Since I first wrote this piece on Saturday morning, my pal Mike Moran dug out the original column I wrote from my interview with John McCain in 1999. This is it:
1. We all know how John McCain crashed into North Vietnam and was held and tortured for five-plus years. We’ve all seen the photos of his broken body, and we’ve all seen examples of his unbroken spirit.
2. My wife was on one of her child-care missions to India in the early ‘90s, and she sat next to a man on the flight out east. He said Sen. McCain was the leader of some vets who provided needed goods to Vietnam because they believed in putting something back. He gave my wife his card and said they could help ship material to orphanages or hospitals in Vietnam.
3. I was covering a Senate hearing into the International Olympic Committee. (Sen. McCain pretty much blasted an American Olympic official for a flip answer.) I had an interview scheduled with him at lunch break, and he disarmed me by chatting about sportswriting – a good politician, for sure, and good company.
I said I knew something about him – and I told about my wife’s flight with McCain’s Vietnam-vet buddy. I asked the senator why, after what had been done to him, did he help provide goods to Hanoi? With his broken arms and shoulders, he gave a shrug that I can only describe as eloquent. The shrug said, it’s the right thing. (Then he went off again on the I.O.C. -- John McCain temper in action.)
4. I was watching live during the 2008 campaign when the lady in the red dress labelled Sen. Obama “an Arab,” and I saw John McCain’s instant reaction as he politely reclaimed the microphone, backed away, and said: “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
Sheer grace under pressure.
5. I had forgotten this until Brian Williams played it on MSNBC Friday night. At McCain’s concession speech in 2008, he began this way:
My friends, we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama — to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.
In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.
And he went on from there, more about the historic side of the election than about himself. I know he probably had somebody good writing the speech, but he delivered it, and he delivered it well.
6. Early on July 28, 2017, with Sen. Mitch McConnell glaring at him, Sen. McCain issued a thumbs-down on the proposal to gut the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. He said the proposal did not meet his personal test. This means millions of Americans continue to receive medical care.
7. Earlier this month, the president of the United States talked 28 minutes about a defense-spending bill.
The bill was named, by Congress, for Sen. John McCain, who was home in Arizona, dying of brain cancer.
The president, still in office as of this writing, never mentioned the name of John McCain, American hero.
8. The latest news is that right through the weekend, the president, still in office as of Monday morning, did not have a good word to say about the life and death of a real American hero.
The one thing I forgot to say, explicitly, in the first version of this piece is how much I liked John McCain in person, and how I kept saying, during his campaigns in 2000 and 2008 and even when I was exasperated with some of his stands: "He's really a good guy."
Our prayers are with Sen. John McCain and his family.
It was mid-August of 2008. Charlie Competello had just taken his morning run in the toxic mass that passes for air in Beijing.
Now he was clean and dressed for business at the Olympic media center where The New York Times had rented an office for 20 people.
The first thing he spotted was a forlorn-looking writer.
“My laptop died,” the sad sack began.
That was me.
Charlie’s job was to provide technical services at big events like the Olympics and visit the bureaus all over the world, or wander around the newsroom, available to the people who write and edit the stories. He was one of us. The paper did not get done if Charlie couldn’t fix the machines and the software.
This how it was when I was working. Charlie had colleagues like Walt Baranger and Pedro Rosado and Craig Hunter, who knew our jobs better than we did.
(One night in Salt Lake City, after getting bad advice from on high, I was told to write something, at midnight, after the Russians fixed a figure-skating final, if you can imagine such a thing. After I stopped throwing furniture and Queens language around the room, I saw Craig standing next to me. He handed me printouts of wire stories, with all the information that would let me play catch-up ball with a midnight column. “I think this will help,” he said.)
The Times had our back, with technicians who were journalists. They would find bugs in our software or frayed connections in our laptops – even schmutz clogging the keyboards. Full service.
I worked with Charlie a lot -- a lean, alert guy from my home borough of Queens, who reffed basketball games in the winter, for the fun of it. We learned to rely on him the way the old Yankees would rely on Yogi Berra’s untouchable presence on a storm-tossed charter flight.
Charlie was never more indispensable than in Beijing in 2008, the first Summer Games to be fully covered 24x7 on the great emerging NYT web site. We were exactly halfway around the world, which meant Michael Phelps was swimming for medals in mid-morning in Beijing but evening in New York. Any given hour, somebody needed Charlie.
On that morning in Beijing, Charlie went to the basement where Lenovo had a store, and he purchased a new ThinkPad and then downloaded stuff from my busted laptop, a few hours of work while meeting all the other needs. After his run, I bet Charlie could have used a more quiet morning, but the way that job worked, there was no such thing.
The Times had gone into the computer age in the mid-70’s with Howard Angione, who introduced us to the massive Harris terminals in the office. Sometimes the damn things would eat up an entire story, even if you had saved it, and we (I) would pitch a massive fit. Howard’s motto was, “If I can teach Vecsey, I can teach anybody.” And he could.
For nearly four decades, I learned to rely on the Times’ techies, whatever their title was. Then I retired after 2011, and now Charlie is retiring, wisely, much younger than I was, which gives him time to relax and then find some other pursuit, or not. He’s a ref. He always makes the right call.
I’m out of it now. I just hope the paper still has the backs of the people who go to wars and conventions and Olympics, fixing machines that break down at the worst possible time.
* * *
Speaking of valued colleagues, did you see the beautiful photo of Aretha Franklin on the front page of Friday’s paper? Her dignity and soulfulness and even her sound came through. That photo was taken by Tyrone Dukes, back in the day.
Tyrone was a friend, a young brother who had served in Vietnam and was now a photographer. He could snap Aretha up close at the Apollo in 1971 and he could follow a looting rampage during the blackout of 1977. He died in 1983, at the age of 37.
When I saw the credit on the photo, my eyes misted over– not for Aretha but for Tyrone. My thanks to Charlie and Tyrone and all the others, who were part of us.
I’ve been reading a lot of books lately.
I think I know why.
My latest has been a gripping history of the first settler to advocate local government and polyglot culture among people he labelled “Americans” -- a new concept in the mid-17th Century.
Adriaen van der Donck was perhaps the first “New Yorker” – except that it was still named New Amsterdam in his time.
Of course, my discovery is a trifle late. The book, “The Island at the Center of the World,” by Russell Shorto, was first published in 2004. I don’t know how I missed it, until our friends Ina and Maury gave us a copy recently.
New Yorkers know the names of Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant, executives sent to the New World to regulate commerce for the Dutch West India Company. Van der Donck, trained in the law, was also sent to New Amsterdam to help the company make more money, but he saw the mélange of Dutch and England, French and Spanish, Africans and Native Americans, and he realized they constituted something far more than company workers.
Van der Donck was sent as a lawman to another Dutch region, Fort Orange, now Albany, where he learned Indian languages and encouraged trade and visited their villages. Native Americans were somewhat free to bargain, to visit, to argue and even sue.
Why don’t we know more about him, and more about the contribution of Dutch society? For that matter, why don’t we know about the petition signed on Dec. 27, 1657, by 31 English settlers, protesting the persecution of Quakers. (Not one signee was Quaker.) And, while they were speaking up for Quakers, the English protesters proclaimed:
“The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe (sow? GV) love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage.”
The petition was signed in the Long Island village of Vlissinge, today known as Flushing, the home of the Amazing Mets and a bustling Chinatown and the start of a thriving Korean diaspora moving eastward along Northern Blvd. (the roadway of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.)
The Flushing Remonstrance – issued at the end of the time of Adriaen van der Donck -- is one of the great statements in the history of North America. It has rarely been more relevant than now, when “sonnes of Adam” are being separated psychologically, as children are grasped from their parents by agents of an increasingly cruel state.
In a way, the current regime led me to read this book about Dutch settlers.
The puffy, petulant face of a child tyrant -- as well as his dissonant voice, the President as shrill earworm -- have driven me from the news channels (and the repetitiveness of most commentators, and the commercials for old-age “remedies.”)
Lately, I have taken to sitting near the evening music on WQXR-FM and reading books. My wife, as part of her family genealogy studies, just finished “Domesday: a Search for the Roots of England,” issued by Michael Wood in 1986, and also a classic television documentary.
One more point about books: one of the heroes of Russell Shorto’s book is Charles Gehring, an American scholar, who has spent much of his career on an un-numbered floor in a state building in Albany, translating historic Dutch handwritten documents into contemporary English.
This book adds to my immense respect for scholars like Gehring – and Shorto – and Wood. They help us see ugly times in the 21st Century, in perspective.
* * *
The Flushing Remonstrance:
When the lights went out in New York City on July 13, 1977, looters took over many streets, breaking into stores, carrying merchandise away.
The next morning, Alan Rubin, the owner of an electronics store at West 98th St. and Broadway, posted a sign in his window: “WE ARE STAYING.”
Order was restored from the blackout and the general good will of New York returned. Alan Rubin was but one of thousands of small-business operators committed to making a living in the neighborhoods of the city.
Now his daughter, Jen Rubin, has written a book about those days, and the feeling for people and the city that many New Yorkers have. Her book is titled: “We Are Staying: Eighty Years in the Life of a Family, a Store, and a Neighborhood.”
Rubin, who lives in Madison, Wis., is a regular on the Moth story-telling series.
She comes from an accomplished family -- her mother, Sandi, worked for the Jerusalem Foundation, and her brother, Josh, is an attorney for the city. Regulars on my site will be familiar with frequent posts by Alan Rubin.
His daughter uses his quotes in 1977 to explain why he stayed:
“I’m responsible for twenty-five families—the families of people that work for me,” Alan Rubin said. “What’s going to happen to them if I pull out? As bad as I got hit, there are other guys that got wiped out. What’s going to happen if they can’t reopen? What can the city and government do to keep people like us from leaving these neighborhoods?”
And she writes about his feel for his business, then known as Radio Clinic:
“Forty-three years earlier his dad, who had run for his life from Russia, put his stake down on this block and slowly built up the business. When Grandpa became ill with cancer, he passed the business on to his son and son-in-law. This was the family’s business, and my dad wasn’t budging.”
Alan Rubin kept his store going and retired in 2006. He and Sandi now live in the Berkshires, where he, a former star goalkeeper for Lehigh University, teaches the position to young people, out of his love for the sport.
Jen Rubin’s new book is available through her website:
Out of morbid fascination, I peeked at the Mets Friday night.
Much better I should have stayed with the news from the Manafort trial – his wardrobe, his cars, his crooked accountant, his toady work for oligarchs on both sides of the Atlantic. Manafort is going away.
Poor Jacob DeGrom; he should go away, too – but to a ball club on which somebody other than the pitcher can drive in runs. He deserves it. He has turned 30 and his club has no hope, no foreseeable future.
The other day I wrote the foolscap below, hoping the Mets could keep a facsimile of a major-league pitching staff. But watching this great competitor add to his league-leading earned-run average (1.85) but with a 5-7 won-lost record, I realized he has earned time off for good behavior.
With the money they save on his salary, they could sign six or eight other washed-up position players, since they don’t have enough right now.
Have a fun weekend, with the Yanks and Red Sox acting like the ‘70s.
(my previous screed:)
I confess, I was relieved when the Mets did nothing heinous on trading deadline. For Mets fans, this is a plus.
I always get morose about rumors of Mets trades, particularly for pitchers.
There are so many original sins in Mets history that I have stopped counting.
I still hear the voice of my 19-year-old son on the phone, over a certain 1989 trade that will live in infamy. (see below)
“It stinks,” the voice said. “It just stinks.”
Never mind the great deals by Sandy Alderson that got them to the World Series in 2015. Mets fans just shudder at various trade and waiver and salary-dump deadlines.
I was already depressed at the selloffs of Jeurys Familia and Asdúbal Cabrera in the past week. Familia pitched his heart out for the Mets and Cabrera was one of the most professional and social players the Mets have ever had. He was a pleasure to watch. I will mourn him the rest of the season.
I thought I might be mourning Jacob DeGrom. His once-laughing face has hardened into the stoic mask of a good soldier, but he still jokes with his pitcher pals on the bench. The Mets never hit for him. I won’t blame him if he forces his way out after the season. I can’t stand to watch his games any more – Sisyphus with shorn locks. Then his own teammates roll the rock down on him.
So when the front-office troika held on to the four Mets starters, for the moment, I relaxed and decided I could live with the horrors of the rest of this season. There’s always Weeping Wilmer, el hombre de la gente.
Then they lost, 25-4, on Monday. My Mets-text pals Pete W and Brad W and David V all decided that the two-game series would be decided by cumulative scores, like some Champions League soccer playoff. Our sluggers could overcome 25-4, we decided. In fact, they lost, 5-3, on Tuesday.
It’s all part of the Met-fan psyche. Nothing lasts for long. The Gil Hodges era. Doc and Darryl. Yoenis Cespedes’ heels. Curtis Granderson, one of the best people ever to play in Flushing. Enjoy the day. Things fall apart.
One moment you are enjoying Asdrúbal Cabrera, totally into his hitting and his positioning, with his positive impact on his teammates and even opponents, lifting the helmet off the head of Granderson after a home run. Now they are both gone.
The Mets ….to put it simply…are the meaning of life.
* * *
(Just a few horrors, off the top of my head.)
Dec. 10, 1971: Mets trade young Nolan Ryan.
June 15, 1977: Mets trade in-prime Tom Seaver.
June 19, 1989: Mets trade Roger McDowell – and LennyDykstra – for Juan Samuel.
Aug. 27, 1992: Mets trade in-prime David Cone for Jeff Kent in a new-age salary dump.
(Below: Eternal Met slugger with glorious launch arc but no contact.)
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.