Rothman At-Large

The Life and Death of the Chain-Smoking Editor

September 30, 2012

How could I have written a newspaper novel like The Solomon Scandals without a chain-smoking editor?

Kamikaze levels of tobacco and booze use helped certify newsroom denizens as manly risk-takers several decades ago, the time period of Scandals. Women were part of the scene by the 1970s, but they tended not to partake with such joyous abandon. The late Molly Ivins, whose columns inspired the Red Hot Patriot play now at Arena Stage, stood out as a proud colossus among the exceptions.

The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee was, of course, among the most famous smokers and risk-takers. In Yours in Truth, Jeff Himmelman writes of Bradlee “striding through the newsroom, dragging on a cigarette and scaring the shit out of the young reporters (and some of the old ones).” But the Post’s Smoker in Chief sensibly quit The Weed in 1974.

Bradlee the nonsmoker—I’ll assume he hasn’t relapsed—survives at 91 with a whole different side we didn’t see during Watergate. Newsroom cigars and cigarette don’t for the most part, either among editors or reporters.

Good riddance.

I love anti-smoking laws and am rooting, too, for anti-junk-food legislation. Call me a “health fascist,” Molly—I don’t care. Our side has a built-in advantage, of course. We generally outlive y’all.

Cigars and cigarettes were bad for me back in my newspaper days even if my exposure was just second-hand and even if I share my last name with the unrelated tobacco dynasty. One heart attack and quad bypass later, they would be worse now. But oh the era when news factories at times seemed to come with as much smoke as steel mills! At the Lorain (Ohio) Journal, my old daily in a lakeside steel-and-automobile town west of Cleveland, the top editor smoked cigars and even looked like Pierre Salinger, the famous cigar aficionado and journalist who was the press secretary to yet another cigar man, JFK.

Irving “Leibo” Leibowitz died in 1979 of cancer (tobacco-related to some extent?). I miss him just as much as I miss the clickety-clack of Underwoods and the clattering of wire service machines regardless of my love of iPads, Kindles and other crushers of antique technology. More, in fact. Had Ben Bradlee known what was happening in Lorain, he would have relished the way Leibo was playing up the early Watergate stories before the topic was safely in the mainstream. So goes my recollection, at least, of the Journal’s coverage.

If true, that would have been yet another manifestation of the guts of so many within the old fraternity of chain-smoking editors—well, the better ones like Leibo and Bradlee.

The Journal’s Watergate-related items weren’t flawless; at least one editorial cut Tricky far too much slack. But I still remember us as many miles ahead of the pack thanks to Leibo, with ample help from one of our wire guys, a bright young Oberlin grad and nonsmoker named Rich Petrick.

Not long ago, Florence York Ellis, a fellow Journal alum, shared Leibo’s musings on the Leibowitz-Salinger resemblance. Click on the image for a more detailed look at the clip from the Journal, now known as The Morning Journal. Flo smoked for pleasure, not show, and finally quit her pack-a-day indulgence. No puffs since '75. She can recall Leibo taking her and another reporter, Michele Killean Rice, out to lunch at the local Brown Derby to celebrate an anniversary of the two women's health-related withdrawal from tobacco.

But what's the word from the real authority on this topic, at the Journal, anyway --Tom Skoch, the editor, today's Leibo equivalent? "The Morning Journal has been a mandatory smoke-free building for several years. If Leibo were still here, I'm guessing he would probably just go around with an unlit cigar in his mouth."


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Voter Drives at Shopping Centers vs. Billionaire-bought ‘Civic Life’

August 26, 2012

At a Virginia shopping center, Obama voter-registration volunteers had to set  up their tent at a somewhat out-of-the-way location on the sidewalk.

The reason? Some merchants saw this civic activism as a risk to their businesses. Others across the country, including some major shopping center owners, would undoubtedly feel the same. I’ll withhold the name of the Virginia center, off State Route 236, lest the business people kick the Obama activists into the street.

Granted, one of the volunteers earlier had been too aggressive in accosting prospects—the reason the Obama people were no longer near the entrance of a supermarket. But those issues can be dealt with easily enough through training.

I myself was among the Obama volunteers, and I quickly absorbed the basics. No chasing after people—stay within a short distance of the tent. Watch body language for signs of receptiveness. Forget about shoppers wearing headphones or extremely engrossed on conversation with friends in person. Skip those chatting on cellphones. Never, never approach someone in the uniform of a postal or retail worker since they very likely are punching a clock. Just go by commonsense.

So why I am so worked up about this issue, even though, yes, there are a bunch of ways to register in states like Virginia, such as at the Department of Motor Vehicles?

Well, I think of the comments of a publishing consultant on the decline of physical bookstores—which can hurt even e-books, not just the traditional variety. For people to pay the most attention, he says, you need those books on the shelves even if people end up buying at Amazon. That’s how it is with voting drives, which should be in the thick of things.

Alas, all too often these days, business priorities have triumphed over civic ones. Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic U.S. senatorial candidate from Massachusetts, perceptively countered with: “You didn’t build it.” President Obama used similar language. They weren’t literal when speaking about businesses’ reliance on tax-funded services; the “You didn’t build it” was just a reminder that companies rely on public infrastructures of various kinds, from roads to schools.

Just what could be more basic to America’s political infrastructure than the ability to conduct registration drives, especially  in shopping centers, so often serving as public squares? Businesses will benefit in the end. The more people participate in civic life, the cleaner the government at all levels—which I daresay is good for honest business people.

In the end, this is a freedom of speech issue, encompassing many causes, not just voter registration, and laudably, California and three other states have explicitly opened up shopping centers to activists within bounds. Through laws or court rulings, Virginia and the rest need to do the same for voter drives and other activism. I doubt that the present crop of ultra-conservative officials in my native state would oblige, but free speech on commercial property should be grist for future legislation or at least help justify the appointments of judges friendly to civil liberties. Compromises could be built into the possible laws or rulings, so that, for example, measures could be taken against activists who blocked entrances or were otherwise needlessly disruptive to trade. For more about the issue of free speech, on and off commercial property—an issue affecting people of all ideologies, not just progressive Obama types—see an ACLU Web page.

This is the era of loathsome, billionaire-sponsored TV commercials that not only lie but also in effect promote a grotesquely synthetic civic life. It’s time for society to protect the real thing against both the fat cats and the limit-the-vote politicians whose legislation and judicial appointments so often pander to rich campaign donors.

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Q&A with The Atlantic's James Fallows, Author of 'China Airborne'

July 26, 2012

James Fallows's new book is China Airborne. It delves into Chinese life and politics, the national character and the related aspirations--with the aviation industry exemplifying the massive transformations now happening.

Q. What neighborhood in Beijing would be closest to Georgetown in various ways, such as political influence and the quality of the cuisine? Or is such a comparison impossible to make?

A. You could make the comparison much more easily with Shanghai than with Beijing—and in Shanghai, you’d say it was the "French Concession." This is the area featured in movies like “Empire of the Sun,” where European and American colonialists lived elegant lives in pre-World War II, pre-Communist China, while Chinese Shanghai was largely a scene of misery. Their old European-style mansions, clubs, and apartment buildings keep getting knocked down, but enough of them remain to give Shanghai a unique feel in China.

Beijing’s city planners are busily knocking down the historic courtyard houses known as “hutongs” as quickly as possible. The city is being rebuilt overnight on a model that combines the scale and excess of Moscow, Houston, and LA.

Q. You grew up in California. What are the similarities and differences between the old California optimism and the Chinese economic variety—the can-do-ism about which you write in China Airborne?

A. An interesting comparison, which I hadn’t thought of in just that way. The main similarity would be the sense that overall, conditions in the country had gotten a lot better over the past generation-plus. In my Beach Boy-era California childhood, it was my parents’ generation who talked about the Depression and going off to war. We were the kids being educated in the new schools, as our parents moved to new houses, and we played in new parks and drove on new roads. That’s pretty much the sense in China now—people have only to look back a few decades to see a real nightmare period for the country.

There’s a similar wacky/plucky optimism among many Chinese entrepreneurs now, including the ones I describe in my book. But consistent with the principle that everything happens faster in China, they may also be in danger of this whole mood souring—that’s what all the scandal revelations, plus inflation, plus a polarized economy can do.

Q. Washington’s tax policies and other actions have squeezed the middle class and the poor in recent decades. Long term, beyond the current tax debates, what are the chances of a reversal of this legalized kleptocracy, and what will it take for this to happen—both politically and in other ways?

A. If I had a good answer to that question, then I would indeed be the political-economic wise man that you and I have searched for over the decades in American public life.

My main source of solace is that we have been in versions of this same predicament several times before. As you well know, the history of the 19th century Gilded Age is surprisingly similar to the patterns and strains we are enduring in the early 21st century Gilded Age. And of course it led, through turmoil, to both the Populist and the Progressive eras, which righted some of the balance. As I wrote someplace, maybe even in this book, America is always getting itself into terrible trouble, and at the last possible moment finding ways to escape. I hope we are about to see another installment of the recovery part of that cycle.

The full Q&A, covering more topics, is at Solomon Scandals.

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