussions" on the sins of Israel. "Stop the Hate, Stop the Hate, Israel is a Racist State!" Code Pink continues. {Interesting that "Medea" herself is Jewish-born.} After the shouting dies down, she invites surrounding bystanders to take the microphone and speak. 

A well-dressed man talks eloquently about the tribulations of life being black in America. "I've been called every name under the sun; 'kike' was one of them." He fervently wishes all hostilities everywhere would end. An Israeli man walking by, not a participant in today's confab and due to return (to Israel) in one week, strives to make sense of the many complexities of the situation for both Palestinians and Israelis. He believes that there are no easy solutions for either side.

Shortly after, the tone ratchets up and becomes ugly. A Code Pink speaker maintains that Israel is a settler-colonial state and "ethnically cleanses Ethiopians" there. Yes, there are serious issues with Ethiopians living in Israel, but accusations of ethnic cleansing seem - well - highly extravagant. 

Two major issues that will not go away continue to be: (1) Palestinian rights in Israel and (2) End of Israeli Occupation. With 12 Knesset seats, Palestinians are outspoken members of that body. Is there any similar Jewish-Christian representation in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia? What about West Bank Christians? Palestinian-Israelis are doctors, lawyers, teachers, bus- and taxi-drivers, merchants, etc. How are Christians faring in what could be a Palestinian nation on the West Bank? Once heavily-Christian cities, e.g. Bethlehem and Nazareth, are now predominantly Muslim. 

As one who questions the continued Jewish settlements in and around the West Bank, I share some sympathy. But it's perplexing that, post-2005 Israeli pull-out of Gaza, it wasn't peace but belligerency and rockets raining non-stop on southern Israel, most notably in tiny cities such as Sederot. Apparently peace doesn't reign but rockets sure do!

2:00 pm - Scene VI
An older Jewish woman sharply confronts the group. "You're standing here and supporting Hamas!" Code Pink: "No, it's the War Crimes of the Israelis." I must leave but Code Pink and several others remain, the arguments hotly continuing.  

The war proceeds and is worsening; the conflict continues on its tragic course with seemingly no end in sight. The death toll slowly rises for Israel and acutely for the Palestinians. Would the great Euripides himself, regarded for his commiseration with Athenian contemporaries and certainly not averse to writing about war (Hecuba and The Trojan Women), have considered tackling this multi-generational, seemingly-insoluble drama? Or would this be a daunting challenge for him too? 

These scenes are some of many now being played around the world. We're fortunate that here in Washington DC - unlike the violence in Paris, London, Berlin, Cape Town or Istanbul - our demonstration was largely peaceful. The war will go on with intermittent ceasefires. Terrorism on an international level will continue. A statue of Civil War Admiral David Farragut, born and raised in the South but who chose the Union side and for whom the square is named, stands in the center. His famous rallying cry, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" might well be applied to the War on Terror. As with Deputy Ambassador Stevens' astute, earlier remark: "The buck stops with Hamas!" 

End of Act. The Drama continues.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Potomac Pleasures Playbook

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After a fortnight of cataclysmic events that began with the Bowe Bergdahl-Gitmo prisoner exchange, streaming into an Invade America Children's Crusade on our southwestern border and then flowing to the topple of (House Majority Leader) Eric Cantor in Virginia (the one hopeful event) to the fall of major cities in Iraq (Baghdad pending) - after all of the above, what more? But the "gifts" kept on coming with the DHS's (Department of Homeland Security) release of 36,000 dangerous foreign criminals. So where to go this past weekend? Not the beach but to the National Press Club's Journalism Institute Boot Camp! Varied programs on handling LinkedIn and establishing a freelance writing career (hmmm......) proved to be a stimulating respite from mind-boggling events. Writers can be a restless lot, particularly on a flawlessly sparkling late-spring Saturday. So on the Boot Camp's close, off I went to the Potomac riverside near Georgetown, ready to greet n' meet my alma mater's alumni on a riverboat cruise for Temple U folk.

I arrived early enough at Nick's Riverside Grill (our meeting point) to secure a good spot for people-watching. It's almost as entertaining to study groups as being a part of them, though I'd soon be one of the revelers myself. As I looked (as unobtrusively as possible), I couldn't help but muse about how California culture has permeated the east coast, Europe, the world! Or maybe it's just the "fun in the sun/leisure life" aspects, especially after one of our more challenging-than-usual winters. Observing the dress, the demeanor, the vivacity of the restaurant crowds and those cavorting it up on the docked yachts, images of pre-World War II Europe flashed through my mind of similar carefree throngs: at the English seaside, in French and German cafes. But in spite of the enjoyable spectacle it was tough to prod certain thoughts from my mind, the dominant one being: a major unsettling thing is now sweeping through our homefront and the world like a tornado, only not as benign. Beneath the laughter and the gaiety, were many people by the river that day feeling as anxious as I? That's a question I ask myself more and more these days. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

"SOS! Where are the Allies?"

The anniversary of now-legendary D-Day has come and gone; the re-enactments of the landing staged; the ceremonies are over; the heads of state - royalty, prime ministers, presidents - have returned home to their respective nations. The last of the living veterans - mostly Americans, British, and Canadians - gathered along with the leaders to commemorate the historic mission, military history's largest maritime undertaking. 

The stories are numerous and sundry; you probably know many of them. The ranks of the veterans are thinning now, to be expected 70 years on: the men are now in their 80's and 90's. Much has been written over the past week and there's little more that can be added, except to reflect on the very moving images of the long weekend's proceedings. 

The invasion of France's northern coast by the Allied forces on June 6, 1944, was the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. By May 1945, the war that began with the lawlessness of the early 1930's was over. Occupied Europe was free at last. "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated (the ground) far above our power to add or detract....The world .....can never forget what they did here.....It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us....." - Abraham Lincoln's Address at the Dedication, Gettysburg's National Cemetery, November 19, 1863

June 6, 1944 - The beginning of a stunning pushback to tyranny that began with turmoil. The despotic aspects of our present administration in Washington DC is unprecedented. In memory of all the valiant men:
There is no more fitting tribute.

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