When Icons Were Iconic

The words “icon” and “legend” are routinely overused and undervalued these days. Especially when applied to pop culture which, by definition, doesn’t have to stand the test of time. Then there are those whose credentials predate yesterday and remain resonant. To wit: the late, alas, Tom Wolfe.

He had the right writer stuff. He chronicled this country as a newspaper reporter, as an essayist, as a magazine feature writer and as a novelist. He was a pop sociologist, a dapper, societal presence, a national treasure and an absolute American icon.

If you were a journalism student in the 1970s, he was in your instructor’s wheelhouse. And then in yours. Wolf introduced us to the concept of literary journalist. Where a reporter with an eye for absorbing detail, an ear for compelling dialogue and an ethic for background research could carve out a niche without feeling inferior to novelists. That niche was writing journalism that read like a novel. Tone and mood mattered.

Take that Norman Mailer. William Saroyan. John O’Hara. James Baldwin. No laurel resting allowed.

Back in the day I read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” the tale of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters who only did road trips if they were tripping on hallucinogens. It was a fun read, even if it did constantly remind you that you were only wired on caffeine.

Then came “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers.” It was Wolfe at his insightful, inciting best. Where news–as in Leonard Bernstein’s high-society, New York fund-raiser for the Black Panthers and the practiced approach of San Francisco activists to intimidate government bureaucrats–met politics met best media forum for capturing the confrontations and their quirky characters.

When I read a recent news item about Publix contributions to Adam Putnam’s gubernatorial campaign and how it would equal the cost of 74,527 chicken tender subs, I thought of Wolfe. These kind of over-the-top equivalences are common today. They weren’t when Wolfe was doing his often hilarious pioneering analogies.

On the occasion of Wolfe’s passing, I re-read “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.” It still holds up, even in paperback. The former is devastatingly funny. The latter, a probing exercise in orchestrated militant theatrics. Reliving the experience was like re-watching “The Graduate.” It still transcends generations as it trenchantly dissects societal subcultures.

You don’t just read Wolfe. You re-read passages, marvel at lengthy quotes chronicled without a tape recorder, savor it all and read parts out loud to your wife.

After “The Right Stuff,” Wolfe became renowned for “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full,” most notably the former. It was fitting, final-chapter testimony to his outrageous versatility as he morphed from culture-capturing, hybrid journalist to one of his generation’s finest novelists.

But nothing beats “New Journalism”: Wolfe’s uncanny eye for lifestyles, his biting social commentary, his mimicry of speech patterns. Also his sense of what was happening in–and to–America was profound. He was an iconic game changer.

Sante Fe Takeaway

If nothing significant results from the tragic mass shooting in Sante Fe, Texas, we will have doubled down on tragedy. This is what we have become.

Santa Fe was the fourth deadliest mass shooting at a U.S. public school in history. Ten innocent people, on campus to teach and learn, were instead singled out and gunned down. A few months ago it was 17 murdered in Parkland, Fla.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the shockingly heinous prototype. That’s when 13 were shot and killed at Columbine High in Colorado. Two trench-coated students with hidden weapons opened up. Sante Fe eerily mirrored Columbine.

We have, in effect, learned nothing other than more familiarity with “thoughts-and-prayers” clichés, mourning optics and official pledges to make schools safer while still venerating the usual suspects’ 21st century take on what Second Amendment militia context means. Articulate Parkland students can only do so much.

What’s particularly disheartening and disillusioning is that Santa Fe’s school district had an “active shooter” plan that included two armed officers on duty at the school. Santa Fe High was considered a “hardened target”–with more hardening on the way when it would ultimately arm teachers and staff under Texas’ school marshal program. They were doing everything they could.

But they were not doing everything that should be done. Sante Fe, nearly two decades removed from Columbine and three months after Parkland, is merely a murderous microcosm of where we still are. Today’s Exhibit A-wful. It’s a product of these politically dysfunctional, NRA-fealty times.

This country has to get away from the zero-sum approach to serious problems such as gun rights and wrongs and the bumper-sticker memes that pass for debate arguments. As in: “Yeah, raising the legal age to buy a gun is really going to prevent mass shootings. Yeah, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines will totally solve the problem. Yeah, more background checks will work wonders. Enforce the laws we have. Next question.”

Here’s the rationale that should carry the day. No single measure will solve this existential fault line–or any other societal problem. But collectively they can at the very least mitigate matters. They can make it more difficult for more unhinged people to get their hands on murder weapons. They can save some lives. Isn’t that a worthwhile goal? But, yes, banning assault weapons for anyone who’s not a cop or a soldier should still be a no-brainer.

But let’s not forget this. None of these school murderers, including Sandy Hooks’ Adam Lanza, operated in a vacuum. They lived at home. They sent signals. Some wore trench coats to school regardless of the weather. They planted red flags with their internet searches and social media postings. Parental oversight–including the foster variety–can’t be an oxymoron.

“If you see something, say something.” It has to be more than a New York subway reminder.

Media Matters

* Let’s hear it for Susan Collins and Angus King, the two Maine senators, who have introduced legislation that would suspend tariffs on newsprint imported from Canada. The suspension would be in play while the Department of Commerce examines the impact on the U.S. printing and publishing business.

That shouldn’t take long; the stark reality is that obvious. The publishing business has been reeling as advertisers migrate from print to digital, and the pop culture treats newspapers and magazines like rotary telephones. We’re not talking coal mining here. This is about more than lost printing businesses and jettisoned jobs; it’s also about the further erosion of a critical forum for our democracy. At the worst possible time.

* Yes, we understand Rudy Giuliani’s presumed role in the Trump Administration. He is Trump’s New York-celebrity mouthpiece who can, ostensibly, talk to the media. But an off-the-cuff Nosferatu? SNL, you missed this one.

* The wedding service of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had a refreshingly diverse, populist touch. That included the African-American Episcopal Bishop Michael Bruce Curry of Chicago. He personified inclusion as he charismatically preached a message of love that underscored that he also loves a spotlight–especially one amid a historically staid gathering.

Grating Scott

Rick Scott seems increasingly well positioned to buy another political office. His well-financed makeover in his lame-duck year is well underway. But as we know, he wouldn’t succeed if he were matched against an impressive opponent, and he can’t succeed unless he has a lazy, enabling electorate. Scott is Scott. Even his supporters (possibly) recognize what they’re stuck with. There is no deference, but there is (off-year, voter) indifference. He counts on it. Again.

Sports Shorts

* No one would dare admit it, but you have to believe that the NHL was hoping for anyone but Winnipeg to be representing the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup finals. Winnipeg, which lost to Las Vegas in the conference finals, is the smallest market in the entire league. It’s also the frequent target of Canadian humor about its weather and provincialism. Truth be told, the NHL probably hopes for a mega-TV-market matchup of the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers every year.

* We know the Rays have had their share of struggles so far, and it hardly helps that they are in MLB’s toughest (American League East) division with the talent-stocked and exorbitantly-payrolled Yankees and Red Sox. They won’t catch either one. But suppose they were in another division, say, the AL Central?  At the beginning of this week, the Rays’ record (22-23) would have put them into a tie for first place with the Cleveland Indians.


* “If we can figure out a way to lead North Korea’s leaders to a place where they don’t feel so threatened, we could move away from the cusp of a cataclysmic  war. All of this would benefit us, whether  we eliminated their nuclear capacity or not.”–James Clapper, former director of national intelligence.

* “It’s smart to engage China on trade abuses, and it would also be smart to get them more involved in trying to help us with North Korea.”–Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

* “If I can use the metaphor that some raised around the table, we all have a relative in intensive care and we all want to get him or her out of intensive care as soon as possible.”–European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, on the approach of the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany to keep working to save the Iran nuclear deal despite President Donald Trump’s determination to kill it off.

* “Well-structured alliances strengthen the United States. Maintaining these alliances requires a degree of mutual trust and reciprocal loyalty. Unless President Trump can summon and project these sentiments, America First will turn into America Alone.”–William Galston, senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program.

* “For all the fatalism on both sides, the Middle East is in greater flux than ever before. Fear of an imperial Iran is drawing together Israel and the Sunni Arab world.”–Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and author of “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.”

* “Nations don’t reach bottom. There is always further to fall. But it does seem like life as we know it in Venezuela will be impossible unless there is a radical change.”–Crisis Group analyst Phil Gunson.

* “There is no hierarchy of values in Trump’s mind beyond himself.”–Mona Charen, senior fellow at the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center.

* “We were held in low regard by many Americans BEFORE Trump came down that escalator. And Trump, has been trying with all his might to yank that regard lower ever since.”–Frank Bruni, New York Times.

* “Our citizens deserve a full and detailed explanation. I welcome Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to appear in person. It is a step in the right direction toward restoring confidence.”–European Parliament President Antonio Tajani.

* “Americans must, at some point, decide on which truths we still find self evident.”–Kevin Baker, New Republic.

* “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”–Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

* “Ruth was so far ahead of her time that she was alone for decades.”–Gloria Steinem, on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

* “It’s time the defendants pay for the pain and the destruction that they have caused. … I wish I could send someone to jail, but I can’t. So we’re going after them financially.”–Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, in announcing that she has filed a lawsuit against the largest manufacturers and distributors of opioids.

* “My focus is going to be how to make Washington work the same way we make Florida work.”–Florida governor and U.S. Senate candidate Rick Scott.

* “The next governor of Florida needs to have the courage to enact bold, progressive reforms to our broken criminal justice system–like ending the death penalty.”–Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King.

* “I’ve heard from many of you on the board and many people out in our community that we should look into a referendum to generate the revenue we need to fund our schools. … We have some clear needs.”–Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins.

* “The case for new air service between Tampa Bay and Brazil is growing stronger.”–Kenneth Strickland, TIA’s director of air service development.

* “I’m asking staff to turn over every rock they can to make it happen.”–Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, in his proposal for an African-American art museum in downtown.

Tampa’s West Side Story

For those of us who have been around for awhile–long enough to recall how Tampa routinely ignored its good fortune in having a river running through it–what’s been happening along the Hillsborough River in downtown is nothing short of a reincarnation. It’s as if we had seen what San Antonio had done with its well-marketed, catalytic little creek and civically said: “They’re doing all this with that? And we have an actual river? Enough is enough.”

Some propitious business cycles, a recession recovery and several pragmatically visionary mayors later, we have the magnetic Riverwalk, the booming, multi-faceted Tampa Heights area and the makeover of the re-debuted Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.

The Riverfront Park, the $35-million venue that has morphed from easily ignored, nondescript, green space into a sprawling, eclectic place of note and notice, was the appropriate venue for Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s recent State of the City speech. The site was as symbolic as it was celebrated.

This 23-acre park isn’t just for visitors or millennial hipsters or chamber of commerce reps updating their PowerPoint presentations. Its appeal is to rowers and residents. To those who enjoy courts for tennis as well as basketball. For concert goers, for bocce ball players, for public art devotees, for pet owners who love dog parks. For those who love splash pads–and who doesn’t? In short, for us.

It’s a far cry from those days when the “West Bank” of the Hillsborough River meant, in effect, the “other side of the tracks.” Would-be investors looked askance at the unappealing weedy lots and looked hopefully across the Hillsborough to where the real downtown and the real development potential was.

Now Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park can be a key catalyst in stimulating development on its western side of the river. It’s hardly happenstance that the massive West River urban-renewal-development project just to the north has been jumpstarted this spring. The ultimate master plan and Buckhornian vision are to expand the footprint and synergy of downtown across the river and toward the neighborhoods of West Tampa.

“This park will stand as a testament to the commitment of this city to ensure that the rising tide of prosperity floats all boats,” inclusively noted Mayor Buckhorn at his State of the City speech.

With progress, ironically, also comes a caveat. Heads up for increased river traffic.

What with all that has changed along the downtown course of the Hillsborough, it’s inevitable that it would now be attracting ever more boaters to an ever busier river scene.

“It’s going to require a culture change,” pointed out Heather Erickson, the city’s athletics, aquatics and special facilities manager. Indeed, heightened awareness and a push to educate boaters is now underway.

And who would have thought not many years ago that a river that featured wharves and surface parking lots would now be an aesthetic catalyst for culture change and morph into a place where lots of people would want to be? Hell, who would have thought that Tampa would have an athletics, aquatics and special facilities manager?

Groundless Stand

So an appeals court has denied a challenge to a “stand your ground” ruling in the Curtis Reeves theater shooting case. That means a trial is one step closer. It could also mean that we’re one step closer to formally acknowledging the manifestly obvious–even in NRA-venerating “Flori-duh.” What the hell are you doing bringing your gun to the movies?

Trumpster Diving

* One obvious upshot of the formal opening of the American embassy in JerUSAlem: The peace process is comatose.

* When it comes to North Korea, we should still be willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt. Granted, timing is, of course, critically important, and the North Koreans had been gaming the world for a couple of generations until it had nuclear leverage. It’s there now under Kim Jong-un. It also has an open-minded partner in South Korean president Moon Jae-in. And it has, of course, an American president who would love to flaunt that the “Art of the Deal” also applies on the nuclear stage.

But it can’t be discounted that the very nature of Trump–a scary, impulsively unpredictable, threatening bully–has had an impact, however ironic, that could conceivably help. I liken it to a cartoon that was around during the Cold War, nuclear standoff between the U.S and the U.S.S.R. It was a riff on popular teen movies that featured two punks playing “chicken” in their cars. They would head directly at each other until one “chickened out” and turned away to avoid certain fatality. Think early James Dean. Think latter day Kim and Trump.

Well, the cartoon showed one of the drivers getting into his car with a well-noted bottle of booze next to him. It sent an alarmingly existential message to his rival: “I can’t be trusted. I may be drunk. You think I’ll be the one to turn off and avoid a nuclear showdown?”

I never thought that would still be resonating.