Sunday, January 28, 2018

Saluting Three Generation X Ballplayers

When it comes to politics, the Baby Boomers just won’t let go, and apparently, everyone else is willing to leave them in charge.  Perhaps that’s because politics is a popularity contest, and quite simply, we Baby Boomers outnumber every other generation.  That’s why we were called “Boomers” in the first place.  In contrast to politics, the great thing about most sports is that success isn’t measured by popularity.  When it comes to ball games, we don’t turn the outcome over to the subjective assessments of judges.  We let the players fight it out on the field.  Whoever runs faster, jumps higher, hits the ball further, or throws it more accurately tends to win.  And that’s why the Baby Boomers were pushed aside long ago and the Gen Xers were given center stage. 

This morning, I find myself reflecting on the careers of three of these Xers.  At least to the American sports fan, they are the three most dominant male athletes of their generation.   Oh, you can throw out a few other names as possible contenders for that moniker, most notably the great LeBron James.  But  LeBron has won only three world championships – which puts him tied for 39th in that crucial category.  That’s not the kind of rarified air occupied by the three Xers I have in mind.  These guys are truly dominant.  And this fortnight, their talents are very much on display.

The youngest of the three Xers I have in mind is still aged enough to be viewed as “too old” to compete at his sport’s highest levels.  And yet, this very morning, halfway across the world, he won yet another Major Championship.   I’m referring to Roger Federer, the consensus GOAT (Greatest of All Time) of tennis who has now racked up 20 majors.  No other man has ever won more than 16.  At age 36, Federer continues to play with the precision of a watch made in his native Switzerland.  He moves with seemingly effortless grace, and his off-the-court comments are as flawless as his on-the-court ground strokes.  Today, as he accepted the Australian Open Trophy, Federer broke down with emotion and began to cry for what must have been two minutes as the crowd roared their approval.  Here is a man who plays a surprisingly grueling sport but makes it look easy and fun.   He knows that by rights, his championship caliber play should have ended years ago, but somehow father time has left him alone and given him the ability to beat every other man on the planet. 

I will confess to be a guy who roots for Federer’s arch rival, Rafi Nadal, but I don’t have an anti-Federer bone in my body.  Tennis is the one sport I lettered in in school, and as a lover of the sport, I can only salute the way Federer plays the game.  Nadal’s game is violent and punishing, which is perhaps more fun to watch, but isn’t exactly easy on the body, whereas Federer looks like he can keep winning majors until he’s 40.  This morning, as he reached the milestone of 20, he deserves a standing ovation from the entire sports world, and not just that adoring crowd in Melbourne.

The next Xer I’d like to discuss has already turned 40.  His sport isn’t simply grueling, it’s crazy dangerous.  And yet, damned if this guy doesn’t continue to outplay his younger competitors.   In case you haven’t heard, the New England Patriots are in the Super Bowl.  Again.  This is their eighth appearance in the last 17 years and their fourth in the last seven.    Tom Brady will be trying to win his sixth Super Bowl Championship as the team’s starting quarterback; no other quarterback has ever won more than four and only two others have won that many.  Brady is, quite simply, the most accomplished quarterback of all time, and he continues to do in his gladiatorial arena what Federer does in his more refined chambers: break his own world records.   You can root against his team, and I regularly do, but you can’t deny his extraordinary skills and determination.

This year, for the first time, it appears that the media is acknowledging that football fans have grown bored with Brady’s Patriots reaching the Super Bowl.  It’s like watching the same movie too many times – if you can’t resist the temptation to watch those “Godfather” marathons, even Don Corleone’s greatest lines can get tiresome.  In order to hype this year’s Big Game, the sports journalists have taken to clich├ęs about how “we really have to take our hat off to Tom Brady for what he has accomplished.”  Seriously?   Isn’t that what we did by, say, 2004?  Or 2007?  Or 2011?  Or 2014?  Or ’16?  If it’s dawning on you only now that this man is a freak of nature, taking an impossibly difficult role in an absurdly hazardous environment and turning it into child’s play ... you my friend aren’t much of a football fan.

Enough with the Patriots already.  But yes, give it up for their QB (and their coach, but that’s another blogpost).  Brady is definitely the most dominant male athlete of his generation in any of the American team sports.

So, we’ve spoken about the Greatest Tennis Player of all Time and (very arguably) the Greatest Quarterback of all Time.  Now, let’s end this blogpost by talking about an athlete who is both less accomplished than they are and yet, for my money, far more interesting.  In his day, he was just as dominant as them if not more so.  But, I would contend, “his day” didn’t last long enough to share their place in the pantheon of athletes.   He seems forever condemned to serve in the role of Second GOAT.  

The man I’m referencing is known simply by one name:  Tiger.  Like a meteor, he came onto the golf scene, lit it up like no man has ever done before, and then, long before he was supposed to have left his prime, simply flamed out.  His career is a like a Greek tragedy.  Back in 2008, there wasn’t a golf fan in the world who didn’t expect him to break Sam Snead’s record for most PGA wins or Jack Nicklaus’ even more-beloved record of most Grand Slam Championships.   He was one of the longest drivers of the golf ball, one of the best putters and chippers, and easily the most mentally strong of all the men on the PGA tour.   Plus, everything he did, he did with the kind of style and emotion that fills the seats.  Who knew watching golf could actually be Must See TV?  But here we are, ten years later, and Tiger is now 42, which is past an athlete’s prime, even in his sport.  We’ve seen his mug shot, we’ve heard about his embarrassing sexcapades, and perhaps all that would have been forgiven by his fans but for the fact that his body has broken down and he remains three wins away from tying Snead at 82 and four wins away from tying Jack at 18.  At this point, it’s not even clear that he’ll notch another Top 10 finish, let alone win more tournaments or break those records.

This weekend in San Diego, Tiger is making yet another of his seemingly infinite number of comeback attempts, this time with a fused back.  He is starting the final round tied for 39th and eight strokes behind the leader.  If he continues to play like this, it will be viewed as a successful start.  No, he can’t control the trajectory of his golf balls when he hits them with a driver, but at least he’s putting well and he’s mentally under control.  That’s more than half the battle right there.  

At a time when we are privileged to watch Federer and Brady play at the highest level for seemingly as long as they care to, Tiger reminds us what it means to be mortal.   He was the Greatest – until he showed us what it means to be human, all-too-human.   Maybe I’m just stubborn, but I continue to root for the guy.  I continue to pay more attention to him than to any other golfer.  I continue to hope that lightning will strike again and that he’ll figure out a way to make his broken body work better than any other golfer’s on the planet at least one more time.  Do I believe that will likely happen?  No.   But then again, I didn’t believe that the American hockey team would beat the Russians in 1980.   As they say in sports whenever an impossible upset occurs, “That’s why they play the game.”

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A "Lifer" Reflects on Yet Another Government Shutdown

I won’t soon forget an experience I had this past September.  I was in “the Heartland,” as they call Indiana, but all my Hoosier friends were outside and I was stuck alone, watching my alma mater get its butt whipped playing a football game.  Looking to commiserate, I called a college friend in California to talk football.  Instead, my friend, who is a big fan of the current Administration, launched into a Jeremiad about what a fool I’ve been for serving as a career “civil servant.”  Well, he didn’t exactly use those words.  People who disrespect government work never refer to us lifers as “civil servants.”  I believe the word of choice is “bureaucrat.”  But my friend didn’t want to be cruel and harp on that insulting word.  Instead, he chose a backhanded compliment. He spoke about how I was “too smart” to work for the government and seemed truly frustrated that I had thrown away my opportunities in life by working as a fed.     

I remember that conversation vividly because it’s rare for me to experience the feeling of being pitied.  Who doesn’t hate that feeling?  Fortunately, I don’t feel today that anyone pities federal workers simply because the government is shut down.  We don’t want your pity.  We simply want to do our jobs.  And sometimes, we also want to remind people that our jobs matter.

During the previous federal government shutdown, I published a blog post reflecting on the furloughs. Frankly, I don’t remember the specifics of that post, but it seems appropriate to remind you, my reader, as well as myself of what my thoughts were at the time. You see, government shutdowns in contemporary America are spurred by different events, but they all have one thing in common – they take place in a climate where those who are furloughed are looked at by the society at large as anything but “essential.”  Such was the message I heard loudly and clearly from my friend when I was in Indiana this past September.  It wasn’t just that I could have made more money working somewhere else, it was that working as a civilian for the federal government is at best a waste of time.  I don’t see it that way.  And so ... I give you “Reflections on a Week of Furloughs,” unedited, from October 5, 2013.  Here goes:

“I should weep for a workforce of 2.7 million that is overpaid and underworked, does things I do not like or need, and gets laid off for a week or two every 17 years? I’ll save my tears for the 7.8 million people Obama has squeezed out of the national workforce – permanently.”

“My heart bleeds for these overpaid under worked Gov.t  [sic] workers.  We could probably lt [sic] half of them go.”

            Anonymous comments to an October 2, 2013 article on

            I went to synagogue last night with one primary purpose in mind: to remember and celebrate the life of my father.  As this Shabbat marks the anniversary of his death, I had been looking forward to that magical moment in the Jewish service right before the prayer of mourning where the rabbi announces the names of the individuals whom the congregation is asked to mourn.  The rabbi began reading out the names, but he never did say “Julius Spiro.”   I had to do that myself.    

            This being the week of a Government shutdown, last night was a fitting non-tribute to a man whose occupation could aptly be called “faceless bureaucrat.”  My mother practiced the same occupation.   Between the two of them, they put in roughly 77 years working for the United States Government.   Julius was an economist for the Department of Labor, where he researched such issues as minimum wage laws and handicapped-access provisions.  Evelyn was an economist and statistician for the National Institutes of Mental Health and, later, the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  Neither spoke much to me about their jobs.   Nor do I recall them bringing colleagues into the home to boast about the vital nature of their work.    All that I know is that they made a decent, but not especially large, amount of money, working on projects that they considered to be in the public interest.  In that regard, they were much like the parents of many of my friends growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. – highly educated, but relatively anonymous professionals who seemed content with their work, despite the lack of fanfare.  Theirs weren’t the jobs that kids aspire to do when they grow up, but I was proud of my mom and dad just the same.

            The last time I heard the term “faceless bureaucrat” was a few days ago. MSNBC commentator Richard Wolffe was talking about an incident when GOP Rep. Randy Neugebauer berated a federal employee for keeping the public out of a national monument. (Here’s a video of Neugebauer’s antics:  Wolffe was appropriately indignant about the Congressman’s behavior, and I was taken by the words he used to express this indignation.  To the best of my recollection, he suggested that the target of the Congressman’s wrath “wasn’t just some faceless bureaucrat but a park ranger” -- in other words, a woman who is obviously doing a job that the nation needs her to do.  

            I forget how old I was when I learned that neither of my parents had one of those jobs.  Garbage collectors, waitresses, and flight attendants may not be especially well compensated, but at least it is generally recognized throughout the society that they perform useful functions.  By contrast, Julius and Evelyn Spiro received taxpayer dollars doing work that many taxpayers resent having to pay for. And my parents are not alone.  Littered throughout the Washington, D.C. suburbs is a huge workforce that, according to the commenter quoted above, “is overpaid and underworked, [and] does things I do not like or need.”  

            If you watch MSNBC, you will think that what is going on these days is a “Government Shutdown.”  If you watch Fox News, however, you might think that what is going on is a “Government Slimdown.”  Those words were actually used on that network.  They are a reminder of the fact that the federal government has hardly shut all its doors.  Soldiers, border patrol officers, and prison guards are still working to keep our nation safe.  Air traffic controllers are also on the job, providing key assistance to the ongoing health of the economy.  According to the message that underlies most of the coverage on Fox News and right-wing radio, most of the folks who have been sent home – most of the so-called “800,000 non-essential employees” – are the faceless bureaucrats whom we shouldn’t be paying for anyway.

            In the minds of many Americans, this so-called “Slimdown” is providing a long-overdue opportunity to put folks like my parents on trial.   The ideologues who are behind the refusal to fund the Government can surely sense a holy mission: to showcase to the nation just how worthless much of the federal workforce is.   This is why their mouthpieces in the media keep talking about how all the furloughs are no big deal – how with the exception of a few national parks shutting down, nobody has missed out on anything they need.

Ever since I began studying economics in college, I have been reading about the “bloated” federal government.  Shortly thereafter, Ronald Reagan rode that theme into the Presidency, and even when a Democrat (Bill Clinton) finally returned to the White House, he spoke about how “The era of Big Government is over.”  But here’s my question: while everyone and her brother has been taking pot shots at “Club Fed,” who has been singing the praises of the federal workforce?  The local DC-area Congresspeople?  Don’t make me laugh – they, too, realize that faceless bureaucrats are about as popular as hemorrhoids.    Truly, Americans might romanticize our school teachers, doctors, lawyers, ball players, rock stars … you name it, we have TV shows and movies celebrating what they do.  But nobody romanticizes analysts at the Department of Commerce or Agriculture.  Now, finally, conservatives see an opportunity to shine a light on these people and ask the nation: do we really need them, or would we rather save our tax dollars and decide for ourselves what to do with the money?
           I have focused so much on the “faceless bureaucrats” because, despite the central impact of this week’s events on their lives, they are largely being neglected by the media.  Instead, most of the coverage I’ve seen has concentrated on the horse race: which political party is “winning.”   Since the polls favor the Democrats, most journalists have turned their slings and arrows on the GOP.   We’ve heard a lot about GOP infighting, how Ted Cruz is happy to refer to himself as a “looney bird,” and how the GOP is allowing the Tea Party to lead them off the cliff despite not having any leverage.   With respect to the GOP-bashing, perhaps my favorite quotation comes from Congressman Marlin Stutzman, who represents the rural Indiana district where my wife grew up.   He is the Einstein who told a reporter: “We’re not going to be disrespected.   We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”  Funny, I thought respect is something one earned.

            There’s no doubt about it -- it’s fun to bash politicians, isn’t it?  But regardless of what you think of those “statesmen,” let us not miss the deeper point here.  This is not a time to dump all over government.  This is a time to celebrate government.  

To be sure, I make no apologies for being a believer in capitalism.  I deeply appreciate the private sector for all the high-quality, low-cost goods and services that people in America and much of the world take for granted.  No doubt, this robust economy is the product of competition among profit-seeking firms, which is precisely what would be absent if the government controlled all of the means of production.   But Marx wasn’t completely wrong.  Just as socialism is no picnic (or at least not an efficient one), neither is unbridled capitalism.  Take it from a guy who has been investigating and litigating fraud cases for nearly a quarter of a century -- there are plenty of folks in the private sector who don’t exactly have the public interest in mind.  And frankly, even if the private sector was staffed entirely with saints and prophets, there would still be plenty of crucial tasks left unperformed, because there are certain vital jobs that simply don’t generate a profit.  That’s just basic economics.

Can the Government be more efficient?  Absolutely.  Then again, that could be said about any big company as well.  Are there folks in the Government who should be let go because they are unproductive?  Again – same answers.  But that doesn’t mean we should take a meat cleaver to the federal budget and hack away, which appears to be the position of the Conservative Crusaders.  I recognize that that last term sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, but here’s the thing: if you are a moderate Republican of the type who thrived 40 years ago and you somehow got elected to the House, you still would have cast your vote for John Boehner, and he is now a full participant in this “Shutdown,” or “Slimdown,” or whatever you want to call it.

Personally, I call it a slap in the face of the legacy of Julius and Evelyn Spiro and all the other fine men and women who have dedicated their lives to working for the public interest, despite receiving zero gratitude in return.  It is not enough that those who have been furloughed these past few days ultimately receive their back pay when they return to the office.   Let us not forget the many federal employees who were furloughed last year, during “Sequestration,” and the many more who will be furloughed this year if and when a budget is passed.  They are every bit as deserving as the 800,000 who have been told this week how un-essential their work is.  

By the way, lest this sound like a self-interested appeal, I have not yet had the displeasure of being furloughed at the Department of Justice, either during this past week or the previous year.  But I have done my job with a heavy heart.  For I don’t doubt that if my parents were still working, they would have been furloughed.  And even though I am but a short timer with a mere 28 years of federal service under my belt (29 if you include the year I spent, well after I graduated from Harvard Law School, as a poorly-paid contractor for the Department of Education), I can still dedicate my service to the examples of my parents.  

Those who think of Julius and Evelyn Spiro as faceless bureaucrats likely will forget the true tragedy of this week.  It is not that federal employees are getting disrespected.  It’s that they aren’t being allowed to serve.

Your loss, more than ours.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Straight Talk about the Palestinian Leadership

Happy New Year, everybody.   For me, last year ended with a bout of bronchitis and an even more severe bout of indigestion.  In the case of the latter, it was a combo of heartburn and reading about the new tax law.   Talk about the ol’ one-two.   Personally, I’m looking forward to: (a) a massive infusion of national debt at a time when the economy doesn’t need a boost, (b) a massive tax cut to those Americans who need it the least, (c) tax increases to those who live in states who have implemented progressive tax systems, and (d) the inability for most of us to continue to take deductions on charitable contributions.  They have pills we can take for heartburn.  If someone knows of a drug that we can take for God-awful tax legislation – legal drugs, I mean – please let me know. 

The tax bill was surely the most significant development of December 2017.  But there was another event that transpired earlier in the month about which I was also highly critical in this blog – the President’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  That decision has spurred a cavalcade of critical comments on the left.  It has led many of us to point out that the men who now control Jerusalem are showing less interest in a two-state solution and more willingness to leave the Palestinians in a condition of permanent statelessness and dependence on Israel’s good graces.  If you have any concern about the well-being and the rights of the Palestinian people, the recent conduct of the right-wing Israeli government is highly troublesome.

With that said, I want to interrupt the regularly scheduled “progressive blogpost” with a reality check.   This just in:  the Palestinian leadership has not exactly been the easiest group to make peace with.  There was a time when their tool of choice was terrorism.  Remember Yasser Arafat?  Nobel Peace Prize winning Yasser Arafat?  He was the face of the Palestinian leadership when I was young.  Now, we have Mahmoud Abbas.  For years, I’ve been hearing my friends in the peace movement praise Abbas as the kind of guy Israel can truly work with.  He has been hailed as the best partner for peace Israel can reasonably hope to find, and far and away preferable to the alternative: Hamas.  Peaceniks tend to dislike Hamas, to be sure, but Abbas?  You will rarely hear him criticized in such circles.  For every critical comment I’ve heard about Abbas, I’ve probably heard 30 about Netanyahu.  That’s no exaggeration; it’s a fact.

Well please, allow me to speak for a moment about Abbas.  For I am tired of being part of a peace movement where Israel’s leaders are constantly trashed (including, frankly, by me) but Palestinian leaders are treated with kid gloves, as if they are children or mentally-handicapped people who aren’t responsible for their conduct.  As many of you know, I am the President of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, and I spend much of my free time working to build bridges between Jews and Muslims.  Those bridges start with mutual respect, which must include the ability to speak about one another as adults.  So allow me to hold the Palestinian leadership to the same high standards that I would hold the Israeli leadership.  And allow me to point out where Mr. Abbas, the so-called peacemaker, is demonstrating just why he does NOT appear to be the partner that Israel needs to end this conflict.

Last month, in response to Trump’s provocative declaration, Abbas gave a speech in Istanbul that included the usual denunciations of Trump and threatened even to abrogate previous peace agreements.  As translated by the Times of Israel, the speech also included the following statement about the Jewish people:

“… I don’t want to discuss religion or history because they [the context implies a clear reference to the Jews] are really excellent in faking and counterfeiting history and religion. But if we read the Torah it says that the Canaanites were there before the time of our prophet Abraham and their [Canaanite] existence continued since that time, this is in the Torah itself. But if they would like to fake this history, they are really masters in this and it is mentioned in the holy Quran they fabricate truth and they try to do that and they believe in that, but we have been there in this location for thousands of years.”

The comment that the Jews are excellent at faking and counterfeiting history and religion isn’t simply a slap at Zionism, it’s a slap at the Jewish people and our faith.  For me, it is reminiscent of all the times that Palestinians and other Muslims have told me during the past decade that so-called Ashkenazic Jews like me have no historical claim to a state in the Middle East because we’re not actually descended from Middle Eastern Jews; rather, we are simply Eastern European people whose family at some point converted to Judaism.   Palestinians, I have been told, actually have more Jewish blood than the Ashkenazic “Jews.”   

The game that Abbas is playing is certainly one that Jews can play as well.  Remember that the Muslim claim to Jerusalem as the third holiest place for that religion stems from a journey that Muhammad is said to have taken in which, during a single night, a steed whisked him from Arabia to Jerusalem where he ascended to the heavens, meeting one ancient prophet after another.   Now tell me, do you think this claim to Jerusalem is, as a matter of “history,” equal to the Jewish claims established by men like King David, King Solomon and generation after generation of their descendants?  

Last month, while Abbas was de-legitimizing Judaism in Istanbul, I was preaching to a synagogue in Chevy Chase about the beauty of Islam.  Over the next six weeks, I plan on participating in many more meetings designed to foster an appreciation for the fact that Jews and Muslims truly are the closest of cousins.  And at the end of February, I will be giving a talk to a mixed audience about the Biblical Patriarch Abraham, the father of both of these wonderful faiths. 

Frankly, it is because I love Islam so much that it makes me sick to see a man like Abbas hailed as a “peacemaker” when in fact he is obviously willing to trash my religion.  Israel is a democracy, she has had progressive leaders in the past, and there will come a time when she will have a progressive leader in the future.   But if, at that time, the Palestinians will be led by men like Arafat, Abbas, or worse yet, the heads of Hamas, then I think we can pretty well guess what will happen at any peace talks. 

Remember – Israel has control over the disputed land and the military might to retain that control.  If the Palestinians hope to gain the state that folks like me want them to have, they are going to have to convince the Israelis that they are truly partners for peace.  I’m not sure Abbas is the man for the job.  And if he’s the best hope we’ve got at the moment, then the naysayers are right – things are only going to get worse before they get better.