Jewish World Review Oct. 17, 2001/ 30 Tishrei, 5762


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Mr. Big Stuff -- ONE of my favorite New Republic articles in recent weeks was Michael Crowley's devastating Oct. 22 portrait of Joe Biden (as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the presidential aspirant is racking up more appearances on political talk shows than any other Democrat), in which the author describes the Delaware Senator as a publicity hog who often speaks without thinking. (I guess he learned from John McCain's successful stint as de facto commander-in-chief during the Kosovo intervention in the spring of 1999.)

Liberal journalists have begun to attack Republicans, as well as the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, for "exploiting" the nation's crisis to steamroll partisan legislation through Congress. That means a renewed fight for drilling in the ANWR and the blueprint for an immediate economic stimulus that gives incentives to corporations and entrepreneurs to invest in their companies and create jobs, rather than raiding the "lockbox" to air-drop dollar bills around the country. (Preferably in urban areas and union towns.)

But as Crowley points out, no politician, even in wartime, forgets his or her hobbyhorses. So he recounts an October morning at the Capitol when Biden is met by a delegation of airline pilots and flight attendants who were hoping to gain his support for emergency relief for laid-off airlines personnel.

Crowley: "Biden nods as the men and women cluster around him with fawning smiles. Then he speaks. 'I hope you will support my work on Amtrak as much as I have supported you.' (Biden rides Amtrak to work every day and is obsessed with the railroad.) 'If not, I will screw you badly... You've not been good to me. You're also damn selfish. You better listen to me...'"

Crowley describes Biden's sudden omnipresence on CNN, Hardball, Larry King, Peter Jennings, etc., and recognizes the ambitious Senator's good political fortune. North Carolina's Sen. John Edwards in 2004? John Who? Crowley continues: "[His high profile is] good news for a man who is thinking seriously about running for president in 2004. But is it good for the Democratic Party? Biden is tough and he's an internationalist. Unfortunately he's also legendary for speaking impulsively and leaving others to clean up the mess. 'He lacks the filter,' says one Democratic strategist. Or as a senior foreign policy aide put it: '[Biden] is an unguided missile.' Not exactly the persona you want out front when the country is at war."

Last Friday afternoon, up to my ears with the NBC/New York Times anthrax bulletins, Junior and I hiked up to Canal St. carrying sleeping bags and backpacks, steeling ourselves for the rush-hour hell of hailing a vacant cab. The destination was his Upper East Side school, where about 25 third-graders were gathering at 6 p.m. for an all-night slumber party, an event that was in the works since last April. A wholesome diversion, I reasoned, even though the notion of sacking out on the gymnasium floor with a battalion of hyper eight-year-olds, high as kites on a combination of sugar, pizza, the last throes of pure innocence, plus preteen bravado, was somewhat daunting.

I was one of nine dads who were the putative chaperones, and we greeted each other with sighs of resignation, anticipating the chaos ahead, everyone identifying with Sydney Carton's final words before his execution in A Tale of Two Cities. I suppose the adults would've had a similar grin-and-bear-it demeanor had the sleepover occurred pre-Sept. 11, as far as knowing that we'd all get two hours of sleep and have neck-cricks the following morning; we'd attempt to provide some semblance of order with the kids, who'd been planning pranks and innocuous mischief for several weeks beforehand.

But of course the mood was gloomy; even as we participated in games of dodgeball and capture-the-flag, watched Simpsons videos and talked sports, the events of the last five weeks cast an eerie and at times apocalyptic pall over the evening. Gather nine grown men who live and work in New York City and you can imagine the conversation's tenor. There wasn't one among us who hadn't taken a hit from the city's paralysis; many knew victims of the WTC/Pentagon disasters, most had suffered serious business setbacks, all were concerned about the effects on their families and no one had a clue about the future. While the boys were running around the gym-Junior was on the stage in full white-rapper attire, acting as an MC for a spell-we debated the hundreds of issues facing the country and city.

A father who lapped me by 10 years-a Times liberal who was active in the civil rights movement at the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus-knew that my family lived downtown and his first question was: "Are you talking to anyone?" As in the psychiatrist category, a profession that's probably one of the few that's surged in recent weeks. No, I replied, but Mrs. M and I were doing the best we could. Our boys were lucky they didn't witness the despicable mayhem of that day-they'd already been shuffled up to school-but MUGGER III has occasional bombing-/funeral-related nightmares and Junior has bottled up his despair. One night last week, after he'd fallen asleep to an MTV video, we noticed a sketch our budding cartoonist had completed that day. It was a stark drawing of the Twin Towers, with the letters "R.I.P" on top, and American flags at the bottom of each structure.

Another fellow, whose travel business had plummeted, was almost rabid, rattling on in vain about the United States' dependence on overseas oil, the gross inefficiency of the FBI and CIA since the Berlin Wall fell in '89 and the depressing prospect of an inept mayor replacing Rudy Giuliani next year. Digging deeper, he predicted the certainty of World War III, the Armageddon that's been forecast by philosophers, religious zealots, astrologers and busybodies for the past thousand years.

Who can argue with such dire armchair analysis? I take a more moderate view, believing the civilized world will snuff out the core of organized terrorism in the next three years, meaning that America will suffer random acts of barbarism every year, but not on the scale that lunatics like bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Arafat envision. But don't trust my optimism-I was convinced that justice would prevail when Bill Clinton was impeached (and had the economy been in freefall back in '98, he'd have been out on his ear), and also bet on the Red Sox every spring to finally win another World Series.

I hadn't opened a sleeping bag in more than 30 years, since my days as a Boy Scout back in Huntington, so these rustic accommodations were a drastic deviation from my routine. But as I settled next to Junior on the floor, the two of us wishing all the chattering would stop, it was a tender moment I won't forget. A few hours earlier we'd spoken to Mrs. M, and MUGGER III, very sleepy, said: "Dad, is the sleepover the greatest thing ever? I wish you could've snuck me into the school."

Not all the "campfire" chatter was gloomy: the grownups spoke with pride about their sons' scholastic, athletic or artistic achievements; we reminisced about high school and college; and there were periodic reports on the progress of the Diamondbacks-Cards playoff game. Like most Americans, we all had a pre-Sept. 11 story to tell.

We'd been in Nantucket the weekend before the attacks, gathered with the extended Smith clan to celebrate the marriage of my niece Zoe to Andy Jaye, an upstanding young man who also happens to be a diehard Sox fan. We stayed at one of the White Elephant hotel's cottages off the main drag, right next to the lodgings of my brother Gary's family, who'd traveled from London for the four-day series of parties, sightseeing and lobster-catch boat rides.

Junior and MUGGER III were thrilled to see their cousins Quinn and Rhys; the four of them heaved water balloons every which way, including one down my shirt; competed for the treasure inside a piņata at a Friday night clambake; and all groused at being at the kids' table during the wedding reception.

Zoe's a one-of-a-kind gal and my spirits soared as she and Andy recited their wedding vows. Her sister, Jenny, was married last May in California, so it was an appropriate bookend to the summer; as I said in a toast one night, Mrs. M and I can only hope that our two boys will be as close and devoted to each other as Jenny and Zoe are. Once again, it was inspiring to see my brother Jeff and sister-in-law Mary beam throughout the weekend; they're terrific parents who've led a wonderful life together. I remember their own June wedding in 1967 just like yesterday, and I suspect that as I grow older the exact details of that day will become even more clear. Not that I'm ready yet for a second childhood.

Anyway, we flew back in a 16-seater to Newark Intl. on Sunday, Sept. 9, a 40-minute trip that was very pleasant because the plane was at a low altitude and we had a clear view of the ground below. Close to home, the skyline of New York City was splendid as always, and I told the boys to check out the aerial sight of Lady Liberty and the World Trade Center. We could almost pinpoint the location of our apartment building in Tribeca. Two days later, Mrs. M and I watched in disbelief from our roof as the towers collapsed, soot and bits of paper landing on the terrace amidst the olive and fig trees, and we were soon evacuated from the loft, joining the once-in-a-lifetime pandemonium outside.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2001, Russ Smith