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Growing up, novels and films about political intrigue and international conflicts were my favorites.

To an extent, they still are. There just haven’t been enough of them; the last notable one was Bridge of Spies, about the real-life negotiations to free downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers during the height of the Cold War. Coincidentally, the hero, James Donovan, graduated from the same school I attended in the Bronx – way more than a few years before I entered its doors.

Ian Fleming, who created James Bond, sparked my interest in the espionage genre. I binge read all twelve Bond novels before freshman year in high school.

My all time favorite thriller, though, was The Manchurian Candidate, a novel by Richard Condon, and released as a film in 1962. Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey were the leads, but Angela Lansbury stole the show with her portrayal of a conniving, cold-blooded conspirator – a far cry from Jessica in Murder, She Wrote. The 2004 version was disappointing, but that is usually the case with a remake of a classic.

In the novel and the film, a seemingly ultra-conservative demagogue and his wife are part of a communist plot to win the presidency.

My memories of the story have been reawakened by the potential subterfuge involving Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Julian Assange. I can’t help but to project those three against the fictional plot: Trump as the blabbering demagogue serving as a front for the communists, Putin as the Soviet handler responsible for enabling the conspiracy and Assange as the one who pulls the strings (Lansbury’s role). The plan entails playing on the emotions of the nation in order to achieve the sinister objective.

Am I allowing my imagination run wild?

You bet, but I just can’t pass this stuff up. It has all the components of the film: deceit, conspiracy and reprehensible characters.

Can life imitate art?

Yes, but with limits.

Although it is true that Putin and Assange would dearly love to embarrass the United States by exploiting the DNC and Clinton e-mail fiascoes, it is far less likely that Trump possesses the planning skills to make it work in his favor. His campaign, after all, is a series of spontaneous outbursts. Encouraging Putin to continue hacking the Clinton campaign e-mails, while disgusting, is not a crime. It is more like irrational bombast. If he did go as far as to conspire with them, his next reality show would be broadcast from inside his cell at a federal prison.

That’s not to say Trump will not benefit from Putin’s caginess and Assange’s willingness to release potentially embarrassing e-mails about Clinton, but any gains will be offset by his ongoing diatribes against any person or group who possess any sense of moderation. More than 20 Republican senators, not to mention a fair handful of Members of Congress and governors, as well as key party figures, did not attend the RNC. They have followers who will sit this election out, if not cross over and vote for Clinton.

But this nation has never before experienced such an asymmetrical campaign strategy. No one can reasonably estimate the degree of emotion, especially among voters who have stayed on the sidelines in other presidential elections, doing so out of disgust with the establishment.

Last December, I wrote an article describing Trump as America’s Putin, emphasizing the destructive synergy that could result if both men were in power. However, I concluded that Trump would not win the Republican nomination.

Boy, was I wrong. The Manchurian Candidate still has a chance.

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I’ve watched AMC’s hit show, The Walking Dead, since season one.

The characters grew on me, although only a few of the original cast have survived the zombie apocalypse to date.

But I am losing interest in the show. There was a time where I eagerly looked forward to the new season. I would plant myself in front of the TV at 6:00 PM on Sunday night – thank God for satellite TV, or it would have been 9:00 PM.

Since season three, the story lines have become repetitious: the group, led by Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln, a Brit who has mastered a pronounced southern accent for his role of former county sheriff in Georgia), would find solace in a relatively safe setting, only to encounter a psychopath heading up another band of survivors, in some ways more organized and efficient than Grimes’ people. A conflict ensues; as many of the living die as the zombies in the violence. In the end, the bad guys are killed and our heroes are forced to move on.

The process repeats with yet an even more perverse villain standing in the way of survival.

Plots are advanced through the stupidity of Grimes and his followers – inexplicably poor judgment considering their experience coping in the zombie-infested world. The main characters will often wander off alone on some misguided mission, only to be captured by the latest gang of heartless miscreants.

Recently concluded season six was built on hype – the meanest, baddest-ass villain would appear and killed a beloved member of our protagonists. Throughout the season, the finale was touted to depict the must violent end to the life of a major character on the show. It lived up to the billing, but it was so anticipated, the shock value was somewhat lost. The viewers did not see the actual death – only the villain bringing his baseball bat down on someone’s head. The crunching sound of the impact and the screaming was all that was necessary to convey the brutality….but it was expected. Fans of the show will not know the name of the victim until the next season.

Next season will undoubtedly be dominated by violent confrontations between the two groups until the bad guys lose again.

The Walking Dead needs an end game.

The first TV series I can recall with a definitive ending was The Fugitive. It wrapped with a two-part finale, which set a ratings record at the time.

Other popular series followed suit, but with longer wind-downs: MASH took almost an entire season to wrap, and Lost required three seasons to conclude its complex story.

I could put up with the regurgitation of plot devices if The Walking Dead was committed to an end game – three, four, five seasons from now, it wouldn’t matter, as long as one could sense progress.

But the producers are in it for the money. As long as they have a hit show, one where major characters can be slowly killed off and whose replacements have time to develop their own fan followings, it is an express train to the bank (something California HSR will never be).

I fear that the show caters to the fans of the graphic comic books that inspired the TV series, the millennials who still live in their parents’ basements and have yet to discover Bernie Sanders as their contemporaries have. Perhaps Hilary Clinton should buy some advertising on the show as a way to cut into Sanders’ lock on that generation. Trump could, but he would be more terrifying than the zombies.

The comic book fans do not like story lines that veer from the written genre.

Too bad.

One of the few departures from the comics could set the stage for a path to an end. In season one, Grimes and company enter the CDC in Atlanta and find a lone, surviving scientist who informs them that the French were making progress on a cure for the zombie virus. He chooses death by an explosion set off by the CDC’s fail-safe destruction system.

The series could cut away from our survivors and depict a resolute effort conducted by a handful of French scientists to develop a vaccine.

Something like this won’t happen until the ratings start to slip, because as long as the cash flows, the zombies will continue to shamble along.

What does this have to do with Los Angeles?

Our city was afflicted by the zombie apocalypse years ago.

80% of the registered voters stay home for local elections. They are effectively the undead. As a result, we are governed by officials who take advantage of the apathy and allow their followers to live off the sweat and blood of the rest of us.

And like Rick Grimes and his band of survivors, too many of us break off on their own to no positive effect, rather than uniting and consolidating with the objective of reviving the walking dead, possibly enough to run the bad guys out of town.

What end game would you prefer?

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Thoroughly Modern Millie was a Tony Award winner.

State Senator Bob Hertzberg is rolling out his own sequel.  The only problem is the production cost.

Actually, the real problem is we will be the ones bankrolling it if Bob gets the green light. It is the most expensive tax scam concocted, more than California HSR.

I’m talking about SB-8. Bob’s name for it is the Upward Mobility Act.  Who can’t like something with a name like that? Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock would be proud of the deception used to promote it.

Hertzberg claims it is about “modernizing” our tax system, to align it with our service-sector dominated economy of today. He correctly points out that the current approach to taxation was developed back when the goods-producing sector (manufacturing, mining and agriculture) was the revenue driver.

However, his modernization logic is irrelevant and baseless.

Service providers and their counterparts in the goods sector pay income taxes, as they always have.  A dollar of net income counts the same for a service sector firm or provider as it does for a manufacturer, mining operator or farmer. It always has.  The size of each broad industry segment in relation to the other does not impact total income. Income, from whatever the source, is fungible, just like money.

Bob’s energy would be better utilized if he led the charge to cull tax breaks and government programs that have outlived their usefulness, as well as tackle the state’s very expensive employee compensation and benefits.

So why is he blowing smoke by falsely correlating the objective of SB-8 with the ever-changing nature of the economy?

Because he wants your money: $10 billion more per year of it.  No matter the noble purposes he has in mind for the additional taxes, it is going to cost a large segment of the population big time.

Part of the increase, perhaps a big chunk, will come from levying a sales tax on services.  No matter how you cut it, it will disproportionately  burden middle income taxpayers, who would pay it on vital services such as insurance, tax preparation, legal costs to defend themselves in court, communications, car repairs…you name it.  It is not too different in concept from the Stamp Act of 1765.

The sales tax rate has more than doubled since 1962. Let’s make an already regressive tax even more onerous by applying it to everyday services!

But wait!

Bob said there would be a reduction in income taxes across the board.

Let’s see – half of the state’s income tax revenue is paid by the top 1% of earners, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office,  very progressive to say the least. Perhaps Bob will reduce rates for middle-income taxpayers much more than for the wealthy, but even he recognizes the dangerous volatility associated with relying on the wealthiest segment to carry most of the income tax load. Such a move would magnify that dependence. On the flip side, a proportional cut to all brackets would greatly diminish income tax paid by the wealthiest.

No matter what, middle- and low- income earners, who pay relatively little personal income tax today, stand to benefit the least from an income tax cut. They have far more to lose than gain with SB-8’s strategy.

According to an article in the Sacramento Business Journal, Governor Brown expressed reservations about SB-8:

Politically, the idea of applying the sales tax rate to professional services would look like an attempt to “burden the ordinary folks.” 

The plan “may be logical with some green-eye-shaded accountants, but I don’t know that from the political point of view that is very viable”.

In response, Sen. Hertzberg said the governor had not seen the completed tax proposal and he thinks Brown would change his mind.

“People are making assumptions on limited information and it’s just not accurate. The governor is a brilliant guy … I think he will like the proposal when he sees what it will look like.”

If anyone is to be blamed for limited information, it is the senator, himself. Hertzberg introduced the bill back in December 2014.  That’s seven months ago, sufficient time to share with the public its criteria and mechanism….and maybe even an estimate summarizing how much of the $10 billion per year each segment of the population could be expected to bear. And he hasn’t even briefed the governor despite the wide-ranging implications of the bill?

He is behaving like a car salesman who withholds negative information about the product in hopes of inducing the customer to sign on the dotted line.

At least there is a lemon law providing some degree of protection for the customer who buys a shiny new car.

If SB-8 becomes law, good luck on getting relief.

SB-8 would be the largest permanent tax increase in the history of the state. It would require a voter initiative for final approval, but do not expect transparency in how it would be worded in the ballot. After all, it is all about modernization.

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I’ve watched the Godfather saga many times.

It is very difficult to pick a favorite supporting character from an ensemble cast which is still, in my view, the strongest ever assembled.

One of my personal favorites was Alex Rocco, who played the irascible Moe Green, a Las Vegas casino owner whose character was inspired by Bugsy Siegel.

Alex Rocco passed away at his home in Studio City over the weekend.

A movie about Moe would have made a worthwhile spinoff project – a no-nonsense casino operator with ties to the mob, trying to run an efficient business while balancing the demands of the bosses with the requirements of the Nevada Gaming Commission.

But we did get a spinoff of sorts.

It was Casino. with the role of the casino operator played by Robert De Niro, another of the Godfather saga’s memorable supporting actors.

De Niro’s character in Casino, Sam “Ace” Rothstein, was also based on an actual person – Frank Rosenthal.

The contrast in management styles between Greene (Rocco) and Rothstein (De Niro) would be worthy of a Harvard Business School case study.

Greene’s unabashed tirade about why he slapped Michael Corleone’s brother, Fredo, in front of the casino’s patrons is 180 degrees from Rothstein’s measured defense of his firing of an incompetent brother-in-law of a gaming commissioner.

The results speak for themselves – Rothstein lived a long life; Moe was shot through the eye by a Corleone family hitman while enjoying a massage.

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According to the lyrics from the memorable theme to Never on Sunday (enjoy the trailer), it is OK to kiss in Greece except for Sunday.

However, on this past Sunday, July 5th, Greek voters invited the EU to kiss them. I need not mention the part of the anatomy, though.

Contrary to some extreme views, this does not mean the end of western civilization or the EU, but neither can it be shrugged off by the major trading blocks around the world. The Asian markets have opened way down as of the wee hours of the morning in North America.

There are also adverse strategic implications, not the least of which involves Russia’s ruling sociopath, Vladimir Putin.

Let’s review the financial data first:

Greece’s national debt is  €342bn, including €220bn in bailout funds owed to EU partners.

Payments on the EU debt extend out to 2055, but the lion’s share is due before 2040 and €17bn over the next two years. It may as well be ten times the amount – the Greek banks are almost out of cash.

A switch to a new currency can take any country up to two years with careful planning.  There is no meaningful planning underway and the Drachma would be worth a small fraction of the Euro in any event. All foreign debt is payable in the national currency of the lenders.  Greece would conceivably have to issue trillions in Drachmas to buy Euros in order to liquidate its current debt alone.

Initially, the Drachma might provide short-lived relief, but inflation will be certain to overwhelm the economy.

80% of the economy is in the services sector, and a large portion of that is from government spending.  In other words, Greece has little to sell to the rest of the world.

Tourism, which accounts for 17% of the Greek economy, has been the only bright spot in the crisis. However, Greeks should not count on it if their country devolves into social unrest, a likely prospect.  Tourists will be targeted by thieves for their cash and cards.  Service providers will operate a black market to avoid paying taxes.  Drachmas may not be readily accepted by merchants. Visitors will have to carry wads of Euros, Pounds and Dollars, since ATMs will be unreliable.

The EU nations will eventually be able to absorb the losses from a Greek default, though not without some pain and political repercussions.

The greater risk is social chaos and the possibility it could turn Greece into a haven for terrorists.  Face it, terrorists love to fill a vacuum created by disorder. Also, one cannot rule out armed fighting between extreme socialists and capitalist factions.

A repeat of the Greek Civil War of 1946-1949 would be possible.  80,000 were killed in the conflict.  The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan restored stability and stopped the spread of Communism. I am not suggesting that scale of death would occur.  The Greek army would intervene to maintain some degree of order, but thousands of deaths could still result.

Enter Vladimir Putin.

He has already expressed a desire to “help” Greece.

Even though the Russian economy is stretched, Putin has the power and popularity to push his people to make greater sacrifices in the name of Mother Russia. To be honest, it would be a strategic windfall for Russia if it were granted port facilities by Athens in return for financial support. Putin would hold the high ground of the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece would not only cease to be a functioning member of NATO, but become the Mediterranean base Russia always desired. Such a development could leave Ukraine helpless as its southern trade route would be compromised.

Israel would have to sweat, too, surrounded by an increasingly hostile set of neighbors.

We can only hope the Greeks will consider the long-term implications of their decision and not let the “no” vote become a Greek Tragedy.

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Stop and think.

What would you like your favorite baseball player to do in his final career at bat?

Sure, hit a homer, but you might be OK with any other type of hit. Maybe even working the pitcher into a long count and drawing a walk. Even a mighty swing and miss.

How about standing at the plate with the bat on his shoulders while watching helplessly at a called third strike?

I don’t think so.

But that’s what we got from Matt Weiner in Sunday night’s Mad Men finale.

It didn’t help having the hillside singers serenade us with the iconic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coca Cola jingle, even though Don Draper undoubtedly would have created the ad had he stayed with McCann Erickson.

I sure hope Weiner doesn’t orchestrate Ken Draper’s farewell when it comes time for him to leave Citywatch behind.

All of the other major characters had satisfactory closure, particularly Peggy Olson, Don’s protege, who found love with her assistant Stan.

The plot did not fast forward to Betty’s funeral as many fans (myself included) predicted, but that was OK, because it provided a classic scene with her and daughter Sally. Betty is last seen smoking away in spite of her terminal lung cancer, while Sally is taking command of the household. A dramatic changing of the guard.

All of that was fine, but the show has always been about Don (Dick Whitman) Draper’s journey. His coda was what the viewers wanted to see more than any other.

To have his final scene – sitting on a bluff, meditating with others at a self-awareness compound in California – brings to mind T.S.Eliot’s oft-quoted, final stanza from his poem, The Hollow Men: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”

It will be the whimper her ’round the world. I expect blogs and entertainment columns to refer to Weiner as a wiener.

I was not expecting Don to go out with a bang. All that nonsense about a D.B.Cooper escape from a plane was just so much tobacco smoke in a Sterling Cooper conference room.

I was not expecting a suicide or fatal accident either.

Instead, the ending was the equivalent of a lobotomy. Don deserved better – even death would have been preferable.

The final frames showed a smiling Don Draper, but it did not pack the same punch as the smiling Don Draper at the conclusion of the penultimate episode, where it was very apparent he had finally found the road to happiness, which echoed his vision of Bert Cooper’s spirit singing the Best Things in Life Are Free.

Weiner should have ended it then and there.

It was a step backward in the plot at the worst possible time.

It brought back the awful memory of the Sopranos’ fade-to-black betrayal of that show’s loyal fans.

I think I would have preferred a spoof of The Bob Newhart Show’s it-was-all-a-dream ending

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My daughter got us hooked on Mad Men.

It was one of those shows I had intended to watch, but it took a little push to get us started. That push was a Christmas gift -the DVD of Season 1 – about four years ago (DVD? How far we’ve come in a few short years!).

The opening scene had Don Draper sitting at a table in a smokey, dimly-lit, restaurant, sketching out some thoughts about a tobacco ad campaign on a cocktail napkin. He then asked the waiter what brand he smoked and why.

The waiter answered, “Old Gold.”

Don’s target client was Lucky Strike. So he asked the waiter why Old Gold was his brand of choice.

The waiter replied that he “loves smoking.”

The maitre d’ walked over and asked Don if the waiter, who was black, was bothering him. He did not stop to think that perhaps a well-dressed executive might engage in a conversation with a black waiter

This simple, short scene offered a gritty, realistic  image of 1960 society and culture – acceptance of smoking and racial stratification as norms. While smoking and race relations were not the prominent themes of the series, they were there in the background to some degree.  They served as a constant reminder of how different life was in the not-so-distant past.

I enjoy period shows that are true to the time and offer an unvarnished portrayal of characters and events.

Along that line, Mad Men delivered.

I have occasionally been inspired enough to refer to the show or its principal character, adverting genius Don Draper, in my articles.

In this, it’s final season, the plot is well into 1970.

How do you end a saga that follows a host of intriguing people over the course of a tumultuous decade?

Regardless of how it plays out this Sunday, I am sure many fans will be disappointed.

Writing an ending is much tougher than developing a plot.  It is tougher when the characters have become household favorites.

I am sure it will not be as disappointing as the final episode of the Sopranos, which cheated loyal fans out of closure with respect to the main character, Tony Soprano.  I can buy into life not always providing closure, but fictional film and TV programs are primarily meant to be entertainment, which means you owe the fans something in the end.  It does not have to be perfect, if perfection is even possible, but it should have an element of finality that one can use to project likely outcomes.

The last few episodes have set the stage for a story line that focuses on the two most important characters of the show – Don and his daughter Sally.  All of the other characters have had what can be described as curtain-call worthy scenes, my favorite one depicting Peggy Olson traipsing into the offices of ultra-corporate McCann Erickson, conveying a bad girl image. It is easy to imagine her as one who will create waves which will either change the firm’s culture or propel her to a new career in advertising elsewhere. Either course is fulfilling to this fan.

Betty Draper Francis, Don’s ex-wife who has always been the most important relationship in his life regardless of his philandering, had the most poignant sendoff.  She was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given nine months to live, the price for a life of smoking, a habit featured throughout the series for almost all the key characters.

The envelope she left for Sally to open upon her death contained explicit instructions about her funeral but, more importantly, an expression of sincere love along with some sound advice about living. Sally, of course, opened the envelope soon after she received it and was deeply touched.  You could sense the inspiration it provided her. It also disposed of the ill-feelings harbored by Sally towards her mother.

Most certainly, all of this points to the plot flash-forwarding to 1971. It was a benchmark year for the tobacco and advertising industries – televised cigarette commercials were banned effective January 1. A fitting point in time for the series to end, made more so given the cause of Betty’s demise.

It would seem Betty will succumb to cancer around June, roughly nine months after the date of her letter to Sally. Therefore, it would be logical for the episode to pick up at or soon after her funeral.  This would also allow for some final farewells among the characters.  With the exception of Roger Sterling and Peggy, who appear willing to pursue a course with McCann Erickson for at least a limited time (probably Ted as well), everyone else appears to be on divergent paths, never to meet again.

This season started with the death of Rachel Menken, the department store mogul who Don respected as an equal in terms of independence.  She goes back to the very first season. The two became romantically involved, but she realized Don was not mature enough to warrant deeper involvement. Beginning and ending the season with memorial services for the two most meaningful women in Don’s life seems appropriate.

But Don must deal with one more challenge in his life.  He is already heading in a healthy direction; however, he is still a father to three children who will soon be without a mother.

The kids’ stepfather, Henry Francis, does not have the mindset or the tenor to be an effective parent.  If anything, he would be unable to cope with Sally’s independence and rapidly- progressing maturity, so important in her developing role as a surrogate mother to her much younger siblings.

Sally will need Don to resume an ongoing presence in caring for the family.  Despite Don’s failings over the years, he has always loved his children….and their mother. Sally will ask for his involvement.

As he has in the past, he will not run away from this obligation.  Over the final season, he has grown beyond seeking self-serving escapes from relationships, notwithstanding the dalliance with the waitress, the reason for which had its roots in the death of Rachel.

Perhaps the family will settle in New York; more likely move to California where he began life anew after returning from the Korean War with the stolen identity of Lieutenant Don Draper. It would not surprise me if that’s the impression left at the end.

Let’s hope Matt Weiner leaves us with a satisfying end to this brilliant series….not an ending that will leave us Mad.

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