What is so Rare as a Legislator Legislating?

Mark Twain said: “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” But what did he know? He didn’t have to run for re-election.

Most of our elected representatives have no trouble doing wrong for their entire careers so long as A) 51% of their constituents are in favor of it or B) two or three really large donors are.

For that reason it’s doubly gratifying when someone in Congress does anything that might rub the folks in his or her district the wrong way, simply because they think it might be good for the country. How old school is that?

Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA., has made a habit of trying to accomplish something in Gridlock City by forging alliances across party lines. In the past he’s worked hard to devise tax reform, budget reform and now has teamed up with other conservative (i.e. at risk Red State) Democrats in trying to legislate some improvements to Obamacare.

His co-conspirators are Senators Begich of Alaska, Landrieu of Louisiana, Heitkamp of North Dakota, Manchin of West Virginia and King of Maine. Much of this is probably the usual Washington kabuki as those getting pilloried at home for supporting Obama try to put some distance between themselves and the president .

But the reforms they propose would be useful and Warner, at least, has made a habit of trying to achieve real world legislative accomplishments. Unfortunately, the number of dance partners from the other side that he’s attracted have been slim to none. Warner is a self-made tech entrepreneur who got things done in the private sector, so it must be wearying to keep pushing a stone uphill in a Washington that delights in watching them roll back down. A thankless job, but I for one thank him for trying.

On the other side of the aisle Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-TN., has been in the lead in an effort to cooperate with Democrats in reforming senate rules in order to permit the body to pass a measure on occasion. His efforts bore fruit a couple weeks ago with the passage of child-care legislation. Consideration of a renewal of long term unemployment aid also proceeded under this new dispensation. Of course, it is destined to die in the Elephants’ Graveyard of American hopes and dreams — the other body.

Alexander is the leader of a group of 10 former governors (Warner is one, too) whose executive experience makes them less likely to enjoy the Senate’s perpetual bloviating in lieu of actual productivity. They are undoubtedly nostalgic for the days when they could pick up a phone or a pen and make something happen besides attack ads.

Whatever the reason, Alexander, like Warner, once in awhile behaves like a legislator instead of a drama queen. He sticks his neck out in an attempt to do the people’s business instead of nothing but partisan monkey business.

A few dozen more such persons and the Senate could again boast of being the world’s greatest deliberative body. Until then, it remains democracy’s second greatest disappointment. The House has got first place sewed up by an insurmountable lead.

Leaders of the Pack

I last wrote about Eve Babitz who seems at first blush like a voice of the baby boom generation. And she is. But she isn’t a baby boomer, having been born in 1943.

This reminds us what artificial constructs all such demographic lines of demarcation are. We call states Red or Blue, for example. But even in really blue states forty percent of the people are red or purplish, and vice versa.

As regards the baby boomers, the spike in births may have begun in 1946 and ended in 1964 but the attitudes that informed the era and for which it gets praised or blamed began a lot earlier. Nothing comes from nothing.

If the boomers are regularly derided for being debauched revolutionaries – drunk on sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, their predecessors – The Silent Generation – are either extolled as solid, dutiful citizens or mocked as conformist, organization men. Both are simplistic caricatures.

I am an early boomer, old enough so that members of the silent generation were the big brothers and sisters of my cohort. When we were in junior high or high school, they were in college or the workforce. The ones I remember dressed like Archie and Reggie, Veronica and Betty. They hung around the malt shop, drove souped up older cars, fooled around with hi-fi and ham radios. They listened to the Four Freshmen and Stan Kenton, Odetta and Pete Seeger.

Some became the real life version of the guys on Mad Men, but others were Freedom Riders. They read the Beats, worshipped Miles, marched for Civil Rights, began the feminist movement and opposed the Vietnam War. In fact, the list of Eve’s paramours – Harrison Ford, Jim Morrison, Stephen Stills, Ed Rauscha, Steve Martin – were, like her, all members or the silent generation. Not a boomer among them.

We often lose sight of the fact, since they seemed to represent the boomers, that so many of the era’s iconic figures were of the previous generation. A very partial list includes The Beatles, the Stones, The Who, The Beach Boys, Dylan, Baez, Paul Simon, Otis and Smokey, Joni, Clapton, Bob Marley, Van the Man, Jerry Garcia, the Band, Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Diana Ross, Jane Fonda, Raquel, James Caan, Pacino, De Niro, George Lucas, Jim Henson, Scorsese, Steinem, Baba Ram Dass, Mario Savio, Jesse Jackson, Muhammed Ali, Harvey Milk. I could go on indefinitely.

Pat Buchanan may have to stop blaming the boomers for the decline of the West. And boomers who take credit for changing the world for the better may want to consider practicing a little uncharacteristic humility.

Billy Joel, an actual boomer, said “We didn’t start the fire. We didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.” Perhaps, but when the times were a-changin’ those who heralded the change and tried “to seek a newer world” weren’t the boomers but their older brothers and sisters.

In retrospect they seem like they were more serious and sober about making a difference as opposed to making a show. They also came along too early to be responsible for Disco, which surely gives them the moral high ground.

She Was the Promised Kiss of Springtime

It’s acting like it might finally be Spring. A sprinkling of daffodils and ornamental tree blossoms give hope the cold is about to be gone. This is a season that makes even grouchy autumnal people remember their innocent, or at least naïve, youth.

For baby boomers who dominated pop culture by sheer weight of numbers for so long, the last decade or two have been a shock. Heartthrobs who once set us aflutter now look as old as the faces in our mirrors. Movies, music, TV are all dominated by incomprehensible drivel performed by unformed children. We have become our parents or, God help us, our grandparents. Out of touch fogeys.

Which made the refreshment of discovering Eve Babitz all the sweeter. Somehow I missed her in the days of her fame. She was brought to my attention recently by an affectionate profile in
Vanity Fair by Lili Anolik.

She seemed a classic California surfer girl, a zaftig version of Mama Michelle who hung with a fast crowd in the 60s and 70s. She knew all the up and comers, indulged in the usual substances and had a lot of liaisons. Her conquests included Steve Martin, Harrison Ford, Stephen Stills, Ed Rauscha, and Jim Morrison.

But as Anolik points out, you aren’t really a groupie if you knew them before they became famous. In fact, they may have been the groupies since Eve was a kind of icon or muse. A famous photo of her playing chess, nude, with Marcel Duchamp was everywhere. She designed an album cover for Buffalo Springfield.

She wasn’t just another cool blonde beach bunny but the child of bohemian artists — a violinist and artist – and the god daughter of Igor Stravinsky. She thus came equipped with considerable cultural background, had read everything and eventually became a witty chronicler of her time and place.

To my surprise I found several of her books on my local library shelves where they have been gathering dust for decades. They include: “Slow Days, Fast Company,” “L.A. Woman,” and “Sex and Rage.” The last is typical. It poses as a novel but may be closer to memoir and, despite the title, the only rage is to live and the sex is largely offstage.

Our heroine Jacaranda Leven is taken up by a prosperous arty set who jet around the world. She likens their charmed existence to being aboard Cleopatra’s barge and she is thrilled to be along for the ride. But those invited aboard for novelty can just as quickly find themselves back on the wharf among the hoi polloi watching the barge full of beautiful people disappear into the distance.

Her writing has the voice of youth. While acting all grown up and wised up and writing delectable prose, Eve is as fresh as the breeze off her beloved Pacific, warm and alive and with a little salty tang. Reading Eve reminded me of another Eve, that of Gislebertus whose sweet, youthful sculptures from the 12th century announced it was spring again after the long winter of the Dark Ages.

Boomers have often been maligned for being reckless, feckless, self-obsessed and immoral. They’ve been punching bags in the culture wars of the last forty years. God knows, the beatnik-hippie era ended badly and proved deadly to some and disappointing to many more.

But for shame. How wrong to damn the innocent for not losing their innocence fast enough. Our generation eventually conformed, settled, sold out and turned as old, cold, sclerotic, cynical and suspicious as its critics. But Eve reminds us that, once upon a time, ”bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, /But to be young was very heaven!”

Forgetting what that once felt like is our loss. We read in polls that the generation of our kids or grandkids — lives thrown off-kilter, perhaps forever, by the Great Recession, still sleeping in parents’ basements, unmarried, underemployed, saddled with college loans — are nevertheless optimistic about their future.

And we think, “The fools.” But as Eve reminds us, we’re wrong. If the young aren’t optimistic that they can remake the world, spring may never come again.