Tuesday, September 2, 2014

With Apologies to the Host...

Friends and readers:

I am now posting exclusively at John Clifford Gregory (http://johncliffordgregory,com) and would love for you to join me there. Life, Library and the Pursuit of Temperance will be available until October 1, 2014 for your perusal. Thanks to Blogger for being such a nurturing host.

John Gregory

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Memorial Mayhem From Honest Abe to Ike

In the interregnum between his presidency and his tenure as Chief Justice, William Howard Taft served a thankless role as Chairman of the Lincoln Memorial Commission.  President Taft himself signed the legislation creating the memorial in 1910. Once retired, he was promptly named by Congress to head the commission that designed and approved the monument at the west end of the National Mall we all know so well today. I say the role was thankless because—like today—you can’t please everyone and the displeased are always louder than the pleased.  But that was then. Few today dispute the profound gravity and majesty evinced by the Lincoln Memorial.

Chief Justice William Howard Taft, President Warren G. Harding and Robert Todd Lincoln at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in May of 1922

At its dedication in May of 1922, Mr. Taft extolled Abraham Lincoln’s character and temperament:

Justice, truth, patience, mercy, and love of his kind, simplicity, courage, sacrifice, and confidence in God were his moral qualities. Clarity of thought and intellectual honesty, self-analysis and strong inexorable logic, supreme common sense, a sympathetic but unerring knowledge of human nature, imagination and limpid purity of style, with a poetic rhythm of the Psalms — these were his intellectual and cultural traits. His soul and heart and brain and mind had all these elements, but then union in him had a setting that baffles description. His humility, his self-abnegation and devotion, his patience under grievous disappointment, his agony of spirit in the burden he had to carry, his constant sadness, lightened at intervals with a rare humor all his own, the abuse and ridicule of which he was the subject, his endurance in a great cause of small obstructive minds, his domestic sorrows, and finally his tragic end, form the story of a passion and give him a personality that is vivid in the hearts of the people as if it were but yesterday.
The funny thing is, you can sense all of that just from looking at the simple—though gargantuan—statue inside this edifice. Still, the twelve years between the enabling legislation and the completion of the Lincoln Memorial were anything but simple. As designs were rejected, recriminations flew; once a plan was agreed upon, there was a huge fight over who would supply the marble. Colorado won out, but—in a delicious twist of irony—southern Democrats convinced the commission to use Georgia marble for the statue of Lincoln. States’ rights were one thing but business was business. Fights have been a staple of these national monument projects from the beginning and yet, for all the strife, these granite tributes are becoming less and less interesting.

The Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial: these are the monuments I grew up with.  The first is the most recognizable obelisk on earth, symbolizing, in the words of the National Park Service, “the awe, respect, and gratitude the nation felt for its most essential Founding Father.” The others are masterpieces of sculpture housed in civic temples of marble.  As I approached adulthood, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated. It also is a simple design, but one intended to honor all the war dead and not just one person. The symmetrical walls of polished, black granite engraved with the names of those killed and missing in action is a gripping sight to behold.

I have not visited the World War II Memorial, but it looks very much in keeping with the simple dignity of our first monuments. However, the tributes to Korean War veterans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. leave me somewhat cold. They are too busy: too many figurines and murals, not enough message. Granted, that is my subjective opinion, but what else is a blog for?

The proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial promises to be one of those projects that looks dazzling on paper but falls flat when unveiled. Meanwhile, there are many voices in Congress and without—including the Eisenhower family—calling for the current design to be dumped. The Washington Post disagrees, asserting that the time has come to break ground and not waste any more time and money on design. The newspaper may have a point, but is it any better to waste time and money on construction and maintenance?

Instead of cluttering our nation’s capital with more statues, plazas and engraved panoramas, I think we should focus more on functional monuments. The Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Theodore Roosevelt Island preserve are excellent examples of tributes that break the marble mold, and daily produce living reminders of their namesakes.  Surely the man who won the war in Europe and created the interstate highway system is worth honoring in this way.  The United States Institute of Peace, for example, could be renamed for Eisenhower and—more importantly—retooled to reflect his unique balance of force and diplomacy.

The monuments and memorials of Washington, DC are a great blessing to that city and to our country, Let’s face it, though: not everyone is a founding father or agent of national reconciliation. And space is finite. We should look at other ways to honor Americans who make extraordinary contributions lest we dilute the impact of these marvelous civic temples.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Putting Her on a Pedestal

Regular readers of this blog know that I strongly advocate hist-fic as a gateway to passionate enthusiasm for history itself. One of the reasons I love the Gilded Age so much relates to a novel I love with equal measure, The Newsboys Lodging House by Jon Boorstin, a tale of William James and the Manhattan street urchins. As a matter of fact, most great historical fiction novels set during this period are also set in New York City. Why? My guess is that it became the “city that never sleeps” in the second half of the 19th century:

  • It grew to be the largest city in the United States.
  • The iconic Brooklyn Bridge was erected.
  • Skyscrapers were on the drawing board.
  • New immigrants flooded in from Europe.
  • The subway system was under construction.
  • The outer boroughs were beginning to consolidate.

To be sure, there was a good deal of poverty and unfairness to be found but the vision of the city as a new international hub was catching fire. A new novel by Marshall Goldberg sheds light on a most important development of the age: the conveying of the Statue of Liberty. In The New Colossus: A Novel, an intrepid female newspaper reporter investigates the suspicious death of Emma Lazarus, the poet who penned the revered poem that gives this book its name. The verse was later engraved inside the pedestal of Lady Liberty. I reproduce it here in full:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

New York and Brooklyn were still separate entities back then, hence the “twin cities” reference. Anyway, Goldberg’s novel highlights several important facts. First of all, the general public was not clamoring for Frédéric Bartholdi’s statue, originally called “Liberty Enlightening the World.” After all, the American Revolution yielded the Constitution and ordered liberty while the French Revolution brought the guillotine and, eventually, Napoleon. Distaste for French things has a long and storied history in America. Which brings us to the second point: Congress was not eager to fund the pedestal for a French statue on what was then known as Bedloe’s Island. The State of New York likewise passed on the project—I don’t think anyone knew back then that the island was in New Jersey.

Emma Lazarus

Fortunately for the statue—and for the rest of us—the publisher Josef Pulitzer used his New York World newspaper to champion the project and raise money for the pedestal. A Hungarian immigrant himself, he cherished the ideal symbolized by the statue. Part of his campaign involved a contest in which renowned poets submitted odes to this intended beacon. Winning the honor was Emma Lazarus, a child of Jewish immigrants from Russia and an ardent advocate for a Jewish homeland. She wrote The New Colossus in 1884 and died three years later. The investigation of her demise is the focus of The New Colossus: The Novel. Goldberg uses historical characters like Pulitzer and his best investigative reporter, Nellie Bly, to discover the truth behind Lazarus’ premature death. In so doing, he creates a very readable yarn, if initial reviews are any indication.

Weaving a murder mystery into the cultural and political shifts taking place at the time is tricky. Still, Marshall Goldberg has a slew of medical espionage novels to his credit and I doubt complexity vexes him in any way. I am curious to learn more about Gilded Age New York, and am betting The New Colossus: The Novel will reveal a treasure trove of information.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Born on the Fourth of July

Only one American president shares a birthday with his country. He was not charismatic; he did not seek to leave a legacy; he was not out to get rich. Born in Vermont, he cut his political teeth in Massachusetts, becoming governor in 1918. Neither of those extremely blue states celebrates him as a native son, but I doubt he would care. He was never out for accolades. Actually, it was his vexing stoicism that allowed many friends and foes to fill in the blanks. He was characterized as taciturn, unfriendly, and tight-fisted. In truth, he had much to say. His distinction was that, unlike other politicians then and now, he refrained from speaking when he had nothing to say. He was the ultimate Yankee: detached in demeanor but convicted in heart. I speak of Calvin Coolidge. While standing still and saying nothing, he rocked nonetheless.

Coolidge was born on July 4th, 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. The son of a general store owner, he grew up sweeping floors, selling produce and attending to myriad other chores typical of rural boyhood. As far as biographers can tell, his only aspiration as a child was to take over the store one day. He was neither a stellar student nor star athlete, yet somehow was admitted to Amherst College where he thrived like never before. The man who would one day be lampooned as “Silent Cal” was celebrated as a wit, an orator and a superb scholar. Upon graduating, he apprenticed at a central Massachusetts law firm and was admitted to the bar in 1897. At the same time, he became active in Republican politics. After stints in the state legislature and as lieutenant governor, he assumed the governor’s chair, gaining national attention for his decisive action in breaking a strike by the Boston city police.

This new status made him a perfect candidate for the vice-presidency in 1920. In those days, of course, VPs were not presidential advisors as they are in modern times. There was little for them to do aside from the understudy role so Coolidge used his spare time to visit his family in Vermont often. On one such visit—August 2, 1923—his father woke him up in the middle of the night to inform him of the death of President Warren Harding. Being a justice of the peace and notary public, the senior Coolidge was legally empowered to administer the presidential oath of office to his son. So keyed up by this extraordinary turn of events, Calvin immediately went back to bed after the “so help me God.”

I love it. This was vintage Coolidge. It was not that he assumed the duties of president casually. He had a solemn reverence for the institution. But it was three in the morning and he was tired. It goes to his fundamental philosophy that ours is a government of laws, not men. The country would survive a few more hours without his pronouncements. In his habits, his speech, his governance and his appearance, he was what can be best described as spare—no flowery verbiage, no superfluous regulations, no unnecessary appropriations, no nonsense. And, unlike my other favorite stoic president, Grover Cleveland, Coolidge sported no extra poundage. A clip of his Yankee straight talk can be seen and heard here:

This is all prologue, however. What drove Coolidge was deep-seated conviction about the difference between the United States and other countries, about—dare I say it?—American exceptionalism. On the 150th birthday of the United States in 1926—his own 54th birthday—President Calvin Coolidge spoke to a huge gathering at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. He spoke of the element that made the U.S. a vibrant and virile presence among the nations of the world:

 A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if it roots be destroyed. In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man - these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.
We are too prone to overlook another conclusion. Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be the better observed, but their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.
Today, of course, journalists would be unable to digest rhetoric of this style. It is too ponderous…and exceeds 140 characters. Furthermore, it assaults their self-image as worldly and mature and unencumbered by supernatural ideas. Fortunate are we, in the information age, to see for ourselves what really rings true and why. Long disparaged by opinion makers in the media and in academia, Calvin Coolidge is now enjoying a renaissance, thanks to diligent biographers like Amity Shlaes, author of the 2013 bestseller, Coolidge. She notes how the president kept a healthy perspective regarding his own high office:

He was among the most selfless of presidents, ranking individual above political constituency and office above individual. Once, on a walk with the president, Senator Selden Spencer of Missouri tried to cheer Coolidge by pointing to the White House and asking, in a joking tone, who might live there. “Nobody,” Coolidge replied, “they just come and go.”
On this Independence Day, we can look upon Calvin Coolidge and his wisdom for a sound perspective on the reasons for our founding, and the proper place and temperament of those that presume to lead us.

Happy 142nd Birthday, Mr. President. Happy 238th Birthday, USA. And a happy Fourth of July to all my readers.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review: The Auschwitz Escape

Joel C. Rosenberg is a communications advisor based in Washington, DC with a clientele the world over. He is also a very talented novelist, focusing on political and eschatological thrillers. I have read most of his books which, up until now, are all set in the present day. The Auschwitz Escape is his first foray into historical fiction and—his own modest commentary notwithstanding—he does not disappoint. Based on real written and oral testimonies of those who were able to escape from the notoriously barbarous concentration camp, this novel takes readers inside the barbed-wire fences to experience the horror of life (short for most) endured by its prisoners before they were starved, shot, beaten to death or sent to the gas chambers.

What makes Rosenberg’s tale compelling is its focus on the Polish Resistance (and other resistance movements in occupied Europe). In so doing, he shines a light on the entire prisoner population. While the vast majority, of course, was Jewish, the Nazis also used death camps to dispatch Gypsies, trade unionists and other political prisoners. Among the latter group were a host of pastors and priests who took in Jewish families and shielded them from persecution. The Auschwitz Escape highlights the partnership of two unlikely employees of the Polish Resistance: a Protestant pastor from France who harbored fleeing Jews and a young Jewish man from Berlin whose own prior resistance activity landed him at Auschwitz.

Escapes were catastrophic for the SS officers who manned the camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau because secrecy was central to Adolph Hitler’s genocidal plans. He looked forward to a day when he could say “Jews? What Jews?” Word could not get out that he was killing them en masse. Hence, every effort was made to ID and tag the prisoners; keep them on an exhausting and relentless work schedule; weaken them through malnutrition; and track their movements. This de-humanizing system was designed to rob the prisoners of all hope and keep them from attempting to break out. In Rosenberg’s book, some of them reach their physical and emotional limit, hurling themselves against the electrified fences to their immediate demise. As one capo—a prisoner placed in authority over the other prisoners—tells his comrades: “The only way out is through the chimneys,” referring to the giant smokestacks above the crematoriums.

Pervading Rosenberg’s story is the false hope many prisoners felt whenever a successful escape was achieved. They were convinced that, once word spread about the death camp, an Allied rescue operation would ensue. History demonstrates that Allied leaders were aware of the Holocaust as early as 1941, but not so moved as to deviate from their established war plans. Auschwitz was not liberated until the Soviets moved into Poland in January, 1945. The remaining 9,000 prisoners were slated for execution but time did not permit the fleeing Nazis this indulgence.

Most significantly in my mind is that “The Final Solution” was anything but. Had Hitler been successful in wiping out the Jews, his hatred would not have been satiated. Ethnic minorities of all kinds would have found their way to the death camps; then political non-conformists; then mild skeptics; and so on. The chimneys might have continued to billow human ash even today. Only when we are willing to subordinate personal comfort for the principles of liberty can we ensure the return of the chimneys.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Farmer in the Del-egation

For political junkies like me, one of the most interesting U.S. senatorial races this year is the one being run for the Iowa seat currently held by the retiring Tom Harkin. A Democrat planted deep in left-wing soil, Harkin has always taken good care of the folks back home and remains popular. It is assumed that the seat is the Democrats’ to lose…and they just might. Congressman Bruce Braley is Harkin’s heir apparent, virtually indistinguishable from the sitting senator on the issues of the day. In March, Braley was leading his likely Republican opponent by 13 points in the Quinnipiac University poll. The June poll tells a different story: the congressman’s lead has shrunk to four points, with a margin of error of + or – 2.7%. Although Braley continues to poll well on individual issues, his rival—state Senator Joni Ernst—has come on strong in recent months due to two variables.

A mother and grandmother, Joni Ernst is married to a retired Army Ranger and served herself as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Iowa National Guard. Directing supply convoys during the Iraq war, she also served as a county auditor before her election to the state senate.  While she was clearly not twiddling her thumbs for the past two decades, she nevertheless was unable to make inroads with the voters on the strength of her resume alone. Fortunately for her, somebody in her campaign was astute enough to understand that an appeal to the soil would trump anything Braley could brag about. Like many Iowans, Ernst grew up on a farm and was no stranger to farm chores. We suburbanites who think planting azaleas and mowing the lawn make for a sweaty weekend could never understand.

Ernst produced an ad that stressed her upbringing on the farm: “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm…” and promised to “make ‘em squeal” when she gets to Washington. The effect was electric. According to the Washington Post:

At a time when voters tune out many political messages, the ad was a vivid reminder of the enduring power of a single image. In the first three days, her 30-second spot was viewed nearly 400,000 times on YouTube and became the talk of cable news, catapulting the state senator from rural Red Oak into the top tier.
It should be noted that Iowa’s senior U.S. senator, Charles Grassley, farmed full-time prior to his election to Congress, and continues to work on his son’s farm when the Senate is in recess. As tempting as it is for sophisticates to sneer at Iowans for responding to such an appeal, caution is advised. The three constants of agriculture are dirt and blood and poop. Many books are written designed to fuel our revulsion over this reality but it does not revolt those who grow and raise our food. Were we to return to subsistence farming, as many critics of commercial agriculture champion, we may come to understand this but we would suffer a severe contraction of our economy and a precipitous drop in our quality of life. But I digress.

The campaign ad underscored the existential nature of farming: do what is necessary or lose the farm. Iowa voters understand this instinctively. Meanwhile, Congressman Braley was making trouble for himself. Referring to Senator Grassley, Braley noted that he served as the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee. If the Republicans take the Senate, Braley warned, the farmer Grassley would take over as Chairman (GULP!). From The Economist:

A former trial lawyer, he told his fellow lawyers at a fundraising event in Texas that they should bankroll his campaign because if the seat, and the Senate, were lost to the Republicans, “You might have a farmer from Iowa, who never went to law school.…serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.” (He was referring to Charles Grassley, Iowa’s other senator.) Using “farmer” to mean “stupid” is unwise in Iowa, where the word is synonymous with “voter”.
Braley has since apologized for the remark, but forgiveness is slow in coming. Republican opposition research unearthed (pardon the pun) examples of Mr. Braley’s literature misspelling words common to agriculture. They then widely distributed bumper stickers reading: “Sorry Bruce Braley. I’m proud to be a farmer.” All of this goes to highlight a fundamental disconnect between farmers and eaters. More than conformity on the issues, farmers seek a personal connection with those they elect to office, be it low or high. If they can not get empathy, they at least look for a little sympathy.

In 1960, John F, Kennedy had to cobble together a multi-faceted coalition in order to squeak through to victory. Among its components were the farmers, and the urbane Bostonian trudged through more muddy fields than I am sure he cared to count. He turned on his world-renowned charm; he appealed to his fellow war veterans; he castigated the unpopular Eisenhower farm program (for which he voted as a senator numerous times); and he advocated a return to Depression-era subsidies (which he had previously opposed). The response was tepid and Kennedy left these appearances both angry and frustrated. As hard as he tried, he was just not feeling the love. He wrote his rural audiences off as hicks and bigots.

Campaigning in 1960, John F. Kennedy speaks to an Iowa farmer...from his sleek Pontiac convertible.

They were neither. First of all, a large plurality of Midwestern farmers was Catholic. Secondly, they were savvy enough to hear that JFK was reciting information given to him by advisors, and that he was really clueless as to their lot in life. How could it be otherwise? Their lives were worlds apart from his. Likewise, Bruce Braley is facing a sociological gap with those he wants to represent in the United States Senate. Farmers might look at a voter scorecard and like what they see with regard to a candidate’s positions. If, however, that candidate is clearly out of his or her element amid the crops and livestock, it will show, and points will be deducted. For the record, Kennedy did well with the farmers at the polls but he could have done better given the political climate of rural America.

Back to Iowa: if Joni Ernst can capitalize on Braley’s trial lawyer elitism, she has a good shot at winning Harkin’s seat. Iowans can swing either way—with the Republicans on social issues; with the Democrats on foreign policy; with the Republicans on property rights and the environment; and with the Democrats on immigration. Her strength is in the soil. Her task is to demonstrate that she is as familiar with the issues as is a three-term congressman. Braley’s task is to take off his tie now and then, and appreciate the labors of his state’s many growers.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Wheeze the People

I am currently racing five different writing projects against each other but one seems to be taking a substantial lead over the others. This is due, in large part, to the subject: that hyperactive, intellectually expansive, big-hearted shooter of all things wild, Theodore Roosevelt. My aim is to explore six crisis episodes in his life and contend that their successful resolution was more than just a matter of his iron will. The first of these life-threatening challenges was his sickly childhood, centering on his most stubborn ailment—asthma.
The original advocate of “the strenuous life,” the grown-up TR gives little evidence of how limited his early years were in terms of physical capacity. I will let Edmund Morris, author of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, describe the toddler’s afflictions:

He suffered from coughs, colds, nausea, fevers, and a congenital form of nervous diarrhea…On top of it all, his asthma was worsening. “Rarely, even at his best, could he sleep without being propped up in bed or in a big chair,” remembered (his sister) Corrinne. Lack of appetite brought about symptoms of malnutrition. At one stage his whiteness and fragility were such that (aunt) Annie Bulloch compared him to a very pale azalea. It seemed that he would not live to see his fourth birthday. (p.11)
Another famous profiler, David McCullough, explained the terror of it in a PBS American Experience documentary:

It's as though you're being strangled to death. It is though you're being denied life suddenly and mysteriously, and it comes on you involuntarily. Everybody around you is galvanized by the horror of this experience that you are going through. You are-- it's as if they're attending a hanging, and you are being hanged.
The common remedies of the era—black coffee, whiskey and cigars—provided relief that was modest and temporary. His sufferings continued on and off throughout his growing-up years. Born into a wealthy family, he was able to travel through Europe at the tender age of 10 years. His constant companions, however, dogged him throughout the year-long sojourn:

In Switzerland he suffered alternate attacks of gastroenteritis, toothache, and asthma, yet showed amazing bursts of energy in between. (p.24)
This statement is telling: but for his myriad sicknesses, little “Teedie,” as he was called by family, exhibited the same boisterous spirit so evident to all Americans by the turn of the 20th century. After the taxing European trip, his revered father, Theodore, Sr., supplied him with all kinds of exercise equipment, admonishing him to “make your body.” This is a watershed moment that is highlighted by all the 26th president’s biographers. The loving and dutiful son then spent hours lifting weights, performing monotonous calisthenics and learning to box with a trainer. Again, Edmund Morris:

Fiber by fiber his muscles tautened, while the skinny chest expanded by degrees perceptible only to himself. But the overall results were dramatic. There is not a single mention of illness in his diary throughout August of 1871—the longest spell of health in years. (p.33)
Yes, Teedie had kept a diary since he was able to read and write, meticulously recording his every symptom.
Although Morris and McCullough do not indulge in mythology, more superficial biographers imply that Roosevelt overcame his asthma through this rigorous physical regimen. Not so. The respiratory disorder plagued him into his college years. Still, his father was discerning enough to understand the salutary effect such a program would have in his son’s spirit. It is entirely believable that young Teddy did not record any afflictions in August of 1871 because they lessened in importance in his own life. His own formidable mind was given a project to divert its energies from his troubles.

"Teedie" Roosevelt around 10 years of age

No less an authority than WebMD states that few sufferers grow out of asthma, though medical intervention can lessen the symptoms. At any rate, his fitness and recreational activities only increased in his adulthood, consisting mainly of hikes, swims, horseback riding, boxing, jiu-jitsu and rowing. In late middle-age, he did put on a few pounds, but not enough to slow down his frenetic lifestyle. At some stage of life, Theodore Roosevelt’s asthma ceased to dominate him. My contention is that this affliction existed on other levels besides the physiological, and that his victory over asthma was part of a larger triumph.

That is all I will share for now. I am really excited about this project!