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What's Up, Mitch . . . and Chuck?

Posted by Howard Denson on September 18, 2018 at 5:30 PM Comments comments (0)
By HOWARD DENSON

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The confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate have not gone well, thanks to deliberate actions dating back a couple of years. .

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Ideally, a hearing would be forthright, ask all the pertinent questions, and have all partisans satisfied that the system worked. Then the nominee would be voted on and be approved by a margin of 95-5 or so. .

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That doesn't work, however, when the system is short-circuited. It started in earnest when Mitch McConnell circumvented the U.S. Constitution and refused even to give a hearing, with an up or down vote, to President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. McConnell claimed they didn't have to give a hearing in a year when there's a presidential election. .

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That was horse hockey and horse feathers and had never been tried under Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and the rest of the presidents. McConnell pulled the notion out of his hat, although the smell suggested it came from elsewhere. .

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The Republicans then gloated at the fury of the Democrats. The Dems went berserk like Yosemite Sam, screaming their heads off and firing off their metaphorical pistols. Mitch chortled, no doubt viewing himself as Bugs Bunny--someone who will mind his own business, but retaliates when someone tries to Elmer Fudd his bushy tail. .

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Alas, Mitch and Chuck Grassley, neither is you is a Bugs Bunny, and I knew, and still know, Bugs. .

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No, today's GOP is (hang in there; this is some deep writing in the political sciences) Wile E. Coyote, trying to put one over on Yosemite Sam instead of the Road Runner. .

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The Yosemite Sams fire off their pistols on the internet and on cable talk shows. The Elmer Fudds on Fox can stutter their excuses, but Americans know what's up, Doc. You see what I mean? .

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Roadrunner teaches the Sams how to erect roadblocks and paint tunnels that Wile E. can drive into at 90 miles per house, and, of course, our Wile E.'s are stupid enough to do it. .

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In a saner world, what would occur? .

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In society at some point, girls and women will promptly report acts of sexual aggression and harassment. We have not reached that point yet since we have had decades, even centuries, of males exploiting and denigrating females. The males are often like Bluto, grabbing and carrying off the damsel. Time passes before women are able to confront their humiliations, and the passage of time helps the Bluto-minded male to avoid being accountable: "Never happened. She's a slut anyway. Wacko female. Are you going to believe me, with my titles, or that Olive Oyl?" .

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At one time, people bought into the deflections, but times are a-changing.

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In Congress, here are a few changes (or returns to more sensible days) for them to consider: .

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--If the president sends a nominee's name, it's voted upon, yes or no, within 90 days. If the Congress fails to act, the President has the nominee sworn in as a Justice, Cabinet officer, or whatever. .

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--The hearing doesn't freeze out testimony. Everything is heard and evaluated. .

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--For the Supreme Court, nominees will answer directly about their positions concerning key issues of the day. No more ambivalence, vacillation, or obfuscation. If either party is trying to put an ideologue on the court, let the positions and philosophy be clear. .

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--Nominees should be aware that even obscure events have a way of coming to light. They should testify truthfully. Bill Clinton in his days of Whoopee and Woes was asked about a certain relationship and knew that a stain on a blue dress could yield DNA evidence and hang him if he lied. Parties may also be obscure ("I was never there" ), but photos, especially today, may surface to prove a matter one way or the other. .

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The process needs to shape up. .

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That's all, folks!

Acting like a King?

Posted by Howard Denson on September 14, 2018 at 5:10 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

The talking heads on cable TV were dissecting Donald Trump and his ability as president, and one of them said he was acting as if he were king of the United States. He acted alone (as much as he could), he didn’t delegate very much, and so on.

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 Since I am a voracious reader about cabbages, kings, presidents, and prime ministers, I was grumbling at the screen for getting it wrong.

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Earlier this year, I wrote a column in which I argued that Trump was more like the head of a family business (see "A CEO or Grumpy Hotelier?") . Daddy founded it, or took it over close to the time that his father had gotten the business going, and Daddy called the shots. Some family businesses chug along in a satisfactory business, but we also hear horror stories about individuals hired by the family. It turned out to be a nightmare. Daddy would second-guess everything. He would call all the shots, and, when things screwed up, he ranted and raved at the kids for not getting a damned thing right. Eventually, they might be able to kick him upstairs, as chairman of the board. And so on.

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All analogies break down at a certain point, and mine hits the wall when our “family business” is the executive branch of the United States of America. When the cranky, quixotic, and erratic Daddy has access to the nuclear button and the like, everyone worries about his stability. When George III went off the deep end, the Brits had a regency as his eldest son took over. The power really resided with the prime minister, but you don't like having your supposed head of government cackling like a chicken at a grand ball for visitors.

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Now, let’s look at the analogy involving kings and queens. We Americans typically only know the monarchs of the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. We may not know about the “regular” monarchs and the constitutional monarchs. Regular monarchs in England included Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and James who assembled the Bible translation. The latter gassed on about the “divine right” of kings and totally ruined his heir to the throne. Charles I believed the nonsense, was imprisoned, sent hints to France to invade and put him back on the throne, and, of course, got his head snicked off.

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After that, the Restoration came along, and all those governed under the control of Parliament. If they got out of line, they could be driven into exile (as happened to James II) or they could have a date with the hatchet-man. In America, we are lucky to keep up with Mary (of William and Mary), Anne (aka “Brandy Annie,” because she liked to tipple), the four Georges (especially the third one whom our George Washington fought), Victoria, Whoozits I and Whatever II, and finally Elizabeth II (who is immortalized in TV series, as was Victoria).

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And France? Every monarch is named Louis and occasionally Henri. One Louis got his head cut off as did his queen Marie Antoinette. If we watch The Three Musketeers, we may remember that the royal couple were Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. An important character in Dumas’ novel is Cardinal Richelieu (played in various films by Vincent Price, Charleston Heston, and Tim Curry, all known for their ability to portray villains.

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With Richelieu, we have a villain. Many of his policies were not popular, but he also wanted to make France great again, mainly by diminishing the power of the other aristocrats. You could argue that he wasn’t much as a cardinal for Rome, but he was a heck of a prime minister for France. Unfortunately, he reinforced the notion that the king had a divine right to the throne. Louis XIV came along and showed what great fun a Sun King could have in building his own palace complex in Versailles, plus financing wars right and left. He made it to old age, but, until it was too late, Louis XVI never discovered he had a sign on his back saying “Couper ma tête” (or “Cut my head off” ).

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Effective kings and queens needed CEO’s to run the government while they performed royal roles or whatever. Henry VIII relied upon Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Richard Rich, and Thomas Cranmer. When they failed to, say, get the church to okay a divorce from a queen, they could be found wandering the halls of power looking for their heads. Elizabeth wasn’t as bloody-minded and found great luck in the assistance of father and son, William and Robert Cecil. Robert helped James to govern the newly acknowledged Great Britain.

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Over a century later, Parliament let everyone know that the kings and queens were not calling all the shots anymore. The very first prime minister on the scene was Robert Walpole. In about 1720, he consolidated power among the ministers and became The Minister, and he taught everyone to shape up. They did, and the constitutional monarchy was in place.

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Modern presidents of the U.S. have had their equivalents of the Cecils, Richelieu, and Walpole. Typically, they are the chiefs of staff, and the best examples in recent years are James Baker, on the Republican side, and lesser lights in other administrations. They see that things get done and that their bosses don’t get weighed down in trivialities.

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Most American presidents know that the office will make great demands on them and that it will make them or break them. To a great degree, they have to learn on the job. Truman watched FDR and got an insight into what the office demanded. Ike knew the military chain of command and adapted it to the White House. The Bushes watched their mentors (Reagan and Poppy) and slid into the position.

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JFK (and Bobby and Teddy) was like a prince in waiting. Their father had only been an Ambassador to the Court of St. James (i.e., England), so they had a sense of what was expected. JFK’s opening months were not that successful, but he learned how to be president after the Cuban crisis.

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One effective quality of the politician/monarch-in-waiting is the training that occurs. This is the way an effective prince/princess communicates. (Some, like Princess Margaret, never catch on.) When it comes time for each to assume the mantle of leadership, he or she is ready.

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In America, we have a new creature in our political zoo, an individual who claims he can be president, be his own chief of staff, run businesses simultaneously, and even participate on cable in the capacity of an entertainer.

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That individual is a disaster waiting to happen . . . and, in fact, is likely to precipitate the disaster by some blunder that a better-trained executive would have avoided. A trainee can’t hope to be the quarterback of a team, to be the coach, to throw the ball, to get credit for catching it, etc.

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Presidents WILL get sidelined at some point, and they owe it to the country to have set up a good team, with competent backups. FDR had ups and downs (and eventually a “down” that took him out). Truman had pretty good health, but Ike wound up with heart troubles, and the “team” needed to take over. Physically, JFK was a mess, but he had a team in place—which did have to take over one November day in Dallas. Reagan had similar injuries, and the RR team had to take over until the crisis passed.

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It WILL happen.

Whitewater Fallout Plagues Trump

Posted by Howard Denson on August 26, 2018 at 3:45 PM Comments comments (0)


By HOWARD DENSON  

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The blinding insight had to have come from the Almighty. I was struck on the road to Five Points when I had an epiphany: namely, that much of Donald Trump's troubles can be traced to two matters. He's corrupt to his eyeballs, of course, but he's also reaping what was sowed by the Republicans going after the Clintons.

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Remember the Whitewater scandal? Only vaguely, eh? Well, this grew out of the formation of the Whitewater Developmental Corporation in 1979. Bill and Hillary were living in Arkansas on what is chump change to highrollers. They were encouraged to buy into a land deal that should yield a profit after a few years.

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It seemed like a good deal, but, when Bill closed in on the presidency, suddenly it had great relevance. Critics tsk-tsked that this or that business deal was intertwined so much with possible conflicts of interest and the like that (good gracious!) the sky was falling, the sky was falling!

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So thirteen years later investigations began, trying to find something, anything, to smear the Clintons. There were three separate inquiries, with the last one being in 2006, twenty-one years after the fact.

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Now, I was always lived in Southern states, especially Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, and it's a fact of life that anyone in such a state would wind up doing business with a high proportion of friends who were in business. There would be countless chances for possible conflicts of interest.

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Another fact of life is this: No businessman or woman in small states (or any of them probably) can afford to have the books checked out from thirteen to twenty-one years before.

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The business will have inevitably cut the corners here and there, and, if a vigorous audit is conducted, the people running the business will not have much of the needed documentation to prove they were on the up and up. They will lack the paperwork . . . and they will have forgotten what the hell happened two decades before. In addition, death and greener pastures will have seen many of the business employees become unavailable.

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A ninny who admires Trump is bound to exclaim, "Then we should leave Der Leader alone!" Normally that might work, except for these problems: That man has a well-documented history of fraud and financial shenanigans. Investigators don't have to go back twenty-one years to find them. They are continuous.

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Let's run through some presidents of the 20th Century and today.

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Teddy Roosevelt was financially secure because his father left a substantial fortune to his family. In addition, TR was a prolific writer, and his books brought in needed revenue. He had land deals in the West that didn't work out, but he was conscientious in paying his debts.

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William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson had backgrounds in the law and education respectively.

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Warren G. Harding was a newspaperman and a businessman. He was surrounded by crooked associates while president, but he himself (more of a skirt-chaser) was not personally seeking wealth.

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Calvin Coolidge succeeded Harding at his death. He was known as Silent Cal and was an upright New Englander.

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Herbert Hoover went from being a poor orphan to a rich man, thanks to his mining engineering work. He never took a dollar from Uncle Sam during the time that he was food czar under Wilson, a cabinet member under Coolidge, or president.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of course, came from a wealthy family and focused his efforts into duplicating what TR had done in politics.

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Harry Truman went bust during depressions in the Twenties, but the former haberdasher paid back every cent he owed people. He was never a wealthy man, and the president pension was implemented to help out him.

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Dwight Eisenhower's life in the military separated him from banksters and the like. He increased his bank account when he published his memoirs.

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John F. Kennedy relied on his father's wealth, and, if any investigations were to occur, they might have a field day examining Joseph Kennedy's various financial deals.

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Lyndon Johnson was a wheeler and dealer out of Texas and couldn't bear up to intensive audits and investigations.

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Richard Nixon, for all his faults, was not driven to find the big buck as Der Leader today is. His "currency" was power more than cash.

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Gerald Ford was a straight arrow. Ditto for Jimmy Carter, who sold his peanut business to avoid any conflict of interest.

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Ronald Reagan was not driven to chase the dollar. He was able to pay his way thanks to his film and television career and later to his ability to represent the General Electric and Big Biz.

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Poppy Bush was fairly stand-up. His own father was a wheeler-and-dealer, but, once the basic fortune was made, George H.W. didn't have to keep running after the dollar.

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The righties still rant about Bill Clinton, alleging all sorts of corruption, claiming he made obscene profits from Haiti and those contributing to his Foundation. They are usually shy on any documentation and proof. Primarily, like Nixon, he was more interested in power and influence than mere wealth.

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Dubya had some questionable loans or assistance, but he managed to get into the governor's mansion and then into the White House. He was definitely looking the other way while Dick Cheney's buddies at Halliburton were making out like bandits.

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Contrary to the National Inquirer-style attacks on Barrack Obama, he and Michelle had modest incomes, and, like Eisenhower, used publishing to bring in their wealth.

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That brings us to Trump. Lazy, ignorant, disinterested in national affairs and other countries, greedy, sleazy. Driven by Mammon and his love for himself.

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And his supporters are braying, "The economy cancels out all his flaws."

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No, folks. It doesn't.

Society hurts her more than her brain injury

Posted by Howard Denson on July 29, 2018 at 7:45 PM Comments comments (2)


By ANNE B. BREEN

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For the past 10 years, my family and I have shared with my 17-year-old daughter sadness, pain and isolation brought on by a severe head injury she sustained at the age of 7 when she was struck by a car driven by a drunken driver.

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Many people are killed by such an injury. Many people are left maimed, both internally and externally. Many people sustain brain injuries of which they are unaware until sometime later, when changes in behavior and abilities occur.

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I am just thankful that my daughter is alive.

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I have seen the plight of the brain-injured person who strives to function in a society where excellence in appearance and performance are too highly valued. Many times, these people are victims of society's defects. If they are fortunate enough to survive their trauma, they become victims of society's deficiencies.

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Because of the accident, my daughter was robbed of many gifts with which she was born and which were naturally meant to flourish in her. She has worked tenaciously in the aftermath at improving her body and mind and has received the support of friends and professionals.

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After she lay comatose for over three months, however, her damage was extensive and severe. As a result, some of her behavior is different, and at times she must be hospitalized. Sometimes her appearance is different. It is difficult for her to comprehend certain ordinary facts, while it is easy for her to express through poetry her aesthetic feelings. She is not ordinary. She is a paradox.

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Throughout these 10 years, I have seen her suffer for her differences. For many years there was no appropriate slot for her in school, and she was forced to compete with those more physically and mentally adept. She lacked social skills, was ostracized by her peer group, and many times was victimized by jokes and cruelty.

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There were no resources for her. She was unique. But she has no visible physical handicap, only an impaired brain.

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Last week, she had to again be hospitalized. I watched my tormented child as she entered the austere police car to be transported to the hospital. People gathered around in curiosity to gaze upon the scene. Was this a criminal? (After all, criminals are placed in police cars, aren't they?)

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Will the punishment go on forever, or will society see the need for a change? Let's take care of our injured. Let's nurture them. Let's expand our research for them. Let's make use of them as precious resources.

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Medically we are making advances, but sociologically how far have we really come from the concept that a person with a defective brain should be locked in the proverbial tower room to be feared and hidden?

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Does this primitive attitude affect society's desire to help?

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I don't know what my daughter's fate will be, but I do know one fact. We are not alone in this experience. Each day, more unfortunate victims are affected.

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I never thought it would happen to my little girl, but it did.

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: This originally appeared as the lead letter on the editorial page of The Birmingham News on July 30, 1984.)

A CEO or a Grumpy Hotelier?

Posted by Howard Denson on July 27, 2018 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (0)


By HOWARD DENSON

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You don't have to be as gray-haired as I am to recall The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull (Morrow, 1969). It started out as satire as the authors pointed out that outstanding individuals receive promotions up to the point they are finally incompetent. They struggle to do a job beyond their skill set. .

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That brings us to organizations and businesses, of course. If you are managing a small hotel, for example, you have positions of support to fill and to rely upon. The general manager will rely on a guest service manager to handle front of house concerns. A housekeeping manager would supervise the service staff and make sure linen is changed, floors vacuumed, etc. A chief engineer would tend to the gizmos that handle heating, cooling, elevators, and the like. Public relations would be handled by a sales and marketing manager, while the restaurant and room service would fall under the purview of the food and beverage manager. .

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For a large luxury hotel, take the above positions and triple them. This conversation won't list them all, but someone will be in charge of parking and the handling of special events. The small hotel might host a small retirement party for Miz Peasbody of Acme Finance, whereas the large hotel might handle a convention of the statewide Finance Managers Association . . . or even a national convention. .

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The hotelier is not alone in the small-LARGE challenges. Someone may do an adequate job as head of Moe, Shemp, and Larry's Body Shop, but put the same person in charge of General Motors and the individual may quickly have a meltdown. .

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A small company may even be a family affair. It started when the old man, Gus Grumpimetzer, was twenty-six and borrowed 500 bucks from the bank to set up a business. It was hard going, but finally the old man paid it back and expanded the business. Then Gus bought the building they were in, and his two sons and two daughters acted as gofers when they weren't in school. Finally, Junior was old enough to take over, but the grumpy old man still wanted to call all the shots. Family members gave each other looks that asked, "What are we going to do?" But nobody said anything because they didn't want to have a family row. Finally the old man is convinced to retire as acting manager/president and become chairman of the board. He still wants to micromanage and change everything, but it comes more in spurts. He drinks a bit more than he should but is agreeable to playing more golf. Everyone in the family tells him he ought to go on the pro-am circuit, and he is vain enough to believe it. .

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When Mama dies sooner than she should have, he throws himself back into his work until his kids convince him he needs to travel, and on one trip he meets Trixie Begonias, twenty-five and absolutely fascinated by the wit and wisdom of the wealthy old man. The children don't give each other meaningful looks because they have structured the company so that, if a sweet young thing snagged Gus, she would get only a modest portion of the family's wealth. .

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Imagine what would happen if (by some miracle) Gus had been selected to run General Motors. He was accustomed to running things by instinct, by his gut, by the seat of his pants. He would order something done on a Monday, change his mind on a Tuesday, and not cancel the original order. He would also chew out the heads of departments for not reading his mind. .

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Let's take one more step and imagine what would happen if Gus had been elected president of the U.S. .

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No, no. Forget that. That's too much of a stretch. .

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Instead, here's a quick rundown of how various presidents have worked with their staffs and cabinet. .

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Let's begin with FDR. Roosevelt served three full terms and had more than established how the federal government departments would work. He had a devious or mischievous side and did like to play them off against each other. Even so, the FDR Machine operated with a high degree of efficiency. .

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He was not effective in bringing VP Truman up to speed and didn't even say, "Oh, by the way, we're working on a bomb that will blow up the enemy . . . and maybe the world." Despite this, Truman stepped into the driver's seat for the FDR Machine and changed the radio to"Give 'Em Hell, Harry." .

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After 20 years of Democratic rule, the country was ready for another party, and the voters liked Ike. The former general understandably brought brought a military structure to the White House and executive branch. On his first day, a WH employee handed him a letter that had arrived that day. .

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The general handed the letter back and told staffers never to give him anything that hadn't been evaluated and hadn't been given a stamp of assurance that it definitely needed to be seen by the president. .

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You have the general at the stop, the colonels, the majors, the captains, and the lieutenants. Each had his job in the WH structure. .

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Each cabinet secretary would be the equivalent of a colonel. Individuals shared their information, as required, and the general/president could come across as an effective leader. .

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Little scandals occurred, such as Ike's Sherman Adams accepting a vicuna coat and Persian rugs. .

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JFK came in huffing and puffing about the out-of-date practices of Ike and his minions. Kennedy and Bobby made a fine tandem act, although they screwed up when they didn't cancel outright the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Soviets figured he was an easy touch and began putting missiles into Cuba, and finally JFK learned how to be president.

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Then Dallas came along, and VP Johnson took JFK's organization and pushed it more toward what he had seen under FDR, Harry, and Ike. .

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Presidents learned the value of an effective chief of staff, and political scientists can wax eloquently about Howard Baker and James Baker. .

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Overall, Gus the grumpy hotelier would need to learn these basics in order to be an effective president:

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*You don't spend your time messing around with trivial stuff (e.g., scheduling who uses the WH tennis court and when, letting cable TV dominate your schedule; having an opinion about everything instead of several key things. .

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*You say what you mean, you mean what you say, and you aren't mean when you say it ..

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* You hire good people and let them do their jobs. .

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* You don't pull major announcements out of your hat. You use your metaphorical colonels, majors, etc. to iron out any wrinkles that may be in your plans. .

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* You share information with your staff and chain of command. In the past (prior to telegraphs), some generals and admirals liked to keep things close to their chest and keep their subordinates in the dark. By contrast, Admiral Horatio Nelson liked to discuss battle tactics and strategies with other captains and lieutenants, believing that, when they understood the nature of the campaign, they would be able to capitalize on any mistakes that their opponents make. .

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* You strive to give credit to others instead of taking all the credit yourself. .

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If you follow the above tips, you have a chance of being known as an adequate president, perhaps even one in the top quartile. Reputations can still be ruined by things beyond your control. Hoover faced the 1929 stock market crash seven months after he was sworn in. Carter faced turmoil in the Middle East and especially the Iran hostage crisis. .

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In retrospect, although the cards may have been stacked against them, their countrymen recognized that they did the best they could. .

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A hotelier might not know to do that.

When RFK Was Killed

Posted by Howard Denson on June 7, 2018 at 5:00 PM Comments comments (1)
By HOWARD DENSON

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I was sharing an apartment in Birmingham with my brother John. As a flunky journalist on the Bham News copy desk, I had to get up at 4:15 to make it to work at 5 a.m. John had left on the toilet seat a note that said RFK had been shot in California. I was stunned (even though I was a Goldwater supporter in '64 and for Nixon in '68.

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At work, the news room was filled and busy as reporters got reactions from local notables or wrote about RFK's visit to the state. On the copy desk, Bob Hawkins was staring dumfounded at a "redline" edition from the day before. (That was the edition with all the final stock listing.) He had written the headline for the front page: "Do or Die Day for RFK." He had done it (won the California primary) ahd then he had died.

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Some time later, the JFK-RFK supporters told Ted Kennedy, "You're all we have now . . . and you're not good enough."

Divine Rights of Cabbage Heads and Kings

Posted by Howard Denson on June 6, 2018 at 12:25 AM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

Li'l ol' Donnie Trump's lawyers are having another go at justifying the principle of the divine right of kings (or, in his case, someone who is the president).

 

 

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You can go back thousands of years and find claims that the king is on the throne because of God's orders. Especially with James I of the U.K., he was arguing that you must accept what the king orders unless you are defying God . . . and we know THAT won't do you a bit of good.

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There's a big problem with the divine right of kings and POTUS's: Only the monarch himself will find that it's solid logic. James' predecessor, Elizabeth I, knew that any sane monarch needed to train his or her antennae on the country to make certain that policies weren't contrary to the wishes of the people. Elizabeth knew, of course, that her grandfather, Henry Tudor (future Henry VII) had killed Richard III to snatch away the crown.

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Elizabeth also knew that her father, the king, had snicked off the heads of her own mother and    Queen Catherine Howard. Kings had a lot of power, obviously, but they could find themselves calling "a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse" if someone else got antsy for the throne.

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James I (aka "the wisest fool in Christendom") indoctrinated his son Charles about the divine right, and this fool pushed it to the limit just as the Puritans were setting up a Commonwealth republic with Oliver Cromwell as the dictator. Charles crossed the line while imprisoned and wound up having his own head snicked off.

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When the Restoration occurred with his son, Charles II, people were walking on egg shells, trying to make nice-nice. Charles II knew that he shouldn't step over the line and that the ultimate power lay with Parliament. Charles II presided as king for almost 25 years and was called the "Merry Monarch" because of frolics with his lady friends.

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His brother, James II, came to the throne with a Catholic inclination and crossed the line right off the bat. A "glorious revolution" occurred when William and Mary (his daughter) were invited to take over the throne.

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Let's gallop forward in time and cross the channel to mention Louis XVI, a good steady chap with a solid head on his shoulders. Unfortunately, the Revolutionaries snicked it off and then removed his wife's head, too, proving that divine rights are one thing, but headbones attached to the neckbones are greatly to be desired.

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More galloping, and we are in America today, where a former New York City "mare" is arguing, in effect, that the president has a divine or constitutional right and can't be touched.

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Oh, really? Lincoln's successor was nearly removed. Andrew Johnson survived impeachment because the Senate lacked ONE vote to reach the 2/3rds needed for conviction.

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Nixon wasn't impeached because of his resignation. He realized that he wouldn't have the numbers to stay in office.

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Clinton was impeached but not convicted because (among other things) most males would lie about extra marital oral sex.

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So li'l ol' Donnie does have a line that he had better not cross. If he, in effect, claims a divine right, his counselors have to argue that he views himself as a king.

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That might not be a good road to travel.

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Some Cussed Notes after the Roseanne Kerfuffle

Posted by Howard Denson on June 1, 2018 at 4:00 PM Comments comments (0)


By HOWARD DENSON

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First of all, I can outcuss you 10 to 1. I can even cuss you in Neapolitan Italian so severe that, if you knew Italian, you'd cut my throat. (Sad fact: I learned the Italian curses at age 18 and haven't forgotten them since. I'm inept in everything else in Italian.) One thing I've learned is that cursing and using four-letter words are close to sneezing. You can do it automatically . . . without thinking. It comes as easily as blinking your eye.

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Second, we devolved from the days of persistent taboo-enforced words to what we have now because of several factors: The Puritan language code was essentially dishonest. A legislator would outlaw "fuck" or "shit," but in the South would refuse to pass anti-lynching laws. Lenny Bruce went to jail over the language issue. Other comics (Richard Pryor especially) gradually pushed back against The Code.

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Then the gates opened, and it all came out, thanks to the internet, rap records, etc. F-words intruded everywhere. If Joyce Kilmer had been alive, he would have written:

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I think that I shall never see

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a poem lovely as a fucking tree . . .

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If a joke ends with a so-so punchline saying, "And you should have seen the expression on her face," a comic may say, "And you should have seen the fucking expression on her gawdamned face." It's still a so-so punchline despite the two off-color words.

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When I was teaching creative writing, students would ask about what was forbidden. "Curse words?" No, I'd tell them; you have freedom to write whatever you wish, but do keep in mind that your eventual manuscript may need to pass muster with an editor.

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Stories often rolled in with dozens or hundreds of once-taboo words. They were grossly overdone, but come to think of it were no more exaggerated than dialogue on "The Sopranos," "American Beauty," or "Deadwood."

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I was urging students to pull back from full-cussword mode. After all, on a page, a writer has certain limitations due to the nature of the beast. If someone has effed his or her way through a story and damned it all to hell in every sentence, what does he or she do when the protagonist smashes his thumb with a hammer right after catching a significant other flagrante delicto?

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A notion is going around that people who curse are more honest than others. I have serious doubts about it. If someone naturally lies, the listener shouldn't believe the lies just because the speaker had gained a potty-mouth.

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Stand-up comics have built-in challenges. Jerry Seinfeld deliberately makes his act family-friendly. Ditto for Jeff Foxworthy, Trevor Noah, and others. Sadly, Bill Cosby was noted for a clean act, despite his actions later in a hotel room.

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Comedians have a ritual: If a joke doesn't work in the comedy club in Omaha, maybe this twist will work in Kansas City. Hmm, if it doesn't get a laugh in Chicago, it's out of the act. If they are lucky, they can eventually do a Netflix special or a theatrical performance movie, and the misfiring joke is no where to be seen. However, if they wind up on cable, it's time for the robot to call, "Danger, Will Robinson!" They do the subpar joke, and instead of falling flat, it forks lightning.

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I quit reading one author's books. They were set in Boston, and it was eff this and that to beat the effing band. Tedious. However, I do read Robert Parker's Boston novels. They aren't sanitized, but the reader is aware that, while this dialogue is occurring, the setting alone suggests that the verboten words were being spoken around Spenser and Hawk.

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I was checking for writers born on July 11 for a second edition of HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AUTHORS (available on Amazon.com) when I spotted Thomas Bowdler's name. He gave us the verb Bowdlerize and made this statement:

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"I acknowledge Shakespeare to be the world's greatest dramatic poet, but regret that no parent could place the uncorrected book in the hands of his daughter, and therefore I have prepared the Family Shakespeare."

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We don't need to Bowdlerize all communication, but we also don't need to smear excrement over everything either.

When Jokes Backfire

Posted by Howard Denson on May 30, 2018 at 1:25 PM Comments comments (0)
When Jokes Backfire


By HOWARD DENSON

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I received a warning letter from the National Board of Natterers that I hadn't weighed in on the Roseanne racist joke controversy and failure to do so would result in a prison sentence of seventy-five years and a fine of $10,892.16.

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So here is my response, which I'll make less than a diatribe but a little more than a riposte.

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Roseanne tweeted a bad joke. I don't just mean that it was racist, which it was, but it also wasn't natural and facile. A Muslim and Planet of the Apes have a baby, and it's "vj." Huh? If she had tried it out in a tour of comedy clubs, she would have found that the damned line just didn't work. So she tweeted a bad racist joke and got fired for it.

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Keep in mind that ALL jokes and most comedy are designed to belittle someone or a group of people. The Three Stooges would have amused Shakespeare and Will Kemp 400 years ago because they too wrote or performed about dummies who thought they knew everything but screwed up everything. We can also make fun of the things we fear, such as death, and, while jokes haven't done anything to relieve the effects of death and taxes, they do help us in the moment.

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I date back to the Golden Age of Radio and, thanks to my mentor Charlie McCarthy, have tracked jokes that backfired for whatever reason.

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I didn't hear it when it first aired, but I read about Danny Thomas's run-in with Corporate Propriety. Danny was sponsored by Post cereals, and the announcer on each show would say something like "And remember, Post Toasties taste great with cream and strawberries." During one program, Danny blurted out, "Hay would taste good with cream and strawberries."

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Post fired him for the scandalous slur against the company (just as Walt Disney fired an employee for referring to Mickey as "that little rat"). Post and Danny kissed and made up later.

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During the Fifties, ol' lonesome George Gobel had a variety show and ended one show with a line like this: "The National Safety Board has warned us that 340 people would be killed over this holiday weekend. So far, 198 have died. Come on, some of you folks just aren't even trying." The switchboards lit up, the network apologized and fussed at George, and Gobel apologized, too. After all, families that have lost loved ones in traffic accidents aren't going to find the joke funny.

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In my Wild-Eyed Moderate collections of ruminations, a diligent reader will find a couple of essays that relate to jokes backfiring. In Shoot-Out with a Wild-Eyed Moderate, the reader may peruse "Southerners and Croaking in the Big Power Pond," which points out the diverse ways that supposedly good-natured racial teasing can backfire and destroy careers. (Roseanne's out of Utah, not the Deep South, but the rules still apply.) In "On 'Who Dat,' 'Begorra,' and 'By Cracky,'" in Gunfight with a Wild-Eyed Moderate, we briefly trace dialect and humor from music hall days till the modern time.

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Speaking of music halls, I was shocked on my second trip to England when I attended performances at the London Palladium. Two of the five comics were blacks, yet they were doing the same racist jokes as the white comics. Example: "You know why they don't let the Pakis swim in the channel? Because they leave a rim around the English Channel." A black comic was saying, "Me mum is black, you know, big lips, and--" I looked around to see if the Royal Police of Propriety were going to burst in and drag off performers and audience. Another joke was about two Paki hitchhikers. No car was stopping, so one had the great idea: He would lie down on the road when the next car came. Unfortunately, there was a bump-bump since the driver was anti-immigrationist Enoch Powell. I had heard the same joke in the U.S., except the driver was Gov. Faubus or Wallace.

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A racist, but good joke was about a truck driver and his partner, an African American. Trash is blowing off the back of the truck, and the partner has to get back there, stretch out, and hold it down. Eventually, two bozos spot the truck and lament, "Somebody's thrown away a perfectly good nigger." No movie or TV comedy would use that line, but they have transformed it. The scenario appeared in a John Cusack comedy and then in a comedy by the Sheen brothers, except the line now said, "Somebody's thrown away a perfectly good white boy."

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When I refer to the Big Power Pond, you should think of the Big Pond as where the big frogs croak. They have to watch their tongues as they flit them out for insects, lest they be gigged for some transgression. Unfortunately, in the Age of Trump, these rules haven't applied, so far. He neither watches what he says nor even thinks very coherently. So he is above the rule, and Trumpsters have a free rein, right? Nope, to switch metaphors, his chickens haven't come home to roast yet. He is good at winning enough Electoral Votes to slip into office, perhaps with the aid of the Kremlin and Russian mobsters, but everything else that he touches goes bankrupt.

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Floridians, of course, noticed recently when the "die-in" demonstrations reminded Publix that it was dangerous to endorse the bloody candidates of the NRA when Florida youth (and adults) lie down in their stores to remind shoppers of the murdered students and staff. Publix backtracked quickly.

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Now, demonstrators can't embarrass Trump by doing die-in demonstrations on the sidewalks around the White House, but they do have access to Trump properties. It would make a nice advertisement: "Come to Trump Towers and step over the simulated corpses of school kids."

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The demonstrations could be great, absolutely wonderful, believe me, splendid, nothing better has ever occurred in the whole history of the world. Trust me.

1950ish? Hardly

Posted by Howard Denson on April 25, 2018 at 6:15 PM Comments comments (0)


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By HOWARD DENSON

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[EDITOR'S NOTE: A local tempest in Mr. Coffee Pot occurred when the outgoing president carelessly said that one of the campuses was like something out of the 1950s when she arrived four years earlier. A former campus president resented the assessment, and this writer gave a faculty perspective.]

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I was a charter member of the North Campus faculty when the campus opened in 1970 and taught there until the end of 2007. When new-comers refer to the campus as something out of the 1950s, I do have to take exception.

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Originally, we were the science and computer campus. If you took physics, you trucked out to North Campus. If you were studying DOS, COBOL, etc., again you did it at North. By and by, the various administrations peeled off programs and, after a decade or so, returned some of them to North.

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When I took an adult enrichment course on the $12,000 IBM Displaywriter (with an 8-inch disk), I fell in love with this new way of processing words. As cheaper units (Apples at first and then IBMs later) became available, I required (not recommended, but required) my students to write their papers on word processing programs. When someone complained, I said, "This is how writing will be done in the 21st Century."

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Our North Campus lab (called Learning Center and other names as fads came and went) featured PLATO lessons, a Cadillac-program for courses ranging from economics to chemistry, to English grammar. These lessons replaced the embarrassing and time-consuming trips to the board as students did exercises on subject-verb agreement, etc.

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Other campuses simply were not using such advances, sometimes arguing, "Good grammar will not make you a great writer," while ignoring that bad grammar will not make you even a good writer.

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In certain classrooms, especially in the humanities, we were able to use a variety of aids as we perhaps compared the various statues of David done by Donatello, Verrocchio, Michelangelo, and Bernini. In the 1950s, you would have to hope the textbook had photos of each or you would have to walk two or three books around the room for the students to notice the similarities and differences. Each student got about five seconds to check out a picture.

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For a couple of years, a South Campus natural science instructor came to North to use the room that could broadcast to and interact with students at a downtown location.

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Certain classes at North could be broadcast to students up in Nassau County.

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These were expensive, and, while administrations are adept in pushing this or that fad, they are even more proficient in canceling fads that seemingly cost too much money.

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I could go on, but each campus has its own virtues and its own special problems.

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The edifice complex is a big institutional problem, because any college loves an excuse to erect new buildings. At one time, they wanted a separate building for a library at North, but one fad caused them to discard all of their books in favor of electronics. Bye-bye for any justification for a new building. There was a mention of building an allied health building to bring them all together. As it is, the programs are fewer than 50 to 100 feet from each other today.

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When enrollment is stagnant or declining, we do not need new buildings. When more classes are taken online, we do not need new buildings.

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The building craze kicked in back in the 1950s and 1960s when the system was hitting its stride. To keep building is so, well, 1950ish.


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