Friday, August 26, 2005

Time Off

WLIW (a local PBS station) broadcast an episode of Inspector Morse the other night. Of course I’d seen it before as I have all of the late John Thaw’s 33 wonderful performances as the erudite and emotionally complex Oxford detective created by Colin Dexter. In this story Morse and his deputy Sergeant Lewis once again arrive on the scene of what they determine is a murder. Morse is ready to commence the investigation as always, but there is a problem. Lewis informs him that he is about to take a week’s holiday, one that Morse had approved but as usual has forgotten. A holiday?  Morse will have none of it. Someone has been murdered and this is no time to be taking off. Not that Morse couldn’t solve a crime on his own, and usually does, but the idea that Lewis could walk off the job at this crucial moment just doesn’t fly.

There was a time in my own professional life when vacations seemed out of the question – I once went three or four years without taking time off. For some reason, I deluded myself into thinking that the show could not go on without me which definitely was not the case. There is no other way to describe my avoiding time off, it was stupid.  Everyone needs to recharge the batteries if only to maximize what little we have to offer. Lewis should have taken his time (which he didn’t) and Morse should have let him (which would have been out of character).

Much has been made of George W. Bush’s extended vacation in the time of war and indeed, as Maureen Dowd recently wrote in the NY Times, he has taken almost the equivalent of a full year’s vacation time since taking office (and he’s less than five years in). She and others have pointed to the hypocrisy of dismissing the French for their vacationing and work ethic (which they also do regularly on CNBC) in comparison. I couldn’t say it better than others have and won’t try.  I am intrigued however by what all this time off says about Bush and the presidency.

My shunning vacations was ultimately an act of inflated self importance, making sacrifices that were totally unnecessary and inappropriate. My family suffered for it.  I admit to that (and have long since corrected my ways). The fact is, however, that my decision also reflected that I really loved my work. Spending time in the office or out with clients gave me great satisfaction and, yes, joy. I think Bill Clinton (who did take vacations) felt the same way about his work as president (which he hated to leave). George W. Bush, I’ve decided, does not.  Oh for sure he loves the trappings of the job – the pomp and circumstance, the occasional opportunities to dress up, the sitting at the center of the table and having the last word on things. But I don’t think he really likes doing the presidency most of which has to be executed out of sight by men (sadly still the case) who put their pants on one leg at a time. He also clearly doesn’t like Washington which admittedly can be a tough place to do business. One wonders why he made a run for it in the first place. In any event, here we are, our lives and fortunes dominated by a man who has made some of the worst domestic and foreign policy decisions in recent memory, who manipulated himself into office with slogans, marketing and legal maneuvers and he doesn’t really like the job. Who would have thought?

Friday, August 19, 2005


The exodus from Gaza is nearing completion.  Some settlers have gone quietly, perhaps not happily but resigned to the reality that something has to give if the Israelis and the Palestinians are ever to dwell alongside each other in peace they both deserve.  Some are resisting (augmented by outsiders, ultra orthodox religious fanatics from the West Bank and elsewhere including from the United States).  There has been talk of how wrenching this experience is for many of those involved including the police and IDF personnel – the little guys on the ground are always left to do the heavy lifting.  I would be insensitive not to recognize their pain but find it difficult to empathize with it.  These settlements should never have been, nor should those on West Bank.

To be sure these occupations are the byproduct of a war that Israel neither wanted nor started.  That it treated these territories as booty, retained them for more than three decades and that it gave in to religious zealots who demanded they be annexed, is another thing altogether.  Occupation wherever it happens is a bad thing, destined to play out badly.  Some will suggest that, like it or not, events have a way of taking over and they are not easily, if ever, be undone.  But I don’t buy that notion. The fact is that we’ve all become victims of religious militants.  Israel all the more so by people who from the start refused to recognize the constituted State’s legitimacy – that is until it suited their purposes.  Among these were those goal has always been a theocratic (orthodox) Jewish state.  Even the more “moderate” among them always had a price for their participation in the coalitions that have always been necessary to govern. Ultimately the more radical elements forged an unholy alliance with the political hard right.  Sound familiar?  The fundamentalist religious agenda played well with Likud’s (a party with pre-state terrorist roots) aggressive hostility toward Arabs.  The two found real karma in their personalities and their objectives.  The ultimate expression of their alliance, the Gaza West Bank occupation settlements.

It’s time to move on.  Sharon seems to have come to that conclusion though it’s hard to forget the pivotal role he played in getting us to this place. Some still feel his aggressive grandstanding near the Temple Mount in the waning days of the Barak administration helped ignite the most recent Intifada.  It’s time to move on which is unquestionably hard.  IDFers cry with the unsettled which is only human, but let’s also do some crying for the many frustrated Palestinians caught in the political and violent crossfire all these thirty plus years.  I celebrate the exodus from Gaza.  Next, the West Bank.  If so, can peace be far behind?  Unsettled, that has a nice ring to it.

Israel was founded on the assumption of partition, that sharing of the land in which both Jews and Arabs had real, albeit different, history was fair.  You can point fingers especially at the Arab governments who used the Palestinians as pawns from the moment the United Nations acted, but where does that get us?  Certainly not to the peace and normalcy that ordinary citizens on both sides so desperately want, and that the world (including you and I) so desperately needs.

Monday, August 15, 2005

More Wrong Direction

New York is a never ending construction zone with old buildings coming down and new (usually taller and larger) ones going up. It’s less common to see a whole new street emerge, but that's exactly what happened in my neighborhood. Riverside Boulevard, has materialized over the past few years adjacent to my home thanks to Donald Trump, that master of smoked mirrors, unending public relations/promotion and (most of all) survival against all odds. A few years back, The Donald was in great trouble owing much more to our city’s fine banks than he could afford. He was functionally bankrupt. His development on the Hudson River near me was in danger of going belly up, but it didn’t. The truth was the banks had too much in the project and, not wanting to be left holding the bag, they bailed Mr. Trump out after which (as usual) he cashed in at someone else's expense. Some folks in my neighborhood still can’t let go of their anger that the Trump buildings have risen before our eyes (often obstructing our views), but I find such huffing a puffing a silly waste of energy. Riverside Boulevard (he likes to think of it as Trump Place) is a mammoth brick and mortar fact of life.

What made me think of The Donald today was a story in the NY Times suggesting that changes in Federal standards for improving SUV mileage are likely to be abandoned because the people in Washington are concerned about further weakening the already hobbled American automobile industry. The banks were too dependent on Trump as apparently is our economy on the people in Detroit, similarly under water. To be sure they are in deep trouble – I have not owned a GM, Ford or Chrysler in decades, nor do most people I know. But it’s hard to sympathize with these guys who haven’t been killed by competition, but who were suicidal co-conspirators; deaf, dumb and blind to what was going on around them. First there was the issue of quality. After taking delivery of my first foreign made car, I was astonished to look in the side mirror and see the front and rear doors line up – it was a first. Then of course there is that size thing. Even after the terrible gas lines of the Carter years, Detroit has been systematically sizing and bulking up and rather than improving gas consumption, building more and more trucks that are marketed as family cars which have insatiable thirsts for Saudi oil. My newest Japanese car – the exact same model as the last gets ten miles more per gallon.

I realize that our media is not what it used to be and our news is watered down to tepid nothingness dominated by shallow stories like Michael Jackson and brides who decide not to show up at the alter. Even so, most people have heard of a war in the Middle East and of oil prices going through the roof. Surly even members of the Bush gang have noticed that it costs twice as much to fill up the tank than it did a year ago even if they overlook the fact that there are a couple of Americans out there (some who have lost jobs in Detroit) who can ill afford such a swing in prices. But the energy bill recently past doesn’t address such mundane problems and while we hear much talk about rising demand little is done to reduce it. The President speaks out for the morality of saving embryos, thwarting stem cell research and the need to teach creationism (excuse me, Intelligent Design), but can’t use his bully pulpit to get citizens to think fuel economy by buying more efficient vehicles. That probably would get too close to emissions and global warming and all those other unproved theories about which the Bible was silent.

So here we are again bailing out the incompetent and telling ourselves we know they aren’t perfect, but what can we do? Plenty! We can do a great deal if we only had the will and the vision, not to mention our people and our planet's future in mind.

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

1776 Forgotten

Nothing beats turning the pages of a good book, but I confess that being able to download a volume onto my iPod transforms a long car trip turn into something special. That’s exactly what I did recently with the added dividend of David McCullough’s sonorous voice reading his own 1776. Like all McCullough books, it’s a great “read”, history beautifully told. This book was not merely satisfying. Whether intentional or not, it was surprisingly timely. What’s striking and often forgotten about 1776, a year that we celebrate with too little introspection, is how hard it was. We take Empire America so for granted, that we forget what an ill equipped rag tag bunch of novices fought for its Independence. To be sure Washington was a charismatic and towering (literally) figure but, as McCullough points out, a general with no combat experience surrounded by more on-the-job trainees than officers as we think of them today. The citizen soldiers who fought for the colonies were a tattered, often shoeless, lot. The British boasted the greatest military (Army and Navy) of its day – spit and polish with all the necessary tools of war within arm’s reach. By every measure, Washington with his inept grossly outnumbered fighting force (calling them an army is misleading) should have lost and decisively so. They did not. They were fighting for their land and the right to determine their own destiny, an unbeatable combination.

Does this have a familiar and immediate ring, like you just read it in today’s Times? You bet it does. 1776 wasn’t the only time in history that we’ve seen how the odds can be turned on their head when people are fighting for their homeland. Nor is it the only time the British confronted a rebellion of the under equipped. Remember India and Pakistan? And let’s not forget the odds against outnumbered little Israel prevailing in its war of independence. And how about Viet Nam (which supposedly is something totally different) where we were thinking creeping Communism and dominoes while the Vietnamese were fighting for homeland? Israel (with reversed fortunes as the dominant power) is about to vacate Gaza where, whatever their monstrous means, Palestinians have been fighting for their homeland too.

Perhaps there is a war on terrorism. But as with the war against Communism, it’s one that conveniently is used as cover when the cause at hand can't be justified. It isn’t simply that we shouldn’t be in Iraq but that 1776, the year and the book, informs us that we can’t possibly win when people think they are fighting for homeland and real self determination. Sure there are some non-Iraqi fighters involved in this conflict, many but probably not all of them terrorist jihadists. We got some help from the French in our war for independence and the Vietnamese had allies as well. Who has joined someone’s side and even the tactics they use doesn’t change the reality that we don’t want to see, admit, or remember from our own history. An Iraqi involved in writing their constitution complained to a reporter yesterday of being rushed by the Americans so that George Bush could claim a success. OK Mr. Bush, he said, you’ve had a success, now go away and let us write our constitution in our own time – it will take time to get it right. I guess some of our people in Washington have lost sight of the fact that, once completed, the Iraqi’s will have to live by that constitution or have forgotten how hard it is to change documents like that once they’ve been adopted.

David McCullough’s 1776 is a terrific book about a pivotal year. Too bad with all our bravado, flag waving and lapel buttons that we’ve forgotten its lessons.