As the 10th anniversary of the historic bailout of 2008 looms, many people will undoubtedly say —as President Bush said at the time—that it was necessary to abandon“free market principles to save the free market system.” They will tell us that the government had no alternative. And they will say that the bailout “worked” because the economy didn’t go from a recession to a depression.
The truth is that there were alternatives. As our George Mason University colleague Garett Jones has written, a process known as “speed bankruptcy”—endorsed by economists on the left and the right—would have permitted quick conversion of bank debt into bank equity, recapitalizing the banks while avoiding the use of taxpayer funds.
We can’t be certain of what would have happened had something like speed bankruptcy been tried. But we do know that even with the bailout, the economy fell into the deepest and longest-lasting recession since the Great Depression. That is hardly proof positive that it “worked.”
Moreover, we know from the history of bailouts that the true cost of a bailout is not the taxpayer expense (which is often recouped) but the expectation it sets for future bailouts, an expectation that invites future disaster.
In 1971, the US government gave Lockheed Aircraft Corporation $250 million in emergency loan guarantees. It was the first time the federal government ever came to the rescue of a single firm. Shortly thereafter, the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad and other struggling railroads received hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency grants and loan guarantees. That was followed by $1.5 billion in loan guarantees for the ailing Chrysler Corporation in 1979.
The phrase “too big to fail” entered the American lexicon in the wake of a federal bailout of Continental Illinois Bank in 1984. Next, the federal government bailed out the creditors of hundreds of savings and loan (S&L)associations in the late 1980s and early 1990s at a cost to taxpayers of around $150 billion. In the late 1990s, the Fed orchestrated the private bailout of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. No taxpayer money was involved, but the Fed’s keen interest in the case led many industry observers to believe that the Fed would not let large institutions—or their creditors—fail.
The record-setting federal bailout of 2008-09 showed that these expectations were accurate. First, the New York Federal Reserve made a $30 billion loan to J. P. Morgan Chase so that it could purchase Bear Stearns. Next, in order to save them from bankruptcy, the federal government took over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Then the government paused, allowing Lehman Brothers and its creditors to fall on September 15, 2008. Two days later, bailouts resumed and the Federal Reserve made an $85 billion loan to the insurance firm American International Group. The culmination of this series of bailouts was the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), a $700 billion bailout that gave hundreds of financial firms and auto companies emergency government assistance.
Although proponents of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, passed after the 2008 meltdown, claimed it would help avoid future government bailouts, the perception that major financial interests are “too big to fail” remains an unfortunate reality. The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond’s “Bailout Barometer” periodically estimates the extent to which the financial industry’s liabilities are explicitly and implicitly backed by the federal government. According to the most recent estimate, the share of financial sector liabilities subject to implicit or explicit government protection from losses grew from 45 percent in 1999 to 60 percent in 2016, by which time they amounted to $26 trillion. The authors succinctly note that “This protection may encourage risk-taking, making financial crises and bailouts more likely.”
As the Richmond Fed researchers explain in an accompanying document, the Bailout Barometer includes “other liabilities [that] are believed by many market participants to be implicitly guaranteed by the federal government.” The expectation that a company and its creditors will be bailed out by the government, should they find themselves in dire financial straits, can be an extraordinary privilege.
Take, for example, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Well before they were rescued by the federal government, Fannie and Freddie benefited from the expectation of government assistance. The firms were chartered by Congress and widely assumed to have its financial support. This assumption meant that compared with firms lacking support from the federal government, Fannie and Freddie appeared to be safer investments. As the Congressional Budget Office explains, this expectation, in turn, provided the companies a competitive advantage against private competitors:
“Because of their implicit federal guarantee, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could borrow to fund their portfolio holdings at much lower interest rates than those paid by fully private financial institutions that posed otherwise comparable risks, and investors valued the GSEs’ credit guarantees more highly than those issued by fully private guarantors … The advantages of implicit federal support allowed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to grow rapidly and dominate the secondary market for the types of mortgages they were permitted to buy (known as conforming mortgages). In turn, the perception that the GSEs had become “too big to fail” reinforced the idea that they were federally protected.”
The federal government’s history of bailing out creditorsmade this expectation especially strong.
Now that the summer of 2008 is a decade in the rearview mirror, we should be mindful that bailouts– and expectations thereof–encourage risky behavior, inviting crisis and further bailouts. Notwithstanding Mr. Bush’s assertion, one cannot save free enterprise by abandoning free enterprise. And free enterprise runs on market signals. Just as firms need profit signals to encourage good decision making, they need loss signals to discourage mistakes.
Unfortunately, just as the bailouts of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s begat the massive bailouts of the 2000s, the likelihood of further–and perhaps even larger–bailouts in the future remains disconcertingly high.
The New York Times’ Neil Irwin writes about the financial meltdown of a decade ago, and reactions to the fixes:
It’s hard to overstate how deeply Americans despised their government’s response to the global financial crisis. It has helped shape the last decade of American politics, fueling distrust of powerful institutions and speeding a drift toward ideological extremes.
But for all that anger, the engineers of the American crisis response got the economics mostly correct, and more right than most of those — including leading economic thinkers and prominent politicians — who were second-guessing them.
I was a beat reporter covering the events at the time and the key players — including the former Treasury secretaries Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner, and the former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke — and then wrote a bookon the crisis. Looking back on it a decade later, I’m struck by the way that I, and they, misunderstood what “success” would actually mean.
The engineers of the response succeeded in their immediate goal, to preserve the financial system. But they — or, more precisely, they and their political leaders at the time — also left fissures that threaten to undermine the system they sought to preserve. The very underpinnings of modern capitalism are being questioned from all sides. A Republican administration has gleefully cast aside trade deals, for instance, and the energy among Democrats is around democratic socialism.
To understand the challenges and ultimately the failure of the politics of their response, it helps to put yourself back in 2008 and 2009, when the financial might of the United States government — trillions of dollars, cumulatively — was deployed to try to contain the crisis.
Mr. Geithner, Mr. Paulson and Mr. Bernanke are centrists in the context of modern American politics, but they are conservatives in the traditional sense — people trying to preserve a system they inherited.
Their strategy was to patch things up as quickly as possible. The goal was not to try to reinvent Wall Street on the fly, but to keep the flow of capital coursing through the global economy while minimizing the depth and duration of the recession that the crisis had caused.
Some 230 academic economists signed a letterattacking the bank bailout legislation that Mr. Paulson proposed as unfair and a potential threat to the vibrancy of private markets.
Mr. Geithner’s disinclination to nationalize banks drew fierce criticism from liberals who argued that the government was essentially funneling money to banks with little assurance they would resume lending.
“Whatever its merits, his bailout plan offers generous subsidies to banks and private investors while protecting bank management and creditors,” John B. Judis wrote in 2009 in a New Republic article titled “The Geithner Disaster.”
Mr. Bernanke’s efforts to pump money into the economy by buying up bonds also met opposition. A group of conservative economists wrote a letter in 2010 arguing that the Fed’s plans to engage in quantitative easing “risk currency debasement and inflation, and we do not think they will achieve the Fed’s objective of promoting employment.”
These attacks were misguided.
Mr. Paulson’s financial rescue package did not herald an era of socialism on Wall Street; nor did it come at a huge continuing cost to taxpayers. By many measures, it made money.
Mr. Geithner’s stress tests achieved their goal of restoring confidence in major banks without the cost and political damage of nationalizing them. They were successful enough that similar stress tests are now a part of regulators’ tool kits both in the United States and overseas.
Mr. Bernanke’s aggressive monetary policy probably played a role in getting the expansion on track starting in mid-2009. Quantitative easing and low interest rates did not cause a collapse of the dollar or spiraling inflation.
Nobody would argue that the United States economy is perfect, or that the policymakers got everything exactly right.
If Mr. Paulson had secured financial rescue legislation before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, perhaps the most severe phase of the crisis could have been avoided altogether, though it is a puzzle how he could have gotten the votes for such a plan before the crisis became more severe. If Mr. Bernanke had moved faster — putting an open-ended quantitative easing program in place in 2009 or 2010 instead of waiting till 2012 — maybe full recovery would have come sooner.
It’s not clear how the recovery might have looked had Mr. Geithner embraced a more activist approach to replacing management and taking greater government control of the most troubled large banks, notably Citigroup and Bank of America. Or if he had welcomed a larger program to help relieve borrowers who were underwater on their homes.
The tactics the men chose can be second-guessed, but the result of their efforts speaks for itself. The expansion has lasted nine years, the second longest on record. Although job gains were disappointingly slow for years, the unemployment rate is now 3.9 percent, among the lowest in decades.
From 2007 to 2017, per-person inflation-adjusted G.D.P. rose 6.3 percent in the United States, compared with only 3 percent in the eurozone, where similar policies were embraced more slowly.
In exhaustive research of the history of financial crises, the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff found that it takes eight years on average for a society to return to its level of per-person income. The United States did so in 2013, only six years after the peak of the crisis.
The political price
It was Feb. 19, 2009, less than a month into the Obama administration. Mr. Geithner and his colleagues had introduced plans to assist struggling homeowners, which many liberal critics considered deeply inadequate.
The human cost of the foreclosure crisis was indeed immense; there were 2.8 million foreclosures that year alone. But the politics of helping troubled homeowners were more toxic than the crisis managers had foreseen.
From the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the CNBC broadcaster Rick Santelli began a rant for the ages. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Mr. Santelli said, as traders cheered behind him. “President Obama, are you listening?”
“We’re thinking about having a Chicago tea party in July,” he continued.
The term stuck, and was embraced by the conservative activists who propelled Republicans to victory in the 2010 midterm elections — driven, in no small part, by opposition to economic stimulus, financial bailouts and the work of the Federal Reserve.
The policymakers knew history’s warnings about economic policy that reacts too sluggishly to financial crisis.
Mr. Geithner spent some evenings in the darkest days reading in Liaquat Ahamed’s “Lords of Finance” about how an earlier generation of policymakers bungled the response to the Great Depression. Mr. Bernanke is a scholar of that era in his own right.
But they seemed to assume that if they got the economics right, popular support would follow. As Mr. Bernanke wrote in his memoir about the Santelli rant, “I remained perplexed that helping homeowners was not more politically popular.”
There’s a reason, of course, that they were in their roles as appointed technocrats and not politicians. But it isn’t clear that George W. Bush or Barack Obama had any better ideas for bringing along the public than did the men they chose to lead financial policy. The crisis response may well have been a Rubik’s Cube of political and economic challenges too complicated to solve.
It was foreseeable, perhaps, that many on the left would view the Geithner-Paulson-Bernanke strategy as too friendly to Wall Street interests. It was also foreseeable that the libertarian right would loathe the bailouts. More surprising were the ways in which some of the biggest beneficiaries of the strategy became vocal opponents.
The Geithner strategy was based on rescuing Wall Street, using hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars — while building a more rigorous regulatory system to try to prevent a similar crisis.
But by the time what became the Dodd-Frank Act was on its way to passage in 2010, the financial industry and nearly all Republicans in Congress had committed to all-out opposition of industry regulation. Only three of 178 Republican House members, for example, supported the bill.
Even as Mr. Bernanke’s easy money policies pushed the stock market upward and coincided with a gradually improving economy and low inflation, the drumbeat of commentary was overwhelmingly negative.
You could turn on a financial network at nearly any hour of the trading day and hear complaints about how quantitative easing and zero interest rates were distorting markets. When Mr. Bernanke left office in early 2014, when the stock market was soaring and the unemployment rate was falling fast, only 28 percent of Republicans approved of his performance, according to a Gallup survey.
Success has rarely been so unpopular.
How the crisis broke our politics
In July, Mr. Bernanke, Mr. Geithner and Mr. Paulson were together again. They invited a handful of reporters to interview them in a conference room at the Brookings Institution, where they will be participating in a crisis retrospective in September.
Might the rise of anti-establishment parties around the world — not least Donald J. Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders-esque socialists on the left in the United States — be traced to their work as crisis responders?
“We know from history that financial crises, particularly big ones, do tend to get followed by a populist reaction,” Mr. Bernanke said. “I think we all tried our best to explain what we were doing and work with the politics, as difficult as it was. I think back to the crisis, we were very focused on preventing the collapse of the financial system. And developing our communication to the broad public wasn’t always our first priority.”
He argued, though, that longer-term trends — like stagnation in middle-class wages, social dysfunctions, rising mistrust in government and hostility to immigration — were a bigger explanation for the rise in a politics of extremes.
This analysis seems both correct and incomplete. Of course, the embrace of anti-immigrant nationalism on the right and of socialism on the left have roots considerably deeper than a bank bailout or a quantitative easing program.
But it was the experience of the crisis, and the sense among Americans of all ideological dispositions that they were being asked to foot the bill for someone else’s mistakes — whether by Wall Street C.E.O.s or by Mr. Santelli’s neighbor with the renovated bathroom — that helped make those long-simmering problems boil over.
The response to the crisis was in many ways the high-water mark for a mold of centrist, technocratic policymaking that seeks to tweak and nudge existing institutions toward better outcomes. It also undermined any widespread popular support for that mode of governing for the foreseeable future.
It turns out, when you throw trillions of dollars at rescuing a system that most people don’t like very much in the first place, the result isn’t relief.
Watch this space for another opinion on this subject.
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
The 56 signatures on the Declaration appear in the positions indicated:
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Robert Treat Paine
This showed up in my email earlier this week:
This unscarred (except the appendectomy scar you can’t see and I’m not going to show you) youngster was a couple of weeks removed from UW–Madison, living on his own for the first time and working full-time for the first time.
I certainly don’t lack for self-regard based on my quotes. (I did not write that story.) “I am dually trained for whatever the world might have in store for me.” Of course, I wasn’t trained for the Internet, but neither was anyone else in those days.
Thirty years later, I did own a newspaper, and I have done sports play-by-play, though my chances of announcing the World Series are about zero. (Because I haven’t done much baseball, baseball is probably my worst sport in terms of play-by-play skill.) I have never worked in broadcasting full-time, and I have learned over the years that that’s probably a good thing, given what I’ve learned about broadcasting over the years.
I have a few Great American Novel ideas, and I’ve started some, but as I’ve written before if the plot of a novel goes from A to Z, I get stuck around F. (And I write so much that sitting down to write more doesn’t exactly sound like fun.)
If you write opinions for a living, or at least as part of your job, you frequently give advice, whether that advice is sought or followed. If you cover high school commencements, as I’ve done for decades (and listened to enough renditions of “Pomp and Circumstance” to actively hate it), you’ve listened to more commencement speeches than you can count, from which often come advice from the adult speakers to the imminent graduates. (Even though, as frequent commencement speaker George Will pointed out, the only thing generally remembered about commencement speeches is their excessive length.) I’ve written a couple as well, and delivered one to graduates, though not at a graduation.
One of the three points in the aforementioned speech was that your life is taking place while you’re waiting for your idealized life to begin. That may have been what baseball broadcaster Harry Caray was thinking about when he observed, “Live it up, boys; it’s later than you think.”
The funniest segment of a commencement speech I have ever heard came from the local high school in 2013, in which a student said, “Four score and seven years ago, I had a dream that one day in this decade we would do things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. The only thing we had to fear was fear itself, and through struggle we learned that perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. For courage is not the absence of fear, but eather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. The best way to guarantee a loss is to quit. In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure, but remember this: The complacency of success is the first step to mediocrity.” Sources were, in order, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Antoine Saint-Exupery, Dwight Eisenhower, Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby and the student’s uncle.
Not that I’m an expert, given that there is a gap in my full-time employment (for which I’d like to thank, he wrote sarcastically, Barack Obama and a few former coworkers), but it seems to me that the best way to remain employed is to work at what you do well, not what you “love” or in your “passion.” (I’ll get to that subject shortly.) I had two work choices that didn’t work out because I was much worse at the business end than I was at the job end. (Or at least the business end went worse than the product/service end, and in a business the business is most important. That is something almost no one who never owned a business understands.)
If you can follow your “passion” as a hobby, that’s good, assuming said hobby doesn’t suck up too much money. (I am still pining for a Corvette that as I age I am less and less likely to be able to own.) If you can have a hobby that actually pays you money instead of the other way around, even better.
A famous phrase about Washington, D.C. is “if you want a friend, get a dog.” That is good advice applicable to anywhere and beyond dogs, though dogs remain the most loyal pet you can have. Cats’ “love” is situational based on what you do for them — chiefly, feed them. Most people’s relationship with each other is also situational.
About “love,” a horribly overused word today: You should never love your job, because your job does not love you back. Everyone is replaceable, though some are more difficult to replace than others. Unless you had a really bad employment experience, your current job will compare unfavorably to your previous jobs, but that’s OK because you will be compared to your predecessors (and often unfavorably), and your employers and coworkers look on you better as a former employee than they did when you were working there.
Readers know that I am an Eagle Scout. The Scout Motto is “Be Prepared,” and the Scout Slogan is “Do a Good Turn Daily.” Lesser known, but advice I’ve tried to follow in at least my professional life, is “Leave a place in better condition than you found it.”
I’m not sure if this counts as advice, but it is undeniably true: Life is unfair. Life will always be unfair. That’s because life — your life, everyone’s life, and every human institution — is full of flawed humans.
There is one additional ironic point that I have to make since I am from the Ironic Decade of the ’80s. Had I read this 30 years ago, I would have been unlikely to have followed any of this advice. Some things people must learn for themselves.
This week is the 50th anniversary of one of the strangest incidents in the history of UW athletics, summarized by Madison.com:
In 1968, the University of Wisconsin interviewed seven finalists for its vacant head basketball coaching position, before choosing Army coach Robert Knight, 27. The UW Athletic Board was searching for a replacement for John Erickson, who resigned to accept the position of general manager of the NBA’s new franchise in Milwaukee.
Knight, announced as the new coach on April 25, renounced his selection in anger 2 days later, over the premature release of his acceptance.
John Powless, the number two choice, and an assistant under Erickson since 1963, was then selected after an emergency meeting of the Athletic Board.
The rest of the “first four” besides Knight were UW–Milwaukee coach Ray Krzoska, Southern Illinois coach Jack Hartman, and Earl Lloyd, who played in the NBA in the 1950s and after this coached the Detroit Pistons.
Hartman might have been a good choice. (Read on for why I write “might.”) He got Southern Illinois from the NCAA’s Division II to Division I, moved on to Kansas State, and between junior college, the Salukis and the Wildcats won 578 games in 24 seasons, getting to the D1 Elite Eight four times and the Sweet Sixteen twice at K-State. Krzoska went 86–87 in seven seasons at UWM, and left two seasons after applying at UW. Lloyd went 22–55 with the Pistons.
The “last three” included two UW assistants, John Powless and Dave Brown.
Also included was a guy with many similarities to Knight, Jim Harding, the coach at La Salle in Philadelphia. Harding coached one season at La Salle and went 20–8, though La Salle was then placed on NCAA probation over two players’ revoked scholarships, and Harding was fired. One of his players, eventual American Basketball Association player Roland “Fatty” Taylor, said, “Forty years later, if I saw him today sitting in a wheelchair, I’d walk over and smack him.”
Instead of going to Wisconsin (or to the Bucks, where he reportedly was a candidate for their coaching position), Harding then went to the American Basketball Association’s Minnesota Pipers, and, well, here’s what happened there, according to Stew Thornley:
The Pipers would open the season in Minnesota with a new leader. Vince Cazzetta, who had coached the Pipers to the championship, resigned after Erickson and Rubin refused to give him a raise to cover moving his wife and six children to the Twin Cities. Hired to replace Cazzetta was 39-year old Jim Harding, who had compiled a 93-28 record in five seasons at LaSalle College in Philadelphia.
Harding had been equally successful in coaching tenures at two other colleges, but he left behind a trail of NCAA violations and endless turmoil, the latter a pattern that followed him to the professional ranks. …
The tension between Harding and the players came to a head after an altercation between the coach and center Tom Hoover. Unhappy that the incident was reported in the newspapers, Harding ordered his players not to talk to sportswriters and closed all practices to the press. The Minnesota management, in turn, refused to back Harding and all restrictions on the press were lifted.
During the next week, Harding began experiencing chest pains and underwent an electrocardiogram. Just before the team was to fly to Houston for a December 20 game, it was announced that Harding would not be making the trip. Concerned by the coach’s chest pains and dangerously-high blood pressure, doctors ordered Harding to take an indefinite leave of absence.
[General manager Vern] Mikkelsen assumed the coaching duties in the interim. The Pipers won only six of thirteen during that time but still maintained the lead in the division. Originally, Harding was to be gone for six weeks, and the Pipers said Mikkelsen would take his place as coach of the East squad in the All- Star Game. Harding, however, returned three weeks early and was back on the bench in mid-January. …
Harding was angered, however, by Washington and Williams absence at a banquet the night before the All-Star Game and attempted to fine them $500 each. His anger increased when he was overruled by team officials, and he sought out part-owner Gabe Rubin.
The result was a bloody midnight confrontation that left Rubin with a welt on his temple (and Harding with a scratched face). Harding was immediately relieved of his All-Star duties by Commissioner [George] Mikan; two days later, he was fired as coach of the Pipers.
Harding then spent four years at Detroit Mercy (after being the Titans’ second choice when first-choice Don Haskins of Texas–El Paso quit two days after he was hired — yes, there’s a theme developing here), going 55–45 while apparently alienating all his players due to his methods to the point where, at the beginning of his second season, all of his players quit. Harding, who had coached high school basketball in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa before going to La Salle, had only one losing season in six years of college coaching, but never coached after leaving Detroit Mercy. (Harding’s eventual replacement: Dick Vitale. Really.) Harding eventually became athletic director at UW–Milwaukee from 1975 to 1980 and is in the Gannon University Athletic Hall of Fame.
So apparently Wisconsin had two, shall we say, volatile coaches to choose from. Their choice was Knight:
Here, however, is where things get murky. Madison.com’s version is that Knight quit due to anger over reporting of his hiring before he had a chance to tell his wife and his bosses. (That would not be the last time Knight had a run-in with the media, of course.)
Jesse Temple‘s version involves a coach named Bo but not Ryan:
The story begins with Schembechler, an up-and-coming coach at Miami (Ohio), who wanted to be the head football coach at Wisconsin in 1967. UW needed to replace Milt Bruhn, and the top candidate for the job was Bruhn’s assistant, John Coatta. In the 1974 book, Man in Motion, Schembechler recalled that he and Notre Dame assistant Johnny Ray were brought to Madison to interview on a Sunday night, primarily as a dog-and-pony show, with neither having a real chance at the position.
“They brought in all the candidates at the same time but put us up at different hotels,” Schembechler said in the book. “Real secret agent stuff. They asked Johnny Ray and me to come down together, and he goes in first before the committee. I guess it’s about 10 (p.m.) before it’s my turn.
“You have to picture this. They’ve got 20 guys sitting around, and one of them — a board member, I guess — is sound asleep. He is sitting there asleep. I mean, how the hell would you feel? I’m mad. Really mad. I don’t even want to be there. I don’t want to answer any of their questions.”
According to author John U. Bacon, the entire interview lasted all of 40 minutes. Schembechler also wasn’t thrilled that a student seemed to relish asking smart-aleck questions during the interview. He promptly walked out the door, found the nearest pay phone and called Wisconsin athletics director Ivy Williamson to withdraw his name from consideration.
“I really got miffed when I got there,” he said.
Schembechler coached two more seasons at Miami (Ohio) before taking the Michigan job in 1969. He would beat Wisconsin 18 of 19 times during his tenure at Michigan, the only loss coming in 1981, when Dave McClain led the Badgers to a 21-14 upset of No. 1 Michigan in the season opener. Schembechler’s career record at Michigan was 194-48-5. Coatta, who was offered the Wisconsin job, lasted three seasons and went 3-26-1. …
The story behind Knight’s near-hire is equally maddening for Badgers fans. In 1968, he was a coach on the rise at Army and arrived in Madison as one of seven candidates to appear before the athletics board for the vacant men’s basketball coaching position. The previous coach, John Erickson, had resigned to become general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Knight wowed the board and was offered the Wisconsin job. There is some dispute as to whether he outright accepted the position or whether he asked simply for more time to think about it upon his return to West Point — which he claimed was the case in his book, Knight: My Story. Either way, he was not prepared for school officials to leak any news of his hiring to a local newspaper. That move, however, is exactly what happened.
“Almost as soon as I left, they announced me as their new coach,” Knight said in his book. “When I arrived home at West Point, I heard what they had done. Now, I was in a hell of a spot. I was up all night trying to figure out what I should do.”
The only person Knight could think of to run his decision by was Schembechler, who was still coaching at Miami (Ohio). Schembechler had served as an assistant to Woody Hayes when Knight was in school at Ohio State, and Knight was aware of his situation one year earlier at Wisconsin.
“I told him how Wisconsin had released my name as the new coach before I’d had a chance to talk to them about what was necessary for them to do — that I’d have liked to take the job but I didn’t think I could, under those circumstances,” Knight said. “He listened to everything I said, then told me, ‘Just call them and tell them you have no interest in the job.’ I did.” …
Knight recalled that about 20 years after he spurned the Badgers, an alumnus of Wisconsin approached him at a golf course and asked for his version of what happened when he almost became Wisconsin’s coach. He told the man about his situation and the one a year earlier with Schembechler
“If Wisconsin had handled both situations a little better, Bo and I might have been coaching there together for a long time,” Knight told him.
After relaying the story, Knight could sense disgruntlement on the alum’s face. “I think the football part bothered him the most,” he said.
So did Knight quit over the premature notice or because of what Schembechler said about why he turned down UW? We report, you decide.
This was not the last time UW had to get coach choice number two, or failed to hire the right coach. After Coatta was fired …
… UW offered the football job to North Dakota State coach Ron Ehrhardt, who turned UW down. (Ehrhardt went to the pros instead, becoming an assistant coach, then head coach of the New England Patriots. After his firing, he was hired as an assistant coach for the New York Giants under Ray Perkins, then Bill Parcells, then going to Pittsburgh, getting him three Super Bowl appearances and two wins as an offensive coordinator.)
UW ended up hiring UCLA assistant John Jardine, who had one winning season in eight years, but it was exciting:
Jardine was replaced (though to his credit he remained a UW football supporter until his death) by Dave McClain, who coached Wisconsin to the Badgers’ first bowl win …
… plus two other bowl games …
… including the only bowl game I got to march in …
… before his death of a heart attack at 48 in April 1986.
McClain was replaced by defensive coordinator Jim Hilles. UW had most of its starters back, including five players who would go on to play in the NFL — offensive linemen Paul Gruber and Glenn Derby, linebackers Rick Graf and Tim Jordan (who was one year ahead of me at Madison La Follette), and defensive back Nate Odomes.
That team might be one of the biggest what-ifs in UW athletic history. They played four nonconference games that were winnable, but went 1–3 instead, and they won only two games after that.
Would that have happened had McClain lived? Hilles was the logical choice to replace McClain since he was assistant head coach, but what if Hilles had, as some head coaches do, focused on his side of the ball and let the offensive coaches run the offense?
Hilles was quoted in the UW media guide that “I will take the responsibility for the offense, and I will also take the blame. We will definitely be more aggressive physically; we want to knock some people off the line of scrimmage — let them know who we are. Since we feel our strengths are in the offensive line and our running backs, we will first set out to be as strong a running team as we can be. An effective running game will open up the throwing game for us, and that’s how we’re going to approach things.”
That is not different from the approach UW had under McClain once they switched from the option to the pro-set when quarterback Randy Wright transferred in from Notre Dame.
Once the 1986 season started going south, UW started looking for a new coach. The five semifinalists included Hilles, Wyoming coach Dennis Erickson (right after Wyoming beat Wisconsin in Madison in Erickson’s first season), West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, Northwestern coach Francis Peay (a former Packer offensive lineman), and Tulsa coach Don Morton.
That list includes one coach who won two national championships, Erickson, and another who coached in a national championship game, Nehlen, winner of 202 games in his career. Neither were finalists for the job. The two finalists were
In the seven-year history of this blog (and three years of its predecessor blog) one of the subjects I believe I’ve never written about was professional wrestling.
To get one thing clear first: No, pro wrestling is not a sport. The fact that Sports Illustrated covers pro wrestling, at least online, demonstrates the downhill spiral of SI. As Steve Allen, whose early career included pro wrestling announcing, said in an A&E special on pro wrestling, yes, pro wrestling is fake. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Facebook’s If You Grew Up in Madison, Wisconsin, You Remember page mentions live pro wrestling at Breese Stevens Field, presented by promoter Jimmy Demetral and apparently hosted by John Schermerhorn, who both covered sports and hosted the “Dairyland Jubilee” show on WKOW-TV in Madison.
It turns out my hometown was also the hometown of one of the noted wrestiers of the 1960s, Sailor (or Seaman) Art Thomas:
(Those from the ’80s might remember Lou Albano in the first Cyndi Lauper video, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”)
I’m told WKOW carried pro wrestling, but I don’t remember watching it. The first pro wrestling I remember watching was on an Iowa TV station my grandparents got in Southwest Wisconsin. Whoever lost this particular match bled enough “blood” that it looked as though a case of ketchup had exploded. (Imagine cleaning that afterward.)
Once we got cable TV, we were able to watch, first, “All Star Wrestling” on WVTV-TV (channel 18) in Milwaukee. And our favorite wrestler was South Milwaukee’s own The Crusher:
The Crusher started as a heel …
… before he became a hero:
The Crusher and his tag team partner, The Bruiser (former Green Bay Packer William Afflis), were even in a movie:
It turns out some of The (Da?) Crusher’s contemporaries are still on the scene, though Reggie Lisowski died in 2005:
WVTV was then taken off the cable system, replaced by WTCG-TV in Atlanta, which became WTBS, which became TBS. That replaced one hour of All Star Wrestling with two hours of Georgia/World Championship Wrestling.
You wonder why pro wrestling has been popular for decades? Check out this from around 1980 (and remember where the U.S. was vs. the Soviet Union in those days):
Meanwhile, MSG, which carried New York Rangers hockey games, also carried the World Wrestling Federation.
And that brings up what Kyle Smith writes about:
When he first started wrestling in America, the French combatant who had been calling himself “le Géant Ferré” in Montreal needed a new handle. A midwestern promoter explained that running ads for the Giant Fairy wouldn’t fly. Why not, he asked, wrestle under your own name instead?
So was born the legend of André the Giant.
Growing up in a small town in France, the young André Roussimoff told family members, “I don’t want to live on a farm my whole life. I want to do something different.” His life turned out to be as unusual as his body, which, due to an unchecked hormonal surge (his parents and siblings were of normal size), grew up past seven feet and out to nearly 500 pounds. Not an actor, not quite an athlete, he was what the wrestling entrepreneur Vince McMahon calls him in the new HBO documentary André the Giant: “an attraction.”
Roussimoff became the cynosure of McMahon’s pro-wrestling circuit in the 1970s and early 1980s. Other wrestlers on the payroll created their characters with masks or robes or trash talk or eccentric behavior. (George “the Animal” Steele, for instance, made a habit of dining on the padding in the corners of the wrestling ring.) But André’s character was his body. All he had to do was show up. Even routine interactions became strange in his presence. One dining companion interviewed in the documentary recalls that once when he tried to pick up the check at dinner, the Giant, not having it, instead picked him up like a doll and set him on top of an armoire. The speaker relating this anecdote is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
More than any movie star, André couldn’t escape the world’s eyes, couldn’t hide under sunglasses and a hat. He was an oddity too big to ignore, and even people who didn’t know about his career play-acting violence inside the wrestling ring approached him as you would a fantastic creature. Friends, too, dehumanized him. One writer in the documentary compares his hands to a lowland gorilla’s. Fellow wrestler Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan, said he moved like a Clydesdale horse. He once played Bigfoot on a 1976 episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.
Yet director Jason Hehir finds the humanity in this superficially bestial figure. It’s pleasing to think of such a powerful man as being a gallant one, and his admirers say he was. Within the fake brutality of pro wrestling, says Hogan, André maintained civility by using real brutality. “This is not a business of tough guys,” says Hogan. “If you’re in this business, it’s to entertain. For those guys who thought they were tough guys in this business, André would straighten ’em out real quick.” Example: André despised the wrestler known as “Macho Man” Randy Savage. A clip from the documentary shows a match in which the Macho Man found his face absorbing abuse from the Giant’s gargantuan bottom. “He’s sitting right on his head!” cries an announcer. Buttocks, face, buttocks, face. That’s showbiz, kids! Maybe the true fantasy element André stirred in us was not our wish that a man-Alp could be as tender as the one he portrayed in The Princess Bride, but the longing to humiliate our annoying coworkers as proficiently as he did. Cook fish in the office microwave and an André-style response seems condign.
André had his faults, of course. His drinking was as renowned as his performing: A writer who profiled him said that on any given night, he would put away several mixed drinks, four bottles of wine, and 20 to 25 beers. That’s nothing, says another intimate, who claims he once saw André consume 106 beers. Of equal note is the Roussimoffian flatulence, which is likened sonically to incoming bad weather and would carry on for 30 seconds at a go. Once it nearly crashed a plane, or so legend has it, the aircraft’s pilots being temporarily stunned by the chemical-weapons-grade emission. Flying was excruciating for the wrestler as well: He couldn’t fit into any plane’s bathroom. Someone would have to curtain him off and bring him a bucket in which to relieve himself.
The drinking looked different to a co-star of The Princess Bride, on the set of which an ailing André needed help to catch Robin Wright’s sylphlike Buttercup. Co-star Cary Elwes tells us André drank to relieve the pain. Pro wrestling takes a serious toll on the human body, especially for someone André’s size. He suffered severe back and joint distress linked to his disorder, called acromegaly, and by the time of his valedictory bout with Hogan in 1987, his chief wrestling move was the “standing perfectly still” gambit. Hogan had to come up and allow himself to be bear-hugged for a prolonged period to provide the thrills. Roussimoff was then 40, and had been warned he wouldn’t survive into a fifth decade. The prophecy was off, but only by six years.
HBO’s documentary is riddled with gaps — the portrait of McMahon’s wrestling circus, in particular, seems unduly forgiving — because it is determined to frame André’s life as a piece of entertainment. We learn, for instance, that André left behind a daughter, but nothing about her mother or any other woman with whom he had relationships. Instead, it’s the fellas who tell us what a hit he was with the ladies. “He wore a size 24 ring, what else can I tell you?” says one of the guys. The movie is much more interested in this sort of japery than it is in showing who André really was, but then again, he was a difficult person to know. “He was not the most articulate man in the world,” observes an announcer who knew him. His ballads were in his body slams.
Andre’s acting career included Bigfoot:
The History of Rock Facebook page tells the story of one of the more amusing moments in rock and non-rock-music history tied to this song:
On March 27th of 1971, the very popular song … was pulled from rotation by an influential radio station. It was the ‘flagship’ radio station of the NBC network. Other stations across their vast radio network soon followed suit … due to pressure from censors and higher-ups at the network and that’s what brings all of the things and/or people in the pics below to my post here. They include…
- Jerry Garcia
- WNBC, a now defunct radio station in New York City
- Lawrence Welk
- 2 singers from the Lawrence Welk show by the names of Gail Farrell & Dick Dale
- Myron Floren, the accordionist from that show
- And of course, last but certainly not least, Brewer & Shipley, in a concert promo flyer within the pics … with a song that can be described as a ONE HIT WONDER in more than one way. A song that was controversial for more than one reason as well
Like for instance, Jerry Garcia had been hired to play steel guitar on the “Tarkio” album from 1970 that this song comes from. There was no need for steel guitar on this song…but when it was released as a single … Jerry played on the song on the B side … by the name of “Oh Mommy (I Aint No Commie)” … which is a song about being ‘allowed’ under federal law to start up a revolution.
… Brewer says, “We wrote that one night in the dressing room of a coffee house. We were literally just entertaining ourselves. The next day we got together to do some picking and said, ‘What was that we were messing with last night?’ We remembered it, and in about an hour, we’d written ‘One Toke Over the Line.’ Just making ourselves laugh, really. We had no idea that it would ever even be considered as a single, because it was just another song to us. Actually Tom and I always thought that our ballads were our forte.
The incident that sparked this song happened at the Vanguard in Kansas City, Missouri. The band was playing the show because, in seeking to escape the LA music scene, they started a tour of their Midwest homelands. Shipley reports that he was given a block of hash and told to take two hits. He ignored the advice and instead took three. Shipley says, “I go out of the dressing room – I’m also a banjo player, but I didn’t have one, so I was playing my guitar — and Michael (Brewer) came in and I said, ‘Jesus, Michael, I’m one toke over the line.’ And to be perfect honest, I don’t remember if Michael was with me when I took that hit or not. I remember it as ‘not’; I think Michael remembers it as ‘yes.’ And he started to sing to what I was playing, and I chimed in and boom, we had the line.”
Brewer also remembers the occasion. “I just cracked up,” he said. “I thought it was hysterical. And right on the spot, we just started singing, ‘One toke over the line, sweet Jesus,’ and that was about it; then we went onstage.”
Now, jump to the very conservative, family oriented, WHOLESOME tv show from back in the day…by the name of The Lawrence Welk Show. The host and his compatriots were famous for playing music of all kinds…but also for playing it with big band and/or polka instruments. Welk had heard the song by Brewer & Shipley and put it on his show (also in 1971), to be performed by 2 of his many regular performers. When the song’s slot came up in the show…accordionist Myron Floren who would often introduce acts, called it, “one of the newer songs”. At which point, singers Gail Farrell & Dick Dale launched into their wholesome rendition of “One Toke Over The Line”. At the end of the song…Lawrence bookended their performance by saying, “there you’ve heard A MODERN SPIRITUAL by Gail and Dale”…..
I am absolutely convinced that of everyone in this Lawrence Welk clip, Floren (of whom my grandparents were big fans, and saw him in concert at least twice) is the only person here who knew what the song was about, which explains his, uh, throat-clearing moment.
Earlier this year, from SFGate.com:
Dave Toschi, a dapper cop who became the lead San Francisco police investigator for the Zodiac serial-killer case in the late 1960s and ’70s, has died at the age of 86.
Toschi died at his home in San Francisco on Saturday after a lengthy illness, relatives said.
The Zodiac terrorized the Bay Area in 1968 and 1969 when he stabbed or shot at least five people to death, writing taunting notes and cryptograms to police and newspapers including The Chronicle after his kills. Toschi was drawn into the case when he was assigned to investigate the killing of the Zodiac’s only San Francisco victim — Paul Stine, a cabbie shot to death in his taxi on Oct. 11, 1969.
It was the Zodiac’s final confirmed slaying. Like every other inspector looking into the saga, from federal agents to police in Vallejo and Napa County, Toschi was unable to solve the case. But he never lost zeal for the mystery, friends said. …
In addition to his work on the Zodiac killings, Toschi was part of the team that solved the racially motivated Zebra murders in the early 1970s, in which four black men were convicted of the random slayings of 14 white people. In 1985 he received a meritorious conduct award from the department for arresting a man who raped senior citizens and burglarized their homes.
His penchant for bow ties, snappy trench coats and the quick-draw holster for his .38-caliber pistol drew the attention of Steve McQueen, who patterned his character in the 1968 movie “Bullitt” after Toschi. Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character was also partially inspired by him.
Toschi was the inspiration for two famous fictional police detectives who did not dress like Toschi:
Thomas Scalzo reviewed “Bullitt” …
When first we meet Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, he’s fast asleep, dressed in a pair of cozy-looking pajamas. Jarred awake by his partner Delgetti buzzing at his apartment door, he stumbles to let him in, and then lurches back to bed. “What time d’you get to bed this morning, Frank?” asks Delgetti, moving into the kitchen to pour a glass of OJ. “About 5:00,” Bullitt replies, visibly fighting down his hangover nausea and feebly reaching for what he thinks is his glass of juice. When Delgetti instead takes a gulp and begins to read the morning paper, aloud, Bullitt stares at him in disgust. “Why don’t you just relax and have your orange juice, and shut up,” he says, obviously not looking forward to whatever assignment his captain has in store, and clearly regretting whatever it was that put him in such a state.
What’s intriguing about this introduction to Bullitt is not so much its originality – untold cop stories begin with a besotted hero grudgingly coming back to life after a long night – as its incongruousness with everything that follows. For aside from these opening frames, Bullitt is a consummate man’s man—unflappable, assured, and impeccably cool. Sure, we have the occasional non-action scene – Bullitt buys frozen dinners, Bullitt takes his lady friend to dinner – to show us he’s not all work. But never again is the man as vulnerable, or as human, as he is in these opening moments. Inevitably, when dealing with an intricate pulp crime drama like Bullitt, plot comes first. But the subtle characterization in this opening scene adds a welcome layer of complexity to the story and makes viewing the film a richer experience. Not only do we keep our eyes peeled in order to get to the bottom of the mystery, but also in hopes of catching another clue as to who this hard-boiled cop in the cardigan really is.
With this in mind, we watch as Bullitt collects himself enough to report for his latest assignment: babysitting Johnny Ross, the district attorney’s star witness. It seems a senate subcommittee hearing is scheduled for a few days hence and it’s Bullitt’s job to make sure Ross is on time and able to testify. Complicating matters is the Chicago crime syndicate who want the man dead before he can talk. And so, not long after stumbling out of bed, Bullitt finds himself in a tight spot: If the witness dies, the DA will have Bullitt’s badge. And as long as the witness lives, Bullitt is an enemy of the Mob. When Bullitt asks his captain what recommended him for such illustrious duty, he’s told, “You make good copy. They love you in the papers.” Again, we’re tantalized by the Bullitt back-story. What had he done to make the headlines? The mystery deepens.
(I wonder myself what that means. High-profile cases solved? He certainly doesn’t seem like a quote machine based on his not-even-laconic portrayal.)
Soon enough, however, our intrigue about Bullitt is forced to the backburner by the story of Johnny Ross and the men who want to kill him. At the start of the assignment, the case seems fairly simple: guard the guy for a few days and then hand him over to the DA. But when Johnny’s hideout is discovered, and he finds himself on the wrong end of a shotgun, things begin to get interesting. Instead of outright fear at his own mortality, Johnny appears confused. He even manages to stammer out “They told me…” before taking multiple shots to the body. Add to this the revelation that Ross actually unlocked the door for his would be assailant, and Bullitt’s ordinary case has erupted into a full-blown murder mystery.
Enhancing the obfuscation are several unusual filmmaking techniques in play throughout the picture. One persistent strategy involves positioning some sort of obstruction – be it a plate-glass window, a forest of legs, or another character’s head – between the camera and the central action of the scene. In most cases the action is still discernable, but the viewer is deliberately relegated to the role of outside observer, spying on the scene as opposed to being immersed in it. And in many instances, the dialogue of such scenes is muted, requiring us to distil the importance of the scene based on visual activity alone. There are also several instances of a scene being shot from a location adjacent to that of the main action. When Ross undergoes emergency medical procedures in an attempt to save his life, for instance, instead of shooting the scene from within the hospital room, Peter Yates places his camera in the hallway outside. Thus, we watch the traumatic proceedings at a distance, peering into the room like a nosy neighbor.
The net result of such storytelling strategies is to cast the viewer into the role of detective. Like Bullitt, we’re compelled to pay attention to everything we see and hear, to piece together clues, to ponder the significance of a subtle event, to wonder what is being said behind glass walls. Such reliance on audience attention span was surely risky, even in 1968. And the technique is a particularly tough sell to a present-day spectator accustomed to insecure pictures that go out of their way to ensure viewer passivity. No doubt many modern viewers will find themselves unable to get past the film’s slow pace and nuanced storytelling. The reward, however, for those willing to allow themselves to fall under the film’s spell, is an engrossing crime drama featuring a masterfully understated performance by Steve McQueen, and, eventually, several terrific – and iconic – action set-pieces.
First on the list is the sublime car chase through the hills of San Francisco. Comprising over twelve minutes of dialogue-free runtime, the sequence is a perfect amalgam of terrific stunt work, deft editing, and canny use of music. For the first three and a half minutes we watch as Bullitt and his quarry weave through the twisty streets, a cool jazz score the perfect accompaniment to the slick game of automotive cat and mouse. And then the hunted decides to make a break for it. The music stops, a seatbelt is snapped in place, and the race is on. With squealing tires and revving engines the only soundtrack, the combatants burst out of the confines of the city and rocket onto the highways beyond.
In conspicuous contrast to much of the preceding film, this celebrated scene places the viewer smack dab in the middle of the action. No longer are we compelled to peer past obstacles or wonder at the significance of what’s taking place behind glass windows. Instead, we’re treated to an enticing mix of behind-the-windshield shots offering a first-hand view at the chase, intimate close-ups of the drivers’ determined faces as they navigate the perilous roadways, and unobstructed cutaways of the cars ripping around corners. Not only does the inspired editing of these shots achieve the astounding feat of keeping us riveted to the screen for minute after minute of wordless action, it also highlights the narrative significance of the sequence. Obscured shots aren’t needed here because Bullitt isn’t groping in the dark for answers. The men who want Ross dead are in his sights, and it’s time to get them.
Less famous, but equally enthralling, is the final showdown at the airport, full of gunfire drowned out by the roar of turbines and roving spotlights randomly illuminating the hunter and the hunted as they dive under jets, crisscross the runway, and desperately take cover behind the low-lying scrub brush. Eventually, the riotous chase leads back into the airport proper, and to the climax of the film. In the midst of all this action, however, we reach an unexpected moment that reminds us that, though the mystery of the plot is soon to be explained, the mystery of Bullitt remains. Convinced that his man is waiting on the other side of a closed door, Bullitt draws his gun, the action accompanied by a musical cue. In astonishment, we realize we’re witnessing the first time Bullitt has drawn his weapon. Clearly we’re meant to note the event, and attach significance to it. But why? What is it about the man’s past that makes this action so momentous? Before we have time to ponder the question, however, Bullitt has burst through the door, gun in hand.
After the last shot is fired and the sirens have faded into the night, we once again find ourselves in Bullitt’s lonely apartment, with our hero looking much the worse for wear. He splashes some water on his face and stares at himself in the mirror. He looks tired. But there’s something other than fatigue in his eyes: a sense of regret, possibly, or of doubt—the look of a man contemplating staying up till five, with a bottle, trying to forget. And as the camera shifts away from our hero, to focus directly on the violent tools of his trade, we begin to understand why.
Of course, Frank Bullitt was neither the first, nor the last, loner detective to grace the big screen. From the many incarnations of Philip Marlow to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry to Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna in Heat, the history of cinematic crime storytelling is chock full of men whose dedication to work always gets in the way of anything resembling a meaningful relationship or a normal home life. And in those rare instances where domesticity is part of the story, the film suffers. … It seems that when these figures have something to lose, they are unable to take the authority-defying risks that make them appealing. Perhaps this appeal lies in offering a historically male audience vicarious immersion in a world where they don’t have to answer to anyone. It’s only natural, then, that we smile when Bullitt, asked about work by his ladylove, replies, “It’s not for you, baby.” Because deep down, we know it’s not for us either. And that’s why we watch.
… and later compared it to “Dirty Harry” …
Having recently analyzed Peter Yates’ Bullitt, also a loose-cannon cop story (and also scored by Schiffrin), comparisons between McQueen’s Bullitt and Eastwood’s Callahan were inevitable. Like Bullitt, Callahan is an authority-defying San Francisco detective tasked with a difficult and dangerous case. Also like Bullitt, Callahan faces a formidable swath of red tape standing between him and successful completion of the job. David Thomson, that inimitable author of A Biographical Dictionary of Film, has even gone so far as to call Bullitt “a pioneer for Dirty Harry.”
Unfortunately, following the loner cop trail that Bullitt blazed has lead Harry Callahan, not merely to a place of professional frustration, but to a land of outright impotence. Unlike Bullitt, whose daily tasks regularly find him in the role of the aggressor – actively chasing the bad guys through the streets of San Francisco, for instance – Callahan’s action set pieces often find him simply reacting to events beyond his control. Most notable among these is the gripping ransom sequence in which Harry plays bagman to the killer’s cash-for-captive-girl demands. Hoping to evade a possible police trap, Scorpio demands that Harry follow a circuitous route to the drop site, revealing each subsequent step of the journey by phone. Throughout the course of an endless night, Harry crisscrosses the city, running from phone booth to phone booth to obtain his orders, completely at the mercy of a madman’s whims.
Even when Harry becomes so fed up by being led around by the nose that he does take the aggressive tack – trailing the killer to his home and forcibly obtaining the location of the missing girl – he’s summarily cut off at the knees by his superiors, who claim his methods were inappropriate and the evidence he obtained inadmissible. Despite Harry’s efforts, Scorpio will be set free. Eastwood’s incredulous and exasperated expression at hearing this news perfectly encapsulates Harry’s impotence. How can a man be expected to endure in a world where criminals are coddled and lawmen are rebuked for doing their jobs? As these scenes demonstrate, Harry is a man assailed by the fates at every turn, seemingly incapable of directing the course of his own life.
Such powerlessness over one’s existence inevitably leads to mounting frustration, and the desperate need for release. Stymied professionally, Harry’s thoughts inevitably turn to sex. Unfortunately, as a man who lost his wife some time ago, and has no intimate relationship that we know of, Harry seems doomed to frustration in this realm, too. In fact, Harry seems almost incapable of relating to women as a mature adult.
Take his encounter with Hot Mary and her boyfriend. After trailing a suspect down a dark alley, Harry watches his quarry enter an apartment building. Peering in at the man from a window outside, Harry quickly determines that he’s got the wrong guy. But instead of walking away, he stays, watching, and then leering, as the man disrobes his pulchritudinous girlfriend. And then there’s the rooftop stakeout. Training his binoculars on a nearby apartment building, he happens upon a lovely naked woman prancing about behind a curtainless window. Catching himself leering again, he turns away. But then he mutters, “You owe it to yourself to live a little, Harry,” and returns his gaze to the girl. At that very moment, however, Scorpio strikes and Harry must leap into action. Incredibly, the pleasures of even this voyeuristic outlet are denied him.
To a man thus frustrated, the only apparent avenue of release that remains is violence. And for Harry Callahan, violence means firing a gun. Take the bank robbery scene. Calmly enjoying a lunch of hotdogs, Harry hears some commotion behind him. After leaping out of his seat and running into the street, Harry unsheathes his weapon and fires, killing a few of the men and critically wounding another. Harry then walks directly up to the wounded man, points the legendary Magnum in his face, and spouts his famous line about the prowess of his sidearm. Compare this quick-draw demeanor – and obvious revelry in the chance to fire his gun – with Bullitt’s impeccable restraint, drawing his weapon only once, and then only when he has no other choice.
… joined by the setting and soundtracks by the great Lalo Schifrin:
Imagine a movie that included Bullitt’s chase and, let’s call him, Dirty Harry Bullitt. Of course, that idea has been done, but not well.