The Tragedy Writes Itself

Review: Show Me a Hero (SPOILER ALERT)

David Simon is among the last people I would turn to in search of a portrait of a hero, but the man behind The Wire undertakes that very task in his latest project, a mini-series that aspires to give us one. And yet, with some help from an incessant Springsteen soundtrack and some of The Wire’s old bit players, Simon transports us back to Yonkers, New York, in the 1980s, and makes us believe, if only for a little while. Show Me a Hero is Simon at his peak, all of his Wire themes boiled down into six quick hours as a city grapples with its own soul. In a novel burst that shows a different side of Simon, the city finds that soul.

The apparent hero is Nick Wasicsko, the kid mayor who becomes the unlikely force to push through a court-ordered public housing plan. The wealthy denizens of Yonkers’ east side want no part of these units, and the opportunistic Wasicsko plays to that fear to steal an election from a longtime incumbent. But Judge Leonard Sand orders the city’s desegregation full-stop, and Wasicsko quickly comes to see he is powerless to stop the construction. He becomes the reluctant champion of public housing. In just a few hours he endures riot-like council hearings and cantankerous councilors who’d rather go to jail for contempt than face reality, to say nothing of KKK graffiti and a pipe bomb. It takes courage to persevere here, or at the very least an unassailable sense of pride. Wasicsko may or may not have the former, but he certainly has the latter, and as such, heroism is his to claim.

It’s been said that it’s impossible to write a book or a television script that is both broad and deep; one must err on one side. Simon’s work always falls on the broad side. He gives us a rich tapestry of life in the Yonkers projects, and even if viewers only get to know bits of characters and can’t remember their names, they endure. This is politics at its most profound, the human relationships rising above any policy platform or high ideal. On occasion there are back room deals in gruff New York accents, but most of the time the drama plays out through frantic conversations in community centers or living rooms, and no one knows how they’re going to turn out. These people must find their way in the dark, act as if they have history on their side when no one really knows how it will all turn out. They show us the full range of human emotion as the world around them compels them to show us their best and worst sides.

Nick Wasicsko, in the end, is a fairly static figure, and only in the final two episodes do we come to see how sadly shallow he is. The goofy kid who jumped into politics at the beginning of the series has not matured one bit, and instead thinks his heroism has entitled him to glowing love. His steady decline is both glaring and painful, and while he may be a bit one-dimensional, the deep dive into that one dimension is all too real. Nick has fallen for the political game. Even in the narrow world of Yonkers intrigue, which reverts to the public works department totem pole once the housing war blows over, he is too far into the cave.

Those of us with the political bug likely know the power of this allure, and how easily pride can destroy someone with no other anchor for self-worth. When validation comes from votes or political favors, happiness is even more illusory than usual, and life becomes nothing but a series of battles, all life-affirming victories or soul-crushing defeats. Any cycle between the two is dead, and a when the breaking point comes, doom is not far off. For Wasiscko, this most likely comes on the day when he visits the projects he nursed to life and learns that no one cares who he is. Fitzgerald may have come up with the quote that gives the series its title—show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy—but the Greeks were on to this a few millennia ago. Simon, presumably, knows this, and the tale follows the classic arc with exacting precision.

I’ve maintained for some time that there are no heroes; no one can stay on the pedestal for long. No, there are only heroic acts, and we can all aspire to them from time to time, when circumstances align—just as surely as we can sink into the darkness that consumed Nick. But even more heroic than Nick Wasiscko, perhaps, are people like Doreen Henderson and Mary Dorman, women with no claim on the political life before the housing situation thrusts it upon them. Both women find their voice over the course of the series, and in radically different ways: Doreen escapes the crack epidemic and organizes the new housing tenants into a cohesive community, while Mary, first spurred to rally against the housing plan in public debate, becomes its most committed advocate once she sees the human face of her new neighbors. There is no pretense here, no gamesmanship; only people coming examine their conscience and see the world with eyes wide open. Reality doesn’t always work this way, but it’s refreshing to see Simon show this side of the story in addition to the well-worked tragedy.

An aspiring planner can’t help but acknowledge the other star of the show: Oscar Newman, the architect, planner, and father of defensible space theory. His formula is shockingly simple: spread out public housing to reduce the effects of concentrated poverty, and eliminate common spaces that no one can care for. By giving residents ownership of their new townhomes and eliminating the public hallways or stairwells, the Yonkers projects give them the necessary stake in the protection of their territory. The feared blights never arrive, and the series leaves us with children playing in their new lawns, their wonder is the perfect foil to the staring, fearful white neighbors. Simon appears to have more faith in public housing scholarship than anyone I’ve ever met in the academy, and seems to believe a few smart planners can make things right. This is a more mature Simon than the one who went to (literally) absurd lengths to find any decency in the world in The Wire, and in a certain 2012 commencement address. Maybe the man is a softie after all.


JFK, 50 Years Later

Fifty years. I haven’t been alive for half that time, yet I can’t escape the shadow of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. A macabre spectacle that still rivets, judging by the number of books and TV specials that have come pouring out in the run-up to today’s anniversary. His celebrity and his promise still captivate millions, to say nothing of the mysteries surrounding his death and the conspiracy theories that cannot themselves die, no matter how many government commissions try to shoot them down. There is just enough question, just enough suspicion, that even hardened skeptics can be forgiven a moment of doubt. (A teacher at my high school enjoyed telling us of how he’d once taught a year-long course on the Kennedy assassination. I have no doubt he had enough material to fill that year.)

It is never hard to eulogize a charismatic man. His family’s legacy has made him a hero of the American left, one who asked us to commit ourselves to the betterment of our country. He was a war hero, promised us a man on the moon, a more democratic world, and managed to cut taxes and reach out to marginalized groups at the same time. A few on the right have even tried to appropriate him due to his stance on communism. (Indeed, a Marxist Mexican professor of mine once dismissed Kennedy as “very, very conservative” because of the Bay of Pigs…) JFK still resonates because he was everything we like to imagine this country is: youthful, vigorous, full of hope and optimism while firm in the face of crises. Not that he was without his failings, but they were of the forgivable sort, born of well-intentioned ambition and a love of life.

Kennedy’s legacy is linked to the dream—and, in all likelihood, a delusion—that a longer life might have altered the course of the next two decades. Maybe he could have kept the U.S. out of Vietnam, perhaps been able to guide the nation through the Civil Rights Movement and the other changes of the 1960s without the violence and unrest that burdens their legacies. It is all too easy to use his death as the turning point that separates the booming post-war era from the tumult of the late 60s and the 70s. As 9/11 is for me, so 11/22 is for my parents: the day when all our illusions of a well-ordered world dropped dead. A fall from grace exacerbated by his youth, his glamour, and his family’s march toward royal status. Once again, as this superb New Yorker piece shows, we have a Greek tragedy on our hands.

In realms filled with love and wishful thinking, the cynics will emerge as well. Some paint JFK as the George W. Bush of his day, desperately trying to re-make the world in America’s image. They note his botched invasion of Cuba, the brinksmanship of the missile crisis, his elaborate aid programs in Latin America that were followed by a bunch of coups, and a refusal to look “soft” on Vietnam: American foreign policy at its worst, the hell-bound road of enlightened intentions. They point out his failing health and his sexual exploits as counterpoints to the slick image we tend to remember. (In Georgetown, one can go on a walking tour to visit all of the houses of his mistresses.) They label him a mediocre president, now exalted only because he was made a martyr by a mad commie with a gun. (Yes, yes, and maybe the Mob and the CIA and LBJ…)

From a distance, both stances appear wanting: Kennedy’s grade as commander-in-chief remains incomplete, cut short before anyone could have truly known. (Pick just about any prominent president and try to imagine what their legacy would have looked like if cut off after just two and a half years.) We’re bothered by that doubt, that uncertainty, that what-could-have-been. We like crisp endings to stories, the heroes and villains made clear. JFK did not leave us with a definitive answer, and we’re left fighting over the scraps.

The JFK remembrances come in the same week of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of the few moments more important in American mythology. A speech by another president whose life was cut too short, though his legacy is a bit more secure. Most every president invokes American ideals; some live up to them, while with others, it’s empty talk. They emphasize a project, a plan for a nation that rises above all others because of what it allows its people to be. Whatever JFK would have become, he never got there, and it galls us to no end.

The sober part of my mind tells me that Kennedy’s allure is all wishful thinking; that our fascination with his unfulfilled promise and his troubling death lingers over something that should have been buried long ago. But burying the past comes with the danger of forgetting its lessons; lessons that we should be able to assess without too much pain, fifty years after the fact. And while the debates over the political lessons may never end, there is something else that should not be lost: the emotion. The rawness of the moment, the shock of death, the eternal struggle to make sense of what has transpired. That we cannot forget. As Roger Angell wrote in the aftermath of 9/11:

Now we’re all the same age together. None of us is young this week, and, with death and calamity just down the street, few of us vicarious any longer.

While that moment will fade in time, in turn overrun by the next great tragedy or shock, it lingers as one of those moments that made us react viscerally—and, hopefully, search our souls before thinking of the best way forward. This is what it means to belong to a nation, however much or little we may like what it stands for. We hope these moments are rare, but when they do come, it’s worth asking not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. A nation is its history, but that history lives on, and can be bent in any number of ways. Our choice, then, comes in how we respond to tragedies that take people from us before their time. Whether it’s the loss of a president or someone a bit closer to home, that time will come, and those choices can be the ones that define lives.