Saturday, December 12, 2009

Neal's Pratfall

Post 9/11 Misstep

Whaddup blog readers! Here is yet another out of print article rescued from the vaults, this time a September 16, 2001 piece about Congressman Richard Neal and the media criticism he faced in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Whatever his flaws, no one has ever accused Congressman Richard Neal of a lack of political sophistication. In fact, he has a reputation of being a political junkie who rarely looks at anything without considering the political ramifications. That may have gotten him into some hot water last week when he was caught in what he described as a "casual conversation" with a reporter criticizing President Bush for appearing "bland" in his remarks following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Neal then went on to compare Bush unfavorably to Bill Clinton. Also caught with his foot in his mouth was Neal's colleague and Washington roommate Rep. Martin Meehan, who scoffed at the notion that security concerns delayed the president's return to Washington from Florida following the attacks.

For seeming to suggest that the president acted cowardly, it was Meehan who took the brunt of the criticism (actually the president's actions were dictated by his security staff, whom Bush eventually overrode and then quickly returned to Washington anyway.) But both congressmen found themselves at the center of a firestorm of media criticism for making petty attacks on the president at a time of national emergency, violating a bi-partisan understanding among politicians everywhere to refrain from public criticism of the President in times of crisis.

Former Mayor Taupier
For Neal however, who seldom appears in the national spotlight, the sudden media condemnation must have come as a shock. Locally even a stalwart Democrat like former Holyoke Mayor William Taupier exclaimed in the Union-News, "They are both friends of mine, but I am outraged. This is not a time for politics; they're acting like rank amateurs."

Among the most sarcastic criticism came from Boston Herald columnist and radio host Howie Carr, who lambasted Meehan and Neal by calling them "Osama Bin Meehan" and "Richie 'The Sheik' Neal." In a rant in which he also criticized Amherst residents for complaining that their town was displaying too many flags, Carr then turned his acid-tipped pen to the two Massachusetts congressmen. "Finally we come to the two congressional collaborators, Osama bin Meehan and Richie the Sheik. First Richie - Who knew he could even talk? The last time I remember him speaking was when he called his local newspaper to deny that he had impregnated one of his aides."

Howie Carr at the Big E in September 2009.
What was Howie Carr talking about? Shortly after Neal was first elected to Congress, an item appeared in the Springfield Newspapers in which Neal denounced rumors that he had impregnated an aide who allegedly then had an abortion. The rumors were never proven, and what amazed most people was that the matter ever appeared in the paper at all. But sophisticated observers recognized the article as just the standard sort of warining the Springfield Newspapers typically give to newly elected politicians; designed to give them a taste of what could happen should they stray too far off the plantation.

For example, when Springfield Mayor Mike Albano was newly sworn in, a front page story accused him of hiring unqualified cronies to work in his administration. That article inspired a woman who worked at the then city-owned Municipal Hospital to come forward and call talk show host Dan Yorke to complain that a member of the politically connected Pellegrino family had been hired for an important post for which he had no known qualifications. Yorke ran with the story, expecting the Springfield Newspapers to follow up with this new evidence backing up their front-page story. Instead the paper remained silent, refusing to cover the story. The woman who called Yorke became so intimidated by people whom she refused to identify that she backed down and declined to co-operate with Yorke any further.

The reason for the paper's silence was obvious. They had never intended to seriously investigate cronyism in city government - they only wanted to show Albano their power. If the paper's actions were paraphrased into words they might read, "Look Mikey, before you get too big for your britches, remember that we buy ink by the barrel, and we will be glad to spill a lot of it on your behalf if you make us happy. But refuse to do things our way, and here's a small sample of what we can write. Whether we print something like this in the future or not will depend on your level of co-operation."

The publication of the Neal pregnant aide rumor almost certainly fell into the same category of a simple warning, so Carr may have been going a bit too far to drag that skeleton out of the closet. After all the rumor need not have been true to still be effective as a club for the Springfield Newspapers to use. In any case Neal appears to have learned his lesson well, since the paper has treated him with kid gloves ever since.

Ironically, it may have been the puffball treatment he's used to getting from the local press that was responsible for Neal committing his blunder with the Boston press. He's so used to having everything spun his way that it never occurred to Neal that reporters in other places consider it their responsibility to report on what politicians actually say and do, and do not censor or revise all comments in a positive way simply because the politician is in bed with the local publisher.

But that still doesn't explain why a politically astute guy like Neal let himself get into such a mess in the first place. A clue may be found in the Ogulewicz Chronicles, the memoirs of former City Councilor Mitch Ogulewicz, who has known Neal since the beginning of Neal's political career. In his memoirs Ogulewicz describes an intense confrontation he once had with then Mayor Neal over the need to repair roofs on the city's schools. Despite evidence that some school roofs may have posed a safety hazard, Neal didn't want to spend money on them because the average taxpayer wouldn't be able to see where the money was spent. "No one can see a fucking roof!" Ogulewicz says Neal told him. "The public only cares about what they can see!" The portrait Ogulewicz presents of Neal is of a person for whom everything is political. Therefore while most people saw President Bush as our country's leader doing his best to comfort a shocked and grieving nation, Neal perceived simply a politician giving a performance, and therefore saw nothing inappropriate in suggesting that Bill Clinton would have put on a better show.

But whatever the reason, Neal's apparent lack of sensitivity and understanding of the 9/11 tragedy must surely be considered, as ex-Mayor Taupier was quoted as describing Neal's comments in the Springfield Newspapers:

"Stupid, stupid, stupid."

Bye Buzz

Buzzers Bill Peters and Greg Saulmon
I'm saddened to learn that the Valley cyberzine Local Buzz has at least temporarily ceased online publication. The hiatus is due to the departure of Buzz co-writer Bill Peters, who has been laid off by the Buzz's parent company, which is the web portal for the Springfield Newspapers. Co-writer Greg Saulmon will continue to work with Masslive as a director of online content, but has opted not to continue Local Buzz without Peters. A third buzzling, Josh Thayer, left the cyberzine about a year ago.

Local Buzz started as both an online and print publication. However, just when the print version appeared on the brink of a market breakthrough, financial hardships forced the Springfield Newspapers to abruptly discontinue the print edition and Local Buzz went exclusively online. The Local Buzz became known as one of the best written and beautifully photographed websites in the Valley, as well as for its indepth reporting and sharp wit. Fortunately the archives of old Local Buzz articles is still available here.


Here's a display in Northampton's Pulaski Park.

I should say something about the inappropriateness of religious displays in public places, but the damn Christians get away with it so often that I feel mean complaining about the Jews.

The Academy of Music is having a Paul Newman film festival next month.

My neighbor put an Earth flag in their garage window.

Another neighbor is getting into composting.

Guns and Roses.

A giant snowbird sits on her eggs in front of the science store on King Street.

If the science store should ever go out of business, it could sell its window sign to an LSD dealer.

Today's Music Video

In Northampton a few nights ago singing about a local highway.

Wikipedia - Unlike most states it passes through, US 202 is posted as a north-south highway in Massachusetts, as most of its length through the state runs mostly in those directions.

US 202 and Route 10 enter the Bay State at the "Congamond Notch", a southward jog in the state line that includes Congamond Lake. North of Westfield, US 202 turns eastward toward Holyoke and Belchertown. It then heads north along the west side of the Quabbin Reservoir through New Salem toward Athol. This section of US 202 has been dubbed the Daniel Shays Highway, named for a Revolutionary War veteran who led an insurrection against the state government of Massachusetts. US 202 meets Route 2 at Orange, and runs along the two-lane freeway to Phillipston. There, it diverges to the north again as a two-lane road.

In Massachusetts, US 202 passes through the municipalities of Southwick, Westfield, Holyoke, South Hadley, Granby, Belchertown, Pelham, Shutesbury, New Salem, Orange, Athol, Phillipston, Templeton, and Winchendon.