Sunday, August 20, 2017

Do The Democrats Belong In The Major Leagues?

I believe there is very little in life that cannot be illuminated by a reference to baseball, and if not baseball, then basketball.

Take our political situation. Our team is the Democrats. We can love them, we can hate them, we can hold grudges – my grudge against Hillary and the other Clintons hasn't shown signs of weakening, and I voted for them but I think no matter the opposition I would vote against $50 millionairess Chelsea, since even home team allegiance has limits – we can deplore their ineptitude, but they are our team. We can admire players on the other team, from time to time, but the admiration always has to be somewhat grudging, because they are the opposition. Mantle was great, but not ours. Ted Williams – well, there's the exception, especially because he was always so beleaguered, he was called back to service for the Korean War for God's sake, and he never won it all.

But anyway, when you are losing badly, the dreaded word “rebuilding” comes up from the depths. Can anyone be more in the depths than the Dems? Statehouses, state legislatures, House, Senate, Presidency, and the stolen Supreme Court? All gone, ladies and gentlemen, all gone. How can you not think, “rebuilding time!”

How did we get here? I indict Hillary and the Clintons, of course, that's an easy call. Ineptitude, here is your avatar, losing an unlosable election by playing – OK, switching sports – a prevent defense, for God's sake. We all know by now that a prevent defense prevents winning. I'm still getting posts on Facebook of Hillary warning against Trump. Yes, she was right, of course she was right. But it was still a stupid thing to do. Your mean teacher warning you – that's sure a winner. Just as it was stupid for Hillary and Bill, with their famous long memories and penchants for revenge, to squash any young pretenders of any possible support, so the only challenge came from Bernie. Yes, he did a great job, but come on, can you think that one-track Bernie, right as he may be on that single track, is the future of the franchise? A great free agent from the land of the Independent, admirable, an amazing season, it would be great to see him do something again, but the future? Maybe a guide, but not the strong shoulders to lift everyone up, not a Mike Trout to build around. But he was all that was left.

Strong leaders build strong teams. They go out and recruit the Kevin Durant and pledge to play together and love one another. They don't protect themselves by bringing on dwarfs like Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Yes, Hillary looked like the charming one in comparison to ol' Debbie, but come on, man.

And much as we love and admire BHO – I don't think that set of initials is going to stick as well as, say, KD (love KD!) – he didn't build a strong legacy. He didn't educate the country, he didn't as they say “change the conversation,” he didn't find the great leaders and promote them. He stuck us with Hillary, sorry to say. He doesn't seem to be gregarious, he hung out with young staff guys and his golf crowd, so how could he find out who was a hot comer? He couldn't even remember Pete Buttigieg's name when asked for the possible rising stars, calling him “the Mayor of South Bend, that guy” – Bill Clinton would know his name and his boyfriend's name, how to seduce him politically, what his weakness was, and would have found him a role and made sure he wasn't threatening – but that was his weakness, not strengthening people.

Obama left us with very little. Maybe it's not his fault, but I think it really is. Great guy with many weaknesses, and one of them was not making use of his great strength of expression. Where were the great speeches building a program legacy? Where were his close allies ready to take charge? Maybe he'll come through now, maybe. He's so smart and he can really learn.

OK, so we're rebuilding. When teams rebuild, they look to their farm system, and they trade for the future. Well, trading's not something to rely on in politics, but the farm system, that's where you have to look, and you have to recognize when the old team is lagging. Nancy and Steny might still have knowledge and strength, but they're losing, so time to pack up. Sorry. Nice job.

To find the new stars, there's no way to tell who can do it without putting them in the batter's box. This is the time, just like when the current season is gone, put the young guys in and see who can throw strikes for outs and who can hit major league pitching. With the midterms lurking, it's time not only to see what candidates can run well in the districts, but higher up in the order, who can go around to the districts and give speeches for those guys and gals, who can make the good connections on a personal level, who can strike the right notes, hit the singles and doubles all across the country and head for the middle of next year's lineup. It's tryout time.

Trump is throwing a fastball right across the middle, and his team can't get rid of him with his unbreakable contract. Now, who on our Dem team can hit those pitches out of the park? Somebody should be able. We're looking around for them. We see them coming through MSNBC, and then we'll see who can go around to the various ballparks and prove they belong in the show.

The message? They'll have to form the message. We know the outline; the stars will have to fill in the blanks and express it their way. The ownership can't do it – “A Better Deal” proves that point. We'll see how the show gets formed on the road, to mix show biz into the analogy. You find the stars, and then you field the team around them. Politics should be a team sport.

There is no guarantee that the team will assemble itself into a winner, of course. There is an opposing team, and they have journeymen masquerading as stars, I'd say – but they are familiar by now and well on their way to winnowing down to their strongest. And the old line Dems could still hold sway. I'm from Philadelphia, and any fan from Philly knows how to suffer. I remember Connie Mack. In those pre-free agency days Mack not only managed the A's, he was the owner, so he couldn't be fired. Decades of frustration were the product of stagnation. What did he care? The A's were “his team.”

Ownership is key to winning; look how the derelict Warriors transformed themselves when the Milwaukee group bought them and hired Don Nelson in the 80's, and how the story repeated itself in spades these last five years to produce one of the finest teams ever. Not only ownership willing to spend, but ownership willing to bring in Jerry West and to listen to him, to bring in Bob Myers and let him operate, ownership willing to play the true ownership role.

Ownership in politics has changed from the years of Bob Strauss and the backroom boys. I'm not sure how it works now. But in the end, either the old Dems will keep holding sway, or a new group of owners will emerge to identify the stars and produce an organization that actually functions, unlike the DNC who couldn't even respond when they found they were being hacked. Seriously, they couldn't. And they couldn't bring out the voters who would make a difference in Milwaukee, in Philly, in Michigan. What a horrible organization. (I wish they would stop calling our home for donations, Jesus, enough already! We're not giving you a cent! Or at least I'm not; I can't speak for Ann. She's probably more level-headed than I am.) But maybe Bernie and Obama can make peace and with a few others – please keep Hillary out! – see which of the youngsters is hitting and give them the support they need.

So, that's the deal now. Who can find the right balance of decrying the Republicans and offering a vision of hope and progress that makes sense, who can go to the ballparks across the country and keep getting hits? And when the stars emerge, as they will, can there be an ownership to guide them into a team that brings all the strengths together?

Remember, Cornelius McGillicuddy's A's eventually moved to Oakland with a different owner and produced some of the finest teams in history. They actually rebuilt under new ownership, and the result was, as they say, history. I can't say that I still don't hold a grudge against Connie Mack, and against Hillary, but there's nothing like winning to take the edge off.

I'm ready for the new season. More than ready. But if they mess it up again, then you finally have to say, we need a new team to be able to compete in the Majors. I'm hopeful it doesn't come to that.

Budd Shenkin

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

Sometimes, you just don't where it will come from. My favorite book for this summer is The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish. The name “Kadish” is probably not familiar to you, but it's the name of one of my best friends in medical school, Larry Kadish. We were guards together on many a basketball team. We worked well together, mutual respect and affection. He told me, one of the great compliments of my life, that I could be hung over, exhausted, or sick, no matter, I would always get my points. How can I not love Larry?

Then, halfway through med school he married one of our classmates, Anna Stein, from New York, but before that from Holocaust Poland to the US through the Eastern route. At our reunion in June, I told Anna that I played cards with a fellow Jewish pediatrician who was from Shanghai originally, and I had told him that my classmate Anna had escaped through China. “Japan,” she said, “but close enough.”

I still feel a little guilty that when Anna went into labor and I had volunteered to stay with Larry while she was in labor – in those days I had the idea that men stayed outside the delivery room and smoked, although neither of us did, but maybe we would – but when she went into labor I was at home in Philadelphia and missed my support role, which was big in my eyes. I called Larry a few years ago to apologize, get it off my chest. “That's OK,” said Larry, “I really don't remember anything about it (about my promise to be there, not the birth).” Maybe I wasn't as central to that story as I thought I was.

So, Larry and Anna have a daughter, Rachel. I don't even know which child she is, 1, 2, 3, or 4, but she's in there somewhere. And it turns out she is a writer of novels. They have admirable restraint and didn't go all around the reunion saying that their daughter's book was coming out, after 12 years of working on it, at least not to me, but Ann finally couldn't help it, she posted the link to a New York radio interview of Rachel on our class listserve, not saying anything, just posting it. (

Out of loyalty to them I felt I had to listen, and the book sounded interesting and she sounded charming and intelligent and winning, although if she weren't their kid I wouldn't have voluntarily picked up a book about a blind Jewish rabbi and his female scribe in 17th century London. But I then ordered it on Amazon and put it ahead of finishing my current book, the newest Hitler biography (it's very good – hadn't really understood at all about the Beer Hall Putsch and Weimar Germany).

But then as I read, I found that I couldn't put it down. It's just one of those books you hope to find, a book that you hurry through to the end because you can't put it down but that you don't want to really end. A book that you want to keep with you if you can, maybe just to be able to look at its cover. Twelve years, and it reads not at all like the ponderous title of weighty ink, but flowing sentences, good sentences, and an intricate plot that connects all the way through – at least I think it does, I'm not real good on plot lines.

It's one of those books that alternates chapters of two different stories that are connected. One is the accidental discovery in 2001, in a house dating from the 17th century, as it is being redone and updated to greet the public as a museum, of a set of manuscripts from that period. The owner calls his old medieval history professor, Helen Watt, a seemingly severe English woman about to retire, who we find has a history of being a gentile in the new Jewish land of Israel where she fell in love with an Israeli and loves him still, although in absentia, since it didn't work out. She recruits an American Jewish doctoral candidate, Aaron Levy, to help her. Both are fluent in English, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Latin, I think, and they piece together the meaning of the documents and the history of the people, as they battle in the competitive academic bureaucracy. It is the find of a lifetime, this set of manuscripts of the letters of the rabbi and household accounts. Gradually they piece together the story.

We, however, know much more than they do, because every other chapter traces the life of the rabbi and, more centrally, the scribe, Ester Velasquez, both of whom were exiled from Portugal, the rabbi blinded by the Inquisition, then to Amsterdam, and thence to London in the continuing diaspora. London accepted Jews under Cromwell, perhaps for the business, perhaps because the Bible foretold that the Messiah will appear only when Jews are everywhere. A great picture of what life must have been like for these Jews, the women working hard in the houses and aspiring to little but husbands, the wealthy and the poor living very different lives, the continuing value of learning, life as it must have been lived in the Interregnum and the Restoration. But the excitement of the 17th century story is not only the personal stories – which are good – but the intellectual progress of Ester, and through her, letting us see what the Jews were thinking about, and contending about. Letters go out to many of the well known intellectuals with Ester's razor-sharp questions and logic, to be answered by some, including Spinoza. She resists marriage as it would be a cage, at least until the great plague, and then the fire. It's a compelling, compelling story.

Helen and Aaron, meanwhile, have their own trials to endure, they own paths to follow, their own dilemmas to be faced, their own characters to be probed. The introverted English and the extroverted American, familiar territory, but wonderfully evolved. And in both parallel stories, there is so much of the lives of women, and men, and the process of choosing a mate for feeling and the risks of doing so, and chance, and the continuing story of the Jews, of whom I am one but of which I know so little. I knew in theory what a feat it has been to keep a people alive as a people for eons without a homeland to live in, but this book lets me see that a lot more clearly. It's a serious book, but an intimate one, with continuously touching stories, the kind where you want to break the fourth wall and talk to them. This daughter of Larry and Anna can write.

And then I finished and I reread the comments on the book cover. The front cover has from Toni Morrison: “A gifted writer, astonishingly adept at nuance, narration, and the politics of passion.” I hadn't thought about passion having politics, but now that she points it out, I guess that's right. The back cover has compliments from five authors, and it was only at that point that I realized they were all women. What I had read and loved was a feminist book! Yes, I realized all the way through that she did women better than men, but I hadn't realized that so much of what she was writing about was the plight of women, and the over-weaning nature of so many of the men, although there were good ones, to be sure. But we don't see them as intimately as the women. How come I didn't notice?

Well, I don't notice a lot of things, and when it comes to fiction, I'm no expert, I'm more of an “I like it” kind of guy. Although when pressed, I guess I can hold my own. And I do hope I get pressed on this one, because I think it's a deep, rich book, one that can stand a lot of examination and discussion, and a lot of love.

I wish I could say that is the child whose birth I missed, but probably not, probably a later one. But whatever, even though I don't see them much, these are my dear friends, my classmates, and they have birthed and nurtured someone who has worked so very hard at her craft to be able to produce such a book, and worked very hard to learn enough to produce this very one. As I wrote to Larry and Anna when I was on about page 75, I think this should be a National Book Award contender. I'll stick with that.

Larry, it might be true that I will always get my points, but Rachel has just racked up a lot more than I ever could.

Budd Shenkin