Friday, November 19, 2004

The Personnel Office Needs Fixing

In his election-eve appearance at a Cleveland Kerry rally, where my wife and I joined an estimated 50,000 people in what is believed to have been the largest crowd ever assembled for a political event in Ohio, Bruce Springsteen recounted an earlier conversation he had with Ohio Senator John Glenn. In a line so resonant that I'm surprised no one seems to have since picked up on it, the Boss said that Glenn told him that "politics is supposed to be the personnel department for the Constitution." I've since thought about that marvelous line several times as I watch GWB staff up for his second term. As you may have noticed, he's steadily placed into various slots several people who, however talented they may be, mostly owe their success to him. If they're the best and the brightest our nation has to offer, it's only by wild happenstance.

But what really hit me on this theme was the news this week that a woman named Margaret Spellings would soon be taking over as Education Secretary. You know her, of course: she was the White House's chief adviser on domestic issues during the first term. What's that? You'd never even heard the name before? Well hell, neither had I, and I follow this stuff pretty closely. This position is typically a high-profile job. Everyone who followed politics during the Jimmy Carter presidency was quite familiar with the name Stuart Eizenstat, who held the job then and was a name regularly in the news. As was Bill Clinton's domestic policy czar Bruce Reed (though he may have been better known among the media and insiders for his ability to keep damaging secrets going back to Arkansas and to quietly clean up more contemporary Slick Willy messes than for any work he performed on policy formation). But they're Dems, you say. Well, Reagan's guy was Martin Anderson--again, a well-known name, even in an administration not known for its over-attention to substantive domestic policy.

So why don't we know about poor Margaret? That's easy: the real domestic policy chief of the first term, who will remain the main architect in the second, is none other than the political advisor, her mentor the "porcine-faced" (as one savage wit recently put it) Karl Rove (whom protege Margaret is said to have once turned down as a suitor). As the point man in the White House's Faith-Based Initiatives, John DiIulio, observed after he left the staff, in the Bush 43 White House, there simply is no real attention to policy, to the details of how the nation's problems can be addressed through various regulatory or legislative initiatives. It's all simply an offshoot of how it will play out politically. Which explains why this presidency will one day be remembered as an eight-year pause button, in which we failed to address any of the ticking time bomb problems that will one day come back to haunt us.

Fewer Russian Babies. The other day, I mentioned the crucial importance of understanding demography, because it drives so many other phenomena in politics, economics and culture. I should have included in that list of demography-driven events the sad case of Russia, which has all but collapsed as a world power in a period so brief (relatively speaking) as to be perhaps unprecedented in world history. The underlying reason: a sharply declining population (it will soon be half that of the U.S, and still dropping). Much of that is caused by some of the lowest fertility rates in the world, but more of it is from a 50-year-old echo of World War II and Stalin's bloody purges, which killed tens of millions at the time, and accounted for even larger losses in the populations of succeeding generations. Against that backdrop, it's good to see that some in that country are waking up to one small but important way in which the population continues to leak out: the healthy market in adopted Russian babies (my old friend John, a business writer for the Akron Beacon Journal, was a recipient of one). As this piece in the excellent English-language Moscow Times notes, Russians are now belatedly trying to patch that leak.

Cleveland Edition Alums Continue to Climb Mountains. My astoundingly talented collection of colleagues from the late, lamented Cleveland Edition, the town's first and best alternative weekly, continue to amaze and delight with their fine work. Which is no surprise, really, since they represent the best journalistic talent ever assembled in this town (okay, Cleveland Mag during its glory years of the '70s and early '80s was pretty awesome, too). The two most senior vets of the paper, Fred McGunagle and Roldo Bartimole, were inducted into the Cleveland Press Club Hall of Fame late last month, where I had the special honor of formally introducing Roldo (which I'll tell you about in some detail at a later date). I hope and expect that Doug Clarke, the thinking person's sportswriter, will follow them in before long. The paper's lyrical poet, former John Carroll prof Mark Winegardner, is riding a wave of national publicity these days with his newly issued sequel of Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Wino, now directing the writing program at Florida State University, emerged from hundreds of applicants for the gig. For his efforts, he was roughed up a bit last week by lead NYT book reviewer and ice queen Michiko Kukatani (a rite of passage in American book publishing). But he'll have the last laugh, since the first printing was 250,000 copies, and the book's debut is winning rivers of media coverage even before he hits the book tour. And the reviews will turn. Former Times book review editor Charles McGrath had a far more friendly and interesting take on Winegardner and the book in the Arts section this week. Closer to home, Amy Sparks has just wrapped up her second year of Angle Magazine, the phenomenal arts pub she co-founded, all as a nonprofit venture. It may just be the most handsomely designed, best-written print publication in this region (though she has in mind far wider distribution eventually). And Kathy Ewing continues to review books for the Plain Dealer with her same signature intelligence.

In addition to Winegardner's, some great books have come out of the group, as well. You probably know about Kristin Ohlson and her marvelous Stalking the Divine, a hauntingly poetic tale about finding one's faith. Her pal and fellow Ohio Writer co-founder Mary Grimm leveraged her raft of New Yorker short stories and later book collections into a spot on the Case writing faculty, where she now serves as the unofficial dean and diva of the too-small group of serious writing educators in this region. And I learned through the new issue of Angle that her sister, Cleveland State English faculty member Susan Grimm, also has a new collection of poetry out, nicely titled Lake Erie Blue. Humor columnist and longtime managing editor Eric Broder has a new lease on life, working for the nationally known Funny Times. Still HQ'ed on Lee Road, the little pub was once called one of the best magazines in America by Washington Post magazine reviewer Peter Carlson (which I wrote about here last year, but which I'm too lazy to find and link to). But Eric's humor is also collected in this book, a spoof of management tracts, and in an earlier Gray & Company collection (The Great Indoors) of his Edition columns. This summer, Cleveland's Pilgrim Press published Eleanor Mallet's meditation on her Jewish heritage, Tevye's Grandchildren. I only recently learned that she also had an earlier book, The Notion of Family, published in '99. At last count, John Backderf's unique "grueling urban humor" cartoons ran in about 60 papers, and have made their way into a handful of book collections. Derf got his start in 1990 in the Edition. His cartooning counterpart, Jeff Darcy, is now the PD's main guy.

But my sentimental favorite is the Edition's savage wordsmith of a movie reviewer, Rick Montanari (who did the best Bobby DeNiro wise guy imitation ever), who will soon publish his fourth thriller, the Rosary Girls. His writing, dripping in violence, suspense, and references to Catholocism and Cleveland, now has an international following. But he continues to work out of his Cleveland Heights house, where he remains hermetically sealed against disturbances (the sign on his door aggressively demands that no one even consider leaving any form of paper behind. If you know his work, you take that threat seriously, lest you risk sleeping with the fishes). I take a special satisfaction in his work, because I first met him about 15 years ago, when he took an evening writing class I then taught through the Cleveland Heights schools. Harvard-educated David Beach, meanwhile, has seen his modest little weekly environmental column, Lake Effects, sprout into a full blown environmental empire, Eco City, which has been lavishly supported by the Gund Foundation for all the right reasons. He is now probably the most prominent (and easily the most passionate, well-informed) activist for smart growth in the entire state of Ohio. I know the original convener of much of this energy, Edition founder Bill Gunlocke (now a Manhattanite), is proud of this legacy, even as he now seeks funding for his latest idea, a publication about books. (His email of this morning beamed with pride of a different sort--he noted that all of the presidential family members at yesterday's Clinton Library opening were sitting in Gunlocke chairs, made by the family company once owned by his late dad).

All of that speaks for itself, of course. But what I perhaps love most about these people, though, is that their achievements aren't confined just to writing. Beach has been perhaps best in showing that serious journalism and community activism are merely two sides of the same coin. But others have also converted their word passion into action beyond the page: Jeff Hagan, who wrote dazzling cover stories (and anonymously wrote the popular gossip column Hambone) has been installed for a number of years as a key pen on the staff at Case's Poverty Center. His good friend, the photojournalist Piet Van Lier (here and here) has been a stalwart writer at Catalyst for Cleveland Schools, which covers the troubled Cleveland schools like no other pub. Fred McGunagle has recently been a leader in the local chapter of Voices of the Faithful, a grassroots lay Catholic organization which has pressured the church's bishops to come clean about the original sin of clerical sexual abuse. I hope you'll join me in saluting these incredible people in their work. And also join me in taking a moment of silence to honor one of the best of our band of brothers (and sisters), Michael, who tragically took his own life earlier this year. May you rest in peace, gentle one.


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