Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two Dozen Roses

My parents were married on November 22, 1956. 

On their seventh anniversary, my father left work early to celebrate the day with my mother.  On his way home, he stopped at a florist and purchased a dozen roses.  After leaving the florist, he switched on the radio of his 1963 Ford Galaxie and shortly thereafter heard a news flash from Dallas announcing that President Kennedy had been shot and seriously wounded.  He hit the gas pedal and raced home.  Though my parents were Republicans, my mother nevertheless met my father with a tearful embrace as Walter Cronkite announced that the President had died.  My parents and my sisters sat in front of the television for much of that weekend – never leaving the house.  The flowers my father bought had been left in the passenger seat  where they withered and died over the course of the weekend.       

A thousand miles away, a dozen blood drenched roses lay on the floor of a Lincoln Continental – forgotten in the chaos of the moment.

In later years, my parents would observe their anniversary one day early, as November 22 would forever more be remembered as a day of mourning.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Dangers of Weak Government

One week ago, the world was shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Paris.  Relatively few took notice of similar attacks in Syria, Iraq, and Beirut.  Such attacks have become, sadly de-riguer in the Middle East.  But we Americans respond more readily to attacks in Europe because, frankly, they are seen as more “like us.”

Most knew, even before it was officially announced, that Islamic extremists were behind the attacks in Paris.  As the details about the terrorists began to emerge, it became clear that most had become radicalized while residents of the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, Belgium – France’s next door neighbor.  More about Belgium in a moment.

Here in America, there is constant talk of reducing the size of Local, State, and especially Federal governments – most of it coming from self-acknowledged members of the “tea party”.  Much of this is presented under the guise of efficiency and getting the most bang out of every taxpayer dollar – certainly laudable goals.  But what the tea-partiers really want is weak government, because of their 18th Century view that the best government is that which governs least – a view which, at best, must be taken with many grains of salt.  Franklin Roosevelt turned the idea on its head when he pointed out that the conservative mantra really meant “that government is best which is most indifferent to mankind”.  The tea party views government of all kinds as part of the “beast.”  Hence their phrase “starve the beast.”

Contrary to popular belief, the march toward deregulation did not begin with President Reagan, but with President Carter, who signed legislation deregulating theairline industry.  How has that worked out for airlines and airports in the United States?  One need only travel through London’sHeathrow and fly on British Airways and then compare Chicago’s O’Hare airportand service on any domestic carrier for an answer.  The deregulation of the financial sector – in particular the repeal of Glass-Steagall, constituted the primary cause of theMortgage Meltdown of 2007 and Great Recession that followed. 

But the biggest danger of weak government is not that the trains might not run on time, or even terrorism.  It is the inevitable backlash when weak government fails.  History is replete with examples of how weak, ineffective government led to disaster, and, ultimately, tyranny.  

In the 1920s, Germany’s Weimar government was so ineffective it couldn’t control the value of its currency, resulting in hyper-inflation.  I vividly recall how my piano teacher recounted how his teacher, Artur Schnabel, would only accept cash-payment after performances in Germany during this period.  If he’d accepted a check, he would have had to wait until the banks were open the next day to cash it – by which point the value his payment would be halved.  So, Schnabel took the cash and spent most of it immediately.  It was the economic situation in Germany, which made America’s Great Depression look like a country picnic, that led to the German public giving the Nazi party a ruling majority in 1933. 

More recently, following the Soviet Union’s collapse in late 1991, a power vacuum left Boris Yeltsin’s Russian government unable to enforce its own laws - resulting in a combination of oligarchs holding the real power, and a massive crime wave ranging from financial fraud, to drug trafficking, to child pornography.  And, of course, the government was unable to deal with food shortages or even provide most basic services.  Small wonder, then, that Vladimir Putin has been able to hold onto power since 1999 by promising “a dictatorship of the law”, which was seen as a balm to many Russians whose new freedoms merely constituted a lack of law & order.  While Putin is no Hitler, it’s also clear that he’s an oppressive tyrant, easily willing to “eliminate” pesky journalists and others who question his power.

Which brings us back to Molenbeek.  Reports indicate that the Belgian government knew that Molenbeek was becoming a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, but was unwilling or unable to do anything about it.  Whether by design, neglect, or intention, weak government was a contributing factor in the attacks in Paris.  While the primary cause was Islamic extremism, we should bear last week’s events in mind when we hear politicians and protesters propose the neutering of the government which is charged with, among other things, protecting us.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

My review of Horowitz in Chicago

Deutsche Grammophon has released a recording of Vladimir Horowitz's October, 1986 recital in Chicago. This was his final appearance in that city, and took place one week after I met him in
Boston. Click here to read my review.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Two Decisions

Harry Truman once said that the main job of being President is to make decisions. 
History judges Presidents primarily on the decisions they make.  Relatively few remember that President Kennedy was not spectacularly successful legislatively.  But nearly everyone knows he almost single-handedly prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis from devolving into a nuclear war; simultaneously facing down Khrushchev, his most hawkish advisors, and a nearly mutinous military.
No President in history had to make more decisions than Franklin Roosevelt.  It wasn’t merely the extraordinary length of his tenure: 12 years, one month, eight days.  It was also the nature of the times he lived in: The Great Depression; World War II.
Historical revisionists engage Monday morning quarterbacking of Presidential decisions, and FDR is hardly immune from their wrath.  One economist has claimed that Roosevelt’s jobs programs and other attempts to stimulate the collapsed economy made the Depression worse, and amounted to FDR’s Folly.  Other economists counter that FDR didn’t do enough to turn the economy around and should have been bolder – citing as their evidence the 1937-38 recession that was brought on when FDR, antsy about deficits,  throttled back on spending.  Then there was his decision to intern Japanese-Americans, which no one who grasps the concept of civil rights and Constitutional justice can defend (I will address that decision in a future post).
Today, I will address two decisions – one famous, the other well-known but seldom discussed, that saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American Servicemen – which collectively ensured the births of many of the baby-boom generation.
In August 1939 – one month before war broke out in Europe, President Roosevelt was presented with a letter from Albert Einstein, advising that German scientists were experimenting with Uranium and that such experiments could result in the creation of a bomb far more devastating than any made before.  Roosevelt, no scientist, nevertheless immediately grasped the implications of Einstein’s letter and told “Pa” Watson, his military advisor, “This requires action.”  Thus, the Manhattan project was born, the United States developed atomic weapons, making an armed invasion of Japan unnecessary, and shortening the war by months – perhaps years.  For those who would turn this decision on its head, and blame FDR for the development of nuclear weapons, I would respond by pointing out that the Germans and Soviets were working on atomic programs of their own, and without our nuclear deterrent, the U.S. may well have been cooked.  As stated in a previous post, FDR fully understood the potential power of the atomic bomb, remarking to an aide that such a bomb, if dropped in Times Square, “would lay New York low”.  FDR would certainly have used it to end the war.
Fast forward to December, 1941.  Pearl Harbor lay in ruins, with much of America’s Pacific Fleet, following a sneak attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy.  One day after “a date which will live in infamy”, the United States has formally declared war on Japan – yet still tenuously remains at peace with the two other Axis powers: Germany and Italy.  The next evening, December 9th, Roosevelt addresses the nation in a Fireside Chat (see below for an abridged version).  During his speech, Roosevelt summarizes the previous ten years of Axis military aggression – which long predated the “official” outbreak of World War II: Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchukuo; Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia; Germany’s pre-war invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia.  Roosevelt could have taken the easy way out with rhetorical home runs against the Japanese.  Instead, he spoke plainly, advising his fellow citizens that every man, woman, and child would have to contribute to “the most tremendous undertaking of our American history”, would “share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories” and that so far, “the news has been all bad”.  He sternly warned his fellow Americans that “we shall have to give up many things entirely” and that he expected them to “cheerfully help to pay a large part of its financial cost while it goes on.”
This is tough talk – of the kind I can’t imagine any politician having the guts to meter out today.  It’s the very antithesis, in fact, of George W. Bush’s approach in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, where he told American’s to “go about your business” and spend money. 
But the bravest part of Roosevelt’s speech was in the closing measures: “We expect to eliminate the danger from Japan, but it would serve us ill if we accomplished that and found that the rest of the world was dominated by Hitler and Mussolini.” 
Remember, there had been no declaration of war from Germany or Italy.  But Roosevelt was already hinting toward a Europe first policy that he would put into official action just days later when Hitler addressed the Reichstag, where he referred to President Roosevelt as “the man who is primarily responsible for this war”, whined that Roosevelt, unlike Hitler, “came from an extremely wealthy family” and concluded that “ I regard him, like his predecessor Woodrow Wilson, as mentally unsound.”  Roosevelt anticipated that Hitler would move against the U.S.  FDR could well have held his cards close, said nothing, and watched while Europe continued to fall.  Instead, he was willing to buck the enormous pressure at home demanding immediate blood revenge against Japan.  In addition to cementing an alliance with Soviet Russia, which forced Hitler to continue concentrating his Army on the Eastern Front, FDR relieved the British, and bought the scientists time to complete the Atomic bomb.
These two decisions were the most important in FDR’s time in office because hundreds of thousands of American lives were in the balance, and the decisions shortened the war by as much as two years.  Any American born since 1945 should be unceasingly grateful that FDR made the right decisions.