God Is in the Precincts | Feature | Chicago Reader

God Is in the Precincts 

As an ordained minister Jim Wall serves the lord. As a political operative he works for Bill Clinton.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

In his heart, Reverend James McKendree Wall still knows that George McGovern was right. So do a lot of his liberal Democratic friends. After McGovern's 1972 landslide defeat, most of them went on to back Democratic presidential contenders in the same mold: Morris Udall (1976), Teddy Kennedy (1980), Jesse Jackson (1984, 1988), Paul Simon (1988), and Tom Harkin (1992).

Wall has taken a different course. Since 1972 he has worked for Jimmy Carter (1976 and 1980), Gary Hart (1984), Al Gore (1988), and Bill Clinton (1992). He was an early supporter of Carter and chaired his Illinois campaign twice; this spring, just before the Illinois primary, he took two weeks off work to volunteer for Clinton as a deputy to the campaign manager. He was among those urging Clinton to pick Gore for vice president, and in July he worked the Democratic National Convention floor as a "cluster whip" for five states. His official title in the Clinton campaign is "special assistant to the national campaign manager."

None of Wall's presidential favorites since 1972 could pass his liberal litmus test. Wall detests the death penalty; Clinton makes a point of supporting it. Wall vigorously opposed the Persian Gulf war and published a book (Winning the War, Losing Our Souls) arguing its moral bankruptcy; Gore voted for it.

What Wall learned 20 years ago is that politics is about power, not perfection. A president with whom you agree 70 percent of the time is better than a candidate with whom you agree 100 percent--and who loses to somebody with whom you agree only 10 percent of the time.

He also learned that those who insist on perfection are often themselves less than perfect. "The McGovern campaign was a real eye-opener to me. It helped me see that liberal ideologues can be just as arrogant, stubborn, and self-righteous as those on the right."

In 1972 Wall was elected as a McGovern delegate to the Democratic National Convention from Du Page County, where he lives. Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley's handpicked "uncommitted" slate won in Cook County, but an insurgent group led by then-independent William Singer got them tossed out for violating party rules. To see the Boss so humiliated was pure pleasure to liberals and independents. But Wall knew it could hurt McGovern in the fall, and he helped arrange a compromise of sorts: the state delegation was chaired by a regular Democrat from downstate, Clyde Choate; Wall and Anna Langford were vice chairs.

The newcomers' hunger for revenge on the Machine--or just for self-assertion--remained unsatisfied. Wall remembers a barefoot young woman in a granny dress from downstate who defiantly usurped the seat belonging to state party chairman John Touhy. (Touhy's chairmanship guaranteed him a delegate spot despite the absence of his Machine compatriots.) Wall recalls Touhy as a dignified elderly man, upset but not inclined to make a scene or call a sergeant-at-arms. Finally, in desperation, Wall bent down and asked the woman if she realized how she was jeopardizing George McGovern's chances of becoming president. "I've been elected a delegate," she replied, "and I can sit wherever I want."

From the same convention Wall remembers all the people who squandered time nominating favorite sons and daughters for vice president ad infinitum ("There were nominating speeches for Walter Cronkite. These were not delegates who would listen to discipline"), with the result that McGovern wound up having to deliver his acceptance speech in nonprime time--3 AM. "That is why I have always stressed ever since, you have to get delegates who are loyal to your candidate, not people who will indulge in foolishness." Wall doesn't disdain radicals and outsiders--"you need prophets and people who demand things"--he just doesn't welcome them on the convention floor.

Sometimes the discipline was there. George Wallace's conservative forces at the 1972 convention introduced a strong abortion-on-demand resolution, a trick "clearly designed to hurt McGovern," says Wall. "He was already being pilloried as the candidate of 'acid, amnesty, and abortion.'" McGovern strategist Gary Hart passed the word to vote down the resolution; it was Wall's job to make sure his people did so. He talked to a feminist state legislator who said, "I don't see what's the matter. I agree with this." Wall replied, "I know how difficult it is for you, but you have to trust me. You're voting for McGovern's best interests, not on the resolution." She did vote against it, eliciting Wall's admiration: "She knew that politics is the art of compromise."

Some people would return home from such a convention in disgust. Why should politics require her to vote against choice, so that her candidate could seem to be less in favor of it, so that he could win the election and perhaps prove himself to be as prochoice as she hoped he was? But to Wall ambiguity and contradiction are the stuff of politics, and of life; pretending things are clear-cut won't make them that way. He returned home in 1972 convinced that "my views represent such a minority it's an exercise in futility to pursue the most liberal candidate."

In 1976 he concluded that his litmus favorite, U.S. Representative Morris Udall, couldn't win. But Wall thought his fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter could. "I ran Carter's campaign not for his agenda, which was much more conservative than mine, but because he was someone I resonated to as a human being and I thought he had a better chance of getting nominated and elected." (Wall's pragmatism does have limits: "I could never have supported [Washington senator Henry 'Scoop'] Jackson, who I felt was a militarist.")

Carter visited Wall's house several times, staying overnight there once after his election. Wall is emphatically among those who believe that history will judge Carter more kindly than the media and the voters did in 1980, but he doesn't dwell on it. "I got too friendly with Carter," he says now. "I knew him very well and got personally, emotionally involved in his candidacy. His loss was hard to take and I have little objectivity on the subject."

Having renounced the customary leftist rituals of purification, Wall has devoted his political time to honing his skills in the game of politics. He managed Paul Simon's 1984 primary campaign for U.S. Senate and hired Forrest Claypool, now Illinois' deputy treasurer, to work in it. In that hotly contested four-way race, Claypool says, "Jim handled the money brilliantly, so that the resources were there at the end. He understands campaign structure and organization, how to set the tone and then delegate, and the need to husband resources early so that you can put your foot to the accelerator later. He's a good negotiator, too: he got me to take a 50 percent pay cut from my previous job."

This year Claypool served as Clinton's authorized representative in Illinois during the primary season. "From the very beginning," he says, "Jim was intimately involved in networking around the state with activists he knew, bringing in information we needed for delegate selection. Plus he's a master of the party rules. I've seen him embarrass more than one election lawyer by having a greater command of the law than they did."

"He's a good-humored, good-natured person, with a kind of wry sense of humor about himself," adds Democratic political consultant David Axelrod. (Shortly after the Bulls' NBA win, Wall described himself as "sort of a Bobby Hansen" in politics.) "That makes him easy to work with in a business like this, where there's a lot of pressure. And for people like me, committed Democrats who are not always in sync with the regular party, he's been kind of a mentor.

"Some people may see him as stodgy and ministerial; I don't. Jim among politicians reminds me of Spencer Tracy in Boys Town--just because he's a man of the cloth doesn't mean he can't sit at the bar and talk frankly." Conservative consultant Tom Roeser puts it this way: "Jim Wall is the only man I know of who can both talk about Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society and be interested in precinct campaigning."

Wall loves politics--as a competition, as a set of skills bringing him into contact with all kinds of people, as a way to move the country in the right direction, and not least as an exercise in dealing with the essential ambiguity of the human condition. But despite his experience and expertise in politics, Wall remains an amateur, not a professional. He has another life to go back to after the conventions. He's a film critic, an ordained United Methodist minister, and the editor of the mainline Protestant journal Christian Century.

Is this a case of Reverend Jekyll and campaign-manager Hyde? Most of us tend to think so. In Wall's first and last personal bid for public office, also in 1972, he ran against the well-entrenched congressman John Erlenborn in a conservative suburban district much like the one now represented by the equally well entrenched Henry Hyde. And right away Wall was hit with the question of, to put it bluntly, his fitness for public office: "As a religious person, how could you compromise?" At the time Wall was surprised. He thought, "What a question! We're all involved in compromise."

The question no longer surprises him. Today, 20 years later, Wall sees it as a symptom of the dangerous secularity of the "governing elites" of American culture, especially in the media and the academy. People in public life who have real religious convictions are supposed to keep them as quiet as the Victorians did their sex lives. Those who nevertheless gauchely insist on professing religion in public are automatically divided between the fanatics (Jerry Falwell, Joe Scheidler) and the saints (Mother Teresa). In either case, they seem to be people we can detest or admire--and ignore.

Wall's politicking, film viewing, and writing are united by his desire to bring religious values to bear on the rest of life. That doesn't make him either an ayatollah or an exceptionally virtuous person. But like Garrison Keillor, Bill Moyers, Dan Wakefield, and a few other noticeably spiritual mavericks, Wall must always be on guard against opinion makers' pigeonholing him as one or the other. (Citing public opinion polls, Wall contends that most Americans are more religious and more tolerant of religion than are the "governing elites.")

In politics, the media have a way of forgetting or downplaying the fact that prominent figures such as Jesse Jackson or Martin Luther King Jr. are or were ordained ministers. And when someone's religious motivations can't be ignored, the instinct is to find out whether that someone is naive or hypocritical.

This instinct persists even in the comparatively sophisticated venue of public television. On the New York-based show Open Mind in November 1990, interviewer Richard Heffner virtually cross-examined Wall on the ethics of a minor episode in Jimmy Carter's 1976 Illinois primary campaign. Wall had briefed Carter on each area of the state, saying that he thought Carter would win about 40 delegates, but that Carter should downplay expectations and predict ten.

Heffner pounced repeatedly and with some glee--"What can we expect from those who profess a higher morality?"--trying to get Wall to admit that he was violating his moral code by telling Carter to lie. Wall replied that a lowball prediction, before the fact, isn't a lie--"in Georgia we call it poor-mouthing"--and that in fact candidates are routinely expected to understate their expectations. (Ironically, before the 1988 Illinois primary, Wall inadvertently did tell a reporter how many delegates he expected Gore to win--and got a deserved chewing out from the candidate.)

"Heffner was demanding purity," Wall says now. "Jimmy Carter got that same kind of treatment from the secularists--he must be a pious fraud because he has a temper and he makes mistakes. That shows how little they understand religion. Religion never claims to make saints, only to let sinners know they can be forgiven."

In the lower reaches of journalism, ignorance often takes the place of obtuseness. At the time of this year's Illinois primary, Wall attended a Clinton rally in a black church in Chicago, during which Clinton proclaimed, "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint." A reporter later called Wall to ask what the candidate had been quoting.

Wall's views put him on the politically incorrect side of the U.S. culture wars. When Dan Quayle denounced a media elite for scorning "basic moral values," leftist media critics Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon blasted him as a hypocrite and the media as overwhelmingly conservative. Wall says simply, "These demagogues get a piece of the truth. Murphy Brown was a bad choice [for Quayle to criticize], since she was portrayed as a responsible woman, and she chose not to have an abortion. Married With Children would have been a better target--it's very cynical about marriage--but it didn't have a dramatic event for him to point to."

It is somehow typical that Jim Wall's formative political memories are of candidates he couldn't possibly agree with. As an 11-year-old listening to the radio, he thrilled to the 2 AM drama of the 1940 Republican convention: "We want Willkie! We want Willkie!" From a mid-1930s Georgia gubernatorial primary he vividly recalls the old-line segregationist Democrat Governor Eugene Talmadge haranguing on the local courthouse steps, coat slung over his shoulder, squinting against the sun, rousing his followers with one more rendition of you-may-be-poor-but-at-least-you're-white.

Wall himself became a protege of Talmadge's archenemy, Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill. He's not nostalgic for Talmadge-style politics, which depended on what he calls the "exploitation" of poor whites, on the outright subjection of blacks, and on keeping both groups uninformed. But Wall loves the game of politics as much as the ideals McGill and others stood for. His appreciation of Talmadge is not grudging; it's more akin to, say, Clyde Drexler's appreciation of Michael Jordan.

The analogy isn't perfect but it is apt, because Wall began his adult career as a sportswriter. He started writing about sports in the Georgia Tech newspaper as a first-year student in 1945. Soon the Constitution took him on as a stringer despite the limitations of his small-town background ("The first track-and-field event I ever saw I covered for the Constitution"). When he transferred to Emory University to major in journalism, he also went to work full-time covering sports for the Atlanta Journal. He might well have stayed on and--who knows?--been the Atlanta Braves' play-by-play man today if the Korean war hadn't pulled him away to the Air Force for two years. After the war he decided to go back to Emory, this time to its Candler School of Theology for a divinity degree. There he met and married Mary Eleanor Kidder (they were both on the school's student council), and pastored two small Methodist churches in Georgia before heading north to enroll in graduate school at the University of Chicago.

The move north was part pull and part push. "The south in the 1950s was not a very friendly place for liberal-minded people," Wall recalls. "I could have lived with it, but in the north I found a greater freedom to express myself." Chicago wasn't completely strange, since his wife had some midwestern roots, and Wall was happy to continue making up for what he felt had been a less-than-adequate high school education. He started out planning a doctorate, but soon found, as many do at the University of Chicago, that he was "too eclectic" to specialize narrowly, and settled for a master's degree in "religion and personality."

In 1959 the couple moved to Elmhurst, then even more Republican than now, without thinking much about politics. Mary Eleanor Wall has served one term as a Democrat on the Du Page County Board (in the mid-1970s) and now chairs the county planning commission. She confirms that, although her husband enjoys serving on the local library board, his political interests mostly run beyond Du Page. That is fortunate. There's not much fun in being a Du Page Democrat--but it has enabled Jim Wall to participate in Democratic presidential politics without having to confront the Cook County Democratic organization head-on.

As if 1972 wasn't a big enough year for Wall, it was also the year that the Christian Century hired him as editor. He had spent more than a decade in religious journalism, mostly working for the Methodist Publishing House, which helped him get the job. But he was also running for Congress and working for McGovern, which didn't help. The Century, as it's called, had a long tradition of social activism. But an earlier editor had gravely endangered the journal's nonprofit status by endorsing Lyndon Johnson for president outright in 1964, and the magazine's board was still patching things up with the Internal Revenue Service. Thus, from the beginning Wall has taken considerable care to do his politicking on his own time--and at his own expense.

The Century is an unpretentious newsprint near-weekly (37 issues a year) published from 407 S. Dearborn, heavy with type, with a paid subscription list hovering around 35,000. Founded in 1884 as Christian Oracle and refounded in 1908 under the present name by the activist Disciples of Christ pastor Charles Clayton Morrison, it soon evolved into an independent journal of mainline Protestant opinion--Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, and the like.

In its early days the Century featured articles from Jane Addams as well as reform-minded clergy. Beginning in the late 1930s and continuing every decade since, it has sponsored a forum for religious thinkers entitled "How My Mind Has Changed." (There's nothing radical about that now, but in the beginning it was a bit daring for theologians to admit the possibility.) Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was an editor-at-large; the Century was the first nationally circulated magazine to publish the full text of his renowned 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

Wall first encountered the magazine in his seminary library in 1953. "Having spent the previous six years in various forms of journalism, my first impression was that the Christian Century could use a design artist. But my second impression was the one that stuck: here was world Christianity presented with a sophistication that challenged the parochialism of my southern Methodism."

That's still not a bad description now that he's spent 20 years behind the editor's desk. The difference is that the mainline Protestant denominations the Century primarily serves have been losing members and cultural prestige for most of that time. In the 1930s, secular journalists often waited eagerly to see what the Century had to say. But since then Catholic and Jewish leaders have joined the religious mainstream, fundamentalist Protestants have tried to relocate it, and secularism (in Wall's view) has run rampant. As a result this particular paper pulpit is no longer what it used to be. Observers give Wall credit for running the magazine in the black and for not losing circulation, but no one claims the magazine is trendy.

Among its near-competitors is the significantly more conservative Christianity Today, published in Carol Stream. One can hardly imagine the Century on slick paper, or with a cover article (as CT ran recently) seriously pondering "Is birth control Christian?" Nor does the Century have much to offer the evangelical-Christian subculture, a lucrative market for niche advertisers.

"My readership"--about two-thirds clergy--"finds its life in the world," says Wall. "My real competitors are the New York Times, the New Republic, and Newsweek." Recent issues mix news of religion with religious views of the news: John Frohnmayer (another University of Chicago grad) defending the National Endowment for the Arts; Victoria Rebeck reporting skeptically on a fundamentalist-run Southern Baptist conclave; an interview with Al Gore on the environment; a low-key exchange on how best to think of, and help, families; reflections and reporting on the Middle East; a report on prolife Democrats; a regular devotional page ("Living by the Word"); book reviews; poetry; University of Chicago religious historian Martin Marty's long-running last-page column; and Wall's own chatty, deceptively casual leadoff editorials. "He's a concrete rather than an abstract thinker," says Marty. "If Jim Wall wants to convince you of something, he'll do it by telling you a story."

But no matter how far afield the magazine may range, these days secularism is what bothers Wall more than anything else. People need something to live by, he says. It doesn't have to be religion, but what has in fact replaced religious values in public discussion is just the crassest kind of utilitarianism--whatever works, whatever feels good, whatever gets you through the night.

Wall had no use for a recent Anna Quindlen column, for instance, in which Quindlen promoted safe sex "with the outlandish assertion that she is less concerned with her child's life-style than with her child's life. Now there is a text for the end of the 20th century, a reductio ad absurdum of liberal secularity's elevation of individual freedom to ultimacy . . .

"Anna Quindlen is wrong. Life-style is life. How we live determines who we are. Mere survival is not sufficient to define a full life. Our religious tradition understands that our sexual conduct is at the heart of who we are. Let's be honest about this. Moses got the word on the mountain that if the Israelites were going to live in any kind of harmony with themselves and their God, they had to pay attention to the basics.

"We are fragile creatures, inherently guilty, because in our self-centeredness we can never live fully on behalf of others--which is why we need guidelines surrounding our commitment. Without those guidelines we live for the moment, giving little thought to possible consequences of our actions."

Neoconservatives like Richard John Neuhaus, the astringent and combative editor of First Things, would be equally ready to bash Quindlen. The difference is that Neuhaus (formerly a Lutheran pastor, now a Roman Catholic priest) is far more certain than Wall of exactly what Quindlen's kids should be doing. They should be Christians (and if not they should be proselytized), they should be heterosexual, they should be chaste until marriage and monogamous thereafter. Not only should her daughters never choose to have an abortion, the government should ensure that she doesn't even have that choice.

Neuhaus (who by the way describes Wall as "not only congenial, but someone with whom you can have useful discussion") believes that secularism has permeated not just American society, but the mainline churches of the Christian Century world. One might say they have become Quindlenized. "Under Jim's watch, the Century has generally tried to alert old-line Protestantism to its spiritual and theological evisceration."

Despite this measure of agreement, Wall recoils from Neuhaus's absolutism as quickly as any secularist. "He seems to understand God's view of abortion very clearly. But I think the Protestant Reformation said, 'Always question whether your language is superior. The moment you come to the conclusion you're absolutely right, you protest it.' You must be open to the possibility of change.

"You know the guidelines are there--the Ten Commandments. Idolatry, thievery, and adultery must be dealt with. But in human experience there are ambiguities. There's a difference between two healthy 21-year-old married people going off and sleeping with other people and a 65-year-old man with a totally invalid wife who falls in love with the nurse. You should take a pastoral approach, or the approach of a loving parent. You don't start out by saying, 'That's wrong, and now what else do you want to talk about?' But you also don't accept just anything. There is a benchmark against which you measure.

"You have to say, 'This is my base. God knows what is best, God knows what is right. I have to do my best to discern what God would have us do.' That's not the same as saying [as conservative religionists have a way of doing] that God has decreed capitalism as the answer, or a strict prolife position. The Bible says life is precious, but it doesn't tell you how to apply that in every complicated situation."

Wall's conclusion in the Century this spring was typically undramatic: Our "traditional manner of speaking of ethics and values is considered politically incorrect. We must search for a language with which to address this predicament, without giving undue preference to any segment of our pluralistic culture. It is a problem with no easy solution." As one of the Century's board members says, the magazine "is not something that attracts hordes of followers who are willing to pillage and burn."

Wall's reluctance to use the language of sin and judgment doesn't necessarily mean that he himself has been Quindlenized, any more than his reluctance to support Tom Harkin for president makes him a middle-of-the-road Democrat. He is more interested in getting a hearing and making an incremental difference than in taking a stand for its own sake. Even when he is pretty sure something is a sin, he doesn't come right out and pound the pulpit about it. Take Mayor Daley's casino proposal--please.

In a recent Century editorial, Wall tells of commiserating with the owner of a Loop delicatessen not long after this spring's floodwaters receded. The Loop flood had been terrible for business, they agreed. And Wall heard himself adding, "I'm not going to suggest it, but I have heard it said that it may be more than just a coincidence that the flood came a few days after our mayor decided he wanted to bring gambling casinos into downtown Chicago. Fortunately, this time no one was injured or killed. Maybe this is just a first warning."

The deli man was impressed ("Reverend, if you have any influence, let's get this over with"). Wall realized afterward that he had distanced himself from his assertion not once but several times. He did so in part because he didn't really mean it. (As he told me later, "I do not believe the creator-sustainer God of the universe punishes cities by flooding them.") Besides, he says, "You can't say anything directly about God. It's like staring at the sun." And of course he knows that few Chicagoans, religious or otherwise, would take seriously the suggestion of divine retribution.

But he did say something, because Mayor Daley's casino plan had been bugging him for weeks. He wanted to find an unpreachy way to say what he finally did in the Century--that "gambling is a sin for the theologically sound reason that anything that exploits human weakness denigrates God's creation and separates us from our creator."

The editorial is a nice try. Not only does Wall avoid self-righteousness by poking a little fun at himself, but he hedges the whole thing one more time by positioning himself, the editorial writer, outside of the story he's telling. But it shows how difficult Wall's task is. He still has to say it, and in this society, in 1992, there may just not be any way to say that gambling is a sin without sounding like a killjoy.

Reading the Century is sometimes like eating oatmeal for breakfast: undoubtedly nutritious but bland to the outsider, a bit thin for the devout, yet still indigestibly mystical to the unconverted. And it powerfully tempts the cultural stereotyping machine: the editor must be a saint or a fanatic. Can Jim Wall write such things and keep getting invited back on Inside Politics? Who knows?--but he loves to try.

At age 63, Wall could probably get away with slighting post-Gutenberg forms of communication. He doesn't. He plies me, a visiting reporter, with videotapes as well as with books, keeps his resume updated on a computer, is a fairly regular guest on shows like Chicago Tonight, is contributing editor for two local early-Sunday TV religious programs (Chronicles and Sanctuary), and follows the movies avidly ("if it is on celluloid, I will watch it"). Old friends like Marty kid him about the words he won't allow in the Century. "He always says, 'I edit for Aunt Florence down in Atlanta.' Well, she must have been the last Victorian, because the mildest little thing goes out." Aunt Florence doesn't care for "damn," nor would she have put up with an item for one of Marty's occasional columns of church-bulletin bloopers, the one in which "public" had been misprinted "pubic." "And yet," chuckles Marty, "two or three nights a week he'll be out reviewing X- or R-rated films."

Like his politics and religion, Wall first found film in the Georgia of his youth. "Movies were important to us, filling in fantasies and reinforcing prejudices," he wrote in his 1971 book Church and Cinema. "My memory of [Gone With the Wind] is a pleasant one, for what I saw then was the gallant Scarlett, the brave Melanie, the handsome Rhett. To see Gone With the Wind today is to watch youthful racism being molded. . . . How did the 13-year-old black youngsters in the [segregated] balcony feel about these images? The question never occurred to me in 1942."

On public issues, Wall tries to maintain credibility even though he speaks from a religious point of view. In much of his film reviewing, he faces the opposite challenge: getting religious people to see movies as more than superficial morality plays--pointing out, as he did in 1971, that there was more authentic religious content in Midnight Cowboy than in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Film is also a way for Wall to short-circuit his problems with religious language. It's hard to do ambiguity in print; film is an art form that can deal with the complexities of human life without pretending that they are anything but complex. In Three European Directors (1973), Wall praises Francois Truffaut's The Wild Child, in part by contrasting it with Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker. Penn's film about Helen Keller simply assumes that it is good for the deaf-mute girl to learn to communicate. Truffaut is less certain that civilization is good for his main character. And this makes his film a work of art rather than a massage of preexisting prejudices. "It is a measure of Truffaut's skill as a film artist that in The Wild Child he can actually create a world, a context, in which there is some room to doubt that the boy's best interests are served by his leaving the forest."

Among recent films, Wall did not care for Black Robe--a beautifully photographed story of a 1630s Jesuit missionary in Canada, which got a rave in the New Yorker--because it was "extremely pedantic." Who needs a movie that tells you straight out how to think? On the other hand, he can't say enough good things about Joel and Ethan Coen's Barton Fink, a prizewinning postmodern piece that puzzled and irritated many viewers.

"Barton Fink is to postmodernity what Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life is to modernity," Wall writes. "Capra films, among the most popular of the post-[World War II] era, entertain by being predictable, setting up problems, and resolving all loose ends by fadeout. . . . God is a picture on the wall in Capra's modernity, a pleasant reminder of what may or may not used to have been, it doesn't really matter. Modernity doesn't need God, all that matters is the presence of helpful people who punish the wicked and reward the virtuous. . . . Jimmy Stewart's triumphant return to his loving family has become modernity's visual icon, a tribute to the only god that really matters, cozy warm happiness, and financial success.

"In contrast to this reassuring humanistic godless universe, Barton Fink delivers its disturbing word that not only is God not out there, or in here, but that without him we are left without the ability to resolve anything that really matters." The second half of the film is chock-full of unclear and unexplained occurrences. Its hero winds up on the beach with a mysterious box, "the contents of which," Wall writes, "may or may not be so unpleasant that he can't bear to open it."

"That's the problem with life," says Wall delightedly. "You will never know what's in the box. The Coen brothers don't believe there is an ultimate, and it troubles them. There are a lot of days when I don't believe there's an ultimate, either, but I have the memory of believing in it to sustain me."

"Bill Clinton will win," Wall told me without hesitation back in mid-June, when polls showed the Arkansas governor running a poor third, with 25 percent of the vote. "Ross Perot will be gone from the scene by summer's end. He's purely a media creation, a fantasy, 'none of the above.' I think in the end Perot might get 15 to 18 percent, drawing equally from both parties but crippling Bush in California and Texas. Clinton will make a comeback, as he did in New Hampshire, overcoming the bad image most unfairly draped around his neck. People will see that he is a far better campaigner than George Bush. And if he picks a strong young vice president, someone like Al Gore . . . "

When I first went to see Wall, I thought I'd be seeing someone well schooled in the art of endurance: a Democrat whose party has been out of power for 20 of the last 25 years; a soft-spoken liberal in an increasingly shrill and conservative time; a Methodist whose denomination has lost more than one and a half million members in 20 years, and whose magazine has just held its own in that time. How has he survived all these years in the wilderness?

"I guess you don't expect to get what you want from the political structure. Winning isn't the issue--it's shaping culture in certain directions. I see the film world making enormous progress. I'd rather not have had the gulf war, but I'm glad it was short and that Bush is being criticized for it.

"We're about to elect a president who believes in the death penalty, but who also believes in spending money on universal health care and in being tougher on the environment. Maybe things haven't been so bad in the last 20 years."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

More by Harold Henderson

  • The Recyclable House

    The Recyclable House

    If Ken Ortiz has his way, no one in Chicago will ever simply "demolish" a building again.
    • Jul 24, 2008
  • Sympathy for the Devil?

    Sympathy for the Devil?

    Progressive scribe Rick Perlstein made his reputation finding the good in conservatives. Then they really started screwing up the country.
    • Jan 24, 2008
  • Dynamic Flash for Democrats

    Dynamic Flash for Democrats

    Wanna raise funds to run for office? Nag Schwarzenegger about health care? Or just make fun of Bush? Call Articulated Man.
    • Jan 10, 2008
  • More »

Agenda Teaser

Music
November 14
Performing Arts
Frankenstein Theater Wit
October 24

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories