By Michael Miner

Springing One on the Senator

The great journalist always shows up in the right place at the right time. No one was ever more Johnny-on-the-spot than the Tribune’s Flynn McRoberts, who recorded every word when Carol Moseley-Braun picked up the phone and read her younger sister the riot act.

“Marsha, you’re about to get me into huge trouble,” said Moseley-Braun, speaking from her Loop office. “You can’t do this, sweetie. At all. No, you can’t have them call you at all. I’m surprised that my people didn’t tell you this.”

It was an incredibly intimate moment: A U.S. senator in an uphill battle for reelection calling her kid sister over at the state’s attorney’s office to tell her that promoting the campaign from her office was a no-can-do. “I know people send stuff all around all the time, but your sister is particularly vulnerable to this,” the senator told Marsha Moseley, who’s a staff attorney for state’s attorney Richard Devine. “A mistake like this can be a big damn deal.”

The amazing thing was that Moseley-Braun let McRoberts sit there while she made the call. All Marsha Moseley had done was add her name and office phone number to a couple of campaign flyers–one for a fund-raiser, the other for a rally. This was improper and possibly illegal, since Moseley’s a public employee. But basically it was chicken feed. It made page one because McRoberts, listening to one end of the conversation, naturally turned it into a long human-interest story.

“It was a remarkable scene,” he wrote, “one that normally would have played out in private.” McRoberts didn’t explain why this scene hadn’t. A careful reader was sure to presume that he’d somehow instigated the moment, but McRoberts didn’t let on. He carried the old-fashioned virtue of authorial reticence to a preposterous length.

“This was the situation,” said McRoberts, completely forthcoming when I asked him about it later. “We’d set up a question-and-answer session for Perspective. [It ran last Sunday.] We had a tip about her sister. I finished the long Q and A and then separately I asked her, ‘We understand your sister’s selling tickets for the fund-raiser.’ She said, ‘No, Marsha’s not coordinating anything. She’s not political.’ I handed her the two flyers. I personally feel she was surprised at this. She immediately, reflexively grabbed the phone and called. That was it.”

McRoberts can’t say for sure whether Moseley-Braun was talking to her sister, her press secretary, or Time and Weather. But he has little doubt. He’s sure he surprised her and then got to see her spontaneous reaction.

Because photographer Chuck Berman also was on the scene, the Tribune got to publish a dramatic photo of the senator holding the receiver. The caption read: “In her Loop office, U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun learns in a phone call Tuesday with sister Marsha Moseley of a new campaign-fundraising problem.” Which isn’t how the senator learned, but never mind.

They Don’t Play ‘Em Like That Anymore

There’s no reason to expect Chicago radio to play the greatest music ever written in this country. How many stations do we have here anyway? A mere hundred or so. And they’re all busy enough already.

Besides, the music’s not completely overlooked. Last month, on George Gershwin’s 100th birthday, WFMT offered plenty of the usual orchestral fare–Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, An American in Paris, excerpts from Porgy and Bess–and even some of the not so usual, such as Percy Grainger’s arrangement of “The Man I Love.” If they’d turned up an old LP of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing highlights from Girl Crazy in German you can bet we’d have heard that too.

WNIB celebrated by airing the Let Them Eat Cake and Strike Up the Band overtures, Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, several songs adapted for violin and orchestra, and some actual singing: the magnificent soprano Jessye Norman warbling “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and legendary mezzo Marilyn Horne teaming up with baritone Thomas Hampson in a powerhouse “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Gershwin didn’t write his songs for the Big Berthas, but who can blame them for cutting loose? Gershwin died at 38 still learning how to compose for the concert hall, but he’d left Tin Pan Alley littered with joyous tunes, music at the forefront of the glories of a time now remembered as the golden era of American popular song.

You can twist your AM and FM dials from dawn to dawn and never hear a note of those songs, except when they’re taken apart and put back together as jazz. “It’s a great source of inspiration and invention for jazz musicians,” said Neil Tesser, who’s just published The Playboy Guide to Jazz. “Jazz musicians are always looking for more involved, sophisticated kinds of music. It gives them more to base their improvisations on. You get bored with the easy stuff. These people are very good musicians.”

Tesser also said, “The other thing important to note is how much this body of American song draws upon jazz in the first place. In a way, for jazz musicians to be taking Gershwin and Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin–all the great ones you would name–is sort of turnabout is fair play. The looseness and spontaneity that you hear in jazz was a big influence on those guys–probably the last great American songwriter who was primarily inspired by classical music was Jerome Kern. As to why you don’t hear much of it anymore–it’s great music, but it’s not exactly new, and it’s not being added to for the most part.”

But, I said, that’s a lot truer of Schubert, whose songs do get played and not just on his birthday.

“It doesn’t have the same cachet,” said Tesser, meaning American song. “It’s entered a canon, but not one that has the same level of support. Part of it is that it’s a mongrel. Mongrels don’t always get that kind of respect.”

In 1954 Arlen introduced the song I think of as the last great one from the golden era, “The Man That Got Away”–mature, complex, drenched in the American vernacular, and sung to a fare-thee-well by Judy Garland in A Star Is Born. (You wouldn’t want to hear a Lyric diva try to match her.) The next year Blackboard Jungle introduced “Rock Around the Clock,” and that was that. One reason American song isn’t given the consideration it deserves for the rise of rock ‘n’ roll is that the genre collapsed under the weight of its own perfection–there was nowhere to take it that it hadn’t already been.

Today, look for it only in cabarets. Chicago’s two classical stations are no more responsible for the music’s scarcity on radio than all the other stations that don’t play it either. But it’s particularly poignant, if not comic, to find a station honoring Gershwin but too burdened by orthodoxy to play Gershwin at his best. So I called WFMT and WNIB.

“We play the Gershwin show tunes and overtures all the time,” said Miller Peters, music director at WNIB. “And certainly Rogers and Porter and Kern. I think we do well by these people.” He pointed out to me that Zephyr on Saturday evenings is devoted to Broadway and Hollywood scores. A lot of that old show music is more nostalgic than good, and I don’t think WNIB is as attentive to the pop masters as Peters says. But his station is more apt to wander outside the canon and into the vernacular than WFMT.

“If I had it to do over again, I might have programmed it a little differently.” says WFMT’s program director, Dennis Moore, speaking of Gershwin’s hundredth birthday. He not only accepted my point but elaborated on it. The American popular song, he told me, is an orphan. “Art stations say, ‘Take it to jazz,’ and jazz stations say ‘It doesn’t fit in our music.’ It isn’t being adequately addressed by any radio station in this market.”

Moore says this negligence may soon be remedied. He told me he’s been talking to a local producer who has proposed creating a show devoted to “the American art song,” as Moore calls it. “By strange coincidence,” he went on, this producer was at the station for a meeting as we spoke. “We’re talking about Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Gershwin of course–the heart and soul of American song.”

An Unguarded Moment

It was another Saturday night at home. The little woman was off–well, he wasn’t sure where she was off to tonight because she hadn’t bothered to tell him. He supposed it wasn’t her book club. Their daughter was back at school. So it was just the two of them–him and Eddie, the duty man from the Secret Service.

“Christ, I’m lonely,” he said.

“You had a great week, Mr. President,” said Eddie. “Now how about some phone sex?” Eddie reached for the red telephone in the corner.

“I took ’em off the speed dial,” said the president. He shook his head. “The days of wine and roses are over. Such as they were.”

“Last night, ah yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine there fell thy shadow, Cynara!” said Eddie, who knew his Ernest Dowson. “Thy breath was shed upon my soul between the kisses and the wine.”

“And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,” said the president, picking it up. “Yes, I was desolate and bowed my head. I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.”

“For Cynara, read Monica, right?”

“No,” said the president, shooting Eddie a quizzical look.

“Gennifer? Kathleen Willey? Miss Arkansas?”

“No,” said the president. “I’m certainly not haunted by any Miss Arkansas. No, Eddie, it’s my wife I have been faithful to in my fashion. Mighty faithful, and she knows it too. She’s married to a good man, once you’ve made the necessary allowances.”

“That’s not what people read,” said Eddie.

“What people read is that the leader of the free world has engaged in a furtive, illicit affair and lied about it. And so he has. A furtive, illicit, adulterous affair. Do you know what we’re dealing with, Eddie?”

The president’s faithful minion had no idea.

“Tautology, Eddie. Four words when one will do. Say ‘affair’ and the rest follows like the night the day. Especially in this fishbowl.”

Where (he brooded, and not for the first time) there were no blinds on windows, no locks on doors, and you couldn’t take a leak without asking security to sweep the commode. He stared out the window into the city, where secretaries, ambassadors, and Republican senators who hadn’t gone home to run for reelection were fornicating like crazy. He felt so immensely sad. “Eddie,” he said, “suppose you were receiving fellatio.”

“OK,” said Eddie.

“What would you do?”

“I’m not sure I’d do anything,” said Eddie.

“Except lie back and thank your lucky stars and enjoy it,” said the president. “Do you know what I did?”

“No,” said Eddie.

“Sure you do. It’s in the report.”

But Eddie looked blank.

“I got a congressman on the phone and talked to him about Bosnia! I had a working blow job. I never stop serving my country!”

“You earn your paycheck,” Eddie agreed.

“It’s not my money. It’s the taxpayers’,” said the president. Out in Lafayette Park, a Frisbee sailed through the lamplight. “I made the same point at the breakfast table, where it wasn’t as well received.”

“Women!” Eddie said sympathetically.

“A lot of people say I should resign,” said the president. “They say I can’t govern. They say I’m leading my party down the primrose path to perdition. I’ve handed my party the most powerful issue since the Depression, and if the Democrats weren’t one hole shy of an outhouse they’d sweep the country with it. Privacy. The right to keep sin between you and God. You know what I’m saying?”

“For sure,” said Eddie.

“Like you say, Eddie, I had one hell of a week. Did you see me with Arafat and Netanyahu? Did you see me hand the Republicans their lunch with the budget? ‘Can’t govern!’ If they want me out of here they’d better come up with something better than ‘can’t govern.'”

“They’re still working on perjury and obstruction.”

“So they are.”

“So who are some of the other ladies you think could come back to haunt you?”

The question plunged the president into reverie. He reached into his humidor and picked out a cigar, which he lit, puffed on once, and forgot was in his hand. He stared blankly into space. Eddie waited patiently.

“Eddie, that’s not a question for you to ask.”

“I’m making conversation, Mr. President. In a man-to-man sort of way.”

“Well, you log ’em in, Eddie.”

“So I do.”

He wondered if it was on nights like this that other presidents had decided to go to war. Just for the hell of it. Just because they felt so goddamned low. “Eddie,” he said bleakly. “How long have you been wearing a wire?” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): newspaper headline scan.