Remembering Barbara Bush

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It was June 1990, Severance Green at Wellesley College. Blue sky, warm sunshine, graduating seniors and their families waiting to hear from two commencement honorees, Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and Barbara Bush, First Lady, wife of President George H. W. Bush. Local press and national networks were there to cover the event.

The following weekend, at the very same place, I would attend my class reunion, but on June 1st, I was at commencement in my role as WCVB-TV editorial director, to provide commentary to anchors Natalie Jacobson and Chet Curtis.  I had just returned from a month in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where, with editorialists from some of the nation’s leading newspapers and networks, we had interviewed government and opposition leaders, students and labor activists.

It was a time of optimism. The Berlin Wall had come down, and the unified city was holding its first elections. Soviet puppet governments were overthrown. In Moscow, we watched as Boris Yeltsin was named head of the Russian Supreme Soviet.   In Bucharest, we visited polling places as Romanians waited hours in line to choose a replacement for dictator Nicholae Ceaucescu.  And at Wellesley, 150 students were protesting that Barbara Bush should not be speaking because she was simply being recognized due to the achievements of her husband. But she was more than that, as we often saw when she differed publicly from her husband’s positions on social issues like abortion and gay rights.

Bush didn’t dodge the feminist dilemma raised by Wellesley’s protesters. The woman whose children called her “the enforcer” spoke of the importance of family as a foundation of society. She spoke of her work on literacy and her belief that the ability to read was step one in solving the world’s problems.  She urged graduating seniors to cherish their human connections, without which  life had little meaning.

In words that mean even more to me today, she said, “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”

There was, she said, no one right path to fulfillment as a woman. At the end she won them all over when she said, “Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse, and I wish him well.” She received a standing ovation.

Gorbachev, a former college professor, who had taken a career path, spoke about the mission of “peacemaking, humanism, mercy and kindness” and promoting understanding among nations.

The messages of the homemaker/volunteer and the professor/career woman were not that different. But behind the scenes, there was another story, told to me by a college administrator. Wellesley had prepared refreshments for the two women. Gorbachev, the woman from a self-proclaimed classless society, refused to partake in the same room as her staff.  Bush, the matriarch of an American dynasty, happily shared arrangements with hers.

In the wake of her death, we hear Barbara Bush praised for her “authenticity.”  Substitute the words “down to earth,” which is yet another reason she was widely admired.  She was a woman in her own right, not just an appendage to her powerful husband of 73 years.

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Rename Yawkey Way: yea or nay?

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Renaming Yawkey Street next to Fenway Park as Jersey Street, its original name, should be a no-brainer.  The reputation of the Boston Red Sox under the leadership of the late owner Tom Yawkey reinforced the sense of Boston as a racist city.  In the 1940’s, City councilman Isadore Muchnick had to pressure the team to break the sport’s color line by making lighting for night games contingent on opening try-outs to black players.  Tom Yawkey’s historic resistance to Negroes, including stars like Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethroe (who later became Rookie of the Year for the Boston Braves), was documented by Howard Bryant in his book Shut Out: a story of race and baseball in Boston.  The Sox also turned their backs on Willy Mays and Hank Aaron. Boston was the last team to hire a black player, Pumpsie Green in 1959.

Boston is still trying to live down this reputation for racial intolerance. Some of this is a residue of the busing era in the seventies, inflamed by the Charles Stuart case in 1989, and sustained by institutional racism and systemic income and power inequities.  The specter of overt racism reared its ugly head again last year when Sox fans used the N word to taunt Baltimore All-Star fielder Adam Jones as they threw peanuts at him. This time, the team took decisive action.

Things have improved under new ownership led by Boston Globe owner John Henry.  Just look at the membership of the team and its community profile.  John Henry himself wants to change the street name. He says he is haunted by the racist history of the Red Sox.  Henry’s request for the name change is cast in terms of reinforcing the team’s commitment to inclusion.  The city will have its say in the near future. (Henry doesn’t need the city’s permission to erase homage to Yawkey by removing the coded stencils of the name from the Green Monster in Fenway and Fenway South.)

Should the city say yea or nay to the name change? I say yea.  But, as WCVB General Manager Bill Fine said in a recent station editorial, the issue is more complex than it looks. One lesson from efforts to tear down Confederate statues in the South is that trying to purge history of racists is an endless task.  Universities are facing the challenge of deciding when to rename buildings.  Where does it all end?  Change everything that’s named Washington because the Father of our Country owned slaves or change the name of Brookline’s Devotion School, named after 18th century town benefactor and slaveholder Edward Devotion?

Besides, opined Fine, “systemic change is more effective than mere symbolism.”  Civic leader and philanthropist Jack Connors agrees.  He’s concerned that renaming Yawkey Way will undermine the Yawkeys’ larger legacy, the medical buildings and inner-city programs that the Yawkey Foundation has supported, to the tune of more than $400 million.  Simply changing the name will not do much to change attitudes toward race and could drive away future donations.

Connors proposes the name remain but is asking the Yawkey Foundation, in return, to donate $10 million to non-profits working toward racial equality in Boston. He is looking to the Red Sox to ante up a similar amount. If other corporations kick in, as much as $25 million could buttress such initiatives.  When Connors spoke out publicly opposing the name change, he was labeled a racist. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

He and Fine are right that substantive change is better than “mere symbolism.” But there’s a time for symbolism, especially when it is a first step. There is no need to change the Yawkey names on medical buildings. But Yawkey Way is a public street, not a private non-profit. The street is tied to the franchise where the discrimination took place.  Changing the name is a clear (if symbolic) message that things have changed, that all are welcome.

Boston’s Public Improvement Commission will soon decide. I hope it dusts off the Jersey Street signs. Mayor Walsh should give full-throated support. Then the Yawkey Foundation, the Red Sox, other corporations along with other city agencies, should roll up their sleeves and tackle the problem of racism substantively to ensure Boston is a city that welcomes and provides equal opportunities to all its people.

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Opioid epidemic: a solvable crisis

President Trump hints he wants the death penalty for drug traffickers. (He’s an unabashed admirer of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.)   Is the President calling for the death penalty for doctors prescribing Oxycontin, Percocet, morphine, and other pain killers? After all, an estimated 80 percent of people using heroin first got hooked by misusing opioids. On combating the opioid crisis, as with other issues, the President is a mass of bluster, hypocrisy and contradiction.

Everyone decries opioid addiction. Maybe that’s because polls show that one in ten Americans has a relative or close friend who has OD’d  on opioids. Drug abuse kills more Americans annually than car crashes. The opioid epidemic has reduced life expectancy in the United States two years running.  As the sign near a local park declares: Addiction harms everyone. What to do about it is not so easily agreed upon.

The President, for all his stated concern, has presented a budget with savage cuts to the Medicaid program (by $1.1 trillion over ten years), even though Medicaid is a major source of funds to combat a problem a majority of the public consider a disease. He also wants to slash funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy  and has left the Drug Enforcement Agency leaderless. He put together an opioid commission and has ignored its recommendations.

One member of that commission is MA Governor Charlie Baker, who has proceeded without Trump to take significant steps, including major funding increases for drug addiction, training doctors and nurses in opioid overuse, limiting first-time prescriptions to seven days and expanding access to residential treatment for Medicaid recipients. Former Governor Deval Patrick had taken the first step by declaring the opioid crisis a public health emergency here. Taken together, these moves are beginning  to make an impact on deaths from overdoses.

Attorney General Maura Healy, speaking recently at The New England Council, has her own initiatives, including securing a $5.5 million settlement with Walgreen’s for past overcharging for opioids.  Some of those dollars will go for further education initiatives. She is also working with 43 other attorneys general to investigate drug manufacturers who profit from addiction by hiding research results showing the lethality of their products.  Last year, she said, 2000 Massachusetts residents died from overdoses, five times the number five years ago.

A major problem is Fentanyl, which is 40-60 times stronger than heroin. Healy has been working with law enforcement officials here and in Massachusetts to take hundreds of millions of lethal doses off the streets.  Healy, a former basketball player herself, is working with former Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics player Chris Herren, who had his own struggles with addiction, to bring education into all the state’s public middle schools.

Friday afternoon, Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled her plan, co-sponsored with Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, for major federal funding for the opioid crisis.  (It would target the areas hardest hit, which, include many economically depressed states most supportive of Donald Trump.)  Warren challenged Trump to act on his bombast by declaring a national emergency, which would free up big bucks to tackle the crisis.

With opioid abuse, we’re facing a national health crisis. It’s going to require a major effort to resolve it. Can’t our President, for once, stop bloviating, put needed money where his mouth is, lead responsibly and not make matters worse? I fear we know the answer.

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Good guy needs new body part

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Every time you renew your driver’s license in Massachusetts you have a chance to say whether you’d donate an organ upon your death. Waiting lists for cadaver transplants can be six to eight years, far too long for many gravely ill patients. In the case of kidney disease, an alternative is a transplant from a living donor, but that’s no easy matter either. John Nucci is finding that out.

Thirty million Americans suffer from kidney disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation.  (Of those, polycystic kidney disease affects some 600,000 people.) There are close to 100,000 people on waiting lists for a transplant, and the wait time is between five and ten years. John Nucci of Boston, one of the good guys in local government, doesn’t have that long. He doesn’t even have a year.

A former president of the Boston School Committee, Boston City Councilor, a former Suffolk Superior Court Clerk Magistrate, now Senior Vice President for External Affairs at Suffolk University, John started out in the social service sector, including 20 years at ABCD (Action for Boston Community Development), helping some of the city’s most needy.  He has always been about community, making government and institutions work for the people they’re designed to serve.  What many people, from Little League and basketball teams he coached in his East Boston community, to colleagues in the business and university communities, didn’t know is that he has had kidney disease for decades. He who helped the community in so many ways now needs that community. He needs a kidney transplant.

Nucci’s father died of polycystic kidney disease when John was 32 years old.  The disease is hereditary. John has it, and his three sons have tested positive.  His father’s outcome now looms large.  Much of John’s life, he had no symptoms and got by with just 30%-40% kidney function. But he now has end-stage kidney disease, with an ever-decreasing 15 percent of kidney function. His main symptom is fatigue, but he knows that he will suffer more as the end approaches. This, he says, is now a matter of months. Unless a kidney transplant donor comes forward.

“It’s not easy to be public about this, to go out and tell everyone you’re ill,” said John.  It would, he said, be “easy to go to bed, feel bad about it, feel defeated.” But that’s not his way.

For Nucci, at 65 years old, neither cadaver donation nor the national exchange program, which creates indirect donation of organs among strangers, is an option.  Nor does he see dialysis as an option because it would reduce the potential success of a transplant if one were to become available later on.

With the clock ticking, the only viable option, and it’s a long shot, is a live donor. John’s son Mike is a Boston cop, and the BPD has put out a call on its blog for potential donors. Others are spreading the word. The Massachusetts General Hospital reports that more than 125 people have come forward to donate. But none is a match. A donor must have type O blood, be in good health and undergo rigorous evaluation.

Does he compare his going public with Magic Johnson’s role in the fight against AIDS?  It wasn’t the first time he has heard the question. Going public, he said, does increase the odds of finding a match. But Nucci also has his eye on the future.

“If I’m lucky enough to get through this, believe me, I’m not going away.  It will be my cause, and I will get involved in policy aspects,” he said.  That’s as it has been his whole life. In the United States, one has to opt in to be an organ donor. The U.K. has introduced an opt-out system.  With “presumed consent,” everyone is automatically a donor, unless you decide otherwise, and it’s expected to virtually eliminate waiting lists.

“We need to talk about this,” he said, adding that we also need to talk about research into a cure, which is  no more available to John today than it was for his father three decades ago. For now though, the focus is not on public policy. The focus has to be on getting this really good guy a new kidney.

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Those who might consider kidney donation can fill out the Mass. General Hospital organ donor questionnaire at www.MGHlivingdonors.org.

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Who can make the difference in 2018?

Since the evacuation of the HMS Birkenhead in 1852, “women and children first” has been the code of conduct to protect the most helpless among us from impending disaster. Today we look to them not only to save themselves but to save the rest of us as well.

Last year, women were marching. Today, they are running for office in record numbers. Four hundred seventy females are vying for House and Senate seats, up from 312 in 2016. In addition to the 50 Democratic and 10 Republican congresswomen expected to run for re-election, there are 183 Democratic women and 14 Republican women running in primaries to challenge their current U.S. Representative. Mississippi has never had a female member of Congress, but three of the eight candidates to replace retiring member Gregg Harper in that Republican district are women. More than half the women running for House seats in Texas won their primaries. Texas Democrats nearly doubled their 2014 primary turnout! Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia could be the first Latinas to represent Texas in Congress.

Women vote.  They will play a key role in the 2018 mid-term elections. But what will they do?  Black women voted overwhelmingly for Clinton in 2016. Not so, white women,  53 percent of whom supported Trump in 2016. Now, perhaps spurred on by the #MeToo movement, and prodded by Donald Trump’s performance in office, white women, seem to be shifting.  Recent polls have Trump’s level of support with that demographic down to 42 percent. Just 27 percent of college-educated white women now support Trump.  Support among non-college-educated white women has also dropped. A word of caution: the results in Roy Moore’s Senate race last fall were not particularly encouraging.  Despite his reputation as a sexual predator, white women still favored him over winner Doug Jones.

Young people also seem newly activated. The Parkland, FL shooting triggered a student movement for enhanced gun safety. Friday, Republican Governor Rick Scott signed a bill passed on a bipartisan basis by the Florida legislature.  While the bill failed to yield an outright ban on assault weapons, as many students wanted, it did impose a three-day waiting period for most purchases of long guns, raise the minimum age for buying weapons to 21, ban the sale or ownership of bump stocks and provide nearly $100 million to improve school security. The bill also contains a new process for removing weapons from people deemed to be a risk to themselves or others. The ink was barely dry on the new law before the NRA filed suit against it.  None of this would have happened without the Parkland students and their supporters.

Federal efforts to regulate guns and improve the federal background check system have gone nowhere so I say congratulations to the kids of Florida and keep up the good work. This is going to be a long haul and will probably have to be fought state by state.

There are other signs of hope. In Oregon, Our Children’s Trust has filed suit against the federal government in the names of 21 young plaintiffs, all children and teenagers, who claim that federal policies on climate change and fossil fuels is damaging the health and welfare of their generation.  A higher court Thursday failed to scotch the case, so it is still alive in Oregon. Will these reform efforts be sustained?

School safety and climate change  could transcend partisan posturing.  A group of 23 college Republican clubs are joining together to push for legislation combating climate change. Will the generation that will be saddled with the financial burden of the recent tax cuts protest what old rich folks have done to their futures?

Will the women and children turn out to vote in non-presidential  elections? Traditionally, there is a major drop in voting in off-year elections among all groups with young voters having the worst record.   One hopes that this year may be different. A sobering national poll shows a disturbing lack of political  interest and engagement of 18-29 year-olds  despite the Parkland-inspired activities.

A sign of what may lie ahead is next Tuesday’s special election in the Pennsylvania 18th congressional district, which Donald Trump won in 2016 by 20 points. The courts have held the district lines must be redrawn by November. The district will be broken  up to correct for gerrymandering favorable to Republicans. Less important than the victor is the makeup of the turnout. Keep an eye on how women and young people vote on March 13th. Are #MeToo and #NeverAgain real movements or just ephemeral moments?  If there is positive change, it will probably have to be led by women and children first.

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Is this Trump’s Nixon-to-China moment or more “BS”?

It’s an article of faith that random violence can strike anywhere, but, when it strikes close to home, we are still surprised and shocked.  My grandson went to a memorial service this week for the older sister of a friend of his. Her name was Deane Stryker, and she was 22 years old, a medical student, stabbed to death in the Winchester Public Library. You, too, may know her name because last Saturday she was the victim of a senseless act of violence by a mentally ill person now in custody.

As my grandson and his friends made plans to attend memorial services, I wonder how deep down they deal with such crushing events. My son sees community as a tapestry. We might live on one corner of the tapestry, but a horrific event like this puts a hole in the tapestry, affecting the community in its entirety.  The tapestry will never be the same.

But it is the community’s coming together that helps people survive the tragedy. We’ve seen that in Newtown, CT, where parents of slain six-year-olds have committed their lives to ending gun violence and strengthening community resources for mental health and school services.  And we’re certainly seeing it in Parkland, FL where young people are lobbying state legislators for better school security and an assault weapons ban.  They’ve taken their advocacy to the White House and to Congress. The question is whether they will sustain the movement and, perhaps most important, go to the polls and vote.

Even corporations are standing tall on gun violence. A good dozen companies are severing their relationships with the NRA, Delta Airlines doing so even in the face of Georgia legislators taking punitive steps toward the company.  Dick’s Sporting Goods, a huge sports retailer, will no longer sell assault-style rifles or high capacity magazines and won’t sell guns to anyone under 21 years.  The CEO said the company no longer wants to be part of the problem.  My own insurer, Chubb, severed its relationship with the NRA three months before the Parkland massacre.  I support efforts to get FedEx to change its policy.

In the wake of the Winchester killing, some wondered mockingly whether we should move to ban hunting knives with ten-inch blades. Of course not, but the fact is that, if Jeffrey Yao had possessed an AR-15, there would have been many more slaughtered by the person known by his neighbors and others to be seriously mentally ill.  Deane Stryker’s death reinforces, not undermines, calls to ban assault weapons.

The NRA has repeatedly shown itself out of step with the beliefs of the country. Recent polls indicate as many as 97 percent support stronger background checks (but will they eliminate the so-called gun show loophole, despite some 40 percent of gun sales occur as private transactions at gun shows?)  And 83 percent support waiting periods to purchase guns. The problem is less the American people than craven politicians in Congress and state legislatures who have been purchased by the gun lobby.

If President Trump follows through on his stated willingness to assume leadership on the issue and take the heat off Congress for bucking the NRA, it could really be like Nixon going to China. It’s doubtful he’d support an outright assault weapon ban, but he says he is open to raising the age for buying an assault weapon to 21 years old. He told a bipartisan group of lawmakers meeting Wednesday that he wants very strong background checks, including for gun shows and internet sales. He also wants faster action on limiting access of mentally ill people to guns. He was especially clear about keeping “concealed carry” reciprocity out of any current proposal.

Given Trump’s 180-degree turn after originally supporting DACA, color me suspicious about his commitment on comprehensive gun safety. I think the President naïve or disingenuous when he says of the NRA that “they’re there. I think they want to do what’s right.” We always have to worry the someone else will have his ear tomorrow or the next day.  But, if he follows through on what he is saying now and serious steps are taken, including repeal of the ban on public health research on guns, we could actually have a fact-based debate. Then there really is a ray of hope. And, as anti-Trump as I have been, I’d happily give him credit for getting this done.

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