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At 95, Dick Van Dyke is still the consummate showman - and he's desperate to get back onstage

By Geoff Edgers
At 95, Dick Van Dyke is still the consummate showman - and he's desperate to get back onstage
Dick Van Dyke at home in Malibu, Calif. A career that began in the 1940s has been interrupted by the pandemic.

LOS ANGELES - It's springtime in Los Angeles - the second spring of the covid-19 pandemic - and Dick Van Dyke, bearded, vaccinated and finished with his morning workout, admits he's antsy. His last singing gig took place on a Saturday night 15 months ago at the Catalina Jazz Club. He packed the house. They even had to cram in extra tables as Van Dyke, backed by horns, a rhythm section and his Vantastix singers, slid through a set that included Fats Waller, Nat King Cole and the title song from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

"Oh, God, I knew I liked it, but I didn't know how much I would miss it," he says of performing. "I really miss getting up in front of an audience."

The star of one of television's most revolutionary shows is 95. He's slowed down slightly in recent years - nagging arthritis and a gait abnormality known as drop foot force him to think before he skips - but compared with most everyone else, Van Dyke remains a step ahead. At home on this morning, he and his second wife, Arlene, 49, have already moved through sit-ups, stretches and the stationary bike.

Bathed in the Malibu sun, Van Dyke talks about a career that's stretched from the Truman administration and the sitcom revolution of the 1960s to his reinvention as a mustachioed, homicide-investigating doctor before coming full circle with that shiver-inducing leap onto a desk in the 2018 "Mary Poppins" sequel. And Van Dyke can't get far without praising his late friend Carl Reiner, the man who hired him in 1961 to put on that crisp suit so he could report to work as television writer Rob Petrie in "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

"I got the best damn comedy writing in the world," he says. "And then Walt (Disney) called me about 'Mary Poppins.' "

There are many who would say Van Dyke's upcoming Kennedy Center honor is long overdue. Not the recipient. He will often describe his success as a product of coincidence and chance. He even titled his 2012 memoir "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business." So Van Dyke remains awed by the honor.

"I'm trying to piece that together," he says. "How in the hell did I get to where I am? How did I get to a Kennedy award? You know, I never trained or did anything. I just enjoyed myself."

Just enjoyed myself. That's the Van Dyke mantra. The notion that simply by laughing, singing or falling over an ottoman - his trademark move in the original "Dick Van Dyke Show" opening - the energy can pass through any screen, big or small, to generate a smile.

"He makes people happy," says Chita Rivera, a friend since they co-starred on Broadway in "Bye Bye Birdie" in 1960. "His job in this life is to make a happier world."

"He sets off endorphins," says comedian Jim Carrey, who started watching Van Dyke as a boy in Canada and has incorporated some of his physical bits into his work. "If you can live a life and your name sets off endorphins, and people feel generally better when they hear your name than they did before they hear your name, that's amazing."

There was no plan. There was no backup plan. There was only a poor kid from Illinois who never took a dance lesson, dropped out of high school and, after a decade of bouncing between radio and television gigs, had the good fortune of being handed scripts that were so sharp a club sandwich could have delivered the punchlines. Except that last part is a lie. Words on a page don't come to life on their own. Reiner called Van Dyke the "most gifted performer I ever worked with" for a reason. The star could play a suburban husband, a frazzled employee or a gregarious party host without changing his tie. He had elastic limbs, perfect timing and the looks of a leading man.

"There's a little Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy, in him. A little Cary Grant in him. A little Astaire," says Norman Lear, the "All in the Family" creator. "I can't think of another Dick Van Dyke."

Richard Wayne Van Dyke grew up in Danville, Ill., during the Depression. His father, Loren, earned $25 a week - before taxes - selling cookies to grocery stores for the Sunshine Biscuit Co. It was not ideal. As a traveling salesman, Loren came home only on weekends.

Money was tight. One time, Dick, desperate for a bike like the other kids, mowed enough lawns to save up the $7 he'd need. He headed to his savings jar to retrieve it, but the cash was gone. "They had to use it to pay the light bill," Van Dyke says.

In Danville, the boy spent a lot of time at the movies. Fifteen cents bought a ticket to the Palace to see Westerns, Bela Lugosi's latest or slapstick comedies with Buster Keaton, the moody pratfall master, and Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel, the British-born comic with the bow tie and bowler, was a particular favorite and the young Van Dyke would practice his routines. Years later, after his own rise, Van Dyke tracked down the reclusive Laurel and visited him at home. When Laurel died in 1965, Van Dyke delivered his eulogy with a tearful Keaton sitting in the front row. "God bless all clowns," he said, delivering his hero's favorite poem, "The Clown's Prayer." "Who star in the world with laughter,/ Who ring the rafters with flying jest,/ Who make the world spin merry on its way."

A year later, he did the same at Keaton's funeral.

- - -

Van Dyke's show business career began in 1944, when he dropped out of high school in his senior year and joined the Army Air Forces, working as an entertainer. After World War II, he got a job as a radio announcer and, with a buddy, did a nightclub act that took them to California. That led to a series of small gigs until Van Dyke, now married and with children, bounced from Atlanta to New York, even hosting a talk show for a short time. It was at that last stop that Van Dyke walked into an audition for a new musical being directed by veteran dancer and actor Gower Champion. The show, "Bye Bye Birdie," was inspired by Elvis Presley and his time in the Army.

It was his big break, and it almost didn't happen. Early in previews, the show's producers wanted to dump the very green Van Dyke. But Champion fought them. And in the end, Van Dyke won a Tony for his performance as a neurotic songwriter named Albert Peterson. Of more significance, Reiner came to see the show one night. That's how he found his star.

Reiner had developed a sitcom, "Head of the Family," based on his experience on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows." In the pilot, he played the lead. But the network wasn't happy and Reiner cast Van Dyke to replace himself. He renamed the show and brought in newcomer Mary Tyler Moore to play Rob's wife, Laura.

There were other married men on TV and there were other young couples, but the Petries were not like them. Ward Cleaver did not spring up from the carpet during a dinner party as Van Dyke did in the first episode with his "Drunk Uncle" routine. Harriet Nelson wasn't about to impulsively bleach her hair after discovering a lone, gray strand, or burst into a hilarious, blubbering torrent of tears over it. And Lucy Ricardo, the brilliant trailblazer, didn't don her capri pants often enough to own the look. This wasn't "Leave It to Beaver," "Ozzie & Harriet" or "Father Knows Best."

"You didn't know what Robert Young did for a living," says director Rob Reiner, Carl's son. "You heard that Ozzie was a bandleader, but you never saw him do it. This showed the work life. And also there was a sexuality between Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore that didn't exist in the shows that preceded it."

Tina Fey, the future "Saturday Night Live" head writer and star, would watch reruns of the show after school. Later, as she crafted her own behind-the-scenes sitcom, "30 Rock," she understood the intangible quality possessed by Van Dyke.

"Obviously, he's a super gifted physical comedian," says Fey. "But there is just a warmth and likability that brings that show to life. You can have great jokes, but if they're coming out of a person everyone likes, the jokes are going to play even better."

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" would run for 158 episodes and five seasons. Two years into it, Disney cast Van Dyke as Bert, the chimney sweep in "Mary Poppins." His attempt at a cockney accent would be mocked by many - he would later joke that it was the "most atrocious in the history of cinema" - but Van Dyke's charm overcame everything. Julie Andrews, the film's star, still remembers the first day in rehearsals, when Van Dyke took her arm and they began to perform "Jolly Holiday."

"He began that huge, leggy step that he does," says Andrews. "His legs are like, what are they like, jelly sticks? I don't know. They bend in all ways."

Van Dyke lobbied Walt Disney to also let him play Mr. Dawes, the stooped, humorless bank boss. Disney resisted. He told Van Dyke he would have to audition for the role. So he did. Then he told Van Dyke he would not be paid extra for the part. In fact, if he wanted to be Mr. Dawes, the actor would have to contribute $4,000 to Disney's campaign to fund the California Institute of the Arts. Van Dyke took out his checkbook.

- - -

Out here in Malibu, in the modest, single-story home he bought from actress Margot Kidder in 1986, Van Dyke has a life-size, silicone Bert in "Jolly Holiday" colors next to the piano and a few keepsakes on display, including a photograph of President Barack Obama adjusting his bow tie during a 2011 event honoring South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Prominently on display is a portrait of Laurel by Van Dyke's grandson Wes and a case containing Keaton's pool cues, a gift from the silent film star.

On the patio out back, Arlene Van Dyke, a makeup artist who married Van Dyke in 2012, has done her best to assemble sitting areas so that people can visit during the pandemic. Her husband needs that company. He finds it hard to be isolated.

In 2009, Van Dyke's partner of 30 years, the actress Michelle Triola, died of lung cancer at 76. He'd met Arlene at a Screen Actors Guild event, where she was working.

"I was talking to Cate Blanchett," he says. "And I saw her go by and I said, 'Excuse me,' and went right over. And then I said, 'Hi, I'm Dick.' That's the only time in my life I ever introduced myself to a strange woman."

He had watched his friends, Reiner and Mel Brooks, adapt after losing their wives. He doesn't know how they did it.

"I can't be alone," he says. "I couldn't be a bachelor if my life depended on it. I have to have a partner and I found the perfect one."

"Put on a Happy Face" isn't just Van Dyke's signature anthem from "Bye Bye Birdie." It's also how he lives, whether onstage or leading an impromptu sing-along of "A Spoonful of Sugar" after getting his vaccine shot.

There is nothing fake about this public persona, though it comes with a caveat. Not everything is for public consumption and not every frustration or tension needs to be shared.

Which is why there are no stories of Van Dyke brooding in his trailer or storming off a sound stage. In 1974, when he went on host Dick Cavett's talk show and revealed that he was an alcoholic, the general reaction was one of surprise. That's because he drank by himself, never showed up bleary-eyed on set and always maintained his professionalism and, also, when it came to his personal life, his distance.

"I want to say it so well that I convey how much I really do adore him," says Andrews. "You never got deeply beneath the surface as one sometimes does with people that you work with. In a way, that's what I mean by being a little guarded. It was something that he had as an ethic, a kind of friendship ethic, a work ethic."

To hear Van Dyke describe it, this approach, unruffled even when he's struggling, is just part of his personality.

"I think you're born with it," he says. "I seldom get down or depressed. I don't want to waste a minute when I could be enjoying life."

Take Van Dyke's short, unpleasant run as a co-star of "The Carol Burnett Show" in 1977. He had signed on after Harvey Korman left the cast and, from the start, something just wasn't right. The writers still seemed to be coming up with material for Korman. Burnett sensed the unrest, yet she didn't hear much complaining.

"He was putting on this thing like he was OK and it was all right," says Burnett, explaining how his three months on the show came to an end. "Finally, he said, you know, 'I'm just not happy. I'm not doing for you what I felt I should be doing.' He was very sweet and I said, 'Don't say another word.' "

- - -

In 1966, Carl Reiner wrapped up "The Dick Van Dyke Show." He wanted to go out strong and he worried that, after more than 150 episodes, the show would grow stale. As much as Van Dyke wanted to continue, he had plenty of movie offers. But what he found quickly is that Bert and Rob Petrie were not easily forgotten. When he made family-friendly films - "Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N." or "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" - audiences responded. When he tried to do something different - Lear's "Divorce American Style" or Reiner's underappreciated masterpiece, "The Comic" - he would be ignored or, even worse, called out by critics for playing a "new" Dick Van Dyke. There was also "The Morning After," a 1974 made-for-television film in which he played an alcoholic. In one scene, Van Dyke crawled on the floor of his bathroom, unshaven and crying uncontrollably.

"The Morning After" had special significance. In the early 1970s, Van Dyke and his first wife, Margie, who had gotten married in 1948, were struggling. She didn't want to live in Los Angeles and pressured Van Dyke to retire. They bought a horse ranch in Arizona and moved to the desert.

"And I think Dad went nuts," says Chris Van Dyke, the oldest of his four children. "He could not work and he could not entertain and express himself through everything he does."

Which led to more drinking and, eventually, the bottom. One morning in 1972, Van Dyke woke up hung over and depressed. He checked himself into a three-week treatment program at a hospital in Arizona. There would be relapses, but by the early 1980s, he had his last drink. He and Margie would also divorce. He went through the same battle with smoking. A doctor took an X-ray that showed Van Dyke on the path to emphysema, which had killed his father. He still chews nicotine gum, but it's been 30 years since his last smoke.

"It was an incredibly dark time," says Chris Van Dyke. "His way out of it was to stop drinking, to stop smoking, and he got back to work doing what he loved."

It did take time to get his footing. A variety show, launched in 1976, lasted only a year. So did a sitcom, "The Van Dyke Show," he did in 1988 with his son, Barry. Then, in 1991, he played Dr. Mark Sloan in a guest spot on the CBS series "Jake and the Fatman." That led to "Diagnosis: Murder," a series that lasted from 1993 until 2001.

"It was just the greatest run for me," Van Dyke says. "I enjoyed every minute of that. I've seldom done anything that I didn't like. And I found out if I don't like what I'm doing, I'm no good."

Which is why some of Van Dyke's favorite performances have very little to do with ratings or awards.

He thinks about a sketch with Burnett on his short-lived variety show in 1976. He plays an elderly man who's approached by her classic, purse-clutching, old lady character. He's working on an origami duck made of folded newspaper, which he agrees to let her hold.

"Be mighty careful with it," he tells her. "It's my most treasured possession. I worked on it for 37 years."

The script calls for her to absent-mindedly unfold and ruin his "most treasured possession" and cut to a commercial break. Instead, after the act, Van Dyke declares, "I wish you hadn't have done that," and delivers a left hand below the belt. Burnett punches back and they engage in an all-out, slow-motion brawl, rolling on the ground, smashing into scenery, two minutes of improvised physical brilliance that ends up on the air.

"It was not staged, it was not planned," says Burnett. "It was one of those things. It was one of the most fun things I've ever done performance-wise."

He is thinking of that now as the country begins to open up. Van Dyke feels great, but he also knows so many of his friends are gone: Mary, Carl, Tim Conway.

"It's kind of odd being the age where you can die in your sleep," he says, a rare, dark reference that quickly passes.

As he talks, Arlene and one of the couple's assistants bring out mementos and items of significance: a photo with Van Dyke and Astaire posing outside "Birdie," a drawing by Carrey and note ("without you, there might not have been a me") showing the younger comic practicing a pratfall as he watched "The Dick Van Dyke Show," the Keaton pool cues. Van Dyke is mildly interested, but he gets excited when he's asked about performing again. He would like to be up there as soon as he can.

It might not be easy to get the Vantastix, his singing group, rolling right away. His baritone moved to Oregon. But Van Dyke has been mulling another idea.

"I've got an hour and a half put together like a one-man show," he says. "Gregory Peck went out and did it and Cary Grant did it. Just sit in a chair to have a little footage to show and talk about their lives."

Van Dyke, still in his gray exercise sweatpants and purple shirt, pauses as he considers being in front of an audience again.

"I've got so much material."

- - -

"The Kennedy Center Honors" will air at 8 p.m. EDT June 6 on CBS.

This Siberian town lost everything when the mill closed. It's now struggling to find a future.

By Isabelle Khurshudyan
This Siberian town lost everything when the mill closed. It's now struggling to find a future.
Albina Ergina is a local historian and a director of the culture center in Baikalsk, Russia. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Elena Anosova

BAIKALSK, Russia - One of Russia's most infamous polluters is still standing - long abandoned but looming over the town that once depended on it for jobs and an identity.

The Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill was shuttered eight years ago after a long campaign by environmentalists who said the Soviet-era plant was for decades spewing waste into Siberia's Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage site that contains about 20 percent of the world's freshwater reserves.

What's become of Baikalsk, located more than 3,000 miles east of Moscow and just north of the Mongolian border, is Russia's version of America's Rust Belt and other areas that have fallen on hard times as economies shift and the world becomes more mindful of industrial pollution.

But the story of Baikalsk is also a uniquely Russian one: one of the country's approximately 300 "monogorods," single-factory towns built during the Soviet Union, now on the brink of extinction and feeling forgotten by its government.

The Kremlin's promises to create economic alternatives for Baikalsk, including making it into a tourist destination or even an "ecotown" have gone nowhere. With few job opportunities, Baikalsk has bled population since the plant shut down, from more than 17,000 people to about 12,000.

"A lot of people couldn't deal with this tragedy," said Albina Ergina, a local historian and a director of the town's culture center. "There was a wave of suicides because people felt like they lost their purpose."

It remains an environmental hazard, too. Although the government closed the factory, its reservoirs filled with about 6.5 million tons of the mill's lignin sludge - the waste produce from pulp and paper mills - which environmentalists say is especially dangerous in an area prone to earthquakes.

Just as with the town itself, the government has been undecided about how to deal with the toxic pools. Last fall, Moscow appointed the state nuclear energy corporation to use its waste-disposal expertise to resolve the issue by 2024.

"We've just kind of gotten used to all of this," Ergina said. "No one is even really interested in it anymore. The important thing is what's happening today, for whoever has a job not to lose it or for whoever doesn't have a job to find one. And there's none to be found here."

Founded in 1966, the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill became one of the earliest targets of an ecological protest push in the Soviet Union. Environmentalists said the mill bleached paper with chlorine and discharged its wastewater into the lake, blaming it in part for the decline in the native Baikal seal and fish populations. A smell likened to rotten eggs permeated through the town.

According to data from Irkutsk registries obtained by Marina Rikhanova, an Irkutsk-based environmentalist, death rate from respiratory diseases in Baikalsk was almost three times the nationwide average in 2009, and two times the average of the Irkutsk region in eastern Siberia.

The mill employed about 3,500 people in its heyday. Boris Brysyuk was one of them. When he lost his job as a mill engineer, he bounced around other crafts. He briefly worked as an electrician before deciding he would be "a free artist."

His current project is making raisins and juice out of berries collected from the nearby Taiga forest. Brysyuk dreams of making his business mobile, creating a stand out of the trunk of his car and traveling along the crescent-shaped coast of Lake Baikal to sell his product.

"Adapting to the service industry isn't easy," Brysyuk said. "It didn't work out for me at first either. But you have to keep trying."

Few others in Baikalsk have been so entrepreneurial. Many men are forced to travel to other parts of Russia for work. With jobs in town so scarce, it's considered a place for retirees to settle. Some locals are able to earn cash by growing a sweet varietal of strawberries - the town has a festival every summer that brings in buyers from hours away.

But the mill's persisting presence, especially the sight of it decaying more with each year, is a heavy one for many residents. They once hoped a different factory would eventually replace the old one and give the town new purpose.

"This sense of community was tied to an object, which is the pulp and paper mill. As soon as this grandiose project stopped, this feeling of a big idea ended and that was it," said 38-year-old resident Evgeny Rakityansky. "There were no hitches for people to hold on to, people have no idea how to just be here, and they do not see a future."

Rakityansky spends his time volunteering and building hiking trails around Baikalsk, part of a dream of transforming the town into an ecotourism center.

But attempts have so far failed. There's a ski resort, but it mostly attracts people from neighboring regions on a short trip. Visitors from all over Russia and East Asia have flocked to Lake Baikal in recent years, but they rarely make it to Baikalsk.

Proposals for what to do with the old mill have included turning it into a museum.

"Who would look at all that stuff?" said Ergina, the historian. "Are they going to move people here so there'll be visitors to the museum?"

Although the pulp and paper mill itself is empty, the property isn't completely barren. In 2015, Igor Sherbakov opened a small factory for dried herbs on the site. The enterprise started with making teas and then expanded to other products, employing up to 50 locals before it had to cut back on its staffing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sherbakov, a yoga instructor, thought it fitting that an eco-business started anew in a place once known for harming the environment.

"What will become of the mill is the big question," Sherbakov said. "A person needs to find a balance between industry and the environment. What was here didn't follow any standards. My personal dream is that this town will become an eco-Mecca."

Everyone wants Garth Brooks on their side. He just wants everyone to get along.

By Emily Yahr
Everyone wants Garth Brooks on their side. He just wants everyone to get along.
Garth Brooks sings

NASHVILLE - OK, here's what happened at President Joe Biden's inauguration. Garth Brooks didn't mean to cause a slight delay. If anything, he joked, it was Barack Obama's fault. The country music icon was, as always, just doing what he was asked to do, which in this case was sing "Amazing Grace" on one of the highest-profile stages in the world.

When he was done, he shook Biden's hand. He shook former vice president Mike Pence's hand and Vice President Kamala Harris's hand, too. Brooks put his cowboy hat back on and was dutifully walking up the stairs to exit, he said, when Obama suddenly caught his attention with a quick, "How ya doin,' Garth?"

What would anyone do in that situation?

"I hugged his neck," Brooks explained. "Hugged Miss Michelle." Then he noticed the couple's seatmates. "As I'm hugging Miss Michelle, there's the Clintons - so I go over and hug them and tell them I love them. Then I hear this voice go, 'Hell, you love everybody.' I look over and there are the Bushes. Now, 41 - Jiminy Christmas, I worship that man and I worship his family. So I go hug them."

Brooks, sitting on a couch in his recording studio in Nashville last month, laughed at the memory. "And now I'm holding things up. It's like, 'Oh, crap!' So you just try and run as fast as you can and get out of there." His expression turned thoughtful. "It's gotta be some kind of record. I don't know who has hugged that many presidents in that short of time."

Really, you could not script a moment - which of course went viral - to more accurately capture the beloved icon that is Garth Brooks, the unifying megastar who redefined country music in the 1990s, leading its growth from niche format to global phenomenon. His combination of traditional country injected with rock and pop enchanted listeners who previously scoffed at the idea they could relate to anyone in a cowboy hat. He has sold out stadiums and arenas around the world by treating country shows like rock concerts, and has been certified by the Recording Industry Association of America as the top-selling solo artist in history, just ahead of Elvis Presley.

For all these reasons, Brooks, 59, will receive the Kennedy Center Honor in Washington, D.C., next week, one in a small class of country artists in the ceremony's 44-year history. As with any award he has won - every one you can think of - he waves off praise: "I just want to represent God and my family and where I'm from - Yukon, Okla. - the best I can."

Washington was where Brooks played his final concert before the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down the world. Last March, he dazzled a packed DAR Constitution Hall after being presented with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Brooks has thought about that night a lot. It was a particularly contentious time, yet politicians who were fighting earlier in the week were standing a few feet away from each other, all rocking out during an epic singalong of "Friends in Low Places."

"I couldn't tell who was red or blue ... but everyone singing the same lyric. It was like, how cool was that?" Brooks said. "It stayed with me, and it stayed with me for a reason. For me - and I don't know if everybody outside of D.C. is this way - there is no red or blue. For me, there's red, white and blue. It's us as a community."

That thought, he said, hit him as he took the stage at inauguration: "The thing that unites people is singing together."

A wistful view of the world? Sure - but it's not wrong. When you spend 30 years onstage looking at a sea of ecstatic faces, as fans from all walks of life go hoarse as they sing-scream "Callin' Baton Rouge" and openly weep during "The Dance," you start to believe that your purpose is to bring everyone together. Countless strangers tell you that your song was the first dance at their wedding, or played at their father's funeral, or changed their lives, and you never want to upset any of them. You're the escape from their burdens, the soundtrack to their most joyful and difficult moments.

Brooks takes this role seriously, so it's no surprise he doesn't like talking about politics and with very few exceptions will not wade into contentious issues. (He agreed to sing at Biden's inauguration not as a political statement but rather "a statement of unity.") As a result, everyone wants him on their side. Nearly every president in the past three decades has asked him to perform at a high-profile event.

Still, Brooks is too savvy and too famous to believe that he can please every single person. He vigorously dismissed the idea that he was worried about alienating anyone with an appearance at the inauguration in this very divisive time.

"If I do something that pisses you off that makes you want to burn the CDs, burn them," he said. "I'm not running for president, so I'm not trying to be everything to everybody. All I can be is myself. And if you dig that, great. If you don't? World's big enough. Thank you for the chance to listen."

At this point in his career, he said, he remains grateful for the fans who stand by him no matter what. "I just gotta be who I am. And if that means zero people show up or a billion people show up, you still are who you are."

Spending time in person with Garth Brooks is everything and nothing like you would expect. Warm and chatty, he lives up to his longtime image as the nicest guy in Nashville. He will inquire about where your parents live and if you had any side effects from the coronavirus vaccine. He will say "Hello, gorgeous" to his wife, country music star and Food Network host Trisha Yearwood, when she drops by. After you discover a shared love of M&Ms, he will reveal one of his favorite recipes, albeit one that would never appear in one of "Miss Yearwood's" cookbooks: Put plain M&Ms in a bowl and microwave them for 60 seconds. He calls it "mayhem," because of the two M's. (While this plays a bit fast and loose with the word "recipe," we can confirm it is delicious.)

He's not just that way with reporters: His friend Billy Joel - whose smash "Shameless" is one of Brooks's most successful covers - recalled meeting Brooks in the 1990s and, as a rough-around-the-edges New Yorker, was taken aback by his Midwestern manners.

"He called me 'Mr. Joel' and he kept calling me 'sir,' which made me uncomfortable," Joel said. "I said, 'Stop calling me 'sir,' call me Bill.' He was very, very polite and I appreciated that, because I wasn't used to it in any way ... it's very charming."

Brooks is also almost jarringly intense. During an hour-long interview, he teared up no fewer than six times. Brooks cries a lot: when he sings an especially meaningful ballad, when other artists pay tribute to him at award shows, when he talks about his family in his recent documentary, "The Road I'm On." On this day, he was feeling especially raw. In the middle of telling a story about performing in front of his hero James Taylor at the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors, he choked up and had to stop.

"I'm sorry," he said, rubbing his eyes. "Whenever a song comes to you to write, it knocks on your door. I've had this idea for 14, 15 months and today, it picks the day to go, 'Hey, I'm here.' It's a real emotional song, so forgive me."

Brooks did not reveal the lyrics, but there's little doubt that it could make anyone cry. His enormous catalogue spans the universal human experience: the rollicking thrill of young love in "Ain't Goin' Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up)," chasing dreams in "The River," living without regret in "Unanswered Prayers," drinking with abandon in "Two Pina Coladas." His most iconic anthem taps into the ultimate relatable feeling: Who among us doesn't have the secret desire to blame it all on your roots, show up in boots and ruin a black-tie affair?

Growing up in central Oklahoma, the youngest of six children in a blended family, Brooks absorbed all kinds of sounds: the Eagles, Bob Seeger, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Taylor.

"Father was U.S. Marine, Mom was tougher than he was. So it was a tough house," Brooks said. "But if you came home and heard James Taylor playing ... you knew that things were going to be great."

As the story goes, Brooks - who decided he wanted to be a country singer in college after hearing George Strait on the radio - lasted 23 hours on his first trip to Nashville when he learned he was making more money playing with his band at dance halls in rural Oklahoma than many professional songwriters in Music City. He returned home, sulked for a while, then hit the local venues with a vengeance.

Two years later, newly married to his first wife Sandy Mahl and with fresh ambition, he tried again and became a classic Nashville tale: Music executive Bob Doyle, still his manager today, heard him play at the Bluebird Cafe and offered him a publishing deal. In June 1988, Brooks signed a recording contract with Capitol Records, and nine months later released his first single, "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)." He was 27.

The midtempo track about life on the road shot up the country charts, and his next single, the swooning "If Tomorrow Never Comes" went No. 1. Thus the start of the Garth Brooks explosion: His first three albums from 1989 through 1991 ("Garth Brooks," "No Fences," "Ropin' the Wind") sold tens of millions of copies. Then he started selling out stadiums.

"There were arena acts in country music at that point, by the late '80s and early '90s, but Garth eclipsed that by the power of 10 in terms of going to stadiums," said country star Dwight Yoakam, whom Brooks credits as one of his onstage inspirations, along with Reba McEntire, Chris LeDoux and the Judds. "He was the first act in country to really take it to that level, and to sustain it with the sales he had. He transcended the previous boundaries."

A country star's dizzyingly quick ascent shocked the music world, so naturally, there were naysayers. One narrative was that Brooks was scandalizing the idea of "real" country music because he incorporated rock music into tracks like "Papa Loved Mama" and covered Aerosmith. In 1991, the New York Times sniffed that Brooks wasn't "truly a country singer" and instead was "an old-fashioned and sensitive singer-songwriter." Looking back, and considering the blend of genres that wound end up dominating country radio, such comments did not age well.

"That stuff's stone country now," Brooks laughed.

He also inspired future Nashville singers. "I remember some people then that were way older than me, and they were talking about how 'this kid' was just going to ruin country music," said breakout country star Ashley McBryde, who recently joined Brooks for a songwriting session. "Are you kidding? To me, that was the golden era of country music."

"It was hilarious that people were thinking 'This is too rock' or 'This is too pop' or 'This is going to ruin country music,' " she added, "when he wound up shaping a generation of us in the best way."

When a celebrity becomes so popular so quickly, everyone searches for the reason. What's the magic formula?

Brooks's unprecedented rise occurred as country music was enjoying a cultural resurgence, with acts such as Strait, Yearwood, McEntire and Randy Travis selling millions of records and concert tickets. His popularity coincided with the launch of Nielsen SoundScan in 1991, a new measurement system that tracked record sales and was proof of his jaw-dropping numbers. And then there's what we call the live Garth experience.

"I think people were taken aback by the performance element of it all," Brooks said. "I don't know why, but somewhere there must have been a rule that people onstage couldn't have as much fun as the people in the audience."

He decided to break that rule. Brooks concerts meant pyrotechnics and laser lights and fog machines and sometimes stunts involving swinging on cables and ropes over the crowd. He would run to every point of the stage, trying to get as close to fans as possible, and his exuberance was infectious. His headset - the kind that pop stars like Janet Jackson and Britney Spears popularized - has been a long-running joke: "As a cowboy, I don't know what I'd do without my wireless headset microphone," he said during a "Saturday Night Live" sketch with Will Ferrell in 1998 that poked fun at his elaborate concert setups.

"He works that stage and he doesn't let up for a second," Joel said. "You gotta knock yourself out on that stage, and that's what he does every time he plays."

Even with his years of concerts that have broken attendance records, Brooks has vivid memories from his days as an opening act. At one festival, his bass player accidentally knocked out the power to everything except Brooks's guitar and microphone. He froze, not sure how to kill enough time for someone to fix the problem. So he started playing the longest song he knew: "A long, long time ago, I can still remember, how that music used to make me smile ..."

The crowd roared. Brooks teared up at the memory. "We only had 15 minutes ... but what worked well in our favor was we couldn't come back. So they wanted more than they got," he said. "So then when we booked there again, there they came. People showed up."

Brooks may have a reputation as the superstar with a heart of gold ("He's so sweet that you'll get a cavity just talking to him," McBryde said), but he won't back down when he believes in something.

The lyrics of the 1992 hit "We Shall Be Free" called for equality and imagined a day "when we're free to love anyone we choose." Support for LGBTQ rights was considered so progressive in country music at the time that Brooks won a GLAAD Media Award for best song. Brooks co-wrote the track in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that broke out after four police officers were acquitted for beating Black motorist Rodney King. Brooks said he's "stunned" by how timely the song still is today.

"What I've seen is the song become more like it was written yesterday than it was 25 years ago," he said. "It's like come on, people, how can we be going backward? Really? Loving one another shouldn't be this hard."

Throughout his career, Brooks has tried to offer support to others in ways that made a statement. He started his own streaming service, GhostTunes, to compensate songwriters fairly for their work; it was absorbed by Amazon Music, the only place that streams his discography. He took himself out of consideration for the Country Music Association's entertainer of the year title last year because he won so many times before. In 1996, he refused to accept the American Music Awards favorite artist of the year trophy, leaving it onstage because he felt it should have gone to Hootie and the Blowfish.

"We were really still just these kids from South Carolina that had hit this wave," said Darius Rucker, Hootie frontman and contemporary country music star. "When he left (the trophy) there and then he said what he said, it really validated what we were doing out there and how hard we were working. It made it even cooler that somebody like Garth Brooks noticed."

Brooks also still steadfastly believes in Chris Gaines, his rocker alter-ego from 1999, whom he positioned as a fictional character that would be the star of an eventual movie. A Gaines album "flopped" - it sold only around 2 million copies, a real disappointment back then - and the movie never happened. Gaines became a laughingstock.

Naturally, Gaines has since become a cult phenomenon, and Brooks recently teased in a Facebook live stream there are some lost tracks that could be on the way soon. Brooks confirms that if anything, that announcement was an understatement.

"What I love about the Gaines stuff is, no matter how badly it got the s--- kicked out of it when it came out, the music is the thing that has stayed over time," he said. "If people are excited about it, that's why ... I don't know how to take this, but (Miss Yearwood) says that's her favorite Garth Brooks record."

After Brooks and his first wife filed for divorce in 2000, he shocked the world by taking 14 years off to help raise his three daughters, saying he needed to spend time with them after years on the road. In 2005, he married Yearwood, and their careers are frequently intertwined. Since his "comeback" in 2014, Brooks has steadily toured stadiums and released music; his current single is a duet with Yearwood, a cover of the Oscar-winning "Shallow" from the latest iteration of "A Star Is Born."

Right now, like everyone else, he's patiently waiting until life can return to "normal" post-pandemic. He will resume his stadium tour in July. But he's excited for the smaller moments to return.

"I'd probably break down if I got to stare at my wife across the table at a restaurant," he said, becoming emotional again. "Just see the candlelight on her face and just stare at her and just order dinner and never eat. And look at her and talk to her. How cool would that be? A waiter coming by and ask if you need anything? I can't help but feel I was taking things for granted. Because those things seem very special now."

And later this month, he will be in Washington to accept his Kennedy Center Honor for a career that still seems surreal - but may be the exact one he was meant to have.

"People go, 'That's not possible' or 'That's too much work.' I've been told that my whole life," he said. "And you know what? Once you start doing the work, a lot of impossible things start to be possible."

- - -

"The Kennedy Center Honors" will air at 8 p.m. EDT June 6 on CBS.

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The new book of revelations

By gene weingarten
The new book of revelations

BELOW THE BELTWAY COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, May 23, 2021, and thereafter

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By Gene Weingarten

Dear expectant parents,

I am writing today with some ideas for your "gender reveal" party. That is the glorious day on which you gather your friends and relatives and colleagues to brag in a reckless, melodramatically kinetic way about your astounding accomplishment of having found out what your baby's genitalia will look like (though in comically miniature form). And sure, it can be argued that each such celebration is driven by bigotry, since your reveal is, by design, a celebration of the wonderfulness of this binary detail, ergo, a rejection of the alternative. If it were NOT in fact a joyous reveal -- if it were an either/or-but-who-really-cares-we're-just-happy-to-be-here announcement -- that would underscore the blinding stupidity of the entire event, and the very industry of ostentatious American self-celebration, as we know it, would collapse in an acrid stew of its own vapidity. So ... it's a girl! Yaaay! We definitely dodged a bullet there!

And sure, it can also be argued that absolutely no one but you gives a crap about the sex of the baby -- it's not even important to British royalty anymore, now that new laws of primogeniture certify that girls are actually people. In terms of stakes, a gender-reveal party is as though you threw a soiree to reveal which internet provider you had selected.

But I am not here to be cynical, or fault-finding. You newly expectant parents apparently demand your Special Day, and I am here to accommodate you with ideas.

Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking: Wait a minute, hasn't there been some ... (BEG ITAL)bad publicity(END ITAL) about these events? Doesn't something embarrassing seem to happen at half of these parties as cameras are rolling: a piñata that can't be battered open, a live alligator that couldn't be persuaded to chew open a balloon -- or worse? Didn't the pyrotechnics at one start a 23,000-acre wildfire? Didn't the pilots of a small plane -- a chartered gender-reveal plane squirting girly pink smoke -- expire when their plane plummeted into a lagoon? Didn't one guy fire a gender-reveal air cannon that unexpectedly erupted out the back, clobbering the portion of the dad's anatomy responsible for the gender-reveal party itself?

Yes, yes, but that's no reason to back off like some sort of wuss. You have to double down! After Ford failed with its Edsel -- the company mistakenly thought Americans would like a car that looked like a toaster -- did it quit trying to be wild and different? It did not! The carmaker quickly designed the Ford Gyron, a big sedan with only one tire in the front and one in the back, the whole thing held erect by gyroscopes! It was insane! No one ever bought one. But my point is, Ford didn't give up! Neither should you. If life hands you lemons, explode them with dynamite in a garbage can!

So, here are three modest gender-reveal ideas, all of which do away with the trite pink-or-blue conceit.

1. The expectant dad walks into the backyard carrying a live chicken and a bazooka. He puts the chicken in the branches of a tree, walks back 20 feet, aims and vaporizes the tree (BEG ITAL)and(END ITAL) the chicken. As friends and neighbors watch in silent awe, confused, benumbed, the father lowers the launcher and stage-growls the absolutely unnecessary: "It's a boy."

2. High-anxiety, highly cerebral party-game time! Guests are each issued a cold bottle of beer and asked to participate in a contest to guess the sex of the baby. They are told that if they are smart they should already know the answer. Two large cages have been placed on the lawn, one labeled "male" and the other "female." After everyone enters the cage of his or her choice, the cages are locked. Then the hosts start firing steel-tipped lawn darts at the male cage, one every second or two! People cringe and cover their eyeballs. The barrage will end only when someone in the besieged cage figures it out and blurts out their mistake: They should have known the baby was a girl because the beer they'd been handed was Dos Equis!

3. Father and mother walk onto the lawn. Mom produces a festive, flimsy piñata. Dad applies a fungo bat. The thing explodes and out comes a color of powder seldom seen in nature. No one has any idea what to make of it. Mom explains, quietly, that this is periwinkle, an equal mixture of pink and blue, the only reveal that honors the power of their child to define him, her or their self, without the weight of the world's oppressive expectations. Mom then reminds the assembled of what is reputed to have been the very first gender-reveal party, in Chicago, in 2008, where the reveal was in the color of icing inside a cake. Shocking pink. The baby's name was Bianca. These days, judging from Instagram, Bianca favors short cropped hair and rocks the look of men's-style suits and a very proud and defiant expression. At this new gender-reveal party, amazingly, nothing -- and no one -- blows up.

- - -

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten.

How not to give a commencement address

By kathleen parker
How not to give a commencement address

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, May 16, 2021, and thereafter

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By Kathleen Parker

It's well-known by now that Bob Caslen, the suddenly former president of the University of South Carolina, resigned last week following a commencement address that he, well, flubbed pretty badly.

He welcomed the graduates as the new alumni of the "University of California." Ouch.

More important, he plagiarized.

When someone within stage-whispering distance reminded Caslen where he was, he quickly corrected himself, saying "Carolina," but not "South Carolina."

Then, with an embarrassed chuckle, he said to the audience of graduates, "I owe you push-ups."

Caslen, you see, is a push-up kind of guy, a career military man who regularly invited students to join him at the gym, where he put himself -- and those who showed up -- through a grueling workout.

His plagiarism consisted of two paragraphs he borrowed without attribution from another commencement address by, of all people, retired Adm. William H. McRaven, possibly the best-known military man in the United States, who planned the takedown of Osama bin Laden. Caslen was deeply apologetic, saying he added the words at the last minute and "failed to cite" him.

It's not the worst crime in the world -- but it is certainly less than ideal if you happen to be the president of a university where academic rules apply. Among those rules: Do not crib from another's work without credit.

Caslen's resignation, after almost two years as president, was an unfortunate end to a job he probably never should have been offered -- or accepted.

A retired U.S. Army general and former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Caslen's candidacy was met with protests by students who objected to his suggestion, in a stream-of-consciousness talk, that sexual assault and binge drinking go hand-in-hand. Caslen failed to put a period at the end of one sentence before beginning another, making it sound like he was blaming victims.

Caslen wasn't a first choice for the University of South Carolina's board of trustees, either. He was approved after a nudge from Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who is also a board member. That bit of pressure earned the school an inquiry from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

For a state such as South Carolina, rich in military installations, it might have seemed to some that a military bigwig is just what we needed to run our biggest university. If so, that was obviously flawed thinking.

Almost from the start, people didn't like the cut of his jib, his lack of social graces, or his inability to speak in ways that made people feel good and want to write checks. He didn't have a PhD or a research background, weaknesses that may explain his lack of attention to attribution and certainly earned him the suspicion of some faculty members.

He had friends in high places -- he was once a contender for a top job in Donald Trump's White House. And Caslen's military training -- including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan - proved invaluable during the pandemic. He tightened the school's cyber defenses and ran a tight ship during the shutdown that kept many students in classes and infections on the low side.

If he hadn't stepped on his tongue so many times, or if he'd mastered the manners required to run an institution of more than 30,000 students, he would still be at his post. Caslen's skills were tailor-made to manage a deadly health crisis that scared everybody else to death. Even his critics give him that much.

Caslen's fast rise and fall suggest a mini-commencement address of its own:

We are right to push ourselves to try new things. We are also sometimes slow to recognize our own limitations. Managing this tug of war with ourselves is a lifetime challenge. I like to tell young people to "try big." Because it is better to try big and fail big than not to try at all.

More important than that, though, we are all more than our worst mistake. The now-departed Caslen spent more than 40 years in uniform and fought in three wars. That is accomplishment enough.

- - -

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

Democracy depends on two guys named Joe

By e.j. dionne jr.
Democracy depends on two guys named Joe

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

Advance for release Monday, May 17, 2021, and thereafter

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- Two Joes will determine whether we protect the voting rights of all Americans. And one may have to persuade the other to get the job done.

These are no ordinary Joes. I am, of course, speaking of President Joe Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.

At stake is the For the People Act, which already passed the House. It would guarantee broad access to the ballot; a more transparent, democratic political money system; and an end to partisan gerrymanders.

Its chances of passing the Senate hang largely on Manchin's willingness to acknowledge that there is no way that enough (or even any) Republicans will support comprehensive reform of our politics.

This was made clear when the Senate Rules Committee deadlocked last week on reporting the bill: nine Democratic Yeses and nine Republican Nos. As a result, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., will have to bring the bill to the floor himself. He plans to because, as he told the Rules Committee, "we are witnessing an attempt at the greatest contraction of voting rights since the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow."

But the bill will almost immediately face a Republican filibuster. With only 50 Democrats in the Senate, this would kill political reform unless Manchin agrees to an exception to filibuster rules that require 60 votes to move forward.

So far, Manchin's signals are negative. Last week, he said that the bill, known as H.R. 1 in the House and S.B. 1 in the Senate, is "too darn broad, and we have no bipartisan support."

Well, of course there is no Republican support for this. Republicans, as a party, are systematically rolling back voting rights in states they control. Anti-voting bills have already passed in 12 states, and more are in the works.

We can lament that voting rights have become a partisan issue, but that's the way things are. No amount of cajoling, compromising, begging, pleading or standing-on-your-head-and-holding-your-breath will change this. Polls showing that many rank-and-file Republicans support the S.B. 1 reform don't make a difference, either.

Which means that you can defend voting rights or you can defend the filibuster. You can't do both. Manchin fears that passing a "partisan" bill on voting would further divide the country. Here's what would divide the country even more: an election system that rolls back voting rights by endangering the ballot access of Black Americans, other minority groups and younger people.

Congress must also enact a new Voting Rights Act to restore the Justice Department's ability to fight voting restrictions in the future. The original law was gutted in 2013 by a 5-to-4 right-wing Supreme Court majority. But a Voting Rights Act is no substitute for S.B. 1. Even if the Voting Rights Act is revived, all the voter suppression laws that have already been passed would stay on the books.

There is real urgency to getting the For the People bill done by August, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told me, both to block broad gerrymandering efforts and to give officials time to work through its requirements for early voting, drop boxes and other measures that did so much to enhance participation in 2020. "The secretaries of state and election clerks across the nation need to be able to have the balance of the year to adjust their procedures accordingly," he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who is chair of the Rules Committee and has made the S.B. 1 reforms a defining cause, got high marks for her handling of the bill from Senate Democrats at a closed caucus lunch on Thursday. The meeting was devoted largely to reviewing the massive infringements on voting rights happening across the nation and to plotting strategy for S.B. 1.

There was broad consensus for action, but one key senator wasn't there: Manchin was back in West Virginia for a visit by first lady Jill Biden.

As for Jill Biden's husband, he supports the For the People Act but hasn't been at the center of this fight because he's devoting most of his legislative energy to his infrastructure bill. The time has come for the president to speak out, often and forcefully, against the assault on voting rights inspired by former president Donald Trump's lies about the 2020 election.

Contrary to Trump's claims, it was a small-D democratic triumph. Amazingly during a viral pandemic, turnout rose in both Republican and Democratic states because voting was made more convenient. The only partisanship now involves the GOP's determination to make it harder to vote.

Which also means that Biden must talk to Manchin, Senate traditionalist to Senate traditionalist, about why their past opposition to ending the filibuster has to give way in the face of the GOP's assault on democracy.

With the voting rights of millions hanging by a thread, the two Joes will have to hang together to defend them.

- - -

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

Dana Milbank column ADVISORY

By dana milbank
Dana Milbank column ADVISORY

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By DANA MILBANK

Dana Milbank will not be sending a column today for Sunday. If you need a substitute, you are welcome to run ANY of our other syndicated columns in its place, including by writers your publication does not subscribe to. To use a substitute column, first go to syndication.washingtonpost.com, where you can browse our full offerings by clicking on the Syndicate tab. Open a column you'd like to use and click on the "Copy as Vacation Sub" button to grab the full text. Should you have questions, contact us at syndication@washpost.com or 800-879-9794, ext. 1.

Elon Musk and bitcoin's chicken-and-egg problem

By megan mcardle
Elon Musk and bitcoin's chicken-and-egg problem

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, May 15, 2021, and thereafter

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By Megan McArdle

WASHINGTON -- Elon Musk has made many amazing pronouncements in his storied career. But perhaps the most incredible -- and I mean that in the literal sense -- was his tweet Wednesday that Tesla would no longer accept bitcoin as payment for its vehicles. The company, he wrote, is concerned about the environmental impact of all the electricity needed to mine cryptocurrency.

Had Musk been on a multiyear news fast that left him unaware that it takes boatloads of power to "mine" digital gold, just like mining the metal kind? Or that the majority of such mining takes place in China, which also burns the majority of the world's coal?

This seems unlikely. One suspects that Musk simply got caught up in yet another of his futuristic enthusiasms, only to discover, the hard way, why bitcoin is struggling to become the future of payments.

Cast your eyes back to early February, when Tesla filed documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicating that the company had bought $1.5 billion worth of bitcoin and planned to accept it as payment. Almost immediately, commentators began pointing out that bitcoin is practically designed to waste power, an odd choice for a company that bills itself as the environmentally friendly future of cars.

If the announcement wasn't great news for the environment, it was wonderful for bitcoin holders. On Feb. 6, bitcoin had been trading around $39,000. On Feb. 8, after Tesla's announcement, the price had reached $46,375.90.

On March 24, Musk announced that Americans could now buy a Tesla with bitcoin. More commentators noted the environmental footprint of this decision. Tesla stayed the course, and so did the price of bitcoin, which by April 13 had risen to $63,729.50.

Since that peak, bitcoin has lost almost 20% of its value. And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with bitcoin.

It seems safe to say that most folks who are holding a lot of bitcoin -- say, the kind of money you might drop on an $80,000-plus Tesla Model S -- are betting that bitcoin will become much more valuable in the future. That is, of course, true of a lot of assets, from urban real estate to Tesla stock. But scarcity is not, in itself, enough to create value. The execrable novel I wrote when I was 23 is very scarce -- there is exactly one copy. For a scarce resource to be worth a fortune, you need your scarce thing to someday be in high demand.

For a lot of investors in bitcoin, the hope is that, eventually, bitcoin will displace traditional currencies such as the dollar or traditional payment networks such as Visa. People will have to buy bitcoin to make payments, and since the supply of bitcoin is strictly limited -- roughly 98% of all bitcoin that will ever exist will have been mined by the early 2030s -- rising demand pushing against a fixed asset base will cause the price to explode.

That's why the price of a bitcoin rose almost $10,000 as soon as Tesla announced it could be used to buy a whole car. The more bitcoin looks like a regular currency, the better it looks as an investment.

Unfortunately, the better bitcoin looks like an investment, the worse it looks as a currency -- which in turn makes it look worse as an investment.

Firms generally don't like to accept payments in currencies that are volatile, since they stand to lose money if the currency declines suddenly. Tesla seems to have realized at some point that bitcoin's volatility was a problem; reportedly, if you wanted to pay in bitcoin, you had to close the transaction within 30 minutes in order to limit the company's currency risk.

That's less of a problem if the volatility is only on the upside -- which, as we've seen since April, wasn't the case. Even if it had been, that simply would have created a symmetrical problem for consumers: If you think your bitcoin is going to quadruple in value again, why would you trade it for a car today?

This leaves bitcoin with something of a chicken-and-egg problem: If it ever gets stable enough to function for payments, it will almost certainly stop making money for the people buying it. And since bitcoin investors are the main evangelists for bitcoin payments, who would then push broader adoption?

In the here and now, it turned out that sometimes bitcoin's value drops a lot, meaning you can exchange an expensive car for cryptocurrency that's worth 20% less a month later. Maybe the excitement of never knowing quite how much you've made on each transaction appeals to Elon Musk, but it probably doesn't appeal to Tesla's accountants or investors.

And having belatedly realized the downsides -- in every sense of those words -- maybe it's best to tell people you've belatedly discovered the environmental costs, and go back to demanding boring traditional dollars in exchange for your cutting-edge cars.

- - -

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

An Obama scientist debunks the climate doom-mongers

By marc a. thiessen
An Obama scientist debunks the climate doom-mongers

MARC A. THIESSEN COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, May 15, 2021, and thereafter

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By Marc A. Thiessen

WASHINGTON -- U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry delivered a dire warning Wednesday on "the mounting costs ... of global warming and of a more volatile climate." Last year's tally of "22 hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires shattered the previous annual record of 16 such events, and that was set only four years ago," Kerry told a congressional hearing. "You don't have to be a scientist to begin to feel that we're looking at a trend line."

Kerry is right about one thing: He is not a scientist. So here are a few climate facts that Kerry failed to mention in his testimony, marshaled by one of the Obama administration's top scientists, Steven E. Koonin. All are based on official assessments published by the U.S. government or United Nations:

"The warmest temperatures in the U.S. have not risen in the past fifty years," Koonin writes, according to the U.S. government's Climate Science Special Report.

"Humans have had no detectable impact on hurricanes over the past century," according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

"Since the middle of the twentieth century, the number of significant tornadoes hasn't changed much at all, but the strongest storms have become less frequent," according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data (NOAA).

"The rate of global sea-level rise 70 years ago was as large as what we observe today," according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Instead of droughts, "the past fifty years have been slightly wetter than average" in the United States, according to NOAA figures.

Rather than famine, "in the fifty years from 1961 to 2011, global yields of wheat, rice, and maize . . . each more than doubled," according to the IPCC.

"The net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century."

These facts come from Koonin and his new book "Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters." When he shares such information, he writes, "most are incredulous. Some gasp. And some get downright hostile." Koonin -- a physicist who worked on alternative energy for BP and as undersecretary for science in the Obama Energy Department -- has dug through those U.N. and U.S. government reports to bring us some inconvenient truths. And he says the facts do not support the "doom mongering" of climate alarmists.

The globe is warming, he tells me in an interview, partly due to natural phenomena and partly due to growing human influences. (Scientists can't untangle the two, he writes, due to "the deficiencies of climate data.") But, Koonin argues, the terrifying predictions of increasingly violent weather and coastal cites drowned beneath rising seas are overblown.

So are the predictions of climate-induced economic devastation. Koonin explains that, if the U.S. economy grows at a 2% average annual rate, then absent any climate impact gross domestic product will rise from about $20 trillion today to about $80 trillion in 2090. If temperatures rise by 5 degrees Celsius over that same period, Koonin notes that, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, our growth would be 4% less 70 years from now. That means GDP would grow to about $77 trillion instead of $80 trillion. "We would be delayed in our growth by a couple of years," he says.

The idea that we can stop climate change, Koonin argues, is delusional. "If we stop emitting CO2 today, it would still be there in the atmosphere for hundreds of years" he tells me. "If we manage to reduce emissions a little bit, it'll just accumulate at a slower rate but it'll still go up." Even that is hard to do at an acceptable economic cost. During last year's pandemic lockdowns, when much of the economy ground to a halt, our carbon emissions fell to about 21% below 2005 levels -- which was less than halfway to the Biden administration's 10-year goal.

Those most harmed by the draconian proposals of the climate extremists would be developing nations that produce the most emissions. People in these countries, he says, "need energy to improve their lot, and fossil fuels are right now the most reliable and convenient way of doing that." Rather than forcing poor countries to participate in a futile and economically destructive effort to stop climate change, we need to help them adapt.

In fact, adaptation is the only choice we have, Koonin says. Climate change "will be gradual, and human ingenuity will certainly get us through this, if not allow us to prosper." Indeed, Koonin notes there are advantages to a changing climate, such as the greening of the planet through increased vegetation, which he believes will dramatically increase the food supply for the world's population. "So, this is not at all an unmitigated disaster as people would have you believe," he says. "We'll learn to take advantage of whatever changes happen rather than simply tolerate them. That's what humans do, and we're pretty good at it."

Mankind has adapted to climate change before, and we'll do it again -- the doomsaying of the climate alarmists notwithstanding.

- - -

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

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