Tuesday, December 22, 2009

PDT: Bankrupt!

On December 21, 2009, Heartland Publications, the parent company of the Portsmouth Daily Times, filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. As of October 2009, Heartland had debts of $166.2 million but assets of only $134.3 million, which is a deficit of some $32 million. Heartland announced that it hoped to restructure itself, emerge from bankruptcy, and eventually return to profitability. Given the precarious financial condition of newspapers generally in the United States, and of Heartland Publications in particular, the prospects of Heartland ever returning to profitability seems like a pipe dream and its announcement just a hollow public relations pronouncement. When, pray tell, was Heartland, founded by James M. McGinnis, Jr., in 2004, ever profitable?

The federal government used stimulus packages to bail out Citigroup and other financial institutions as well as General Motors, which are showing signs of recovery. But the government is not about to bail out the newspaper industry. No one can seriously make the case that newspapers are too important to the economy to be allowed to fail. On the contrary, print newspapers are an increasingly obsolete if not irrelevant industry. As many residents in Portsmouth have learned, the incredibly shrinking Portsmouth Daily Times is something they can easily live without. For those of us who feel that it is editorially bankrupt and believe that it is the house organ of the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership, the financial bankruptcy of its parent company comes as no surprise. Like the system of canals that were built in Ohio and elsewhere in the United States in the early nineteenth century, canals that were subsequently rendered obsolete by railroads, the newspaper industry is being rendered obsolete by the Internet. Perpetuating newspapers makes about as much sense, financially, as perpetuating canals.

In addition to suffering from the same economic problems that other newspaper companies are plagued with, Heartland Publications has problems peculiar to itself. McGinnis, the founder and CEO of Heartland, turned out to be not only incompetent but a crook. He made his home and headquartered his business, incidentally, not in the heartland of America, but in Florida, and he drove a car produced not in the American heartland, but in England, a gold Jaguar. In a plea bargain, McGinnis later admitted having stolen $1.7 million from his own company after which he forged bank account statements to cover his theft. (I wrote about McGinnis in River Vices back in 2005 in “Prostitute Times.”) McGinnis reportedly had named his company Heartland because his weekly and small daily newspapers were located in what used to be called America’s heartland but what is now more often referred to as America’s Rust Belt. It is too often the case that con artists use patriotic names and sacred symbols in which to wrap their greedy and ill-conceived schemes, as McGinnis did Heartland, which now, not surprisingly, has gone belly up.

The Portsmouth Daily Times’s parent Heartland Publications filing for bankruptcy came fast on the heels of an announcement by the newspaper that it had appointed Deborah Daniels, previously a features reporter, as managing editor. Whether she is “acting” (i.e., temporary) or permanent managing editor is not clear, but at this point what’s the difference? Isn’t everyone at the PDT now effectively temporary? Daniels may have been the reporter who some years back wrote a series of investigative articles on prostitution in Portsmouth. It is the only investigative reporting that I can recall the PDT doing in the last twenty years. If I recall, she or whoever wrote the series concluded prostitution was a result of drugs, to which most of the prostitutes were addicted, but she apparently did not investigate the notorious local lawyer who was and still is widely rumored to be involved in both the drug and prostitution rackets in Portsmouth. PDT reporters would not do that kind of investigation because certain local lawyers like certain local businessmen enjoy an immunity from investigation and prosecution

Au Revoir River Vices

I will be taking a sabbatical from River Vices for the first half of 2010 to prepare a publication for the 300th anniversary of a church in my hometown, in Massachusetts, which I mentioned in a previous posting. I know that the results of the recent municipal elections in Portsmouth, while encouraging, do not signal the end of the problems plaguing our community, including drugs and prostitution, but rather just the first tentative steps toward addressing them. I wish I could continue to investigate and comment on those problems in the months ahead. But I know from the past four and a half years of writing River Vices that it takes up more time than most people might imagine. It is not the writing—it is the research and the editing (the editing above all) that demands so much time. I envy those who can knock off a piece of writing with no sweat in no time. I agonize over each word and sentence and I revise constantly, and still end up dissatisfied with the results.

I even envy those emotionally and mentally disturbed individuals who post frequently and anonymously in chatrooms and blogs, without regard for spelling, syntax, or sense. For several years, in the 1950s, as an undergraduate, I worked as a psychiatric aide in a mental hospital, on the graveyard shift, usually on the ward for the criminally insane. Every day, I see people walking the streets of Portsmouth or posting on the Internet who probably would have been institutionalized in the 1950s, when there was very little tolerance for non-conformity. But today with the development of antipsychotic drugs and tranquilizers, people who would previously be walking in circles in a mental ward can today not only walk the streets but also can exercise their First Amendment rights on the Internet, even if they are somewhat mentally disturbed or have personality disorders. Why do they post anonymously? Why don’t they sign their names and identify themselves? They’re mentally disturbed, some of them clinically so, but they are not so crazy as to use their real names and identify themselves. And for good reason. Their anonymity encourages them to write things that they would not be so brave or foolish enough to write if their identity were known.

Since what they say and how they say it indicates they are disturbed, they don’t want to reveal who they are. And why should they? They have a right not to. We live in a free and increasingly insane country, and they have a right to remain anonymous and disturbed, and a right to not be exposed as part of the madding crowd. It is only when they act out their Internet gun-nut assassination fantasies that they become dangerous; it is only when they show that they are crazier than they are cowardly that they need to be feared. That is why gun nuttiness on the Internet should not be ignored.


The crazies are one thing, skunks another. The skunks don’t reveal their identity because . . . Well, because they’re skunks and like the scorpion in the fable of the frog and the scorpion, can’t help doing what comes naturally. Which is make money. Skunks are foxy and know how to make a buck while faking being philanthropists. But we need them all, and we will especially need them when the Portsmouth Daily Times is no more. Let a hundred bloggers blog; let a hundred schools of thought contend. This a rule that should be followed in America and especially in the so-called American heartland. Let the presses of the bankrupt PDT rust in peace but let the bloggers blog. Long live the blogosphere!

"The nice thing about the Internet is nobody knows you're a skunk."


Friday, December 18, 2009

The Swearing-in of Jane Murray

Portsmouth Mayor-elect Jane Murray

Thursday morning, December 17, at a historic ceremony in the rotunda of the County Courthouse, Jane Murray was sworn in as Portsmouth’s first female mayor. The South Webster High School choir sang Christmas carols after the ceremony, and the words of one carol echoed in my head as I left the Courthouse: “The hopes and fears of all the years . . .”

I: The Hopes

For Mayor-elect Murray, our hopes are high. The city now has as mayor someone with the education, experience, diligence, and intelligence commensurate with the responsibilities and challenges of the highest office in city government. As she had promised throughout the campaign, she has assembled an advisory team, or what was called back in the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a kitchen cabinet, which includes none of the usual suspects. Rather, it includes accomplished and respected individuals, both male and female, both black and white, of various ages, from our community.

The Mayor-elect emphasized in her remarks to the several hundred well-wishers who attended the swearing in that she was just beginning what would be a team effort in which transparency and responsiveness would prevail. To underscore that point, she introduced her team of advisors, who were seated in the front row, providing a thumbnail biography of each. She went on to explain how she had become involved in the political life of Portsmouth after she became one of the flooded homeowners in the Grandview Avenue neighborhood. She had become one more victim of the incompetence and corruption of the Kalb administration. She promised a government that will help raise the city from the political and financial shambles that it is now in. Judging from the substantial margin she won the primary by and the margin of victory she achieved in the general election over two male rivals, the incumbent Kalb and the write-in candidate Skiver, she obviously has considerable support among the electorate. Hers was not a narrow victory: she has a clear mandate from the voters to make significant changes in the way city business is conducted.
Unfortunately the city charter may not give her the constitutional authority she needs to make those significant changes, but judging by the way she campaigned, there is reason to think she will be as effective and determined in running the office of mayor as she was in the way she ran for it.

Instead of putting in lots of time raising money to advertise in the Portsmouth Daily Times and on local radio stations, she chose to focus on the more economical path of creating a website, communicating with supporters face to face and through email, and ringing door bells, all of which cost her very little. The old way of running for office, through the traditional media (the newspapers, radio stations, and billboards) no longer pays off. In spite of the big bucks they spent on traditional advertising, Kalb and First Ward councilman Mike Mearan—the one the embodiment of incompetence, the other of corruption—were defeated decisively, removing the two biggest obstacles to progress in city government. Murray is a mayor for the digital, not the
analogical age. “We’ve waited a long time for this,” somebody said to me as Murray took the oath of office. Let’s hope she will prove worth the wait, and there is good reason to think she will.

Murray on May 1, 2009, campaigning for primary, which she won by wide margin

II: The Fears

But if the hopes are high, the fears are deep. Murray is boarding a listing if not a sinking ship, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt inherited a nation in the throes of the Great Depression, in 1932, and just as Barack Obama did at the beginning of 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession. It took a decade before Roosevelt helped the country out of the economic doldrums. Whether Obama is going to succeed at turning things around is far from certain, especially with the Republicans saying no to anything that might redound to the credit of Democrats and the president, even if it would be good for the country.

Murray has an even steeper hill to climb than Roosevelt or Obama because Portsmouth has been going downhill not just for a couple of years, not just for a decade, but for about a half century; and it has been going downhill not just economically but also socially and morally, becoming a haven for drug dealers, prostitutes, and lawyers and developers who have gotten rich on government pork and preferential treatment. Competition, supposedly the lifeblood of the American economy, has all but disappeared in Portsmouth, where collusion and incestuous politics prevail. In America during the Depression, it was the New Deal; in Portsmouth for the last half century, it's been, except for the privileged few, the Raw Deal.

There are those who want to see Jane Murray fail; there are those who will do everything they can to see that she doesn’t succeed. I’m not going to say Police Chief Horner is one of those who will conspire against her, but the last two mayors wanted to remove him from office, yet he is still sitting in his corner, with his thumb in everything, while Bauer and Kalb are history. Horner will be involved in politics; you can count on that, and Murray should watch her back when the going gets tough. as it no doubt will. As somebody said to me after the swearing-in, if Murray really goes after the drug dealers, she’s going to stir up a “Horner’s nest.” Horner as a drug-buster has been a bust. That the notorious Journeys were able to chop up automobiles and sell Oxycontin for as long as they did at their garage, only a half mile from the police station, is one for the books. And she should watch out for the Portsmouth Daily Times, which will wait for its chance to pounce. Don't expect that shrinking but still slinking leopard to change its spots

As previously mentioned, the Portsmouth city charter does not give the mayor much executive authority. Since so much needs to be done, and she is so determined to do it, the limitations of her office could prove a serious impediment to progress. When I interviewed him for my video documentary, Recall of Mayor Bauer (1994), Frank Gerlach told me how frustrating it was as mayor to have so little authority under the charter. And as long as four years remains the term for city council members, the crooks will remain in control of that body by seeing to it that new lapdogs are appointed to replace those old ones who don’t complete their full terms for one reason or another. Howard Baughman's resignation to escape recall is the latest example of the way in which the council continues to be stacked with lapdogs; in this instance John Haas was
appointed Baughman's replacement. Albrecht, Mearan, and Haas are just the latest examples of lapdogs who were first appointed, not elected, to city council. A charter change to two-year terms will help stop the appointment shenanigans and make frequent recalls unnecessary, since citizens would be able to vote out the rascals on council every two years instead of being stuck with them for four. But it takes time and a lot of effort to get the charter amended, and meanwhile Murray will have to work with a council that has historically been a rubber stamp for the SOGP.

Marting Building

The Marting building we will always have with us. Or so it seems. It would be unfortunate if any of the new members of city council become a stalking horse for the SOGP-Marting Foundation. My suspicion is that the renewal of the campaign to tear down the Municipal Building is only the opening gambit in a political game that has as its ultimate goal the renovation of Marting’s and the turning over of the land where the Municipal Building is located to developers with visions of gambling dollars dancing in their head.

In the last eight years the Municipal Building has become a graveyard for the political corpses of those public officials, like Kalb, who made the stupid argument that the 75-year-old Municipal Building was decrepit and should not be renovated but the 125-year-old, leaky, moldy, cavernous, empty Marting building would be ideal for city offices. The truth is that renovating the Marting Building would represent not a step forward but a step backward. The voters didn’t decisively reject the Marting building several times and send Kalb packing in the last election only to have someone new try to promote Marting’s and Kalb’s other foolish policies, which have brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy, both financial and moral. If the county is in the toilet, financially, can the city be far behind? The election of Murray is an opportunity to put all the Marting malarkey behind us and to move forward.

Let’s have faith, during this holiday season, that the well-organized, stirring, and historic
swearing-in ceremony at the County Courthouse was a harbinger of better things to come, a sign of joy triumphing over tears, hopes over fears. “Fast away the old year passes,say the words of another carol, Hail the new, ye lads and lasses.”


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Trent Williams, CPFA

Trent Williams, CPFA, who has a degree in music education, strums while city's finances go up in smoke

What is the meaning of the acronym CPFA that City Auditor Trent Williams attaches after his name when he signs official documents? Since CPFA has in it the letters CPA, which is an acronym for Certified Public Accountant, CPFA seems to imply that it stands for some kind of a Certified Public Accountant. But a CPA is an accountant who has been certified by and met the standards set for the profession by the state. But Trent Williams, CPFA, is not to my way of thinking the kind of accountant that the state of Ohio or any other public accrediting body would certify.

So who or what precisely is Trent Williams, CPFA? He is a Certified Public Finance Administrator, but he is NOT any kind of Certified Public Accountant, though there is an implicit attempt to suggest he is by including the letters CPA in his CPFA title.

The next important question is who certifies people to be CPFAs? It is not the state of Ohio or any public agency. It is a private group, APTUSC, or the Association of Public Treasurers of the Unites States and Canada. Founded in 1965 and having about 1,300 members, the APTUSC or APT, for short, offers the CPFA certification, but only to those who first join APT. The current individual membership fee is $409. Once the fee is paid, a member can then apply for CPFA certification, which presumably means paying another fee. This whole private certification business appears fee driven. As an additional expense, APT requires those getting a CPFA to attend the annual APT conference—$$$$.

The 2009 APT conference was held this past July in Spokane. The theme of the conference was “Effectively Managing the Peaks and Valleys of Your Financial Resources,” which is APT’s way of helping its members “to effectively manage their public operations and funds during the tumultuous times we are facing.” During his terms as auditor, Williams and the city of Portsmouth have had no financial peaks but quite a few financial valleys, the most recent of which looks more like the Grand Canyon than a valley. If Williams was able to attend the Spokane conference, let’s hope he got some ideas about dealing with the large city deficit he helped Mayor Kalb create and cover up.

You can go online and get any diploma or certification with a minimum of effort, sometimes no more effort than writing out a check to the private organization that is awarding you the diploma or certification. APT is not a diploma mill, but it does seem to operate within an ethical gray area. It offers “services” to its members, but the services seem to have as one of their goals the wringing of more money from members. The services APT offers include newsletters in which members can place a full page ad for a year at a cost of $3,000. Or members can publish an article in one of the APT’s magazine, at a cost of $500.That’s right, members pay APT for articles they write for APT magazines. APT has other money making services. It conducts six different workshops and seminars for which it charges participants $45 apiece. APT requires a 50 participant minimum to conduct these workshops and seminars, which comes out to a minimum of $2500 a seminar, plus travel and lodging expenses for the seminar leader.

The seminars cover six different subjects: Cash Flow Forecasting, Cash Handling, Debt Policy Development, Disaster Preparedness, Revenue Preparedness, and a workshop called “Stop that Fraud!” By attending these seminars, APT members get yet another certificate. It could be said APT is in the certification business. But isn’t there a disincentive to setting higher standards for certification? The lower the standards the more certificates they can issue and the more money they can make. It sounds like a conflict of interest. I suspect at least some CPFAs might be under-qualified for the positions they hold. I suspect at least some CPFAs are politicians who lack the appropriate education and relevant experience to qualify them for the offices they are elected or appointed to.


Trent Williams, CPFA, is a member not only of APT but also of GFOA, which is an older, national organization, founded in 1906. GFOA stands for Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada. The GFOA has been awarding a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting (CAFR) since 1945, and, wouldn’t you know it, Trent Williams, CPFA, is a recipient of a CAFR, to which, naturally, there is a fee attached. $$$$ GFOA awarded Williams a CAFR for the city’s financial report for 2006, the same report which received low marks from the CPA firm that the city hired to do an audit of city finances. Williams had the chutzpa to pass along a copy of this CAFR for the 2006 financial report to the Ohio State Auditor’s office with the city’s 2007 financial report. The outside 2007 audit, in turn, reported a number of shortcomings in the way the city and Williams conducted financial business, including that old standby “significant deficiency in internal control over financial reporting.” In other words, Trent Williams, CPFA, got a certificate of excellence for a financial report that an outside CPA criticized for faulty financial reporting and Williams sends that certificate of excellence along with his next financial report, which contains more or the same faulty financial reporting. In addition, a separate letter dated June 30, 2008, was sent by the outside CPA to the city regarding its noncompliance with accepted standards of financial reporting.


I am considering creating an organization called GOOFOFFS, which would provide, for a fee of course, SNUFF Certificates for politicians trying to pass as auditors and financial officers, with SNUFF standing for, let's see . . . . How about: Sleazy, Negligent, Unscrupulous Financial Fuckoffs? The practice of awarding phony titles, certificates, and awards is par for the Tiger Woods PGA (Promiscuous Golfers Association) course in the public relations alternate reality that is America today. I recall an incompetent past president of Shawnee State University who, not long before he was pressured to resign, in 1998, got an award from some organization as an Outstanding Ohio Academic Administrator of the Year. It would not surprise me to hear that Trent Williams, CPFA, got a similar award for auditors, provided he or the city paid whatever fees are associated with such an award, and it would not surprise me either if there is public pressure for him to resign.

wms on steps
Trent Williams, CPFA, in front of Municipal Building


Monday, December 07, 2009

Frances Trollope: American Dreams, American Nightmares

Illustration of Frances Trollope from Domestic Manners of the Americans

“On the 4th of November, 1827, I sailed from London, accompanied by my son and two daughters; and after a favourable, though somewhat tedious voyage, arrived on Christmas-day at the mouth of the Mississippi.”

So wrote Mrs. Frances Trollope (1780-1863), a genteelly adventurous English woman who came to America in 1827 and left in 1831 with a deep dislike of Americans in general and of the people of southwestern Ohio in particular. Influenced by Frances “Fanny” Wright, the Scottish-born radical feminist and Abolitionist, Trollope had come to America with mixed motives. She came to join Wright’s Tennessee commune whose noble purpose was to help Negroes. But she had also come to America, partly in desperation, to improve her family’s precarious finances, which is why after a disillusioning visit to Wright’s commune in Tennessee, she ended up in Cincinnati, trying to make a go of it in a retail business. Her husband, Thomas A. Trollope, whom she left behind in England, was a barrister, or English lawyer, who had the lesser title of baronet. But he was apparently bi-polar as well as a baronet and not a good breadwinner.

In going from Wright's commune to Cincinnati, with a population of not much more than 16,000, Trollope was going from the frying pan into the fire. Cincinnati was in its early stage of development, when there were more pigs than people and when it was beginning to earn the nickname “Porkopolis.”

After she returned to England from her sojourn in Cincinnati, Mrs. Trollope wrote Domestic Manners of the Americans (1835) in which she made the case that America was not only not God’s Country, but for a refined person like herself was a cultural wasteland as well as a waste of time. (Domestic Manners can be read online at Google Books.) What bothered her most about Americans and the residents of Cincinnati in particular were their appalling manners, which she attributed to the democratic cult of equality, which reduced everything and everybody in the money grubbing republic to the lowest common denominator. Yes, she agreed with the boastful Americans: they were equal—equally ignorant, equally arrogant, and equally expectorant. Baseball was not yet the national pastime—spitting was. America had adopted the eagle as its national symbol, but based on Trollope’s observations the spittoon would have been a more fitting hit-and-miss symbol.

Getting Religion 

Next to their boorish manners, what offended Trollope most about Americans was their religiosity. As the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, she attached a great deal of importance to religion. The Preface to Domestic Manners states, portentously, “it is the moral and religious condition of the people which, beyond everything else, demands the attention of the philosophical inquirer . . .” To the extent that she qualified as a philosophical inquirer, she concluded that there was too much of the wrong kind of religion being propagated in “God’s Country,” by far too many proliferating sects and denominations. In her opinion, religion in America was at best much too emotional and at worst outrageously mindless, with a lot of hypocrisy thrown in for good measure. For example, in an apparent effort to keep them from contact with unrelated males, American women were segregated nearly as much as slaves, but at religious revivals and camp meetings women became as fair game for male preachers  as deer were for hunters. 

Trollope got a lesson in what she took for religious hypocrisy early on from Nancy, a young woman she was considering hiring as household help. In interviewing for the position, Nancy told Trollope of her hard life as a country girl beset by all kinds of hardships and evil influences. But since she had come to Cincinnati, Nancy assured her prospective employer, she had found the answer for all her problems. “Thanks and praise for it,” she said with deep emotion, “I have got religion.” Trollope hired her, agreeing to let her attend church meetings every Tuesday and Thursday evenings. But on one of Nancy’s church nights, when Mrs. Trollope couldn’t sleep because of mosquitoes, she heard her entering below. It was very late. Going to the top of the stairs, she called down and asked her why she was so late getting home. “Oh, Mrs. Trollope,” Nancy replied, “I am late, indeed! We have this night had seventeen souls added to our flock. May they live to bless this night!” It was only later that Mrs. Trollope learned that Nancy was a young woman of loose morals, and if she was going to church early on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, she was otherwise engaged later those evenings. Nancy was what the English call, ironically, a trollop, i.e., a promiscuous woman or prostitute. But it is possible Nancy was not so much a rank hypocrite as someone for whom religiosity and sensuality were opposite sides of the same coin.

Trollope concluded that there was a thin line in America, or at least in southwestern Ohio, between Christian piety and pagan hanky-panky. She witnessed goings-on at a revival between preying preachers and god-drunk young women that shocked her. She also attended a camp meeting that was more like a Rolling Stones concert than a religious gathering, a gathering at which prayer was the pot and the ranting preaching the crack. If she had a crystal ball, she might have looked ahead, to 1975, when eleven fans were trampled to death in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum, where the featured attraction, ironically, was the English rock group the Who. The word “fan” is derived, of course, from “fanatic,” which is what Trollope thought many Americans were when it came to religion.

Preying Preachers 

Following a hellfire sermon at a revival meeting, one of the preachers looked to her like a lunatic. “The perspiration ran in streams from [his] face; his eyes rolled, his lips were covered with foam, and every feature had the deep expression of horror it would have borne, had he, in truth, been gazing at the [hellfire] scene he described.” This was obviously not the way English Anglican ministers, like Mrs. Trollope’s father, preached. In a variation of the good cop-bad cop routine, another preacher then took over and in a “coaxing affectionate tone,” urged those who wanted to be saved to come forward and take their seat on the “anxious bench” where they could pray for salvation. The preaching and hymn singing got mostly women, particularly adolescent girls, to come forward. Here’s Trollope’s description:

Young girls arose, and sat down, and rose again; and then the pews opened, and several came tottering out, their hands clasped, their heads hanging on their bosoms, and every limb trembling, and still the hymn went on; but as the poor creatures approached the rail their sobs and groans became audible. They seated themselves on the “anxious benches”; the hymn ceased, and two of the three priests [sic] walked down from the tribune, and going, one to the right, and the other to the left, began whispering to the poor tremblers seated there. These whispers were inaudible to us, but the sobs and groans increased to a frightful excess. Young creatures, with features pale and distorted, fell on their knees on the pavement, and soon sunk forward on their faces; the most violent cries and shrieks followed, while from time to time a voice was heard in convulsive accents, exclaiming, “Oh Lord !” “Oh Lord Jesus !” “Help me, Jesus !” and the like.

Trollope melodramatically described it as “a frightful sight to behold innocent young creatures, in the gay morning of existence, thus seized upon, horror-struck, and rendered feeble and enervated for ever. One young girl, apparently not more than fourteen, was supported in the arms of another some years older; her face was pale as death; her eyes wide open, and perfectly devoid of meaning; her chin and bosom wet with slaver; she had every appearance of idiotism.” Trollope’s opinion of revivals was, “I confess that I think the coarsest comedy ever written would be a less detestable exhibition for the eyes of youth and innocence than such a scene.”

Camp Meeting 

As “detestable” as she found the church revival, Trollope was to witness a much larger camp meeting in the woods that she thought was even worse. Instead of a score of hysterical females finding Jesus and shouting “Glory!” there were hundreds of them, “uttering howlings and groans, so terrible that I shall never cease to shudder when I recall them.” She pointed out that, “Many of these wretched creatures were beautiful young females” whom the preachers moved among, “at once exciting and soothing their agonies,” and, “with insidious lips,” breathing into their ears “consolations that tinged the pale cheeks with red.” Exhorted by the preacher to come forward and be saved, they fell on their knees and became convulsive and were soon all “lying on the ground in an indescribable confusion of heads and legs. . . . But how am I to describe the sounds that proceeded from this strange mass of human beings? I know no words which can convey an idea of it. Hysterical sobbing, convulsive groans, shrieks and screams the most appalling burst forth on all sides. I felt sick with horror.” For her, this was not the American dream; it was the American nightmare. Was the United States a product of the Age of Reason or the Age of Superstition?

The morning after the camp meeting, at breakfast, “I marked,” she wrote, “many a fair but pale face, that I recognised as a demoniac of the night, simpering beside a swain, to whom she carefully administered hot coffee and eggs. The preaching saint [the preachers] and the howling sinner [the young females] seemed alike to relish this mode of recruiting their strength.” The camp meeting Trollope described is like the gathering of the ungodly in the woods outside Salem in Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown.” The morning after participating in the witches gathering, the remorseful young Goodman Brown is surprised to see those he had seen (or dreamed he had seen) behaving like devils the night before, going about their business in the village as if they were innocent as lambs. The no-longer-young Goodman Brown went to his grave a complete Calvinist, convinced of the innate depravity of everybody, trusting nobody.

Having witnessed Americans not only at their most unmannerly but also at their most unchastely Lady Chatterly, Mrs. Trollope did not despair. She did not improve her family’s finances in America, but she did when she returned to England and wrote Domestic Manners of the Americans. Catering to the prejudices of the English, and exaggerating the boorish manners and the religious fanaticism of Americans, Domestic Manners became a best-seller. It was her first book, but far from her last. She went on to publish over a hundred books, both non-fiction and fiction, including an anti-slavery novel that may have influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Two of her sons, Thomas and Anthony Trollope, went on to become successful writers. Anthony became one of England’s most popular novelists, and millions of Americans have watched dramatizations of his novels on PBS television.

Whatever her faults and however much Americans might rightfully feel she did them dirt, Mrs. Trollope was a resourceful woman who overcame all kinds of obstacles. As a baronet, her husband had been born with many advantages, but everything he touched turn to failure and he squandered his inheritance on ill-advised attempts at farming after he had failed as a lawyer. “His life as I knew it,”  his son Anthony wrote, “was one long tragedy.”  Mrs. Trollope didn’t let her husband’s problems stop her. When he had to flee England to escape debtor’s prison, she and her children accompanied him to Belgium, where she supported the whole family through her writing while nursing her ill husband and the two of her children who had tuberculosis. (Four of her six children would eventually die of the disease.) She was both nurse and writer. “The doctor's vials and the ink-pot held equal places in my mother's rooms,”  her son Anthony wrote in his autobiography. She proved so successful as an author that, following her husband’s death, she was able to spend the last twenty years of her life in sunny Italy, far from gloomy Great Britain and even father from Cincinnati. “She continued writing up until 1856, when she was seventy-six years old,”  Anthony wrote, “and had at that time produced 114 volumes, of which the first was not produced until she was fifty.”

Portsmouth, Ahoy! 

Mrs. Trollope never visited Portsmouth, but she may have at least glanced at it when she and her children left Cincinnati and steamed up the Ohio River on the first leg of their long journey back to England. Could she look in that crystal ball, she would have seen Portsmouth grow, from a rinky-dink fuel stop between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, to become a bustling industrialized city of over fifty-thousand, but she could have seen too, after the Second World War and globalization, how it gradually shrank into a corrupt, chronically depressed, pork-dependent town of drug dealers, prostitutes, and rich white trash, but she would also have seen concerned citizens battling against the rich white trash and getting rid of the incompetent and corrupt politicians and electing Portsmouth’s first woman mayor . . .

Whoa! Wait a minute! I’m getting ahead of myself, probably way ahead of myself, if not dreaming. As Mark Twain showed, river towns have more than their share of vices, and Portsmouth is no exception. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Cincinnati. Mrs. Trollope had a long way to go when she steamed past Portsmouth and so do we. But she set an example we should follow and not conclude despairingly, as young Goodman Brown did, that you can't beat the devil. Life is irony. The example of the prejudiced, anti-American, anti-democratic English woman reminds us that we need to focus on the American dream, not the American nightmare, need to keep our eye upon the donut, not the hole, and upon the eagle, not the spittoon.

A clever caricature of Trollope as a brawny
 pipe-smoking backwoods woman.


Monday, November 30, 2009

Just Say No

Todd Book (at right ) welcomes Bill to “Strickland Country” 2/25/09

Portsmouth Daily Times coverage of Todd Book’s withdrawal from the race for the U.S. House of Representatives 2nd Congressional District is just one example of why anyone concerned about the future of Portsmouth should make a New Year’s resolution not to buy a single copy of that newspaper in the year ahead. “Just Say No to the Daily Times” is as good a slogan for the war against political corruption in Portsmouth as “Just Say No to Drugs” is in the war against drugs.

Functioning as both a reporter and editor of the incredibly shrinking
Daily Times, Frank Lewis has tried not only to turn Abraham Lincoln into a teabagging wingnut but he has tried to turn Todd Book into General William Tecumseh Sherman, who is remembered by Northerners at least for steadfastly refusing to capitalize on his status as a Civil War hero to run for President of the United States. In response to efforts to get him to run as the presidential candidate in 1884, Sherman responded, in words to this effect: “If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.” Lewis reports Book saying he will not run for the U.S. House of Representatives “because of his current workload in Columbus.” That is not the reason Book is not running. He is not running, as I see it, because he would very likely lose to Republican incumbent Jean Schmidt. Whatever chances Book may have had of defeating Schmidt when he first announced his candidacy have since evaporated. Since Book stood next to Clinton at that February rally at Shawnee State, he has less reason to smile. The political tide is turning against Democrats at all levels, local, state, and national, and Book is not a strong enough candidate to be able to swim against that tide, and he cannot run again for the office he currently holds because of term limits.

But there was probably an even more compelling reason for Book’s withdrawal from the race for the seat in the U.S. Congress. According to Geoffrey Sea, who is a supporter of Book’s rival for the Democratic nomination and a blogger on DailyKos and progresshoio.org, Book’s withdrawal was almost inevitable because on November 17th the Tri-State Building and Construction Trades Council rescinded its endorsement of Book. Sea says the Tri-State Council rescinded its endorsement after it was learned that Book’s law firm was the legal agent for a non-union shop in Georgia. Book was claiming to be a friend of labor while privately profiting from being the lawyer representing a business that opposed unions. Sea quotes an unidentified union source as saying that, because of legal ties to the non-union company, Book
has lost all of his union and labor support.” Didn’t Lewis know about this, or is his surfing of the Internet confined to those wingnut websites where the Great Emancipator is recast in the image of a teabagger?

Why didn’t Lewis ask Book about the Tri-State Council, which is based in Ashland? Could it be because any news that is unflattering to the bipartisan local political machine is considered unfit to print in the
Daily Times? In what Lewis billed as an “exclusive interview,” he allowed Book to portray his withdrawal from the Congressional race as a noble gesture, like General Sherman’s refusal to run for president. “It came down to a decision,” Book told Lewis, “between do I want to spend all of my time campaigning or do I want to spend time working for the people who elected me to do a job, and I take that seriously, and that is what I decided to do. You have to make decisions in life, and it’s not always easy, and with a limited amount of time, if it’s between campaigning or taking care of the job that I have, I’m going to take care of the job that I have, because the people elected me to do that . . .” Do I understand this correctly? As he begins his eighth and last year in the Ohio House of Representatives, Book finally realizes his highest obligation is to the people of Ohio's 89th District, who elected him? It is only then that he resolves to do the job he was elected to do?

Book withdrew only when it appeared he could not beat Schmidt in the general election and only after it appeared he might not even get his party’s nomination. How much credit should he be given for declining something that he was not going to get anyway? No credit at all, I would say.

“I’m going to take care of the job that I have, because the people elected me to do that” is the reason Book gives for his withdrawal in the “exclusive interview” in the
Portsmouth Daily Times. In giving that as his reason, Book insults the intelligence of the public as he previously insulted the public’s intelligence when he proposed that the stolen Indian Head Rock be used to teach schoolchildren about local history. What the children need to learn, in addition to “ Just Say No to Drugs,” is “Just Say No to the Portsmouth Daily Times.” That is what adults need to learn as well.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Sign of the Times

I took the photo of the sign on Grandview Avenue (shown above) a few days before the November 3rd, 2009, municipal elections. I had heard about the sign and its DON’T BE SCREWED BY A STRANGER message from someone I know called Joe, who was dissatisfied with the three mayoral candidates. Joe said he was going to write in the name on the sign as a form of protest vote. That’s apparently what the sign itself was, only a protest, because the homeowner who put the sign up was not waging a serious write-in campaign, as Jerry Skiver, one of the mayoral candidates was. He was apparently expressing his dissatisfaction with one or more of the three candidates he had to choose from.

In the past five years, Grandview Avenue has become Ground Zero, the Chernobyl of Portsmouth politics. The toxicity was not nuclear radiation but backed-up sewage. Mayor James Kalb and Ward Five councilman Howard Baughman neglected the sewer problem, but successive years of heavy rains caused flooding that angered the frustrated Grandview homeowners, who put up signs castigating the city government for its indifference and incompetence.

Facing a recall movement led by the residents of Grandview, Baughman resigned from city council; more recently the incompetent incumbent Kalb finished last in the mayoral race, in part because of Grandview. The sewage led to outrage, which led to signage, which led to the outage of Kalb and Baughman.


Because it points to something even more unpleasant than sewage, the message on the Grandview sign, DON’T BE SCREWED BY A STRANGER, deserves more scrutiny. There was a hundred-year period of Portsmouth’s history, roughly from the 1860s to the 1960s, when many residents did not think of it as Appalachian. That was the period of industrialization and population explosion. Industry and population density are not characteristics of Appalachia. But by the 1960s Portsmouth was slipping back into its rural, some would say redneck roots, and as it de-industrialized and de-populated it slipped economically into chronic recession. It slipped back, in other words, into Appalachia—to the rusting pickups up on blocks, the sofas on the porch, and the Tussies on welfare.

In the last half century, Portsmouth has shed its industrialized skin, and its Appalachian skeleton now sticks out like that of a two-hundred-pound man who has lost half his weight. In the last half century or so, Portsmouth has lost more than half its population and even more of its pride. I heard someone who had spent thirty years far away from Portsmouth say that he was surprised to learn after his return that he had grown up in Appalachia. For purposes of government assistance, and pork distribution, Portsmouth is now classified by the Department of Agriculture as a Rural Enterprise Zone. Though poor whites had probably always known better, the professional and business classes of Portsmouth, especially those on the Hill, had not realized they were living in Appalachia. But in the last twenty years, I've observed a number of foreign-born professionals unhappily discover that, in an irony reminiscent of the fable in “Appointment in Samara,” they had jumped from the Third World frying pan into the Appalachian fire. A number of them have come and gone, as have other native-born transplants from other parts of the United States.

What was not apparent for about a century, but what is all too evident now, is that Portsmouth is in Appalachia, America’s endogamous culture belt. Owing partly to geographical and topographical factors—the isolating hills and hollows in particular—and owing partly to the incestuous folkways of their borderland Scotch-Irish ancestors (see the chapter “Borderlands to Backcountry” in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed [1989]), the people of Appalachia have tended historically toward endogamy, which is the habit of people in a particular group to marry within that group. One benefit of marrying within a group is that it strengthens your ties to that group. You feel closer to those with whom you share common values and experiences, a common dialect and heritage. Outsiders and strangers are distrusted, generally speaking, because they threaten the cohesiveness of the group. Strangers, as the Grandview sign succinctly puts it, are out to screw you.

Kissing Kin

In the two candidate forums that were held the week before the November 3rd elections, I was struck that the candidates emphasized, more than anything else, how deep their roots in the community were. The last thing a candidate could afford to be taken for is a stranger, so they took pains to prove, if they had been out of the area for any length of time, that it was just a fluke and that they were relieved to be back in Portsmouth, to be home again. Accentuating your ties to the people you want to vote for you is what candidates everywhere try to do, but in Scioto County it is imperative to prove you are not a stranger, which is the kiss of death in local politics. You must be kissing kin. The two candidate forums seemed designed to avoid debate and controversy; they seemed calculated to skirt important issues. Civility appeared to be the ultimate goal of the forums, even though civility is one of the favorite masks of corruption. Back in the 1990s, and possibly earlier, Portsmouth had as a tourist slogan, “Where Southern Hospitality Begins.” A more appropriate motto might be, “Where Southern Hostility Begins.”

The hostility toward strangers, and toward those who are considered strange, is more likely to surface during political campaigns, especially in times of economic distress. The hostility during campaigns is directed against candidates who represent change, especially if they are not conservative, straight, white males. So-called “birthers” have labeled President Obama not just a stranger but a foreigner who lacks American citizenship. He has been denounced as a Kenyan communist and an Islamo-fascist. A sign in West Plains, Missouri, showed him wearing a turban with the message: BARACK “HUSSEIN” OBAMA EQUALS MORE ABORTIONS, SAME SEX MARRIAGES, TAXES, GUN REGULATIONS.

There was no name on the Obama sign in Missouri, nor was there on the two anonymous blogs that sprang up in Porstmouth, like poisonous mushrooms, in the week before the November 3rd election. One of the anonymous Portsmouth bloggers posted a photo of the actor Edward Woodward, who starred in The Equalizer, a 1980s TV show about a former secret service agent who uses his gun, “the equalizer,” as a goniff, or law-skirting, free-lance vigilante, the bastard offspring of the same-sex marriage of James Bond and Dirty Harry.

“They don’t make TV shows like that anymore,” says the caption under the photo of Woodward. “Too bad,” the anonymous blogger continues. “Woodward knew how to deal with CAVE people.” CAVE is the anagram of the Motormouth over at WNXT. CAVE stands for Citizens Against Virtually Everything. Portsmouth’s Captain Queeg police chief has another name for the CAVE people. He calls them “domestic terrorists.”

Gun nuttiness manifests itself not just at the local but also at the national level, where the NRA, not the GOP, is the favorite organization of those disturbed people who feel threatened by “strangers” representing change. Alaska, Appalachia’s glacial, welfare-state cousin, is prone to gun nuttiness. Sarah Palin’s dad's one-liner that in resigning as Alaska’s governor she was not quitting but only just "reloading" is a sign of the times, a very disturbing sign. But signs don’t kill people: disturbed people do.

Sarah Palin's Rogue Elephantasy


Monday, November 16, 2009

No to Malicious Minority

Congratulations to Larry Essman, C.P.A., and his allies on the recent Ohio Supreme Court decision that reversed the ruling of the Scioto County Common Pleas Court, which had voided the results of the February 3, 2009, special election. The draft of the Supreme Court’s decision can be found at the Supreme Court website.

In the Feb. 3 election the voters had approved an amendment to the Portsmouth city charter, an amendment that stipulated that, “No taxes may be levied on the property owners of the City of Portsmouth for retirement of any bonded indebtedness without the approval of such levy by a majority of the electors of the City of Portsmouth.” In other words: No taxation without representation! The court ruled that those who challenged the results of the election in court should have raised their objections to language in the proposed ballot amendment before, not after, the election. To quote the Supreme Court decision, “Insofar as appellees challenged the election result because of the petition and ballot language, they should have raised their claims in a pre-election protest or proceeding rather than in a postelection contest.” In a wonderful phrase, the court said, “The alleged irregularity in this case is not so substantial that relators should be permitted to, in effect, sleep on their rights until after an adverse election result” [emphasis added].

Those who challenged the results of the Feb. 3 election did not exactly sleep on their rights. What they did was smugly spread the word before the election that the ballot language was fatally flawed, so it didn’t matter if the amendment was approved or not: it would be invalidated in the courts. Well, the results of the election were invalidated in the Scioto Court of Common Pleas (no big surprise there), but fortunately the Common Pleas is not the highest court in the state. This is yet another black eye for City Solicitor Jones, who could have and should have done something about the ballot language well before the election but preferred to wait and play “gotcha” after the election.

Larry Essman is one of those who attends City Council meetings whenever he can and tries to get the mayor and the city auditor to return to the path of fiscal responsibility. He is one of that alleged minority that is accused by the motor mouth on WNXT and Frank Lewis at the Portsmouth Daily Times of standing in the way of progress. Lewis is a teetotalling, tea-partying preacher who has abandoned all pretense of separating fact from opinion, editorials from news, and bias from objectivity. He has even enlisted Abraham Lincoln in his crusade against truth. What Essman and the alleged minority stand in the way of is not progress but fiscal irresponsibility. What they are adamantly opposed to are scams like the Marting Building and budgetary shenanigans. If Essman is part of only a small minority, then why do elections usually go heavily in their favor? Why has the Marting building been rejected decisively in more than one electoral contest? Why was Kalb KO’d and Mearan marinated in the recent Nov. 3 election? And why have the voters not followed the advice in editorial after editorial in the Portsmouth Daily Times, including the infamous one by Jason Lovins that suggested after the ballot amendment was passed on Feb. 3 that there was a bit too much democracy in Portsmouth? The departed Lovins has since been outdone by Lewis who has abandoned any pretense of separating facts from opinion, editorials from news, and bias from objectivity. Just the other day he floated the idea of moving city government away from the Municipal Building, because of that allegedly small minority of troublemakers who regularly show up for council meetings. Lewis favors moving it to a local pub, where the elite can meet to screw the public out of view of the alleged minority.

Let’s see what spin Lewis and the PDT put on the Supreme Court decision. As I wrote recently, people who really want progress in Portsmouth should take a pledge not to buy the incredibly shrinking newspaper. Everyone should just say no to the Portsmouth Daily Times as the Supreme Court said no to that real malicious minority who tried but failed to thwart the will of the electorate.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


Nichols's home ablaze (Photo courtesy of Moe's Forum)

I mean "fired" first in the sense of a blaze being intentionally set, as I suspect Wayne Nichols’s house on Eighth Street was yesterday. I also mean fired in the sense of someone being emphatically removed from a job, as Mayor Jim Kalb was decisively by the voters of Portsmouth, which also happened yesterday.

If Nichols had not been in jail when the fire occurred, he probably would today be under suspicion of having set the fire himself, because that’s how things work in Portsmouth, the victims being blamed for the crimes of others. Nichols will not face a judge or have opportunity for bail until next Tuesday at 10 AM, according to Nichol's sister, by which time he will have been in jail for thirteen days.

Because he was in jail, Nichols possibly did not know his house had burned, and might not have known how dirty the campaign had become during the last few days when supporters of Mayor Kalb and First Ward Councilman Mike Mearan started an anonymous blog called The Underground, which began by pretending to be against Kalb, but that was only to attract the attention that it would not have otherwise gotten. I have little doubt that one of those writing anonymously for the Underground blog is an alcoholic human virus who insinuates himself electronically into the Portsmouth body politic by parasitically taking on the appearance or coloration of his political enemies, of capitalizing on their greater name recognition. A political ally of the Kalb family, this creep started out some years ago by calling himself Look Deeper, mimicking "Doug Deepe," John Welton’s well-known pseudonym. More recently he has adopted the pseudonym River Lices, mimicking River Vices.

The Underground blog quickly morphed into a pro-Kalb political dirty tricks website that accused mayoral candidate Jane Murray of having misused a public credit card some twenty years ago when she was a public employee in Kentucky. The Underground tried to capitalize on the sexist bias against women by suggesting that political and financial chaos would follow if Murray were elected mayor, as if we are not now experiencing political and financial chaos under Kalb, who finished an ignominious third in the election. Behind a woman and a write-in candidate! I had predicted Murray would get 44% of the three-way vote, which is what she got, but I did not think Kalb would finish third, although I knew it would be a mistake to underestimate his lack of achievement.

I’m assuming that among that minority who voted for Kalb were all those husbands who do not trust their wives with credit cards. The Underground also homophobically suggested that Mike Mearan’s opponent had AIDS, a dirty trick that was followed up by another supporter of Mearan who produced an incriminating dirty-tricks flyer that purported to be from Mearan’s gay-agenda opponent. The low-lifes behind these dirty tricks could not have chosen a more appropriate name for their blog than The Underground.

But the ultimate dirty trick in this campaign was the apparent torching of Nichols’s home. A Vietnam veteran who occasionally displays signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome, Nichols has for years been a thorn in the side of city government and of Kalb in particular. When Kalb and his cronies on city council, including council president Howard Baughman, tried to restrict the rights of concerned citizens to speak before the council, Nichols was one of those they were trying to stifle. They have been harassing him for years. Not that he hasn’t broken some laws and violated city ordinances, including letting junk accumulate on his porch and yard, but if letting junk accumulate on a porch and yard is a serious crime, there are a lot of people in the city and county who would not escape hanging. Nichols’s real crime was working his tail off to insure his right to speak before council and working his tail off every election, in spite of physical disabilities, to defeat politicians and ballot measures he strongly disagrees with. Now, as the holiday season approaches, he is without his home or his van, which were completely destroyed in the fire. Will Nichols become homeless, like the mother and son Mearan cheated out of their house in Wheelersburg?

The morning after the fire, I talked to a man who lives right next to Nichols who told me he heard a loud pop just before the fire started. A loud pop? Like a Molotov cocktail shattering? No one is certain at this point who or what started the fire, and we may never be certain, if past arson investigations are any indication. Remember when those hot files in the office of realtor Ken Rase caused that building to burst into flames, in an apparent instance of spontaneous combustion? Who was the usual suspect when the Columbia Theater went up in flames? The owner, Lee Scott, who had been working heroically with his own hands for years, along with his son, to restore the theater. Fortunately, Nichols has the most airtight alibi—bar none: he was in the hoosegow. O, Portsmouth! Is there any other city in America of comparable size that can compare with you for heartbreaking tragicomedy? Only Shakespeare could do justice to this cast of characters and this comedy of errors.

The Scene of the Crime: the Morning After

That is His Honor the mayor (center) making an election-day appearance