Gelbart and Schulberg: Two Writers Depart an Ever Stranger Land

certainly can argue that the depths to which our so-called democratic
dialogue has sunk are nothing new. Politicians and advocates have been
slinging mud since the earth was cool enough to hurl.

The undeniable difference today is the speed and variety of the compost
being thrown. With the 24-hour instantaneous delivery systems offered
by radio, TV and the Internet, people are feeling more and more
compelled to say ludicrous, shameful things in public that just a short
time ago they would have hesitated to say in private.

Rational pleas for ceasefires go unheeded. But this week, conservative
Rick Moran, the freelance writer (and brother of ABC News' Nightline co-host Terry Moran) who runs the archly named website Right Wing Nuthouse, went out on a limb and urged sanity.

He wrote, "Employing reason and rationality to fight Obama and the
liberals is far superior to the utter stupidity found in the baseless,
exaggerated, hyperbolic and ignorant critiques of the left and Obama
that is [sic] passed off as 'conservative' thought by those who haven't
a clue what conservatism means...

"Exaggeration is not argument. It is emotionalism run rampant. And at
its base is simple, unreasoning fear. Fear of change, fear that the
powerlessness conservatives feel right now is a permanent feature of
American politics, and, I am sorry to say, fear of Obama because he is
a black man."

Stir into this perverse brew some of the illogical bloviation being
bruited about in the chambers of the United States Congress and you
have the perfect recipe for the death of rational political discourse
in America.

Listen to Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada during the markup of
the health care reform bill in the Senate Finance Committee this week,
arguing that in comparison to other systems around the world, "If you
take out accidental deaths due to car accidents, and you take out gun
deaths because we like our guns in the United States and there are a
lot more gun deaths in the United States -- you take out those two
things, you adjust those, and we are actually better in terms of
survival rates." Huh?

Or Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana arguing that while he's in
favor of a public option, he can't vote for it because it won't get the
60 votes needed to break a filibuster -- in part because he won't vote
for it. For corkscrew sophistry, that ranks right up there with the
story of the American officer in Vietnam who said we had to destroy the
village to save it.

All of which brought to mind the summer's passing of two writer friends
and colleagues, each of whom had a sure grasp of mass hysteria and a
prescient eye for the demagoguery and bureaucratic bunco that are
running more rampant than ever.

Budd Schulberg died in August at the age of 95. We first met -- briefly
-- in 1975 at a public television auction where he was presenting a
pair of boxing gloves autographed by Muhammad Ali. Years later we would
serve together on the council of the Writers Guild of America, East.

The fight game was one of Budd's great passions -- his novel, The Harder They Fall,
perfectly captured the underside of the boxing world, its story loosely
based on that of world heavyweight champion Primo Carnero, a fighter
brought down by crooked managers.

Budd made three other great contributions to American literature. First, the classic Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run?,
an account of the movie business so graphically accurate and acerbic
(his father had been the head of Paramount), the studios offered to
ride him out of town on a rail -- the third rail, preferably. Its
antihero, the appallingly ambitious and grasping Sammy Glick, became a
synonym for the crassness of show business and more.

"It was America," Schulberg wrote. "All the glory and opportunity, the push and the speed, the grind of gears and the crap."

Budd relished the story that Tom Cruise wanted to make a movie version of the book -- if they could just make Sammy a little nicer.

To that literary success, add the Academy Award-winning screenplay for On the Waterfront and Schulberg's script for the movie A Face in the Crowd, a stunningly prophetic look at media, the cult of personality and their impact on American society and politics.

Its main character, a talk show host named Lonesome Rhodes, is a
ratings smash whose folksy charm hides a ruthless, country-fried
fascist with political aspirations -- Sammy Glick with hayseed in his

Sounding remarkably like the Limbaughs and Becks of today, he
proclaims, "I'm not just an entertainer. I'm an influence, a wielder of
opinion, a force... a force!"

But Schulberg himself was not without hubris. Sadly, he also will be
remembered for his role as a friendly witness before the House
Un-American Activities Committee during the era of the Hollywood
blacklist. For a time, he had been a member of the Communist Party, and
when questioned identified several other writers as members.

As journalist Victor Navasky wrote in an afterword to his book, Naming Names,
a comprehensive and perceptive chronicle of those times, "The fear
conspired to divide and sometimes destroy decent people of good will
who for years had been colleagues and compatriots. The wounds won't
heal. The issues are passed on from generation to generation."

Publicly, Budd claimed not to regret what he had done. But for what
it's worth, in the decades following that awful period, I think there
was an attempt at redemption. Budd endeavored to be a staunch member of
our union and to share his creative gifts with others, especially
through his work with minority artists at the Frederick Douglass
Creative Arts Center in Harlem and the Douglass House Watts Writers
Workshop in Los Angeles. Was that enough? It's not for me to decide.

The other death was that of Larry Gelbart, the great comedic writer of
movies, TV, and theater who died in September. He was 81, and in his
will, he reportedly asked that his tombstone read, "At last, a plot."

We first met in 1987, when I interviewed him for a book and a PBS
series on the history of television. "The only way you can get any
feeling out of a television set is to touch it when you're wet," he
claimed, and yet in the long-running TV version of the movie M*A*S*H,
co-produced with Gene Reynolds, Larry managed to combine pathos and
slapstick humor, telling dark jokes against the backdrop of the Korean
War -- the show's thinly disguised metaphor for Vietnam.

Gelbart, too, was a union stalwart, combative right to the end, when he
was outspoken about recent elections at the Writers Guild of America,
West. During the 100-day writers strike that began in 2007, although he
couldn't walk the picket line, he took an active role, helping with
strategy and manning phones.

It was Larry who advised me that for a writer to pin his or her hopes
for career satisfaction on movies or television alone was a sure way to
a broken heart -- that it was important to find your voice in other
kinds of writing as well -- books, articles, pieces like this.

For Gelbart it was the stage, with such shows as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, City of Angels, and a brilliant piece of satire and wordplay called Mastergate.

in the wake of the late '80s Iran-contra hearings, Larry's take on the
inanities of legislative posturing seem as likely as much of the
nonsense being spouted at this week's Senate Finance Committee sessions.

Here's his fictitious chairman, Senator Bowman, announcing that, "This
panel, which intends to give every appearance of being bipartisan, will
be ever-mindful of the President's instructions to dig down as far as
we can, no matter how high up that might take us. Let me emphaticize
one thing at the outset. This is not a witch hunt. It is not a trial.
We are not looking for hides to skin nor goats to scape. We're just
trying to get all the facts together in one room at the same time in
the hope that they'll somehow recognize one another. Our chief goal, of
course, is to answer the question: 'What did the President know. And
does he have any idea that he knew it?'"

In the Heavenly Kingdom or the Elysian Fields or wherever it is gifted
writers go to die, Larry Gelbart and Budd Schulberg must be watching
the current scene, shaking their heads in both recognition and wonder.

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