August 30, 2007

My years as a liberal. . . and how I got fired

SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES - Back in Philadelphia, my father was helping to found Americans for Democratic Action. At the national level, in the late 1940s he joined such people as Hubert Humphrey, Eleanor Roosevelt and Eugene McCarthy to create what would be, for many years, a loud and controversial voice of cold war liberalism. Although the message was clear enough, the practice sometimes became muddled as when my father and some others agitated to make Dwight Eisenhower the Democratic candidate for president. At the local level, however, ADA was at the center of one of the nation's most remarkable reform movements.

Philadelphia had lived for 69 years under Republican rule and the city was known as "corrupt and contented." ADA - which brought under one tent genteel white liberals, union leaders, and Jewish and black activists - proposed to end both the corruption and the contentment about it with a new city charter and new government.

Leon Shull, who would become one of the nation's most productive and long-lived lobbyists for liberal causes, was the director of the Philadelphia chapter and, with my father as chair, I soon found myself an enthusiastic envelope-stuffer. I had already entered politics having performed competently in a 6th grade debate on the 1948 presidential election, fortified for this task by having actually shaken hands with the Democratic candidate at a political dinner to which my father had taken me. And I was further armed with a comic book from the Democratic National Committee that featured a bespectacled Harry Truman in the trenches of World War I, a bespectacled Harry Truman running his haberdashery and a bespectacled Harry Truman speaking great thoughts about the future of America. I stood up against the reactionary cant of my opponent Owen Tabor with a skill that only I remember.

I found the liberal cause noble and exciting, but I was also fascinated by the different sort of people who hung around political offices. I had met hardly any blacks or labor union officials in Germantown and Chestnut Hill, they certainly didn't attend St. Martins in the Fields, but most of all I hadn't met many people with the sort of tough-talking enthusiasm one found in politics. These were people totally engaged not only with their campaigns but with life and it was this quality, rather than their ethnicity or even their politics, that truly attracted me - so different as it was from the restrained, diffident manner of the upper class Philadelphian, members of a subspecies that has been described as God's frozen people.

That these were people to be reckoned with was confirmed ten years later when my parents held a fundraiser for Hubert Humphrey. It was, of course, a son's delight to accompany his father on the 45-minute drive (and monologue) back to the airport with an actual United States senator who wanted to be President. But the most impressive moment of that evening came when Joseph Rauh, the civil rights lawyer and liberal leader for decade after decade, actually stood on one my parents' best antique chairs to make his pitch. I looked apprehensively at my mother but she only seemed proud -- "pleased as punch" Humphrey would have said and probably did -- to be there. I stared at Rauh and realized I was looking at the face of real power.

The stars of the Philadelphia ADA were Joseph Sill Clark and Richardson Dilworth. Though both were patrician in name and bearing, in Clark the quality went through to his soul. With Dilworth it stopped with his tailored suits. He was an ex-Marine with a quick temper and a towny accent, who never ducked combat or favored equivocation. After the pair had shaken the GOP regime by winning the offices of comptroller and district attorney, Dilworth got the first chance to run for mayor, with Clark succeeding him and then moving to the Senate.

Dilworth's mayoral race remains a classic. His most notable campaign technique was the street corner rally, which he developed to a degree probably unequalled since in American politics. Using the city's only Democratic string band as a warm-up act, Dilworth would mount a sound truck and tick off the sins of the Republican administration. On one occasion he parked next to the mayor's home and told his listeners: "Over there across the street is a house of prostitution and a numbers bank. And just a few doors further down this side of the street is the district police station. . . The only reason the GOP district czars permit Bernard Samuel to stay on as mayor is that he lets them do just as they please."

At first the crowds were small. But before long he was attracting hundreds at a shot with four or five appearances a night. One evening some 12,000 people jammed the streets to catch the man who would eventually become mayor.

Dilworth on another occasion got into a fist fight with a member of his audience. His wife once knocked an aggressive heckler off the platform with her handbag and, in a later campaign, his daughter picketed the office of the GOP candidate with a sign reading, "Why won't you debate the issues with my father on TV?"

The Republicans responded with sneers, rumors and allegations about Dilworth's liberalism and, in particular, his association with ADA. The GOP city chairman, William Meade, called ADA communist-infiltrated and `inside pink' where "Philadelphia members of that radical and destructive [Democratic] party have gone underground and joined the Dilworth ranks."

Dilworth's initial reaction was to call Meade a "liar" and to challenge him to a debate. Said Dilworth: "The ADA acted and struck hard against communism while Mr. Meade and his gang created by their corruption the very conditions that breed communism."

But that wasn't enough for Dilworth. To make his point, he marched into the offices of the Republican City Committee and, with press in tow, brushed past the receptionist, and barged into Meade's private office where the chairman was conversing with two city officials. Dilworth challenged Meade to name one Communist in ADA. When Meade demurred, Dilworth said Meade had accused him of treason: "If you want to debate publicly, I'll go before any organization you name. I'll go before your ward leaders. I challenge you to produce evidence of a single Communist or Communist sympathizer in ADA. I say this as one who fought for his country in the Marine Corps. That's more than you did, Mr. Meade."

"Maybe I wasn't physically fit," replied Meade.

Dilworth continued the confrontation a few minutes longer and then stormed out. The red-baiting subsided and the central issue once more became corruption. Dilworth won and as I read the big black headlines, I thought it was my victory too.

SAM SMITH, 1993 - I have recently been officially fired as a liberal, ignominiously stripped of my rank as an executive vice president of Americans for Democratic Action, keeper of the holy grail of liberalism.

When I first heard that this was going to happen -- shortly before entering the hospital for surgery -- I was stunned. For all other executive vice presidents the only apparent grounds for termination had been death. Did the leadership of ADA know something that I didn't?

No, it was just that ADA had decided to end years of populist insurgency in its ranks, simulating the Democratic Leadership Council's successful efforts at quashing dissent within the Democratic Party. I and a number of other board members who had failed to hew to the party line were to be purged. Liberalism would once again be safe from the winds of change. Included in our number was a former national treasurer, the present chair of the Chicago chapter, and the former chair of Youth for Democratic Action.

About a year and a half ago we had formed a progressive caucus within ADA. The paleoliberals in the leadership took kindly to neither the idea nor the irony of the name. To be sure, we were not openly accused of political incorrectitude. At first we weren't accused of anything. Later -- and only after the fact, when Washington's City Paper got wind of the purge -- we were charged with being "disruptive troublemakers." I was personally accused of acting like both John the Baptist and Svengali, a truly remarkable blend of virtues and vices. In fact, our troublemaking had consisted largely of writing letters and introducing resolutions the ADA leadership didn't like. Apparently in ADA, dissent is considered a political dirty trick.

I was initially quite aggravated at the development but then it occurred to me that being a certified ex-liberal had a certain appeal. I fantasized about being called before the House UnMainstream Activities Committee to testify on how cells of heavily armed liberals had undermined the first six months of the Clinton administration, how gays were planning a mass assault on the Morman Tabernacle, or about next season's secret line up of TV series aimed at perverting family values. I could only fantasize, however, because the truth is that liberals these days don't do much at all. Contrary to Rush Limbaugh's allegations, liberalism in the past decade or so has been marked by its ineffectiveness. Certainly this had been true of ADA, -the leading multi-issue liberal organization in the country. ADA's most notable achievements had been its annual rating of Congress and its Christmastide toy safety survey. Now even the toy survey is gone.

To some of us in the organization, ADA's ineffectiveness seemed unfortunate and unnecessary. We naively assumed that the group would be open to new ideas and strategic approaches. Nothing proved further than the truth. Even when an alternative drug policy was twice approved by a national convention over the almost apoplectic opposition of ADA's leadership, the matter was simply filed away so that no one outside the organization would ever hear about it. As the Texas politician said, I don't mind losing when I lose, but I hate losing when I win.

The ADA establishment - some which goes back to the organization's founding in the late 1940s -- is as adept at internal judo as it is lethargic in political action. Thus an extraordinary amount of effort is spent on maintaining political correctness within the group while the nation drifts undisputed towards the right. Some of the organization's leaders bring to mind Charles Hodge, who taught at Princeton Seminary in the early 19th century. Hodge boasted that in his fifty years of teaching he had never broached a new or original idea.
To be sure, as in a bad movie, occasional cameo scenes bring things back to life. For example, ADA helped to sink the Bork nomination and has been working hard on single-payer health insurance. Many of ADA's other positions are admirable, although one often admires them somewhat in the sense that one admires a restored Studebaker.

ADA seems largely unaware of the depth of the growing revulsion against an overexpensive, overauthoritarian and overcentralized government. It ignores such major new ideological influences as the Green movement It feels threatened whenever anyone suggests a modification of the standard liberal canon. Most of all, it no longer fulfills its former role as a political catalyst. Not only is no one afraid of ADA today; many haven't even heard of it, or will tell you that "I thought that died years ago."

But the organization has other priorities. What it seems to want, above all, is to retain its status as the official voice of liberals in Washington, even if this status has some of the limited elan, say, of being an alleged Russian count in Manhattan. To challenge liberal orthodoxy would risk losing caste with its orthodox liberal allies in Congress and losing funding from its orthodox labor backers. In fact, ADA is even afraid of challenging the Clinton administration. It implicitly perceives that it can not regain its former political stature without risking its social position. It is better to leave things alone. Thus this once vibrant organization rests on the political landscape, as Disraeli once said of the opposition bench, like a range of exhausted volcanoes.

August 29, 2007


 [50 years ago this summer, your editor covered his first story in Washington. Throughout the year, the Review will offer excerpts from "Multitudes: The Unauthorized Memoirs of Sam Smith," the full version of which is available on our site]

SAM SMITH, 2002 - A new prostate cancer study confirms what many have learned on their own: the disease is one of the better crap shoots going. Your editor has some interest in this matter since come December it will be ten years since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I had surgery the following spring.
I was not totally unprepared, thanks to having worked with Julius Hobson, one of the country's most underrated civil rights leaders. Between 1960 and 1964, Julius Hobson ran more than 80 picket lines on approximately 120 retail stores in downtown DC, resulting in employment for some 5,000 blacks. In 1967, Julius Hobson won, after a long and very lonely court battle that left him deeply in debt, a suit that outlawed the existing rigid school track system, teacher segregation, and differential distribution of books and supplies.
Hobson was also a statistician with a well honed inclination towards the rational. In the early 1970s he came down with multiple myeloma. A testimonial evening brought out 2,000 friends, enemies, and observers of Hobson including ex-student and still apostle Stokely Carmichael. Hobson was there at what he described his "wake," sitting in a lounge chair and smoking a cigar that helped quell the nausea created by the drugs he was taking. Joan Baez sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", and Stokely Carmichael quoted Nkrumah: "Revolutions are made by men who think as men of action and act as men of thought," His teacher mother, up from Alabama, ended a powerful speech with the benediction, "Go, son, go," which brought the audience to its feet.
And then Julius went home, went into remission, won a seat on the city council and lived for a number of more years. I wasn't as surprised as I might have been because I recalled, early in his disease, Julius had dispatched family members to the Library of Congress to find every article and book on the subject. Before it was over there were few people who knew as much about multiple myeloma as Julius did.
So when I was told I had prostate cancer, I went straight to my computer and began extracting - from distant sources and with unfamiliar protocols (for in the early 90s I had access only to the Internet and not the Web) - every article I could find.
I made a flow chart that listed the risks and advantages of each of the various treatments, which led me to conclude that in my case surgery was the best option. I told my doctor about the chart. He had discovered the cancer but he had also gone to the University of Virginia and a combination of medical and cultural caution led him to say, "Oh, you shouldn't have done that. I don't think even doctors should do that."
On the other hand my urologist, Nick Constantinople, studied my chart, suggested a few corrections and then asked for a copy of the revised version. He knew, as I did by that point, that it wasn't just about medicine but about the odds. And while doctors know medicine, they are not necessarily good gamblers.
Besides, a few years earlier I had already probed the limits of medical knowledge after injuring my back while weightlifting. Even after going to the physician for the Washington Capitals and with weekly visits to a sports medicine clinic, eight months later I was still spending half the day working on the floor for relief. I finally recovered thanks to the non-medical magic of an Alexander technique practitioner.
During those months I would occasionally think: so this is what it was like in the 19th century before everyone expected the doctor to have all the answers. In both my experiences, I had felt oddly in charge of my maladies. Like deciding whether to hold them or fold them.
In the end, I was happy with my choice because I didn't have to worry about some axis of evil in my body in the years to come. Of course, prostate cancer, like breast cancer, might not be such a mystery if we spent more time and money investigating possible environmental factors. But in the meanwhile, during an era when government is eliminating our right to think for ourselves, medicine at least still leaves us with a few choices, even if the odds are not in our favor. As Damon Runyon put it, "Life is six to five against."

August 28, 2007

The care and feeding of non-profit boards

Sam Smith

One of the hazards of leading a visibly active life is that someone may ask you to serve on their board. In my case, the risk has declined markedly in recent years thanks to a growing assumption that the purpose of a board of directors is to raise money and not to offer direction. Since I'm the sort of person who has a hard time even asking someone to change a ten dollar bill, there has been a lessened demand for my services.

I'm not, however, such a bad board member in the right circumstances. If the body is new, brave and slightly chaotic, I can offer a bit of gratuitous imagination, generate a few laughs and share the pragmatism of a petit bourgeois businessman, a somewhat unfamiliar skill in the non-profit world.

For example, as one of the resident Philistines on the then new DC Community Humanities Council, I developed the exclusive Bang/Buck Ratio, by which I rated, with consummate objectivity, each of the grant requests. I also provided cartoon minutes of meetings and, according to the official version of those minutes, once actually got the group to accept my solution to the perpetual issue of the proper relationship between executive director, executive committee and board:

"The item concerning budget amendments (Section IV,A) was resolved by S. Smith's 'Principle of Escalating Anxiety,' best explained as follows: 'If it doesn't make [the executive director] nervous it's probably okay to let her handle it. If it does, she goes to the executive board. If it makes them nervous it's probably a matter for full council consideration.'

See how simple these things can be?

The humanities council, happily, was new, brave and slightly chaotic. I loved our meetings, our arguments and my fellow board members. Besides, with how many groups can you go on retreat and end up playing jazz harpsichord in some West Virginia condo with a philosophy of science professor who carried around a miniature trumpet in his attache case?

I currently sit on the board of the Fund for Constitutional Government, which would be a delight even if it wasn't helping the cash flow of groups protecting scores of government whistle blowers, uncovering tons of government waste and fighting innumerable would-be censors of the Internet. This worthy organization was founded by Stewart Mott, who also, as far as I can tell, funded much of the 1960s. I was approached by the president of the board, Anne Zill, who suggested that she and Mott come over and have lunch with me. That day I may even have worn a tie and I'm sure I replaced my running shoes with loafers, but it wasn't necessary. Zill and Mott arrived at my office, each carrying a motorcycle helmet. Right away I knew we shared a paradigm.

The fund's board meetings average somewhere between four and six hours in length, shared by some of the most competently eccentric folk I have met in this fair city. Journalism grant committee meetings take almost as long over lunch at La Tomate, as one might imagine of a confabulation that includes Christopher Hitchens, myself and Hamilton Fish Number Whatever He Is from the Nation.

During board meetings we hear reports from some of the most useful people in America (our fundees) as they patiently deal with some of the most contentious people in America (their funders). At one end of the large table sits Mott, who may or may not be wearing a day-glo orange hunting vest, and the chair, Russell Hemenway, who is almost certainly wearing a suit in which each pin strip has been individually pressed. Hemenway, accustomed to the more sedate ways of the Big Apple, regards us not unlike a grandfather painfully observing his obstreperous, penultimate genetic responsibilities. You soon learn that when Russ stops glaring and stands up that the party is over and we actually have to do something.

Since my wife has been involved in a number of more well-mannered civic enterprises, I have found around the house books on board governance, the well-functioning non-profit and so forth. I get the impression that the authors don't have the slightest idea of what they are talking about. For example, I have served as president of three organizations, helped to start nine and served on the board of 15 and have never had a strategic vision even in the middle of a  dark and stormy night.

Here, on the other hand, are some of the key principles of a well-functioning board that I have discovered:

- Ideally, the organization should be new and, if not new, should at least be doing something that is new. You can easily test a group's raison d'etre by attending a board meeting and calculating how much time is spent on matters that, if you had just wandered accidentally into the room, would in no way identify the organization's reason for existence. This includes all discussions of budgets, by-law changes, and most mission statements. The only mission statement I ever liked was that of the Seattle alternative paper, Eat the State. Its mission statement declared that missions had been created by the Catholic church to subjugate the Indians and that "we oppose them."

- A good time to resign from a board is when it discovers that it doesn't have a personnel policy and decides to do something about it. Bear in mind that one of the most important American organizations of the last century was the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. It went some 40 years without bylaws or a constitution.

- In the best organizations, the relationship between the executive director and the board is relaxed, cooperative and productive. No policy directive can create this. There is also a good relationship between the organization and its volunteers, the latter being regarded as assets and not as annoyances. As non-profits strive to be more "professional," as opposed to being acts of grace, then - as Emily Dickinson wrote - "a formal feeling comes - the nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs."

- The best boards have a passion for something greater than the personal interests of anyone in the room.

- Board debates should favor philosophical, political and aesthetic matters. Detailed discussions of finances and structure should be left to committees.

- Boards should be picked in such a manner that the chosen will not bore each other. Preferably, in fact, they should inspire, entertain and enlighten other board members without the latter minding a bit.

- Don't let yourself be chosen as a token anything, unless you plan to parlay it into higher office. Being a token merely allows others to become smug at your expense.

- Retreats should be held with some frequency, ideally in surroundings more reminiscent of summer camp or a Masterpiece Theatre 19th century setting than of whatever it is you are actually meant to be doing.

- All the foregoing will fail totally if the one great principle of board governance is ignored: success is directly correlated to the quality of the food served. This does not necessarily mean expensive food so much as attention to detail and taste. For example, many a worthy cause has foundered on an inadequate selection of donuts. Others have assumed, quite wrongly, that because their cause was noble and pure, their provisions should be likewise. A board meeting is no time for nutritional proselytizing. Or for skimping. Above all, the cookies should be fresh and the mayonnaise plentiful. I have watched once  outstanding non-profits wither into obscurity for failing to observe these simple rules.

In short, the best boards are conspiracies of the creative and confederacies of the competent, filled with guerrillas of the good and Aquarian anarchists working for something far grander than themselves. And the smartest among them know that salvation lies not in the proper mission statement but in the right menu.

August 27, 2007


[50 years ago this summer, your editor covered his first story in Washington. Throughout the year, the Review will offer excerpts from "Multitudes: The Unauthorized Memoirs of Sam Smith," the full version of which is available on our site]
SAM SMITH - Your editor had been called to jury duty. On three or four occasions in the past, I have been dismissed owing to my belief in the constitutionality of a jury's right to judge both the facts and the law and in the  unconstitutionality of the drug war. The last time, the judge and I had a nice bench conversation on the former topic, he noting that he had recently taken part in a debate with Paul Butler, a black professor who has urged African-Americans to make more use of the technique. I told the judge that my problem with Butler's case was that it was based on ethnicity rather than the much stronger historical arguments. The judge had no objection to me sitting on the jury, but the US Attorney threw me off with one of his preemptory passes.
The only time I actually sat on a jury was on June 6, 1989 and that was for just 20 minutes. It was a White House demonstration case and the defendant, Jon E. Haines, was accused of assaulting a police officer. Haines was of moderate height, with rusty brown hair, a moustache and beard. He was wearing a blue-gray suit and a red and blue tie.
The first witness was a Park Police officer and the first question was would she please identify the defendant. She pointed out Haines' attorney, Mark L. Goldstone who was of moderate height, with rusty brown hair, a moustache and beard. He was wearing a blue-gray suit and a red and blue tie.
She was dismissed and a second witness, another Park Police officer, was called. Meanwhile Goldstone gave his client his legal pads and papers and told him to "act like a lawyer." Asked to identify the defendant, the officer also selected Goldstone.
We were sent to the jury room while the law in all its majesty decided what the hell to do. Which was, in the end, to drop the case.

August 23, 2007


SAM SMITH, 2004 - I woke up this morning to find in the Washington Post a map of the damage that a radiologically dirty bomb would do if it exploded at a certain location in downtown DC. The area of serious damage came within five blocks of my house.
The dividing line between a policy issue and a crisis is personal proximity and frankly I'm getting a little pissed off. While I realize that one has little control over such matters, I still feel it grossly unfair that I should die because of the arrogance, stupidity and desire to prove himself to his father of a nepotized preppie Yale frat boy in conspiracy with a megalomaniacal Israeli war criminal. Besides, such sickness is not covered by my Blue Cross.
Just to be on the safe side, however, I have written a codicil to my will in case others survive the current insanity better than I. It goes like this:
"I do hereby declare, make and publish this as the First Codicil to my Last Will and Testament.
"FIRST, being of sound mind (at least until the nerve gas attack), should I die a victim of the Bush war on whatever, I urge my heirs, assigns, and anyone else who is interested to regard George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Ariel Sharon - just for starters - as major co-conspirators in my death. Their reckless and despicable behavior placed their puerile political ambitions over simple safety and decency. They wrongly regarded the sanctity of their grandiose policies as more important than the peace of tranquility of my 'hood. Like many Washingtonians, I would have much have preferred being the citizen of a serene and happy city than of a cruel and mindless empire.
"SECOND, though I may have died at the hands of a Muslim or Muslims, I hold no anger towards their religion or culture. People who have been screwed for as long as they have sometimes do stupid things out of desperation especially when a country as big and powerful as America declares de facto war against them. And I still, somewhat naively I suppose, expect graduates of Yale to act with more maturity and sense than, say, a member of a Chicago street gang. In any case, I urge my heirs, assigns and others to continue eating at Middle Eastern restaurants, to say something friendly to a Palestinian being harassed at the airport, and to buy a hot dog from the Egyptian vendor around the corner from my office if you happen to be in the vicinity.
"THIRD, should any commentator or journalist be so brazen as to use my death as an example of why we should continue the war against Muslims or whatever, I give my heirs, assigns, and others explicit permission to call him or her a "lousy, rotten, low-down sonofabitch" and such other language as would not be permitted in court. This especially applies to Bill O'Reilly, Steve Emerson, and most of those writing op eds for the Washington Post and New York Times.
"FOURTH, I urge you to join with others to bring our land back to its senses, to end policies that are brutal and self-destructive such as our treatment of Palestine and the embargo against Iraq, and make America once again a place that is admired rather than hated.
"FIFTH, remember not to drink the beer in the refrigerator until it has been decontaminated."

August 22, 2007


SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES, 2004 - Your editor enjoyed lunch today with his wife at Jimmy T's five blocks down East Capitol Street from where George Bush and his capos were being given four more years to do damage to their country, its constitution, its culture, and its environment -- not to mention further mischief to the rest of the world. The inauguration was taking place on the opposite side of the Capitol and there were hardly any cars or people and no signs of security.
The counter at Jimmy T's was full so we sat in a booth. The TV was on but no one looked at the inauguration and the sound was turned to WASH-FM - loud enough so you couldn't hear the helicopters overhead. For as long as it takes to eat a short stack with bacon and drink a cup of coffee we could pretend everything was okay.
The other day I walked by the Capitol and found myself wondering why we weren't more paranoiac during the Cold War. When Johnson and Kennedy and Nixon were president you could still wander about the Capitol's halls and through the associated office buildings as though you were actually a part owner. Yet if Tom Ridge had been in charge of setting the alerts for that era, he would have run out of colors. We were in far more danger than we are now.
Even if one wants to argue that a dirty bomb in a backpack is more dangerous than a clean bomb sent by a rocket or that a few suicidal young Arab guys are more dangerous than divisions of well dressed Soviet troops, you still do have to argue the point and that in itself suggests that the response should be somewhat similar.
But there's little similar about it and as I walked down the hill by the Capitol it suddenly struck me that this isn't about me and you; it's about them. We are being governed by some intensely frightened people. From George Bush on down. Much of the homeland security business, in Washington at least, is to provide personal protection to important people from the consequence of the extremely bad things they are doing. We are the victims of both Al Qaeda and Il Dubya, told to give up our rights and freedoms so that the worst leaders of our entire history can go about their business without having to suffer for it. The whole city of Washington has become the armored vest of the Bush administration and Congress.

August 21, 2007


[50 years ago this summer, your editor covered his first story in Washington. Throughout the year, the Review will offer excerpts from "Multitudes: The Unauthorized Memoirs of Sam Smith," the full version of which is available on our site.]
In 1999, a six year old Cuban boy, Elian Gonzales, was found off the Florida coast in an inner tube. Conservative relatives in Florida fought for custody of the boy in a seven month standoff until the Supreme Court ruled he could go home with his father. In the meantime, he found exile in your editor's neighborhood.

SAM SMITH - Readers may recall that early in the Elian caper, your editor was asked whether he and his wife would be willing to rent their house to provide shelter for the Cuban tike and as many of his nuclear family, classmates, physicians and so forth as could squeeze in. My keen journalistic nose sniffed a possible story and besides the suggested rent intrigued me.

But I had married the virtue, good sense and neighborly consideration that I lacked and so the notion was soon deflated. I did, however, suggest to my cut-out that Elian consider Rosedale, a nearby estate owned by Youth for Understanding. There was a farm house on the land that was, I suggested, ideal for the purpose since it was probably already well wired to the Central Intelligence Agency.

In Washington, you develop a sense for such things. In individuals it is suggested by a certain vague and antiseptic charm, in organizations by a certain vague and antiseptic languor about matters of normal concern, such as public relations and fund-raising. Youth for Understanding, a well-endowed student exchange program, was started in the early 1950s during a time when the agency was being especially solicitous towards the young, co-opting the National Student Association, dragooning Europe-bound Ivy Leaguers and so forth. Among the rogue influences it presumably wished to counter was that of the Experiment in International Living, a progressive exchange program favored by students not all that interested in joining the establishment. YFU became an establishment alternative to the Experiment.

So why would your editor, of all people, propose such a locale? The story goes back 25 years to when Rosedale was owned by the Episcopal National Cathedral. It had been used as a boarding campus for wealthy southern Episcopalian girls attending the National Cathedral School. The DC riots of 1968, however, had dampened white southern enthusiasm for Washington and the Cathedral found itself with, so to speak, a very white elephant.

At the time, I was one of 300 advisory neighborhood commissioners elected for the first time in the city. Since the commissioner idea had been one of my pet projects, I took my responsibilities seriously, never more so than when word came that the National Cathedral planned to sell beautiful Rosedale to the Bulgarians for an embassy and chancery. The neighbors were beside themselves, their favorite position, and I was more than willing to join the fray.

We set about with vigor to block the Cathedral's plan. A member of the family that had formerly owned the land spoke wistfully of it having been passed to the church "in Christian trust." Terry Lenzner's father-in-law provided counsel not only on commercial, but canonical, law. For my part, as a recovering Episcopalian turned navipasqua (one who goes to church only on Christmas and Easter), I was more than happy to take on the bishop. His was, after all, a religion that included among its sins acts of supererogation -- which is to say doing more good works than the Lord demands of you -- clearly not a faith to be trusted in a planning dispute.

We finally bearded Bishop William Creighton at a crowded meeting at St. Alban's school. Noting that the bishop was seated between his treasurer, a CIA official, and the head of his foundation, another agency man, I prefaced my remarks by remarking that it looked as if the score was Caesar 2, God 1. Creighton did not flinch but when it was his turn to speak, he pulled out the stops, suggesting an anti-Eastern European tenor to the community's opposition. I'd been mau-maued by a few black militants but never by a whole Bishop of the Episcopal Church. When it was my turn, I looked Creighton right in the eye and told him what I thought of the charge, concluding that "on the whole, I have been treated better by Bulgarians than by Episcopalians."

And I wasn't the most vociferous. Still, the Cathedral held its ground until someone uncovered an ancient written agreement that the Cathedral would not act except upon consultation with the neighborhood. And so another commissioner and I wrote the bishop accusing him of "bad faith," the moral hand passed to our side and it was not long before Ambassador Popov and his embassy were gone and Youth For Understanding was making an offer, encouraged -- I did not doubt -- by the two agency men who had been at the head table, Robert Amory and Richard Drain, the latter one of the brains behind the Bay of Pigs disaster.

I considered myself a practical pol and had no objections to replacing high-rise diplomats with low-rise spooks. All we now wanted was the preservation of the plot and the historic right of residents and their dogs to wander across the grounds. The easements were eventually signed and the neighborhood enjoyed 25 years of what amounted to a private park. It was the scene of touch football games and amorous assignments and floating Frisbees.  And the dogs could run at will.

With so much happy use, it would be wrong to begrudge Elian an opportunity to enjoy it as well. But he will not come alone, he will be accompanied by men in black vans, big guns, and bland faces whom we will be paying (for reasons that remain uncertain) to protect a Cuban kid the way they protect, say, a vice president or a cabinet official. They will undoubtedly tell the neighbors that they can no longer use Rosedale as they have in the past. And the same rules will apply to dogs. The day-glo green tennis balls will thus remain unmasticated behind bushes and in crevices until the administration and the courts figure out finally what to do about Elian.

I have already apologized to one neighbor for having ever suggesting Rosedale, although it was probably far from a unique idea. As former commissioner of District 7C, however, I also strongly suggested a review by a dog-owning attorney of the relevant easements, particularly those sections relating to the rights of canines. Perhaps the park could be divided in two -- a dog walk and an Elian walk [which is what the Secret Service eventually did with the longest yellow police tape I have ever seen] In any event, it is only fair that Elian  share Rosedale with the neighbors and their dogs. No issue is so important that it justifies denying a dog's place in the sun.

August 19, 2007


SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES - In 1995, as an active member of the Green Politics Network, I joined a number of other Greens in hosting a conference of third party activists. Over a hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers, and Democratic Socialists of America. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but Green activists John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin and Tony Affigne seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go along.

We established two basic rules:

- We would only discuss issues on which we might find some agreement.

- We would reach that agreement by consensus.

We broke the body into tables of ten or so, each dealing with a different topic. All policies that were proposed were written on newsprint posters. Then participants were given three color stick-on dots with their names on them. Everyone then went up to the board and placed their dots on their favorite issues (cumulative voting style, so that all three dots could, if desired, be placed on one issue). After the vote, those with only their dots on a particular issue were allowed to move them to their second choice (a la instant run-off voting) and so forth until a clear consensus of three issues emerged. This scheme not only produced a consensus, but one that was physical and visual as well as intellectual and was fun to watch.

When the various groups produced their recommendations, they were turned over to what was known as a "fishbowl negotiation." Each small group selected a representative to negotiate for it with representatives of all the other tables. The representatives sat in a circle with those they represented behind them. Anyone could stop their representative and request a small group conference but only the representative could speak in the larger assembly. It worked remarkably well.

The small group that had the most difficulty with such techniques was comprised mainly of Marxists who had selected economics as their area of concern. We were, one suggested, guilty of what the Master had called "parliamentary cretinism," and the socialists resisted it firmly. One result, ironically, was that the weakest section of the final statement was that dealing with economics. On the other hand, the libertarians came to the organizers at one point and offered to leave the meeting so a full consensus could be maintained. We encouraged them to stick around, changing our own rules to accept several levels of consensus.

Despite the wide range of views present, despite the near total absence of Robert's Rules of Order, the final document, with full consensus, called for nothing less than a major transformation. The group unanimously agreed to support proportional representation, campaign finance reform "to provide a level playing field in elections;" initiative, referendum and recall; better ballot access; the end of corporate welfare; strong environmental policies; sexual and reproductive freedom; an end to the war on drugs and treatment of addiction as a health matter rather than as a crime; a dramatic cut in military expenditures; workplace democracy and the maximum empowerment of people in their communities "consistent with fairness, social responsibilities and human rights."

Not bad for a group ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers and Democratic Socialists of America. It shouldn't have worked at all, but because the rules we had used felt fair to those present, it did. By ignoring topics of obvious disagreement, we even surprised ourselves with the level of consensus. 

We had also discovered the possibility of a political transformation, of moving beyond left and right. We understood that these were different times -- not the thirties, not the sixties -- times that required different imaginations and different risks. We had reached out and had found that we were not alone.

Something else happened that weekend. As a gaggle of Greens gathered on my front porch for beer and pizza, I heard strange sounds. Some of those present were actually talking about running Ralph Nader for president. What had I gotten myself into? They don't even have a national organization and already they're talking about a presidential campaign.

Not too many months later, we staged another conference -- this one just for Greens -- aimed at building further support for a national association and -- at least for some -- launching a Nader presidential campaign. Halfway through the weekend, however, one of Washington's rare blizzards occurred, trapping Greens in homes around the area. I found eight phones and two lines in my house and for hours those huddled on Newark Street plotted with those similarly confined elsewhere in the metropolitan region. Everything else was closed but the Greens were open for business.

Out of this curious beginning, and within months, the skeleton of a national Green political movement was formed, eventually strong enough to wage a presidential campaign and create parties in a score of states.

By December 1996, eight months after the snow-bound conference, the Greens had actually run a presidential campaign. The first Nader campaign, hampered by the candidate's refusal to raise significant funds, had produced a low vote but nonetheless proved invaluable as an organizing tool in about a score of states. It would be dismissed in the media, but it had created the skeleton of an national organization.

Now it was time to do something about it. After a Friday night gathering at which key Greens and their friends, including Nader, Bill Greider, and Ronnie Dugger jammed my living room to toss ideas with  each other, we headed the next day for Middleburg, Virginia.

Strictly speaking, you probably shouldn't create a national Green Party in the pool house of a farm in the middle of Virginia hunt country. But a third party that spent less than a penny per vote on its presidential campaign, had no fixed address and whose candidate wouldn't even support its platform, was not about to get uptight about minor matters of ambiance. Besides, owner Elaine Broadhead had invited us.

And so, years after the European Greens had been born, some 30 state Green parties came not just to join together, not just to offer a few new policies, but to declare the old liberal-conservative dichotomy irrelevant, tautological and just plain dead.

That's a lot to do in one weekend. Yet the participants seemed neither particularly driven nor harried. A stranger might even have imagined that they had come in triumph. They clearly viewed the one percent of the national vote their candidate received not as the media had -- statistically insignificant -- but with the boundless pleasure of parents observing a new baby. They transformed the tiny, fragile specifics before them into an infinity of hope and dreams.

Further, in state after state, the Greens had gotten on the ballot by beating down arcane, dupoloistic rules that left voters to choose only between two deeply defective parties. And despite appearing on just 21 state ballots, the Greens had beaten the Libertarians, their full pocketbook notwithstanding. In some places, such as DC, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, Nader even ran ahead of Perot and in Madison, WI, he came in second.

People from thirty states, many of whom had never met previously, had come together and formed a union and a plan. They had created an important new political option for America. Yet only after it was over, did I notice something truly unusual: nobody had really run the conference. The planning committee had been so unobtrusive it was invisible, the individual sessions were moderated by a rotating squad of volunteers, and matters were discussed according to the unspoken Green rules of considerate anarchy.

It was clear in retrospect that nobody had been in charge. Yet it had happened anyway. A national Green Party had been formed.

August 16, 2007


SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES - In the 1990s, my morning walk would take me past Starbucks, where customers at sidewalk tables enjoyed the final product of the postmodern food chain. As I approached, I would pass a woman in front of the pharmacy just down the street. All her possessions were wrapped in plastic, and she spoke determinedly of things that shouldn't have been or shouldn't be. I tried saying good morning to her a few times, but she didn't see or hear me.

Beyond Starbucks was Sidwell Friends School. Long ago, members of the Society of Friends got into trouble for refusing to doff their hats to the king. But when Richard Nixon died, Sidwell Friends flew its flag at half mast.

Across the street from Sidwell was the Federal National Mortgage Association. Its low-rise colonial style offices and discreet tower were fronted by an expansive lawn. One morning I watched an 18-wheeler flatbed trailer truck pull alongside. It had brought scores of bushes from North Carolina to make the lawn even grander. Security guards with pressed tan uniforms and state trooper hats stood watchfully in the driveway as latino workers dug holes for the bushes.

Everything in Washington seemed to need security. The Vice President's house began taking on the character of a nuclear weapons plant with its double fencing, guard houses and a massive checkpoint. Soon, I thought, it might be a federal offense to tell jokes about the vice president in Washington, just like you couldn't tell jokes about bombs at an airport.

One morning, a homeless man passed me, apparently on his way from a shelter to his favorite corner, walking past the newly shrubbed lawn of an agency established to help people get mortgages so they wouldn't be homeless. As I reached the corner, another homeless man, who looked a bit like Ray Charles except that he saw everything that passed, called out a greeting. "How you doing?" I reply, "I'm hangin' in there." He shouts back, "Don't worry. You'll make your move."

I'm not surprised by the encouragement. A regular near my office to whom I had never given more than a quarter and a passing greeting approached me once in the magazine shop at the corner. "Come here," he said, "I've got something for you." He reached in his pocket and handed me the thirty cents that came out, adding, "You may need a cup of coffee." For several days thereafter, he refused any change from me, indicating that I had done my share.

I seemed to hit it off with street folk, perhaps because they sensed in me a homeless mind. Once a regular gave me a Christmas card. Another stopped to complain that Jesse Jackson had passed him without a donation.

The urban weekly, Washington City Paper, once did a cover story on me. I had been the subject of profiles before, but never one that left my mug piled on the floor of numerous stores near my Dupont Circle office for a week, leading the woman behind the counter at the Chesapeake Bagel Factory to ask belligerently, "So how do you like your fifteen minutes of fame?"

The shoeshine man yelled at me, "Hey Sam, that's great. I'm gonna read it tonight."

And the homeless guy said, "Hey man, how come they wrote that paper about you?"

"Uh, I don't know. I guess just for hanging around here a long time."

"Well it's about time they did that."


"I didn't know you was a printer."

"Well, I'm really not. I'm more like a writer."

"That's even better."

Some years later I read what Joe "Professor Seagull" Gould had said to Joseph Mitchell, his New Yorker biographer and felt as if it were me speaking: "Down among the cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats...I have always felt at home."

For awhile, there were Wednesday night meetings of a group trying to organize around local issues. It gathered at a 1300-bed shelter, the largest in the country. As I walked up to the third floor, one of the residents was sweeping the steps and another was on the loudspeaker saying that too many people had congregated in the lobby and would they take their business elsewhere. There was a grimness to this place, but also a sense of order being recreated and -- even more important -- a sense of shelter, not just from the heat and the cold and the rain, but from a city and a nation that doesn't care.

The shelter had been started by Mitch Snyder, another good person in Washington who had grown tired of trying and had taken his own life. I wrote a radio commentary about it:

|||| This spring, when homeless activist Mitch Snyder announced he was going to retreat to a monastery for awhile for reflection and renewal, I felt pulled to drop him a note thanking him for his witness, for the good it had done, for the wisdom and encouragement it had given others. In the note I quoted Emerson.

"The voyage of the best ship" said Emerson, "is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency."

I can not comprehend Mitch's last tack that ended in suicide. But the average tendency of his life has been as inspiring as any I have known. At times humbling, at times guilt-provoking, at times incredibly catalytic and at times -- yes -- aggravating, this one scruffy amalgam of love and anger, intensity and gentleness led us to care far more about what it was easier to ignore -- the homeless refugees of the puerile, avaricious American dream of the 80s.

Lately we've been falling back to easier ways. The DC city council has just ordered a cruel retreat from the decency towards the homeless we overwhelmingly supported in Initiative 17. In San Francisco, on the very day Mitch died, Mayor Agnos ordered the arrest of homeless people sleeping in public places.

What effect this had on Mitch I don't know. I do know that in his last days he was organizing a massive drive for a referendum on the council action. As he met in the shelter to discuss the referendum last week, he patiently explained to a man reciting some of the new cynicism towards the homeless that no one in that 1400-bed shelter wanted to be there. Not even Mitch Snyder.

And I do know that we talked on the phone on Monday. He told me enthusiastically of the law suit being filed against the council and of the lawyers who were working on the case and would I be one of the plaintiffs. I said, sure, and he said -- as he did so often to so many people he had pulled to the cause in that soft gentle voice -- he said: "Thank you, my friend."

But I also know that Mitch lived a life in painful proximity to modern society's cruelest results and carried a terrible trusteeship for its victims. In recent months, there were voices -- most sadly among those in power and in the media -- indicating that we no longer needed to care.

For me, Mitch -- controversial, blunt and irascible as he was on occasion -- fit the best definition of a saint, which is to say that Mitch Snyder was a sinner who kept trying harder. ||||

August 15, 2007


SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES - By the 1990s, facts had became obsolete in Washington. They were at best a filler between arguments on TV about what really mattered -- perception and image. Facts were background noise at a news conference, multi-colored jimmies on scoops of policy and just plain annoying in private conversation.

At times I felt trapped in the compound of some bizarre cult of overwrought rhetoric, infantile premises and manic mythology. There were no ideas, only a leader; no ideology, only icons; no inquiry, only arrogant certitude.

It seemed as though both local and federal Washington had been stolen. Yet, as it turned out, I was also gaining something, something I couldn't see as clearly as that which I was losing. My very isolation was forcing me to see my surroundings differently, encouraging me to discover things I might otherwise had discounted or missed entirely. A way, the Quakers promise, will open. In the midst of my anger and melancholy, I only belatedly noticed that it already had.

When I went on a radio station in Idaho Falls -- Mark Fuhrman country -- I heard the host pick out the one sentence in my book in which I spoke well of the right of jury nullification. Somehow this conservative talk show host had found that sentence and he introduced me by saying that I was a supporter of the fully informed jury movement, which had cross-ideological support but was particular popular in the libertarian west. I was meant to be on for 20 minutes but we kept talking for an hour and a half. Some debate but no hostility. I waited for the call from a right-wing crazy; it never came.

I went on Duke Skorich's show in Duluth. Duke had some tough listeners, including members of the Minnesota Militia. I was working hard but having fun, when a guy called up and said, "You know, this fellow in Washington's got a point; we've got to stop worrying about those gays and feminists and start worrying about what the corporations are doing to us."

On Larry Bensky's Pacifica show, a listener began discussing the need to set national priorities. We can't solve anything without starting at the right place. I agreed. Then the caller raised the ante: "And the right place to start is with the problem of extra-terrestrial aliens, don't you think?"

Larry looked at me as if to say, you're on your own. "Well," I responded, "My view on that we ought to treat extra-terrestrial aliens like anyone else in this country. We should welcome them as one more immigrant group that will add to the strength and character of the nation."

I was on my own; I felt free to enjoy America again, free to talk trash or truth to any citizen without having to run an ideological credit check on them first. Free to speak to them as real people rather than as the personification of paradigms. Free to discover unexpected common ground. It's the kind of politics I liked; the kind I think of as bar room politics: if you can't walk into a bar and hold your own, then you don't have it down no matter how many op-ed pieces you've written about it.

I wondered if this was how it was with the Free French, with communists and Gaulists and everything in between in temporary alliance -- fighting for the right to fight each other fairly.

In eastern, elite America it was different. I wrote another book - about repairing politics. Among the more mainstream media, only Weekend All Things Considered paid it any mind. The book received rave notices in populist and green publications and an excerpt was printed in Utne Reader along with an exceptionally kind profile by Jay Waljasper. But not only did the corporate media not mention it, it was ignored by such presumably friendly publications as the Village Voice, Nation and the Progressive.

In part, I knew I was paying the price for my reporting on Clinton. With an overwhelming majority of the Washington media still solidly on Clinton's side, it took little more than a few snide comments over lunch or some phone calls to make one persona non grata in the club they call the nation's capital but regard as their own.

Only a few times was the hostility overt. Such as the time after I had appeared on the local NPR station and when I left the studio, the conservative black host Derek McGinty turned to the station's political editor, Mark Plotkin, and said, "He's banned" and I was. I later asked Mark why I had been banned and he said he thought it was for "excessive irony."

A few friends called in and made McGinty mad by asking about my status. One caller asked why I had been banned and McGinty denied that it was because of a particular line of questioning. Said McGinty: "I can't say that he's not persona non grata, but if he is, it's not for that."

Plotkin would occasionally sneak me on the show when McGinty was on vacation but the program director, Steve Martin, accosted him one day and said, "You've been found out. Stop it."

In fact, irony is always risky in Washington. Once, I was on McGinty's show with the mayor Marion Barry who was complaining about how reporters always blamed him for all the problems of the city. "I don't blame you for all the problems," I replied "I just blame you for 23.7% of them." Marion said, "I'll take that."

Some weeks later, at a party, I told the story to a Washington suit. He listened absolutely straight faced and then asked, "How did you derive that percentage?"

Over the next two years I was dropped as a guest by another local news program. A Washington Post reporter told me casually that, yes, she guessed I was on that paper's blacklist. There was an end of invitations to C-SPAN after two appearances were canceled at the last minute, presumably by someone more powerful than the host who had invited me. My speech during the first protest over Bosnia was the only one deleted from C-SPAN's coverage of the event - even a folk singer saying that she was the "warm-up band for Sam Smith" was left in. I received a long phone call from the host of a local Pacifica talk show berating me for what I written about Clinton and I was graced with mocking suggestions by other journalists that I was a conspiracy theorist and becoming paranoiac.

It wasn't just the politics that bothered me. I had started out in broadcasting and still loved that blend of show business and telephone conversation, reflected in a note I had written a C-Span producer some years earlier:

"Thanks for having me on your program. Since then I have received 45 letters, 12 phone calls, including a 15-page cure for inflation, several remedies for other problems (mostly from those who also do not believe in page margins), three inquiries concerning the name of my automobile insurance company, an annotated listing of every point I made, one piece of hate mail and a viewer who wrote 'Shame! Shame!' for my failure to mention plebiscites."

August 13, 2007


[50 years ago this summer, your editor covered his first story in Washington. Throughout the year, the Review will offer excerpts from "Multitudes: The Unauthorized Memoirs of Sam Smith," the full version of which is available on our site]
SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES - In the 1990s, the Washington establishment simply closed down the marketplace of ideas. This involved not merely Democratic lawyer-lobbyists now pursuing openly the cynical abuse of government they had discreetly enjoyed during the Republican years. It included not merely journalists whose sycophancy towards the powerful was now promiscuously out of the closet. It also included the professional liberal establishment of Washington -- labor, feminist, and environmental leaders whose heady new access to government blinded them to how distant what they had once advocated was from what they were now willing to accept over -- or even in return for -- lunch.
For mainstream Washington, there was no longer any politics, only deals. No victories, only leveraged buyouts. No ideology; only brand loyalty. No conservative and liberal, only Coke and Pepsi.
The city's social life reflected the smog of grim, pallid process that settled in over the town. The New York Times reported that in the capital many men of power no longer even wished a social life. A former White House social secretary told the Times that her lawyer husband barely wanted to go out at all: "He whines. He says it's a school night. And if it's a seated dinner, he's dead, because he can't control the time at which you leave." It would have been one thing if these men were doing something imaginative, daring or, god forbid, useful. In fact their lives were as boiler-plate as the contracts they rushed off to revise. And the city turned gray with their souls.
I had been trained to become one of the gray souls. I attended college with them, had reported their profoundly predictable and tedious rituals, and had argued with them at cocktail and dinner parties. I had learned what caused your host and hostess to squirm and others to avoid you. I had learned that no matter how righteous your views, the evening is reserved for confirmation and not revelation. Over time, if you don't follow this rule, you find yourself not only bowling, but also dining, alone.
My own invitations to such events, never sumptuous, became even rarer over time. Among the last prototypical Washington dinner parties I attended was during one of those episodes of military excess against a country roughly one-fiftieth our size in which we killed roughly fifty times more people than is necessary to accomplish roughly two percent of our stated goal.
It was a civil evening attended by several well-known Washington journalists, two of whom entertained us at length with cliches they obviously planned to launch against a broader audience in the near future. Their point was to impress upon us the magnitude of American geo-political responsibilities in Iraq and the similar dimensions of their own minds. In such ways do Washington journalists establish their reliability. Their support of power is often not really ideological at all, but rather just another form of social climbing.
I listened quietly as long as I could and then asked gently a question: "Well, how many more civilians do you think we need to kill in order to make our point?"
The room seized up. I parried a bit and then retreated, realizing that no good was going to come of all this.
On the other hand, something interesting did. Sitting next to me was the wife of one of the killer scribes, herself a noted journalist. She had said nothing but after I asked my question, she patted my arm and whispered "Good.". This nationally known reporter was ever so gently and civilly egging me on.
When it was time to leave, the wife of the other journalist -- a guy by the name of Tim Russert -- took me aside and remarked, "I'm glad you said what you did. My husband is such a hawk and I get so tired of it."
The hostess, standing with us, added, "Did you notice how all the men supported the war and all the women opposed it?"

August 08, 2007

When Sears was nothing but usefulness

SAM SMITH, WASHINGTON POST, 1993 - Eugene Talmadge used to campaign through Georgia saying, "Y'all got only three friends in the world. You got the Lord God Almighty, you got the Sears Roebuck catalog, and you got Eugene Talmadge. And you can only vote for one of them."

Eugene Talmadge died long ago and this week Sears Roebuck announced its was ceasing publication of what was, for many decades, America's most important publication. I hope God can handle it alone.

I know it's going to be tough on me. Not only has Sears dumped its catalog, it's going to close its store on Wisconsin Avenue with rooftop parking so practical and inviting that the company has to warn away those who would use it for ancillary purposes such as automobile repairs. During World War II, the Sears on Wisconsin was where my father would start coasting as much of the way to Georgetown as possible, an exercise encouraged by gas rationing. The Indians used Wisconsin Avenue in much the same way, a "rolling road" down which they tumbled barrels of tobacco.

Like millions of other Americans, I came to believe in Sears. It was not so much quality that drew us, but consistency and utility. As recently as this fall, when my wife and I decided it was time to replace our 30-year-old gas stove, I discovered that only Sears had a model in the right color and a drip pan under the burners that prevented wok splatterings and overboiled soup from congealing in inaccessible recesses. It wasn't the prettiest stove, just the one that worked best.

When I read David Oglivie's Confessions of an Advertising Man and learned that this sophisticated Britisher bought his suits from Sears, I followed his example until my friends and relatives ridiculed me towards "at least Raleigh's for chrissake." I still went to Sears for slacks because Sears sold clothes designed for the classic American male -- a man who actually performed physical labor -- rather than for thighless pencil-necked geeks whose greatest exertion was hefting a law brief. If the store did not have my size, I could peruse the catalog and choose in the privacy of my own home between the regular and the full-fit. the tall and the big, without enduring the disdain the proportionally impaired sense upon entering a traditional menswear store.

Above all there were the tools. Even the name, Craftsman, made a weekend project seem more appealing. Further, you knew as you adjusted the nut on your Craftsman Skill saw that throughout this great land, millions of others were asking the same probing question, "Is that tight enough?" Sears was what America was meant to be all about: a place that gave you the right tools to do what you wanted.

Beginning in the 1980s, Sears found itself in trouble. The country was no longer interested in utilitarianism. It wanted style, prestige and designer labels. People found me odd when I suggested that if you couldn't find it at Sears you probably didn't need it. Over the course of the next decade Sears laid off close to 100,000 workers.

Sears, it was said, had gotten out of step with the times, although times that require the layoff of 100,000 employees because their firm has the sole attribute of being useful may be a bit out of step themselves.

The experts quoted in the papers the past few days say that our economy isn't about being useful anymore. I saw some of these experts on television. They were fashionably dressed and quite self-assured about the failings of Sears, perhaps because they understand that our new economy is much kinder to experts on Sears than it is to people who work there.

People like the red-vested man who worked the tool section as if it were his own hardware store, the woman who didn't mind telling which answering machine was really best, and the grandmother who never could quite get the optical scanner to work right

As I drive the extra half hour to the Sears at Montgomery Mall, I shall undoubtedly come to accept the omnipotence of the marketplace. But I'll be damned if I'll be grateful for it.

August 03, 2007


Sam Smith
Bill O'Reilly may be closer to the truth than usual in describing the DailyKos crowd as a hate group. After all, the mundane middle of the Democratic Party defines itself to an extraordinary degree by what it dislikes far more than what policies it supports. There is a mythology among liberals that if we just get rid of Bush, Cheney, Scooter Libby, and Bill O'Reilly everything will be fine. In fact, when you follow their advice and vote as they suggest, you find yourself stuck with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.
If you spend a lot of time talking with liberals, you find their rhetoric full of anger at certain individuals. You won't hear much talk of aingle payer healthcare or pension return or credit card usury. Putting Scooter Libby in jail is far more important.
Liberals didn't used to be like this. There was a time when - instead of just hating Dewey, Taft and Nixon - they actually accomplished things like these:
- Regulation of banks and stock brokerage firms cheating their customers
- Protection of your bank account
- Social Security
- A minimum wage
- Legal alcohol
- Right of labor to bargain with employers
- Soil Conservation Service and other early environmental programs
- National parks and monuments such as Death Valley, Blue Ridge, Everglades, Boulder Dam, Bull Run, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Mount Rushmore, Jackson Hole, Grand Teton, Cape Cod, Fire Island, and San Juan Islands just to name a few.
- Tennessee Valley Authority
- Rural electrification
- College educations for innumerable veterans
- Housing loans for innumerable veterans
- FHA housing loans
- The bulk of hospital beds in the country
- Unemployment insurance
- Small Business Administration
- National Endowment for the Arts
- Medicare
- Peace Corps
Part of the problem is that liberals have become more of a demographic than a movement, and a pretty upscale one at that. Thus the groups that Democrats used to worry about have been left on their own or to be victimized by conservatives who offer them salvation in lieu of a decent job.
It isn't that the non-elite is more religious these days, it's just that liberals used to have something to profide in the here and now to compete with the vagaries of the conservative hereafter.
The DailyKos crowd is having their annual meeting and getting fond attention from a media that clearly likes their willingness not to rock the boat and to treat politics as a semiotic rather than substantive enterprise.
For the record, however, it should be noted that many of those celebrated at this event:
- Voted for the Iraq war
- Supported the egregious No Child Left Behind law
- Have backed to the hilt the cruel and unconstitutional war on drugs, forerunner of the cruel and unconstitutional war on terror.
- Supported the Clintons who dismantled social democracy and turned the Democrats into GOP Lite.
- Backed NAFTA, the WTO and other assaults on the domestic economy.
- Have refused to support single payer healthcare.
- Have been remarkably complacent as Bush dismantled the Constitution.
In short, it's the sorriest bunch of liberals in over 70 years, which is why the corporate media is so tolerant and the conservatives can continue merrily on their way, often with the help of Democratic votes
Opposing Bush and his capos is a necessity but it is not a policy. Until liberals are willing to support something more than a minimum wage that doesn't even bring us back to where we were in 1956, they're really just one more thing standing in the way of change.

August 01, 2007


ONE OF THE HAZARDS of being a writer is that sometimes people take you literally when you're just being metaphorical. Thus it was when I led off an article in Washington's City Paper in 1987 with the following:

"Life in Washington's slow lane is under siege. The culture of the more than a half-million residents who don't subscribe to the Washingtonian, who think of game plans only on fall weekends, and who eat at the 537th best restaurant in town and honestly believe they have had a good meal is threatened by in intrusive, presumptuous, and pompous elite so insecure it must remind us every day in every way that it is in town."

Soon after the article appeared, the phone rang. It was Phyllis Richman, the food editor of the Washington Post. "Which," she demanded, "is the 537th best restaurant in town?" She apparently saw my comment as a swipe at her and her profession, especially since her own ratings stopped at 100.

I had learned not to trifle with food columnists. We had one at the DC Gazette, although she apparently never went to a restaurants, wrote interminably of the virtues of soy and bean sprouts, and once interrupted a phone conversation to say, accusingly, "Sam, you're breathing through your mouth."

I ran quickly through my most recent meals and finally, with as much casual certainty as I could muster, informed Phyllis that it was Hodge's, a small carryout on New York Avenue.

She immediately went out and reviewed it. For a rush sound-bite I hadn't done poorly on the ambiance side of the rating. Richman wrote, "Huddled between Lee's Brake Service and Kim's Auto Body Shop, Hodge's is a self-service sandwich shop with a few shiny tables outside under the green plastic awning." But the meal I had clearly underrated:

"If you're sharp you'll notice that nobody orders anything but the roast beef sandwich. And what a roast beef sandwich! A whole steamship round is being carved to order, in slices thick enough to leave some juices in them. And seeded Kaiser rolls are sliced - also to order - and quickly dipped in the pan juices ~ before they're stuffed with the beef . . .

"537th? Hmmph. Even the City Paper voted this roast beef sandwich the best in Washington, says the framed certificate on the wall. And the coffee was better than at the lunch counter in my office, even when Hodge's manager declined to charge for it because it wasn't fresh enough . . ."

Which is why, these days, when I pick a metaphorical number out of the hat, I'm a bit more cautious that I once was.