Thingish Things

Subduing Our Better Angels

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Dec• 05•12

Photo by Jennifer Foster

About 25 years ago, while working in the constituent office of a New York City state senator, I gave $20 and a gold crucifix to a homeless alcoholic trying to get to a rehab center, or so he claimed.

I knew the cash would probably go to cheap vodka, but the crucifix and a carefully worded note on Senate stationery that I wrapped around it, I hoped, might spur the man to action.

They did. That very night he cut his wrists with the cross (and lived, according to the police officer who found him and dialed the number on my office letterhead the next day).

Some years later, I came upon an unkempt and precariously seated man at the 77th Street and Lexington Avenue subway station, dangling his legs from the train platform at rush hour. There were people around, but no one was doing anything to assist the fellow, which angered me. A train would be coming along any moment, and he definitely was in a position to be struck by it.

So, in a harrumph to the other bystanders, I reached for his outstretched hand to help him up. He gripped my wrist tightly and tried to pull me onto the tracks, which evidently was his plan — a memory kicked back into consciousness by the subway-pushing death this week.

The rest of this column is available at Newsday.  Thanks for reading!

Masque of the Red Ink

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Dec• 01•12

It was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.'” — Edgar Allan Poe

No one can do macabre like Edgar Allan Poe, but this 112thCongress is giving the American short-story master a run for his money.

The White House and the Senate, led by Harry Reid, are engaged in a modern-day version of “The Masque of the Red Death” in stubbornly ignoring the entitlement time-bomb that almost assuredly will spell economic ruin for the country when it goes off.

In Poe’s creation, 1,000 members of a land’s nobility, led by Prince Prospero, sequester themselves in a palace in an effort to shut out all thoughts and realities of “the Red Death,” a virulent plague ravaging their countrymen.

In President Barack Obama‘s and Reid’s “Masque of the Red Ink,” powerful Washington special interests are holed up in the hallways of Congress preaching willful ignorance of certain fiscal calamity so that they can keep the decades-long U.S. spending spree going.

The big difference between these two stories, of course, is that Poe’s is fiction. The one in Washington is real, and it will result in severe hardship for generations of Americans to come.

“Unconscionable” is an overused word in American politics, but it fits the deeds of those lobbying against entitlement reform in Washington — like the powerful AARP — as snugly today as one of Prince Prospero’s cloaks surely would have fit him. TheAARP is squeezing Senate Democrats day and night during the “fiscal cliff” talks to block any changes in Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, and it seems to be winning.

The rest of this column is at Newsday and Newsday Westchester.  Thanks for reading. 

Swiss Benevolent Home, RIP

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Nov• 24•12

My daughter found this photo at the old Swiss Home for the Aged in Mount Kisco. We’re holding it.

The target was a deserted infirmary, an outbuilding of the once stately Swiss Benevolent Society Home up the hill from where we live in Mount Kisco.

By the time we moved into the Captain Merritt’s Hill neighborhood in December 2007, the main house of the 19th century facility was abandoned and decrepit. The adjacent infirmary, marked with a painted Swiss flag, was in worse shape: broken windows, doors ajar, scattered beer cans and graffitied walls — telltale signs that teenagers had taken residency of the place on many a night since its doors formally shut two decades ago.

The main house and its three derelict outbuildings had come to look like quintessential haunted structures demanding to be explored, and the long, gradual slope leading up to them — decorated with signs reading, “No Sledding” — had been ridden down to mud at the first speck of snow by children on Flexible Fliers and the like since the 1880s, according to local records.
I wanted my daughter not to be afraid of the facility; I wanted her to appreciate things that came before her. But most of all, I just had to see what was inside the forsaken place and she was the perfect cover.

That day marked the beginning of many delightful father-daughter walks around the once grand Swiss Home grounds, where we gorged on wild raspberries and wove intricate stories about imaginary people who had lived and died in the buildings since the turn of the last century.

The infirmary had a massive stone hearth and a disintegrating grand piano, without a trace of lacquer, that must have gleamed when it was young. Around it we conjured suffragettes and aged civil war veterans, with broken limbs elevated, singing gay, patriotic tunes on winter nights. We gave them each names.

On a bench at the top of the hill, a widow and widower surely met and fell in love. There they sat, every day at sunset, holdings hands.

The dances in the main house, which we never entered, had been the fanciest affairs we could conjure. The women wore broaches and ballgowns. The gentlemen came in white tie and tail.

The rest of this column is available at Newsday and Newsday Westchester.  Thanks for reading!

The New York Voter Paradox

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Nov• 21•12

Who put a “kick me” sign on New York‘s back?

Oh wait, we did.

We do it every two years when we elect members of Congress who vote to expand the scope of the federal government, which is pretty much all of them.

It’s well know that New York gets less money back from Washington than it sends down there every year. We’ve always accepted that with a shrug. But now that we need some of the money back for superstorm Sandy repairs and other expensive capital projects, the green eyeshade bureaucrats in D.C. are hemming and hawing. Instead of rattling a tin cup before them, we should be hanging the ingrates upside down by their breeches to shake the change from their pockets.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to issue a report on the money disparity between New York and Washington every couple of years. In his day, we got back 80-something cents on the dollar, depending on the year. Now we get 79 cents. In other words, every dollar we receive from Washington costs us $1.21. And we’re supposed to be one of the best educated states in America?

Every election cycle the political left ridicules Republican-voting states for hypocrisy in electing candidates who call for less federal spending. That’s outrageous. They should be ridiculing them for stupidity.

Mississippians get better than a 100 percent return ($2.02) on every dollar they send up the Potomac. Alaskans get $1.84; North Dakotans, $1.68. And they’re objecting?
I always laugh around election time when New York’s members of Congress — in both parties — begin “bringing home the bacon.” The funding sounds great in press releases, but the headlines don’t read what they should: “Congressman Jones Taken to the Cleaners for Little League Scoreboard” or “Johnson Scores $100 Million Bridge for $121 Million.”

Speaking of bridges, the situation involving the Tappan Zee Bridge may be the most galling. For decades, Westchester and Rockland County taxpayers, whose shores the spire spans, have been sending billions of dollars more in tax revenue to Albany and Washington than they get back. All the while, the Tappan Zee was known to be deteriorating.

And now that plans are on the table for a brand new bridge, what is Washington’s stance? Maybe — just maybe — they will loan some of the money to us for a new bridge. With interest.

I don’t know if there is an expression for that sort of insult in Washington, but here in New York, if you’ll pardon the vulgarity of the term, we call it a bitchslap.

The rest if this column is available at Newsday and Newsday Westchester.  Thanks for reading!

Presidential Leadership Needed

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Nov• 18•12

It’s been a rough week and a half since President Barack Obama reclaimed the White House:

The Dow lost more than 500 points;

The nation’s CIA chief was sacked for sacking down with his biographer;

Israel is at war with Hamas, again;

Widespread talk of state secession is in the news for the first time in 150 years (while a new Lincoln movie opens in theaters);

And on top of all that, we may have lost Twinkies, those quintessentially American heart-cloggers, with the liquidation of Hostess Brands over a union dispute.

The one high point in the stock market this week was the meteoric rise of a company called Medbox. Its value shot up 3,000 percent between Monday and Thursday, from $4 to $250 per share, before settling at around $100 on Friday.

What does this great new American company make?

Marijuana dispensing machines.

Those Hostess executives must be kicking themselves.

The rest of this column is available at Newsday and Newsday Westchester.  Thanks for reading!

The Temptation of Gov. Cuomo

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Nov• 13•12

Who would’ve thought that the Liberal Party candidate for governor in 2002 would be the last line of defense against the public employee unions and catastrophic overspending in New York in 2012?

But that’s exactly what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is today — the last grown-up standing in Albany, if the Republicans in the State Senate fail to cobble together a working majority.
The only thing between New York and out-of-control California is this governor, and the only thing between California and bankruptcy is time. New York’s Medicaid and pension costs, and its brutally high taxes, will take this state down if left unchecked.

You couldn’t hope for a more perfect protagonist in a political drama: People fear Andrew Cuomo. He’s brilliant and ruthless — the type of leader Machiavelli had in mind when he wrote “The Prince.” It is better to be feared than loved, indeed.

But Gov. Cuomo is feared and liked by Democrats and Republicans in New York. His voter approval rating routinely approaches or exceeds 70 percent. That gives him a strong bully pulpit.

But all is not perfect for this showdown. The governor’s supposed presidential ambitions could be his kryptonite.

Who can forget that airplane idling latently on the Albany tarmac in December 1991? Andrew Cuomo certainly cannot.

It was to be the plane ride to New Hampshire, the launch of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo‘s presidential campaign. And then the engines stopped.

One can only wonder what effect the silencing of those turbines had on Mario Cuomo‘s son and trusted political adviser. Long-shot philanderer Bill Clinton was instead elected president that year, at the fortuitous advent of one of the nation’s biggest economic booms. Mario Cuomo, the scholarly son of Italian immigrants, the deserving one, came that close to the golden ring of politics, only to let it slip away.

And now, two decades later, that political adviser — today’s Gov. Cuomo — is one of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. It’s almost Shakespearean.

Standing between him and the nomination, though, are public employee union leaders who can make or break Democratic presidential aspirants — the same union bosses who have been trying to stall the governor’s Albany reform agenda for the past two years.

The rest of this column is available at Newsday.  Thanks for reading!

Final Thoughts on Presidential

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Nov• 05•12

It’s amazing how quickly things can go awry.

That’s the lesson of Sandy, and it has to be considered in the voting booth on Tuesday.

One day you’re sitting in an armchair watching a weather forecast on CNN; five days later, television, lights, heat, communications, fresh food, drinking water and gasoline can be critically unavailable.

Just like that, the illusory comforts of life are gone, and the stark reality of our frailty as people stares us in the eye.

Is the same thing true of nations, though? Is it possible that the greatness of our country is chimerical, that it is a house of cards posing as a fortress?

Harvard historian and author Niall Ferguson believes it is, and if he’s right, Tuesday’s election may truly be the most important in our lifetimes.

Ferguson, who believes America’s growing debt crisis is its real Frankenstorm, first outlined his fears in a 2010 essay in Foreign Affairs magazine.

“Great powers are complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organized, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid,” he wrote. “They operate somewhere between order and disorder. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems ‘go critical.’ A very small trigger can set off a ‘phase transition’ from a benign equilibrium to a crisis — a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse.”

Ferguson cites in his writings the sudden collapse of empires throughout history, from the Holy Roman Empire to the Soviet Union, with debt being the underlying cause of the downfall. Those who find the notion of rapid national decline alarmist might recall how quickly the economic collapse of 2008 occurred, erasing 40 percent of the average American’s wealth until this day. They might also note that every penny of Federal Emergency Management Agency aid going to New York and New Jersey right now is borrowed, either from China or against future generations.

Ferguson’s is the lens through which I am looking at the election as a voter and as a parent. My greatest fear for our country is that our debt, when it hits a critical mass, will lead to hyperinflation and systemic unemployment for my daughters’ generation, the way it did for tens of millions of Hungarians and Germans 80 years ago.

For that reason I find it hard to imagine how any thinking person can be planning to support a free-spending president like President Barack Obama for re-election at this point in our history, even though many of my friends and half my siblings are planning to “pull the lever” for him, presumably with the same zeal in which I plan to vote for Gov. Mitt Romney. I am afraid to press my wife for an answer about whom she’ll be supporting because I think I know.

I just don’t get 

The rest of this column is available at Newsday and Newsday Westchester. Thanks  for reading!

The Politics of Sandy

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Oct• 29•12

A candidate for New York State Assembly in Brooklyn 20 years ago insisted on inserting a dried sponge with his name emblazoned across it into his final campaign mailing, one of his former advisers once told me. The sponge was one of those campaign chotchkies candidates love and consultants roll their eyes at — along with branded magnets, emery boards and pill cases — and this particular aspirant for public office was convinced it would put him over the edge in a tight contest.

The mail never arrived, and the candidate lost.

It wasn’t until a week later that it became clear why. A spell of intense humidity expanded the sponges within their envelopes inside the post office, putting their weight above that allowed by the allotted postage. The near-bursting envelopes were returned to the campaign headquarters by the hundreds for weeks after the election stamped in red ink: “Postage Due.”

Such are the intangibles of a political race.

Hurricane Sandy is barreling upon New York as I write this, and it is yet to be seen how much the severe storm may affect our upcoming elections. Significantly, I would guess, judging from Sandy’s ferocity, but in ways impossible to handicap.

It’s an awful thing to talk politics while a natural disaster is looming — this is the time to prepare and to pray for families living along the coastline — but an important Election Day is only a week away and speculation over the storm’s political impact is both irresistible and warranted.

One immediate implication: Sandy has frozen the news cycle in place for a large swath of the nation. It will be virtually impossible to introduce any new, significant news before the end of this week, if then. Any news that was growing steam — like the Benghazi controversy — will simply vanish from the air in much of the nation. Monday’s coverage in the Northeast will mark preparations for and predictions about the storm; Tuesday and Wednesday will be about Sandy herself; and then there will be the aftermath coverage — the clean up — which will run for more than a week.

That means whoever had momentum in his or her race before the storm will likely keep it through the weekend at least. The only candidates who can benefit during the storm are incumbent executives — the president, governors, mayors, town supervisors — who will have the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership skills in a crisis. Expect President Barack Obama to be on the ground for post-storm damage assessment photo ops in Pennsylvania on Wednesday or Thursday.

A second implication: Many underfunded campaigns, like the Colonial soldiers at Bunker Hill, wait until they see “the whites of their eyes” before firing in the news media. That is, they hold until the very end of a campaign, when the public is paying closest attention, to go up on television with their limited advertising dollars.

Blackouts through the northeast will erase that messaging. They may be the best-made political spots since Reagan‘s “Morning Again in America” commercials, but they will not be seen. Even households with electricity will not see the ads they were supposed to. Twenty-four-hour news networks like Fox and CNN, where a great deal of political advertising is placed, will likely run live coverage for days with limited commercial interruptions.

Political mail carefully planned to arrive each day for the final week of a campaign will more likely land in mailboxes with a thud in one or two bunches, as the Postal Service adjusts its bulk delivery schedules. That mail’s desired effect on voters will not occur. There will be fewer robocalls, too — I can hear the sighs of relief — as political phone calls will be deemed inappropriate for the next couple of days.

The rest of this column is available at Newsday and Newsday Westchester. Thanks for reading — and stay safe.

Worst GOTV Ad Ever?

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Oct• 26•12

Is it me, or is the most tone deaf ad you’ve ever seen,too? If I were undecided, one look at this spot would put me in the Romney camp.


Clint Nails It

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Oct• 24•12