Friday, August 28, 2015

Spending Time in Vermont, Or Not

One of the continuing features of the Travel section of The New York Times is the “36 Hours” in ... series. This past Sunday’s travelogue was on Burlington, VT, home of its former mayor-current U.S. senator-presidential candidate (and former Brooklynite) Bernie Sanders.

Gilda and I visited Burlington, on the eastern rim of Lake Champlain near the border with Canada, 40 years ago. We journeyed from New Haven, CT, not to partake of the splendors of the Green Mountain state’s largest city, but rather to reconnect with close friends who had migrated to Milton, 24 miles further north of Burlington.

Vermont was known back then and even unto today to have three seasons—summer, winter and mud. Our friends Elaine and William had arrived in the spring, the season of mud. They rented a trailer anchored on a level lot, alongside Route 7, as I remember. Wanting to be somewhat self-sufficient, they thought they would cultivate the land in front of their trailer. They called a local farmer to plow the front yard.

He was young, like them, so Elaine screwed up the courage to ask if he and his wife would like to come over for dinner one night. To which he replied, in a distinctly New England drawl, “The wife and I don’t socialize.”

The chill Elaine felt that morning was downright warm compared to the reality of a Vermont winter. She woke one frigid morning with her hair frozen to the wall of the trailer.

William had grown up in cold Michigan. His home lacked indoor plumbing. Elaine, on the other hand, was raised in genteel Connecticut. They lasted a little more than a year in Vermont before returning to Connecticut.

I can’t recall ever going back to Vermont. Nothing personal. Just haven’t seen the need, not being a skier and, more importantly, the ubiquity of finding Ben & Jerry’s ice cream throughout our fair land.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Trumped in a Time for Change

I was one of those political observers who opined Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency would self-destruct in the aftershock of his crude, unpatriotic attack on John McCain and, by inference, on veterans and any prisoner of war.

Yet the bombastic, hair-raising candidate soldiers on, taking no prisoners in his assault on conventional politicking and politicos. His strategy seems to be to present a fog of war so thick that the public is bemused into thinking he really could command China, Iran and Russia to do his bidding. And that as president he could ignore the Constitution when it conflicted with his agenda to resolve the illegal alien crisis or any other imbroglio that doesn’t agree with his disposition on any given day.

The electorate, we are told, craves change. Meaningful change. That’s behind Republican fascination with Trump, plus the swooning over Bernie Sanders, the Don Quixote of Democrats who possess a death wish of giving up the White House.

Yet, the sad reality is the average Joe and Jill do not embrace change. They resist it. How else to explain congressional, state and local government election results? Despite gutter-scraping approval ratings for Congress, almost every representative seeking reelection will succeed. Only voluntary retirement and the involuntary kind—death or criminal conviction (indictment alone is insufficient cause)—assures the voters of a new rump in their district’s seat of power. On the state and local levels, term limitations can be change agents.

Failure to accept, even recognize, change is a human frailty bedeviling this year’s presidential primary season. Trump is the embodiment of an electorate that wants to return to mid-20th century conditions instead of understanding and working within 21st century sensibilities.

White America does not want to accept a reduced role. It does not accept that by 2050 white Christians will be a minority in the United States.

Our consumer-driven economy does not want to accept limitations, especially government-based limitations, on our use of energy and natural resources. We refuse to change our belief that Americans are entitled to all we want.

Though Vladimir Putin has reconstituted Russia as a conventional foe, the nature of war and threats to America and its allies have changed. All of our atomic power, sea power and air power are limited in a world where individual terrorists acting singularly or as part of a movement challenge the status quo and make every day excursions perhaps the last time you will embrace your family and friends.

If it is not a terrorist act in some distant land or within our borders the evening news more often than not begins with the latest climate-based disaster. Failure to accept climate change is speeding up repercussions of global warming.

Failure to accept our position in a global economy has too many believing we can resurrect wide-scale domestic manufacturing. It is political suicide not to drumbeat for growing the middle class but the truth is service economy jobs will not do the trick unless we radically increase the minimum wage. And that would bring a whole set of troubles.

Our country’s gross national product enjoyed tremendous growth when we invested in roads, bridges, dams, rail systems and other public works. But unless we change our aversion to investing in infrastructure we will lose much of our competitive edge.

Donald Trump, to my knowledge, hasn’t addressed any of these evolving trends and issues. He is riding high now because he appeals to a segment—an increasingly growing segment—of the electorate that does not accept change. That feels disenfranchised. That wants a leader who does not mince words and expresses their frustration.

I laughed when Jon Stewart and other comedians ridiculed Trump. But to be honest, The Daily Show et al are just as guilty in undermining confidence in our elected officials as politicians who yell out “liar” during a presidential address or who question a president’s legitimacy.

I’m not suggesting curtailing political humor or legitimate dissent. But let’s be cognizant of the cumulative damage daily, even hourly, merrymaking is to the dignity of our elected officials. We wind up with Donald Trump running for the highest office in the land and that, sadly, is no joke because our electorate has shown time and again it can be sold products that are not good for their health. Just ask cigarette companies. Or soda companies. Or fast food chains.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Show Me a Hero and Other Media Notes

They never called me back for my star turn as an extra on Show Me a Hero, and now the six-part HBO movie will begin Sunday night without me (

You may recall I attended an open casting call for extras at Manhattanville College last summer. About two months later I was contacted to show up in Yonkers for what normally is a 10-12 hour shoot for the princely sum of $100. That would be for the whole day, not an hourly rate.

Trouble was the day conflicted with the first day of Succoth. I opted for cries of hosanna instead calls for “action,” confident the producers would reconnect with me for another day as they indicated they would if I could not make the first day’s production. They never called.

So as I sit at home tonight and watch the depiction of the tumultuous time in Yonkers when the city underwent court ordered housing desegregation I will wonder in which scenes would I have been cast, and would I possibly have garnered a speaking part, even if it were only to shout verbal abuse at the mayor who reversed his election campaign position attacking the court ordered mandate only to later push for integration.

Ah well, a lost opportunity.

Woodstock Nation: Here’s another lost opportunity, this time Gilda’s, not mine. This weekend marks the 46th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival in Bethel, NY. 

Gilda had tickets to attend but chose to spend the weekend in Brooklyn with her boyfriend, another one of my ultimately less-than-worthy predecessors. She gave her tickets to friends, but they, too, did not make it to Yasgur’s Farm as Route 17 did not live up to its nickname as the Quickway to the Catskills, but rather became an impassable parking lot.

By the time the film Woodstock came out in 1970 Gilda and I were dating. When she saw conditions at the festival, the mud from torrential storms and the mass of people, Gilda had no regrets she passed on the opportunity to be part of counter-culture history. 

By the way, if you haven’t seen Taking Woodstock, a memoir-based 2009 film by Ang Lee on how the festival came to Yasgur’s Farm, it’s worth viewing.

The Man Behind Sears: For many years I thought of Sears, Roebuck & Co. as the prototypical WASP, or at the very least Christian, company. Nary an executive had even the slightest Jewish-sounding name.

The truth, however, was much different during the early years of the enterprise, as I learned when editor of Chain Store Age. The company became successful after Julius Rosenwald joined as part-owner. Rosenwald’s success allowed him to set up a philanthropic fund in 1917 for “the well-being of mankind.” Chief among the beneficiaries of his charity were Afro-American communities. A new documentary, Rosenwald, provides a picture of his commitment to the less fortunate but equally deserving (

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Summer Camp Fights

Sports radio was all talk the last two days about the dust-up in the New York Jets training camp Tuesday that left starting quarterback Geno Smith with a broken jaw that will sideline him anywhere from six to 10 weeks. Smith was hit, some say sucker-punched, by Ikemefuna Enemkpali, a teammate, now an ex-teammate, an egregious infraction of acceptable camp behavior. 

I was particularly amused by Mike Greenberg of ESPN’s Mike and Mike morning show. Greenberg told his sidekick, former NFL defensive lineman Mike Golic, that he had never been in a real fight. I identified with Greenberg’s experience, or lack thereof. Until I harkened back to my fifth year at sleepaway summer camp. That year my annual summer rivalry with Elliot Levine came to a head. 

A little background: I first met Elliot in 1957 when I was eight-years-old, my second year at Camp Massad Aleph in Tannersville, Pa. Though a scrawny (read that, really skinny) kid, I was a pretty good athlete. The prior year I was arguably the best in my division.

So on the first day of my second year at Massad, I was quickly alerted to the prowess of one of our new bunkmates. I was told he could punch a ball all the way up the hill outside our bunk to the flagpole, a truly prodigious feat. With trepidation, I stepped outside to witness what proved to be an accurate accounting of his talent. He also could pitch softball better than I. He was, in short, a better athlete.

Naturally, we sustained a rivalry throughout that summer and the next three that we shared together, culminating in an after-lights-out fight one Friday night when we were 11. The tussle ended after he flipped me against the metal frame of a bed and a counselor mercifully showed up to end the mismatch. Actually, it didn’t quite end there. As we wanted to tangle, the counselor said, let’s do it the old fashioned way, with boxing gloves. Elliot outweighed me by about 30 pounds, but that didn’t matter to anyone except me. I’d like to say I acquitted myself admirably in the ring, but I’m still a little woozy as to the particulars of that encounter.

Our rivalry ended that summer. The following year my brother, sister and I went to a different summer camp. By the time Elliot and I re-engaged in high school, our competition had pretty much ceased. I even turned out to be the pitcher on our school softball team, undefeated our senior year. Elliot played shortstop.

GOP Disses Wal-Mart: Twice last week Republicans disrespected Wal-Mart. Once during the candidates’ debate last Thursday and again the following night on Real Time with Bill Maher, a prominent Republican said Amazon was the largest retailer in the world.

That must have been news to the good people in Bentonville, Ark. After all, Wal-Mart had global sales last year of $473.1 billion compared to Amazon’s $89 billion. 

If anyone should have corrected the Republicans it possibly should have been Hillary Clinton. For several years she served on the retailer’s board of directors. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Personhood from Womb to Grave

In case you missed it during Thursday’s Republican Party presidential primary debate, the GOP war on women has gone universal. Republicans now want to intrude on all health decisions, regardless of gender. From womb to grave, the GOP wants to be in control of your body and the decisions you make about it.

Republican presidential contenders spouted the usual attacks on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. On the Iran nuclear deal. On the need for a stronger military to be sent to combat evil anywhere and everywhere. On the need to lift the burden of overregulation from the economy.

Mostly lost amid the compelling two hour-plus debate on Fox News was a commitment to intrude on the personal health decisions of all Americans. It started off as a routine assault on the right of a woman to end an unwanted pregnancy, even if that pregnancy could kill her. 

Personhood became a new battle standard. And government involvement in medical decisions would include end of life decisions. Jeb Bush proudly hailed the “culture of life” he created while governor of Florida, an allusion not just to his defunding Planned Parenthood but also to his involvement in the Terri Schiavo case. Schiavo was a brain dead woman whose husband sought to have a feeding tube removed. Her parents objected. Bush repeatedly intervened despite decision after decision in state and federal courts. 

“My record is clear,” Bush said during the debate. “My record as a pro-life governor is not in dispute. I am completely pro-life and I believe that we should have a culture of life, it’s informed by my faith from beginning to end. And I did this not just as it related to unborn babies, I did it at the end-of-life issues as well. This is something that goes way beyond politics. And I hope one day that we get to the point where we respect life, in its fullest form, across the board.”

One can imagine if he were president federal laws barring the removal of life sustaining methods. Anyone assisting in an abortion, even if it would save the life of a pregnant woman, could be prosecuted—doctors and nurses, as well as the woman and any family members who agreed with her decision to end the personhood of the fetus. 

Granting the status of personhood to a fetus could significantly change judicial views on pregnancy and abortion. And possibly miscarriages or actions that could be harmful to the unborn. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee championed personhood during the debate. 

In answering a question on passing a constitutional amendment barring abortions, he said, “I disagree with the idea that the real issue is a constitutional amendment. That’s a long and difficult process. I’ve actually taken the position that’s bolder than that.

“A lot of people are talking about defunding Planned Parenthood, as if that’s a huge game changer. I think it’s time to do something even more bold. I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.

“The reason we know that it is is because of the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on. And, this notion that we just continue to ignore the personhood of the individual is a violation of that unborn child’s Fifth and 14th Amendment rights for due process and equal protection under the law.

“It’s time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the supreme being, and we change the policy to be pro-life and protect children instead of rip up their body parts and sell them like they’re parts to a Buick.”

It is accepted medical wisdom that smoking or drinking alcohol while pregnant is harmful to a fetus. Does that mean Huckabee would prosecute a pregnant woman who smoked or drank a beer for endangering the life of a minor? Since second hand smoke is said to be toxic, would Huckabee also prosecute anyone who smoked near a pregnant woman? If a car accident causes a woman to miscarry, would the driver of the car that caused the accident be charged with involuntary manslaughter? If the pregnant woman wasn’t wearing a seat belt could she also be culpable? 

Legal scholars also are divided as to the potential ramifications of personhood on inheritance claims. Or if fetuses should be counted in censuses. In their all-out assault on a woman’s right to choose, Republicans are advancing on very mushy terrain.

Take Back That Compliment: Like many observers I was impressed by the quality of the questions asked by the Fox News panel. They exposed many of the warts each candidate tries to hide.

However, I was disappointed Brett Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace too often permitted the candidates to talk around their questions and not respond to direct requests for specifics. Ah well, I guess we should be content with half a loaf.

If I was disappointed in the moderators I was downright infuriated by corporate Fox News and its blatant attempt to control the transcript record of the debate, thereby whitewashing Jeb Bush’s association with a Bloomberg charity that provided funding for Planned Parenthood. I remember hearing his exchange with Megyn Kelly, but I couldn’t find it in the official transcript released by Fox as printed by The Washington Post and Time on their Web sites. 

It was only after I googled that the relevant colloquy appeared. For shame, Fox News, for trying to cover up what some conservatives might think was a Bush transgression. Of course, one must remember that Roger Ailes, head of Fox News, has been a long-time Bush family friend and advisor.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Living the Legacy of Yesteryear

Who said?:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Try another: 

“Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

Here’s a third to stimulate your brain:

“If you think back to the experiences of the early years of this Administration you will remember the doubts and fears expressed about the rising expenses of government. But to the surprise of the doubters, as we proceeded to carry on the program which included Public Works and Work Relief, the country grew richer instead of poorer.”

Some, no doubt, attributed at least one of the quotes to Barack Obama. But they would be wrong. And they’re not from John F. Kennedy, or Lyndon Baines Johnson, and, for sure, not from Ronald Reagan. All three emanated from the greatest president of the 20th century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Gilda and I visited his ancestral home in Hyde Park, NY, last Friday. The quotations are from the exhibit in the presidential library and museum (little known fact—FDR created the nation’s first presidential library while he was still in office, no less). Spoken almost 70 years ago, the quotes bear witness to FDR’s commitment to providing a better life for all Americans.

Yet, they also reveal how far short we have come in realizing his dream. We still debate the validity of programs Roosevelt initiated: Social Security, the minimum wage, the Securities and Exchange Commission, to name a few. We have not resolved the question whether government should provide a helping hand to the less fortunate or just let them fend for themselves. We have not realized that equality and equal opportunity are everyone’s right regardless of skin color, religion, creed or national origin.

Roosevelt was a canny, pragmatic politician with extreme mental and physical strength, the latter despite the paralysis of his lower body from his bout with polio 12 years before he was elected president for the first time. It is hard to imagine a president more reviled than Obama has been during his tenure, except when you consider the Republican response to Roosevelt. While the vast majority of Americans saluted his leadership by re-electing him three times, and many hung his picture in their homes, Republicans chafed at what they called his imperial presidency. They questioned his attacks on business interests, his support for unions. They thought he was imposing socialism on the country.

For good or bad, sometimes both, every president leaves a legacy. It’s not easy to evaluate a legacy during a president’s time in office. Obama is finding that out while the public ruminates on the Affordable Care Act, his global initiatives for cleaner energy, the nuclear pact with Iran, the ongoing battles in the Middle East, among other actions.

Now 70 years after his death, FDR’s imprint on our lives is immeasurable. Consider, if you will, the following list of accomplishments and societal changes printed on the back of a T-shirt sold in the museum’s gift shop. Imagine what our country would be like without them:

Securities and Exchange Commission, Small business loans, Federal Communications Commission, Labor union right, Child labor laws, Soil conservation, 78,000 bridges, Home ownership, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 40 hour work week, Tennessee Valley Authority, Social Security, First presidential library, U.S. military superpower, 2 billion trees planted, March of Dimes, Disability Insurance, Rural electrification, Banking regulation, Fair employment practices, 650,000 miles of roads, Public housing, GI Bill, Unemployment Insurance, Farm subsidies, United Nations.

You can quibble whether some of these programs need to be retooled to meet modern conditions. Republicans opposed Social Security back in the 1930s and they remain committed to altering its promise of a secure retirement for working Americans. Roosevelt had laws passed to make employment and living conditions safer, less onerous and fairer. Yes, it required regulations, but they are not, as Reagan pompously proclaimed about government, “the problem.”

Roosevelt’s confidence and vision kept our democracy not just afloat but also buoyant. In the words of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “The world we live in today is Franklin Roosevelt’s world.”