Newsstand sales are supposed to be dying. Yet the selection of magazines and literary journals keeps growing at my local Barnes & Noble. The other day, I was surprised and delighted to find the Texas Observer among a profusion of city magazines from ...


Texas Observer slicker, but still raising hell and more...

Texas Observer slicker, but still raising hell

Newsstand sales are supposed to be dying. Yet the selection of magazines and literary journals keeps growing at my local Barnes & Noble.

The other day, I was surprised and delighted to find the Texas Observer among a profusion of city magazines from around the country. 

At first, I thought the slick, full-color mag was the Texas Monthly, where the excellent Mimi Swartz works. But a closer examination revealed that the publication was indeed the venerable rabble-rousing Observer, begun by Ronnie Dugger back in 1954 and for a time led by Willie Morris, a transplant to Austin from Mississippi. After making his mark with the Observer, Morris headed to New York and his tumultuous editorship of Harper's. 

Dugger, who wrote the first major biography of Lyndon Johnson, established the Observer as an independent beacon uncovering state and local government abuses and corporate malfeasance.

The magazine also celebrated Texas life and culture in its small towns and big cities. While breaking news of political and business corruption, the magazine displayed an amused fondness for even the most outrageous political characters. 

The Observer's new, glitzy look surprised me; years ago, it was published on newsprint, in black-and-white. Now funded by the nonprofit Texas Democracy Foundation, the magazine still runs the same substantial investigative pieces, essays, political commentary and book reviews, illustrated with a lot more photos. 

Reading the Observer made me wonder what had happened to Texas' once strong progressive politics. The state used to elect governors like Ann Richards, and senators like Lyndon Johnson. It had journalists like Dugger and the late Molly Ivins. For the last 30 years or so, the state has been controlled by reactionary Republicans, who have crippled social services.

The Democratic Party now looks at Texas as one of the states swinging from red to blue. The state's big cities have remained socially and politically liberal over the years. If Texas' long moribund progressives do return to power, the Observer will lead the way. 



Spring fever in bloom

I remember when February made me think winter would never end.

Now spring arrives in February, weeks earlier than before.

The birds know it's true. I was outside earlier today, and the birds were singing their springtime song.

Climate change speeds along. Warm temps arrived in Washington, Boston and New York City earlier this week. Nobody was sad.

For years, the tulip tree in our front yard bloomed in early March. The white blossoms have already arrived. Calling Dr. Housman. Dr. A.E. Housman.

I had to write this on my IPhone. Call it haiku for early spring.


Tina Brown revisits vanished era of magazine publishing in "Vanity Fair Diaries"

Tina Brown during her years transforming Vanity Fair magazine recorded her experiences nearly every day.

Brown's "Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992" chronicle a vanished era of wealth and influence for American magazines. Not once does she mention the terms web page, online presence or page views. Brown's metrics at Vanity Fair are writers and stories, achieving the right editorial mix, and choosing the best cover to drive newsstand sales. Magazines amass piles of advertising dollars, rather than hemorrhaging money. 

The diaries also record the era's crass excesses of wealth and power. After her days of magazine work, Brown plunges into the social whirl of New York City and Hollywood's gilded class. Her impressions of rich, famous and artistically gifted people cover intersecting circles of business, politics and culture. While traipsing to power lunches, gilded dinner parties and ritzy social events, she also strives to carry out her family responsibilities. 

Brown came to New York City from more sedate London at age 29 after turning the nearly moribund Tattler into Britain's hottest sheet of glamour and celebrity scandal.

While Brown doesn't explain how such a young and obscure Holly Golightly enters New York City's elite circles, she's married to the much older Harold Evans, the distinguished former editor of the Sunday Times and Times, gaining the couple entry into the exalted realms.

As Harry takes a series of editing jobs below his stature, Brown gains notoriety and acclaim as the editor of Vanity Fair. Revived by Conde Nast owner Si Newhouse after years out of business, the magazine founders editorially and is losing gushers of money when she takes over. She obsessively details how her blending of serious foreign reporting, Hollywood gossip and celebrity scandal makes Vanity Fair a major cultural force. She also takes credit for bringing the magazine to dazzling profitability.

Idealistic journalists will cringe at her sucking up to characters like Henry Kissinger and Nancy Reagan. While she sees herself as a major transformative journalist, most of her Vanity Fair work now looks ephemeral, setting the stage for the Internet age of novelty and celebrity.

A leading character is Si Newhouse, for whom she swings from adulation to disparagement. She calls him a "gerbil" and a "hamster," and derides his erratic decisions such as firing longtime Vogue editor Grace Mirabella, who finds out about her ouster from watching TV. At other moments, she praises Newhouse as a model of wisdom and judgment.

Most of those she chronicles have disappeared from the scene, but others remain on the stage. Her sister Conde Nast superstar Anna Wintour, who took over Mirabella's job at Vogue, now is the chief editor of all Conde Nast publications. Brown's central villain, Rupert Murdoch, who ousted Evans from his exalted Times posts, still exerts enormous power as the owner of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.

The most disturbing survivor is Donald Trump. Brown gives an appalling, untouched portrait of Trump's narcissism, dishonesty and crudeness, the same traits he displays as president. The diaries impart a vision of him as Yeats' rough beast, circling the establishment's gates, desperate for power. 



Baton Rouge Gallery enhances Louisiana capital's cultural landscape

While my native state of Louisiana is a social and economic disaster, Baton Rouge, the state capital, keeps getting better.

Downtown Baton Rouge, once abandoned by state Capitol, bank and retail workers at night, now draws visitors at all hours with its exciting restaurants, museums, clubs, concert venues and hotels.

Once characterized by white flight to cookie-cutter suburbs, Baton Rouge in recent years has revitalized intown neighborhoods. Despite severe cuts in state funding, LSU offers innovative programs and projects.

The city battles a crime problem - the red in Red Stick now means blood from murders - and is beset by racial conflict and economic divisions. Yet, each time I return to my hometown, I'm impressed by the vitality of downtown and older, once languishing neighborhoods. 

The Baton Rouge Gallery/Center for Contemporary Arts has become one of my favorite groups leading the old oil/port city's renaissance. I avidly follow the gallery's Facebook page, impressed and enthralled by its ambitious cultural programs.

An artists' co-operative for 50 years, the gallery offers art exhibits, literary readings and social events at the old City Park pool house, which I vividly remember from childhood.

For years, the City Park pool attracted families who changed into their swimsuits in the pool house's locker rooms. I have flickering memories of walking through a rubber mat's grayish chlorinated water and walking down steps to the sun-dazzled pool, holding my mother or father's hand.The pool was also a favorite destination for birthday parties.

I've known for years that the old pool house had been converted into an art gallery. My interest rose at the start of the year when I read in the Baton Rouge Advocate about the gallery's annual Surreal Ball, an international art show that draws guests who wear outlandish costumes.

The 10th annual event this year included more than 60 works representing artists from five different countries and 19 states, according to the gallery's web site. A total of 600 works were submitted to the show, from which the final selections were made.

The gallery's work goes beyond painting, sculpture and photography. I was impressed that the gallery will sponsor a reading Thursday night by Baton Rouge poet Dylan Krieger, whose first book, "Giving Godhead," received a rapturous review in The New York Times. The reading marks the release of Krieger's second book, "Dreamland Trash."

The gallery's promotion of poetry continues Sunday with a reading by Michael Blanchard, part of the gallery's "Sundays at 4" series.

I follow the gallery's admirable work with a dose of nostalgia. The pool house, with its striking Mediterranean-style architecture, sits upon a small hill adjacent to City Park golf course, the nine-hole layout where I spent countless happy hours during my boyhood. Along with my strong memories of the gigantic pool, I've always been fascinated by its notorious chapter in Baton Rouge history.

Dating back to the 1920s, the pool and its crowds were difficult for lifeguards to control. A series of drownings, how many I can't remember, never seemed to hurt the pool's popularity during the humid Baton Rouge summers.

A wooden wall/bridge separated the pool's shallow and deep ends. Kids who wanted to go to the deep end had to pass a swimming test from one of the lifeguards who patrolled the wall.

But the drowning risk continued, leading to the pool's closure in 1963. Not mentioned was the civil rights movement and efforts by blacks to integrate the pool. Along with the pool's dangers, the city of Baton Rouge didn't wish to allow blacks to swim and use the clubhouse.  

Covered up for years, the abandoned pool gave me some of my favorite golf moments. The pool's old brick maintenance shed stood beside par-4 ninth hole's fairway, marking the spot where the hole's dogleg began. As I grew stronger in my teen years, I could drive the ninth's green by "cutting the dogleg" with a tee shot over the pool. Seeing the ball fly over the pool toward the distant green was one of my biggest thrills.

I revisited the old course a few years ago. The pool area had been converted into a large patio, where caterers were setting up tables for an event that afternoon. The ninth hole remained as I'd remembered, its flag stirred by a mellow breeze.


Washington and Lincoln, the brands

Washington and Lincoln are smashed together on this day despite their differences.

Their historic legacies fading, both presidents with their familiar images exist in a strange realm of all-American satire, advertising, burlesque. Washington appears in a Geico commercial, his boat pulled across the Delaware turnpike as horns honk, and he crankily responds.

Lincoln's flag-draped portrait decorates auto dealer ads and mattress sales.

The South's smoldering hatred of Lincoln after the Civil War lingers in the holiday's spotty observation in the states of the old Confederacy. Our dutiful city of Atlanta sanitation department carried out its Monday garbage pickup as usual.

Washington owned slaves; Lincoln ended slavery. Washington, the first president, was the father of his country. HIs native state, Virginia, led the Confederacy, which Lincoln defeated. Lincoln, with his Gettysburg Address, is seen as completing the union that Washington began. Yet, Lincoln's assassination and the resulting failure of Reconstruction brought nearly a century more of oppression of blacks.

Countless books have been written about each of them. Each is remembered with a monument in the nation's capital. Each flickers in our collective memory. more myth than real men.

In the South, many saw Robert E. Lee as Washington's successor, as a native Virginian and as a general like Washington leading a ragtag army against a stronger foe. That Lee, unlike Washington, eventually failed made him more heroic across the defeated South.

Now, the tide is turning against Lee, increasingly seen as a traitor. Statues of Lee thrown up after Reconstruction across the South have been removed.

Along with fellow Virginian and slaveowner Thomas Jefferson, Washington's image has suffered. Yet no move has gained force to strike his portrait from the dollar, or tear down his statues, or change the name of the nation's capital. Washington's nobility in winning the nation's independence from Britain and as the nation's first president establishing the republic outweighs his slave ownership.

As the country falls apart, and Congress and the current president make spurious efforts to improve the country's "infrastructure," Lincoln should also be remembered for the transcontinental railroad and other economic programs.

Washington and Lincoln. What do they mean for us, when children are slaughtered in their schools, Lincoln's party grows ever more racist, the nation is bogged down in interminable wars,  Russia meddles in elections? 

Their lives and words recede from the nation's memory. How many even know the historical origins of that Geico ad?




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