Friday, April 10, 2009

Fighting Cancer a Win for Both Parties

By Matthew Dallek

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This article originally ran on Politico on April 7, 2009.)

House Republicans released their version of a budget last week, and the familiar partisan potshots began to ring out across Capitol Hill. But on one issue, at least, there is hope for bipartisan agreement. Republicans and Democrats alike should put partisanship aside to endorse a plan to double federal funding for cancer research by 2014.

Cancer research is an issue that resonates profoundly, without regard to party affiliation. It frightens, maims and kills Democrats and Republicans alike. To cite just a few members of Congress who have cancer: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has brain cancer, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has twice survived Hodgkin’s disease. Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) share the distinction of having survived prostate cancer, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has battled melanoma.

In the House, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) has undergone seven major surgeries in the past year because she not only had breast cancer but also has the BRCA-2 gene — putting her at increased risk for developing ovarian and other cancers. Her colleagues Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) and Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) are also among the cancer survivors serving in the House.

The history of the “war on cancer” shows that this is an issue where bipartisan solutions are within elected officials’ grasp. In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation that received the support of every senator to establish the National Cancer Institute. The National Cancer Institute Act not only created the first federal cancer-fighting agency but also called for better coordination of cancer research, the purchase and distribution of much-needed radium to hospitals, and an education campaign designed to raise awareness about the need for early detection.

Four decades later, Republican Richard Nixon built on FDR’s legacy when he increased the federal commitment to cancer research. He declared that America should muster the “federal will” and provide the “federal resources” that could be used to launch a “campaign against cancer.”

While FDR’s and Nixon’s efforts have not resulted in a cure for cancer, it is clear that federal support for cancer research has saved the lives of thousands of Americans through the decades.

Building on that bipartisan legacy, congressional Republicans and Democrats should agree that the time is right to step up the fight against cancer at the federal level. During last year’s presidential campaign, the politics of this issue were already beginning to move in the right direction. Republicans and Democrats expressed mutual support for funding cancer research.

Even conservative Republicans like Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a melanoma survivor, strongly support cancer research. On the campaign trail in 2007, Brownback called cancer “the leading cause of fear in America today.” In his February address to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama talked about “seeking a cure for cancer in our time.” Obama’s mother died of ovarian cancer at 53, and his budget proposal includes doubling the funding for cancer research over five years.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike should rush to support that reasonable goal and all of the benefits that might flow from achieving it. On ideological grounds, liberal Democrats should unanimously show their support for a federal institute that conducts research, distributes grants and supports doctors whose clinical trials and laboratory research will save countless lives.

But Republicans should also be able to rally around the idea that the NCI isn’t just a Big Government bureaucracy stifling economic innovation and the private enterprise system. On the contrary, NCI distributes grants to researchers employed at private medical institutions and leading hospitals. It makes the United States more competitive on a global scale in the areas of science, medicine and cancer research. And it deepens a public-private partnership that, whatever its flaws, has led to innovation, strengthened the scientific marketplace of ideas and helped the American people live healthier lives.

A final reason for bipartisan support for cancer research is that potentially lifesaving research projects are much too dependent on the whims of private donors nowadays. At M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one wonderful physician, Elizabeth Ann Mittendorf, relies significantly on private sources of funding to conduct clinical trials vaccinating women who have had breast cancer to lower their risk of a recurrence. (One of my friends is enrolled in this trial and is attempting to raise tens of thousands of dollars just to help keep the trial going.)

At the Johns Hopkins Sol Goldman Center for pancreatic cancer research, a team of brilliant doctors has recently mapped the pancreatic cancer genome. But they do not have as much funding as they need to conduct research that could translate their genetic discoveries into simple early detection tests for the disease and to develop better treatments for pancreatic cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of 5 percent.

This issue is a no-brainer. “A permanent 1 percent reduction in mortality from cancer has a present value to current and future generations of Americans of nearly $500 billion. If a cure were feasible, that would be worth about $50 trillion,” said Mittendorf.

Members of Congress should join together, double the federal funding of cancer research and provide themselves and their constituents with a bipartisan measure of hope that one day the “leading cause of fear in America” will be sharply reduced, if not eliminated.

Matthew Dallek writes a monthly column on history and politics for Politico, teaches at the University of California Washington Center, and is a visiting fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Monday, April 6, 2009

And the Tweet Goes On...

Last week we put up a post asking for your thoughts on the recent phenomenon of ghost-twittering. From "lucrative" to "ludicrous!", our writers offer their final word...

"New rates! By the character, not the word!" -- Ellis Henican, Staff Columnist, Newsday

"While the concept of someone needing to know the daily details of a celebrity’s life is a bit disconcerting, I’m sure writing such “tidbits” is enjoyable." -- Rich Mintzer, former Writer, MSNBC

"Beware of ghost Twittering, your brain may become a shadow of its former self." -- Jessica Copen, Communications Consultant, UNICEF

"Very funny! That's the problem with Twitter. It's for people with zero attention spans. 140 characters doesn't even get my throat cleared." -- Doug Garr, Speechwriter

-Blog Runner

Friday, April 3, 2009

Searching for the New Mencken

By Mark Lewis

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This article originally ran on on April 2, 2009.)

America's wealthy elite could use a latter-day Sage of Baltimore to shield them from populist wrath.

These are hard times for elitists. On the left and on the right, populist mobs are lighting torches and passing out pitchforks. Soon they may start herding plutocrats onto tumbrels and rolling them toward Wall Street, the new home of the Place de la Revolution. Amid such dire portents, who will dare to take a stand for aristocracy?

H.L. Mencken comes to mind, at least as a model. The last time populism crested, back in the 1930s, the so-called Sage of Baltimore sided with America's oppressed patricians and poured scorn on the overweening hoi polloi. Mencken was no worshiper of Wall Street, but he instinctively sided with the few against the many. Especially when he sensed a witch hunt in the offing. "The whole history of the country has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary," he wrote.

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was a newspaper pundit, literary critic, magazine editor and agent provocateur. He first rose to prominence as a Progressive Era dissenter who ridiculed the very notion of uplift as laughably naive. What ailed America, he announced, was "the lack of a body of sophisticated and civilized public opinion, independent of plutocratic or government control and superior to the infantile philosophies of the mob--a body of opinion showing the eager curiosity, the educated skepticism and the hospitality to ideas of a true aristocracy."

Mencken derided the common man for envying the rich. "He hates the plutocrats of the cities, not only because they best him in the struggle for money, but also because they spend their gains on debaucheries that are beyond him," Mencken wrote in his caustic classic Notes on Democracy (1926). "The seeds of his disaster, as I have shown, lie in his own stupidity: He can never get rid of the naive delusion--so beautifully Christian!--that happiness is something to be got by taking it away from the other fellow."

Mencken was hugely influential during the roaring '20s, when he functioned as a bipartisan scold, flaying socialists and Rotarians alike. But the Great Depression pushed the country to the left and stranded Mencken on the right. As a libertarian, he viewed the New Deal with horror. His eloquent denunciations of Franklin Roosevelt alienated many former admirers but presumably earned him the gratitude of those aristocrats who considered Roosevelt a traitor to his class.

These days, with the Wall Street bailout fueling populist rage, there is an opportunity for a new Mencken to show his mettle. But is there anyone among the current crop of right-wing pundits who can bear comparison to the Sage?

"Absolutely nobody," declares Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, who edited Mencken's posthumous memoir My Life as Author and Editor.

"These people are self-important pipsqueaks," Yardley said, via e-mail. "I don't respect a single one of them, much less think that a single one of them deserves to be compared to H.L.M. I do have a measure of respect for David Brooks, whose knee doesn't seem to jerk in his sleep, but he's no Mencken and I suspect he'd be the first to say so."

Naturally, there are those on the right who would reject Yardley's assessment. "I think I am the right-wing Mencken," Ann Coulter asserted on CNN in 2006. (For good measure, she also claimed to be the right-wing Mark Twain.) R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor in chief of The American Spectator, has been compared to Mencken, as have the Canadian writer Mark Steyn and humorist P.J. O'Rourke. (O'Rourke gets bonus points for being the H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.)

Meanwhile, many on the left still cherish Mencken as a humorist, an iconoclast and a masterful stylist, even as they deprecate his "survival of the fittest" philosophy. In liberal precincts, the Mencken label has been affixed to such writers as Gore Vidal, Lewis Lapham and Alexander Cockburn.

Victor Navasky, a journalism professor at Columbia University and a former editor and publisher of The Nation, illustrated the protean nature of the Sage's enduring appeal. When polled by Forbes, Navasky offered three extremely diverse nominees for the "latter-day Mencken" title: Calvin Trillin (who writes verse for The Nation), Mark Steyn (who is anathema to The Nation) and Christopher Hitchens (a former Nation mainstay who left after his support for the Iraq War alienated its liberal readership).

Hitchens, as a proud contrarian, might be tempted to interpose himself, Mencken-like, between the current populists and their well-heeled prey. "Populism, which is in the last instance always an illiberal style, may come tricked out as a folkish emancipation," he once wrote in an essay about Mencken. "That is when it most needs to be satirized."

That old saw "vox populi, vox dei"--the voice of the people is the voice of God--is "a treacherous saying that has often been used to cement alliances between the plutocracy and the mob," Hitchens wrote. "It helps, of course, in resisting the populi bit, if you are convinced that the dei part is nonsense also. Thus we have Mencken, in his heroic period, defending Eugene Debs and Robert La Follette, not because they were tribunes of the plebs but because they were individuals of integrity who stood out against the yelling crowd as well as against the oligarchy."

But neither Hitchens nor any other current pundit can truly fill Mencken's shoes, because none espouse the Sage's gleeful brand of social Darwinism, which animated almost everything he wrote. These days, anyone admitting to such mean-spirited views is relegated to marginal publications. Was Mencken's extreme elitism a pose, something he exaggerated for effect? Not according to Terry Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and author of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken.

"Mencken was every bit as heartless as he made out," Teachout said, via e-mail. "Not on an individual level--he was capable of great personal kindness--but everything that he wrote in Notes on Democracy should be taken seriously as an expression of how he thought the world worked. Another way to put it is that he believed that politics existed in order to block the otherwise inevitable operation of social Darwinism. For that reason, he didn't have any serious expectation that his ideas would ever be adopted in America: He knew that elitism has no appeal in a democracy."

"It's important to keep in mind, though, that Mencken was the furthest thing from a practical political thinker," Teachout added. "He was essentially a literary artist who played with ideas. This doesn't mean that he wasn't serious about those ideas, but it would never have occurred to him to think through how they might be made to work in the real world. That wasn't what he understood to be his job--he was a critic, period."

As such, Mencken left his mark on America, even if he failed to thwart the New Deal. Truth be told, his libertarian crusade had little practical effect, other than to put a severe crimp in his popularity. But at least it boosted the aristocrats' morale as they made their way to the Trans-Lux newsreel theater to hiss Roosevelt. Today's upper-crust types may get little love from today's pundits, but they can still order themselves a copy of Notes on Democracy and let it lift their spirits. We'll give the last word to the Sage himself:

"I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776 and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government and even to civilization itself--that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating."

Mark Lewis is a former Senior News Editor at

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Take Your Word for It

As you may have seen last week, the New York Times ran a front-page piece spotlighting the newest and perhaps strangest form of ghostwriting -- ghost twittering. It turns out a growing number of celebrities and public figures like Britney Spears are turning to others to craft their brief words of wisdom for the twit-o-sphere.

This practice of hiring a ghostwriter to produce such short, seemingly mindless content raises a lot of questions -- starting with why bother. We thought who better to provide some answers and shed some light on the topic than the Gotham team of ghostwriters? We've sent this article out to our crew to get their thoughts -- in 140 characters or less, naturally -- and over the next several days will we be posting their responses. We hope you find the dialogue as enlightening as Shaq's last tweet.

-Blog Runner

"And then there are those who *should* be hiring ghost twitters, such as Ms. Courtney Love" -- Jerry Weinstein, Editor-At-Large, Jack Myers Publishing

"Too busy to Twitter? Hire a ghostwriter to Gwitter." -- Laurie Kilmartin, Comedian

"Warning to would-be ghosts: Twitter can smell a phony from a million pixels away. Sell softly." -- Ben Boychuk III, former Moderator,