Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fame, fate and other stuff

By Bob Gaydos
By way of nothing else save the fact that you never know what little gifts life has for you if you don’t pay attention, I offer this brief exchange between two of my least favorite people in the world, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Beck was on O’Reilly’s TV show the other day, talking about the latest Fox News darling, Donald Trump, who has launched a campaign for president that is so outrageous and phony even Beck can’t stand it. In brief, Trump has spent the past week telling anyone who will listen that he’s not sure President Obama is a natural-born American and, what’s more, he suspects the president may be a Muslim. Donald … Donald … Donald.
Beck told O’Reilly: “The last thing the country needs is a showboat ... I would hope we could get serious candidates who could shake things up by not saying provocative things, just by stating the truth of what's going on."
Honest, that’s what he said.
But wait. Here’s O’Reilly’s response: "But then you and I would be off the air, because we're provocateurs. We do that every day."
There is a god somewhere. Now if only someone can explain irony to Fox News listeners.

* * *
The rest of this blog amounts to an exercise in self-reflection that could also be called ego-stroking. Nonetheless, I will not be deterred, especially at these prices.
It started last week when I was writing about a chance meeting I had with then-Senate candidate Geraldine Ferraro at the Ulster County Fair (it’s in the archives if you’re interested). I began recalling other “famous” persons I had met and in what circumstances. Be honest. We all do it, journalists do it maybe more than others because our work offers more opportunities to do so than a lot of other jobs.
Anyway, after deciding that the ego thing didn’t matter -- because what was my ego in the grand scheme of things -- and rationalizing that it might be good for my sons to get some sense of where my life had taken me, I started my list. Basic ground rules: It must have been an actual meeting, meaning words were exchanged, hands possibly shaken, and local politicians don‘t count except for members of Congress. You need a line somewhere.
The closest I ever came to meeting Glenn Beck was standing around a piano with a bunch of editors and Cal Thomas, singing what were probably old show tunes. I think it was in Philadelphia, but don’t hold me to that. Thomas was Beck before Beck ever thought of being Beck. And brighter. He is an evangelical Christian, a former vice president of the Moral Majority, a longtime syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to the Fox follies. Also, as I recall, a passable baritone with a good sense of humor and, at one time, capable of acknowledging nonsense within his own ranks. On the other side of the aisle, there was the incomparable Pete Hamill and in the middle, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, both of whom came to Middletown.
The world of sports offered encounters with Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach, boxer/TV personality Rocky Graziano (“Somebody Up There Likes Me”), Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer (naked in a whirlpool), champ Floyd Patterson (eating in a restaurant in New Paltz), columnist Milton Richman and, all too briefly, Jackie Robinson (a legitimate thrill).
In the world of entertainment there was the very tall Harry Belafonte at the Concord, the very drunk Clancy Brothers (around a bar after hours in Binghamton), Western author Larry McMurtry, actor Victor Arnold (the hit man in the original “Shaft”), Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer (on stage in Sullivan County) and, in a Woodstock art gallery, an also very tall Henny Youngman (“Take my card, please.”)
Not surprisingly, there are a bunch of political figures on my list, starting with Ferraro’s running mate, former Vice President Walter Mondale (a hello-how-are-ya in Minneapolis). There are the New York governors, of course: The imperial Nelson Rockefeller (he of the middle finger salute), the lanky George Pataki from Peekskill, and the Cuomos -- the senior, Mario, who could hold a room hostage for hours, and junior, Andrew, when he was attorney general and when he was messing up the gubernatorial campaign of H. Carl McCall. Also, the other also-rans: Mayor Ed Koch, Tom (Who?) Golisano, Pierre (the Record staff are the rudest people I have ever encountered) Rinfret, Andrew (I don’t stand a Chance) O’Rourke, Howard Samuels (a very cool customer), and Arthur (Hey, I was once a Supreme Court justice) Goldberg. Throw in Marvin Mandel in Maryland and Anne Richards in an elevator in Fort Worth. And of course, a special place is reserved in my heart for Eliot Spitzer, the dumbest smart politician I ever met.
Among senators, D. Patrick Moynihan held court in Goshen and Chuck Schumer showed up seemingly for breakfast every day. Local boy- made-good Howard Mills was the sacrificial lamb for the GOP against Schumer, but Mills always returned phone calls. Senator Hillary never did deign to grace us with her presence, but Rick Lazio was thrilled to stop by for a lengthy chat.
And, giving them their due, Congressmen Ben Gilman, Matt McHugh, Howard Robison, Maurice Hinchey, John Hall (who founded the rock group Orleans and also qualifies as an entertainer), Bella (The Hat) Abzug, and Congresswoman Sue Kelly, who famously and entertainingly imploded during an interview with the Record.
Among civil rights figures, Jesse Jackson towers above the rest, literally and figuratively, but Floyd McKissick, national director of CORE, was more accessible at Gentleman Joe’s bar in Binghamton.
Oddly enough, perhaps the most famous person I ever had a meaningful conversation with is someone whose name almost nobody recognized, and most probably still don’t know to this day: Norma McCorvey. McCorvey is better known as Jane Roe of the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision that confirmed a woman’s right to choose abortion.
When I met Norma, she had not only changed from pro-choice to pro-life on abortion, but had joined the Roman Catholic Church and announced she was no longer a lesbian. Life has a way offering surprises.
OK, wrapping it up. Mario Cuomo is easily the most magnetic, imposing famous person I ever met. He could talk about anything at all, intelligently and engagingly, at length. He once made his staff and TH-R editors sit through a two-and-half- hour meeting while lunch waited invitingly in an adjoining room. No one had the guts to stop him. He should have run for president.
But for sheer, humble, who-is-this-guy-and-why-is-he-doing-this amazement, my favorite famous person is David Karpeles. What, you never heard of him? Perhaps it’s time you have.
Karpeles is the founder of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums, which are located around the country in such places as Santa Barbara, Charleston, Tacoma, Duluth, Shreveport, Jacksonville, Fort Wayne, Buffalo and, yes, Newburgh, N.Y. My jaw dropped the first time I visited the Newburgh museum, located in an imposing old bank on Broadway, and I never fail to say, “Oh, my God, he owns that, every time I return.
The web site states: “The Karpeles Library is the world's largest private holding of important original manuscripts and documents.” You want famous? The Karpeles list of famous persons, I feel sure, is unmatched by anyone, anywhere, not that he met most of them. Still, on a rotating basis at any of the museums, one might see the original draft of the Bill of Rights of the United States, the original manuscript of “The Wedding March," Einstein's description of his Theory of Relativity, the Thanksgiving Proclamation" signed by George Washington, Roget's Thesaurus (as in, Roget‘s actual Thesaurus, Webster's actual Dictionary, the first printing of the Ten Commandments from the Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455), Darwin’s Conclusion embodying his theory of Evolution in "Origin of Species," or the Decree of Pope Lucius III Proclaiming the Sacred Duty of the Knights of the Holy Crusades. And about a million more original documents.
I met David Karpeles at the opening of the Newburgh Museum. He is tall, soft-spoken and as unassuming as anyone so rich and generous could possibly be. A math genius and real estate tycoon, he said he and his wife looked around one day and decided they had collected so much neat stuff, it was time to share it and so they decided to open museums where no one else wanted to put them. Like downtown Newburgh. The museums are open every day, free of charge. You think Trump would do that?
In a way, I guess the Beck beginning to this column is connected to the rest. Meeting the likes of David Karpeles is what makes it possible to put up with the likes of Glenn Beck. Put that in your fortune cookie.

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