Cranston for President

As soon as I heard Bryan Cranston say “It’s not personal, it’s just politics” in a TV commercial for “All the Way,” I knew I had to see the show.

I mean, come on.

Like good little nerds, my sister and I, with our friend Kate in tow, went to the show on Friday night and all gave it rave reviews.

Cranston plays LBJ in the first year of his presidency – the play opens with him on Air Force One, having just been sworn in following JFK’s assassination – as he works to pass the Civil Rights Act and run for election in 1964.

In my unprofessional opinion, this play was tremendous. It wasn’t necessarily the story itself that I loved, but the way the story was told. It followed different groups of people seeking different endgames through the same situations: LBJ trying to procure votes for the Civil Rights Act; Martin Luther King, Jr. working with fellow activists on a plan to ensure the Act included provisions they wanted; and long-tenured politicians fighting against its passage.

The play told the story of three disparate desires, but connected them in clear, logical ways. Sometimes, multiple stories shared the stage. It was often set up like a split-screen. You’d see MLK on one side, LBJ on the other. Each would have his moment to act out the scene, and then the next actor would begin telling his side of the story. It wasn’t rapid-fire or back-and-forth, but it helped me understand how the stories were intertwined. As the action shifted from one setting to another, often from a room in the White House to a hotel room MLK and his team were staying in, it sometimes seemed as though they shared a passing glance, as if to toss to the next guy and the next scene. They were acting separately, but aware of each other’s every move.

And then there was Bryan Cranston. I think he’s one of those actors you just know will be amazing, no matter the role. I’ve never seen Breaking Bad, which is what I think most people love him for. But whether he’s the CIA director in Argo or Ted Mosby’s boss in How I Met Your Mother, I think you can sense there’s something great about him.

He certainly was great in this. I don’t know exactly what LBJ was like, and maybe Cranston played a bit more of a caricature than he did real person, but he clearly wanted to represent the man himself onstage, with all his political genius and all his personal insecurities. The NYT did an interesting story on Cranston’s preparation for the role, which included a video of his trip to the Times‘ archives in search of information on the president. I also love the story’s pictures of Cranston and the cast in rehearsal. I never think about the stripped-down rehearsals a Broadway cast had to go through in order to get to the elaborate final production.

I also loved discovering that one of my obscure little obsessions had a connection to this play. John McMartin, who I later found out is a veteran stage actor with multiple Tony nominations, played a senator set on blocking passage of the Civil Rights Act. Before “All the Way,” I knew him as the editor of the foreign section in my beloved All the President’s Men. He delivers one of my favorite lines in the movie while expressing his skepticism over the paper’s aggressive Watergate coverage: “Where did the Washington Post suddenly get the monopoly on wisdom?” (A clip of this scene is nowhere to be found on the internet because I’m the only person who’d watch it. Just trust me. He delivers the line perfectly.)  I love that McMartin is still going strong, and it was cool to see him on the stage.

I don’t think “All the Way” will be on Broadway much longer, though I’m sure it will run past the upcoming Tony awards. If you love Bryan Cranston, great acting, or American history, it will enthrall you.

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Recently Read: “Watergate”

The book: Watergate, by Thomas Mallon (2012)

The reason I bought Watergate? I judged the book by its cover. Earlier this year, I was killing time in a Barnes and Noble and noticed it in a “New Paperbacks” section – the cover immediately caught my attention for its bareness, its simplicity, and for the fact that it was about Watergate, the scandal that has long held a strange fascination for me. After spending a couple months jostling amidst gum-covered quarters and cap-less pens in my purse, my copy is no longer in good shape, but just look how visually appealing this cover is:

watergate cover

Watergate is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. It is technically a historical novel, but not in the way I’d originally understood the term. It isn’t fictional events presented in the context of a true historical event; it is true events, presented as fiction. At times, I forgot I was even dealing with history. I became so engrossed in the characters and their lives as they played out in Thomas Mallon’s invented Watergate world that I forgot it wasn’t actually the world in which they happened.

My biggest complaint about Watergate is that it was too long. I’m not brimming with suggestions for what could be cut out, but for me, it dragged in parts of its 429 pages. Some sub-plots seemed designed to distract from Nixon’s inevitable resignation. I still enjoyed it, though, even if it was less for the story itself and more for the way it forced me to rethink the way I think about novels – is that meta enough for you?

I figured there was enough out there – enough imaginary characters, enough true stories that have gone untold – that an author would find it unnecessary to reinvent an already exhausted wheel. We already know how Richard Nixon’s story ends, so why bring it up again and twist things around? I’m not sure Watergate helped me answer that question, but I like that it forced me to ask it in the first place.

Despite my complaints about its length, it wasn’t just the novel’s structure that kept me engrossed. It was also how Mallon wrote. His descriptions of characters’ physical movements and inner thoughts allowed me to visualize every part of a scene.

Other assorted Watergate tidbits, from characters to themes and turns of phrase:

  • This book made me realize how much of my fascination with the scandal was tied to the journalism. Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee & Co. were barely mentioned in this book – but they were my Watergate heroes, not Sam Ervin and Elliot Richardson! At first, I kept waiting for a juicy scene to take place in the Washington Post newsroom. Once I realized that would never happen, I learned to look at Watergate from another angle: The scandal was a product of Richard Nixon’s own ineptitude, not of Woodward and Bernstein’s heroics.
  • In Mallon’s Watergate world, the men are insecure fraidy cats who just so happen to be in power because they’re men; you get the sense it’s the women who could have really run the show, if only the pathetic men weren’t holding them back. Pat Nixon especially is very careful in her considerations and calculations during the scandal – and she never says it outright, but Mallon makes it pretty clear she’s smarter than her husband. Pat wound up being my favorite character. Her feelings seemed the most developed. She wasn’t a dynamic character in the context of this book, but she’s portrayed as being quite different from the smiling lady on Nixon’s arm she may have seemed during the 70s (I honestly don’t know much about how Pat Nixon was perceived during her tenure in the White House, but I got the feeling that Watergate made her out to be the rebel she was not in real life.) She’s smart, understands all facets of the issue, and…gasp! has a lover. (I know. It sounds soapy. But that sub-plot really works.)
  • Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, is a prominent figure in this story. I’m still not sure I totally connect the dots with Alice and the other characters (a review from Slate helped me understand Alice’s place, though, when it discussed the way this novel sheds light on those at the scandal’s periphery rather than on its major players), but her sharp tongue provided some of my favorite lines in the book. “It will be an intense pleasure to lie to the Washington Post,” she tells Nixon on the night of his resignation, offering to decry his use of a quote from her father that she suggested he use in the first place. “That’s one more thing you and I share.”

I made many more notes on phrases I particularly liked, minor themes I noticed and more, but I won’t dissect them all here. Overall, though I felt lost in the sea of characters and sub-plots at times, I’d definitely recommend the book to someone who has a degree of familiarity with the scandal and wants to look at it – and storytelling in general – through a new lens.

Related P.S.: Watergate was in the spotlight last week with CNN Films’ Our Nixon, a documentary composed of Super 8 movie footage H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin filmed during their time in the White House. Like Watergate the novel, it provides a new look into the Nixon White House and the Watergate scandal. The whole time I watched, I kept thinking of  the Newsweek blurb on Watergate’s front cover, describing how the book portrayed Nixon as “comical, pitiable, tragic.” That’s how these home movies make him look, too. The videos and their revelations about Nixon as a person and administrator are depressing and mystifying. I’m not sure if CNN plans on releasing or re-airing the program, but it’s worth a watch.

I Love You, Toby Ziegler

I know this puts me about seven years behind the times, but I’ve spent an embarrassingly large portion of my last three weekends watching The West Wing on Netflix. I’ve never been much into politics or television dramas, but since I went through a brief Washington, D.C. obsession after reading a Ben Bradlee biography and watching House of Cards (and because my sister kept telling me how The West Wing was God’s one and only gift to television), I decided to give it a go.

The West Wing really is God’s one and only gift to television. (Well, maybe not the only gift. There’s also 30 Rock.)

Toby Ziegler, the Director of White House Communications on the show, has emerged as my favorite member of the Bartlet administration. What can I say? I’m a sucker for TV characters who speak with a biting wit, point out grammar mistakes and love pie.

My all-time (so far) favorite Toby moment, not included in the above montage:

I’m not an expert on political dramas or Aaron Sorkin shows, but I can’t get enough of The West Wing and the way it’s a drama mixed with a bit of workplace comedy. Another thing that intrigues me about this show (actually, about a lot of TV shows) is how it blends reality and fiction. Jay Leno, a real-life celebrity, shows up at a benefit for a fictional president. Real-life newspapers report on real-life political issues as they play out in a fictional White House. It’s not completely made-up, but it’s not completely real, either. I get it – this is TV, and of course Jay Leno would attend a benefit to support a president who stars in an NBC show – but the interplay between real and fictional issues and characters is intriguing.

I’m only on the second season, so there’s plenty more obsession to indulge. Let the Netflix binge continue.

My Feelings Exactly

To the Strand Bookstore employee who wrote this recommendation for Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin:

photo (8)

Those are my feelings exactly.

I am well over 100 pages into the book (701, to be exact), but that’s still how I feel. It may have taken me a few months to get there (I’m a slow reader already, and 750 dense pages don’t help speed things up), but I’m almost finished, and while I want the satisfaction of saying I read the whole thing, I really don’t want it to end. Like the Strand employee, I still want to spend all of my free time reading it. I still want my arms to hurt from holding it on the subway (slow reader, out of shape…the fun never stops here).

I know finishing a 750-page book is no accomplishment in the grand scheme of reading, but even more than being able to check this work off my list (by the end of this week, I hope), I feel as though I’ve come to know Lincoln, and some of the “rivals,” like William Henry Seward and Edwin Stanton, very closely. I’ve come to understand a time period in a much deeper and more complete way than I ever would have through a high school or college textbook.

Fifty pages from now, the book will be over and Lincoln, who seems to be in his prime right now as he starts his second term, gets the Thirteenth Amendment passed and starts working on a plan to negotiate peace with the Confederacy, will be gone. I only wish I was that Strand staffer who is just starting out.

P.S. – If you’re in New York, the Strand has several sparkling new copies of Team of Rivals just begging you to buy and read them. Do it!

Organization

What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word “September”?  Football?  Falling leaves?  For me, it’s a shiny yellow school bus chauffeuring cheerful young children to their elementary school.

Without making this post sound like the editor’s letter in a Real Simple-esque magazine, September really is full of possibility.  Vogue offers a gigantic issue with lots of ideas to help you “reinvent yourself.”  Stores everywhere are selling you fresh spiral notebooks and pencil pouches.

I have two more days of work left.  That’s a big deal for me, because it marks my final day of nannying ever (Lord willing).  Save for an even bigger recession or total elimination of any possible summer internship opportunities, I will be waving goodbye to the child-watching world and saying hello to the real world.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was a great gig while it lasted.  Minus a few major sibling fights, keys locked in the car, and maybe a few more major sibling fights, it was fun and lucrative.  Maybe it will turn me into a great mom someday.  But it’s time to move on.

And what better time to move on!  The way I see it, September is an even better fresh start than the new year…you’ve got a free ticket to making new friends, wearing different clothes, living in a different room, getting involved with different activities…the list goes on.

A few of my new school-year-resolutions?  First off, blog more.  Second, be more organized.  This will probably fail, because I’m pretty sure that’s been a resolution for the past seven years or so.  I’m reminded of the 30 Rock (yep, here it is again) episode where Liz Lemon buys loads of new organizational tools, is carrying them down the street in huge plastic bags, and is promptly hit by an oncoming biker.  She says, “I’m going to become wonderful!” and is down on the ground three seconds later.

But regardless of whether I fail or not, I’m going to spend the next few weeks before I leave home seriously considering what I want out of this school year.  It’s not September yet, but it’s not too early to start thinking about it.  What are your new-school-year resolutions?

P.S.: RIP Ted Kennedy.  That is not meant to be an insincere, obligatory sign-off; that would be a disgrace to someone who served as long and with as much dedication as Ted Kennedy.  After reading the New York Times’ obit, I am truly fascinated by Ted’s life in and out of the Senate and by Camelot in general.  If you’ve ever read a good book about Ted Kennedy and/or Kennedy family in general, let me know.