Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Halloween is a couple days away, but my New York City neighborhood has been ready for weeks! Townhouses and apartment buildings have taken on the orange and black hue of eerie decorations that are sure to scare young "trick-or-treaters" and maybe even their parents.

Halloween is a very special night for many children and a real custom for most American families. So, of course, these decorations have become a neighborhood tradition in our part of town. Jack o' Lanterns have taken their places on doorsteps and in windows. Their faces raggedly carved into place, some with smiles and some scowls, and illuminated by a burning candle hidden deep within. These are meant to keep away evil spirits and ghosts that seem to gather each year on Samhain, "end of summer." In fact, ancient Celtics also wore masks while walking around on this night each year so as not to be identified as human.

Spider webs are draped from doors and windows where an occasional spider can be seen standing in wait for visitors to arrive. But these spiders are frozen for all time, or until they are discarded. Witches, each with a pointed hat and a broom, lurk in doorways, while skeletons skulk in the bushes flashing their teeth and bones. Bats hang from ceilings and chandeliers. So can the vampires be far behind?

Halloween is the second most commercially successful holiday in the U.S., next to Christmas, with more than $2 billion spent each year just on candy. Tootsie rolls were the first penny candy handed out, but chocolate is the most popular candy today, especially Snickers. It is easy to go through several hundred New York dollars worth of candy by the time the crowd tapers off on our street. Some parents bring their toddlers as early as 4pm, while teenagers will still be out patrolling well past 10pm.

Over the years several neighborhoods in New York have emerged as the place to go trick-or-treating. Carnegie Hill, on the upper east side of Manhattan, has become ground zero for kids from throughout the region. Cars with New Jersey license plates and buses from the Bronx drop costumed children off at the end of the block and come back an hour later to pick up their passengers loaded down with candy. Television and movie stars, who are seldom costumed, are always very nice when they drop by with their children. For instance, Alex Baldwin came by one year with his daughter.

Not every townhouse welcomes trick-or-treaters. They are the homes with their shades down and lights off. Meanwhile, apartment buildings frequently post a list of apartments that will receive trick-or-treaters. This is usually a "residents only" arrangement where parents can go up and down elevators with their devilish flock and have a successful evening without leaving the building.

For many, Halloween is party night. And if you are a thirteen-year-old girl in Manhattan it may be a chance to invite your costumed friends over and listen to music and watch scary movies. Then, at some point, this bevy of beasts and ogres goes door to door in search of candy. Later they return to the front stoop to assist in the distribution process.

At its peak, hundreds of people, moving in all directions, squeeze onto the sidewalk in front of our home where we are encamped with baskets of goodies. This year we are looking forward to seeing werewolves, ghosts, devils and even a dithering President Barack Obama (or two). Last year we were visited by a Dick Cheney, including a cowboy hat and fake shotgun. But a return visit is unlikely as he and his cast of characters are thankfully only a haunting memory. Anyway, there is more optimism this year than last Halloween.

And remember, tradition says if you see an actual spider on Halloween night, it is the spirit of a loved one looking over you. Eek! That's one tradition I am never going to get my daughter to believe!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Soupy Sales (-:

Comedian Soupy Sales left an indelible image in my memory when I was a teenager growing up in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield during the 60's. He died Thursday in New York at 83.

Then my family still had a black and white television, which sat in the living room of our typical one level suburban house located a stone's throw from my elementary school. It was on that television I had watched President John Kennedy's funeral and film of the escalating Viet Nam War. At the time I was one of those many teenagers searching for an identity in the midst of a Cold War and a Civil Rights movement. I turned to Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley to narrate the complicated and confusing events on the world stage.

But whenever possible I made it my business to watch The Soupy Sales Show. Maybe it was the regular pie in the face routines that made it funny. It was never a surprise, but it always gave me a giggle. Maybe it was White Fang, the meanest puppet in the United States, or Black Tooth, the nicest puppet in the United States. Or maybe it was the "nut at the door," and puppets Pokie the Lion, Hobart and Reba. Maybe it was Sales facial contortions, his eyes pooping out while his mouth twisted. Crazy things happened all the time, as Sales frenetically bounced around on the set carrying out unscripted but well thought out routines that seemed spontaneous.

I will never forget New Year's Day in 1965. I was sitting on our sofa watching The Soupy Sales Show when he said, "Okay kids, I want you to go into your parents bedroom and find your mother's purse." Where's this going? "Then I want you to reach in and take all that green paper, the ones with the pictures of the presidents on them." Huh? "Then I want you to send them to me!" Sales claimed he only received a few dollars in the mail but he was suspended for the episode because he was encouraging children to steal.

Soupy Sales perfected the, eh, art of slapstick silliness on television. What made him so appealing was his fresh, unpredictable and downright funny approach. In fact, his show attracted large numbers of adult viewers as well.

The Soupy Sales Show would probably not make it on television today. But Sales did play a meaningful role on television at a time when the medium was finding itself. (By the way, I did not send Soupy Sales my mother's money.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Don Hewitt

Today Don Hewitt was remembered as a true pioneer of broadcast news in a touching ceremony at the Rose Hall in New York's Time Warner Center. It was a truly poignant event that Don himself would have raved about for weeks.

The gathering included a collection of current and former 60 Minutes employees and many television legends in their own right. Producers, cameramen, editors and staff helped fill the theater to capacity. Don's wife, journalist Marilyn Berger, and his family sat in front.

Current 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager served as the master of ceremonies. He seamlessly and gracefully took the helm of 60 Minutes from Don in 2004. Jeff acknowledged the presence of Mike Wallace, who, at 91 years old and in failing health, was seated in a wheelchair. Jeff then recounted how difficult it was for Don to step down from the program he had created 40 years ago, but pointed out in recent years he accepted his retirement and visited the offices regularly.

Excerpts of a 60 Minutes program that aired shortly after Don's death in August were played throughout the tribute. CBS CEO Les Moonves described his first meeting with the legendary producer and Don's subsequent calls to pass on programming ideas, "I still wait for the phone to ring and hear these words, `Kid, I got a great idea for you,'" Les proclaimed 60 Minutes to be the single most important program ever for CBS. He was proud to announce that 60 Minutes had again finished among the top ten rated shows this past week. In fact, 60 Minutes was television's top rated program a record five times.

Morley Safer, one of the show's first correspondents, compared Don to the great fictional character Bugs Bunny, cunning, smart and always one step ahead of everyone else. He highlighted Don's temperament and well-known impatience, "He had the attention span of a fruit fly on acid." His respect and love for Don resonated in his remarks.

Phil Scheffler, former long time number two to Don and now retired, talked of the old days. In 1950 CBS News had nine employees, one camera and small offices. The evening newscast was broadcast three nights a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Because reports were filed in film, domestic reports took about one day to complete while foreign reports could take three to four days. The visual production of each newscast consisted primarily of UPI still photos. Douglas Edwards was the anchor although he was not a journalist, and Don was the producer. They were inventing television every day. It turns out that the writers and anchors of the powerful post war CBS News Radio operation refused to work in television, they thought it was a fad.

CBS News management removed Don from the evening news, reassigning him to cover special events. Don was the boy wonder and had already successfully produced the presidential debate between Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Don was bored in his new assignment so he created a pilot for a new program. This program would be made up of three twelve-minute mini documentaries. It was a news magazine and Mike Wallace and the late Harry Reasoner anchored the pilot. Don pushed and prodded and at last won 60 Minutes a prime time slot twice a month against the number one rated Marcus Welby M.D. Soon it was moved to Sundays at 7PM and the rest is history.

Joan Ganz Cooney, the co-creator of Sesame Street, spoke of her friend of forty years in endearing terms. She declared there were four great pioneers of news, Edward R. Murrow, Roone Arledge, Walter Cronkite and Don Hewitt. Then son in law Bill Cassara, married to Don's daughter Lisa, talked about Don's personal side. He played a clip of Don driving his car singing along to one of Frank Sinatra's great hits. Don had produced a brilliant special on Sinatra 40 years earlier.

Robert Fishman, who called Don his great uncle, recounted the last few months of Don's life. Following Don's heart operation he met with a psychologist, and that night Robert found him sitting alone at home in the dark with the television off and a remote in his hand. "Robert, the doctor says I am depressed." Robert then recounted how Don cited all he had done, his achievements and family, and couldn't understand how the doctor had come to that conclusion. Don was not depressed at all.

Alan Alda was the final speaker. He had gotten to know Don really well in the Hamptons, where they each had weekend homes. Alan talked about Don's very early morning trips to the Candy Kitchen, a corner restaurant in the village of Bridgehampton. There Don spoke to the people and swapped stories for hours. Alan observed, "He never lost touch with simple humanity."

As it happens, last Memorial Day I met with Don at the Candy Kitchen at 6am three days in a row. Don looked weak, his body had been ravaged by pancreatic cancer, but his mind was as sharp as ever. He still had a million ideas and would light up as he talked about each one. In our last meeting I thanked him for all he had done for me when I was overseeing 60 Minutes nearly twenty years earlier. "Oh kid, you don't have to thank me." I was glad I did. I next saw him at Walter Cronkite's funeral. He was near death.

Today's memorial was a wonderful tribute to a true pioneer. There sat Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Steve Kroft, Lesley Stahl, Scott Pelley, Andy Rooney, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amapour and dozens of other executives, correspondents, producers and editors whose lives Don had impacted. His credo was simple, "Tell me a story." In the end, it was his life story that was celebrated. There will never be another Don Hewitt.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Goldman Rule

So Goldman Sachs is now concerned its company has a perception problem? They are even going to undertake a huge public relations offensive to turn things around? Well they sure have plenty of money to throw at this problem.

Goldman Sachs posted near record trading profits this past quarter, just a year after the near total collapse of the American economy. Net profits were $3.19 billion in the third quarter, up 105% over last year's third quarter. Goldman Sachs made all the right moves, including repaying the $10 billion in TARP money it received from the US Government with more than $400 million in dividends.

Goldman's recovery, along with that of other financial institutions, can in part be credited to government subsidies backed by the taxpayers. And Goldman Sachs undertook a riskier investment strategy, with overall leverage at about 17 to 1 versus about 28 to 1 before the crisis.

For sure, Goldman Sachs bankers work hard at creating value for their customers and shareholders. And their success should be rewarded. But a report that the firm had set aside about $20 billion for employee bonuses has caused a backlash. Critics say that Goldman Sachs is just back to its old money making ways.

Sadly Goldman Sachs doesn't really care what Main Street thinks. Rather they are concerned what Congress or the U.S. Government might do. This time, rather than insensitively and arrogantly dismissing complaints of excessive pay, the firm is now concerned that humongous bonuses may impact future profits. Even Goldman Sachs can be hurt by too much success. Especially when unemployment is above 10%, foreclosures are at a record high, deficits are unprecedented and the gap between the rich and poor has never been wider.

So a new lobbying initiative is underway in Washington along with major television interviews targeted at key decision makers in DC. Reports also say Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein will talk about his first job as a 13-year-old -- selling peanuts at Yankee Stadium. So what, Blankfein once worked for peanuts.

The projected 2009 Goldman Sachs bonus pool will be around $20 billion, a near record amount. Therefore the average pay out per employee could be more than the $661,490 given in 2007. Memo to Goldman Sachs: most Americans don't make that much in a lifetime of working.

This year Goldman Sachs should tithe. Take 10% right off the top of the bonus pool, or $2 billion, and donate it to rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama. Tap into their own brainpower to develop a plan to target the money on specific worthwhile projects so it does not get diverted to corrupt contractors and politicians. For starters, money could be used to rebuild the 9th ward of New Orleans, and devastated sections of Biloxi and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

Subsequently, Goldman Sachs should donate 10% of their bonus pool each year to a particular cause, helping injured and needy US military veterans, underwriting national after school programs designed to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble, curing diseases and the list goes on.

The US taxpayers supported the financial community when its collapse was imminent. Now it is time for financial institutions to help their country in its time of need.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Nobel Deeds

When the Nobel committee awarded President Barack Obama its Peace Prize a gaggle of right wing conservative critics screamed bloody murder. They sounded like a bunch of eighth graders, "Oh how come he won, he's an idiot."

One thing for sure, none of Obama's critics could, even in their wildest dreams, ever be recognized for such an award. Rather, they could best qualify for a Nobel Prize for "Snarkiness," or "Divisiveness," or "Destructiveness," or even the "Just Say No" prize.

Obama is ushering in a new era for America, one of global partnership and diplomacy. His foreign policy is about collaborating not being a cowboy. He has set the right tone and the foreign policy wheels are slowly turning in our favor. American exceptionalism is being replaced by US leadership through well thought out actions. This leadership is especially important in the areas of nuclear nonproliferation, the global economy, the environment and human rights.

Just look what the contrary tactics hath wrought. An invasion of Iraq by President George Bush, and his trusty side kick Dick Cheney, based on faulty and overblown assumptions. One blowhard dictator down, making it all better, priceless (literally). Add to that a failed Afghanistan policy and the failure to stem Al Qaeda and capture Osama bin Laden, all while compromising basic constitutional rights for American citizens. And then there is the collapse of the US economy which had world-wide repercussions and led to enormous American deficits.

I will never forget a pre-Iraq War session my Telemundo news team had with President Bush. The public was being told that no decision had been made to go to war. Many Europeans, especially the French, had been outspoken in their concerns about US threats to invade Iraq.

Upon completing our interview we all stood around and chatted with President Bush. Iraq and possible military action again came up. I asked President Bush, "What about Jacques Chirac?" I was referring to the French President and his vocal opposition to war.

President Bush slapped me on the shoulder with the back of his right hand and said, "Don't worry, he'll come around." My jaw dropped. Immediately I thought to myself, "We are going to war." No wonder many world leaders thought our president was a cowboy. No wonder the global perception of America was seriously damaged during his presidency. He had made a gut decision and there was no one was going to talk him out of it.

In a short period of time President Obama has changed the tone of international diplomacy. Arms control, human rights, immigration, the environment, the global economy, trade and terrorism are complicated issues. For sure, progress will be slow as each country has its own interests. And there will be fits and starts. But progress and solutions will best come through meaningful dialog and understanding.

The Nobel committee clearly believes President Obama's change of approach is critically important and is more likely to pay great dividends in the long run for the well-being of our children and the people of the world.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Clean House USOC

Some conservatives cheered after the International Olympic Committee eliminated Chicago as host city for the 2016 Olympics on the first round, their disdain for President Barack Obama was so palpable. But most Americans were surprised and embarrassed that Chicago got crushed. Now comes the fallout.

The United States Olympic Committee's acting CEO Stephanie Streeter revealed Wednesday that she'll leave her post within the next five months. Streeter says she decided to withdraw her name as a candidate for the USOC CEO long before the IOC's disastrous vote. Now the USOC will retain a search firm to identify candidates. But first the committee should undertake a serious review of what went wrong with Chicago's bid, why its inside intelligence failed and why public expectations were allowed to soar.

Chicago's presentation was very strong and well polished, that is not in dispute. The Obamas did a very fine job making their pitch in person. And Chicago had put together a powerful package for the IOC. Yet after the first round Chicago received only 18 votes from the 110-member committee. Clearly this result reveals that there are many underlying issues facing the USOC. Especially considering that New York got only 19 votes when it made its last bid to host the Olympics.

Many International Olympic Committee members deeply resent the fact that the U.S. organization gets such a large share from the Olympic television licensing deals. So says Dick Ebersol who is Chairman of NBC Sports and Olympics. NBC currently has the exclusive rights to carry the Olympics in the United States. Ebersol points out that the USOC gets 13% of all the TV rights fees and 20% of all the sponsorship revenues from the Olympics. This is a legacy arrangement based on the fact that at one point the U.S. brought in about 90% of the sponsor money, now it is about 40%. Further, the USOC CEO is paid more than $1 million, which is another source of resentment.

Another issue may be that there are about 110 members of the IOC and more than half are European. These members are made up of sports administrators and ex-athletes. They all know each other very well. The USOC, inexplicably, has had several CEO's over the past few years and none has been full time. Therefore relationships between the American and her counterparts are mostly superficial. And she and members of the US committee didn't seem to understand the role of bloc voting. For instance, committee members from Spain, the home of the influential former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, and whose capitol Madrid was a contender, favored Rio de Janeiro as a second choice.

Poor execution could have hampered the US's bid as well. The USOC had a chance to make a presentation to the IOC this past June but they failed to do so. Brazil, on the other hand, sent a high level delegation to make its case. No wonder Rio was the clear front-runner going in to the voting. Their arguments were compelling including awarding South America its first Olympics. How could the USOC not have known that their bid was in deep trouble?

President Obama had to go to Copenhagen to make the case for Chicago and America. It was one of those "no-win" situations where he would have been subject to criticism no matter what he did. Of course, had America won he probably would have been criticized as well. Yet the big question is why were expectations allowed to swirl out of control. Why didn't someone in the White House, or one of the president's Chicago friends, provide a more realistic assessment to the world press?

The USOC needs to clean house. It needs to appoint a powerful and experienced new leader who knows the IOC, its culture and its people.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Graham Crackers

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, finally spoke wise and encouraging words about the tenor of our national dialog. At last a powerful Republican voice is calling for an end to the insane insults and lies that permeate today's political debate. But will his colleagues accede to his entreaty or will they continue their mischief? What, are you kidding?

Speaking before a conference last week sponsored by The Atlantic, The Aspen Institute and The Nuseum, Senator Lindsey Graham said, in answer to a question, "I'm here to tell you that those who think the president was not born in Hawaii are crazy, he's not a Muslim, he's a good man, and let's knock this crap off and talk about the real differences we have."

Senator Graham expressed frustration with both extreme Republicans and Democrats who disseminate misinformation and personal attacks. He went on to blame the lack of civility in today's political arena in part on the voters who elect confrontational representatives to Washington. Senator Graham also blamed the 24-hour news cycle, talk radio and organizations like

He was particularly harsh toward Fox News entertainer and gadfly Glen Beck, saying "Only in America can you make that much money crying." Declaring Beck does not speak for the Republican Party, he continued, "He is aligned with cynicism and there has always been a market for cynics. But we became a great nation not because we are a nation of cynics. We became a great nation because we are a nation of believers."

However, Senator Graham's criticism of Beck on Fox News Sunday yesterday had a different slant. "I'm not saying he's bad for America," the senator said, "You have got the freedom to watch him if you choose. He did a pretty good job on ACORN. What I am saying is he doesn't represent the Republican Party."

Then he referred to comments Beck made last week to CBS News anchor Katie Couric that he would have voted for Obama over Senator John McCain. "But at the end of the day," Graham said, "when a person says he represents conservatism and that the country is better off with Barack Obama than John McCain, that sort of ends the debate for me as to how much more I'm going to listen."

Pardon me Senator, I hate to be cynical, but where were you during the silly season this past summer? You know, when Governor Palin accused the president of wanting to create "death panels?" Or when Beck ranted his ridiculous claims about eugenics? Or Rush Limbaugh called the president a Nazi? Or when the "birthers," fanned by some conservative members of Congress, accused the president of not being a naturalized American? Or, perhaps worse, the president was a Muslim born in Kenya?

Senator, why the sudden urge to take the high road? Do you think these senseless attacks are hurting the Republican Party more than President Obama? Or are you now speaking up because Glen Beck has insulted your best friend, Senator John McCain. Whatever your motives senator, I agree it’s time to knock this crap off.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Chicago Blues

Rio de Janeiro’s selection to host the 2016 Olympics means the games will take place for the first time in South America. Meanwhile the surprise of the day was that Chicago was eliminated on the first round, perhaps due to bloc voting or anti-American sentiment.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made a powerful pitch to the International Olympic Committee, "Rio will deliver an unforgettable Games. You will see for yourselves the passion, the energy and the creativity of the Brazilian people." He stressed that South America had never hosted an Olympics and, "Rio is ready. Give us this chance and you will not regret it."

Chicago's elimination on the first round elicited a huge gasp from the thousands of Chicagoans gathered downtown to watch the announcement. The Chicago team worked years preparing a thoroughly detailed and imaginative proposal. All of the Olympic venues would have been located near each other in the heart of the city, many along the spectacular lakefront. The government would back all of the costs associated with presenting the games. An outstanding array of corporate sponsors had been lined up, many of them global powerhouses. Central transportation, hotels and infrastructure were unsurpassed by the other bidders.

The Chicago delegation delivered a very strong and polished presentation. First Lady Michele Obama spoke from the heart about the city of her birth, "I never dreamed that the Olympic flame might one day light up lives in my neighborhood...But today...I am dreaming of an Olympic and Paralympic Games in Chicago that will light up lives in neighborhoods all across America and all across the world." President Obama, whose Chicago home would have been a short walk from the games, said, “To host athletes and visitors from every corner of the globe is a high honor and a great responsibility...And America is ready and eager to assume that sacred trust.”

But apparently the Olympic judges were not eager to give their trust to the Americans. And there were signs that the American delegation may have been over confident. In the official question-and-answer session following the Chicago presentation, Syed Shahid Ali, an I.O.C. member from Pakistan, asked how smooth it would be for foreigners to enter the United States for the Olympics because doing so can sometimes, he said, be “a rather harrowing experience.”

President Obama had no choice but to travel to Copenhagen. To not do so would have opened him up to criticism as the leaders of the other contending countries made the trip to make their pitch in person. By most accounts the Obamas were well received, "There is no evidence other than a positive reaction to their presence." said one official. But immediately following the announcement right-wing commentators and web sites in the U.S. attacked Obama. The Drudge report headline read, "THE EGO HAS LANDED, WORLD REJECTS OBAMA: CHICAGO OUT IN FIRST ROUND."

The fact that a South American country has never hosted an Olympics was a very compelling argument. And Rio is one of the world's most beautiful and romantic cities. There was plenty of reason for judges to be sentimental about Rio. On the other hand, no doubt many judges probably savored having the opportunity to reject America's bid. Despite President Obama's popularity there are strong anti-America feelings around the world based on its perceived role in the global economic collapse, its invasion of Iraq and the previous administration's “go it alone” policies.

Ironically, the city most known for its hardball politics couldn’t overcome the internal politics of the Olympic Committee to make it past the first round. As one IOC member said, “The whole thing doesn't make sense other there has been a stupid bloc vote."