In 2003 I visited recently departed ex-Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff at her apartment in Squirrel Hill and wrote this column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
Sophie is still something special
Aug. 3, 2003
She’s 85 now, so she’s lost a step or two.
She no longer drives at night. And it’s been a while since she’s been invited to the White House, a place she first visited during FDR’s final term and last saw during Bill Clinton’s time.
But as I found out Wednesday when I visited her at her Squirrel Hill apartment, Sophie Masloff is still up to speed on city politics and still a very recognizable institution about town.
In case you’ve forgotten, Sophie Masloff — the funny old lady in those TV spots for Gateway Clipper Fleet and Appliance Warehouse — was once mayor of Pittsburgh.
She ruled during what now seems like Pittsburgh’s good-old days, 1988 to 1994, when the city wasn’t openly bankrupt and begging for state funding.
“Mayor Sophie,” as everyone naturally called her, was a major civic hoot, an editorial cartoonist’s dream, a TV sitcom mayor come to life. But today, with her native city $60 million in the red, her relatively responsible, competent and uneventful reign looks better every day.
It’s been eight grim years since Sophie the Accidental Mayor turned the keys of City Hall over to Mayor Murphy and his wrecking crew of amateur economic developers.
The former county courts clerk and stalwart party worker bee would be the last to toot her own horn or criticize the Democrats now in charge of her sickly city — for the record, anyway. And she reminds that as mayor she had plenty of help from administrative sharpies like Joe Mistick (now a regular Sunday Trib columnist) and Jim Turner.
But Sophie is not shy about praising what her administration did and didn’t do well. In her first week in office, she said, she had street signs put up throughout the city. She ordered four new street sweepers and put them on a regular cleaning schedule. She cut the city wage tax by half a percentage point.
Asked what her major accomplishments were, she listed the Crawford-Roberts housing plan on the Lower Hill. Also, she said, her administration privatized four city-owned assets that were costing the city money — the zoo, the aviary, Phipps Conservatory and the Schenley Park golf course.
It’s easy to criticize what’s going on now, Sophie said, declining to do so. But, she noted, “I left office with a balanced budget and a triple-A bond rating. I don’t know what happened. It all fell apart.”
Sophie is worried about Pittsburgh’s chronic ailments — its continuing population decline, shriveling tax base and need for more new jobs. She knows the city has too many fire houses and is being robbed by the firefighters’ union, whose greed and political power she admits she could not tame.
Still, she’s optimistic about the city’s future. She’s not against using gambling proceeds to bail it out. And, ever the good big-city Democrat, she thinks higher taxes could save the day. If the state lets the city raise its $10 occupational tax to $52, she said, “We’ll be able to pull it off.”
Several times on Wednesday, as she showed me photos of herself with everyone from the Pope and Pavarotti to Bill Clinton, a man she “loved dearly,” Sophie fretted that it seemed egotistical to be talking about her life, which she insists is nothing special.
She’s wrong, of course. She’s had a truly amazing career in Democrat politics. It was launched at 17 when she saw Eleanor Roosevelt dedicate the Bedford Dwellings housing project and ended with her becoming mayor at age 70.
The scariest thing is, if Sophie Friedman Masloff ran again, she’d probably get elected. Half the people she meets on the street still think she’s their mayor. In some ways, she will always be.
Sophie sent me this nice note — the nicest one I ever received from a Democrat mayor.
Richard Scaife — the billionaire owner of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review who died July 4 — was a complicated and interesting man, politically, personally and philanthropically.
If he had been a Democrat and liberal-funder of nutty leftwing causes like Teresa Heinz, instead of a Republican funder of libertarian conservative think tanks, media and politicians, President Obama would have ordered America’s flags to fly at half mast.
If you want two versions of Richard Scaife’s amazing life — and a textbook lesson in the rank subjectivity of newspapers — compare and contrast the obits written by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Trib:
Decide for yourself who Richard Scaife really was. Good luck.
I worked at both papers — the PG in the 1990s and the Trib in the 2000s. When I decided to defect from the PG to the Trib, the first person I met for an interview was Richard Scaife. I worked my way down the chain of command and, after two years of interviews and dogged persistence on my part, I left the PG one Monday morning, crossed the Allegheny River and began work at the Trib 20 minutes later.
The Trib‘s obit is biased in Scaife’s favor, clearly. It leaves out all of the real-and-imagined dirt, nastiness and controversy, political and personal, all of which is debatable and too complicated for this blog item. It’ll be in someone else’s book someday, not mine. Or in a movie.
But the Trib‘s obit, while spun with loving positivity, gives Scaife his full due as a generous and important man. It also contains lots of mini-eulogies from political big shots like Romney and Jeb Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.
For the next week Scaife will be beat up in the mainstream media for his conservative-libertarian politics.
Many creepy liberal pundits and partisans will dance on his grave because he so generously funded the post-Goldwater conservative movement and spent a couple million bucks in the 1990s attempting to bring down the Clintons, who, hilariously, became chummy with him once they were out of power.
Politics, politics, politics. The debate over whether Scaife was the Devil or an angel will, as usual, depend on what your politics are and it will never die.
Bu what people of every partisan stripe should give Scaife great credit for was making Pittsburgh a competitive two-newspaper town.
Starting in 1993 as the Pittsburgh edition of Scaife’s Greensburg Tribune-Review, his heavily subsidized paper, the Pittsburgh Trib, improved the journalism of the area in countless ways.
Growing slowly, adding talent and steadily improving the quality of its journalism, the Trib applied a strict conservative-libertarian ideology to local, state and national news and politics.
The Trib became a valuable counterweight to the Post-Gazette, which was a union-loving, public-sector loving, liberal Democrat establishment paper that was too cozy for too long with the political and corporate power-brokers of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
The journalism of both papers — news and opinion — was biased to reflect their publishers’ views. But the Trib editorial page (very very much Scaife’s political voice and generally a source of embarrassment/shame for the liberals running the paper’s news side) was not a mindless Republican cheerleader or a right-wing echo chamber.
During the 2000s, when I worked there, The Trib‘s editorials and op-eds were highly critical of any Republican who was insufficiently conservative.
It never got the national credit it deserved, but the Trib, entirely because of Richard Scaife’s positions, editorialized against going to war in Iraq in 2003, wisely/bravely came out in favor of marijuana decriminalization five years ago, and was steadfastly pro-choice.
In 30-plus years of newspaper journalism at the L.A. Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Trib, I worked for and with a lot of good, smart people and a few miserable assholes.
Mr. Scaife, as I called him when he dropped by the office, was always as nice to me as my favorite uncle. He gave me raises, put me on the paper’s masthead as an associate editor and sent me notes of praise for my op-ed columns and feature stories.
Best of all, unlike my previous editors/publishers, he didn’t hold my radical libertarian politics against me. He appreciated them.
When I was younger I read Dave Barry’s weekly Miami Herald column every week. I remember it resting somewhere in the entertainment section — I think the Sunday section? Maybe Saturday? I don’t know, but I read first, and then comics and the stupid advice columns, then the front page, then the back page of the paper. (Never Sports or Business.)
Regardless of where and when it was, somewhere in those pages of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review for many years was Barry’s humor column. In it, for 600-odd words, he waxed poetic on the words “booger” or “weasel” and mused about the horrors of toilet snakes, exploding pop tarts, and other things completely up the ally of anyone either 11 or with a particular ease of access to the 11-ness in their souls.
And at some point, once my second generation libertarian brain-washing kicked in and I became one as well (that’s the short version. There were lots of conservative Christian fellow-homeschoolers, then a lot of liberal college professors who helped in the “oh God, not them!” way, as well as a score of different pundits, authors, and thinkers who pointed me in the right direction). And at some point I realized, holy shit, this Barry guy was a libertarian, too! Besides my dad, John Stossel, and my friend Bob who voted for John Kerry the God damned traitor (Bob, not Kerry) in 2004 anyway, who the hell was a libertarian anywhere?
Later still — either online, or more likely in Reason magazine’s compilation Choice — I found the 1994 interview Barry did with Reason. And it was, and remains, fucking amazing.
Within it, Barry talks about minor, but infuriating government money-sucks like the strategic helium reserve. He again mentions the IRS. He describes his generation being “the problem”, thanks to Medicare and Social Security. He has a delightful comment on the absurdity of so-called job creators, and the press who dutifully record that exactly 47 million jobs were created in December. Barry says, “Of all the wonderful things government says, that’s always been just about my favorite. As opposed to if you get to keep the money. Because what you’ll do is go out and bury it in your yard, anything to prevent that money from creating jobs.” And by saying that he — a humorist — demonstrated a better understanding of economics than half the “economists” alive and making money from their dismal grasp of the dismal science.
Most daring and subversive when combined with that economic good sense, he says this:
After a while, the way this country deals with drugs is just not funny. What a waste of everyone’ s time and effort. What a waste of a lot of people’s lives. The way we deal with drugs and sex. I saw one of these real-life cop drama shows, and they mounted a camera in this undercover agent’s pick-up truck, right under the gear shift, and they sent him out to pick up prostitutes.
So the whole show consisted of this guy, who’s quite a good actor, driving to this one street, and young prostitutes come up to him and solicit him. He says OK. They get in. They’re trying real hard to be nice. He’s going to pay $23, that’s all he’s got and they said that’s OK. Meanwhile, behind him the other cops, these fat men with walkie-talkies, are laughing and chuckling because here they are about to enforce the law and protect society. They take her to some street and then of course they come up and arrest her. This poor woman–I don’t know whether she’s feeding her drug habit or feeding her kids or whatever. And the cops are so proud of themselves, these big strapping guys.
It just made me sick to see this. To treat these people who are trying to make a living, one way or another, this way, and to be proud of it. It’s on television and we’re all supposed to watch this and feel good about it. It’s just disgusting.
The anti-drug war stuff is a libertarian favorite for good reason. But the prostitution part is what gets me me here. Barry watched this show — COPS, or whatever — and he didn’t root for the the “good guy.” He didn’t cheer them on as they tackled some poor, shirtless buffoon or invited the audience to gawk at some pathetic, screaming loony. He didn’t laugh and cringe at some dumb crackwhore, the way most people would in private and in media. Barry’s sympathies were in the right place, and so was his condemnation.
The woman was trying to make money — maybe not in a good way, maybe not for good reasons, we don’t know. And we don’t need to know. We just need to know the real question: Why the hell is someone getting paid to hurt this woman? To jail her and definitely to shame her? Why are the people paid for by tax dollars, imbued with the use of legal, lethal force, and given great respect in society spending that time and respect and money on fucking over this woman who is trying to make a little money and nothing else?
And that humanity brings us to the other Dave Barry secret of humanity. We see that Barry knows freedom. He knows the stupidity and waste of government bureaucracy. He even knows the cruelty of which police officers are capable. But with his essay on crazy Elvis fans, Barry also demonstrates that even without the “coercion or not” question, he is smart enough to rise above the obvious knocking down of people who seem to be “asking for it” when they dare to not confirm to cool. Like Jon Ronson with his sympathetic, but not endorsing wild ride through the world of weirdos, Them: Adventures with Extremists, Barry didn’t want to sit back and crack wise and broad about the crazy Elvis fans. He doesn’t want to shoot polyester-clad fish swimming in a lard barrel. Those fish never hurt anyone.
So he wrote “Hearts that are True.” (To be found in Dave Barry is Not Making This Up).
The way he tells it in the italics before the essay, he really was all set to write some obvious jokes about fat Southern housewives who can’t untwist their Granny panties over Elvis long enough to realize he’s dead and buried. (And before that he was bloated, drug-addled, and seeping talent from every sequined pore.) But Barry looked closer and he saw the people who cared so much that it hurt, about this dead musician. Intrigued and puzzled, he set out to find the why.
And — spoiler alert — he doesn’t really discover anything, except maybe a little reminder that there are a lot of good Elvis tunes. But God is it a killer journey — to Graceland, and to Elvis’s boyhood home, and to lots of friendly, kind folks, to find that unanswer. Barry is subtle and sad and sweet in his writing and it’s just the loveliest thing, this essay. I’ve read it three or four times, but I try to save it up so it doesn’t lose its punch.
That’s what it is. It’s like a really great song you can’t waste. And you can’t say that about a whole lot of simple, on the page writing, especially not the personal-essay-ish stuff.*
Barry is a humorist. I will always fancy his investigations into UFOs and lawnmower races. Hell, his description of Florida could be why I have never been there or wanted to go. But the Barry of “Hearts That are True” is one I want to spend a little more time with, one I wish we had a few more essays by. I’m envious of that piece. If I had made it, I could be satisfied for at least a little while as a writer.
Do you see what I mean? Why I tie that Reason interview — especially the excerpt above — together with the crazy Elvis fans essay? Why no matter what else Barry wrote, before or since, even if it didn’t strike the same note in my guts, he will always get me on this one? That I will always feel like he understands something that most people never will?
There’s plenty of room for mocking. Even mocking of people who haven’t performed the sort of life-ruining an IRS agent or a cop has done. Mock reality show stars, or members of Nickelback and I am not necessarily going to be outraged on their behalf. It’s fun to scoff and play High Fidelity-snob or culture warrior about things you think are childish, or stupid, or lacking talent. And it’s easy. It’s so fucking easy.
Yet Barry, the humorist who knows economics better than economists, didn’t take the asked-for punch line. He looked at sad, moaning, obsessive people in the South and said hey, why the hell do they care so much about sad, dead Elvis?
And the end result breaks my damn heart every time.
Dave Barry knows how we should treat each other. He knows whose backs we should have: the drug users, the hookers, and the guys crankily doing their taxes each April — and the people who just fell in love with a Tennessean and never would let death get in the way of a relationship like that.
And, since he’s not soft or meek, Barry also knows who deserve to be ashamed: the politicians, the taxman, and the police with nothing better to do.
Can’t they just listen to a fucking Elvis song or something?
*(Mike Riggs’ Awl essay about suicide is up there, the bastard.)
As my esteemed older brother noted below, moderately famous actor and political wannabe Kal Penn — who should have stuck with being boring on House — recently tweeted his support of the New York City Police Department’s now-unconstitutional stop and frisk policy that disproportionately affects minorities. (People responding to Penn’s tweet seemed incredulous, at least. One suggested that Penn forgot the #snark hashtag. Penn responded with a slur against “activist judges” so clearly that’s a thing for Democrats to be mad about now.)
Joe forgot another important reason to loathe Penn — besides his inability to realize that brown people who aren’t famous actor friends of Obama may be getting the short end of the authority stick — his bullshit on the drug war. A man made famous for being the Cheech for a new generation also acted the sniveling weasel apologist for Obama the drug war war hypocrite.
As Mike Riggs wrote at Reason.com last September:
Actor Kal Penn and President Barack Obama were both raked over the coals yesterday for their collaboration on a campaign video teasing Penn’s upcoming appearance at the Democratic National Convention. In that video, Penn reprised his role as Kumar from the Harold and Kumar movies, and takes a phone call from Obama while stoned, watching cartoons, and eating junkfood. The subtle implication is that marijuana users are easily swayed, lazy idiots.
Reason, the Marijuana Policy Project, LEAP, and several others criticized Penn and Obama for the video, as Obama has utterly failed to live up to his promise to deprioritze federal prosections of medical marijuana.
In an interview with Chris Moody of Yahoo! News, Penn said
“I think that the president’s been pretty consistent with that. He’s not in favor of legalization, we should be open about something like that. But what the president has done is take a really smart look at the Department of Justice and said, given the fact that the federal government has limited resources, we should be allocating them toward violent criminals and not towards non-violent criminals. We can see that not just in things like marijuana but in things like immigration reform where he’s going after and deporting violent criminals and making sure that if you’re a Dream Act eligible student that you know that you can apply for your deferred status. Wherever the federal government has an appropriate role, I think the president’s been very consistent in that. That’s something that I think folks should know.”
Penn should have stuck to the world of fiction, because his political views lie entirely in that realm as well.
This is Kal Penn.
Notice the dark hair, eyes, and complexion. Born Kalpen Suresh Modi, he changed his name once he became an actor because he thought his birth name inhibited his ability to get call-backs on auditions.
Penn rose to movie notoriety through the “Harold and Kumar” series. In Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Kal’s character Kumar and his best friend Harold (John Cho) suffered a series of misadventures punctuated by racist cops and racist “extreme” punks, while interacting with stereotype-busting Asians and put-upon African-Americans who were thrown in jail for no reason (other than being black). In the sequel Harold and Kumar: Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Harold and Kumar are sent to Guantanamo Bay because Kumar is mistaken for a terrorist.
Why is this important? Because of irony (and not just the Alanis Morissette kind).
On Monday, a federal judge ruled the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy “violated the constitutional rights of minorities in the city” and could not continue in its current form.
Naturally New York city Mayor Michael Bloomberg was upset that his pet project was put on the skids.
More surprising was the support the law received from Mr. Penn.
— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) August 13, 2013
Irony: the star of a franchise whose central theme revolves around the fallibility of stereotypes — and the problems that arise from it, decides to come out in favor of a law that stereotypes African-Americans (and Hispanics) as criminals that don’t deserve protection under the Fourth Amendment.
Kal, a fervent Democrat and who worked as associate director for the White House’s Office of Public Engagement until 2011 (read: he was a hype man for Obama,) fancies himself a future political star. Unfortunately it looks like he’s also a racist.
@kalpenn Why do you think it is a sound policy? The statistical data shows that the policy disproportionately targets blacks and latinos.
— Chris Williams (@CWmsWrites) August 13, 2013
You’d think that an actor who rose to fame in a movie franchise that revolves around breaking stereotypes would be a little more sensitive to the plight of minorities.
Unfortunately Kal didn’t soak up any of the information gleaned from these movies. Hopefully he’ll learn something from the upcoming sequels to the Harold and Kumar series: Harold: Because Kumar got Renditioned and Harold and Kumar Don’t Get to Go to White Castle Because Kumar gets Killed by Racists Who Think He’s Muslim in the Post 9/11 Fervor.
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