Commentary by Stanley Meisler

Boutros Boutros-Ghali

Boutros Boutros-Ghali

March 3, 2016
Boutros Boutros-Ghali
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the sixth secretary-general of the United Nations, died on February 16th in a hospital near Cairo at the age of 93. Since I covered the UN for the Los Angeles Times during his five-year term, I can add a few nuances to the obituaries that ran in the major newspapers. There is no doubt that he was denied a second term only because of the animosity between him and Madeleine Albright, the American ambassador to the UN during most of his term and the secretary of state afterwards. He looked on her as thin-skinned, undiplomatic, inexperienced, and bullying. She regarded him as overbearing, arrogant, stubborn, and erratic. A scholar and diplomat for many years, he believed that she felt any criticism of American foreign policy as chastisement of herself. She obviously felt that he failed to show due deference to the demands and requests of the most powerful nation in the world...

After Franco

After Franco

January 2, 2016
After Franco
A little more than forty years ago, after the death of the despicable dictator Francisco Franco on November 20, 1975, the world’s media began augmenting or opening their news bureaus in Spain. Editors feared that the death would unleash a second Spanish civil war. I became the first (and last) Madrid bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. That war never came. Most Spaniards had become too mature and educated and wise for another awful conflagration like the one that decimated Spain and presaged the Second World War. They now longed to take their place among the democratic nations of western Europe. The path to democracy was led in a remarkable way by two men who turned their backs on the teachings of the fascist dictator who had empowered them. The surprising leaders were young King Juan Carlos and his young Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez. They moved slowly but surely, taking steps forward and backward, somehow making every decision, no matter how wrenching, seem inevitable by the time they made it...

An Old Jewish Joke

An Old Jewish Joke

November 18, 2015
An Old Jewish Joke
There is an old Jewish joke about a religious man shipwrecked on a desert island. When his rescuers arrive a couple of years later, they discover he has built three huts during his isolation. One is his home. The other two? “This is the synagogue I go to,” he explained, “and that is the one I don’t go to.” The joke is supposed to reflect the disputatious nature of Jews — you can’t put two in the same room without expecting an argument, you can’t even put one alone without the same argument. Since a joke makes you laugh, this one is supposed to reflect the lighthearted nature of the disputes — they never cause lasting pain. Jews argue with each other but, in the end, always love each other...

Iran

Iran

July 25, 2015
Iran
As Congress debates the agreement with Iran, there will be much bluster in the next couple of months about bomb grade fuel, breakout times, centrifuges, heavy water reactors, stockpiles of enriched uranium, and, of course, the impediments to inspection. But all this technical stuff will have nothing to do with what really bothers the most blustering of the nay sayers. In their view, we had the Iranians down. It hurt so bad they were screaming for us to let go. And now, for a bunch of promises, we are letting go. Soon they will bounce up, stronger than ever and just as defiant...

Dark Election

Dark Election

November 17, 2014
Dark Election
In 2012, when Barack Obama won reelection, an odd but thrilling metaphor engulfed me. The election was like the climax of one of those early Howard Fast novels. After enduring months of derision of their leader as somehow unAmerican and countless maneuvers to curtail their right to vote and incessant tirades against the poor for taking, not giving, after enduring all the despicable attempts to belittle and suppress them, the poor and the blacks and the Hispanics and the young and the women united and arose to defend their hero and astound and frighten all the smug fat cats. “What a wonderful thing is metaphor,” wrote Christopher Fry in one of his plays. Well, so much for metaphor...

My Role In the Presidential Election of 1960

My Role In the Presidential Election of 1960

December 22, 2012
My Role In the Presidential Election of 1960
While reading The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A. Caro’s formidable biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, I found myself recalling my role in the election of 1960 when Senator John F. Kennedy defeated Vice President Richard Nixon for president. I was a junior member of the Washington staff of the Associated Press then but nevertheless landed some juicy assignments. Since my role has been ignored by biographers and historians, from Theodore H. White to Caro, I thought it might be helpful to set down some of the details...

A Hopeful End to a Shameless Campaign

A Hopeful End to a Shameless Campaign

November 11, 2012
A Hopeful End to a Shameless Campaign
The reelection of President Barack Obama is provoking an avalanche of punditry that does not need more from me. I just want to note a handful of highlights that may get lost in the avalanche. Most important, the result averted a calamitous injustice. If Obama had lost, it would have been a victory for obstruction, lies, distortion, deceit and racism. A cynical and shameless campaign, concocted four years ago by Republicans obsessed with dishonoring the new president, would have succeeded. Supporters of Romney even put forth a campaign argument that amounted to blackmail: since the stubborn Republican House of Representatives would never work with Obama, they said, the good of the nation demanded Romney as president...

Race and the Election

Race and the Election

September 7, 2012
Race and the Election
It must have been galling for the Republicans to see so many blacks voting for their own in the 2008 presidential election. The returns must have struck many Republicans as unfair, even undemocratic. Nothing else can explain the way the Republicans have allowed racism to stain their campaign against President Obama for a second term. No one likes to throw around so nasty an accusation, but I don’t know what else it is...

The Intellectual Congressman

The Intellectual Congressman

August 25, 2012
The Intellectual Congressman
If American elections made sense, the selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as the Republican vice presidential candidate would be universally regarded as about as foolish a move as the selection of Sarah Palin four years ago. By no stretch of logic can any reasonable analyst justify the choice. Mitt Romney is so bland and clunky a candidate that for a long while we all have had a tough time figuring him out. He has been running around crying out that he is a rip-snorting genuine extreme conservative, but it was hard to take him at his word. It all sounded like election hooey. After all, he was a somewhat decent governor of Massachusetts who gave us Romneycare the model for Obamacare. A lot of people felt that once elected he would revert to his innate blandness. They also probably felt that his innate blandness might even turn into innate goodness. The embrace of Ryan changes all that...

The Pleasures of Newspapers

The Pleasures of Newspapers

June 3, 2012
The Pleasures of Newspapers
The New Orleans Times-Picayune has just announced it will soon publish no more than three times a week and devote the rest of its energies, reduced by a diminished staff, to the internet version of itself. The announcement struck me as a surrender, even a betrayal. When I was a boy I learned that the morning newspaper was a modern miracle. It arrested all the events of the world at a moment in time every day and lay them before me. It was as if the world stopped at, say, midnight so that I could stop and take in all its wonders. There was an order to this. Great editors placed the stories in a way that caught my eye and mind, holding my attention before releasing me to the lure of other stories. A wise reader could sit on top of the world for an hour or two. I sometimes felt like that and still do...

Why Egypt doesn't trust us

Why Egypt doesn't trust us

March 7, 2012
Why Egypt doesn't trust us
[OPINION] Private pro-democracy groups funded by the U.S. have a troubling history. Now that seven American pro-democracy workers have been allowed to post bail and return to the United States, perhaps we can examine what the U.S. was up to in Egypt using reason instead of patriotic emotion. The Egyptian furor over such seemingly idealistic work may strike us as wild and idiotic, but in fact, the Egyptians have a right to be suspicious. America's attempt to promote democracy around the world through private organizations has unsavory beginnings and a sometimes troubling history...

Americans in Egypt

Americans in Egypt

February 29, 2012
Americans in Egypt
For many years, I have felt that the American way of democracy, with its federalism and checks & balances, could serve as a helpful model for peoples trying to forge some way of democracy for themselves. This is especially true in countries of the developing world that have to reconcile competing and sometimes conflicting tribes and religions. The Americans on trial in Cairo obviously agreed with me and were trying to impart some aspects of the American way to Egyptians about to embark on the democratic adventure. It would be a great travesty if the Americans were jailed for their efforts. Egypt would deserve the condemnation that would surely spew forth from irate Americans if their compatriots were punished so severely. Yet there is more to the case than a clash between American idealism and Egyptian stupidity...

Ojukwu

Ojukwu

December 29, 2011
Ojukwu
Odumegwu Ojukwu, once the leader of Biafra, died during the last few days of November. He received respectable obituaries in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Both Robert D. McFadden and T. Rees Shapiro got all the facts right and understood the causes and the horrors of the Nigerian Civil War well. But, befitting a man who was only a minor figure in African history, the notices were relatively small, and there was no room to portray his audacity, his operatic flair, his demeaning wit, and his contempt for the many less gifted than he. I interviewed Colonel Ojukwu for the first time in June 1967 a day or two after he had seceded from Nigeria and proclaimed the independent republic of Biafra...

Washington Out of Whack

Washington Out of Whack

August 4, 2011
Washington Out of Whack
My wife says that President Obama’s negotiations with Congressional Republicans reminded her of the story of my bargaining session with a merchant on the island of Zanzibar more than forty years ago. I spent two hours bargaining with him for a Zanzibar chest and ended up paying more than he originally asked. It’s not an unfair comparison. The tawdry turmoil of the last few weeks over an increase in the national debt ceiling left me with some broken images. One is the weakness of what we all used to regard as the most powerful office in any democracy on earth. Has it become so weak that it can be held hostage by an imbecilic faction in the Republican Party? I suppose so...

Ridder News

Ridder News

August 1, 2011
Ridder News
[AN OCCASIONAL MEMOIR] I took a course in journalism for the first and last time in the eighth grade at Hermann Ridder Junior High School in the Bronx. The school, now an Art Deco landmark, was built in the early 1930s, soon after the most spectacular of the great Art Deco skyscrapers arose to capture the New York skyline. Members of the Ridder family, which owned the Staats Zeitung und Herold (and much later headed the Knight-Ridder media empire), were thrilled that their late patriarch, the founder of the German-language newspaper, had been honored by the city, and they encouraged the school to interest students in the family trade. There were even printing presses at the school, not large enough to print a newspaper but enough to teach us how to set type and how to feed blank pages into their clickety maw...

The Cave of the Patriarchs and the Tomb of Rachel

The Cave of the Patriarchs and the Tomb of Rachel

April 22, 2011
The Cave of the Patriarchs and the Tomb of Rachel
Every few months Jewish organizations wring themselves in fury over some slander, dishonor or injustice heaped upon Israel and the Jewish people by the United Nations. Envelopes flood my mailbox with pleas for donations to fight the latest libel and for signatures on petitions to the Secretary-General and other UN officials demanding redress. Numerous e-mails from friends and relatives follow, urging me to join the fray. Both the UN and Israel were created while I was a teenager, and I have long regarded myself as a supporter of both...

True to the Peace Corps

True to the Peace Corps

February 25, 2011
True to the Peace Corps
[OPINION] The corps' celebrity and size may have diminished, but its longevity is a testament to its importance. In some ways, the Peace Corps, which celebrates its 50th anniversary Tuesday, is a shadow of what it once was. It had so much pizzazz in the early days that newspapers proclaimed the names of new volunteers as if they had just won Guggenheim fellowships. Now, the number of volunteers — 8,655 — is about half of what it was at its highest in 1966, and not everyone knows the Peace Corps still exists. The first director — the irrepressible, inspiring Sargent Shriver, who put the program together in six months — made the cover of Time in 1963. The current director — Aaron Williams, a former volunteer with decades of experience in international development — barely gets his name in the papers. At a panel discussion at George Washington University a couple of years ago, Christiane Amanpour, then chief foreign correspondent of CNN, listed factors that had contributed to American worldwide popularity in the past. "There was a Peace Corps," she said. Yet the Peace Corps, despite its loss of celebrity and size, has improved a great deal during its 50 years...

Sarge's Peace Corps

Sarge's Peace Corps

January 20, 2011
Sarge's Peace Corps
The family joke was that President John F. Kennedy handed his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, a lemon and Shriver turned it into lemonade. The lemon was the new Peace Corps, and Shriver, who died on Tuesday just six weeks short of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, transformed that lemon in 1961 into the most dynamic, popular and exciting agency of the new administration. The success of the Peace Corps made Shriver a national celebrity...

Belated Thoughts on an Awful Election

Belated Thoughts on an Awful Election

November 14, 2010
Belated Thoughts on an Awful Election
Losing the House so badly was a Democratic disaster of the highest magnitude. No rationalization of the defeat, no pipedream about the future will change that. Despite what happened on November 2, incumbents rarely lose office easily. Even a decisive Obama victory in 2012, powered by a recovered economy, is unlikely to dislodge so many Republicans. Some of the Know Nothing Tea Bags will probably be around for a while. Obama does have a communications problem. He reminds me of Pierre Trudeau, the great prime minister of Canada...

The Filibuster in the Broken Senate

The Filibuster in the Broken Senate

March 7, 2010
The Filibuster in the Broken Senate
It is hard to disagree with Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana about the sorry state of Congress. It is gripped by “institutional inertia,” it is not doing “the people’s business,” and it “must be reformed.” But his decision to run away from the Senate will not ease the paralysis. In fact, if a Republican takes Bayh’s seat, the woes will probably worsen. In a piece for the New York Times, Senator Bayh listed a host of congressional problems, including ultra partisanship, campaign financing, gerrymandering, lack of personal contact, and endless filibusters. The last problem, surely the most outrageous, should be the easiest to fix. Yet I am not sure there is much of a chance to do so...