Monday, December 15, 2008

December Shivers

Winter has arrived in Minnesota. The high temperature today, December 15, 2008, was negative something. Negative. Less than zero. Not even none. To make sure we got the point of the hopelessness we face for the next three months or so, the wind was gusting, creating a wind chill that felt like even less than zero, none, negative degrees.

I don’t know about you, but I NEED degrees. The older I get, the worse winter seems. I long ago observed that Venus is too hot for human habitation. Mars is too cold. Minnesota is right on the border, barely warm enough this time of year to sustain life.

Let’s not stop there. Let’s add guilt. For the last four weeks or so, I’ve been battling the worst case (in terms of uninterrupted duration) of sciatica I’ve ever had the displeasure to experience. For three weeks, I needed a cane to help me get around. I’ve been doing without the third leg for the past week, but the pain is constant, albeit subdued. As you may know from my Prairie Pondering profile, I live on a farm. With horses. Horses who suffer silently in the cold in exchange for being fed and watered regularly and, with respect to six of the 13 who call Meadow Breeze Farm their home, being let in and out of the barn on a daily basis.

Where’s the guilt? Because of my sciatica, I haven’t been able to help my wife with barn chores for four weeks. The last four weeks. The last freezing cold four weeks. Every morning and most every evening, she bundles up and becomes the guardian angel of equine dependents. She spends almost an hour in the morning, starting at 6 a.m., and half that in the evenings, tossing hay, filling heated water buckets, cleaning stalls, pouring grain, adjusting blankets just to care for the horses.

The farm is Deb’s dream come true. However, I have a hard time watching her work so hard in this weather as I sit incapacitated, shivering from just the thought of those missing degrees. The guilt is so encompassing that I am at the point where I’ve decided to pursue alternative medicine to get rid of the pain. I have managed to avoid chiropractors for the nearly 40 years since I hurt my working during a summer job while in college. I have dismissed the suggestion of acupuncture as a solution inconsistent with my aversion to needles. Similarly, one need only mention cortisone shots to me to abruptly end a conversation.

But enough is enough. My darling, thoughtful wife bought me a head-to-toe coverall and some Willie Sutton headwear last year with which to survive life on the prairie during the Minnesota winters. If I tough it up and visit one of the “intrusive pain” specialists friends admiring my cane suggested, I should be able to get back outside, carrying my own supply of 98.6 degrees, and shovel horse manure like the pro I aspire to be.

For those of you reading this in Arizona who refer to me as “Son” or “Dad”, I’m glad some of us made it out.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Que Será, Será Observed

I had the occasion to share Irv Stern stories with Sean Rice on Election Night, November 4th. We ran into each other in the ballroom of the Democratic Campaign headquarters hotel at about 1:00 a.m. We had met before but hadn't seen each other in a few years. Sean, who used to work for Governor Rudy Perpich and had been appointed to the staff of the St. Paul World Trade Center at about the time its 36 story headquarters was built, had traveled the world in the 1990's with my dad. Dad had been appointed to serve as the chairman of the Executive Commitee of the St. Paul World Trade Center.

Sean laughingly recalled the time he, Dad and former Congressman Rick Nolan traveled to Bombay. They had checked into a fancy hotel. Dad and Rick had gone to sleep. Sean awoke to the sound of what he thought was gunfire. He thought the hotel was under attack. His terror resided only after he discovered that the explosions causing his distress came from a nightly fireworks display in the park across the street from the hotel. The levity in the story came from the fact that my dad slept through the entire incident, peacefully oblivious to the "threat" while Sean calculated an escape.

The story was relayed on November 5th. The hotel was the Oberoi in what is now known as Mumbai.

This is a strange world. Three weeks after laughing about Sean's needless concern for his safety, the Oberoi was attacked by terrorists targeting western visitors to the luxury hotel. It was as if Sean was describing being in the wrong place at the right time. If it turns out that the terrorists were Kashmiri separatists, their attacks could have just as well occurred while Father was sleeping peacefully. The dispute over Kashmir is not a 21st century concept.

The incident made me realize, again, just how tenuous our hold on life is. The senseless attacks last month in Mumbai, snuffing out the existence of fellow human beings who fully expected to return home from the café or from their business trips or from their mundane daily routine, underscores the preciousness of each moment we have to share with our loved ones.

Our lives are as precarious as a tree frog on a flower petal. There is beauty all around us but for one unlucky gust of wind.

One of the most remarkable stories coming out of Mumbai, is that of Jonathan Ehrlich, a business executive from Vancouver, British Columbia. Mr. Ehrlich was a guest at the sister hotel to the Oberai, preparing to return home to Canada, the night of the terrorist attacks. A friend forwarded an e-mail Mr. Ehrlich sent to family and friends. It was drafted on the trip home to Canada and expresses more eloquently than any words I can dream up, so far removed from the incident, the sense of fortune, sorrow, anger and joy felt by those who were not merely neighbors to a fireworks display.

I'm reprinting the letter as written. As Mr. Ehrlich indicates, it is "raw and unedited". If frank language distrubs you, suck it up. This is not a Mary Poppins travelogue. Rather, Mr. Ehrlich, in effect, relates his rebirth in accordance with Japanese proverb, made famous by Ian Fleming: "You only live twice: once when you are born and once when you look death in the face."

From: Jonathan
Sent: Thu Nov 27 02:26:51 2008
Subject: Hey

Hey guys.

Got all your notes. Thank you. I'm ok. A little shaky to be honest but really just happy to be here. I can't thank you enough for your notes. You have no idea what the mean to me. Hope to see and speak to you all soon.

I wrote the following on the plane.

It's 3.33 am Thursday Nov 27th. And I am writing this from Jet Airways flight 0227, First leg of the Mumbai – Brussels - Toronto – Vancouver journey . It is a stream of "adrenaline" piece. I apologize in advance for the grammatical errors. But I wanted it raw and unedited.

First, some context.

I have always been truly blessed. Lucky to be born to the most love a child could ever wish for. Luck to be born into a family that prided itself on teaching me how to be a man. Lucky to have been protected and sheltered by three strong, decent brothers. Lucky to have found and married the kindest heart on the face of the earth. Lucky to be blessed beyond blessed with four healthy, beautiful children. Lucky to have wonderful friends who tolerate my idiosyncrasies.

Tonight, these blessings, these gifts of love and life bestowed upon me, this incredible good fortune, saved my life. And I honestly don't know why.

The details.

I am in Mumbai on business. I'm staying at the Trident hotel. It's sister hotel, the Oberai, is right next-door and attached by a small walkway.

I had dinner by myself in the Oberai lobby after some late meetings.

I retired upstairs to my room. About 10min later my colleague, Alex Chamerlin, text-ed asking me to join him and his friend in the Oberai lounge for a drink. I started to make my way out the door but decided that I was really too tired. I had a 7am flight, and needed to be up at 5. Rest beckoned. I closed the light, got into bed and quickly fell asleep. Lucky life-saving decision number 1.

About 1hr later there was knock at my door. A few seconds later, the doorbell rang (they have doorbells for hotel rooms here – who'da thunk?). I thought – who the hell is knocking at my door? Turn down service? This late? Forget it. So I just lay there and hoped they would go away. Lucky life-saving decision number 2.

Five minutes later I heard and felt a huge bang. I got up and went to look out the window. A huge cloud of grey smoke billowed up from the road below. I thought, “Fireworks?” I didn't see anyone milling about so knew something wasn't right. I started to walk to the light switch when - BANG – another huge explosion shook the entire hotel.

Oh fuck, I thought. Is that what I think this is? I opened the door to the hallway. A few people were already outside.

I heard the word "bomb".

Oh shit. Oh shit I thought.

I'd like to tell you that I calmly collected my myself and my things and proceeded to the exits.

I didn't. An adrenaline explosion erupted inside me and almost lifted me off the floor. And I began to move. Really move.

I went back inside, quickly packed my stuff and went back into the hall.

I ran to the emergency exit and started making my way down the stairs (I was on the 18th floor).

There were a few people in the stairwell. I was flying by them. I swear I could have run a marathon in 2hrs. I felt like pure energy.

About halfway down, I called my friend Mark, told him what had happened and asked him to get me a flight – any flight – the hell out of Mumbai.

I got to the lobby level. There was a crowd of people in the corridor. No one moving. No one doing anything. No hotel staff. No security people.

Shit. I thought. We are sitting ducks.

I decided to get out of there. First, into the lobby.

I stepped through the door into the silent lobby. My first sight was a blood soaked plastic bag and bloody footsteps leading into the reception area. I proceeded forward. The windows were shattered and glass was everywhere. There wasn't a soul around.

Bad decision, I thought. I quickly retreated to the corridor. The crowd of people had grown.

We've got to get out of here I yelled. Let's go.

I looked around for the emergency exit and started running towards it.

I made my way through the bowels of the hotel and out into a dark alley. It was empty and silent. I looked to my left and about 100m away saw a few security guards milling about.

Run they screamed. I began to move toward them.

I reached the main street and was immediately swept up into the Indian throngs (for those who have been to Mumbai, you know what I mean). People everywhere. But they were all eerily quiet. No one was talking. No car horns. Nothing.

I started yelling "airport airport".

Some one (a hotel cook I believe) grabbed me and my bag and threw me in a rusty mini-cab.

As I sped away, I didn't see a single police car nor hear a single siren. Just the sound of this shit-box car speeding down the deserted road.

Traffic was stop and go. I made it to the airport in about 1hr, cleared customs and buried myself in a corner of a packed departure lounge, called my wife, called my parents and brothers and started emailing those friends who knew I was in Mumbai.

Sadly, Alex - my colleague who texted me for a drink – and his friend were not so lucky. The terrorists stormed into the lobby bar and killed several people. They took Alex and his friend hostage and started to march them up to the roof of the hotel.

About half way up, Alex managed to escape (he ducked through an open door and hid) but his friend was caught. And as I write this, that poor man is still on the roof of the Oberai.

Alex is safe but as expected, extremely worried about his friend.

I'm telling you right now. If I decided to meet Alex for that drink tonight I'd either be dead, a hostage on the roof of a building 30 hours away from everyone I love or - if I had the balls of Alex – a stupid-but-lucky-to-be-alive jerk.

And remember that knock/ring at my door? Well, I subsequently learned that the first thing the terrorists did was get the names and room numbers of western guests. They then went to the rooms to find them. Ehrlich, with an E, room 1820. I'll bet my entire life savings that they were the knock at my door.

Thank god for jet lag. Thank god for "cranky tired Jonny" (as many of my friends and family know so well) that compelled to get into and stay in bed. Thank god for being on the 18th floor. Thank god for the kind kind people of Mumbai of helped me tonight. The wonderfully kind hotel staff. That cook. My cab driver who constantly said "relaxation" "relaxation" "I help" and who kept me in the cab when we hit a particularly gnarly traffic jam and i wanted to get out and walk. And for other people in traffic who, upon hearing from my own cab driver that I was at the Oberai, literally risked life and limb to stop traffic to let us get by (as again, only those who have been to Mumbai can truly appreciate).

Mumbai is a tragically beautiful place. Incredibly sad. But I am convinced that its inhabitants are definitely children of some troubled but immensely soulfully god.

I'm sitting on plane (upgraded to first class….see, told you I'm lucky ☺). Just had the best tasting bowl of corn flakes I've ever had in my life. Hennessey coursing through my veins. Concentration starting to loosen and sleep beginning to creep onto my horizon.

I still feel a bit numb. But mostly I feel like I've just watched a really really bad movie staring me. Because right now, it all doesn't feel real. Maybe a few hours of CNN will knock me into reality. But the truth is numb is fine with me for a while. If I do end up thinking about the what if's, I don't really want to do that until I'm much much closer to home. And I have 30 more hours of travel time to go.

But before I sign off, let me say this.

The people who did this have no souls. They have no hearts. They are simply the living manifestation of evil and they only know killing and murder. We – all of us - need to understand that. Their target tonight was first and foremost Americans. Why? Because they fear everything that America stands for. They fear hope and change and freedom and peace. Let's make no mistake; they would have shot me and my children point blank tonight with out a moment's hesitation. Most of us sorta know that but sometimes we equivocate. We can't equivocate. Not ever.

I know that I want to go back. Lay some flowers. Wrap my arms around these people. Say thank you. Spend some money on overpriced hotel gifts and tip well. And generally give the bastards who did this the big fuck you and show them that I am not – I repeat not – afraid of them.

But first I need to go squeeze my wife. Dry her tears. Then have her dry mine as I hold my beautiful beautiful babies who will be (thankfully) oblivious to all of this. Because isn't that what life is really about?

I appreciate you taking the time to listen.

With much much love.


Postscript: According to news reports, Mr. Ehrlich's friend Alex Chamberlin survived the attack. Mr. Chamberlin's friend who accompanied him to the bar at the Oberoi did not.

For more on this story, click here.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Giving Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving Day. It is my favorite holiday of the year. It is all-inclusive without regard to religious preference. It remains relatively non-commercialized. Most importantly, it allows us to reflect on the blessings we enjoy and sometimes take for granted. Even in these difficult and anxiety-provoking times, there is a sense of peace that comes with being able to take inventory of the pieces and parts of our lives that provide contentment throughout the year.

We tend to realize how much we each have to be grateful for by comparing our own circumstances with those of others. As I write this, the morning newscaster just lead a story with "One in ten Minnesotans have no idea where their next meal is coming from . . ." A "one in ten" statistic should bring pause to all of us and certainly instill thanks in the lucky 90%. We spend billions of dollars a year on lottery tickets where the chance of winning is 1 in 146,107,962. Statistically, we are significantly closer to living in hunger than living in lottery riches. I am thankful that my family and I are hunger free and grateful that my children recognize their good fortune by supporting programs designed to eradicate hunger.

I am thankful that I live in a country that retains its faith in our Founding Fathers' vision of serial executives designed to allow new leadership to address the problems arising during the term of predecessors. Acting on this faith, we allow our system to work; we resist the temptation to panic; we do not resort to military solutions to redirect the policies of our government. This phenomenon manifests itself in the relative calm that our nation embraces as we await the commencement of the Obama Administration. The President-elect's steady, self-assured, focused and honest demeanor has proven to be a source of comfort strong enough to overcome the seemingly hopeless economic circumstances we face today. I am personally thankful that we have elected a leader who understands that his ability to deliver the promise behind "hope" requires a willingness to acknowledge the challenges we face instead of relying on empty slogans and jingoism.

We understandably count our thanks by measuring the well-being of our children. My children are now two young adults. I am proud of their values. I am proud of their ability to set long term goals for themselves and work diligently to achieve those goals. For six years, I ran a chemical dependency treatment center. On many occasions, I would meet a young man or woman whose bad decisions led to the need for treatment at our facility and think "There, but for the grace of God, goes my child." I am thankful that both children have escaped the personal devastation and replacement of dreams with nightmares that results from chemical dependency. My heart goes out to my friends and family, and to parents I have not yet met, who, tragically, are facing struggles with their own children.

My children give me other reasons to be thankful. As a preview to the 2008 Stern Family Holiday letter, I will share that Phil has moved from working with troubled youth in an Americorps program to teaching in a local school district and, consistent with his commitment to the less fortunate, has signed up to participate in the Big Brothers program. Ellie's inner compassion is evidenced by her dedication to continuing her education at the University of Arizona's accelerated R.N. program and the extra effort she makes on behalf of her patients, both in Tucson and previously at the nursing home in Minnesota where she worked after graduating college.

I am incredibly thankful for my wife, Deb. There is universal consensus that I do not deserve her. That's probably true. But until death us do part, I am thankful for her love, support, role modeling, compassion, industriousness and appreciation of a simple lifestyle.

I have the blessings of friends and family, many of which have been discussed in this blog over the past year. I have the the blessings of a career in which I can take pride in assisting others face challenges and pursue opportunities and I am thankful for the many clients and colleagues who continue to support me after my six-year hiatus from the full-time practice of law. I am thankful that I can make subjects happy with whatever skills I bring to a photo session. Their delight with the results encourages me to continue to pursue my artistic avocation. I am thankful for the strokes to my ego when one of my tens of readers comments favorably on my pondering. I am grateful that my blog mentor, Charlie Leck, continued to encourage me to write when I doubted I had anything to say. I am thankful for the relaxation I find when I take the time to write.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Find your own blessings in your life and recognize how they provide a platform from which to address life's challenges. Let the people you care about know that you care. Doing so sends a signal to the recipients that they have something additional to be thankful for.

Monday, November 24, 2008

My New Tool

I am often accused of loving my "toys". I often respond, "it's not a toy, it's a tool". I had a phone in my car before cell phones. When I purchased my first cell phone, shortly after they were available, my law partners could not understand why I needed to talk on the phone while driving. "It's a toy!" was the mantra. That was the early '80's.

I am probably more tech-savvy than many of my same-aged colleagues; it's part of being an Apple geek for the past 24 years. However, contrary to some public opinion, I am not one to rush out and purchase the latest, greatest computer/television/PDA/camera/_________ (fill in the blank) on the market. I realized a long time ago that there is no "latest, greatest" because the market is always bringing out later and greater. I tend to shop for something that will satisfy my needs and stick with it for an extended period of time.

Friday was the exception. For months, I had been bombarded by e-mails, snail mails, video clips, television ads, flyers, and word of mouth ad nauseum about Verizon's new BlackBerry Storm, "The World's First Touch Screen BlackBerry". It went on sale Friday.

At about 3 p.m. Friday, I received a call from a friend asking if I had my new Storm. "I'm customizing it now," I replied. "You're !#$%ing me!" was the response. "I tried to buy one today and they were sold out", my friend said. "I was just kidding when I asked the question."

Unlike my friend, I had been to the Verizon store at 7:45 a.m. and received voucher #26 to earn the right to purchase a Storm. I thought I was going to buy one in the morning. But that store only received a shipment of 25. I was told to come back in the afternoon when the second shipment would arrive.

I had made the decision to upgrade because if I am going to pay for Smartphone technology, and an extra $30/month to have e-mail and Internet access on my phone, I want a system that works well. I cannot use an iPhone because they do not work on Verizon's system. The BlackBerry I acquired from my darling daughter when she upgraded to the then latest, greatest version before leaving for school in May left much to be desired. E-mails referencing the Internet were gobbledy-gook and scrolling to find the "news" in the Star Tribune's "news alert" meant trying to decipher paragraphs of html code to get to "Vikings lose again". I'm too impatient to spend a lot of time figuring out I've received junk e-mail. The Storm was advertised as an alternative with a legitmate smart phone Internet browser.

I think BlackBerry hit a home run. It took me the weekend to figure some things out. By Sunday night I posted a new status on my Facebook page: Sam is thinking that the Storm is the first purchase in a long time that lives up to its hype- a Verizon iPhone!

I've been receiving inquiries all morning asking what I think about my new tool. Apparently, Verizon's marketing has reached a lot of people all over the country. In response, I prepared the following memo and decided to post it here as well as on Facebook. That way, I can just refer folks to Prairie Pondering and get back to work and/or playing with my new toy. ;-)

To my friends/family asking about my new BlackBerry Storm:

I decided to try to put some quick thoughts down on paper because I’m getting a lot of questions about my experience.

First impression: I love it. I now have a BBerry that meets the expectations I had about being able to access the Internet. The browser it uses is miles above the earlier version on my 8830. E-mails that come with html code are intelligible, not meaningless code.

Navigation: If you have used a touch screen device, like an iPhone or iPod Touch, it doesn’t take much getting used to and makes moving around menus and applications pretty fast. It incorporates the same menus as my old BBerry so the learning curve was not too steep.

Typing: BBerry uses three different means of typing. Standard QWERTY in landscape mode and, in portrait mode, either the old multi-tapping to get the letter you want on a phone keyboard or a “smart” typing system (like on the iPod Touch) that figures out which word you want from the sequence of tapping. For example, it knows that tapping the AS-TY-ER-ER-BN keys on the combined QWERTY keyboard, means “Stern”. It’s a little counterintuitive at first until you just let yourself go. Then it seems to work and there’s mechanisms for correcting as you go (although they require clicking on options and slow you down).

Screen: Bright and easy to read. No “pinching” like the iPod or iPhone to increase/decrease screen magnification; there’s a menu work around for that. I am using a screen protector and I’m constantly wiping off finger prints.

I haven’t used the music capabilities or loaded photos on the device. Verizon has a roll out special where they are packaging the device with an 8 gb Micro SD card so I didn’t need to buy one. There’s a lot to learn.

I use a MacBook Pro and I had some problems with my initial synchs. The Verizon store where I bought it could only transfer 3,000 of my 5,500 contacts. I could not get the calendar to synch until I went on the Missing Synch website (I already used the software) and followed instructions for clearing out my Apple iSynch software. It’s worked fine since. If you are using a PC, it should be more seamless. The CD’s I received with my device are not for use on a Mac so there are features I guess I won’t be able to access.

Recommendation: I wouldn’t get any other BBerry. I already sent in my rebate form, not worrying about whether I’d want to return this one.

Monday, November 17, 2008

All God's Children

It is easy for me to use this blog to lecture readers on the evils of racism and preach tolerance of one another, regardless of skin color. I suppose I could really go out on a limb and write about how having a daughter made me truly understand the evils of sexism. But, dear readers, this is approximately the one year anniversary of Prairie Pondering and it is time to get in your face about another civil rights issue, the issue of gay rights.

My children are fond of making fun of their father because over the course of seven years of college and law school, I had four different gay roommates who did not identify themselves as such until after we had lived together for a year or more. My children, who have been raised in an atmosphere of tolerance and for whom homosexuality is a non-issue, cannot fathom how I was too blind and/or naive not to realize that my various roommates did not share my sexual preference. Fortunately, or unfortunately, my children have not had to consider how tightly one can hold onto a secret when one believes that its disclosure will destroy every shred of self esteem and every relationship established in its shadow. Tolerance of same-sex relationships was not rampant in the Seventies and early Eighties and my friends, my fellow students, struggled with "coming out" and the ramifications that followed with family and less liberal-minded friends.

It seems like it should be easier today. Depictions of gay lifestyles in the media are not limited to the Some Like It Hot antics of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon or the faux homosexuality of John Ritter in Three's Company. On the other hand, it is not the straight community, even though more desensitized to the concept than thirty years ago, that is "coming out". I can imagine the internal struggle that persists for members of the gay community who consider the still prevalent homophobia in America before mustering the courage to live their lives as normal human beings, i.e., sexual beings not forced to feign attraction where none exists.

In August, 1973, I drove with a friend from Carleton from Minneapolis to Los Angeles where I was going to spend my senior year of college. We shared many mutual friends and many of them were gay. As we were driving across Nebraska's endless plain, I was asked "Why aren't you gay?" That was shorthand for "Sam, you have so many gay friends with whom you hang out, travel, party, confide in, rely upon, etc., so why aren't you gay?" I explained to my travel companion that I had no interest in physical intimacy, on any level, with another male but, as long as we all practiced "live and let live", I did not care what anybody else did. I knew, before being so informed, that my gay friends were hardwired that way, much as I was hardwired to stare at female cleavage. There was never a point in my life when I had to stop and consider which team my raging hormones would have me bat for. If I may mix a metaphor, I always assumed that my friends batting for the other team were similarly on auto-pilot.

That, dear readers, is the heart of the matter. If we can readily agree that there is no justification for discriminating against someone because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or their place of birth, then how do we justify discrimination on the basis of sexual preference? Like skin color, gender or national origin, sexual preference just is what it is. I believe that even persons with multiple preferences, bi-sexuals, were born that way and that claims of "curing" homosexuality reflect nothing more than successful exercises in repressing part of the victim's bi-sexuality.

All this pondering results, of course, from my reaction to the passage of Proposition 8 in California two weeks ago. Prop 8 overturned the California Supreme Court's decision that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional in California. It amended the California constitution to make it clear that marriage was allowed only between one man and one woman. In so doing, the majority of the California electorate, much like the Alabama electorate would have done in 1962 given the chance, trampled on the civil rights of a class of its citizens. Besides demonstrating why, in our system of checks and balances, an independent judiciary is needed to protect against the oppression of the majority, the passage of Prop 8 serves as a reminder of why so many gay men and women dare not live their lifestyle openly.

I am frankly outraged that discrimination on such a grand scale is still defended today in America. What are we so afraid of? Hordes of marauding interior designers? Leagues of women bowlers? Proselytizing dance instructors? It's ridiculous. We ought to be promoting loving, committed relationships as role models for our children and for ourselves. Live and let live! To believe that we are somehow threatened by the sexual preference of those who were born to be gay is idiotic and should not serve as a basis for minimizing the civil rights and citizenry of otherwise fully entitled children of God.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How to Help with the Recount

I just got off a conference call with Al Franken, his campaign staff and the attorneys they've hired to oversee Al's recount efforts. The good news first: Al will likely prevail in the recount (more later). The bad news: It will take $3 million in the next 30 days to finance the effort underway.

Unfortunately, Federal Election laws limit individuals to a $12,300 contribution, made payable to the Franken Recount Fund. So, rather than just writing out a $3 million check myself, and asking the campaign to hold it until it is good,
I need 244 of my loyal readers to send a check for $12,300, made payable to the Franken Recount Fund, to 2575 University Avenue W, Suite 100, St. Paul, MN 55114.

In addition to sending the Franken Recount Fund $12,300 (
or any portion of the limit that you can afford; now's the time to step up), you can send an e-mail to and offer to volunteer and/or to provide housing to some of the 1,000 volunteers being recruited who need housing.

To expedite your show of support, click here and follow directions.

Thank you for reading the really important section of this blog entry. For the rest, here is what is going on:

Without even reading my November 9th installment of Prairie Pondering, the Franken campaign believes that the votes thus far not counted by the optical scanning machines will, for the most part, end up being counted as votes for Al. I think the analysis of whose vote were not counted offered in my last edition of
Prarie Pondering will turn out to be accurate with the possible exception of its blindness to the fact that young, new voters have been filling in ovals all their lives and probably did so on November 4th. On the other hand, one reader observed that young, new, liberal voters do not like being told what to do and may have marked the ballots as they saw fit.

Currently, Norm Coleman is ahead in the count by 206 votes. Based on an audit of precincts selected at random this week, the Secretary of State's office expects that there will be about 1,600 ballots containing votes that were not counted by mechanical means. If that is true, and if anything more than 56.5% of the untallied ballots reflect an intent to vote for Al, Al wins the election.

The recount will start on November 19th. There will be about 120 counting sites statewide. The Franken campaign will have 1 volunteer attorney and 2 observers at every counting table at each of the 120 sites. The campaign is hiring 125 staff to work around the state overseeing counting locations. In addition to hiring staff, the campaign is recruiting 1,000 volunteers and 100's of volunteer attorneys. This will be a massive, expensive effort to make sure that every ballot is counted and that the voice of the electorate is heard.

There is some thought that the Coleman campaign expects a recount to end badly, explaining the negative tone of its communications and its proclivity to rush into court to keep ballots from being counted. There is nothing untoward going on at Al's campaign. Even the 32 ballots which were the subject of Coleman's failed restraining order have been acknowledged as legitimate by the Senator Coleman's attorney.

The Franken campaign needs your support to get it through the recount process. If you have been wondering how you can help, you have your answer. Donate money to the Franken Recount Fund. Offer to volunteer. Offer to provide housing. Ask your friends to do the same.

As an incentive and a demonstration of my appreciation for your support and readership, I will send a 5x7 of the photo shown above, autographed by the photographer (or not, your call) to anyone who donates $50 or more (preferably more) to the Franken Recount Fund and tells me they did so.

Do not allow what happened to one Al in 2000 happen to another Al in 2008.
If for no other reason than to protest the theft of the presidency by the Republicans eight years ago, support the recount effort!

Thank you for your help. And don't forget to cyberjump.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Knock, Knock . . .

Who's there?
"Senator" who?
Don't ask me. I'm from Minnesota.

Thus I recall a variation on a joke making the rounds in Minnesota when I was 10 years old and the outcome of the gubernatorial race between Karl Rolvaag and Elmer L. Andersen was not determined for 4 months. The fact that this gem of political humor remains with me 46 years later is probably a testament to how deeply emotions ran in the otherwise politically idyllic period in American history often referred to as Camelot.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether this State, or any State, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all ballots are created equal, can, for a few more weeks, endure.

Sorry. I guess I long for political peace and the remaining rancor brings to mind the wisdom of past great leaders.

I spent election night 2008 in St. Paul at the DFL headquarters hotel. After spending more time and money than in any previous election since taking a leave from my U.S. Senate job to campaign in 1978, I wanted to be in the middle of the action when we brought in victories for Barack Obama and Al Franken. I decided to get a room for the night so I could host some friends, monitor election results on television and be available to join the crowds in the hotel's ballroom.

By Tuesday afternoon, I expected Al Franken to win. I had spoken to a friend who is a confidant of Norm Coleman and the Senator's comments to our mutual friend suggested that he had seen some internal or exit polling and that he was not pleased with the results. Clearly, the race would be close. However, the extraordinary turnout the Obama campaign was generating bode ill for Senator Coleman's reelection.

Ultimately, the Senator's election day jitters may prove to have been justified.

Five days after the election, I am regularly asked by friends and acquaintances who feel, generally erroneously, I am more tuned in than they are, what I anticipate as an outcome, why the initial tallies keep changing and what will result from the recount.

I have decided to share my take in order to be on record for believing that there is a process in place that assures a fair review of the results, that the process needs to allowed to work, and that post-election interference with the process constitutes a much greater disservice to the electorate than any threat posed by ACORN employee misfeasance.

I went to sleep at about 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning. My friend Bert Black, the Secretary of State's attorney (in fact, not in title) had come to the hotel after leaving work late in the evening. We spent time until about 1 a.m. reviewing which results were missing as the number of reporting precincts grew past 90%, then went downstairs to hang out with the party faithful. By 2 a.m., Al was behind about 11,000 votes. However, I was cautiously optimistic because Bert's analysis had shown that Duluth, Eveleth, Grand Rapids and other parts of the Iron Range had yet to report. I made some assumptions about how the vote would split, how many votes would be cast and went to bed believing Al could make up the deficit. In fact, four hours later, the deficit had been reduced by more than 10,000 votes.

I was devastated. The late surge had not been enough. I called Bert Wednesday morning and received no news that led me to believe Al would pick up 728 votes in an automatic recount. Then the totals kept changing and the spread started to dwindle. In fact, the same phenomenum occurs during every election. Election officials, made up of judges from both political parties, undertaking their responsibilities in a system that is designed to prevent voter fraud, always review the unofficial numbers reported to the Secretary of State the night of the election to make sure that the figures they will give as part of the official count are accurate. The changes result from various forms of human error and do not reflect any change from the actual results of the just-concluded election. Usually, the change from the unofficial count is not reported by the media because it is not enough to affect the outcome of the election. In this year's Senate election, the changes are receving close scrutiny for obvious reasons.

The fact that there is such close scrutiny should provide comfort to us all. Crimes rarely occur when the criminal knows the world is watching. Why risk a conviction for voter fraud when (a) you know it would be difficult to manipulate numbers sufficiently to change an outcome, (b) every ballot is being scrutinized and (c) your candidate's opponent is on the lookout for cheating?

Because the results when officially reported on or about November 18th will show a difference of less than 0.005%, Minnesota law provides for an automatic recount. The purpose of the recount is to examine every ballot cast and determine as accurately as possible what were the actual results of the just-concluded election. Again, representatives of both campaigns are involved in monitoring the process and any unlawful activity would not go unnoticed.

It is important to note remember that, leaving aside votes for multiple candidates where only one is allowed, the law does not require that a voter complete a ballot as instructed in order for the ballot to count. The law provides that election judges are to determine the intent of the voter. Accordingly, if someone chose to draw an "x" through the oval next to Norm Coleman's name, the ballot is a valid vote for Norm Coleman. If someone circled Al Franken's name, the ballot would likely be considered a vote for Al Franken. Failure to neatly complete the oval on the ballot next to a candidate's name might make the ballot illegible to an optical reader in a mechanical ballot counter. Such failure does not disqualify the vote itself if another clear means of indicating preference is used.

The reality, of course, is that unless an election is close enough to justify a recount, the human machines who take over for the mechanical ballot counters never review the alternatively marked ballots. While not disqualified, absent a recount, the votes are simply not counted.

In the 1962-63 Minnesota recount, Karl Rolvaag picked up 233 votes during the process and defeated incumbent Governor Elmer L. Andersen. There were 1.3 million votes cast. As of this writing, there are less than 230 votes separating the candidates out of 2.9 million votes cast. My sense is that the recount will show that young and urban and first-time voters turned out by the Obama campaign are less likely to fill in the oval than, for example, the good Republicans of the Second and Sixth Congressional Districts. Again, that does not disqualify their vote, merely the machine's ability to read it.

Accordingly, I believe that a properly conducted recount, reviewing all ballots frozen in time as of November 4, 2008, whether or not counted by optical scanners, will determine that Al Franken has been elected to the U.S. Senate. I also believe that the system has enough built-in safeguards that, absent partisan judicial interference or evidence of material voter suppression by one campaign or another, the process will be fair and the choice of the electorate should be honored.

When I started writing tonight, I had intended to lament the venomous comments appearing on media web sites in response to reports on the election and the pending recount. I decided, instead, to put a more positive spin on my pondering. The paranoid conspiracy theorists expressing their opinions that the election is being stolen merely fall into my previously discussed class of citizens who are not bothered by the need to actually inform themselves before sharing their opinion or acting on the same. This includes, especially, "American1", whose comment on November 6's Strib article about the need for a recount declared that "people who can't fill out a ballot are to stupid to vote." I responded to him directly, like any good former newspaper editor would.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dad!

It is early Thursday, November 6, 2008, as I write this. For reasons that will become obvious in a moment, this version of
Prairie Pondering will not appear until 6:30 p.m.

Today is my father's 80th birthday. He demurred at the suggestion of any extravagant celebration. At his request, he is celebrating by having dinner with two of his three sons and one of his grandchildren this evening.

In recognition of his extensive traveling and instilling the love of road trips in his sons, he will be presented with a copy of
Tales of the Road: Highway 61, autographed by its author, the ever-gracious Cathy Wurzer, who once interviewed Dad on TPT's Almanac and who volunteered to make any necessary arrangements to meet for a book signing so she could participate in Dad's celebration.

There are many emotional realities that one faces when celebrating an 80th birthday with a parent, even in this day and age when "80 is the new 60". Those are for another Prairie Pondering installment. On the other hand, all who know my father remark at how vibrant and youthful he appears and acts. Some even blame recent Minnesota Vikings losses on Dad. He shares an exercise room in his apartment complex with several members of the Vikings. He works out daily. But, as the Vikings struggled last season, I imagined the scenario in which one exercising linebacker noted to a running back as he pointed to Dad, "Irv's done. I'm good."

Dad has touched so many lives through the years; most beneficiaries are unaware of his impact. Thirty years ago, he embarked on his political career, winning a race for Mayor of St. Louis Park. When I left for Washington, D.C., he visited frequently, using his work with the Carter Administration's Housing and Urban Development agency as an excuse to see me. On the other hand, his constituents did benefit from his official work: he obtained long delayed funding for the upgrade of Highway 12 to I-394 and obtained Federal funds to convert the intersection at Turner's Crossroad into the commercial center it is today (Park Place/Xenia), including development funds for the Park Place Hotel and adjacent office buildings.

As a member of the executive board of the U.S. Conference of Mayors with L.A.'s Tom Bradley and NYC's Ed Koch (I wonder which U.S. Senate Legislative Counsel made that happen. . .), he was part of President Carter's delegation to Hungary to return the Crown of St. Stephen's. Dad promoted trade with China before it was fashionable and, somewhere in my archives, there is a photograph of my then 3 year old daughter sitting on the lap of the future Premier of the PRC while he was sampling Bridgeman's ice cream as Dad's guest.

When he successfully ran for the State Senate in 1979, he used his tenure to introduce and pass legislation to acquire abandoned railroad right-of-ways, making the creation of Minnesota's system of hiking and bike trails possible for all of us. He would have eventually made a great Governor, had he not been defeated in his first bid for statewide office, that of State Treasurer, by a Florida barbeque restaurant owner with better name recognition.

And he is beloved by his family. In addition to Ms. Wurzer's phenomenal book, tonight he will receive a photo and essay coffee table book, contributed to by his children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws and friends from around the country. You can get a measure of the extraordinary impact Dad has made on all of us by viewing the tribute book here.

So, Dad, Happy Birthday! Since you are starting yet another road trip early November 7th, you probably won't see this blog until you get to your home in Yuma, Arizona some days afterwards. By then, the secret will be out and everyone who wants to will have sent an e-mail to to join me in wishing you a happy and healthy fifth score.

Post-Dinner Postscript: The evening was a perfect celebration. Dad was thrilled with the book about U.S. Highway 61, a route he frequents regularly. Stepdaughter Hali Richard and grandchildren Lexi and Olivia had Sandy deliver their own album with photos and handwritten expressions of their love and admiration for the Papa who has been such a positive role model for more than twenty years, including all of Lexi and Olivia's lives. When he opened the box with the tribute from his family and friends, he welled up just staring at the cover.

Thanks to everyone for making this such a special birthday. I think Dad's friend Rick Nolan said it best in response to Dad's thank you note for a birthday celebration at lunch last week: Irv, I'm sure I speak for all when I say you are one of the most beautiful people we've had the good fortune to know in life.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008

It's Time. Let's Do This.

It is 6:40 p.m. Monday, November 3, 2008. I have been generally unproductive all day as I anticipate election day. I am both giddy with excitement and apprehensive about having to rely on others to actually turn out and vote and put truth to the substance of all of the polls. In November, 1978, I went to bed the night before election day feeling confident that my employer would be returned to office because the prestigious Minnesota Poll conducted by the Minneapolis Tribune said so. In December, 1978, I moved back to Minnesota to start my new job. It is a lesson not lost in the past 30 years.

There is little more I can say to encourage you to vote to effect a new direction in America.


And watch this rerun of an earlier post by clicking here.

Vote. Thank you.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Dear Star Tribune

(Blogger's Note: If you were directed here by my "Please read my blog" e-mail, enjoy this entry but please don't miss "He is Too!" which appears below and was the intended focus of my request. Thanks. SLS)

Dear Sirs:
I am using my blog, Prairie Pondering, to communicate my concerns over your failure to aggressively report on the allegations being asserted against Minneapolis businessman Nasser Kazeminy and his associates by Paul McKim, the former CEO of a Texas deep sea services company. As you know, Mr. Kazeminy is a long time benefactor of Senator Coleman whose financial support of the Senator has been questioned in the past. Mr. McKim alleges that his companies were forced by Mr. Kazeminy to funnel $75,000 to a Minnesota insurance firm that contracts with Senator Coleman's wife, Laurie. In fact, Mr. McKim alleges that the payment arrangement, specifically devised by Mr. Kazeminy to subsidize the Coleman family income, was for $100,000 but Mr. McKim refused to authorize the fourth $25,000 installment.

I have seen no effort on the part of the Star Tribune to report on the substance of the allegations as they might reflect on the character and integrity of your endorsed candidate for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Rather, the headline and sum and substance of the stories being run support Senator Coleman's dismissal of the allegations of financial impropriety as "sleazy politics" by the Franken campaign.

I have taken the time to read the entire lawsuit filed by Mr. McKim. Thank you for posting a link to it on your website. It appears, as claimed by Mr. McKim in press accounts carried by others, that the litigation is not directed at Senator Coleman, except as a result of his association with Mr. Kazeminy, the real target. It also appears that the $75,000 at issue with respect to Senator Coleman is a very small part of Mr. McKim's multi-million dollar claim alleging violations of corporate law by Mr. Kazeminy and his colleagues.

Nonetheless, one is left with the question of "What did Senator Coleman know and when did he know it?" with respect to the $75,000. If, in fact, he reported the $75,000 on his Senate Financial Disclosure Reports and if, in fact, the Minnesota entity through with the $75,000 was funneled had no real business relationship with the source of the funds and if, in fact, Mrs. Coleman provided no real services in consideration for the $75,000, then this is not about "sleazy politics". It is about corruption.

I trust you understand your responsibilities to the community well enough to realize that the Star Tribune should be asking questions to determine to what extent the ifs are true. Before Tuesday's election. You have designated the matter as "sensitive" on your website and claimed the right to screen readers' comments before allowing posting for public review. So be it. This is sensitive. But you shamefully abdicate the responsibilities of a free press if you make no effort to determine to what extent Mr. McKim has painted an accurate depiction of the business transactions of Mr. Kazeminy designed, in part, to directly benefit Senator Coleman.

Senator Coleman's blanket denial and efforts to shift the focus to Al Franken's campaign and, with not a little chutzpah, use the incident to once again smear the challenger, is not an answer to the questions you should be asking. There appears to be some substance to Mr. McKim's allegations. Not only did I read the Complaint, did some quick research on Mr. McKim's law firm, Haynes and Boone. Here's a small piece of what I found (which, actually, merely confirmed what I thought I knew as soon as I heard the name) on the firm's website:

"Today, with more than 500 lawyers in 10 global offices, Haynes and Boone is recognized by Corporate Board Member magazine as the top corporate law firm based in Dallas-Fort Worth, and is ranked among the 50 best corporate law firms in the country by Fortune 1000 corporate counsel surveyed by the BTI consulting group. Despite our growth we retain our historic commitment to fairness, respect, camaraderie."

This is not some fly-by-night publicity seeking law firm. There is every reason to believe this prestigious firm is convinced that its client has a good faith claim. The financial exhibits accompanying the lawsuit prepared on behalf of Mr. McKim seem to back up his claims of deceptive behavior designed to hide the diversion of corporate funds to Senator Coleman.

Minnesotans are entitled to know before Tuesday's election whether Senator Coleman could be facing the same type of criminal charges that were just successfully brought against Senator Ted Stevens. There is no evidence that the matter was instigated by the Franken Campaign or the Democratic National Committee. If there is a credible explanation for Mrs. Coleman's receipt of the $75,000, then let us all hear it. If there is not, then let us all know.

It is up to the media to get the truth out now. It may be "sensitive", but your decision on how to handle this sensitive situation will dictate whether a fraud perpetrated on Minnesota voters by either Mr. McKim or by Senator Coleman will be uncovered in a timely fashion.

Click on the image below to enlarge. It is an exhibit from Paul McKim's lawsuit purporting to show an effort to hide the payments to Hays Company, which turned the money over to Laurie Coleman.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

He is Too!

While chatting online tonight with a Georgetown college student, I was asked what I thought of Al Franken's chances in Tuesday's election. The student knew from my various Facebook postings, Prairie Pondering, photographs and exhortations for support that I am passionately supporting Mr. Franken in his bid to unseat Norm Coleman.

I responded that I thought it would be close (how's that for a limb?), but that I believe that if Barack Obama generates strong voter turnout among younger voters, it will result in Al Franken's victory. I went on to comment that younger voters are more accepting of Al as a candidate for the Senate than some older DFL'ers and that they were less likely to split the ticket than, say, my personal attorney, who has been drawn to the Dark Side in the race for U.S. Senate but not, no pun intended, in the race for the presidency. Too many of my contemporaries do not view Al Franken as being "senatorial enough" to justify voting for him.

And then it hit me: He is Too!

I worked in the U.S. Senate right out of law school so I feel like I have firsthand experience with what it takes to be a successful U.S. Senator. There is nothing in Al Franken's background, experience, demeanor, intelligence level, dedication to public service, or willingness to sacrifice for the public good that suggests he would not do a stellar job as the junior Senator from Minnesota.

Somehow, there is perception that Al is too contentious, too sarcastic, too inflexible and insufficiently serious to walk in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol and ride in the Members Only elevators. I am not sure where the perception comes from. However, as I ponder the situation (reality check: from my office downtown, not on the prairie tonight), thinking about the soft-spoken, frankly whining, tone Norm Coleman adopts in his "about me" campaign ads, and compare it with the images of an engaged Al Franken used in Norm Coleman's attack ads, I guess I should not be surprised at the persona thrust upon Al.

Forget about it not being fair. We all realize that fairness has no place in determining outcomes in this election season. More importantly, it is not relevant. It is not relevant because out of context depictions of a ranting Al Franken are not a true measure of the man. It is not relevant because, to the extent there is any contextual accuracy, we should be embracing passion in those who would serve the public interest, not damning it.

Without slipping into my President Shepard mode (cf. "Challenging a Culture of Mindless Hate", October 15, 2008 blog), why is there not more outrage and passion exhibited by Senator Now-that-the-Election-is Upon-Us-I-am-Bi-Partisan-in-My-Approach? The answer, of course, is that Norm Coleman being outraged over the loss of life, loss of prestige, loss of economic independence and loss of innocence experienced by the American public in the last six years would be akin to Captain Renault being "shocked, shocked" to finding gambling going on at Rick's Café.

Al Franken is cut from the mold of Paul Wellstone, my former college professor at Carleton College in the 1970's and, not incidentally, Norm Coleman's predecessor in office. It does not matter that Professor Wellstone challenged his students and that Senator Wellstone challenged his constituents to consider positions on issues far to the left of conventional wisdom. What matters is that he challenged us at all. As I noted in an earlier posting, there are more than enough worshippers at the Altar of Limbaugh to assure reaching middle ground. But if we deprive ourselves of voices like Franken and Wellstone and Humphrey and RFK and HST and FDR, then we deprive ourselves of voices of conscience.

Who among us does not wish we could turn back the clock and take better note of Senator Wellstone's warnings about rushing into armed conflict with Iraq? Who among us believes that having representation beholden to Bush/Cheney, and silent on the policies of the Worst Administration in American History, has not significantly contributed to the struggles and challenges we now face for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren?

Al Franken is exactly the kind of person we need looking out for our interests. We just spent six years relying on a Bush/Cheney puppet to speak out for the values Minnesotans have held dear and that have made us such a great state. What a waste. What a disgrace. What an opportunity to reclaim our self-respect and demand, young and old among us, by casting our ballot on Tuesday, that Al Franken be given the chance to use his wisdom, passion and social conscience on behalf of all Minnesotans.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It Makes You Wonder (Version 2) . . .

As promised, I'm adding wonderings and changing the title. I'll add the new items to the top so you don't have to read through everything again. If this is your first visit to "It Makes You Wonder", please continue to read on after today's (Version 2) addition.

16.) I wonder if Republicans who criticize Barack Obama for not introducing any legislation while in the U.S. Senate have particular laws in mind that they feel are missing from the U.S. Code.

17.) I wonder if Minnesota Democrats upset that the 2006 election victories allowing their party to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate did not result in quicker withdrawal from Iraq understand the need to elect Al Franken and help assure a filibuster-proof Senate.

18.) I wonder if Sarah Palin will shop at the Anchorage Goodwill Thrift Store after her wardrobe is donated to charity in order to make sure Tryg is properly clothed.

19.) I wonder if the former Republican State Senator from a bright red suburb of Minneapolis has publicized his decision to support Ashwin Madia over the "too conservative" Eric Paulson.

To be continued. . . (Original post below)

Even if you are not pondering on the prairie, there are a number matters that might strike you as strange as we approach the end of the 2008 election season. I thought I'd put a few of the thoughts that have occurred to me recently as I spend time as a political junkie listening to news reports, reading other blogs and engaging in discussions with political friends and foes.

I invite you to add to the list in the comment section at the end of the blog. If it is easier, send me an e-mail with a request to post and I'll add your comments to the body of this blog. I'll change the version number in the title so you can monitor whether there have been any additions.

These are in no particular order other than the order in which they came to mind as I write this.

1.) I wonder why "hitting a provisional" is accepted as a basic rule in the game of golf but casting a provisional ballot in Ohio is a threat to our democracy.

2.) I wonder why we generally accept the concept that requiring property ownership as a pre-condition to voting is unconstitutional but we view allowing homeless people to vote as a threat to our democracy.

3.) I wonder why Michelle Bachman believes voters in Minnesota's Sixth District are so stupid that they will believe her claim that she did not mean to characterize Barack Obama and certain members of Congress as "un-American" in a televised response that began "absolutely, absolutely."

4.) I wonder why Michelle Bachman believes the media should spend its time on an in-depth investigation of members of Congress to verify their patriotism if she truly does not believe there is a problem worth investigating.

5.) I wonder why voters in Minnesota's Sixth District are so stupid.

6.) I wonder if mavericks are like magnetic poles and tend to repel one another.

7.) I wonder if the McCain campaign is truly surprised that Governor Palin, whose independent streak is touted for taking on her Republican colleagues in Alaska, is, by some accounts, breaking free from her handlers and going it alone in campaign appearances.

8.) I wonder why folks who believe we live in the greatest country in the world because of our adherence to democratic principles, promotion of free speech and the open debate of competing ideas feel so threatened by a presidential candidate willing to engage in give and take discussions with other world leaders in order to achieve peaceful co-existence.

9.) I wonder why Senator Biden's opponents jump on his observation about the likelihood of President Obama being tested early in his administration as a "gaffe" as opposed to a statement of fact by the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

10.) I wonder why we understand that we live in dangerous times, facing threats to our country on so many levels, yet take our political candidates to task for trying to truthfully discuss the implications of a harsh reality that will not disappear on its own.

11.) I wonder why we accept that airline pilots are required to retire in their 60's in order to avoid any possibility that the onset of aging will impair their ability to make life and death decisions but treat as age discrimination any suggestion that John McCain is too old to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

12.) I wonder when being a skilled orator became an acceptable subject of derision on the campaign trail while scripted talking points repeated ad nauseum are viewed as the basis for enthusiastic support.

13.) I wonder why, if John McCain really believed it was relevant, he waited until six days before the election to call on the Los Angeles Times to release video tape of speeches given in 2003 honoring a Palestinian acquaintance of Barack Obama that was known to exist seven months ago.

14.) I wonder why, if Senator Coleman thinks he should be re-elected because he "reaches across the aisle" to get things done, Minnesotans don't just support Al Franken who is already on the most popular side of the aisle.

15.) I wonder why Senator Coleman is not required to disclose, other than in television commercial bullet points, exactly what policies and fundamentals he would pursue from his side of the aisle.

That's it for now. Feel free to join me in my wonderment.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Road Trip

I left Minneapolis on Friday on a road trip to Chicago for the weekend. I looked forward to the trip as I was going to celebrate my Uncle Norman's 81st birthday, spend a day with my "blood-brother" Bruce in town from Los Angeles for the the A.I.P.A.C. (American Israeli Political Action Committee) conference and catch up with my Washington D.C. roommate and his wife, Norman and Lilli, who now live in Chicago.

On the first leg of the drive, I traveled to Faribault in Southern Minnesota to pick up my cousin, Kevin, to allow him to join the birthday celebration. The resulting route found us enjoying rolling farmlands and mature trees still ablaze with autumn colors. We picked up the Interstate south of Rochester, giving us the opportunity beforehand to get a feel for some of our rural communities and their struggles as evidenced by closed businesses and the plethora of "For Sale" signs hanging on abandoned buildings and in front of houses along the highway. Having said that, there are few places in this country (speaking as a visitor and/or resident of 47 of 50 states) that are as beautiful as the bluffs viewed traveling East on Interstate 90 as you approach the Mississippi River on a sunny Fall day.

Our destination Friday afternoon was Uncle Norman's lake home outside of Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Relying on my car's GPS, we left the Interstate just past Madison and traveled on U.S. 12 for the last hour or so. Again, we were fortunate to experience small towns along the way, including Cambridge, an enchanting borough brimming with antique and art shops. I had wanted to visit Cambridge ever since hearing of its charms five years ago from one of its residents, my daughter's college roommate. Now that I know where it is, I will be able to return. Our route also took us through the town of Whitehall, home to one of the University of Wisconsin campuses, and a picture perfect Midwest college town. It was a poignant part of the trip as I realized that I was traveling the same U.S. 12 my parents drove with three young sons several times a month to visit my ailing grandparents in Chicago in the late 1950's.

I could go on, but the point here is not to provide a travelogue as such. It is, surprise, surprise, to relay my impressions of the political discourse going on as we hurdle towards November 4th.

Frankly, I was amazed at the level of support I saw for Barack Obama as Kevin and I drove across Minnesota's traditionally conservative First Congressional District and through rural Wisconsin, a Republican stronghold in 2004. To be sure, the McCain/Palin ticket is not going to be embarrassed in these regions in a week. Judging from the campaign signage, both sides have strong support. But, judging from the volume of campaign signage, the electorate is engaged beyond anything I can recall.

Thinking about the demonstrated support for Senator Obama, including an amazing amount of support appearing on my fellow travelers' bumper stickers, it struck me that the candidate has effected a paradigm shift in rural America. He has struck a chord with traditionally more conservative parts of the country, making it possible for significant portions of that population to proudly proclaim their support for an African American politician from the South Side of Chicago, apparently without fear of rebuke from their neighbors.

I want to take this as an indication that, among other things, Senator Obama's campaign really has transcended the issue of race. In addition, however, the level of support for a new regime must also be explained with an eye on the economy. My heart went out too often to the shuttered businesses we passed. These former islands of commerce dotting the rural highways represented the hopes of entrepreneurs filling out the infrastructure of isolated communities. Whether the result of a cutback in travel or a reflection of reduced spending by local patrons, the loss of jobs experienced when a restaurant or convenience store or used car lot or curio shop closes in the Heartland has a devastating ripple effect. The jobs are not easily replaceable; commerce slows for everyone. To this audience, Senator Obama's message of hope, coupled with the perception that he has a feel for taking necessary steps to restart the economy (without promising miracles), offers an alternative to the status quo, albeit from a non-traditional source.

By the time I hit the Chicago Loop on Saturday afternoon, any complacency resulting from my sense of optimism over rural support for my urban candidate disappeared. Senator Obama is a tough sell with the A.I.P.A.C. crowd. For reasons I addressed in an earlier discussion of the issue in
Prairie Pondering, many of my Jewish brethren do not trust Senator Obama to continue to provide strong support for Israel. Since, if you are among the 1,500 conference attendees committed enough to Israel enough to fly in from all over the country for the A.I.P.A.C. event, there is no more important issue, any doubts about Senator Obama's Middle East policy is a deal breaker.

My early Sunday morning visit to Norm and Lilly in Lincoln Park was a bit more reassuring. Norm is in the broadcast business. He has retained his love for all things political and, as a career necessity, is tuned into wind currents generated out of Washington. He does business in several Midwestern states and seems to have a sense for the trials and tribulations of the campaigns that goes beyond the hype generated by his advertisers as they do combat over his airwaves. He is optimistic about the election results; Lilly was off to Indiana to door knock for the Obama campaign.

Perhaps the most stark observation from Norm was his concern for the safety of Senator Obama. Many of us have worried about the same thing. But Norm put a slightly different twist on things. Senator Obama's home is across the street from Norm and Lilly's synagogue near the University of Chicago. Apparently, the Secret Service found it necessary to close off open access to the street nearly a year ago. The level of protection deemed necessary is unnerving, made more so by today's news account of a skinhead plot to assassinate Senator Obama. I take some, but faint, solace in the fact that we are reading of the "foiled" plot.

Back in Highland Park for birthday brunch on Sunday, the family allowed itself to "discuss" politics and, again, it was different strokes for different folks. Without getting into who said what, there was probably no better than a 60/40 split in favor of Senator Obama among the adults in attendance. I had long since rejected much of what I heard offered as a basis for opposing an Obama presidency: ties into Reverend Wright, friend of William Ayers, beneficiary of Arab money paying for college, "Manchurian Candidate", no executive experience. Nonetheless, I marveled at how effectively right-wing talking heads had managed to indoctrinate otherwise intelligent upper middle class voters. Since the trip to Chicago to celebrate Uncle Norman's birthday has become an annual tradition, I observed to the assembled gathered around the dining room table that, one way or another, some of us would be saying "I told you so" next October.

I left Highland Park at about 2 p.m., stopping at the local Jewel grocery store to pick up a year's supply of spicy giardinara. Armed, too, with a large Chunky candy bar, two packs of M&M's, a Milky Way, a Cadbury Fruit & Nut a cup of coffee and a liter of Coke, I drove back to Minneapolis. My cousin stayed behind so I was flying solo. I stuck to I-94 on the way home, wanting to have company if the weather turned nasty and as night fell. I used the time to catch up on podcasts of Face the Nation, Meet the Press, Washington Week and This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Some of the podcasts were repeating shows I had previously watched on TV, but it was fascinating to revisit earlier speculation discussing events and strategies that had since played out and/or revealed themselves.

I also caught a fascinating piece on NPR about pollsters in this election cycle and how The Bradley Effect may just be an urban legend. On the Media carried it Sunday, October 26th, interviewing Democratic and Republican staffers closely involved in the 1982 race for California governor and responsible for polling before the election. Both sides claim that internal polling showed Mayor Tom Bradley losing ground during the two weeks before the election and that The Bradley Effect was coined by a pollster with egg on his face when asked to explain how he had gotten things so wrong. I hope they are right and that this campaign has, in fact, transcended the issue of race.

I will not make any predictions here. Two months ago I told you Tim Pawlenty would be the Vice Presidential candidate alongside John McCain. While Senator McCain probably should have listened to me, he did not and I am batting 0% prognosticating in this blog. The notion that I could jinx the outcome by injecting my preference, and remain at 0%, is a risk I will not bear. Rather, I will spend November 4th assisting in getting out the vote and work to make my preference a reality. I ask that you do the same.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Addressing Racism as We Do the Right Thing

I met Daniel Wright III on my first day of college in September, 1970. He called out to me as I entered the Carleton College student union and beckoned me to join a group of students gathering for introductions. As a sophomore, Danny held court over the newbies, making the arriving students feel welcome and exuding a warmth, enthusiasm and intelligence I would come to know and love in the years to come.

In July, 1988, I left the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta to join Danny to watch a news conference at which Jesse Jackson endorsed Michael Dukakis, attempting to bring unity to the two candidates’ competing factions. Danny was in the hospital on his deathbed, an AIDS victim, and we held hands as I joked to ease the mood. “Look, Danny, after everything we’ve been through, here we are witnessing history. That could be us on television: a Black man and a short man competing for the presidency.”

Danny was young, gifted and Black. He grew up in Savannah, Georgia in a family that was at the center of the civil rights movement. His father was a schoolteacher and instilled an understanding of the importance of education in his son. Danny’s mother, Mercedes, was a local board member of the NAACP and is credited with effectively organizing students as the Georgia field secretary for the NAACP Youth Councils in the early 1960’s. He inherited his family’s intolerance of bigotry and, I like to think, saw in me a well-traveled, street smart, color-blind Jewish kid from St. Louis Park who did not define our friendship as one revolving around our different skin tones.

For me, Danny’s skin color was not an issue. I was raised in a home where prejudice was not expressed. Rather, I vividly recall Rabbi Moses Sachs speaking of the moral imperative to support the Civil Rights movement as television brought me images of vicious dogs and fire hoses being used against Negroes in Alabama. My personal exposure to people of color before I left for college was limited; my senior class at St. Louis Park High School boasted one African American member. Chet, the owner of Road Buddy’s in St. Paul was just a dark skinned restaurateur always happy to see little Sammy eating in his rib joint. The ribs were the best ever; his skin color was not an issue. Waiters on the trains to Chicago in the early 1960’s were a curiosity because they reminded me of the icons on the Cream of Wheat box as they served me Cream of Wheat, but their skin color was not an issue. The African American judge my grandfather introduced me to in Chicago when I was in my early teens was a role model (pre-indictment) because he was a judge and a friend of Papa’s; his skin color was not an issue.

Danny helped me maintain my enlightened viewpoint by sensitizing me to the poison spread by those less enlightened. I lost the ability to close my eyes to the injustices suffered by persons of color at the hands of overt and covert racists. Danny introduced me to the work of Lorraine Hansberry, giving me another view of the challenges faced by the African American community in my beloved Chicago. He shared war stories about growing up in the South and described his mother’s work with the NAACP in Savannah and, later, in New York City. He defended, with reason, the need for the African American students at Carleton to have an exclusive and exclusionary residence. Most importantly, he strengthened my tolerance radar, allowing me to recognize unacceptable behavior in others and in myself. Over the short 18 years we had, Danny and I became as close as brothers. When I graduated from his tutelage, I could no longer assume racist behavior was not an issue because it was not directed at or by me personally.

Which brings me to our current presidential campaign. As the election approaches and Senator Obama’s lead in the polls grows, speculation grows over the accuracy of the polls once respondents, and those they represent, actually vote in the privacy of the voting booth. The Bradley Effect, used to describe the difference between pre-election polling and actual results in former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s failed California gubernatorial campaign, suggests that poll respondents are reluctant to admit an unwillingness to vote for an African American candidate. As a result, the polls are skewed in favor of the African American candidate and actual performance in the election is disappointing.

Analysts considering to what extent the Bradley Effect will manifest itself in this year’s presidential race are really asking us all to consider the extent to which we remain a covertly racist society. To what extent do we pay lip service to the concept of equality yet harbor internal doubts that a person with darker skin than previous occupants of the Oval Office is somehow not up to the job, that he (or she) will give “those people” positions of responsibility or, worse, the “thinking” goes, cater to concerns irrelevant to and inconsistent with the best interests of the white majority? To what extent will the electorate channel racial stereotypes instead of making racially blind decisions based on more relevant, important attributes of the respective candidates?

Those of you who have been reading Prairie Pondering know which presidential candidate has earned my support based on the color-blind analysis. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can write here today that will eliminate race-based decision making across the board. The best I can hope for is to get readers to engage in some introspection and, given the opportunity, challenge others to do the same.

I realize that most of you were not fortunate enough to have your tolerance factor nurtured by Irv Stern, Rabbi Moses Sachs, or Danny Wright. You missed my dorm room conference with U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, a family friend of the Wrights or visits to the Connecticut country home of another friend of Danny, Judge Constance Motley, the author of the original complaint in Brown vs. Board of Education, first African-American woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and first African-American woman appointed to the Federal bench. You missed the opportunity I enjoyed to interact with successful, brilliant public servants, who just happened to be African-American.

A resistance to similarly accept the concept of Barack Obama as our president because of his skin color is grounded in ignorance and a foolish unwillingness to deviate from perceived historical “norms”. In 1841 Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his classic essay Self Reliance, reminded us that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .. “ The expanded quote reads “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.”

I suggest that questioning the propriety of voting for a person with the extraordinary qualifications and life story of Barack Obama because white folks have never before granted a person of color such enormous responsibility differs not from concerning yourself with your shadow on the wall.

We have pursued this grand experiment in governance for nearly 220 years. During the same timeline, science has progressed to the point where we understand that the human species’ capabilities are not dependent upon skin color. We need to be smart about this. The enlightened among us need to do everything it can to make sure that the most qualified candidate is elected president on November 4th. It has never been more important to do so.

Unfortunately, there are too many who choose to live in fear and ignorance and adhere to their foolish consistency to free the country of the scourge of racism in the next two weeks. We address that reality by working harder than we have ever worked to overcome the racism of the unenlightened. We devote our time and money to Senator Obama’s campaign. We identify one or more of Senator Obama’s supporters who need a ride to the polling place on November 4th and make sure they are able to vote. We speak out in public and private gatherings and challenge racist pronouncements. We send an e-mail to everyone on our mailing list, admonishing the recipients to stand up for the ideals we aspire to as a nation. Hell, we write a blog.

The effort is not an easy one. It seems frustrating to have to work so hard to achieve victory in November when the choice is so clear to those of us who compare the candidates on relevant merits. I could add the link to President Shepard’s speech in The American President, again, to motivate you. But, if you’ve read this far, I’ll treat you instead to another passage from Self Reliance:

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.”

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Importance of Being Earnest: Making Something of Your Education as a Qualification for Holding Office

I have spent some time ranting in Prairie Pondering about the effect of belittling education on our political process. Yesterday I received an e-mail forwarded by my father, a strong advocate of quality education, both as a father and as a State Senator, that, more eloquently and succinctly than I, poses relevant questions about the role of education in the selection of our leaders. As it does so, it also poses questions about issues of inherent racism that are undoubtedly coming into play in the Obama vs. McCain popularity contest.

Here is the e-mail. My additional thoughts appear at the end.

Subject: Qualifications and racism

What if things were switched around ?
...think about it.

Would the country's collective point of view be different?

Ponder the following:

What if the Obama had paraded five children across the stage, including

a three month old infant and an unwed, pregnant teenage daughter?

What if John McCain was a former president of the Harvard Law Review?
What if Barack Obama finished fifth from the bottom of his graduating class?

What if McCain had only married once, and Obama was a divorcee?

What if Obama was the candidate who left his first wife after a severe

disfiguring car accident, when she no longer measured up to his standards?

What if Obama had met his second wife in a bar and had a long affair while

he was still married?

What if Michelle Obama was the wife who not only became addicted to pain

killers but also acquired them illegally through her charitable organization?

What if Cindy McCain graduated from Harvard?

What if Obama had been a member of the Keating Five?

(The Keating Five were five United States Senators accused of corruption
in 1989, igniting a major political scandal as part of the larger Savings
and Loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s.)

What if McCain was a charismatic, eloquent speaker?

What if Obama couldn't read from a teleprompter?

What if Obama was the one who had military experience that included

discipline problems and a record of crashing seven planes?

What if Obama was the one who was known to display publicly, on many

occasions, a serious anger management problem?

What if Michelle Obama's family had made their money from beer distribution?

What if the Obama had adopted a white child?

You could easily add to this list. If these questions reflected reality,do you really believe the election numbers would be as close as they are?

This is what racism does. It covers up, rationalizes and minimizes

positive qualities in one candidate and emphasizes negative qualities in
another when there is a color difference.

Educational Background:

Barack Obama:

Columbia University - B.A. Political Science with a Specialization in
International Relations.

Harvard - Juris Doctor (J.D.) Magna Cum Laude

Joseph Biden:

University of Delaware - B.A. in History and B.A. in Political Science.

Syracuse University College of Law - Juris Doctor (J.D.)


John McCain:

United States Naval Academy - Class rank: 894 of 899

Sarah Palin:

Hawaii Pacific University - 1 semester

North Idaho College - 2 semesters - General Study

University of Idaho - 2 semesters - Journalism

Matanuska-Susitna College - 1 semester

University of Idaho - 3 semesters - B.A. in Journalism

Education isn't everything, but this is about the two highest offices in

the land as well as our standing in the world. You make the call.

It probably goes without saying that it requires something comparable to graduating from Harvard Law School Magna Cum Laude for an African American to be taken seriously in our highest levels of political competition. Apparently, for a Caucasian, family lineage suffices in the event the scholastic record is less than stellar.

Keep in mind that both Senator Obama and Senator McCain had to work diligently to achieve their respective levels of success in school. Whatever affirmative action might have been in play to offer Senator Obama admission to Harvard Law School, it had no bearing on his ability to compete and excel as he pursued his law degree, taking on the prestige and responsibility of editing the Harvard Law Review along the way. His success is a testament to his drive, focus, intelligence, stamina, willingness to sacrifice and ability to balance competing demands on his time. I view these as important qualities in one who would be president of the United States.

Similarly, whatever family connections might have been in play to offer Senator McCain admission to the U.S. Naval Academy, they had no bearing on his decision to treat the honor with contempt, waste the resources the Academy had to offer and put his own pursuit of self-indulgence ahead of service to country.

I graduated from high school, college and law school. I finished in something like the top 20%, 30% and 40% of my respective classes. I edited my high school newspaper and worked during most subsequent educational tenures. I knew that, with a little more effort and focus on school, I could have done better academically during each step along the way. Instead, I exerted enough effort to get by and into the next phase of life. I did not have anyone carrying me along. I did not have the luxury of becoming a complete slacker if I expected to avoid welcoming shoppers to Wal-Mart (forget the anachronism, you know what I mean).

On the other hand, either Senator McCain made absolutely no real effort to pursue his free education in Annapolis or he is a moron. To finish in the lower 0.0055% of your class, it's one or the other. Period.

I cannot help but feel that those McCain supporters who point to his family's military heritage
, without honestly assessing Senator McCain's performance in adding to, or detracting from, that heritage, would prefer a monarchy to a republic, government by divine right rather than by democratic determination. Monarchs need no résume other than bloodline. Monarchs ascend to the throne regardless of academic performance or pre-coronation performance by any standard.

Dullard? A product of in-breeding and necessary by-product of the selection system.
Ruffian? Better an ill-tempered bully than a prissy politician like Barney Frank.
Adulterer? Boys will be boys.
Aged? Patience is a virtue and the timing of ascendancy to the throne is God's will.

If society has degraded to the point (AFTER eight disastrous years under a president who similarly disregarded his personal education and relied, instead, on family connections to persevere) that it is willing to seriously consider handing over the reigns of government to a person with John McCain's résume (regardless of his opponent), we may be too ill-equipped to engage in a meaningful discourse, ponder constructive criticism of one another's viewpoints and make choices about our country's future that rely on something other than distrust of all opposing positions.

I'll continue my pondering in a day or so and expand on the issue of racism in the campaign.