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Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012

Neil Armstrong, who recently died at the age of 82, was the first man on the moon. As a Generation Xer who barely recalls watching his first lunar step on television, I am still in awe that those words as I write them are true. Neil Armstrong’s achievement is one of the greatest moments in history.

His name is synonymous with the best scientific event of what many consider the American century – the 20th century – which was actually man’s bloodiest century. Now in the spiral of a serious decline, it is easier to see that Mr. Armstrong’s tremendous accomplishment of flying and landing Apollo 11 is a grand counterpoint to the rest of the rotten century, which included the worst acts of mass murder sponsored by government known to man: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Putting a man on the moon, overly credited to President Kennedy and powered by less computer technology than is currently included in an Apple iPhone, required an enormous exertion of united American – and it was an American achievement – effort that resulted from tireless thoughts, calculations, connections, integrations and actions by those who worked on and participated in the endeavor – in a nation based on individual rights. As Ayn Rand, who had been invited to witness the launch of Apollo 11—and did—wrote in her publication, The Objectivist, after seeing Apollo 11’s rocket ship blast off:

Frustration is the leitmotif in the lives of most men, particularly today—the frustration of inarticulate desires, with no knowledge of the means to achieve them. In the sight and hearing of a crumbling world, Apollo 11 enacted the story of an audacious purpose, its execution, its triumph, and the means that achieved it—the story and the demonstration of man’s highest potential.”

The U.S. astronaut who told us that “the eagle has landed” in that remarkably human action on July 20, 1969, and took man’s first step on the moon – a fact which some, possibly many, of humanity has contempt for – was Neil Armstrong. May he who gave us the sublime sight of man at his best rest in peace.

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News: Rodney King is Dead

The man whose arrest and beating led to a government/media response that incurred the worst U.S. riot of the 20th century has been found dead, according to news reports (read my recent post on the Los Angeles riots here). His body was found by his fiancee in their home’s swimming pool 55 miles from Los Angeles. He was 47 years old.

I always thought convicted felon Rodney King was a sad person, whose eyes held such pain and sorrow when he spoke about what became of the city of angels in the wake of what he did and what was done to him. His famously uttered plea – “can we all get along?” – was immediately interpreted as some sort of universal challenge for everyone to love one another. But I think he spoke in desperation, as an exasperated, flawed black man suffering under the additional burden of racism, particularly the racism of those claiming to advocate on his behalf who were in some way demanding of him a duty to serve his race. Racism among blacks is as despicable as racism among any other race and its consequences are devastating (as I noted here in a post about an accomplished black journalist).

King, who recently wrote a book titled The Riot Within in which he expressed doubts about comparisons to Rosa Parks and other black heroes, seemed from the beginning of his unwanted fame to grasp that he was not a hero and he never seemed comfortable with being portrayed as a victim. That his body was found on Father’s Day is a reminder that being a man is about the sum of one’s choices, which form one’s character, not the blood in one’s veins. The sad, criminal life of Rodney King, who was arrested 11 times after the 1992 L.A. riots, is a lesson in how not to be a man.

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Donna Summer

I am sad to hear that Donna Summer has died of cancer at 63. Though not a fan of disco, I like her danceable songs, especially “Heaven Knows”. I also like her rock tunes, such as “She Works Hard for the Money”. I liked her 2008 album so much that I choreographed and danced a routine to one of its tracks, an anthem called “Stamp Your Feet”. What I wrote on my blog in August 2008 about what turns out to be her last album:

“The year’s most exciting pop album is Donna Summer’s Crayons, which includes the former disco diva’s varietal takes on reggae, electronic pop and a hypnotically romantic melody, “Sand on My Feet” [written for her husband, Bruce Sudano, who survives her]. The CD is dedicated to Summer’s husband and it features the single, “Stamp Your Feet,” which she performed earlier this year on American Idol. Crayons is an excellent piece of work and you’ll never think of Donna Summer—whose concert I’m attending this weekend—as only a disco diva again. Top tracks: the smooth, sensual “Drivin Down Brazil,” which makes you want to light some candles, the raunchy Tina Turner-esque “Slide Over Backwards,” and the rock-n-roll number “Fame (the Game)” which mocks going Hollywood. Also worth a listen: “Science of Love” and “Be Myself Again”. These songs ought to get a hearing in the nightclubs.”

Rest in peace, Donna Summer.

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Dick Clark, 1929 – 2012

I don’t know what it was that I liked about Dick Clark, who died in Santa Monica, California, this morning, but I think it has something central to do with accessibility. Whether he was hosting American Bandstand on ABC and asking the questions you’d want to ask of the latest rock star or recording artist of your new favorite hit song, being happy about New Year’s Eve or reacting to some mistake or crucial error made on one of the inflationary incarnations of his game show The $10,000 Pyramid, Dick Clark, like his name, was always conveying openness. Access – to music, money won for clear thinking and spectacular performances – was his credo.

It all began, according to most of today’s voluminous obituaries, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he started hosting what became American Bandstand in 1957. His tenure there – the music and dance show ran on ABC until 1989, moving to Los Angeles, California in 1964 – parallels America’s post-industrial climax of the late 20th century. His Bandstand reign took us through energetic rock-n-roll, racial integration and an end to “whites and coloreds” and a superficial post-war economic boom until an abrupt end in the 1990s, which ushered in an era of rap, grunge, “people of color” political correctness and cultural nihilism, political disunity and economic hardship. Dick Clark kept doing his thing.

Besides being accessible, he was honest. I am too young to remember the early Bandstand years that my Baby Boomer friends recall with fondness, and frankly his annual New Year’s Rockin’ Eve was always a last resort in my home, but he was an underappreciated asset for both Bandstand and Pyramid. His rapport with teen-agers on Bandstand‘s Rate-a-Record segment was punctuated with sharp comments, wry retorts to sullen teens and his congenial manner shouldn’t obscure what were keen insights and intelligent questions of artists – top actors played on Pyramid and he often engaged them about their past and present performances, expressing sincere admiration for their works – and in this sense he was deeply influential in the culture.

Perhaps Dick Clark was primarily a businessman, adopting the Andrew Carnegie model for vertical business integration across multiple platforms and profiting from his various ventures. As he reportedly told the New York Times in 1961, “I get enormous pleasure and excitement sitting in on conferences with accountants, tax experts and lawyers.” I know firsthand that his Santa Monica screening room is one of the most cordial, friendly places to attend advance movie screenings; it bears the mark of his personal attention to detail. Clark started working in the mailroom of his father’s radio station at 17 and he went on to produce or have a hand in producing everything from scads of meaningless awards shows to Murder in Texas (1981) with Farrah Fawcett and Sam Elliott, director John Carpenter’s excellent television movie Elvis (1979) starring Kurt Russell, a 1973 TV special for singer Roberta Flack, The First Time Ever, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Dick Clark was a pioneer in racial integration. “We didn’t do it because we were do-gooders, or liberals,” he said, according to the Times. “It was just a thing we thought we ought to do.” His early broadcasting hero, he said, was Arthur Godfrey. “I emulated him,” Clark said. “I loved him, I adored him, because he had the ability to communicate to one person who was listening or watching. Most people would say, in a stentorian voice, ‘Good evening, everyone.’ Everyone? Godfrey knew there was only one person listening at a time.”

I think my favorite moment was a few years ago when he returned to the New Year’s Eve broadcast after a seriously debilitating stroke, an act of courage that was ridiculed by TV’s cynics and malcontents who unfortunately have taken his place on television. Though I’d never been a fan of his rockin’ eves, on that particular New Year’s Eve I wanted to stand up and cheer. Dick Clark, who made his living by being an attractive and articulate host, was parodied for being “America’s teen-ager” for being perpetually youthful, and died this morning at 82, said to hell with it and went before millions of viewers exactly as he was. That night, he told the viewer: “Last year I had a stroke. It left me in bad shape. I had to teach myself how to walk and talk again. It’s been a long, hard fight. My speech is not perfect but I’m getting there.” He added: “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”

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Cathie Wright, 1929 – 2012

Former California State Senator Cathie Wright died this morning at 9 a.m. from complications of dementia at her home in Simi Valley, her daughter, who was at her side, told me earlier today. She was 82. I first met her a few years ago at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum during an event featuring comedian Dennis Miller. We hit it off and had planned to work together. Sadly, Mrs. Wright, who served Simi Valley, Ventura County and California in city council, state Assembly and state Senate, and had run against Gray Davis for lieutenant governor in 1994, became ill before we really got started, though we remained friends. She was a tough and independent legislator who, like me, was born in Pennsylvania and raised as a Roman Catholic, which she remained until the end. I will miss Cathie Wright. She was decent, honest and even-handed. Right now, I am thinking of her only child, Victoria Catherine, and her granddaughter, and those lucky enough to have known the indomitable Cathie Wright. May she rest in peace.

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