Monday, June 25, 2007

"[A] Central Paradox of American Politics."

June 25, 2007

Re: “[A] Central Paradox of American Politics.”

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

It is always nice to learn that one is not the only person in the world to hold an idea that others would find so antagonistic or erroneous that one utters it but rarely. It happens occasionally to this writer because he reads books (and occasionally when reading internet stuff or even, amazingly enough (but very rarely), when reading mass media journals). But usually it happens, if at all, when reading a book). It happened this weekend when reading a new biography of Henry Horner, written by Charles Masters, a Chicago lawyer, historian and writer. The book is called Governor Henry Horner, Chicago Politics, and the Great Depression.

Horner was the Jewish governor of Illinois during the Depression, from 1932-1940. At that time he and, I believe, Herbert Lehman of New York, were apparently the only two Jews who had ever been Governor of a state. (Have there been any since?) As a young Jewish kid growing up in Chicago in the 1940s and first half of the 1950s, I occasionally (but not often) heard his name. So, when a cousin sent me the new biography, I at least knew who Horner had been, albeit not much more.

Masters thinks that, as a politician, Horner was something of a fish out of water. He had been a successful probate judge before becoming Governor, and his personal characteristics were suitable for a judge, not a governor. (Masters feels he performed admirably as a governor despite this.) He was honest, careful -- even painstaking, thoughtful and reflective, deeply concerned about individuals, not one to bash opponents or smash away at them (in ways that existed then and are de rigueur today), something of a reader, even an intellectual perhaps, a micromanager, very concerned to do the right thing and to help people. Events ultimately forced him to be a son of a bitch in the mid and late1930s, but this was contrary to his nature; indeed, Masters feels the stress of it, and of acting contrary to his instincts, eventually killed him, albeit being a son of a bitch enabled him to triumph over powerful pols, some of whom I remember from my youth. This is to some extent fodder for a fire I tend, because I believe, and have extensively written in Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam, that one of the bitter lessons of Amerika with a K is that being a son of a bitch is what leads to success in this country, and that nice people, as Leo Derocher said, finish last, get stepped on. The great trick, which Horner did not learn it seems,is to accept in your heart that you must be a son of a bitch, and not feel too badly about it, even though your nature and upbringing should rebel at it, as Horner’s seems to have.

This leads to a point Masters makes near the very end of the book -- the point which I was pleased to read because it shows that at least one other person thinks something that I think. (Is it conceivably possible that this agreement arises from having the same ethnic and geographic background? The older, I get, the more I find that there is a certain Chicago, perhaps even Chicago Jewish, style from the 1930s or so on to perhaps the 1960s. I have a hunch that Ira Berkow, the long time New York Timesman who grew up in Chicago when I did (we knew each other slightly) thinks there was (is) such an intellectual style, and I seem to recollect that it has been said to be exemplified at the highest levels by Saul Bellow (whom I find impossible to read, ironically enough).) Here is part of the passage in which Masters concludes with three sentences stating the point I have in mind.

“Horner’s experience reveals that a politician who wants to survive and prosper must spend an inordinate amount of time playing party politics, cultivating powerful interests, strategizing elections, and building an organization to sustain his or her interests, not simply working on the people’s issues. Hard work and goodwill are not enough. And yet, upon his death, it was generally agreed that Horner had been the kind of man that most people wanted in office; he simply couldn’t survive in office the way he was or wanted to. This is a central paradox of American politics today, I believe. What we want, we often won’t elect. What is it about a good man or woman that is an impediment to the functioning of the power structure?” (Emphasis added.)

Master’s view of a central paradox is inordinately close to my own, maybe even identical to it. For it is this writer’s own view that in America today the very fact that a politician wins high office demonstrates almost conclusively that he or she is not fit to hold it. The traits it takes to win are nonstop, years long campaigning that leaves one no time to reflect, lack of reflectiveness anyway, willingness to mouth the platitudes of the day, a desire to say things that sound good even though they’re stupid, jingoism (ala Giuliani’s bullshit remark to Ron Paul in South Carolina), avidity for savaging opponents, avoidance of crucial issues whenever possible, no need to show a prior record of accomplishment in business, the professions, academics or other areas in which success usually requires at least some degree of substantive competence. Success in gaining election signifies only that one is a dealer in baloney and not that one is an avatar of efficiency or substantive competence. The traits needed to be truly successful in office once elected, however, are usually quite different from what it takes to be elected. The ability to think, the ability to determine which polices are more likely to succeed, a desire and ability to say things that are true, principle, honesty, effectiveness in running organizations -- it is substantive traits that determine success in carrying out an office.

The Presidency is the most visible example of this. I have had people I am close to say that I’m just an aginner or worse because I seem not to like any President. But what’s to like when you go through the roster of disasters who have held the office since at least 1964. All of these jerks had the traits necessary to win office, but once in office almost all were disasters (pace Reagan worshippers), and most were dishonest, lying bums. Shall one go through the list of liars since 1964? They include Johnson, Nixon (who lied about everything all the time), Reagan, Clinton and Bush II. And even if one doesn’t consider Ford, Carter and Bush I to be liars, they were at least not very successful (with liars Johnson, Nixon and Bush II being even more unsuccessful). And not to be forgotten are some of the truly horrendous human beings cum war criminals whom some of these bums brought to power, people like Kissinger (who, like Nixon, lied and lied and lied), Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and, perhaps sadly because of his later regrets and immense brainpower, Robert McNamara).

* * * * * *

What is to be done about what Charles Masters has so trenchantly called “a central paradox of American politics today”? Is there anything that can be done?

It no doubt is arrant arrogance and disgusting self flattery to feel one knows what has to be done. Yet, even if one nevertheless feels he may have a few possible ideas, one also knows that as a practical matter they are incapable of accomplishment in today’s America. Eisenhower formally warned of the military-industrial complex, which would oppose various needed changes, but there are also other complexes that would likewise oppose most or all of what has to be done. One could name the two-major-party complex, the two-party-plus-the-(incompetent)-media complex, the pols-plus-the-campaign-contributors complex, the right-wing-plus-the-Supreme Court complex, and others besides.

Nevertheless, here goes nuthin’. Most or all of the nuthin’ has been written of here before, so will be mentioned now only sparingly rather than being fully fleshed out.

It is critical, to begin with, that there be a new, wholly independent third party. I recently heard it said -- I believe by Glenn Greenwald of Salon on a radio show (What The Media Won’t Tell You) on which I interviewed him for an hour -- that we currently have one major party with two branches. That strikes me as correct, and the Democrats have done their best to prove it correct since the 2006 election. We desperately need a new party to stand for honesty, reflectiveness, a nonmilitaristic, nonimperalistic stance in the world, decent policies at home to help the average guy instead of ever greater help to and enabling of the ever richer rich who already are filthy rich, and sound environmental policies.

There are some nascent third party movements already in existence, but they strike me as just vehicles for existing pols. That won’t do the job, as was found out by, say, the People’s Party and the Populists of the Gilded Age, or George Wallace and -- a much better person -- John Anderson in later years. Nor did Ross Perot or Ralph Nader cut it, one coming across as a wacko and the other having waited decades too long (as well as for other reasons). No, a successful third party cannot be a vehicle for existing pols or for egotists like Perot or Nader. It must instead be a mass movement of the honest and decent, of the people who haven’t been listened to.

I do know one individual who is contemplating such a third party, and I do have some other persons in mind whom I think would be honest, intelligent candidates would be a breath of fresh air. All one can say is, we shall see. Meanwhile one is not overly hopeful lest there be the equivalent of what somebody called A promise to the ear, broken to the heart.

There also needs to be a vast change in our election system, partly so that a third party could have at least some success and partly just to have a better system wholly aside from any third party. In most states and for much or most of our history the election system has been run on a winner take all basis. Whoever gets the most votes for President in a particular state gets all of the state’s votes in the Electoral College. Whoever gets the most votes in a congressional district wins the congressional seat, so that the entire congressional delegation of a state, or virtually the entire delegation, can come from one party -- can be all Republicans or all Democrats -- even though, if one simply counted up all the votes in the state for one party and all the votes for the other, they might come out 55% to 45% or 60/40 or 52/48.

Over the course of time the Electoral College and the winner take all system that we follow has been vigorously, even unanimously, defended by politicians, political scientists, the media, and so forth. It is time for it to be changed. There are nascent movements to change the Electoral College and to create a partially or wholly proportional representation system at many levels of government, right down to city elections. Proposed changes have been written about a fair amount (e.g., by Steven Hill), and I shall not canvass the pros and cons here (with one exception). Generally speaking, suffice to say that changes will be bitterly opposed, and opponents will make the age old claim that changes would destabilize the country. But we have seen the kind of pass the nation has now come to (and came to in the Gilded Age and the Depression) because of a calcified two-party system.

I have read that ofttimes scientific controversies are not settled, they merely become superannuated because they are irrelevant to and ignored by the next generation. Something like that seems to me in order today with regard to our rigid, calcified, unresponsive two-party system. Its apologists can offer all of their traditional defenses, but we have seen that in its unalloyed form it doesn’t work well. There must be at least some admixture of proportional representation (the exception that I said would be mentioned) so that good people who are honest, thoughtful, and interested in getting a substantive job done competently can have a chance to be elected, can by being elected serve as models who can push for what ought to be done, and, by pushing for what ought to be done, can make it happen, and happen far earlier than otherwise.

Let me frankly say in this regard that there is a point of view in this country which holds that what has occurred in politics is that good people have become trapped in a bad system. Al Gore apparently says this. I disagree with it. One concedes, one proclaims, that the system has gotten bad, but one does not concede that the people in it are good, that supposedly “good” people have become trapped in the bad system. A person should be judged by what he or she does (not just by what he or she says). Judging by what our politicians do -- judging by their dishonesty, their failures to support good policies or achieve desirable goals, by their selling out to campaign contributors (viz. Hillary Clinton -- big time), our politicians are not good people trapped in a bad system, they are bad people. They are bad people making use of, taking advantage of, a bad system. We need to create a system in which at least some good persons can have a chance to be elected in order to show the way to better policies and a better society. Some form of admixture of proportional representation into our otherwise entirely winner take all system might well achieve this.

All of this leads to yet another point, by the way. Today a lot of good people, intelligent people who are driven to actually accomplish things rather than to just talk, wouldn’t spit on politics let alone practice politics by running for office and having to do all the horrible things one must do in a campaign and in politics in our calcified two-party system. Since admixture of proportional representation might enable good people, accomplishment oriented people, to practice politics outside the now almost entirely corrupt two-party system, it might succeed in bringing the good people, honest, thoughtful, accomplishment-oriented people, into politics.

Finally, let me mention one of the most fundamental changes that is needed, a change in the philosophy under which this nation operates. We are a nation more given to secrets and secrecy than almost anyone wants to admit. We like to consider ourselves an open country, not a secretive one. But it is not true. Secrecy exists at every level of activity. It exists in government at every level, in corporations, in universities, in medicine, in law in certifying bodies, everywhere. The subject is way, way too huge to get into very deeply here, but more is now being written on it, most recently in a new book by Ted Gup called A Nation Of Secrets.

Secrecy is defended on a host of bases: individual, privacy, national security, corporate confidentiality, the need for doctors to have private case discussions in order to improve care, the sensationalistic writing and broadcasts of most of the media when it learns of things that were secret, and a score of other reasons. But the problem is that secrecy is the progenitor of evil. And while not everything that is secret spawns evil, all evil is spawned in secret. This writer is insuperably pressed to think of a single humanly caused disaster in his own lifetime that did not have its origins in matters that were at first secret. That, of course, is only logical. If potential evil is not kept secret, if it is a matter of public information from the get-go, it is likely to meet strong opposition from the get-go and is far less likely to succeed. (Hitler did tell us his views in Mein Kampf long before he had power. But would the world have stood idly by after he got control of the German state and military in the 1930s if he had then openly announced that he intended to take over all of Europe and to murder the Jews, Gypsies, and others. Somehow one thinks the French might have gone into the Rhineland, which they easily could have done, instead of letting Hitler walk into it unopposed. Nor does one think pacifism, and failure to rearm, would have continued to carry the day in England. Hitler would have been stopped before he began.)

Because secrecy is the progenitor of evil, ways must be found to greatly lessen it in this country, to lessen it at every level and walk of life. For as Brandeis said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. What was said above with regard to scientific controversies and proportional representation applies here too. All the long propagated reasons for secrecy will continue to be put forward, but they are superannuated, and should be ignored, because they have been enablers of evil. No doubt some secrecy, some confidentiality, will have to be maintained. But we must greatly lessen it. And, in this connection, there is an old saw which provides a good general rule for people to follow so that a lessening of secrecy would not harm them (or even if secrecy is not lessened): if you wouldn’t want to see something mentioned on the front page of The New York Times the next morning, then don’t do it.

Finally, one word about the mass media, an especial bete noire of this writer. Lincoln recognized that what the media says is vital to the ability to govern. That has not changed. And, as often discussed here, the mainstream media is a threat to good governing in this country today. The media should change, and the change should begin in schools of journalism, whose graduates too often are nothing but trained hacks who know little substance and rarely discuss substance. As was discussed with Glenn Greenwald on the radio interview mentioned earlier, perhaps the impact of the mass media in impoverishing our knowledge and our discourse will ultimately be far less consequential because of the rise of the blogosphere and other internet phenomena, which give so many more people an opportunity to put ideas before the public. One hopes so. Yet, unless and until the blogosphere and other internet phenomena completely take over for the media, it would still seem desirable for the mass media to improve dramatically in its understanding and presentation of substance.*

* This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to comment on the post, on the general topic of the post, or on the comments of others, you can, if you wish, post your comment on my website, All comments, of course, represent the views of their writers, not the views of Lawrence R. Velvel or of the Massachusetts School of Law. If you wish your comment to remain private, you can email me at

VelvelOnNationalAffairs is now available as a podcast. To subscribe please visit, and click on the link on the top left corner of the page. The podcasts can also be found on iTunes or at

In addition, one hour long television book shows, shown on Comcast, on which Dean Velvel, interviews an author, one hour long television panel shows, also shown on Comcast, on which other MSL personnel interview experts about important subjects, conferences on historical and other important subjects held at MSL, presentations by authors who discuss their books at MSL, a radio program (What The Media Won’t Tell You) which is heard on the World Radio Network (which is on Sirrus and other outlets in the U.S.), and an MSL journal of important issues called The Long Term View, can all be accessed on the internet, including by video and audio. For TV shows go to:; for book talks go to:; for conferences go to:; for The Long Term View go to:¬_LTV.htm; and for the radio program go to:

Friday, June 22, 2007

New Installment of My Radio Show "What the Media Doesn't Tell You"

Attorney Glenn Greenwald, a former constitutional lawyer who is now a blogger on politics and the media for, was interviewed by me on how George Bush became the Republican candidate in 2000. Greenwald has just written a book, to be published on Tuesday, June 26th, on the disaster of George Bush’s presidency. The interview was for the radio show called What The Media Doesn’t Tell You, which discusses subjects the mainstream does not present(or presents only very briefly) and why the media ignores these subjects.

Greenwald said that there were three fundamental reasons why George Bush became the
Republican candidate in 2000. One he called “tribalism,” meaning the cultural ideology of the right wing. Another was the political lineage of the Bush family. Finally, Bush has an affable personality that the media liked. This last point was ofmajor importance, said Greenwald, because the mass media focuses on personal amiability and attractiveness, not on competence or knowledge. It also focuses, he said, on the horse race aspects of politics - - who is ahead, by how much and why. Here too it ignores competence and knowledge.

The reason the mass media ignores substance is that it is now largely owned by large corporations,which feel they get more readers and viewers - - and make more money - - by focusing on personalities rather than substance. Reporters have to go along with this to advance in their careers. In this vacuum of substance, said Greenwald, blogs are making an important contribution because they are focusing on the substance neglected by the mass media.

In addition to the foregoing reasons, there were also other reasons too why George Bush became the Republican candidate. The Republican political establishment was desperate to win, especially because it hated the Clintons, and was persuaded that George Bush had the best chance to win. And while member of the Republican establishment weren’t completely sure about Bush’s ideology,they knew they did not like John McCain’s. Bush also had name recognition because of membership
in a political dynasty, and he had access to huge sums of money. Nor did the Republican political establishment care a whit about the inadequacy of Bush’s record as Governor of Texas, nor about the fact that he had been a continuous failure in business - - and thus had never demonstrated competence.

When asked whether America needs a third party because currently it has “only one party with two branches,” Greenwald demurred. In his view, the situation is currently so terrible that it is crucial to defeat the Republicans in 2008, and he feels the Democrats have the best chance to do this. He thus favors efforts to change the Democrat Party so that, in those areas where it closely overlaps the Republicans, it would instead stand for the very things that a third party would otherwise stand for. In response to the possible objection that the nation is claimed to be in a critical state in every single presidential election - - a claim that would always augur against a third party and would make it impossible ever to start one - - Greenwald said that this time the situation truly is dire.

Greenwald concluded by saying that it is now essential to find candidates who will engage in honest, competent debate, for the edification of the American people, about America’s role in the world.

The High Price of Gasoline

June 22, 2007

Re: The High Price of Gasoline

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

Because of the high price of gasoline, a letter sent to a prominent NPR public affairs show about its failure to discuss the operations of the futures markets seems worthy of being put on the public record. It is appended below. The name of a young researcher for the show has been redacted.*

June 22, 2007

Via Email and Federal Express

Mr. Tom Ashbrook
On Point
890 Commonwealth Avenue 3rd Floor
Boston, MA 02215

Dear Mr. Ashbrook:

On June 13th, you did a program on the price of gasoline, with Tyson Slocum being one of your guests. In the portion of the program that I was able to listen to, it was astonishing that neither you nor he mentioned the operation of the futures markets for oil and gas as a cause - - in fact a major and probably the leading cause - - of both the high price and the volatile price of gasoline. Nor, and of crucial importance, were futures markets mentioned as vehicles that divorce the price of gasoline from the costs of production, refining and transportation. These omissions were particularly shocking to me because, both at lunch with our faculty and on a television show with me, Mr. Slocum had said that the futures markets played a dominating role in establishing price and had caused price to be divorced from costs; he had also approved a press release and internet posting which made those very points.

I called your program to ask an on-air question about the omissions I mention, but was rebuffed.

Shortly after your program was over, I sent, by email and fax, a letter detailing this; it was accompanied by a copy of the aforementioned internet posting. The letter plainly registered displeasure, so I was the more surprised when, later that same day, your researcher, [name redacted], called me to explain why the crucial role of the futures markets had been omitted. I thought it was nice of her to do that.

[Your researcher’s] explanation reduced (as it were) to this: The people at On Point had been aware of claims that the futures markets were of great importance in establishing the high and volatile price of gasoline, and also (if memory serves) that these markets divorced the price of gasoline at the pump from the cost of producing, refining and transportation. But experts she had called at various universities had said - - simply unbelievably to me - - that this was wrong, and Slocum himself did not have a degree in economics. Thus, your program did not feel comfortable in bringing up the matter of the impact of the futures markets.

[Your researcher] and I discussed the situation, and I told her that I would pass on the information to her if I happened to think of experts who have made the relevant points about the operations of futures markets. Thereafter I asked one of our librarians to do some research, and she quickly came up with the information. It is in a Senate Report on the price of gasoline (issued while the Republicans were still in office), in articles by and testimony from experts, in reports by federal agencies, in reports on futures markets generally by state universities, and in other materials cited by these materials. It is ample. And it also shows that some think the futures markets have added 20 to 25 dollars to the price of a barrel of oil - - given the range of the price per barrel in approximately the last nine or twelve months, this estimated additional amount would account for roughly 30 to 40 percent of the price per barrel.

I am enclosing, with the Federal Express copy of this letter, the materials given to me by our librarian, and have put brackets next to parts where relevant points are discussed regarding the effect of the futures markets in creating high and volatile prices and, crucially, in divorcing prices from costs.

I recognize that my view is liable to count for little, yet it is my view that On Point is obligated - - I use the word advisedly - - to do a program on this matter. As is often illustrated by statements made by your callers, many people, particularly thinking people, rely on On Point to learn crucial information about important matters. Yet the program has (inadvertently) misled its wide body of listeners by telling them of supposed reasons for the high and fluctuating price of gasoline without mentioning what many experts think to be the crucial role of the futures markets, whose operations and effects may be responsible for approximately 30 to 40 percent of the high price of a barrel of oil. Especially given the extent to which people listen to On Point in order to gain information needed by citizens, I believe On Point has a responsibility to correct its inadvertent oversight by doing a program that informs listeners of what many think to be the crucial role of the futures markets in raising price, causing rapid price fluctuations, and divorcing price from cost.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence R. Velvel, Dean
Massachusetts School of Law

 This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to comment on the post, on the general topic of the post, or on the comments of others, you can, if you wish, post your comment on my website, All comments, of course, represent the views of their writers, not the views of Lawrence R. Velvel or of the Massachusetts School of Law. If you wish your comment to remain private, you can email me at

VelvelOnNationalAffairs is now available as a podcast. To subscribe please visit, and click on the link on the top left corner of the page. The podcasts can also be found on iTunes or at

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Re: The Times’ News Judgment In Its Obits Of June 7th.

Dear Dean Velvel,

Congratulations for another excellent post and important point.

I have not written for some time but have watched, very comfortably installed rather than in front of the computer, the DVD of the "Presidential Conference." which is still a burning actuality. There is much food for thought in the more than enlightened comments made by you and your colleagues on the continuing crisis in government. I think even a deepening crisis such as we have never known, worse than during the Vietnam war since the Cheney gang learned many lessons in the devious manner by which to deceive the population and bury their most treasured and vital projects from the public eye, especially that of establishing all the tools necessary for a total take over of the country. I hope I am overly pessimistic but the private air and tank armed armies are particularly troublesome.

I also found the book reviews than I enjoy immensely

I want to add a point to your critique of the media, since not only do they ignore the core issues but they turn their backs on the readers and public viewers. They play to the power wielders and to each other. Recently, they spend much of their time defending one or the other of their own rather than discussing the issues as you pointed out. One cannot but wonder if they see the issues at all. It may be that they agree with this rogue government, some very obliviously do. (the reaction to the Libby verdict)

It looks as though in the midst of an ocean of Presidential candidates we are in the situation of, "Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink."

I also found the book reviews than I enjoy immensely.

Best regards,

Gwenn Seyrig

Re: The Times’ News Judgment In Its Obits Of June 7th.

June 13, 2007

Re: The Times’ News Judgment In Its Obits Of June 7th.

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

My last essay commented about a New York Times failure to address some central points, combined with the paper’s news judgment. This essay is confined to discussing a news judgment, one that seems somewhat strange to this writer.

On Thursday, June 7th the newspaper carried three large obits. While I did not count words or column inches, eyeballing indicates that the one at the top of the page occupied not quite one-third of the page. It was, in other words, of significant length, and one presumes that placement at the top means it was considered the most important one by the paper. (Is this incorrect?) The middle one seemed to occupy not quite a sixth of a page, which is also of significant length. The bottom one occupied, roughly, a bit over one-ninth of the page, which is not chopped liver.

Who, then, were these obits about? The middle one was about Martin Meyerson. He was described as having coauthored, in 1955, the ‘“seminal book’” on the (racially isolating) effects on the poor of public housing projects comprised of ‘“tall buildings packed with small apartments.’” He had taught at prominent schools: the University of Chicago, Penn, Harvard and Berkeley. He had been appointed Chancellor at Berkeley in 1965 during, and had helped to calm, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, had been President of SUNY Buffalo from 1966-1970, and then was the President of Penn from 1970-1981. (I personally remember reading his name during that period.) While at Penn he completed the full integration of women into the University and began its first affirmative action program.

Obviously Meyerson was an accomplished and prominent guy, and one can understand giving him a major obit that occupied the second spot on and about a sixth of the page.

The obit on the bottom was, in essence, a human interest matter. It was about an ordinary native New Yorker named Arnold Lappert who, as an army radio man in Hawaii in 1942, had received the last messages from Corregidor, including the very last message sent just before the surrender. The messages had been sent by a radioman on Corregidor named Irving Strobing, who was also a native New Yorker. Both Lappert and Strobing were Jewish as well as New Yorkers, they were brought together at a news conference in Manhattan in 1946 by the Jewish War Veterans, and later reenacted their experience at a pageant at Madison Square Garden which related the contributions of Jews in America’s wars.

Lappert’s obit, as said, was a human interest story, especially for a newspaper published in a city with so many Jews -- it is the New York Times, after all, even if it is also a national newspaper. So it was comprehensible that Lappert’s obit received the third billing and one-ninth of a page.

So if it is comprehensible that the Meyerson and Lappert obits were given significant length and placement, whose obit was at the top of the page and was given about a third of the page? Who was it that was of sufficient importance to merit this? Jim Clark. That's right, Jim Clark, the brutal Selma, Alabama sheriff who beat the living crap out of civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s. Jim Clark, who punched a civil rights leader so hard that he broke his own hand. Jim Clark, who joined in what has gone down in history as Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965), when marchers trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge were violently attacked. Jim Clark, who wore a “lapel button emblazoned with a single word: ‘Never,’” with “A billy club, pistol and cattle prod often dangl[ing] from his belt.” Jim Clark, who said as recently as last year that, ‘“Basically, I’d do the same thing today if I had to do it all over again.’” Jim Clark, that fine upstanding citizen who a decade after the civil rights movement, in 1978, was indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to smuggle Mary Jane (marijuana) and spent about nine months in the slammer. This is the fine individual who, the Times believed, deserved an obit twice the size of the highly accomplished Martin Meyerson’s (and more than twice Lappert’s) and placement at the top of the page.


What can be said in favor of the Times peculiar (shall we say) news judgment regarding placement and length? Well, I suppose that, if the Times were defending its actions, it would say something like the following (through its apologist-in-chief Bill Keller?): “As said in the obit, Clark’s violence contributed to the success ‘of the voting rights movement.’ As also said in the obit, Bloody Sunday was called ‘an American tragedy’ by President Johnson and ‘was considered a seminal force behind Johnson's signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.’ Clark, however inadvertently, played a major, if despicable, role in some of the most important events of our time. We cannot choose to omit and shorten an obit because the deceased, though a person whose actions were of great consequence, was a bad person -- should we have carried only short obits of Hitler or Stalin or Mao or Nixon? What’s more, it is no bad thing to remind people of the terrible things done by Southern officials of those days.”

All of this might at first sound pretty persuasive. But upon reflection, no. The basic facts that made Clark “worthy” (a strange word in the circumstances) of the Times’ obit could have been stated in just a few paragraphs. There was no need to “glorify” Clark, as it were, by the very act of putting his obit at the top of the page and giving it a third of a page, by saying, as the Times did, that news accounts from the period said he could be courtly and charming in private, by talking about his service in the war, by explaining how he came to be the sheriff, by telling what job he held after being sheriff, and so forth. This was a truly bad human being, a vicious bum. He beat the living shit out of civil rights demonstrators. He viciously abused them physically in other ways. His actions were so terrible that they were instrumental in securing enactment of the Voting Rights Act. This guy's obit doesn't deserve to be ahead of Martin Meyerson's or Arnold Lappert’s. It should have been about a quarter or a fifth of the size it was, and it should have been at the bottom of the page rather than at the top. One has to question a news judgment that “rewards” evil by size and placement, while placing achievement lower down and giving it less play.*
*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to comment on the post, on the general topic of the post, or on the comments of others, you can, if you wish, post your comment on my website, All comments, of course, represent the views of their writers, not the views of Lawrence R. Velvel or of the Massachusetts School of Law. If you wish your comment to remain private, you can email me at

VelvelOnNationalAffairs is now available as a podcast. To subscribe please visit, and click on the link on the top left corner of the page. The podcasts can also be found on iTunes or at

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Re: Central Points And The Frivolous News Judgments Of The News Media

June 12, 2007

Re: Central Points And The Frivolous News Judgments Of The News Media

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

I would like to once again take up the theme of focusing on the central point(s) of the matter, on the heart-of-the-matter points, instead of attending all of the jazz that is not central (even if it is intensely interesting, especially to political junkies). Today the theme of focusing on the central point(s) will be combined with another matter which is crucial to the health of our society but is largely attended by failure: the news judgment of the news media itself. The combination of these two points leads to a formulation that goes as follows: the news media often misses or ignores the central substantive point(s) of the matter, focusing instead on the inessential, the sexy, the horserace aspects of politics. One might say that the central point here is that the media generally misses the central point. It discusses the inessential instead.

This has been my view for a long time, but some recent articles in the supposedly august New York Times brought it forcefully to mind yet again. Two of the articles, appearing on Thursday, June 7, were on the question of a pardon for Libby. The longer of these two was dubbed “News Analysis,” a dubious claim if one is looking for presentation of the crucial matters.

The so-called “News Analysis,” written by a fellow named Jim Ruttenberg (and beginning on page 1), was almost entirely anything but a serious news analysis. There was lengthy discussion of political matters such as Bush having kept his distance from the Libby matter until now; the right wing’s vexation at the lack of a pardon to date and its view that it is unfair to send Libby to jail when the original problem, a leak, was by Armitage; whether his right wing base will desert Bush if he does not grant a pardon; the effect or lack of effect of Bill Clinton’s abominable pardoning of Marc Rich; Justice Department guidelines regarding pardons; and pardons or lack of pardons by Reagan and the first Bush. But in an article that was lengthy, there were only two sentences on one of the central points of the matter: the effect on the rule of law of issuing a pardon (in the absence of remorse or time served). There also was one other sentence that dealt with a point close to the central ones: Libby’s crime of lying to investigators is the same kind of matter that led to Clinton’s impeachment.

The other article, which was a relatively short one on the jump page, merely listed pardons given by various presidents to such great American heroes as Richard M. Nixon, Gordon Liddy, Armand Hammer, Caspar Weinberger and a few others. So it too did not consider central points.

What, then, are the central points that should be discussed in a major New York Times piece on a pardon if the Times were to exercise a news judgment that one could respect. Those points are substantive ones, instead of being focused on claptrap political horse race points such as the reaction of Bush’s base.

One central point arises from the extraordinarily widespread, already partly documented, fear that our government is and since 2000 has been in the hands of persons who are criminal, immoral and incompetent, and who accordingly have created disaster. Arising from this context, the heart-of-the matter point consists of a question: Could there be a possibility that, in return for a greatly reduced sentence, or even lack of jail time, Libby would tell Fitzgerald or other prosecutors, or even tell Congress, everything he knows about the numerous plainly or possibly illegal, and often highly ignorant and/or stupid, actions of the Executive since 2000? These subjects could range from Cheney’s secret discussions on energy policy early-on through lies to take us into war, torture, rendition, throwing out habeas corpus, holding citizens for months or years on end, electronic spying, signing statements and God know what all. Libby very possibly -- very likely -- knows things that the country should learn as an object lesson in what should not be done and as a warning for the future.

One presumes that -- but experts should be asked whether -- a diminution in jail time is possible via prosecutorial agreement to request it from the judge in return for information. Indeed, a lawyer who should know tells me that confidential offers of such help in return for information are often made by prosecutors, and that there could conceivably be such an offer on the table right now. This kind of stuff is beyond my knowledge, but there are experts, and maybe even knowledgeable insiders, whom a New York Times reporter could ask about it. None of it appears to have been asked about for, and certainly one can see that none of it was written about in, the NYT’s two articles of June 7th. Yet one would think that the New York Times would not disagree that the possibility of obtaining crucial information about the vast mishandling of this country’s affairs since the year 2000 is a question of the first magnitude.

There is another central question raised by the possibility of a pardon. This one was touched upon, but only very briefly, in the Times’ political-horse-race type of article. This question is: what is the effect on the rule of law, and on the entire question of honesty, if a member of the elite like Libby can deliberately lie to a grand jury and then, via pardon, get off scot free. The question is only the more acute because of the other criminals from elite walks of life who have been pardoned by Presidents, pardons discussed in the second article, located on the jump page. With continuous pardons for the elite, won’t there come a time - - especially given all the other evidence of criminality and rule dodging which are not punished - - when, to the great detriment of the country, ordinary folk will regard almost all law as but a snare and delusion and as something to be evaded whenever beneficial and possible? It seems to me that this is a far more important question than whether Bush will have more or less political support depending on whether he does or does not grant Libby a pardon.

Maybe the Times would respond to all of this by saying that the question of whether Bush will gain or lose support depending on whether he grants a pardon is important because the degree of his support may determine what he can do in Iraq and on immigration, or may help determine Republicans’ chances in the 2008 elections, and so forth. Well, if this would be the Times response, suffice to say that no word of it is breathed in its two articles. This, of course, casts doubt on whether any such response, were it put forth, could be anything other than an after the fact rationale designed to try to cover up for a news judgment that no serious person can respect.

(After the foregoing was written, I read a three column article by Peter Baker in the Washington Post National Weekly Edition on the pardon question. My understanding is that articles in the NWE have previously appeared in the Post itself -- is this wrong, or sometimes wrong?) The article was as bad as the Times’ piece. In a way it was even worse, since it took pains to quote or cite obnoxious hack Republicans, including the GOP's presidential aspirants, who said they would pardon Libby. There was not a breath, not a whisper, regarding central substantive questions. Thus our two leading newspapers.)

It is perhaps more than a bit ironic and interesting that on June 8th, the very next day after the two Times’ articles on pardons, a Times' columnist, Paul Krugman, took the news media to task for its frivolous, jejeune attitude towards what constitutes news and its failure to bring up major points. I can't say whether all of Krugman's specifics are right, though memory says his specifics about the year 2000 are correct, but his general point seems to me quite correct.

Without getting into the details of his charges, which you can read for yourself online, Krugman lambasted the media for focusing on a trivial mistake by Huckabee (about Ronald Reagan’s birthday) during the recent debate among Republican Presidential candidates, instead of focusing on a huge mistake by Romney about how we got into the Iraq war. Krugman compared this to the media focusing on the fact that Al Gore rolled his eyes at George Bush's major lies in their October 3, 2000 debate instead of focusing on Bush's major misstatements. Krugman also decried the media’s failure during the recent debate among Democratic presidential candidates to call Hillary Clinton to task for her failure of specifics regarding her proposed health plan. He decried as well the media's focus on the horse race and theatrical criticism aspects of the Democratic debate, as if the debate “were a high school popularity contest." Near the end of the piece Krugman said that, as shown by the last 6 1/2 years, “it matters who becomes president -- and that listening to what candidates say about substantive issues offers a much better way to judge potential presidents than superficial characteristics. Mr. Bush's tax lies [in the 2000 debate], not his surface amiability, were the true guide to how he would govern.”

Amen. The media's news judgment is awful, with its focus on frippery and horse race questions instead of on central substantive questions vital to our country. The media itself, however (and, one must therefore assume, the journalism schools that teach our news people their craft), does not recognize that it uses terrible news judgment, evades or ignores the central question(s), and conceivably may even be too ignorant or even too stupid to even understand what the central questions are. Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that the New York Times columnist who, it is said here, did focus on a central point, Paul Krugman, is not in reality a newsman, but a trained economist who moonlights as a regular op-ed columnist. As said before here, it might be far better, even if deeply paradoxical, if more of the writing and broadcasting for our mass media were done by people who are not professional news people, but have other day jobs entirely, be they trained economists, trained lawyers, professors, trained members of the military, or what have you. Such people seem to be interested in substantive central points, whereas professional news people are interested only in fluff and exercise their news judgment accordingly.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

The Current Intersection

June 4, 2007

Re: The Current Intersection.

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

To say that the country is at a crossroads implies, one thinks, a serious possibility of going in either of two directions. Cynicism born of history therefore precludes one from making this statement now, because it counsels that this nation rarely chooses the path of the good -- certainly not for the long-term or for the long haul. If one wants the most “outstanding” example of this (using outstanding in its most perverse sense), perhaps it lies in how brief was the impulse to raise the status of the freedmen during and after the Civil War. By 1876 the impulse was dead, having fallen victim to Southern night riders, extensive Southern terrorism that killed thousands, the monomaniacal focus on obtaining enormous wealth in the gilded age, and the fantastic, even unbelievable corruption of legislatures -- unbelievable even by today’s corrupt, lax standards -- that lasted for somewhere around 30 to 40 years. So the impulse died, not to be revived for 85 or 90 years.

Yet, although history makes it difficult or impossible to believe in a true crossroads, perhaps we can still say that there is now an intersection, or at least an approaching intersection. It is an intersection which arises in significant part because of the vast changes in historical research and writing since approximately 1960.

For many decades after the writing of history became a serious occupation -- at first a private one for gentlemen of wealth and leisure, not a profession with extensive but far from exclusive roots in the academy -- American history was largely of the triumphalist type. And this was, of course, a triumphalist nation-- in part (but only in part) because of the written history.

But the civil rights revolution, Viet Nam and the feminist movement changed all of that. They gave rise to a serious reevaluation of American history, to a consideration not only of its good parts but, for one of the first times, its bad parts too. Instead of triumphalist history, or at least instead of triumphalist history only, there has been a vast outpouring of intensively researched writing on the evils -- the word is deliberate -- on the evils caused by or harbored in our approximately 220 years of history.

Today, the war in Iraq has brought us to an intersection of these two strains of American history. The Bush conservatives, the heirs of Reagan, the right wingers believe in the triumphalist version. Their version, let it be recognized immediately, is not merely a matter of foreign affairs, where they think America should control the world, by force when necessary, especially because we have the greater word of God and are the chosen of the earth anointed to successfully bring better principles and ways of life to the heathen in their billions. Their version also extends to the domestic arena; it includes extensive laissez faire and, accordingly, non-regulation of evil; permitting vast, ever increasing discrepancies of wealth; lack of medical care for scores of millions; deprivation of education due to inadequate schools, cost, and/or elitism; focus on abortion as a substitute to divert masses; and, of course, other matters too. Last weekend, in a TV discussion of a new book he has written, the estimable Paul Krugman said he thought the views of the right wing trace back beyond Reagan, who often receives the “credit” for them and whom Krugman (like me) thinks was not good, if one may put it that way. Krugman feels the views of the right wingers trace back to their reaction to, their horror at, the New Deal. With respect, I think they trace back much further. Even if one confines oneself to the United States alone, the right wing’s economic and social views can be traced back at least as far as Alexander Hamilton, with his plan and desire, in the assumption of debt matter, to screw over the common soldiers of the Revolution in favor of enabling speculators to amass great wealth.

On the other side of American life is the liberal philosophy -- today called progressivism because liberals lost the courage to call themselves liberals and sought to hide behind the noun “progressive.” This too has a long pedigree even if one confines the inquiry to the U.S.: it goes back perhaps to Jefferson and Jackson, and certainly to the Greenbackers, populists and progressives of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. (Maybe it even goes back to the “mechanicks” of the 1760s and early 1770s, who played so prominent a role in shaking us loose from Britain.) In an effort to make life better for a larger number of people, some of today's liberals would greatly extend the degree of governmental regulation to a point that is perhaps far beyond Rooseveltian-Trumanesque-Kennedy/Johnson days. Others of us have deep concerns over the extent of this -- but perhaps no good alternative yet -- because of effusively, repeatedly demonstrated government incompetency over the decades (not just the last six years). Regardless of such differences, however, the liberal wing of America does seem united in feeling that America cannot act the hegemon, cannot impose its views all over the world by force or otherwise, and must work with other countries (or we will increasingly face a whole world arrayed against us); that the increasing discrepancies in wealth, medical care and education are intolerable; and so forth. This societal and economic point of view has been given a new and powerful impetus by the delinquencies of the Bush Administration, an impetus augmented by books documenting these delinquencies and/or comparing modern America to prior, fallen empires like those of Rome and Britain.

Thus the dichotomous intersection -- the possible impending clash of dichotomous views that would be a crossroads if history did not make one cynical about the possibility of there being, in the long haul, a true crossroads.

Not knowing how matters will turn out, this writer feels that perhaps only two things can be said with relative certainty. One is the personal view that, if the right-wing wins permanent dominance, the country is for practical purposes finished. As Lee said when discussing the inevitable situation if Grant were to cross the James and Lee’s army were to be besieged, if this were to happen it will be only a question of time. The other thing to be said is a reiteration of a point that has been made here for years, a point that I thought would be regarded as bizarre when it was first being made, but that many seem now to accept because it is known that the Bush Administration took us into a disastrous war via distortions and lies. The point in mind is that honesty is the most compelling and necessary of virtues. And, I would add, true honesty requires maximum analysis short of paralysis by analysis. Without honesty there can be no competence because, as any general can tell you -- and as was shown by Viet Nam and Iraq -- competent policies cannot be built on the basis of false information and false analysis. Without honesty there ultimately will be disaster. The present Administration, like the Johnson and Nixon administrations before it, has shown this unimpeachably in one sense of the word, but very impeachably in another. And, needless to say, the level of talk that passes for general political discourse and/or campaign statements by politicians generally, is as inadequate in honesty and analysis as are the statements of the Bush Administration.*

*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to comment on the post, on the general topic of the post, or on the comments of others, you can, if you wish, post your comment on my website, All comments, of course, represent the views of their writers, not the views of Lawrence R. Velvel or of the Massachusetts School of Law. If you wish your comment to remain private, you can email me at

VelvelOnNationalAffairs is now available as a podcast. To subscribe please visit, and click on the link on the top left corner of the page. The podcasts can also be found on iTunes or at