Steve Israel

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Former U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, is a political novelist and CNN contributor. He is currently the Chair of the Global Institute at Long Island University. His next book, "Big Guns," will be released in April.

Thanks And No Thanks This Holiday Season

It’s that time of year when sappy columnists remind us what we should be thankful for.

Ex-U.S. Rep. Steve Israel.

I’m no fan of those columns. I view the world as a messy, volatile, challenging and unpredictable place. But under the muck, there are countless jewels to be thankful for.

My most meaningful holiday? I was returning home from a visit to Afghanistan aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise in the middle of the Persian Gulf. I boarded around Thanksgiving and dined with the carrier’s commander, Ron Horton, who, I recall, was from Southold. I asked him about the crew’s morale.

“These people are professionals,” he said. “They’re doing their job. They don’t ask for much, but they do need to know that they have support back home.”

Looking around that room gave me the deepest sense of thanks I’d had since my children were born. The crew came from every conceivable background. What they had in common was not being with their families on Thanksgiving and being proud to protect those families.

Now we enter another holiday season, where brave men and women sit on ships and fly planes and huddle in secret places far from home. They’re the 1 percent that defends the rest of us.

There are different ways to thank them. Stickers that say, “Support Our Troops” are nice, but we can do better. Saying “thank you for your service” is appreciated, but requires little effort. They truly don’t receive the thanks they deserve.

We want them to do more while paying lower taxes to support them. We want them to fight our battles but many support President Trump’s State Department budget cuts for diplomacy that might prevent those battles. We’ve become disengaged from understanding the battles as news analysis morphs into opinion.

This holiday season, many will bask in the warmth of home fireplaces, surrounded by loved ones. I think of another fireplace, lit in the White House on Dec. 9, 1941. Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR gave a fireside chat preparing Americans for a difficult war. Today, that speech might be considered political malpractice:

“I was about to add that ahead there lies sacrifice for all of us,” he said. “But it is not correct to use that word. The United States does not consider it a sacrifice to do all one can, to give one’s best to our nation, when the nation is fighting for its existence and its future life.

“It is not a sacrifice for any man, old or young, to be in the Army or the Navy of the United States,” he continued. “Rather it is a privilege. It is not a sacrifice for the industrialist or the wage earner, the farmer or the shopkeeper, the trainmen or the doctor, to pay more taxes, to buy more bonds, to forego extra profits, to work longer or harder at the task for which he is best fitted. Rather it is a privilege. It is not a sacrifice to do without many things to which we are accustomed if the national defense calls for doing without it.”

This holiday season, check on a military family. Contribute to a veteran’s organization. Visit the Northport Veterans Hospital. If you’re a builder, donate time and resources to renovate an American Legion or VFW Post.

Don’t just say “thank you.” Act on it.

Time, Once Again, To Get To Work

Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong working at an equipment storage area on the lunar module.

Hurricanes unprecedented in their force tearing up the South. 

Ex-U.S. Rep. Steve Israel.

Unrelenting wildfires eating up Northern California.

Yet another gun massacre, this time in Nevada with a death toll topping the last one, and the one before that.

Our populace has seemingly more bitterly divided than ever before between pockets of deep reds and staunch blues.

For many, this is a dark time. Some fear this is the darkest time we have ever faced.

I’ve always said I wasn’t the smartest member of Congress, but I do believe I am the biggest student of history. And if history has proven anything, it’s that darkness can breed brilliance and resilience.

Darkness is when we get to work.

Want proof? Just look at Route 110, a blaze of pavement stretching from Huntington to Babylon, cutting a swath in Long Island’s grand commercial canyon.

Before World War II, the Route 110 corridor was mostly potato fields and pumpkin farms. And in the shock of the Pearl Harbor attack, a unique threat to our way of life, some Americans feared that this would be the darkest time we would ever experience.

But that generation of Americans turned farmland into factories and became the backbone of America’s middle class, the defenders of liberty around the world. They transformed those potato fields and pumpkin farms into the defense capital of America, with industrial plants, engineering companies, an airport and universities.

That generation crossed oceans, stormed beaches, liberated concentration camps, freed Europe, raced to the Pacific and won the war.

And when the war was over, they came back to a new job, that of turning Long Island into America’s greatest suburb.

And then we faced a new threat, symbolized by the staccato beeping of Sputnik overhead. Many Americans feared that this would be the darkest time we have ever had.

I’m reminded of the famous words by President John F. Kennedy at Rice University in 1962.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

We were emboldened by the challenge. We looked across the black expanse of space and said, “We can go there, too.”

NASA did not land a man on moon, Long Islanders and the Long Island aerospace industry landed a man on the moon. Leaders like Leroy Grumman landed man on the moon, and we transformed Long Island from the defense capital of America to the aerospace capitol of America.

Kennedy’s words spurred a nation into action. They encouraged Americans to band together to do what was thought to be impossible.

Then, as now, the lesson is unchanged. We must not succumb to the darkness, but reach out to one another and get to work.

That’s what Long Islanders do.

Democracy on Wry, Hold The Mayo

Every civilization has iconic places where leaders converge and history turns. Yalta, where FDR, Churchill and Stalin met. Reykjavik, where Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to major arms control. Appomattox, where Grant and Lee ended the Civil War.

And Long Island diners. 

Ex-U.S. Rep. Steve Israel.

In nearly 25 years of elected life, every consequential political meeting I’ve ever had was in a local diner. Meetings to discuss politics, to delve into issues, to avoid conflict.

In 2000, I was wrestling with a decision to run for Congress. I was a Huntington Town Councilman at the time and it looked like a crowded congressional primary field. One of my potential opponents called me for a “secret meeting” at a local diner. We arrived separately on a cold, drizzly day. The diner was packed with constituents, business leaders, and waiters and waitresses adroitly juggling massive platters of deluxe burgers, towering sandwiches and vats of Cobb salads.

Not a good place for a secret summit.

He suggested that we return to the parking lot, and meet in my car. We sat for an hour. The combination of our political hot air and the chill outside produced foggy windows and some curious stares.

It was, well, uncomfortable.

But we resolved our differences and I went on to run. I celebrated by walking into the diner and ordering a turkey club sandwich. To go.

After Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin’s election to Congress, he suggested that Democrats weren’t sufficiently supportive of Israel. Proud of my own outspoken leadership and perfect record on US-Israel relations, I criticized his comments.

We decided to resolve our spat at what was called the Manichevitz Summit – at a diner. In an act of supreme bipartisanship, we split the bill.

When my campaign needed television commercials, I insisted that we shoot them in diners. In a district as diverse as Whitestone and Smithtown, the one thing everybody could recognize was a diner.

More important, diners were the one place in my sprawling district that I’d hear what my constituents really thought.

There’s something about a deluxe hamburger platter that fuels people’s willingness to render opinions. I didn’t need a poll to tell me voters’ moods. Just a table at any diner.

In most cases, I’d walk into a diner to friendly waves. Often, someone would approach my table and say: “Mr. Israel, I hate to interrupt your meal, but…” Then they’d help themselves to a seat, and in one case, my fries.

Long Island diners are citadels of free speech, priceless democracy and inexpensive meals. They are places where income inequality is leveled. You can be a CEO or union plumber, but you know the best value is in that shiny encyclopedic menu that can sprain your wrist when lifted.

You may be reading this at a diner. If you are, do me a favor. Give your waiter or waitress a nice tip. They’re the hardest workers I know. And put up with far more than this Congressman did.

Israel: Life After Congress? Better Pizza

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. (Photo by DAVID ILIFF)

Growing up in Levittown, I had three dreams: play for the Mets, write novels and be a congressman. Two out of three ain’t bad. 

Ex-U.S. Rep. Steve Israel.

I’m now writing satirical novels on politics (shameless plug: “The Global War on Morris” was published in 2015 and “Big Guns” will be released next April). I also had the extraordinary honor of representing Long Island in Congress for 16 years.

Since leaving, I spend time writing, chairing the Global Institute at LIU and appearing on CNN, among other things. Almost everywhere I go, I’m asked: “Do you miss Washington?”

Here’s what I don’t miss:

– Sitting on the tarmac at Reagan National Airport as the pilot announces a groundstop at LaGuardia, resulting in long delays.

– Rush hour traffic at LaGuardia when I finally land.

– Partisan bickering by members of Congress who believe that their views are absolute moral truths.

-Hypocrisy by members of Congress who condemn an action by one party only to defend the same action by the other. Example: the same Republicans who frothed at President Obama’s vacation now fawn on President Trump’s.

– Sitting in a cubicle for hours at a time making fundraising calls and eating soggy egg rolls at PAC cocktail parties.

– Angry calls from specific areas of the country I never represented. During the frenzy on Obamacare, I was tempted to record this message: “Thank you for calling Congressman Israel’s office. To call me a socialist, press 1. To threaten my life, press 2. For all other calls press 3. To repeat this message in Spanish…” 

Here’s what I do miss:

– Helping veterans. My proudest congressional achievement was securing nearly $9 million dollars in retroactive payment for our community’s veterans. I miss delivering those checks and looking into their eyes as they told me their faith in government was restored.

– The quiet collegiality in Congress that you don’t hear about. There’s an exterior balcony right off the House Floor where Democrats and Republicans with different views speak civilly and respectfully about their lives. Congress often resembles an ocean storm: frothy and turbulent on the surface, but much more peaceful the deeper you go.

– The magnificent history of the Capitol. I never pretended to be the smartest member of Congress – though if you listened to some of my colleagues, you’d know that the competition wasn’t that stiff – but I considered myself it’s most passionate student of history. I was often asked to lead VIP tours of the Capitol. My favorite included four players for my beloved Mets, who were in town against the Nationals. I’ve been in the Oval Office with presidents, I’ve met kings, queens and movie stars. But walking around the Capitol with Major League Baseball players was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

– Finally, I’ll miss visiting our troops in dangerous places around the world. In 16 years in Congress I visited Iraq and Afghanistan 13 times. I profoundly believed that if I’d vote to send Americans into dangerous places, I’d better be willing to check on them in those same places.

At the end of long weeks in Washington, I loved coming home to Long Island for my family, the pizza (pizza isn’t pizza in DC) and the people. Now I’m home for good, but that doesn’t mean that politics has completely escaped me.

Believe it or not, the best advice that I received as I contemplated leaving Congress was from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. I don’t agree with Newt on many issues – if any – but we became friendly over the years, bound mostly as fellow writers.

He told me: “The mistake that guys like you and me often make is thinking that you have to be elected in order to make a difference. The fact is that relieved of the burdens of office, you can make an even bigger difference.”

Now, I no longer need to leave Long Island every week to continue making a difference on the issues that I care so deeply about. Now, I can debate issues in the world’s most deliberative democracy: the Long Island diner.

Israel chairs the Global Institute at LIU. His next book, “Big Guns,” will be published in April and can be ordered at www.repsteveisrael.com.