Monday, March 31, 2014

Undergraduate Upsets Wall Street

A college student is the most fascinating character in Michael Lewis’ new book claiming the US stock market is “rigged” by computers trading in nanoseconds.

On “Sixty Seconds” (an old-media eternity) this weekend, the author of “Flash Boys” explains how it works: “The complexity disguises what is happening. If it's so complicated you can't understand it, then you can't question it.”

In countering this “dark market” that serves brokers rather than customers, opponents found a key ally in the resume of a Stanford junior named Dan Aisen, “Winner of Microsoft’s College Puzzle Challenge,” an annual contest in 2007.

“There’s some element of mechanical work and some element of ‘Aha!’ ” says Aisen, who got a job and a nickname, the Puzzle Master, soon shortened to Puz, who helped dissidents create their own stock exchange powered by a system called Thor.

It takes patience and concentration to read through Lewis’ narrative and its compelling conclusion that, when it comes to protecting customer interests and their own, the most trusted names on Wall Street don’t hesitate.

Yet embedded in its tortuous tale of cables twisting through a crucial few miles in suburban New Jersey is more than another story about how in our society, speed can not only kill but steal big.

“Taking advantage of loopholes in some well-meaning regulation introduced in the mid-2000s,” Lewis concludes, “some large amount of what Wall Street had been doing with technology was simply so someone inside the financial markets would know something that the outside world did not. The same system that once gave us subprime-mortgage collateralized debt obligations no investor could possibly truly understand now gave us stock-market trades involving fractions of a penny that occurred at unsafe speeds using order types that no investor could possibly truly understand.”

His book is unlikely to bring down Wall Street’s rich and powerful, but it’s comforting to know that the brain power of a college undergraduate is giving them some anxious moments.

Fear of Flying

Endless fascination with the Malaysian airliner goes on, rippling out to TV commercials unseen now for decades: courses for those afraid to fly.

The condition has a scientific name, pteromerhanophobia, afflicting the famous from football commentator John Madden to comic Whoopi Goldberg, and bringing back memories of my own struggles with the condition.

Briefly in World War II, when I was doing clerical work on a B-17 bomber base, my best friend was a gunnery instructor who arranged for my first flight ever on a practice run. At the last minute, he took me off one of the four planes and put me on another for a three-hour boring night flight.

The next morning, he shook me awake to tell me the first plane had crashed, killing four. He had taken me off because it didn’t have an instructor pilot aboard.

Such initiation aside, my postwar job as a writer and editor put me in the air often without a qualm (including a flight to Puerto Rico where they weighed me along with my luggage) until one day on a pre-jet trip to Washington I found myself with a tray in my lap and the thought suddenly struck, “What am I doing up here eating?”

Flying was never the same again. My strategies for coping included Scotch before boarding, a flask for the flight and the discovery that anxiety soaks up whiskey like water, leaving me cold sober and ready to work after landing.

During that time, one airline had the brilliant idea of putting monitors next to seats to show takeoffs and landings. I told the flight attendant I wasn’t interested in seeing myself go down in flames, ordered another drink and buried myself in a book.

On a helicopter in California, taking off westward according to standing orders, I told the pilot, “We’re not looking for Amelia Earhart, right? Can we go back?”

Now in an age where almost everyone flies without thinking twice, the mystery of the Malaysian plane’s disappearance brings back those old days and recalls the human mind’s ability to adapt but not without a price.

At 24 days and counting, will a new generation of frequent fliers ever rest easy until an answer is found?

Meanwhile, I’ll be in the back of the bus with Madden and Whoopi.   

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Putin/Tea Party Axis

Bill Maher targeted two right-wing Congressmen for defeat this weekend, but the candidate he really nailed was in a spoof on a potential GOP 2016 primary winner, Vladimir Putin.

As they unroll this year’s cuckoo’s-nest equivalents of Bachmann, Cain, Perry et al to contrast with Obama, the Russian premier is really getting under Democrats’ skin, first by bailing out Assad in the debate over attacking Syria and now by moving in on Crimea.

In headlines unsettling Americans, he has made the White House look impotent, giving Tea Party warriors ammunition while risking little in his own campaign to outmuscle Obama on the world stage.

Putin’s moves have made foreign policy the center of attention, drawing attention away from the President’s campaign to boost Obamacare enrollment, allowing even old Cold War warrior Lindsey Graham some hope in his primary fight against accusations of being “ambiguously gay.”   

Yet overall, the Russian media takeover is providing help to the Tea Party by making even sane voters jittery, reinforcing attacks on “moderate” Republicans like Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran for not being enough like Ted Cruz or Mike Lee.

What we have now is Vladimir Putin, who pocketed a diamond Super Bowl ring from an American capitalist years ago, now making mischief on our domestic political scene and stealing the spotlight from an already beleaguered White House.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Far End of Obamacare

After 80, we all become MDs with one patient. Most waking hours are spent on medical appointments, taking pills, checking out symptoms—-in short, maintaining bodies morphing from a two-way connection with the real world into what Paul Ryan would call, in the words of his former mentor Ayn Rand, “takers.”

As one of those aged, I sympathize with Ryan and his Tea Party colleagues in their unhappiness over such dependence; I deplore it in myself and am shamed, after a lifetime of caring for others, to need so much assistance in just staying alive. Should it really take an MD to cut our toenails?

But short of setting up Sarah Palin death panels (it was never clear whether she was accusing Democrats of planning them or advocating them herself), what are we as a “Christian,” humane society to do with people who paid their dues and unexpectedly outlived everybody’s expectations, including their own?

From this pain-filled old age that movie star icon Bette Davis characterized as “not for sissies,” a more mentally than physically competent nonagenarian would suggest that younger generations, now that Obamacare is legal and more or less in effect across the country, come to terms with what they consider its unfairness: that the young grit their teeth and deal with it, not only because it protects them against the unlikely chance that they will be stricken but because, imperfect as it is, it is their turn to pay a toll on the long road toward a fair life in a just society.

In an America that became the most powerful nation in the world by, however slowly and grudgingly, recognizing that race and gender should not overwhelm empathy, it would be foolhardy to sells others (and ourselves) short by not looking far enough ahead.

Sooner or later, if we live long enough, we all become physically dependent. It would be a shame if we couldn’t find some morally just ways to live with that inevitability. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Fire This Time

A building explodes in Harlem, leaving four dead so badly burned they cannot be identified, but we know they are not white.

At the same time, a leading GOP thinker Paul Ryan, who has been on government payrolls since college, proclaims that young “inner city” men are “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work” because they rely on government assistance to survive.

In 1963, my high-school classmate James Baldwin wrote in “The Fire Next Time”  that “one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

The Harlem explosion brings back years of commuting through those streets with their decaying buildings that had stood for a century and still stand today, as symptoms of Americans inability to love one another as brothers.

In his lifetime, Baldwin was a brilliant writer who happened to be both gay and black, half a century before most Americans accepted him as fully human, but even with a biracial President in the White House, those Harlem tenements and Ryan’s clueless ignorance are still acceptable as part of normal life today.

After all the official backside-covering in New York and backpedaling in Washington, will we be any closer to facing the real pain in American life today or simply putting, to borrow Sarah Palin’s eloquence, more “lipstick on a pig?”

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The View from 90

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated. It was my ninth birthday.

In April 1945, I was a 21-year-old foot soldier on the floor of a German farmhouse when someone shook me awake to whisper that FDR had died.

Now, at 90, I am inevitably shaped by those years after a working lifetime as writer, editor and publisher trying to explain the world to others—-and myself.

The scenes around me today are filled with human folly, selfishness and shameless behavior, but that’s far from the whole story. My so-called Greatest Generation, which survived a Depression and World War, does not in retrospect seem so morally superior to those that succeeded it but only more limited in education, experience of the world and outlook.

Many of our virtues were rooted in ignorance: no TV, cable, computers, Internet, no electronics of any kind, only radios with music, soap operas and swatches of evening news lifted from newspapers (as a teenage copy boy, I wrote some of them.)

As a nation we were united, but in an innocence that also had its dark side—-racial ghettos, religious prejudice, rural isolation—-where only unseen white men, all Protestant, held power over our lives in government and business.

Women then lived no fuller a life than those in Nazi Germany: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). Our mothers patrolled homes in house dresses, with only one exception.

Although we knew her as Mrs. Goldstein, nothing went with that matronly name, not the shimmer of clothes clinging to her trim body, or the beauty-parlor hair, the high-heeled shoes and face painted with makeup even in daytime, or the sweet perfume cloud that came into the living room in late afternoons when she kissed her son goodnight and dazzled the rest of us playing there with a cupid’s bow smile on her way out.

She always seemed on the move to someplace exciting or, if my mother’s mutterings could be believed, sinful. I had no idea what nafka meant, but Mrs. Goldstein gave our pre-teen senses a whiff of hope that the night life on movie screens existed somewhere in the real world.

Jump cut through decades: a World War; prosperous but Man-in-the-Grey-Flannel-Suit Fifties; JFK, the Youthquake, Civil Rights awakening and Women’s Lib of the televised Sixties; a backlash of the Silent Majority and Watergate in the Nixon years; Reagan’s Morning-in-America to paper over growing economic and political gulfs followed by Clinton’s centrism and self-centeredness barely surviving Gingrich’s loopy Contract with America; and then almost a decade of W’s preemptive war and mindless tax cuts to bring us into the Obama years of almost total Tea Party collapse of the civility that held us together all that time, with Racism showing its naked face.

Yet, in perspective, what looks so grim now may only be the low point of another upward spiral to come. A year ago, the New York Times posted a symposium, “Are People Getting Dumber?” Harvard’s brilliant Steven Pinker anchored it with an essay, “To See Humans’ Progress, Zoom Out”:

“Can we see the fruits of superior reasoning in the world around us? The answer is yes.

“In recent decades the sciences have made vertiginous leaps in understanding, while technology has given us secular miracles like smartphones, genome scans and stunning photographs of outer planets and distant galaxies. No historian with a long view could miss the fact that we are living in a period of extraordinary intellectual accomplishment...

“Ideals that today’s educated people take for granted--equal rights, free speech, and the primacy of human life over tradition, tribal loyalty and intuitions about purity--are radical breaks with the sensibilities of the past. These too are gifts of a widening application of reason.”

Others point out a worldwide rise in IQ scores, innovations complicating our lives with “upgrade upon upgrade” that don’t “lower our native intelligence but "relentlessly burden it” and, perhaps most important of all, a blogger about stupidity notes:

“You can get a perfect score on your SATs and it will barely register in a world of 200 million tweets a day. But give just one stupid answer in a beauty pageant, and you’ll be the laughingstock of the world before you have time to clear your name on the next morning’s ‘Today’ show.

”And while watching something smart takes time, you can see something stupid in a flash. Today at work, when I had a spare moment, I didn’t try to learn a new language. I watched a video of a guy getting a tattoo removed with an air-blast sander. And now I know that’s not a very good idea.”

As I blew out a blast furnace of birthday candles on this weekend of  ominous headlines, I was silently repeating Dr. Pangloss’ mantra, that with a little courage—-and some luck--we may all soon be living again in “the best of all possible worlds.”

Friday, February 21, 2014

F.U. for President

I started watching “House of Cards” Season 2 in a perfect setting: A sleepless night of hoof-and-mouth pain from big-toe surgery and a gum infection seemed to call for brainless distraction, but as with the first series, Netflix outdoes Nature in torturing rather than diverting.

Halfway through the initial new installment when Kevin Spacey, as Francis Underwood (F.U., ho ho), is being instructed by the maker of his favorite breakfast barbecue on how exquisite abuse of pigs heightens the flavor, I cast a porcine vote and switched to hours of Las Vegas poker, where the acting is just as bad but the game provides imaginative diversion and a less predictable final score.

“Cards” insults the intelligence in so many ways it’s hard to keep track. Even the formatting offends. After dozens of cardboard characters endlessly screw one another literally and figuratively in Season One, new installments start with no recap of the main players, who just take up where they left off without a clue to who the hell they are, what they’re doing and why—-except that it’s all ugly and dirty.

Perhaps that’s a plus. Comparing how low Washington politics and TV drama have sunk in the decade since “The West Wing” dazzled us with creative savvy, when you get past real actors like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, the “House of Cards” supporting cast seems to have been recruited from high school. But then again, could any thespian outdo John Boehner and Ted Cruz in serving up ham on nothing?

In view of so much bad acting on the tube, should there be any surprise over chicanery and double-dealing behind the scenes with producers squeezing politicians for endless kickbacks?

“House of Cards” makes Las Vegas look like Disneyland.   

Sunday, February 16, 2014

CNN's Killer Intervew

Program note: Chris Cuomo’s extended sitdown with George Zimmerman will air tomorrow instead of Tuesday as planned.

Cynical observers may see a connection with the Michael Dunn verdict, but has teenage murder become just another chess piece in the media ratings game? Is crazy racism to be sold between commercials for mouthwash and erectile dysfunction?

What happened to Jordan Davis in a Florida parking lot when he went there for gum and cigarettes and was carried out dead will put Dunn away for the rest of his twisted life, as Zimmerman’s encounter with Trayvon Martin should have.

But what is the role of reporting in feeding our shock and disgust? Will an extended interview with Trayvon’s killer ease the pain of that miscarriage of justice or simply exploit it?

We are not talking about censorship here. Zimmerman is free to talk to anyone he wants and CNN has every right to interview him, but where is the line between expanding the news and exploiting it?

In coming weeks, we will hear more about Michael Dunn than any reasonable person would want to know, and there will be talking heads aplenty to preen about racism, gun control, courtroom justice and mental illness in our culture.

For now, can we just agree that it is no triumph of American journalism to be shoving George Zimmerman into our faces right now?

Update: God is “the only judge I have to answer to” is the takeaway from Zimmerman’s interview, according to CNN’s website. Now we don’t have to watch and risking throwing up.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Blizzards of Misinformation

Cable news crawls about the worst storm ever are as accurate as their political hyberbole, that is not at all, at least for New York and its environs.

The Great Blizzard of 1947, which brought the Northeast to a standstill, dumped 26.4 inches of snow on Manhattan during Christmas week. Plows stacked up piles as high as ten feet, some of which did not melt for months. It was described as the worst storm in history since the fabled Blizzard of 1888.

I know that for a fact because I had to dig out the first car I ever owned, a shovelful at a time. Unlike today’s weather, which is predicted with pinpoint accuracy, that storm came in unexpectedly from the Atlantic rather than the usual path of west to east.

As governors and mayors struggle to cope with today’s devastation, it might be useful to remember that, despite all scientific advances, life in many ways still remains unpredictable.

In Washington, politics is even more erratic than the weather, as Congress tries to disentangle itself from the worst man-made mess ever. They will be wallowing in Tea Party detritus long after the winter weather has subsided.

Keep the shovels handy.
    

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Shirley Temple's America

The woman who died today at 85 takes with her a world that is unimaginable today. Shirley Temple became a movie star at three, won an Oscar at five and was more popular in the 1930s than FDR.

Her charms escaped me then because I was only a few years old older, but after undergoing mastectomy in 1972, she wrote a McCalls article about it for me after holding a press conference at her hospital bedside to encourage preventive mammograms and choice of treatment.

The cuddly moppet had morphed into a strong-minded woman, writing, “The doctor can make the incision, I’ll make the decision,” confiding that she was a secret surgical buff, who had used her celebrity to get doctors to break rules and allow her to observe operations.

When stardom ended in her twenties, Shirley Temple married a superrich second husband and went into politics and was named United States Ambassador to Ghana and later to Czechoslovakia. She later served as Chief of Protocol of the United States.

In those Depression days when she was the American Idol, as TV news no doubt will keep endlessly showing, she was partnered with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, an elderly African-American hoofer in an interracial breakthrough for movies that were shown in segregated Southern theaters.

In today’s sophisticated time, her passing comes on the heels of the Woody Allen child abuse furor to remind us how different life was then.

But not entirely. A celebrated British novelist, in his role as film critic, wrote in a magazine that she was “a complete totsy” as a nine-year-old:

“Her admirers—-middle-aged men and clergymen—-respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”

Shirley’s studio sued and won enough to remain in trust for her until she was 21, when she donated it to build a youth center in England.

That building no doubt still stands as a tribute to her memory, as well as in the hearts of women whose lives may have been saved by her frankness about breast cancer in those days when the subject was not openly discussed.

“The Good Ship Lollipop” has sailed off but won’t be forgotten.


Monday, February 03, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman

The actor who died yesterday gave me an experience I have had only twice on screen—-coming face to face with the reincarnation of a close friend. In the 2005 “Capote,” for which he won an Oscar, he was the title character not only in looks and manner but essence. Four years later, in “Julie and Julia,” Meryl Streep created the same effect as Julia Child.

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman at 46 is a wrench, and pairing him with Streep only makes it more painful. Unlike the diva who has played the hell out of almost every famous woman in the civilized world, Hoffman was a blue-collar actor who erased himself in performances that drew audiences in rather than holding them at arm’s length to admire.

In life as in art, there is often a steep price for authenticity that comes with talent unprotected by powerful ego, and Hoffman apparently has been paying it in a career of fifty films over a quarter of a century with prescription pills, drugs and alcohol.

Whether as a dim baseball manager in “Moneyball,” a compulsive gambling banker in “Owning Mahowney” or a manic rock writer in “Almost Famous,” he was always doing so much more than earning a paycheck.

As he passes from the scene, I recall one of his last in a 2011 movie, “The Ides of March,” written, directed and starred in by George Clooney, playing a gross political manager who is eventually done in by his passion for personal loyalty.

Playing mano a mano with Paul Giametti, another actor who submerses himself in every role, he brings life to what might have been just another cliché.

That’s what Philip Seymour Hoffman was doing in every role he played in a brilliant and regrettably shortened life. 

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Woody Allen, Child Abuser

Monsters can create great art, but how should we feel about them? In Woody Allen’s case, make that facile popular art, but the question remains.

In the wake of a Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award, his adopted daughter Dylan, now 28, comes forward to accuse him of sexually abusing her at age seven. We are not in the murky area of childhood memory here: A Connecticut prosecutor concluded back then there was enough evidence to charge him but dropped criminal proceedings to spare her.

(Full disclosure: A decade older, I met Woody Allen in 1965 when he was doing standup at a dinner I emceed. The audience was baffled [“My wife had a tough divorce lawyer—-If I get remarried and have children, she gets them”] and, as he came offstage in a daze, I tried to comfort him [“You were great, it’s not you, it’s them”].

(I enjoyed and admired his early movies but was increasingly so put off by his whiny self-love and moral disingenuousness I found it hard to watch him on screen. Only when someone else finally inhabited his persona, as in “Celebrity” and “Match Point,” could I relent and watch his protagonists’ atrocious behavor.)

Dispassionate as we try to be, can we decline to judge? This is the man who was living back then with Mia Farrow, who discovered pornographic pictures of another child Soon-Yi, whom he later married. Allen shrugged: “I fell in love with my girlfriend’s adopted daughter.”        

By all means, let him keep his Lifetime Achievement Award and other honors as a film maker, but the rest of us can retain our opinions of him as a human being.

Reading Nicholas Kristof’s account of it all, along with the accompanying links, may not turn your stomach but it will certainly keep you from watching “Annie Hall” or “Hannah and Her Sisters” with the same eyes again.

When it comes to aging movie icons, I’ll take Clint Eastwood, chair and all.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Friction-Free Matron of the Year

GOP white coats are thisclose to getting it right. Previous prototypes like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann blew up after leaving the launching pad, but Cathy McMorris Rodgers is in orbit as their new Matron of the Year, full of empty catch phrases with no content whatsoever but friction-free.

Only SNL or the Daily Show would be mean enough to parody a nice farm girl, first in her family to attend college, who worked at a fruit stand and McDonald’s in her teens but has been, like fellow Congressman Paul Ryan, only on the government payroll since graduating.

Her constituents, as Timothy Egan points out in the New York Times, had an “unemployment rate 30 percent above the national average last year. One in six people live below the poverty level. One in five is on food stamps. And the leading employer is government, providing 3,023 of the 9,580 nonfarm payroll jobs last year.”

Yet in Rep. Rodgers’ cozy view, government is the enemy, as she opposes Obamacare, raising the minimum wage and extending jobless benefits in a Republican “year of real action--by empowering people--not making their lives harder.”

How? The Matron of the Year sayeth not, but statistics show her constituents signing up for that dreaded health coverage at a brisk rate in a state that, before her emergence, had raised the minimum wage to the highest in the country at $9.32 an hour (close to the $10.10 Democrats are seeking nationally) and has since shown job growth above the national average.

But with her wholesome good looks and soporific manner, this year’s GOP Matron of the Year has no rough edges like Sarah Palin, who is still taking cheap shots at Bush I’s token woman Peggy Noonan for being too slow to join Tea Party loudmouths in calling this week’s SOTU "a spectacle of delusion and self-congratulation."

If Republicans want to perfect their robotic Matron of the Year and keep raising tons of money before the next election cycle, they will have to persuade Palin to stand behind a poster of Rodgers and confine herself to her successor’s smiling platitudes.

Or go back to the GOP lab for attitude retooling.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Immigration Brings Racism Front and Center

After building the most powerful nation on earth by welcoming those around the world who want a better and freer life, a significant number of Americans now want to slam the gates.

Sorting out and integrating millions of illegal aliens is no easy matter, too long delayed, but John Boehner and Ted Cruz are taking off the masks that Republicans donned after losing the White House in 2012 largely because of the minority vote.

Shackled by his right-wing caucus, the House Speaker is having trouble selling members even a narrow punitive path to citizenship he has outlined, while Cruz wants the Senate to turn away from the issue altogether until after the November elections.

Those of us who grew up on “God Bless America” (written by a Jewish immigrant) can barely recognize a nation of people whose forebears came here in the last century or the one before to escape tyranny and make a better life for their children.

In its details and implementation, immigration reform is a massive undertaking but not for a nation built on the principle of freedom and opportunity for all, even though it took a Civil War and a post-World War II outpouring of protest to move forward to the point of having an African-American president.

What is most troubling is the meanness of today’s debate. After demonizing Barack Obama for five years with undisguised racism, the GOP Right can’t bring itself, even in the face of its self-interest at the ballot box, to honor the tradition of inclusiveness that built America.

Boehner’s plan wants Latinos to pay fines and back taxes, submit to criminal checks, study civics and go through other mea culpas before even being considered for citizenship, but even all that is not enough to overcome the barrier of racism for some of his members.

As usual, all this will be seen through the prism of getting and holding political power but, even by that standard, the Republican resistance to a start on immigration reform is senseless. Yet for a party that was making the likes of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum front runners for the White House four years ago, anything is possible.

As the GOP struggles with the issue, Boehner may want to think about his German “barkeep” father’s immigration and Cruz about his family who had to move to Canada to escape Castro tyranny even more recently before settling in Texas.

Yes, they played by the rules, but those old rules can’t deal with millions who came here not only for their own freedom but to provide cheap labor for  America’s sacred free enterprise. The principles haven’t changed, even though the skin color has.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

SOTU: Super Bowl with No Game

Perhaps the sharpest commentary was a repeated cutaway to John McCain smirking as the President went through a laundry list of ways to improve the State of the Union, mostly by executive action, inviting the GOP to join the game with him. But with John Boehner visibly reacting only to the reference to himself as the “son of a barkeep” who attained high office, the Republicans refused to suit up.

It was like the Super Bowl, with one team staying off the field, while the other raced up and down the field, eating up yardage while nobody scored.

McCain may have a point. With the President ending two Middle East wars and trying to avoid new ones, what is there for those like him to get excited about? They will have to make do with rehashes of Benghazi.

The lobotomized atmosphere continued into the postgame with the GOP trotting out a tranquilized Sarah Palin lookalike, complete with her own Downs Syndrome child, but no zingers, offering instead a sweetly reasonable content-free alternative to the President’s vision, consisting mostly of a rehash of her life story from humble beginnings and “offering a prayer” to God three times in her last sentence.

Barack Obama, for all his eloquent proposals that make sense, will in his last two years continue to play a game against a team that stays on the sidelines sniping and waiting for time to run out so they can win the next two elections by blaming Democrats for not scoring big.

Even if he achieves some of his goals laid out last night in lame-duck time, Obama’s legacy is already engraved in stone as a President who couldn’t get the big things done and had to settle for symbolically small and/or tainted accomplishments like Obamacare in a time that called for FDR-like transformation.

Perhaps the most pointed commentary on all this was the final standing, roaring tribute to Sgt. Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan who was found in a canal, face down, underwater, shrapnel in his brain.

Both sides of Congress ended the SOTU with a standing ovation for this young man in the gallery, his body wrecked in the service of his country, in a war that the President says is ending but, in the fine print, will go on.

Is the maiming of our best young people all that politicians can agree on in a time of urgency for the nation?

Cory Remsburg’s heart is still alive and beating, but what about the dead hands of Tea Party naysyayers as they applaud him but obstruct every value that he was defending?

In the Super Bowl Sunday, somebody will win. In last night’s Washington, everybody lost.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Crazy in Love

In very old age, stories haunt you, not necessarily your own. Some have such a wild resonance with your inner life they demand to be told.

Louis B. Mayer, at the height of his power as head of MGM in the 1930s, the most highly paid man in America, maker and breaker of studio executives, the supreme Beverly Hills poobah, came down with an unconsummated crush on a would-be starlet.

He courted Jean Howard with fatherly advice about doctors and dentists, avuncular offers to help with any problems she might have. When Mayer finally asked her out to dinner, she told him she had a date with a woman friend. Undeterred, he took them both. “He never grabbed me or tried to kiss me or do anything that almost everybody else had,” Jean Howard later recalled.

At the time, she was having a stormy affair with an agent, later a producer, named Charles Feldman who, she had just found out, was also seeing someone else. When Mayer asked Jean Howard to go to Paris with him, she agreed, but only if her woman friend could come along as chaperone.

Soon after they arrived at the hotel, an MGM press agent called, urging Howard to come to Mayer’s room where he was clutching a sheaf of papers—-a detective’s report on her comings and goings with Feldman. “How could you do this to me?” Mayer screamed, gulped a tumbler of whiskey and tried to heave himself out the window. It took Howard, her friend and the MGM man (who broke a thumb) to wrestle him to the floor.

After being sedated by a doctor, Mayer meekly agreed to arrange Howard’s return to the States. In the taxi, on his knees, he swore he would divorce his wife and begged her to marry him, but she left for New York, where Feldman was waiting. (She married and later divorced him but kept living in the same house, a tempestuous Hollywood life in which her greatest achievement was taking pictures of the rich and famous at parties she hosted.)

At about the same time that Mayer was succumbing to passion, the King of England gave up his throne to be with the “woman I love” whom he would not be allowed to marry. No sexual innocent as the Prince of Wales, King Edward VIII had cut a wide swath through a generation of young British women before succumbing to the charms of Wallis Simpson, an American about to be divorced from her second husband.

After his abdication of the throne, the couple spent the rest of their lives in Café Society as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, she an imperious figure with a fondness for jewelry, he trailing her with a sad face and the couple’s dogs.

Obsessive love touched me when my best friend left his wife and two children to marry a younger woman who had bewitched him. No philanderer, he had interviewed and written sympathetically of such women as Jacqueline Kennedy, Ingrid Bergman and Princess Grace.

When sex researchers Masters and Johnson wanted a book in their name on love and commitment, they asked him to write it with them. It ended with the assertion that “in their later years, it is in the enduring satisfaction of their sexual and emotional bond that committed husbands and wives find reason enough to be glad that they still have another day together.”

No so for my friend. Soon afterward, his young wife casually betrayed him without bothering to hide it. He literally took that to heart but even on his deathbed implored me to help in her career as a magazine editor. I kept that promise and gave the eulogy at his funeral with a heavy and troubled heart.

I draw a confessional veil over details about the woman who inspired obsession in me with her grief after a traumatic divorce that left her face as if in a glaze of broken glass, setting off romantic rescue fantasies that broke my heart but never touched hers. She took every ounce of my passion and the comforts that came with it, as if by divine right, and gave back only permission to be adored. After thirty years, it still hurts.

The men in these stories did no harm to the objects of their passion, quite the opposite, yet are seen as addled predators, but no note is taken of the women’s use of them on their impervious paths to totally self-absorbed lives while leaving behind the kind of deep endless pain they themselves were incapable of feeling.

Perhaps Dante was lucky to have met Beatrice only briefly before she inspired his passion for “The Divine Comedy.” In real life she married a rich man in Florence and lived a very ordinary life.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Governors Gone Wild: Now Vitter?

Mediawise, running a state used to be a boring job. Mostly signing papers and posing at the opening of small town rec centers. But no more.

On the heels of the Christie circus comes word that Sen. David Vitter wants to go back and govern Louisiana.

Surely you remember Vitter: Since being outed seven years ago as a frequent flier on the DC Madam’s joy circuit, he has been busy lowering his profile in the Senate with such landmark moves as casting the solo vote against Hillary Clinton’s confirmation as Secretary of State.

Now he proposes to go back to Baton Rouge and brighten his home state after two decades in Washington.

Those with long memories may recall Mrs. Vitter’s reaction to the Madam revelations.

“I’m a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary,” she said about her husband’s philandering. “If he does something like that, I’m walking away with one thing, and it’s not alimony, trust me.”

“I think fear is a very good motivating factor in a marriage,” she added. “Don’t put fear down.”

(Bobbitt was famous back then for removing her abusive husband’s penis with a knife.)

Depending on how the Vitter marriage has been going since then, his ascension as governor would provide Republicans with a bookend for the portly Christie on the GOP governors roster.

Meanwhile, New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo is taking conservative heat for saying “extreme conservatives, who are right-to-life, pro-assault weapon, anti-gay...have no place in the state of New York,” a remark his staff insists that is being taken out of context.

Whatever. Crazy is seeping down from DC at an alarming rate.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Christie, Nixon and Their Enemies Lists

We can expect a Checkers Speech any time now in New Jersey as Chris Christie follows the career path of the only US president to be driven from office for criminal behavior in the last two centuries.

With each new revelation, Christie evokes Richard Nixon who divided the world into friends and enemies and, with ruthless helpers, punished those on the wrong list and played dirty tricks on them.

In his first run for national office as Eisenhower’s VP, Nixon had to make a mawkish TV talk to save his place on the ticket after revelations that he had taken under-the-table contributions from supporters. Admitting illegality, he argued it was not “morally wrong” because the money was for political not personal use, closing with a mock-defiant promise to keep the family gift dog Checkers nonetheless because “the kids love it.”

As President almost two decades later, Nixon escaped impeachment by resigning after revelations of a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage” against opponents by aides in charge of “dirty tricks.

On a state level, Gov. Christie is running well ahead of his role model as we learn not only of bridge traffic jams but new accusations that he withheld Hurricane Sandy relief from Jersey mayors who did not do his political bidding.

Opinion polls suggest that Christie’s thuggish approach to governing has not taken hold enough with voters to derail his budding presidential campaign, but the signs are all there for those with memory of Nixon and Watergate to see.

Democrats are pressing the issue, and it’s a safe bet that New Jersey is filled with Woodward and Bernstein wannabes beating the bushes for more evidence of Christie’s dirty tricks against perceived enemies.

Stay tuned. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"Give Me Liberty or Mass Death"

The Founding Fathers are often cited in the debate over government surveillance vs. individual freedom, but we don’t have to go back that far to disentangle rhetoric from reality.

In the aftershock of 9/11, the bipartisan commission found ample evidence that the FBI and other agencies, out of sloppiness or squeamishness, kept ignoring evidence of Arabs enrolling in American flight schools to fly commercial airliners without too much interest in landing them but failed to grasp its significance and follow up assiduously.

As the President addresses the furor over NSA excesses, directing his government to “develop options for a new approach,” his self-righteous critics should not be allowed to obscure the bottom line, security against another 9/11. Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden won’t be held accountable for a sneak nuclear attack.

“Some who participated in our review,” said the President yesterday, “as well as some in Congress, would like to see more sweeping reforms to the use of national security letters, so that we have to go to a judge before issuing these requests. Here, I have concerns that we should not set a standard for terrorism investigations that is higher than those involved in investigating an ordinary crime.”

As the Administration struggles to curb abuses without damaging our chances of preventing future attacks, critics have every right and duty to demand that more and better safeguards be developed.

What they don’t have the moral standing to do is follow Greenwald’s lead in denouncing the President thus:

“They vow changes to fix the system and ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic ‘reforms’ so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge.”

In the Internet Age, talk is cheap, but in the aftermath of an another attack on the US homeland, it won’t be Greenwald or his puppet Snowden telling the American people what went wrong.

Barack Obama took a solemn oath to protect America. He is not immune to criticism but deserves the respect and credibility that should accompany that burden as he struggles with a bottomless pit of conflicting pressures. Political posturing is not the issue.

Friday, January 17, 2014

MLK st 85: Person of the Century

He was no plaster saint, this remarkable man who brought a race out of American darkness with soaring words and body rhetoric more muscular and effective than any mob uprisings might have been.

In his 39 years on earth, Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence to the oppressed. “Our weapon is love,” he told them, and he used it with stunning force.

At the dawn of TV, he brought into American homes images of peaceful protesters being beaten, driven with high-pressure hoses and arrested without fighting back. Their stoic suffering exposed racial hatred to a nation as never before.

His birthday this weekend will elicit the usual eulogies, grainy old videos of speeches and marches as well as tributes from the first African-American President and other nation leaders for whom he paved the way to political power, but they can barely revive the essence of the greatest figure of our time on earth.

Of the many gifts he bestowed on America, the most undervalued may be hope, an unyielding optimism transcending the kind of bitterness and hate that divides people and would eventually take his own life.

“The reports are that they are out to get me,” he told his parents before the murder in Memphis. “I have to go on with my work, I’m too deeply involved now to get out, it’s all too important. Sometimes I want to stop. Just go away somewhere and have some quiet days, finally, a quiet life with Coretta and the children. But it’s too late for that now. I have my path before me. I know what I have to do.”

That kind of selfless dedication is an invitation to see Dr. King as a martyr, but he was also a mortal man with human failings that led J. Edgar Hoover to bug his hotel rooms and have anonymous letters sent urging him to commit suicide.

In Hoover's files were angry scrawls on press clippings. On Dr. King receiving the St. Francis peace medal from the Catholic Church, he wrote "this is disgusting." About the Nobel Prize: "King could well qualify for the 'top alley cat' prize!"

During his last years, despite gratitude to LBJ for pushing through a landmark Civil Rights law, Dr. King had turned against the Vietnam War and was actively opposing it, much to the President’s displeasure. His focus remained on human life, not politics.

In 1966 Dr. King wrote for me about an apartment he had rented in Chicago’s slums to connect with gang members: “I was shocked at the venom they poured out against the world.”

He asked them to join Freedom Marches in Mississippi and they did in carloads, where “they were to be attacked by tear gas. They were to protect women and children with no other weapons but their own bodies...

“They learned in Mississippi and returned to teach in Chicago the beautiful lesson of acting against evil by renouncing force...

“And in Chicago the test was sterner. These marchers endured not only the filthiest kind of verbal abuse but also barrages of rocks and sticks and eggs and cherry bombs...

“It was through the Chicago marches that our promise to them—-that nonviolence achieves results--was redeemed and their hopes for a better life rekindled, For they saw that a humane police force, in contrast to police in Mississippi, could defend the exercise of Constitutional rights as well as enforce the law in the ghetto.”

Some of those young men Martin Luther King helped to grow up and away from their worst selves to exercise their civil rights must have been among the millions of Americans of all races to vote for Barack Obama in 2008.

In the past five years, they and we have learned that the old hatreds die hard, but bitterness was not in Martin Luther King’s character. If he were still here at 85, he might well remind us as he did toward the end of the brief life we celebrate:

“Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks. As they spread the propaganda of war, we must spread the propaganda of peace. We must combine the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement. We must demonstrate, teach and preach, until the very foundations of our nation are shaken. We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.”

Amen.