Wednesday, October 03, 2018

“Frontline”’s Documentary on Donald Trump, Robert Mueller and the Russia Investigation

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s episode of the long-running PBS series Frontline was called “Trump’s Showdown” and was ostensibly about special counsel Robert Mueller and his long-running (so far, almost a year and a half) investigation into whether the government of Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and whether members of Donald Trump’s campaign conspired with them to influence the election in Trump’s direction. The show is actually more than half over before Mueller makes his appearance, and the first hour starts in the heady days of the “transition” between Obama and Trump, and in particular the meeting the heads of the U.S. intelligence agencies sought and got with Trump in December 2016 to tell him about the evidence that Russia had interfered with the election. “There was no equivocation in our language. And we were very direct and very, very clear in terms of what it is that we knew and assessed,” said then-CIA director John Brennan (against whom Trump would take a bizarre revenge a year and a half later by revoking his security clearance), and then-national intelligence director James Clapper added, “There was no pushback because … the evidence that we laid out at the high, highly-classified level was pretty, pretty compelling.” Trump regarded the revelation of Russian interference in the election as an attack on the legitimacy of his Presidency — a position he’s held to this day and, no matter how his Presidency ends, will probably go to his grave holding — and was particularly incensed when then-FBI director James Comey took him aside and told him of the existence of the now-infamous Christopher Steele “dossier,” the compilation of 16 reports former British MI-6 (their equivalent of the CIA and the fictional James Bond’s employer) agent Steele had compiled as a private security agent working for, among other people, the Democratic National Campaign Committee (DNCC) on Trump’s background. Comey regarded his telling Trump about the dossier as an attempt to warn him that this information existed and could be used against him; Trump regarded it as blackmail and seems to have decided then and there to fire Comey, though he didn’t do that until May 2017. 

The film then goes into a flashback to tell a capsule version of the story of Donald Trump and Roy Cohn, the one degree of separation between Trump and the notorious Red-baiter Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin). Cohn “made his bones” as a Communist witch-hunter leading the espionage prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951 and then became McCarthy’s chief of staff when the Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate in the 1952 election and McCarthy was appointed head of the government oversight committee. When McCarthy got censured by the U.S. Senate in November 1954 (in a lame-duck session since the Republicans had already lost their Senate majority in the 1954 midterm election — we can hope that history repeats itself!!!!!) Cohn went into a private law practice in New York City and got hired by Donald Trump to mastermind his ascension from his father’s real-estate business in New York’s outer boroughs to the brass ring of Manhattan. Trump biographer and Vanity Fair reporter Marie Brenner said, “Trump was created by the politics of intimidation, taught to him by his mentor Roy Cohn, who really was his alter ego. He was his confidant. He was a, he was an ersatz father. He was the person who Trump went to with any kind of a problem.” Indeed, it would not be far wrong to say that the two people who most influenced Trump and shaped the kind of person he would become was his actual father, Fred Trump (who, a New York Times special report revealed yesterday, gave Donald a lot more money than the “little loan of $1 million, which I had to pay back with interest” which Donald had always said was the only help he got business-wise from his dad: in fact, Trump’s father apparently gave Donald $60 million — $417 million in 2018 dollars — as part of an elaborate tax-avoidance scheme to leave his money to his kids without having to pay federal taxes on it; according to the New York Times, thanks to his dad’s machinations Donald was a multi-millionaire at age three!), and Roy Cohn. 

Another Trump biographer, Gwenda Blair (who also wrote about the late NBC news reporter Jessica Savitch and Princess Diana), said, “Roy Cohn had 20 years of being a really aggressive, no holds barred, go for the jugular, fight back, anybody says something to you, throw it back at them, guy. He was famous for that behavior.” (The show does not also mention that Cohn was both a notorious homophobe and a closeted Gay man who was disbarred in New York in 1986 just a few months before he died of AIDS-related complications — a duality which led Tony Kushner to make Cohn the principal villain of his play Angels in America.) Trump was so enamored of Cohn’s style that apparently during his Presidency he’s actually asked staff people, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” — which led one commentator to say that the attorney Trump really wanted to represent him in the Russia investigation had been dead for 30 years — and one gets the impression he was hoping to groom Cohn’s near-namesake Michael Cohen as Cohn’s replacement, a combination attorney and “fixer” who could be counted on to bribe porn stars and other people presenting Trump with the threat of inconvenient revelations. (Stephanie “Stormy Daniels” Clifford makes a cameo appearance even though her case really doesn’t fit into the broad scope of the Russia investigation.) One of Trump’s problems was that Cohen was a match for Cohn’s unscrupulousness and venom (this show includes a replay of the famous conversation in which Cohen tried to stop an anti-Trump story from appearing on the Daily Beast Web site by threatening the reporter, Tim Mak, on the phone — “I'm warning you, tread very fucking lightly because what I'm going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. Do you understand me? Don't think you can hide behind your pen because it's not going to happen. … I'm more than happy to discuss it with your attorney and with your legal counsel because, motherfucker, you're going to need it”) but not for Cohn’s street smarts. 

Though almost none of the information on this program is new, the portrait of Trump that emerges is of a man honed by his years in the New York real-estate business to a deep unscrupulousness and suspicion of everyone else’s motives: he really believes that everyone else in the world is as vicious, self-centered and egomaniacal as he is. So when he had to deal with former FBI director Comey, who lives by a sense of self-righteousness and sanctimony (the principal negative descriptions of Comey by almost everyone who’s ever criticized him) in which he frequently believes himself to be, as the show put it, “the only honest person in the room,” sparks were bound to fly. I suspected (and wrote at the time) that when Comey did his sensational last-minute revelation 11 days before the 2016 election that he was re-opening the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails (a decision a lot of people, including Clinton herself, are convinced was the deciding factor that threw the election to Trump), he was doing so because he feared that Clinton would win the election and by helping Trump he was ensuring that his directorship of the FBI would survive a Trump presidency. (Comey’s own explanation is that he expected Clinton to win but the Republicans to keep control of Congress, and if he had sat on the information the Republicans would have investigated him and the FBI over it for the duration of Clinton’s presidency.) If Comey hoped that helping Trump win would get him to keep his job, he woefully misread Trump: Trump saw Comey as the sort of self-righteous stuffed shirt who’d already screwed former President George W. Bush on the issue of wireless surveillance of Americans and would screw him, too, if he had the chance. So Trump and Comey were on a collision course from day one and Trump was determined to fire him as soon as he had a pretext, though as he admitted to NBC News’ Lester Holt in an interview (which I’d just read about in Omarosa Manigault Newman’s book Unhinged — she recalled carefully briefing him to prepare for this interview and then watched as Trump totally forgot about everything he’d been briefed on and gave a damaging interview — Omarosa says it was a common experience in the White House to be tackled on the one-yard line by someone who was supposed to be on your team) in which he said he really fired Comey over “the Russia thing.” 

The Frontline program also shows the bizarre meeting Trump had in the Oval Office the day after he fired Comey with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador Sergei Kislyak, in which he basically boasted that by firing Comey he’d made the FBI’s Russia investigation go away — a meeting whose existence was carefully kept secret from the U.S. media but which we found out about anyway because the Russian media sent an official photographer to record it and published the story in a propagandistic context. Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung wrote a story quoting Trump as having essentially said to these two high-ranking Russian officials, “We’re going to have a great relationship. There’s this investigation. It’s just become a total irritant for me. … Jim Comey’s firing lifted a great weight from me. The guy was a nut job.” The Comey firing led to the bizarre period of a week and a half in which, according to a recent New York Times article, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein (left in charge of the FBI’s Russia investigation by attorney general Jeff Sessions’ recusal — a “sin” for which Trump has never forgiven him and which he’s obsessed about ever since — and who was resentful that his letter critiquing Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation was used as the pretext to fire Comey), mused about remedies like secretly recording his conversations with Trump and lobbying the Cabinet to invoke Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office and install Mike Pence as “Acting President.” Instead of doing either of those things (though the Times’ revelation would certainly give Trump the pretext to fire Rosenstein, as I’m convinced he intends to do just after the midterms, especially if the Republicans keep control of both houses of Congress and Trump therefore won’t have to worry about impeachment if he does the general house-cleaning he so clearly wants — firing both Sessions and Rosenstein and telling his new attorney general to fire Mueller and close down all Justice Department investigations of his campaign and Russia) Rosenstein chose the route of appointing a special counsel, and picking Mueller — until this appointment a highly regarded Washington veteran, a Republican who’d served under both Republican and Democratic Presidents and been the FBI director for 12 years, longer than anyone else except J. Edgar Hoover — as the counsel. 

What’s been virtually forgotten given the success of the Republican witch hunt (I probably shouldn’t use their term for the Mueller investigation, but it’s irresistible) against Mueller and his probe is that originally his selection by Rosenstein as special counsel was heralded by leaders on both sides of the partisan divide. Even Republican bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich (who masterminded the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives after 42 consecutive years of Democratic control and did a lot to establish the current no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-costs political climate) hailed Mueller as a basically fair person who would conduct an impartial investigation and let the chips fall where they may. The Frontline documentary’s second half chronicles the three phases of President Trump’ approach to the investigation. At first he stalked the halls of the White House, demanding, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” — upset at even the hint of defiance from Jeff Sessions, his sense that Sessions (like Comey) had some sort of abstract devotion to the rule of law or the independence of the Justice Department or something else that got in the way of offering the blood oath of “loyalty” Trump demands of his subordinates as President the way he did as owner and CEO of the Trump Organization. Trump was ready to fire Sessions in the late summer of 2017, with the idea that with a new Attorney General in place, one who wouldn’t be bound by Sessions’ recusal and who would fire both Rosenstein and Mueller — but it didn’t happen because Sessions, a former U.S. Senator from Alabama, still had some powerful friends in the Senate, including Republican leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who dropped the message on Trump that the Senate would be too busy for the rest of the year to consider confirming a new Attorney General. (Since then the Senate Republicans have caved to Trump on the issue of Jeff Sessions’ tenure, as they have on absolutely everything else: Lindsey Graham is now saying things like, “The President is entitled to have an Attorney General he can trust.”) 

When that didn’t work, Trump hired two experienced Washington, D.C.-based attorneys, John Dowd and Ty Cobb, and instructed them to cooperate with the Mueller investigation and in particular to provide them all the documents they requested and to allow them to interview White House staff members. As this show documents, Trump took what Richard Nixon called “the hang-out road” based on the promise Dowd and Cobb made him that if he cooperated, the Mueller investigation would end soon — by Thanksgiving 2017, and when that didn’t happen by the new year. When the new year arrived and Mueller was still investigating — and indicting key people in Trump’s campaign like former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort — Trump’s attitude took a 180° turn back to his own basic (and basest) instincts and the lessons Roy Cohn had taught him all those years ago. Dowd and Cobb left the case (the Frontline documentary does not mention the accusation in Bob Woodward’s recent book Fear: Trump in the White House that Dowd ran a mock interrogation of Trump as a practice session in case Trump sat down for an interview with Mueller, and Trump claimed he was “a great witness” when Dowd felt he did so poorly that Dowd concluded the case was unwinnable and quit the next day) and their replacement was former New York U.S. Attorney (in which capacity he had sworn in James Comey as one of his assistant) and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. A lot of people have joked that Trump hired Giuliani less to be his lawyer than to play his lawyer on TV, on Trump’s favorite network Fox News in particular. The Frontline show contains a film clip of Giuliani’s first TV appearance as Trump’s lawyer, in which he practically screams in that New York screech we’ve become all too familiar with, “The president has done nothing wrong. Read my lips: Nothing wrong!” 

Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and former civil liberties lawyer turned Right-wing hero and to-the-death Trump defender, was interviewed by Frontline as part of their attempt to make a fair-minded documentary and noted that Giuliani’s tactic was less a legal strategy than a public-relations one to try the case in the court of public opinion and undercut any ability by the Democrats or Trump’s political enemies to make the case for impeaching Trump and removing him from office. The show quotes Giuliani as saying, “Our jury, as it should be, is the American people. And the American people, yes, are Republicans, largely, independents, pretty substantially, and even some Democrats now question the legitimacy of it” — the Mueller investigation. Frontline also claims that one of the things that got under Trump’s skin was when the Mueller investigators started looking into the private finances of the Trump Organization, which Trump had once said was a “red line” that in his mind would justify firing Mueller. Trump got the message that Mueller meant business regarding his private finances when the FBI did a pre-dawn “no-knock” raid on Michael Cohen’s home, office and a hotel room he was staying in when his home was being remodeled. “No-knock” raids are part of the overall assault on the Constitution in general and the Fourth and Fifth Amendments in particular motivated by the so-called “War on Drugs,” in which people accused of drug-related crimes have had their Constitutional protections of due process systematically stripped away. The theory behind “no-knock” raids was that you wanted to catch these dastardly drug dealers by surprise before they could flush the drugs down the toilet or otherwise dispose of them as best as they could if the cops actually knocked on their doors, and according to the investigators in their legal documents Cohen was targeted for a “no-knock” raid because they feared if they knocked, he’d destroy the documents they were after — including, it turned out, the secret tape recordings he made of his meetings and phone calls with Trump. Cohen eventually pleaded guilty to eight felonies, at least two of which (relating to hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal to keep quiet about their alleged sexual experiences with Trump) he said in his plea that he committed because Donald Trump, his employer and now President of the United States, ordered him to as part of his job. 

The Frontline documentary ends open-endedly because the task of writing the end to the story has basically fallen to the American electorate, or at least that section of it that bothers to vote in the 2018 midterm elections. If Democrats regain control of at least one house of Congress (and right now, according to Nate Silver’s Web site, they have a 75 percent chance of taking the House but only a 2 in 7 chance of winning the Senate), there will at least be serious Congressional investigations of Trump, his Russia connections, his finances and everything else that’s been rotten, underhanded and corrupt about his Presidency (and his life in the private sector before that), not so much because the Democrats are determined to throw that kind of dirt around but because they know the only chance they have of defeating Trump for re-election in 2020 is to blacken his name enough that the Democrats can mobilize their fickle base and vote him out with a candidate who is likely to have almost none of the flash and charismatic larger-than-life appeal of Trump. If the Republicans keep control of both houses of Congress, it’s all over: Trump will be able to install a new attorney general and can shut down the Mueller investigation root and branch, firing not only Mueller but also all the U.S. attorneys to whom Mueller, in an apparent attempt to protect the investigation even if he gets fired and his office of special counsel is closed, has parceled out bits of it. The greatest lesson of the Trump-Mueller “showdown” is that it’s yet another piece of evidence of how much, contrary to the late New York Democratic politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous comment that “everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own set of facts,” in today’s America, with a polarized political system and a polarized media system producing a polarized electorate, everyone is entitled to their own set of facts, and in particular which of the two dominant narratives — the one peddled by the legacy media like the national broadcast networks, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the competing narrative of Right-wing talk radio, Fox News and the local TV stations under the ideological control of owners like Liberty and Sinclair — they patronize and believe. 

In George Orwell’s 1984 one of the ways the Inner Party, the ruling class of Orwell’s dystopian dictatorship, kept in power was by literally manipulating the media and the historical record so the only “truth” the people could obtain was whichever one the Party wanted them to believe at any given time. “The mutability of the past is a central tenet of Ingsoc,[1]” Orwell wrote. “Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.” Donald Trump obviously does not have the kind of total control over either the written (and audio-visual) records of the past or of the minds of the American people the Inner Party did in 1984. For one thing, he doesn’t have an entire department of the Ministry of Truth (the Inner Party’s propaganda agency) devoted to destroying records that contradict whatever he now says he said at any given juncture. (Ironically, given how many modern-day records are stored on computers as digital files instead of on more relatively permanent media like paper or film, the repeated destruction of records that contradict the official view of truth at any given moment, and their replacement by records that supported the new official “truth,” would be far easier now than it was in Orwell’s time.) When Trump says that he always said X or never said Y, pesky reporters and media outlets often have a way of turning up video footage or printouts from his Twitter feed or other documentary evidence that he did indeed say what he now says he never said. 

What Trump does have, however, is a well-trained segment of about 40 percent of the American people who will willingly believe everything he says regardless of the documentary evidence against this. We’ve seen this in polls about the Mueller investigation and more recently in the ongoing controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is a fact that Kavanaugh and Dr Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused him of attempting to rape her when they were both high-school students in 1982, spoke before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, September 27, 2018 and said certain things that were documented and recorded. But what people made of that hearing has fallen along the all too predictable political fault lines, with the cadre of the American people who are convicted and conditioned to believe everything Trump, the Republican Party, talk radio and Fox News tell them about the world saw Brett Kavanaugh as an honest truth-teller righteously calling out the forces of political correctness — the Democrats, the accusers against him and a vast Left-wing conspiracy headed by Bill and Hillary Clinton — to defend himself and his name against an unfair charge cooked up by his nefarious political enemies. Meanwhile, people on the other side of the political divide would watch the same hearing — the same footage of the same people saying the same things — and conclude that Dr. Ford was telling the truth and Kavanaugh was a vicious, lying scumbag as well as a highly partisan figure who shouldn’t be a judge on the highest court in the land. 

American politics have become so polarized that people no longer just disagree about the meaning of a common, agreed-upon set of facts, or the public policies that should follow from those realities. They disagree on what the facts are, and like the Inner Party in 1984 Trump and his staff have gone out of their way to deny even the idea of an objective “truth” uncolored by the red or blue glasses through which people observe it. That’s how early on in the Trump administration Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway were able to defend Trump’s claim that the crowd watching his inauguration was the largest in history against the photographic evidence that far more people had attended Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 than Trump’s in 2017 by citing “alternative facts.” It’s also what Rudolph Giuliani meant when he told an NBC news panel that “truth isn’t truth” — the full context in which he said that was that James Comey had one story about why Trump fired him, Trump had another, and because Robert Mueller and James Comey were friends Mueller was going to believe Comey’s story over Trump’s and possibly prosecute Trump for perjury simply because he had an alternative narrative he wished to present under oath.

[1] — The official name, short for “English Socialism,” of the ideology under which the ruling party of 1984 claimed to rule.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Luckiest Man in the World


Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“You don’t tug on Superman’s cape,
You don’t spit into the wind,
You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
And you don’t mess around with Jim.”
   Jim Croce, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” 1972

The show is ‘Trump’ and it is sold-out performances [sic] everywhere. I’ve had fun doing it and will continue to have fun, and I think most people enjoy it.”
   Donald J. Trump, Playboy magazine, March 1990

Donald John Trump is the luckiest man in the world. Maybe the luckiest man ever.
That’s what came to my mind on September 21, 2018 when I was working at the home of one of my home-care clients and he had on CNN. They were broadcasting a report that the New York Times had just published a story alleging that during the fraught eight days between Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey and assistant attorney general Rod Rosenstein’s appointment of Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate allegations that Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign had conspired with Russia to influence the election on Trump’s behalf, Rosenstein had openly discussed having senior Department of Justice officials secretly record their meetings with Trump.
What’s more, he’d allegedly discussed with members of Trump’s Cabinet the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — particularly section four, which reads, “Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.” The amendment also provides that if the President wants to challenge the determination of the Vice President and a Cabinet majority that he’s unfit to serve, he can appeal to Congress and stay in office unless a two-thirds majority of each house votes to remove him.
The 25th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1965, just after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and section four seems to have been included as part of a what-if exercise — what if Kennedy had survived the assassination but ended up in a persistent vegetative state, unable even to function as a normal human being, let alone govern the nation as President? It also may have been inspired by Woodrow Wilson, who suffered a stroke in 1919, a year and a half before his second term ended, and who for the rest of his Presidency was incommunicado. He stayed in a White House room and, whenever a document needed a Presidential signature, his wife would take it into his sickroom and return with the document signed. By him, or by her forging his signature? No one knew for sure, and historians are still arguing about it today.
But what apparently prompted Rod Rosenstein’s concern and his possible interest in secretly recording the President was his sense that the way he felt Trump had manipulated him into providing the basis for Comey’s firing suggested that there might be something “off” about Trump’s mental state. Apparently Rosenstein thought he had simply been asked to write a memo assessing Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for her e-mails while she was Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s first term. Instead, he found that his memo — which criticized Comey for having reopened the investigation with great fanfare 11 days before the November 2016 election, and then closed it again two days later — had been cited by Trump as his reason for firing Comey. According to New York Times reporters Adam Goldman and Michael Schmidt (, this is what happened next:

The president’s reliance on his memo caught Mr. Rosenstein by surprise, and he became angry at Mr. Trump, according to people who spoke to Mr. Rosenstein at the time. He grew concerned that his reputation had suffered harm.

A determined Mr. Rosenstein began telling associates that he would ultimately be “vindicated” for his role in the matter. One week after the firing, Mr. Rosenstein met with Mr. McCabe and at least four other senior Justice Department officials, in part to explain his role in the situation.

During their discussion, Mr. Rosenstein expressed frustration at how Mr. Trump had conducted the search for a new F.B.I. director, saying the president was failing to take the candidate interviews seriously. A handful of politicians and law enforcement officials, including Mr. McCabe, were under consideration.

To Mr. Rosenstein, the hiring process was emblematic of broader dysfunction stemming from the White House. He said both the process and the administration itself were in disarray, according to two people familiar with the discussion.

Mr. Rosenstein then raised the idea of wearing a recording device, or “wire,” as he put it, to secretly tape the president when he visited the White House. One participant asked whether Mr. Rosenstein was serious, and he replied animatedly that he was.

The Times reporters said that at least two meetings took place on May 16, 2017 at which Rosenstein discussed his problems with what he viewed as Trump’s “erratic” behavior, and in one of them he discussed sounding out the members of Trump’s Cabinet to see if they would be interested in pursuing the 25th Amendment remedy. The article stressed that nothing actually happened as a result of Rosenstein’s musings. Instead of secretly recording the President or lobbying for the 25th Amendment, Rosenstein chose to appoint a special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, to investigate allegations that the government of Russia had sought to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election to help Trump and hurt Clinton, and that Trump campaign officials had conspired with the Russians to do this.
Since then, Trump has routinely denounced the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” and a plot by an alleged “deep state” of government bureaucrats who hate him and are looking for any excuse to remove him from the Presidency. He fired not only Comey but assistant FBI director Andrew McCabe, whose memos regarding Rosenstein’s conduct in the eight days between Comey’s firing and Mueller’s appointment were reportedly one of the sources for the Times article. (Some sources, including former Obama administration ethics official Norm Eisen, have suggested McCabe leaked the Rosenstein story to the Times out of still-lingering bitterness over Rosenstein’s role in Comey’s firing.) Recently Trump boasted to a rally audience in Missouri that he had had enemies in the Justice Department and the FBI, but “They’re all gone, they’re all gone. But there’s a lingering stench, and we’re going to get rid of that, too.”
Whatever their motives for breaking a story about 16-month-old events in September 2018, the Goldman-Schmidt article in the September 21, 2018 New York Times claiming Rod Rosenstein wanted to secretly record meetings with Trump and lobby the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment against him is one of the best pieces of news Donald Trump could have hoped for — especially from a paper he routinely denounces as “fake news” and “the failing New York Times.” Trump has been waiting for an excuse to fire both Rosenstein and his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump has never forgiven for recusing himself from supervising the Russia investigation because as a key player in Trump’s campaign he was involved in meetings with Russians himself. Now he has it.

Invoke the 25th Amendment? These Toadies?

It’s clear that Trump has long viewed the 25th Amendment as a potential threat to him and his presidency. On June 12, 2017, less than a month after Rosenstein allegedly discussed lobbying Cabinet members to remove Trump under its provisions, Trump held a bizarre Cabinet meeting in which he allowed TV cameras to film the proceedings and record every sitting Cabinet member uttering fulsome words of praise for Trump and his policies (
Vice-President Mike Pence: “It’s the greatest privilege of my life to serve as Vice-President to a President who is keeping his word to the American people.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “I am proud to be here and celebrate the exactly right message to the American people, and the response is timeless around the country.” (Trump responded, “Great success.”)
Labor Secretary Alex Acosta: “I am deeply honored to be here, and I want to thank you for keeping your commitment to American workers.”
Energy Secretary Rick Perry: “This last week, I had the great privilege of being able to represent America in China at the Green Energy Ministerial. Good timing. They needed to hear why America was stepping away from the Paris accord, and they did.”
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley: “It’s a good day at the United Nations. We now have a strong voice. People know what the United States is for. They know what we’re against, and they see us leading across the board. And so I think the international community knows we’re back.”
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney: “Thank you, Mr. President, for the kind words about the budget. You know we’re going to be able to take care of the people who really need it, and at the same time, with your direction, we were able to also focus on the forgotten men and women who are paying those taxes. I appreciate your support and direction in pulling that budget together.
Environmental Protection Agency Chair Scott Pruitt (since fired): “Good morning, Mr. President. It’s good to be back in the United States. I arrived back this morning at one o’clock from Italy, at the G-7 summit, focused on the environment, and our message there was that the United States was going to be focused on growth and protecting the environment. It was received well.”
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats: “Good morning, Mr. President. The intelligence community has never faced such a diversity of threats to our country. And we are going to provide — continue to provide you with the very best intelligence we can, so you can formulate policy to deal with these issues.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “Mr. President, it’s a privilege to serve, to serve the students of this country, and to work to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to get a great education.”
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (since fired): “What an incredible honor it is to lead the Department of Health and Human Services at this pivotal time under your leadership. I can’t thank you enough for the privilege you’ve given me and the leadership you’ve shown.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke: “Mr. President, as your SEAL on your staff, and it’s an honor to be your steward of our public lands and the generator of energy dominance.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (since fired): “It’s an honor to serve the country and a great privilege you’ve given me.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis: “Mr. President, it’s an honor to represent the great men and women of the Department of Defense, and we are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making to strengthen our military so that our diplomats always negotiate from strength.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross: “Thank you for the opportunity to help fix the trade deficit and other things. I’m thrilled to have the chance to help you live up to your campaign promises.”
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (wife of U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell): “Mr. President, last week was a great week. It was Infrastructure Week. Thank you for coming over to the Department of Transportation. Hundreds and hundreds of people were just so thrilled to hang out, watching the whole ceremony.”
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly (now White House chief of staff): “Mr. President, I’m proud to be here to represent the four million men and women who serve the country in DHS and have worked with all of our partners to the south (to achieve a) 70 percent drop in illegal immigration. While we still welcome legal immigrants to the tune of a million a year, we are no longer a friendly environment to illegal border-crossers.”
Unidentified official: “Mr. President, first of all I apologize for being late for work. For about four months I’ve gotten stuck here in that swamp you’ve been trying to drain.”
Small Business Administration (SBA) Chair Linda McMahon: “Good morning, Mr. President. Thank you for the opportunity to serve at SBA. Our outreach and other scored programs are being so successful, so thank you. We’re on a good trajectory, and still a lot of work to do.”
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus (since fired): “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people. And we’re continuing to work hard every day to accomplish those goals.”
This nauseating spectacle was variously compared in the media to a Third World dictator demanding his subordinates kiss up to him or face immediate incarceration in a gulag, or a boardroom meeting on Trump’s former reality-TV show The Apprentice aimed at humiliating the associates competing for his favor. But it was also a message Trump was sending loud and clear to anyone in the country, from Rod Rosenstein to MS-NBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, that he had nothing to fear from the 25th Amendment because he had his Cabinet members exactly where he wanted them. Not only would they not vote to remove him, they were too busy jockeying for place to suck the royal asshole even to think of crossing Trump.

Rosenstein Revelations a Victory for Trump

The September 21 New York Times article accusing Rod Rosenstein of having mused about secretly recording meetings with Trump and lobbying the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment against him couldn’t have been better news for Trump. Indeed, a few sources, including New Yorker writer John Cassidy, have suggested that sources in the Trump administration leaked it themselves to give Trump the excuse he’s been looking for to fire Rosenstein and his boss, Jeff Sessions. Not only does it give Trump the ability to claim that Rosenstein committed a firing offense, it also takes public attention away from the controversy surrounding Trump’s nomination of Right-wing judge Brett Kavanaugh to take Anthony Kennedy’s position on the U.S. Supreme Court, the allegations of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that he tried to rape her when he was 17 and she was 15, and the bizarre tit-for-tat negotiations between Dr. Ford and the Senate Judiciary Committee over whether and how she’ll be able to tell her story to the committee.
Interestingly, commentators on Trump’s favorite news outlet, Fox News, have given him conflicting advice on whether he should seize on the Times article to fire Rosenstein. “Rod Rosenstein must be fired today,” Fox personality Laura Ingraham said in a tweet. But Sean Hannity, who’s probably closer to the President than Ingraham, warned him on the air that the Times article itself might be a “deep state” conspiracy to provoke the famously thin-skinned Trump into a rash firing of Rosenstein that will only hurt him politically and damage Republicans’ chances in the 2018 midterm elections. Likewise, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Jason Chaffetz, former Congressmember and current Fox News contributor, have warned Trump not to take any actions based on reporting in the New York Times.
Rosenstein himself has issued two strongly worded denials of the Times story. In his first statement, which he gave to the Times in time for them to include it in the article, “The New York Times’s story is inaccurate and factually incorrect. I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the Department and are advancing their own personal agenda. But let me be clear about this: based on my personal dealings with the President, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.” Later in the evening on September 21, he issued another statement which read, “I never pursued or authorized recording the President and any suggestion that I have ever advocated for the removal of the President is absolutely false.”
I suspect the only open question remaining is whether Trump will fire Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein now or wait until the midterm elections. My prediction is he will wait until the elections. If the Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress, he can fire anyone he wants and he will have nothing to fear. Trump has his Cabinet so totally bullied and intimidated he doesn’t have to worry about the 25th Amendment. If the House remains in Republican hands, he won’t have to worry about being impeached, either — and even if the House goes Democratic in this year’s midterms (less likely than most people think because Republican state governments have done such a great job gerrymandering House districts that the Democrats will have to win a massive victory in the national House vote even to eke out a bare majority), the Republicans will almost certainly still hold the Senate and will definitely be able to keep there from being the two-thirds vote needed to convict Trump on an impeachment and remove him from office.
I don’t for a moment think Donald J. Trump is an “idiot,” a “moron” (with or without an expletive prefix) or “unhinged,” as former Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman calls him in the title of her new book about him. It’s indicative of just how far the entire U.S. government has descended into bizarrerie that the idea of Rod Rosenstein, of all seemingly dull, boring people (Trump derisively calls him “Mr. Peepers,” after the late Wally Cox’s role as the milquetoast protagonist of a 1950’s TV show), would secretly be recording Trump, doesn’t seem all that far-fetched when we know at least two people who used to be in Trump’s inner circle — Omarosa and his former attorney, Michael Cohen — did secretly record him. But I don’t think for a moment that Trump is crazy — just very good at instigating crazy, self-destructive behavior in those around him.
I think Omarosa described him correctly when she wrote of Trump as he was in 2003, when he hosted the first season of his reality-TV show The Apprentice and she first worked with him as one of the contestants:

[W]henever there was a disagreement or an argument, his eyes lit up. He loved conflict, chaos, and confusion; he loved seeing people argue or fight. He sat up even taller when people made a strong case when defending themselves. I adapted my boardroom strategy accordingly. Sometimes I gave backhanded compliments to my fellow contestants — and Trump would zero in on it. If I was openly critical of them, he’d smile.

Donald Trump is a gutter-fighter whose street smarts approach genius. Trump’s statement that the White House is “a well-oiled machine” isn’t the flat denial of reality a lot of people assume it is. It’s an indication that his administration, with staff members constantly jockeying for position, sometimes seemingly at each other’s throats, always pushing for his favor, is run the way he wants it to be run, the way every Trump enterprise has been run. Trump is a bully who thinks strength and toughness are the best qualities a person, especially one who’s a leader or hopes to be one, can have.
During the devastating hurricanes of 2017 and 2018 a lot of news commentators made the silly statement that Trump seems to be “empathy-challenged.” They were missing the point big-time. Trump not only has no empathy, he’s proud of that: he thinks empathy and compassion are the qualities of weaklings. That’s one reason he hated Mikhail Gorbachev, former premier of the Soviet Union and a leader who wanted to reform the U.S.S.R. to make it democratic. In his featured interview in the March 1990 issue of Playboy, Trump said he was “very unimpressed” with Gorbachev and added, “What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.”
The leaders Trump expressed admiration for in that interview were the officials of the Chinese Communist Party who violently and murderously suppressed protests against the regime in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The Wikipedia page on Tiananmen Square ( states, “As the protests developed, the authorities veered back and forth between conciliatory and hardline tactics, exposing deep divisions within the party leadership. By May, a student-led hunger strike galvanized support for the demonstrators around the country and the protests spread to some 400 cities. Ultimately, China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and other Communist Party elders believed the protests to be a political threat, and resolved to use force. The State Council declared martial law on May 20, and mobilized as many as 300,000 troops to Beijing. The troops suppressed the protests by firing at demonstrators with automatic weapons, killing multiple protesters and leading to mass civil unrest in the days following.”
In his 1990 Playboy interview, Trump told journalist Glenn Plaskin that the Chinese leaders had been wrong to try to conciliate with the demonstrators, and right to attack and kill them. “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump said. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak ... as being spit on by the rest of the world.” When Plaskin realized how often Trump was using the word “tough” as his paramount virtue, he asked Trump to define it. Trump replied, “Tough is being mentally capable of winning battles against an opponent and doing it with a smile. Tough is winning systematically.
Donald Trump is running the United States the way he has always run things, including his private businesses. He’s always been the sort of boss who hires people without giving them a clear idea of what he wants them to do, and lets them fight it out for his favor and his enrichment. He’s running the White House the same way he ran the Trump Organization. Trump fundamentally does not believe in democracy; as a business owner he’s always run a family firm without even nominal responsibility to a board of directors or shareholders who elect them, and he likewise sees no reason to hold himself accountable to the American people.
His attitude is that his election (and never mind that three million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton to be their President than voted for Donald Trump) allows him to do whatever he wants with the country, and he has no intention of leaving power before his term is up. Indeed, I don’t think he has any intention of leaving power even when his term is up; I think he intends to rig the 2020 election through more effective and less traceable versions of the ways Richard Nixon attempted to rig his re-election — the tactics, including crimes, that collectively became known as “Watergate” — and continue his family’s power beyond 2024 by installing his daughter Ivanka as his successor. In my darkest moments, indeed, I wonder if I will ever again live to see a day in my country’s history when its chief executive is not named Trump.
Americans have one and only one alternative to stop Donald Trump. We have to register to vote, to turn out for every election, and to vote for Democratic candidates for every office. Progressives should be challenging pro-corporate Democrats in primaries — as they’ve already started doing, with mixed results (some successes in state legislative races and in Congress) — but even if we lose the primaries, we must still vote for the Democrat who wins. A pro-corporate Democrat is worlds better than a Republican because even the most pro-corporate Democrat will vote against the Trump agenda and for the preservation of America’s (admittedly limited) democracy.
If the Democratic Party does not regain control of at least one house of Congress in the November 6, 2018 midterms, Trump and his cronies will be able effectively to end America’s 240-year-old experiment in republican rule. The truth is that simple, and that stark. If the Republicans keep control of Congress after this year’s election, Donald Trump will be able to fire Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions, and to install an attorney general who will either fire Robert Mueller outright or so limit his jurisdiction and his ability to function that Mueller will resign. Trump will also be able to pack the U.S. judiciary with hard-line Federalist Society/Heritage Foundation judges, so the U.S. courts will no longer be an avenue for social justice, but quite the opposite — an enforcement arm for corporate privilege and racism, the way they were from the 1880’s to the 1930’s.
Donald J. Trump wants to put his permanent stamp on American history. He wants future generations to speak of two eras in American history: B.T. and A.T. He wants the history books of the future to tell the story of how America had descended into weakness and carnage until Donald J. Trump, the hero on horseback, rode into Washington, D.C. to drain the swamp, destroy the “deep state” and establish the Trumpocracy. And he is quite the opposite of “unhinged.” He is fixated on these goals and determined to do everything he needs to in order to achieve them — including literally murdering his political enemies, just as the Chinese leaders he so admires did in 1989.

And, as weak a reed as the Democratic Party is, it’s the only force in the U.S. that can stop him — if enough people turn out to vote on November 6 and stay engaged enough in politics to push the Democrats in a progressive direction and make them generate policies that actually benefit the 99 percent. It’s not a forlorn hope — we did it in the 1930’s, and to some extent again in the 1960’s — but it’s the only hope we have, and those who say “there’s no difference between the two major parties,” in the face of all the evidence the Trump administration and Republican Congress have provided that there are profound differences between the two major parties, are doing neither themselves, their country nor the progressive cause a service.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Harold Meyerson: Gershwin and Bernstein

Once again, Harold Meyerson has sent an e-mail out to The American Prospect list that I couldn't agree with more (and once again I have to repost it to my blog because it's an e-mail instead of an entry on the Prospect Web site I could just link to]. I had the same observation myself when on a recent telecast I heard Leonard Bernstein referred to as "the quintessentially American composer" — and I immediately thought, "No, he wasn't. George Gershwin was.” Gershwin created stronger and more beautiful “classical” concert works AND wrote better songs for Broadway musicals (though in line with the general practice of the 1920's and 1930’s, most of the plots of the shows Gershwin’s songs appeared in were silly and dramatically uninteresting), despite having far fewer years to do it in (Gershwin died at 37, Bernstein at 72). — Mark Gabrish Conlan

Meyerson on TAP

Before There Was Lenny, There Was George. This past weekend, the musical, theatrical, and critical worlds celebrated Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday with performances and essays of appreciation. They’ve been doing it all year, and the Lenny-Fest, which has reached some very distant shores, will joyously roll on until winter.

Bernstein’s genius—as composer, conductor, performer; as the man who brought classical form to popular media and popular sounds to classical works; as the man who wrote profoundly American (which in his hands meant multicultural) music for classic European genres—has been treated not just as a kind of secular miracle, which it was, but also as sui generis, a one-of-a-kind achievement. Which it wasn’t.

There was one other American composer before him who blazed the trail down which Bernstein was to parade: George Gershwin. Much as Bernstein shuttled between the concert hall and Broadway, so did Gershwin—though Lenny was clearly the maestro of the classical genres that Gershwin hadn’t gotten to when he died. Much as Bernstein electrified the American musical with West Side Story, so Gershwin electrified American music with Rhapsody in Blue. Much as Bernstein brought an American sound to his symphonies, so Gershwin brought an American sound to his opera, Porgy and Bess. As Bernstein melded his own version of Latino-American music into a number of his scores, so Gershwin melded his own version of African American music into his shows and opera. (In the early 1920s, it was Gershwin—not the African American songwriting teams of Sissle and Blake or Miller and Lyles—who brought the blue note into Broadway music.) They were rooted cosmopolitans, these two Jewish composers, taking in all manner of music from all manner of idioms and transforming it into their own sound—propulsive, poignant, raunchy, mournful, breathtaking.

Gershwin seems to us a figure from a vanished world, while Bernstein is still a living presence. Gershwin emerged from the culture of song pluggers and Tin Pan Alley, now entries in the cultural histories, while Bernstein emerged from the culture of Tanglewood and other musical enclaves that are thriving to this day. Both were accomplished performers who loved displaying their brilliance before audiences, but Bernstein’s conducting is digitally with us still, while Gershwin’s piano recordings are the stuff of archives.

It comes as a surprise, then, to realize that Gershwin was only 20 years older than Bernstein. If he seems more distant from us than his birthdate would suggest, it’s because died so young—of a brain tumor at age 38, just three years after his opera premiered. Had he lived even just through middle age, his work, which was growing deeper both musically and thematically, would have overlapped Bernstein’s, and how the two would have interacted would have been a source of endless fascination, just as Bernstein’s debts to and interactions with a longer-lived Gershwin contemporary—Aaron Copeland—are studied today.

So I mean to take nothing away from Lenny the Magnificent to note that before him, there was Gershwin the Great. ~ HAROLD MEYERSON

Friday, August 24, 2018

R.I.P. Lady Soul


Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It’s been hard to believe that Aretha Franklin is dead. Of course, rationally I knew she was a normal human being, a soul housed in a mortal body, and she would have to go sometime. But, like the also recently deceased Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, she seemed more than that, like an eternal institution of (African-)American culture who would on some level always be with us. Of course, in a way she always will be with us as long as records, films and memories survive, since it’s been one of the bizarre quirks of the modern recording industry that no major voice since the early 1900’s has ever died. As early as 1900 the Gramophone Company of London was promoting their invention with a long list of artists whose records were available — and the last few names on the list had “The Late” in front of them, letting people know that through the magic of recording performers could still continue to entertain them even after they were dead.
It took me a while to get into Aretha Franklin. When she broke through to superstardom in 1967 I was a 13-year-old white kid living — thanks to one of my mother’s weirder ideas — in the middle of Marin City, the so-called “gilded ghetto” in which affluent Marin County had housed most of its African-American population. It wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with Black music; if anything I might have been overfamiliar with it. Unlike most white kids my age in 1967 I knew who Dinah Washington was — and if you don’t know who Dinah Washington was, look her up on or YouTube right away. She was a Black jazz-pop-soul singer who emerged in the early 1940’s and built up a huge following in the Black community, but aside from a few hard-core jazz fans almost no whites had heard of her until 1959, when her breakthrough record of “What a Difference a Day Made” — a 1920’s pop song she gave a full soul-R&B treatment — hit the white charts.
So when this heavy-set Black woman came over on our TV, pounding gospel chords on a piano and lamenting that she had never loved a man the way she loved her no-good liar and cheat in one song and then demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the next, I didn’t know what to make of her. My first thought was, “She’s got all Dinah Washington’s power but none of her subtlety.” What turned me around was the release of Aretha: Lady Soul, her third album for Atlantic Records, in 1968. There was a small-print notation on the back cover saying that the guitar obbligato on one song, “Good to Me as I Am to You,” was provided by “Eric Clapton of ‘Cream’,” and if the intent behind that was to get white boys (and girls) to listen to this album and take Aretha Franklin seriously as an artist, it worked for me.
Years later I read Eric Clapton’s autobiography, in which he recalled that session. He said he’d walked into the studio, seen all those great Black guitar players and wondered, “What the hell does she need me for?” But he played a beautiful part on a song from an album whose 10 songs were of consistently high quality. Three of them — “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “(Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” — became major single hits. Any of the other seven could have. She tore into “Money Won’t Change You,” effectively evoked Ray Charles by covering his “Come Back, Baby,” created a beautiful pastoral mood on the Rascals’ “Groovin’” (her first of many great covers of white pop-rock hits), ended the album righteously with her sister Carolyn’s composition “Ain’t No Way,” and went back to her Black church roots with Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”:

I believe, I believe,
I believe, I do believe.
People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’
Don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’.
You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.

In last year’s PBS series American Epic, dealing with the crisis that faced the recording industry in the late 1920’s when radio came in, and their response — which was to start recording Black folk, blues and gospel acts, as well as white country singers, who were popular in out-of-the-way rural communities hadn’t penetrated yet — one of the commentators argued that singers like Aretha Franklin and James Brown were heirs to the spiritual traditions of African-American churches and the gospel songs performed in them. In Aretha’s case, that was literally true: her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, worked for decades as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, the largest and most prestigious Black church in Aretha’s hometown of Detroit, Michigan.
Though he’d been an a cappella group singer briefly before he entered the ministry, Rev. Franklin neither sang nor played an instrument when he preached. Yet he became the number one best-selling artist on the Chicago-based Chess record label — at a time when its roster included Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf — even though his Chess albums were simply recordings of his sermons. His son, Rev. Carl Franklin, succeeded him in the pulpit at New Bethel and appeared with Aretha on a live gospel album she recorded there in 1986, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. Rev. C. L. Franklin’s three daughters — Aretha, Erma and Carolyn — all pursued careers in music, Carolyn as a songwriter for her sister and Erma as a soul star in her own right. In 1967 Erma Franklin made the first record of the Bert Berns-Jerry Ragovoy song “Piece of My Heart,” which a year later would become the star-making hit for Janis Joplin.
So in 1956, when Rev. C. L. Franklin informed Leonard and Phil Chess, the white Jewish brothers who owned his record label, that his 14-year-old daughter Aretha wanted to record a gospel album, they weren’t about to risk offending their best-selling artist by saying no. They said, “When and where?,” and the album was duly made. It didn’t sell much, but four years later at age 18 Aretha Franklin was ready to break out of the church and establish herself as a secular soul singer the way other great Black talents like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke had done. She got a start when she hooked up with a Black songwriter named Curtis Lewis and he used her to record a demo — a demonstration record with which he could hopefully sell one or more of his songs to a record producer and get them recorded by a major artist.
The demo found its way to the legendary producer John Hammond at Columbia Records. In the 1930’s he’d produced the last recordings by the great blues singer Bessie Smith, had helped launch Benny Goodman’s career and had discovered and signed Billie Holiday and Count Basie. In 1960 he was rebuilding his career at Columbia, had given a major-label contract to formerly blacklisted Left-wing folksinger Pete Seeger and was about to land another major talent, Bob Dylan. Hammond heard Lewis’s demo and fixated on one song, “Today I Sing the Blues,” partly because he was sure he’d heard it before. He had: in 1947 he had recorded it with Helen Humes, the jazz singer who’d replaced Billie Holiday with Count Basie, and then it had been credited as a Lewis-Humes co-composition.
But it wasn’t just the song that struck Hammond’s ear. “I was distracted by the singer,” he recalled in his 1975 autobiography. “Her name was Aretha Franklin, and even at first hearing, on a poorly made demo intended to sell songs rather than the singer, she was the most dynamic jazz voice I’d encountered since Billie. I wanted her for Columbia.” Unlike some of Hammond’s other discoveries, who had been total unknowns when he signed them, he had to compete for Aretha. Sam Cooke, who had become a soul star at RCA Victor after starting out with a gospel group called the Soul Stirrers, was trying to land Aretha, whom he knew well because the Soul Stirrers had frequently performed at Rev. Franklin’s church. She also auditioned for Berry Gordy’s up-and-coming Motown label, which in a way would have made sense — the daughter of Detroit’s leading Black minister recording for Detroit’s Black-owned record label — but Gordy turned her down as “too rough,” ironically the same words another Black label owner, W. C. Handy, had used in turning down Bessie Smith 40 years before.
Ultimately Hammond signed Aretha to Columbia — but then ran into a solid wall of corporate politics that prevented him from recording her the way he wanted to. He quickly lost control of Aretha’s career as the “suits” at Columbia decided that the way to make Aretha Franklin a star was to copy the format that had broken Dinah Washington at Mercury. They even hired Clyde Otis, who’d produced “What a Difference a Day Made” and many of Dinah’s other big hits at Mercury — and who’d been one of the first African-Americans to work as a producer at a major white-owned label — to come to Columbia and produce Aretha the same way. The result was the series of bizarre misfires that music writers have been making fun of ever since, including songs like “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” that became Aretha’s only Columbia recording to nose its way into the white pop charts.
Aretha Franklin’s recordings during her years at Columbia, 1961 to 1966, remain one of the most misunderstood parts of her career. They’ve often been ridiculed, sometimes by people who’ve never heard any of them. In the early 1980’s Columbia issued a CD compilation called Aretha Sings the Blues which is a pretty good record when it actually features Aretha singing the blues. It includes several tracks from the memorial album Aretha did to Dinah Washington, Unforgettable, in February 1964 — just two months after Dinah’s death — which are good but nowhere near the bravado and intensity of Dinah’s own recordings. It features her slogs through white pop like “Drinking Again” and “Only the Lonely” (the song Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen wrote for Frank Sinatra — not Roy Orbison’s song of the same title, which might have actually been a good vehicle for Aretha), as well as some tracks from a live date including Chippie Hill’s 1920’s blues “Trouble in Mind” and Lou Rawls’ pop-blues hit “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water.”
When I got Aretha Sings the Blues in the 1980’s I listened to it and noticed all the songs on which Aretha seems miscast, as well as the Dinah Washington covers and the songs that almost work — including the inevitable “Today I Sing the Blues,” the song that had attracted Hammond to her in the first place. Then, on the album’s very last song, “Maybe I’m a Fool,” it all comes together. From the hammering gospel piano chords that launch the piece to the entry of the voice, fully in command of her style and her material, driving home her tale of woe that she’s stuck on a no-good man, but if that’s foolish, then maybe she’s a fool, she’s at the top of her game, delivering her message with dramatic power and punch. When she cries out her own name in the middle of the release, it’s just one more dagger of pure emotion hurled at the listener, personalizing her tale of woe and making it unforgettable.
Surely, I thought, “Maybe I’m a Fool” must have been one of her very last recordings for Columbia. It so totally anticipates the masterpieces she would uncork and loose upon the world once she switched labels to Atlantic in 1967, one thinks it could only be the work of a singer who’d already worked out her style and was ready to make a series of songs of similar righteous power. Then I looked at the credits on the CD booklet and found that “Maybe I’m a Fool” was actually one of Aretha’s first records for Columbia, recorded January 10, 1961 and the only track on Aretha Sings the Blues personally produced by John Hammond. So the bitter comments about the end of her Columbia tenure in Hammond’s autobiography — “The musical misuse and eventual loss of Aretha as a recording artist disturbed me greatly, not least because her career since leaving Columbia has fulfilled every confidence I had in her” — aren’t the usual sour grapes of a record executive who signs an artist, gets nowhere with her, then sees her become a superstar somewhere else.
John Hammond knew. He knew not only that Aretha Franklin had the potential for superstardom, he knew what kind of material would get her there. He was a friend of Jerry Wexler, who took over her production when she moved to Atlantic, “and [I] knew he would return her to the gospel-rooted material she should be recording,” Hammond wrote. “She had every musicianly quality I thought she had. All she needed was to hold to her roots in the church.”

Aretha, Gospel, Soul and “First-Itis”

Certainly anyone who knew anything about Aretha Franklin’s music could hear its roots in the African-American church. She even sneaked almost pure gospel songs onto otherwise secular records, including “People Get Ready” on Lady Soul and “Are You Sure?” on her very first Columbia album, The Great Aretha Franklin. One of the most revealing anecdotes about Aretha’s roots came from Carole King, who with her then-husband Gerry Goffin wrote “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” King remembered that when Goffin came home with the great news that they had been asked to write a song for Aretha Franklin, the first thing she did was to sit at her piano and start hammering out gospel chords.
But in acknowledging Aretha’s roots in gospel and the African-American church, a number of the people memorializing her went too far and succumbed to the disease I call “first-itis,” the tendency of biographers to say that the person they’re biographing was the first one to do something even though there were plenty of people who did it before them. The Rev. Al Sharpton appeared on MS-NBC the day Aretha’s death was announced and said that she was the first person to bring the sounds of gospel to the pop music charts. Nonsense. There are many aspects in which Aretha Franklin was a trailblazer, but that wasn’t one of them. Dinah Washington had done it before her. So had Ray Charles, whose 1954 single “I Got a Woman” was called the first gospel-derived song to become a pop hit in the on-the-spot memorials when he died.
Indeed, the first example I can think of (and I’m hedging here because someone with even more knowledge of musical history than I may be able to come up with an even earlier one) of a singer bringing the sounds of gospel to the hit parade was in 1941, when Sister Rosetta Tharpe (another one of those names in music history that if you don’t already know her, you should) left her career as a gospel singer, joined Lucky Millinder’s swing band and had a hit in “Shout, Sister, Shout.” She followed it up with “That’s All,” a piece she’d already recorded as a gospel song with just her acoustic guitar, and redid it with Millinder, playing an electric guitar and rocking it out. Films exist of Tharpe playing these songs with Millinder, and while he stands in front of a tight-knit band of neatly attired Black men in identical suits, sitting behind music stands reading an arrangement, Tharpe looks like she’s beamed in from 20 years later. She looms over the band, holding a huge guitar and playing as loud as they are, rocking out in time to the music and playing stabbing lead guitar parts to her own voice. (Among other things, Sister Rosetta Tharpe invented shredding.)
What Aretha did do that was unique was bridge the wall that had traditionally existed between the gospel audience and that for Black rhythm-and-blues. Tharpe had tried it, but after a few years in the secular music world doing ribald novelties like “I Want a Tall, Skinny Papa” she went back to gospel and never looked back. Sam Cooke tried it and literally got booed off the stage. A few months before his still-mysterious death in 1964, Cooke’s friend Rebert Harris, who had recruited him as his replacement in the Soul Stirrers in 1951 and then returned to the group when Cooke left, saw him in the audience at a Soul Stirrers concert and called him to the stage to join in. The response was a lot of shocked screams from the audience, cat-calls and fortissimo denunciations like, “Get that blues singer off the stage! This is a Christian program!”
So when Aretha decided at the height of her soul-star career to return to gospel music and make the Amazing Grace album for Atlantic in 1972 — recording it live at the New Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with the church’s regular choir backing her — it was a major risk to her career. Would the church audience accept a woman who, despite her roots and status as the daughter of one of the country’s most influential Black ministers, had become a celebrity singing blues-soul laments about being part of a chain of fools? Would the non-church audience, including the white people who’d taken up her music and learned to cherish it, buy an album of religious songs? As things turned out, it sold more than two million copies and became the most commercially successful album Aretha ever made. It also won Aretha the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance. She was revered enough in her own community that she could take the stage in a church and not only not get booed off, but move the audience and sell them records.

Aretha’s Limitations

Another silly thing Rev. Sharpton said about Aretha on MS-NBC was that “she could sing anything.” She couldn’t. On the 1998 Grammy Awards telecast she proved there was a sort of music she couldn’t sing — opera — when for some unearthly reason she was drafted to replace an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and sing the big tenor aria, “Nessun dorma” (“None shall sleep”), from Puccini’s last opera, Turandot. Singing a piece in an idiom totally unfamiliar to her, in a language she didn’t understand, and which had been written for a man, Aretha came up with a messy performance that was a testament to her professionalism, her sense of responsibility and her determination that, in the old showbiz axiom, “the show must go on.” What it wasn’t was great music.
Nor — much more oddly — could Aretha sing jazz. That’s surprising, especially since Dinah Washington, whose career anticipated Aretha’s in so many respects, was a superb jazz singer. Whether on those early Columbia records on which John Hammond was trying to turn her into the next Billie Holiday, or a later piece like her version of “Moody’s Mood for Love” (the vocalese piece by Clarence “King Pleasure” Beeks based on James Moody’s recorded jazz improvisation on Jimmy McHugh’s song “I’m in the Mood for Love”) on what’s otherwise one of her best later Atlantic albums, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), she simply didn’t feel the softer, subtler rhythms of jazz. She needed the rock-solid rhythms of gospel, R&B and soul to be at her best, and she knew it. Hammond acknowledged in his autobiography that as many jazz musicians as he tried to pack into her studio bands, “Aretha always insisted on having a rock drummer.”
Aretha Franklin did the best work of her career in the late 1960’s, on her first three albums for Atlantic Records. Later she could still sing beautifully, and within her limits she commanded a wide range of material, from romantic ballads like “With Pen in Hand” to rockers like “Sister from Texas.” But her career at Atlantic trailed off in the 1970’s and her final album for the label, Aretha La Diva, was an embarrassing collaboration with Black songwriter and bandleader Van McCoy, best known for his instrumental “The Hustle.” She switched to Clive Davis’s Arista label in the early 1980’s, and Davis threw her into some unsuitable collaborations — duets with white singers George Michael and Elton John and a whole album with Luther Vandross, Jump to It, that was as lame as Aretha La Diva. It might have seemed that Aretha’s career as a creative musician was over and it was time to greet each new album with, “Remember her when … ?”
Then she did another return to her roots, making the double album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism in 1986 and bracketing it with the 1985 release Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and a 1987 album simply called Aretha. Who’s Zoomin’ Who began with the hit “Freeway of Love” and also included the feminist duet “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” with Annie Lennox of Eurythmics (which appeared on a Eurythmics album as well). While she could have used a stronger duet partner than George Michael on “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” on Aretha — her supercharged Black gospel voice totally wipes the floor with Michael’s British white-boy whine — Aretha has one intense song after another: “Jimmy Lee,” a searing cover of “Jumping Jack Flash,” a song oddly called “Rock-a-Lott” (as in, “I like to rock a lot,” which she did), and one of her quirky covers of a white show tune, Burton Lane’s and E. Y. Harburg’s “Look to the Rainbow” from the 1946 musical Finian’s Rainbow.

Aretha: Down to Earth

One of the biggest things I like about Aretha Franklin is how down-to-earth she was. It’s a testament to her strength not only as a musician but as a human being that she lived to be 76. She kept enough faith in the values she’d learned in her dad’s church that she didn’t drink, smoke or drug herself to an early death the way Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Judy Garland did before her or Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston (whose mom Cissy Houston was a member of the vocal trio, the Sweet Inspirations — itself a gospel-derived name! — that sang backup for both Aretha and Elvis Presley) and Amy Winehouse did later. And for the most part she was able to keep her private life private; like Ella Fitzgerald, another great African-American voice who avoided the pitfalls of superstardom, lived to a great age and had all the rewards, artistic and commercial, to which her talents entitled her, she lived her life quietly, appearing in public only when it was time to sing, and kept from being dragged through the tabloids.
Another fascinating thing about Aretha Franklin is that she knew exactly what she was worth and demanded to be paid accordingly. According to John Hammond, after she left Columbia some of the company’s executives decided to dub additional string and brass parts on her Columbia recordings to make them sound more like her Atlantic hits. “I was heartily against it, which cut no ice,” Hammond recalled. “Aretha was equally against it, which did. Believing that Columbia had violated her contract by altering the original accompaniments of her records, she sued. The out-of-court settlement cost the company lots of money.”
Aretha’s determination to be paid what she felt she was worth turned up again in 1970, when rock promoter Bill Graham decided to hire her for the Fillmore West in San Francisco. She learned what he was planning to pay her and said no way. Only after Atlantic offered to record her Fillmore West gig for a live album did Aretha agree to play there because the fee for the recording, added to Bill Graham’s offer, sweetened the pot enough to make the job worth her while. With the hot R&B band of saxophonist King Curtis (which accompanied Aretha as well as playing the opening set — and giving Atlantic a live album of him as well), Aretha’s Live at the Fillmore West turned out to be one of the most powerful records of her career.
Knowing her audience, she trotted out a lot of her covers of white rock songs — Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and David Gates and Bread’s “Make It with You” — and turned up the emotional temperature on all of them. (Her cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which returns the song to its gospel roots, is especially beautiful.) She also does some songs from the Black tradition, including a version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” even faster, angrier and more assertive than her studio recording; singing the original flip side of “Respect,” the neo-blues “Dr. Feelgood,” and doing her then-current singles — her cover of Ben E. King’s “Don’t Play That Song” and her own “Spirit in the Dark.” The surprise guest appearance of Ray Charles joining her on “Spirit in the Dark” is just frosting on an already incredibly rich cake.
Aretha’s determination to assert herself financially as well as musically came out again in 2011, when she went to war against Warner Brothers over the proposed release of a documentary film of the making of her 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace. The film had been shot during the original rehearsal sessions and live concerts, but the original director, the late Sydney Pollack, wasn’t able to complete a releasable version because of problems synchronizing the picture and sound. Just before his death Pollack gave the footage to producer Alan Elliott, who put a releasable version together and announced it would be released in 2011. Aretha sued him for using her likeness without permission. Warners, which had also owned Atlantic Records in 1972, claimed that Aretha’s original contract authorized them to release the film without additional payment.
In 2015 Warner Bros. announced that Amazing Grace would be screened at upcoming film festivals in Telluride, Toronto and Chicago. Aretha immediately filed for injunctions to block the film’s public showing and announced that her price for the rights was $1 million, non-negotiable. When a judge in the case granted her injunction against the Telluride festival, Aretha issued a public statement saying, “Justice, respect and what is right prevailed and one’s right to own their own self-image.” Warners offered to screen the film privately for Aretha, hoping that seeing it might persuade her to allow its release. She refused.

Aretha’s Legacy

Perhaps the greatest legacy Aretha Franklin leaves behind is a huge multi-racial audience for the raw, intense, emotional singing of African-American artists drawing on the gospel tradition. In fairness to the “suits” at Columbia Records who treated her so ineptly in the early 1960’s, it’s not all that clear that there would have been the white market for Aretha’s unvarnished soul in 1961 that there was in 1967. It’s arguable that white listeners had to be “prepped” by Motown’s pop-soul — Motown made great records that drew on the gospel-soul tradition, but Berry Gordy and his producers shaved down the rough edges of their artists and made records that soothed rather than seared — to accept the real deal.
Aretha Franklin was the right artist at the right time to break down the walls that had existed between Black and white music. Earlier singers like Nat “King” Cole, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Mathis and Sam Cooke had cracked the white market, but only by fusing their tradition with the soft, romantic sounds of the white crooners. Even Ray Charles, with his roots in the gospel tradition, only became a mega-seller to white audiences when he largely abandoned original R&B material and applied his soul style to white pop and country songs. Dinah Washington and Otis Redding might have brought the pure soul style to mass white audiences, but they died too soon — Dinah of a prescription drug overdose in 1963 and Otis in a plane crash in 1967.
Though a lot of the baby divas — white, Black and Latina — who clog the charts today have been claimed as Aretha’s heirs, there are surprisingly few singers around who have truly built on her style. Jill Scott, a powerful soul singer whom I remember seeing on a TV tribute to Aretha and thinking was the only other artist on the program who deserved to be on the same stage with Lady Soul, is one. So is Jennifer Hudson, whose star-making turn in Dreamgirls — which in its way is a musical about what might have happened if a singer with the power and “edge” of Aretha had found herself stuck in a pop-soul group like the Supremes — got people saying “the next Aretha” about her.
And one of the biggest surprises I’ve had listening to music lately has been a Black gospel singer named Marbisa. I was in the home of someone who had on a “Christian rock” station, and I was startled that in the middle of the musical pablum that is most “Christian rock” I was suddenly hearing a great soul voice belting out a song called “Unfinished.” However, like Cassietta George of the Caravans — a contemporary of Aretha’s who could have had a comparable career had she not chosen to remain in the gospel world and avoid the temptation of a secular career — Marbisa seems content to remain in Christian music and not pursue the superstar soul career that would probably be hers for the asking.

Aretha Franklin proved that you could have it all — artistically, commercially, career-wise. She achieved incredible success and she did it on her own terms. She brought real, uncompromising Black gospel-soul to a white audience. She took this music out of the church and put it on the charts, and through her huge catalog of recordings her voice will live on. If you believe in Heaven, its music just got a whole lot better.