Notes of a Reporter at Large • 12-13-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 13 December 2012 16:05

Lincoln, the Movie

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

At grammar school graduation my assignment was to recite Edwin Markham’s poem, “Lincoln, Man of the People.”  As I stepped toward the lectern, every word of the eulogy engraved in my heart, I stood still. The room, full of family and friends, had broken into waves of laughter. Mr. Taylor, the principal, shot up from his chair, put a hand on my shoulder, and administered a scolding before the audience fell silent and I could go on.

When I was a boy I stood  six-four in my stocking feet and came in for a lot of kidding. When I learned that Lincoln, too, was six-four he became my role model.

I’ve never lost my enthusiasm for the Great Emancipator. Maybe the highest compliment I can pay to the new movie, “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis, directed by Steven Spielberg, and written by Tony Kushner, is that the portrayal of our sixteenth president strikes one who has spent years reading about Lincoln and reading Lincoln as  just right. Daniel Day-Lewis’ reedy, slow manner of speaking gives Lincoln an authentic voice as a teller of parables, tall tales and bawdy jokes, and a writer lit with the wit, intelligence, knowledge and melancholy to compose some of the most glorious prose in the English language.

The war is always near, but the focus in the movie is on politics. “Lincoln” is about a president hustling for votes to get the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery passed in the House of Representatives after winning approval in the Senate, a less daunting task. The time is April 1864 with the tide of war turning in favor of the union. The opposition Democrats are not the problem. The problem is Lincoln’s fellow Republicans.

An irreconcilable abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is at the center of the drama. The Thirteenth Amendment doesn’t go far enough. He is not merely demanding a law outlawing slavery but is demanding legislation outlawing racial inequality. On the other hand conservative Republicans are less interested in ending slavery than in working out a peace with the Confederacy.

To secure ratification for a Constitutional Amendment that Lincoln believes is both right and necessary, he  has to stand up to the critics in his own party and stoop to do business for votes among a handful of lame duck Democratic congressman.

“Lincoln” is the story of a master politician who stooped to conquer and who grows ever taller in time.

No one should miss 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 • 12-06-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 06 December 2012 14:41

FDR is Still Making News

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Franklin D. Roosevelt is back in the news. The veteran actor, Bill Murray, plays him in a new film opening Friday, “Hyde Park on Hudson.” We’re told it focuses on such moments as when George VI of Great Britain visited Roosevelt on the eve of World War Two, FDR living with the crippled effects of his polio, and an affectionate friendship with a distant cousin.

Roosevelt is also back on the op/ed page, if he ever left it.

In her piece in the New York Times, Susan Dunn, a professor at Williams College,  notes that President Obama and Mitt Romney met for lunch at the White House at a time “with the country is on the brink of a ‘fiscal cliff’ and yearning for longer-term unity.”

She asks, where will it lead? “Will this president welcome the counsel and assistance of a man who for months pounded his philosophy and policies? Can the defeated candidate see past his pain and withstand predictable criticism from divisive figures in his own party to cooperate with Mr. Obama?”

Each, she says, has a role model “in the partnership that blossomed seven decades ago.”

After trouncing Wendell Willkie in the 1940 election, President Roosevelt met with his former rival at the White House. Later Roosevelt told his labor secretary, Frances Perkins, “You know, he (Willkie) is a very good fellow. He has lots of talent. I want to use him  somehow. I want to offer him an important post in government. Can you think of one?”

In 1940, as one country after another fell like dominoes to Hitler, Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term. He reached out to Republican critics Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, and made them secretaries of state and the Navy, respectively.

The method in his madness was  to forge a bipartisan foreign policy to check fascist aggression. During the campaign, as Susan Denn reminds us, Willkie accused Roosevelt of having phoned Hitler and Mussolini to urge them “to sell Czechoslovakia down the river.”

After the election Willkie shrugged off his remarks as just “campaign oratory.” A week after the election Willkie said,” We have elected Franklin Roosevelt president. He is your president. He is my president.” Roosevelt picked up Willkie’s cue. Like Stimson and Knox, Willkie was  “uncompromising” toward fascism. Isolationist Republicans were appalled when Willkie backed Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease bill, which would send war materials to the British although they couldn’t pay for them.  He traveled to Britain as Roosvelt’s personal representative. He met with Churchill, toured bombed-out sites, visited war plants, and joined Londoners in underground shelters as bombs exploded.

Professor Dunn asks, could Obama and Romney follow a Roosevelt-Willkie scenario today? Maybe Obama would consider offering Romney a cabinet office or another important job?

As it happened, the Republican “old guard,” was determined to end Willkie’s political future. He was barred from speaking at the party convention in 1944. He died in October of that year at 52, an outcast for cooperating with FDR.

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 • 11-29-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 29 November 2012 15:01

Since Nov. 6

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The round of violence between Israel and the Palestinians or a turn in the economy or the latest on jobs or new information concerning the slaying of the ambassador and three other Americans in Banghazi, or Iran’s purported moves toward making the Bomb still give us anxiety, but some of us lost sleep over the reports before November 6.

The Lady Friend worried how each event would shape the outcome of the election, given how the media played nearly every story as a test of Obama’s leadership. When Obama stumbled in the first debate the noise from the press was ear-splitting. Into the homestretch, they maintained, the election was too close to call. But a few analysts, notably Nate Silver of the New York Times, consistently said the president will be re-elected. Silver shared his research with readers. Only a few paid attention, like the Lady Friend, but she was still scared.

Since Nov. 6, political news has lost its sting. People are spent, they have heard enough and need a break, leaving citizens like the Lady Friend to wonder how much of what we call news is noise, made  noisier by pundits, warning  the sky is falling, especially in an election year.

* * *

It remains to be seen if Obama will keep his promise to shut down  the detention camp at  Guantanamo in Cuba. He made the promise his second day in office in 2009. Guantanamo is an abominable symbol of illegal Bush-era policies of detention and torture.

Sadly, the administration backed away from its plan to hold a trial in federal court in Manhattan for a prisoner who claimed to be the mastermind behind  9/11 in the face of  fierce opposition from Congressional Republicans and New York Democrats. Instead, the White House adopted “the Bush team’s extravagant claims of state secrets and executive power blocking any accountability for the detention and brutalization of hundreds of men at Guantanamo and secret prisons, and denying torture victims their day in court,” said the Times.

The editorial’s description of the practice is eerily reminiscent of the testimony we heard  at the Nuremberg trials about the way Hitler’s Nazis dealt with Jews, Gypsies, gays and other “enemies” of the state in World War Two. Say it isn’t so, Mr. President.

* * *

It also remains to be seen who will succeed Hillary Clinton when, as expected, she steps down as secretary of state. Susan Rice, the ambassador to the U.N., was favored but she has run into a buzz saw of criticism from Republicans and, perhaps a few Democrats for an early description of the attack on the consulate in Benghazi.

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 • 11-22-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Wednesday, 21 November 2012 14:08

Of This ’n That

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Manna from Allstate

A couple of days ago I got a Thanksgiving card from Allstate with a note thanking me for being a loyal customer for more than 20 years. When I showed the card to the Lady Friend she rolled her eyes and said, “You  should  thank them in return.”

“Thank them?” I said. “What for?”

“For the check you got in a class action suit against them.”

I’d forgotten. There was a settlement check in the mail a few weeks ago. It was for $11 and change.

Letter of the Year

In a response to an article in the New York Times, “When the Patient is Noncompliant,” a reader wrote: “I would like for my doctor, when prescribing medication, to go a step further and explain why it has been chosen for me, what the side effects are, and whether I have any other choices. There is that frightening statement on the handout that is provided with the prescription that reads, ‘your doctor has decided that the benefits outweigh the risks.’ Where am I in this decision?”

Footnote to the Big Blow

A scornful Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate, said in a posting on Twitter three days before the election that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s embrace of the president after Hurricane Sandy shredded the Jersey shores might have tilted the election in Obama’s favor.

Post-election experts tells a different story: Obama would have won without Christie’s extravagant praise.

When Thanksgiving Was No Holiday

As a young boy, I spent Thanksgiving with my family at my uncle’s house. A businessman with a reputation for probity and wisdom, he took pleasure in conducting inquisitions of the nephews gathered ’round my aunt’s copious table.

To the glee of family members, he grilled us on our progress in studies at school. A painful hour for me and my young cousins, but uncle had the time of his life.

It’s a different story today around the Lady Friend’s copious table, and we both see to it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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 • 11-15-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 15 November 2012 14:00

A Mixed Bag


By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times


It wasn’t close. The president won handily in electoral and popular votes. Now that that’s over we can brace ourselves for 2016.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in need of a good rest. But not so long as to keep her out of the public eye. After all there’s talk of her picking up where she left off in 2008. Or is she contemplating the Supreme Court? One thing’s certain. She’ll not be baking cookies.

And then there’s the career of Paul Ryan to consider. While some of us are relieved he’s not a heartbeat away from the presidency, he is already in the loop for 2016. It may be a crowded field, with Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush also creating a buzz.

And let’s not forget Joe Biden who may have other plans for Hillary – say a seat on the Supreme Court.

And let’s not forget Mitt. We’re all too quick to consign the loser to the dustbin of history. He was a gracious loser. But I don’t think I’d sleep easy knowing he’s in the White House.

Last but not least, there’s Barack Obama. As the New York Times reminded us last week, presidents often don’t fare well in a second term.

FDR lost face with Congress for his attempt to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, the year after he’d been re-elected in a landslide.

The Iran-Contra scandal diminished Ronald Reagan’s stature in 1986.

Who can forget the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998?

Richard Nixon, who was re-elected in a landslide in 1972, was forced out of office two years later in the Watergate imbroglio.

Despite the political fallout in second terms, there’s a bright side.

FDR persuaded an isolationist country to recognize Hitler’s conquests as a mortal threat to civilization. Nixon began the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. Reagan cut a deal with Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union on arms control. Clinton – with Republican cooperation – delivered the first balanced budget in decades.

A mixed bag.

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 • 11-08-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 08 November 2012 17:24

A More Divided Country

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In 1948 Harry Truman traveled 21,928 miles on his famous whistle-stop campaign across the country by train. “I want to see the people,” he explained.

“There were three major tours: first  cross-country to California for fifteen days; then a six-day tour of the Middle West; followed by a final, hard-hitting ten days in the big population centers of the Northeast and a return home to Missouri...for fifteen days,” David McCullough wrote in “Truman,” his biography of our 33rd president.

McCullough quoted an old Truman friend, Charlie Ross, who remembered, “There were no deep-hidden schemes, no devious plans, nothing that could be called, in the language of political analysts, `high strategy.’” The president took his case to the country in what seemed  a lost-cause against Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican candidate. In the end, Truman would defeat Dewey in the upset of the century.

In 1960 John Kennedy campaigned in 49 states, Richard Nixon in all 50 in a contest that Kennedy won with a razor-thin lead of 112,827 votes or 0.10% of the popular vote. Kennedy, however, won the electoral vote handily, 303 to Nixon’s 219.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Adam Liptak, who covers the Supreme Court for the newspaper, argues that in Tuesday’s presidential contest the race was viewed as just as close as in 1960 “but the candidates ...campaigned in only 10 states since the political conventions. There are towns in Ohio that had received more attention than the entire West Coast.”  In effect, the current system “disenfranchises most Americans.”

In more recent years, according to the research, the tendency for people with a similar outlook is to live near one another. Thus the country is increasingly split between  two Americas, the more conservative (Republican in the middle and south of the continent) and the more liberal (Democratic) on the coasts.

The notion of disenfranchisement is rooted “in the fact that almost every state chooses to allocate its electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Thus, a candidate confident of winning or sure of losing a bare majority of a state’s popular vote has no reason to expend resources there.”

In 2008 voter turnout in the fifteen states that received most of the candidates’ attention was 67 percent. In 2012 the focus has been on even fewer states. The difference, says Liptak, increases the chances of one candidate carrying the Electoral College, the other the popular vote, making for a more divided country.

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 • 11-01-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 01 November 2012 15:14

Stormy Politics

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Has Hurricane Sandy made a significant impact on an election almost everyone has been saying was too close to call? Looking like a commander in chief, President Obama pledged the country’s help and told us early Monday before the monster storm struck, “I’m not worried about the election right now. I’m worried about families – ¦the election will take care of itself next week.”

Did the crisis hurt Mitt Romney? He said in a primary debate in the long ago that FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) should be done away with, and the job given to the states or privatized. On Monday he seemed to hold his ground saying the states “are first responders and are in the best position to aid impacted individuals and communities.”

A valid point, but, as David McCumber, a reporter for Hearst newspapers, pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Billions in federal aid are hard to substitute on the statewide level.” Romney said he was bringing relief supplies on the campaign bus. A pathetic sight was the picture of it that ran on the news.

It underscored the advantage of the presidency in a natural disaster. Except, of course, in screw ups like Katrina.

I spoke to friends in Manhattan on Monday night. One had been busy bringing in furniture from his balcony and seeing about food supplies. People had been told to expect power outages for several days. He didn’t sound worried; concerned, yes, but not worried. A New Yorker for many years, he’s lived through all sorts of calamities, natural and man-made. His home is on the 10th floor of a building near Greenwich Village, plenty high enough to keep his feet dry.

Another friend and his wife live in lower Manhattan, close to the site of 9/11, and the water. They looked on the arrival of Hurricane Sandy with similar aplomb as they went about their task: filling the tub of their 14th floor apartment with water, rounding up a number of bottles of drinking water, and piling up canned goods.

This friend scarcely mentioned living with a grounded elevator. But as the Lady Friend said, for people whose life might have been snuffed out in the fallout from the World Trade center, coping with Sandy was an adventure. A septuagenarian, he makes light work of climbing all 14 stories, as I can testify as an eye-witness.

Whatever the political fallout from Sandy, it’s sadly clear the electorate is racially divided. Charles M. Blow, in his Saturday column in the New York Times, pointed to a Washington Post-ABC News poll that found the president “has a deficit of 23 percentage points, trailing Republican Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent among whites.” On the other hand, nearly 80 percent of non-whites support Obama, while 91 percent of Romney’s supporters are white.

Such data give rise to speculation that Obama could win re-election if he wins in the electoral college even if he loses the popular vote. It happened in 2000.

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 • 10-25-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 25 October 2012 14:55


By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In the third and last presidential debate Tuesday night on foreign policy the president was at the top of his game. He mocked his opponent. When Mitt Romney assessed Russia as our No. 1 geopolitical foe, Obama cited it as an example of backward thinking. “The 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” the president said.

Obama made sport of Romney’s claim that the U.S. Navy is as small today as it has been any time since World War I, a line of argument, as some in the press have pointed out, based on counting every ship equally whether an old destroyer or a modern carrier.

At the end of the debate, the PBS News Hour’s Mark Shields commented that in fact, U.S. military power is unrivaled and our spending is as much or more than the next 15 nations combined.

The president was on the attack at the start, reminding me of a professor grading a student’s performance. In so many words Obama said Romney’s foreign policy doesn’t add up. The country is looking for “strong steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that’s all over the map.”

But give Romney his due. “Attacking me is not an agenda,” he said. “Attacking me is not talking about how we’re going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East.”

He also insisted on keeping the economy on the agenda, arguing that a weak economy at home was hobbling the country’s efforts to be a strong leader abroad.

But make no mistake about it. The night belonged to Barack Obama. The president had ground to recapture after he was all but AWOL from the first debate on Oct. 3. Some 67 million watched as an aggressive Romney dominated the 90 minutes. Obama was in fine fettle at the second debate, watched by more than 65 million. I don’t know what the count is for last night (I’m writing this on Tuesday) but it was up against two big deals: the seventh game for the National League Championship between the Giants and the Cardinals and Monday Night Football.

The Lady Friend points out that many people don’t watch but see clips of the debates on the news and hear the feedback. They don’t want the whole thing. No overdosing on politics for them.

That said, I hold both candidates and moderators to account for failing to discuss climate, guns and Wall Street over three nights of presidential argument. Shameful.

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 • 10-18-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 18 October 2012 16:37

The Veep Debate

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Martha Raddatz of ABC News asked Paul Ryan in last Thursday’s debate if people who believe abortion should remain legal would have cause for concern  if  he and Mitt Romney were elected.

In so many mincing words Ryan said yes. In the past, Romney’s running mate has said he opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest. This time he parted ways with the Spanish Inquisition, saying, “The policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortion with the exception for rape, incest and life of the mother.”

Maureen Dowd pointed out in Sunday’s New York Times, that Ryan “and other Republicans for decades have pined for a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade.” In the exchange with Raddatz, the congressman said, “We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision. People, through their elected representatives and reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process, should make this determination.”

Echoes of Theodore Roosevelt. He believed some questions of vital interest were too important left to a handful of unelected souls answerable to no one, or even to Congress. In such cases T.R. advocated a direct vote by the people in a plebiscite. I do not mean to imply that Ryan is another Theodore Roosevelt. I’ve read enough history to believe otherwise.

As for Roe v. Wade, it would not take much to overturn the 1973  Supreme Court ruling that acknowledged  a woman’s constitutional right to legalized abortion. As noted here and elsewhere, the next president may have a vacancy or two to fill before his term is up. Four justices are over 70. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the oldest at 77. Justice Antonin Scalia is 74.

The vice president who is 69, and the Wisconsin congressman, 42,  quarreled aggressively, offering sharp contrasts on foreign and fiscal affairs, and the economic recovery. Joe Biden may have smiled too much but he lifted the spirits of Democrats disillusioned with the president’s performance in the Oct. 3 encounter with a forceful Romney.

Biden attacked on topics Obama did not mention – the bailout of the auto industry which Romney opposed, the Republican nominee’s assertion that the foreclosure crisis would have to “run its course,” and Romney’s remark about the “47 percent” of Americans overly dependent upon government benefits, as the Times reported.

Still, Ryan performed well, showing himself at home with the issues, foreign as well as domestic, rebutting Biden’s arguments skillfully. After Biden focused on Romney’s libel about the “47 percent,” Ryan reminded the vice president that he, too, sometimes has slipped on a loose tongue.

The moderator, Martha Raddatz, asked solid questions with sharp follow-ups, increasing a viewers’ knowledge of the stakes in the election. By contrast, Jim Lehrer of PBS was criticized by members of both party for his performance. He sat through the 90 minutes as if he had wandered into the hall by mistake.

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 • 10-11-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 11 October 2012 12:46

The Night Romney Attacked PBS

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

A week after the first presidential debate it is still a topic of discussion. The format – loose – and the moderator, Jim Lehrer – ineffectual, have been  targets of dismayed viewers, mostly Democrats.

President Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, weighed in with the comment, “I sometimes  wondered if we even needed a moderator because we had Mitt Romney.”

Romney’s people implied this was evidence of sour grapes – the White House criticizing Lehrer to cover up for the president’s own poor performance. At one point an irritable president complained that Lehrer had cut him off before his time was up. “I had five seconds before you interrupted me,” said Obama.

For most of the 90 minutes both Obama and Romney took no notice of the former anchor of the PBS “NewsHour,” who presided over eleven such forums between 1988 and 2008.

Lehrer had said he was through with the job but the Commission on Presidential Debates urged him to return in 2012. What persuaded him, the New York Times reported, was the new setup for the debate. It called for six 15-minute conversations, each starting with a question and two-minute answers from each candidate.

“The format was appealing to Mr. Lehrer, who has consistently said that his job as moderator is to get out of the way and get the candidates talking,” the paper said.

But as the debate played out, Lehrer, who is 78, was not only out of the candidates’ way but reduced to a plaintive cry when he tried to interrupt them, as in “excuse me” and “please.” At one point Romney ignored the moderator’s plea – “No, but” – taking a minute of extra time to refute the president’s claim that Romney was short on specifics about his plans for the economy.

The day after the debate  – Thursday – Lehrer said in an e-mail that he thought the new format worked. It “accomplished its purpose, which was to facilitate direct, extended exchanges between the candidates about issues of substance.” His only regret was the debate could not be longer, since “90 minutes was not enough time in that more open format to cover every issue that deserved attention.”

There may be something to that. But as Romney took command of the evening, the governor may have gone a step too far on social media. Who can ever forget Romney telling the hapless Lehrer that if he’s elected president he’s going to stop the subsidy to PBS. “I like PBS,” Romney said. “I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But  I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

Since the Oct. 3 debate Romney got a lift in the polls. However, judging by the explosion in cyberspace and in letters to the editor over his messing with Big Bird, Mitt Romney may rue the day he trifled with PBS and Jim Lehrer, too.

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 • 10-04-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 04 October 2012 13:38

More Thoughts While Shaving

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The name may be unfamiliar but it is one that should be remembered. Barry Commoner, one of the thinkers who made the environment a popular cause, died on Sunday in New York at 95.

A biologist trained at Columbia and Harvard, Commoner’s research on the effects of radioactive fallout “contributed materially to the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of  1963,” said the front-page obituary in the New York Times.

The paper cited him as “a leader among a generation of scientist activists who recognized the toxic consequences of America’s post-World War II technology boom and one of the first to stir the national debate over the public’s right to comprehend the risks and make decisions about them.”

In 1970, Barry Commoner was on the cover of Time magazine as the Paul Revere of the environmental movement. President Richard Nixon had already heeded the alarm. That same year Nixon said “The great question of the’70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make preparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water.”

Before the year was out the Environmental Protection Agency was created.

Barry Commoner would be a speaker and an author at the center of environmental and social issues for many years. In 1980 he ran for president but was little noticed in a contest between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. My late wife, Donna, was not star-struck over an ex-movie actor or a sitting president. She voted her conscience for Barry Commoner.

In the late 1980s I was working on a CBS documentary for Walter Cronkite on the environment. Looking for experts, Commoner was one of the people we talked to. I didn’t think it was one of Walter’s best interviews . My hunch is that he was  uncomfortable with the interviewee’s history as a left-wing radical.

Tuesdays are my deadline for this column, so I can only speculate how President Obama and Mitt Romney would fare Wednesday night in Denver. It is a fool’s errand, so l let it pass.

*   *   *

Unlike the presidential nominees,  none of the political appointees on the Supreme Court will ever have to answer for their decisions to the voters, as Bill Moyers and Bernard A. Weisberger point out in The Nation magazine in a special issue devoted to the Supreme Court.

In recent years, they claim, the Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, has moved to “affirm the right of organized wealth – especially of corporations – over the individual or the public interest in almost any contest with regulators or victims of abuse.” With its 2010 decision in Citizens United, they assert, “the Court has given a jet-powered boost to the move toward plutocratic control over our lives and fortunes” by the one percent.

The next president may have a vacancy or two to fill before his term is up. Four justices are over 70: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the oldest at 77. Justice Antonin Scalia is 74.

There is more than the economy and foreign affairs riding on the outcome of this election.

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 • 09-27-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 27 September 2012 14:33

Thoughts While Shaving

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Mitt Romney’s trip over his tongue at a private fund-raiser demeaning half the country is by no means a rare blunder in presidential campaigns. In last Friday’s New York Times John Harwood reminded us of gaffes in the past. Among them:

Senator John Kerry’s blooper in 2004 when he said “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.” The Democratic standard-bearer was talking about money to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The comment enabled George W. Bush’s campaign to define him as untrustworthy.

Citing an emotionless response of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 to a speculative situation in which his wife was raped and murdered. Harwood noted, it “fixed Mr. Dukakis’s image as a government technocrat at odds with most Americans on the high-voltage issue of crime and punishment.”

In 1980, as the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan declared, “Approximately 80 percent of air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation.” Democrats, as Harwood reminded us, seized on the statement to caricature Reagan “as a know-nothing, extremist, retired actor.” But times were hard, Iran was holding American hostages, and  a desire for change was stirring in the wind. When Jimmy Carter battled Reagan in debate, Reagan blew him away with the reply, “There you go again.”

In 1968, Mitt Romney’s father was running for the Republican nomination against Richard Nixon, and famously said, “When I came back from Vietnam I just had the greatest brainwashing anybody can get.” He made the statement in the summer of 1967 about his talks with high-ranking American diplomats and generals on the progress of the war in Vietnam. The words came back to haunt him and he gave up the challenge to Nixon.

In today’s high tech environment it is surprising to learn of a prominent politician who is not wary of hidden cameras and live mikes. His father’s gaffe made a deep impression on Mitt Romney. In his unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination in 2008, Harwood quotes the younger Romney as saying his father’s experience was “probably  not that applicable today” because candidates were more aware of the pitfalls.

In 2007, Mitt Romney told the Times, “Running for president in the You-Tube era, you realize you have to be very judicious in what you say. You have to be careful with your humor. You have to recognize that anytime you’re running for the presidency of the United States, you’re on.”

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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