God Laughs

img_0281Max was a minister licensed to preach the gospel in California, a doctor, and a lawyer. He had a Ph. D., was a member of the International Platform Speaking Society, and was listed in several indices of prominent Americans.

He was also a dog.

While standing in a supermarket line one morning during my days at the Senate, I found myself struck by a tabloid advertisement I saw over the shoulder of the person in front of me. For a small amount of money and minimal effort, the ad promised, anyone could acquire an advanced degree.

The ad made it sound so easy I decided to respond and see what would happen. Since I already had several degrees, I used our dog’s name – B. B. Maxwell – instead.

I filled out the form and sent them a money order for $75. Two weeks later, Max received a diploma from a school in California certifying he was a Doctor of Divinity. There were also instructions on the tax advantages of setting up his own church.

This amused me enough that I started looking for more opportunities to extend Max’s pedigree. Before long, the project took on a life of its own. Max began receiving more mail than I did. He was receiving solicitations for everything from medicine to mail order brides.

Mixed in with all this a year or so after it all began came a letter from the American Biographical Index. They indicated they chronicled prominent Americans, said they had become aware of Max’s achievements, and invited him to apply.

I filled in the form for Max, listing his occupation as a security specialist and his age in months. The plaque came a month later. Along with it was an invitation to buy a memorial copy of the Index for $299.

That led to still further honors and invitations, increasingly mainstream. The invitation to join the International Platform Speakers Association, for example, came from the distinguished journalist, Lowell Thomas.

Mr. Thomas pointed out that every President going back to Teddy Roosevelt had belonged to the IPA. Malcom Forbes, Barbara Walters, Robert Novak, and Patrick Buchanan were among the prominent Americans listed as current members. Under the circumstances, it would have seemed impudent to decline.

But when I saw how seriously people who should have known better were taking Max’s phony degrees, the project took on a new dimension. It seemed reasonable to suppose that not everyone who answered these ads had a pet and shared my sense of humor.

On that assumption, we opened a formal Congressional investigation and began  systematically clipping and responding to questionable ads. The further we got into it, the more outrageous it became. Before long, it was clear the problem merited the attention of law enforcement agencies. We invited the U. S. Postal Service and the FBI to join us, conducting a sting called “Dipscam.”

The FBI found there were some 50,000 professionals operating in the United States with phony credentials. One diploma mill in Oregon, for example, had conferred 2,300 phony degrees to people who wanted to be doctors, chiropractors, psychiatrists and engineers. Another individual had sold 3,000 phony diplomas including 200 to Federal employees.

One of these people was an anesthesiologist at Fort Dix who failed to notice a patient’s heart had stopped during a routine operation. The patient suffered irreparable brain damage as a result.

Another of these individuals was masquerading as a surgeon in Nebraska. Not only had he not gone to Medical School, investigators later learned he had not even gone to college.

Ultimately, more than a dozen Congressional hearings spun out of this process. Businesses were closed. People were jailed. Laws were changed and Max became celebrated enough that John Stossel wanted to feature him on ABC’s 20/20.  Max modestly declined.

Many times through that period, I couldn’t help thinking of the irony of it all. All of these bright and greedy people, people who had managed to thumb their noses at the educational system and the medical establishment, people who had outsmarted the state regulators and licensing officials, people who had eluded the police and all formal means of detection for years, brought to account by a dog.

During the middle ages, fools and court jesters were kept in the master’s house to amuse and entertain. Max made me wonder if much of what happens here on earth has a similar purpose. If so, God must love to laugh.

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The Choice

images-3I have lived through Vietnam, Watergate, and the assassination of President Kennedy. I was working on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign when he was killed and was on the Capitol steps watching Washington go up in flames  the day after Martin Luther King was shot.

But I have never seen a time when so many people are so uneasy, concerned and afraid.

Viktor Frankl taught me the essence of life is choice, our responsibility.  He would break it up into two words – response ability. “Life questions each of us,” he would say. “We must respond.”

The questions I hear at the moment are clear and straightforward:

What are you going to do about it?

Do you want to add more love to the world or less?

Do you want to add more honesty to the world or less?

Do you want to add more forgiveness to the world or less?

Do you want to add more gratitude to the world or less?

Do you want to add more justice to the world or less?

Do you want to curse the darkness or be the light?

 

Each must answer as they will.

For my part:

I choose honesty.

I choose forgiveness.

I choose gratitude.

I choose justice.

I will fight fear.

I will not stand idly by.

I will be the light.

I choose love.

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A World Without Hate

imgresJacob Green was born with an innate sense of justice and a love of liberty.

His grandmother was sent by the Nazis to a forced labor camp near Berlin when she was sixteen.  When she got scarlet fever and could no longer work, the Nazis put her on a train to a concentration camp, Camp De Gurs, in the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains. Over a thousand of the 13,000 people died of starvation and illness the first five months they were there.

His grandfather escaped the Nazis by leaving early.  He came to the United States in l938 and returned to Europe in a soldier’s uniform.  He was among the GIs landing at Normandy Beach, serving with the US Army 5th Engineers Amphibious Special Brigade.

At first, his grandparents didn’t talk much about their experiences. When Jacob was eight, they began opening up.

“My grandfather heard me say I hated my math teacher,” Jacob recalls. “He pulled me aside and went off on me saying he didn’t ever want to hear me say that word again because hate causes war.”

Slowly, his grandparents began telling their story so that their grandson would understand.  Most powerful were the letters Jacob’s grandfather wrote shortly after he arrived in the United States.  One Jacob still carries to this day.

“Life is beautiful if we know how to live,” his grandfather wrote in l939, “if we know that our life has the purpose to accomplish things that make the world a place of glory.  Life is grand, if we understand that we are born to do our part to make the world a home for all. We are born to respect the rights of our neighbors, to live in universal brotherhood.

Today we live in a world that struggles to gain and secure the precious treasures of life: liberty, justice, and humanity.  It is the duty of all decent peoples in the world to back up the forces who protect the rights of mankind.

It is a privilege for the Jews of the world to join the fighting ranks of those countries which are the defenders of the greatest ideals that will ever be: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of press.  We Jews are proud to be refused by the forces who want world-domination, who bring destruction to culture and civilization.

Let us gladly accept the task that we are to bear.  Let us gladly accept the challenge of the anti-humane world.  Let us gladly answer the call to defend the greatest ideals of civilization.  We, who are privileged to live in this blessed country; we, who have seen the terror and the disaster, let us pledge our lives and all we possess to the cause for which this country and its allies fight.

Let us pray that God will rule a world that knows not hate, but love.  A world that knows no wars, but peace. A world that knows no destruction, but creation.  A world where all people shall live in brotherhood, in neighborly respect, in dignity.  Let us pray that the generations to come will know to appreciate our efforts to make this world safe and happy, where Jews and Christians and people of all faiths will shake hands as God’s children.”

In the words of Gandhi, “Hatred ever kills, love never dies. Such is the vast difference between the two. What is obtained by love is retained for all time. What is obtained by hatred proves a burden in reality, for it increases hatred. The duty of a human being is to diminish hatred and to promote love.”

 

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Goodness Precedes Greatness

imgres-1The word ambition comes from the Latin word “ambire,” literally the act of soliciting votes. It has come to mean a desire to achieve a particular end. That end may be an inordinate desire for personal advancement, like that of the many of the corporate executives who have been in the news so much of late, or something more praiseworthy.

Ambition seeks opportunity and thrives on liberty. “Without ambition, one starts nothing. Without work, one finishes nothing,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote.

It’s hard to imagine America without ambition. “The first thing which strikes a traveler in the United States is the innumerable multitude of those who seek to emerge from their original condition,” de Tocqueville said. “No Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise…All are constantly seeking to acquire property, power, and reputation.”

Little has changed in the nearly 200 years since de Tocqueville made that observation. The desire to achieve is everywhere in America, the pursuit of happiness our primary preoccupation. No longer are men born with their boundaries predetermined. In America, a man’s possibilities would be limited only by his aspirations. To this day, Americans are constantly striving to better themselves and improve their situations.

While the pursuit of happiness drives much of our day-to-day lives, to be a blessing rather than a curse it must exit in the context of compassion, spirituality, responsibility and a governing structure designed to balance these interests. The neatness of this trick is one of the reasons William Gladstone, one of the most respected of British Prime Ministers, called the Constitution of the United States “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

Who were these men?

Jefferson called the founding fathers “an assembly of demi-gods.” They may not have been that, but they are certainly the ablest group of Americans ever assembled for any purpose in the history of our Republic. They were fifty-five men, composing the elite of government, business, and the professions in their own states at the Constitutional Congress. Their average age was 42 at a time when the average person lived to 37. More than half of them were lawyers. Slightly more than half – 29 – were college graduates.

The founders spent eight weeks examining ancient history and modern Europe looking for a model form of government to adopt. They found, Benjamin Franklin said, “only the seeds of their dissolution.”

For just under seventeen weeks, these men struggled to structure a workable balance of power and leadership while protecting individual rights and liberty. After weeks of debate, James Madison seized the initiative and provided the solution that forged the Union and gave us our Constitution – now the oldest written constitution in the world.

Madison was a practical idealist. He was suspicious of other systems of government and skeptical of human nature. “If men were virtuous,” he reminded the Convention, “there would be no need for governments at all.”

Rather than try to tightly structure the relationship between various constituencies in the United States, Madison made the profound suggestion that chaos might succeed where control would fail. The solution, he argued, was to make the separate branches of government responsible to separate constituencies, forcing them to collide and check each other.

Madison’s notion that a collision of interest is not only natural to governments but the source of their health was disturbing to many around him. He responded by saying, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with their constitutional rights.”

One hundred years later, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said it this way, “A constitution is made for people of fundamentally differing views.” This idea, that competing ambitions create good government, is the central principle of the constitution. It is seen in the balance of power between the states and the federal government, as well as in the diffusion of power among the three branches of government.

It is also the safety valve for our economic system. The American Republic and American business are Siamese twins. They came out of the same womb at the same time and were born with the same values. They are so closely connected they cannot be separated without peril. They can only exist in the context of freedom, compassion, equality, and responsibility.

As Adam Smith said in describing the free enterprise system, “Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men.”

Ambition is the germ from which all achievement, wealth, and advancement grows, but it is worth remembering that wealth alone will not bring happiness. There is abundant evidence of that fact. Some of the wealthiest people in America are among the unhappiest people on the planet. At the end of his life, Napoleon, at one time the most powerful man on earth, wrote in his diary that he had only experienced five days of happiness in his entire life.

Goodness always precedes greatness. Happiness comes from serving the purpose for which we are intended, fulfilling our potential, and, in so doing, finding God’s will for us. In the final analysis, the measure of a man is not how many servants he has, but how many people he serves.

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Liberty

imgresMost of us are descendants of people who have come to America looking for liberty.  Many endured great hardships to do so, leaving everything familiar behind, taking with them only the clothes on their backs, a few meager belongings and their hopes and dreams.

For Patrick Henry, liberty was “the greatest of all earthly blessings.” For H. G. Wells, it “is the very substance of life.”

What is so compelling?

The word liberty comes from the Latin word for free. Webster’s dictionary tell us it is: the state of being free, the power to do as one pleases, freedom from despotic control, and the power of choice.

Liberty, in other words, is freedom, and it embraces all of forms of that virtue that we hold dear.   Freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion and other forms of personal freedoms were gauged so essential to the vitality of our democracy that they were written into our constitution and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

But liberty, like our other core values, cannot exist independently and unrestrained. Our core values exist in dynamic tension, feeding into, enabling, and balancing each other. Without balance, for example, the pursuit of happiness degenerates into a free-for-all, a kingdom where the strong preside over the weak. Without balance, liberty becomes license.

As the distinguished Federal Judge Learned Hand observed, “Liberty is not the freedom to do as one likes.  That is the denial of liberty.  A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is in the possession of only a savage few.”

Liberty implies thought and choice. Choice implies responsibility.  Liberty provides the opportunity to fulfill our ambitions, but it must be balanced by equality and our respect for the equal rights of others.  In words that will be familiar to every first year law student, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.”

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln addressed this issue as only he could. “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word, we do not all mean the same thing,” he said. “With some, the word ‘liberty’ may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the produce of his labor; while with others, the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men and the produce of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name – liberty.

“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon the definition of the word “liberty”; and precisely the same difference prevails today, among us human creatures.”

True liberty consists of the opportunity for a full development of all possibilities – intellectual, material, and moral – latent in man. Ultimately, it has a religious root, which is why, G. K. Chesterton said, “men find it so easy to die for and so difficult to define.

De Tocqueville said it this way:

“The American character is the result of two distinct elements, which in other places have been in frequent hostility, but which in America have been admirably incorporated and combined with one another…Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs – as the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.”

Ultimately, it is not the existence of liberty but the way in which liberty is used that determines whether liberty itself survives. Whenever we take away the liberties of those whom we hate, we are opening the way to loss of liberty for those we love.  Like love, liberty is one of the things you cannot have unless you are willing to share it with others.

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