Saturday, November 22, 2003

A Death in the Family

"I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan.  How the mighty are fallen in the midst of battle…" — David's lament for his fallen best friend.  These were the words I chose to read from the pulpit to the nearly two thousand people who spontaneously attended our Friday night service on November 22, 1963.  And it wasn't easy to read them.  It's painful to this day and I am not alone.  Not alone, but it remains a singular experience for most of us, our personal loss even more than our collective loss. 

John Kennedy's presidency was exceedingly brief.  Arthur Schlesinger recounted it as days, not years.  Jackie wanted us to remember it as a shining moment.  And, I believe, it is precisely because it was a flash in time, that has his legacy became so powerful.  Since he didn't have the opportunity to play it out, inevitably (as we all do on some level) to screw it up, we're free to fill in gaps, to dream the dreams.  The most powerful myths are those over which we have ultimate control.  Heroes are always bigger than life because we need them to be just that.  And heaven knows, there aren't too many heroes around these days, making JFK all the more precious.

Given the weight of the myth factor, pundits and talking heads rush in to point out the substance behind the myth, to fill in the gap.  They remind us of missiles, of the cheering crowds in Berlin and of a the introduced, though not passed, landmark Civil Rights legislation.  All important, all fair but all totally besides the point.  There is nothing wrong with myth which has always been far more powerful and enduring for humans than fact.  The myth of JFK's short Presidency was its ultimate accomplishment. 

Style over substance, was exactly what we needed so desperately after the deadly dull Eisenhower years.  When Jack Kennedy came to the fore, in emotional terms America had yet to fully recover from World War II.  The FDR antidote personalities were in place -- first Truman and then Ike, both extremely decent men but totally lacking the charismatic electricity of their predecessor.  And let's not forget Joe McCarthy who left us dispirited and wondering if democracy had actually prevailed in the first half of the Century.  Enter Jack Kennedy.  He gave us the lift we needed and, while countless Americans did not realize the magnitude of the gift until he was gone, he made us feel good about our country, proud of it.  It wasn't a matter of wearing metal flags on our lapels.  It was real.

Which brings me to 2003, the fortieth anniversary.  Where is JFK now when we need him again?  There's been this death in the family and we still can't seem to get over it. 

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Another Viet Nam: Wishful Thinking

As we become increasingly mired in an Iraqi morass, it's hard for any of us not to think of Viet Nam.  Regardless of whether we compare or contrast, we too are mired, but in the wrong neighborhood.  Would that Iraq were a Cold War conflict in which governments and economic-political ideologies were at play.  Wishful thinking.  2003 is a very different place.  Unlike Viet Nam, we are not putting ourselves in the middle of a civil war because of some domino theory.  While long since discredited, at least it had a logic and a consistent context.  The idea that entering Iraq, a plan that we now know for sure was hatched long before 9/11, was part of a war on terrorism is more than a stretch.  It's not credible.  Iraq had to do with egos (personal and national) and oil.  Controlling natural resources, harks back to an age-old purpose of Colonialism.  But even here, the past is not necessarily the most valuable teacher other than to say that locals still dislike foreign takeovers, even when they are portrayed as transitional and short term.

When I open my day with the BBC news and the New York Times, it's not Viet Nam that comes to mind, but something geographically much closer.  Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians.  It's here that the parallels are so obvious and so very disturbing.  The Intifada, which manifests itself largely in attacks against the innocent, is horrendous.  The right of Israel, born out of a Holocaust in which there were enough dirty hands to circle the globe, to exist is not a question.  But the response that the Israeli government has mounted, one that I would describe as "a head for an eye" simply isn't working.  If Palestinians on the Street were unhappy and frustrated at the start, they are now filled with fury.  Sure the lack of constructive leadership from within must be blamed for that as well, but not as much as what military people euphemistically call "collateral damage."  I like to say that minor surgery is something that happens to someone else.  Collateral damage is much the same.

The idea of turning the other cheek is not only difficult, thoughtful people reasonably argue that it sends the wrong message.  Few Americans, caught up in September horror, opposed going after the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.  But were Gandhi and Martin Luther King irrational idealists?  I don't think so.  Quite the opposite, they were thoughtful strategists who took difficult and unconventional steps  to reach their goals.  Their rationale was simple.  If you want to have significant movement, you have to change the conversation.  Someone has to say stop, and more importantly to act on his own call for inaction.

So we are now proceeding with our own "West Bank" retaliation and each day gaining less and paying more.  We're facing an Intifada in which terrorist tactics are used by desperate outgunned people who feel colonized and we simply don't know what to do except follow the Sharon strategy.  Consequently, the innocent Street is confused and getting increasingly angry.   Every day we are looking more and more like the enemy not the liberator.  A rush trip to Washington for instructions and a return with frantic cosmetics crafted in the Spin Rooms on Pennsylvania Avenue.  A more rapid turn over of "power."  And while we're waiting, substantially increased use of force to send a message.  The "Peace Process" and the tanks.  Sound familiar?

Tuesday, November 4, 2003


I'm having some serious doubts about the Elizabeth Smart Story, the CBS docudrama scheduled for broadcast this coming Sunday.  I'm not sure it's going to be accurate or that all of the conversations between the principals, especially those who captured poor Elizabeth, are going to be true to what was really said, or meant.  I'm a little worried about the image of mother Smart and if father Smart might come off a little less up to his game than he really is.

In the day of the reality show (of which CBS claims to be a proud parent), let's get real.  Accuracy was never the issue here.  There was plenty of time to vet the script of Mr. and Mrs. Gipper's story.  And let's also be honest.  Television fare of this kind, much less a great deal of the glossy "news" we get today, wouldn't meet the Ed Murrow standard or, in some cases, even the smell test.  Using lack of accuracy as an excuse is a slippery slope for a tarnished media that so often seems no longer capable of distinguishing between reporting and editorializing.

CBS caved into pressure.  They accepted the direction of Conservative critics, just as the whole country has been caving into those same people with disastrous results.  In that regard, it seems almost unfair to blame them.  But in doing so, regardless of the logic (which must have included fear of Sponsor abandonment) they have done damage to free expression.  If we are not fighting for the right of people to express, even erroneously, what the hell are we fighting for?

I feel for our former President and his family now sharing a dark world that in many ways is worse than no world at all.  I think it's always tricky to portray the living which anyone who has seen her or his story on screen can surly attest is likely to be largely fictional and thus painful to one degree or another.  But public people chose to be public and along with the adulation and chauffeurs comes a loss of full personal control.  You can't build a myth around yourself, or allow one to be built, without risking the balloon being punctured, even if often inaccurately so.

Docudramas are, and always have been, off the factual mark to one degree or another.  It's why I generally find them offensive.  But that's a matter of taste not censorship.  In a time when neo-McCarthyism is afoot in some very high places, we can't be complacent about the "why" of what happened here.  Be assured, accuracy never came into legitimate play in CBS's decision, even if they have deluded themselves into the fact that it did.  The word disingenuous, however, does come to mind.

Saturday, November 1, 2003

Things are Getting Better

The Central Park Reservoir opened in 1862 surrounded by an elegant 5' high iron fence providing an unencumbered view of the growing city around it.  In 1926 that fence was replaced a mundane chain-link affair which couldn't destroy the view altogether but gave it a gauze-like, not to mention rusted-out, quality.  Surrounding the water is a track, the favorite of many New Yorkers like myself and countless other jogging visitors.  It's always been a near perfect place.  Early this past summer, staggered work begin on restoring the original fence design.  Within the last few weeks a large section has been reopened.  One always surmised that the project would enhance this beloved urban space, but what it has done is no less than astounding.  Running this familiar track, is a dramatically different and wondrous experience.  So, too, is what's happening to the City's Hudson shore line.  The long decaying rot of abandoned piers and neglected waterfront is being replaced by wonderful parks.  One can now bicycle down a protected path (with a few remaining detours) from the George Washington Bridge to the Battery.  Riverside Park is being extended South and will one day join with that new park system below 59th Street.  In New York, things are getting better.

Things are getting better in Iraq as well.  Right.  It seems now that every Thursday and Sunday we're getting the classic half-full, half-empty in the columns of Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd.  Among the issues at hand, for them and for a growing number of others, is whether we're experiencing "déjà vous all over again?"  Friedman doesn't see Viet Nam, Dowd does.  And so do I in much the same way.  It isn't that these wars are identical in cause or content, but much more in the way we Americans come to them.  There is an eerie echo in those rosy statements coming out of the Administration.  The "we'll be home by Christmas" and the preposterous proclamation that increasing violence is a sign of "enemy" desperation (read imminent defeat).  At least as important, and sadly Tom Friedman falls into that pit, is an inability to admit being wrong.  We know today that our suspicions about motivation and our doubts about proclaimed immediate threat were correct.  Perhaps if that had not been the case, we too might be holding on to our rightness.  Perhaps, but we haven't put so many kids at risk and there is no joy or satisfaction in saying we told you so.  Far from it.  Did you hear that the Defense Department is not allowing ceremonial returns of the dead and that our caring President has not attended a single funeral.  Counting the dead just doesn't smack of success and missions accomplished.  In downplaying individual tragedy these people are under the illusion that we won't notice its magnitude.

It's not merely that the mission has not been accomplished in Iraq, it's that we're in a global quagmire of terrorism in which we continue to combat symptoms not causes.  Just look at the unending terror in Israel where military strike backs have been notoriously unsuccessful while the ongoing issues are not even being addressed and the violence just continues.  And look at the other breeding grounds of hopelessness around a world in which the gulf between rich and poor is growing daily.  The most disturbing part of it all, however, is not our machismo or our denial, but the fact that, for the most part, we just don't get it.  We remain a largely insular people who always want to be in absolute control and are unforgiving to those who won't follow our lead or who resist being  like us.  How dare they?  We are language and culturally deficient which is part of what got us into trouble in the 60's and what clearly is hurting us still in Baghdad and other places.  We continue to have a short attention span with a mentality of out-of-sight means out-of-mind and thus not really happening. 

I love our renewed running track and our revitalized shoreline.  New York needs the boost which these amenities provide.  But getting things better, requires more than surface cosmetics.  I don't see that happening.  I take it back.  Things are not getting better.