Daniel L. Feldman

Henry Feldman

In General on July 13, 2012 at 10:52 am

My mother obviously influenced me as a politician, although she tried to discourage me from running for office – both of my parents did: they thought the public would be ungrateful for what they knew would be my earnest efforts in the public interest. (In one important respect, they were wrong: the constituency that I ultimately represented for eighteen years, the 45th Assembly District in Brooklyn, remained deeply loyal to me with their votes and their sentiments even when I lost my race for Brooklyn District Attorney in 1989 and for Congress in 1998.)

My father, Henry Feldman, may have influenced me less directly, but with equal impact. In one way, the example he set simultaneously made me a better person and a worse politician: self praise and self-promotion were anathema to him; and even in his business – interior design – he really only played to his toughest audience: himself. He had to know that the product he delivered met the highest standards, whether or not the customers knew or cared and whether or not he profited on the project. In another way, his example only helped: to the extent that I was able to copy his leadership style, I benefited personally and politically. Charming, gentle in manner, and immensely likeable, his personal style enabled him to exercise leadership throughout his life. Born in 1903, he grew to become a shade under five feet tall, and though he was no doubt the shortest basketball player even in a day of relatively short players, he was captain of his fairly successful high school team. Although the fifth of eight children, he founded and directed the company that gave employment to five of them for many decades.

While my mother dominated our dinner table conversation about politics (or anything else), my father’s example must also have helped to shape my views. He ran the “shop,” where cabinet-makers, upholsterers, and drapers in his employ created the furniture he also designed within his overall designs for interior spaces, on principles far removed from the standard business model, although its profits did put my brother and myself and many of my cousins through college. First, though, every employee had to be well compensated. My father and his brothers (his partners) could take what was left; sometimes, there was nothing left. Second, designs were not to be variations on themes: each customer would get a different theme, because art demanded true creativity. Third (according to my mother), “any bum in New York City with a good story could get a handout from Feldman Brothers Incorporated.” Not only was the Shop racially integrated and unionized starting in the 1920s, my uncles themselves – the bosses – continued to carry union cards themselves throughout their careers.

Henry Feldman graduated from Hebrew Technical High School, and took some design courses, at night, at Cooper Union. He strongly believed that government should provide jobs for people who could not otherwise find employment (he loved the Humphrey-Hawkins bill to that effect, which never became law), and should make sure that schoolchildren had enough nutritious food to eat. He rarely expressed views on other political issues, but when he learned about the Schmidt-Feldman bill to require storekeepers to shield prurient pictures on magazine covers from public display, he immediately found a better counterargument, i.e. that since those pictures were the magazines’ publishers’ principal form of advertising, such restriction in fact raised a First Amendment issue (although not a legally dispositive one, or, for me, sufficient on the merits to dissuade me from enacting the bill into law, as we did). His argument – far more astute than the arguments I easily countered on the floor of the Assembly from my Ivy-League-law-school-trained Upper West Side colleagues – came from a man with a high school education, who never evinced the slightest personal interest in such material. Libertarian on behalf of others, he was as straight-laced in his personal behavior as could be imagined.

One April, when I noticed that he had apparently abandoned his annual ritual of smoking a single cigarette, he explained that he “gave it up.” After a doctor prescribed a shot of whiskey at dinner each night for a heart condition (that it eventually turned out he did not have), he drank about a thimbleful each night for a week, at the end of which he disgustedly exclaimed that he simply couldn’t handle “all this drinking.”

This blog is supposed to be about politics, not about my family. Therefore, I will simply say that I still hope someday to be more like him. Limited political success would have been a small price to pay, should I succeed.

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