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

The White House Lays an Egg

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics, it’s scary.

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

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

The ‘Tchotchke’ Challenge

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody Poops

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can try,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

Notes of a Reporter at Large • 04-26-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 26 April 2012 16:09

Secret Service Scandal

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The Secret Service is reeling from a scandal over suspected misconduct involving prostitutes on a presidential trip to Cartagena, Columbia. Such news heightens fears for the safety of the first black president. According to the New York Times, Obama started receiving Secret Service protection in the spring of 2007, nine months before the Democratic primaries began.

During Obama’s time in office there has been at least one misadventure for which the Secret Service might be faulted. At a state dinner in 2009, a couple without an invitation crashed the party. They posed for photos with luminaries and even got to shake hands with the president and first lady.

So far there is nothing to suggest the prostitutes in Cartagena were connected to any plot to harm the president. It is a reasonable fear, however, given the relationship between the world’s oldest profession and the underworld. Consider the role underworld figures have been suspected of playing in the assassination of President Kennedy.

However the story pans out, it’s shocking to hear of an investigation of the conduct of Secret Service agents – officers charged with providing protection for the president and the president’s immediate family. Unless I missed something, the history of the Secret Service has been one of courage and self-sacrifice. For example:

In a recent excerpt in the New Yorker from Robert Caro’s biography of  President Johnson – “The Transition: Lyndon Johnson and the events in Dallas” on November 22, 1963, Rufus Youngblood, the Secret Service agent in the vice president’s car, wasn’t sure what he heard after the first “cracking sound” but when “President Kennedy in the car ahead seemed to be tilting toward his left,” and one of the agents in the car immediately ahead of Youngblood was on his feet gripping an automatic rifle, Youngblood shouted, ‘Get down! Get down!’ and threw his body over the Vice President, shouting again, ‘Get down! Get down!’”

By the time the next two shots were fired, only eight seconds had elapsed. “Lyndon Johnson was down on the floor of the back seat of the car, with the weight of a big man lying on top of him, pressing him down.” Caro quotes Johnson as saying he would never forget –Youngblood’s “knees in my back and his elbows in my back.”

On March 30, 1981 John Hinkley, described as a 25-year-old drifter from a wealthy family, fired six rounds from a revolver at President Ronald Reagan as he came out of a Washington hotel. Jerry Parr, senior Secret Service agent on the scene, “slammed Reagan into the presidential limousine and pounced on top of him as a shield.  Neither Parr nor Reagan realized that he had been hit.” But when the president began coughing up blood, Parr ordered the limousine to George Washington University Hospital. Doctors later said that Reagan’s “blood pressure had dropped so sharply that if treatment had been delayed just five minutes he probably would have died.” 

Other rounds from Hinckley’s pistol left press secretary James Brady severely paralyzed. A police officer and a Secret Service agent were also seriously wounded. (Source: “The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents,” editor William A. Degregorio.)

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 • 04-19-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 19 April 2012 15:58

Såving the Post Office

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The other day a friend clipped a cartoon for me. It shows 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, asks, “What’s a newspaper?”

As my friend suspected, the irony was likely to strike a chord, and it did. Even though I jumped ship many years ago to work in television, the newspaper remains  for me the heart and soul of the business

I also have a soft spot for the post office which, I see, may have to cut Saturday mail delivery and a good deal more to make ends meet. 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.

In more recent times, because of declining mail volume and reforms, the Postal Service was transformed from a taxpayer-supported institution into a “revenue neutral” agency that is expected to pay for itself, as the Nation magazine points out in its current issue. Last year the Postal Service recorded a $3.8 billion loss and some estimates project an ever-rising deficit climbing into the billions in multiples by 2020.

Because the post office is looking for places to cut in its budget, businesses, fearful of less service and rising costs, are coaxing customers to pay bills electronically, e-mail documents, and shop on the Web.

So, one hears people asking, is the post office really necessary in an age of ultra-speed Internet? I say yes. It is one of the few institutions – and the oldest of American major public services established by decree of the Continental Congress and, incidentally,  promoted by Benjamin Franklin – that retains a human face.  Hundreds of millions of Americans rely on the local post office. In neighborhoods and small towns it is the heart of the community.

The post office is a life line for half 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.

My fear is that like so much else that our government used to do for our taxes, and do quite well, the Postal Service may one day be privatized by a Washington in the coils of Wall Street. That would be a very sad day for our democracy. As the Nation magazine says, “the Postal Service should be re-imagined – not shrunk.”

This column originally appeared on April 22, 2010.

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 • 04-12-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 12 April 2012 14:35

Mike Wallace: 19182012

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

I was not surprised when I heard that Mike Wallace was dead at 93. The famous “60 Minutes” interrogator had been in failing health for some time at a care facility in New Canaan, Conn.

The end  came  Saturday. CBS announced the news on the Sunday Morning show. I thought Mike would have liked the timing – just hours before the weekly “60 Minutes” broadcast. The news could not have been more timely. There had been  years to prepare for this hour and do justice to one of the country’s best-known broadcast journalists.

But there was no real obituary. Morley Safer said a few deeply felt words, then told us the show would give the life and legacy of Mike, the full treatment, next Sunday – a week away!

I’m sure, like many others, I was baffled and disappointed. News organizations are supposed to be ready for such moments. You could bet a paper like the New York Times would not have been unprepared – and it wasn’t. The news broke too late for Sunday’s Northern California edition but there it was on Monday morning’s front page: “Mike Wallace, 1918-2012: Fierce ‘60 Minutes’ Interrogator Who Didn’t Blink.’”

Under a picture of Mike, the caption read: “Mike Wallace hurled fierce questions for more than 50 years.” Inside a full page of text and pictures rounded out the record. The San Francisco Chronicle also caught up with the story on Monday morning.

I wondered: Has “60 Minutes” suffered deep cuts in budget and staff as so many others in the media? Was the absence of a timely obit on the show’s marquee performer connected to downsizing?

Instead of the life and times of one of its own reporters, “60 Minutes” devoted the hour to a seminar on Europe’s debt crisis, an inconsequential piece on the sport of polo and a fine story on a symphony orchestra in the Congo.

All could have waited on the first Sunday after the death of its star journalist who, over a span of more than 40 years, helped make “Sixty Minutes” perhaps the most successful show in television history.

A week in the news game is a millennium. By then Mike’s story could be deader than a door nail.

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 • 04-05-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 05 April 2012 16:36

Strange Bedfellows

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

News Item: Newt Gingrich met secretly with Mitt Romney on March 24 on the eve of the Louisiana primary.

Was the former House speaker dropping out? Gingrich told the Washington Times he did not make a deal with Mitt to quit the race. He was in for the duration despite many primary losses. Meanwhile, we’ve learned that Sheldon Adelson, Newt’s benefactor, the casino magnet, is writing no more checks and that a third of the people on Newt’s payroll have been let go.

Although Gingrich insisted Romney did not offer to help him with campaign debts or a job in any administration in return for leaving the race, and vowed to fight on to Tampa, you have to wonder.

And although Rick Santorum was behind Romney by a wide margin in delegates before Tuesday’s primaries, 554 to 241, he kept the heat on. (The votes of 1,144 delegates are needed to lock up the presidential nomination.) Santorum had argued there were no policy differences between President Obama and Romney. He called Romney the “worst Republican” to run against the president.

And yet going into primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia, where Romney was favored in all three contests, Santorum seemed to lower the temperature. “If Gov. Romney gets that required number (1,144 on the way to the convention), then without doubt, if he’s at that number, we’ll step aside,” he said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” But then added, ”Right now, he’s not there. He’s not even close to it.”

Given Santorum’s unpromising prospects to overtake Romney before Tampa and with a number of Republican leaders calling on him to end his primary bid so the party can focus on defeating Obama, you have to wonder.

I’ve been wondering, too. Santorum and Gingrich may need a job. And as many of us know this is a bad time to go looking for one. You can see where Mitt would be open to help. He needs a united party, moderates, Tea Party, the very conservative, Republicans all.

It’s no stretch to imagine Gingrich applying for secretary of state given the high opinion he has of himself. As for Santorum there may be a problem. So far as I know there’s no move afoot to establish a department of religion. But there’s no reason to suppose Mitt can’t rise up to the challenge.

As Charles Dudley Warner, the 19th century editor and essayist said, “True it is that politics makes strange bedfellows.”

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 • 03-29-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 29 March 2012 15:32

A Politician’s Worst Enemy

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

“We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” So said the Reverend Samuel D. Burchard, speaking for a delegation of clergymen calling upon James G. Blaine, the Republican Presidential candidate, in New York on October 29, 1884.

According to the “Complete Book of U.S. Presidents” by William A. Degregorio, Blaine listened passively, and the remark was left unchallenged. Blaine’s silence  cost him New York’s crucial Irish Catholic vote and, say historians, the election.

On the other hand, a politician’s worst enemy can be his own mouth.

In our own time there is such a Republican candidate. Ric Santorum created an uproar when he said he wanted to “throw up” after reading President John F. Kennedy’s speech affirming the first words of the First Amendment to the Constitution. They declare, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”

Santorum’s intemperate attack on John Kennedy’s 1960 speech could have been delivered by Elmer Gantry, the charlatan preacher in a novel by Sinclair Lewis.

Later Santorum said he wished he had used different language, but clung to his argument: people who want to express their faith in the public square are not welcome,  even oppressed.

In an interview with the New York Times, Catherine E. Wilson, a political scientist at Villanova University, said that by talking about matters of faith so often, Santorum seemed to come across as “more preacher than presidential contender.” It can be a turnoff for many Catholics and others. “People want politicians to have faith, but they don’t necessarily want to be hearing it all the time,” she said.

This view was ratified in new surveys. Although many primary voters share Santorum’s Catholic faith, they are not following him in overwhelming numbers. In fact, more Catholics supported Mitt Romney, a Mormon, in 10 of the 12 states where Edison Research canvassed people after they voted. The survey found that in most of the contests Santorum’s most reliable base has been evangelical Protestants, some Tea Party supporters, and the very conservative.

On Monday, Santorum attempted to make gainful use of a confrontation with a New York Times reporter. “If you haven’t cursed out a New York Times reporter during the campaign,” he said on Fox & Friends, “you’re not a real Republican.” He asked listeners for a $30 offering.

The reporter, Jeff Zeleny, had the temerity to push the ex-senator on his claim that Romney is “the worst Republican in the country” to take on President Obama. In a debate on CNN in January, Newt Gingrich scolded anchor John King for raising questions about the ex-speaker’s marriage to a former wife.

Gingrich’s arrogance – like Santorum’s – may have cheered supporters, but this is another case where a politician’s mouth is his worst enemy. For Gingrich and Santorum, my guess is that this is their last hurrah. As for Mitt Romney, remains to be seen.

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 • 03-22-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 22 March 2012 14:10

Picking a President

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

If it comes down to it – and there is an open convention and it comes down to a floor fight for the G.O.P. nomination – don’t despair. The turmoil may be good for what ails us. For the first time in a generation a major party’s nomination would be decided at their national convention rather than in primaries and caucuses. We’d  likely see  a political drama play out as of old – as a brawl rather than a coronation.

At this writing (the day of the Illinois primary) the race is still Mitt Romney’s to lose. He has 495 of the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination. He may still make it before the last primary in Utah on June 26. But before Illinois, Rick Santorum  had 252 delegates, Newt Gingrich 131 and Ron Paul 48. But it has remained a challenge for Romney to capture the souls of conservatives and put the Santorum challenge to rest.

The party’s last convention-floor fight was between Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford in 1976. (Ford survived the challenge but the clash hurt. Ford lost by only 2 percentage points to Jimmy Carter in the general election. Four years later Carter had to fight off a challenge  from Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy. That clash  contributed to his defeat in 1980 to a resurgent Reagan.

We learn the Republican officials are “bracing” for the possibility of a pre-nomination battle  between the party’s establishment (which favors Romney) and the Tea Party movement (which favors the more conservative Santorum and Gingrich, if not Ron Paul). According to the New York Times “the Republican National Committee has alerted the Committee on Contests to be ready for action...” before the convention is called to order at Tampa in August.

I’m old enough to remember the conventions on the radio.  Alabama was memorable because it came first in the alphabetical roll call of the states. “Mr. Chairman,” the leader of the delegation cried out, “Al-ah-BAMA, the Heart of Dixie, the Yellowhammer state, home of the Long Pine Tree, the beautiful camellia,” or something close to it, keeping the country in suspense before telling us the vote.

Many of the states did the same, seizing the limelight to promote the splendors of back home. Often a delegate jumps up to address the convention. At length, the official in charge signifies, “The chair recognizes the senator, governor, representative, or whomever and for whatever purpose.  ...”

I’m sure the legendary smoke-filled room played a role in these proceedings, where the party elders gathered to make a president. This is less true today since primaries are considered a more democratic way to go about the business. But I remember Walter Cronkite once saying that the smoke-filled room had its faults, but, on balance, it worked pretty well. The party elders knew the candidates, knew their secrets, their skeletons, their strengths and weaknesses, and by and large the country fared O.K. No doubt this is a subject worth pursuing in another column or two.

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 • 03-15-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 15 March 2012 15:06

Everybody Wants to be a Millionaire

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

The G.O.P. leader in the House, John Boehner, seemed to open the door to a compromise on President Obama’s tax-cut plan.  Boehner (no pun intended although his name is pronounced Bay-nar) has been the bane of Obama’s existence, a Captain No of the party of no. But when asked Sunday by Bob Schieffer of CBS News if Republicans would hold the tax breaks for most Americans ”hostage” to keep the lower rates for the wealthy, Boehner said:

“If the only option I have is to vote for some of those tax reductions, I’d vote for them.”

In other words, he would let the Bush gift that keeps giving to the rich expire at the end of the year but keep the middle class tax cut.

Maybe, l thought, Obama’s recent speeches to represent Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, as the guard dogs of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us were paying off.

But not so fast. Boehner’s sidekick in the House, Eric Cantor, wasted no time calling for a bill that would not exempt anyone, rich or middle class, from a tax cut. On the same day McConnell introduced legislation in the Senate that would safeguard the tax cuts for the rich.

Did Boehner misspeak or was he telling us that he could vote for something that even Barack Obama supported? Was he feeling the heat from the president’s efforts to say, in so many words, that Boehner and McConnell were out to rob the middle class to pay the rich? After all, a figure on the order of $700 billion in revenue “would be lost to the top 2 percent of earners in the next 10 years if their taxes do not rise,” according to the New York Times.

Obama wants to keep the Bush-era tax for 98 percent of families who earn less that $250,000 but leave the top 2 percent to pay what they did before the Bush tax breaks took effect.

I’m writing this on Tuesday, but so far as I can tell no other prominent Republican in Congress has yielded an inch in the resolve to reject a compromise.

It doesn’t make sense. The country is in desperate economic straits. People want jobs, homes, income and they are scared. And yet the Republicans reject compromise on legislation that represents a small step to spread the tax burden equitably. In an election year this would seem suicidal. But it’s working. The political winds are at their back. The polls are predicting a G.O.P. sweep in November.

When I’m in search of logic, I sometimes turn to the Lady Friend. I don’t know if her analysis makes sense, but she said, “People in this country think that if they work hard, keep their mouths shut, and play by the rules, they’ll be rich. Everybody wants to be a millionaire and think they have a chance to be one.”

This column originally appeared on Sept. 16, 2010.

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 • 03-08-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 08 March 2012 14:48

Jailing Bankers

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In the fallout from the savings-and-loan fiasco of the  late 1980s, more than 1,000 bank and thrift executives were convicted of felonies. But, we’re told, the rate of prosecutions for financial fraud today is less than half of what it was 25  years ago.

Last year, Chares Ferguson, the director of “Inside Job,” while  accepting his Oscar for the best documentary, complained, “Forgive me, I must start  by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a  single financial executive has gone to jail.”

That may no longer be true. This year a major mortgage lender  was convicted  of conspiracy,  sentenced to 30 years in prison, and, as of January, was seeking a retrial.

Last week in an Op/Ed piece in the New York Times, Phil Angelides, a former state treasurer of California and the Democratic candidate for governor in 2006, (he lost to Arnold Schwarznegger) asked, “Will Wall Street Ever face Justice?” Angelides chaired a bi-partisan commission set up by Congress in 2009 to study events that led to the collapse of financial markets the year before.

What triggered the article was a speech by Attorney General Eric H. Holder. In his remarks, Holder asserted that in fighting financial fraud the Obama administration’s “record of success has been nothing less than historic.”

Not so, dissented Angelides. Americans have “a gnawing feeling that justice has not been served.”

He wrote: “Claims of financial fraud against companies like Citigroup and Bank of America have been settled for pennies on the dollar, with no admission of wrongdoing. Executives who ran companies that made, packaged and sold trillions of dollars in toxic mortgages and mortgage-backed securities  remain largely unscathed.”

Further, he said, his commission was given only “meager  resources” to do its work although trillions “in household wealth” were lost in what Angelides described as a “financial assault on our country,” resulting in an estimated 24 million jobless or underemployed.

A Senate investigating committee, he said, was also obliged to carry on with only a handful of staffers.

Nonetheless both investigations “turned over rocks and exposed disturbing financial practices,” and gave evidence of foul play to the Justice Department. But even in cases where evidence of fraud and misrepresentation was strong, “inexplicably,” Angelidas said, there is no sign that the government has launched a serious investigation “to thoroughly examine who knew what when at these banks.”

Angelides advocates a series of measures the government must take to permit a thorough investigation, pointing out that “it’s already been nearly eight years since the FBI’s now famous warning of an epidemic of mortgage fraud.” And added, “the American people need to believe that a thorough investigation has been conducted; that our judicial system has been fair to all regardless of wealth and power; and that wrongs have been  righted.”

It’s hard to find fault with what Angelides is saying. But, the Lady Friend, for one, wonders why the United States has been unable to follow Iceland’s example. She’s said this ever since she heard the small democratic nation dealt with its banking crisis by jailing many of the bankers who broke their laws and deceived their people.

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 • 03-01-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 01 March 2012 12:55

Religion and Politics

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

Rick Santorum is making a case for religion in public life. He declared that he does not believe “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

In fact, Santorum, a Catholic, said  that he felt like “throwing up” after  reading the speech John F. Kennedy, delivered in 1960, pledging strict separation of religion and politics. Kennedy did become president, and the first Catholic elected to the office.

Since Santorum and other Republican aspirants to the  presidency have made an issue of religion in politics, I thought it might be interesting to know what role religion played in the lives of some, if not all, of the big names in our history. The quotations are taken from “The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents” by  William A. Degregorio, Wings Books,1993.

George Washington1st President: “Episcopalian. However, religion played only a minor role in his life. He fashioned a moral code based on his own sense of right and wrong and adhered to it rigidly.”

Thomas Jefferson 3rd President: “Jefferson grew up an Anglican, but from early adulthood professed faith in a Creator uninvolved in the affairs of this world. He relied  on precepts, but he had little use for the church itself.”

Andrew Jackson 7th President: “Presbyterian. Although not especially religious, Jackson was not the heathen many churchmen believed him to be. He frequently skipped Sunday services… but he also  enjoyed reading the Bible and considered himself a practicing Christian.”

Abraham Lincoln 16th President: “Although his  father and stepmother belonged to a Baptist church, Lincoln never formally joined. In Springfield (Illinois) and  Washington, he attended Presbyterian service. Lincoln acknowledged that he belonged to no church but wrote ‘I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion, in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.’”

Woodrow Wilson 28th President: “Presbyterian. ‘My life,’ he said, ‘would not be worth living if it were not for  the driving power of religion, for faith, pure and simple….’ In the White House  he read the Bible daily, said grace before meals, and prayed on his knees each  morning and night.”

Theodore Roosevelt 26th President: “Dutch Reformed… A firm believer in separation of church and state, he considered it both unconstitutional and sacrilegious to stamp In God We Trust on U.S. coins and as president tried unsuccessfully to have the legend removed.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt 32nd President: “Episcopalian. Rarely spoke about his faith. His wife and others close to him maintained that he believed in God and divine guidance but had little patience for complex dogma. He was well versed in the Bible and believed that a succinct guide to life could be found in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Ronald Reagan 40th President: “Disciple of Christ, Presbyterian. Reagan often expressed deep faith in God but as president rarely attended Sunday services. He believed in a divine plan in which everything happens for the best. Yet he also believed in free will.”

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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