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“Make America Great Again,” the never-ending Trump campaign’s slogan, presupposes that America was once great. There’s no question that the United States of America has done great things during the course of its history. Winning the Second World War, putting a man on the moon, and engineering the demise of the Soviet Union come immediately to mind. There are hundreds more examples. But doing one or two or a hundred great things does not make a nation fundamentally great. I contend that America has never been great in that sense and that the goal of our leaders should be to make us so, not to dupe the public into believing one man’s shallow understanding of American history. MAG not MAGA.

I’ve earned the right to hold this brazen point of view, so contrary to the American ethos. I served my country in uniform for nine years; I served my community as a local elected official for 10 years; I served my county and state as a prosecutor for 19 years. And, I am a citizen of a country that values freedom of speech and freedom of the press – or, at least, of a country that used to cherish those principles.

The era of America’s former greatness – that is, the standard to be once again attained -- is left unspecified by President Donald Trump and his adherents. Most of them anyway. Republican candidate Roy Moore, whom the president enthusiastically endorsed in the recent U.S. Senate race in Alabama, was asked that very question – “When was America great?” – at a campaign event. America “was great at a time when families were united,” Moore opined, “even though we had slavery.”

On another occasion, Moore suggested that the nation would be better off if all amendments to the Constitution after the Bill of Rights had never been enacted. In other words, if slavery had never been abolished (13th Amendment), if equal protection of laws had not been declared a fundamental right (14th Amendment), if the right of former slaves to vote had not been ensured (15th Amendment), and if women’s suffrage had never been achieved (19th amendment).

Despite those and other extreme views, and despite credible allegations of child molestation against him, Roy Moore garnered 49 percent of the vote, bolstered by 81-percent support among white evangelicals – not exactly a harbinger of greatness to come during the Trump era.

What then might be the answer to that question, “When was American Great?” Perhaps the four-year span in which our Constitution and its Bill of Rights were crafted and ratified, 1787-1791, would qualify, were it not for the fact that nearly half the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were slave owners and the fact that the venerable document, itself, while not mentioning the word slavery, per se, preserved the institution of slavery until the Civil War bloodbath of 1861-1865 abolished it. Not the stuff of greatness.

Indeed, the first 250 years of our existence, from colonial times to the end of slavery, must be removed from any consideration of greatness, solely on the slavery issue. The period of Reconstruction, when the victorious North kept the defeated South under its heel, and the Jim Crow era that followed, legalizing segregation and subjugation of blacks in the South and elsewhere, must similarly be eliminated as contenders for greatness. Not until Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was race discrimination made illegal, though it would take decades more for most of society to banish the concept from its collective mind.

In my view, the Second World War, and its immediate aftermath, was the time when we nearly achieved greatness. President Franklin Roosevelt made us the “arsenal of democracy” in the run-up to our direct involvement, but once we were forced into the fray by the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was the ingenuity, productivity and spirit of the American people that defeated the Axis powers and won it. Still, two moral failings prevent this era from being the standard of greatness.

It was a segregated military that prosecuted the war. The top brass argued that integrating blacks into the armed forces would destroy unit cohesiveness, a lame excuse proven false when President Truman ended segregation in the military by executive order in 1948. Our country’s response to Nazi persecution of European Jews was equally reprehensible. We set extremely low immigration quotas for those fleeing the Holocaust. A more liberal policy might have saved a million lives, but anti-Semitism here was widespread at the time, and President Roosevelt, despite First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s urgings to the contrary, bowed to the public will.

More examples of governmental action weaken any claims to greatness in the decades that followed. The abuse of civil rights protestors by local, county and state officials throughout the South was rampant in the 1950s and early 1960s, some of it rising to unbelievable levels of violence, like the fire hosing of young people and the use of attack dogs on them in Birmingham and the Pettus Bridge police attack on voting rights marchers, including future U.S. Representative John Lewis (D., GA), in Selma.

In another affront to decency, the U.S. Public Health Service withheld proper medical treatment from hundreds of black sharecroppers in Alabama to study the effects of “Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” a program that lasted from the early thirties until 1972. Using unsuspecting humans as medical guinea pigs? For 40 years? A great nation does not treat its citizens, or anyone, in so despicable a way, no matter how humble their social status.

The sustained wars that followed the Second World War – the Korean “police action,” the Vietnam War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – all were entered into and conducted without the declaration of war by Congress that is required under our Constitution. And all were unnecessary wars, in my opinion. Some military strikes in Afghanistan were necessary to roust Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from safe havens, but a military engagement of sixteen years? And one that seems to have no end in sight? Not the stuff of great foreign policy.

A nation that suffers tens of millions of its citizens to be without proper health care, a nation that allows such disparities of wealth among its citizens as exist today and that enacts tax policies designed to make those disparities even larger, a nation that denigrates science and that denies truth – such a nation cannot be considered great. Not in its past, not now, and not in its future.  Read More 
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Treatment of Veterans -- A National Disgrace

Too many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have had to wait inordinate lengths of time—some, a year or more—to have their claims for disability benefits processed by the VA. We are all properly outraged when we see news reports about this national disgrace.

Part of the problem is mushrooming claims from two simultaneous wars of more than 10 years duration, involving 2.5 million Americans who have served in combat zones, one-third of them on multiple deployments. The number of traumatic head injuries, amputations, PTSD cases, and other serious wounds has overwhelmed the VA. The incidence of PTSD has not only affected VA claims, it has also contributed to record numbers of veterans and active service personnel committing suicide in recent years.  Read More 
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President Donald J. Trump

I originally posted this in the spring of 2016, before the Republican National Convention. While I don't claim prescience on all things political, I nailed this one.

Remember when we speculated that NJ Governor Chris Christie's abrasive manner wouldn't play well in the heartland of America, where people were too polite and civil to accept an obnoxious bully as a presidential candidate? Ta---daaa! Introducing Donald J. Trump, the "presumptive" Republican nominee for President of the United States and leader of the free world and, in my opinion, probable next president. In 1920, the great American satirist and acerbic wit, H. L. Mencken, gave his take on the future of the American presidency. Take a moment to read it and reflect.

"When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost... All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." Read More 
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Memorial Day 2016

Ninety-two-year-old Joe De Luccia has seen quite a few Memorial days, as have the dwindling ranks of his fellow World War II veterans – the men and women we’ve come to revere as “the greatest generation.” De Luccia, a widower, appears in fine health and fit enough to observe many more commemorations as he engages a visitor in his modest Saddle Brook home with tales of flak-filled bombing missions over Nazi-controlled France and Germany. “It was like flying through a cloud of steel,” he says, no small measure of pride in his voice at having survived the harrowing experience. The silver-haired nonagenarian’s recall is impressive, considering that the events he relates happened more than seven decades ago. Read More 
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Veterans Day 2015

Immigrants and their first-generation offspring have been the backbone of our nation's military for as long as we have been a nation. On this Veterans Day, when immigrants, both legal and illegal, have become a political football in a presidential election, that fact is worth remembering.

Half of U.S. troops in the 1840s were immigrants, mostly Irish recruited right off the ships that brought them. According to the Center for American Progress, Irish and German immigrants constituted almost one-fifth of the expanding Union army during the Civil War, or close to 500,000 men under arms. If one assumes that their casualty rates were proportionate, 125,000 of them died or were grievously wounded. As ranks became depleted during that war, blacks were finally allowed to serve and were formed into regiments of U.S. Colored Troops, as they were then called—almost all of them descended from involuntary immigrants to this country. One hundred, seventy-eight thousand of these former slaves served; 68,000 of them died.  Read More 
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A Brutally Frank Assessment on Memorial Day

(Note: A version of this piece was published in The Record on May 21, 2015)

How can we honor, on this Memorial Day, those servicemen and service women who fought and died by the thousands, or who were grievously wounded by the tens of thousands, in a war that most Americans now believe was a mistake? We can begin by not lying to them and their families. They did not die, and they were not maimed, physically and mentally, to protect our freedom or to safeguard our liberty. Our freedom and liberty were not threatened by Saddam Hussein; in fact, one could argue that his removal put the United States at greater risk, because it also meant the removal of a counterweight to Iran's hegemony in the region and its larger global ambitions. No, American lives were not spent for some noble purpose. They were put in harm's way by politicians who were too quick to choose war as the option of first rather than last resort; who failed to consider the unintended consequences of their actions; and who, to put it bluntly, screwed up royally. Read More 
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One School Board Member's Valedictory

As I complete my second and final term as a member of the Ramsey (Bergen) Board of Education and end 38 years of public service—naval officer, career prosecutor, mayor and school trustee—it is time for reflection. Here, then, is my perspective on what it means to be a school trustee. Spoiler alert: My views do not always coincide with those of the New Jersey School Boards Association or the dictates of the New Jersey School Ethics Commission.

At just about every event I've attended as a school board member, the constant refrain is this: "It's all about the kids." Well, it is not solely about the kids, in my opinion; it is also about property taxpayers, the folks who foot 95 percent of the public education bill in most suburban school districts. Taxpayers don't just get short shrift from the public education community, they get no shrift. They are the Rodney Dangerfields in the equation.  Read More 
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Gov. Jim Florio--Rethinking a governor's legacy, 25 years after his inauguration

Gov. Jim Florio does not receive the credit he deserves. In my opinion, he may be the most underrated and under appreciated governor of recent times. I wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Record of Bergen County, in recognition of the 25th anniversary of Gov. Florio's inauguration. Click here to read that piece: FlorioRead More 
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Disenfranchising the folks who pay the bills

Within two years of enabling legislation being signed into law, 514 New Jersey school districts moved their board candidate elections to November, to coincide with other national, state, and local elections. At last count, just 28 districts have stuck with the traditional April voting, both for board candidates and for school budgets.

The two reasons most often cited for this lemming-like rush to November voting are (1) greater voter participation in the established November election cycle than in April, when turnout is notoriously low, and (2) cost-savings achieved by eliminating the April election. Rarely do school boards mention publicly their true reason, in my opinion, for switching to November: eliminating any risk of a school budget defeat by eliminating the school budget vote.  Read More 
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Christie and Cuomo, Perfect Together

As the Bridgegate investigation runs its course, we learn more each day. Nothing ties Governor Chris Christie directly to the planning or execution of the GWB lane closings—something he avowed in his January 9th press conference and has affirmed in the few public comments he has made since.

I think we can believe him on that specific and narrow aspect of the case—he didn't take part in the planning or execution of the scheme. Still, it seems clear that an atmosphere existed within the governor's office that allowed subordinates to believe they were carrying out his agenda. An experienced political operative like Bridget Kelly did not go rogue on this; she had to believe she was acting with the approval of higher-ups.

Here is where I think the governor is treading on thin ice, and it is something he has never directly commented on.  Read More 
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