August 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Teddy unbound, Capa: propagandist or opportunist?, charging for online news, and other observations

With a tip of the baseball cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for commandeering his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

WAS THERE EVER A “ROAD NOT TAKEN” FOR EDWARD MOORE KENNEDY? Or did Kennedy’s upbringing and family expectations narrow his career options to only that of a life in politics? The obituaries of the Massachusetts Senator, who died August 25 at 77 years of age, emphasized his decades-long involvement in American politics. Newsweek described him as the “Senate’s great lion… fighting for the poor and the dispossessed” and the New York Times characterized him “as one of the most effective lawmakers in the history of the Senate.”

Yet, strangely, for much of his time in the public eye, Teddy Kennedy never seemed totally comfortable in his role as standard-bearer for American liberalism, a mantle inherited from his fallen brothers, Jack and Bobby. There were signs that, even if he soldiered on, the fourth Kennedy son was conflicted about embracing the family’s political legacy.

What was behind the recurring episodes of inappropriate behavior (cheating at Harvard, reckless driving in law school, decades of binge drinking, vulgar public displays, womanizing, the tragedy of Chappaquiddick)? Was this risky acting out Kennedy’s way of expressing an unresolved internal conflict? Was Teddy Unbound trying to reject what at times had to seem like crushing expectations by his self-destructive behavior? (New York’s Eliot Spitzer—another Harvard-educated Democrat with a dominating, wealthy father—destroyed his own political career through similar out-of-bounds conduct, in Spitzer’s case with call girls.) In context, Kennedy’s famous inability to offer a coherent answer to Roger Mudd’s question as to why he was running for the Presidency in 1980 made more sense—he was running because he was expected to, not because he wanted to.

There were only fleeting moments when Teddy Kennedy could have fashioned an independent life. In 1955, the Green Bay Packers approached him to try professional football after college–was he tempted at all by the offer? In 1960, he was ready to leave Massachusetts and move out West if Jack lost the presidency, but his brother’s victory meant Teddy was tapped to run for the “Kennedy seat” in the Senate. He could have resigned after Chappaquiddick and looked for a fresh start in private legal practice or education, but he apparently couldn’t envision a different destiny.

The next generation of Kennedys has been much more ambivalent about entering political life, perhaps better understanding the tradeoffs and sacrifices involved. Caroline Kennedy’s brief foray into politics ended in January 2009 when she dropped out of contention for the open U.S. Senate seat in New York, citing personal reasons. It was clear, however, that she didn’t have the stomach for the rough-and-tumble of Empire State politics (Rep. Gary Ackerman questioned her readiness for the job, comparing her to Sarah Palin and Jennifer Lopez) or for media questioning or financial disclosure. And now former Congressman Joseph Kennedy has decided not to run to succeed his uncle in the Senate. That should be viewed as a healthy development—democracies and family dynasties are a bad match.

DID PHOTOJOURNALIST ROBERT CAPA FAKE HIS ICONIC SPANISH CIVIL WAR PHOTO, “THE FALLING SOLDIER“? Fresh research by José Manuel Susperregui, a Spanish academic, questions whether Capa’s 1936 photo, long a symbol of resistance for supporters of the Spanish Republic, actually depicted the death of militiaman Federico Borrell in Cerro Muriano or whether it was staged in community called Espejo, at a considerable distance from the front lines.

Was Capa fashioning propaganda, rather than recording history, or did he opportunistically “tart up” the photo to make it more saleable? Some have argued that, staged or not, the photo captured the truth of the bloody Spanish internecine struggle and it remains historically significant. Yet if Capa faked it, and the evidence strongly suggests it, then the photographer violated the basic tenets of his craft by misrepresenting it as real. It is particularly ironic that one of Capa’s famous dictums on photojournalism was: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

AMERICA’S LEADING NEWSPAPERS SHOULD BE CHARGING FOR ACCESS TO THEIR ONLINE NEWS BY THE NEW YEAR, and it’s a long-overdue response to the challenge of the Internet aggregators, such as Google news and others. As I argued in May, the existential threat posed to the traditional advertising model for newspapers means a paid content approach is a must for survival. Journalism Online LLC, which provides a system for charging for online content, “has signed affiliate agreements with publishers representing 506 newspapers and magazines and a Web audience of more than 90 million monthly visitors.”

IF FLORIDA’S TIM TEBOW LEADS THE GATORS TO ANOTHER NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP, his third, should the quarterback be considered the greatest football player of all time? Or if he wins the Heisman Trophy for a second time? Tebow is being compared to gridiron legends like Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Sammy Baugh, O.J. Simpson, Herschel Walker, Barry Sanders and Archie Griffin. Certainly there’s never been a college quarterback with Tebow’s ability to mix bruising runs and accurate passes, but he has played on a very deep and talented team the past four years.

How would Tebow fare at the helm of a faltering Division One team? Would he be as effective as an Archie Manning (Ole Miss) or Roger Staubach (Navy) were in manufacturing wins for overmatched teams?

For impact, how does Tebow compare to former Syracuse running back Jim Brown, another candidate for the best of all time label who was ranked the No. 1 NFL player in the history of the league by the Sporting News? Brown finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1956, his senior year, despite rushing for 986 yards, the third highest total nationally that season, in only nine games. Notre Dame’s Golden Boy Paul Hornung won the 1956 Heisman aided by voting that split along regional lines. Hornung, a quarterback and defensive player in college, was Tebow-like in his versatility.

IF VENEZUELA’S LEFT-WING STRONGMAN HUGO CHAVEZ WANTS TO ATTACK THE CAPITALISTIC PASTIME OF GOLF, a ban on the game is the wrong way to go. Rather than closing courses, Chavez should democratize the “bourgeois sport” and underwrite a program of subsidized golf lessons for Venezuela’s young. His nation’s consolation prize will be that after his regime falls (as it inevitably must), Venezuelan golfers will be wildly successful on the PGA tour, no doubt diverting large amounts of prize money from the gringo pro golfers.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM NEW ENGLAND’S POET, ROBERT FROST  (1874-1963): “Poetry is about the grief. Politics is about the grievance.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders