Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Blago Nabbed + Zimbabwe Slips + Obama/Cicero + Webern [Poem]

I would be lying if I said I weren't transfixed by the news that's been reported all day: federal authorities took Illinois's extremely unpopular and incompetent governor, Rod "Blowdryavitch" Blagojevich, or Blago for short, into custody early this morning after a multi-year investigation by the FBI and US Attorney's office, captured him on wiretap allegedly engaging in a host of corrupt activities. US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald earlier announced today at his press conference that the most sensational allegations in Blago's "political corruption crime spree" were his demands for financial and job favors, for himself and his wife, in exchange for the US Senate seat that President Elect Barack Obama just vacated, and that he and his chief of staff John Harris had pressured the Chicago Tribune (cf. yesterday's entry) to fire editorial staff who'd repeatedly criticized Blago and supported previous calls to impeach him.

Rod Blagojevich
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich holds a news conference in Chicago on Nov. 5. (AP/M. Spencer Green)

Fitzgerald noted that Obama was not linked to the charges in any way, and that Blago was captured on tape damning the soon-to-be president for offering only "appreciation" as a reward. It appears that Obama's desired pick, Candidate 1 in the indictment, supposedly transition chief Valerie Jarrett, also did not agree to pay to play, although Candidate 5 (Jesse Jackson Jr.) was allegedly willing to pony up around $500K for the position, or at least this is what was captured on tape. As for the Tribune drama, it appears that the principle owner, Sam Zell, and his chief financial officer, had taken into account Blago's criticisms, even though the paper thankfully did not fire any of the editorial staff as a result. The Tribune did, however, hold off reporting about the investigation (including its own) at Fitzgerald's request, which has brought some criticism, though it appears that in this case, allowing the investigation to unfold so as not to obstruct it or force Fitzgerald's hand was probably the way to go.

I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in Illinois in 2008 who did not think Blago was corrupt, though the brazenness of his alleged recent actions, especially in light of the toxic cloud of scandal that surrounded him at the time of his reelection in 2006, is astonishing. It appears he even knew he was investigation, and possibly being wiretapped, and yet he kept right on going. The irony of his having run as a reformer in 2002 isn't lost on anyone else, I imagine, or that he replaced Republican George H. Ryan, who went to jail for fraud, racketeering and other crimes. According to NPR this evening, he joins an infamous roll of Illinois governors, from both parties, who were indicted, and in most cases convicted, of serious crimes.

One question now hinges on the US Senate seat, which Obama vacated swiftly, in part to allow Illinois's newly appointed junior senator to gain seniority. Until or unless Blago resigns, I gather that he could still appoint someone, including himself, though that person would be horribly tainted and have zero political legitimacy and credibility, let alone power, in the US Senate. Lame duck status from the start would mark this appointee from the beginning. Senior Senator Dick Durbin has called for the Illinois legislature to enact a law that would remove Blago's power to appoint Obama's successor and instead vest it in the Illinois voters, through a special election. Senate president and leading Obama replacement candidate Emil Jones has said he would do so. What about Chicago's all-powerful mayor, Richard Daley, about whom scandals have have hovered like dragonflies? He didn't have much to say today.

Now, irrespective of the pertinent issues here, it is curious to me that the Bush administration has gone after at least three Democratic governors (Siegelman in Alabama, Spitzer in New York, and now Blago), and yet a number of Republican governors, including one who did not pay taxes on her per diems and another whose involvement in the unseating of Siegelman has merited little response from the Attorney General or the Justice Department, have gone unscathed. Hmmm....


How long will Robert Mugabe hang on? A walking death's head, he has precipitated and presided over the complete destruction of his country. The Zimbabwean economy is shot, the government is barely functional, and now a cholera outbreak is racing throughout the country. The African Union, sadly, still supports him. South Africa, which probably has the most leverage and to which thousands of Zimbabweans have been fleeing, refuses to apply real pressure. Some African leaders, like Kenya's PM, Raila Odinga, have called for African nations to help oust Mugabe, as has W, not that anyone is paying him attention these days.

If the economy continues its runaway collapse, worsened by the cholera spread, I foresee the army taking a decisive step and driving Mugabe out, though it probably will have to get a sign of approval and no interference from South Africa. Would opposition leader Morgan Tsangvirai and his MDC Party take over, would control fall to one of Mugabe's hangers on, or would one of the Mugabe's generals hold power? That's something I hope the nations surrounding Zimbabwe, the African Union, and the UN are thinking very carefully about, as the last two options might prove no better than the current situation.


Obama qua Cicero? The President Elect is a master rhetorician and speaker, true. His opponents in the primaries and in the Presidential election even attempted to use his gifts and skills as an orator against him, with little success. More than once observers have cited Black Church oratorical traditions, along with Abraham Lincoln's and John F. Kennedy's examples and the Bible's rhetorical model, as Obama's influences. In the GuardianUK, Charlotte Higgins discerns classical models, both Greek and Roman, in his rhetoric, noting his use of such figures and devices as the tricolon (trios of phrases), anaphora (repetitions of phrases at the beginnings of sentences), epiphora (or epistrophe, as Thelonious Monk might have suggested-repetitions at the end), and one of my favorites, praeteritio (saying what you claim you won't say), which was also, interestingly enough, one of Richard Nixon's favorites. But Higgins discovers life parallels with one of the greatest orators and stylists of all time, the Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106BCE-43BCE). She says:

It is not just in the intricacies of speechifying that Obama recalls Cicero. Like Cicero, Obama is a lawyer. Like Cicero, Obama is a writer of enormous accomplishment - Dreams From My Father, Obama's first book, will surely enter the American literary canon. Like Cicero, Obama is a "novus homo" - the Latin phrase means "new man" in the sense of self-made. Like Cicero, Obama entered politics without family backing (compare Clinton) or a military record (compare John McCain). Roman tradition dictated you had both. The compensatory talent Obama shares with Cicero, says Catherine Steel, professor of classics at the University of Glasgow, is a skill at "setting up a genealogy of forebears - not biological forebears but intellectual forebears. For Cicero it was Licinius Crassus, Scipio Aemilianus and Cato the Elder. For Obama it is Lincoln, Roosevelt and King.
Without a doubt, he'll require all these rhetorical skills and more to keep the country together, marshal the Congress to pass his projects, and lead us out of the mess we find ourselves in. The silver tongue will need to become platinum. Or as Shakespeare, another master rhetorician, says in Henry IV Part 2, invoking anastrophe (reversal of phrases): "We are ready to try our fortunes / to the last man."


On a completely different note, this little link from Alex Ross's blog caught me: Anton Webern's music on the Andy Griffith Show? Webern in Mayberry: it's not as strange as it sounds.... MMusing blogger Michael Monroe shows how the background music during some of the AGS episodes does sound quite Webernian, which is to say, very spare, a little spooky, and utterly modern. See this clip he found on YouTube. He suggests that mystery visitor might be a certain Mr. Schoenberg. If you're intrigued, search YouTube for "Webern" (portrait below right, by Oskar Kokoschka) there and you'll find a handful of representative clips or snippets of his music. Ross points out in an earlier post, "Tiny Tony," that during the second season of the Sopranos, Webern's "Variations for Orchestra" was playing in the background of a crucial scene!

Webern by KokoschkaOne Webernian pieces that exerts unending fascination over yours truly is his "Symphony (Opus 21)," which sounds unlike any other symphony you are likely to hear on the radio or concert hall, though it must be said that post-Webernian serial composers have created works as strange and haunting as this. I also love that it was after a New York Philharmonic performance of the "Symphony" that composers John Cage and Morton Feldman first met. I have never heard this work performed live, just on CD and in digital form, but I did write a necessarily short poem, an acrostic in (mildly) graphic form, inspired by it. In the case of Webern, the use of the acrostic and graphic forms echo his own constant play with the possibilities of the tone row, and in a larger sense, with his fellow Second Viennese school composers' use of names as guides for notation in their work. My favorite example of all of these is Alban Berg's "Chamber Concerto," in which he weaves Arnold Schoenberg's, [Anton] Webern's and [Alban Berg] his names into the score (using the German pitch notational system), and like his opera "Lulu," at its exact center, a musical palindrome. Webern did this kind of thing often, including a symmetry in the opening phrase of the "Symphonie," except that unlike Berg (or Schoenberg, their teacher, friend and mentor, who was less adept at such games, having pioneered the whole 12-note concept), whose work makes great use of late Romantic elements and lushness at times, he antithetically pared away all excess, creating pieces that often sound like they've been beamed in from another planet (literally embodying Schoenberg's famous quotation of Georg in the revolutionary "Second String Quartet": "I hear the air of other planets...").

So here's my "Symphony (Opus 21)," and then a YouTube of Webern's "Symphonie," which, as you'll hear, is really a symphony deconstructed (vor den Tatsache--or something like that--William?).


Atoms Atmen
Notes or their shadows evanesce from each tone row
Traces of key melodies echoes: silence
Order mirrors in intervals invariance:
nothing is wasted

Why wreak such beauty on Vienna?
Even the maestro, Mahler on his deathbed lay baffled
because one must retrain the ear to hear
even familiar harmonies.
Revolution begins in lyric restraint in freedom
nothing is wasted

Copyright © John Keene, 2001, 2008.


  1. "....intellectual forebears"
    So on the mark as I have never looked at the evidence that has always been in front of me. I have heard the echoes of the black church in Obama.

    Me, it is the "intellectual forebears" catching my attentions as I think of my favs such as Langston Hughes, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Toni Morrison. At lease, these are folks I aspire always to come close to in my own work outside of blogging. And, let me not forget August Wilson. Yep, I like the political with a bit of carefully placed poetic verse.

  2. one must retrain the ear to hear even familiar harmonies. Revolution begins in lyric restraint in freedomnothing is wasted

    I like VERY much!

  3. Thanks, BronzeBuckaroo. I particularly like how Higgins discussions the relationship between affiliation and filiation without mentioning either term; Obama has been modeling himself quite consciously after Lincoln, JFK, FDR, and MLK Jr. That's a remarkable quartet, and if he can match up even a little to all of them, he'll do well. I think some others probably think he's trying to be Jesus--or worry that he is.