Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giants Among Us

Men like to share stories of toughness and courage. Perhaps by sharing such tales, we'll acquire the attributes exhibited in them. One oft-told story involves football Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott. Ronnie won four Super Bowls and a slew of individual honors. But he is often recalled for what he refers to as a "Paul Bunyan" tale of his allowing the tip of his pinky finger to be amputated, since rehabilitating it would have meant missing a season of football. And Lott is a laudable figure, and this is a good story of dedication and courage. But there are many stories of far greater toughness and courage that never get our attention. One came to the fore this week in the wake of the tragic death of FDNY firefighter Robert Ryan. We all should admire anyone who runs into a burning building to help others escape, but Ryan's story is more noble than most. In October 2006, Ryan stretched a hose into a burning three-story building. In the intense heat, melted plastic seriously burned the back of his head and neck. Did this end his shift ? No, he had another firefighter turn a hose on him to cool his burns, and continued to fight the fire. He then endured a year of painful rehabilitation. He was entitled to retire on full disability, and, with a painting business on the side, you might think he would have done so. But he returned to the job, and also began to help child burn victims. In a eulogy, a cousin's letter to him was read: "You didn't talk about helping people, you just did it. You didn't try to save the world, just your little corner of it." His passion for helping placed him in harm's way this week. Having worked through 9/11 and countless other tragedies, Ryan knew very well that this day may come. Yet despite having endured extensive, serious burns, and being given an opportunity to gracefully walk away from the job and be paid anyway, he continued to save the lives of strangers, while putting his own at risk. So whenever stories of noble sports legends and amputated pinkies are told, listen respectfully. And then puncture the contemplative quiet that follows by saying, "I got something even more amazing. Let me tell you about Robert Ryan."


A scholarship fund for Ryan's four children has been established; a check may be made out to Robert Ryan Children's Educational Fund and sent to: FDNY Foundation, 9 Metrotech Center, Brooklyn NY 11201.

A great number of FDNY firefighters support the work of the New York Firefighters' Burn Center Foundation, 21 Asch Loop, Bronx, New York 10475.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

There is Only the Past, Happening Over and Over Again - Now

A year ago today, I read Newsday and saw the familiar "On this Day in History" feature that you can find in almost every newspaper. It is always an uninspiring rote listing of a dozen significant events that occurred over the past 500 years. On this particular day, this lackadaisical approach troubled me, because two of the events were momentous; Kristallnacht in 1938, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was embarrassed that I knew less about these events than I should - and puzzled why Newsday would not devote more space to conveying an understanding of these events that were so rich in historical significance. The older I get, the more interesting history becomes to me. As a college student, I remember being struck, for reasons I did not fully comprehend, by the intro to Leon Uris' Trinity, which was borrowed from Eugene O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten":

"There is no present or future - only the past happening over and over again - now."

And so I wondered; what was the ultimate significance of Kristallnacht ? I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, but when was it erected, and why, and how long was it ? I did some research and learned that Kristallnacht was merely the most overt manifestation of an evil hatred that had been festering for years. I also learned that, after 2.5 million citizens had fled East Germany from 1949 to 1961, the 28-mile long Berlin Wall was erected to stop citizens of East Berlin, which was in East Germany, from fleeing to West Berlin, which was in democratic West Germany; the Berlin Wall was only one small segment of an 860-mile barrier that rendered East Germany a veritable prison. And I also learned that nearly every adviser in Ronald Reagan's cabinet implored him not to demand "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall", and he said it anyway, and it became the seminal moment of his presidency.

And so I decided that our Beyond the Headlines section would henceforth include a well-researched exposition of a significant event that occurred on this day in history. We choose our events by mining the innumerable lists on the Web; oddly, some days are quite rich in truly momentous events, while on others we're scraping the bottom. We usually avoid very recent history, as there is not much perspective to bring to these events yet. And we try to steer clear of the few events in history that are generally quite well known already.

And only today, when we published our treatment of these two events, did I realize the irony that on the same date, we commemorate the most overt manifestation of the emergence of one murderous regime and the most overt symbol of the fall of another.

User response to this feature has been very gratifying. Of the top 10 most popular articles we have created, 6 of them came from this category. We've told of Japan floating balloon bombs across the Pacific during WWII to try to set our forests on fire; of the Polish spy who gave himself up to Nazi soldiers so he could report first hand on the atrocities at Auschwitz, and explained the significance of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

findingDulcinea is a phenomenal resource for students at every level. And when it comes to history, all of us need to be students. But don't take my word for it; Eugene O'Neill said it much better than I ever could.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

My Vote

In the fall of 1980, I cast the first vote of my life for Ronald Reagan. He was running at a time where runaway inflation and double digit interest rates had laid waste to the economy, America had suffered embarrassment on the international stage, and our national spirit was so low that an Olympic hockey victory was the only thing we had to cheer. Reagan optimistically declared that it was "Morning in America," and that our best days were ahead of us. With Paul Volcker's stewardship, Reagan righted the economy, and he used his moral authority and the force of his personality to stare down the Soviets, roll back the Iron Curtain, and get America believing in itself again. Reagan remains my modern-day political hero, and has even recently been adopted as such by many who so reviled him during his years in office.

I admired George H.W. Bush, was sorry he never became all he could have been, and watched with great contempt when he was defeated by Bill Clinton, and again when Bob Dole lost to Clinton in 1996. I made my first ever political contribution to John McCain during the primaries in 2000, and of all the political "could have beens" in my adult life, McCain's loss of the Republican nomination to George W. Bush is the most tragic of all, an impression rendered indelibly in the late morning of 9/11, and confirmed many times since. Still, Bush, for all his many significant faults, was a better choice than either Al Gore or John Kerry for the Presidency.

So why did I cast my ballot today for Barack Obama ?

The John McCain who ran in this election is not the maverick who barnstormed across America in the Straight Talk Express in 2000. He lurched so far to the right to win his party's nomination that he can't find his way back. And the Republican Party whose support he won is not Ronald Reagan's Republican Party. Blessed with the Presidency for the past 8 years and a majority in Congress for much of that time, it has not championed fiscal conservatism, small government and effective deregulation that enables the private sector to responsibly foster growth in our economy. Today's federal government more closely resembles that of the Carter years than Reagan's. McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his Vice-Presidential running mate is mind-boggling. It smacked of mindless pandering, and evinced bad judgment. I do not want this woman a heartbeat away from the Presidency, nor the presumptive Republican nominee in 2012.

Barack Obama gives us more reasons to hope than John McCain 2008, at a time when we again need a new President who declares that America's best days are ahead of it. Yes, he is unproven, untested, and has left a lot of questions unanswered, and indeed many unasked. Many in the media have uncritically coronated him in the way they did Eliot Spitzer, whose effectiveness was compromised long before that press conference. But Obama is highly intelligent. He appears to be a rare breed whose ego is not greater than his love for this country and its people. Bill Clinton spoke endlessly from his first days of wanting to building an extraordinary legacy, but was unwilling to make the well-considered, difficult and unpopular decisions to do so. Conversely, Obama appears to be an effective consensus builder who is wise enough to surround himself with the best and brightest of this country without regard to political affiliation, including Paul Volcker, and to make difficult and unpopular decisions for the long-term future of this country. And Obama appears to be a God-fearing man whose far-left votes on abortion, and shockingly, even care of infants born alive, reflect more of a gross political calculation than an ideological belief that will send us hurtling even further down the slippery slope of that debate.

And so I bought into this hope. Despite a lot of trepidation, I believe Barack Obama will prove to be a great President, and that young people who cast their first ballot today for him, and even those who vote against him and loudly revile him during his term, will be able to look back on his tenure as fondly as I and most others do on that of Ronald Reagan.

And if I am wrong, then the Republican Party will lick its wounds, regroup, and nominate someone in 2012, not named Sarah Palin, who will rescue it from what it has become over the past 8 years and help it take back the Oval Office.