Here’s this week’s news from the NSA. Yes, when it comes to international espionage and snooping, in less than a century we’ve gone from a US Secretary of State declaring, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail” to a former French foreign minister recently telling a radio interviewer, “Everyone is listening to everyone else.”
In other words, we have so much to be thankful for. Weekly, even daily, revelations of National Security Agency prying have become the norm and whistleblower/leaker Edward Snowden has become so well-known he recently was leading TIME Magazine’s readers’ poll for Person of the Year by some 65 points, running far ahead of President Obama, Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al Assad and Miley Cyrus. (Although as of this writing, Miley suddenly has pulled into the lead. God bless America.)
In a story straight out of James Bond – or Austin Powers – Reuters reports that “British and US intelligence officials say they are worried about a ‘doomsday’ cache of highly classified, heavily encrypted material they believe former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has stored on a data cloud… MORE
Enlisted military men carry the casket of John F. Kennedy up the center steps of the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 24, 1963. A sailor follows with presidential flag. An honor guard lines the steps. (AP Photo)
Friday afternoon in my upstate New York hometown, around 2 p.m. I was a drummer in the junior high school band and after lunch in the cafeteria went to a rehearsal of the entire percussion section. A couple of bare light bulbs illuminated the stage; the rest of the auditorium was pitch black. Our teacher tapped his baton in time against the top of a music stand as we loudly banged away, reading the sheet music in front of us, the loud noise bouncing around the empty hall.
Suddenly, the teacher waved for us to stop. The principal was making an announcement on the public address system, his voice booming from the speaker hanging at the back of the auditorium. The sound of our drums continued to echo as out of the darkness we heard him say, “John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States…”
He paused for what seemed an eternity but was probably only a second or two, and in that moment, I thought the next thing he would say was that Kennedy had declared war, that he or the Russians had pushed the button. We were still living in constant nuclear anxiety, newscasts and nightmares filled with mushroom clouds and horror stories about what radiation could do to us. A mockup of a fallout shelter had been built on the courthouse lawn, we constantly were given civil defense brochures and sent into school hallways for duck-and-cover drills. Just a little more than a year before, we had seen Kennedy tell us about missiles in Cuba and warn that even if we won an atomic war with the Soviets, “the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouths.”
Instead, the principal announced what in the moment seemed even more unimaginable: that Kennedy was dead. No other details. The echo from the loudspeaker moved through the empty auditorium and blended with the last reverberations from our drums. We stood there on the stage, shocked, not knowing what to say. A few weeks before, my Halloween costume for my last trick-or-treat had been my Sunday suit, tie and a Kennedy mask. My mother had kept scrapbooks on Jackie Kennedy and had let me stay up late to watch the inaugural parties in January 1961. These random thoughts flashed through my head but then here’s the way one adolescent nerd’s mind works. At breakfast, I had seen a tiny item in the morning paper: Kennedy would be giving a lunchtime speech at the Trade Mart in Dallas. Steak would be served as the main entrée and one would be chosen at random for the president. Good grief, I thought for one befuddled moment, the president got a poison steak! MORE
David, 6, whose family receives money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also know as food stamps, eats dinner in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Coming soon to a theater near you: famine! The second film in The Hunger Games trilogy, “Catching Fire,” opens wide on November 22, based on the hugely popular novels of a post-apocalyptic world in which poverty and starvation force young people into a desperate but oh-so-glamorous, televised competition to the death.
With the movie’s release come some especially crass and bizarre product tie-ins, including the Cover Girl Hunger Games assortment of nail polishes called “Capitol Colors” (the name makes sense if you’re familiar with the books or films) and my personal favorite, the Subway Restaurants line of “Fiery Footlongs,” described on the MTV News website as “Sriracha-powered hoagies that hope to cure the hunger games happening at lunchtime in your tummy.”
So let me get this straight: fast-food submarine sandwiches are being used to market a motion picture about people who will do anything to survive a dystopian society in which there’s nothing to eat? Yikes.
All this might be even more darkly comic if not for the fact that here in the real world, Washington is playing a Hunger Game of its own and the results are devastating. Yes, winter is coming, the holidays are on their way, and on November 1, the United States government cut food stamp benefits by 13.6 percent. MORE
News Corp. headquarters in New York. (Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/DAPD)
Here in Manhattan the other day, you couldn’t miss it — the big bold headline across the front page of the tabloid New York Post, screaming one of those sick, slick lies that are a trademark of Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire. There was Uncle Sam, brandishing a revolver and wearing a burglar’s mask. “UNCLE SCAM,” the headline shouted. “US robs bank of $13 billion.”
Say what? Pure whitewash, and Murdoch’s minions know it. That $13 billion dollars is the settlement JPMorgan Chase, the country’s biggest bank, is negotiating with the government to settle its own rip-off of American homeowners and investors — those shady practices that five years ago helped trigger the financial meltdown, including manipulating mortgages and sending millions of Americans into bankruptcy or foreclosure. If anybody’s been robbed it’s not JPMorgan Chase, which can absorb the loss and probably take a tax write-off for at least part of it. No, it’s the American public. In addition to financial heartache we still have been denied the satisfaction of seeing jail time for any of the banksters who put our feet in cement and pushed us off the cliff.
This isn’t the only scandal JPMorgan Chase is juggling. A $6 billion settlement with institutional investors is in the works and criminal charges may still be filed in California. The bank is under investigation on so many fronts it’s hard to keep them sorted out – everything from deceptive sales in its credit card unit to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme to the criminal manipulation of energy markets and bribing Chinese officials by offering jobs to their kids.
Nor is JPMorgan Chase the only culprit under scrutiny. Bank of America was found guilty just this week of civil fraud, and a gaggle of other banks is being investigated by the government for mortgage fraud. No wonder the camp followers at Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC and other cheerleaders have ganged up to whitewash the banks. If justice is somehow served, this could be the biggest egg yet across the smug face of unfettered, unchecked, unaccountable capitalism.
Virginia candidates for governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe (left) and Republican Ken Cuccinelli (right), talk during a forum at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., prior to the November election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
Editor’s Note: Following our posting of this essay, we received a letter from Gary M. Broadbent, Assistant General Counsel and Media Director for Murray Energy Corporation. Our counsel responded and we have received further correspondence from Mr. Broadbent.
If you want to see how grossly money can distort democracy, just go to the state of Virginia, where there are no limits on how big a check can be written for statewide office. Groups and individuals from outside the Old Dominion are taking full advantage, pouring millions into a governor’s race they see as a dry run for the tactics they’ll use in the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential race – sort of the way the Spanish civil war turned out to be a testing ground for many of the deadly weapons of World War II.
Billionaires like environmentalist Tom Steyer on the left and the Koch Brothers on the right are placing their bets, but as they say at the track, the horses they’re backing are just a couple of hay burners. Once the home of Washington and Jefferson, James Madison and Patrick Henry, Virginia now has a choice between two mediocrities slavishly devoted to their wealthy contributors.
The Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, has been in training for years as courtier to the rich. He has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Democratic National Committee, which he chaired for four years and the campaigns of his – Best Friends Forever – Bill and Hillary Clinton, who now are shaking down donors for him. Along the way, according to The Washington Post, this gregarious bagman used government programs, his huge Rolodex of political connections and wealthy investors from both parties to enrich himself. He organized a company to build electric cars and promoted it to investors with a prospectus featuring photographs and ample references to his Clinton ties. He even got the former President to show up at the opening of the plant in Mississippi, along with that state’s former Republican governor, Haley Barbour, who made his fortune as a lobbyist in Washington for the tobacco industry.
Strange bedfellows, these crony capitalists – you may remember that Hillary Clinton’s brother, Tony Rodham was involved, too, searching out foreign investors for the electric cars. When the spotlight of scrutiny crossed their path, McAuliffe resigned from the company, which is now under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The Washington Post also reports that one of McAuliffe’s top twenty donors – at $120,000 — is the Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry, which issues flags of convenience to shipping companies that want to dodge taxes and labor regulations and that McAuliffe invested in an alleged insurance scam that stole identities from the terminally ill. His campaign says that like other investors, McAuliffe was deceived. The fellow in charge of the scheme donated more than $25,000 the last time McAuliffe ran for governor, in 2009. Hmmm…
In a recent debate, his Republican opponent, state attorney general and right wing zealot Ken Cuccinelli, said that if McAuliffe’s elected, they’ll have to change the state’s motto from “Sic Semper Tyrannis” to “Quid Pro Quo.” That’s Latin for you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
But Cuccinelli is in no position to talk. The candidate was drawn into that Virginia money scandal in which Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., CEO of Star Scientific, a company that manufactures dietary supplements, showered lavish presents and perks on the current governor and his wife. Cuccinelli also received a sprinkling of Williams’ largesse. He recently donated the value of what he says he got — $18,000 – to charity.
What’s more, his donor list includes considerable checks from big tobacco and big coal, including Murray Energy Corporation, which has often been fined for endangering the health and safety of its miners. Last year, its boss, Bob Murray, was discovered insisting that employees contribute time and money to his favorite anti-regulatory candidates – including Mitt Romney – or else.
Now Cuccinelli’s touting a major tax cut for the rich, with a plan that, according to the liberal Center for American Progress, would give 47 percent of a proposed tax reduction to the top five percent of Virginians. The state would lose nearly a billion and a half dollars in revenues so the rich can be even richer.
Not surprising, Cuccinelli’s a major climate change denier, as well as a fractious opponent of Obamacare, a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage. He once wanted to make it legal for employers to fire an employee if they were heard speaking Spanish. No wonder he’s the favorite of Citizens United – yes, that Citizens United, the right wing group that got the conservatives on the Supreme Court to give corporations the same free speech rights as real people.
So come Election Day, pity the voters of Virginia. Whether they choose the glad-handing Democrat or the self-righteous Republican, once again, the real winner will be Big Money.
The other day there was this guy in a chicken suit on Pennsylvania Avenue protesting outside the White House. Silly, but the reason the chicken and other demonstrators had crossed the avenue was to deliver a petition of more than half a million names, speaking out against new rules the US Department of Agriculture wants to put into effect – bad rules that would transfer much of the work inspecting pork and chicken and turkey meat from trained government inspectors to the processing companies themselves. Talk about putting the fox in the henhouse!
The revised regulations also call for a substantial speeding up of the disassembly line along which workers use sharp knives and often painful, repetitive hand motions to cut up and clean carcasses of dirt, blood and other contaminants that can cause infection and sickness. Not only will this increase in speed – by 25 percent or more — raise the chance of injury, it makes it easier to miss anything wrong – even deadly — with the meat. To compensate for that, the rules also call for an increase in the use of antimicrobial chemicals sprayed on the meat — but those sprays may actually damage the health of the workers. Inspectors and meat packing employees report instances of asthma, burns, skin rashes, sinus trouble and other respiratory ailments, some of them severe. What’s more, when complaints were made about health or hygiene, the response from employers often came in the form of threats and reprimands. MORE
Lois Lerner at the start of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
A few days ago, Lois Lerner, head of the tax-exempt division of the Internal Revenue Service, retired. But her story will go on because, as Politico’s Lauren French wrote, the thirty-year civil service veteran “is the political piñata that Congress still loves to whack months after she awkwardly acknowledged that the IRS wrongly scrutinized conservative groups for years.”
Three congressional investigations are ongoing and yes, mistakes were made, as the late Republican president and conservative icon Ronald Reagan once said. But in reality, this is a story about how bureaucratic bungling was turned into scandal by right wing politicians desperate to spin gold from straw.
They have sought to create a splash, to score points with their allies, make converts, seize the publicity spotlight and pull in some quick campaign cash while they’re at it. But far worse, their staged controversy has distracted from a real Washington scandal, our inability to rein in the outrageous amounts of money used by the rich and powerful to secretly broker elections and buy our government.
The target of opportunity landed in the right wing’s lap, gift-wrapped and tied with a bow. After all, who doesn’t love to hate the IRS? No one likes paying taxes and an audit is about as welcome as multiple root canal. So when a chance came to go after the dreaded IRS for meddling in politics, the right jumped at it.
If true, it would not have been the first time the IRS had been used for political skullduggery. When Richard Nixon was in the White House and wanted to go after his enemies – such as the Chandler family, owners of the Los Angeles Times – he picked up the phone and called Attorney General John Mitchell. “We’re going after the Chandlers,” Nixon announced. “Every one. Individually, collectively. Their income taxes… Every one of those sons of bitches, is that clear?”
During Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972, he had an enemies list of some 200 names that John Dean, the White House counsel, took to IRS Commissioner Johnnie Mac Walters, hinting that Walters should look for wrongdoing and even pack some of them off to jail. Wisely, Mac Walters locked the list in his safe and kept it there.
Fast-forward forty years and once again the IRS is a political football. But what’s the real story? MORE
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during a news conference at Tiffany and Co. in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
When Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, his Monticello farm team was obviously not what he had in mind. They were chattel, possessions toiling in his fields. So it’s not lightly — or unreasonable — to invoke the plantation mentality to describe the National Football League.
Tom Van Riper, who covers sports for Forbes magazine, points out that of the 31 owners of NFL teams, seventeen — more than half — are billionaires. Many boast of being self-made, in the image of Horatio Alger, but are now ensconced in luxury skyboxes far above the proletarians whose own dreams of glory ride vicariously on the grunts and groans of bulky but agile gladiators only one play away from a career-ending collision with the laws of physics.
For more than a year, public television’s award-winning investigative journalism series FRONTLINE had been collaborating on a new documentary about brain trauma in pro football with journalists from ESPN, the giant sports network. The title: “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” MORE
President Richard Nixon poses in the White House after his announcement to the nation April 30, 1970, that American ground troops have attacked, at his order, a Communist complex in Cambodia. Nixon points to area of Vietnam and Cambodia in which the action is taking place. (AP Photo)
In the wake of all the talk surrounding Mark Leibovich’s controversial book about Washington, This Town, I was asked how that city has changed since I first lived there nearly 45 years ago. The question makes me feel a little like Grandpa Simpson, with an urge to shout in old person non-sequiturs: “We didn’t have airplanes or an airport then. We lassoed swarms of bees and let them take us wherever they wanted to go. Orchards, mostly. And the Capitol dome was made entirely of beef tallow. The Lincoln Memorial was nothing but five pennies and a fake beard!”
Washington has changed a lot. For one thing, we don’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore, although he just popped up again in recent days with the release of the last batch of conversations he secretly taped in the White House. The Russians “slobber at flattery,” he pronounces; he describes West German Chancellor Willy Brandt as a “jerk;” and tells special counsel Chuck Colson to clam up about the Watergate plumbers: “You say we were protecting the security of this country.” That’s our boy. I have often said that back in the day, we didn’t have cable TV in Washington, but we did have Nixon and for sheer entertainment value, he was hard to beat. MORE
That’s what former Rep. Steven LaTourette told National Journal the other day. He was quoted in an article that asked the question, “Is Congress Simply No Fun Anymore?”
No, it isn’t.
Not that it was ever a vacation trip to Busch Gardens (on his honeymoon, an ex-in-law of mine spent a day at that European-themed park in Virginia and came home convinced he’d actually been to six countries). And certainly no one truly misses the 19th century days when members of Congress thrashed other members with canes (although I can imagine the reality show any day now on The Learning Channel).
But seriously. “Although partisanship is an enduring part of American politics, the type of hyper-partisanship we see now — I can’t find a precedent for it in the past 100 years.” So sayeth Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and co-founder of No Labels, which has herded 82 Democratic and Republican lawmakers into a “Problem Solvers Coalition.” Boy, is that ever the triumph of hope over experience.
“If your desire is to get something done, then you’re going to be very frustrated,” Galston explained to National Journal. Those members “who came to Washington to wage ideological war on what they see as a bipartisan status quo, if you ask them, they will say that gumming up the works is not part of the problem, it’s part of the solution. They’re actually happy when legislation doesn’t pass, unless it’s the kind of legislation that they approve of.”
Like passing umpteen useless resolutions to kill Obamacare while Detroit dies, bridges crumble and starving kids can’t get food assistance. Uselessness to the point where even former House Speaker Newt “Let’s Build a Moonbase” Gingrich says most Republican lawmakers have “zero answer” for what they’d do instead of Obamacare: “If we’re going to take on the fight with Obamacare, we have to be able to explain to people what we would do to make your life better.”
He was speaking at the Republican National Committee meeting in Boston. “We are caught up right now in a culture — and you see it every single day,” he said, “where as long as we are negative and as long as we are vicious and as long as we can tear down our opponent, we don’t have to learn anything.”
Okay, GOP, what have you done with the real Newt?
But despite what you’ve heard, the spirit of bipartisanship in Washington is not dead. Simply look past the vitriol, bombast and gridlock, then listen for the ka-ching of the nearest cash register, made flesh by friendly lobbyists and special interests. Their fat wallets and deep pockets bring together Democrats and Republicans like no one else in a collegial spirit of kumbaya as they dive for dollars in exchange for their votes and influence.
Just the other day, The New York Timesreported that one of the plushest places at the table in the capitol is a seat on the House Financial Services Committee, the one that allegedly regulates the banks and Wall Street. In the first half of this year, political action committees “set up by lobbying firms, unions, corporations and other groups trying to push their agenda in Congress” have given more money to its members — nearly nine and a half million dollars — than any other committee.
So many members are clamoring for a seat at the trough that extra chairs had to be installed in the committee room. Freshmen members from both parties, wide-eyed and ripe for the picking, are particular targets for the money machine. One lobbyist told Times reporter Eric Lipton, “It is almost like investing in a first-round draft pick for the NBA or NFL. There is potential there. So we make an investment, and we are hopeful that investment produces a return.”
As Washington journalist Mark Leibovich (an upcoming Moyers & Company guest) writes in his bestseller, This Town:
“Getting rich has become the great bipartisan ideal: ‘No Democrats and Republicans in Washington anymore,’ goes the maxim, ‘only millionaires.’ The ultimate Green party. You still hear the term ‘public service’ thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that self-service is now the real insider play.
Having fun yet? Retiring lawmakers may rightfully be fed up with the institution of Congress, but that hasn’t stopped many of them from using their experience there as a stepping stone to the home version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Many reporters have cited last year’s article in The Atlantic, noting that in 1974, “3 percent of retiring Congressmen became lobbyists. Now it’s 50 percent of Senators, 42 percent of House members.”
“30 House members and senators who left office during the last Congress now work for lobbying firms or for interests that lobby the federal government. They account for nearly two-thirds of the former lawmakers from the 112th Congress that the center has identified as having new jobs.”
Ronald Reagan’s image of Washington as a shining city on a hill, rarely seen these days except at moments of pomp and pageantry, has succumbed to the reality of down and dirty, lucrative deal making. The yeas and nays of Congress yield not to the voice of the people but to the urgent, seductive whisper of the dollar.
In the weeks and months immediately following 9/11, one of the most touching responses in my neighborhood, not far Ground Zero, was the overwhelming support of police and fire departments from around the country. Across the street from my apartment, at the 6th Precinct headquarters from which two officers had rushed to the scene and died, every day a different police contingent from a different town in America guarded our street. And a couple of blocks away, at the Squad 18 firehouse, which lost seven men on September 11, fellow firefighters from all over came to stand vigil and pay their respects. Solidarity.
A flag sits at the base of a flag pole at the site where 19 firefighters died battling an Arizona wildfire on June 30th is shown Tuesday, July 23, 2013 in Yarnell, Ariz. As the fire grew out of control, the firefighters quickly worked to clear the area of scrub and brush hoping to endure the intense heat in their emergency shelters. (AP Photo/Matt York)
All this came back to me when the memorial was held a couple of weeks ago for the 19 firemen who died battling the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona. The tragedy was the worst to befall firefighters since the World Trade Center came down, and the most deadly in eighty years for the men and women who dedicate themselves to taming blazes in the wilderness.
Thousands jammed into an arena in Prescott Valley, Ariz., with the overflow of the crowd in an adjoining parking lot, standing, listening and mourning under the desert sun. There were firefighters there from Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma, but also from Sacramento, Los Angeles – and New York.
Nine days before, the crew members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots had been fatally overtaken by flames and smoke. When the winds picked up and the fire changed direction, surging four miles in twenty minutes, they were trapped, surrounded in a box canyon, trying to save themselves under emergency fire shelters that melted from the heat. MORE
A construction worker silhouetted against the morning sky builds a planned shopping center in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
And you thought the government didn’t have a jobs program. It does. The problem is that the pay and benefits are lousy, and in many cases the working conditions ain’t so great either.
We’re not talking about the civil service. No, as one of two recent reports notes, “Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal contracts, grants, loans, concession agreements and property leases go to private companies that pay low wages, provide few benefits, and offer employees little opportunity to work their way into the middle class. At the same time, many of these companies are providing their executives with exorbitant compensation.”
That’s from “Underwriting Bad Jobs,” an analysis written by Amy Traub and Robert Hiltonsmith at the public policy and advocacy group Demos. “Our tax dollars are fueling the low-wage economy and exacerbating inequality,” they note, whether it’s food vendors peddling hot dogs at the National Zoo in Washington, security guards at federal buildings or men and women sewing military uniforms in Kentucky. Those impacted include healthcare, daycare and construction workers, armored car drivers, janitors and cleaners, prison guards at privately run jails and gift shop cashiers at national parks, museums and monuments.
A young man sizes-up an assault style rifle during the National Rifle Association's annual convention Friday, May 3, 2013 in Houston. (AP Photo/Steve Ueckert)
Back in January, a month after the Newtown school slayings and just a few days before his second inauguration, Barack Obama announced he would “put everything I’ve got” into the fight against gun violence.
Part of his effort — and an end run around a Congress reluctant to make any move that might rile the National Rifle Association — was a group of 23 executive actions that, according to The New York Times, “he initiated on his own authority to bolster enforcement of existing laws, improve the nation’s database used for background checks and otherwise make it harder for criminals and people with mental illness to get guns.”
The report combines data from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and information obtained by the ATF from gun dealers, known as Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs). It makes for fascinating, disturbing reading:
“In 2012, NCIC received reports reflecting 190,342 lost and stolen firearms nationwide. Of those 190,342 lost and stolen firearms reported, 16,667 (9% of the total reported) were the result of thefts/losses from FFLs. Of the 16,667 firearms reported as lost or stolen from a FFL, a total of 10,915 firearms were reported as lost. The remaining 5,762 were reported as stolen.”
Vying for the honor of #1:
“Texas was the top state for total firearms reported lost and stolen in 2012, with 18,874 firearms, which was 10% of all firearms reported lost or stolen in the country. Pennsylvania was the top state for firearms reported lost or stolen from a FFL in 2012 with 1,502 firearms, which was 9% of all firearms reported lost or stolen from a FFL in that year. Pistols were the most common type of firearm reported stolen from a FFL in 2012 with 3,322 reported, while rifles were the most common type of firearm reported lost from a FFL in 2012 with 4,068 reported.”
I’ve just flown back from Vegas, and boy, are my arms tired. And brain boggled. After all these years, it was my first visit, and although I’ve been to Reno and Tahoe and even the casinos of Winnemucca, Nevada — “The Crossroads of the West” — nothing prepared me for the splendor, squalor, sleaze and squander of the ultimate American pleasure dome.
“This is where feminism came to die,” my girlfriend Pat sardonically joked as weary, bikinied women danced on bars and we walked through the heat past the umpteenth sidewalk vendor handing out escort fliers and wearing a neon-colored “Las Vegas Girls Direct to You in 20 Minutes” tee-shirt, a piece of apparel so ubiquitous the casino gift shops now sell them as souvenirs.
Then there was the pop-up “Hitched in a Hurry” wedding chapel along the Strip where too-young, too-inebriated couples dressed in shorts and flip-flops were exchanging vows as passers-by watched through the windows. We fought the urge to build pop-up intervention centers a hundred feet on either side.
None of which is to say we didn’t have a good time, although in some ways it was more a replica of enjoyment, like the fake Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Venetian canals and other reproductions that dot the Vegas landscape. This is America through the distorting, funhouse looking glass, whether it’s the 32-ounce, frozen cocktails in adult sippy cups or (I’m not making this up) the Kardashian Khaos boutique in the Mirage Hotel. MORE
Pregame festivities are shown at AT&T Park before the final game of the World Baseball Classic between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in San Francisco, Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
It was in The San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888, 125 years ago this month, that there first appeared a poem titled, “Casey at the Bat, a Ballad of the Republic.” In the decades since, “Casey” has become the classic ode to baseball as the all-American pastime; its stanzas once memorized by school kids, its lines recited and recorded by everyone from James Earl Jones to Garrison Keillor. So poignant and evocative is its tale that Albert Goodwill Spalding, 19th century professional pitcher, team owner and co-founder of the sporting goods company that still bears his name, wrote, “Love has its sonnets galore. War has its epics in heroic verse. Tragedy its somber story in measured lines. Baseball has ‘Casey at the Bat.’”
The melancholy account of the vainglorious power hitter Casey stepping to the plate, his Mudville team down 4-2 at the bottom of the ninth with two men on base and two outs, epitomizes baseball as the game that will break your heart, especially in its immortal final lines:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright, The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light; And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout, But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.
The poem was written by Ernest Thayer, a college friend of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day who owned the Examiner and the man on whom Orson Welles based Citizen Kane. Thayer used the pen name “Phin,” and was paid five dollars for his masterpiece, or around $125 at today’s prices.
I know of some baseball employees who can relate to that kind of bargain basement salary, and they’re in San Francisco, too. They’re not the A-Rods, Riveras and Pujols who pull down ten million and more. The people I mean are the 800 concession workers who sell hot dogs and beer, serve and clean the restaurants, and cater to the luxury skyboxes at AT&T Park, home of the 2012 World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Employed by a South Carolina-based company called Centerplate, their jobs only last the six months of the season and they make but $11,000 a year, right at the poverty line for a single individual in the United States. Their situation is yet another flagrant example of the vast and widening gap created by income inequality in America.
“Concession workers at the park earn their $11,000 in a city where a one-bedroom apartment runs $3,000 a month and people are spending near that much to live in laundry rooms and unventilated basements. These same workers, who commute as much as two hours each way to get to the park, have now gone three years without a pay increase. This despite the fact that the value of the team, according to Forbes, has increased 40 percent, ticket prices have spiked and the cost of a cup of beer has climbed to $10.25. This also despite the fact that, as packed sellouts become the norm, the stress and toil of the job has never been greater.”