Point of View Columns

Weekend Edition – July 23, 2010

The summer continues to sizzle and it may be a while before cooler heads prevail. Nevertheless, thoughts of the past week and the future come to mind:

African Americans of a certain age might have known the name “Shirley Sherrod” prior to this week. Those who have a more nuanced perspective on the history of the civil rights movement in the America of the 1960’s might have recognized the name “Sherrod”. Before this week some might have known that Shirley Sherrod and her husband were leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Georgia at a time when membership in SNCC was a death-defying act. Some might even recall an old Jet magazine story that would have detailed the murder of Shirley Sherrod’s father by white men who were never imprisoned, never tried, never indicted indeed, they were never arrested.
As this week comes to an end, we all know her name. But we don’t know her name because of her fine and historic work with disenfranchised black and white farmers in the South. She is not a household name because of her incredible ability to overcome pain with compassion and to replace vengeance with redemption.
Unfortunately, America knows Shirley Sherrod because she has been victimized. First by the slime blogger, Andrew Breitbart, who intentionally put an out of context portion of a speech by Ms. Sherrod on his site, creating the false impression that she was the incarnation of the mythical black reverse racist victimizing defenseless white people. Her speech was the exact polar opposite of this slime bite and Breitbart knew it, or should have known it.
And then Ms. Sherrod was victimized by the NAACP and its president Benjamin Jealous. When shown the Breitbart clip, Jealous and his staff didn’t try to find a tape of the entire speech (clearly easily available), and accepted the Breitbart slime bite as gospel and attacked Ms. Sherrod as a reverse racist and called for her ouster from the United States Department of Agriculture.
And then, in the continuation of a story that takes on mythic tragic characteristics, the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture orders her to resign immediately. She was asked to resign even though the only basis for such an order was the Breitbart slime bite. Due process, human decency and common sense should have given Ms. Sherrod the opportunity to defend herself against this bit of internet calumny. But it was clearly important for Ms. Sherrod to be an ex-employee of the USDA prior to the Fox News cycle of that evening.
When the truth about Ms. Sherrod began to bubble up through the accumulated slime and bile and bigotry, it became clear to the White House, USDA, the NAACP and even Fox News that she had been wronged. Fox News apologized. The NAACP apologized (Mr. Jealous claimed that he was “snookered”. Perhaps he should have added “hoodwinked and bamboozled” for good measure). The White House apologized. USDA apologized and offered Ms. Sherrod a new job.
But it is clear that this shameful episode reveals much more than the unwarranted and thoughtless attack on a woman who has led a good and respectful and productive life. The episode also reveals the paucity of good judgment that would permit news organizations, a major civil rights organization, the White House and a major federal agency to stomp on the reputation of a respected individual with no evidence greater than an unsubstantiated slime bite from a blogger of questionable virtue and veracity.
Whoever put the “jerk” in knee jerk was overzealous in the extreme. I am aware of no place in the private sector where due process would not permit an accused employee to respond to the kind of charges leveled against Ms. Sherrod prior to the extreme step of termination – particularly in this economy.
Was the NAACP so afraid that the mythical reverse racist black person was indeed real? Like finding out that Big Foot lived next door? Was the USDA and the White House so afraid of Fox News highlighting a possible reverse racist black person that the nation could not survive for another 24 hours while some basic due diligence was completed?
Perhaps it would be helpful to ask Van Jones, the departed green initiatives czar what happens at the White House when Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, et. al., start baying at the moon and howling for your blood.

A Man of Hope…..
In the unlikely story that is America, there’s never been anything false about hope.
~Barack Obama
Like many things in life, the internet can be fascinating and annoying. There are many too many bits and pieces of unnecessary information that come across our screens every time we go online. And then there are nuggets of news and thought that make browsing worthwhile.
I just received a note suggesting that on August 4th, Barack Obama’s birthday; there should be an effort to celebrate. Not so much observing the President’s birthday as using that occasion as an opportunity to reaffirm the belief in hope and progress and change that brought about the unlikely story that is President Barack Obama.
And it may be about the right time for reaffirmation. The fulminations of Michael Steele and John Kyl and Eric Cantor and Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin can dull the senses after awhile. The constant artillery barrage of the nihilist fringe of the Tea Party movement along with the Foxinistas like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity could lead to thinking that 2008 was just a mirage and the “reality” of the right wing of the right wing is in the ascendancy.
But the purported right wing ascendancy is the mirage. In less than eighteen months the Obama Administration has reconfigured health care in this country after over a half century of failed efforts. The ravages of a sustained depression that would have eviscerated this country were avoided due to the boldness and alacrity of the President.
The financial reform legislation just signed into law was the most comprehensive overhaul of this nation’s financial services sector since the Great Depression. In over two centuries this country had two women appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. In less than two years President Obama has appointed two women to the Supreme Court of the United States. And we should not forget the historic $1.25 billion resolution of the decades of discrimination claims by black farmers against the United States Department of Agriculture.
And there are the items that truly defy metrics. For example, it is widely agreed that the international reputation and global image of the United States were at historic lows two years ago. It is also widely agreed that the reputation and image of this country have been rehabilitated, enhanced and burnished by the new President. The value of this improvement is incalculable and of value for generations to come.
It is true that President Obama has revealed his humanity and has erred. Once is clearly too much for some zealots and true believers. But the errors and lapses in judgment are far outweighed by the historic accomplishments and the continuation of promise and hope that this president has brought to the American people.
And that is why it might be a good thing to use August 4th as a day of celebration as some have suggested. We can use the day to celebrate the fulfillment of promises and to reaffirm our belief in the power of hope and the strength of dreams and the possibility of change. There will be those who continue to mock the power of hope – John McCain and Sarah Palin immediately come to mind.
I will leave the mocking to the smaller minds. I know that I am not prepared to cede the future of this country to those who would make it smaller and meaner and less just.
On August 4th I just might get my “CHANGE” banner out of the closet and dust off my “HOPE” button and work a little harder with my fellow believers in making some more dreams come true.

Have a great weekend!

Excerpts from "The Pride"

The Pride – Chapter 3

“The Pride” is my first novel, originally published by Kensington Books -www.kensingtonbooks.com – in 2005. The sequel, “What You Sow”, was published (also by Kensington) in 2006.
“The Pride” describes a world where politics, investment banking, corporate finance and a multitude of passions intersect. Although “The Pride” is a novel and therefore fiction, it describes a world and a way of life that is very real.
During the coming weeks, chapters of “The Pride” will be published on this site and I hope that you will be interested enough in reading “The Pride” that you will want to get the entire book, available at http://www.amazon.com, http://www.bn.com, http://www.borders.com and at many community-based bookstores around the United States.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy “The Pride”.

Now Introducing…….

I remember the end of that evening. When the last guests had been served and all the tables had been cleaned and set for Saturday’s brunch service, I sat in the now dimly lit dining room, sipping some Felipe II brandy and simply inhaled the wonderful, sentient experience of finally being where I wanted to be. The pianist in the bar that is just off the dining room was playing George Shearing’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” in a haunting, yet lilting style, the million billion lights of Manhattan reflected off the waters of the river. Off in the distance I could even make out the microdots of lights that were jumbo jets circling Kennedy Airport, bringing more dreamers like me to America at that late hour.
It was at this moment that I had my own personal revelation, an epiphany of sorts. The outline of my personal dream came to me. If I could have anything in this wonderful world amidst this explosion of humanity, I would have a restaurant like this. I would serve fine food and great wine and mingle with the best of the best in the world. I would bathe in the reflected starlight of my guests and friends and patrons and be more than happy. I would be fulfilled. At that point all I knew about the restaurant business was how to wash dishes, but one night in an actual restaurant told me that my dream was the right one for me.
And it was at that point the owner of the Water Club, Buzzy O’Keefe, happened to come by, checking on his restaurant before closing up for the night. I later came to know Buzzy as a very smart businessman, who was able to build a successful restaurant based on his ability to understand people. That particular night he seemed to be able to read my mind, almost seeing my dreams as if they were being broadcast on a wide-screen television. I have never found out if maybe he had the same dreams once upon a time.
Buzzy noticed me in my late night, after work reverie and told me that he had been watching me and that he liked my work. He offered me a full time waiter’s position and I accepted it in a heartbeat, afraid that he might change his mind before my dream started to come true and I wound up waking in the darkness of disappointment. And that turned out to be the true beginning of my beginning in the restaurant business.
I didn’t learn how to be a good waiter. I learned how to be a great waiter. I also learned how to be a great wine steward and a great maitre’d. Our guest have to decide for themselves as to whether I have become a great restaurateur when they visit Dorothy’s, just south of the Chelsea Piers and north of the World Financial Center, on the West Coast of Manhattan.
Duringthe next decade of working my way up the ladder at the Water Club, I learned about a lot more than the restaurant business. I learned about life in the greatest city in the world,
Working in that restaurant was like having a ringside seat at the wildest, most bizarre and most beautiful circus ever. The Water Club was a veritable epicurean carnival. The supermodels and the tycoons, the actresses and the hustlers, the sycophants and the pseudo-hip, the has-beens and the wannabees, all were part of the cavalcade that I was privileged to observe and serve. There are many jobs that an immigrant from Norway could land in New York City. I have always felt that I got the best. I have no idea what second would be, but it wouldn’t even be close.
Even now, as I stand on the deck of Dorothy’s, overlooking the Hudson River’s shimmering wavelets, I reflect upon my good fortune. I also reflect upon the fact that the Law of Unintended Consequences controls so much of life. That “Law” is a term used by my friend, benefactor and business partner, Paul Taylor.
Paul is a lawyer, businessman and a charter member of The Pride. Indeed, it was Paul who first made me even realize that there was something called “The Pride”. And it was Paul who first introduced me to the Law of Unintended Consequences.
The “Law” goes something like this – whatever your plan might be, there is always a strong probability that something is going to happen that is totally unplanned. To put it another way, one can be assured that something will occur as the result of a plan that will be unplanned.
To put it yet another way – be prepared for the unexpected. And it was this Law, which introduced me to Paul in the first place. It was the Law that resulted in my being a part owner and host of Dorothy’s by the Sea.
Despite it cosmopolitan veneer and its ultra liberal reputation, when it comes to matters of race New York City can be strangely conservative and segregated. As a schoolchild in Norway I read that there was a time in this country when there were signs on public restrooms, hotels and restaurants, restricting access to whites only. As an immigrant and an outsider I realize that it is easy to be critical as the ethnic and racial differences that we in Norway face are much more.
Nevertheless, upon getting off my SAS flight in New York City in the late 1980’s, I was certain that the racial divide about which I had learned was a thing of the past, especially in New York City. I was also certain that since all the civil rights bills had been passed that there was true integration, certainly in a major international city like New York. I could not have been more wrong.
When I was working in the kitchens of various restaurants, I had no idea of what was going on outside in the serving area. A dirty plate needs washing. That was all I needed to know. However it was not too hard to notice certain realities when I started working the tables at the Water Club. The first time I could take a moment to look around it was obvious-the complexion and racial makeup of the patrons made me think I had made a wrong turn coming out of the kitchen and that I was back in Oslo. Where were the black people?
I often wondered why a question like this would even come to the mind of one of the finest sons of Bergen, Norway. And I realized that the answer was simple and so very obvious.
When I came to America, I had seen black people on virtually all the sports programs and in many movies and television shows. Black music, black fashion and black style seemed to me to be very real aspects of American culture. As someone observing America through various media presentations, black people seemed to me to be a major and significant component of American culture, far out of proportion to the 12% of the population that black people represent.
It was with a dawning realization that I finally took note of the fact that very few black people ever came into the Water Club as guests. Over the years, I learned that it was not just the Water Club – it could be Lutece, the Gotham Grill, “21”, Windows on the World – it was almost as if someone had hung a “Whites Only” sign on the door that only blacks could see and read.
A dozen years later I am still trying to come to grips with this New York City phenomenon. Many books have been written and many books will be written about this particularly New York phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that correctly characterizes New York City as the most diverse and cosmopolitan city in the world. Yet this city is virtually segregated at the highest levels of commerce, culture and social intercourse.
True to the Law of Unintended Consequences, it would stand to reason that, at a place like the Water Club, the de facto segregation was noticeable. And, true to the Law of Unintended Consequences, and in a strange and almost predestined way, it would stand to reason that I would come to know Paul Taylor and learn about The Pride.
It would also stand to reason that meeting Paul and learning about The Pride would open yet another new and exciting chapter in my life.