Notes of a Reporter at Large • 02-21-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 21 February 2013 14:22

To Catch the Conscience of a President

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Sally Jewell is President Obama’s nominee for secretary of the interior, to replace Ken Salazar. In her late 50s, she’s presently serving as the president and chief executive officer of REI, a Seattle-based retailer of outdoor gear.

She studied engineering at the University of Washington and worked in the oil and banking industries, and sat on boards of the National Parks Conservation Association, the University of Washington Board of Regents, and Premera Blue Cross. A notable career, but the president’s move to put her in charge of our public lands surprised some. It brought “unsolicited advice” from Robert B. Semple Jr., the associate editor of the New York Times editorial page.

Semple won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his editorials on environmental issues, including his editorials about a proposed mine that would have been built on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, according to Wikipedia. In a piece on Sunday he counseled Jewell to read Obama’s State of the Union Address with great care.

“What she will find there,” he said, “is the strong suggestion that the public lands she will be asked to manage wisely and for all Americans serve one purpose only: to produce energy, whether oil or gas or solar or wind. The idea that these lands are also valuable as national parkland, as habitat for thousands of animal and plant species, or as sources of clean water, is nowhere mentioned in that speech.”

What the president said and left out in the speech, Semple believes, gives an inkling of the reality people in that cabinet job have confronted over the years: conservation is not a priority, especially in a lackluster economy.

Semple cites the experience of Bruce Babbitt, Bill Clinton’s interior secretary. He rarely got Clinton’s attention until a pollster showed up with numbers revealing that Republicans were doing themselves harm playing anti-environment politics. “At which point,” Semple said, “Mr. Clinton became something of a born-again environmentalist.”

Without the solid support of the president, Jewell may find it very difficult, if not impossible, to deal with the obstacles facing the next interior secretary, Semple says. The last Congress  did not set aside “a single new acre of  wilderness,” and the president “made almost no use” of his authority to preserve new sites of historical significance or great natural beauty.

Jewell springs from the world of business, not politics, which is something new for occupants of the interior post. All the more reason, Semple argues, she will need “the help of a president who so far has not shown much passion for the issues she will confront.”

Early in the Obama presidency, Ken Salazar stirred to cancel “drill now, drill everywhere oil and gas policies” of the Bush administration. But by the time Obama’s re-election campaign was rolling last fall, the president and Salazar “had begun to sound for all the world like Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney in their eagerness to please the fossil-fuel crowd.”

I’m glad Semple spoke out as he did and hope the president was listening.

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 • 02-14-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 14 February 2013 13:32

Saving the Post Office

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The other day we learned that the postal service plans to drop Saturday delivery of first-class mail beginning the first week in August. The move is to save the struggling agency 2 billion a year.

Ending Saturday delivery probably won’t plug the hemorrhaging and could make matters worse if people are angry enough at the loss of service to pursue a wholly digital life. Remains to be seen, but for now there will still be life in the 237-year-old institution. The P.O. will deliver packages and prescription drugs six days a week and will not change post office operating hours.

As postmaster General Patrick Donahoe put it, “The choice is either changes to some of the services or raise prices, and people don’t want prices raised.”

I first wrote about saving the post office in this column a while back, confessing, “I have a soft spot for the post office. Years ago when I was between jobs as a newspaperman, the post office was a place to come in from the cold.

“In the early 1950s I found work as a mail handler in San Francisco before a reporter’s job came through. Some years later, down and out and married and trying my hand at free-lance writing, I found work as a clerk and letter-carrier in Santa Cruz. I stayed on for a couple of years before I realized my place was in a newsroom.” The post office saved my life. Today people are asking: is the post office really necessary? I say yes.

In the earlier piece I said, “It is one of the few institutions – and the oldest of American major public services established by a decree of the Continental Congress and promoted by Benjamin Franklin – that retains a human face. Millions of American rely on the local post office. In neighborhoods and small towns it is the heart of the community.”

And I added: “The post office is a life line for half of the country’s rural population. It delivers the mail to every corner of America, and goes to great lengths so that no one is left out, even in wilderness areas where the mail, food and supplies are delivered by bush planes and by mule trains on the floor of the Grand Canyon for native Americans.” So far as I know this is still true.

What triggered that column was a cartoon a friend sent me. It showed a mother telling her kids that the newspaper is reporting the government may stop delivering letters on Saturday. One child, sitting at a laptop, asks, “What’s a letter?” The other, fiddling with an iPod, asked, “What’s a newspaper?”

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 • 02-07-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 07 February 2013 16:52

Cigarettes and Politics

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I smoked my last cigarette in 1962. Kennedy was president. Back then everyone smoked, especially newspapermen. No newshound worthy of the name would be caught  without wearing a soft felt hat with a brim, the crown creased lengthwise – we called them fedoras. And smoking a cigarette. You couldn’t find the murderer without one. Back then journalists may have smoked more than almost anybody else, but almost everybody (it seemed) smoked.

These days smokers are treated like untouchables, banned from newsrooms and  public places. Spot a smoker lighting up and he looks like a deer caught in the headlights. The numbers of smokers, however, are large - an estimated 45.3 million or 19.3% of all adults (18 and older) in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most are men  (21.5 %) than women (17.3 %) and the leading cause of preventable disease, about 443,000 deaths, or one of every five deaths in this country each year.

20.1% in the 18-24 age group

22.0% in the 25-44 age group

21.1% in the 45-64 age group

9.5% in the 65 and older age group

Since 2009 the Food and Drug Administration was given the power by Congress to regulate cigarettes.

But CQ Weekly, published by Congressional Quarterly, reminds us that the Food and Drug Administration has done next to nothing about the purpose of the law, “which gave it authority to regulate ingredients in cigarettes, including nicotine.”  Instead the agency has focused on establishing a department to undertake more research on cigarettes.

Although a worthy cause, public health proponents are more focused on  calling for new graphic warnings on cigarette packaging. They want the government to “do much more to make cigarettes less addictive.”

If you think the tobacco lobby has been in retreat since 2009 think again. As CQ points out, the agency is barred by that same law “from eliminating nicotine, a chemical found in tobacco leaves that is addictive when smoked.” (A  survey by the American Journal of Public Health found “that almost half of U.S. adults say the FDA should limit the amount of nicotine in cigarettes...17 percent disagreed and 37 percent weren’t sure.“)

Public health advocates have another concern. In 2010 the FDA’s panel of advisors recommended banning menthol flavored cigarettes, but the FDA has yet to move. The 2009 law banned all other flavorings, but let the agency decide about menthol.  CQ says the brand is particularly popular in African-American communities.

As for the FDA’s hope to require powerful warning labels on cigarettes, don’t hold your breath. CQ reminds us that a federal appeals court took the side of the cigarette makers, declaring the labels “violated the companies’ First Amendment rights.” The Supreme Court is the next, last stop for the Obama administration if it decides to appeal the ruling.

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 • 01-31-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 31 January 2013 15:44

‘The Silence of the Printed Word’

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In last week’s column I referred to FDR’s famous quote, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In looking for a source for the assertion I gave short shrift to the 19th century Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle. The way it came out in print Carlyle was repeating the words of Henry David Thoreau, his American contemporary.

Even in the brave new digital age things get screwed up. Thoreau said: “Nothing is so much to be feared than fear.” Ditto Carlyle, according to my rendering. Actually Carlyle had put it differently: “The first duty for a man is still that of subdoing fear. We cannot see till then.” So let the record be corrected.

It may seem like a small thing but words are important, maybe more important than we imagine in our rapidly-changing age.  And that brings me to a discovery I want to pass on.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg, tells us about a recent drive he took with a friend from his farm in New York to Southern California. They took along an e-book, “Moby-Dick,” read aloud by William Hootkins. As the tale moves on, Klinkenborg “began to feel as though we were carrying a garrulous hitchhiker, a transcendental encyclopedist, indeed a back-seat whaler of sorts.” This, of course, is Ishmael, the character who narrates the pursuit of Moby-Dick, the great white whale, by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab and his crew aboard the Pequod. Ishmael is the lone survivor.

What struck me in Klinkenborg’s piece was how he contrasted hearing the words on the e-book from reading them on the printed page:

“I was always glad at day’s end...when we parked and turned off ‘Moby-Dick.’ Not that the book ended then. Usually, in the evening, I would begin reading the book where we had left off listening. I have never been so struck by the silence of the printed word. I have never grasped so clearly how inward words have to go in our minds before they come alive.”

Moby-Dick’s author, Herman Melville, was all but forgotten when he died in 1891. Since it was re-discovered in the last century, critics, have said ”Moby-Dick” is the Great American Novel.


New hope from Monday’s San Francisco Chronicle about climate change: “Not all scientists are so gloomy. Ashley Ballantyne, a bioclimatologist at the University of Montana who studies paleoclimate records, said the climate has always changed, with ice ages, warnings and mass extinctions.”

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 • 01-24-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 24 January 2013 14:30

‘The Only Thing We Have To Fear...’

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address won rave reviews. Even the conservative columnist, David Brooks, said it “was bold and beautiful and something to hear. ” (And that is something to write home about.)

Time will tell whether or not a phrase or line in Monday’s 18-1/2 minute speech will live on in history. As the New York Times put it, “With this speech, he has made a forceful argument for a progressive agenda that meets the nation’s needs. We hope he has the political will and tactical instincts to carry it out.”

And this puts me in mind of a story behind one of the most memorable lines ever spoken in an Inaugural Address: “...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...” It was delivered by Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Great Depression on March 4, 1933, and helped rally the sprit of the country. ”

A couple of weeks before, on the night of February 15,  five shots were fired at Roosevelt after he’d addressed a crowd in a Miami park. None of the bullets hit their target. But Mayor Anton “Tony” Cermak, of Chicago, who had come to Miami to mend fences with the President-elect, was hit in the lower right abdomen. He was chatting with Roosevelt who was sitting atop the back of an open car when the gunman fired from a .32 on a wobbly bench which made his aim unsteady.

Fearful for Roosevelt’s safety, the chief secret service agent ordered Roosevelt’s driver to get moving. “Get him the hell out of here!“ he said. Roosevelt countermanded the order. He wanted Cermak with him in the lead car  in the caravan. It would be the first

to reach the hospital. Cermak was lifted into the backseat. Roosevelt felt his pulse and tried to comfort him as they sped to the hospital. “Tony, keep quiet – don’t move” Roosevelt said. “It won’t hurt if you keep quiet.”

Cermak died of his wounds in early March. The killer was an unemployed bricklayer, Joseph Zangara. He pleaded guilty to murder and died in the electric chair.

On the eve of Inauguration Day and with the shock of what occurred in Miami still ringing in the nation’s psyche and with multitudes of Americans struggling I hard times   Louis Howe, FDR’s longtime friend and adviser, is believed to have contributed those few words to Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address. Howe could have borrowed from thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, the American naturalist and author,  who wrote. “Nothing is so much to be feared than fear.” Or from the Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle: “Nothing is so much to be feared than fear.” Howe said he saw the line in a newspaper ad for furniture but no ad was ever found.

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 • 01-17-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 17 January 2013 15:04

The Fog of Corporate Welfare

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Last week I noted that banks accepted responsibility in billions for foreclosure abuses. But, as Gretchen Morgenson, a financial writer for the New York Times, cautioned,  “If you were hoping that things might be different in 2013 – you know, that bankers would be held responsible for bad behavior or that the government might actually assist troubled homeowners – you can forget it.”

The settlement, she said, does not end foreclosure abuses but “more of the same: no accountability for financial institutions and little help for borrowers.”

This past Sunday we learn from the same indispensable columnist that the rules are so written that banks may be able to deduct the fines from their income taxes. On paper the penalties seem huge:  billions for “supposed mortgage abuses,” and billions for “questionable foreclosures.” But, in fact, it’s a mirage.

“The dollar signs are big, but they aren’t as big as they look, at least for the banks. That’s because some or all of these payments will probably be tax-deductible. The banks can claim them as business expenses. Taxpayers, therefore, will likely lighten the banks’ load.”

Morgenson is one writer who helps us see more clearly through the fog of corporate welfare. Because of her reporting and that of others, the public recognizes wrongdoing when business gains tax benefits from spending to fix unlawful deeds. She cites the $10 billion tax break BP got by writing off $37.2 billion in expenses in cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

With news of multi-billion dollar mortgage settlements this year and last, she asks, “Why should taxpayers subsidize corporations that are paying to right sometimes egregious wrongs? This is a particularly weighty question, given the urgent need for tax revenue to offset  the ballooning federal budget deficit.”

But, although “money paid to settle a company’s actual potential for a civil or criminal penalty is not deductible, this being taxes, the issue is  complicated.” She quotes Robert W. Wood, a well-known  tax lawyer, who said in a 2009 article, “The tax deduction for business expenses is broad enough to include most settlements and judgments.”

Wood, the author of “Taxation of Damage awards and Settlement Payments,” acknowledged in an interview last week, that  he didn’t know the details on the mortgage settlements “but if any of the of the lenders are putting a bunch of money into a pot that goes to help people, yes, I would assume that everybody will deduct that.”

Joe Nocera, a Times columnist who also helps readers find their way through the financial fog, writes this week that the government “fumbled” in the way it has handled the crisis. He says, “The government insisted that the banks hire expensive consultants to do a review of every foreclosure that took place in 2009 and 2010. The consultants racked up more than a $1 billion in fees, while proceeding at such a molasses like pace that the feds and the banks finally threw up their hands. The settlement made the whole thing go away.” In fact, the $8.5 billion settlement between regulators and 10 banks “over their foreclosure misdeeds is more about public relationships than problem solving” to help troubled homeowners.

No one is held accountable. “The settlement covers 3.8 million foreclosures or about $3.3 billion, or about $1,150 per lost home...The money is being distributed with no regard to whether a borrower suffered harm...those who really were truly harmed by bank behavior will be shortchanged.”

Nocera cites Karen Petrou, a prominent banking consultant, as saying the government has “come up with something that gives every borrower – maybe – a pittance and leaves the truly hurt – and there were many – as much in the lurch as before.”

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 • 01-10-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 10 January 2013 16:32

“Another Gift to the Banks”

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Several years ago during the financial meltdown I happened to get into a conversation with a lawyer who worked for a bank in a town I was visiting. He excused the banks from blame in the crisis, saying it was the fault of people who lied and cheated, claiming an income and net worth they didn’t have.

I wonder what he would say today with the banks accepting responsibility in billions for foreclosure abuses including flawed paperwork and botched loan modifications.

But as Gretchen Morgenson, a financial columnist, for the New York Times, said Sunday, “If you were hoping that things might be different in 2013 – you know, that bankers would be held responsible for bad behavior or that the government might actually assist troubled homeowners – you can forget it.” A settlement announced Monday does not end foreclosure abuses but “more of the same: no accountability for financial institutions and little help for borrowers.”

In 201l regulators began moving against 14 banks including JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup, after the foreclosure process was found to be “rampant” with “misdeeds.” People who borrowed believed they had been ripped off  by the way their banks did business. Borrowers suspected that they had been swindled by bank practices: “levying excessive and improper fees, or foreclosing when a borrower was undergoing a loan modification.”

About 4.4 million borrowers were caught up in the foreclosure net during that time.

In the settlement people who had lost their homes “because of improprieties” would get a total of $3.75 billion in cash. An additional $6.25 billion “would be put toward principal reduction for homeowners in distress.”

Morgenson says the deal is “your first clue that it is another gift to the banks.” She writes, “It’s not clear which borrowers will receive what money, but divvying up $3.75 billion among millions of people doesn’t amount to much per person. If, say, half of the 4.4 million borrowers were subject to foreclosure abuses, they would each receive less than $2,000, on average. If 10 percent of the 4.4 million were harmed, each would get roughly $8,500.”

She pointed out that last year federal regulators outlined possible penalties: “if a bank had foreclosed while a borrower was making payments under a loan modification, it might have to pay $15,000 and rescind the foreclosure. And if it couldn’t be rescinded because the house had been sold, the bank could have had to pay the borrower $125,000 and any accrued equity.” But, as she says, that was last year.

Alys Cohen, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, remarked: “We think if the reviews were done right, the payouts would have been significantly higher than they appear to be under this settlement. The regulators will have abandoned their responsibility if the banks end up getting off the hook easily and cheaply.”

In other words the banks would be paying pennies for every dollar they’ve ripped off from the working and middle classes.

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 • 01-03-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 03 January 2013 12:58

Remembering “Stormin’ Norman”

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The death of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf last week at 78 put me in mind of the first day of the Persian Gulf War. I spent it (Sunday, February 24, 1991) in a videotape room at the CBS News Broadcast Center in New York.

The general’s briefing for the press in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia was already being recorded when I took my seat. We were ten minutes and a few seconds before airtime; the large hand of the clock slicing through time as the general was addressing routine matters.

My assignment was to find a world-shaking sound byte for the top of the show. Joe and Bob, my videotape editors, and I were saying, “My God, isn’t he ever going to say something worth racking up?” Every second seemed like an eternity.

The big second hand on the wall sliced off the seconds: 8:52:30...8:53...8:54. The thought hit us that we were not going to make it for airtime at nine a.m.

We’d recognize a headline when we heard it: bells wouldn’t go off but our guts would. Then:

SCHWARTZKOPF: Ten hours into the ground offensive more than 5,500 prisoners have been captured...many hundreds north ...surrendering...Friendly casualties have been extremely light...remarkably light.”

We made the top of “Sunday Morning” with seconds to spare, a pure and joyful moment. However, the euphoria was short-lived. No sooner had I returned to the chaos of the newsroom than I was dispatched to videotape again. The mission this time was to put  together a piece that touched on major points of the Schwartzkopf briefing for  Charles Kuralt to talk about.

By now turmoil had hit videotape. The usually unflappable female supervisor said, “You’ve got six minutes before air! Can you do it? Do you know what you want?” “Want?” I was thinking. I wanted a drink of water and a moment to visit the men’s room.

There being no time to edit, we had to “hot switch” –  taking  elements of what Schwartzkopf said and relaying them, on time cues, to a second machine that would be playing on the air. It was a mine field; one false move and we were all casualties. An interminable minute was spent searching for “Stormin’ Norman’s” wondrous remark that the allies were “to go around, over, through, on top, underneath, and any other way it takes to beat them.” We wouldn’t score without that byte. We were  thinking maybe we could live without it. But we really couldn’t, and show our face upstairs in the newsroom.

All at once up comes the byte – kaboom! – and the supervisor was on the line to the director in the control room with the outcue, a piercing cry: “the mucking outcue is ‘and any other way it takes to beat them.’ That’s the mucking outcue, at a minute and four seconds!” A split second later “Stormin’ Norman” was on the air declaring, “and any other way it takes to beat them.”

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 • 12-27-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 27 December 2012 13:45

Aftermath of a Massacre

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

After the school massacre in Connecticut, the president said that the enormity of the problem of gun control cannot be “an excuse for inaction.” As the New York Times notes, he’s said this before after two earlier massacres, and did nothing. But there are signs that people are willing to reconsider their attitudes.

The newspaper cited two Democratic senators with top ratings from the National Rifle Association – Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia – as saying the time has come to consider restrictions on selling and buying guns. California’s senator Dianne Feinstein is planning to introduce legislation that would toughen an assault weapons ban that she authored, but which expired eight years ago.

For its part, the National Rifle Association has put Washington on notice that it will fight any move by Congress to strengthen the rules on guns. Wayne LaPierre, the vice president of the N.R.A., heaped scorn on a task force called for by the president and led by vice president Joe Biden to consider plans to reduce gun violence.

In an appearance Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Pierre said, “If it’s a panel that’s just going to be made up of a bunch of people that, for the last 20 years, have been trying to destroy the Second Amendment, I’m not interested in sitting on that panel.” His organization, he said, “is not going to let people lose the Second Amendment in this country, which is supported by the overwhelming majority of the American people.”

(The Second Amendment, the focus  of much heated debate over the years, is tantalizingly brief. Ratified on Dec. 17, 1791, it says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”)

The N.R.A.’s defiance of moves to legislate limits on guns sends a message to the White House that it will have a fight on its hands. With three million members, the N.R.A. is among the most influential lobbies in Washington, with support from many Congressional Republicans and Democrats.

Pierre says the N.R.A.’s solution to deal with protecting children was to put police and armed guards in all the schools, adding, “If it’s crazy to call for putting police and armed security in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy.” But, he insisted,  it was the one thing that would keep people safe.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who also appeared on “Meet the Press,” thought Pierre’s remarks would win new converts for gun control. Said Schumer: “He blames everything but guns – movies, the media, President Obama, gun-free school zones, you name it. Now, trying to prevent shootings in schools without talking about guns is like trying to prevent lung cancer without talking about cigarettes.”

In these circumstances, if I had Obama’s ear, I would urge our re-elected 44th president to heed the words of a predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, our 28th: “The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience  to be as big a man as he can,” Wilson said. “His capacity will set the limit.”

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 • 12-20-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 20 December 2012 16:42

But We Didn’t Call It Christmas

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 .

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 .

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