Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy Gage Skidmore.
Announcing that he wouldn’t run for president on Monday, Donald Trump said in a statement that “business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector.” It’s not surprising that he didn’t choose to run a campaign that he almost certainly would have lost. But Trump’s decision was probably based as much on an ultimatum from NBC, the network that runs The Apprentice, Trump’s one undisputed business triumph, as it was by any particular love of business.
Mike Huckabee’s contract with Fox News pays him $500,000 a year, a sum that’s been quoted often in discussions of his decision not to run for president. But that contract pales in comparison to Trump’s take from his entertainment ventures: in its list of the wealthiest entertainers in 2009 and 2010, Forbes estimated that Trump makes $50 million annually from his entertainment ventures.
Trump might not have to sacrifice all of that income if he ran for president, because some of it comes from speaking fees, books, and products like a menswear line. There are no prohibitions on candidates receiving money for services rendered, so Trump probably could continue doing product endorsements as long as he wasn’t being paid unusually high rates for them, though he might have dropped some clients in order to avoid conflicts of interest or to appear more substantive. And NBC’s president for programming, Bob Greenblatt, told entertainment reporters that if Trump ran for president, the network would replace him but continue the show with a new host, a move they’d likely have been required to make to comply with equal time rules. That very public announcement left Trump with the unpleasant prospect of a campaign that could strip him of the most legitimate business enterprise in his portfolio.
Trump’s brief, incendiary campaign may have long-term negative implications for his brand, especially given how much he harped on President Obama’s citizenship. But continuing The Apprentice, one of the few things NBC knows works in the current lineup, gives Greenblatt desperately-needed breathing room to roll out an ambitious new programming schedule. Trump’s pseudo-run may have set the bar low for ugliness in the 2012 Republican primary, but in the short term, he’s still good business for NBC.
Professional sports are an imperfect meritocracy and a limited driver of equality: participation and success may serve to secure your masculinity in the public eye, the desire to win may prove stronger than racial and sexual animosity, but those are first and fraught steps towards full acceptance and legal protection. All of that said, I’m glad to see Suns’ president Rick Welts come out—having openly gay and gay-friendly executives is an important signal to active players in all sports that they will be protected by their organizations if they come out before retirement.
And it’s not just that it’s useful for gay players to prove that sexual orientation doesn’t impact play. Richard Greenberg’s play Take Me Out has this wonderful scene about the ways in which sports are a language that for fans, bridge race, class, sometimes gender, and in the world of this drama, sexual orientation. Mason, a gay accountant, goes to his first baseball game and finds:
The crowd was vocal. Because the subject here was baseball, and the stadium was full of scholars—historians—and soon enough, I found myself engaged in learned debate with all these…strangers, these…guys. As for the last several weeks, I’d been conversing with all sorts of people I’ve never been able to speak to before: cab drivers. My five brothers…And when the winning run crossed home plate, the fans who had stayed rose in this single surge and let out a shout like the “Hallelujah” chorus. And it was the first crowd I had ever agreed with.
He doesn’t prove anything to anyone except himself. Given how many times I’ve thought we were on the verge of having a current athlete, maybe even a star, come out while still in whatever game they’re playing, I’m not prepared to say I think it’ll happen soon. But I’m happy for Welts, who started his coming out process before Kobe Bryant’s outburst, and for the regular reaffirmation of gay people’s full participation in every aspect of American life, particularly ones that involve junk food, beer, and wild collective enthusiasm.
When the Sundance Institute’s Film Forward festival, which is screening movies in fourteen locations around the world in an effort to spark cross-cultural understanding, swung by Washington last week, I asked a couple of the filmmakers how they overcome one of the most basic problems in political filmmaking: how do you get a message across without getting preachy or boring? Peter Bratt, who made La Mission, said part of the problem was overcoming the idea that independent movies were inherently boring or more studios than they were entertaining: “We get our films from Wal Mart and Target, so to have access to different kinds of movies and to develop a taste for them is important.” And Cherien Dabis, who wrote and directed Amreeka, said she’d found the politics of her movie in the personal story. “By the time I was 14, I knew I wanted to do something about media representations of Arabas, but I didn’t know how,” she said. “I moved to DC after my undergrad to change the world from here…It turns out there was more truth in fiction.”
That night, I went to a screening of Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders, which airs tonight at 9pm on PBS stations everywhere, which is a reminder of a third way. It’s easy to make documentaries that rely on cable and C-SPAN clips or stunts. But sometimes you can get a more powerful narrative by reporting the hell out of it:
Freedom Riders starts slowly, but it’s very, very good, and Nelson does two things extremely well in it. First, he builds drama out of institutional conflict, drawing out the sense that the Congress of Racial Equality needed a bold move to put it on par with other civil rights organizations, and the extent to which James Farmer and CORE were less prepared than Southern preachers and Fisk University students for the extremity of the violence the riders would face in Alabama. He also is extremely tough on both the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., something Nelson said was the part of the movie that most impressed Chinese audiences on the Film Forward tour. The audience I was watching the movie with about died at a clip of Robert Kennedy declaring, after asking the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce bus desegregation, “There are many areas of the United States where there is no prejudice whatsoever.”
And second, he draws out the extent to which white Southerners used defense of segregation as a rational to behave like violent, raging children. I’m amazed that Nelson got former Alabama governor James Patterson, whose cravenness nearly allowed a white mob to burn down First Baptist Church with 1,500 black residents of his state inside, to do an interview today. Patterson must have no idea how unreflective he seems when he absolves himself of the violence in Birmingham by saying “Bull Connor never supported me for governor. I never liked the man…He was so unpredictable.” He’s still the same man who emptied out the dictionary to insist that the Freedom Riders had baited the white people who were beating and bombing them past endurance, saying the purpose of the Rides was “to incense them and enrage them and provoke them into acts of violence.”
It’s equally incredible to watch Janie Forsyth McKinney talk about what it was like to see the men she knew as a child gang up to firebomb the Greyhound bus that had been attacked in Birmingham, and attacked so it would stop where it did in a trap. “It was like a scene from hell. It was the worst suffering I’d ever heard,” she said, explaining the moment she decided to help the Freeom Riders, even at considerable long-term cost. “I took her a glass of water. I washed her face, I held her, I gave her water to drink. And as soon as I thought she was going to be okay, I picked out somebody else.” She was twelve, but she was the adult in her family and her community at that moment:
As always, please label spoilers for events beyond those portrayed in the aired episodes before in comments. But do feel free to spoil away!
I go to a semi-regular dinner on Sundays where I effectively act as a Game of Thrones interpreter for a group of people who are watching the show mostly cold; they’ve read at most, the first novel in the series. One of the things that happens all the time is that they’ll ask me about the implications of something they’ve seen on-screen, only for me to tell them that if we tug that thread, we’ll unravel thousands of pages of spoilers, storylines that I don’t even know the answers to. The way details germinate and bloom into hideous flowers is one of the most impressive and engrossing things about reading A Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s one of the things that makes the show an impossibility for casual audiences.
One of the things the show has done best as an adaptation is to draw out personalities that will prove to be important later in the narrative. Almost all of the additions to Martin’s narrative have been those kinds of strategic character developments, and they’re almost uniformly excellent—last night’s episode was a particularly good episode for it, in large ways and in small. Ser Barristan Selmy’s remarks about sitting vigil for Ser Hugh, who died at the end of last episode, is just one of the ways the show’s played up his role in a way that will have real payoff in subsequent seasons. Similarly, playing up Robert’s petty cruelties to Lancel Lannister is useful now and in the future: it illustrates both the smallness of the king’s character, and it’s an investment in future narratives. And I do love watching Littlefinger and Varys snipe at each other, particularly when they’re one-upping each other with rumors about the nobility’s sexual habits.
But I think perhaps my favorite addition in this episode is the way it draws out the sexual and romantic relationship between Ser Loras and Renly Baratheon. I’ll admit the first time I saw this episode, that surprised me: I’ve read all the books three or four times, and just missed the relationship Martin implies between them, and was convinced this was an invention out of the whole cloth. I’m not sure how other people will feel about this development, since i know it may read as HBO taking advantage of its license to depict people getting it on (I do wish the actors had kissed. There’s still something more taboo about the idea that gay people are tender towards each other than the idea that they have sex.). But I thought the episode did a great job of using the relationship to illustrate other things, whether it’s the falseness of the rituals of courtly love and the extent to which Sansa falls for them, or the reach of Littlefinger’s knowledge.
I’m not sure, however, how the show’s investment in making Cersei Lannister a more sympathetic character is going to pay off. Whether it’s the addition of a child she bore Robert who died, or her question to Robert, in a moment of contemplation of their marriage “Was it ever possible for us? Was there ever a time? Ever a moment?” the show has invested heavily in the idea that she’s tough but not without some tenderness. I genuinely don’t know how that will govern audiences’ reactions to events that I assume are still to follow, but for now, I’m trusting David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. So far, they’ve proved themselves masterful players in their own game.