Thursday, December 28, 2006

Let's try a little fairness

I sent the following letter to Reporters Without Frontiers as commentary on their report on the treatment of journalists in the Palestinian Territories.
As a reporter and editor and past officer in the Society of Professional Journalists, I have always been an advocate of journalists' rights. I have lobbied and spoken before legislative bodies in my state of Connecticut. As a result of my efforts, as well as efforts of many others, we enjoy a strong press-freedom body of laws in the state.
I also am aware that in many nations, reporters are routinely killed while plying their craft.
The report states in part: "Palestinian and foreign journalists working in the Palestinian territories are exposed to two different kinds of threats, one from the Israeli army, which has been responsible for many acts of violence against the press since 2000, and more recently from the various Palestinian factions that do not hesitate to target media that criticize them."
As a reporter who has been threatened by American police officials while doing his job, even to having a shotgun pressed against his nose (the perpetrator was punished by higher police officials), I cannot condone any such action.
But I can understand its cause.
You state that journalists are exposed to two different kinds of threats while working in the Palestinian territories. I disagree. I say they, and their readers, are exposed to a third threat: censorship. Many news organizations use stringers - freelance reporters and photographers - to gather news in the territories. The success of those journalists is dependent on their ability to keep sources. It is a universal truth in journalism that sources dry up for those reporters who write things the sources do not like. It is impossible to believe that doesn't happen in the Palestinian Entity.
Nobody is saying that these journalists make things up or lie about facts, but facts can be interpreted in many ways and stories can be told in many different fashions.
That leads to the frustration faced by the Israeli soldiers of whom you speak. I am not making excuses for them -- if they did as you allege. But one must wonder about the truth in some of those allegations.
I am happy, however, that you also assign blame to Palestinian officials for targeting media that criticize them.
In another part of the report, you propose "to rapidly bring together Palestinian and Israeli journalists, politicians from both camps and Israeli military officials to discuss this question and find a solution that would reduce the risks to which journalists working in the Palestinian territories are exposed." Why not also bring together Palestinian military officials as well as Israeli military officials.?
Again, thank you for your report. And thank you for your honest effort to protect journalists in many parts of the world. But please realize that you are dealing with Israeli, whose free press allows the free flow of ideas and soldiers whose lives and health are put on the line because of the lack of free flow of ideas in the territories. Please cut them some slack.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald R. Ford - an appreciation

Gerald R. Ford, the nation’s only unelected president, has died at age 93.
He was a man of his time but not quite up to his time. He tried to give the nation a breath of fresh air after the stench of Watergate, and he succeeded up. But he sealed his own political fate by pardoning Richard M. Nixon. Whether he knew the political price he would have to pay for that act is for historians to ponder.
He was the first president I could remember that had changed his name. He was born on Flag Day, July 14, 1913 as Leslie Lynch King Jr in Omaha, Neb. After his parents divorce and his the remarriage of his parents, the took the name of his adopted stepfather, Gerald R. Ford.
He was a longtime member of the House of Representatives and was elevated to vice president when Spiro T. Agnew had to resign in disgrace. When Nixon followed his running mate into resignation, Ford took over the White House.
He and his wife, Betty, were a breath of fresh air. He cooked his own breakfast, was a physical fitness follower.
\He also could laugh at himself. He had to, because he seemed to always be falling down, either from a podium or stairs leading to an airplane. The comedian Chevy Chase made a career out of doing Ford-inspired pratfalls on Saturday Night Live and Ford seemed to delight in that, although people would say, some seriously, that he forgot to wear a helmet during his football days at Michigan.
He went to Yale Law School and served in the House for 25 years, but his most famous act, the “full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard M. Nixon” was the act for which he will be remembered.
He served less than two years in the White House and was soundly beaten by Jimmy Carter of Georgia in an election in which the nation tried to rid itself of any vestige of Watergate.
After his term, he appeared at Republican conventions but did not seem to be interested in being an elder statesman. Ironically, it was Nixon who became more of the party elder than the man who succeeded him.
Ford tried very hard to do the task for which he was never elected. He was beset by inflation, a bad economy and troubles in the world, as well as the American scandal he sought to end. At the time, he was welcomed, a man who shunned the secrecy of Nixon and the formality of previous chief executives. But in the end, it was only to lead the nation to four more years of Carter, who succeeded only in making things worse but did not have the verve and sense of fun that Ford possessed.
I remember those times and have a good feeling about Ford. He tried. He relaxed and tried to get the nation to relax with him. He tried to get the nation to feel good about itself and eschewed the tragedy and formality of his predecessor. His vigor and vitality were a gift to a bereft nation, but in the end, all it did was bring us Jimmy Carter. In the end, the nation could not forgive him for the pardon, which may have been the only way we could have emerged from the stench of Watergate.
Rest well, Mr. Ford.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

An offer I couldn't refuse

For nearly 15 years, my workdays had followed a routine - drive an hour to work, hunt for the best parking space, boot up my computer, walk to the cafeteria for that medium coffee, black with no sugar, greet my fellow wage slaves and get ready to save the world for democracy and decency.
The job was anything but routine - an editor on the news and copy desks of The Journal News, Gannett's entry into the New York market, a metro newspaper that covered Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties just north of New York City. I sometimes ran the paper and other times decided story placement, wrote headlines, helped design and compose full-page informational graphics on the wars, terrorist bombings and other world-shaking events that the paper covered.
Part of the work week was spent planning my week, month or year - vacations, holidays, an occasional trip out of the country. That, too, got to be routine and pretty short-term, planning a driving vacation or even an overseas journey two or three months ahead.
Then one day, a soggy package arrived at my door that changed all that.
It became obvious I would now have to plan the rest of my life and do it pretty damn soon.

I received a buyout offer.

It was couched as an early retirment plan, offering incentives and medical coverage, as well as get-out pay if I would agree to leave work within 45 days. That seems like a fairly long period of time, but trust me, it's not a long time at all to plan the rest of your life.
It was also a matter of be careful what you wish for, you may get it. And then what?
You see, I had been complaining about the drive to work, from New Haven to Harrison, N.Y., across the highway from White Plains. It took about a hour under the best circumstances and in New England in winter, often the circumstances aren’t the best. The work was also done at night, leaving work at 2 or 3 a.m. as often as not.
I told my wife that if I could get a deal where my medical coverage could be continued, where I had enough seniority to get a decent payout in lieu of pension (I started a few months too late for a real pension) and a decent out-the-door payoff, I would quit in a heartbeat.
When the offer came, I was as if the company had a seat at the table where I was expounding my wishes to my wife.
The fly in the ointment was that it was called a voluntary retirement offer. I could
refuse it without penalty, the offer said. I could continue working, taking home a
pretty darn good paycheck, a least for newspaper work. I could continue getting
vision and dental coverage, which wasn’t part of the buyout.
I had taken my wife’s advice and participated in the company’s 401(k) program, so money wasn’t really an issue. We could get along pretty well, especially since my wife would continue to work.
It was more of, “what do I do now.” I hadn’t expected to leave work so soon, so I had put off any realistic thinking. There was a plan to buy or lease an RV and drive around the country, seeing Civil War sites and other places I hadn’t experienced, like the Grand Canyon, for example. I had been in Israel’s grand canyon, but not Arizona’s. That’s the way my life worked. I had been to Venice, Italy, but not Venice California.
In the end, however, the rumors of layoffs at work were too strong and the anticipation of another winter of driving 100 miles a day in snow and ice won out. I took the offer, as did 24 of the 26 other people who were eligible.
Now the scene being played out in my head now is the one from the marvelous movie, “The Candidate,” where Robert Redford’s character, Bill McKay, who had just won a Senate election he took on as a dare, takes his campaign manager, played by the late Peter Boyle, into a closet.
Just over the din of the celebration, McKay could be heard asking the manager, “What do we do now?”

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Good luck to everyone

At this time of year, we are supposed to be in a giving and loving mood. Peace on Earth. Good will toward men or, if you are into PC, good will toward all people.
On the road, however, the watchword seems to be "Good luck to everyone who's not me."
What gets into people at this time of year? This phenomenon once stretched from Thanksgiving to Superbowl. Now, it seems to start on Flag Day and stretches until the next Memorial Day, but I digress.
Picture in your mind a driver in the left lane of a road that has two lanes in each direction. The driver (let's say he for expediency) puts on his right signal, intending to move to the right lane. That now seems to be a signal for the driver 100 yards back to put his car into hyper-drive and pass the guy trying to move over on the right.
This happened in front of me a couple of days ago. I pulled up next to this genius at a light. This person's mouth was going a mile a minute and she was gesturing like Jack Benny doing Shakespeare.
Next comes the Mensa leader who passes you on the right, passes the next car on the left and then ducks into an exit. Or, as happened to me on a parkway, a car enters, crosses two lanes of traffic in front of me and enters the left-turn lane, and then waits for the light to change. Nobody for miles in back of me. Just had to get onto the highway. Must have known a meteor was about to strike the side road.
So, as a public service, here are Len'sLens' (or if you are the New York Times, here are Len'sLens's) tips to survival on the road this season of good will.
Len's axiom No. 1. The intelligence of a driver is in inverse proportion to the size of the vehicle he or she is driving. The trucker who tailgates in the blizzard. The SUV (stupid unnecessary vehicle) driver who takes up a parking place and a half then carps because the parking fee is greater than the Mini-Cooper next door. Or takes up a lane and a half on the side road and you just need to get out of the way. Hummers. Double-wide four-door 400-horsepower diesel pickup trucks owned by New York City residents. You get the idea: Things without which life would not be worth living.
A few tips on driving in the several states of the Northeast.

Maine: Don't worry. Take your time. Everyone else is.
Vermont: What can you say about the state that gave us Dr. Howard Dean. Just make sure you mark your Volvo so you can find it in the shopping center that looks like a Volvo dealership. And don't yell anything that sounds conservative out the car window.
New Hampshire: Sort of like Maine. Don't yell anything that sounds liberal out the car window.
Rhode Island: Just get out of the way.
Massachusetts: If you see a car in the lane to your left signaling right, believe it. Don't worry about parallel double parking. Everyone does it.
Connecticut: When the light turns green, count slowly to five before proceeding. Ignore the blare of horns in back of you. Just watch the car on the cross-street speed through the light at the count of four. And it just seems like everyone drives an SUV.
New York: It works like this. In the city, all the drivers are herd animals. There may be miles of empty road around, but they have to bunch together. Deal with it. And most important is the mindset. Nobody taught them that two cars cannot inhabit the same space at the same time. Remember that and you'll be fine.
New Jersey: Here's the mindset. The New Jersey driver is the only one on the road. All the other cars are just holograms to amuse the driver. There is nobody else on the road, so the driver can go wherever he or she wants. You just need to get out of the way.
Pennsylvania: Pray.
Have a wonderful season.

Jimmy, it's time to shut up

Jimmy Carter has always been kind of a joke.
It's no longer funny.
The man from the red-clay hinterlands of Georgia with a stupid-drunk brother and a mother out of L'il Abner got elected president at a time when the nation would cast its lot with anyone not associated with Richard M. Nixon.
He messed up everything he touched from the silly killer rabbit to getting servicemen killed in a bound-to-fail hostage-rescue attempt in the Iranian desert. The rescue wouldn't have been necessary if he didn't completely misread events in the Middle East, allow the Shah of Iran into the U.S. in a mistaken attempt at compassion for the dying dictator and do nothing when France said it was releasing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would lead the Islamic revolution that led the seizing of the U.S. Embassy and the 444-day hostage crisis.
His painful presidency ended when Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-governor of California, beat him soundly in the 1980 presidential election.
So now, more than two decades later, the hero of the Iranian mess decided he has all the answers on the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire.
In his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Carter says Israeli's Palestinian policy "is a system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights.”
He also says that the Israeli lobby in Washington controls U.S. policy in the Middle East, has contributed to our mess in Iraq and leads the Bush Administration around by the nose.
He's wrong on both counts. And, in my opinion, he just doesn't like Jews.
His organization, Habitat for Humanity, operates in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Not Israel.
As far as the Israeli lobby is concerned, it's just silly. First of all, Jews in the U.S. are not a recognized minority because there are just too few of them. There are 13 million Jews in the world and about half live in the U.S. According to John Loftus and Mark Aarons in their book, The Secret War Against the Jews, American history is lousy with instances where the U.S. tried to harm Israel. For example, they quote a National Security Agency employee as saying that he knew of the Arab attack against Israel in 1973 30 hours before Israel was informed, an action that he said cost Israel hundreds if not thousands of lives.
Israel has bent over backwards to be fair with the Palestinians.
It has given them more than 90 percent of all the land they wanted. It gave them the Gaza, and the Arabs have made a mess of that. The current administration is prepared to give them a good chunk of the West Bank, a land that was taken from Jordan in the 1967 war and for which Jordan has relinquished all claims.
What Israel has gotten in return is lies, bombs, rockets, shootings, more lies and world condemnation.
Israel realizes that it needs to separate itself from the Arabs. Where the separation barrier has been erected, the death toll in Israel has fallen.
Israel is a small nation, about the size of New Jersey. If not for traffic, one can drive north to south in less than five hours. One can walk from the coast to the West Bank in an afternoon.
And yet, Carter wants Israel to retreat to 1967 borders. He wants the land gotten from Jordan to be given to Arabs who have yet to say that Israel even has the right to exist. The fact that there may be a civil war soon between the two factions and that the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace doesn't come into the equation.
Just like the U.S. inviting the brutal Shah of Iran to get medical help in the U.S. had nothing to do with the seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the holding of U.S. citizens as hostages - hostages that were not freed until the U.S. was free of Jimmy Carter.
Jimmy, you've done enough harm. We need a rest. Go home. Be still.
Just go away.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

We should have known

If anyone has the right to say, "I told you so," about George W. Bush, it's Molly Ivins.
Ms. Ivins, a freelance columnist who until a few years ago labored for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas, told us all about Dubya. A few weeks ago, I dug out a copy of her prophetically funny book Shrub.
It was like reading history written before it happened. We were warned. We didn't listen and now we're suffering.
The book was written in the late 1990s and updated right after Bush announced his run for president.
If ever there as a lens into the mind The Hero of Baghdad, this is it.
I think I've figured out why he does what he does. That doesn't make our leader's actions any less scary, but it does peel back some of the mystery of why he does what he does.
Ivins, who had covered Bush for decades in Texas, tells of some of his past escapades in that state as an oilman, a sports impresario and a politician.
A pattern emerges.
Bush tends to get himself into trouble financially and then needs to be rescued. It happened to his oil company and his time as an owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.
Young George got into the oil business with Arbusto Energy in 1978. Arbusto is Spanish for Bush, according to Young W.. According to Cassell's Spanish Dictionary, however, the only translation is "shrub," hence the name of the book, Ivins says.
Arbusto became Bush Oil when daddy Bush became vice president. Hmmmm.
In any case, young W. didn't do so well and his daddy's pals bailed him out. Same deal with the Rangers. Daddy Bush's pals made sure George did well and the team also did well. Taxpayers in Arlington, however, ponied up to build the Ballpark at Arlington.
Everyone says George W. is a stand-up guy. He's a guy who pays his political debts.
So it should come as no surprise that Bush is paying his political debts, sticking by former (thank heaven) Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney through thick and thin.
Bush is a great guy, according to Ivins. He really cries with the families of the U.S. military killed in Iraq. He cries with them while his underlings do the dirty work.
That's the way things ran in Texas.
We shouldn't have been surprised that things run the same way in Washington.
Molly tried to tell us.
We just didn't listen.
And we're paying the price.