Thursday, December 18, 2008

Smiles of a winter night

Had I known that Robert Prosky lived within blocks of my mother and stepfather's former home on Capitol Hill in Washington, I would probably have knocked on his door on one of the many Christmases we visited the area to express appreciation of his work. I know he played a variety of roles, not all of them sinister and some even kindly—in fact, my then six-year-old son sat on my lap, a few minutes from Prosky's house, watching him as kindly judge Harper in Miracle on 34th St. in 1995—but the role I'll never forget was Prosky's first, the chillingly soft-spoken mobster, Leo, in Michael Mann's 1981 film, Thief. This scene is the epitome of what Prosky was capable of (be warned: the language is very foul, though the performance is amazing).

It's not certain that even Leo the mobster was the equal of Sam Zell, the foul-mouthed corporate pirate who bought the Tribune Company, parent of major American newspapers, for $8.2 billion and then started cutting newsroom staff; the supreme irony is that Zell had put up just $315 million of his own, financing the balance with Tribune employee pension funds, without their consent. (I can think of nothing that such an action reminds me of so much as committing sexual assault and also convincing your victim to take out a second mortgage to pay you for doing so.) Commenting on the subprime mortgage crisis last April, the veteran capitalist offered this hardheaded advice:

This country needs a cleansing. We need to clean out all those people who never should have bought in the first place, and not give them sympathy.

You said it, Sam. As a firm believer in free enterprise and individual initiative, I look at the likes of Zell and wonder if Marx perhaps had virtues that we've overlooked; as someone who doesn't believe there is an afterlife, I am tempted to hope that Zell is headed where his tactics are rapidly sending major newspapers: a place that rhymes with his last name.

But speaking of Marx, it's interesting that Poland's last Communist dictator, the heavy-handed General Wojciech Jaruzelski, now 85 and on trial for his 1981 imposition of martial law, is winning some sympathy, even from still-living victims of his repressive methods, according to Time. Did Jaruzelski pre-empt a planned Soviet invasion by his crackdown and save Poland from worse, or did he in fact do the Soviets' dirty work for them, disingenuously using the invasion threat to justify his own desire for power? Even erstwhile opponent Lech Walesa, one of 10,000 detained during the crackdown (90 were killed), thinks Jaruzelski's trial after so long—if convicted, he faces 10 years' imprisonment—may be a mistake. I admire Walesa's moderation, but the truth needs to be shown for what it is, no matter what sentence is handed down. After all, such tactics are not confined to the past, and age is not keeping 84-year-old Robert Mugabe from holding a feast while Zimbabweans starve.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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