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Notes of a Reporter at Large • 04-19-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 19 April 2012 15:58

Såving the Post Office

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

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

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

I also have a soft spot for the post office which, I see, may have to cut Saturday mail delivery and a good deal more to make ends meet. Years ago, when I was between jobs as a newspaperman, the post office was a place to come in from the cold.

In the early 1950s I found work as a mail handler in San Francisco before a reporter’s job came through. Some years later, down and out and married and trying my hand at free-lance writing, I found work as a clerk and letter-carrier in Santa Cruz. I stayed on for a couple of years before I realized my place was in a newsroom.

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

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

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

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

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

This column originally appeared on April 22, 2010.

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



 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 04-12-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 12 April 2012 14:35

Mike Wallace: 19182012

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 04-05-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 05 April 2012 16:36

Strange Bedfellows

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 03-29-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 29 March 2012 15:32

A Politician’s Worst Enemy

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 03-22-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 22 March 2012 14:10

Picking a President

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 03-15-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 15 March 2012 15:06

Everybody Wants to be a Millionaire

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This column originally appeared on Sept. 16, 2010.

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

 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 03-08-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 08 March 2012 14:48

Jailing Bankers

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 03-01-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 01 March 2012 12:55

Religion and Politics

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 02-23-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 23 February 2012 12:11

Think Supreme Court

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times


As Robert Reich sees it, the question in Election 2012 could come down to this: “How many billionaires does it take to buy a presidential election?”

In last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, the former U.S. secretary of labor and professor of public policy at UC Berkeley argued that President Obama lost a chance to take the high road on fundraising. By endorsing a super PAC in his bid for re-election, he ratified the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United in 2010 which, as Reich pointed out, “opened the floodgates to unrestricted campaign money through super PACs.”

The president’s people say Obama had no choice. The question was decided in the Republican primaries. What happened? Florida happened. Mitt Romney’s super PAC easily delivered Florida, dropping Newt Gingrich to third or even fourth place. Reich cited the president’s campaign manager, Jim Messina. He explained that the White House did not want to “unilaterally disarm” by not exploiting the same tactic.

But what if Obama had stuck to his guns and eschewed super PACs? Reich doesn’t believe Obama’s refusal “to play the billionaire election game would have been unilateral disarmament.” He points out that the president was “a hugely successful fundraiser” for the 2008 election, taking in “an unprecedented $745 million,” much of it in “an unprecedented amount of small donations.”

Reich suggested what Obama might have said to rally the public: “More of the nation’s wealth and political power is now in the hands of large corporations and fewer people since the era of the robber barons and the Gilded Age. I will not allow our democracy to be corrupted by this! I will fight to take back our democracy!”

In Reich’s view, if  Obama had taken “a strong stand” against super PACs, he would have offered voters a choice: a campaign “financed by millions of small donors” or “a Republican campaign underwritten by a handful of America’s most powerful and privileged.”

But Obama is a pragmatist, no tilting of windmills for this fellow. Under fire from an obstructionist Republican House of Representatives and Senate Republicans, he vainly sought to bargain with his foes at the risk of looking weak, even naïve. This is not to say he doesn’t have core beliefs. Reich’s hope is that if Obama is re-elected  and sincere about the issues he cares about, he will  “go to bat for a system of public financing that will make it possible for candidates  to raise enough money from small donors and matching public funds that they won’t need to rely on a few billionaires pumping unlimited sums into super PACs.”

Upon reading aloud from Reich’s piece, I turned to the Lady Friend and said, “In this election one could argue that no matter who wins the people lose.”

“Think Supreme Court,” the Lady Friend replied. “Obama’s made two good appointments in his first term. If he wins in November he’s sure to make more.”

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

 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 02-16-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 16 February 2012 13:10

An Apology to Pawnbrokers

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In last week’s column I made an unfortunate reference to pawnbrokers. I was writing about the unholy alliance of big money and politics in this election year. I quoted Theodore Roosevelt from a letter he’d written to a British friend in 1913. In the letter TR denounced government by very powerful men of wealth “but with ideals which in their essence are merely those of so many glorified pawnbrokers.”

TR chose a poor example to make his point, and I was wrong to recycle it. As a friend reminded me, pawnbrokers provide a useful service in hard times by lending money at interest on personal property left with the broker until the loan is paid back.

But I was surprised when a reader wrote that she “assumed” that I “fully realized the atrocious anti-Semitic implications of using” the Roosevelt quote about pawnbrokers. Well, I didn’t. I am Jewish, I was born Jewish and I will die Jewish, but I have never thought of pawnbrokers as uniquely Jewish, and, of course, they aren’t.

According to my edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the trade is one of the oldest known to mankind. It existed in China 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. Pawnbrokers come from all races and creeds.

A word may be due Theodore Roosevelt. He was no bigot. Long after his death in 1919, the Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter recalled for the television cameras a conversation with Roosevelt who said, “This country will never demonstrate that it is a democracy in the full reach and range of that conception until we will have had both a Negro and Jewish president of the United States.”

But the last word belongs to the woman who wrote to me in defense of pawnbrokers, namely her father. This is what she said:

“He got up every day whether sick or not and went to work 6 days a week, 12 hours a day.

“He began working at the store while still a child and took it over permanently at 18 to support his families while his brothers were away at war.

“He went without much, so we could have an education.

“He had guns put into his face and kept going back.

“He swept his sidewalks every day and cleaned his awning.

“He avoided stolen merchandise and kept perfect and exacting records.

“He always obeyed the law.

“He charged miniscule interest, as registered by CA (California) state law, especially in contrast with today’s bank cards and payday loans.”

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

 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 02-09-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 09 February 2012 15:16

The Pawnbrokers Take It All

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times


In waging his campaign for the nomination, the embattled former House speaker lost credibility by advertising himself as an historian. Now Newt Gingrich risks looking like a mouthpiece for a gambling boss “with  important financial interests in China,” as the columnist E. J. Dionne Jr., pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle.

As we saw in the news, first Sheldon Adelson – a Las Vegas casino operator – wrote a $5 million check and then his wife wrote a $5 million check to resuscitate Newt Gingrich’s campaign. Meantime the tycoon passed word to Mitt Romney that he can count on even more generous support if he becomes the Republican nominee.

According to the New York Times, the relationship between Adelson and Gingrich goes back years linked to a mutual concern for Israel’s safety and, more broadly, to Adelson’s anxiety about the  direction he believes the president is taking the country.

Mitt Romney reportedly was not greatly disturbed by Adelson’s first $5 million to the pro-Gingrich PAC, but was “stung” by the second $5 million from his wife.

Adelson, the Times said, has made an effort  to reassure Romney that if he is the nominee he can count on the casino magnate’s deep pockets to do “whatever it takes to beat Obama in the fall.”

As for the president, he is retreating from his position on fund-raising. In 2008 he rejected support from outside groups and argued against taking money from special interests in politics. But the world was made anew by the Supreme Court’s Citizen United 5-4 ruling in 2010. It has made it easier for outside groups to raise unlimited sums to help elect the candidates they favor – a windfall for corporations and the wealthy and conceivably a mortal blow to democratic government.

In recent days, Obama has spurred wealthy Democrats to step up their fund-raising efforts to transfer fortunes to Democratic groups to compete against the Republicans who got the jump on the White House.

“We’re not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind out back,” said Jim Messina, the manager of the president’s re-election campaign.

Part of the reason for the lag in Democratic fund-raising may not be entirely due to the president’s hesitation about outside group. It may also be because of Wall Street’s anger at his steps to police the banks, as the New York Times suggested.

The alliance of big money and politics has been a corrupt bargain throughout our history. Theodore Roosevelt addressed the question in 1913. He said:

“There is something to be said for government by a great aristocracy which has furnished leaders to the nation in peace and war for generations....But there is absolutely nothing to be said for government by a plutocracy, for government  by men very powerful in certain lines and gifted with ‘the money touch’ but with ideals which in their essence are merely those of so many glorified pawnbrokers.”

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


 
Notes of a Reporter at Large • 02-02-12 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 02 February 2012 16:43

Newt Gingrich Without Tears

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

He advertised himself as the smartest person in the room. His rivals may have meant well, but they did not know how things worked in Washington. They were not historians like Newt, had never served as speaker of the House  (though he failed to acknowledge he resigned in disgrace.).

They also had never worked closely with Ronald Reagan like Newt. In fact Newt rated scarcely a mention in Reagan’s diary, and, according to  Lou Cannon, the late president’s biographer and a former Washington Post reporter,  Reagan had little to do with the congressman.

It’s too soon to see how the Florida primary plays out for Republicans in the days ahead. Funny things happen on the way to conventions. But it’s not too soon to take note that the ex-speaker was the first to play the race card, coded, of course, as when he called President Obama “the most successful food stamp president ni American history.”

When Juan Williams, a Fox News panelist, in a debate a couple of weeks  ago in South Carolina, suggested that  his remarks might be  “intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities,” Gingrich sneered, “I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”

Republicans in South Carolina lapped it up.

In 2010, as Charles M. Blow reminded us recently in the New York Times, Gingrich told an interviewer for a right-wing publication that President Obama adhered to a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” outlook. He added, “I think he worked very hard at being a person who is normal, reasonable, moderate, bipartisan, transparent, accommodating – none of which was true.”

The source of Gingrich’s defining moment about the president was an article in Forbes which, he said, gave him the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Bararck Obama.”

The article was by Dinesh D’Souza, a native of India, an author of  conservative Christian books, and the president of the King’s College in New York City. In the article Gingrich cited, D’Souza said:

“Our president is trapped in his father’s time machine. Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of Luo tribesmen of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated  African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anti-colonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.”

Gingrich’s enthusiasm for D’Souza’s rhetoric heaped poison on the political landscape.

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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