These Are the Souls Who Improved Our Times.

(Governor Mario M. Cuomo (far right) shares a light moment with our team of college interns who worked, pro-bono, in his Administration. That’s me seated next to Cuomo, with Press Secretary Marty Steadman right behind me–having my back, as usual. Standing against the wall behind Marty in the Governor’s Conference Room at 2 World Trade Center are: Mark Gordon, Mary Tragale, Dino Amaroso, and Richie Barrett.)

Two powerful strands of life came together this week, in memory, and acknowledgement, once again, that all the wrong people are dying.  

This week marks what would have been the 90th birthday of former NYS Governor Mario M. Cuomo, a personal inspiration, and a paragon of public service and personal integrity.  Cuomo died seven years ago, just a few months after my oldest brother passed away from Pancreatic cancer.  I loved both men, even though they lived diametrically different lives.   I wrote an entire book (Tightrope: Balancing A Life Between Mario Cuomo & My Brother, 2017, Heliotrope Books, NY, NY) about the anguish both caused me, especially since my brother Michael worked with John Gotti and the Gambino Crime Family, while I worked with Mario Cuomo— who smashed every negative stereotype about Italian-Americans, and was the anti-thesis of criminality, the mob, John Gotti, lawlessness, and Donald Trump.

 Last week, Cuomo’s Press Secretary, Marty Steadman– and one of the kindest bosses I’ve ever known– died at 91 years old.  Steadman, a former print journalist, hired me (I’m convinced), because of our mutual love of sports and newspapers.  In my first and only interview with him in the Governor’s Office at Two World Trade Center on my 36th birthday, Steadman noticed that I worked for the Suffolk Sun Newspaper—a short-lived competitor to Newsday—as a Sports Correspondent.  Steadman was a reporter for a few of New York City’s newspapers which were no longer in business.

“I think we’ll get along just fine, “ Marty said to me, smiling gently.  “Between the two of us, we’ve closed more newspapers in this town than are still in existence.”

Marty Steadman was also a Kennedy Democrat, and his one and only run for public office came in 1966 when he ran for Congress and lost, in a heavily Republican district in Nassau County.  The man who persuaded Steadman to run—two years after RFK was elected US Senator from NY State—was, Jack English, the local  & national Democratic leader who helped JFK get elected President in 1960.

Twenty years later, when Mario Cuomo was up for re-election as Governor of New York, and Jack English was one year away of dying from cancer, Steadman arranged for English to meet with Cuomo in the Governor’s Two World Trade Center Office, on the 57th Floor.   Marty asked me to sit in on the meeting, tape record and take notes of their conversation.   

Cuomo and English had previously worked together on Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign for President in 1980, with English serving as the National Director of the Carter Campaign, and Cuomo heading the effort in NY State. Mario Cuomo and Jack English were friends and former colleagues, both having practiced as lawyers and clerked for judges in New York.  They were “progressive pragmatists,” sharing beliefs in many of the same causes, and a similar approach to politics.  

Cuomo graciously welcomed Jack English into his World Trade Center office, sharing with him the commanding view of New York Harbor, with the deference a student has for a mentor, although English was only six years his senior.  The Governor motioned for English to sit in the armchair with a view of the Statue of Liberty, while Cuomo sat down behind his desk.  I sat on a leather couch, close enough to both, to record their conversation.

English minced no words, perhaps an indicator that he had little time left for Mario Cuomo to make up his mind.  

“Governor, I think you ought to consider running for president,” he said.  “ I think you are exactly what the Democratic Party needs at the head of the ticket in 1988, to take back the White House.”

Cuomo scrunched up his large, chiseled face and shook his head, “No.”

“I’m very grateful for your confidence, Jack,” Cuomo said, and then proceeded to tell his politically astute guest how busy he was running the State of NY against a national administration hostile to the needs of the Northeast, and intent on pitting region against region, race against race, and rich against poor.  

“You need someone like a Bobby Kennedy,” Cuomo said, artfully steering the conversation to a discussion of how well English knew the Kennedys, how hard he worked for what they believed in, and what Robert F. Kennedy and the Kennedy family meant for the country.

“It’s why no one could second guess Teddy’s decision not to run,” Cuomo said.  “The Kennedy family has given far beyond what could be expected of any family to give to serve their country.”   Several months earlier, in December 1985, Teddy Kennedy had taken himself out of consideration for the 1988 Democratic Nomination, catapulting Cuomo into a top contender. 

Jack English nodded his head in agreement, looking off in the distance at New York Harbor glistening in the afternoon sun. He let Mario Cuomo continue.

“We need someone like Bobby today,” Cuomo said. “Someone who can unite black and white, rich and poor, who can speak to the needs of working people, and get people in the suburbs and the cities to see we are all part of the same family.”

I held my pen perfectly still and looked carefully at English, waiting for him to speak.  Jack English’s Irish eyes twinkled and he leaned forward in his chair.

“Well, I think you’re that person, Governor,” he said.

Cuomo wrinkled up his big nose and shook his head, “No.”  He would not allow himself to be held to a standard that he could not control—not even from as towering a Democratic Party legend as Jack English.

The meeting ended on a cordial note, with Cuomo asking English to stay in touch.  A little over a year later, Jack English died at age 61, from liver cancer.

Mario Cuomo never took Jack’s advice, but, by his own life, instructed us how to repair the world.

###

I Am A Liz Cheney Democrat.

(Demogorgons for Democracy, copyright Stranger Things/Netflix)

I am a Liz Cheney Democrat.

I eat cowards for breakfast, 

And liars for lunch.

Traitors and terrorists, my brunch.

I am a Liz Cheney Democrat.

With a will of steel, 

And a backbone to match.

To me, Kevin McCarthy is a light snack

.

I am a Liz Cheney Democrat.

Democracy, integrity drive me.

Sedition, it’s my position,

Is a Capitol crime, you miserable slime.

On guns & human rights,

Social justice & income fights,

Climate change & women’s choice,

I bite like Cheney, but AOC’s my voice.

On defense of our nation, I am tenacious;

My appetite for battling bullies, voracious.

I am a Liz Cheney Democrat, with AOC’s heart; 

So, if you want to be finished—I dare you to start.

On Any Given Day.

On Any Given Day, 

I walk past my granddaughters’ schools.

One school, a few blocks from my home.

The other two, a little over a mile away,

On Any Given Day.

I walk past their schools to soothe myself,

That they are safe, and learning, 

Or joyfully at play.

On Any Given Day.

I smile at the windows, 

Decorated with shamrocks or hearts, 

Or flowers, always flowers, and signs of life,

On Any Given Day.

Some days I pick the Kindergartner up,

Outside her school’s locked gate.

She’s safe, she’s safe, I tell myself,

On Any Given Day.

Some days I watch the 10-year old,

Saunter out of school.

Backpack perched upon her back,

Looking very cool.

On Any Given Day.

Some days my love in Junior High,

Will let me pick her up.

As long as I don’t park too close, 

Or embarrass her too much.

On Any Given Day.

On any Given Day

I worry that the classroom windows 

Which face the street,

Don’t get blown away;

By bullets ripping through the glass,

On Any Given Day.

The thought to get a gun

Has crossed my mind again;

To circle each school more than once,

To protect them and their friends.

On Any Given Day.

Be reasonable, I tell myself,

NO Guns is what we need, not more.

To stop them from being made, 

Or sold anywhere, anymore .

On Any Given Day.

In Sandy Hook, and Texas,

Reason has not worked.

39 babies ripped apart,

Our lives have gone beserk.

On Any Given Day.

Don’t tell me owning guns, 

Beats babies in this nation.

With life at stake every single day,

I want Gun Confiscation,

Without accommodation.

On Any Given Day,

I walk past my grandaughters’ schools,

And know that, to keep them safe,

I will break ANY rules,

On Any Given Day.

“From Here to Harrisburg:” Josh Shapiro is Frank Sinatra, & Mastriano is the Bully Borgnine.

(The bully Sgt. Fatso Judson, played by Ernest Borgnine (l.) pulls a switchblade knife on Pfc. Angelo Maggio, played by Frank Sinatra (r.) in a pivotal scene in the 1953 Academy Award winning film, “From Here to Eternity.”

 

 As soon as Doug Mastriano mauled his way onto Pennsylvania’s political scene by bloviating the Big Lie that the 2020 Election was “stolen” from Donald Trump (despite 60 court decisions proving otherwise), I knew he reminded me of someone.  I couldn’t quite place him, but knew I had seen him before. 

So, I sat down in my comfortable chair to watch one of my favorite old movies, the brilliant 1953 Academy Award winning “From Here to Eternity,” starring Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed and Debra Kerr.   When Ernest Borgnine (as Sgt. Fatso Judson) sneakily pulled a switchblade knife on Frank Sinatra’s likeable “ Pvt. Maggio” in an early barroom scene, it jolted me straight up.  That was it.

Mastriano was Borgnine:  bullying, sadistic, crass, pig-headed, closed minded and a bigot, who referred to the physically smaller Sinatra’s Italian-American Maggio as “a little wop.”  Borgnine’s Sgt. Fatso Judson, in charge of the Stockade at the Army Base in pre-Pearl Harbor Hawaii, ends up beating Sinatra’s Maggio to death simply because he didn’t like him.

When Montgomery Clift’s character Robert Prewitt—Maggio’s best friend—confronted Borgnine’s Fatso Judson about killing the happy-go-lucky Sinatra character, the brutish Sgt. admitted it, bragging that Maggio  “deserved it.”

The more I looked at the bully Borgnine in “From Here to Eternity,” the more I saw Mastriano.  This was fiction, I told myself, but Mastriano was all too real.

Not being one who judges a book by it’s cover—despite Mastriano’s eerie physical resemblance to Borgnine’s evil character–I did some research from Mastriano’s own writings.    I went back  21 years, and found his “thesis” which he wrote toward his Master’s Degree at the Air Command & Staff College, Air University.  Remarkably, it’s available on the official Department of Defense website.

 Entitled “The Civilian Putsch of 2018:  Debunking the Myth of a Civil-Military Leadership Rift,”  it was an arresting title for a thesis, written in 2001, which created an imaginary world 17 years in the future.   Odd, I thought, for a Military College to accept fiction in a Master’s Degree program.  Having taught & taken creative writing & screenwriting classes, I thought Mastriano’s poorly written, made-up story, might be more appropriate for that setting.  But, fiction? At a Graduate Military School?

Nevertheless, I persisted, and plowed through Mastriano’s mock-reality, hoping for some interesting story-telling or new insights.  Instead, what I found was 65 pages of a fanatical diatribe, reminding me of the other-world screeching of Savonarola, the puritanical Dominican friar of 15th Century Italy who headed “bonfires of the vanities,” to destroy of all things condemned by religious authorities. 

Throughout the pages of his parade of prejudices, Mastriano expressed his “disgust with anyone who doesn’t hold his view that homosexuality is a form of ‘aberrant sexual conduct,” said former George W. Bush Administration White House official Peter Feaver, who Mastriano footnotes in his paper.   If anything, Feaver failed to turn the temperature up high enough.

Mastriano’s madness over “homosexuals in the military, “ and a “morally depraved and relativistic populace”, gushes from his pen, like a crayon-scrawled edict nailed to a church door, rather than a “research” paper.   His apocalyptic vision of a decaying world and military is obsessed with “moral anarchy,”  “worship of Hedonism,” and the consistent theme that the “assault started with the insertion of homosexuality in the military.”   But Mastriano was just warming up.  It was time for him to pull a Fatso Judson, and unsheath his switchblade.

“The political correctness of the 1990’s established moral relativism as the norm, “ Mastriano wrote, railing against “homosexuality sensitivity training.”   Ironically, Mastriano also writes about the “duty to uphold the Constitution,” as opposed to “overzealous loyalty to one person,”—the exact opposite of what he himself, and his fellow  “Stop the Steal” sycophants did for Trump.

Mastriano’s misogynistic & homophobic missive, which called for the reinstatement of the “macho warrior spirit” in the military, at a time when women and gays were being welcomed to serve, is far too reactive to be called “research,” and it’s as discredited as the book he whipped up about the life of World War I hero, Sgt. Alvin York—so full of falsehoods that the publisher is reissuing a “corrected” copy this year.

We were warned about bone-headed bullies like Mastriano, by Frank Sinatra in 1945, some eight years before Maggio confronted Borgnine’s Fatso Judson.  To support the US War effort against the Fascists in Europe, and to fight growing anti-Semitism at home, Sinatra did a short documentary, accompanied by a patriotic song.

The film was called “The House I Live In,” and the song was entitled “What is America To Me.”  (Watch the 10 minute short film and hear the Sinatra song by clicking on this link: 

In the dramatic lead-up to the song, Sinatra—who was a passionate civil rights advocate at the time, and always took the side of the underdog—stopped a group of boys from picking on a young Jewish kid.

“You must be a bunch of those Nazis I been hearing about, “ Sinatra said to the boys, who surrounded him, screaming that they were Americans.  

“I’m an American,” Sinatra said.  “Religion makes no difference except maybe to a Nazi or somebody that’s stupid.”  Then, Sinatra went on with a monologue that defined what he felt it was to be an American, foreshadowing his role of Maggio years later: 

“This country is made up of 100 different kinds of people, and 100 different ways of talking, and 100 different ways of going to church—but they’re all American ways.  Wouldn’t we be silly if we run around hating people because they comb their hair different than ours?  Wouldn’t we be a lot of dopes?

My Dad came from Italy, but I’m an American.  Should I hate you because your people came from Ireland or France or Russia?  Wouldn’t that be a first-class fat-head?  Use your good American heads—don’t let anyone make suckers out of you.”

What America was to Frank Sinatra in 1945, or 1953, or throughout the rest of his adult life, was far different from the shriveled, theocratic straightjacket shouted about by Mastriano for the past two decades.  If only he had listened more to the sound of other people’s voices instead of his own, and took a moment to understand the meaning of the words Sinatra sang to lift an entire nation in 1945:

WHAT IS AMERICA TO ME?

A NAME, A MAP, THE FLAG I SEE—

A CERTAIN WORD—DEMOCRACY—

THAT IS AMERICA TO ME.”

I’m with Sinatra, and Shapiro, on this one—defending democracy.

Billy Joel Will NOT Be Replaced by White Supremacist Haters of Blacks, Jews & Immigrants.

Billy Joel, whose family members, born in Nuremberg, Germany, were murdered and driven from their homes by the Nazis during the Holocaust, wears a Star-of-David to one of his concerts to protest White Supremacists and Domestic Terrorism in the US.

Five years ago in late August, 2017, Billy Joel walked out on stage at Madison Square Garden, where, as the Artist-in-Residence, he performed monthly to standing room only crowds.

 On the left side of his dark suit jacket, a yellow Star of David was pinned prominently over his heart. For the singer/songwriter who has performed more than 100 times at one of the world’s premiere concert arenas, sold more than 150 million records and won virtually every music award, it was a bold and dramatic action, surprising some of his fans, since Joel is known for not being overtly political.

Joel’s jolt came less than ten days after the White Supremacist/Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a young women walking to peacefully protest the anti-Semitic and racial hatred spewed by the “Unite the Right” mob, was deliberately run down and killed by a White Supremacist driving a car into the group of counter-protestors.

Charlottesville was where many Americans were introduced, for the first time, to the pernicious and hateful “Great Replacement Theory,” which called for violent White Domestic Terrorist actions against Blacks, Jews and immigrants.  The chant “Jews Will Not Replace” was screamed throughout Charlottesville by mostly male, White Supremacists, aiming to drive Jews out of American society.  

 To compound the terrible and deadly, hate-fueled events in Charlottesville that day– Donald Trump went on television and refused to place responsibility on the Nazis and White Supremacists, but instead, stated there were “very fine people on both sides.”

Trump’s despicable statement “enraged”, Joel, as he told The Times of Israel.

“No, Nazis aren’t good people, “ Joel said. “My old man, his family got wiped out. They were slaughtered at Auschwitz. Him and his parents were able to get out.”

Joel’s comments about his family’s treatment by the Nazis was an understatement.

In Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography, by Fred Schruers (Crown Archetype Books, NY, NY, 2014), the author details the systematic campaign by the Nazi’s against Joel’s ancestors, simply because they were successful Jews living in Nuremberg, Germany, where Billy Joel’s father (Helmut, later Americanized to Howard) was born.

Joel’s paternal grandfather, Karl Amson Joel, started a business in household linens in 1927, which he called the Karl Joel Linen Goods Company. His business was so profitable that he, his wife and their young son — Billy Joel’s father — were able to move into a wealthy section of Nuremberg.

 As Karl Joel’s business rose in prominence and the Nazis rose in power, the Nazis fixed their sights on eliminating the Joel’s business and the family operating it.

The Billy Joel biography reports that “in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum database titled ‘Index of Jews whose German Nationality was Annulled by Nazi Regime, 1935–1944,” Billy’s grandfather is falsely accused of “monetary and currency offenses” in the records of two separate files.

“After taking part in the making of the documentary The Joel Files ,I realized what the film’s director, Beate Thalberg had discovered,” Billy told the book’s writer, Fred Schruers. “ My relatives were hounded out of Germany at an absurd price — a paradigm of the economic casualties during the Nazi takeover.”

But Karl Joel was not simply an “economic casualty”: he and his family were specific targets of the Nazis and were used as examples by Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher in the virulently anti-Semitic publication Der Sturmer.

 Streicher ran front page articles calling Billy’s grandfather a “Yid,” and falsely accused him of underpaying and sexually harassing his workers. The Nazis made up thousands of lies against Germany’s Jews to dehumanize them and turn their political base against them.

Billy Joel’s father was one of four Jews in his Nuremberg classroom, forced to sit apart from their classmates, and forbidden from using the public swimming pool. As circumstances for Jews in Germany became more dire, and Karl Joel was arrested three times while being called the “Jew Joel,” a “bloodsucker,” and “oppressor,” young Helmut (Billy’s father) was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland.

 Meanwhile, the Nazi equivalent of Fox News, Der Sturmer continued its relentless Twitter-like name calling attacks on Karl Joel, labeling him the “Nuremberg Linen-Jew Joel.”

Karl Joel was ordered by the Nazis to stamp all of his outgoing packages with a “J”, a German plant manager was installed at his company, and suppliers began to boycott him. In June, 1938, a new law was passed requiring all Jewish businesses to be forfeited to Aryan ownership. Karl Joel’s linen business was taken from him at one-fifth its’ actual value.

“My grandparents fled in the night,” Billy Joel told author Schruers, “using fake passports, and escaped across the Swiss border to Zurich. They got in touch with my father at his school and told him they had left Germany for good.”

To escape Europe, Billy Joel’s grandparents and his father “secured places aboard a cruise ship called the Andora Star, for a 1939 passage across the Atlantic to Cuba, where they resided for two years before the United States — strictly limiting the immigration of Jews to protect “the ideal of American homogeneity” — allowed them entry.

Karl Joel’s brother Leon and his family were not so fortunate. They boarded the SS St.Louis, and after the Voyage of the Damned was refused entry in Havana and at every US Port, Billy Joel’s aunt, uncle and family were send back to Europe, and executed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Billy’s father, fluent in German and trained as a concert pianist, was drafted into the US Army in 1943, fighting in General George Patton’s Third Army. When Howard Joel’s battalion liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich in April, 1945, he didn’t know that his relatives had been slaughtered at Auschwitz.

I interviewed Billy Joel at his Oyster Bay, Long Island, motorcycle shop/museum in May, 2019.  I wanted to thank him for wearing the Star of David as a powerful statement of protest to what happened in Charlottesville, and as a strong rebuke to White Supremacy, of Trump’s depiction of “fine people on both sides,” and of the “Great Replacement Theory” lie.  His bold action was particularly poignant for me, having converted to Judaism 42 years ago.  I married a Jewish girl from Joel’s hometown of Hicksville, Long Island, who was in the Hicksville High School Choir with him, so we shared a few things in common.

“There are no good Nazis, “ Joel said. “They killed my family members.”

Then he told me how the Nazis, once they confiscated his grandfather’s linen factory, used the machines in the factory to make the black and white striped prison uniforms which they forced Jews to wear, including his family members who were executed at Auschwitz. It was too macabre and twisted to imagine.

“I’ll continue to fight them as long as I can, and to use my voice to speak out against that kind of hate, “ Billy Joel said.

I thought back to his simple, straight-forward and quietly, powerful act of pinning a yellow Star of David above his heart on his dark suit, and thought of the decades of family and global history behind it, and the millions of Jews and non-Jews for whom Billy Joel’s voice rang out clear and true, without having to sing one note on that night in New York City.

I Had A Crush on Jen Psaki.

I had a crush on Jen Psaki.

I know, I know. At my age, it’s tacky.

But, I did have a crush on Jen Psaki.

No, it’s not her soft, red hair,

Nor her Jessica Chastain style.

I love how smart and poised she is —

And that sweet, disarming smile.

I had a crush on Jen Psaki —

Call it professional admiration.

She’s the opposite of lying political lackeys,

Like Spicer, Sarah Hucksterbee, & Kayleigh Damnation.

She learned from Tom Harkin, Obama & Kerry,

Speaking, writing, staying calm and quite merry.

I once did the same work for Mario Cuomo,

But, my somber demeanor better suited Milan’s Duomo.

So, I had a crush on Jen Psaki,

And happy she’s not related to George Pataki.

She’s bright and honest, prepared and cool —

And doesn’t lose her temper with Fox’s fools.

Yes, I had a crush on Jen Psaki,

And Press Briefings as satisfying as Greek Souvlaki!