Friday, October 22, 2010

Selling St. Vincent's

The church is for sale. It’s been a long time since I’ve been what they call a “practicing Catholic” but a recent tour of the website of my hometown newspaper in Corning N.Y. produced a startling news item.

St. Vincent de Paul’s, the Roman Catholic church, school, rectory and convent that pretty much defined the first part of my life, is on the block, about to be sold to a developer.

Senior housing. Sale price, they say, is about $350,000. It will likely be some years in the making or unmaking, but there will be no going back.

Growing up, there were three Roman Catholic churches and the three Catholic schools in a town that probably never got larger than 20,000 people.

St. Vincent’s was within easy walking distance of our house. My maternal grandparents lived within sight of it, on Onondaga St. My grandfather, Paul Lovette, spent large chunks of his retirement pulling weeds from the lush lawn that surrounded the church. It was for him an act of faith.

My sister Maribeth and I would often walk the block to our grandparents’ house for lunch on a school day, a tableau worthy of a TV sitcom in the lower-middle-class America of the early 1960s. And a very sweet memory.

I was an altar boy from the 5th grade through my freshman year of high school, back in the days when the Latin Mass was in vogue.

I can recite some of those prayers in Latin, in the same way I can still smell the incense that pervaded the Lenten services and Midnight Mass on Christmas and the funerals, including the funerals of both my parents.

Joe and Betty Daley were married in St. Vincent’s after World War II. When the service was over, the wedding party and the congregation walked to the reception in the back yard on Onondaga St.

There’s a part of all this that mystifies me and I guess it’s my reaction – or overreaction – to the latest news.

The demographics of Corning have been changing for decades and the population has fallen. It was below 11,000 in the 2000 census.

Many of the kids who coped with Sister Domenica in the 5th grade and Sister Paul in the 6th grade, who sold candy bars and magazines and Easter seals to raise money for the parish, as I did, are grandparents now.

There are fewer people in the town, fewer people in the churches. In some ways it’s simply the sociological math.

The “parochial” school where I spent eight years has been shuttered for many years. The Sisters of Mercy are mostly gone, as are the priests.

It may sound odd in this era to say that we liked the priests. They came to the house; they showed up at the hospital with a kind word and some priestly reassurance.

They knew about you and your people, your grandfather who was a railroad engineer and your other grandfather, the one who pulled the dandelions.

They remembered names, asked how you were doing in school, were kind and respectful to the old women who showed up alone in the cold for the 6 a.m. Mass. They were useful. As far as I can tell, they are all but extinct.

Some years ago the three Corning churches (St. Mary’s and St. Patrick’s were the others) and the Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in nearby Painted Post merged into what became known as All Saints Parish.

From a distance it seemed a poor resolution. I saw it as a loss of cultural and community identity, papered over by a generic designation - “All Saints Parish” - that seemed drawn up by a committee.

But nobody asked me, which was fair enough as I was gone from both Corning and the church.

St. Patrick’s was sold outright. Sunday Mass was performed on a rotating basis. The weekday Mass - there were two every morning at 6 and 7 at St. Vincent’s when I was growing up - kept the altar boy crew busy. Nowadays Mass is a Sunday-only affair.

I read the melancholy news stories in the Corning paper, with angry parishioners and equivocating clergy. I see the property described as a “campus” and I think, well, that’s real estate talking. I think someone has a fundamental misunderstanding of what went on there on Dodge Ave. for the better part of a century.

I think that I am a hopeless romantic, getting older, nostalgic about a religion I abandoned at 17. And I think that I was lucky.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Travel Section Blues

Posted on Columbia Journalism Review ( - Sept. 8, 2010

By Steve Daley

Paris is a puzzle. San Francisco is an affront. The west of Ireland is a slap in the face.

The travel sections of magazines and newspapers are at once a favorite getaway and an IQ test at which I am not doing so well.

Manhattan Island is a riddle. Santa Fe, New Mexico is a mystery. London is an enigma.

My traveling life has slowed a bit in recent years and the truth is I’ve never gotten around the planet like Arthur Frommer or John Glenn. But on my own and with my wife, Jane, we’ve hit some high spots. A honeymoon in Wales. How about that?

So when the travel sections of fine newspapers and periodicals offer to tell me where to go and where to stay and where to eat and where to rent that bike, I’m all in. And if you’re writing about Kiev or Karachi or Ketchikan – places I will never, ever go – I’m easy to please.

But when I survey the tick list of restaurants, hotels, saloons and museums in places I have actually visited, I begin to feel like a young George Orwell, down and out, drinking out of the bus pans of legendary pubs, boites and four-star restaurants.

Travel writers have given me a geographic inferiority complex. When the New York Times offers “36 Hours In…” Nantucket or Copenhagen or St. Louis or Edinburgh, well, you’ll generally find me in the wrong part of town.

From coastal Maine to La Jolla, from Key West to Toronto to Big Sur, it seems there is always a perfect family-owned restaurant I missed, or a lively up-and-coming neighborhood I took a taxi through without stopping, or a can’t-miss folk art museum I went just one subway stop beyond.

I was eating in Montmarte and le tout seasoned travelers were fine dining on the cheap at least an arrondissemont away.

I was at having a pint in McDaid’s pub on Harry Street in Dublin and the smart set was drinking Pinot Grigio and bunking down in swell, if tiny, Euro digs in that city’s Temple Bar neighborhood. I’m touring London’s Portobello Road and the New York Times is picking through antiques in Budapest.

Truth is, when marooned amongst the travel writers, even Washington, D.C., a place I call home, often seems as alien to me as Bratislava.

(Except for Ben’s Chili Bowl. Apparently it is not possible for an English language publication to write about visiting Washington, D.C. without mentioning Ben’s Chili Bowl).

The whole experience is enough to give a fellow a dose of travel section agoraphobia. I’m always a day late – metaphorically – and a guidebook short.

Consider London. Been there, and more than once. Never had a bad time. But every visit to a travel section convinces me that I am a lost soul, an incidental tourist, that guy in Bermuda shorts and a porkpie hat emblazoned with “USA,” stumbling around Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square with three maps and a pocket filled with strange coins.

My wife and I have a list of places in central London that we enjoy revisiting, but not long ago the Washington Post, told me I should be surveying neighborhoods on “the city’s edge… “where the pace is slower, and the prices lower…”

Sure, St. Paul’s Cathedral is a nice stop and you could go to a play in the West End one night, but it turns out I should be in Stoke Newington or Crouch End. These are places I thought you passed through on the Tube in from Heathrow Airport.

There are pressures on the traveling scribblers. I get that. From Milan to the Meatpacking District, it’s hard to keep up with the drinking and dancing whereabouts of the 26-year-olds.

Boutique hotels open with the frequency of new airline baggage fees. Sushi fusion restaurants with optional truffle fries must be celebrated.

On my last foray to New York City, I stayed in a perfectly acceptable hotel on the far West Side in a neighborhood where a decade ago you were more likely to find a methadone clinic than a taxi.

It’s a new world. And I’ve got the wrong map.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ways and Means

Posted on Huffington Post - Aug. 13, 2010

By Steve Daley

In the death of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago, there is for some of us a kind of guilty pleasure.

The obits have struggled to give the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee his due as a legislator, as a master of reaching bipartisan consensus on the thorniest of tax and entitlement issues.

But the overlay, as he understood and predicted, was indictment, loss of power, felony conviction and time served. “Powerful, Corrupt” is the headline writer’s shorthand, and that is fair enough in its way.

Perhaps society benefited from Rostenkowski’s conviction on two counts of mail fraud and the 17 months he spent in a federal lockup, winding up in a Salvation Army halfway house before his release. But this society will have to get a good deal more saintly before some of us think so.

As a reporter and columnist, I didn’t know Rostenkowski very well. Many of my colleagues, particularly in Chicago, knew him far better.

But I had time to observe him in his role as a committee chairman and there is this:

Rostenkowski came to Washington with a purpose. He did not come here to tell us how much he loved Jesus or to sit on cable television and impugn the motives of others.

The only worthwhile members of Congress are those who come to the place with that sense of purpose, whether you agree with that purpose or not. And you can get a good argument their estimable numbers are shrinking.

Rosty wanted power and influence and he wanted to get things done. It took him a while to get to his chairmanship but by any standard, by any measure, he succeeded at getting things done.

He was imperious and greedy, arrogant and tribal and, if you spent time on Capitol Hill, you understood that he was also widely respected and much beloved.

“Everybody has a district,” he said to me once. “Everybody had to go home and explain what they did here. Understanding that is fundamental.”

Ways and Means was not run as a democracy, but Rostenkowski understood the fears and ambitions of his colleagues, especially those on his committee.

In a sense he was all clichés. He combined a love of the back-room deal with that hoariest of congressional bromides – be a workhorse, not a show horse. Denizens of the Capitol, including many reporters, delighted in his bumptious, brash behavior and in his effectiveness.

I recall watching him deliver a floor speech – a relative rarity – on a bill to raise the pay of House members. Most of his colleagues wanted the money, of course, but they cowered in fear of constituent phone calls and the wrath of the opinion makers.

Rosty marched to the lectern and roared at the gathering, insisting on his worth, insisting that he would defend his salary back in Chicago.

Watching from behind him in the press gallery, I saw the beaming faces of his peers – Republicans and Democrats – basking in the moment. Here was a man living their dream – unapologetic and proud of his work.

Even his legislative failures were compelling. In 1989 a crowd of irate seniors famously chased him through the streets of his district over a health-care measure known as “catastrophic care.”

I wrote a Sunday column suggesting that if the voters of his district wanted face time with the Chairman on the matter they should pony up a $2000 honorarium and get him to give a speech.

The next week, the phone rang and an aide asked me to hold for the Chairman.

Rostenkowski had seen the column and, as his voice rose, said that I needed to know – not that he cared - that he didn’t give speeches for a mere $2000.

Another morning in the House I watched an esteemed reporter for the New York Times follow Rosty toward a door to one of the many meeting rooms he commanded.

The Timesman had more questions. Rosty had no more answers. He opened the door, stepped inside and shut the door in the reporter’s face.

Another Times reporter, the late Robin Toner, turned to me with a smile on her face. “Well,” she said, “you don’t see that happen to my paper very often.”

Finally, there is the art of the performance. Understanding this concept is not possible if you possess a reflexive distaste for politicians. But there it is.

There is pleasure to be drawn and something to be learned from watching someone do their job with surpassing skill, and a little style. Think Michael Jordan going to the hoop, Meryl Streep at the movies, Derek Jeter playing baseball, Mike Royko at the height of his column writing powers, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan working a crowd.

For all his imperfections, which will be well chronicled this week and next, Rostenkowski was exceedingly good at being Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of House Ways and Means Committee. There are worse legacies.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mornings at Tammany Hall

The art teacher generally turned up at Tammany Hall around 9 in the morning. The saloon was closed, but someone would let Cliff through the double doors of the converted Washington townhouse near 21st St. and Pennsylvania Ave. NW. He would amble to the far end of the bar, away from the doors and the windows and place his briefcase on the barstool next to him.

He was an art professor, actually, at George Washington University, just a block down the street, and a watercolorist of some renown. “Gin,” he would offer, though anyone behind the battered counter would already be reaching for the Beefeater bottle.

Some men who drink at 9 in the morning need a newspaper or a crossword puzzle or a detective novel as a prop. And of course, in the era of Dick Nixon, the cell phone had not yet become an all-purpose appendage and refuge.

Cliff needed nothing but the gin. He was meticulous, quiet and polite, making church steeples with his fingers and pushing back his lank brown hair. He did not require gossip or bartender bonhomie or witless chat about the weekly fate of the Washington Redskins. He needed gin.

Around 10, Mr. Sims, a native Washingtonian of indeterminate age, would make his way from the downstairs kitchen to Cliff’s end of the bar. He would fire up a Kool, nod at Cliff and shoot a look at the bartender.

Charles Sims was famously uninterested in the names of the customers or of his white-boy colleagues who tended bar or waited tables. Someone would place three fingers of room-temperature gin in front of him and he would knock it back, always offering the same assessment.

“Make you sick or make you well,” he’d gasp.

From time to time, as a kind of peace offering, Charles would emerge from the kitchen with bowls of what he called “Turkey Butt stew.” The translation was literal – Charles wasted nothing in the Tammany Hall kitchen. But as appalling as it was in concept, we came to believe the stew (it was soup, actually) possessed miraculous, recuperative powers over the hangover. To that end we consumed it with vigor, and we didn’t ask too many questions.

For his part, Cliff, the art professor, would ignore the stew and generally have a pair of large gins, maybe three on a morning when the prospect of facing his students and his peers got the better of him.

Their behavior was in no way viewed as unusual or problematic, and the gin in the bottle was almost never Beefeater.

Resplendent in a turtleneck and Frye boots, I was the guy behind the counter cutting the fruit. Being hired as a waiter at Tammany had saved me from a life of graduate school and working as a loan officer wannabe in a bank on 14th St. I had ascended to day bartender when a colleague had, in a festive manner, fallen down about a hundred rows of seats at RFK Stadium.

“No hard feelings,” Leigh told me. “I ‘d rather wait tables. You actually like talking to these people.” And I did.

I was a guy who had never had much fun, and was essentially unfamiliar with the concept. On my 25th birthday, my new friends Tom Costello and Chris Reidy appeared to tell me I would be working the bar that October night and they would be celebrating my birthday because, well, they felt I didn’t know how.

They were right. But I learned pretty fast. Unlike the bank or grad school, the bar was always open. Cash flowed into the tip jar. There were interesting women with drinks who stayed up late. At night a gaggle of journalistic regulars appeared, men and women who looked like they were having a lot of fun on and off the job. There was live music a couple nights a week, notably Emmylou Harris and Asleep at the Wheel.

My career path was just about where I wanted it to be.

On some mornings we would earn an early visit from Father Tim, a crowd favorite in local saloon circles. He was a defrocked priest and a kind of hero by our raffish standards, having been bounced from the clergy by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington for “disseminating” birth control information to poor women.

Not abortion counseling. Father Tim lost his stripes for suggesting to poor women that they needn’t get pregnant. A firing offense in those days.

So we liked Father Tim. But he was not without his odd habits and tendencies. He kept a number of checkbooks, including one that identified him – ex post facto – as a priest. Bars honored personal checks in those days and it was remarkable how often Father Tim would flash the priestly checkbook in Georgetown or on Capitol Hill and be told it was all on the house. And thanks for coming in, Father.

At Tammany Hall we were in on the game, of course, but the padre never got whacked for more than every other drink. This was despite the fact that Father Tim routinely indulged in a personal saloon ritual that can only be described as disturbing.

Customers who order the same drink the same way every time are generally held in high regard by bartenders. And Father Tim pushed the limits, as unpredictable as the College of Cardinals. Perhaps it was some relic of his boyhood days in the seminary but the good father insisted on many variations of beverage, all in the same vessel. He might start with a soda, then transfer his affections to a Bloody Mary, then perhaps move on to a cold draft beer. Same glass.

We viewed this conduct as closer to a mortal sin than a venial one, but he was our mascot priest. He was often in the company of Maryland real estate moguls who were masquerading as doctors, looking for some public entity to build them a hospital, the better to fleece the government and the needy.

Father Tim forgave them their sins, apparently, but we pounded their bar checks, making them pay for everything, and then some. It was a simple rule of thumb: if someone we liked was going to pay a little less, then someone else was going to have to pay a little more.

At about 11:30, the place was as ready as it was ever going to be for business. On an average morning I’d brew another pot of coffee, discreetly pour the better part of a quart of King George IV scotch into a Dewar’s bottle and tighten the apron.

Normal people – strays – would be coming for hamburgers and chef salads and fish & chips, with iced tea, and we would have to serve them. “The job must be done,” Tom Costello would say. In five or six hours we could start the party again.

Cliff, Mr. Sims and Father Tim are real people; they are not real names.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Thinking About Crustaceans

We had the annual Fourth of July crabfest on the deck last weekend, a family tradition of relatively recent vintage hinged on a group consensus around Maryland hardshell crab.

It has become an exspensive habit - $72 a dozen for large crabs from Captain Pell's out on the edge of Fairfax County, Va. - but my wife, Jane, is a purist in these matters. And, as the man said of Christmas, it's only once a year.

Three dozen, with barbecued chicken and ribs, corn on the cob, potato salad, sliced tomatoes, collard greens (they come with the barbecue). We passed on the desserts this year, and nobody drinks as much as they used to, if at all. Still, plenty of cold beer at the ready.

My brother-in-law, Hugh, makes his own dipping sauce. My sister-in-law, Gwen, has acquired a taste for Woodchuck hard cider at these affairs, a reality that amazed and amused her daughter, Meredith. And my wife prides herself on eschewing the use of wooden hammers and shell crackers, using ony a paring knife to tame the beasts. The rest of us pound away as if we were clubbing the backsides of BP oil executives.

I used to insist on some shrimp at these affairs until I came to understand that I would learn to love blue crab or suffer the marital consequences. And I did. Learn to love blue crab.

It was hotter than the hubs of Hell, of course. And spreading three dozen crabs encrusted with Old Bay seasoning on a table laden with sides and covered in that morning's Sunday Washington Post produces a pile of refuse worthy of a small rural community. But it's sloppy and communal in the best sense of the words.

Blue crabs are strange, crawly predatory creatures and stranger dining fare. But they are hugely popular in Virginia, Maryland and Washington. The appeal spans race and gender; the local crab house is a haven for pickup trucks and BMWs, as popular with the Kenny Chesney crowd as it is with black and Hispanic families and, well, my family.

Hardshell crabs require an enormous amount of effort to generate a small amount of actual food - think artichokes but much, much better. And just about everyone who has eaten the critters three times in their adult lives becomes a self-proclaimed expert on the art and science of picking crabs.

Most of the meat is tucked away in little chambers beneath the outer shell and access requires scaling back the shell (easy enough) and peeling away the less-than-appetizing gills and "mustard," and, well, you get the general idea.

This year's bash was a little different. No one in my family really wants to talk about the horror in the Gulf of Mexico. Individually and collectively we are teeming with outrage and frustrated that this catastrophe does not appear to have generated nearly enough interest, anger and concern in the appropriate circles. The President is worried; the Coast Guard guy issues updates; the BP execs hide behind advertising while fronting employees in branded golf shirts to do their talking for them. The press keeps a respectful distance.

There is only that obscene video of the exploded well, fouling our own nest at the most fundamental level. And, by the way, who decided this was "a spill," like something a clumsy waiter would do?

The gusher, now reaching into its third month, is in fact a savage indictment of our inability - our unwillingness - to take care of our home.

So while we tried not to think the Gulf, we thought about Chesapeake Bay, where, according to some estimates, more than 400 million blue crabs abide. Still.

I thought about a quote from H.L. Mencken, an authority on matters of Maryland seafood and many other things. He called Chesapeake Bay "the great big outdoor protein factory." And we wondered what would become of that "protein factory," and all the others.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Too Many Cooks

Published in the Columbia Journalism Review Online ( - June 9, 2010

By Steve Daley

There they are again, this time on the front of the Washington Post "Style" section (6/4/10). It’s the celebrity chefs, and this time they’re in service to First Lady Michelle Obama and her campaign against childhood obesity.

The latest "Style" section snapshot of the culinary elites preceded a larger White House gathering of chefs who are every bit as serious about school nutrition as they are about a $28 chunk of pan roasted Arctic char with orange and rosemary beurre blanc.

We are in the age of the unavoidable cook. They won’t stay in the kitchen unless someone puts a camera in there.

Chef profiles crowd the pages of city magazines such as "Boston," "Los Angeles," and "Washingtonian." These publications track the career paths and great thoughts of chefs the way the old "Sporting News" used to follow All-Star shortstops.

Celebrity chefs overrun HBO’s clever "Treme," though it must be said the shiny, self-satisfied chaps playing themselves in a ruined post-Katrina New Orleans are well behaved, unlike the gaggle of posturing gangsta chefs who torment waiters and rail (generally in British and French accents) on cable television.

Gordon Ramsay, for example, presides over Fox’s "Hell’s Kitchen" like volcanic actor Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas", though in real-world terms he’s about a scary as crème brulee.

Ramsey’s normally affable British colleague Jamie Oliver, the tousle-haired “Naked Chef,” recently took his "Food Revolution" on ABC to Huntington, W. Va.

The locals, having been identified by the Centers for Disease Controls as particularly pitiful examples of lard-based American consumption, handed Oliver his colander when he toyed with the school lunch menu.

“They don’t understand me,” Oliver whinged to the press, and he wasn’t talking about his accent. For the moment, the “Food Revolution” will not be televised.

Anthony Bourdain, a prominent chef and frequent author perpetually angry about something, has a new book: "Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook".

Check, please.

The quality of the food in this new celebrity driven universe can be left for others to judge. But there is little doubt that the publicity machinery for the “top chefs” is four-star.

Consider the Cleveland-based Michael Symon, one of the Food Network’s “Iron Chefs.” He has mounted a heart-healthy campaign to keep resident basketball superstar LeBron James in the greater Cuyahoga County area.

Symon announced he would cook for James and his friends once a month if the big guy would re-sign with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

It seems like a middling incentive for James, who reportedly makes $15 million a year to play hoops and owns a $29 million endorsement contract from Nike. He could fly to Paris every week for dinner. But that doesn’t mean every news outlet from NBC to Yahoo Sports didn’t cover Symon’s offer.

The man’s a chef. Send a crew.

On May 2, Washington chef Jose Andres—one of Michelle Obama’s high-profile backers in the obesity battle - was the subject of an adoring "60 Minutes" profile.

The fawning segment, which would have made Donald Trump uncomfortable, focused on Andres’s modest roots and his charitable work.

But when Andres began to feed CBS interrogator Anderson Cooper in the chef’s fashionable, six-seat “Minibar by Jose Andres” establishment, a viewer could have been forgiven for thinking the Dalai Lama had gone into the restaurant business.

“Minibar is a window into creativity, that’s all,” said Andres, earning a nod from Cooper.

Last month, Chicago Sun-Times Washington reporter Lynn Sweet felt obliged to apologize to Chicago chef Rick Bayless, who had been drafted by the Obama message machine to assist in a May 19 state dinner for the president of Mexico.

It seems Bayless, demonstrating the professional modesty that characterizes his line of work, had sent a Twitter message or three about his White House culinary experience to his legions of cilantro-happy fans.

Twittering from inside the White House is in violation of some twenty-first century edict, as Sweet reported. Bayless swore on his garlic press that he did not engage in online social networking while actually on site at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The whole enchilada wound up in “Politico,” The Washington Post, all available Chicago media, and a raft of food blogs, and Sweet opted to apologize.

The brouhaha might have been fueled by the fact that Bayless had given interviews about his bond with the Obamas and his “guest White House chef” status to The New York Times and NPR.

It’s no secret that after the gate-crashing fiasco at the Obama’s first state dinner, Bayless’s dear friends were determined to keep the gala a low-key affair until the plates were being cleared.

But in Chef World, publicity is seated at the other end of the food chain from salt: Too much is never enough.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"The Pacific"

We watched the final episode of "The Pacific" on HBO last night, watched Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie come home to their families and futures, watched Merriell "Snafu" Shelton climb off a troop train in the New Orleans twilight and leave Sledge, his brother in arms through so much horror, sleeping, making no goodbyes.

Perhaps like others I have grown weary of the "greatest generation," even though my late father was part of it, fighting in the Pacific Theater.

I have watched "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers" and Ken Burns' fine PBS series "The War," and I grew up watching John Wayne in the movies and "Combat" on TV. I have largely passed over the many books and weepy Tom Brokaw/Tom Hanks retrospectives on the men and women who fought and died in World War II.

"The Pacific" went a long way toward changing that. It was a remarkable piece, remarkable television, a relentless 10-week saga that conveyed the horror of infantry combat in a fashion I had never seen or even imagined.

The recreations of the battles at Guadacanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu and Iwo Jima come at the viewer at the speed of light and are nothing less than terrifying. A series of fine writers, directors and actors deliver the viewer into a world of bone-rattling tension played out in endless, teeming rain and jungle and on sun-baked atolls riddled with lethal caves and danger.

For the viewer, at least for this one, "The Pacific" peels back any lingering romance about wartime, pounding away at the point that in these moments the veneer of civilization is all but gone.

Snafu Shelton's character (played by a fascinating actor named Rami Malek) is equal parts golem and hero, a young man thrust into a reality so violent and uncertain that his amoral pose and boundless cynicism keeps him alive, or so he seems to believe.

There is a scene where Shelton talks idly about the fortunes of war with Sledge, his eyes as dead as a shark's, and you realize that as he chats he is tossing coral pebbles into the open skull of a dead Japanese soldier.

Sledge wrote a book, "With the Old Breed," as did Leckie, a newspaperman. These memoirs from the 1st Marine Division formed the core of the narrative for "The Pacific," as did the better-known and yet mostly forgotten story of Sgt. John Basilone, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor at Guadacanal and, after time spent stateside selling war bonds, made his way back to combat in time for the brutal landing at Iwo Jima.

Studs Terkel interviewed Sledge for his book 1984 book "The Good War." Sledge told him: "To me, there were two different wars. There was the war of the guy on the front lines. You don't come off until you are wounded or killed. Or, if lucky, relieved ... The man up front puts his life on the line day after day after day to the point of utter hopelessness."

That's the war "The Pacific," produced by Hanks and Steven Spielberg and myriad others, deliver.

Sledge became a college professor in his native Alabama. Leckie went back to the newspaper trade. They married, lived out their lives, died the same year, 2001. There is a statue of John Basilone in his New Jersey home town, and a Navy destroyer is named for him.

Snafu Shelton, a gambling man, fixed air conditioners in rural Louisiana and by all accounts had a hard life, though it could not have been harder than the horrors he endured on those tiny islands more than 60 years ago.

Sledge, his companion across the killing ground of the airfield at Peleliu, in the caves on Okinawa and on the slow train home, was a pallbearer at his funeral. Their war will stay with me for a long time.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I Gave At The Office

Back in early 1976 I was running a bar in Washington D.C. The Class Reunion was a saloon for grown ups, a gathering place for reporters, lawyers, politicos, PR types and, after hours, other bar people and people I let stay after hours.

One night as I was conducting a 4 a.m. seminar on the state of American politics, a Democratic Party lawyer and friend of Oklahoma populist Sen. Fred Roy Harris shamed me into writing a $100 check to Harris' long forgotten presidential campaign. The next morning - well, afternoon - the lawyer called me at home and offered to give me the check back.

$100 was a fair amount of money in those days (and is again, as it turns out). But I had blathered on until sunrise so I told him to cash the check and good luck to Fred Harris and his lovely wife LaDonna.

It was the first time I had ever given money to a politician.

Fred and LaDonna didn't have much luck electorally. Jimmy Carter wound up in the White House and I went on a 24-year hiatus from giving money to the political class. It was called journalism.

Journalists don't offer up campaign contributions, as a general rule, and in my opinon it's a pretty good general rule. In the 20-plus years I spent in the newspaper business, I thought my colleagues were a trifle holier-than-thou about the whole thing, but to paraphrase songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, I kept my campaign business in my pocket.

In 1996 the Chicago Tribune and I had an ugly divorce. The market for Washington-based white male political writers and columnists of a certain age was a crowded demographic and after while it was clear my days in daily journalism were effectively at an end.

By 2000, I felt comfortable giving some dough to Al Gore for President, and no regrets except for the fact that Joe Lieberman may have benefited in some way.

We all know what happened in Florida that year and as for me an avalanche of mailings from every tree-loving, affirmative-acting, union-organizing liberal interest group rained down on our house. And the rain continues to this day.

I went in again in 2004 for Sen. John Kerry. My wife Jane and I also coughed up a modest amount for the Democratic National Committee. I was miffed at the presidential outcome but felt better about my largesse as the second Bush-Cheney term began to reveal itself.

2008 was no different. Made a modest contribution to the Barack Obama campaign. Gave $50 to something called "Act Blue" in support of the Democratic House member from my old Republican home town in western New York state. He turned out to be Eric Massa. Stop laughing.

So here we are. President Obama is doing pretty well on the job by my lights. But it's clear that a chap like me cannot pony up enough money to make it interesting. And I didn't write the checks to support the antics of recalcitrant Senate Democrats led by the preposterous Max Baucus of Montana who made a hash of health care or for the timid likes of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh of Indiana.

Not looking for perfection here but I'm still waiting on closing Gitmo and I'm not for open carry of guns in our national parks, which is now the law of the land. I'm pretty sure that the Afghanistan adventure is going to wind up badly.

Mostly I'm waiting for those 68 million people who voted for Obama to make themselves heard, and for the President and his party to act as if they're proud of what they're trying to do. I believe those two phenomena are connected.

This approach may not involve pleasing Lindsey Graham or Olympia Snowe or various editorial writers or the folks braying for "bipartisanship" as the culture war heats up.

Until then, however, the little check is not on the mail.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Breaking News from the Luncheon Keynoter

Posted on Columbia Journalism Review ( April 6, 2010

By Steve Daley

First of all I’d like to thank (Tucker Carlson; Arianna Hufington; that tweedy-looking professor over there) for the opportunity to discuss the future of newspapers and print journalism.

We meet at a time when our beloved industry is (in a period of historic transition; completely hosed; in more trouble than the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome).

Like you, I love the newspaper business. I (read five or six papers a day; got a week-a-year severance deal back when the getting was good; was in my 40s before I realized I had a job but not a career).

Almost every day someone asks me (for advice on whether or not to go to journalism school; how to become the London bureau chief for the New York Times; do I have a phone number for Burson-Marsteller).

And I always say the same thing; (Go for it, my friend; Why don’t you go outside and lie down in traffic?; I could tell you the truth but it’s too painful for both of us).

It’s true that when I was coming up you could (write your way out of South Bend; have someone help you file your story if you got drunk; fool yourself into thinking you had a professional future).

Yes, those were great days. But you didn’t come here to listen to (an embittered geezer; a guy with a 4-and-a-half bathroom house on 29th St. in Georgetown; complete sophistry about the future of print).

No, you want to (hear 21st century jargon such as “crowdfunding” and “reader engagement”; think you can be a salaried columnist when if you’re lucky you’ll end up as a “digital community manager”; believe that really smart people in newsrooms are getting a handle on all this).

Some may scoff. But I would encourage you to pursue that dream, because (newspapers fold but journalism school is forever; there may come a time when people will decline to write for nothing; maybe the MacArthur Foundation will pick up the tab for everything).

If I could say just one thing to you that is (reason for optimism; the main takeaway from my upcoming book on the future of news; palpably untrue and yet said all the time in these sessions it would be:

(The old business model isn’t working but you may be the one to identify the new model; The future lies in “hyperlocal” news; The answers can be found in incorporating advertising into Kindle content and smart phone applications).

In fact, innovation is everywhere. It’s true that the early results for “citizen journalism” (have been mixed; tell us that with free content you generally get what you pay for; exposed fundamental misunderstandings of the difference between reporting and bloviating).

If you’re like me, when you hear of the need for newspapers to move beyond the “monopoly mindset” and function better as “a filter,” you think (it makes a heck of a lot of sense; Dick Nixon would’ve loved that; give readers less, tell them it’s more).

And when you hear of the imperative to “personalize the news” you think (I love white space; co-branded flea markets; hey, I can now personally read my hometown paper in about five minutes).

Cynics often compare the newspaper to the dinosaur. But remember that (dinosaurs roamed the earth for millions of years; many had brains the size of walnuts, much like Chief Innovation Officers; extinction theories abound but we know the end came abruptly).

New voices have come to the table. The passion we feel is shared by (former radio execs who love hanging banners in the newsroom; bright young folks who tell Romenesko that credentialing reporters is elitist; the folks down at the news co-op who are kind of fixated on their non-profit tax status right now).

We welcome them all. I’d love to stay and entertain some questions but (I’m on CNN with Rick Sanchez in 25 minutes; I don’t have any good answers; I have to get back to a mandatory newsroom seminar on search engine optimization).

Going forward I wish you all what I have enjoyed - a long and fulfilling career in the newspaper game.

That, of course, (is what we all wish for; went out the window sometime during the Clinton years; is not ever going to happen in this millennium).

Be sure to tip your content providers, er, servers on the way out. The chicken Kiev was real nice.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Census Form for "Real" America

The U.S. Bureau of Fun Facts estimates it will take the average person either 10 minutes or 10 days to fill out this survey. If your layabout stepson Randy has moved back into the house, yes, you have to count him. Use a pen. With ink in it.

1) How many nights a week does your family watch “American Idol,” “Survivor” or that Donald Trump show?

2) How many members of your family believe President Obama was born in another country? How many members of your family believe Hawaii is another country?

3) How many times a week do members of your family go to the Wal Mart? __

For household items? __
For clothes? __
For food? __
For a social life? __

4) How many members of your family actually work at Wal Mart?

5) Would you describe your family members as close knit?
Chronically obese? Heavily armed?

6) Is there someone in your household – not a blood relative - who is just really getting on your last nerve? Identify.

7) Who is cuter? Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift? C’mon. No waiting.

8) Should Tiger’s wife like totally bail on him for running around with those floozies or should she just hang in there and take the money or what?

9) How many members of your family think Jimmie Johnson wins too many NASCAR races? Has Dale Earnhardt Jr. been pretty much of a disappointment to you and your entire family?

10) Coke Zero or Pepsi Free? Taco Bell or Sonic? Bud Light or Miller Light? Jack Daniels or 'Turkey? Ford pickup or Chevy pickup? Domino’s or Papa John’s?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Irish Pubs and Irish Bars

There's a difference, of course.

Irish bars, replete with florid lawyers of Irish-American extraction, knuckleheads in turned-around baseball caps, generally bad food and endless midnight choruses of "The Wild Rover," can be outgrown. Irish pubs - increasingly hard to find in American cities or in Ireland, for that matter - provide a different sort of experience, and a more enduring one.

Except on St. Patrick's Day, of course, when they all are equally to be avoided.

The practical matter is that, inevitably, Irish bars and Irish pubs in this country exist in the same space. The quiet late-afternoon-to-early-evening comfort of a shadowy hideaway for a drink, some conversation and maybe a few laughs is often transformed by night into a raucous, bibulous, banjo-rattling gymnasium.

This is probably a minority opinion. Proof that the appeal of the Irish bar extends beyond matters of Celtic heritage is that it is the one species of saloon that keeps growing. Certainly that's the case around Washington D.C., where they are now as common as congressional earmarks.

(In Ireland, pubs are closing at the rate of about one a day, falling victim to recession, smoking bans, drunk driving laws and changes in the Irish lifesyle. Still, no trip to Ireland is complete without a pint in McDaid's, a proper pub off Grafton Street in Dublin, or in a real country pub in Cork or Donegal or the county of your choosing).

In my youth - a phase my wife Jane refers to as "young and stupid" - I worked for a time as bartender in a pair of popular Irish bars in Washington; the Dubliner and Kelly's Irish Times, respectively. That was more than 30 years ago and the fact that both haunts are still pouring whiskey and keeping folks up late at night is testimony enough to their charms.

I worked the very first St. Patrick's Day at the Dubliner on Capitol Hill in 1974 and lived to tell the tale. Danny Coleman, the Dubliner's owner then and now, used to refer to this annual event as the ultimate in "planned hilarity." An honest bartender will tell you that early in a career working March 17 is highly prized, largely for the chance to earn what is generally called "serious money."

A couple of years of puddled green beer, puking coeds and deranged conversation will cure the sensible bartender of that itch.

It's a net plus to see the Irish get some attention, I suppose, but I don't have much good to say about St. Patrick's Day. In my barroom days, after flirting with the St. Paddy's Day tip cup, my idea of a good time was dinner with some friends at a long-gone Indian restaurant in Georgetown called Apana. Then, straight home.

In a decade as a single man living in Chicago, my loyalty to Butch McGuire's saloon on Division St. earned me access to the VIP back door in the alley on March 17, though I don't believe I ever afforded myself the opportunity.

At its best, the lure of the Irish saloon 364 days a year is all about pursuit of what is known in Ireland as "the craic."

The concept is both simple and often debated. And the pronunciation is "crack." It is time spent away from the stressful and the unpleasant, from the rigors of real life and work and money and sometimes family and often responsibility.

"The craic" can be quiet or noisy, played out in a small group or a large one, fueled by grand doses of adult beverage, or not so much.

Fun, for want of a more literary term.

"The craic was mighty," you could hear a fellow say in Ireland. If you were there, you know exactly what he means.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Eric Massa and the old home town

Posted on Huffington Post, March 10, 2010

By Steve Daley

My father was the town Democrat. At least it felt that way growing up in Corning, N.Y.

Before my father, my maternal grandfather pretty much held the title in the small, scenic company town (Corning Inc.) in the Republican stronghold of southwestern New York State.

Joe Daley and Paul V. Lovette Sr. were Democratic aldermen in a place where Democrats won elected office about as often the local temperature hit 100 degrees on Thanksgiving morning.

For decades, Congressional representation in that part of the state was the private reserve of dull Chamber of Commerce Republican businessmen.

When the Sisters of Mercy had control of me in grade school, the local congressman was W. Sterling Cole, a stolid GOP lawyer from Painted Post, N.Y. who held the seat for more than 20 years.

When popular Jamestown mayor Stan Lundine somehow won the seat after the retirement of the GOP member in 1976, he became the first Democrat in the 20th century to represent the district in the House of Representatives.

A few years later, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, showing his legendary political savvy, sent Lundine into permanent public obscurity by picking him as his lieutenant governor.

Republican Amory Houghton Jr., former Chairman and CEO of Corning Inc., won the seat, which, it must be said, he ably held for nearly two decades.

My father was resigned to Houghton’s tenure in Washington, believing it only fair that a man who owned the district might as well represent it in Congress.

The truth is, Houghton was an independent sort who voted against the Iraq war and was possessed of a political spine as alien to Eric Massa and Democrats such as Ben Nelson, Max Baucus and Blanche Lincoln as webbed feet.

Houghton’s retirement and the election of garden-variety GOP Rep. Randy Kuhl in 2006 seemed to signal more of the same for the district.

So the 2008 election of Democratic Rep. Eric Massa to the House from the 29th district looked like a pretty big deal, at least to a Steuben County native son and political junkie who had been away a long time.

There was some evidence that the local politics was shifting. In 2008 President Barack Obama won nearly 49 percent of the vote in the district (John McCain drew 50.5%).

In 2006, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton ran strong for re-election in the “Southern Tier,” in part because she wasn’t afraid to show up in places such as Corning, Hornell and Jamestown.

So having set aside my official journalist’s cap some time ago, I sent Massa a modest $50 campaign contribution, which earned me a handwritten thank you note (not sure who the hand belonged to).

It did not take Massa long to bring me to my senses.

Having once voiced support for a single-payer health care system, he quickly signed on with 38 other House Democrats to vote against his own party’s health care reform bill. Which is something Randy Kuhl could have done, and would have done.

Through modern electronic channels, never having met the man, I told Massa to take me off his money list. I was a trifle let down, but what’s the worst that can happen?

Well, it turns out there’s resignation and disgrace and whining and conflicting rationales and the overwhelming likelihood the district will again have a Republican serving in the House.

If it was a Democratic renaissance, it was a short one.

Last week, Eric Massa of Corning followed New York Gov. David Paterson and Rep. Charles Rangel into political ignominy in the Empire State.

On a Wednesday Massa announced he would not be seeking a second term in the House, citing a recurrence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

On Friday, after published reports that he had been accused of sexual harassment by a male employee and was the subject of an inquiry by the House ethics committee, Massa resigned effective this week and booked a date on the Glenn Beck program.

Joe Daley and Paul Lovette are gone, and so it appears are the Democrats in my old hometown and its environs. Local savants say the mayor of Hornell would make the best Democratic candidate to replace Massa.

My guess is they’ll elect a Democrat to Congress sometime before the next Ice Age.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tiger By the Tail

Time spent away from asking questions changes a man, or so it would seem.

As a former sports columnist and journalista, there was a time when I would have gladly joined the chorus of irate reporters and columnists who decried the stylized nature of Tiger Woods' apologetic pronunciamento Friday, particularly the part where no questions from the press corps were allowed.

As a general rule, that's a bad thing. But as I watched Woods' staged, scripted and sullen performance, I kept wondering what the Q&A would have given us:

A litany of bimbo eruptions? Quotes from the mother and mother-in-law who were in Woods' Florida manse the night the marital bill came due? A five-part inquiry from some male ESPN yakker that has more to do with ESPN than the First Amendment and the public's right to know.

All the sporting press - and the sponsors and the TV networks - really want to know is when the man is going to start playing golf again. If they can get him to talk about the sneaky doing of the reprehensible, even better.

Just this weekend, two fine sportswriters at the Washington Post, Sally Jenkins and John Feinstein, joined the whinging chorus of scribes and pundits protesting the absence of a true press conference format in Ponte Vedra.

Feinstein, who has made a career writing fond profiles and mostly adoring books about mostly odious college coaches, offered this howler: "Woods ... is still above answering questions from those who are paid to represent a public that has helped make him a billionaire."

That's what those guys do? It's like social work?

Please. I've covered a few golf tournaments and I can tell you that representing the public is pretty far down the scale from getting a parking pass and making sure the leader after the third round gets into the interview room in a timely manner.

In the end, there's this: Tiger Woods didn't have to do this at all.

New York Yankee infielder Alex Rodriguez has lately been redeemed from the yoke of performance-enhancing drugs and a lifestyle that included Madonna while married. How? Not by answering press conference questions but by a bravura showing in the 2009 American League Championship Series and the World Series.

Woods is a golfer. He has all the money a small country will ever need. He may or may not be sincere about trying to put his family back together. He offered up riffs on Buddhism and his foundation work that were truly cringe-worthy.

But I've heard worse apologies - or none at all - from the likes of John Edwards and Newt Gingrich and Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. John Ensign and, yes, President Bill Clinton and too many others, for cheating on the spouse.

It was a script, but it was a script that included a discussion of his belief that "normal rules did not apply to him" and that money and fame made him believe "I was entitled." When he noted that his wife, Elin, had told him that she would judge him on his actions rather than his words, I thought, well, I've never heard one of these philandering public figures say that before. And I've never heard the motivation question - what were you thinking? - asked at a press conference, either.

We need to get used to the idea that athletes are what they do. Tiger Woods knows that, and so does the professional golf tour and the network TV suits and the Senior Vice Presidents for Marketing from Gillette and Nike. And so does the press.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Obama's GOP Problem - The Myth of Rough & Tumble Chicago Politics

Political fights in Chicago are for the most part intramural affairs. They are famously raucous, play out at high volume and are sometimes genuinely ugly. But it’s Democrat on Democrat, and it always has been.

Perhaps that is part of the reason President Obama and his Chicago-based inner circle have had so much difficulty dealing with intractable Republican opposition and ideological warfare on the national stage.

Political fights in Chicago are about money, jobs, turf, access, contracts and bragging rights.

Ideological battles are left to the reform types – the “goo-goos,” in the local parlance - along with the Washington crowd and the news media. And what the Republicans are up to has never been of much interest to the Democratic power elite in Chicago.

That elite is the political world that shaped Barack Obama and his closest advisors, including White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Senior Advisor David Axelrod and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett.

Axelrod and Emanuel have logged plenty of time on the national political stage but, like Jarrett, their roots are in the last campaign of the late Mayor Harold Washington and in service to current Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has held that job since 1989.

Richie Daley’s Chicago is an insular world, a tribal network of loyalties, delivery of constituent services, off- and on-the-book enterprises and mutual self-interests where Republicans are largely viewed as potential business partners.

Still, the “city of the big shoulders” bravado has its rhetorical uses.

Coming to Washington after a historic and impressive trouncing of the McCain-Palin ticket - and of Hillary Rodham Clinton – the Obama team made it known that their approach would be an artful mix of the President’s charm and intelligence and a healthy dose of the brawling Chicago style.

In April 2008, Emanuel burnished the tough-guy legend, telling U.S. News & World Report, “Politics in Chicago is an all-season sport, and it’s not for the faint-hearted.”

“Ours is a blunt, brawling way,” Axelrod said in the same story, noting the “people are up front about their self interests.”

Early on, Republicans and assorted editorial writers voiced dismay at the tough-talking presence of Emanuel in the Oval Office, presumably playing the enforcer with Democrats and Republicans alike.

But one year later, after the misadventures of health care reform and the Massachusetts Senate debacle, it’s clear that no one in Washington in either party is afraid of these people.

To many, the Obama team seemed paralyzed by the braying chorus of GOP opposition. His attempts to garner GOP support for his economic stimulus bill, for Judge Sonia Sotomayor, for health care reform and other initiatives were meet with implacable opposition and, often, mockery.

Silence mixed with quiet assurances of behind-the-scenes negotiations by the Administration played out as conservative “teabaggers” ruled the summer of ’09, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) discussed “breaking the presidency,” and a GOP House member felt comfortable yelling “you lie” at Obama on national television.

How could this have happened?

It is possible that for all his talents Obama has been unable to throw a political punch at his national GOP opponents because he has never had to, and doesn’t know how.

For generations Chicago has dined out on a tough, partisan Democratic image. But all of the fights were internecine and most of the wounds were self-inflicted.

The late Mayor Richard J. Daley was the embodiment the hard-nosed big-city mayor, taking care of his friends and allies, brooking no back talk from Republicans nor, more importantly, from those in his own party.

Over 21 years, the “real” Mayor Daley’s fights were usually with pesky reform Democrats – they’d be called “progressives” today – and with African-Americans Democrats, who correctly felt taken for granted by the Democratic establishment in every year that didn’t have an election.

The core of Mayor Daley’s image as a brawler, of course, starts with the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the civil war that helped elect Richard M. Nixon to the presidency.

One measure of the toxicity of that summer is found in the fact that national Democrats avoided Chicago for nearly 30 years, until 1996, when Daley’s son, Richard M., lured the party convention back to town.

The other relevant narrative involves the remarkable election of an African-American mayor in the city in 1983.

Democrat Harold Washington served only four years before his death but all his epic political battles were with fellow Democrats, some of whom did masquerade as Republicans when the spirit moved them.

Democrats on the City Council lined up against Washington and precipitated “Council Wars, an all-Democratic border war built along a racially-charged split in the Council.

In short order, Americans were looking at a “Newsweek” cover that labeled Chicago “Beirut on the Lake.” The fights were below the belt but again, it was strictly Democrat on Democrat.

Ald. Edward Vrdolyak, then the Cook County Democratic Party chairman, led the “Council Wars” with vocal assistance from Ald. Edward Burke and Parks Commissioner Edmund Kelly.

No Republicans in sight.

“Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak did become a Republican in 1987 and earned a Rose Garden ceremony from President George H.W. Bush. But he never won an election outside his 10th ward and in the absence of race cards to play, his political career dissolved into legal wrangles and obscurity.

And when Harold Washington successfully ran for re-election in 1987, besting former Democratic mayor Jane Byrne in a bitter primary, his GOP opponent got four percent of the vote.

Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett played important, reputation-building roles in that election and in the subsequent rise of Richie Daley.

Jarrett became Deputy Corporation Counsel under Washington and Deputy Chief of Staff to Daley after his 1989 victory. Emanuel was senior adviser and fundraiser in that same 1989 win, a three-way race in which the GOP candidate – Vrdolyak – got four percent of the vote.

Even in Obama’s 2004 U.S. Senate victory in Illinois, signaling his rise to national prominence, Republicans played a marginal role.

The enigmatic GOP incumbent, Peter Fitzgerald, did not seek re-election to a second term. The winner of the GOP primary stepped down in the wake of a sex scandal and Marylander Alan Keyes was handed the nomination, collecting just 27% of the vote.

Since the Massachusetts Senate defeat President Obama is said to be adopting a more combative, partisan attitude, prepared to start slugging out his agenda with Republican rivals.

History suggests that posture, while timely, may not prove a comfortable fit.