Thursday, July 30, 2009

Changing the Subject

Almost 100 years ago, the president of Harvard University, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, resolved to establish a quota on Jews accepted to the university because, said the cloistered bigot, “Jews cheat.” When one of the most distinguished judges of the day, Learned Hand, a Harvard alumnus, pointed out to Lowell that Protestants also cheat, Lowell retorted, "You're changing the subject! We're talking about Jews."

As conveyed with exasperation in my previous entry on this blog, President Obama was expressly addressing national health care for a national audience tuned in to hear what he had to say
about national health care when a journalist who either needed attention, or didn’t truly know why she was at the press conference and wasn’t paying attention, changed the subject. With one question, she accomplished what the GOP and its cadres of cranks have spent millions of dollars, calories and their diminishing reserves of human resources trying to do.

The average American has the attention span of an inch worm. And the cranial capacity of one. That makes people who should be listening to discussion instead of sound bites putty in the hands of those who would manipulate them, i.e., anyone who has an agenda, i.e., politicians, propagandists, talk show hosts, hate mongers and so on down the low road.

Interrupting is no longer impolite, it’s the rhythm and tenor of our lives. Chris Matthews asks a question but starts speaking before his guest can answer because what he has to say is more important—to him. A New York dinner party is a game of conversational counterpoint only seasoned pros can play. If you don’t instinctively know when to cut in—and by “when” I mean on the precise opportune breath—you’re sidelined.

Changing the subject is the new dialogue. I speak while your mind wanders and you speak while I wonder if you’ve heard anything I said. If I ask you, you’re apt not to answer because you’re thinking of what you want to say next.

Background music, loud and incessant, is the social essential. Without it, what is there to say? With it, does it matter?

Changing the subject is tactful when someone’s getting to you, deft when someone’s boring you, and legitimate when you want to make your point or pitch before the lunch you’re buying the person you’re finessing, by changing the subject, is over.

Finally, changing the subject comes a lot more naturally to all those you have to cope with than changing their minds does….

Which, not to change the subject, brings us back to where we started. We should be talking about national health care. And should be listening.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

But For The Last Question

We are a trivial country with a trivial media. We stand at the threshold of confirming the best of what we believe “the land of the free and the home of the brave” stands for, and we are riddled with ADD. With a national health care program clearly in our sights at long last, our eyes dart instead to the sideshows on the sidelines—the C Street hotbeds, the “wise Latina” brouhaha, the blathering Birthers.

So we have the plight of Barack Obama’s press conference expressly “about the progress we're making on health insurance reform and where it fits into our broader economic strategy” upstaged by a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times, Lynn Sweet, who posed the last question to the President—about health insurance reform, of course: “Recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?” Obviously, Lynn’s attention must have been riveted by the president’s remarks up to that point.

It didn’t take sophistication or savvy for anyone to realize what the story would be. No matter how the President answered, race was the issue and “that incident” trumped the president’s concern for “the 47 million Americans who don't have any health insurance at all” and the “14,000 Americans [who] will continue to lose their health insurance every single day.” It dwarfed “the woman in Colorado who paid $700 a month to her insurance company only to find out that they wouldn't pay a dime for her cancer treatment” and “the middle-class college graduate from Maryland whose health insurance expired when he changed jobs and woke up from the emergency surgery that he required with $10,000 worth of debt.”

Not to take anything away from “Skip” Gates, a distinguished scholar who happens to be among my intellectual heroes, nor from the appalling appearance of possible racial profiling in the Cambridge police’s handling, or mishandling, of the iconic Harvard professor, but regrettably, as the highly-charged situation became the distraction not only of the day, but easily of many a day to follow, the consummately important issue of our time, health care reform, faded from sight for a time, essentially unnoticed.

I’ve yet to see the Cambridge affair dubbed WaterGates, but don’t hold your breath. I saw a clip of Rush Limbaugh fuming, “The president’s reaction was not presidential… we got the militant black reaction.” I watched Chris Matthews, who opens his hour on MSNBC declaring, “Let’s play Hardball!” but often as not doesn’t even lob softballs to guests like those on Thursday night’s show. Before him sat the newly- and likely briefly-famous Lynn Sweet, but instead of using the opportunity to ask her why she veered from the press conference’s vital subject matter and changed the subject—particularly after she had said she found it “remarkable… that Obama decided to engage in the question in a very animated way…”, he concluded his non-inquiry of her by telling her, “Good question last night! Talk about makin’ noise in this country!” Guess he wants her back on the show.

Midway through the hour, Matthews introduced G. Gordon Liddy, a leader of the Birthers, those tiresomely-dogged agitators who refuse to accept evidence that Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen because they refuse to accept that a man with black skin and an African name is the legitimate President of the United States. (Matthews might have asked why the American people didn’t ask George W. Bush, or Teddy Roosevelt for that matter, to prove their citizenship, but he didn’t.) Quite a show, right? Liddy said that Obama’s “Certificate of Live Birth,” issued in Hawaii and certified by the state’s Republican governor and everyone else but the right wing-dings, wouldn’t qualify him for an American passport. (Note to Chris: why didn’t you ask Liddy to explain how Obama traveled all over the world long before and ever since he entered political life?) So we were treated to the spectacle of a convicted felon accusing the President of the United States of being an illegal alien.

Just hours ago on “Hardball,” radio talk show host Michael Smerconish said that after twelve hours on the air over the past two days, the Gates/police/Obama issue “is the only thing the American people want to talk about.” As for health care? God Bless America.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


The Internet has given the word “comments” new meaning. “Comments” are giving this blog new meaning.

As anyone can see (below), anyone is free to post anything on “Son of the Cucumber King.” Most blogsites screen comments before they post them. Unlike them, I don’t force people to check off a loyalty-oath box or copy an infernal, sometimes unreadable combination of five twisted letters and numbers—“to prove you're human,” they explain. Subsequently, various messages inform you there will be a delay while your comment is reviewed for “appropriate” content, and management reserves the right etc.

This blog, laissez-faire, is drawing frequent debates, and while I disagree with many of the comments, I welcome all of them. I marvel at their diversity and wonder at the extent people go to in order to air their views.

In the matter of Melia Obama wearing a T-shirt displaying a peace symbol [“Seeing Them For What They Are”], Steve says, “At 11 years old Melia knows as much about Peace as Miss America knows about quarks!” To which Lauren [full (proud) disclosure: my daughter] replies, “my 6 1/2 year old nephew has been able to identify the peace symbol since he was 3 and when asked back then what it meant he said, ‘no more fights.’"

In the matter of Michael Jackson [“Securing Michael Jackson” and “Recalling Michael Jackson”], Participant says, “I don't know what to think about this whole thing (about the man himself - the Peter Pan). Your blog has given me another side - good perspective.” To which James Patrick Updike responds, “…a great entertainer, but as far as I'm concerned he was a pedophile and deserves no mourning.”

Tough crowd. Let me eschew looking at “both sides now” and share a few random zingers with you. The most brazenly callous comment appeared in conjunction with “Free Roxana,” my appeal on behalf of the young journalist imprisoned in Iran. Posted by Anonymous (The cowardly tend to conceal themselves.), it stated, “I have a feeling Iran is going to milk this for all its worth to get whatever concessions it can from the U.S. all because this incredibly STUPID woman didn't know when to leave town! I hope she rots!” The wittiest may have been from Jacopo, who said, “W is writing a memoir? Ha! I'll believe it's his only if the first draft is written entirely in crayon…”

The dramatic street demonstrations following the elections in Iran produced two of the most notable comments: the most concisely profound one from betty fussell, “The Iranian government? The Iranian people? These are short-hand rhetorical constructs far different from the complex realities of both. … Let's talk less and learn more.”; the most evocative and perhaps touching from Paul Evans, “I remember listening (on a short wave radio) to the Hungarians' call for help - "For God's sake, help us." - just before the Russian army put an end to their revolution. Better fortune to the Iranian people.”

The last word (for now) belongs to the sanity and sagacity of James van Maanen, who has his own site, “TrustMovies,” in reaction to the exchanges my last entry, “Seeing Them For What They Are,” produced:
"My goodness, Ray: This post seems to have brought out the "extremists" like no other you've published. I don't know whether to say, "Keep it up" or "Move on, fast." I guess we do need to be reminded of the whack jobs out there. They are a shrinking minority, all right. But as we do learn occasionally and to our horror, it only takes one finger to pull a trigger."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Seeing Them For What They Are

"A typical street whore." "Ghetto street trash." "Wonder when she will get her first abortion."

These voices are talking about a teenage tramp, feral jailbait “with no mammy and no pappy” and nary a role model, a substance abuser welfare services lost track of or gave up on—right?

NO. They are talking about 11-year-old Malia Obama.

They were comments posted to “Free Republic,” a conservative blog, last Thursday. And what did “'lil cuz,” the spawn of the “commie pinko pansy of a father” and “his witch of a wife," do? Wore a T-shirt. “Not one but two T-shirts with an anti-nuclear message,” reports the “Free Republic. “Just 48 hours after the U.S. President” [note to editor: let’s leave his name out but I suppose we have to capitalize president] “signed agreements with Russian president” [note to ed.: well at least we don’t have to capitalize it for the Russky] “...Dmitry Medvedev to reduce weapon stores.” Wayward Malia “was spotted” wearing two T-shirts with the ubiquitously popular peace sign on them. “First there was a grey… then she swapped it for a mottled white and grey…” Well, did you ever?

This is not the Letterman Show, I am not Bill Maher, and this is REAL. Reality in America, folks. The America of which all Americans sing, “God shed His grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood…”

This is the brotherhood of the Christian right. “On the far side of sanity,” to quote Gary Larson, who makes his salient points via talking cows.

It wasn’t enough for the brother hood of the Christian right to slime and slam. He (or she?) posted a photo of Michelle Obama, in animated conversation with her daughter, captioned, "To entertain her daughter, Michelle Obama loves to make monkey sounds."

According to The Vancouver Press, “Free Republic,” the original source of these quotes, is “commonly considered one of the prime online locations for U.S. Conservative grassroots political discussion and organizing.” Cowardly to the core, “Free Republic” removed the comments from its site—twice—the second time for good, it seems, after negative reactions from some of its readers as well as the liberal media.

We owe a great thanks to The Vancouver Press for preserving this irrational, venomous, racist dreck for all to see. And for taking “Free Republic” to task for its hypocrisy as follows:

“A note on the front of Free Republic reads, "Free Republic does not advocate or condone racism, violence, rebellion, secession, or an overthrow of the government," but one comment on the thread read, "This disgusting display makes me more and more eager for the revolution," while another read, "I never actually wnated [sic] to be a pistol before but..."

Wrote site owner Jim Robinson sarcastically, "We should steer clear of Obama's children. They can't help it if their old man is an American-hating Marxist pig."

Then, behold, a flicker of light from the depths:

“One poster by the name of "fullchroma" wrote, ‘To Jim Robinson: The recent uptick here in racist vitriol, aimed at Barrack, Michelle and their children has made me wonder if I belong. My objection to Obama has nothing to do with skin tone. Is the ugly stereotype of Conservative racism true?’

“But such opinions were not shared by all. Said Roses of Sharon, ‘Poor libs .... Too late, the battle has been joined.’ The battle?”

Dominic Meiman, a friend I had forwarded The Vancouver Press account to, wrote to me in response:

“Doesn't surprise me. As Chris Matthews pointed out a couple of months ago, the Republican party has struck two Faustian bargains: one with southern bigots after the civil rights advances and, more recently, one with Christian rightwingers. The party is now shrinking into a toxic distillation and their venom isn't going away anytime soon. It's good that stuff like this doesn't get repressed because it's best that everyone see them for what they are and judge them accordingly.”

Friday, July 10, 2009

Recalling Michael Jackson

Continuing Moshe Alon’s recollections of Michael Jackson [please see the previous entry if you haven’t]:

Moshe never heard Michael Jackson raise his voice or give a command. “He was very shy,” he says, confirming widely held perceptions. At an event where Moshe wore a black tux, he heard Michael whispering softly from behind him. When he realized the words were for him, he heard Michael trying to tell him, “There’s something on your shoulder.” Had he been facing Moshe, he probably would have been silent rather than helpful.

Shy as he was offstage, when Michael Jackson was anywhere near a stage, according to Moshe, “He controlled everything. He was a showman,” says Moshe unstintingly, as if in admiration of an amalgam of P.T. Barnum and Al Jolson. During performances of super-stellar clients, Moshe is on the front line protecting them from fans who rush the stage. But Jackson selectively discouraged him from stopping them. “He let fans run onto the stage. He knew what they wanted.”

He was shy, he was savvy. He was in control or out of control.

“Other than his music and concerts, kids meant the most to him. He would take them to record stores, clothing stores, where they’d buy them up… anything they wanted.” On Jackson’s credit cards.

The kids Moshe had in mind traveled with them to Taiwan and Israel. “Kids ran around with bodyguards like kings and queens.” Moshe is critical of the parents who sent their kids unaccompanied—but for Jackson and his bodyguards—for three months. “Kids didn’t recognize their parents after that.”

As for the man whose care they were under, “He was like a child. He loved games”—so much, he had pinball games around the stage. Moshe recalled when Jackson was in group therapy. “His job was to vacuum-clean, but he didn’t know how to use a vacuum! My men had to teach him how. He went around vacuuming… vacuuming everything. He had such a good time.”

“He was not comfortable around adults. He was comfortable around Elizabeth Taylor. She understood… she was a child star too.” And the kids around him, I asked? Moshe’s answer was unequivocal. “I don’t believe he did anything wrong.”

“He trusted people.” And according to Moshe, they all took advantage of him. Not only the kids, but older people who were supposed to be friends. Not only them, but “managers and agents… anyone… everyone ripped him off.”

Moshe rented a helicopter for him for $10,000. Jackson’s representatives said, “No, Moshe, it’s $100,000.” Moshe corrected them, but they repeated the price was $100,000. Moshe told them he wouldn’t go along with them, he didn’t do things that way. They said his cut would be $20- or $30,000. When Moshe said no to them again, they said it doesn’t matter what you say, his cost is still going to be $100,000.
He said it was the same with Jackson’s doctor bills. Inflated. The same with his credit cards—they’d load charges for their own purchases on them. Those so-called friends of Jackson’s would get pills in their names to supply him with. Getting pain killers for him in places like Mexico was much easier, he added. I asked what they gained from it. “Power. And loads of money.”

Moshe says he has nothing against stars. But the people around them—“they make you sick.”

Moshe’s credibility? Elizabeth Taylor told him, “I’m never gonna ask you how I look because you tell me the truth.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Securing Michael Jackson

I never dreamed I’d be writing about Michael Jackson on this blog (or anywhere else).

I had an elderly aunt who, in the early days of television, complained that she wanted a new TV because the “old” set handed down to her only played old films. As I walked away from our kitchen TV grumbling about the round-the-clock media marathon Jackson’s death had become, I thought of Aunt Ida. Maybe I needed a new TV.

Then I thought of an old friend, Moshe Alon, a first-rate security agent who has worked with the biggest of stars and VIPs, including Michael Jackson. Based on having seen him in action, I believe Moshe is the best security man in the country, probably any country. He doesn’t wait for trouble, he anticipates and prevents it. He uses his head instead of his muscles, and I’ve never seen him with a weapon. He’s wise and sensible, ethical and unassuming. Only the most qualified security personnel are employed by his company, PSC, Professional Security Consultants, but it is Moshe who is always in demand.

Moshe and I met in Israel when I was traveling with Elizabeth Taylor and he was engaged to provide her security. He was so impressive, Elizabeth invited him to come to America to work for her. That was 27 years ago, and while his services to her were never exclusive, his loyalty to her has never flagged, so the few times she asked him as a favor to her to help Michael Jackson, he did. [That’s Moshe between them in the above photo.] And when, not as a favor but as a friend, I asked him about Jackson, he readily reminisced.

Jackson watchers will remember that when he was in rehab, he disappeared for a month. It started with Elizabeth Taylor and Moshe going to Mexico for him. Moshe detailed how he had to scramble to get Jackson’s passport from the superstar’s own security people, who were withholding it from him. Then, using the first of many decoys, Moshe put an African-American who resembled Jackson in a car headed in one direction while he and Elizabeth spirited him away in another and put him on a private plane to Iceland.

While “everyone” was looking for him, they escorted Jackson to London, where he hid more or less in plain sight, and then to Switzerland, while Moshe dispatched look-alikes “all over the place.” Jackson’s own management offered Moshe “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to tell them where Jackson was, but he wouldn’t take it.

“When he [Jackson] came back to America, he was clear in his head,” says Moshe with satisfaction.

To be continued: personal recollections of the private Michael Jackson.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The 4th of July of the Century

Anyone who never outgrew fireworks (and that may be everyone) has a favorite 4th of July. Mine is 1986 in New York Harbor.

The pyrotechnic display nonpareil occurred the Friday evening of Liberty Weekend—a four-day binge America went on to commemorate the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. New York City hosted President Ronald Reagan and French President François Mitterrand, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger and CEO supreme Lee Iacocca, a gaggle of politicians and a galaxy of celebrities, all devoted to saluting the perennial-reigning real and undefeated First Lady of the United States, Miss Liberty.

Like circus elephants entering a town, the eagerly anticipated Tall Ships, battleships and sailing vessels of earlier eras, followed one another majestically down the Hudson River for most of that day. The night belonged to the fireworks.

My wife Jean and I wanted our two young daughters to be part of the history happening before their eyes on such an historic date. As we ventured downtown to the southern tip of Manhattan for the celebration, I don’t think we considered the crowds we would be swept up in to be swept along with.

A father had to act, quickly. I dug down into my pocket for my heavy weapon—my press card.

Herding my three ladies out and away from the dense sea of bodies, I headed for where no one wanted to go. Open space. And kept walking with them, further and further away from “the action,” until we were practically nowhere. That’s when I saw the police barriers blocking a city street and the two policemen on duty in front of them.

According to a Time Magazine article at the time, “Security is a high priority. Airspace for several miles around Liberty Island has been declared off limits for five days. Helicopters will sweep the skies, while police divers will guard the water. Some 75 Coast Guard boats will patrol the bay, along with 200 civilian vessels recruited to help out. … Onshore, 15,000 of New York's Finest will be working overtime for the celebration, costing the city's taxpayers an estimated $4.26 million.”

The fireworks had started. Suggesting Jean and the girls wait several feet behind me, I approached the two officers, showed them my press card, and asked if I might enter the “No Entry” area as if there was no question about it. As soon as one of them nodded, I gestured toward my family as if to say “with them of course.” They actually moved the barriers aside to make space for us. Then, even better, they moved them back. We had the entire street to ourselves.

Not having to worry and watch the girls, Jean and I were able to let them drift steps or several feet away, which, their heads tilted toward the sky in their excitement, arms flung open and bodies spinning to see it all, they freely did. The sky was filled with blazing light and color, the air with steady blasts of propulsion and explosion. The dazzling array of fireworks was multiplied by its reflection mirrored in the predominantly glass exteriors of the windowed buildings surrounding us. Every moment breathtaking.

Three fireworks companies reportedly fired 20 tons of fireworks from 42 barges high into the lower Manhattan sky for over 30 minutes that night.

The exploding lights were supposed to be synchronized with music, but we never heard the music. What rang in my ears then and will stick in my memory forever is the sound of my daughter Haley, twelve at the time, howling with astonishment and overwhelming glee.

Hope you have a day to remember.