Monday, November 18, 2013

Deferred Gratification: Horowitz, Lincoln, and JFK

Deferred Gratification: Horowitz, Lincoln, and JFK

The great 20th Century pianist Vladimir Horowitz was a renowned neurotic. The litany of his personal quirks could fill a small book and, several times during his more than fifty-year career, his stage fright overcame him and he simply stopped performing in public. 

On May 19th, 1965, after a hibernation of twelve years, Horowitz returned to Carnegie Hall.  For the classical set, this was the equivalent of the Beatles landing, and, for hours before, the crowd lined up around the building in anticipation. Wanda, Horowitz’s wife (and the daughter of Arturo Toscanini) sent out cups of coffee.  By every account, Horowitz was a wreck.  Schuyler Chapin, later head of the Metropolitan Opera, was at that time acting as a sort of major domo to Horowitz, and later said he literally spun his charge around 180 degrees and shoved him out on the stage.  

Horowitz took his bows, sat down in front of his personal Steinway (he only played on his own piano, placed just-so on the stage) and opened with a Bach-Busoni transcription.  His giant hands crashed down on the keys.  And, before he even got started, he hit a clunker more at home at a sixth grade recital.  A collective, stifled gasp from the crowd.  If there were a New Yorker drawing of the scene, it would have had to have included a caption of  “oh no, he’s lost it.”

This is a week where we both celebrate and mourn perfection and imperfection.  Tuesday, November 19, is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Friday, November 22, is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.

History can be a harsh mirror.  If there is one enduring impression you get from watching Larry Sabato discuss JFK in his excellent on-line course, it is that how very great and how very small Kennedy could be.  There is something about JFK that loves the camera; look at old photos and newsreels and you will find his image creates the odd effect of being colorized when others are in black and white.  Stack him up against the politicians of the day, against Nixon, or Khrushchev, and you see an expression of an America as it would like to be, youthful, virile, and self-confident.  He is as far away from the party apparatchik or the 50’s era man in the gray flannel suit as is possible.  You can go to the moon with JFK.  You can go anywhere.  But there was a darker side to the trip.

JFK’s death was so public and so tragic, the mourning so exquisitely staged, that his greatest legacy was his image.  Lyndon Johnson was both bedeviled and enabled by it.  The most powerful Senator of his time, perhaps of any time, he found himself needing to make a ritual bow with each accomplishment.  Who could resist even the most far-reaching when it was packaged in black crepe? 

Listen to Sabato, who idolized JFK as a boy, and memorized his Inaugural Address, and you hear the undertones of irony and sadness. The irony, of course, is that JFK would likely never have gone as far as Johnson did, either on civil rights, or the Great Frontier.  JFK was an unconventional and bold politician, but a conservative and gradualist lawmaker.  And the sadness is that the public image of Kennedy hid a less flattering side; his willingness to play bare-knuckle politics, his early-term inexperience, his uncontrolled sexual behavior.  Sabato’s conclusion: that as those with memories of JFK pass inexorably from the stage, his image will become less important than his actual accomplishments.  He will no longer be thought of as in the first rank of Presidents. 

Lincoln was as ugly and ungainly as Kennedy graceful.  “Friend and foe alike” openly mocked him.  But he and Kennedy shared one trait; they were both men capable of inspiring eloquence, of defining a future filled with aspirations. 

At Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke for barely two minutes—not even enough time for the photographer to set his lens.  What Lincoln accomplished in a few hundred words has been recounted thousands of times over.  Whole books have been written about it.  It is a magnificent work; classical in structure, both mournful and optimistic, rescuing the Declaration of Independence from the blood and ashes in which it was immersed.  The genius of Lincoln’s prose is in its simplicity and its modesty.  Politicians and orators are not heroes, their words do not elevate the sacrifices of those who risked all for a principle. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

Lincoln lived this.  He grounded the intellectual aspects of his leadership around core principles; Union and Freedom.  For those ends, he was willing to employ every tool at his disposal.  But as to the emotional, he was taxed to his limits.  The political historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote “Lincoln was shaken by the Presidency.  Back in Springfield, politics had been sort of a exhilarating game; but in the White House, politics was power, and power was responsibility…To be confronted with the fruits of his victory only to find that it meant choosing between life and death for others was immensely sobering.” 

Somewhere in dark and depressive parts of his mind he found his core.  Lincoln is great not because of his words but because of his dogged humanity and essential humility.  He fought without joy, but with purpose.  He probably wielded more power than any President in United States History, and there are many who still curse his memory, but there is no generational clock on his star. 

It might seem odd to find Vladimir Horowitz, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy in the same post, but somehow it seemed appropriate. All three men had a peculiar genius.  Kennedy’s trumpet perhaps sounded the brightest, but may well fade with time.  Lincoln’s beat seems that of the human heart, timeless.  And, as for Horowitz, he stumbled and almost seemed to teeter during that first piece at Carnegie Hall.  And then he centered himself.  His hands regained their magic, he soared.  I was fortunate enough, years apart and in separate cities, to have spoken to two people who met on line that day, waiting to get in to see the master.  Both described their horror after the first few notes.  Then they went on, their memories as fresh as if it had been just last weekend.  They both concluded with exactly the same words “of course, he finished beautifully.”

Sometimes, you just have to wait.

November 18, 2013
Michael Liss (MM)

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