I just watched an interview with Hilary Rodham Clinton on TV. I never actually met her, but when I was at a White House dinner nearly 25 years ago, I was immediately impressed by how smart she was. When her husband was in the room, it was the Bill Clinton show. This is kinda off-topic, but it’s a good story:
I was invited to a jazz dinner at the Clinton White House. In addition to the half dozen or so top jazz groups that performed, other jazz luminaries were invited guests. I had a ball hanging with my buddy Jon Hendricks, Joe Williams, Lionel Hampton, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, et al—a virtual Who’s Who of jazz. As we ate dinner and the performances wore on, President Clinton grabbed his tenor sax and sat in on a blues. Clearly, he was not on the level of the other performers, but it’s not how well he played, but that:
- He understood the importance of jazz in American Culture.
- He could function in the dialog of jazz improvisation.
- He recognized and celebrated some of our greatest artists.
As he left the stage, a large crowd formed in front of him wanting to shake his hand. He was most gracious and seemed OK, but a little overwhelmed, with being mobbed. I didn’t want to add to the demand being imposed on him. My date asked if I was going to shake the president’s hand. I said no. I then turned in the opposite direction, and to my surprise, there was the president standing directly in front of me with his hand extended.
I shook his hand and said, “Mr. President, I just want you to know that you play the saxophone way better than Nixon ever played the piano.” I knew that wasn’t true (actually, Nixon played the piano pretty well, although not a note of jazz), but everyone laughed, except the President, who didn’t seem to get it. He turned and walked a couple of steps away before he turned back around and smiled at me. For the rest of his presidency I received a Christmas card from him and his family, which reminded me of this evening.
It was very clear to me that evening that the President was a natural, charismatic politician and his wife, for all her intelligence and charm, was not a natural. I became a big fan of hers when she promoted her Universal Health Care plan, and then for her service as my senator, and even more so for the excellent job she did as Secretary of State. Americans seem to forget how popular she was for the four years she flew around the world putting out political fires. The Republicans tried again and again to tarnish her with scandals (Benghazi, her cell phone, Pizzagate, and so on), but they all proved baseless.
So how come when she ran for president, she always looked like she was uncomfortable, not very, but a little uncomfortable—like she was hiding something? What could she be hiding? I don’t know that she ever committed any crimes that she hasn’t been convicted of, but she just has a tinge of guilt in her demeanor. It’s not written all over her face, but there’s something. Hey, I voted for her, because, to me, she had proven her ability in government through her vast experience and I knew Donald Trump to be a dangerous, sociopathic, racist criminal. The choice was obvious, for me.
However, that uncomfortable-I’m hiding something look bothered a lot of voters. We’ll never know how many votes the Russians turned against her, and she did win the popular vote by a large margin, but even still, a politician like her husband or Ronald Reagan would have trounced Trump.
So what is it about great politicians? Let’s add both Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt to the previously mentioned Reagan and Bill Clinton. They all had skeletons in their closets. Maybe not crimes, but maybe. We know that FDR and Clinton had sexual affairs. Reagan was divorced and remarried, which should have made him unelectable to the Religious Right. Plus he had the Iran-Contra Affair, which should have gotten him impeached. But with all the complicated stuff going on in their pasts and presents, these men projected unqualified positivity. They were the father we wished we had when we were kids. The father who we had 100% confidence would protect us; the father who never flinched. What is it that this kind of person has that gives them this outward sign of confidence and power?
I’ve thought about this for the past three years, ever since I watched the election returns and was sickened by the prospect of President Trump. Finally, it hit me this morning—compartmentalization. It’s like if you have cancer and are going to die, but you continue to do your job and love your family and friends because you are not going to let a little thing like terminal cancer spoil your day.
Every politician must raise ridiculous amounts of money in order to get elected to any office; the higher the office, the greater the sums of money. Unless it’s all $25 checks from millions of people, politicians are beholden to special interests. They say they aren’t, or as the slick politician, President Mahone sings in my amazingly still-unproduced musical The Coup, “Contributions don’t buy favors; they buy access to my ear.” Money and politics make strange bedfellows. How does a person keep this stuff in different pockets? I guess that’s why we call them politicians.
So what has this got to do with music or artists? Actually, quite a lot! As artists we must not compartmentalize. We must calls ’em as we sees ’em. We need to unflinchingly turn over every rock in our search for the unvarnished truth. If we can resist trying to make ourselves appear to be better than we are, to cover up our blemishes and our dark side, if we can reach way down into our souls and find just a piece of a universal truth, it will resonate with our audience. Maybe they will come to understand something they dared not look at, or maybe just identify your work with a feeling they’ve had. It’s not all negative stuff, but it’s all connected. Even in our greatest, most satisfying, exciting, joyous moments, we are on some level aware that we will die one day. This understanding of the magnitude of our existence is crucial to our appreciation.
The best art exemplifies this and encourages us to embrace our true selves. The rub is that success in our society demands that we compartmentalize and hide all negativity from others so they will like us, give us their money and, if we run for office, vote for us. I vote for Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In my America, we need to add them to the other faces on Mount Rushmore. It may be too late for Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint to seek their help escaping from James Mason and Martin Landau, but better late than never.