Monday, June 18, 2007
Flashback: A Gay Creative Type and How He Cowed the Speaker, the TV Station, the CPB, PBS and a Major Corporation: A Lesson in Todays Movement Politics.
[More than 50 years in politics written for my kids and grandchildren].
The words the Speaker of the House whispered in my ear were: Hes a a-a-gay! And thinking I still needed elucidation, he ran down a list of uncomplimentary words for gay. Born in 1912 to Irish working class to whom in contradistinction to drunkenness, rage, hetero-licentiousness, homosexuality truly was the sin that dared not speak its name, he felt he had to walk around the table and speak in low tonesafter which for emphasis he repeated all the derogatory descriptions he could, thinking I didnt understand.
I said: well, so what?
Dont give me `so what!
He then described our threat at WGBH as a temperamental, foot-stomping, ultra-delicate, effete, effeminate, so-called genius, highly venerated at the station, who thought of the documentary, has taken a possessors delight in it, will never be fired, has connections that cause people to tremble at the stations topmost echelon and has threatened to blow the whistle to the media, declaring that his semi-sacred documentary on public policy as seen through the eyes of the Speaker is in danger of being prostituted by a tacky commercial interesta cereal companywhich for the paltry cost of a little over $100,000 plus and the rental of Fords theatre is going to turn his film into a carnival of crass commerciality. And furthermore that the station is direly influenced by the fear that he will in fact go public on a so-called tie-up between big politics and the grocery products industry which would harm ONeill, the station, its commercial contracts and Quaker.
I said: So he will imply youre a tool of the big Oats Lobby? Ridiculous, isnt it? Thats why you wanted us to sponsor it because we werent Big Oil but Big Oats.
He laughed and agreed.
I said: this is ridiculous. Its done all the time! Corporations and foundations help finance productions and--.
Not exactly, Tommy. What he is kicking about is the Fords theatre thing, nothing else. He wants the premiere to be held at the station in Boston. You see the position he puts you in and me in.
No I dont! Hes got nothing on youdoes he? Or me! I never met the guy!
Me? Of course not! I dont even know the and here he described in unflattering and extraordinarily graphic terms the orientation of the creative person.
No, `well then. These are liberally sensitive times and I remind you its Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the nation and I represent Cambridge, one of the most liberal districts in the country where Ive madelet us sayextraordinary accommodations.
Let me conjure up for you the `Boston Globe saying that the Speaker has a deal with Quaker Oats to do well, who knows? Such and such. All to do with a film Quaker is helping to finance. And then the `Globe outlines the Ford Theatre thing and spins it into a terrific scenario. Heres the crown jewel of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Quaker Oats, tying up with ONeill for a premiere where the president is comingall for ONeills self-glorification and a powerful special interest payoff for a solidly Republican company.
What youre saying is that the gay thing matterseven though it wont come out in the news stories.
Yeah. Because gayness is the latest, um--.
Fad of the Left.
Right. I dont need that; you dont need that.
No, I dont need it.
The only thing we can do, Tommy, is for you to go to Boston and see this [scatological description of a homosexual]. Try to convince him that we can have two premieresone in Boston which Ill get somebody else to pay for and one in Washington.
You cant do it?
My people have tried and have come back to me with the unmistakable idea that we have pushed too muchto the point that, well, there might be an explosion. If I sit down with him, well--
I agree. That gives him too much visibility. Now you say the president of the station, the head of the station, who agreed to this initially has utterly no power over this guy. Nobody, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, nobody has. Why not? Are they gay, too? Is he blackmailing them?
No, God no. Not at all. I know them. Its cowardice. Once this fruitcake has brought it up, everybody heads for the hills. Thats--.
Thats public television, isnt it? So concerned about mollifying the niceties of the trade that it wilts or it trembles like a plate-ful of Jello.
(At another time I would have used the phrase political correctness but it hadnt been invented yet.)
Ill go see him.
Dont make it worse, now. You lose your head and were all out of business.
I wont. But Im amazed that youre paralyzed by thissomebody whos been in politics for two generations.
You dont know Boston, todays Boston, like I do.
Agreed. Ill take your word for it.
So I took a company lawyer with me. I flew to Chicago, and together we flew to Boston.
The guy sat at his desk, his fingers pyramiding with thumbs twiddling.
Listen to me, he said. I dont give a [explective] if the concept that I put my entire heart and soul in, my beingpouring out my fondest hopesgoes down the drain! Do you hear me! I DONT CARE! I feel well I feel used! USED!
He bit his lip. Tears were coming.
Well, said the lawyer calmly, can we just consider the nature of this. First, we have done this several timesonce with a David Wolper film on Abraham Lincoln, once with a Charles Guggenheim film on Andrew Young. We have had highly regarded receptions for top Washington people at Fords and there hasnt been a scintilla of anything publicly involving crass commercialism because there wasnt any.
I DONT CARE! I WONT HAVE MY PICTURE SUBJECTED TO OH IM SO WORKED UP I CANNOT GO ON!
He was weeping uncontrollably now.
I said: Do you realize what kind of precedent this is? Youre imputing commercialism here not because of foundation support or corporate contributions but because of a premiere that will have no more commercial overtone in it than the line that says and a grant from The Quaker Oats Foundation in your documentary. Youre making a scene here which if carried through in precedent would easily jeopardize any corporation or foundation giving money to your not-for-profit status. Exxon, Mobil all of these would be driven away by this precedent.
I tell you they are not having a premiere.
You dont object to Quaker Oats supporting your film or any future documentaries on WGBH. You object to the fact that with our own money we are willing to put on an event for the benefit of the Speaker. What if there is a simultaneous premiere here in Boston and in Washington?
I tell you the premiere will be here at the studio in Boston. Period.
What if you have the premiere in Boston and we have one in Washington later?
I tell you the premiere will be here in the studio in Boston. Period. No other place.
You realize youre careening out of reality on this, dont you? Youre telling a corporation it may not honor the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
YOU CAN GO OUT AND WINE AND DINE ALL YOUR FAT, HORRIBLE POLITICIAN FRIENDS IF YOU WISH! BUT NOT WITH MY FILM YOU ARENT! Oh, Im so sorry I thought of this film!
Wait a minute, said the lawyer, you cant transgress on the right of a corporation to do what it wishes consonant with--.
MAYBE YOURE RIGHT BUT ILL LET THE MEDIA KNOW ABOUT IT AND THE MEDIA WILL--.
I said: Why do you have to shout like this? Do you think it improves your case when you scream?
and the media will make their own conclusions.
Okay, I said. Okay. Well cancel the Fords Theatre thing, thats all. You plan your premiere. Thats all we can do.
The lawyer nodded.
Then the creative type changed immediately.
Well, he said, smiling brightly, Im sorry to go on like this.
Just show us how to get out of studio, all this maze, so we can catch our plane back to Chicago.
As he led us out he said, I suppose you think Im very emotional about this.
Why would you think that?
I hope this wont change your attitude toward us at the station.
Of course not.
Now, I said to the Speaker, weve got a job to do. Weve canceled the event, told Fords but we have a very difficult job ahead.
He said, what is that?
We have to withdraw all how many invitations did you mail3,600? We have to tell the recipients those who accepted and those who havent and those who havent responded yet that the film isnt quite ready for showing yet and we are canceling the premiere. That means everybody from the president to the cabinet to the agency heads to the Congress and we have to do it without the press getting the notion something is funny and blowing up the story in the same way that our our friend in Boston was threatening to do. In other words, one slip and the press will be calling WGBH and our friend in Boston will do his originally threatened tirade.
Ill see that enough people are recruited to go pick up all the tickets and dont worry there wont be a slip.
Ill camp here and see that its done for Chicagos sake, but you guys do the work.
What can I say, Tom! You guys have been so cooperative and this had to happen. What can I do?
Ill think of something. Now get your administrative assistant to call your staff together tomorrow morning and recruit some workers to do this. I want to follow them step by step. They have to get their story straight and do it very nonchalantly. No big deal. The film has some bugs and cant be shown yet. Somebody has to go to each office and pick up physically pick up the invitations else therell be people who arent in the know showing up and you know what that will entail. An unflattering newspaper story which is what were doing to avoid.
Most miraculously, this was done within several days. The RSVPs and the no responses. Life went on and nobody thought a thing. The TV show went on public television as it was supposed to.
But, said the Speaker, Ill never forget how good you and your company was to me. Never. Stick around for dinner.
I did and came in many times thereafter. And the more I thought of it, the more I agreed with ONeill. The times had, indeed changedso drastically that I was unaware. One guy with a lisp in a strategic spot can sink a ship.
ONeill never did forget until he diedand proved it a year or so down the road.
Is there a lesson here? Yes. One emotionally distraught creative type from a sensitive, politically-favored, liberal special interest, threatening to blow off steam to the liberal media turned around all by himself legitimate plans involving (a) the Speaker of the House, (b) a major corporation, (c) a major television station, the creative-types employer, (d) the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, (e) the Public Broadcasting System, (d) Fords Theatre, a partially owned subsidiary of the U.S. Park Service, part of the U. S. Department of the Interior involving (e) the President and Vice President of the United States, (f) the Congress, (g) the Supreme Court and (h) regulatory agencies.
To further illustrate the sacredness of this Sacred-Cow-Sacred-Interest, I guest lectured at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University an executive management course peopled by senior executives attending evenings and weekends to get their MBAs and used this as a case history about the dynamic strength of only one person in an interest group threatening to use the media (another interest group) and how he won the day. I was censured by the professor after the lecture because. Why? There was one grey-haired executive in the class who, after the discussion, went to the professor, said he was gay and interpreted the object lesson and my imitation of the Creative Ones peculiarities of speech as a hideous evidence of discrimination against his own sexual orientation therefore he would bend every oar to see that I was banned from the campus. In the interest of tolerance.
We cant use you as a lecturer, said the professor sadly to me. For a good long while.
Okay with me. I went on to teach for several years at Roosevelt University let us say no Hillsdale but which is glad to have me. But
--is this a great country or what? Tied in knots by the most sacred of Sacred Cows.