Sunday, December 04, 2016

My dad, 1919- 2012

My dad, Leonard Lasken, died at 93, shortly after the 2012 Obama/Romney presidential election.   It had been a long slow descent into grief and Parkinson’s for him, ever since my mom died four years earlier.   He told me that one thing that kept him going was that he wanted to “see what’s going to happen.”  He didn't live long enough to see Trump happen (that might have kept him alive another 50 years).

As a life-long Democrat he had recently come to reject both parties, and I felt, as we watched the primary and then the presidential debates together, that the electoral process itself had come to represent corruption to him. He used expressions like “six of one, half a dozen of the other,” to describe the policy differences we heard during the Obama/Romney debates. My dad lived long enough to see the Democratic Party betray him, and the Republican Party shut him out as much as it ever had.

After serving as a naval officer in World War II, my dad got his pharmacy degree from the University of Minnesota, after which we moved to L.A. in 1948, in time for my second birthday. My dad came politically of age during this period. He was hired as a pharmacist by Thrifty Drug Stores (currently reincarnated as Rite Aide) the only pharmacy chain in L.A., at the time, that would hire Jewish pharmacists. We rented a house in South Central (then all white), which my dad struggled to afford on his pharmacist pay of $1.98 per hour. He became an activist in the Retail Clerks Union (which represented pharmacists as well as clerks), running for (and losing) the union presidency, with both support and later opposition from legendary union powerhouse Joseph DeSilva. My dad’s political heroes then included Jimmie Hoffa, legendary head of the Teamster's Union.  He flung our copy of Time Magazine into the trash when its cover featured Hoffa’s face with a caption about corruption. At this time my parents experimented with the Communist Party. I recall a back-yard barbecue and the showing in someone’s living room of a beautiful Russian cartoon. I was enrolled in a communist affiliated pre-school. I had no idea what communism was, of course. To my dad, the party probably represented a rebellion against his father, the retired owner of a successful liquor store and pharmacy in North Dakota and founding member of the Brentwood Country Club (I later expressed my own rebellion by joining the GOP during Watergate). The fling with communism faltered when my dad objected to the party’s practice of putting people in the position of martyr, then hanging them out to dry. The end was confirmed when his local group rejected my dad's application for party membership because, they said, he was “too bourgeois.”

How right they were! Leonard had noticed, as a Thrifty pharmacist, that Thrifty was no longer thrifty, as it had been when it started in the 1920’s. By the 1950's, retail prescription prices were routinely marked-up to exorbitant levels above wholesale- for rich and poor alike- in a tacit monopoly maintained by all the pharmacy chains and most of the independents. My dad hooked up with a membership discount store in Torrance to start one of the first real discount pharmacies in the state, instantly undercutting just about every pharmacy in L.A. County. With this success he was able to secure the pharmacy concession for the White Front Discount Department Stores, which began in the 1920's as a single store in a black neighborhood, started by a white man named Blackman.  When my dad joined White Front it comprised ten successful stores.  White Front was later purchased by Interstate Department Stores (owner of the late Toy's 'R Us) which expanded to thirty White Front stores up and down the state.  My dad's contract forced him to open a pharmacy in every location, but not all were profitable.  The situation started to look bad, but then White Front went bankrupt (from over-expanding) giving my dad a way out.  He relocated the profitable stores to independent locations and sold them to the pharmacist/managers (several are in business today). To my relief, and to the amazement of many around him, my dad landed on his feet, a hallmark of his life.

When he went into business, my dad's life and politics changed. He told the family that he was making money by following his social conscience- he believed that people should not face extortion over life-saving medicine- and his political heroes changed accordingly. He liked his first Republican, Nelson Rockefeller, whom he saw as a levelheaded, business savvy guy. The vagaries of Nixon kept my dad a Democrat, but things started changing when Clinton ushered in the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, (which my dad correctly predicted would decimate American manufacturing) as well as the Democratic de-regulation of Wall Street that ended up in the economic collapse of 2008. The Democrats, for my dad, became the slightly lesser of two evils, as opposed to the force for good he had previously supported.

We rather liked Mitt Romney. He seemed to have some of the business sense of a Rockefeller, and hopefully good sense in general. But we shared our dismay that the Republican party had loaded Romney with so much useless baggage that he could not win. In essence, Romney had no choice but to put up and shut up regarding the Tea Party agenda as expressed then by Senator Rick Santorum, e.g. that abortion doctors should be charged with murder; that homosexuality is a sin hated by God; that contraception reduces sex to "mere pleasure."  This left Obama with an easy road to victory. All the Democrats had to do was make a fuss about the Santorum platform- viscerally unpopular throughout Obama’s base and far beyond (most voters are in favor of pleasure)- and Obama would never have to answer the difficult questions (e.g. Why have you done nothing about Wall Street, which, with help from both parties, caused the Great Recession? Since you have done nothing about Wall Street, do you believe, as Republicans do, that we do not need regulation? What is the purpose of your drone strikes? When a drone killed forty people in a wedding party in Pakistan, and not one militant was killed, why did you say nothing? Are you trying to start a war?).

My dad and I marveled together at the clever tricks of party operatives on both sides, placing social issues like gay marriage right next to unrelated economic ideas, blurring the distinctions between voters and robbing them of a voice.

My dad wanted to see what is going to happen to the world, but he had to die not seeing what he most wanted to see: the saving of the American democratic process from the end-game we are now witnessing, a totally manipulated politics, mediated by short-term thinkers for short-term goals.  If there are long term goals, we don't know what they are, or whose they are.  My dad opposed this darkness, and taught me to do the same.

Rest in peace, Dad. We’ll keep up the fight.