Whitcomb: Next on Smith Hill; Romney and Warren; Salinger at 100; Library Love

Sunday, January 06, 2019


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Robert Whitcomb

“Yet what is gold but hope of green?

Any rhyming cold but hope deferred?

A scruffy and unsinging bird

Alights in some dark in-between.’’


-- From “Looking East in Winter,’’ by John Hollander


“I’m from Connecticut, and we don’t have any dialects. Well, I don’t think we have any dialects, and yeah, it’s very complex. That Rhode Island/Massachusetts New England region is arguably the hardest dialect to nail.’’

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-- Seth MacFarlane, actor, writer and animator who created the show Family Guy.



“If you want to stop illegal migration, stop U.S. demand for drugs and expand economic opportunity in Central America.’’


-- Departing Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly (Trump is slashing aid to Central America.)


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Governor Gina Raimondo inauguration

School Days on Smith Hill

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s second inaugural speech, starting off her second term, continued her emphasis on improving public education, which is essential to promote the state’s economic and civic health.  Equally hopeful is that House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio agreed last week that improving schools is central, with the latter calling for “a meaningful comparison of our education system with the system in Massachusetts,’’ considered by many people the nation’s best. Reversing the state’s mediocre record on public schools will take years but that prospect must not be allowed to dilute the sense of urgency about the task.ewr


There are also some other things that the governor should she should take on, such as:


Addressing “affordable housing’’ and environmental challenges by leading an effort to reform zoning laws, including allowing more density in some places to encourage more housing construction (and thus curb housing-cost increases) and discourage sprawl. And while building light-rail lines in the more densely settled parts of the state could take up to a decade, state government should get the process started. That Greater Boston has lots of rail service is one big reason for its prosperity.


For that matter, the governor and the legislature should strive to make Rhode Island’s public policy, including taxes and regulation, as similar as possible to that of Massachusetts, the successful giant next door. Of course, Rhode Island is a much poorer state and so it will be tough….


The Ocean State’s political leaders should trim layers of government that citizens and companies must deal with so that it’s easier to get things done. This would mean in some cases reducing local control. Take Providence’s Route 195 relocation space, which is state land whose development has been slowed by municipal politics as well as by the city’s legal and regulatory red tape. Rhode Island is tiny and yet there are 39 cities and towns in it, all of course with their own rules.  But the localities are legal children of the state, which has broad rights to change local powers.


The efforts that the governor cited to promote the rather murky concept of “inclusion,’’ while well-meaning, will have far less impact on the state than the factors above. In any case, political leaders should avoid identity politics and focus their efforts on doing as much as they can to improve life for everyone.


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Mayor Jorge Ekorza

But Long-Term for Providence?

Congratulations to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration for ending fiscal 2018 with a $9.2 million surplus, for the third surplus in as many years. This leaves a modest rainy day fund of $11.3 million.

Mayor Elorza’s chief of staff, Nicole Pollock, said “This surplus was achieved primarily through realistic budgeting practices, a steady increase in tax collections, a hiring freeze on non-essential employees, better departmental revenue and reduced operational expenses.’’

But the last few years have been relatively prosperous. What happens in the next recession? And what about the city’s unfunded pension liability of $1 billion?

So the city should continue to investigate whether it can sell the Scituate Reservoir for several hundred million dollars.


Fane's Fate

I wouldn’t be surprised that if Jason Fane’s proposed squiggly 46-story building in the Route 195 relocation area actually goes up, it looks little like the design that has gotten so much attention.


Apple Angst

Apple’s problems may suggest that the Silicon Valley innovation machine is running out of steam. It’s been a decade since tech geniuses came up with a really new and important product.


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U.S. Senator Mitt Romney

Romney Safely Takes on Trump

It’s nice that new Utah U.S. Senator and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney denounced Trump last week. Of course, Romney didn’t dare do that in his Senate election campaign: Trump still has many fervent followers in the Mormon State, despite his industrial-strength immorality.


“With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent's shortfall has been most glaring,’’ Romney said.


"Trump's words and actions have caused dismay around the world," Romney noted.

Why now? It’s probably a mix of Romney wanting to regain his reputation for high character, a reputation that he had eroded by his cynically giving Trump’s outrages a pass so as not to offend the capo’s  MAGA base since the 2016 election. But it may also hint that the new senator thinks that the endlessly corrupt president won’t be able to serve out his term, leaving Mr. Romney not only in a strong position to raise his stature in the Senate but also to run for president again. Perhaps Romney could even end up as Senate majority leader, succeeding the very smart if very sleazy Mitch McConnell.


Romney reminds me of the cowardice of so many GOP leaders (e.g., now former Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker) who from time to time would criticize, usually in muted tones, Trump but do nothing serious, legislatively or otherwise, to restrain the crook. They were too terrified of the MAGA base. And little that Trump has said or done in office should have surprised anyone: The man’s adult life is a litany of corruption, much of it in the public record over decades.

But then, if you look at Romney’s political career, you see it’s rife with hypocritical 180-degree policy turns based on political self-interest, kind of like Trump, as malleable Mitt has tried to adjust to an ever-crazier national Republican Party. Still, he has good manners….


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U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren

Warren’s Campaign

Stranger things have happened, but it seems highly unlikely that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren can win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination; she has staked out some admirable (if maybe unrealistic) positions on addressing yawning income inequality, on breaking up increasingly monopolistic  companies in the tech and some other sectors; on the need for close oversight of the financial services sector, parts of which engage in massive fraud and out-of-control speculation from time to time, and where some institutions have become “too big to fail,’’ and she backs some kind of “Medicare for all.’’ She has positioned herself as a latter-generation New Dealer.


But she can come across as strident, and coming from Massachusetts is not particularly beneficial for a national candidate.  Senator Warren also is often seen  as “anti-business,’’ although she calls herself  “a capitalist to my bones.’’ She, at 69, is also old, as are some other possible Democratic candidates (and Trump). I’m leery of people over 70 assuming the presidency; at that stage of life you could be seemingly very healthy one minute, and fall apart in the next, mentally and/or physically. (Yes, I know that Ronald Reagan was in his 70s when he served. Thank God  that he had a superb staff in his second term….)


The Democrats would do best to nominate someone like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown or Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. They’re both very smart, have engaging personalities, and, importantly, can’t be accused of being “East Coast elitists,’’ which is how Senator Warren is labeled despite the fact that she comes from a poor family in Oklahoma and has long fought for the socio-economically disadvantaged.


Whether or not Trump runs for re-election, the Democrats should have a good chance of winning back the White House. While congressional gerrymandering and the power of business lobbyists in Washington have usually suppressed reforms sought by liberals, the majority of Americans think that the rich have too much power in Washington and are very concerned about income inequality; support Medicare-for-all; favor raising taxes if necessary to preserve Social Security, and like labor unions.  There’s not as much polarization on policies as you might think. And it bears noting that Democratic presidential candidates got more popular votes than Republican nominees in four of the past five elections.


Then there’s the strong likelihood that we’ll have a recession, perhaps a deep one, between now and the 2020 election. The GOP will be blamed for it, as it was in the 2008 financial crisis.


An Immigration Deal

Meanwhile, a basis for a Trump deal with the Democrats: Have the taxpayers give him new high concrete walls in  a few places to please the MAGA mob with photo ops in return for legalizing the status of people brought to the U.S. as children (the so-called Dreamers) and those who came here with the now cancelled Temporary Protected Status for those from nations that have experienced war,  genocide and natural disasters. But don’t forget that putting a high concrete wall along long stretches of our border with Mexico would be an environmental disaster.


Trump is all showbiz. A few absurdly high walls in a few places might satisfy his lust to be seen as a “winner.’’


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Salinger at 100

J.D. Salinger at 100


A few publications have noted that Jan. 1 was J.D. Salinger’s birthday. While I thought that his most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye, with its cynical and bitter adolescent prep-school protagonist, Holden Caulfield, was and is overrated, there’s no doubt that Mr. Salinger had an engaging voice. (Still, as Holden kept calling people “phonies,’’ he started to sound pretty phony himself.)  What I still find most charming about Salinger’s work is his evocation of the mostly young and mostly upper-middle class people of imperial New York of the ‘40s and ‘50s – a  time capsule.  


Salinger became one of America’s most famous recluses after his move to the small town of Cornish, N.H., in 1953. His neighbors helped protect him by misleading reporters and fans about the location of his house. The students at nearby Dartmouth College did, too. People in the college library told me that he’d go into the college library to check something – seeking a reference to something that happened in the ‘40s?  Nobody bothered him.


Jay Parini, a young English professor in the mid ’70s, wrote:

“He came often to read books or magazines in the Baker Library at Dartmouth, and several times I saw him reading by himself at a table, often late at night, in the basement of that library. Once he brushed passed me in the hallway outside my office, a lean and lonely figure. Everyone knew he did not want to be disturbed, and I would never have dared to say a word. I can still see him, a man of late middle age, hunched over a magazine at night, looking strangely out of place.’’


To read an essay by Parini about Salinger, please hit this link:                                                                                                                  

When I was in a  small Dartmouth seminar on East Asian history with his then-wife, Claire Douglas, no one ever mentioned her husband.


So for a recluse per se, the Upper Connecticut Valley seemed a good place to be. Whether it was good for his writing is another matter. He published nothing after 1965.

Salinger had a terrific sensitivity to how young people felt and spoke decades ago; he connected with, and wrote about best, children and teens. But, of course, just about all of them are dead, and their language in his writing sounds ever more dated, even to people like me who used to hear it all the time.



Taiwan Doesn’t Want to Be in China

Chinese dictator Xi Jinping is again pressing Taiwan, a vibrant and prosperous democracy of about 23 million people, to start the process of being “reunified’’ with the mainland under a “one country, two systems’’ promise.  But whatever vows that Beijing makes about granting Taiwan great autonomy will be lies. As with Beijing’s promises to respect democratic rights in Hong Kong when China took over that British colony, in 1997, so, too, will the Communist dictatorship break them if it takes over Taiwan, now a long-established independent nation. Tyrannies don’t keep promises. The maintenance of power is paramount. The Taiwanese know that well!


End of the Affair

Trump tried to wrap himself in generals when he took office to show how tough he is. And most of his magical-thinking MAGA fans love the military. But since then, he has fired or otherwise driven away the generals he had sought out for his administration. They’re repelled by his ignorance, insults toward our allies, and lack of honor. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in areas, particularly the South, Southwest and Midwest, where the military is held in especially high esteem.


By the way, Retired Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, and who served as chancellor of the University of Texas system, may become a candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination.


Limit the Road Races

Road races and parades won’t resume until April (and continue to November) in southern New England but when they do they will cause much disruption, even paralysis, in communities that host them. These events, which often have a substantial advertising component for the big companies and/or local companies that sponsor them, seem to get ever more frequent. Is it too late to call some off?


The Boston Guardian reported in its Nov. 16 issue, in “Too many parades,’’ that Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim has called for more limits on these events. Good for him.


The life of a library

The Library Book, by Susan Orlean, is a riveting mystery story, a history of Los Angeles and most of all a love story about  public libraries  everywhere and the key civic role they play around America, through an exploration of the Los Angeles Public Library, with its Art Deco central building and the passionate people who carry out its mission in starring roles.


You come away from reading Ms. Orlean’s book with a keener appreciation of how important –in some ways more important than ever – public libraries are as learning and community centers in a time of privatization and online personal insularity.


Related Slideshow: PHOTOS: Inauguration Day - January 1, 2019


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