Crystal Balls


BLOGGER’S NOTE:  If you thought today’s post, based on the title, was going to be about Ken Starr, Pam Bondi and Alan Dershowitz, you will again be disappointed.  Although the reference is appropriate, the topic du jour is modern day prophets.

I said, whatever you do, don’t hire a “yes man,” someone who won’t tell you the truth–don’t do that.  Because if you do, I believe you will be impeached.

Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly
October 26, 2019

Kelly was recalling a conversation with Donald Trump concerning selection of a successor following his announcement on December 8, 2018 he would be leaving his position as chief of staff.  Nostradamus would be proud.

This is not the only example.  Expressing his belief Trump would exact revenge on any member of the Senate who defied his claim of innocence during the impeachment trial, Adam Schiff hypothetically asked Republicans, “Do you honestly believed Trump would not turn on any one of you if you were viewed as a threat to his self-interest.”  Well, just ask John Bolton.  Or Judge Andrew Napolitano, chief judicial analyst for (drum roll) Fox News.  Yesterday, on Fox Business, Napolitano reminded viewers Bolton was “a conservative icon until two days ago.”  Psychic Jeane Dixon should have been so accurate.

To be honest, neither of these predictions signal any evidence of extraordinary powers.  Why?  First, both Kelly and Schiff were voicing sentiments that were widely held among their peers and political pundits.  I could not find one instance on-line where someone challenged these assessments.

Second, how tough is it to make predictions of things that happen just weeks or months into the future?  Forecasting Trump would attack someone who crossed him is the equivalent of calling a football game at the two-minute warning with one team ahead by four touchdowns.  Or laying down a bet on Secretariat to win the Belmont Stakes as the horses enter the home stretch.

Real prophets need to see farther into the future and foretell events which challenge conventional wisdom.  Let me share one example.

As some of you may know, among other things besides this blog, I co-host a monthly event at our local bookstore.  The series is titled Cinema and Conversation.  We first screen a movie and then moderate a discussion about the subject matter, the filmmaker’s approach and style or both.  Based on the license we have with the Motion Picture Licensing Association, we cannot charge admission nor advertise the event using the title or the names of any of the cast or crew.  We are allowed to provide an ambiguous teaser.

For January, I picked a film which we marketed as “the perfect movie to kick off an election year.”  Between the announcement and the screening, when I ran into one of the regular patrons of the series, they would tell me they were sure I chose Wag the Dog, Barry Levinson’s 1997 story about a presidential campaign which produces a fictional war to distract from the candidate’s sexual discretion.  They should have known better.  I eschew box office blockbusters.  And often pick a story I think the critics overlooked or misunderstood.

On movie night, I warned the audience I had picked a 2006 production which ranked 2,305 on the all-time domestic box office list ($37.4 million gross revenue) and at the time of its release received a Rotten Tomatoes score of 23/100.  It was Barry Levinson’s other political satire Man of the Year, starring Robin Williams, Laura Linney, Christopher Walken and Lewis Black.  The story focuses on the improbable presidential election of a late night television personality as the result of an error in the program code of voting machines used in several states.  Levinson said he was inspired by suspected irregularities in electronic voting tallies associated with Diebold machines used in Ohio during the 2004 presidential election.  HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE:  Walden O’Dell, the chairman and CEO of Diebold was a major Republican donor from Columbus, Ohio.

Every time I host Cinema and Conversation, the first question I ask is, “What do think the filmmaker was trying to communicate?”  The consensus this night being it was a warning about the following things.

  • The integrity of electronic voting machines with no paper backup.
  • Whether the design and maintenance of voting machines should be left to for-profit companies.
  • The attraction of celebrities as political figures.
  • The rise of populism resulting from dissatisfaction with both major political parties.
  • Reliance on comedians from Mort Sahl to George Carlin to John Stewart for news commentary.
  • The role of whistle blowers in the private sector as well as public sector.

A pretty good list of things to consider as we approach November 2020.  So why did it flop in 2006?  Consider the following reviews.

A sort-of-political kind-of-satire written and directed by Barry Levinson, the picture resurrects a fantasy that periodically seizes the imaginations of Hollywood studios, and also, a bit less frequently, of some American voters: that a plain-talking outsider will roll into Washington, propelled by popular frustration with the status quo, and clean up the mess.

This is a shame since Mr. Levinson was responsible for “Wag the Dog,” a gratifyingly sharp and imaginative dissection of the media spectacle that often confuses itself with political reality.

New York Times

Levinson made a much smarter political comedy a decade ago called Wag the Dog. That one also was constructed as a thriller, but it didn’t star a comedian, and it didn’t spring from what is essentially a pretty old joke.


Related imageIronically, Levinson who both directed and wrote the screenplay, anticipated this response.  In an exchange between president-elect Tom Dobbs (Williams) and his manager (Walken), Dobbs expresses his continuing disbelief he has won the election.  To which Walken replies, “Well, Mark Twain once wrote, ‘The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.’  We are, my friend, in uncharted waters.”

Which proves the point, to be considered a prophet requires capturing an inconceivable future reality first as a credible fiction, regardless whether anyone believes it or not. And in 2006, Levinson epitomized the prophet who was a stranger in his own land–Hollywood.

So, the next time you go to the movies and someone tells you, “This could never happen here,” respond by asking them, “Have you ever seen Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year?  Don’t tell me it can’t happen here.  It already has.”

For what it’s worth.

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