The Friday column: Talking about race

JPLs Bobby Nelson, fresh off the victory by senior lab employees over wacko, un-American government intrusion into their private lives, has long been involved in area and national politics.

He recalls working on the Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns in 1984 and 88, and the failure to establish much of an interesting, non-personality-driven national dialogue on race. I think thats probably because Jackson was rightly or wrongly a divisive character himself note that no candidate this year, so far as I know, has exactly sought out his endorsement. His views, his past, his rhetoric, his womanizing I once saw him corner a beautiful young girl backstage in the John Muir High School auditorium, and a fine piece of work it was were too easy to caricature.

And Nelson remembers what I had certainly forgotten: President Bill Clintons effort, first put forward in a commencement address at UC San Diego in June 1997, to formally establish such a national dialogue. In the speech he announced the creation of an advisory panel that spent a year holding town meetings around the country and then released a report, One America in the 21st Century: Forging a New Future, which included suggestions for helping to eliminate ongoing discrimination based on race in America.

Right. That one caused quite a kerfuffle. Race-wise, everything turned into a big beautiful rainbow coalition after that landed with a thud on our desks.

To be fair, I would probably say the same thing about most any report, however well meaning, that came out of a national commission. Im not so sure we solve problems through reports. In fact, I propose a ban on national commissions on anything.

Informal national dialogues conversations, more like are a good thing, though. They start up for random reasons, not by decree. Sen. Barack Obamas speech on race Tuesday night had to be given because of the outrage over his former pastors racial stands. And now its started not only a national but an international dialogue, thanks to its instantaneous availability on the Internet. I heard a Lebanese intellectual on the radio Thursday saying that the Obama speech was the talk of Beirut. He noted that something like 15 percent of those in the Arab world have sub-Saharan African roots. Ive seen it, and on the surface at least there is a more relaxed attitude toward race in Arab countries than there is in the West. But the Beiruti said that this surface sheen masks real issues of class and discrimination that mostly go undiscussed.

So I agree with Bobby, and with Obama lets discuss them. Lets talk among ourselves, and at the dinner table, and in the office and the classroom and the public square. Howre we doing, America, on the race thing, which the sin of slavery made a subject that will never go away? Lets write into the papers, and post on the blogs, with thoughts and stories. Have you had a religious or cultural figure in your past, like Obamas Rev. Jeremiah Wright, with whom you might disagree about race but whose out-there views you learned from? Can you still be close with friends or family whose racial views differ markedly from your own? Is Wright all the way out to lunch, or does he make sense to you? Should Obama have repudiated him more fully?

Lets have a little talk. Ill be happy to print your take on race in this space.

Five years of war in Iraq

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Today marks five years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq — longer than World War II. Soon another Rubicon will be crossed and the 4,000th American soldier will lose her or his life there. Friday at PCC, as part of Art Night, students and others floated 4,000 origami boats in memoriam on the reflection pool at the front of the campus, as seen in the photo above.

During a tour of the construction going on on her campus, PCC President Paulette Perfumo told me Tuesday that the ceremony Friday night was quite beautiful. Then she told me that her own son, now on a brief R&R in Thailand, is a soldier about to start his fourth tour of duty in Iraq. He turned 21 fighting in the desert; he’s now 24. “I’m about as patriotic a mom as you’re going to find,” Perfumo told me. “But four tours? When is it going to stop?”

I think we all wish we could tell every Blue Star Mom in the country just when that might be.

Cooper-o-rama

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Ace staff photographer Walt Mancini and I were talking today about reading L.A. Times hilarious genius car critic Dan Neil’s take Wednesday in his “Rumble Seat” column on the newest Mini Cooper, the Clubman.

I drive a Cooper — a red and white ’04. Walt drives that rare, Batmobile-style hatchback version of the BMW Z series. We both love our cars. Neil loves the Clubman. I said, “So I was thinking that maybe Phoebe should get a Clubman.” Walt said, “Yeah! I was thinking Gloria should get one!”

Then I told Walt about driving by the very cool Pasadena British Motors on Walnut several blocks east of Lake recently, with tons of old, original Coopers outside. He went by and took the above shot. It turns out that very few of the beauties are for sale — they’re in for repair, and that’s what those signs on their windscreens are all about: “Sorry, dude: This one is mine!”

Yeah, that’s a Ferrari in the background. God knows what it’s doing among the street-legal go-karts.

I can garden, after a fashion

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Arboretum activists Peggy Rahn and Peggy Stewart — they have done so much else for the community for so many decades I know, but for the purpose of this, they are Arb types — asked me over to the county green place in Arcadia Sunday to participate in the I Can Garden part of the upcoming LA Garden Show.

You take non-gardeners such as myself, give them a galvanized metal can filled with good soil, and tell them to have at it. I used a cactus, some succulents, a piece of copper piping, some beautiful shards of tile and some wine corks in the above creation.

It’s not that I am a total non-gardener. I keep alive the extraordinary Meyer lemon tree in our yard with a little bit of deep watering and fertilizer, and do plant tomatoes each spring, and force paperwhites in cigar boxes as Christmas gifts. Oh, and nine rose bushes are under my care. But that’s about it. It was fun to be presented with a blank canvas of compost and have to fill it, in my minimalist fashion. The LA Garden Show is upcoming May 2-4 at the Arboretum.

McGovernance

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Is it an honor to have lost the presidency to that old crook, Richard Nixon?

The only person alive who could answer that question, former Sen. George McGovern, came to town Wednesday night to honor ACT, the liberal political organization formed out of his quixotic 1972 political campaign, as it celebrates 35 years.

And he didnt answer it, exactly. But ACT co-founder Ralph Hurtado, in his introduction of McGovern, recalled the South Dakotan saying, Its true that I lost to Richard Nixon by a wide margin. But that wasnt my fault it was the fault of the voters.

McGovern ramrod-straight and graying well at 85, dapper in a pinstriped suit charmed the crowd of aging progressives at Molly Munger and Steve Englishs Arroyo-side house with his anecdotes of the past and thoughts on the present.

ACT leaders including Hurtado and Jon Fuhrman recalled how the Pasadena area was a solid GOP bet for decades before and for some years after the McGovern campaign in fact, parts of it were represented by Nixon when he was in Congress.

Carlos Moorhead was in the House, one of the handful of holdouts against impeachment after the smoking gun tape was made public. The state Senate and Assembly were safe for Republicans.

The Pasadena City Council and virtually every council in these parts found Democrats to be the exception.

Decades on, its Republicans who are the exception, in Congress, in the Legislature and on many councils and school boards as well.

ACT, considered a dinosaur now by younger political operatives, very much had to do with that, along with a changing demographic. Its volunteers invented the concept of targeting high-propensity voters with direct mail. At first, their candidates still lost. And then they won and won and won, and became the establishment they sought for so long to displace.

McGovern thanked ACT for its work back then. Though he of course failed to carry even his home state of South Dakota, winning only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., Pasadenas was one of three Los Angeles County congressional districts McGovern did carry. While the Vietnam War, opposition to which was the biggest plank in McGoverns platform, was unpopular, the Nixon campaigns assertion that a vote for the Dems was one for acid, amnesty and abortion was brilliant nationwide.

McGovern was a World War II bomber pilot awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for leading 35 missions over enemy territory in Italy and North Africa. But he had come to believe that the Vietnam War was immoral, and he still cant believe his crusade didnt resonate with more Americans.

I walk around that black wall of the Vietnam Memorial commemorating the 58,000 Americans who died there, McGovern said Wednesday. (Former Defense Secretary) Bob McNamara wrote a book saying not only was it a mistake it was a tragic mistake, Vietnam. I dont denigrate John McCains experience in that war. But hes running 36 years later, a time when we are again in a tragic war. Neither country was a threat to the United States.

He quoted Jefferson: When I consider that God is just, I tremble for my country.

And, while declining to endorse either Clinton or Obama, he said with a smile: If Hillary and Barack end up in a tie, Im available.

My Wednesday column on Tuesday

You know that little note you have on your calendar to drop by Vromans Thursday to hear Margaret B. Jones read from her memoir of L.A. gang life, Love & Consequences?

Scratch it out. Nix the notion. Jones, as youve read by now, grew up a Blood about as much as did the rest of her classmates at preppie, Episcopalian Campbell Hall school in North Hollywood.

Shes really Peggy Seltzer, from Sherman Oaks, not South Central. Shes all white, not half Native American. She never hung out on a street corner, dealing crack with her foster siblings.

And, yeah, the bookstore canceled the reading. Patrick Conyers, the excellent chief blogger at the stores Web site, posted the news Tuesday: Vroman’s dont truck with no liars.

Among the comparisons people are making is the sham perpetrated by James Frey as A Million Little Pieces. See, that one never raised my hackles so much. So, an alcoholic exaggerated his recovery story. So what. Its also fairly easy to see how the publisher got suckered. Confidentiality requirements can make it hard to confirm what precisely goes on at whiskey schools.

But this weeks scams are making said publishers look massively dumb or maybe just even greedier than we thought. Two books that should have been labeled novels instead got called memoirs, apparently since supposed real-life stories sell better than fiction these days.

First, the Belgian writer who admitted she made up her best-seller Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, which was translated into 18 languages and made into a feature film in France.

Right, she now admits: I did not travel 1,900 miles as a child across Europe in the care of a pack of wolves in search of my deported parents during World War II.

My God, and it took years for this to come out? A PACK OF WOLVES?

So what should have been the first clue for the editor of Love & Consequences, who says she worked with her young author for a long time? Well, I looked up the first chapter, still available on the Web, though the book has been pulled from stores. Our heroine, a very white-looking girl supposedly talked into drug dealing at 12 by a black gang, has a Blood OG mentor who comes by to visit his troops. Sometimes, she writes, he stopped and talked to me. We talked about L.A. history …

Uh-huh. Hes a history buff, this original gangster.

Can we go back to the good old days of literature, label every longish life story a novel, and get on with it?

In totally unrelated news, a local blogger wonders about some street signs hes seen around town lately that seem a bit tongue in cheek.

Like Islands of L.A. Natl Park in a rather official-looking font, well-attached to a proper city-approved pole on a traffic island.

Little joke there, see. And so smart that my guess is what were dealing with here is that dreaded thing, art. And no less than the art of Jenny Holzer, the language-based conceptualist.

Clues? Holzer is tied in with the Women in the City project spreading virally around L.A. right now. The catalog cites her Inflammatory Essays as Posters at construction sites in the City of Pasadena. The signs are not precisely that, but still . . . The language reminds me of a Holzer piece I have on my office door: If you had behaved nicely the Communists wouldnt exist.