57 posts categorized "Reflections"

REFLECTIONS: On Elitism

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections

Elitism: The Charge Obama Can’t Shake
- Peter Baker, The New York Times - October 30

It occurred to me after reading this that I think, therefore I too am an elitist. As a kid raised on the streets of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn with an ordinary public school education who has worked all my life, I’d be glad to be considered “elite.”

But I wonder if that was really the problem for Obama. In 2000, Al Gore couldn’t shake the charge, made up by journalists, that he was boring, that he sighed at the wrong time in a debate with a lesser intellect in George W. Bush.

And in 2004, John Kerry, a war hero who didn’t dodge the draft like Bush, was depicted in the press as ”another liberal elitist” because had a rich wife and spent time wind-surfing.

Baker writes that although Barack Obama was raised in modest circumstances in a broken family by a single mother, he had become a talented, thoughtful, intelligent and studious mixed-race lawyer-politician, a man who had attended Harvard and Yale. Therefore he was seen as a “snob,” Baker quoted one columnist who had worked as a speech writer for Bush and a Republican official.

In view of how the right wingers have treated Obama, do you suppose that those critics harbor perhaps a tinge of racism toward Obama, as an “uppity n----r who wasn’t even born in America?” Nah. We’re past that.

As I said, this discovery that I am now and may have been for some time an elitist came to me on a recent trip my wife and I made to get our annual New York City fix. We stayed at the comfortable and expensive Empire Hotel across from Lincoln Center, where we were to attend an opera. And after breakfast, I sat in the sparkling sun drenched plaza smoking a fine imported cigar. That made me feel special, if not elite. I didn’t realize that was something to hide.

The plaza was busy with tourists watching the beautiful Revsen fountain erupt like a geyser. A lawyer walked his two dogs then sat to chat and take in the scene. Young men with backpacks hurried to classes at Fordham. Younger women - girls, really, with high boots and black stockings and legs up to here - were on their way to Julliard.

These people also seemed special; they were students, visitors and professional people who were in or of one of the great civilized places in the world, Lincoln Center in the City of New York, just a few steps from the homes of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Opera. It’s a center for the very best in the arts, a place to feel elite.

So I wondered what is wrong with being elite? Certainly the President of the United States can be part of an elite; there aren’t that many presidents. Franklin Roosevelt, who came from wealth and solid Dutch-American aristocracy and had a relative who’d been president, was called "snooty” by his enemies. Although he spoke beautifully flowing English and was clearly a member of the nation’s elite, he was loved and even revered by millions of American, especially the poor and uneducated.

Today, we are conned by politicians like Bush who pride themselves on being like us when we need someone else, someone who has real brains, some knowledge and ideas on what to do about the mess we’re in and has the courage to do what he or she believes.

The idea that Sarah Palin or Sharron Angle or that O’Donnell person could lead the nation at this time seems absurd. We’ve already had a president like too many of us and look where it got us. After 60 years covering politics and a few presidents, I despair that we seem to be dumbing down the political system that was give us by the American elites of 18th century - Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Adams. I suppose that makes me an elitist fellow traveler.

My dictionary say that “elite” simply means “choice” or “select group.” And Wikipedia says,

“Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals, who supposedly form an elite – a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience...are most likely to be constructive to society...[and] especially fit to govern.”

Obviously, some members of an elite can be thieves or mad men but on the whole, who would argue that the best of us ought to represent us. That was Plato’s idea in The Republic. And it was the founder’s idea in fashioning the United States as a republican democracy in which Rousseau’s liberal self-government was tempered by Blackstone, i.e. the law.

Yet now, especially in the wake of the Great Recession in which millions of people have suffered because of the conduct of a business and banking elite, the people of the tea party movement purport to be populist and anti-elite, although it supports the policies of the very people who were responsible for the recession.

And they are among the strongest critics of elitism. If they were truly anti-elitism, they ought to count as egalitarians, favoring social security and even socialism. But they are the opposite. In fact, they are in league with the Grand Old Party of a business and banking elite. Go figure.

Jacob Weisberg, writing last October 2 for Slate where he is editor-in-chief, said,

“if there is one epithet the right never tires of it’s ‘elitism.’ Republicans are constantly accusing Democrats of it this campaign season, as when Kentucky senate nominee (and eventual winner) Rand Paul attacked President Obama as a ‘liberal elitist [who] knows what is best for people.’

“Republicans use it with connotations of education, geography, ideology. Taste and lifestyle – such that a millionaire investment banker who works for Goldman Sachs, went to Harvard and reads The New York Times is an elitist, but a billionaire CEO who grew up in Houston and went to a state university and contributes to Republicans, is not.”

In 2008, Senator John McCain and Sarah Palin identified with Joe the Plumber while tossing the elitist charge at Obama. As Weisberg wrote,

“Thus did the son and grandson of admirals, a millionaire who couldn’t remember how many houses he owned, accused his mixed-race opponent...of being the real elite candidate.”

Their complaint against elitism and Obama: He believes he knows better than Joe the Plumber how best to deal with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that why he wanted to be president? Anyone who seriously believes he/she can be president must have the background, maturity and confidence that he/she can govern.

Roosevelt, an aristocrat who had been a governor and Navy secretary, succeeded because he believed that his administration had some answers to the nation’s problems and that the Republican elite did not. Roosevelt did not compromise and turned out to be right. Obama compromised by catering to his critics and Republicans and has not yet succeeded.

There is what Weisberg calls a “counter snobbery” in the Republican elite-bashing. Palin, for example, held that those who live in the middle of the country, own guns, go to church are more the “real America.” To be gay, well educated, an agnostic, an atheist (God forbid) and live in New York or San Francisco and love classical music and (God forbid) opera, marks you as a liberal elitist.

Palin and company forget that the proletariat of Germany and Russia gave us the most murderous regimes in history. But like the tea baggers of today, they became useful idiots in the hands of the business and corporate elite. As Matt Taibbi writes in his book on the financial crisis, Griftopia, many of the tea party leaders in Congress know little of economics and high finance, and deny the science of climate change, evolution and stem cell biology.

“Common sense,” he writes, “sounds great but if you’re too lazy to penetrate the mysteries of carbon dioxide by the time you’re old enough to get to Congress, you’re not going to get the credit default swap...and understanding these instruments...is the difference between perceiving how Wall Street made its money as normal capitalist business and seeing...simple fraud and crime.”

That reminds me of a piece last February in Forbes by Pablo Triana Portela who fingered Robert Rubin, former Clinton Treasury Secretary and chairman of Citibank, as a personification of “America’s bad elitism.” For Rubin helped kill banking regulation, then made millions as a result and then, after Citigroup was driven onto the rocks, it (and he) were bailed out by taxpayer billions.

“When privilege is protected at the expense of the public purse,” said Portela, “America betrays herself.”

The question remains: Why have the elite – scientists, writers, artists, innovators, investors, the intelligent and thoughtful millionaires, teachers, journalists – come in for so much criticism? I found some explanations that ring true on a blog bripblap run by a fellow named Steve who says he is a well-paid financial consultant for Fortune 500 companies.

“Elitism has earned an ugly name over the past decade...political leaders sneer at elites,” he writes, “holding up underachievers as role models.” But many of the critics, he adds, are simply envious and “would like to be elite...

“You can disagree with the particular ideas or approaches chosen by elite members of society....In business, politics, science, art, religion...you need an elite. It’s not the elite as determined by birth, or Ivy League education. It’s the elite chosen by intelligence, by drive, by perseverance...I don’t know when that became an ugly attribute...”

Having survived the tough competition of journalism with a Pulitzer and a Nieman Fellowship, covering Texas and national politics and overcoming, so far, some grave threats to health, with help of a wife of 58 years and two darling daughters, sitting there in the sunshine at Lincoln Center, I felt privileged, like someone special - elite.

saulfriedman@comcast.net


At The Elder Storytelling Place today: Terry Hamburg: Dogs Back in the Good Old Days


REFLECTIONS: On Conflicts of Interest

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections The word “whore” has been tossed around in this past unlamented campaign as if prostitution was no longer one of the oldest and honorable endeavors. One such epithet was hurled anonymously at a California gubernatorial candidate for doing what politicians and prostitutes do - cut deals with voters and clients. A liberal congressman called the chairman of the Fed a “K-street whore.”

Two prominent pols - one a senator, the other a former governor who used the services of prostitutes while on the job - have survived; one got re-elected and the other found new fame and riches as a journalist, of all things, despite their first hand experience with whores.

I’m sure there were others who didn’t get caught. And a former madam, who serviced politicians, was one of seven candidates running for governor of the Empire State.

I am not a prude and see no problem mixing prostitution and politics, which is the second oldest profession. Politics, after all, is a business in which the practitioner sells himself, makes deals for votes and money and shows a little leg but tries not to give it away too cheaply. But we in the press, if we are not selling our bodies, should have a different, if not a higher standard.

That sort of behavior, peddling our skills and our independence, is or should be out of bounds for those of us who cover, critique and explain the positions of the politicians. But, I’m sorry to say, that too many of my former colleagues in the press have gone to bed with the politicians, lobbyists and corporate big shots they supposed to cover.

They are the whores worth worrying about in any election. And such prostitution, outrageous conflicts of interest in journalism (as well as the law, academia and even medicine), has become epidemic. One can no longer tell the difference between prostitutes and the press except maybe the price they ask. And worse, we don’t seem to give a damn about such behavior; it’s taken for granted.

There was a time in the craft of journalism in which I grew up and served for more than 50 years, when the working reporters, editors and even publishers bent over backwards to avoid or explain conflicts of interest. One of my gods, the New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling, the best press critic ever, told me one night over a cup of coffee that the boxing writer ought to tell his readers whether or not he paid to get into the fight.

A New York Times editor said it more colorfully when he fired a woman who had been sleeping with and taking gifts from someone under investigation whom she covered: “You can cover the circus,” he said, “but you can’t screw the elephants.”

For years, I did not register for any party for fear that someone would use that information to judge the credibility of my reporting; I joined only the local press club. That didn’t mean I was not able to comment or be subjective after I had some experience and knowledge, but my lack of a party identification added credibility to my work.

And as important, sources trusted me to tell their side of the story. Would you believe that some of my best sources and stories came from Houston’s Republicans, including the county chairman, George H.W. Bush?

Some newspapers have paid for the tickets to theaters and concerts their critics covered so they could be free to write their views no matter how they hurt the production. One of my publishers turned down a position on the symphony board because of the possibility of a conflict that might discourage the paper’s critic from panning a performance or reporting on problems within the orchestra.

Another editor refused to join the local chamber of commerce because of a possible conflict with a reporter’s coverage of the organization. On another occasion, my Washington Bureau colleagues and political reporters throughout the chain raised hell with its top executive who had an interview with Richard Nixon and suggested we go easy on him. The executive relented.

Now consider the prostitution of Fox News. It’s bad enough that its owner, Rupert Murdoch, has given $2 million to Republican organizations; that is his prerogative. But what does that tell the reporters and editors who work for Fox and want to hold onto their jobs?

Even worse, Fox News has put on its payroll, as commentators, the politicians it’s supposed to cover. Fox’s claim of “fair and balanced” coverage would be funny if it weren’t a lie. How would we know from Fox what the truth is?

As Politico reporters Jonathan Martin and Keach Hagey wrote on September 27,

“With Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, (former Republican senator), Rick Santorum and (former Republican governor) Mike Huckabee all making moves indicating they may run for president, their common employer (Fox) is facing a question that hasn’t been asked before: How does a news organization cover White House hopefuls when so many are on the payroll?”

Indeed, how can you trust anything that’s said?

The report continued, calling them

“the Fox candidates....With the exception of Mitt Romney, Fox now has deals with every major potential Republican presidential candidate not currently in elected office.”

No wonder their right-wing commentaries go unchallenged by Fox’s reporters. No wonder that none is held to account for their radical views and, yes, their misinformation and lies. And no wonder they refuse to be interviewed by other, less friendly, reporters.

Even one of Fox’s better commentators, Greta Van Sustern, an attorney who should know better, was compromised and lost any remaining credibility and integrity when Fox hired her husband as a political adviser.

According to Media Matters, which has done the best job of chronicling Fox’s streetwalking, these prospective candidates made 269 appearances through the end of September. I’ll bet you can’t remember a single legitimate news story these appearances yielded. They usually decline to be on other programs for fear of making fools of themselves. But that’s the way it is with whores; they generally leave their clients unsatisfied and poorer.

It is true that MSNBC has a lineup of liberal commentators in Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz and Lawrence O’Donnell. But most of them, especially Maddow, make it a point to seek challenging interviews with those who hold opposing views.

And as far as I know, there are no politicians on MSNBC’s payroll. Their standards of journalism and accuracy remain high and in no way do their commentaries compare to the viciousness of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly who are at war with MSNBC and would pounce on any error.

At a strategy meeting in October, Delaware Republican and Tea Bagger Senate candidate, Christine O’Donnell told party leaders who had withheld funds because they’d been hard-pressed to explain her nutty views, that she didn’t care because she “had Sean Hannity in my back pocket, and I can go on his show and raise money by attacking you guys.”

As far as I know, Hannity has not said otherwise; he’s been in other pockets. But O’Donnell was taking the advice of her sister, paid contributor Sarah Palin, who told O’Donnell to ignore the main stream press and “speak to the American people, speak through Fox News.”

Palin herself turned to Fox News after she embarrassed herself, unable to give cogent answers to legitimate reporters. And so did Nevada’s Sharron Angle, who boasted of the money Fox helped her raise.

There is no fear among nut case candidates of having to make sense or giving meaningful answers to Fox interviewers. Washington Senate candidate, Republican Dino Rossi, has given five interviews on Fox. One typical question from a Fox anchor: “There’s a lot of pressure on you...How [are] you holding up?”

Hannity had a zinger: “So what story is it that you want to tell...that’s going to put you over the top.”

Rossi was then given an opportunity to make a pitch for campaign contributions. Needless to say, the incumbent Democrat, Senator Patty Murray, who was ahead in the race, was not invited to Fox.

Fox’s openly unfair and unbalanced behavior on virtually all its programming would have met with government opposition until 1987; Fox, after all, gets federal dollars and tax breaks and uses public access channels.

Beginning in 1949, the Federal Communications Commission enforced a “fairness doctrine” instead of worrying about exposed breasts and dirty words. The fairness doctrine called for holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues in a fair, honest and equitable manner.

It worked for nearly 40 years because broadcasters were careful. But in 1987, President Reagan abolished it as part of his deregulation campaign. Democrats have been trying to restore it, but Republicans, of course, like things the way they are.

The things Beck, Limbaugh and O’Reilly say are mostly reprehensible and even dangerous, but they are entertainers disguised as journalists. My greater problem is with people who purport to be journalists and reporters but haven’t the faintest idea of the reason for the protections they have under the First Amendment.

Indeed, they may not know that they are seriously weakening the First Amendment, although I doubt that they care. The evidence? Too many Americans have as little faith in the press as they do for politicians; real prostitutes get better grades.

Liebling once said that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” But the reporter has a great responsibility in enforcing that freedom by holding his/her press owner to some modicum of fealty to the First Amendment. Many is the time that reporters have all but forced reluctant publishers to run risky stories. That was the case with the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate, and The New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon papers.

Unfortunately, despite its record for pander and prostitution, Fox News was awarded Helen Thomas’ front row seat in the White House briefing room. So I asked the president of the White House Correspondents Association whether the organization, of which I had been a member, could vouch for the integrity and accuracy of Fox’s White House correspondent. There was no reply.

A friend, Barry Sussman, editor of the Nieman Foundation’s Nieman Watchdog, faults many news organizations for putting on the air candidates and political party operatives who predictably “are only promoting their party’s interest” with lies and exaggerations rather than giving genuine opinions of people who are the subjects of the interview.

Sussman, who edited most of the Watergate stories while at the Post, criticized most of the networks and cable stations for hiring pols and legitimate correspondents as contributors.

“As to damage to journalism,” he added, “The damage isn’t being done by Fox, or Beck or Limbaugh; it’s being done by other news organizations as they respond by caving in, failing to adhere to journalistic standards and by treating Fox as though it were a legitimate news organization.”

Fox News, sad to say, is not the only media whore working the streets. In 2008, the new and naive publisher of the Washington Post, Katharine Weymouth, and her hapless editor came up with a brilliant idea, inviting Washington’s movers and shakers to come to “salons,“ dinners at her home for a hefty price to listen to reporters give them the inside story on pending issues and legislation. The first one was to be on President Obama’s proposed health reforms. Some of the invited guests were preparing to battle against those forms.

It took a leak and the outcry of staff members to force Weymouth to cancel the dinners and apologize. I do not understand why she didn’t know from the outset that the idea was a major conflict of interest. Would the late Katherine Graham or her editor Ben Bradlee have countenanced such blindness?

Too many in the press fell for the seeming grass roots populism of the Tea Party and gave it mostly uncritical coverage. Maddow was one of the first to explore the reality instead of the romanticism.

We now know, as Adele Stan has documented for AlterNet and The Nation, on October 24, that the Tea Party is not the grass roots movement it claims to be. It was financed, in large part, by several billionaires and organized by veteran right-wing activists and politicians. As she wrote,

“The Tea Party wouldn’t exist without a gusher of cash from oil billionaire David H. Koch and the vast media empire of Rupert Murdoch.”

She named the groups headed by right-wing political operatives who provided the seed millions to put on the Tea Party rallies. They included Americans for Prosperity, chaired by Koch and Freedom Works, headed by former House Republican Leader Richard Armey and financed by the Koch brothers.

Only recently have some members of the press looked behind the curtain to see whose money is pulling the Tea Party’s strings. But others of my former brethren are getting some of that money as guests of the Koches.

As the blog ThinkProgress reported, David and Charles Koch hosted closed meetings with executives from the health insurance, coal, banking and other industries to plan strategy for the midterm elections, including where their millions in campaign contributions should go to help Republicans kill the Democratic majority and the Obama administration. The tens of millions of dollars they and their corporate allies have spent is unprecedented.

The first meeting was in June and another was held more recently. Among those invited, wined, dined and paid to attend the earlier meeting, according to Joe Conason of Salon, were several journalists including Michael Barone, a paid contributor to the Washington Examiner and Fox News; Washington Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer and National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru who has defended Christine O’Donnell’s misunderstanding of the First Amendment on religion.

I find it ironic that these veteran journalists, who call themselves Constitution conservatives, would give aid and comfort to those bankers, brokers and big business executives who, with billions of dollars would buy an election and enhance the already unseemly power of corporate America, which is no friend of democratic government, a really free press or the whole of the Bill of Rights.

Indeed, when you come right down to it, I do not think these journalists or their corporate patrons have the morals, values or the integrity of the average streetwalker.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mimi Torchia Boothby: It's All in a Name


REFLECTIONS: On Atheism

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections Most of us have been taught to stay away from discussing politics and religion so as not to disturb the dinner guests. Well, as most of you know, I’ve been covering politics for so long I can barely discuss anything else.

And the freedom TGB gives me in writing these little essays compels me to confess that I do not recall when it was that I came out of the closet. That’s when I acknowledged that I’m an atheist, that I do not believe there is a God.

In fact, I don’t know why I capitalized the “G.” Although it may be blasphemous, I have had a bumper sticker that says, “I believe in Dog.” That’s because I have a love affair with my two Corgies and I generally have a higher regard for animals than many of the humans I’ve covered in high positions. I have wondered if the Bibles got it wrong and meant to spell it “Dog.”

Seriously, coming out of the closet happened slowly. At first I suppose I was an agnostic, telling myself and others that there may be a higher power, that I could not define, for all things alive have in common a compulsion to live, survive and grow.

Where does that come from? I didn’t know. I studied philosophy in university and read Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of god and understood Aristotle’s idea of the “prime” or “unmoved mover.”

I did not know whether or not I believed in the god that hung around guiding our lives. But I could not bring myself to believe in a personal being who played magic tricks like George Burns. If man was made in his image, what must he look like? Or she?

I am told by friends that something or some one must have caused the “big bang” and that somebody or some thing or power had to be there to start things off in evolution. But I can’t even imagine that possibility. Some giant hand cranking the universe into motion?

I remember arguing in a philosophy class that if the universe was infinite, why did it have to have a beginning? I did not know, and neither does anyone else. But that was an agnostic copout. Now I know. As Stephen Hawking now asserts, if there was a beginning, there is an explanation that did not need a god.

But isn’t the spirituality that we all feel evidence of god? Experiencing the sublime is spiritual, but it’s no proof of a god. All of us have experienced spiritual moments when we wonder what moves us to think, probe and overcome. Music moves me. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is spiritual and beautiful. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy can make me cry.

All men are brothers came from the Judaic concept that there is but one god. I am a Jew who takes pride in that heritage. But I cannot believe that god, looking like Charlton Heston’s Moses, exists.

It is true that there is some sort of order in our universe; we can predict the movements in the solar system. But there is also chaos (see Haiti). Our bodies, the results of millions of years of evolution, are indeed wondrous, but they tend to get sick and even die from little bugs and terrible afflictions.

The believers’ god works in strange and mysterious ways, but what sort of omnipotent, omniscient god tolerates a child with terminal leukemia or the holocaust of six million “chosen people” or the genocides in Bosnia and the Congo and the Sudan?

Believers praise god for sparing them from the tornado’s wrath (as if the tornado was anthropomorphic), but do they blame god for the deaths of those who were not spared?

But I have digressed. I have been comforted in coming out as an atheist by the September 28 Pew Research Center’s survey of religious knowledge in the U.S. It turns out that atheists or agnostics scored highest on a test consisting of questions about various religions. I should note here that 95 percent of Americans believe in god; just five percent of us are nonbelievers.

Jews and Mormons came in a close second or third. Indeed, the most observant or fundamentalist among us tended to know the least.

Half the respondents did not know that Martin Luther inspired the Protestant reformation or that the Golden Rule (“Do unto others...”) is not one of the Ten Commandments. Atheists/agnostics knew most about religion, the survey concluded, because they tend to have more education.

I would add that atheists are unencumbered by dogma. Atheists generally are more free to think of things that no one had thought of.

Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein broke free from god and religion and some suffered for it. Only recently has the Catholic Church recognized that the earth revolves around the sun; and Judaism forgave the philosopher Spinoza, who was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam because he believed that god was everywhere in nature; indeed god was nature and vice versa.

I should point out here that I draw a distinction – a sharp one at that – between those who worship and hope there is a god, and organized religion. That’s because the average believer in god stands in awe of the possibility there is a supreme being that he or she cannot know or fathom. But most organized religions have the temerity to define, limit and tell us what god thinks, and which country he/she will bless in war.

Organized religions, on a personal level, use books written eons ago by uneducated (by our standards), mostly superstitious and primitive minds to tell us how to behave. And as we know, some people believe these are literal truths.

I can’t quarrel with the Ten Commandments, but they are honored in the breach - that is, they are broken so often by god-fearing men and women, they are not to be taken seriously.

If they were truly observed as the bibles and koran admonish, The New York Times' Nicholas Kristoff told us in his own test of religious knowledge that the Old Testament stipulates that a girl who does not bleed on her wedding night should be stoned to death. Kristoff notes that Jesus made no comment on homosexuality, but the Old Testament says, “if a man also lies with mankind as he lieth with a woman” both shall be put to death.

All this is silly and outdated for most of us, even those who believe in god. But about 20-25 percent who are fundamentalist Christians and ultra-orthodox Jews and Muslims believe their scriptures are literally true and the word of god. But, alas, they also believe literally that non-believers are infidels and therefore a threat. And if there is no wall of separation between the religion and the state, then a threat against the religion becomes a threat against the state.

When I visited Israel as a journalist with U.S. secretaries of state who were there for the first time, Israeli officials took us on a tour of Yad Vashem, the somber and heart-wrenching memorial to the holocaust that cost the lives of six million Jews, not to mention Gypsies, Russians, Poles and anti-Nazi Germans.

In Damascus, we were taken to the Mosque where Saladin is buried and there we learned that the crusaders who came from England were not the heroes of Christendom who we studied in school or saw in romantic movies, but bloodthirsty rapists and conquerors wielding the cross as a reason to slaughter Muslims and Jews.

Saladin, a moderate and even chivalrous ruler who treated his captives well, at last defeated the Third Crusade in the 12th century. But the memory of the crusades among Muslims lingers and has been seen in the reaction to American aggression in the Middle East.

Indeed, as I think on it, much of my reporting has been about religious-based conflicts:

Between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan

The semi-secular state of Afghanistan and the Taliban, which would resurrect the 10th century

The Shiites of Iran and the Sunnis of Iraq

Israel and its Muslim neighbors, some of them secular like the Palestinians, some deeply religious like Hamas

The Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland

The Serbian war against Bosnia pitted Catholics against Muslims

Hitler was Catholic, raised in an anti-Semitic environment

Stalin was raised in the Russian Orthodox tradition and he attended seminary, from which he was expelled, in backward Georgia.

It seems the more devout the religion, the more violent its actions against its perceived enemies. Kristoff points out that using suicide vests and women for terror bombings began not with the Jihadists, but with the Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka.

I think it can be said that more people have been killed or subjugated in the name of an organized religion than in the name of atheism.

When the state religion or church has been attacked, the motives of the opposition were generally political as when Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth replaced the Catholic Church with the Church of England, and when the Bolsheviks, who overthrew the Czar and all but outlawed the Russian Orthodox Church that supported the monarchy.

Similarly, the reactionary and corrupt Catholic Church in Latin America became a target of revolutionaries. Wasn’t the attack on the World Trade Center and the deaths of thousands a religion-based initiative?

I do not believe, however, that any nation has gone to war or committed atrocities in the name of atheism.

Yet even now, in this country, the legal wall of separation between church and state is hacked at by religionists who hold atheism almost a crime. We are told by the rabid right that liberals and other nonbelievers are trying to kill Christmas, as if the merchandisers have no responsibility.

These Christian fundamentalists, the American Taliban, would figuratively stone the homosexual or the kill the doctor who performs abortions. One Pew poll in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution and that included prominent Republicans running for president two years ago.

These fundamentalists, according to the poll, deny the science that tells us the earth is millions of years old. In lockstep with the Republican Party, they deny climate change and man’s role in global warming. I suppose god has decided to kill the polar bears.

So it was a comfort to see that I had admirable company when I came out as an atheist: Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Dawkins, Katharine Hepburn, Warren Buffett, Salman Rushdie, Diane Keaton, Bill Gates, Gene Roddenberry, among dozens of celebrities whom you can find at Celebrity Atheist List.

Finally, there are many quotes from prominent writers artists and statesmen proclaiming their atheism, but my favorite came recently from the great novelist Philip Roth during an interview on CBS’s Sunday Morning. Roth, who grew up in New Jersey, said, “I don’t have a religious bone in my body.”

“So do you feel like there’s a god out there?” he was asked.

“I’m afraid there isn’t, no...When the whole world doesn’t believe in god, it’ll be a great place.”


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ralph Lymburner: Munjoy Hill


REFLECTIONS: On Liberalism

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections I think I’ve figured out what’s been bothering me about President Obama. He is intelligent, articulate, maddeningly cool, calm and pragmatic and his values seem humane and liberal. But in rejecting any semblance of an ideology, he seems to have no firm set of ideas that guide his policies and to which he is committed, which may explain why he moves so easily to the center.

In sum, I am bothered because I believe he is the personification of the decline of the liberalism I grew up with and generally supported most of my life.

Obama called himself a “progressive” when he was in the Senate. But I can’t imagine him saying, now, what John F. Kennedy said, when asked to define a liberal:

“...someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people...If that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal’, then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal.’”

If there is a difference between Obama and most of his Democratic predecessors, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson or Kennedy, all of whom were unafraid to call themselves liberals, it’s that there is no real liberal movement behind him. Indeed, Obama seems to have rejected such a movement, although I’m not sure there is much of what could be called a liberal movement left.

The word “progressive” is empty of commitment or meaning. Liberalism, after all, has a long and honorable place in the history of political thought, and it has meaning, which we are losing.

I’m not talking about the left of center blogosphere which is ephemeral, self-absorbed, splintered and politically fickle. I do not see that it has an abiding set of beliefs or loyalties or interests, beyond the blog, which lasts only as long in the universe as a twitter of text. It goes without saying that the most liberal of blogs have little to do with trade unions, which have been at the heart of the liberal agenda.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, for the tweets of Twitter and Facebook and the blogs have zilch to do with the liberalism in my lifetime.

As I’ve recounted, I came of age in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. A mostly Jewish enclave on the shores of the Atlantic. Our neighbors in nearby Coney Island were Italian. And virtually all of us came from immigrant families who knew enough about politics to have fled the old countries.

In America they joined unions or fellowships like the Workmen’s Circle and the Italian American Social Club. But the unions gave that generation and mine great political and, yes, class consciousness and strength.

The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, the rival Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the Furriers, the Cloakmakers and Hatmakers were among those, mostly Jewish-led, unions that became powerful and wealthy New York institutions that even built housing for workers.

Elsewhere in America, the Boston Irish organized the men and women who worked in the textile mills of New England; the United Mine Workers of the legendary John L. Lewis brought some semblance of sanity, dignity and safety to the mines of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The International Workers of the World (the Wobblies) organized with bloody struggles against company goons, the copper mines of Montana and the far west and gave us songs like Joe Hill.

In Michigan, the United Auto Workers with the Reuther brothers were born in radical sit-down strikes in which they and their families took over the factories to fight the violence from Ford’s strikebreaking thugs. Longshoremen, merchant seamen, retail store workers, waiters and newsmen were organized, despite the lack of laws, to protect their right to do so.

The politics of these workers – and most did not bother to vote – ranged across the ideological spectrum: anarchist, communist, syndicalist, socialist, incipient fascist and Democrat. But no Democrat had been elected since Woodrow Wilson; the progressive Republican era of Theodore Roosevelt had died and very few working Americans had anything in common with the then dominant Republicans of Herbert Hoover and his ultra-conservative Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, who was a social Darwinist believing, after the 1929 market crash, in the economic survival of only the fittest.

The obvious political vacuum was explored first by the unsuccessful 1928 presidential candidacy of New York’s Irish Catholic governor, Al Smith. But it was left to Smith’s vice-presidential pick and his successor in Albany, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to put together a coalition of union workers, big city ethnic groups from immigrant backgrounds who had been left out of American politics and family farmers who had lost almost everything in what came to be known as the Great Depression.

Catholics, Jews, southerners (who boycotted the party of Lincoln) and midwestern Protestants choking on the barrage of dust that buried their farms – these were among the forces that came together for the Roosevelt landslide in 1932.

Some revisionist historians claim the New Deal was an afterthought, tailored by a pragmatic president to meet the crises of the Depression. But the fact is that the Roosevelts – Franklin and Eleanor – were keenly aware of the suffering among the people who voted for them. As Roosevelt said,

“I see one-third of the nation, ill-clothed, ill-housed and ill-fed.”

And unlike too many Democrats, before and after him, he moved not to the center but to the left. With the help of advisors, his “brain trust,” many of them from Yale and Jewish, he fashioned policies that kept faith with the people who voted for him. He was proud to fight those who didn’t.

The New Deal gave the people who voted for him jobs through the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. But more important and longer lasting was the National Labor Relations Act which protected the right to organize labor unions; the Wages and Hours Law, which institutionalized the 40-hour week; the Child Labor Laws; and, as part of the Social Security Act, unemployment insurance.

The New Deal took on the Andrew Mellons and the banks, curbing runaway speculation with Glass-Steagall and the National Banking Act; the Wall Street barons with the Securities and Exchange Commission; and the commercial pirates with the Federal Trade Commission.

No small part was played by Roosevelt's talented cabinet appointees including Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and the Agriculture Secretary, Henry Wallace.

In short, the New Deal became the expression of modern American liberalism which saved capitalism from the demands of those more radical and angry socialist and communist elements of the American working classes, but moderated and transformed the excesses of the free and unfettered market.

Those, of course, are the hallmarks of social and political liberalism in an industrial society.

The Depression dragged on, with some improvement, until the great stimulus of the Second World War. But as Wikipedia notes,

“[T]he programs of the New Deal were extremely popular, as they improved the life of the common citizen by providing jobs for the unemployed, legal protection for labor unionists, modern utilities for rural America [through the great dams in the west, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Association], living wages for the working poor and price stability for the family farmer.”

Because Roosevelt remained faithful to those who brought him to the presidency, the voters stayed with him through his death in 1945, as he led the nation out of its traditional isolationism towards Europe to help his friend Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin confront the threat of fascism.

And even while fighting a two-front war against Hitler and the Japanese Empire, Roosevelt built on his New Deal with his call for Four Freedoms and the organization of the United Nations with Eleanor as it early ambassador.

Indeed, the Roosevelt-liberal coalition and the Democrats as the nation’s majority party, remained generally intact through 1968, the end of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson who had been a New Deal member of Congress. As President, Johnson renewed the liberal agenda with Medicare, Medicaid and landmark civil rights laws.

Alas, beginning with the Cold War and the rise of McCarthyist red-baiting, liberals in self-defense, joined in the anti-communism fervor, which led America into two winless wars.

But despite the elections of Republicans Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, most of the great pillars of New Deal Liberalism – the labor laws, Social Security, the SEC, the FDIC and the FTC stood the test of turbulent times.

To the country’s great shame, one of the most important elements of New Deal liberalism, the Glass-Steagall Act, was killed under a Democrat, Bill Clinton, in 1999, and the nation has not yet paid the price of turning the banking industry and Wall Street loose on the American economy. (Clinton, caving in to the demands of Newt Gingrich, also permitted the beginning of the privatization of Medicare.)

The end of Glass-Steagall, which was murdered by Clinton’s banker, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and his sucessor, Lawrence Summers, was, in large part, what marked the decline of my brand of liberalism. Clinton, proud to be a centrist, had declared, “the era of big government is over.” And he hailed the end of Glass-Steagall giving a signing pen to Sanford Weill of Citigroup who gave the top job in the company to Rubin.

Thus, according to the acerbic journalist Chris Hedges, liberal government and governance of the robber barons had been replaced by the worship of Wall Street and corporatism. At the same time, as Robert Higgs wrote in a preface to Arthur Ekirch’s book, The Decline of American Liberalism,

“[L]iberalism once meant embrace of commerce and material progress, but this presumes an environment of peace and diplomacy as a means of resolving conflict...Liberals embraced militarism and dragged liberalism down with it. That dramatic shift led to the invention of this creature called conservatism.”

Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning former correspondent for The New York Times, goes further. He wrote for Truthdig on September 13,

“There are no longer any major institutions in American society, including the press, the educational system, the financial sector, labor unions, the arts, religious institutions and our dysfunctional political parties, which can be considered democratic.

“The intent, design and function of these institutions, controlled by corporate money, are to bolster the hierarchical and anti-democratic power of the corporate state. These institutions, often mouthing liberal values, abet and perpetuate mounting inequality....

“(See the latest census figures documenting that inequality; the rich are getting very rich and the poor are mostly out of work).

“The menace we face does not come from the insane wing of the Republican Party...but the institutions tasked with protecting democratic participation....Do not fear the tea party movement, the birthers, the legions of conspiracy theorists...Fear the underlying corporate power structure, which no one, from Barack Obama to the right wing nut cases...can alter.”

He quotes my old friend, Ralph Nader:

“The corporate state is the ultimate maturation of American-style fascism. They leave wide areas of personal freedom so that people confuse personal freedom with civic freedom...But they do not have the freedom to participate in the decisions about war, foreign policy, domestic health and safety issues, taxes or transportation...

“[T]he price of the corporate state is a deteriorating political economy...the question is, at what point are enough people going to have a breaking point in terms of their own economic plight..to say, enough is enough.”

Hedges concluded:

“The failure of the Obama administration to use the bailout and stimulus money to build public works...has snuffed out any hope of serious economic, political reform coming from the corporate state...the rot and corruption at the top levels of our financial and political systems, coupled with the increasing deprivation felt by tens of millions of Americans are volatile tinder for a horrific right-wing backlash in the absence of a committed socialist alternative.”

Or the kind of committed, grass roots and trade union-based liberalism that has been part of the American tradition. Perhaps it lurks somewhere among the blogs. Perhaps.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Always Women


REFLECTIONS: On A Devil and a Saint

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections My years in daily journalism enabled me to meet the best and the worst: A quiet, unassuming young woman in my Cape Town writing class had her own story to tell; she had been imprisoned and tortured by the South African regime she fought and now she wanted to be a political reporter in her newly freed country.

Some years earlier, a Houston detective who was a friend, lectured school kids (including mine) on the evils of drugs, then killed himself a few yards from my office at police headquarters because he too turned out to be a drug dealer.

No wonder reporters become cynics; the evil that men do lives after them the good is too often buried with them. Recently I was reminded of a couple of memorable encounters in one of my last years in daily reporting, 1995, when I met, interviewed and wrote about a devil and a true saint.

Satan, in this case, was personified by Newton Leroy (Newt) Gingrich, who was then the new speaker of the House of Representatives. The saint was (and is) Dr. Frances Kathleen Oldham Kelsey, a senior pharmacologist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who was still working at age 80 when I met her.

As far as I know, Gingrich and Dr. Kelsey have never met. But in a manner of speaking, their paths crossed in early 1995, which is how I came to meet them both that year.

Gingrich’s blustering and boisterous Republicans had taken over the Congress and were shaking up Washington with their notorious “Contract for America.” Dr. Kelsey, who had been given a medal by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, still came to work daily at her cluttered desk in Washington’s suburbs, reviewing applications for new prescription drugs, protecting the safety of the millions who use medicines. Indeed, because of people like Dr. Kelsey, the U.S. brands approved by the FDA are the most trusted.

For those who don’t know or have forgotten who she is, Dr. Kelsey, a Canadian born M.D., had gotten her training in the Thirties as a researcher in pharmacology at the University of Chicago. Her boss, E.M.K. Geiling, had hired her thinking Frances was a man. She accepted the job without telling him the truth.

She distinguished herself assisting him in discovering, on contract with the FDA, that a popular drug, Elixir Sulfanilamide, had caused 107 deaths because of an ingredient, diethylene glycol, a solvent now used as anti-freeze. Two years later, in 1938, the Congress passed the landmark Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. It would not be the last time that Kelsey would have a profound effect on our food and drug laws. Kelsey won her PhD as a result of her work and had developed an interest in drugs that caused congenital malformations.

Fast forward to 1960 after she obtained her M.D. and married a colleague, Dr. Fremont Ellis Kelsey, (they have two daughters). That year Frances came to work at the FDA as one of a few physicians reviewing drugs and one of her first assignments was to consider the application of a drug maker William S. Merrill to license a drug called Kevadon, whose generic name was thalidomide.

The drug, developed in Germany, was a popular and best-selling sedative or tranquilizer, depending on the dosage, because it relieved nausea and other discomforts of pregnancy during the first trimester.

It was widely used in Canada, 20 European countries and Africa, but not in the largest market, the U.S. You can imagine the pressure she was under from Merrill, which had millions of dollars at stake. Some of her bosses pressed Kelsey for a decision. But she persisted in seeking additional information to explain a curious British study that documented nervous system side effects and possible birth defects.

By the spring of 1962, she was reading reports from Europe, in the technical literature not widely circulated in the States, that many of the thousands of mothers who had taken thalidomide were reporting horribly deformed babies – born with flippers, but no arms or legs. The impatient drug maker, William S. Merrill, mimimized these reports and gave away some thalidomide pills as a promotion, which added pressure on Kelsey (and resulted in ten deformed children).

Enter a Washington Post reporter, Morton Mintz, who by way of another reporter got a tip from an aide to the late Senator Estes Kefauver (D, Tenn.) that Kelsey had been fighting a battle to keep the drug off the American market. Kefauver had been trying to strengthen the FDA and thalidomide seemed a perfect example of the law’s weakness.

In July 1962, after interviewing Kelsey and pinning down what was happening to thousands of children outside the U.S., Mintz broke his story, a lengthy piece that began

“This is the story of how the skepticism and stubbornness of a government physician prevented what could have been an appalling American tragedy, the birth of hundreds or indeed thousands of armless and legless children.”

Dr. Kelsey, he wrote, “saw her duty in sternly simple terms and she carried it out, living the while with insinuations that she was a bureaucratic nitpicker, unreasonable and even...stupid.”

As a result of the story, Kelsey’s work and the ghastly photographs of deformed children (there were relatively few in the U.S.), the Congress passed a series of amendments to the Food and Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1962 requiring that drugs must be effective as well as safe, which meant extensive testing.

Kelsey, as I mentioned, was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal in August, 1963, become a legend at the FDA and one of the most honored civil servants.

But as you would expect, the drug manufacturers, now called the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Research Association, were unhappy with those Kefauver amendments, charging that prolonged testing was too costly and kept needed, if risky, drugs from the market for too long.

During the deregulation campaigns of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, the size and budgets of the FDA suffered by as much as 30 percent. Reagan claimed that delays in drug approvals were “needlessly killing Americans.” But the agency persisted and Democratic congresses resisted attempts to dilute the laws.

But after Republicans took control of the Congress in 1994, Newt Gingrich declared war on the agency calling it the “number one job killer in the U.S.” And, with his customary hyperbole, he called the agency’s head, Dr. David Kessler “a bully and a thug.”

Kessler’s crime? Trying to label tobacco a substance to be regulated. As Mother Jones magazine reported, “a powerful bloc of critics in the drug industry has joined hands with the Republican Congress...to overhaul the FDA.”

Indeed, Gingrich formed an organization headed by a crony, the Progress & Freedom Foundation, which proposed placing the responsibility for the testing and review of drugs in the hands of private firms, including the drug companies. FDA spokesman Jim O’Hara charged that what

“...this proposes is the dismantling of many of the safeguards that protect the public from drugs and devices that are unsafe or just don’t work. This is a proposal that says public health and safety are commodities for the market place.”

The Progress & Freedom Foundation, supported by contributions of drug manufacturers, also sought to limit the liability for drug companies if their products killed patients.

As a Newsday reporter assigned to cover the new Congress and Gingrich, I remembered the work of Dr. Kelsey on thalidomide and, to my surprise, she was still on the job. O’Hara arranged an interview so I could ask her about the latest attacks on her agency and the drug industry’s attempt to take over what she’s been doing for 57 years – carefully, with occasional nitpicking, reviewing the efficacy and safety of the drugs we give to ourselves and our children.

Kelsey, then the director of the FDA Office of Scientific Investigations, was publicity shy. But when I saw her, she was moved to speak out.

“The drugs today are not castor oil,” she said. “I’ve lived through days when we didn’t have the advantage of today’s regulations and look what happened. Now drugs have gotten far more complex and, yes, dangerous. There is margin of safety. Let’s not go backwards. We’ve seen enough tragedy.”

An industry lobbyist told me at the time that many drug manufacturers don’t want the responsibility for reviewing and approving drugs for that meant giving up the safety seal of approval they get from an FDA license. Other industry lobbyists sought to repeal the Kefauver amendments and leave the question of efficacy to the doctor and the patient. Kelsey told me,

“In a perfect world, that might work if doctors knew what they were doing and patients knew what they were getting. But drugs and genetic engineering compounds are becoming increasingly complex.”

William Schultz, then the FDA’s deputy commissioner added,

“All drugs carry some degree of risk. We are prepared to take the risks, as we do with the horrible side effects of chemotherapy, if the drugs are also effective. But if the risks outweigh the effectiveness and the FDA cannot require efficacy, then there can only be confusion about what drugs to take. And a very vulnerable population will be open to fraud.”

As things turned out, the FDA stepped up its approval process and gave industry some responsibility for reviewing some if its products. But the Kefauver amendments, the direct result of Kelsey’s work on thalidomide, survived while Gingrich’s Contract for American mostly fell flat. In fact Gingrich, has flashed like a ragged meteor trailing a dust cloud in the firmament, but if you examine his careers, his real accomplishments are rather minor. For Gingrich is a destroyer, not a builder.

Just four years into his tenure, Gingrich lost the speakership and his House seat after he forced a shutdown of the government ostensibly in a budget clash with then President Clinton. But according to a close ally, Gingrich was angry that he had been given a back seat on Clinton’s Air Force One.

In any event, the shutdown helped Democrats win seats in the House and contributed to Clinton’s re-election in 1996. Gingrich was fined for repeated ethics violations, the first speaker so punished, and in 1998 he resigned and his revolution went with him.

Now, with Barack Obama in the White House, Newt Gingrich has done little that might be called constructive. He has made a career out of saying almost anything to destroy the presidency and the federal government, which pays him a pension. In 1995 after the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed, I confronted Gingrich in Atlanta with a question: Might his constant anti-federal government rhetoric have contributed to the mindset of the bombers. I don’t remember his outraged denials, but he protested too much.

Personally, Gingrich has what might be called a checkered past and present. He boasted to me one day that he was a Vietnam War draft dodger. He divorced his first wife, while she was ill with cancer. And left his second wife, Marianne, for a blonde aide. Callista, his third wife.

Despite his obvious personality flaws, he is given an audience if not credibility. Some friends say this one-time history professor has gone too far, off the deep end. His trademark is speaking for the sake of shock and awe, saying almost anything no matter how foul and far out to get attention.

It’s the advice he gave Republicans long ago. Use incendiary language, he urged. And in the past months he has followed and often led the right-wing nuts lower and lower into the political depths, the underworld. And why not? That’s where Satan lives.

As for the saint, I’m pleased to report that Dr. Kelsey, who retired six years ago at age 90, has just received the first “Kelsey award” for outstanding service to her agency and the American people.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Part 2 First and Last Boat Ride


Reflections: On the Constitution

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections There was a time when I was reporting on Congress, that I admired, respected and even liked some of the most stalwart conservatives in the Senate. But that was before the conservatives of the Republican Party metamorphosed into a rancid rabble of radicals who seek to cripple a president, the federal government and the Constitution of the United States.

The lawmakers to whom I refer were conservatives in the classic, dictionary definition of the word. They favored “traditional views and values, tending to oppose change...to conserve; disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions; or restore traditional ones and to limit change.”

According to Wikipedia, the views of Edmund Burke, the philosophical patron saint of traditional conservatives, were

“a mixture of liberal and conservative. He supported the American revolution but abhorred the violence of the French revolution. He accepted the [then] liberal ideals of private property and the economics of Adam Smith...but believed that capitalism should be subordinate to the medieval social tradition...that the business class should be subordinate to the aristocracy.”

American conservatism, as I knew it in my reporting days, was based on the ideas of Burke and included respect for traditional institutions and public service along with the flexibility that life and politics demand and, yes, elements of liberalism and electoral pragmatism.

Although many of us may have disagreed with them, conservatives were, for the most part, people of principle who took their jobs seriously and believed in government. And with the National Review founder William F. Buckley setting the tone, conservatism had some intellectual heft.

With these criteria, I don’t believe today’s right-wing radicals should be called conservatives. They are know-nothing bullies.

One of my conservative heroes was Senator Sam Ervin, a North Carolina Democrat and former justice of that state’s Supreme Court. This generation might remember him best as the grumpy, drawling chairman of the select Senate committee that investigated Watergate. But he also took on the demagogic anti-communism of Senator Joe McCarthy, and he uncovered the U.S. Army’s domestic spying program called COINTEL. Today’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was one of its results.

Ervin headed the Judiciary subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. And while he was a segregationist who opposed, as unconstitutional, the Earl Warren court’s 1954 school desegregation decision, there was no greater champion of civil liberties and the Constitution. He later changed his mind about the Supreme Court’s decision, but continued to oppose forced desegregation as excessive federal power.

But I came to know him in my first year on Capitol Hill, in 1966, when the segregationists of both parties sought constitutional amendments to set aside the court decisions on school desegregation and to make prayer compulsory in the public schools.

Indeed, in the wake of the court decisions and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was a great clamor for a constitutional convention, which Ervin saw as a great danger if, for example, the First and Fifth amendments were put to a popularity test.

Ervin was able to shut down the call for a convention because of his knowledge of the law and the Constitution, and because he was respected by his colleagues as an even-keeled, independent, conservative. He was “Mr. Constitution.”

That historic 1964 Civil Rights Act could not have passed without the crucial help of the Senate Minority Leader, conservative Republican Everett McKinley Dirksen, of Illinois, who had served in the House of Representatives from 1933-49, before coming to the Senate in 1951.

And during his tenure as leader, Dirksen served another, pragmatic conservative Republican, President Eisenhower, and he was leader of the loyal opposition, supporting the Vietnam War when Lyndon Johnson was president. But his defining moment came on June 10, 1964, when all 100 Senators were present and the longest filibuster in the chamber’s history was droning on.

In those days it took 66 votes to break a filibuster, and the floor had been held for 83 days by the southern segregationists led by Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. A friend once asked his South Carolina colleague, Olin D. Johnston, a conservative Democrat, what moved Thurmond. He replied, “The trouble with ol’ Strom is he really believes that s—t.”

Late that morning, Dirksen rose to address the Senate. He had been working long hours helping to craft the bill with the help of the Johnson White House, fellow Republican Senator Thomas Kuchel of California and the Democratic leadership. He spoke 15 minutes. His florid style was gone and his voice was tired as he spoke:

“There are many reasons why cloture should be invoked and a good civil rights measure enacted. It is said on the night he died, Victor Hugo wrote in his diary, substantially this sentiment, ‘Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.’ The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied.”

An hour later, the 67th vote was cast and the filibuster was broken with the help of Republicans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate by a vote of 73-27 and was signed a month later. With Dirksen’s help, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, broke the back of southern intransigence.

Unfortunately, as Johnson had predicted, Richard Nixon’s 1968 “southern strategy” campaign led the Republican Party down a dark path from which it has not returned.

One of the “nay” votes against cloture and the bill came from Senator Barry Goldwater, who held that the federal government was intruding into the rights of the states and interfering with the rights of private businesses to serve whom they wished. That position cost him millions of votes that year when he was overwhelmingly defeated for the presidency by Lyndon Johnson.

But the conservative movement rose out of the ashes and Goldwater was ”Mr. Conservative.” His partner and benefactor in that rise was Ronald Reagan who made a stirring, nationally televised speech, “A Time For Choosing,” on Goldwater’s behalf. Even among the far right, their conservative credentials cannot be challenged.

Yet Goldwater, who collected Kachina dolls and was a champion of American Indian rights, was also a supporter of abortion rights. He called himself a libertarian and in 1989, said the Republican Party had been taken over by a “bunch of kooks.” In a 1994 interview with the Washington Post, Goldwater said,

“When you say ‘radical right’ today, I think of moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.”

A former officer in the Air Force, Goldwater was a strong defender of the military but criticized its ban on homosexuals. “You don’t have to be straight in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight.” He told right-wingers:

“Do not associate my name with anything you do. You are extremists and you’ve hurt the Republican Party much more than Democrats have.”

In 1996, he told fellow Republican, Bob Dole, who had been trashed by the elder George Bush, “We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party. Can you imagine that?”

That year Goldwater, to the dismay of the Christian right, endorsed an Arizona initiative to legalize medical marihuana. As the Senate Republican leader Dole was another principled conservative who ran afoul of the right-wing, perhaps because he joined Senator Ted Kennedy in sponsoring legislation to provide for elementary school lunches for low-income American students.

There were other staunch conservatives who made the Senate work:

• Senator Robert A. Taft, of Ohio, who died before my time covering the Senate, was “Mr. Republican,” a powerful “isolationist,” an opponent of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to go to war against the Nazis. But he was the son of a trust-buster, William Howard Taft and came to support Social Security, unemployment insurance, strict banking regulation and, after the war, the United Nations.

• Democrat Richard Russell of Georgia, a segregationist to the end, who nevertheless helped Lyndon Johnson become the Majority leader.

• Democrat Robert Byrd, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, who defeated Ted Kennedy for a leadership post and became a fervent fighter against the growth of executive power to engage in wars.

• Republican Robert P. Griffin, of Michigan, who I knew, helped defeat Richard Nixon’s worst Supreme Court nominees, Clement Haynesworth and Harold Carswell, as well as Johnson’s attempt to make a political crony, Abe Fortas, the Chief Justice.

• Another staunch conservative Republican, Roman Hruska, defended Carswell, but contributed to his defeat by saying that even the mediocre need “a little representation.”

Although not in the Senate even Ronald Reagan, in partnership with then Senate leader Robert Dole, tempered his conservatism as he grew in office. A year after his sweeping tax cuts, one-third across the board, Reagan thought better of the growing federal deficit and reluctantly approved record tax increases.

After denouncing Social Security for years and trying to make it voluntary, Reagan presided over the rescue of Social Security in 1983 that has built its $2.6 trillion trust fund. And after declaring the then-Soviet Union the “evil empire,” his peacemaking and arms agreements with Moscow from 1986-88, helped end the cold war.

After his presidency, Reagan, who once hoped the United Nations would leave the U.S., became a champion of the United Nations and called for a humanitarian “army of conscience” to rescue the beleaguered people of Africa.

These conservatives were not like those radicals of today, pouncing on every opportunity to change the Constitution. Reagan was opposed to abortion, but did not press for legislation or a constitutional amendment to ban it. And as far as I know, after Ervin put the kibosh on the proposal for a constitutional convention, the drive to change the Constitution and the Bill of Rights has abated – until now.

And it’s more than ironic that people who call themselves “conservatives” and “strict constructionists” are seeking to end rather than “conserve” and “preserve” fundamental liberties.

Consider the differences between those traditional and flexible conservatives and the lockstep Senate Republicans under leader Mitch McConnell who are setting new records for filibustering to block virtually every presidential initiative and nomination.

Almost as one, they deny the science of climate change; oppose all abortions, even when rape or incest is involved; would cut taxes for the wealthy and deny that will increase the deficit; complain that unemployment insurance will keep the jobless from working; would repeal health reforms as a federal takeover.

Intellectual? Try Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, (SC), testing Supreme Court nominee Elana Kagan’s faith by asking her where she was on Christmas. Her glorious put down: “Like all good Jews I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” Graham was one of the few Republicans who voted to confirm her.

Ben Evans, writing for The Huffington Post, counts 42 proposed constitutional amendments filed in this congressional session by the most right wing members. (In fairness, Democratic Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr., of Illinois, has proposed a package of 27 amendments none of which would repeal any part of the Constitution, but would enhance voting rights and deal with congressional succession in a natural disaster.)

The Republican proposals, however, would limit freedoms as defined by Supreme Court decisions. They include:

• a flag desecration amendment, although the courts have said such acts pf protest are protected by the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment

• an amendment to require a balanced budget, which would stunt all federal government growth and give the nation the problems the states are having because most are required to balance their budgets

• an amendment to require a super majority in Congress (two-thirds) to raise taxes

• a parental rights amendment giving parents the right to raise their children as they see fit

• a “human life” amendment, banning abortion

• a federal marriage amendment banning same sex marriages

• repeal of the 17th Amendment (1913) requiring that senators be elected rather than appointed

• an amendment, proposed by Tea Party activists, to repeal the 16th Amendment (1913) which gives Congress the right to levy taxes and spend money

• an amendment prohibiting government ownership of private businesses (as in the bank and automobile manufacturers bailouts)

• an amendment to limit the “commerce clause,” which from earliest days has given the federal government power to regulate “interstate commerce,” meaning the economy (as in the health reform requirement to have medical insurance)

• and an effort, supported by Republican leaders, who have long abandoned Lincoln’s legacy, to repeal parts of the 14th Amendment (1868) which, among other things, gave former slaves American citizenship to counter the notorious Dred Scott case in which the Supreme Court ruled that slaves were chattel and not persons

That current drive to repeal the 14th Amendment (one of three passed during post Civil War Reconstruction to expand American freedoms) move was prompted by hostility towards undocumented immigrants whose children born in the U.S. automatically become citizens (although their parents do not.)

This hostility was carried to ridiculous extremes by a Texas nut congressman who claimed the 14th Amendment would allow women to come to America to have “terrorist babies,” who would become citizens so they could one day attack America. The pity of this idiocy is that it is aided and abetted by the current Republican leaders and the most active and outspoken right-wingers.

The 14th amendment, if you don’t have a copy, also includes: “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”

That has become the basis of the school desegregation decision, women’s rights, the right of an accused to have a lawyer and countless other advances in individual liberties. Once it is opened for change, can we trust these hard-shell Republican radicals to leave the “due process clause” alone?

Constitutional historian Richard Beeman writes:

“Perhaps the most significant and far-reaching amendment to the Constitution, the 14th Amendment,” is viewed by many scholars and jurists as the provision of the Constitution that has brought the principles enunciated in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence into the realm of constitutional law - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Friko: The Briefcase


REFECTIONS: On Jobs and the CCC

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections Judging by his record of job creation, which has been rather benign during the worst employment drought since the Great Depression, it should be clear by now that Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt. Although he admires the Roosevelt legacy, he seems to have learned too little from history.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, if he followed up on what he’s accomplished so far.

To his credit, Obama began his presidency by keeping a promise he made the month before he took office when he proposed the elements of his economic recovery program which included public works. As he said, “We need action – and action now.”

He said he would invest record amounts of money, about $700 billion  in a vast infrastructure program, including work on schools, sewer systems, mass transit, dams and public utilities.

Toward those ends, Obama shoved through the Congress, with no help from Republicans, the $784 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, along with $170 billion for an economic stimulus (less than what he wanted), $3 billion for the popular “cash for clunkers,” $100 billion to refinance defaulting mortgages and $90 billion in emergency unemployment insurance.

The outgoing Bush administration contributed $600 billion for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), under which the government bought shaky assets from banks.

In addition, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury invested or loaned billions (much of which has been paid back with interest) to bail out giant banks and two of the big three auto manufacturers. In spite of almost unanimous Republican opposition, the states lined up to get their share of stimulus money after several vowed that they would take nothing from the federal government.

The latest flip-flopper is Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina who was moved to change his position in the face of a ten percent unemployment rate in his state.

Despite criticism of TARP and the assorted bailouts, two eminent economists, Mark Zandi, chief economist with Moody’s Economy and a former adviser to Sen. John McCain, and Princeton’s Alan Blinder, former vice-president of the Federal Reserve Board, pronounced the Obama programs successful in averting “what could have been called Great Depression 2.0.”

In their 23-page paper entitled, How The Great Recession Was Brought To An End, they note that

“...the government’s response (which began in the last days of the Bush administration) to the financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession included some of the most aggressive fiscal and monetary policies in history...Yet almost every one of these policies remain controversial...with critics calling them misguided, ineffective or both.”

But, they added,

“We estimate that without the government’s response the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in 2010 would be about 11.5 percent lower, payroll employment would be less than 8.5 million jobs and the nation would now be experiencing deflation.”

Despite the persistently high unemployment rate, they claim the fiscal stimulus alone raised this year’s GDP to 3.4 percent and 2.7 million jobs were saved or added. But the latest economic news, including a lower GDP and deeper unemployment, accompanied by spreading poverty among working and middle class families, has blemished their optimism.

Part of the problem: Of the $784 billion in the recovery act, more than $266 billion has not yet been spent and the deaf and dumb Republicans want that amount suspended and used to reduce the deficit. The administration says 80 percent of the projects are under contract and another $50 billion are in the process of being awarded.

Nevertheless, cities are turning out street lights and replacing paved roads with gravel to save money. The fact is that the recovery act and the inadequate stimulus have yet to put much of a dent in the unemployment rate, which is far above the official rate of 9.5 percent.

As Bob Herbert reported in The New York Times, the reason the rate is not higher is because 181,000 workers left the labor force this summer. One economist, Charles McMillion, who analyzes employment trends. told him that

“...over the past three months 1,155,000 unemployed people dropped out of the active labor force and were not counted as unemployed. Even ignoring population growth, if these unemployed had not dropped out of the labor force...the official unemployment rate would have risen from 9.9 percent in April to 10.2 percent in July.

“When you combine the long term unemployed with those who are dropping out and those who are working part time because they can’t find anything else. It is just far beyond anything we’ve seen..since the 1930s.”

Yet, said Herbert, Washington, including the president, who says, “I feel your pain,”is not doing much about the crisis.

“With 14.6 million officially jobless, and 5.9 million who have stopped looking but say they want a job. And 8.5 million who are working part time...you end up with 30 million Americans who cannot find the work they want and desperately need...There are now 3.4 million fewer private sector jobs than there were a decade ago. In the last ten years, we’ve seen the worst job creation record since 1928-1938.”

What can be done? How about following the advice of a couple of Nobel Prize winning economists, Joseph Stiglitz and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman? Stiglitz, former chief economist for the World Bank told Bloomberg TV that the administration’s stimulus and public works effort were

“...a big gamble and it doesn’t look like it’s paying off. The recovery is so weak that it’s not strong enough to generate new jobs for the new entrants in the labor force, let alone to find jobs for the 15 million who would like to get a job, but can’t find one.”

One reason the recovery act has been slow in creating jobs is that many of the projects and contracts must go through the slow process of being approved by state and local jurisdictions and competing labor unions. That’s why Stiglitz, Krugman, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Blinder have called for the resurrection of New Deal-style job creation programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and, for younger men and women trying to enter the labor force who need to do useful work, the once popular Civilian Conservation Corps.

Reich noted that the U.S. already has a “giant jobs program,” the thousands of men and women in the military, sapping valuable taxpayer funds that are justified as necessary for national security, when a nation with so many jobless is economically insecure. Noting the U.S. had a National Defense Education Act during the Eisenhower presidency, Reich said,

“Maybe this is the way to convince Republicans to spend more federal dollars putting Americans back and working on things we genuinely need: call it the National Defense Full Employment Act.”

When the ’s Ezra Klein asked Blinder what needs to be done to give a blood transfusion to the anemic recovery, Blinder said,

“I would do two things, both aimed at jobs. I would do the so-called new jobs tax credit on a much bigger and better scale than the HIRE Act, which was a baby step. The second thing I would do is a WPA-like program of direct, public hiring. People could work in parks in maintenance, the many paper-shuffling jobs in government.”

Actually, the WPA and CCC did a lot more than that. Here’s what I wrote months ago when Obama offered what became too little:

“The WPA, born in 1935 at an initial cost of $4.8 billion, was at the time, the largest “relief” program in American history (now it’s called “stimulus”). By 1941, when spending on the coming war pulled America out of the lingering slump, WPA had cost $11.4 billion and put eight million men and women to work building 1,634 public schools, 105 airports, 3,000 tennis courts, 5,800 libraries, 3,300 storage dams, hundreds of miles of roads, sewer lines.

“At the same time the CCC built roads through national and state parks, fire towers, and scores of campgrounds, many of which are in use today.

“I doubt if George Bush even suspected that his weekend retreat, Camp David, which Franklin Roosevelt called Shangri-la, was built by the WPA and CCC as a recreation area in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Do baseball fans know that WPA workers built Doubleday Field, in Cooperstown, New York in 1939 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of America’s pastime on that hallowed ground?

“The architecturally unique bridges of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut were built by the WPA. Not until 1937 did New York City get an airport, La Guardia Field (named after the city’s New Deal era mayor) with its beautiful art-deco main terminal, all built by WPA labor.

“The WPA, I should add, hired women, although the agency’s boss, Harry Hopkins, frowned on giving work to both a husband and a wife and leaving children unattended. About 15 percent of the workers were in the Women’s Division and they received equal pay, which was the local prevailing wage, from $19 to $94 a month for a maximum of 30 hours of work each week.

“The WPA also provided jobs for 350,000 blacks, and helped dent some color barriers. And the WPA’s Education Division, gave work to teachers who taught reading to thousands of illiterate blacks and whites.”

But the WPA, which was ridiculed by Republicans (naturally) as a make-work program (and nothing is wrong with make-work when there are no other jobs), was paired with the CCC in putting Americans in useful jobs. The genius of the CCC is that it concentrated on young men 18 to 24 (later 18-28), many of whom were roaming the country like hoboes, to give them work that needed doing, providing them the discipline of a military-like structure and seeing to it that they sent part of their wages to their struggling families at home.

As New York State’s governor, Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist, had run a similar program. But barely three weeks into his presidency, on March 21, 1933, he told the Congress.

“I propose to create a civilian conservation corps to be used in simple work, not interfering with normal employment, and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects. I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite, practical value, not only through the prevention of great financial loss, but also as a means of creating future national wealth.”

Today, I suppose the Republican right (e.g., Rep Michele Bachmann of Minnesota) would accuse Obama of trying to put America’s youth into concentration camps. But the law that created the CCC, for Emergency Conservation Work, was passed ten days after Roosevelt proposed it. And he promised it “would give 250,000 young men meals, housing, uniforms and small wages for working on national forests and other government properties.”

Those numbers grew as the depression deepened.

If you travel to a national forest, you’ll notice that many of the fire watch towers were built by the CCC. My late brother-in-law and a close friend left their Depression-weary urban homes for service in the CCC. But among the more prominent alumni were Hyman Rickover, who became a four-star admiral and the father of the nuclear submarine fleet; actors Raymond Burr, Robert Mitchum and Walter Matthau; baseball greats Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst and test pilot Chuck Yeager.

Volunteers came from every state, including the then territories of Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

According to Wikipedia, the CCC became the most popular New Deal program among the public, eventually providing jobs for 3 million men, most of them from families on relief. Then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes insisted that black youth were included and 200,000 signed up, although they were segregated.

During its life, from 1933 to 1942, CCC volunteers planted nearly 3 billion trees to help reforest America, constructed more than 800 parks nationwide, most of which became state parks, and a network of thousands of miles of roads in forests and rural lands.

The Indian Division of the CCC built schools and operated extensive road building projects on Indian lands. Crews built dams, sowed grass to stop erosion. In addition, it trained men to be carpenters, truck rivers, radio operators, mechanics and stock raisers. About 24,000 of the 85,000 Indian enrollees later served in the military and 40,000 left the reservations for war jobs in the cities.

What was it about the Roosevelt presidency that enabled the passage and creation of the WPA, the PWA, the CCC, not to mention regulatory agencies (the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, FDIC, the Securities Exchange Commission, SEC, the Federal Trade Commission, FTC) and laws, The Glass-Stegall Banking Act?

The Obama presidency, which promise a revival of Rooseveltian hope, has steadily weakened with compromise virtually every New Deal era effort to deal with funny money Wall Street and financial shenanigans. It’s true that Obama has confronted highly partisan and an ideologically extremist Republican Party, but has he fought them?

Roosevelt, who ran in 1932 on a promise to balance the budget, abandoned that vow when faced with the misery and crises of the Great Depression. Obama has endorsed a right-wing budget-cutting deficit commission, which wants to cut Social Security benefits, among other federal programs.

Roosevelt said he welcomed the opposition from what he called the “economic royalists” whose business-loving Republican Party had run the country for more than a dozen years with Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. Roosevelt, with the courage of his convictions and prodding from Eleanor, did not seek bipartisanship but fought the Republicans and their banker allies.

In the vernacular, Roosevelt stayed with the voters who brung him to the presidency. In 1934, the people supported him, winning nine seats each for Democrats in the House and Senate, which happens rarely for the party in power. But even as the Depression got worse, the voters responded to FDR’s partisanship and set the stage for the best of the New Deal that was to come.

Surely there’s a lesson in this for today. Here is part of another Bob Herbert column:

“The problem with the U.S. economy today, as it was during the Great Depression, is the absence of sufficient demand for goods and services. Consumers, struggling with sky-high unemployment and staggering debt loads, are tapped out. The economy cannot be made healthy again, and there is no chance of doing anything substantial about budget deficits, as long as so many millions of people are left with essentially no purchasing power. Jobs are the only real answer.

“President Obama missed his opportunity early last year to rally the public behind a call for shared sacrifice and a great national mission to rebuild the United States in a way that would create employment for millions and establish a gleaming new industrial platform for the great advances of the 21st century.

“It would have taken fire and imagination, but the public was poised to respond to bold leadership. If the Republicans had balked, and they would have, the president had the option of taking his case to the people, as Truman did in his great underdog campaign of 1948.

“During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt explained to the public the difference between wasteful spending and sound government investments. 'You cannot borrow your way out of debt,' he said, 'but you can invest your way into a sounder future.'”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Olga Hebert: Back-to-School Shoes


REFLECTIONS: On Recent History

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections This is known as backing into a column, taking the long way round to say what I want to say. For I need to clear up some relatively recent history lessons that seem to be clogging the American memory, even that of our president and his policymakers who I believe are making some terrible mistakes, perhaps because they have too little hindsight.

It’s a story about how enemies became friends and vice versa, and why we’re in endless wars of someone else’s choosing, and a dangerous standoff with a nation that represents one of the oldest civilizations on earth.

BACKGROUND
Even as a teenager on the streets of Brooklyn, I was deeply interested in foreign affairs. I lived in a polyglot, mostly Jewish neighborhood with its share of socialists, communists, liberals, Trotskyites, a few misguided Republicans and ardent unionists who worked in the garment trades.

Like the adults, who argued politics on the nearby boardwalk, we kids gathered on the streets to talk about what was going on in the world. We knew quite a lot, for the world was in the midst of a slow motion explosion towards total war.

We had listened to the reports of the Japanese rape of Nanking in the Thirties. We had relatives who had gone off to fight for the Loyalists and against the Nazis in Spain 1937. We heard what the Nazis were doing to Jews. We argued over the 1939 Soviet-German non-aggression pact that made war inevitable.

Some Soviet sympathizers among us said the Russians were merely protecting themselves for the inevitable showdown with Hitler. In our own way, my friends, Bobby, Irwin, Howie and I were quite sophisticated. Several of them later went to fight in World War II and Korea.

Our elementary and high schools’ civic classes kept us up on the progress of the European war and at our graduation from P.S. 225, we sang the songs of the American military (Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder, Anchors Aweigh, The Caissons Go Rolling Along, along with the British, French, Soviet and Chinese national anthems.)

As I think I’ve related, I was in high school when the United States joined the Soviets, the British and French to fight the Germans and Japanese. But for Jews, Germany was the real enemy. When I wasn’t out picking up and delivering clothes, I followed the war in Europe on the map my friend Itzik, the presser, had pinned to the wall at the Manhattan Beach tailors Sinowitz & Lesser where we worked.

FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Years later, after a couple of years in the Army during the Korean War, I kept my nose into foreign affairs as a young reporter for the Houston Chronicle, interviewing such luminaries as the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, J. William Fulbright, William Buckley and Socialist leader Norman Thomas.

I got an even more impressive education in foreign and national security affairs during my year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1962-3, where I studied with Henry Kissinger who became Secretary of State and National Security adviser under Richard Nixon, and with Jerry Ford and Mort Halperin who was to join the Clinton administration and a host of academics who taught and wrote about the Cold War era Soviet Union, the history of its communist party, the rise of Mao Tse Tung and the leaders of Africa struggling to emerge from colonialism.

I was privileged to attend a luncheon with Soviet journalists in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. They were as frightened as we were at the possibility of nuclear war.

But the most cogent lesson for today came from Professor Stanley Hoffman who taught a course entitled “War,” which surveyed man’s greatest folly from the Peloponnesian War, between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BCE) to Korea. We read Pericles’ famous funeral oration, which has been compared to the Gettsysburg Address, which mourned the Athenian dead but cautioned that war should not be so loved as to consume the society and democracy that was ancient Athens.

I have recounted my own knowledge so that I can add some context to three conflicts of today that threaten to consume our democracy.

IRAN
Much of our democratic ways have already disappeared. Does anyone remember the background of our dangerous standoff with Iran, nee Persia? In 1953, the United States was frightened that democracy had broken out in Iran, which is rich in oil and has a long border with our then arch enemy, the Soviet Union, which was friendly with Iran.

The popularly elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossaddeq, was not exactly pro-Soviet but he was a secular nationalist, backed by communists. But the Iranian parliament committed the sin of nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, 85 percent of whose profits went to the British. The U.S. could not abide that in a country bordering on and friendly with our enemy.

Mossaddeq visited Washington and assured the U.S. that the oil dispute could be settled. He got support from the Truman administration. But with the Cold War at its height and the Korean War raging, Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, through the CIA operating out of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, set about to destabilize the Mossaddeq government and succeeded in staging a coup and jailing the prime minister.

In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called it a “setback for democratic government.” But here was another case in which the U.S. was not prepared to live with democratic government. (Think of Chile and Salvador Allende).

The U.S. promptly installed the former monarch, the Shah, a thoroughly corrupt but westernized despot who took billions from Washington, including arms, to live in a lavish life style while he cracked down on the fundamentalist clergy and the youth.

On New Year’s Day, 1978, Jimmy Carter toasted the Shah’s “brilliant leadership” And when the Shah, who was emotionally fragile, became terminally ill, Carter invited him to the U.S. for treatment.

That, as much as anything set off the 1979 revolution in the streets of Iran which brought the fundamentalist clergy under Ayatollah Khomeini back to Iran from exile in France to rule Iran as a theocracy.

It was not surprising when, later that year, the young revolutionaries who remembered 1953 and helped oust the Shah, attacked the hated U.S. Embassy and took 444 hostages with one aim - to embarrass the United States and kill the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The crisis ended, as you know, the moment Ronald Reagan was sworn in. But the U.S. wasn’t through punishing Iran, its former friend.

IRAQ
In 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran and after the initial success of the invasion, Iran repulsed the Iraqis and the two nations settled down to a devastating and bloody eight year conflict. But because Iran had been so hostile to the U.S., and it bordered the Soviet Union and had all that oil, the Reagan administration recognized Iraq in 1984. The Soviets had supported a U.N. cease-fire demand and cut off aid to both countries. But the U.S. defied the U.N and took side - against Iran.

I have a picture dated December 20, 1983, when special U.S. envoy Donald Rumsfeld met with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and promised American support for Iraq. More than that, the U.S. gave Hussein billions in economic aid, tactical and intelligence support and some weapons of mass destruction - the chemical agents, anthrax, West Nile fever, botulism - which was used against Iraqi Kurds. That aid continued through 1992.

That cozy relationship helped give Saddam Hussein the mistaken impression that his invasion of Kuwait could go unchallenged. Indeed, the U.S. representative in Baghdad, April Glaspie, was criticized because she had not warned Iraq strongly enough to stop Hussein's threatened takeover of the oil fields of Kuwait.

The elder George Bush hesitated before he was goaded by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to show some spine. I was covering this story when Secretary of State James Baker formed the coalition, including key Arab states, to push Iraq out of Kuwait. He and the elder Bush kept their promise to the coalition by pulling away from Baghdad and leaving Saddam Hussein in power once Kuwait was saved.

Soon, our former friend, Iraq, became our convenient enemy, although it did nothing to threaten the U.S. But it enabled Bush’s prodigal son to complete his father’s war, against the advice of Baker and other advisors to Bush I.

The only weapons of mass destruction Iraq had were those the U.S. gave it. But since 2003, the folly of the war against a former friend has cost more than 5,000 American lives, 31,000 wounded, an estimated $2 trillion and countless Iraqi dead and maimed. And it’s still not over.

AFGHANISTAN
But the war in Iraq was of a piece and a sequel with the long war we have fought in Afghanistan, for both have their roots in the Cold War. Afghanistan, another land that borders the Soviet Union, had been on more or less friendly relations with the Russians since 1920. The pro-Soviet regime in Kabul rankled the U.S., but it was a period of stability in Afghanistan with women achieving a measure of western style freedom. But as in Iran and Iraq, the fundamentalist Muslims of the mujahadeen, which became the Taliban, resisted this westernization – with help from Robert Gates’s CIA.

When the Kabul regime and its People’s Democratic Party were threatened, the Soviets (provoked by the U.S.) invaded in 1979. Jimmy Carter ordered the U.S. to help the mujahadeen which were romanticized by American correspondents.

You know the rest. The future Taliban, was supplied with Stinger missiles by the U.S. and ultimately the Soviets were forced to withdraw in 1989, leaving the Democratic forces there with no defenses against the Taliban.

In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal, which was celebrated by the U.S., the Taliban gave Afghanistan a taste of 12th century government, re-enslaving women, wiping out democratic values and the best of Afghanistan’s past glories. In the vacuum, Osama Ben Laden was free to do his dirty work and killed one of his rivals.

POST 9/11
Then came 9/11 and the U.S. reaction was like an irrational spasm, a great temper tantrum. Instead of treating it as an horrible crime, the U.S. declared war on a nation. Instead of using our intelligence sources to go after the criminal perpetrators, the richest nation on earth sent bombs and missiles against the poorest of nations and its innocents. We and they are still dying - for no reason.

Because part of the band of jihadist guerrillas, which the U.S. had sponsored, lived in Afghanistan, Americans were eager to bomb that misbegotten country “back to the stone age,” as if it weren’t already there.

And instead of treating the 9/11 attack as a terrible part of the war against American policy, the U.S. launched this endless war on terrorism which has consumed parts of our democratic traditions as well as our treasure and countless lives. By conservative estimates, the actual cost of the wars on terrorism since 2001 is more than $1.2 trillion; Iraq, $736 billion; Afghanistan, $286 billion - and still counting.

Even now, Dan Froomkin reports in the Huffington Post, the U.S., with 137,000 troops in Afghanistan, intends to remain there for at least another four years in spite of mounting evidence that Afghanistan cannot be saved from itself. In the past, the Soviets left Afghanistan, the British left Afghanistan when it was no longer tenable, and the French left Algeria. We have lost 1,200 men and women to the Taliban and casualties mount higher every month, along with suicides.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on July 29,

“The war in Afghanistan will consume more money this year than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War–combined....The war on terror, including Iraq and Afghanistan has been, by far, the costliest war in American history aside from World War II...

“One legacy of the 9/11 attacks was a distortion of American policy...Under Mr. Obama, we are now spending more money on the military, adjusting for inflation, than in the peak of the Cold War, Vietnam War or Korean War.

“Our battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined...The military has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has diplomats. The intelligence apparatus is so bloated that, according to the Washington Post, the number of people with ‘top secret’ clearance is 1.5 times the population of the District of Columbia.”

TODAY AND TOMORROW
With so many people gathering information on millions of us, including our phone calls and e-mails, and with so many people in uniform here and throughout the world, Barack Obama’s war on terrorism without end, despite his best intentions, may have become a greater danger to American democracy than the plotting of any terrorist.

Remember Pericles: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

Or perhaps the last Rubaiyat quatrain of the great Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), would be appropriate:

The Moving Finger writes: and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ms. Sue Dough Nym: A New Old Me


REFLECTIONS: On Social Security

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections We thought Social Security was safe when Barack Obama was elected. He had opposed George Bush’s attempt to turn the program into millions of 401(k)s subject to the whims of the stock market.

And Obama pledged to keep and preserve Social Security as it is, a defined benefit pension/insurance plan that pays $650 billion to 53 million older Americans, the disabled and the surviving spouses and children of beneficiaries.

But Obama has fallen for the cut-the-deficit frenzy, appointing a commission run by banker Erskine Bowles and right-wing, former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, that began its work by attacking and talking about cuts in Social Security’s benefits.

The president, who says he is still hostile to such cuts and that its long-term financial problems are easily fixed, adds ominously that “everything is on the table.”

That makes me nervous because Obama compromises too much with sworn enemies of Social Security, so perhaps he, as much as the rest of us, needs a primer on the crown jewel of the American moral imperative towards its older population.

How It Works
Social Security is about to celebrate its 75th year and still too many people don’t know much about it. It has lasted through wars and recession, longer than many blue chip corporations. Yet the reasons for its abiding strength are not universally understood.

For example, I’ll wager that not many of us realize that Social Security’s basic benefit – Old-Age

Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) - was designed to replace, on average, about 40 percent of a worker’s final salary. Now, 75 years later, give or take one or two percent, that average replacement rate remains about the same.

But more than that, Social Security was designed to be progressive, which means lower-salaried workers can count on pensions replacing a larger portion of their wages than more affluent persons. To oversimplify, the low-wage waitress, who earned, say, $15,000 a year through most of her working life, can live fairly comfortably on a 40 percent replacement rate.

For a person earning $200,000 a year, Social Security’s benefits are relatively small, but not inconsequential, for the checks will be available no matter the changes in even an affluent beneficiary’s situation during retirement.

There should be no means test excluding the rich from Social Security; the sudden disappearance of the value of 401(k)s, belonging to Enron retirees is a case in point.

Redistribution of Income
It is true, as the experts say, that Social Security was designed to redistribute income from the more affluent wage earners to the lower income workers. That, of course, is the essence of progressivity and one large reason the program has been so successful and beloved. It’s worth knowing the details.

To begin with, Social Security consists of the old age benefit, (35 million workers and dependents), disability insurance (9 million), and survivors’ insurance (6 million, mostly children).

According to the Urban Institute, the Social Security programs redistribute income in five major ways:

  1. From richer workers to poorer workers through a progressive benefit formula.
  2. From shorter lived groups (blacks, men and the less skilled and educated) to longer-lived groups (women and the better educated white collar workers).
  3. From single persons to married couples through survivor benefits paid to spouses and children who don’t need to make further contributions.
  4. From the healthy to the disabled through disability payments for persons who qualify.
  5. And from later generations to earlier generations.

Pay As You Go System
The “redistribution of income,” of course, is anathema to conservatives and many Republicans, who have battled Social Security from its beginning as too much government. But younger persons (and many older beneficiaries) have little understood that Social Security is and always was a pay-as-you go system, in which today’s payroll taxes provides the benefits for the older generation.

Some in the younger generations resent that they pay for my benefits, but some day, with luck, the younger generation will grow older and will need their children’s contributions for their benefits. This pact between generations is one of Social Security’s great strengths and moral contributions.

Not a Ponzi Scheme
Another complaint heard from the younger generation is that Social Security returns too little on their investment, or that its like a Ponzi investment scheme, taking from newer members to pay older members.

But Social Security is not now and never was an investment plan; it is a pension and insurance plan with defined benefits based on one’s lifetime earnings, supported by $800 million (in 2008) in payroll taxes (12.4 percent, split between employer and worker) on incomes up to $106,800.

More on that cap later. But know this: in its 75 years, Social Security has never been on the red.

Nowhere Near Bankrupt
Nevertheless, too many young people – and demagogues in politics and business – have fallen for the myth that Social Security is near bankrupt and benefits won’t be there when they become eligible. But the 2009 report of the Social Security trustees, whose reports are made yearly, contradicts the gloom sayers.

Under the law, the trustees are obliged to peer 75 years into the future to assess Social Security’s health. Nowhere in any report have the trustees anticipated bankruptcy.

In the short-term, the trustees reported, the combined Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and the Disability Insurance (DI) trust funds are now adequately financed over the next ten years. Most such projections are based on very conservative economic growth rates and other estimates (by the Congressional Budget Office) are more optimistic.

Even though the recession has meant more money is being paid out that is coming in payroll taxes, the Social Security system remains in the black because of its increased earnings from interest (about $700 million a year) paid to the massive $2.4 trillion trust fund, which is expected to increase to $3.9 trillion by 2018. What a tempting dish of money the greedy privatizers would love to lay their hands on.

But in the longer term, if the growth rates are lower than they are now or have been, the trustees concluded that around 2018 the benefit costs will rise more rapidly than income, largely because of the retirements of the post-World War II baby boom generation (persons born between 1946 and 1964).

Economist Paul Krugman asks, “What happens in 2018 or whenever, when benefit payments exceed payroll tax revenues? The answer is nothing,” for the system can redeem some of those bonds it holds.”

Eventually, around 2037, say the trustees, Social Security will have to begin to cash in some of the special issue treasury bonds it holds to pay current benefits, but only if nothing is done by the Congress in the meantime.

We will get to proposed solutions, but I should note here how small the problem is: The trustees say Social Security’s deficit for the next 75 years amounts to two percent of payrolls, which means an increase of one percent in payroll taxes split between employee and employer could solve the coming shortfall.

But do you know of any bank or corporation that can say they will be in business for the next 30 years? Let me count: Whatever happened to U.S. Steel, the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads, Enron, AIG, and dozens of defunct banks and saving and loans?

Social Security and the Deficit
The privatizers and Obama’s commission are worried that entitlements such as Social Security are adding to the budget deficit. But the fact is that Social Security now adds not a penny to the deficit. Here’s why.

The heart of Social Security, the $600 billion plus benefits it pays, come out of self-sustaining trust funds paid for by payroll taxes. It is not – repeat - not part of the budget.

This year, the Social Security system, with more than 15,000 employees in Washington, its vast headquarters in Baltimore and hundreds of offices throughout the country, has asked for $21 billion for administration expenses.

It is one of the most efficient organizations in the land, sending out millions of checks on time, keeping track of the earning of millions of card holders, as well as monitoring Medicare and deciding on disability and survivor claims. That $21 billion, a tiny fraction of the benefits paid, is the only money that’s part of the deficit. (If Social Security, at some distant time, must redeem its bonds, the Treasury will reimburse Social Security and that expense would become part of the federal budget, but that’s a very long shot).

So why the fuss about Social Security adding to the deficit? The reason is the dishonesty of Republicans and their right-wing allies on the Commission who are using the deficit to dismantle and turn the program, which they’ve long opposed, into millions of private investment accounts.

Simpson told a reporter, contrary to the trustees, that Social Security is already broke. Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff was making a deal with Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security when it was sidetracked by Cinton’s troubles with Monica Lewinsky. If Bowles and Simpson are honest, they must know that the Social Security problem is not the deficit, but the long term financial health of the nation’s most treasured social insurance program.

That’s happened before and it took a couple of Republicans to save and strengthen the system.

Past Problems and Fixes
In 1983, when Social Security was in imminent danger, President Ronald Reagan, convened a commission headed by Alan Greenspan to solve its financial problems. Reagan had been a critic of Social Security, even suggesting that it be made voluntary, which would cause its collapse.

But Reagan grew in office and the Greenspan commission saved the system for the next 75 years with a few significant fixes. It slowly raised the retirement age to 67, it raised Social Security payroll taxes beyond what was needed to pay benefits and, most important, the commission brought into the system all federal (and many state) employees, including members of Congress who had their own retirement programs.

The result was the growth of the trust fund to an amount that will be able to pay benefits to the 70 million boomers. Simpson scoffs that the treasury bonds are “a bunch of IOUs” forgetting that all bonds are, in essence, IOUs. But the United States has never defaulted on its bonded debt.

Current Social Security Problems
Today the problems of Social Security, as the trustees indicated, are not grave. Greenspan says the coming Social Security shortfall “is not a big problem.” Yet members of Obama’s commission are seeking draconian fixes – all of which would cut benefits.

For example, they are considering slowly raising the retirement age to 70. But because Social Security is vital to keeping older people out of poverty, raising the retirement age would consign millions to live in poverty waiting for their benefits. How many people in their sixties who worked hard at tough jobs will die while waiting?

A study for the AFL-CIO by the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), notes that the commission so far has talked only about cutting Social Security benefits rather than shoring up the system. One proposal, changing the formula for calculating benefits, would reduce checks by up to 9.6 percent for middle income wage earners who are in their late 40s.

Raising the retirement age to 70 would cut benefits by up to 10 percent for workers in their forties and fifties.

And cutting the cost-of-living adjustment even by one percent would result in a 12 percent cut in benefits for retirees.

Economist Dean Baker, director of the CEPR, noted that so far the commission seems to be considering only benefit cuts. “There is a great deal of talk in policy circles about cutting Social Security, but very little discussion of the financial situation of those affected by the cuts.”

A poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, commissioned by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, found that only two percent of Americans believe Social Security is a major cause of the deficit and 78 percent oppose raising the retirement age.

Easy Fixes for Social Security
There are easier fixes that won’t cut benefits: Obama proposed the simplest solution when he was running for president and before he became enamored with turning the cheek of compromise. At the moment, as I mentioned, the Social Security payroll tax is imposed on the first $106,800 of earnings, which means the most affluent executives pay no more than their secretaries. Obama proposed raising the cap to $250,000 while lowering the taxes for many workers.

The National Committee poll found that 50 percent of Americans, including some high wage-earners, favored solving Social Security’s future problem by removing the cap. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein said the Congressional Budget Office estimates removing the cap would raise $100 billion a year in revenues. And it would solve Social Security’s future shortfall.

Even the most affluent figures, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have suggested removing the cap. Social Security could also raise money by being allowed to invest in higher-yielding Treasury bonds rather than the lower yielding special bonds.

You can do some research on how to solve Social Security’s 30-year financial problem by playing the Social Security game at the site of the American Academy of Actuaries. It shows how removing the cap would more than solve the program.

But we Social Security advocates need you to understand that if the present version of the Republican Party regains control of Congress, it leaders and its candidates have promised to kill the nation’s finest contribution to social justice. They will dance on Social Security’s grave rather than celebrate its diamond jubilee.

For one of the best statements on Social Security and the deficit commission, here is the testimony of John Kenneth Galbraith's son at the deficit commission.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, William Weatherstone: Seniors Beware: Modern Technology


REFLECTIONS: On Official Stupidity

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections I doubt if you’ve heard of the late J. Edward Hutchinson, a Republican congressman from Michigan from 1963 to 1977. But for a time back then, he presented me and the rest of the press with a dilemma common in journalism, which has relevance today: How can we describe a politician or public official as dumb or stupid without being unfair, inaccurate or too subjective?

Hutchinson, a stolid old-line conservative, was the ranking, top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee considering the impeachment of President Richard Nixon for the crimes he committed in connection with the Watergate scandal. The Judiciary Committee under Rep. Peter Rodino, D - NJ, was careful to remain bipartisan and 11 Republicans worried about the rule of law and the integrity of the Constitution joined Democrats in voting for impeachment.

I covered those weeks of open and closed-door deliberations as a reporter for the then Knight Newspapers and as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. During those weeks, Hutchinson said not a word and didn’t ask a single question in all the committee’s open sessions. And as far as I was able to determine he said and asked nothing in the closed meetings when evidence against and for the president was presented.

In short, Hutchinson, who should have been leading the committee Republicans was a cipher which, according to one dictionary, means a zero, a person or thing of no importance. He might as well not have been there. But he was, totally silent, except for voting “no” with ten other Republicans opposed to the first article of impeachment.

My problem, as I wrote in my column, was to explain Hutchinson’s silence. A journalist can call a politician “dynamic” or “forceful” but how to get across the subjective judgment that he/she is just plain dumb, dense, ignorant or stupid?

All I could do at the time was to describe his silence. Much later he was to tell Nixon to resign. But Hutchinson’s conduct on the committee was condemned by the Michigan legislature and he resigned in the face of a primary challenge by David Stockman, who went on to fame as Ronald Reagan’s budget director.

The rules of straight journalism are a lot looser today. The Wall Street Journal scored a breakthrough some years ago with a page one story that named the then-senator from Virginia, Bill Scott, as the dumbest member of Congress. Scott promptly confirmed the story by issuing a denial. Since then, in this age of journalism as entertainment and the wild blue blogosphere, almost anything goes.

So I feel confident that I can, with objectivity and enlightened subjectivity, point out stupidities like those of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R - Minn., a born-again and again Christian who began this session of Congress by calling for a congressional investigation of President Barack Obama and members of Congress who, she said, are “anti-American.”

I think she meant that they were, you should excuse the expression, “liberal.” She said she was “very concerned that Obama has anti-American views.” The president’s suggestion that young people serve in Americorp, she said, was a plot to put young Americans into “re-education camps.”

She was one of the leading Republican liars when she and others picked up Sarah Palin’s claim that the health reforms would create death panels to permit the euthanasia of the elderly. Politifact called it “the lie of the year.” But Bachmann has persisted and defended her racist colleague, Rep. Joe Wilson, R - SC when he shouted “You lie” at the president during his State of the Union speech.

And, as expected Bachmann has joined most Republicans calling for the repeal of the health reforms that are about to become effective and are supported by most Americans who want to give the reforms a chance to work.

Even before the president sealed the deal with BP CEO Tony Hayward to set aside, in escrow, $20 billion to pay for its oil spill damage to people and the environment, Bachmann was against it:

“The president just called for creating a fund that would be administered by outsiders. Which would be more of a redistribution of wealth fund. And not it appears like we’ll be looking at one more gateway for more government control, more money to government.”

The money, of course, is to go to victims of the spill. When the details, including the appointment of Kenneth Feinberg to monitor the claims as he did for New York’s responders to the 9/11 attack, she joined her equally dense Republican colleague, Rep. Joe Barton, of Texas, in calling the escrow account a “shakedown.”

She didn’t join in Barton’s apology to BP, but she hasn’t blamed it for the Gulf of Mexico disaster. It was Obama’s fault. The death panel lies and the misinformation about anything Obama proposes, will fade, but were they based on dumbness, ignorance, stupidity or political venality and the irrational hatred of their president?

Her candidate for President in 2012, she said, is fellow right-winger Rep. Steve King of Iowa who cast the lone vote last year against acknowledging that slaves help build the U.S. Capitol. He has described gay unions as a “purely socialist concept.” More recently he told interviewer G. Gordon Liddy, a Watergate burglar,

“I’m offended by [Attorney General] Eric Holder and the President...The President has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks down...on the side that favors the black person.”

Without foundation or any evidence, he accused Holder of not pursuing a series of cases because those accused were minorities.

I nearly forgot to include among the stupid or dumb death panel liars and nuts, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R - N.C., who seems like a benign grandma until she speaks. On the hate crimes legislation, passed as a result of the beating death of a gay man, Matthew Shepard, Foxx voted against it and said that reports that he was beaten because he was gay was “a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing hate crime bills.”

Shepard’s mother heard that piece of cruelty in the gallery.

In September 2005, Foxx was one of 11 members of Congress to vote against a $51 million aid package, supported by George Bush, for victims of Hurricane Katrina. And she was one of 33 Republicans to vote against an extension of the 1964 Voting Rights Act.

But her fame rests with her opposition to the health care reforms which will make insurance, like the kind Foxx and other lawmakers have, more affordable for an estimated 40 million people who are uninsured.

But last July Foxx said, “There are no Americans who don’t have health care.” Echoing Bush’s assertion that people can always go to emergency rooms, she added, “Everybody in this country has access to health care. We do have 7.5 million Americans who want to purchase health insurance who cannot afford it.”

And in a floor speech, she took the death panels lie to this absurd conclusion:

“I believe we have more to fear from the potential of that bill passing than we do from any terrorist right now in any country...The [health reform bill] will put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.”

Unfortunately, one of the dimmer lights in the U.S. Senate, Charles Grassley, R - Iowa, joined in that stupidity. The Institute of Medicine says that 18,000 to 22,000 deaths, including some of Foxx’s constituents, are recorded each year among those who are uninsured. Does Foxx care?

That question leads me to wonder why even smart politicians are so dumb as to fail to see the folly and danger to constituents in their own words. Case in point: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, head of the Republican Governors’ Association and a longtime leader among more sensible Republicans.

He has ambitions for the presidency in 2012, but that was before he took a most sanguine view of the Gulf oil disaster that threatens the seafood-rich coastal waters of his state. With the oil heading toward Mississippi, Barbour likened it to the gasoline sheen found around ski boats. He said, “We don’t wash our face in it but it doesn’t stop us from jumping off the boat to ski.”

Before oil clumps started coming ashore, prompting his belated call for help from the federal government, Barbour said the spill was nowhere near the size of the one from the Exxon Valdez when, in fact, it’s many time larger.

He said, “It’s just possible that what happens here will be manageable and of moderate and even minimal impact.” Speaking of impact, it should be pointed out that BP gave the Republican Governors’ Association $10,000 a few years ago, part of $51,350 it got from oil companies which contribute heavily to the state’s tax base.

Even as dead fish washed ashore, while other Gulf Coast governors struggled for ways to keep the oil away, Barbour encouraged potential visitors to “come on down to play golf, enjoy the beach, catch a fish.”

Other Barbourisms: “If a small animal got coated enough with it (oil), it could smother it. But if you got enough toothpaste on you, you couldn’t breathe.” The oil, he said, is “weathered, emulsified, caramel colored mousse, like the food mousse. Once it gets to this stage it’s not poisonous.”

But Bob Cesca of Huffington Post pointed on June 26, to what he called “a new level of stupid” from Barbour, when the governor said, of the $20 billion BP was placing in escrow, “It bothers me to talk about causing an escrow account to be made, which will make it less likely that they’ll make the income that they need to pay us.” It took Jon Stewart to point out the absurdity: Said Cesca,

“Paraphrasing Stewart, Governor Barbour appears to be suggesting that if BP sets aside $20 billion to be paid to victims of the oil spill, it won’t have enough money to pay out to victims of the oil spill. In other words, Barbour is against compensating victims because he supports compensating victims.”

Barbour is no stranger to lost causes. Not far from the Confederate flag he keeps in his office signed by Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis, Barbour has a large portrait of the University Greys, a Confederate rifle company that suffered 100 percent casualties at Gettysburg.

And when Republican Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia left any mention of slavery out of his declaration of Confederate History Month, Barbour defended him, saying, “there’s no need to mention slavery,” even though it was a central cause of the Civil War - uh, pardon me, The War between the States.

I tried to find Democrats on the various lists of stupid members of Congress, but the only one I found was an anonymous site that listed, former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, of Georgia, the first black woman to represent the state. She served six terms before she was defeated when Republicans crossed over to vote for her Democratic primary rival.

She may have been a firebrand and a conspiracy theorist, questioning who was behind 9/11 and she was quirky, but she was not stupid. She opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ran for president for the Green Party.

It might be amusing to point to the foibles, the inanities and absurd statements of these mostly right-wing Republican figures. Indeed there have been more that I have not included. But their ignorance, stupidities and the venality that seems to accompany their hatred and opposition to everything their president says or does cannot help but hurt the nation, its institution and ordinary people.

What is the excuse for the Senate’s Republicans, who make a pretty good living off the taxpayers, to deny extended unemployment benefits to 1.4 million workers who have been without jobs for more than a year? Their kids, who are getting free breakfasts, are told by one Missouri legislator (a Republican) that they should have breakfast with their parents and not sponge on the government or get a job with McDonald’s to get free meals.

Republicans say they worry that the unemployment costs would increase the federal deficit which their votes during the Bush years helped create. The real reason, as expressed by George Will, was a hoary old Republican argument that was made against Social Security, that unemployment compensation will discourage people from looking for work.

At the same time, Will and his conservative cohorts criticize Obama for the lack of jobs. Go figure.

I believe there is something else at work here: There is plenty of evidence that Republicans, since 1992, have attempted to reverse elections that Democrats –and moderate liberals –have won. So Republicans, during the Newt Gingrich years and later, with the Starr and other pointless investigations, sought – with some success – to destroy and discredit Bill Clinton’s presidency. Unfortunately, Clinton did not help himself.

And in 2000 and 2004, Republican corporate money and right-wing activists undermined and reversed Democratic chances. At best, in the eyes of many Americans, the outcome of those elections remains questionable.

Now, yet again, the Republican mission, as enunciated by their gods, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, is to bring about the failure of the Obama presidency and the reversal of the people’s will. Where is the party of Lincoln in this effort?


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Chinese Features


REFLECTIONS: On Captain Ike

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections I have been to Israel more than a dozen times between 1947, when I ran away from home to briefly join the Haganah, and through my dozen years covering the peace talks that produced the Camp David Accords, Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and a tentative agreement between the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin.

I attended the signing of the treaty with Egypt on the north lawn of Jimmy Carter’s White House and the treaty with Jordan on a river wash between the two nations. And I celebrated with President Bill Clinton when he won the pledge of “no more war” from the Palestinians and Jews on a sun drenched day on the south lawn at the White House.

But much of those agreements have come to little. They have not brought peace. Rabin was murdered by an Israeli; Arafat’s Palestinians were hopelessly divided when he died. The Middle East became more volatile. So when the Israelis attacked the Turkish ship seeking to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza with relief supplies, it brought to mind my encounter in 1978 with one of the legendary heroes in the founding of Israel – a man I knew as Captain Ike Aranne.

I was on an El Al flight from Nairobi, in Kenya, to Tel Aviv to meet my wife who was coming to Israel for the first time. She told me she had been reluctant to come because her orthodox Jewish father, in chanting the prayer at the end of the Passover seder, seemed to be saying something about dying in Jerusalem. And she thought from childhood that she would die if she went to Israel.

Anyway, I had spent some weeks in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it was suspected that Cuban troops were stirring trouble against the imperialist powers of France and Belgium, whose King Leopold had made billions from its copper and diamonds by wreaking great cruelties among the workers.

There were no Cuban troops. The country had been torn by civil war encouraged by the CIA, tribal rivalries, a culture of corruption and Zaire became a stake in the cold war. It was ruled by the pro-west dictator, Joseph Mobutu, who stole millions but he had the support of the U.S., the World Bank and Israel, which was seeking influence in Africa.

I was typing out on my Olivetti my final story from Zaire when the man next to me on the flight asked what I was doing. He was handsome and wiry with a shock of white hair, and I noticed that the El Al cabin crew seemed to treat him with deference. I told him who I was and asked him if he was someone famous.

He asked me if I had heard of the President Warfield. Garfield, I said but there was no President Warfield.

The President Warfield, he said, had been a Chesapeake Bay ferry named after the head of the company that owned it. It had been secretly purchased by the Israelis in 1947 to bring Jewish refugees from Nazism to British occupied Palestine. The ship had been renamed “Exodus 1947” and my seat mate was its captain who gave me his anglicized name, “Yitzhak (Ike) Aranne.”

In contrast to the happy ending of the Exodus voyage in the movie of the same name, the British, resisting the creation of a Jewish state, rammed and blockaded the ship and refused to let it land as it stood offshore for days packed with 4,500 sick and hungry passengers, three of whom died in battles with British who boarded the ship. The British raised the phony charge that the refugees were armed.

After days of fruitless negotiations, the vindictive British prime minister deported the ship and with nowhere else to land, it was forced to land in Germany, which just a few years earlier tried to kill every Jew in Europe.

The refugees were interned, but one result of the world-wide outcry on behalf of the Exodus, was the 1948 vote in the United Nations to partition Palestine, which gave Israel its independence but left the Palestinians in a national limbo. The voyage of the Exodus had worked.

Not surprisingly, The New York Times saw a parallel between the plight of the Exodus and the Israeli attack on the Turkish ship trying to breach the tight Israeli blockade of Gaza with food and other essentials. The Times reported on May 31, “To some Israeli observers, it was impossible to miss the parallels” with the story of the Exodus. Rafi Man, of the Israeli Democracy Institute, asked on his blog, “Will this be the Palestinian Exodus?”

I am not sure that Captain Ike would disagree with the parallel. Yitzhak Ahronovitch, who died in December at the age of 86, was among the earliest settlers. He came to Palestine from Poland when he was ten and he was only 23 when he commanded the Exodus. He had been a veteran merchant seaman during the Second World War and in the struggle against the British occupation, he was a member of the Palmach, the Haganah’s strike force, which fought the British occupiers with bombs and terrorism.

But when we spoke in his apartment, with his American-born wife, and over a long dinner in Joppa, he worried that the Israelis had lost their way and had become the hated occupiers – of the millions of Palestinians, farmers and shopkeepers who could trace their roots in Palestine-Israel back to Christ’s time.

As I remember it, Ike told me that the glow of Israel’s spectacular victory in the 1967 Six-Day War had turned to uncertainty. Israel had conquered three Arab armies and had taken control of Egypt’s Sinai, Syria’s Golan Heights, Jordan’s West Bank of the Jordan River and most treasured of all, the old city of Jerusalem and the Western Wall of an ancient Jewish temple.

The occupation of these territories, which is still not recognized as legal by the U.N. or the U.S., brought internal violence again as the Palestine Liberation Organization asserted itself with terror bombings not unlike those of the Palmach against the British occupation. As Ahronovitch told me, “We were sure that the ‘67 war would give us peace at last. But now, we don’t know what comes next.”

Israel’s confidence in its future as a Jewish state had been shaken.

By 1978, as Palestinian resistance grew more violent, the inevitable dynamic of the occupied and occupier became increasingly violent and the call for security clashed with the democratic idealism of the nation’s founders, like Ahronovitch. Palestinians were treated badly, to counter the violence of Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, which led to stronger, angrier Palestinian resistance and the spiral of violence that continues today. Although Israel regards itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, democracy does not extend to the Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, the Bedouins and non-Jews.

The traditionally non-secular (younger, immigrant) Jews in Israel have become dominated by orthodox Rabbis and their right-wing parties (women are forbidden to pray at the Western Wall) have turned racist, seeking to expel the Palestinians and even the Israeli Arabs. For self-protection, the Israelis have built apartheid walls which keep the Palestinians and their plight out of sight of most Israelis and visiting Americans.

Because of real security concerns, the domination of the Israeli Defense Forces in the cabinet and the religious orthodoxy that closes down the country on the Sabbath and rules the lives of women, in particular, have made much of Israeli a military theocracy. Such are the fruits of occupation that lead to unintended consequences. To counter the influence of the non-secular Palestinians, Israel invited into the country elements of the deeply religious Muslim Brotherhood, based in Egypt.

They became Hamas, a grass roots political and social movement hostile to the more moderate non-fundamentalist Palestinians. Hamas’ religious fundamentalism is especially hostile towards Israel as an affront to the Muslim faith. But they won a democratic election and they now rule Gaza from which they send rockets into Israel, which responded with an invasion, many innocent civilian deaths and today’s blockade.

So nowhere is the peace in sight that Yitzhak Ahronovitch had hoped for in 1978. For without the reluctant support of the Palestinians, Hamas and the stalling Israelis, the so-called two-state solution seems untenable.

That brings me to another sad chapter in the ongoing Middle East drama - the reprehensible call by my friend, a long time colleague, that Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine” and Jews should go back to the European nations of their origin. But I know something of the background to the outburst.

Helen Thomas, born in Kentucky into a Lebanese family, covered dozens of Israeli officials who came to the White House and she traveled to Israel with presidents. Despite her inner anger at some of the more hostile Israeli statements and policies towards Arabs, and their bloody invasions of Lebanon, her reports remained straight with nary a hint of how she feels.

But her unthinking mini-diatribe, was born from frustration that the 30-year peace process is going nowhere and suggests a new path to peace – the one state solution in which Israel and Palestinians shared the land as Israel’s founders intended.

Let’s face it: It is impossible to cobble together two states out of the walled off Palestinians whose lands are torn by hundreds of armed settlements, a modern semi-secular and paranoid Israel and the besieged, destitute and powerless Gaza under Hamas. So why not one state with Palestinians and Jews who are more alike than they would admit, in looks, culture, intelligence, intellectual achievement, a desire for education, business sense and acquisitiveness, their penchant accumulate wealth and build a business?

In 2003, the Middle East scholar and political scientist Virginia Tilley, writing from South Africa in the London Review of Books, and writer Tony Judt, who is Jewish and a frequent writer on the Middle East, opened a discussion on the alternative to the faltering two-state solution.

TILLEY: “The two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an idea and possibility whose time has passed, its death obscured by the spectacle–the hoopla of useless road maps, the cycle of Israeli gun ship assassinations and Palestinian suicide bombings, the dismal Palestinian power struggles, the house demolitions....” And now as a last resort for safety, the walls of what Israelis acknowledge as Apartheid. What next?

JUDT: “The peace process is dead. The time has come to think the unthinkable. The two-state solution— the core of the Oslo process and the present 'road map — is probably already doomed. With every passing year we are postponing an inevitable, harder choice that only the far right and far left have so far acknowledged, each for its own reasons.

“The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, bi-national state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. That is indeed how the hard-liners in Israel’s cabinet see the choice; and that is why they anticipate the removal of the Arabs as the ineluctable condition for the survival of a Jewish state.”

Other Middle East actors, including the Palestinian Authority have begun serious consideration of the one-state solution. The early Zionists, like Yitzhak Ahronovitz, according to Amos Elon, saw Israel (perhaps naively) as a socialist democratic home for Jews and Arabs, not necessarily a secular Jewish State, but a homeland for the Diaspora.

Captain Ike would not have supported the unthinkable, the expulsion of millions of Palestinians. If there is to be peace, I believe the one state solution – call it Israel or Palestine or both – inevitable.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary B Summerlin: Feeling Smug


REFLECTIONS: On the Paranoid Style

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections Suddenly, libertarianism has become the newest fashion among the paranoid in American politics. But be not deceived; they are just as reactionary and extreme as their more deranged and schizophrenic political brethren on the far, far right who want to “take back” the government they hate in order to cripple it.

But libertarians are getting a measure of respect in much of the mainstream press and approval by 38 percent of Americans largely as a result of its two most prominent figures, Representative Ron Paul, a likeable Texas Republican, and his son Randall (Rand), who has captured the Republican nomination for the Kentucky Senate seat being vacated by a true oddball, Jim Bunning, a former star major league pitcher.

Perhaps Rand Paul, a practicing opthamologist who ran as a tea bagger, seemed sane compared to Bunning and the Kentucky Republican establishment that ran Bunning out of office, then endorsed a front man for the GOP regulars.

I’m not sure why the Pauls ally themselves with Republicans, most of whom stand for policies, deficit spending and the kind of central government they hate. They could follow the lead of liberal socialists like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont who votes with the Democrats (not all the time) but lists himself as an independent.

Rather, as we shall see, these libertarians are not independent from the right-wing Republican Party.

But the Pauls and libertarianism are getting a relatively friendly press because they are not firebrands and libertarianism seems a rather benign, principled ideology which calls for the smallest central government possible.

Ron Paul has been a loyal Republican in the House, but when he ran for President in 2008 he seemed more eccentric than threatening. And he has differed from most of the Congress in opposing George Bush’s war in Iraq and his violations of civil liberties.

The positions of the Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, seem benign and consisting of mere slogans. It is holding its convention this spring with the theme “Gateway to Liberty,” and some of its positions on civil liberties (not civil rights) and the war in Iraq, which Ron Paul opposed, are admirable. But where principled libertarianism goes off the rails is its insistence on a small government as envisioned by agrarian President Thomas Jefferson. It’s not only hypocritical, but useless and dangerous.

I recall an ongoing conversation I had some years ago with one of the officials of the Cato Institute, Washington’s leading and richest libertarian think tank. He held that Jefferson made a mistake in setting a precedent for expanding presidential power when he undertook to make the Louisiana Purchase, 828,000 square miles west of the Mississippi from New Orleans to the Canadian border for about $15 million.

My Cato friend argued, as Jefferson’s conservative critics argued then, that the Constitution did not specifically permit such presidential power. Jefferson, who feared that the Spanish, French and English could establish colonies along the Mississippi and cut off the nation’s western expansion, argued that the Constitution did not prohibit the president from taking such action.

Since then, libertarians have regularly argued that presidents and the Congress have trampled on the Constitution’s limitations and expanded government for purposes that limited the freedom of the individual to make his/her own decisions and take responsibility for his/her actions.

That is essentially the Cato view, which favors “the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace.”

But since Jefferson, the limits of government have been steadily enlarged – by John Adams’s Alien and Sedition laws, Andrew Jackson’s federal bank, Woodrow Wilson’s decisions that brought the U.S. into foreign wars, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But Cato has rarely protested or lobbied against Republicans.

Instead, aided by its right-wing corporate sponsors, Cato has opposed most industry regulations, most social programs, the income tax, gun control, the Federal Reserve, much of the United Nations actions and the International Court of Justice on the grounds that they impinge on the U.S. Constitution and the rights of Americans.

And in practice, Cato and the libertarians support most of the conservative Republican initiatives to end Social Security and Medicare.

The last time I was at the Cato Institute, I attended a lecture by then-Representative Dick Armey, [R., Tex.], who taught economics at a small Texas college before he became the House Majority Leader, second in command to Speaker Newt Gingrich. They had taken control of the Congress with their “Contract for America” which consisted, among other things, of stripping the Food and Drug administration and the financial industry of regulations dating back to the New Deal. Armey’s special cause was, as he put to me, to “wean our old people away from Medicare” by slowly privatizing the program.

At the Cato Institute, Armey told the friendly crowd that he had decided not to participate in Medicare. And he recommended that as a libertarian course - that is, individuals should be at liberty to care for themselves through the free market.

Indeed, since then, Armey has sued to permit him and other plaintiffs to prohibit the government from forcing persons on Social Security to become participants in Medicare Part A. If upheld, such an action by enough libertarians would undermine Medicare’s beleaguered Hospital Insurance Fund.

Naturally, the Cato libertarians and every Republican opposed the Affordable Health Care Act, which, among other things, saved the trust fund for another 12 years. And Armey, a paid lobbyist, used his “Freedom Works” organization to round up corporate backing and money for the phony grass roots numbskulls that became the tea baggers.

It should be clear that despite the prineipled intents of those members who think of themselves as independents, libertarians have been right-wing Republican wolves in sheep’s clothing and part of what ths historian, Richard Hofstadter, called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

It is worth revisiting his famous essay. It was written in 1964, when one of the heroes of libertarianism, Barry Goldwater, had captured the Republican Party.

The essay appeared in Harper’s Magazine shortly before the presidential elections began.

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” wrote Hofstadter. “In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority...I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Hofstadter, the scholar, traced the paranoid style back to the anti-Masons and the anti-Catholics. But he wrote in the wake of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against communists, the rise of the John Birch Society, which joined McCarthy in attacking President Eisenhower as a “conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.”

Goldwater opposed Medicare, the minimum wage, federal aid to schools and all welfare as “socialism.” With a famous speech of support from Ronald Reagan, the Goldwater movement reached its peak during the presidency of a liberal Democrat. It lost the 1964 election to Lyndon Johnson, but Goldwater’s libertarian heirs, which supported the non-libertarian, big government, Richard Nixon, solidified their takeover of the Republican right under the leadership of Ronald Reagan.

Later in life, Reagan and Goldwater, moderated their views on social issues and would not now qualify for the libertarian pantheon.

Today, the Paranoid style is best represented by the supposed libertarian tea baggers (of which Rand Paul is a leader), when they depict another liberal Democratic president as a “Marxist, socialist, communist and Muslim.” It turns out that most tea baggers are Republicans, but with a special venom for Obama and liberals and the federal government.

What else but deranged paranoia can explain the assertion by non-church goer Newt Gingrich, a thrice married admitted draft dodger, that the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress are a “secular socialist machine” that “represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union?”

A moderate Republican, TV host and former congressman Joe Scarborough called Gingrich’s remarks, “sick” and “pure wingnuttery.” Libertarians and the rest of the Republican Party remained silent.

That’s because – Gingrich’s language aside – most Libertarian Republicans, with the Pauls leading the way, are just as extreme in their views. Rand Paul, who says he’s for limiting the government’s intrusion in our lives, suggested last month to a Russian TV interviewer that the U.S. should abandon its policy of granting citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants even if they’re born on U.S. soil.

That would be a direct violation of the Constitution. (See the 14th Amendment.)

But that isn’t the end of it for the Pauls. Father Ron has voted consistently with the lockstep Republicans against every Obama proposal like a good soldier in the Party of No.

In 2004, he was the only House member to vote against a resolution commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which he denounced in a floor speech as a violation of property rights.

Son Rand, in his heart of hearts, still opposes the part of the 1964 Act (which Goldwater voted against) outlawing discrimination in restaurants and other private establishments open to the public. He also opposes all forms of gun control, even for suspected terrorists ad undocumented immigrants.

As Joe Conason wrote for Truthout, libertarians would take us back to the nation of Jefferson’s time:

“So they would do away with legal restrictions on wages, hours and working conditions, including the minimum wage and child labor laws.”

And if carried to the principled libertarian extreme, the Pauls would have to support the abolition of Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, public schools and the national parks because private is better than public.

I’m sure that the pressures of practical politics would mitigate these principles. But the Pauls ought to be grilled in the way Rand was outed by Rachel Maddow’s interview to admit his opposition to the Civil Rights Act.

How far do his and his father’s libertarian principles take them in their opposition to the myriad laws and the actions of the federal government to mitigate inequity and promote “the general welfare”and social justice? I’d like someone to ask them, for example, how they differ from the Republicans.

According to Conason. Dr. Rand Paul, the opthamologist, who opposes public programs like Medicare as an intrusion on individual rights, is also opposed to the impending 21 percent cut in Medicare’s payment to physicians. So far his Republican brethren have blocked votes on delaying the cut. I don’t know how Rand Paul would vote.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marcia Mayo: Old Bag


REFLECTIONS: On Longevity

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections This began as an essay on longevity, the advances the United States and much of the world have made in increasing life expectancy. Then I came across this piece from The New York Times of October 24, 1880. The story, entitled, Living Too Long, began:

“Generally speaking, one of the last and least of our anxieties is that we may live too long. Throughout youth and maturity, the prospect of longevity is very apt to be pleasant, for the thing itself seems desirable – far more so in the distance than if at hand.”

As usual, The Times came to no conclusion although the article made a strong case against growing too old without telling us how long is too long? In 1880, the life expectancy in the U.S. for white males was 40. Today it’s 78.2, somewhat less than Japan (82.6) and most of Europe, (in the 80s) all of which provide universal health care.

But it’s not my aim to promote access to good health care, but to examine a strange phenomenon. The world has had great success since 1880 in achieving a longer, heathier life for people almost everywhere. Indeed, life expectancy in most of the world has grown by 10 years just since 1960. And yet, too many Americans, politicians and ordinary people seem to fear longevity, and some are questioning whether we’re living too long.

A woman I met years ago who was the subject of my column on the problems of older Americans, had just placed her husband, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, in a nursing home and she didn’t know how to pay for it and continue to keep up her own home and living standards. “Who knew I would live this long?” she said. She was only 70.

A few weeks ago, a reader told me quite candidly that people on Medicare or Social Security were selfish and should forgo these programs, “that will keep you alive for a few more years; better to use the money to send your grandchildren to college.”

That we on Medicare and Social Security’s are living too long and are a drain on the rest of society is not a new idea. Twenty five years ago, the Atlantic Monthly, with the help of an ugly caricature, depicted older Americans as “Greedy Geezers.”

And about that time, then Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado told a meeting of lawyers that elderly people who are terminally ill “have a duty to die and get out of the way” rather than try to survive by artificial means. People who allowed themselves to die, he said, are like “leaves falling off a tree and forming humus for other plants to grow...Let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.” He figured it’s better to be humus than to watch your grandchildren grow up.

In 1996, as a former governor, Lamm was at it again calling for Medicare to be cut tenfold because it was spending too much prolonging lives. And he predicted tht, as the society ages, “we have to learn to run a nation of 50 Floridas.” As we shall see, that sour vision of the future has cropped up more recently.

But the criticism that Medicare spent too much money on the last years of the lives of beneficiaries, along with efforts by Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congress to privatize Medicare and cut its funding, prompted Medicare in 1995 to begin its hospice program.

Medicare paid fully to care for patients whose doctor attested that they had less than six months to live. Patients who volunteered to enter hospice had to agree that they could receive only palliative care – pain killers and bedside help - to make them comfortable. But they were denied curative treatment, including their own routine medicines, even if there was a chance it would prolong their lives.

But the hospice program gave lie to the notion that death is the answer to saving money. Fortunately, as medical advances such as chemotherapy, open heart surgery and more sophisticated diagnostic techniques like the CT-Scan and PET-Scan became available and common, it was no longer as easy as Lamm suggested to call patients terminally ill, or to predict how much longer they had to live.

Few doctors will tell a patient how long he or she has to live for the course of an illness is not predictable for everyone. Cancer patients today may survive into their eighties. And the severely disabled, like Stephen Hawking, may contribute handsomely to the living.

As a result, Medicare now recognizes that the six-month prediction of a doctor, which is still required, may be extended indefinitely under current Medicare rules. Indeed, some patients get well enough to opt out of hospice care. In addition, Medicare dropped its prohibition on curative care and now permits a cancer patient to continue chemotherapy while in hospice.

Nevertheless, Medicare hospice will take over the care of a patient and is there to provide care for the patient (and comfort for the family) at the end of life.

Thus, it has become obvious that there is nothing predictable about aging except that it will end. Everything else is a matter of luck, background, chance, environment, genes and perception. We are not as old as our parents were at our age. And likely they didn’t live to be our age.

You know the cliches: 40 is the new 30; 60 is the new 50; and so on. As the boomers came of age, AARP recognized the changes in the perception and the realities of aging when it lowered its membership eligibility age to 50. In short, longevity is to be celebrated rather than feared.

One of the first writers to call for a celebration of longevity was social historian, Theodore Roszak, who wrote the classic study of the Sixties and coined a new phrase, in The Making of A Counter Culture. In his 1998 book, America the Wise, he called on the nation to celebrate and welcome the wisdom of America’s booming population of older Americans.

“The future belongs to maturity,” he wrote. “Never before has an older generation (more than 80 million Americans in their sixties, seventies, eighties and even nineties) been so conversant with so many divergent ideas and dissenting values.”

His book was published before the full force of the digital explosion, but the older generation, the aging boomers and even those who may be called elderly, are not lagging behind younger Americans in their skills with computers and accompanying gadgets. Indeed, the geniuses at Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Amazon are beyond their boomer years.

Roszak’s 2001 update of America the Wise, entitled The Longevity Revolution, says of longevity, “It is inevitable. It is good.” His optimism is shared by the godfather of the study of aging, Dr. Robert N. Butler, a geriatrician and founder of the New York-based International Longevity Center, a think tank on issues facing older America.

Butler won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1975 book, Why Survive, a pioneering study of what it’s like to grow old in America. His was not an encouraging picture of “old age.” He became the first director of the National Institute on Aging, and has done more than any one to call attention to the potential and problems of longevity. And despite the longevity alarmists, much has changed for the better.

His latest book, in contrast to his first, celebrates the rewards and possibilities of aging in America. Entitled The Longevity Prescription, Butler, who is active in his eighties, begins with a chapter on “Embracing longevity.” He notes that in the beginning of the 19th Century, life expectancy was 35. “In round numbers we can anticipate living ten thousand days longer than our ancestors could a century ago.”

Butler established the first school of geriatric medicine at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, and speaking as a doctor, Butler says,

“The average American does not need to resign himself or herself to spending these added decades descending slowly and unhappily into disease and disability...You are not your parents’ genes.”

And he proceeds to dispel some of the myths of aging and he prescribes some reasonable things all of us can do to prevent illness and remain active and mentally alert. “No matter what your age, there are ways to enhance your longevity.” They seem as obvious as his admonition to quit smoking (Butler was a smoker), but they are too often overlooked.

His advice includes, how to maintain mental vitality; why you should nurture old and new relationships; and how to get effective medical care.

I have interviewed Butler, was a participant at his first Age boom Academy at his longevity center and I know that he and Roszak are ardent defenders of Social Security and Medicare and advocates for single-payer, universal health insurance. To these ends, the new version of Roszak’s book exposes the rich predators who see longevity as “the Gray Peril,” driving America into bankruptcy because of the increasing costs of Medicare and Social Security.

Chief among these attackers of entitlements is former Nixon Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson, a Wall Street billionaire who now runs the right-wing Concord Coalition, which would privatize Social Security and Medicare. Roszak wrote that Peterson, who published a dire warning about the growth of entitlements in The Atlantic in May,1996, believes that they are unsustainable, unprincipled and unfair.

But more striking, said Roszak, Peterson’s warning treated older Americans as “an alien species of obnoxious, geriatric layabouts thronging the sunny shores of Florida.” He too warned that we should be prepared to become a nation of Floridas.

Nevertheless, Peterson’s long crusade has found comfort in, of all places, the Obama administration. Under pressure from conservative Democrats as well as Republicans, Obama created a commission to deal with the rising deficit. And as expected, the deficit hawks are not singling out the cost of wars and the military, but entitlements, including Social Security, which is sustained by payroll taxes and adds nothing to the deficit. And contrary to too much misleading reporting, it remains financially sound for at least another 30 years.

Peterson, who made millions as a hedge fund manager and took advantage of tax breaks, “continues to lecture on the need to cut Social Security and Medicare for retirees who have a tiny fraction of his wealth,” said economist Dean Baker.

Because of the recession and high unemployment, the Social Security system will pay out more in benefits this year and next than it takes in payroll taxes, but that happened in the recession of 1981-2 and in 1983, Ronald Reagan approved a fix that saved Social Security for 75 years.

Thus Baker chastised the Wall Street Journal for saying the Social Security trust fund will show a deficit; the trust fund earns interest on the bonds it sells to the Treasury and will show a surplus of $100 billion this year.

But on the larger issue of entitlement spending, Princeton’s Uwe Reinhardt, the nation’s leading heath economist  put the hysteria about the cost of entitlements in perspective. In a lecture for the Woodrow Wilson School in Washington, he noted that outlays for all Social Security programs, though not part of the budget, will remain flat at six percent of the Gross Domestic Product for the next 60 years, while Medicare spending will rise from the current 3.59 percent to 8.74 percent in 2050.

But not to worry, Reinhardt said. By 2050, even at an annual growth rate of 1.5 percent, the GDP per capita will grow from the current $40,0,000 to $78,200.

“Why should I worry about who will be running the world in 2050,” said Reinhardt, “when they will have so much real GDP to play with.”

Finally, Pete Peterson and his Wall Street allies are smart enough to know, for example, that Social Security is not a budget problem. So why are they attacking it? For the same reason George W. Bush sought to turn the insurance and pension program into millions of 401(k)s: think of how Wall Street will celebrate if the brokers and bankers can get their hands on the bonds in the trust fund, worth $2.5 trillion.

I don’t think that will happen unless the Republicans, who are calling for the partial privatization of Social Security, get another chance to govern. Then those of us who welcome our own longevity will have reason to be afraid, very afraid.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Helen: Possibilities in the Middle of a Book


REFLECTIONS: On a Republican Return

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections I can’t figure why Republican Sue Lowden who opposed the health reforms and seriously suggested bartering (with chickens or vegetables) to pay for medical care, is ahead in the polls and may defeat Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who has led the fractious Senate to pass historic legislation and whose position gives Nevada great influence.

But then, consider the real and frightening possibility that the tortuous Oklahoma law all but outlawing all abortions, and the Arizona law calling for a police state to deal with undocumented immigrants could easily became the laws of our land should this brand of Republicans return to power next year or in 2012.

These draconian laws are not isolated events, but part of a pattern of reaction that threatens a restoration of the worst of the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney/Newt Gingrich/Sara Palin/Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck politics.. These are people who have threatened to secede or nullify laws they don’t like or understand because a liberal Democrat is in office.

I had written this and then saw that Frank Rich echoed my thoughts in the May 2 New York Times:

“The more you examine the (Arizona’s) law provisions and proponents (every Republican in the legislature) the more you realize it’s the latest and (so far) most vicious battle in a far broader movement that is not just about illegal immigrants – and that is steadily increasing its annexation of one of America’s two major political parties...The law dovetails seamlessly with the national ‘Take Back America’ crusade...”

First we should take note of the meanness of the crusaders and these Republicans as they toss around epithets like “socialist,” “communist,” “traitor” and “baby killer.” Such rhetoric that has been thrown at the president, Democrats and liberals has its origins in Newt Gingrich’s 1995 memo to the Republican political action committee, called GOPAC: “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” which taught conservatives to use sharp and negative words and exaggerations to describe Democrats and positive expressions for Republicans.

And Gingrich lectured in training sessions on how to use “shield issues” such as abortion, same sex unions, gay rights and immigration to disguise the Republican agenda while putting Democrats on the defensive.

Consider the downright maliciousness of the Republicans towards women going through a crisis of an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy in the Oklahoma anti-abortion law, which evades the guarantees of Roe v. Wade. The law debases women and treats them like farm animals because they choose (and may need ) an abortion.

Even if their pregnancy is life threatening, they are required to undergo an ultrasound and a vaginal procedure to view the fetus. Mississippi’s abortion prohibition stands even in the case of birth defects. Florida’s law requires a doctor to describe the ultrasound results even if the woman doesn’t want to know. And these Republicans preach against the dangers of government intrusion into our lives.

The Arizona law is similarly vindictive as well as a racist reaction to the fact that, as Rich pointed out, the state’s Anglo-Caucasian population, which votes Republican  is becoming a minority. Senator John McCain, who once supported a decent immigration law, now panders to the radicals who have him under siege.

The Times veteran Supreme Court reporter, Linda Greenhouse, called the law a police state measure not unlike the worst of Soviet communism and South African pass laws, which required black people to have passes to go to certain areas. She described it as “breathing while undocumented.” She is correct when she says that Barry Goldwater, a true conservative, would never have supported such a trampling on his libertarian soul.

The language of the law is bad enough as a government intrusion into an individual’s rights, but its consequences include breaking up hundreds of families who have lived and worked in America for years if one partner is undocumented.

Former Republican congressman Duncan Hunter, from California, who also believes in the right to life (which, he says, begins at conception) wants to deport the live children of undocumented immigrants born in the U.S. He has also favored repeal of the 14th Amendment which guarantees equal rights to all Americans including, according to the courts, children of undocumented immigrants.

And Arizona followed up its racism with punitive legislation to ban teachers with “heavy accents” and to prohibit ethnic studies. In Alabama the Republican candidate for governor said he saw no need to study any language besides English.

I have dwelt on the these two issues, because they illustrate the most politically profitable and easily demagoged “shield issues” that put Democrats on the defensive. But they are all of a piece with the radical and revanchist efforts of the Republicans to take revenge for the 2008 election and “take America back” - that is, take the nation back from Barack Obama and his government activism.

That seems to mean returning to the agendas of the last dozen years during which the Republican Party has undergone the kind of metamorphosis imagined by Kafka. His character awoke to find out he had turned into a bug.

The radical Republicans, for example, include an army of fundamentalist Christians who believe, as George Bush believed, that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured, and that creationism belongs right up there with (or even ahead of) Charles Darwin in public schools.

These Republicans would also end any real action on climate change for among this party’s leaders are the two most conservative, anti-government senators from Oklahoma, James Imhofe, who denies any possibility of man-made climate change, and Dr. Tom Coburn, who delights in saying “no” to any and all legislation and nominees by Democrats. Funny that both anti-government senators collect their handsome salaries and perks.

But the denial of evolution and climate change would be in line with a revival of a Bush know-nothing doctrine, reported in Politics Daily by Sheila Kaplan, who wrote that the Environmental Protection Agency staff was forced to ignore relevant science in monitoring data on the environment’s impact on human health.

The same was true at the Food and Drug Administration and every federal regulatory body that was based on science.

There is little doubt that the radical Republicans, with the help of the insurance and drug industry, would relax or ignore all regulations of the recently passed health reforms. They may not be able to repeal it, but Republicans are not known for enforcing regulations. So expect Medicare to be privatized. And Social Security may fall to the privatizers.

If and when the Tea Baggers take back America, their Republican masters will put the financial regulators like the Securities Exchange Commission back to sleep so we can have a repeat of Madoff, Lehman Brothers. Said Roy Ulrich, writing for the think tank, Demos, “Financial regulators during the Bush era kept their foot off the pedal for ideological reasons and failed to spot” or simply ignored the crimes before their eyes.

Similarly, the Office of Thrift Supervision, led by regulators who didn’t believe in regulation, failed to see the coming collapse of Washington Mutual.

Closer to criminal neglect were the hijinks, including parties, drug and alcohol use, sexual encounters, and bribery in the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The latter is under investigation for failing its regulatory responsibilities which contributed to the disaster at the Massey Energy mine that killed 29 miners. Massey had been cited for dozens of safety violations, but suffered only wrist slaps.

The Minerals Management Service, according to the Wall Street Journal, failed to require British Petroleum to install an acoustical switch, or control, required on foreign oil rigs that might have prevented today’s catastrophe. The reason? Regulation was not a priority for BP which has been involved in several oil spills.

The switch costs a half-million dollars to install but, according to environmental attorney Mike Papantonio, speaking on the MSNBC’s Ed Schultze show, that regulation was tossed out for drilling off America’s shores during still-secret meeting Vice-president Dick Cheney had with oil industry executives in 2001.

In addition, says the Journal, the job Cheney’s former company, Halliburton, did in failing to cement the well has also been called into question. Maybe better cementing or the installation of the acoustic switch might not have worked, but we’ll never know.

Too often in journalism, we are so preoccupied with events, each of which is worth our full attention, that we fail to connect the dots from the Republican crusade against abortion and illegal immigrants to the mine disaster, to the financial meltdown and the unregulated free market that is now responsible for the worst environmental disaster to befall the nation.

Is this the America the radical Republicans intend to give us when they take it back?


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Sheila Halet: The Book of Days


REFLECTIONS: On Fascism

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections Nothing gets me more angry than the looney know-nothings who toss epithets like fascist and communist at our president - Democrats and liberals, among others.

Never mind that the two are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, these numb nuts are so criminally ignorant of history they don’t seem to realize that these ideologies – fascism and communism – are not just words on a placard. Many millions have suffered, died and fought over these ideas, which ruled much of the world in the last century. Their legacy, which still lingers, is not to be taken lightly.

Besides, those who hurl these loaded words like curses, are diminishing their value much like the overuse of the F-word diminishes its worth. But I am reminded of my Uncle Sam, of whom I’ve written, for although he never used such a word, one of his favorite epithets was “fascist” which he used freely and for good reason.

A non-card carrying socialist, Sam spat the word fascist, like an expletive, at radio commentators in the 1940s like Gabriel Heatter and H.V. Kaltenborn, when he thought they were not sufficiently anti-Nazi or pro-FDR. But that was a time when fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan threatened to engulf the rest of the civilized world.

Do the loonies know that our allies in the struggle against fascism included the communist Soviet Union?

The U.S. came late to the fight because of the American tradition of isolationism, the influence of right-wing commentators who wanted no part of a Roosevelt war, ugly memories of World War I and the rise of the German-American Bund and its allies. Ironically, the earliest and most ardent anti-fascists in Spain, Italy and Germany were socialists, social democrats and communists.

In those days fascism had a toehold in the U.S. partly because it was virulently anti-communist. And communism seemed the greater threat after World War I when the then-attorney general, Mitchell Palmer rounded up suspected “reds” who supported the aggressive new labor movement and sympathized with the new socialist Soviet state before it fell to Stalin.

Socialists and unions gained strength through the Thirties when the U.S. seethed with discontent during the worst of the great depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which helped save American capitalism, was nevertheless seen by Republicans and big business as socialist and communist. They seemed to be justified in their fear of the left for many New Deal programs, like the Federal Writers Project, made communists and socialists welcome. And films like Grapes of Wrath were sympathetic toward the left.

The backlash from the right was inevitable as strikes and the militancy of labor unions, like the International Workers of the World, the I.W.W., or “Wobblies,” the United Mine Workers and the United Auto Workers which engaged in sit-down strikes that took over factories, erupted in bloodshed and clashes between workers and the law or goons hired by companies.

All this coincided with ominous events abroad - Francisco Franco’s right-wing overthrown of the infant Spanish Republic, Benito Mussolini’s takeover of the disheveled Italian government and, of course, Adolph Hitler’s unimpeded German expansion, seen by many as a bulwark against the Soviets. Some Americans volunteered to fight Franco and Picasso depicted the horror of the unprecedented fascist air attacks on civilians Spain with “Guernica.”

Classical fascism, according to dictionary definitions, is a “radical and authoritarian national political ideology. Fascists seek to organize a nation on corporatist perspectives, values and systems.”

In Germany, Italy and Spain, dictatorships were established with the help and power of the military and the dominant corporations. All were one-party military dictatorships which promised to bring order to end the chaos, unemployment and runaway inflation of the struggling democracies that were snuffed out.

But none matched the Nazis’ brand of fascism in their brutality towards Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other minorities, with their ideology of racial purity and Hitler’s single-minded ambition to dominate all of Europe.

As the misnamed National Socialists – the Nazis – gained power while the U.S. and Congressional witch hunters worried more about communists, prominent writers like Sinclair Lewis, in his 1935 book, It Can’t Happen Here (also a movie), parodied how fascism could come to America. The prominent Louisiana politician, then-Senator Huey Long, was quoted as saying that fascism would come to America wrapped in the American flag.

But that idea really came in a 1938 sermon a prominent Professor of Divinity at Yale, Halford E. Luccock, who according The New York Times, told his audience,

“When and if fascism comes to America it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called ‘Americanism.’

“The high-sounding phrase ‘the American way’ will be used by interested groups intent on profit...For never, probably, has there been a time when there was a more vigorous effort to surround social and international questions with such a fog of distortion and prejudice and hysterical appeal to fear.

“We have reached a new low in a congressional investigation...to whip up fear and prejudice against many causes of human welfare, such as a concern for peace and the rights of labor to bargain collectively.”

More recently, in the 2008 presidential campaign, when fundamentalist candidate Mike Huckabee emphasized his Christianity, libertarian Representative Ron Paul recalled Lewis’ line that fascism would come to America wrapped in a flag and “carrying a cross.”

Paul opposed the war in Iraq and the sharp increase in executive power and internal spying, the jailing without cause of people deemed as enemies. It is worth remembering here President Eisenhower’s farewell message to the nation in 1960, in which he warned

“against the unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Despite the end of the cold war, the American military, with the largest budget than the next 15 military powers combined, remains with corporate America, formidable - more powerful and dominant than they were 50 years ago and their “unwarranted influence” has never been seriously challenged. A fearful Congress has rarely challenged that “complex,” and I doubt that any president would survive such a challenge.

Finally, one of America’s leading thinkers, Noam Chomsky, who has been more right about America’s role in the world than most experts, told an audience of 1,000 in Madison, Wisconsin on April 12, that he recalls the rise of Hitler, who promised to restore order and prosperity in Germany. “I have the dread sense of the dark clouds of fascism gathering” here. “The level of anger and fear is like nothing I can compare in my lifetime.”

He sympathized with the frustrations of some the tea baggers who have seen their incomes decline while the recession deepened.

“The colossal toll of the institutional crimes of state capitalism,” he said, “is what is fueling the indignation and rage of those cast aside. They want answers. They are hearing answers from only one place, Fox, talk radio and Sarah Palin.”

But based on recent polls, the tea baggers, nearly all white, include mostly Republicans who, along with the blue collar, secessionist and openly racist lumpen proletariat, hate Obama for his color as well as is liberal programs.

They do not blame the corporate thievery and the policies of the last eight years for the recession and America’s debt. They do not challenge the military budget or the imprisonment of people in places like Guantanamo.

Rather, the tea parties are supported by corporate and Republican interests; many are fundamentalist Christians who carry their crusader shields against abortion, Darwin, gays, lesbians, and immigrants; they advocate carrying guns; they oppose as socialist or communist, government programs such as health care; and ardently support laws like one just passed in Arizona that permits - indeed, requires - police to stop anyone they deem suspicious to demand they produce papers proving that they are legal residents.

They don’t seem to realize or care that this is incipient fascism.

I’m reminded of those World War II melodramas in which the man from the Gestapo asks our hero, “Your papers please.” As Pogo warned many years ago, those who cry fascist these days have met the enemy and he is them.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Estelle Davidson: The Runaway Collector


REFLECTIONS: My Companion, Cancer

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections My wife and I were sitting in the very crowded oncologist’s office when I had this ugly thought. Everyone had come to check up on the treatment of their cancers. And I wondered - if there were a cure for cancer, the dozen doctors in the practice, their nurses, technicians, aides and receptionists would be out of work. Could it be possible that the cancer treating establishment is impeding a cure?

I am not a conspiracy nut, but it would not be the first time during my reporting and writing career that I have encountered money and cynicism in the cancer-fighting business.

Research to find treatments and a cure for breast cancer get twice as much money as prostate cancer, which kills as many men as breast cancer kills women. Lung cancer, the biggest killer, gets less. Why?

I’ve called the battle of the glands. The breast cancer lobby is more powerful and attractive than the prostate cancer lobby. There are too few lung cancer survivors to constitute a lobby and besides most lung cancers are blamed on the victims; they should not have been smoking.

On another occasion, when I was supervising a journalism seminar, one of my students learned that a North Carolina chapter of the American Cancer Society declined to take part in action against the tobacco industry and one of its largest companies because it was a mainstay of the local economy and had contributed to the chapter.

The American Cancer Society, one of the nation’s richest volunteer organizations, has been criticized for placing more emphasis on treatment than prevention and the possibility that the environment and chemicals are responsible for many cancers. But that begs the question, why can’t a cancer, even with a known cause, be eradicated, cured?

Having survived one cancer (esophageal) five years ago, I’m now dealing with another in my stomach as a kind of constant companion. And I find that nothing much seems to have changed. As science writer Curtis Brainard wrote in the April 12 Columbia Journalism Review,

“There’s a trope in medicine that doctors have only three ways of dealing with cancer-cutting (surgery), burning (radiation) and poisoning (chemotherapy).”

It’s true, as I’ve discovered, that surgical techniques have improved, but not everywhere; much depends on the surgeon. Radiation has its limits (I am no longer a candidate because I’ve had my full dose of radiation and doctors don’t want me to light up.) And chemo is, after all, poison that we hope will kill the cancer but not me.

In a sense, then, I feel that I’m being treated with primitive medicine in the 21st Century.

So it’s natural for a trained reporter – with or without cancer - to wonder why, 40 years after the U.S. put a man on the moon and 39 years after President Nixon called for a “war on cancer” and $200 billion spent on the war, a cure continues to elude us.

That expenditure, from government and private resources is a pittance compared to what we spend on bottomless, meaningless wars that kill but do not heal. Indeed, in too many cases and in too many places, cancer is the top killer, responsible for 7.4 million annual deaths world-wide. And 500,000 in the U.S.

To be sure, treatments have been successful in arresting the growth of cancers. Eighty percent of children stricken with leukemia used to die; now 80 percent survive. Similarly, 95 percent of testicular cancers were fatal; now the same percentage survives. Overall, the current five-year survival rate for all cancers is 65 percent compared to 50 percent 40 years ago.

That’s an important advance, but it’s not much of a leap (one percent per year). More important, the treatment may arrest cancer, but it cannot claim a cure. I survived a cancer for five years, but I wasn’t cured. We can claim survival and remission, but never a cure. A woman I know survived leukemia when she was a child, but she still has yearly checkups lest some stray cancer cells cause trouble.

How come there is no cure? Christopher Wanjek, writing last year in LiveScience explained that

“Part of the reason for having no cure is semantics. There will never be a single cancer cure because cancer refers to a family of more than 100 different diseases characterized by abnormal cell growth. These diseases arise from numerous causes, such as radiation, chemicals, or even viruses.”

But despite the knowledge, for example, that smoking causes cancer, we don’t yet know how. And even if we know the cause, we can treat, but not cure.“Most of the success,” said Wanjek, “is not from miracle cures but rather simple screening procedures such as pap smears and colonoscopies.”

But they don’t always work (my cancer was missed the first time) and at best, they find cancers at an early stage, when they can be cut, burned or poisoned but not cured.

According to the experts, there are some promising paths towards solving the mysteries of cancer: stem cell research, genetic research and even vaccines to treat and to prevent. Mark Roth, writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette April 7, reported that commercial vaccines to treat as well as prevent cancers may be in the offing.

He cited the present use of a vaccine, Gardasil, to prevent cervical cancer which can be caused by a virus. Soon, he wrote, the FDA is expected to approve a vaccine, Provenge, to treat prostate cancer that has spread.

And Roth quotes researchers as saying cancer vaccines may be on the verge of wider use. Columbia Journalism Review’s Brainard trashed Roth’s optimism, partly because Roth is not a science writer, but Brainard did little to report on possible advances toward a cure, including vaccines.

The literature I’ve read and the doctors I’ve talked to during my five years of dealing with cancer tells me this: Despite the presence of and substantial funding support for the National Cancer Institute, in Washington’s suburbs, there is no central coordination of effort to find a cure for cancer, or even learn if a cure or cures are possible.

The moon landing, accomplished in eight years, the Manhattan Project, successful in less than ten years, the eradication of malaria in the U.S., cures for tuberculosis and polio, were American accomplishments in the 20th century. I see no such effort focused on the most vicious killer, cancer.

You might say I have a vested interest in this. That would be wrong. Unless someone comes up with a magic bullet tomorrow, I will have to live with my constant companion and take my chemo and hope. But too many people, and some of whom you know, are suffering and dying around us.

I remember what it was like before and after Salk. I’d like my kids to experience that feeling, when the fear of a disease is lifted.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: Transcience


REFLECTIONS: The Midterm Elections

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections I am about to go way, way out on a limb and suggest that Barack Obama and congressional Democrats may not fare as badly as many commentators predict in the midterm elections on November 2. I may be alone on that limb, but wouldn’t it be nice if I were right?

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg fears a repeat of 1994 when his boss, Bill Clinton, lost the Congress to Newt Gingrich after his health care proposal was defeated. Nate Silver, the genius at Five Thirty Eight, figures Democrats will lose 20 to 50 House seats, but that’s down from his earlier prediction of 20 to 60 seats. And Greenberg sees a flickering of fresh Democratic enthusiasm.

I’m no genius, but I think they will be wrong and or they will further revise their predictions if, as I expect and hope, the economy continues to improve, and Obama, his White House and the Democrats ride the momentum of his unprecedented health care victory, with passage of a good jobs bill and financial regulatory reform, and aggressively take on Republican know-nothing obstructionism and vicious, racist Tea Party wingnuts.

Greenberg, Silver and nearly every commentator will cite the fact that since 1946, the president’s party has lost seats in the House and/or the Senate in every midterm election during his first term, save one. They cite one exception, 2002, when George W. Bush’s Republicans gained seats (eight in the House, two in the Senate) largely on the strength of support for the president following 9/11.

But there was one other important exception under circumstances similar to the tumult and controversy of Obama’s activist first term. That was in 1934, amid the Great Depression, two years into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which ended years of conservative Republican presidencies.

Despite Republican warning of the coming of “socialism,” charges that Roosevelt was a “traitor,” promises to repeal the tough new banking regulations and virulent opposition to Social Security, Democrats won nine seats each in the House and Senate.

The voters rejected a return to the party that had led them into economic catastrophe and the Democrats became the majority party. Republicans believe that today’s voters want to return to the policies that gave us the Great Recession, but I don’t think so.

As Time magazine reported April 2, the outlook for Democrats may not be as dire as in 1994 because the biggest advantage for the Democrats so far is the Republican Party under the clownish, incompetent Michael Steele, who can’t organize himself let alone the party faithful who would raise money, man phones, do the kind of scut work to get their vote out.

Nor does the Republican Party have a discernible leader who can rally the troops. Indeed, I’m not sure what remains of the Grand Old Party.

Another thing the pundits are missing is the crazy extremism of what passes for the disloyal opposition. As our best political philosophers have told us – from V.O. Key to Richard Hofstadter – the genius of the American political system is its centrism, its rejection of extremes – left or right.

The last time a politician told us that “extremism in defense of liberty” is a virtue, he and his party suffered a terrible defeat. But compared to today’s Republicans and their leaders, Barry Goldwater was a moderate who would not recognize what’s become of fellow Arizonans JohnMcCain and Jon Kyl, who vow to obstruct whatever their president tries to do.

Despite Obama’s centrism and his efforts to accommodate Republicans, they have clearly set out to destroy his presidency, opposing him in lock-step. They have used the filibuster more than 100 times, which is unprecedented, to block his proposals and nominees often for no reason. They have voted against his least controversial proposals. They have ridiculed him for not wearing a jacket in the Oval Office. They have characterized his health reforms as socialist, Marxist, communist and fascist, similar to the Nazi “final solution,” lying about what was in it.

They encouraged racist caricatures of Obama. They called the health bill “Armageddon,” the climactic biblical and mythological battle that comes at the end of time. They have encouraged secessionist threats. And when they lost on the health care vote, these Republican men and women who are well paid to do the public’s business, refused to work after 2PM, citing an obscure rule, and they shut down several committees in what one senator called a childish tantrum.

Their advocates and allies are certainly not moderate or centrist. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and their cohorts among the shock jocks can’t be called anything else but extremists as they encourage and publicize the so-called Tea Baggers and their latest darling, Sarah Palin, who made a lousy mayor and quit as Alaska’s governor to become a money-making charlatan with an empty head.

But what’s important to know is what they say they would do if they got a chance to govern. Even if they were unable to repeal the health care reforms, as they’ve promise, they would end Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. I do not exaggerate, that’s the stated plan of Republicans’ designated thinker, Representative Paul Ryan. And on Larry King, Tea Party leaders vowed “absolutely” to end Social Security.

The New York Times’ Timothy Egan writes,

“Do Republicans really want to campaign in favor of insurance companies’ right to drop people when they are sick?“

Maybe Republicans won’t, but the Tea Bag right would relish the opposition that would stir. In this political climate, Republicans may have to explain if one of their gun-toting, brick-throwing patriots hurts someone? I hope Obama and every Democrat makes this clear between now and November; this is no time for turning the other cheek.

Political organizer Robert Creamer, writing for Huffington Post, says Democrats must stay on the offensive, reminding voters of the Republican depression the country barely escaped. And the debate should be framed in the populist terms that the Tea Baggers seek to steal.

But while the unemployment rate has steadied, 15 to 25 million Americans are in need of full-time jobs – as engineers, construction workers and skilled laborers. It would help if Obama lifted another page from the New Deal and, as Bob Herbert suggested in The New York Times, propose or create job-creation measures like the Civilian Conservation Corps or the Works Progress Administration. Democrats have proposed such legislation, in which the federal government and the states would become the employers to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges, schools and the neglected national parks.

It’s a long time between now and the elections and there are signs that the economy is improving. Unemployment seems to have steadied. The Dow-Jones average, a pretty good forecaster of what’s to come in six months, is nearing 11,000. A new Bloomberg poll reported that most Americans believe the worst of the recession and the financial meltdown are past.

If the most stubborn lagging indicator of recovery, job growth, were to show improvement, it’s doubtful voters would want to take a chance with a party led by Limbaugh, Palin, Beck and Tea Baggers.

They’ll have some explaining to do when it becomes clear that the passage of health reform was not, as Beck & Company predicted, “the end of the America as we know it,” or as House Republican Leader John Boehner had it, the end of time. It’s time for the Democrats to remind Republicans and their propagandists of their intemperate words and make them eat them.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Linda Chaput: The Blacksmith's Wife


REFLECTIONS: Philandering

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections Only a few of you may know the names Kay Summersby or Lucy Mercer. But I’ll bet most of you will recognize Gennifer Flowers or Monica Lewinsky.

These pairs of women are generations apart, but they speak to critical differences in those generations. Once we were a nation of understanding, and discreet, adults. Now we are a hypocritical society of YouTube voyeurs.

Once, we brought presidents to the brink of impeachment for matters of political principle, true high crimes and misdemeanors. Today’s members of the Congress – filled with miscreants, adulterers and worse, we now know – decided that someone else’s philandering was among the crimes worthy of impeachment.

Let me hasten to say that I am not excusing philandering or adultery by either sex, but recognizing that both are facts of human life. Indeed, the greatest heroes of our Bibles, the people who wrote the seventh commandment, engaged in adultery. A recent best-selling novel questions Christ’s celibacy.

As Christopher Hitchens writes in an essay on the commandments in the April Vanity Fair, despite the biblical admonitions, adultery was and “continues to be a great source of misery and joy and fascination...It (adultery) perhaps does not deserve to be classed with murder, theft or perjury.”

If that were the case (as charged against Bill Clinton) the men who took essentially the same oath as Clinton (to uphold the laws) would be or should be standing trial –Governor Mark Sanford, Senator John Ensign, Eliot Spitzer, Rudolph Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, John Edwards. All of them betrayed the public trust if not their oaths.

But here is an essential difference among most of them; their lovers, with few exceptions, couldn’t keep their liaisons to themselves. They did more than kiss-and-tell. They went to publicists knowing full well their stories might ruin the man with whom they had had sex.

Lewinsky, the most tawdry of them all, saved a semen stained dress as proof of her encounter with Clinton so she could cash in on the publicity. The wonder is that Clinton had the poor taste to choose someone like her who, in more ways than one, couldn’t keep her mouth shut. Maybe his poor judgment should have been the impeach able offense.

Similarly, Ensign is charged with having tried to pay off the husband of the woman with whom he, Ensign, was having an affair. The husband, a member of the senator’s staff, threatened to (and finally did) go to the press.

Spitzer’s lady, a call girl known as Kristen now running for office, was really Ashley Dupre, who bared herself and humiliated Spitzer via MySpace after Spitzer resigned.

And although Edwards was out of office, consider the conduct of his liaison, Rielle Hunter, posing for sexually provocative photos with the child Edwards now acknowledges. Questions: What sort of mother is she? What sort of judgment did Edward demonstrate in choosing this person?

Consider the case of the aforementioned Kay Summersby, the Irish daughter of a of a retired British army officer who was in her thirties when she joined the British Mechanised Transport Corp and drove an ambulance during the blitz. In 1942, she was assigned to drive Major General Dwight Eisenhower, who eventually got five stars and became the European Commander.

With Eisenhower’s help, Summersby became an American citizen and a driver in the Women’s Army Corps. Although the men close to Eisenhower must have known something, not until years later – in her second memoir in 1975 after Ike’s death – did Summersby confirm that she did have an affair with her boss during the years 1942-1945. Summersby had been married and divorced when she met Eisenhower and in 1952, when Ike ran for the presidency, she remarried her ex-husband, a stockbroker and lived quietly on Long Island until she died of cancer in 1975, the year her tell-all memoir was published.

Sure, Eisenhower was not yet president when they their affair. But had Summersby flaunted their relationship, he could have been embarrassed, even relieved of command, which would have been disastrous for the European war effort. President Truman, who learned of their affair, did intervene to save Eisenhower’s marriage. Reporters, if they knew of the relationship, like Summersby, did what was expected in those days - they said nothing.

Similarly, Lucy Page Mercer, from prominent Maryland and Virginia families, was hired by Eleanor Roosevelt as her personal secretary in 1913. In 1918, Eleanor discovered through love letters her husband’s affair with Mercer. And although Eleanor gave her husband an ultimatum never to see her again, Lucy Mercer was with FDR when he collapsed and died in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945.

But it was not until 1966, in a memoir written by a Roosevelt aide, that the romance confirmed. Lucy Mercer Rutherford, who was married to a New York socialite when she spent time with Roosevelt, never spoke of their relationship. She died of leukemia in 1948.

Since Thomas Jefferson’s liaisons with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings (which some historians deny), presidents or would-be presidents have had affairs. A woman named Nan Britton claimed to have been one of Warren Harding’s mistresses, but she waited until four years after his death. John F. Kennedy is strongly alleged to have had a record number of mistresses for his time in office, including Marilyn Monroe.

There is a story, which I know to be true, that Lyndon Johnson came to the bed of a guest at his ranch one night and told her, “This is Your president.” She resisted his advances. And the sainted Ronald Reagan was having an affair with Nancy Davis when he was married to Jane Wyman.

Who is to be condemned for these relationships? Brilliant, complex political leaders like Roosevelt have what I call self-winding egos that need reassurance wherever they can get it - especially if, like Roosevelt, they bear almost superhuman burdens. Ike, I think, needed Summersby to get through a time when he was responsible for so many lives and nothing less than the destiny of Europe.

The women they chose were not FaceBook bimbos and I would suggest they were more liberated in their time than those who seek their 15 minutes of shame.

One more provocative thought. I think I’d prefer a president who is sexually satisfied. But I would hope he or she would pick a partner worthy of the office.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: What I Know About Joy


REFLECTIONS: On Being Too Nice

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections Watching this Democratic Congress wasting our time reminds me of when I first became aware that what often ails American liberalism are liberals.

I was sitting in the Senate Press Gallery some years ago watching the floor action on a minor issue now obscured in my memory. I do remember that the protagonists were a liberal senator from Maryland, Joseph Tydings, from a distinguished political family, and Louisiana’s Russell Long, from a more infamous political heritage; he looked exactly like his father, Huey.

All I can recall is that Long, a conservative Democrat who called himself the “oil senator” (‘hell, I even use Vaseline in my hair”) and who had been in the Senate since 1948, out-maneuvered whatever it was that Tydings was trying to do and sent him from the floor frustrated. One of my colleagues had it right when he said, “Tydings is just too nice.”

That didn’t much matter back then; politics then was mostly civil. But recalling that now got me wondering if too many liberals are too nice for today’s highly partisan, ideological political wars.

Liberals, by nature, rarely have been as aggressive as committed conservatives who are passionate defenders of our brand of capitalism. And Marx criticized liberals because they were part of system but sought to save it by ameliorating its worst excesses.

Nevertheless, many liberal-voting Democrats today are timid about being called liberal while Republicans clamor to be labeled conservative, which was a pejorative not too many years ago. Those Democrats who are proudly liberal, like Representatives Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Alan Grayson of Florida and Freshman Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, are considered by colleagues to be too far out or too outspoken.

And if a liberal Democrat shows some toughness, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who has been disappointed with Obama’s endless search for the mirage of bipartisanship, she’s criticized as being imperious or worse (rhymes with witch).

A senator friend a few years ago analyzed for me why liberals may indeed be considered too nice or soft: Almost by definition, he said, a liberal tends to be more introspective than a conservative, questioning his or her positions, giving weight to the possibility that he or she may be wrong and that the opposing position may have merit.

Thus, liberals seek to reach out to conservatives, even when they get their hands bitten off to a stump. Sound like a president you know? But liberal leaders in Congresses past weren’t always such pushovers.

I was in Texas when I began covering Congress, when it was run by a pair of Texans, Sam Rayburn, the House Speaker for 17 years and his political son and protege, Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority

Leader. Both were yellow-dog Democrats, loyal to the New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. Here’s an example of their tough-minded liberalism. In 1956, despite panicky pleas from colleagues, they refused to sign the so-called Southern Manifesto denouncing the Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling.

Rayburn’s mantra for members was said to be, “go along to get along,” and in those days the speaker had more powers than today. But Rayburn’s personal integrity became obvious when he died of cancer in 1961. His estate amounted to $15,000 plus his ranch in Bonham, Texas, where he was born. But his power also derived from his commitment to his party, his politics and his personal style.

At Rayburn’s “Board of Education,” the after-session meetings in one of his rooms in the Capitol where there were drinks, poker and politics, members and the leadership laid out strategy and dealt with the problems of members, promising help on tough votes or threatening punishment if a member strayed unnecessarily. It was considered an honor to be invited to a “board” meeting. Here was utilitarianism in real time: “Self interest rightly understood.”

Lyndon Johnson, a member of the House and an ardent New Dealer since he came to the House in 1937, became a senator in 1949 (with Truman’s upset victory) and in his second term, in 1954, he became Senate Majority Leader, probably the most powerful and influential in history.

He and Rayburn helped President Eisenhower pass his domestic agenda, including the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and the building of the interstate highway system with money from gasoline taxes. Johnson helped keep Eisenhower out of Vietnam. But the two Texans laid the political foundation for the Democratic victories of 1958 and 1960.

Johnson was said to be the greatest gatherer of intelligence on every member of the Senate, understanding their states, their political and personal needs. His Senate allies included a powerhouse of liberal legislators including John F. Kennedy, Paul Douglas, Albert Gore, Sr., Stuart Symington, Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Henry (Scoop) Jackson, William Proxmire, who had replaced Joe McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey who was ostracized by southerners for his civil rights stands but adopted as a Johnson protege.

Johnson’s power and the liberal Democrats’ clout were further enhanced when the elections of 1958 brought in a post-war wave of more than a dozen feisty liberals who gave lie to those who believe today’s dithering, dishwater Democrats are representative of liberalism. Among them: Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett, the first senators from Alaska; Thomas Dodd, Connecticut; Philip Hart, Michigan; Ed Muskie of Maine; Jennings Randolph of West Virginia; and Gale McGee of Wyoming.

These Democrats, for 30 years, into the presidencies of John Kennedy and Johnson, gave the nation the most liberal legislative accomplishments since the New Deal, much of which the current crop of Democrats don’t seem able to defend even from a minority of Republican crackpots. Starting with their leader, the president, they seem to run for cover at the slightest rustle of dissent.

Democrats and liberals should get real: Sarah Palin is an empty, ignorant demagogue; Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are clowns who can be challenged but aren’t. I can understand why Republicans fear them, but when will the Democrats and liberals really take on these liars who are so far to the right of either Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan that they would be appalled?

Tom Dodd’s son, Chris, has virtually been run out of office and still runs from the bank lobbyists and Republicans rather than drive financial regulation through his committee.

New York’s Charles Schumer was quick to desert Attorney General Eric Holder’s constitutionally correct decisions to try terrorists in civilian courts.

In Indiana, Evan Bayh, the son of John Kennedy’s close pal, Birch Bayh, quivers at the possibility that health reforms may include a public option that would hurt his wife’s finances, then quits because the going is too tough in the center and endangers the party that has given him sustenance.

And the man who holds Johnson’s post, among this group of tough-minded liberals, many of whom had been in the war, Harry Reid, does not seem to know how to wield the power he has. I heard a commentator say, “He’s too nice.” Maybe.

A truly nice, professorial guy, Mike Mansfield, replaced Johnson but he was effective because the liberal cadre of Democrats in the Senate supported him. Reid is the “majority leader” but he complains that a majority of 59 is not enough - but even 60 did not seem enough either to keep the Republicans from running over him.

In Johnson’s day, one needed 67 votes to end a filibuster but it was rarely used except to bar civil rights legislation. Still, LBJ would not have put up with obstructionism, especially from Democrats. Democrats like Reid and Lincoln complain they’re in tough races; maybe if they showed some spine, their voters would respond. I can’t blame voters who don’t know what their Senators believe. There was no mistaking what LBJ stood for.

Perhaps I’ve gone on too long criticizing today’s “pathetic liberals,” as my favorite commentator, Chris Hedges, calls them. Maybe that shoe belongs on the presidential foot, but I hesitate to call Barack Obama a liberal; he seems proud that he’s not ideological.

Those of us who have sense know he’s not a socialist, which is too bad. But is he a liberal? I don’t think he knows, although he sounded like one in the campaign. But if so, he acts like the softie, dithering liberal LBJ would not have liked.

How else to explain it when he praises right-wing Republican Representative Paul Ryan for being as person with “ideas” when they include privatizing Social Security and ending Medicare? Or when Obama says the obscene salaries of the bankers who screwed us were okay because it was part of our free enterprise system. As Paul Krugman remarked, “Oh God...we’re doomed.”

Said Hedges, in a December 7, 2009 essay posted on Alternet:

“The gravest danger we face as a nation is not from the far right, although it may well inherit power but from a bankrupt liberal class that has lost the will to fight and the moral courage to stand up for what it espouses.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jeanne Waite Follett: Leaving Windows Open


REFLECTIONS: On Objectivity

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections One of my less talented editors in my early days in the news business would gather the staff and say things like, “ Always be on the lookout for a good story.” I kid you not. Then he would look over at me and say, “and always play it down the middle.” He knew that I had trouble with that from the beginning.

How can you “play it down the middle” when the victim of a horrendous crime is a child? Or, for that matter, how do you keep yourself out of the story when you’re sent, as I was, to interview a kid dying of leukemia but hoping he would live until the baseball season? How can you write such a story with objectivity? If there are no tears on the page (we used paper then) you’ve done a lousy job.

Somewhere I read that Theodore Roosevelt, who called some of the best reporters of his day “muckrakers” but admired them for their trust busting work, told the press once that there was no way to “play it down the middle” of competing assertions that the natural color of grass is red, not green.

Today, Paul Krugman has told us, it’s the style of too much of the main stream press to give equal weight to nonsense as in, “on the one hand all the facts tell us Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, but here is another view” usually from a self-serving nut who is barely challenged but simply quoted. As if that fulfilled the reporter’s responsibility to tell the story, if not the truth.

A digression: Why is it news at all to give voice to verifiable nonsense? It may be useful if the reporter grills the subject and calls out his/her false statements. Isn’t the job of the reporter to tell the truth as best as he/she can learn it? You may not be able to call someone a liar, but you can expose the lies if you’ve done your homework before the interview.

Why, after all this time, are we Americans the only people on earth who are obliged to defend Darwin? Is it honest journalism to report seriously, as fact, that the earth is 6,000 years old and man walked with the dinosaurs?

At the Grand Canyon, where some rocks are two billion years old, one Park Service guide was obliged to represent the creationist view to provide both sides of the story. No wonder a large percentage of Americans, don’t know that the earth revolves around sun instead of the other way around.

I have been over this ground before, but I’m interested in making a further observation – that too many mainstream reporters, especially the careerists who earn too much money, don’t really care about the story they’re covering and the outcome. Outcomes matter, as in two elections in which the Democratic candidates – both good men – were trashed with the help of the press that stood by.

I wonder, for example, if Ceci Connolly, the Washington Post reporter who helped kill single payer health care by refusing to write about it early on, really cares about how this health care fracas turns out. Are reporters pulling for Obama’s success, or will they be glad to pounce on the President because it would be a good story if the reforms die? Will they care about the effect on people who, unlike themselves, will be without health insurance? And is this kind of objective, uncaring good for the country or journalism?

I was called to revisit this subject by a fine, lengthy piece by former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges. Posted February 1 on Truthdig, it was entitled “The Creed of Objectivity Killed the News. And it quoted one of the best journalists I knew, the late Molly Ivins, a friend from my Texas days. While we search for the middle as if the truth lies there, Molly wrote,

“There is no such thing as objectivity, and the truth, that slippery little bugger, has the oddest habit of being way to hell off the one side or the other; it seldom nestles neatly halfway between two opposing points of view...It’s of no help to either readers or the truth to quote one side saying ‘cat,’ and the other side saying ‘dog,” while the truth is, there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes.”

Hedges calls this unthinking objectivity an “abject moral failing [that] has left the growing numbers of Americans shunted aside by our corporate state without a voice...The elitism, distrust and lack of credibility of the press...come directly from this steady and willful disintegration of the media’s moral core.”

I can’t disagree, but the mantra of objectivity is not solely to blame. The trouble and the amorality lies deeper. It may surprise you, but the best reporters for the best newspapers (and television) no longer carry the torch of objectivity. It’s not even held up in journalism schools as an ideal. As I’ve told journalism students, only a tape recorder can be objective, but a human reporter must listen to it and decide (subjectively) what is important and what is not.

What most reporters say they try for are accuracy, fairness and honesty. But that too can be a way to dodge finding out and reporting the truth. After Katrina, CNN’s Anderson Cooper became, and deserved to be a star, when he exposed the failings of the government in getting help to the people dying at the Superdome. He spoke the truth for those people and the rest of the country and there was no other side to the story.

Consider, in the extreme, the sham of the Fox network’s “fair and balanced.” It will ignore the truth, that elephant out in the bushes, to entertain the like-minded loonies who enjoy cat fights that get some precious space and air time. It’s not news or the truth, for weighed in the balance, the cat that can scream the loudest with the most outlandish, outweighs the elephant. Nevertheless, fairness and balance, as practiced by the most responsible main stream reporters, often become copouts for dodging the moral judgments about the stories they cover.

Robert Fisk, one of the best reporters in the Middle East, says that too often balance comes down to this: “Record the fury of a Palestinian whose land has been taken from him by Israeli settlers, but always refer to Israel’s “security needs” and its “war on terror.” If Americans are accused of torture, call it abuse...”

Once in 1991, I witnessed a heart-breaking scene at the Allenby Bridge, watching Palestinians crossing from Jordan to the West Bank, which technically does not belong to Israel. The Palestinians, especially the women were subjected to humiliating open air searches by armed Israeli soldiers.

My office told me to be fair in the story and note the threats to Israel’s security. I’ve been cautioned by an American editor not to describe the wall of separation between Israel and what’s left of the Palestinian territory as “apartheid.” But Israel’s more aggressive press calls it just that.

The best and most credible information a reporter can bring to a story is what he sees with his own eyes; too often that has to be balanced. But as Hedges said, “this becomes more of a way to obscure the truth.”

If reporters for the mainstream newspapers vigorously searched for the uncovered, controversial truth in a story, and exposed it with the same alacrity we probe and endlessly report on a congressman’s sexual transgressions, perhaps we could intelligently sort out from the barrage of news, the truth of what it means.

I suppose the bigots, nuts and know-nothings will always be with us, ignoring the facts and reason. But their voices and their enablers are amplified by modern journalism. Without some guidance from a reporter who knows his/her beat and points to the truth, we are left open to the ridiculous, lying rantings of right-wing talk shows. That, in turn, has prompted commercial television to bring us more liberal talk shows. But their elephants cannot compete with screaming cats, and Rachel Maddow’s solid reporting gets scant mainstream coverage compared to the stream of unconciousness raving of Glenn Beck.

Finally, the American people have never had more free communications sources for news. Yet they are among the most politically ignorant. According to a new Daily Kos poll of Republicans in the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, 68 percent think Obama should be impeached or are not sure. Fifty-three percent believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be president than Obama; another 33 percent were “not sure.”

The poll also found that nearly half of all Americans believe, after 26 years of polling, that God created human beings pretty much as they are 10,000 years ago. Author Frank Schaeffer, a former Republican who has been at war with the fundamentalist rightists of the Tea Party movement, whom he calls “village idiots,” notes as a preface to Hedges’ piece, “A village cannot revise village life to suit the village idiot.”

My question is why and how did they get that way?


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Brenda Verbeck: On Life and Love and Stuff


REFLECTIONS: The Center

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections

"Democratic reforms have also been limited, cautious. Obama's no exception. On healthcare, for example, he starts out with a compromise, and when you start out with a compromise, you end with a compromise of a compromise, which is where we are now."
- Howard Zinn
The Nation 13 January 2010

When it’s useful, we pundits are fond of quoting the most famous aphorism of philosopher-poet George Santayana: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It’s chiseled in stone at the Federal Trade Commission. But what if you learn the wrong lesson? Could that be one of President Obama’s problems?

My favorite political scientist, whose work I studied at Harvard, was V. O. Key who observed, among other things, that the genius of the American political system – and often a source of frustration - is that it generally rejects extremism and clings towards the middle, moving from right of center to left and back, as from Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

But that doesn’t mean the center, where some of Obama’s advisers seem comfortable, is the safest and most politically rewarding place to be. There is no passion or purpose in the center. Key also observed in 1955, in A Theory of Critical Elections, that there were, in American history, transforming, realigning elections “in which the decisive results...reveal a sharp alteration of the pre-existing cleavage within the electorate.”

With those elections, America moved and Americans were moved.

Not to get too esoteric, but such elections included that of:

• Thomas Jefferson in 1800, which produced the two-party system and the Louisiana territory

• Andrew Jackson, in 1828, which built the Democratic Party, established the national bank and gave voice to the new frontier

• Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who founded the Republican Party and grappled with civil conflict and the end of slavery

• And Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, the “archetypical realigning election,” which established the Democrats as the majority party for more than a generation, breaking through years of conservative, business-oriented Republican rule and responding with unprecedented activist federal government in the New Deal, to relieve the miseries of the Great Depression.

Key had faith in the American voters. “The voters are not fools,” he said. But, he wrote, “if a democracy tends toward indecision, decay and disaster, the responsibility rests [with its political leaders] not in the mass of the people.”

The voters place their faith in leaders and want to be led. “I must go catch up to the people,” someone said, “for I am their leader.”

So how come, after the American people have voted for the center left, several of our most recent presidents – Democrats, I’m sorry to say – forget the lessons of the most successful Democratic realigner, Franklin Roosevelt, and head for the hills on the right? Or, like the current U.S. Senate, they seek the numbing middle.

Jimmy Carter, who ran against the Washington establishment and presided over runaway inflation, blamed the nation’s problems on a crisis of confidence among the American people, called a “malaise” by his pollster. Historian Roger Wilkins observed, echoing Key:

“When your leadership is demonstrably weaker than it should be, you don’t point to the people and say, ‘It’s your problem.’ If you want the people to move, you move them the way Roosevelt moved them. You don’t say, ‘It’s your fault.’”

Carter didn’t find his liberal voice until he left the presidency.

Bill Clinton, who lost the Congress in 1994, responded  with “triangulation,” meaning veering right, by killing welfare for women with dependent children, ending banking and financial regulation which handsomely rewarded his Treasury Secretary, and telling us in the 1996 State of the Union, “The era of big government is over.”

For Wall Street and the big banks, the era of government was over.

Contrast that capitulation, with Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union on January 3, 1936. It was a difficult time for his presidency. The New Deal was barely off the ground, unemployment hovered like a plague. Big business called him “traitor.” The virulent right was in full cry featuring Father Charles Coughlin, the racist radio priest, anti-Semite Gerald L .K. Smith, the Liberty League and, until his murder, Huey Long.

Even Roosevelt’s vice president, Texan John Garner had doubts about the New Deal. The conservative Supreme Court was hostile, and 1936 was a crucial election year.

But Roosevelt, in his speech before a joint session of Congress, seemed to relish the new year’s political battles.

“We have witnessed the domination of government by financial and industrial groups, numerically small but politically dominant,” he said. “We have earned the hatred of entrenched greed...They seek the restoration of their selfish power...The principles that they would instill into government if they succeed in seizing power — autocracy toward labor, toward stockholders, toward consumers, toward public sentiment...”

Democrats cheered while the Republicans grimaced. Roosevelt dared his adversaries and critics to repeal the work of the first New Deal: “Shall we say to the unemployed and the aged, ‘Social Security lies not within the province of the federal government; you must seek relief elsewhere.’”

And he dared his big business critics, who hid behind the rabble rousers, to show themselves:

“Let them no longer hide their dissent in a cowardly cloak of generality. Let them define the issue. We have been specific in our affirmative action. Let them be specific in their negative attack.”

There was no doubt what Roosevelt was for. That November, while the new Literary Digest poll predicted that Governor Al Landon of Kansas would win, Roosevelt won the greatest electoral landslide since the beginning of the two party system, carrying all but eight electoral votes and every state (including Kansas) except Maine and Vermont, and installing huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress that would last for more than a decade - with one exception, the 80th Congress in 1947-48.

And Democrat Harry Truman, echoing Roosevelt, won in a famous upset in 1948, giving hell to the Republicans and its “Do nothing Congress.” Truman’s election was, in a sense, Roosevelt’s fifth.

When have you heard a modern president take on the opposition like that?

The point, of course, is that Roosevelt’s New Deal could not have been passed and been so successful without his hands-on leadership and risk-taking. And in spite of opposition, he fought for his programs by carrying the fight to the stubborn, recalcitrant opposition. He did not seek to win them over; they were a perfect foil, a tight-faced minority who would turn the clock back.

Roosevelt, as the saying goes, danced with the date he brought. Rather than heading toward the center, where he got few votes, he remained loyal to those who voted for him. And they remained loyal to him. He was not loyal to the people who didn’t vote for him and opposed his program. Yes, he was president of all the people, but Roosevelt believed that his ideas would benefit all Americans, including those who didn’t vote for him.

During his campaign, Barack Obama called on the spirits of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as his heroes and transformational presidents. But each of them, with a combination of pragmatism and ideology, did not seek the center for comfort. They fought for their principled and sometimes unpopular stands. They led. They made clear what they stood for.

Lincoln risked his presidency in 1864 to save the union and his presidency. And he built the Republican Party, which ruled for most of the years until Roosevelt.

Lyndon Johnson, who was a young congressman during the Roosevelt years, was a consummate politician and pragmatic when he had to be. But when he saved the traditional Democratic majority in the 1964 election, he did not play it safe. He went further than the more conservative John F. Kennedy, and used that majority to pass the most ambitious legislative agenda, the Great Society, since the New Deal – the Civil Rights Acts, Medicare, Medicaid and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, all of which are still law.

Ronald Reagan also did not move to the center after he won in 1980, but he remained loyal to his conservative, anti-communist base and its principles. He remains popular today, partly because he was not a nut, but an honest and genuine conservative who did not try to kill Social Security or Medicare, but who raised taxes when he had to and applied the military and economic pressure that helped bring down Soviet power during the presidency of another pragmatic conservative, George H.W. Bush.

Obama is as articulate as his presidential heroes. He has resurrected an activist, caring federal government. He has brought to Washington an openness, balance and a greater appreciation for public service. Furthermore his accomplishments are many and civilized, if not great.

He has miles to go, but his obsession with bipartisanship is allowing his adversaries to define him. Democrats in Congress need not follow him. No one fears Obama. Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson defined themselves as liberals. And they called their opposition out for what they were. When, if ever, will Obama take the offensive to save his congressional majority?

Obama says he’s not an ideologue. Does that mean he has no ideology? What does he really believe, beyond the brainy rhetoric? We still don’t know what he’s for in the health care debate. He’s neither right or left, said one of his top aides, “he’s for what works.” But what does that mean?

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith told The New York Times that “the candidate of change became the president of continuity.” So puzzled Democrats, liberals, progressives and independents who brung him to the ball have had to stand aside. They wait and hope for the change they believed in.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Madonna Dries Christensen: A Scrap of Time and Place


REFLECTIONS: Press Conferences

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


There is a reason reporters, especially on television, let guests whom they interview get away with lies – as when CNN’s John King failed to contradict Mary Matalin Carville when she said there had been no terrorist attacks during George Bush’s presidency. And ABC’s George Stephanopoulus was silent (and later apologized) when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told the same lie.

I think that’s because television has made entertainers out of too many of us.

During my time reporting on presidents, from Lyndon Johnson through Bill Clinton, I came to dislike those televised East Room press conferences at the White House. For over the years, they came to epitomize the news business as entertainment with the supporting roles willingly played by the press.

For one thing, they rarely produced real news unless it was inadvertent, as when Richard Nixon answered a question in November 1973, during the height of the Watergate scandal with the assertion, “I’m not a crook.”

That actually took place during a lengthy question-and-answer session, mostly on Watergate, at an editors’ meeting, not at the White House. I remember that Dan Rather was the aggressive questioner.

For the most part, the stories out of the White House news conferences merely reported and reflected the message the president wanted his audience to hear. And most of the coverage was straight stenography. In my bureau, to its credit, at least one of us would be assigned to critique the conference and analyze, on the basis of reporting, what lay behind what the president said and what it meant. But that practice died at many newspapers for lack of space or reportorial know-how.

I also had little use for these (and most other ) presidential news conferences because if I was working on an exclusive story, I didn’t want to share my information with others; instead I probed knowledgeable sources on Capitol Hill, or inside the White House, or I asked the press secretary to put my question to the president.

Besides, it was difficult at a televised press conference to prod and poke the president with challenging, argumentative questions which was my style. It would have been frowned on, even by colleagues, as disrespectful.

During a Ronald Reagan press conference, a radio reporter who is now a prominent television personality, asked the president, why, if he was interested in peace as he had said, did he send several warships to patrol the waters of a Latin American nation that was defying the U.S.? Later, one of her bosses who had watched the press conference called to tell her: “Your job is to find out how many ships he’s sending, rather than questioning his policy.”

When President Nixon called a press conference amid nationwide student protests at news that he had widened the Vietnam War into Cambodia, a colleague waiting for the president in the East Room whispered to me, “I’m going to ask him what the hell do you think you’re doing?” I told her I’d back her up with a similar question, but we both chickened out. He was the president, after all.

Presidents have not always been treated kindly by televised press conferences. Johnson, who was personable, strong and persuasive in one-on-one encounters with reporters, came across as uncomfortable and insincere in press conferences. Nixon was under siege and acted like it as he grappled with the expanding Vietnam War and mass protests during his first term and a series of scandals ending in Watergate.

In those days, before the television networks became dominant, the news conference began with the president recognizing the two major wire services, the Associated Press and United Press International, for the first questions. (Helen Thomas of UPI could always be counted on to ask the most pertinent question). Then reporters leaped to their feet, shouting, “Mr. President,” and pleading for recognition. It was a chaotic scene.

That changed with Reagan because he was so taken aback by the shouting, he didn’t know whom to choose. So his press handlers, mostly David Gergen, laid down a new rule. Reporters were asked to stay silent in their seats and raise their hands for recognition. Reagan, we learned, seemed to be partial to the color in red so many of the women in the press corps wore red to his news conferences and it worked.

Later, Gergen gave Reagan a chart showing where reporters were sitting so he could call on those whom the White House preferred. Gergen also changed the location of the podium in the East Room so that the president could stroll directly to it down the red carpet and not have to mix with shouting reporters on his way in or out. It was much more civilized, but it was a step towards turning the press conference into a scripted performance. (Reagan was easily flustered as when he admitted the truth of the charge that his administration had traded arms for hostages held in Iran.)

But every president since has adopted the Reagan setting, which was done strictly for the camera – as well as for the protection of the president from the press whose howling questions were stilled.

Thus has evolved the increasing importance and presence of television, first with the three major networks and then cable. And many local stations sent their crews to the White House, adding to the pack in the press room and the news conferences with equipment and reporters, most of whom sought to be stars.

In such an atmosphere, the White House press was tamed at the news conferences and I don’t remember a time when the president was challenged or provoked with questions on policies. That docility seems to have been carried over even outside the press conferences partly because, as I learned, there are consequences.

When I was younger and didn’t know any better, I got into an argument at a press conference with Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, a staunch segregationist who threatened the “Freedom Riders” who were on the way to the state in 1961, after they encountered violence in Alabama. Barnett ended the conference and I was blamed.

In 1995, I was in Atlanta doing a piece on then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich when the Oklahoma City bombing of the federal building was the big news. I confronted Gingrich, after he had denounced the bombing, and asked him pointedly if his constant anti-government rhetoric created a climate for the bombing. He pounced on me and so did the local press.

In 2004, Irish television reporter Carole Coleman nearly created an international incident with her 12-minute interview with President George W. Bush when she dared to interrupt him when he dodged her sharp and repeated questions about his justifications for the Iraq war. The White House protested and canceled her scheduled interview with Mrs. Bush.

But now, more than ever – at a time when the press is losing its newspapers and its way – reporters need to ask pointed, impertinent questions: “Mr. President, why do you seem to back away from every fight and retreat on the public option, the closing of Guantanamo, rendition, don’t ask don’t tell? Did you make a deal with the drug industry, which just raised prices?”

For the liberal darlings Representative Barney Frank, and Senator Chris Dodd: How come you have not been able to move to restore Glass-Steagall? Why have you allowed the banks to make billions going back to their old ways?”

For right-wingers like Representative James DeMint, who said the president has never used the word terror in the face of evidence that he had: “Why do you and your allies lie about this president? Do you have no respect for the office? If so, how have you shown it?”

And to the press: “Why do you take seriously and without challenge the most outrageous assertions about this administration?”

It is true that commentators like Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow ask good and argumentative questions of guests. But they are mostly aimed at people who expect to play their straw man roles.

As Matthews and Maddow point out, no reporter has confronted former Vice President Cheney with his record of being dangerously wrong. Fox News interviewers have yet to challenge any of Cheney’s assertions. On the contrary, when the reporters from the online Politico interviewed Cheney, they simply listened. When George Bush’s spokeswoman Dana Perino said, on television, that there had been no terrorist attacks on Bush’s watch, she wasn’t challenged.

That, of course, is not journalism. But it’s not entertainment either.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Charlotte Alexander: Teaneck and Tadpoles


REFLECTIONS: The South

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Following up on my offering of a few weeks ago in which I asked, “What’s the matter with the South?”, let me be a bit more specific. How come Oklahoma, where the waving wheat sure smells sweet, has produced two of the worst and most ineffective members of the United States Senate in Dr. Tom Coburn and James Mountain Imhofe? They make the rest of their Republican colleagues seem moderate - well, sort of.

In his latest caper, Inhofe went to the Copenhagen climate change summit as a self-described, one-person “truth squad.” As the top Republican on the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, Inhofe could bring responsible criticism, even skepticism to the issue of climate change. Instead he has chosen to be a flat earther, calling former Vice President Al Gore “full of crap” and declaring Global warming, “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

When he was asked in Copenhagen who perpetrated the hoax and why, Inhofe replied, “it started in the United Nations and the one in the United States who really grab ahold of this is the Hollywood elite.” A Der Spiegel reporter, who doesn’t play by the neutered American rules, told Inhofe, “You’re ridiculous.”

Coburn is a pediatrician known as “Dr. No” because of all the bills and nominations he has held up because he doesn’t believe in government (which pays him well and he is supposed to serve).

During the last days of the long health care reform debate, Coburn, who has sworn the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” suggested quite clearly that the American people should pray that one of the Democrats will not be able to make it to the Senate cast the 60th vote to break a Republican filibuster. There was no mistake that he was referring to the dean of the Senate, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who is 92.

Coburn’s one-man “Death Panel” took place on the floor of the storied Senate chamber, but no Republican stepped forward to remonstrate Coburn (Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois asked Coburn to explain himself; Coburn said he meant no one to come to harm.). But I think he did.

The Republicans could have signaled they would not filibuster the procedural vote so that the frail, wheel-chair bound Senator Byrd need not make the trip from his home on a snowy night. But if Byrd did not attend to vote, the health care bill would have been stopped. So almost as if they were conspiring to worsen Byrd’s health, the Republicans repeatedly insisted on the procedural votes for which the Democrats needed Byrd.

But in defiance of Coburn’s call to prayer, Byrd was wheeled in for the 1:00AM Monday vote and the health care bill was on its way to passage on Thursday. As it turned out, Imhofe was absent on one vote, as if it were a devilish answer to Coburn’s prayer.

I’ve gone on at length into the antics of these two men, who were elected to legislate and not make fools of themselves and Oklahoma voters, because I have great respect for Democratic institutions like the U.S. Senate, in which only a few Americans get to serve. But what strikes me about Coburn and Inhofe and their not-so-merry band of right-wingers is what they have in common.

They are virulently and absolutist anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-taxes, anti-government and pro-gun. And these things they believe, they have said, because they purport to be Christians. I say “purport” because, as a Jew and lay person (who majored in philosophy), I cannot judge what is and what is not “Christian.” All I know, and value, is the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments and, in the New Testament, Jesus’ admonition that we should love one another.

Now to get to the controversial part of my rambling. When I asked a knowledgeable, church-going friend what sets Inhofe, Coburn and the rest of the very conservative southern Republicans apart from much of the rest of the country, he said, “They’re Christians,” as if that explained everything.

It is true that both Oklahomans are members of Washington’s “C-Street group,” a residence for fundamentalist Christian lawmakers who, under the guidance of a minister-adviser, try to impose their religious, theocratic values on policy. They make it a point to say they do not believe in the separation of church and state.

They may seem loopy, but according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Forum, they – and their right-wing cohorts in the House and Senate - appear to reflect constituents in their states and the region. And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is a correlation between the region’s religious fundamentalism and its preference for right-wing politics.

A new Gallup survey concluded that with 80 percent of Americans identifying themselves with Christian religion, “the United States remains dominantly a Christian nation” with the highest proportion in the traditional Bible Belt states of the South. Here’s how the Pew poll sums up its December findings:

“At least 85 percent of people living in Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama say they are certain that God exists. By contrast, in Maine, Connecticut/Rhode Island and New Hampshire/Vermont fewer than six in ten express absolute certainty of belief in God.”

The political differences are obvious.

More specifically, Oklahoma ranks 11th among the states in the percentage of people (80) “who say they believe in God with absolute certainty,” seventh in the percentage of people (69) who say religion is “very important in their lives” and seventh (50) in the percentage of people who say they attend services at least once a week. All these percentages are well above the national average.

But more deeply religious on all measures are:

• Mississippi, which is number one, (Republican Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker)

• Followed by South Carolina (Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and James Demint, said to be the most right-wing member of the Senate)

• Alabama (Republican Sens. Richard Shelby, who questioned President Obama’s citizenship and Jeff Beauregard Sessions, who was denied a federal judgeship because of his racist past and who was criticized by Rush Limbaugh for asking Judge Sonia Sotomayor during her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, to pretend to be white and if she thought “Latino women were more qualified to be hair dressers or housekeepers”

• Tennessee, Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both of whom were among the 30 (mostly southern) Republicans to vote against legislation giving a rape victim the right to sue an employer who was responsible

• Georgia, Republican Senators Saxbe Chambliss and Johnny Isakson who have sought to bar their state from using any federal health program

• Kentucky, Republican Senators Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell, the minority leader who has enforced the unanimous opposition to Obama among Republicans

• Texas, Republican Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn.

There are a few exceptions – Democrats Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Kay Hagan in North Carolina - all of whom serve with more conservative Republican colleagues from their states.

One particular exception seems to prove my point: Utah, of course, is not in the south. But it’s among the most religious states in the Pew poll because of the dominance of the Mormon Church. Its Republican senators, Orin Hatch and Robert Bennett, while not as looney as some of their right-wing colleagues, are nevertheless unswerving conservatives who joined the rest of Republicans in opposing health care reform and virtually every Obama initiative.

I may be on thin ice, but I don’t believe this says anything about Christianity. After all, the southern-based civil rights movement came from the mostly black Christian churches with help from white clergy, Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

But the white fundamentalist deep South is not only conservative, and often racist, it is also plagued by persistent poverty, which is worse in the south than any other region, and the greatest number of citizens without health insurance, with a minimal education.

That’s fertile soil for the demagoguery, political and religious, of right-wing politics.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ellen Younkins: Seen and Heard


REFLECTIONS: On a Holy Night

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


I’m not of the Christian faith, but I do have a Christmas story to tell. It takes place in the Holy Land. But like too many stories there these days, it does not have a happy ending – not yet. And the recollection gives me a reason to write about one of the saddest stories I’ve covered.

In December of 1971, what was then Knight Newspapers sent me on my first overseas assignment –which I asked for – covering the splendid little war between India and Pakistan that ended with the birth and independence of a new nation – Bangladesh.

I had interviewed the victorious Indian leader, Indira Gandhi after which, my editors sent me to Israel to interview then-Prime Minister Golda Meir who, before she assumed that office, had played a significant role in the government during the Israeli’s smashing victory in the Six-Day War of June, 1967. These two powerful women, who personified their countries, made quite a story.

I landed in Israel just before Christmas and ran into snow when I took a taxi to Jerusalem to make arrangements to see Mrs. Meir. Because of the holidays, the American embassy could find no space for me at any of the hotels. I settled for a room in a former Scotch Presbyterian mission which had been converted (no joke intended) into a motel called “The Scotch House” near Joppa, just south of Tel Aviv.

My room was sparse, more like a monk’s cell, with a cot, a dresser, one dim lamp and no telephone.

I had lost track of time, but among the guests was a group of a dozen nuns from Guinea, a former French colony that became independent only in 1958. They were on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem for it was Christmas Eve, and the bells in the town where Christ is said to have been born would toll at midnight in Manger Square.

They invited me to share the bus ride across Israel through Judaea and what was the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River, part of the lands conquered by the Israelis four years earlier.

It was cold but dry and Bethlehem was crowded with pilgrims and tourists and armed Israeli soldiers. I spent some time browsing in the Arab curio shops in the narrow streets off Manger Square.

Sometime after midnight, I boarded the bus with the nuns for the return ride to Joppa through the desert-like country that had been trod by the ancients. Everyone was tired, but the bus was not one of these modern behemoths and the nuns had to stop for nature’s call.

The Palestinian driver and I smoked as the women disappeared into the brush. Suddenly, on that very clear and starry night, one of them began to sing, and they all joined, in French with a lilting West African accent, for Silent Night which Google reminds me, is “Sainte nuit, Belle nuit, Nuit de Paix...”

It was an unforgettable a moment, a night of perfect peace in that place.

As it is with so many things in that part of the world, the peace was as illusory as a desert mirage. Israel had won a great victory over the combined forces of the most powerful Arab nations, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Israel had conquered 42,000 square miles and now controlled an area three-and-a-half times its size, including all of Jerusalem and the holiest of places for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

As former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami writes in Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, “A new empire was born in the Middle East with flag of the Star of David being hoisted” from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal and the new border with Syria and Lebanon.

Thus, in my travels in Israel during those few days talking with politicians and academics, I found the Israelis insufferable, full of themselves, celebrating what they believed was their country’s final victory, confirmation of their national existence and an end to the Arab threat.

The Israelis were drunk on hubris, Ben-Ami wrote,

“...for which Israel was to pay dearly. Her orgy of political drunkenness and military triumphalism blinded the eyes of their leaders from seeing the real, not the messianic opportunities that her lightning military exploits opened for her.”

But, he added, the Israelis ignored the people they had conquered and the possibilities of dealing with the defeated Arab nations and making a real peace out of the war.

As Ben-Ami wrote,

“The opportunity was missed to turn the tactical victory in war into a major strategic victory for Zionism that could have made the Six Day War into the last major war of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and an avenue for settlement with at least part of the Arab world.”

But what Ben-Ami called Israel’s understandable “siege mentality,” and her dreams of using and acquiring land for “total security” prevented her from seeing what a few people warned me about. For years the Palestinians had been relatively quiet. Now they were an occupied people in lands they lived on for generations. And they would not remain quiet much longer.

The occupiers, whatever their intentions, became the oppressors, for that’s the nature of occupation. It leads to increasing measures of repression, reaction and repression. And the world, including the U.N. and the U.S., have until now refused to recognize any of the territories as part of Israel.

In 1970, the Palestinians exploded into the Black September movement which was expelled from Jordan by King Hussein. That made the Palestinians in exile Israel’s major problem. And the new Palestine Liberation Organization’s guerrilla violence culminated in the massacre of the Israeli Olympians in Munich in 1972.

I came to Israel next in 1973, for as Ben-Ami points out, it was only a matter of time that the Arab nations sought to avenge the humiliation of 1967. I was vacationing in Britain when the inevitable happened: Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year among Jews – by Egypt to the south, and Syria in the north.

And when I landed in Israel (I caught a ride on an El-Al plane bringing Israelis home from Europe and the U.S. to fight in the war), all that insufferable confidence was gone. Egyptian forces had crossed the Suez Canal and, for the first time, Israel had lost some territory. And Syria threatened to sweep down from the Golan Heights to Galilee.

As it turned out, Israeli forces flanked and virtually trapped the Egyptian army on their side of the canal before a truce was arranged by the U.S. And the Syrian threat on the Golan Heights was turned back; Israel even gained ground. But, as Ben-Ami pointed out, the limited Arab success, Israel’s days of panic and pressure from the U.S., led eventually to an Israeli acceptance of the need to give up land for peace.

Anwar Sadat’s magnanimous visit to Israel produced the Camp David accords and the return to Egypt of the Sinai. I witnessed that peace treaty, negotiated with President Carter and signed at the White House. And I watched another one signed between Israel and King Hussein of Jordan in a gulley between the two countries, with President Clinton presiding.

These treaties are still in force. But there was no peace with the Palestinians whose stones of the Intifada, like those tossed by the biblical David, gave the Goliath played by Israel great pain. It was the only way the weaponless Palestinians could protest the Israeli settlements that were taking away their lands, homes and olive trees.

I spent time in Israel during the years leading to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, at the end of the first Gulf War. Events, in my mind even now, fall over each other – it was the first time that Israel sat at a table with virtually all her Arab enemies. And under great pressure from the U.S., Israel signed an agreement on the White House lawn to make peace with Yassir Arafat, whose P.L.O. had ended its terrorism.

Alas, the peacemakers, Sadat and Yitsak Rabin, were murdered. Arafat is dead and the Palestinian leaders who have followed seem to have lost their way. Hamas, whose organization had been encouraged by Israel as a religious counterweight to the secular P.L.O., is now Israel’s mortal enemy.

Israel continues to expand its settlements, while seeking its version of peace. Hamas and the Palestinian authority don’t really know the kind of peace they want. This is the story of the Middle East and the seemingly endless and mindless Arab-Israeli conflict: Today’s adversary is tomorrow’s ally. There is no end in sight.

There is a famous story of the frog and the scorpion who make a deal to cross the Jordon River safely. The scorpion will ride on the frog’s back and promises not to sting. But halfway across, the scorpion’s tail stings the frog. And as they both sink, the frog asks, “Why did you do that?.”

“Because it’s my nature,” says the scorpion. “And this is the Middle East.”

But if everything about the conflict is predictably unpredictable, the Holy Land of that Christmas Eve is essentially changeless. Rachel’s tomb is still there, outside Bethlehem. The Cave of the Patriarchs (including Abraham and Isaac) in Hebron is intact, seen after by Muslims.

Bethlehem, a good size city, is a capital of the Palestinian National Authority, such as it is. But Israeli Jews rarely go to there, for they are unwelcome and it could be dangerous. And most of the Palestinian lands are walled off from Israel. The Israelis call it what it is, apartheid.

When my wife Evelyn and I were there last, we could crawl into the place in Bethlehem where it is thought the manger had been. We could visit the Church of the Nativity. And we could browse in the shop I had visited years before. But the peace I had felt there once was nowhere to be found. Not then. Not now.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson: Santa's Helper


REFLECTIONS: The Old Confederacy

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections There was a time, when I covered the troubles and triumphs of the civil rights struggles - from 1954 through 1965 or so - I believed there was hope and promise for the American South, that the Old Confederacy would indeed rise again and that whites and people of color, freed from the chains of race, would lead the nation in a kind of political and social renaissance. That hope is gone.

Despite the election of Barack Obama, or perhaps because of it, much of the old South – from Virginia to Florida and Texas – seems to have regressed, retreated into the hard-shell right-wing, state-rights, anti-Washington racism, on which its politics is now based and its leaders feed.

What is going on now is not a rise of conservatism. The southern conservatives who I have known were traditionalists who sought to retain the values and grace and, yes, the racist order of the old South. But they yielded to changing times and they would be appalled at today’s would-be destroyers of American political system.

Historian and journalist Thomas Frank, in his 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas, demonstrated how his home state, which had been a hotbed of 19th century populism, turned to the right with its citizens voting against their own interests, following instead, like the mechanical rabbit on the dog track, extraneous and irrelevant “cultural issues” such as abortion and gay marriage.

I’m not sure Kansas was the best example. Kansas did elect liberal Democrat Kathleen Sibelius as governor (she’s now the Secretary of Health and Human Services). And Kansas has been Republican at least since it voted for native son Alf Landon in 1936.

But its two Republican senators, Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts, are conventional conservatives. And Kansas has not demonstrated the vicious animus towards Washington and Obama that we’ve seen coming from secessionist states such as Texas and South Carolina. So the more relevant question is what is the matter with The South?

It pains me to ask that, for I spent more than a dozen years living and working in Houston, the largest and most diverse city in the south, with the largest black population. And for a young man transplanted from Brooklyn, working for one of city’s conservative newspapers, it was an exciting time. Competition was fierce, Houston was a boom town, the civil rights movement was edging into the city and southern writers and reporters were providing accompaniment to the prelude to change.

Think of the richness: Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Penn Warren, Reynolds Price, Horton Foote, Shelby Foote, James Dickey, William Styron.

And the newspaper reporters: Claude Sitton, John Herbers and Tom Wicker of The New York Times, Gene Roberts, later hired by the Times and Jack Nelson of The Los Angeles Times.

And there were great and courageous editors, Ralph McGill, of the Atlanta Constitution, Harry Ashmore, of the Arkansas Gazette, “Pete” McKnight of the Charlotte News & Observer and Hodding Carter II in Greenville, Mississippi. They don’t make them like that anymore.

I was one of a dozen of reporters who followed the movement. We called ourselves “Southern Correspondents Covering Racial Equality Wars” or S.C.C.R.E.W. But they were my guides and, yes, inspiration as I graduated from covering the cops and courts to write about the Freedom Rides, Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the more radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as they caused their kind of trouble across the south, agitating, marching, sitting in.

As I think I’ve written elsewhere, we reporters who were on the race beat had the luxury of unobjectivity, rooting for the movement although we covered its problems and internal disputes. But one day, when I watched King coming up to the crest of a hill on the road from Selma to Montgomery, as black sharecroppers in Lowndes County, Alabama waited and shouted, “Dere he is,” he was, for sure, a modern Moses leading an exodus.

And the thousands marching behind them, including black and white celebrities and clergy of every faith under the protection of the National Guard and with the blessings of a president from Texas, were cause for my hope, for the future of the south and that the south would show the rest of the country the way to racial understanding if not peace.

We ought to remember that the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, plus a couple more, were part of the Democratic coalition that Roosevelt had built and was still holding when Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater.

It is true that the Solid South was Democratic because Lincoln had been a Republican. But by the time Johnson was president, southern stalwarts in the Senate like Richard Russell, J. William Fulbright and Sam Ervin helped overcome the throwbacks like James Eastland, to pass the civil rights bills – with Republican help. These were true constitutional conservatives; their recognition of the rightness of the cause of civil rights preserved the union.

But Lyndon Johnson, who knew the south and politics like no one else, ruminated in 1965 that the Voting Rights Act meant the South would go Republican in 50 years. It didn’t take that long.

New Yorker writer George Packer recounts an anecdote from Pat Buchanan who was with Richard Nixon in 1966 in Columbia, South Carolina where he worked the crowd into a frenzy.

“Buchanan recalls that the room was full of sweat, cigar smoke, and rage; the rhetoric was about patriotism and law and order...As they left the hotel, Nixon said, ‘This is the future of this party, right here in the south.’”

Two years later, Nixon and the Republican Party won the presidency by adopting the “Southern Strategy” which divided the south by race - blacks who began to vote with the Democrats and whites, those of the old south who reacted to what they saw as civil rights unrest and those of the new south - suburbanites (many from the north) who had belonged to no party.

As cynical as his campaign was, Nixon had been a creature of Washington and did not seek to dismantle the federal government. Indeed, he sought an improved welfare system, health care and gave us the Environmental Protection Agency. The Vietnam War and Watergate stopped the Republican advance.

Ironically, Democrat Jimmy Carter, as an outsider from Georgia, initiated the attacks on Washington and his presidency never recovered from Washington’s reaction. So it was left to Ronald Reagan to fasten to the right-wing of the Republican Party the overt racism as well as the ideological opposition to the central government as a socialist threat.

Reagan, you remember, deliberately began his 1980 campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi where three voting rights workers were murdered in 1964. Trent Lott, then a Republican congressman from Mississippi, had suggested the site. Reagan said in his speech: “I believe in states’ rights.” And the first priority of his presidency (although not completely successful) was the dismantling of the social programs of Johnson’s Great Society.

The elder George Bush’s 1988 campaign was led by South Carolinian Lee Atwater who made race (Willie Horton) part of the campaign. But to his credit, Bush, a conventional and moderate conservative who had voted for the civil rights bills in Congress, ran afoul of right-winger Pat Buchanan by raising taxes when it was necessary and it cost him the presidency.

Reagan’s legacy was twisted even further to the crazy right by the southern-led Republican cabal in the 1995 Congress led by Speaker Newt Gingrich of Cobb County, Georgia (where the Klan was strong) and Representatives Dick Armey and Tom DeLay of Texas, and the then-Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott who lost his job for praising the racist legacy of the late Strom Thurmond.

The younger George Bush, who all but ignored blacks and gay people, did not take after his father. Rather, he mindlessly gave the radical right further aid and comfort questioning global warming, the reasons for homosexuality and even evolution and he sought to bring down the two pillars of social insurance. He left the nation a political and economic wreck.

But amid that wreckage, Dick Armey’s Freedom Works, with the help of corporate money and far right cable television propagandists, have organized the angry whites and political leaders of the Old Confederacy to destroy the legitimacy of a liberal, black president. Even conservative stalwarts and northern moderates have been forced to join in this revival of the cries of the Civil War with racism again at its core.

Once again, the south is leading the rest of the country in a virulent ideological war shouting for states’ rights and even threatening secession – in practice if not in fact.

They may be an embarrassment to some mainline Republicans. Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, who became the Republican chairman, apologized to the NAACP for not reaching out to black voters after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and he said the southern strategy was “wrong.”

More recently, Ohio Senator George Voinovich told an interviewer that southerners are what’s wrong with the Republican Party.

“We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns,” both hard-right anti-government senators, respectively, from South Carolina and Oklahoma. “The party’s being taken over by southerners,” said Voinovich. “What the hell they got to do with Ohio?”

Indeed, Ohio is deep in recession with the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs. But DeMint and Coburn steadfastly held up legislation to extend unemployment compensation to the jobless. They vociferously oppose any action to create new green jobs to slow global warming, the existence of which they deny. And, of course they are fighting any health care reforms. DeMint has boasted that the defeat of health reform would be President Obama’s “Waterloo.”

More than one observer has suggested that the complaints and aims of the so-called teabaggers are vague and almost groundless, mostly aimed at Obama’s presidency and his legitimacy. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, noting that a near majority of southern Republicans believe Obama was not born in America, said, “Southern Republicans, it seems have seceded from sanity.”

Sadder still, like Thomas Frank’s Kansans, the southerners don’t realize they’ve been played for suckers by the demagogues who lead them.

Once the New Deal and the Great Society held promise for the backward south. Now, the south leads the country in the percentage of uninsured and resultant deaths; it has the lowest educational attainment; the highest percentage of infant mortality and lowest median household income. The 2008 poverty rate was greater than national rate (13.2 percent) across the old south, and 44 percent of children in the south (12.2 million) - more than in any other region - live in low-income families.

As much as any other region, and more than most, the south has been victimized by right-wing Republican policies that have widened the gap between the rich and educated elite and families struggling to get by. They have a right to be angry even they don’t know exactly why. But formless though their tea bag protests have been, history tells us to beware when large numbers of dissatisfied men and women, some with guns, take aim at the nation’s most conservative institutions.

Here is a relevant quote from Tony Judt’s fine piece in the December 17 New York Review of Books, in which he analyzes why Social Democracy, practiced almost everywhere after the maelstrom of the Great Depression and war, has not taken root here:

“If there was a lesson to be drawn from depression, fascism and war, it was this: uncertainty – elevated to the level of insecurity and collective fear – was the corrosive force that had threatened and might again threaten the liberal world.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: My Favorite Garment


REFLECTIONS: The Long View

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthlyReflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections The quiet passing of a date and something an interviewer told me stirred these reflections like leaves fluttering from the trees in an autumn breeze. The date was November 22, the 47th anniversary of the murder of John F. Kennedy; when the nation lost what was left of its post World War II innocence.

And the interviewer, listening to my argument that the best of newspapers will survive this recession and the internet as it has other downturns and television, noted my age (80) and told me I had the “long view,” which I took as a compliment.

Kennedy’s murder was not widely observed because journalism tends to mark the first, the fifth or the tenth of an event, but not the mundane 47th. But I do have a view that stretches back over those years.

Some years ago on a November 22, I asked the news room at large at New York Newsday who knew the significance of that day. Only my legendary colleague, Murray Kempton, then in his seventies, raised his hand. He had the long view.

Because we persons of age have a “long view,” i.e., looking backwards, does not mean we don’t look forward. I suppose, that we are not attentive to predictions 50 years hence. And neither are we such cockeyed optimists that we would buy an annuity that doesn’t pay for ten years. But we do look forward for the short view; we care that the nation should expand health coverage and Medicare now to those who don’t have what we have.

We care that young men and women are dying in pointless wars. And we know that because our longer view recalls the idiocy of Vietnam and the war against Nazism that had a point. We are interested in the short run, which is why we read newspapers more thoroughly than most, write letters to editors, hassle legislators, go to concerts and plays and vote in greater numbers than younger people.

Let me say again, we care about and can make judgments about the present and the near future because we have the long view, which supplies perspective that my interviewer and most contemporary reporters and those breathless, rapid-reading TV types don’t seem to have. An editor has called newspaper journalism “instant history.” But there is history preceding that “instant.”

I have been very fortunate to have lived through and reported on some of the most extraordinary events and movements of the latter half of the 20th century. I covered John F. Kennedy’s last formal speech, at a Houston dinner, the night before he was killed. I had written a piece for The Nation warning that the right-wing nuts in Dallas, including the local congressman, were making his visit dangerous. A wanted leaflet with Kennedy as the target was circulated. Little did I realize that the killer would be an ersatz left-wing nut.

A few days later, covering a meeting of oil and business executives in Houston, I stepped out of my reporter’s role and protested loudly and unprofessionally when one of those oilmen expressed satisfaction that Texan Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and that “bushy-haired bastard from Boston” was no longer president. I learned, as the nation has not yet learned, that ideological nuts come in all sizes and flourish like viruses in the sour ferment of hatred and ignorance.

I covered much of the great civil rights movement, from Houston in the Fifties to Washington in the Sixties, from Montgomery to Jackson and Selma to the Poor People’s March and Memphis. I got to know Dr. Martin Luther King and when he died, I likened it to a crucifixion. Within a few months of each other, in 1968, he and Sen. Robert Kennedy, were murdered by nuts of vague ideologies and inchoate hatreds.

As the cliche goes, we have come a long way in righting civil wrongs since then. But the war in Vietnam that they opposed is being fought again in different places, and the poverty they decried has not subsided.

Black people and Hispanics still suffer disproportionately. Immigrants (there are no such things as illegal humans) have become targets for the bigots. And the nuts persist, in the Congress and the old Confederacy, still fighting the Civil War, who would cripple the federal government and reverse all that King and Kennedy stood for.

And too many journalists and political leaders are without the long view, or the sense of outrage, to call out the nuts and their twisted religious, Taliban fundamentalism for the dangers they represent.

I also covered the birth of what became the consumer movement in 1966 when I was a reporter for the Detroit Free Press (a Knight-Ridder newspaper) and a young lawyer, Ralph Nader, challenged the auto industry in general and General Motors in particular, calling their new rear-engine compact, the Corvair, “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

Nader challenged the conventional wisdom (of the National Safety Council, among others) that the driver was at fault in accidents. Nader demonstrated that Detroit’s autos were death traps. His efforts created the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency and autos became more crash worthy with safety belts, collapsible steering wheels and air bags.

But more than that, Nader began a new kind of Washington journalism where news was made by citizen consumers and activists – anti-war, environment - and not just political officials.

That sort of activism continues, with blogs, demonstrations and good journalism and much of it to strengthen regulation and use government for the sake of people who need its help. This citizen activism that began more than 40 years ago, has given us the possibility of improved health care or dealing with climate change. These activists have sought to enhance and increase responsiveness in government.

But activism also has been perverted lately by ignorant nuts, even those in government who seek not only to tear down the nation’s institutions from which they take salaries, perks and health care, but to deny the science of global warming as well as human evolution. They are the new “know nothings.”

During my reporting days I covered to one extent or another, every president from Johnson through George H.W. Bush, with whom I had become friendly in Houston, when he was the Republican County chairman and later a congressman. Despite the flaws in every one, for they were all human, most of them cared for government and its institutions.

Johnson, as you know, gave us Medicare, Medicaid and the basic Civil Rights laws; Richard Nixon gave us the Environmental Protection Agency and the Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment; Jimmy Carter brought peace between Egypt and Israel and Jerry Ford gave us calm after Watergate.

Let me digress a bit by pointing out that lawmakers of both parties, such as Senators Sam Ervin [D., North Carolina], and Howard Baker [R., Tennessee], chose to end Nixon’s travesties demonstrating a kind of responsible, statesmen-like politics that is long gone.

Ronald Reagan, a decent, inclusive man who would have been appalled at the right-wing haters today, fixed Social Security for 75 years and all but ended the cold war by dealing with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and setting the stage for unprecedented arms reduction treaties that are still in force. I was there, incidentally, when Reagan, at the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987, implored Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall, knowing it would happen.

Finally, because the elder Bush was a friend, I transferred from the White House to report on the State Department and the more exciting Secretary James Baker, who I also knew from Houston. My first assignment in late September 1989, was covering Baker’s meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. It turned out to be momentous, for as the two men flew to Wyoming from Washington, Shevardnadze acknowledged to Baker that the Soviet state was collapsing from within, as Reagan had predicted.

Shevardnadze not only agreed to sweeping arms reductions, he made it clear at Jackson Hole that the Soviets were ready to set the nations of Eastern Europe free of the Warsaw Pact. Within six weeks, on November 9, the Berlin wall came down and the State Department press corps began a wild ride with Baker through the newly freed countries of the east, the former Soviet republics and a visit to one of Russia's most secret missile testing facilities. The world was turning right side up.

Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The press traveled with Baker to Moscow, where his friendship with Shevardnadze gave the U.S. Russia as an ally in the effort that took us to dozens of counties in Europe and the Middle East to fashion a coalition of nations – including Syria – to wage war and throw Saddam Hussein and Iraq out of Kuwait.

Bush succeeded and he and Baker wisely avoided sending American forces to Baghdad to get bogged down in an endless Middle East war. Theirs was the long view. But their successes and Baker’s frequent visits with the Arab world, gave him credibility to press Israel as it had not been pressed since making peace with Egypt, to stop building settlements, and meet with the Arab world in Madrid.

Baker told a stunned congressional hearing that if Israel wants peace, “when you’re serious, give us a call.” Baker, with his persuasive powers born of years serving presidents, convinced even Syria and the Palestinians to talk peace with Israel. That helped set the stage during Bill Clinton’s presidency for a White House meeting between PLO leader Yassir Arafat and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin, and a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. A right-wing nut ended Rabin’s life and that flickering hope for peace.

I saw and wrote about these events. And I can tell you that all these men, whatever their parties or flaws, were public servants of substance using government to form a more perfect union.

In 1995, however, a brash band of right-wing, Republican zealots wrested control of Congress and have taken the short view, along with the triangulating Bill Clinton, to end comity in government. They demeaned government except for their own purposes, abolishing the regulation of banks, Wall Street and the drug industry, retreating from the works of more pragmatic White House predecessors.

That set the political stage for the Bush family bad seed and a gang of very near-sighted outlaws who could not protect the nation from a well-telegraphed attack. They made up for their malfeasance by taking over the Constitution and unleashing the mad dogs of endless middle east wars. And they encouraged their ragtag army of fundamentalist nuts carrying crusader crosses, screaming their hateful nonsense at a president who is seeking to restore government as a friend.

I doubt these wackos know or care or even mourn what happened on November 22. Nor do they know what happened on November 9, 1989. That takes a long view.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: A Mind Gone Astray


REFLECTIONS: On the Congress

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthlyReflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

It’s great sport to watch The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert eviscerate members of Congress with video clips of their latest bits of idiocy. It serves to demonstrate the truth of Mark Twain’s comment: “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

Yet here’s a political puzzle that’s baffled me for years: The Congress, as a body of 535 or so men and women, almost always gets the lowest approval ratings of any Washington institution, lower even than the press. And some of the members, especially nowadays, are truly buffoons who, in the words of a former house speaker, never open their mouths but that they detract from the sum of human knowledge.

Nevertheless, most of the members, including the nuts, are re-elected every two or six years by constituents who then join in the chorus of derision for the congress. The simple explanation, of course, is that it’s easy to ridicule an amorphous body, but congressional politics is local and utilitarian, as the founders planned, and even the buffoons have aides who can solve a Social Security problem and Kiwanians who will support any warm body who wears a flag pin.

But I have digressed from my mission here, which is to tell you that there is something more profound at work when members of Congress, who should know better, act, speak and vote like fools. How else to explain Senator Charles Grassley, a veteran Iowa Republican who ran the committee on aging, actually saying, if not believing, that the health insurance reforms considered by the Senate Finance Committee, on which he’s the ranking member, would encourage the deaths of older insured people on Medicare?

What I have observed in 50 years of covering politics and the Congress is that members like Grassley, after many years in public life, often become removed from the realities of daily life. They’ll simply lose touch and their interests (like party loyalty and ideology) become increasingly irrelevant for the everyday lives of people they are supposed to represent.

I remember when I first realized this – without understanding it. It was during one the interviews I did when, for a time in my Houston tenure, I was assigned to cover luncheons and the like and write features about interesting visitors.

My technique was to ask my subject something out of left field. So I learned that then opera star Roberta Peters was a baseball fan and once sang the latest World Series score to her tenor. And I found that Socialist leader Norman Thomas had a great sense of humor.

The subject who confounded me a bit was one of my political heroes, Senator J. William Fulbright, the suave and liberal Arkansas Democrat, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Instead of talking foreign policy with him, I asked him a very pedestrian question which I no longer remember. All that I recall is that the technique didn’t work; Fulbright, a former college president, did not know what I was talking about. It was simply not part of his reality.

That was understandable. Like others in his station, he did not drive his own car, go to the cleaners, buy groceries, pay for the lunch or even type his speech. Others were paid to do things like that.

I remember participating in long lunch and bull session in Des Moines in 1980, with a gang of reporters and Senator Ted Kennedy. The long-suffering and hard-working waitress was stunned when Kennedy left without paying or tipping her. The explanation: He didn’t realize he had to; besides, he never carried money because he didn’t need it. His aides and the reporters paid. And someone (not me) wrote a nasty story about how Teddy nearly stiffed the waitress.

But even the privileged and protected have the capacity to learn, perhaps from personal tragedy and human encounters. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s struggle with polio and his months with plain folk at Warm Springs were reflected in his New Deal liberalism and passion for social justice. The murders of Kennedy’s brothers which left Ted the head and caretaker of the clan, and the serious illnesses of his two sons, gave him his liberal social conscience and determination to provide for all Americans the health insurance he had.

Former Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, a heart surgeon and a bona fide conservative whose family corporation (Columbia HCA) ripped off Medicare for billions of dollars, now supports health care reform he would have opposed when he was in Congress. He had traveled the world seeing the need for health care in Africa, which he writes about in his new book, A Heart to Serve – The Passion to Bring Health, Hope and Healing. And he ridicules as nonsense the opposition statements of Grassley and company.

Frist had been freed from the narrow personal and financial interests that prevent legislators from looking around at the real world, learning new things and, God forbid, changing their views. If you watched the performance of the Senate Finance Committee, for example, you would have seen well-paid aides hovering over their senators telling them what’s going on and what positions they ought to take. (Some aides has worked for insurance and drug companies).

The Washington Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia, who wrote October 1 of the “whispering brigade” of aides at the committee’s sessions, caught one of them speaking quietly to Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, which is not of the real world for most of us, “mouthing lines in Baucus’ ear almost Cyrano de Bergerac-style.”

I’m told that Senator Olympia (Hamlet) Snowe, of Maine, had to be instructed from time to time on how Medicare works. She was not alone in her ignorance. She opposed any “public option” among the choices in health care, she said, although she was not clear why because most of her older constituents have Medicare, which is a public option and most of the rest of the people in Maine appear to want the same.

Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, of Indiana, and independent Joe Lieberman, threatened to block or vote against health reform with a public option and almost no one in the press, save blogger Glenn Greenwald, noted their close ties to and the money they and their spouses get from the insurance and drug industries.

Indeed, much of the press. From the beginning, has aided and abetted efforts to kill a strong, health care bill that could lead to universal insurance.

As I’ve written elsewhere, despite appeals from some of the best experts in medicine and health care, much of the main stream press ignored and helped to toss off the table of consideration, Medicare for All. Then, as Chris Weigant wrote in Huffington Post on October 27, virtually every reporter and commentator pronounced the so-called “public option” dead. And they seem to applaud the members who confirmed their assumption, but they didn’t challenge them, or suggest that maybe the public option may be a good thing.

And despite its growing popularity, the public option was dismissed as supported by “liberals.” Why? Because too much of the press no longer pursues that which is outside their own narrow and conventional interests and career ambitions. Once journalism was a calling to right wrongs; now (except for some fine blogs like this one) it’s a career without values.

That’s a far cry from the kind of aggressive, participatory journalism practiced before 24-hour cable-infotainment. My colleagues and I challenged and argued with lawmakers who seem divorced from reality. We even fed them questions to be asked of witnesses, the better to get a good story.

With the help of a few reporters, including me, Ralph Nader began the consumer movement. One of the finest investigative reporters I knew worked closely with a member of Congress to root out union corruption. My needling questions and stories helped bring a senator I covered over to oppose the Vietnam War.

Now, however, almost no one (except perhaps Rachel Maddow and a few bloggers) pokes at the hypocrisy of, say, Senator John McCain who will vote to kill the health reform although he has been on the public payroll for all his life and never had to pay a medical bill.

How about that buffoon who proposed that all members of Congress be forced to sign up for the health reform? Doesn’t he know that that’s what he and his well-paid colleagues already have in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan and for only $503 a year? But I’ll bet that many don’t pay their own bills. Does anyone call them out on their hypocrisy besides Stewart and Colbert?

I miss being in the trenches covering these lawmakers many, if not most, of whom are valiant and tireless public servants. But, like Representatives John Dingell and John Conyers, both of Michigan, the two longest-serving members of the House, the really good ones don’t often get press because they are not buffoons.

I covered them both and had my difference with Dingell over his overt legislative support for the National Rifle Association. But Dingell, whose father was a New Dealer who helped give us our modern labor laws, and Conyers, who once worked as an aide to the younger Dingell, have for years championed universal national health insurance, which most Americans say they want.

Truth be told, I think even most members of Congress, would agree. But they are dismissed by other lawmakers and the press who ignore the real world of what is needed in favor of the narrow, conventional wisdom which as usual, is not very wise.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz: The Theological Discussion


REFLECTIONS: The Early Days

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.


Category_bug_reflections I don’t think I’ve told you that I nailed down my first real newspaper job by stealing. The story helps me make the point that journalism today is much straighter, reflective and responsible, but not as much fun or as personally rewarding.

I call what I learned participatory journalism, when my contemporaries and I took pleasure in righting wrongs.

I walked into the city room of The Houston Chronicle, the leading afternoon daily at 7:30 AM on Monday, March 6, 1953, and the city editor, Allison Sanders, a Victorian kind of gentleman in his fifties with a bushy white mustache, told me to sit. Mr. Sanders wore suspenders, smoked a corncob pipe and kept a Chinese back scratcher handy.

He had offered me a job a few days earlier and I didn’t know what to expect, so I sat. And waited. It was not quite nine when he gave me an assignment: “Find me a water pistol.”

Not certain that I heard him correctly I went out into the downtown morning rush, wondering (1) why does he want a water pistol? and (2) where can I find one as this hour? I had been living in Houston for only a few months.

Long story short: At the Woolworth’s on Main Street, the food counters were open for morning coffee, but the merchandise areas were closed and covered with sheets. I stayed low and peeked under the sheets until I came to the toy section.

I found a water pistol and tried to leave enough money to pay for it, but all I had was a five dollar bill my wife had given me for my lunch and not enough change. But I left what change I had, hid the pistol in my pocket and stole out of the store certain I’d be caught for shoplifting.

Back at the city room, still unsure that I had what Mr. Sanders wanted, I gave him the pistol. I later learned it was to be used as a prop for a pretty, busty woman to pose with. The purpose was to illustrate a hyped story about how women, with a water pistol filled with a lye solution, could defend themselves against some nut who was accosting them at bus stops, feeling their breasts and fleeing.

Anyway, when the first deadline had passed, Mr. Sanders asked me where I got the pistol. I told him the truth. He grunted something that sounded like approval and sent me to the police station as the number 3 police reporter at $50 a week.

The photo of my pistol made page one. I had begun my love affair with journalism, but I quickly learned that stealing that pistol was not as challenging as, say, getting a photo of an accident or murder victim for the paper. Didn’t you ever wonder how the papers and TV people get such pictures?

These days that task goes to some flunky, copy person or a very junior producer. In my early days it was the reporter’s responsibility to wheedle a photo from the bereaved family. The great Chicago reporter Ben Hecht (who co-wrote the classic, Front Page), told the hilarious story in Child of the Century of when he was assigned to get a photo of a murdered mobster.

He went to the wake and found the only picture of the deceased hanging on the wall over the casket, which was placed on a couple of sawhorses. As I recall, Hecht climbed on the saw horses and casket to get the photo and leave before any of the wake celebrants caught wise.

Well, when I was a junior police reporter, The Front Page came alive every day. One of my jobs was talking the sobbing, nearly hysterical or angry bereaved wife, mother or father into looking around the house to find a suitable photo.

On more than one occasion, I posed as one of the hearse drivers from the funeral home who had come to take the deceased away. I nearly dropped my end of the stretcher once going down a steep flight of stairs, but got the picture. But it forced me to spend time with and listen to suffering people.

I remember vividly the time I made conversation at the murder scene with a 90-year-old woman who had shot her 92-year-old  husband between the eyes with the ancient .45 Colt revolver during an argument over whose side of the family would get the pistol when they died. She gave me the picture of her once-handsome husband as the police took the body away. “I did love him, you know,” she told me.

“So why did you shoot him?” I asked.

“Because I loved him,” she said.

These were rough and tumble times in Texas newspapering, and we police and court reporters were aggressive; we had to be. Houston boasted three hotly competing newspapers, the afternoon Chronicle, which was locally owned and went head-to-head against the Scripps-Howard Houston Press as well as the morning Post, owned by the then Health and Welfare Secretary Oveta Culp Hobby, the daughter of a former governor.

There are few cities left with competing newspapers. But competition, however crazy and funny at times, served me and my contemporaries well. It taught us some values that have lasted.

Just about all of us on the police and courthouse beats went as strongly after the cops and courts, when they did wrong, as well as the thieves and killers. I learned to get into the heads of the bad guys while mourning for the victims. A couple of hours in the county hospital emergency room on a Saturday night can teach you a great deal about the human condition and it has no relationship to today’s television dramas.

When I learned that a man named Jasper Self, an old-fashioned, real Texas outlaw if there was one, had been shot by a Texas Ranger while trying to escape, I spent most of a weekend tracking down the story. I don’t know why it interested me. Years before,  Self had shot and killed a ranger for which he had spent time in prison. He was warned by the rangers, at the time he went to prison, that he would not live long in freedom. He was killed soon after he was released and it was clear to me it was a case of ranger revenge.

My wife was with  me that Saturday as we drove around the state from Houston to a little town near Austin to examine Self’s body at the funeral home. He had been shot in the back of the head while kneeling, the mortician showed me, with pencils in the bullet holes.

Then we drove to the Self family farm to interview and get a photo from his elderly father who greeted me with anger and a shotgun until we calmed him down. And he told me how a couple of rangers came and got his son.

Finally, after dark we drove to Wharton, about an hour out of Houston, where we got the ranger out of a house party to confront him with what I had found. My wife kept watch as he angrily denied murdering Self. But we had the goods on him and a fine story that raised a bit of hell. I don’t recall what happened to the ranger.

My competition covering the courts was a dynamo named Maggie Davis, of the Houston Press. She was near 60, a chain-smoker and so high strung she couldn’t sit still at times. She would relieve her tension sometimes by banging her head on a wall. But she beat the hell out of most reporters who tried to compete with her. I feared her, but found out how she knew so much.

She never had lunch in the courthouse cafeteria. She brought her sandwich to the chamber of the senior criminal court judge who lunched every day with the other jurists and exchanged juicy bits of courthouse gossip and real news. So I joined them.

Not only did it prevent some Maggie exclusives, I got an education in criminal law from the judges. And my stories had the meat of my new expertise. I didn’t need to quote a source; I was able to explain from my own knowledge. That’s something I’ve been doing ever since.

Maggie, who remained my friend, taught me how to dictate a clean story from notes while covering a trial, with fresh leads and inserts as the trial went on. That experience and the pressure of deadline and competition helped, in the days before computers, when I reported from India on its 1971 war with Pakistan and Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Indeed, from time to time, working stories like those or writing my column, I reflect on what she and those early days taught me. In a word, it was good, basic journalism.

Maggie never learned how I was able to scoop her at last on the jury verdict, which came in just before our deadlines in the trial of a poor, dumb kid from the wrong side of town who was convicted in the drive-by shooting of  a rich boy, the son of a prominent business man, in the affluent River Oaks section of Houston. The trial had been moved to the town of Halletsville, in south Texas.

When the inevitable verdict – “guilty with the punishment death” – was announced in mid-afternoon, Maggie had trouble getting her call through to her Houston office  from the small town. That’s because I had paid a couple of young men to tie up the few long distance lines but hold mine open until our deadlines were gone.

As I said, Maggie never found out, but she would have forgiven me.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Olga Hebert: To My Mom


REFLECTIONS: Obama So Far

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Much as I hate to, let me say it plain. As a reporter who has covered politics and Washington and six presidents over 50 years, the presidency of  Barack Obama has been a disappointment so far. I’ve hesitated before writing this, for I despair that my criticism might aid or abet his vicious, vindictive enemies.

I hesitate also because I cannot naysay his Nobel Prize, for fear I might seem to agree with his predictably stupid enemies who are intellectual midgets compared to Obama. They make themselves smaller with their every word.

But Obama himself wondered if the prize was premature when he said, “I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize.”

I have met several of those figures, including Nelson Mandela and Rev. Desmond Tutu. They praised Obama for his prize. I believe it was a prize reflective of the national and world view of Obama; we all hope he lives up to his prize and his ringing words that have echoed around the globe.

But for now, it’s fair to ask, does he realize the terrible irony of winning such a prize while planning an escalation of a war? Does he ponder the lives of soldiers and innocent civilians and money already lost and still to be spent in faraway places while too many of his countrymen are without jobs, homes and medical care?

History does not repeat itself. And I don’t expect a repeat of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 100 days of 1933 or Lyndon Johnson’s remarkable accomplishments of 1965. But to twist the advice of the philosopher George Santayana, if Barack Obama doesn’t pay closer attention to how those Democratic presidents governed, he (and we) may not get another chance at good, civilized government for a very long time.

In June, 1933, just three months after Roosevelt took office, the new  Congress, prodded by the president, with the help of two conservative Democrats, Senator Carter Glass of Virginia and Representative Henry Steagall of Alabama, passed the (Glass-Steagall) National Banking Act to tame the financial institutions that had caused the Great Depression. It lasted nearly 70 years, until another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, approved its demise.

Sure, President Obama was left with the results, which were compounded by modern-day Hoovers in Bush clothing. Obama acted with strength to get his stimulus passed. And to the relief of Wall Street, he spent hundreds of billions of dollars to save the banks that were responsible for this Great Recession.

But elsewhere in the crises confronting the cities and working Americans, there has been little to cheer about. And despite Obama’s pledges, promises and soaring rhetoric, the bailed out banks and investment houses are up to their insatiable greed again. And there is no regulation like Glass-Steagall in sight.

I wasn’t there during Roosevelt’s time, but I was around as a reporter for much of Johnson’s presidency when he and his Democratic congress gave the country Medicare, Medicaid and the unprecedented Civil Rights Act.

Less known, but of monumental importance was the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the educational centerpiece of Johnson’s Great Society, the War on Poverty which addressed inequality for blacks as well as poor whites in the public and parochial schools.

I bring this up as an example of political leadership because a few years after its passage, I heard from then Reresentative. Hugh Carey, who later became New York’s Governor, how Johnson got the bill passed. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of the details, but I remember the essentials. It remains a lesson for today on the nitty-gritty of good politics.

Carey, then a top member of the House Education and Labor Committee, told the story to a few reporters including me. The president, impatient with congressional bickering over his bill, called all the leading players to the White House for a sumptuous dinner with drink. The sticking points in the bill, as I recall, included southern Democratic resistance to school desegregation, which would be enhanced by the legislation, and Catholic insistence that parochial schools get some federal support.

Johnson never forgot his teaching days in poverty-stricken rural Texas. And he had been one of history’s most effective Senate Majority Leaders. That evening he cajoled, pleaded and argued with the lawmakers around the table telling them, essentially, to “do the right thing by the children.”

Then, according to Carey, the president bid them good night told them they would not leave the White House that night until they agreed on a bill. Sometime during the night, Johnson appeared in his bathrobe to see how his guests were coming. And by morning a bill was agreed on that passed on April 9, without a single amendment, three months into Johnson’s tern and 87 days after it was introduced.

I suppose Johnson twisted arms, made promises and even threatened. But that’s called governing, asserting presidential powers of persuasion and leadership based on a firm belief in something and taking a stand. Only when he did not trust his political instinct did he and his presidency get in trouble in Vietnam.

Now, with a Democratic majority in Congress stronger than it has been in years, friends of Barack Obama are waiting for him to come down from his ubiquitous television appearances and turn his lofty rhetoric into governing. “Yes, we can,” should become, “This is how.”

Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, who is friendly towards Obama, wrote in the October 5 issue,

“Despite his many words and television appearances, our elegant and eloquent president remains more an emblem of change than an agent of it. He’s a man with an endless, worthy to-do list – health care, climate change, bank reform, global capital regulation...you name it – but, as yet no boxes checked ‘done'...Members of Obama’s own party know who Obama is not; they still sometimes wonder who he really is.”

As Fineman notes, Obama admired Ronald Reagan’s presidency as “transformative.” And it was. Yet Reagan, who I covered, won his initial battles against a Democratic Congress with a firm, unwavering agenda – tax cuts, smaller domestic government, an unprecedented military buildup to challenge the crumbling Soviets. Obama has yet to show us how, specifically, he  will transform the nation. Surely it won’t be by watering down practically every pledge and proposal?

The comedian Bill Maher was less gentle in his new rules on September 26:

“If America can’t get its act together, it must lose the bald eagle as our symbol...I don’t care about the president’s birth certificate. I do want to know what happened to ‘Yes we can.’ Can we get out of Iraq? No. Afghanistan? No. Fix health care? No. Close Gitmo? No. Cap-and-trade carbon emissions? No. The Obamas have been in Washington for ten months and it seems like the only thing they’ve gotten is a dog.”

That certainly isn’t quite true. In many small, but significant ways, Obama has made government more of a friend for ordinary Americans. The minimum wage has been raised. Unemployment compensation has been extended. A silly Reagan Star Wars dream has been ended. Women are better protected from sexist bosses. Torture has been outlawed. But on the battlegrounds that Obama has chosen, he’s been long on rhetoric but very short on action.

At this writing, having backed away from single-payer Medicare for All, which he gave up on before the fight started, we still don’t know how firm his support is for the public option, which he says he favors. He praises Senator Max Baucus, as he votes “no” on the issue. He does not say a word to the Democrats who threaten to aid in a Republican filibuster against the public option.  He does not take Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (no LBJ) to task for his weaknesses and defeatism.

Does Obama get angry with anyone? Can he twist arms? Can he promise rewards or presidential punishment? A president who cannot wield political as well as persuasive power in Washington is seen as weak. He and his office doesn’t frighten recalcitrant Democrats let alone lying Republicans. Who is afraid of defying him? His popularity means power, if he’ll use it.

There is a larger issue and a more troubling criticism from the fine historian, Garry Wills in an essay, Entangled Obama, in the October 8 New York Review of Books. I read it against the background of these reports:

1. On September 30, Reuters reported that the Obama administration is appealing to the Supreme Court to retain the part of George W. Bush’s Patriot Act that makes criminals of persons who give support to foreign groups, even charities, if they associate with terrorists.

2. On the same day the White House press secretary said the administration may miss the hoped for date for closing Guantanamo.

3. And a top general said he may get the number of U.S. troops in Iraq down to 50,000, perhaps by next summer. On September 29, The New York Times noted that the administration will continue to use “the state secrets privilege” to prevent law suits alleging torture and unlawful wiretapping.

Wills also noted that CIA Chief Leon Panetta, with Obama’s approval, said the practice of  “extraordinary rendition” would continue, but the countries to which prisoners are sent would not torture them (sure).

Detainees (prisoners) would continue to be tried by military tribunals. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” continues to cost the military Arab speakers. But torturers of the recent past, and especially those who gave the orders, would not be prosecuted.

Thus the presidency, especially under Bush and Vice President Cheney, has accrued enormous executive power, Wills said. And

“...in the empire created by National Security State,” he wrote, “a president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire’s secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast, shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments. He becomes a prisoner of his own power.”

Perhaps that helps explain why Barack Obama, entangled by bankers, insurance and drug companies, who also own Congress, as well as the vast dark side of the National Security State, has yet to break free.


MILESTONE ALERT: Geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas, author of my favorite book on aging, What Are Old People For? and former contributor to Time Goes By, reaches one of those big, round-number birthdays today - 50. You can leave greetings and welcome him into the elderhood clan at his blog, Changing Aging. Happy birthday, Bill.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: Under the Beechwood Trees


REFLECTIONS: The Far, Far Right

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections I grew up politically in the times of New Deal, left-wing liberalism when, in my Brooklyn neighborhood, Republicans, conservatism and capitalism were synonymous and dirty words. Now, crazy as it seems, some of these loony teabaggers on the far, far right are killing conservatism and trashing capitalists, even if they don’t realize it. The trouble is they’ve gone so far right they may have come full circle to that which they say they’re denouncing, but more on that later.

That these semi-orchestrated mobs are really ranting and raving against traditional, mainline Republican conservatism and corporate America came to me when a bona fide liberal, Frank Rich, wrote in The New York Times of September 20, that the racist, demagogue godfather of the teabaggers, broadcaster Glenn Beck, is like a stopped clock that can be right twice a day.

By that, Rich meant that Beck has also tapped into the mob’s  resentment of the Wall Streeters who have cost the taxpayers hundred of billions of dollars. “Wall Street owns our government,” Rich quoted Beck as saying. “Our government and these gigantic corporations have merged.”

He has also denounced General Electric, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and even Wal-Mart (along with labor unions).

Rich calls this “right-wing populism,” but racism, Christian fundamentalism and anti-banker, anti-corporate, anti-eastern establishment, anti-government populism are part of what the great historian Richard Hofstadter called, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It came from the left as well as the right. Democrat and Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan was the anti-banker leader of midwestern populism. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina, a racist, and Huey Long of Louisiana, were anti-corporation, anti-Wall Street southern populists.

As Rich points out, much of the rhetoric of the teabaggers strangely and perhaps unknowingly echoes the central character in another Times story of the day, Michael Moore, producer of his new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story.

It is a scathing critique of Wall Street and corporations in general, and Goldman Sachs and the Obama administration’s bailout of these thieves and its failure so far in restoring the New Deal era restraints such as the Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial from investment banking.

Maybe not coincidentally, the same September 20 Times carried a couple of pictures that illustrated the pallid corporate-friendly liberalism under assault by the likes of Moore and Beck: The photo on the left is of my kind of liberal, Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Glass-Steagall into law in 1933.

The one on the right shows a smiling Bill Clinton signing its repeal in 1999, with then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and other bankers applauding. The accompanying story by Peter Goodman traced much of the blame for the financial system catastrophe to that act of kindness for Wall Street.

That repeal and the subsequent end of any restraint on commodity futures trading in 2000, approved by Clinton but sponsored by then Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, further encouraged the financial meltdown and the recession that has brought teabaggers out and the rest of us to grief. That was a marriage of traditional Republican big business conservatism, and Democratic neo-liberalism, with Wall Street and investment banking.

It was a giant government giveaway. The architects included the Fed’s Greenspan, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who quickly took a multi-million job with Citigroup, which the repeals helped create, and Lawrence Summers, who succeeded Rubin as Treasury Secretary and now runs Obama’s National Economic Council. It seemed, to borrow a famous phrase, that what was good for Wall Street (and General Motors) was good for the country.

Is it any wonder that these people and politics should become targets of the left-wing Moores and the right-wing Becks?

Over the same weekend, I picked up on another important piece of thinking about what the teabaggers, the Becks, the Limbaughs and the Christian fundamentalists are really doing to American politics. That was a truly enlightening conversation September 18 between Bill Moyers and Sam Tanenhaus, a top New York Times editor, an expert on the traditional conservative movement and the author of a new book, The Death of Conservatism?

Another guest by proxy was the journalist Max Blumenthal, author of The Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party.

Blumenthal, who has probed deeply into the far right and its ultra-fundamentalist Christians, had videotaped some of the more shocking paranoid participants at the Washington teabagging march. Much of it was staged, but Moyers quoted Beck:

“This is a collection of Americans who want both parties to stop with the corruption, stop with the spending and start listening to the people.”

Moyers wanted to know how  these thousands of right-wing protesters squared with Tanenhaus’ belief in the death of conservatism, or Blumenthal’s view that the fundamentalists and the far right were destroying the Republican Party.

While traditional conservatives have used and honored political institutions, Tanenhaus said,

“now we’ve reached a point, quite like Richard Hofstadter described...where ideologues don’t trust politicians...Many of the protesters or demonstrators insisted they were not demonstrating just against Barack Obama but against all the politicians...They don’t believe in politics as the medium whereby our society negotiates its issues...They believe in a kind of revolution, a cultural revolution...”

So far, the messages and demands of the far, far right are unformed and inchoate, flailing at government, politics, corporations, Wall Street, Democrats and what’s left of traditional Republicans. They decry socialism, but beat at the institutions of capitalism. They damn a Democratic president, but condemn traditional conservative  Republicans.

The teabaggers and the loonies among them may not know it, but I fear they are like tinder, living “on the verge of apocalypse,” as Tanenhaus said. And history has taught that a movement that goes too far to the right (or left) becomes the totalitarianism it claims to oppose.

Hofstadter had faith that paranoia passes and American politics rights itself. Franklin Roosevelt also faced paranoia, the opposition of every major newspaper, and real fascists of the Silver Shirts and the German-American Bund. But he wore the label “liberal” proudly, he lived up to his liberal promises and he did not seek  nonexistent bipartisan support. And he prevailed.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today: Linda Carmi: Goodbye Shoes


REFLECTIONS: On Racism in America

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: With former President Jimmy Carter's declaration on Tuesday that racism was behind Congressman Joe Wilson's shouted disruption during President Obama's health care address last week, racism is moving to the front of public discussion. Today, Saul Friedman supplies some personal and historical perspective.]

Category_bug_reflections According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, racism, a noun, is defined as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

I was a young man working in an Indiana steel mill many, many years ago when I learned from my black roommate the subtleties of the disease of racism, and that it was (and is) not simply about prejudice and discrimination. That disease, which we hoped had abated in the last elections, has not left our bodies.

What President Barack Obama is facing from his mostly Republican opponents and other federal government hating right-wingers, many from the Old Confederacy, is nothing but dictionary definition racism. Congressman Addison Graves (Joe) Wilson’s outburst was not just boorish; it came from deep down in his South Carolina heritage. But all of us who are white need to understand that none of us is immune to the tinge of the racism that remains as the greatest national sin.

My roommate had some annoying habits, which I now forget. But one day, when I was biting my tongue about his latest annoyance, he said, “Why don’t you express your anger at me? C’mon, get angry! You can get angry with me and not be a racist.”

He was right. Was I indulging him because he was black and I thought that’s the annoying way black people act? Or was I afraid my own prejudices were showing? After all,  this was years before the civil rights movement and whites did not socialize with blacks in that part of the country. In fact, one night when we went to Chicago for dinner, we were confronted by three racist white guys. No one was hurt, but I was ashamed that I failed to come to my friend’s defense.

Fast forward a decade, after serving in the army with blacks as well as whites, when I had my first journalism job covering the police beat for a Houston paper. I was from New York, and encountered unadulterated, entrenched, southern racism, the historic belief that blacks were inferior beings.

Every public facility and most shops was segregated or barred black people. The bus I rode to work had a color line, which I broke when I could. Blacks did not get their pictures in any of the three papers. Black defendants were beaten for confessions, but I couldn’t get that in the paper because who would take the word of a n------r over a police officer? I need not repeat the dehumanizing epithets that referred to black people.  And black-on-black murders were not covered because they were considered “misdemeanor murders.”

Only later, when Dr. Martin Luther King’s Montgomery bus boycott became national news did the paper send me to see what was going on, mostly out of fear that it would spread to segregated Houston.

But I got relief from what I considered the stifling, backward south when I was selected  as a Nieman Fellow in 1962, to spend a year at Harvard, studying race, among other things. My teachers included two of the finest minds on the psychology, social science and origins of racism in America – the late Gordon Allport and Thomas F. Pettigrew.

I say “racism in America,” for I learned from them, among other insights, that American racism was unique. Unlike other nations that brought in slaves (Brazil and Argentina) who became integrated in and enriched their societies, American blacks remained slaves or outsiders, unlike white indentured immigrants. For the slaves were deemed not human, but some inferior beings. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution considered each slave three-fifths of a man. And by considering blacks as lesser beings, the founders got around the promise that “all men were created equal.”

Eighty-one years later, the United States Supreme Court, with a 7-2 majority, held in the infamous Dred Scott decision that Scott, an escaped slave, and all other African-Americans brought to the country as slaves, were not entitled to citizenship or the right to sue because they were chattel, property, less than human.

During the Civil War, South Carolina being the first state to secede and fire on United States forces, the issue, plain and simple, was whether the states of the confederacy could continue to enslave black people. If the issue was “states’ rights,” it was the states’ right to own other human beings.

Dred Scott was never overturned by the court, but was rendered moot by the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, and the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship to former slaves. But these “reconstruction amendments”  were imposed on the defeated, but defiant south, which replied with Ku Klux Klan terror, the Black Codes and Jim Crow to nullify the Constitution and force blacks back into semi-slavery.

And as late as 1898, the Supreme Court, in Plessy, legalized segregation and the separation of the races, putting into law that Negroes were not fit to be in the same place – schools, theaters, stores - as whites. Not until 1954, when I was a reporter in Houston, was that overturned by Brown vs. Board of Education.

That decision met with massive resistance in much of the south and is still honored more in the breech. And, as Lyndon Johnson warned, the campaigns of Martin Luther King, Jr. along with the passage of the various civil rights laws in the Sixties sent many a racist Democrat into the arms of the racist Republicans who have ruled most of the Confederate South, with cries against big federal government and for states’ rights. Sound familiar?

They are very thin disguises for old fashioned racism, the belief that a black man could not possibly become our president, Dr. Pettigrew told me in a recent conversation.

“The perfect example is the birthers’ myth that he (Obama) was born in Kenya despite all evidence. The reality of a black president is simply more than the far right can accept. Hence the birthing myth and similar movements that require Freud to explain.”

Pettigrew noted with approval New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd’s assertion that the “unspoken word” in Joe Wilson’s outburst was, “You lie, boy!” Said Pettigrew, “That was straight out of South Carolina racism.” South Carolina’s racist legacy includes “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, South Carolina’s late 19th century governor and senator who attacked and killed black federal troops to build a white supremacy movement.

South Carolina has also given us Strom Thurmond, who was Wilson’s mentor; Senator Jim DeMint who boasted he wants to “break” Obama’s presidency, and Governor Mark Sanford who declared the right of his state to refuse federal funds. Wilson is a longtime member of Sons of Confederate Veterans, which (according the Southern Poverty Law Center) has been taken over by radical neo-Confederates who favor secession and call slavery a “benign institution.”

Indeed, said Pettigrew, the unprecedentedly vitriolic personal assault on Obama by right-wing commentators and  white crowds whose protests are mostly vague nonsense, is a racist campaign. Its aim, said Representative Jim Clymer, a veteran black Democrat from South Carolina, “has a lot to do with delegitimizing him as president.”

Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammed began their piece on black poverty in the September 13 New York Times by observing that the economic downturn and the first black president have provoked “a surge of white racial resentment, loosely disguised as populism.” But is it “resentment” rather than racism, the failure to believe that a black person can be president? Isn’t Glenn Beck projecting when he says Obama is a “racist” who hates white people.

Unfortunately, aside from Dowd, much of the press – including several blacks – seem to dance around the obvious racism of the mobs of so-called teabaggers who didn’t protest or show disrespect towards George Bush’s many lies when he tricked the nation into a war with Iraq, or when he spent hundreds of billions on the war. They are out to get Obama, one way or another,  because he’s black as well as liberal.

I listened to endless commentaries about Wilson’s shout-out; they called it insulting and the like, but no one mentioned racism. Washington Post Columnist Colbert King, a black man and a friend, rightly condemned the assaults on Obama as dangerous, but he barely mentioned race. Democratic official Donna Brazile, who is black, declined to “put all the president’s opponents in a box.”

Pettigrew told me, “many will think it a stretch to call Wilson’s outburst racism, but that overlooks that no one has done that to a white president even when they were lying...” Pettigrew, whose paper on Obama and the 2008 election will soon be published, saw hope in the number of young southerners who voted for Obama in some border states. Indeed, he and Allport pioneered in work that showed racism can be overcome in interpersonal relationships.

But in the deep, old south, older white men, he said, have not lost the racism of their fathers and grandfathers. He rejected the optimism of some commentators that we were in a “post-racist” time and he predicted “some of this racist backlash. Racism has remained strong in the USA.”

Note to reporters, commentators and analysts. This vicious, unrelenting criticism is not about conservatism or liberalism, bigger or smaller government or states’ rights. This is about racism directed towards the duly elected president. And it’s dangerous.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lois Cochran: The Goodbye Day


REFLECTIONS: Health Care

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections In the kind of journalism I have practiced these 50 years, after my by-line, I have mostly stayed out of the story. I don’t much care for celebrity journalists who make themselves the story; they tend to become entertainers who don’t entertain.

But I will make an exception here, not to entertain, but to talk about my own health problems and care. And because I am 80, I think my experiences give me some credibility. I’ll get to that later, but along with my years of expertise gathered from writing my column on issues affecting older people, perhaps I can dispel some of the idiotic notions about the health care debate, most of which come from younger people who are grinding axes for the insurance or drug companies, or who are just plain ignorant and believe they will never get sick or old. What is outrageous is that supposedly responsible Republicans remain silent amid the insanity of the kooks.

I don’t think most older people fell for those “death panel” lies. That came from right-wing nuts who are as young as they are ignorant and Republican members of Congress who would just as soon kill Medicare and Social Security, which would kill more of the old. Most older people are not afraid of talking about and planning for their incapacity or death or that of a loved one.

It’s common for hospitals and doctors to ask for and demand to have in their files, a patient’s living will and/or an advance directive. In my late sister-in-law’s community for older people, most of the residents had “DNRs” (Do Not Resuscitate) tacked to their refrigerators in the event they could not speak for themselves.

Most older people I know also have designated friends or children as health care proxies. Most forms for these documents are available online or for little cost. My living will and most others tells doctors and relatives when to pull the plug. Unfortunately, many doctors and relatives are reluctant to have such a responsibility.

Many older people have consulted with and paid good money to lawyers for these end-of-life documents. In one of the health care bills, they could instead consult their physician. Who but ignorant trouble-makers would object and make a death conspiracy out of a section in one of the health care proposals that would authorize Medicare to pay a doctor $75 once every five years to give some advice on these documents and the possible choices? Is the doctor going to order your death for $75?

Who but some ignorant fool would deny a person the information that if he/she or a loved one is suffering from a painful, perhaps terminal illness that hospice or palliative care would be available to deal with pain and suffering?

Did you know that Medicare pioneered in paying for the help of hospice and palliative care for the terminally ill, forcing most insurers to offer the same benefit? Did you know that if you defeat the terminal illness and live, you can get off hospice care without having to give the money back?

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Time magazine, among others, report that older people are surprisingly hostile to what has been wrongfully called “Obamacare.” And many have split with AARP because of its seeming support for the reforms. But I believe that’s because President Obama and the AARP went too long before making it clear what precisely they are for in health reform.

The president’s speech to a joint session of the Congress was typically superb, in setting out his proposals for reforming health insurance. But it’s not simply the health insurance industry that needs reforming; I doubt that’s possible. It’s health care that needs a radical overhaul.

On the morning after his speech, I heard a Michigan woman calling in on a Washington, D.C. radio show. Her insurance premium from Blue Cross/Blue Shield for her family of three was going up 33 percent from $1,000 a month because, she said, “the insurance company was going to be forced to cover pre-existing conditions.” Does anyone believe the insurance industry will agree to lower profits and executive salaries?

What remains on the table, despite Obama’s words, are cumbersome, top-heavy confusing sausages called health care reform ground out by five different committees. Obama made a strong case for liberal, activist government, but a weaker case for a non-profit activist government plan among the insurance choices.

I still don’t know what the president will fight for. Obama has already made unseemly deals with drug companies that will allow them continued profits and power. And the president rarely mentions that what he calls reforms won’t go in effect until 2013 or as late as 2023. Medicare went into effect 11 months after its passage.

As this site has said many times, Medicare for All, which gradually covered all Americans would have been the simplest, most straightforward health care reform. But Obama has said he feared the consequences for the insurance industry and charges of a government take over of health care. But everything I’ve read indicates that most people (and businesses) would give up paying through the nose for their shaky insurance if they had a chance to sign up for Medicare.

I will wager that if Americans were told that health care reform would give them the deal I have - original Medicare plus a private plan – things would be less confusing all around. Ronald Reagan was smart enough to leave Medicare alone, years after denouncing it as socialistic. Even the rabid right would have a more difficult time attacking Medicare as government control of health care. It is. And too many older people and their kids know it and like it.

I always thought it was a mistake to call the reform I favor “single-payer.” Why not call it after one of the most popular health insurance programs we have – “Medicare For All?” I was calling it that in my column as early as a dozen years ago. And Dr. Marcia Angell, then editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, has for years called for the gradual inclusion of all Americans into Medicare.

As I wrote, Medicare’s finances would be enhanced by enlarging and strengthening the risk pool with younger, healthier people (paying taxes and premiums). Otherwise Medicare could die of old age. And that would be a tragedy.

That possibility (if the wingnuts get their chance) and my hope for Medicare For All, brings me to my personal history with health care and Medicare, for I was fortunate to be struck with serious, life-threatening problems after I became eligible for Medicare, which meant I never had to check first to see if I was covered.

On the eve of April Fool’s Day, 2003, just as I had finished a column and was playing solitaire, my right hand suddenly lost control of the mouse. A call to 911, a trip to the emergency room and by morning I had had a partly paralyzing stroke affecting my right side and my speech. Fortunately it was not worse.

I had eight weeks of intensive rehabilitation at a top hospital and was permitted to stay another several weeks because my wife, during one of her frequent trips to and from the hospital, had a serious auto accident and was herself hospitalized.

To sum up: Medicare paid for all our medical bills, supplemented by my wife’s secondary insurance, similar to what is available to all federal employees including members of Congress. Indeed, a range of choices similar to the Federal Employees Health Benefits are what would be offered in one of the bills pending in Congress.

On Valentine’s Day, 2005, came another blow: I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in its early, curable stage. But here was my initial fear: Would the best surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medical Center take on a Medicare patient in his seventies who was partly paralyzed by a stroke?

I learned, to my relief, that the young surgeon, Dr. Stephen Yang, specialized in cases involving older people. There was no question that Medicare would cover the radiation, the chemotherapy, the 12 hours of surgery, the follow-up surgery and every checkup since.

Contrast that with the private Medicare Advantage policies that can nickel and dime you to death even though they make great profits and get $10 billion a year in subsidies from you and me. I reported on a recent position paper by UnitedHealth, recommending that Medicare could save money if patients shop for less expensive care, or consider alternatives to surgery for certain cancers at certain ages.

Rationing, of course, is what helps private insurers earn profits and pay high salaries for their CEOs. Never has Medicare told me, “You’re too old.”

One of the several health care proposals before the Congress comes closest to Medicare for All. It was approved by the Democratic majority on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) without a single Republican vote. It was Senator Edward Kennedy’s bill.

Why didn’t Barack Obama put his actions where his fine words were and tell the Democratic Congress to pass the Kennedy bill?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Helen: Coattails of Time


REFLECTIONS: Trusts

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections When I see allegedly adult people raising hell with government-sponsored health care on behalf of the health insurance companies, I wonder what ever became of the healthy American tradition of distrusting trusts.

Equally troubling is the benign mainstream press, which seems quick to criticize and probe big government while looking the other way at the predatory conduct of  big business. It was not always that way.

Throughout much of American history, there has been a give and take between those who wanted more government and those who wanted less. But in almost every era, there was a uniform distrust of big business, big banks, cartels and great corporations and trusts.

As a young reporter, I (and many in my generation) sought to follow in the footsteps of the great journalists who took on the titans of the Gilded Age in the early 20th century: Upton Sinclair, whose expose of the meat packing industry, The Jungle, helped give us the FDA; Lincoln Steffens, who exposed the political corruption of the Tweed Ring; and Ida Tarbell, whose probe of John D. Rockefeller’s huge trust, the Standard Oil Company, led to its breakup.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt called these reporters “muckrakers,” but while he criticized them he also said, “I hail as a benefactor...every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform or in book, magazine or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in turn remembers that that attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.”

Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, both Republicans, became trust busters using some of these exposes to take on the great oligarchies like U.S. Steel and Standard Oil that were violating the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which prohibited monopolies in restraint of trade. And the muckraking as well as the trust busting led to the stronger, Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914 which is still on the books but no longer enforced. Franklin Roosevelt limited the power of those he called “economic royalists,” with tight regulation.

I came into the Washington scene in 1966 as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press (part of the Knight chain) during a more recent era of muckraking that exposed the behavior of corporations that quite literally were killing people and the environment. One of my early friends, Morton Mintz, then of the Washington Post, challenged the drug company that was about to get FDA approval to sell in the U.S. a drug named thalidomide, an anti-nausea drug for pregnant women.

It had been widely used in Europe. But Mintz learned from a valiant FDA researcher, Frances Kelsey, who was at odds with her agency, that the drug seemed to be causing horribly deformed children in Europe. The U.S. escaped that scourge thanks to Kelsey and Mintz’s reporting.

At about the same time, on Capitol Hill, with encouragement from the activist press, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee used his Judiciary Anti-trust and Monopoly subcommittee, created as a result of the Sherman Act, to investigate and expose the price-fixing and monopolistic practices of the steel, auto and drug industries.

Also in the Senate, Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut brought Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, before his committee to testify in the spring of 1963, a year before her death, and recognized her as the founding mother of the environmental movement. Her books and Ribicoff’s hearings into the chemical industry’s use of pesticides to poison fish and wildlife set the stage for the Endangered Species Act.

I remember going to a press conference to challenge the experts paid by the American Chemical Society who insisted that DDT did not, as Carson proved, threaten the extinction of birds. Eventually, the use of DDT was outlawed.

But Ribicoff’s committee became more famous when muckraker Ralph Nader came before it to challenge the biggest corporation of them all, General Motors, whose car, the rear-engine Corvair, was, as Nader’s book put, Unsafe at Any Speed. When it was learned that GM hired private detectives to tail Nader, the company was taken to the woodshed by Ribicoff. That hearing, and Nader, helped launch what became the consumer movement.

I was in an awkward position, for Nader was anathema in Detroit. But to my paper’s credit, my editors reluctantly agreed that if I were to cover the auto industry from Washington, Nader was part of that story. Besides, I had a great resource for covering the auto industry and the environmental and consumer movements - Senator Philip A. Hart of Michigan who had taken over the Anti-trust and Monopoly Subcommittee when Kefauver died.

Hart was less flamboyant than the tall Tennessean and more gentle, but his style helped him overcome Southern opposition to pass one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation, the Voting Rights Act.

Hart had married into great auto industry wealth but his committee, after a slow start, eventually surpassed Kefauver in investigating the growing concentration of monopoly power in many industries, including autos. One of his investigators, for example, exposed the conspiracy in which GM, Firestone and what is now Exxon combined to kill the electric street cars in many cities to sell more gas-guzzling, tire-using GM buses.

With the help of muckraker Jessica Mitford (The American Way of Death), Hart exposed the fraud, cheating and corruption in the funeral industry. And he sponsored and succeeded in passing the Truth In Packaging Act which today guards consumers against fraudulent claims on packages.

In 1968, after four years of hearings on economic concentration, Hart, a believer in free enterprise, told Mintz, “We tend to forget what antitrust is all about. It is about power - political, social and economic power....What our corporate executives want is not competition...but the anarchy of unrestrained pricing...”

These were times of sixties activism and goaded by congressional investigating committees, Nader and his followers and aggressive consumer reporting, the Justice Department anti-trust division, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, had become more active. Under Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his successors, the division filed complaints against corporations like ITT. But the Nixon presidency and his Attorney General John Mitchell ended that suit under suspicious circumstances. And the Vietnam War took center stage.

Since then, Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and Republicans Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, made big government rather than big business the problem. And the great trusts, in energy, the media, banking, insurance, drugs, health care and technology have become more powerful, more wealthy and more domineering than at any time during the Gilded Age.

When is the last time anyone seriously challenged the concentration of monopoly power in newspapers, television or, for that matter, Microsoft? Who has pursued, with the same vigor as a sex scandal, the role of the insurance and drug companies and their paid-for political allies in corrupting the campaign for true health care reform? Who has challenged the possibility that health care may be better without the powerful insurance companies?

One answer is that the rest of the press merely shrugs when, for example, Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Democrat turned Republican, who became CEO of the drug industry lobby, at $2.5 million, after pushing through the Medicare drug legislation that further enriched the drug companies. Time was that such conflicts of interest were frowned on and even illegal.

One has to go to the blogs or commentators like Rachel Maddow, to learn how the industry millions distorted such issues as health care and climate change. What has happened to the press and most of the television reporters when they fail to get angry or even report and probe, for example, the profits of the five leading health insurance companies last year that ranged from $292 million to nearly $3 billion, and that the salaries of the CEOs ranged from $3 million to $24 million? Surely some of that could have gone to actual health care.

I have seen only one mainstream story on the power of the insurance industry, a lengthy investigative piece by Chad Terhune and Keith Epstein, in the Auust 6 Business Week, which concluded that “the health insurers have already won,” that is, they “have succeeded in redefining the terms of the reform debate to such a degree that no matter what specifics....the insurance industry will emerge more profitable.”

How did they do it? With millions of dollars in campaign contributions, more millions in lobbying, including personal visits with key Democrats and the president, by UnitedHealth’s multimillion dollar a year CEO, Stephen J. Hemsley. And slick television advertising which claims the insurance and drug companies are all for reform.

All of this under the noses of most of the sleepwalking media. I tried for weeks to get the Washington Post’s lead health care reporter, Ceci Connolly, to write an explainer about single-payer; she promised but didn’t keep her word. She was the first to agree to meet with industry leaders at the salons planned by the Post’s publisher but which were scrubbed when other reporters leaked the plan to bloggers.

Perhaps one reason that the mainstream press no longer cares about the power of big corporations, is they are a part of the problem. They make more than decent salaries; their savings plans probably include health insurance and drug company stocks, which were up sharply at word (from Ceci Connolly, among others) that the public option may be off the health care table. And, of course, most of the owners of mainstream media are conservative and one does not bite the hand.

The press (especially television) loves finding and exacerbating conflicts within the political parties without probing the issues themselves. Or reporters will faithfully record lies as simply one side of the story, without saying that the claims are lies. (That’s left to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and liberal blogs.)

Sometimes, as I’ve written here, there is only one side of a story when the source is clearly a nut. And some nuts should be ignored or labeled as kooks. The press coverage confuses the issue, then reports that the issue is confusing.

No wonder, then, that the screamers at health care forums get the coverage. No wonder that the press takes polls that suggest the support for the public option is declining, as if the press coverage wasn’t responsible. Is it any wonder that so many Americans are suckered into believing that the big insurance and drug companies will look after their health coverage better than government?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lois Cochran: Life is Good


REFLECTIONS: Edward M. Kennedy

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections I confess that I did not think much of Ted Kennedy when I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard during his 1962 campaign to win the Senate seat that had been held by his brother, John, who was president.

My Nieman class had met with his brother, Robert who, I felt, was more suited to the job. But Robert had decided to be the attorney general. And I think I wrote that Ted was a Kennedy lite.

How utterly wrong I was became clear when I got to Washington. It was clear to me that Robert, who was in the Senate representing New York, wasn’t the senator Ted was. Indeed, I caught hell from Robert’s press person for a piece pointing out that while Robert was more an executive type, impatient with slower-witted conservative colleagues, Ted was a born legislator. He knew how to listen, argue, make concessions and get things done.

His staff was always top notch, liberal and activist and often I worked with them and the senator I covered, Phil Hart, of Michigan. They were on the same wave-length and gave me many a fine story on the latest efforts by business and conservatives to undermine worker rights, the new Medicare and Medicaid legislation and the consumer movement. On occasion, I visited Ted Kennedy in his office. Nearly always he gave me one of his illegal stash of Cuban cigars.

My best memory, however, was St. Patrick’s Day in 1970. In the summer the year before, Kennedy had driven off a bridge in Chappaquiddick and his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne had drowned. I believed Kennedy when he said he tried to rescue her. But he delayed reporting it and went to his staff instead to concoct a story.

Phil Hart helped me make sense of it. Ted was especially agonized by Robert’s murder, which left Ted the head of their huge family. He caved in, drinking, driving and acting recklessly and almost trying to destroy himself, Hart confided. Ted’s career hit a low point when Senator Robert Byrd took away Kennedy’s leadership position in the Senate. Hart and Kennedy, both Catholics, trusted each other and Hart slowly brought Kennedy back to life.

That led Kennedy to make his return to political life on St. Patrick’s day, and I was one of two reporters who got to spend the day with him – in the adoring crowds in South Boston - that nearly crushed him and me. And during the rides along the Massachusetts Turnpike (Kennedy took the wheel from his driver), his wife of 24 years, Joan was with us. I discovered the pressure she was under to be a Kennedy. I learned to see the Kennedy behind the tabloid nonsense. I came to learn that Ted Kennedy sat at the bedside of his son Patrick, who lost a leg to cancer, and that his other son, Edward Jr., had come close to dying from asthma.

Learning such things gave me an understanding of why Ted Kennedy was as passionate as he was. He easily won re-election in 1970. But I think he would have made a helluva president.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mark Sherman: Paul Simon and Me


REFLECTIONS: American Ignorance

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday. The Reflections archive of of previous essays is here.

I first encountered the abysmal political ignorance of so many Americans during my coverage of the final days of Jimmy Carter’s successful 1976 run for the presidency. That ignorance, I believe, accounts in large part for a society (and the press) that countenances the organized mobs of lumpen proletariat that seek to kill the presidency of Barack Obama.

Make no mistake that’s what they, and their aiders and abettors on radio, television and the right wing of the Republican party are about. I repeat, they’re trying to kill Obama’s presidency, one way or the other.

I was sent by my bureau to South Philadelphia to see if the relatively new issue of abortion was having any effect on the race. A group of Catholic clergymen meeting in Washington had criticized Carter on the issue and embraced the Republican incumbent, President Ford.

I stationed myself inside a coin-operated laundry, across from a prominent church and school, to talk to Catholic women who were doing their wash and waiting for their kids to get out of school. To cut to the chase, fully half these women did not know – in late October – who was running for president. Nor did they care.

The experts I talked to as I prepared my story were not surprised. They made excuses; people are too busy with kids, house, plumbing problems tp pay attention. Such people are discounted by the political canvassers. And pollsters, asking about, say Afghanistan, did not bother to ask if the voter knew where that country was. Indeed, even now the polls don’t reflect the ignorance of the people who answer these polls. I doubt if these hooligans know much of anything.

It’s not only beleaguered working people who are politically ignorant. I have it on good authority that at one time – years before we got into a war in the Middle East – a copy desk person at the Wall Street Journal was heard to ask, “Hey, what’s our style, Iran or Iraq?”

On a bus during one campaign, a political reporter for a major publication wrote that Harry Truman gave them hell in his 1948 race with Dwight Eisenhower. A foreign affairs reporter for a prominent publication once asked me who Dag Hammarskjold was. When I explained that he was the second secretary general of the United Nations, and was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1961, the reporter said, “Well that was before my time.” I muttered, “So was Abe Lincoln.”

These may be isolated incidents, but they represent an ignorance among my press colleagues that I have encountered and am encountering still. How many reporters continue to write about the imminent crisis in Social Security without knowing how Social Security works? And now, I’ll bet that most reporters covering the White House can’t explain what’s in the health reform bills moving through Congress, so they can counter the garbage they’re hearing.

Nor are they looking beyond the inane questions about Obama’s birth to understand and probe the links between the birthers and the mobocracy seeking to lynch the health care bills and their supporters. At this writing, neither the Washington Post nor The New York Times, nor any White House reporter has gone after this story the way Rachel Maddow has.

But it’s the dangerous ignorance of the mobs that worry me most. One mob, for example confronted, threatened and yelled epithets at Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, the longest-serving member of Congress. How dare they?

I doubt if they knew that Dingell, a life-long member of the NRA, has also been a champion of the auto industry. His father was a great New Dealer who gave us the National Labor Relations Act. And Dingell, who took his father’s seat, has been trying for years to win universal health insurance. But what does a mob know? Especially when the press doesn’t itself know, or bothers to confront the mob with the truth.

As a result, the lies take hold. Imagine. The right-wing talkers call Obama a fascist, when they are encouraging the brown shirts of today. I doubt if any of these goons in the mobs even know what fascism, socialism or even Nazism is. I doubt if they know who fought in World War II.

Comedian Bill Maher has called the country “stupid.” I think ignorant is more accurate, although such ignorance produces stupidity. How else can one explain opposition to a perfectly reasonable (if too complicated) attempt at guaranteeing all of us (as well as them), access to quality health care.

Says Maher, 34 percent of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11. Nearly a third of Republicans don’t believe Obama was born in the U.S. More than two-thirds of Americans don’t know what’s in Roe v. Wade. Twenty-four percent could not name the country we fought in the revolutionary war.

Sarah Palin and many of the 2008 Republican presidential candidates doubted Darwin because, Gallup found, 60 percent of Republicans believe God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, and the poll found that 18 percent of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth.

Such ignorance, which leads to stupidity, makes them suckers for any charlatan or demagogue. Their Republican allies would kill Medicaid and Social Security. Yet they yell, “Keep government out of my Medicare.” They lose jobs and apply for unemployment insurance, part of the Social Security system, and denounce taxes and government without having the faintest idea of what taxes pay for. They are easily turned into a mob by agents working for insurance and drug companies, as Maddow has reported, and they don’t even catch on.

Many of them, alas, are white men who can’t come to terms with their racism. And Glenn Beck goads the mob (and makes a hefty salary) by fantasizing the poisoning of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I think he should be arrested and charged with threatening her life. Such overt threats are not protected speech. His vicious words falling on the mottled mind of an ignorant, stupid and racist oaf are dangerous. Some of them have already killed.

So, when will responsible Republicans and the press, with the kind of reporting, probing and editorializing that seems reserved only for the sex lives of politicians or the death of rock stars, quit shrugging and call a halt to this assault on our country?

EDITORIAL NOTE: Tomorrow is a special celebration at Time Goes By. Then on Wednesday, there will be a pre-August 20 post with information about Elders For Health Care Reform Day on Thursday. If you don't yet know what that is, see these two posts here and here.

Until then, you can warm up with Saul's Gray Matters column in Newsday from Saturday titled, Don't Fear Health Care Reform.


At The Elder Storytelliing Place today - Jeanne Waite Follett: Dear William


REFLECTIONS: Cronkite

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Have I told you about the time I made a bit of a fool of myself on a Walter Cronkite news broadcast? Recalling the incident, after all the deserving praise for Mr. Cronkite, affords me an opportunity to vent on the state of television news since he and his contemporaries left the news broadcast business.

On August 9, 1974, the day Richard Nixon left office to escape an impeachment trial, Mr. Cronkite expanded his evening news telecast to stay on the air far into the night, to report on and explore the meaning of this wild, unprecedented day. And I was one of his guests.

My colleague, Bill Vance, and I had been covering the investigation and hearings that led to an impeachment resolution passed by the House Judiciary Committee. I covered that by day for the then Knight Newspapers. But on weekends, I traveled with then vice president Gerald Ford, who I knew well because I covered him for one of the Knight Newspapers, the Detroit Free Press. Ford was from Michigan and was the House Republican leader when he was nominated to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew as vice president.

I had become convinced from my reporting that Nixon was on his way out as president and Ford would replace him. Few of the New York literati believed it would happen. But Lewis Lapham at Harper’s agreed to let me write a profile of Ford. It became a cover piece that hit the newsstands when Nixon quit, just as the nation, and Mr. Cronkite, wanted to know who the new president was.

I was invited on his broadcast that night to report what I knew about the new president, Jerry Ford. I was invited only because luck and my news sense enabled me to become one of the few reporters who knew about Ford. Good journalism is often a matter of good timing.

My family, who watched from home, told me later that I did a good job with my 15 minutes of fame but for one slip. During our conversation, Mr. Cronkite called me “Mr. Friedman.” Without thinking, I called him “Walter.” That was because everyone called him “Walter,” but even now it seems disrespectful because he was not merely avuncular, but oracular. He was the bringer of the world they way it was, as he said. And I felt honored to be recognized by him.

Here’s the point: I was invited on his broadcast not as some cockamamie “analyst,” but as a reporter who knew his subject and had the credentials to report on that subject. I told him and the nation what I had learned during eight years of covering Ford. And during that historic day (and others before and since) Mr. Cronkite and his contemporaries were credible because they were first of all reporters who knew what the heck they were talking about. And it came across.

That’s what made him and them (Roger Mudd, Eric Sevareid, Daniel Schorr, among others) the best in the news business, television and otherwise. I grew up with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, on NBC, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith, on ABC, all of whom were former reporters. And that background in honest-to-God basic reporting, I believe, is what is lacking now.

Let me interject: I have been a reporter for most of my career; I used to say that a journalist is a reporter who owns his/her own typewriter. Journalist is the generic; he or she could be an essayist (Didion), a philosopher (Camus) or crusader (Upton Sinclair; Ida Tarbell). A reporter more specifically, investigates, examines, analyzes and conveys the facts and truth of the matter as honestly, accurately and fairly as possibly.

I once worked with Dan Rather when he was reporting on drive-time radio from the city room of my paper, The Houston Chronicle, which owned the station. He asked us to type so that listeners would hear that in the background. He won his initial television fame covering and reporting on a hurricane and like Mr. Cronkite and the others I mentioned, Rather wrote his own stuff.

Rather’s contemporaries, like Peter Jennings, was a former reporter. Barbara Walters, became a good reporter as I discovered when we reported on Jimmy Carter’s transition to the presidency. There is no shortage of fine reporters who have done great work on television: Lesley Stahl, Morley Safer, the late Ed Bradley, Harry Reasoner and Andy Rooney, among those who have made 60 Minutes work since 1979, were reporters all.

Now, one of Rather’s successors, Katie Couric, who always wanted to be a serious reporter, is improving all the time as she demonstrated when she eviscerated Sarah Palin. Tom Brokaw did reporting before he became a thoughtful anchor and Brian Williams can do just fine, despite his good looks, if he’ll just sit still.

They do best, not by walking around glitzy sets with multimedia graphics and screens split ten times over with crawls and sub-crawls. What’s wrong with a knowledgeable person sitting at a desk explaining what he/she believes we ought to know? Why do I have to enter the gimmick called, The Situation Room?

Anderson Cooper, who demonstrated his reporter’s instincts during Katrina, comes closest to the model I prefer, although why does cable go on ad nauseam with the most insignificant trivia? Is Michael Jackson still dead? Why does one program call on participants to take off their ties? Why do so many cable anchors have such perfect hair?

Call me a chauvinist, but I don’t think anyone with life experience takes seriously some of the cute blondes who were born the day before yesterday and are reading from a teleprompter what someone else has written.

This shikse-syndrome, has kept ace reporters such as Andrea Mitchell from an anchor desk along with Candy Crowley who I knew first as a fine, aggressive radio reporter for the AP. Candy has been one of the best political reporters on CNN. Margaret Warner, who worked for years reporting foreign affairs for a news magazine, and Judy Woodruff, who covered the White House during my time there, are outstanding on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. They have in common their reporting experience.

Finally, I admire (and know) David Gergen, who speaks rationally, quietly and with authority and knowledge from varied White House experiences and has become one of the best and less predictable analysts on CNN.

But why do we have a parade of “analysts,” some of whom are surreptitiously paid and many of whom are predictably grinding their own axe? I fault more liberal types like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow for bringing guest analysts most of whom serve as agreeing echo chambers. Even worse and unforgivable are programs that gives a platform for the insane antisemitic, anti-black rants of a Nazi sympathizer like a Pat Buchanan (whom Ronald Reagan considered too far-out).

If newspapers survive (and I believe they will), it will be because thinking people can no longer stomach the likes of Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly or Karl Rove.

When Mr. Cronkite died, many who praised his singular work mourned that he was part of another era that can never be again. Why not? That’s like singing the praises of the reporter you’ve forced to retire and replace with one less qualified.

What may be refreshing is a return to Mr. Cronkite’s strength and style in someone with gravitas and life experience, giving us professional, careful, accurate reporting and even commenting on the news with the help of reporters on the ground who know what they’re talking about. He or she does not have to be handsome or beautiful or entertaining, just real. It could work.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joanne Zimmerman: The Kid


REFLECTIONS: Botswana

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.


Category_bug_reflections An old and dear friend, wishing us well on our travels, told my wife and me, “You’re remarkable.” I knew what she really meant. Our rabbi told members of his congregation of our plans and they nodded as he blessed our trip. We understood why.

They were indulgent, but they thought we were crazy to be planning such a trip at our age and wondered if we’d survive. My wife, Evelyn, told me, “Well what age should we go? If not now, when?”

So we went this summer on a two-week African safari to celebrate our 80th year, among other things, in a place like nowhere else on earth, the vast Okavango Delta of Botswana. So instead of my customary “reflections,” this is a loving travelogue about a magical place, why we went and with whom, for we acknowledge that we are not foolhardy (else we would not have made it to 80) and could not have done this alone.

I may have mentioned that I’ve spent considerable time in South Africa as a reporter. My wife and lived there and traveled the region for five months in 1996-7 when I was teaching young journalists in South Africa how to pursue their craft in the freedom of their new democracy. And when we could, we spent days in the bush with the amazing animals and birds that inhabit this continent.

Much of the bush is flat, sandy, dry and dotted with brush, the thorny acacia, and umbrella trees that don’t grow high. There are no forests and certainly no lush, jungles (indeed, a lion couldn’t survive in a jungle.

But drive through this rather ordinary land and suddenly it’s alive with a couple of grazing giraffes raising their heads, a herd of elephants at a water hole, a dozen zebras, hundreds of the graceful and delicate impala, the most common of the antelope, chattering troops of baboons, wildebeest crossing the road, hippos in the rivers, water buffalo and, if you’re lucky, a lion and a solitary leopard. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Elephants2

During the months we lived in Johannesburg, we had neither the time nor the money to visit the special place called the Okavango in Botswana, one of Africa’s most prosperous and best-run democracies, just north of South Africa. A former British protectorate, you may know of Botwana now as the home (in the capital, Gabarone) of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The books, incidentally, will give you a good idea of the grace and charm of the people of Botswana, and their veneration of those of us who have achieved age.

Botwana is rich because of its diamonds, but also because the Okavango has become a great attraction for travelers from all over the world. It is the only place where the rivers, full from the rains and flowing from the west do not empty into the sea. Rather, they simply stop and flood the great Kalahari desert forming a vast delta of islands, lagoons and clear water swamps. And during a few months of Botswana’s winter, southern Africa’s animals come to the waters and grasses and reeds to drink, hunt and mate.

Lioness3

In too many private game reserves in Africa, the animals are accustomed to coming at certain times to the viewing places, where sight-seers can have a drink and take their photos. The Okavango, on the contrary, is a place to be with these creatures where they live on their terms. And it’s a birder’s paradise, starting with the lovely national bird, the lilac-breasted roller and the huge red-headed crowned hornbill.

When Evelyn and I were younger we would have camped out in tents in relatively safe camp areas, close to the animals. That was out of the question this time. Indeed, a South African journalist friend, who knows about my partly paralyzed right side, warned us that even luxury camping would be too rigorous for just the two of us.

But one day last year, while I was going on about my hope to see the delta, a son-in-law suggested he and my younger daughter could go with us to help. By and by, another daughter and her husband joined us. Eventually we numbered eight including two grandchildren, 17 and 20. And I took charge of the planning.

Wholegang2

It was a good thing that it took a year to put the trip together for it made paying easier. And truly, aside from the transatlantic air fares, the costs of the camps were reasonable and it included light planes to take us to each of the three bush camps we chose.

Unless you can camp out in your own tents, the best way to visit the delta is to stay for a couple of days at each of the various camps, to explore the different features of the delta’s terrain, the waters, the Kalahari, the animals and the birds.

With the help of a South African friend in the travel business, and for our sake and the comfort of our family, we chose the services of Desert & Delta, which has been doing business in Botswana since 1982 and owns and runs some of the best camps in the delta. We chose three, Moremi and Savute, within the country’s vast national parks, and Shinde in a private reserve. Each of the three was unique and all were tastefully tucked into the environment, without disturbing trees, animals or birds.

The routine for seeing the animals and birds is the same at every camp I’ve visited - up at 6AM for a cup of coffee or tea, then a four hour game drive atop a high Toyota Land Cruiser that can negotiate three or four feet of water, if necessary. Then lunch and siesta, high tea at 3PM and at 3:30 until dark, an evening game drive.

I worried on the first drive out of Moremi that the family might not see the sights I’ve seen. I needn’t have been concerned. First the impala (there are more of them, two million, than there are people in Botswana), stately giraffe (did you know they must spread their legs so they can get a drink?), baboons, warthogs (so ugly, they’re cute), then a sight that left everyone gaping - a pride of six or eight lions, running towards us in the shallow water, brushing past our vehicle heading for dry land and the tall grass where they like to hide.

Leopard2

The following morning we came on a leopard lounging on a dead tree limb just outside camp and four young lions reuniting with their mothers who had been out hunting. And on the afternoon-evening drive, called a sundowner, our Botswana guide/tracker/driver, Mod, promised us elephants and we found them, moving through the tall grass like mountains.

The sundowners end with drinks – soft or hard - and watching the sun disappear on the far horizon of the land so distant, I swear you can almost see the curvature of the earth.

Elephant2

At Savute, I took a shower on a warm afternoon and watched a dozen or so elephants drinking and washing in the pool a few yards away. They had chased away a herd of wildebeast but allowed impala and other antelope to share the waters.

That morning, Evelyn and I slept in but the six others had their eyes filled with animals and birds. They watched a leopard that had just hung her kill – an impala – in a tree for safe keeping. Her cub was hidden nearby. On the sun downer, we watched while a male lion tried to get it on with his mate–about four times in the hour.

And on the last night at Shinde, which is surrounded by water and the guide can go off-road because it’s in a private reserve, we watched silently a hungry female leopard as she stalked a reedbuck, one of the many varieties of antelope. The full moon came up early, to light the scene. A large striped antelope called a kudu, too large for the leopard, watched out for the reedbuck. And two elephants lumbered unhurriedly in the distance.

That night an elephant awakened my daughters and came within a few feet of their tents to shake the fruit from a date palm. And a staff member reported that a hippo, one of the most dangerous animals, wandered through the camp. Animals do not fear the vehicles, but if you should be foolish enough to get out, the animals will either run or charge.

Did I mention that the meals - breakfast, lunch, high tea and dinner - were outstanding - four or five star - with fresh fruit and vegetables in abundance along with roast kudu at one meal?

And because, as I said, age is venerated, Evelyn and I were treated as celebrities, with a great deal of deference, at each camp with staff and guides (who outnumbered the 22-24 guests) helping us over the rough spots. It’s difficult to walk with a cane and a gimpy leg over a path strewn with fresh elephant dung. It had a strangely pleasant, but pungent odor and disclosed the elephant’s vegetarian diet. Did you know that except for the cats and other predators, all the animals are vegans?

On the last day at Shinde, at the end of the safari, there was a surprise. Evelyn and I were taken by boat through the waters flanked by tall reeds and grasses to an island in the delta where, in honor of our 80th year - and other family observances - the staff had set up a formal lunch among the trees with napkins, silver, china and wine for us and the rest of the guests. Our age, it turned out, had its privileges.

We stopped for our sundowner at a great, gnarled boabab tree that may have been 1,000 years old. On the way back to camp, we stayed out after dark because the guide was searching for a lion whose roar he heard. But we only saw, in the guide’s spotlight, a group of wildebeest and warthogs huddled for safety, and a hyena.

Saul2


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson: The Recital.


REFLECTIONS: The First Amendment

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Having been in the news business for most of my life, I am a First Amendment absolutist. I believe that the framers of the First Amendment intended it to be the first addition to the new Constitution because they thought it was that important. Read in its entirety, it is the heart and soul of the unique American right of revolution. It separates thought from theocracy and guarantees the right to express those thoughts, and rally others to peaceful action.

Thus, I believe the First Amendment means exactly what it says - "Congress shall make NO law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." And that has been taken to mean that no jurisdiction, state or local, may shut us up without real and just cause, like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

But my fundamentalist support of the First Amendment has been a bit shaken, to say the least, when I hear the speech of Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin and the other political mouths who call themselves journalists.

I can hear you saying, why are you picking on right-wingers? Well, the left-wingers, like Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow are critical of conservatives, Republicans and the right-wing talkers but they are not vicious or haters and they do not make their living by deliberately inciting people to play out their anger, often in a dangerous ways.

Nor am I criticizing conservative pundits and anchors working for outfits like Fox News, any more than I am supporting more liberal commentators for MSNBC; neither are fair and balanced, although the Fox News people pretend to be.

They are part of the news business and throughout American history, the nation has enjoyed a vigorous, and sometimes infuriating give and take between right and left. Our greatest presidents, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were ridiculed by the contemporary press even during wartime.

I wish reporters were better at their jobs; they are too often uninformed and without purpose. As a veteran and experienced reporter who learned my craft through formal education and practiced it from the ground (the police beat) up (the White House), I was trained and subjected to editing that insisted on fairness and accuracy. So I could criticize the talkers as not real journalists.

But the First Amendment protects the rights of any citizen, not just those of us with press credentials. The speeches of entertainers passing as journalists is "protected speech," whether we like it or not. Indeed, with the internet and the proliferation of blogging, who is to say what or who is a journalist?

But "free" speech does not mean the same as "license." There are limits to what I can write, such as laws against libel and civil statutes protecting against slander. And there may be consequences, even when taking advantage of the First Amendment.

For example, while the amendment also guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances," Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed for violating local laws limiting that right; he was, indeed, disturbing the peace. Dr. King understood that was the price one paid for an act of civil disobedience. So there may be a price for taking the First Amendment as a license to say anything about anyone.

Should there be a price, some consequences for Bill O'Reilly's repetitious rant against Kansas abortionist, Dr. George Tiller? At least two-dozen times on his Fox television talk show, O'Reilly, attacked Tiller with incendiary language, accusing him of being a "baby killer," who "will execute babies for $5,000," and "has killed thousands of babies...without explanation."

It might have been an act of journalism to find out if there was an explanation, but O'Reilly did nothing of the kind. Without "the other side of the story," someone may have taken O'Reilly at his word: "If we allow Dr. George Tiller...to continue..." I don't know if O'Reilly's words caused action. Tiller's killer hasn't said. But incendiary language with implied calls for illegal action, some of it based on lies or half-truths, is not always protected speech, as we shall see.

Glenn Beck predicted without reason that President Obama is building "concentration camps," and that "we might be heading toward a totalitarian state." I don't know if Glenn Beck's baseless ranting that President Obama was going to "take away your guns," led Richard Poplawski to kill three Pittsburgh police officers who, he believed, were trying to confiscate his weapons. Poplawski, a white supremacist, had come to believe Obama was planning to crack down on gun ownership.

I think it ominously important that these recent killings, including the one at the United States Holocaust Museum that was perpetrated by an admittedly disturbed individual, James von Brunn, who was an obsessed, white racist who hated Obama and Jews. And racism, which still infects this nation, has played a major role in the unusually vituperative and personal attacks on Obama that the talkers have encouraged.

In South Carolina, a prominent Republican figure suggested Michelle Obama is the daughter of a gorilla. Another Republican joked that Obama will tax aspirin tablets "because it's white and works." Such incidents, along with the usual non-apologies, have become too numerous to list.

It's true such speech, however stupid and nasty, is protected by the First Amendment. But it is intended to provoke more racism and hatred toward government and the law. So at the very least, one would think that these strict constructionist conservatives, like George Will, David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer, would condemn such racism, such incendiary and dangerous lies.

Do they believe that Obama is at once a socialist, communist and fascist? Or that he was not born in the United States? When Fox News commentator Shepard Smith, alone among conservatives, ventured some doubts about the "amped up" people who are "getting their guns out," he was inundated with vicious insults, many racially charged. Rather, there were howls of protest from the paranoid right when a Department of Homeland Security report accurately predicted an increase in far right extremism.

Did you hear any conservative object when Limbaugh joked that men in uniform, given only two bullets, would use them on Nancy Pelosi? If the worst happens, where will the blame lie?

One of the most prominent Supreme Court decisions supporting the First Amendment right of free speech, in 1969, involved one Clarence Brandenburg, an Ohio Ku Klux Klan leader who was convicted in 1966, of advocating violence in violation of the state law against "criminal syndicalism," a catch-all, anti-communist statute.

He had denounced "niggers," "Jews," and called for "revegeance," and a march on Washington. The liberal Supreme Court of Chief Justice Earl Warren overturned his conviction on the grounds that the criminal syndicalism law "violated the First Amendment...because it broadly prohibited the mere advocacy of violence rather than the constitutionally unprotected incitement to imminent lawless action." [Emphasis added].

Let me repeat, as the case was summed up in the law books. "...government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless it is directed to inciting and likely to incite imminent lawless action." O'Reilly, Beck and others would deny they intended such things. But I'll bet the Law and Order DAs could find a way to prosecute.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: Tree House


REFLECTIONS: 1970

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Does anyone remember when a president and his cronies tried to take our Independence Day from us? It happened on July 4, 1970 and I was there.

That was the year when the era, the values and the spirit known as the Sixties reached its climax – for good and for ill. The Beatles broke up, but protest, the stuff of freedom and democracy, was in the air. So was caring, for lives, for the future, for peace and for the earth.

On April 21, with the sainted Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin leading the way, the nation celebrated its first Earth Day and the environmental movement came of age. But less than a month later, on May 4, four students were killed and others wounded at Kent State University, by the jittery members of the Ohio National Guard sent by Republican governor, James A. Rhodes, to quell a campus protest with loaded rifles. What happened was inevitable.

You must remember the photo of a young woman, Mary Vecchio, screaming over the body of a fallen student, Jeffrey Miller.

KentState1970

The kids at Kent State, as well as students on other campuses, were protesting Richard Nixon’s decision to widen the Vietnam conflict with the unauthorized bombing of Cambodia and an invasion of Laos, which revealed that U.S. forces had been secretly fighting – and dying – in Laos in violation of the law.

Following the Kent State massacre, campuses everywhere exploded with angry, shocked protest; even the kids at my daughter’s middle school walked out. And thousands descended on Washington in some of the largest protests ever seen in the capital. Richard Nixon, who couldn’t sleep came out of the White House in the early morning to talk to students camping near the Reflecting Pool.

The students reported that the president seemed high on drugs and spoke to several of the protesters not about why they were there, but about the surfing near the western White House in California.

Anyway, as July 4 neared, there was fear in the White House and among supporters of the war that Americans might mark Independence Day by protest or by petitioning their government to hear and pay mind to their grievances. Imagine! Free speech, dissent, on the day the nation celebrates a revolution? That could not be.

And so, the Rev. Billy Graham and comedian Bob Hope, two of the nation’s most eminent cheerleaders for the war and for Richard Nixon and his “silent majority,” agreed to co-sponsor their substitute for Independence Day. It was called “Honor America Day, ” as if it dishonored America to honor the First Amendment.

The same White House cabal that was already at work against the anti-war movement in an illegal effort that became Watergate, helped organize Honor America Day to give aid and comfort to Nixon, his thieving vice-president, Spiro Agnew, and to charge that the millions opposed to the war were subversive and un-American.

Veterans organizations, Republican groups, religious types, the Boy Scouts and other professional patriots called thousands to the Washington Mall near the Lincoln Memorial. I doubt if they knew much about the union Lincoln saved. Only a few visited the nearby memorial to Thomas Jefferson who gave us the right of revolution and whose words are inscribed above his statue: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Billy Graham gave the keynote address and noted that Nixon, from his White House window could see the crowd. “That’s the one nice thing about America, “ Graham said. ”You can get a crowd like this together without a football game and what a gathering.”

July 4 that year fell on a Saturday and I was pulling the weekend duty at the Knight Newspapers Washington bureau. It fell to me to do a story on the gathering, but I needed a fresh angle.

What I did was circulate a phony petition seeking signatures from people in the crowd. I told people I represented a group called The Sons of Liberty, and I showed them the petition which read something like this:

PETITION

“As the Declaration of Independence says, the people have certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed. We believe that whenever any government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and form a new government that will provide these rights. Please join in our appeal.”

I left spaces for people to sign, but couldn’t get more than two or three signatures. Most of the dozens of people I approached were suspicious that I was some kind of anti-war activist. I assured them that was not my purpose and still most refused on the grounds that, “it sounds subversive. I’m not for overthrowing the government.”

When I told them that the petition simply echoed the words of the Declaration of Independence, some were embarrassed, others just shrugged but still declined to sign; “I don’t sign petitions,”they said. On this Independence Day, people were afraid to sign a petition.

But I remember most clearly an encounter with a young civics teacher from the Midwest who had brought with him a number of his students. They were gathered about us when I asked the teacher if he would sign my petition. He read it carefully and refused, telling me, “I can’t agree with that.” I told him and his students, “The words and ideas come from the Declaration of Independence.”

I showed him the relevant passage from a copy of the Declaration. “You tricked me,” he said. His students laughed at his discomfort. But I think he learned something. And I had a story.

Fortunately, Honor America Day died with that day. From then on, Washington got back its Independence Day with all the bells, whistles, music and fireworks on the Mall, as John Adams intended. Unfortunately, the killing in southeast Asia went on for five more years.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today: Nancy Leitz: The Ring.


REFLECTIONS: On the Newspaper Business

[AND THE WINNER IS: If I had my way (and more money), I would send Dr. Robert Butler's book, The Longevity Revolution, to everyone who asked and to every member of Congress too.

Alas, that is not possible. The winner of the single copy I have available, the fifteenth person to send an email, is - DRUM ROLL - Alan Stewart who lives in Hong Kong. Alan, it will be on its way to you today or tomorrow. - Ronni]


[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

I figure my 55 years as a reporter, correspondent and columnist for just three newspaper organizations qualify me to put in my two bucks on the future of the business. And I do believe, in spite of the obituaries, that newspapers, the kind you hold in your hand or spread out on the table or floor, will survive and even prosper.

Maybe I’ve told you this before, but it’s worth repeating: when television was coming of age, many newspapers so feared it that they would not accept or publish the programming schedules. Now, whether you know it or not, television, especially the news programs, depend on newspapers and newspaper reporters.

Writers and producers for CNN or MSBC or the network news shows would not know what the news is without first consulting the morning papers. And they would not know what to think without reading the major columnists. This is not to say these papers and columnists get things right. But we’ll get to that.

First, here is a systemic problem that did not exist through much of my career: The public ownership of newspapers. For example, I worked for a number of years for what was then, Knight Newspapers, which later merged with the Ridder Newspapers and became Knight-Ridder, one of the largest American chains that included The Detroit Free Press, The Charlotte Observer, The Miami Herald and the flagship >e,>Akron Beacon-Journal, among others. The Philadelphia Inquirer was added.

But when I was a Washington correspondent, the Knight papers, the Inquirer and the Ridder papers in Minnesota had been family owned. The Ridders were conservative; Walter Annenberg, who owned the Inquirer was so imperious, he banned from his paper news of one of Philadelphia’s teams. And he was a great friend of Ronald Reagan.

Jack Knight, on the other hand, was feisty and liberal-minded and my favorite publisher because he was among the first to editorialize against the Vietnam War for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. He had never forgotten the death of his son in World War II.

The point I am making is that these papers, often reflecting their owners and often not, were independent citizens. They were the personification, for good or ill, of A.J. Liebling’s observation that freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one. Then came what a former editor of mine, Davis “Buzz” Merritt, called Knightfall, which was the title of his book.

That’s when Knight-Ridder Newspapers and most others went public, offering stock on the New York Stock Exchange. Others have followed: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the McClatchy papers – all of which had been family owned and run.

Let me confess that I led the campaign at Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau to get an early crack for us peons to buy the stock. And many of my colleagues and I made good money on that stock over the years.

What none of us realized is that as Merritt put it, the brand of relatively independent, reporter-editor oriented, public-service journalism would be undermined by a focus on profit margin and stock price.

One of the dozens of editors who left Knight-Ridder in disgust or buyouts told Merritt, “I became an editor because I wanted to do journalism, but now it’s about the bottom line.” That is to say, it’s about Wall Street’s bottom line. It wasn’t good enough for newspapers to be profitable, they had to increase profit margins; they could not allow earnings to drop in any quarter or the stock would drop. Wall Street analysts, said one writer, focused not on the quality of the paper or its content or the coverage of important events, but on “the quality of a newspaper company’s financial reports.”

David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, creator of HBO’s The Wire and Homicide, recently told a Senate committee hearing on the future of journalism:

“My industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered free market logic that has proved so disastrous...The original sin of American news papering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place. When locally-based, family-owner newspaper like the Sun were consolidated into publicly-owned newspaper chains. An essential trust between journalism and the communities served was betrayed.”

He noted angrily, that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly 100 editors and reporters when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. Indeed, at Knight-Ridder and Newsday, editors were told the papers had to return at least ten percent on investment. When it didn’t, Knight Ridder was dismembered by Wall Street raiders and sold to McClatchy, which sold off its unionized papers. The House that Jack Knight built was gone and so was its talent.

When The Los Angeles Times owned The Baltimore Sun, it also owned Newsday, which had expanded into New York City. But the CEO of Times-Mirror Corp. a former cereal company executive, closed it to drive up the price of the company’s stock for the spoiled heirs of the former owners.

It worked for a while, but the Times-Mirror sold itself and its holdings to the once-family owned (Chicago) Tribune, and real estate player and publisher wannabe, Sam Zell, who sold Newsday to Cablevision, which owns Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks. It earned $1.9 billion last year, up $200 million from the earlier year. But it continues to shrink Newsday’s content and staff rather than build it. And the once proud Sun, of H.L. Mencken, which once sent correspondents across the world, is but a shadow of a newspaper. Its staff is down from 400 to 150 and it is dying. Who suffers? Baltimore.

As one result of what’s happening to newspapers, the best and most experience reporters, editors and writers have left, or were forced into buyouts (as I was) and the recession only hastened the exodus. One day these newspapers will want the talent they lost. But my colleagues left daily journalism to retire or teach or blog.

Simon has no love for even the most successful blogs. He told the Senate committee, “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will be confident that we have actually reached some sort of balance” with online journalism. If not a newspaper, who will cover the cop shop, the schools, the courts? Who is to keep public officials honest?

I despair when I think of the great reporters and writers I’ve worked for and with who have left newspapers to teach or, in one case, raise bees. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I don’t think that some kid in his or her twenties, who is great at texting or twittering, should be my newspaper’s authority on finance, the Middle East or the wars this country is fighting.

Only a few reporters saw the reasons for Iraq war as lies. There is no short-cut to experience. Indeed, the rise of the good, aggressive blogs, websites critical of journalism like Media Matters testify to the shortcomings of mainstream, corporate journalism where newspapers worry about the bottom line more than the story and young reporters worry more about their careers.

And yet, when this recession ends we’ll see more clearly, there is no substitute for a newspaper with solid reporters and editors to watch over your town or the country or its relations with the rest of the world, where newspapers are flourishing. No online service can keep watch over a city councilman, a member of Congress or a president the way an honest, aggressive newspaper can.

In sports we look to newspapers to tell us what we saw when our favorite team won. We want to know how and why, as well as whom, what and when. Television can’t or won’t analyze or critique the new production of King Lear or the pianist we heard.

The best newspapers in each city will survive because there is no real substitute for a certain segment of the population, mostly older people - and most everyone will grow older. I read the other day that newspapers like The New Orleans Times-Picayune has a steady readership of 50.4 percent of the adult population, or 85 percent, if you include the reach of the web; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 41.6 percent and 65 percent; Indianapolis Star, 40 percent and 77.8 percent.

We have become a nation divided between readers and watchers. The watchers prefer television and computer games and the top of the news, if any news at all. The readers are a smaller but more wealthy and influential group, people who are active in community affairs, who support the arts and help run the town. They will continue to be the core readers of newspapers for they understand their lives and their fortunes depend on the depth of knowledge only a daily newspaper is equipped to provide – if it will.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Frank M. Calabria: Playing Monster and Hunting Mosquitoes.


REFLECTIONS: On Turning 80

Before Saul gets started on his column here today - which also concerns birthdays - I would like to announce that one of the oldest readers of Time Goes By, Leah Aronoff, turns 91 years old today. She does not blog, but has contributed several stories and poems to The Elder Storytelling Place which you can read here. You could also send her a birthday greeting at laronoff[at]fuse[dot]net.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Sybil, I beg to differ with that head you put on your fine piece a few weeks ago, An Octogenerian’s Lament. First of all, I’m not sure I like being called an “octogenerian.” Sounds like a species of plant or a small animal with eight legs.

More important, becoming 80 is not lamentable, which, according to my dictionary, means to “mourn “ or “express sorrow.” And Sybil, you could have written your poem about aging long before your 80th. Some people are ready to throw in the towel at 50.

Mickey Mantle once said, “If I knew I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.” Becoming 80 is not to be mourned but celebrated as an accomplishment. When I told a newspaper colleague, who is Chinese, that I was 80, she had a most delightful and non-American reaction: “Really? That’s wonderful that you have attained that age. Congratulations.”

If the Chinese culture, the oldest on earth, outlasts ours it will be because it venerates age.

In my line of work, competitive journalism, staying up all hours, years of smoking, eating too much, working too hard - I never thought I’d make to 80. Even now, after a serious stroke and a nasty encounter with esophageal cancer, I cannot believe I am 80. I feel well, I’m still getting out my weekly column and an occasional piece for Time Goes By, and I play Free Cell on my computer – as I have since my stroke in 2003, to make sure my marbles are still there.

As I’m fond of saying in my column - and this is reflected in the readers of this blog - today we are younger than our parents were at our age. I’m sure medicine and pharmaceuticals, as well as life style have played roles in this. But I think mobility, the ease of traveling, of buying and driving a car, of getting out to do and see new things have had a lot to do with longevity.

At age 70, Evelyn and I decided to celebrate the millennium by going on an eight-day, camping-out raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It was unforgettable. More than that, we took great satisfaction in having done it, for in a way the trip was like a sip from the fountain of youth. Indeed, we were more active than some of our younger companions, mostly because we were in awe of the canyon (where some of the walls are as old as the earth) while they took things for granted.

This year, in fact starting in this month, Evelyn, who will soon be 80 (but doesn’t believe it), will join me and six members of our family for a mega trip to jointly celebrate that great accomplishment. We lived in South Africa for some months while I was teaching journalism and we fell in love with the bush and the animals. So we are going to a place we wanted to get to, but couldn’t – the Okavango Delta in Botswana (home of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency).

Briefly, the Delta – a series of swamps and Islands - is formed when the rain-swollen rivers from the west flow into and floods the Kalahari Desert. That’s when the animals come by the hundreds to drink, hunt, mate, feed. And we’re going to spend two days, in each of three different safari camps to watch this wonderment. Fortunately, two daughters and strong sons-in-law are coming to help us over the rough spots, if there are any.

We’re doing this because we’re 80 and we can. Some years ago, when we lived in South Africa and we were in our sixties, I encountered a group of British tourists, none under 70, struggling busily through an airport, and I thought then, for the first time, how great that they traveled at their age. Now, I know: Why not? What does age have to do with it? Only health should get in the way.

Which leads me to make a more serious point. Ageism, as this site has made clear, is subtle and bad enough. But when ageism is combined with disability, it’s worse than that. And among my pet peeves are outfits such as AARP and ElderHostel, which are supposed to be age and disability friendly and should know better. But both outfits seem to be catering to younger, more able-bodied boomer types.

I’ve criticized ElderHostel elsewhere because the majority of its programs, especially those that are overseas, are too strenuous for many older people and they make little or no allowance for the disabled person. ElderHostel is a wonderful organization and I have participated in several programs, but that was before the stroke left me unable to walk very far.

ElderHostel will tell you that they will try to accommodate to your needs if you notify them in advance. But wheelchairs are not always available and one gets the idea that disabled people are not encouraged. Many of the programs require a good deal of walking. Unlike the cruise ships, which are wonderfully accommodating towards disabled passengers, most of the ElderHostel programs abroad cannot supply, say, wheelchairs or scooters.

Finally, AARP seems to be an organization for older people who are golf-ready, handsome, happy, white-haired and very able-bodied. Indeed, the AARP magazine and Bulletin usually includes sex-enhancement advertisements. But rarely does the magazine or the Bulletin show really old people. And almost never does the magazine (the latest has Dolly Parton on the cover) show a person with a cane or a walker, much less a wheelchair.

In the past, AARP’s policy was to refuse advertisements depicting disabled older people. Nancy Graham, the magazine editor told me that’s no longer the case, but the only ads I see are relatively young people posing with walk-in showers and stair-climbing chairs. She promised me weeks ago that the blackout of disabled older persons would end. So far, it hasn’t.


REFLECTIONS: War

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections I’ve covered a couple of wars in my reporting days - the 1971 war between Pakistan and India, their second or maybe third, and the 1973 Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli conflict, their third or fourth. I say “covered,” but that’s not possible. All I could see and write about was my small corner of the wars. But that was enough to teach me how little the war makers really know about war.

For example, I watched a dog fight in the sky above Egypt during the Yom Kippur war from the top of an Israeli tank that had crossed the Suez Canal the night before. I couldn’t hear the sounds of the planes above the noise of the tank. But soon one plane, we thought it was the Egyptian, went down and crashed a mile or so away. There were no cheers, but I remember thinking, “someone died.” I wondered, did anybody watching realize that?

I had been called away from a European vacation with my wife and younger daughter to cover the war from the Israeli side. Israel was reeling from simultaneous Syrian and Egyptian invasions. The older daughter was wandering in Israel when the war broke out.

In the states, Watergate was coming to some sort of climax, but I was getting away to Europe because I had helped break the story about Vice President Spiro Agnew’s bribe-taking. Covering the Arab-Israeli War was a welcome change.

But it presented me with a new dilemma, as a Jew. I was driving back from the front in Sinai to Tel Aviv with a colleague from The New York Times when we were stopped by an Israeli convoy. It was carrying portable bridge sections, which meant the Israelis were planning a Suez Canal crossing to flank and surround the Egyptians.

Should we have reported that and killed the Israeli surprise? I doubt if we could have gotten it past the censors, but there was a way. Should we have taken it? We didn’t, for it would have meant a great loss of Israeli lives. As it turned out, the Israelis didn’t attack the Egyptians and at war’s end, Israel had lost territory for the first time. Would I have made the same decision reporting from the Arab side? I hope so.

That’s part of the trouble with modern war. Much of it is remote and surreal, like that silent dogfight. Not until later, when the tank reached the crash, did we see the body; it looked like a mannequin with arms and legs splayed like a stick figure. Even the dead in war often look unreal, undead. From the air or from afar, no one really knows what or who the bomb or rocket or artillery round may be killing.

Maybe that’s what makes it morally easier for Hamas to fire a rocket toward an unseen target, for Israeli planes and mortars to demolish Gaza homes and offices, for American planes to kill innocents in surgical strikes aimed at the Taliban. The dead are unseen; indeed under Jewish law and the Muslim faith, the dead are buried before the investigators can come.

And of course, everyone who was responsible regrets “the loss of innocent life,” as if the deaths of non-innocents are okay.

I am not a pacifist, though I admire a principled pacifist - to a point. Some wars against some enemies need to be fought. But I can’t think of a war that could not have been prevented. One reason I can dig pacifism is because I can no longer distinguish between the innocents and the non-innocents. Today’s innocent is tomorrow’s non-innocent. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the U.S. support Iraq and Saddam Hussein against Iran after we sold arms to Iran, which was before Hussein invaded our innocent sheik friends in Kuwait?

Didn’t Israel encourage the formation of Hamas in Gaza as a fundamentalist Muslim counter to the then hated and decidedly secular Palestine Liberation Organization of Yassir Arafat? I was in Israel in those days and Hamas, which had been scorned in Egypt as too radical, took root with Israeli approval as a kind of community political and service organization.

Now the Palestinian Authority are the good guys, although they are walled off from Israel and their own lands. And Hamas, whose organizing paid off politically, became Israel’s worst enemy and was supposedly the target of a devastating 22-day attack that incidentally killed 1,300 people, including 400 children. Only the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch people who come in later, shuffling among the ruins and smelling death understand what happened, despite the predictable denials.

As long as we’re on the subject of unintended consequences (unintended, perhaps, but easily foreseen), was the U.S. not enthralled with the Taliban when their American-made, shoulder-fired missile-launchers brought down Soviet helicopters killing scores of Russians and running them Russians out of Afghanistan?

I remember American reporters in their bush jackets, singing the praises of the valiant Muhjahadeen fighters. Then they took over a secular government in Afghanistan, smashed ancient monuments, turned the country and its women back to the 13th century and gave cover to Osama Ben Laden. Now we bomb the Taliban and the civilians - killing innocents among the non-innocent with missile strikes with impersonal drones. And we and the Afghans send in investigators with the Red Cross and Human Rights watchers, some of whom had been investigating in Gaza.

Only when I saw war on the ground did I know for sure people died. Not just died; they were torn apart, and then they died. Seeing war up close is what ended the Vietnam tragedy; seeing war up close is what is ending our participation in the Iraq stupidity. That’s the reason the Bush and his other draft dodgers did not want us to see caskets, perhaps because they did not want to see them.

They were far removed from the killing. The writer E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) wrote of George W. Bush in 2004, “I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our 21-year-olds who wanted to be what they could be.” Nor did he suffer the death of the Iraqi, Afghan, Israeli or Palestinian that his policies caused.

I knew death close-up from the other, earlier war, between India and Pakistan in 1971, over the land known as East Pakistan, until it became Bangladesh, thanks to the strength of the Indian Army which had the backing of the then Soviet Union, while the U.S. tilted towards Pakistan. I remember taking cover in a farmer’s field while the Indian and Pakistani artillery traded rounds and I was rooting for the Soviet-made guns.

A few minutes earlier, I had been chatting with three Indian soldiers in a small shack among the trees, comparing our watches. Suddenly, I thought that shack would make a target for a Pakistani gunner and I left. Sure enough, the guns opened fire and I lay between furrows in the field until the firing stopped.

I went back to the shack to find it had been demolished and my three friends were dead, torn apart by shrapnel. But their watches still kept time. Cruel anomalies when allies become enemies and enemies become friends until next time - that’s the absurdity that is war.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Claudia Chyle Smith: The Wedding Gown.


REFLECTIONS: Seeger and Me

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections I don't personally know Pete Seeger and I don't think he knows me. And I doubt that he remembers the couple of times I sang with him. But it's worth remembering and reflecting upon, for the separate histories of Seeger and me represent a certain mellowing in this country towards our kind of radicalism.

I first saw and heard Seeger in the very early forties, when he was making a modest living playing and singing at school assemblies. I don't recall whether he came to my elementary school, P.S. 225, or Abraham Lincoln High School, in Brooklyn. It could have been either for they were both, shall we say, progressive.

My graduation from 225, for example, featured the songs of the Red Army and the Chinese (Communist) National Anthem plus, of course, the Marine hymn. At the Lincoln graduation, we sang "United Nations on the march with flags unfurled...together fight for victory and a brave new world!"

I should say here that in my last year at Lincoln, my good tenor voice got me into the All City High School Chorus which gave a couple of concerts at Brooklyn Tech where we sang, among other things, a special arrangement of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and The Messiah's Hallelujah Chorus.

Anyway, I remember Seeger at the school assembly as a scrawny guy in shirt sleeves with a red nose and a big and bobbing Adam's apple. His banjo was a new sound. And despite the usual student skepticism, he had us singing songs that later made him famous like Michael Row the Boat Ashore. I didn't know it then but that bobbing Adam's apple planted in me a love for folk music.

Much to my regret, the war, World War II, was over by the time I was old enough to get in it. But in our neighborhoods, mostly Jewish Brighton and Manhattan Beach, even the kids on street corners argued about the war and politics. Everyone was at least a left-wing Democrat. And in 1948, when we were still in mourning for Frankly Roosevelt and charging Truman with encouraging a cold war, even my apolitical mother got political, taking me to Philadelphia to the Progressive Party convention that nominated former vice-president Henry Wallace for president.

That's when I got involved in campaigning for the first time and my efforts included Wallace and the incumbent, left-wing congressman from upper Manhattan, Vito Marcantonio, who won his seat as a Republican and switched to the American Labor Party. And it was during one of the rallies for Marcantonio on the streets of East Harlem that I sang on the back of a flatbed truck with Seeger and others, although I do not remember the songs.

About that time, I was working in lower Manhattan for a camera shop and was a member of Local 65, which represented garment industry wholesale and retail workers and had its headquarters at 13 Astor Place. (There's a Starbucks now on the ground floor.) It was, to put it bluntly, the center of left wing, Socialist and Communist, pro-labor activities. And in the bar on the top floor, I became acquainted with labor songs and sang on occasion with an informal group known as the Almanac Singers.

The group had begun in 1940, says Google, with Lee Hays and Seeger playing for left-wing political rallies and labor union events. In 1941, they were joined by the legend, Woody Guthrie, and his songs seem to give them wider appeal.

Guthrie and his sidekick, Cisco Houston, had popularized the works of the New Deal and the songs of the Depression, like Tom Joad. They were also part of what was called the Popular Front, an alliance of liberals, leftists and communists.

They, including Seeger, opposed Roosevelt and his moves towards war until the Soviet Union was invaded in June. That remained an embarrassment for Seeger, a pacifist. Nevertheless, the Almanac songs, which I came to learn - Union Maid, I Don't Want Your Millions Mister, Which Side Are You On - were and still are labor anthems. But to hurry to my point, the Almanac Singers, including Seeger, Hays and Guthrie were clearly pro-Communist. And they paid for it.

In 1942, according to Wikipedia, the FBI decided the Almanac Singers were seditious threats. And they were forced underground to play for trusted, friendly audiences. But in 1950, as folk music began a renaissance with Burl Ives and Peter, Paul and Mary, the Almanac Singers emerged as The Weavers and this time Seeger and Hays were joined by the great Ronnie Gilbert and guitarist Fred Hellerman.

They made it to the top with Good Night, Irene among others. But Mcarthyism caught up with them and they disbanded in 1953, after Seeger refused to testify and declined to join the Weavers program in sponsoring a tobacco ad. But the Weavers had set the stage for Joan Baez and the folk music revival of the '50s. More important, Seeger had made Communist Guthrie's ballad, This Land Is Your Land, the unofficial national anthem.

Seeger, of course, retired to his Hudson River home and began a crusade the clean up the river. But he was called out of retirement again and again for the civil rights struggles and the anti-Vietnam war movement. On the road from Selma to Montgomery, in 1965, he made up new verses for We Shall Overcome. Thousand gathered in Washington in 1970, to sing with him, Give Peace A Chance. Today, his great anti-war song, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy - And The Big Fool Says Push on, is still relevant.

I have not sung with him since those early days, but I've sung with him at peace and civil rights events even while carrying my reporter's notebook. And when I was able to play a guitar, before my stroke, I gave folk songs to my kids. But remembering those early days and Seeger's and my politics then, it came to me how we've all grown up, he and I and this country. Maybe we are no longer afraid of radical thought.

Guthrie's anthem was sung at Barack Obama's inauguration by Seeger, who was honored on his 90th birthday by the president he had hoped for. Seeger has never lost his radicalism, and Bruce Springsteen said at the inauguration, "Pete, you outlasted the bastards."

After an interruption of eight years of narrow fear-mongering and the worship of war and power, I remember and take pride in my radical past and join in honoring Pete Seeger, the man with the bobbing Adam's apple who I met more than 60 years ago.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Norm Jenson has a wry tale of modern-day, personal politics in Working Class.


REFLECTIONS: Taxes

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections The late and unlamented foolishness called Tea Bagging for Tax Day on the ides of April, reminds me of one of the earliest lessons I learned in Washington journalism: Beware of the “cheap shot.”

But before I go further, there are a few things that need to be said in the wake of the vicious and hypocritical and dangerous stupidity of the so-called protests, things that most of my colleagues in the press may have missed. I say dangerous because most of the mob-like threats and name-calling, like “fascist,” “communist,” “socialist,” were directed at the first black President of the United States. And the fanaticism, the results of which could be unthinkable, was encouraged by appeals to lawlessness:

1. House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said, “April 15 has long been and always will be a day American workers and their families despise.”

First, the polls show that this is not true; 61 percent of Americans think the tax code is fair. But this is from a man, sworn to uphold the tax laws, among others, who has been taking taxpayers’ salaries and perks for 20 years, and who let out nary a peep when his president sent Ohioans to wars, approved wiretaps and torture and ran up the highest deficits in history while trying to kill Social Security.

2. Talk show foul mouth Glenn Beck, whose baseless babbles charging Obama with the intent to ban all guns, may have led to the murders of three police officers in Pittsburgh, called for secession from the federal government because, he said, it’s driving us to suicide, all the while standing in the Alamo, where Bowie, Crockett, Travis and every defender died as part of their effort to eventually bring Texas into the union.

The Alamo, not incidentally, was restored as a national monument by the federal Works Progress Administration.

3. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, suggested his state has the right to secede from the union, apparently forgetting that that had been tried before, that Texas would blow away if not for federal largesse, and that Texas owes its existence to one of the greatest federal land grabs in American history in 1836 - thanks to Andrew Jackson and his friend, Sam Houston, the state’s first governor and an opponent of the 1861 secession.

Apparently, Perry and fellow governors of the Old Confederacy are still fighting the Civil War for states’ rights (i.e, slavery) as well as the outcome of the last election, refusing to recognize that their side lost in 1865 and Obama won in 2008.

But I have digressed. Like these demagogues, many of us – in the press and among the public – are too quick to join in taking such shots at taxes, the Congress and its alleged pork barrel projects, now called “earmarks.” We do so without thinking. They are easy targets.

And it’s especially easy for television to ridicule where our money goes and how it is spent; it makes for a good two-minute piece. It’s the kind of cheap shot that the late Sen. William Proxmire, [D Wis] popularized with his “Golden Fleece Award.” But most of the time if you looked closer, there was merit in the expenditure.

Thus Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, part of the Old Confederacy cabal fighting against federal money its citizens need, ridiculed the funds in the stimulus legislation that monitored volcano activity. Of course there are no volcanoes in Louisiana, but there is one in Alaska and it’s been erupting. And there is money set aside for monitoring hurricane and levee problems in Louisiana.

Remember how many times during the campaign you heard criticism of funds spent on fruit fly research? Well, because of the nature of the fruit flies’ rapid generational changes, they make for excellent research into all sorts of human problems. And yes, we ought to know why the honey bee seems to be disappearing.

More broadly, the nation’s founders created the House of Representatives and gave it the exclusive powers to tax and appropriate because the “People’s House” is where the most basic tenet of American politics, the utilitarian principle of self-interest, rightly understood, operates. Indeed, what has been derided as “bringing home the bacon” is what members of the House are supposed to do.

In that give and take among members of the House is how roads, bridges, schools, sewer systems and money for states and localities are divvied up. It’s true that some of it may go to a bridge to nowhere, but then again, it may be a bridge that serves a few people who need it.

That’s what government is for. Perhaps some of the things are purchased at too high a price, but the seller and the maker will pay taxes on the money they make.

I am sure there have been many abuses, but over these 200 plus years, the Congress has spent money to build the railroads, the nation’s industrial infrastructure, the interstate highway system and the airports, though this process too often belittled as pork. All of us who closely examine our own lives can find how we’re better off for the pork that members of Congress, and our city and county council representatives, won for us and our neighborhoods. Just the other day, county pork paved the roads in my rural area.

As for taxes, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, reported on April 17 that the average American family paid only 5.9 percent of its earnings in federal income taxes in 2007, a near-record low. As a result, a Gallup survey found that more than half the people said their federal income taxes were either too low or about right.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out that the United States has “the lowest taxes of all developed nations.” Even the wealthiest of Americans this year will pay only 28 percent (slightly more than under Bill Clinton), compared to a 90 percent marginal tax rate during World War II and under Dwight Eisenhower (which worked out to 50 percent after deductions).

According to the liberal Campaign for America’s future, the problem is not so much that taxes are too high, but that many are unfair. Great corporations escape an estimated $14 billion in taxes through loopholes, deductions and off-shore businesses. Individuals who can afford good lawyers or accountants pay lower rates than many less affluent Americans who don’t itemize.

A good example of the unfairness is the regressive payroll tax for Social Security. At the moment, there is a $107,800 cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes, which means persons earning more – much more - avoid this tax on every dollar they earn over $107,800. And sales taxes on necessities hit the poor harder than the rich.

Still, even with payroll, state, local and sales taxes, Americans pay a smaller percentage of their incomes to governments than most people in Europe. Taxes in France and Germany amount to 50 percent or more. Americans pay less in taxes, but a lot more than most Europeans for public transit. And Europe’s high taxes provide a variety of benefits including paid maternity leave, child care and universal health care.

We get what we pay for and we seem to want a huge military more than we want, say, better public schools and health care.

So next time you celebrate low taxes, don’t complain about the pothole that swallowed your car or the cops who didn’t come quickly enough. Remember the admonition of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” And earmarks too.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson talks about childhood and food in The Asparagus Tale.


Elder Music? Not Today - Instead...

[EDITORIAL NOTE: My apologies for no elder music today. The week got away from me and I ran out of time. So instead, here is a REFLECTIONS EXTRA: Malaria from Saul Friedman whose regular Reflections column will appear here next Thursday.]

[Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections When I read that Saturday, April 25, had been designated World Malaria Day, it reminded me how and why the United States had succeeded in eradicating that parasitic scourge from this country by 1949. It was one of the most important, if unsung, triumphs of the New Deal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, malaria was endemic in the 13 southeastern states until the late 1940s. Indeed, CDC's headquarters was placed in Atlanta partly because that part of the Old South was at the center of the malaria belt.

If during the early part of the 20th century, many southerners seemed slow, lazy and intellectually backward, much of the reason was malaria which infected nearly a third of the people, especially in rural areas. The malaria parasite caused anemia, fever, loss of energy and other debilitating ailments.

The attack on malaria in the American south began when the Tennessee Valley Authority drained the swamps as part of its project to bring public power, flood control, reforestation and recreation to the southeast. And the TVA, created in 1933, spent more money than any agency on malaria mosquito eradication. The TVA hired entomologists, doctors and malaria experts to help sharecroppers, black and white, fight the mosquito.

After the US. entered World War II, when southern training bases put GIs in danger, the U.S. Public Health Service joined in the eradication program. But the TVA had done most of the work. In 1949, the U.S. was declared free of malaria. This is something the Old Confederacy might remember these days.


REFLECTIONS: Uncle Sam

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Everyone has – or ought to have – an Uncle Sam. Not the red, white and blue cardboard cutout with the beard and top hat. I mean a real Uncle Sam like my mother’s older brother who lived with us when I was a boy and gave me three of the most important things in my life, the greatest of which was my love of opera.

Sam worked in the New York garment industry, selling things like trim and buttons to manufacturers of women’s clothes. And the family told the story of how Sam, when he was a young man, came home with his arms bandaged because he helped pull people out of the flames that killed 146 immigrant women who were trapped in the sweatshop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911.

Hosingbuilding

Until he explained, the family laughed at Sam’s bandaged arms, because he was always getting into trouble.

But that was because my Uncle Sam, who had been an immigrant, cared deeply about the important things, like injustice and the exploitation of workers. He was a fellow traveler, but he wouldn’t join the party (Communist, of course) because he feared deportation and he loved America. He broke with the party after Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler.

Sam also was an avid and knowledgeable New York Yankees fan, who corresponded with Casey Stengel about the fine points of the game. And he was adamant that Enrico Caruso was a greater tenor than the upstart Swede, Jussi Bjorling.

So these were the gifts Sam left me: my liberal left politics and a skepticism that has served me well as a writer. I often accompanied Sam on sunny Saturday and Sunday afternoons to the boardwalk near Brighton Beach where we joined the men gathered in knots arguing politics, philosophy, current affairs and the culpability of God for not striking Hitler dead.

Secondly, I have remained loyal to the Yankees despite George Steinbrenner for after all, Sam and I sat in the centerfield bleachers to see the likes of Gehrig, DiMaggio, Dickey, Keller, Gordon, Rizzuto and even Ruth when he made a guest appearance in a reunion with the 1927 team. One cannot do any better than that in baseball.

Sam made me understand why baseball was the greatest sport; it made a virtue of imperfection, for hitting safely just one out of three times could make you a star.

Finally, there was – and is – an appreciation – no, a love - of great music, but especially grand opera, which, as my wife says, combines all the arts – theater, acting, stage design, story, costumes, music and, of course, the glory of the human voice.

Sam introduced me to Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s symphonies on 12-inch, 78rpm, RCA records. But mostly, we listened to the greatest voices on the family Victrola: Caruso’s la Donna e Mobile, Una Furtiva Lagrima and my favorite e Lucevan la Stelle, which Cavaradossi sings to Tosca when he is about to die.

Enrico Caruso - la Donna e Mobile [2:18 minutes]

After Sam left our home and got married and I was old enough to go to work, I had his record collection. Even better, I had money enough to indulge in my two luxuries: suring the seasons, I went to an opera on Saturday night sitting up in the cheap seats, and a ball game at Yankee Stadium on a Friday night sitting in the bleachers. I went to ball games mostly alone, but I measured the worth of my girl friends by whether they enjoyed good music and opera.

On my last night in New York before I entered the army in 1950, my then lady friend, Judy, and I went to a New York City opera performance of Madame Butterfly. Now who could not like Butterfly when she sang, One Fine Day or when she killed herself for the love of Pinkerton and their child. Judy was unmoved and bored. And I never saw her again.

Renata Tebaldi - Un Bel Di [4:20 minutes]

Fast forward two years. I was married to Evelyn who played a lovely classical piano and shared my view that Mozart and Beethoven were direct descendants of God. On our first date we listened to classical music in the record library of the local USO. On our second, we saw the musical, Song of Norway, based on the music of Edward Grieg.

On our first trip to New York, after I left the army, we went to the old Met for a performance of Tosca with Dorothy Kirsten in the title role. When the tenor, Feruccio Tagliavini, sang Lucevan le Stelle in the final act, Evelyn saw her new husband crying with happiness - from being out of the army at last, back in New York and at the Met (not the cheap seats) with my new wife who loved opera.

Feruccio Tagliavini - Lucevan le Stelle [2:56 minutes]

May I say here that we are not musical snobs, although we do not consider rap and much of the most raucous crap music. We’re fans of Holiday, Fitzgerald and Brubeck. I played a folk guitar for a while and introduced my kids to Guthrie, Josh White and Seeger. And I brought home from my travels the earliest 45rpms of this new group of kids called the Beatles.

Since then, Evelyn and I have seen dozens of opera performances all over the world, some great, some not. I’ve even reviewed a few and we’ve lectured on opera. Happily, we share the same politics I inherited from my Uncle Sam. And while my passion for baseball has faded in the steroid era, opera, among many other things, has kept Evelyn and me together and listening for 57 years.

Thanks, Sam, wherever you are.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, wisewebwoman writes of A Wasted Brain in Oz.]


REFLECTIONS: Reagan

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Can anyone guess which modern statesman said the following, which I shall quote at length?

“Facing conditions of absolute inhumanity such as those which now exist in Sudan and Somalia, does not the world have a moral responsibility to act? To choose the right to passage, to impose minimum order and provide sanctuaries of relief? In parts of Africa today, mankind is an endangered species.

“Have we come to the point where we must set up human preserves as we have for rhinos and elephants? If so, then let us do it, and do it now...We must work toward a standing U.N. Force – an army of conscience – that is fully equipped and prepared to carve out human sanctuaries if necessary...I can think of no more honorable mission for a soldier or his country.”

I do not think that people like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich or the rest of today’s Republican leaders would even come close to agreeing with that or recognizing who said it. But then they didn’t really know the man who said it, the man they profess to idolize and emulate, whose name they take in vain attempts to justify their extreme politics.

The speaker was Ronald Reagan, who I knew during more than eight years that I covered his campaigns and his presidency. This was the Reagan who had learned a few things and grew during and after his presidency. This was the Reagan who, plainly put, was not anywhere as near as radical or as nuts as the people who now control Republican politics.

Reagan was popular because he was an inclusive person with not a trace of wingnut vindictiveness – even towards a critical reporter. He was close to then-Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill; one of his first appointments was that of former Senate Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield as ambassador to Japan.

The speech, to which I’ll return, was entitled Democracy’s Next Battle, and was delivered on December 4, 1992, at the Oxford Union Society in England just a month after Bill Clinton was elected president. The students of the storied debating society had expected to poke fun at Reagan, then 81. But they greeted his unexpected words with a prolonged standing ovation.

I know, this was the same Ronald Reagan who ushered in the era of greed and huge deficits; who approved selling arms to Iran to finance the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua; who turned the cold war icy with his railing against the Soviets as the “evil empire”; who sent troops into hapless Grenada, probably to mitigate the killing of 240 Marines in Lebanon; who gave us Star Wars, the myth of a missile defense that’s still with us.

I know about these Reagan misadventures for I covered and wrote critically about all of them, first for Knight Ridder Newspapers, then for Newsday. And I laughed at Reagan’s foibles, as when he came back from Central America and exclaimed that “there are a lot of different countries down there.” Or when he visited a souvenir stand in China and proclaimed that it was a sign that free enterprise had come to Beijing.

Nevertheless, I am a bit of a Reagan revisionist for it is important to contrast his presidency and his brand of conservatism with that of the former and unlamented occupant of the White House and the right-wing reactionaries who have hijacked conservatism, which my dictionary defines as “a political orientation advocating the preservation of the best in society and opposing radical changes.” That would include radical changes to the Constitution.

It is true that Reagan came into office with a promise to cut taxes by a third, which he did with the help of Democrats who piled on their own tax breaks. Signed in 1981, it was the largest tax cut in history. But Reagan’s chief of staff was Vice-President George H.W. Bush’s former campaign manager, James A. Baker, a pragmatic conservative hated by White House right-wingers like Pat Buchanan.

Fearing that the tax cuts were too deep, that the deficit was growing too quickly, Baker and the Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, also a pragmatic conservative, combined in 1983 to get Reagan’s grudging approval for the largest tax increase in history.

In 1976, when Reagan ran in the Republican primaries against then-Vice President Gerald Ford, he suggested Social Security be made voluntary. He also believed that Medicare was a step towards socialized medicine. But in the presidency, he came to understand that Social Security would collapse if it was made voluntary and he made no move to change its nature.

Instead, the commission he appointed under Alan Greenspan, made changes that saved Social Security for 75 years. Nor did he make a move to privatize or cut Medicare. Perhaps that’s because he admired and had voted for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman before he became a Republican. He didn’t allow ideology to get in the way of good sense and politics.

He was late coming to the fight against AIDS, as the epidemic grew in the Reagan years. But he did come, at the urging most importantly of Elizabeth Taylor. And despite support from right-wing fundamentalists, Reagan, the first president who had been divorced, did not engage in gay bashing and he did not press his views against abortion, probably because he had too many Hollywood friends who were gay or had had abortions.

It is also true that Reagan, against the advice of Baker and most of his generals, sent Marines into Lebanon in 1982, ostensibly to protect the airfield and other installations as the Israelis were pursuing the fleeing Palestinians. Reagan was effusively pro-Israel, but the pragmatists argued that even if the Marines were supposed to be neutral, they would be seen as on Israel’s side and get deeper into the quagmire.

Sure enough, after Reagan ordered a battleship to fire on positions that had been attacking the Marines, came the bombing of their barracks. I was there when Reagan took responsibility, then pulled the Marines out.

Finally, despite his cold war rhetoric, Reagan was among the first leaders in the west (with then-British Prime minister Margaret Thatcher) to recognize that Mikhail Gorbachev was a genuine reformer and, as I reported in these columns earlier, he met with the then-Soviet leader in Moscow to declare the era of the evil empire was over. And together they concluded treaties to reduce, for the first time, the number of nuclear weapons. They are still in force.

I’ve always believed that when he called for Gorbachev, in 1986, to “tear down” the Berlin wall, he knew it would happen. And it did, when George H.W. Bush was president and Baker was his secretary of state. Bush, as vice-president, had thought Reagan naive about Gorbachev and as president delayed for a year agreeing to the arms treaties that Reagan made possible.

Indeed, in one meeting with Gorbachev that I covered, in Iceland, Reagan and Gorbachev nearly agreed to banish all nuclear weapons, until their advisers intervened. And after Reagan’s death in 2004, Fred Kaplan concluded in Slate that “the end of the Cold War may be the most oddball chapter in the history of the 20th Century. How fitting, then, that the two most oddball leaders, Gorbachev and Reagan, made it come to pass.”

Consider, please, what would have happened in those days if Baker or Reagan had listened to the naysayers and cold-warriors in the Reagan administration, like the Buchanans, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Richard Perle. What if we were listening to the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and O’Reilly then?

Reagan was a conservative to the core, but he grew in office. Once, before he became president, he suggested the U.N. should “sail off into the sunset,” forgetting that the organization is on the east coast.

As he told the Oxford students,

“I did not always value international organizations and for good reason, they were nothing more than debating societies...But with the end of the cold war, the U.N. was also liberated...As long as military power remains a necessary tool of modern existence, then we should use it as a humanitarian tool and rely more on multilateral institutions - such as NATO and the U.N...The noble vision of the U.N.’s founders is now closer to realization.”

I was told Reagan wrote most of the speech, which concluded,

“My young friends, I hope with all my hearts that your days will be great, not on the battlefield, but in science labs, the operating rooms, performing arts halls and wherever empires of the mind can be assembled.”

Perhaps such eloquence is one of the reasons President Barack Obama admires and understands Reagan’s legacy better than those who call themselves his heirs.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary E. Davies is In the Mood to be Beautiful.]


REFLECTIONS: Socialism

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections To borrow a famous phrase, “a spectre is haunting” America, the specter of socialism. No kidding.

Last October, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, known experts on specters, labeled Democratic candidate Barack Obama a “socialist” because he proposed increasing taxes on the rich to spread the wealth more equally. And Senator John McCain, who has spent his entire adult life in the pay of the federal government, joined them in denouncing Obama’s plans as “socialism.”

At the same time, when those capitalist bastions, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, were rescuing and taking over commercial and investment banks in the waning days of the most conservative presidency since Calvin Coolidge, even President Bush suggested that this sounded like the end of free enterprise. And some of his best friends on the right said the bailouts smacked of socialism.

In early February as the outgoing Republican administration’s hundreds of billions in bailouts of businesses and banks gave way to the trillions in bailouts and stimulus proposals of the new Democratic President, Newsweek’s provocative cover proclaimed, “We are All Socialists Now.”

Noting the cries of “socialism” from the ranks of right-wing Republican lawmakers (who had given unswerving support to Bush’s deficits and Big Brother government), the Newsweek editors wrote,

“There it was...the S word, a favorite among conservatives...But it seems strangely beside the point. The U.S. government has already – under a conservative Republican administration –effectively nationalized the banking and mortgage industries...Whether we want to admit it or not...the America of 2009 is moving toward a modern European state.”

By that they meant a social democracy, or a democracy (as in Britain, France and virtually everywhere else in the civilized world) with a measure of socialism, social ownership of public services.

Since then, with the introduction of Obama’s first budget, which calls for a tectonic shift in the nation’s priorities – from war fighting, do-nothing government and tax cuts for the wealthy to spending for public works, health care for all, jobs programs and education, liberals celebrate and call for nationalization and social democracy, while conservatives cry socialism as an epithet just short of communism. Thus a column in late February by conservative Washington Post pundit, Charles Krauthammer, was entitled, The Obamaist Manifesto. (Get it?).

On Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress, Krauthammer wrote, it

“...will be seen as historic – indeed as the foundational document of Obamaism. As it stands, it constitutes the boldest social democratic manifesto ever issued by a U.S. President.”

On the same date, as if taking a cue from Krauthammer, Congressional Quarterly reported from the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, that Republican congressional leaders had come up with a strategy to oppose Obama’s budget priorities by “comparing them to those of socialist governments in Europe.”

House Republican leader John Boehner, one of the tannest members of Congress, considering he’s from Cincinnati, told the conference, “The stimulus, the omnibus budget, it’s all one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Obama was seeking to “basically Europeanize America.”

Mike Huckabee said of Obama’s plans, “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.”

And profitable prophet Tim LaHaye, told interviewer Rachel Maddow that Obama’s “socialism” was a precursor to “the rapture,” and the coming of the “antiChrist.”

That’s crazy, for sure, but it’s time to quit pussy-footing around the language and see what we’re talking about when throwing out words like “socialism.” For as I wrote here last October, there’s not a thing wrong with socialism. Some of our greatest minds were socialists, including Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and George Orwell. But Barack Obama is not a socialist, although I would not object if he was.

Socialism, according to Wikipedia,

“refers to a broad set of economic theories of social organization advocating public or state ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods...”

The key phrase - ”public or state ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods” - separates what is and what is not socialist.

Thus, the Newsweek story referred to Bush’s huge expenditure and expansion of Medicare’s prescription drug benefit as an example of a movement toward European style socialism. It was nothing of the sort, for the legislation took the program out of the hands of the government, Medicare, and gave it to drug and insurance companies that have enjoyed big profits.

Moreover, Medicare is not a socialist enterprise because it contracts with insurance companies as regional administrators and Medicare’s providers - doctors, labs, hospitals - are mostly private, unlike the British system of socialized medicine where providers work for the National Health Service.

Even if Obama adopted Medicare for All, which I doubt, it would fall short of being socialized medicine, because medical providers would be working for themselves, as they do now with Medicare. As it is, Obama still plans that insurance companies will play a large role in health care.

The U.S. does, however, harbor enclaves of socialism. In the successful VA health system and in the National Institutes of Health, where some of the best medicine is done, providers work for the federal government. The National Parks are socialist enterprises, despite Bush’s attempts at privatizing them. Many public power utilities, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the great dams of the west, most urban transit systems and some railroads are owned by all of us.

Government can’t do anything right? Tell that to 60 million people served by Social Security. Or maybe you’d rather see Citigroup or General Motors or Philip Morris entrusted with your well-being.

I do not understand why we should fear the social democracy of Europe. Many Americans, including members of Congress, enjoy traveling to Europe and taking advantage of their social democracies - cheap and fast transportation, universal health care and a healthy opposition to war. There is no such thing as an uninsured person in the European Union, and the Euro has become as strong as the dollar.

But I digress. The only group that does not fear or even see the specter of socialism, is the Democratic Socialists of America, which mourns that socialism has not taken hold in this country and has few prospects. Nevertheless, as Obama is learning, despite the American desire for change, any challenge of the status quo will run into stiff opposition from those who have been in charge for more than eight years.

As that original 1848 manifesto said (substitute socialism for communism): “Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as socialistic by its opponents in power?”

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine speaks of the writing life in Tuesdays.]


REFLECTIONS: Darwin

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections The 200th birthday of Charles Darwin on February 12 reminded me of one of the reasons my business, journalism, is failing us and itself. I call it “on-the-other-handism,” the stupid idea that there are two sides to every story. More often, there are many sides. And sometimes there is only one side. But because too many traditional reporters still worship the gods of objectivity and impartiality, they’re failing to tell the truth.

For example, there is no other side to the discovery by the 16th century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way round as the Catholic Church held at time and for 300 years.

But the objective and entirely impartial journalist would write, “Mr. Copernicus, who is a Pole, contends that the earth revolves about the sun but the Pope, who is infallible in such matters, says that’s not true; the earth is the center of the universe. The Pontiff said of Copernicus, ‘It’s only a theory.’”

I believe this sort of journalism is at least one reason why, according to a Pew poll, 63 percent of Americans living in the 21st Century, reject Mr. Darwin’s idea that all life on this planet evolved over millions of years. I would guess that’s a greater percentage of such ignorance than in any other civilized country. Most of these Americans would say, along with the Pope, that it’s only a theory, because the impartial press has faithfully reported both sides and thus told us a lie.

When I worked in Detroit researching a story on extremism, I spoke with a leader of the secretive, right wing John Birch Society, who was going on about the anti-religious secularism he believed was at the heart of Einstein’s theory of relativity. “Relativism means there are no absolutes, like God, he said. “Relativity is only a theory.”

I replied, “But the bomb worked.” I wrote that and it helped ridicule the John Birch Society to death in Detroit.

(My friend Warren Kornberg, former editor of Mosaic, a scholarly journal published by the National Science Foundation, offers this: “A theory, in science is not just a hunch waiting to be proved; it’s the most reasonable conclusion to be drawn from a mass of evidence so convincing as to lead to no other synthesis.”)

I have no quarrel with those who choose to reject science for faith or who believe in a religious explanation for their place in the world. Most Americans believe in a literal heaven, which is their right. But as a reporter, I object when they seek to impose on me or my children what I know to be demonstrably untrue; our glorious Grand Canyon is not 4,000 years old and men did not live with dinosaurs, except on The Flintstones.

The point is that journalism, which has the tools of science and reason and investigation, is supposed to challenge ignorance, not perpetuate it. And its job is to question conventional wisdom before accepting it.

Too often, however, my colleagues have not done their job. And part of the reason is “on-the-other-handism.” I think it was New York Times economics columnist, Paul Krugman, in commenting on why the previous administration got away with so many lies that led to war, suggested that too many straight reporters felt compelled to give both sides, as in: “The administration says Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, but liberal critics say otherwise.” Or, “Scientists say the earth is round, but administration sources say they have evidence that it’s flat.”

Don’t laugh. Writing both or many sides of the story, when good reporting and your instincts tell you that one side is wrong, is what got us and keeps us into two wars. Theodore Roosevelt, who invented the term “muckrakers,” once suggested there is no middle ground between one side that says the grass is green and another that says it’s red.

But we continue to see this conventional journalism when Washington reporters give equal credibility to the arguments of Republicans who got into us into this mess, that government shouldn’t spend money in times of need, despite evidence to the contrary from most economists, including a couple of Nobel winners like Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.

It’s as if reporters decide there’s no right side. (This fetish for on-the-other-handism translates to a fetish for applauding bipartisanship as a virtue and partisanship as an evil, as if one can always split the difference to find truth.)

But as Robert Fisk, the fine Middle East reporter for the UK Guardian writes, there’s more than bad journalism at stake when reporters “prefer impartiality over morality.” And it wasn’t always so, he said, recalling the coverage of World War II by reporters like Ed Murrow and Rebecca West. Was there another side at Nuremberg?

Fisk, who was in Lebanon when Israel invaded a sovereign nation to attack Hezbollah and destroyed much of Beirut, did not equally and impartially tell both sides of that story. His stories reflected the horror and immorality of the violence of war. Only when reporters began to tell us the reality of the Vietnam War did we begin to get out. Some day perhaps the world will be equally outraged, if American reporters summoned the courage to tell us what really happened in Gaza when Israel used horror weapons on children.

Today, a few of the best reporters, like Dana Priest of The Washington Post, and Seymour Hersh, of the New Yorker, have dug into how America has fought the so-called “war on terror” and uncovered such outrages as extraordinary rendition, CIA black sites and Abu Ghraib. If newspapers are failing, it’s partly because they telling both sides while a few reporters, bloggers and satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are finding ways to tell truth.

Recalling the writing of great war correspondents of the past, Fisk wrote, “These reporters were spurred, weren’t they, by the immorality of war. They cared. They were not frightened of damaging their ‘impartiality.’ I wonder if we still write like this.”

Not if we continue to report, as I heard just the other day on CBS’s Sunday Morning, that on the other hand, some say Darwin was wrong. My science journalist friend, Warren Kornberg, reminds me of Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, who says at last, “On the other hand…No! There is no other hand!”

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Norm Jenson explains how A Coincidence came about.]


REFLECTIONS: The WPA

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Sometimes, like now, I think those macro-economists, to turn a phrase, can’t see the trees for the forest. That is, they talk in big, big numbers, and averages, and means and median, but they miss the important little things, like people.

For example, the macro guys considering President Obama’s economic revival package, tell us that its hundreds of billions and maybe a trillion will consist of so much spending on infrastructure and so many billions in tax cuts that if their models are correct maybe two or three million jobs would be created in two years, give or take.

While the macros are arguing whether that’s enough or too much to jump-start the economy, Democrats tell us that we need a stimulus (I hate that word) to prevent another Great Depression while Republicans charge it won’t work because such spending didn’t get us out of the Great Depression anyway, as if tax cuts did.

But the argument misses the whole point of economics, which is to provide food, clothing and shelter to the ill-fed, ill-clad and ill-housed.

I don’t really know whether the great jobs programs of the New Deal got us out of the Depression. But it doesn’t matter. More important than the macro arguments, is what the much-maligned Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps did for virtually every state and hundreds of towns in America, and the millions of men, women and children it helped during the hard times. Those benefits are still being seen and felt 60 years later.

When I lived in right-wing, anti-federal government Texas (which hasn’t changed much) it came as a shock to the know-nothings when I wrote that their beloved Alamo in downtown San Antonio was restored with the help of the WPA. And the city’s beautiful River Walk was the muddy San Antonio River until WPA workers fixed it up with landscaping, stone work, and walkways and lovely stone bridges that still stand. Today, the River Walk is at the center of the city’s life, with restaurants, shops and barges that ply the river serving dinner to tourists.

While browsing the web in search of more information about the WPA, which was renamed the Works Project Administration in 1939, I discovered that the WPA also built the obelisk of the San Jacinto monument outside Houston, which marks the battle in 1836 that gave Texas (and much of the west) its independence from Mexico.

If I may digress, I like the true story about how a slightly wounded Sam Houston and the captured General Santa Anna, made peace sitting under a tree smoking dope.

But closer to my point - that it’s the little things that count a lot - was this note that I came across from the University of Georgia Libraries, commenting on its collection of photographs that

“...chronicle the various WPA projects which took place in Georgia. The projects were the same in most all of the states and included basic work such as street building and repair.”

One such project was a beautiful, stone monument to the town of Cassville, which was burned to the ground in Sherman’s march across the state.

The WPA, born in 1935 at an initial cost of $4.8 billion, was at the time, the largest “relief” program in American history (now it’s called “stimulus”). By 1941, when spending on the coming war pulled America out of the lingering slump, WPA had cost $11.4 billion and put eight million men and women to work building 1,634 public schools, 105 airports, 3,000 tennis courts, 5,800 libraries, 3,300 storage dams, hundreds of miles of roads, sewer lines, while the CCC built roads through national and state parks, fire towers, and scores of campgrounds, many of which are in use today.

I doubt if George Bush even suspected that his weekend retreat, Camp David, which Franklin Roosevelt called Shangri-la, was built by the WPA as a recreation area in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Do baseball fans know that WPA workers built Doubleday Field, in Cooperstown, New York, in 1939 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of America’s pastime on that hallowed ground?

The architecturally unique bridges of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut were built by the WPA. Not until 1937 did New York City get an airport, La Guardia Field (named after the city’s New Deal era mayor), with its beautiful art-deco main terminal, all built by WPA labor.

Indeed, while the WPA mostly worked with bricks and mortar and steel, building theaters and city halls, the WPA gave work to men and women of the arts when no one else could. The WPA Arts project gave us murals by Jackson Pollock in Pennsylvania. Dozens of artists were paid to paint murals in post offices and city halls many of which are still there, or have been transferred to museums for permanent display.

The WPA Theater Project, hired out-of-work actors and stage-hands who traveled the country putting on plays, concerts and vaudeville shows in hundreds of towns where people had never seen such a thing. And the Writers Project, which included Richard Wright and Saul Bellow, created dozens of wonderfully written state, city and regional guides, many of which I used as a reporter to learn about the places I covered and lived.

The WPA, I should add, hired women, although the agency’s boss, Harry Hopkins, frowned on giving work to both a wife and to leaving children unattended. About 15 percent of the workers were in the Women’s Division and they received equal pay, which was the local prevailing wage, from $19 to $94 a month, for a maximum of 30 hours of work each week. The WPA also provided jobs for 350,000 blacks, and helped dent some color barriers. And the WPA’s Education Division gave work to teachers who taught reading to thousands of illiterate blacks and whites.

But, as I said, I’m more interested in the littlest things. So I found this, an undated report on “hot lunches for a million school children,” by an assistant administrator of the WPA:

“One million undernourished children have benefitted by the WPA’s school lunch program. In the past year and a half 80,000,000 hot well-balanced meals have been served at the rate of 500,000 daily in 10,000 schools...

“School attendance has increased and classroom work has improved in every school in South Carolina where the school lunch projects operate...In Greenville County...children who were weighed at the beginning of the project and weighed again at the end of each five week period...showed an average weight gain of from three to eight ponds per child for the first five week period...”

Did the WPA get the nation out of the Depression? Does it matter?

[At The Elder Storytelling Place, Chester Baldwin solves the crime in Just Another Dusty Day.]