Monday, April 30, 2007

Can Marriage and
Writing Co-Exist?

None other than the master American novelist Henry James, a lifelong bachelor, had his doubts.
This interesting piece in the excellent British paper The Guardian explores James' internal struggle between his creative life and his personal life. Though he never married, he was nevertheless torn throughout his life between the demands of his art and of his wallet.

"All of his life as a writer, James worried about both the purity of his work and the making of money. It was as though he himself was a married couple. One part of him cared for the fullness of art, and the other part for the fullness of the cupboard. He sought both with stubborn, steadfast zeal. Sometimes when he realised that he could not achieve one without failing the other, he argued with himself."

So let's say you've never read anything from Henry James. What would I recommend as the most indespensible of his books? That's easy, actually. To me, Portrait of a Lady is his real masterpiece, and one of the greatest novels ever written in English. If you haven't yet enjoyed it, I encourage you to get yourself to a library or a bookstore at your first available opportunity, and secure yourself a copy. While life carries no guarantees, I think you'll be happy you did.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Decade of Drudgery

A Round of Applause for Ann. Cleveland Heights resident Ann Abid, the recently retired librarian at the Cleveland Museum of Art (and one of the most beautiful ladies ever to be eligible for membership in AARP), has joined her husband Roldo Bartimole as a published author. She wrote the introduction for a recently published book on art museum libraries and librarianship. I'm looking forward to tracking it down and reading her prose, which I'm sure will be informed by her encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. But her learning isn't limited to this subject: I'm often staggered to learn how much she knows about just about any subject. I'm blessed to know some well-read people, but few can hold a candle to Ann.

Did You Know the Drudgereport Is Almost Ten Years Old? Time flies when fools are having fun. And I ask you: who's a bigger fool than right-wing web slinger Matt Drudge? Still, I find myself checking his site occasionally, if something less than frequently (I'll never forget my friend Anton Zuiker's shock upon learning I was checking the Drudgereport when I once visited his house in North Carolina and crashed in his spare bedroom). This piece in the similarly reactionary WorldNetDaily absurdly credits Drudge with shaping all blogs, flatly stating that "there would be no blogosphere without the inspiration of Drudge." Who says conservatives don't do drugs?

Blogs Spreading Among Magazines and Newspapers. According to a trade magazine for circulation professionals, the Magazine Publishers of America recently compiled a list of about 400 blogs now being published by its member magazines. The most prolific is CNET Networks, with 33 individual blogs. The publication quotes another study, from Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism, that found three quarters of the nation's largest papers are blogging on the topic of business. I wonder if Matt Drudge is responsible for all of that activity, as well?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Will Rove Really Get Investigated?
Mother Jones Mag Has Its Doubts

The Los Angeles Times nicely reminded readers of its continuing importance this week by beating its major competitors to an important story. The paper broke the story that Karl Rove's possible role in the firing of the U.S. attorneys was being investigated by the federal Office of Special Counsel. Once more, those outraged by the White House's chief political henchman's dirty tricks had their hopes raised: could this case do what Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald failed to do in the Plame case, finally catch Karl Rove in illegalities?

David Iglesias, the New Mexico U.S. attorney who was among the eight federal prosecutors let go by the Justice Department, told Chris Matthews earlier this week on MSNBC's Hardball that he had full confidence in Scott Bloch, the OSC head, to investigate matters fairly and thoroughly. That sounded pretty good. At least until I read
this piece in Mother Jones, which has a pretty good track record on investigations. It argues that Bloch shares his patron George W. Bush's "antipathy for dissent" and that his office is often a black hole for whistleblower investigations that go nowhere. To be fair, the piece also notes that the legal climate in the country has turned decidedly against the protection of whistleblowers in recent years. All in all, a depressing take. But let's hope for the best anyway, shall we?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

An Alternate High

'Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.'
--Rudyard Kipling

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Passing of a Giant

'If you get information that is going to jar the government of the United States and jar the people of the United States, that's what you get paid for. Don't expect to be popular. The better you do the job, the more likely you are to go against conventional wisdom, and people don't like to hear bad news. So you are not going to be popular.'
--David Halberstam

That quote contained just about everything that's important in understanding why David Halberstam loomed so large in journalism, history and nonfiction books. And of course the photo above speaks to his astounding diligence, over many decades, in assembling the raw materials of his storytelling and then telling it straight.
He was of course most famous for his book about the delusions of powerful men during the Vietnam era, The Best and the Brightest. It was almost Shakespearean in the way it narrated the story of how political hubris overwhelmed policymakers. But I always thought two of his other books were even more impressive, if that was possible. The Powers That Be, published in 1979, basically invented serious media criticism with its probing, analytical look at a handful of powerful media organizations, including CBS and the Washington Post. One mark of its enduring brilliance is how often it's referred to even to this day when those subjects are mentioned. In 1986, he followed up with The Reckoning, a book about the failures of the American automakers to keep up with Japanese rivals. But the book is about so much more: about the struggles of the manufacturing industry, the challenges of the American Rust Belt and more. Once again, he wrote a book that was to be referred to time and time again when the subject came up.
Halberstam's legend was first ignited by none other than President Kennedy. Furious over the Timesman's refusal to take the administration's positive Vietnam war spin at face value, JFK tried to get him removed from the beat. To Publisher Arthur Sulzberger's everlasting credit, he wasn't. Interestingly, Kennedy, a lifelong journalism groupie, became all the more interested in what Halberstam thought about how the war was proceeding. He might have publicly acted like any president, reflexively trying to squelch dissent, but privately he knew and valued truthful reporting when he saw it, and he was impressed with Halberstam's courage in resisting pressure.
Yet another important but lesser-known side of this great man surfaced a few years ago when former Harper's Magazine editor Willie Morris published his excellent memoir, New York Days. Halberstam was a staff writer there in the late '60s, after leaving the Times, and Morris painted a picture of his star writer as a passionate workhorse, given to constant vigilance in resisting pressure to cut corners on great journalism. Halberstam eventually quit the magazine in sympathy with his editor and friend after Morris was pushed out by management.
Like all living icons, he was an appealing mix of seemingly opposite impulses. As a professional, he was the embodiment of the hyperserious journalist and historian, and yet he met his second wife through none other than the infamous Hunter Thompson. And the circumstances of his passing weren't without their internal ironies. Twenty-one years ago he wrote a book--the aforementioned The Reckoning--that explained the structural reasons why Japanese automakers were bound to pass their American counterparts. And on the very week when that came to pass--Toyota passed General Motors as the largest-selling automaker in the world--David Halberstam happened to die as a passenger in a Toyota.
In an appreciation published today, the Washington Post's Henry Allen put his finger on what was perhaps his most impressive quality: his "schoolboy earnestness" even after he had achieved great fame. It kept him working hard, and most importantly of all, it kept him centered, retaining just enough of an outsider's perspective to avoid the self-regard and sanctimony that tends to befall most celebrity journalists. To say that he'll be greatly missed doesn't begin to explain it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Relax Marketers: Ad Age Maintains
Bottom-Up Pub Isn't Really So New

With old methods of influencing media (like the dreaded press release) beginning to break down as meaningful ways of pushing one's agenda, a lot of traditional marketing folks in advertising and P.R. are freaking out over how to engage a new set of influencers in new media. That was much of the subtext, in fact, at a panel discussion I took part in a few weeks ago (which happened to fall precisely on the fourth anniversary of this blog).

But this well-conceived article in the ad-industry bible Advertising Age counsels readers to relax. "Social media are expanding the universe of people that marketers need to influence, but the rules of engagement aren't much different than they were before. There's nothing new about bottom-up publicity. Toyota achieved its reputation for quality three decades ago not because it said its cars were good but because thousands of customers told Consumer Reports its cars were good. The only difference today is that we don't need mediators or researchers. People can speak for themselves, and the conversations that result are richer and more diverse than anything you can find in a survey." I couldn't have said it better myself.

And congratulations are in order for Ad Age, by the way. Several months ago, it took the plunge and decided to make much of its fine journalism, which had previously been available only to subscribers, available for free to all comers on the web. That immediately broadened its reach and influence, even beyond its own industry. Here's hoping the move pays off for it financially.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Tub Talk With Andy Borowitz

With all the fine, interesting stuff available on the Internet, it's getting harder and harder to break through the clutter. But does an admirable job, with a series of bathtub interviews with various luminaries. This one caught my attention because the interviewee is the humorist Andy Borowitz, a native of Shaker Heights. He manages to be even funnier in the tub than out of it.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Where Would We Be Without the Cedar-Lee?

I saw two great movies recently at the Cedar-Lee, Cleveland's only true art house theatre. An Unreasonable Man, a warts-and-all documentary on the life of Ralph Nader, is quite good. And Flannel Pajamas, an inquiry into the emotional complexities of marriage, is one of the truest intellectual explorations of marriage I've ever seen. I'd recommend them both highly.

Friday, April 20, 2007

One Writer's Field Guide To Surviving
An Entire Month Without the Internet

Could you go a full month without using the Internet? The writer Stephen Elliott gives it a try, and lives to tell the tale in the current Poets & Writers Magazine. Upon learning what he had done, people treated him as an oddity. "'I wish I could do that,' others mused wistfully, as if it were simply not possible for them," he reports. By the fourth week, he had begun breaking the habits he'd learned on the Internet: "that addiction to continual bursts of small information." Eventually, he writes, "I could feel my attention span lengthening."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Somehow, These Words Ring Even Truer
With the Late Onset of Spring This Year

'There is no medicine like hope,
no incentive so great,
and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something tomorrow.'

--Orison Swett Marden
(Many thanks to my friend Jan Limpach, ace web search guru, for passing this along).

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Rest in Peace,
Mr. Vonnegut

There was a personal sweetness about Kurt Vonnegut that you don't find in every great writer. If anything, greatness in that realm often seems to spring from disagreeable personalities, personalities driven by the kind of inner demons that prevent people from simply being kind to others. But not Kurt. He always somehow found a way to be scrupulous in telling the truth and cutting through the bullshit while at the same time being graceful with others. Coastal simpletons might be moved to write that off to his Indiana roots--you know, midwesterners are always friendly, in their fevered imaginations--but anyone who watched him over many years sensed something far more interesting. Having been broken himself by life, he was respectful of the larger brokeness of humanity, and of individual humans. It left him with a light, common touch that reminded one of Mark Twain at his finest.

Of all the tributes I've seen after his recent death, this one was perhaps the sweetest, the most reminiscent of the man in its understated loveliness. He left his young protege with simple, important advice: "write every day." To review earlier mentions of the great one, click here.
UPDATE: Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda lead this interesting online discussion with readers yesterday, on the subject of Vonnegut. It's enlightening stuff from the finnicky but always-interesting Dirda, a Lorain native, who I've mentioned before, here and here.

Monday, April 16, 2007

How Nice to See a Wealthy Couple
That Seems to Know What Counts

From the current Miami University (of Ohio) alumni publication: "Almost without exception the successful people I have observed over the years, regardless of their professions, have been clear and persuasive writers. The ability to write well seems to be a common thread for future achievement," said Roger Howe, who with his wife Joyce recently gave $10.5 million to the university, in hopes of making it "the nation's best university at teaching undergraduates to write" and "creating a culture of writing excellence."

Okay, so we're on the record in our belief that no one can really teach another to write. But obviously, there's much that can be done to lay the groundwork for those who are serious about pursuing the craft. And I say hats off to this fine couple for putting their money into something more meaningful than another dreary exercise of getting their name on a dorm. If this gift touches just a couple dozen students, and I have no doubt it will do that and more, than they've done a really wonderful thing.

You can read the entire piece here.

Out of Commission

Sorry, as you can see, I've been out of commission for a week. I spent a few days in the hospital unexpectedly. And while I'm on the mend, it'll take some time to catch up with my blogging. Hope to talk to you soon. Meanwhile, I'm glad to see that the conversation has continued a little in my abscence.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

An Iron Rule of Writing Physics

'Hard writing makes easy reading.'
--Wallace Stegner (1909-1993).
Okay, so if you wanted to sample his best, what would it be? No doubt his masterpiece epic novel, Angle of Repose, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer, and about which he once observed: 'It's perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, that's my story.'

Friday, April 06, 2007

Fight to Save Downtown Building
Isn't Over Yet, Says Lawson Jones

I ran into Cuyahoga County commissioner
Peter Lawson Jones this morning at breakfast, and took a moment to congratulate him for his principled stand on the preservation of the Breuer Building, which some see as an architectural landmark but which his commission counterparts are itching to demolish. The Plain Dealer this week did what it always does, editorializing against preservation and thus throwing its weight toward what establishment players want rather than average citizens. In doing so, it thus ignored the ongoing and impassioned calls of its architecture critic, Steve Litt, who's been campaigning to save the building. Last week, he had this to say. In February, he wrote this column.

Last September, in a column no longer online (but the energetic Norm Roulet mentions it here), Litt got the whole debate started by writing that "the three Cuyahoga County Commissioners soon could decide to pull down a 29-story downtown office tower by Marcel Breuer to make way for a new county administrative center. That would be tragic and wasteful for a city with a limited supply of historic buildings worth saving from any period. In this case, apathy over mid-20th-century Modernist architecture is playing a huge role. Debate over the Breuer tower has been absolutely anemic." Imagine that, a PD writer trying to spark more rather than less community debate! It helps explain why Litt isn't merely popular in many quarters, but increasingly becoming at least a minor folk hero to some.

Anyway, Lawson Jones said this morning that all does not look so gloomy as some would assume. "It's now before the City Planning Commission, and I'm hopeful, knock on wood, that they'll do the right thing." He added that it wouldn't hurt if people were to call the commission and make their voices heard. Okay, folks, you have your marching orders (okay, more like a suggestion). That number is 216-664-2210.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Today is the 74th Birthday of a Man
Often Called 'Cleveland's Conscience'

Thirty-nine years ago (plus a day), Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. A day later, on what happened to be his 35th birthday, my friend Roldo Bartimole decided to quite his newspaper job and begin his independent newsletter, Point of View. Cleveland would never again be quite the same.
I've written about Roldo in this space more times than I care to count (including here, here, here, here, here, here and here). But to mark his birthday today, I thought I would also reprise a profile I wrote of him three years ago (but which I've never published here) to mark the occasion of his induction into the Press Club of Cleveland's Hall of Fame. He honored me at that time with the impossible and humbling task of formally introducing him at the event (an annual banquet), which came along with the duty to try to sum up what he has meant and still means to Cleveland. I can't pretend that I even began to do that assignment justice, but in any event, here's that piece from the event program. And should the spirit move you to send along greetings to the birthday boy, please do so, by sending him an email at

A Singular Point of View
Roldo Bartimole has been Cleveland's independent voice for more than 40 years

He's been a Cleveland institution--appreciated by some more than others--for as long as most people can remember.

In 1973, just five years after he began his fiercely independent newsletter, Point of View, The Nation magazine took notice of Roldo Bartimole's municipal muckraking. It headlined the profile "Invaluable Pain in the Neck." More than 30 years later, Editor & Publisher magazine observed that he "has become a municipal institution as familiar as the Terminal Tower or the West Side Market."

In between, the gadfly journalist/muckraker/troublemaker/civic pamphleteer (take your pick) lambasted developers, public officials and more than his share of traditional media institutions, thundering like an Old Testament prophet at anyone he thought was manipulating the public agenda for private gain.

For his efforts, the Chicago Tribune once dubbed Bartimole "the conscience of Cleveland." But that job pays less than even a staff reporter at a small weekly might earn. So this butcher's son had a simple answer when his own children complained about the chilliness of their house. "Wear a hat," he told them, not unkindly. Tellingly, they have grown up to harbor no sense of having been deprived, but rather an appreciation for the sense of social justice passed down to them.

Because he has been read and digested by at least two generations of activists, government officials and planners, establishment figures and especially members of the media, Bartimole's views found a louder echo through incorporation into the work of others. Todd Swanstrom, now a professor of public policy at St. Louis University, says he came to depend on Bartimole's reporting when he wrote his dissertation on Cleveland politics, which later became the 1985 book, The Crisis of Growth Politics: Cleveland, Kucinich, and the Challenge of Urban Populism.

"Roldo Bartimole's POV was key in my research on Cleveland," says Swanstrom. "I found someone who had an entire archive of his newsletters, which were quite valuable in piecing together the history."

Though he's often assumed to be a lifelong Clevelander, Bartimole is actually a transplant from Bridgeport, Conn., who first came to Cleveland in 1965 for a position as a reporter at the Plain Dealer. He later worked for a time in the Wall Street Journal's local bureau.

Then, on his 35th birthday, which also happened to be the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Bartimole made a decision that would change his life. When he went to hear a black welfare-rights official explain to a largely white audience why the murder had unleashed spasms of urban rioting, he was shocked at the audience's seeming inability to grasp the roots of underclass anger. He figured there was only one thing to do: Quit his job and start his own newsletter. He called it Point of View.

It appeared in subscribers' mailboxes generally twice a month. Bartimole served as reporter, editor, publisher, circulation director and copy editor. It often had its share of typos, but offered subscribers columns of sharply written type, its lone nod to design being the upside down "e" in the title word "view."

If Bartimole ever had models for his work, they probably consisted of two people: consumer advocate Ralph Nader (for whom he briefly worked one summer) and the late I.F. Stone, the ruggedly independent mid-century journalist known for culling the country's paper of record and obscure government documents for clues to important stories overlooked by the traditional press corpse.

Bartimole once observed that Nader "is probably the best journalist in the country, simply because he goes to the major issues, investigates them and puts out information that the public needs. If you look at what the newspapers have done in the last 30 year and what Ralph Nader has done in the last 30 years, newspapers come out shamefully way, way behind." Nader returns the admiration. Roldo Bartimoe, he wrote in 1997, "gives some of us in Washington a respite...his monthly POV punctures the balloons of the city's political surrender to corporate fat cats who shake down the Mayor and the City Council for huge tax escapes..."

While he was well-known in certain circles through the 1970s and into the 1980s, Bartimole probably first came to the attention of a wider Cleveland audience in 1981. In a now-celebrated incident, then-Cleveland City Council president George Forbes grabbed and physically ejected him from a special meeting of council when he refused to leave. The resulting photo of Forbes' bullying got big play in the Cleveland Press, but the TV footage was even more dramatic. The far smaller, bespectacled Bartimole could be heard protesting, "George, you're tearing my jacket" in the clip. He laughs about it today. "That was my sharp First Amendment retort," he says.

Three years later, he began reaching an even larger audience when his column was featured in the Cleveland Edition, the city's first major alternative newsweekly. Bill Gunlocke, at the time a bookstore owner and himself a transplanted Clevelander, knew he needed to recruit one voice to help launch his free weekly. "Roldo was the obvious centerpiece, with the credentials and the courage," says Gunlocke, who now lives in New York City. "He was like a priestly scholar. Wherever you saw him, he had some reading material. He always looked like he was coming from something important and going to something important." Bartimole's column later ran in the paper's successor, the Free Times.

Now in his early 70s, Bartimole remains thoroughly plugged into events as an elder statesman who's become half social historian and half institutional memory. He spends more time with his beloved second wife Ann, and with his children and grandchildren. And while POV came to a close in 2000, he continues to write occasional columns, which are now distributed through the Cool Cleveland e-newsletter. He's widely quoted and footnoted in a flock of histories of Cleveland and municipal politics. His Point of View even has its own entry in the Encylopedia of Cleveland History. By influencing the influencers, his moral outrage has left a deeper mark than even he could have ever imagined.

"He worked hard and he worked long and he never made any money, but he had some fun," says his friend Terry Sheridan, a legendary Cleveland reporter and later private investigator, who now lives in Belgrade, Serbia. "And on publication day, he always had a flag for sunrise, one that proclaimed, 'I shall continue to be impossible so long as those who are now possible remain possible.' A good epitaph but a better credo--just about perfect for a guy who purposely set out to be a pain in the ass in a terrific news town and succeeded superbly."
UPDATE: The ever-acute Bill Callahan has this to add about the subject of Roldo. And George Nemeth nicely steps up with these additions.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Best Lead of the Month

'I sometimes wonder if Adam Gopnik was put on this earth to annoy. If so, mission accomplished. Mind you, he finds himself in fine company in my illustrious literary perp walk. Francine Prose, with her pinched perceptions and humorless hauteur -- every time she brings out a new book (she is depressingly diligent), I find myself grumbling, "Her again?" I've never gotten the point of Paul Auster and his swami mystique and probably never shall, unless I move to Brooklyn and achieve phosphorescence. Walter Kirn, what a hustler. But no tactician of letters has shown a greater knack for worming his way into our hearts whether we want him there or not than Adam Gopnik, the art-world observer, former Paris correspondent for the New Yorker (out of whose dispatches was spun the bestselling Paris to the Moon), and the magazine's resident tone-poet of post-9/11 Manhattan, drizzling pixie dust across a cityscape that no longer bears the hearty flavor of "smoked mozzarella," as he notoriously described the downtown death smell. It isn't that Gopnik is ungifted or imperceptive, or a slickster trickster like his colleague Malcolm Gladwell, who markets marketing. He is avidly talented and spongily absorbent, an earnest little eager beaver whose twitchy aura of neediness makes him hard to dislike until the preciosity simply becomes too much.'

--From the incomparable Vanity Fair columnist and wordsmith James Wolcott, reviewing New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik's latest book in the New Republic. It helps that we agree with him about all these writers (with the lone exception of Walter Kirn, who's always worth reading, and who, ironically enough, wrote our lead of the month for February). But mostly, we love the vivid language flowing from his ever-wicked pen. We encourage you to check out his blog here. To review our earlier leads of the month, click here.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Happy Birthday Wishes Are In Order...
...For one of our favorite writers--oh, hell, for one of our favorite people on the planet. May 37 be the best year yet, Anton. May you continue to grab life by the claws. To review everything we've previously written about the formidable Mr. Zuiker (a.k.a. "Prince of the Research Triangle"), click here. To view our second-favorite photo of the birthday boy, click here. And to see a thoroughly enchanting photo of his adorable family, click here.