Sunday, January 18, 2009

Obama's First Betrayal?

Has President-elect Barack Obama committed his first betrayal? Has he turned away from his most exalted ideals in an act of such spiritual malfeasance that it will condemn his administration?

Some observers cite the fact that the stimulus package contains money for AmeriCorps but nothing for the Peace Corps as evidence that the president-elect has turned his back on his pledge to double the size of Kennedy's most noble child. There is buzz among former Volunteers and others associated with the Peace Corps that the expanded future of the organization is in immediate and dramatic peril. The Peace Corps $330 million budget is insufficient even to maintain the current level of 7,876 volunteers. In recent months some potential volunteers have been asked to defer their enlistments for up to a year. To expand dramatically another $80 to $100 million is needed, a pittance in terms of the impact such an escalation would have on America and the world.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal in 1964-66, an early supporter of Obama, a volunteer and a member of the steering committee in Palm Beach County, and I don't believe for a minute that he will back away from his historic pledge. He can't or he will be denying his essence. Obama will be the first president whose most formative life experience was service, working as a community organizer, and service/volunteering will be one of the essential themes of his presidency.

Obama will be our president, the leader we thought one of us might be, a leader going back to those ideals and taking them to new dramatic place in American life. "To restore America's standing, I will call on our greatest resource - our people," Obama says in the winter issue of Worldview Magazine. "We will double the size of the Peace Corps by its 50th anniversary in 2011. And, we'll reach out to other nations to engage their young people in similar programs, so that we work side by side to take on the common challenges that confront all humanity. This will not be a call issued in one speech or on program. This will be an important and enduring commitment of my presidency."

As Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel told Thomas Friedman in his column the day after the historic election: "The biggest applause line in his stump speech was the one that said every American will have a chance to go to college provided he or she performs a period of national service -- in the military, in the Peace Corps or in the community. Obama's campaign tapped a dormant civic idealism, a hunger among Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves, a yearning to be citizens again."

It is that "dormant civic idealism" resonating among millions of Americans that can change our country. In the Obama years service/volunteering may well become the crucial mark of social legitimacy without which we are not full citizens. I understand the profound linkage between the Peace Corps/volunteer experience and the Obama campaign.

Let me tell you the story of two women, one who was in my Peace Crops group, and one who volunteered with me in South Florida. Suzanne Cluett was a feisty, determined blonde from Seattle who in the Sixties trekked to remote areas of Nepal bringing medical advice to women. She worked in that same field after leaving the Peace Corps. She became the first employee of the nascent Gates Foundation. Suzanne worked with Bill Gates' father in her basement developing what has become the greatest foundation in the history of the world. Thanks to Suzanne, the Gates Foundation is imbued with the spirit of the Peace Corps.

Suzanne died of cancer in 2006. A group of us from Nepal IV built a school in the mountains of Nepal in her honor. Bill Gates donated a million dollars part of which went to build a maternity hospital high up in the Himalayas so for the first time Sherpa women can give birth in a hospital. But Suzanne real immortality rests in the Gates Foundation. Every time you read about or see its accomplishment, think that you are seeing the Peace Corps at work.

Maria Cole is a beautiful, fortyish African-American dentist. She had a practice in reconstructive dentistry in South Florida. She sold it because she wanted to do something different and that something different was volunteering for Obama. She flew up to New Hampshire and worked organizing Enfield. Then she went on to South Carolina. She wanted to go to Texas but got no response from the Obama staff in Chicago. So she and a friend took off on their own and set up shop in Eagle Lake where Obama won both the primary and the caucus. In South Florida during the general campaign Maria managed the northern part of Palm Beach County. The largely black Rivera Beach generally had about a twenty percent turn out; this time it was over eighty per cent, almost all for Obama.

Suzanne and Maria never met but they are sisters of the blood and spirit, partners in helping to build a great and noble movement. I am witness to the fact that as brilliant and historic a figure as Obama is, he is in some measure the vehicle for a movement far larger even than the presidency. The millions of people who volunteered discovered a spiritual affinity with each other and a cause and they has a momentum and energy that nothing can stop.

I volunteer once a week for the Lord's Place in West Palm Beach working with the homeless. It's a sacrament with me. I've talked about it to Jorge Quezeda, the Latino maintenance chief in my Palm Beach condominium. Jorge's a big Obama supporter too, and he got excited hearing me talk about the Lord's Place, and he's going to start volunteering too.

Something is happening everywhere in America. The dormant idealism is awakening. The size of the Peace Corps will double. Young Americans will go to Asia and Africa and Latin America not as soldiers but as missionary of a new faith, emissaries of the best in America. They'll go into the slums, and so will middle-aged folks and retired people, and we will change this country and this world.

We are ready, Mr. President, ready for you to lead us.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Fan of Snoring

Ben Dronsick left the following comment about my post: "Heavy Snoring in Palm Beach":"Mall buzz, tourists, and restaurant crowds moving north county: how exactly is this a problem? Laurence, I'm disappointed. Or, perhaps, you are."

Well, Mr. Dronsick, you seem to like the sound of heavy snoring, but you make a certain point. So let me explain. As far as restaurants, they've gotten threadbare in Palm Beach, endlessly redundant. There should be a law banning spaghetti trucks on the island and any new Italian restaurants with Nicaraguan waiters greeting one in pseudo Italian.

I was at Cafe l'Europe last evening to have dinner with Brownie McLean and a fascinating old friend of hers. He was an amazing man, or so I think, but I didn't hear a word he said. The sound was that deafening. In the classy restaurants in north county you still can have a conversation.

I don't think it's a good sign when a generous, fun-loving guy like Patrick Park sells his Palm Beach place and moves to Jupiter. Does he know something we don't know? So enjoy the snoring when you can, Mr. Dronsick, and turn off the lights when you leave.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

SMALL CHANGE FOR THE HOMELESS

I’ve been volunteering for the past four years at The Lord’s Place, an extraordinary organization that helps the homeless in Palm Beach County. I’m also on the development committee as well as another committee working for our second annual SleepOut on February 6 in which hundreds of people will attend the evening events and scores of people will be spending one night the way many of the homeless spend many nights.

In the development meetings, I’ve been arguing that the charity is not targeting the wealthy in Palm Beach forcefully enough, that in this harsh climate these people will be receptive in a new profound way. The Lord’s Place has been placing cans for change in businesses around West Palm in advance of the SleepOut. I said I would try to do it in Palm Beach as a way of testing my theory.


I was a little nervous when I set out as to the response I would get. The first place I went was Palm Beach Book Store where I talked to owner Candice Cohen. “Wait a minute,” she said and went into her back office. She came back with a check for a hundred dollars. “I wish it could be a thousand,” she said as she placed the can on the counter. At Green’s Drug Store, there was a problem. They wanted two cans for both cash registers not one. Testa’s Restaurant insisted on two cans too. Wherever I went the response was immediate and positive.

I can’t tell you how good this makes me feel. I’m going out again today with more cans but here is the list so far of those who have said yes and the one owner of two locally owned restaurants who has said no. She said if she said yes, she would have to say yes for all kinds of things and that she helps in her own way. I have no reason to doubt her.

YES
Palm Beach Book Store
Classic Bookshop
Main Street News
Testa’s
Cucina
Amici
Bici
Taboo
Blue Provence
Salon Magrit
Nick and Johnnies
Sprinkles

NO
Hamburger Heaven and Island Palm (same owner)

Stop Your Joking, Leamer

I've got to stop joking around. See the last sentence.


Scribe says, Watch your back, Bernard Madoff

By Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa with Simone Press, Boston Herald, January 14

Alleged socialite swindler Bernie Madoff, who continues to live in the lap of luxury while his victims fume, might be better off in jail.
Because as long as the accused chiseler is out walking the street, he might get shot!
So says Laurence Leamer, author of "Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach."
Leamer, who has had an up-close look at the Madoff scandal and its effect on the uber-rich rubes, said Bernie’s victims reportedly include a laundry list of dangerous characters - any one of whom may want revenge on the alleged mastermind of the $50 billion Ponzi scheme.
"There’s a Russian oligarch who six months ago tried to get his money out and Bernie wouldn’t give it to him," he said. "There’s also a report that he had $300 million in Colombian drug money. You don’t want to irritate these people."
True dat.
Madoff is due in court in NYC today where the government will again try to lock him up while prosecutors investigate charges that he bilked scores of investors in a massive, decades-long scam.
Earlier this week, a federal magistrate refused to revoke the 70-year-old’s $10 million bail, enraging his alleged victims - many of whom are from the Boston area. The investors are outraged that Bernie is awaiting trial from the comfort of his $7 million Manhattan apartment, while they’ve lost their shirts.
Leamer, a former Boston resident who winters in Palm Beach, completed "Madness" before the Madoff scandal hit the headlines. It paints an ugly picture of the pampered Palm Beach set - "sad, angry, insecure and frequently nasty people hiding behind empty smiles, luxury cars and socially invisible servants," as Amazon.com described them.
"You read the book and see the inevitability of people like Madoff and how, in the climate of Palm Beach, someone like that can be nurtured," Leamer said.
The author added that the scandal has so rocked the exclusive haunt that it may never recover.
"You have to remember this is the second hit most of these people have taken. They’d already lost half of what they had in the stock market," Leamer said. "There is this billionaire I know who just gave an incredible party for 250 people, but he says he’s not doing that anymore. The elaborately constructed fantasy of this place is finished."
Leamer, who will be prominently featured in an upcoming ABC "20/20" piece on the Madoff scandal, will be back in town later this month at an oh-so-swish soiree at the Mandarin Oriental hotel to celebrate the publication of his new book, which hits stores Jan. 20.
The author of three previous books about the Kennedy clan, Leamer said he’s working on a final chapter for the paperback version of "Madness" about the Madoff mess.
"Somebody has to make money off of this," he joked.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Heavy Snoring in Palm Beach

One of the things I keep telling people in Palm Beach is that the energy and excitement in the county is moving north. The most innovative restaurants and the most interesting new developments are all in the north end of Palm Beach County. There are people up there of wealth and privilege who could give a damn about Palm Beach. There are a couple of luxury malls that have almost everything one finds on Worth Avenue. There is no need to come to the island any longer. It is yet another reason why Palm Beach is an unrecognized crisis.

I had a personal look at this last night when my psychiatrist friend and virtual brother Dr. Frank Vaccaro and I drove north a half hour to Jupiter to attend an extravagant party put on by Patrick Park. Now Patrick is one of the most celebrated public figures in Palm Beach, his face on the cover of the society magazines and constantly in the Palm Beach Daily News,but he no longer even lives here.

We drove along Donald Ross Road in the pitch blackness, passing little but scruffy shrubbery looking for Bears Club Drive. When we finally found it and were issued into the development, it was astounding. I’ve never seen a development with so many gigantic homes. It’s a trailer park for the mega wealthy. Patrick’s is listed at a mere 9,972 on 1.1408 acres, but that’s got to be only the living area. It’s enormous, doubly so since the ceilings are high enough that planes could fly through. It's actually over 20,000 square feet as I learned subsequently.

I had brought a gift of a copy of my soon-to-be published book, Madness Under the Royal Palms. Poor Patrick is featured hosting last year’s Cancer Ball is which because of the drinking at the end “some of the men were so disheveled that their cummerbunds popped up around their midsections and became so twisted that they looked like tourniquets. It was Animal House meets Cocoon.” Thank God Patrick is a good sport or I wouldn’t have been invited.

I went up to Patrick and introduced Frank, who with his wife Terry was visiting from New York. “Frank is my psychiatrist and he’s got to be with me twenty-four hours a day now,” I told Patrick. “I’m having these wild mood swings and if I have one here I might slash my wrists or jump up on the table naked.”

Patrick wouldn’t have minded the latter but he just had his carpets done. He got the joke, but several people who overheard this thought I was telling the truth. And all during the evening people were coming up to Dr. Frank asking about his patient. He’s a lousy doctor since he spent much of the evening off on his own, not watching out for his patient.

There were well over two hundred people at the party and they were almost all from Palm Beach. It doesn’t bode well for Palm Beach unless the leaders wake up. And all I hear is heavy snoring.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Thanks, Regis

Hey, Blog, I am back again. Got to tell you the news. A couple weeks ago I sent the first hardcover copy of Madness Under the Royal Palms to Regis Philbin’s home in New York with a cover note from a mutual friend, Rita Greenberg. A few days later Rita said she saw Regis in the gym at Mar-a-Lago and he was reading the book.

On New Year ’s Day I was at Trump’s club for a wedding brunch. Regis was there too having lunch on the patio. I know how celebrities guard their privacy in such moments. I figured he would be less than delighted if I intruded on his afternoon. But damn it all, I’ve got a book coming out and I went up to him and introduced myself. He was pleasant enough, but it was clear to me that he wanted to enjoy his long weekend, and when I left I thought I probably had blown it. So much for Regis.

Then this morning the phone starts ringing off the hook. At the end of his monologue Regis had talked about meeting me and reading my book. He showed the cover and basically gave it his imprimatur. Of course, I went to check Amazon. The book isn’t being published until January 20 and it was already at 16,000, not a bad figure two weeks before hand. Next time I looked it was 460.

You know how unusual it is for a celebrity to do such a generous thing. He wasn’t handed a script from a producer who had it written for him by some PR person. He wasn’t doing me a personal favor. He’s just an incredibly good human being. I already knew that from a distance. Now I know it personally.

Why Have I Forsaken You?

Oh, dear Blog, why have I forsaken you? This always happens to you, doesn’t it? They start with family photos or some pseudo-profound declaration and it just peters off until there’s nothing but blankness and you sit there by yourself day after day empty and void. And fewer and fewer people come to visit you until finally there’s nobody, no hits, and you feel a devastating aloneness.

Well, Blog, I’m back and I want to give you my excuses. On December 22, I received an email from James Burnett, editor of Boston Magazine, asking me to do a major article about how Boston has been affected by Bernie Madoff. Now dear Blog, you know that I was with my mother and brothers and was too busy enjoying Christmas to do any work. And you know too that the day after Christmas I took Amtrak to Washington to be with sick mother-in-law and wife before flying back to Palm Beach where 20/20 spent New Year’s Eve following me around.

And, beloved Blog, you wouldn’t have agreed to write this article. You’re too smart. But I’m ready for punishment. So I’ve been working twelve hours a day or more, calling sources, writing, thinking, and just a few minutes ago I zapped off my finished 6,200 word article. I’m tired, Blog, and kind of irritable. I just took my wife to the airport where she’s flying back to be with her mother. I don’t do well alone.

But now that I am alone in my solitude, I will have time to struggle to answer the one great philosophical question left in the world. Why does one only lose one sock? Why doesn’t one lose a pair? And why is my drawer full of twenty single socks. And as I puzzle over that I will attempt the one thing I must do before I can die happily. Once, just once, I would like to go into a men’s room and fully dry my hands on the hand blower and not come out as if I had just left the pool.

Dear Blog, I am alone now in a town where a heterosexual single man is a rare as a portfolio that hasn’t collapsed. And I will be going out now almost every night. And I won’t forsake you any longer. I’ll be watching for things that will make you happy and I’ll never never desert you again.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

NEW YEAR'S EVE IN PALM BEACH

I thought that New Year's Eve in Palm Beach would be different this year, but I had no idea how different.

My evening was to begin with a cocktail party at the home of Dick and Susan Nernberg, friends of mine from Pittsburgh. They live in an exquisite apartment above Maus and Hoffman, a clothing store on Worth Avenue.

Then I was to go to the wedding of George Cloutier and Tiffany Spadafora at the Breakers Hotel. I would have to leave at some point to go to the Coconuts party at the Flagler Museum. This is the most exclusive invitation in Palm Beach by far. Then finally, Mark Brentlinger and Brian MacDonald were giving their annual blast at their mansion. They were gay and last year at midnight the bartenders stripped off their shirts to greet the New Year. That would be a fitting ending to the evening.

In the last few months the lives of the mega wealthy have been twice devastated, first by the collapse of the stock market and secondly by the embarrassing losses of the Madoff Ponzi scheme. That made even those who had lost nothing angry and fearful looking for someone or something to strike out against. And when people learned that ABC's 20/20 was following me around New Year's Eve, that became the target of the moment.

The day before yesterday, I knew something was wrong when Susan called and said that guest after guest at her cocktail party was backing out, terrified by the idea of camera snouts intruding on their lives. A few months ago, most of these same people would have lined up for their shots, but now AM(After Madoff) they seek to hunker down in obscurity. I scarcely had time to decide what to do about that problem when George Cloutier called to say that he had guests refusing to come if there were cameras. George loves publicity, and it was extraordinary that he was willing to give up the klieg lights in the name of love and a full house.

Mark Brentlinger said that he didn't want cameras either. These were tough economic times, and it would not look right that he and friends were having a wildly extravagant blast.
I couldn't do anything about George's wedding or Mark and Brian's party but I sure could do something about the cocktail party. So I started calling around inviting a whole new group of people to the cocktail party. ABC interviewed on camera many of the guests. What was so striking was the seriousness of their comments and their convictions that Palm Beach was a different place now and their lives different too.

After the cocktail party, my wife Vesna and I drove over to the Breakers for the wedding. "If this is the Titanic," Cloutier had told me in one of his more philosophical moments, "Well, we're in the ballroom and we're going down dancing." It was most flamboyant, extravagant, over-the-top, spare-no-expense blasts imaginable. Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey tried to talk over the din of music while Florida's Senator Bill Nelson and Louisiana's John Breaux sat quietly.

Former Senator Breaux and I were at the same table, and we discovered that we shared a lot in common. Our apartments in Washington are two blocks from each other. We were wearing the same stripped dress shirt. And as a politician, he shared with journalists one of the defining attributes of our mutual castes. We never pay for anything. When I started talking about my forthcoming book, Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death in Palm Beach, the good Senator whipped out his business card and asked for a freebie. (Don't worry, Senator, you'll get it next week).

I left the Breakers before eleven to make it to the Coconuts at the Flagler Museum. Last year several of the twenty-five Coconuts had told me that they had been upset at the quality and quantity of their several hundred guests, but this year was different. It could have been fifty years ago, all these faces of the old American elite. As the fireworks exploded brilliantly above the Inland Waterway to the sounds of popular music, I found it poignant. I knew this world was ending, even if few of the people here realized it.

Just as the final barrage of fireworks exploded, my wife and I left to drive north half a mile along the ocean to Jungle Road and the big gay party of the evening. Palm Beach was once one society, now it is many and gays are one of them. Gays were once servants of the wealthy. They escorted the ladies as walkers. They clothed them. They decorated their homes. And now they are often the mega wealthy themselves.

It was an overwhelming event that spilled over from the gigantic mansion next door to Ivana Trump's home. Everywhere there were pretty boys, handsome gay men, and occasional tongues placed in occasional ears in manners unseen at the Coconuts. And there was former Congressman Mark Foley, who left the House in a scandal involving Congressional Pages. And in the middle of it all dancing endlessly was the co-host, Brian MacDonald, in a white d├ęcolletage shirt that made him look like Errol Flynn playing a pirate.

As I drove back to our home, I thought what a fantastic evening it had been but one filled with a sense that I was seeing the last of something. Palm Beach has retreated into itself seeking to preserve a world of privilege and wealth beyond human imagination. But there is a stirring in the land, and a stirring even within many people on the island itself. America has to change and Palm Beach has to change as well. And there may not be too many more evenings in Palm Beach like New Year's Eve.