Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sinner Byrd

It used to kill me the way Robert C. Byrd's West Virginia Baptists used to address him.

"Sinner Byrd, won't you come in?"

"Sinner Byrd, are you goin' ta vote for this bill?"

"Sinner Byrd, did you bring your fiddle?"

It was the accent, of course, because nothing about Bob Byrd suggested a predilection to sinning. He was an upright man, a stalwart Baptist.

He was, in fact, an American Baptist, though when I interviewed him in 1975 I suspected he had no idea what kind of Baptist he was. He was a member of Crab Orchard Baptist Church in Crab Orchard, W.Va., and Bill Withers - his pastor in the 1970s - said the senator actually attended church on occasion. When he was in Washington, Byrd called home.

"Folks'd come to church Sunday morning and I'd hear them whisper to to each other, 'Bob called last night,'" Bill reported. "He was always checking on his friends - to see how one was coping with an illness, how another was dealing with an injury on the job."

That kind of caring may have been politically prudent for a senator, but it was also down home Baptist. (Down home, Byrd probably pronounced it, Babtist.)

In January 1975, Robert Byrd accepted an invitation to address the meeting of American Baptist laymen that summer in Atlantic City. As the recently appointed editor of The American Baptist Magazine (I was 29 that year), I called and asked Byrd for an interview. Someone in his office called back and said, "Y'all come."

I headed to Washington with a modest sense that I was about to brush shoulders with history. The nation's capital was undergoing major change: the Watergate scandal had ripped the nation apart, and the Washington subway system was being built. I thought the rubble in Washington streets was a wonderful metaphor, and in my youthful enthusiasm I overwrote my article, burying the lead beneath several paragraphs:

Post-Watergate Washington, like a war-torn capital, is in a period of reconstruction.

The first evidence of the rebuilding process is physical. The main streets of the city are torn up with the construction of a long-awaited subway system, and most of Washington's best known landmarks are undergoing a major facelifting for next year's bicentennial celebration. Even the rotunda of the Capitol, where the bodies of Presidents have lain in state, is obscured by latticed scaffolding, and the once awesome stillness of the dome is shaken by muffled jackhammers.

Two paragraphs later, I got to the point of the article: Robert Byrd. First elected to the Senate in 1958, Byrd had wrestled the job of Senate Majority Whip from Edward M. Kennedy (later his political ally) in 1971.

The offices of high-ranking Congressional leaders are cavernous, ornate, and hard to find, and I made several wrong turns on the way to the Majority Whip’s office. The office anteroom is (or was then) cluttered with long coffee tables and thickly padded arm chairs. I quickly calculated the square-footage of the room as exceeding that of my townhouse.

Byrd was at lunch when I arrived in the office and an aide directed me to one of the padded chairs. I settled in, studied my notes, and looked around, wondering whose historic posteriors had preceded mine to the chair. In my mind's eye I saw a ghostly LBJ sitting in the chair opposite me, leaning forward intently, his finger jabbing the air.

But my mind didn't wander long. Byrd walked in quietly, moving a little stiffly I thought, and extended his hand. His grasp was so light I wondered if his hand hurt and I hesitated to squeeze back. He nodded in a courtly manner and smiled.

"Bob Byrd," he said, barely audible.

"It's an honor to meet you, Senator," I said. He glanced at my empty chair and I took it as an offer to be seated.

I have no recollection what I asked him that day, although my article in the April 1975 issue of The American Baptist suggests the topics were predictable: Watergate, morality, faith, presidential ambition. Byrd's answers were obviously better than my questions. Those who have seen an aging Byrd lampooned on The Daily Show as a Foghorn P. Leghorn coot may be surprised at his carefully weighed comments, which I recall were delivered in slow, measured tones.

On Watergate: "We're not morally bankrupt as a nation because of Watergate. Watergate involved a very small handful of individuals, most of whom had never gone before the electorate."
On determining right from wrong in politics: "I would imagine it's pretty hard, always, to see a pitfall ahead. One just has to try to do what he thinks is right. If he has the right kind of upbringing and has lived in a home where the principles of honesty, patriotism and doing right have been taught, he will probably come out all right in the end." 
On being discouraged about a career: "I wouldn't advise young people to desist from pursuing any responsible endeavor just because a few people in that particular field make failures of themselves. I wouldn't discourage a young medical student from pursuing a career in medicine just because of a few quacks. I wouldn't discourage a young law student from pursuing a career in law just because of a few charlatans. And I wouldn't discourage a young minister from pursuing that high calling just because there have been some false men and women who have stood in the pulpit. We find these people in every walk of life who have failed and disappointed others and who have not kept the faith. It isn't just in politics where this has been found, it's only that it has been more recent and it has been more publicized." 
On Presidential Ambition: "Any man or woman in politics has the ambition to go as far as he or she can possibly go. I don't know how far I can go. I haven't reached the age or point in life where I feel that I've gone as far as I can. I don't know whether I shall go any farther or not, but I feel if the opportunity should come, I can do whatever duty is involved in that particular assignment. I believe that when one goes beyond the office of a United States Senator, one gets into an area that is much larger than one's own capabilities or personal planning. I have long held the view that somehow this is beyond the individual. Some, I suppose, feel that by accident they may go farther. Others may ascribe it to destiny or fate. But it seems to me there is some good reason to believe that one does not project oneself into the highest of offices purely on the basis of his own strengths. He has to have some strength and qualities and attributes. But I think what I'm saying is that one is not always the master of one's own fate."
Later that year, I sat in on Senator Byrd's address to the American Baptist Men luncheon in Atlantic City. The banquet room was packed. When he finished, men and women formed a line that extended out the room and down the hall, each hoping to have a word with the Senator and to ask him sign their programs. The line took over an hour to dissipate, in part because Byrd had a slight motor dysfunction in his right hand that caused him to make several labored circles with his pen before pressing the nib to paper. I stood behind him like an ex officio press aide, watching his many admirers reach out to him. (The photograph above is from that event; I'm the young chubby guy behind the Senator.) Byrd stood patiently, smiling and signing, and only when the last person had departed did he turn to me.

"Would you care for some coffee in the press room?" I asked.

"All right," he said quietly, and followed me out of the room. He was not particularly charismatic, and when we walked together up the hallway I don't believe anyone recognized him.

I wonder if most of the people who waited in line for his autograph were hedging a bet that Robert C. Byrd might one day take advantage of his strengths and qualities and attributes and become a president of the United States. What a souvenir his bold signature would be, then!

Of course it never happened. When Bob Byrd died early this week at the age of 92, he was regarded by some as a distantly comic figure in Washington, ranting on CSpan against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, weeping copiously when Ted Kennedy died, scolding the Senate for its lack of decorum and ignorance of its own history.

Even so, I thought Robert Byrd may even have transcended the nation's highest office. He was honest. He had integrity. He had faith. He was the longest serving senator in history. He cast thousands of votes that were, for the most part, an effort to advance peace, justice, morality, prosperity, domestic tranquility and common sense.

How many presidents can match that record?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Himan Brown and the Ultimate Media Experience

Elita called me recently to ask what I'd like for Father's Day. She had to ask because I don't golf or know how most shop tools work. But I didn't hesitate.
"I'd like to see a 3D movie," I said.
I have happy memories of the old anaglyph movies of yore, which required viewers to wear lenses tinted red for the left eye and cyan for the right to blend images on the screen to form a convincing three-dimensional illusion.

Who can forget such 3D classics as Bwana Devil in 1952, or It Came From Outer Space in 1953. My personal favorite was Creature from the Black Lagoon, the only 3D movie to spawn two sequels. Sadly, 3D production waned after 1954 when I was 8 so I didn't get to see many films.

Fortunately, the Morris Theater in Morrisville didn't get films for years after they were out of general distribution, so many of the 3D films arrived after 1954 when my mother deemed me old enough to see them. I assumed the steady rain of celluloid scratches on the old prints was part of the special effect.
But that was then. The phenomenon of 3D is different now, they say. Critics of Avatar who complained about the pedestrian plot and hackneyed message raved about the three-dimensional images on screen, some declaring that James Cameron went beyond virtual imagery to create a dizzying new world for the viewer. 

Avatar is still on my must-see list, but last week Victoria and family friend Robert Lowell allowed me to accompany them to a screening of Shrek: The Final Chapter. The movie is a top-drawer entertainment experience with animation and 3D effects that make you wonder if there is anything computers can't do. Wearing RealD glasses with thick black frames similar to the ones I wore in high school, I was fascinated by the detail in Shrek: the tiny fibers and stitches of clothing, billowing bouffants of hair, the convincing illusion of depth, all went far beyond my Mcluhanesque expectations for media absorption.

But was the 3D experience as fantastical and transforming as I had so long anticipated?

Oddly enough, not quite. I won't say I was disappointed by the experience, but Shrek left me with a nagging feeling, like a dim memory,  that there were more profound and more absorbing media experiences to be had.

Then last week, my memory was jogged in a sad way. The New York Times reported the death of Himan Brown, possibly the greatest creative spirit of the golden age of radio, at the age of 99.

Most people haven't heard of Hi Brown, and most of those who have are in their 60s and older. He was the creator of such radio dramas as "The Adventures of the Thin Man," "Dick Tracy,"  and "Inner Sanctum Mysteries" known for the sound of a creaking door that unsettled millions as they listened to the show in their dark living rooms. The reason the eerie sound was unsettling is that it was filtered through the ears and imaginations of a million brains that tapped the darkest recesses of individual souls to create images so personally horrifying that even Lon Chaney, Sr. couldn't duplicate them. When "Inner Sanctum" signed off with a sardonic male voice intoning, "Pleasant Dreams," thousands lay awake for most of the night.

Hi Brown believed that the human mind was the best medium for creating the images that move the soul. Radio, he said, would always be far more effective than cinema or television for putting complex, unfilmable, undrawable pictures -- beautiful, erotic, horrifying or devastating images -- into persons' heads. The brain is capable of creating images that surpass computer-created high density 3D on a screen.

"I am firmly convinced that nothing visual can touch audio," Himan Brown said when I interviewed him for American Baptist media in 1974. "I don't need 200 orchestra players doing the 'Ride of the Valkyries,' I don't need car chases, I don't need mayhem. All I need to do is creak the door open, and visually your head begins to go. The magic word is imagination."

Be that as it may, the golden age of radio drama faded with the advent of television in the 1950s, and no one who has viewed Avatar will see the sense of listening to a radio drama. And perhaps the human brain is losing the wiring necessary to appreciate audio tales. Child psychiatrists used to worry that color television with vividly formed and richly colored characters like Big Bird and Sponge Bob Square Pants may be robbing children of the facile imagination their grandparents used to be inspired or terrified as they read fairy tales or listened to radio drama.

Certainly the effects of radio drama on our minds cannot underestimated. Jack Benny, whose schtick was to pose as a tight-wad, had a bit on his radio program in which he would lead visitors to the money vault beneath his house, perhaps to get a quarter to pay the paper boy. Security measures along the way to the vault included a moat filled with splashing, growling, snapping alligators -- hilarious in the minds of imaginative radio listeners, but disappointingly lame when it was recreated on television.

Another popular television program that originated on the radio was Gunsmoke. On the radio, it didn't matter that Marshal Dillon was portrayed by short, morbidly obese William Conrad because the actor's rich baritone swelled listeners' ears and created the image of a tall, athletic lawman. On television, it took the six-and-a-half foot tall James Arness to complete the picture. And who can forget that the bookish, bow-tied Bud Collyer, host of television's To Tell the Truth, was completely convincing as the man of steel on radio.

Another convincing argument for the superiority of audio communication came from humorist Stan Freberg, who produced a brief demonstration to convince advertisers to spend money on the radio. Freberg demonstrated that the mind responds to radio more creatively than to the big screen:
Hi Brown continued to produce radio dramas into the nineties. From 1974 to 1982, he produced the nightly CBS Radio Mystery Theater, complete with the creaking door effect. Some time during that period, I had the privilege of doing a telephone interview with Mr. Brown to promote the program among listeners of Vita, the erstwhile American Baptist weekly radio program. We had a nice long chat, during which I became completely convinced that audio will always create more vivid images and profounder ideas in the brain than television or film -- or HD 3D.

I rarely missed an episode of CBS Radio Mystery Theater after that. And today I count my half-hour conversation with Hi Brown as one of the great human encounters of my life, up there with shaking hands with Jonas Salk at an American Baptist meeting or sitting in Joe DiMaggio's warmth when he left his seat at a gate at National Airport.

I must admit that most of my media experiences today consist of watching favorite programs on a high density flat screen in our bedroom, and I will always relish an opportunity to watch a 3D film on the big screen. I've been privileged, in media terms, to live a life that has spanned radio to 3D, 360-degree, computer generated virtual reality. And I love it.

But the next time I sit slightly slack-jawed in a movie theater, awed by the three-dimensional effects that are tickling my synapses, I'll think of Hi Brown. And I'll say to myself, what a great show. But if I was listening to this story on the radio, would it be even greater?