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Lincoln: Alive and Well PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 20 February 2014 15:25

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Another February 12 has come and gone to remember Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president who was born on that date in Hodgenville, Ky., in 1809.

As Richard Brookhiser, a journalist and historian,  pointed out in an essay last week in the Wall Street Journal, Lincoln is still rated by historians as the greatest of our forty-four presidents, and yet he had almost no leadership experience when he was elected.

He’d never been a general, ran a big business, served as a governor, managed people. The most one could say was that he was a former state legislator, a one-term congressman and the senior partner in a two-man law office. Sound familiar?

It helped that Lincoln was a gifted writer, probably the most gifted ever to hold the office, though Jefferson has his fans. The Brookhiser piece is entitled, “What Would Lincoln Do?”

Our 44th president is never mentioned, but the implication is clear. Lincoln is an example, the measure by which presidents are judged. In Obama’s case it is much too early to say. Some presidents grow in stature after they are gone  – Harry Truman comes to mind; others, say George W. Bush, shrink.

What flickers in my mind about Lincoln is his self-deprecating humor. (Obama reminds me of Lincoln in this regard.) This is not to take anything away from the Great Emancipator’s  prose in such speeches as the Gettysburgh Address  and the Second Inaugural – words as moving as great music. But it’s his everyday common sense, lit by humor, that has done much to keep Lincoln alive for us.

When the results of an election disappointed him, he was asked how he felt. He replied, “Somewhat like the boy in Kentucky, who stubbed his toe while running to see his sweetheart. The boy said he was too big to cry, and too badly hurt to laugh.”

One night he dreamed that he was in a crowd when someone recognized him as the president and exclaimed in surprise, “He is a very common-looking man.” Whereupon he answered, “Friend, the Lord prefers common-looking people. That is the reason he makes so many of them.

“Politicians {are} a set of men, who have interests from the interests of the people, and who, to say the most of them, taken as a mass, are at least one long step removed from honest men. I say this with the greatest freedom because, being a politician myself, none can regard it as personal.”

“It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.”

“If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their esteem. It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time. “

“If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog? Five? No, calling a tail a leg don’t make it a leg.”

“I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

“Public opinion in this country is everything.”

In the Journal essay Brookhiser says Lincoln “never bonded with his hard-driving, un-bookish father {and} was always looking for paternal surrogates.” He “found both precedents and men he could look up to in America’s founding fathers.”

The Lincoln quotes are from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

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 Makes Hillary Run? PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 13 February 2014 14:53

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

The word from the White House is that some employers, especially those with 50 to 99 workers, are given a delay for compliance on the health law until 2016. It is the latest of retreats on the scope of coverage; a retreat that began, under pressure from the insurance industry, after Obama became president. In 2008 he campaigned vigorously for a public health insurance option.

The delay is designed, at least in part, to help Democrats soothe business anxieties in this year’s midterm elections. Republicans, however, show no signs of their letting up on  attacks on the health law. It’s a central issue in many of this year’s midterm elections, hot enough, they hope, with moderates as well as conservatives, to help Republicans  wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats.

This may be a grand illusion. On the other hand you don’t have to be a Machiavelli to be aware of the disadvantage it would create for Democrats going into a presidential election with both houses of Congress dominated by the other party.

Speaking of 2016, I see the Clinton scandal of the 1990s is back in the news. While Bill Clinton has assumed the role of  global statesman, Hillary is casting a shadow on 2016 as an apparent presidential candidate. Thus, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is himself eyeing the White House, has brought up the Monica Lewinsky affair, most conspicuously on “Meet the Press,” and taking the former president to task for having taken advantage of the young intern. “That is predatory behavior,” he said.

Soon after the senator thundered, The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, so described by the New York Times,  unloaded a collection of papers from Clintons’ White House years.

The documents were from Diane D. Blair, an old friend of Hillary who died in 2000. The papers had been kept at the archives of the University of Arkansas where Blair was a political scientist. The correspondence reportedly describes how Mrs. Clinton coped with her husband’s infidelities, as well as other struggles, notably the attempt to overhaul the health care system.

In targeting Mrs. Clinton, a potential rival in 2016, Senator Paul asserted “the media seems to have given President Clinton a pass” on the Lewinsky affair. But, as the Times pointed out, Ms. Blair’s papers describe a White House that felt constantly under assault from the news media,” and  adding that for the most part  “the papers paint a bleak picture of the Clintons’ time in the White House.”

So the question: why would Hillary want to go back to the heartache of all that? If she really had enough as a former first lady, a former senator, a former secretary of state, a former candidate for president? It may be Rand Paul has the answer.

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 .



 
Art vs. Behavior PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 06 February 2014 13:05

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

In Sunday’s New York Times, the columnist Nicholas Kristof reminded readers that Woody Allen had recently received a Golden Globe award for lifetime achievement. The award, Kristof said, has touched off  “a lively debate about whether it was appropriate to honor a man who is an artistic giant but also was accused years ago of child molestation.”

Kristoff makes clear Allen has denied the charges and “has never been convicted and should be presumed innocent.” But Allen’s adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, 28, married and living in Florida under another name, asserts in a letter to the columnist that Allen’s behavior has caused her severe psychological damage since she was a child of 7 years old. (“The abuse claims go back to 1993, when Ms. Farrow’s mother, Mia Farrow, fought with Allen over custody of three children, including Dylan,” the newspaper reported on Monday.)

Ethical concerns may play a role in the Oscar races, as they have in the past, when those eligible begin casting ballots on Friday for best picture, actor, director and so on, leading up to the Academy Awards on March 2.

Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” a box office hit, is one of the contenders. It’s a comedy-drama, about a Manhattan socialite falling into poverty and homelessness (featuring Cate Blanchette and Alec Baldwin). The movie reminded critics of Tennessee Williams’ classic play, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

In his column, Kristof said he and Dylan’s mother, Mia Farrow, were personal friends, but he was not assessing blame. “People have weighed in on all sides,” he wrote, “but one person who hasn’t been heard out  (until now) is her adopted daughter Dylan Farrow, the writer and artist, whom Allen was accused of molesting.”

Kristof  said he “reached out” to Allen but the filmmaker declined to speak on the record. He also noted that during a period of charges and countercharges, “A panel of psychiatrists sided with Allen, a judge more with Dylan and her mother.”

A sexual issue involving a minor was in the spotlight in 2003 when Roman Polanski was named best director for “The Pianist.” Adrien Brody, who starred in the movie, got an Oscar, as did Ronald Harwood for the screenplay. Polanski was still wanted for sentencing on a rape charge in 1977 of a 13-year-old girl. The director, who has lived and worked in Europe for many years, reportedly regretted the episode and offered his apology to the woman.

In the case of Dylan Farrow, a spokeswoman for the Academy said in response to a  request for comment, “The Academy honors achievement in film, not the personal lives of filmmakers and artists.”

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 Cheerless Super Bowl PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 30 January 2014 12:48

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

When the Patriots and 49ers were contenders my sentiments were mixed. The Patriots sprang from my native New England. On the other hand I have been in love with San Francisco ever since I set foot there to say nothing of my journeyman years up in Eureka when almost everyone looked to Herb Caen’s Baghdad-by-the-Bay.

I was torn when a match between those teams in East Rutherford, New Jersey seemed likely, or so I  maintained. In fact, as a friend in my exercise class remarked, “You can’t help yourself.” For richer or poorer I was wedded to the Patriots.

But for almost two weeks – to risk a trite expression – it’s a whole new ballgame, the choice being between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold climate in East Rutherford, New Jersey, a mass transit ride from the heart of Manhattan.

Alas, I am bereft, with allegiance to neither Seattle or Denver. I last saw Denver three years ago when the lady Friend and I visited her sister who lives in the mile-high city. We drove some around the gray country. It was October;  the colors had fled. But we did share a moment of elation when we came across a place named Mom’s. It promised great home cooking. It was horrible. We’d forgotten the adage to which we’ve usually been bound: “Never eat in a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a guy named Doc...”

In my time producing for the CBS program, “Sunday Morning,” I spent a few days at the Brown Hotel in Denver. My boss told me I’d like it. It was a favorite hotel of Harry Truman’s. The bar was famous. All true, I guess, but not enough to replace the Patriots or the 49ers in my affections.

Seattle is another matter. I spent months at nearby Fort Lewis during my stint in the Army after World War II. The U.S. was at peace, Army life a lark, a summer camp. On bivouac, despite the damp climate, I could almost always count on catching sight of Mt. Rainier, a brooding colossus. Seattle was a playground on weekend passes, a hilly, seaside city with a gaze to Alaska and bustling traffic for the Far East. I dated a WAC, a member of the Women’s  Army Corps. She was a sergeant . I was a T/4 or technical corporal. Though we got along, rank still mattered to both of us.

To be sure I’ll be watching Sunday but without much to cheer about, however I admire Peyton Manning who will turn 38 in March, and is in his 16th season, and still performing at an elite level.

As Walter Cronkite used to say, “And that’s the way it is.”

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 .


 
Why No High-Level Prosecutions? PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 23 January 2014 15:40

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Not nearly enough has been made of what Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Federal District Court in Manhattan asked: Why have no high-level executives been prosecuted in the financial crisis? His article appeared earlier this month in the New York Review of Books.

“Five years have passed since the onset of what is sometimes called the Great Recession,” he wrote. “While the economy has slowly moved, there are still millions of Americans leading lives of quiet desperation: without jobs, without resources, without hope.”

In so many words he asks why have bankers gotten a pass? It’s possible no fraud was committed, but it’s a hard explanation to swallow. “While officials of the Department of Justice have been more circumspect in describing the roots of the financial crisis than have the various commissions of inquiry and other government agent agencies,” Judge Rakoff said, “I have seen nothing to indicate their disagreement with the widespread conclusion that fraud at every level permeated the bubble in mortgage-backed securities.”

So, if the Great Recession was in large part “the product of intentional fraud, the failure to prosecute those responsible must be judged one of the more egregious failures of the criminal justice system in many years.”

Judge Rakoff  pointed out today’s  prosecutorial record “stand in striking contrast to the increased success that federal prosecutors have had over the past fifty years or so in bringing to justice even the highest-level figures who orchestrated mammoth frauds.” He cited the “junk bond” bubble in the 1970s when the progenitors of the fraud “were all successfully prosecuted right up to Michael Milken.”  And:

The savings-and-loan crisis in the 1980s which “resulted in “the successful criminal prosecution of more than eight hundred individuals right up to Charles Keating.”

And, in the 1990s, the accounting frauds by Enron and WorldCom, which “led directly to the successful prosecutions of such previously respected CEOs as Jeffrey Skilling and Bernie Ebbers.”

Judge Rakoff points out that in “striking contrast with these past prosecutions,” no prominent executive “has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the recent financial crisis, and given the fact that most of the relevant criminal provisions are governed by a five-year statute of limitations, it appears likely none will be. It may not be too soon to ask why.”

In the end he stresses that he does not claim that “the financial crisis that is still causing so many of us so much pain and despondency was the product...of fraudulent misconduct but if it was – as various governmental authorities have asserted it was – then the failure of the government to bring to justice those responsible for such colossal fraud bespeaks weaknesses in our prosecutorial system that need to be addressed.”

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 .


 
An Ad for Rye Bread PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 16 January 2014 16:20

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

When my wife and I lived in New York, we got to know some people in the advertising business. One of them was famous as the writer of the slogan for Levy’s Real Jewish Rye. The line has been around for more than half a century.

Even if you never spent any time in New York the phrase may have survived in memory. The advertising campaign began in 1961 and went on through the 1970s. The sound bite – “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye” –  outlived the ad campaign.

The campaign for “Levy’s Real Jewish Rye” relied heavily on photographs of strikingly non-Jewish New Yorkers. As the New York Times put it in its obituary of the slogan’s creator Sunday  – the pictures featured  “a black boy, Asian and native American men and a robed choir boy among them – blissfully contemplating a slice of the company’s rye.”

The New York metropolitan area was the target of the ads, particularly the subways. The pictures drew national attention, and sold as posters as sales of Levy’s Real Jewish Rye grew by leaps. Among the campaign’s admirers, the Times said, was Malcolm X “who liked the poster featuring the black child so much that he had himself photographed alongside it.”

When I turned to the Times the other day, I was not prepared for a mild shock. The name of the writer who came up with the famous slogan was no one I’d ever heard of nor was her picture at all familiar. According to the obituary, the writer we knew, the agency’s chief copywriter,  is  often  credited  (as well as a  founder of the DDB agency) but “period newspaper accounts and contemporary archival sources make clear that the actual writing fell to Ms. (Judy) Protas, who, working quietly and out of the limelight, set down those dozen durable words.”

Judy Protas was also known for her copy for Ohrbach’s, a moderate-priced department store no longer in business, and the lyrics for Cracker Jack’s TV jingle. She was 91.

The copywriter and advertising executive who was sometimes mistakenly credited with writing the Levy’s ad, was Phyllis Robinson, a top talent in the industry. She died in 2010 at 89. Her husband, a psychologist, was someone with whom I sometimes played tennis. More often than not he lost, but, as I remember it, he was always a good sport.

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 .


 
Everyone Needs a Club to Belong To PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 02 January 2014 11:48

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

For fifteen years I have been going to an exercise class three days a week. I know exercise is important for older people, but often the idea of going to class is work in itself. I am frequently tempted to stay home. I tell myself that I have important things to do and class can be put off for a day. Every so often I act on this impulse.

But now I see the class as more than exercise.  One of the older men  is a retired military man who fought in the Second World War. He remained in the service for many more years. In more recent days, he’s guided people in historical research (including myself) and worked for a small publishing house. A few years shy of ninety, he’s a wizard examining the past by way of the computer.

Another classmate is a noted biologist pushing eighty. He’s also a sports nut and political junkie. I can tell you of a fellow who’s been gone from class after suffering a fall. We spent a day together a year or so ago fishing for salmon. We didn’t catch any fish but had a wonderful day talking.

I made good friends with a classmate who turned out to be an art historian. I learned a good deal from him when we took in a museum or gallery. He was someone who could explain the making of a picture in a way that brought it to life.

I’ve come to know my fellow grunts and learned something of their most productive years.

Each in his or her own way is unique. In the hour of the treadmill, the rowing machine, the bicycle, all have their place. But now I know the woman with the wonderful laugh is a children’s doctor, the fellow agonizing over the 49ers an airline pilot. People take on a personality, an identity. Exercise is important, but the social side of the class is equally so.

Sometimes friendships are strong enough to go on outside class, such as the art historian. We sometimes met for lunch and a beer and conversation. Unfortunately, he’s had to quit the class to look after his ailing wife. She once referred to the class disparagingly as a club. It is exactly that, a club, a place where good fellowship comes of it, a class not only good for the body but the mind.

Everyone needs a club to belong to.

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


 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 12-26-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 26 December 2013 12:28

But We Didn’t Call It Christmas

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

(I’ve told this story before but I like to think of it as a Christmas Carol for the holiday season.)

My mother came to this country in the early years of the last century from Lithuania where Jewish people lived pent-up in ghettos and where she knew little of the outside world. Her worst nightmares, which continued into old age, were of the Russian police swooping down on her neighborhood on horseback, ransacking stalls, shops and houses and attacking innocent people.

She was eleven when she arrived here, speaking no English, knowing nothing at all about the strange, new land called America. The third of eight immigrant children, she was inspired by the progressives of the day, led by Theodore Roosevelt, a man ahead of his time, and perhaps of our own as well.

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans,” Theodore Roosevelt said. We were all one people, newcomers and native-born alike.

The openness of the new country won her confidence. She was eager to be accepted, taken as just another American.

When her boat docked at Ellis Island she had no birth certificate, no legal document attesting to a date of birth. 

The world was a lot looser then. People moved about with far fewer restrictions than they do today. The immigration officers could not spell most of the strange names, let alone pronounce them; so they gave people new names.

Once she was settled in Boston with her family, my mother took note of the fuss made over the Christmas holiday, saw the world around her take on new life with evergreen trees decorated with lights and ornaments, department store windows a profusion of color and fantasy, people singing carols, and on Christmas morning children setting out in a town blanketed in snow, with shiny new boots ands coats, caps and sweaters and skates and sleds, and all because of Christmas.

But my mother’s family didn’t celebrate Christmas. Her father was ultra orthodox, a fan of Teddy Roosevelt to be sure, but he would have raised hell, fire and damnation if my mother or any of his children dared commit such a sacrilege.

And so my mother faced a quandary. She wanted to honor her father but she wanted to be in step with the rest of her splendid new country, especially on this most wondrous of days.

And so it came to pass that my mother resolved her problem by taking December 25 for her birthday. That’s how she got around the taboo, and got her presents and parties on this special day. But we never called it Christmas. Not even after my grandfather died. Not ever, not in all my mother’s years, and she lived to a ripe age of eighty-seven.

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


 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 12-19-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 19 December 2013 16:18

A Year of Turbulence

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll  (December 12-15), President Obama is beginning his last two years in office with “record numbers of  Americans saying they disapprove of his job performance.”

Yet ratings of both parties in Congress continue to fare worse than the president’s. But Obama no longer leads in who could better deal with the economy. “Republicans are at 45 percent to Obama’s 41 percent...Last year Obama was at 54 percent and Congressional Republicans at 36 percent...“A 26-point Obama advantage a year ago on who would better protect the middle class has fallen to just six points in the latest survey.”

The president’s approval rating is at 43 percent while disapproval is at 55 percent. The percentages were virtually the same last year, but in reverse: 54 percent approved and 42 percent disapproved.

*   *   *

It’s clear that the president over-promised, and is paying a price. The rhetoric doesn’t work the way it once did. On many issues – health care, mass surveillance, immigration, Wall Street, the climate, Guantanamo  – he has seemed to waffle. Sometimes I wish he’d had experience running something like a state or a city or a business – even the sheriff’s office – before he went to the White House. Lack of executive experience may have proven costly in getting his own successes across like appointment of judges and heads of agencies.

*   *   *

For now, the next election, we hear, is favoring Republicans to retain the House and maybe win the Senate and increase its clout in the states. Obama has to fight hard in the last two years of his presidency to rescue a legacy of a liberal America – including a health program if we are to begin to catch up with the rest of the civilized world. At 52, Barack  Obama is still a young man – cause to hope his best two years in the White House lie ahead of him.

*   *   *

“Loyalists and locations,” as the New York Times put it, are vying for a role in planning Obama’s presidential library and foundation. As for location, the University of Chicago is in an advantageous position. It’s where the president once taught, and Mrs. Obama sat on the board. But as Robert Frost might have said, he still has “promises to keep, and miles to go”  before building a presidential library.

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


 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 12-12-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 12 December 2013 14:51

Biden Beware

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

emember Joe Biden? He ran for vice president on the ticket led by Barack Obama in 2008 and was never heard from again. Well, that’s not true. The latest is that the veep was on his way to Asia  to get a first-hand look at the dispute between Japan and China over airspace.

You see what I mean? It seems to be getting harder for one of the most loquacious of vice presidents to make big news  We wish him luck in Asia, but his problem may be President Obama who  is not making life easier for his loyal friend. If you believe what you hear, some Democrats “detect” from the president’s behavior that he hopes his successor in 2016 will be Hillary Rodham Clinton, his former secretary of state.

If Hill and Bill were to become president(s), it would not be the first time the country had elected a dynasty of sorts. It is (almost) as American as apple pie.

John Adams, our second president, (he was Washington’s vice president) lasted  one term as president. His son, John Quincy Adams, was No. 6, and  served one term.  William Henry Harrison was No. 9, elected in 1840. He died a month after delivering his inaugural address. His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, was elected president in 1888. He served one term.

The Roosevelts, Teddy No. 26 and Franklin No. 32, were distant cousins and a mutual admiration society. Teddy ascended to the White House upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. TR, was elected in his own right in 1904. Franklin, the younger Roosevelt, won presidential elections four times. In  recent years, we’ve had the Bushes, father and son, George H. W. and George W. It’s said another son and brother is waiting in the bushes.

Back to Biden. In Obama’s first term the vice president played prominent roles in dealing with the recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he’s been given no such jobs lately. John D. Podesta, who served President Clinton as a chief of staff, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Obviously Obama doesn’t always take his advice on foreign policy, but I think he continues to be a person whom Obama consults carefully.”

The Clintons were Obama’s major rivals the first time around but they had a lot to do in the making of Obama’s re-election last year. Politics works that way.

*    *    *

The pitfalls on the way to affordable care have given Democrats worry and anxiety about the midterm elections in 2014.

A letter in the Times from Arnold S. Relman, a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, says that although the technical glitches in time will be solved, “The real test of its workability will be what happens to the cost of premiums over the years ahead, and what kind of coverage the premiums will buy. These critical questions remain to be answered, but there is already much reason to be worried.”

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


 
Notes of a Reporter At Large • 12-05-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 05 December 2013 17:36

The Fading Humanities

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?”

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 • 11-21-13 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 21 November 2013 15:11

Remembering Gettysburg

By Mel Lavine  • Special to the Times

I was born in Boston on November 19, the same day that Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, though, let me assure you, not in the same year. Lincoln spoke on a Thursday afternoon in 1863 at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. It was the site of one of the most decisive battles of the Civil War,  July 1-3, 1863, 150 years  ago.

The 272-word tribute to the soldiers who died on both sides, can be said in two minutes. Yet it is one of the most famous pieces in American oratory. In my day many a schoolchild knew it by heart.

The big speech at the dedication ceremony went on for two hours. It was delivered by Edward Everett, perhaps the  best-known orator of the day. The day after the ceremony Everett wrote Lincoln, “I wish that I  could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

“The genius of the address,” as Allen C. Guelzo, a professor  of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, wrote in the New York Times on Monday, “lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.”

In “The Oxford History of the American People,” Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln “made the average American feel that his dignity as citizen of the republic was bound up with the fate of the Union, whose destruction would be a victory for the enemies of freedom everywhere.”

*   *   *

It may have been my mother’s doing, since she was the outspoken Republican in the family. But as a kid of six or seven, I was led into the parlor and made to entertain  guests with a recitation of the Gettysburg Address, stumbling over grownups’ words like “continent,” “dedicated,” “proposition,” “consecrate.” The howls and laughter ring in memory.

In 1976, I was working for the “Today Show” on pieces celebrating the country’s bicentennial. When we were at the Lincoln memorial, the correspondent insisted on his doing an on-camera commentary of three or four minutes. We argued. I said that at such length it would kill the piece. Then I remembered from childhood that the immortal Gettysburg Address was delivered in two minutes. I challenged the reporter to match the Great Emancipator. Lincoln saved the show.

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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