Friday, February 27, 2009


The hot button issues that confront our culture rise and fall in cycles, it seems. At times, abortion takes center stage. At other times, capital punishment is the prevailing controversy. Let us not forget the periods in which the use of potentially life-saving drugs not yet approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is so hotly debated. And then, of course there is the age old battle over the Second Amendment to the Constitution – guns or no guns. Consider the common element to all of these issues – death.

Slowly and with a building intensity, the most recent issue to re-emerge is euthanasia. Who should be able to say when and how you will leave this earth? Is it a political issue? Is it a social conundrum? Is it time that we stop socio-politicizing issues that are inherently simply personal? Maybe. Recent developments have reignited the age old debate over one’s right to die:
• An investigation has been launched into a group that calls itself “Final Exit.” The members allegedly comprise an assisted suicide ring that has aided up to 200 individuals with their deaths. Without my telling you, you can easily write the script here. One side cries, “Compassion,” while their opponents cry, “Murder.” You have heard this debate. You have thought about it, at least minimally. You either have a strong opinion one way or the other, or it lingers in your mind as “undecided.” The debate is about you, and me, since all of our lives will one day end. Do we want some authority over our demise, or do we have spiritual, religious or moral beliefs that preclude that authority? Here is more on Final Exit:

•The debate rages as intensely in Europe as it does here. Just weeks ago, in Italy, the highest court ruled that feeding tubes could be removed from Eluana Englaro , (below,right in a photo held by her father) a woman who had been in a vegetative state for 17 years, the result of a car crash. But the government — pressured by the Vatican — defied the ruling and tried to pass an emergency law that would prevent doctors from removing all life support from ailing patients. Englaro died during the Senate debate. No one knows yet how Englaro died. Her condition was labeled “stable” as recently as the morning of her death. The process of removing the feeding system started shortly before her death. A country-wide battle began to brew between the right to die advocates and the preservation of life contingent. Further, the battle widened to one between church and state: The Vatican declared a right to life stance, while the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, said the Vatican was interfering with a court order. Just this past Friday, Milan authorities announced an investigation has been launched, targeting 17 people, including Englaro’s father and her anesthesiologist.
These are merely the most recent uprisings in the battle between death with dignity proponents and sanctity of life supporters. So, where do we stand legally in 2009? According to The International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, here are the facts:
“Oregon, Washington, the Netherlands and Belgium are the only jurisdictions in the world where laws specifically permit euthanasia or assisted suicide. In February, 2008, Luxembourg passed a law to permit euthanasia and assisted suicide. However, the law will not go into effect until additional procedures are completed. Implementation is expected in mid-2009.

Oregon and Washington have passed laws permitting assisted suicide. The Netherlands and Belgium permit both euthanasia and assisted suicide. Although euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in Switzerland, assisted suicide is penalized only if it is carried out ‘from selfish motives.’

In 1995 Australia's Northern Territory approved a euthanasia bill. It went into effect in 1996 but was overturned by the Australian Parliament in 1997. Also, in 1997, Colombia's Supreme Court ruled that penalties for mercy killing should be removed. However the ruling does not go into effect until guidelines are approved by the Colombian Congress.”
Elsewhere in the U.S., 36 states have laws that explicitly criminalize assisted suicide. In six other states and the District of Columbia, the practice has been rendered illegal by court rulings, but not legislative actions. In New Hampshire, an assisted suicide bill is pending. A proposal in Massachusetts is under legislative consideration.

Make no mistake: there are no definitive answers here. There are only grey areas. These were never more clearly demonstrated than by John Peyton, a victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease, who opposed Washington State’s initiative to legalize physician assisted suicide.

I have had cause to think about this issue lately because of the recent death of my 92-year-old father, who lingered in a highly sedated state for weeks before he finally died. Had there been a humane, gentle way to guide him out of his misery, would I have taken it? Would you? Have you? Anecdotal evidence indicates many physicians have taken steps – privately, of course – to mercifully help their terminally ill patients die. As far back as 1985, journalist Betty Rollin wrote Last Wish, her powerful memoir of assisting her own mother with suicide. The debate is not new. The dilemma never really changes. The decision is almost too horrific to ponder. Nevertheless, after witnessing the compromised humanity and stripping of common dignity my father endured, I have to wonder if I would have – or could have – helped him end his life. My gut tells me that if he had been conscious, and asked me to help him leave, I may have done just that.

As I said earlier, it is strictly personal.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


From left, Liz Smith, Lesley Stahl, Mary Wells and Joni Evans, four founders of (Photo by Joe Fornabaio)

Anybody who has known me for more than 10 minutes probably knows I am always impressed by people who do what they do better than anybody else. Since I came of age in the 1970s, many of the humans who have most impressed me are women. Those were the years when the culture was struggling to adapt to a new balance between the sexes. Author Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique dared to suggest women could find fulfillment in ways other than cooking, cleaning and child bearing. The umbrella term “Women’s Liberation” caught on. There were awkward behavioral moments, like mass bra burnings among newly minted feminists. It was quite a moment.

It had to happen so that the best and the brightest among American women could truly stand up. In my lifetime, the parade of fascinating women has been colorful and intriguing. Check out this list: Oprah Winfrey, Barbra Streisand, Barbara Walters, Lily Tomlin, Toni Morrison, Gloria Steinem, Meryl Streep, Mathilde Krim, Diane Sawyer, Maya Angelou, Sandra Day O’Connor, Jane Fonda, Betty Ford, Katherine Graham, Tina Brown --- and those are just some of the women you have heard of. There are countless others who have mightily influenced us 20th century kids.

But it was the moment that feminism met new technology that enabled to exist. This is a free web site for and about women, operated and written by the likes of Lesley Stahl, Peggy Noonan, Joni Evans, Mary Wells, Sheila Nevins, Joan Juliet Buck, Whoopi Goldberg (left), Julia Reed, Joan Ganz Cooney, Judith Martin, Candice Bergen, Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, and Marlo Thomas. And get this: just this week the New York Post announced that it will not renew the contract of legendary gossip columnist Liz Smith. Talk about your dumb decisions, right? Guess where Liz is moving her chatty franchise? Whoa. Now that’s news. (I love Liz Smith….you know she’s the one who once said, “Gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.")

What I like about is that it is not a place dedicated to convincing you or me how powerful or underrated or influential or trod upon or superior women are to men. That’s so 1975, right? Instead, is just a collection of smart, well-presented contemporary content. Candice Bergen (right) was dispatched to do live blogging from the Oscars. Lesley Stahl dishes on MSNBC commentator Mika Brzezinski’s controversial and “ugly” departure from the network. Brainy New Orleans wordsmith Julia Reed gives readers her take on New York’s fashion week. Wowowow is diverse, compelling and for my money, it seems to truly “get” how to use the web. Interestingly, from a journalistic standpoint, the growing list of web content entrepreneurs seems increasingly populated by women. As I have suggested to my readers before, check out Arianna Huffington’s Huffington Post, and Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast.

Hey, I like it. Go figure. I mean am I the only middle-aged white guy in America who even knows exists? Well, listen, I’m the guy who TIVOs Oprah and The View every single day. I’m some kind of mutant, huh? Just check out You can thank me later.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Okay, is it just me, or does it seem like there have been an inordinate number of public apologies lately? From Michael Phelps apologizing for his regrettable behavior to the apparently psychopathic actor Christian Bale apologizing for a fully unacceptable rant at a co-worker, everybody’s on their knees apologizing to the masses. If we consider an apology a statement of one part regret and one part remorse, there is plenty to go around right now. What the hell is going on? Really.

I think this current wave of apologies began when Britain’s rusty-haired Prince Harry referred to his colleague Ahmed Raza Khan as "our little Paki friend". Of course within hours the international media hounds were salivating over the slur, and as is always the pattern with these things, the sometimes indelicate 25-year-old rogue royal told the world how sorry he was. Of course when sorry is not enough, there is always rehab. Or, in Harry’s case, the army has declared that Harry must subject himself to “equality and diversity” training. This, just as British comedian Stephen K. Amos came forward claiming that when he and Harry met at Prince Charles’ 60th birthday party, Harry said, “You don’t sound like a black chap.” Listen, all of this dulls by comparison to the Nazi costume the Prince wore a couple of years back. Harry is so, so sorry. He’s just so sorry. Really.

Aren’t apologies just the product of lazy behavior? I mean come on. Michael Phelps smokes pot from a bong and somebody at the party captures the moment photographically. In the time it would take Prince Harry to offend a whole ethnic group, Phelps is in every newspaper and on every web site from Vegas to Vienna. So, of course, he apologizes. Especially to China. Watch this video apology to the Chinese:

Again, maybe it’s just me, but….do his eyes look funny in that video? Call me a cynic, but could it be that Michael’s lucrative contract with Mazda, which includes a huge TV ad campaign in China, may have precipitated this apology? I’m just sayin’.

High profile guys, when caught in the act – any sort of anti-social act – usually shelve self-respect and just beg for public mercy. Dignity be damned, prostrating themselves seems preferable somehow. A lot of times it works, too. Phelps is getting off with a slap on the wrist. The sensitivity chip missing in Prince Harry is about to be implanted through sensitivity sessions. We’ll see. But what do we do about whack jobs like Christian Bale, the actor who went ballistic when a lighting director stepped into his frame of vision as he performed a key scene in a movie? Bale stepped way out of the societal norm circle. If you’re one of the six people who hasn’t heard this rant yet, here it is:

Yes, yes, Bale ultimately apologized. He called himself a “potty mouth.” He basically did the standard prostrate dance. What do we do now? Do we just forget he did that and go back to our fantasy of him being Batman? How much of a pass does a guy get, simply because he represents big box office?

Or even because at one time you could say about him that “He’s got game”? Consider Charles Barkley. I guess he was prophetic in 1993 when he said he felt sports figures should not be considered role models for young people. Fifteen years later in a drunken stupor he was pulled over for drunk driving, when it was discovered he had a woman in the car prepared to perform oral sex. Married and the father of a 20-year-old daughter, he made headlines worldwide. At 46, without a college degree and with a propensity to swell up to 300 pounds, if your whole life has been built around your ability to put a ball through a hoop, I guess you just have to apologize in order to keep the public’s attention. For eight years Barkley has been a TNT sports commentator. If he loses that, what does he really have left? So, he issues a seven plus minute apology, in which he proves once again how narcissistic he really is. He thanks his fellow b-ball homies, and he thanks TNT, and he thanks his fellow commentators, all for supporting him in his drunken moment of need. At no time does he acknowledge that he had a woman in the car who he had just met; at no time does he apologize to his wife or to his daughter. The apology is, instead, laden with the word “I,” and fully self-centered. Oh, brother. Watch this:
The same thing can be said for hip-hop star Chris Brown, who finally uttered a few words of public regret this past week, without once apologizing to his battered girlfriend, pop star Rihanna. Rihanna, who’s been laying low while her swollen, bruised face regained its former beauty, is apparently not Brown’s main concern at the moment. Watch Brown over the next few weeks. I predict there will be public declarations of his need for therapy and the love of his family and his intention to seek pastoral counseling. Anything to restore his sweet guy image – even after he brutally attacked the person he professed to love the most. Say what you will…I’m not buying it.

Nor am I buying the New York Post’s weak public apology about the tasteless cartoon featuring police shooting a chimpanzee. One cop says to the other: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” I’m not including the cartoon here because it has had more than enough public exposure. You’ve already seen it anyway. But here is all the Post execs could muster up:
Wednesday's Page Six cartoon - caricaturing Monday's police shooting of a chimpanzee in Connecticut - has created considerable controversy. It shows two police officers standing over the chimp's body: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," one officer says. It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill.
But it has been taken as something else - as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism.This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize.
However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past - and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback. To them, no apology is due.
Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon - even as the opportunists seek to make it something else.
Am I missing something here, or do I sense a tad of unapologetic bitterness at the Post? I think so.

Listen, nobody’s perfect, right? But some easy sense of right and wrong would have helped every one of these individuals or entities avoid the need to beg for mercy. Here’s exactly what I think – (and I know how shocked you are that I’m opining): Young Harry of Wales is stretching boyhood to its outer limits, just as Phelps is fully and simply, only 23 years old. Twenty-three year olds often take bong hits, and high profile 23-year-olds don’t yet really know how to be high profile. So in my mind, I’m giving both of them a partial pass here. But Barkley, Bales, and A-Rod (who came forward with his own choked-up apology last week after admitting he used steroids in 2003)? No pass there. Chris Brown? Well, domestic violence cannot be excused by youth. And the New York Post? Well, if that cartoon were going to appear in a U.S. paper, it was probably going to be the Post. They have a long history of questionable editorial judgment.

Can we just all start behaving a little better? Yes We Can.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Although I’ve only been blogging since October, I can tell you it’s one of the most liberating things I have ever done. I have been writing for money for years. And when you write for money, unless you are among about the top three percent of freelancers in this world, you end up writing a lot of dreck. And I mean really, truly, dreck. One time I had to do a whole project for the Congressional Black Caucus about toxic waste. Another time I had to write advertorial about a new device that electronically lifts people off of the toilet. Oh, and we musn’t forget the time I wrote a restaurant review about the coffee shop at the Grande Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville. I’ve written some real crap. Trust me.

Blogging is like running naked through downtown Manhattan in broad daylight and not caring who sees you. It’s total freedom. I do not make any money from this endeavor and I do not care. Unlike some bloggers, I do not have a tracking system set up yet to let me know how many people are reading and when, and again, I don’t seem to care. To me, blogging is about writing about the issues and people that matter to me, positively or negatively. It is about adding my input to the universal mix of ideas in a way that I think truly contributes something. As a writer, I cannot remember anything I have ever done that has given me more satisfaction than blogging.

Today I was struck (stricken?) by what Jane Fonda had to say on her blog
(which I highly recommend, by the way). She wrote:
Having a blog feels like growing another limb, or maybe a goiter! There’s my life…and then there’s this thing that’s blossoming alongside reality. It’s my life, in a way, but not quite. I need to remind you that I Googled for the first time this summer. I have never read anyone else’s blog so I don’t know what they usually look like.
Fonda (below, left) is starring on Broadway (for the first time in 45 years!) right now, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in a piece called “33 Variations,” by Moises Kaufman. Kaufman is the guy who wrote “The Laramie Project” in 2002, a play about Laramie, Wyoming, the site of the murder of young Matthew Shepherd. It is a powerful piece of theatre, so I’m thinking “33 Variations” is probably on my list of TTDBID (Things To Do Before I Die). Let’s just hope Broadway doesn’t die first, considering its current slump. You can (and should) read more about this guy at the Tectonic Theatre Project web site. Just know that true American theatre is alive and well as long as people like Kaufman keep plugging away.

And do take a look at Fonda’s blog. Smart, earthy, with a non-jaded “been there and done that” appeal. The New York Times did a nice piece on her blog a couple of weeks ago.

Speaking of blogs and theatre, you should also stop by My good friend, Jeffery Roberson has been playing the character Varla Jean Merman (below, right) for about 20 years. As I understand it, it began in college days when dressing up in drag was just whatever it was. But soon after he started performing in clubs in New York, on a lark, as he kept his day job as a graphic designer. The character and Jeff’s career have evolved. He is the living embodiment of my absolute words to live by: Slow and Steady Win the Race. is the character’s web site, complete with Varla’s blog. Listen, this blog is laugh out loud funny. Varla has been around so long now that she’s pretty close to a real person. Interestingly enough, Jeff, out of drag, is nothing much like Varla at all. That's why I think he’s an actor’s actor, in that he figured out how to just naturally inhabit the character when necessary and then retain his real self otherwise. So, how do Varla and Jeff differ? Varla's a force of nature. Jeff's a force of sheer creative genius. Really.

Jeff is in L.A. right now taking some time to write his new show. He writes a new show every year, debuts it in New Orleans and then moves on to Provincetown for the summer. He’s also touring his show, “Shut Up Sweet Charlotte,” a parody of the 1964 classic, “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” which I saw last summer and almost incurred a hernia from laughing so hard. Here’s a scene from “Charlotte.” That’s Jeff driving, playing the Olivia de Havilland role, and the Bette Davis role is played by New Orleans’ treasure, Ricky Graham.

Varla’s blog is updated every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Be good to yourself. Love you some Varla Jean three times a week.

I teach journalism at Tulane University, and I’m about to incorporate blogging into the curriculum. A lot of guys who have done what I do for a long time think bloggers are half-assed. I do not. I think blogging is the vehicle that gives all types of people a way to be heard. And I believe everyone has a right to be heard. The more people who speak up and throw their words in the mix, the more informed we will all be. I like it. Jane likes it. Varla likes it. So do you, or you wouldn’t be here.


Yes, that is an imaginary horse transporting a real live dog (left). Her name is Camille (the dog, not the horse), and as you can see, she feels very regal overlooking the masses. Welcome to Mardi Gras. That's kind of what we do in New Orleans. We do imaginary stuff. So, every year, as part of the Carnival season, we have our annual Krewe of Barkus Parade. This year it happened on Sunday, February 15. It was quite a day -- chihuahuas in tutus, bulldogs in batman masks and capes (the theme this year was BatMutt: The Bark Knight); shepherds with question marks painted all over their bodies (ala "The Riddler"); terriers "driving" batmobiles, and humans costumed just like their mutts. Welcome to New Orleans.

Here's the best part: In addition to about 1,500 dogs parading through the streets of the French Quarter between brass bands and the usual Mardi Gras revelers, thousands and thousands of people lined the streets to salute the canine marchers. This has been going on since 1993. I remember the first parade -- there were probably 100 dogs and maybe 1,000 humans lining the streets. Times have changed: Barkus is a huge draw now, and what makes it so cool is how real it is for those of us who live here. We wouldn't miss it. We take time out from unemployment, rising utility costs, poison peanut butter, partisan politics, global warming, Brittany/Linsdsay/Paris, et al and all such real-world nonsense. We make room for dogs in makeup and gold lame', humans so fully costumed they believe they really are super heroes and little girls dressed like princesses who may just be creating their best childhood memories ever.

So, please don't tell us not to paint our dogs' toenails, or not to let them wear earings and boas once a year, or not to dress ourselves up like "The Joker," or not to waltz through the streets of the French Quarter with daschunds enclosed in giant hot dog buns -- we can't hear you. It's Mardi Gras. We're in another dimension right now. Let us be.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


You know sometimes I start to think I can’t face one more week of celebrity headlines. Consider this week: Pics have now come forward that show the octomama’s ginormous stretched out belly when she was pregnant with the almost baseball team. This, right as pictures are revealed of actress Selma Hayek breast feeding an African baby. Oy. And if that weren’t enough to put me under, there’s her memorable quote: When asked why, she says, “I had milk.” Did I need to know this? I’m thinking not. And all of that, just as we find out that the late Anna Nicole Smith’s life story is being turned into an opera.…God.

Well, I’m not even really here to talk about any of that now. I’m here to talk about more bad boys. You’ll recall every once in a while in this blog I sound off about men behaving badly. Last time it was former Reverend Ted “I’m Not Gay Anymore” Haggard; former Governor Rod “F___ing” Blagojevich; and former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, he of the $1.2 million office re-do as his company was rapidly drowning in its own greed and poor management. Just when you think it can’t get any sleazier, a new week dawns and there’s Alex Rodriguez, Chris Brown and one James Gorman. You’ve never heard of Gorman, but he’s what we call a real wheeler dealer. More on him later.

A-Rod: Okay. Let’s review. Alex Rodriguez, third baseman for the N.Y. Yankees, youngest guy to ever hit 500 home runs and the highest paid player in the history of baseball – but, see, he’s a bad boy. First, he split with his wife of six years, three months after she gave birth to their second child. Shortly thereafter, pictures show up online and in tabloids of A-Rod in strip clubs. Then, the father of the year starts sneaking off with none other than Madonna for clandestine weekends at the home of Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld. And then this week, after years of rumblings about possible use of illegal substances and steroids, he finally admits in an ESPN interview that he indeed indulged. I love this quote: “Back then, baseball was a different culture," Rodriguez said. "It was very loose. I was young, I was stupid, I was naïve. And I wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time. I did take a banned substance.”

Hmmm…back then….when would that have been? 1965? No…the “back then” that A-Rod refers to is 2003. Oh please. I would like to see some accountability here. Does the guy just come clean in an interview and go back to his $275 million contract? Last week his baby was in the hospital with a severe staph infection. Media made big stuff about how he didn’t leave her bedside the whole time. I’m thinking that’s what fathers do. Why do we keep rewarding guys like this in our society? Why are they worth hundreds of times more than the average American worker? All I know is somewhere Jose Canseco is kicking back and smoking a big fat "I told you so" cigar.

And while A-Rod has his critics and detractors, the culture seems to still want to protect its bad boys, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing. Watch this CBS news report:

Chris Brown: This kid is 19, owns a Lamborghini, has an album that has sold over two million copies, has an upcoming starring role in a motion picture, has appeared in numerous TV shows – and is now represented by none other than celebrity-loving criminal attorney Mark Geragos. By now, unless you have been in a coma, you know Brown is suspected of beating his superstar girlfriend Rihanna, following an argument in his – Lam—bor—ghi—ni. (Should a 19 year old kid even have a Lamborghini?) At this writing, the D.A.’s office is weighing the alleged offenses to determine if domestic abuse charges will be rendered. All the dime store psychologists and editorial “analysts” cannot put Chris Brown back together again. The story about his childhood being marred by a wicked stepfather who abused his mother is not a good enough reason for the boy to beat up his girlfriend.

Now, radio stations are refusing to play his once hothothot records; sponsorships are melting away, beginning with Doublemint and the “Got Milk” campaign; and the word among fans in blog after blog is that he crossed the ultimate line, and he is now yesterday’s news. This may shock you, but I have never paid much attention to Chris Brown’s music…until today, when I hung out on YouTube for awhile and watched him perform. This angelic-faced boy has big talent. He’s a sort of new century Michael Jackson level talent. Call me a hundred years old if you like, but I can’t help thinking that rather than offering him recording contracts at 14 and a Lamborghini at 19, somebody should have pointed this guy to a stellar performing arts school and let him develop as a person, and as a performer. Maybe being socialized with other young artists in a nurturing atmosphere might have matured him a bit; and maybe an education wouldn’t have been such a bad idea either. I’m just sayin.’

James Gorman: Okay, no more suspense. Here’s the story in a nutshell: Gorman is CEO of Morgan-Stanley. Just milliseconds after the Wall Street giant and its soon to be partner Smith Barney were granted $60 billion in government bailout funds, Gorman decides to bestow bonuses upon the company’s financial advisors. Oh, I’m so sorry. Did I say bonus? I meant to say “retention awards.” Gorman has expressly requested the payouts not be deemed “bonuses,” presumably because media and clients might get the wrong idea; that idea being that part of the money that is supposed to reinvigorate the company, and thereby the U.S. economy, is being paid out to individuals who contributed to the company’s near demise in 2008. How do we know all this? Because the Huffington Post got ahold of audio tape of a conference call in which Gorman spelled it out.

The NOT BONUSES total something between $2 and $3 billion, which the company asserts does not come from the bailout funds. Yes, I can hear your collective “Who cares where it comes from, it’s still $2 - $3 billion.” Wait…it gets worse. It turns out, as part of their agreement for funding from the government, the new conglomerate promised to trim $1.1 billion in expenses. I think we smell a rat and his name is John Gorman, bad boy.

I wonder if A-Rod, Chris Brown and John Gorman have ever even heard of each other. Funny…in my mind they’re all cut from the same cloth, the fabric of deception and irresponsibility. Call me judgmental if you like—I’ll take that. But it’s not about me. It’s about American boys who somehow think they can, and must get away with something – something bad.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I started this blog last October at a time when my own observations of the state of our nation led me to a stunning conclusion: The world moves and changes so fast now that if our country has poor leadership, it can set progress back a full generation –or more. At that time George Bush had proven himself to be inadequate as a leader, and determined to adhere to his misguided principles, even to the detriment of the everyday American citizen.

It is the collective determination and wisdom of those citizens that will restore America to its traditional greatness. That is why when I came across a new movement called Born Again American, I was quite moved. Here you have smart, forward-thinking, determined American citizens, banding together, coast to coast, lifting their voices in their shared effort to be heard. As one who has always believed that one person can truly make a positive difference in the world, it was a joyous experience for me to find out that upwards of 90,000 Americans have signed the Born Again American Pledge.
Here is what it says:

I am a born American
I am my country’s keeper
My President and my Congress report to me—
And so,
I will stay informed and involved
I will make my voice heard
And not just at election time
I can make a difference
I matter
I am an American – born again
On the Born Again American website, you will find critical information about how to communicate with your elected officials; how to volunteer in your community; how to register to vote; and you will learn about your precious freedoms.

Speak up. Be heard. You matter. You absolutely do.

Monday, February 9, 2009


When President Obama took the unprecedented initiative last week to cap corporate executive salaries, Wall Street balked, while middle America uttered a collective “Finally.” What on earth had gone so awry in the free enterprise system that could allow the top guy at a money-losing company to pocket up to $20 million a year? Does it mean that capitalism doesn’t work? Or does it signify a full lack of ethics in corporate America? Even worse, could it just simply mean that greed is indigenous to the human race? Any way you slice it, the no-possible-excuse imbalance in executive compensation has us riled up. Real riled up.

I worked in the corporate system for many years. I watched how the wheels turned. I came away from my too-long corporate experience with this observation: Ambition can be a powerful thing, and power? Well, power in the corporate system has more to do with income than anything else. Not company income, necessarily, but personal income. So when Merrill-Lynch is swallowed up at the eleventh hour by Bank of America, and ends up issuing a fourth quarter earnings report showing a $1.79 billion loss – we citizens out here are rightfully outraged (enraged?) to learn that the CEO, John Thain, took home combined income of about $20 million last year, and toward the end of the year suggested to savior Bank of America that they should ante up millions more for a bonus. John Thain’s salary was roughly 400 times that of the average Merill-Lynch employee. What’s wrong with this picture, you ask? Everything.

If Thain’s excessive greed and sub-standard job performance were not enough to heighten public awareness of the inequities in American business, consider Howard Schulz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks. As a reminder, the company had to close 600 stores in 2008. By early this year, the company announced 300 more closings, resulting in a projected 7,000 jobs lost. Why? Because the company reports its profits plunged by two-thirds in its first fiscal quarter reports. All of this happened in a company whose CEO took home $9.7 million last year. The company released prideful press releases touting the fact that its CEO’s compensation as decreased by 23 percent from the $12.6 million the boss pocketed the previous year.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the corporate compensation system in America has serious unresolved issue . A few examples: Lehman Brothers may have bit the dust in 2008, but in 2007 its CEO, Richard Fuld, collected $45 million, according to Equilar, an executive pay research company. Just last week, Macy’s cut 7,000 jobs. Days later various media reports revealed that five top Macy’s execs just received the final installment of a $1.38 million performance bonus from 2004. (It begs the question why bonuses from 2004 are still being paid in 2009, but nevertheless, something wicked this way comes if you were to ask any of the newly unemployed Macy’s associates).

It is all about living large, is it not? Just ask Rick Waggoner, the CEO of General Motors. His company reported a loss of $38.7 billion in 2008, the same year his own compensation was increased by 33 percent. Hello?

In addition to the outlandish salaries and bonuses corporate execs enjoy in our culture, their spending habits are off the map. Late last year after the CEOs of the Big Three U.S. automakers (right) each flew to Washington in their private jets to beg for money to keep their industry alive, Americans started to sit up and pay attention. In rapid succession, we saw any number of major players in the U.S. business arena fess up about not just inexplicably high executive salaries, but also excessive spending on nothing more than creature comforts.

Even the U.S. government is not immune to crazed spending. Last week reported that the House Democratic Caucus spent half a million dollars of our money on retreats. Couldn’t they retreat to somebody’s palatial digs in D.C.? Or better yet, couldn’t they retreat to a private meeting space in a government building? I guess they figure what’s good for corporateland is good for our elected officials. After all, that was the same week that Wells Fargo, recently bailed out to the tune of $25 billion by the U.S. government, reluctantly cancelled its planned a 12-night junket to Vegas for some of its top performers. Who goes to Vegas for 12 nights anyway? That would have been the big over-spending news of the month, had it not been for Citibank, recently bailed out in the amount of $45 billion. Citibank was just about ready to take delivery on its shiny, new $50 million corporate jet, when they were forced (shamed) into cancelling the order.

The President’s new directive restricting CEO salaries to $500,000 is a step in the right direction, but only a baby step. What ever happened to tying executive compensation to job performance? When a company loses $38.7 billion, as GM did, then let’s find out where the buck stops. If it stops with the CEO, then the CEO either has to forgo a significant chunk of his cash, or he has to go to work somewhere else. Of course, that doesn’t always work either. Consider Bob Nardelli, the CEO of Home Depot who got canned from GE just to land on his feet at the Depot, and somehow negotiate a compensation package of $240 million. Home Depot’s stock didn’t plummet, but it didn’t climb. Nardelli got canned again. Where is he now? He’s CEO of rapidly-sinking Chrysler, salary unknown (because it’s a privately owned company).

What we really have to do here is speak up. “We” means you. You need to start writing to your elected representatives expressing your own angst about the imbalance in the American corporate compensation system. I’ll make this easy for you. Go to this Congressional email directory to quickly find the address of your elected senators and representatives. Write something brief. They don’t like to read much, you know. Tell them you’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore. Remind them they are there in Washington at your pleasure. You made it possible for them to be in the club. Tell them the money is yours and you want more of a voice in how it is spent. Tell them before anybody is allowed to make a half million dollars being a mucky muck, you want assurance they have performance standards they must meet in order to receive the money. Tell them you want built in step-downs in their salaries for each benchmark revenue point they fail to achieve. So, for every billion G.M. loses, perhaps Mr. Waggoner loses, say, $50,000. Or, perhaps his planned income is reduced by one percent. In 2008, had they used this calculation, Mr. Waggoner would not have realized any increase in his compensation, and he would be about six percent in the hole. We struggling car buyers out here like that formula. A lot.

Then, exercise your rights in the free enterprise system. If you are suitably pissed off that Citibank is so reckless as to order a $50 million jet, then don’t patronize Citibank. And then write to the board of directors at Citibank and tell them why you will not spend any money with their institution.

Before you start sending me mad-dog email messages calling me a “socialist,” consider this. It is not socialism when the free enterprise system has a value system built in. And it is not socialism when people are required to succeed in order to be rewarded. It is not socialism to resent the fact that a CEO earns 400 times what a regular employee earns.

As I have so often begged before: Get mad with me, willya? We can move mountains if we speak up and band together. You have to howl at the moon to get the clouds to move out of the way. Just do it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Until this month, the biggest recent news out of the Vatican was that Pope Benedict XVI (below, left) was stepping up – way up – to the digital age, by starting his own YouTube channel. That caused passing interest among the world’s population, but nothing even close to international reaction to two later announcements:

First came news that the Pope is bringing disgraced Bishop Richard Williamson back into the church. Williamson, who had been consecrated as a bishop without the approval of the Vatican, was excommunicated in 1988. The current Pope refers to this reversal of his predecessor’s decision as “rehabilitation.” Williamson is most known for his assertion that the holocaust has been blown way out of proportion, that six million Jews did not die, and that there were no gas chambers in the German concentration camps.

Increasingly liberal columnist Christopher Buckley wrote a good piece on this debacle this week. As you read it, you will have an opportunity to click through to another piece by Buckley about his in-person visit to Auschwitz. Buckley’s account of visiting the infamous death camp is more than riveting. Further, it is all the evidence needed to cause one to wonder what Pope Benedict’s motivation could possibly be for readmitting Williamson to the church. And if all of that were not enough to outrage an otherwise compassionate populous, an interview Williamson granted Swedish TV in November of last year should do the trick – especially the part where Williams posits that the buildings we always thought were gas chambers could not have served that purpose since their chimneys were not high enough. Yes, he honestly said that. See for yourself:

The Pope lifted Williamson’s excommunication on January 21. Immediately there was a worldwide uproar, especially when the video you just viewed found wide distribution. On January 30, Williamson, probably fearing the Pope might rethink his unfortunate reversal, wrote a public letter to Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, apologizing for his “imprudent remarks” on Swedish TV. By the end of the week, the Pope was issuing statements reassuring naysayers that the Vatican does not support holocaust deniers. Except apparently, Richard Williamson. It remains to be seen how the Pope and his minions will handle this international public relations disaster. Stay tuned.

Just as the groundswell of outrage was making itself heard about Williamson came news that Pope Benedict had installed Father Gerhard Maria Wagner (below, right) as Bishop in the Austrian city of Lenz. Wagner’s name will ring an off-key bell with some readers, particularly those in New Orleans. Back in 2005, Wagner publicly stated that Hurricane Katrina was the direct result of “spiritual pollution,” and that God was exacting retribution on a city with “the best brothels and the prettiest prostitutes.” As evidence of the widespread debauchery that New Orleans represents, he pointed out that the hurricane destroyed abortion clinics and nightclubs. He did not, however, mention the churches, hospitals, hospices, homeless shelters, nursing homes or schools for the disabled that were also under water. He failed to include the elderly citizens who washed away in the storm because they were too weak or too poor to escape. And, of course, he neglected to mention the good citizens who were found dead, weeks, even months after the storm, in the attics of their homes, where they sought refuge from the merciless rising waters. “The conditions of immorality in this city are indescribable,” Wagner said at the time. As it turned out, the real and sole issue of immorality during Katrina was the level of poverty that demanded some citizens stay behind and perish. Wagner, of course did not understand that -- because he wasn't here.

Wagner’s ascent to Bishop of Lenz was strictly an executive decision from the Pope. Reportedly, Pope Benedict did not confer with any of the reigning clerics in Lenz.

News reports about Williamson and Wagner routinely refer to these Papal decisions as signs of increasing “conservatism” from the Vatican. More importantly, such moves are truly signals of intolerance. By supporting and promoting a revisionist priest who denies the holocaust, and another whose judgmental and disrespectful comments condemn the entire population of a U.S. city, the Pope sets an example of dogmatism and arrogance that contributes nothing to the greater good. Catholics, Jews and the good citizens of New Orleans deserve so much better.