But We Didn’t Call It Christmas PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 26 December 2014 14:20


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

(I’ve told this story before but I like to think of it as a Christmas Carol for the holiday season.)

My mother came to this country in the early years of the last century from Lithuania where Jewish people lived pent-up in ghettos and where she knew little of the outside world. Her worst nightmares, which continued into old age, were of the Russian police swooping down on her neighborhood on horseback, ransacking stalls, shops and houses and attacking innocent people.

She was eleven when she arrived here, speaking no English, knowing nothing at all about the strange, new land called America. The third of eight immigrant children, she was inspired by the progressives of the day, led by Theodore Roosevelt, a man ahead of his time, and perhaps of our own as well.

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans,” Theodore Roosevelt said. We were all one people, newcomers and native-born alike.

The openness of the new country won her confidence. She was eager to be accepted, taken as just another American.

When her boat docked at Ellis Island she had no birth certificate, no legal document attesting to a date of birth. 

The world was a lot looser then. People moved about with far fewer restrictions than they do today. The immigration officers could not spell most of the strange names, let alone pronounce them; so they gave people new names.

Once she was settled in Boston with her family, my mother took note of the fuss made over the Christmas holiday, saw the world around her take on new life with evergreen trees decorated with lights and ornaments, department store windows a profusion of color and fantasy, people singing carols, and on Christmas morning children setting out in a town blanketed in snow, with shiny new boots ands coats, caps and sweaters and skates and sleds, and all because of Christmas.

But my mother’s family didn’t celebrate Christmas. Her father was ultra orthodox, a fan of Teddy Roosevelt to be sure, but he would have raised hell, fire and damnation if my mother or any of his children dared commit such a sacrilege.

And so my mother faced a quandary. She wanted to honor her father but she wanted to be in step with the rest of her splendid new country, especially on this most wondrous of days.

And so it came to pass that my mother resolved her problem by taking December 25 for her birthday. That’s how she got around the taboo, and got her presents and parties on this special day. But we never called it Christmas. Not even after my grandfather died. Not ever, not in all my mother’s years, and she lived to a ripe age of eighty-seven.

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 .

Lessons from My Grandmother PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 18 December 2014 14:05


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Sometimes when I go to the movies and love scenes heat up the screen I think of my grandmother or Bobbe, as we called her in Yiddish. I hear her, complaining, “Mine gelt (money) is in hell, American gonifs (thieves, crooks).” In other words the moviemakers were stealing her purse.

In my grandmother’s philosophy romantic love was hokum, devised  to rob a simple-minded public of its hard-earned money.

She’d had a hard life, raised eight children in a household where money was scarce, and everyone worked. My grandfather eked out a living as a mohel, the man who circumcises the male baby in a religious ritual eight days after birth.

When Bobbe went to the movies she wanted excitement, action, above all a good story. The love scenes were cheats, giving audiences nonsense while the movemakers made off with your wallet.

She taught me lessons of life: memorably question what you see. It’s almost never the whole story.

One day when we were in the park she pointed out a couple in passing. They walked far apart. After they went on, she said, “They’re married.”

“How do you know?” I asked

“I know,” she said.

A short while later we passed an adoring couple clinging like ivy.

“Now those people, they’re not married,” she said.

To this day when I pass couples distant or intimate I’m likely to venture a status to the Lady Friend..

“But how do you know?” she challenges.

“I know,” I say. “My grandmother told me.”

When I recently saw the movie, “Amelia,” with Hilary Swank and Richard Gere, I caught myself hearing my grandmother. Although Swank does a great job portraying Amelia Earhart, the moviemakers made away with my money. Too much time was spent on sex and not enough on the story. Earhart, a pioneewring aviator, was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1928, a time, as the Washington Post noted, “when a lot of women didn’t drive.”

A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Earhart inspired Mrs. Roosevelt to travel by air. In 1933, early in FDR’s presidency, a party including Eleanor flew over Washington with Amelia. It caused the New York Times to report, “The First Lady of the Land and the first woman to fly the (Atlantic Ocean) went skylarking together tonight in a big Condor plane.”

It’s in the history books, but you won’t find it and a good deal more in “Amelia,” the movie.

As my Bobbe would have said, “Mine gelt is in hell. American gonifs.”

This column originally appeared on December 10, 2009.

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 .

Hard Times PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 11 December 2014 15:31


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

I’m thinking of a time in the late 1950s when my wife and I were living through  an economic recession of our own. We were living off the charity of her mother in Salem, Oregon. Some months before, I’d quit my newspaper job in California and taken my bride to Mexico. Like many aspiring writers before and after, I was going to write the Great American Novel. Hemingway could eat his heart out.

In the end, we had little to show for our enterprise; and, with our savings gone, we sheepishly made our way back to the States, wounded in spirit and dead broke.

I had to find a job. Newspaper work was scarce around Salem. Things got so bleak that I was willing to try my soft hands at manual labor. My wife was too frail for the job market. She’d recently had emergency surgery for a ruptured tubular pregnancy.

One day I spotted an opening at a downtown gas station. I  knew next to nothing about cars, except for checking the oil, and changing a tire. But the station manager wasn’t looking for a mechanic. He wanted someone he could trust on the graveyard shift —midnight to eight — someone to keep honest books.

Although he conceded I fit the bill, he refused to hire me.

By way of explanation, he said, “You’re overqualified. You’ve been to college.”

He didn’t understand why a fellow who’d been to a university would want to work in a filling station.

But I pressed. He heard my sorry plight and, probably to shut me up, gave me the job.

The station belonged to a chain that only sold gas and oil. No maintenance, no repairs, no tune up. The draw was a gift shop. For every gallon of gas purchased, a customer “earned” a coupon. Over time, one could accumulate enough coupons to arrive home with a winsome doll, or showy train or sparkling piece of jewelry.

Some people were in such a hurry to leave after they’d stopped for gas that they waved me off when I approached with their stamps. “Keep ‘em,” they said. And I did. A few others never wanted them. Before long I had a pile of coupons. How to dispose of them?

As day would break, a baker and a fellow from a paper mill showed up within an hour of each other. They filled their tanks and always reached out for the coupons. The baker was saving for that winsome doll. The fellow from the mill wanted the sparkling jewelry.

I don’t remember who thought of it, but the three of us eventually worked out a bartering arrangement. I began giving them my “free” coupons. In return, the baker brought me fresh bread from his ovens and the man from the mill reams of white paper. The baker’s fare eased the budget at home, and the reams of paper helped keep me writing.

The barter system — something to keep in mind in hard times.

This column originally appeared on Oct. 16, 2008. 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 .

November 19, 1927 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 20 November 2014 15:50


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

I was born in Boston November 19, 1927, the day of the perennial Harvard-Yale game. I know this because my father was at the stadium. No Harvard grad (a year or so at some cockamamie business school was as far as he got) but everybody living in Boston then rooted for the Crimson Tide. It came with the territory.

Calvin Coolidge was in the White House. Silent Cal they called him and for good reason. He was a president who took pride in doing as little as possible. His greatest fan was Ronald Reagan. When Coolidge died, Dorothy Parker is reputed to have said, “How can they tell?”

Herbert Hoover followed Coolidge. Hoover’s White House years were from March 4, 1929 to March 4, 1933. Hoover got beat badly when he ran for re-election but I was five years old and all I can remember is that my parents were rabid Republicans. My father, a flooring contractor, believed the Republicans really cared about the small businessman; my mother, bless her heart, was a snob.

In the 1936 election when Alf Landon, the governor of Kansas lost in a hopeless contest with Franklin Roosevelt, my mother confessed to me she had voted Democratic. After swearing me to secrecy, she said she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Landon. He was too ordinary. For all his faults Roosevelt was at least an aristocrat.

I came of age, politically speaking, in the age of Roosevelt, no secret to anyone who has ever gone to the trouble of reading this column. Radio was in its heyday and FDR its master. On almost any night that he was on the air, you could walk the quarter mile of Beals Street and not miss a beat. He was in office so long – twelve years –  through  the Great Depression and the Second World War – that it was hard to accept the fact that he was no more on April 12, 1945.

His successor, Harry Truman, was unpopular during most of his time in the White House. Hardly anyone expected him to win in 1948 when he faced New York governor Thomas E. Dewey. But he did win in an upset and has continued to grow in the esteem of historians and the public.

I didn’t vote for Eisenhower (Stevenson was my man) but Ike was an able supreme commander in World War Two and, in hindsight, a pretty good president.

Kennedy never lived long enough, and we’ll never know how he might have done. Johnson was a brilliant politician but he felt insecure following the glamorous Kennedy. Nixon was a brilliant fellow, too, but insecurity also made him his own worst enemy.

Most of you must be old enough to figure out the rest on your own.

But I do want to say that while I would like President Obama to show more spine on Wall Street, jobs and health care, it is remarkable enough that the country has matured to the point when it can elect a non-white president.

As for how old I am today, November 19, 2009, you do the math. I can’t deal with it.

This column first appeared on Nov. 19, 2009.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York.

After the Deluge PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 13 November 2014 15:42


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Stephen Colbert, the political satirist, published one of his occasional letters in the New York Times. This one came on the heels of last week’s election.

“In a slightly parallel universe,” he wrote, “it would be interesting to see how Democratic senators would have fared if instead of running from President Obama, they had embraced this leader who saved the country from another depression; saved the auto industry; brought unemployment down from 10 percent to below 6 percent; killed America’s greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden; passed health insurance reform; and put out constant fires.

“If instead of embracing the flawed media narration of a failed presidency,” Colbert added, “Democratic senatorial candidates had embraced Mr. Obama’s monumental accomplishments, I believe they would be returning to Washington next year as senators, not as lobbyists.”

In fact, five of the senatorial candidates Obama campaigned for in the last days of the election lost. Four others won, all in blue states.

From the beginning I thought Obama was too willing to compromise on reforming health care with Republicans whose goal was to cripple his presidency. Some days I wanted to see Obama take a punch and give one or two in return. But it wasn’t his style. The country may not have been up to it.

American democracy is still a work in progress. Sometimes Obama talked too long but it was in the tradition of some of his celebrated predecessors. The story is told about  a visitor who had an appointment to see Theodore Roosevelt at the White House.  He came out looking dazed. A friend asked what he’d told the president.  He never got the chance. “I told him my name,” he said. “And he talked for an hour.”

*   *   *

When Obama was elected president on November 7, 2008 it really did seem like morning in America. The headline in the New York Times the next day cried out: “Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.” The story from the Times’ Adam Nagourney’s said:

Obama’s election “swept away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease as the country chose him as its first black chief executive. The election of Mr. Obama amounted to a national catharsis – a repudiation of a historically unpopular Republican president (George W. Bush) and his economic and foreign policies and an embrace of Mr. Obama’s call for change and the direction and the tone of the county.”

It seems like a half-century ago when I read the piece, but it really was only yesterday.

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 .

The Fading Humanities PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 06 November 2014 15:39


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

It’s not Iran, nor health care, nor immigration, nor even the loss of liberty in the name of security – it’s  none of these – and yet,  it is as worrisome an issue as any of the others, maybe more so.

It’s the loss of interest in the humanities. The most popular major at Stanford, one of the country’s most prestigious colleges, is computer science. There are no longer any humanities programs among the school’s most popular five, according to a recent report in the New York Times.

The economy has a great deal to do with it. The recession has helped turn college into vocational training. Students, like most of us, have cause to worry where their future is coming from. Only 15 percent of Stanford students are enrolled in the humanities.”  At the same time nearly half of the faculty teaches literature, philosophy, art, etc.

How representative is Stanford? Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, a public institution, said in September it was closing degree programs in German, philosophy, and languages and culture because of scant interest. Over the last decade, Harvard had a 20 percent drop in humanities majors and, “most students who say they intend to major in humanities end up in other fields,” noted the Times.

A big part of the picture has to do with the push from the White House to build up scientific productivity. Every other day, or so it seems, the president calls for more money for science and technology. No surprise that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is complaining that it is being taken for a stepchild. Its federal funding is decreasing.

While interest has been fading in the humanities at elite schools like Stanford, its professors, we learn, are producing important scholarship. They are “generously” paid, work in “stunning surroundings” and have “access to the latest technology and techniques of scholarship,” the Times said, adding, “The only thing they lack is students.”

Pauline Yu is president of the American Council of Learned Societies. She complains, “College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person.”

Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, also complains about hearing academics talking about the necessity of preparing students for jobs. “I think that’s conceding too quickly,” he said to the paper. “We’re not a feeder for law school; our job is to help students learn to question.”

Although the University of Virginia was down to 394 English majors last year from 501 when he came to the school in 1984, Edmundson  does not fear for the future. “In the end, we can’t lose,” he said. “We have William Shakespeare.”

Maybe. But if interest in the humanities continues to fade at places like Stanford and Harvard, and elsewhere, a nation of techies may well ask, “Shakespeare Who?”

This column originally appeared on Nov. 28, 2013. 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 .

What do the People Want? PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 30 October 2014 14:55


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

What do the people want? What would they have? Is the country in such straits, so impoverished in intellect and innovation, imagination and talent, as to be ready to deliver the presidency to yet another family dynasty? Did the wrong side win the Revolutionary War? As Patrick Henry, the orator and a major figure of the American Revolution, might have said: Is this the way for a democratic society to go? Perish the thought!

In Monday’s New York Times we are informed that the Bushes are rallying to make brother Jeb the 45th president. The family believes it’s  Jeb’s turn.

He was a two-term Florida governor who made way for George W., an older brother, to be president when George W. gave up drinking, and was elected governor of Texas. The White House was his reward. After serving two terms as president, George W. left the White House quietly in the wake of the mess in Iraq he left for the rest of us.

George Herbert Walker Bush, the founder of the family dynasty, is 90. He was the 41st president, after being Ronald Reagan’s vice president in the 1980s. He’d lasted only one-term as president. Elected in 1988, he was defeated by Bill Clinton in ’92 – in large part with the help of  Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who ran as an independent. Perot may have helped elect Clinton. He  made it clear he was no fan of George H.W. Bush.

The Clintons, Bill and Hillary, are hard at work making their Democratic dynasty. If Hillary does decide to run and if she is the nominee of her party  and if she is elected  (lots of “ifs”) you might be able to say that the Clintons might  be  the first since the Roosevelts to be in residence at the White House for  more than 12  years. Speaking of dynasties!

*    *    *

We learned last weekend of the death of the astrologer Joan Quigley on Tuesday, October 21, at her home in San Francisco. She was 87, according to her sister Ruth Quigley, and only survivor.

Joan Quigley  was an astrologer who had access to Nancy Reagan with advice for President Reagan on “summit meetings presidential debates, Reagan’s 1985 cancer surgery and much more,” according to the Times, quoting from an 1988 memoir by Donald T. Regan, a former Reagan chief of staff.

Regan, the ex-chief of staff, did not know the astrologer’s name when he wrote the book, but he said the Vassar-educated Quigley – made her celestial recommendations  in phone calls to the first lady, sometimes as often as two or three a day. Regan had also been Reagan’s Treasury secretary and the chief executive of Merrill Lynch.

In an interview with CBS News in 1989, after Reagan left office, Miss Quigley said that after reading the horoscope of the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, she decided he was open to compromise and new ideas and persuaded Mrs. Reagan to urge her husband to abandon his view of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” There’s no evidence to support her claim but arms reduction treaties did follow.

In his memoir, “For the Record, from Wall Street to Washington,’  Regan discusses his disagreements with Nancy Reagan, including the claim that Nancy’s personal astrologer, Joan Quigley, helped steer the president’s decisions to some degree.

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 .

Still Going Strong at 90 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 23 October 2014 14:56


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

This may be something for the Guiness Book of Records. A colleague of long-ago is still chasing the news at 90. I’m sure there are a dwindling few who are still at it at 90 or older but probably not at Gabe’s pace.

I  knew the indefatigable Gabe Pressman, New York’s premier street reporter. He, along with Mike Wallace, and some others when the medium was young, more or less invented the “gotcha” or surprise interview. With cameras rolling they barged in on  key figures, asking questions; fearlessly sometimes but often boorishly and foolishly.

A dark, short, frenetic man with darting, coal-black eyes he was one of the first to venture forth with a camera crew and a microphone to interview the man/woman on the street concerning the latest natural disaster, or crime wave, or political heist. Street reporters like Gabe had to press fast to keep up with the competition from  rival stations. All day, if not every hour,  bulletins or flashes  gave people something new to worry about. Journalists like Gabe had need to keep up with every twist and turn of the story.

For a few years I produced his late night news show at WNBC in New York. It’s hard to know when Gabe slept. If the story were big enough he was up at all hours. He must have slept with his clothes on, another way of saying this newsman had only to spring out of bed, jump in his car (the station hired a car and driver for him) and raced off into the night to get the story.

During those years my phone at home would start ringing at 7 ayem. My wife and I knew only one early caller. It was always Gabe, wanting to be reassured. Did he get the story? Was he too tough or not tough enough? Honestly, how did he come across? I always said that his was a bravo performance. And so would began another day in local news.

Thanks to an e-mail from a New York friend, I caught a reference to Gabe in a story about New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio. Gabe’s name was in the first sentence: “For a moment, the newsman Gabe Pressman caught Mayor Bill de Blasio’s eye on Fifth Avenue during the Columbus Day parade this week. Mr. Pressman, 90, has about 60 years of experience flagging down politicians during parades and public events. ‘I thought I saw an invitation in his eyes to ask a question,’ said Mr. Pressman, who reports for WNBC-TV. ‘But then there was a scrum, a lot of pushing and shoving.’”

The mayor and his wife, Chirlane McCray, “were swept along by security and for the next 25 blocks, reporters – not including Mr. Pressman – pursued, but were kept away.” Gabe knew better than to waste his time in vain.

The first time I met Gabe I was a journalism student at Columbia. It was

November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was shot. “How do you feel?” he said, importuning homeward bound commuters. “You’ve heard the news. The president’s been assassinated. How do you feel?’

How do you feel?

I was appalled, thinking that’s not digging for a story, that’s child’s stuff.

Looking back fifty years later I can see where Gabe’s approach made sense. He instinctively knew that TV, at its core, was theatre, an ideal conduit for conveying emotions, as well as information.

It was good to know that Gabe was still going strong.

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 .

‘Pay Any Price’ PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 16 October 2014 15:16


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

In his new book, “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War,” James Risen, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter for the New York Times, makes a case that the untold story behind the war on terror during the past 13 years has been about greed, costing billions in taxpayer dollars. Risen traces the long-range consequences to  American leaders run amuck after the  9/11attacks.

In a Times review by Thomas E. Ricks, a former reporter at the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and an adviser on national security at the new America Foundation, “Pay Any Price” takes us “into an unsettled noirish world in which scam artists and thieves swarm government agencies, peddling phony software and other novel tools for the war against terror.”

According to Ricks, the Times reviewer, Risen claims the Bush White House was “throwing money at the terrorist problem, and plenty of people were willing to catch bundles.”

Risen told Judy Woodruff on the News Hour on Monday, that he took the title of his book from John Kennedy’s Inaugural delivered in the time of the Cold War. In the speech, on January 20, 1962, Kennedy declared, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The rhetoric has served the purposes of presidents ever since.

I haven’t gotten around to Risen’s new book yet, but I have long been following his  reporting for the Times. He comes across as mild-mannered on the air, but in print he is one of the toughest investigative reporters around. His last book was “State of War”  published in 2006. The government reportedly tried to suppress it, but the author made it to “60 Minutes.”

“If we...had only had information that was officially authorized from the U.S. government,” he has said, “we would know virtually nothing about the war on terror.”

On the News Hour, Risen was asked if there was a parallel in history to our own time when the national security agency looks into our private lives in defiance of the U.S. Constitution? Risen said yes, referring to the  days of  Senator Joseph McCarthy. In the early 1950s, McCarthy made sensational but unproved charges of communist subversion in high government circles.

I was a young reporter in those times up in Eureka and I can say he was a frightening figure. Friends of mine believed McCarthy’s lies about a communist conspiracy inside the Eisenhower White House, State Department and Army. It seemed as if the world had gone to the dogs, howling outside the door.

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 .

The More the World Changes PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 09 October 2014 14:25


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

California and Jerry Brown are planning for a high-speed rail connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco one day and future connections to San Diego and Sacramento. But getting there isn’t everything. In a recent New York Times (Sunday, Sept.21) we learn the maximum speed of a popular old cruise ship in Norway is around 15 knots or about the speed of “a brisk bicycle ride.” The point here is to think slow.

The view of  Norway’s glacial landscape is very slow. In earlier times the boat, the Hurtigruten, was billed  the coastal express. It delivered mail and goods to the coastal residents. Nowadays the old ship is an escape for people weary of the pace at which the world runs. Passengers really have time to dwell on every small rocky island, every sand bar, every little red farmhouse.

The more leisurely pace has extended its image to Norwegian public television. In 2009,  it went on the air with a broadcast of nearly six and a half hours uninterrupted train ride from Bergen to Oslo. The transition was made by putting a camera on the front of the locomotive. We’re told the producers had modest expectations for ratings but the show was a hit – surveys found about 20 percent of all Norwegians tuned in to the panorama at some point during the broadcast.

The writer of the Times piece Reif Larsen, is an American novelist, one-quarter Norwegian. He writes that a 76-year-old man forgot he was not a passenger when the train arrived in Oslo. When he got up to get his overhead luggage he crashed into the living-room curtains.

Two years later the station NRK came up with  an even slower program – a coastal journey lasting 134 hours. It began without much fanfare from Bergen, but viewers began gathering. In several days marching bands welcomed the boat’s arrivals and departures; one politician announced her candidacy. On the last day the queen of Norway waved to the ship from her royal yacht.

“The program,” said Larsen, “became a bona fide national event – half the country watched the voyage at some point.”

In search of an explanation for the popularity of Slow TV, Larsen asked around.  “Oil  reserves,” he said “were discovered off Norway’s coast in 1969 and everything changed. The youngest child had suddenly became rich.”

Twenty years ago Oslo was a provincial town, today Europe’s fastest growing capital anywhere. Skyscrapers and   metal and glass buildings are on the rise. The pace of life has quickened.

“In a relatively short amount of tine, many Norwegians seem to be suffering from a kind of cultural whiplash, leaving them apprehensive for the future and nostalgic for a past that was barely the past.”

On the other hand, as Larsen points out, “Norway, with only five million people, is still small enough (and homogeneous enough) to allow a story or program to become a national event.”

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 .

Looking Back at ‘The Roosevelts’ PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 02 October 2014 18:23


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

The recent Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts reaped very good ratings. If I read them correctly, nearly good enough to rank in broadcast television’s top ten for the week. I wondered if the portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt, his distant cousin, Franklin, and TR’s niece and FDR’s wife, Eleanor, were intended to show us that there was a time, and not so very long, when extraordinary people led the country, and we followed.

The film was  the work of a company of actors, writers, and producers, notably Geoffrey C. Ward, an author of books on Franklin, and, though it was never mentioned, a polio survivor. He was the right person to narrate Roosevelt’s great trial.

The year before he was stricken, Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) had been nominated for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 1920. The Democrats were soundly defeated but Roosevelt came out of the debacle unscathed and a favorite in the party to run for the top job one day. But because of polio that day would not come for many years.

FDR’s enemies – and there are many still around – who have accused him of  encouraging the Japanese to attack our naval base at Pearl Harbor. But, as the film makes plain, much of the Pacific fleet was anchored at Pearl Harbor – sitting ducks for an enemy’s surprise assault.

It was all too successful, destroying ships and killing thousands. Grace Tully,  a long-time secretary to FDR, told me when I was researching a piece for FDR’s centennial for the Sunday Morning show that the only time she remembered  seeing him shaken was when he learned of the attack at Pearl Harbor.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) comes across as the larger than life character he was. Cowboy, rancher, scholar, historian, famous for his charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba in the Spanish American War, he was one of the most popular of presidents. Early in his climb he took on corruption and the party bosses of his day.

As president, he made his name as an enemy of the trusts, a conservationist, won passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and stricter regulations of the railroads. But he also practiced politics as the art of the possible. And when he forgot he lived to regret it, as when he promised not to run for a third term.

His niece, Eleanor, is by no means overshadowed by her illustrious husband and uncle. Eleanor (Anna) Roosevelt (1884-1962), survived a miserable childhood and the indifference of her husband to become not only the most important first lady in American history but  the first lady of  her world. She was a humanist, which my dictionary describes as “a person who has a strong interest in or concern for human welfare, values and dignity.”

Franklin is the star of the film, and rightly so. Elected president four times, he led the country successfully through the Great Depression and the Second World War. His legacy lives, beginning with the New Deal and liberal landmarks like Social Security. As one historian put it, in depression and war, the theme of FDR’s presidency was freedom from fear.

Nice job, Ken Burns and company.

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 .

Just in Case PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 25 September 2014 22:00


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

An Op/Ed piece in last Sunday’s New York Times about old people caught the attention of the Lady Friend and me. Written by Jason Karlawish, a professor of medicine and medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, it asked: “When should we set aside a life lived for the future and, instead, embrace the pleasures of the present? Or, putting it another way: When do you start enjoying the pleasures of the present when you still can?

The professor points out that at the start of the 20th century, only one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population was over the age of 80. “Today,” he writes,  “3.6 percent of the population is over 80, and life is heavily prescribed...More than  half of adults 65 and older are taking five or more prescription medicines, over the counter medications or dietary supplements...(and) the list is long and getting longer.

Getting old in this century, he says, “is all about risk and its reduction.” (I once interviewed a surgeon in the 1980s who predicted that drugs would one day all but replace the need for the branch of medicine he practiced.)

Nowadays, writes Dr. Karlawish, “physicians are warned by pharmaceutical companies that even after they have prescribed drugs to reduce their patients’ risk of heart disease, a ‘residual risk’ remains – more drugs are often prescribed. The tagline for one fitness product declares: “Your health account is your wealth account! Long live living long!’”

When is it time, Dr. Karlawish asks, “to stop saving and spend some of our principal? If you thought you were going to die soon, you just might light up, as well as stop taking your daily aspirin, statin and blood pressure pill. You would spend more time and money on present pleasures, like a dinner out with friends, than on future anxieties.” When it comes to prevention, “there can be too much of a good thing.”

He cites the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association for setting 79 as the upper limit for calculating the10-year risk of developing or dying from heart attack, stroke or heart disease. These institutions also suggest that after 75 it may not be beneficial for a person without heart disease to start taking statins. But that doesn’t mean everyone follows this advice.”

The Lady Friend, a healthy, hearty 81, and I  decided that neither of us (I am 86 in OK health and hearty enough) would start relaxing our ban on cheese, butter, ice cream, pastries, and the like, but with restraint – just in case.

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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