Posted Thursday, August 11, 2016.
Being blissed out on on Percocet and Valium has taken some of the fun out of watching Donald Trump and the GOP’s collective meltdown. It’s left me feeling too detached. Instead of reveling in the malicious glee I would normally be enjoying, the most intense reaction I can manage is a Spock-like “Fascinating.”
And it is fascinating. Trump is fascinating. As a story as much as anything. His is an American tale, practically a folk tale, and I look forward to the day when some great storyteller---biographer, historian, novelist, or filmmaker---is able to tell it in full. In whatever form it’s told---as a biography as riveting as T. Harry Williams’ Huey Long, as a movie both epic and intimate like Citizen Kane, as a dramatic sociological study of a time and place like David Simon’s TV miniseries Show Me a Hero, or as a documentary as comprehensive and devastating as ESPN's O.J.:Made in America---it will be one of those stories that tell us not just what happened to us as a nation at a given moment in history, that doesn’t only relate the events, culture, and temper of a particular moment in time, but helps explain who and what we are as a people. Trump is decidedly in the American grain, a type who exemplifies something essential about our national character.
We need to hear the stories of our heroes and saints in order to inspire us and give us hope, but I believe we can better understand ourselves through the stories of our failures, scoundrels, and villains, because we are all always in danger of becoming one of them. Theirs are cautionary tales with a similar theme: we are all more like him or her than we’d like to admit. Richard Nixon’s story is more morally instructive than Bobby Kennedy’s or Martin Luther King’s because he, far more than either of them, was in a lifelong revolt against his own ordinary Americanness. In short, what he hated most about himself was his likeness to the rest of us, so an important part of Nixon’s story is that likeness.
Same deal with Trump, I think. Maybe even more than Nixon was, he seems driven by virulent self-loathing. He’s a populist who despises that part of himself that’s most like the people whose champion he’s pretending to be---that is, his ordinary Americanness. So,again, as with Nixon, the hero/anti-hero/villain’s ordinariness---his likeness to the rest of us---is a major theme of the drama/comedy/tragedy. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are the types of do-gooding high achievers we’d like to be and teach our children to strive to be. Donald Trump is who we’re all in danger of becoming if we don't watch it.
I didn’t include a novel on that list of story forms because offhand I can’t think of one comparable to what I’m hoping for. American literary novelists haven’t shown much interest in politics or money or, when it comes down to it, social observation on a scale large enough to accommodate the cast of characters and the various plots and subplots it would take to tell even a quarter of the story.
Time for one of my patented sweeping generalizations.
Just about all all American fiction considered “serious literature”, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Henry James to Scott Fitzgerald to John Updike and Toni Morrison and on up to Jonathan Franzen is genre fiction. The genre is domestic drama and it’s as self-confined and convention bound as any of the other supposedly lesser genres like mysteries, romances, science fiction, fantasy, and westerns. Do high school English classes still teach that there are four basic narrative conflicts: Man against Man, Man against Society, Man against Nature, and Man Against Himself? There’s a fifth. Man/Woman/Child against Family. And that’s the one that one that drives the plots of the great majority of the novels on high school and college reading lists and that fill the shelves in the Fiction and Literature section at Barnes & Noble.
Whatever the “story” summarized in the Cliff Notes or on the inside flap of the dust jacket, the real story is usually about the intimate strife and turmoil among a small group of people related by blood, sex, or friendship trying to work out their mutual dysfunctions and dissatisfactions with the personal happiness of the main character being the outcome most at stake.
History, politics, current events, economics, and the way a society or a community organizes itself and enforces its conventions and imposes its traditions and culture are background to the domestic drama. Even Robert Penn Warren’s classic All the King’s Men is less a political drama than it is a family tragedy. To the degree Willie Stark is a villain, his villainy seems to lie mainly in his being an unreliable friend and a bad husband and only incidentally in his ambition to make himself a populist dictator. It’s still a great novel. There are many great novels among the type I seem to be treating dismissively. What I’m getting at isn’t that there are no great American novels but that there aren’t many novels around that tell the kind of a story I’d like to see told in the way I think it needs telling. Politics, current events, money, and social conflict tend to be subjects writers of mysteries and thrillers are more drawn to and in their stories those issues are naturally treated as provocations of criminal activity, psychology is reduced to motive, and everything plays itself out to neat, melodramatically satisfying conclusions. A Donald Trump type might be an important character but he’s more likely to show up either as a stock villain or a deservedly dead body than as a protagonist whose story tells us more than just why he committed his crime or deserved to be murdered. In a “literary” novel, however, a “Donald Trump’s” story is likely to be about what’s “really” going on between him and Ivanka and/or why his sons are compelled to go out and kill elephants.
Like I said, I’m making a sweeping generalization. There are plenty of exceptions. It’s just that offhand I can’t think of a single, exceptional novel that would fit in with my list of movies, biographies, TV series, and documentaries that provide models for the telling of the story of Donald Trump. William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Edith Wharton have probably come closest, with an honorable mention to Bud Schulberg. Flem Snopes, Elmer Gantry, Undine Spragg, and Sammy Glick are literary cousins to the character I’m imagining based on Trump, self-aggrandizing opportunists exploiting the weaknesses and vices of everyone they come in contact with, using and allowing themselves to be used as it fits in with their scheming, ruthlessly on the make, taking swift advantage of every opportunity opened up to them by a social order that seems geared to reward hypocrisy, double-dealing, cynicism, and amoral intelligence and to actively and by design punish virtue and common decency, on their apparently unstoppable way to wealth, status, power, and apparent happiness. But The Hamlet, Elmer Gantry, The Custom of the Country, and What Makes Sammy Run? are local stories and fairly apolitical. And because they’re local, that is, they play out on small stages, their protagonists just don’t have the grand opportunities for mischief and villainy that Trump has had. Frenchman’s Bend isn’t as wide-open a town as New York City by a longshot and contains a much more greatly limited number of suckers, victims, marks, and foils. There isn’t enough money to steal or power to acquire to satisfy a Trump. Flem Snopes and the others are monsters of ego, vanity, greed, and ambition, but they aren’t close to being as monstrous as the Donald.
(It’s interesting to note that in It Can’t Happen Here Sinclair Lewis wound up treating the coming of fascism to America as pretty much a local story and Philip Roth did the same in The Plot Against America. I’m not sure what to make of that.)
For a while I considered Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full as a possible model for what I’m looking for. But fiction writing brings out the worst in Wolfe. Not only does his prose suffer but so does his insight into what makes people tick. His characters turn into stock figures and clichés. Worst of all, his own politics, a bland and misanthropic conservatism which is mostly an expression of a parvenu’s self-serving snobbery, takes over. In A Man in Full, his worship of power and money casuses him to make a hero out of someone whose real life counterparts tend to be dangerous and destructive villains.
Gore Vidal would be chortling in his joy at the prospect of writing about Trump, although I think he’d be laughing more at us than at Trump himself, enjoying watching us getting just what he was always sure we deserve and secretly want. Vidal wrote one of the best political novels of the 20th Century, Washington D.C., but its actual insight is limited by its being mainly an extended piece of family gossip. Lincoln is a pretty good book, but all but one of the other novels in the mordantly and a little too patly titled Narratives of Empire series are fairly mundane and melodramatic period pieces, distinguished only by Vidal’s increasingly desperate need to prove that American history since Lincoln has been a drawing room comedy version of the Wars of the Rose, a saga of a few aristocratic families playing with the destinies of an unseen and practically irrelevant common citizenry with no heroes and no heroic villains only cynical schemers motivated by vanity and a petty lust for power and that includes Franklin Roosevelt. The exception is Burr, one of the great satirical novels and it might be funny, assuming he never gets close to the presidency, to read Trump’s story told from Trump’s point of view, although I’m not sure even the most talented parodist could sustain a three or four hundred page novel made up entirely of a madman’s obsessive tweeting.
It’s been too long since I read Joseph Heller’s Good as Gold, but that might be a something like what I have in mind. And Bellow and Vonnegut could have handled it, although they’d have come at it in very different ways. Thomas Pynchon might already be on it. And I’d love to see what T.C. Boyle would make of it, although I’d expect him, being something of a regionalist, to tell a more localized version of the story. Anyone else you can think of who could handle the story? I’m leaning towards Don Delillo, although Underworld is missing a central villain so I’m having a hard time imagining what he’d do with Trump.
Human beings have more vices than virtues, and so people tend to have have more sins, failures, and weaknesses in common than they do acts of nobility, decency, and heroism. And times, circumstances, and cultural pressures and trends increase certain temptations. It’s long been a flaw in the American character---sometimes a comic flaw but usually a tragic one---that we think the purpose of life is not to be good or even to be happy but to be “successful,” and it’s how people define success that gets them into trouble. Too often it just means being better than everyone else is some less than admirable way and then lording it over people. And that appears to be the driving theme of Trump’s life.
I’m sure someone will get to it sooner or later. It’s not really important to me who or when. My point here is that Trump is a fascinating story but he himself is not the story.
Of course he’s one of the leading characters in the news story of the day. But who he is, what made him, how he’s gotten to where her is and whose fault that is are academic questions. Trump is a type. There have been many versions of him before and there will be many more to come. There are many varieties of Trumps out there being Trumps at this very moment. Where does a Trump come from? Anywhere and everywhere. There’s some version of him in every town and city, in every office and college dorm. In churches and classrooms and on playgrounds. Aboard ships at sea and in army barracks and high school locker rooms. The country is full of spiteful, malicious, rapacious bullies and con artists on the lookout for the main chance. They just need the opportunity to open up at the right moment. And that’s the story. How did this opportunity open up for Trump? And a good working title for that story is The Decline and Fall of the Republican Party.
I’m not sure where that story begins? With the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? With the assassination of James Garfield? With Rutherford B. Hayes’ corrupt deal with Southern Democrats to get himself installed as President by the Electoral College despite having lost the popular vote in exchange for ending Reconstruction? With the decision by some short-sighted Republican party bosses who looked at the waves of immigrants arriving in the Northeast and said, What do we need them for? And so left the way open for the Tammany Hall ward heelers to go down to the docks and greet the new arrivals with offers of jobs and meals and places to live, asking only in return the small favor of voting early and often for the Democrats in the next election? With takeover of the party by the business interests who drove Theodore Roosevelt from the scene and allowed Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats to claim the mantle of Progressivism? With FDR driving those same interests so crazy with rage and frustration that they decided to devote the next eighty years to undoing the New Deal? With their welcoming into their ranks the likes of Strom Thurmond and other segregationists? With William F. Buckley’s intellectual justification for opposing Civil Rights? With Nixon and his Southern Strategy? With Ronald Reagan’s making common cause with the Religious Right with its zealots’ ambition to impose their perverted form of Christianity on the rest of the us? With Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America that was essentially a promise to restore straight white male supremacy to a country that had for almost its whole history prided itself on being the melting pot?
Wherever you choose to start it, that’s the story. That’s been the story. It will be told---it’s starting to be told---by historians, biographers, and documentarians. I’m sure novelists will get around to it. But the thing is, it’s a story that should have been the bread and butter of political journalists for at least the last twenty years. They should have started telling it the day it became clear the Republicans were willing to impeach a Democratic president for no good reason other than to overturn an election.
Most of them, though, missed the story.
Too many of them are still missing it.
June 10, 2016.
I love this story from Hillary Clinton’s memoir Living History for a number of reasons, among them the historical irony of three future Democratic nominees for president meeting when only one of them was realistically looking at a chance that would happen, one of them was only beginning to dream and scheme, and the third apparently and likely had no clue as to what her own future would bring. But what really makes me smile is remembering Jimmy Carter’s smile back when he was still full of hope and promise and had reason to smile like that and when that smile brightened the mood of the whole country in those first years after Vietnam and Watergate. Hard to remember that it wasn’t Ronald Reagan who first made people feel that it might really be morning in America again. Hard to remember that Reagan’s failed campaign to take the nomination away from Ford in ‘76 was a mean-spirited one. But as Mom Mannion observed, Carter’s fate was sealed when he stopped smiling like that. Like this:
Bill Clinton’s first election victory as Attorney General of Arkansas in 1976 was anticlimactic. He had won the primary in May and had no Republican opponent. The big show that yea was the presidential contest between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.
Bill and I had met Carter the year before when he gave a speech at the University of Arkansas. He had sent two of his top lieutenants, Jody Powell and Frank Moore, to Fayetteville to help in bill’s 1974 campaign., a sure sign he was surveying the political landscape with an eye toward a national run.
Carter introduced himself to by by saying, “Hi, I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m going to be President.” That caught my attention, so I watched and listened closely. He understood the mood of the country and bet that post-Watergate politics would create an opening for a newcomer from outside Washington who could appeal to Southern voters. Carter correctly concluded he had as good a chance as any, and as his introduction implied, he certainly had the confidence necessary to undertake the ego-mangling of a presidential campaign…
At the end of meeting, Carter asked me if I had any advice for him.
“Well, Governor,” I said, “I wouldn’t go around telling people you’re going to be President. That could be a little off-putting to some.”
“But,” he replied with that trademark smile, “I am going to be.”
Friday. June 10, 2016.
Like I would know, but I suspect that a lot of Bernie-voting young women who claimed they didn’t care if we elect the first woman president this time out are finding out that they do.
Also like I would know, but I’ve believed all along that the majority of Bernie’s voters are good liberal Democrats who voted for Bernie because they wanted a more liberal nominee or at least a more outspokenly and less defensively liberal nominee than they perceived Hillary to be. Now that it’s over, I expect that they’ll be just fine with voting for her and not just against Trump. It may take time, until the convention if not all the way to November, but they’ll come around. Most of them. Some never will. That’s the way it goes every election.
A twitter acquaintance who tweets under the handle of Seedsdown sent me this link to a post by Laffy who blogs over at Radio or Not. Laffy’s a stalwart Bernie supporter and is of course feeling mightily disappointed these days. But it sounds like Laffy’s working her way there. Her friend, radio broadcaster Angie Coiro, whom Laffy quotes in her post, hasn’t started yet and may never get there.
Yes, like it or not, Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee; a woman can finally claim that victory and that’s a ‘uuuuge deal. While I’ve never been an identity voter or even a single issue voter, I fully and enthusiastically acknowledge that this is a biggie, it’s historic, and a long overdue accomplishment.
It’s a bit of a stunner to be a feminist of so many years, then sit with distress and disappointment at the country’s first woman major-party presidential nominee.
That’s where I’m sitting – not sure how to process this long wished-for benchmark, when the mark has been made by an old-style politician. Old style in her questionable sincerity and her lack of transparency. Old style in her connections to the monied and the power mongers.
Different set of genitals – which yes, does have historical significance – but mostly the same old shit.
I can tell you this: if you told 20-year-old me that one day I’d be disappointed that the old, established white guy couldn’t overturn the powerful woman who bore the black president’s stamp of approval, I’d have laughed you out of the room.
Before I get to the idea of HRC as an old-style pol, about Bernie as a new-style one…
I like a lot of Bernie’s politics. Of course I do. It’s the kind of liberal politics I learned at the knee of that great old-style Democrat Pop Mannion. That’s why Bernie’s never stuck me as particularly new-style. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, he’s a throwback. Much of his “socialist” rhetoric was old-hat when he came of age politically in the 1960s. As far as what he’s actually stood for, he’s not much to the left of Walter Mondale, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, or, for that matter, Lyndon Johnson. I’m not criticizing. That he’s in their company is high praise and I’m glad he’s there helping to renew the spirit of their old-style politics.
But he didn’t start this. The renewal has been going on for the last seven and a half years, led by the most successfully progressive president since LBJ.
The only thing that puts Bernie to the left of Barack Obama is that the president has had to actually get things done while all Bernie’s ever had to do is vote the right way.
Scott Lemieux ranks Obama's along with Lincoln's, FDR's, and LBJ's as one of the "handful of American presidencies under which there were major shifts in American policy in a clearly progressive direction". Democrats experiencing “Buyer’s Remorse” are imagining the President could have governed as liberally as FDR and LBJ did without having their overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress. Some of them think he had that. They’re forgetting---or ignoring---that during the very short time between July 2009 (Cf. Al Franken) and February 2010 (cf. Scott Brown) when Democrats held both houses of Congress with a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate those 60 seats included those of Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Kent Conrad, and Byron Dorgan.
Not a single one of them is in the Senate anymore. And I’d say good riddance, except that only Lieberman's and Conrad's seats have been taken over by Democrats and only Lieberman's by a true liberal. The rest have been replaced by Republicans, and that’s cost the party the majority. Still, I think it’s made the caucus more liberal and it’s likely to get more liberal after the election. And I think it’s freed up President Obama not to have worry about being undermined by members of his own party.
But back to Bernie. With Hillary now the presumptive nominee, the last four Democratic nominees have been her, Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Al Gore. Squinting in from far off to the left, they may look center right to you. To most Democrats they look like what they are, good old-fashioned liberal Democrats. And recapping the lists, Clinton, Obama, Kerry, Gore, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Lyndon Johnson, and throwing in Franklin Roosevelt for good measure, the only way Bernie doesn’t fit right in is he’s made a point of not being the kind of party man and woman all of them, with the possible exception of McCarthy, are and were. Which has limited his effectiveness as a legislator and turns out to have hurt him badly in the primary. What makes him sound more liberal is he’s been promising to spend more than they did and has put items from their wish lists on his to-do list with no solid or sound plans to pay for any of it, a rather too familiar form of old-style liberalism.
“Soak the rich!” is a stirring battle cry but it’s hardly newer than “Remember the Maine!”
In short, when I’m feeling kindly towards him, I see him as a nostalgia act. When I’m in a meaner mood, I see him as a self-promoting grandstander trying to claim credit for ideas and programs countless Democrats have put forward and fought for for over a century. Most of the time, though, I see him as something else old-fashioned, a tax and spend liberal of the most egregious and stereotypical sort. Nothing new-style in that.
On top of which, it’s hard for me to see what’s new-style about a canny old pol who’s managed to stay in Congress for twenty-five years by making opportunistic alliances with the kind of old-style Democrats Coiro disdains.
As far as it goes, Bernie himself has come late to his own revolution.
Meanwhile, it baffles me how the first woman nominated for president by either one of the two major parties can be said to represent old-style politics. The very fact of her is revolutionary in itself.
It appears that it’s the money that marks Clinton as old-style in Coiro’s mind. That and her connection to the “power-mongers” whoever they are. I don’t know how they expected Bernie to run a competitive campaign in the fall without his making his own connections to the monied and the power-mongers. Same way he was going to get his Social Democratic agenda through a Republican-controlled Congress, I guess, but never mind. Bernie people fixated on the money are right that all that dough coming in does give the rich access and influence that the rest of us can’t hope to have except by relying on the good-hearts and commitment to democratic and Democratic principles of individual politicians. And Bernie’s supporters, encouraged by Bernie himself, have talked themselves into believing they can’t rely at all on either Hillary’s good heart or her commitment.
I believe I can, because I have. For the eight years she was my senator. She disappointed me a number of times. I expect she will again from time to time as President. Name a great liberal politician who doesn’t have black marks next to their name. But never mind me and whatever I may represent among her supporters. Among many others, millions of women and children here in the U.S. and around the world have relied on her good heart and commitment to help make their lives better...to help give them lives.
In their assessments---dismissive assessments---of her credentials as a “progressive”, Bernie supporters, again taking their cue from Bernie himself, have tended to ignore the work she has done since law school on behalf of women and children. (Their ignoring it, by the way, is another reason Bernie has lost. Women have noticed.) But of course women’s issues---family issues---are progressive issues and her feminism goes hand in hand with her progressivism. When that’s added to the equation, there are significant ways Hillary is to the left of Bernie.
Another thing old-style about Bernie is he seems to share the old-style Left’s indifference to women’s issues or, at any rate, the old-style’s Left’s habit of thinking that everything will taken care of by their economic agenda whether specifically addressed or not. Not just women have had some problems with that notion and that’s led to Bernie having problems getting their votes.
There is a way in which Hillary is undeniably an old-style politician. She’s been in politics for a long time and has been a party loyalist doing the kind of old-fashioned field work that helps win Democrats elections and that has meant dealing with some very old-style politicians . Here’s a story about a type of old-style politician she had to deal with back in 1976 when she and Bill went to work for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign:
Upon [Bill’s and my] return to Fayetteville, Carter’s staff asked Bill to head the campaign in Arkansas and me to be the field coordinator in Indiana. Indiana was a heavily Republican state, but Carter thought his Southern roots and farming background might appeal even to Republican voters. I thought it was a long shot, but I was game to try. My job was to set up a campaign in every county, which meant finding local people to work under the direction of regional coordinators, mostly brought in from around the country. The Indianapolis campaign office was in a building that housed an appliance store and a bail-bonding firm. We were right across the street from the city jail, and the neon sign flashing “Bail Bondsman” still hung above the Carter-Mondale posters in the front windows.
I learned a lot in Indiana. One night I had dinner with a group of older men who were in charge of the Democratic Party’s get-out-the-vote efforts for Election Day. I was the only woman at the table. They wouldn’t give me any specifics, and I kept pressing for details about how many phone calls, cars and door hangers they planned to put out on Election Day. All of a sudden, one of the men reached across the table and grabbed me by my turtleneck. “Just shut up, will you. We said we’d do it, we will, and we don’t have to tell you how!” I was scared. I knew he’d been drinking, and I also knew all eyes were on me. My heart was beating fast as I looked him in the eye, removed his hands from my neck and said, “First, don’t ever touch me again. Second, if you were as fast with the answers to my questions as you are with your hands, I’d have the information I need to do my job. Then I could leave you alone---which is what I’m going to do know.” My knees were shaking, but I got up and walked out.
That’s from her memoir Living History and anyone who wants to talk knowledgeably about her heart, her commitment, her politics and political education needs to read it.
That story is forty years old. The sexist Hoosier bully is probably gone from the earth. But you think his style of politics doesn’t live on? Never mind the sexist bully the Republicans are going to run against her. There are plenty of other people, and not Republicans and not just men, for whom the idea that a woman can have personal agency let alone be President of the United States is still so new they can’t even begin to fathom it.
Hillary Clinton’s victory speech, June 7, 2016:
Full transcript at Blue Nation Review.
Tuesday. May 31, 2016.
Take 1800, for example:
The election of 1800 started as a bitter fight, but a legitimate one, over federal powers and the role of the president. Jefferson thought that Adams had overstepped his bounds and was guilty of “a monarchie masque,” a masked monarchy. It was a matter for sober constitutional debate, but the campaign soon devolved into personal attacks, with Adams’s followers winning the early rounds. It was intimated in many quarters that there was something sinister about a man with philosophical pursuits. Jefferson’s side answered back in a style just as slithering. Meanwhile, the animosity against Jefferson soared to a strangely flattering exuberance. Federalist predictions credited Jefferson with organizational skills even he would have envied. “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught,” predicted a Connecticut newspaper, “---and practiced.”
---from Jefferson’s America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Nation by Julie M. Fenster.
And that election was between two of the greatest men in the history of the country. Jefferson won, by a whisker, and that was for the best, all in all. But we did end up with Aaron Burr as Vice-President and that turned out well, didn’t it?
Tuesday night. May 3, 2016.
In 1855, Abraham Lincoln was saddened and frustrated as he watched his old party, the Whigs, come apart and its remains reassemble themselves as the Know-Nothings. How heartsick must his ghost be as the party that once boasted it was his party goes the same horrible way:
Speed had asked Lincoln where he stood, and Lincoln said he didn’t know, that he still considered himself a Whig, although he understood that the Whig party was dying. He did not believe that his opposition to the extension of slavery placed him outside the the Whig mainstream. He continued, “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We know practically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty---to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocracy.”
------from Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled HIs Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
The “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History”, founded in his bedroom by eight-year old Theodore Roosevelt, got off to a shaky start:
While other children might have been content with a small collection of seashells or some neatly pressed flowers, Roosevelt’s collection included some truly grotesque finds. When he acquired a live snapping turtle---an aggressive pond-dweller covered in algae and decorated with a gruesome frill of leeches---the entire household rebelled.
…was also a future president:
Jostled by the swarms of fashionable shoppers, the boy continued along Broadway, glancing through the storefront windows, until he passed a familiar grocery, where something caught his eye. Amid the usual cartons of fruits and vegetables was an object strangely out of place, splayed out on a slab of wood. It was the dull mass of a seal, dead less than a day. Placed on display to attract paying customers, its corpulent body drew the child’s attention.
Sliding his hand along the seal’s glossy-smooth pelt and peering deeply into its clouding eyes, he was overwhelmed with interest. Its eyes were so big, and they were fringed with delicate eyelashes just like his own. Curious onlookers stood back, only a brave few leaning in for a closer look, but the little boy remained transfixed. It was probably a harbor seal, still fairly common in New York Harbor. So transfixed was the boy by this exotic creature that he raced home for a notebook and ruler, returning moments later to measure the carcass and jot down a few notes on its color and appearance. The eight-year-old boy then wrote a detailed natural history of seals based entirely on that one dead animal.
[He was eight, by the way.]
Economic inequality wasn’t at the top of Roosevelt’s list of concerns. Making sure people didn’t starve or freeze when they were out of work or old or disabled was. A workable form of social security enacted into law was his key to seeing to that and he was pragmatic about getting his program passed by Congress:
The need to get social security up and running compelled Roosevelt to accept a funding scheme that combined individual contributions with receipts from general revenues. In defending this compromise [my italics] to a critic who complained that the contributional aspect of the program, embodied in payroll taxes, did nothing to rectify economic inequality, the president explained, “I guess you’re right on the economics. But those taxes were never a problem of economics. They are politics all the way through. We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”
---from Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.W. Brands.
Actually, as much as he could be, he was. Roosevelt was always looking for ways to cut the federal budget. Which caused him a headache when he was trying to get Social Security up and running.
Roosevelt resisted applying the general taxing power to social security. As often as the [Committee on Economic Security whose job was to come up with the plans that would make the program workable] contended that taxes were necessary, the president responded, “Ah, but this is the same old dole under another name.” When the committee recommended funding part of the program with deferred taxes---that is, by increasing the current deficit and letting future generations pay the cost---he declared, “It is almost dishonest to build up an accumulated deficit….We can’t do that. We can’t sell the United States short in 1980 anymore than in 1935.”
---from Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.W. Brands.
Tuesday. New York Primary Day. April 19, 2016.
Keep this scene in mind if Joni Ernst---remember her?---becomes relevant again and you’re recalling what a laugh we liberals had over her boasts on the campaign trail that she knew how to castrate hogs:
Crucially, his liveliness and sociability served him well in politics. Campaigning again for the state legislature in 1834, he went out to a field where a group of about thirty men were working the harvest. A friend of Lincoln’s, J.R. Herndon, introduced him. The men said that they couldn’t vote for a man who didn’t know how to do field work. “Boys,” Lincoln said, “if that is all I am sure of your votes.” He picked up a scythe and went to work. “I don’t think he Lost a vote in the Croud,” Herndon wrote.
Lincoln won the election easily…
---from Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Lincoln certainly didn’t win that election because he could swing a scythe. At best he picked up a handful of votes that day, and it’s a good bet that at least a few of those men didn’t vote for him despite the demonstration of his handiness. Shenk doesn’t tell the story to make that point.
Only a fool would have been persuaded Lincoln was a competent state legislator, never mind a future president, because he knew which end of a scythe to grab hold of. That he didn’t slice his own leg off that day wasn’t predictive of his ability to craft a piece of labor legislation or, when it came time, lead the country through a civil war and save the Union. It’s just an anecdote---one of many---that illustrate Lincoln’s character and temperament and his ability to work a crowd on the campaign trail. He was a natural politician because he liked people and was at ease in all manner of company, and people were drawn to him and liked him back.
It marked him as a born leader and made him electable. It didn’t make him great, although the heart and soul and intelligence that were at the root of his likability may have done the trick. Come to think of it, his likability was probably a terrific asset when he became President since it kept certain doubters of his capability and intelligence---like Seward and Stanton---from dismissing him out of hand and had them paying attention long enough and close enough to realize what a remarkable man they were working for.
Still, it is, like I said, just one story among many illustrating his character.
But it’s the kind of campaign stunt voters have always gotten a kick out of and political reporters have always loved to jump on for a story, mainly because it’s easy to write up and because it’s human interest and human interest sells, and have always made too much of. They like to tell it as if it shows something they think is important about the candidate in question---his authenticity.
As many a more astute observer than I have noted, the word authenticity when used by a political journalist has no fixed meaning. It’s simply a multi-purpose tool of a word pundits and analysts who prefer writing drama criticism to writing about policy reach for when they want to add a note of, well, authenticity to another canned review of a candidate’s performance before an audience of “regular Americans.” Candidates gets raves or a pan depending on the the critic-reporters’ judgment of how well their act plays with the groundlings.
Candidates earn or lose stars based on how naturally they act like they’re just regular folks at heart.
Authentic acts of authenticity are usually performed at state fairs and factory gates and in small town diners and neighborhood bars, although from time to time you can catch a show at stops off the regular campaign trail, like subway turnstiles.
If the word has any...authenticity...it’s in how it describes how well in acting their natural selves candidates connect with voters acting their natural selves. The object of a candidate’s acting authentic is to say to voters, “I’m one of you. I know what your lives are like. I know what you’re going through” and have them believe it.
I don’t believe voters are all that concerned with the “I’m one of you part.” Not as much as journalists seem to think. People looking at a possible president don’t want a friend, as such. They’re not looking for someone to have a beer with. Their looking for someone who, if they were to have a beer with her, will listen with real understanding when they tell her the stories of their problems and pain. They’re looking for someone who will represent their interests knowledgeably and sympathetically. She doesn’t necessarily have to share those interests.
The most authentic candidate in that way this election campaign has been Donald Trump.
Yeah, you and I know he’s a fraud and a con artist. So do, at some level, many of his supporters. But they believe that even if he doesn’t really share them, he understands their problems and concerns, their fears, angers, and resentments, and their aspirations and, especially, their dreams of the golden mountains. And of course he does understand them. That's how con artists work. That’s why they're so good at manipulating and exploiting people. They understand them. Trump understands his voters. Will he represent them if he’s elected president? That’s a question they’ll worry about later. Right now, he speaks for them and to them in language they use themselves with apparently the same passion they feel, and that’s all the authenticity they need.
No need to bother judging the other Republicans who’ve gotten the hook. Cruz, though, is authentically Right Wing to the Rightest Wingers and authentically pietistic to plenty of Right Wing Evangelicals and authentically a weasel to weasels.
As for the Democrats, I find Berne authentically irritable, self-righteous, and scolding, but that’s me. Bernie’s supporters believe him to be authentically revolutionary and that’s all the authenticity they need. I think his authenticity is assumed by the media by virtue of his being not-a Clinton and that’s about the extent to which they’ve been at all interested him---as an authentic problem for her.
Meanwhile, Hillary can’t say her own name without its being judged politically calculated and too obviously scripted by a committee of pollsters. And she’s a poor actress. When she does say her own name she invariably puts the emphasis on the wrong syllables.
Apparently even her taste in condiments is inauthentic.
How’s she pandering by claiming she likes hot sauce? What’s the matter with her liking hot sauce? I like hot sauce. I don’t carry my own supply when I go out and I don’t put it on everything. But I will ask for it at diners if there’s not a bottle on the table and we always have some at the ready here at home. I like to slather it on scrambled eggs especially, even though it gives me the hiccups. I didn’t know it had political implications. I sure didn’t know Beyonce had pointedly mentioned black people’s supposed love of hot sauce in a song. As Mrs M gleefully and I thought a tad superciliously pointed out when I mentioned this, I’m not a member of the BeyHive. Considering how far out of things I generally am, it’s amazing I even know who Beyonce is.
But I believe Hillary’s love for hot sauce is authentic.. Explains the whole basis of her marriage to Bill, I think
“You put hot sauce on everything?”
“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?”
“Marry me, darlin’!”
As I mentioned, the point of “authenticity”, to the extent there is a point beyond giving lazy and bored journalists something easy and amusing to write about, is that an authentic politician is one who shows how well she’s at home in the company of regular folks, that she is to some “authentic” degree herself just like regular folks. Hillary’s reviews on this score are generally poor. The critics regularly find her performances lacking in that kind of authenticity.
But there are millions of women and girls not just in the United States but around the world who believe she’s been authentic in her commitment since she was in college to making their lives better, that she has worked authentically and with passion and success on their behalf, and they love her for it and will vote for her with the enthusiasm the reviewers agree she doesn’t inspire. Millions of men will too. Many of them white working class men. Hard to believe, I know. But it’s true. There are working class white men who love and admire her and going by what the pundits and analysts seem to think working class white men are the most regular folks of all the regular folks.
But that doesn’t make her regular folks. She’s not regular folks. None of them are. They didn’t get where they are and achieve what they’ve achieved by being regular folks. In fact, a good deal of their success is due to their having determined early in life to distinguish themselves from regular folk. They didn’t think of themselves as regular folk. They hoped and worked for a life for themselves better than that.
Of course Lincoln knew how to work a field and handle a scythe. He grew up on a farm. But:
It is a mark of Lincoln’s soaring ambition that, four years from the fields, he sought to [become a lawyer and join the ranks “of the growing number of urban and industrial professionals] at a time when all but five percent of the men in the area did manual work for a living. It was a sign of his pluck that he did it virtually all on his own. While other young men learned the law at universities---or, more commonly, under the tutelage of an established attorney---Lincoln, as he noted in his memoir, “studied with nobody.” This was hardly the only mark of his ambition. A lawyer named Lynn McNulty Greene remembered Lincoln telling him that “all his folks seemed to have good sense but none of them had become distinguished, and he believed it was for him to become so.” This language suggests that Lincoln had, more than a personal desire, a sense of calling. “Mr Lincoln,” explained his friend O.H. Browning, “believed that there was a predestined work for him in the world...Even in his early days he had a strong conviction that he was born for better things than then seemed likely or possible...While I think he was a man of very strong ambition, I think it had its origin in that sentiment, that he was destined for something nobler than he was for the time engaged in.”
Lincoln was good-natured, sociable, easy-going, comfortable among all sorts and conditions of men and women. He liked people and they liked him back. He was popular. But he was different.
It wasn’t just that he was smarter and more driven than most regular folks. He was dreamy, artistically minded, literary, and intellectual. He read a lot. Hardly news there. And while plenty of people, particularly older, established, and successful professional men, including politicians and party leaders who promoted his career, admired him for it, liked him for it, and even voted for him because of it.---He had a way with words. Also not news. It was thanks to all that book-learning regular folks are often said to have no use for.---there were many people who didn’t like any of that about him and even looked down on him for it.
To men who had been born and expected to die on farms, book learning had limited value, a man ought to be able to read the Bible (for his moral life) and legal documents (for his work life). Writing could help too, as could basic arithmetic. Anything more was a luxury, and for working folks seemed frivolous. For generations, Lincoln men had cleared land, raised crops, and worked a trade. So when this boy slipped away from feeding livestock and splitting logs to write poetry and read stories, people thought him lazy. “Lincoln was lazy---a very lazy man,” remembered his cousin Dennis Hanks. “He was always reading---scribbling---writing---ciphering---writing poetry &c. &c.”
Later, Lincoln’s self-education would become the stuff of legend. Many parents have cited Lincoln’s long walks to school and ferocious self-discipline to their children. But Lincoln pursued his interests in defiance of established norms. Far from being praised, he was consistently admonished.
And he wasn’t always politic enough or “authentic” enough to keep his more profound differences to himself:
As decisively as Lincoln left the rural life, he left the Baptist church as well. In New Salem he became widely known as an infidel. He rejected eternal damnation, innate sin, the divinity of Jesus, and the infallibility of the Bible. For a time it seemed there was nothing sacred that Lincoln didn’t reject. He recited the poetry of Robert Burns, the notorious Scottish freethinker. He carried around a Bible, reading passages and arguing against them. It reached a point where it hurt Lincoln politically, with people loudly refusing to vote for a man with such “shocking” views. When Lincoln put his ideas about the Bible and Christ on paper, even one of his fellow skeptics thought he’d gone too far, and threw the manuscript into the fire.
I wonder what kind of reviews that much authenticity in a presidential candidate would get today.
Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk is available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.
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How do you qualify for that job?
You hold it. It's on the job training. The only presidential candidates who were qualified at the time of their elections were those who were already president.
That's a group that includes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Barack Obama.
It also includes Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Lyndon Johnson, problematic figures in different ways.
Then we have Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
All qualified. But qualified to do what?
Now look at the list of those deemed by voters to have unqualified themselves for second terms despite their impressive lists of qualifications that helped them win first terms by having failed at the job. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Herbert Hoover, and George Herbert Walker Bush.
Hard to invent more qualifying resumes for prospective presidents than the ones they each boasted when they were first elected.
Hillary Clinton boasts one of the best resumes of anyone who's ever applied for the job. Only Jefferson's and FDR's were significantly better.
Which is persuasive but not entirely case-closing when you consider that while the group with resumes as impressive as hers, besides including Madison and Monroe, also includes both Adamses, Van Buren, Hoover, Nixon, and the first George Bush.
As anyone who's ever had to screen job applicants will tell you it's common to come across a resume with a long list of qualifications that don't signify real achievement and even mask a long career of incompetence and failure. There are plenty of people who argue that Hillary Clinton’s is one of those resumes. I think that’s what Bernie Sanders meant when he called her unqualified.
Meanwhile a very thin resume can belong to the most exceptional people.
The presidents with the fewest qualifications on paper include Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama.
But not every qualification shows up on paper.
Lincoln was famously underestimated by political opponents and rivals and dismissed with contempt by many who observed him from a distance. But those who knew him and worked with him in Illinois didn’t make that mistake. Obama has been similarly underestimated and has faced a greater degree of contempt but, again, those who know him and work with him don’t make that mistake or persist long in continuing to make it. At every step in their political careers---and in the case of Lincoln his professional career and in the case of Obama his academic one---they impressed older and more experienced colleagues, mentors, and leaders with their intelligence, diligence, drive, persuasiveness, talent for leadership, and their ability to learn and grow. They were ambitious, of course, but it wasn’t just ambition that propelled them up the ladder. It was also the boosts they got from influential and powerful political leaders who were impressed by their accomplishments and saw in them potential for even greater achievement.
And they achieved what they did because they were prepared. They’d devoted themselves to preparing. They’d done the thinking and the required homework. Each step up readied them for the next step. At each step they began preparing for the next. Effectively then, they were preparing to become president from the moment they decided to enter politics.
Bernie Sanders’ eight years as mayor of Burlington, sixteen years in the United States House of Representatives, and nine in the U.S. Senate gives him a more imposing resume than either of them had when they ran for president. But there’s not much sign in Sanders’ biography that he’s ever done the same kind of preparation. And why would he have? He was working hard at being something else. He chose to be a voice of conscience instead of a leader. An agitator and a prophet not a king. He doesn’t seem to have decided he wanted to be president until last year. So it would make sense that he wasn’t preparing for it. But then he doesn’t seem to be trying to make up for it. He’s not given himself a crash course in presidenting. He’s not preparing as he goes. He doesn’t seem to think he needs to. He seems to think that having the right ideas is the same as knowing how to put those ideas into successful action.
This means he doesn’t understand what the job he’s applying for entails.
He wouldn’t be the first job applicant to make that mistake.
This, I’m pretty sure, is what Clinton was implying when she didn’t call him unqualified but did slyly call his qualifications into question. She was saying “He doesn’t understand what it means to be President and I do. He hasn’t prepared so he isn’t prepared and I have so I am.”
One of the criticisms of Clinton is that she is too much of a wonk’s wonk. She prefers to put policy ahead of principle...and people. I don’t agree but she does give that impression sometimes. Voters like Bernie because there’s nothing wonkish about him. To him, principle is policy. But as a wonk, Clinton knows her stuff and she knows when others don’t know theirs. She sees that Sanders doesn’t know the stuff he needs to know, at least not as well as he needs to know it and she’s less than impressed.
Sanders supporters have been trying to explain away his interview with the New York Daily News. His apparent inability to explain his own positions was the fault of the Daily News editors asking the wrong sorts of questions. Hostile and biased critics like Paul Krugman---especially Paul Krugman. Boy, do they hate Krugman these days!---are deliberately misinterpreting his answers. Krugman is just plain dead wrong! Bernie’s answers were fine. He was right on the merits. He was right in principle. He could have answered in more persuasive detail, if he’d wanted to, he just didn’t think it was the time or the place. Really, trust us, he knows his stuff!
But as far as I’ve seen, their defense focuses on what he said about Dodd-Frank and how he intends to use it to break up the big banks, and it wasn’t just on that subject where he failed to show he’s done his homework and it hasn’t just been in that interview where he’s failed to show that. It’s happened in debates when he’s routinely given excerpts from his stump speeches in place of detailed explanations of his own plans. His stump speeches themselves tend to be vague on the details.
Bernie is right on the merits and in principle about many things. But he doesn’t seem to think he needs to be able to explain how he’d be right in practice. Clinton has picked up on this. He questions her judgment. That’s what he meant when he called her unqualified. Her instances of poor judgment disqualifies her. But she questions his intellectual discipline and depth of thought. That’s what she meant when she implied he’s unqualified. His lack of preparation disqualifies him.
Then there’s this.
Lincoln---and this is important for Sanders supporters to note---was a party man. He was a stalwart and very active Whig, a party leader in the state legislature, in fact, and a diligent campaigner on behalf of the Whig candidates for president in 1840 and 1844, William Henry Harrison and Henry Clay. When the Whigs disintegrated, he was instrumental in helping to build the Republican Party in Illinois and nationally.
Bernie is not a party man.
It’s not just that he’s not been a good Democrat. He disdains the party even as he seeks to be its nominee. That’s a central irony of his campaign. He’s running for the party’s nomination by running against it.
I don’t understand why he doesn’t seem worried it’ll come back to haunt him if he wins.
Lincoln and Obama, who was also a party man, had histories of working well with colleagues and even political opponents to get things done. Sanders has a history of deliberately irritating colleagues and even going out of his way to make enemies of them. There’s a reason he has a problem with the superdelegates besides the game’s being rigged. The superdelegates are all party men and women who know how important it is to be able to work together in order to get things done. How Sanders plans to solve problems without help from these people is something else he doesn’t seem prepared to explain.
They’ll come around, he says, because they’ll have to.
The undeniable righteousness of Bernie’s program will leave them no choice.
An approach that’s worked for no president in the past.
In fact, I can think of only one who even tried it, probably because none of the others saw it as a viable method for solving problems.
But then Bernie’s never struck me as much of a problem-solver. That’s one of my reservations about him. He doesn’t strike Pop Mannion as a problem-solver either.
Pop has been a problem-solver all his life. Solving problems was what he did as a scientist and college professor. It’s what he did as town supervisor. This is why he’s come around on Hillary, whom he was slow to warm to. She strikes him as a fellow problem-solver. And like I just said, Bernie doesn’t strike him as a problem solver. In fact, Bernie reminds him of too many politicians he had to deal with when he was in office, Democrats and Republicans, who were very good at identifying problems but had no real ideas about how to solve them. They seemed to think that yelling about a problem was the same as offering a solution. Then when somebody like Pop went to work and solved the problem, they yelled about how it wasn’t solved in a way they liked. That’s how he sees Bernie. Someone very good at yelling about problems. Plus he thinks Bernie’s grumpy, thin-skinned, and too easily irritated, not exactly presidential traits, certainly not traits of Pop’s favorite President, Franklin Roosevelt, who, of course, was a consummate problem-solver, the perfect blend of pragmatist and idealist, and, not incidentally, a true party man.
Which brings me to this.
There’s another name on the list of Presidents who came to office with thin resumes. Jimmy Carter.
Carter was a better president than he’s given credit for, and he was one of the smartest and best men to hold the office. But he still wasn’t a very good president, because he was temperamentally unsuited for the job. He was self-righteous, self-certain, too easily irritated, thin-skinned, and, well, grumpy. And he was too willing to go it alone. He thought of himself as a problem-solver but he believed he could solve too many problems on his own and, more damaging to his own cause, he believed that the rightness and the righteousness of his proposed solutions were self-evident and people should simply accept them on his say so. This attitude didn’t win over many people he needed to work with him, including his fellow Democrats in Congress. It took a special talent to alienate the likes of Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy.
And that’s who Bernie reminds me of. Jimmy Carter. And that’s what disqualifies him in my mind.
Keep in mind that I think the world of Jimmy Carter. He’s a great man. Just as importantly, he’s a good one. But as much as I worry about Bernie’s lack of preparation and his seeming not to understand what it takes to be an effective president, I worry about his Carter-esque My Way or the Highway self-righteousness and self-certainty. Carter did not suffer people he judged fools gladly. Bernie seems glad to have judged someone a fool and to make sure they know it.
I just can’t bring myself to look forward to having another self-defeating sanctimonious scold in the White House.
Because it seems these things need to be said even though they should be taken for granted: I’m a party man through and through. In my mind Bernie would be qualified to be president by virtue of his being the Democratic nominee. It’s ridiculous to me to say he’ll be better than whichever of the two Right Wing demagogues the Republicans are likely to nominate. It’s like saying I prefer a walk in the park to being caught at sea in a dismasted schooner during a typhoon. It’s like saying when told I can’t have geothermal I have to “settle” for solar, “At least it’s better than setting the house on fire.”
You probably noticed I left two names out of the post till now, a pair of incumbents voters judged had qualified for second terms. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush is such an obvious case of someone unqualified by virtue of being unprepared and not smart enough for the job, he isn’t worth bothering with. Writing about Clinton, though, would have me doing what I’m continually advising my students not do: Don’t start fights you don’t have time or space to finish.
Here’s the transcript of Sanders’ interview with the Daily News and the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart’s analysis, 9 things Bernie Sanders should’ve known about but didn’t in that Daily News interview.
At MTV News, Bernie supporter Ezekiel Kweku thinks Bernie needs to “Inspire more. Explain less.” Of course I think there’s a problem with that advice, but you should read Kweku’s post, What Should Bernie Do Now?
Jonathan Cohn says at Huffington Post that This One Line Sums Up The Big Clinton-Sanders Policy Argument.
Mickey Hirten a former editor of the Burlington, Vermont Free Press explains The Trouble With Bernie. Echoes of this can be heard at the New York Times in Patrick Healy’s story Bernie Sanders’s Campaign Past Reveals Willingness to Play Hardball.
And as if I haven’t given you enough to read, here’s former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin reflecting on the time Bernie Sanders ran against her in her bid for re-election. Kunin was and is a Democrat. Back then Bernie decidedly wasn’t.
And just for the fun of it you should read the villainous self-admitted corporate whore Paul Krugman on why he hasn’t felt the Bern.
For a good sense of what Jimmy Carter was like at his best and a hit at the character flaws that contributed to his undoing I heartily recommend Lawrence Wright’s narrative history of the Camp David Summit, Thirteen Days in September: The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace, available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.
A stalwart Whig:
Lincoln’s career suffered with the [internal improvements] program he had strongly advocated. In August 1840, he was reelected to the legislature--- but narrowly, with the fewest votes of any successful candidate. His colleagues frankly acknowledged that he, along with other partisans for internal improvements, would not be a viable candidate for higher office. That same season, Lincoln lost the biggest political fight of his young career when William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate for president, lost Illinois, despite Lincoln’s ferocious politicking. (Harrison did win the White House.) Before Lincoln returned to Springfield, he spent most of the year traveling, going over hard roads, eating lousy food, giving political speeches to mostly hostile crowds, and scrounging up legal work to pay his bills. “In short,” Douglas Wilson writes, “arriving in Springfield in November 1840, Lincoln must have been physically and emotionally exhausted.”
But he got no relief. Along with a stiff workload in the courts---in December, he had nine cases before the state supreme court alone---Lincoln had to serve as Whig floor leader for a special session of the legislature, which convened on November 23 to address the debt crisis. Lincoln put forward a bill---“with great diffidence,” he said---to borrow more money and raise new taxes in order to deal with the stupefying state debt. While he worked to put out one political fire, a new one erupted…
---from Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled HIs Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
I wonder if he knew how close he was to inventing a central plank of what we know as Keynsianism or if he was simply being intuitive:
While many politicians backed internal improvements for political or pecuniary gain, Lincoln was a true believer. At first, this redounded to his advantage. But in 1837, the United States fell into one of the worst financial depressions of its young history. Across the country, scores of banks failed. Unemployment and ruined fortunes led to food riots. In Illinois, which had been propped up by land speculation and massive state spending, the debt exploded from $400,000 in 1836 to $6.5 million in 1838---compared with a puny $150,000 in annual revenue.
Early in the crisis, erstwhile backers abandoned the internal improvements program. But Lincoln fought to expand it. When the canals and roads were finished, he argued, the state would reap the rewards, so it ought to endure the short-term pain. Thus Lincoln tied his reputation to a disastrous policy. By the fall of 1839, with the debt rising and with mounting evidence of corruption among private builders, the projects were shut down--- “without benefit of clergy,” Lincoln noted sardonically.
---from Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled HIs Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
St Patrick's Day post. He was an Irishman, after all.
Maybe you remember how last month when the Mannion gang was having lunch at a restaurant called Lillie’s in Greenwich Village I got lied to by the maitre d’. I’d asked him why the burger I’d ordered was called the Oscar Wilde Burger and he responded with a lulu.
Lillie’s is named for the actress Lillie Langtry. She and Wilde knew each other socially and professionally, so it makes sense, sticking with the restaurant’s theme, there’d be an item on the menu named after him. But the maitre d’ apparently thought that that was too boring an explanation.
He said---confided might be the better word, considering his mischievous furtiveness as it practically whispered his information---it was because Wilde and Lillie were secret lovers and she used to serve him a burger like this whenever he stayed over at her apartment when they were both living in New York. The maitre d’ didn’t mention it, but that would have been in 1882.
The maitre d’ might have been telling two lies there. It’s not clear hamburgers as we know them had been invented during Wilde’s lifetime. But the obvious and egregious lie was that they were lovers. Wilde was gay and as far as anyone knows he had sex with only one woman during his entire life, his wife. If he had a secret affair with Langtry, they kept it really secret. But they were friends and the story of their friendship is actually more interesting than any conventional heterosexual adultery.
Before I looked into it, I assumed Wilde and Langtry were brought together by their work in the theater. It turns out that Wilde helped Langtry begin her career as an actress.
She was already a celebrity when they met, “a society beauty who owed her fame to her status as the mistress of the Prince of Wale,” according to David M. Friedman, author of Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity. Wilde was smitten with her but platonically and, perhaps, opportunistically. Friedman suggests his infatuation with Langtry---he had a shrine to her in his apartment---was something of a career move. Wilde, Friedman writes, “believed any poet worthy of the name needed a public passion; if it was unrequited, that only made it more poetic. Lillie Langtry would be his passion.”
So he showered her with public adoration that was impossible to ignore, not just by Langtry but by all of London society...He “always made a point of bringing me flowers,” Langtry wrote in her memoir, “but he [couldn’t] afford great posies, so...he would buy me a single gorgeous amaryllis...and stroll down Piccadilly, carefully carrying the solitary flower.” It was said that Mr Langtry [Lillie was married. The Victorians weren't as Victorian as they liked to let on.] returned home late one night after a long night of socializing (without his wife) to find Wilde asleep outside the entrance to the Langtrys; apartment, snoring as he clutched a solitary blossom to his heaving chest…
...invited her to parties in his home on Salisbury Street. He gave her advice on fashion and told her what novels to read. He took her to museums and art galleries. He urged her to become an actress and found her an acting coach. He even became her personal classics tutor. When Sir Charles Newton, the man who unearthed the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus---of the the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World---gave a lecture at King’s College, London, Wilde brought Langtry there in a carriage, from which they alighted, waving like royalty to their fellow lecture-goers. After Langtry studied the Iliad, Wilde wrote a poem about her titled “The New Helen.”
There’s enough to have earned his having a sandwich named in his honor at “her” restaurant right there. But there’s more to go with it.
In October of 1882, Langtry came to New York to star in a play by the author of Our American Cousin, the play Lincoln was watching when John Wilkes Booth shot him. Wilde was in the city, resting up before heading home to London after a nine-month lecture tour of the United States that took him to 150 cities on a circuit that covered around 15,000 miles. Wilde met her ship at the dock---”I would rather have discovered Mrs Langtry than have discovered America,” he told reporters waiting for her arrival with him.---and he spent the next few weeks showing her around and showing her off, acting as her guide to the city and introducing her into New York society. They didn’t spend as much time together as Wilde would have liked, though. For one thing she was busy with rehearsals. For another…
Rather than spending her free time with him, she was spending it with Freddie Gebhard, and American playboy and heir to a huge real estate and manufacturing fortune, who was happy to spend vast sums of money to keep her entertained and by his side.
Maybe Lillie’s should serve a Freddie Gebhard burger. Then the maitre d’ would have a story perhaps more to his liking to tell.
The painting up top, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, was painted by William Powell Frith in 1883. It depicts Wilde, standing just off to the right of center in a top hat and a velvet coat with a lily in the buttonhole, holding forth to a pair of female admirers on his theories of art and beauty. The crowd around him includes a number of other people who were well-known in their day, several of whom whose fame has lasted: Anthony Trollope, Robert Browning, Thomas Huxley, John Tenniel, Prime Minister William Gladstone (Gladstone’s rival Benjamin Disraeli appears by proxy in the form of two portraits of him on the gallery walls), and the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Lillie Langtry is there, wearing a white dress and standing just off to Wilde’s right (our left). She doesn’t appear to be paying attention to him.
Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity by David M. Friedman is available in hardcover and for kindle at Amazon.
March 10, 2016.
Many people looking at the images from Trump’s rally in Florida Saturday have thought it looked like what a headline writer at Huffington Post said it looked like, a scene from Nazi Germany.
Looked to me like a roomful of goofy white people acting like goofy white people.
Nazi Germany looked like something very specific. Nazi Germany.
That’s not a tautology. Nazi Germany was a triumph of design as well as of the will. The look---the uniforms, the arm bands, the flags, the swastikas and eagles, the goosestepping, the architecture, the hundreds and thousands of right arms shooting up in unison---was a carefully considered construct. The imagery and iconography had a totemistic purpose, to make people feel like Nazis, to think and act like Nazis. To make them Nazis. Trump voters wear those silly red ballcaps like campaign buttons. Germans put on the red armbands to share in the power. The Nazi salute was a ritual. The people at the Trump rally weren’t saluting. They were raising their right hands because that’s what Americans do when we swear an oath in public. It's just a gesture.
I’m not saying Trump isn’t a crypto-fascist. (I can’t say if he is or isn’t, because who knows what’s going on under that weave?) I’m not saying that none of his voters are fascist. Adjective there, fascist, not a noun, fascists. I don’t know if it’s their temperament or a belief system. I don’t know any of them. From what I’ve read, some of them sound like fascists. Most of them sound like run of the mill racists. None of them, though, sound or look like Nazis. And the point I’m making is that when you call someone a Nazi, they’d better look like a Nazi.
Tell people Trump’s Hitler and they’ll look for the mustache. Tell them his voters are his brownshirts and they’ll look for the brown shirts. And the jodhpurs and the riding boots.
And the armbands.
When they don’t see any of those, they’ll rightly want to know Was zum Teufel you’re talking about.
Which is generally not an opening for a reasonable political discussion.
Trump is an infection. And you have to diagnose an infection correctly before you can stop it from spreading.
Calling Trump and his followers fascists doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t describe them. It doesn’t explain them. It’s just name-calling.
There are plenty of better words for what Trump is beside fascist. Words that do describe him and explain him and explain what he’s up to and what he’s doing to the body politic. Liar. Fraud. Con man. Bully. Boor. Bore. Racist. Know-nothing. Tyrant. Despot. Tin-pot dictator. Ego-maniac. Jerk.
Like I said, I don’t know if Trump himself is a fascist. But I don’t think he is. I think he’s a would-be dictator and dictators come in all political flavors. Temperamentally, he’s a tyrant and like so many tyrants he’s all over the place in his thinking because he’s driven by vanity, appetite, and whim. You can’t be a good fascist if you’re not disciplined. But you can tyrannize with a vengeance.
Beyond that, Trump doesn’t remind me of a Hitler because, beside not being, as far as I can tell, a militarist and not calling for a merging of industry, church, and state, he’s too much in the American grain. Americans didn’t need fascists to invent racism and xenophobia for us or to teach us how to make hatred the foundation of our politics. Trump is in a line with Huey Long and George Wallace and that’s bad enough.
My Martin Luther King's Birthday post, January 18, 2016.
Yep, that ridiculous claim is making the rounds again, that Martin Luther King was a Republican.
Of course anyone making the claim is ignoring what he was planning when he died and what he was doing in Memphis the day he was murdered.
King had decided that late next spring---the spring of 1968---he would return to the Washington Mall, the site of his triumphant “I have a dream” speech. Only this time, he envisioned something much more confrontational than an afternoon of soaring oratory. He would bring an army of poor people from all around the country---not just African-Americans, but indigents from various Indian tribes, whites from Appalachia, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Eskimos, Pacific Islanders from the U.S. territories. They would camp out on the Mall for weeks, living in a vast shantytown at the foot of the monuments. They would paralyze the city. They would tie-up traffic. They would hold daily sit-ins in the halls of government. They would occupy the nation’s capital and refuse to leave until their demands were met. It would be an act of civil disobedience on a scale never witnessed before…
This was to be the beginning of what King called the Poor People’s Campaign. Here’s more from Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides’ terrific book on King’s assassination and the manhunt for his killer James Earl Ray:
King had been moving in this direction for years, but his thinking had really crystallized over the summer [of 1967], after the horrific riots in Detroit and Newark led him to believe that America---its structure and its practices, its very idea---was in serious trouble. “For years,” he said, “I labored with reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
America, he now believed, had become a sick society in need of “radical moral surgery.” It had become arrogant, selfish, more interested in things than in people. Washington was moving forward with its disastrous war in Southeast Asia while pursuing policies that seemed to be taking the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. “My own government,” he said, has become “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
The specter of mass riots was a symptom of a larger disease within the body politic, he said. Consumed by Vietnam, the space race, and other expensive military-industrial projects, the government was unwilling to confront the appalling conditions in the ghettos of America. This lack of compassion was shortsighted, he felt, for if something wasn’t done immediately, there would be more race-riots next summer---much more destructive riots. King genuinely feared the country might slip into a race war that would lead, ultimately, to a right-wing take over and a kind of fascist police state.
I’m damned if I can find the Republican in any of that, even the type of liberal Republican who still existed and held major state and national political offices at the time. I wouldn’t claim him for the Democrats. He was too good for us too. And there’s good reason to think he’d have been ambivalent, to put it mildly, about the Democratic Party. He was a Southerner and although he grew up during the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic Party in the South was the party of Jim Crow, segregation, white supremacy, the Klan, and lynching, and FDR not only couldn’t break the power of the Southern Democrats in Congress, he made deals with them. His greatest nemesis in the Civil Rights era, George Wallace, was a Democrat. Of course, he’d have seen liberal Democrats (who were mostly Northerners) as friends and allies, but he wouldn’t have seen all Republicans as enemies or even antagonists. Many were more committed to the cause of civil rights than some liberal Democrats. And it was Dwight Eisenhower who put the power of the federal government behind desegregation. At least in public, King was emphatically non-partisan, seeking, needing, and wanting the help and support and change of heart of all Americans, regardless of party. So even if he actually belonged to one party or the other, he acted as if he didn’t. That is, he didn’t let partisanship guide or limit his thinking and his courses of action.
The corporatists had taken control of the Republican Party back in 1920, ending the party’s progressive history and setting it on the path to decades of obsessive attempts to undo the New Deal. And in the 1950s the Radical Right was on the rise and by the 1960s, it was in the ascendant. It was the party of Goldwater. Its rising star was Ronald Reagan. The liberal Republicans who supported civil rights and helped get the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed were fast losing influence. The Southern Strategy was being put in effect---the GOP didn’t need to wait for Nixon. The Republicans were welcoming into the party the segregationists being pushed out the door by the Democrats. And on top of that, Vietnam was becoming the Republicans’ war. By 1968, King might not have been ready to openly declare himself a Democrat, but there was no way he would have called himself a Republican.
He certainly didn’t sound like one. Not in this speech Sides describes in Hellhound on his Trail, at any rate:
...When King entered the cavernous hall and stepped up to the podium, he found more than fifteen thousand cheering fans packed inside.
After the roar subsided, King greeted the sanitation workers and congratulated them for their struggle. “You are demonstrating,” he began, “that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person is down, we are all down. You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”
King spoke for an hour, almost entirely without notes…”With Selma and the voting rights bill,” he said, “one era came to a close. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a cup of coffee?”
King moved toward a broad indictment of American society---how could a nation so rich and technologically innovative fail to recognize the misery of its poorest citizens? “We built gigantic buildings to kiss the sky,” King said, and “gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our spaceships we carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our submarines we penetrate the oceanic depths. But it seems I can hear the God of the universe saying, ‘Even though you’ve done all that, I was hungry and you fed me not. I was naked and you clothed me not. So you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.’”
King gave that speech just a few weeks before he died. Which brings me to what he was doing in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He was there to support and march with striking sanitation workers who were trying to unionize.
Find me a Republican today who is pro-union. Even back then they were few and far between. If Martin Luther King was a Republican, he wasn’t a very good one.
You don’t need me to tell you any of this. But it’s good to be reminded and in that way Republicans trying to claim him are doing the country a favor by opening up the opportunity to remind everyone that Martin Luther King wasn’t simply a saint and martyr in the noble deliberately sentimentalized (so as not to embarrass the white folks) cause of civil rights. Whether he belonged to a particular political party or to no party, he was a consciously political figure with definite political and economic ideas, plans, and goals that were not just liberal but by the time he died radically leftist.
So, if we’re to honor his memory, we should do it with more than recitations of “I have a dream.” We should be following his political lead.
Which brings me to back to Hellhound on his Trail and this: I think Bernie Sanders’ supporters make too much of his having been active in civil rights protests in his youth. It’s an admirable chapter in his biography, but no good deeds you do in your twenties, no matter how admirable, buy you a pass for life. African-Americans have good reason to ask, “What have you done for us, lately and what do you plan to do for us if you get to the White House?” Sanders has been somewhat tone-deaf in his replies, but his answer has been basically, “I’m the one who’s been most consistently following Martin’s political lead!”
For years, King had been accused of being a secret Communist, which was flatly untrue, but for several years he had been moving toward advocating a form of democratic socialism similar to that practiced in Scandinavia (a notion inspired by his 1964 visit to Sweden and Norway to collect his Nobel Peace Prize). “The good and just society,” he said, “is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism.”
It’s really a silly intellectual parlor game to argue over where an historical figure would have stood on issues of the present day. I think it’s a fair criticism to say of Hillary Clinton that she is more the candidate of the pre-1967 Martin Luther King, a reformer of “the existing institutions of society, [advocating] a little change here, a little change there.” I don’t agree, completely. I’d leave out the two “a-s” and “littles” and wouldn’t call it a criticism. But there’s no arguing that Bernie is the candidate whose politics and policies are most in line with what King was advocating in the months leading up to his death. King was on the verge of becoming what Bernie unabashedly is, a radical social democrat.
I’m not saying that if he was alive today (and he wouldn’t be that old. Eighty-seven this birthday), he’d be endorsing Bernie. Like I said, that sort of argument is silly. Anyway, it would have been in keeping with his character to refrain from endorsing either one, at least until one or the other won the nomination. My point isn’t where either Clinton or Sanders stand in relation to Martin Luther King politically.
It’s to remember what he stood for.
Which, again, and to put it mildly, was not the current version of Republicanism.
From the speech King gave the night before he was murdered, eerie in King's seeming premonition:
Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History really is a great book, read both as history and a gripping crime story. It’s available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.
January 14, 2016.
Better question: Why would you expect them to?
This is called giving the game away.
[FDR] could do as he pleased with the dollar, and the South would utter no protest---rich and poor, white and black alike, the citizens of Dixie wanted cotton prices to rise. But if Roosevelt used federal dollars to hire poor people---especially black people---at a higher wage than the one that prevailed in the cotton South, white politicians would protest. Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia passed along a constituent’s complaint about [Civil Works Administration] wages summing up southern opposition: “I wouldn’t plow nobody’s mule from sunrise to sunset for 50 cents a day when I could get $1.30 [from the CWA] for pretending to work on a DITCH.”
That’s from The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace by Eric Rauchway.
My old friend Rennie’s father was a proud union man. Shop steward at the factory where he was a foreman. And he raised his son to hate the bosses. The owner class. What they want, he told Rennie, was cheap domestic labor. Servants. To maintain a pool of workers desperate enough to bow and scrape and tug their forelocks for practically nothing the owners needed that there be little or no attractive alternatives. Whatever other work was out there had to pay worse and humiliate and degrade you more. So it was in the owners’ interests to keep wages down everywhere, in every industry and line of work, and to make sure that what jobs there were, even at low pay and with sorry conditions, were few and far between. This would make sure the servants would be grateful to have their jobs and desperate to keep them.
That’s one of the reasons the owners hate unions, said Old Man Rennie. Unions get workers good pay, safe working conditions, and respect. But it’s also why they hate government spending that alleviates poverty and creates jobs: it gives the servant class an alternative to being servants, because why would anyone plow a mule from sunrise to sunset for 50 cents a day if there was any better choice?
Rennie’s dad was being figurative as well as literal. He knew that owners thought of anyone who worked for them as servants, whether they plowed a field, made a bed, built a turbine, or created a spreadsheet. You took their money, they owned you.
Governor Tallmadge’s constituent was whining about the New Deal in 1933. But the whine has persisted for eighty-odd years. Presumably the constituent was a farmer, never a guaranteed road to riches. And it was the Depression. He was probably struggling and the prospect of having to pay his field hands even a little more money would have made him worried it would break him. But you’ll notice that he’s aware that the work he needs done is onerous and the pay he’s offering is for shit. So you have to wonder.
If he knows the job is miserable and he’s not willing to pay enough to make it worth it, how can he in good conscience ask anyone to work for him?
That’s easily taken care of: by turning things around so that he’s not the exploiter, he’s the exploited.
He’s not the bad guy here.They are.
There’s unconcealed contempt for the people he needs to hire in what he’s saying and a sense of personal aggrievement---he feels he’s owed their labor. He shouldn’t have to ask anyone to work for him. People should be begging him to hire them.
Anyone who would take the job, who needs the job, is lucky to have the job, because they don’t deserve anything better. The fact they would even hope for something better is a sign of their moral failing. They should know their place and keep to it. But they’re a pack of lazy cheats, unwilling to put in an honest day’s work, happy and eager to take the government’s money---taxpayers’ money, the farmer’s money---to do nothing. And by offering the option, the government is complicit in the cheating. (Note that it’s taken as a given that the jobs the government’s offering aren’t real jobs. The work is “pretend” work.) The poor farmer is being cheated out of the cheap hired help he needs to make a living and out of the little hard-earned money he has left after paying the lazy good for nothings their exorbitant wages.
Fundamental to the farmer’s complaint is that some people were put on this earth simply to be used by him to make money.
That’s an attitude that goes back to the beginning of human consciousness when someone with a heavy club decided he didn’t want to do the work himself or share the bounty.
But it’s persisted for eighty years in the United States in the owner class’s furious opposition to every program, policy, initiative, and social movement---intended to improve the lots and bargaining positions of workers. Unions, the New Deal, Social Security, the Great Society, Medicare, food stamps, disability, unemployment, raising the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, family leave, Obamacare, even fixing roads and building new schools and bridges, even public education---all weaken the owner class’s power to reduce other people to servanthood.
Rennie’s dad was right. It gets down to these questions:
Who owns the country, the rich or the rest of us?
Why do of why we have a country, to protect rich people's money or to give the rest of us a decent place to live?
And, most basically, what are people for?