Two cheers for Amtrak, which celebrated its 42nd anniversary on May 1. The nation's only intercity passenger rail service, derided by its critics and begrudged funding by Congress, is providing improved service and reliability.
But this service is lopsided, favoring the Northeast Corridor — the electrified route from Washington to Boston. Here, you have a choice of two levels of service. The premier level is the Acela Express, a Swedish import. Reaching speeds of 150 mph, the Acela trains compensate for tight curves with sophisticated tilting technology. The second level is the Northeast Regional with traditional trains running up to 125 mph, but mostly traveling much slower and with frequent stops. In both levels of service, the trains seem to be clean and well-maintained.
The two principal Northeast stations, Penn Station in New York and Union Station in Washington, are a different story. They are both horrific in their own way, and both are maintained by Amtrak.
Penn Station has a lot of low-grade retailing that seems to attract people who have no plan to ride the train and add to the sense of urban threat.
Union Station is less threatening, but it seems to have given itself over to chain retailing. The grandeur of this architectural masterpiece has been undermined by a proliferation of chain stores. Passenger accommodation is an afterthought: The restrooms are inadequate and too few, seating is scarce and often shabby, and passengers stand in long lines waiting to board their trains. This gives the feeling that the trains are as bad as the stations; they are not.
Outside of the prized Northeast Corridor, Amtrak shows decades of underinvestment. It tries to deliver rail service across 46 states. Correspondents tell me that this is often inadequate and is a last resort. I've been told horror stories about delays in Florida and the Midwest and breakdowns in California. One has to think seriously about whether one wants to take a long-haul train, even a sleeper, outside of the Northeast Corridor.
Amtrak came into being 42 years ago because passenger rail service from commercial railroads had collapsed and Congress felt that the United States couldn't be without passenger rail service. In those days, it was thought that Amtrak would serve those who couldn't afford to fly and those who simply didn't like flying. Amtrak wasn't set up as a government department but rather as a business, although it was understood that government funding would be necessary.
So began a long struggle; ostensibly over money, but more so over ideology. Conservatives in Congress have never liked Amtrak, and have believed that it should either perish or survive without government funding. Amtrak initiated relentless mallification of its station properties and predatory pricing in the Northeast Corridor, euphemistically called revenue management. Here Amtrak, like the airlines, charges what the traffic will bear. The Acela between Washington and New York and between New York and Boston is fast, elegant transportation for those who can afford it. The Northeast Regional uses the same revenue-management pricing, but charges somewhat less for slower rail service.
By means of its commercial struggling, Amtrak says it is able to cover 88 percent of its costs from revenue. The government subsidy amounts to $1.3 billion — $443 million for operations and $705 million for capital improvement. The total Amtrak budget is around $4 billion. By comparison, the much-admired European rail systems, with their sleek trains that run at 220 mph, have huge subsidies amounting to about 50 percent of the ticket price. In that sense, Amtrak may be a model performer.
As a passenger, someone who is infused with a sublime sense of well-being when a train pulls out of a station, I'm glad to report that despite its limitations, its chaotic terminals, its gotcha pricing, Amtrak has rolled into middle age, proving that rail transportation is still the most civilized way to travel and should have a bright future. Will Congress get smart and take the train? – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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Before the Internet laid siege to the well-being of newspapers, there was television, which made substantial inroads. It killed off evening
newspapers across the country, including famous ones like The Washington
Evening Star and The Chicago Daily News.
Morning newspapers with a more elite, less blue-collar readership,
thrived, although often their front pages were curiously long-winded
and out-of-date. They told people what they already had learned the
night before, but in greater detail — sometimes mind-numbingly so.
Al Neuharth, who died last week, had the courage to take on television
head-to-head with the first newspaper totally designed for the fight
against television: USA Today. It mimicked television with fact
boxes, short breezy stories and scads of weather coverage. It employed
color with a confidence that few newspapers had done. Other newspapers
followed its lead.
Critics dubbed the newspaper “McPaper,” which might actually have
pleased Neuharth, who had an eye for the bottom line. Looking at the
success of McDonalds, Neuharth might have thought to himself that if
his newspaper sold like hamburgers, well, that wouldn’t be so bad.
Noel Coward, the British playwright and entertainer, when asked what
he thought about his last musical “Sail Away” drawing vast crowds and
scornful critiques told a reporter: “Once again, I shall have to
comfort myself with the bitter palliative of commercial success.”
Those words might well have belonged to Neuharth as, after a 10-
year struggle, the newspaper broke through to real profitability, even
while the critics, inside and outside Gannett, scoffed.
For Neuharth, USA Today was the jewel in his crown. It was the one
achievement that redeemed his status as a newspaperman rather than a
At Gannett he grew the company, taking over whole newspaper chains,
but not its journalistic renown. Papers like The Louisville Courier-
Journal were seen to deteriorate under a regime of relentless cost
control which homogenized and standardized the newspapers as
products, like hamburgers. All 75 papers in the chain were driven to make money not stars. It was the rank and file of the Gannett papers that might have been given the sobriquet “McPapers.”
With USA Today, Neuharth relied heavily on a new technology that
enabled the papers to be printed across the country. He accepted that
readers of the paper might already know the bare bones of the news, and
so he gave them that in short form and reserved longer pieces for the
lead in each section and the “cover story” on Page One. These were not
the news of the day, but news behind some aspect of American life. He abandoned the habit of “jumping” stories off Page One to an inside page. Only the cover story got this treatment.
Neuharth realized that to succeed, he would have to do something that Gannett papers did not do: spend money. He did so on talent, news bureaus and offices.
Jan Neuharth, one of two children from Neuharth’s first marriage,
operated an equestrian center in Middleburg, about 50
miles from Washington in Virginia's famed Hunt Country. It was there that she married Joseph Keusch, in a wedding that demonstrated her father’s organizational genius.
Neuharth was a great businessman, a great newspaperman, but most importantly he was a great organizer – whether he organized the growth of Gannett or the production and distribution of USA Today. Remember how you could not check into a hotel without a copy of USA Today appearing in front of the door in the morning? That was Neuharth the Organizer at work.
At his daughter’s wedding Neuharth did it all: tents for the members
of the wedding to get their hair and makeup done, a leafy chapel that was
transformed into a dance floor after the ceremony. But above all
Neuharth made sure that everyone, from the great and famous of the
Hunt Country, like NBC's Willard Scott and a scattering of senators and
billionaires, to the lowliest stable hand was there. He had grown up poor in South Dakota and hadn’t forgotten.
Maybe that’s how he knew what people wanted in his newspaper and why,
late in his life, he and his third wife adopted six children, across
the spectrum of ethnicity.
And to the end, he hadn't forgotten his old newspapering skills: he wrote his column on a manual typewriter. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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If there had been no Margaret Thatcher, the Brits might have had to invent her.When she blew into the premiership like a gale-force wind off the North Sea, her island nation appeared to be sinking. The economy was a mess and trade union activism was strangling Britain.In those days, the morning radio broadcasts listed the areas of “industrial action” — the prevailing euphemism for strikes, mostly illegal — as routinely as the weather. For example, “Traffic at Dagenham in Essex will be adversely affected by industrial action at the Ford plant.” Or, “Expect delays on the London Underground today because of industrial action on the Circle Line.”Newspapers often weren't printed, trains slowed down, export orders delayed and power stations ran short of fuel. Flying to London was gamble on whether the air traffic controllers were peaceful that day. At one point, because of continuing strikes in the coal industry, the government put Britain on a three-day work week and shops were lit with candles. Shakespeare’s “sceptred isle” was a dark place.The public blamed the government as much as it faulted the unions. Yet Britain remained committed to trade unionism and the rights of the unions were protected fiercely, in the way that the Second Amendment is now protected in the United States.Edward Heath, who Thatcher deposed as the leader of the Conservative Party, had been powerless against the miners and their feared leader Arthur Scargill. When the Conservatives decisively won the election of 1979, Thatcher was unleashed. She said of Scargill, “Poor Arthur, he’s out on a limb and all I have to help him with is a chainsaw.”But Thatcher did not break the unions; she simply brought them into the rule of law with the British equivalent of the U.S. Taft-Hartley Act. In a country that treasured unionism, that was a revolution.Thatcher took no public prisoners. Matthew Parris a Conservative member of parliament in the Thatcher years, said she was curt with her own backbenchers and often feared by her ministers. Her sharp remarks cut: No one wanted it known how she had characterized them.Her style in the House of Commons was brutal. It was as though she had brought a club to a fist fight. James Callaghan, leader of the opposition, said to Thatcher, “Congratulations. You’re the only man in your team.” Thatcher replied: “Well that’s one more than your team has.”Thatcher said of her critics that if she walked on the water across the Thames River, they'd say that she did it because she couldn’t swim.For all the harshness, there was a softer Thatcher.I, along with other American journalists, was in the press gallery of the House of Commons for one of the bitterest debates of the Thatcher years. It involved the future of Westland Helicopters, a British company seeking foreign investment. Thatcher not only had to deal with an opposition that smelled blood, but also with a revolt in her own party lead by the defense secretary, Michael Heseltine, who thought he could unseat her. She beat back the opposition and savaged the Heseltine renegades.Our U.S. press group had been invited to tea at the prime minister’s official residence, Number 10 Downing Street. The contrast between the bravura performance in parliament and the soft hostess who greeted us at her home was dramatic. She was indulgent of her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, who fell asleep, seated to her right and an older member of our team, Sterling Slappey, who also dozed off, seated on her left. Without stopping what she was saying, she gently shook these men awake to save them embarrassment. The gale had fallen to a zephyr.Later, I was with her at a conference in Arizona where she exhibited both Thatchers. From the podium she was relentless, booming, a steel-on-steel kind of exhortation meant to rally conservative backsliders and pillory neo-socialists. Afterward, she acknowledged old friends and old campaigners in the audience with extraordinary memory and touching sentimentality. How great the change from major to minor.She also attended every session at that conference, asking questions, taking notes and doing the work of a regular delegate. Even in retirement, Thatcher liked to work. “Men do the crowing, women lay the eggs,” she said once. Some of hers were golden. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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Justice Anthony Kennedy nailed it when he said the Supreme Court was in uncharted waters when considering same-sex marriage. He might also have said that this means that society is unburdened with myth and legacy on this issue and can consider it almost on it merits; whereas homosexuality is as old and permanent as time, marriage between homosexuals is a new concept in the organization of human affairs.
Actually, the justices are facing something antithetical to their purposes: a clean slate. For the rest of society, a clean slate is almost unachievable. But when it does happen — when law, conduct and invention are unhampered by the legacy of the past and myths that are codified into principles — wonderful things happen. For example:
1. The U.S. Constitution, where the old building blocks of political organization were rearranged into something totally new and marvelous.
2. The computer age, where ideas and inventions — largely because they weren't limited by previous ones — have changed the entire human system of work and communication.
3. Modern art, where millennia of tradition had established rigidities that defined what was art and its production, added to the sum of the medium and allowed a new voice of expression.
4. Rock and Roll, where a new form eclipsed the popular music of the time and was able to borrow from the blues, jazz and other sources without accepting their rigidities. It vastly enlarged the musical firmament.The shadows of history and its attendant myths reach down into the present; sometimes informing and guiding, but also inhibiting.The old way of doing things, the old of thinking, the old slavery to myth is comforting and provides society with order and stability. But at the frontiers of human experience it's distorting. That's why innovators have to leave their old-line companies and branch out of their own, why new art is at war with critics and the artistic establishment, and why medical research is often inhibited by the traditions of medicine.The European Union, for all of its faults, was a bold attempt to free Europe from the bonds of its history and the internecine war which they created. The Middle East is in chaos, as ancient and modern history play out – from Biblical times through World War I and World War II. History won’t let go of it, denying it a new beginning. Ireland’s inability to shake history has cost it dearly, as has bitter relationship between Greece and Turkey. Ditto Kashmir and many other trouble spots.Happily, the implosion of the Soviet Union left little myth to perpetuate its failures; there's not a lot of yearning for a failed idea. The myth of the system's superiority perished with it.Alas, Congress is always convulsed by the past; not the past of ancient history, but the past of the last election. One of Washington’s wiser political figures, former Sen. Howard Baker, who later served as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, told me that to understand Congress, you have to understand that it's a retrospective body, always reacting to the last election. Indeed.My reading of this is that if President Obama can't refocus Congress, take it to a new place with new ideas, even if they are new ideas about old issues, then Congress will perpetuate the rancor of the last election with its outrages, false facts and perpetuated myths. That’s what the president must be indicted for – not for being a Democrat or the tragedy in Benghazi, or for trying to revamp our health payment system.Inappropriately, Congress doesn't have a clean slate; uncomfortably, the Supreme Court has one. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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For a reader, getting one’s arms around Winston S. Churchill is like trying to hug a mountain. He was a colossus, a phenomenon.Churchill strode across the world from the time he was commissioned in his regiment, the Queen’s Own Royal Hussars, in 1895 to his death in 1965. He was a force in history, in journalism, in politics and in fun, which he brought to everyday life.This has made reading comprehensive books on Churchill daunting. The great work is his official multi-volume biography by Martin Gilbert and the fact-crammed one by Roy Jenkins, a British politician and biographer. The former is too big and the latter so detailed about the operations of the House of Commons that readers are turned off. William Manchester's biography of Churchill was more novel-like and, as a colleague of mine once said, “lighter on British minutiae.”It is the smaller books that are a joy for readers, who treasure taking their Churchillian history in delectable bites. Martin Gilbert realized this when he wrote “In Search of Churchill,” which is a book about how he wrote the official biography, and one of the most revealing books on Churchill.To enjoy Churchill, to cherish the foibles and the towering achievements of the incontestably great man, read around Churchill. There are many wonderful books in this cannon, for example “Churchill and Ireland” by Mary Bromage.So in this way of approaching a big subject obliquely, it is a joy to read Cita Stelzer’s “Dinner with Churchill” a superbly researched and told story of Churchill’s passion for dinner parties and his belief that in the convivial atmosphere of the well-lubricated social event, minds could be changed and information gained.Stelzer has added a shining star to the firmament of Churchill biography: the idea alone is brilliant. What a marvelous concept to write not about Churchill’s great struggles, but rather about the dinners that he used as a tool of statecraft in the time leading up to and through World War II. Churchill not only believed in dinner parties as a tool to advance his causes, such as trying in Tehran and at Yalta to save Poland from Stalin, but also as riotously enjoyable occasions.Churchill loved to talk, to stimulate ideas and disclosures through his own verbal bravado and so to gain intelligence. He also just liked to eat and to drink, and to celebrate the dinner party as a high art form. He ate a lot and had strong opinions about what should be served. He also drank a lot; maybe not as much as he liked people to believe he drank, but he always had a drink going. Usually he drank champagne or Scotch, starting at breakfast, and this was supplemented with fine wines, port and brandy at dinner.For me, the interesting thing about Churchill’s drinking was how he put it to use rather than being used by it. If he had been indifferent to its effects, one would assume that he would have drunk tea all day. By making jokes about his own consumption, Churchill was able to put his guests at ease and loosen their tongues.Stelzer, who has pursued previously unpublished diaries and spoken to those who were at some of his dinners, believes that Churchill’s drinking is overstated and that he remained very much in control. Martin Gilbert reports on how after long, well-lubricated dinners Churchill would retire and write for two hours. Although there have been many drunken writers, very few could write under the influence. Very few can pour out the golden words after the golden liquid.Be that as it may, Stelzer has captured all the elements of Churchill: his energy, his resilience, his attention to detail, his endless enthusiasm, his humanity, his joy, his baroque speech, his love of the British people, his sometimes petulance and occasional childishness.The reader is awed by how much fun Churchill could have had while prosecuting the greatest war yet raised.This is a wonderful book because if you know nothing about Churchill, you will love it; if you know a lot about Churchill, you will love it more. Through the dinners, Stelzer has served up a man in full. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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