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The Ross Retort


October 2, 2003

San Diego Politics A La Kazan


Legendary film director Elia Kazan died this week at age 95􏰀. He was one of those vexing sorts, 􏰁a reminder that big lives do not fit within tightly drawn comfort zones􏰀.


The characters in his films and books struggled with internal demons, sorting out rights and wrongs in a distinctly drawling American vernacular that seems quaint in today􏰂s simplified message driven political climate􏰀.


Who could forget Marlon Brando􏰂s agonizing redemptive crawl across the docks at the end of On the Waterfront? It should be required viewing for ambitious young politicos within and surrounding government􏰀.


Kazan was also a weasel, turning in friends to the House Un-American Activities Committee on demand in 1952􏰀 Playwright Arthur Miller, a long time friend, said in a 2000 article published in The Guardian 􏰃􏰄it swept over me that, had I been one of his comrades, he would have spent my name as part of the guarantee of his reform􏰀􏰅.


On The Waterfront has been widely described as Kazan􏰂s big fat rationalization for driving eight people into economic and professional ruin because they spent time as Socialists or Communists in the 1930􏰂s􏰀. The film􏰂's antihero,coerced into playing ball with vermin so he could work, finally rats on corrupt union officials who in turn beat him to a pulp􏰀.


It was also undeniably great art􏰀 Forget the deconstructionist biographical interpretations􏰀. When the loser stevedore drags his battered Brando-in-his-hunk- period body to the feet of the union boss in defiance, a lone stand against corruption from the bottom up triumphed in a disquieting movie moment􏰀.


Kazan maintained that he had good reason, besides making sure he could continue creating American film classics, to blab at Joseph McCarthy􏰂s inquisition􏰁he hated Josef Stalin as would any rational person􏰀.


He also thought political organizations should conduct business under the light of day instead of in the corners of dark alleys􏰀 American Communist cells even in the 1930􏰂s, though attractive to idealistic intellectuals, were not exactly fertile grounds for diverse open-air discussion􏰀.


Whether all this was an after created defense or an expression of core beliefs we will never know􏰀 Higher principles beyond pragmatic politics were not part of the thinking that led to his appearance at HUAC􏰀.


While surviving McCarthyism professionally, he was personally shunned.􏰀 Forty-five years after he named names, a painfully subdued and conflicted audience of actors shaped by Kazan and his Actors Studio sullenly witnessed the presentation of a special Academy Award to him􏰀.


Complicity in a witch hunt made Kazan a warlock into eternity􏰀 He was clear that if he had to choose between his ability to work and protecting people whose beliefs he did not agree with, the work won the day􏰀.


In today􏰂s 􏰃what about me world,􏰅 Kazan􏰂s explanations ring truer than in times when moral decisions were made with a view to higher principle􏰀.


Most who stood up to McCarthy did so with the belief that freedom of expression and association without government coercion were among America􏰂s highest virtues􏰀 Some went to jail􏰀 Some could not find work under their own names for years􏰀 Some died in obscurity􏰀.


Watching a new generation of political operatives treading moral water in a sea of confused values has not produced many golden moments􏰀.


In one tarnished incident, last week a young City CouncilstafferassignedastheliasantotheTorrey Hills Planning Board for the past several years, took a new job with a lobbyist representing the community􏰂s master developer and commercial property owners who have been trying to build a controversial office and biotechnology complex in Torrey Hills􏰀.


There is nothing illegal in his behavior, nor does the move break the city􏰂s 􏰃revolving door􏰅 ethics rules because the PR firm says he will not conduct business with the city for at least the year required by law􏰀.


But, it was Kazan styled self-interest in its modern form􏰀 The incident wove an even darker web of distrust around an already strained relationship between the Council office and the Torrey Hills community􏰀.


This was posted on a community website by one angry planning board member who described the staffer􏰂s last year as a lengthy job interview: 􏰃􏰀􏰀􏰀the real concern is that in order to secure this 􏰃plum􏰅 job he 􏰃sold-out􏰅 Scott Peters􏰂 constituents in the process􏰀􏰅.


Kazan once wrote about his McCarthy expedition: 􏰃What I􏰂d done was correct, but was it right?􏰅 

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