Splashing in the Death Pool

A few years ago, Russell recommended a TV show called “24.” I started watching it with him and was hooked almost immediately. It is an extraordinary show, filled with violence and implausibility. Each season tells the story of one 24-hour day, with each episode being one hour of the day, shown in “real time.” The hero, Jack Bauer, is never shown eating, or sleeping, or engaging in other bodily functions that are the bane of lesser mortals. He dispatches teams of terrorists with ease while at the same time uncovering governmental conspiracies and delivering to “moles” and assorted evildoers his own form of rough frontier justice. The show introduces characters and kills them at breakneck speed. Bad guys and innocents alike are seen for the first time, given a name, occasionally tortured for information, and then knocked off in an episode or two.

I discovered that four of my friends at work also watched the show and enjoyed the mindless violence. We decided to create a game called the “24 Death Pool.” It is a bit like a fantasy sports league. Each player drafts a team of 4 characters. Each week, we identify which of the individuals on our teams we believe will be the first character on any team to be killed in that week’s episode. If you correctly pick the first “deader” from among your team members, you get two points. If one of the characters on your team gets killed otherwise, you get another point. Points also are allocated for “plot twists” — although, to my recollection, no one has actually correctly predicted a plot twist. Whoever ends the season with the most points wins.

This sounds silly and bloodthirsty, and it is, but it makes watching the show more fun, and the freewheeling post-episode analysis and commentary by other participants in the Death Pool is even more enjoyable. A few weeks ago I was in Chicago on a Monday night and found myself in a hotel room, cheering wildly when three of the characters on my team were rubbed out in a single episode. Litvak was shot in the head, Samantha Roth was brutally stabbed, and Agent Gedge broke his neck after the First Gentleman — who had been crippled by a paralyzing drug — recovered sufficiently to push Gedge off a balcony. As a result, I’m in the lead this season, although the death rate on the show is such that there is no assurance that any lead is safe. And, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday was a few days ago, and I was thinking about him as Kish and I took Penny for our walk this morning. It is probably close to impossible to say anything original about Lincoln. He is, almost certainly, the most re-thought, psychoanalyzed, iconic American president in our history.

As is the case with many Americans, I have always been fascinated by Lincoln. My Christmas gift from Russell this year was a portrait of Lincoln, a copy of which is attached to this post. I love the portrait, because it is yet another reimagining of Lincoln — which is one of the characteristics of the man that I find so compelling. Lincoln’s persona is complex and full of seeming contradictions. He was the Great Emancipator who also suspended the writ of habeas corpus, the melancholy individual who regularly displayed a keen, sometimes bawdy, sense of humor, and the poorly educated backwoodsman who nevertheless wrote the compelling prose that most aptly captured the very idea of America. The many contradictions in his character and career allow people of all political views to cite different facets of Lincoln’s actions and writings as support for their views.

I think Lincoln has a special significance because, in my view, he is the most indispensable figure in American history. Some historians apparently believe that history is the story of inexorable forces leading to inevitable results. Others believe that history is the story of great men, who through eloquence, sheer force of will, or some other trait, by themselves cause history to take a different course than it would have otherwise.

Lincoln seems to support the “great man” approach. The Civil War may have been the inevitable product of the social and political forces set in motion by a a nation that struggled to survive half-slave and half-free. It is difficult to imagine, however, that any other American alive during that day could have seen the country safely through the War to a result in which a single country emerged, free forever from the blight of slavery. Lincoln somehow found the fortitude to bear the extraordinary bloodshed and death, the incompetence of political generals and the greed of shoddy manufacturers. He continued to fight for the concept of a Union of free men when other political leaders and newspaper editors called for surrender or compromise. In our modern political culture, where our sensibilities are tender and our appetite for failure and loss is very small indeed, Lincoln’s ability to withstand crushing military defeats, appalling casualties, draft riots and harsh personal attacks seems almost impossible to believe.

I think one of the reasons why Lincoln remains so popular is that Americans feel enormous pride in the simple fact that our country produced a figure like Lincoln. We know that a unique and gifted leader arose to guide the country through the darkest hour in our history, and we hope that what happened before will happen again.