Friday, February 27, 2009

I'm No Coward Mr. Holder

Speaking frankly, I’m totally confused why Eric Holder, the new Attorney General of the United States called me a coward. Perhaps I am taking it too personally, since he accused the whole nation of being cowards.

Apparently, his accusation stems from some idea he has that there has not been enough truthful dialogue on the matter of race. This goes to the heart of my confusion. What am I supposed to say in such a dialogue? That racial discrimination is awful, that the blacks are descendants of slaves, a disgusting phenomenon that was abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation more than a century and a half ago? That America has done its darndest to correct the horrors of bigotry that stemmed from that enslavement era by passing civil rights legislation that guaranteed equal treatment under the law for everyone, whatever their race? That we should be vigilant in the protection of those rights?

Am I supposed to say we haven’t done enough to right the balance after passing numerous laws to give a leg up to help level the playing field in education, housing and whatever? I had, as did most Americans, no objections to offer our help to those of different races that were the victims of discrimination. Are there still problems? Yes. Has Mr. Holder suggested any solutions? If he has, we haven’t heard any.

Indeed, most of us were quite courageous in breaking down discrimination barriers in the face of often intransigent opposition by those who continued to espouse outmoded and wrongheaded ideas on bigotry and discrimination. To tell you the truth, I am rather proud of giving my assent to all these anti-discrimination measures.

So what lines do I use in this dialogue? Do I respond to any questions raised in this so-called dialogue or say simply that “I agree?” The Reverend King had it right. A man should be judged by the quality of his character and not the color of his skin. What decent American doesn’t believe that, Mr. Attorney General? Just ask your boss.

Better yet, look in the mirror and ask yourself. What kind of a dialogue would you have with yourself? What would you ask someone like yourself on the top of his game? Was your skin color a hindrance? Does the sobriquet “coward” also apply to you?

To tell you the truth, I don’t believe for one minute I’m a coward and I am rather pissed off at your inference.

I’ve also believed that the goal of our society, as Dr. King posited should be color blindness. That’s why I hired one of the first black salesman in the radio business in Baltimore to sell time on the station I once owned in that town. I didn’t care about breaking barriers. I just thought he would sell like hell. I hired black people in my advertising business on the basis of competence not the color of their skin or to make some kind of a statement. I wouldn’t even use a racial designation as a reference point if the Attorney General hadn’t brought it up.

When my wife ran her magazine in Washington, the Washington Dossier, in the seventies and eighties, she reveled in the magazine coverage of the fabulous and successful black community that has been part of Washington society for more than a hundred years. She particularly enjoyed covering the great Jack and Jill organization and the black Chirological Society events in the Shoreham ballroom. You know what I mean, Mr. Attorney General.

We never felt the slightest bit of cowardice in our association with those groups. In fact, we felt it an honor to be invited to their events, enjoying the company of many in the group with whom we had long lasting relationships. For us, race wasn’t even an issue. It wasn’t even part of the social dialogue.

Yes, Mr. Holder, as you must know there was a vibrant group of black achievers, of which you are the beneficiary, who had found ways to succeed by showing their courage and ingenuity in the face of once crushing odds. And they did it before the civil rights laws changed the game and opened the gates of opportunity even further. In the end, its talent, imagination, focus and hard work, not race, that makes the difference between failure and success in America. Just ask Barack.

Look around you Mr. Attorney General. Not every white person makes it up the greasy pole of American success. And not every black person, but plenty do, and you can bet your biddy that there will be more and more people of every hue coming up roses in future America. And why not?

We compete in this country. Sometimes guys and gals who don’t deserve it get the prize, but on balance the good, smart, hard working, innovative, imaginative and focused guys and gals win. Sure it’s a tough fight. As time goes on there will be less and less reason to handicap the odds. We’re getting a lot closer to an even race than we were a decade or so ago. Not because we are cowards, Mr. Attorney General. Because we are brave.

I’m willing to bet you’re a decent sort of guy, smart, savvy, experienced and when all is said and done probably qualified to run the justice department.

May I suggest that you simply add this gaffe about America being a nation of cowards to your collection of Hail Mary Passes and get yourself a new copy of Roget’s.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Politics of Apology

I’ve always been impressed by people in public life who have mastered the art of the public apology. Some have couched their pleadings in terms of remorse as, for example Timothy Geithner, Tom Daschle and Charles Rangel, throwing themselves on our mercy, hoping that the media and the public would buy into their “forthright” confessions of ignorance and innocence in the matter of their blatant tax evasion.

Their ploy is to publicly castigate themselves for their naiveté and stupidity or worse, hoping that their thespian qualities and careful scripting by public relations consultants paid or volunteered would carry the day. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t as poor Tom Daschle found out. Perhaps there was too much public resentment about Daschle using his Senate inner knowledge to make a killing financially, appearing to severely weaken his populist image.

One of the most artful tactics of apology came from Richard Nixon when he was the Vice-Presidential candidate running with Dwight Eisenhower. He had been accused of being the recipient of a so-called slush fund that was designed to subsidize him in his political career, a situation that seemed to seriously dance around the bounds of legality.

His television speech, forever dubbed as the Checkers speech, since that was the name of the family cocker spaniel, was an outright plea for mercy on the grounds of economic hardship and the perils and wonders of a Horatio Alger boyhood, still in vogue at that time. He cited his devotion to public service and the fact that his poor wife only wore a “Republican” cloth coat since they were, as he implied, unable to afford a mink coat. Apparently the public bought into that exercise in self-pity and justification and, as we know, the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket won the election.

He took a different tack during the Watergate scandal, a hard-headed refusal to cooperate with investigators and, despite a huge election win and a massive effort at damage control, couldn’t save himself from resignation, nor keep his enablers out of jail. He was forced into exile and did not emerge until pardoned by President Ford in what was characterized as one of the greatest political payoffs of all time. Ford offered no apology for his action but used “we must put it behind us” reasoning which, in the end, doomed his chances for a second term.

The most masterful public apology in history was the one perpetrated by young Senator Ted Kennedy, who with the help of family and an army of retainers, orchestrated a brilliant apologia that is hands down a text book study of a public relations coup. In that case, a young woman Mary Jo Kopechne was drowned in a car driven by Senator Kennedy after a party in the Chappaquiddick section of Martha’s Vineyard in Cape Cod. He had driven the car into the water and managed to escape while the poor girl was left trapped in the car and drowned.

One still wonders how he managed to escape without helping the young lady to safety along the same escape route he had taken. Worse, he did not report the accident until the next day and was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, a minor violation. There were rumors of heavy drinking but the Kennedy loyalists at the party appeared to have closed ranks against the allegation and the drunken driving accusation became sidetracked.

His apology on television was a tribute to his thespian abilities and the brilliance of the acolytes and public relations experts who fashioned the speech which was probably rehearsed many times before it was delivered. It was chocked full of confessional platitudes like dubbing his actions in not reporting the accident as “inexplicable”, a good word, which puts reason on hold and he was groomed for the event like a mature innocent choirboy. Clearly though, panic, fear and confusion after the fact trumped any accusation of intent to deliberately end the life of this young woman.

His television apologia one-upped the Checkers speech and proved its mettle by saving Kennedy’s Senatorial career for its forty year run where he had won accolades for his hard work and consistently effective work for populist causes.

Those with a more acute long term memory will note that he was not rewarded with the Presidency he worked so hard to seek, not being able to gain enough traction in the primaries. If one very reluctantly puts aside the horror of Mary Jo Kopechne’s aborted young life, and sets it against the terrible tragedies of the Kennedy family, one is conflicted but cannot ignore a measure of compassion and clemency for the youngest brother of this ill fated clan. Perhaps there are moments when redemption is called for, although it comes with the curse of Mary Jo’s untimely death.

Even raising the issue years after the event while Senator Kennedy might be on the verge of answering his call to the beyond comes with some reluctance and sadness that cannot be ignored in the context of this essay.

But the weirdest attempt at an apologia came from none other than Bill Clinton who insisted, in the face of all evidence and against all the known logic of human behavior that he “did not have sex with that woman.” Of course no one believed him, even his wife, especially since his definition of sexual congress was mystifying. Indeed, there are those that truly believe that his putting oral sex beyond the boundaries of sexual activity set off a wave of true believers, especially among teenagers who, in apparent response, measured by statistics and anecdotal evidence, put oral sex into a category of popular amusements no more harmful than monopoly or roasting marshmallows at a campfire.

He was impeached despite his breakup with his chubby teenage intern but somehow held on to his post until George W. Bush took over. His image recovery is nothing short of miraculous. His effort at denial was an astounding success and he is now a role model for those who aspire to high office.

President Obama had two shots at apologia and handled them brilliantly. The first was in the matter of Reverend Wright whose church he had attended for decades. His method was to deny that he had ever heard the good Reverend’s obnoxious sermons. Despite the raised eyebrows everywhere, he had by then established such an unblemished image of probity that he was able to rise above the noise of his critics.

His second was in the matter of having gotten an especially good land deal from one of his financial sponsors Tony Rezko, now in jail and awaiting trial on other corruption charges. During the campaign Obama called his decision to make the deal in the first place “boneheaded.” Of course, he wasn’t running for President at the time of the real estate transaction which increased the size of the land footprint on his house and certainly increased its value. Given the state of Illinois politics, such obvious influence dealing was par for the course. We fervently hope there is no other shoe to drop in this case.

The problem with apologies in public life is that one cannot go to the well too often. In the President’s case the public will quickly tire of his multiple admissions of “screw-up’s”. I’m sure he knows this and given the infancy of his administration, he will undoubtedly put the brakes on the apology of self-effacement as time goes on.

Ex-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich took the denial road. He mounted a PR campaign on television to tell people he did nothing wrong. Since he was also indicted for corruption and was soon to go to trial in Federal Court his pleas of innocence fell on deaf ears and he was unanimously kicked out of office by acclamation of the Illinois legislature. If I had to guess what did him in in the long run, despite the damning evidence of his wiretapped rants, I’d say it was his hair. Something about that hair-do was off-putting.

Apology dramatics is an important part of a politician’s toolbox and the fidelity of the apology is directly proportional to the politician’s words and demeanor. Perhaps the secret of the Kennedy apology was his Catholic upbringing where confession is a ritualistic commandment and redemption a necessary response.

The truth is that a confession, especially if it comes with some histrionics, like moist eyes and the obvious facial ticks and body language of sorrow and innocence, can induce forgiveness.

But then, as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have proven, strong jawed and steely eyed denial can be a lot more effective in the short run. Perhaps in the long run as well.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Will a Historical Hitler Make a Comeback?

In five more years, 2014, it will be one hundred years since the start of World War I. The chances are that there are few, if any, living humans who can bear witness to any of the events associated with that war.

Indeed, the virulent hatred of Germany and the Kaiser generated by that cataclysmic event has long receded. It is left to historians to dispassionately record the facts of that hatred as merely a background study of the attitudes of the populations who supported the allied cause. The hated villains of that era, the Kaiser and his mad Generals who instigated the slaughter, have long disappeared from living memory and become footnotes to the main drama of the killing fields and its disastrous aftermath.

Unlike the Hitler era, the Kaiser’s reign did not enjoy the technological advantages of sophisticated and heroic moving pictorial images, leaving historians and information consumers bereft of material to accentuate and propagandize his legacy on television, the internet and movie theaters.

No living creature, even those whose ancestors died and suffered at the hands of the Germans during that bloody conflict, can possibly be roused to raw unforgiving hatred for those World War I perpetrators with the same immediacy and power of those who actually lived through these terrible events. Time, that great leveler which can make grieving subside in the living, has the power to cool even the most persistent of hatreds.

It is now the turn of those who lived through the terrible events of World War II to pass slowly into oblivion. With them will disappear the living memory of a war that contributed to the deaths of possibly 70 million people, a bloodbath of unprecedented barbarism, savagery and destruction that spawned a state sponsored method of human disposal, which became known as the holocaust, and a massacre of millions of non-combatants.

To those who lived through it, the personification of evil, the monster of monsters behind that slaughter is the man Adolph Hitler. As one who was an eyewitness to those events through the vast media coverage and the actuality of the war and its effect on my immediate world and the people in my circle, my memories are vivid and enduring.

While I was too young to serve as a soldier in that war, I and everyone I knew was totally involved in the fervent support of the war, and I fulfilled my patriotic duty as a proudly committed teenager to the war effort. As a boy scout, I participated as a bugler on parade with my troop, dedicating numerous plaques that were raised in every neighborhood marking the names of all who served in the Armed forces. I collected newspapers, metal and contributed my limited pocket money to every cause that was marshaled to help our troops and the home front.

Both of my parents were air raid wardens. Without protest we took our ration books seriously, as well as the blackouts, the air raid drills and any other instructions we got from the government on how we were to conduct ourselves to win the war. It was, as I continue to remember it, a sacred mission.

As far as I could tell, everyone in America was committed to the winning of the war and our hatred of Hitler and the Germans was manifest in everything we did. We had no doubt that America was fighting the worst monster in history. My memories of those times are vivid. At the news of the final surrender of Japan and the end of the war, I rushed down to Times Square to shout my joy along with thousands of like-minded citizens. As a boy scout in our troop drum and bugle corps, I marched down Fifth Avenue in the Victory Parade, a proud and cherished moment.

The aftermath, the pictures of the victims of the holocaust was beyond description. The enormity of its cruelty still defies comprehension. But the pictures could not be denied. We followed the war crimes trials at Nuremberg. The missing man from those trials, the arch villain, the inhuman disgusting monster who perpetrated these cruelties had escaped through cowardly suicide. Our hate for this man was palpable. It still is.

We ridiculed the chorus of denials that came from the conquered German people. “We had no idea of what was happening” or “we were only following orders” was the accepted and frequent response. Of course, we dismissed such excuses. They knew. Everybody knew.

Who then were the ecstatic Germans who lined the streets and filled the auditoriums and sports arenas and hailed their hero at every available opportunity? Is it possible to forget the brilliant films of Leni Riefenstahl, showing magnificently staged Nazi rallies filled with images of frenzied crowds expressing their ecstatic admiration of the Fuehrer, cunningly portrayed as a living God? Indeed there is a huge and apparently unstoppable and continuing commercial interest in the filmed images of that era and a heroic Hitler as its principal actor.

As the years progressed and the German people began to accept the reality of their defeat and recovered their footing and commitment to freedom and democracy, we wished them well and still do. They, too, were zealous in drowning out the horrors afflicted on them by the man their parents and grandparents called the Fuhrer and who followed him blindly to the verge of Armageddon. On many levels we have reconciled with the German people, and the animosity inspired by the two World Wars has been dissipated by time.

But the eyewitnesses of the Hitler era are beginning to die off and there are disturbing signs of small changes on the horizon that suggest that perhaps the image of the monster could be softening. It took a number of years after the war for the Holocaust deniers to stake their claim. Is this a sign that the monster is making a comeback?

Despite the legal banishment of such denials, the voices seem to be gaining momentum, stoked by the ravings of what appears to be a Hitler wannabe President Ahmadinejad of Iran. There can be little doubt that his bombastic false assertions are gaining traction both inside and outside of Iran. Indeed, the media of the Arab world has taken a page out of Hitler’s book when it comes to anti-Semitism. One who remembers as I do, sees the same familiar words and images which were in vogue in Germany and Europe during the Hitler era finding their way into the mainstream Arab media.

The evil genius of Josef Goebbels who masterminded Hitler’s propaganda efforts could be getting the last laugh. His carefully crafted outright and shameless lies continue to resonate. It was Goebbels who proudly boasted that if you repeat a lie long enough it eventually morphed into a truth. While it turns my stomach to say so, he may have been on to something.

The once dismissed phony book “The Protocols of Zion,” is circulated throughout the Arab world as if it were a true account of the Jews attempt to take over the world. Worse, the influence of such anti-Semitic lies and distortions is flaring up again in Europe through the good offices of the growing Moslem populations of these countries adding fuel to the still smoldering ashes of that Continent’s entrenched anti-Semitism.

The drumbeat of this hatred goes far beyond a criticism of Israel. It is directed at Jews everywhere.

It has never ceased to baffle me, why the Jewish people, who number about thirteen million of the world’s population of more than six billion people, a minuscule number barely qualified to be a statistic, are scapegoated with such venom. The continuing catalog of lies about this people now amplified on the Internet is beyond my understanding and belief.

Worse, I note in the realm of popular entertainment, two movies: The Reader being one, where the old shibboleth of “I was only obeying orders” has raised its ugly head again. The main character of this book to movie effort, a former female concentration camp guard, is made sympathetic by emphasizing that she was illiterate and therefore not fully capable of realizing the enormity of her crime, a ridiculous assertion. Another movie, Valkyrie, suggests that it was a feat of heroism to attempt to assassinate Hitler, avoiding the brutal truth that it was only after the German officers who made the attempt had served the Fuhrer with blind loyalty until he was leading them to sure defeat. Where were they in the early days of his ugly attempt to Nazify Europe and the world and exterminate the Jews?

Indeed, the sudden reappearance of newspaper inserts from that period heralding stories and headlines of the Hitler era under the guise of being “historical” are flying off the newsstands. Am I being cynical to suggest nostalgia or yearning for the glorious past?

I am fully aware that I am hinting at a rather shocking prognostication and I do not lay claim to being a psychic. Perhaps I am overwrought by what I see happening, but I am concerned about what will occur when all the eyewitnesses are gone and the Hitler era becomes merely a historical fact, richly enhanced by the enormous media library portraying the action film hero Adolph Hitler as a near deity. Will a sense of nostalgia develop for the heady and allegedly glorious days of the Third Reich, clearly a high point in German history, a time when Germans ruled Europe?

Once the painful stings of living memory disappear how will history cast that moment? Will Germans of the future one day erect monuments and museums to mark that historical period and reclaim and celebrate those years when Germany was transcendent and the man who created the moment was a Godlike creature who, they might allege, was defeated by a Jew inspired mongrel rabble?

Will they further allege and amplify that he might have had the right idea and given them a taste of glory that they had never before enjoyed or imagined? Will those who hate and vilify Jews, a cursedly persistent and implacably weird phenomenon, band together to aid in Hitler’s resurrection, perhaps anointing him as a prophet? Stranger things have happened.

But when the eyewitnesses completely die off, the accuracies and nuances of living memory expires and what is left is the interpretations of dispassionate historians and, in this case, an astonishing record of edited movie images which, we have learned, have the power to distort memory and camouflage reality.

We can only hope that such a rehabilitation of this human monster never occurs. Such hope may be an exercise in futility. Unfortunately, those of us still living who were witness to these events, won’t be around to correct the distortions and rationalizations that are certain to emerge in the historical record.