Oh happy days

Photo: Ethan Coen

The happiest day of my life was November 4, 2008—the day Obama was elected.

I was at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar that night, sitting with Nick and Val and Miss Tee, their do-everything assistant, who wasn’t sitting so much as scurrying around the room excitedly, waving a small American Flag in each hand.

I could only stay an hour or so after California put Obama over the top at 11 p.m. our time, since I had to fly out early the next morning for Louisiana. I took the subway from 72nd and Broadway to Times Square, then hung out for a few minutes with hundreds of other joyful celebrants behind the police barricades as cars honked past, tears streaming down my face. I got home in time to watch Obama’s wonderful acceptance speech before packing and heading out to the airport.

I was a poll worker when Obama was reelected in 2012, but was done in time to go to the Sugar Bar and watch the returns. It wasn’t as crowded this time, and more subdued. Nick had died in 2011 (Obama sent Val a condolence note), and I sat with Val and Tee at the foot of the bar, next to the huge black-and-white photo of an adorable, somewhat pensive Nick. We didn’t stay late, and when Tee went upstairs to pack up, she turned to the photo and said to it, “We did it again, Boo Boo. We did it again.” I kissed my fingers and touched his cheek.

I wrote a long piece on this site after Trump won in 2016. I won’t say it was the worst day of my life, but when I got off poll work and had walked halfway to the Sugar Bar—around 57th Street and 10th Ave.—I knew it was going bad, and suddenly felt my body going into physical shock. It was only the second time that happened: The first was 9/11.

The Sugar Bar’s been closed during the pandemic, and I’d been called out of town the day after Tuesday’s election–which followed 10 days straight of eight-hour-plus early voting poll days and 17 hours on Tuesday. I got back Thursday and I was exhausted, if not in shock again over the undecided election. From that point on, the TV was stuck on MSNBC day and night until Pennsylvania finally put Biden over.

Unlike Obama’s elections that were both decided quickly the night of the election, it was a beautiful sunny and warm autumn Saturday, with the election call late in the morning meaning everyone was up and awake and ready to party. No sooner had the announcement been made than the joyous shouts and banging on pots and pans and horn honks began, all reminiscent of the five minutes of noise that erupted every evening in the first weeks of the pandemic, a weird way then to honor first-responders, I thought, but totally understandable now. It was like this huge weight had been lifted off our backs, or to borrow a timely metaphor, deadly knee off our necks.

Then commenced hours of intermittent weeping, first at home while I watched the early celebrants begin to fill the streets of New York and everywhere else, then when I joined many of them at Columbus Circle—having been notified by email the night before that the Working Families Party was gathering there in support of the by-then obvious winner Biden.

I took a call from my sister in Wisconsin before I left, and my friend Bob Merlis in Palm Springs, where he’d just run up the flagpole an American Flag that he’d refused to fly the last four years. I put on my yellowed 23-year-old Ernest Tubb Record Shop 50th Anniversary t-shirt (its fresh coffee stain barely discernible), a Ruth Bader Ginsburg face mask, and a blue flannel long-sleeve shirt and headed north on 10th Ave., Daniel Boone’s “Beautiful Sunday” playing in my head (even thought it was Saturday) and alternating with the Rascals’ “A Beautiful Morning.”

The cars were honking constantly when I got over to 9th and 59th, and saw an out-of-practice, pandemic-rusty/weary bunch awkwardly wondering if they should hug each other, then trying to remember how exactly to do it. The tears restarted.

The weird thing is, I really don’t cry that much: when I’m moved by movies, sometimes, like To Kill a Mockingbird, or some songs, like Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” And always during opera curtain calls—and marches, when I’m overwhelmed by the goodness of people standing up against unmitigated evil.

By now Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” was playing in my head, as I hung out a bit on the pedestrian island with the subway station entrance in the middle of Broadway, in between the Time Warner Center and the Trump Hotel tower. Traffic was now slowed to a trickle, cars honking, passengers sticking their heads out of windows and sunroofs and waving or taking pictures of us waving or taking pictures of them. It was the perfect time to cross over to the Southwest corner of Central Park, where I was surprised that a guy my age asked if he could take my picture.

Columbus Circle

“Ernest Tubb and RBG! Two of my favorites!” he explained. I really was with my people.

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

I took a few more pics, including one of Sing Out, Louise!—a group of Gays Against Guns who’ve been writing Trump-related song parodies (“in the key of F-You”) since his election. I stuck around long enough to hear “Everyone Knows It’s Rudy” (to the tune of The Association’s “Windy”) and 3 Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” (“Dirty Donny was an asshole!”) before splitting with my filmmaker friend Ethan, both of us concerned about the “covidity.”

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

We walked over to 5th Ave, which was entirely shut down to cars, and Ethan posed me for a pic with the cursed Trump Tower—or, as I prefer calling it, the Devil’s Building—in the background. I then returned to the site of my final 2008 celebration—Times Square—and more revelers. Even Trump supporter Naked Cowboy got in the act, as did a Trump Baby balloon sent skyward into exile. A guy sitting on a folding chair on the sidewalk was blasting Diana Ross’s Ashford & Simpson-penned and produced “The Boss.”

Times Square

Times Square

Times Square

“Joy to the World”—the Dog version—was in my head as I walked home, where I turned on the TV to watch more celebrations from around the world. The wonderful victory speeches that night from Biden and Harris jerked more tears—proving that my supply was inexhaustible, so long as I stayed hydrated. But I was somewhat anxious through the whole thing: It didn’t look to me like they were behind a bulletproof barrier (if there really is such a thing anymore). I always remember my Kennedy-Johnson Secret Service agent friend Bill Carter telling me how easy it is to kill the president….

And then the popping sound of the confetti bombs. Biden seemed a bit startled, and I read later that Harris’s husband definitely was. The big Secret Service man who left the stage with Biden at the end didn’t look happy, but he wasn’t supposed to.

I tweeted my fears and found that I hadn’t been alone. I was always amazed that Obama survived his presidency, but it’s a different country now—more guns, and people who have been allowed, if not encouraged, to think they have the right to use them with neither care nor consequence.

I woke up Sunday pinching myself. It wasn’t a dream after all–the second-happiest day of my life. I started with “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, remembering how thrilled I was to meet the late Hawkins one night at the Sugar Bar. And of course I thought of Nick—and Tee, who had joined Nick upstairs in August.

“We did it again, Boo Boo,” I said to the photo of me and Tee on the shelf above my computer, clicking on Ashford & Simpson’s version of their Diana Ross hit “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” on YouTube.

‘Thank you, Citizen’: Adam West and Barack Obama

Adam West’s death hit me harder than most, and I’m glad to see I was hardly alone. Indeed, even Nick Lowe raised a glass to West halfway through his Saturday night show at City Winery, and after the show gave me a few thoughts for the appreciation piece I put up yesterday at Centerline.news.

I’m not sure why—maybe because there’s always something to do with Batman going on—but I think of West not infrequently. His Batman portrayal truly was brilliant, what with his sober, deadpanned phrasing and seriousness in the most hysterically ridiculous comic book plots imaginable. But as Conan O’Brien stated, “Adam West gave probably the most inspired and ingenious performances in the history of television. He is revered by my generation of comic minds. He was also a sweet and lovely man, and it was a rare honor to know him.”

What West accomplished with Batman could only work, though, because it was so pure: West’s Batman really did believe in the basic goodness of people—and fickle as they always were, they never let him down, even in a two-part episode from Batman‘s second season–“Hizzoner the Penguin” and “Dizonner the Penguin”—when he ran for mayor of Gotham City against The Penguin. As Philip Bump wrote in The Washington Post just after the election last year, it had obvious parallels with the presidential campaign in that a dastardly villain used his celebrity and devious wiles to nearly steal an election from a qualified candidate, though in real life, sadly, he actually did.

But at least in the TV world of Batman, the good people of Gotham City came through in the end, justifying Batman’s faith in them. Going through old videos of Batman after West died, I came across a wonderful YouTube compilation, “The Complete Batman Guest Star Window Cameos,” in which Batman invariable addresses such celebs as Dick Clark and Sammy Davis, Jr., with utmost respect, as “Citizen.”

The citizen title was equally significant for President Barack Obama, and like West’s Batman, and in the face of unrelenting criticism if not outright hostility, he never lost his cool, and in his case, sense of humor. But Obama, also like West’s Batman, also never lost his unfailing positivism–for lack of a better word to denote his total lack of cynicism and unyielding trust in the goodness—and vital importance to society—of the average citizen.

“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy, to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours,” Obama said in his farewell address as president. It was a return to a theme I heard him evoke several times in promising that he wasn’t going away, but proudly taking on a new office, i.e., the office of citizen.

“Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen. Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.”

Crying like a baby: Women’s March NYC, 1-21-2017

I knew I’d cry, just not how soon and for the entire time—and that I’d be such a blubbering idiot about it.

I knew it because I was already so moved, conceptually, by the Women’s March on Washington—and just about everywhere else in the world where people who care about the planet and not just themselves exist, even including Antarctica! But as I walked east late Saturday morning on 42nd Street toward Grand Central Station, besides the significance of the Women’s March the day after the official consecration of evil, my thoughts ran also to the last time I marched: February 15, 2003, in opposition to the imminent Iraq War.

Jane Siberry was in town, maybe she played Joe’s Pub the night before. She met me at Grand Central, as did my friend Suri Gopalan, then maybe the top U.S. distributor of South Asian music and video. It was very cold that day as we marched up the East Side, and it was so crowded we never made it near to where the rally stage was. Indeed, Jane and Suri were long gone by the time I turned onto whatever the avenue was and caught sight of the stage many blocks down and could hear the speakers.

And then I cried. It was a cry of joy that after all these years, these decades after protesting the Vietnam War as a high school student in Madison, Wisconsin, when I’d come home from the University campus, once after being kicked out of high school for protesting Kent State, with tear gas seeped into my clothes and dripping down my hair in the shower (one time I needed to be treated at the Hillel foundation on Langdon Streeet when a can of National Guard pepper gas blew up right in front of me), that here I was, after all this time, right where I began, true to my idealistic younger self, where I was supposed to be.

I shouldn’t call any of this nostalgia, but I could feel the tears welling up once again as I crossed Sixth Avenue, and when I caught up with a girl carrying a sign and wearing a Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket, the floodgates opened and never really shut. Around 45th and Fifth a cop let me join the march from behind the sidewalk barricades, as I had neither registered for a start time at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at East 47th Street and First Avenue, nor gone there anyway. Rather, I figured on going to Grand Central, which was being used as a warming station–though it was warm enough for me to keep my medium jacket and heavy hooded sweatshirt open, thereby exposing the old red Janis Ian t-shirt I managed to dig out specially for the occasion.

The march would travel down Second Avenue and turn west on 42nd Street before turning north on Fifth and ending at Trump Tower at 56th. I was hoping to run into friends I knew would be there from tweets and Facebook posts—Rosanne Cash and Sandra Bernhard and David Johansen—but as it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t. I mean, I wasn’t so much crying as bawling, uncontrollably: Poor Janis Ian t-sirt! Snot noodled down upon it continuously, tears streaming down my face.

Weird thing is, I don’t usually cry much—though I do cry at movies (I’m sure they’re still cleaning up the puddle I left at last month’s Dangal screening!) and whenever I hear Alison Krauss, Laura Nyro, Maria McKee and Jane Siberry, or watch Barack and Michelle Obama. And I’m open about it, so that when I tweeted “Weeping openly behind protest gal with Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket,” a Facebook friend observed that I seem to cry a lot. “I’m a crybaby,” I responded.

It got so bad when I got in the middle of it that I couldn’t chime in on any of the chants, I was so overcome with emotion. Of course I wouldn’t have joined a Spanish one that I had a feeling was somewhat lewd since the gals were having so much fun with it, but when they ended with “When they go low, we go high” I was sniveling too much to form words. And I wouldn’t even attempt to add my voice to the little girls shouting out Planned Parenthood chant support.

I did try to sing along to “The Star-Spangled Banner”—something I never do at sports events–when the church organ at St. Thomas Church played it, but nothing came out. Same with “We Shall Overcome”—by the way, a fantastic touch from the church. Even the signs had me boohooing (a word I’ve never used, that I picked up from Tanya Tucker’s hit “Down to My Last Teardop”–that shows I’m running out of “cry” synonyms): “Dissent is Patriotic,” “I can’t believe my daughters have to do this too,” “Hate doesn’t live here anymore” (when I got home I had to post Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here”), an iconic blue “Keep Abortion Legal” sign that the woman holding it said was 15-years-old and used at five demonstrations, a “Keep your laws off my body” sign that an elderly lady said was 25-years-old.

A brief aside: So I was struggling to send out tweets through the tears and keep up with my Facebook and Twitter timelines, and on Facebook came word, though one of my friends and favorite singer-songwriters Maria McKee, that Maggie Roche of the most wonderful Roches had died.

“One of my favorite records of all time,” Maria wrote, in reference to the Roches’ self-titled 1979 album. “RIP Maggie Roche.”

“Crushed,” I responded, then tweeted, “Overcome now by sadness at news that Maggie Roche has died.” And I cried some more.

But Maria also posted “I’M SO PROUD TO BE A WOMAN TODAY! WARRIORS I LOVE YOU ALL! #RESIST.” I tweeted, “Cue Lee Greenwood: ‘And I’m proud to be an American….'” and passed a couple old ladies with blue ball caps embroidered with “We’re still here.” “Talkin’ ’bout my generation,” I tweeted.

The Devil’s Tower was now looming large as we neared 56th and Fifth. And suddenly there was a new, softer chant: “Bubble!”

Actually it wasn’t so much a chant as it was an expression of wonderment. Sure enough, the most perfect five-inch soap bubble rose over the sea of people filling Fifth Avenue, evoking my thoughts of The Red Balloon and the plastic bag of American Beauty.


And we had reached the northernmost part of the march, police barricades preventing us from getting any closer to the Tower of Doom. I followed those marchers directly in front of as they turned off to the right and headed east, passing the cutest quartet of little girls holding up a “Girl Power” sign on the south side of 56th, halfway to Madison Avenue. I turned south at the corner and there were still marchers with signs everywhere, coming or going or just hanging out. Best one: “Girls just wanna have FUNdamental human rights.”

I looked at my phone and saw that Barb Jungr, England’s great pop/cabaret singer whom I’d seen just two weeks before at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference at the Hilton, had tweeted me, “In London doing same and fave sign I’m Quite Cross. It’s so English.”

I got to 42nd Street, turned right and rejoined the march, now with those who had started a couple hours after me. Here it was so packed that it took probably 40 minutes to get from Madison to Fifth. The best sign brought me back to Madison, Wisconsin, where I used to work a block from Oscar Mayer headquarters, as it parodied the company’s jingle: “My vagina has a first name: It’s don’t fu%#king grab my pussy/My vagina has a second name, it’s seriously don’t fucking grab my pussy.”

Finally reaching Fifth Avenue, where the marchers turned right for the final leg, I kept going and headed home, thought not before finally finding at least a small part of my voice and uttering the old protest warhorse “The people. United. Will never be defeated” and the Obama battle cry “Yes we can!” And I thought of this passage toward the end of his final speech in Chicago two weeks ago: “I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans–especially so many young people out there–to believe you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves. This generation coming up–unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic–I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.”

“Guess what? We didn’t lose!” I tweeted. “We are not alone!”

When I got home I saw that 25,000 were marching in Madison–the total since reported as between 75,000 to 100,000. That night I tuned into my old friend Rockin’ John McDonald’s I Like It Like That oldies show on Madison’s listener-sponsored station WORT-FM and heard him play in succession the Beach Boys’ “Student Demonstration Time,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and the Beatles’ “Revolution.”

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 18

There’s a big head shot of Nick, black-and-white, on the wall at the end of the bar on the ground floor of the Sugar Bar, between it an the glass windows of the storefront. As I wrote in this series three years ago, there’s something about the photo–Nick’s head propped up by his hand and elbow, looking out at you with a sweet, somewhat quizzical look, his eyes seeming to follow you as you walk past.

I was on my way to the Sugar Bar on Nov. 8, hoping to celebrate the historic victory of Hillary Clinton. I’d set out from P.S. 51 Elias Howe on West 44th Street, where I served as a poll worker, getting there at 5 a.m. and getting out at 9:40 p.m. I’d been hopeful that Hillary was going to win, though I knew she’d taken a beating by the Oct. 28 announcement by FBI director James Comey that “new emails” had been “discovered” (according to my old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert of liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, in the nine days following Comey’s announcement, “email”/”emails” was mentioned more than 5,000 times on cable news programs). I’d hoped that the beating hadn’t proven fatal, but as the early returns started coming in on my phone, and after a few quick calls to my mother and a couple friends, I pretty much knew it had.

By the time I got to 57th Street and 10th Avenue I was feeling sick to my stomach–though I hadn’t had much to eat all day. I also experienced flu-like symptoms in my limbs, and almost wanted to throw up. I knew this feeling, having had it once before: Watching the second plane plow into the World Trade Center. It was the feeling of shock, of my internal systems starting to shut down. When I tweeted “Simply sickened” in response to the ominous early returns, it was true.

I found out the next night that I wasn’t alone. Having drinks with my movie producer friend Fred from L.A. and a couple of his friends, he said he’d been up all night with an upset stomach. One of the other guys said he’d had an out-of-body experience–one not at all pleasant.

After drinks I went down to the Roxy Hotel to see my friend Pete Thomas. Pete, of course, is Elvis Costello’s drummer, and had stayed in town a couple nights after Elvis’s two shows at the Beacon, along with bassist Davey Faragher, to play jazz-pop behind Jon Regen, with Pete’s daughter Tennessee, herself an esteemed drummer, DJ and political activist, DJing in between sets. I told her how 11-8 had reminded me of 9-11, and she reminded me that it was now 11-9—which I immediately tweeted, and I wasn’t alone: As Snoop Dog posted on Facebook, “9-11 worst day in America, 11-9 second worst day in America.”

Now I did give a quick second thought before tweeting, and sure enough, when I got home, I saw a tweet blasting those of us who were making the comparison and pointing out how thousands of lives had been lost on 9-11, whereas 11-9 marked “merely the death of hope.” Then again, it’s all relative, as they say: Thousands of lives on 9-11, six million Jews killed by Hitler. They’re talking now of World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a “precedent” for an immigrant (read: Muslim) registry.

But back to 11-8. Adjusted to the shock I trudged on to the Sugar Bar, where I’d spent the best night of my life almost eight years ago to the date–Nov. 4, 2008, to be exact. Eight years ago the mix of black and white at the Sugar Bar was together in waving American flags and weeping tears of joy at the extraordinary election of our first African-Amercian president. Four years ago Miss Tee—Nick and Val’s phenomenal longtime assistant—directly faced the portrait of Nick, who had died a year earlier, and said, “We did it again, Boo-Boo” following the announcement that President Obama had been re-elected.

This day in 2016 half our nation voted for a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

This night would be the worst. There would be no “we did it again, Boo-Boo.”

My old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert, now a top guy at the Media Matters liberal media watchdog group and a prominent TV talking head, didn’t see it coming.

“I definitnly underestimated the significance of the ‘charisma’ factor in new celebrity TV,” he tweeted. “Dems have 4 yrs to find camera-ready candidate.”

But Eric also pointed out how Hillary was “running against GOP, press, FBI and Russians.”

Kudos to Bruce Bartlett, former aide to Ron Paul, Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who tweeted: “The lesson of this election is that when the media normalize racism, sexism, fascism, lying & stupidity, it has political consequences.”

I, too, blame the media, mostly. As Eric indicated, not only the D.C. press but the major TV and cable networks and so-called liberal flag-bearers New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times all not only went in the tank for Trump, they piled on Hillary mercilessly.

But really, if there ever was such a thing as “the liberal media,” it died after Watergate. What we have now are lazy pack journalists who aspire to be TV celebrities, sports TV celebrities, in fact. They all use sports analogies (“ground game,” “rope-a-dope,” “game-changer,” “knock-out punch,” “swagger,” etc., etc., etc.) in turning the handing off (now I’m guilty) of the nuclear codes into sports entertainment, never stopping to consider what the nuclear codes—or anything else that a president is responsible for–are capable of. And while it may be hard for many of us to consider Trump charismatic, that’s how the media played him up, giving him free reign of their exposure vehicles for the ratings–and advertising dollars–his “charisma,” “authenticity” (what a fucking bullshit word that is) or what I would call, “anti-social irresponsibility,” drove them.

And while I praise Bernie Sanders for jumping on the Hillary bandwagon—finally—he’d done her tremendous, likely mortal damage early on by essentially siding with Trump in focusing on her Wall Street speeches, thereby turning her into a symbol of greed and corruption and establishment and rigging. All Trump had to do was take the ball and run (guilty, again); indeed, my guess is that a lot of Bernie supporters felt closer to Trump than Hill, or hated Hill so much, or, whatever. It doesn’t really matter anymore, I felt, sitting next to Tee, next to the portrait of Boo-Boo.

Nick and Val’s eldest daughter Nicole, who runs the Sugar Bar, was way over at the opposite end of the bar, drinking away, always so upful and wonderful. It was high time I go over and ask her what her dad would have thought. Like me, she didn’t know.

But my guess is, and I’m sure Nicole would agree, and I know Val would, is that Nick, while duly dumbfounded, would have taken it all philosophically, no doubt leaning in the ever positive outlook of his daughter and wife.

But alas, as much as I wish, I am not Nick. True, I was blown away by Val’s duet on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” sung, as it became almost certain that Trump had won, with Yoann Freejay, winner of The Voice in France and the night’s featured artist for the regular Tuesday Nuttin’ But the Blues open mic shows—the song, by the way, that I wrote in Billboard the week after 9-11 that should have been embraced by Congress instead of “God Bless America.”

Rather, as I stepped out into the darkness of that early Nov. 11-9 morning and began my long and lonely trek home, I thought of the night before, at the Beacon, for Elvis Costello’s second of two consecutive nights on his Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour. I remembered how he ended, as always, with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” the classic song written by Nick Lowe originally as a joke, but always a serious anthem in Costello’s impassioned version. And I could feel the tears welling in my eyes, as they had the night before when he closed with it.

But it was another Costello song that ran through my mind as I made my way downtown through the dark quiet, so unlike the raucous celebration that spread throughout the city that night of eight years ago. It was the song that Elvis had surprisingly opened with the night before: “Night Rally,” the chilling neo-Nazi nightmare from his second album This Year’s Model. The chorus still runs through my mind a week later, only more fearfully.

You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny
Wait until they’ve got you running to the
Night rally, night rally, night rally.

Election Eve at the Beacon

My moment with Arnold Palmer

(Vestron Video, 1989)

So I’m thinking of hitting that bucket of balls at a driving range in L.A. last month–first time I had a golf club in my hand in years—and finding that my slice was as wicked as ever, all this in relation to the death yesterday of Arnold Palmer, whom I once saw, after being asked to hit an iron some 200 yards down the fairway at a video camera set-up, land it effortlessly within 10 feet.

This was probably 20 years or so ago, long before selfies and maybe even cellphones, so I sure don’t have a picture with me and Arnold, and I can’t say how long my hair was—which could well have been an issue: I tend to let my hair grow long, then cut it short once or twice a year, tops. If it was long, well, I figure that might explain what I felt was Arnold’s coldness, if not outright antipathy, toward me.

Long hair and a beard. Maybe I’m putting too much on appearance. For sure, no one could have been more eager for an expenses-paid trip to Florida to interview Arnold Palmer about a golf instructional home video program he was taping. Notice that I said “home video,” and let me stipulate here that it was for videocassette. Like I said, this was long before the selfies era, indeed, back in the dark ages of videocassettes and VCRs, er, videocassette recorders.

I’d been a golf fan forever, though maybe Arnold sensed that I was a big Jack Nicklaus fan over him, much as I was a big Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali fan over the boxing establishment favorites back in the day—the day, of course, being the 1960s, when I most certainly fit the hippie mold in politics and appearance. Now, sadly, much of my hair is gone, and what I have is so short that Arnold might well have liked me (if he got past the beard, though longer hair—and facial hair—have long since come to the PGA). But I’m sure he’d still sense that politically—and above all, in social class—I’m way to the left of his patrician tracks.

But I just saw a picture posted of Ali and Arnold together, when they were honorary captains at the 2007 Orange Bowl. And I wrote a piece here last November when Ali expressed his “great pleasure” that Jack, as “one of sports biggest living legends,” would receive the first Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.

“Jack’s passion for excellence on the golf course is only surpassed by his love and passion for children and their well-being,” Ali said, via a statement. “For decades, he has used his celebrity to bring awareness and support for children’s health. I can not think of a more deserving person for this special inaugural award than the Golden Bear, himself.”

“There are very few in the sporting world who are more synonymous with the word ‘legacy’ than Muhammad Ali, so to have his name attached to the prestigious Legacy Award is so fitting,” said Jack. “He is not only known universally as the ‘Champ,’ but he has been a wonderful global ambassador for sports and our country. This is a marvelous way to honor his contributions past and present, and to ensure that generations going forward will have the opportunity to learn, respect and admire all Muhammad Ali has done for the sporting world. That is why to be the first recipient of the Ali Legacy Award is both humbling and an honor.”

But who knows what Jack and Arnie thought about Muhammad when he was Cassius—let alone when he refused induction into the Army? And I should note my disappointment last May when Jack, whom I also interviewed and who was wonderful, said he’d vote for Trump, calling him a “good man [who’s] turning America upside down [and] awakening the country.”

As for Arnold now, I’m was with Jack all the way—my personal experience notwithstanding.

“We just lost one of the incredible people in the game of golf and in all of sports,” jack said in a statement. “Arnold transcended the game of golf. He was more than a golfer or even great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend. Arnold was someone who was a pioneer in his sport. He took the game from one level to a higher level, virtually by himself. Along the way, he had millions of adoring fans—Barbara and I among them. We were great competitors, who loved competing against each other, but we were always great friends along the way. Arnold always had my back, and I had his. We were always there for each other. That never changed. He was the king of our sport and always will be.”

And let the final word come from President Obama, who tweeted, with a photo of him putting in the oval office while Arnold and others looked on, “Here’s to The King who was as extraordinary on the links as he was generous to others.”

He went further in an official statement: “With his homemade swing and homespun charm, Arnold Palmer had swagger before we had a name for it. From a humble start working at the local club in his beloved Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to superstardom as the face of golf around the globe, Arnold was the American Dream come to life. Along the way he racked up win after win–but it wasn’t his success that made him King. Arnold’s freewheeling, fearless approach to the game inspired a generation of golfers and, for the first time on TV, enthralled an audience across the world. Sure, we liked that he won seven majors, but we loved that he went for it when he probably should have laid up. That spirit extended beyond the links where he gave freely of himself and poured everything he had into everything he did: from building hospitals to personally responding to countless letters from his fans. And he did it all with a grin that hinted maybe he had one more shot up his sleeve. Today, Michelle and I stand with Arnie’s Army in saluting the King.”

Nancy Reagan

I guess I shouldn’t be puzzled by the media beatification of Nancy Reagan, who always seemed nice enough–though I’m among the apparent minority who always found her lovely but cold with an icy smile, perfect hair and clothes notwithstanding. And leave it to the “new” MSNBC to lead the way Sunday, with its solemn funeral music and Nancy portrait and lifespan after every commercial break–and especially Boy Wonder Chuck Todd, who if I heard him right, said that she was the most influential First Lady in American history, forget Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama–perish the thought, of course, that he say anything nice about Michelle Obama.

But perhaps I slept through the Reagan years, for about all I remember about her was that Godawful 1980s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign slogan. True, it was quite effective–but not in winning the unwinnable “War on Drugs.” Rather, its biggest success was forcing Highway 101, and their label Warner Bros.–lest it be accused of not falling in line–to put in the parenthetical in the title of their great 1988 country hit “(Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes.” God forbid a country song about love be misconstrued with advocating drug use!

Looking back at it now, “Just Say No” prefigured the Republican Party mantra of the Obama years, and is a symbol of the personal and social repression that the GOP has come to represent by embracing the negative over the positive. And if anyone did in fact say no to drugs–and perhaps many did–it didn’t stop the current highly publicized heroin epidemic. All it accomplished for certain–besides modifying a country song title–was saying no to research on the potential benefits of marijuana usage, that and the continuation of a war that has wasted billions of dollars and immeasurably harmed countries whose products supply our insatiable demand for that which we’re supposed to say no to.

To her credit, Nancy did finally say yes, but only in as it applied to stem cell research, and only once her beloved Ronnie took sick with Alzheimer’s. Too bad for her, her husband and the rest of us that George W. Bush, in this and so many other regards, had taken her Just Say No campaign to heart.

A conversation with Nina Khrushchev about Grandfather Nikita, Putin, Stalin, Pussy Riot, Cheney and Obama


It’s a given that those of us who were alive remember where we were the instant we learned of the JFK assassination, much as those around in 2001 remember where they were when they learned of 9/11.

Almost a year after JFK, I distinctly remember another chill when I learned of the removal, on October 14, 1964, of Nikita Khrushchev from his position as head of the Soviet Union.

I would have been 12 then. I don’t remember exactly where I was, or what I thought of him. But I well knew the gravity of the suddenly uncertain leadership situation of America’s sole nuclear rival.

Back then, and maybe again as now, we were taught to fear the Russians, if not hate them outright. But we were soon to have our own problems, what with Civil Rights and Vietnam and Watergate, not to mention the mind-expanding influence of The Beatles and the British Invasion, Muhammad Ali and psychedelia.

By the time I got out of high school I was rightly radicalized, and in the mid-‘80s, when I was writing for Billboard in New York, I jumped at the chance to meet and befriend Russian correspondents at the New York bureau of the official TASS (now ITAR-TASS) news agency—eventually attracting the suspicion of the FBI, which put me under surveillance.

I have kept my ITAR-TASS friendships to this day. In 2007, I attended the annual ITAR-TASS Christmas party and met Nina Khrushcheva, Nikita’s great-granddaughter, now a professor of International Affairs at New School University in New York and author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics. As remarkable as it was to be at an ITAR-TASS Christmas party—many of them over the years, in fact—here I was meeting the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, whose sister, coincidentally, was now married to my friend and former New York TASS bureau chief Igor Makurin.

Nina has now published another book, The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind, in which she tells the story of her grandfather Leonid Khrushchev, oldest son of Nikita. It begins 30 years ago, with a chance conversation with Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin’s ruthless foreign minister, from which the term Molotov cocktail comes. Molotov informed her that her grandfather, a World War II fighter pilot, was in fact not shot down in 1943 at age 25, but was executed by Stalin for desertion and service to the Nazis.

Molotov’s allegation had been used to discredit Nikita, himself a former Stalinist who tried to loosen Stalinist tyranny after succeeding him, following his ouster and replacement by the repressive Leonid Brezhnev. Nina, whose late father Lev Sergeevich Petrov was a journalist (like most alumni of the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, he had “unofficial” Soviet espionage credentials), took the female form of Nikita’s surname (Khrushcheva) in order to counter the official discrediting of her great-grandfather, whom she always calls “Grandfather” in the book.

In The Lost Khrushchev, then, Nina, who was seven when Nikita died, provides an extraordinary window into the mostly hidden, often dark soul of today’s Russia, from the point-of-view of an unusually worldly woman who grew up among the Soviet Union’s most powerful figures. As much an account of her personal self-discovery, the book also features her thoughts on the likes of Putin, Gorbachev, Obama and Cheney. She spoke about it on the phone a few hours after returning from Moscow and shortly before a trip to Brazil.

Right from the first page, your book is gripping. You relate meeting Molotov, when you were 16, in what seemed like a rather bland housing project for someone who was once so powerful.

He was retired, and retirement communities are never the same as residences for those in power. Grandfather lived there, too, after he was ousted, and Grandmother. So it was not the first tier of retirement housing. Brezhnev died in office, but if he had retired he would have had his own mansion. Khrushchev had ousted Molotov, so they were all persona non grata, and it was second or third tier. They weren’t top leaders.

You were 16-years-old, and your cousin introduced you to Molotov.

It was a shock. For me he was a figure in the history of Stalin. I knew he was alive, but the fact that he was alive and visible was shocking—and that my cousin was friendly with him was shocking. I remember that meeting as shock upon shock upon shock, and I think that’s why it stayed with me so long. So in writing the book I started with that story. It was the beginning of my questioning of that story of my grandfather [Leonid], and indeed, there were many more shocks.

You mention at one point how when people hear your name, they expect someone like your grandfather Nikita. I’m sure I was guilty of that when I first met you.

It brings a certain interest—meeting a Russian whose name you know. Some people become friends and they don’t care anymore, and some become friends and make fun of me. They already know how I feel about it—when someone hears your name and is only interested in you because of your name. But it’s part of my identity.

Do people generally identify you with your grandfather?

Americans either don’t remember Khrushchev or know who he is, unless they’re very savvy or knowledgeable about Russia. And since my name is Khrushcheva instead of Khrushchev, my students often don’t know the connection until I bring it up during the course. Now it sounds a bit strange because I wrote the book, but my greatest achievement in America has been anonymity.

What about when you’re in Russia?

I haven’t lived there in almost 25 years, so they have no idea who I am now, and cannot imagine that I’m related. They don’t travel, and people from the Kremlin don’t run around the streets of Moscow. I don’t know how it would have been if I said, “Hi. My name is Nina Khrushcheva,” but people don’t make the connection.

Do you ever think about changing your name back to your given surname?

I do think about that, but by writing this book, I kind of explain it to myself that I’ll never do it, and I  don’t think I’ll be thinking of it further. For various reasons, [Nikita] Khrushchev still needs me to say he matters, and also Khrushcheva is my identity now–that’s what I am. That’s how I write. I was talking to an editor at he L.A. Times and was thinking about either using a pen name or going back to my father’s name, and he said, “No way! Readers already know you this way,” and it’s quite interesting, because it’s not about Khrushchev anymore, but that I’d written enough as Khrushcheva at this point.

I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s afraid of Khrushchev. What was he like?

He came to the U.S. in 1959 with the idea of bringing communism with a human face—and that describes him perfectly. He was a diehard communist to his last breath, but unlike Molotov–who was ideological throughout, though not without honor, as I find out in writing the book. But Khrushchev was a communist with a human face–it describes everything he did, and his time after he was ousted. Then he was like any pensioner, which is what he said–planting tomatoes and collecting strawberries.

What was it like growing up around him?

It was fun, but always much, much larger than that. I tell the story of jumping on the couch and he came in and told my mother not to scold us, because he would be doing the same thing. But my mother’s reaction was so negative to this, because he was the head of state–but so kind. There was always a connect and disconnect between personal and public and personal and political. He was human, but also a communist.

You portray him in words and pictures as a nice old man–a grandfather.

Yes! He was. That’s why I thought it was also important–nobody knows that about him, how fun he was. Remembering those stories compared to his political behavior–which could be scary. [His famous statement, wrongly taken literally] ‘We will bury you’—which was misused for propaganda, was a spontaneous and soundbite thing that made you scared as a little child, but it was no different from his way of behaving at home as well. He was always human, and in public, quick on his feet with a good line–and that was rare in the Soviet Union because there was always the façade of the ‘leader.’ I can’t say politician because we didn’t have politicians, but leader. Whatever they were like at home nobody knows, but in Khrushchev’s case, he translated his political behavior to his home behavior and vice versa.

He died in 1971, a year after the existence his famous memoir became known.

Grandmother and Mother and my aunt felt that the stress from the memoir made him sicker than he was and his heart gave in. My story is different than the official story–that he gave his blessing to the publication of his memoir [in the West]. In my story he gave no such blessing. Anything I really know about him, and from the conversations with Mother and Grandmother, he could not have given it. That would be betraying his communist beliefs. He was writing for the Soviet people. He would not have blessed the publication in the West. Dr. Zhivago was his scandal: He was the leader of the U.S.S.R. when it was published in the West, and he would not have followed in Pasternak’s footsteps.

“The Lost Khrushchev” is subtitled, “Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.”

It’s kind of a slightly complex formula, but it’s also quite simple: The idea is that Russians are so oppressed because of oppressive government, fearful of consequences of opposition and protest–and dissidents are in the gulags. We’re afraid to lose freedom, suffer and, die and I argue that all this is true, but it’s also the gulag of the mind: The reason we’re so fearful and oppressed and have despots rather than democratic leaders is that we create a gulag in our mind—so there’s no need for barbed wire. The state is more important than the small man, and it’s exacerbated by the large size of Russia—or the Soviet Union. It continues to be very big, which makes for a strange mind set. Also, democracy is a choice. You decide you want to be free. You wake up every morning and think about your freedom to read, freedom to make choices and mistakes and serve the state or not serve the state. Russians either don’t have it or don’t want it, and I argue that they don’t have it because ultimately they don’t’ want it.

But there have been instances of post-Soviet protests.

People took to the streets in 1991 when there was the coup against Gorbachev, and the next time they were in the streets was 2011 when Putin said he would be president. Russians felt, “Wait a minute! You can’t tell us you will be president. Why don’t you at least pretend you care about our opionion?” The nation remembers freedom only once in 20 years? Something is wrong with this nation! The gulag of  the Russian mind. I essentially predicted Putin’s behavior, and he did exactly that–but also, we are the gulag people in our minds because we did go into the streets in 2011, and look at us now: We love Putin more than life itself!

You mention in the book that because you have been so outspoken in your writing, you once had passport issues in Russia.

I haven’t had any problems since then, but we always have to be aware of these things. But it’s also ridiculous. A puny little article [of criticism] and even that they can’t take. That’s another thing: How weak! Despite the popularity of Putin, how weak this president is if he’s afraid of people having debates about how they want to live, or articles written about this. He’s on clay feet. Why be afraid of a small little piece or article?

They’re very well-written, and you carry the Khrushchev name…

But I am not the competition, and that’s what makes him a very small man. That’s what freedom is: I have the right to say what I think, and he should convince me otherwise–and I’m happy to be wrong! I was writing this book about the gulag of the Russian mind way before Ukraine, Crimea, the end of protesting, and here we are. I don’t want to be right about Russia, but I am.

How often do you go back?

Four times a year. To see my family, but I need to touch the pulse and see if I’m right about Russia—and find what I should write about, what makes them tick? Otherwise I only watch Russian TV on the Internet and other specific things, so I do need to see what’s going on. But it’s getting firmer every year. More monolithic at the Kremlin. ‘Everyone’s an enemy. We are the greatest.’ So I watch specific programs, Russian state programs, Russian news. It’s very interesting, but essentially research.”

Are you ever hassled?

I have no problem. Nobody ever stopped me except that one time. I had to register at various places in Moscow including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mother is always afraid something will happen, and there’s a new law now that if you have a Russian passport you need to register with Russian authorities. But I live in the U.S. so I don’t have to register with anybody. My mother is afraid of various situations and problems, and I’m very grateful for whatever forces comprise my character, because it keeps me reasonably objective. And I’ve noticed that those who think something will happen–and nothing happens–become undue heroes. But some people are struggling with Putin and the regime and do have problems. With all the things I’ve written—not that I think they’re important—they’ve been critical. But I haven’t had problems. The state decides who is the enemy, and Putin is the state.

Is Putin a return to Stalin?

He’s not Stalin. His formula of behavior is Stalinesque—which does not make him Stalin. With Stalin, we lost millions in the gulags–not just the Russian mind, but Russian people. I’m not defending Putin in any way, but it’s a modern time, and he’s a modern despot. He doesn’t need to arrest everybody, but one person–and I’ll give an example: Pussy Riot. That also doesn’t work for him too well because they’re now celebrities–which I don’t think they should have become, but it’s their choice. It’s different between show trials today. People continue to speak out, so it’s not the same.

He’s “Stalinesque”?

His model is Stalineque. He’s a strong-handed leader who believes he’s the savior of Russia, similar not just to Stalin but Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible. So in some way he is a part of the succession of Russian autocrats–but not just one.

What does he believe?

He believes in a strong Russia, that the West is out to get us, and decadent. And every time Russia follows the West’s example, we end up being humiliated and duped and what-not, so his Russia is that kind of Russia–hurt, vindictive, wants to prove it’s greatness at any cost, and greatness comes with what we own, like oil and gas. In some ways it’s a war behavior, with Crimea and Ukraine. What I saw in Moscow was war propaganda. It’s not at war, but Russia is at war–all the time. Even the Olympics was presented in very militant form. The whole conversation about the Olympics was war-oriented: All athletes were soldiers, their coaches were soldiers, we’re against the West and we’re not going to lose. That works for him, so Russia is almost standing against anybody else who wants to hurt it. Even if it’s not World War II, the whole world is presented in World War II formula, even today. Putin and Russia want to be recognized as great, and if we have to hurt someone, we have to do that.

I hate to say it, but it sounds very much like the U.S.

Both Russia and America are frontier cultures with that mentality: “If we don’t do it, somebody will come and get us.” And they’re both imitation cultures—they both imitate Europe. America was a colony and built by the French, Dutch, British and others. Russia is on the outskirts of Europe and the last line of defense between Europe and Asia. Russia formulates its existence on European formulas but it doesn’t want to compete because then you have to decide that every day you’re going to get better, which is difficult. So it decided it’s going to present itself as what the West is not—which doesn’t make it not imitation.

Other thoughts on the U.S. and Russia?

America and Russia are very similar. They’re big and both messianic–both think they save humanity. Russia is saving it in terms of its spiritual existence–that Russian soul–America through offering unparalleled comfort. It’s not a big choice today: People want comfort, but the reason I think that Putin is popular among certain people, is that there is the idea that people lose morality with the money that America puts forward. They do look for some spiritual values, and Putin, as Russia always had before, offers conservative values, not decadence. But of course it’s all fake. How can a man who divorced his wife preach conservative values?

It still sounds similar to the U.S.!

There is similarity, but also not similarity because America, as imperfect as America is—and who’s perfect?–still offers the world a better option for life, although of course it screws up a lot of countries in the meantime! The 1917 Russian revolution offered salvation, then Stalin and then Khrushchev, and now offers a solution for the future or betterment of human life–and what it did was through force and oppression and lack of freedom. Some countries managed to have social democracy, a combination of American and Russian [models] in a much more tame European way.

Where do the two countries stand today?

I think America remains a world power and Russia is really not, but is trying to become one through menace–which doesn’t make it a gerat power, doesn’t provide a solution.

What are your thoughts on President Obama?

Obama, regrettably, didn’t rectify the Dick Cheney problem. But he came in with an understanding of what needed to be done. Unlike you I’m very disappointed in Obama. He talks too much, and I don’t understand who advises him in foreign policy. I’d advise him to first think and then speak about it. He doesn’t sound too convincing when he talks about a “red line in Syria” and then goes to Putin with it. Putin thought he was saving Obama, and now he’s talking about sanctions against Russia. So why is he saying anything? So I’m disappointed in Obama. Cheney was a dictatorial leader, but spying on [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel was worse than Cheney. It upsets me. He should know better, and he does know better, in fact, and yet his advisors do not.

But you still support him.

I’m a disappointed supporter of Barack Obama. There’s, no reason for this sort of thing. It is so not good. I teach propaganda and commnications. Can’t they at least hire me—like The Washington Post suggested? I was the first to say Putin will take Crimea. The Pentagon is now studying his body language—why are they wasting the money? I could have told you all that for free! I’m really hoping the White House calls me! They’re bad on messaging: I’m totally happy with the affordable health care act, but first figure out what it will be instead of celebrating it and then screwing it up. And [U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.] Samantha Power should not be tweeting! And he picks lobbyists for a cause to positions of ambassadorial importance, which is wrong.

And the Republicans?

They just prove the whole dictatorial formula.

After all your research, are you satisfied that you know the truth about “the lost Khrushchev,” your grandfather—and Nikita’s son—Leonid Khrushchev?

Yes. I am. He died. I’m fascinated by him. His story is tragic, not only because he died, but he tried to prove to his father who was a communist that he was a human, and in that particular case, Khrushchev, who was a communist with a human face, did not want him to be a human, but just communist. So the things Leonid was doing–chasing women, crashing cars, being very brave–somehow became in Khrushchev’s mind sins that he couldn’t overcome in relation to his son. He was very upset that he was not a communist, and that I find very tragic. And it’s also very tragic that in dying under regular war circumstances he became someone whose fate in the 20th Century events rests on Khrushchev’s shoulders because of that rumor that [Leonid] was a traitor and helped the Nazis and Stalin punished him for that—and that’s the only reason [they give] that Khrushchev denounced Stalin in congress. So the importance of Khrushchev repenting to make the country better is now gone, only because [they say] he was avenging his son who Stalin allegedly killed. So part of 20th Century history rests on this very young man who died at age 25.

How do you feel about Leonid?

I love him tremendously. I find him fascinating, and wish I could be a friend of his. There are tidbits of his life that nobody even thought of investigating, that he and Stalin’s younger son were in love with the same woman, and she was in love with Leonid and when he died married Stalin. People knew, but no one thought of talking about it–but the Khrushchev-Stalin comparisons/disagreements are always political, and at the same time there are so many connections between the Stalins and the Khrushchevs: The younger Stalin son and Leonid shared love with the same woman. The older Stalin son had the fate of being captured and put in a concentration camp–though Leonid never was, but the story was that he was–and Stalin’s older son actually was and died as a hero.

And what of Leonid’s mother?

That’s very interesting, also. I found the remarkable story of my birth grandmother—who just died in March when the book was coming out, at 101—Lyuba. I’m sorry to say she’s dead–God rest her soul–but she was a horrible person and I never knew how horrible she was. I researched and discovered and for me it became the epitome of Soviet hypocrisy–communism with humanity. Formerly it had so little humanity that people would behave as absolutely perfect communists in public settings and go to the kitchen or wherever and not be perfect at all–and she was a great example of that: really quite scheming and deceitful and immoral in regular life, and hiding it from everyone until her last breath.

Anything else to say about the book?

It was a very interesting book to write. I learned things about my family that I didn’t know, but also thought about my family a lot, like Khrushchev’s wife Nina–my grandmother—and how she fit. I found out that unlike Nikita, she was an orthodox communist, like Molotov, her neighbor in her later years. They believed that communism and the Kremlin were never wrong. Nikita was much more democratic than she was, and yet she was very forgiving of family, since she thought family was most important. Another title of this book would have been The Contradictions of Communism.


For more from Nina Khruscheva, I highly recommend her website and blog.