[Mb-civic] NYTimes.com Article: Secrets of the Garden
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Fri Sep 3 12:32:29 PDT 2004
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I HEART HUCKABEES - OPENING IN SELECT CITIES OCTOBER 1
From David O. Russell, writer and director of THREE KINGS
and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER comes an existential comedy
starring Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Hupert, Jude Law, Jason
Schwartzman, Lily Tomlin, Mark Wahlberg and Naomi Watts.
Watch the trailer now at:
Secrets of the Garden
September 3, 2004
By ANNA DEAVERE SMITH
Brent Williams, my bull-rider friend in Idaho, sincerely
believes that President Bush would help him haul hay when
he's home from the rodeos. He and his buddies appreciate
how Mr. Bush took time to meet the 2003 rodeo champions. He
can't see Senator John Kerry doing that.
In November, the American people will show us which
candidate has the broadest reach. Who finds them where they
live? Who touches them where it matters? By visiting both
the Democrats in Boston and the Republicans in New York, I
intended to look at the theater of what each does, to see
if it would lead me to understand a little bit more about
the hearts and minds of the American people. I learned a
lot about oratory in Boston from Bill Clinton and Barack
Obama, in particular. In New York, I had the Bushes inside
the hall and the demonstrators outside. I expected lots of
One of the first things I noticed as I walked around this
week was offstage, on the cover of Newsweek. President
Bush, in a blue dress shirt that could also pass as a work
shirt, is standing alone, with the words "No Excuses"
emblazoned just below his chest.
I asked Elizabeth Roxas, former principal dancer at the
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, "If I were to play
Bush, how would I exude the kind of toughness that's on
that cover?" She said, "It leads from the chest. Even the
way his arm is sort of separated from underneath his
armpits - it's not closed in." It looks like he's going to
reach for his guns.
The public has danced all over Mr. Bush's verbal gaffes for
four years. It has become clearer here that it's not about
Richard Slotkin, the author of "Gunfighter Nation: The Myth
of the Frontier in 20th-Century America," explained to me
how the cowboy gunslinger myth might fit with this
"The thing that the cowboy knows, he knows instinctively,"
Mr. Slotkin said. "And everybody in the audience knows what
it is. It's 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.' You
are pitted against an enemy that is so merciless that it's
kill or be killed."
Connected to this cowboy myth is the "scary" story. There
was only one story at the convention, at least inside the
halls, and that's the story of Sept. 11. It's a scary
story, and the Republicans are getting better at telling it
every day. There were a lot of Democrats in New York at the
parties and luncheons and the gatherings around this
convention, too. The ones I've talked to are very worried
that Senator Kerry's not telling scary enough stories.
To me, one potentially scary story could be built out of
the dismissive reaction the Republicans, like Rudolph
Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dick Cheney, had to
John Edwards's idea of "two Americas." At the microphone,
they were deriding the idea, and yet, these last four days
in New York were an evident tale of two cities. Don't they
Inside the Garden, I observed one thing, and outside I
observed something different. The demonstrators on Sunday
performed for an audience of police officers and agents
lined up in front of the convention hall. They played as if
Mr. Bush were there. I watched a woman do a jazz riff on
the word "shame," while her companion improvised on a small
African whistle. They had a lot to say, and not much
equipment. Inside the hall, there was a lot of equipment,
and a lot to say, but not much variety in the way that it
was said. Simple language, simple sentences, received
applause again and again.
Governor Schwarzenegger had no rhythmic variety whatsoever.
Only the expression "girlie-men" leapt out as varied from
the rest of what he said. Vice President Dick Cheney's
sentences rarely surpassed 25 seconds apiece. I learned
that if you want to evoke a "boo" or thunderous applause,
it's best to keep it to 15. One of the most well-received
Cheney phrases was "Senator Kerry says he sees two
Americas. It makes the whole thing mutual. America sees two
John Kerrys." Two world views are being enunciated. I'm
told the last four years in Washington were bitter if you
were on the wrong side of the aisle.
My mind went reeling back to Ibsen's "Doll's House," to the
famous scene in which Nora and her husband, Torvald, have
an argument, much like a debate, and she walks out on him,
slamming the door. George Bernard Shaw called it "the door
slam heard round the world." It is thought to have changed
the course of modern drama. "For Nora to leave the house,"
said Mark Sandberg, an Ibsen scholar, "back then, was for
her to leave society. To start some new form of social
The idea of slamming the door, of walking out on America,
is behind us. That's not going to happen. If you were to
see both the play outside the convention hall, and the play
inside, you might wonder if it were time for a new kind of
social contract. But it's really the scene before Nora
slams the door that proves instructive.
Nora, said Mr. Sandberg, is "seeing something that's
changed her world view and he doesn't see it. He's trying
to talk about: 'Don't you believe in home and family and
don't you know your place in your home anymore?' She keeps
revising his terms. And he's not catching on to the shift
in language and how that signifies a shift in her whole way
of being. As a debater, she is actually quite good. She
simply refuses to give ground on terms she finds crucial.
And she won't let words slide by with hidden assumptions."
Mr. Cheney, stubbornly plays Torvald to the Democrats'
Nora and the demonstrators' Nora, refusing to accept terms
other than his own. Unlike Torvald, though, he seems to be
winning - for now. There has been a lot of language inside
both convention halls and in the streets, and there's more
to come. But will it add up to the power that is potent in
all of these small plays? The Democrats are worried that
Mr. Kerry can't communicate. The Republicans have turned
Mr. Bush's verbal limitations into virtues. Mr. Cheney
describes the president as a man who speaks plainly. His
audience believes that it sees all it needs to see. Perhaps
they don't think he's masking himself in words. Is it
possible that the mask is gesture?
I sat with three delegates in a bar, and asked specifically
about what they connected to in Mr. Bush. "Sincerity," Bill
Quinn of Pocono Lake, Pa., told me. "Speaking from the
heart and believing in your convictions. Firm hand shake
and he looks you in the eye. Gives you his word. That's
I asked Mike Johnson, a Republican political consultant,
about that word, sincerity. He looked me right in the eye
and said: "It's comfort. And sincerity. The comfort level,
the security level, the leadership level. And Bush shines."
I did not find theater in the hall of the Republican
convention. The sentences were too short. There were more
realities and facts than metaphors. And it worked. The
crowd was not cynical, accepting speakers at their word.
Just in the last few weeks scholars and dramatists met at
the Isben Festival 2004 in Oslo. It's my understanding that
they debated that door slam, meaning that they, too, may be
thinking about a new kind of social contract for now.
Unlike Mr. Schwarzenegger, I don't think it's an insult to
ascribe a feminine element to the Democratic candidates.
Let me suggest that they take a look at how to handle the
Torvalds of the world by interpreting what Nora does to him
in that last scene, that last debate. She listened,
absorbed the question and gave it back on her own terms.
She devastated her opponent and by all accounts, left him
babbling and baffled on the stage. It's really not so much
what you say or even how you say it. It's your intention
and your commitment to it that weighs in on the hearts and
minds of the recipient.
Anna Deavere Smith, an actress and playwright, is the
director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at
New York University.
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