George Carlin, RIP

June 23, 2008

George Carlin, preservationist of observational humor, died yesterday. He was 71.

Carlin belongs to a rather short list of what could call philosopher-comedians. Some individuals have that unique ability to prepare their reasonably rational world-views into a series of amusing anecdotes that fulfill the legal requirements of a 50-minute set. Carlin managed to do this more often than not. Alas, most people fall into the category of those who cannot successfully pull it off, much like the worthless Lenny Bruce or the patently unfunny Bill Hicks, two individuals who somehow managed to combined pretentiousness, heavy-handedness, and self-important pretense while simultaneously draining all the humor out of any idea.

Not that Carlin was free of heavy-handedness. He had the ability to combine thoughts about God and the human race with an equal balance of old age and the weather. Yet his cynicism never always translated into gut-busting humor; he often created laundry lists of vaguely related concepts in place of actual jokes.

The drugs, of course, didn’t help. He famously managed to host the very first episode of Saturday Night Live completely stoned (though, to be sure, anyone standing within a thirty-food radius of both Chevy Chase and John Belushi were bound to touch the moon). These drugs often compounded his medical problems, causing at least one heart attack (and a forced five-year semi-retirement) at the age of 39.

His trajectory as a comedian wasn’t particularly unusual, although looking back it seems almost quaint. He was a popular comedian on the standard evening shows, portraying reasonably gentle characters such as wacky disc jockeys and intransigent army officers. Arguably his most famous role, the “hippie-dippie weatherman,” propelled him to fame. One just has to wonder about that, a bit. You know full well he was just the hippie weatherman, but this was the 60’s, and if he were exposed to the prime time audience as just the hippie weatherman, millions of home viewers would immediately rush out to join the Viet Cong. Adding the “dippie” to the end transformed him from a wasted, embarrassing borderline commie to just kind of a stupid straw man, these kinds of distinctions being what passed for argumentative discourse in that decade.

He gained a measure of success as a stand-up comedian, but then broke away from the borscht belt humor that was plain, safe, and ultimately boring. He shed the standardized airline-food-and-DMV act and grew out his hair, started wearing tattered jeans, punched Lenny Bruce in the throat and took over his slot as the counter-culture zeitgeist.

Most of his material, and the basis for a significant portion of his act, was through a series of HBO specials. Here, he solidified his talking about language in almost a soft-Orwellian manner; he believed the government had an interest in controlling the meaning of words and phrases, but we mostly did it to ourselves, to make ourselves feel safer in a dangerous world full of unpredictable predators and mouth-breathers.

He starred in two prominent television programs: the George Carlin Show, which aired on the remarkably relaxed atmosphere of the Fox network. While a critical success, it was canceled after two seasons. His other main role was as Mr. Conductor from the children’s program Shining Time Station, a rather odd choice but a safe one, since it required the acting range no greater than Ringo Starr. His movie roles were notable if not particularly impressive; stints on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its sequel, along with some of Kevin Smith’s movies, basically had Carlin play himself, not a bad gig if you can pull it off; at last count, Joe Pesci has won an Oscar.

The advent of the Internet posed a particularly frustrating problem for Carlin; he had gotten so good at thelist-based and language-based humor that was perfect for the unedited spontaneity of the quite verbal internet. Any bit of slightly clever doggerel anyone with a keyboard cooked up immediately got tagged, quite erroneously, with his name and forwarded millions of times by unsuspecting housewives and casual technophobes. Carlin dealt with this in a very Carlin-like way; aside from a lament on his web site, he just didn’t care.

His view of mankind was conflicted; while he was cautiously optimistic at times, he found the human race to be full of individuals grasping at each other’s throats for power, whether that power be at the point of a gun or through an advertisement to get you to buy a specific brand of soap. And this was reflected as he performed in his last years. His cynicism often overtook his comedy; he brilliantly melded the two, but it was becoming clear that he had little hope for the future of, well, anything. While dying at 71 is hardly cutting a young life short, decades of drug abuse and anger no doubt took its toll. And his repeated fusillades against religion did not temper as it was getting much clearer that he was older and sicker, and as far as Carlin is concerned, death was the final act of a spirit. There are, at any rate, seven words you most certainly can’t say wherever it is he is now.

Gary Gygax, RIP

March 4, 2008

Gary Gygax, co-creator of the Dungeons and Dragons line of games, failed his save roll today. He was 69.

Gygax probably isn’t particularly well known by name outside of a few pockets of specific demographics, that demographic undeniably the overlap of the “young,” “male,” and “geek” population. (Although he had a voice spot that barometer of ultimate celebrity, Futurama, was fulfilled with all the grace and dignity that talking cartoon robots drawn by twelve year old South Koreans can generate.) Sure, sure, there are middle-aged guys playing GURPS and girls who play D&D and a few inner bell curve populates who crack out the ten-sided die on occasion, but it’s difficult to not see role playing games as primarily a young adolescent male hobby. Also see: kinda creepy.

I’ve visited the town of RPG but I’ve never moved there. In my teenage years I’d play some science fiction-based role playing games—I wasn’t particularly interested in fantasy games, a weird combination of elves and spells and hellhounds and warmed-over pseudo-occult Disneyfied Alistair Crowley-style Merlins and trolls. Certainly, this was the epitome of geekdom: the ranking clearly goes playing bridge with grandma’s friends > chess player > sci-fi fan > kobold enthusiast. So by throwing dice around in a world of warp engines and alien races, I solidified my own self of self-importance by declaring that at least I wasn’t playing dungeon hockey, even though it would take only one sufficiently advanced technology to prove that we both bleed red. Ultimately, I decided that the world of RPGs was just a touch too geeky for me to tolerate, so I abandoned it to go geocaching and pursue a degree in Economics, clearly a lateral move at least. Right?

In Gygax’s world, though, there was nothing at all like it. (Actually, the first rule in Gygax’s world is that proper nouns should be allowed in Scrabble. But, later.) The best anyone could come up with were these monstrous tabletop wargames simulating such grand campaigns as the Napoleonic Wars or the Peloponnesian Conflict, “simulating” being about as accurate as Survivor being an accurate simulation of surviving. No, these wargames didn’t have much to do with dungeons or dragons, but they had plenty of complicated rules to argue about over a table full of baldy painted pewter horses in a four-year span every other Thursday night.

By creating Dungeons and Dragons, he filled a niche probably nobody in the world knew existed. The ensuing commercial success of D&D established a large, lucrative hobby that exists in almost ridiculous proportions today. (Technical note: Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons are two completely different products, a fact that 1) the people who should know that already knew that, and 2) the people who didn’t know that don’t really care.) Of course, as with all new, creative, and ground-breaking ideas in this world, it took only a few years for it to become a small commercial darling into a company beset with partnership drama, financial difficulties, and a Saturday morning cartoon, all clear signals that the death bell is soon to toll as soon as it can get a good +2 modifier to do so.

Still, Gygax launched what would turn out to be genre that billowed out beyond a sixteen-page bluebook filled with spreadsheets and formulas. The computer game industry makes more money than the movie industry, and there are very few games on the market that can’t point to some influence to role playing. While role players are hardly mainstream, no longer will passersby stop by a half dozen teenagers grouped around a handdrawn map with a bunch of dice and half-painted orcs and ask “What the hell are you guys doing? You guys are dorks.” They will now stop by a half dozen teenagers grouped around a handdrawn map with a bunch of dice and half-painted orcs and ask “What the hell are you guys doing? You guys are dorks. Come fix my computer.” (Aside: the response to that last statement is dependent on the gender and amount of cleavage of the asker.)

All broad, sweeping generalizations aside (cough, cough), role playing games also confer several extraordinarily important skills and benefits to its players.

1) It encourages face to face socialization, at least compared to MMORPGs and programming visual basic to display and repeat on the screen “Miss Dalton is teh hott!” along with a crude graphical representation of her most outstanding attributes.
2) It familiarizes players with mathematical equations and rational thinking, a highly prizes skill even if it’s only incorporated into a game, given how important calculating things in base eight helps out in the real world.
3) Many a role player has thanked their lucky stars they played Dungeons and Dragons as a child when the inevitable horde of armored changelings descends upon them on their thirstiest birthday.

The fantasy genre didn’t rise and set on Dungeons and Dragons, but it did a lot to legitimize itself over the ensuing decades. What A Beautiful Mind did for eccentric game theorists and Million Dollar Baby did for foxy boxing, role players can point to The Lord of The Rings and say, “ours.” Also see: kinda creepy.

William F. Buckley, RIP

February 28, 2008

Conservative commentator William F. Buckley died today, age 82. I guess someone finally told him who won the GOP nomination.

Buckley always seemed to consider himself out of place. At least, when he founded National Review, he claimed as such, and he was probably right. He entered the world of opinion manufacturing in a quite hostile environment for the conservative movement, when Vegas was given even odds on Moscow vs. D.C. and women eagerly sold socialist dreams on street corners for cold cash as a matter of everyday course.

Of course, even the conservative bastion of the right wasn’t immune from salvos from his own side. Ayn Rand, never exactly the most forgiving person in the world (and who would be, with her eyebrows?) never quite got over Whittaker Chamber’s scathing review of Atlas Shrugged, even going so far as to accuse Chambers of merely skimming the book. Granted, it’s doubtful even Ayn Rand herself read Atlas Shrugged, but the point stuck, and the feud between the objectivists and the paleoconservatives continues. And even the folks at the John Birch Society considered National Review only a few steps above Pravda for not being outraged enough about the fluoridation of the water supply or for not supporting a legal obligation to shoot residents of Haight-Ashbury with a high-powered rifle for sport.

Early in his life he was also was a CIA operative, something that strikes most people as slightly amusing. Exactly how would William F. Buckley operate as an agent? Where, exactly, would he fit in? He doesn’t exactly blend into a room that doesn’t involve contributing to the endowment or determining the price of gold. Maybe he was particularly adept at correcting the Russian’s grammar or something. He was active for less than a year, though, which for most people seems to be just about enough.

His tenure at the CIA, along with what he perceived to be the unfair portrayal of spook agents in the popular media, prompted Buckley to write a series of spy novels—again, a rather unusually surprising vocation for someone in Buckley’s position. Generally well-received, the stories of straight-arrow Blackford Oakes were interesting if not exactly unpredictable. Of the eleven books written, one can safely assume that the score was somewhere around Americans 11, Russkies and Red Chinese 0.

He also came to national prominence by virtue of his book, God and Man at Yale. (Being born the son of an oil executive and having a European education didn’t exactly count as strikes against him, either.) In this book, he wrote a scathing attack against Yale in particular and Ivy League education in general, accusing them of sanitizing education for the purposes of promoting secular liberalism. Most critics waved the book off as a disgruntled student unhappy with the mainstream acceptance of such progressive contrivances as Vatican II or electricity. For once the critics were right, since there has not been any evidence in the last six decades of American universities being bastions of secular liberalism or forcing that ideology on students who have the privilege of having their parents pay for it.

Of course, most America’s exposure to Buckley is because of Firing Line, a debate program that he hosted. It is probably one of the evil ironies of life that Buckley’s most successful venture outside of National Review was the product of the soul-sucking carnivore of taxpayer monies, the Public Broadcasting Service. It was here that most people were introduced to his quite odd mannerisms, including his clipped, unidentifiable accent and his devotion to using any sort of writing utensil as an adult pacifier. Most unfamiliar with his work might presume him to be just the sort of pretentious elitist liberal impractical intellectual that Buckley abhorred, and might be taken aback with surprise with the realization that he is, in fact, a pretentious elitist conservative impractical intellectual.

He ran for mayor of New York City once, not really to win but more to irritate John Lindsay, a proto-Republican that drove exactly the kind of people like William F. Buckley nuts. He lost, as he expected, and his impact on New York politics ineffectual, what with most New Yorkers not particularly driven to the polls by Lyndon Johnson’s Formosa policy or the gold standard.

Buckley’s legacy will most likely live for much, much longer, of course. He was an important stronghold against progressivism, and inspired a generation of intellectual heirs that act in their own creative ways. And yet this is perhaps just a touch bittersweet, since scores upon scores of young, conservative intellectuals to stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!” did so much to help lead to the end of the Soviet Union but not so much so for the creation of the EPA or campaign finance reform. He died working at his desk, editing a book, a charge you probably couldn’t level at the editors of, say, Mother Jones, who would more that likely be found dead liberating Sandinistas or doing a line of coke in the back seat of a Prius in parking lot of Panera Bread. In theory.

Buckley, an avid fan of the fine arts, declared that Johann Sebastian Bach would be a fitting composer to play at his funeral. A crypto-fascist couldn’t ask for anything more.

Evel Knievel, RIP

December 1, 2007

Evel Knievel died a few days ago. Except for the parts of him that were plastic or titanium, he was 69.

Knievel pretty much created the modern version of the daredevil. Obviously, stunt men existed prior to his popularity, but they were primarily gentlemen riding their penny-farthings dodging U-boats and avoiding the Great Depression. Knievel made daredeviling sexy, exciting, and, apparently, a verb.

He grew up, as most famous men do, doing a mundane job—in this case, insurance salesman—in a mundane city—in this case, Butte, Montana. Of course, there was a roundabout way of getting to that point, since his previous occupations were poacher, burglar, hockey goon, and semi-pro Olympic swindler. When the dust that was Evel Knievel’s life was deciding which way it wanted to settle, it had a choice between insurance and riding motorcycles over a dozen Mustangs set on fire. Fortunately for forty-year-olds wanting to by overprices nostalgic kitsch on online auction sites, it chose the latter.

Some say Knievel was more a product of the law of averages than any innate ability. To be certain, most of his stunts ended in what most people would consider an unmitigated disaster, usually with a hip or a leg or a collarbone shattered. If that happened to me I would cry like a woman all the way to my insurance carrier. Then again, when your body is full of morphine and cocaine you tend to not notice such minor details as a bone sticking out a few inches out of your shin.

But that doesn’t negate the sheer brute force of Knievel’s method. Sure, he jumped a lot of Greyhounds and avoided a lot of flaming hoops, but just as often as not he ended up ass over teakettle with a $25,000 motorbike landing on top of him. Still, it didn’t matter so long as he was able to give the peace sign and a big smile while paramedics tried to locate all of his organs. In fact, audiences grew larger and larger not when he jumped one more car than he previously could, but when his concussion lasted another day longer that he previously did.

As any true talented person will do, it wasn’t so much the inherent skill required to pull off the stunts that was important; it was the marketing thereof. As such, Knievel’s trips throughout America and abroad were just as much about good television and sportsmanship as it was selling a brand. As such, Knievel’s persona, complete with the tacky faux patriotic jumpsuit and feigned bravado, made more money through lunchboxes, puffy stickers, and motorcycles than his shows did. In fact, after decades of bone-crunching injury, he still made mass amounts of money on merchandizing afterwards without setting foot one in a rocket, motorbike, or rocket-propelled motorbike again.

Towards the late 1970’s, after a few false promises of hanging up the ramps, he retired from the daredevil business. Astoundingly, his leaving didn’t really create that much of a gap, since no one has yet to take his place. Some would say that his death ushered in a golden age of “extreme” sports, so the thousands of professional snowboarders and skateboarders are, at least in spirit, taking over from Evel. If the street punk down the block from me breaks his nose apart on the pavement trying to do a third-grade kickflip on the makeshift half-pipe he made from plywood scraps long enough to stop stealing my newspaper, then I’m all for the spiritual succession theory.

Of course, as Knievel liked to ride fast, he liked to live fast, too. His post-daredevil life was full of booze and hookers, which ultimately ended up with his wife leaving him and his being estranged from his son. He was charged with assault and firearms charges due to what he insists were publicity stunts but were, as they always were, and old, broken man (in more ways than one) trying to life his former glory days through a series of meaningless misdemeanors. And all the money he made selling Evel Knievel washrags and dustbins went to procuring even more women and alcohol. Broke and no longer able to jump buses, he scraped by, making ends meet by not paying taxes. Knievel may have been able to soar over canyons, mountain lions, and flaming vehicles, but he certainly couldn’t evade the Internal Revenue Service.

Of course, it’s also true that Knievel’s talent not weigh with his stuntwork but with his high tolerance level. This minimizes his actual abilities—I can’t wake up and get off of the mattress without misjudging the distance from the end of my toe to that big metal thing that hangs down from the edge of my bed that I’m too lazy to find out why it’s there—but offers a rather lucrative outlet for failure. He found that pulse of marketing few are able to find: if he was successful and made the jump, he displayed skill and courage; if he failed, he displayed perseverance and tolerance. Either was, more tickets were sold. If only the famously uneven careers of, say, Kevin Costner or Bob Shrum could capitalize from that particular philosopher’s stone.

Leona Helmsley, RIP

August 29, 2007

If there are two things in this world that I can’t stand, it’s old wealthy women who spite people in their will and overly pampered dogs. Well, and gravy. And college basketball. And people who don’t understand that “right lane ends” and “merge” are two different concepts. And the help feature in Microsoft Office. And shopping for shoes, even out of necessity. And strawberry soda.

Hmmm. Anyway, back to old rich bats and stupid dogs. Now, don’t get me wrong. I like old rich women when they are called “sugar mommas” and they are married to me and they die promptly after the wedding ceremony or when all legal requirements are met for me getting her old stanky loot, whichever comes first. And I don’t mind treating a dog to a special visit to the Dog Spa or the Canine Valhalla or whatever you want to call the place where dogs get shampooed and their nails clipped and wind the whole package down with whatever the neutered dog equivalent of a happy ending is. That must be something for a dog, the fact that a special treat is to go get your fingernails clipped. If only I were satisfied so easily. It takes an iced mocha and an expansion pack for Civilization IV to even get me started. You don’t get to my heart by my stomach, you get to it by pumping me full of caffeine and giving me six new Wonders to build.

Anyway, the reason I’m all bent out of shape over dogs and rich girls is Leona Helmsley. Helmsley has long dropped off of my giving-a-crap-o-meter, where she has found plenty of company with Imelda Marcos and Paula Poundstone. I mean, I vaguely remember her as a real estate tycoon, kind of the female equivalent of Donald Trump, only with less hairpiece and more extraordinarily creepy makeup. (And far be it for me to stoop so low as to mock someone’s appearance, but holy cats, she looked like the Joker after Batman killed him and let the corpse rot for about six years, then pumped it full of cosmetics and glycerin and then poured kerosene on it and lit it on fire then threw it in front of the fastest and ugliest train ever birthed by engineers. Seriously, the woman’s scary ugly.) I also remember the trouble she got into, what with her rather unfortunate cavalier attitude towards tax law and treating anyone who wasn’t a rich white male like herself as either hired help or an extra in a miniseries about the Civil War. But, like Spy magazine and blond PR agents that back over crowds of people in their Hummer, she was not particularly known as an icon of anything in particular outside of New York City, which, granted, is still fairly significant, what with the entire known universe revolving around Gotham for any and all reasons ever imagined.

Anyway, Helmsley died recently. (And, yes, they could tell.) The cause of death was the weight of sheer importance she held in New York City finally crushed her nonexistent soul. Her will was fairly standard, leaving it to relatives, though two of her grandchildren got bupkiss—zero. The will simply states that they get nothing “for reasons that are known to them.” Obviously, this is a cue for everyone in the world (or, at least, the readers of the New York Post) to engage in rampant speculation. What on earth could these people have done to piss of the old rich grandmother? Forget to send a Thank You Card for that $25 Starbucks gift card they got for Hanukah? Mentioned over the dinner table that maybe the Earned Income Tax Credit isn’t such a bad idea? Not look at that boil in her lower back? We’ll probably never know, though I’m certain that Access Hollywood would like to fill in the gap in their income if they were to divulge such information. Just sayin’.

The biggest slap in the face, though, isn’t just that those two grandchildren got the monkey’s bum at the reading of the will. It’s that Helmsley’s dog, the aptly named Trouble, got $12 million. That’s right, one of the most powerful real estate developers in America—an individual one must assume had a modicum of intelligence to manage a rather large business empire—left cold cash to her dog. This is hands down the single stupidest act I can think of ever since…well, ever since she decided she didn’t need to pay the government any taxes. Hmm. Maybe she was kind of a dim bulb. It takes all kinds in the Big Apple, I suppose.

Now, I like dogs and all. I like pets generally, as long as they are purchased, cared for, and under the constant supervision of someone else who isn’t me. (Please note that for the record deer are not pets.) And I’d be inclined to treat said pets as kindly as possible. However, given that I see what dogs are willing to eat, and what dogs do to themselves, and what dogs do to each other, I would estimate that dogs are fairly low on the maintenance scale of things. For $12 million, though, Trouble, it seems, won’t have any at all.

Kurt Vonnegut, RIP

April 15, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, occasional author and professional curmudgeon, died last Wednesday. So it goes.

Now that his obligatory catchphrase is out of the way, it’s safe to say that Vonnegut represented one of the last true authors to make a career out of simultaneously hating the world and loving it at the same time, a feat unparalleled until Burger King authorized a senior discount for the Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwich.

Vonnegut was a known pessimist—though, to be fair, not really. He was, occasionally, a sunshine optimist, believing that reason and rationality would one day take precedence over misty-eyed tribalism and short-sighted realpolitik. But mostly he would look at the world and see a cloudy mess of self-interest and brutality, and often clutched forcefully onto the glass-half-empty for much longer than was absolutely necessary. Walking away from the final acts of a Vonnegut novel would make me seem like the pollyannish grand marshal of the Everything’s Always Gonna Be OK Happy Time Fun Parade. But this elaborately inventive grasp of all that is dark and wrong with the world was the perfect fit into the social abyss that was the late 1960’s.

The defining moment of Vonnegut’s life occurred while he was a prisoner of war in Germany. There, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, a horrifyingly violent act that demonstrated to Vonnegut what kind of soulless destruction the human will was capable of propagating, regardless of whether it was to establish a Third Reich, expand religious belief, or sell diet pills to fat housewives. This event no doubt contributed to his fascination with fatalism, something that fares very well when writing science fiction or living through the Vietnam War. Hearing something like this that can be a very humbling experience for someone like me. The single greatest trauma visited upon me when I was a child was the day I missed the Inspector Gadget where the Chief replaces him with a computer, but in the end find out they need him after all, because sometimes computers aren’t capable of feelings. How dastardly.

Though, quite frankly, Vonnegut should only be labeled as a science fiction writer with the loosest of definitions available. His novels are more black comedies mixed with healthy doses of abject satire, armchair physics, and vivid displays of anti-authoritarianism. Like many authors of his generation, he believed in the austere finality of science but was pessimistic about its application; the arms race had created a mockery of the definition of diplomacy and the exponential destruction that nuclear weapons introduced to warfare were not in the least bit offset by pull-string plastic garbage bags, digital stoves, and Tang.

His books were a jumble of perfectly coifed sentences and “experimental” context, often inserting himself into storylines and keeping an arm’s-length distance from the conventional rules of punctuation and grammar. Sometimes these devices introduced a novel way to advance the plot, while others found it to be pretentious, awkward, or an award-winning combination of both. He was also accused of excessively reusing his characters, making most of them mere caricatures of himself, though he defended himself my stating that if he wasted all his time developing new characters, he wouldn’t have the time to find new and creative ways to recycle his plots.

Vonnegut himself specialized in being a killjoy about most things, in some areas more than others. Late in life, he became somewhat of a provocateur without the benefit of being an active author, stating quite plainly that he had paid his dues to the literary establishment long ago and had no desire to continue, a sentiment one hopes will some day, preferably soon, afflict Rosie O’Donnell and Ann Coulter. He presumed that terrorists were “brave people,” acknowledging that he only meant that they were fighting for a belief and not simply random brutality in the inevitable non-apology slash explanation he expressed when the media got wind of it. He regarded the Bush administration as not much more than a gathering of head-barely-above-water frat boys looking to score extra points in some sort of universal Fantasy Global Domination League. Surprisingly, given his ideological influences and disdain for organized religion, he was a detractor of the theory of evolution, refusing to believe that the harsh determinism of science was solely capable of producing occasional acts of genius in the gene pool, geniuses such as (cough, cough) oh, I don’t know, say, Kurt Vonnegut.

His physical troubles paralleled his mental proclamations as well. In the early 80’s he attempted suicide, as his mother had rather unfortunately done, and in the last decade caught his mattress on fire whilst smoking in bed. Indeed, his fatalistic outlook almost made him seem like he was “unstuck in time,” as Slaughterhouse-Five’s Billy Pilgrim had done. He seemed to know how and when he was going to die, but for some reason the world wouldn’t let him. And then he fell, and then he died. All together, now: so it goes.

Anna Nicole Smith, RIP

February 10, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith, actress, model, and control group for intelligence, has died. Parts of her were 39.

Smith, a former Playmate of the Year, has had a reasonably seasoned and controversial career as a model. Her unique mix of outrageous behavior and girl-next-door innocence made her a celebrity. But her dramatic home life, which she made no effort whatsoever to keep from the public eye, enhanced her popularity beyond Brangelinic proportions.

The death of Smith by a probable drug overdose has surprised many people, the same people who were surprised at the fact that Hillary Clinton is running for president. It’s an unfortunate fact that Smith has had a long, public battle with substance abuse, one of the many, many hurdles she has had to work to overcome in her life, along with obesity, grammar construction, and being Texan.

Smith’s goal in life was to emulate Marilyn Monroe. In many ways, she succeeded by becoming a blonde sex bombshell, causing controversy with her sexual openness, and having a cyanide capsule anally inserted into her body by the mafia to cover up an affair with Bobby and Jack Kennedy.

Granted, their career paths differed in many ways as well. For instance, Marilyn Monroe has been on record as being able to successfully tie her shoes without there being a step involving inserting ground up coca leaves in her nose. And when Marilyn had sexual relations with Hugh Hefner in order to get on the cover of his magazine, it didn’t require significant pharmaceuticals to be injected directly into both of their bloodstreams in order for them to finish to completion, though for completely different reasons altogether.

Smith has somehow managed to become a legitimate figure not for her occasionally coherent outbursts or her limited acting roles, but through the behavior of her quixotic marriage to an oil tycoon, the WASPishly named J. Howard Marshall. Despite there being a 60-plus year difference in their ages, Smith professed that she loved him with the same amount of conviction in her voice that she uses when proclaiming that TrimSpa isn’t just a placebo that tastes like cough syrup and sawdust.

A golddigger marriage isn’t enough, in and of itself, to legitimize Smith—if it was, half the women in the world would be on the front page of the New York Post. However, when Marshall did something entirely unexpected—die at the age of 90—then it became a newsworthy item. Smith and Marshall’s family have fought a decade-long battle for his estate, which totaled in the billions. The escalating legal battle went all the way up to the Supreme Court, and much was made in the media of the admittedly lightweight Smith walking into one of the most austere institutions in America’s government. Many pundits were concerned that Smith may not feel comfortable in such a serious, grandiose setting. Thankfully, despite the Supreme Court’s honorable tradition, there was, indeed, plenty to make her feel at home; Clarence Thomas kept a stripper pole in his chambers, William Rehnquist kept a full stock of amphetamines hidden in his top drawer, and her and Ruth Bader Ginsburg discussed their favorite lap dancing techniques.

Alas, the court case is only a small part of the drama. She recently gave birth to a daughter while in the Bahamas, and only a few days later her son, Daniel, died of a drug overdose while visiting his newborn sister in the hospital. Then, the paternity of the daughter came into question. Smith declared her lawyer, Howard K. Stern (he insists on using his middle initial so as not to damage his, uh, reputation) to be the father, but a few others seem to have a valid claim for parentage, notably Larry Birkhead, Frederic von Anhalt, and, at least statistically likely, Kevin Federline.

Smith’s descent, unlike most people, was televised, and usually with her encouragement. She appeared on many of the entertainment magazines and awards shows with slurred speech and ambiguous statements. Her reality TV program, The Anna Nicole Show, was a surreal look into her private life, which seemed to chiefly revolve around her dog Sugar Pie having amorous feelings towards unfortunate inanimate objects. While it introduced many characters in this unfolding real-life drama, such as Stern and Daniel, it also opened up an entirely new view into the weirdness that was her life. In ways, it was funny, but it was mostly sad. (In case you’re wondering, both funny and sad make plenty of money.)

Still, many people are legitimately saddened by her passing, while others are irritated that this is more than a one-day story. The seemingly disproportionate interest in the tawdry is hardly a new development, yet Anna Nicole Smith walked that fine line between Cracker Jack prize and cultural icon, never quite slumping drunkenly one way or the other. Unlike other notorious deaths, however, it’s the sad fact that for most people her real legacy will probably be bounced around the 9th circuit court of appeals for the next decade or so. For the rest, her legacy will live on as long as that May 1992 issue is floating around.

Gerald Ford, RIP

January 2, 2007

Few people regard Gerald Ford as little more than a footnote to a period of our history dominated by many great ideas, events, and movements important enough to be Forever Capitalized: the Great Society, the Oil Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Watergate, Vietnam, and Ed Muskie Crying Like A Little Girl.

President Ford largely put a stop to all that. Well, more or less. America’s withdrawal from Vietnam was done under his watch and Watergate effectively ended with the pardon he issued to Nixon. And he somehow managed to be sandwiched between two oil shocks without having to deal with it on his own. One sometimes posits how Ford would have handled it. Nixon handled it by dispatching Henry Kissinger to sucker punch (with less punch and more sucker) King Faisal; Jimmy Carter prayed.

Then again, Ford did have to deal with inflation. America has largely been able to ignore inflation as a political force ever since Reagan told Paul Volker to send the Fed home without any supper until interest rates were lower than his approval rating. Ford was happy to combat embedded economic problems with a half-baked public relations crusade. His entire anti-inflation campaign revolved around the rather dubious method of having people wear pins and bumper stickers labeled “Whip Inflation Now”—the obvious acronym being WIN, of course, something Ford specifically didn’t do in 1976.

One of the biggest injustices in the unreliable fusion of entertainment and politics regards Ford’s apparent clumsiness. Twice, of course, there are recorded videos of the President falling down a flight of steps, but this was a man who arguably was the fittest of the Presidents—he turned down offers to play professional football with Green Bay and Detroit to pursue a law degree (though, to be fair, turning down to play for the Lions is hardly cause for winning a Profile in Courage award). And it’s probably better to be known falling down a ski slope than being incapable of spelling common words or committing perjury in exchange for things you do at the afterprom.

Ford seemed an unlikely choice for President. Unlikely, indeed, since he was nobody’s choice for President. Ford has the unfortunate distinction of being the only President to not be elected, having replaced Spiro Agnew in the Vice President’s slot and taking over Nixon’s place when Nixon exited stage left. Ford was acutely aware of his status as an unelected president, unlike certain other current Presidents we’ve had.

And, of course, there was The Pardon. Ford’s presidency has more or less been effectively measured by this one single event. The action itself most likely cost Ford his full, elected term; many people wanted to see Nixon in prison, not in Yorba Linda playing Parcheesi with Chuck Rebozo. Me, personally, I had a vested interest in absolving Dick Nixon, because in a mentally unstable moment I chose to write a paper in college about how Nixon was guilty of crimes and gross misjudgment, but other presidents (namely his immediate predecessor) had gotten away with much, much more and had a far greater impact on political society than Nixon’s aim of defeating the shadow of nobody in the general election.

Alas, literally a week after I submitted the paper (and, I am at pains to point out, before it was graded) the National Archives (or whatever Luciferian department handles such things) started releasing the transcripts of some of his tapes, my paper unknowingly being timed around the 25th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. And, of course, the tapes were filled to the brim with full confessions of everything from the ITT scandal to the Manson murders, making my paper a walking, talking laughing stock of the History Department, I’m sure. The tapes generally revolved around the following sentiments:

Kissinger: So what do you think?
Nixon: I think the [expletive deleted] communists down at [expletive deleted] State need to get their [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] out of their [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] before that [expletive deleted] Gene McCarthy [expletive deleted] the whole [expletive deleted] thing up. Thank goodness that [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] Colson in the [expletive deleted] before the [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] Jew [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted].
Kissinger: I love you.

And so my brief, torrid love affair with the ghost of Richard M. Nixon ended. But I couldn’t bear myself to hate the man who pardoned him. Ford was one of those people who just seemed to be a genuinely nice guy placed into a position of absolute chaos. Certainly, he wasn’t perfect—the passive greenlighting of Indonesia to play marbles through East Timor being most likely the biggest demerit to his term, and even that was something Ford has relatively little influence over. And, to be sure, he punched Nixon’s meal ticket after the haymaker he landed on America, and he seemed deliberately unaware of the raised eyebrows at how painfully inappropriate this deal-that-never-was was.

When it is all said and done, though, there were few people who actively thought Gerald Ford was anything more than a nice guy who did an adequate job, given the situation he was plunked down in. If anything else, he proved the fact that a genuinely decent human being could become President, despite the electoral process’s best efforts to prevent otherwise. And that’s a real [expletive deleted] shame. Ahem. Pardon me.