WELCOME to the debut of “The Truth Is!”, a blog of reporting and commentary that aims to be informative, thoughtful and provocative. At least initially, the blog will have a strong heartland flavor by virtue of the connection of a number of us to Cowles family journalism. I am former editor of the Des Moines Register’s opinion pages. Another contributor, Michael Gartner, is former editor of the paper; he later served as president of NBC News. Another former Register editor who has agreed to contribute, Geneva Overholser, is director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg school of journalism. Followers of the blog will have access also to the work of Herbert Strentz of Des Moines, a close Register and other newspaper watcher who once headed Drake University’s journalism school. Bill Leonard, a longtime Register editorial writer, will add insights.

“The Truth Is!” will be supervised by my daughter, Marcia Wolff, a communications lawyer for 20 years with Arnold and Porter (Washington, D.C.). Invaluable technical assistance in assembling and maintaining the blog is provided by my grandsons Julian Cranberg, a college first-year, and Daniel Wolff, a high school senior.

If you detect a whiff of nepotism in this operation, so be it. All of it is strictly a labor of love. —Gil Cranberg

Sunday, August 23, 2015


The recent death of an American hero, Dr. Frances Kelsey, like the deaths of most real heroes, is cause for both joy and lament. Joy because such heroes reflect our society at its best; lament because of the contrast between their heroics and the shortcomings of others that too often haunt us.

Dr. Kelsey was one of those folks routinely damned by those who want to be the next U.S. president. She was a bureaucrat — you know, a government employee who gets in the way of the marketplace and free enterprise and creating jobs.

Sure enough, Dr. Kelsey cost drug manufacturer Richardson-Merrell millions of dollars and cost the U.S. countless jobs. In the early 1960s she had questions about a drug introduced in Germany in1957 and then available in 46 nations around the world; that was Merrell’s Kevadon, whose generic name was thalidomide.

Despite pressure from the pharmaceutical industry and free-market ideologues, she blocked thalidomide from a hasty entrance into the U.S. market. After griping about obstructionist government regulators, in 1962 Merrell withdrew its application for marketing Kevadon in the U.S. Evidence of the birth defects it caused was overwhelming — not in the way of tests in government labs, but in the way of children born with flipper-like limbs and other birth defects. It’s estimated that at least 10,000 babies, whose mothers had taken the drug, were born with deformities. 17 such births were recorded in the U.S. by mothers who apparently got the drug in Canada. Most of the estimated 100,000 women who took the drug to combat morning sickness suffered miscarriages. Estimates are that 5,000 to 6,000 thalidomide victims survive today. (In recent years, thalidomide has been found to be helpful in treating some forms of cancer and leprosy.)

Dr. Kelsey was new to her drug-approval post in the Food and Drug Administration in 1960 when assigned to review and expected by many to routinely approve thalidomide. Fortunately, however, for some 30 years she had already been a researcher dealing with related drugs and their effects. (She got her first research job — before government regulators would introduce equal employment opportunities for women — because the fellow who hired her assumed Frances was a man.)

At the FDA, she saw some red flags about thalidomide as did some of her colleagues. Her experience and her courage served us well — even though the likes of her are fodder for politicians who draw laughs when they amuse their supporters with the line “I’m from the government; I’m here to help you.”

Dr. Kelsey worked in government into her 90s and died at 101, on Aug. 7. Some commentaries about her noted that at the same time that Dr. Kelsey was blocking thalidomide, another person, a former federal employee in the U.S. Fish and WildLife Service, was about to publish a book, “Silent Spring”, which led to the banning of DDT. She, of course, was Rachel Carson, who died in 1962 at 57.

So, the work of Kelsey and Carson merits praise — Kelsey-and-Carson or Carson-and-Kelsey has a nice ring to it as a name for a public-interest firm, doesn’t it? But KC Inc. is cause for lament, too. After all, they were scientists, the kind of people whose work is scorned nowadays by deniers of climate change, foes of vaccination, opponents of the teaching of evolution or those, like Iowa’s governor and the Farm Bureau, who ignore calls for sound public policy to combat pollution of Iowa waterways.

Curious choice, isn’t it? Rely on government regulators, or let private interests and political game playing drive public policy?

Sounds clear cut. But often enough the marketplace and sound public policy find something in common. When it comes to climate change, for example, the marketplace may recognize that scoffing at scientific findings is simply bad business. At least we can hope such awareness will ultimately drive government decision making.

When push comes to shove, however, as it does with water pollution in Iowa, folks like Carson and Kelsey are cause for joy, and the governor and Farm Bureau cause for lament. (Even if my “American” hero Dr. Kelsey was born in Canada and got dual citizenship in 1950 so she could continue to practice medicine here!)

Friday, August 7, 2015


If you have suffered an election for more than four years, cease all electoral activity and seek help immediately. You may be suffering from Electile Dysfunction, a malady that afflicts large numbers of people and creates havoc for marital relations because of what it does for intercourse about anything other than presidential candidates. Electile Dysfunction is exacerbated by election analysts in urgent need of treatment for overactive blather.

Treatment of Electile Dysfunction is difficult given that the best treatment is abstention from ALL political stimuli, which is nearly impossible given the presence of election analysts and consultants.

Americans need to declare an end to the electoral madness! Enough already! Who needs more of Donald Trump and his drivel?

Gilbert Cranberg: JAPAN’S STUPIDITY

I went to war with Japan during WWII and am prepared to do it again given the move it is making to become once more a military power. Japan surrendered, unconditionally, in 1945 after being shown the error of its ways. Now, the Japanese once more want to introduce Japanese troops into foreign combat. That is pure unadulterated stupidity. Japanese people need only look at Nagasaki and Hiroshima to realize the folly of war and of their own past militarism.

I can still hear the thwack of Japanese machine gun bullets inches from my head. Never again do I want to hear that sound. The sound I prefer is the satisfying thwack of a Japanese car door closing.


For a moment, on July 5, I longed for Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election. Then we’d be rid of insidious campaign ads, overblown rhetoric and questionable press coverage. But it dawned on me (1) at my age I should savor each day and not wish time would go faster and (2) on Nov. 9, 2016, the press and political parties will focus on who leads the polls as a 2020 challenger to our new president.

The nonsense is unending.

Speaking of which, did you catch the Des Moines Register’s July 5th two-page spread on the candidates? It featured responses to the question “Which is your favorite color? Red, White or Blue?”

Okay, the real question was “How in your life have you best demonstrated PATRIOTISM?”

For a person concerned with questions, language and patriotism, however, there’s not much difference if a question is infantile or ill-conceived.

After all, patriotism — like love — is a matter of living day in and day out and it should defy being linked to a single “best” act. Further, some responses dealt with nationalism, not patriotism, and there is a difference. Beyond that, each candidate was limited to 100 words — the print version of the scorned sound bites of the electronic media or the absurd 140 characters of Twitter.

Futility, silliness and irrelevance, however, are no barriers to today’s political commentary and coverage.

If you want substance, consider how George Orwell (1903-1950) distinguished between nationalism and patriotism in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism:”

“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best…but has no wish to force on other people... Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

Orwell’s distinction is useful because, for one thing, patriots come in all stripes and often disagree about the course to be taken by the nation they all love; nationalists, on the other hand, don’t tolerate any opposition to their flag-waving. Maybe in Congress today, we don’t have so much a lack of civility as a lack of patriotism.

19 GOP and Democratic candidates responded to the Register invitation; George Pataki and Bernie Sanders did not.

Following the maxim “When given a lemon, make lemonade,” what might be gleaned from the Red, White or Blue query?

Given the word limit and the predictable responses, eight candidates focused solely or primarily on those serving in the military. (Jim Webb, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Donald Trump.) Santorum and Trump stood out because Trump “best demonstrated patriotism” by funding a veterans parade with $1 million; Santorum “best demonstrated patriotism” because his son joined the US. Air Force and “I cannot give more to my country than one of my own” — without adding, “as long as I didn’t serve.”

Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, sons of immigrants, “best demonstrated patriotism” by living the American dream.

Service to others, including the most vulnerable, was the theme of Hillary Clinton, Dr. Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Dr. Rand Paul. John Kasich focused on meeting responsibilities as an elected official. Clinton’s and Carson’s comments seemed the most moving, with hers focused on 9/11 responders and Carson saying the Founding Fathers were his “touchstones.”

The two who embraced a patriotism closest to Orwell’s concept were Lincoln Chafee and Martin O’Malley, both longshots for the Democratic nomination.

Oh, when youngsters, Scott Walker and his brother collected money in a mayonnaise jar for an Iowa state flag at the Plainfield, IA, city hall. Relatively speaking, the Walker boys gave the widow’s mite.

But, on balance, the “Red, White or Blue?” approach doesn’t bode well for us.