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 .

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 09-20-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 20 September 2012 14:07

Romney’s Big Mouth

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

A city councilman in my Eureka days was fond of saying that a man’s worst enemy is his own big mouth. I thought of the old fellow when I heard on the news that during a private reception with donors earlier this year Mitt Romney said that almost half of all Americans “believe they are victims” and entitled to government help. He also said that those voters could be expected to  support President Obama because they believe they are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name it.”

In one clip Romney said he would not try to win over “47 percent of the people” because they are Obama voters “no matter what.” By his own definition  these are the people ”who pay no income tax,”  and could care less about  lowering taxes. They are beyond the limits of protection. On the other hand, he is eager to claim the votes of the undecided, an estimated 13 percent of the electorate. As he sees it,  the undecided are  “thoughtful” voters, worth caring about.

The video shows Romney saying that almost half of the adult population in this country consider themselves as “victims” and entitled to a large amount of government help. ”My job,” he said flatly, “is not to worry about these people.”  

Romney’s remarks ring with excessive pride. The old Greeks called it hubris. They were secretly recorded on May17 after he nailed down the GOP nomination. The video was given to the liberal magazine Mother Jones which posted it on line Monday.

In the firestorm that followed, predictably from the left but also from prominent names on the right, Bill Crystal, the neo conservative editor, called Romney’s observations “stupid.” David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, wrote, “as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other, and it reinforces every negative view people have about him...” And he added,  Romney’s “running a depressingly inept presidential campaign.”

For the record, 46.4 percent of households did not pay any federal income tax in 2011. But most households did pay payroll taxes, said the New York Times quoting research from the Tax Policy Center. “Of the 18.1 percent of households that paid neither income taxes or pay roll tax, the center found that more than half were elderly and more than a third were not elderly but had an income under $20,000.”    

I think Romney’s problem is that he started at the top. Imagine what he might have learned if he’d  done time on a city council in a place like Eureka.

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 • 09-13-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 13 September 2012 15:42

After Charlotte

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Mitt Romney adopted a softer tone, certainly not stridently partisan, in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. He said there was much to like in President Obama’s health law.

The NBC News program, known for its aggressive interviews, was a rare venue for Romney who is known to favor the more companionable Fox News. But when he was asked by the show’s host, David Gregory, what he liked about the president’s  health package and what he would keep, if  elected president, Romney said he liked a number of things: “One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage.”

It may be a concession, but the New York Times in an editorial on Tuesday pointed out a problem: “Guaranteeing coverage to people with serious diseases means that sick people sign up en mass for coverage, driving premiums up for everyone. That’s why Mr. Obama’s law required everyone to have insurance to spread the risk around.”

Although he supported it in Massachusetts, Romney is now opposed to the mandate. So, his advisors tried to clear up the confusion saying he is in favor of coverage for pre-existing conditions but only for those with continuous insurance coverage. Lost in the translation, the Times said, are “sick people who have lost their jobs or never had coverage. It’s been the law since 1996. But those who only watched the interview don’t know that.”

In a curious twist, Romney criticized Republicans as well as Democrats for calling for automatic cuts in military spending as a way to  bring about a deal on reducing the deficit. By doing so, Romney parted company with his running mate, Paul Ryan, a top fiscal conservative in Congress, who favored the cuts.

In his own Sunday television appearance on another network, Ryan  repeated his assertion that the deal was the right one in finding common ground with the White House, and calling it a “step in the right direction.”

The two have nearly two months to get back on the same page, but Bill Clinton’s stemwinder and the error-free Charlotte convention, which have given the president a bump, prompted Romney to say that Clinton “really did elevate the Democratic convention in a lot of ways,” though adding, “the contrast may not have been as attractive as Barrack Obama might have preferred.”

What I missed from an otherwise probing “Meet the Press” were questions about Romney’s refusal to make public more than  two years of income tax filings. Mitt Romney likes to say his father was his role model. But when the elder Romney ran for president he made some ten years of his tax returns public. Romney’s father, a governor and a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, matched the deed to the word that a public office is a public trust. Can Mitt now do less?

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 • 09-06-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Wednesday, 05 September 2012 15:16

The Debates

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

If, as polls suggest, the race for the White House remains a virtual dead heat after the conventions, the focus of the campaign shifts to the debates. And that raises questions since much is left in the hands of the moderators, the people who ask the questions. They are familiar faces on the news, safe and trust-worthy.

PBS’ Jim Lehrer moderates the first 90-minute debate between President Obama and former governor Romney on October 3 at the University of Denver. Domestic issues are the subjects. Lehrer’s an old hand, done presidential debates before. In picking Lehrer for the first and possibly the most important debate, both sides are playing it safe.

Martha Raddatz, ABC News’ chief foreign correspondent, moderates the next debate – the only one between the vice presidential nominees, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. It is set for October 11 at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Domestic and foreign affairs are the topics. Raddatz is known for her reporting overseas but is no stranger to Washington politics. She may well find herself presiding over the most contentious ninety minutes of all the debates.

The president and Romney  meet for the second time on October 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. It is a town hall meeting format with questions from undecided voters. Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent, will field the questions. I don’t often watch CNN but when I’ve caught her she’s  struck me as scrupulously non-partisan.

Bob Schieffer of CBS News moderates the third and final presidential debate on October 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Foreign affairs is the bone of contention. Schieffer’s an old hand and, like Lehrer, has lasted a long time.

My concern is simple: these fine journalists are Washington insiders. It can’t be helped. The press depends on the  politically powerful for information and the political class needs favorable news to promote its own interests. In a manner of speaking, they live off one another every day.

In the Reagan years I remember walking into a Washington restaurant and finding  prominent journalists and important officials having a merry old time together. In Eureka, where I’d started out in the news biz, a reporter would have had a lot of explaining to do if he was seen having lunch with the mayor. It took some getting used to how the pros operated in the big time.

Now that I’ve got all that off my chest, I’ll be watching all four debates. May the moderators pull no punches!

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 • 08-30-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 30 August 2012 14:55

Moving on to Oblivion

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The Republican party is moving on to oblivion. Like Mitt Romney, its standard-bearer, the party is a confusion of disparate ideas. Reducing the size of government and cutting spending and taxes is traditional fare, but the Tea Party movement is pushing the rank and file to adopt harsh positions on abortion and immigration.

As Adam Nagourney wrote in the New York Times Monday, such a party platform “could undercut the party’s need to broaden its appeal.” Many leaders “feared it was  hastening a march to become a smaller, older, whiter and more male party.”

Dan Quayle, who was the elder President Bush’ vice president, (1989-1993), told the paper, “The Republican Party needs to re-establish its philosophy of the big tent with principles. The philosophy you hear from time to time, which is unfortunate, is one of exclusion rather inclusion. You have to be expanding the base, expanding the party, because compared to the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is a minority party.”

Another voice from Republicans past, George E. Pataki, the former Republican governor New York, agreed with the Tea Party on lowering taxes and reducing the size of government. But he worried that anti-government sentiment could get out of hand, push the party to the fringes, and alienate most voters.

“What I fear,” said Pataki, “is that that very positive desire to limit the power and the role of the federal government, could turn into a philosophy that is antigovernment. Sometimes those who I fear have that anti-government view, as opposed to the limited government view, rise to the center of the nominating process. I think that is not a good thing for the Republican Party.”

Today’s GOP is made up of many conflicting factions. Tea Party adherents are just one of the forces competing for power. “Super PACs” bankrolled by billionaires are challenging the influence of party leaders. The babel is said to run deeper than pros can remember in a long time.

According to the New York Times the other voices include “ who would accept no tax increases and a dwindling band of deficit hawks who might. There are economic libertarians who share little of the passion that social conservatives hold on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. There are neoconservatives who want a hard line against Iran and the Palestinians, and realists who are open to diplomatic deal-cutting.”

Meanwhile, the country is moving on. The influx of Latinos in Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida has changed the demographics in what were conservative Republican strongholds. Some trace the beginning of the decline  to 1994 when California Republicans supported an initiative, Proposition 187, to cut off services to illegal immigrants. It was voided by a federal court but not forgotten.

Richard White, a Stanford professor of history of the American West, explained it this way to the Times:

“Once California started alienating Latinos and once Latinos started moving in large numbers to Arizona and Texas, that changed the whole game.”

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 • 08-16-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 16 August 2012 13:18

Romney’s Choice

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Was picking Paul Ryan a smart move for Mitt Romney? The selection excited the conservative base of his party but at what price?

Throughout his public life Romney has stayed the middle road. His far-right bromides persuade no one. He often comes across as a bumbler, not terribly quick on his feet, a multi-millionaire out-of-touch. Slick political ads aside, we perceive he’s not the villain Barack Obama would like to portray.

A few days after the news it seems as if Paul Ryan was at the top of the Republican ticket instead of Mitt Romney. Four years ago a similar thing happened. With the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate, he was all but invisible. Then the scales fell as the true picture of the nominee for the second highest office became clear. She was unfit for the office. In the view of many, Palin was McCain’s undoing.

In the present instance, we know the young congressman from Wisconsin is smart and articulate and ambitious to do big things. But could that be the problem?

A member of Congress since 1998, he supported  Bush era policies that led to today’s huge budget deficits. In a recent article in the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza counted the ways: “sweeping tax cuts, a costly prescription-drug entitlement for Medicare, two wars, the multibillion-dollar-bailout legislation known as TARP. In all, five trillion dollars was added to the national debt.”

The Wisconsin representative reportedly has regretted some of those votes but that was then when he was making his way up the greasy poll. These days as head of the House budget committee he has proposed privatizing Social Security, replacing Medicare in the future with a voucher program for those under 55, and turning Medicaid and food stamps into block grants to the states, according to Wickipedia.

Based on his voting record in Congress, Ryan, is said to be the most conservative Republican member of Congress to be tapped for vice president since 1900.

So how to account for Romney’s gamble to go with so conservative a running-mate? Nate Silver, a pollster for the New York Times, said Sunday, the day after Romney announced his decision:

“When a prudent candidate like Mitt Romney picks someone like Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, it suggests that he felt he had a losing position against President Obama. The theme that Mr. Romney’s campaign has emphasized for months and months – that the president has failed as an economic leader – may have persuaded 47 or 48 or 49 percent of voters to back him. But not 50.1 percent, and not enough for Mr. Romney to secure 270 electoral votes.”

By rolling the dice, Romney may have cause to rue his choice of the strong-willed Ryan even if Romney wins. Just ask the last Republican to live in the White House under his vice president Dick Cheney.

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 • 08-09-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 09 August 2012 13:07

Looking Back for Inspiration

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

If this is the worst economy since the Great Depression more than seventy-five years ago, why are there so few ideas for how to get us out of it, as Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor, asked in his column Sunday in the San Francisco Chronicle?

His explanation is that Romney and Obama are playing it safe. “Neither candidate wants to take any chances by offering any large, serious proposals,” says Reich. “Both are banking instead on negative campaigns that convince voters the other guy would be worse.”

Reich argues that the president could propose a public works program along the lines of Roosevelt’s WPA. It provided hundreds of thousands of jobs for the unemployed rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. Another example Reich cites would be a new Civilian Conservation Corps, perhaps the most popular of all the New Deal creations.

Over the 10 years it was in existence, the CCC had put “more than three million idle youngsters to work on forestry and flood control, building firebreaks and lookouts in the national forests, and bridges, campgrounds, trails, and museums in the national parks,” according to David M. Kennedy in his fine history of the Depression and the Second World War, “Freedom From Fear.”

Of course taxes had to be raised to help pay for all that. No surprise, the wealthy balked then as they balk now at efforts to level the playing field.

In 1936, Harold L. Ickes, Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, writes in his diary of a conversation with Harry F. Guggenheim, a member of a family that made one of the world’s great fortunes in mining. As Ickes pressed him to support the charge that FDR was antagonistic to business, he said “it became clear that the...issue today is taxation. Roosevelt, according to these very rich people, is penalizing business and tearing it down because he has increased the income taxes in the higher brackets...the fear of increased taxes...has made (FDR) such a bitter enemy out of practically everyone” among the super rich.

A Republican and a Teddy Roosevelt progressive before joining FDR,  Ickes claimed that by “giving the underdog a chance” and an “opportunity to earn enough to live on,” the New Deal “really saved capitalism.”

Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, and the first woman to sit in a cabinet, said Roosevelt’s method of work reminded her of a painter mixing colors on his palette, experimenting, until things began to feel right. Like an artist, FDR would try something, almost anything, and if it didn’t work he would try again, but kept trying.

The late historian, Richard Hofstadter, summed it up when he said, “At the heart of the New Deal was not a philosophy but a temperament.”

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 • 08-02-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 02 August 2012 16:47

Romney Stumps Abroad

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In case you missed it, Mitt Romney has been abroad showing off his expertise in foreign affairs. In London, the man who managed the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City in 2002 cast doubt on whether the Brits were up to the task of providing enough security and dealing with a posible strike of customs and immigration officials.

The visitor’s musings inspired a sharp response from Prime Minister David Cameron: “We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course, it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”

On this side of the Atlantic, conservatives like Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s mentor, and the columnist, Charles Krauthammer, were nonplussed over Romney’s diplomatic gaffe. “You have to shake your head,” said Rove. “Unbelievable, it’s beyond human understanding. It’s incomprehensible,” said Charles Krauthammer, according to Maureen Dowd in Sunday’s New York Times.

On his stop in Israel, Romney was in full campaign mode. He said the Palestinians had only themselves to blame for lagging behind the Israelis economically – never mind that “years of Israeli occupation, security measures and blockades have disrupted their territories for years,” as the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out.

Further, he insulted the Palestinians – people whose trust he will need if, as president, he has any hopes for brokering the peace efforts of  Israelis and Palestinians – by saying, as he did – that cultural differences are the reasons why the Palestinians are so far behind the Israelis.

Like all politicians, Romney must take pains to please his donors. One of them, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a staunch supporter of Israel, is reportedly spending $100 million to make Obama, who is pro-Israeli but obviously not pro enough to please Adelson, a one-term president.

Romney’s other audience, as the Times pointed out, is Jewish voters and evangelical Christians in states such as Florida and Ohio where a close election could be decided.

Even as Romney allied himself with hard-liners on Israel he may have got himself into trouble at home with other Republicans. In his bid to win friends on Israel, he called attention to the fact that the Jewish state spends a good deal less on health care than the U.S.

“Don’t go there, governor,” warned the Chronicle...Israel has universal coverage and requires residents to buy coverage – conditions at odds with Republican doctrine and his 2012 campaign positions.”

After London and Israel, wise men in the high command of  the GOP, like Karl Rove, will have to put  Mitt Romney back together again. Adelson’s multi-millions may not be enough.

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 • 07-26-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 26 July 2012 15:17

Vice Presidents on My Mind

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

“Have you ever been unfaithful?” That’s a leading question Mitt Romney is asking of those who would be his No. 2. There are scores of others covering the financial and the personal. But the questions don’t stop there. The candidate’s style of speaking is important. How does he/she sound, look, handle pressure? The main thing is to save the person at the top from embarrassment.

When the post was created in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was said to have described the office as “his superfluous majesty.” Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations attributes the following figure of speech to John Nance Garner who served as Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president for eight years and spoke as the voice of experience: “The vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.”

Thirteen presidents were once vice presidents, but, so far as I know, no one has gone to great trouble to grade their performances in the lesser job. Maybe that’s because there’s not much to add to what Benjamin Franklin and John Nance Garner have said.

The New York Times on Tuesday recalled a disastrous Democratic pick for No. 2 in 1972. Those were the days when journalists and politicians were generally unwilling to delve into the personal lives of public figures. As the Times recalled, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the presidential nominee, picked Sen. Thomas Eagleton, of Missouri, for his  running mate. It’s said McGovern made up his mind after a conversation with the senator that lasted 67 seconds.

As word leaked and then spread of Eagleton’s treatments for depression  and electric shock therapy, McGovern came under mounting pressure to drop his man. At first he refused, famously declaring that he was “1,000 percent” behind him, but Eagleton was dumped in the ensuing outcry. Richard Nixon won re-election to the White House that November by the largest margin in history.

Nixon had been Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president (1953-61). He got into trouble during the 1960 campaign against John Kennedy  for keeping a slush fund, the gift of private contributors, to defray expenses. Nixon saved his candidacy with a brilliant TV speech. But after he was elected president eight years later, his own vice president, Spiro Agnew – a former governor of Maryland and spiteful critic of the news media and liberals – was forced to step down.

Agnew pleaded no contest to one charge of income tax evasion. He was fined $10,000 and placed on three years’ probation. In 1983 he also paid $268,000 to the state of Maryland “as reimbursement and penalty for his misdeeds as governor,” according to the Complete Book of U. S. Presidents.

After Agnew was gone, and only two years after his triumph over McGovern, Nixon became the only president in history to resign the office in the Watergate scandal.

Pick well, Mitt Romney. Obama did with Joe Biden.

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 • 07-19-12 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 .

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