Monthly Archives: November 2007

City Hall — Larry’s Kingdom Come


Larry’s Kingdom Come

Mayor Langford starts his tenure with a bang.

November 29, 2007

On inauguration day, it soon became clear that the new mayor wasn’t kidding when he repeatedly opined during his campaign that what Birmingham needs a “crazy man” to run the city. After Alabama Congressman Artur Davis saluted Birmingham because “a city that lives on a hill can never be hidden,” Larry Langford took the microphone to address several hundred people gathered at Boutwell Auditorium on November 13 for his mayoral swearing-in ceremony.

Langford’s theatrics were on display for the constituency that voted him into office without a runoff in a field of nine candidates. (During the inaugural speech he boasted that he could have beaten 40 because “If God be for you, who can be against you?”) As he addressed the crowd, a Hispanic interpreter desperately tried to decipher Langford’s every sentence; the new mayor’s Baptist preacher oratory and the interpreter’s frantic Spanish frequently collided.

“We pay $120 for a pair of sneakers for a 12-year-old. They can’t jump any higher with a $20 pair than with a $100 pair. . . . When was the last time Tommy Hilfiger was at your house?” —Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford

Langford choked down sobs as he told the crowd about a woman dying of cancer in Calera whose final requests included meeting the new mayor—a wish Langford was more than happy to oblige. He warned the crowd, “If in the next few minutes I say something you do not like, I want you to know that in my heart I do not care! . . . I’m not coming out to patch your streets. We are coming out to rebuild your community.” He acknowledged that Birmingham is currently losing 5.6 percent of its population yearly. “If we [the city] were a patient in the hospital, they would put us in intensive care,” he said. Regarding crime, Langford urged parents to raise their children with more discipline: “I cannot hire enough police to keep us from killing each other . . . It’s nothing that a good ol’ fashion butt-whipping [won't solve].” A man in the crowd yelled approval: “Larry ain’t playin’!”

Langford derided city residents, asking, “When did we lose our mind? We pay $120 for a pair of sneakers for a 12-year-old. They can’t jump any higher with a $20 pair than with a $100 pair. . . . When was the last time Tommy Hilfiger was at your house?” The crowd responded enthusiastically, shouting, “Amen!” Langford was on a roll: “Our children are direct carbon copies of us . . . I don’t want to deal with no 50-year-old teenagers!” He added that he would “not tell the city or council how to set the table without bringing something to the table.” Another supporter loudly sighed, “Larry’s crazy!”

• • •

On November 19, the Birmingham City Council met with the new mayor to dissect his big spending plans for improving the city. Langford has asked for a 100 percent increase in business license fees and another 1 percent boost in sales tax (increasing it to 10 percent) to raise a projected $72 million to finance a domed stadium, the transit system, economic improvement, street and sidewalk refurbishment, police and fire department upgrades, and a student scholarship program. A separately proposed $7 million expenditure would be used for the scholarship program as well as purchasing laptop computers for city schools. It’s the additional $7 million request on which the council was taking an “in-concept, in-theory” advisory vote (as described by Council President Carole Smitherman) on this particular afternoon. The vote was not binding. Councilors Carol Duncan, Steven Hoyt, Miriam Witherspoon, and Maxine Parker spoke enthusiastically in favor of moving ahead with Langford’s ideas.

Langford was more subdued at the November 19 meeting than he was at his inaugural, but not by much. He addressed councilors (all but Joel Montgomery were present): “Just once in this community I want to see somebody say something positive about Birmingham without the ‘buts,’ the ‘ands,’ and the ‘conjunctions’ [added] to it. We keep buying into people who are painting this city with a broad brush. . . . Yes, we have a crime problem in this community and we will address it. Let me just be straight up about it. Black-on-black crime in this community: we have to speak out on it as you have been doing, only with a louder voice. We’ve got to get into our churches and get the faith-based communities involved in this deal. Because if we don’t do this quickly, we are going to run the risk of being the only race of people in the history of civilization to kill itself off.”

Langford believes that scholarships are a first step to avoiding the picture of impending doom he had just painted. “When you put scholarships in these children’s hands, now they’ve got something to say ‘yes’ to. We keep telling them to just say ‘no.’ Give them something to say ‘yes’ to. Now those Mommas and Daddies are gonna have to read and [be] with their children because the light at the end of the tunnel won’t be a train coming to run over them!”

As a sign of support for fighting crime, Langford had already ordered that mayoral staff cars be turned over to the police department. “I have pulled in every car that’s on the mayor’s staff,” Langford said. “I’ve never used a city car, I will never use a city car. I want my own car. I want to be able to go and come as I please without somebody following me and saying, ‘Oh, you stopped off at T’s.’ If I wanna stop at T’s, I’ll stop at T’s.”

Langford was appalled that police officers are riding one per vehicle. “Tell me why you would send a single police officer into a crime hot spot by himself,” he demanded. “We have narrowed these little beats down so small that it requires taking the officers and splitting them apart and buying twice as many cars as you need rather than giving them a defined beat area and put two officers in the car, for the officers’ protection as well as for the protection of the crook.” Langford said that he personally would not drive into some of the crime areas if he were a lone policeman. “That’s why it’s taken 35 or over 40 minutes for them to answer some of these calls,” he observed. “They’re scared!”

Councilor Valerie Abbott said that she needs more information about Langford’s proposals, whereas Councilor Roderick Royal expressed concern that small businesses will not be able to afford the proposed doubling of the business license fee. Councilor Duncan said that she had been talking to residents and independent business owners in her district and has found few objections to Langford’s notions. Duncan added, “Education? The laptops and funding the schools? I’ve been in here six years, I think we’ve given them what, about $40 million trying to keep them from going belly-up! $7 million sounds like a bargain to me.”

“You can’t be against laptops and you can’t be against giving school scholarships,” Councilor Royal said outside the council chambers. “[But] I was in the army and you don’t make major moves in the army, as an army officer, without an op order. It’s a five-paragraph kind of thing. And that’s what’s happening today. You have a mission that you’re going on, but there is no op order. There is no command and control, in my opinion. There is no objective. . . . Yeah, okay, you want to build a dome, those kind of things, yes, you have goals but how do you get there?”

#147;I couldn’t be happier. It made this whole campaign worthwhile,” Langford said of the council’s reaction to his proposals during a press gathering after the meeting. When asked to comment on the morning headlines that Birmingham is now the sixth most dangerous city in America, the mayor replied, “To deny the numbers, you can’t do it. It is what it is. . . . That’s why I was pushing today for scholarships and for improved street lighting and improve the police department and in talking about economic development. You’ve got to give people hope right now. That’s what’s lacking in this community.” Langford elaborated on the computers for schoolchildren. “These are exceptional computers! For those who say, ‘Well, it’s a computer, but . . .’ Where’s your 15,000 computers? If you don’t like this 15,000, give us 15,000. Let’s see if you’ve got something to say other than just lip service.” Langford added that he is sick of critics who offer no help. “We’re gonna go ahead, we’re gonna move forward, we’re gonna help our children, we’re gonna do the things we have to do. And this council is on board and I love it! It is what it is!”

At the next day’s weekly City Council meeting—Langford’s first—he was anointed by the pastor from Council President Smitherman’s church, More Than Conquerors Faith Church. The ceremony took nearly 10 minutes. The council later set up public hearings for the following week to hear citizens’ feedback on the mayor’s proposals. &

Free Agent


Free Agent

Wernher von Braun’s journey from Nazi scientist to U.S. hero.

November 01, 2007

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

By Michael J. Neufeld

Dr. Wernher von Braun, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, points to a television screen in the Saturn blockhouse at Cape Kennedy on February 16, 1965. The screen showed the Saturn I vehicle carrying the Pegasus satellite into orbit. (click for larger version)


Knopf; 608 pages; $35.

The story of Wernher von Braun (pronounced “brown”) is the curious adventure of a German-turned-American hero who transformed fantasies of outer-space voyage into realities. However, that story is framed by the often blurred boundaries of good and evil. Despised by some as the Nazi engineer primarily responsible for the V-2 rockets that killed 7,000—mostly in London and Antwerp near the end of World War II—von Braun followed whatever route was available to fulfill his childhood aspirations of space flight. He had dreamed of men one day flying to the Moon and finally realized his ambitions with the development of the Saturn V rocket that launched astronauts into lunar orbit in 1968.

Searching for von Braun’s soul, which is embedded in a history haunted by the Third Reich, author Michael Neufeld has penned a brutally honest, in-depth biography. It chronicles the life of a pioneering rocketeer and one-time Nazi SS officer who became an icon by seducing the American public (thanks to Walt Disney) with notions of space exploration.

Von Braun’s harshest critics insist that he was guilty of war crimes, not only for his primary role in creating the V-2 ballistic missile that intimidated Europe but also because he used prisoners of war laboring in deplorable conditions to build the weapons. More than 20,000 POWs enslaved indirectly under von Braun died at the Mittelwerk rocket facility and its Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. The underground rocket factory where prisoners lived and worked was a maze of cold, damp, and poorly lit tunnels infested with excrement, lice, and fleas. Prisoners wore rags, and toilets were large metal oil drums cut in half and never cleaned. Disease and malnourishment were rampant, and POWs dropped dead at a rate of 20 per day.

To his defenders, von Braun is a victim of Adolf Hitler’s oppressive authority, a serf of sorts who had no options other than to bow to the Führer’s commands. According to Neufeld, von Braun’s own words in a 1950 New Yorker profile reveal the engineer’s mercenary nature. One afternoon, during a gathering of his amateur rocket club in the early 1930s, a black sedan drove up carrying three German military personnel who made von Braun’s group an offer they could not refuse. Von Braun recalls: “They were in mufti [civilian clothes], but mufti or not, it was the Army . . . That was the beginning. The Versailles Treaty [which disarmed Germany after World War I] hadn’t placed any restrictions on rockets, and the Army was desperate to get back on its feet. We didn’t care much about that, one way or the other, but we needed money, and the Army seemed willing to help us. In 1932, the idea of war seemed to us an absurdity. The Nazis weren’t yet in power. We felt no moral scruples about the possible future use of our brainchild. We were interested solely in exploring outer space. It was simply a question of how the golden cow could be milked most successfully.”

Von Braun claimed no knowledge of the Nazi extermination of Jews. In the 1960s, he told his good friend, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey), “I never knew what was happening in the concentration camps. But I suspected it, and in my position I could have found out. I didn’t and I despise myself for it.” Commenting on the confession to Clarke, Neufeld is skeptical about von Braun’s defense: “Knowing what we know now about his direct encounter with SS prisoners starting in mid-1943, the first sentence of his statement could be interpreted as a bald-faced lie.” Quoting historian Ian Kershaw, Neufeld adds, “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but was paved with indifference.”

In his sworn affidavit to the U.S. Army in 1947, von Braun said that he was forced to join the National Socialist Party in 1939. In actuality, he had joined the Nazi Party in 1937, though he was no doubt pressured to do so.

Later in life, von Braun often bolstered his claim that he was not a true Nazi by telling of his and a few associates’ arrest by the Gestapo in 1944. The rocket engineer was a “heavy social drinker.” One night he and his intoxicated comrades had talked loudly at a party about the war not going well, wishing that their rocket development could be used to build spaceships instead of weapons. They were arrested within days. Problems that delayed final production of the V-2 had prompted speculation that perhaps von Braun had actually been arrested for suspected sabotage. There was even some talk that he and the others might be executed. They were freed after a couple of weeks, because Hitler desperately needed them to finish the V-2. Von Braun knew he had to produce a successful rocket quickly or else, which forced him to place an order for more POW slave labor at the Mittelwerk. (Peenemünde had been the first principal rocket factory before it was bombed by the British in 1943.)

During his surrender to U.S. Allies in 1945, von Braun exhibited the same charisma, self-confidence, and luminary quality that would later charm the American public. He and his fellow engineers were hiding out in a ski resort in the mountains on the German-Austrian border at war’s end, trying to decide what to do. Two days after Hitler’s suicide, they drove to an Allied-occupied Austrian town to turn themselves in, where von Braun boasted to his captors that he was the “founder and guiding spirit” of the Peenemünde rocket facility, all the while acting like a dignitary.

“One member of the 44th [Infantry Division, to which von Braun surrendered] later said that ‘[von Braun] treated our soldiers with the affable condescension of a visiting congressman,’” writes Neufeld, adding that von Braun posed “for endless pictures with individual GIs, in which he beamed, shook hands, pointed inquiringly at [American soldiers’] medals and otherwise conducted himself as a celebrity rather than a prisoner.” Von Braun even bragged to a reporter for the Beachhead News “that if he had been given two more years, the V-2 bomb he invented could have won the war for Germany.”

• • •
In America, von Braun soon became frustrated that he could not interest the U.S. government in space travel. His purpose in being brought to the United States was to develop missiles as weapons. Von Braun decided he would have to personally get the American public excited about space flight, prompting him to write a novel called Mars Project that he tried to get published in 1950. The book was rejected by 18 publishing companies because it was too technical and featured little storyline. One publisher said that all the novel was good for was to “build a rocket ship.” Eventually, a publisher in West Germany became interested after it was rewritten as a drama by a former Nazi propaganda writer.

The publication of space exploration articles in the early 1950s by von Braun for Collier’s magazine (illustrated with futuristic renderings of rockets) caught the public’s attention. This led Walt Disney to ask von Braun in 1954 to appear on Disney’s ABC network television show “Man in Space.” The rocketeer’s narration of a segment in 1955 was the first time that America heard his voice. Von Braun and a couple of German rocket engineers were prominently featured in the series, but the show’s producers questioned if it was wise for the program to be dominated by German accents. “The Disney crew had in fact discussed whether it was a problem that all three experts were German. But their very accents fit an American cliché of scientific gravity, and as for the Nazi issue, Walt Disney was the quintessential conservative, Midwestern middle American and seems to have given it little thought.”

One month after the first broadcast of “Man in Space,” von Braun legally became an American citizen in Birmingham, along with a hundred of his German colleagues and their spouses. Von Braun told the press gathered for the occasion, “This is the happiest and most significant day of my life . . . Somehow we sensed that the secret of rocketry should only get into the hands of people who read the Bible.” However, to his parents he reported, “It was a terrible circus, with film crews, television, press people and the usual misquotations.”

Profiles in Time and the West German equivalent Der Spiegel did not mention von Braun’s Nazi party membership. Reporters did not have a clue. Instead, a film about his life that von Braun agreed to participate in began the unraveling of his past. I Aim at the Stars began filming in 1959. Von Braun was paid $24,000, and Columbia Pictures kicked in another $25,000 plus 7% of the net profits. With his newfound wealth, he traded in his American car for a Mercedes-Benz. The movie was initially predicated on the image of von Braun as “a space dreamer persecuted by the Nazis and given a second chance by the United States,” though the script was later changed to portray him more accurately as striking a Faustian bargain to go into space. Still, the film was considered a whitewash job. Ironically, the screenwriter was a 1933 refugee from the Nazis who introduced fiction into the script to make the story palatable for an American audience.

At the Munich premier of the film, three unarmed tactical nuclear missiles were on display in front of the theater. U.S. military brass attended in full uniform. Ban-the-bomb demonstrators were also on hand. At a press conference, von Braun answered British critics of his American success: “I have very deep and sincere regret for the victims of the V-2 rockets, but there were victims on both sides . . . A war is a war, and when my country is at war, my duty is to help win that war.” The film was panned and poorly attended. Antwerp, which suffered more V-2 rocket hits than London, banned the movie. Comic Mort Sahl coined the greatest putdown of von Braun’s career when he quipped that I Aim at the Stars should have been subtitled But Sometimes I Hit London.

A year after NASA was created, in 1958, von Braun was appointed chief of the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, and was no longer working for the army. Pressure was applied by NASA on von Braun to hire more black engineers and technicians, but many were reluctant to move to Alabama at that time. Von Braun did not appear eager to get involved when Governor George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door to prevent a black student from registering at the University of Alabama, yet he publicly condemned segregation when a black MSFC employee enrolled without incident at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Not long afterward, Governor Wallace visited MSFC and witnessed a rocket test. Von Braun addressed an audience that included the governor, and stressed that it was imperative that Alabama move on from its segregationist past. After the speech, he chatted with Wallace and asked the governor if he wanted to be the first person on the Moon. Wallace replied, “Well, better not. You fellows might not bring me back.” &