Whitcomb: Get-Away Anxieties and Pleasures; Mattiello and Mob Memories; Big Tech Is Too Big

Sunday, October 11, 2020


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

“Fer this world uv ours, that jest was made fer folks like me an' you

Is a purty good ol' place t' live—say, neighbor, ain't it true?’’

-- From “Poem in the American Manner,’’ by Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)




 “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.’’

-- Old quote, all or part of it attributed, without verification, to novelist Sinclair Lewis and others, dating back to the 1930s



“For London … was of all cities in the world the most autumnal —its mellow brickwork harmonizing with fallen leaves and October sunsets, just as the etched grays of November composed themselves with the light and shade of Portland stone. There was a charm, a deathless charm, about a city whose inhabitants went about muttering, ‘The nights are drawing in,’ as if it were a spell to invoke the vast, sprawling creature-comfort of winter.”

― James Hilton (1900-1954), Anglo-American novelist and screenwriter,  in his novel Random Harvest. He also wrote Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, among other books.




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Pinkham Notch, PHOTO: AMC

I had a few things to do in the White Mountains recently, most importantly, just trying to get away from life in megalopolis.


I wasn’t alone. On my way back to Rhode Island, on Saturday, Oct. 3,  I saw vast herds of cars with out-of-state plates, especially Massachusetts ones, heading north. I suppose that many, perhaps most, of the travelers wanted to see this year’s fall foliage. But a simple desire to just get out of town in these COVID-claustrophobic times seems to have dramatically increased their numbers over previous years. It was bumper-to-bumper north-bound traffic on long stretches of Route 93 in the Granite State.


On the mountainous Kancamagus Highway, which connects the towns of Lincoln and Conway, there were long lines of parked cars near the scenic overlooks, though the weather was showery and drought had dimmed the foliage.


My main destination up there was the Appalachian Mountain Club’s lodge in Pinkham Notch,  where I have happily stayed many times over the decades.  (My most memorable time was as a reporter for the old Boston Herald Traveler in the winter of 1971, when I had  to hang around there for several days to cover the drama of a couple of inexperienced climbers (allegedly stoned) lost high up on Mt. Washington in a storm; they were eventually rescued.)


On this visit, I ran into several examples of how COVID-19 has, well, made things less fun.


Some of the most pleasant parts of the complex – library, living room, etc.  – are off-limits now. There were virtually no places in which to socialize, unless you stayed in the affinity group you arrived in and so were permitted to eat together. Singles were ordered to sit by themselves, preferably all alone at a long table, or at the end of one. And I missed the cheery Canadians, traditionally big patrons of the place and fun to eat and maybe practice some French with. The pandemic has cut us off from our northern (and better run than the U.S.) neighbor as it has from most other countries.


The most depressing thing, to me, came when a staffer announced the post-prandial entertainment – a film and/or slides (I’m not sure which) about Denali (aka Mt. McKinley) and Mt. Washington. Everyone who wanted to attend had to sign a waiver liberating the club from responsibility in the case of COVID infection. I demurred, not out of fear but out of sadness at the situation and went back to read some short stories by the masterful John O’Hara in my room, which had four bunks but just me.


Another anti-COVID move reminded me of TB asylums before the discovery of antibiotics: The windows in the halls were left wide open, presumably to dilute viruses. So the halls at night were in the 40s or upper 30s. The bunkrooms and individual bedrooms were, however, blessedly heated.


Most of the young staff were pleasant enough though a few were grouchy, probably because of stress. In any event,  these are not the best times to go to such places. Wait until a vaccine?




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Mt. Washington Hotel PHOTO: Bob Whitcomb

But I didn’t give up. Seeking another place devoted to “getting away from it all,’’ I drove around to the western side of the Presidential Range to check out the Mount Washington Hotel, in Bretton Woods. This astonishing resort, opened in 1902, in an era of grand mountain and seashore hotels, has always especially catered to the rich, though I saw plenty of people of more modest means there, too.


Its capacious verandas, palace-like halls,  lounges, restaurants, bars and views of Mt. Washington, to the east, not to mention golf courses,  swimming pools and other sybaritic allures,  might make you want to be rich enough to live there – modestly, no more than a three-bedroom suite.


I bought a plastic-wrapped sandwich and a cup of coffee in one of the hotel’s sundries shops and took them out to consume on a veranda, with nap-inducing chairs,  that looks toward Mt. Washington, whose upper reaches were obscured by clouds. Still, the view of the back of the vast Spanish Renaissance Revival establishment was a fine show in itself.


No wonder guests and staff seemed a lot cheerier than the folks at the Appalachian Mountain Club, with its spartan ways and situated in a deep, dark valley.  Just the fact that there are plenty of places where you can sit on the verandas without wearing a mask raises spirits at the hotel. Or maybe you’re supposed to wear a mask out there but I saw plenty of unmolested people who weren’t.

The hotel guests were less well dressed than you might have expected in such a fancy place. It’s a blue-jeaned world. A hundred years ago you would have seen plenty of men in tails and dinner jackets.


Many, many famous people  -- politicians, movie stars, etc., etc. -- have stayed at the hotel over the years. But historically the most important were those who participated in the Bretton Woods Conference, in July 1944, in which representatives of 44 allied nations met at the hotel to lay the foundation for restructuring and overseeing key parts of the world’s financial and monetary systems. The plan was to avoid the mistakes of the Versailles Conference, in 1919, which ended World War I, and the huge monetary and fiscal policy fiascos that followed, which helped cause and worsen the Great Depression, which in turn played a part in causing World War II.


The 1944 meeting created, most famously, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank,  helping to set in motion the longest period of growing prosperity in world history.
Sadly, the current regime in Washington has done its best to undermine the Bretton Woods institutions, opting instead for an intense nationalist/protectionist approach.


I peeked into the “Gold Room,” where the final documents were signed in 1944 on a beautiful round table.


There were lots of New York plates in the parking lots.




Heading south, I dropped by another escape place: the Canterbury (N.H.) Shaker Village, a kind of Brigadoon. It was established, in 1792, by the Shakers, a Protestant sect whose members have waited and waited for the Second Coming of Christ, as a  religious, residential, and occupational refuge. Its 32 buildings, set in a bucolic landscape, evoke the Shakers’  mix of faith, hard work,  humility, practicality and craftsmanship.


The Shakers have pretty much died out. One big reason: They practice celibacy – not a  good business model for growth! In any case, there are things to admire in their communal living as well as in their care of the natural environment, their lovely architecture and furniture and even some surprising technological innovations, in machinery, etc. They could be remarkably forward-looking.


Visiting the Shaker Village is soothing. Take a guided tour,  or stroll around by yourself,  checking out such attractions as “The Bee House,’’ “The Syrup Shop’’ and “The Ministry Privy.’’ (Okay, I’m focusing on the stranger buildings.) You’ll feel better.


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L-R Nick Mattiello, Wolf Kennedy and Joe Bevilacqua, Jr.

The Britt Trial: Back to the Future

The complicated,  and, I’m sure to many people, boring, if important, the trial involving money-laundering charges against political operative Jeffrey Britt got me to watch a GoLocal video on the best-known character in the case – Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. The seedy situation centers on his 2016 campaign for re-election, which he very narrowly and controversially won.


As the video relates, Mr. Mattiello was friends with Joseph Bevilacqua Jr., the son of Joseph Bevilacqua, the late ousted state Supreme Court chief justice who was in bed with the Raymond Patriarca unit of the Mafia. Mr. Mattiello was also pals with Charles “The Ghost’’ Kennedy, another mobster. Not comforting information about someone said to be the most powerful person in his tiny state.


Hearing this took me back to the first time I lived in Rhode Island, in the late ‘ 70s, when the Patriarca mob, based in Providence, was still in force, and everybody seemed to be making mob jokes, some of which I had heard while, just before, as a resident of a Brooklyn neighborhood said to be a favorite of Mafia middle management.


So, as William Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’’


Jeffrey Britt himself, now, of course, a resident of Florida, where people like him so often domicile themselves (a “sunny place for shady people’’), is a curious character, not least because of his bizarre muscle-bound appearance, which screams bodybuilding and, well, maybe some bio-chemical helpers.


Another interesting character in the case is Shawna Lawton, who briefly ran in the GOP primary race in the Speaker’s rather conservative district in 2016 but was defeated by the very smart and interesting Steven Frias, who then narrowly lost to Mr. Mattiello that year. Ms. Lawton is another of those anti-vaxxer Republicans who defy science and in so doing put the health of the public at risk. I wish they would all move to, say, Baffin Island, with QAnon sidekicks.


To see the GoLocal movie, please hit this link:



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Amazon warehouse

Break ‘Em Up!

As a just-released congressional report reminds us,  Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple engage in rapacious monopolistic practices that have reduced  U.S. technological innovation, slowed new-business creation and given the behemoths excessive pricing and political power. Each of them should be broken up into smaller companies.


Such excessively powerful corporations tend to arise in times following the development of new technologies. Consider what happened with the railroad, oil, steel and electric and telephone industries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Eventually, they had to be reined in with antitrust laws and regulations.  The virtually uncontrolled rise of Big Tech since the 1990s presents a similar situation.


Because of big corporations’ vast lobbying power in the increasingly money-soaked Washington political eco-system, it’s been harder and harder to address the economic threats, and damage to democracy, posed by the vast power of such huge enterprises. Indeed, for 40 years, with a couple of exceptions (e.g., a Microsoft case) the antitrust laws have barely been used. It’s past time to dust them off. Regarding  “political threats,’’ the worst is from Facebook, which all too often is a cesspool of misinformation and disinformation put out by political crooks, domestic and foreign, and by people who are simply cranks.



Brave Tree Huggers for Hire

We had to take a tree down last Tuesday because it was threatening to come crashing onto our house and our neighbor’s in a tropical storm, especially because it was to the south of our houses and the highest winds around here in tropical storms are from the southerly quadrant.  The skill, and, well, fortitude, of the people who did this obviously dangerous work, especially in wielding a chain saw while tied to the upper part of the tall maple, was impressive.


I  thanked these guys in English and Spanish. I’m guessing they were from Central America.


As it turned out,  the very next day, a wild storm swept through with little warning and took down most of another tree. Huge branches landed in our neighbor’s driveway and our backyard. As the old joke goes: “We plan. God laughs.”


We called back this fine crew.


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More IRS Agents, Please

Given yawning federal deficits and scary national debt, the health-care demands of an aging population and innumerable other issues, federal tax rates must eventually be raised from their current low levels. But they’d have to be raised less for most of us if the government would finally make a concerted effort to go after the many mega-rich tax cheats who have been virtually immune from investigation and prosecution in the past couple of decades. How about actually enforcing the tax laws?


Instead, the IRS has gone after the easier pickings of the poor and middle class, which don’t have the armies of accountants and tax lawyers that protect the rich. (Some of these advisers are as corrupt as their clients.)


Hiring many more, and better forensically trained, IRS agents, especially those expert in tax evasion and fraud, would be a boon for America, providing hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for government services.



Greek fire

Journalist and lawyer James H. Barron, of Newton, Mass., has written an exciting, deeply researched tale of international and national corruption and intrigue in this biography of a Greek man whose life story reads like one of the most exciting and mysterious of the 20th Century.


The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate adds to the record of corruption of Richard Nixon, though his regime never reached  the toxicity of the current orange cloud that threatens to stifle American democracy. The title refers to how the nasty Greek junta in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s sent money into Nixon’s campaign coffers in payment for its support of that often brutal dictatorship.


The enigmatic Mr.  Demetracopoulos (1928-2016),  a resistance fighter against the Nazis, a journalist, Wall Street consultant, pro-democracy activist and God know what else (some alleged he was a spy), lived a turbulent life at the center of some of the 20th Century’s most ferocious times. Mr. Barron’s book is an addictive way to read about them.

Robert Whitcomb's weekly examination of everything that is important. Only Whitcomb offers such a collection of insights on the global and local issues that matter.


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