Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Glenn Beck's Reflections

No one was a more outrageous and divisive figure on Fox News than the controversial Glenn Beck. The man, who once called President Barack Obama a "racist," anchored his own Fox News broadcast for more than two years before leaving the network in June, 2011.

Beck's show came under heavy criticism for his antics and inflammatory comments.  In July, 2009, he declared, "The president is a Marxist."  That same month he told his audience, "everything that is getting pushed through Congress, including this health care bill, are transforming America and they are all driven by President Obama's thinking on one idea: reparations."  He continued, "His goal is creating a new America, a new model, a model that will settle old scores through social justice."

In February, 2011, Beck ranted for six minutes that if "radical Muslims" took over in Egypt they could build a caliphate that would spread to countries around the world.  While standing at a map showing several countries in green, he said, "You have Somalia and Iran already in green.  Now, let's add Tunisia...The poor and angry demanded changes...Most dangerous scenario is that radical Muslims seize power and put Sharia law into place.  Same thing now in Egypt."   He then pointed to Europe.  "Let's talk about 22 percent unemployment in Spain...They have high Muslim populations," he observed.  Then he raised similar questions about France, Italy and England, which also have large Muslim populations.  

Beck already had a long history of making inappropriate remarks on television, as well as his radio program.  In 2005, he spoke of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States.  "When I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I'm just like, 'Oh shut up' I'm so sick of them because they're always complaining."  He once called President Franklin Roosevelt a dictator.  In 2007, when fires destroyed several homes in California, he said, "I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today."

Glenn Beck thrives on making controversial statements.  He is a high school graduate from Mount Vernon, Washington, who says his mother committed suicide when he was a teenager.  He began his radio career right out of high school.  But from these humble beginnings he has gone on to amass a fortune, estimated at $65 million in 2011.  He now is a media mogul, beginning his own television network, The BlazeTV, along with a website, in 2011.  

Beck is smart, driven, and a shrewd businessman, who knows how to appeal to his audience.  Now, however, he is sounding more introspective.  At least, that's what one might conclude from his interview earlier this week, with Fox News host Megyn Kelly, about his run at Fox News.

"I remember it as an awful lot of fun, and that I made an awful lot of mistakes," he said.  "I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language because I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart."  He added, "And that's not who we are.  I didn't realize how really fragile the people were.  I thought we were kind of a little more together."  

"I remember it as an awful lot of fun, and that I made an awful lot of mistakes, and I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language because I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart," he said to Kelly. "And it's not who we are. I didn't realize how really fragile the people were. I thought we were kind of a little more in it together."  He then concluded, "I look back and I realize if we could have talked about uniting principles a little more, instead of just problems, I think I would look back on it a little more fondly. But that's only my role."  

Yes, Beck did play a role in helping to tear the country apart.  Yes, he should have been more uniting in his language.   Yes, he did make mistakes.  And, yes, advertisers stopped supporting the show.  Given Beck's body of work, it's hard to believe his comments now to Kelly are at all genuine.  He knew exactly what he was doing then at Fox News.   So it's hard to believe that this interview is little more than another publicity stunt from Glenn Beck.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Trusting Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie could never get elected United States President because it is simply a bridge too far for him.  There was never a way he could outflank conservative Republicans to secure the nomination.  They don't trust him, and now it appears he has given most Americans a good reason not to trust him as well.

Governor Christie and his administration are now under investigation by state and federal officials for possible abuses of power.  The probes were triggered by lane closures on the Ft. Lee, New Jersey, side of the George Washington Bridge, which leads to New York.  The lanes were closed for four days last September and caused major disruptions for commuters, school transportation and emergency vehicles.  Initially officials at the Port Authority, which oversees the bridge, said it was part of a traffic study.  But accusations that it was a retaliatory move against the Democratic mayor of Ft. Lee, who had failed to endorse the governor's November reelection bid, surfaced at the time of the incident.

Earlier this month, the governor claimed no knowledge or involvement in the closures in a news conference.  The governor spoke following disclosures of incriminating email and text messages involving several of his key aides.  On August 13, Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, sent an email that read, "Time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee."  The email went to one of Christie's Port Authority appointees, David Wildstein, who was also his childhood friend.  Wildstein responded, "Got it."

At his lengthy news conference, Governor Christie said he was "embarrassed and humiliated" by the poor judgment of his staff.  He announced that Kelly had been fired.  He also said Bill Stepien, a top Christie aide, would step down as a consultant for the Republican Governor's Association, which Christie headed, and would withdraw his bid to become the state's party chairman.   Wildstein and another Christie Port Authority appointee, Bill Baroni, both resigned their positions last December.  Wildstein, who exercised his right not to answer questions before a hearing earlier this month, is reportedly seeking immunity.

At the very minimum, the disclosures surrounding the lane closures at Ft. Lee call into question Governor Christie's personnel judgment.  That's if you believe he didn't know anything despite the fact that so many close to him were involved.  But now fresh disclosures of the governor's apparent abuse of power have raised additional questions about whether there is a pattern.

One Democratic mayor stepped forward to say he was the victim of Governor Christie's strong-arm politics.  He complained that the governor's staff had cancelled a series of important meetings between him and state cabinet officials after he said he would not endorse Governor Christie's reelection.   This weekend the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, accused the Christie administration of withholding Hurricane Sandy relief money because she would not go along with fast-track approval of a redevelopment plan they supported.   Meanwhile, federal investigators are looking in to whether Christie's reelection campaign misused funds appropriated for Hurricane Sandy victims.

Governor Christie was thought to be considering a run for the presidency in 2016.  His blunt, aggressive and energetic style has attracted a lot of support among Republicans and independent voters according to national polls.  He has positioned himself as a strong leader, a person who can work with all parties, and a man who can get things done.  Many of his opponents call him bully, political, ambitious and a micromanager.

But some of his strongest opposition comes from within the Republican Party.  Among their most notable complaints is that Governor Christie's embrace of President Barack Obama following Hurricane Sandy hurt Mitt Romney's presidential bid.  Critics accused him of bolstering his own national status at a cost to the Republican Party.   The Conservative Political Action Committee chose not to invite him to speak to their 2013 convention.  At the time their chair said, "Hopefully next year he's back on the right track and being a conservative."

Some Republicans have voiced support for the governor's statements and actions in response to the Ft. Lee lane closures, noting that he took responsibility for what happened.  Nonetheless, the Christie administration is now dealing with 20 subpoenas from state investigators, and more may be on the way.  Those who support the governor are hoping he is not directly linked to the growing scandal.   But for those who have opposed the governor, the scandal is just further evidence that Chris Christie cannot be trusted to be president.      

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Larry Speakes: In Memoriam

Former White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes passed away Friday in Mississippi after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.  Larry suddenly became President Ronald Reagan's acting press secretary when the president and then Press Secretary Jim Brady were shot in an assassination attempt in Washington.  

Larry ran an excellent press operation and populated it with many amazing people.  Although there could be tension between the press and the White House, relationships were professional, and generally friendly and cordial.  

Larry had a wicked sense of humor.  He was particularly funny when sharing stories about President Reagan with those closest to him.  He once recounted to me an incident that took place during an important cabinet meeting at the White House.  As Larry sat at the back of the room behind the president, he suddenly heard a beeping noise.  He then noticed that several people reacted to the beep by checking their pagers.  He then scanned the room for the source of the beeping, and soon came upon the answer.  He leaned over and tapped President Reagan on his shoulder and whispered in his good ear, "Mr. President, your hearing aide battery is dead."

Reagan spent weeks every summer at his ranch, Rancho del Cielo, in the hills above Santa Barbara.  The press operation and media worked out of the Sheraton Santa Barbara, about 30 miles from Reagan's ranch.  Given the time difference between New York and California, most of the news briefings took place by early afternoon so deadlines would be kept.

One day Larry asked me to join him, CBS News reporter Gary Schuster, and Deputy Press Secretary Rusty Brashear, for a trip to a Dodger game in Los Angeles as guests of manager Tommy Lasorda.  We arrived at Dodger Stadium late in the afternoon, just before batting practice and were escorted to the Dodgers' locker room.   Larry said, "Get ready for a full Lasorda."  I would soon know what he meant.  

We were led to Lasorda's office where we found him sitting at a plain office desk in his boxer shorts, a Dodger tee shirt and hat. "How you guys doing!" Tommy said as he jumped out of his chair.  "It's great to see you f...king guys!  You f...king guys want lunch?  Hey someone order these f...king guys some Chinese food!"  In the background I heard, "Okay skip."  Rick Monday, a former Cub and Dodger great, popped his head in to touch base with Lasorda before he headed up to the radio booth to do color commentary.

Then a rookie stuck his head in and asked if he could make a call.  We noticed there was an old rotary dial phone on Lasorda's desk, and he claimed it was the only phone in the locker room (there certainly were no smart phones in those days).   Tommy yelled at the kid to come back a little later.

He then told us about the time the kid had used the phone without asking, against clubhouse rules.  He told one of the coaches to send the kid into the men's room, where Lasorda was in a stall on the toilet.  "The kid comes in and meekly says, 'You want to see me coach?'"  Lasorda yells, "When I say I want to see you, I want to see you!  Open the door and get in here!"  The kid walks into the stall and looks terrified as his manager chews him out while sitting on the toilet.  After the punch line Lasorda said, "What a stupid f...king kid!"

After a big laugh, Lasorda put his pants on and took us for a tour.  Behind the home dugout and under the stands, there was a practice-batting cage surrounded by mesh nets.  As we approached we could hear someone hitting the ball.  Steve Sax was a pretty good player whose mediocre hitting kept him from being a super star.  

Lasorda loudly introduced us and asked, "Hey Saxie, did you ever find out who put that pig's head in your bed in Philly?"  "No, skip," Sax answered.  As we walked away from the batting cage, Tommy said, "That kid is really stupid.  When were in Philadelphia, I had my brother, who owns a restaurant there, arrange to place a pig's head on Sax's pillow with a note that read, 'You better start hitting or your dead'!"  It was a scene out of the Godfather, yet Tommy loved that Sax couldn't figure out who did it.

We walked onto the field, where Tommy verbally harassed one of his players, "You hit like shit!"  The infield was in terrific shape, and the view from home plate to the outfield was breathtaking.  We then returned to the dugout, where Tommy got into his uniform, more food arrived for us--Italian.  Larry was smiling as he led our group to our terrific seats.  The game was close to the end, but the Dodgers lost by a run.  

We didn't know what to expect when we joined Tommy, his wife and a few of their friends at the stadium club.  His spirits quickly picked up as he stared telling baseball stories.  I collected a book he had written and asked him to sign it.  He inscribed, "Hey Joe, you and the Dodgers are great.  Go Dodger blue.  Tommy Lasorda."  It seemed a totally genuine, even when I later realized  that everyone got the exact same personalized inscription.  Larry, thanks for the full Lasorda!

In June, 1982, I was the CBS News producer on President Reagan's trip to the Economic Summit in Versailles, France.  Larry Speakes and his team, including top assistant Mark Weinberg,  oversaw the American press corps.   CBS News had established a temporary editing operation run by a special events producer, Peter Sturtevant, who was in charge of all CBS News coverage from the Summit.

During the middle of the Summit, Israel invaded Lebanon in retaliation for ongoing terrorist attacks.  Their operation was being spearheaded by General Ariel Sharon.   The invasion was a surprise, and CBS News urgently needed to send producers to Lebanon.  The foreign desk called me and said since I was in France, I could get to Lebanon more quickly. 

I was surprised, and expressed concern because I had planned and already paid for a romantic French vacation with Susan Zirinsky that was schedule to begin in three days.  "No problem, we'll get you back in time," the editor responded confidently.  I said, "You can't get me from Versailles to a war zone in Beirut and back in three days."  "Don't worry about that," said the editor, "you need to go."  

I expressed my frustration to Mark Weinberg, who mentioned it to Larry.  But Larry knew exactly what to do.  He had Mark call Sturtevant and say that it would be a mistake to send me to Beirut.  If I were to go, CBS News might not get the latest information from the White House.    The next thing I knew, Sturtevant called me and said I did not have to go to Beirut.  Larry and I laughed when I went to thank him.

Coda: Susan joined me three days later in Paris, and we then traveled to the south of France, where we spent a glorious week.  On the last night I was awakened at 4 am by a phone call.  I vaguely said "Hello" and, in response, two CBS News executives said, "Guess who's going to Beirut?  Your plane for Tel Aviv leaves from Nice at 10am."  I spent a month in Beirut covering the ongoing war.

Larry respected the boundaries between the White House and the press.  For sure, the relationship could get very intense at times.  But I found that he was personally very open to those with whom he felt most comfortable.  More importantly, he was fiercely loyal to the president, and worked tirelessly in service of his country.  Larry was a true professional, and also a wonderful friend.  

NOTE:  Mark Weinberg advises the following:

The family has designated two charities for donations in Larry's  memory:

Sunny Seniors
107 South Victoria Avenue
Cleveland, Mississippi 38732
Alzheimer's Association of America
322 Eighth Avenue  7th floor
New York NY 10001

Friday, January 10, 2014


Governor Chris Christie appeared humbled in his news conference Thursday as he apologized to the people of Ft. Lee New Jersey for the disruptive lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last fall.  He also said that he had "no knowledge or involvement" in the closures.  While he spoke with reporters for 107 minutes, the incident brings into focus many serious questions about the governor and his administrative team.  

Governor Christie was uncharacteristically contrite, regretful, ashamed, and even sad for the actions taken by of key members of his team.  "I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here," Mr. Christie said.   He announced he had terminated his Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly because "she lied to me" when he says he asked her several weeks ago whether she had any knowledge of the closures.   

The governor also announced that he had ended his support for the appointment of his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, as state Republican chairman.  Mr. Christie was reelected in a landslide last November.  The governor also announced that he had severed political ties with Stepien.  "I would not place him at the head of my political operation because of the lack of judgment that was shown in the emails," he said.

The news conference was prompted by email disclosures in the Record, a northern New Jersey newspaper also know as the Bergen Record.   Ms. Kelly sent an email last August to a Port Authority executive saying, "Time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee."  The executive, David Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor's, responded, "Got it."  Following the lane closures the Port Authority explained it was part of a last minute traffic study.  Later Wildstein admitted ordering the closures, and resigned his post.  On Thursday, he appeared before a panel of state legislators and repeatedly invoked his constitutional right not to say anything that might incriminate him.  

Speculation grew following the incident that it was in retaliation against Ft. Lee's Democratic mayor, who had not endorsed Mr. Christie's reelection.  The mayor, Mark Sokolich, was also the subject of some emails.  Bill Stepien, who was deputy chief of staff for intergovernmental affairs, reassured Wildstein at the time, writing, "It's fine.  The mayor's and idiot."  Stepien worked with local officials throughout the state to arrange town meetings.  At Thursday's news conference, the governor, who was Stepien's mentor, said, "reading that it made me lose my confidence in Bill's judgment, and you cannot have someone at the top of your political operation that you don't have confidence in." 

But is Governor Christie telling the truth about his lack of knowledge and involvement in the lane closures?  If any evidence to the contrary surfaces his presidential aspirations will be badly damaged.  The people who are so far known to have been involved are all very close to the governor, and in constant contact with him.  How could it be they never mentioned anything or "lied" to him?   Wildstein answered Kelly's email requesting traffic problems in Ft. Lee tersely, as if it had been a prearranged scheme.  Who was behind the lane closures?  Did she have the authority?

This was a terrible disruption that took place over several days and created mayhem for thousands of New Jersey commuters who were going to work or school.  Why didn't the governor, who says his first priority is serving New Jersey, immediately step in to deal with the problem?

Mr. Christie once served as United States Attorney for New Jersey.  He was an aggressive prosecutor, especially against corrupt public officials, and garnered a record of 130 convictions versus zero acquittals.  Yet, Christie did not individually question his aides about the closures.  Instead, he said he addressed his aides four weeks ago, "I put to all of them one simple challenge: if there is any information that you know about the decision to close the lanes in Fort Lee, you have one hour to tell either my chief of staff, Kevin O'Dowd, or my chief counsel, Charlie McKenna."  What happened to the aggressive prosecutor?  

The governor has nominated Kevin O'Dowd to be the state's new attorney general.  He is scheduled to appear before the state's Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.  What was his role in the lane closures?  Since Bridget Anne Kelly reported directly to him, did she ever discuss the matter with him?  Will he answer relevant questions in Tuesday's hearing or provide emails?  

Did the governor receive emails at any point, or have any conversations on the lane closures beyond what he specified in his news conference.  The governor was asked by a reporter Thursday, "If you were to get a subpoena, for whatever reason, what would you do?"  Governor Christie responded, "I am not going to speculate on that."  What does that mean?

The governor has been characterized by his opponents as a politically ambitious, a micromanager, and a bully prone to retribution.  "I am not a bully," he said Thursday.  "Politics ain't bean bag," he continued,  "And everybody in the country who engages in politics knows that."  He admitted to having very heated arguments because, "I feel passionately about issues.  And I don't hide my emotions from people.  I am not a focus-group tested, blow-dried candidate or governor."  

Along with a legislative inquiry and the U.S. Attorney's investigation, Mr. Christie is facing a class-action suit filed by workers who claim the closures made them late for work and resulted in lost wages.   Even if there are no further disclosers implicating the governor, and everything he said Thursday holds up, and that's a big if, Governor Christie has a long and difficult road ahead of him.    

Friday, January 3, 2014

Republican Deaf Ears

Much of the country kicked off the New Year with heavy snowstorms followed by a blast of frigid cold temperatures.   But for 1.3 million Americans, whose unemployment checks have been cut off, this may be the coldest winter of all.

Congress returns on Monday, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he will schedule a vote on extending unemployment benefits.  But the outcome is uncertain.  Many Republicans in both houses of Congress are opposed to extending benefits; especially those in the GOP controlled House of Representatives.   One administration official predicted Wednesday that failure to extend emergency unemployment insurance through 2014 will have a negative impact on 14 million Americans.   It will also have an adverse effect on the nation's slowly recovering economy because those affected will not be able to buy food and supplies.

Republicans, led by their Tea Party wing, have staked out a series of positions that, when viewed on whole, may leave them vulnerable in future elections.  The president has proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, which one recent study says will lift 5 million people out of poverty.  Republicans argue against such a move because they believe it is inflationary and it will end up costing jobs.

Congressional Republicans are also sparring with Democrats over their desire to reign in food stamps, citing cost, fraud and abuse.  But a recent statistical report released by the Department of Agriculture shows that the amount of food stamps given out in error is at an all time low, about 3%.  In 2000 the error rate was nearly 9%.

On Tuesday, a federal judge struck down a Florida law that required welfare applicants to undergo mandatory drug testing.  Republican Governor Rick Scott campaigned on the issue, and got the law enacted, arguing that it would ensure tax money was not going to illegal drugs.  A subsequent state study found that only 108 out of 4,086 people tested, 2.6%, were using narcotics.  The state records show that the program was costing more than it was saving.  Yet several other Republican dominated states have enacted a similar law, and Governor Scott has said the state will appeal the ruling.

The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, has been under attack from Republicans since it before it became law.  House Republicans have voted nearly 50 times to repeal the law.  The ACA, which got off to a terrible start due to problems with the federal website, provides many benefits.  It requires insurers to cover people with preexisting conditions, it ends lifetime or yearly caps on coverage, it makes it illegal for insurers to drop someone because they get sick, and it extends coverage to children under 26.   Most importantly, it gives 40 million uninsured Americans access to health care coverage, and it has already reduced the soaring growth of health care costs.  Yet Republicans do not have a plan to replace any of these benefits should their repeal efforts actually become successful.

Conservative Republicans are opposed to meaningful immigration reform.   There are now more than 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.  Hispanics and other minorities, who largely vote for Democrats, have been pushing for legislation to no avail.  Meanwhile, many Republican controlled states have enacted tough voter identification laws, citing massive voter fraud.   But the reported incidents of voter fraud in these states are actually minuscule.  Yet these laws fall disproportionately hard on minorities and the elderly, groups that vote for Democrats.

Following President Barack Obama's reelection and important Republican Congressional loses in the 2012 national elections, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus released an autopsy report assessing the reasons for the party's poor performance.  The findings were blunt.  At one point the report says the voters believe that "the GOP does not care about them and is doing great harm."  

It appears that the report has fallen on deaf ears.

Cleo and Cassie's Christmas Story

This is Cleo, an eight-year-old maltese that has been a key member of our family since 2005.  She is generally quiet, shy and docile.  She derives great pleasure from eating, she is a bit overweight, and having her backside scratched.  

Cleo is a warrior.  This past September doctors discovered a "stage three" mast cell tumor on her back, near her tail.  The news shook our household, and an operation was quickly scheduled.  Two doctors worked for three hours to remove the tumor and surrounding tissue.  Cleo has been on chemotherapy since, and all of her subsequent check ups have shown no recurrence of the cancer.

So mild mannered Cleo was excited when we decided to take her to Colorado for her annual Christmas vacation.  The second she sees her white travel case her heartbeat quickens as she crawls into it with great enthusiasm.  

The airport routine was the same as it has been for eight years.  Just before we board the plane, I take Cleo into the men's room and drop a wee-wee pad on the floor of a stall.  Cleo gets out of her case and relieves herself.  She then hops back into the bag.

On the airplane, Cleo rests on the floor in her case for the five-hour flight.  She doesn't make a sound.  Occasionally, she repositions herself in the bag, allowing her head to pop out of the opening.  When we arrive in Denver, I carry her to the nearest men's room, place a pad on the floor of a stall, and watch her relieve herself.  She then jumps back into the case.  

We always stay at the same hotel in Ft. Collins.  Cleo knows it so well that she frequently leads our family through the automatic doors, up the hall and onto the elevator.  Many of the staff members have come to know Cleo and welcome her with scratches on her back.  Cleo feels at home.  Neither snow nor cold bothers her, although she does not like walking on the salt.  
Because her white hair blends in with the snow, we wrap her in a dark coat so we don't lose sight of her.  It also keeps her warm.  But she often sits inside my brother's house, and tends to hang out near the Christmas tree.  When the family gathers to open gifts, Cleo watches with great interest.  
Cleo is a wonderful traveler, which is more than can be said for her younger sister Cassie.  Cassie is an eighteen-month-old pomeranian.  She is endlessly curious, totally self-assured, and a whirling dervish of energy, therefore, not able to travel on an airplane.   At first, the two dogs were like fire and water: two totally opposite temperaments.  It appeared that they would never get along with each other.  But, over time, they have become very close.
Cassie stayed with a friend while we were away.  But when we returned to our New York City home, she was excited to see us.  But she was even more excited to be with her sister, Cleo, and, no doubt, the two spent time exchanging stories of their Christmas adventures!