58 posts categorized "Reflections"

REFLECTIONS: On the Newspaper Business

[AND THE WINNER IS: If I had my way (and more money), I would send Dr. Robert Butler's book, The Longevity Revolution, to everyone who asked and to every member of Congress too.

Alas, that is not possible. The winner of the single copy I have available, the fifteenth person to send an email, is - DRUM ROLL - Alan Stewart who lives in Hong Kong. Alan, it will be on its way to you today or tomorrow. - Ronni]


[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

I figure my 55 years as a reporter, correspondent and columnist for just three newspaper organizations qualify me to put in my two bucks on the future of the business. And I do believe, in spite of the obituaries, that newspapers, the kind you hold in your hand or spread out on the table or floor, will survive and even prosper.

Maybe I’ve told you this before, but it’s worth repeating: when television was coming of age, many newspapers so feared it that they would not accept or publish the programming schedules. Now, whether you know it or not, television, especially the news programs, depend on newspapers and newspaper reporters.

Writers and producers for CNN or MSBC or the network news shows would not know what the news is without first consulting the morning papers. And they would not know what to think without reading the major columnists. This is not to say these papers and columnists get things right. But we’ll get to that.

First, here is a systemic problem that did not exist through much of my career: The public ownership of newspapers. For example, I worked for a number of years for what was then, Knight Newspapers, which later merged with the Ridder Newspapers and became Knight-Ridder, one of the largest American chains that included The Detroit Free Press, The Charlotte Observer, The Miami Herald and the flagship >e,>Akron Beacon-Journal, among others. The Philadelphia Inquirer was added.

But when I was a Washington correspondent, the Knight papers, the Inquirer and the Ridder papers in Minnesota had been family owned. The Ridders were conservative; Walter Annenberg, who owned the Inquirer was so imperious, he banned from his paper news of one of Philadelphia’s teams. And he was a great friend of Ronald Reagan.

Jack Knight, on the other hand, was feisty and liberal-minded and my favorite publisher because he was among the first to editorialize against the Vietnam War for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. He had never forgotten the death of his son in World War II.

The point I am making is that these papers, often reflecting their owners and often not, were independent citizens. They were the personification, for good or ill, of A.J. Liebling’s observation that freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one. Then came what a former editor of mine, Davis “Buzz” Merritt, called Knightfall, which was the title of his book.

That’s when Knight-Ridder Newspapers and most others went public, offering stock on the New York Stock Exchange. Others have followed: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the McClatchy papers – all of which had been family owned and run.

Let me confess that I led the campaign at Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau to get an early crack for us peons to buy the stock. And many of my colleagues and I made good money on that stock over the years.

What none of us realized is that as Merritt put it, the brand of relatively independent, reporter-editor oriented, public-service journalism would be undermined by a focus on profit margin and stock price.

One of the dozens of editors who left Knight-Ridder in disgust or buyouts told Merritt, “I became an editor because I wanted to do journalism, but now it’s about the bottom line.” That is to say, it’s about Wall Street’s bottom line. It wasn’t good enough for newspapers to be profitable, they had to increase profit margins; they could not allow earnings to drop in any quarter or the stock would drop. Wall Street analysts, said one writer, focused not on the quality of the paper or its content or the coverage of important events, but on “the quality of a newspaper company’s financial reports.”

David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, creator of HBO’s The Wire and Homicide, recently told a Senate committee hearing on the future of journalism:

“My industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered free market logic that has proved so disastrous...The original sin of American news papering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place. When locally-based, family-owner newspaper like the Sun were consolidated into publicly-owned newspaper chains. An essential trust between journalism and the communities served was betrayed.”

He noted angrily, that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly 100 editors and reporters when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. Indeed, at Knight-Ridder and Newsday, editors were told the papers had to return at least ten percent on investment. When it didn’t, Knight Ridder was dismembered by Wall Street raiders and sold to McClatchy, which sold off its unionized papers. The House that Jack Knight built was gone and so was its talent.

When The Los Angeles Times owned The Baltimore Sun, it also owned Newsday, which had expanded into New York City. But the CEO of Times-Mirror Corp. a former cereal company executive, closed it to drive up the price of the company’s stock for the spoiled heirs of the former owners.

It worked for a while, but the Times-Mirror sold itself and its holdings to the once-family owned (Chicago) Tribune, and real estate player and publisher wannabe, Sam Zell, who sold Newsday to Cablevision, which owns Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks. It earned $1.9 billion last year, up $200 million from the earlier year. But it continues to shrink Newsday’s content and staff rather than build it. And the once proud Sun, of H.L. Mencken, which once sent correspondents across the world, is but a shadow of a newspaper. Its staff is down from 400 to 150 and it is dying. Who suffers? Baltimore.

As one result of what’s happening to newspapers, the best and most experience reporters, editors and writers have left, or were forced into buyouts (as I was) and the recession only hastened the exodus. One day these newspapers will want the talent they lost. But my colleagues left daily journalism to retire or teach or blog.

Simon has no love for even the most successful blogs. He told the Senate committee, “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will be confident that we have actually reached some sort of balance” with online journalism. If not a newspaper, who will cover the cop shop, the schools, the courts? Who is to keep public officials honest?

I despair when I think of the great reporters and writers I’ve worked for and with who have left newspapers to teach or, in one case, raise bees. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I don’t think that some kid in his or her twenties, who is great at texting or twittering, should be my newspaper’s authority on finance, the Middle East or the wars this country is fighting.

Only a few reporters saw the reasons for Iraq war as lies. There is no short-cut to experience. Indeed, the rise of the good, aggressive blogs, websites critical of journalism like Media Matters testify to the shortcomings of mainstream, corporate journalism where newspapers worry about the bottom line more than the story and young reporters worry more about their careers.

And yet, when this recession ends we’ll see more clearly, there is no substitute for a newspaper with solid reporters and editors to watch over your town or the country or its relations with the rest of the world, where newspapers are flourishing. No online service can keep watch over a city councilman, a member of Congress or a president the way an honest, aggressive newspaper can.

In sports we look to newspapers to tell us what we saw when our favorite team won. We want to know how and why, as well as whom, what and when. Television can’t or won’t analyze or critique the new production of King Lear or the pianist we heard.

The best newspapers in each city will survive because there is no real substitute for a certain segment of the population, mostly older people - and most everyone will grow older. I read the other day that newspapers like The New Orleans Times-Picayune has a steady readership of 50.4 percent of the adult population, or 85 percent, if you include the reach of the web; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 41.6 percent and 65 percent; Indianapolis Star, 40 percent and 77.8 percent.

We have become a nation divided between readers and watchers. The watchers prefer television and computer games and the top of the news, if any news at all. The readers are a smaller but more wealthy and influential group, people who are active in community affairs, who support the arts and help run the town. They will continue to be the core readers of newspapers for they understand their lives and their fortunes depend on the depth of knowledge only a daily newspaper is equipped to provide – if it will.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Frank M. Calabria: Playing Monster and Hunting Mosquitoes.



REFLECTIONS: On Turning 80

Before Saul gets started on his column here today - which also concerns birthdays - I would like to announce that one of the oldest readers of Time Goes By, Leah Aronoff, turns 91 years old today. She does not blog, but has contributed several stories and poems to The Elder Storytelling Place which you can read here. You could also send her a birthday greeting at laronoff[at]fuse[dot]net.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Sybil, I beg to differ with that head you put on your fine piece a few weeks ago, An Octogenerian’s Lament. First of all, I’m not sure I like being called an “octogenerian.” Sounds like a species of plant or a small animal with eight legs.

More important, becoming 80 is not lamentable, which, according to my dictionary, means to “mourn “ or “express sorrow.” And Sybil, you could have written your poem about aging long before your 80th. Some people are ready to throw in the towel at 50.

Mickey Mantle once said, “If I knew I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.” Becoming 80 is not to be mourned but celebrated as an accomplishment. When I told a newspaper colleague, who is Chinese, that I was 80, she had a most delightful and non-American reaction: “Really? That’s wonderful that you have attained that age. Congratulations.”

If the Chinese culture, the oldest on earth, outlasts ours it will be because it venerates age.

In my line of work, competitive journalism, staying up all hours, years of smoking, eating too much, working too hard - I never thought I’d make to 80. Even now, after a serious stroke and a nasty encounter with esophageal cancer, I cannot believe I am 80. I feel well, I’m still getting out my weekly column and an occasional piece for Time Goes By, and I play Free Cell on my computer – as I have since my stroke in 2003, to make sure my marbles are still there.

As I’m fond of saying in my column - and this is reflected in the readers of this blog - today we are younger than our parents were at our age. I’m sure medicine and pharmaceuticals, as well as life style have played roles in this. But I think mobility, the ease of traveling, of buying and driving a car, of getting out to do and see new things have had a lot to do with longevity.

At age 70, Evelyn and I decided to celebrate the millennium by going on an eight-day, camping-out raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It was unforgettable. More than that, we took great satisfaction in having done it, for in a way the trip was like a sip from the fountain of youth. Indeed, we were more active than some of our younger companions, mostly because we were in awe of the canyon (where some of the walls are as old as the earth) while they took things for granted.

This year, in fact starting in this month, Evelyn, who will soon be 80 (but doesn’t believe it), will join me and six members of our family for a mega trip to jointly celebrate that great accomplishment. We lived in South Africa for some months while I was teaching journalism and we fell in love with the bush and the animals. So we are going to a place we wanted to get to, but couldn’t – the Okavango Delta in Botswana (home of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency).

Briefly, the Delta – a series of swamps and Islands - is formed when the rain-swollen rivers from the west flow into and floods the Kalahari Desert. That’s when the animals come by the hundreds to drink, hunt, mate, feed. And we’re going to spend two days, in each of three different safari camps to watch this wonderment. Fortunately, two daughters and strong sons-in-law are coming to help us over the rough spots, if there are any.

We’re doing this because we’re 80 and we can. Some years ago, when we lived in South Africa and we were in our sixties, I encountered a group of British tourists, none under 70, struggling busily through an airport, and I thought then, for the first time, how great that they traveled at their age. Now, I know: Why not? What does age have to do with it? Only health should get in the way.

Which leads me to make a more serious point. Ageism, as this site has made clear, is subtle and bad enough. But when ageism is combined with disability, it’s worse than that. And among my pet peeves are outfits such as AARP and ElderHostel, which are supposed to be age and disability friendly and should know better. But both outfits seem to be catering to younger, more able-bodied boomer types.

I’ve criticized ElderHostel elsewhere because the majority of its programs, especially those that are overseas, are too strenuous for many older people and they make little or no allowance for the disabled person. ElderHostel is a wonderful organization and I have participated in several programs, but that was before the stroke left me unable to walk very far.

ElderHostel will tell you that they will try to accommodate to your needs if you notify them in advance. But wheelchairs are not always available and one gets the idea that disabled people are not encouraged. Many of the programs require a good deal of walking. Unlike the cruise ships, which are wonderfully accommodating towards disabled passengers, most of the ElderHostel programs abroad cannot supply, say, wheelchairs or scooters.

Finally, AARP seems to be an organization for older people who are golf-ready, handsome, happy, white-haired and very able-bodied. Indeed, the AARP magazine and Bulletin usually includes sex-enhancement advertisements. But rarely does the magazine or the Bulletin show really old people. And almost never does the magazine (the latest has Dolly Parton on the cover) show a person with a cane or a walker, much less a wheelchair.

In the past, AARP’s policy was to refuse advertisements depicting disabled older people. Nancy Graham, the magazine editor told me that’s no longer the case, but the only ads I see are relatively young people posing with walk-in showers and stair-climbing chairs. She promised me weeks ago that the blackout of disabled older persons would end. So far, it hasn’t.



REFLECTIONS: War

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections I’ve covered a couple of wars in my reporting days - the 1971 war between Pakistan and India, their second or maybe third, and the 1973 Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli conflict, their third or fourth. I say “covered,” but that’s not possible. All I could see and write about was my small corner of the wars. But that was enough to teach me how little the war makers really know about war.

For example, I watched a dog fight in the sky above Egypt during the Yom Kippur war from the top of an Israeli tank that had crossed the Suez Canal the night before. I couldn’t hear the sounds of the planes above the noise of the tank. But soon one plane, we thought it was the Egyptian, went down and crashed a mile or so away. There were no cheers, but I remember thinking, “someone died.” I wondered, did anybody watching realize that?

I had been called away from a European vacation with my wife and younger daughter to cover the war from the Israeli side. Israel was reeling from simultaneous Syrian and Egyptian invasions. The older daughter was wandering in Israel when the war broke out.

In the states, Watergate was coming to some sort of climax, but I was getting away to Europe because I had helped break the story about Vice President Spiro Agnew’s bribe-taking. Covering the Arab-Israeli War was a welcome change.

But it presented me with a new dilemma, as a Jew. I was driving back from the front in Sinai to Tel Aviv with a colleague from The New York Times when we were stopped by an Israeli convoy. It was carrying portable bridge sections, which meant the Israelis were planning a Suez Canal crossing to flank and surround the Egyptians.

Should we have reported that and killed the Israeli surprise? I doubt if we could have gotten it past the censors, but there was a way. Should we have taken it? We didn’t, for it would have meant a great loss of Israeli lives. As it turned out, the Israelis didn’t attack the Egyptians and at war’s end, Israel had lost territory for the first time. Would I have made the same decision reporting from the Arab side? I hope so.

That’s part of the trouble with modern war. Much of it is remote and surreal, like that silent dogfight. Not until later, when the tank reached the crash, did we see the body; it looked like a mannequin with arms and legs splayed like a stick figure. Even the dead in war often look unreal, undead. From the air or from afar, no one really knows what or who the bomb or rocket or artillery round may be killing.

Maybe that’s what makes it morally easier for Hamas to fire a rocket toward an unseen target, for Israeli planes and mortars to demolish Gaza homes and offices, for American planes to kill innocents in surgical strikes aimed at the Taliban. The dead are unseen; indeed under Jewish law and the Muslim faith, the dead are buried before the investigators can come.

And of course, everyone who was responsible regrets “the loss of innocent life,” as if the deaths of non-innocents are okay.

I am not a pacifist, though I admire a principled pacifist - to a point. Some wars against some enemies need to be fought. But I can’t think of a war that could not have been prevented. One reason I can dig pacifism is because I can no longer distinguish between the innocents and the non-innocents. Today’s innocent is tomorrow’s non-innocent. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the U.S. support Iraq and Saddam Hussein against Iran after we sold arms to Iran, which was before Hussein invaded our innocent sheik friends in Kuwait?

Didn’t Israel encourage the formation of Hamas in Gaza as a fundamentalist Muslim counter to the then hated and decidedly secular Palestine Liberation Organization of Yassir Arafat? I was in Israel in those days and Hamas, which had been scorned in Egypt as too radical, took root with Israeli approval as a kind of community political and service organization.

Now the Palestinian Authority are the good guys, although they are walled off from Israel and their own lands. And Hamas, whose organizing paid off politically, became Israel’s worst enemy and was supposedly the target of a devastating 22-day attack that incidentally killed 1,300 people, including 400 children. Only the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch people who come in later, shuffling among the ruins and smelling death understand what happened, despite the predictable denials.

As long as we’re on the subject of unintended consequences (unintended, perhaps, but easily foreseen), was the U.S. not enthralled with the Taliban when their American-made, shoulder-fired missile-launchers brought down Soviet helicopters killing scores of Russians and running them Russians out of Afghanistan?

I remember American reporters in their bush jackets, singing the praises of the valiant Muhjahadeen fighters. Then they took over a secular government in Afghanistan, smashed ancient monuments, turned the country and its women back to the 13th century and gave cover to Osama Ben Laden. Now we bomb the Taliban and the civilians - killing innocents among the non-innocent with missile strikes with impersonal drones. And we and the Afghans send in investigators with the Red Cross and Human Rights watchers, some of whom had been investigating in Gaza.

Only when I saw war on the ground did I know for sure people died. Not just died; they were torn apart, and then they died. Seeing war up close is what ended the Vietnam tragedy; seeing war up close is what is ending our participation in the Iraq stupidity. That’s the reason the Bush and his other draft dodgers did not want us to see caskets, perhaps because they did not want to see them.

They were far removed from the killing. The writer E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) wrote of George W. Bush in 2004, “I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our 21-year-olds who wanted to be what they could be.” Nor did he suffer the death of the Iraqi, Afghan, Israeli or Palestinian that his policies caused.

I knew death close-up from the other, earlier war, between India and Pakistan in 1971, over the land known as East Pakistan, until it became Bangladesh, thanks to the strength of the Indian Army which had the backing of the then Soviet Union, while the U.S. tilted towards Pakistan. I remember taking cover in a farmer’s field while the Indian and Pakistani artillery traded rounds and I was rooting for the Soviet-made guns.

A few minutes earlier, I had been chatting with three Indian soldiers in a small shack among the trees, comparing our watches. Suddenly, I thought that shack would make a target for a Pakistani gunner and I left. Sure enough, the guns opened fire and I lay between furrows in the field until the firing stopped.

I went back to the shack to find it had been demolished and my three friends were dead, torn apart by shrapnel. But their watches still kept time. Cruel anomalies when allies become enemies and enemies become friends until next time - that’s the absurdity that is war.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Claudia Chyle Smith: The Wedding Gown.



REFLECTIONS: Seeger and Me

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections I don't personally know Pete Seeger and I don't think he knows me. And I doubt that he remembers the couple of times I sang with him. But it's worth remembering and reflecting upon, for the separate histories of Seeger and me represent a certain mellowing in this country towards our kind of radicalism.

I first saw and heard Seeger in the very early forties, when he was making a modest living playing and singing at school assemblies. I don't recall whether he came to my elementary school, P.S. 225, or Abraham Lincoln High School, in Brooklyn. It could have been either for they were both, shall we say, progressive.

My graduation from 225, for example, featured the songs of the Red Army and the Chinese (Communist) National Anthem plus, of course, the Marine hymn. At the Lincoln graduation, we sang "United Nations on the march with flags unfurled...together fight for victory and a brave new world!"

I should say here that in my last year at Lincoln, my good tenor voice got me into the All City High School Chorus which gave a couple of concerts at Brooklyn Tech where we sang, among other things, a special arrangement of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and The Messiah's Hallelujah Chorus.

Anyway, I remember Seeger at the school assembly as a scrawny guy in shirt sleeves with a red nose and a big and bobbing Adam's apple. His banjo was a new sound. And despite the usual student skepticism, he had us singing songs that later made him famous like Michael Row the Boat Ashore. I didn't know it then but that bobbing Adam's apple planted in me a love for folk music.

Much to my regret, the war, World War II, was over by the time I was old enough to get in it. But in our neighborhoods, mostly Jewish Brighton and Manhattan Beach, even the kids on street corners argued about the war and politics. Everyone was at least a left-wing Democrat. And in 1948, when we were still in mourning for Frankly Roosevelt and charging Truman with encouraging a cold war, even my apolitical mother got political, taking me to Philadelphia to the Progressive Party convention that nominated former vice-president Henry Wallace for president.

That's when I got involved in campaigning for the first time and my efforts included Wallace and the incumbent, left-wing congressman from upper Manhattan, Vito Marcantonio, who won his seat as a Republican and switched to the American Labor Party. And it was during one of the rallies for Marcantonio on the streets of East Harlem that I sang on the back of a flatbed truck with Seeger and others, although I do not remember the songs.

About that time, I was working in lower Manhattan for a camera shop and was a member of Local 65, which represented garment industry wholesale and retail workers and had its headquarters at 13 Astor Place. (There's a Starbucks now on the ground floor.) It was, to put it bluntly, the center of left wing, Socialist and Communist, pro-labor activities. And in the bar on the top floor, I became acquainted with labor songs and sang on occasion with an informal group known as the Almanac Singers.

The group had begun in 1940, says Google, with Lee Hays and Seeger playing for left-wing political rallies and labor union events. In 1941, they were joined by the legend, Woody Guthrie, and his songs seem to give them wider appeal.

Guthrie and his sidekick, Cisco Houston, had popularized the works of the New Deal and the songs of the Depression, like Tom Joad. They were also part of what was called the Popular Front, an alliance of liberals, leftists and communists.

They, including Seeger, opposed Roosevelt and his moves towards war until the Soviet Union was invaded in June. That remained an embarrassment for Seeger, a pacifist. Nevertheless, the Almanac songs, which I came to learn - Union Maid, I Don't Want Your Millions Mister, Which Side Are You On - were and still are labor anthems. But to hurry to my point, the Almanac Singers, including Seeger, Hays and Guthrie were clearly pro-Communist. And they paid for it.

In 1942, according to Wikipedia, the FBI decided the Almanac Singers were seditious threats. And they were forced underground to play for trusted, friendly audiences. But in 1950, as folk music began a renaissance with Burl Ives and Peter, Paul and Mary, the Almanac Singers emerged as The Weavers and this time Seeger and Hays were joined by the great Ronnie Gilbert and guitarist Fred Hellerman.

They made it to the top with Good Night, Irene among others. But Mcarthyism caught up with them and they disbanded in 1953, after Seeger refused to testify and declined to join the Weavers program in sponsoring a tobacco ad. But the Weavers had set the stage for Joan Baez and the folk music revival of the '50s. More important, Seeger had made Communist Guthrie's ballad, This Land Is Your Land, the unofficial national anthem.

Seeger, of course, retired to his Hudson River home and began a crusade the clean up the river. But he was called out of retirement again and again for the civil rights struggles and the anti-Vietnam war movement. On the road from Selma to Montgomery, in 1965, he made up new verses for We Shall Overcome. Thousand gathered in Washington in 1970, to sing with him, Give Peace A Chance. Today, his great anti-war song, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy - And The Big Fool Says Push on, is still relevant.

I have not sung with him since those early days, but I've sung with him at peace and civil rights events even while carrying my reporter's notebook. And when I was able to play a guitar, before my stroke, I gave folk songs to my kids. But remembering those early days and Seeger's and my politics then, it came to me how we've all grown up, he and I and this country. Maybe we are no longer afraid of radical thought.

Guthrie's anthem was sung at Barack Obama's inauguration by Seeger, who was honored on his 90th birthday by the president he had hoped for. Seeger has never lost his radicalism, and Bruce Springsteen said at the inauguration, "Pete, you outlasted the bastards."

After an interruption of eight years of narrow fear-mongering and the worship of war and power, I remember and take pride in my radical past and join in honoring Pete Seeger, the man with the bobbing Adam's apple who I met more than 60 years ago.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Norm Jenson has a wry tale of modern-day, personal politics in Working Class.



REFLECTIONS: Taxes

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections The late and unlamented foolishness called Tea Bagging for Tax Day on the ides of April, reminds me of one of the earliest lessons I learned in Washington journalism: Beware of the “cheap shot.”

But before I go further, there are a few things that need to be said in the wake of the vicious and hypocritical and dangerous stupidity of the so-called protests, things that most of my colleagues in the press may have missed. I say dangerous because most of the mob-like threats and name-calling, like “fascist,” “communist,” “socialist,” were directed at the first black President of the United States. And the fanaticism, the results of which could be unthinkable, was encouraged by appeals to lawlessness:

1. House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said, “April 15 has long been and always will be a day American workers and their families despise.”

First, the polls show that this is not true; 61 percent of Americans think the tax code is fair. But this is from a man, sworn to uphold the tax laws, among others, who has been taking taxpayers’ salaries and perks for 20 years, and who let out nary a peep when his president sent Ohioans to wars, approved wiretaps and torture and ran up the highest deficits in history while trying to kill Social Security.

2. Talk show foul mouth Glenn Beck, whose baseless babbles charging Obama with the intent to ban all guns, may have led to the murders of three police officers in Pittsburgh, called for secession from the federal government because, he said, it’s driving us to suicide, all the while standing in the Alamo, where Bowie, Crockett, Travis and every defender died as part of their effort to eventually bring Texas into the union.

The Alamo, not incidentally, was restored as a national monument by the federal Works Progress Administration.

3. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, suggested his state has the right to secede from the union, apparently forgetting that that had been tried before, that Texas would blow away if not for federal largesse, and that Texas owes its existence to one of the greatest federal land grabs in American history in 1836 - thanks to Andrew Jackson and his friend, Sam Houston, the state’s first governor and an opponent of the 1861 secession.

Apparently, Perry and fellow governors of the Old Confederacy are still fighting the Civil War for states’ rights (i.e, slavery) as well as the outcome of the last election, refusing to recognize that their side lost in 1865 and Obama won in 2008.

But I have digressed. Like these demagogues, many of us – in the press and among the public – are too quick to join in taking such shots at taxes, the Congress and its alleged pork barrel projects, now called “earmarks.” We do so without thinking. They are easy targets.

And it’s especially easy for television to ridicule where our money goes and how it is spent; it makes for a good two-minute piece. It’s the kind of cheap shot that the late Sen. William Proxmire, [D Wis] popularized with his “Golden Fleece Award.” But most of the time if you looked closer, there was merit in the expenditure.

Thus Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, part of the Old Confederacy cabal fighting against federal money its citizens need, ridiculed the funds in the stimulus legislation that monitored volcano activity. Of course there are no volcanoes in Louisiana, but there is one in Alaska and it’s been erupting. And there is money set aside for monitoring hurricane and levee problems in Louisiana.

Remember how many times during the campaign you heard criticism of funds spent on fruit fly research? Well, because of the nature of the fruit flies’ rapid generational changes, they make for excellent research into all sorts of human problems. And yes, we ought to know why the honey bee seems to be disappearing.

More broadly, the nation’s founders created the House of Representatives and gave it the exclusive powers to tax and appropriate because the “People’s House” is where the most basic tenet of American politics, the utilitarian principle of self-interest, rightly understood, operates. Indeed, what has been derided as “bringing home the bacon” is what members of the House are supposed to do.

In that give and take among members of the House is how roads, bridges, schools, sewer systems and money for states and localities are divvied up. It’s true that some of it may go to a bridge to nowhere, but then again, it may be a bridge that serves a few people who need it.

That’s what government is for. Perhaps some of the things are purchased at too high a price, but the seller and the maker will pay taxes on the money they make.

I am sure there have been many abuses, but over these 200 plus years, the Congress has spent money to build the railroads, the nation’s industrial infrastructure, the interstate highway system and the airports, though this process too often belittled as pork. All of us who closely examine our own lives can find how we’re better off for the pork that members of Congress, and our city and county council representatives, won for us and our neighborhoods. Just the other day, county pork paved the roads in my rural area.

As for taxes, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, reported on April 17 that the average American family paid only 5.9 percent of its earnings in federal income taxes in 2007, a near-record low. As a result, a Gallup survey found that more than half the people said their federal income taxes were either too low or about right.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out that the United States has “the lowest taxes of all developed nations.” Even the wealthiest of Americans this year will pay only 28 percent (slightly more than under Bill Clinton), compared to a 90 percent marginal tax rate during World War II and under Dwight Eisenhower (which worked out to 50 percent after deductions).

According to the liberal Campaign for America’s future, the problem is not so much that taxes are too high, but that many are unfair. Great corporations escape an estimated $14 billion in taxes through loopholes, deductions and off-shore businesses. Individuals who can afford good lawyers or accountants pay lower rates than many less affluent Americans who don’t itemize.

A good example of the unfairness is the regressive payroll tax for Social Security. At the moment, there is a $107,800 cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes, which means persons earning more – much more - avoid this tax on every dollar they earn over $107,800. And sales taxes on necessities hit the poor harder than the rich.

Still, even with payroll, state, local and sales taxes, Americans pay a smaller percentage of their incomes to governments than most people in Europe. Taxes in France and Germany amount to 50 percent or more. Americans pay less in taxes, but a lot more than most Europeans for public transit. And Europe’s high taxes provide a variety of benefits including paid maternity leave, child care and universal health care.

We get what we pay for and we seem to want a huge military more than we want, say, better public schools and health care.

So next time you celebrate low taxes, don’t complain about the pothole that swallowed your car or the cops who didn’t come quickly enough. Remember the admonition of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” And earmarks too.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson talks about childhood and food in The Asparagus Tale.



Elder Music? Not Today - Instead...

[EDITORIAL NOTE: My apologies for no elder music today. The week got away from me and I ran out of time. So instead, here is a REFLECTIONS EXTRA: Malaria from Saul Friedman whose regular Reflections column will appear here next Thursday.]

[Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections When I read that Saturday, April 25, had been designated World Malaria Day, it reminded me how and why the United States had succeeded in eradicating that parasitic scourge from this country by 1949. It was one of the most important, if unsung, triumphs of the New Deal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, malaria was endemic in the 13 southeastern states until the late 1940s. Indeed, CDC's headquarters was placed in Atlanta partly because that part of the Old South was at the center of the malaria belt.

If during the early part of the 20th century, many southerners seemed slow, lazy and intellectually backward, much of the reason was malaria which infected nearly a third of the people, especially in rural areas. The malaria parasite caused anemia, fever, loss of energy and other debilitating ailments.

The attack on malaria in the American south began when the Tennessee Valley Authority drained the swamps as part of its project to bring public power, flood control, reforestation and recreation to the southeast. And the TVA, created in 1933, spent more money than any agency on malaria mosquito eradication. The TVA hired entomologists, doctors and malaria experts to help sharecroppers, black and white, fight the mosquito.

After the US. entered World War II, when southern training bases put GIs in danger, the U.S. Public Health Service joined in the eradication program. But the TVA had done most of the work. In 1949, the U.S. was declared free of malaria. This is something the Old Confederacy might remember these days.



REFLECTIONS: Uncle Sam

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Everyone has – or ought to have – an Uncle Sam. Not the red, white and blue cardboard cutout with the beard and top hat. I mean a real Uncle Sam like my mother’s older brother who lived with us when I was a boy and gave me three of the most important things in my life, the greatest of which was my love of opera.

Sam worked in the New York garment industry, selling things like trim and buttons to manufacturers of women’s clothes. And the family told the story of how Sam, when he was a young man, came home with his arms bandaged because he helped pull people out of the flames that killed 146 immigrant women who were trapped in the sweatshop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911.

Hosingbuilding

Until he explained, the family laughed at Sam’s bandaged arms, because he was always getting into trouble.

But that was because my Uncle Sam, who had been an immigrant, cared deeply about the important things, like injustice and the exploitation of workers. He was a fellow traveler, but he wouldn’t join the party (Communist, of course) because he feared deportation and he loved America. He broke with the party after Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler.

Sam also was an avid and knowledgeable New York Yankees fan, who corresponded with Casey Stengel about the fine points of the game. And he was adamant that Enrico Caruso was a greater tenor than the upstart Swede, Jussi Bjorling.

So these were the gifts Sam left me: my liberal left politics and a skepticism that has served me well as a writer. I often accompanied Sam on sunny Saturday and Sunday afternoons to the boardwalk near Brighton Beach where we joined the men gathered in knots arguing politics, philosophy, current affairs and the culpability of God for not striking Hitler dead.

Secondly, I have remained loyal to the Yankees despite George Steinbrenner for after all, Sam and I sat in the centerfield bleachers to see the likes of Gehrig, DiMaggio, Dickey, Keller, Gordon, Rizzuto and even Ruth when he made a guest appearance in a reunion with the 1927 team. One cannot do any better than that in baseball.

Sam made me understand why baseball was the greatest sport; it made a virtue of imperfection, for hitting safely just one out of three times could make you a star.

Finally, there was – and is – an appreciation – no, a love - of great music, but especially grand opera, which, as my wife says, combines all the arts – theater, acting, stage design, story, costumes, music and, of course, the glory of the human voice.

Sam introduced me to Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s symphonies on 12-inch, 78rpm, RCA records. But mostly, we listened to the greatest voices on the family Victrola: Caruso’s la Donna e Mobile, Una Furtiva Lagrima and my favorite e Lucevan la Stelle, which Cavaradossi sings to Tosca when he is about to die.

Enrico Caruso - la Donna e Mobile [2:18 minutes]

After Sam left our home and got married and I was old enough to go to work, I had his record collection. Even better, I had money enough to indulge in my two luxuries: suring the seasons, I went to an opera on Saturday night sitting up in the cheap seats, and a ball game at Yankee Stadium on a Friday night sitting in the bleachers. I went to ball games mostly alone, but I measured the worth of my girl friends by whether they enjoyed good music and opera.

On my last night in New York before I entered the army in 1950, my then lady friend, Judy, and I went to a New York City opera performance of Madame Butterfly. Now who could not like Butterfly when she sang, One Fine Day or when she killed herself for the love of Pinkerton and their child. Judy was unmoved and bored. And I never saw her again.

Renata Tebaldi - Un Bel Di [4:20 minutes]

Fast forward two years. I was married to Evelyn who played a lovely classical piano and shared my view that Mozart and Beethoven were direct descendants of God. On our first date we listened to classical music in the record library of the local USO. On our second, we saw the musical, Song of Norway, based on the music of Edward Grieg.

On our first trip to New York, after I left the army, we went to the old Met for a performance of Tosca with Dorothy Kirsten in the title role. When the tenor, Feruccio Tagliavini, sang Lucevan le Stelle in the final act, Evelyn saw her new husband crying with happiness - from being out of the army at last, back in New York and at the Met (not the cheap seats) with my new wife who loved opera.

Feruccio Tagliavini - Lucevan le Stelle [2:56 minutes]

May I say here that we are not musical snobs, although we do not consider rap and much of the most raucous crap music. We’re fans of Holiday, Fitzgerald and Brubeck. I played a folk guitar for a while and introduced my kids to Guthrie, Josh White and Seeger. And I brought home from my travels the earliest 45rpms of this new group of kids called the Beatles.

Since then, Evelyn and I have seen dozens of opera performances all over the world, some great, some not. I’ve even reviewed a few and we’ve lectured on opera. Happily, we share the same politics I inherited from my Uncle Sam. And while my passion for baseball has faded in the steroid era, opera, among many other things, has kept Evelyn and me together and listening for 57 years.

Thanks, Sam, wherever you are.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, wisewebwoman writes of A Wasted Brain in Oz.]



REFLECTIONS: Reagan

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Can anyone guess which modern statesman said the following, which I shall quote at length?

“Facing conditions of absolute inhumanity such as those which now exist in Sudan and Somalia, does not the world have a moral responsibility to act? To choose the right to passage, to impose minimum order and provide sanctuaries of relief? In parts of Africa today, mankind is an endangered species.

“Have we come to the point where we must set up human preserves as we have for rhinos and elephants? If so, then let us do it, and do it now...We must work toward a standing U.N. Force – an army of conscience – that is fully equipped and prepared to carve out human sanctuaries if necessary...I can think of no more honorable mission for a soldier or his country.”

I do not think that people like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich or the rest of today’s Republican leaders would even come close to agreeing with that or recognizing who said it. But then they didn’t really know the man who said it, the man they profess to idolize and emulate, whose name they take in vain attempts to justify their extreme politics.

The speaker was Ronald Reagan, who I knew during more than eight years that I covered his campaigns and his presidency. This was the Reagan who had learned a few things and grew during and after his presidency. This was the Reagan who, plainly put, was not anywhere as near as radical or as nuts as the people who now control Republican politics.

Reagan was popular because he was an inclusive person with not a trace of wingnut vindictiveness – even towards a critical reporter. He was close to then-Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill; one of his first appointments was that of former Senate Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield as ambassador to Japan.

The speech, to which I’ll return, was entitled Democracy’s Next Battle, and was delivered on December 4, 1992, at the Oxford Union Society in England just a month after Bill Clinton was elected president. The students of the storied debating society had expected to poke fun at Reagan, then 81. But they greeted his unexpected words with a prolonged standing ovation.

I know, this was the same Ronald Reagan who ushered in the era of greed and huge deficits; who approved selling arms to Iran to finance the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua; who turned the cold war icy with his railing against the Soviets as the “evil empire”; who sent troops into hapless Grenada, probably to mitigate the killing of 240 Marines in Lebanon; who gave us Star Wars, the myth of a missile defense that’s still with us.

I know about these Reagan misadventures for I covered and wrote critically about all of them, first for Knight Ridder Newspapers, then for Newsday. And I laughed at Reagan’s foibles, as when he came back from Central America and exclaimed that “there are a lot of different countries down there.” Or when he visited a souvenir stand in China and proclaimed that it was a sign that free enterprise had come to Beijing.

Nevertheless, I am a bit of a Reagan revisionist for it is important to contrast his presidency and his brand of conservatism with that of the former and unlamented occupant of the White House and the right-wing reactionaries who have hijacked conservatism, which my dictionary defines as “a political orientation advocating the preservation of the best in society and opposing radical changes.” That would include radical changes to the Constitution.

It is true that Reagan came into office with a promise to cut taxes by a third, which he did with the help of Democrats who piled on their own tax breaks. Signed in 1981, it was the largest tax cut in history. But Reagan’s chief of staff was Vice-President George H.W. Bush’s former campaign manager, James A. Baker, a pragmatic conservative hated by White House right-wingers like Pat Buchanan.

Fearing that the tax cuts were too deep, that the deficit was growing too quickly, Baker and the Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, also a pragmatic conservative, combined in 1983 to get Reagan’s grudging approval for the largest tax increase in history.

In 1976, when Reagan ran in the Republican primaries against then-Vice President Gerald Ford, he suggested Social Security be made voluntary. He also believed that Medicare was a step towards socialized medicine. But in the presidency, he came to understand that Social Security would collapse if it was made voluntary and he made no move to change its nature.

Instead, the commission he appointed under Alan Greenspan, made changes that saved Social Security for 75 years. Nor did he make a move to privatize or cut Medicare. Perhaps that’s because he admired and had voted for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman before he became a Republican. He didn’t allow ideology to get in the way of good sense and politics.

He was late coming to the fight against AIDS, as the epidemic grew in the Reagan years. But he did come, at the urging most importantly of Elizabeth Taylor. And despite support from right-wing fundamentalists, Reagan, the first president who had been divorced, did not engage in gay bashing and he did not press his views against abortion, probably because he had too many Hollywood friends who were gay or had had abortions.

It is also true that Reagan, against the advice of Baker and most of his generals, sent Marines into Lebanon in 1982, ostensibly to protect the airfield and other installations as the Israelis were pursuing the fleeing Palestinians. Reagan was effusively pro-Israel, but the pragmatists argued that even if the Marines were supposed to be neutral, they would be seen as on Israel’s side and get deeper into the quagmire.

Sure enough, after Reagan ordered a battleship to fire on positions that had been attacking the Marines, came the bombing of their barracks. I was there when Reagan took responsibility, then pulled the Marines out.

Finally, despite his cold war rhetoric, Reagan was among the first leaders in the west (with then-British Prime minister Margaret Thatcher) to recognize that Mikhail Gorbachev was a genuine reformer and, as I reported in these columns earlier, he met with the then-Soviet leader in Moscow to declare the era of the evil empire was over. And together they concluded treaties to reduce, for the first time, the number of nuclear weapons. They are still in force.

I’ve always believed that when he called for Gorbachev, in 1986, to “tear down” the Berlin wall, he knew it would happen. And it did, when George H.W. Bush was president and Baker was his secretary of state. Bush, as vice-president, had thought Reagan naive about Gorbachev and as president delayed for a year agreeing to the arms treaties that Reagan made possible.

Indeed, in one meeting with Gorbachev that I covered, in Iceland, Reagan and Gorbachev nearly agreed to banish all nuclear weapons, until their advisers intervened. And after Reagan’s death in 2004, Fred Kaplan concluded in Slate that “the end of the Cold War may be the most oddball chapter in the history of the 20th Century. How fitting, then, that the two most oddball leaders, Gorbachev and Reagan, made it come to pass.”

Consider, please, what would have happened in those days if Baker or Reagan had listened to the naysayers and cold-warriors in the Reagan administration, like the Buchanans, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Richard Perle. What if we were listening to the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and O’Reilly then?

Reagan was a conservative to the core, but he grew in office. Once, before he became president, he suggested the U.N. should “sail off into the sunset,” forgetting that the organization is on the east coast.

As he told the Oxford students,

“I did not always value international organizations and for good reason, they were nothing more than debating societies...But with the end of the cold war, the U.N. was also liberated...As long as military power remains a necessary tool of modern existence, then we should use it as a humanitarian tool and rely more on multilateral institutions - such as NATO and the U.N...The noble vision of the U.N.’s founders is now closer to realization.”

I was told Reagan wrote most of the speech, which concluded,

“My young friends, I hope with all my hearts that your days will be great, not on the battlefield, but in science labs, the operating rooms, performing arts halls and wherever empires of the mind can be assembled.”

Perhaps such eloquence is one of the reasons President Barack Obama admires and understands Reagan’s legacy better than those who call themselves his heirs.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary E. Davies is In the Mood to be Beautiful.]



REFLECTIONS: Socialism

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections To borrow a famous phrase, “a spectre is haunting” America, the specter of socialism. No kidding.

Last October, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, known experts on specters, labeled Democratic candidate Barack Obama a “socialist” because he proposed increasing taxes on the rich to spread the wealth more equally. And Senator John McCain, who has spent his entire adult life in the pay of the federal government, joined them in denouncing Obama’s plans as “socialism.”

At the same time, when those capitalist bastions, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, were rescuing and taking over commercial and investment banks in the waning days of the most conservative presidency since Calvin Coolidge, even President Bush suggested that this sounded like the end of free enterprise. And some of his best friends on the right said the bailouts smacked of socialism.

In early February as the outgoing Republican administration’s hundreds of billions in bailouts of businesses and banks gave way to the trillions in bailouts and stimulus proposals of the new Democratic President, Newsweek’s provocative cover proclaimed, “We are All Socialists Now.”

Noting the cries of “socialism” from the ranks of right-wing Republican lawmakers (who had given unswerving support to Bush’s deficits and Big Brother government), the Newsweek editors wrote,

“There it was...the S word, a favorite among conservatives...But it seems strangely beside the point. The U.S. government has already – under a conservative Republican administration –effectively nationalized the banking and mortgage industries...Whether we want to admit it or not...the America of 2009 is moving toward a modern European state.”

By that they meant a social democracy, or a democracy (as in Britain, France and virtually everywhere else in the civilized world) with a measure of socialism, social ownership of public services.

Since then, with the introduction of Obama’s first budget, which calls for a tectonic shift in the nation’s priorities – from war fighting, do-nothing government and tax cuts for the wealthy to spending for public works, health care for all, jobs programs and education, liberals celebrate and call for nationalization and social democracy, while conservatives cry socialism as an epithet just short of communism. Thus a column in late February by conservative Washington Post pundit, Charles Krauthammer, was entitled, The Obamaist Manifesto. (Get it?).

On Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress, Krauthammer wrote, it

“...will be seen as historic – indeed as the foundational document of Obamaism. As it stands, it constitutes the boldest social democratic manifesto ever issued by a U.S. President.”

On the same date, as if taking a cue from Krauthammer, Congressional Quarterly reported from the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, that Republican congressional leaders had come up with a strategy to oppose Obama’s budget priorities by “comparing them to those of socialist governments in Europe.”

House Republican leader John Boehner, one of the tannest members of Congress, considering he’s from Cincinnati, told the conference, “The stimulus, the omnibus budget, it’s all one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Obama was seeking to “basically Europeanize America.”

Mike Huckabee said of Obama’s plans, “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.”

And profitable prophet Tim LaHaye, told interviewer Rachel Maddow that Obama’s “socialism” was a precursor to “the rapture,” and the coming of the “antiChrist.”

That’s crazy, for sure, but it’s time to quit pussy-footing around the language and see what we’re talking about when throwing out words like “socialism.” For as I wrote here last October, there’s not a thing wrong with socialism. Some of our greatest minds were socialists, including Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and George Orwell. But Barack Obama is not a socialist, although I would not object if he was.

Socialism, according to Wikipedia,

“refers to a broad set of economic theories of social organization advocating public or state ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods...”

The key phrase - ”public or state ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods” - separates what is and what is not socialist.

Thus, the Newsweek story referred to Bush’s huge expenditure and expansion of Medicare’s prescription drug benefit as an example of a movement toward European style socialism. It was nothing of the sort, for the legislation took the program out of the hands of the government, Medicare, and gave it to drug and insurance companies that have enjoyed big profits.

Moreover, Medicare is not a socialist enterprise because it contracts with insurance companies as regional administrators and Medicare’s providers - doctors, labs, hospitals - are mostly private, unlike the British system of socialized medicine where providers work for the National Health Service.

Even if Obama adopted Medicare for All, which I doubt, it would fall short of being socialized medicine, because medical providers would be working for themselves, as they do now with Medicare. As it is, Obama still plans that insurance companies will play a large role in health care.

The U.S. does, however, harbor enclaves of socialism. In the successful VA health system and in the National Institutes of Health, where some of the best medicine is done, providers work for the federal government. The National Parks are socialist enterprises, despite Bush’s attempts at privatizing them. Many public power utilities, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the great dams of the west, most urban transit systems and some railroads are owned by all of us.

Government can’t do anything right? Tell that to 60 million people served by Social Security. Or maybe you’d rather see Citigroup or General Motors or Philip Morris entrusted with your well-being.

I do not understand why we should fear the social democracy of Europe. Many Americans, including members of Congress, enjoy traveling to Europe and taking advantage of their social democracies - cheap and fast transportation, universal health care and a healthy opposition to war. There is no such thing as an uninsured person in the European Union, and the Euro has become as strong as the dollar.

But I digress. The only group that does not fear or even see the specter of socialism, is the Democratic Socialists of America, which mourns that socialism has not taken hold in this country and has few prospects. Nevertheless, as Obama is learning, despite the American desire for change, any challenge of the status quo will run into stiff opposition from those who have been in charge for more than eight years.

As that original 1848 manifesto said (substitute socialism for communism): “Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as socialistic by its opponents in power?”

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine speaks of the writing life in Tuesdays.]



REFLECTIONS: Darwin

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections The 200th birthday of Charles Darwin on February 12 reminded me of one of the reasons my business, journalism, is failing us and itself. I call it “on-the-other-handism,” the stupid idea that there are two sides to every story. More often, there are many sides. And sometimes there is only one side. But because too many traditional reporters still worship the gods of objectivity and impartiality, they’re failing to tell the truth.

For example, there is no other side to the discovery by the 16th century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way round as the Catholic Church held at time and for 300 years.

But the objective and entirely impartial journalist would write, “Mr. Copernicus, who is a Pole, contends that the earth revolves about the sun but the Pope, who is infallible in such matters, says that’s not true; the earth is the center of the universe. The Pontiff said of Copernicus, ‘It’s only a theory.’”

I believe this sort of journalism is at least one reason why, according to a Pew poll, 63 percent of Americans living in the 21st Century, reject Mr. Darwin’s idea that all life on this planet evolved over millions of years. I would guess that’s a greater percentage of such ignorance than in any other civilized country. Most of these Americans would say, along with the Pope, that it’s only a theory, because the impartial press has faithfully reported both sides and thus told us a lie.

When I worked in Detroit researching a story on extremism, I spoke with a leader of the secretive, right wing John Birch Society, who was going on about the anti-religious secularism he believed was at the heart of Einstein’s theory of relativity. “Relativism means there are no absolutes, like God, he said. “Relativity is only a theory.”

I replied, “But the bomb worked.” I wrote that and it helped ridicule the John Birch Society to death in Detroit.

(My friend Warren Kornberg, former editor of Mosaic, a scholarly journal published by the National Science Foundation, offers this: “A theory, in science is not just a hunch waiting to be proved; it’s the most reasonable conclusion to be drawn from a mass of evidence so convincing as to lead to no other synthesis.”)

I have no quarrel with those who choose to reject science for faith or who believe in a religious explanation for their place in the world. Most Americans believe in a literal heaven, which is their right. But as a reporter, I object when they seek to impose on me or my children what I know to be demonstrably untrue; our glorious Grand Canyon is not 4,000 years old and men did not live with dinosaurs, except on The Flintstones.

The point is that journalism, which has the tools of science and reason and investigation, is supposed to challenge ignorance, not perpetuate it. And its job is to question conventional wisdom before accepting it.

Too often, however, my colleagues have not done their job. And part of the reason is “on-the-other-handism.” I think it was New York Times economics columnist, Paul Krugman, in commenting on why the previous administration got away with so many lies that led to war, suggested that too many straight reporters felt compelled to give both sides, as in: “The administration says Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, but liberal critics say otherwise.” Or, “Scientists say the earth is round, but administration sources say they have evidence that it’s flat.”

Don’t laugh. Writing both or many sides of the story, when good reporting and your instincts tell you that one side is wrong, is what got us and keeps us into two wars. Theodore Roosevelt, who invented the term “muckrakers,” once suggested there is no middle ground between one side that says the grass is green and another that says it’s red.

But we continue to see this conventional journalism when Washington reporters give equal credibility to the arguments of Republicans who got into us into this mess, that government shouldn’t spend money in times of need, despite evidence to the contrary from most economists, including a couple of Nobel winners like Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.

It’s as if reporters decide there’s no right side. (This fetish for on-the-other-handism translates to a fetish for applauding bipartisanship as a virtue and partisanship as an evil, as if one can always split the difference to find truth.)

But as Robert Fisk, the fine Middle East reporter for the UK Guardian writes, there’s more than bad journalism at stake when reporters “prefer impartiality over morality.” And it wasn’t always so, he said, recalling the coverage of World War II by reporters like Ed Murrow and Rebecca West. Was there another side at Nuremberg?

Fisk, who was in Lebanon when Israel invaded a sovereign nation to attack Hezbollah and destroyed much of Beirut, did not equally and impartially tell both sides of that story. His stories reflected the horror and immorality of the violence of war. Only when reporters began to tell us the reality of the Vietnam War did we begin to get out. Some day perhaps the world will be equally outraged, if American reporters summoned the courage to tell us what really happened in Gaza when Israel used horror weapons on children.

Today, a few of the best reporters, like Dana Priest of The Washington Post, and Seymour Hersh, of the New Yorker, have dug into how America has fought the so-called “war on terror” and uncovered such outrages as extraordinary rendition, CIA black sites and Abu Ghraib. If newspapers are failing, it’s partly because they telling both sides while a few reporters, bloggers and satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are finding ways to tell truth.

Recalling the writing of great war correspondents of the past, Fisk wrote, “These reporters were spurred, weren’t they, by the immorality of war. They cared. They were not frightened of damaging their ‘impartiality.’ I wonder if we still write like this.”

Not if we continue to report, as I heard just the other day on CBS’s Sunday Morning, that on the other hand, some say Darwin was wrong. My science journalist friend, Warren Kornberg, reminds me of Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, who says at last, “On the other hand…No! There is no other hand!”

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Norm Jenson explains how A Coincidence came about.]



REFLECTIONS: The WPA

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Sometimes, like now, I think those macro-economists, to turn a phrase, can’t see the trees for the forest. That is, they talk in big, big numbers, and averages, and means and median, but they miss the important little things, like people.

For example, the macro guys considering President Obama’s economic revival package, tell us that its hundreds of billions and maybe a trillion will consist of so much spending on infrastructure and so many billions in tax cuts that if their models are correct maybe two or three million jobs would be created in two years, give or take.

While the macros are arguing whether that’s enough or too much to jump-start the economy, Democrats tell us that we need a stimulus (I hate that word) to prevent another Great Depression while Republicans charge it won’t work because such spending didn’t get us out of the Great Depression anyway, as if tax cuts did.

But the argument misses the whole point of economics, which is to provide food, clothing and shelter to the ill-fed, ill-clad and ill-housed.

I don’t really know whether the great jobs programs of the New Deal got us out of the Depression. But it doesn’t matter. More important than the macro arguments, is what the much-maligned Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps did for virtually every state and hundreds of towns in America, and the millions of men, women and children it helped during the hard times. Those benefits are still being seen and felt 60 years later.

When I lived in right-wing, anti-federal government Texas (which hasn’t changed much) it came as a shock to the know-nothings when I wrote that their beloved Alamo in downtown San Antonio was restored with the help of the WPA. And the city’s beautiful River Walk was the muddy San Antonio River until WPA workers fixed it up with landscaping, stone work, and walkways and lovely stone bridges that still stand. Today, the River Walk is at the center of the city’s life, with restaurants, shops and barges that ply the river serving dinner to tourists.

While browsing the web in search of more information about the WPA, which was renamed the Works Project Administration in 1939, I discovered that the WPA also built the obelisk of the San Jacinto monument outside Houston, which marks the battle in 1836 that gave Texas (and much of the west) its independence from Mexico.

If I may digress, I like the true story about how a slightly wounded Sam Houston and the captured General Santa Anna, made peace sitting under a tree smoking dope.

But closer to my point - that it’s the little things that count a lot - was this note that I came across from the University of Georgia Libraries, commenting on its collection of photographs that

“...chronicle the various WPA projects which took place in Georgia. The projects were the same in most all of the states and included basic work such as street building and repair.”

One such project was a beautiful, stone monument to the town of Cassville, which was burned to the ground in Sherman’s march across the state.

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

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

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

Indeed, while the WPA mostly worked with bricks and mortar and steel, building theaters and city halls, the WPA gave work to men and women of the arts when no one else could. The WPA Arts project gave us murals by Jackson Pollock in Pennsylvania. Dozens of artists were paid to paint murals in post offices and city halls many of which are still there, or have been transferred to museums for permanent display.

The WPA Theater Project, hired out-of-work actors and stage-hands who traveled the country putting on plays, concerts and vaudeville shows in hundreds of towns where people had never seen such a thing. And the Writers Project, which included Richard Wright and Saul Bellow, created dozens of wonderfully written state, city and regional guides, many of which I used as a reporter to learn about the places I covered and lived.

The WPA, I should add, hired women, although the agency’s boss, Harry Hopkins, frowned on giving work to both a wife and to leaving children unattended. About 15 percent of the workers were in the Women’s Division and they received equal pay, which was the local prevailing wage, from $19 to $94 a month, for a maximum of 30 hours of work each week. The WPA also provided jobs for 350,000 blacks, and helped dent some color barriers. And the WPA’s Education Division gave work to teachers who taught reading to thousands of illiterate blacks and whites.

But, as I said, I’m more interested in the littlest things. So I found this, an undated report on “hot lunches for a million school children,” by an assistant administrator of the WPA:

“One million undernourished children have benefitted by the WPA’s school lunch program. In the past year and a half 80,000,000 hot well-balanced meals have been served at the rate of 500,000 daily in 10,000 schools...

“School attendance has increased and classroom work has improved in every school in South Carolina where the school lunch projects operate...In Greenville County...children who were weighed at the beginning of the project and weighed again at the end of each five week period...showed an average weight gain of from three to eight ponds per child for the first five week period...”

Did the WPA get the nation out of the Depression? Does it matter?

[At The Elder Storytelling Place, Chester Baldwin solves the crime in Just Another Dusty Day.]



REFLECTIONS: Darwin

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections The 200th birthday of Charles Darwin on February 12 reminded me of one of the reasons my business, journalism, is failing us and itself. I call it “on-the-other-handism,” the stupid idea that there are two sides to every story. More often, there are many sides. And sometimes there is only one side. But because too many traditional reporters still worship the gods of objectivity and impartiality, they’re failing to tell the truth.

For example, there is no other side to the discovery by the 16th century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way round as the Catholic Church held at time and for 300 years.

But the objective and entirely impartial journalist would write, “Mr. Copernicus, who is a Pole, contends that the earth revolves about the sun but the Pope, who is infallible in such matters, says that’s not true; the earth is the center of the universe. The Pontiff said of Copernicus, ‘It’s only a theory.’”

I believe this sort of journalism is at least one reason why, according to a Pew poll, 63 percent of Americans living in the 21st Century, reject Mr. Darwin’s idea that all life on this planet evolved over millions of years. I would guess that’s a greater percentage of such ignorance than in any other civilized country. Most of these Americans would say, along with the Pope, that it’s only a theory, because the impartial press has faithfully reported both sides and thus told us a lie.

When I worked in Detroit researching a story on extremism, I spoke with a leader of the secretive, right wing John Birch Society, who was going on about the anti-religious secularism he believed was at the heart of Einstein’s theory of relativity. “Relativism means there are no absolutes, like God, he said. “Relativity is only a theory.”

I replied, “But the bomb worked.” I wrote that and it helped ridicule the John Birch Society to death in Detroit.

(My friend Warren Kornberg, former editor of Mosaic, a scholarly journal published by the National Science Foundation, offers this: “A theory, in science is not just a hunch waiting to be proved; it’s the most reasonable conclusion to be drawn from a mass of evidence so convincing as to lead to no other synthesis.”)

I have no quarrel with those who choose to reject science for faith or who believe in a religious explanation for their place in the world. Most Americans believe in a literal heaven, which is their right. But as a reporter, I object when they seek to impose on me or my children what I know to be demonstrably untrue; our glorious Grand Canyon is not 4,000 years old and men did not live with dinosaurs, except on The Flintstones.

The point is that journalism, which has the tools of science and reason and investigation, is supposed to challenge ignorance, not perpetuate it. And its job is to question conventional wisdom before accepting it.

Too often, however, my colleagues have not done their job. And part of the reason is “on-the-other-handism.” I think it was New York Times economics columnist, Paul Krugman, in commenting on why the previous administration got away with so many lies that led to war, suggested that too many straight reporters felt compelled to give both sides, as in: “The administration says Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, but liberal critics say otherwise.” Or, “Scientists say the earth is round, but administration sources say they have evidence that it’s flat.”

Don’t laugh. Writing both or many sides of the story, when good reporting and your instincts tell you that one side is wrong, is what got us and keeps us into two wars. Theodore Roosevelt, who invented the term “muckrakers,” once suggested there is no middle ground between one side that says the grass is green and another that says it’s red.

But we continue to see this conventional journalism when Washington reporters give equal credibility to the arguments of Republicans who got into us into this mess, that government shouldn’t spend money in times of need, despite evidence to the contrary from most economists, including a couple of Nobel winners like Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.

It’s as if reporters decide there’s no right side. (This fetish for on-the-other-handism translates to a fetish for applauding bipartisanship as a virtue and partisanship as an evil, as if one can always split the difference to find truth.)

But as Robert Fisk, the fine Middle East reporter for the UK Guardian writes, there’s more than bad journalism at stake when reporters “prefer impartiality over morality.” And it wasn’t always so, he said, recalling the coverage of World War II by reporters like Ed Murrow and Rebecca West. Was there another side at Nuremberg?

Fisk, who was in Lebanon when Israel invaded a sovereign nation to attack Hezbollah and destroyed much of Beirut, did not equally and impartially tell both sides of that story. His stories reflected the horror and immorality of the violence of war. Only when reporters began to tell us the reality of the Vietnam War did we begin to get out. Some day perhaps the world will be equally outraged, if American reporters summoned the courage to tell us what really happened in Gaza when Israel used horror weapons on children.

Today, a few of the best reporters, like Dana Priest of the Washington Post, and Seymour Hersh, of the New Yorker, have dug into how America has fought the so-called “war on terror” and uncovered such outrages as extraordinary rendition, CIA black sites and Abu Ghraib. If newspapers are failing, it’s partly because they telling both sides while a few reporters, bloggers and satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are finding ways to tell truth.

Recalling the writing of great war correspondents of the past, Fisk wrote, “These reporters were spurred, weren’t they, by the immorality of war. They cared. They were not frightened of damaging their ‘impartiality.’ I wonder if we still write like this.”

Not if we continue to report, as I heard just the other day on CBS’s Sunday Morning, that on the other hand, some say Darwin was wrong. My science journalist friend, Warren Kornberg, reminds me of Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, who says at last, “On the other hand…No! There is no other hand!”

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Norm Jenson explains how A Coincidence occurred.]



REFLECTIONS: Helen Thomas

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Of all the nasty, no-class acts the last president (I've already forgotten his name) committed was his deliberate slight of my friend and former colleague, Helen Thomas. She was sitting in her customary front row seat in the White House briefing room when the president held his last press conference. He refused to call on her.

Only a few of us noticed, including Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, who asked Thomas about it. She was not surprised at the snub, she said, for this president did not like her or the kind of questions she asked. Indeed, he hated challenging questions. Thomas told Goodman that she wanted to get away from those silly no-news nostalgia, what-do-you-regret questions, and ask him "why do you continue to support the killing in Gaza?"

And so this president once more insulted the press, in general, and this 89-year-old woman, who was covering Washington 60 years ago when he was dirtying his diapers. As far as I know, he has been the only president who was afraid of Helen Thomas.

Other presidents she's covered, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, may not have liked her nagging questions, but they did not ignore her; more often they enjoyed the banter with reporters. And they accorded Helen the respect that went with her unofficial title as Dean of the White House Press.

I met Helen when she was covering Johnson in the Sixties and I was an occasional visitor, as a reporter, to the White House. I was reading the wires with her on the clattering teletype in the press room one day, when there was a Presence hovering over us. It was Johnson, who had come out of his office to read the wires and he asked us, "What's going on?"

It was not unusual, Helen told me. LBJ was a restless man, who came out from behind his desk often to talk to reporters, because he liked them.

But I'm getting ahead of the story. After nearly 20 years reporting in Washington, Helen had first come to the White House for the United Press to cover John F. Kennedy, who she knew as a member of Congress. She had covered him and, especially the doings of his wife, Jacqueline, in Palm Beach, Florida, as they prepared to assume the presidency.

It was during one of Kennedy's press conferences, when the questions went on too long and the president wanted to quit but didn't know how, that Helen began what became a tradition, when she called out, "Thank you, Mr. President."

Vivacious and pretty with a dimple in her cheek, Helen was a hard-charger, the personification of the old United Press, a more aggressive wire service than the older and stodgy Associated Press.

Her boss was the late Merriman Smith, who scooped the AP on the Kennedy murder in 1963 while riding in the motorcade then dictated a masterful, prize-winning account of the tragedy.

Helen suffered a personal tragedy after she married in 1971, Douglas B. Cornell, the White House reporter for the AP who had covered and was a favorite of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1976, Helen has written, he began showing symptoms of what is believed to be Alzheimer's disease. She cared for him until he died in 1982, but she kept on working.

Although my stories took me to the White House occasionally during the Johnson and Nixon years, when Helen had become was the chief White House correspondent for the UP, I got to know her really well when I was assigned to cover Gerald Ford, who I knew as a member of Congress, and his successor, Jimmy Carter.

The press was lodged in the Best Western Motel, in Americus, Georgia, during the Ford-to-Carter transition. That's when I learned Helen had a great torch-singer's voice as she sang to my wife's piano-playing in the makeshift press room outside the adjoining Red Neck bar.

On New Year's eve, 1976, she got Ford on the phone in Colorado to wish him well. Carter in Plains, eight miles away, refused to take our call, which told us something about him.

Later, during my eight years covering the Reagan presidency, I often sat in Helen's tiny office chatting, and watching her type out her stories. Helen was the daughter (one of nine children) of Lebanese immigrant parents, who raised her in Detroit. And she's never forgotten her roots.

So she was in pain when she had to cover hard-line Israelis visiting the White House whom Reagan admired and supported. She could ask them pointed questions about Israel's latest offensive against Palestinians who had taken refuge in Lebanon. But her feelings never crept into her copy, which was always clean and straight.

That professionalism helped her break the gender barriers at the National Press Club and the good-old-boy Gridiron Club. She took to wearing red at press conferences with Reagan, when we discovered that he called more often on people who wore red. But Reagan continued the tradition of calling first on the wire reporters at press conferences. And Reagan depended on Helen to end them with her "Thank you. Mr. President."

United Press International, as it became known, was low on funds and curtailed Helen's ability to travel with the White House during the last years of the elder Bush's presidency. But White House reporters, including me, chipped in on a kind of travel slush fund, to help pay for food in press rooms on the road and, surreptitiously, for Helen's travel. Hillary Clinton, who didn't much like the press, started an investigation of the slush fund, which became known as "travelgate." It soured the Clintons' relations with much of the press.

After UPI was bought by the Moonies, Helen quit on principle. And eventually she went to work as a columnist for Hearst, where she is at last free to voice her views. But when the most recent president came along, he banished her to a back row at formal press conferences, and recognized her for a question only once, a year ago.

She might have lost her front row seat in the briefing room, except for the protests of the White House press. Still, Bush's press people treated her as a nag, and worse. Tony Snow, for example, accused her of voicing "the hezbollah view" when she asked why the US did not stop the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. It was a fair question.

But Helen gave as good as she got. She was the first, two years ago, to call our immediate past president "the worst president in our history." That may be why he refused to recognize her at that last press conference.

But he is gone. And Helen Thomas is still there.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Susan Gulliford reflects on a problem I have had all too often in Lost Car - or Just Misplaced.]



An Inauguration For the Ages

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman writes the bi-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. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections I have always had mixed feelings about the seven inaugurations I’ve covered because they fell on my wedding anniversary and I had to work and leave my wife to celebrate alone.

Not this time, for this one belongs to the ages, as someone once said. And I’ll be at home, warm and watching, and celebrating with my Evelyn and considering those other times.

Most of us of a certain age have said at one time or another that things - education, entertainment, music, movie stars, sex - were better back then. And inevitably someone reminds us that every generation says that.

That may be true. Maybe nostalgia is a sign of age. But that doesn’t mean we’re wrong.

Mine is a generation with memory. And I’m here to insist that in one realm with which I am familiar – politics - we have come a long way down in the last 20 years or so.

Perhaps that is about to change, for my hope and expectation is that beginning now, Barack Obama and team, as well as many of the new members of Congress, will reintroduce us to civility in politics and restore it as a calling for public service. That’s the politics my generation has grown up with.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not sanguine or overly romantic about the rough and tumble of politics. I learned about what has been called “the art of the possible,” in Texas as a cub reporter for The Houston Chronicle. This gang that is leaving did not practice politics, as I’ve known and written about it. There was only take, and no give. There was deception, downright lying, hypocrisy and self aggrandizement. There was no love for the institutions of our republic and almost no public service.

But I digress: My early political teachers included Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice-president, John Nance (Cactus Jack) Garner, who I was sent to interview on his 96th birthday in Uvalde, Texas. He’s the fellow who, when John Kennedy asked Lyndon Johnson to be his running mate, advised Johnson that the vice-presidency “isn’t worth a bucket of warm piss.”

Garner, who served two terms with Roosevelt, then broke with him because he felt FDR was too liberal, confirmed that was what he said. Nevertheless, he praised LBJ, who as a New Deal congressman brought an old people’s home to Austin by getting the contract to build it for a Texas firm that became a supporter.

Thus Johnson was also one of my teachers and he and his fellow Texan, Sam Rayburn, virtually ran the country for a while, when Johnson was the Senate majority leader and Rayburn was House speaker and Dwight Eisenhower was president.

Johnson was the personification of the wheeler-dealer and one of my favorite stories about his political style comes from a Texas novel about him. Asked if he believed in the political maxim, “half a loaf is better than none,” Johnson replied, “Hell, one slice’ll do.”

I also covered the new Republican county chairman, in Houston, Harris County, George H. W. Bush, who, with his eastern finishing school-bred wife, Barbara, were a breath of fresh, civilized air among the generally racist, UN-hating right-wingers, mostly former Democrats who eventually took over the party of Lincoln. Looking back, Barry Goldwater seems a moderate; the elder Bush was a throwback to noblesse oblige.

The murder of John F. Kennedy had given Johnson great power and new stature when I arrived in Washington in 1965 to cover the Congress for the Knight Newspapers and the Detroit Free Press. Johnson, of course, was president and Hubert Humphrey, who had been one of Minnesota’s senators, was vice-president.

They were an odd couple; Johnson the southerner who grew up with segregation and Humphrey, the northern liberal who had driven Strom Thurmond out of the Democratic Party on the issue of race. But together, they gave the country activist, liberal government the like of which had not been seen since the New Deal.

But – and I’m getting to my point – they did it with the help of a Congress, especially the Senate, filled with people who I believe were deeply committed to politics as public service. Many of them had come from service in World War II into reform politics. And like several of the Vietnam and Iraq veterans now serving, they came to make a difference.

The House of Representatives of the 90th Congress had its stars – John McCormack was speaker, Gerald Ford was the minority leader. But the bigger names who personified what was best in American politics at that time were in the U.S. Senate.

I’ll name a few, in no special order, and you’ll see what I mean.

After Humphrey, his successors in Minnesota were Walter Mondale, a future vice-president, and Eugene McCarthy, both of whom eventually ran for president.

William Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson, of Wisconsin, the latter a father of the modern environmental movement and Earth Day.

Philip A. Hart, of Michigan, a war hero who was called “the conscience of the Senate.”

Wayne Morse, of Oregon, who had the courage to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that put us into the Vietnam War.

J. William Fulbright, of Arkansas, who challenged his own party’s president to end the war.

Sam Ervin, of North Carolina, a constitutional scholar who got to the sordid truth in Watergate.

George McGovern, of South Dakota, who fought Richard Nixon on the Vietman War.

Robert F. Kennedy of New York, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Edmund Muskie of Maine, Frank Church of Idaho, Henry (Scoop) Jackson of Washington, Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, whose hearings made Ralph Nader famous and Mike Mansfield, of Montana, the gentleman majority leader.

The Republicans also included people of stature who believed in politics as public service, among them, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the minority leader; Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the only woman in the Senate; Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first black since Reconstruction; Jacob K. Javits, of New York; James Pearson of Kansas; Howard Baker of Tennessee; Charles Percy of Illinois; and Mark Hatfield of Oregon.

Sure, there were a few louts and know-nothings, like Republican Roman Hruska, of Nebraska, who once said the “mediocre” people needed representation on the Supreme Court; or segregationists Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and James Eastland of Mississippi.

But when the time came and Johnson wheeled and dealed and appealed to their better nature, Republicans helped Democrats break southern filibusters and to pass a series of landmark civil rights bills, as well as the gems of the Great Society, Medicare and Medicaid and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, all of which stand today.

All that ended with the first inaugural I covered – that of Richard Nixon, on January 20, 1969. I watched Johnson and Ladybird smile with relief at the moment, at noon, when their burden was lifted. But they had accomplished much. The nightmare year of 1968 was over.

You know what happened next. The brand of politics I loved and enjoyed was brought down, eventually, to Al D’Amato and Ted Stevens. I believe the most important single cause – which stands as a lesson for the new political generation – was a corrosive, expensive and unnecessary war.

We’ve waited a long time for an inaugural that gives us hope for a return to some good old days. Hail to the Chief!

[The story bin at The Elder Storytelling Place is empty so until some new ones arrive, let's revisit some from the archive. Today, Aunt Sue and the Electric Typewriter from Nancy Leitz. All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]



Reflections: Of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Obama

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman writes the bi-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. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Two of our greatest presidents are in fashion for the coming of the Barack Obama administration - Abraham Lincoln, who unarguably saved the Union, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, it can be argued, saved the civilized world.

They are in vogue, in part, because Obama venerates Lincoln for his vision and imitates his eloquence, and the president-elect studied the lessons of Roosevelt whose New Deal resurrected the government of the people from a dozen years in the cold, dead hands of Republican money changers who bequeathed the nation a Great Depression. History may not repeat, but it is an echo.

And it should not be forgotten that the 16th and 32nd presidents demonstrated the resilience of American democracy by standing for re-election during the course of the country’s real and most perilous wars without appealing to people’s fears. Few nations have done that.

Virtually every American of any age (and many non-Americas) knows of Lincoln, for his bearded and brooding visage is almost universally iconic. His speech at Gettysburg is memorized for its poetry. That face is on the five dollar bill and the ubiquitous penny. His marble memorial has been the backdrop for great events like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.”

But how well known to younger Americans is the face of FDR, the longest serving and most important president of the 20th Century?

A year or so ago, my wife and I were having dessert one evening at P.J. Clarke’s on New York’s Lincoln Square, and we fell into conversation with the couple in their thirties, at the next table. At some point I asked them if they knew whose photograph it was that hung on the wall nearby. Neither of them knew. “That’s FDR, Franklin Roosevelt,” I said, without expression.

“I thought he looked familiar,” said the young man.

“So that’s Roosevelt,” said the woman.

I should not have been surprised; while Middle Eastern memories are too long, American memories are too short. Roosevelt was the president of my youth, the only president I knew until I was 16. (I tell people that my birthday, March 4, 1929, was also Herbert Hoover’s inauguration day, which helps explain my politics.)

Roosevelt’s death, after 12 years in office, through depression, the rise of fascism and the bloodiest war in history, left a hole in the nation’s heart that my generation has never gotten over. It still shocks me to realize how young FDR was when he died at age 63. John Kennedy’s murder was a national shock, but he had not been with us long. Yet more of young Americans remember him, than know much about FDR.

Now, for newer generations, the Roosevelt legacy is being recalled as the nation grapples with economic troubles not seen since his time. And the activist government he brought in out of the cold is still at our service, when Republicans let it: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Federal Housing Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the Export Import Bank, and, of course, the Social Security Act, which provides for unemployment compensation that jobless workers depend on today.

Obama, we hope, will put government and those agencies to better use. There is talk of re-creating the Home Owners Loan Corporation and public works programs. And perhaps Obama will restore the firewall built by FDR, the Glass-Stegall Act, that barred commercial banks from speculating in far-out schemes with depositors’ money.

It was torn down in 1999, by slick modern bankers who scoffed that Rooseveltian regulation was old fashioned, then made off with billions. That happened when the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, declared the “era of big government is over” and sought to “triangulate,” govern towards the center. He lost the Congress.

Obama might also learn from Roosevelt how to avoid the isolating “bubble,” that the president-elect said he fears. FDR had a novel way of staying in touch with what people were really thinking and saying and needing: Although most of the nation’s publishers fought Roosevelt, he was on great terms with the reporters covering the White House.

Within a few days of becoming president in March 1933, Roosevelt called reporters into the Oval Office. One historian recalls the scene: “‘They tell me that this won’t work,’ FDR told a shocked group of newsmen. The reporters were standing around the president’s desk and they were going to ask him questions that were not prepared in advance. Many an old newsman in that room must have thought the new president was mad.

“The old president, Hoover, had said indignantly that the President of the United States does not stand around being questioned like a common thief. FDR’s idea worked. It worked for 998 news conferences during the course of a little over 12 years.”

Until then reporters submitted written questions, but Roosevelt said he had no time for that. Thus, about once a week, when FDR gathered the reporters around him, he had the first question: “What’s on your mind, boys?” (The “boys” did include May Craig, a fine reporter with her signature funny hats). And with that he learned what was on the minds of the reporters, their publishers and their readers.

Roosevelt mostly spoke off the record, but his information could be used and occasionally he permitted reporters to use his quotes. His news conferences were conversational, filled with banter and humor – and news.

Could this work now, with 24-hour news, television, and bloggers? As a veteran of the White House press, I believe the answer is yes. The president is free to call into his office any group of reporters he chooses, as long as he shows no favoritism. And he may set the ground rules for the questions and the use of what he says. Bush has done this, but only with admiring right-wing journalists.

In 1934, Roosevelt, who ignored warnings to not go too far with his liberal programs, smashed the tradition in which the president’s party loses seats in off-year elections. Democrats and FDR strengthened their control of Congress (that has not happened since) to pass key elements of the New Deal. And in 1936, while most newspapers vigorously opposes Roosevelt and Gallup predicted he would lose, FDR won in a landslide, 523 electoral votes to eight for Alfred Landon of Kansas; the Democrats became the majority party for more than 30 years.

Roosevelt stumbled the following year, in 1937, according to New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, when he yielded to critics and sought to balance the federal budget and spend less. The economy, which had begun to recover, went into another slump and came out of it only when government spending soared at the dawn of the Second World War.

There is this, final lesson for Obama from the Lincoln and Roosevelt presidencies – their commitment to an activist, people-oriented federal government. During the worst days of the Civil War, Lincoln overruled his moribund Democratic predecessor, James Buchanan (who rivals George Bush as the worst of our presidents), and approved the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act, which brought higher education to farmers and workers.

Roosevelt, in the midst of World War II, gave millions of Americans, including me, the GI Bill of Rights, which provided a college education, homes and even businesses to the greatest generation.

Roosevelt, the “liberal,” led his country into a war that he believed could not be avoided. Lincoln, under great pressure, would not allow the South to go its own way. Neither man, Mr. Obama, governed to the center.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Kate Dudding works out the ways she is My Father's Daughter.]



Medicare Advantage Plans

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman writes the bi-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. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections I don’t wish to alarm you. But did you know that many of people on Medicare - more that 8.6 million of you - are inadvertently helping to kill Medicare? I don’t blame you for not realizing this. I didn’t really recognize the threat early on. But it’s worth remembering.

In 1995, after the right-wing cabal led by new House Speaker Newt Gingrich took over the Congress with its “Contract for America,” I attended a press breakfast with Gingrich’s lieutenant, Richard Armey, of Texas. And during the discussion, Armey told us that among other goals, the new Republican majority intended to “wean our old people away from Medicare.” I did not know exactly what he meant.

Nor did I understand immediately what Gingrich meant when he predicted at a meeting of health insurance executives that the Health Care Financing Administration, which ran Medicare, would “wither on the vine.” What he really meant was that Medicare as we know it would disappear. And now we know how they came close to accomplishing that.

The first step: Over objections from the Clinton administration and by threatening drastic cuts, Republicans and the insurance industry introduced private health care into Medicare and they called it Medicare HMOs.

It didn’t work as well as Republicans had thought. When too many elder got sick, as happens with people of a certain age, and the risk pool dried up, the HMO model didn’t and couldn’t save as much money as expected and still leave room for profits. So the insurers pulled out.

But some damage had been done. Beneficiaries had been drawn in to the convenience and extras offered by the insurers, who tried again with the same game under a different name: Medicare-Plus Choice. And the Medicare Agency had a new name, The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which was devoted not to Medicare, but to its privatization.

That came under George W., who had called Medicare a “dinosaur.” And what we got in 2003 was the Medicare Modernization Act (Tip: anytime a program is “modernized” or “reformed” to give you “choices,” watch out).

The MMA, which literally was passed under cover of darkness with the critical help of AARP, gave us the well-known and widely hated privatized Part D drug “benefit,” which depends on private insurers and the drug manufacturers and is outside traditional Medicare. It’s as if Republicans took seriously that canard, “I don’t want the government in my Medicare” for Medicare was given almost no role and, as you know, cannot even bargain for lower drug prices.

But even more insidious than Part D, with its infamous doughnut hole, is the fine print in the MMA. Did you know, for example, about the 45 percent trigger, which prohibits Medicare costs from exceeding 45 percent of general revenues? That’s meant to permanently stunt Medicare’s growth. Worse than that, the MMA introduced means testing for the first time, hitting more affluent beneficiaries with higher Part B premiums, which was designed to drive them away from Medicare.

But worse still, Medicare HMOs, Medicare Plus Choice was given new life in Medicare Advantage, and this time the Republicans sought to guarantee the insurers profits by giving them subsidies which will amount to more than $15 billion a year over the next decade, which has helped lure 20 percent of the 43 million Medicare beneficiaries away from traditional Medicare.

I know, buying a Medicare Advantage policy is more convenient and may seem cheaper than signing up for a separate Part D plan plus a Medigap policy to supplement traditional Medicare. But every recent independent study suggests Medicare Advantage is not a great bargain, after you count premiums, co-payments for every doctor or lab you visit and for the drugs you take - and the doughnut hole.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, even with the benefits, out of pocket spending for people with Medicare Advantage plans continue to climb, along with drug prices and premiums.

But more important for the future of Medicare, according to the Commonwealth Fund, the government is spending for each Medicare Advantage enrollee nearly $1,000 or 12.4 percent more than it spends on traditional Medicare, or a total of $8.5 billion in extra payments.

But that extra money doesn’t necessarily buy you the same health security as straight Medicare. For not only does your Medicare Advantage provider require you to use doctors and hospitals in their networks, there is also no guarantee that the company will see you through an illness like cancer, failing kidneys or heart bypass surgery.

I’ve heard from too many patients and doctors who must fight for coverage they thought they had. Indeed, I know of major hospitals that won’t accept Medicare Advantage. To top off the tales of Medicare Advantage, Rep. Pete Stark, a California Democrat, released a Government Accountability study earlier this month that reported the Medicare Advantage plans, which did $91 billion in business this year, earned $1.3 billion more in profits than they expected in 2006. That’s money out of Medicare’s pocket.

I apologize for such a long story, but it’s necessary that you know that the new Congress and president hope to continue and go further with last year’s effort to roll back some of the more damaging provisions of the 2003 law. Democrats were able to reduce the subsidy payment to Medicare Advantage providers. The Medicare Rights Center asked the Congress to eliminate the extra payments to the Medicare Advantage plans. And the newly formed Alliance to Restore Medicare, which I’ve mention in another post, also wants to take Part D away from private insurers and place it under Medicare, end the means testing which penalizes higher income beneficiaries and repeal the 45 percent trigger.

Most seniors organizations have sent their wish lists to the office of president-elect and his health care appointees. But so far the largest organization, AARP, has not been heard from and a spokesman referred me to its well-advertised Divided We Fail campaign. Characteristically, it takes no specific position, which leaves it free, as in 2003, to compromise Medicare.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, a Christmas poem from Ellen Younkins titled Santa Baby.]



A Healthcare History Lesson for Obama

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman writes the bi-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. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections I’m old enough to remember how it was before Medicare. My mother-in-law was in declining health and my wife and I were seeing to her care. On one visit to her family doctor, a golfer whom we called Buzzie, he told us, “Boy, if she only had the money we could give her the treatment she should have.” We left him for a nice, non-Jewish doctor I had met on the police beat.

Yet honestly, even as a journalist in Texas, I was too young, callow and full of myself to follow the Medicare battles in the Congress or appreciate its importance when it became law in July 1965. Since then, I have used thousands of dollars of Medicare’s money. I’ve written endlessly about Medicare in my day job, and I consider myself an expert.

But only recently have I been reminded how Lyndon Johnson prodded conservative lawmakers to give millions of older, disabled and poorer citizens the nation’s first universal national health care insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

Now, Johnson’s victory could and should serve as a lesson for Barack Obama if, as he has promised, he intends to strengthen Medicare and eventually provide universal health coverage for the rest of America. If he doesn’t pay attention to this past, his efforts may meet the fate of the Clintons’ health care proposal in 1993.

The model for Obama and his White House is contained in a fine, straightforward essay appropriately entitled, The Lessons of Success – Revisiting the Medicare Story, in the November 27, New England Journal of Medicine. The authors, David Blumenthal, an MD (an unpaid Obama adviser) and James Morone, note that

“…this was the only time in our country’s history when the federal government extended health care coverage to a vast new swath of the American public.”

Partisans may claim that George Bush’s Part D drug coverage in 2003 was also a huge and expensive expansion of Medicare, but that bill was passed by a Republican Congress in the middle of the night along party lines, and further privatized Medicare, taking government out of the program.

If anything, it weakened traditional Medicare. One of Obama’s early challenges will be to roll back the 12 years of Republican efforts, like Medicare Advantage, that sought to nibble Medicare to death. (I’ll be writing more about this issue in coming months).

Following John Kennedy’s murder and the overwhelming defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, Johnson had huge Democratic majorities in the Congress. Still, he faced the problems of the percolating Vietnam War and the civil rights struggles. And conservative Southern Democrats who were hostile to government programs ran many of the key committees. But as the NEJM essay points out, Johnson masterfully won the support of Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills, by letting him take credit for the legislation. Indeed Mills surprised Johnson by adding what became Medicaid to the bill to cover the poor.

At the time, LBJ and his Great Society programs enjoyed great popular support, but that faded quickly. Thus one of NEJM lessons for President Obama: Act quickly, decisively, with a deep personal commitment to health care reform and an understanding of what you want in the legislation.

“Bill Clinton waited for nine months to introduce his Health Security Act in 1993, which allowed the opposition to mobilize and defeat him.”

In addition, says the essay, Obama needs to keep his health care proposal relatively simple and easy for the public to understand. Clinton’s attempt to assuage all the special interests - doctors, the insurance industry and the drug makers - ended up satisfying no one and confusing members of Congress.

Even now, Obama’s proposals are complicated and rely on the insurance industry for coverage, for he has rejected the single-payer idea and Medicare for all.

Finally, Johnson decided early on in his battle for Medicare to worry about cost later, much later. As the essay concludes,

“Major expansions of health care coverage rarely fit the budget.”
But the passage of Medicare was one of his great rewards, Johnson, said as he signed the bill sitting next to another great champion of national health insurance, Harry Truman. That’s company waiting for Obama to join.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Florence Millo recalls how she learned about intricacies of Quilting - sewing and social.]



Reflections: Hunger

[EDITORIAL NOTE: I am pleased and proud to announce today that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Nieman Fellow, Saul Friedman joins Time Goes By as a regular contributor. In his new, twice-monthly Reflections column, Saul will - well, reflect upon news, politics and social issues from his personal perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation.

In his long career, Saul covered some of the most crucial news stories of the 20th century which you can read about in his bio here. For the past dozen years, he has written the Gray Matters column at Newsday, which appears every Saturday. I know you will welcome him to our Time Goes By community.

Category_bug_reflections I remember the precise moment I decided that, after ten years, I no longer wanted to cover the White House. The elder Bush was president and I waited for the noon briefing, ready to get my teeth into a good story.

The chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers was to boast of another month of growth, but that morning the Census Bureau had reported a rise in the number of people living in poverty. And I was ready to ask how come, and make a decent story about the contradiction and his answer. But I never got the chance.

The press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, announced the president would fly to Oakland, California, to inspect earthquake damage and return the same day. The TV reporters and crews went nuts, making arrangements for what was to be nothing more than a photo op. I never got a chance to ask my question and tell my readers why poverty grows amidst the plenty. Soon after I left the White House beat to cover substance–in foreign affairs.

Things have not changed. I checked and no one among the White House press has bothered to ask about a new report and why hunger still haunts this promised land. But then America has become so accustomed to doublespeak, that we even have a euphemism for hunger. So today a president would not say that millions in the nation are “ill-fed,” he or she would say they are “food insecure.” That’s government-speak for a national shame.

In the richest country on earth, where we’re spending $10 billion a month in Iraq, and $700 billion to rescue banks and brokers, more than 13 million Americans, including 730,000 older people and 700,000 children, struggled with hunger during 2007. And that was before this recession-cum-depression hit.

It’s bad enough that close to three-quarters of a million people over 65, many of whom live alone, have gone hungry during 2007. But even worse, at least that many of our grandchildren and millions of their parents, some of them our kids, suffer from not having enough to eat.

If you didn’t read much about this in the press, I’m not surprised. It was too busy playing who’s gonna be in the Obama cabinet guessing games. But the information was easily available and understandable in the Department of Agriculture’s annual report on food security.

Technically, the report said, “food security and insecurity...are based on respondent perceptions of whether the household was able to obtain enough food to meet their needs.”

The word hunger is sparingly used, because the Bush administration didn’t like it. As the report acknowledges in a footnote,

“…prior to 2006, households with low food security were described as ‘food insecure without hunger’ and households with very low food insecurity were described as ‘food insecure with hunger.’”

Now the word “hunger” has been removed and the categories are simply “low food security,” and “very low food security.” But it’s hunger by any other name, the awful, empty feeling in a household when a mother or father cannot give the children or the old people anything to eat.

As with any government report, it begins with the good news - about 89 percent of American households were “food secure” during 2007, meaning that all these household members “had access at all times to enough food for an active healthy life.” That’s not asking for much.

But is 89 percent such a big deal for this gilded age? That other 11 percent amounted to 13 million households that were

“…food insecure at some time during the year. That is, they were, at times uncertain of having or unable to acquire enough food for all household members because they had insufficient money...for food.”

Thus, of the 117 million households surveyed, more than 8 million reported “low food security,” and 5 million reported “very low food security,” which means one or more household members were not getting enough to eat - going hungry - because they could not afford enough food. And in these households there were 691,000 children “with very low food security,” that is, going hungry.

The report’s authors surveyed these families. The report said that 98 percent of these households worried that their food would run out before they had money to buy more. Ninety-six percent reported skipping meals. Two-thirds reported they had been hungry but could not afford to buy more food.

One more revealing statistic: Hunger, or food insecurity, was in general decline during the late 1990s, when 10.5 million households were reported to be food insecure. There has been a steady increase since 2002, when the food secure households numbered 12.5 million, to more than 13 million in 2007. And the number of our children and grandchildren living with hunger, nearly 700,000, has grown by 50 percent since 1998.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Gloria considers slowing down in a world where speed is king. Her story: Walk the Walk and Talk the Talk - Slowly.]