Madoff and Anti-Semitism

December 20, 2008

Well, this didn’t take long. Less than a week after the Bernie Madoff scandal broke — a Ponzi-scheme which largely victimized the American Jewish community — an epidemic of anti-Semitism is breaking out. Last night, I was jarred to hear the Klezmer-tinged notes of “If I Were a Rich Man”  coming from the McLaughlin Group. I found this pretty distasteful given that one of Madoff’s victims was Jewish philanthropist and McLaughlin Group regular Mortimer Zuckerman.

Now the Anti-Defamation League is drawing attention to what is happening.

“Site users have posted comments ranging from deeply offensive stereotypical statements about Jews and money — with some suggesting that only Jews could perpetrate a fraud on such a scale — to conspiracy theories about Jews stealing money to benefit Israel,” the ADL said in a statement.

“Jews are always a convenient scapegoat in times of crisis, but the Madoff scandal and the fact that so many of the defrauded investors are Jewish has created a perfect storm for the anti-Semites,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL national director.

There’s one surprise in all this. I was sure the trigger for the anti-Semitism was going to be the closure of the financial markets right after the initial crash back in September for the Jewish New Year. My sense is that this is one problem that is going to get much worse before it subsides.

Ray Allen and the Holocaust Memorial

December 17, 2008

Ray Allen has one of the sweetest jump shots in the NBA. He was a vital component of the Boston Celtics first championship since 1986. It turns out he’s also a mensch. 

I was very surprised to read in the Boston Herald that Allen has visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum a number of times and took the Celtics there last week. I’d love to learn more of the background on what prompted Allen to begin visiting the site.

“So many times we get caught up in our everyday lives and what’s going on around us, and that was an opportunity for us to see something that I think is about the human condition,” Allen said before last night’s 122-88 win over the Washington Wizards. “I’ve been five times. It’s something that’s affected all of us, and it affects society today. It gets to you. (Glen Davis), it affected him greatly. When you see stuff like that, you think about how you can take better care of humankind now in the position we’re all in.”

Righteous!

New York Jets Identity Crisis

December 14, 2008

I realize the New York Jets have at least some issue with their identity. They’re named for New York yet they play in New Jersey. Their home stadium is called Giants Stadium. But why in the earth would they assemble for the kick off against the Buffalo Bills to the Dropkick  Murphy’s “I’m Shipping Up to Boston“? I’ll take it as some kind of weird homage to the team that has won two World Series victories in the last five years.

The Madoff Scheme

December 13, 2008

I am stunned this morning to learn of the sweeping fraud that investor Bernard Madoff undertook. The Boston Globe does an excellent job of showing the damage Madoff caused here locally. Local institutions, such as the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Museum of Fine Arts, could all potentially be hurt by Madoff’s deception.

It seems that Madoff, a member, until recently, of Yeshiva University’s Board of Trustees, leveraged his connections in the organized Jewish world to target Jewish institutions and family foundations. His victims include Carl and Ruth Shapiro, Avram and Carol Goldberg, the family who ran Stop & Shop, and the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, which, according to the Globe, “financed trips for Jewish youth to Israel” and subsequently had to close after losing its entire endowment.

The New York Post captures the scene in the lobby of the so-called “Lipstick Building” where Madoff had his office.  It describes panicked investors storming the building demanding to learn about their investments. The paper quoted one anonymous lawyer on Madoff’s scheme: “The guy was totally respected. He was a heymishe Jewish guy…This guy was dealing with all the rich Jews in Roslyn and the rich Jews in Palm Beach. This was passed down from family member to family member.”

The paper also catches up with a pair of unlikely victims, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, Lawrence Velvel. When last Gitell.com encountered Velvel, he was hosting a conference at his school in Andover to determine whether President Bush could be prosecuted for war crimes. He sounds like he’s got his ire up about somebody else now. “This is a major disaster for a lot of people…You work all your life, you finally manage to save up something, and somebody who’s entrusted with it, it turns out suddenly he’s a crook.” You’ve got to feel for Velvel.

This story has a lot of resonance for me. Back when I worked at the Forward, I was the first reporter to be given the beat of the Jewish philanthropic world. I wrote the first special section on Jewish family foundations and a profile of Yeshiva University. (Here’s the Forward’s report — and the Wall Street Journal’s.) During my time as a lawyer, I worked two buildings down from the “Lipstick Building” on Third Avenue. Throughout all that work, during which I lived in a tiny rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side, I observed the rich and the powerful. How immune they seemed from the daily struggles I faced as an energetic but relatively-impoverished Manhattanite on the make. Rather than taking any schadenfreude in the fact that these people can be hurt too, my entire reaction is disgust and revulsion at the pain one man can cause.

Auto Bailout Fails; Where Do We Go From Here?

December 12, 2008

America has entered treacherous waters with the failure of the auto industry bailout deal in the Senate last night. Think about how far we’ve sunk since September. Back then, we were experiencing a credit crunch, the effects of which were felt by only a small number of Americans at the time. Since then the $700 billion Treasury rescue plan seems to not have made much of a difference — although it is likely the situation would be worse if that legislation wasn’t passed. Also, since the crisis started the plight of ordinary people has gotten worse. New claims for unemployment are at the highest point in 26 years. That 1982 recession was ferocious, particularly in the industrial Midwest, and most experts say we’re in for 6 months or more of this.

In other recessions, such as the Bush Recession in 1992, observers failed to recognize things getting better early enough. I don’t get the sense that’s happening now.

President-Elect Obama’s opportunity is that he will take office at a real low point, from which things can only get better. Much of economic behavior involves psychology. If Obama the Orator can make Americans feel better, maybe things we’ll improve. So we can hope.

Mayor Menino: Municipal Leadership for Tough Times

December 9, 2008

Mayor Menino delivered his annual speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce this morning. He addressed an enormous crowd at the Park Plaza Hotel. The theme was leadership.

A highlight of the speech was Menino’s proposal to create a $40 million fund to keep development going in the city. I sensed a palpable feeling of excitement in the room over this plan. 

The mayor drew laughter when he likened the ceos of the Big Three auto makers trip to Washington to the film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

With Boston in need of revenue, he called for “equitable PILOT agreements.” These are arrangements whereby non-for-profit entities give a payment to the city in lieu of being taxed. 

The best thing about today’s speech was that Mayor Menino confronted the tough fiscal times. He did not attempt to sugar coat what is happening. That is called leadership.

I write, as always, as a former press secretary to the mayor.

Sweet Caroline: Kennedy Floated for New York Senate Seat

December 8, 2008

I’ve been intrigued by the possibility that New York Governor David Patterson might name Caroline Kennedy to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate. Having been a longtime Kennedy-watcher with a background covering New York politics, I am very curious about how somebody with a storied political name but little actual experience in elective office might win over voters and keep the seat.

I decided to check in with an old political hand, Dr. David Luchins, for his perspective. Dr. Luchins, who now teaches at New York’s Touro College, served Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for two decades as a staffer and senior adviser and later went on to advise Clinton in her senate campaign. Luchins was personally privy to the advice Moynihan gave to Clinton prior to her run for elective office, counsel that served her well during her career in New York politics. From Kennedy’s uncle, Robert F. Kennedy, to Moynihan to Clinton, elite outsiders who have held this seat have won over New York voters by diving into the details of policy and its ramifications for New York. Here are his recommendations, which reflect and grow out of what he heard  Senator Moynihan tell Clinton (with some analysis and commentary from me:)

  • Work your tail off upstate. Hillary Clinton, like Moynihan, devoted considerable political energy in upstate New York. This paid huge dividends for Clinton, making her impervious to political challenge (particularly from Republicans) and sharpening her appeal with blue collar voters who loyally stood behind her during the contentious rust belt presidential primaries against Barack Obama. One reason Tim Russert became famous as a political entity was that Moynihan wanted the best man possible upstate. He selected Russert, a Buffalo-native, to run his upstate office and, ultimately his Washington one.
  • Be humble. New Yorkers expect even celebrity candidates, Robert Kennedy, James Buckley, Moynihan and Clinton to be able to talk to them in simple and down-to-earth terms. Moynihan told Clinton in 1999 that her achievements in Arkansas, Washington D.C. and Illinois didn’t mean anything in New York. He reminded her to listen to New Yorkers, particularly upstate. This contributed to the “listening tour” strategy that worked well for her in New York and in the presidential race.
  • Bring home the bacon. Moynihan pressed Washington to pay for the New York State Thruway. Clinton took up the cause of funding for New Yorkers afflicted by 9/11 syndrome. I see Caroline Kennedy coming to this very naturally; after all, it’s exactly what her uncle, Senator Kennedy has been doing for Massachusetts since 1962.
  • Focus on the finances. Moynihan had an advanced degree in international relations and served as ambassador to the United Nations. Yet when he joined the senate he became an expert on finances. Moynihan, in particular, targeted the dynamic whereby wealthy Northeastern states, such as New York (and Massachusetts, by the way) raise far more money for the federal government than they get back. Moynihan put out an eagerly anticipated finance report known as the “fisc;”  the Library of Congress explains the abundance of such documents on its site, saying  “one of the largest groups of material relates to Fisc reports, Moynihan’s annual report on the impact of federal spending and tax collection of the states, particularly as it affected New York.” (This is the subtext to the famous exchange between Hillary Clinton and Russert about Social Security. Russert expected Clinton to carry on Moynihan’s interest in this area, and Clinton was well-prepared for it.) 

The Recession: About Those Bottles and Cans

December 4, 2008

I’m just in from taking out my recycling. When I got outside, I encountered man pushing a shopping cart collecting cans and bottles for their deposits. I asked him about whether the downturn had affected the amount of money he could earn by doing these. He said two disturbing things: 1) There was a marked decline in the number of bottles and cans being left out for recycling; 2) He faced more competitors seeking to glean extra money during tough times. Scary!

Gitell on Barack Obama’s National Security Team

December 3, 2008

Watch me on NewsNight analyzing President-Elect Obama’s new national security team by clicking here.

NECN NewsNight Appearance 8 P.M.

December 2, 2008

Watch me on NECN NewsNight tonight at 8. The topic is the Obama transition.