Saturday, December 27, 2008

Porgy & Bess, Mom, Cadillac Records and Obama's Promised Land

"I'm on my way to a Heav'nly Lan',
I'll ride dat long, long road.
If You are there to guide my han'.
Oh Lawd, I'm on my way."

This final chorus from Gerswhin's Porgy and Bess (lyrics by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin), reminded me of my mother, who passed away on Labor Day. She loved music, was a musician herself and would have relished this particular opera, which I saw performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Dec. 19.

This is an opera that everyone should see before they die. It's like a Grand Canyon of human experience. It's all there: Love, death, murder, redemption, passion. As a uniquely American creation, it's a compassionate look at an impoverished African American community in South Carolina in the 1920s. Porgy is disabled -- a "cripple" in the libretto. He falls in love with Bess, a drug-addicted woman who is often a poor judge of character. After a hurricane, two murders and the loss of most of the men in the community to the storm, she wanders off to New York with the pusher of Catfish Row, "Sportin' Life." Porgy follows, hoping to find that "heavn'ly lan'"

Over the years, Porgy has received dollops of criticism over Gershwin's take on Catfish Row. Was he perpetuating stereotypes or simply telling a tale of the human condition? What business did a successful New York Jewish songsmith have writing about poor black people in the south? I think every generation comes to a different conclusion. What's undeniable is the haunting beauty of the music: The soaring lullaby "Summertime," and the love aria "Bess You is My Woman." There's wit, charm, the blues, despair and great hope in this work of art. I knew my Mom would've enjoyed it as she did so many other operas, musicals and concerts in Chicago.

My Mom grew up mostly without a father, since he died when she was young. He was an illustrator who worked during the Depression and by all accounts was a decent, kind and hard-working man. Her mother had to go to work in a bank to support them in their small apartments on the North Side of Chicago. Since she was born when my grandmother was well into her middle age, most of my Mom's cousins were much older than she was and only got to know a handful of them. I suspect that for my Mom, her extended family was her immediate circle of friends, most of whom attended Catholic schools. Nevertheless, with her mother at work and no siblings, I suspect she had to keep herself company quite a bit, which she did with her books and music. She was an excellent pianist, writer and artist, although she gave up most of these pursuits when she was raising her four sons.

When she got to college, Mom aspired to be a speech therapist and attended Mundelein College. She never finished her degree because she got married and had children right away. That's what couples did in the 1950s. They were busy repopulating the earth after the most horrible war in history. They did a reasonably good job, having produced some 77 million new Americans from 1946 to 1964.

I always wonder what and who my Mom would've become if she chose to follow her career instead of immediate child rearing. Having four babies in five years could not have been easy. She had no siblings, so she didn't have any experience to relate to; her mother wasn't around to help when we were young. Our nuclear family was never really that close.

Somehow I think my mother would've gotten involved in women's or civil rights. She may have even gotten her PhD or taught. She never articulated to me what she thought her "promised land" was, although I'm fairly sure it wasn't a vision of George Bush's America.

We've just emerged from this era of unprecedented exploitation. By pushing the American Dream button at every opportunity, the corporate/commercial chieftains have snookered us into believing that we could take advantage of market forces to create a secure retirement, build home equity and provide decent health care. It's all been a lie. The promised land is not a market economy. There were no gentle shepherds in this world, only wolves. As we enter the age of reckoning, we will have to revisit what happened in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s in order to rebuild the temple of our civilization.

What will the new promised land look like in Barack Obama's America? Will his "green deal" put enough people back to work to make a difference? Will he save the financial system from collapse? Like my Mom, he grew up most of his life with a working mother and absent father. He turned inward for his most powerful spiritual resources.

We have to move on to discover how great we can become. I also gleaned some insights on the migration of the soul from the movie "Cadillac Records," the story of Chicago's Chess Records. The Chess brothers, Polish Jews, had a talent for spotting great bluesmen and women, who were wandering up north to escape the bleak poverty of the Mississippi Delta and the despair of the Jim Crow South and sharecropping. These men and women were contemporaries of my mother, always striving to share their art, trying to live a decent life.

In the film, we see the blues genius Muddy Waters electrifying his delta blues from an extension chord strung out an apartment window on the South Side. Etta James struggles with heroin addiction enroute to reinventing the ballad. Howlin' Wolf stands up for his own integrity. Chuck Berry invents rock n'roll, is promptly ripped off by white artists like the Beach Boys and goes to prison for violating the Mann Act during the height of his career. Toward the end of the movie, when the African American artists are wondering where their royalties went, we see several lawsuits flash on the screen before the credits that net seemingly paltry settlements for legends like Willie Dixon, whose pieces were purloined by groups like Led Zeppelin.

While I know that my Mom didn't care a whole lot for the blues, rock n'roll and R&B, the fact that there was always music in our house laid the groundwork for the appreciation of these artists. We heard a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Peter, Paul & Mary and any number of crooners. The Beatles and the rockers of the late 1960s and early 1970s weren't especially welcome by my musician father ("anyone can play three chords"), although when I finally got out to hear the blues played in the thriving clubs of Chicago, everything came full circle from Bach to John Lee Hooker.

Music was pretty much a second language in our home. At certain points in our adolescence and early adulthood, my brothers and I were definitely speaking different dialects than our parents. We developed our own tastes. I even played in a wedding/party band for a short stretch in the early 1980s, playing some of the worst ballads and dance music ever written. One memorable New Year's Eve, our band "The Sounds of Distinction" (called the "Sounds of Extinction" by my brother Dan), tried in vain to get some partygoers at a welding company party to dance. They were worse than zombies for two sets. The third set they had enough to drink so that their inhibitions were diminished. We then proceeded to play "Proud Mary" three times and wanted to go home, but their equivalent of lighting cigarette lighters to request an encore -- igniting a blinding oxyacetylene torch -- convinced us to play it one more time.

There are myriad mysteries in life, but no matter how distant we become from our parents, there is always a spiritual thread that binds us invisibly through time to them. For me, it was music and literature to my mom and mostly music to my Dad. I miss my Mom and pray that she is happy and well, hopefully in her own promised land.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blagojevich and the Culture of Corruption

The old rubric trotted out when yet another chapter of Illinois corruption unfolds is that the state "ain't ready for reform."

This was the famous quote from long-dead Chicago alderman Paddy Bauler, whose palm was always open to express his self-interest.

Now comes Governor Rod Blagojevich, wiretapped by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the fourth governor out of the last seven with law-enforcement problems. Our governor was allegedly trying to sell President-elect Obama's senate seat to the highest bidder, among other charges in a 75-page criminal indictment announced by Fitzgerald yesterday.

As an Illinois resident who has lived in the Prairie State for more than 50 years, good government type (a "goo-goo" is the mocking term) and journalist, the appalling harlotry of our governor sickens me. He should resign immediately or be impeached by the Illinois General Assembly, which has not been able to manage any of its gargantuan problems in the Blagojevich era.

The legislature has been deadlocked over feuds, sleights, misdeeds and arrogant behavior (not all of it emanating from the Governor's office). The crushing issues of a state budget deficit, education funding reform, state pension shortfalls and capital improvements have been set aside while his petulant politics created a giant sucking sound called a leadership vacuum.

I am always intrigued by official corruption in Illinois because I have always been able to study it and see it up close. I was born in Chicago Heights, which was controlled by the Chicago syndicate at the time I was born through the 1980s. When I worked my first job at the Chicago Heights Star in 1978, I was witness to the thorough ownership of public officials there by the outfit. Only a few years after I left, the mayor and most of the city council was indicted, convicted and sent to prison.

When I moved onto reporting on the South Side of Chicago, I saw more of the same. Labor unions like the Teamsters and Laborers worked hand in hand with local mob bosses and politicians. It was understood who controlled what and where the money went. In the case of the Central States Teamsters Pension Fund, it was mob-controlled casinos in Las Vegas until the union was put into federal trusteeship an the mobsters involved either murdered each other or were sent to jail.

Even moribund sections of Chicago, once home to thriving steel mills and other plants, were run by politicians who were more interested in lining their own pockets than serving their constituents. Before I even put pen to paper in the late 1970s, Illinois history was bursting with startling examples of blatant corruption.

It was well known that if you wanted a license or to pass anything in the Illinois legislature or Chicago City Council, you would simply pass around bags of money to aldermen with the desired instructions. Charles Tyson Yerkes, a rapacious scoundrel who owned the streetcar lines and wanted long-term franchises from the city council approached Governor John Peter Altgeld in his attempt to secure what he wanted.

Yerkes campaigned for longer streetcar franchises in 1895. He offered governor Altgeld a huge bribe, but Altgeld rejected it and vetoed the franchise bills. Yerkes renewed the campaign in 1897 and successfully secured from the Illinois Legislature a bill granting city councils the right to approve extended franchises. A somewhat reformed council under Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr., however, finally defeated Yerkes, with the swing votes coming from aldermen "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin.

Politicians were bought and sold as if they were slabs of meat in the Chicago stockyards. Even Sam Insull (see my book "Merchant of Power"), the 1920s utilities baron who refused to bribe alderman for an extortion deal to gain a city electricial franchise, donated piles of cash to Frank Smith, who won a Senate seat. The Senate refused to seat Smith, noting that Insull had "bought" Smith.

The problem then and now is that Illinois was always lax in controlling and monitoring campaign contributions. There is NO limit on how much you can donate to an Illinois candidate. That's why Blagojevich was raking in checks for tens of thousands of dollars from state contractors and expected an endless stream of boodle for every favor granted. That was the way business in Illinois had always been done.

Not every Illinois politician has been as venal and tainted as Blagojevich. We've produced some remarkable and honest leaders from Lincoln to Senators Paul Douglas, Everett Dirksen and Paul Simon. We've also consistently offered great reformers and muckrakers in the guise of Jane Addams and Mike Royko along with groups like the Better Government Association.

I would count Pat Quinn, the current lieutenant governor (and likely our next governor) as one of the current reformers. I've met Quinn twice and he's always struck me as a true public servant. Perhaps time will prove me a liar, but I tend to believe he will make an honest stab at being a leader who places the people's interest above his own -- a rare quality in an Illinois official.

While human nature won't change anytime soon, the culture of corruption can be shut down. Every leader must sign onto a code of ethics, the watchdogs must be well funded and fully empowered and a set of laws must be put into place to stop pay-for-play deals. Maybe public funding of elections is a good idea. Maybe term limits is another. A combination of checks and balances is usually the best route.

How do you halt pay to play when so much money is sloshing around for state and city business? "Where's Mine," the state's political motto, needs to be replaced with "I'm here to serve the people." A new ethics law that will come on the books Jan. 1 will certainly help. It was passed after an override of the governor's veto. It was Barack Obama who urged Senate president Emil Jones to push it through. Jones, a Chicago machine Democrat, originally opposed it.

More importantly, it will take a new generation of leaders who are truly humbled and emboldened by public service to understand that they serve the people first, not themselves. Where do you find these people? We have to recruit them to make public office a noble and altruistic enterprise. Perhaps with a new president who campaigned on "the audacity of hope," we will finally find a good example.

John F. Wasik

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Psychology of Bailing Out Detroit

Once again, we taxpayers have a chance to deal with three more prodigal sons who have wasted decades and want to once again enjoy the succor of our parental embrace.

Do these Big Three automakers deserve our money and comfort?

The angry parent in me says let them take their lumps and find out what the airlines discovered after 2001. You need to downsize, provide better service and run a tighter ship. You may have to let go thousands or tens of thousands of employees. You may have to slash their salaries and health care. Survival is job one.

Then again, the compassionate parent in me says:

``What you did is behind you. You hurt all the people who depended on you, of course, and you made some selfish, greedy decisions based on what everyone saw at the moment. Like most human beings, you were not blessed with the gift of foresight, even though some of the smartest people in the world were telling you the competition from Japan and Europe would eat your lunch because you weren't keeping up with worldwide energy trends. You made many mistakes, but if you ask for forgiveness and promise to reform and accept myriad sacrifices, you can have my blessing once again.''

Like so many looking at this situation from an economic perspective -- we need to do something after devoting trillions to even-greedier bankers and insurers -- I am conflicted. Could we let just one carmaker go under? If so, which one? I can't say I have any favorites in this Hobson's Choice. They have been all been equally bad vehicle producers. I own two Toyotas and would be hard-pressed to buy anything that didn't come up to the high standards of Japanese or European manufacturing. I'm not a snob; I just like my cars to start and not break down in the middle of winter.

So here's my modest proposal, which isn't going to be pretty.

1) If the companies really don't have enough operating cash, let them file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to restructure their debts and corporate structures. GM might have to deep-six Pontiac. Ford may have to dump anything that's not a mid-priced sedan or truck. Chrysler may just only save the Jeep brand.

2) If the companies want to retool to build green vehicles -- and I include vans, trucks and buses in that mix -- then they can apply for federal loans that will be repaid to the US Treasury over a set period of time. Moreover, the government should create a pool for ALL manufacturers for retooling and job creation, not just automakers. This is the "not favoring one child policy."

3) Should the government commit to green transporation, it should be part of a national mission with set goals, i.e., 10 million no-carbon vehicles on the road by 2020, etc. No open-ended lending with no strings attached. The banks may have made off like bandits, but we have another chance to save manufacturing and we need to take our time with this program. Morever, if we own these shops, we will demand world-class quality and low prices. I'm not going to buy a $40,000 electric car! It should be $10,000 or less and we should be able to sell millions of them in China, India, Brazil and any other place where even a $20,000 car is out of the question.

4) If the companies refuse to file for bankruptcy, the only other recourse is for the government to buy the outstanding shares of the Big Three (or controlling interests), put them into national trusteeship, fire all of the top execs and board directors and start over with new, outside management. I hate this idea of nationalization, but if you use Conrail as a model, it could work. That's when when Congress consolidated an array of nearly defunct eastern railroads in the 1970s, beat it back into one company, then sold it off. Maybe this isn't the best model, though I sure don't want government running manufacturing for more than a few years. The prospect of profit sold cars in the 90s and it can sell them in this century as well.

5) None of this will work without a national health care program that reduces costs and has universal coverage. Let me repeat that: NO bailout without health care for all. There should not be any more health coverage linked to employment. A single payer can efficiently buy services and drugs at the lowest-possible cost and pool risks. It makes no sense for each of the Big Three to have their own health care trusts -- nor for any employer or worker to be out on their own in a fractured, inefficient free market, which never existed in the first place. You can scream about the unions all you want and miss the point. The reason about $2,000 is built into the price of a new GM car from health care expenses alone is the fact that our system is both inefficient and cruel. Solve national health and you eliminate segregating costs for medical care. It's a problem that impacts more than 40 million and every one of the more than 300,000 small businesses. Universal health care IS one form of economic liberty and it should be a constitutional right.

This is my platform and I call it COMPASSIONATE CAPITALISM. I would love the automakers to be successful, make profits and re-employ millions of people again. But none of that will happen without a massive public and private investment in retooling, enlightened management, research and health care.

As a responsible parent, you have to be cruel to be kind. We need a time out on this whole subject and consider a pure cash bailout. That would enable our addicted children to hit the street again and set them up for another, even more colossal failure.