Saturday, March 27, 2010

Executive Bonuses and Babe Ruth

Recent reports of executives of corporations on the verge of bankruptcy using taxpayer dollars to vote themselves seven-figure bonuses reminded me of the (apocryphal) story of the time in 1928 when Babe Ruth, after his legendary 60-home run season, told his team's General Manager that he wanted $80,000 to play for the next season. Aghast, his boss pointed out that the President of the United States was only paid $75,000 a year. To which the Babe is supposed to have retorted, "So? I had a better year than he did!"

If executives of a failing firm take taxpayer money, I say they ought to stay late for 2 hours every night to vacuum the carpets, wash and wax the linoleum, clean out the ashtrays, and then come in on weekends to cut the grass, scrub the toilets, refill the vending machines, and do the windows.

A Modest Proposal

Instead of multimillion dollar bonuses, shouldn't executives of failing businesses receiving taxpayer funds get a tip jar?

Pat Robertson's "Pact with the Devil" Remarks about Haiti

In case you hadn't heard, Pat Robertson attributed the earthquake in Haiti to a pact the Haitians had made with the devil in exchange for repelling their colonial masters. Most entertainingly, he affirmed that it was a "true story!"

If anybody cares for my opinion, I think Pat Robertson is an empty-headed, delusional, mean-spirited, bigoted, cowardly, yellow-bellied son of a b****, and, given the chance, I would be *delighted* to *personally* throw him to the lions, light the fire to burn him at the stake--or BOTH!

P.S. If anybody hasn't already heard it, check out Sam Kinison's bit on Mr. Robertson- it is *priceless*.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Royalty in Wartime/Sixty-Five Years Ago Tonight

In my studies of World War II, one of the things that always intrigued me in the spectrum of behavior that members of different national royal families show. Any Englishman knows that during the London Blitz, King George VII stayed in London and, at one point, Buckingham Palace sustained a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb. Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), commented that she could look any Eastender in the eye. On the continent, the King of Norway and the King of the Netherlands both went into exile in hopes of later liberating their countries. In contrast, the King of Belgium tried to deal with Hitler. After the war, he lost his crown.

The King of Denmark, Christian X, quite deservedly became a legend in his own time. On April 9, 1940, when the German Army marched into Copenhagen, the sentries guarding Denmark’s royal palace, though outnumbered 100 to 1, opened fire rather than surrender. After about half an hour, the King sent word to cease fire. For the next five years, Christian X did everything that one man could do to oppose the Nazi occupation and the Danish people followed his example. It is an apocryphal story that when the Nazi authorities tried to order Danish Jews to wear a yellow star, Christian X would wear one as well. While it’s not true, the truth is even better. Danish Gentiles ran enormous risks to smuggle virtually every Danish Jew out of the country. In contrast, on the other side of the world, Emperor Hirohito compiled a dramatically different record. Sixty-five years ago, on March 9/10, the U.S. 21st Air Force launched a devastating raid on Tokyo. The new commanding officer, Curtis LeMay, shocked his pilots by announcing that, henceforth, B-29s would attach at night flying at low altitude (around 7,000 feet), every plane flying independently, dropping incendiary bombs with all defensive armament removed from the planes. This would increase each plane’s bomb load capacity. His subordinates suspected that LeMay had lost his mind and was going to get them all killed. However, that evening, 325 B-29s took off to bomb Tokyo. A few minutes past midnight, on March 10th, the bombs started landing and the combination of the wooden construction of most Japanese buildings, combined with a 40-mph wind that night, produced cataclysmic results.

Later that day, Hirohito got a briefing from Japan’s chief fire marshal who informed him that the country had absolutely no defense against further attacks. Japan had very few night fighters, very few anti-aircraft guns and the attack had destroyed 100 out of Tokyo’s 250 fire stations. Hirohito played Hamlet: he told his advisers to seek ways to end the war and not to be restricted by previous methods. It was not, however, until the early morning hours of August 10, 1945 that Hirohito had the moral courage to order an unconditional surrender. It is mind-boggling how many lives Hirohito could have saved if he’d had a fraction of the moral courage of Christian X or the Royal Family.

(The reaction of the Dowager Empress when she heard of the devastation at Hiroshima? She told her country to build a bigger bomb shelter.)

I Say the Right Thing, For Once

Largely a result of my Aspergian nature, at times, I fear that I am a walking, talking gaffe machine. Over the years, however, I’ve worked very hard at making statements that will NOT get me in trouble. Every once in a great while, I succeed at making a hit. Last month, I had to transact some business with the local Social Security office. (A prospect that does not gladden the heart of the average American.) After I’d finished my business, I said to the worker who had waited on me, “If you ever start feeling underappreciated, I want you to call me.” (I figure that’s a bit nicer than the usual, perfunctory “thank you.”) She laughed and informed me that, in her twelve years of working at that office, I was the first person to ever tell her that I appreciated her work.

Last week, while waiting in line to go through airport security in Miami, I noticed that the woman ahead of me was extremely vertically challenged. In a good-natured voice, I said, “Ma’am, it’s a pleasure to meet the lady who designed airline coach seats. They must fit you perfectly, don’t they?” I am happy to report that she not only laughed, but she really cackled and informed me that was the cleverest comment she had heard in fifty-five years. I’m glad to have, apparently, brightened her day.

Royalty, Romance and Mystery: A Very Short Story (In Under Ten Words)

“I’m pregnant,” cried the princess. “Whodunit?”

How I Helped Katie Smith Score

For those who do not appreciate the great sport of women’s basketball, you have my sympathy. My family has been supporting women’s basketball from day one. Not only did my mother play the game in high school before World War II, but my Great Aunt Hazel played women’s varsity at Kansas State University, class of 1917. I have a picture of her with her teammates at Sevrey High School, class of 1910. (Back when William Howard Taft was in office.) Great Aunt Hazel passed in 2006, five weeks before her 112th birthday. I tell friends that when Dr. Naismith nailed up that first peach basket, Great Aunt Hazel was probably holding the ladder for him.

By coincidence, here in Columbus resides the young lady who, for my money, is the best female basketball player ever to lace up sneakers: Katherine May Smith, number 30. For a short pop quiz, please answer the following questions. 1) If you combine the point totals from both the American Basketball League and the Women’s National Basketball Association, who is the highest-scoring player in the history of women’s professional basketball? 2) Who has hit more three-point shots than any other player in the history of women’s professional basketball? 3) Who set a WNBA record, scoring 41 points in one game? 4) Who, the very next week, broke her own record with a 44-point effort in an overtime game? 5) Who, in her last season in the ABL, had a higher free-throw percentage (89.5%) than all but ONE player in the NBA? 6) Who is one of a handful of women who have won THREE Olympic gold medals in women’s basketball?

The correct answers are Katie Smith, Katie Smith, Katie Smith, Katie Smith, Katie Smith and Katie Smith.

I first saw Katie Smith playing her freshman year for Ohio State in 1992. She had some fine teammates and that season, Ohio State’s team made it clear to the NCAA Championship Game. I happened to be listening to the game on the radio, and at first, the team from Texas Tech was putting the Lady Buckeyes to rout. Crestfallen, I changed the radio station. To my amazement (I am NOT making this up), I heard Mike and the Mechanics singing, “All I Need is a Miracle.” I’m not one for believing in divine signs, but I did turn back to the station carrying the game. To my amazement, Ohio State came back and took over the lead. Too bad they couldn’t hold onto it. The Lady Bucks were two points shy of a National Championship.

For the next three years, Katie Smith endured what must have been the basketball equivalent of Hell. What happens when you have a team with one world-class player who gets absolutely no help? That’s what Katie Smith went through her first three years at Ohio State. I could not have blamed her one bit if she hadn’t quit the team in disgust and transferred to another school. But she stuck with it and spent the rest of her days as a Buckeye.

It was not until years later that I learned that Katie could have gone to Stanford, as they had offered her a full scholarship. That’s one more reason why Katie Smith enjoys folk hero status in the state of Ohio. I found the experience of watching Katie trying to win games playing, in effect, one on five, that I simply couldn’t bear to watch the games. The day of Katie Smith’s last game at Ohio State, a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch wrote, “Today is Katie Smith’s last game at Ohio State. What would you do if you had the chance to watch Jerry Lucas play one last game in college?”

I got myself over to St. John’s Arena.

A few months earlier, I had been in Ohio Stadium when Eddie George played his last football game at Ohio State, and I was one of 95,000 fans chanting, “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!” at the top of our collective lungs. Six months later, I was in St. John’s Arena with a crowd of 9,500, largely consisting of pre-teenage schoolgirls who were positively shrieking Katie’s name. It sounded like the death scream of a million guinea pigs. (My poor ears!) My readers might ask what I was doing. I was yelling Katie’s name at the top of my lungs while firmly pressing both of my ears shut. Two things stand out in my memory about that game, even fifteen years later. One was that Katie Smith played lights-out. Not only did she hit shots from all over the court, but she played great defense, grabbed some rebounds and made some excellent passes. She got what seemed like no help at all from her teammates and Ohio State lost a close game to Penn State. The other thing that I will never forget is that whoever organized the Senior Day ceremony was a complete idiot. There were four graduating seniors. The moron planning that ceremony had Katie Smith introduced to the fans second-to-last. I can only sympathize with the young lady introduced last because when the announcer called Katie Smith’s name, the crowd cheered until the rafters rocked. The next girl only got a smattering of polite applause.

I remember a columnist in Columbus’s underground newspaper writing a story entitled, “Thanks for Everything, Katie.” It was a bittersweet piece recounting Katie Smith’s amazing performance and career at Ohio State. It was also a lament that we would never see her like again.

It came as a totally unexpected and thoroughly pleasant surprise when the Dispatch announced that a new women’s basketball league, the ABL, would have a franchise in Columbus called the Quest. Katie Smith had signed on, as well. I rarely missed a game. Happily enough, the Quest went to the trouble of signing someone fine players. For the first time since her freshman year, Katie had a bunch of great teammates. Watching the ladies of the Quest play was, for a basketball aficionado, about the equivalent of an opera fan getting to listen to Pavarotti at the top of his game along with Kiri Te Kanawa, Renee Fleming and Enrico Caruso. That season, the Quest won the ABL Championship. The next season, they won another championship. (They lost their first home game by a single point and then won 25 straight.)

One time, I made a “road trip” down to Katie Smith’s hometown of Logan, Ohio, where she and her teammates played a five-on-five scrimmage. My date and I paid the exorbitant admission fee of one dollar. We got to watch as fine a basketball game as I’ve ever seen.

One of the fringe benefits of attending Quest games was getting to meet both the players and their families. I got to meet Katie Smith’s parents, both of her grandmothers and her brothers, John and Tommy. (My collaborator asked why the Smith family would name a son “John.” The answer is because that’s what the father was named.) Upon meeting those two young men, I gained a whole new insight into why Katie Smith developed into such an amazing basketball player. She managed to survive on the court playing against her one-year younger and one-year older brothers. Aside from the fact that John’s hair is black and Tommy’s is light brown, they could almost be twins. A bit over six feet tall with shoulders that just about span the horizon. If I was going to get a Christmas present for those guys, I would have to buy them each TWO wristwatches because their shoulders are just about in different time zones. During my trip to Logan, I learned that both Katie and her younger brother, John, were valedictorians of their high school classes. Katie’s older brother played on a I-AA National Championship team and is now a tenured college professor. Her younger brother was a two-sport varsity athlete at Ohio University in football and track. Last I heard, the younger brother was finishing up his residency to be a doctor. (Editorial comment: They grow them big and smart at the Smith house.) I must mention that Katie Smith’s father happens to be a dentist, which accounts for the fact that all three of his children have amazingly bright smiles and Dr. Smith once told me that his daughter had managed to make it into her mid-twenties without a single cavity.

LTE: The Making of a President, 1988

For anyone wondering what LTE stands for, that’s “Letter to England.” I occasionally correspond with an English lawyer, but everyone else is welcome to read this. It’s always interesting to look at American affairs from the perspective of another country. Clear back in 1973, three young men decided to rob a filling station. Although the 19-year-old clerk cooperated and handed over the sixty dollars in the register, the three robbers knifed him nineteen times, stuffed his body into a garbage can and one commented, “That’s just one more dead [racial slur deleted].” One of those three criminal geniuses was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Fortunately for him, he committed his crime in Massachusetts and was eligible for a weekend furlough program. In 1988, he decided not to return. A few months later, he was apprehended in Maryland, after having repeatedly raped a woman and bound, gagged and knifed her fiancĂ©. To this day, he claims to be innocent of that crime, so I guess it’s just extraordinarily bad luck on his part that when he was arrested, he was driving that woman’s car. That man’s name was Willie Horton.

After being convicted of robbery and aggravated rape, Massachusetts actually asked the state of Maryland to extradite Horton to serve the rest of his original sentence. The judge in Maryland emphatically rejected that notion, stating that he could not take the chance that Mr. Horton would ever be free again.

Now, my esteemed colleague at the bar, if you were the governor of Massachusetts and this situation came to your attention, would you a) fire the head of the furlough program then throw him out a third-story window then declare that you wouldn’t hire him to be second assistant dogcatcher then profusely apologize to the family of the victim or b) declare that the furlough program had been 90% effective and refuse to meet with the grieving family. Governor Michael Dukakis chose b) and now you have a better understanding of why he lost the 1988 Presidential Election. President Nixon once commented of the Watergate scandal, “I gave them a sword. They shoved it in to the hilt and twisted it 180 degrees.” In the Willie Horton case, Governor Dukakis handed his Republican opponents about a dozen complete sets of Ginzu knives. He lost in a landslide.

A great many Americans did not have the confidence that Dukakis had the ability to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. (Some people say that’s the Attorney General; I say that he or she takes orders from the President.)

As might be expected, a great many so-called civil rights activists squeal like stuck pigs that the Republicans’ use of Horton was racist. About the only good thing that I can say about the whole sorry episode is that today, Wille Horton has spent the last 21 years in a maximum-security prison in Maryland and his prospects for release for the next 20 years are extremely unlikely. (Unless he leaves with a tag on his toe, which would suit me just fine.) This, of course, proves that I’m a racist.

Gays in the Military

I once met one of the most famous gays in the United States Navy. I am referring, of course, to Lieutenant George Gay, the hero of the Battle of Midway. During the first stage of the battle, 47 American torpedo planes attacked the Japanese aircraft carriers. All but seven were shot down. In Gay’s outfit, all 15 planes were shot down and 29 out of 30 airmen were killed. Then-Ensign Gay was the only survivor of the torpedo squadron of the U.S.S. Hornet. He spent a couple of hours floating on the water until he had the extraordinary good fortune of being picked up by a PB-Y, an American flying boat. If the Japanese had found him, his story would have ended right there. The Japanese were not taking prisoners.

Gay had a ringside seat to a spectacular display when, just after his plane hit the water, American dive-bombers showed up and repeatedly hit three Japanese carriers whose decks were covered with fueled plane, bombs and torpedoes. That was arguably the decisive day of the war.

Surprisingly enough, although Gay was the only survivor of the squadron, he later returned to the theater and served a second term of duty. I met Lieutenant Gay in Dayton, Ohio in 1992 and I’m glad I had the chance to shake his hand. Gay died a few years later, well into his seventies, asking that is ashes be scattered over the Pacific, where his friends in the torpedo squadron had died more than fifty years later.

Now, I’ll segue into a different topic. I have worked in an office where the next room over was gay. No problem. I worked in a government agency in which the boss’s boss was a gay woman, no problem at all. Having said that, I do not care to share a bed with a gay man, even if it is a bunk bed. I do not want a gay roommate and I do not want to shower with other men who I know are gay. If the guys I happen to shower with are gay, I do NOT want to hear about it. I really don’t want to hear about it. My collaborator is quite fond of bringing up the analogy that half a century ago, a great many white men did not like the idea of sharing living facilities with blacks. To which I reply, we don’t ask women to shower with men, now do we? I note that one woman I knew while I was in the Navy once mentioned that one of her roommates was gay and she didn’t have a problem with it. To which I say, to each their own. I’d also like to point out that, at least in my experience, there was an unofficial don’t ask, don’t tell policy and I never saw anything like a witch hunt. Indeed, I recall one young black woman named Jennifer Cunningham, who was unofficially regarded as being gay, but no one gave her a rough time about it. One day, I was sitting in the day room, watching the John Tate/Michael Dokes heavyweight title fight. Petty Officer Cunningham walked into the dayroom and proclaimed, “Oh, gross! Gross! Gross! Two guys saying, ‘I’m more butch than you.’” To which I replied, “Don’t worry about it, Jennifer, no one’s butcher than you.”

To people who point out that homosexuals who publicly proclaim their orientation are discharged, I note that some historical context may be useful. Back during WWII, homosexual conduct called for a general court martial. The usual penalty was 95 years in prison. It is possible that this new generation of American servicemen and women are comfortable with the idea of sharing close quarters with open homosexuals. All I can say is that the sailors and Marines with whom I served would have a major problem with the idea.

Something I Learned in Constitutional Law Class

When I was taking Constitutional Law at Notre Dame, more than twenty years ago, one of the professors posed a hypothetical to the class. He asked of one student, I think it was Chip Lewis, “If Christian groups should be allowed to place a cross on the grounds of the state capitol building.” Chip replied, “Sure.” The professor then asked, “How about a menorah?” Chip replied, “Sure.” (In the circles in which I move, anti-Semitism is completely beyond the pale.) The professor continued, “How about a Ramadan display?” Silence. The professor raised a troubling question. We certainly cannot allow a policy on religious displays on public property to be resolved by a popular vote. I’ll note in passing that, while Protestants and Catholics in America might disagree on any number of issues, the sort of sectarian conflict that plagued Europe for centuries and still remains a source of terrible conflict in Ireland for most of the previous century is simply unheard of in America. So the policy that U.S. federal judges have settled upon is simple and, I believe, correct. Either no religious displays are allowed at all, or any displays by any faith are allowed. A few years ago, an atheist group got quite a few people seriously riled by posting a display in a statehouse and a lot of people got upset. I am happy to report that no one got hurt or arrested. My collaborator constantly bemoans the widespread, although not officially sanctioned, discrimination about atheists. I agree pointing out to him that he would never vote for former Governor Huntsman of Utah because the man is a Mormon. (You don’t see that as hypocritical?) I want to add a caveat: I am not ragging on anybody’s religion or lack thereof. Rather, I’m celebrating the fact that, in America, everyone has freedom of conscience.

I’m also happy to report that in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, we have never, in my half-century of living in this town, have never had a pissing contest over displays at the state capitol. One reason may be the fact that just one block west and two blocks south of the state house, a distance of just over a hundred yards, Columbus’s biggest department store always featured an electric light display of green electric lights that formed a Christmas tree five stories high. The name of the store was Lazarus. American Ecumenicalism is a wonderful thing.

George Washington’s Ecumenicalism

Recently, I’ve done considerable reading about George Washington, our first president. I have learned a great many things that make Washington a far more interesting figure than the plaster saint created by Parson Weems after Washington’s death would suggest. (The cherry tree story, for example, is a complete fabrication.) Here’s a story that I suspect none of my readers have ever heard before.

In 1784, Washington learned that his estate at Mount Vernon was in need of a good carpenter and a good bricklayer. He wrote to his foreman, Tench Tillman, “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa or Europe. They may be Mohammedans, Jew s or Christians of any sect or they may be atheists.” I found that an extraordinary sentiment for a man in the late 18th century. I like to think that some of Washington’s just-get-someone-who-will-get-the-job-done-spirit remains today.

Another letter of Washington’s, written in August of 1790 to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, just about made me tear up. By way of background, a few years earlier, the Emperor of Austria had issued an Edict of Toleration, proclaiming that the Austrian empire would now tolerate Jews. The Emperor really went whole hog on the toleration business, he even announced that the Austrian Empire would officially tolerate Protestants as well. (Jews? Maybe. But tolerating Protestants?) In 1790, the leaders of the Touro Synagogue had written Washington on his election to the Presidency. They asked him what his government’s policy toward Jews would be. Washington replied, “Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worth of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should conduct themselves as good citizens giving it on all occasions their support.”