58 posts categorized "Reflections"

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


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.


"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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


[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.


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:


“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.