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)

Mom, Romney, Mammon: Some Doubts about the Debt

15 October 2012

When I graduated from Amherst College in 1978, I was $3,000 in debt, and deeper than that in despair about it.

The $3,000 seems laughable now. But in our family–poor New Hampshire farm stock, abandoned by our father and hounded by his creditors–debt was a moral issue. My mother and older brother, who had not gone to college, expressed a great deal of pride and hope in me, and encouraged the student loan. But our guilt and shame at “going into debt” was nothing to laugh at.

Our Puritan attitudes made even all-American activities like buying a house or financing a new car problematic. Our moral estimation of debt’s evils was typical. Laban Todd, the farmer I worked for (a dollar fifty an hour, cash) used to joke, if we had to wait for three cars to pass before we crossed the road with a load of hay, “It wouldn’t be so crowded if people could only drive cars that were paid for.”

The moral equivalence of debt with sin goes way back. In our little white church, we asked Our Father to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” No weaseling about “those who have trespassed against us” for us. We asked for a cash payback: a marvelous idea, but even a child knew, unlikely. Debt, like sin, would be always with us, unfortunately.

We were misled. No doubt, debt remains ubiquitous, but it seems less like a sin these days. Debt is the lifeblood of the economy–or, if you prefer a moral echo in your metaphor, its daily bread.  Debt feeds the global economic system of the 21st Century and sustains it. Debt is, in fact, what creates money, according to Philip Coggan, the author of Paper Promises: Debt, Money and the New World Order (2012). Money is debt.

Forgive me, Mom: but debt is a Very Good Thing.

Forgive me also, Philip Coggan, for falling into the trap you laid, “of making blanket statements, along the lines of the comic history book 1066 and All That,” saying debt is Good Thing, thrift is a Bad Thing.

“History is what you remember” was the fundamental lesson of that delightful book. And what you remember, what you believe, what you trust matters, in matters of money. Coggan’s book is all about confidence, peopled as it with the Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan kept aloft by audience belief, and Confidence Fairies. I could sum up Paper Promises with a paraphrase from 1066:  “Money is what you believe it is.”

Governments and businesses, colleges and universities, hospitals and health insurers, auto manufacturers–any entity with any capital has figured out that debt can do a world of good. Some very smart people built an entire “financial services industry” on this knowledge, including the “private equity” business, where Mitt Romney grew rich.

“Mitt Romney has spent his career executing turnarounds in the private sector, the Olympics, and state government.” That’s his official position, as stated in his campaign literature. So’s this:

“While getting the federal debt under control will be a long and arduous task, the first step toward recovery is admitting we have a problem and refusing to allow any more irresponsible borrowing. We must live within our means, spend only what we take in…”

This isn’t logic, it’s a scolding: “The debt is immoral,” Romney said in debate, but  I can hear Mom’s voice. You’re spending more money than you have, and that’s a Bad Thing. Romney’s latest advertising features a Mom and a baby worrying about “Obama’s debt,” but not a word about where, say, they might want to invest it. like a school or a hospital.

This is an appeal to morality, not economics. Its advantage is that it avoids any specific plan.

But Romney knows better. Debt is not immoral, Mr. Romney, and you know it. You have made a lot of money in financial services:  I don’t pretend to understand finance–least of all, the complicated leverages and hedges practiced by private equity experts like Bain Capital.

But I know this much: private equity “executes turnarounds” by buying a business–with borrowed money–expecting that the company will increase in value. That’s no more immoral than my Mom  investing $3000 she didn’t have in my college education, hoping that I would increase in value. (I did.) And if you and Mom and l can borrow without moral turpitude, certainly the United States of America can.




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


Which Americans Shirk the Census? – Slate Magazine

29 May 2012

Census response rates: Midwest high; South, West low - Slate Magazine

A poor map for at least two reasons.

The map doesn’t answer the question posed in the headline. It shows, instead, which Americans take part in the census. If you want to highlight the shirkers,use darker colors to represent them.

What in the world is the Democrat/Republican distinction supposed to be? This map does not indicate that Democrats and Republicans fill out the American Community Survey in equal numbers: it’s just a quick mash-up of old election results–squeezed into a binary–with a “high or low” response to the survey. Couldn’t at least one of the variables represent a range of values?

Census response rates: Midwest high; South, West low – Slate Magazine.

The Proposed Reading Viaduct Park in Philadelphia

8 May 2012

Little noted in the excitement here about building “our own High Line:” The Reading Viaduct, unlike anything in Manhattan, will connect the parts of Philadelphia with the greatest densities of Black (orange)  and Asian (blue)  residents, and makes a turn toward the Hispanic (green), too.

A River Still Runs

8 May 2012

I grew up near the Piscataquog River in New Hampshire, and have been pleased to see it’s been well protected from development. This map shows how well.