Notes of a Reporter at Large • 07-19-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 19 July 2012 16:06

Fear and Politics


By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s leader in the 19th century, was the first statesman to bring socialized medicine to Europe. In the 20th Century, American presidents – Theodore  Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and now Barack Obama – have more or less subscribed to the principle that the health of the people is the country’s most valuable resource. But here we are in the early years of the 21st Century and universal coverage is still beyond our reach.

What is within reach – unless Mitt Romney is elected president – is the Affordable Care Act – or Obamacare – which, as Bill Keller pointed out in Monday’s New York Times, delivers 30 million new customers to insurance companies. This part of the law doesn’t  go down well with liberals who wanted a strong public option or an expansion of Medicare. But, that said, it is a better deal than what millions of Americans have to contend with today.

In his article, Keller, who was executive editor of the Times for many years, takes apart the “myths” that Republican propaganda and right-wing punditry” have spread about the Affordable Care Act  or Obamacare – the name “critics have made into a slur.”

Perhaps the most frightening “myth” is  that “Obamacare is a job killer.” In taking note that the Republican House “staged” yet another “theatrical vote” to bury the Affordable Care Act, Keller points out that some of the “job-killer stories” were based “on a deliberate misreading of a Congressional Budget Office report that estimated the law would ‘reduce the amount of labor used in the economy’ by about 800,000 jobs.”

Keller, who read what the budget office actually wrote, reports that “while some low-wage jobs might be lost, the C.B.O. numbers mainly refers to workers who – being no longer so dependent on employers for their health-care safety net – may choose to retire earlier or work part time.” Those jobs, he adds, would be open to others in need of work.

What’s more, the experience under “Romneycare” in Massachusetts, the blue print for Obamacare, refutes the “jobs-killer” argument. Nonetheless, “after years of... alarmist falsehoods,” says Keller,  the president’s enemies have found a myth that seems to be playing well “with the fears of voters.”

Which reminds me that when I was a graduate student at Columbia’s school of journalism I interviewed James Farley for a school paper. It was in the early 1960s, the heyday of  television. Farley was one of the masterminds behind Franklin Roosevelt’s historic landslides in 1932 and 1936. I asked Farley whether television, had changed the message since the time of print and radio. Shaking his head, he said people voted their fears. The message remained the same.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 07-12-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 19 July 2012 15:04

In Search of the Real Nixon

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The lady Friend and I went down to Southern California to see the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. The Watergate tapes were the hook. Although the information was not news, Nixon remains an evergreen subject, not just for journalists and historians but for psychiatrists as well.

I was working at NBC in the Watergate years, 1972-4, so Watergate is still fresh for me. Years earlier in 1962 I’d interviewed Nixon when he came through Eureka when he was running for governor of California against Pat Brown. He reminded me of a traveling actor, a good one: Hamlet this afternoon, Richard III or Macbeth tonight. Politicians are actors; the best usually wind up in the highest offices.

Watergate began as an attempted burglary of Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., with the arrest of five agents of the Committee to Reelect Nixon. The date was June 17, 1972. The bungled break-in sparked a chain of discoveries over the next two years that was to unravel the worst political scandal in American history.

Nixon was in the Bahamas on the day of the break-in. Three days later on June 20 he was back in Washington meeting with his chief of staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman. It is the tape of this conversation where there is a mysterious 18 1⁄2-minute gap that experts concluded had been erased. You hear no voices, but buzzing and clicking. Your imagination does all the work.

In another excerpt from the tapes, Nixon is heard  complaining, “The government is full of Jews, and generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards.” He did, however, exempt Jews like Henry Kissinger and William Safire, the columnist.

Over a period of two years numerous offenses were linked to Nixon or  people acting in his name. One was an Enemies List which, according to a White House memo, was intended to use the federal bureaucracy to “screw our political enemies.” The CBS correspondent Daniel Shore was such a target, “a real media enemy.”

Nixon wondered what an agency (like the FBI or IRS, for example) was told when a request was made seeking confidential information on someone whose reputation the White House wanted destroyed. In Daniel Shore’s case it was, said the Nixon aide, that the journalist was being considered for a high administration post, the remark causing both men to chuckle.

In the end, Nixon acknowledged misleading the country after claiming he did not know of the cover-up until early 1973. A tape revealed that Nixon had been told of the White House connection soon after the burglaries occurred, and that he had OK’d a strategy to foil the investigation. Facing certain impeachment he stepped down on August 9, 1974, the first president to resign from the office. He died in 1994 at 81 after suffering a stroke.

A friend, who I’d told of my visit to the library, wrote to say, “Your search for the real Nixon was a quest that will never end for those who really care  about America.”

He had in mind, for example, that the same Nixon, who rose to power as a fierce anti-communist, journeyed to China in 1972 to begin the normalization of relations between China and the U.S. It was a trip no Democratic president could afford to make.

“What a strange bird he was,” my friend said of our 37th president.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 07-05-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 05 July 2012 11:23

The Typewriter

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

This column originally appeared on March 11, 2010

My trials with the computer are no secret among people who know me.

I am a displaced person from the age of typewriters who came kicking and screaming into cyberspace.

I have missed typewriters ever since computers took over the world. I am not, for example, like one old friend who ditched his typewriter the day he bought his first computer. In fact, I’ve kept an antiquated Olympia, a weighty table model, not as a writing machine but as a reminder of a simpler age.

The insecurity of the electronic miracle drives me nuts. The other day my printer was on the fritz. But if it’s not the printer, it’s the ink cartridge, or the screen, or the modem, or a short, or the wires, or a finger strays and presto! I’ve lost a document, weeks of work down the rabbit hole.

Saving on the hard disk is not security enough. Think power outages. So think CDs, or  SanDisk’s Cruzer Micro. The friend who made a gift of the latter says it’s a cinch to connect to the computer. And probably it is, but the Lady Friend and I are still figuring it out.

I’m telling you all this because after the printer failed I dropped in at an office equipment store that sells typewriters, old typewriters, to be sure.

“I just want to look at your typewriters. I don’t know if I’ll buy anything.”

“Take your time,” said a burly fellow who didn’t stir from a desk in a large room with all sorts of devices for business. “Take all the time you like.”

I liked the Smith Corona for $180 but I really liked the Olivetti for $250. But then I asked myself, why am I doing this? I’ll never use the typewriter. I’ll never give up the computer.

“I like the Olivetti,” I said. “But I need to sleep on it.” I hesitated, then wrote him a check on account for $50.

That night the printer was running again, and to my relief functioned flawlessly. In the morning I went back to the store lugging my old Olympia. The burly fellow fiddled with it a moment, then we bargained. In the end I wound up paying a few dollars off the listed price and left happy with the Olivetti.

When I got home I showed the typewriter to the Lady Friend. “It’s very nice,” she said. “But you’ll never use it.”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



Notes of a Reporter at Large • 06-28-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 28 June 2012 14:35

Of This ’n That

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

This column originally appeared on July 15, 2010

Manual labor was once honored, but in this day and age it is much demeaned and left to immigrants, legal, illegal, or whatever. Are we not in danger of becoming a nation of hedge funds, iPods, and hot air?)

* * *

When I went to high school more than 50 years ago a kid with a talent for working with his hands could look forward to a rewarding life, owning a home, and a vacation place and a boat, and looking forward to a comfortable retirement.. Nowadays those prospects seem quaint if not antediluvian.

* * *

And now to politics:

David Axelrod, a close adviser to Obama, has said the White House was not trying to shift blame with its frequent invocation of the “mess” it had inherited from George W. Bush, but to seek public patience for policies that may require months and in some cases years to pay dividends.

Said Axelrod, “Whatever problems he (Obama) inherited walking in the door, they’re his responsibility now. Nobody’s trying to duck responsibility or make excuses for them. But it is important at times to put it into perspective, not to fix blame but to underscore that some of these problems are complex and they’re going to take time to resolve.”

The Republicans shot back that blaming the guy who came before doesn’t work long. But in fact it has. The classic example is FDR. In 1936, when he was running for re-election, Roosevelt reminded voters of the sorry state the country was in when he took charge in the worst days of the “Great Hoover Depression.” Reminding voters of the failures of the Hoover years helped the Democrats keep possession of the White House for 20 years.

Taking his cue from FDR, Ronald Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter for passing on a lackluster economy in 1980. Bill Clinton  blamed his predecessor, the first president Bush, for the flat economy in 1992.

Obama has a case to make as good as FDR’s. The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of the middle and working classes, and giving Wall Street a pass to plunder, plus an unprovoked war, led the way to the historic deficits.

Now, less than two years since the 2008 election, the polls show Democrats, and the president, taking most of the heat for the slumping economy. It doesn’t add up. But the “Party of No” has cruelly and hypocritically exploited the misery of our times.

* * *

About the enactment of stronger reforms on Wall Street. Paul Volker, the former savvy Fed chairman, is concerned about the legislation, already approved by the House and likely to be approved soon by the Senate, and which Obama is ready to sign into law. Volker still thinks it gives banks too much room to finagle. Not a pretty thing to comtemplate.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 06-21-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 21 June 2012 15:22

Romney on the Defensive

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I got up early Sunday morning because I wanted to hear what Mitt Romney would say about the president’s order to stop deporting some young immigrants, an estimated 800,000, who came to the U.S. as children.

A lot of people, myself included, don’t think Obama has suddenly gone soft on illegals. In the more than three years that he has been in the White House, he has deported more than 1.1 million immigrants, the most by any president since the 1950s, according to the New York Times. But with less than five months before an election believed to be close, the president must have felt that his immigration policies risked chilling Latino enthusiasm. So he acted to keep this growing bloc of voters solidly on his side.

In courting the far right of his  party during the Republican primary debates, Romney declared that, if elected,  he would veto the so-called Dream Act, a path to citizenship for young immigrants who go to college or serve in the military. Romney sounded then as flinty as the most reactionary of his rivals. But, as they say that was then. On “Face the Nation,” when Bob Shaeffer reminded him of  his promise,  the former Massachusetts governor hedged:

“With regards to these kids who were brought in by their parents through no fault of their own, there needs to be a long-term solution so they know what their status is.”

He also said, ”What the president  did – he should have worked on this years ago. If he felt seriously about this, he should have taken action when he had a Democratic House and Senate, but he didn’t. He saves these sort of things until four and a half months before the general election”

Not quite true. As the Times noted, the president supported passage of the Dream Act in 2010, but it was blocked by Senate Republicans.

His advisers have said that Romney is likely to make his position on immigration known when he speaks  to a conference of elected and appointed Latino officials in Florida on Thursday. For the moment, Obama – who speaks to the same group after Romney – seems to have the upper hand in this debate, with Romney on the defensive.

Even so, on “Face the Nation,” Romney had the chutzpah to decry the president’s move on immigration as pure politics.

In the endless season of Republican debates the former Massachusetts governor vilified the Dream Act time and again, asserting that if he got to be president, it would be history. But Romney was not challenged in the interview, and I think an opportunity was missed. This was the first time that Romney had agreed to an interview on network television with a broadcasting company other than Fox News.

As it turned out, the most arresting moment of the show may have been when Schieffer mentioned the success of a dressage horse that Romney’s wife, Ann,  co-owns – that is a horse trained in obedience and precision movement. It won a place on the U.S. Olympic team.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 06-14-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 14 June 2012 14:54

Is the Supreme Court Necessary?

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The Supreme Court is not very popular with Americans, according to a recent New York Times and CBS News poll. Just 44 per cent say the court is doing a good job. Three-quarters say the decisions the justices make are “influenced by their personal or political views.” In the late 1980s approval was as high as 66 percent. (Warren Berger and William Rehnquist were the chief justices in that period). By 2000 approval had dropped to nearly 50 percent.

The Times speculates that the decline in the court’s standing may reflect in part the public’s growing skepticism with regard to big business and government. The fall in favor may be due as well to a sense that the court has been notably political since ruling 5-4 in the 2000 presidential election in favor of George W. Bush over Al Gore. The 2010 decision in Citizens United ruled 5-4 that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting political expenditures by corporations and unions.

The Citizen United decision  changed the rules.

Thanks to that grotesque decision a rising flood of money was uncapped to outside political groups, changing politics as we have known it. Campaigning is longer now and more intense for many races, not just for the presidency. The super PACs, a consequence of Citizens United, are free to mount attack ads that were once the responsibility of candidates. The people in the PACS making the decisions are consultants and wealthy donors with no obligation to report, explain or justify anything they do. In sum, the public interest be damned.

Think about it. Because of Citizens United an increasing number of those mapping campaign strategy –  Republican and Democrat — need not  be tied to the career or philosophy, of a candidate. They are only answerable to the tycoons who are answerable to no one.

As a Republican consultant put it, “If you’re a top consultant today, you’d much rather have a presidential super PAC than a presidential campaign.” Because of Citizens United super PACs can accept unlimited contributions which are off limits to political parties and candidates.

We expect to hear from the court again, as early as this month. It may move to overturn some or all of the 2010 health care law. The court may also decide the fate of an Arizona immigration law that in part requires police to check the status of immigrants they stop or arrest.

In all this I am reminded of what Theodore Roosevelt once said: Important public questions should not be left up to the Supreme Court but debated by the people and decided in a plebiscite. If we had had such a vote in 2000, we wouldn’t have had 8 years of George W. Bush who, we later learned, had lost the election by a majority.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 06-07-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 07 June 2012 14:35

The News from Wisconsin

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Many watched Tuesday (a) to see whether labor was able to muster enough support to recall a governor in Wisconsin who cut collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s public workers and (b) as a sign of how the presidential race will turn out in the fall. President Obama easily won this so-called Midwestern battleground in 2008 – but Republicans bounced back  in the 2010 midterm elections.

Although Obama made known his support for  Tom Barrett, the Democratic mayor of  Milwaukee, who opposed Governor Scott Walker in the recall election, he kept his distance. He did not make an appearance when union members and their supporters demonstrated for days at the state capitol, to the disappointment of some Democrats. Nor did he dispatch top figures in the administration to represent him.

Wisconsin signaled a problem for Obama. In a piece just before the election, The New York Times pointed out that Wisconsin voted for Democrats in every presidential election since 1988, “but the margins have sometimes been remarkably slim, and the recall election has led independents and Republicans who voted for Mr. Obama four years ago to take sides.” He needs their votes in November and may not have wanted “to alienate them by stepping conspicuously into the fight,” the paper said.

But prominent out-state Democrats came into the state and campaigned for the Milwaukee mayor, most recently former president Bill Clinton on Friday. A former U.S. senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold who was defeated two years ago in the resurgent Republican sweep, characterized the election as a referendum as well “for the rights of workers across this country and frankly for the Democratic party, for President Obama – they all have a stake in this.”

As unions have dwindled in size, so has the income gap widened between the 1% and rest of  the country. In the 1950s nearly 40 percent of workers were covered by union contracts. In the past 40 or more years advances in technology, globalization and off-shoring have contributed to the decline and fall of labor unions.

Ronald Reagan did his part in 1981 when he fired the striking air controllers. That sent a message to business that the government had changed the rules – government no longer protected unions – for industry it was open season, which, it has been, ever since, as Joe Nocera wrote in his Times column on Monday.

Today unions represent 12 percent of the work force.

Now that Walker won the Battle for Wisconsin, we can wonder if president Obama now regrets his decision to stay away? We wonder, too, if he’ll ever cite Ronald Reagan as a role model as he has in the past.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 05-31-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 31 May 2012 14:58

Time to Give ’em Hell

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Sprinting across the country for money and votes, the president is working around the clock to win back the hope he inspired  four years ago. Recently when Obama came on stage to deliver his stump speech at the Fox Theater in Redwood City he was in the 18th hour of a 19-hour day, according to the New York Times.

“He is running against himself as much as Mitt Romney, or rather two versions of himself – one the radical ruining the country conservatives see, and the other the savior of the country he promoted last time around and has struggled  to live up to,” the paper said

The Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. wants Obama to stick to the hustings but change the strategy as in “Give ’em hell, Barack!” Dionne says Obama should take a page from Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign book by running against the  “do nothing” Republican Congress of our own day.

Truman had it tough, maybe tougher than our first black president who has exceeded 50 percent only once in two years in New York Times/CBS News polls. Sixty-four years ago the Democratic party was torn apart - southerners bolted and formed a Dixiecrat party with a presidential candidate of their own. Lefties, taking the name Progressive, departed as well and nominated a former vice president as their champion.

The polls said New York’s Republican governor Thomas E. Dewey would be an easy winner. But Truman didn’t let up, traveling the country by train, making whistle stops and lambasting the “Republican do-nothing 80th congress” along the way. In November he scored an historic upset, defeating Dewey by a 114-electoral vote margin.

As Truman was setting out on his journey he said, “It will be the greatest campaign any president ever made. Win, lose, or draw, people will know where I strand.”

“What Truman taught,” wrote Dionne “is that Americans would rather see a president with the strength to fight than a politician with such sensitive sensibilities that he leaves all the tough stuff to others.”

In his biography of our 33rd president, David McCullough wrote, “No president in history had ever gone so far in quest of support from the people, or with less cause for the effort, to judge by informed opinion. Nor would any presidential candidate ever again attempt such a campaign by railroad.”

The train is not the way to go in 2012, but the issue’s the same and as timely as when Harry Truman rode the rails and, as McCullough put it, “would reveal the kind of man he was.”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 05-24-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 24 May 2012 13:39

Living History

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In the waiting room at the doctor’s the other day I struck up a conversation with a gentleman who took note of my sweat shirt which said Maine and wondered if I was from back there? 

In some respects I said I was. I’d spent a lot of time there, relatives and friends still lived there, though I grew up near Boston. It turned out he was a retired professor of history, which was my favorite subject in school, as it is to this day. The doctor was behind schedule and we got to talk awhile. When we parted we exchanged e-mails and promised to stay in touch.

At supper that night I told the Lady Friend of meeting the professor and said, “I think I’ve found a friend, someone I can talk to.”

“Why was he so interested in your Maine jersey?” the Lady Friend asked.

“Every summer he and his wife fly out there and live on a small island, not far from Bar Harbor. They get around by boat, shop on the mainland for groceries. They love the peace and quiet.”

In a quiet voice, she asked, “Where do they live in the Bay Area?”

I dug out the professor’s card from my wallet and gave it to her.

She glanced at the card, then looked up. “But we know this man. We met him and his wife at a dinner party.”

“Is that possible?”

It’s better than possible. There can’t be two different couples living in the same town who spend summers on an island in Maine.” In fact, she said, we’d met the professor and his wife about two years ago at the home of one of the Lady Friend’s oldest friends. The evening was not memorable except for a brief clash between the Lady Fried and the professor. The subject was politics, a topic, like religion, usually avoided between strangers in such circumstances. The Lady Friend and the professor saw the world pretty much through the same liberal lens but when the focus shifted to the Tea Party it didn’t seem so.

They’re just plain stupid, declared the Lady Friend.

“No, they’re not,” the professor fired back. “They know exactly what they’re doing.”

An awkward moment passed before cheerful talk picked up again. But there was no further dialogue between those two the rest of the night.

Looking back, the Lady Friend said she was not saying Tea Party members didn’t know what they were doing, but that they were working against their own self-interest.

Looking ahead, I was wondering if the professor and his wife were having the same conversation at their house, and wondering if I’ll ever see my “new friend” again.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 05-17-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 17 May 2012 14:02

The White House Lays an Egg

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I didn’t buy the explanation promoted by the White House and spread last week by the New York Times that vice president Biden “forced” the president to announce that his position  on same-sex marriage had finally “evolved.”

In what the paper described as a “hastily scheduled television interview thrust on the White House” by Biden’s loose tongue on “Meet the Press,”  the president ended  days of “frenzied will-he-or-won’t-he expectations” by “taking a stand” on the issue. No longer can there be any doubt. Obama is four-square for same-sex marriages.

But rather than a spontaneous move by Obama to assert presidential leadership, and excite the young, the gay and  the liberal base, the week played out in the end as political theatre. As Variety might have said, the administration laid an egg.

It was improbable theatre casting this president and this vice president  at odds over gay unions this close to a national election.

So how did the show play? A New York Times and CBS News poll published Tuesday found voters “dubious of Obama’s step on gay marriage.” Voters rejected the view that the president was motivated by principle, not politics, when he declared his support for same-sex marriage. A wide margin – 67 percent of those surveyed – believed Obama made the move “mostly for political reasons.” Twenty-four percent said he made it because “he thinks it is right.” Independents said it was politics. Nearly half of Democrats thought the same.

“If Biden hadn’t said something, I don’t think he (the president) would have said anything, either,” remarked an independent. Another independent believed the president decided more Americans approve of same-sex marriage. “In other words, say what the majority of people want to hear,” she said.

Same-sex marriage was not a big issue with most voters (only 7 percent said it was most important to them) while the economy and jobs were most important to the majority (62 percent). However, the sampling kindled anxiety in the White House. Voters were skeptical of the reported sequence of events leading to the president’s announcement. More calculated than principled was not an image any administration would wish to take into an election.

A month ago a Times/CBS News survey showed Obama and Mitt Romney tied at 46 percent each. The latest poll gave the lead to Romney, 46  to the president’s 43. The presumptive Republican nominee was yesterday’s moderate, today’s radical conservative and tomorrow’s who-knows-what?

Politics, it’s scary.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 05-10-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 11 May 2012 15:19

The ‘Tchotchke’ Challenge

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I have the intention of getting rid of six decades or more of  accumulated stuff around the house. But I procrastinate, find it hard to get going, and parting with old newspapers, letters, articles, books, files, clothing I haven’t worn for years, bric-a-brac and whatnot, stuff the Lady Friend intolerably calls junk.

My inspiration comes by way of Jane E. Brody, the indispensable personal health columnist, for the New York Times. My late wife was a Brody fan as is the Lady Friend. In a May 1 article, Brody reported “significant  progress” in her effort to rid her home and herself of “a half-century of everything from papers, books and files to packing material and shopping bags.”

Brody’s inspiration came by way of Robin Zasio, the author of “The Hoarder in You,” a book she describes as “very practical,” and  Barry Dennis,  a motivational speaker, and the author of a book about the challenge from “tchotchkes.”

“Tchotchke” is an Anglicized spelling and an expanded definition of the Yiddish word which refers to “trinket or knickknack” – stuff that piles up, a nuisance, gets out of hand, takes up space, gets in the way, bogs a person down physically and mentally.

Dennis cites as “tchotchkes” things many people might never have included like CDs and DVDs, equipment  that people no longer watch or listen to. Laptops, iPads and smart phones are not outside the pale. Brody muses, “I wonder what people did on vacation before we had this plethora of electronic equipment keeping us ‘in touch’ 24/7”?

E-mail has its advantages but, Brody asserts, “when it takes the place of talking with people face to face or on the phone, something essentially human about communication is lost – a tone of voice, a laugh, a sigh, a grimace or a smile.”

Brody maintains lightening one’s physical load can brighten the mind and lift the spirit.”

Dennis, the author, cautions people to give serious thought before they buy anything. “Everything we bring into our lives, we will eventually have to get rid of, and that is much, much harder to do than bringing it in.”

I make no promises but the moment does seem right for me to begin to rid the house of years of  my accumulated stuff.  For all their sound and fury, Obama and Romney are still shadowboxing. No solid punches. So I have time to attend  to matters closer to home – unless Obama and Romney get in the way.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 05-03-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 03 May 2012 11:43

Everybody Poops

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Maine, a forestry professor – he was also a cousin – knowing of my interest in writing, wondered why people in the novels he’d ever read never went to the toilet. They maim, murder, mate and so on – but rarely if ever is there a word said about the one activity all humanity has in common, day in and day out.

The Lady Friend shook her head. There’s a popular children’s book, “Everybody Poops,” that’s been around for years, she said. It’s about animals and people and how they do their business. She’d read it with one of her grandchildren when he was small. “We both loved it and learned a lot,” she remembered.

But the Lady Friend, a relentless reader of fiction, cannot cite an instance in the procession of characters that has moved across her pages over the years where a character has ever paused to poop.

I would not have brought this up except for my own recent experience. Although I’ve been OK I am  piling up the years. It’s been four scores and four years ago since I joined the human comedy. My doctor thought it time to have a closer look, and ordered up a battery of lab tests, including one that would replace a colonoscopy, a sample deposit of poop.

Dutifully, I visited the lab where I was given a kit to take a sample collection.

At home I followed the directions, placed the supplied collection paper inside the toilet bowl on top of the water – sat down and waited. Nothing. Less than a minute passed – and the paper sank under the water.

“Do you suppose a newspaper would work better?” I asked the Lady Friend,

“You can try,” she said.

On second thought we decided the ink on the newspaper might ruin the test – to say nothing of clogging the toilet. The medics must know what they’re doing. I placed another collection paper inside the bowl hoping for a miracle. But my best efforts went for naught, again.

Humbled and ashamed, I returned to the lab the next day. Without a word of reproach, the techs handed me another kit. This time I was determined not to be intimidated. I’ve heard many people don’t go through with the exercise. They may not want to know what’s inside their colons or they may shrink from scooping poop.

Be that as it may, the following day I returned in triumph to the lab.

It’s true that everybody poops – novels notwithstanding – but not always on demand.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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