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#NPRreads: Wisconsin's First Lady And Syria's Dueling 'Godfathers'

#NPRreads is a weekly feature on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers throughout our newsroom share pieces that have kept them reading. They share tidbits using the#NPRreads hashtag — and on Fridays, we highlight some of the best stories.

This week, we bring you five reads.

From Jessica Taylor, NPR political reporter

Sometimes, the most interesting people in politics are those standing beside the candidates. That's the case of Tonette Walker, the wife of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is set to launch his GOP presidential bid Monday. But could some of her political differences hurt her husband — and how much will voters hold him accountable for her own personal views?

I've long been intrigued by Tonette Walker and edited a story about her when I was at The Hill. She endured immeasurable loss early in her life: Her grandmother who raised her, her brother and her first husband all died by the time she was 30, the same age I am. She later would meet her second husband, Scott — 12 years her junior — in a BBQ joint, and he eventually won her over with his persistence in wooing her.

She had a different background from Walker, the son of a Baptist preacher. She came from a union, Democratic household. And as the Daily Caller's Matt Lewis points out, some of those early differences could become flashpoints now in cultural debates. His take is based on a Washington Post story also profiling Tonette, noting her marked shift from her husband in the reaction to the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. She described how she was torn on the issue, especially since she has a cousin who is gay and who "is like a sister to me" and that their son was the best man at her wedding.

Lewis, who often has some of the most pragmatic takes on the conservative movement, notes that first ladies and other political spouses breaking with their husbands on social issues is not new. But in a deeply divided Republican Party, it could be more damaging than in years past.

"Regardless, for social conservatives who already feel like they're on the ropes, this revelation is even more serious than you might think. For obvious reasons, social conservative leaders have little interest in alienating Walker, but even before this most recent interview came out, one leading socon told me his rule of thumb for evaluating candidates: The trick is to always look at the wife when gauging whether or not a male politician will hold true to his stated social values."

So could his wife's candid revelations hurt Walker? Possibly. But it could also humanize him to more establishment conservatives, who want their party to be more inclusive, and in a general election if he makes it that far. It's a problem the GOP is struggling with across the board — how to be empathetic, especially as more and more people have gay friends and relatives or want gay conservatives to be included more within the party.

He also notes that Walker's wife isn't the first to break from her husband: Laura Bush supported same-sex marriage and abortion, and both Dick and Lynne Cheney, whose daughter Mary is gay, were also supportive of same-sex marriage.

Walker has staked much of his path to the GOP nomination through Iowa, where he needs social conservatives in order to win and carry on. The beliefs of both his wife and sons could call into question how much he would champion a rollback if he were in the White House, Lewis writes:

"[H]ouses are divided against themselves — where, on this issue, at least, Republican politicians and their wives are unequally yoked. It's hard to be outnumbered in your own family. They may not flip on the issue, but pols seem less likely to champion an issue when the people closest to them vehemently oppose it."

From Alice Fordham, NPR Middle East correspondent

The situation in Syria is so complicated it has moments of tragic absurdity, which Erika Solomon highlighted in this great piece. Both opposition-leaning and regime-linked TV production companies have tackled Syrian versions of the Godfather this Ramadan. The opposition one sounds edgy, playing on the widespread view among Syrians opposed to President Bashar Assad that he leads from amid a Mafia-like ring of corrupt and violent cronies.

"This Godfather, played by Jamal Suleiman, a staunch opposition supporter and TV star, is modelled on government officials who traded influence to cut business deals. Mr Wahbe [the director] says they struck the same kind of fear as Vito Corleone. 'The Godfather was a violent and powerful person, yet we never see him practise that violence. We see his strength by way of others' reactions — that's part of his magic,' Mr Wahbe says. 'There were definitely people like that in Syria, who created so much fear people whispered their names to avoid drawing attention.' "

The regime-linked version sounds a little ... tamer:

"The adaptation produced by Sama revisits some scenes from the Coppola film, but in Arabic. There are no clear political references, and some flashback scenes to old-time Syria could almost be mistaken for Sicily."

Solomon visited the set of the opposition show — it's filmed in Lebanon because Syria is much more dangerous than Sicily ever was. I liked the part where the director had to yell at the gangster-actors to look more menacing.

"Don't hop around. You're mafia!"

From Elizabeth Blair, a reporter on NPR's Arts Desk

In high school and college, I was in awe of punks like Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) and The Sex Pistols. In the late 1970s and early '80s, punks were pissed off. They spit on social conventions and flipped authority the finger. Many of them were also smart and paid attention.

Punk purists say the Pistols weren't the real thing, that the band was fabricated by London culture vultures Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. To quote one friend, the Sex Pistols were "like the Monkees of punk." I still thought they were pretty outrageous, but also accessible. With pop hooks and a sense of humor, their vitriolic rants were both shocking and danceable. Anarchy never sounded so fun.

In Quentin Fottrell's lively Q&A with Lydon, we get a glimpse of the man's amusing, still provocative personality, and the rat-infested living quarters of his childhood.

"MarketWatch: You don't look angry at all on the cover of your book. You look adorable.

"John Lydon: I was trying to look like a dreadful World War I admiral from the German navy. It's a face that represents many things to many people. There is severity there, but humanity in the eyes if you look close enough. Have we spoken before? Your voice sounds familiar.

"MarketWatch: No, but I'm Irish. You're half-Irish. Maybe it's that.

"Lydon: I have a lot of friends in Ireland. I have an Irish passport. I also have an English one and an American passport. I'm looking for a round dozen."

Lydon, now 59, also addresses some of the criticisms that he and the Sex Pistols were someone else's punk puppets.

"I'm not a manufactured pop star. Lies stick like that to you like glue. There's an awful lot of jealousy behind comments like that. I had a process of eliminating liars from my life. We will never achieve anything if we lie about each other."

True to the punk tradition of challenging everything, here's what Lydon told Fottrell about the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag.

"MarketWatch: The future of the Confederate flag is in doubt. Some people say it symbolizes a resistance against federal powers, while others see it as belonging to a racist, bygone era. What do you think?

"Lydon: Mass hysteria is usually led by fools getting things wrong. Whenever something thing is represented so obviously as a negative I'm always suspicious because that represents a deeper, darker truth. I don't think that it's right to assume that it's a racist flag having studied American history in order to become an American. The next logical steps would be to eliminate all of these flags. Bad people have misrepresented these flags for as long as I've studied history. There's also a movement in Britain to eliminate the Union Jack. You can't eliminate the past. The truth will never kill you. The truth will set you free. Transparence in all things will lead to a greater sense of humanity. I belong to planet Earth. Let's have a worldwide flag."

No doubt there's more to piss people off where that came from in Lydon's new memoir, Anger Is An Energy: My Life Uncensored.Can't wait to read it.

From Ted Robbins, NPR supervising editor for arts, culture and books

This piece came to me as a suggestion from Vox.

Here's the passage that hooked me into reading the whole thing:

"Kodak's film was so bad at capturing the different hues and saturations of black skin that when director Jean Luc Godard was sent on an assignment to Mozambique in 1977, he flat-out refused to use Kodak on the grounds that its stock was 'racist.' Only when the candy and furniture industries began complaining that they couldn't accurately shoot dark chocolate and brown wood furniture did Kodak start to improve its technology."

As an amateur photographer and former television news reporter, I knew that dark skin absorbs more light, so requires more lighting. But I had no idea that film stock was biased toward lighter tones. Now, it seems, digital tools like the wildly popular Instagram filters are doing the same thing.

The author, Morgan Jerkins, is a 20-something writer in New York. She thoughtfully looks at the phenomenon of Instagram filters being used by women and, I presume, men of color to lighten their skin in photographs. And she is critical of it.

"In the name of enhancing or beautifying our photos, filters inevitably alter our appearances beyond recognition," she writes.

Jerkins shows how filters change photographs with interactive features in the article. She even asked women to alter their images and recorded their reactions.

What started me reading was my surprise about old technology: film. What kept me reading was how the same truism applies to new photographic methods: We may think technology is just an unbiased tool, but at least in this case, it has bias built into it.

From Kirk Siegler, an NPR reporter who covers California and the West

Journalists who have lived in Los Angeles — or any other expensive city for that matter — can't help but see a bit of themselves in Scott Timberg's story. A former reporter with the Los Angeles Times, Timberg writes poignantly in LA Observed about being priced out of the city he grew to love. Timberg lost his job covering books and authors for the newspaper during a wave of layoffs amid the financial crisis of 2008. He has since struggled to scrape by with enough freelance gigs to make ends meet, losing his house in the process and being forced to squeeze his young family into a much smaller apartment.

The piece begins and ends as Timberg wrestles with his rocky love affair with Los Angeles — a city, he says, he quickly grew to love and now frankly, can't afford to love.

"The area's pull is as strong as ever. Sandal-wearing Silicon Valley types are buying up midcentury Westside homes from which to commute to Mountain View because it's cheaper here than South of Market. With so many art schools and galleries in Greater Los Angeles, the city is attracting striving artists who, willing to live on a shoestring, would have once considered New York the only place to be. For them, trading one high-rent city for another isn't that difficult. For prominent creatives like Moby, Chloë Sevigny, and Lena Dunham, relocating (or at least buying property) here means more square footage and sunlight than in New York, which, conventional wisdom holds, has become blander as the middle class has been pushed out by exorbitant property values. And thousands of wealthy Chinese nationals are buying into the San Gabriel Valley, making a newly mansionized Arcadia 'the Chinese Beverly Hills.' "

This description pretty much nails it. Los Angeles is booming and as dynamic and interesting and exciting as ever right now. But as Timberg goes on to note, this boom is also leaving many people on the margins. The disparity between wages and market prices is worse here than in the Bay Area or New York, he writes. A recent survey showed homelessness is up by 12 percent and the number of homeless encampments in this city has increased by a startling 85 percent. A recent study for City Hall further noted that nearly a quarter of Angelenos are living below the federal poverty line.

Not exactly an easy place to be living as a freelance writer without a steady paycheck, right? The rub here for Timberg is that LA, like for so many other people, has long been a draw in our national psyche for creatives: People come here to make it, make something or just be different and explore new things. Reading this, it's clear that Timberg is sour on the prospects of this continuing in a city that he says is pricing so many people out:

"If L.A. began as a love affair with a beautiful and engaging (albeit neurotic) young woman, the city now seems like the girl who cheated on me and passed on a disease."

I did come away puzzled about one thing after I finished this piece. The top choice for Timberg to move to appears to be Santa Fe, N.M. But won't he essentially be trading one expensive city for another? Albeit not asexpensive, but Santa Fe isn't without its share of inequalities.

Perhaps that's fodder for a future piece of his we'll most surely be on the lookout for.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.
Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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