History Turns on a Punch Line

So the FBI opens a probe into Anthony Weiner and discovers a bunch of Hillary Clinton campaign emails on his laptop.

FBI Director James Comey, a Republican heading an agency stocked mostly with Republicans, is terrified that his own staff will think he’s playing politics (and therefore leak the story) if he doesn’t openly pursue these ‘new leads’.  So he announces a new Hillary probe, just a month from Election Day.

The Punch Line (AP/Patrick Semansky, File)

Meanwhile, the CIA and FBI have already been watching Trump aides Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort and Carter Page for several years, due to their long-standing Russia ties. When GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, gets tapes of conversations between them, other members of the Trump campaign and members of the Russian inner circle (let’s remember here that no one ever owns or controls anything sizeable, powerful or successful in Russia without Vladimir Putin’s active sponsorship), they bring this information to a White House briefing. That was the briefing where the Christopher Steele dossier was also discussed and where Joe Biden was quoted as saying, “If it’s true, it’s treason.”

But nobody says anything publicly about Trump being compromised except Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader at the time, who comes off like an alarmist partisan.

So, in total contrast to the whining from Trump’s White House, the FBI, CIA and Obama White House all acted in ways that benefited Trump’s campaign and harmed Hillary’s. Why on Earth would they do that?

Insert your favorite conspiracy theory here, if you wish. I think the answer is simple and damning:

They were all convinced Hillary would win.

And nobody wanted to give the blustering Trump–who was already complaining loudly that the election was rigged against him–any more reason to martyr himself. Nobody wanted to bolster the pseudo-Fox News everyone knew he was planning after the election. Nobody wanted to hobble Hillary’s administration by giving his claims credibility.

The other problem, I suspect, is that some of the most damning and reliable intelligence against Trump’s people came from intel sources in the Russian hierarchy, people we’ve worked very hard to cultivate and didn’t want to compromise or expose–particularly not to hurt a candidate who wasn’t going to win anyway.

It’s important to remember how things really happen in the world–in this case, America’s history turned on people making false assumptions and on the impossibility, until the moment it happened, to take Donald Trump seriously as President of the United States.

More proof, as though more was needed, that History has a sense of humor, but it’s a black one.


Icarus – more than a sports movie

‘Icarus’, on Netflix, is a slow-burning fuse of a film.

It’s sold as a sports documentary and that’s how it starts out, but the thing morphs completely along the way. Bryan Fogel, the filmmaker and a serious amateur cyclist, disillusioned by Lance Armstrong’s admission that he’d cheated on his drug tests for years, decides to see if he can replicate Armstrong’s doping success in amateur cycling. The head of drug testing at UCLA initally agrees to help him (asked ‘Were the other contenders at the Tour de France doping’, he cheerfully says ‘All of them’) and then decides it would be bad for his reputation, so he introduces Fogel to Grigory Rodchenkov, who, in the through-the-looking-glass world of Putin’s Russia, was simultaneously the manager of the Olympic-federation accredited anti-doping lab in Moscow and the head of the Russian state-supported athletic doping program.

Rodchenkov, Fogel and urine bottles

Rodchenkov is an absurdly charming fellow who immediately starts showing Fogel how to cheat the authorities and hide his doping during a series of Skype calls, which are absolutely hilarious. Rodchenkov’s little dog keeps trying to hump him on camera and when WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, starts asking questions, Rodchenkov offers without a blink to fly to LA to smuggle the urine sample’s he’s had Fogel keep in his freezer back to Moscow for doctoring.

Up to this point, the story is light and absurd. Fogel shoots himself with testosterone for months, does a grueling bike race and ends up slower than the year before but Rodchenkov says, “You’re just in the lobby. We have second and third and fourth floor, once you come to Moscow.”

But once he gets to Moscow, the scrutiny from WADA gets tighter and eventually, Rodchenkov decides to defect, leave his wife and family in Russia and come to the United States. His intuition proves prescient when one of his counterparts in the doping program drops dead of a sudden and unexpected heart attack (?) at the age of 52.

And suddenly, it’s not such a funny film anymore.

The scandal becomes a worldwide story, Rodchenkov documenting doping protocols for several Olympics to the NY Times and then an independent investigating committee.  You see the Russians lying to the camera, from Rodchenkov’s bosses all the way (three steps up the chain) to Putin himself. You see Rodchenkov explaining to Fogel (the explanation aided for us by haunting animations) exactly how the Russians substituted the blood samples of 30 athletes at the Sochi Games. You see the disbelief and the unwillingness to hear on the part of the Olympic officials when they are forced into investigating (Fogel actually presents the evidence when Rodchenkov’s lawyers suggest it’s not safe for him to meet them). You see the findings of the independent investigators and you see Rodchenkov tell his wife via Skype that he has to go into witness protection.

You see the corruption and cravenness of both the Russians and the Olympic leaders when they give lip service–the Olympic committee just yesterday absolved the Russians and welcomed them back into the Olympics, despite the fact that Rodchenkov testified that the Russians haven’t competed without doping since 1968.

So many questions: Does that mean that nobody’s competed without doping since then? The Russians haven’t swamped the Olympics every time out. They’ve done very well but so have we. So have others. When you see the hypocrisy looking you in the face, it’s impossible not to wonder, impossible to dismiss. Because what we see on the faces of the Russians looks so familiar, so close to home.

And that’s what a great documentary does. This one sucks you in and doesn’t let go. Don’t miss it. On Netflix now.

Here today, ‘Xerox’ tomorrow

Me: Xerox is gone.

Claire: What?

Me: Bought by Fujifilm, the name is going away forever.

Claire: No, it won’t. Every time you make a ‘Xerox’ of something–

Me: But you don’t, not anymore. You scan, you send an attachment, you take a picture with your phone and send that. No need anymore.

Claire: Well, I will always think Xerox.

Me: Maybe, but the younger generation won’t Xerox.

Claire: That’s why I didn’t have children.


Snow Day

It’s a snow day.

When I was a  kid, snow days meant you could go outside, run around in snow up to your knees (at least) and throw snowballs at any target you thought you could hit.  You could build a snowfort with your friends from which to pelt passing innocent pedestrians and cars (but, more likely, other kids who lived nearby and were offended by your building a competing snowfort in their territory–think Russia and Ukraine).

And coming home to leave a pile of snow by the back door, a pile of clothes in the bathroom and finding something hot to eat in front of the TV. No school, no goals, just a blissful absence of need and responsibility, a fulfilling nothingness. The best kind of day.

Today, I’m taking a few pictures out the window and looking up old musicals to watch while we eat soup in front of the TV.  A state of emergency has been declared in New York City which suppresses any desire I might have to go outside. We’re watching Altman’s ‘Nashville’, which is a twisted version of a musical, though we may get to Gene Kelly and Fred and Ginger later. But the weather outside is frightful and somehow,  that fulfilling nothingness persists.

It still feels like a snow day.

Renewal – Is That Another River in Egypt?

I’ve been silent for a while and, as anyone who knows me will tell you, silence isn’t my natural state.

I think, after the election, I just didn’t know what to say–and so much of what followed was so angry and unthinking, when it wasn’t just preaching to the (various) choirs, that I’ve had a hard time imagining what I have to offer.

But I think I’m getting there now.

Fake News (about Nero)

I have a new book that’s close to finished (fingers crossed). It arises from the following point of view:

This is the most ridiculous fucking crazy-ass circus that’s existed since Nero tuned his fiddle and we’ve got a ringside seat. It isn’t pretty, to say the least, but while everything is coming apart at the seams, we should at least try to notice just how funny and sad and just plain nuts it is.

And suddenly, looking at things that way, it feels like there’s quite a lot left to say.

Stay tuned…



This is what Democracy looks like, dammit…

A post on Facebook likened the experience of last night’s election to “New Year’s Eve, crossed with potentially life-threatening surgery.”

hillary-fansThat’s as close as anyone’s come to the nauseating, careening roller-coaster-without-brakes quality of the evening.

And we ended up with Trump – how the hell did that happen? Everyone was so sure that this was Hillary’s final narrow escape, evidence of her weakness as a candidate but still just the last hiccup before the inevitable coronation. This was history, right?

What the professional observers missed – all of them – was a huge group of voters who decided this night was about their history, not Hillary’s, and made it so with their ballots.

It’s fitting in a way. When NAFTA and subsequent trade agreements were originally assembled, anyone with a brain could foresee that the jobs would go wherever they were cheap. Unless, of course, we consumers made a stink about products being locally-made, not just cheap. Our parents had taken that stance. We didn’t. We didn’t worry about the long term consequences, even when they were pretty obvious.

In similar fashion, the businesses who benefited from the trade deals and the governments who signed off on them made no effort to retrain displaced workers or help them find jobs that would really replace the ones they lost. They made promises at every election, quickly forgotten after. When politicians referred to these people at all, they did so condescendingly. Like all workers since Reagan, whatever kept them from being rich entrepreneurs was obviously their own fault.

There’s a nasty class issue at work here, frankly. If Bernie Sanders had succeeded in his movement, I think the pundits would have recognized the power and sweep of it. That would be college kids and young tech heads, the kind of people reporters can relate to. Trump’s people are poorer, more rural, laced with pockets of racism and misogyny – but not enough to account for the scope of last night’s victory. I’ve known Americans from all different parts of the country and most of them are decent, tolerant and open-hearted to change and growth – as long as they’re included in that change and growth.

votingThe problem here was the way hardworking people who played by what they thought were the rules found themselves shoved in a corner and left to rot. Maybe someday we’ll get back to you, but don’t count on it.

Trump realized how many of them there were and how angry they were. Bernie appealed to that same frustration in a more positive way. I think he could have really been the anti-Trump if given the chance. The Democratic party establishment wasn’t going to interrupt Hillary’s victory lap. Their own positions in the hierarchy were at stake and that was more important than the country.

So now we have Trump. I hope he’ll be a good President. I would truly be surprised and delighted. Shocked, really.

But, for better or worse, his election is a triumph of democracy. Citizens expressing their need and want regardless of the conventional wisdom or maybe even common sense (does anyone really believe in Trump the friend of the working man?)

Hopefully, our political and media elite start paying attention to the injustices they’ve created. Hopefully, those of us with bigger hearts and better agendas use this opportunity to grab power out of their hands and take it in a better direction.

Because there’s an awful lot of damage that can be done in four years in the White House.


A Lovely Non-Birthday

We had just a lovely day about a week ago.

eight-days-a-week-480x307In the morning, we went to see Eight Days a Week, the Ron Howard Beatles touring history at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. I know it’s available online but if you see it in theaters, they show the entirety of the Beatles’ Shea Stadium Concert right after (the set was less than an hour).

Maybe more importantly, the speakers in the theater are better than the (very good) little tiny ones I have hooked up to my computer. Quick, go out and tell a bunch of your friends to buy copies of my books so I can buy better speakers! (Why didn’t I think of that before?)

Anyway, how could there possibly be anything we don’t already know about the Beatles? The hell with that–how could it be possible that they were BETTER than we thought they were? That’s pretty scary but seems really possible after seeing this.

It’s astonishing to listen to live shows by really popular and influential bands from several years after these recordings after hearing this. Jefferson Airplane, CSNY, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead yeesh–they’re all out of tune, off-key, meandering and sloppy. Rock bands really didn’t get good until the stage monitors got good, until silent tuners became ubiquitous…

Oh, no, actually not true. The Beatles were incredible live. Military precision and loose all at once.  The remastered footage here (amazingly sharp) and sound (amazingly clear) make that obvious.

The other thing about seeing them perform together is it blasts apart all the petty score-settling their hangers-on and even they themselves indulged in later. They were all essential to the band’s performance and they knew it. They were a unit and a brilliant one. One of the best scenes is Paul misting up talking about the first time they heard Ringo behind them. It could be sentimental but it feels very real.

mets-2016And that night, after the movie, we went with friends to a Mets game. I’ve been a fan through some amazing ups and downs but nothing like this year. This team is held together by Terry Collins, gaffer’s tape and chicken wire. Maybe it’s all a mirage because they’re playing uniformly bad opposition right now but they’re on a hell of a roll anyway. Every favorite of mine from last year is either injured for the year or playing ineffectively off the bench. I’ve never been prouder as a fan.

Go Mets!

Anyway, I said to Claire as we headed home, it was like the best birthday I ever had, not on my birthday.


The Kabuki Silence

This is the strangest election I can ever remember (and I’ve seen some doozies).

There is a silence that’s unnatural, like everyone I know is holding their breath – or in hiding.

hopper chairsElections tend to bring out the best and the worst in us citizen-spectators. The issues are, after all, about our lives – aren’t they? So while the candidates debate on TV, my opinionated friends usually carry on a debate of their own, offering sometimes-crackpot solutions and spending a lot of energy translating the national conversation into a ground-level discussion of how it really affects our lives.

I’m hearing very little of that this time around. There’s certainly plenty of ‘The other candidate is a threat to civilization’ or ‘the biggest crook in history’ but very little about the issues. Remember issues? That’s the part of the election that’s supposed to translate down to our lives. You’d expect us to be full of opinions there. But no…

In my head, I keep hearing the old line from Penny Lane: ‘and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway.’

It feels – to me, anyway – like the only people who are genuinely excited about these candidates are people I don’t necessarily want to know too well. Like the rest of us have decided we’ll do our duty and vote but that we really don’t have any real belief anything meaningful in our lives will change.

The whole thing feels like a kabuki show, a ritual that drones on according to it’s own rules long after they’ve lost their meaning, actors costumed according to traditions that have long since died, singing songs of whose meaning we retain only the vaguest of memories.


The Bourne Devolution

bourne and marie 3

Jason Bourne matters to me.

I didn’t realize how much until viewing Jason Bourne, the new film which debuted this past weekend. It went off the rails pretty decisively and made me realize how disturbed and surprised (in a bad way) I am by what his creators have done with him.

I’m talking about the films here, just to be clear. I read the first page and a half of The Bourne Identity in a Barnes and Noble once and put it back on the shelf. Unreadable to me–your mileage may vary, as they say.

The reason he matters is that Jason Bourne, from the very beginning, had a soul that immediately and permanently set him apart from all the other spy-assassin characters out there.

Bond has never had a soul. Sean Connery deflected feeling with a sense of humor that only grew more cheesy with Roger Moore. The best Bonds recently (Casino Royale, Skyfall) got significant mileage out of what Bond lost by being that famously blunt instrument–the ‘happy’ ending of SPECTRE, where he drives off in the Aston Martin with his lover, just didn’t ring true because Bond can’t be happy. That’s just not a possibility for him.

bourne and marie 2It was for Bourne. In The Bourne Identity film, we meet a really intriguing character–a man who not only doesn’t know who he is but who doesn’t like who he is when he finds out. He’s a shy, confused, very vulnerable human being who reaches out to Marie Kreutz (another complex character, played by Franka Potente) in ways we could never imagine of Bond. When Bourne fights in that film, it’s for a reason, to find out who he is, to find out why he has developed abilities so at odds with the spirit he displays in his interactions with Marie. He’s someone who cares, who feels.

The first film, by the way, was directed by Doug Liman and I think he deserves a lot more credit than he usually gets for making something truly different. Unfortunately, the film took a few weeks to gather steam. It was a hit eventually but eventually is not how Hollywood works so the series changed hands thereafter, Paul Greengrass taking over direction. Tony Gilroy wrote the first three with various co-writers and, being the writer, naturally he got nowhere near as much credit as he deserved either.

pam landyIn The Bourne Supremacy, the second film of the series, the filmmakers killed off Marie in a way that was really affecting and managed to pass the torch to another definitely non-token female, Pam Landy (played by Joan Allen, who really supports the two next films). Marie’s death is not like similar deaths in Bond films or almost any other male-oriented action series. This death hurts both us and Bourne. His fury after feels very real. His determination to find the persons responsible is not contrived. He’s not up against some villain twirling his mustache and planning to conquer the world. It’s personal in a very real sense. And Landy is a person with integrity who grows to recognize that Bourne is not after the Agency, not after personal revenge but searching for something else, something personal. Both characters grow and stretch in ways the audience can directly relate to. Because of that, the action has meaning as well as excitement.

The Bourne Ultimatum extended that same story back to New York and Bourne’s remembering how he got involved in the Treadstone project to begin with. His relationship with Julia Stiles’ Nicky Parsons develops and gives us another reminder that this man still has a soul, still has the ability to care. He’s not a killing machine, not a blunt instrument, no matter how he handles a fight. When he swims off into the darkness at the end of the film, there’s an earned sense that the man with a soul has hopefully begun to work out his demons, that life might just work out for him after all.

In Jason Bourne, that hope is wiped away in the first shot of Bourne’s face, which makes clear this is an angry, deadened man. There’s no light inside. He’s escaped from all those demons and all that sadness–for what? To do barehand fighting on the Turkish-Albanian border? That’s the best we can imagine for him? The character in these opening scenes is a fighting machine. If he ever had a soul, it’s long gone now.

Bourne gets drawn back into the world of international intrigue by Nicky Parsons and there’s a personal secret tossed to us by the writers (notably, not Gilroy this time) but it all feels obligatory, an excuse for car chases and fights that go on too long. There’s another  much-younger woman who decides Bourne should be given the chance to come in, just like Joan Allen did–but in this case, there’s no plausible reason for her decision and certainly no reason for her superiors (notably Tommy Lee Jones) to back her in it.

bourne and marieThe worst of it is, these gyrations aren’t really necessary. The “secret” Bourne learns in the new film certainly could have made an intriguing story, one that illuminated how unsuited he was for this work from the start–and why he ended up doing it anyway.
But that would have been a story about a man with a soul. Someone made a choice not to go that way this time. The character of Bourne lives on but he’s not somebody I care about anymore. Speaking as a fan and someone who cares about stories, this feels like a real loss.


Thrillerfest 2016 – Afternoon with the FBI/Secret Service


This has always been one of my favorite parts of Thrillerfest, having the chance to learn from members of the investigative services. In the past, we’ve had the chance to question CIA and FBI agents. Today, it was 2 FBI, 2 Secret Service and one Royal Canadian Mountie (retired, with a thriller of his own on sale at the book store). My paraphrases of their information:

FBI 2: The bad guys have always used technology to get ahead, starting with vehicles. Now they’re moving into identity theft and fraud. They’re not just hacking, they’re moving into identity theft and fraud.

There was a shared concern across the panel about two topics in particular:

First, Cyber actors working on the industrial grid (Electrical, Telephony, Water, Health Systems, Industrial Control Systems). Anything that’s on the Internet can be hacked and it’s a bigger concern as we grow the Internet of Things onto an already wobbly infrastructure. They pointed to Denial of Service Attacks on financial institutions here a few months ago and an incident at the Logan Dam in upstate NY a few years ago, where Iranian hackers were able to hack the dams controls. No harm was done only because the computer control in that case never worked properly, but the incident is seen as an example of what is possible.

Second: Ransomware is a fast-rising problem and one they are now dealing with regularly. Costs a lot of money. They officially recommend not paying but understand that often, businesses in particular can’t afford to lose the information or the trust of their customers so they choose to pay.

Secret Service 1: Kids at home now have the tools to create counterfeit money. This is new–it used to take specialized hardware to do that job; no longer. However, he said we shouldn’t overblow the situation. Counterfeit money now amounts for 3 or 4% of the money in circulation. When the Secret Service was founded, at the end of the Civil War, counterfeit currency amounted to over 80% of the bills out in the world. That was an astonishing number to me, as was their success rate.

The former Canadian Mountie was asked whether gun control measures in Canada had any effect on law enforcement and he said they definitely did. Canada has a database of all gun owners (who have to pass a background check to get them). He said that, while he agreed that criminals would always find a way to get guns, it was definitely helpful to know before responding to a domestic abuse situation whether or not there were firearms at the location. They would bring 2 to 3 officers routinely but 5 or 6 if there were guns present.

FBI 2: Reminded the audience that more people will die of beestings than terrorism this year. Cybercrime, however, threatened about 320 million people this year, between business disruptions, infrastructure threats, etc. The big point here is that good Internet hygiene–not opening questionable Internet or email links–is still the overwhelming way the bad guys get us to trigger these attacks. Once you’ve clicked, you can’t pull the plug fast enough to stop the infection.

Secret Service 1: Talked about the interconnectedness of things and how it complicates his job. If he had to protect the room we were sitting in, for example, the lights, temperature and elevator are all remotely controllable–Step One for them is to make sure they have those things secured long before the arrival of anyone they protect.

It was fascinating to watch these guys interact, to see their seriousness and also their disdain for conventional wisdom or the demagoguery that passes for political wisdom. Toward the end, they were asked what we should be scared of. Two said Ransomware but another answered, ‘Nothing. There are lots of things to be concerned about but very little to be scared of. Instability is increasing, that might become an issue but for now, don’t be scared. Enjoy life.’

Next: David Morrell interviews Walter Mosley