What Did Zeke Emanuel’s Mother Put in the Cereal?

28 August 2013

Amherst Magazine, Summer 2013

 Why write a memoir? Ezekiel J. (“Zeke”) Emanuel ’79 suggests a reason for his, Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family:

“For years,” he writes, “I had been jotting down random stories and memories I wanted to share with my children.” As family lore, Brothers Emanuel excels. It’s funny and poignant, a ’60s childhood starring three little rascals who try their parents’ patience with their pugnacious pranks. Zeke, the oldest, was studious and bossy but got into plenty of mischief. So did Rahm, who became mayor of Chicago, the city where they grew up, although he was “quiet and observant.” Baby Ari, now a fabulously successful Hollywood mogul, the model for the abrasive Ari Gold on HBO’s Entourage, was “forceful, rambunctious, highly social and hyperactive.”

Zeke Emanuel '79Zeke Emanuel ’79, brother of Rahm and Ari

Perhaps the leading American bioethicist, Zeke is vice provost for global initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He served in the Obama White House and chaired the bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health. But this is not an intellectual autobiography.

Neither is it a tell-all political or celebrity memoir, although it does expose some childhood mayhem. There was vociferous arguing around the Emanuel dinner table, fisticuffs with neighborhood kids and scrapes with teachers and police, all happening amid the social and political upheavals of the ’60s. The boys’ mother was an early and active supporter of labor and urban civil rights. The issues of the day were their daily bread.

A revealing chapter in his education and this book comes when Zeke, after his bar mitzvah, takes up study of the Pirkei Avot, a compilation of Jewish ethical teachings and maxims. The story of the way he learned to understand his family’s ethical foundation is best understood by reading it, but he summarizes it neatly: “Somehow, we all feel obligated to do good.”

We hear less about Emanuel’s education at Amherst, where he wasn’t all that happy. One of his college buddies meets Emanuel’s mother, of whom the friend recalls, “She always seemed a tiny bit dangerous.”

Dangerous and fascinating: Marsha Emanuel emerges from Brothers Emanuel as the character you wish had a bigger role. “My mother seemed a sort of expert nurturer, a woman who could make any child feel safe, secure, and valued,” Emanuel writes. “She was a highly intelligent, energetic, and motivated woman who was denied other careers, and motherhood was her profession. At the time it was a logical and productive way to channel her energies. I suspect that millions of other mothers in these pre-women’s-liberation days did the same.”

That passage’s uncritical acceptance of early-’60s sexism begs for deeper reflection. Marsha suffered “emotional storms,” as Zeke recalls them, and “tempestuous moods.” Why so moody? An intelligent, educated woman gives up career for family, has to explain to others that her political activism is not harmful to the children and then sits glumly in the station wagon on family vacations. Her problem, you might say, has no name, except that Betty Friedan exposed it in 1963 as “the problem that has no name.”

The boys also suffer under uncritical gender essentialism. Their angry and sometimes violent acts are praised. “[W]hen problems arose we did not have many ways to discuss them deeply. … So early on we internalized the notion that it was easier to give someone a kiss or a hug or a punch than to struggle to elucidate the nuances of our private feelings and emotions.” Emanuel says this is a “paradox” in a family that liked to talk so much. But might the boys’ violence have some relation to their mother’s silence?

Emanuel also suggests a second reason for writing a memoir:  to answer “the cereal question.” The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once begged him to introduce her to his mother, “to find out what she put in the cereal.”

Brothers Emanuel provides a sort of answer: travel, love and laughter, mixed with Jewish social gospel. If this is unsatisfying as a “how-to” guide for perplexed parents, Emanuel eloquently concludes that he is the product of an improvisatory riff of “jazz parenting.” That explanation works, especially if you believe what Louis Armstrong said when asked to define jazz: “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

As Emanuel writes of his childhood, “I saw that a man’s work was important, that he must pursue it tirelessly, and that it might require certain sacrifices.” I learned to write at the same time and place as Zeke Emanuel did; I’m sure that by “man” he means “person.” The person whose work and sacrifices I want to hear more about is Marsha (Smulevitz) Emanuel, the mother of three remarkable boys, whose tantalizing tale remains to be told. k

Paul Statt is a communications consultant in Philadelphia.

Everybody Likes a Shipwreck

1 April 2013

IMG_20130302_191647“Terrible Disaster” is the name of a game my favorite 4-year-olds play. With couch cushions, throw pillows, the dog’s bed and anything else that’s soft and safe, Claire and Abby build a fairytale castle or pirate ship on the living-room carpet.

My part is to destroy it in a shipwreck or hurricane, stranding the giggling girls in an uproarious heap on the carpet, all the while intoning seriously, “It’s a terrible disaster!” It’s all make-believe, of course.  In telling the story, I’m in control, scaring the girls even as I’m assuring them that all’s well. They might call me the Master of Disaster.

The original “master of disaster” is political consultant Chris Lehane. That’s been his epithet sinceNewsweek stuck it on him in 1995. Lehane had captained the PR response that successfully weathered the scandals of the Clinton White House. He tells those stories and many more in his new book, Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control (Palgrave Macmillan), co-written with Mark Fabiani and Bill Guttentag, in which he also enlightens us about the techniques that inspired The New York Timesto dub him the “Master of the Political Dark Arts.”

It’s not really black magic, though, just an appeal to some facts of life. Everybody loves a story, and every story needs a crisis. As Claire and Abby—and all the rubberneckers on the Jersey Turnpike—know, human curiosity about catastrophe runs deep. Everybody likes a shipwreck, although we would rather see than suffer one. Masters of Disaster is a pilot book for navigating the almost inevitable public relations kerfuffle in your future.

Ten Commandments almost seem too many. The Golden Rule of PR is that you have to tell your own story. If you don’t, somebody else will. In romance, it will be your rival; in politics, your opponent; in business, your competition. A story needs a beginning, a “turning point” and an end. Every turning point is a crisis and inspires a story. PR is storytelling, and storytelling is how public relations professionals like Lehane craft “damage control.” He helps folks whose livelihoods depend on being chattered about and paid attention—politicians, actors, sports stars—when the public gaze gets too intense. “I can do this myself,” might be your skeptical reading of Masters of Disaster, after being entertained by Lehane’s witty re-retelling of famous PR disasters. But most of us, like Claire and Abby, require a little help with our tales and welcome the calm presence of an avuncular storyteller.

On the evidence of this book, Lehane (an Amherst trustee) is the guy you want to be seated beside at dinner: a charming raconteur of ruined reputations. Sometimes the fun of the tale is that Lehane was there, as in Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater, but many a PR disaster he recounts—in politics, business or sports—is a familiar tale told well: Tiger Woods, Herman Cain, Tylenol.

Trained as a lawyer (Harvard 1994), Lehane and his coauthor Fabiani run a strategic communications firm that counsels businesses, actors, politicians and pro athletes: characters whose public images often are formed where law, money, politics and communications meet. His firm has represented clients as varied as Goldman Sachs, Lance Armstrong, the National Hockey League and Hollywood studios.

But my favorite among his stories recounts how he and his wife rescued the reputation of their pet Lola after an altercation with an overzealous canine companion at the dog park. It’s instructive to see how Lehane applies his commandments for damage control in such a homey setting, far from Washington or Hollywood. It would make a great movie.

As in the classic movies, Lehane mines nuggets of dialog to adorn his commandments. You know the lines.Sunset Boulevard: Be ready for your close-up (that is, get your facts straight). Cool Hand Luke: Do not fail to communicate. Casablanca: You may feign surprise, but never let yourself be shocked. The latter reinforces a subtler message: the story you tell has to be believable. What Lehane learned at the movies is to provide a plot, characters or a setting that the public is already familiar with.

Lehane himself is now starting a movie career of sorts. He and co-author Guttentag have written a film,Knife Fight, a satire loosely based on Lehane’s work in political imagineering. Lehane’s story comes around and makes sense somehow: He convinces politicians to think like directors, to see the campaign like a movie and create a narrative. Then Lehane’s story becomes the nar­rative. Who plays Lehane? Rob Lowe, of course, whose career once went like this: Brat Pack, sex tape, rehab.

Onscreen and off, professional actors understand this need to invent and reinvent our stories. Joan Crawford, whose mercurial career could serve as an object lesson in Masters of Disaster, speaks the truth in Otto Preminger’s 1947 melodrama, Daisy Kenyon: “There’s nothing like a crisis to show what’s really inside people.”

(Published in Amherst Magazine, Winter 2013)

From a Dorm Room Back to My Old Room

8 June 2012

To the (New York Times) Editor:

Karen L. Fingerman and Frank F. Furstenberg (Op-Ed, May 31) argue that it’s a healthy sign that so many recent college graduates are returning to their hometowns to live with their parents. They write, “Although this parental support seems to be a good thing, the new arrangements also rankle many people and violate ideals of autonomy that have long prevailed in this nation.”

There is another American ideal under threat here: mobility, and especially upward mobility. That well-educated young folks are moving in with their well-educated mothers and fathers may not cause the problem that smaller, poorer American cities can’t attract college graduates (“A College Gap Leaves Some Cities Behind,” news article, May 31). But it can’t help.

Ms. Fingerman and Mr. Furstenberg write: “Forty years ago, the news media were filled with reports of a generation gap. Let’s be grateful that we’ve finally solved that problem.” Today, the reports are about the income gap. I wonder if we have replaced one gap with another.

Philadelphia, May 31, 2012


Too Many Laws

10 June 2011

Philanthropist George Soros has not communicated his opinion of state laws that restrict telephone use by automobile drivers. But his latest essay, “My Philanthropy” (New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011, Vol. LVIII No. 11), offers a hint of how this fascinating wealthy man would prefer to see scientific research driving public policy.

As I see it, mankind’s ability to understand and control the forces of nature greatly exceeds our ability to govern ourselves. Our economy has become global; our governance has not. Our future and, in some respects, our survival depend on our ability to develop the appropriate global governance. This applies to a variety of fields: global warming and nuclear proliferation are the most obvious, but the threats of terrorism and infectious diseases also qualify; so do global financial markets.

Global governance could improve our response to infections disease, and to public health more broadly, no doubt. But mere national governance, in the United States, would go a long way toward, say, making our highways safer by prohibiting cell-phone use by drivers. As it stands now, according to recent research sponsored by Public Health Law Research,

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have at least one form of restriction on the use of MCDs [mobile communications devices] in effect. The laws vary in the types of communication activities and categories of driver regulated, as well as enforcement mechanisms and punishments. No state completely bans use of MCDs by all drivers.

(A map accompanies this paper. I have tried to map cell-phone driving laws by state, and it is neither simple nor clear, because the laws are a mess. Feel free to create a better map: the data that Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer collected are freely available there and here.)

Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer conclude that

State distracted-driving policy is diverging from evidence on the risks of MCD use by drivers.

despite the availability of data. This is where I turn to Soros, whose essay is as much about “why I love humanity” as it is “why I give away money.” Soros, like many of us, once learned that ” free speech and critical thinking would lead to better laws and a better understanding of reality than any dogma.” But…

If thinking has a manipulative function as well as a cognitive one, then it may not be necessary to gain a better understanding of reality in order to obtain the laws one wants. There is a shortcut: “spinning” arguments and manipulating public opinion to get the desired results. Today our political discourse is primarily concerned with getting elected and staying in power. [The] hidden assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality is valid only for the study of natural phenomena. Extending it to human affairs is part of what I have called the “Enlightenment fallacy.”

Soros, notorious for his distaste for George W. Bush, FOX News, and Karl “We create our own reality” Rove, explicitly calls out the Republicans for their manipulation of the public, but recognizes that it’s a bigger problem. He concludes that the message he is trying to communicate is “a profound rethinking of the workings of our political system.” He could invest  some millions in the dautning task of changing the public attitude toward public health and public policy.

ResearchBlogging.orgIbrahim, J., Anderson, E., Burris, S., & Wagenaar, A. (2011). State Laws Restricting Driver Use of Mobile Communications Devices American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40 (6), 659-665 DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2011.02.024

Seeing Is (or Would Be) Believing

22 March 2011

Patty Cohen writes on the “digital humanities” in The New York Times today (22 March, 2001), and misses an opportunity to show us what information technology can do for the liberal arts. She highlights a few unrepresentative projects, and ignores the big question: What can the non-scientific researchers in literature, philosophy, history and the rest of the humanities concoct when given access to great stores of data, and how do they react? Cohen tells us a little and shows us less.

Humanists have always had data; what makes digital data different is the play and the display: you can see the data better and have some fun with it, too.

The title, for which Cohen may not be responsible, is “Giving Literature Virtual Life.” But her story is lifeless.

At the University of Virginia, history undergraduates have produced a digital visualization of the college’s first library collection, allowing them to consider what the selection of books says about how knowledge was classified in the early 18th century.

A library visualization? What does that mean? I would need to see such a thing. Even online, the story offers no link. So here it is, for all to see. Two things make make this a visual representation of the 1828 U. Va. library catalog: maps that neatly mark where the books came from and charts that reveal what they were about. The VisualEyes technology that supports this project allows humanists to create visualizations; ten such projects are demonstrated at that link.

Cohen spends a lot of time at Bryn Mawr College, gushing about teaching Shakespeare with

Their assignment was to create characters on the Web site theatron.org and use them to block scenes from the gory revenge tragedy “Titus Andronicus,” to see how setting can heighten the drama.

“Until you get Shakespeare on its feet, you’re doing it an injustice,” [student] Ms. Cook said. “The plays are in 3-D, not 2-D.”

Cook lacks a basic understanding of what three-dimensional means, believing perhaps it was invented by James Cameron for Avatar. Shakespeare’s plays were created indeed as performances. Until you see them performed, or better yet, get on your feet and perform them, you are doing the Bard an injustice indeed.

Cohen writes thats scholars are only beginning to explore “the contours of this emerging field of digital humanities.” I approve of the metaphor, but reporters too have much more to learn.

Why Research Matters

3 April 2009
Responding recently to the news of increased funding for the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, A. J. Stewart Smith, the dean for research at Princeton, said “This is a miracle, I think.” That’s an unexpected claim coming from a particle physicist, but the real miracle of research funding is what happens after the government spends its money.

Investments in scientific research return financial dividends that would make a hedge fund envious. The “multiplier” for Federal dollars spent on NIH funding is better than it for most spending. Families USA, the national organization for health care consumers, measured the benefits of NIH research awards to all 50 states in 2007. “In Your Own Backyard,” their study, calculated that the NIH awarded almost $23 billion in research grants and contracts. That funding created more than 350,000 new jobs nationwide, generated more than $18 billion in wages from those new jobs, and spurred more than $50 billion in business activity.

The year 2009-2010 will be the most exciting in decades for university research. It’s no leap of faith to believe that energy, health care and education are the keys to raising the United States from its economic mess, and President Obama has promised that spending in those fields will increase. Universities such as Temple will benefit from the improved funding for education; less well understood perhaps is how important research is in American higher education.

Research at schools such as Temple University has many goals, and tries to reach those goals in many different ways. Some researchers are trying to cure diseases, some are trying to create more efficient technology. Many researchers are just trying to understand the mysteries of modern life. The immense transformative power of research and innovation can improve the lives of Americans. Infrastructure to improve America’s competitiveness and technology to solve our nation’s most pressing problems — providing clean energy, lowering healthcare costs, and improving public safety.

Scientific research has yielded innovations that have improved the landscape of American life — technologies like the Internet, digital photography, bar codes, Global Positioning System technology, laser surgery, and chemotherapy. At one time, educational competition with the Soviets fostered the creativity that put a man on the moon. Today, we face a new set of challenges, including energy security, HIV/AIDS, and climate change.

Research at Temple has resulted in products that benefit all of us in small ways–a cheaper healthier roach trap, for instance–as well as large. The world’s first institute dedicated to providing the pharmaceutical industry with environmentally sound processes just opened here–withe the help of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Science Foundation.

Yet, the United States is losing its scientific dominance. Among industrialized nations, our country’s scores on international science and math tests rank in the bottom third and bottom fifth, respectively. Over the last three decades, federal funding for the physical, mathematical, and engineering sciences has declined at a time when other countries are substantially increasing their own research budgets. Scientific research must play an important role in advancing science and technology in the classroom and in the lab.

Investing in scientific research serves a dual purpose: it is an immediate stimulus to the economy and an investment in US leadership in science, engineering, technology and education. Investments in medical research in particular can address urgent health-care needs.

Spending on science, engineering and technology is only a part of the stimulus package. But it is important to recall that basic science research in the US is largely funded by grants to individual investigators or national laboratories from federal agencies such as the NIH and NSF. Federal money invested in research grants, scientific infrastructure or national laboratories can be spent immediately to support research programmes already approved, salaries for laboratory scientists, purchases of supplies and equipment (most from small US businesses) and institutional expenses of the colleges, universities and medical schools where researchers work. Much scientific research is “shovel-ready;” that universities facilities are in place and only need cash to run.

President Obama has often said that in the future, international prosperity will depend on the United States becoming an “innovation economy.” The administration’s economic recovery package includes added spending for areas favored by innovation policy advocates, including higher research and development spending and funds for high-technology fields like electronic health records. But it also represents a welcome return of science in the political discourse. The attitude towards science is changing in government.

When he announced his choice of Nobel-prize-winning physicist Steven Chu to head the energy department, Obama said that promoting science is not just about providing resources (though he has promised to double the budget for basic science research over the next decade), but also about promoting free inquiry and listening to what scientists have to say, “especially when it is inconvenient.” That’s a clear reference to Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” about global warming. A government that puts its faith in science also reminds what we expect from research: the miracles that result when we practice science with faith in the future. 

NIH: What FDR Lacked–And BHO Has

26 March 2009

The National Institutes of Health like to claim that they were founded in 1789–and who can blame them? An institution thats as old as the Republic.

But the NIH only really got organized in 1938. When FDR wanted to stimulate the depressed economy with federal spending, research dollars really were no option.

But today we know that a dollar spent to fund basic health research typically adds two dollars to the national economy. This is the great multiplier.