“Democalypse” or “Ass-Whuppin’?”

November 6th, 2014

Jon Stewart and W. Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, respectively, were both right. The biggest debate in the wake of Tuesday’s Republican victory was what to call it: a wave, a sweep, a tsunami, whatever.

Call it what you will, it was impressive: seven, possibly eight Senate seats, (twice the post-WorldWar II average for a President’s party in the sixth year of a second term,) up to 15 House seats, a working majority in both houses for the first time sine 2,006. Divided government, here we come!

Throw in gubernatorial victories in certifiably blue states like Maryland, and there is a whole lot of shakin’ going on.

What was behind it? Republicans, shrewdly, spent tens of millions on ads demonizing President Obama and tying Democratic candidates to him. News organizations bought into the depiction of Obama’s unpopularity, repeated it again and again, and presto! His poll numbers plummeted and Democratic candidates ran for the exits.

Inexplicably, Democrats failed to fight back, failed to embrace Obama’s accomplishments in the economy and healthcare, failed to stress the things that have gone right in contrast to those that have not. There are two sides to every story but only one was featured on the airwaves.

Instead, many Democratic candidates distanced themselves from the President, floating in a neutral ether that was self-defeating on election day.

What now? In dueling news conferences yesterday, the soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the President laid out their priorities for the next two years. McConnell’s list included energy legislation, trade agreements and corporate tax reform. Obama: jobs, raising the minimum wage, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and early childhood education.

Not identical lists to be sure, but there is significant overlap and real possibilities of progress if House Speaker John Boehner can use his enhanced majority to keep his own caucus in line. Stay tuned on that one.

The President even offered to drink a little Kentucky bourbon with McConnell and lose, again, to Beohner in golf, if that is what it takes to “get stuff done.”

Looking further ahead to 2016: the only real message to presumed candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush or Rand Paul was a cautionary one. The political waters are roiled and dangerous. You’d best get an early start, probably earlier than you would choose, raise vast sums of money and pay attention to a public mood that is grumpy at best. As Tuesday showed, it is not going to be a cakewalk for anyone

Mid-term Madness

October 15th, 2014

Mid-term elections are the constitutionally-mandated pause that refreshes in our political system.

Voters get a chance in the middle of a President’s first or second term to either ratify the status-quo or change it, sometimes dramatically. The 1994 Mid-terms were a classic example of the second type, a seismic political event: Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years and Newt Gingrich gave us the famous Contract with America. It didn’t last: very little of the famous “Contract” was ever put in force, but it shook up the political establishment.

This year could be equally dramatic. With less than three weeks to go, look at what hangs in balance:
–Majority control of the Senate.
–The struggle for the heart of the Republican party, between the centrist establishment, which is more right than ever, and the Tea Party Right, which is more aggressive than ever.
–The fate of President Obama’s final two years in office and his prospects for appointing a new Attorney General and possibly, a Supreme Court Justice.
–Progress – or the lack of it – on major issues like immigration reform, health care implementation, corporate tax reform, just to name three.
–The agenda for a lame-duck session of Congress after the election and, of course, the mid-terms will set the stage for the Presidential election in 2016.

When you consider all that, it is no surprise that the PACs and Super PACs, the so-called “dark money,” have spent record amounts: more than a quarter-billion dollars so far, and still counting. That’s on the right and left combined. That does not count the amounts that the campaigns have raised and spent directly for their candidates.

Some commentators have compared this mid-term election to a Seinfeld episode, that is, about nothing. I don’t think people would be spending all that money if it was about nothing.

Look briefly at what is at stake: Republicans need to pick up six seats to gain a single-vote majority in the Senate. Focusing on the marquee races in key states, like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina, the Republicans have a better-than-even chance of picking up four or five. Six will be a stretch, but it is possible, maybe even likely at this point.

There is a broad, anti-Washington sentiment among the public today that endangers incumbents generally. Congress is down to single digits in the public opinion polls. Little has been accomplished on Capitol Hill and the public knows it.

If the Republicans control both houses, they are going to move to roll back corporate taxes, EPA regulations, defund Obamacare, etc. The President will get out his veto pen and the gridlock will continue.

On the other hand, gridlock is what we have now. We are a divided country these days, so we have divided government.

The House seems certain to stay Republican, very possibly with an increased GOP majority. Earlier in the election season, John Boehner appeared to be in trouble, but his job seems safe now.

The Tea Party has largely failed to dislodge the more centrist establishment candidates in primaries in Mississippi and other states. But in the process, they have moved the whole Republican Party to the right, so the middle isn’t the middle in the GOP anymore, it is to the right of center.

President Obama has already said he would like to pursue immigration reform and other priorities in his remaining two years in office. At this point, it looks as though he will have to fall back on executive orders and actions that don’t require Congressional approval even more than he has in the last two years.

On foreign policy, he may be pushed by a more conservative congress to harden his line against Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But he and Congress are probably closer together on these issues than on domestic topics.

Looking ahead to 2016, the outcome of the midterms will give us a temperature check on the mood of the country and could influence the choice of the Republican candidate. At the moment, Jeb Bush seems to be the choice of establishment republicans, but Marco Rubio represents a younger generation and Rand Paul is a wild card in the GOP picture.

Hillary Clinton seems to be the prohibitive favorite at this point for the Democratic nomination, assuming her health holds up. Imagine: another Bush-Clinton race. Seems odd in a country of 330 million, that we can’t come up with some other names.

Parallel Lives

May 7th, 2014


Jimmy Ellis let his fists do the talking.

As a result, Ellis was little known and barely remembered when he died Tuesday in his hometown of Louisville at age 74. He had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease.

His teenaged friend and sparring partner, Muhammad Ali, talked all the time and grew into an icon. His wit and charisma spread his reputation far beyond the shrunken world of boxing.

They both had talent as young amateurs in Louisville, where they split two bouts. They were both, at different times, heavyweight champions. But one became a legend, the other a modest, reticent man who volunteered at his church and sang in the choir.

When the poobahs of boxing stripped Ali of his heavyweight title when he refused induction into the armed forces in protest over the war in Vietnam in 1967, the World Boxing Association conceived an eight-man elimination tournament to crown a successor to Ali.

My father, the sports columnist, Red Smith, dismissed the tournament as a “series promoted by the World Boxing Association and Roone Arledge of the American Broadcasting Company to keep Howard Cosell busy.” (He rarely passed up an opportunity to needle his neighbor, Cosell.)

Nevertheless, Ellis emerged on top and successfully defended his title against the estimable Floyd Patterson in Stockholm in 1968. He lost it later to Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
Finally, in 1971, Ellis got a match against Ali after the Supreme Court remembered the First Amendment and overturned the champ’s conviction for draft evasion. Again, Ali grabbed all the headlines, promoting Ellis as one of the best fighters in the world. “To be my sparring partner, you got to be good,” he bragged, building the purse. Ali took the fight in the 12th round.

Ellis lived a quiet life after retiring from boxing in 1975. His time in the ring cost him the sight in his left eye and rattled his brains.

“All I wanted to be was a good fighter,” he was quoted as saying, “and a good person.”

He was both

Robert S. Strauss R.I.P.

March 20th, 2014

Some of the fun ebbed out of politics and public life yesterday with the death of Bob Strauss. And some of the harmony, too.

Lawyer, diplomat, negotiator, political insider, consummate fund-raiser, silver-tongued devil – all the titles and descriptions fit Bob Strauss, who died in Washington, his adopted home town, at 95 on March 19.

I knew him best as Democratic National Chairman, special trade representative and Middle East negotiator during the Carter Administration. When he was raising money, big money, for Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign, I accompanied him on a cross-country swing to report a New York Times Magazine cover story.

It was a marvel to see how effortlessly he could talk captains of industry out of their cash, always with a twinkle in his eye. “Gentlemen,” he began before a gathering of heavy hitters at the exclusive Los Angeles Club, “I am out here for cold-blooded political reasons…”

Strauss had been born in a tiny, Last Picture Show sort of town in Texas, spent his 30’s and 40’s practicing law and making millions in Dallas, his 50’s raising money for the Democratic National Committee and his early 60’s as an all-purpose Mr. Fix-it for President Carter. Later, he advised President Reagan and in his 70’s, went to Moscow as U.S. Ambassador immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union representing President George H.W. Bush.

He loved money and the luxuries it could provide. He told me that he made more money in Dallas as a lawyer and banker than he could ever spend, but he gave it a try with his fancy suits, Watergate penthouse and personal limousine and driver. Strauss caused a minor scandal during the famously cheap Carter Administration by always flying first class, in violation of government regulations. Asked at a White House briefing if he was going to continue booking himself into the front of the plane, he smiled and said: “Yes, until they invent something better.”

Bob and Helen Strauss kept a large home in Dallas and would fly there most weekends from Washington. Neither one of them liked to swim, but he built a large pool behind the house. “I like to mix a martini, go outside in the evening, turn on the lights” he explained, “and say to myself, ‘Strauss, you one rich sombitch.’”

Strauss prided himself as the ultimate conciliator, and indeed he could sweet-talk the most combative politicians into his point of view. He wasn’t always successful, of course, Carter lost his re-election bid, the Middle East is still a mess and Russia is not very cooperative these days, but he always enjoyed the game.

No regrets, he told me, “none at all.”

The Gospel According to Arik

January 12th, 2014

It was around 8 p.m. on one of the last days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War when the phone rang in my room at the Tel Aviv Hilton. The caller was an Israeli Army major who introduced himself as an aide de camp to General Ariel Sharon. Would I like to interview the General, whose armored units had crossed the Suez Canal and encircled the Egyptian Third Army on the western bank? I would. Good, said the major, I’ll pick you up at 4 a.m.

I was the Israel bureau chief for The New York Times at the time, and Sharon had a message he wanted to get across to the Israeli military command in Tel Aviv. They weren’t listening, so Sharon, whose death at 85 was announced over the weekend, was pulling a classic end run.

It was late morning when we arrived at the General’s command trailer on the bank of the Canal. I and a couple of other journalists were about to get the Gospel according to Arik, as he was universally known. But first, he played the perfect host, setting out tins of smoked oysters and grasses of brandy, and gossiping about some of the other commanders. He wore a bloodied bandage wrapped theatrically around his head, the result not of a bullet, but a tank turret that turned at the wrong moment. He was charming, animated, funny, irreverent, pleased with himself and his men, and crystal clear.

The gospel from Arik was simple: he had trapped the Egyptian Third Army, he should be allowed to finish them off. And take the town of Suez. Then his tanks could roll on to the gates of Cairo. The problem, he said, lay with the commanders back in Tel Aviv. They had told him to stand still. The government was worried about the Americans, who were negotiating a ceasefire at the United Nations. He didn’t use the word “wimps” when describing his superiors, but that was the message.

It was vintage Sharon. He didn’t win that argument, but he employed every maneuver he could think of. When the war was over, Sharon was one of the few Israeli commanders to emerge with his reputation enhanced.

Later, he accumulated political capital with the Israeli right as Agriculture Minister, building and expanding settlements in the occupied territories; and as a tough and uncompromising Defense Minister. His brutal and controversial prosecution of the 1982 war in Lebanon damaged his standing with some Israelis and enhanced it with others.

As Prime Minister in the early 2,000’s, he first shocked his right wing supporters by conceding the inevitability of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and then, famously withdrawing unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2004, destroying the settlements he had originally authorized and pulling out altogether. In 2005, he fractured the Israeli right and formed a new, more centrist party, Kadima, dedicated to further territorial withdrawal.

Was this a great reversal, a Nixon-to-China moment? Had the man who spent his entire career punishing the Palestinians, gone soft? Not really. He had simply decided, as prime ministers before and after him, that Israel could only survive as a Jewish state if it disentangled itself from the Palestinians, by negotiation if possible, unilaterally if not. He was changing tactics, not his strategic objective.

Sharon was planning more disengagement from the occupied West Bank in 2006 when a mild stroke, followed by a massive one 17 days later, silenced his voice. To save his life, the doctors put him into a deep coma from which he never emerged.

His death brings the Sharon legacy back into the forefront of the Israeli national consciousness and confronts the current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with an awkward dilemma. Bibi has publicly endorsed the concept of a Palestinian state, but done little to enable it. On the contrary, he is the master of the status-quo, with none of the decisiveness that was the Sharon brand, nor the flexibility that Yitzhak Rabin displayed at the end of his life.

Sharon’s passing brings the contrast into sharp relief.

In the Wake of Dr. Johnson

November 21st, 2013

Where They Drink Whiskey in the Morning
A cruise around the Hebrides, the Scottish islands that inspired Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

In 1773, Samuel Johnson—poet, essayist, and London’s literary light—and his biographer, James Boswell, passed through the rugged, starkly beautiful Hebridean Islands just off Scotland’s western coast. Their famous tour produced not one but two waspish journals that remain in print today.

Dr. Johnson, who was 64 and had completed his monumental Dictionary of the English Language, was a bit of a whiner, complaining occasionally of bad food and uncomfortable lodgings. No such suffering for us aboard the Glen Massan, one of two luxuriously converted 82-foot wooden-hulled, double-ended trawlers that originally fished the western coast of Ireland and now take passengers on cruises through the Hebrides.

The trawlers make up the entire fleet of Majestic Cruises, a small-ship line that is at the opposite end of the cruising universe from Carnival or Royal Caribbean. Not unlike the gulets that ply Turkey’s Turquoise Coast, the boats include six comfortable cabins, each with a private bath; a roomy main saloon for meals and lounging; outdoor decks fore and aft; and a spacious wheelhouse where all are welcome. The crew consists of a skipper, an engineer, a boatswain, and a chef.

Our floating house party consisted of six couples, all longtime sailing friends. We split the cost of 17,000 pounds ($27,300) for the week, which included superb meals and wines with dinner—not cheap, but nothing in Scotland is these days.

As Dr. Johnson noted, there is no such thing as bad weather in the Hebrides, only inadequate clothing. So we brought our fleece and foul-weather jackets, and we used them every day. We also had periods of warm sun, and in late May, beautiful sunsets that lingered past 9 p.m.

To find the history, mythology, and literary legend that are around every corner in the Hebrides, we anchored just off Erraid Island, where the shipwrecked teenage hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 18th-century adventure story Kidnapped washed ashore. We stopped at Iona, the soft, green island where an Irish scholar and monk, Saint Columba, arrived in the sixth century to Christianize the pagan Scots; the abbey he established is still extant and well worth a visit.

The chief attraction on the Isle of Staffa is Fingal’s Cave, dark and dramatic, on the southeastern face of the steep island. Water rushes in and out of the cathedral-size opening—a sound that inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose his Hebrides overture. The cave, named for a mythical Irish warrior and giant, has been an adventure destination for years, attracting notable visitors, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Sir Walter Scott, John Keats, and, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Tradition holds that good fortune comes to those who touch the back wall of the deep cave. Johnson and Boswell approached Staffa by boat, but, as Boswell noted, they “could not land upon it, the surge was so high on its rocky coast.” We had better luck. With relatively smooth water and a low tide, we could take the tender—the crew called it the “jolly boat”—inside the towering cave, motor carefully up to the back wall, and, one by one and gingerly, put a hand on it.

Climbing Staffa is a great experience. Over the centuries, wind and rain have eroded basalt formations into intricate columned and stepped perches that make perfect nesting niches for a large colony of seagulls. The view from the windblown, grassy summit, looking across the smaller islands scattered off Mull, is stunning. (A set of steep steps has been carved into the cliffs by the National Trust, which, being Scottish, invites donations to be dropped into a hole in a rock.)

Not surprisingly, the weather dictates the itinerary in the Hebrides. Dr. Johnson and Boswell had to change their route when the weather turned, and so did we. One morning the marine forecast included gale-force northwesterlies, so instead of heading north to the island of Skye, we stayed in the more protected waters around Muck and Mull.

When Dr. Johnson visited Muck 240 years ago, he took precise notes in what became his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland:

This little island, however it be named, is of considerable value … Half of this little dominion the laird [lord] retains in his own hand, and on the other half, live one hundred and sixty persons, who pay their rent by exported corn. What rent they pay, we were not told and could not decently inquire.
Today, the population is 27, plus hundreds of woolly sheep. The MacEwen family, which owns the island now, is placing advertisements asking young couples to move to Muck to help keep the island school open. We were not told and could not decently inquire about the rent, but the welcome package includes beautiful open spaces and all the peace and quiet you could ask for.

Honesty seems to be the prevailing policy on Muck. The one shop, which features handmade tea cozies, coasters, and beautiful wool rugs that sell for 97 pounds ($150) each, is open all day in the summer months, untended. Drop your money in the honor box.

We had several more days of cruising and hiking and refining our collective taste for single-malt scotch, which seems to be the principal product of the Hebrides. In Journey, first published in 1775, Dr. Johnson notes the local custom:

A man of the Hebrides … as soon as he appears in the morning, swallows a glass of whiskey. Yet they are not a drunken race, at least I never was present at much intemperance; but no man is so abstemious as to refuse the morning dram.
Perhaps that’s the magic of the Hebrides, just as Dr. Johnson said.


In the Wake of Dr. Johnson: The Atlantic, December, 2013

November 21st, 2013

Where They Drink Whiskey in the Morning
A cruise around the Hebrides, the Scottish islands that inspired Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Robert Louis Stevenson

40 Years Later: A Look Back at the Yom Kippur War

October 4th, 2013

It should not have come as a surprise to Israel.

Not after Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat threatened war repeatedly, not after Egypt and Syria assembled massive military forces on the frontiers, not after Jordan’s King Hussein flew secretly to Israel to warn Prime Minister Golda Meir that an attack was imminent.

But it did.

And when full-scale war erupted at 2 p.m. on October 6, 1973, Israel was rocked back on its heels. In the first three days, Egypt re-crossed the Suez Canal and retook portions of the western Sinai; Syria rolled across the Golan Heights and shelled Israel’s northern settlements.

Israel hurriedly mobilized, fought back, regained lost territory, pushed forward to occupy more Arab land and finally, reluctantly, accepted a ceasefire on October 25.

When the shooting stopped, Israel’s forces stood in place, 25 miles from Damascus, 63 miles from Cairo.

The war came as a surprise because of skillful deception on the Arab side, but mainly because of hubris on the Israeli side.

Israel had grown complacent since its total victory in the Six Day War in 1967, convinced that Egypt would not dare attack without more and greater Soviet help and that Syria would never attack without Egypt.

Unmistakable warning signs were ignored or discounted. As late as the morning of October 6th, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan remained skeptical that Sadat would launch an all-out assault.  Only when a well-placed spy, Ashraf Marwan, the late President Nasser’s son-in-law, told the head of Israeli intelligence that Yom Kippur was the day, was the full mobilization order given. It was just six hours before the battle began.

So, the first and most important lesson of the war is obvious: never dismiss your enemy, never assume that something that was once true will always be true.

The legacy of the 1973 war, which the Arabs call the Ramadan War, is more complex and poignantly relevant 40 years later.  Negotiations after the war returned the Sinai to Egypt and led to the Camp David accords and a peace treaty that is frosty, but still in place.  The armistice along the Golan Heights is largely intact, despite the .current chaos in Syria. Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan, which sent only a token force to the front in 1973.

But peace with the Palestinians is as elusive as ever 40 years later.  Trust is as elusive as ever, on both sides.

More than anything, the war hardened attitudes on all sides.

Israelis have grown progressively more skeptical, if not cynical, about ever achieving a lasting peace with their neighbors.  Israeli settlers have become more determined to dig in. The Israeli right challenges the notion of a two-state solution. The Israeli left struggles to hear its own voice. Two generations of Israelis have grown up with the 1973 war as an object lesson that no one but themselves can be trusted with their security.

On the Arab side, the Ramadan War restored a sense of pride. Despite ultimate setbacks on the battlefield, Sadat achieved his principal goal: breaking the deadlock with Israel and forcing negotiations for the return of the Sinai. Syria’s Hafez al Assad emerged from the war battered, but still in power.

Nonetheless, the war convinced many Egyptians of the futility of defeating Israel on the battlefield. The Egyptian officer corps has grown wealthy and powerful since, but they haven’t fought Israel in 40 years and they are not likely to in the next 40.  Their problems are at home, in the Sinai and Tahrir Square.

If the Arabs have largely, if reluctantly, accepted that Israel is here to stay, it was the ultimate outcome of the 1973 war that made that case.

The Palestinians emerged from the war as the recognized authority of any future independent, sovereign Palestinian state. That status was formally enshrined in the 1974 Rabat summit conference that followed the October War, even if a genuine Palestinian state is only marginally closer to reality 40 years later.

There were major international repercussions as well: the newly-established détente between the Soviet Union and United States survived its first major challenge, Europe felt the sting of the first organized Arab oil embargo and the United States emerged as the indispensible negotiator of any future peace agreements in the Middle East.

The 1973 war was a watershed event, and not just for the region.

Forty years is not a long time in the larger history of the Middle East. But it is long enough to pause, look back, and recognize that the October War changed some things, even many things, but not everything.

TERENCE SMITH covered the 1973 October War as the Israel Correspondent for The New York Times.

Times, The Are A-changin’

August 7th, 2013

So, how did I get the news about the news on the long weekend the newspaper business rolled over in the direction of its grave?

On my mobile phone, of course. Woke up Saturday to find that The New York Times had finally faced the harsh reality and sold the Boston Globe for $70 million, a tiny fraction of the inflated price it foolishly paid 20 years earlier.

Then, Monday afternoon, my phone chirped again with the stunning news that the Graham family was selling The Washington Post to Jeff Bezos for $250 million in cash. Moments later, The PBS NewsHour was on the phone, asking who I’d recommend to sort it out on the broadcast that night. Try Warren Buffet, I said, he’s buying newspapers these days. Maybe he understands something the rest of us don’t.

True, on Tuesday I turned to the print editions of The Times and The Post to get the full story. Both provided admirable and comprehensive coverage and, as usual, David Carr had the best commentary in the NYT. But the point here is simple: the news about the news business came to me on my phone. Digitally. Not in a newspaper. Everybody had it: Google, Yahoo and, of course, the newspaper websites.

Newspapers don’t deliver the news anymore. Certainly not in print. At least, not to most of us, even those of us with the most tenuous connection to the digital world. We know the headlines before we can pick up the paper. We have the basic facts. Who died, how many and where. Who’s selling, who’s buying.

What newspapers can do is give us the background, put a breaking news development in context, compare the latest news with what has gone before, maybe even tell us what it all means. That’s a crucial role. I hope it isn’t sacrificed completely in the economic crisis that is affecting all newspapers to a greater or lesser degree.

Warren Buffet sees a role for newspapers, in print and in digital form. He is buying them, frequently at fire-sale prices, in the Midwest and Southeast. His formula: small or medium-sized papers that have a close connection to their community. Makes sense to me. A friend of mine, Anthony Prisendorf, publishes The Berkshire Record, a thriving weekly in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His formula: local news and high school sports. Business is so good he is opening a second weekly in the area.

But what about the papers across the country, large and small, that are losing circulation and ad revenue? Those that don’t have a Warren Buffet or Jeff Bezos or John Henry to write a check and salvage them? Will they survive? Will they still appear on newsprint in five, ten or 15 years? Does it matter?

Yes, it does. What matters is not so much whether the product comes to you on your front doorstep in the morning or whether it flashes on your phone or tablet. My own, personal preference is still newsprint. I like to hold it in my hand, roam through the pages, find stories I might not otherwise click on to read, see which stories the editors thought were most important.

But even I have become more and more comfortable reading on an iPad, getting the headlines on my iPhone, getting some commentary on Twitter or Facebook. I can adjust, dinosaur that I am. I swear I can.

What matters is not the form of delivery, but the journalism.
If the Billionaires can save newspapers by buying them and nudging them in the digital direction, more power to them. If they can write the checks that will send reporters to Damascus, Detroit and into the halls of Congress and the state legislatures, bless ‘em. Somebody has to keep an eye on the shop.

And, if I have to read the news on a finger-smudged screen, so be it.

Terence Smith is a journalist who has worked for The New York Times, CBS News and PBS. His website is terencefsmith.com

Red Smith Made It Look Easy

May 6th, 2013

Columbia Journalism Review

“Give us this day our daily plinth,” my father, Red Smith, and his pal, Joe Palmer, the racing columnist, would pray, one with a scotch and soda in hand, the other bourbon and branch water, as they convened in Palmer’s book-lined study at the end of a day. It was their private joke—a plinth is the base of a column—but the prayer was fervent. My father’s search for his plinth was unending.

Walter Wellesley (Red) Smith was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin on September 25, 1905. He decided early on that he wanted to go to Notre Dame and become a newspaperman, just the way an older kid he admired had done, so he did. Simple as that. New York was always his goal, but his route was roundabout: The Milwaukee Sentinel, The St. Louis Star, The Philadelphia Record, and, finally, the big time: the New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Along the way, he must have written thousands of sports columns, becoming arguably the best in the business, right up until his death in 1982. Now a new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, is being published by Library of America.

In my memory, Pop was always writing a column, in a press box at the ballpark or racetrack, in his basement office at home, in a plane or train, or in the family car on summer vacation trips to Wisconsin. He would balance his Olivetti portable on his knees in the passenger seat, typing as my mother drove, shushing my sister, Kit, and me in the back seat. Once, when we moved into our house in Connecticut, he had the movers set up a table and chair beneath a tree and wrote a column there. It was moving day, but his deadline was looming, as always.

The columns, including those so ably collected in American Pastimes, were his métier, although he would have sneered at that word. The form suited him. He was good at capturing an event or a thought or a story in 800 words or so, often with an elegant phrase or a snatch of dialogue or the perfect anecdote. He demurred repeatedly when people urged him to write a full-length book about sports or anything else. “I’d rather go to the dentist,” he’d say.

Later in life, the suggestion of a biography or, worse yet, an autobiography, was dismissed out of hand. “To be written about is to be written off,” he told me more than once. That’s not true, of course, but it revealed his lifelong anxiety about being passed over or forgotten.

Even when he had become the most widely read sports columnist in the country and collected his share of awards, he worried aloud, at least to me, about whether his contract would be renewed, whether the paper would want someone else, someone younger and fresher, to take his place. He always described himself as “a working stiff.” That was one reason he always took the side of baseball players in their salary and contract disputes with owners. He saw himself as a performer, never an owner.

The column was his contract with life. As long as he was writing it, he felt he was in the center of things, that he still mattered. That’s why he kept at it until the week he died. As long as he was writing, he was part of the world he had lived and loved. Newspapermen were not just his colleagues, they were the best of his friends, the people he chose to spend time with, on and off the beat.

The annual sports calendar provided his material and often established our family’s rituals: spring training in Florida, the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, then the Preakness in Baltimore, the Belmont in New York, Saratoga in August, baseball through the summer, the World Series and college football in the fall, heavyweight championship fights, and, every four years, the Olympic Games. It made for an intoxicating mix.

Curiously, for all the pleasure he took in it, he was an accidental sportswriter. As he told the story, he was a junior man on the news copy desk at The St. Louis Star, just a few years into his career, making about $40 a week, when the editor, the redoubtable Frank Taylor, discovered that half his six-man sports staff was on the take from a local fight promoter and fired them. Looking around for a replacement, he called my father over and supposedly the following conversation ensued:

TAYLOR: Do you know anything about sports, Smith?
SMITH: Just what the average fan knows, sir.
TAYLOR: They tell me you’re very good on football.
SMITH: Well, if you say so.
TAYLOR: Are you honest?
SMITH: I hope so, sir.
TAYLOR: What if a fight promoter offered you $10, would you take it?
SMITH (long pause): $10 is a lot of money, sir.
TAYLOR: Report to the sports editor Monday.

Once he got into it, he relished writing sports and thought it was as good a vehicle as any to shed some light on the human condition. “I never felt any prodding need to solve the problems of the world,” he said in an interview years later. “I feel that keeping the public informed in any area is a perfectly worthwhile way to spend your life. Sports constitute a valid part of our culture, our civilization, and keeping the public informed, and, if possible, a little entertained about sports is not an entirely useless thing.”
But during World War II, when he was the father of two and 4-F because of his eyesight and covering “games children play” for The Philadelphia Record while others were at the front, he admitted to a “desperate feeling of being useless.”

“I was traveling with the last-place Philadelphia Athletics,” he recalled, “and more than once, I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” He comforted himself with the published report that FDR thought sports were important for morale. Readers, he said, could read the war news first and then turn to sports to get updated on what he described as “matters of major inconsequence.”

Pop roamed off the sports beat occasionally, covering the national political conventions in 1956 and 1968, but when invited to expand his column to politics and world affairs, as James “Scotty” Reston and others had done before him, he declined. Same answer when he was asked to become the sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. No, he said, the column was his thing, the one thing he did best. He’d stick with it. I think he would have been a good editor, maybe even exceptionally good, but he was not drawn to management and titles never interested him.

He defined himself as a newspaperman, not a sportswriter or columnist. “I’d like to be remembered as a good reporter,” he said in more than one interview, and he meant the much-advertised romance of journalism was real to him, as real in his seventies as it was when he left Green Bay, Wisconsin, for his string of newspaper jobs. Until he reached The New York Times, already at normal retirement age, he had always worked for the second newspaper in a city. “I killed ‘em all,” he’d say with a smile.

He was often described as modest and unassuming, and he did adopt an aw-shucks diffidence in the face of prizes and praise. It wasn’t exactly an act; he thought he was lucky to have had the chance to do all that he did. But he worked devilishly hard, took his writing, if not himself, seriously, constantly sought to be better, and bathed in the admiration he received, especially from colleagues. As Daniel Okrent notes in the introduction to American Pastimes, he was stung when Arthur Daley won the Pulitzer before he did, and he often dismissed the prize as a sop given by the journalistic old-boy network to its favorites on the establishment papers.

Until he won his own Pulitzer, that is, on May 3, 1976, at age seventy.

I was the New York Times correspondent in Israel at the time. When I reached him on the phone in the midst of a newsroom celebration, champagne corks popping in the background, I dead-panned: “You’ll refuse it, of course.” He lowered his voice and growled into the mouthpiece: “Not on your life!” We both laughed our heads off. I was enormously pleased, and so was he.

Pop enjoyed great good health for all but the last few of his seventy-six years. Again, he was lucky, given all the late nights, booze, and decades of unfiltered Camels. His idea of a good time was to sit late at Toots Shor’s saloon, trading stories with the parade of writers, ballplayers, fighters, mobsters, politicians, and hacks that would come by his table during the course of a night. He was successful financially, but his real definition of economic well-being was to have enough money to be able to grab the check for the table at Shor’s on occasion and not break the bank in the process.

He loved his life, had two kids and two good marriages, and lived long enough to know his six grandchildren and two of his great-grandchildren and to take my son, Chris, fishing for the first time in his life. They laughed together and Chris caught a fish. That sunny day on Martha’s Vineyard became grist for a column, of course, his plinth for the day.

When his health was failing near the end, he struggled to overcome the congestive heart failure and kidney disease that would take his life. He wanted to get better, he said; the Super Bowl was coming up and he wanted to cover it, to write another column, a good column, and then another after that, and make that one better. Spring training was not that far away.

But if he didn’t get better, he told me, he had no complaints.

“I’ve had a great run,” he said.

And he did.