Getting to yes on the Green Line extension

Green LineIt would be very tempting  to leap to support the Green Line extension through Somerville to Medford.  After all, anything that modernizes our nation’s oldest mass transit system is a good thing, and this particular plan was promised years ago to environmental advocates as part of the deal that brought us the Big Dig. Somerville is a hot spot right now, a booming city with significant development going on, perhaps some of it in anticipation of that Green Line extension. This long-proposed project is as appealing to me as the North-South rail connection linking North and South Stations, so logical that former Democratic Governor Mike Dukakis and former Republican Governor Bill Weld have joined forces to push for it. These are exactly the kind of infrastructure upgrade we should be advancing rather than build a velodrome for you-know-what.

But modifications will need to be made if the Green Line is indeed to be extended. The reason?  The price tag has grown to nearly $3 billion from the $953 million estimated when the economy was in recession. Cost escalation is not unusual.  The Big Dig itself, which has been a boon for drivers and for quality of life in the city, started out at a couple of billion and over time escalated to seven times that amount.  It diverted monies needed for transportation elsewhere in the state, but the up side has been worth it.

When it comes to the proposed Green Line extension, identifying a precise cost has been like trying to nail Jello to the wall. And the rapid escalation is made even more problematic by Tuesday’s report of underestimates in the cost of repairing and improving the transit lines already in operation. We now have a repair backlog of well over $7 billion. This nasty problem of expansion without adequately maintaining what we have is not new.  Twenty years ago, public policy analyst Charlie Chieppo documented it.  Former state Inspector General Greg Sullivan, now head of Pioneer, keeps beating the drum today.

Metrowest Daily News editorial page editor Rick Holmes has provided a thoughtful analysis of why the state should rethink the Green Line extension.  He reminds us we need to be sure what the transportation and environmental benefits really will be,  assess just how crucial the extension really would be to Somerville’s already booming economy, and question whether the money could be better spent meeting other transportation needs. The feds have approved $1 billion for this project, but that alone is not reason enough to plunge ahead.

Charlie Baker faced a similar dilemma with the Big Dig as Governor Bill Weld’s Administration and Finance Secretary.  He had to make the mega-project work and figure out a way to cover the wildly increased costs. It’s reassuring to think that he and his Transportation Secretary, Stephanie Pollack, are committed to transportation, environment as well as fiscal solvency. Last winter’s T melt-down makes this a defining issue for the Baker administration.  We need to dream big and stretch to achieve a 21st century vision while understanding the limits of our still 20th century funding capacity.

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Name the victims; shame the Congress

Guns GlockSlain WDBJ reporter Alison Parker’s father, Andy Parker, has become the latest grieving parent calling for gun control. We are all seduced by the notion that simply understanding the impact on real people of the failure to create meaningful universal background checks will somehow lead to a rational response by Congress. We were certain this would happen after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora,  and now the slaying of Parker and her cameraman, Adam Ward.  The challenge is to sustain the pressure on lawmakers after the klieg lights are turned off.

Connecticut did pass stiffer laws after the Newtown massacre, as did Colorado, Washington and Oregon. Several others states have also passed piecemeal restrictions. Walmart stopped selling semi-automatic rifles. So there is progress, but, to staunch significant bloodshed will require a nationwide change, not just an episodic response in the immediate emotional aftermath of a tragedy.

So here’s a simple idea.  The ABC Sunday morning program This Week with George Stephanopoulos has, for several years, concluded its broadcast with a posting of the military lives lost that week in Iraq and then Afghanistan.  Names, ages, hometowns.  A somber reading.  But the gun-fueled war in our streets and homes and on our campuses has resulted in far more deaths, more than 33,000 a year, according to the Center for Disease Control. And these are more senseless and preventable than deaths in foreign combat.

Time and again we’re presented with data showing the United States more prone to gun violence than elsewhere in the developed world. And killings here are affecting young people disproportionately. (They’re both perpetrators and victims.) One recent study indicates that American children are 65 times more likely to be killed with a gun than children and teenagers in the United Kingdom.

If at least 31 Americans are murdered with guns every day, scroll the victims’ names, ages and home towns at the end of the nightly news. The names of gun victims could be incorporated not just in news and public affairs programs, which have narrow, self-selecting audiences, but in prime time programming.  Socially conscious scripting, including in daytime soaps, helped change cultural attitudes on drunk driving and facilitated the passage of designated driver programs nationally.

In some shootings, we’re told that the cause is not the guns themselves but mental illness.  But most who say it fail to push for more mental health services, and easily available guns give mentally ill shooters the ready means to act on their sick impulses.  We’re also told that cultural violence, in video games and other media, spurs shootings.  Plenty of viewers, of course, play such games and watch such movies without going out to kill someone.  Again, it’s the perpetrators’ mental health, or lack thereof, that makes the difference. We can argue about root causes (including poverty and despair) forever, but it’s our lax gun laws that make the slaughter so easy.  This is true whether you’re talking about the deranged, gang shooters, accidental shootings or suicide.

We know that a craven Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, fearful of the National Rifle Association, is loath to take reasonable action.  Should any program that simply lists the day’s or week’s gun death toll be equally fearful of retaliation by the  NRA?  The organization claims 4.5 million members, with many millions more supporters. But if programming is good, would those members really be able to carry out a pledge to boycott a network committed enough to publish such a list?  I doubt it.

Isn’t it time to activate the tens of millions who believe that substantive background checks and meaningful standards to deny gun licenses are essential to curbing the bloodshed? Shouldn’t we sustain our efforts to lean on our Congress people?  Pressure our media?  Keep putting a face and name to the thousands of victims of gun violence?  Will ABC – or any other network for that matter – step up and at least weekly name the victims?

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Summer reading: there’s still time, pt. 2 – fiction

booksSummer reading 2015 would not be complete without Go Set a Watchman, the book that Harper Lee reportedly wrote before she published To Kill a Mockingbird.  It is told from the perspective of Atticus Finch’s daughter Scout (now Jean Louise) some 20 years after the time frame of To Kill a Mockingbird. The Guardian and other critics have dismissed it as having little aesthetic value. To the contrary, I found it an interesting complement to the idealized portrayal of Atticus Finch as a stand-up lawyer in a lonely fight against Southern racism.  The Watchman portrayal has Finch attending a meeting of the White Citizens Council, rationalizing it lamely as a way of seeing what others were up to.  Watchman still lacks sophistication in its analysis and perspective, but it goes well beyond the simple good-versus-evil formula that has enchanted young people for generations.

The Space Between Us is a compelling novel set in contemporary Bombay, by Thrity Umrigar.  The centuries old caste system may be outlawed, but the effects of rigid stratification remain.  Focusing on the relationship between a longtime housekeeper, who struggles for survival in the slums, and her employer, this book has the appeal of Upstairs, Downstairs, but is much grittier, and the families’ interactions with each other are much more predestined and ultimately tragic than the PBS saga.

Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, a saga that encapsulates British history through four generations of an English family. It is a sequel to Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I have not read, and doesn’t seem to need it. A God in Ruins is not straight-line but goes back and forth among the generations, revealing the essence of the characters slowly, while driving the story line and resulting in a satisfying read.

A similar approach is taken by William Martin in Back Bay, published way back in 1979 but recently recommended by a friend. This is the first of three books in a series in which the protagonist is Peter Fallon, a doctoral student at Harvard.  His research into a highly valuable tea set created by Paul Revere takes him into the dark corners of the lives of a wealthy old Boston family stretching from 18th century. There is crime, sex, danger, gossip, poetry, exclusive clubs, alcoholism, all making it a really good yarn.  If you like stories set in the streets and neighborhoods of your hometown, this is really fun.

Also set in Boston is Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl. Its story is supposedly prompted by the recollections of an 85-year-old elderly woman, daughter of Jewish immigrants living in the North End.  It is a classic immigrant story that lacks the depth of Diamant’s The Red Tent, but I was attracted to it because my mother-in-law lived the life Diamant describes, in the same locations, surrounded by the same characters.  In fact, my mother-in-law, Bea Barron, actually wrote an unpublished account of growing up Jewish in the North End, which could easily have provided the essence of Diamant’s lightweight fictional version. As the kids say, Bea’s story was “for real.”

Finally, Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World has been referred to as a grief memoir.  Alexander, a professor of poetry at Yale, celebrates the love of her life, who died suddenly and, shockingly, right after his 50th birthday party. Her husband,  Ficre Ghebreyesus ,  was a painter, chef and co-owner of an Eritrean restaurant. The depth of Alexander’s loss and the pain of the grieving process is heightened by the detail, color, scents, tastes and texture of their shared life together, captured by her poet’s eye. This book is a gripping reminder that great love at some point means great loss. Alexander’s memoir compels the reader to pay more attention to the details of daily life, the “little things” that add up to shared experiences and imprint rich memories in the annals of a deep relationship.

I wish you extended summer days and hours of pleasurable reading.

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Summer reading: there’s still time, pt. 1 – non-fiction

booksA late Labor Day and temporary physical disability have extended my usual orgy of summer reading, with both non-fiction and fiction  offerings to share with you. Because time is running out, I’ll keep the list short.  In the first category, the book Frank seeks to answer the question of “how did a disheveled, intellectually combative gay Jew with a thick accent become one of the most effective (and funniest) politicians of our time.”  You know who this is, of course.

Barney Frank traces his growing awareness of himself as a gay from his early teens in Bayonne, NJ through the evolution of the GLBT movement, in which he became a pivotal player and tracks his concomitant emergence as a leading political figure.  Because my journalistic career coincided with his evolution from staffer for Kevin White through his state rep activities and on to Congress, and because I had covered him and the events he writes about, I found this a fascinating read.  A tract on how to combine a liberal philosophy with strategic pragmatism, the book  reveals a level of self-awareness, shortcomings and all, not hitherto associated with a man most often described as arrogant,   impatient, rude, and hurtful, notwithstanding his intellect, humor and political skills.

My second recommendation for non-fiction is Jonathan Kozol’s book “The Theft of Memory: Losing my Father One Day at a Time.”  I knew Jonathan back when we were teenagers.  As a writer and educator, he would go on to become one of the nation’s foremost experts on race, poverty and the public school system.  His father, Harry, was a brilliant neurologist and psychiatrist whose work included involvement in the Massachusetts mental health system and serving as an expert witness in infamous cases like those of Albert De Salvo, the Boston strangler, and Patty Hearst, held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army.  I learned from the book of Harry Kozol’s long and intense role as psychiatrist to Eugene O’Neill, who actually moved to Boston for two years to be seen daily by Harry Kozol.  The Theft of Memory is a deeply personal chronicle of a relationship between father and son, each brilliant in his own field, whose understanding and love for each other seemed to strengthen even as Harry Kozol’s inevitable demise from Alzheimer’s disease neared.

Disgraced South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s speechwriter Barton Swaim gives us The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.   Sanford, you may recall, had been viewed as young Republican Presidential potential until he revealed that rather than being away hiking the Appalachian Trail as his office had announced, he was off visiting his hot Argentine mistress. The role of Sanford’s speechwriter, a transplant from academia, was anything but smooth even prior to that debacle. The “bruising workplace” at Amazon, portrayed by the NY Times, isn’t much worse than the hostile environment working for Sanford.  Swaim gives insight into how politicians use language to manipulate public attitudes, disguise their own hypocrisies, and displace their private neuroses in the public arena.  While illuminating, Swaim’s experiences would be much more amusing if what he recounts were not so typical  across parties and at all levels of government.

Final non-fiction recommendation: noted French political journalist Anne Sinclair’s My Grandfather’s Gallery, a memoir of her grandfather Paul Rosenberg. For half a century, he was Europe’s preeminent art dealer; his collection was confiscated by the Nazis. Rosenberg had been the original collector of the works of Picasso and a leading promoter of Matisse, Braque, Léger, Modigliani Courbet, Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir and Toulouse Lautrec. Discovering a cache of family papers, Sinclair ably researches Rosenberg’s efforts to preserve his collection and his flight from occupied France to Spain, Portugal and from there to New York. At one point, Rosenberg’s occupied gallery on the Rue Boetie housed the Gestapo’s Institute on Jewish and Ethno Racial Questions. Sinclair’s story of Rosenberg is mesmerizing.

As for that “temporary disability” I mentioned at the beginning, for more than a month I have been on crutches, with my left leg in a boot due to a torn tendon. The top fiction I’ve read while being immobilized will be in tomorrow’s blog.

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Kerry Havana speech: clear-eyed, optimistic

Havana embassyFriday morning, a glorious day in Havana with the sun sparkling on the water along the Malecon sea wall, marked an historic event for the United States and Cuba. After 54 years of enmity,  the U.S. Interests Section (for half a century under the auspices of Switzerland) was once again the American Embassy.  The three marines who had taken down the American flag when diplomatic relations were severed in January 1961, but promised to return, participated in the ceremony  to raise the flag once again.  It was, as Secretary of State John Kerry said, a “day for pushing aside old barriers to explore new opportunities.”

Kerry’s speech was optimistic but clear-eyed. Focusing on  events of last half century rather than our checkered colonial past, he didn’t sugarcoat the Cold War history. He drew an aspirational analogy to Vietnam, where we moved over time from war to normalizing relations to robust shared economic activity.  The path from here to there in Cuba won’t be certain, and he promised that the United States will remain a champion of democratic principles and reforms, including United Nations Human Rights obligations.  Kerry acknowledged that Cuba’s future is its own to shape, but he was very specific about US commitment to free elections, open communications and other conditions that allow civil society to flourish. Auspiciously, it was broadcast in accurate Spanish translation in Cuba.

It’s certain that the two countries won’t see eye to eye on everything, but it was heartening to hear Kerry speak of people starting to learn from each other (they’re only a 49-minute flight from Miami).  Congress will have the last word on lifting the Embargo that has, along with Castro’s mismanagement, kept Cuba’s economy in the 1950’s.  But the opening of the embassy will facilitate dealing with problems like aviation, migration, environment and climate.

Friday was a potential win for the United States, for Cuba and, most assuredly, for Kerry as well as Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who has been working on the ground with diplomats and academics from both countries.  As I wrote on my return from Cuba this past winter, all the good stuff won’t happen overnight.  A really positive relationship will take time and confidence-building measures, and ceremonial events like Friday’s are not an unalloyed victory but a tiny (albeit hard-won)  step in the right direction.

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Fox big winner in the debate

Fox debateThe big winner in last night’s “big boy” (top ten Republicans in polls, all male) debate was Fox News itself. While the network isn’t my default choice, the moderators, stalwart defenders of Republican orthodoxy,  and the format wrung the most out of the sometimes unruly lot and provided some illuminating moments.  Megyn Kelly, flanked by Chris Wallace and Brett Baier, shone. The questions were well prepared, hard-hitting and customized for the candidates.  There was enough give and take between and among the candidates to be lively, but the moderators never lost control.

One can only wonder how many voters were turned off by Kelly’s contretemps with Donald Trump, questioning whether his degrading misogynistic comments about women reflected a temperament ill suited to the Presidency.  Trump has called women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs,” and “disgusting animals.”  He said he doesn’t have time for political correctness.  In his post-debate tweets, he dismissed Kelly as a “bimbo,” which she most assuredly is not.  My fear is that, among the growing legion Trump supporters, this kind of language and attitude is a plus.

Sour-faced Trump served up other red meat, attacking the press and indiscriminately asserting all  “our leaders are “stupid, our politicians are stupid.”  His rants were slightly tamer than his anti-immigrant and other comments prior to the debate.  He was the center of attention throughout, and his opponents appeared, for the most part, wary of alienating his supporters.  A key Trump moment came in the first minutes of the debate when he was the only candidate to raise his hand to indicate he would not pledge not to run as a third-party candidate if he failed to get the party’s nomination.  That didn’t play well in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, the site of the 2016 Republican National  Convention, but you had to give him credit for consistency.

Another winner last night was the concept of a governor for President.  The candidates with executive experience can, in general, present more forcefully about what they have accomplished in the real world and what, therefore, one might expect of them as President.  This is especially true of Ohio Governor John Kasich, who just made the cut. He touted his expanded support for education and defended using Medicaid to increase access to health care. The most recent entrant in the race, he also served nine terms in the House of Representatives, where he chaired the House Budget Committee and was involved in defense issues.  He also has spent eight years in the private sector.  A winning Kasich comment, coming near the end of the debate, was that, while he opposes same sex marriage, he was pleased recently to attend the wedding of a gay friend and would still love his child if he or she were gay.  Kasich is a candidate who shouldn’t be dismissed. If Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush falters, Kasich would be the natural inheritor of his more moderate supporters.

Bush did generally well, though he started out a bit slowly.  His remarks were much smoother and more forceful than those during the Republican forum in New Hampshire earlier this week.  He was able to put together a solid defense of his position on immigration, which has always been a source of complaint among Republicans to his right. While his performance didn’t hit it out of the park, he certainly got to second base. Not sure if he has the emotive range to win the nomination.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie got back to presenting himself as a governor with policy positions and a concrete record in office, rather than just the fattie who presided over Bridgegate.  Florida Senator Marco Rubio is attractive and articulate but very scripted.  He also seems young and relatively inexperienced, though I’m sure many observers embrace his cautionary note that the race “shouldn’t be a resume competition” because, if that were so, Hillary Clinton, who has had the longest record in public service, would be the certain winner. I started to think of a Kasich-Rubio ticket as potentially formidable.

Texas first-term Senator Ted Cruz, a Tea Party aficionado,  and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee played to their narrow ultra-conservative constituencies, with Huckabee the better debater of the two. First-term Senator Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist and self-styled “different kind of Republican,”  took on Christie about government information gathering in general and the Patriot Act in particular. Libertarian Paul is opposed to a muscular foreign policy. It’s hard to see how he sells that to the Republican primary electorate and, in any event, didn’t present with the gravitas he might be assumed to possess.  Nor, for that matter, did Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.   Ben Carson, a retired and reportedly gifted neurosurgeon, was quiet and out of his depth on the broad range of policy issues.  He did provide one of the best lines of the evening however: “I’m the only one (on the stage) who has removed half a brain, though, if you went to Washington, you’d think someone beat me to it.”

At the earlier debate, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina surprised with her focused, poised, and pithy responses to most questions.   She repeated her oft-stated remarks that she knows more world leaders than any candidate other than  Hillary Clinton and added that she, Fiorina, has accomplished more in running a $90 billion company (which, by the way, fired her) than Clinton. Fiorina asserted that she would have done better  at making an Iran deal than President Obama did. Texas Governor Rick Perry praised her as a skilled negotiator. Fiorina could well make it to the big table at the next debate. but I shudder at the image of either Perry or her negotiating a nuclear deal.

It was a compelling  evening of politics.  Fox deserves credit for taking it on and doing it so well  this early in the process, when there are too many candidates, and most have yet to rise to the occasion. The debate audience was the highest ever for a non-sports event on basic cable, three times the audience for any previous primary debate.  It was much more entertaining than watching the Red Sox lose again.

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David Mofenson stood tall, reached down to help others

davidmofensonMost weekend mornings, a small group of men gathers at the front table of Peet’s coffee in Newton Center to gab about breaking news, politics and whatever else catches their fancy.  It’s hard to imagine the gathering without one of its regulars, former State Representative David Mofenson, who died suddenly on Sunday morning just steps away from Peet’s.  His death leaves a staggering hole in the hearts of family, friends, colleagues and others whom he had touched in his roles as an attorney, lawmaker, election commissioner, history lover, baseball aficionado, stamp collector and neighbor.

At six feet seven inches, David stood head and shoulders above most of us. But despite his physical angularity, he had no sharp elbows.  He was gentle, considerate, caring, and great fun to be with.  He loved history and was board chairman of the Spellman Stamp Museum. He was passionate about baseball,  and, as former State Rep. Phil Johnston recalled, “He was my chairman and a good friend, and he knew more about baseball than anyone else I’ve ever met. ”  My husband and I were his guests at the sixth game of the 2007 ALCS series against Cleveland, as exciting a Red Sox game as I have ever been to.  David relished it, despite his extreme discomfort with the small size of the seat and no place to put his long legs.

Always a defender of the underdog, David always thought that Red Sox Vern “Junior” Stephens, one of the top hitting shortstops in baseball history, should be in the Hall of Fame.  He thought Stephens’ career was simply overshadowed by that of Ted Williams and that to ignore him wasn’t fair.  At the time of David’s death, he was writing a book about Stephens.

David represented Newton in the legislature from 1971 to 1981.  He was the first politician featured in the first issue of The Newton Times (which I had just joined as a reporter) in September of ’71.  He was one of the first legislators to speak out in favor of the concept of informational privacy.  His immediate concern was that state government was selling personal information about vehicle registration to companies marketing car-related products.  He succeeded in stopping the sale of those data and later fathered the state’s Fair Information Practices Act, giving us access to our credit reports and restricting intrusion into our other records. In that same issue, I also came across a resolution he had sponsored memorializing the Mass. congressional delegation to vote against sending military aid to the violent and repressive regime in Pakistan. His interests were all-encompassing.

His passion for the underdog probably helped to explain his steadfast commitment to social services, and he served as House Chairman of the Committee on Human Services from 1975-1981. From the dank warren of the committee offices in the basement of the State House, he helped shape policy affecting those in need of mental health, retardation, disability services and more. He led the fight against across-the-board welfare cuts pushed by Governor Mike Dukakis, who faced a huge budget deficit.

Mofenson just plugged away at issues like these, eschewing the power games and grandstanding of others in the leadership team (who enjoyed much nicer offices upstairs), making lives better for those in need.

In 1980, when Congressman Bob Drinan acquiesced to the Pope and announced he would not seek reelection to the 4th district seat, Mofenson decided to run for Congress. It was a a logical career progression.  But then-State Rep. Barney Frank saw an opportunity and moved into the district to run for the Drinan seat. The Congressman’s organization largely went with Barney. As primary day approached, Barney and David were splitting the liberal vote, making it likely that the nominee would be the more conservative Waltham mayor, Arthur Clark. Pressure was put on David to drop out. A politician more driven by ego than principle would have stayed the course or negotiated some personal benefit.  Not David. Trailing Barney in the polls, he urged voters to support Frank.

Further service to the community led him to chair the Newton Election Commission. Even  his private practice of law reflected his deeply-held values. His philosophy was “listening to each client‘s needs, providing appropriate guidance, and caring about the outcome of each matter.”  With David, those words were more than mere marketing.

Mofenson and his beloved wife, Caryn, were together for 50 years, a time that she says flew by. They had two sons, Dana and Jay, daughters-in-law and two grandchildren, babies whom he will never see grow up. David was a man of integrity, goodness, loyalty and, as the rabbi at his funeral declared, a real mensch. There is no nobler description.

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