City for Sale–Lessons, Parallels, Ironies (continued)

Trump is a minor character in the 1988 book City for Sale chronicling New York City corruption under Mayor Ed Koch, but his limited appearances are revealing. Even back then, Trump had close advisors who had conflicts of interest. In the late 1970s, Trump was seeking his first Manhattan real estate deal by converting an aged 42d Street hotel into what would become the Grand Hyatt. Trump turned for assistance to lawyer Roy Cohn, who had first gained national publicity as an aide to Joe McCarthy during the height of “McCarthyism.” Cohn approached Stanley Friedman, a deputy mayor under Abe Beame, the mayor before Koch. Friedman was also the Democratic political leader of the Bronx. Cohn promised Friedman a partnership in Cohn’s firm at the end of Beame’s tenure, which Friedman accepted. Friedman then “frantically forced city bureaucrats to tie together all the loose ends of a package for Cohn client Donald Trump’s renovation of the old Commodore Hotel on 42d Street.” Tax abatements had not previously been granted real estate projects unless financing for the deal was in place, but Trump got an unprecedented forty-two-year tax abatement to convert the Commodore into the Grand Hyatt without having first secured financing. This gave “Trump the largest tax write-off in city history.” In addition, Trump got a permit for the new hotel’s Garden Room to overhang 42d Street. “Trump, largely because of the success of this deal, would become one of Cohn and Friedman’s prize clients.”

Of course, many have noticed the irony when Trump, who had Roy Cohn as lawyer and mentor, labeling the Mueller investigation as “McCarthyism.” Trump’s recent invective, however, had a Koch parallel from thirty years ago. Daily News reporter Marcia Kramer started breaking seamy stories about Bess Myerson, Koch’s friend (who had been Miss America) and a commissioner in Koch’s administration, Andy Capasso, who was Myerson’s lover, and Judge Hortense Gabel, who was judicially involved with Capasso’s messy divorce. When Kramer reported that Myerson had befriended Gabel’s troubled daughter and hired the daughter for a city position while the mother was making rulings favorable to Capasso, Koch labeled the stories “McCarthyism.” Kramer labored on because she “understood Koch well enough to interpret his lashing out with invective like ‘McCarthyism’ to mean that she had struck a nerve and was on the right track.”

The reporter had to feel a certain justification the next year when the U.S. Attorney indicted Myerson, Capasso, and Gabel. Newfield and Barrett state, “The basic facts outlined by the indictment were in the stories published by the Daily News in May and June 1986, which the mayor had deplored as ‘McCarthyism’.” Oh, and who was that U.S. Attorney? The present mouthpiece for Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani was not only aware of Trump back then but also of some of the future president’s shady deals. During Koch’s three terms as mayor, Giuliani’s office indicted Stanley Friedman, and Rudy personally tried the case. Friedman took the stand, and in what turned out to be a blistering cross-examination, Giuliani started by asking Friedman “about the excessive hotel tax abatement package he’d put together for Donald Trump, and his subsequent representation of Trump.” Although I can’t be sure, I doubt that Trump and Giuliani swap stories about their interactions with Friedman, who was convicted of getting kickbacks for rigging contracts with New York City and spent four years in prison. (Friedman appealed unsuccessfully. His appellate lawyer—Alan Dershowitz.)

But I do wonder if Giuliani ever wants to say something to the president about normal, or at least Rudy’s, prosecutorial tactics. As I write this, Trump and Fox news are trying to dismiss anything said by Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer until recently, because Cohen has admitted to lying. Meanwhile, Cohen and others the president is trying to denigrate are hoping to get reduced sentences for crimes they have admitted by giving information to the prosecutor. In perhaps every trial described in City for Sale that was prosecuted by Giuliani’s office, the prosecution presented witnesses who both were proven liars and who hoped to get reduced sentences for their cooperation. But my guess is that Rudy never mentions such inconvenient facts to Donald. And when complaints come that the FBI or Mueller have used abusive investigative techniques, I doubt that Giuliani says, “Oh, that’s nothing. Remember the Stanley Friedman trial? Remember that I bugged the defense attorney Tom Puccio even though he was my friend and a former prosecutor. Now that was hardball!” (Eavesdropping revealed nothing untoward on Puccio’s part.)

Concluded December 21)

City for Sale–Lessons, Parallels, Ironies

I recently read a book published in 1988, City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York, by Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett, who were investigative reporters of that time. Koch was New York Mayor from January 1, 1979, through December 31, 1989, and the book is about the corruption, mostly from machine politicians, in New York City during the time of Koch’s administration. Koch first ran as a reformer and an anti-political machine candidate, but after he was elected, while making a failed attempt to become governor, he turned to the machines for support and then became allied with them.

The thesis is not the Koch was corrupt in the sense of seeking money, but in seeking to maintain political power, he turned a blind eye or was willfully ignorant of the corruption around him. The authors conclude: “Ed Koch’s tragic flaw had been a desire for power, not money. He became the mayor who didn’t want to know. Admiring his own performance, he didn’t notice anyone else’s. While he had been gazing into the mirror, his city had been for sale.”

The book was enjoyable to me partly to read about people whom I had not thought about for a long time, like Donald Manes, Meade Esposito, Stanley Friedman, Mario Biaggi, and so on. It was surprising to come across colleagues and friends who, unbeknownst to me, had had peripheral, noncorrupt roles in the scandals. It was almost nostalgic to revisit times when headlines and news reports were dominated by the bizarre plots and maneuverings of local politicians instead of the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up of the national politics of today. City for Sale, however, was also interesting for present-day lessons, parallels, and ironies.

The two authors, both of whom worked for the Village Voice during most of the chronicled events, drew heavily on their own investigative reporting but also utilized reports by many others who worked for the daily newspapers and local television stations. This made me wonder who today would cover comparable corruption stories since newspapers are disappearing and investigative budgets have dwindled. This could be as good a time as any to be corrupt, at least if it is kept local and does not attract national attention.

Although they came to office decades apart, I find parallels between Mayor Koch and President Trump. Koch was obsessed with the media and from early in his career looked for his name in the papers every day and sought to learn whether radio and TV had mentioned him. And he was good copy. “Koch had both a mastery of and an infatuation with the media. . . . Koch bombarded the public with foreign policy pronouncements, restaurant recommendations, opinions on pending court cases, and burlesque put-downs of his critics as wackos and kooks—all delivered in perfect, pithy, thirty-second sound bites for radio and television.” Twitter did not exist then, but if he could master the sound bite, surely Koch would have mastered twitter. Trump, who was coming of business age in New York during this time, must have envied Koch’s frequent domination of the media. But the parallel between Koch and Trump is not complete. Koch did seek the limelight constantly, but he also seemed to have some interest in actual governing.

(continued December 19.)

Snippets–Sicily Edition (continued)

Sicilians with a desire for lingonberry jam have a problem. There is but one Ikea in all of Sicily.

 

“The Sicilian language is the only one in Europe that has no future tense.” Albert Mobilio, “Introduction” to Leonardo Sciascia, The Wine-Dark Sea.

 

When I commented that the hotel numbering did not have a Room 17, a Sicilian man responded that seventeen is considered bad luck in Italy.

 

As I placed a Sicilian history onto a bookshelf in a hotel lobby, I immediately concluded that I was not going to exchange it for the Italian copy there of Bartleby the Scrivener.

 

Aristotle’s Poetics “is remarkable for many reasons, including the pleasure to be found in reading Aristotle on tragedy, as if it has just been invented, speaking confidently about how no one knows the origins of comedy, but that probably it is from Sicily.” Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

 

Before going, I consulted a reading list about Sicily. It contained more books than I was willing to read. I decided to eschew travel guides like Michelin and Fodors, but even so the listins of histories, travel writing, books about Sicilian art, architecture, or food, and novels and short stories set in Sicily was long. I used a happenstance method to make my selections. First, I went to my local library and read anything they had on Sicily. (See post of June 19, 2017: https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=barrett) Then I went to my favorite bookstores to see what they may have that was on the list. (See post of December 22, 2017: https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=strand)

The histories taught me that Sicily was subject to many foreign rulers: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Bourbons. I read about Sicily in World War II and how the Sicilians treated the Allies as liberators as they pushed Germany off the island. I wondered how the Sicilians reconciled that response with the fact that Italy was fighting side by side with Germany. I read shocking histories about the Sicilian mafia; I read a memoir of an English woman who wrote charmingly about the house she inherited near Taormina and her guests there; I read a cultural history which blended many different aspects of Sicilian culture and history; and I was introduced to a writer of significance who was new to me.

From my reading, I learned that two Sicilians had won the Nobel Prize for literature. One was the poet Salvatore Quasimodo, whose name I tried to learn how to pronounce on the trip. (See post of November 19, 2018.) I had not been aware of him before, but I seldom read poetry, and I did not seek out any of his works.

The other was Luigi Pirandello, who lived from 1867 to 1936. I had read his controversial play Six Characters in Search of an Author in college (see post of May 9, 2018: https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=Downer) and consequently thought of him as a playwright, but I now learned that he wrote novels and short stories. His works, however, did not appear on the Sicilian reading list. He was born in Sicily, but he moved away and did not write specifically about the island. Sicily may claim him, but he was not so much a Sicilian writer, as an Italian writer.

Pirandello was akin to the opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, who died at the age of 34 early in the nineteenth century. Bellini was born in Catania, Sicily, but he left for Naples when he was eighteen where he lived for eight years. He then moved to northern Italy, London, and finally Paris. His operas were not composed in or about Sicily, but Sicily claims him. He died in Paris and was buried there, but forty years later his body was disinterred and taken for reburial in Catania.

Bellini was famous and successful in his lifetime, but his works became less popular in the first half the twentieth century. That changed with Maria Callas, who often sang his operas, most notably Norma, which contains one of the most famous and difficult of soprano arias. I have not seen much opera, but I have seen Norma twice. Both were notable. The second time for the beauty of the music; the first time for an audience reaction. A famous soprano had the title role (I don’t remember who), but she was aging, and the aria had been transcribed down for her. The opera world seems to love controversy, and this was controversial. Decades ago when this happened, the Metropolitan Opera House had a room for a private dinner club before performances. The members were all men and all in formal attire. They sat together in the first ring. As the aria was about to begin, they stood up in unison and silently filed out of the theater.

“Norma” is now the designation for a pasta in Sicily. Pasta alla Norma consists of sautéed eggplant, a light tomato sauce, basil, and ricotta salata and can be found on almost any Sicilian restaurant menu. (I also saw pizza Norma.) This is apparently a traditional Sicilian dish, but its designation seems to be a recent creation. On the trip, we visited an old farmhouse surrounded by olive and almond trees. We had a cooking demonstration by the charming owner, who was, I guess, about seventy and had lived her whole life in Sicily. Somehow pasta alla Norma came up, and she scoffed at the designation. She said she had first heard that term only in the past two decades. I asked what the dish was called when she grew up, and she replied, “Fettucine with eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata.” Sicily is an ancient place with many venerable traditions, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t succumb to some modern marketing too.

(concluded Dec. 3)

Support Your Friendly Library

There weren’t books in my house growing up. There was reading material, however. Two newspapers were delivered daily, and a third came once a week. There were magazines. I think the parents subscribed to Reader’s Digest. I read some of its articles, but mostly I went to the anecdotes and jokes. There were many other magazines that came from friends of my mother’s who passed them on to her when they were through with them—Life, Look, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal. And I exaggerate when I say no books were in the house. There was an encyclopedia and a few textbooks that seemed as if they came from my father’s high school days, but there were not the kind of books a second grader who discovered he liked reading wanted.

I soon found the public library. It may have been a mile from the house, but in those days, a mile was nothing. A two-story building with the adult section on the entrance floor and the youth books upstairs. I fell in love with two series: Freddy the Pig books and what I thought of as orange biographies. I don’t remember much about the Freddy tales, but the biographies were so labeled in my mind because they all had orange covers. Of appropriate length for a third grader, they were hero books with an emphasis on the childhoods of Thomas Edison or Andrew Jackson, but they also contained enough about the subject’s adulthoods for me to learn much about history. I believe that these books have stayed with me, forming much of my background knowledge about various personages and historical eras.

Perhaps because I was shy, I read constantly, even while walking to and from school. It was not long before I felt I had exhausted the offerings of the children’s section of the local public library.  Luck befell me in the person of Miss Dahlberg, my sixth-grade teacher. She recognized my dilemma and went with me to the public library. I don’t remember at what age one qualified to take books out of the adult section, but it certainly was not the sixth grade. Miss Dahlberg talked with library directors, and then some higher-up  library directors. She knew how to hold her ground. (None of us kids would have been surprised. We all knew she had been a WAC during WWII and had even parachuted out of a plane!) What had been rigid rules for the library were no match for her, and I walked out with a library card that granted me adult privileges.  (Actually, inked on it was “Adult Priviledges.” Miss Dahlberg knew how to be gracious in victory. She noted the misspelling and told me that it would not matter, and we left the library.)

This golden card allowed me to enter a new stage in my reading. There was no one to tell me what were good books or what books they had enjoyed. I certainly did not then read book reviews. Instead, I would walk the stacks, read jacket copy, read a few paragraphs or pages and then used gut intuition to take out books. Thus, the reading at this stage was random. Only years later did I gain direction and would perhaps read one Hemingway or Fitzgerald after the other.  Well, there was one direction that came before that. I was soon at the age where there was an interest in male-female relationships, and I would spend many hours skimming books back in the shelves looking for some sort of sex scene, but I seldom checked such books out.

I remember little of what I read from these directionless days except, perhaps, for The Mouse that Roared, and its sequels, by Leonard Wibberley. The Cold War satire was a delight, a precursor in my mind to Dr. Strangelove, but like that movie, it also hit my emerging views that the powerful– whether the military, political, corporate, or social–were to be distrusted. If I had then talked about books with others, I would have insisted that all read it.

The other book I remember from that period was different in that I did not stumble across it—From Here to Eternity by James Jones. I am not sure how I became aware of the book; even if I had read about books, I would have been too young when the book was published, or even when the movie of it came out, for it to have registered with me. But somehow a half dozen years or so after its publication, I decided I wanted to read it, and I went looking for it on the shelves of the Mead Public Library. I did not find it, and then I learned that in that staid period the book was too explosive or controversial to be allowed on the shelves. A potential reader had to ask for it at the front desk. I did, and this caused consternation. No one apparently wanted to be the one responsible for corrupting this youth by giving him this book, but I insisted that the library had granted me “adult priviledges.” After much discussion behind closed doors, the book was produced, and I was allowed to check it out. Perhaps the library staff did not want to take on Miss Dahlberg again.

This was the first adult book that mesmerized me. The beach scene famous from the movie was not the real draw. The sprawling narrative was captivating, but it was the character of Robert E. Lee Prewitt that totally grabbed me—a Hamlet, a Tony Zale, a Miles Davis, a Kierkegaardian zen figure, a lover, a friend, an anti-authoritarian, a patriot. Of course I was not alone in these reactions, but I did feel that the character talked especially to me.

Life moved on, and I went off to college. Now a library was different. It was a research institution, not a place for browsing to find material to fill up my idle hours. I said good-bye to the kind of library that had helped form me. Now I did what had once been a radical act for me; I bought books and rather than checking them out of libraries.

That pattern remained for decades. It only got altered when I started spending summers in the Poconos and finally became a regular patron of the Barrett Friendly Library. It is smaller than my hometown one, but it has a similar feel. Of course, libraries have changed since my youth. Many still go to that library for its books, but now many also come to use the computers,  but even this latter group really come to the library for the reasons I did. I didn’t have books at home, and they do not have books and computers at their home.  Recently I read about a county out West that had slashed its already low taxes more and as a result was closing its public library. I felt a despair for the place and a grief for all the kids there who did not have access to books and computers.

Owning computers, I am one who goes to the library for the books, and the library has brought back some of my old browsing ways. I don’t wander the general fiction and nonfiction shelves as I would have in olden days. Instead, I browse the bookcases of “new releases,” an often generous ascription in this small library because a volume can remain “new” for over a year. At the beginning of summer, I concentrate on the nonfiction and biography sections. While on occasion I spot a title that I have heard about from elsewhere, most of the books are previously unknown to me. I just look for topics that I might find interesting, and since the collections are diverse, this has led to varied subjects. Last year from the library I read about class and poverty in America, a North Korean pilot who defected, the CIA, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, the connection between corporate America and a form of Christianity, surfing, modern China, and a Jesuit traveling in the Holy Land.

I feel like this library has returned me full circle to reading habits I had when still in Wisconsin public schools, but more important, it has reminded me of how important the library was in my formation and how important it must still be for the many who are raised in homes without the resources that too many of us just take for granted. A long time ago I had vowed that if I ever published a book, I would make a donation to my childhood library, and both events eventually happened. Now the wife and I have given money to the Friendly Library, and of course, I urge you to support a local library—volunteer or donate money, or both.