by Pat Holt
Friday, June 28, 2002
HOUSE CHALLENGES FBI
Perhaps the only good news about the FBI visiting libraries with a subpoena for records of "suspicious" patrons (shades of McCarthyism - see #330) is the recent announcement that despite the USA PATRIOT Act, even the Justice Department is accountable.
Last week, the House Judiciary Committee announced that it "wants to know how many subpoenas the Justice Department has issued to bookstores, libraries and newspapers [newspapers?] under a controversial provision of the USA PATRIOT Act, " according to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.
Perhaps more important, the Justice department must explain "whether any safeguards have been adopted to prevent an abuse of the power to search these records." Attaway, House Judiciary, make 'em show and tell!
A 12-page letter was sent from the committee to Attorney General John Ashcroft "seeking details about the implementation of 50 provisions of the PATRIOT Act," including the controversial Section 215, which gives the FBI and other agencies power to seize records in libraries and bookstores without search warrants. (Instead, these agencies use court orders issued by secret "spy" courts, "making it impossible for anyone to oppose the request on First Amendment grounds.")
The letter also "identifies two potential safeguards: 'requiring supervisory approval' before the records are sought or 'requiring a determination that the information is essential to an investigation and could not be obtained through any other means." Well, there's some hope - if enforced, that last requirement could have some teeth to it.
The Justice Department must respond in writing by July 9, after which "hearings will follow." So turn on them VCRs and get ready.
You can see the letter at http://www.house.gov/judiciary/ashcroft061302.htm - turn to Question 12 for coverage of bookstore, library and newspaper [newspaper!] records.
GOODBYE AUNT RUTH/ANN LANDERS
Obituaries about Ann Landers this week have pointed out that Eppie Lederer, famous as Ann Landers for half a century, was in fact the second Ann Landers, having taken over both the name and the column in the 1950s after the death of its creator, Ruth Holt (ta da!) Crowley.
My heart always swells whenever reporters mention Ruth Crowley. A registered nurse who specialized in baby care after World War II, she was my father's sister and much loved by my brother and me. By the time we were old enough to read a newspaper, Aunt Ruth had started both an advice column for new mothers at the Chicago Sun-Times and an afternoon TV show about raising babies on one of the earliest television stations in Chicago.
Viewers and readers responded so enthusiastically to Aunt Ruth's amusing and no-nonsense answers to their queries that they began asking about other concerns , such as errant husbands, difficult in-laws, sibling rivalry.
Soon the audience swelled to the point that Aunt Ruth's editors asked if she would be interested in writing a second column under a different name. Ann Landers, a friend of Aunt Ruth and her husband, my Uncle Bill, willingly gave her name to the project, and voila, the new Ann Landers column was born.
To say it was an instant success would be the understatement of the 1950s. In Aunt Ruth's day, when a woman asked for advice about, say, a drunken and abusive husband, most lovelorn columnists would say something like this: "Ah, marriage, so blessed yet sometimes so painful. Remember, a wife's duty is to be sympathetic to her struggling husband. Come, pray for him and find a way to stand by him as loving soulmate."
But this was outmoded "Dorothea Dix stuff" to Aunt Ruth, who would sum up her answer about the abusive husband in two words: "Lose him." Her boldness was such hot stuff in the 1950s that Ann Landers soon became syndicated throughout the country. Considered pertinent and valuable to some, she became unnecessarily controversial - even subversive - to others.
When the column got picked up by the (now defunct) San Francisco Call-Bulletin, Ann Landers became the most talked about, most despised and most admired advice columnist anybody in my family's circle of friends had ever heard of.
My father loved Ruth's success, though "for all the wrong reasons," as my mother often said. At dinner parties he would wait for a lull in the conversation, then ask, "So: What do you think of this new Ann Landers?" The dinner table would explode with delighted and (mostly) angry responses.
"George, you can't be serious," I remember a neighbor snapped. "That woman is a disgrace." Others agreed. "She might as well throw mud on the institution of marriage." "She's ignorant, simply ridiculous," said another. "I don't care if she's a nurse - somebody should take her behind the woodshed." And so on.
My father always waited for the hubbub to die down and then announced, "Well, she's my sister, you know." In the shocked silence that followed, he would give everybody a wink and lean back to bask as the startled group began praising Ann Landers as a "quick study" and a "smart lady" and even a "cultural genius" of her time.
My mother never liked my dad's little prank, perhaps because she never understood why Aunt Ruth hit such an exposed nerve with hundreds of thousands of readers.
When the Crowleys came to visit us, Dad and Uncle Bill would take our cousins and us fishing while Aunt Ruth worked on her column in my brother's room. Mom, sitting on a bed covered with mail, always wondered how people could send questions about personal problems "to a stranger."
Aunt Ruth rarely responded to questions like that. She was so busy answering letters as Ann Landers, writing the baby column, doing her TV show and raising three kids that she just burrowed in and got the work done. Often when the mail built up, her teenage daughter Diane helped sort, file, brainstorm and telephone various experts whom Aunt Ruth had painstakingly sought out.
Ruth Crowley never had the searing wit of Eppie Lederer. When a letter came in with the signature "Icarus," she would never answer with the hilarious "Drop Daedalus," as Ann Landers #2 did according to the New York Times obit. Perhaps it was fate that when Aunt Ruth died suddenly of an aneurysm, Eppie Lederer - the savvy one with the fast retort and the terrific connections (Supreme Court justices! university deans!) was selected as next in line.
But for my family an even greater act of destiny was to occur many decades later, when Eppie Lederer left the Sun-Times for the Chicago Tribune, taking the Ann Landers name with her.
The Sun-Times, not to be outdone, launched a much-publicized, nationwide search for a new advice columnist, and among the thousands of letters that poured in was one from my cousin, Diane Crowley, who wrote about her experience as a teenager working with the "real" Ann Landers, her mother.
Diane's letter and subsequent interviews so endeared her to the Sun-Times editors that she was chosen to be the next advice columnist, astounding readers. Imagine, they wrote: a mother-daughter advice team revived after a quarter century. The new job meant Diane had to leave her law practice and move from Massachusetts to Chicago, where for much of the next decade she herself burrowed through thousands of intimate questions, all posed to "a stranger."
Through the years, Diane noticed that letters to her column slowed down while TV talk shows with such hosts as Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer - like Internet chatrooms in the next decade - were becoming the sexier "confessional places."
The only newspaper advice columnists famous enough to retain their long-held territory, she felt, were Ann Landers #2 and her twin sister Pauline Phillips, whose own advice column, "Dear Abby," started in the newspaper where I would become book editor, the San Francisco Chronicle.
Perhaps the final irony is that today, "Dear Abby" remains the top advice column, written not only by Pauline but her daughter Jeanne. Imagine, echoes the column's publicity: After a quarter of a century, Pauline and Jeanne "make up the mother-daughter partnership that co-creates the most popular advice column in the world."
Of course, with the passing of Eppie Lederer, whom I admired greatly, it saddens me that few writers will ever mention Ruth Crowley again. But the creation of "Ann Landers" is such an American story that I feel a certain jubilance will always remain. Aunt Ruth brought something fresh and original to a tired old formula, while Eppie Lederer turned the new form on its head, as did her sister Pauline and two very different daughters, Diane Crowley and Pauline Phillips.
These kinds of cycles happen all around us every day, but the spirit of building a better mousetrap/advice column/book review/household/law practice/family legacy never seems to flag, is somehow in our genes. So before they're packed up and sent to their respective places in history, here's to the Ruth Crowleys and Eppie Lederers of the world.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your suggestion that a terrorist might seek a book about terrorism in a public library is amusing; and obscures the real question.
Suppose an individual is arrested with sophisticated bomb making materials, and it's obvious that at least one bomb has already been constructed and been taken away. Would the information that he'd borrowed a library book about Grand Central Station, or Yankee Stadium, be useful in preventing an attack?
Would you be so dismissive and amusing if you believed, as many do here in New York, that we face the possibility of death or injury from another attack at any time?
Holt responds: I do believe that the worst is yet to come, but I'm wondering whether a search of library records is going to help or hinder the FBI in its investigation of this very real threat. Spending time in the library looking over records of suspected terrorists for books about - what, architectural plans of public buildings? - seems to me a low priority in terms of what could be pursued elsewhere. It's a shotgun approach that takes valuable agents (one supposes) away from more productive legwork. And it jeopardizes Constitutional protections and the trust an informed citizenry needs to have about public libraries.
To me the real scenario that is "amusing and obscures the real question" is the one in which FBI agents find "sophisticated bomb making materials" and either a book lying open with pages showing the innards of a place like Grand Central Station, or library records derived from the use of the suspect's library card that will send agents racing to Grand Central in search of the ticking bomb.
It's a scenario that reminds me of the recent New Yorker cartoon in which an undercover Arab-looking chauffeur stands in an airport holding up a sign that says "Bin Laden" to arriving passengers. Behind him one FBI agent says to another, "You really think this will work?"
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote: "In any case, what would be suspicious about 'The Islamic Fanatic Guidebook,' anyway? If it were in the library, you can bet MANY people would take it out, because many people would want to know how terrorists operate, and many people might use a book like that for their 1) newspaper column 2) term paper 3) speech 4) interview 5) bedtime reading 6) none of your business."
Would an equivalent Christian title be suspicious? How about Jewish, Hindu and so forth? Does the FBI look for people who check out books written by White Aryan Resistance members?
This simply demonstrates the FBI's lack of intelligence of every sort and its inability to innovate when necessary. They revert immediately to bureaucratic institutional memories of how to act in an emergency, just as its agents did in the old days. Or is it "The Good Old Days?" The days when the head man wore a dress in private and persecuted anyone who stood in his way.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thanks very much for your description of the FBI's "visiting" libraries and snooping around for information about suspected terrorists. I don't remember this being reported by the mainstream media.
What concerns me is that libraries may hesitate to obtain controversial books - including books by Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and others who dare to question the administration's actions. I'm grateful to the American Library Association for being alert to these threats to our liberties, particularly our freedom to read books at our public library. I'll be sure to contact my congressional representatives on this issue. They need to hear from us and we all need to demand that they ask a lot of hard questions and quit rolling over and playing dead in front of Ashcroft, Bush, etc.
Holt responds: The accusation some people are making - that the Bush administration is using 9/11 as an excuse to break down Constitutional protections and take over as Big Brother - is hard even for me to believe. But with these latest invasions of libraries, one can't help but wonder.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I read "A Patriotic Primer" by Lynne Cheney, published by Simon and Schuster, last night while in a large store in our area. I was appalled at that the facts in this book are so distorted. Cheney writes, "G is for God in whom we trust." Are all Americans supposed to believe in God? After all, there are other "Gods" as well. This makes the United Stats look like a theocracy. It is unfair to not consider other religious viewpoints in this book.
However, the part I really had trouble with was "N is for the Native Americans who came here first." What does the word "native" mean? Where exactly did the Native Americans come from? If they came from somewhere else, they wouldn't be NATIVE Americans, now would they?
It is shocking that both the publisher and the wife of the Vice President of the United States do not understand themselves the term NATIVE AMERICAN. Or rather the word NATIVE. Please inform me where the Native Americans came from. This book is misguided patriotic pabulum, based not on historic facts, and written by uninformed posers. If you want to force feed the children of America lies and myths about their heritage, then by all means buy this book.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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