Saturday, November 30, 2013

Life as a Contact Sport

Reflections of an old scold: Holiday shopping and eating call up thoughts about styles of day-to-day living as a key to human happiness.

Two days before Thanksgiving, I had a harrowing time in a large supermarket that normally provides a satisfying experience of leisurely food shopping for the son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren I live with now, bringing home their favorite foods as an expression of love.

This time was different, as if zombies with carts had invaded the place, racing full steam ahead to knock over anyone in their paths, in glassy-eyed competition for everything on the shelves, a preview of what they would be doing elsewhere for bigger game on Black Friday.

Couple this with memories of holidays past, watching different eating styles, those who happily take whatever is put on their plates in contrast to others piling up food as if universal famine were the menu for the next day.

Why and how does so much anxiety pervade days that call for reflection, calm and appreciation of goodness in the precarious lives of human beings? What makes them sour what should be the sweetness of life?

Outside of Norman Rockwell scenes in American homes, the dramas go on in the nation’s capital, with the same divergence of hope and doom about the embattled effort to keep more people alive and well in the future.

If there is a national dystopia, it comes somewhere from our hearts and minds, not family tables or checkout counters. If we can’t bring back those Rockwell days, we can at least try to remember them as we stuff ourselves with too much food and electronic junk on days that should bring out the best in us all.

President 2016: What Are the Odds?

Never mind the talking heads, consider the opinions of people who put money where their mouths are. If you consult leading bookies, Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie will vie for the Presidency three years from now, and the winner will be...Mrs. Clinton.

Those who believe the former First Lady will reoccupy the White House after 2016 can bet on her against odds of only 2-1. Her leading Republican opponent Christie is posted at 10-1.

Life imitates horse-racing as a new CNN poll shows Christie leading the GOP pack among voters with 24 percent after his New Jersey landslide, ahead of Rand Paul (13), Paul Ryan (11), Ted Cruz (10) and Marco Rubio (9).

On the bookie tote board, Rubio is 12-l with Paul, Ryan and Jeb Bush 20-1 and Cruz trailing at 33-1.

As for Democrats who might challenge Clinton, they offer Elizabeth Warren (25-1), Joe Biden (33-1) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (40-1).

At this point, all this is at the fun-and-games stage, but the real-life dynamic is building toward a turbulent 2016.

A new CNN poll on reality, not what-ifs, shows less than a quarter of the public saying the economy is improving, while nearly four in ten see it as getting worse.

If Barack Obama and the GOP Congressional naysayers fail to get it together in the next three years, could a third-party candidate emerge? The bookies will be keeping out a watchful eye.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Obamas' Pie in the Sky

Whatever the First Family was grateful for this Thanksgiving, they did it in high American style with nine kinds of pie—-huckleberry, pecan, chocolate cream, sweet potato, peach, apple, pumpkin, banana cream and coconut cream.

Not exactly in line with the First Lady’s healthful low-calorie crusade, but a day of indulgence in hard times is understandable, literally and figuratively.  

In their holiday interview with Barbara Walters, Barack and Michelle Obama were serving political pie in the sky as well.

“I've gone up and down pretty much consistently throughout," the President said about his poll standing. "But the good thing about when you're down is that usually you got nowhere to go but up...

"I continue to believe and absolutely convinced that at the end of the day, people are going to look back at the work we've done to make sure that in this country, you don't go bankrupt when you get sick, that families have that security. That is going be a legacy I am extraordinarily proud of."

The First Lady echoed him: "You're going to have people who don't like what you do, but you better have your own vision, and you better have your own will and your own passion and determination. Know that life requires work and sacrifice and sometimes it's painful, but there is a lot of joy and there is a lot of hope and possibility."

The day after the holiday, the Obamas visited a group of fasters on the National Mall to pressure Congress to act on the immigration pending on Capitol Hill.

From feast to famine, the couple who live in the White House is undoubtedly committed to making life better for Americans in every way possible.

“Americans,” he says, “deep down, care about each other and want to do the right thing. And we're going make sure that we do everything we can to help folks who are out there working hard, trying to make it."

Michelle Obama agrees, noting that her husband has “a level of patience and focus and tenacity and calm that just doesn't come by anyone. I definitely don't.”

On the day after, the First Couple may be serving pie in the sky, but these days, most Americans could use a second helping.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

It's Broke and Nobody is Fixing It

In a Thanksgiving eve news dump, the White House delivers more bad news about Obamacare and, at this rate, is poised to fill Christmas health-care stockings with lumps of coal.

The Administration slips in a one-year delay for small businesses to go online to buy insurance for their employees through the new federal marketplace website, another blow to smooth implementation of the ACA.

Companies with fewer than 50 employees were to begin selecting coverage through the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP), an online exchange this month. With the delay, they will have to find coverage through an agent or broker.

In addition, to avoid a Black Friday on the website, officials urge users to go easy on “the still-fragile” lest it collapse under a post-holiday crush of new customers.

This is not what success looks like. More and more, Obamacare seems broke and nobody is fixing it.

The outlook is so grim that it reduces a sane observer to quoting Eric Cantor without mockery.

“Once again,” says the House Majority Leader, “President Obama has unilaterally delayed another major portion of Obamacare, and once again, he has tried to bury bad news around a holiday hoping nobody will notice...The president's latest one-year delay is another sign that Obamacare's issues run much deeper than a failing website.”

If that isn’t a symptom of a sick society, what is?

For die-hard optimists, the best advice is take two aspirin and try to sleep until after the New Year.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

JFK's Pioneering Pain Doctor

Lost in the flood of John F. Kennedy images last week was the physician who took him off crutches and into the ubiquitous Oval Office rocking chair.

Janet Travell kept JFK from being bed-ridden and went on to write a two-volume medical text that has relieved the pain of millions since, “Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction. The Trigger Point Manual,” to become the bible of physical therapists and masseurs.

I was a patient of hers before Kennedy and helped find a publisher for that text, receiving as a bonus along the way a sure cure for hiccups (more about that later).


 JFK was so dependent on Dr. Travell that he took her into the White House with him as the first woman ever to serve as Personal Physician to the President. Without her, he might have had to face the television age as another wheelchair-bound FDR.

He gave her a framed picture for her White House office inscribed, “For Dr. Travell—Who made the smile possible—With affectionate regards, John Kennedy.”

Years later, she mentioned to me a paper she had written on one form of trigger-point treatment-—for hiccups.

Herewith Dr. Travell’s little-known but, in my experience, absolutely effective cure:

There is a small flap at the back of the upper palate called the uvula. Pressing the end of a butter knife or spoon handle firmly against it for three seconds or more will make the spasms stop. The only problem is to keep the hiccupper calm enough to avoid gagging.

In dozens of attempts with friends and family, I found it worked every time. As a magazine editor, I ran a brief item, and scores of readers confirmed that it did.

This treatment may also stop snoring, if you have the nerve to wake someone and try.

If you do this holiday season, spare a thought for Dr. Janet Travell who did so much for JFK and the rest of us.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Lara Logan's Downfall

In the days of Mike Wallace, “60 Minutes” was anything but tame in its reporting, going after “bad guys” with shove-a-mike-in-the-face fervor. That kind of activism got Wallace sued but never fired.

Now we have Lara Logan leaving the show, along with her producer, for   a “now discredited account of an important story.”

Benghazi again. Logan, who was sexually assaulted by Egyptians in February 2011 and spent four days in the hospital, is out for the journalistic sins of featuring an “eyewitness” who wasn’t there after having herself made a speech last year taking “a strong public position arguing that the US Government was misrepresenting the threat from Al Qaeda, and urging actions that the US should take in response to the Benghazi attack.”

For Logan personally and “6o Minutes,” all this is a disaster. For journalism, in the age of Glenn Greenwald, it is another blow to aggressive but honest reporting that has been going downhill since Woodward and Bernstein at Watergate.

At the very least, Logan should have made a choice between reporting on Benghazi and being a public advocate over it. To compound it all, the so-called witness she interviewed may have come to her attention through her husband, a “onetime employee of a private intelligence outfit hired by the Pentagon to plant pro-US stories in the Iraqi media in 2005.”

All of this is much too close to home for reportorial comfort. It will take a while for “60 Minutes” to recover its credibility, and that’s a shame.

Meanwhile, Benghazi keeps claiming more victims in American society.

How Will Obamacare Work Out?

Insurance is fraud. If it weren’t, how could an industry make bets against the certainties of human life—-illness, accidents and death—-and profit so much from them?

In my thirties, I wanted to protect a wife and young children and decided that, with self-discipline, I could buy the simplest and cheapest term insurance at each stage of life, reducing it as I went along, while putting the difference in premiums into untouchable accounts to earn compound interest for my family rather than strangers.

That oversimplification, granted, leaves out much that is inescapable in human nature for most people, but the principle involved keeps recurring to me during the Obamacare crisis as Americans discover the simplicity that a single-payer system could have provided while foreclosing much of the insurer greed and dishonesty plaguing the ACA now.

Surprises about the rollout are not the glitches and evasions but the fact that it works at all at state levels in some places. Frankenstein monsters are clunky in real life.

Now heavy thinkers in the GOP are worried that Obamacare failures are only part of a profound plot intended to fail and seduce voters back into reconsidering the simpler and sanest solution in the first place.

From their lips...

Monday, November 25, 2013

A New "Wag the Dog" World

Devious is the new normal in Washington, which is replaying a movie satire with a straight face over the Iran talks.

In 1997 Hollywood made the hilarious “Wag the Dog,” about its own spin doctors trumping up a fake war to save a real President from scandal. Now the clowns in DC are redoing the script with a nuclear future at stake instead of a phony confrontation with Albania.

Everyone involved, with the possible exception of the beleaguered President, is posturing for the cameras.

The Israeli head of state is fulminating, but what else could he be expected to do? Stand by silent and tacitly approving to make Iran paranoid about the possible agreement? Chuck Schumer is dubious, but what else could a Senator from New York and Tel Aviv be?

The GOP lividly accuses President Obama of giving away the store, but where’s the news in that? Could they stand by and express watchful waiting?

Those who are sick of such old movies may want to consign them to Netflix, while a new generation of American voters opts for reality shows in DC and older ones go back to Turner Classic Movies for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and other pipe dreams of a good-at-heart America muddling through hard times.

It’s past time to put “Wag the Dog” out to the boneyard, but who will step up with a script for a less cynical, more realistic and better America than we’re seeing now?

Hold the popcorn until he shows up, perhaps as a reinvigorated Barack Obama.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The President's Peace Scare

Can Barack Obama do anything to satisfy anybody? Right and left, Washington pols denounce his “abject surrender” to Iran on a nuclear agreement while a “disappointed” Chuck Schumer distances himself from what could be a time bomb for Democrats.

Even when he takes a sensible step with safeguards toward testing Iran’s willingness for a nuclear stand-down, this President is pummeled on all sides, including Israel, for a reversible move toward defusing Middle East tensions.

In his opinion-poll bunker, Obama is politically radioactive, no matter what he says or does. Any other occupant of the White House from either party might have been given some benefit of the doubt for testing a duplicitous Iran’s intentions to make a deal. If they follow through, fine. If not, a return to crushing sanctions and even military intervention is always available.

This uproar over an Obama “peace scare” follows the notorious debut of the Affordable Care Act, both unarguably the product of good intentions now being converted from possible naivete into treasonous plots.

John Kerry, out of his depth running for President nine years ago, may be beyond his range as an elder statesman now. Selling doubtful Americans in this climate would require the rhetorical skills of a Clinton of either gender.

In s new book, New Yorker editor David Remnick quotes close Obama friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett: “He knows exactly how smart he is...I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually...Hes been bored to death his whole life. Hes just too talented to do what ordinary people do. He would never be satisfied with what ordinary people do.”

If that’s true, Barack Obama should be well beyond his boredom threshold now and ready to show that being President of the United States requires more than being the smartest person in the room.

Past time to step up.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

JFK's Second Swearing-In

Jan. 20, 1965—-As Inauguration Day dawns, the political agenda for John F. Kennedy’s second term is promising: a possible exit from Vietnam, more progress on arms control with the Soviets and, helped in Congress by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson who has ambitions to succeed him in 1968, passage of rudimentary civil rights legislation.

Kennedy’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the last election sets the stage for an ambitious agenda, particularly after the sharp turn in public opinion prompted by an aborted attempt to assassinate the President in Dallas the year before.

Veteran political observers see JFK moving with confidence to the left, both domestically and in foreign affairs, as a result of the change in national mood following the November 1963 national shock that changed political dynamics in Texas and other Southern states when would-be assassin Lee Harvey Oswald fired at the President and missed, just as he did in an attempt on the life of extreme right-wing Gen. Edwin A. Walker earlier that year.

Such an accident of fate only underscores the direction in which the Kennedy White House was moving in his first term—-toward misgivings about the domino theory in Vietnam, the American University outreach to the Russians on nuclear arms control followed by his June 1963 speech to the nation about civil rights as “a moral issue.”

In a pre-Inaugural interview, President Kennedy expressed wry fascination over an assassination attempt that went wrong only because the shooter’s cheap mail-order rifle narrowly missed its target on the first shot, allowing the motorcade to speed ahead to safety. “The fate of great nations,” JFK said, “can hinge on such trivialities, no matter how much we limited human beings believe we control events.

“Think of how different our nation and the world might be if that attempt had succeeded.”

Republicans, looking ahead to the next presidential year, are talking about finding a new Eisenhower, another moderate in his image, in their effort to retake the White House in 1968. The long-term outlook for right-wing GOP aspirants is not promising.

To regain national strength, Republicans will have to turn away from extremists like Goldwater to moderates like Gov. William Scranton of Pennsylvania who lost out to him for the nomination last year.

Certainly the GOP in the future won’t be considering retreads like the former Vice-President, who lost a 1962 gubernatorial bid in California and told the press they wouldn’t “have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

How could a major political party possibly go in that direction? 

Friday, November 22, 2013

My November 22, 1963

I woke up feeling good that Friday morning. Someone using my face had been on an eight-day swing of Minneapolis, Detroit and now Chicago, like a politician, selling a version of himself in hotel dining rooms, on morning TV and late-night radio, in offices and auditoriums, not for votes but pages of magazine advertising by making himself more affable to strangers than the equally fictitious other guys.

By nightfall I would be heading home to my real self, family, friends, life and work. To celebrate I treated myself to a barber-shop shave, savoring that prospect of release after a luncheon speech to 300 ad people in the ballroom of the Ambassador East.

Shortly after noon, food was being served when a waiter whispered into my ear, “Kennedy’s been shot.”

I followed him into the kitchen where cooks, waiters and chambermaids, many with tears in their eyes, were staring at a small black-and-white TV set, frozen in attitudes of holding cleavers, platters and mops as if the world had suddenly stopped.

President Kennedy was on his way to Parkland Hospital, badly wounded.

In the ballroom, I went up to the stage, took the microphone and said, “I’m very sorry to have to tell you that the President’s been shot in Dallas. It looks serious. I’m sure you’ll want to go where you can follow what’s happening.”

When I returned to my table, the waiter said, “I kept your lunch warm.” When I shook my head, he vanished and returned a minute later with a large goblet of brandy.

A silver-haired man in an expensive suit came up and asked, “Does this mean you’re not going to give your speech?”  I nodded and went upstairs where I could be alone to watch Walter Cronkite, in a breaking voice, say “The President is dead.

The assassination was a shock not only to my nervous system but the nation’s. The powerful, rich and famous, embodiments of what we dream for ourselves, are supposed to be safe. We are not prepared to see their skulls exploding before our eyes.

In a railroad dining car that evening, I was still in a daze, watching people eating, drinking and laughing as if nothing had happened, as if the world hadn’t changed.

Back in my Pullman bed, stretched out for a night of sleepless sleep, I felt as if I were laid out in a tomb.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Shameful American Hunger Games

In the Great Depression, when I was a child, the greatest sin imaginable was to let others go hungry when you had food, however little, to share. Whatever your religious beliefs, if any, that was the most unforgivable crime against humanity.

Now the Republican-controlled House would cut food stamps by almost $40 billion over 10 years. In the Senate, if the GOP had its way, such spending would go down by $4 billion over 10 years.

The Tea Party won’t offer America’s hungry a crust of bread to go with their rhetoric. “Let them eat cake,” said Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution (was it brioche?), but our self-appointed moral royalty will only say that programs to feed the hungry have “grown out of control.”

Outside of the White House, their protesters are marching to demand President Obama’s impeachment for refusing “to obey the will of the American people.”

When did that will morph into a willingness to let people starve? Times were hard in the Great Depression, but back then large numbers of Americans never sank so low.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Obama Is No JFK. How Could He Be?

As he sends John F. Kennedy’s daughter to be his Ambassador to Japan, our 44th President is besieged not only by today’s forces of political darkness at the low point of his tenure in office but a flood of national memories to mark the violent death of her father.

Cultural changes aside, how does Barack Obama measure up to JFK in the qualities essential to lead America in times of crisis? What are the core differences between the two most intelligent men to occupy the White House in the modern era?

In Kennedy’s time, with no Internet, cable news or cell phones at the dawn of TV, political power could still largely control perception without millions of instant voices to dispute “the truth.” Now a President presides but does not prevail. If he had been faced with Fox News et al, might JFK have been second-guessed and pressured into more precipitous action during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

“Too many people want to blow up the world,” he said ruefully back then, but he did not have to cope with millions of such voices flooding 24/7 media as he resisted.

In this week of Kennedy memories, we will no doubt be reminded that Barack Obama is indeed no JFK, but how could he be?

What they share is brains and heart but from different universes—-Kennedy as the first Catholic from a world of wealth, privilege and entitlement, backed by family superwealth; Obama abandoned by an African father and elected in a still racist nation, viscerally despised by millions.

Beyond politics, there is more awareness of ambivalence and ambiguity in the White House now than in the decades between, but translating thought into action is infinitely harder in the face of widespread hatred, freely expressed. “You can’t beat brains,” JFK would say. Obama might respond, “Yes you can.”

While he faced knots of haters in life, Kennedy’s assassination united Americans in near-universal grief. Looking back decades later, iconic anchorman Walter Cronkite recalled how he had to rein in his emotions on November 22, 1963, his face now crumpling into tears. “Anchormen don’t cry,” he said.

Tom Wicker, one of the best journalists of that time, covered Kennedy in the White House and wrote after the assassination that he “is certain to take his place in American lore as one of those sure-sell heroes out of whose face or words or monuments a souvenir dealer can turn a steady buck,” which he termed “a curious fate for the vitality and intensity, the wry and derisive style of the man.”

In 1993, Wicker wrote again: “The overall record of his Presidency, though in many ways admirable, hardly accounts for Kennedy’s high standing three decades—-a standing all the more unlikely because the years since his death have seen continuing assaults on his personal and political reputations...(B)etween disillusionment and legend, Americans have chosen legend—-as if to hold in memory their own sense of themselves and their country as they wished them to be, as they used to believe they were.”

Let Kennedy himself have the last word. Weeks before Dallas, as I interviewed him in the White House, the talk turned to the brutal and violent instincts of human beings that, in his words, “have been implanted in us growing out of the dust.” In controlling such impulses, John Fitzgerald Kennedy said sadly, “We have done reasonably well—-but only reasonably well.”

The Kochtopus Strikes Again

Americans for Prosperity, the voice of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, is wasting no time to target vulnerable Democrats up for re-election next year with $3.5 million of attack ads over Obamacare.

The “Kochtopus,” as described in Jane Meyer’s classic 2010 New Yorker takedown, is always at the ready to pick up its anti-Obama campaign with aims of “drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry.” Translation: anything that that will sell more Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups and Stainmaster carpets at a higher profit without environment laws or bothersome trade-union interference.

Now the Brothers are expressing solicitude in TV ads aimed at women over how Obamacare will damage their family’s health as they struggle, in some cases successfully, to overcome the glitches and sign on.

In this week of JFK remembrance, Kennedy’s warning in 1961 “discordant voices of extremism” seems particularly apt:

“Men who are unwilling to face up to the danger from without are convinced that the real danger comes from within. They look suspiciously at their neighbors and their leaders. They call for a 'man on horseback' because they do not trust the people. They find treason in our finest churches, in our highest court, and even in the treatment of our water. They equate the Democratic Party with the welfare state, the welfare state with socialism, and socialism with communism...

“But you and I and most Americans take a different view of our peril. We know that it comes from without, not within. It must be met by quiet preparedness, not provocative speeches...

“So let us not heed these counsels of fear and suspicion. Let us concentrate more on keeping enemy bombers and missiles away from our shores, and concentrate less on keeping neighbors away from our shelters. Let us devote more energy to organize the free and friendly nations of the world, with common trade and strategic goals, and devote less energy to organizing armed bands of civilian guerrillas that are more likely to supply local vigilantes than national vigilance.”

The Koch brothers weren’t around back then, but their father was already at work undermining American democracy as a founding member of the John Birch Society, which was rightly seen as a crackpot expression of right-wing extremism by William F. Buckley.

His heirs are carrying on the family tradition half a century later, but that’s no cause for celebration.

Life of JFK8: The Best Week of His Life

Fifty years ago last June, John F. Kennedy gave the “best speech of his life,” which led to a nuclear test ban treaty. The next night, as Alabama police were attacking protesters with water cannons and dogs, he was on TV from the Oval Office affirming the rights of African-Americans.

Two days later I was in the Cabinet Room of the White House across a table from him leading editors of seven women’s magazines with 34 million readers to ask questions about preserving peace, the only exclusive interview he had given in his presidency, JFK said, other than one with Khrushchev’s son-in-law, editor of Isvestia.

Even after the 1962 Missile Crisis, the US and Soviets were poisoning the air with nuclear testing. Kennedy was negotiating a test-ban treaty, but the Senate seemed unlikely to approve it.

As editor of Redbook, a magazine for young women, I knew readers were concerned that nuclear tests were contaminating their children’s milk and might lead to apocalyptic war. I had been running articles on the subject. Other women’s magazines were publishing little or nothing.

I had asked Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, if the President would give a joint interview to editors of women’s magazines about nuclear war and peace. Salinger did not hesitate. “Yes,” he said. “We’re starved for ways to get people to listen.”

As popular as Kennedy was, lining him up was the easy part. My colleagues, always leery of depressing topics, had to be inveigled. The bait was pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, who was opposing nuclear tests, and a Republican, James Wadsworth, Eisenhower’s Ambassador to the United Nations, who had written for me on the subject. I invited the editors of six magazines to listen to them over cocktails.

Afterward, I proposed we ask Kennedy for an interview and publish our own versions of it simultaneously.

To my amazement, they agreed, but I could not foresee that that would put me in the position of, in effect, strong-arming the President.

At our first meeting, the editors--of McCalls, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, Cosmopolitan and Parents--worried that material on survival of the human race might be too “dull” for their readers. We agreed to submit questions in advance, so we could use our time with the President to talk in human terms.

When the answers came back, I had a revolt on my hands. Kennedy’s staff had drafted 15 pages of position-paper jargon. What, my colleagues demanded, was I going to do about it?

As they sat glowering, I called the White House. Salinger was away, leaving his assistant, Andrew Hatcher, to cope with me. “We’re worried,” I told him, “by the tone of the written material. Does the President realize we want to ask questions on a more personal level? Otherwise it doesn’t make sense for us to come down.”

Hatcher, understandably taken aback, could only answer, “But any interview with the President is worthwhile.”

“Of course. But we wouldn’t want to waste his time. Can you make sure there’s no misunderstanding?“

Several days later, Salinger called. “We hear you. Come on down.” (When we were making the arrangements, one editor had asked if he could attend and then decide if the material was usable. “Tell him,” said Salinger, who had been a free—lance writer, “the President doesn’t work on speculation."

On June 14, 1963, we were in the Cabinet Room. Kennedy came in and shook hands. We settled into leather chairs around the table. Sitting opposite, I thanked him for seeing us and added, “Between the material you gave us and your speeches, we understand your basic positions. We’d like to ask questions that reflect the concerns of our readers so you can talk to them personally.”

Kennedy smiled, patting the papers in front of him. “I looked over this material. It is somewhat canned. I’ll try to make my answers as personal as possible.”

For the next hour, he did just that, talking about radiation dangers, fallout shelters, the effects on children of air raid drills, easing the arms race, and the value of individuals joining the political debate.

“There is great pressure against peaceful efforts,” he said. “There are an awful lot of powerful groups and interests and people, all very strong patriots, who believe in policies that I think could end up in disaster.” Women working for peace, he added, “are very valuable because they help balance off that pressure. Otherwise we would be very isolated in our efforts toward arms control.”

Most of his answers were, as usual, analytical and rational. But some emotion showed through. “Too many people want to blow up the world,” he said at one point.

"In Cuba, a lot of people thought we should take more drastic action. I think we did the right thing, more drastic action would have increased the possibility of nuclear exchange. The real question now is to meet conflicts year after year without having to escalate."

At one point the talk turned to the brutal and violent instincts of human beings that, in his words, “have been implanted in us growing out of the dust.”

In controlling those destructive impulses, John Fitzgerald Kennedy said sadly, “we have done reasonably well--but only reasonably well.“

The meeting ended soon afterward. The President asked how we would like the transcript. “Raw,” I said and he smiled. We posed for pictures, Kennedy showed us around the Rose Garden, and we left.

The following week we received a 31-page transcript. Then in July, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed a treaty banning nuclear tests. Salinger suggested I come down alone for another interview, and in August, I did.In the Oval Office, I was startled by Kennedy’s appearance. In June he was tanned, smooth-skinned, seemingly glowing with health. Now he still had the tan, but his face was pinched, his eyes sunken with deep lines radiating on the skin around them. The rumors of massive amounts of cortisone for Addison’s disease and dependency on amphetamines and painkillers swarmed through my mind.

In half an hour, we went through the new treaty and the campaign to have the Senate ratify it. Kennedy had given a TV speech, asking for support, because “there is no lobby for our children or our grandchildren” to avoid a nuclear exchange that could mean 300 million deaths. Was he satisfied with the response?

“There are 190 million Americans,” he said wryly, “and we got several thousand letters. Actually I think we got more mail about the new White House puppies.”

From the two sessions, each of the magazines published its own account in November. Letters of support poured into the White House. Salinger called to say the President was very pleased. Several weeks later Kennedy went to Dallas.

What would our world be like if he hadn’t?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The World Is Turning Too Colorful

Rob Ford, the Cheney sisters, Alec Baldwin, George Zimmerman...Is global warming hatching too many disposable celebrities? At this rate, we’ll soon be living in a 24/7 Daily Show.

Even CNN can’t keep up, formatting a new hour-long roundtable to precede Jon Stewart with a newly outed Anderson Cooper as host of a rotating panel to parse all the bold-faced names.

While the blogosphere declares the Obama White House going down in flames, issues are beside the point. Fix health care? Improve the economy? Stabilize the Middle East?

Much too brain-taxing. With Donald Trump and Sarah Palin disappearing in the rear-view mirror, the media assembly line for a new crop of shameless clowns is speeding up. At this rate, talk around the proverbial water coolers will take half the morning.

The future fills up with promise. Can Esquire get Rob Ford into a Santa outfit for the Christmas cover? Why doesn’t a cable net persuade Zimmerman to host a daytime show on marriage counseling? Will MSNBC put Baldwin on an anger management special?

The mind reels.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Life of JFK7: Kennedy's Many Posses

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born to a crowd, lived and died in crowds but throughout his life spent long stretches of time alone in hospital beds and sick rooms, fighting off life-threatening illnesses.

He learned along the way what the successful do, to delegate parts of himself to trusted associates, to create diverse posses of political advisers and helpers, ranging from the Irish Mafia of his family’s Boston days and his Navy crony Red Fay to the intellectually elite like historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and his ultimate alter ego Ted Sorensen.

In the White House, they would say, "When Jack is hurt, Ted bleeds," and loyalty was certainly a Sorensen trait, but there was much more. JFK called him his “intellectual blood bank.”

Sorensen stubbornly refused to confess he had ghost-written "Profiles in Courage," the Pulitzer Prize book about political courage that first brought JFK to prominence, admitting only he had helped with research and editing.

As for the famous line in the inaugural, "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country," Sorensen would only say with a smile about its origin, "Ask not."

Theodore Chaikin Sorensen provided Kennedy not only with words but with the heartland ideals that came from his own heritage as a Nebraska "Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian" born to a staunch Republican and a Feminist mother.

When they met, JFK told him, "I’m not a liberal," and he wasn't but, over the years with Sorensen's influence, grew beyond the confines of his own background of great wealth and privilege into the man the world remembers now.

Over time, I got to know and work with Ted on many projects, including Robert Kennedy's memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and became enough of a friend to be invited to his wedding reception.

He was a soft-spoken, gentle man but a fierce idealist who did not let age and infirmity slow him down. Five years ago, nearly blind, he was out campaigning for Barack Obama, in whom he saw many of Kennedy’s qualities, and he could still write a great speech line: "Don't worry about my eyesight,” he told crowds about George W. Bush. “I have more vision than the President of the United States."

Kennedy knew historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. from his Harvard days and recruited him for the White House as a scholar in residence. He could see that the Bay of Pigs invasion would be a disaster and afterward reproached himself for being too intimidated to speak up and try to stop the train wreck.

Afterward, JFK tweaked him about his failure, saying Schlesinger "wrote me a memorandum that will look pretty good when he gets around to writing his book on my administration. Only he better not publish it while I'm still alive!”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Schlesinger kept reminding the President of the lesson they had both learned and served him well during those harrowing days.

On the subject of memoirs, in 1962 when Ike's former speech writer Emmet Hughes wrote a tell-all book about his Eisenhower days, Kennedy was appalled.

According to Sorensen, Kennedy thought Hughes "had betrayed the trust of Republican officials by quoting their private conversations against them" and told his White House staff, "I hope no one around here is writing that kind of book."

No one did. Both Sorensen and Schlesinger wrote doorstop volumes about JFK’s White House tenure without a hint of gossip. Loyalty did not stop at his death.

The Kennedy White House played the press like a jukebox. Pierre Salinger, a brass-tacks former reporter and editor, courted friendly media at private lunches and dinners. He knew in detail about everyone’s deadlines.

At one of those dinners I broached the idea of a joint press conference with Kennedy for editors of the largest women’s magazines to answer questions about fallout from nuclear testing and the test-ban treaty with the Russians that would need public support for ratification by the Senate.

Salinger accepted on the spot. Lining up the magazine editors would be harder.

Next: Kennedy at his peak.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Saving Obama

For nights after the Kennedy assassination, I had fever dreams of rescuing him. So did other Americans, as psychiatrists reported.

Now 50 years later, it is Barack Obama who needs to be saved—-from his own stubborn determination to pass health care reform four years ago.

When the Congressional butchering began in 2009, the President stubbornly persisted and walked into a bear trap. Now conservative columnist Ross Douthat argues that “the complexity of Obamacare’s interlocking mandates, subsidies and regulations and the disingenuous promises that accompanied its passage were arguably design features rather than bugs—-intended to buy off, to appease, to burden-spread and cost-conceal and generally reassure everyone just long enough to get the system up and running.

“But the White House’s cleverness had inevitable limits, which is why the law keeps facing backlash in fresh places, and why the media keep getting the chance to prepare Obamacare’s obituaries.”

That may be harsh but has some truth in it. Now the President is sinking fast politically, and those of us who admire him are hard-pressed to find life preservers, even as leading allies like Nancy Pelosi talk bravely on the Sunday morning shows.

“Democrats stand tall in support of the Affordable Care Act,” the former Speaker says. “What's important about it is that the American people get served, not who gets re-elected.”

Perhaps, but the effort to right a sinking ship will be enormous. In this coming week of remembrance and reflection about the unforeseen in American history, the best hope is that, after all the Obamacare noise has subsided, those who hope for American sanity will support Barack Obama in his uphill struggle to restore it over the next three years.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Did Democrats Blow It for 2014?

Until the Obamacare nightmare, the Tea Party was headed toward oblivion at the ballot box next year. Now?

As the House passes veto-certain “Keep Your Health Care Plan Act of 2013,” 39 Democrats join the GOP to send a message that reflects their fear for 2014.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough says, "This isn't about elections. This is about making sure people have affordable health care."

In today’s Washington it’s always about elections, and even worse looms ahead. If the rollout fiasco is not fixed soon (what are the chances?), terrified Democrats could join in a bipartisan effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act entirely as unaffordable to their job survival. Even the attempt would be damaging to the effort to wrest House control from the Tea Party.

Neither would the Senate be immune. Mitch McConnell must be smiling in his sleep these nights as the iffy prospect of his reelection turns rosier with each day of Obamacare bad news.

If there was any chance that the President’s final two years would be freed from Tea Party obstruction, it is sliding away with each day.

Less than a year from now, voters who were pubescent children when Americans elected their first African-American president will go to the polls for the first time.

What kind of government will they want? How will they translate their future hopes into ballots?

The nightmare continues.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Life of JFK6: Kennedy Saves the World

I experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis twice: in real time, during a Los Angeles panic where they ran out of toilet paper and six years later, through Robert Kennedy’s eyes, editing and publishing his memoir, “Thirteen Days.”

Imagine the psychic shock of 9/11 multiplied a hundredfold. Add an imminent nuclear exchange to kill millions after only minutes of warning. Take away the Internet, cable news, cell phones and other sources of instant information.

That’s how the Cuban Missile Crisis struck Americans, almost two weeks of helpless huddling in the dark awaiting global devastation.

In a Los Angeles hotel on October 22, 1962, I saw a grim JFK on TV telling the nation the Russians had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from our borders:

“To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers.”

Then he added, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

Months later, Kennedy would tell me such an exchange could have led to untold millions of deaths, but even that night there was no doubt that all humanity was facing the possible end of the world as we knew it.

Most of our days go by in a smooth stream of subdued consciousness: family, friends, work, expected sights and sounds, the low hum of our felt lives. Once in a great while, something breaks the surface and, for that long, nothing is the same and nothing else matters.

So it was in the Crisis. Business executives were drunk at their desks before noon while supermarkets in Los Angeles were besieged by hoarding inhabitants and ran out of toilet paper. Madness was in the air.

As JFK wove through the face-off, declining military advice for a preemptive strike on Cuba (he had learned his Bay of Pigs lesson well) and offering the Soviets ways out of the confrontation, we knew little of what was going on.

During that time, I was reading a novel by a friend who had worked down the corridor in Manhattan. In that atmosphere, the bizarre world of Joe Heller’s Catch-22 seemed like pure realism.

A year later, when JFK was looking back during a White House interview, he told me, “Too many people want to blow up the world. In Cuba, a lot of people thought we should take more drastic action. I think we did the right thing, more drastic action would have increased the possibility of nuclear exchange. The real question now is to meet conflicts year after year without having to escalate."

Six years later, I relived it all through his brother’s eyes while publishing Robert Kennedy’s posthumous memoir, “Thirteen Days.” Ted Sorensen, JFK’s speech-writing alter ego who was handling the Kennedys’ literary estate, had called me about it and my company bought all rights. I oversaw publication in the magazine and around the world.

Decades later, RFK’s book could have served as a primer for George W. Bush in confronting his pseudo-nuclear crisis in Iraq. With hard evidence of missiles 90 miles from our shores, JFK rejected military advice for an air strike or invasion, lined up support from the United Nations, gave the Russians every chance to back down and, when they did, ordered there be no exultation: No hint of CIA “slam dunk,” “Mission Accomplished” or “Bring it on!”

RFK wrote that his brother "permitted no crowing" and ordered "no interview should be given, no statement made, which would claim any kind of victory.”

One of the first calls the President made was to the wife of the only American casualty, a U2 pilot who had been shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile.

At the height of the uncertainty, RFK wrote, his brother who had been reading “The Guns of August,” a book about how Europe had blundered into World War I, told him, “If anybody is around after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move.”  

Robert Kennedy foresaw “other missile crises in the future--different kinds, no doubt, and under different circumstances. But if we are going to be successful then, if we are going to preserve our own national security, we will need friends, we will need supporters, we will need countries that believe and respect us and will follow our leadership."

Those of my generation had literally faced the end of the world, and it was mostly thanks to the mind and heart of John Fitzgerald Kennedy that we survive now to tell the story.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Insurance Companies Show Their True Colors

There are no Obamacare silver linings, but a small ray of light is penetrating the black cloud behind which for-profit insurers have been furtively stealing one out of every three dollars Americans spend for health care.

As the President tries to navigate a maelstrom of criticism and confusion, the true enemies of his reform finally show their colors.

During a White House press conference on the issues, the insurance industry flack comes forward to preempt him with blame:

“Changing the rules after health plans have already met the requirements of the law could destabilize the market and result in higher premiums for consumers. Premiums have already been set for next year based on an assumption of when consumers will be transitioning to the new marketplace. If now fewer younger and healthier people choose to purchase coverage in the exchange, premiums will increase and there will be fewer choices for consumers. Additional steps must be taken to stabilize the marketplace and mitigate the adverse impact on consumers.”

The adverse impact, of course, will be on industry profits, the Holy Grail of the GOP’s bitter fight against Obamacare—-and of course their own.

What the vampires who prey on America’s poor and sick are howling about is any change in the health care muddle that might minimize their potential profit. Even without the website disaster, they would have been resisting any threat to their profits by covering the healthy and ducking out on the enfeebled.

The coming months will see a protracted struggle to penetrate all the murk and emerge with something that resembles reform. But at the very least, in all the political posturing and finger-pointing, let’s be clear on one point.

We have finally met the enemy and they are not us but United Health, Aetna, Cigna and Humana, the big four of profiteers from American life and death.

Life of JFK5: Casual Sex in the White House

He was a Feminist nightmare, sexually voracious and dismissive of women, expecting his wife to be a Stepford mute.

John F. Kennedy inherited those attitudes. His father, who sired nine, made a fortune in the stock market, from importing liquor and as a Hollywood mogul, enjoying along the way liaisons with movie stars.

On his way to the White House, JFK told my reporter, “I see many politicians’ wives who are just as vigorous as their husbands. That may be fine for them, but not for me. I spend my days with politicians, not my nights, too. I don’t want to come home and have to defend my positions all evening.”

So much for marital sharing (even Bill Clinton, with all his chasing, made Hillary a political partner), but more serious questions are: Did Kennedy’s sex life affect his performance as President and were the media back then accomplices in concealing it?

There is a case for both. Through his friend Frank Sinatra, JFK shared a woman with Mafia boss Sam Giancana and made himself vulnerable to blackmail by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, who used it as job insurance. Journalists back then knew enough to pursue that story, among others, but held back. 

Why? In hindsight, self-justifications were a mélange of passing off such behavior as a personal quirk, stuffiness of editors and reporters in disdaining “gossip” and, perhaps most of all, admiring Kennedy personally and sharing his political views. We were too easy on him and ourselves.

Even after the assassination, Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy still worked hard to quash it all. Red Fay, an unqualified crony JFK appointed Undersecretary of the Navy, served mainly as a beard for his extracurricular activities. He escorted Angie Dickenson, a movie actress he had never met, to the Inaugural Ball so the President could dance with her.

When I was publishing excerpts from faithful Fay’s colorful but unrevealing memoirs, the surviving Kennedys pressured him to remove such bits as John Jr. splashing his father in a pool and calling him “pooh-pooh head.” 

At a lunch afterward, Robert Kennedy solemnly thanked me for my cooperation in such cuts “for the sake of the children.” The myth had to be preserved at all costs.

Even now, I feel a twinge of guilt at retelling all this, but titillation is not the point. No one expects politicians to be plaster saints, but their escape or downfall over sexual exploits is so arbitrary. (In our era, Gen. Petraeus goes down, but David Vitter survives. Why?)

After all this time, the moral scorecard on John F. Kennedy is that he was a life-loving, imperfect man on his way to becoming a great President. His destiny was denied him--and us--by the most immoral act of all.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Life of JFK4: A Dazzling White House

The first months of the Kennedy presidency were a media feast. The White House had a young family with movie-star looks and a flair for publicity: children and pets, a President who quipped his way through TV press conferences, a First Lady with continental taste in fashion, food and decor. After eight years of Ike’s garbled syntax and Mamie Eisenhower’s plastered bangs, the country was star-struck.

The Kennedy dazzle made editors immune to mistakes. There was a black-and-white photograph by Richard Avedon of Caroline Kennedy joyously jumping out of her father’s lap toward the camera. I put it on the cover. The Circulation Department warned it would “die” on the newsstands among all the four—color competition. In theory, they were right. But the issue sold out. The First Family was circulation magic.

In the White House, the new First Lady overcame her reserved nature to become the elegant figure who would prompt her husband to say, “I’m the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to France.”

In her advice piece, Eleanor Roosevelt had warned, “You will feel you’re no longer dressing yourself—-you are dressing a public monument.” Not so with “Jackie,” as magazine covers would start calling her. She soon became a fashion icon in a way that would not be matched until decades later by Princess Di.

Even as the Kennedys were changing the rules in pop culture, politics was something else. The President’s popularity soared, but the Bay of Pigs was a fiasco.

Three months after taking office, despite misgivings about the advice of the CIA and military, he went ahead with the invasion of Cuba after being told we would be greeted as liberators (sound familiar?) and withdrew after realizing he had been misled, publicly accepting “sole responsibility” for the fiasco.

“This Administration intends to be candid about its errors,” he told reporters. “As a wise man once said, ‘An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors, and we expect you to point them out when we miss them."

In private, Kennedy was more blunt: "The first advice I'm going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling their opinions on military matters were worth a damn."

Of all the Presidents I’ve seen up close, JFK was the only one to learn and grow in office—-he never made the same mistake twice. What he took away from the Bay of Pigs, he would later put to good use during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

John F. Kennedy was on a steep learning curve, and he needed to be.

Next: Sex in the White House 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Americans Can't Read

The controversy over a Washington Post column about Chris Christie confirms that, in the wake of cable TV and Internet shrieking, Americans have become illiterate.

Writing about Christie’s chances in an Iowa primary dominated by Tea Party prejudices, Richard Cohen notes, “People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York--a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts--but not all--of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”

Now Cohen, whose column is actually a liberal lament over far Right bigotry, is accused by respectable observers of being (wait for it) a “power-worshipping bigot” who is “denouncing miscegenation and race mixing” and is forced to defend himself by telling the Huffington Post, "I didn't write one line, I wrote a column...about Tea Party extremism and I was not expressing my views, I was expressing the views of what I think some people in the Tea Party held."

All this brings to mind one of Philip Roth’s novels, “The Human Stain,” a brilliant tale in which a respected professor uses the word “spooks” in class, meaning ghosts or phantoms, and is accused of a racial slur and brought down.

In Roth’s convoluted irony, the professor passing for Jewish is actually a light-skinned black man posing as white in a society that would not otherwise accept him.

But never mind literature, we are talking here about simple literacy. Are we drowning in the devaluation of words to the point where someone’s clear intention can be taken out of context and used to club him?

To make all this perfectly clear, I am white, Jewish and considered fairly liberal. Does defending Cohen make me a closet bigot?