Robert Stein 1924-2014

Contact Information

If anyone has comments, questions or condolences, please feel free to send a private message to the family at robertstein@optonline.net.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Farewell to Football

What price entertainment? Violent movies carry a disclaimer that “No animals were hurt in the making,” but now pro football admits to human brain damage and agrees to pay $765 million as an oops to 4500 wrecked plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the NFL.

Sports, we are told, helps society sublimate innate savagery, but few lives are destroyed by baseball, basketball, tennis, golf or even hockey. For one admirer of the skill and grace of quarterbacks and wide receivers, the brutality of the game has reached the tipping point.

This is it.

As the world becomes more violent, one recalls Barack Obama’s statement that, if he had a son, he would “think long and hard” about letting him play football.

"They can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies," he said of NFL players. "You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That's something that I'd like to see the NCAA think about."

But no amount of money can ease a conscience over watching a game in which hurting people is one of the aims.

There is enough of that going on in the real world to shame one over being part of a crowd cheering it on.

Count me out while planning the next Super Bowl party.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Shifting Lethal Lines in the Sand

The United States tacitly approved and pinpointed targets for deadly chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein against Iranian troops in Iraq, according to Foreign Policy Magazine.

A military attaché in Baghdad in 1988 recalls, "The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn't have to. We already knew.”

The White House, according to declassified CIA files, “applied a cold calculus three decades ago to Hussein's widespread use of chemical weapons against his enemies and his own people. The Reagan administration decided that it was better to let the attacks continue if they might turn the tide of the war. And even if they were discovered, the CIA wagered that international outrage and condemnation would be muted.”

Are Americans so much more sensitive now, or did 9/11 change everything, including all those vaunted Middle East lines in the sand?

As Obama prepares a punitive strike for behavior Reagan tacitly approved, how much more deeply mired are we in the sectarian quagmire that is destined to grow worse, no matter what we do?

Whether for political or (forgive the word) moral reasons, a Republican Congress threatens the President with “the money card” of sequestration if he moves against Syria. “Buy-in from Congress and the American people is critical if he’s going to act,” warns St. Boehner.

“The Syrian civil conflict is both a proxy war and a combustion point for spreading waves of violence,” observes David Brooks. “This didn’t start out as a religious war. But both Sunni and Shiite power players are seizing on religious symbols and sowing sectarian passions that are rippling across the region. The Saudi and Iranian powers hover in the background fueling each side.”

How and where do we draw lines in the sand against that?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Obama is Bringing Us Together

Irony of ironies, a President who yearns for consensus is finally achieving something like it in growing opposition and doubts across the political spectrum about attacking Syria.

Even as questions arise about the weapons themselves (pace this week’s episode of HBO’s “Newsroom”), the chorus of naysayers and staysayers keeps growing louder.

When voices from John Boehner and Donald Rumsfeld to Senate Democrats and Denis Kucinich are mumbling worries over a Syrian quagmire, there are strong echoes of the run-up to the Iraq invasion a decade ago. The phrase “slam dunk” is back to haunt Americans who remember.

Taking the President at his word that he has not finally decided to launch another such adventure into uncertainty, he must seriously consider such across-the-board worries.

How will we be advancing a humanitarian cause by unleashing more death and destruction? 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why Martin Luther King Kept Marching

Three Presidents commemorate the “I Have a Dream” speech, but Americans should remember Dr. King did not stop marching on Washington after that day 50 years and his later efforts were not only for racial justice but against war.

As President Obama prepares to strike Syria, he should revisit what King concluded about Vietnam in his last years:

“I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road which can lead to national disaster...

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

By 1967, Dr. King was persuaded that ending the war in Vietnam was part of his mission; a disproportionate number of the young men fighting and dying there were African-American. He began to take part in anti-war protests.

I witnessed an attempt to dissuade him. In a phone call to Dr. King, Norman Cousins argued that he would be associating himself with unsavory radical groups in a planned march. Cousins was the eloquent Saturday Review editor who always kept open his backdoor access to the White House while denouncing the war, a Cause Celebrity whose celebrity often took priority over the cause. I could not hear Dr. King’s response, but it was clearly a polite suggestion that Cousins get lost.

Martin Luther King led that march, as he did so many others. In photographs, he can be seen side by side with Dr. Benjamin Spock, who had been driven from the leadership of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy for associating with “disreputable” antiwar groups. Dr. King and Dr. Spock, as unalike as people can be in many ways, had one thing in common: They were not concerned about their reputations. The Cause always came first.

President Obama is ready to strike Syria, but he should recall that, beyond what was said at the Lincoln Memorial today, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for both racial justice and non-violence. It should not be so easy to separate those two ideals as another attack in the Middle East would.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Going to Wars Nobody Wants

Barack Obama is being inexorably drawn, clearly against his better judgment, into a strike on Syria that could morph into yet another quagmire, just as he is facing once again an unwanted, destructive debt-ceiling battle in Washington.

Atrocities abound, human and political devastation is sure to ensue, as the President of the United States is rendered powerless to exercise the reason those who elected him expected to see in the White House.

His top second-term advisers—-John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and Jacob Lew—-are reduced to following scripts being imposed on them by irrationality outside the White House.

“A political agreement is still the best solution to this deadly conflict,” a New York Times editorial says of Syria, “and every effort must be made to find one. President Obama has resisted demands that he intervene militarily and in force. Though Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons surely requires a response of some kind, the arguments against deep American involvement remain as compelling as ever.”

On the debt ceiling, the Treasury Secretary is whistling in the dark that Republicans in Congress don’t want “a repeat of 2011. I don’t yet see that they have a plan to avoid it, which is one of the reasons it’s so important for them to come back in just a couple of weeks and get to work on getting this done and trying to make the debt issue different from other debates that we have.”

In these fantasies of negotiating with the likes of Assad and Boehner, Obama will likely be playing tennis with nobody on the other side of the net. What would any of us do in his place?

One small step would be to let him and our representatives in Congress know that not everyone in the country is in step with a mindless media that keeps reporting on both issues like ball games rather than life-and-death matters.

Voices like that of Connecticut’s Sen. Chris Murphy urging restraint on a response to Syria should be amplified by Americans everywhere to slow down this latest march to madness. The alternative is to keep fighting, and losing, wars nobody wants.

 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Snowden Snowball

Glenn Greenwald may go down in history as the most successful agent of stolen property ever.

Now the New York Times and the nonprofit investigative reporting group ProPublica have bought partial access to the purloined papers of Edward Snowden, the fugitive patriot now residing in Moscow.

In a move clearly intended to broaden Snowden’s legal protection, his puppet master Greenwald is enlisting as many legitimate journalistic shields as possible into their joint enterprise. But what are the Times and ProPublica doing?

It would be comforting to believe those respected organizations are not just buying into Snowden but using their access to shed further objective light on his activities. But what are the odds?

At a time of turmoil for newspapers such as the Times, the vaunted line between “church and state,” editorial and business, has been breaking down. The Snowden venture may be just another breach in which institutional self-interest triumphs.

But for those who have loved the Gray Lady for so long, there is comfort in recalling the days of the Pentagon Papers, when the Times did not buy its way into classified government material but went through an arduous journalistic and legal process to publish it.

Unlike Snowden’s crime, Daniel Ellsberg’s revelations did not endanger any Americans in ongoing activities, and Ellsberg himself did not flee the country but surrendered to authorities to face the consequences of his actions.

Back then, the now-reviled mainstream media took their responsibilities seriously. What are they doing now?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Man of the Century

Grainy black-and-white images are all over TV this weekend, but a flesh-and-blood Martin Luther King Jr. might still be here, heavy with years denied him by an assassin’s bullet at age 39.

As they celebrate his finest moment fifty year ago, can Americans reckon the moral loss of his not walking the earth since then and working for a just and nonviolent world?

That he died so savagely and is now being resurrected on television are among the ironies of a brief life that dominated the past century.

“If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day,” a young minister told followers during the 1955 bus strike in Montgomery, Alabama, “don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate him. We must use the weapon of love.”

In the years to follow, with the emerging ubiquity of TV, he went beyond words and used the full power of body rhetoric, planning marches for the nightly news to elicit images of brutality against his people--guns, clubs, police dogs and high—pressure fire hoses--to win support for rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

"In the process of gaining our rightful place," Dr. King said at the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago, "we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds….we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

If he were here at the age of 84, what would he be thinking and saying about a re-elected African-American president trapped in raging debates about gun rights and the financial costs of ministering to the poor? Would he still be as inspired as he was that night before his death in 1968?

“Like anybody,” Dr. King told followers in Memphis, “I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

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

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

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

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

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

If he were still alive at 84, Martin Luther King surely would be transcending all of today’s hatred and discord to remind Americans of the nonviolent ethos that first brought him national attention, urging them to meet “physical force with soul force.”

Friday, August 23, 2013

Bad to Worse to What in Bloody No-Wins?

Every new headline from Egypt and Syria affirms chaos in the Middle East and American helplessness to do anything about it.

Impotence is a bad basis for foreign policy, but self-delusion would be worse, as we presumably learned in Iraq but seem to have forgotten. John McCain rants about a “loss of credibility” in not responding faster to the latest crises, but the President is more realistic.

"We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long term national interests,” he says, warning against becoming "mired in very difficult situations...being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."

Withholding aid to Egypt won’t work, as Saudi Arabia and others fill the gap. Syria is an even worse quagmire of reckless factions to topple a reckless regime.

What makes all this even worse is that, as bad as these strategic and diplomatic situations are, the moral choices are even worse. It is not in our national nature to stand by helplessly when multitudes are being killed and displaced.

Yet what else can we responsibly do?

As New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat recently put it, “history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.

“Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic.”

In that light, the President’s watchful waiting can be seen as sane rather than weak. His caution is not cowardice but rationality. Suspending arms to Egypt may be only a gesture, but what more can be done?

In the longer run, we will have to revive that cliché about not being the world’s policeman. If we don’t, we’re doomed to keep repeating the same costly mistakes in insane situations.

Does College Pay Off? For Whom?

In our consumer-oriented society, the President proposes to make higher education more cost-effective and colleges more accountable for the quality of their product.

His proposals will be applauded by the Left and denounced on the Right, but a more basic question will be unanswered: Beyond individual benefits and upward mobility, what does America get?

As someone who would have never gone to college without taxpayer assistance, I can offer some evidence on that question.

For 166 years the City College of New York, from which I graduated, has offered free education to such as me, and what has the nation received in return?

Starting with George Washington Goethals 1889, who supervised building the Panama Canal, its graduates contributed to society the polio vaccine (Dr. Jonas Salk ’34), the Internet (my cousin Leonard Kleinrock ’57) along with nine Nobel Laureates in the Sciences and Social Sciences, a Supreme Court Justice (Felix Frankfurter ‘02), Colin Powell ’58 and literally many thousands of high achievers in scholarship, teaching professions and the arts (from my classmates Paddy Chayevsky to the creator of the Godfather, Mario Puzo).

The list of familiar names is very long, but the unfamiliar count for even more: those who worked in obscurity to make American society more civilized and humane as a result of the higher education that was given them when their families could not afford it.

When I went back for the 50th anniversary of my graduation, the names had changed from mostly Jewish, Italian and Irish to African-American, Asian and Eastern European, the tuition was no longer entirely free but the spirit had not changed.

“A higher education,” says the White House today, “is the single most important investment students can make in their own futures.”

It’s also the best investment the nation can make in its own.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Phone Call from Coco Chanel

Nothing can make you feel more ancient than a celebration of the 130th birthday of someone you knew. So it is with fashion icon Coco Chanel, remembered not only for her elegant clothes and the scent Chanel No. 5 but her wisdom about women’s lives that I helped spread with a monthly column in an America magazine half a century ago.  

It started during the “youthquake” of the 1960s, when miniskirts were making women look as if they had been caught in the rain wearing children’s dresses. I had lunch with Julie Christie, an actress of delicate beauty, who was dressed in one with a hemline stretched above her upper thigh.

“Why,” I asked, “are you wearing that?”

“Because it amuses me,” she said.

“But you don’t have to look at it” was my charmless response, which could only be excused by exhaustion from a running battle with my editors to keep McCalls’ fashion pages from being filled with those shrunken eyesores.
      
Chanel helped ease the pain. I sent an American journalist in Paris, Joe Barry, to interview her. “A newspaper,” she told him, “says the miniskirt has killed Coco Chanel. It hasn’t, but fashion isn’t feeling so well.”

Soon the miniskirts went. Chanel remained.

She had dominated fashion for decades after defying convention by tanning her skin and wearing pants in public, living openly with a married British nobleman and creating clothes combining comfort with high style. I asked her to do a monthly column of observations, “Collections by Chanel.”

It was good to have her in the magazine when women’s lives, and not just their fashions, were in disarray. She talked in aphorisms. 

On love: “Silence separates more than distance.” On beauty: “Charm is better, it lasts longer. You don’t need money, you need richness of heart.” On aging: “At forty, forget how ravishing you were at twenty. Nothing ages more than trying to look too young. You can be irresistible at any age.” On individuality: “The most courageous thing is to think for yourself. Aloud.”

One day Chanel phoned unexpectedly. As she chatted briskly in French, I grasped every other word and replied “Oui, madame” or “Merci.” After “Au revoir,” I was gripping the phone hard. For all I knew, I might have doubled her space or her fee or given her the magazine.

 I called Joe Barry, who told me she only wanted to say she was pleased with the look of the column. I asked him to tell her the pleasure was mutual.

Half a century later, it still is for me.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

GOP School of Journalism

Long ago, I wrote a book titled “Media Power: Who’s Shaping Your Picture of the World?” Now the Republican National Committee is working on a sequel, “We Are.”

Not satisfied with the electorate’s perception, GOP honchos are on a crusade not to mend their fractured party but create a journalistic cocoon to obscure that reality. In a world of 24/7 news, lots of luck with that one.

The RNC is breaking new ground in preemptory censorship with a vote to exclude CNN and NBC from partnering any of its 2016 primary debates in protest over projects about Hillary Clinton not yet produced let alone aired. Thought control, anyone?

To take the approach of Chairman Rience Priebus and his minions to its logical conclusion, they should be besieging the New York Times with offers of cooperation based on the newspaper’s takedown this week of the newly renamed Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, which the former President has taken pains to refute.

Those of us who have spent a lifetime in the imperfect world of journalism know it’s impossible to be objective, but fairness and impartiality are within reach most of the time. If Republicans can achieve their current goals, all the media could start to look like Fox News and MSNBC.

Little wonder that the President in his Weekly Address says about ObamaCare, “A lot of Republicans seem to believe that if they can gum up the works and make this law fail, they’ll somehow be sticking it to me. But they’d just be sticking it to you.”

Newspeople are next on their list.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Can We Ever Trust Anyone Again?

Lame old joke: When fire breaks out in a mental hospital, paranoids are the first responders—-always alert that someone is out to get them.

The surveillance debate is turning political America today into a booby hatch, spreading paranoia across the ideological spectrum. Tea Party mistrust of anything Obama paired with Snowden-is-a-hero fervor on the Left does not leave a shrunken middle much ground to stand on.

Even the watchers seem helpless. The chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is supposed to protect privacy, says it lacks tools to verify how often the government breaks its rules or be sure that reported violations are unintentional mistakes.

All this shakes down to an overriding question: Can we trust anyone about anything or are we doomed to live in a mental ward of our own making, furtively on the watch for what “they” (terrorists, our own government, whistle blowers, whoever) may do to us at any moment?

As disheartening as Washington is these days, a closer look at the other side of the debate is just as depressing. Now Eric Snowden is disavowing his father for suggesting that Glenn Greenwald does not have his best interests at heart and is using him for his own ends.

A close look at Greenwald’s outpost in Rio de Janeiro by a sympathetic journalist is not reassuring. Waging cyberwar on his own country in the name of his vision of oppression, he partners with Laura Poitras, a documentary film-maker from a well-to-do American family, who he calls the “Keyser Soze of the story, because she’s at once completely invisible and yet ubiquitous,” referencing “The Usual Suspects” in which Kevin Spacey played a mastermind masquerading as a nobody.

The household, which includes Greenwald’s gay partner and occasional visiting allies from the Guardian, is the epicenter of a war on his country enabled by American mass media and politicians into a lopsided debate over privacy vs. security which keeps shedding much heat but little light.

The mistrust that bin Laden seeded in America on 8/11/01 is still bearing fruit. Can we ever get back to where we can trust anyone again?   


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Baseball and Politics: Big Games, Little Bodies

Friends and family in Westport, Connecticut are all agog over a bunch of 12-year-old boys playing baseball in the Little League World Series starting tonight in Williamsport, Pa. and televised on national TV.

While Big League counterparts are mired in steroid scandals, these pre-teens symbolize the purity that the national pastime used to signify in more naïve times, a reminder of how much in American life has been corrupted by a do-anything desire to get bigger and stronger.

Whatever these pubescent kids lack in strength and skill, they will reward us with the sight of how untainted competition used to be. In a society more divided than ever into haves and have-nots, we will briefly glimpse a level playing field once again.

There has always been and will be some cheating—-Ty Cobb’s spikes, pitchers’ spitballs, pine tar on bats—-but those were misdemeanors compared to today’s scandals in which A-Rod and others are being punished for bulking up their bodies illegally while lovers of the game wait for more shoes to drop. Where did all those pitchers who throw 100 miles an hour come from?

Cynics will blame multi-million-dollar contracts, but money alone is not at the root of all this evil. Like politics, baseball is about power and prestige as well and it’s harder than ever for pure-hearted kids to hold on to the ideal of the game as they grow up.

Life on the diamonds is not as simple as it used to be, and neither is the political competition led by the likes of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.

On ESPN and ABC in the coming week, we will witness the absolute love of a game that we mostly see these days only on the movie channels in “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural.”

It would be heartening to see some of it on CNN and other cable news about the political games in our time.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Zucchini Bandit Strikes

Never turn your back on a home garden in August. Years ago my family came back from a week’s vacation to find scores of zucchini the size of Little League bats.

Since I devoutly disapprove of wasting food, we packed a large plastic bag of the overgrown squash and took them to a Sunday brunch that would be attended mostly by gardenless weekenders. Into each unlocked car, we deposited a sample of the overgrown vegetable/fruit.

Back home, we made ratatouille and zucchini bread and pancakes, of course, but also devised a nutritious new low-calorie use, slicing them diagonally and substituting the zucchini for pasta in baked lasagna.

Neighbors of avid gardeners, beware. This is the time of year the Zucchini Bandit may strike.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Different Look at Sexual Harassment

Feminist icons like Gloria Steinem and the late Betty Friedan, who were long-time colleagues and friends of mine, might see this as “blaming the victim,” but that is 180 degrees from what I have in mind.

I spent decades editing women’s magazines, hiring generations of bright, ambitious young women. As years went by, it was like standing at the stern of an ocean liner, watching the shore line slowly recede.

Only a simpleton or a saint would have been unaware of such a sexually charged atmosphere, and I was neither. Early on, I interviewed a former model for a low-level job. “I would do anything to make you happy,” she said. I chose someone else.

My best friend ran a public relations firm staffed by young women. He selected among newly graduated English majors who announced they were ready to sell out. “Exactly what is it,” he would ask, “that you have to sell?”

In that world, which still exists in too many ways today, a woman’s path upward in business or politics inevitably meant pleasing men and the definition varied, depending on those involved. It wasn't and still isn’t fair.

Workplaces like the New York Times (see Gay Talese’s “The Kingdom and the Power”) and book publishing houses were notorious for the couplings of older men and younger women mutually using one another.  

It was wrong then if it became predatory, and it’s wrong now, but the outrage over slugs like Anthony Weiner and Bob Filner and, at the heights of academia, philosopher Colin McGinn, omits a crucial part of the context, a social structure that invites such behavior.

McGinn claims he engaged a doctoral candidate in “a warm, consensual, collaborative relationship,” an “intellectual romance” that never became sexual but was full of “bantering.” The sophisticated may sneer, but how can we know who is the victim here?

A society that rewards aging men for aggression and young women for their looks (pace Fox News, Newt Gingrich et al) preys on that dissonance while feasting on the antics of those caught in the hypocrisy.

My own character was tested in middle age when I was asked to become Hugh Hefner’s successor. In 1969, over lunch in Chicago, Playboy's publisher complained about the struggle to curb such excesses as perpetual parties and an always available 727 while subtly probing to see if I too might go hog wild over such amenities.

It was an out-of-body experience, an inner voice questioning my sanity over being atop an empire of sensual pleasure against all evidence of my nature and experience. After 45 years of being Mr. Responsible, how could I think of plunging into every boy’s fantasy, with permission--no, mandate--to spend days, and nights, in an X-rated world? Could I?

Wallowing in the notion, my mind mocked me with a movie memory of a fat Nero in a palace while near-naked maidens dangled grapes over his mouth.

By coffee, the publisher was satisfied with my stability and suggested dinner with Hef that night. “He’s going to fall in love with you and offer you the job on the spot,” the publisher said, then hesitated. “If he does, what will you say?”

Foolish fantasy could only go so far. I answered honestly: “I don’t know."

He was unnerved. “Unless you’re sure you’ll say yes, I can’t take you to meet him.”

So it was settled, but I felt entitled to a small indulgence. “Does it work this way,” I asked, “with women, too?"

In today’s world, Hefner is a joke, an octogenarian lecher, but the sexual confusions of the society that made him rich and famous are still here. We mock dirty old men but fail to change the conditions that allow so many to keep what they would call scoring with young women who would do anything to get ahead.

How much longer will we all continue to smirk about such goings-on before enough true gender equality is achieved to change the society and make them obsolete?   
 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hillary Movie Plots Thicken

If they made a movie of your life, who would you want to play you?

Heated negotiations go on for a miniseries about Hillary Clinton as a well as a biopic about her youth. Republicans are in a dither over NBC producing it, but now Fox is showing interest.

The politics are a mess, of course, but rumors about which actresses will play the various Hillarys interest me more. Diane Lane, who won an Oscar for portraying an athletically adulterous wife in “Unfaithful,” will likely be the adult version, while Scarlett Johansson, Carey Mulligan and Jessica Chastain are mentioned as her younger embodiment.

All this recalls a party game I invented eons ago in a Park Avenue duplex at one of those gatherings where the privileged babble away with no human connection whatever. To keep the conversation going, I suggested a diversion: Name the actor you would want to star in a movie of your life. “As for me,” I said, nodding at Kirk Douglas across the table, “I see Kirk in the part.”

He smiled the familiar dazzling smile that never quite reaches his eyes, a flash of the amused anger that fueled his movie-star charm. I smiled back in what I took to be a moment of shared irony between Jewish boys of dirt-poor parents being wined, dined and bored by the very rich.

Another guest was vertically challenged Jack Valenti, who had been in the LBJ White House and was now head of the Motion Picture Association of America. “I guess,” he sighed wistfully, “they would have to get Mickey Rooney to play me.”

In an era now where the self-obsessed have merged their communities in Washington and Hollywood, such matters are no longer a game. The GOP chairman has threatened to bar NBC from his party’s debates if they went ahead with the Hillary project. If Fox takes over, what will he do?

Meanwhile, if you play the star game with friends, be kind.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Obama and the Bad Boys

Can’t the President get mad at anybody? At his press conference, Barack Obama observes that Vladimir Putin has “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid at the back of the classroom” and Republicans are in the grip of an “ideological fixation...The idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea.”

Nonetheless, he continues to present himself as a reasonable antagonist for the Russians and the Tea Party, a position that may reflect reality but is not getting him much traction in foreign relations or domestic policy.

Even his admirers are left to wonder whether Obama’s even disposition and professorial bent are handicapping him in the White House. Would being more devious and willing to get down into the mud with antagonists work better?

Politics has never been rational but is now less so than ever. To be effective in this atmosphere, you have to be more than right on the issues. A bit of the low cunning of LBJ and even Nixon, without their failure to understand boundaries, might not be amiss.

Take the Snowden flap, for example. Why did the White House from the start inflate his importance rather than dismiss him as a low-level criminal and concentrate on the issue rather than the man? Wasn’t it foreseeable that Putin might use him as a pawn?

Take the Tea Party for another. Against all odds in 1948, Harry Truman lambasted the “do nothing, good for nothing” GOP Congress and won an unlikely election. Can’t Obama see that, in politics, you can blast your opposition but keep smiling for photographs while trying to make deals with them off camera?

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed 20 years ago that we were in an era of “Defining Deviancy Down,” he was understating where politics was going.

“We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us,” the late New York Senator wrote in his now-famous American Scholar article, arguing that society keeps adjusting for the amount of unacceptable conduct it can tolerate.

He pointed out that, in 1929, the killing of seven gangsters in Chicago became the stuff of legend while half a century later “Los Angeles has the equivalent of a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre every weekend.”

What Barack Obama might concentrate on now is the difference between being deviant and devious.

He may pride himself on being neither, but as JFK said, life is unfair and you have to make some hard choices to survive politically.  


Update: Maureen Dowd sums up Obama’sapproach: “There is no moral high ground that he does not seek to occupy. As with drones and gay marriage, he seems peeved that we were insufficiently patient with his own private study of the matter. Why won’t the country agree to entrust itself to his fine mind?”

Not until he shows more heart and anger.

Friday, August 09, 2013

For Rhonda on Her 90th Birthday


http://www.rhondafleming.com/images/index_13.jpg

In the classic movie “Citizen Kane,” a very old man reminisces, “One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.”
 

My girl in the white dress is a movie star of the 1940s and 1950s, Rhonda Fleming, and
tomorrow is her 90th birthday.


One evening in 1955, my best friend Ed Feingersh turned up at our nightly hangout Costello's with a stunning woman with red hair and green eyes.
 

"This is the friend I was telling you about," he said to her and introduced the actress he had been photographing that afternoon. Just divorced, Rhonda had told Eddie she was lonely in a strange city and Eddie must have decided she was too tall for him so he brought her to meet me.
 

We had a couple of drinks, and she was everything a man could want, beautiful, bright, friendly and open, with no Hollywood airs. 
We were getting along fine, but something in my head had other plans.
 

Before dinner, I excused myself to make a phone call. I asked the woman who would become the mother of my children to join us. We had been seeing each other for months, but that night I knew for sure I was going to marry her.
 
Ever since, Rhonda Fleming has been in a corner of my mind, and I still watch some of her 40 movies on TCM. Truth is, she was not much of an actress, but gorgeous enough to be dubbed “the Queen of Technicolor.”
 

In one of her first, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” she played a teen-aged nymphomaniac and her mother, she told me, had to explain what that was.
 

She went on to have six marriages, the longest to a super-wealthy producer and theater owner. As his widow, she became a leading Los Angeles philanthropist, funding both a gynecological and cancer center at UCLA.
 

Alas, she was not perfect. She also became a leading Republican and supported Mitt Romney in the last election, but dream girls can be forgiven anything.
 

Happy birthday, Rhonda, from a ferry that passed in the night.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Witnessing Hiroshima

If you live long enough, once in a while your past goes beyond being irrelevant to the present and comes back to life as history. This week’s remembrance of dropping atomic bombs on Japan 68 years ago is one of those times.

Looking back, I see a 21-year-old foot soldier in Germany waiting to be deployed for a bloody Pacific invasion to storm beaches and fight through cities. Suddenly mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and then Nagasaki ended that dread. For the first time in years, he could wake in the morning without feeling there was an IOU out on his life, held by someone unknown and payable on demand.

Weeks later he learned the moral price for his relief--that 140,000 died within days from that explosion in Hiroshima and another 70,000 in Nagasaki and that his country would forever bear the burden of being the first and only so far to use such weapons of mass destruction.

In August 1963, that boy turned magazine editor interviewed John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office. "Since 1945," he said, "we have gone into an entirely new period of nuclear weapons. Most people have no conception of what it all means. A nuclear exchange lasting sixty minutes would mean over 300 million deaths. We have to prevent the end of the human race."

In a new century of short memory spans, that young soldier still lives in the recesses of an old mind along with JFK’s warning. The urge to bear witness remains.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The McDonaldization of Media

Old titles were being bought and sold in the past week at the speed of light. The Washington Post, Boston Globe and Newsweek all changed hands in an eyeblink.

Print journalism is morphing into the plaything of, respectively, the owners of  Amazon, the Boston Red Sox baseball team and an international digital corporation.

The direction has been clear for decades. News is instantaneous now on the Web and 24/7 cable, and waiting for context and coherence until the next day or weekend does not appeal to impatient new generations anxious to tweet or text their reactions.

The President explains his closure of embassies under Middle East terror threats to Jay Leno, with the certainty that Americans will learn what he has to say within minutes.

In the past century, the social critic Lewis Mumford observed that journalism was moving ever faster and creating “deprivation by surfeit.”

Like other assembly-line industries that concentrate on speed and productivity, the manufacture of news has ignored “the need for evaluation, correction, selection and social assimilation.”

Hand-made objects are a thing of the past. We get news like fast food and with just about the same amounts of nutrition and flavor.

As we congratulate ourselves for being so quickly well-informed, do we ask, “Of what?”

As old media names slide toward quaintness and irrelevance, we might give a passing thought, or tweet, to whether or not we will miss what they used to bring us.


Update: All this old-media shuffling prompts Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times Company to announce emphatically that the Times itself will remain in the hands of his family into “our global and digital future.”


In an interview, he slaps his palm on a table to emphasize that the paper is “Not. For. Sale.”

Not. Yet.