Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Trump's Next Patriotic Move and Kim's Secret Plan To Invigorate North Korea

I have a prediction about Trump’s next move in his escalating crusade espousing patriotic signs of loyalty, plus an explanation for North Korea’s war of words with the bully-in-chief.

I predict Trump will mandate that all cabinet meetings begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, possibly followed by a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner (heaven help the secretary who doesn’t sing loud enough or warbles off key. Trump might even designate, on a rotating basis, one cabinet member to sing the national anthem solo, a cappella. If so, expect resignations or sheepish cries of laryngitis prior to their respective turns).

Trump doesn’t have to pressure Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to begin their respective chamber’s proceedings with the pledge and/or the national anthem. They already do.

Woe to the elected or appointed official who does not conform to the symbols Trump deems patriotic.

On WNYC public radio Monday morning, Brian Lehrer noted that after the disturbances in Charlottesville Trump said it was okay for peaceful demonstrators to protest the removal of a Civil War statue even if they marched with neo-Nazis and white extremists. He dismissed the idea that the statue of Robert E. Lee, or the Confederate flags or the torch light parade or the neo Nazi flags represented slavery, bigotry and the suppression of equal rights. Yet, he sharply and profanely criticized the peaceful demonstrations by athletes protesting racial inequalities while seeking an end to police mistreatment and killings of minorities. 

My friend Linda, on the other hand, sent along a reminder that refusing to say the Pledge or to engage in other symbolic gestures of patriotism was a right protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in 1943—during the height of World War II, no less!—that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment protected students from being forced to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance in school. Furthermore, they could not be forced to stand while others recited it.

But the Barnette case applied only to public officials and government actions. Private employers may well have the power and legal right to fire employees if they violate a corporate policy to stand for the national anthem. The outcome of any such incident may rest on the individual’s employment contract and if a collective bargaining agreement exists. 

In other words, there is no settled case law, and though Barnette is now the law of the land for the last 74 years, it is instructive to realize Barnette overturned a previous Supreme Court decision (Minersville School District v. Gobitis) that was just three years old. 

So Trump’s verbal assault on athletes, asserting those who don’t stand for the national anthem should be fired, might, just might, be within legal bounds. Or not. We apparently won’t know as the National Football League and many of its team owners do not seem eager to test the issue. Indeed, the league and some owners have distanced themselves from Trump.

Trump, meanwhile, is like the old fashioned advertising executive seen as Juror #12 in the film 12 Angry Men. To advance the dialogue during the deadlocked jury deliberations he says in advertising you throw out ideas, run them up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.  

When Trump speaks publicly he tosses out provocations and waits to see if they resonate with his base. If they do, he hunkers down, doubles down and attacks anyone who questions his wisdom. So it was with his anti-athlete diatribe that began with a speech last week in Alabama. 

The national debate isn’t likely to go away soon (it is, after all, just week four of the NFL season), which seems to be overshadowing the after-hurricane crises in Puerto Rico, Houston and Florida, the debate over health care, the quest for peace in the Middle East, the need to overhaul the country’s infrastructure, cyber security, tax reform, the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and the standoff with North Korea over nuclear arms development. 

Grand Fenwick Redux: This much we know about North Korea and its enigmatic leader Kim Jong-un: The country is impoverished and ruled by a dictator who enjoys movies. 

I don’t have it on good authority but I suspect Kim has seen the movie The Mouse That Roared, the 1959 Peter Sellers satire based on the 1955 novel of the same title, about the down on its luck Duchy of Grand Fenwick that concocts a get-rich-quick scheme. Its leaders declare war on the United States with the intention of losing as they believe America would then rebuild its vanquished foe much as it did with Germany and Japan. 

Kim, no doubt, can’t possibly hope to win a confrontation with the U.S., but he could extract invaluable tribute from Washington. It would be the least Trump could do to reward the third generation tyrant for being a puppet antagonist to his patriotic protagonist. Of course, Kim would have to agree to live in exile, but I am confident he could find a more hospitable environment somewhere on this earth.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

In Defense of Tax and Spend Liberalism

I harbor no shame in openly admitting to being an unreconstructed tax and spend liberal.

In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma I am more resolute than ever in my support of tax and spend liberalism that advocates environmental checks on growth and provides assistance from natural disasters. In the financial fallout after the hacking of 143 million accounts from Equifax I am more resolute than ever in my support of government regulations to monitor financial services companies. In the sadness evoked by the deaths of elderly residents of nursing homes in Florida during Irma, I am more resolute than ever that government regulations are vital to the health and welfare of all our citizens, particularly the most vulnerable.

I could go on citing examples of natural and man-made disasters, plus corporate greed, that command government action. We are well beyond the time when we should accept the notion that natural selection would weed out the less fortunate in our society. As the richest country on earth we should not begrudge assistance to those in need because of the vagaries of nature or the capriciousness or malfeasance of their fellow human being.

Assistance does not have to be after the fact, as when FEMA responds to floods, tornadoes or hurricanes. Proactive legislation and regulations can lessen the impact of misfortune. As Gail Collins of The New York Times recently pointed out, there’s irony in the Trump plan to dismantle government regulations.

“You don’t want all that much consistency (in presidential leadership) when you’ve got a chief executive whose recent triumph in regulatory reform was to roll back the requirement that new highways be protected against flooding — 10 days before the first hurricane,” wrote Collins.

Republicans and conservatives favor reducing taxes while spending more on defense. They want to gut regulations and assistance programs. What they fail to appreciate is that America is strongest when government cares for its people. CEO after CEO will tell you, perhaps not from their heart but they’ll tell you anyway, that their corporation’s number one asset is their people. So it stands to reason that investing in people should be the number one priority of our government.

We hear a lot about repairing our infrastructure. Fixing roads, highways, interstates, bridges, tunnels, canals, dams, mass transit systems, seaports and airports. Years of neglect have undermined our transportation network.

Yet it is equally important that we invest in the human side of our infrastructure. We need to designate money for early child care and education. We need to invest in technical schools for those who choose a path that does not include college or university. We need to make college more affordable. We need to reduce the burden of excessive student loans. 

I’m not against appropriate spending to upgrade our military. But defense spending should not be at the expense of programs to feed the hungry, to care for the infirm, to educate the young, to retrain workers whose jobs have been disintermediated or eliminated by new technologies, especially if the rollback of government funding provides tax relief to the wealthy, a cohort that surely does not need more daylight between its opulent lifestyle and those struggling to put food on their family table.

Foreign Aid: A friend wondered if the true face of the base of the Democratic Party was reflected in Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ call for a reassessment of U.S. aid to Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians. In fiscal 2017, Israel received $3.1 billion from Washington (

I doubt if Sanders reflects more than a slim portion of Democratic opinion on this issue. But I am equally certain there is an impatience with the Netanyahu government, a disappointment intensely felt by all but the most Orthodox Jewish communities. 

“It is an abomination against all Jewish principles and our tragic history to accept an Israeli government that discriminates against its own citizens (both Jewish—in other words, non Orthodox—and Arab) as well as the Palestinians under its control,” I responded to him. 

“Yes, the Palestinians have been guilty of terrorism amplified by their stupidity and greedy leadership. But the failure of Likud and other right-wing parties to recognize the unacceptability of controlling the lives of millions of Palestinians reduces our ethical standing not just around the world but among fellow Jews. 

“I refuse to be part of a Jewish Bund in the diaspora. From what I’ve heard in the past so does Bernie Sanders. But I would hope that Sanders imposes equally strong demands on the Palestinians requiring them to abandon terrorism while recognizing Israel before any funds would be made available to them. And before any recognition of a Palestinian state which would have to be demilitarized and include several early warning Israeli posts.”

Swearing Allegiance: That same friend opined that “Dems just lost 2018 and 2020 elections” because “Middle America has zero sympathy for millionaire athletes” protesting during the recitation of the national anthem before sporting events. My response: 

“If Middle America loses its health care,
“If Middle America keeps seeing no increase in their living conditions including family wealth,
“If Middle America thinks Trump is placing them in physical jeopardy,
“If Middle America sees the environment, including their water supply and air quality, deteriorate,

“Democrats will win regardless of what athletes and entertainment figures say.”

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Toys "R" Us Bankruptcy Brings Back Memories

News that Toys R” Us filed for bankruptcy protection late Monday stirred a memory of one of my first encounters with Charles Lazarus, the founder and, at the time, chairman, president and chief executive of the chain which is credited with being the first of what became known as the category killer segment of retailing that subsequently included companies such as Best Buy, Staples and Sports Authority.

It was in the conference dining room of Windows on the World, the 106th floor of the North Tower of the original World Trade Center at the tip of Manhattan. Lazarus was a featured presenter at the Modes of Creative Retailing conference organized by Jeff Feiner of Merrill Lynch. For some obscure reason, Jeff relaxed his “no press” rule by allowing me to attend the two-day affair. So it was that during lunch the first day I strategically sat across from Charles Lazarus, an iconic retailer known for strict adherence to organizational discipline (he used to say that if he was blindfolded in any of his stores and walked down any aisle he would find the exact same merchandise on the shelf where he stopped regardless of location. No deviation. That, to Lazarus, was chain store retailing.)

Lazarus, at the time 56-years-old, had founded Toys “R” Us in 1948 as an outgrowth of a juvenile furniture store in Washington, DC. His enthusiasm for his adopted product line was evident in the many pictures that accompanied articles in Fortune, Business Week and Forbes. He’d be photographed riding a tricycle, or surrounded by plush animals, most prominently Geoffrey, the giraffe that became the company’s symbol. 

He rarely, if ever, spoke to the trade press, of which I, as editor of Chain Store Age, was a prominent member. Perhaps he didn’t recognize me across the table. Or maybe he was more concerned with talking up the money managers sitting next to him, who, as I did, clung to his every word. 

Charles Lazarus loved to talk about Toys “R” Us. He tried to share the limelight with his top executives, but, invariably, whenever they would finish their presentations or responses to questions he would not be able to contain himself. He would have to, he’d feel compelled to, add a coda to their comments. 

When we did an extensive report on Toys “R” Us two years later, Lazarus adhered to his no talking to the press rule. Except, when I called him to ask that he sit for a cover shot, he wound up talking for 45 minutes, concluding by insisting he would sit for a photograph only if we agreed to include his three top executives in the  picture. 

On the appointed day we met at a New Jersey store near corporate headquarters. As my son Dan was just shy of his third birthday (Ellie was months away from being born), I decided to do some shopping after the shoot. Toys in hand, I stepped towards the one staffed checkout line. I was third in line. On the other side of the checkout, Lazarus paced back and forth, like a caged tiger. It became obvious he was stifling an explosion aimed at the store manager for failing to open another checkout lane after a third customer entered the line, a transgression made all the more violent by the fact that I, a member of the press, was that third customer. I left the store before the expected confrontation. 

Lazarus was rightly proud of his accomplishments. Toys “R” Us was the biggest toy retailer in the world. And profitable. Very profitable. Only one thing really ticked him off. Too many times interviewers from the consumer and business press wanted to ask him about his wife, Helen Singer–Kaplan, a renowned sex therapist, from whom he was widowed in 1995 after 16 years of marriage. 

As he sat across from me at that 1980 luncheon he revealed that his proudest moment was paying off the bankruptcy debt of Interstate Stores. Interstate had bought Toys “R” Us eight years earlier but had lapsed into bankruptcy, carrying Lazarus’ chain with it. Toys “R” Us emerged from bankruptcy as the surviving enterprise with no obligation to pay off Interstate’s creditors. But Lazarus felt an obligation to. Not many businessmen would.

(For a taste of his enthusiasm, view this short video of Lazarus talking about the making of Toys “R” Us:

Friday, September 15, 2017

Toting a Briefcase: School Days Sans Backpacks

You see them everywhere. Now that school has reconvened I am treated to the adorable vision of children walking city streets with a backpack chock full of books, pencils, erasers and other supplies strapped to their backs. The older they get the fuller and weightier the backpacks appear.

I didn’t have a backpack when I attended elementary school back in the 1950s. I lugged around a leather briefcase that weighed almost as much as I did (I kid you not. I was severely underweight as a youngster, so much so that my sister every day prepared a milk shake enhanced with a raw egg for me, alas to no avail. I remained a stick figure of bones barely covered by skin. My parents, especially my mother, threatened to send me to the polar opposite of a fat farm, a place where skinny kids were bulked up. Of course, my overly skinny childhood and teenage years paid off when I failed my military draft physical as a 21-year-old but that’s a story for another day—if you can’t wait for that day, here’s a link to a previous blog about my draft physical:

As a youngster toting a heavy briefcase my hands would develop blisters at the base of my fingers. The briefcase was golden brown in color and a size that would have made any first year law associate proud. That’s the closest I ever came to experiencing life as a lawyer. 

I leaned to the opposite side of the hand grasping the handle, the better to maintain balance. I could barely walk half a block before switching hands for relief. The only benefit from the heavy load was it anchored me to earth should a brisk wind threaten to lift my slight frame off the ground.

My elementary school didn’t have lockers to store books overnight. Neither did our desks have large storage wells. We had to schlep books to and from school each day. And since I attended a Jewish day school in Brooklyn (Yeshiva Rambam) we had more books than public school kids because of the extra courses in Hebrew and religious studies.

Now, you might be wondering why I am making such a big deal about lugging a heavy briefcase. Didn’t I ride a  school bus? Not after first grade. From second grade on I took two city buses, the B49 from Avenue W up Ocean Avenue to Kings Highway, then the B7 along Kings Highway to East 31st Street.

Ocean Avenue was a block and a half from our home on Avenue W. School started at 9 am. The trip to school, if the buses were on time, took 30 minutes. On many a morning my brother, sister and I would be challenged to arrive at the bus stop in time to catch the 8:30 bus. Often it was late.

There were no bus shelters, not along Ocean Avenue or at the transfer point at Kings Highway, no place to seek shelter from the weather. If it rained we got wet. If it snowed we got wet and froze. If it was just cold and windy, we froze. If it were hot and sticky, we sweated. 

Each month we’d get a different colored bus pass. Five dollars for unlimited travel. 

All in all, while going to and from school wasn’t as arduous as the process recounted by my father in his shtetl in Poland (“We had to walk miles in snow up to our knees”), my experience was not pleasant. 

As long as I’m recalling early school days, the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida evoked an enduring memory. It was early in the school year. I was in either first, second or, most probably, third grade. I remember strong winds lashing leafy tree limbs across the windows of our classroom. Our teacher, probably Mrs. Schlesinger, tried to assure her 35 seven- and eight-year-old students there was nothing to fear, but as dismissal time approached, no one was eager to head home. Fortunately, at 4:30 the storm subsided and we hurried to our respective school or city buses for the ride home.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Training for Household Chores Began at Sleepaway Camp

Most mornings Gilda makes our bed but that’s mainly because she rises before me; while I am washing up she returns to the bedroom to make the bed. She also believes she does it better than I do. Who am I to dispute such a labor-saving belief?

I tell you this because of a recent New York Times article professing the benefits of starting the day by making one’s bed, along with the best way to do so, as well as a section covering the debate over use of a top sheet (

The first time I was required to make my bed was my first morning in sleepaway summer camp 61 years ago (prior to that seminal away-from-home event our housekeeper tidied up my sleeping quarters during weekdays. I assume my mother did it on weekends).

When my bunkmates and I arrived at Camp Massad Aleph we found our beds neatly made by our counselors. That was the last time they performed that function. Henceforth, they informed their seven-year-old charges, we would be required to make our own beds during the daily cleanup hour after breakfast. During cleanup we were assigned chores, from sweeping the floors to bringing in dry bathing suits and towels from the outdoor clothes line to cleaning the sinks. Each task rotated daily based on a chore pinwheel posted prominently on a doorjamb leading to the bathroom.

Making a bed that first time required prior knowledge of hospital corners, the de riguer method of securing a taut military look for sheets and blankets. Prior to that morning I had never heard of hospital corners. My one and only sheet at home had been fitted, not flat. Now I had two flat sheets and three navy blue wool (itchy) blankets to secure to a metal frame bed.

A counselor demonstrated the proper technique of folding up a corner of a sheet before tucking it under the mattress. The procedure is repeated for the top sheet and two of the blankets, the third blanket becoming a jellyroll placed at the foot of the bed. When precisely done, a quarter dropped on the finished bed would bounce; a broomstick handle thrust inside a hospital corner would be swallowed up all the way to the straw brush.

These weren’t idle standards. Every day an inspector judged our handiwork. If your bed failed to pass muster, if the clothing in your cubby holes wasn’t stacked perfectly with all folded items forming a straight vertical line, you’d be held back from first activity, except if it was swim instruction (there was no way of getting out of swim instruction—believe me, I tried). 

At the end of each week—sleepaway camp lasted eight weeks back then—the cleanest bunks were awarded prizes such as additional candy privileges from the canteen. 

When I returned home I didn’t have to make my bed again until camp the following summer, but weekend house chores imposed by our mother became part of my routine and that of my brother and sister. We had three basic jobs: setting the dinner table, clearing the dishes after meals and dusting (full disclosure—Bernie and Lee do not recall dusting as a chore but I distinctly do, perhaps because, as the youngest, I was assigned a light task). We also had a daily assignment to pick up fruit and vegetables at Joe’s, the neighborhood produce store, and buy a fresh rye bread at the bakery on Ocean Avenue (our father thought bread made any meal taste better).

Being the youngest had the previously mentioned advantage of a lighter workload until both my brother and sister moved out, leaving me for several years solely responsible for all chores. 

The real beneficiary of my prolonged exposure to housework has been Gilda. Though I don’t often make our bed, I do set and take off the table and clean the pots and pans. I vacuum and do most of the shopping. But I don’t dust. Still, Gilda would probably tell you I don’t do enough around the house. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Trump's Plan for Dreamers Is No Surprise

It was a no brainer to figure out Donald Trump, according to multiple reports, would not keep the Dreamer program that protects undocumented immigrants who were brought into the United States as children by their parents. The giveaway clue? The Dreamer program was identified with Barack Obama and Trump is committed to eradicating anything associated with his presidential predecessor.

Trump has bern virulently heartless in his approach to illegal aliens despite cautionary words from other Republicans and scores, even hundreds, of business leaders. His plan to give Congress six months to come up with a DACA fix is a cynical ploy to deflect responsibility for his venal action after months of saying he loves the Dreamers. A man who broke up two previous families through his philandering has no compunction or remorse in breaking up countless families by deporting fathers, mothers or children.

It is a good thing I was born in the United States and have no need to emigrate here. I apparently wouldn’t score enough points to gain entry based on Trump’s proposed criteria for immigration acceptance. I scored a mere 20 out of the minimum 30 points required. Take the test yourself to find out how qualified you’d be:

Gardener Murray: Not! I’ve always wanted a riding lawn mower. Gilda has always said a most emphatic, “No.” Not even a “no way” or “we will see,” or some other benign rejection. Just a short, declarative, no room for equivocation, “No!”

So I was excited when Ellie and Donny purchased a used riding mower when they moved into their Omaha house last December. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to throttle up the blades and cut a swath through their twi-thirds of an acre.

I couldn’t wait to get off that machine. You see, instead of a standard steering wheel the mower has two levers that power it forward, backwards, left and right. Turns are counter-intuitive. To go left, for example, you push forward with the right lever.

I just couldn’t get the handle of it. I guess my fun ride will have to wait until I bum a ride on someone else’s riding mower equipped with a “normal” steering wheel.

Primary Forecast: Lots of talk about Republican challengers to Trump’s nomination to a second term. I believe Trump would want to be challenged so he could once again sharpen his rapier-like tongue to stimulate his base prior to meeting the eventual Democratic nominee.

Houston, We Have a Problem: Reviewing pictures of the devastation in flooded Texas I recalled what I saw some 20 years ago when I visited Houston for a regional shopping center conference. A torrential rain preceded my arrival. 

As my taxi made its way on an elevated highway toward a restaurant we passed a sloped exit ramp. At the bottom of the ramp a truck driver was standing on the roof of the cab of his semi-tractor trailer. He had tried to drive through the water at the base of the ramp only to have his truck submerge above the doors. 

We sped by not knowing what happened to him but the image has remained with me as an example of what could happen if you do not know the depth of the water you try to cross no matter how large or high your vehicle may be.

I also couldn’t help but wonder what some of the holy rollers were saying about Hurricane Harvey. Often after some natural or man-made disaster strikes a location like New York the conservative religious crowd of multiple denominations blame the event on promiscuous residents of the affected area. You know those liberal types. The ones that practice or tolerate homosexuality or abortions or atheism or liberalism.

Sure enough I didn’t have to wait long for the likes of Ann Coulter and the Pastor Kevin Swanson to blame Houstonians’ acceptance of a lesbian mayor from 2010 to 2016 for God’s punishment (

With pronouncements like that is there any wonder atheism is on the rise?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Keeping Tradition Alive, Leo Wolfgang Enters the Covenant

On a snip and a prayer Rabbi Mike flew into Omaha from St. Louis to ritually circumcise Leo Wolfgang Novak, Gilda’s and my fourth grandchild. Leo joined sister Cecilia Jane as blessed children of Ellie and Donny.

Omaha has a vibrant Jewish community (there are synagogues for all three major denominations plus a Chabad House), but at 5,000 to 6,000 it is not able to sustain some of the requisites of traditional Jewish life. That includes having a resident mohel, a ritual circumciser whose function is to formally usher an eight-day-old male into the covenant God made with Abraham some 4,000 years ago.

Rabbi Mike Rovinsky flew in early Sunday afternoon a week ago for the ceremony attended in the Novak home by more than two dozen friends and relatives, many of whom had never witnessed a brit milah, the Hebrew name for the ritual snipping off of the foreskin of the penis. Done properly, professionally and expeditiously by a mohel the procedure takes about 20 seconds compared to the near half an hour it could take in a hospital by a doctor.

With more than 10,000 circumcisions to his credit since 1988, Rabbi Mike performed as advertised, explaining in detail with flashes of wit and humor the millennia-old procedure. Leo took it all like a man. I can vouch for that, as I had a close-up view as the sandek, the male who holds down the baby lying on a pillow on his lap. 

Almost eight years ago I held Finley as he was circumcised. It is a remarkable, emotional experience perhaps matched only in its powerful significance to Jewish heritage by observing a grandchild’s bar/bat mitzvah or seeing an offspring under the chupah, a wedding canopy. 

Leo Wolfgang received a name steeped in family lore. His paternal great-great-grandfather, Leo Novak, is enshrined in the West Point Hall of Fame as the winningest coach in the military academy’s history. Over a quarter of a century, from 1925-1949, Leo Novak compiled an overall record of 326-115-1. He earned more victories in men’s basketball and outdoor track and field than any other Army coach, including Bobby Knight. 

Wolfgang is in memory of his maternal great-great uncle Willy Forseter, a Holocaust survivor from the family’s ancestral village of Ottynia in Galicia, then part of southeastern Poland, now part of western Ukraine. Willy was away from the village when the Nazis rounded up the Jewish residents, marched them to a nearby forest and shot them into a previously dug mass grave. For a couple of years he survived by hiding among Polish neighbors and in the forest. When Russia liberated the region he was drafted into its army and sent to Siberia for training. After the war he returned to Poland and was reconnected with my father who had arrived in New York in 1939. Willy first made his way to Cuba and then to New York. He lived with his wife Ethel and son Max in an apartment above the 2nd Avenue Deli in the East Village and operated Willy’s Dry Goods a block away on First Avenue.  

Leo Wolfgang’s Hebrew name is Aryeh Ze’ev. Aryeh for lion. Ze’ev for wolf.