Columns
Ken Burns Takes on an American Dynasty PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 11 September 2014 11:47

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Ken Burns, the relentless producer of TV documentaries, has a new, ambitious film for the multitudes. It is “The Roosevelts, An Intimate History,” chronicling the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt “3 members of the most prominent and influential family in American politics.” It’s to run in seven parts (for a total of 14 hours over seven weeks) on Sundays on PBS.

Burns and his team follow the Roosevelts for more than a century beginning with Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962.

According to one reviewer, the saga “touches on social movements, technological changes, and not least on methods of warfare.” A tall order even for 14 hours spread over two hours over seven weeks. To say nothing of the “infidelities, gossip, the mother-in-law issues, how media gave FDR a pass on his polio.” We’re told we see a few glimpses of FDR standing to walk, “sadly illuminating.”

In my own reading and talks with people close to Franklin, I would say that the most important crises he faced in his 62 years was when he was stricken with polio at 39 and when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. Roosevelt was 59.

A critic for the Denver Post sounded a sour note when he said that, in part. the story is  “overly celebratory, almost worshipful of this American dynasty...not critical enough.”

Burns is faulted for not “exploring  FDR’s inaction that cost so many lives during the Holocaust,” which my Webster’s describes as “the systematic mass slaughter of European Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War 2.” I was a kid when World War Two was raging. Roosevelt was a hero to me and fellow Jews for facing up to Hitler. Nonetheless and though I have read widely in the period, the lack of action to do something important during Hitler’s reign of terror remains a sore spot, an open wound, in the affection I otherwise feel towards Franklin Roosevelt.

A point made in the documentary – one that speaks to our own day – is that Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor, patricians all,  “devoted much of their lives to improving the lot of the masses.” Asked the Denver critic.”Why would these privileged, wealthy people devote themselves to public service, sometimes  pushing agendas like the New Deal?”

Burns’ answer is: “What we do is sort of engage mystery. We don’t solve it.”

He sounds reasonable enough, but for my money he’s burying his own story.

That said, I plan to watch Sunday and see for myself.

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 .


 
Equal Rights Is Still a Work in Progress PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 04 September 2014 12:06

GUEST COMMENTARY

By Congresswoman Barbara Lee • Special to the Times

“I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.” – Alice Paul

It took 144 years for American women to win the right to vote; it was another step on the road to a more perfect union.

The passage of the 19th Amendment was a hard-won victory and this week we commemorated the anniversary as Women’s Equality Day.

Yet, women know all too well that our nation’s promise of gender equality and equality continues to remain elusive.

The 19th amendment didn’t protect women from workplace discrimination, ensure equal pay for equal work or permit women to make their own healthcare decisions. Other laws at the time also excluded many women of color from the right to vote.

Only days after the 19th amendment was ratified, Alice Paul told an interviewer, “It is incredible to me that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has just begun. There is hardly a field, economic or political, in which the natural and unaccustomed policy is not to ignore women.”

In the ninety-four years since ratification, women have increasingly made their voices heard and slowly glass ceilings have been broken.

We have appointed four women to the Supreme Court and sworn in my friend Leader Nancy Pelosi as the first female Speaker of the House.

Thanks to the leadership of Congresswoman Patsy Mink, we have Title IX so women can access educational opportunities, and Title VII to prevent workplace discrimination.

Starting in 2002, California became the first state in the country to guarantee paid family leave. Sadly, only twelve percent of women across the country have access to this benefit.

Yet, the challenges remain.

Women are more likely to live in poverty.

Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women.

On average, women earn seventy-seven cents for every dollar earned by a man. For women of color, the wage gap is even worse. African American women earn sixty-four cents for every dollar a white man makes; for Latina women, it is fifty-three cents. For Asian American women, the wage gap is eighty-seven cents and for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, it is sixty-six cents for every dollar a white man makes.

When women earn less, they take home smaller paychecks and that hurts their families and our economy. It is a fact that when women succeed, American succeeds.

As we have seen over the last ninety-four years, women’s equality demands more than just ‘one person, one vote.’

In order to achieve true equality, we need to provide real pathways for women into the middle class, create more opportunities for women in the workplace and embrace programs that help working women juggle their many competing responsibilities.

This is why I am a proud co-sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 377) which will provide remedies for discrimination against women in their paychecks.  With the average woman only earned a fraction of a man’s wage and women of color earning less than that, it is time to take action and create mechanisms to prevent and address discrimination.

Similarly, I am also a co-sponsor of the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286) which will require paid family leave, something California has lead the nation in providing to working women.

These are small but important steps on the road to true equality between women and men; a road that leads to a more perfect union.

Congresswoman Lee is a member of the House Appropriations and Budget Committees.


 
The Summer of Lost Things PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 04 September 2014 12:04

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

It started in June when my 1992 Honda flunked its smog test. I put money into repairs and it passed. The car was good for another 100,000 miles.

A few days later the Honda was stolen. The police found it almost immediately minus the battery and radio. And the catalytic converter. A bad start to the free-wheeling days of summer,

The next thing was the Lady Friend lost her back scratcher. She depends on it every day. And every day she’s looking for it. She couldn’t find one in the local pharmacies. So she is planning a trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown. She’s sure there are shops there that stock them. I’m hoping she hops a BART soon for my own relief.

I don’t keep good files. I tend to let things pile up. When I need something, it is difficult to find. A few days ago I could not find chapters of a work-in-

progress. We sifted through pile after pile and found only a few chapters. We still have piles in multiples to go.

While we’ve been looking for the missing

chapters, the Lady Friend is also searching for the Flash Drive. The small device backs up all the files on the computer.

We’ve been missing articles of clothing. The Lady Friend’s favorite jacket, for example. She last wore it in July in a hospital room where I was having my annual checkup after surgery. (The news was good.) When we were leaving, the Lady Friend realized she wasn’t wearing her jacket. She went back to get it.

Too late. The cleaners had  finished with the room and had gone on. She retraced her steps. No sign of the jacket. It was light, stylish and a favorite of hers. She’s enjoyed wearing it for five years; now looking

to replace it with something like it. So far no success.

I’d left a blue, fleece-lined lumber jacket in my Honda the day it was stolen. I, too, find myself vainly looking for a favorite article of clothing just like it every now and then. So far no luck.

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 .


 
Locking Up Immigrants PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 28 August 2014 14:16

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

By way of 95-year-old Robert M. Morgenthau, who was District Attorney of New York County for 44 years (he retired in 2009), comes some stunning news for many of us in “blissful ignorance.” In the current issue of The Nation, Morgenthau brings us up-to-date on a little-noted national tragedy. In so many words, he says, it’s time to end the immigrant detention quota.

Morgenthau was one of the country’s most respected  D.A.s. In The Nation article, he lets the many ignorant among us – including myself –  in on one of the most shameful of secrets. If I didn’t know better, I would think I was reading Charles Dickens telling the story of the exploitation of the poor in the plutocratic England of the 19th century.

But Robert Morgenthau, unlike Dickens, did not grow up

poor. His father, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., was Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, neighbor, and friend; Robert Morgenthau’s grandfather was Henry Morgenthau, Sr., Woodrow Wilson’s secretary to the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

At the heart of the matter is that “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) keeps at least 34,000 immigrants locked up while they wait for their cases to be heard in immigration court.” It is not because many of these detainees are dangerous or likely to skip their day in court, he says, “but because ICE has to meet an arbitrary quota set by Congress.” The allotment, Morgenthau declares, commonly known as the “detention-bed mandate,” is “a disgrace” and should be done away with. In April 2013, he points out, that when she was Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano said that immigrants should be detained for being threats to public safety… “not an arbitrary bed number.”

Immigration detainees, as he tells us, have not been convicted of any crime, and many are eventually released and allowed to stay in the country. “They should not be languishing for months – sometimes for years in detention facilities. Detainees who are considered… a risk can be outfitted instead more cheaply and more humanely with electronic ankle bracelets ensuring that they will show up for their hearings.”

Yet the detainee quota “persists” for for-profit private prisons holding more than half of all immigration detainees. The “private-prison companies,” he continues, “have no incentive to keep immigrants out of detention, because these companies are paid per bed. Even a small reduction in the quota would be a hit to their bottom line.”

That is why, he asserts, they have poured money into campaign contributions, and lobbying efforts. One private-prison company, for instance, spent more than $13 million between 2005 and 2013 on lobbying. According to Morgenthau, it costs $2 billion a year to imprison enough people to meet the quota – about 40 percent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement – roughly 40 percent of ICE’s $5.3-billion budget for fiscal 2014.

In publishing the article, Morgenthau hopes to raise public awareness of the detainee quota because… “many people do not even know that it exists. Because of this fact, the quota has so far managed to avoid public outrage and continue in existence, thanks mainly to the money and efforts of self-interested private-prison operators and right-wing advocates of treating immigrants harshly.”

“The public’s blissful ignorance regarding the quota,” he adds, “does not excuse Congress from doing the right thing and getting rid of 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 .


 
A Nixon Memoir PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 14 August 2014 12:13

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Richard Nixon came to Eureka in his comeback attempt to be governor in California in 1962 after losing the presidency to John F. Kennedy two years before. The networks were running something about the race every night.

Since I worked for an NBC affiliate I queried the network’s Los Angeles bureau. Would there be interest in a network spot with Nixon? The reply came back of course!

It was a memorable visit. The whole town turned out, Democrats as well as Republicans, and our fringe groups on the right and left. Everyone‘s curiosity – and pride – was aroused.

Suddenly I was confronted by a face I’d recognized from the news. It was Herb Klein, Nixon’s press advisor. He urged me to skip questions about a $205 thousand loan to a younger Nixon brother from Howard Hughes, the aviator and movie producer. People were asking why Hughes had been so generous? Was Richard Nixon linked to the deal?

Klein told me to save my breath. Nixon won’t talk about it. “Ask him about the Communists: that’s where the news is.”

As I stepped into the hotel room  where the interview was to take place, Buster, my cameraman, was grinning. Nixon’s film crew was going to let us use their camera. No small deal. We did our interviews with an antediluvian movie camera. Nixon’s  camera was state-of-the-art. By now I was grinning, too, like Buster.

When Nixon stepped in for the interview, my heart was in my throat. Then Buster said, “Go!” To hell with Herb Klein, I thought,  and asked about the Hughes loan and much else. I expected Nixon to react in some savage way. But, during the next few minutes the candidate calmly denigrated the Howard Hughes story. Before we sped off for the station with the precious film we hugged the Nixon men for their benevolence.

The clock was moving. I was on deadline. As I was finishing my script Buster emerged from the dark room.

“It’s ruined, the film,” he said. “The sound’s gone – erased, wiped out.” Not a syllable of the interview was on film. Of course NBC  wasn’t interested in a local reporter’s rehash of Nixon’s equivocations.

We sent the film to a lab which, it said, could have been defective: the sound could have been distorted during the interview, something might have gone wrong in the

processing. Not one possibility but several. My suspicion then – as it remains today – was that Herb Klein hoodwinked us into using their wonderful camera, and saw to it that it was

loaded with defective film. I was new at the game, but I should have known better. Protecting Nixon from a hostile press was Herb Klein’s job.

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 .


 
In a Time of Drought PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 07 August 2014 13:47

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Day after day I pick up the paper in the morning to get the weather. It is the same story: There will be a few sprinkles possible but significant rain is not expected.

Few if anyone seems to be worried. The drought is not the talk of the town. I am surprised at how nonchalant most people seem to be.

It’s as if something terrible was happening on another planet, not on Earth, not  in California. I heard from one concerned reader who suggested diverting water from parts of the country with too much water to places in need like California. For some reason, I recall how we did the impossible in providing food and other vital needs during the Berlin Airlift in the Cold War. It’s a stretch, but I am anything but an engineer.

In his e-mail Luis Santillanes writes, “In the east of the country the problem with too much water exists. Homes flood, people drown, and property is destroyed. It seems to me a pipeline to bring water to the west is a necessary endeavor. This would be a great infrastructure project! It would be as important as the railroads were to the eighteen hundreds.”

I have no idea what sort of  effort it would take to pull off something like this even if there were the will, the money, and the politics behind it.

“At one time,” Mr. Santillanes says, “California was said to have produced forty per cent of the nations food supply. If this water line would be built, every state could pull water from it at one time or another. The system could branch off in different directions just as the railroads branched off of one main line. This system could employ hundreds of workers and would be great for our economy.”

As Carl Sandburg said, “Nothing happens unless first a dream.”

In the meantime we are making do with conservation efforts. In a restaurant you have to ask for water. Some private clubs limit showers to two minutes. We hear that governments around the world are developing plans to conserve electricity and water in the event of a drought or heat wave or forest fire.

There is this extra from Mattier & Ross, the San Francisco Chronicle columnists. They  reported on Monday that three-quarters of residents in a poll by the Public Institute of California “want their local water providers to start mandating reductions.” But the water providers don’t seem to be in any hurry. One reason would be money. The East Bay Municipal Utility District — “drought or no drought — spends $410 million on its water operations and 1,800 employees.”

Water use by its customers is already down by 10 percent. If there is no change through next June, the water agency will show a loss of about $25 million, according to the Chronicle reporters.

So far the agency has been able to absorb the cost. But if East Bay residents heed Governor Jerry Brown’s “call for a 20 percent reduction the district would be out $50 million or so — and that would mean higher rates.”  A Catch-22.

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 .


 
Consequences of Age Discrimination PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Wednesday, 23 July 2014 14:39

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

It’s usually easier to identify race and sex discrimination in the work place than age discrimination. This is the gist of a new study by Princeton researchers in measuring age discrimination on the job. In sum, a professor and co-author of the study told a  New York Times reporter, “If you want to be an aging panther, and speak your mind to your manager, that’s fine. But expect consequences.”

It isn’t just in the work place. And you don’t have to speak uppity to feel discriminated against.  Most of the time you don’t have to open your mouth. Ask the Lady Friend.

At the checkout counter, she’s asked how many bags she wants for her groceries. If she wants everything in one bag, they’ll say, “Oh, you’re so strong,” as if she were a five-year-old.”

But at 80 she knows she has to slow down. Last week she hiked for eight miles on a narrow, hilly, rocky trail in the Trinity Alps with three women friends – ten to 15 years her junior. The pace had to be slower because of her. It made her feel guilty. She used to be able to keep up, if not lead the pack, and that was not so long ago.

The results of the Princeton survey don’t surprise either of us (I’m the senior by five years). It found that young and middle-aged workers can speak their minds more freely to their employers than 75-year-olds.

“Old people,” says the Lady Friend, “have always been a joke in this country. It’s just that we’re old and there’s nothing to be done about it. Younger people would like us to be cute and pliable and not assertive. At least that’s what I get from the story about the study, and from my own experience. If you’re assertive you are going to pay the consequences if you’re an older person, and those are the ones who generally speak up on the job.”

According to the Times article, when an older man or woman is laid off, it typically took two to six months longer to find a new job than it took younger workers. And the new job is likely to pay less.

A similar story was told by many unemployed older people during the recent recession. “They sent in their resume and got called for an interview, but when they walked in, potential employers saw their white hair and that was it,” the paper said.

As the Lady Friend put it, “The employers didn’t see the experience they saw on the application.”

This column originally appeared on July 25, 2013.

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


 
Car Crimes PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 15:41

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

My faithful 1992 Honda Accord flunked its smog test last month. After a visit to the repair shop, it was OK to drive. The other day I found the ancient wonder missing from the parking lot after I left my cardio-rehab class in Berkeley. I emptied my head in dread, retraced my steps, looked every which way. The car was missing. Gone. Stolen in daylight.

The nurses were flabbergasted. Nothing like this had ever happened before in the more than twenty years the rehab program has been saving wounded hearts. The stealth was an outrage in a place where one had always felt safe.

A cop came to the house that night. He thought the thieves may have been after the catalytic converter, an antipollution device in the exhaust system, a lucrative prize.

The next night the phone rang at 10. The Lady Friend went to pick it up. “It must be the police. They must have found the car,” she said.  It was. They had recovered the car in San Pablo, minus at least the battery and radio, and towed it to a storage yard in Richmond. “You want to come and get it,” the officer laughed, good naturedly. “Not tonight,” said the Lady Friend.

The following day, with the help of an insurance claims agent in Sacramento, we were able to “visit” the Honda in the Richmond yard where it was temporarily consigned. The woman in charge was of a kindly temperament. She let me step inside the car to retrieve an old New York Review of Books, a couple of  Northern California maps, and a pair of  indispensable eye glasses, in 20-20 condition.

On Tuesday I learned from my local shop where the car was finally towed that the catalytic converter was gone. The thugs had broken through the door to get inside, and, perhaps, with a screwdriver, dug through the ignition lock to get the car started and fled.

You may recall around the time the Honda failed the smog test,

the Lady Friend and I bought a new used Camry (2011), reasonably priced,  to keep us on the road if and when the Honda broke down. I’ll be seeing the insurance adjuster soon.

***

In Monday’s San Francisco Chronicle, Mattier & Ross reported that car thefts were up 10 percent in their city. There were 5,574 last year. Nowadays, they write, thieves are “brazen” enough to be making off with cars just a few doors from where Mayor Ed Lee lives.

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 .



 
Keeping the Fat Lady Singing PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 10 July 2014 14:54

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

“The Death of Klinghoffer,” which had its U.S. premiere in 1991 in San Francisco, is an opera that depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists who murdered an elderly and disabled American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer. The work is a controversial treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Joshua Kosman, the music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, took the argument further. In a piece, he asserted, the Met has produced a scandal “about an opera company’s unwillingness to back its own commitments.”

Kosman’s argument is with Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager. He blames Gelb for “caving in” to Jewish groups  “and laying down a new marker for institutional cowardice” when he cancelled the planned live HD broadcast in November of John Adams’opera about Klinghoffer.

The Met manager is letting the staged version go forward in New York. Only the broadcast which is beamed globally, “got the ax.” Kosman added, “The illogic of that distinction, silly as it is – apparently New Yorkers can handle material that’s too incendiary for other folks – pales beside the outright cravenness of Gelb’s decision...”

Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times’ critic, likes “Klinghoffer.” He describes it as “ a raw, brooding work that in its brutal honesty provides a kind of tragic  consolation.” And adds, “For me, it is Mr. Adams’s musically richest opera, with a stronger score, overall, than those for ‘Nixon in China,’ and ‘Doctor Atomic.’”

Tommasini said: “Art can offer insight and consolation, yes. It can also challenge, baffle and incense us. This ‘Klinghoffer’ production could have been an invaluable teaching moment for the Met, and its audiences. Mr. Gelb could have assembled Middle East historians, religious leaders and the ‘Klinghoffer’ creative team to have a public dialogue. Culminating in the simulcast.”

The composer, John Adams, is quoted by Tommasini as having said in an interview that it’s “very hard when something’s been stained with an accusation” like anti-Semitism. It’s “almost impossible to wash it out.”

I have not seen the opera though I hope to do so one day, and make up my own mind. However when pros like Kosman and Tommasini write as they did – “attention must be paid” – as the playwright Arthur Miller said of his main character in “Death of a Salesman.”

While all this was playing out, another Met drama is playing offstage: labor troubles may delay the next season. In a front page story on Tuesday, The Times noted the controversy has nothing to do with the Middle East or artistic freedom. It’s about pay and benefits of the workers.

The opera company wants to cut them, warning of  falling ticket sales, smaller grants and contributions from donors which have accounted for more than $300 million a year, or nearly half the house budget. Gelb, the Met manager, said he has to cut labor costs if the Met is to survive, declaring, “No cuts means no Met.”

Historically, in order to survive, art has always had to pay attention to the people who can afford to keep the Fat Lady singing.

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 .


 
70 Years Later PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 26 June 2014 13:57

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

I came across a piece entitled “A Boy’s Execution 70 Years Later,” on the editorial page of the New York Times on Monday, June 16. It told the story of George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old black youth who was arrested and charged with the murder of two white girls. They were found beaten to death in a ditch in rural Clarendon County, S.C.

One month later George was tried and found guilty. Less than three months after his arrest he was executed on June 16, 1944 - “the youngest person to be put to death in the 20th century. He was so small that the guards struggled to strap  him to the electric chair, and the jolt of electricity knocked the mask from his face.”

The piece, written by Jesse Wegman, of the Times editorial board, asserts that there is “strong evidence that George Stinney was in fact innocent, and that his arrest and prosecution were riddled with unconstitutional errors and misconduct.” In January, he noted, “a coalition of lawyers and civil-rights advocates made these arguments before a South Carolina court to either retry or exonerate him, 70 years after his execution.”

In 2005, six decades after Stinney was put to death, the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for minors. “But,” writes Wegman, “elements of the case still echo today. Some states are trying to short-circuit the capital appeals process so that executions can happen more quickly.”

In 1972, it looked as if the Supreme Court was ready to abolish the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. But in 1976, the Court retreated. Justice John Paul Stevens voted with the majority. But, Stevens, now 94, and retired from the Court since 2012, has had a change of heart.

In a new book,  “Six Amendments,” he argues for the abolition of the death penalty. His reason, as Cass R. Sunstein, of Harvard, cited in an essay in the New York Review of Books, is that “no legal system is likely to be able to eliminate the risk of executing innocent people. “A recent study, according to Castein, estimates that over 4 percent of all death row inmates were wrongly convicted.

Why does the U.S. still have the death penalty? There are excellent reasons for committing it to the dustbin of  history – it’s immoral, does not deter murder, and mostly affects minorities. It’s also more expensive than imprisonment for life, a subject maybe for another day.

“For me,” writes former justice John Paul Stevens, “the question that cannot be avoided is whether the execution of only ‘an insignificant minimum’ of innocent citizens is tolerable in a civilized society. Given the availability of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as an alternative method of preventing the defendant from committing further crimes and deterring others from doing so, and the rules that prevent imposing an `eye for an eye’ form of retributive punishment, I find the answer to that question pellucidly clear. When it comes to state-mandated killings of innocent civilians, there can be no `insignificant minimum.’” .

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



 
The 2nd Amendment as Amended PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 19 June 2014 10:50

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

In a new book, at age 94, John Paul Stevens, who served on the Supreme Court of the U.S. from 1975 to 2010, calls for updating the Constitution by adding six more amendments.

Amendments are hard to come by. After more than two centuries only 27 have been ratified. The Bill of Rights make up the first ten, and the three from the Civil War add up to almost half the rest.

In the aftermath of the massacres of school children in recent years, some lawmakers have called for tight controls on the sale of assault weapons and better background checks on people who buy firearms. At the center of the controversy is the Second Amendment. It simply states: “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.”

In 1939, Stevens points out, the Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapons had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated Militia.’” When Stevens joined the Court in 1975, the Second Amendment, he writes, was “generally understood” as limiting the scope of the Amendment to uses of arms that were related to military activities. In the time that Warren Burger was Chief Justice from 1969 to 1986, “no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment,” according to Stevens.

But organizations like the National Rifle Association interpreted the Second Amendment more liberally and “mounted a vigorous campaign claiming that federal regulation of the use of firearms severely curtailed Americans’ Second Amendment rights.” Five years after his retirement, in 1991, Burger was quoted as saying on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud. I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen my lifetime.”

In recent years, in 2008, by a five-to-four vote, the Court decided that a civilian has a right to keep a handgun in his home for self-defense. In another five to four decision, in 2010, the Court ruled that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment limits the power of the city of Chicago to outlaw the possession of handguns by private citizens.” Stevens dissented in both of those cases, at least in part because he believed – and does so today  – that “both decisions misinterpreted the law and were profoundly unwise. Public policies should be decided by the voters’ elected representatives, not by federal judges.”

If I get him correctly, his argument is that the Second Amendment has been abused at the expense of  representative government. where the people are empowered to rule. Stevens says,  “Across the Nation, States and localities vary significantly in the patterns and problems of gun violence, as well as in the traditions and cultures of lawful gun use...The City of Chicago, for example, faces a pressing challenge in combating street gangs. Most rural areas do not.”

If Stevens proposed change in the Second Amendment is ever taken up, five words would be added. It would – in full – declare: “A well regulated  Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the Militia, shall not be infringed.” Again the five words: “when serving in the Militia.”

I hope to get to other changes Stevens is advocating in his book, “Six Amendments,” including abolition of the death penalty, in a later 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 .


 
She’s Back! PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 12 June 2014 11:17

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

I have news on our search for a used car. We wound up with a four-door Camry, born in 2011, with 40,000 miles and enough leg room for my 6-2 frame. We put it to the  test – a  600-mile round trip on 101 from the Bay Area  to my old stomping grounds in Eureka.

Every year or two I need a Eureka and New York fix. Both are towering in memory. That is not to say we’re  planning a roundtrip east anytime soon in the Camry. When we’re up for a New York fix the chances are long lines, crowded airports, and       cramped seating will be more welcome than limitless highways, creepy motels, and risky restaurants.

On the morning after we arrived in Eureka, I began looking for a New York Times. a habit I’ve acquired when I find myself on the road.

The young woman at the desk at the Red Lion thought I might try  the nearby Shell station. A grocery as well as a gas station, it carried papers, but no New York Times.  However, as I was told, one store did, a grocery  many blocks away, a half mile or more.

I set out, glad to be on foot again and anxious to catch up with the world, when I heard someone calling me from the street. “You don’t want to walk it, mister. It’s too far. Wait. I’ll take you in my pickup.”

It was the fellow who ran the Shell station. I thanked him for his  thoughtfulness but begged off. I really needed the walk.

*  *  *

This week – actually Monday – the world heard that Barbara Walters, 84, was being called back from retirement. ABC wanted her to interview Peter Rodger, the father of the Santa Barbara shooting suspect, Elliott Rodger. According to media reports, the senior Rodger wanted Walters back on stage to interview him for an upcoming edition of 20/20.

The senior Rodger is to talk with Walters sometime in the coming weeks, ABC reportedly announced. The son, Elliot Rodger, is alleged to have killed six and hurt 13 near the University of California, Santa Barbara, before killing himself.

Last month Barbara said goodbye to her fans on ”The View”  – but as I cautioned  in a column on May 22, she’d talked about retiring before. I was rash enough to suggest her goodbye may have been what they call “a false exit” in show biz –  not for real.

When I was working on the Today Show in the 1970s, she was the hardest worker of all, tireless, indefatigable. People used to say that they would work as hard if they, too, made  millions. They didn’t get it. Maybe they still don’t. Barbara would be Barbara at any age, no matter what the money, for a scoop.

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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