Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Duke

Duke Snider has died, he was 84. Edwin Donald "Duke" Snider was the center fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers when I met him in a chance encounter that I will always remember.

I played a lot of sand lot and Little League baseball growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the fifties. My home was three houses away from the nearest baseball diamond located on the northwest corner of Deerfield Grammar School's play yard. During the summer my friends and I regularly played baseball as pre-teens most of the day.

Because I could run fairly fast, I played left or right field where my speed came in handy cutting off balls hit into the gap. Most of the time the summer air was warm and the grass was fairly long. I was a very good contact hitter, frequently driving the ball up through the middle of the infield. What I lacked in power I made up for with enthusiasm.

When I was not playing baseball I would be home watching the Chicago Cubs on television playing at Wrigley Field, their home stadium on Chicago's north side. Wrigley Field did not have lights so all of the Cubs home games were played in the afternoon. Regretfully, the Cubs were pretty bad. They had only two star players, Hank Sauer and Ernie Banks. But I loved them.

One day a couple of us decided to go attend a Cubs game. We were about thirteen years old when one early morning we hopped on the North Shore electric train from Highland Park to Chicago's Ravenswood station. There we switched to the El and rode down to the Addison Street station, across from Wrigley Field. We got to the stadium early so we could see BP (batting practice) and shag a few balls hit into the stands.

As we arrived and were about to enter a bus pulled up. The door opened and the Brooklyn Dodgers poured off the bus. We ran over and started to collect autographs. I met Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Roseboro, Sandy Koufax. Don Drysdale, Gil Hodges and a bunch of other Dodgers. I was in awe, and they were so nice.

We then watched batting practice. Because there were so few fans in the stadium we were able to go anywhere a foul ball was hit. Our group collected nine baseballs. We then settled in to watch the game. We were pulling for the hapless Cubs. They lost, as I recall, but it still was an amazing afternoon.

Baseball then was not a big business; it was America's sport. I was an impressionable young boy enjoying an afternoon in Wrigley Field, with ivy-covered walls and a stiff breeze blowing out over right field toward Lake Michigan, watching my heroes. It was a field of dreams.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Colonel Qadhafi

Thirty years ago tensions between the United States and Libya were near the boiling point. In December, 1981, President Ronald Reagan ordered the approximately 1,500 American citizens living in Libya to leave or face legal action. That's when CBS News decided to dispatch me to Tripoli along with a reporter and a camera crew.

I was assigned to temporary duty in the London bureau of CBS News at the time. It's not bad work if you can get it. Shortly following the White House announcement I was off to Gatwick airport, about 25 miles south of London, where a charter Lear jet was on standby. Thankfully I had enough time to run next door to the Hyde Park Hotel and pack.

We loaded up the charter with camera gear and luggage and awaited clearance to take off on a snowy cold night. But we had one major problem--we were not cleared to land in Libya! And we didn't have the required visas either. After much consternation and consultation the CBS News foreign desk told us to fly on to Nice, France, where we could refuel.

Even at midnight Nice was very nice. Temperatures were in the mid 60's and the breeze off the Mediterranean Sea, which ran along the south side of the airport, was very refreshing. As our plane refueled, I continued to await word from New York that we had been cleared to land in Tripoli. Following a two hour wait the foreign desk decided that we should take off for Libya while they continued their efforts to get permission for us to land.

Into the darkness we headed for the 800-mile flight to Tripoli. I remember the nervous laughter in the cabin as we flew beneath the stars and a bright moon over the pitch-black sea. Periodically our pilots updated us on our landing status--still no clearance. Nearly half way on our journey we decided to attempt a landing even though we did not have permission. Believe me, there were plenty of jokes about returning to the French Riviera.

There it was in the distance, Tripoli. I could see the mass of lights straddling the North African coastline. Tripoli is Libya's capitol and most populous city and it appeared to be floating surrounded by nothing on either side. Through my porthole sized window I immediately scanned the nighttime horizon for signs of Libyan fighters. There were none. I asked the pilots whether they had heard any radio traffic. At first they could not raise the airport tower. But after a few minutes we were cleared to land. Whew.

When our plane touched down in the predawn hours, we were directed to a parking area quite some distance from the terminal. After we had been parked for a half hour, we decided to disembark. Standing on the runway I could feel the warm moist air but no signs of life. The airport was quiet.

A small transport bus arrived nearly an hour after we arrived and security shuttled us on board for a ride to the terminal. As we got to the terminal our passports were taken from us and we were assigned to a holding area. There our gracious hosts served us pear juice and crackers.

We were then taken by bus to a hotel on the coast. I believe the name of the hotel was The Beach, but it sure wasn't the Four Seasons! We entered the darkened lobby and found the front desk unmanned. Men were sleeping in the chairs that filled the lobby area. It took several minutes for security to find someone to check us in.

Remarkably, the hotel was pretty full. I was assigned a room in the basement. Although it was musty, the room appeared clean and I had a small cellar window from which I could see out toward the sea. I watched daylight slowly creep in that morning before falling asleep.

Over the next few days we waited to be summoned to meet with Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi. It seems that he wanted to make a statement to the world's press, who were arriving by the droves.

Everyday, at about noon, anti-American and pro-Qadhafi demonstrators gathered outside our hotel bearing placards, written in Arabic and English, and making a whole lot of noise. We assumed they were government workers. They praised their leader and life in Libya.

One evening we visited the home of some Americans who had been ordered out of the country by their president. We ate lamb and drank vintage wine. While liquor was technically illegal in Libya it could be found in most private homes.

On our third day it was announced that the world's press would be taken to the People's Jamahiriya, the people's palace, for a press event. We assumed that Colonel Qadhafi was ready to speak to us. As we entered the building all of our equipment was confiscated. We were all left in a room with no clue what would happen next.

About thirty minutes later I heard the sound of a motorcade screeching to a halt outside. Several minutes passed before a man entered and slowly walked through the crowd of journalists. He then retraced his route and walked out the door. A couple minutes later several men, I assume security, came through the door followed by Colonel Qadhafi. He walked be me, nodded as he passed, and proceeded through a door on the other side of the room. A quiet sense of excitement filled our room as we awaited further instructions.

A few minutes later a man emerged with an announcement in broken English. "There will be no press conference, you go home." With that brief statement the man walked out. "What?" "No press conference?" We were confused, but security got the message. They gave us back our equipment and drove us back to our hotels. We later received clarification; we were to leave the country. That was it!

It turns out that as we awaited our press conference General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland. That was December 13, 1981. Word reached us that Colonel Qadhafi, wanted to address the negative press coverage he had been receiving on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Coverage of martial law in Poland would now dominate the front pages and the Libyan leader would be buried deep inside the newspaper.

At first the CBS News foreign desk did not want to pull us out. We waited a couple of days to see what would happen. After all, this was the man President Reagan called, "The mad dog of the Middle East."

But our hosts were growing increasingly impatient. We were among the last to leave. As we boarded our charter for a return trip to London, I wondered what life was really like for Libyans who lived under the absolute and whimsical control of an all-powerful dictator. And how long would they allow this tyrannical autocrat to lead their country.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Wharlest Jackson

Tonight Investigation Discovery launches a powerful television series called "The Injustice Files", a look at cold cases from the civil rights era. While many Americans may have forgotten or choose not to remember this painful era in U.S. history, the series is an emotional reminder that justice has not been fully realized.

Keith Beauchamp, a 39-year-old documentary filmmaker from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and CBS News, produced “The Injustice Files”. The first program centers on the case of Wharlest Jackson, who in 1967 was a father of five children and the treasurer of the NAACP's local office in Natchez, Mississippi.

Mr. Jackson worked in the Armstrong Rubber company plant in Natchez. He was a Korean War combat veteran trying to provide for his family. When he was offered a promotion his wife pleaded with him not to take it for fear of his safety. Back then it was generally understood that Blacks working in the plant were not supposed to be promoted to management jobs.

But Mr. Jackson could not pass up the 17 cent per hour raise. After accepting the promotion he began to receive death threats. On February 27, 1967, a bomb detonated as he drove his truck home, apparently triggered when he used his turn blinker, destroying his vehicle and leaving him fatally wounded. Mr. Jackson was 36 years old when he died.

Mr. Jackson's son, then 8-year-old Wharlest Jackson Jr., heard the explosion and raced to the scene. He recounts in the program, "When I made it to him, he was lying in the street...his shoe was blown off and the truck was mangled." The emotional impact of that memory is still vividly apparent today.

More than 45 years later the Wharlest Jackson case remains unsolved. But there are plenty of suspects. In an amazing sequence, Mr. Beauchamp confronts one alleged former Klansman in is driveway. The Klansman, who had been implicated in earlier bombings, denied his involvement in the Jackson bombing.

The FBI has brought renewed focus to investigating this and other similar unsolved tragedies. According to the New York Times, there have been two successful prosecutions out of 109 cases. The main problem is that most suspects are dead. Nonetheless, those with information on the cases highlighted in this series can contact the FBI through the Investigation Discovery Web site.

February is Black History month, which is why "The Injustice Files" series begins tonight. Because this nation has made progress over the past four decades, regretfully millions of young Americans do not have a full understanding of the painful fight for civil rights in this country. The Wharlest Jackson story is a compelling and important hour that tells of one family's struggle for closure.

In Dr. Martin Luther King's words, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Rejoice Egypt, Rejoice!

In a historic day that will resonate throughout the Arab world, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak has stepped down. But, as millions of Egyptians celebrate throughout the country, soon their attention will turn to an uncertain future.

This is a huge victory for the people of Egypt and for democracy. Leaders of countries such as Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are closely watching events unfold. No doubt, so are the leaders of Iran and China. Their people are restless and thirst for freedom and a better way of life. Will the voices of these people now be heard?

For sure, Mubarak was a great friend to America. He supported and maintained peace with Israel. But he also obscenely stole billions of American taxpayer dollars flowing into Egypt as military aid. It is estimated that his family, steeped in corruption, has amassed a fortune of $70 billion, making the Mubarak clan among the wealthiest in the world.

Even worse, Mubarak brutalized his people with a highly repressive regime. He ruthlessly controlled every aspect of his country and his police harshly suppressed dissent by jailing and beating those who spoke up against his rule. Since taking over thirty years ago, following the assassination of the Egyptian Anwar Sadat, Mubarak has maintained a state of emergency in Egypt. He snuffed out any attempts to form opposition parties. Some friend.

Now two weeks of largely peaceful demonstrations, involving millions of Egyptians from all walks of life, have toppled Mubarak. Televised on free media throughout the world, viewers were rivited to their sets watching the dramatic developments unfold. More important was the role of social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. And a local Google executive, who was arrested and then released by police, became a hero and leading figure to demonstrators. This was truly a social revolution.

As the pressure built, Mubarak tenaciously tried to hang on to power. But those around him could see what he would not accept; his time was up. So when Mubarak refused to step down it is reported that some military leaders threatened to remove their uniforms and join the demonstrators. Their stubborn leader, who had vowed to die in his homeland, finally agreed to relinquish his power and fled to the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheikh. It is unclear if this will be his last stop.

The Egyptian military has taken control of the country. This is a transformative moment, but it is also fraught with uncertainty. The demonstrations have brought the country's economy to a halt as banks and many businesses have been closed for nearly two weeks. When will people return to work? Will the election scheduled for September take place? Who will emerge? What role will the Muslim Brotherhood, responsible for Sadat's assassination, play in the country? What role can America play in assuring a peaceful transition to democracy? There is an old Egyptian proverb, "Do not rejoice over what has not yet happened."

President Barack Obama has handled this crisis well. He spoke out for a democratic process, freedom and an end to repression. He encouraged a peaceful transition to a more representative government. He could not call for the overthrow of Mubarak without risking the ire of other Arab states. But now the real work begins for the American government.

Isis is the ancient Egyptian goddess of motherhood, healing and magic. The people of Egypt will no doubt welcome her help as they begin to build their future.

Meanwhile, rejoice Egypt, rejoice!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Beck's Scare Tactics

For some there is no better way to get attention for oneself than to appeal to the fears of an unknowing audience. To do so risks inciting hatred but ultimately it may be the act of a desperate person.

These were my thoughts as I watched Glenn Beck spew his secret plot for a Muslim takeover of the world. Last week he stood at a map of the Arab states and concluded that Islam would soon be united as a Caliphate stretching from Iran west to Morocco. The center, or the capital, would be Babylon, in Iraq. Beck said that President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush were complicit in this plot. What evidence did he cite? Well President Obama is, of course, a liberal. And President Bush ordered his military not to bomb Babylon, one of Islam's holiest cities, during the Iraq War.

This irresponsible presentation has received condemnation from many conservative pundits such as William Kristol. But the Fox News Channel, on which his program airs weekdays, has said nothing. Now Beck has doubled down. He "revealed" that the radical Muslim Brotherhood is being run from Detroit, Michigan. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned in Egypt because it was responsible for the assassination of Egypt's leader Anwar Sadat thirty years ago. However, the organization represents a minority of Egyptians today and is angling for a voice in any new government that forms following President Hosni Mubarak's departure from government.

Beck's premise in ludicrous, yet he promises to reveal more of his findings each night this week. He says that he will detail how this country is threatened by the future imposition of Sharia Law, which is derived from the Koran. Sharia means "path to the watering hole." In its strictest form it covers sexuality, hygiene, diet, prayer, and fasting. Penalties meted out by religious judges can be severe, and include stoning.

Beck's tirade feeds into the fears and biases of some extreme right wing Americans. In fact, there has been an attempt to outlaw Sharia Law in a couple of states even though it does not exist anywhere in the U.S. For instance, last year voters in Oklahoma approved a constitutional amendment that would prohibit judges from consulting Sharia Law. A federal judge subsequently blocked the ban. Now a Wyoming lawmaker has said he will make a similar proposal in that state as a "pre-emptive strike" against judges who may want to consult the law for their decisions.

So why is Beck, a Mormon, devoting so much airtime to this subject? Is he paranoid? Is he seeking attention? Maybe. After all, his program on Fox has suffered a large decline in ratings over the past few months.

Whatever his reason he appears to be out of control. He is on the path to ruin, not the watering hole. And his commentaries threaten to severely damage what credibility the Fox News Channel can claim. Or perhaps it should be "Fair and Unbalanced"?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

President Reagan's Humor

This coming February 6 President Ronald Reagan would have been 100 years old. He was born in Tampico, Illinois, a small town about 130 miles directly west of Chicago, my birthplace. Whatever your views of his presidency, President Reagan was the source of some very funny stories.

I first heard his name as a young boy, when he hosted the "General Electric Theater” and then later "Death Valley Days." My family and I used to watch him on our black and white television, a remarkable technological breakthrough back then.

Growing up, some of my earliest memories centered on baseball and the Chicago Cubs. Years before I was born, Reagan had already made a national name for himself recreating Cub games by reading the play by play off a teletype while broadcasting from his radio studio in Des Moines, Iowa.

Later, Reagan frequently told the story of the time the teletype froze during the last inning of a game between the Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. He decided to take a chance and improvised. He tells it this way; "I had Jurges hit another foul. Then I had him foul one that only missed being a homerun by a foot. I had him foul one back in the stands and took up some time describing the two lads that got in a fight over the ball. I kept on having him foul balls until I was setting a record for a ballplayer hitting successive foul balls and I was getting more than a little scared. Just then my operator started typing. When he passed me the paper I started to giggle - it said: ‘Jurges popped out on the first ball pitched.’”

I first met President Reagan in 1981 near his Santa Barbara ranch. The White House held a picnic for the traveling press corps; I was the CBS News White House producer. I introduced myself and said, "I am responsible for that camera stationed on the next mountain with the big lens." We used the camera to capture video of President Reagan when he cleared brush or rode a horse on his ranch grounds.

Without missing a beat, President Reagan responded, "Well Joe, I told the secret service that one morning I am going to walk out on the porch," he then twisted to the left and ran his right finger under his nose before continuing on, "and then I am going to do this!" The president suddenly pulled his hands to his chest and pretended to stumble, as if he was having a heart attack.

I was stunned, but when he laughed I felt at ease. "Well Joe," he said, "the secret service did not like that, and neither did Nancy." I smiled and said, "I wouldn't have liked that either!" He then turned and introduced me to the First Lady.

Early on in his administration I found myself serving as the network pool producer for a presidential address from the Oval Office. After the speech was over, I walked up and stood beside the president’s desk. I congratulated the great communicator on his speech. I then complimented him on his desk.

"Well Joe," the president said and then began to tell me about the desk. I scanned the room and noticed that the staff was already becoming impatient; this was obviously not the first time they had all heard the story.

President Reagan used the famous Resolute desk, which was created from the timbers of a once sunken British ship of the same name. In the late 1800's, "sister" desks were made and Queen Victoria gave one to President Rutherford B. Hayes. There is an iconic photo of President John Kennedy working at the desk as his son crawled through the little door below.

As I stood listening to the president, he explained that he was taller than the last president to use the desk. He then pushed his chair back and pointed to the legs under the desk. "You see, I'm six foot one, so I had them extend the legs so I can sit at the desk." The president then laughed. A sigh of relief swept the room as he completed his story. "Thank you Joe," called out a staff member from the back of the room. I said goodbye and left with a smile on my face.

During his presidency I heard many funny stories about the president from members of his staff. There was the time a beeping sound could be heard during a cabinet meeting. As President Reagan sat calmly during a presentation, the White House Press Secretary realized where the beep was coming from. He tapped the president on the shoulder and mouthed the words, "Your hearing aid battery has died, Mr. President."

A former cabinet member told me about a famous incident that occurred during an important G-7 Summit in Williamsburg, Virginia. The night before the meeting a member of the president's staff pointed to a large Summit briefing book that they had left for him on the coffee table. The president thanked his team for their work as they retired. The next morning the staff members noted the briefing book had not been touched. President Reagan explained that he and Nancy had watched "The Sound of Music" instead.

President Reagan’s historical legacy will forever be defined by his strong stands against big government and the Soviet Union. Huge federal deficits, reductions in social programs, “Trickle Down Economics” and the “Strategic Defense Initiative” (derided as Star Wars) are among the many controversies that surround his two terms in office.

But on this, his 100th birthday, I will also remember his wonderful sense of humor.