Alan Bersin Departs & The New York Times Misses the Story

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In 1963 The New York Times began a national edition. As an inveterate reader of newspapers having The Times available in California was exciting (I was then working for the San Francisco Chronicle and living in Marin County).

When the initial national edition failed as a publishing venture, I was disappointed. In truth, it wasn’t much, and nothing compared to the newspaper we now read.

Subsequently, as a press aide to Robert F. Kennedy in the presidential campaign of 1968, and later press secretary to Senator Charles E. Goodell of New York, The Times became a significant part of my life – and thus remains. My feelings about The Times as a newspaper are both a substantive judgment as well as emotional, which I’m not sure I could explain (and besides it’s beyond the purview of this article).

In opinion pieces I’ve written, speeches and radio/TV interviews I’ve given, I have long claimed The New York Times as the world’s greatest newspaper and whatever newspaper that’s number two is a distant number two – whether it’s The Guardian of England, Le Mondeof France, La Repubblica of Italy, De Welt of Germany, The Globe and Mail of Canada, or theWashington Post.

Recently in a sermon I delivered on 9/11 in San Luis Obispo, I repeated my claim about The Times. I did so by reminding the congregation that following 9/11 The Times published the names and photographs of every victim of that terrible, terrible day in American history.

I said by giving the victims of 9/11 names, faces, and stories, The Times performed the greatest single act of public service in American journalism history (and for which The Times was later and justly awarded a Pulitzer Prize).

I have also said I care more about The New York Times than some people who derive their livings from it. While I postulate something I can’t prove, I believe it – and it’s an opinion based upon having known more than a few gentlemen and ladies of The Times.

With that as preface, let me share my story of the story The New York Times missed:

Until the end of December San Diego’s Alan Bersin was commissioner of United States Customs and Border Protection (CPB). As commissioner he headed an agency with 57,000 employees. He was an interim appointment by President Obama but that ended December 31.

The Times did not cover Mr. Bersin’s resignation, nor did it cover the circumstances surrounding his nomination or the Senate’s failure to hold public hearings, beyond an initial inquiry. If the failure by Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, to subsequently consider the nomination, wasn’t a news story, what is?

During the run up to Mr. Bersin’s appointment deadline I decided The Times might benefit by inviting Mr. Bersin to New York for an interview with its editorial board. In that regard I spoke to an assistant to Andrew Rosenthal, the editor of The Times’ editorial page, and followed with a detailed memo November 1 concerning Mr. Bersin.

Here, in part, is what I wrote to Mr. Rosenthal:

“Alan Bersin presently serves as a provisional presidential appointee. Unless the United States Senate confirms him by January 1 his service as commissioner of CBP will be effectively over. I am hardly alone in believing if that happens it will represent a great loss for our country and the future of U.S./ Mexico relations.

“I’m told President Obama is fully committed to Mr. Bersin’s nomination. Senator Schumer of New York has pledged his personal support, as have Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, California’s two U.S. senators. Republican members of the Senate have also pledged their support, should his nomination come to the floor for a vote.

“But a floor vote is the issue, as Senator Baucus and one of his principal aides, have blocked that from happening, and it’s unlikely Mr. Bersin’s nomination will come up for a vote. (How a Senate aide blocks a presidential nomination is a mystery to me.)

“I assure you, Mr. Rosenthal, that if this is Alan Bersin’s dénouement as CBP commissioner, it will be a great loss – for the agency and the United States, as no more qualified individual has served CBP.”

But that was the end of it. I never heard back from Mr. Rosenthal or his assistant. When I wrote about the matter to the public editor of The Times, Arthur Brisbane, I received the same results – as in zero, nothing, nada, other than a standard automatic reply.

Now, in the spirit of the confessional:

I have been a friend of Alan Bersin’s since 1993 when he became U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California. Prior to his confirmation by the U.S. Senate he asked if I would introduce him to San Diego’s African-American and Latino communities. With the help of Dr. George Walker Smith, a prominent Presbyterian clergyman and civic leader, that was accomplished.

Five years later when Bertha Pendleton, the first African-American to head the school district, resigned, Mr. Bersin expressed an interest in succeeding her. He asked again for my support. I was mystified, however, as to why anyone would walk away from being U.S. Attorney, the most powerful position in any political sub-division (the power to prosecute is an absolute power) for the uncertain fate of becoming a big city school superintendent, but that’s what happened.

As superintendent Alan Bersin was a visionary and courageous, but hugely controversial. The leaders of the teachers’ union made him the object of unrelenting and often vicious personal attacks. Indeed, for many in the union he remains Public Enemy Number One. (On several occasions I was asked to speak before the school board on pressing issues effecting public education, I found the public conduct of some union officials appalling.)

As commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mr. Bersin again sought my assistance in establishing what is now the United States/Mexico Border Association of Mayors. It’s the first organization of its kind and it was our created to bring together mayors on both sides of the border, knowing many of them had never met. This association has a chance to greatly benefit U.S./Mexico relations, as the issues they face have a common thread – both north and south.

That said, if you don’t know, Alan Bersin is a Harvard undergraduate, a Yale Law School graduate, and a Rhodes Scholar. He is a deeply committed public servant and his departure from CBP is the nation’s loss. His time was brief but the accomplishments of the agency under his leadership were many. CPB never had a more capable leader.

None of this the readers of the world’s greatest newspaper know because the world’s greatest newspaper did not cover the story – neither Mr. Bersin’s time in office nor the politics that led to his resignation.

In our upside down world the likes of Michelle Bachmann or Herman Cain is deemed worthy of depleting forests and spilling tons of ink, but that Alan Bersin’s departure as head of a critical Federal agency employing 57,000 people, whose work impacts virtually every United States citizen, could go unreported by The New York Times is shameful, shocking, and scandalous.

Fortunately, the secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, fully appreciates Mr. Bersin’s talent and value, which is why his government service is not over (they have known one another since both were U.S. attorneys during the Clinton Administration).

Secretary Napolitano has appointed him assistant secretary for international affairs and chief diplomatic officer. While disappointed by the turn of events at CBP,  he is pleased by his new assignment and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Alan Bersin’s continued public service is good for America, but it does not expunge The Times’ failure to cover him, both in office and the subsequent events that led to his resignation as commission of CBP.