Saturday, February 27, 2010

Governor Paterson Should Resign

Governor David Paterson's announcement that he will not seek reelection is welcome news. Now the governor should take one step more and resign. Anything less will leave our state with a discredited, lame duck executive who can do little to improve the dismal condition of New York.

Pateerson's resignation would bring to the state's highest office Lt. Governor Richard Ravitch. In these awful times, with Paterson a badly discredited governor who assumed office after the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, New York needs someone of Ravitch's experience and depth to lead the state through difficult times.

After Spitzer and Paterson, it is easy to forget that New York once had a reputation for being a well-governed state. No longer. There is plenty of blame to go around the state's ills, but only a governor with credibility will have the slightest chance of fixing things.

Whether Ravitch serves for the next year or runs for a full term is something to think about later. Right now, the state is drifting. We need better executive leadership than Governor Paterson can ever provide. It's time for David Paterson to move over and make room for Richard Ravitch.

Paterson Falls

Another governor, another tawdry scandal that will probably force him from office. Spitzer and Paterson are probably the worst executive tandem since Nixon and Agnew. (And Paterson, I think, has to go. I can't imagine how he can be an effective or even marginally respected governor the rest of the year.) And where would New York State be without Richard Ravitch, who is the lieutenant-governor by the narrowest of margins, saved by the split vote on the Court of Appeals, after all the lower courts ruled that Paterson couldn’t appoint Ravitch in the first place, and all the state’s Republicans and many Democrats howled that appointing Ravitch was a terrible abuse of power. Otherwise we would be looking at the Senate Pro Tem, Malcolm Smith I believe, who I guess is a nice guy, but is a total political nonentity. (And of course a year ago if this happened, it would have been the now convicted Joe Bruno who would now be ready for his gubernatorialship.)

For me, the bad run of governors is almost a diversion from the state’s main problem, the utterly dysfunctional state legislature, and there seems little chance that things will change this November. As we are seeing in Washington now, the legislature can reduce even the strongest executive to the position of seeming irrelevance. The NYS legislature doesn't even need the filibuster to make passing significant legislation almost impossible. Spitzer tried to bully the legislature, Paterson tried to get along with it , and neither strategy worked, and the financial crisis of the past two years has brutally revealed the incompetence of both Paterson and his legislative peers. And now we will be reading articles about Andrew Cuomo, the reasons for his divorce from the daughter of Robert Kennedy, and whatever other dirt is in his closet. (If we go back to 2006, with Spitzer, Paterson, Cuomo, and Hevesi on the Democrat ticket, Cuomo is the only one who hasn’t or shortly will be forced from office, so naturally he is the front runner for the governor’s spot.) After Spitzer I am really suspicious of the ability of attorneys-general to assume high executive position. Its a very different job. I don’t know, Cuomo seems like a nice guy, but I am not sure that electing a fortunate son is the way to really change things in this state. But of course the problem is, no one else really knows either. But Rob and I promise to consider this in forthcoming posts.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Kingfish From Wasilla

So there’s this Democratic president, elected to turn things around as a dedicated reformer during a catastrophic economic turndown, largely the fault of his predecessor. Well, he does his best, but you know, the economy is a difficult thing to turn around quickly, and many think he hasn’t done enough, is exhibiting a characteristic timorousness, didn’t do much the help the average Joe and Jill in their extremis, and let the Wall Street fat cats off with a slap on their paws. So a populist insurgency develops, that says the president has done too much in some ways and not enough in others, that the president is out of touch with real America, and that he has yet to turn the glittering platitudes of his campaign into meat and potatoes for the American people. Yes, we can all agree, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a real problem on when his hands when it came to the Kingfish, Huey P.Long.

Historians still debate whether Huey Long, and his fellow insurgents, c. 1934-1935, Francis Townsend of the Townsend Plan, a senior citizen pension, and Father Charles Coughlin, represented progressive populism or American crypto-fascism. Long was assassinated before one could tell, Townsend was co-opted, and Coughlin did of course move far to the right, but before he discovered the international Jewish conspiracy his politics and proposals were surprisingly progressive. The main planks in their platforms consisted of much closer regulation on Wall Street, confiscatory taxes on the rich, a whole array of social programs. All in all, they were a far more impressive bunch than Sarah Palin and the tea partyers, but I guess every generation gets the populists they deserve, and our degraded political times certainly deserves Sister Sarah and the Palinites. First time as tragedy, second time as farce.

The point is, everyone makes too much of a big deal about FDR’s first 100 days, and they made much much too much of a big deal about Obama’s first 100 days, but the most progressive phase of the New Deal, the part gave us social security, the Wagner Act, the Wages and Hour acts came not in mid 1933 but in 1935, as FDR niftly co-opted the populist insurgency to his right, or to his left, or wherever it was. And this is what Obama has to do. There was no way he could met all the expectations that was raised of his presidency in his first year. What he has to do now is more focused. Respond to his political challenges and challengers. Obama needs to remember the most successful populist president in American history always spoke in the clipped accent of a Hudson River aristocrat. Elitists always make the best populists.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Charlie O'Hegarty

One of the great things about New York City is that it draws in talented people from all around the world, like Charlie O'Hegarty. Charlie's singing and storytelling cheered audiences at the Eagle Tavern back in the 1980s, where his sets might feature songs about long-ago sea battles, whimsical rhymes, and stories about his days in the Royal Marines. Charlie died recently in London, but one of his stories still has me laughing.

I'll leave it to my friend Dan Milner, to provide the informed assessment of Charlie's music. Dan ran the Eagle Tavern shows where I often saw Charlie, and I heard them together many nights.

Charlie was a great entertainer. When he had the mike, you stopped thinking about everything else and, at times, you felt as though you were alone in a conversation with him. But, because he was far funnier and had experiences way beyond your own, you only egged him on if you spoke at all. He was not a flashy guitar player but he had a great right arm, super solid rhythm.

The songs were clever, but not college-clever. They were well-crafted and precisely achieved the desired effect. "M-16" was about a guy who was mugged in the East Village (no doubt, Charlie himself) who got an M-16 "the Army made me a man with" and went back to sort out the gang who got his wallet. It was, of course, the fantasy of everyone who was ever mugged has had.

"It's a Beautiful Day" is a leveller, a common denominator. "We're all happy when the sun shines and it's a beautiful day." But it was vehicle for a gaggle of groovy little image rhymes too:

"There's faith healers and safe stealers, bar tenders and car benders
pawn brokers and pot smokers, red haters and head waiters
beer drinkers and clear thinkers, cello blowers and 'hello belowers'
rock 'n' rollers and save-your-soulers
and men who stuff hard boiled eggs into their mouths just to get their names in the Guinness book of records."

"Classic Yankee Clipper" was actually about a woman he met when he was working as a bartender:

"It was a dream to sail on her, to feel the breeze upon ye, to feel her responding to the wheel,
To feel the salt spray on ye as ye plowed through the water, the same way again, I know I'll never feel."

I still chuckle at the memory of taking a girl to the Eagle on a date. She turned to me as Charlie performed "Classic Yankee Clipper" and said: "That song is about a woman."

I still find myself singing Charlie's song "The Royal Oak," a great ballad of English tars battling the Turks on the high seas.

But most of all, I like to retell one of Charlie's stories from his days in the Royal Marines.

He was in basic training on a hot summer day, and a sadist of drill sergeant was marching Charlie and the rest of the troops up and down, bawling things like, "I'll make you beg for mercy. I'll make you curse the day your mothers gave birth to you. Leftrighleftrightleftright!"

Finally, the sergeant gave them a break.

From the back of the formation, in an impossibly proper upper-class English accent, came the words, "How beautiful is rest."

The sergeant jumped up and screamed, "Who said that?"

"I believe it was Shakespeare, sergeant."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Larry White

For some reason, our website has been inundated with spam recently, and our nice clean posts are getting besmeared with scads of gobbledygook. What to do? Who knows? I tend to be a technological fatalist; whatever will be, will be, and trying to divine the functions of technology is beyond my ken. Technology giveth, technology taketh away, blessed be the name of technology.

This was definitely not the attitude of my cousin, Larry White, whose mother and my father were brother and sister. As long as I knew him, which was as long as I have known anyone, Larry was entranced with technology, especially imaging technology. Larry was a child of the age of mechanical reproduction. Larry never had any doubts about what he wanted to do, what he wanted to be, and how he wanted to spend his life. He wanted to work with cameras, with video equipment, with computers. And that’s just what he did. He studied photographic technology in college, and became a photographic engineer, and for many years was in charge of the photographic laboratory at Modern Photography, measuring lenses, timing f-stops, evaluating all the latest innovations in imaging. It has been a remarkable thirty years as we have moved from film to digital imaging, and gone through God knows how many generations of computing technology. Larry was on top of it all. For me, technology is a necessary evil. Whenever I figure out how something works, I am loathe to change my routine, which means I am generally dragged, kicking and screaming, into whatever the latest generation of innovation, and generally adapt only when it is absolutely necessary. Larry always had to have the latest in everything, just because it was there. Technology for most people was a means to an end. For Larry technology was an end in itself. For some, technology acquisition is a sign of immaturity, e-braggadocio. Not Larry. He needed to get the latest technology the same way I need to read the latest book, not to show off, but just to add to his store of knowledge.

For most of us, for me, anyway, technology is a form a magic, of which I have no real understanding. I press a few buttons, things work, and I am satisfied. But Larry not only had to have the latest technology, he needed to understand it, how to manipulate it, how to make it work to his advantage. Technological ignorance is one of the besetting sins of our age. We learn from our technology how to be manipulated, and the lesson sticks. Larry was an exception. Larry loved and understood technology, and love begets understanding, and understanding begets love. And Larry was generous. He would always share his knowledge, his possessions, and always try to explain, again and again, how things work. He was a decent, a caring, a happy man, who loved his family and friends, and without, as far as I knew, an edge or a dark side.

Larry died last Friday. He was only 54, one year younger than me. He leaves behind his lovely wife, Esther, and his grieving and uncomprehending parents, Helen and Billy. He was diagnosed with cancer on Labor Day weekend last, but the cancer was virulent, and after a valiant fight, he succumbed. The Eisenstadts have seemed like the House of Atreus recently, with unimaginable tragedy piled upon unimaginable tragedy. I don’t know what to say other than he was taken much too soon, and that it seems unfair that if God grants me another decade or so, I will get to play with some new technical toy that Larry never got to see. All of the eulogies at his funeral mentioned his abiding love of Star Trek. What can one say? He has been beamed up, and all of us, in the wake of his passing, are a little more dematerialized. Goodbye, Larry. Cameras can do a lot of things, but they can never capture the essence of a good man.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Margaret Allison Hemphill

When Margaret Allison Hemphill retired from her career as a planner at the Windham Regional Planning Agency in Willimantic, Ct., a group of officials presented her with a plaque that identified her as a national landmark. It was a fitting tribute to a woman who combined a cheerful sense of civic engagement with a deep sense of history—above all her own, which linked the South and New England.

Mrs. Hemphill, my mother-in-law, was born in Minneapolis, Mn. in 1924 and lived more than half her life in New England. Yet both her parents were Southerners, and one of the persistent if muted story lines in her life was what to make of her Southern roots.

She grew up in Minneapolis, where her father was a doctor and her mother a journalist and later a botanist. She got to know the South on vacation stays with her aunts and by attending the boarding school of Ashley Hall in Charleston, S.C. Her family had deep roots in South Carolina. She counted among her ancestors Confederates and early members of the Klu Klux Klan.

In her teens, however, she rebelled against this inheritance and thought of herself as a liberal. In truth, she was on the left wing of liberalism. At Smith College during World War II, she led caravans of trucks across Massachusetts to collect supplies for Russian war relief. After the war, living in Minneapolis and working as a reporter at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, she was a member of the Farmer-Labor Party.

Her experiences in the Farmer-Labor Party, however, made her deeply skeptical of Communists. Over time she concluded that they would never be part of an alliance they couldn’t dominate and would wreck any coalition they couldn’t run. At the same time, she was viscerally hostile to McCarthyism.

She moved east with her husband George Hemphill when he took a job teaching English at the University of Connecticut at Storrs in 1954. After years of raising four children, including my wife, Clara Hemphill, she earned a Masters’ degree in public policy at the University of Connecticut and went to work as a planner. Always active in Democratic politics, she was an alternate delegate for Senator Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

During the Vietnam War, when income tax time came around, she consoled herself by saying that her taxes went to pay the salary of Senator Fulbright. And she insisted on flying the flag on Independence Day, saying that she wouldn’t let Lyndon Johnson spoil her Fourth of July.

By the time I met her in 1990, she combined a Southern sense of graciousness and proper manners with a staunch liberalism. An heir to the best of the New Deal and the Great Society, she worked to weave a social fabric that brought people together, protected them against injustice, and nurtured their best selves.

At the Windham Regional Planning Association, she worked on affordable housing, expansion of public transportation, historic preservation, and the protection of open space. In her own village of Hampton, she was a long-time supporter of the Fletcher Memorial Library and helped found the Hampton Gazette, a village newspaper.

Six months ago, she moved to an assisted living facility in Cambridge, Mass. When she was hit with a stroke last week, I went there with my wife and children to be with her in what turned out to be her final days.

In her apartment we found a copy of The New Yorker by the door, an 1869 map of Hampton on the wall, and a Charles Dickens action figure sitting on her dresser. The combination of past and present, along with urbanity and a sense of justice, seemed just right.