Media again gobbles up spoon-fed 'hearing.' Plus, 'Elvis' finally offers the definitive biopic.
By Gary Abernathy
Will the media ever rebel against this pre-packaged show? Updated*
Tuesday saw the drop of Season One, Episode Six of “The January Sixth Committee starring Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney.” If you missed it live, it’s available on several streaming services.
Will there come a time when the media rebels against being spoon-fed testimony and images by the Jan. 6 committee, and refuses to regurgitate the production in headlines that could have been written by committee staffers? So far, the answer is a clear “no.”
Once again, after Tuesday’s hastily-arranged “hearing” — necessitated, we were told, because of new, urgent information — most of the media ran with the witness testimony, which was couched in phrases like “something to the effect of” and included a lot of things other people told her. It didn’t matter. It all was immediately reported as fact.
The star witness was Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Mark Meadows, who was chief of staff to former President Donald Trump. Hutchinson had been featured in previous testimony via video tape, and for some reason she was brought in live and in person on Tuesday to spend much of her time sitting and watching her previous, taped testimony. It was bizarre. The committee continues to present taped testimony in heavily-edited, awkwardly clipped fashion.
Hutchinson had new, salacious revelations about previously known events, making us wonder why it just now came up, since she’s obviously testified before behind closed doors. Much of what she shared were things she had not witnessed but had merely been told about. She was told that Trump threw a temper tantrum in the presidential limo when the driver refused to take him to the Capitol where the riot was unfolding. She was told he was told about some protest attendees being armed but wanting them allowed into the area where he was speaking because he wanted to fill up empty spots. She saw some ketchup streaking down the wall where Trump had apparently thrown a plate of, what, french fries? I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but politicians throwing temper tantrums like 5-year-olds is not a new development, from city council members to presidents of the United States.
Some things Hutchinson heard and saw firsthand. But in almost all cases, her memory isn’t great. She remembers being told “something to the effect” of this or that. In numerous cases, she used that phrase, or something similar. “He said something to the effect of…” A defense attorney would have a field day on cross-examination.
Of course, there is no defense attorney. There is no challenge to the pre-packaged presentation. It’s amazing — embarrassing, actually —to watch the other committee members sit so obediently silent while chair Bennie Thompson and co-chair Liz Cheney read from the teleprompter. But we must not waver from the script.
I’m not criticizing Cassidy Hutchinson. She’s doing what the committee asked her to do. If the committee is willing to have hearsay and personal impressions entered into the record — things like Hutchinson sharing how she thinks someone looked, i.e., depressed, upset, worried — it’s not her fault for being prodded to answer questions about things she doesn’t actually know firsthand. But despite media efforts to make Watergate comparisons, this isn’t Watergate, and Cassy Hutchinson isn’t John Dean.
What’s sad are journalists regurgitating this stuff in big, bombastic headlines without questioning in the least bit whether, a, it’s true and, b, it really means anything important. The New York Times headlines right after the hearing are shown above in a screenshot from its website. In those places where it says, “Aide Says” or “Aide Testifies,” keep in mind that what the aide said or testified in those cases were things she was told, not things she witnessed. With all due respect to the New York Times — and I do respect it most of the time even when it lets me down because, hey, it’s the New York Times — it’s wrong to highlight those things in headlines when they are things the witness said others told her, not things she witnessed for herself.
She testified that she was told that Trump “lunged for the wheel,” but the headline implies she saw it. She testified that she was told that Trump knew about the “potential for violence” because people were armed with guns. She indeed witnessed Trump asking security to be loosened, but the headline implies she knew that he knew of the potential for violence, when in fact she was told that he was told about people being armed. She didn’t witness that conversation.
*Update with Peter Alexander tweet
I’m still not sure we learned anything meaningful. It has long been known that Trump wanted to go to the Capitol and was told he couldn’t. The details of how vigorously he may have attempted to get his way are just that — details, which will be magnified because someone elaborated with details she was told about.
To be fair, here’s Trump’s response, as reported by Newsweek from his social media feed:
"I hardly know who this person, Cassidy Hutchinson, is, other than I heard very negative things about her (a total phony and "leaker"), and when she requested to go with certain others of the team to Florida after my having served a full term in office, I personally turned her request down. Why did she want to go with us if she felt we were so terrible? I understand that she was very upset and angry that I didn't want her to go, or be a member of the team. She is bad news… Her Fake story that I tried to grab the steering wheel of the White House Limousine in order to steer it to the Capitol Building is 'sick' and fraudulent, very much like the Unselect Committee itself—Wouldn't even have been possible to do such a ridiculous thing… I didn't want or request that we make room for people with guns to watch my speech. Who would ever want that? Not me!”
Again, Jan. 6, 2021 was a terrible day in American history, and Donald Trump is responsible for it happening. No one should support him for president going forward, not particularly because of Jan. 6, 2021, but because of his refusal to acknowledge Biden’s legitimacy as president. But that doesn’t mean that everything being said or done against Trump is fair, or should be done, or that he doesn’t deserve a defense. Like everyone else, he does. And it sure doesn’t mean that respected media outlets should throw their principles to the wind, even if it’s in the service of bringing down Donald Trump.
Critics continue to misrepresent SC nominees’ testimony
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision that abortion is not constitutionally protected at the federal level and should be decided by the states, critics continue to misstate what recent conservative nominees told the Senate during confirmation hearings in regard to Roe v. Wade.
We continue to hear that they “lied” when asked whether Roe was a precedent, or a “super precedent.” The implication is that in agreeing that it was an important precedent, they essentially promised not to overturn it. That’s just obviously wrong.
First, it’s wrong to ask a nominee how he or she would rule on any specific issue or case. We hope that justices approach every case with an open mind, based on the law and the facts — sometimes new facts.
Second, precedents get overturned. In an insightful article written last year, David Schultz, law professor at the University of Minnesota, points out, “Under Chief Justices Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist and now John Roberts, the court overturned constitutional precedent 32, 32, 30 and 15 times, respectively.”
Beginning with the Rehnquist court, justices have become more willing to reject precedents they think were badly reasoned, simply wrong, or inconsistent with their own senses of the constitutional framers’ intentions. Justice Clarence Thomas has taken this position on abortion. Justice Amy Coney Barrett during her Senate confirmation hearing argued that Roe is not a so-called superprecedent, a decision so important or foundational that it cannot be overturned.
Chief Justice Roberts has been willing to overturn settled law when he thinks the original opinion was not well argued. He did so in Citizens United, a 2010 decision overturning two major campaign finance decisions, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and part of McConnell v. FEC.
In 2020, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh in Ramos v. Louisiana went out of their way to explain and justify their views on when constitutional precedent may be overturned. They echoed Justice Samuel Alito’s discussion in 2018 in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council Number 31. All three justices said constitutional precedent is merely a matter of court policy or discretion, more easily overturned than a precedent about a law. Sometimes, they said, constitutional precedents can be overruled if later judges view them as wrongly decided or reasoned.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually said that conservative justices should be impeached for the “lie” they supposedly told under oath about Roe v. Wade. Of course she did.
As I said in a tweet earlier this week, the media’s apocalyptic hysteria over the abortion ruling is a case study of excess and overstatement. The court did not outlaw abortion. The question will be decided by our system of representative democracy at the state level, determined by legislators elected by the people.
‘Elvis’ delivers visual, visceral punch on singer’s impact
Note: The following is a review of the new movie “Elvis.” Subscribers to this newsletter and visitors to this site who have no interest in Elvis Presley or things non-political may have no interest in the following item. On the other hand, it’s something you might enjoy reading anyway.
As a lifelong Elvis fan, I’ve been looking forward to the new movie about Elvis Presley’s life that was first announced more than three years ago when Tom Hanks signed on to play Elvis’ legendary manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker. I was happy that someone with Hanks’ stature was connected to the film, immediately giving it substantial credibility.
Over the years, most projects featuring actors portraying Elvis have been disappointments, mostly because of terrible miscasting. From Don Johnson to Dale Midkiff to Rob Youngblood in TV movies to David Keith and Michael Shannon in big screen projects, it was impossible to get past how unlike Elvis those actors were, physically and vocally (at least when speaking; sometimes the dubbed singing was okay) and even when the movies were at least somewhat enjoyable.
Until now, I’ve always considered Kurt Russell’s turn as Elvis in the 1979 eponymous TV movie produced by Dick Clark to be the best portrayal of Elvis, capturing his look, speaking voice and performing style pretty well in a very well-done biography.
Another personal favorite has always been Rick Peters in a 1997 Showtime movie, “Elvis Meets Nixon” (the first of two movies about that bizarre episode in Elvis’ life). Peters didn’t really look or sound like Elvis, but he plays the part with such gleeful abandon – and the movie itself is such an over-the-top, hilarious romp – that I go back to it often. If nothing else, it does a better job of anything I’ve ever seen of offering Elvis’ zany, childlike qualities that are often overlooked in biographies, whether print or screen versions.
Lora and I went to see the new “Elvis” over the weekend. I joked with her that Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, would have loved the simple title. If Parker had his way, every new single, album or movie that Elvis put out in his lifetime would have just been titled “Elvis.” He believed that was all that was necessary. He was probably right.
My hopes for the new film were tempered by the casting of Austin Butler as Elvis. I didn’t know him from Adam. I read that he was teen star in Nickelodeon and Disney Channel projects. His biggest role as an adult was as Tex Watson, the Charles Manson groupie, in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” I saw it, and remember the Watson character, but didn’t put an actor’s name to it. And I certainly didn’t think the guy who played Tex Watson could play Elvis.
“Elvis” is by far the best representation of Elvis’ life and cultural impact that’s been done to date. Director Baz Lurhmann, who directed versions of “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby,” is known for his bright, dizzying films, focusing more on imagery than linear detail. That’s exactly what a new Elvis treatment needed, rather than another by-the-numbers retelling of Elvis’ well-known rags to riches, tragedy and triumph story. Anyone who cares even a little already knows all the details. The Kurt Russell version, directed by John Carpenter – as well as a CBS version in 2005 starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, which is practically a scene-by-scene remake of Carpenter’s ’79 film – covered that ground quite well.
What was needed was something that jumped off the screen and reminded everyone why Elvis mattered in the first place – something that delivered a visceral, emotional punch to remind us why 1950s society was so shocked by him, and then, almost immediately, taken with him -- and why, even until the day he died in 1977, his talent, charisma, showmanship and very existence continued to enthrall so many millions around the world. Newspapers regularly carried stories about Elvis’ day-to-day activities, from buying cars for strangers to randomly pulling over to the side of the road to break up a fight on his way to perform a concert.
Elvis was like every American’s quirky cousin. What did “crazy Elvis” do today? He seemed to be living out a rags-to-riches fantasy with which everyone could identify.
In real life, Butler doesn’t look anything like Elvis, but through makeup and careful camera angles, he comes close enough. The speaking voice and southern drawl he adopts are also not quite pitch perfect. What sells it are his mannerisms and takeoffs on Elvis’ stage performances, which Butler gets near-perfect whether mimicking ’50s Elvis or ‘70s Elvis. Butler’s look and moves when portraying the Elvis of the 1968 “comeback special” – which, rightfully, gets extended attention in the film – are excellent.
Butler does a little of his own singing as early Elvis, but Luhrmann wisely got permission to use Elvis’ actual recordings for most of the movie. No one – not even Ronnie McDowell, who comes close – has ever captured the range of Elvis’ voice with the combination of tenderness and power that he could call on, depending on his mood and the requirements of the song. Even when Elvis’ physical deterioration was evident near the end, he could summon the magic of that voice, as the film demonstrates during the emotional finale featuring Butler/Elvis at the piano performing “Unchained Melody.”
Hanks, as the Colonel, plays his part as what Parker probably was, both canny promoter and self-serving huckster. Hanks, as Parker, narrates the film, and declares that, contrary to popular opinion, he is not the villain of the piece. I’ve always agreed with that take. Parker is often blasted for eventually taking 50 percent – sometimes more, with his own side deals – of Elvis’ earnings. But he truly looked at it as a 50-50 partnership. Elvis was his only client. He devoted all his time and energies to Elvis. Elvis was well aware of all the deals, and how much Parker was making. He didn’t care, as long as he had all the money he wanted, too.
Yes, Elvis certainly had a love-hate relationship with Parker. But they were together for nearly 22 years. Every relationship, whether personal or business, has a lot of ups and downs over the course of two decades.
The film takes liberties, but always to make a relevant point. For instance, it shows Elvis confronting Parker about being an illegal immigrant from Holland. It’s true that Parker was Dutch, came to the U.S. illegally, invented the name “Thomas A. Parker” (the “Colonel” was one of those honorary titles bestowed by the governor of Louisiana) and claimed to be from Huntington, West Virginia.
But Elvis never knew about Parker’s real past. It had been raised during Elvis’ lifetime in a Dutch publication, but never made its way into U.S. media. Parker only admitted it a couple of years after Elvis died when he was being sued by the estate and tried to claim he could not be held liable in a U.S. court because he wasn’t a citizen here. Still, Elvis always complained that Parker wouldn’t book him for overseas tours, and always suspected there were reasons other than “security,” which the Colonel always cited. Having Elvis confront him over his real origins helps illustrate the point without dwelling on it more than necessary.
Was Parker a great manager who helped Elvis reach his potential, or a selfish con artist who bilked his client and drove him to an early grave? I think the former is much truer than the latter. Parker put tremendous time and energy into his only client. He even contributed his own money toward the buyout of Elvis’ contract from Sun Records, when RCA refused to go any higher with its offer. He had great faith in Elvis in a way that most didn’t. Most observers thought Elvis would be a flash in the pan and burn out in a year or two. Parker saw Elvis’ durability.
People complain that Parker stuck Elvis in a bunch of bad movies in the ‘60s. But popular music went through a seismic shift, with the Beatles and the British invasion. Rather than compete directly, Parker signed movie deals that kept Elvis in the money and the in the public eye. When the novelty of the Fab Four and their imitators began to fade a bit, Parker brought Elvis back for the 1968 TV special – although, as the movie portrays, Parker’s ideas for the special were much different than what Elvis finally did. To his credit, Parker admitted later that Elvis and director Steve Binder were right, he was wrong.
Also appreciated is the film’s focus on Elvis’ later career, a period too often shrugged off by filmmakers and biographers. Under Parker’s guidance, Elvis conquered Las Vegas and become the top-drawing touring act of the 1970s, selling out the biggest indoor arenas in America, as well as setting a record at the time for attendance for a single performer with more than 60,000 at the Pontiac Silverdome for a New Year’s Eve concert on Dec. 31, 1975. Elvis was never an “oldies” act. He always focused on contemporary music – often songs by others, such as Yesterday by the Beatles or Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel. Elvis’ own latter-day hits like Suspicious Minds, In The Ghetto, Kentucky Rain, Burning Love, Hurt and many more remain as much his signature songs as ‘50s hits like Don’t Be Cruel, All Shook Up and Hound Dog. The early ’60s saw some of his greatest vocal successes, like Are You Lonesome Tonight, It’s Now Or Never and Can’t Help Falling In Love.
Elvis had sustained success throughout his career. He was the top-selling artist of the ‘50s, of course, but people are sometimes surprised to realize he was the second-best selling singer of the ‘60s, bested only by the Beatles, and outselling the Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, etc. Even in the 1970s, Elvis places at number 22 on the list of best-selling artists of that decade, ahead of singers like Neil Young and John Lennon.
The Vegas attendance records, the 1972 Madison Square Garden sellout of four straight shows (a record at the time), the 1973 “Aloha From Hawaii” satellite concert beamed all over the world – all were unprecedented achievements that still stand as a testament to the unique pairing of a transcendent talent with a devoted manager who invented techniques of promotion still being copied today.
Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ ex-wife, cooperated with the production and so, not surprisingly, is portrayed in sympathetic fashion by actress Olivia DeJonge. The fact that Elvis was 25 and Priscilla was 14 when they met during his Army tour in Germany is rather glossed over. Priscilla’s impact on Elvis, aside from giving him his only child, Lisa Marie, seems minimal, although the movie tries hard to imply that their love lasted well beyond their 1973 divorce.
That’s always been debatable. Elvis and Priscilla had separated in 1972 and Elvis entered into a nearly-five year relationship with Linda Thompson (not mentioned in the movie, something she’s justifiably not happy about), while also seeing other women. The nature of Elvis’ relationship with Priscilla post-divorce has been widely disputed, but there is tape from a ’74 Vegas show with Elvis introducing Priscilla in the audience and suggesting to the audience that they remained very close.
What is beyond dispute is that a couple of years after Elvis died, his estate and legacy were in danger of collapsing until Priscilla, on behalf of Lisa Marie, was appointed guardian of the estate and took it upon herself to hire the right people with the skills to turn Graceland into a top tourist draw and (often with former Elvis confidante and “Memphis Mafia” member Jerry Schilling) work out deals with RCA/Sony/BMI for the continued release of Elvis’ music, as well as engineering countless other projects keeping the King front and center. Regardless of how anyone feels about Elvis and Priscilla’s real relationship, she deserves immense credit for his ongoing posthumous presence in pop culture.
Priscilla and Lisa Marie have been singing the praises of the new movie, but as some articles have pointed out, they have a vested interest in hoping it kicks off a new wave of interest – and, therefore, increased business – in all things Elvis, especially among younger people.
“Elvis” does a good job showing Elvis’ influence by and appreciation for the black musicians and preachers with whom he grew up. Especially highlighted is his friendship with blues legend B.B. King, who knew Elvis long before Elvis was famous. In a Washington Post column in 2018, I rebutted the notion that Elvis “appropriated” black music. I noted:
Presley was raised in poverty in the Tupelo, Miss., slums, side-by-side with African Americans, and the rhythm and blues and black gospel that influenced him were as much his music as anyone’s. It was in his DNA. Far from making a calculated decision to capitalize on it, Presley performed it as naturally as he downed the fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches that his mother prepared as part of her poor family’s menu.
Presley, again merely by instinct, merged rhythm and blues with another genre he loved, country music — white music — to create a brand-new sound. Comparing the rhythm songs like “That’s Alright, Mama” as originally performed by Arthur Crudup with Presley’s version makes clear the creativity and distinction he brought to bear.
The film shows, but doesn’t belabor, the toll taken by Elvis’ later drug use. When Elvis dies, Parker, narrating, suggests either a heart attack or drug use was the cause, but certainly not Parker himself.
Overall, everyone can nitpick what’s in the film and what’s not. The movie probably gives short shrift to Elvis’ love of gospel music. His mother, Gladys, is portrayed (probably accurately) as a spiritual person but also a beer drinker not above using some salty language to make her point. She ruled the roost, and her death at age 46, at the height of Elvis’ early fame, devasted her only (living) son. His father, Vernon, is probably accurately portrayed as someone who loved Elvis, but was often more aligned with the Colonel when it came to the emphasis of money over everything else.
One could go on and on about the intricacies of the film, but the details of Elvis’ biography aren’t what make the movie great. What make this movie stand out are the imagery and the music. Elvis’ appeal was always visceral. That’s why keeping his legacy alive for so long can be difficult; it’s almost necessary to have seen and experienced Elvis to fully appreciate him. Reading about him, and even just listening to him, doesn’t convey the magic in totality.
“Elvis” does the best job of anything so far produced in helping an audience “feel” the vibrant, electric and emotional impact that Elvis had on audiences, whether they went in expecting to like him or not. In an early scene, Elvis is performing live in front of an auditorium of both adults and teens. Almost reflexively, once Elvis starts to jiggle in his distinctive fashion, one girl lets out an involuntary scream, then looks around, embarrassed. But then other girls scream, older women begin to react, and even the men sit mesmerized.
It’s the most effective depiction yet of the impact Elvis first had nearly 70 years ago. Elvis’ appeal wasn’t just his rhythmic gyrations, it was his voice, emotional delivery, movie-star looks and the contradictory, lifelong human appeal of God-fearing mama’s boy coupled with dangerous, norm-busting rebel.
“Elvis” did great opening weekend business, leading the box office by inching past the blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick,” now in its fifth week. Theaters are hoping that “Elvis,” which has drawn a split audience age-wise, will help bring older movie lovers back to cinemas after the covid pandemic.
Whether a fan or not, most moviegoers will enjoy “Elvis.” Check it out.
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