Billy Bigelow is Dying…

Shirley Jones & Gordon MacRae in “Carousel” (c) 1956 20th Century Fox Pictures

‘Billy Bigelow’ is the lead male character in the musical Carousel.  He is a carnival barker…a “carny.”  He is a braggart and a loudmouth who is always ready for a fight.  He is a liar and a thief.  He is the man that no one should ever be in a relationship with but the one that far too many fall for.  Most tragically, he is also an abuser of women.  While many find him intoxicating, he is ultimately just toxic.  This kind of character is dying on Broadway.  People are less eager to spend hundreds of dollars to see stories about abusive dreadful men, hoping for their redemption.  Actors and producers are tired of glorifying jerks.  People just don’t want to glamorize pathetic, hateful bullies and make excuses for them simply because they might be even a little bit handsome or rich.  The theater-going public is finally growing up.

Sadly the voting public is slower to this party than the New York theater in-crowd.  But it should be some reassurance that Donald Trump, like the rest of us, is also dying.  Quite literally, he’s a 72-year-old white man in a country where the average life expectancy for someone like him is just over 79 year of age.  He is our oldest elected President.  If he is lucky (and he has been exceedingly lucky in where and to whom he was born) he could live more than the 7 years expected.  As a personal trainer and wellness professional, it was my business to be able to look at someone and add up their overall health.  Despite US averages and his protests, Donald Trump is not helping himself to the fountain of long life.  Today, as a faith leader, I have a different perspective on the human arc of life and health.  I now have the added sureness and peace in my heart that God will ultimately deal with Trump the man and the body, not in retribution for his actions, but because he is human like the rest of us.  He is finite.  Death is a feature included with every living body.

But like the character ‘Billy Bigelow’, “Donald Trump…the concept”, is also dying.  True, we are seeing a spike in authoritarian, nationalist (white and otherwise) leaders around the world who echo the stances of the original Donald Trump.  They are mimicking his rhetoric and aping some of his worst slogans.  Everything from “fake news” and calling the media the “enemy of the people” to “Make (fill in the blank) Great Again” and “Lock (gendered pronoun of your choosing) up” have become popular catch phrases with an increasing number of new leaders around the world.  But these are the actions of leaders who must resort to the brutish tactics of carnival barkers and used car salesmen because they literally have nothing of long-lasting quality to offer.  The classic carnival barker, like ‘Billy Bigelow’, doesn’t have anything to sell except lies, but because he is the loudest and flashiest, he attracts the biggest crowd and the most attention.  These are the “leaders” in the Trump model and this is the reason their success can only go so far.  Like a drug, they offer a thrill for the moment.

The Donald Trump “leadership” style must ultimately die because real leadership is not an act.  Government is not a fictional series.  When someone is murdered because of anti-Semitic or racist domestic terrorism, they don’t get cleaned up when the camera stops rolling and move on to the next show waiting for an Emmy nomination…they die…the end.  Rather than accolades for “Best Performance,” all that is left is an irreparable, gaping, raw hole in the lives of those they loved.  The cycle of news and publicity may move on, but the people remain and they suffer.  There is real pain and true leaders must deal with this.

The death of the Donald Trump “leader” is also inevitable because even the people we see chanting at rallies, the people spitting at journalists, the people invigorated in their sense of racial identity and superiority…even these people do not want to be in pain; this is another piece of the human condition.  It is no coincidence to me that the Trump “leader” would emerge concurrent with rampant addiction in the United States.  I have lost friends to and counseled people who struggle with opioids and addiction.  Addiction is not something I take lightly and it is difficult for me to make the following comparison.  Still, it is clear to me that the Donald Trump “leader” has leveraged the basic human search for comfort and pain relief and offered a brightly colored cocktail of celebrity/hero worship and aspirational falsehoods to lull followers into a stupor telling them “follow me and it will all be fine”.  Like addiction, the attraction to Trump “leadership” feeds on itself.  Like addiction, the attraction sits at a deeper place than simply with the substance being abused.  Like addiction, it will require intervention, education, support and deep love to help people to move out of its grip…if they are willing to choose to do so.

The true leaders that must…and will emerge from this will be the ones who can speak to all people in pain.  It will be someone who, rather than never having experienced an empty stomach, will be able to look in the eyes of a parent who has fed their children and not eaten themselves and communicate without words “I have been you.”  It will be someone who has lost a family member to a racially aimed police bullet who can be fully present with officers while communicating both the human pain and real solutions. It will be someone who has stood among neo-Nazis chanting hatred and has been transformed through deep relationship with those who were previously their targets of scorn into an advocate for re-education and reconciliation.  It will be someone who grew up on a reservation, completely disenfranchised from US privilege and erased from US history, only to claim a voice in an unwelcoming government and advocate for Indigenous rights.  It will be someone who is proud to have come to this country as a migrant with or without a “legal” status. It will be someone who does not casually inflict pain because they have never experienced it or have numbed themselves to it in a cocoon of wealth and access.  It will be someone who acknowledges they are dying and mortal…someone who acknowledges all of our shared humanity and seeks to make the best of what life (long or short) they may have left in this world.

There is nothing weak or “snowflake” about facing the reality and complexity of living in a diverse world.  On the contrary, it takes tough as leather resolve to navigate the emotions of the vast experience of life and death on this earth.  This is my greatest learning as a minister and why faith leaders and the real leaders that I mention above inspire me so much.  Behind every tear that these leaders shed is a piercing and steady vision for a world built on basic freedom and the human right to justice; it is creative, relentless, fearless and crystal clear.  My belief in this kind of leadership comes from personally accepting that there is a higher power to which we can choose to answer.  Some call it God, others believe it is the human spirit, some have no name for it at all.  It is what I believe guides leaders who authentically and truthfully speak to all who would listen and it requires no theatrics.  It needs no curtain call, no stage…no rally.

Its time to vote.  Elect leaders…not carnies.

Hillary For President Because…Diahann Carroll

Diahann Carroll in “Julia” (1968)

In the summer of 1995, I was standing back stage on board the cruise ship Legend of the Seas. It was my first week as Production Manager and the guest star for this cruise was about to go on stage. The phone rang and with less than five minutes to curtain, I was inclined to ignore the call, but I answered anyhow.

“Hello, this is Vic Damone…may I speak with Diahann?”

It was a reality check that I will never forget. At that moment, I had a legendary Hollywood star waiting in a dressing room and another legendary star (her ex husband) on the telephone calling shore to ship from Los Angeles to wish her well. What’s more, the star in the dressing room below was a groundbreaking actress on stage, film and television. And even more than that, she had been a symbol of black pride, beauty and the future of blackness throughout my youth. She was part of why I became who I am. I was about to introduce, Miss Diahann Carroll.

I asked our stage assistant to bring Miss Carroll up from the dressing room to receive her call. We would hold the curtain for as long as it took.

My time on board that week with Miss Carroll was not idyllic. I was new in the position and still trying to understand my authority; the ship was new and still technically under construction; Miss Carroll was nervous about appearing in her first live performance in several years plus being in preparation for taking on the role of Norma Desmond in the musical Sunset Boulevard. Ironically, the only thing that was flawless that cruise was the Alaska weather. Still, despite all of the potential and actual angst, I came away from my interaction with Diahann Carroll completely besotted and with a greater understanding of just how important someone like her has been to the world. She was a game changer. We need more game changers.

When Diahann Carroll appeared in the title role of the television show Julia in 1968, she was the first black woman to lead a national network television show that was not variety or one where she played a maid.

The question is what kind of game changers do we need in the world? This election cycle, there has been a lot of talk about how Bernie Sanders and The Dump represent “out of the box” thinking. They are both painting themselves as non/anti-establishment candidates who are presenting alternatives to political business as usual. But are they really game changers? The Dump talks a very aggressive game. He says things that politicians don’t say; he does things that politicians don’t do. His unorthodox campaign is successful in terms of garnering him people’s votes as well as media presence as well as stirring up xenophobia and racism (even if he is by political standards financially broke). But I would argue that he is not a game changer; he is putting on a show. He is simply applying to politics the same dreadful histrionics he has used in business (one could call them theatrical robber baron or huckster tactics). As he always has, he is leveraging both his whiteness and his maleness to be given a pass as a “bad boy” where any non-white non-male would have been submerged (or put in prison) a long time ago. That is definitely business as usual.

Sanders is a bit different. He is talking an innovative game. Sanders brings vision and inspiration and soaring aspiration to the campaign that is desperately needed. He voices the real goals and concerns of “the people” and does not lose touch with that crucial connection. He is authentic and extremely wise. This is exactly what he has done for 25 years in Congress. He has not been afraid to present radical ideas and independent thinking. He has been a vocal opponent of the establishment, big business government, hawkish politics and he has been a consistent and dedicated voice for his highly independent constituents. But with all that, he has played entirely by the rules. Many people forget that the rules of the United States Government allow for dissent…radical dissent even. He has been vocal and sounded the rallying cry, but Sanders has not dismantled any systems or successfully blocked any of the usual way things are done in our government. Bernie Sanders may be using radically different colors, but he is still very much so drawing within the lines.

Scenes from “Julia” (I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas)

When Diahann Carroll appeared in the title role of the television show Julia in 1968, she was the first black woman to lead a national network television show that was not variety or one where she played a maid. Her role was a professional nurse, and she was the star. It was also a show that spoke upfront about race in the middle of the most violent years of the Civil Rights Movement. Take for example the episode “I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas” that opens with her young son arguing with a little white boy about the whether Santa Claus is black or white (see clip here). Prior to this, Miss Carroll had appeared opposite white actor Richard Kiley as a fashion model in Richard Rodgers’ No Strings on Broadway where she was also his love interest, breaking the color barrier in musical comedy. Because of her other powerful performances (Porgy and Bess, Carmen Jones, House of Flowers, etc.) she was a highly sought after guest on musical television programs with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr. and other major white stars. She was not a ‘sex kitten’ a ‘blues mama’ or a domestic. Diahann Carroll was presented as a legitimate, mature artist who’s stunning voice, acting chops and statuesque beauty could not be contained in the racist attitudes of the day and could easily rival Doris Day or Barbra Streisand. In the 1950’s she had married white producer Monte Kay who was also 14 years her senior. imageIn the late 1980’s she stood toe to talon with Joan Collins in Dynasty.  She was powerful without being a cliché of black womanhood. Diahann Carroll was always true to herself which meant that she never played by the rules of her era. She was a real game changer.

Hillary Clinton insisted that the role of First Lady (both of Arkansas and then of the United States) was not simply to play hostess. Building on her role model Eleanor Roosevelt, she saw herself as both an extension of the President’s political power and effectiveness and as an independent player with a clear political agenda. Clinton then went completely against the grain of former First Ladies and opted to run for and win a seat in the US Senate instead of devoting herself to her husband’s legacy. Following a highly volatile battle for the Presidency against Barack Obama, she then went on to serve as his Secretary of State. We can and should argue about her record in each of these roles and we can find fault and favor with her decisions and motivations in certain circumstances, but it is undeniable that she has rewritten the resume of qualifications for people seeking high political office, particularly women. She has actually changed the game.

Diahann Carroll today

We need game changers. This is the rhetoric that The Dump and Sanders are using. Sometimes you have to play outside of the box, or draw outside of the lines. But there is only one candidate who has consistently done this throughout their career. In fact, she has drawn an entirely different picture of what it looks like to find a path to the White House. One could argue that she has performed no better than any other white male politician. But I think you would be hard pressed to find any other politician with her public service pedigree and I believe we are a little to quick to assume that the playing field is so level that her being a woman doesn’t matter.  No one seems willing to use gender to Clinton’s advantage, but all too many are willing to use it as a weakness (criticism of her hair, clothes, voice, etc.) We need to invest in her as a whole and uniquely qualified person…a woman, an international statesperson, a Senator, a First Lady and an attorney…a game changer…and more importantly we need to insist that she see herself this way as well. She is the true radical by raising the bar for qualifications of all Presidents who follow, male or female.

The 2016 presidential election will not be won by the status quo, but in our current climate of ethical volatility, most people are focused on lofty ideology. It would serve the voting public to shift that focus more toward actual skills, political caché and battle tested durability that will be necessary to move the immovable object of the US Congress to action. This election should be won by the person who opens up a completely new way of thinking about what it means to be President of the United States and what that means to the context and relationship between our three branches of government. This next administration may not be as much about policy as some would have it as it is about the person. Just as the producers of Julia must have realized they had a unique opportunity, Hillary Clinton can be our nation’s Diahann Carroll.  What’s wrong with a black Santa Claus anyhow?