Thursday, August 29, 2013


I watched all four plus hours of the March 50th Anniversary program on Wednesday, culminating in President Obama's excellent speech.  He reminded those present at the Mall and those listening or watching on TV or their computers that the 1963 March was not about celebrity but about the people who came by the thousands to both participate or as the Reverend Dr. King might have put it "to bear witness."  And for sure these were the true heroes of that day, many of them former and future participants in demonstrations of one kind or another or people just trying to move ahead — together.  The President also called our attention to the stated reason for marching in Washington on that day fifty years ago: Jobs.  Clearly, while huge progress has been made — as both he and John Lewis said pointing to their own positions — that particular goal has not been met.  And it isn't that we have only fallen short, but that we seem to regressing not progressing.

As in 1963, the program had two parts.  The first, started in the late morning with a group of warm up speakers and entertainers, many of them distinguished.  At 2 PM, with chairs set up on the steps from which the 1963 leaders spoke, the main part of the program began.  There was Congressman John Lewis, the only surviving member of the Big Ten, two of Martin King's children and three presidents: Carter, Clinton and Obama.  It was an impressive, and for those of us who were there fifty years ago moving, program.  But what struck me throughout the day was not who was present but who was absent.

Whether a symbol or a symptom of our divisive times, there were no Republicans on the program or anywhere to be seen.  In 1963, as mentioned in my last post, Jacob Javits the Republican senior senator from New York hosted an after-the-March supper for the its leaders and speakers.  Also missing was any formal participation of the Roman Catholic Church.  In '63 Washington's archbishop gave the invocation and Mathew Ahmann, director of the Catholic Conference of Interracial Justice was among the Big Ten.  Nor was there a modern day Eugene Carson Blake representing the Presbyterian Church and through it white Protestants.  Two rabbis, Uri Miller and my father made prominent appearances on the podium then; no comparable nationally known Jewish leader was there to take their place.

In 1963, and appropriately so, the initial Big Six, was made up of major African American leaders, men who were all widely known to much of the American public.  (It was pointed out yesterday that no woman was part of that group or a major speaker.)  At March time four white leaders were added, two of them prominent clergymen.  The now Big Ten was integrated, and that was seen as important.  The 2013 commemoration in contrast was led only by black groups, spearheaded by the King family.  Does that evidence a lack of support by the white organizations?  Perhaps, but I prefer to think that fifty years on black organizations felt they could pull this off totally on their, a clear sign of progress. 

There were of course leaders of integrated labor unions on the warm up program along with a number of white speakers.  That said, the absence of religious leaders on the big stage was notable, perhaps a sign that people like Ahmann, Blake, my father and so many others are no longer on the scene.  That is a whole other conversation.  With regard to this week, it is important to remember that no matter how involved others were in 1963, the March was a tribute to and success of the six African Americans who started it.  The crowd was mixed but majority black and they are the community that deserves ultimate credit.  At long last, whites were playing a supporting role.  That was a rarity then and sadly still remains so too often today. 

Let me return to the most notable absentees, Republicans.  I have no idea whether that is a function of their not wanting to participate or not being invited.  It doesn't really matter because their absence shows how far apart Republicans and African Americans have become.  Barack Obama garnered a huge percentage of black votes and he was, is and will always be a powerful black role model.  A president who "looks like me" is something that could be claimed for the first time by black children.  There is no way to overestimate the importance of Obama, the symbol.  At the same time, a black Democratic president wasn't necessarily a given.  The first black US Senator was Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts.  And let's not forget that the great emancipator whose presence loomed over yesterday's proceedings was a Republican president.  Republican support for Lyndon Johnson's civil rights bills was critical for passage and it was substantial.  In those days, they took their Party of Lincoln slogan/heritage to heart and so acted.

Of course today's Republican Party, most especially in the South is made up of the sons and daughters of rightist Democrats and rebel Dixiecrats.  The heirs of the segregationist Strum Thurmond have, like him, made the great party switch (or their parents did).  For them, some grudging lip service paid Martin Luther King, Jr. notwithstanding, not much has changed ideologically.  Just as an earlier generation stood at the schoolhouse door or hosted all those whites only lunch counters and restrooms, they are hard at work seeking ways to suppress minority voting and defund public schools attended by minority children.  It's no accident, that the black president of the State's NAACP led North Carolina’s Moral Mondays.  For many people of color as for Latinos, LGBT's and women, Republicans have become the enemy.  They didn't participate in the 2013 Anniversary gathering, and those who did might not have given them a warm welcome.

Of course the leaders of yesterday's event and its main speakers — three Democratic presidents — aren't happy about how divided we've become.  Not reaching out, not seeking to work together goes contrary to the teaching and short life's work of Martin Luther King, Jr.  But it isn't only King's non-violent message, the one that merited a Nobel Peace Prize.  Reaching out even in a time of war — the most costly in our history — is what the tall president whose granite image was strikingly present both in 1963 and 2013 was all about.

Remember what he said after so many bad things had happened:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Still pretty good ideas these many years later.  They come from a Republican President, the one who in spirit stood beside Carter, Clinton and Obama.  Of course, Lincoln would never come even close to being nominated by the party that claims him as their own.  He'd surely be "primaried". 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Our March

A very personal remembrance.

We arrived at National Airport and went straight to the Statler-Hilton Hotel not far from the White House.  It was August 27, 1963 and the next morning we would make our way separately to the Lincoln Memorial.  I arrived there early enough to get a front row seat in
Sitting in my first row seat.  
the reserved section at the foot of the steps leading up to the giant statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln.  The crowd (eventually estimated at 2-300,000) was already gathering.  It was as hot as Washington can be in late summer, but no one seemed to be bothered.  I was wearing a suit and never even considered removing my jacket — a different time, for sure.  The prevailing mood can only be described as festive and joyful, the air filled with anticipation. 

Considering the temperature, the assembled hardly needed warming up, but the star-studded array of talent who entertained us while waiting for the main event was stunning.  There was Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary to name just a few.  Headliners were getting us ready for what was to come.  I didn't see my father and traveling companion make his way toward the Memorial, but there are many photos of him walking arm in arm with his fellow March leaders: "The Big Ten". (Check out Kitty Kelly's terrific "Let Freedom Ring") Representing the Jewish Community, he would be delivering his speech immediately before Martin King's.

You can read and hear it at the website dedicated to his life.  I watched him write that speech in our hotel room late into the night of our arrival.  He had been in Europe until days before and the American Jewish Congress (of which he was the President) staff had taken it upon themselves to write what was generously the most pedestrian and clichéd text that you can imagine.  Some still claim to have authored what he delivered, which was not the case.  Their draft just wasn't him and he couldn't possibly have delivered it.  To put that in perspective, Joachim Prinz was arguably one of the great preachers and extemporaneous orators of his generation.  Even reading a prepared text was highly unusual for him, but that day demanded it.  He handed the new speech to a typist on the morning of the 28th, delivering it later in the day immediately following a standing ovation performance by the great Mahalia Jackson.  Reflecting on that especially hard act to follow, he departed from his text by opening with the words, "I wish I could sing".

It was a compact speech touching on a number of themes — President Obama quoted a passage from it about neighbor as "a moral concept" while on his March 2013 Israel visit.  Perhaps the most memorable was this passage:

Dr. Joachim Prinz speaking at the March in 1963
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

It was a message that rang true to a contemporary audience that had directly experienced the sinister role silence was still playing across the land as many Americans so often stood aside in silence as full rights and dignity were being withheld from many of their fellow countrymen.  He certainly was someone who could never remain silent either in Nazi Germany in the 1930s or in his adopted American home.  It is that fundamental aspect of his character that inspired the theme of a forthcoming documentary film about his life.

King's iconic speech was followed by a call for action by Bayard Rustin, the man probably most responsible for organizing the March and certainly it's most important unsung hero.  With the ceremonies concluded, the thousands who gathered so quietly and peacefully turned around to make their way home.  I joined my father at the back of the Memorial where we both drank Coca-Cola.  Today's ubiquitous bottled water didn't exist in 1963.  It was the first time I had ever seen him drink Coke, a beverage he associated with one of his first encounters with the very discrimination that brought us to Washington.  That happened in 1937, his first year in America, when he traveled to Atlanta to give a talk to its Jewish leaders about the plight of their fellow Jews in Nazi Germany.  In one of those curious coincidences in life, at its center was another black Atlanta clergyman named King.

Dr. Willis Jefferson King was the president of the Gammon Theological Seminary and a distinguished Old Testament scholar.  My father knew of his work and it was natural that he would use the occasion of an Atlanta visit to meet him.  They talked for an hour at the school.  Since their time together was brief, he then invited King to his hotel to continue over dinner.  The news of their encounter and that dinner invitation spread, and to my father's great horror the Jewish leaders before whom he later spoke berated him for having had contact with "that nigger".  His dismay and outrage was so evident that his hosts asked if he perhaps needed a drink.  Anticipating a glass of alcohol, my father told them, "I would like nothing better".  They offered instead a Coca-Cola, which he swore to himself never to drink again.  The March on Washington was the perfect, albeit ironic, occasion to break that personal pledge.  (Years later, as a branding consultant, I worked on Coca-Cola and helped the company launch diet Coke and other line extensions.)

Returning to the March, I went back to our hotel while the Big Ten headed to the White House and their widely reported meeting with President Kennedy.  That evening we were invited to a post-March buffet supper in the garden of Senator Jacob Javits' large and elegant Georgetown home.  Many of those who had appeared on the Memorial platform now stood around his swimming pool eating fine food a chatting.  It was at once lovely and surreal.  I don't remember anyone commenting, but the sumptuous setting was certainly at odds with the theme of the day. That disconnect accurately reflected how Washington worked then and, as noted in my recent post, still works today.

My March on Washington experience was clearly rarefied.  I was the son of one of its leaders and featured speakers, a father to whom I was extraordinarily close.  I sat in a reserved section — most people stood throughout the day.  I joined some of the speakers behind the Memorial after its conclusion and had supper with them and other dignitaries at a senior senator's home.  I flew to D.C. and back, while so many people came by bus or carpool.  Even so, the underlying experience was one that we all shared together, regardless of where we sat or stood and how we came to what most of us have seen since then as a hallowed place.  This was a moment of hope, one of those times that one can actually call "inspirational" without fear of exaggeration.  We participated in and witnessed history together.

None of us who gathered on that day could have imagined that in a matter of 3 short months John F. Kennedy with whom my father and the others met would be dead.  Nor did we anticipate that Lyndon Johnson, who played only a supporting role at that White House meeting, would push landmark Civil Rights legislation through Congress setting in motion huge changes to come.  Sadly, that King might be assassinated one day was less of a surprise.  And of course, the last thing than any of us expected was that, on this the 50th anniversary, a then 2-year-old African American would be sitting in the White House.  President Obama is scheduled to speak at the Memorial on Wednesday.

Would that I could say the March ended racism in the United States.  It did not.  Would that the right of every citizen to vote regardless of color or national origin could be guaranteed.  It can't.  Code words, those whispered or shouted euphemisms, existed then and they still do.  "Voter fraud" is one of today's most popular and we all know what it really means.  Obama himself, his being who he is, has reawakened an ugly hatred that we hoped the March and subsequent actions might have put to the "eternal rest".  There is much to celebrate about how far we've come, but also much to bemoan.  In an interview the Times' Adam Liptak asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg "if she was disappointed by the almost immediate tightening of voting laws in Texas and North Carolina after the decision, she chose a different word: 'Disillusioned'.”   Living in one of those states I can, as they say, relate.

Rabbi Prinz speaking in Berlin in 1934
Joachim Prinz delivered literally thousands of speeches in his life, many of them at important occasions and before large audiences.  His courageous voice was loudly heard in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany during the early Hitler Years.  Without question his reputation was made there and provided him memories that lasted a lifetime.  There are people living in Israel and here who still attribute their or their parents' survival to his blunt urgings to get out.  But to him, speaking in something other than his birth language and to a very different audience and country, the March speech was his proudest moment, bar none.  It constituted a concrete connection with the country that he really loved — he never felt at home in Germany.  One might say it affirmed his citizenship in a very powerful way. 

I think, however, that there was something else.  No matter how articulate, how forceful his speeches may have been, no matter how charismatic his personality, the words spoken in the 1930s didn't help prevent the unthinkable.  Some Jews, though clearly not all, heard them and left.   But the German public at large could not be moved.  In that sense his efforts failed.  In contrast a nation of good people listened in 1963.  They listened and they acted.  He and his fellow leaders had a receptive audience that transcended those who stood before the Memorial.  "It is", he said, "not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us" but for the country as a whole.  It's that still valid dream about which Obama talks for a United States of America.  Yes, at times, like Justice Ginsburg, I find myself "disillusioned".  For my father's sake, if noting else, I don't allow that feeling to leave me without the hope that "we can overcome".  More than ever, we need desperately to do so.

Monday, August 12, 2013

That Town

The American public has been characterized in many ways, not all of them flattering.  They have been called gullible, ill informed and even stupid.  We speak of the "electorate" but far too few of us vote.  And often those who do vote cast ballots that are contrary to their own best interests.  The majority of us know shockingly little about the people we put into office, not to mention the issues that confront us as a nation.  That may not make us stupid but it hardly gives one confidence in informed or intelligent voting.  Just as we buy into those instant diets that will make us svelte with little or no pain or sacrifice, we look for leaders with whom we can imagine sharing a beer or, yes, a glass of wine.  The pal-worthy criterion prevails across all demographic groups and probably to an equal degree.

Now those who follow my posts know that, while highly critical of low voter turnouts and how poorly many of us are schooled on the issues, I don't think the public at large is stupid.  Complacent absolutely, misinformed (often purposefully led in that direction) sure, but not stupid.  Perhaps what gives me so much confidence is that according to the most recent Gallup polling, only 10% of Americans have "great or quite a lot" of faith in Congress.  That's down from 42% in 1973.  Americans have a very good sense of what's going on, and of course equally what's not.  So Mark Leibovich, in his new book This Town, tells a story that somehow only confirms what we already know or fear.

The bottom line of Leibovich's tale is that Washington, whom everyone there refers to as "this town", is plagued by a deep-seated corruption (my words not his).  In the old days the word corruption conjured up an image of cash laden envelopes, which abounded across the land.  But this is corruption of a different kind, one that makes the other seem petty, if not inconsequential, in comparison.  In today's Washington, when work is done and "public service" is ended, few ex-office holders go home.  They stay and begin a second career, often as seven figure a year lobbyists.  That's good, because Washington is a money town and not having enough of it makes you an outsider.  If you have any doubt just ask the real locals who are struggling like so many Americans beyond "the beltway".

In a sense, there are two Washington’s — and that's probably always been true — one well-healed, well partied and well positioned; the other relatively anonymous and largely overlooked.  Leibovich writes of the former and few of those whose portrait he paints come off well.  It is a This Town that didn't suffer through the great recession but thrived, often feeding from the very trough of the nation's despair.  With bank and other interests at risk, lobbyists were super busy and former Senators and Congresspersons were in particular demand —particularly well paid.  And through all the despair, the lavish parties went on, for sure places to celebrate but equally, if not more so, to be seen, and to be noticed.

No where better or more suitable to make or renew connections than at an event like the late Tim Russert's memorial (with which Leibovich begins) or at the now overblown White House Correspondents Dinner.  That once modest get-together has now morphed into a star-studded extravaganza attended by Washington's elite and a large dose of national celebrities including the icons of Hollywood.  It is also a command performance of our presidents who are expected to show their lighter comedic side.  Leibovich tells us that Obama's act was threatened when it looked like the Special Forces might be moving in on Osama bin Laden on a Press Club Saturday night.  What a relief that the mission took place on the following day.  Next year's dinner will be on May 3rd, mark your calendar.

The pull of the rich and corrupt ways of This Town is powerful and almost no one, including the press, is immune from being sucked in.  Leibovich is careful to plead guilty.  They too, especially the big stars, are invited to the parties as the author was to one at Ben Bradley and Sally Quinn's Georgetown home — the bookend of Russert's memorial.  To be sure, they are often there to cover the moment, and they do, but we're a long way from the days when reporters, even the stars, often lived from paycheck to paycheck never straying far socially from their local bar.  This is a time when the likes of a Bob Woodward or Tom Friedman are more concerned about how to invest their riches than whether they'll have the ware with all to send their kids to college.  NBC's Andrea Mitchel, perhaps in part because she's married to Alan Greenspan, is part of the regular social scene, but she's hardly alone in that.

Leibovich's book as about what makes This Town tick and in the end it's all about wealth and, yes, greed.  He writes about today, but of course the character types and the motives he describes are not new to the place.  Tammy Haddad (a name you might not know) may be today's party major domo, but let's not forget the millionairess Pearl Mesta who in an earlier era was dubbed "The Hostess with the Mostess".  So, too, have their been ambitious Congressional staffers whose sheer chutzpa and ego got them into trouble.  Kurt Bardella (another unfamiliar name), whom the author describes as the "ankle-biting young flack for Representative Darrell Issa" epitomizes today's version.  There are, no doubt, countless others like him on the Hill and in across town.

We bemoan the fact that bi-partisanship has ceased to exist in Washington.  But have no fear.  In This Town former Democratic and Republican office holders routinely partner in big moneymaking lobby firms.  Covering all the bases, they are not dependent on which party is in control at any given time.  It's a new take on the recession-resistant business model.  And look for the senator who cries loudest about lobbyists and you're sure to find the fastest one to enter their fold.  Trent Lott, Evan Bayh and Chris Dodd are prime examples and Haley Barbour is one of the masters.  But perhaps no one really tops Bill Clinton.  Here is a man who didn't even own a home when entering the White House and now is a multi-millionaire.  While remaining a charismatic figure and doing many good things, his riches ultimately derive from having been president.  The veteran actor Dennis Haysbert tells us in his deep sonorous voice that "we're in good hands with Allstate".  Reading This Town sadly makes me feel that we are not in such great hands with the people running our national capital, in and especially out of office.

The oft-used adage that we have "the best government money can buy" runs much deeper than Citizens United and the big dollars spent on getting people to that town.  True, part of what we're seeing can be attributed to the fact that elected officials on the Hill continually need to raise funds for the next election, something that starts with their victory speech for the one just passed.  It is also sad but true that in some ways we're better served by an already super wealthy — a Michael Blumenthal or Darrell Issa — than the yet to be really rich people who now hold public office, elected or appointed.  Former retail magnate Herb Kohl didn't have to move into lobbying when he left the senate.  He already owned his soul, no need to sell it.

We need far more than election, tax or immigration reform in this country.  We need a fundamental reform of the system.  It's not only a matter that corruption prevails, but that it's so engrained that the players have forgotten what the word means.  Attribute it to money if you will, but a doing so is probably too simplistic. The fact is that the town that Leibovich so brilliantly paints is embodies massive conflicts of interest.  It is a way so embedded that it's hard to see a way out.  For sure, we would all like to see it change, but let's not hold our collective breath.  Don't ask why the bankers haven't gone to jail after 2008.  You know why and it's not pretty with plenty of guilt to spread around.  To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we don't move forward with the government we want, but with the we you have. Despite all claims to the contrary, bi-partisanship is alive and well in that town on the Potomac.  Don't expect that to change any time soon.