Cheers, Jeers for Milken and Mighty Bucks

An honor student at Milken Community High School writes:

I am . . . in complete agreement with your article. Changing the name to Milken is telling the students that a criminal who destroyed the American economy is a good role model. . . . None of the parents, students or faculty were given any opportunity to express their opinions or cast a vote about a decision that affects the entire school. However, there have been numerous student and parent protests . . . . Unfortunately, the name has been changed, the check has been cashed, and it does not appear that Senior Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin has any intention of changing his mind . . . .

Unlike some other Milken High students and their parents, this idealistic, forthright young man signed his letter. His mother says she's very proud of her boy--and asked me please not to publish his name or hers.

There is, she told me over the phone, a sense of resignation at Milken High. To voice dissent now is to make a lot of people angry. "It's done. It's over. And we have to make the best of it. And I don't want to sound like a sellout, because I do agree this was a big mistake and an error in judgment."

Her comments, and her son's, are a sample of the emotional and very mixed reaction that has come in since a column Sept. 10 that concerned the renaming of the high school affiliated with the Stephen S. Wise Temple, a gesture inspired by a $5-million donation from the Milken Family Foundation. In keeping with that spirit, I encouraged the school to change the name of its athletic teams from the Wildcats to the Money. What better way to honor the Milkens?

Some students and parents at the school voiced their anger over the name. The Milken name, I mean, not Money. One student, for example, suggested that the athletic uniforms should feature thick black-and-white stripes. But meanwhile, other readers who appreciate the philanthropic deeds and volunteer work of Michael Milken and his family called my column a mean-spirited cheap shot.

The flap at Stephen S. Wise Temple has revealed the differing views people have of Michael Milken, the junk bond king who pleaded guilty to six felonies related to insider trading, went to prison and paid $600 million in civil fines and penalties. If the UCLA Business School were ever to offer a class in Milkenology--after all, it hosted Milken as a lecturer--I would happily donate this correspondence and related press clippings.

At one extreme, there is the teen-ager who, in a burst of hyperbole, describes Milken as the destroyer of the American economy. At the other extreme are the revisionists, including Milken High Principal Bruce Powell, who proffer that Milken was a good and innocent man, a scapegoat railroaded by the media and a politically ambitious prosecutor.

And there are more moderate voices too. Many noted, for example, that the school was renamed to honor the Milken family, not just Michael, for its philanthropy and community involvement. Still, Michael is the family's most famous member, and a source of much of its wealth.

More on point, I think, was a letter written by Michael B. Bennett, principal of Francis Parkman Middle School and treasurer of the Assn. of Jewish Educators, criticizing the "cynicism" of my column.

At Parkman, Bennett writes:

. . . we have worked very closely with Michael Milken for the last year and a half in providing an outstanding after-school enrichment program for all of our students. In fact, his two sessions are probably the most popular with our students. He has spent many hours working with students, our staff and our parents. He rides the buses with our traveling students to encourage them to sign up for DARE PLUS. He has traveled to Carver and Markham middle schools with us to show the parents of our students what the program is all about.

Michael Milken paid his debt to society at a time when society was greedy and after a fast buck. Ecclesiastes states there is a time for everything . . . "a time to love and a time to hate; a time to tear down and a time to build up." . . .

I think that your article misses a far more important point.

There's an important difference between Bennett's point--that Milken "paid his debt"--and the point made by Powell, the Milken High principal.

Powell's assertion of Milken's innocence, as expressed to Times religion writer John Dart, is one that demeans the court in which Milken entered his guilty pleas. At least one mom was appalled: It is not his place to get involved in the legal aspects of the case. That is over. He sounded like Johnnie Cochran.

Bennett's encouragement of forgiveness is easier to understand. Still, to forgive an ex-con is one thing, to honor quite another. So far I haven't heard of New Yorkers naming a school for Leona Helmsley (or the Helmsley family). Oregonians probably aren't even in a mood to name a school after soon-to-be-former Sen. Bob Packwood--and he's just a serial harasser, not a convicted felon.

Now consider another millionaire ex-con. He's named Michael, too, but he's more commonly called Mike--or Iron Mike.

Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist. He did his time, paid his proverbial debt, and now he's back in the boxing ring. Fight fans honor him with applause at every punch.

Milken's defenders, no doubt, will be mortified by this comparison. They may call it gratuitous. It's impossible, obviously, to make a meaningful moral comparison of the two men's crimes. And Milken may have virtues that Tyson lacks.

But they should remember this: Tyson, like Milken, has long had his own camp of supporters, including some journalists, who contend that he was an innocent victim. They say that he was exploited by an opportunistic beauty queen as surely as Milken was exploited by an opportunistic prosecutor.

One difference is that you won't hear many jokes about Mike Tyson's criminal record. There's nothing funny about rape. But with Michael Milken, it's still open season. People have always poked fun at the rich, even at those who never wore a toupee.

Truth is, there is something I do regret about that column. After conferring with an editor, I now realize that Milken High fans shouldn't cheer for the Money.

They should root for the Mighty Bucks.

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Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, Calif. 91311. Please include a phone number. Address TimesLink or Prodigy e-mail to YQTU59A ( via the Internet: YQTU59A@prodigy.com).

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