Blog Posts by Jeff Greenfield

  • Nelson Mandela's legacy — and its limitations

    When talk turns to the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who turns 95 on Thursday, I remember one of my most memorable moments in journalism.

    It was 1985, and I was in South Africa as part of the “Nightline” coverage of that nation, which was still under the apartheid rule of the white minority government. Through a chain of contacts, we’d arranged an interview with an African National Congress official named Patrick Lekota, who was being hunted by authorities for treason. His nickname, “Terror,” might have given credibility to the accusation, except that it came from his aggressive play on the soccer field.

    Lekota talked of the life he had led before he’d gone underground; a life that included time on Robben Island in the prison where Mandela had been held for 18 of his 27 years in custody. Lekota also spoke of harassment by the government and the deaths by official hand of many of his colleagues.

    He also said that before going underground, he'd spent many nights driving a sound track around

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  • Time is on my side

    By Jeff Greenfield

    If you have reached three score and ten, as I have just done, you’re permitted, perhaps expected, to mourn the passing of a better time, when tomatoes were tastier, the air sweeter. As Burt Lancaster in “Atlantic City” says to a young man struck by his first sight of the ocean, “You should have seen it in the old days.”

    If, however, you live in New York City, you have no right to such dyspepsia. By every reasonable measure, Gotham is a far, far better place than it used to be. Homicides a quarter-century ago exceeded 2,000 a year; last year there were 415. The Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfront, which most New Yorkers had experienced only as a rumor, has been reclaimed. You can walk or bike for miles along the cleansed rivers, and you can kayak on the Hudson—which years ago saw the return of the shad.

    There’s one more improvement, far less celebrated, that has so improved my life it deserves special recognition. It’s found underground. No, I’m not talking

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  • RFK: What we lost, what we learned

    By Jeff Greenfield

    He has been gone longer than he was alive. When he was killed 45 years ago on June 6, just after winning the California presidential primary, Robert Kennedy was 42 years old.

    Because I worked on that campaign, I’ve been asked the same questions over and over: Could he have been nominated? Could he have been elected? Could he have made a real difference had he won?

    After four decades of brushing the questions aside—“Who knows?”—I tried to answer them in a detailed narrative. If you want one version of how Kennedy might have won in Chicago, how he might have beaten Nixon and what he might have tried to do, you can find it in my “what-if?” book, “Then Everything Changed.”
    Of course, it’s just as possible to imagine Kennedy losing the nomination—Hubert Humphrey had most of the big nonprimary states—or losing to Nixon in November. (Maybe in a decade or so, Robert Caro will tell us what LBJ would have tried to do to Bobby.)

    For me, the real loss does not lie in the realm

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  • In tragedy, consolation only goes so far

    By Jeff Greenfield

    When John Kennedy Jr., son of the former president, died with his wife and sister-in-law in a plane crash in 1999, I heard a well-known televangelist assured us that “this is all part of God’s plan.”

    A few days later, I was part of CNN’s coverage of the funeral mass. We’d asked a young priest from the New York archdiocese to join us in explaining the ritual, and during a commercial break I asked him, “do you think what happened is all part of God’s plan?”

    “Oh, no,” he said emphatically. “This sucks.”

    Every time a disaster like Monday’s tornado in Moore, Okla., strikes, I find myself wishing I had asked the priest that question on the air—and that he’d answered it in just that way.

    When an act of nature—or for that matter, an act of evil, like the murder of twenty 6-year-olds in their elementary school--chills the soul, the search for consolation and some piece of wisdom or comfort is understandable. A victim pulled alive from the rubble of a massive earthquake is

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  • Weighing a candidate

    Forget 2016, maybe Chris Christie just wants to slim down so he can live longer

    By Jeff Greenfield

    Maybe I’m just too naive to be writing and talking about politics.

    When the New York Post reported that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had undergone lap-band stomach surgery earlier this year to lose weight, I actually thought he offered a reasonable explanation when he said, “For me, this is about turning 50 and looking at my children and wanting to be there for them.”

    Silly me.

    “This means he’s running for president,” a top political donor told the paper. “He’s showing people he can get his weight in control. It’s the one thing holding him back.”

    You can see how obtuse--not obese, obtuse--I was. On the one hand, avoiding early death. On the other hand, improving your political options. It’s obvious to anyone who’s spent 10 minutes strategizing on cable news what the real motivation must be.

    Look, I understand the cynicism about all things political; and the politicians have brought a lot of it on themselves. When an office-holder facing a multi-count indictment says

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  • How much crow can a president eat? Obama’s finding out

    By Jeff Greenfield

    So you wake up this morning and find you’re president of the United States.

    Pretty cool, no? Helicopters and a 747 at your disposal; courtside seats at any NBA playoff game of your choice; everyone stands up and the band plays when you come into the room.

    But the job comes with some baggage, and one of the heaviest of steamer trunks is what to do about a political ally—make that three or four of them—who hands you a stinging defeat on a key, emotionally laden issue.

    After the Newtown massacre, you put gun control—sorry, you call it “gun safety” now to avoid ruffling red state sensibilities—back on the table. You give powerful speeches surrounded by the grieving families of the kids who were killed at Sandy Hook. You see a gun rights Democrat, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, and a gun rights Republican, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey draft a bill that provides a kind of, sort of, sprinkled-with-exceptions background check.

    And then you see four Democratic senators vote “no.”

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  • Setting an example

    By Jeff Greenfield

    I suppose I can’t help it.

    After a lifetime immersed in American politics, perhaps it was inevitable that my reaction to the early days of the new papacy has been to conjure up memories….of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

    I mean no disrespect. But in watching Pope Francis’ powerful first gestures—shunning the elaborate vestments for a simple garment, choosing a modest apartment over the lavish Papal accommodations, and heading back to his hotel in Rome to pay his bill!—I was reminded of two presidents who embraced simplicity but were ultimately rejected by voters. And thereby hangs a tale about the power, and the limits, of symbolism.

    President Gerald Ford, right, and Jimmy Carter at a debate on Oct. 6, 1976 in San Francisco, Calif. (AP Photo)When Gerald Ford suddenly stepped into the presidency in August 1974 after Richard Nixon’s resignation, he was a relatively unknown figure despite his years as House Republican leader and his 10-month stint as vice president. After Nixon’s polarizing presidency—capped by nearly a year and a half of Watergate frenzy—Ford was at pains to

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  • Roger and me

    By Jeff Greenfield

    When you lose a friend after half a century, grief goes with the territory.

    But when the friend is Roger Ebert, it is impossible not to remember the laughter and the joy of his too infrequent, but always memorable, companionship.

    We met in the early 1960s; he was the editor of The Daily llini at the University of Illinois and I was editor of the Wisconsin Daily Cardinal. We’d come to New York for a national gathering of student editors, but what bonded us was a taste for humor.

    We both worshipped at the altar of Bob and Ray, the era’s great radio comics; indeed, we’d both memorized long stretches of their classic routines—and neither of us were afflicted with excessive shyness.

    One evening, as we waited outside Second City at Square East to watch the troupe of improvisational comics and actors, Roger and I passed the time by performing a highly enthusiastic (if highly unskilled) series of routines, much to the curiosity and mild approval of the folks on line.
    In the

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  • When labels distort

    By Jeff Greenfield

    In the flood of commentary engulfing us about the gay marriage cases before the Supreme Court, be wary--be very, very wary--about how the labels “conservative and liberal” are thrown around.

    One of the sins besetting coverage of the high court is that these labels are often not simply useless, but positively confusing. Why? Because when it comes to judicial opinions, such terms often have very different meanings than they do in political discourse.

    Take the fight over DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. President Clinton signed it into law in the fall of 1996, and now says it should be overturned. Clinton’s enthusiasm for the law back then can be measured by the fact that he signed it--literally--in the middle of the night, and argued in a “signing statement” that it should not be seen as an excuse for discrimination.

    (An honest “signing statement” from Clinton would have said, “I’m heading for an easy re-election against my totally flummoxed Republican opponent, Bob

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  • 10 years since Iraq invasion: Delusion is worse than lies

    By Jeff Greenfield

    Next Tuesday, March 19, marks the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq; a war propelled by the assertion that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction that threatened the U.S.

    In the memorable words of then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

    Later, when Iraq descended into chaos and quagmire and those weapons of mass destruction turned out to be non-existent, opponents of the war had a simple explanation: “Bush lied, people died.”

    For the elders among us, it was reminiscent of the assertion a generation ago that President Lyndon Johnson and his advisors had lied the country into a massive escalation in Vietnam; by using two 1964 incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin, they were able to win a congressional resolution more or less enabling Johnson to use whatever force he deemed necessary in Southeast Asia. (Later evidence showed that one of the alleged “attacks” on US Naval vessels

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