Washington — Are you aware that the hard-charging editor and founder of the red-hot New York Sun goads me incessantly to “write about Washington”? I say the “red-hot” Sun because its circulation is — by my calculations — about a third higher than it was supposed to be at this point in its infancy. I say Lipsky “goads me incessantly” because he does. I am glad to satisfy him, but there are limits. At times our nation’s capital is too sad a setting for my cheery spirits. Now is one of those times. There is grief and dismay in Washington, especially on Capitol Hill. The sight of receding Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s decline into manic mulligrubs is too painful. Consequently I fled our nation’s capital late last week for our nation’s apple.
As New Yorkers know, the city suffered such heavy rains late last week that born-again Christians were building arks on their rooftops. I went through two umbrellas. Still, the rain did not prevent me from having a very good time. Manhattan is swelling with tourists. Shoppers are beginning their seasonal debauch. And Bobby Short was playing at the Carlyle. I had never seen Bobby Short. So late on Saturday night I popped in. There under a cool white light in the cozy Café Carlyle the crooner was in full song, accompanied by a small orchestra — smooth and classy. It was late by the time I arrived, but Short was a study in energy and a style that comes from long and thoughtful consideration of his material. The material is some of the best that American songwriters have offered: Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer. Those gents could turn out a tune. The tunes may not be up to Schubert and Brahms, but then there is the matter of the Americans’ lyrics. Schubert and Brahms could not match the Americans’ lyrics. They had to resort to eighteenth century poets; I prefer the American songwriters and their urbane wit.
In the 1920s and on into the 1950s the best American songwriters created popular music that was elegant, witty, sophisticated, and almost always free of the weird hang-ups that haunt pop music today and, come to think of it, Tom Daschle. As Short sang from his gravelly voice (is it an upscale version of Louis Armstrong’s famed instrument?) songs of the Gershwins and Berlin I heard no proclamations of anger or angst, no infantile complaints, nothing about “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or the fate of rain forests and whooping cranes.
Short sings from behind a piano. His moods swing from cheerful to pensive — remember I was only there an hour. He talks and jokes to the audience and the orchestra. His bearing is dignified and he uses what appear to be very large hands to sculpt images in the air that somehow are inspired from the music and lyrics.
Even while watching Short perform, however, I could not completely free myself of Lipsky’s importunities. Politics — he wants politics from me. Well, let me return to the urbanity of the songs Short sings from decades past and to the amazing Daschle’s diatribes down in Washington. As all the world must know by now, last week Daschle somehow implicated Rush Limbaugh in the Democrats’ midterm defeat. Grislier still, Daschle seemed to be saying that Limbaugh’s raillery about “liberals” was inciting violence against liberal politicians from Limbaugh’s audience. How does one account for such bizarre charges?
My answer is that Daschle, long ago, became a captive to the grievances, complaints, and hysterical false prophecies of his political base, liberalism. Long ago the coherent body of ideas about labor unions, welfare, and social engineering that made up the New Deal and liberalism in general cracked up into all the present special interests, for instance, environmentalism, feminism, and identity politics. Having spent so much of his life with these cranks, Daschle is particularly susceptible to their shrieks. Thus the other day he might have sounded absurd to the majority of American voters just as he sounded absurd to them during the midterm elections. But in the company he keeps he is not absurd. He is a male version of Barbra Streisand. He is Bob Dylan with a bath. These unhappy people have created an artificial world for themselves and it is not the kind of thing Irving Berlin wrote songs about. It is more like the world of the recently deceased Kurt Cobain. I do not know if you noticed it, but a Wall Street Journal reviewer of Cobain’s memoirs pointed out that in Cobain’s astonishingly profane and angry ranting the only politician he had a good word for was Jimmy Carter. It figures.