Monday, January 30, 2006

My anonymous news sources

As a retired journalist, I've had a professional interest in the recent furor over the media's use of anonymous news sources. The critics argue that the practice of using unnamed sources for information raises the question of factual credibility.

When I was still working, anonymous news sources came with the territory, and I obviously feel that the criticism is unwarranted.

For a decade during the 1950s and early 1960s, I covered the Pentagon for Business Week. Like other reporters, I cultivated officials who were willing to be interviewed as long as I did not quote them by name. None had political axes to grind, nor were there sinister motives involved. They were simply well-intentioned bureaucrats helping a struggling young reporter trying to do his job gathering information.

I never learned any state secrets, nor was I ever involved in disputes about what I wrote. A half-century later, no one should care who my anonymous news sources were. I can therefore safely reminisce about some experiences.

In three cases, a personal factor enabled me to gain the confidence of the source. For example, George Mahon, a Texas Democrat, then chairman of the House Military Appropriations Subcommittee, was intrigued to learn during an interview I had with him that my father had once owned a men's clothing store in Colorado City, a tiny town in Mahon's Texas Congressional district.

My father had been a traveling salesman in the South for many years. During the mid-1930s, he thought he saw an attractive opportunity for a retail business in Colorado City. The store was a failure, however, and my father retreated back to our home in New York, where my mother and I had been waiting to learn whether we would be pulling up stakes and moving to Texas.

The tale about my father and the possibility that I might have become his constituent created a personal bond of sorts between the Congressman and me. He became an invaluable and regular news source about the defense budget and military procurement, matters of special interest to Business Week

Another Texan, Robert Anderson, also became an important news source for me because of a personal connection. Before coming to Washington with the Eisenhower Administration, Anderson had managed the vast W.T. Waggoner oil and ranching properties in Texas. He was initially named Secretary of the Navy, then Deputy Defense Secretary, and Secretary of the Treasury in 1957.

As Deputy Defense Secretary under Charles Wilson, General Motors' former CEO, Anderson became the subject of a cover story that I was assigned to write. In preparing for an interview with Anderson,I learned that his home town was Vernon, Texas. More than a decade earlier, one of my best friends while serving in the Army was Ollie T. Youngblood, also a Vernon native.

Making small talk during my initial meeting with Anderson, I brought up Ollie's name. Anderson was interested to learn about my friendship with him because he knew the Youngblood family intimately. Again, I had established a personal link to a valuable news source who was always willing to see me even after the Business Week cover story was published.

In 1961, after the newly-elected President John F. Kennedy had named Robert S. McNamara, Ford Motor Co.'s CEO, to become Secretary of Defense, I was assigned to write a cover story about him. I had recently purchased a Mercury auto from a Washington dealer called Moore-Greer Motors, located on Connecticut Ave. near my apartment. I don't recall whether it was Mr. Moore or Mr. Greer, but I had read that one of them had been a high-ranking Ford Motor Co. executive before retiring to establish an auto dealership.

I called him and introduced myself as a customer. I asked him whether he would tell me what he knew about McNamara, explaining my cover story assignment. He was willing to be interviewed with the understanding that he would not be quoted by name in my article.

Moore or Greer--I still cannot remember which one was my source-- was a close friend of McNamara's and volunteered personal information about the new Defense Secretary that would not have been readily available elsewhere. I learned, for example,that the former Ford Motor Co. CEO preferred to live in Ann Arbor, Mich. because of its intellectual environment rather than in the posh Detroit suburbs where virtually all other auto industry big shots lived.

The contribution from McNamara's former colleague, now a Washington auto dealer, was an important ingredient in my piece. Of course, I never told McNamara that I had spoken to his friend.I later learned that McNamara was astonished that so much of his personal life, all of it quite innocent, was revealed in the article.

I never saw Mr. Moore or Mr. Greer again. But I did my best from then on to steer friends who were in the market for a new car to Moore-Greer Motors on Connecticut Ave.

Friday, January 27, 2006

An academic absurdity

New York University will launch a new program in September to prepare graduate students for a "Master of Science in Fundraising." Perhaps I'm just a grouchy old man, but the idea of training students how to lure cash from the really rich folk and to reward the student with a graduate degree strikes me as being an academic absurdity.

According to an NYU announcement, the new program "emphasizes the critical skills needed for effective fundraising and grantmaking, and offers insight into the art, science, and spirit that create excellence in the profession."

To gain an MS degree in fund-raising, the graduate student will be required to take such core courses as "Theory and Practice in Fundraising," "Psychology of Philanthropy," "Technology for Fundraising," and "Ethics in Philanthropic Organizations."

The MS candidates will also be trained in estate and gift tax planning, "wealth management," "ethics and and laws of nonprofits," and--this is my favorite topic--"The Art and the Science" of major gift-giving.

"There's no better way to combine your personal values and your professional life than with a career in philanthropy and fundraising," declares an NYU fact sheet about the new program. "Job opportunities at handsome salaries abound."

As an alumnus of NYU with fond memories of the school's focus on genuine scholarship, I shudder at its grubby institutional descent. Fund-raising should remain an administrative function of the university, not an academic discipline for students.

I believe the impetus for the new program was the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002. The new law is designed to improve corporate governance and accountability. Apparently, there is concern that the new financial scrutiny required by the law will now be applied to nonprofit philanthropic organizations as well as to corporations.

The creation of NYU's new master's program for fund-raising reflects the proliferation of academic disciplines that represent the most narrow and mundane of specialties.When asked about their college majors, candidates during the recent "Miss America" ceremonies responded with such examples as "journalism and sports management," "global supply-chain management," and "exercise and sports sciences."

For top-notch football and basketball stars still in college, there is always a major in "recreational management," enabling the student-athletes to devote as much time, if not more, to the playing field than to the classroom.

The next time I am solicited for a contribution to a charitable organization,I may ask the solicitor about his or her academic credentials. I want to be sure the solicitor has been properly educated on how to ask me for money.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Death of "The New Leader"

This is a memorial for The New Leader, a magazine that is about to produce its final issue after eight decades of publication. The New York Times has described The New Leader as "either the most influential of the little-known magazines or the least well-known of the influential ones."

It was an opinion magazine edited along the lines of The New Republic, National Review,The Nation and Weekly Standard. It was founded as a socialist organ and eventually became an aggressively anti-Communist liberal publication. After the defeat of Communism, it drifted into what could best be described as right-wing liberalism. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, in the current political climate ideological labels have become increasingly difficult to define.

Over the years The New Leader published the work of such political and literary celebrities as George Orwell, Martin Luther King Jr., Arthur Schlesinger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, George F. Kennan, Hubert H. Humphrey, Bertrand Russell, Willy Brandt, Reinhold Niebuhr, and many other well-known persons.

I am writing this memorial because I also have had the honor of being published in The New Leader. My piece, a free-lance article entitled "Organized Labor in Africa," appeared in 1965. I was then a Washington correspondent for the Newhouse Newspaper chain, covering organized labor and industrial affairs.

At that time, many African countries were gaining independence from their British and French colonial rulers. In most cases, local labor union leaders were the key figures in the struggles for independence. Virtually every one of them became heads of state in their newly independent nations. The thrust of my article was that,in an extraordinary irony, most of the former union leaders quickly installed totalitarian regimes and banned the existence of labor unions.

It was to combat such social and political injustices in both the U.S. and abroad that gave The New Leader its reason to exist.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

MEMOIR: My sex life in the Army

The night before I was inducted into the Army in April 1943, my father decided to tell me the facts of life. I was 18 and he had never discussed sex with me before. Seeking privacy, he ushered my mother out of our apartment living room. He then drew on his own brief military experience during World War I, an era in which many soldiers contracted syphilis. Nervously, he said: "In the last war men went blind." He never got beyond that, because my mother, curious to know what was going on, suddenly barged into the room. The sex lecture was over.

On my second day in the Army I was given a sex lecture far more clinical than my father's. In training recruits, the Army seemed to regard sex education as vital to soldiering as close-order drill, discipline and learning how to fire a rifle. The aim was to encourage the use of condoms and prophylactic kits to prevent venereal disease.

To promote the use of these protective measures, GIs periodically attended lectures and films showing hideous photos of men with advanced cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually-transmitted diseases. This dreadful portrayal of the possible adverse side-effects of sexual activity undoubtedly forced many men into abstinence--at least while in uniform.

I can still recall two legendary cartoons in the Army magazine Yank by George Baker, creator of the famous character, the Sad Sack. One showed the hero watching a sex education film. Increasingly, he becomes nauseous at the sight of advanced VD victims. When he leaves the movie hall, he is introduced to a woman who offers to shake his hand. Before shaking her hand, however, he dons a rubber glove. In the other cartoon, the Sad Sack is asleep on his bed and obviously experiencing a "wet dream." He suddenly awakens and rushes to a medical clinic to get a pro kit to cleanse himself.

In January 1944 I was shipped overseas. Sailing from Hampton Roads, Va. to Bombay, India, we were at sea for a month. Virtually all 5,000-plus troops aboard the ship enjoyed leisure activities during the voyage. My compartment on the ship, however, was arbitrarily selected to function as MPs, allowing us little free time. Our primary mission was to police troop behavior, especially to assure that no lights were shown on deck at night because German submarines were prowling the Atlantic.

I was frequently assigned to guard the quarters of the few dozen women--nurses and Red Cross ladies--on board. (Many of my bunk mates below deck refused to believe me that there were females on the ship.) The assignment was a delicate one. I was only a lowly buck private, but I was supposed to bar higher-ranked, super-charged officers from gaining access to the ladies in their secluded cabins. I never knew whether the ladies were grateful for my efforts or angered.

After two weeks at sea, the ship docked in Capetown, South Africa, for several days to refuel and replenish supplies. Almost daily the troops were allowed shore leave. Now my responsibilities as an acting MP became more formidable. The city boasted a wide assortment of brothels housed in facilities that ranged from primitive to palatial. Troops on shore leave were ordered to stay out of them.

To enforce the order, squads of acting MPs were organized to patrol the whorehouses. Each patrol consisted of two American MPs, armed only with a billy club and wearing a white handkerchief wrapped around our arms, teamed with a regular South African MP equipped with a pistol. While many of my ship mates roamed the city seeking brothels, I was raiding them. We were authorized only to drive the customers out of the brothels, not to arrest them. I still remember the brothel clients dashing or staggering out of the establishments as we entered, usually with their trousers around their ankles.

After we arrived in Bombay, my outfit spent nearly a month at an RAF base outside the city awaiting assignment. I visited the city often. Its selection of whorehouses rivaled Capetown's. One famed attraction was a long street featuring prostitutes displayed in cages so that potential customers could examine the wares. I was no longer an MP; now I was only an observer.

I was eventually assigned to an Army base about 60 miles north of Calcutta. The area boasted the highest rate of venereal disease of any overseas region in which U.S. troops were based. Before the American army's arrival, Calcutta was renowned as a sin city crammed with hundreds of brothels licensed by the British army. The incidence of VD was minimal, however, because the local prostitutes were periodically examined and treated by military doctors.

Aghast at what they regarded as official immorality, the U.S. Army chaplains pressured the British to abolish the system. With the whores now no longer under medical surveillance, the VD rate soared. For the men in my outfit, the 903rd Signal Co., the scenario was sadly familiar. Before coming to India, the company had been stationed near Alexandria, Egypt. There, too, the British Army's traditional medical control of local brothels collapsed with the arrival of the Americans. Once again, a VD epidemic broke out. A handful of my 903rd buddies landed in India with undesired "souvenirs" from their sojourn in Egypt.

In Calcutta and the surrounding area, the Army's medical corps encountered venereal diseases unknown to them. Gonorrhea and syphilis, of course, were very familiar. I remember one new malady, lymphogranulonum, which I've read is now prevalent in the U.S. Penicillin was not yet available, and the medics had only sulfa drugs to treat sexually-transmitted diseases.

As the incidence of VD exploded, the local commanding general launched a special program to combat the disease. Brothels were placed out of bounds. Soldiers caught in them were subject to punishments ranging from restriction to quarters to imprisonment, depending on the number of violations.

Because there weren't enough regular MPs available,each Army unit was required to appoint a VD-control non-commissioned officer to help enforce the new restrictions. Sergeants from each unit were to accompany the regular MPs on the brothel raids. And GIs were not allowed to leave their bases unless they carried condoms and pro kits.

The requirement angered a buddy who, like me, was one of a handful of Jewish soldiers who were allowed to drive into Calcutta to attend Friday night services at the Mogen David Synagogue, an imposing temple established by the local Iraqi Jewish community. He was offended by the condom/pro kit requirement,he claimed, because it clashed with his religious sensibilities. He failed to get an exemption from the new rule. So off we went to Sabbath eve services with condoms and pro kits in our pockets and nary a dirty thought in our minds.

As a staff sergeant, I was appointed the 903rd Signal Co.'s VD-control non-com. It was only a side line to my regular job as the company's chief clerk. I was now in charge of maintaining inventories of condoms and pro kits and of recording the outfit's VD-case statistics. For a guy deficient in arithmetic, the latter function was a major challenge.

My new job also required me to lead a formation of our personnel to the local dispensary for a weekly medical exam known as "short-arm" inspection (I reluctantly became unnecessarily familiar with the "private parts" of many of them) and to lead a periodic visit to the base hospital's genital-urinary ward to observe what patients with advanced VD looked like. The hospital visit was supposed to act as a deterrent to unwise sexual behavior.

I was also now in charge of the duty roster for sergeants to accompany the MPs on brothel patrol. I frequently assigned myself to the patrols. I felt that my Capetown experience provided me with unique credentials. The more substantial Calcutta brothels were out of our territory. Our base was located in an essentially rural area. The local brothels were primitive--usually mud huts smeared with dried cow dung on the outer walls. The girls were not exactly alluring. A guy had to be drunk to become a patron. I don't recall ever catching a sober GI in the local whorehouses.

In retrospect, I was fortunate that my wartime military career was relatively serene. I never saw combat or fired a gun in anger. But, in addition to my conventional military duties, I unexpectedly became a warrior against VD.

Please note that I have written this account of "my sex life in the Army" in my role as a spectator. Any reference to personal participation will remain confidential.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Iranian madman and Israel

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is proving himself to be the most psychotic head of state since Adolph Hitler. He has threatened to "wipe out" Israel, has denied that 6-million Jews were killed in the Holocaust by the Germans and their anti-Semitic collaborators, and has demanded that the Israeli population be shipped to Europe.

The Iranian president regards the Israelis as interlopers in the Middle East. But as he apparently sees it, just in case there really was a Holocaust, it all happened in Europe.

Ahmadinejad--and other Israel-bashers--conveniently overlook the fact that roughly half of Israel's slightly more than 5-million Jews have no European connections. They or their immediate forebears fled from Arab and other Muslim countries, seeking refuge from Islamic persecution in the new Jewish state. There are at least as many of them as there were Palestinian Arab refugees when Israel gained its independence in 1948.

The ultimate irony is that, like Ahmadinejad himself,Israel's president, Moshe Katsev, and its defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, were both born in Iran.

Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, was born in Tunisia. Another Israeli cabinet member, Meir Sheetrit, was born in Morocco, as was Amir Peretz, the Labor Party's new chairman. Tzachi Hanegbi, also a cabinet member, is the son of an immigrant from Yemen. The former defense minister, Benyamin Ben-Eliezar, was born in Iraq.

It has been said that such Israelis, known as Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, may be the most motivated soldiers in the nation's armed forces. They or their fathers and grandfathers have had the intimate experience of living as Jews in Muslim countries.

Friday, January 13, 2006

In memory of Ike Gatanio

I lost a dear friend, Ike Gatanio, on January 12, and am using my blog to memorialize an extraordinary man. Ike was 83 years old. He died in Boca Raton, Fla. after a prolonged and courageous battle against cancer. His death leaves a void in the lives of scores of friends and relatives who knew him as a man of great intelligence, kindness and tolerance and as one who had an uncommon concern for the welfare of others.

Like me, Ike was a seasonal resident of Florida. Both of us maintained primary residences in an adult community in New Jersey. I first met him on the tennis court there some 20 years ago. Over the years, we continued to share an enthusiasm for tennis until geriatric afflictions ended our "athletic" careers.

I will miss Ike dearly. With whom can I now reminisce about World War II military experiences in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations, where we both served? Ike's service was more perilous than mine. He was a radio operator on cargo aircraft that flew "the Hump" from India to China.

We also shared political views (the mean-spirited would probably call us "bleeding-heart liberals") and boyhood backgrounds in the Bronx. Ike was a Sephardic Jew whose immigrant parents came to the U.S. from Salonica, Greece. Before his retirement Ike was in the produce (fruit and vegetables) business. Although he lacked formal technical training, he became the computer guru in his retirement years for me and countless other senior citizens struggling to master a new technology.

My heart goes out to his lovely wife Dottie and to his two sons, daughter, and grandchildren.

Magnificent men like Ike Gatanio are a rare species. I was proud and fortunate to have him as a friend.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"March of Folly" in Iraq (continued)

My initial posting under this title (12/18/05) has produced 18 comments so far from readers. This response is unprecedented. Much of it was undoubtedly spurred by the recent citation of Octogenarian as "The Blog of the Week" by WXPNews, a popular on-line magazine. The intensity of the comments shows that the Iraq war is probably the most critical issue of the day for public discussion. I am pleased that my blog is being utilized as a forum for debate (see below).

About half the comments support my view that the Bush Administration's decision to invade Iraq was a dreadful mistake. The other writers vigorously defend it.

What disturbs me about the critics of my view is their illogical insistence that the war's opponents are in effect opposing the war against radical Islamic terrorism. In making this argument,President Bush and his supporters clearly imply that that it is virtually unpatriotic to oppose the war. At the same time,they continue to explain that Iraq was invaded in response to 9/11. And when this explanation is dismissed, they return to those other excuses for the war: that Saddam Hussein threatened the U.S. with WMDs or that we are embarked on an idealistic crusade to introduce democracy to the Muslim world.

Arguing that those of us who oppose the war are also against the war on terrorism, reader Rick, for example, has written: "There are those poor fools who believe that if we just talk to the terrorists and try to understand their view a little better, then everything will be alright. Those are the types of people who, if allowed to be in positions of power, scare the hell out of me."

In all candor, I am "scared out of hell" by the Iraq war's defenders who fail to recognize that the Iraq invasion is actually hampering the war on terrorism. The invasion has set us back in this critical endeavor by diverting manpower and other vital resources to an unnecessary war.

As has been pointed out by many military and intelligence experts--at least those who have no partisan need to support the Bush Administration (e.g., Gen. Brent Scowcroft)--we have turned Iraq into a breeding ground and training center for terrorists and have lured Al-Qaeda and other jihadis into the country. In short, we have alienated the Muslim world and created new enemies.

Moreover, the situation in Iraq has allowed Iran--a far more serious threat with WMDs than Saddam ever was--to become an influential player in the country. In the past, Saddam, admittedly a very dangerous dictator, had been a barrier against both Iran (with whom he had waged war) and Al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists who regarded Saddam as a religous infidel.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, where we had successfully destroyed Al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts, the Islamic terrorists appear to be making a comeback.

So where do we stand now? An American general has been quoted as admitting that one reason for the insurgency that continues to kill and maim our troops is our very presence in the country. And despite all the hoopla about the Iraq elections and the photos of happy voters with their purple fingers, the country is in chaos and is facing a civil war.If extremist Shiite factions gain control, which is very possible, Iraq--or at least the huge regions that they would rule--could wind up as a theocratic ally of Iran.

And for this, we invaded Iraq?

Friday, January 06, 2006

On the matter of aging

Several years ago The New Yorker magazine published a cartoon showing a man with a newspaper. With a distressed look on his face, he was reading a page with a headline in large type reading: "Obituaries."

Below the main headline, the page had several sub-heads printed in a smaller size of type. One read: "Five years younger than me." Another subhead read: "Two years younger than me." Still another subhead read: "Same age as me." The man in the cartoon looked as if he was preoccupied making mental calculations.

Increasingly, I find myself viewing the obituary page of my local newspaper with the same rapt attention to the ages of the deceased. My youngest grandson, now in the first grade, hasn't helped matters with his insistent inquiries about my age and his astonishment that I am so many years older than he is. He seems puzzled that I can still be around at such an advanced age.

A Dutch respondent to this blog, who is enamored with American literature, has written to me that Mark Twain once said: "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."

Despite my regular attention to the obituary page in my local newspaper, I am trying to make Mr. Twain's maxim a formula for my own life.

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