Playing Politics with Congress PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 29 January 2015 14:26


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

House Speaker John Boehner, coming off Republican triumphs in the recent election, is carrying on as if he were president. He announced last week that he’d invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress.

“Normally, the visit of a world leader would be arranged by the White House,” the New York Times said in an editorial. But in a breach of sense and diplomacy, Boehner  and the Israeli ambassador to Washington, have taken it as their own mission to challenge President Obama’s approach to achieving a nuclear agreement with Iran.”

Netanyahu, facing an election in March, apparently thinks he’ll bolster his standing at home and win the loyalty of a Republican Congress by rebuking the president. As for the Speaker of the House, “he seems determined to use whatever means  available to undermine and attack Mr. Obama...”

As a rule, the visit of an important head of state  to the U.S. would be handled by the White House.

Boehner is playing high stakes politics of a kind that backfired in the early 1950s.

General  Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) was invited to address a joint session of Congress  after he was fired by President Truman, an unpopular president, for insubordination during the Korean War. (Truman relieved the general for fear MacArthur would set off World War 3 with China in 1951.) For a short time, MacArthur was perhaps the most popular American alive.

Truman’s approval  rating had fallen to 22%. (It has remained the lowest Gallup Poll approval recorded by any president. These days historians rank Truman among our better  presidents.)

During his 34-minute speech, the general was interrupted by 50 ovations. It concluded famously proclaiming “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” The speech aroused expectations he would run for president. It never quite happened although he was the keynote speaker at the 1952 Republican convention. Senator Robert A. Taft and General Dwight Eisenhower were the chief contenders for the presidential nomination. Eisenhower was nominated, and went on to win the ’52 election by a landslide.

Truman and his advisers  were gathered around a television set in the White House on the day MacArthur spoke before Congress , wondering whether they were already history. All, that is, except Dean Acheson, the secretary of state. He thought the speech was more than pathetic. In his first-rate biography, ”American Caesar,” a life of Douglas MacArthur, the late William Manchester quoted Acheson of saying the festivities “reminded him of the father who had zealously guarded his daughter’s chastity and who, when she announced she was pregnant, threw up his hands and cried, ‘Thank heaven, it’s over!’” Truman, less elegant, felt that his opinion of the speech had been confirmed; for all “the carrying on and the damn fool Congressmen crying like a bunch of women, it was a hundred percent B.S.”

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 the Aftermath of the Terrorist Attack PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 22 January 2015 16:11


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

More than a million people from around the world gathered in Paris in support of freedom of expression. In a letter to the New York Times a woman in Phoenix wrote, “Was it wise to publish offensive cartoons? Probably  not.  If there is a judgment to be made, it is to maintain dignity as a nation, but not at the expense of liberty. If we stand by our values we will prevail.”

In a recent article the newspaper took the question further. It asked, “France finds itself grappling anew with a question the United States is still confronting: How to fight terrorism while protecting civil liberties?”

The New York Times which reported the massacre in detail did not print any Charlie Hebdo cartoons which triggered the rampage that killed 17 people, including Charlie Hebdo, the editor, and two police officers.

The attack is believed to have been carried out by Muslim extremists in response to the newspaper’s history of publishing caricatures that slandered the Prophet Mohammed.

The other day the  PBS News Hour spent much of its time  on the story but also chose not to show a cartoon. When Judy Woodruff raised the question with moderate to liberal Mark Shields and moderate to conservative  David Brooks, the broadcast’s pundits, both agreed the News Hour did the right thing by keeping the cartoons off the air.

But in a letter to the Times Floyd Abrams,  a First Amendment lawyer who represented the Times in the Pentagon Papers case, wrote: “The decision of the New York Times to report on the murders in Paris of journalists who worked for Charlie Hebdo while not showing a single example of the cartoons that led to their executions is regrettable. There are times for self-restraint, but in the immediate wake of the most threatening assault on journalism in living memory, you would have served the cause of free expression best by engaging it.”

Supreme Court Justice  Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. is one of our  most cited legal scholars on freedom of speech. In the early years of the last century he advocated judicial restraint. “If there is a principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other,” he wrote,  “it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.” He  also put a limit on free speech, famously saying “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic.”

His opinions were widely discussed and admired. Holmes, who fought in the Civil War, said the “Founders regarded the Constitution as an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” He favored efforts for economic regulation under the New Deal and advocated broad freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

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 More Divided Country PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 15 January 2015 15:48


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This column originally appeared on November 8, 2012.

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 .

Famous Lives PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 08 January 2015 16:48


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Long before there was a Barack Obama there was Edward W. Brooke III, the first African-American elected to the United States Senate by popular vote. A Republican, Brooke won in a landslide in Democratic Massachusetts in 1966. He was re-elected in 1972. According to the New York Times, he’s still the only black senator to have been returned to office.

Brooke took pains to avoid labels, but his positions were more liberal than those of the rising number of conservative Republicans joining the upper chamber. As the Times noted, he opposed the expansion of nuclear arsenals, favored more cordial relations with China and championed civil rights, the legalization of abortion and fair housing policies. He strongly supported programs to aid cities and the poor.

In a 1966 book, “The Challenge of Change: Crisis in Our Two-Party System,” he asked, “Where are our plans for a New Deal or a Great Society?”

A sharp critic of his party’s leader, President Richard M. Nixon, Brooke led the fight to deny two Nixon nominees  to the Supreme Court on grounds their positions on civil rights were open to question. When Nixon was ensnared in the Watergate scandal, Brooke called for the appointment of a special prosecutor. He was the first Republican senator to demand Nixon’s impeachment.

I’d long been gone from my native Massachusetts when Brooke was first elected, but I remember my mother, a Republican, and other family members, mostly Democrats, imagining Brooke’s one day becoming the first African-American president. It never happened but it was a glimmer of an America to be.

In 1974 when I was working for the Today Show there were rumors that Barbara Walters and Brooke were in a clandestine romance. Many years later, in 2008, Walters wrote about the affair in a memoir. Before the book was written Walters told Brooke in a letter that she would write about the affair. Walters said he wrote back “a very nice note.”  In the book, “Audition,”  she said “only my closest friends knew” of the relationship  which she described as “a long and rocky affair,” adding, “Oh, yes. He was also married.”

Edward Brooke, she said, “was simply the most attractive, sexiest, funniest, charming, and impossible man. I was excited, fascinated, intrigued, and infatuated.”

The story was bound to come out. Neither could afford the risk for their careers. “He was proud of being in the Senate and his future could only get better,” Barbara said. “I also could not risk my career, I had a child and my family in Florida to think about. We decided wisely but very sadly that we had to stop seeing each other. That was that. We stopped.”

Brooke, who lost his bid for a third term in 1978, died last Saturday at his home in Coral Gables, Florida. He was 95. Barbara is in her 80s but that may be as much as she is likely to say.

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 .

Crocodile Tears PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 02 January 2015 22:37


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist,  wrote a curious piece the other day. He said Elizabeth Warren can win the Democratic nomination for president. Brooks, a Republican moderate,  is sticking his nose into a family feud.

The rise of Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, is an intriguing subject. The Harvard law professor is a freshman politician but she is already getting national attention. Brooks admires her memoir of growing up in hard times. As an adult her  big battle “has been against the banks, against  what she saw as their rapacious exploitation of the poor and vulnerable,” Brooks quotes from her memoir, “A Fighting Chance.”

She makes  the argument that “it’s not just social conditions like globalization  and technological change that threaten the middle class. It’s an active conspiracy by the rich and powerful. The game is rigged. The proper response is not just policy-making; its indignation and combat.” Brooks notes that the words “fight” or “fighting” appear in the book 224 times, thus defining her as confrontational and combative.

“The political class,’’ the Republican pundit so informs us, “has been wondering if Warren will take on Hillary Clinton...for the Democratic presidential nomination. This speculation is usually based on the premise that Warren couldn’t actually win, but that she could move the party in her direction. But, today, even for those of us who disagree with Warren fundamentally, it seems clear that she does have a significant and growing chance of being nominated.”

Brooks is suggesting that a  feisty candidate like Warren might be the Democratic candidate to trump Hillary and open the floodgates to a Republican triumph come November 2016.

Hillary is widely expected to announce a campaign for the presidency in 2015. For now she is the favorite to succeed Obama as the party’s nominee in 2016. But she could have a problem in a party that may be rediscovering its roots in  populism and the New Deal.

This no doubt is what Brooks is savoring: a movement on the left that could deny Hillary the nomination, install in her place a candidate that is or could be out of control. For now Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren seems to fill the bill.

Hillary, a favorite of Wall Street from her time representing New York in the Senate, is the most likely candidate to lead the Democratic party today, tomorrow, and in 2016. Brooks concedes populist candidates like Warren rarely win. The young senator from Massachusetts, however appealing to the left in the dawn of a  new year, is not likely to take the nomination away from the establishment.

Brooks himself says as much, though in a hypocritical show of sorrow.

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 .

But We Didn’t Call It Christmas PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 26 December 2014 14:20


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 .

Lessons from My Grandmother PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 18 December 2014 14:05


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Sometimes when I go to the movies and love scenes heat up the screen I think of my grandmother or Bobbe, as we called her in Yiddish. I hear her, complaining, “Mine gelt (money) is in hell, American gonifs (thieves, crooks).” In other words the moviemakers were stealing her purse.

In my grandmother’s philosophy romantic love was hokum, devised  to rob a simple-minded public of its hard-earned money.

She’d had a hard life, raised eight children in a household where money was scarce, and everyone worked. My grandfather eked out a living as a mohel, the man who circumcises the male baby in a religious ritual eight days after birth.

When Bobbe went to the movies she wanted excitement, action, above all a good story. The love scenes were cheats, giving audiences nonsense while the movemakers made off with your wallet.

She taught me lessons of life: memorably question what you see. It’s almost never the whole story.

One day when we were in the park she pointed out a couple in passing. They walked far apart. After they went on, she said, “They’re married.”

“How do you know?” I asked

“I know,” she said.

A short while later we passed an adoring couple clinging like ivy.

“Now those people, they’re not married,” she said.

To this day when I pass couples distant or intimate I’m likely to venture a status to the Lady Friend..

“But how do you know?” she challenges.

“I know,” I say. “My grandmother told me.”

When I recently saw the movie, “Amelia,” with Hilary Swank and Richard Gere, I caught myself hearing my grandmother. Although Swank does a great job portraying Amelia Earhart, the moviemakers made away with my money. Too much time was spent on sex and not enough on the story. Earhart, a pioneewring aviator, was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1928, a time, as the Washington Post noted, “when a lot of women didn’t drive.”

A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Earhart inspired Mrs. Roosevelt to travel by air. In 1933, early in FDR’s presidency, a party including Eleanor flew over Washington with Amelia. It caused the New York Times to report, “The First Lady of the Land and the first woman to fly the (Atlantic Ocean) went skylarking together tonight in a big Condor plane.”

It’s in the history books, but you won’t find it and a good deal more in “Amelia,” the movie.

As my Bobbe would have said, “Mine gelt is in hell. American gonifs.”

This column originally appeared on December 10, 2009.

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 .

Hard Times PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 11 December 2014 15:31


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

I’m thinking of a time in the late 1950s when my wife and I were living through  an economic recession of our own. We were living off the charity of her mother in Salem, Oregon. Some months before, I’d quit my newspaper job in California and taken my bride to Mexico. Like many aspiring writers before and after, I was going to write the Great American Novel. Hemingway could eat his heart out.

In the end, we had little to show for our enterprise; and, with our savings gone, we sheepishly made our way back to the States, wounded in spirit and dead broke.

I had to find a job. Newspaper work was scarce around Salem. Things got so bleak that I was willing to try my soft hands at manual labor. My wife was too frail for the job market. She’d recently had emergency surgery for a ruptured tubular pregnancy.

One day I spotted an opening at a downtown gas station. I  knew next to nothing about cars, except for checking the oil, and changing a tire. But the station manager wasn’t looking for a mechanic. He wanted someone he could trust on the graveyard shift —midnight to eight — someone to keep honest books.

Although he conceded I fit the bill, he refused to hire me.

By way of explanation, he said, “You’re overqualified. You’ve been to college.”

He didn’t understand why a fellow who’d been to a university would want to work in a filling station.

But I pressed. He heard my sorry plight and, probably to shut me up, gave me the job.

The station belonged to a chain that only sold gas and oil. No maintenance, no repairs, no tune up. The draw was a gift shop. For every gallon of gas purchased, a customer “earned” a coupon. Over time, one could accumulate enough coupons to arrive home with a winsome doll, or showy train or sparkling piece of jewelry.

Some people were in such a hurry to leave after they’d stopped for gas that they waved me off when I approached with their stamps. “Keep ‘em,” they said. And I did. A few others never wanted them. Before long I had a pile of coupons. How to dispose of them?

As day would break, a baker and a fellow from a paper mill showed up within an hour of each other. They filled their tanks and always reached out for the coupons. The baker was saving for that winsome doll. The fellow from the mill wanted the sparkling jewelry.

I don’t remember who thought of it, but the three of us eventually worked out a bartering arrangement. I began giving them my “free” coupons. In return, the baker brought me fresh bread from his ovens and the man from the mill reams of white paper. The baker’s fare eased the budget at home, and the reams of paper helped keep me writing.

The barter system — something to keep in mind in hard times.

This column originally appeared on Oct. 16, 2008. 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 .

November 19, 1927 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 20 November 2014 15:50


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

I was born in Boston November 19, 1927, the day of the perennial Harvard-Yale game. I know this because my father was at the stadium. No Harvard grad (a year or so at some cockamamie business school was as far as he got) but everybody living in Boston then rooted for the Crimson Tide. It came with the territory.

Calvin Coolidge was in the White House. Silent Cal they called him and for good reason. He was a president who took pride in doing as little as possible. His greatest fan was Ronald Reagan. When Coolidge died, Dorothy Parker is reputed to have said, “How can they tell?”

Herbert Hoover followed Coolidge. Hoover’s White House years were from March 4, 1929 to March 4, 1933. Hoover got beat badly when he ran for re-election but I was five years old and all I can remember is that my parents were rabid Republicans. My father, a flooring contractor, believed the Republicans really cared about the small businessman; my mother, bless her heart, was a snob.

In the 1936 election when Alf Landon, the governor of Kansas lost in a hopeless contest with Franklin Roosevelt, my mother confessed to me she had voted Democratic. After swearing me to secrecy, she said she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Landon. He was too ordinary. For all his faults Roosevelt was at least an aristocrat.

I came of age, politically speaking, in the age of Roosevelt, no secret to anyone who has ever gone to the trouble of reading this column. Radio was in its heyday and FDR its master. On almost any night that he was on the air, you could walk the quarter mile of Beals Street and not miss a beat. He was in office so long – twelve years –  through  the Great Depression and the Second World War – that it was hard to accept the fact that he was no more on April 12, 1945.

His successor, Harry Truman, was unpopular during most of his time in the White House. Hardly anyone expected him to win in 1948 when he faced New York governor Thomas E. Dewey. But he did win in an upset and has continued to grow in the esteem of historians and the public.

I didn’t vote for Eisenhower (Stevenson was my man) but Ike was an able supreme commander in World War Two and, in hindsight, a pretty good president.

Kennedy never lived long enough, and we’ll never know how he might have done. Johnson was a brilliant politician but he felt insecure following the glamorous Kennedy. Nixon was a brilliant fellow, too, but insecurity also made him his own worst enemy.

Most of you must be old enough to figure out the rest on your own.

But I do want to say that while I would like President Obama to show more spine on Wall Street, jobs and health care, it is remarkable enough that the country has matured to the point when it can elect a non-white president.

As for how old I am today, November 19, 2009, you do the math. I can’t deal with it.

This column first appeared on Nov. 19, 2009.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York.

After the Deluge PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 13 November 2014 15:42


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Stephen Colbert, the political satirist, published one of his occasional letters in the New York Times. This one came on the heels of last week’s election.

“In a slightly parallel universe,” he wrote, “it would be interesting to see how Democratic senators would have fared if instead of running from President Obama, they had embraced this leader who saved the country from another depression; saved the auto industry; brought unemployment down from 10 percent to below 6 percent; killed America’s greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden; passed health insurance reform; and put out constant fires.

“If instead of embracing the flawed media narration of a failed presidency,” Colbert added, “Democratic senatorial candidates had embraced Mr. Obama’s monumental accomplishments, I believe they would be returning to Washington next year as senators, not as lobbyists.”

In fact, five of the senatorial candidates Obama campaigned for in the last days of the election lost. Four others won, all in blue states.

From the beginning I thought Obama was too willing to compromise on reforming health care with Republicans whose goal was to cripple his presidency. Some days I wanted to see Obama take a punch and give one or two in return. But it wasn’t his style. The country may not have been up to it.

American democracy is still a work in progress. Sometimes Obama talked too long but it was in the tradition of some of his celebrated predecessors. The story is told about  a visitor who had an appointment to see Theodore Roosevelt at the White House.  He came out looking dazed. A friend asked what he’d told the president.  He never got the chance. “I told him my name,” he said. “And he talked for an hour.”

*   *   *

When Obama was elected president on November 7, 2008 it really did seem like morning in America. The headline in the New York Times the next day cried out: “Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.” The story from the Times’ Adam Nagourney’s said:

Obama’s election “swept away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease as the country chose him as its first black chief executive. The election of Mr. Obama amounted to a national catharsis – a repudiation of a historically unpopular Republican president (George W. Bush) and his economic and foreign policies and an embrace of Mr. Obama’s call for change and the direction and the tone of the county.”

It seems like a half-century ago when I read the piece, but it really was only yesterday.

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 Fading Humanities PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 06 November 2014 15:39


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

It’s not Iran, nor health care, nor immigration, nor even the loss of liberty in the name of security – it’s  none of these – and yet,  it is as worrisome an issue as any of the others, maybe more so.

It’s the loss of interest in the humanities. The most popular major at Stanford, one of the country’s most prestigious colleges, is computer science. There are no longer any humanities programs among the school’s most popular five, according to a recent report in the New York Times.

The economy has a great deal to do with it. The recession has helped turn college into vocational training. Students, like most of us, have cause to worry where their future is coming from. Only 15 percent of Stanford students are enrolled in the humanities.”  At the same time nearly half of the faculty teaches literature, philosophy, art, etc.

How representative is Stanford? Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, a public institution, said in September it was closing degree programs in German, philosophy, and languages and culture because of scant interest. Over the last decade, Harvard had a 20 percent drop in humanities majors and, “most students who say they intend to major in humanities end up in other fields,” noted the Times.

A big part of the picture has to do with the push from the White House to build up scientific productivity. Every other day, or so it seems, the president calls for more money for science and technology. No surprise that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is complaining that it is being taken for a stepchild. Its federal funding is decreasing.

While interest has been fading in the humanities at elite schools like Stanford, its professors, we learn, are producing important scholarship. They are “generously” paid, work in “stunning surroundings” and have “access to the latest technology and techniques of scholarship,” the Times said, adding, “The only thing they lack is students.”

Pauline Yu is president of the American Council of Learned Societies. She complains, “College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person.”

Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, also complains about hearing academics talking about the necessity of preparing students for jobs. “I think that’s conceding too quickly,” he said to the paper. “We’re not a feeder for law school; our job is to help students learn to question.”

Although the University of Virginia was down to 394 English majors last year from 501 when he came to the school in 1984, Edmundson  does not fear for the future. “In the end, we can’t lose,” he said. “We have William Shakespeare.”

Maybe. But if interest in the humanities continues to fade at places like Stanford and Harvard, and elsewhere, a nation of techies may well ask, “Shakespeare Who?”

This column originally appeared on Nov. 28, 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 .

What do the People Want? PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 30 October 2014 14:55


By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

What do the people want? What would they have? Is the country in such straits, so impoverished in intellect and innovation, imagination and talent, as to be ready to deliver the presidency to yet another family dynasty? Did the wrong side win the Revolutionary War? As Patrick Henry, the orator and a major figure of the American Revolution, might have said: Is this the way for a democratic society to go? Perish the thought!

In Monday’s New York Times we are informed that the Bushes are rallying to make brother Jeb the 45th president. The family believes it’s  Jeb’s turn.

He was a two-term Florida governor who made way for George W., an older brother, to be president when George W. gave up drinking, and was elected governor of Texas. The White House was his reward. After serving two terms as president, George W. left the White House quietly in the wake of the mess in Iraq he left for the rest of us.

George Herbert Walker Bush, the founder of the family dynasty, is 90. He was the 41st president, after being Ronald Reagan’s vice president in the 1980s. He’d lasted only one-term as president. Elected in 1988, he was defeated by Bill Clinton in ’92 – in large part with the help of  Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who ran as an independent. Perot may have helped elect Clinton. He  made it clear he was no fan of George H.W. Bush.

The Clintons, Bill and Hillary, are hard at work making their Democratic dynasty. If Hillary does decide to run and if she is the nominee of her party  and if she is elected  (lots of “ifs”) you might be able to say that the Clintons might  be  the first since the Roosevelts to be in residence at the White House for  more than 12  years. Speaking of dynasties!

*    *    *

We learned last weekend of the death of the astrologer Joan Quigley on Tuesday, October 21, at her home in San Francisco. She was 87, according to her sister Ruth Quigley, and only survivor.

Joan Quigley  was an astrologer who had access to Nancy Reagan with advice for President Reagan on “summit meetings presidential debates, Reagan’s 1985 cancer surgery and much more,” according to the Times, quoting from an 1988 memoir by Donald T. Regan, a former Reagan chief of staff.

Regan, the ex-chief of staff, did not know the astrologer’s name when he wrote the book, but he said the Vassar-educated Quigley – made her celestial recommendations  in phone calls to the first lady, sometimes as often as two or three a day. Regan had also been Reagan’s Treasury secretary and the chief executive of Merrill Lynch.

In an interview with CBS News in 1989, after Reagan left office, Miss Quigley said that after reading the horoscope of the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, she decided he was open to compromise and new ideas and persuaded Mrs. Reagan to urge her husband to abandon his view of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” There’s no evidence to support her claim but arms reduction treaties did follow.

In his memoir, “For the Record, from Wall Street to Washington,’  Regan discusses his disagreements with Nancy Reagan, including the claim that Nancy’s personal astrologer, Joan Quigley, helped steer the president’s decisions to some degree.

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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