Friday, October 31, 2008

When Famous Can be Dangerous

Robin in news ad.
Anne Pressly

With many of you, I have been extremely troubled by the murder of Arkansas television newswoman Anne Pressly. She was found in critical condition from a beating in her Little Rock home Monday, October 20, after she didn’t respond to a regular morning wake-up call. She died October 25 of her injuries. Her purse was missing and there are reports that one of her credit cards was used at a
nearby gas station following the crime. She may have been the random victim of a crime. She may have been the victim of a stalker.

People on television have long been high profile targets for unstable people. And though women seem more vulnerable to this than men, don’t say that to David Letterman who was stalked for years by a woman who later also stalked retired astronaut Story Musgrave in Kissimmee, Florida. .

What bothers me in looking back at my own career, is how during all the years I was on television, no one ever briefed any of us on routine measures we could take to protect our safety. Nearly all television stations have security guards to keep bad people from getting inside, but nothing, that I know of, is done to protect the station’s human assets once they go out the front door. One of the first things I noticed in the video of the Pressly crime scene was that the home the young anchorwoman rented had a carport instead of an enclosed garage. I’m not blaming Anne Pressly for this. But an enclosed garage with an automatic garage door opener and an entrance directly into the home is much safer than a carport for a high-profile woman who lives alone.

Early in my career I had several frightening incidents of stalking. I was co-anchoring our 11 o’clock news and when we wrapped up near midnight the few of us remaining in the building walked to our cars in the unfenced, poorly lighted parking lot and headed home. One night, as I turned out of the lot onto the street, I noticed the lights come on on a parked car that then pulled in directly behind me. Once on the freeway, the car continued to follow me and I was able to get the license number of the vehicle. I didn’t drive directly home that night, but drove instead to the home of some relatives who lived nearby. The next night it happened again. When it happened a third time, I told my news director and we called the police. They took the license number from me, reminded me that the person driving the car had broken no laws, and then said they would see what they could do.

A couple of days later an officer came to the station and told me they had run the plate and one of their officers had visited the driver. The driver had denied following me—and promised it would never happen again. But the officer was laughing and I asked him why. “Well, Miss Chapman, this stalker of yours … it’s a woman!” I didn’t think it was as funny as the officer did, but apparently the warning worked and I had no further trouble from my female fan. But I did have more stalkers.

Once, a local judge began writing me weird love letters. When I didn’t respond he stopped by my house one night and knocked on my door asking to be admitted. I pretended I wasn’t home. This particular judge later got in trouble for following women jurors home, so I can’t say his fixation was entirely on me.

One stalking incident is still too frightening for me to write about.

But I’ll tell you about another that took place shortly after I got married. I began to get regular letters at the TV station from a fellow I’ll call John Smith Jr. The letters were hand printed in very small print on both sides of the paper and often went on for many pages. They spoke about messages he was getting through the television from the CIA and he wanted my help in passing this information on to the government. I recognized these letters as coming from a mentally ill person, and began to keep them in a file, just in case. Eventually I had enough of them to show to my boss, so that he would know about them, just in case. It turns out that John Smith’s family had been trying to admit him to a facility so he could get some help and asked my news director to testify at the young man’s competency hearing. When he returned from the hearing with the information that John Smith Jr. was now in a secure facility I was much relieved.

Then, one Friday night, just before the 11 o’clock news, the telephone rang at my desk. It was my boss who told me that the police had called him to say that John Smith Jr. had escaped from his so-called secure facility and had threatened to kill him (my boss) and me. “Don’t spend your weekend worrying about it,” he said. “Just take normal precautions.”

Normal precautions? What are normal precautions in a case like this?

I went home after the news that night and briefed my husband. The bad news is that our house backed up to a forest which, that weekend, began to take on very creepy proportions. The good news is that we had a really nice, really loud black Labrador retriever. That night in our bedroom overlooking the creepy forest, we slept with the dog and a baseball bat by our bedside.

It wasn’t an easy weekend. The dog, sensing our nervousness, barked at every crack of a twig. I was relieved when it was time to return to the secure environment of the newsroom on Monday.

I was writing copy for the 6 o’clock news when the telephone rang at my desk. “Hello Robin?” the voice said. “This is John Smith Jr.” I took a deep breath. “How are you, John? And by the way, where are you?”

“I’m downstairs in the lobby,” he said. “Can you come down?”

“I’ll be right there,” said I. I then hung up the phone and called the police. Last time I saw John Smith Jr., he was headed out the door of the station with two uniformed officers. I hope he continues to take his meds.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Experience and Leadership: What Does it Mean?

We’re about to elect one of the least experienced candidates in American history to be our leader in these troubled times. Does it matter? History tells us the answer is yes, and no.
You would have to go back to Abraham Lincoln to find a presidential candidate in the U.S. with as little experience as Barak Obama. When Lincoln was elected to serve as U.S. President in 1860 he had served four terms in the Illinois House of Representatives, and just one two-year term in the U.S. Congress. But Lincoln had also run his own businesses—first as the owner of a store (something he wasn’t very good at, by his own admission) and then as a lawyer. He had served as a captain in the Illinois state militia, a position which, at that time, meant election by the men he commanded. He was 51 years of age when he became president.

Who could have predicted that Lincoln would have been such a great leader? People who knew him, liked him and saw him as a principled man. But in the age before television and YouTube this was a very small group of people. He was a great reader and a great story teller. He was one of the first leaders in Illinois to publically speak against slavery. In 1860, many of the wheeler-dealers in his party could see the conflict with the South on the horizon and wanted no part of the presidency. Lincoln, whom they saw as bumpkin, was nominated, in part, because no one in the know really wanted the job. Nothing in his past could have foretold what a transcendent leader he was to become during the single worst period in American history. In reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln, Team of Rivals, I was repeatedly struck by the nuance of his political thinking, in addition to all the usual qualities we associate with Lincoln: wisdom, compassion, folksy charm, and self-sacrifice. The leadership Lincoln rose to might have been predicted by his friends; but how could voters have imagined it?

By contrast, Winston Churchill spent his entire life preparing for the most important role he was to play on the world stage: Prime Minister of Britain during World War II. He graduated from Sandhurst, Britain’s foremost military academy, in the top ten of his class. He served with distinction in India, the Sudan, and South Africa before being elected to parliament at the age of 26. In various governments over half a century he served as Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for War, Secretary of State for Air, Minister of Munitions, and Lord of the Admiralty. He also served as an officer in the trenches of the Western Front in World War I. He wrote dozens of books, served as a war correspondent, was captured by the Boers in South Africa, escaped, and traveled 300 miles to freedom. “I’m Winston bloody Churchill, and I’m free!” he famously shouted on as he crossed into Portuguese-African territory. He was the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough and though his skeptical grandmother called him “that upstart, Winston Churchill,” his leadership skills were not a surprise to anyone.

Ronald Reagan’s experience is the subject of much discussion. The fact that he spent the early part of his life as a movie actor caused a great deal of laughter among the inside-the-beltway crowd in Washington. But what he had done in Hollywood was to rise to the top of a profession to which millions aspire and only a rare few achieve. He served as president of the Screen-Actors-Guild, one of the largest unions in the world. He served in the military during World War II. And, he had executive experience: he served two terms as governor of California, a state so large and so fertile it has the fifth largest GNP in the world. It is true his only foreign policy experience came from his knowledge of California’s role as a world class exporter of goods and services. But, as we learned when his handwritten speeches were published after his death, he had been a student of foreign affairs all his adult life.

Reagan, like all great leaders, was a creative thinker. When offered two bad choices in the war games of his day—concede to Soviet aggression or commit to the philosophy of “mutually assured destruction” (known as MAD) in a nuclear war—Reagan imagined a third solution, a missile shield that could protect the U.S. from just such a holocaust. Once again, the non-creative thinkers in Washington derided his idea and called it “Star Wars.” Missiles that intercept missiles are in use today, most famously in Israel, where the American technology is much applauded.

At 47, Barak Obama is the youngest and least experienced of all of the leaders I’ve sited here. He has served three terms in the Illinois senate and part of a term in the U.S. Senate. He has never run his own business nor served in the military. We have no idea what kind of a leader he will be. He might be a bad leader. He might be a good one. We know next to nothing about his leadership abilities. Yet this is not so terribly unusual. There is no real experience that can prepare a person to become President of the United States. Since it appears he is going to get elected we can only hope and pray he’ll be good at his job. The peace and safety of the world depends upon it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Vote Early and Often: Or Just Early?

The line at this early voting location in Central Florida, the Winter Park Public Library, stretched half way around the building when I stopped by today.

I’ve always been a little concerned about early voting in presidential elections. Maybe I’m superstitious, but I have long believed that a voter should wait and make sure nothing untoward takes place in the days before Election Day that might impact his vote. That’s why they call it Election Day. The vote for president, it seems to me, should be a snapshot of how voters across the nation feel about each candidate on a specific day in November, not how they view candidates during that month or that season.

The news today gives me an example I can use to illustrate what I mean. Until today the big news in America has been the economy, and surveys show this has been the issue most voters have been using to make their choice for president. But today, another big story has been in the news: an attack by U.S. Special Operations inside the borders of Syria, an effort to neutralize what the military calls a “rat line” of Al Qaeda terrorists moving back and forth between Syria and Iraq. Syria is a major player in the Middle East: it holds de facto power in Lebanon, and is one of Israel’s best-armed enemies. What happens in Syria has an enormous impact on what happens in the Middle East and since the bulk of the world’s oil comes from the Middle East, what happens there has an enormous impact on what happens in the world. We don’t know if this incident will grow beyond the borders of Syria, but in the next few days, it is possible.

Voters who have already cast their votes for president, based on the candidate’s views on the economy, might have made a different choice if the peace of the world were at stake.

The U.S. Constitution indicates that the presidential election should take place on one day. In Article II, Section I it states: “The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.” You could argue that this article refers only to the vote of the Electors and that it devolves to the states to decide when and how those Electors are chosen. But if you look at the intent of the Constitution, it is clear that they expect the election to take place in one day.

In addition, early voting was designed to reduce the long lines voters often see on Election Day in presidential years. But the way early voting is organized, with smaller staffs and fewer places to vote, early voters often have to wait in line anyway. So, factoring out my hesitation about its legality and efficacy, early voting doesn't even accomplish its stated goal.

However, I really need to stop worrying about things like this. When Barak Obama is President he has promised to take care of everything for me. He’s going to find me a job, give me my health care and cut my taxes—unless I make zillions of dollars, which at present seems highly unlikely, especially if I continue to write for a living. So, I’m sure he’ll fix this early voting thing too. I have always believed all the promises of politicians.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Touching on the Roots of Honesty

My father with his pumpkins: on the porch before his illness was evident (ten years ago) and on the front walk after the onset of his disease. He was still an amazing gardener: look at the size of his pumpkins! The thing around his neck is a high tech hearing aid developed by a professor at Stanford University. He no longers wears it as even his residual hearing is gone.

We’re having a discussion about honesty in our family: actually, my sister and I are having the discussion with regard to our parents. Our elderly father has dementia of the Alzheimer’s type, a disease that is eating away at his mind and we are learning each day that dealing with him requires telling him some untruths. At the same time we are from a family that has always lived in parallel universes when it comes to honesty. My sister and I are trying to come to terms with what is right and what is wrong, without getting ourselves lost in a sea of situational morality.

Our father is from a long line of Scot Presbyterians. He taught us by example that truth, no matter what the consequences, was always correct. He was so honest, in fact, that if you asked him if he liked your new haircut, he would give you his honest opinion in every circumstance. “I’ve seen you look better,” he would say if that is what he thought. His sister, my Aunt Helen, was just like him. Once we were at dinner at her club in Aiken, S. Carolina, and in a loud voice she said to me across the table: “What is the real color of your hair, Robin?” The chatting in the club stopped, as it used to in those Merrill-Lynch commercials, and diners in the small room leaned forward to hear my response. I decided that honesty was definitely the best policy in this circumstance: “I have no idea, Aunt Helen. I haven’t seen its real color in years.” Everybody in the room laughed, as did my Aunt, and that was the end of the questions about my beauty secrets.

On the other hand, we were raised by a mother whose vanity made honesty a challenge. Since Mom turned 40, she has told everyone she doesn’t need glasses because by exercising her eyes she has learned not to need lenses, in order to see. The fact that now, at 87, she still tells this tale yet uses a magnifying glass larger than a refrigerator is something we don’t mention, except in whispers. She still tells us frequently that her hair has very little grey in it and that she goes to the hairdresser once every few months just to “touch it up a little.” Since, like her daughter, she hasn’t seen the real color of her hair in years, this is another story that would not bear much scrutiny. In addition, she has always told everyone who would listen that she was the smartest person in our family and that our father could barely cross the street without her help. When he got sick and she was required to manage the family trust we realized what an untruth this was. Dad had invested their savings in a wide range of instruments in a broad range of institutions, none of which our mother understands. Beyond these small things, I learned, at an important juncture in my life, that my mother lied about her values and that of all her lies this one was the most hurtful. Her devout Christianity shrouded a person who never put others first. I struggled with years of anger and depression before I could accept these things about my mother as weaknesses and thus learn to forgive her. I have had to do this without, at the same time, continuing to enable her and that has been a narrow line for me to walk.

You can see what I mean by parallel universes.

Truth is a challenge again, this time with regard to our father. The dementia he is suffering from gives him the fears of a child. One day he is agitated because his nurse puts him in a pair of sweatpants—for comfort—and he is convinced the family is trying to make him wear trousers that have no pockets for his wallet and keys in order to diminish his value as a man. Another day, he is upset because he fears a neighbor, who has done a good deed at the house, has designs on our mother’s affection. His anger about these things can be frightening. One of his nurses is especially creative in dealing with him. She will tell him she will call the neighbor so he can talk to the man. Then she pretends to dial her cell phone, pretends to let it ring and then tells my Dad, “He’s not home. I’ll call him tomorrow.” This simple pantomime works well because the nurse has taken his concern seriously, my father’s immediate need has been satisfied, and when the next day rolls around he has forgotten his worry about the neighbor.

But our mother doesn’t like this and has told his nurses not to “lie to my husband.” I have said to my sister that we are not lying to Dad, we are lying to Dad’s disease.

The Bible says that we should not “bear false witness,” and it seems to me that this is a good starting point for analyzing one’s use of the truth. Are we bearing false witness, when we shape the facts we tell our father to fit his illness? When we don’t confront our mother with her need for glasses or the true color of her hair? I don’t think so. I think we are attempting to act with compassion and kindness toward two damaged loved ones. I hope, if I live long enough, someone will do the same for me. And I hope, while they are at it, they will make time to take me to the hairdresser. You know, just for a little “touch up” at the roots.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Florida Still in Play and the "Biltmore Effect"

McCain-Palin signs on a rainy day in Florida, and the Arizona Biltmore, about the time of its opening in 1929.

A new Mason-Dixon poll, released this week, shows Republican Presidential candidate John McCain leading Democratic candidate Barak Obama 46 percent to 45 percent in the crucial state of Florida. With a margin of error plus-or-minus four percent, it means Florida remains a dead heat. Until this week, all the election polls so far showed Obama with a lead over McCain in Florida.

Florida is an historically Republican state. But as the ballot debacle of the year 2000 suggests: a tight race in Florida is not out of the question. McCain’s strongest showing in the new poll is in what is known in Florida as the I-4 corridor, the area between Tampa on the Gulf Coast, and Daytona Beach on the Atlantic, where Interstate-4 slices through the state. The new poll shows McCain leading Obama 47 percent to 44 percent in this central part of Florida. Since McCain must win Florida to win in the Electoral College, this new poll is a bit of good news for Republicans.

Of more concern, should be a tiny item stuck in a tiny corner of this morning’s paper: John McCain’s press staff has told reporters that he won’t be making a statement at the big election night party being held for him at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. He’ll be giving his statement at a press site on the lawn of the hotel. The McCain staff noted difficulties with the size of the room in which the event is being held, but you don’t have to have the nose of a bloodhound to suspect that something about this announcement has a distinctive odor to it. The tracking polls must be showing McCain’s staff that he will be losing on election night and thus McCain is planning to make a quick concession statement on the lawn and then go home to bed (he’s 72 after all and probably hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months); or that the election is going to be too close to call so he will avoid making any statement until all the votes are counted, when the sun will be rising over the Arizona Biltmore and the party inside will long be over.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, but it is one of the most interesting hotels in America. Designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, and opened in 1929, it has all the weird and wonderful marks of a Wright Building: striated cement blocks, geometric angles, flat-ish roof lines and strange water features. Because it is an historic landmark, there have been limits placed on how the building can be modified, so there is an outside chance—pretty far outside if you ask not Joe-the-plumber but Robin-the-reporter—that some combination of room size and candidate stubbornness may be at play. It is possible.

But above and beyond the polls being released by the media, each campaign has its own much more detailed polling organizations. They know exactly how many votes they will need in specific precincts in specific swing states, exactly how voter turnout will impact their candidate and they have a very good idea, long before election night, what the election is going to look like. Thus the announcement from the McCain camp about the election night party is much more significant than it looks. Along with the so-called “Bradley Effect” in this presidential election (that voters don't always tell pollsters the truth when an African-American candidate is in the race), we might also find ourselves remembering the “Biltmore Effect.” Which means, if a candidate begins to act squirrely about his election night party, something definitely is up.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

We're in the Money: We've Got a Lot of What it Takes to Get Along

There are many signs this week that the U.S. is headed for—or is already in the midst of—a deep recession. The Department of Labor reported this month that the net job loss in the U.S. over the last year was 760,000, with 159,000 of those jobs lost in September alone. A year ago, the unemployment rate was 4.7% and has now risen to 6.1%, the worst showing in seven years.

In Orlando, where the Walt Disney World Company has an entire staff devoted to projecting just how many people will visit each of its parks on any given day, hotel occupancy has made its largest single one month drop (September 2008 compared with September 2007) since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That drop was nearly 12%, one of the worst year-to-year showings ever.

General Motors and Chrysler continue to be mum about reports that the two are talking about a merger, but what happens with these two auto giants could very well affect each one of us. GM lusts after Chrysler’s supply of cash (about $11 billion, most of it borrowed) and Chrysler isn’t making it financially and needs a partner in order to survive. But survival as what? If the two companies join forces, analysts believe that something like 66,000 jobs (mostly at Chrysler) will be “redundant,” which would mean at least that many people applying for unemployment. Auto Week reports that for each job lost on an assembly line, ten more jobs would be lost in related industries. You can do the math on that one.

And any deal between these two enormous companies would need an alphabet soup of approvals from the UAW (United Autoworkers Union) to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) to the JD (Justice Department). And that’s just for starters. It could take up to a year to work through the details, if there is a deal at all, and during the delay, if sales continue to drop, more jobs would be lost.

In the meantime GMAC Credit, owned 49% by GM and 51% by the holding company that is the majority owner in Chrysler, has reported it lost billions in the mortgage crisis, and has closed 20 offices in North America and laid off 930 people. GMAC has also tightened its credit standards so that only those with a credit score of 700 or above can borrow money from GMAC to buy a new car. Nice to know George and Laura Bush, at least, will be able to afford new wheels when they move back to Texas.

Finally, analysts of the Auto Industry say no matter what happens they expect GM and Chrysler to appeal to the U.S. government for some kind of bailout, and that’s in addition to $25 billion in loans Congress gave the automakers in the recent Energy Bill, ostensibly so that they could begin to build more fuel efficient cars. It begs the question: how long can the U.S. treasury keep handing out money?

The U.S. Central Bank announced yesterday it is itself getting into the credit business, providing $540 billion in capital for money market mutual fund investment. This is designed to ease up on tightening credit (see above paragraphs) but now that we’ve seen how the for-profit banks, investment firms, and mortgage companies handled their assets in recent years, we can only imagine how efficient the federal government will be at this same job. And, on that same theme, yesterday Yahoo announced the layoff of 1500 employees. Financial firm National City Corporation let go 4000 employees.

It would take a great deal more bad news than we have seen so far to bring us to the 25% unemployment that marked the depths of the Great Depression. But it is very clear to me that in all the deregulation fervor of recent years, the federal regulatory agencies and Congress, as their watchdog, forgot what they were supposed to do. The mission statements of those agencies included preventing corruption and prosecuting it when discovered. Preventing ursury and predatory lending. Instead, we have seen every big corporation lining up at the Congressional trough, and (practically) every member of Congress lining up at the lobbying trough of every big corporation. A truly symbiotic relationship.

It is tough to imagine that anyone in the White House could really make much of an impact on this mess. I haven’t heard either of the candidates promise to seek out the bad guys who corrupted our system and put them in jail. It is almost as if one has to wait for the whole thing to fall in on itself before the system can be cleansed. Unfortunately, that is going to be a really painful “cure” for the American people.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Stay Tuned: Coronation at Eleven

Talk about piling on. Talk about everybody getting on the Obama bandwagon. Talk about kicking a guy when he’s down. What a bad weekend for John McCain and what a good weekend for Barak Obama.

It must be time for us to elect Barak Obama by unanimous consent and have the coronation, I mean the inauguration, right away. Why? Well, here’s a partial list:

Colin Powell, Republican veteran of the Reagan administration and two Bush administrations endorsed Barak Obama on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this Sunday. Don’t let it worry you that last year he donated the maximum to John McCain’s campaign and was mentioned as a possible running mate. And don’t let it worry you that he waited until it appeared that Barak Obama was a sure thing before he placed his bet on the winning number. And don’t say that as another African-American who has been talked about as a possible candidate for President he’s hoping for a job in the upcoming Obama administration. Nah. That would just be cynical.

Also this weekend, the New York Times, once a great newspaper, used the front page of its Sunday edition for a highly critical piece about—John McCain’s economic programs? No. About John McCain’s wife Cindy. The Times reporter made it very clear that Cindy McCain has tacky taste (she has wallpaper in one bathroom with elephants on it! Eh gad!), aspires to be like Princess Diana (seeking out Diana’s land mine organization and doing volunteer work for it) and isn’t nearly as nice as McCain’s first wife Carol who waited for him while he was a prisoner of war, was injured in a car accident but didn’t want to worry him with the details, worked in the Reagan White House, and was then dumped when McCain decided to marry a younger, wealthier babe. (This is, of course, the first time this has ever happened.)

There’s still more: Central Florida is a heavily Republican area of this important swing state and this Sunday the Orlando Sentinel endorsed—hold your breath here—Barak Obama for President.

And more: two former Pentagon officials, one a former Secretary of the Navy, endorsed Barak Obama this morning in a nationally syndicated letter to American newspapers.

Oh, and did I mention that William F. Buckley's son--WFB being the founder of National Review, the Conservative magazine of record--Christopher Buckley has now endorsed Obama too?

I could go on but I think you get the picture. Barak Obama has had a lot of good luck on his side. He has been running against a Republican at a time the incumbent Republican President could hardly be less popular. He’s running against a man who would make a great military leader while we’re engaged in two wars and then, suddenly, those wars have faded in importance as our troubled economy becomes the nation’s first priority. He’s also had the mainstream media on his side—see the New York Times any day of the week for its glowing articles or watch NBC, CBS, or ABC news.

Barak Obama has had an additional advantage that hasn’t been mentioned as far as I know. He’s running at a time when no one in America wants to question his credentials for fear of being called a racist. If you don’t support his candidacy, there are those who will believe that in your heart of hearts that is just what you are. Who wants to be painted with that brush? It is the implied question, the raised eyebrow, from every Obama supporter to the few remaining supporters of John McCain.

So let’s just get the darn thing over with. Why bother with this election thing and the Electoral College thing (that nobody outside the United States understands, anyway). Let’s just give the guy the number one job on planet Earth and let’s hope he’s up to the job.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess Who Left a Powerful Legacy

Above: Rita Hayworth as the Love Goddess and dancing with Fred Astaire in "You Were Never Lovier" photographed by George Hurrell.

I was reminded by a documentary on Turner Classic Movies recently that the beautiful actress Rita Hayworth (1918-1987) was a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease, which took her life at the young age of 68.

Hayworth’s story sounds like the plot of a Hollywood melodrama. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino, she began dancing with her father, Spanish born Eduardo Cansino, at the age of twelve. Performing one weekend in Tijuana—the Mexican border city where the movie people came to party, gamble, drink and engage in various other kinds of behavior they didn’t want covered by the Hollywood press—she was spotted by a talent scout from Fox and signed to a contract.

She played small parts in small movies—you can see her at the age of seventeen in a bit part in Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)—but after just a few years it appeared she was headed for obscurity. Then, an L.A. car dealer twenty-two years older than she, mentored her, married her, and wrangled her a contract at Columbia Pictures. At Columbia, Harry Cohn changed her name, lightened her hair, slimmed her down, raised her hairline and made her a star.

When World War II broke out, she was a gorgeous 23-year old. A photograph of her in Life magazine sitting on a bed wearing a black negligee, became one of the most popular pin-up pictures of the war. As Eli Wallach put it (he was a soldier when he first met her, several years before the beginning of his own successful movie career): “Just looking at that picture helped us all better understand what we were fighting for.”

At Columbia, her marriage to the car dealer ended when she fell in love with co-star Victor Mature. But when Mature entered the service, actor/director Orson Welles entered Rita’s life and the two married. Her famous black dress in Gilda (1946), in which she sings “Put the Blame on Mame” is designed with a large gathered bow just below the waist line, allegedly to hide the tummy she had not yet lost after the birth of her first child, Rebecca Welles (1944-2004). Orson Welles seemed to have a voracious appetite for everything but his beautiful wife and their marriage also ended in divorce, but not before he starred her in the truly strange Lady from Shanghai, for which he cut her beautiful hair and bleached it blonde.

Like many movie stars of her era she had worked hard to achieve fame and fortune and seemed unequipped to handle its consequences in her life. “They went to bed with Gilda,” she is reported to have said, “but they woke up with me.”

In 1948, she fled Hollywood and fell right into the arms of playboy Aly Khan. Once the two were divorced from their spouses, they married, but marriage didn’t end his on-going moveable feast, and Hayworth eventually fled back to Hollywood with her new baby, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan. Harry Cohn put her back under contract. She was only in her thirties, but she looked somewhat older and her real stardom had come to an end.

She still had some good parts ahead. She was only thirty-nine when she played the “older woman” in Pal Joey who loses Frank Sinatra to Kim Novak. And just forty when she played the “aging” beauty in Separate Tables with Burt Lancaster. But she was fragile and life and fame had been hard on her.

There were several more marriages and then her friends began to observe what they called her erratic behavior. Ann Miller said Hayworth invited her and choreographer Hermes Pan to dinner at her house one night and then came to the door brandishing a knife and scared them off. Her nephew said when she came to his birthday party he prayed that “Aunt Rita wouldn’t get drunk that day.” “Late in the day was her worst time,” said her daughter Yasim.

Unknown to them it was not alcohol that was affecting her, but the early onset of a terrible disease. Alzheimer’s victims have difficulty in the afternoon in behavior doctors have now labeled “sundowning.” I’ve noticed this in my father, who is also an Alzheimer's victim.

She was just fifty-three when she attempted a comeback on Broadway, but she found she could not remember her lines. At the age of fifty-nine she was put in the care of her daughter Yasmin, because she could no longer care for herself. In the 1970s, as her disease became apparent, information about Alzheimer’s was just coming to light. Her family, friends, and some of her fans somehow believed that she had brought this problem on herself. She had not.

Researchers are studying the connection between Alzheimer’s disease and family history. Between Alzheimer’s disease and alcoholism. Between Alzheimer’s disease and the use of cigarettes. No one really yet knows if or how a person’s behavior can impact Alzheimer’s. What we can say is that this beautiful, fragile, talented woman was forced to suffer her disease as a public figure. That seems to me to be an ignominy that shouldn’t have to be endured by anyone.

What she could not have known is that changes in technology would eventually introduce Only Angels Have Wings, Gilda, You Were Never Lovelier, and the rest of her films to new generations of fans. The love she always sought was not nearly as ephemeral as she thought.

And her daughter Yasmin has used her wealth and fame to work to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. She serves as Vice Chairman of the United States Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Association, and she is president of Alzheimer’s Disease International. That’s a legacy Rita Hayworth could be very proud of.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

John McCain, Fighter Pilot, Finally Showed up for Presidential Debate Number Three

And He Brought Joe the Plumber With Him!

With a relaxed smile and a strong voice, Republican candidate for U.S. President, John McCain finally took on Democratic candidate Barak Obama and for the first time put the young, inexperienced Obama on the defensive. McCain landed his fighter jet right on the carrier. He seemed to surprise Obama with his strength and intelligence. The John McCain who toughed out five years in the Hanoi Hilton made a comeback at this debate. He told Barak Obama to his face that he was wrong about "spreading the wealth" and should let Joe the Plumber instead keep his own wealth. That he was wrong about Bill Ayres (whom McCain forgot to mention was bombing buildings in America while McCain sat in a prison cell, being tortued in Hanoi) and wrong for not standing up to the corruption in his own party.

Joe the Plumber was the unseen third party at the debate. He is Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohio man who earlier in the week confronted Barak Obama at a rally and told him that under the Obama tax plan, he, Joe, would be considered "rich" and thus subject to higher taxes under Obama if he bought the plumbing business he's been working for all his life. Barak Obama revealed his true political philosphy in his ad-libbed reponse that he believed it was time to "spread the wealth around." Whose wealth would that be? My Dad's, who saved and scrimped all his life? We should now give his money to Barak Obama for reapportionment to those who bought SUVs and flat screen TVs and are now in debt? This one statement should make Americans do some serious re-thinking of Barak Obama.

But will it? I told my friend Leslie that in spite of McCain's strong showing in the final debate he has two big things going against him that have nothing to do with his potential to be president. The first is that voters are so disgusted with what is happening to the economy that they are inclined to vote out the party in power, and that means Republicans, since Republicans have held the White House for the last eight years. And in spite of the fact that John McCain finally told Barak Obama he is not George Bush ("If you wanted to run against George Bush you should have run four years ago," he said last night), the sad truth is that John McCain is likely to be the baby voters throw out with the bathwater, as they toss the Bush administration out the back door and into the snow.

McCain's second disadvantage is that he is an old, broken, white-haired, puffy-faced white guy who doesn't photograph well as he sits stiffly next to his long, lanky, cool and youthful opponent. Obama is telegenic and this gives his style-over-substance campaign the boost it needs to overcome an idea as obtuse to most Americans as an understanding of his "spread the wealth" philosophy. One opportunity John McCain has missed, I believe, is to tell his audience that he earned his broken body honorably, being tortured for his country. I gather, however, that John McCain is the kind of tough guy who doesn't believe you talk about things like that, nor use them to advance yourself. It is honorable of him, but I think it might give young people a better understanding of why his shoulders and arms seem so immobile and his neck seems too stiff to turn.

During the debate McCain also gave a warm and thoughtful defense of his running mate, Sarah Palin. A lot of us were glad to hear it. As a Governor of a frontier state, she has been subjected to treatment no previous governors who've run for high office --think Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton--have been subjected to in recent memory. The eastern half of the United States and its media are really befuddled by the West. They ought to go there sometime. Some western states even have libraries.

I think, in this debate, for the first time, John McCain made Barak Obama's eloquence look more like the slickness it is. Barak Obama is, after all, a man who has had even less experience in government than has the much maligned Sarah Palin. Still, it might be too late for McCain's strong performance and for the questions he raised about Barak Obama's words.

I sure wish this John McCain had showed up before now.

How A Bank Was Saved in the Last Crisis: The Story of the Men and the Model "A" That Did It

Writing Irving Bacheller in the study of his Florida home, about 1925.

Bacheller's 1929 Ford Model "A," restored by its new owner.

The recent decision of the U.S. Treasury to buy a stake in a number of large U.S. financial institutions in order to guarantee their assets and ease up on credit reminded me of a story I unearthed several years ago about the way one bank was saved in Florida in 1930. In 2006 I won a research grant to write about the life of best-selling writer Irving Bacheller, who made his name during the first half of the twentieth century with tales of American pioneer life. His first novel, Eben Holden, the story of an orphaned boy who is raised by neighbors in a log cabin, sold more than a million copies and made Bacheller both rich and famous. He went on to write seventeen more best-selling novels and counted other literary lions among his friends, including Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Stephen Crane.

By the end World War I, Bacheller was wealthy enough to build himself a lakeside winter home on fifty acres in tony Winter Park, Florida. He was a genial man who liked golfing, cocktails, and friends as much as he liked his writing so when he was immediately drawn into the civic and social life of this little Florida town he could not have been happier. He joined the board of Rollins College and taught a creative writing class there. He was a founder of Winter Park’s University Club, and began a scholarship program for local high school students. In 1927 he was drafted to be Chairman of the Board of a local bank, the Union State Bank at Winter Park.

Things were going so well for him by 1929 that he bought himself a brand new Ford Model “A” Sport Coupé with a cloth top and a rumble seat, just for his use during his winters in Florida. And then, in October, the stock market crashed. During the summer of 1930, which he spent on Long Island to escape the Florida heat, he wrote his friend Hamilton Holt, president of Rollins College: “I have never seen such an atmosphere of puzzled discouragement [in New York]. My own losses have been heavy for a scribbler.”

When he returned to Florida, he discovered that things were even worse than he thought. The Florida real estate market had crashed and there had been runs on banks throughout the United States. The President ordered all banks to close for a “bank holiday,” so that the surviving institutions could hold onto their cash reserves. What it meant in those days before Automated Teller Machines and the widespread use of charge accounts and checks, was that all commerce and business was frozen too. People without access to their bank accounts often did not have the cash to buy their food or pay their rent.

Bacheller conferred with George Kraft, the founder of the Union State Bank, and the two men decided on a bold plan. They hopped into Bacheller’s little Ford and drove all night to Tallahassee where they met the next day with state bank regulators to plead that the Union State Bank be allowed to stay open, for the sake of the community. They showed the regulators the bank’s credit and debit statements and proved that the bank was solvent and had enough cash reserves to survive a run. But state regulators could not violate the federal bank holiday order and Bacheller and Kraft made a new proposal. What if they started a new bank, not then subject to the federal order, transferred the assets of the Union State Bank to this new institution, and guaranteed all the deposits with their combined personal savings of $50,000?

The regulators scratched their heads, conferred with counsel and said they didn’t see why it couldn’t be done. Back the two men drove to Winter Park where they established the new Florida Bank at Winter Park. It stayed solvent during the entire Depression. Nobody lost a dime.

That is how a writer, his banker friend, and a little Model “A” Ford Coupé saved a bank one day. It was like a George Bailey moment from the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Addendum of Coincidences:

Banker George Kraft died in 1937. Bacheller’s own fortunes as a writer did not survive the Great Depression. By the beginning of World War II, he was 81 and no longer in touch with the new realism that had entered popular fiction. He sold his Winter Park estate and fifty acres for $37,258 and lived on the proceeds of that sale until his death, at the age of 90, in 1950. During the war he sold his Model “A” to a soldier whose wife was a teacher and needed transportation to her job.

Fast forward to 1960, when banker George Kraft’s son Ken looked out the window of his Winter Park home one day and saw a hot rod buzz by. It looked to him like an old Model “A” that had been souped up by a local kid and he had always wanted to restore a Model "A". Winter Park was still a small town, and when Ken Kraft asked around, he found the young man who owned the car and bought it from him for $50. But it wasn’t until Ken Kraft began to restore the old Coupé that he uncovered the car’s history. It was Irving Bacheller’s car. The one Ken’s father George, and Irving Bacheller had driven through the night to the Florida state capitol in order to save the bank and thus, save a little town. Ken Kraft still has that car. The bank, after changing hands a number of times, is now a Bank of America. Bank of America is one of the banks in which the U.S. government will soon invest. It’s true. You can look it up.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

OMG: Yet Another Debate

Can you stand to dispose of another ninety minutes of your life watching these two guys make promises to us they can't keep? All the pundits on television are telling us the election is over and Obama has won. Don't know if they are right, but based on what has been going on with our economy, both of the parties have a lot of explaining to do. And, since our choice is to vote for either a Republican or a Democrat it doesn't appear to me we have much of a choice. How about Bill Gates for President? Or Warren Buffett? No that probably wouldn't work either. We'd all be required to buy Windows latest program and bank at whatever institution Warren Buffett happened to have bought that day.

In truth, what I would like to see during the debate is the John McCain who ran in the primaries. Real. Intelligent. Thoughtful. Moderate. And a verifiable maverick who did fight corruption in Congress. He seems to have disappeared behind the advice of someone who is putting a finger in the wind each day before McCain speaks. Anyway: regardless of what I said in paragraph one, I am rooting for the real McCain to appear. Let's have a Westerner as President again with a Veep from the really new frontier. They can't do any worse than the present establishment. That is hard to imagine.

Check here tomorrow night. We'll be blogging the debate and I'll be interviewing my average American voter, "Christine," about her views on the winner and loser in the final debate of camapaign 2008.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Thoughts about The Duchess and a Princess on Columbus Day

We’re having a holiday in America in honor of Christopher Columbus today, a nice relief from all the bad economic news since all the banks and most of the markets are closed. For my part I went to see a new movie called The Duchess, a British film about the 18th century beauty Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, 5th Duchess of Devonshire. Her story has some parallels to the story of Lady Diana Spencer, the late Princess of Wales, since there were three people (frequently more than that) in Georgiana’s marriage to the Duke, just as there were in Diana’s marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales. The coincidences in their lives are a bit eerie since Diana Spencer is actually a distant relation of Georgiana’s through Georgina’s brother, the 2nd Earl Spencer.

The movie stars Keira Knightley as the Duchess and Ralph Fiennes as her thoroughly unpleasant husband. Ever since Fiennes played the Nazi death camp administrator in Schindler’s List he’s been especially good at making my skin crawl. This time he made his impact by doing and saying thoroughly reprehensible things using that peculiarly English manner of registering no emotion on his face whatsoever, whether he was feeding a dog or violating a woman. Keira Knightly is gorgeous and was excellent in the part, and the clothes are really something to see. I also enjoyed Charlotte Rampling, a modern legendary beauty, as Georgiana’s mother. But I must say it was a bleak story. Perhaps more so because one can see that even though the story in this film took place in the 18th century, two hundred years later the peers of the realm are still behaving badly towards their women, as Diana, Princess of Wales, could attest if she had lived.

I was lucky to cover Diana during her one official visit to Washington in the 1980s. She was at the height of her fame, still married to Charles, Prince of Wales, and only the insiders knew then that the marriage was a sham. Seeing her in person at a tea the British Embassy in Washington gave for a small group of reporters covering her, I was struck by how much taller she was than I had thought, how much thinner, and by how unhappy she looked. I assumed at the time she was tired, what with two small children and jet lag. But we later learned the truth—that she had good reason to be unhappy. That same weekend, she danced at the White House with John Travolta and I often remember it now—how for that that short moment she did laugh with joy. She was beautiful, visiting the Reagan White House, and dancing with a star who was really good on the dance floor. Pretty nice.

But the new film and the old story of Diana also remind me why we don’t use titles in America—they were outlawed by our founding fathers, God bless them. We’re a meritocracy and though we love reading about the bad behavior of the royals in other countries we like the idea in America that you are not what you are born to, but what you raise yourself up to be. I wish Diana Spencer, and her ancestor Georgiana Spencer had both been born to a better world.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

My Father’s Wisdom: Laughing Through the Tears

When you have a beloved parent with a disease like Alzheimer’s there are plenty of moments for tears, so you have to enjoy the laughter when it comes. My sister is out in California taking her turn at watching the old folks and her reports on her adventures always leave me laughing. She writes:

“I believe in using things up and being conservative, but a rubber band around the finger of a rubber glove? Yikes! Then there was the best dinner ever made—two pieces of toast: one with peanut butter and jam and the other spread with cold chicken soup. (We each could have two pieces of toast. It wasn’t two pieces for the four of us.)” At the age of 87, my mother is still very determined not to get fat, so she organizes these "light" dinners after they’ve all gone out to a big lunch. And about the rubber gloves? Her obsessive thrift means she isn’t contributing much to those landfills everybody is worried about.

Because my father is incapacitated now, my sister and I have had to play Sherlock Holmes and Watson to try and sort out our parents’ finances. My father was a wonderful planner for my parents’ future and he diversified his portfolio exceptionally well. He reckoned without my mother’s total lack of interest in finance. Their income is good and she’s still able to write the checks for the electric bill and other expenses, but she has no idea where Dad stashed the reserve funds nor how to get at them when she needs to, nor why she should care! So, as Sherlock Holmes, I sit and play my violin and think up ways for us to follow the treasure map and then I assign my Watson (my sister, the best snoop sister around) to sneak a look into a certain set of files in a certain room I designate back at the old homestead and off she goes, revolver in hand. Her first report from Baskerville Hall, I mean from 911 Echo Drive, was thus: “Mom is her Energizer Bunny self—I don’t know how much snooping I can do.”

In the end, tucked inside the cardboard lining of a blue binder, she did find the list Dad made, before he became ill, of his assets totaling his net worth. The assets are scattered throughout the San Francisco Bay Area (and the nation for that matter) in banks and insurance companies and investment firms—some of which have changed hands several times since he made his list in 2001. He was so smart: he also bought rental property, which will continue to support them even if his other investments tank along with the recent economic downturn. One insurance policy he bought turned into an annuity after a certain number of years transpired without his death. My Mom told my sister with some surprise that an insurance check had appeared all of a sudden in the mailbox this month and it turns out that his policy is the source. Now that we have the list of assets, Sherlock and Watson will have to spend some time going down the list, investment by investment, to find out what the money has been doing for the last seven years. At least we have a place to start.

Dad has changed a lot since the onset of his Alzheimer’s but one thing about him hasn’t changed: he hates to sit around. On my last visit I would take him on drives because I know he likes to get out and I myself love traveling the back roads of the Santa Clara Valley. One day we headed up Moody Road to Skyline Boulevard at the top of the Coast Range. For some reason, my Dad had it in his mind that we were going to the library, though I had told him several times we were just going for a drive. As we headed up into the hills he said, “This is a funny way to the library.” And later, “Oh, we must be going to the library at Foothill College. I didn’t know we had a library card to Foothill College Library.” And finally; “Well this is the darnedest way to the library I’ve ever seen!” He’s completely deaf, so I couldn’t write down where we were going until I could find a place to pull over, not an easy thing to do on a windy road in the foothills of the Coast Range. When I was able to stop and write to him he was pleased we were off on an adventure and began to complement me on my driving. It is something he was still doing a month later during my sister’s visit, though he couldn’t, at that moment, remember my name:

“Of course he spoke of that girl who drove so wonderfully in the mountains—turning smoothly, stopping gently on that dime and never getting lost—so impressive a driver that the policemen were impressed by her prowess behind the wheel. Wow!”

Dad also described to my sister something he called the Brown Chevrolet Brigade that guides drivers to their correct freeway exits. We’re not sure where this comes from, except that Dad and I and his caregiver drove the I-280 freeway to San Jose Airport on my last visit to return a rental car I had. We drove in tandem so I could have a ride back and from this his mind may have invented his Brown Chevrolet Brigade Roadside Assistance Program.

It can leave you in tears if you don’t laugh about it occasionally. Here is a man who all his life lived for others, who was intellectually curious, who was fit, who was principled, who went to church and tithed, who did his duty, who loved his family and his country and who now, at the end of his life is rewarded with this disease that steals away his mind. I would cry. But when I was small and found myself in tears, my father would pick me up and say, “Don’t cry Robin. Don’t you know that tears turn to water vapor?” And it is ever thus. We are all just here for a moment and then are gone. We are all just vapors in the midst of transmutation. My father knew it long ago.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Economic Crisis Deepens: It Makes Me Think of Guys and Dolls and Broadcast News and Thomas Jefferson

The grownups wheeled George W. Bush out again this morning in another attempt to calm the markets, which ignored him as usual and went right on tanking. In fact, since Congress passed the economic “rescue” bill, proposed by the White House, the Dow Jones Industrial average has dropped more than a thousand points. Apparently I’m not the only person in whom our chief executive does not inspire confidence.

What awful luck that America should be going through this at the same time we are having a presidential election. In Britain, where an election for Prime Minister takes no more than a month, the country can turn quickly from a bad leader to an excellent one with very little fuss. When World War II began, the appeaser Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister. Eight months later without missing a step, Chamberlain resigned and the great Winston Churchill stepped in to lead the nation.

Our system is such that we can’t go back and re-examine the candidates we’ve rejected over the past primary season to find someone who might be a better fit for the crisis at hand. What we’re left with are two people who have zero economic leadership credentials and who both seem to believe that the insertion of government into the market is the best way to keep Americans from financial panic. Where will all this money come from for bailouts and FDIC insurance and mortgage rescues?

John McCain is beginning to remind me of Nathan Detroit in the musical Guys and Dolls, always promising marriage to his “fiancé” poor Adelaide and never following through. I don’t know if McCain really does intend to help out individual homeowners by inserting the government between the homeowner in default and his bank, but to me, that seems implausible. So, like Adelaide, in Guys and Dolls, I sing:

You promise me this, you promise me that
You promise me anything under the sun
Then you give me a kiss,
And you're grabbing your hat
And you're off to the races again
When I think of the time gone by
When I think of the way I cry
I could honestly die.”

(”Sue Me” from Guys and Dolls, 1955, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser)

Our other candidate,Obama, is a cipher to me. So smooth, so slick, and no completely unknowable. The only thing we do know about him is that he picks some really creepy friends, from his minister who thought America should be hit again harder after September 11, 2001, to Bill Ayers, his pal who was a fugitive from the feds for bombing the pentagon and the capitol and who said in the book he wrote after he surrendered, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” You can tell a lot from the friends a man chooses.

Our choice then, on one hand, is John “Nathan Detroit” McCain and on the other is a guy who reminds me of the speech Albert Brooks’ gives in the movie Broadcast News. In it he is speaking about a shallow anchorman who has stolen his girl, but it could be about anybody who looks good on the outside and who is something else underneath:

“What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing . . . he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance . . . Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. . . . And he’ll get all the great women.” (From the film Broadcast News)

I’m disillusioned by this campaign with all its pandering and promises and by its angry tone and lack of real passion for the spirit of America. I’m concerned because it is just at times like this that a country can turn to a really dangerous leader, one who speaks one agenda but holds secretly to another. We have to worry about that, because we are in troubled times. I mean things must be tough. The Mass Mutual Financial Group is using Donavan's "Try and Catch the Wind" in a recent advertisement. My sentiments exactly.

This economic crisis has shed light on the fact that our congress is bogged down in corruption and has betrayed those of us who entrusted our beloved country to its care. Our president, too, has let us down by his negligence and his arrogance, and apparent lack of an iota of common sense. I dislike being a pessimist because I believe the best leaders are optimists with brains like, FDR, Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan, all of whom had uplifting visions of their nations and led the people to raise their own view of what was possible. Still it is a tough time for us right now. So today, just for today, I can agree with Thomas Jefferson when he said so long ago: "I weep for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Who Are Those Guys? The Second Presidential Debate in America's 2008 Race

Last night’s debate between America’s two leading presidential candidates was remarkable for the lack of insight it gave us into the characters and the hearts of the two men from whom we must chose our next President of the United States. What is amazing about this is that these two men have two of the most compelling life stories of any candidates for president in many years ...

Barak Obama is the child of a free-spirited American woman and a student from Kenya who abandoned his child to return to his native country. If Obama were to tell us that he went through a rebellious period in which he tried to take pride in his color by criticizing the racial challenges of America we might better understand the so-called “radical” friends he has made and kept during his political career. During last night’s debate he did mention that his mother sometimes had to rely on food stamps to care for him and that he was eventually left to be raised by his maternal grandmother. What insights did he gain from this? Is this why he chose to enter politics as a Democrat? We want to learn more about you, Senator Obama and learn how this remarkable ascent from abandoned child to presidential candidate came about. What motivates you now besides ambition?

And what more amazing story arc is there than that of John McCain, the Naval Academy cadet who rebelled against his admiral father and grandfather and collected so many demerits he graduated near the bottom of his class. Who then moved from Top Troublemaker to Top Gun and became a hotshot Navy pilot who led a squadron during the Vietnam War and was shot down. (“I did a good job of intercepting that surface-to-air missile with my plane,” he’s been known to joke with reporters.) In captivity he had his body so broken he now walks stiffly and cannot raise his arms above his shoulders without pain. He learned what it was like to rely on comrades he could only hear on the prison grapevine, a system of tin cups tapped on the walls of the cells. McCain has only referred to this part of his story obliquely during the debates, as if discussing it with the American people would be the violation of some kind of code of honor. It would not. We want to learn more about you, Senator McCain, and learn how those five years as a prisoner-of-war changed your life and led you into the service of your nation.

Ultimately, the debates have provided us no insights that I can find into the characters of these two candidates, and thus, I doubt the debates themselves will impact the outcome of the election. Shallow promises about what each will “give” us seem all the more vapid as America and the world move into a challenging economic slowdown. Give us an idea about the way your mind works on these issues, gentlemen, or you may find voters checking the box marked “other” on election day.

Meanwhile, one of my readers in India has reminded me that Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is the most lively, interesting creature in this race and he’s right: so I’ll be blogging about her soon. You betcha.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"That One" Versus "My Friend"

Stay tuned: we'll have our blogalysis of the second presidential debate in the morning. But in the meantime, think about Warren Buffet as Treasury Secretary in an Obama administration: that's something Obama suggested in tonight's debate. Wow! It is a good thing my father has dementia, because he is such a fan of Buffet that it might cause him to cast his first vote for a Democrat since World War II. Sees Candy at cabinet meetings! (Buffet now owns this fine California candy company.)
(Ignore the Read More. I won't have more 'til morning.)

That's Debatable: The Second Presidential Debate

Another big debate tonight for the candidates running for president of the United States and this one is just as important as the first. Things are especially urgent for Republican nominee John McCain who didn’t come across well in the first debate and who’s numbers have been dropping along with the stock market ever since. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen polls turn as quickly as a quarter horse in a rodeo, so for Barak Obama the debate also has significance. As Americans know, it is the vote in each state that counts, not the public opinion polls.

Reporter Liz Sidoti says that Barak Obama has an opportunity tonight to: “… Show some emotion and seal the deal with voters still struggling to see him as president.” If I were coaching him, I’d use the admonition an old news director of mine used to direct at one talented but slow-moving anchor: “Energy! Energy! Energy!” Obama has a tendency to look like Perry Como, as if he’s singing his song while dozing. In the case of John McCain, Sidoti’s analysis is, “When he’s on his game, McCain is witty and charming … when he’s off, McCain can come across cranky, surly and prone to gaffes.” America is not going to elect a grumpy old man. Those guys are only funny in the movies.

For my part I would like to see one or both of the candidates honestly repudiate the truly reprehensible behavior we’ve seen from banking and investment CEOs in the past few years. Honest outrage, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m speaking, for example, of men such as Richard Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, who testified before Congress yesterday. Since the year 2000, Fuld has taken home more than $484 million dollars in compensation, and now his company is bankrupt. How can that be possible, not to mention legal for a firm charged with investing the money of others? I don’t want to hear any more promises tonight about the things my government is going to give me. What the government appears to have given us lately is what’s politely known as the shaft. The one I’m going to root for is the one who shows the most understanding of that and the greatest inclination to make that impossible in the future.

The Associated Press says at least ten percent of the electorate remains undecided and the assumption is that these debates can sway that vote. I don’t know how much the debates help, but I know they can hurt. In the last debate I thought McCain made a pretty poor showing, and I’m inclined to like him. But when Obama spoke, McCain smiled a mean smile and when McCain himself spoke he seemed rattled and inarticulate. We don’t need to hear that McCain didn’t win any “Miss Congeniality” prizes during his years on Capitol Hill. Is that supposed to be a recommendation? John McCain needs to look at old tapes of Ronald Reagan and learn how to be charming even when he’s disagreeing with an opponent. As Winston Churchill put it; “When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.”

Monday, October 6, 2008

From My Front Porch in Florida

There was a sky full of rain this morning in Central Florida when I stepped out to pick up the paper. The morning newspaper in America is a fading ritual. There is so little news in it and so little paper (not to mention so little staff left in newspaper newsrooms) it continues in my life mostly as a ritual. I need to have something to do that engages my mind (and is quiet) while I drink my coffee and come to life again. And please, no talking right away.

What there was of the paper today was filled with articles and commentary about America’s economic problems and about America’s upcoming presidential election and the two subjects are intertwined. The new President of the United States will be faced with a recession right off the bat and it may even be a Great Recession—or worse. Everybody has been interviewed on the subject from former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan to former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, and the only thing everyone can agree on it that it was the fault of the other guy.

The truth is not all of this was done to Americans. Some of it was done by us to ourselves. Our parents and grandparents—the members of the Greatest Generation—taught us thrift and self sacrifice and we learned very little of either. We decided they were square and naïve and our way—wanting it all now, and paying for it all later—was a better way to do things. And that’s what we have. A whole lot of things. And now the check has come due.

I’m as guilty as the next person. My life is filled with far too many things and far too little sacrifice and thrift. When I moved last summer, for the first time in a decade, just going through all the things was a huge job. In the end, I was able to dispose of about fifty percent of my stuff, and though I still have too much the things that remain at least have value to me. Nowadays, I’m trying to follow this William Morris philosophy: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

In the end, things aren’t very important. The mystery writer Agatha Christie had a really bad time the summer her mother died. She had the sad task of sorting through the things that remained at her family’s once prosperous estate in Torquay, as she writes in her autobiography:

"For the last four or five years all kinds of rubbish had accumulated: my grandmother’s things; all the things that my mother had been unable to cope with and had locked away. There had been no money for repairs; the roof was falling in; and some of the rooms were dripping with rain. My mother had lived at the end in only two rooms … It was frightful: the moth-eaten garments, Grannie’s old trunks full of her old dresses, all the things that nobody had wanted to throw away but had now got to be disposed of … The schoolroom, which had been the scene of so many happy days in my youth, was now one vast box room: all the trunks and boxes that Grannie could not cram into her bedroom had gone there."

Christie is such a good writer you can almost see the moths flying out of the trunks as she opens them. It was an awful time and it might have been better if there hadn’t been so many things. It makes me think of my parents home with some concern!

A friend of mine, who is a social worker on a fixed income, lives in a pretty neighborhood near a local private college. Next door to her is a house that is often rented to students. This summer she called me and asked me if I would come over and help her put her computer and printer back together. As it turns out all she really needed was to have some help plugging them into one another, the surge protector, and the wall—and I was happy to help her. When I got to her house, she showed me a new computer table and chair the students next door had left out on the curb for the trash men. I guess the kids were headed off for summer vacation and didn’t want the trouble of moving their furniture. But the things weren’t junk! The table was expensive and the chair large and covered in leather and rocked back and forth like one of those ritzy executive chairs. The things were almost unused and together they were worth several thousand dollars. Their abandonment on the curb seemed to me a metaphor for America’s self indulgence and waste. Of course, this is just my two cents worth and what with the falling value of the dollar, you can calculate for yourself the value of my words.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Old What's-Her-Name

Just to keep us all humble, after I wrote the blog yesterday about the letter from my father in which he wrote "I love you," my sister called. She's in California keeping her eye on things for a few days and on the way to the restaurant, Marie Callender's, where she was taking my Mom and Dad for lunch to celebrate their 64th wedding anniversary, my Dad said, "I sure wish Robin were here." Not thirty minutes later my Dad said to my Mom: "What is the name of that girl I was telling you about who drives so well?" "Robin?" my mother asked. "Ah yes, that's right," he said. He does love me, I know that. But he can't always remember my name!

You have to remind yourself it isn't the man who has forgotten your name, it is the disease. Another example: my Mom's name is Faye, and one day a few months ago when my father was in rehab after a fall I kissed him goodbye at the end of a visit and started to leave. "Wait, wait, wait," he said and I turned back. "Who is Faye's husband?" He had a look of real concern on his face. I pointed at him and spoke so he could read my lips: "You are." "Okay, okay, okay." He smiled. He was just tring to keep things straight.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Letter From My Father

I got a letter from my father yesterday. This won’t sound remarkable to a lot of people, but it is to me. I live on the opposite side of America from my father, and since, at 89, he is now profoundly deaf, we can’t talk with one another on the telephone. He also has Alzheimer’s disease, and though he is still in the mild to moderate stage of it, writing a letter is really hard for him. I’ve seen him do it when I’m visiting him: it takes all his concentration. He writes a draft on a legal pad he has in the kitchen drawer, and then he asks my mother to correct it for him. Then he gets his pad of lined stationery and carefully copies it out. I’m his youngest daughter and even now with all his handicaps he wants to be in touch and that means everything to me.

Dear Robin,
Thank you for the letters you write. You don’t know how much I appreciate them. I also appreciate your calls.
[My mother tells him about these.] Please keep writing and calling. I love you.

I gave our neighbor Mickey the picture you sent. I know he appreciates it though he is pretty quiet about it.
[I sent Dad a picture of him with the neighbor’s dog, a friendly yellow Lab called Sunny, taken ten years ago. Sunny is now old and limping, a little bit like my Dad, and he still loves it when Sunny hobbles across the street to visit him.]

I do the same old not much of anything but your mother does so much for me it is great. I know I am loved and I am grateful for it all. I just wish I could do something to show my appreciation. Please write soon.

What my father doesn’t realize is that a letter like this one is all the appreciation I need. For most of his life, my father was a quiet, steady, practical man, not inclined to say “I love you” to anyone but my Mom. He’s an engineer and he saw the world in terms of its straightforward structure. He spent his life working hard. He saved his money. He invested it wisely. He did as my mother asked him. He sent my sister and me to college. He bought few luxuries. He paid his taxes. And he said very little about what he thought.

One of the mixed blessings of his disease is that he now says exactly what he thinks, the minute he thinks it. “What a shame,” he said to me one day as we walked down the driveway getting him some exercise. “What’s a shame?” I said. “That woman there,” (he nodded his head toward a plump seventyish woman walking down the street, getting her exercise). “It’s a shame for a woman to be shaped like that.” It made me smile. He may be eighty nine years old and deaf and losing his reason, but he still notices the shape of a woman!

The disease gives him strange hallucinations, especially first thing in the morning. One morning at breakfast he said to me, “Who is the king’s consort?” I looked up from the newspaper, not sure what was on his mind and slowly pointed at my mother. “Faye? No,” he said. “She’s the queen. I want to know who is the king’s consort?” After I had asked him several questions, I began to see that he had awakened believing he was running a kingdom, and he was trying to figure out who was going to help him do this. I use an improvised sign language with him because of his late-onset deafness, and I put my hands together and tilted my head on them: you were dreaming, my sign said and he understood me. “Dreaming? No, no, I wasn’t dreaming,” and then he went with his caregiver to get dressed. When he came out he asked me again about the kingdom and asked if it was a dream and I nodded. “Oh thank goodness,” he said. “I didn’t know how I was going to manage it. I’ve never run a kingdom and I thought I might have to order some people’s heads to come off.” Then he leaned toward me and became very conspiratorial: “But you know, if I did have to say ‘off with her head’ the first person I’d do it to would be that little girl with the big behind who comes around here to help me.” It was a fairly accurate description of one of his caregivers, who is a really good person, but his description cracked me up completely.

Most of the things he used to enjoy—reading for example—take too much of his concentration now, so when I visit, I try to think of new things he might enjoy doing. One day I took down a jigsaw puzzle from high in my old closet and put the pieces down on the kitchen table. “Let’s do this,” I said and he immediately responded, “Why?” “So we can do something together,” I answered. He nodded and we spent about fifteen minutes in silence finding the first few pieces that went together to get the puzzle started. Finally he looked up at me. “Do you think we could find something else to do together?”

We no longer have to worry that my father will keep his feelings inside. So when he writes the words “I love you” I’m grateful he lived long enough to be able to do this thing that was hard for him most of his life. In our family, we owe him so much. And he’s still trying to figure out what he can do to make us happy.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Came the Dawn: The Veep Debate

It appeared that Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joe Biden had much more fun during their debate than did the Presidential candidates last week. Both of them smiled more genuine smiles, and both treated each other with more genuine deference. The nuances of each were fun to catch: I swear Sarah Palin said “Obama and Obiden” at one point and if you review the tape I think you’ll find it in the last half hour. And I heard Biden describing a program he disliked almost call it “ri” (for right wing?) and switched his word quickly to “re” followed by “publican.” Senator Biden was primed and ready with his decades and decades and decades and decades of service and his piles of facts and Palin was so excited to be on stage and so rarin’ to go she left all her gs behind in Alaska and almost levitated above her podium.

And she didn’t make a fool of herself, which was a relief to many of us voters and a real disappointment to the legions of commentators hauled out on television to analyze her performance. She stuck to her talking points, for which she was well prepped, and she shifted the topics to those with which she was comfortable. When she wasn’t familiar with a subject, she changed it. Senator Biden ought to know that technique: politicians on Capitol Hill have been using in for years during live interviews. “I’m glad you asked me that,” they intone, and then they answer an entirely different question altogether.

She said “also” several thousand times and she ought to cut that out (just as Senator McCain needs to eliminate his insincere-sounding “my friend” which he too has over-used). Like President George W. Bush, Palin can’t say “nu-cle-ar” and she gave General David McKiernan, our commander in Afghanistan, the name of Civil War General McClellan. But these were not career-ending fumbles.

We’ve had lots of small town guys serve as our Presidents over the years (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton come to mind) and no one has ever subjected them to the scrutiny which Sarah Palin—who is not even running for President, by the way—has faced in the last five weeks. Now we can get on to evaluating the two men at the top of the party tickets and gosh darn it: that’s where our real attention should be. Let’s give them a shout out, shall we?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Tragedy Tomorrow: Comedy Tonight

Tonight is the big night for the two Vice Presidential candidates, and we’re all biting our nails to see how it goes. Live coverage, controversy over the moderator, discussions about what each candidate needs to accomplish. Ye gods! You’d think these two people were actually running for an important office, not the much maligned office of Vice President of the United States.

John Nance Garner was one of FDR’s veeps (another of which, Harry Truman, actually became President when FDR, inconveniently, died) and when Lyndon Johnson told him JFK had asked him to be the Vice Presidential nominee on his ticket, Garner told him, in a much repeated quote: “The Vice Presidency ain’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.” Although they say he may have used another word instead of spit.

“I never wanted to be Vice President of anything!” is a quote attributed to Nelson Rockefeller, who disdained the number two job in the nation mostly because he was rich and had gone to the right schools and pretty much figured he ought to be the guy in charge. Still, he was a heartbeat away from 1974 to 1977 when he served as the appointed Vice President to Gerald Ford who himself became President in the wake of the resignation of Richard Nixon. It was enough for Nelson. He quit politics after that.

And then there is Finley Peter Dunne, who, back in the early 20th century wrote a series of columns for the Chicago Post under the name of “Mr. Dooley,” a fictional Irishman expostulating on politics from his seat in a Chicago pub. “The Presidency is the highest office in the gift of the people,” said Mr. Dooley. “The Vice Presidency is the next highest and the lowest. It isn’t a crime exactly. You can’t be sent to jail fer it. But it’s a kind of disgrace. It’s like writing anonymous letters.”

So Sarah Palin and Joe Biden have a lot at stake tonight. The one who comes out ahead and helps his ticket win in November, will disappear into the office of the Vice President of the United States and probably never be heard from again.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Wednesday's Child: Full of Woe

America is such a great country (I always say to my friends) it survives even its leaders. After over-regulating everything in the years 1941-1981 our friends in Congress have gone about under-regulating everything in the years since. Now, thanks to a lack of oversight, we’re getting everything from lead-tainted Thomas-the Train-Engines from China to greedy capitalist con men blowing up the entire economy for the price of toxic bundled mortgage derivatives. Not to mention the fact that your local phone company won’t fix any of the lines inside your house or that credit card companies are now free to charge 100% interest rates, or that if you want to fly from Miami to San Francisco you have to go there by way of Ontario, Canada with stops in Harlingen, Texas and Reno, Nevada, and you still have to pay extra if you want to take a suitcase with you.

I covered the Hill for a long time in Washington D.C. and I never in my life saw the leadership of either party ask members to vote for a bill the outcome of which was not known in advance. That’s how it works. If the leadership wants a bill to pass and they don’t have the votes, they don’t put the bill up for a vote: they continue to tweak it until it will pass. I’m sure Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi knew the thing was going down and put the bill up for a vote to give everyone in her party cover: anyone in her party voting for it, could blame Republicans if the bill failed and the economy tanked. Anyone in her party voting against it could say to constituents “You let me know you were overwhelmingly against this means of rescuing the U.S. economy” and that would provide them with a second kind of cover if the economy tanked. Once again, a political ploy was more important than what really happened to the country. With Louis in Casablanca I’m “Shocked! Shocked, to learn that gambling is going on here.” (Pass me my winnings.)

The sky is falling. The sky isn’t falling. Bail out Wall Street. Bail out Me. Americans are paying attention, we just don’t know who to believe anymore. The grownups keep wheeling out George “H.H.” Bush (H.H. for Herbert Hoover) having told him what to say, and he keeps warning us, and he has so little credibility left everyone treats him the way they treated Vice President Harley Hudson in Advise and Consent. “That’s great Harley,” (while not listening). “Oh yes Harley,” (while reading something else). “Fine, Harley,” (not hearing what he just said).

FDR called in a “brain trust” to help him solve America’s devastating economic problems after he was elected in 1932 (he wasn’t President in 1929 in spite of what Joe Biden thinks) and that makes sense. No President can be expected to know what to do when something this complex needs fixing. You call in specialists. And when you are the President of the United States and the problem is this important you should be able to call in the smartest specialists in the world. There has to be somebody out there smarter than Henry Paulson, formerly of Goldman Sachs, one of the fine financial institutions that got us into this mess in the first place.

If so, whose brain would you trust? It is too late for George Bush to call in anybody and the contents of his own cranium have been in doubt for several years now. But we should be studying the character of these two presidential candidates to discover, not what they say they are going to give us when they are elected, but to discern what kind of judgment they have to know when they need help and what kind of help they would seek when they saw they needed it. I haven’t seen a positive sign of this yet, but I continue to be optimistic.

I was looking forward to the Vice Presidential debate on Thursday night as a silly sort of food fight between Dumb and Dumber, but now I just want to cover my eyes. I’m not sure I’ll even be able to watch. I’m hoping they will both surprise me and be articulate and intelligent. Right now, I want everyone who has the potential to be a leader in this country to have an abundant supply of those qualities. My version of supply side economics.