Probation convictions: business as usual?

State House MAThe whole smarmy business makes you want to take a shower, but the racketeering and conspiracy trial of former Probation Commissioner Jack O’Brien and two top aides was more than just your garden variety patronage. As the Globe’s Tom Farragher put it, it was “patronage on steroids and … criminal.”

Nepotism, cronyism, getting a job because of whom you know, those things have always gone on and probably always will.  But the three convicted took patronage to a whole new level. Their elaborate scheme involved rating job candidates based on the clout of the legislator sponsoring them, making sure the candidates were in the pool of finalists,  rigging the evaluations to justify putting them ahead of other, more qualified candidates, and falsifying documentation to “prove” they were hired according to the rules.

In return, O’Brien was treated favorably at budget time and became a center of power. The Boston Globe uncovered the details of the rigged system and presented dramatic examples of the ne’er-do-wells hired solely because they had the backing of legislative leaders. For their part, legislative leaders cemented their own powers in exchange for having done favors for members.

A generation ago, the fertile hunting ground for legislative patronage jobs was county government, but, as more functions were removed from county control, a legislator had to look elsewhere to get a pal or constituent a job. The probation department became the default employment agency. Testimony during the trial, capped by yesterday’s conviction of O’Brien and his aides, notably validates the cynicism people have about government.

But there are some troubling questions:  As raised by attorney Harvey Silverglate and his assistant Daniel Schneider in Mass. Lawyers Weekly, and pointed out by Dan Kennedy in his Media Nation blog, a real question exists as to whether the U.S. Attorney should have brought the case in the first place.  The two assert that this was federal over-reach, criminalizing some behaviors that, while constituting patronage at the state level, were not federal felonies. By hiring the unqualified and rigging the process, O’Brien et al were surely committing “fraud against the Commonwealth,”  but shouldn’t that have been dealt with at the state level?  Maybe so, but, given the state’s culture, would it have been?

The jury did a thorough and thoughtful job.  Those convicted could theoretically go to the slammer for up to 20 years, but that seems unlikely. Unsavory patronage is pervasive, and, indeed, there are more than 30 so-called unindicted co-conspirators, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo.  Now DeLeo and others are left hanging, with no day in court and perhaps never able to remove the stain from their reputations.  They may or may not deserve to do so, but there’s little opportunity to clear their names in the court of public opinion.

Of course, if the public were less apathetic, other candidates could come forward and voters could register their disgust by voting out of office any obvious miscreants in this corrupt system. Sadly,  half the members of the House and Senate are running unopposed this fall. So perhaps we have to share the blame for the condition of the political process, the questionable ethics of some who represent us, and the quality of those whom they, in turn, recommend for government jobs.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Israel’s dilemma: how much is too much

GazaPresident Obama said again today that Israel has a right to defend itself against the 1500 missiles Hamas has recently lobbed from Gaza into Israel and tunnel incursions to kill and capture Israeli citizens. But this morning he expressed concern about “the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives.” The Hamas missiles haven’t been particularly effective (mostly terrorizing rather than killing Israelis), so Hamas and pro-Palestinian activists criticize Israel’s response as not being proportional.

How can it be “proportional” if a weakened Hamas has as its main strategy the deaths of Palestinians? How else to explain the placement of its missile equipment in homes, schools and hospitals, then telling civilians not to heed Israeli warnings to leave?  Clearly, and cynically, the more bodies pile up due to Israel, the better the standing of Hamas in the world.

Indeed, the Hamas Interior Ministry has sent directives to social media to refer always to any Gaza casualties as “innocent civilians” and the retaliation against all Hamas missile attacks as Israeli aggression.   It’s only now that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is fighting on the ground (to eliminate the tunnels Hamas has built to infiltrate between Gaza and Israel) that Israeli soldiers have been dying.  So is that a good thing because that’s a move toward proportionality? The reality is that Hamas’ shooting missiles into a civilian population is a war crime, and embedding its extremists in its own highly populated civilian centers is a war crime as well.

Hamas propaganda has had an impact in France, London and elsewhere, prompting nasty but predictable anti-Israel demonstrations. The Imam of Berlin called for the annihilation of the Jews (see this chilling video clip from the Middle East Media Research Institute). Iran has faulted the leaders of  other Arab nations for remaining silent on the matter. But on Egyptian television, commentators, fed up with Hamas, said that while they would die for the cause of the Palestinians, they wouldn’t give up an eyebrow for Hamas. Some in Saudi Arabia, fearful of jihadists, are now openly supportive of Israel, and officials in Yemen, Tunisia and Turkey have been unusually subdued.

It’s unfortunate that Israel’s obduracy in building more and more settlements in the West Bank has limited its ability to use the increased economic growth of that area to persuade potential Hamas critics living in Gaza to stand up and demand the same kind of economic opportunity. The poverty rate in Gaza is twice as high as in the West Bank, according to the World Bank. 2011 and 2012 saw economic growth in the West Bank. Since then, especially now that the Palestine Authority is collaborating with Hamas, the economy has slowed.

Sadly, despite the nuanced differences in the 2014 replay of this familiar drama, there is a sense that this mini-war will wind down, perhaps within a couple of weeks or less, with a patchwork cease-fire; many of the Hamas rockets and tunnels  will be eliminated or temporarily blocked only to be resupplied and re-dug.  New peace conversations may be initiated, and eventually they will fail.

Four or five years from now, if not before, the situation will be right back where it is today. And that’s where it will stay, until all the nations in the Middle East accept Israel’s right to exist and confidence-building steps are taken locally so rational Israelis and rational Palestinians are secure enough to take risks for peace.  Increasingly I fear this is unlikely to happen. The extremists in the Palestinian territories and their enablers outside continue to exercise a veto over the peace process. And from polling data it is clear that many silent majority Palestinians have not lessened their commitment to drive Israel into the sea. These risks are real, and the United States and Europe must not let that happen.

Even if there were to be a willing and able Palestinian partner for peace who could deliver on all the outstanding issues, I have increasing doubts that a similar willing and able hand could be found in Israel. Both sides have a vested interest in the status quo, but the status quo is not sustainable. And so it goes.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

Posted in Media, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Child illegals: creating a haven, but for how long?

photo Daily Mail UK

photo Daily Mail UK

A sovereign nation must be able to control its borders. The United States cannot simply throw open the gates and let anyone come in, even children.  That said, there needs to be a humane approach to the nearly 60,000 often-unaccompanied alien children that have crossed our southern border.  Deval Patrick seems heading in a rational and humane direction toward offering temporary secure shelter on military property in the Bay State.

One can’t help being moved by the haunting faces of the youngsters who have travelled hundreds of miles, fleeing gangs and drug violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Mexicans are sent back immediately. Central Americans are held pending assessment of their individual cases, based on a 2008 law passed with bipartisan support under President George Bush.

They’ll likely end up being deported, but, while their legal cases are processed, the federal government is asking other states to share with our border states the burden of housing the children in secure facilities.  Reportedly, the Patrick administration is looking at Camp Edwards, part of the larger Cape Cod military reservation, which provided temporary housing for Hurricane Katrina victims. (An alternative is Westover Air Base in Chicopee.)He speaks of taking 400 kids for four months, though I’m not confident about the projections. The feds are supposed to foot the bill.

According to the Boston Globe, MA House minority leader Brad Jones would prefer using the space for the state’s homeless.  Can you see rounding up the homeless on the streets of Boston or Lowell and putting them in barracks on Cape Cod? State policy now favors finding permanent housing for the chronically homeless, preferably in or close to their home communities.  Camp Edwards is a short-term solution for an event-driven problem. Comparing the child evacuees to chronically homeless is not equivalent.

The Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow noted that, while these children may not be with a parent or legal guardian, they are not necessarily travelling alone.  Some may be with other relatives, neighbors, smugglers or others (including sex traffickers).  Thinking about the vulnerability of these youngsters, the horrors they’ve seen or experienced, I don’t find that distinction particularly reassuring.  This is a perfect opportunity for church, temple or mosque groups to find temporary homes for some of these children.

While the headlines today have turned to Gaza and the Ukraine, we should still help take care of those children awaiting legal processing. Congress has to fund the process for adjudicating the cases expeditiously. Then voters have to push Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Sadly, immigration reform won’t be a panacea if the American and worldwide demand for drugs continues to fuel the narcotics-related violence that’s disrupting families and driving these children from their homelands.  This is an unbelievable mess, and the failure of Washington leaders to take responsible action is shameful.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

 

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Andris Nelsons brings new electricity to Boston Symphony

musical notesWho would have thought that so much of Boston would be abuzz about the new music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra?  The arrival of director (designate until September) Andris Nelsons at the BSO’s Tanglewood Music Center (TMC), the world’s leading summer classical musical festival, in Lenox, MA this past weekend has generated enough electricity to light up the musical world and beyond.

At 35 years old, the new maestro is not much older than the TMC fellows he is teaching. And he’s a lot younger than the members of the orchestra he is leading at Tanglewood and will be directing in Symphony Hall this fall. But young and old alike, as well as donors, patrons and all who hear him, are thrilled at his talent, warmth, intelligence, good humor, energy and even humility.

Boston’s print and electronic media are clearly taken with Nelsons. I have to believe that this is not just about the excellence of the BSO’s media guru Bernadette Horgan, though she is excellent.  I really believe that the media, as much as music lovers, have caught on that this is a pivotal moment in the history of this great orchestra.  The BSO community has been wandering in the desert since the early part of maestro James Levine’s short career here, a career that ended officially in 2011 but unofficially had been truncated for several previous years by his frequent illnesses and absence. Plus, as the maestro of the Metropolitan Opera, Levine’s heart never seemed to be in Boston.

As a longtime member of the BSO’s board of overseers and regular attendee at concerts, I have experienced this all with more than passing interest.  And, while I may be influenced by that involvement, I rather think not. This is a naturally exciting time for classical music lovers. And it’s exciting for the city as well, as it hopes to return to the kind of civic engagement demonstrated by longtime Levine predecessor,  maestro Seiji Osawa, who, in his 29-year career here, became a local sports fan and took classical music to the community in the form of free concerts to the Boston Common and to Franklin Park.

Look for the excitement to continue the last week of September when Nelsons opens the symphony season.  If you want to be part of it, call Symphony Hall for tickets.  There’s probably not much chance of post-season excitement for the Red Sox, so consider the BSO as a worthy substitute.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

 

Posted in Culture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The mice will play

beach resort 2When the cat’s away, the mice will play.  In terms of congressional financing, the cat is public disclosure.  Given the do-nothing Congress’ indifference to its abysmal public image, I probably shouldn’t be shocked that the House has just quietly watered down its rules for reporting trips taken by legislators that are paid for by private groups. Since Watergate, reps have had to include those all-expense-paid travels on their annual disclosure forms.  No more.  According to The National Journal, while these junkets still have to be recorded with the House Clerk, they will now be absent from the forms that journalists and watchdog groups rely upon to track legislators’ finances.

This is all about who is influencing those whom we elect to represent us in Congress.  The Journal cites studies by Legistorm, a group that aggregates all the data on disclosure forms and press releases pertaining to the comings and goings of legislators and their aides. According to Legistorm, these junkets have hit their highest level since Congress tightened the rules when Jack Abramoff went to jail for influence peddling.  And the National Journal notes that, while lobbyists are no longer allowed to underwrite these legislative excursions,  those same individuals are closely tied to (and sometimes share office space with)  interest groups that are not barred from doing so.   And, by the way, spouses are often included on these trips.

Not all legislative travel should be dismissed as junkets, a loaded word. Some are legitimately fact-finding.  I surely prefer that our legislators and their staffs see first hand conditions abroad that warrant US support or involvement. Face to face meetings with counterparts in other parts of the world are often important building blocks when crises hit and we need avenues of back-door diplomacy. Informed use of our tax dollars are preferable to uninformed spending. Even the use of privately sponsored trips can be of value, taking decision-makers out of the Washington bubble.

But the public, especially through journalists and watchdog groups,  needs total disclosure of where our officials are getting their information, who’s paying for them to get it and whom they’re travelling with. Next time you’re with a person asking for your vote in November, ask them where they stand on travel disclosure.

I welcome your comment in the section below.

 

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Books to escape from Benghazi, Boko Haram, Boehner, biz cycle etc, pt. 2

booksFor real escape through summer reading,  there’s no substitute for fiction.  Here are a few books worth sharing.

My top read this past year was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  A 13-year-old boy in Manhattan survives a terrorist bomb in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  His mother is killed.  They had been visiting her favorite painting, a goldfinch chained to a perch, by Carel Fabritius in 1654 .  Just before the blast, Theo had fallen for a red-headed girl his age, visiting the museum with an old man. In the chaos that follows the blast, the old man reaches up to give Theo an antique ring and points in the direction of the painting. Theo, in a state of confusion and panic, steals the painting.  The book unfolds from that dramatic turning point.

Art critics note the painting was a link between Rembrandt and Vermeer. The boy is similarly arrested between polarities. He is taken in by the wealthy Park Avenue family of a classmate.  But, pursuing the mystery of the ring, Theo spends increasing amounts of time with an antique dealer in the Village. Scared and intent on hiding the priceless painting he has stolen, he moves from innocence to wiliness and back again.  As he grows up, he traverses the art world, the antique world, criminal enterprise, the crassness of Las Vegas to the byways of Dickens.  The Goldfinch is rich with art and culture, suspense and danger; Tartt “paints” beautifully, lacing her story with art history, but the novel is also action-packed. Most of the time you can’t put down this Pulitzer Prize best-seller.

Another treat this year is Someone by Alice McDermott. The story of an Irish-American household in Brooklyn, Someone is a dying Marie, looking back on six-year-old Marie as she tries to figure out the rules of life, her parents’ relationships with each other and other family members. As a teen she observes her priest brother’s struggles with his calling and his emotional turmoil, the sometimes cruel kids on the streets, the rights and wrongs for adolescents back in the day, the rights and wrongs according to the Catholic church, and all the imperatives of their daily activities and interactions. Through the (impaired) eyes of Marie, McDermott captures the sights, smells, and emotions evoked from great events of life and death, marriage and birth, illness and alcoholism, to the little daily activities of laundry flapping in the breeze, bread baking, and getting the children off to school.   Catholicism permeates the book, and its place in literature and faith has been written about by M.J. Doherty PhD of Regis College. But it’s really McDermott’s portrayal of those quotidian events, the intimacies of daily life, the lives of ordinary people that give Someone its universal appeal.

Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a gift of a book, the critically acclaimed story of Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as kids in Nigeria, go their separate ways in the U.K. and U.S. and who, finally……well, I won’t spoil it.  Racial and gender issues figure prominently against the backdrop of globalization, but their personal stories, separately and together, are always the driving theme.  A review in The Guardian notes that “Americanah is a deeply felt book, written with equal parts lyricism and erudition. More than that, it is an important book – and yet one that never lets its importance weigh down the need to tell a truly gripping human story.”

Another good read is The Luminaries, a Booker-award winner by Eleanor Catton. Set in New Zealand gold mining in 1866, the novel is about a prospector whose stay at a hotel enables him to overhear a group of characters involved in a series of assorted crimes, including murder. Each of the 12 characters is associated with a zodiac sign, not particularly fathomable to me.  The group itself is trying to sort out the story, which is often challenging.  The Luminaries reminds me both of Dickens and Conrad.  It’s not easy going, but it is compelling.

Finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is Crimes of Fashion by local reporter Jonathan Soroff.  Definitely beach reading.  Jonathan writes for The Improper Bostonian, does wonderful interviews and has an eye and ear for the personal characteristics of celebrities and social “types.”  His novel is about three  women in Manhattan who get into the fashion business by exploiting the design talent of a maid, an illegal immigrant from Central America powerless to defend herself because she fears deportation. The names of all the characters are right out of drawing room comedy.  The women are snobby, vicious,  and catty, and the book is hilarious, often laugh-out-loud funny.  One is left wondering if it would seem so funny if the story were set in Boston,  and Jonathan’s local readers were left to figure out if it were they whose foibles he is mocking.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

 

 

Posted in Culture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Books to escape from Benghazi, Boko Haram, Boehner, biz cycle etc, pt. 1

booksEvery summer I offer up some of the books I’ve read in the past year and happily invite readers’ recommendations to me.  I’m always on the prowl for a good read. This summer’s book review will be in two parts.  First, the non-fiction.

If you’re looking for light summer reading, do not try to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest, The Bully Pulpit : Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism. Not that the book isn’t both good and readable, as are all her previous ones.  Goodwin, a longtime friend, is nothing if not a consummate story teller.  It’s just that the book is heavy, as in, weighs too much.  At 900+ pages, it’s impossible to hold it stretched out and relaxing at the beach or even in bed at night.  I gave up after 50 pages, gave away the hard cover and downloaded it on my Kindle.  Relief! (My husband then had to repurchase a hard-bound copy for himself.)

Teddy Roosevelt was larger than life and Taft was, well, larger. The era was dynamic. So summer is a great time to tackle The Bully Pulpit. The issues at the turn of the last century were much as today’s, economic injustice, environmental  protection,  freeboot capitalism and regulation.  Unlike today, however, there was still a belief that government could and should effect constructive change.  For the educated classes, life seemed enormously civil.  As a former journalist, I found most interesting the close working relationship  between progressive era journalists like Sam McClure,  Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, a collaboration that wouldn’t be tolerated today.

Historian David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris takes us back to the late 19th century when living in Paris was assumed to be an important part of one’s education, especially for American writers, artists, sculptors, doctors, men and women of letters.  The Paris experience figured importantly in American history.  And, if  you love meandering the various neighborhoods in the “city of lights,”  McCullough provides the enduring essence of century-old settings that can still be found in Paris.

Speaking of Paris, I also enjoyed Kati Marton’s much lighter Paris: A Love Story, a memoir of her marriages to late ABC anchor Peter Jennings and late diplomat Richard Holbrooke.  As the book makes clear, she cheated on them both. She was foreign correspondent for ABC and authored several books. Paris has been the touch point for her, a place where she shared important experiences and in which she sought a haven at difficult periods of her life.  A consummate Washington insider, Marton’s anecdotes are enticing reading even for people who don’t have that personal linkage with Paris.  For those who do, the book, while not great writing, is downright delicious.

Also in the non-fiction category is Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art.   The effect may not have been as sweeping as the subtitle implies, but the fraud was a significant one. Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo tell the true story of a master con artist, John Drewe, who put together an enterprise including a talented art copier and clever agents and distributors. Drewe bilked museums, galleries and private buyers out of millions.  He became an expert at forging provenance, the exhibition, ownership and sales history of each of his paintings.  By promising philanthropic donations to certain archives, he was able to slip the faux provenance records into the authentic ones, using his nefarious scheme to alter the history of art. Drewe sold more than 600 pieces of fake art between 1986 and 1995. We end up half admiring his gall and creativity, and half wondering at the gullibility and/or greed of the people and institutions who grabbed up his masterpieces at too-good-to-be-true prices.

In a totally different vein is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Shavit has been called the “most talented Israeli journalist of his generation.” He alternately criticizes the doves and hawks, the Israelis and Palestinians.  He explores the triumphs and failures of Zionism, the rigidity of the right-wing orthodox on the West Bank and the hedonism of youth in Tel Aviv night clubs.  (The book has been criticized for twisting  facts around the destruction of  Palestinian towns in 1948.)   But it captures the vibrancy and contradictions of life in Israel today, much as did Ze’ev Chafetz’ book Heroes and Hustlers, Hardhats and  Holymen: Portrait of the New Israel more than 20 years ago. But, rather than being warm and optimistic like Chafetz’ book, Shavit’s portraits leave one with a sense of despair that there is any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian divide.  Still, this book is a must read.

Finally, if you haven’t already read Mark Leibovich’s This Town, add it to your list.  Now available in paperback, it is a witty but wise picture of all the narcissistic, double-dealing, self-serving, self-aggrandizing folks in politics and the media in our nation’s capital.  Nearly a year since its publication,  the reasons for loathing Washington have only multiplied.  This Town is both serious and great beach reading.  And, oh yes, I must disclose his folks are close family friends, and I have known and loved Mark since he was a toddler. That shouldn’t deter you from getting the book.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

Posted in Culture, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment