Tag Archives: Bill Clinton

RIP, Nelson Mandela

I have had the honor to learn from Nelson Mandela in innumerable ways during the past 28 years.

In the mid-80s, I learned about the personal sacrifices he made to fight for the liberation of his people and the country. During this time I first became involved in taking the often awkward steps from considering injustice to doing something about it after being exposed to the brutality of apartheid during the state of emergency. Grappling with guilt at my various levels of privilege in American society, I somehow felt soothed by what I saw as the unalloyed moral clarity of black South Africans fighting against the evil white oppressive government. I hungered to go there and know that land.

In 1990, shortly after his release from Victor Verster prison, I took part of the afternoon off from selling Green Monster and Bleacher Creature t-shirts at Fenway Park to head down to the Esplanade with my best friend Vinnie D’Angelo. Hearing the unbowed Mandela thank, in his firm formal and heavily accented tones, “the peo-ple of Mass-a-shoe-setts” for their role in the anti-apartheid movement helped me understand humanity’s interconnectedness and the ceaseless struggle for justice that he continued to wage until his final breath.

In 1991, I learned about his fierce determination as he strode up to the front of the hall where negotiations were being held between Mandela’s African National Congress and F.W. deKlerk’s ruling National Party and answered the leader’s attack against the ANC.

“Even the head of an illegitimate, discredited, minority regime as his, has certain moral
standards to uphold,” Mandela said in icy tones. “He has no excuse, because he is a representative of a discredited regime, not to uphold moral standards.

“And he has abused his position because he hoped that I would not reply. He was completely mistaken. I am replying now,” Mandela continued.

In 1994, I wept as I watched 89-year-old women being carried into voting booths they had waited a lifetime to enter. Dressed in a blue three-piece suit, Mandela demonstrated the importance of a leder’s words in articulating the hopes and standards of a wounded country emerging from its darkest time when he delivered his often-quoted, if not fully realized, injunction that, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

In 1995, I realized a decade-long dream by living in Alan Paton’s Beloved Country. I taught and coached at the Uthongathi School, one of the nation’s first private multi-racial educational institutions.

It was one of the most important years of my life, and learning from Madiba was at the core.

My Fulbright exchange partner Vukani Cele got to meet then-President Bill Clinton.

I didn’t have the equivalent experience, but my education from Mandela continued nevertheless.

I had the privilege to witness the nation opening its wounds and delve into seemingly unspeakable public pain during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was a central element of Mandela’s effort to help move the nation forward, and, later, a model for the world.

This would not have been possible had Mandela not been able to master himself and his anger, to study the language of the Afrikaaners who imprisoned him for close to 30 years so that he could understand them, and to reach out not just to their leaders, but to their heart in his embrace of the Springboks, the rugby team who won an improbable victory over New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks just months before I arrived in August 1995.

I saw Mandela in person at a soccer tournament, and could scarcely believe the childlike joy he elicited in the tens of thousands of people who practically burst with joy at the sight of their leader driving around and waving to them.

I watched him dazzle English royalty during a fundraising trip with his dancing while wearing one of his many famous multi-colored shirts, his fists moving from side to side as he swayed to the music.

I also learned about his sense of humor, not the least of which was his ability to laugh at himself.

That quality was on full display in 1998, when he traveled to Harvard to become the first African to receive an honorary degree from the country’s oldest, most prestigious university.

He concluded his remarks by telling the audience who had gathered in the Yard about a cheeky 5-year-old girl who had called him a stupid old man.

If you agree with her, I would ask you to be a bit more diplomatic than this young lady, he said with a smile.

Mandela continued to teach in how he retired from politics, leaving the presidency after one term when he could have easily won a second term because he wanted to strengthen the nation’s fledgling democracy.

He showed and lived the importance of speaking about even most taboo topics, talking about AIDS after he buried his son Makgatho, who had died of the disease.

He published a book of watercolors, supported dozens of charities and served on the global Council of Elders.

He even taught in his death.

Last December, Dunreith and I were with dear friend Ntuthuko Bhengu, whom I met during the year Vukani was working in Newton, when Madiba was going through yet another death scare.

Each time prepares us for the inevitable, Ntuthuko told me.

Today, mercifully, it came.

And, with it, the beginning of the sleep in the permanent peace he has so richly earned.

Of course, Mandela was not perfect.

No one is.

But, perhaps more than anyone during my close to half-century of life, he lived a near-perfect blend of service, integrity, leadership and humanity.

The world, and we, are better because of him.

Siyabonga kakulu, Madiba.

Usi Letela Uxolo.


On James Carroll, Roger Federer, Bill Clinton and the moving finger of moral maturity

Roger Federer's words in defeat reminded me of James Carroll and Bill Clinton.

When I reflect on different experiences I have had, I find myself savoring moments and relationships.

While at Facing History and Ourselves, for example, I treasured the opportunity to drive Holocaust survivors like Rena Finder, one of the youngest Jews on Schindler’s List, to classrooms.  In the car, we shared about our families and our lives, forging a connection that endures until today.

Also while at Facing History, I got to hear James Carroll, a prolific author, prophetic voice and hero of my father, speak at the opening of the Choosing To Participate exhibit at the Boston Public Library in the fall of 1998.

“We are gathered under a cloud of witnesses,” Carroll said, referring to Gay Block and Malka Drucker’s collection of portraits and text by Holocaust rescuers that hung in a room above where he was speaking.   He cited Fritz Heine, a German who, Carroll said, “betrayed his country after it betrayed him.”

Later in his address, Carroll asserted that the definition of moral maturity is recognizing the relationship between choice and consequence-an idea he developed and put in writing in Constantine’s Sword, his magisterial examination of the history of antisemitism in the Catholic Church.

At the end of that book, in a chapter titled “Shema,” Carroll wrote:

“Moral maturity lies in the ability to see links between events-how choices lead to consequences, which lead to new choices, which set up even more fateful consequences.

Carroll’s words came to mind yesterday when I watched the end of Novak Djokovic’s stunning five-set victory over Roger Federer in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

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Paul Starr’s book about the social transformation of American medicine shines light on today’s debate.


Barack Obama is not the first president to shoot for national health insurance, as Paul Starr notes in his Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine

Barack Obama is not the first president to shoot for national health insurance, as Paul Starr notes in his Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine



An embattled Democratic president stakes much of his political capital in an effort to nationalize health insurance early in his tenure.  Opponents define the plan as socialized medicine-a charge he strongly denies, but in the process loses control of the political debate.

Sound familiar? 

If you said Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, you would be right.

But Paul Starr writes about the same dynamics occurring with former haberdasher Harry S. Truman in his Pulitzer prize-winning history,  The Social Transformation of American Medicine: The rise of a sovereign profession and the making of a vast industry. 

Truman’s ultimately failed effort at national health insurance is but a small part of this tome, which covers the period from 1760 to the early 1980s, when the book was published. 

Starr makes several major points in the book.   The first is one that social historians of medicine generally accept as a premise: that medical developments must not be considered on their own, but rather within the social, cultural and political contexts in which they occur. 

Beyond that, though, Starr traces the rise of the doctrine of professionalism within medicine, and how that doctrine has served to inure it to all manner of control to which other industries have been subject. 

Starr opens the book with a description of the social origins of professional sovereignty.  Drawing on sociological heavyweights, he breaks down the various elements that have contributed to the ethos of professionalism and the accompanying self-determination, regulation and independence from governmental intrusion that medicine as a whole has sought during the past 200 years.

From there he marches relatively directly through the 220 years beginning in 1760, noting historical moments like the transportation revolution, the rise of the concept of public health or the belief in the possibility of positive social reform during the Progressive Era that impacted medicine’s place in society during that time and the institutional configurations people in the field established. 

People familiar with the late 19th century will not be surprised to learn that this and the following decades was a period toward consolidated medical control over the profession, a retrenchment on commitments to public health and a narrowing definition of who should practice and receive medical care.  

In chapters that shed ominous light on the most recent effort to enact major health care reform, Starr discusses each of the major efforts to attain national health insurance-a version of which was implemented in many Western European nations in the late 1800s, he points out-and why each in their own way ultimately did not come to fruition.   People who think of Richard Nixon solely for the Watergate break-in and fallout or his foreign policy efforts will be surprised to see that a serious run was made at the goal during his tenure, and not completely with his opposition.  

Starr ends the book by talking about the rise of the corporation in the early 80s, and makes it clear that he believes that this trend could have serious consequences for the level of autonomy to which doctors are accustomed to working as well as for the type of care they provide their patients.

In the book’s penultimate paragraph, Starr writes, “Instead of public financing for prepaid plans that might be managed by the subscribers’ chosen representatives, there will be corporate financing for private plans controlled by conglomerates whose interests will be determined by the rate of return on investments.  That is the future toward which American medicine now seems to be headed.” 

Many of those corporations that he predicted would emerge have come into existence, and are, along with drug companies and politicians on both sides of the aisle, leading the opposition to Obama’s proposal.  

In his weekly address today Obama linked somewhat promising job numbers and the state of the economy more generally to the need for meaningful health care reform.  

His ability to translate what has become a major test of his young presidency into meaningful policy will have implications both for the rest of his term and for Americans for generations to come.  Reading Starr’s valuable work gives a better understanding of the reciprocal relationship between society and medicine in our country as well as the stiffness of the historical obstacles he is trying to surmount.

Dave Cullen on the Columbine Shootings.


Dave Cullen has written the most comprehensive account of the Columbine shootings.

Dave Cullen has written the most comprehensive account of the Columbine shootings.

Ten years later, images from the Columbine shootings remain seared in our collective memory.

The bloodied library floor.

The crying high school students holding each other in utter shock.

President Clinton yet again denouncing the senseless violence of another school shooting-this one, the most violent and bloody in American history.

Reporter Dave Cullen was there from the beginning.

He has followed the story with remarkable stamina, persistence, insight and commitment to the truth during the ensuing decade.  His book, Columbine, published around the shootings’ tenth anniversary, provides the most comprehensive and authoritative look available at killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, at the build up to the shootings and their ruinous aftermath, and at the elusive question of why.

Just to be transparent, Cullen and I are both Dart Center Ochberg Fellows. Named for Dr. Frank Ochberg, whose research led to the coining of the phrase “Stockholm syndrome,” and who is a strong presence in the book, the fellowships provide a space to help journalists who cover trauma and violence deal successfully with those issues in their stories and with themselves.  Cullen and I are also both serving as judges in a journalism competition.

Columbine is drenched in irony from the opening pages, which start not with the shootings, but the weekend before, when Principal Frank DeAngelis is urging the students to come back safely after the prom the following weekend.

Cullen swings the storytelling pendulum back and forth throughout the work, which has two major narrative strands. The first tells about the boys’ childhoods, histories, personalities and eventual decision to carry out their gruesome plan, which also included undetonated pipe bombs; the second details the shootings’ and their multifold and devastating consequences.

Cullen had a difficult task as a writer.

On the one hand, he was writing about an event that was covered, as he notes, less than half an hour after the shootings started.  Columbine has been the subject of endless analysis, speculation, books, movies and even legislation.   This made it  extremely difficult to bring new information into the conversation about the shootings.

At the same time, Cullen also confronted a number of myths that sprang up quickly about the shootings. These ranged from the idea that the killers were seeking revenge against jocks who bullied them mercilessly to the assertion that one of the victims, Cassie Bernall, told one of the boys she believed in God in the instant before she was killed.

To his credit, Cullen pulls off both masterfully.  In part, this is because he sifted through tens of thousands of documents, among them files from law enforcement and the killers’ diaries.  He also immersed himself in several branches of psychology and conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews with people affected by the shootings.

One of his major findings: far from being bullied and cowed victims members of the Trenchcoat Mafia who killed in a spontaneous moment, Eric Harris was a psychopath, while Klebold was his depressive, suicidal follower. The pair wrote and talked about their plans, which were hatched more than a year in advance of the actual event.  Their goals were far larger than the biggest school shooting in history; they wanted to blow up the entire building, and tried repeatedly to do so while shooting their fellow students.

Beyond insight into the killers’ psychological makeup, Cullen does a meticulous job of showing the failings of adults along the way to recognize and take corrective action to thwart Harris and Klebold’s deadly plan as well as, in the case of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office, an attempt to cover up their misdeeds.

In some ways, these are the most painful sections of the book to read.

The mother of a boy who was threatened by Harris repeatedly contacted law enforcement to share her concerns.  An English teacher, after reading a particularly disturbing essay by Klebold, spoke with the boy, called his parents and notified his guidance counselor.

Nothing was done.

Cullen blends dispassion and compassion in his description of Tom and Sue Klebold, Dylan’s parents, who have been far more publicly forthcoming than the Harrises, who have never agreed to be interviewed.  Cullen brings these same qualities to characters like Patrick Ireland, who was shot, but not killed, during the rampage; DeAngelis, who loses his marriage and much of the faculty’s backing, and the pastor whose spiritual support of the Klebolds contributed heavily to his leaving his position a year later.

Cullen’s attention to detail is another praiseworthy aspect of the book.

Chilling and poignant details abound on Columbine’s pages.

These include the recounting of the final words Sue Klebold exchanged with her son – he had enjoyed the steak he had at Outback Steakhouse, Harris’ favorite restaurant – to the last of the Basement Tapes the boys recorded before heading off on their fateful mission.  The book also contains a minute-by-minute re-creation of the shootings, including their suicides; a description of the achingly slow rehabilitation process Ireland goes through, and Sue Klebold’s conclusion that Dylan’s actions were contrary to how she and her husband had raised him.

These details are testament to Cullen’s intimate knowledge of his material and his considerable skill as a writer.

Columbine is not without minor imperfections.

While generally and cumulatively effective, the alternating narrative threads can be a bit jarring at the beginning as one is getting oriented to the work.  Cullen’s background as a daily reporter shows through in patches of jaunty prose that do not work quite as well as others.

And the reader, at the end of the book, is left still not fully understanding why the boys took their murderous actions.

The last point is not a criticism of Cullen’s work, but rather a reminder that understanding pure evil – whether in the form of the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, or South Africa’s apartheid regime – remains elusive.  That Cullen, after a decade of hard-spent work, is not able to arrive at a compelling and convincing answer is not an indictment of his work, but a reminder of how difficult that quest can be.

Cullen ends the book with the unveiling of the memorial close to eight years after the shootings and the release of hundreds of doves into the air.  The coming to order in the air of these birds traditionally associated with peace is a reminder that, after all, life does go on, and that a moment of tragedy, as Patrick Ireland says at one point in the book, does not define an individual, a community, or a nation’s entire life.

That Harris and Klebold were able to carry out their horrific plans should continue to challenge us to seek to understand, to meet our children’s needs and to prevent further similar atrocities.

The fruit of 10 years of Cullen’s life, Columbine is an authoritative account and resource to help us do that necessary work.

Matt Bai Breaks Down the Democrats’ Rebuilding


Matt Bai chronicles the Democrats' return to political dominance in The Argument.

Matt Bai chronicles the Democrats’ return to political dominance in The Argument.

Life is good for the Democratic Party these days.

In firm control of all three branches of government for the first time in more than a generation, the Democrats have seen their ranks swell with the recent defection of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Specter’s switch gave the Democrats a near filibuster-proof majority of 59 senators – something that may come in handy during the upcoming nomination process of Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Barack Obama recently put forward to be the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice and the first Latina in the nation’s history to serve on the court.

The Democrats have had a string of successes since Obama’s inauguration in January, overseeing the passage of a $787 billion stimulus plan, starting to implement a withdrawal time line and process for the war in Iraq and moving both to close Guantanamo prison camp and repudiating the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies that many described as torture.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are struggling.  Mightily.

Each week seems to bring new headlines that suggest a party in disarray,  with an unclear voice, hierarchy or direction.  One week it’s Rush Limbaugh saying that Colin Powell is not actually a Republican. Another it’s Meghan McCain, daughter of the defeated presidential candidate, slamming conservative pundit Ann Coulter.

In this climate, it can be easy to forget that the political scene was completely reversed less than five years ago.

After Bush soundly defeated John Kerry in the November 2004 presidential election, the Democrats seemed to some to be poised on the brink of irrelevance, or, even worse, obscurity.  Bush’s victory,  which gave him the opportunity to later appoint two Supreme Court justices, was the seventh by a Republican in the previous 10 presidential contests.  Continued majorities in both the House and Senate accompanied his triumph.  

New York Times Magazine political reporter Matt Bai remembers this dry period in the Democrats’ history.

He traces the party’s path back from the political netherlands to reclaiming the House, the Senate and the majority of governorships, in The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.

The road to political redemption was a twisted one, with many engaging characters and twists along the way.

Bai begins the book with Kerry’s crushing, and apparently surprising, defeat in 2004. (I had had a strong feeling about the race’s outcome from the point that he did not respond forcefully to the Swift Boat attacks in August and thus I did not share the surprise of some of the sources Bai interviewed.  If anything, Kerry’s lack of response reminded me strongly of Michael Dukakis‘ failure to counter the Lee Atwater-conceived Willie Horton ads that had such a devastating effect on his candidacy.)

From the loss, Bai moves to explore the different level of change in party operation and vision that Democratic strategists and members felt were necessary.  Democracy Alliance founder Rob Steinn is shown as playing a key role in raising party awareness about the degree of organization the Republicans had fostered, thereby helping people understand what Democrats confronted. 

Bai spends a lot of time in the book talking about the ascending role of technology – a development that led to the surprisingly successful candidacy of Howard Dean and his later selection as party chairman, the emerging power of organizations like Eli Pariser’s MoveOn.org and the potency of bloggers like Markos Zuniga, creator of the wildly popular DailyKos.

Technology also is a lense through which one sees some of the major conflicts between, on the one hand, the 1990s Clinton-era establishment, which modernized and moved the party toward the political center and fashioned two presidential victories by traditional methods of fundraising and politicking, and, on the other hand, the more progressive and technologically-oriented new guard embodied by Zuniga and Pariser.

The resulting conflicts are often messy.

Bai describes one party gathering where the former president lost his temper when questioned about his wife Hillary’s vote to go to war in Iraq  and proceeded to rant about all kinds of right-leaning policies and directions he said were ascribed to him.  Bai also shows the ongoing and occasionally public struggles between current White House majordomo Rahm Emanuel and the then party chairman about Dean’s 50-state strategy – an approach which Emanuel felt diverted valuable resources from battleground states. 

In the end, the Democrats swept to victory. Each of the groups and people listed above and a host of others could claim some share of the triumph, if not the spoils. 

The inside argument about remaking Democratic politics is less clearly answered.  Bai ends the book with a lion in winter-like address from former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who reminds the exultant Democrats that, despite their smashing electoral victories, they still “have no big idea.” 

The Argument has a number of the strengths and weaknesses that characterize much of Bai’s work that appears in The New York Times magazine.  His intelligence, writing skills and thorough reporting are apparent throughout the work; and yet one often leaves his pieces, and, in this case, the book, feeling like she has not actually learned much new or different.

The Democrats’ need to articulate a vision greater than “We are not the Republicans” has been known for a long time, for example. So, too, has the Republicans’ superior ground level organizational capacity, forged during the late 70s and 80s by people like Richard Viguerie, strategist Grover Norquist and strengthened in the 90s by Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed.  Bai’s explanation of the rise of blogging is engaging but not particularly informative to the tens of millions of people who have clicked onto DailyKos during the past decade.

Bai does not explore the mixed legacy of the Clinton presidency as fully as he could, and Ned Lamont’s primary victory over Joe Lieberman, which Bai seems to herald as the triumph of the new way, seems a bit hollow given Lieberman’s ultimate triumph.  

One gets the sense while reading The Argument that Bai is writing for those people who were among Rob Stein’s target audience – Democrats who did not get why their party was being consistently clobbered in elections, yet did not think that drastic action or rethinking needed to be taken to stop the slide.  

Which brings us back to Obama and the Democrats’ current strong position. 

Obama appears in The Argument as a skilled writer who unsurprisingly adopts a both/and position toward traditional party stalwarts and the emerging online progressive movement.  He contributes a spirited articulation of his position in a lengthy blog post which urges people not to demonize Republicans, affirms the establishment’s importance and uses available technology to share his views.  

Written during the throes of Obama and Clinton’s fight for the Democratic nomination, the afterword includes the following somewhat prescient thought:

“Should Obama win the nomination, though, and perhaps even the White House, he will face a choice where the powerful progressives in his party are concerned: whether to attempt, through the power of his personality and argument, to lead the new movement away from the limited politics of hostility and toward some modern vision of liberalism, or whether to become, like so many political leaders before him, a reflection of the movement he inherits.  If Obama can’t change the trajectory of the new progressive movement, then the movement will very likely change him.”

Obama has not been president long enough to definitively answer the questions Bai or Cuomo pose, and the answers to those questions may go a long way toward predicting whether his victory is a blip on the screen of Republican dominance or augurs a new era in liberal thinking.

For posing those questions, and for providing an enjoyable read along the way, Bai deserves credit, even if The Argument does have a number of flaws.