Transcript

376:

Wrong Side of History
Transcript

Originally aired 03.13.2009

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/376

Prologue. Madoff.

Ira Glass

OK, I've been happily gabbing away with Harold Wilshinsky for maybe 15 minutes when he suddenly came out with this warning.

Harold Wilshinsky

You start an insurance man talking, you're out of luck.

Ira Glass

This seemed to refer to a body of folk wisdom about the ways of insurance men that I had never heard of, but I kept my mouth shut about that because Harold is the kind of person I don't run into much. Harold is a dapper, cufflinks-wearing, 79-year-old and he gives advice to people for a living-- insurance advice, estate planning advice.

And I had asked him to come into the studio to tell the story of this piece of advice that he gave over 15 years ago to his own daughter and son-in-law. Back then, they'd invested all their money with this guy who ran this great hedge fund. And it was all their money, which Harold was not happy with. He says that violates one of the basic rules of investment.

Harold Wilshinsky

Diversification. And I said I don't care how good this guy is. I don't care if he's God himself. You just don't put all your money with one person. I mean, 20, 25% of your money, fine, but how do you put all your-- all with someone named Madoff?

Ira Glass

Madoff, of course, was Bernie Madoff, who just this week pleaded guilty to 11 felony charges and went to jail for what prosecutors say was a $65 billion-- that's billion with a B-- Ponzi scheme. But back in 1993 or so when all this happened--

Harold Wilshinsky

I didn't know Madoff from a hole in the wall.

Ira Glass

The son-in-law, whose name is Merrill, had given to Madoff his entire pension fund. It was maybe half a million dollars. And he gave Madoff this money because his father and two of his brothers had those given everything they had to Madoff. Like all of Madoff's clients, on paper they were doing great, earning 15, 20% on their money each and every year-- a huge rate of return. But when Harold asked, how does he get that great return, Merrill had no idea. None of Madoff's clients did. Madoff wouldn't tell them how he made the money. It was proprietary.

Ira Glass

And did it seem suspicious to you?

Harold Wilshinsky

No. No. I'd love to be able to answer you and say oh yeah, I knew. I had it figured. Because I would be one of the few geniuses in that field. No.

Ira Glass

He just thought that it was bad throw all your money into one hedge fund. And he made this very, very clear-- abundantly clear-- to his daughter Pam and to Merril.

Harold Wilshinsky

And I'm not exactly shy about stating my beliefs on things.

Pam

Yes. Yes, he loves to give advice, especially to me.

Ira Glass

This is Pam, and with her, Merrill.

Pam

Child rearing, advice on relationships, marital.

Merrill

And he heard that all of that money was in one fund and he always believed in diversification.

Pam

And he was very emotional. He felt very strongly that we were making a huge mistake and we needed to fix it right away. And he made me so nervous that then, after he left, my husband and I had an entire discussion, let's say. And I said, you'd better get your money out of there tomorrow. I don't care about what your brothers say, because I figured they would be upset, which they were.

Ira Glass

She and Merrill were so frantic that Merrill didn't just diversify like Harold was suggesting. He pulled all their money out of Madoff's hedge fund.

Merrill

Her father got me so nervous.

Pam

I would've bit your head off if you would've left in anything.

Ira Glass

And then something kind of unfortunate happened to them. For the next 16 years, Merrill had to watch his brothers and his father make a fortune with Madoff. Their money doubled every three or four years until they had millions. And this wasn't just on paper. Merrill's dad was retired and his account was set up to send him a check every month to live off of. He felt so strongly about Madoff that on his deathbed, he actually urged Merrill to please, please, just one thing, please go back to Madoff. And so for sixteen years, Harold's advice to leave Madoff really seemed like the worst advice Merrill had ever been given.

Merrill

I was very upset with him for 16 years.

Pam

He was very angry. And then every so often, he would rant and rave. "Your big mouth stupid father. Cost me all this money. Why didn't he keep his big mouth--" He would never say a word to my father. I would hear about my stupid father.

Harold Wilshinsky

And my daughter never missed an opportunity. God bless her. To let me know about-- she was like his spokesperson. Merrill thinks, Merrill doesn't-- [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

And what would she say to you?

Harold Wilshinsky

You know, I don't think Merrill will ever get over what you did when you told him to take his money out.

Pam

I would say to him, you're such a know it all. Why didn't you keep your mouth shut if you didn't know about this Madoff?

Harold Wilshinsky

I said, Pam, I didn't tell him to take his money out. I told him he should diversify. She didn't want to know.

Ira Glass

And let me ask you, did you, at some point, start to regret that advice?

Harold Wilshinsky

That's an excellent question. No. That's amazing, now that you mention it. No.

Ira Glass

And then finally, after 16 years of family strife about this-- 16 years on the wrong side of history-- Harold found himself vindicated. This fall, Madoff was arrested. The truth came out about his con.

Harold Wilshinsky

The news broke, if I'm not mistaken, on a Thursday. And Friday night, I get a call from Merrill. Now, Merrill seldom calls me unless he had something specific. And he is just waxing poetic. My God, you'd think I represented the second coming. All these geniuses didn't have this figured. You knew and you had it figured and you understood this and-- And I said, Merrill, all I said was diversify.

Ira Glass

The oldest trick in the book.

Harold Wilshinsky

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And he didn't want to know. He I thought that I was an absolute genius and I knew. Finally, I said, Merrill, my God, the last time someone spoke to me this way was my late mother.

Ira Glass

Well, so then what happened when you finally saw your daughter again?

Harold Wilshinsky

A word was never spoken and I didn't bring it up. If she wasn't saying it, I wasn't saying it. And that's the way it's been.

Pam

it's nice to be 80 years old and to be able to say-- whether you say it or not-- I told you so. I'm the smart one. You're the idiot. I told you.

Ira Glass

Did he say that?

Pam

No. No. No, he didn't say that.

Ira Glass

You've never been tempted to say I told you so?

Harold Wilshinsky

Nope. Nope. Gee, that sounds pretty good, you know? I'm impressed with myself now. No, I didn't. It's just a matter of dealing with people and especially your kids. You don't play gotcha.

Ira Glass

Pam says that there's another reason that her dad never said I told you so. And that's that they know people who lost all their savings to Bernie Madoff. Two of Merrill's brothers took huge hits. Merrill's stepmom lost her retirement money. In the face of that, Pam and Merrill don't much feel like celebrating. And her dad doesn't feel like gloating.

Sometimes it's hard to feel good about being on the right side of history because you know so many people who are on the wrong side, which brings us to today's radio program. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our show, The Wrong Side of History. We have four stories of people who find themselves on the losing side of big historical trends. In Act One, NPR economics correspondent Adam Davidson is back on our show and he is worried that one of his own relatives-- somebody he's close to-- is trying to defy the world economy. Act Two, we have a story of a man cast out by a political campaign. Act Three, some advice for everybody living in the 14th century. Act Four, Alex Kotlowitz on a man who is going down in history as something everybody who knows him says he wasn't for most of his life. Stay with us.

Act One. Hey Mister Dj.

Ira Glass

Act One, Hey Mister DJ. And we're joined right now by one of our regular contributors, Planet Money correspondent, NPR economics correspondent, Adam Davidson. And Adam, you are here today on a mission.

Adam Davidson

I am on a mission. And that mission is to save my cousin DJ's life-- to make his life better.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Adam Davidson

Yeah, and I want to say I love DJ. He's like my awesome little brother. He's really smart. He's really, really funny. And I feel like he has made a horrible decision. He has literally made the decision that puts him on the wrong side of our economy.

Ira Glass

So he's in the wrong side of the economy, he is on the wrong side of history, it in what way?

Adam Davidson

He dropped out of college. He did the one thing-- let me explain why I get so upset about this. And I am. I'm feeling myself angry at DJ right now while we're talking. So I am international business and economics correspondent for NPR, which basically means I spend much of my time talking to leading experts, studying the role of the US in the global economy. And there is one thing I've learned with absolute certainty, which is that the competitive advantage of the United States and our citizens, the way we will succeed in this global economy going forward, is through skills, education, knowledge. In other words, stay in school. Get a college degree. And you'll be in a much better position.

Ira Glass

In the global economy.

Adam Davidson

In the global economy. And if you drop out of college, then you have, basically, consciously decided to just not partake in the economic growth and possibilities of the coming decades. And it's going to get worse and worse and worse, that 10 years from now and then 30 years from now and 40 years from now, you will make less money, you have less opportunity.

Ira Glass

OK, and so as I understand it, you've tried to convince DJ of this, you have been completely unsuccessful. And so you have now enlisted some help.

Adam Davidson

Yes, I have a friend, Pietra Rivoli. She's a professor of economics at Georgetown University. So I thought, well, DJ won't listen to me. Maybe he will listen to a qualified expert-- a professor of economics.

Ira Glass

All right, so I'm going to bow out now and you're going to speak to both of them. They are both on the line. Good luck.

Adam Davidson

DJ, let's start with you. What are you, 25? How old?

Dj

Yeah, getting up there.

Adam Davidson

You graduated high school and then you went to Quinsigamond Community College right there in Worcester, right?

Dj

That's right.

Adam Davidson

And what happened then?

Dj

I went for about two weeks and decided it was time to tell my father that I'd never wanted to go in the first place and I don't want to be here now, so I'm going to have to drop out.

Adam Davidson

Now you told me that you actually wished you had dropped out earlier in your life?

Dj

Yeah, if I had more time to work and make money then, I would rather have done that.

Adam Davidson

You mean not gone to high school and made money from 14 or 15?

Dj

Yeah, but still, the high school experience was definitely worth it, but--

Adam Davidson

Because you were a big football star and all the girls loved you.

Dj

Yeah, that's part of it.

Adam Davidson

What do you think your life is going to be like as a guy with a high school degree but no advanced education?

Dj

I'm going to work a hands-on construction job for the rest of my life and have sore body parts every day.

Adam Davidson

What are you doing now?

Dj

I work for Henkels & McCoy. We do telecommunications. It's pretty much outside construction.

Adam Davidson

I'd call you a ditch digger.

Dj

Yeah, I dig ditches by hand.

Adam Davidson

Now before that, you were a bodyguard or a bouncer at a strip club?

Dj

Yeah, we don't have to go into details, but yes, I did a little of that.

Adam Davidson

What is it, Crazy Girls? What's the name?

Dj

No, it's Centerfold's.

Adam Davidson

Centerfold's, right. And what you think? When you look at our uncles, for example, they didn't go to college and they've done pretty well, right?

Dj

Kenny's a truck driver. And Phil is a connoisseur.

Adam Davidson

A connoisseur.

Dj

If you knew him, that would be really funny.

Adam Davidson

That's very funny. I'm just saying, from where you're sitting if you looked around our family-- and our grandfather, Pepe. He didn't go to college. He had a good life. He owned his own house, he had a car, he had a vacation home, or at least a vacation--

Dj

Trailer.

Adam Davidson

Trailer, yeah. And he was a truck dispatcher. But here's what I want to say to you. I think that you don't understand that the world has changed from the world that our uncles and grandparents lived in and that your future will be much worse if you don't go to college. And I want Pietra to tell me if I'm right.

Pietra Rivoli

You know, Adam, I'm not sure you are after I've listened to DJ and hear a little about all he's done in his 25 years. A lot of people, historically, didn't go to college, worked in low-skill manufacturing jobs. And in the global economy today, those are exactly the jobs that have disappeared, or some people say moved, to China and Mexico and so forth. So if you worked in one of those old textile factories in Massachusetts and the textile factory closed, then you're kind of out of luck without a college degree.

But if you listen to DJ's history, let's see, he was a bouncer at a strip club, he's putting up telecom equipment, he works on construction sites. These are all careers or jobs that we would say are-- well, t the technical term would be they're non-tradable. So in other words, that bouncer job is not moving to China. And, in fact, the strippers inside, their job's not moving to China either. And the work he's doing setting up telecom lines or what have you.

Adam Davidson

Digging ditches.

Pietra Rivoli

That can't move. The ditch digging can't move. And if I listen to some of your family history, there's a lot of jobs in that history that aren't moving too. Truck drivers-- those aren't going to China, for example. These jobs aren't going to disappear. And it sounds like DJ's developing a number of those.

Dj

Thanks.

Adam Davidson

Well, I'm very frustrated because I thought--

Dj

In your face, Adam.

Adam Davidson

I thought that Pietra and I would beat up on DJ. Now the two of you are siding up against me.

Dj

All right.

Adam Davidson

There's a couple thoughts I have. My thought was that the global economy needs me more, but I guess you're saying that's not necessarily true.

Pietra Rivoli

Do you know how hard it is? You know how many lawyers within probably two miles of my house? I don't know how many people I have-- I've got thousands of lawyers and I don't think I have a single person that I'd trust the wiring in my house to. And if somebody on that construction site that DJ is working is going to work their way up to supervisor and foreman and so forth and so on. And some will not.

Dj

Yeah, I do have more to offer. I can do landscaping. I can do electrical work. What else? Woodwork. I can do cabinets.

Adam Davidson

And you're really good people person.

Dj

Yeah.

Adam Davidson

I feel like I could see you as a leader.

Dj

I'm a social butterfly.

Pietra Rivoli

These are great skills in any economy. The guys I worry about, actually, are not people who sound like DJ. The guys I worry about are the guys who have worked in that same plant doing more or less the same job in the auto factory for 30 years and now the plant closes and now what have they got? That, I think, is a bigger challenge. They're much more at risk in this global economy.

Adam Davidson

Before we talked, I was thinking about our family. And I was thinking the people who went to college, I feel like there's--

Dj

Very successful.

Adam Davidson

But more anxious, also. DJ has a pretty awesome life, right? I mean, it's stable, it's fun, you leave your work at the workplace and you're off and you're having a good time.

Dj

Oh yeah. I never talk about work when I'm not working. I make an exception for you, though.

Adam Davidson

All right. Thanks.

Pietra Rivoli

Well, my brother quit high school. And he has a very nice life. He lives on a boat in Florida. And he does marine carpentry and on any given day, if you looked at the two of us, I think it would look like he's having a better time.

Adam Davidson

I thought what we were going to learn in this conversation-- and it turns out I was totally wrong. What I thought they were going to learn is--

Dj

That I was wrong?

Adam Davidson

That DJ's wrong, I'm right, and he should go to college. And that's just obvious and his life is going to get worse and worse. That is clearly not what we've learned.

Dj

Good.

Pietra Rivoli

But that's because you and I have these snotty biases.

Adam Davidson

Right.

Dj

Ooh.

Adam Davidson

That's true.

Pietra Rivoli

Right? No, I share them.

Adam Davidson

Yeah

Dj

Everyone does. It's no big deal.

Adam Davidson

I can't wait to see DJ and treat him with my newfound respect.

Dj

Nice.

Pietra Rivoli

Maybe we should-- yeah, we should just talk every couple years and--

Adam Davidson

Yeah, and follow his progress. I'd like to do that.

Dj

That would be really nice.

Pietra Rivoli

And ours, Adam.

Adam Davidson

Right, and ours. Right, when my job is outsourced and DJ has a really good construction gig and I'm trying really hard to get him to hire me.

Dj

You're already hired.

Adam Davidson

Thanks, man.

Ira Glass

Adam Davidson is learning new things about the economy all the time and telling the world on NPR News and on the Planet Money podcast.

Act Two. Does This Suit Make Me Look Terrorist To You?

Ira Glass

Act Two, Does This Suit Make Me Look Terrorist to You?

Rany Jazayerli

My name is Rany Jazayerli. I'm a doctor. I'm a physician here in the suburbs of Chicago. I'm a dermatologist.

Ira Glass

Which is to say that Rany Jazayerli is not in politics. He's not a pundit. He's not a public figure. But this past fall, during the 2008 election, something happened to a friend of his, something that made Rany feel like he and his friend were swimming against the tide of history. And in his frustration, Rany wrote an essay that ended up in the election coverage at this website that was a favorite for political junkies-- FiveThirtyEight.com

Even though the election is passed, the essay still seemed relevant today and we invited him in to read it. Basically, what happened is that candidate, Barack Obama, hired Randy's friend Mazen Asbahi to be the campaign's national coordinator for Muslim-American affairs. And then, after just 10 days in this job, The Wall Street Journal ran a story that stated uncritically all kinds of rumors against Asbahi and explained that because of these rumors, Mazen Asbahi was resigning from the campaign. Here's what Rany wrote.

Rany Jazayerli

Mazen Asbahi is one of my best friends. Our kids play together and we dine together at least once a month. We're close. And now, thanks to the work of some racist jerkwads, his reputation has been sullied from coast to coast. So I'm crushed for him as a friend, but I'm furious as a Muslim because what has happened is that Mazen was forced to resign because of a smear campaign that targeted him for the sin of being Muslim. Nothing more, nothing less.

Let's parse the original Wall Street Journal column, if you don't mind. It says, quote, "In 2000, Mr. Asbahi briefly served on the board of Allied Asset Advisors Fund. Its other board members at the time included Jamal Said, the imam at a fundamentalist-controlled mosque in Illinois." Quote, 'I served on that board for only a few weeks before resigning as soon as I became aware of public allegations against another member of the board,' Mr. Asbahi said in his resignation letter. 'Since concerns have been raised about that brief time, I am stepping down to avoid distracting from Barack Obama's message of change'."

Where do I start? Let's start with Jamal Said, the imam at a fundamentalist-controlled mosque. The consensus of the vast majority of Muslims in Chicago is that the mosque is not a fundamentalist anything, which is why it has such a large membership. Some of the mosque's more recent projects include donating a riverfront garden to the City of Chicago-- there's a picture of Mayor Richard Daley at the ribbon cutting ceremony-- and becoming the first mosque in the country to run on solar power.

Said has never been convicted of any crime nor arrested for any crime nor indicted for any crime. He has been accused of supporting Hamas but has never been found guilty of anything. I'm not here to defend Said. I don't know him. But the point is that Said is not a convicted criminal or a mafia don that walks the streets while people cower in fear. What he is is the imam of the largest mosque in the Chicago area. Mazen is an active member of the Muslim community here in Chicago. It would be almost impossible for him to be active and not have some contact with Said.

So Mazen that happened to serve on the board of an investment fund with Said until he learned about allegations that Said had been involved in raising funds for Hamas, at which time he quit the board. In 2000, before 9-11, before Iraq, before the US government shut down Muslim charities after accusing them of funneling money to Hamas and other designated terrorist groups. But in 2000, before our own government felt that these charitable activities were illegal, Mazen decided to dissociate himself from even the hint of impropriety. That doesn't support accusations that he's a terrorist sympathizer. It refutes them.

The Wall Street Journal column continues, quote, "The Justice Department named Mr. Said an unindicted co-conspirator in the racketeering trial last year of several alleged Hamas fundraisers, which ended in a mistrial," unquote. Pardon my Arabic, but what the [BLEEP] is an unindicted co-conspirator and why is our government using this phrase? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? And whatever happened to the notion that indictment is just the first step towards a guilty verdict? A prosecutor is supposed to be able to indict a ham sandwich. So what does it say that they've never been able to indict Said?

In that racketeering trial, which again, ended in a mistrial, the government listed close to 300 Muslim organizations as unindicted co-conspirators, which is tantamount to saying, we think some of them are terrorists and since we don't know who, we'll just blame them all. So much for innocent until proven guilty. This isn't even guilty until proven innocent. It's guilty with no recourse to prove you're innocent. How can you defend yourself against an indictment which doesn't exist? Said is guilty by association, which makes Mazen, apparently guilty by association with someone who's guilty by association. It's McCarthyism, squared.

Oh, and you know who else is associated with Said? As Jake Tapper of ABC News pointed out, the board that Mazen and Said both sat on was the Allied Asset Advisor Funds, a subsidiary of the North American Islamic Trust, or NAIT. NAIT is an adviser to the Dow Jones Islamic Fund-- Dow Jones, which publishes the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story that forced Mazen's resignation. We're officially through the looking glass, people.

I'm so angry I don't know where to direct my anger. What The Wall Street Journal is saying is that Mazen Asbahi has a link to people suspected of terrorism. What I'll tell you is this-- Mazen is not a terrorist. He's not a fundamentalist. He's not an Islamist. The only thing he is guilty of is being a Muslim and being an active member of the Muslim community. If he wasn't, he wouldn't have been qualified for the position in the first place. As Ahmed Rehab put it in today's Chicago Tribune, the headline should read, Muslim Liaison for Presidential Campaign Resigns After Connections to Muslim Community Are Found. If Mazen Asbahi is a terrorist, than I am a terrorist. And if I were named to the same position, I'm sure they would have found a way to label me a terrorist as well.

And that's what this is about. The same people who claim there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim will do everything in their power to slander people like Mazen Asbahi-- the epitome of a moderate, modern, integrated, tolerant, patriotic, American Muslim-- as an extremist, they will set their sights on any Muslim who seeks to be a part of the political process and will pick them off one by one until there are no more targets left. If Obama won't stand up to the flimsiest of accusations linking someone in his campaign to terrorists, however remotely and ridiculously, I'm not sure what he'll stand up against.

The world is at war right now, but it's not a war of Christian versus Muslim. It's a war of moderates versus extremists and the two groups are battling it out in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But they're also battling here in America. This week, the extremists won.

Ira Glass

Rany Jazayerli. In the many weeks since he wrote that essay, first, the Obama campaign hired another coordinator for Muslim-American outreach and the same exact thing happened to her. She was accused of meeting with Muslim leaders who were suspected of terrorist sympathies with no proof of those sympathies. It didn't actually get to the point where she had to resign, but seeing it happen again did make Rany a little more understanding of what the Obama campaign was up against and a little less mad at them.

After that, as perhaps you've heard, the Obama campaign won the presidency. Rany's friend Mazen is hoping that he may end up getting a job with the Obama administration.

Act Three. Family Feudalism.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Family Feudalism. All right, ready cue trumpets? Cue trumpets.

Chip Mcmartin

Welcome to America's favorite game show. It's time to make your phone call to the 14th century. I'm your host, Chip McMartin. What information will our three lucky contestants share with the people of the Middle Ages? Let's find out. Your first contestant, ladies and gentlemen, Gregory [? Palcapo. ?] Hi, Greg.

Gregory Palcapo

Hi, Chip.

Chip Mcmartin

Welcome to Phone Call to the 14th Century. Says here on the card that you want to be a race car driver.

Gregory Palcapo

I do but I can't.

Chip Mcmartin

OK, well, you know the rules. This phone is connected to a phone in a hut somewhere in the 14th century. You've got 30 seconds to impart as much useful information as you can to the people back then. What are you going to tell them?

Gregory Palcapo

I think I'm going to focus on hygiene and stuff.

Chip Mcmartin

Good luck. Ready, phone call, begin.

Gregory Palcapo

Hi, this is Gregory [? Palcapo, ?] talking machines from the 21st century. Don't be scared, OK? Write everything down. Wash your hands. Boil your water. There's no such thing as witches. Everybody floats.

Monkeys are cousins of God. Pass. Monkeys are cousins of humans. The finches had different beaks to pick up stuff. A fish walked out of the water. He could talk. That means there's no God.

Dig up oil. it's a black syrup in the ground. Light it on fire. Make a motorcycle. Make a factory. Don't throw away the middle of the donut. You can sell it. Go to Egypt. There's a bunch of mummies and gold. It's yours for the taking. Some of the popes are evil. Some of the popes are evil.

Chip Mcmartin

Some of the popes are evil indeed. Ladies and gentlemen, let's see what our judges say about that. And they're going to give you 12 and a half major concepts. That puts you in good standing. Let's meet our first challenger. Please welcome Blaine Cardoza. Hi, Blaine.

Blaine Cardoza

Hi.

Chip Mcmartin

You ready to make your phone call to the 14th century?

Blaine Cardoza

Oh yeah.

Chip Mcmartin

You think you can beat Greg?

Blaine Cardoza

I have a secret weapon, Chip.

Chip Mcmartin

Oh you do? You want to give us a hint?

Blaine Cardoza

Let's just say it rhymes with piddle pinglish.

Chip Mcmartin

OK. Ready, phone call, begin.

Blaine Cardoza

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The global warming hath perced to the roote

And bathed the omega-3 fatty acids in the flour,

When Zephyrus eek with his antibiotics, such as penicillin

Hath in every holt and heeth

The plug-in hybrid, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe

Chip Mcmartin

[? Five seconds, Blaine.

Blaine Cardoza

halfe-- half hour pizza delivery or your money back.

Chip Mcmartin

Time's up. Blaine Cardoza, that was incredible. Are you sure you didn't just make that up?

Blaine Cardoza

No, I'm fluent in Middle English.

Chip Mcmartin

Then how would you say hi mom?

Blaine Cardoza

Hi, [? eh-- mummy?

Chip Mcmartin

OK, well, what do our judges say? And they say that's correct. They're going to give you nine and a half major concepts. Another incredible score. Ladies and gentlemen, what will it take from your final challenger? Let's meet him, Donald Darndy. Hi, Don.

Donald Darndy

Hi, Chip.

Chip Mcmartin

What are you going to tell the people of the 14th century?

Donald Darndy

I'm just going to focus on being a teacher like I am right here on earth.

Chip Mcmartin

Well, it's the same planet, Don, just a different century. Ready, phone call, begin.

Donald Darndy

This is Don Darndy, teacher from the future. OK, first of all, always believe in yourself. Never give up your dreams or they'll give up on you. The bubonic plague-- it might seem bad now, but you'll look back on it and laugh.

Chip Mcmartin

You're losing, Don.

Donald Darndy

OK, forget it. I want you to do something for me now. Get some coins, a suit of armor, any old books you don't want, any tapestries, anything with a unicorn on it. Put it in a box and write my name on it-- Donald Darndy. Give the the box to Christopher Columbus. Tell Columbus to give it to Lewis and Clark. Have them leave the box at the Elks Lodge in Modesto, California.

Chip Mcmartin

Oh, Don. You told them to send you a bunch of stuff from the Middle Ages?

Donald Darndy

It'll get here.

Chip Mcmartin

Wouldn't it have gotten here already.

Donald Darndy

Oh, yeah.

Chip Mcmartin

Let's see what our judges say, and they're going to give you 0.023 major concepts. It's not enough to beat Greg, who becomes our new champion and millionaire. Congratulations. And ladies and gentlemen, come see use next week when we make our Phone Call to the 14th Century.

Ira Glass

That was the San Francisco comedy group Kasper Hauser. Their latest book, Weddings of the Times, a parody of the New York Times wedding pages, comes out this May. You can find more of their comedy online at www.kasperhauser.com.

Coming up, it takes 61 years to build up a reputation and, when you are on the wrong side of history, just seven weeks to destroy it. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Four. The Other Guy.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, stories of people who think they are stuck on the wrong side of history. We've arrived at Act Four of our show.

Act Four, The Other Guy. If you've never lived in Chicago, chances are you don't have much idea about what Harold Washington meant to the city. Washington became the city's first black mayor in 1983. And it caused a historic change. Before Harold-- and everybody called him Harold-- even basic city services like garbage collection were worse in black neighborhoods. Chicago was the city where race relations were so bad Martin Luther King give up on it back in the 1960s.

Barack Obama moved to Chicago after Harold took office, and in his book, Dreams from My Father, Obama writes about how people talked about their new black mayor, quote, "with a familiarity and affection normally reserved for a relative." "Had to be here before Harold to understand what he means to this city," an old timer tells Obama. "Before Harold, seems like we'd always been second-class citizens-- plantation politics, police brutality rampant." Harold set things so that for the first time, white and black citizens were treated the same by the city government, but is remembered just as much for his charisma. He was eloquent, he was personable, he did not mince words.

Harold Washington

You pick up a local paper and these guys just wax so eloquently. They don't know what the hell they're talking about. They don't have the slightest idea about the phenomena, don't understand the history, don't understand the mindset, don't understand what push people. All they say is, gee, black folks must be angry. Gee, black folks vote for black folks. They must hate white folks. Ain't got nothing to do with nothing. Nothing. Crazy stuff.

Ira Glass

So Harold was this historic figure for the city. The big library downtown and a college are named after him. One of the first hour-long stories we ever did on our program was about him. So imagine for a second what it was like to be the guy who he ran against and who he beat in an historic election back in the 1980s.

Well, that guy was a Republican named Bernie Epton. And for anybody who actually remembers him, Epton is known not just for being the white opponent for the city's first black mayor, he's also remembered for the way his campaign was fought. It was not pretty. The campaign did not quash the racial tension in the city. It unleashed it in all its fury.

Reporter Alex Kotlowitz, who lives in Chicago, found himself recently revisiting the Epton story. One of Epton's political peers once called Epton The Accidental Racist, though as Alex points out, there's more to him that the way the most Chicagoans think of him.

Alex Kotlowitz

I thought of Bernie Epton this past October while watching John McCain. The parallels with the Epton-Washington race were eerie-- a white Republican with a reputation as a principled guy waging an increasingly bitter fight against a charismatic black opponent. The details of the two races were widely different-- different men, different eras. But both candidates seem like actors miscast as the heavy and then surprised to find themselves stuck in that role.

Epton, like McCain, was his own man. He was an iconoclast, not afraid to poke fun at himself.

Male Reporter

Mr. Epton--

Bernie Epton

Thank you.

Male Reporter

--Republican candidates are supposedly low profile in Chicago, but it was pointed out to me that there was a feature piece done on you in People Magazine, I guess, this is week or-- that might be the most exposure any Republican's ever had in Chicago.

Bernie Epton

Well, actually, I think that they got lost. They didn't realize I was Republican until they finished. Otherwise, I'm sure they wouldn't have gone ahead with it.

Alex Kotlowitz

There's a reason people might not have known Epton was a Republican. He was this unusually progressive guy, an early opponent of McCarthyism. And when he served in the state legislature, one of his law partners says that he was so pro-consumer that it ticked off some of their law clients-- insurance companies. And on the race question, he was clear about where he stood. He marched in Memphis with the sanitation workers after Dr. King's assassination. He sat on this board of an old age home for African-American women. And as a state rep for 14 years, he fought redlining.

Even in his personal life, his principles guided him. His son Jeff went to Hyde Park High School, where he was one of only a handful of white students in his freshman class.

Jeff

For years, we'd watched people move out of the neighborhood to the North Side or to the suburbs to get their children away from what was becoming a majority black school district. Dad never did that. This stuff mattered to him absolutely and he believed that if you moved out of the city-- if white, middle-class families left-- it was a betrayal.

Alex Kotlowitz

Bernie Epton did not set out to oppose the first serious black mayoral candidate in Chicago's history. In fact, when he got the Republican nomination, the Democratic primary was still up in the air. It was a three-way race among Harold Washington, Jane Byrne, and Richard Daley. He thought he'd be running against either Byrne or Daley and he knew we didn't have much of a chance.

Chicago, for decades, has been a thoroughly Democratic city. In the previous mayoral election in 1979, the Democratic candidate received 82% of the vote, so Epton knew he didn't stand a chance. And that was OK. This was the ritual, that a Republican candidate would run their perfunctory campaign and use it, maybe, as a chance to raise some issues.

Male Reporter

Does it matter to you what happens tonight in the Democratic primary?

Bernie Epton

Not at all. I think any one of the three will be extremely difficult to defeat.

Alex Kotlowitz

But on primary night, everything suddenly changed. As it became increasingly clear that Harold Washington-- not Byrne or Daley-- would be Upton's Democratic opponent.

Female Reporter

So many people are saying if Harold Washington wins, the white people will be afraid and they will then vote for you and that improves your chances.

Bernie Epton

Well, I resent that very much. I think that Harold Washington and I, if he is a winner, I am positive that we will come out with a joint statement, perhaps speak together to repudiate it. I don't want to be elected because I'm white and Harold doesn't want to be elected because he's black. I want to be elected because I'm the best qualified.

Alex Kotlowitz

Epton sounds certain about how he's going to run his campaign-- with honor, with principles. But once it became clear that Washington, a black man, was his opponent, everyone-- and I mean everyone, people in the neighborhoods to the operatives in the national republican party to Bernie Epton himself-- instinctually knew that now Epton actually had a chance to win.

One of the people working on his campaign was his daughter, Dale. She was there when national Republican operatives showed up in Chicago from Washington with money and ideas.

Dale

As much as they were supposedly working for us, as soon as the people from D.C. came down, we had a new campaign slogan, which we got a lot of flak for.

Alex Kotlowitz

And that slogan was,

Tv Ad

Epton for mayor before it's too late.

Alex Kotlowitz

This slogan-- "before it's too late"-- became infamous, not only in Chicago but around the country. Its meaning seemed transparent, but not to Epton. Epton insisted, both in public and in private, that "before it's too late" plainly refer to Chicago's financial problems.

Dale

And we thought "Upton-- before it's too late," because of a fiscal situation, you know, we didn't see anything else with that slogan. Apparently a lot of other people did. They felt it was a racist saying that we were saying, before an Afro-American would be elected mayor, that it was intended to show that my father was white and Harold was black.

Alex Kotlowitz

Dale, do you think that the people from Washington who came in and came up with the slogan-- do you think they believed that as well, or do you think they--

Dale

No, I think that they knew that it might be misconstrued.

Alex Kotlowitz

The slogan set a tone for the campaign-- the very tone Epton said he didn't want. Now, it was going to be whites versus blacks, with Epton as the white savior. And soon, anonymous leaflets popped up in white neighborhoods all over the city. One of them read, "Your vote for Mr. Epton will stop contamination of the city hall by a Mr. Baboon." Around town, Epton supporters donned various buttons. One depicted a watermelon with a slash through it. Another button had nothing on it at all. It was just white. None of these were being distributed by Upton's campaign, but it was all being done in his name.

Dale

One day, my mom and my father and I were walking somewhere. And I remember someone coming up and saying to me, "I'm going to vote for your father because he's white." And I said, "Don't bother. Please, we don't want your vote." And my mom said, "Dale, you just have to realize that some people feel this way." I never saw my father recoil from-- I never saw him show any issues with getting support for the wrong reasons, unlike myself. He had been in politics a long time and he was willing to accept a vote for a vote.

Bernie Epton

Thank you. Thank you all so much. We have some other meetings to go to. Believe me, I'd much rather stay here with you. I don't think there's any meeting that can compete with you. I've found a fountain of youth. Being with you, your enthusiasm--

Alex Kotlowitz

The rallies energized Epton. In just a few weeks, he'd gone from being a pretty obscure but principled state legislator to a man who was now drawing crowds of 10,000.

Male Reporter

Bernie, you look tired.

Bernie Epton

Actually, I love it. I don't often get this kind of exposure. It's really a pleasure.

Male Reporter

Are you having a good time?

Bernie Epton

Much better than I expected, especially now.

Alex Kotlowitz

And most places he went, hordes of people chanted his name-- Bernie, Bernie, Bernie.

Don Siegel

It was uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable for a whole bunch of people.

Alex Kotlowitz

Don Siegel was one of Epton's law partners.

Don Siegel

It was always interesting to me when I would watch on television and he would if he would go out to the Southwest Side where the Republican votes were-- and certainly the anti-Washington votes. And it was Bernie, Bernie, Bernie. And I remember thinking, nobody calls him Bernie unless you really knew him well. And yet, here are these strangers, with whom he would probably not want to sit down and have a cup of coffee because they were so different from him politically and emotionally and every other way, now saying Bernie, Bernie, Bernie. But that was not him.

Announcer

Ladies and gentlemen, the next mayor of the city of Chicago, Bernie Epton.

Bernie Epton

When I started this campaign a long time ago, it was, Bernie who? Today, I have an identity and that I owe entirely to all of you.

Alex Kotlowitz

Very quickly, Epton's candidacy sparked a mass defection from the Democratic party. It was unprecedented. Some of the most prominent white Democratic politicians in the city-- these longtime party hacks-- in a town where party loyalty was everything, were now turning their back on their own mayoral candidate because he happened to be black. And Epton got caught up in that fervor and the possibility of winning. It was blinding.

But one of Epton's campaign workers-- his policy director, Haskel Levy, began having qualms. He'd already confronted Epton over the slogan and Epton, even while defending the slogan, told him, "Haskel, stay with me. If we win this election, I'll get rid of all these Republican operatives and opportunistic Democrats and we'll do good work once we get in." And so Haskel stayed. But then, one afternoon at campaign headquarters, Haskel noticed a pile of papers by the front door. They were hundreds of copies of an op-ed piece written by William Safire, conservative columnist for the New York Times.

Haskel Levy

It basically claimed the following-- if blacks can vote for blacks because they're blacks, whites can vote for whites because they're whites. And I looked at it and I just hit the roof. And I took the whole pile and threw it into the garbage can. It's a shallow-- it's a stupid way of looking at the world. It's just false.

Alex Kotlowitz

Right, but also, it was in the context of what had been going on in that campaign. In some ways, the campaign was using it to justify--

Haskel Levy

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] incendiary-- an incendiary thing. It was being passed out-- people were coming in to collect them to give out in the neighborhoods. When blacks get screwed because they're blacks, they're a legitimate interest group. What is the white interest group? I can understand a Pole voting for a Pole, a Czech voting for a Czech, but why would a white vote for another white? The only thing, in this particular circumstance, they have in common is that they don't like blacks.

Alex Kotlowitz

And so it was after that that you went and talked to Bernie Epton the second time.

Haskel Levy

This was the second time and I said that I'd had it. I said, do you realize what's happening? I said, you have to repudiate the racist campaign. You've got to repudiate any people that are supporting out of racist reasons. And if you don't, I'm gone. And if you don't, I'm voting for Harold Washington. And Bernie said his argument is correct-- Safire's argument is correct. And I said, that's it Bernie. And that's when he got pissed off. And he picked up my coat and jacket and briefcase and he ostentatiously threw it out of his office. And he literally said, get that [BLEEP] out. And he threw me out of the office. And I left. That was the end of it.

Alex Kotlowitz

Washington and Epton had served together in the state legislature and they knew each other well. In fact, during the campaign, Washington at one point told a friend, that's not Bernie. That's not the Bernie I know.

Male Reporter

Chicago's Democratic candidate for mayor, Harold Washington, and Democratic presidential front runner Walter Mondale, were run out of a white neighborhood in Chicago today.

Alex Kotlowitz

And then it happened, an incident so sour that the whole nation took notice. This is a report from NBC National News. It's Palm Sunday at Saint Pascal's church on the North Side, and the streets are lined with white people holding Epton for Mayor signs.

Male Reporter

The Washington-Mondale motorcade stopped a block short of the church. The two candidates walked the rest of the way through an angry crowd, encountering the most open racial hostility of this racially-tense campaign.

Man

95% of the blacks vote for Washington. They are more racist than we are. Who the hell are they trying to kid?

Male Reporter

Within minutes, Washington decided to cancel this appearance.

Alex Kotlowitz

Someone had scrawled on the church in huge letters, "nigger die". Epton had to respond, and he did.

Bernie Epton

I am appalled that any people in any community would interfere with the worship by any religious denomination. And like you, I reject any of that antagonism or racism or bias or call it what you will.

Alex Kotlowitz

But the damage been done. The amazing, and perhaps frightening, thing about it is, Epton almost won. He lost the election by a mere 3% of the vote. It was frightening not because Epton might not have been a good mayor, but rather because it was clear that the only reason he might have won-- a relatively unknown Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic city-- was because he was white.

And this is the moment, right after he lost, where Bernie Epton could have saved his reputation. He could have made a brave, difficult speech to try to heal a divided and bitter city-- a speech where he reminded everyone why they liked him in the first place, which is precisely what John McCain did in November. In his concession speech, McCain was generous, dignified, humble. He acknowledged this incredible moment in history and urged everyone to bridge their differences. He stepped outside of his own personal defeat at the moment when it must've been the hardest thing to do.

Epton missed his moment, his moment to rise above it all, to congratulate the new mayor, to call for the city to come together, to reclaim himself.

Don Siegel

Early the next morning, the Wednesday after the Tuesday election--

Alex Kotlowitz

Don Siegel again, Epton's law partner.

Don Siegel

I received a call from someone very high up in the Washington campaign saying that they're going to have a unity breakfast and that it was going to be important for the city that everybody get together as quickly as possible to show that the city, in fact, is going to be relatively united and we're not going to have any major problems.

And so he said, "I've been trying to reach Bernie." This was early in the morning, "and I haven't been able to reach him." And he said, "I assume, Don, you've got a number that you can reach him." And of course I did. Bernie's wife, Audrey answered. And I said, "can I talk to Bernie? And she said, "I don't think so, Don. We're leaving to Florida and we're just getting ready to leave."

I said, "Well, this is important." And she said, "I don't think so." I said, "Well, could you just tell him that I'm on the phone and I got a call from the Washington office and they have a breakfast and they would want him to attend, of course." And she said, "Bernie, it's Don. There's a unity breakfast. You want to talk to him?" And then she came back and she said, "No, we're going to Florida. And that's it. I'm sorry, Don. I'm sure you understand." And that was it.

And there's no question in my mind he was just so devastated by those events--

Alex Kotlowitz

But devastated by the fact that he lost or devastated by how the campaign--

Don Siegel

It was the culmination-- everything coming together-- when he woke up that morning and just realized, now I'm not mayor and-- and again, this is a little psychoanalytical-- and maybe just realizing, and maybe people are going to remember me for some of the wrong reasons. He's got a legacy that he wasn't going to be proud of. I think he just wanted to get away.

Alex Kotlowitz

Wanted to disappear.

Don Siegel

Absolutely.

Alex Kotlowitz

In that time after the election, in its wake, there was one person who was both close to Bernie Epton and yet had some perspective-- someone who still is trying to make sense of what happened to Epton, not just during the campaign but afterwards. And that's Epton's son, Jeff, who I had met years earlier. While his dad was running for mayor in Chicago as a Republican, Jeff was running for city council in Ann Arbor, Michigan, far to the left of his dad, as a Democratic Socialist. Their relationship had been strained for years, mainly over their political differences. I interviewed Jeff for NPR's Morning Edition in 1983, a week before his dad lost the election.

Alex Kotlowitz

It's a different question, but if you lived in Chicago, would you vote for your dad?

Jeff

I think that there's a line I have to draw here. My father's perhaps the man that I have the deepest love and respect for of anyone I know. There are, like I said, those political differences. How I would resolve the contradiction between those differences and my deep affection for him, I think, has to remain my private business.

Bernie Epton

When Bernie Epton, in the thick of his losing campaign, heard what his son said, he stopped talking to him. Then, several months after the election, Jeff got a phone call from his dad pretty much out of the blue. His dad said nothing about not having spoken in months and invited Jeff to a White Sox game in Chicago.

Jeff

We go to Comiskey Park-- the old Comiskey-- and it's before the first pitch. The crowd's really pumped. When my dad walks into the stadium, he's an instantly recognizable guy. He's got all this celebrity from the campaign a few months earlier. He's completely familiar looking to people. And as we're walking to our seats, people start recognizing dad and they come up to him to shake his hand.

And after a while, people start chanting Bernie, Bernie. Now, it's not the whole stadium, but it feels like a lot people. And the crowd's all white. There are certainly not black voters going Bernie, Bernie. And it suddenly starts feeling wrong to me. And I can feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck-- Bernie, Bernie, Bernie. And I'm thinking, they don't know you. They don't know who you were. They don't know what you stand for. And they love you for bad reasons.

Alex Kotlowitz

Those bad reasons being?

Jeff

Because you represented us in the fight to save Chicago before it was too late. But it's also, you can see the power, the transforming effect it has on my father. He is so happy and this is washing over him. He is just delighted and smiling and waving and talking to people and standing a little straighter and just energized.

Alex Kotlowitz

That small moment of euphoria didn't last. Strangers at baseball games cheered Epton, but he became an outsider in his own city. He lost friends, his law firm began to collapse. He became more and more withdrawn he didn't even talk with anyone about the campaign, not his daughter Dale or his son Jeff. On those few occasions after the election when he gave an interview or spoke publicly, Epton blamed the media for getting him wrong.

Jeff

He always felt abused by the process himself. He could never separate his sense of being a victim from the feeling that he had a responsibility there, as well, that he might have failed.

Alex Kotlowitz

And then, in 1987, there was the final blow. Bernie Epton had heard that Harold Washington was thinking of appointing him to a commission. But the day before Thanksgiving, Washington died of a heart attack. And the way Jeff sees it, his dad, who had battled depression in the past, lost what he saw as his last chance of any kind of public redemption.

Three weeks later, Epton went to Ann Arbor to visit Jeff.

Jeff

I went out with him the night before he died. And it was clear he didn't want to live anymore. We had been intending to go out to dinner and go to a movie. We ended up going to McDonald's and he didn't eat and then he asked to be taken home-- not home, the hotel he was staying in. He was broke. His reputation was in tatters. He was in bad shape, and he died that night. People suggested that it was probably heart failure. I have my own thoughts about how things proceeded.

Alex Kotlowitz

Jeff didn't want to say any more about that. The very first sentence of Bernie Epton's obituary in The New York Times describes him as the man who came close to wrecking Harold Washington's 1983 effort to become the first black mayor of Chicago. It would be glib to say that Epton couldn't escape that characterization. Maybe he could have. It's what Jeff hopes, that maybe, somehow, he still can.

Ira Glass

Alex Kotlowitz it is the author of many books, including Never a City So Real, which is about Chicago.

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and me with Alex Blumberg, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Production help from [? Andi Dixon. ?] Seth Lind's our production manager. Music help from Jessica Hopper. [ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS] Our website-- www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. I've actually got him on the line. Torey, why don't you say a few words about your difficult, difficult job?

Dj

I never talk about work when I'm not working. I make an exception for you, though.

Ira Glass

Thanks, Torey. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of this American life.