Thursday, October 30, 2008

Phillies Win!: Twice in a Lifetime

When the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series last night it felt great to see my favorite baseball team become champions again. It’s nice to see your favorite team become champions once in your lifetime but when it happens twice, it becomes doubly sweet. The Phillies did not win the Series by fluke. This is a finely tuned, well-balanced young team that has not yet reached its peak in terms of what it can when operating on all cylinders.

The Phillies made quantum strides since early last season when they seemed to be floundering and manager Charlie Manuel’s job was literally on the line. They coalesced into a contender, made the playoffs (only to be immediately eliminated) and renewed themselves to improving themselves this season. One has to give credit to out-going general manager Pat Gillick for making several shrewd trades and free agent signings. He put the pieces together all season long and it paid off in World Series rings.

Charlie Manuel deserves credit too. He was and is the right manager for this type of team. He kept his young players loose but focused; making the proper moves with the right personnel. The Phillies only had to do their jobs and they did.

When they won I couldn’t help but compare them with the 1980 Phillies and, interestingly, I find myself considering the 2008 Phillies to be the superior ball club. The 2008 Phillies were, by far, the more efficient team in terms of execution of the basics of baseball. Seldom, if ever, did this team ever beat itself. The 1980 Phillies weren’t called the Cardiac kids for nothing. Time and again they would dig holes for themselves only to work their way out of them until, finally, against all odds, they won the World Series. In many ways the worst enemy of the 1980 Phillies were themselves which explains why Dallas Green was able to wring a World Series title out of them. Again and again Dallas Green had to cajole, admonish, and whip the Phillies into overcoming their own self-destructive play. When the 1980 Phillies won against the Royals it was in spite of themselves.

The 2008 Phillies were the cooler team—which is more amazing considering the youth of the club. When the Phillies won they did so with the quiet grace of the old New York Yankees teams during their dynasty years. They dispatched all three opponents with the modicum of fuss and bother--their only significant foe being Mother Nature.

The 1980 Team had Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, two Hall-of-Famers and Pete Rose who would be in the Hall were it not for his gambling. Bob Boone and Garry Maddox were supreme in their own right as catcher and centerfielder respectively but the 2008 Phillies have Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Cole Hamels—all of whom have Hall-of-Fame potential. The 2008 Phillies bull-pen was infinitely superior to the 1980 club and the 2008 Phillies were much better in executing the baseball basics such as moving runners, stealing bases, and making the defensive stops that needed to be made.

Dallas Green could never have managed the 2008 Phillies to victory and Charlie Manuel could never have led the 1980 Phillies to victory. Each manager was perfect for their respective teams.
Can the 2008 Phillies repeat as champions next year? The odds are against them. Only four times in World Series history has an NL team repeated as champions: the 1976 Reds, the 1944 Cardinals, the 1922 Giants, and the 1908 Cubs. The Phillies may not repeat next year but rest assuredly they will appear in a few more Fall Classics if they keep their noses clean and their inner core of stars together.

The best years of the 2008 Phillies are still ahead of them.

Way to go Phillies! Thank you very much!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Theodore Roosevelt: A Sesquicentennial

October 27 marks the sesquicentennial of the birth of one of the most complete Americans this nation has ever produced: President Theodore Roosevelt. (Interestingly, the next few months to come will mark other anniversaries in the life and death of the 26th President of the United States: next January will mark the 90th anniversary of his death and next March will mark the centennial of the conclusion of his Presidency).

If ever there was a renaissance man in American history it was Roosevelt. His Presidency alone makes him a landmark figure but to judge his life solely on his Presidency fails to capture the totality of the man. Roosevelt in his lifetime was a scholar, sportsman, naturalist, hunter, explorer, horseman, author, historian, cattle rancher, volunteer soldier, state legislator, governor, police commissioner, under-secretary of the navy, and Vice President (achieving excellence in almost all these activities) before becoming President. To paraphrase the late historians Will and Ariel Durant, Roosevelt packed a century’s worth of living into a mere sixty years of existence on this Earth. No other American President except for Thomas Jefferson could match such an enormous variety of accomplishments (and even Jefferson never came close to matching Roosevelt’s vaunted outdoor experiences and conspicuous gallantry on the battlefield).

Roosevelt brought American into the 20th century and set this nation on a course that would make the 20th century the American century. He modernized the Presidency by broadening the scope of the executive powers of the office in unprecedented ways and guided our country through its long awaited transition from a hemispheric power to a world power to be reckoned with in world affairs. America’s victories in World Wars One and Two and subsequent assumption as defender of freedom abroad would never have been possible without Theodore Roosevelt sowing the seeds of progress.

What is even more amazing when reflecting on Roosevelt’s unparalleled record of achievement (especially when it comes to his outdoor activities) is that he did so by overcoming his own physical limits. To paraphrase the late William Manchester writing about Sir Winston Churchill, Roosevelt was a man who triumphed over his own physiognomy. Throughout his life Roosevelt overcame near-sightedness, severe childhood asthma, (by today’s standards obesity), an assassin’s bullet while campaigning for President in 1912, and, later in life, severe malaria while exploring the Amazon river to earn his niche on the face of Mount Rushmore. More amazing still were the emotional and psychological battles he had to face to make his name. Roosevelt had to endure the death of his first wife Alice; opposition from his fellow Republicans when it came to reforming New York State and, later, American politics; the dissipation and premature death of his brother Elliott (father of Eleanor Roosevelt); and the death of his son Quentin who was killed in action in World War One. And yet endure he did, all the while persevering in the face of adversity and, for the most part, triumphing in the end.

When considering the obstacles he had to face, his attainments make him shine even more heroically in the pantheon of American politics. Today’s political figures are mere shades when compared with the monumental edifice of Roosevelt’s life.

One example of this was when President Ronald Reagan died. During the funeral services several conservative commentators compared Reagan with Theodore Roosevelt. In truth comparing Reagan with Theodore Roosevelt is a grave disservice to Roosevelt. As the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus once wrote, “He does not wish to seem but to be.” Reagan, in real life, deliberately portrayed himself in the Rooseveltian image of the cowboy, the rancher, and the heroic figure in the ultimate stage appearance. Roosevelt truly was. Personally I would have loved to see Reagan try to run a dude ranch in North Dakota Badlands where he had to rope and brand his own cattle and ride in a posse after cattle rustlers—which Roosevelt did. Unlike actors Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, Reagan did not fight in combat in World War Two. During the Spanish-American War Theodore Roosevelt resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (where he served with distinction) in order to organize and fight with a volunteer cavalry regiment better known as the Rough Riders. I would have loved to see Reagan marching through a thick Cuban jungle in order to charge up San Juan Hill, all the while watching friend and foe die before his eyes while risking death himself. Roosevelt did all that. Reagan never did. (Roosevelt passed his dedication to fighting on the battlefield to his children—all of whom served in action in World Wars One and Two. Indeed his eldest son Theodore Roosevelt Jr. went ashore at Utah Beach at Normandy on D-Day, earning the Medal of Honor, and is buried at the American cemetery at Coleville, France). I would have loved to have seen Reagan explore the treacherous River of Doubt—a tributary of the Amazon River all the while braving a near fatal bout of malaria. Roosevelt did all that, Reagan never did.

The only similarities between Reagan and Roosevelt are that both men survived assassin’s bullets. Both men believed in a strong military and the vigorous application of American power in the realm of foreign policy.

The only area where Reagan exceeds Roosevelt is in vote-getting and gaining better support from his party. Roosevelt was at loggerheads with his own party whereas Reagan personally reconstituted the G.O.P., making it a mainstream majority party. Ronald Reagan represented the triumph of conservative Republicanism which arose in opposition to the Progressivism established by Theodore Roosevelt. Ironically Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive ideals would be co-opted by his distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt and given expression in ways and areas far beyond what Theodore ever envisioned.

But it is in the human realm that Reagan pales in comparison with Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a genuine prodigy who could hobnob with Wall Street aristocracy and bivouac with North Dakota cowboys at the same time. Roosevelt could converse with European monarchs and premiers in their own languages—which he did in 1910 when he represented the United States at the funeral of British King Edward VII—while simultaneously earning their respect.

Not only that, but one can compare and contrast Roosevelt and Reagan by looking at the people they chose to help them achieve their political goals. Roosevelt attracted the best and brightest during his political career. Men of great talent like Henry Stimson, Frank Knox, Elihu Root, Charles Evans Hughes and William Howard Taft. Reagan had one of the most corrupt and bizarre collection of characters in his cabinet in American Presidential history. Almost all of his cabinet members were tried or convicted on criminal charges.

If I were given a choice of interviewing Reagan or Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt would win hands down.

But the most important reason why we, as Americans, should celebrate the life of Theodore Roosevelt is because of the great gift he gave to his country: his decision to make America’s natural treasures into national treasures. Before Theodore Roosevelt, conservation was thought of only in terms of concerned individuals utilizing their time, money, and connections to preserve specific landmarks and treasures in America. The national park system that we know and love today did not exist before Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, when informed that certain natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and other areas faced possible exploitation and despoliation by business and industrial interests, made the unprecedented decision to use the executive powers of the Office of President to make many of America’s natural treasures into national parks and national monuments in order to prevent such exploitation and despoliation. Roosevelt did this because there was no specific constitutional prohibition banning him from doing such a thing. Not only was this one of the boldest assertions of Presidential power since Abraham Lincoln it also had the revolutionary effect of putting the Federal Government as the number one conservator of our national treasures. It expanded and gave new life to the National Park Service and, most important of all, it preserved forever the sacred beauty of our national treasures and, by extension, the sacred beauty of our nation itself. We, as a nation, are defined by the transcendent magnificence of our landscape: our rivers, plains, mountains, valleys, beaches, and forests. Roosevelt’s decision to preserve these wonders helped make America the America we love, revere, and defend today. Furthermore, his act of preserving the natural treasures of our nation helped future generations of American and foreign visitors understand and appreciate what we Americans take for granted today.

Theodore Roosevelt actions did more to define and preserve the American ethos than any other President before or since.

That is why his face is on Mount Rushmore—and rightfully so.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Inevitability of Barack Obama

When I began blogging three years ago I envisioned myself giving some sort of ringing endorsement for this year’s Presidential contest. Now that the moment of truth has come I find that any endorsement would be superfluous.

Ever since the lackluster first Presidential debate, G.O.P. candidate John McCain and Sarah Palin have tried to close the gap with Barack Obama caused by the sudden economic downturn—and not really succeeding.

The fact that the McCain-Palin resorted to smear ads at this late stage of the game reflects the desperation of their campaign. (McCain should have started playing the Ayers-Wright-Rezco card in July like Bush did with the Swift Boat Veterans ads against Kerry in 2004. If Jeb Bush had been the G.O.P. nominee, he would have done so—with a lot more worse ads to follow too). The belated negative ads merely represent the last shriek of retreat of the McCain-Palin campaign.

McCain did perform better in the two subsequent debates but the problem is Presidential debates are largely mutual canceling out sessions between the two candidates. Very rarely do the candidates in question make significant errors but when they do we remember them for all time (Richard Nixon’s refusal to wear make-up for his debate with JFK in 1960; Gerald Ford declaring that the Polish people were free when he debated Jimmy Carter in 1976; George Bush looking at his watch while brushing off a female questioner asking him to show compassion to the poor during the 1992 campaign).

There were no blatant debate gaffes. McCain pressed his attacks on Obama—sometimes scoring but Obama never lost his composure or command. He improved on his tepid performance and honed his message. In the second debate he scored heavily with viewers (especially female voters) when he discussed health care, education, and women’s issues. During the last debate he did the same again. This is significant. There was fear in the Obama campaign that his triumph over Hillary Clinton would cause female voters to defect to McCain. Instead by this late date female voters are rallying to his standard despite Sarah Palin’s presence.

It appears evident that Obama (barring the unforeseen disaster) will triumph on Election Day—the only question being what will the margin of victory will be. The signs are there. The fact that McCain is withdrawing resources from certain states; the fact that the pundits of the Fox News Channel are bemoaning the fates and Obama’s successes; the fact that certain U.S. newspapers are endorsing Obama’s candidacy where they had never endorsed a Democrat before. It’s the little signs that indicate that Obama will win.

Still, the other night, I was watching the Larry King Show and there was a panel of political experts including two black pollsters. One of them, a guy named Dyson suggested that if Obama were white his present lead would be even more overwhelming. I disagree vehemently.

If Barack Obama were a white man, he would never have won the Democratic nomination. No way. Despite his superb eloquence and excellent organizational skills, his skin color was the key card in his winning hand. If he were white he would have never have gotten the overwhelming voter turnouts from the African-American population—which before had been in lockstep with Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. If Obama had been white he would have run a creditable race, won fewer primaries while Hillary would have won heavily in the South—which she didn’t do. Hillary would have won the nomination and quite possibly a white Barack Obama might have been a running mate—maybe.

Now if Hillary Rodham could have beaten John McCain is another question altogether. McCain is a better stump speaker than Hillary. That’s not an aspersion on her but she is not entertaining on the stump like her husband. The race would be much closer now if she had gotten the nomination.

The nation is in bad straits both internally and abroad. The economy is in free fall (in fact it’s been tepid since 2001). Energy prices have aroused considerable consumer anguish (but have stimulated the vital need to seek out and exploit clean alternative fuel sources). Our financial institutions are collapsing and consumer confidence is low. Simply put this country is in a crisis unseen since 1933. Indeed one could say that our present crisis is even worse than 1933 whereas in 1933 America was in dire domestic straits at least we didn’t have the enormous role in world affairs that we have today or the massive military complex that we need today to maintain our influence in world affairs. In 1933 FDR could focus solely in trying to restore the American economy. In 2009 Barack Obama has to fix America’s fiscal house while simultaneously trying to restore American prestige and influence in foreign policy (both of which have declined precipitously under George W. Bush)—not a simple task.

John McCain and Sarah Palin can claim that Obama will raise taxes all they like—and they’re right. He will raise taxes—like Bill Clinton did in 1993 but guess what? If the G.O.P. led by George W. Bush hadn’t passed those massive tax cuts in 2001 and while simultaneously engaging in massive domestic spending at home and the tragically costly war in Iraq then our deficits wouldn’t be so huge so as to necessitate any tax increases to reduce our national debt. John McCain can propose all the tax cuts he wants but you can only cut taxes so much before you start compromising national security and internal domestic order. John McCain wants victory in Iraq but “victory” in Iraq is a very expensive proposition. How do you intend to pay for “victory”?

In a different time and place McCain’s platform would have been compelling but now is not the right time. The American people have been bled white and are tired. Like Bob Dylan says, “it’s time to strike a match girl, start anew.”

That’s why Barack Obama will be the man a majority of Americans will vote for on Election Day 2008.

I know I will.

Friday, October 10, 2008

O.J. Simpson: Justice Delayed But Not Denied

The conviction of O.J. Simpson by a Las Vegas jury and his impending sentencing brings to a close the improbable and oftentimes infuriating legal journey he led America ever since that brutally hot June night in 1994 when his former wife Nicole and a male bystander were savagely murdered at knifepoint.

The journey strained and confounded America’s faith in the criminal justice system. It enflamed the racial tensions not only in the greater Los Angeles area but throughout America. It set the standard for the 24/7 media saturation of all notorious criminal cases that are now the norm.

O.J.’s lawyers can complain all they like about the Las Vegas jury was seeking vengeance against O.J. for his acquittal in 1995 but they ignore the more important point: that O.J. should never have placed himself in a position where he would have to face a jury for his actions. When he led his compatriots into that Vegas hotel room, he was opening a door for law enforcement to intervene against him which should never have been opened. Having dodged the greatest bullet of his life in 1995, O.J. should have gone into retreat, living a life of seclusion and circumspection. Instead in the thirteen long years following his acquittal, he toyed with the American people, mocked his pursuers, flaunted his “freedom”, and, basically, was living off the kindness of strangers.

Like the moth to flame (or the electronic bug zapper) he couldn’t resist the spotlight. Ultimately amidst the bright lights of Las Vegas, he got zapped and he did it all by himself.

For me his trial and conviction brings back memories of the 1995 trial. I think all of us has played amateur detective and pondered the evidence and constructed our own version of what happened during that bloody night in June 1995.

In my mind’s eye, I’ve always envisioned the murder as being a two-act performance by O.J. I never accepted the thesis of the Goldman family lawyer Daniel Petrocelli put forth in the civil suit against O.J. that followed the criminal trial that O.J. killed Nicole and Ron Goldman simultaneously in a blitz attack. I’ve always believed that O.J. went to Nicole’s house solely to kill Nicole. In my mind’s eye, I think O.J. creepy-crawled Nicole, gaining surreptitious entry into house (something which he had done numerous times before the murder) and took control of Nicole at knifepoint. The question which lies hanging is whether O.J. spoke to Nicole inside and whether Nicole recognized O.J.’s voice. If she knew that it was O.J. holding the knife at her throat inside the house did she willingly allow O.J. to take her outside the house thinking that O.J. was merely trying to frighten her and all she was going to get was another severe beating or did Nicole realize that O.J. had finally crossed the line into murderous rage and that she was going die and, realizing that if she screamed and struggled inside the house that her children—who were asleep upstairs—might come down to intervene and be killed by O.J. alongside with herself. Knowing that, did Nicole sacrifice herself by allowing O.J. to take her outside the house thus getting O.J. away from the children?

We’ll never know. What we do know is that once Nicole was taken outside the end came quickly, brutally, savagely, her head almost severed from her neck.

So much speculation has been made about Ron Goldman’s presence at the house that night. What was he doing there? Some called him a paramour of Nicole Brown Simpson. I never bought that. I believe that Goldman was there simply to return Nicole’s eye-glasses which had been left at the restaurant she had dined at earlier that evening. In my view Ron Goldman was the intangible factor in the murder—the best living witness had he not been killed—the joker in the deck that O.J. never anticipated when he plotted to kill Nicole. Before Goldman’s arrival, O.J. committed the perfect crime. He had dispatched his wife quickly, efficiently. Ron Goldman’s arrival at the house altered the equation. What did Goldman see when he came up the walkway? Did he see O.J. finishing off Nicole? Did he see O.J. getting ready to leave the crime scene? Did he see O.J. walking away from Nicole’s corpse?

My theory is that O.J. heard Goldman’s arrival and took cover in the foliage surrounding the house. I believe Goldman innocently approached the house and then, to his shock and horror, saw Nicole’s moribund (if not dead) body. He may have bent down to check on her and once he did so, O.J. took Goldman by surprise and had him under control. During the 1995 trial forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee demonstrated how some of Goldman’s defensive wounds could have been caused. He showed that Goldman had been held upright from behind with the knife at his throat. When I saw Lee’s demonstration I had a vision in my mind that O.J., before he killed Goldman, may have spoken to Goldman, assuming that Goldman was a lover of Nicole before finishing off Goldman.

The thing is, though, his attacking Ron Goldman was what ultimately led the police to his doorstep. It was probably during his struggle with Goldman that he got careless, made mistakes, and left evidence: the bloody glove at the scene, the nick on his finger tip which left his DNA at the scene, and the show prints left by his Bruno Magli shoes. Killing Ron Goldman had upset O.J.’s timetable, delayed his departure. When O.J. drove back to his home (and his eventual flight to Chicago), he was late and he knew he had to get back before the limo driver came so his alibi could be airtight. The problem was, the limo arrived at his house early, buzzed O.J. and got no response, eventually seeing a mysterious figure skulking on O.J.’s property (it was O.J.) before, finally, O.J. came out to greet the limo driver.

That limo driver was a key witness in the civil suit against O.J. and it was his testimony that resulted in the civil judgment against him for causing the death of Ron Goldman.

The Los Angeles D.A.’s decision to try the case in downtown L.A. instead of in Brentwood (where the crime took place) doomed the prosecution from the start. The L.A. jury was a runaway jury, bent on striking a blow against the L.A.P.D. instead of seeing that justice was done for Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. I have often wondered if Nicole and Ron Goldman had been black would the jury have been so willing to acquit O.J Simpson? I do believe however that the jury was hostile towards Nicole. I remember vividly Nicole’s sister Denise Brown’s testimony about her dead sister. Denise Brown had been called by the prosecution to tell the jury about her sister and to give the jurors there a portrait of Nicole as a means of eliciting sympathy and understanding about her brutal murder—to show that Nicole was a human being not merely a crime statistic. Denise Brown (dressed immaculately) in clothes bought on Rodeo Drive and her coiffed by the finest Hollywood hairdressers told the jurors about her sister’s plans to take her children to Cozumel for a vacation and that she and her sister were going to do Club Med afterwards.

Denise Brown’s pain, devastation, and anguish were real, intense, and genuine. The problem with her testimony was that she was telling a jury composed of people who would never go shopping on Rodeo Drive and never have their hair coiffed at the finest hairdressers in Hollywood; who couldn’t possibly afford to take their children on vacation to Cozumel and would never get a chance to do Club Med. I cannot help but feel that instead of eliciting sympathy for Nicole instead Denise Brown’s testimony drew rage, anger, jealousy from the jury. If Denise Brown had testified before a Brentwood jury (Brentwood is an extremely affluent neighborhood composed of people who shop every day at Rodeo Drive; who vacation with their children to Cozumel and do Club Med regularly) then her testimony would have garnered the sympathy the prosecution needed to clinch the case against O.J.

In the end O.J. beat the rap but he couldn’t defeat his own worst enemy: himself. That’s why he walked into that Las Vegas hotel room, got himself caught on audio and videotape, got arrested, tried and convicted and condemned to a Clark County Prison cell.

Justice delayed but now no longer denied.