Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tangled Up in the Media

All the furor around Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama obscures the stage where this nasty drama is played out: the modern American media-driven campaign.

In the United States today, presidential campaigns are a race to define the competition in the most negative terms possible. George Bush, Jr. prevailed twice by framing Al Gore as condescending prevaricator and John Kerry as an elitist with a dodgy past in the Vietnam War. Both charges rested on lies and distortions, but in the modern media campaign that's beside the point.

To their shame, the U.S. news media does not carefully subject base allegations to careful scrutiny. Instead, the media--with too few honorable exceptions--circulate nasty charges without checking them for accuracy. Then they judge the candidates by how well they respond to the charges. The process is circular, dishonest, and demeaning to all involved.

In the firestorm that now burns around Obama and Rev. Wright, the most dubious assumption of all is that somehow Wright says what Obama really thinks. According to this logic, Obama can establish his integrity only by denouncing Rev. Wright. But this is a form of guilt by association, a phenomenon that Stanley Fish has usefully analyzed in an online New York Times column on Obama and former Weatherman William Ayers.

Of course, if you want to know what Obama thinks, you can explore his record in public life and his books. And I know of no examination of either which suggests that Obama the elected official thinks the way Wright does--not in the past and certainly not since Obama's justified criticism of Wright's remarks at the National Press Club.

Obama had many reasons to be in Wright's church for so long, but as far as I'm concerned the matter is one for Obama, Wright and God. The rest of us can more usefully ask what Obama has done as a public man. And there he has distinguished himself as a unique individual who understands whites better than most blacks and blacks better than most whites.

But the subtleties that come out of that experience don't always play well in the mudslinging that passes for political debate these days. And it is much easier for cable television stations to produce this day's denunciation than to actually report the truth about a candidate's history.

As Fish observed in an online column for the New York Times,

The odd thing is that the press that produces these distractions and the populace that consumes them really believe they are discussing issues and participating in genuine political dialogue. But in fact they have abandoned genuine political dialogue and have committed themselves to a conversation that differs only in subject matter from conversations about Eliot Spitzer’s and David Paterson’s sex lives. It’s not politics; it’s titillation clothed in political garb

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Hero For Our Time

In these days of supercharged political acrimony, I found myself this past week thinking a lot about the most acrimonious political feud of them all, the one that ended at Weehawken, N.J., on July 11, 1804, with Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton dead. This has been occasioned by reading Nancy Isenberg’s superb biography of Aaron Burr, Fallen Founder: A Life of Aaron Burr, one of the finest political biographies I have read in a very long time. It is well written and meticulously researched, but what makes the book so persistently fascinating is her stalwart defense of Burr, certainly one of the most reviled figures in American political history.. Again and again Isenberg makes one rethink the conventional wisdom, that has made Burr into a devious, conniving scapegrace, Nixonian in his political ethics, Clintonian in his personal morality, who assuaged his failed ambitions by killing his rival. Isenberg makes a convincing argument for Burr’s behavior during the duel, during the election of 1800 (he was not trying to defeat Jefferson for the presidency), and even, though I’m not sure I totally buy it, for his actions in 1805 and 1806 in the West (he was just a premature filibusterer, with hopes of wresting Mexican territory for the US, and not a plotter of treasonous designs to separate the United States.) He come across as a thoughtful, passionate man, a natural politician, who without much in the way of money or important connections, created one of the most significant American political careers in the first fifteen years after independence.

What is particularly satisfying about Isenberg’s book, as one might expect from a defender of Burr, is her no holds barred attack on Hamilton, who comes across as a person who found Burr an impediment to his overweening ambition, and while appearing to take the high road of being above politics, spent most of his time penning scurrilous attack after attack on Burr, until push came to shove, and following the custom of the day, the two men met on the field of honor. I have not been very happy with the recent spate of works on the Founding Fathers, which have overpraised both John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was of course a figure of unquestioned brilliance, and a shaper of early national politics, but for all that, it seems to me to be something of a dead end, whose vision of government had little in common with the democracy that was developing in the early 19th century, and whose essentially mercantilist vision of capitalism had little in common with the free and largely unfettered free markets that triumphed during the Jacksonian period. But Hamilton has benefited from the fading reputation of Jefferson, now generally seen (with much justice) as more of a slaveocrat than a democrat, and a slave owner not above enjoying his seigniorial privileges.

But Isenberg convinces me the more apt comparison is not Hamilton/Jefferson but Hamilton/Burr. It is Burr who first organized lasting popular democratic institutions in the largest state in the north, who, until he faltered, managed to flourish amidst the treacherous factional politics in New York State in the 1780s and 1790s. He was in many ways New York State’s first great democratic (and Democratic) politician, a coalition builder like his friend Martin Van Buren, and perhaps a more distant remove, politicians like Al Smith and FDR, and perhaps even, at a further remove, his successor as a US senator from New York State, Hillary Clinton. A committed feminist and close student of Mary Wollstonecraft, he would have been delighted to see a woman president, I think. And as a member of the New York Manumission Society (though like Hamilton, both an advocate of manumission and a slave owner) he would have also been delighted by the candidacy of Barack Obama.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Fatal Mistake

Two sentences from Justice Arthur Cooperman's verdict in the Sean Bell case explain his judgment and why so many New Yorkers will find it unsatisfying:
The police response with respect to each defendant was not proved to be criminal, i.e. beyond a reasonable doubt. Questions of carelessness and incompetence must be left to other forums.

It is exactly such questions that make this case so frustrating. As the Times' Jim Dwyer explained,
The trial provided some answers on why the police officers fired: They mistakenly believed there was a gun in Mr. Bell's car. But the case did not explain how anyone could have expected him to know that he was being approached by a police officer at 4 a.m.....

A Federal prosecution is unlikely, so the next person to pass judgment is likely to be Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. Already, Kelly says, recommendations to avoid a repetition of the Bell case have been put into practice. I only wish I found that firm grounds to believe that we will not see another such incident.

In an editorial, "They Must Go," the Daily News argues that the three detectives should be thrown off the force:
They killed an unarmed man. They brought irreparable loss to his family. They tore the social fabric. They damaged race relations, regardless of the fact that one is black, one half-black and one Hispanic. And they case the NYPD into the worst possible light.

The News has it right. I'd like to see other cops learn something from this awful episode, and perhaps they will. But I don't want the three detectives in this case to ever again be in a position where they can make such a deadly mistake.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Lessons from 1968

The shadows of 1968 hang over the election of 2008. But if the Democrats learn the right lessons from the candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, the tragedy of 1968 can yield a Democratic victory in 2008. Most of all, they need to remember the often-maligned virtues of partisanship and a fighting spirit.

All Democrats need to remember the folly of McCarthy, and his supporters, who sat on the sidelines or acted with reluctance when Humphrey ran against Richard Nixon. For all his limitations, Humphrey was a far better man than Nixon and would have made a far better president. Pretending that there was no difference between them, or an insufficient difference, was folly.

A repetition of this logic has no place in 2008. For all the recent nastiness of the Democratic race, which is largely the fault of Hillary Clinton and her supporters, the fundamental fact is that the policy differences between Clinton and Barack Obama are minor. Whoever wins the nomination deserves other Democrats' support.

For Obama, there is also a lesson to be learned from Kennedy's last campaign: Kennedy was a fighter. At moments--and I write as an Obama supporter whose first great political hero was Robert Kennedy-- the disdain for politics that I sense in Obama and some of his camp reminds me of McCarthy and his backers. Kennedy was many things, but he was emphatically a politician who knew how to wage a tough yet compassionate campaign that won white, black, and Hispanic votes. Obama could learn a lesson from him.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Obamaites and McGovernites

The latest line of campaign analysis are comparisons of Obama’s candidacy to that of George McGovern in 1972. Obama can’t win the white blue-collar vote, the argument goes, regardless of how many gutter balls he throws; his appeal is too middle and upper class, on the “wine track” and not the “beer track;” and he has left behind that apocryphal “mainstream”, for a left-meandering tributary on the way to capsizing in the rapids.

Every four years pundits drag out the specter of McGovern to haunt Democrats, much as Republicans are analogized to Herbert Hoover, and compromising diplomats to the overly-invoked shades of Neville Chamberlain. Whether or not the current application of the McGovern analogy is deserved (I think not) it is worth taking a new look at the McGovern campaign, a prospect aided by Bruce Miroff’s recent study, Liberal’s Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party (Kansas, 2007.)

A few points. The Democratic Party in 1972 was a very different creature than the party of 2008. It encompassed a far wider ideological spectrum; some old-line southern Democrats, nascent neocons hovering around Scoop Jackson and other dyed in the wool Cold warriors, along with liberals and new leftists who were (at least) as left as what is considered acceptable within the party today. It is not surprising that the factions could not get along. The primaries had been bitter, with Humphrey, angry at the forces in the party that had denied him his ultimate prize in 1968, and McGovern as the major sparrers. (Humphrey hated McGovern, and called Nixon in the summer of 1972 to tell him that though party proprieties forced him to publicly endorse McGovern, in his heart Nixon was the one.)

The convention was profoundly bitter, with rules fights, especially over the seating of the California delegation, won by the McGovern forces by only a handful of votes, delaying all other party business, which was why McGovern was only able to give his acceptance speech well after prime time. The 1972 Democratic convention was one of the reasons that both parties soon moved to conventions at which no decisions were actually made.

The McGovern forces made some serious mistakes, of which by the most important was the selection of Thomas Eagleton as a running mate, with just an hour of vetting beforehand, in part because the campaign had been so bitter than until the actual convention all thoughts of McGovern’s senior staff had been fixed on winning the nomination, and the VP selection, as it had generally been was left as a last minute afterthought, and this too would never happen again. But even after the convention, the Democrats did not unite around McGovern. Humphrey offered a tepid endorsement, and most of organized labor, led by the ineffably grouchy and reactionary George Meany, didn’t even do that. McGovern was further hurt by bad breaks out of his control. (If George Wallace had stayed in the race, he would have definitely cut into Nixon’s margins.)

So what are the analogies to 2008? One thing that seems safe to conclude is that there has not been, since 1972, an insurgent movement within the Democratic Party with the excitement of Obama’s campaign this year. And it is worth remembering what McGovern won in 1972; forever changing the Democratic party with new roles and visibility for women and racial and sexual minorities within the party. These trends have finally come full circle, and it is difficult to imagine the Democratic Party of 2008, with its black and female leading candidates, without the reforms wrought by the McGovernites.

In many ways the auspices are positive. The Democratic Party is far more unified ideologically than it was in 1972; differences over Iraq are a pale comparison to the bitter Cold War/anti-Cold War debates that split the party in those days, and one hopes that whatever happens, Democrats will be able to unite behind the party’s eventual choice. But if the bitter convention of 1972 demonstrates anything, it is that the Democrats are fully capable, if they are dominated by anger and hurt feelings, to pull their party apart. They can lose and lose badly. Every faction and segment of the Democratic Party in 1972 contributed to debacle that November debacle, and not just the McGovernites. Let us hope this time around, unlike 1972, and unlike 2000 and 2004, the Democrats can share more than blame.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Murdoch and Newsday

The announcement that Rupert Murdoch is angling to buy Newsday refutes the claims of the Long Island tabloid's executives, made more than twenty years ago, that the Post was doomed to economic failure. Instead, it is Murdoch and the Post who are humming along, in their fashion, and Newsday that is stumbling. And that should concern anyone who fears or disdains Murdoch's brand of journalism.

When I went to work at Newsday in 1985, the conventional wisdom at the top--related to me by my boss, the late, great Bernie Bookbinder--was that either the Post or the Daily News (and maybe both) had to fail because New York City could not support two tabloid newspapers. In anticipation of that day, and to keep both tabs out of Long Island, Newsday launched a city edition called New York Newsday.

New York Newsday, where I had my desk as Bernie's researcher, was a strong newspaper. While staffers at the News and Post mocked us as a "tabloid in a tutu," New York Newsday dished out great coverage of politics and neighborhoods, a superb roster of columnists, and a vigorous op-ed page. And if we thought the Long Island edition was a little stodgy, it was a model for an intelligent, comprehensive regional newspaper.

In 1995, however, New York Newsday was killed off by Mark Willes, then CEO of Times-Mirror. The larger Long Island edition remains, but since it has become part of the Tribune Company, suffered circulation scandals, and endured drastic cutbacks, it has withered into a shadow of a great paper.

The leaders of Newsday never took into account the allure of a New York City newspaper for a politically ambitious robber baron like Murdoch, who has been willing to lose money over the years at the Post in order to own a newspaper in New York City.

With the Post, Murdoch has a political mouthpiece. With the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch has a paper that can challenge the Times. With Newsday, which for all its troubles has a monopoly on Long Island, Murdoch would have an entrenched presence in one of the most important regions of New York State and the metropolitan area.

Of course, as he maneuvers for Newsday, he may make the same noises about editorial noninterference that he made when he bought the Post and the Journal. Don't believe them for a minute.

Murdoch likes power and he likes control. And he exercises both when he owns a newspaper.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Remembering Clinton Fatigue

Hillary Clinton recently mocked Barack Obama's criticisms of the politics of the Nineties (and her husband's administration) by asking which aspect of it he didn't like: the peace or the prosperity? But Clinton's memories of the Nineties mask an unfortunate source of her husband's popularity: the ugliness of the Republicans who opposed him.

Plenty of Democrats stood by Bill Clinton during his second term not because they strongly endorsed him, but because they despised the Republicans and their impeachment even more. Many people grew tired of the Clinton's irresponsible, ineffectual style of government. We yearned for something steadier, grounded in a firmer set of principles.

Hillary Clinton should be wary of reminding Democrats of the Nineties. For many people, it brings back the sense of disappointment and frustration that goes by the name of Clinton fatigue.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Sharpe James Convicted in Newark

As mayor of Newark, NJ, Sharpe James exploited his battered city's fears, isolation and wounded pride to win five terms in office. Yesterday, he was found guilty of picking its pocket as well.

The former mayor, along with his former mistress, Tamika Riley, was convicted of fraud and conspiracy charges in the sale of city land. James steered the sales to Riley at bargain prices, whereupon she turned around and sold the plots for a handsome profit--without redeveloping them as she was supposed to. As the Star-Ledger pointed out in an editorial, "It is clear that the deals he made with her and others cheated a city fighting its way back from riot and ruin."

James liked to present himself as Newark's greatest cheerleader. But this act always had an air of bread and circuses to it: hefty brunches for senior citizens, stunts like delivering his nominations on Newark Police bicycle, and a knack for living large in a city scarred by poverty.

He was especially deft at making political capital out of older Newarkers' sense of deprivation. When he got up before a crowd of senior citizens and told them how he remembered living in a Newark apartment without a flush toilet inside it, all could nod their heads at how far they had come. Only in a place like Newark, though, would change be measured by such a painfully diminished standard. James looked like a big mayor only because Newarkers' expectations were so sadly small.

James was also a bully. During the last mayoral election, when Corey Booker ran against Ron Rice, the city ran a brunch for senior citizens at the Robert Treat Hotel. The seniors were bused in by the score, but when James rose to address the gathering his goons evicted me, Damien Cave of the New York Times, the late Dith Pran of the Times, and a radio reporter for NPR. Clearly, James didn't want any witnesses when he used a city function to attack a mayoral candidate. I also watched James partisans shout down honest supporters of Corey Booker in a shameful way that had tough-looking women on the edge of tears.

Newarkers--living in a place battered by the deindustrialization, racism, bad government, corruption, and crime--could applaud James for proclaiming the renaissance of their city. But James forgot, as so many politicians do, that the cause he served--the revival of New Jersey's largest city-- was more important than his personal success. Once he made that mistake, it was easy to fall into sleazy land deals.

The conviction of James and Riley brings a measure of justice to city that has been let down too many times. Let's hope that these convictions convince Newark's elected officials of the importance of staying honest.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Democrats Helping McCain

As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to snipe at each other over Obama's remarks about working-class voters who "get bitter" and "cling to guns or religion," E.J. Dionne has reached the only reasonable conclusion: both are "doing a splendid job helping John McCain get to the White House."

Obama's much-discussed remarks rightly recognized the anger that working people feel at being left behind by economic inequality. So far, so good.

But his comments on guns, bitterness and religion played right into the hands of Republicans who portray Democrats as liberal elitists. (While the GOP does all it can to make the richest Americans richer.)

I couldn't blame Clinton for seizing on this gaffe--until she started talking about how Al Gore and John Kerry as "very good men and men of faith" of whom "large segments of the electorate concluded that they did not really understand or relate to or, frankly, respect their ways of life."

It is the "frankly" as Dionne points out, that is the nastiest word in that remark: it is straight out of the Republican script for disparaging Democrats. It also ignores, Dionne notes, that Gore ran 360,000 votes ahead of Clinton in New York State when they were both on the ballot in 2000.

Obama shot himself in the foot. Clinton sang from a Republican script. He was foolish, but she was shameless.

I just hope the Democratic cause can survive this foolishness.


Well, the article in the Times today about the poor quality rivets that might have been responsible for the sinking of the Titanic was certainly an eye-opener, and certainly the most interesting article on metallurgy that I can remember reading. I guess like most people I presumed that the Titanic sank when an iceberg made a giant gash in the bow of the ship, and not, as evidently was the case, the impact of the iceberg loosed poor quality rivets from their welds, opening six separate pathways for the Atlantic to pour into the hold of the ship. It was also fascinating to learn that the original shipbuilder, Harland and Wolff of Belfast, is still in business, and they are still, somewhat understandably, defensive about their role in the world’s most famous naval disaster. (Are they still building ships in Belfast? Across the Irish Sea, in Glasgow, the industry is completely moribund, as I found out during a quick tour of Clydeside last summer.)

Almost since the day the Titanic sank, it has been the subject of endless moralizings in story and song; for provoking the heavy hand of providence by declaring the ship “unsinkable” or for the class divisions that emerged in the scramble for the inadequate provision of lifeboats. But there is another moral, evidently, and one that seems quite relevant, given the news this past weekend about the massive cancelation of flights of planes that had been, due to lax FAA supervision, allowed to fly with numerous fuselage cracks. That is; businesses will always cut corners, even in cases, such as the riveting of an ocean liner, when the failure to take due diligence can lead to unspeakable disaster. Unless private industry is carefully and comprehensively regulated, and those regulations are rigorously enforced, the public is at risk. As with the Titanic, airlines will much rather advertise the amount of legroom in business class than their compliance with seemingly minor safety regulations. The moral is clear, and one can also point to the news over the weekend about the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs; if you don’t want to go down with the ship listening to strains of “Near My God to Thee,” the government has to be free to protect its citizens from the rapacity of capitalism.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Bearing Arms

There’s a move afoot to strip John Yoo, the author of the now infamous 2002 “torture memo” of his tenured position at U of Cal Berekely’s Law School. I would have no problem indicting him as a war criminal, along with the entire top echelon of the Bush administration. Certainly Yoo, at least as much as a low level sad sack like Lynndie England, deserves to have life ruined because of his actions. But I’m not so sure about this tenure thing. First, for the most part I am profoundly indifferent to tenure debates, no doubt because I will never be awarded that academic pearl of great price, and I would rather tend to my sour grapes as an independent scholar and let others worry about on whom and for what this ultimate academic bauble ought to be bestowed or unbestowed. And more importantly, I see academic freedom as something that has protected, and will continue to protect, far more lefties than righties over the years, and taking down John Yoo probably would come with too high a price. Keep your tenure and be damned, I say.

Having come to the defense of Prof. Yoo's job, I must say that I was taken aback by when, on picking up a copy of Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer and Bancroft prize winning history of the US from 1815 to 1848, What Hath God Wrought, and saw John Yoo thanked on the acknowledgement page, it made me far less interested in reading the book. (Like all academics, tenured or untenured, the first thing I read in a scholarly book are the acknowledgements .) There’s no doubt that in the period under consideration by Howe, waterboarding would have been considered a mild punishment indeed for runaway slaves or recalcitrant Indians; John Yoo is just a man born too late. He would have made a fine law clerk for Roger Taney.

Finding Yoo in the Jacksonian era brought to mind something else that has been troubling me; why do almost news reports from our current war speak of “Iraqi militias?” Are these the sort of militias that the authors and ratifiers of the Second Amendment would have recognized? Would Andrew Jackson have approved? Are they the product of a mustering out of all able-bodied adult men by a legitimate authority, or are they simply private armies, a rag tag collection of fighters who either enlisted or were coerced to fight? The rhetorical question answers itself, but the broader question is whether present-day Iraq is the martial utopia envisisoned by defenders of the second amendment, where an armed populace, organized into subordinate military forces, limits the power of the central government, and allows people who consider themselves disadvantaged by current constitutional arrangements to exercise their right to assemble en masse and petition for a redress of grievances and kill a few folks in the process. Bush and his enablers like John Yoo wanted to bring American democracy as they understood it to Iraq, a democracy in which the right of armed self-defense had been elevated to a position of paramount importance. And given what they have wrought in Iraq, to paraphrase Daniel Walker Howe, an armed democracy in which every political battle is also waged on the streets and with the lives of Iraqis, who can say they have not succeeded?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

An Honest Radical

Abe Osheroff, a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade raised in Brooklyn, died Sunday in Seattle. He was a long-time member of the Communist Party who eventually saw through its flaws and left it, but he remained an independent radical for the rest of his life. He's gone now, but his good example remains.

Abe's ability to leave the Communist Party yet sustain his radicalism was something he shared with two other New York veterans of the Lincoln Brigade--Irving Weissman and George Watt. I was closest to Irving, who introduced me to Abe and George at reunions of the Brigade.

Abe was a great bear of a man, a college-educated carpenter with an earthy sense of humor and a keen mind. During the days of the civil rights movement, he once built a community center in the deep South. He got word that white supremacists were after him, but he worked on with a pistol strapped to his waist and a shotgun in his toolbox. And he got the job done.

He made two documentaries about the Spanish Civil War, and he never flinched from asking tough questions about the war. Anyone who went to Spain, he once told me, saw some shit. And it was important, he added, to be honest about that. His passion, integrity, humor and strength were unforgettable. He was an activist to the end, protesting the war in Iraq.

My most vivid memory of him brings me back to a Lincoln Brigade reunion that I attended with my wife and then-infant son when we were very new parents.

Abe, with gusto, told us how to tell when a baby is grown up: kiss his feet. When they're babies, he explained, their feet smell great. Only when they grow up, he said, do their feet start to stink.

I don't think I ever got around to kissing either of my children's feet. But the next chance I get I'll be sure to tell them the story of Abe Osheroff.

Iraq Fatigue

I awoke this morning to hear an NPR story announcing that from August on, US troops sent to Iraq will be serving 12-month tours instead of the current 15 months. So far as this gives troops a shorter tour in a bad war, I'm glad for it. But I can't shake the feeling that this announcement is part of a Bush administration effort to acknowledge fatigue with the war without really changing fundamental policies in any way.

The military has, of course, warned the president that Iraq is wearing down our armed forces. But I suspect that the president is responding to more than the military here.

If this announcement is part of a media management strategy, it is something of a success: it creates an illusion of movement and change after two days of vague and bleak testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker before the House and Senate. (The second day of testimony seems to have had so little new to say that it barely made the front page of the Times.)

In the presidential race, the reduction in the length of tours may give John McCain something to wave before voters who want to see a change in our Iraq policy.

But compared to the full course correction that is needed, it doesn't amount to much.

It is one more sign, if one was needed, that the Bush administration will simply hand off the war to the next administration.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


So congestion pricing has gone down to a rather ignominious defeat, and the responsibility for its failure is shared widely. I haven’t been following this too carefully, but one of the reasons for its failure seems to be that Mayor Bloomberg did not do an adequate job in his wheeling and dealing. Certainly much of the outcome can be laid at the feet of Sheldon Silver, who in the most annoying and insensitive way possible, i.e., not even allowing a bill of this importance to come up for a vote, has reminded everyone that absolutely nothing has changed in Albany, that it’s still three men in a room, and all important decisions are still made out of sight and out of mind of New York State’s public.

In reading the commentary, there was a fair amount of outrage that a question so important to New York City was decided in Albany. This seems to be the usual New York City parochialism at work. The congestion pricing plan was killed by the state assembly, dominated by New York City and downstate representatives (Joe Bruno in the state senate had indicated his approval) It is clear that politicians in the metropolitan area killed the plan, led by Richard Brodsky, who offered one specious argument after the other against the plan. Too many were at best lukewarm about the plan, if not openly hostile.

Once again this might be due to Bloomberg’s faltering powers of persuasion, but it seems to rest on another reality; all environmental or quality of life reforms are all too easily tagged by their opponents of goo-goo-ish and “elitist,” as something that benefits the middle class and upper classes, and leaves the poor to pay the bill. I don’t understand this. People who drive cars into Manhattan have enough money to own a car, pay $40 for a tank of gas, and pay whatever exorbitant rate Manhattan parking is going for these days.

The whole sorry mess reminds me why I always despair that environmental reform will ever make much headway. To the extent that environmental reforms (as they invariably do) involves some inconvenience to somebody, some restriction on the vaunted freedom to pollute at will, the somebodies inconvenienced will holler, complain the burdens fall unfairly on them, and will resolutely argue their puny self-interests against the greater good for the greatest number, since the peronsal inconvenience is clear and immediate, and the realization of the greater good more abstract and only coming about some time in the future, self-interest almost always wins. At some point I suspect, as the environmental crisis worsens, an environmental version of Robert Moses will emerge, willing and able to smash heads together, and something like congestion pricing will be enacted in New York City.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Public Records and Contempt for Democracy

Gerald Benjamin, Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-New Paltz, offers these thoughts on our post "I've Got a Secret" and the Pataki administration's failure to deliver many of its records to the New York State Archives.

There is more to this story. Almost immediately upon taking office the Pataki administration stopped the near contemporaneous annual publication of the Public Papers of the Governor. Theretofore these have been published annually since the mid-19th Century.

Some argued that this decision, allegedly taken for reasons of budgetary stringency,was of little consequence. Governors, they said, only published materials in these papers that redounded to their personal and political benefit. But documents made available at one time, in one political context, might have very different--and far less flattering--implications in another time, after the entire record of an administration was made and known.

Moreover, the published papers were available in libraries throughout the state, and useful not only for scholars but for initiating students into the study of history, government and politics through the use of original documents.

I know the value of these papers for researchers from personal experience. The public papers of Governors Rockefeller, Carey and Cuomo were absolutely central to books I wrote about the legacies of these three governors.

The electronic manner in which we now so commonly communicate leaves traces that are increasingly ephemeral. Much that is electronic should be saved, and I appreciate the effort of the NYS library to assure that this in fact occurs. But at minimum we must act to assure public access to the written, hard-copy public documents and records created by elected leaders in the course of governance.

These documents are the property of the people of New York. Leaders who fail to realize this, and who seek to alter history by altering these records, or denying access to them, show a fundamental misunderstanding of the need for citizens in a democracy to know about and understand what our state government has done in critical areas of policy and why these actions were taken. These leaders not only diminish our ability to hold them accountable for their actions while in office, but distort the record in a way that makes it harder for us to know our history, and to learn from it.

This treatment of the public's record is a manifestation of both arrogance and, sadly, contempt for democracy.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

I've Got a Secret

One is distressed, though not terribly surprised, to read in the Times yesterday, to quote the redoubtable Jim Folts, the stalwart head of reference services at the New York State Archives, that “The State Archives did not receive from the Pataki administration many types of records that have been received from prior administrations.” Those records included correspondence, messages to the Legislature and other speeches, photographs and proclamations. All that has been received are press releases. A spokesperson for Pataki has said the bulk of what was “required,” has been turned over, but that “we remain in possession of some documents that are being reviewed. If deemed appropriate, they will be made available to the archives at a later date.”

One is also distressed to read that there is no law or provision requiring NYS governors to turn over anything to the archives. An attempt to clarify the governor’s responsibilities in this regard was made during the Pataki administration, where it passed in the Assembly, though predictably died in the Senate (though one suspects, nowadays, that Joe Bruno would be interested in getting every scrap of paper from the late Spitzer administration before public scrutiny as quickly as possible.) Some administrations, such as Cuomo’s have been very forthcoming, and have turned over almost all of their records (though almost every administration, according to Folts, destroys their appointment files, the record of who got what government position and why.)

This is becoming a distressingly common phenomena; top government officials holding back their papers, or systematically combing through them (as did Rudolph Giuliani after leaving City Hall.) There have been all sorts of rumbles from the current administration in Washington (hard drives cleansed, documents gone missing) to make it clear that the administration of Bush II will become the least well documented presidential administration in recent history.

It has occurred to me that we are perhaps living in the twilight of the archival age. First, there is an obsession with how “history will judge” current politicians. (Has any president been subject to more articles about his eventual ranking among his peers than George W. Bush? And we know how it will all turn out; most scholars will think him the worst or among the worst of all time, nosing out Buchanan. A few idiots will write books defending Bush and his war, and learned commentators will sagely note that “there is much dispute about George W. Bush’s place in history.”)

And there is the additional problem of the presidential libraries, where every president now has the right to design their own monument, and the very idea of preserving any records that might becloud the reputation of the honoree becomes problematic. To which might be added the reality that the destroying of presidential or gubernatorial papers, if no evident crime is being covered up, probably is cost free to the destroyer. Archivists and historians will howl, a law suit might be filed that will drag out for years, and in the end, the worst that would likely happen are some slapped wrists.

And there is the ironic impact of the internet and email, which of course have replaced, to a large extent, phone calls. Private correspondence used to represent the tip of the iceberg of an administration’s record; often several phone calls were exchanged before a letter was written, summarizing the conversations, and the written record was often a sanitized or bowdlerized version of the phone tconversations. Now with email, the first, and often, uncensored thoughts of officials are captured directly, and with our ability to preserve records, comes an even greater desire on the part of many officials to hide it from scrutiny. And government has become such an exercise in secrecy, and keeping information from the public, that the “right to know” even after an administration is long gone from power, becomes an exercise in lese majestie. We live as much as in age of secrecy as an age of information; never before in human history have more people spent more time and more money in keeping things secret. This is bound to effect the future of archives. The more we can know, the more we can hide.

Anyway, to return to Pataki, what is needed is for historians and anyone else who cares about the past, present, or future of New York State , to demand that he turn over his records to the NYS Archives. (And with a Dem in the Governor’s mansion, perhaps now is the time to get a bill on gubernatorial records past the Senate.) And we must remember and enforce the old rules; when records are withheld, we are entitled to the presumption that the withholder has something to hide. And though the phenomena of document-withholders like Pataki is very distressing, I must say that in some ways it is satisfying that in the highly hyped information age, when our ability to preserve records has taken quantum leaps over what was possible only decades ago, one of the greatest resources available to the historian and journalist will likely continue to remain the age-old tools of gossip, innuendo, calumnies by interested parties with axes to grind, and ill-sourced speculation. Dame rumor will likely continue to blather, triumphing over all well-meaning efforts to get her to hold her tongue.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Great Greek and Cypriot Food in a Changing Neighborhood

In Astoria, Queens the taco stands and women in head scarves are reminders that the neighborhood is not as Greek as it once was. Nevertheless, Astoria's Greek restaurants are still a great attraction--especially the Zenon Taverna.

I first went to Zenon in the early 1990s and found it a great meze place. I returned today, after an absence of more than ten years, to celebrate the birthday of my friend's son. I found a spruced up taverna with an even bigger menu.

When my friend Demetrios Mihailides discovered Zenon many years ago, it was a low-key hangout for Cypriot soccer players with great food. Since then Stelios Papageorgiou, who was trained in Cyprus and took over Zenon in 1988, has expanded the taverna into a bigger operation that does catering, banquets and take-out food.

Zenon may be doing a bigger kind of business, but the food is still excellent. Cypriot cooking has subtle differences from Greek cooking that went over my head; all I know is that I enjoyed the tatziki, grilled octopus, spinach pies, retsina and red wine that we had for appetizers. Then we moved on to the equally good heart of the meal: roast lamb, vegetarian meat balls, roasted potatoes, sausages, kabobs, stuffed grape leaves, and fried squid.

Not only was the food excellent, but the service was friendly. The white-walled upstairs banquet room, where we ate to the delightful sounds of Demetrios' s son A.J. enjoying his birthday with his friends, was airy and comfortable. The ground floor dining room, where most customers eat, looked equally pleasant.

Astoria may be changing, but the good food at Zenon, located at 34-10 31st Avenue, is a constant; most of the entrees are well under $15.

If you're going there from Manhattan, take the N train to the 30th Avenue stop; it's a short walk up 31st Avenue to Zenon.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Hillary and the Marschallin

I usually don’t read Maureen Dowd when I click through the Times’s editorial pages; there are enough real news stories to read in the Times and elsewhere, to waste much time with her second-hand musings on whatever she is currently writing about. But today for some reason, I read her column, “The Hillary Waltz.” And I was very interested to see her compare Hillary Clinton to one of the great characters in opera (and one of my favorites), the Field Marshall’s wife, the Marschallin, from Richard Strauss’s opera “Der Rosenkavalier,” with its memorable libretto by the Austrian poet Hugo von Hoffmansthal.

For those not familiar with the opera, let me quote Dowd’s synopsis:
The Marschallin is a princess married to a Viennese field marshal who has a liaison dangereuse with a younger man, Count Octavian. [Although Octavian is played in the opera by a woman, one of opera’s many “pants parts.”] Though she’s worried about her fleeting youth and the fickleness of men, she instructs the young man on the ways of love and then gracefully sets him free, allowing him to find happiness with young Sophie as a soaring waltz plays.

Dowd argues that as the older woman with a young male ingĂ©nue, Hillary is teaching Obama valuable lessons in life, how to be rough, how to fight elections to win, with all of the nastiness that Dowd has associated with the Clinton’s for many years now. Obama needs Clinton’s tough love. Let me quote Dowd again: “ Whether or not she wins, Hillary has already given noble service as a sophisticated political tutor for Obama, providing her younger colleague with much-needed seasoning. Who else was going to toughen him up?”

As usual, I don’t quite follow Dowd’s argument (but I certainly appreciated the operatic reference.) Were Hillary and Obama former lovers? Did Obama leave her for another woman? How is a love affair like trying to beat out the brains of your political opponent?

What was interesting about Dowd’s column for me is that for the past few weeks I have been thinking of Hillary and the Marschallin, but it was in connection to a different part of the opera. In the middle of last act, the Marschallin makes a grand entrance, and tells her cousin, the lecherous Baron Ochs, that because his attempt to seduce the maid Mariand’l (who is Octavian, a woman playing a man, disguised as a woman; the gender complexities are thick in this opera) his engagement with Sophie is off, leaving the scene clear for Octavian to take off his dress and many Sophie. Anyway, when Baron Ochs tries to plead his case, she cuts him off with a famous line:
Versteht Er nicht, wenn eine Sach; ein End hat? (Do you not understand when something is at an end?)

This is of course the very line that many Democrats have been asking of Hillary the past several weeks. Doesn’t she realize that her quest to be president is over? Isn’t it time to summon whatever dignity she might have left, pack her belongings, and return home? I have been of two minds about this. Obviously, the Democrats need to pick a candidate as soon as they can. But just as Obama had every right to enter the race, thereby greatly complicating what seemed like it would be an easy road for Hillary for the Democratic nomination, Hillary has every right to stay in the race, and until such time as she decides to withdraw, and while you’re running, all you can do is to go all out and try to defeat your opponent.

There is much more to be said about this, but I have been struck by the extent that so many Obama supporters have come to loathe Hillary. It’s curious. Perhaps, in part, it is because like the Marshcallin (or to give another example, Mrs. Robinson), she is seen as that least likeable of female stereotypes, the older woman as seductress, trying to steal something that really doesn’t belong to her. Strauss and Hofmanstahl knew enough that when you write a comedy it can’t end with the older woman getting her man. The teenagers have to get together, and the Marshallin’s affair with Octavian will end in sadness, knowing that it couldn’t have lasted anyway.

In the other most famous line in the opera, at the very end, when Sophie and Octavian are declaring their love in ecstatic, soaring music, and someone comments that young people are always the same, ardent and amorous, and how nice it is to be a teenager in love, the Marschallin answers with a world weary and wistful, “Ja, Ja,” and leaves the stage to the lovers. In any event, the Democrats will likely, in the near future consummate their love affair with Barak Obama, and Hillary will likely be off stage left (stage right?), keeping a stoic and proud exterior, with her own infinitely regretful version of the Marshallin’s “Ja, Ja.” (And trudge home to her own version of Baron Ochs.)

One last comment, follow my and Maureen Dowd’s advice and give Der Rosenkavalier a try, and make your own far fetched analoigies to the contemporary American political scene.