I’m still kicking myself for having missed the Democratic primary here and blown my chance to vote against Andrew Cuomo twice.
You can be sure I’ll be voting against him next month, but here’s the thing.
I really shouldn’t be having to vote against him at all.
I mean two things by that.
One is that as a good Franklin Roosevelt-revering liberal Democrat from New York I shouldn’t be presented with the likes of Andrew Cuomo on the ballot as the Democratic nominee for governor at all.
As I’ve said, Cuomo isn’t a closet Republican. Also, as I’ve said, the proper term for a Democrat who isn’t a good and reliable liberal isn’t Republican, it’s wrong. No, Cuomo’s a Democrat through and through, just not a liberal enough one. He worries too much about the care and feeding of millionaires. But in addition to that, he hates other liberal Democratic politicians and just about every organized bloc of the Democratic base and much of what he does that isn’t liberal he doesn’t do to be conservative. He does it to show them who’s boss.
This goes way back with him, to when his father was governor.
He blames them as much, heck, probably more, than he blames Republicans for the hard time they gave Mario Cuomo and how they got in the way of Mario’s getting things done. We’ll have to wait for the biographies, but I suspect Andrew blames his father too, for not being tough enough and ruthless enough in his dealings with them. Andrew may not be as smart as his father (although I’m not sure he knows that), he may not be as eloquent, he’s definitely not as charismatic, but he’s sure as hell meaner, and that counts for a lot, in his own mind, at any rate. Whatever reverse Hamletesque psychodrama he might be playing out, however, he’s apparently motivated by the determination to oppose them. If they want something, he doesn’t. If they don’t want it, he does.
Charles Pierce dislikes the guy as much as I do. Thinks he’s horrible, as a matter of fact. Despises “the cynical, nasty, and high-handed way he conducts himself in office.”
This also goes way back with Andrew.
I used to hear it from friends who worked with him in the Clinton administration.
I heard it from friends who worked in his father’s administration and from reporters who covered Mario back then.
And it’s not the way he conducts himself “in office.”
It’s the way he conducts himself, period.
It’s him. How he is. Who he is.
That a politician is an arrogant jerk isn’t in itself necessarily a reason to vote against him, just as someone’s being a nice guy isn’t in itself a reason to vote for him. The same qualifier applies to both.
Does his jerkiness or niceness get in the way of his getting the stuff done that needs to get done?
Cuomo’s jerkiness doesn’t get the way of his getting stuff done he wants done, but it gets in the way of his getting stuff done that needs to get done because it makes him just not want to do it.He wants everything his way or…his way.
Nobody tells Andrew Cuomo what to do, especially not his liberal and Democratic rivals.
He wants everything his way or…his way.
So that’s why it’s going to be satisfying to vote against him even if I only get to do it once.
I have to admit, though, it probably wouldn’t feel so satisfying if by voting against him I was really helping his Republican opponent win.
The other way I mean I shouldn’t have to be voting for or against Andrew involves the What Could’ve Been Factor.
The trouble with Andrew isn’t that he’s as bad a governor as any Republican. The trouble isn’t even that he’s a worse than any other Democrat would be. And the trouble isn’t simply that he’s not as good a liberal governor as we should have or could have. The trouble is he’s not as a good liberal as the one we did have.
Right now we liberal Democrats shouldn’t be talking about whether or not we can vote in good conscience for Andrew Cuomo.
We should be looking forward to voting to re-elect Eliot Spitzer to a third term.
And the reason we’re not is Eliot Spitzer’s own fault.
You thought this post was about Andrew Cuomo, didn’t you?
It’s not about Eliot Spitzer either.
Or Mitt Romney’s who’s going to turn up here in a minute.
It’s about Malala Yousafzai.
I don’t want to idealize Spitzer. A second term might not have been a sure bet, never mind a third. He had his own problematic temperament and wasn’t known for working and playing well with others. Hs first year in office was one political squabble after another, most instigated by him, most probably avoidable and unnecessary and accomplishing nothing. So I don’t know how effective a liberal governor he’d have turned out to be. He was a better liberal than Andrew starting out at least in not being overly concerned with the care and feeding of millionaires. In fact, the only care and feeding of millionaires that seemed to cross his mind was that which would be provided at state expense. Spitzer’s main concern when it came to millionaires was how to put them in jail.
Some people think this is why he didn’t get to finish his first term as governor, let alone run for a third. The millionaires he wanted to put in jail got him first.
Nah. Client 9 got himself.
While he was energetically trying to apply the law to millionaires, he decided it didn’t apply to himself.
Before we go any further…
Spitzer didn’t get run out of office. He ran himself out of office. And it wasn’t because he cheated on his wife. It wasn’t because he liked to cheat on his wife with prostitutes. It was because cheating on your wife with prostitutes is against the law.
Eliot Spitzer, while he was state attorney general, while he was putting other people, and not just millionaires, in jail for breaking the law, broke the law.
Of course, he’s hardly the first politician who thought he could break the law and get away with it. And that’s the point.
Just about every politician is someone who decided they could break the law and get away with it. But this goes beyond politicians. Every person with an ambition to be in some way better than ordinary and acts on it is someone who’s decided the laws that apply to most everyone else don’t apply to them.
I don’t mean the laws that are codified, written down, and enforced by legal authority, the breaking of which gets you arrested, tried, and sent to jail or not just those kinds of laws.
I mean the laws that govern civil society, moral, cultural, legal, traditional, and implicit, the breaking of which ruins lives, wrecks friendships, tears apart families, divides neighbors, dissolves partnerships, and generally make impossible the formation of communities and any effort by groups large and small to work and live together. The laws that keep us from each other’s throats, the laws that keep us at each other’s sides and on each other’s sides. The laws that bind us together mainly by requiring each of us to put others’ needs ahead of our own. The laws that keep us humble and make us kind and dutiful and loyal and responsible.
But that also keep us in line and in step, obedient, self-doubting, self-limiting, self-negating as well as self-sacrificing. The laws that tell us not to get above ourselves, not to ask for too much, not to ask for more, not to ask for anything at all. The laws that tell us to know our place and keep to it and be thankful for what we have even when it’s not enough to get by let alone make us happy.
The laws that tell us none of us is all that special.
These are the laws that keep us grounded, as in, rooted, level-headed, realistic, practical, self-aware, and as in earthbound, tied down, flightless, which is why I call them the laws of social gravity.
But what if you are special or think you are, which is more often the case?
What if you think you can fly and should fly? What if you dream of chasing your heart’s desire into the air?
If you’re brave enough, strong enough, arrogant enough, foolish enough, obsessed enough, driven enough, selfish enough, you set out to defy gravity.
Every young athlete, artist, musician, scientist, entrepreneur, adventurer, future civic leader, who’s told You’re too short, too little, too slow, too weird, too out there, too poor, too ambitious, too much of an underdog, too much of a girl, too much not white enough is being subjected to the laws of social gravity and therefore being presented with a choice: Give up and accept being ordinary and earthbound or break the law.
Every more than ordinarily successful person is an outlaw. That sounds romantic, I know, and it is. But it also means that every one of them has more than a touch of sociopathy in their nature.
And if you’ve decided one set of laws don’t apply to you. You’re one your way to deciding that no laws apply to you.
To be that kind of outlaw, you have to be more than averagely brave and strong but also more than averagely arrogant, foolish, obsessed, driven, and selfish. This is why all ambitious and successful people, upon getting the kind of examination the ambitious and successful tend to get, turn out to be to greater or lesser degrees not very nice.
In fact, they’re often appalling.
That doesn’t mean they’re all bad people. Many have compensating virtues. And some even seem to understand, instinctively or because they’re smart and have good hearts and they’ve worked it out, that one of the reasons they have been able to be better than others is by having been worse. In your superiority is your inferiority. At some point you took when they gave, you turned your back when they rushed forward to help, you left when they stayed, you said no when they said yes and said yes to what they said no to, and in understanding this and acting upon it they’ve made themselves into not just good people but heroic ones.
Others? Not so much.
Still, good or not so good, they are people who at some point in their lives decided: “I don’t care what other people think. I don’t care what they expect of me. I don’t care about what they need from me. I’m going to take care of myself first. I’m going to do what I need to do. I’m going to have what I want.”
And this can be beautiful and inspiring when what the defier of gravity needs and desires is the freedom to do what she does well, to make music, do science, build bridges, start a business, make the team, lead the way, cure diseases and save lives, or just be the person she knows herself to be.
It’s not so beautiful when what he wants is what he can only have by taking from others, power or money or both, usually both, because they go hand in hand and really amount to the same thing, the ability to lord it over others and make them serve his needs.
That last type of gravity-defier includes but isn’t limited to politicians and the professionally rich, that is, the breed of greedhead for whom the getting of money and piling up of wealth are the be-all and end-all of life, not just the point of all human endeavor but the point of human beings themselves. In short, the people running the economy at the moment and with it what should be our civil society.
Hard to have a civil society when the people running it don’t think its laws apply to them.
And that’s where we are these days.
Not only have we handed over the running of the country to these sociopaths or, more accurately, stood by as if helpless while they took over, we seem to like and admire and celebrate them for it. Worse, we seem to have accepted that their sociopathic view of life is correct, that the point of all human endeavor and the reason for having any kind of society, never mind a civil one, is to make money and pile up treasure, that human beings exist only to work or be used toward that end. We’ve acquiesced to the idea that people are divided between makers and takers, although the terms are inversely applied, the true makers being most of us who feel bound by the laws of social gravity and the takers being the ones who don’t think laws of any kind should or do stop them from taking whatever they want.
And in the last Presidential election we came close to making one of them, a quintessential one of them, President. Would’ve taken a shift of only about 3 million votes out of the roughly 127 million cast and we’d have had the vulture capitalist and 47 percenter Mitt Romney in the White House.
And almost unbelievably there are members of the so-called liberal media who are in fact liberals who are eager for Mitt to run again in 2016!
Some of them want him to run just because it’s something to write about now. Some of them want him to run because they think he’s the only Republican with a chance of beating Hillary and that would give them something to write about when the campaign really gets underway. Some of them want him to run because they want Hillary to lose and it just doesn’t matter to them who would become President instead. Some of them want him to run because they are disgusted by the thought of having to cover the likes of Ted Cruz or Rand Paul. And some of them are just plain dumb and believe against all the evidence that the opportunistic Mitt Romney who was beaten and bullied about as governor of Massachusetts by the overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal state legislature and forced to govern as if he was a moderate if not a liberal is the real Mitt Romney.
But some of them want him to run because they think this is what the country needs, Mitt or someone like him, a sociopathic rich guy who knows how to make money and keep the “takers” in line.
And, perversely, self-destructively, self-loathingly, a great many of us seem to have not just accepted that the laws of social gravity that keep us from each other’s throats, that keep us at each other’s sides and on each other’s sides, that bind us together mainly by requiring each of us to put others’ needs ahead of our own don’t and don’t have to apply to the “makers”, but that other laws, the ones that keep us in line and in step, obedient, self-doubting, self-limiting, self-negating as well as self-sacrificing and tell us not to get above ourselves, not to ask for too much, not to ask for more, not to ask for anything at all, the laws that remind us to know our place and keep to it and be thankful for what we have even when it’s not enough to get by let alone make us happy, those laws, apply to us “takers” even more strictly than in the recent past---or, at any rate, they apply to others who aren’t among the rich and the favored, you know, Them, and need to be enforced with punitive and vindictive zeal.
And the only power the rest of us have to oppose and defeat this is power we can only gather by acting collectively, which is to say, the power that comes from progressive government.
Which, unfortunately, puts us in the position of having to rely on that other group of gravity-defiers who want what they can only have by taking from others, politicians.
Like Andrew Cuomo.
Like Eliot Spitzer.
Like too many other Democrats who in one way or another are unreliable because they are sociopaths in their own ways or because they’ve accepted that it’s a good thing to have the sociopathic rich running things or at least having a strong hand in the running of things.
I’m not going to bother talking about the Republicans, since most of them are only mere employees.
I think Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are great. (Yes, I know. Sanders isn’t a Democrat.) And although they don’t get much national attention, I hear good things about Al Franken and Sherrod Brown. And one of my own senators, Kirsten Gillibrand, shows promise. She hasn’t exactly been radicalized since her promotion to the Senate but she has moved squarely to the left and seems to be constantly glancing over in that direction and seeing more congenial company.
But then there are the Clintons, Hillary as well as Bill, who seem far too comfortable in the company of the professional rich. They might not be overly concerned with the care and feeding of millionaires but they don’t appear to mind watching them chow down as long as they mind their manners and remember to tip the waitresses. And I’m not sure about the President. I think he’d just as soon see the professional rich made to foot more of the bill, maybe even pick up the whole tab, but I think that for too long he was too respectful and too willing to listen to people who told him that couldn’t and even shouldn’t happen, that the best way to be sure the sociopaths remembered to mind their manners and tip generously was to let them order pretty much anything and everything they wanted off the menu, dessert and the finest wines included.
I’m done torturing that metaphor, by the way.
So…this is where I stand, disgruntled, resentful, but resigned, not sure how much to regret I won’t be voting for Eliot Spitzer, glad to be voting against Andrew Cuomo but somewhat relieved to know I really won’t be helping him lose because the only way he could lose is if Howie Hawkins and the other alternative party candidates siphon away enough Democratic votes that the Republican Rob Astorino squeaks in.
No matter how big an arrogant jerk Cuomo is, no matter how much he’s not enough of a liberal, no matter how much he cares about the care and feeding of millionaires, which is too much, this is still New York. Things could be worse. I could live in Wisconsin or Iowa.
It’s still far from a sure bet that the guy Charles Pierce calls a wholly owned subsidiary of the Koch Brothers, Scott Walker, is going to lose and Joni Ernst is still ahead in the polls even though she’s not only exempted herself from the laws of social gravity, she’s decided the rules of sane and coherent reasoning don’t apply to her either.
And before you say it, sometimes calling something the lesser of two evils is another way of describing the lesser of available goods.
So, finally: Speaking of someone who decided the laws of social gravity didn’t apply to her and she was going to have what she wanted no matter what she was told she should want, which is, the freedom to be the person she knows herself to be and the freedom for other young women to be their own persons too, this is a good place to celebrate Malala Yousafzai’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize.
I love it that she was in chemistry class when a teacher told her about the Prize and that she finished her school day as normal before going out to meet the press.
Jonah turned around and walked out of the bar. He looked out at the city: his home. If this was his home, what did that make the man he had just seen, to him? What was the fellowship that existed between two people in the same home? It had to be fellowship of some kind. Hadn’t he been that man---a thousand times?
He knew then was was so awful in his visions, what gave them their power to terrify, to torment---to make his life seem so peculiarly hollow all of a sudden: They were true. That fragility he had seen the mortality, the vulnerability---they were everywhere. It was no great revelation that everyone was naked beneath their clothes, that the city and everyone in it would someday crumble into dust---except that it was.
He should have helped that man, he thought. If they were alike in---he should have done---
He clenched his teeth, squeezed his fists until his fingernails dug into the skin of his palms---willing this train of thought to come to an end. No, he thought. No, no, no. He was not the kind of person who spontaneously offered to help strangers with their bags. He was not the kind of person who reacted to an “uhh” with anything other than gratitude that he had not been the one who’d made it.
He saw that he was losing---was being robbed of---an essential capacity: the capacity to ignore. It turned out that you had to ignore certain things---a lot of certain things, in fact---just to be able to walk into a bar and get drunk, to say nothing of working 17,500 hours in a law firm. You had to ignore, for one, that you were surrounded at all times by fellow human beings whose lives had the same despairs, both minor and great, the same final brevity as yours, as anyone’s. When you lost the anonymity of others---when you could no longer automatically filter out the peopleness of other people---then you couldn’t function here. You had to place here. Jonah felt as if he had spent years, maybe his whole life, able to abide---to thrive!---on the finest surface of things, and having been plunged momentarily beneath this surface, he could no longer find it.
And that, he thought, was wrong.
Jonah got angry again---not in the manner of the temper tantrum he’d had in the storeroom; this was a deeper, a self-sustaining, indignant anger. Walking to a bar at any hour of the day to get drunk was the right of every New Yorker. Why was he denied it? Why couldn’t he live his life however he wanted---with as much callous disregard for his fellow human beings as he wished?
---from The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman.
Updated below. 6:30 Sunday morning. October 12, 2014.
Little while back, I wrote a post about how Fox News actually entertains its viewers by telling them the world is coming to an end and they’re all going to die.
People eat this up with a spoon.
It’s probably not so much that they enjoy having their angers and their fears and their hatreds fed back to them, as it gives them a visceral thrill. They like the sensations aroused. Plus, it’s emotionally satisfying to be told you’re right, even if what you’re right about is that the world is coming to an end and you’re going to die.
“You’re right to be angry,” Fox tells them. “You’re right to be afraid. You’re right to hate, hate that fact, hate that thought, hate that feeling, hate whatever and whoever has made you angry and afraid.”
Boy, does this stuff sell Viagra and reverse mortgages!
But let’s not forget that Fox News is providing the entertainment as part of its real job which is delivering the agitprop for the Republican Party.
Whatever’s being said on Fox is being said---yelled, shrieked, shouted, screamed, whined, sobbed, sneered, babbled, blithered, and burbled with unconcealed malicious glee---on the stump, at the podium, on the floors of state houses, in both houses of Congress, by Republican politicians up and down and back and forth across the land.
“The world is coming to an end and we’re all going to die and it’s the Democrats’ fault!”
WASHINGTON — Darkness is enveloping American politics.
With four weeks to go before the midterm elections, Republicans have made questions of how safe we are — from disease, terrorism or something unspoken and perhaps more ominous — central in their attacks against Democrats. Their message is decidedly grim:President Obama and the Democratic Party run a government that is so fundamentally broken it cannot offer its people the most basic protection from harm.
Hear it on cable television and talk radio, where pundits and politicians play scientists speculating on whether Ebola will mutate into an airborne virus that kills millions. See it in the black-hooded, machine-gun-brandishing Islamic extremists appearing in campaign ads. Read about it in the unnerving accounts of the Secret Service leaving Mr. Obama and his family exposed.
Republicans believe they have found the sentiment that will tie congressional races together with a single national theme.
Republicans have been running on nothing but fear, anger, and hatred my entire life. They’ve been at it since before I was born. Substitute AIDS or fluoride for Ebola, Willie Horton or communists or Black Panthers for Islamic extremists, ask Who lost China instead of Who’s losing Iraq? and it’s the same story going back generations. They ran on fear, anger, and hatred even in the two Presidential elections they had won by landsides from day one and in which they could have coasted by just bragging on the accomplishments of the incumbent. They did it even in the two elections in which they were supposedly running the very soul of geniality and optimism.
You’d think it would be easy to run against this, that Democrats shouldn’t have trouble casting the Republicans as gloomsayers and doomsayers, as chickenhawks and Chicken Littles, as nattering nabobs of negativism.
But I guess that’s just not entertainment.
You can read Jeremy W. Peters’ whole gloomy story, Cry of G.O.P. in Campaign: All Is Dismal, at the New York Times.
Updated to give Steve Benen the punchline: Peters’ article is a straight-up piece of horserace political reporting in which all the gloomsaying, doomsaying, and Chicken Littling is presented as just a tactic to help Republicans win and the only question is whether or not it will work. What it says about the Republicans that they’re trying to scare voters this way and what it would mean if it does work is left for readers to infer, so in a post at The MaddowBlog, Steve Benen does the inferring:
The GOP pitch relates to government in a fairly obvious and direct way: your government, the argument goes, whatever its intentions, simply isn’t capable, competent, or prepared enough to keep you safe. Your family should therefore feel a sense of panic … and vote Republican.
Cooler heads might notice the flaw in the logic. An American in a constant state of fear about terrorism, diseases, the state of the Secret Service, migrant children, and creeping Sharia, might think twice about supporting the party that believes in slashing budgets, gutting the public sector, and generally avoiding governing whenever possible.
In other words, the Republican tack is burdened by an awkward contradiction: what Americans need is a strong, vibrant public sector prepared for every emergency, which is why Americans should vote for a party that wants to weaken and dismantle the public sector as quickly as possible.
Boils down to this, says Steve:
Read Steve’s whole post, The Politics of Fear comes with fine print.
The entire strategy is void of meaning and purpose if Republicans are pushing fear for the sake of fear – there’s still no agenda, no vision, no plans, and no ideas to serve as a foundation.
“If you’re afraid – of pretty much anything – vote GOP,” the message goes. “Just don’t expect us to actually do anything if we win.”
The route from here into Newburgh, where we drop both guys off in the mornings, Oliver at his college, Ken at the stop for the shuttle that takes him to his school, takes us past the entrance to I-84 East, the first leg of the trip to Cape Cod from here. Early one morning, couple weeks back Uncle Merlin sent this picture from the front porch of his place on the Cape. He’d just come back from a walk down to one of our favorite coffee shops in town. I got the photo on my phone just before setting off to drop the guys off.
So as we come up on the entrance ramp to 84, the guys shout at me together.
“Dad, you’re in the wrong lane!”
Power of suggestion, the strength of my addiction, or the lure of a gorgeous morning on the Cape?
Wonder how far I’d have gotten if they hadn’t been with me.
The Massachusetts border maybe.
And if I gotten that far, then what would have been the point of turning back?
Photo by Uncle Merlin. Chatham. Eight a.m. Monday. September 22, 2014.
9:15 A.M. Sunday. Sun and blue skies have returned after taking all day yesterday off. Chilly. Barely 50. A breeze that comes and goes. We’re not past peak foliage yet but leaves are dropping. When the breeze picks up, leaves swirl and fall, and there are rust colored blankets at the bases of maple trees, brown drifts at the edges of the road, and raked piles of pale gold and fading red waiting to be bagged dotting lawns here and there . The air is aromatic with that distinctive tangy whiff of fall, acrid, earthy, a hint of burning, the slow fire of decay that somehow still smells of life.
Started reading Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan and it’s turning out to be what it couldn’t help being and I knew it would have to be but which I’d hoped I wouldn’t mind too much.
A long, depressing slog through the 1970s.
It’s other things too, good things that will keep me reading, but having to relive that “kidney stone of a decade” is going to take a lot of the fun out of it.
What a tawdry, mean, ugly, unhappy time that was.
And it’s not just the reminders of what it was like back then.
It’s learning there was even more tawdriness, meanness, ugliness, and unhappiness than I remembered.
Or even knew.
Like the sudden, sharp rise in the price of meat.
I’d always known that all the tuna casserole and scrambled egg and pancake dinners Mom Mannion served us when we Mannion kids were kids were due to inflation having halved Pop Mannion and just about every working American’s take home pay almost overnight. . But I forgot if I ever knew it---and Mom and Pop Mannion didn’t go into it with us beyond saying that we needed to watch our spending and save some money---that meat had become prohibitively expensive for most families. And it wasn’t just beef. Chicken, pork, and lamb prices jumped too. Sometimes, even if you could afford it and wanted to buy it, you couldn’t. Supermarkets were stocking less of it because they couldn’t sell it. Restaurants reduced portions because they couldn’t afford it. Farmers and ranchers were getting out of the business altogether.
Hardly the worst thing that happened during the 70s. But it’s just one more way life shrank and got mean.
And Ronald Reagan was contributing the meanness all around.
That, of course, is the story being told in The Invisible Bridge and told well, and that’s what’s going to keep me reading through all the ambient tawdriness, meanness, ugliness, and polyester.
But while I’m still on the subject of meat.
Reagan used an investment in cattle ranching---the only way he came close to being the rancher he was sold to voters as---to cheat on his taxes.
Reagan was a tax cheat.
I know. You’re surprised. I was too.
Continuing my report from Wednesday’s (September 24th) closing plenary session of the Clinton Global Initiative.
With all the big dreaming going on at the Clinton Global Initiative and all the great schemes for tackling so many of the world’s most pressing problems, this one almost slipped by me.
Wednesday, Chelsea Clinton announced that Zimbabwe-based Econet Wireless International is donating 5,000 solar-powered lanterns “to support relief teams working to treat, contain and prevent the Ebola outbreaks in some of the most affected areas, particularly the rural areas which currently have limited access to ongoing consistent clinical care.”
It seemed like such a small, simple, and banal next thing to everything else---airlifts of 500 tons of medical supplies to West Africa, training programs for 250,000 new teachers in the developing world who will improve the lives of over ten million students, a million dollar prize for a plan to “combat non-communicable diseases in urban slums around the globe,” talk of vertical farming in big cities, robots on Mars and aboard the space station, protecting the rights and health of women and children everywhere---I barely registered it.
But when I went back over my notes, it struck me that this was one of the most practical and most likely to be immediately effective plans I heard laid out.
Patients need to be cared for around the clock. The lanterns are needed where they’re headed right away so that the doctors and nurses and other caregivers treating patients at night can see what they’re doing.
That sounds too obvious to need to be said. But look at this map. (Click to enlarge.)
That’s what the world would look like from space if it was night everywhere all at once.
You probably noticed something about Africa right away.
According to Scientific American, in 2009, nearly a quarter of the world’s population, one and half billion people, have no access to electricity, nearly eighty percent of them living in the world’s fifty poorest nations.
The problem is most acute in sub-Saharan Africa, with several entire nations there effectively nonelectrified. In 11 countries, all in Africa, more than 90 percent of people go without electricity. In six of these -- Burundi, Chad, Central African Republic, Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone -- 3 to 5 percent of people can readily obtain electric power.
Liberia and Sierra Leone are two of the nations where the latest outbreak of ebola is most virulent and spreading fastest, with new cases doubling in Sierra Leone every thirty to forty days, every fifteen to twenty in Liberia, and that’s where, along with Guinea, the lanterns are going.
And they’ll be providing more than light. You can charge cell phones off of one.
They even come with FM radios.
Actually, I kind of want one myself.
Note: The Scientific American article I linked to above was written in 2009. In an article from 2013 at the Atlantic’s CityLab, Emily Badger puts the number of people living without electricity at 1.2 billion.
Map courtesy of NASA via CityLab at the Atlantic.
Still working my notes from last week’s trip to the Clinton Global Initiative up into posts. When I’m finished I’ll go back and rearrange things chronologically, but for today, here’s my report from Tuesday’s, September 23rd, afternoon plenary session.
Yes, I know. I remember! NAFTA. Welfare “reformed” out of existence. Triangulation. Goodbye Glass-Steagall. “The era of big government is over.” Bill Clinton did not have the Presidency we wanted. He did not have the Presidency he wanted. And for the same reason Barack Obama isn’t having the Presidency he wanted and for the same reason Franklin Roosevelt didn’t have the Presidency he wanted, especially after 1938, and for the same reason Theodore Roosevelt didn’t have the Presidency he wanted! Congresses considerably more conservative than they were and are.
That’s not making excuses. That’s simply doing a head count and noting what’s going on inside the heads you’re counting. If you are still making the argument that Obama could get all the things you want him to get done if he really wanted to, then, well, among other things, you didn’t watch The Roosevelts.
There is and has been for well over a hundred years a powerful political alliance between Southern racists and Northeastern corporatists united by the belief that “The Federal Government doesn’t get to tell us what to do especially when what we want to do is treat other people as things to be used for our own material advantage!”
They have a large base made of suckers and toadies who vote in ways that allow themselves to be used as things because they have been duped or have duped themselves into believing that the only people who are going to get used as things are those Others.
At any rate, there was more to Clinton’s Presidency than disappointing us liberals and surviving the Impeachment Crisis. By the way, remind me that sometime I should write about how surviving impeachment was a liberal political achievement and something he can count as more than a personal victory. But short version, that was the Right’s first out and out attempt to declare the United States their country and theirs alone. Still, there’s much for him and us to regret and wish he’d handled differently or not handled at all.
But however disappointing his Presidency might have been, there’s no denying he’s having a great post-Presidency. And he seems to be having a wonderful time. That’s always obvious but it’s even more so at meetings of the Clinton Global Initiative. Clearly, he’s proud of the success the Clinton Foundation has had parting billionaires and corporations from their money and the good work being done around the world with that money. But he’s just as clearly having fun, both as an instigator of the parting and as host of the party where the parting’s being done.
One of the fun things about the Clinton Global Initiative is watching Bill having fun being Bill.
And this isn’t a trivial thing.
It’s a big part of his success.
His sense of fun is infectious.
People want to join in on the fun of Bill being Bill and that means joining in on the work the Clinton Foundation is doing.
If you watched The Roosevelts, you probably noticed how often the movie cameras caught Franklin Roosevelt having fun being Franklin Roosevelt.
He’d deliver a line in a speech, making a quite serious point, but then, almost the second he’d finished, he’d break out in a smile that mixed great self-satisfaction with a tinge of embarrassment, even apology, as if he was the first to recognize and applaud the political and rhetorical effectiveness of what he’d just said but also that he knew he shouldn’t be so pleased with himself or that he shouldn’t show how pleased he was. He was like a good little kid, mother’s little angel, teacher’s favorite, who’d been taught never to show off but then couldn’t help himself, it was just so much fun to be so smart and right.
And there was a mischief in it.
He knew he was not only going to get away with it, he was going to be praised for it and by the very people who told him he shouldn’t do it.
Even when he was at his prematurely oldest and sickest, it would still happen. His face would light up, fifty and more years would fall away, and you could see the little boy who knew he was delighting the grownups with his precocity and charm and good nature.
FDR got a kick out of being FDR.
Bill gets a kick out of being Bill.
This is a quality shared by many charismatic people. It’s a key to their charisma.
It’s also a quality that incites jealousy, envy, anger, and resentment---especially in vain, self-important, and decidedly less charismatic people (cf. The National Political Press Corps), but also in many decent, normally good-natured and not usually or unusually prone to jealousy, envy, anger, and resentment, particularly if they suspect it’s being used as a trick to get out of trouble or to avoid doing something difficult that needs to be done. Millions of regular folks adored FDR and got a kick out of his getting a kick out of being himself, but they didn’t have to work with him.
And they weren’t married to him.
At Tuesday’s plenary session, after Greek Ambassador at Large Gianna Angelopoulos took the podium to announce that next June Greece will be hosting the first European meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, Clinton had a few words to add about the economic problems in Greece and other Mediterranean countries.
For those of you who don’t keep up with the events in Greece as closely as some of us, I think it’s important to point out that the quality of their government and their budgeting process has dramatically improved. They did have to make some painful adjustments. The problem is if you live in a currency union like the E.U. without control of your own destiny, even when interest rates are lower than inflation, you can’t float bonds to build infrastructure, which is what you would normally do, but you can’t because you don’t have your own currency. So we all have to be really creative in thinking about how to do something.
I’d like to think he was taking a shot at the austerity scolds, deficit fetishists, and other members of the Pain Caucus in Europe and the United States with that line about how when interest rates are lower than inflation the thing for governments to do during economic hard times is spend, a point Paul Krugman has been battering at for going on six years. Maybe he was. But maybe he was just acknowledging what he regards as a hard truth: this is why what was done, the apparent punishment of Greece by the German banks for the sin of not being able to afford to pay its debts, had to be done. He was speaking to a ballroom full of rich people, many of them Wall Street types, but polls have shown that the rich here in the United States aren’t all members of the Pain Caucus. Plenty of them know that the best way to deal with our own hard times is for the government to spend and build and they’re willing to have their taxes raised if that’s what it takes. The whole point of the Clinton Global Initiative is find creative ways to spend and build everywhere. But whatever Clinton was thinking when he said that, it was what he said next that gave the game away. Bill was having fun being Bill.
But I’ll just give you a little factoid that should make you think this is worth doing.
The average Greek citizen works twenty-five percent more hours a week than the average German.
It tickled him to know that about the Greeks versus their economic overseers, the Germans. It tickled him to be able to pass it along. It tickled him to be the one passing it along. It tickled him that it mattered that he was the one passing it along.
It tickled him to be…him.
Of course an important part of the fun is that the work is serious and therefore so is the point of passing along that factoid.
Do not presume you know what caused all these problems in Greece.
Fun doesn’t go away when things get serious though.
Former Prime Minister Papandreou is there nodding his head. He has the battle scars to prove it.
Tickled him to get off that line too.
Updated. Saturday evening. October 4, 2014.
Hardest part of the drive up and back to Syracuse is trying to ignore the news shows blaring from the TVs at the Thruway rest stops while having a cup of coffee and taking advantage of the WiFi to noodle on the net. It’s usually CNN. One story after another about how THIS IS THE WORST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED.
That last story we told you was THE WORST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED? FORGET THAT. IN FACT, AS FAR WAS WE’RE CONCERNED NOW THAT ONE NEVER HAPPENED. THIS ONE IS THE THE WORST THING. UNTIL THE NEXT THING. AFTER THAT WE’LL GO BACK TO THE FIRST THING WHICH WE’LL BE EVEN A WORSE THING BY THEN.
Don’t watch TV news. Just don’t. Ever.
Last night on the way home I was able to ignore most of it but then I let my guard down and I saw him.
He was on CNN lying about how the President has not been presidenting when it comes to ISIS because he’s been off fundraising and golfing and vacationing and otherwise not doing his job presidenting.
This is their story and they’re sticking to it: Whenever there’s a crisis, the President isn’t to be found. He’s off somewhere fundraising, golfing, vacationing, something, anything but presidenting. Man never presidents.
Romney’s apparently forgotten that after he lost in 2012, he whined it was because the President unfairly presidented during Hurricane Sandy.
Of course, Romney spent the campaign demonstrating he didn’t know the first thing about presidenting.
But there’s Romney, spoiling my coffee break, lying that the President has done no presidenting about ISIS.
I guess those planes just ordered themselves into the air.
Pilots said, Darnit, we can’t wait for the President to get around to it, let’s go get those IS somnabitches on our own. Mitt Romney says it’s the right thing to do!
Erin Burnett played the clip of Romney lying as part of her interview with Paul Ryan in which Ryan then lied about how the President’s been doing a lousy job presidenting on ISIS.
Ryan was there shilling for his new book in which he lays out his vision for the better, happier, more glorious America that will result when he’s done presidenting the hell out of the place. Basically, it will be the conservative’s dream version of Ronald Reagan’s dream version of America except the only part it gets right is that in this new America life’s going to be a lot harder for poor people, which, when you think about it, is pretty much the central fact of Reagan’s America.
Any way, in the course of his shilling, Ryan did some lying of his own about the President’s presidenting.
Ryan’s lies were more in the vein of things omitted than things actually said.
For instance, he thinks it’s not enough the President is dropping bombs on Iraq. He thinks the President needs to do what “we’ve” done that’s working in Afghanistan, neglecting to mention that what “we’ve” done was actually done by the President.
He said the president needs to stop “micro-managing” the military and listen to the generals, then took a swipe at the President for recommending defense cuts based on his having listened to the generals.
By the way, “micro-manage” is Republican shorthand for “How dare a Democrat President act like he thinks he’s the Commander-in-Chief.”
Burnett read Ryan a passage from his book, some bombast about American exceptionalism and America’s responsibility as the world’s last best hope on earth to drop a lot of bombs and kill a lot of people, then played a clip of the President using similar bombast only with better phrasing, and asked Ryan if he and the President weren’t basically saying the same thing.
Ryan said they were but the difference was the President didn’t mean it.
The President’s policies don’t match the bombast.
What he meant was the President wasn’t presidenting in the way Paul Ryan thinks he should president, again neglecting to mention a key point---that it’s impossible for the President to president in a way any Republican thinks he should because the way they think he should is by doing something different from whatever he’s doing because whatever way he’s presidenting is wrong because he’s the one doing the presidenting.
The point is simply and always to oppose and undermine and sabotage and belittle and humiliate and defeat him whatever he’s doing and keep him from presidenting at all.
If the President put “boots on the ground” and sent in the “enablers’' Ryan says he thinks he should, Ryan would be telling us how that was the wrong way to president.
Naturally, Burnett didn’t call Ryan on Romney’s lies or his own.
She didn’t say, Congressman, why is your former running mate lying about the President? Why are you lying about the President?
She didn’t say, Congressman, why are you here instead of back on Capital Hill congressing? Isn’t it just to sell your book? And isn’t that a form of fundraising? After all, you’re using it to help sell yourself as a possible Presidential contender someday, aren’t you? The whole point is for people to say, Look, Paul Ryan has written a book, he must be a smart guy, let’s make him President, isn’t it? This is why people are supposed to take you seriously, because you’ve written several budgets you claimed would end the deficit but which depended on fudged numbers and the expectation of a supply side miracle and now you’ve “authored” a book that tells poor people they wouldn’t be poor if they practiced virtues you never had to practice in your whole life because you were born into money and married more and now supplement your government paycheck with Right Wing welfare?
No. She sat there nodding at his lies and then said, in effect, So Congressman, tell us more about what an important book you’ve written and why we should all rush out and buy it!
I guess she couldn’t ask him those other questions because it would have violated the agreement the media seems to have with Republicans in which the Republicans’ terms for appearing on the news shows are: If you ever ask us an intelligent and penetrating question that challenges any of our lies we’ll walk off the set and never come back and then all you have on your shows are Democrats and you know how they are? All they’ll want to do is talk realistically about the nation’s problems and the actual workable plans they have to solve them, boring your audience and you to tears. And the media’s terms are: Just tell us what you want us to say.
Note to anyone, Democrat or Republican, President or Congressman, journalist or politician, military or civilian, using the phrase “boots on the ground” as a euphemism for “sending in ground troops”: Saying “boots on the ground” doesn’t make you sound like real army. It makes you sound like you think you’re playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
Further note: In order to believe Republicans like Mitt Romney aren’t racists you have to believe they’re too stupid to know there’s a difference between calling a white President lazy and calling a black President lazy.
Updated to make one plus one equal forty-two: It’s not just ISIS. Paul Ryan lies when he tells the President how to president on the budget too. Jonathan Chait adds up all the ways Ryan’s budgeting doesn’t add up:
Paul Ryan has emerged from his long post-election period of repositioning, soul-searching, and secretly but not secretly visiting the poor. He had been caricatured as an Ayn Rand miser and attacked as a social Darwinist, merely for proposing the largest upward transfer of wealth in American history. Ryan has identified the root cause of his difficulties, and it is fiscal arithmetic.
Read Chait’s post at New York Magazine, Paul Ryan Declares War Against Math.
Bill Clinton’s Skype session with the astronauts was one of the most fun parts of this year’s Clinton Global Initiative, but what followed was one of the most engrossing and moving, Hillary Cinton’s conversation with Graça Machel because it was my first real glimpse of Machel apart from her place in the biography of her late husband, Nelson Mandela. I’m just posting the video without commentary so I don’t get in your way. It’s 16 minutes long but worth the time.
Here’s the link to the page devoted to Machal at The Elders.
Slowly but surely I’m turning my notes from the Clinton Global Initiative into posts. I hope you’ve enjoyed what I’ve written so far. There’s more to come.
Covering events like this is something I always wish I could do more of. Time and money make that a challenge. Paying train fare and then cab fare out of pocket isn’t easy when there’s not much in the pocket to begin with. So please forgive me for asking once again:
If you like what goes on around here and enjoy my reports from the field and would like to see more along those lines and, of course, if you can swing it, please consider making a small donation to the travel fund.
Thank you very much. Thanks for reading the blog. And thanks to everyone who has donated in the past. By the way, I think I’ve sent out all the paper thank post cards I promised to send last time but if you didn’t get yours let me know and I’ll fire another one off ASAP.
After Peter Diamandis left the stage Wednesday, Bill Clinton welcomed his next guests---the two plenary sessions I covered this year felt even more like television talk shows than past sessions. This is not a bad thing. I remember those other sessions as being a little too speachy and preachy. I liked it better this way, more relaxed, less guilt-tripping, although it would explain why after talking so earnestly and with such urgency about the problems his organization, water.org, was working to solve in order to increase the world’s supply of clean water, Matt Damon eased without signs of any mental lurch into a self-deprecating anecdote about a time he guest hosted the Jimmy Kimmel Show and lost track of the time to the point he suddenly found himself running a half hour behind schedule. Damon does an excellent Bill Clinton impression, by the way. Clinton, meanwhile, is a natural in the role of talk show host, so is Hillary Clinton. They have their own individual styles but…
Where was I?
After Peter Diamandis left the stage Wednesday, Bill Clinton’s welcome to his next guests included an apology.
“We finished the space station when I was President. I spent a lot of your tax money on it if you’re an American. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
I’m not sure he’s really all that sorry.
May not have been his greatest achievement as President but as it became clear his administrations contributions to space exploration is something he remembers with great fondness and excitement and it tickled him to be talking to the astronauts who were his guests onstage and “onstage.”
United States astronaut Cady Coleman was onstage. Astronaut Reid Wiseman was “onstage” on the big screens around the Sheraton ballroom, Skyping in from the space station as it was passing over New York.
This was the most fun moments of this year’s CGI. It wasn’t one of the most profound or enlightening. Clinton and the astronauts didn’t have the chance to get into a deep discussion before the station moved out of range and the signal cut out about ten minutes later. (Just after Coleman asked Wiseman a question I really wanted to know the answer to, “What was your favorite and least favorite experiment?” and just before Wiseman could begin to reply.) Clinton prompted Coleman and Wiseman to talk generally about the work being done aboard the station by asking “What good is it? What are you doing up there we should care about and be grateful for?” and the short answer, because there wasn’t time for a long answer, was SCIENCE!
“We’ve spent the last few days just going crazy with the science that’s on board,” Wiseman said with a kid on Christmas morning grin and Coleman went into a little detail about how the astronauts have been contributing to the study of osteoporosis---astronauts up in space lose bone mass “ten times faster than it happens to a seventy year old woman down on the ground who has osteoporosis.” Which led to Clinton reminiscing about how when he was President he signed permission for NASA to send up its oldest astronaut, a seventy-seven year old actually making his second space flight, over thirty years after his first. John Glenn. Clinton recalled sending Glenn an email while he was up and this inspired Coleman to take a selfie of her and Clinton and email it to Wiseman right then and there. She was careful to get Wiseman in the shot too.
Not on its way to getting as many Retweets as the selfie Ellen took at the Oscars, is it? That’s a shame. RT it yourself if you can.
But the point Coleman and Wiseman wanted to make, and which they were there to make, was about the international-ness of the International Space Station. Looking down at the earth from space and seeing the whole planet, Coleman said, “It’s almost hard to feel you’re from any particular country.” Wiseman enthused about the friendships he’s made aboard the station with colleagues from around the world going around the world with him. He introduced German astronaut Alex Gerst and lamented he couldn’t bring on camera the mission commander, Russian cosmonaut Max Suraev, who was busy below sciencing and preparing for the arrival of some replacement crew members (launching from Kazakhstan). There are fifteen countries that took part in the building of the space station and contributing to its maintenance and crewing, ninety nations conducting experiments on board.
This “One Earth” camaraderie gave Clinton an idea.
“You’ve convinced me that the answer to the political gridlock we have here in America is to send the Congress to meet in the space station.”
Coleman reminded him the trips are usually round trips. “You want it that way or do you want the one–way?”
Clinton said he was happy for it to be a two-way trip because obviously being up there has a positive influence.
And that was about it. The station continued on its path and the signal cut out.
Coleman wrapped up with a call to space. Bill Clinton added a few final words about how we humans have always needed to know what’s out there “wherever there is” and how the world’s great searchers have not been territorialists, forgetting for the moment, I guess, Christopher Columbus or making a distinction between explorers and treasure hunters, then then he turned the show over to Hillary Clinton who began her portion of the session by something that confused me for a second.
“That was very exciting, especially for someone who wanted to be an astronaut.”
And who was that? I asked her in my head.
Then I remembered.
It was Hillary Clinton.
When she was a young teenager in the early 1960s, Hillary Rodham wanted to become an astronaut and she wrote to NASA asking how she could go about it. Someone from the space agency wrote her back to tell her girls didn’t get to be astronauts.
That one still gets to me.
Gets to Hillary too, I’m sure.
Every kid wanted to be an astronaut back then and I can’t imagine what would possess an adult to tell any of them, Give it up, kid, find another dream.
And Hillary Rodham wasn’t the only young woman who wanted to be an astronaut and got a letter like that telling her to give up her dream. Apparently someone made a policy of sending out letters like that.
At the time, all American astronauts were male. They were all something else too. Pilots. Test pilots and former fighter pilots. But it wasn’t the plan for that always to be the case. The plan was that in the not too distant future we’d be sending scientists and engineers into space. Sexist as the times were, women scientists and engineers weren’t uncommon. There weren’t many. (Still aren’t, relatively.) But their numbers were growing. And space stations and lunar and Martian colonies were going to include women and children. This was featured in the concept art used to sell taxpayers on the space program.
Whoever wrote those letters was denying a future NASA itself envisioned.
All the astronauts had something else in common. They were not that young. The seven Mercury astronauts were in their mid- to late thirties. And that was not likely to change with future astronauts. The time to get the education, build the resume, and undergo the training required to become an astronaut would (and still does) take would-be astronauts into their thirties. So whoever wrote Hillary was assuming that nothing would have changed for women and girls twenty to twenty-five years from then.
But the change was underway and in fact twenty years would be about how long it would take. (In the United States. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to go into space in 1962.) Sally Ride went up on the space shuttle in 1983. She was thirty-two at the time. Four years younger than Hillary Clinton.
I don’t know what the writer of that letter to Hillary Rodham thought he was doing besides being mean. Maybe he thought he was just being honest. But some people like being honest because it lets them be mean. He might just have been obtuse and unable to imagine a future different from the present, a strange quality in someone working to put human beings on the moon. Maybe he saw the future coming and it scared him, again something you wouldn’t expect in someone engaged, even if only bureaucratically, in the exploration of outer space. But human is human. Some people are afraid of the future because it’s a great unknown. We can see it coming but only in glimpses. Some people, though, many people, in fact, are afraid of the future because they can see what’s coming and they don’t like what they see. What they see are things taken from them that make their place in the present agreeable: Their authority, their status, their money, their youth. They see the future as a thief and a marauder and they want to stop it.
That’s William F. Buckley’s definition of conservative, isn’t it? Someone who stands athwart history yelling stop!
The future can only be seen in glimpses but it’s coming at us and the best way to see more of it is to head out to meet it. And it was very exciting for someone who wanted to be an astronaut---and I mean me, not Hillary Clinton, although I don’t remember writing my own letter to NASA. If I had I probably would have gotten a response very different from the one she got and that I’m sure I’d have kept. I did write a twenty page research paper in sixth grade that included my own hand-drawn illustrations on what it took to become an astronaut. One thing it took, I disappointed myself in finding out, was better than 20-20 vision. Astronauts couldn’t need glasses and I had just gotten my first pair.---to see some people on their way out to meet it on behalf of all of us back down here on our one earth.
The guy here is Stewart Brand, “a Stanford-trained biologist, ex-army paratrooper, turned Ken Kesey cohort and fellow Merry Prankster who was about to become the voice of one of the most potent forces for abundance the world had yet seen: the Do-It-Yourself…innovator”:
The story goes like this: a few months after [Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test] was published, in March 1968, Brand was reading a copy of Barbara Ward’s Spaceship Earth and trying to ask a pair of questions: How can I help all my friends who are currently moving back to the land? And, more importantly, how can I save the planet?
His solution was pretty straightforward. Brand would publish a catalog in the vein of L.L. Bean, blending liberal social values, ideas about appropriate technology, ecological notions of whole systems thinking, and---perhaps most importantly---a DYI work ethic. This ethic has a long history, dating back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” resurfacing again in the Arts and Crafts renaissance of the early twentieth century, then gaining even more steam with the hot-rodding and home improvement movements of the 1950s. But the late 1960s marked the largest communal uprising in American history, with conservative estimates putting the number at ten million Americans moving back to the land. All these transplants soon learned the same lesson: agrarian success depended on one’s DYI capabilities, and those capabilities, as Brand so clearly realized, depended on one’s access to tools---and here tools meant anything from information about windmills to ideas about how to start a small business. “I was in thrall to Buckminster Fuller,” Brand recalls. “Fuller had put out this idea that there’s no use trying to change human nature. It’s been the same for a very long time. Instead, go after the tools. New tools make new practices. Better tools make better practices.”
Out of all this was born the Whole Earth Catalog…
---from Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.
Come on, admit it. We just do.
We can’t help ourselves.
It’s because we spend so much time and energy arguing that things need to be better and that requires making the case that things are bad. Things are bad. But we can get so caught up in talking about what’s bad and how bad and why it’s bad and whose fault it is that it’s bad we forget there’s anything else including that there’s a hopeful point to talking about what’s bad.
Trouble is few of us have the power or the resources do much on our own about what’s wrong, and talking about what’s wrong without doing anything to fix it is just complaining and constant complaining turns into whining and whining turns into a habit.
Two of our favorite whines go like this.
Why isn’t anybody listening to us?
Why aren’t politicians doing what we want them to do?
Conservatives whine too.
This is new for them. That’s why they’re doing so much of it. It’s a novelty. A new sensation that excites them. Like little kids who’ve figured out how to make themselves burp, they have to hear themselves do it over and over again. They used to grump and harumph. That’s when they were focused on making the case that things are just fine the way they are and liberals should quit their whining. They still do this. A current variant is the You call yourselves poor? You have a refrigerator what more do you want nonsense.
Doesn’t occur to them that the answer might be, Food to put in it, would be nice. A way to pay the electric bill, like a job, would also help.
No, as far as they care to know, things are fine, and if they’re not fine, they could be worse. In fact, they were worse and not all that long ago, so go away and leave me alone and stop asking me to care about your problems, I have enough of my own.
But lately or what seems lately to me, they’ve taken up whining. I blame Nixon. It probably started before him, but he made whining his political idiom and infected the entire Republican party. Reagan didn’t change that. He indulged it and the chuckled at the effect. People still mistake his geniality for good humor and a cheerful nature. It was the cheerfulness of a salesman who knew he had the suckers on the hook. But he’s long gone and even his supposed heirs whine worse than Nixon.
They whine between shouts, screams, growls, and moans, but they whine.
It’s somewhat the same for them as it’s been for liberals. They’re spending their time and energy making the case that things are bad---of course, they mean bad for them---and get so caught up in talking about what’s bad and how bad and why it’s bad and whose fault it is it’s bad they forget there’s anything else.
They don’t have much else, as it turns out. Certainly not real solutions. God will provide or he will punish, that’s about it. Still, as it has with us liberals, constant complaining turns into whining and whining becomes a habit.
One of the things I really enjoy about the Clinton Global Initiative---and I’ve now been to four of the seven meetings in New York City since 2008---is that the discussions take place outside typical notions of liberal and conservative politics.
That is, there’s no whining.
Obviously, this isn’t because no one is making the case that things are bad or talking about what’s bad or how bad or why it’s bad or whose fault it is it’s bad. The news on ebola is getting scarier. In Sierra Leone, new cases are doubling every thirty to forty days. Every twenty seconds a child under five will die from a water-borne disease. More people on earth have access to a cell phone than to a clean glass of water. One point three billion people have no access to electricity. Throughout the world the situations for women and girls continues to be miserable, their rights denied, their opportunities for education and self-improvement non-existent, their health and lives under constant threat.
But the people doing most of the talking are problem-solvers actively at work solving problems or trying to solve them and naturally they prefer to talk about that work and talking about work they love tends to make people sound confident, grounded, practical-minded, grown up, and happy.
Doesn’t mean they get giddy.
The problem-solvers at CGI speak with urgency, concern, anxiety, anger, even fear, although usually on behalf of others. The get frustrated, exasperated, and discouraged. They try to be pragmatic and realistic and not let their hopes carry them away. But they’re all still hopeful and optimistic, some enthusiastically, excitedly, energetically, infectiously so. A few come across as professional optimists.
One of the most optimistic I heard speak at this year’s meeting was Peter Diamandis.
Diamandis is an MIT-trained engineer, a Harvard-trained MD. He’s the chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation which sponsors competitions for funding for the design and development of new technologies, software, systems, and methods to put to work solving problems “believed to be unsolvable, or that have no clear path toward a solution.” A current one of these competitions is called, with a direct and respectful nod to Star Trek, the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, “a $10 million global competition to stimulate innovation and integration of precision diagnostic technologies, helping consumers make their own reliable health diagnoses anywhere, anytime.” He’s co-founded two schools of higher education. Singularity University and the International Space University. He’s started and helped start several business and research ventures inspired by his lifelong interest in space exploration. When he was in eighth grade he won a first prize in a design competition sponsored by Estes Model Rockets for his design for a multiple platform launcher. Kid after my own heart. Another venture not apparently directly related to space travel is Human Longevity, Inc.
Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) is a genomics and cell therapy-based diagnostic and therapeutic company. Using advances in genomic sequencing, the human microbiome, proteomics, informatics, computing, and cell therapy technologies, HLI is building the world’s most comprehensive database on human genotypes and phenotypes to tackle the diseases associated with aging-related human biological decline. HLI is also leading the development of cell-based therapeutics to address age-related decline in endogenous stem cell function. HLI is concentrating on cancer, diabetes and obesity, heart and liver diseases, and dementia.
Probably should have mentioned Diamandis also has a degree from MIT in molecular genetics.
He’s working with a team of billionaires and movie director James Cameron on a plan to mine asteroids. He does not appear to be crazy.
He is a big dreamer. But he has a record of turning his dreams into realities and the realities into money and the money into financing for other dreamers trying to turn their dreams into realities.
Much of his big dreaming sounds like pie in the sky and building castles in the air. He calls it “moonshot thinking.” I’d sum it up as 3D Printing in the Cloud.
Apparently, this is a thing.
I don’t know how it works.
I don’t know how 3D printing anywhere works.
Diamandis does, and it’s one of the many things that make him such an optimist.
Diamandis is inclined to say things like “The world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest opportunities” and “The best way for an entrepreneur to become a billionaire is to help a billion people.”
Referencing Stephen Pinker he’ll tell you we’re living during the most peaceful period in recorded human history.
The bottom line is you think we can handle nine billion people without burning up the planet, and you think we can feed children well-enough so that they can learn, and you believe that through technology widely disseminated we can not only educate people but empower them to create enough income generating activity themselves that we can essentially have a very low structural unemployment level in every country.
Diamandis agreed that that about sums it up.
New technologies succeed by taking what once was scarce and making it abundant, and he’s looking forward to the 21st Century as a time when that will happen on an astounding and unprecedented scale, increasing prosperity around the world.
The big questions are, he says, “How can we do that with literacy? How can we do that with health? How can we use technology to create a scale that allows every child to have the best possible education, the best possible health care, independent of where they live or where they were born?”
He’s co-written a book with Steven Kotler that not only makes the case that will happen but shows where and how it is already happening, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think and he and Clinton sat down together to talk about abundance and Abundance, the prospect and the book. Clinton had his copy with him. “I love flacking other people’s books,” he said, holding it up. He loves this book, which he’s clearly read and taken to heart. He read from it as he interviewed Diamandis, but I got the feeling the reading was for show and he could have recited from it from memory.
Clinton started off by asking, “Why are you so optimistic about the future? Don’t you read the papers.”
Diamandis’ offhand answer to the second question was that he tries not to, said in a tone that implied he recommends others try to not too. Too much negativity. Too much focusing on problems and not enough on problem-solving. Too much---he didn’t use the word but I suspect he’d nod knowingly if you did---whining.
The short version of his answer to the first question is: Information, education, technology.
The short version of the short version is: the internet.
A lot of the basis for Diamandis’ optimism is his faith in the increasing utility of the internet as a development tool and delivery system for new technologies, e.g. 3D printing in the cloud.
It’s more than taken for granted by now that the internet is a revolutionary system for delivering information. More people have access to more information than ever before. As Diamandis pointed out to Clinton, “A Maasai warrior in the middle of Kenya today on a smart phone has more access to knowledge and information than you when you were the President twenty years ago.” (Clinton’s self-deprecating response: “That’s a frigtening thought.”) We use it and rely on it, celebrate it and addict ourselves to it, chiefly as a very efficient medium for mass communication.
Well, that, and a convenient way to shop and pay bills without the dirty business of having to deal with real people.
It’s taken for granted that the delivering of information and the communication and virtual social contact that requires and creates are a good in and of themselves.
My own whine is that that’s pretty much all the internet does these days, deliver information that consumers of it can’t use except to entertain ourselves. That’s what makes time online so frustrating and, especially in the cloud banks I tend to hang out in, maddening. (And I mean maddening as in making angry and making crazy.) There’s no material world effect.
Diamandis sees the internet a little differently. Communication, information, and interconnectivity are important but they’re more like fuel. Hearing him talk about it, the birth of the internet sounds more like the invention of the steam engine, the ur-machine whose powering of other machines led to the invention and building of more machines. The internet is a knowledge and technology generator.
Diamandis went on to discuss some areas in which he is most optimistic. Food, energy, and education.
He’s looking forward to the day when, through aquaculture---hydroponics on a grand scale---and vertical farming, cities will be able to feed themselves, growing enough food for all the people living in them at a great savings in energy, manhours, waste, and money, much of that savings due to a marked decrease in transportation costs. As things are, when people in New York go out for a nice dinner, items on the menu travel an average of 1600 miles before landing on their plates. “Los Angeles would starve in I think it’s about three days,” he said, “if you shut down transportation.”
We’re talking about having an XPrize in vertical farming. The notion that we can in fact, in a downtown New York or downtown Dallas or L.A., have a building that is able to capture the sun, is able to finely tune the pH of the water, is able to grow twenty-four hours a day and provide the ideal growing economy.
Meanwhile, the earth is pulsating with abundant but so far untapped energy. He didn’t mean shale oil and wasn’t boosting fracking. He meant geo-thermal and solar. He’s particularly keen on solar.
The earth gets five thousand times more energy from the sun than we use as a species in a year. If you talk to folks like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil, [they] believe we’ll reach fifty to a hundred percent energy from the sun in the United States in the [next] twenty years. And the poorest parts of the world are the sunniest parts of the world. So I think we’re headed towards a solar revolution. And if you have abundant energy, you also have abundant clean water. And as you know well, sir, half the disease burden on earth is due to unclean drinking water.
As for education, well, hold on a second.
It was a nice change to be taking part, even if only vicariously, in some problem-solving instead of being a voice in the collective whine. But then Diamandis grew excited about the prospect of Artificially Intelligent “teachers” who would, over the internet, give “personalized” educations to students living far from any schools. Students will be able to attend classes in the cloud with teachers who “know” them and understand their needs and their individual learning styles as well as the best teachers in the best schools in here in the non-virtual world.
“I’m very proud,” Diamandis said, “It was this week, at the United Nations, at the Social Mid-Summit, we announced a fifteen million dollar prize called the Global Learning XPrize.”
We are challenging teams around the world to build a piece of software---not a hardware prize. The cost of hardware’s plummeting.---a piece of software that can take a child anywhere, who’s illiterate, to basic reading, writing, and numeracy in eighteen months. There’s nearly a billion [illiterate] people, two-thirds of those are women, a quarter of a billion are kids, and the notion is that technology is progressing at such a rate that we have the ability, the same way Google democratized access to information, to democratize access to the best teachers.
This sounds great. So does what he went on to say in a minute.
We expect to have hundreds or thousands of teams compete and take the the top five pieces of software and deploy it to five thousand kids throughout Africa and test and see what the best one is, and then open-source the software, with the vision that any Android tablet or phone made in the future will have this software will have this software on it from the start.
It was what he said in between I didn’t like the sound of. Brought out my inner Blade Runner.
Imagine an A.I., or imagine a piece of software that knows a child’s favorite color, sports, actors, presidents and can literally give them a personalized education.
More to the realistic point, I don’t think people want their most intimate relationships to be with software. We need the comfort and sense of companionship that can only come from physical contact with other human beings. We want the tricorder held by Dr McCoy who when he says, “Dammit, I’m a doctor not a bricklayer” is taking our pulse, feeling if we have a fever, and probing for our pain, with hands that can actually lay bricks and do the doctoring. We want Mrs McLean (my fourth grade teacher, the teacher who knew me and understood me best) hovering over our desk, smiling as we figure it out for ourselves that 10 x 12 – 7 = 113. And even more realistically, I doubt that if and when such software is developed it will be only used to staff virtual schoolrooms in the remotest villages in the more undeveloped nations of the developing world.
And here’s where I get skeptical.
New technologies have a history of putting human beings out of work.
The new jobs they employ many fewer people than the ones they replace.
Clinton asked Diamandis about this. He spoke with sincere concern about the continuing scourge of mass joblessness---unfortunately but tellingly using the dreaded phrase: “structural unemployment”---and noted how throughout most of history “except for farmers, most everybody who’s worked has worked for somebody else.” Diamandis believes that in the future the economy will grow and thrive in ways that will encourage and support and even depend on individual enterprise and entrepreneurship---There’s a chapter in Abundance Clinton summed up as being about “the Do It Yourself Economy”---and Clinton wondered how this was going to happen.
The internet, again. Thanks to it, according to Diamandis, by 2020, we will have around five billion people connected online---in 2010 it was 1.8 billion---all of them with access to the newest technologies that,with the help of crowd sourcing, they will be able to teach themselves how to use and put to work in building their own businesses, and then, again, through crowd sourcing, they will be able to find customers and clients they couldn’t imagine reaching before.
That’s three billion new minds entering the global economy, three billion new creators, contributors, trillions of dollars flowing into the economy no one’s speaking about, and these individuals, no matter where they are on the planet, now have access to Google, they have access to A.I., 3D printing on a cloud, they have access to extraordinary technologies. They also have access to crowd funding. There’ll be fifteen billion dollars in crowd funding by 2015, a hundred billion by 2020, so they have access to capital, crowd funding, and we’re now empowered to become entrepreneurs. And I teach this, that the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest opportunities. The best way for an entrepreneur to become a billionaire is to help a billion people. This kind of beautiful parity exists right now. And a lot of young people in the developing world are entrepreneurs to exist. We’re giving them the tools to up their game.
Ok, never mind 3D printing in the cloud. This does sound like pie in the sky. It also sounds suspiciously like a global and virtual version of the entrepreneurial economy getter known as the service economy which a friend of mine prophetically defined back in the 1980s as a nation of minimum wage workers delivering pizzas to each other and which we Americans have been trying to sell to ourselves for three and a half decades.
Diamandis would almost certainly say that the reason it hasn’t taken off yet is the technology has only just begun to become available. But it is becoming available, more and more of it at a more and more rapid rate.
But I just don’t buy that we’re going to build a vital and expansive economy or a particularly civil or companionable society by having people delivering virtual pizzas to one another in the cloud.
That was a whine.
Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, published by the Free Press, is available in paperback and hardcover at Amazon but you’ll probably want to read it on your kindle. Since, as Diamandis sees it, in the future we’re all going to be living in the cloud, we might as well start getting used to it.
Wore myself at this year’s meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. Lots to see and take in, and I may have overdone it. I’m full up with knowledge. Some of it trivia. But interesting and fun to know trivia, and trivia that illuminates substantial issues and ideas. I took copious notes, with a pen on paper and typed into many windows at Twitterville, and now I’m trying to work those up into full-fledged blog posts that I’ll be posting over the course of the next few days. It’s not going to be All CGI All the Time, but there’ll be a bunch. I hope you’ll enjoy them and keep checking in to see what’s new.
Covering events like this is something I always wish I could do more of. Time and money make that a challenge. Paying train fare and then cab fare out of pocket isn’t easy when there’s not much in the pocket to begin with. So please forgive me for asking once again:
If you like what goes on around here and enjoy my reports from the field and would like to see more along those lines and, of course, if you can swing it, please consider making a small donation to the travel fund.
Thank you very much. Thanks for reading the blog. And thanks to everyone who has donated in the past. By the way, I think I’ve sent out all the paper thank post cards I promised to send last time but if you didn’t get yours let me know and I’ll fire another one off ASAP.
Not going to be systematic about turning my notes from the Clinton Global Initiative into posts so they won’t be appearing chronologically. Blog might read like one of those novels full of flashbacks and flashforwards for the next few days. Probably when I’m done I’ll go back and rearrange things. Right now I’m starting out near the end of the day Tuesday with this from President Obama’s remarks closing the plenary session.
Here’s the set up. Chelsea Clinton’s baby is due soon. Very soon. Like any day now. And the the New York meetings of the Clinton Global Initiative always coincide with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly’s High-level Meetings and General Debate and the two events together flood the streets with convoys of limos and armored Chevy Suburbans. Traffic lanes and whole streets get blocked for blocks. Makes getting around by car not fun. So…
President Obama walks onstage Tuesday afternoon, pauses on his way to the rostrum to have a few words with Bill Clinton, and when he steps up to the mic opens by letting us know what he said to Bill.
I was just discussing with President that if Chelsea goes into delivery while I’m speaking, she has my motorcade and will be able to navigate traffic. Cause actually it’s pretty smooth for me during the week. I don’t know what the problem is. Everybody hypes the traffic, but I haven’t noticed.
Maybe you had to be there. They say it’s all in the delivery. Cracked Matt Damon up anyway.
Photo by Paul Morse, courtesy Clinton Global Initiative.
Leo and his big beard aren’t here today. He’s been hanging out at the United Nations for the Climate Summit. But I’m here, if it’s any consolation. I’ll be here all day, tweeting over at Twitterville and blogging here. I’ll be back tomorrow too. So please check in from time to time. Matt Damon’s here, President Clinton’s here, Secretary Clinton’s here, and, I’m told, there’s somebody important going to be dropping in.
Posts from this year’s CGI are going to be filed in the archives along with my posts from CGI meetings I attended in 2008, 2009, and 2011 in the category called with brilliant simplicity Clinton Global Initiative.
Tuesday morning. on my way to the Clinton Global Initiative.
Driver of the cab I took from Grand Central to the Sheraton Towers couldn’t pull up to the curb along the stretch of Sixth Avenue closest to the corner of 52nd where I asked him to drop me off because of the long line of other cabs parked bumper to bumper that reached halfway to 51st. He got as close as he could, essentially double-parking gunwale to gunwale with another cab. Left me about six inches in which to maneuver myself and my effects---briefcase, cane, a couple of books, a bottle of water---out the door.
I suppose I should have gotten out on the far side but traffic was heavy and I’m not as nimble as I once was. I didn’t think I could make it out before an onrushing car sheared off the open door, taking me with it.
I eased myself out as carefully as I could but I bumped the door as I hoisted myself to my feet and the door bumped the rear door of one of parked cabs.
Bumped is overstating it.
What’s between a bump and a kiss?
Whatever it was it didn’t leave a mark. I checked. Not a dent. Not a ding. Not a nick. Not a scratch. Not any damage at all I could see.
I’m not sure what I’d have done if there had been. Probably shrugged it off. It was a cab in New York City after all. A New York City taxi cab without dents or dings must be as rare as a pirate without an eye patch.
Apparently I found that pirate.
The driver jumped out.
“You bumped my cab!” he shouted.
I didn’t point out it was more of a nudge.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You bumped my cab!” he shouted again. He was middle-aged. Neatly dressed in slacks and a zippered cardigan. Distinguished looking. Middle Eastern with closely trimmed snow white hair and a meticulously groomed silver and gray mustache.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. I’d have thought a simple but sincere apology would have covered it. There was no damage, I hadn’t done it intentionally, it’s something that happens all the time to everybody. Everybody’s been a door bumpee or door bumper at some point. Multiple points. I elaborated on my apology. “I’m very sorry,” I said.
“You’re sorry? You’re sorry?” he said. “You bump my cab and that’s all you say? You’re sorry?”
I didn’t know what else to say. Of course it occurred to me that what he wanted me to say was something along the lines of “Here’s ten bucks? Is that sorry enough for you?” But there was something theatrical about his anger. It was like he was playing the part of an irate Middle Eastern cabbie in a movie, one who’d somehow gotten in the way of the hero during a chase. And I wondered if he wanted me to play a part in that movie in his head too, if he wanted me to argue with him, say something more like, “Yeah, I bumped your fucking cab, what about it?” and the drama would take off from there.
I wanted to just walk away. My cab had driven away and I was standing in the street unprotected from oncoming traffic. that might swerve. Drivers might spot a parked cab in time to swerve but might not notice a pedestrian until I rolled off their hood. But I couldn’t decide where to walk to. My driver had left me off a long, painful hobble from the corner and much longer hobble to the front end of the line of parked cabs. The cabs weren’t the only things blocking me from sidewalk. All along Sixth and up 52nd as far as I could see were metal barricades to keep the sidewalks clear around the Sheraton.
A former President was inside. A former Secretary of State too. And their daughter. And dozens of foreign heads of state and foreign and domestic dignitaries. Along with more than a handful of movie stars and other celebrities. The Secret Service was out in force and making their presence felt. In a few minutes, I’d be having a polite but all business encounter with a short,young, squarely built agent with a dark ponytail and SECRET SERVICE stenciled on her kevlar vest who, probably wondering how I’d gotten inside the barricades to begin with let me know with a glare and a wave as swift, strong, compact, and unmistakable in meaning as a karate chop that I was on what she regarded as the wrong side of her street and, cane or no cane, I’d better cross to the other side now.
She would be the second agent I’d have dealings with in a space of five minutes.
The cabbie seemed to take my hesitation as a sign I’d gone up in my lines and, determined to continue the drama and get our big scene restarted, prompted me with my cue again.
“You’re sorry? You go around bumping people’s cars and say you’re sorry. That makes it all right? You’re sorry?”
Suddenly I knew what my next line should be. I wasn’t intentionally playing along. It was just reflex.
“What, you’ve never done it yourself?”
He was ready.
“No! Never! I have never done that!”
“In all your years behind the wheel? Not once?”
“Not once! I know how to be careful.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “You’re amazing. You should write a manual. Tell people your secret.”
I thought that was pretty good. Worth a chuckle from the audience. If we had an audience. Which, it turned out, we did.
Three tall, square-shouldered, square-jawed guys with the names of their agencies on their body armor had ambled up to the barricades.
The third guy actually looked the most intimidating.
They were laughing.
I tried to think of a topper.
The cabbie was quiet but probably not because he was waiting for my comeback so he could top it. I suspect was thinking it might be a good time to cut the scene short. He wasn’t sure he wanted this type of an audience.
Didn’t matter. The guys had decided the show was over. The city cop lowered the curtain, so to speak, by swinging open a section of the barricades. That’s when I saw they hadn’t chosen any old spot from which to watch the comedy play out. They were standing where there was just enough space between the bumpers of two of the parked cabs for me to limp through. They’d come over to help me out.
I made my exit without bowing to take a bow and the cabbie did the same, getting back into his cab to wait for a fare or another, better opportunity to relieve his boredom with some impromptu street theater.
The three guys were grinning merrily as I made my way between the cabs and through the gateway they’d made for me.
“Welcome to New York,” I said and I hope they caught that I wasn’t being sarcastic.
I was grateful to them. I was grateful to the cabbie. They’d made my day by reminding me.
I love New York.
10 AM. New York City. Wish I could walk because I’d much rather have hiked the fifteen or so blocks from Grand Central to the Sheraton Towers where the Clinton Global Initiative’s being held instead of cabbing it. Absolutely gorgeous day and even the little bit of it that slipped in through the cab’s open windows is delicious. What I really wish is that I could have walked to Bryant Park and spent the day at a table in the shade there and covered the whole shindig virtually from there. So I was surprised when the young volunteer checking me in at the Sheraton and handing me my press pass said cheerfully, “It’s cold out there, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t help a chuckle. “You’re cold?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I wish we could have summer back!”
Everybody has their own tolerances, I guess.
Hyde Park on Hudson is worth seeing for Bill Murray’s understated but seductive performance as FDR. He doesn’t do an impersonation but he captures the spirit and character of Roosevelt. But the movie fails seriously in failing to give three of the most important women in his life, Daisy Suckley, Missy LeHand, and Eleanor Roosevelt. I wonder, though, if it’d feel like a better movie after having watched The Roosevelts and learned more about the real characters of the three and the actual complexities of their relationships with each other and FDR. Here’s my review from last year.
"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad." Bill Murray craftily suggesting the crippled President, Franklin Roosevelt, who seems to be at his jauntiest when he's shouldering the burdens of others in Hyde Park on Hudson.
Couple times a month my routine travels take me across the river to Hyde Park and now and then when I’m over there and I have the time I make a point of stopping in for a visit at FDR’s old place.
His estate---he liked to call it a farm---overlooking the Hudson and his mother’s house Springwood and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
I don't go in reverently to genuflect before a shrine. I’m not there to commune with ghosts. I drop by for the company.
The Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor, have always been alive to me in a way other historical figures whose careers I actually lived through aren’t. It’s probably because they were still alive to my parents and grandparents when I was growing up and they got talked about with the same immediacy, knowingness, and affection as absent friends and family. I’ve mentioned how in Pop Mannion’s heart FDR is still his President. And part of it is that they both had such expansive, engaging, and inspiring personalities that their spirits can’t be bound within a history book…or a grave. But it’s also because they’re still at work holding the country together.
When conservatives insist that the New Deal didn't end the Depression, insist back they're missing the point.
The New Deal wasn't designed to end the Depression. It was put into place piece-meal and catch as catch can to save the country from complete collapse. Economic, political, and social. People were starving. Unemployment was 25%---nationally. It wasn't spread around evenly. Whole towns were out of work. States weren't coping by laying off some teachers. They were closing school districts! There were serious communist and fascist movements on the rise. Conservatism---Hooverism---budget cutting, austerity of the sort ruining Republican-cursed states here and now and doing such a bang up job of bringing economies back to life in Europe and yet still advocated by serious people in Washington as the cure for all our financial woes---had failed so miserably that even Herbert Hoover was giving up on it. The Depression had been going on for three and a half years and was just getting worse. FDR didn't come into office with a systematic plan that said in X number of years we will have reversed the downward trend, brought industries back to full capacity, and reduced unemployment to statistically zero. He came into office saying let's do what we can as quickly as possible to get people fed and back into their homes and save what's still there to be saved and head off riots and most important of all help people from being afraid.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" may be the most rousing declaration in the history of Presidential oratory and the most necessary thing any President ever said, but my favorite saying of his was something he routinely told people in private.
"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad."
He put everybody on those broad shoulders and saved the whole goddamn country.
I suppose that's why the Right hated him and hates him to this day. He didn't throw enough people overboard.
So many of us are still riding on those shoulders that I think he must be getting tired. He’s got to put us down at last. But then I feel the shoulders square, see the smile broaden, the chin lift another inch, the cigarette holder tip up even more jauntily.
This side of Roosevelt, the crippled man who couldn’t stand without locking into place painful leg braces, who couldn’t walk on his own more than a few steps without falling, who often needed to be lifted from a seat and carried by aides, but who was at his happiest and most energetic when he felt that he was carrying others, informs Bill Murray’s portrayal in Hyde Park on Hudson---there’s a shot of Roosevelt in the arms of an aide and the look on Murray’s face tells us that the President seems to think he’s levitating and hoisting the aide and pulling him along as she sails across the room. You can tell he wants to call out, “Hold on!” But it only comes out forcefully in one scene.
You won’t be surprised that it’s my favorite scene.
But it’s also the scene that gives the movie its reason for being.
Of course the reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is Murray as FDR. But that scene is why we should care. Which makes that scene what the movie’s about. Which is interesting, because for long stretches the movie seems to think it’s about Roosevelt’s (probable) affair with his distant cousin, Daisy Suckley.
Since Ghostbusters, Murray has played many parts that aren’t just variations of Peter Venkman, and not all of them for Wes Anderson. But with those parts it doesn’t matter---too much---if from time to time you notice it’s still Bill Murray up there. In fact, it wouldn’t matter---much---if your mind switched gears and you saw only Murray up there. In Hyde Park on Hudson Murray does his best job, that I remember, of not letting us see him as Bill Murray. And the times I caught myself noticing it was Murray I was delighted.
“Hey!” I said to myself, as if pleasantly surprised, because that’s what I was, “That’s Bill Murray!”
His performance is more suggestion than impersonation. He captures the look, sound, and spirit of the man, what it might have been like to be in a room with him, even have a drink with him, but at a distance. Roosevelt himself was good at that, making people feel welcomed into his company while still keeping them at a distance, a matter of temperament he turned into a political skill that the movie never shows him using overtly as a political skill. There are no other politicians on screen. No opponents whom FDR had a way of treating like his best friends. No friends and allies whom he had a habit of manipulating as if they were opponents.
Instead, we see him practicing on the four important women in his life at the time, his mother, his wife Eleanor, his secretary and mistress Missy LeHand, and Daisy.
And on the King of England, his majesty George VI.
“Bertie” to his family and those of us who saw The King’s Speech.
Hyde Park on Hudson centers on a historically loose---Ok. Practically entirely made up---account of an actual visit the King and Queen made to the United States on the eve of World War II, a visit that ends with a picnic on the Hyde Park estate at which the Royals are to be served hot dogs!
That happened. The picnic. The hot dogs. The nearly week long visit, which began in Washington (The movie leaves that part out) in June of 1939, three months before Hitler invaded Poland, was arranged by Roosevelt, who was working to prepare the U.S. for getting involved in the coming war in Europe. There was a strong isolationist movement here and FDR calculated that the visit would engage Americans' sympathies on the side of England and her allies.
The hot dogs were an amusing aside to the news reports. Supposedly, when the queen expressed uncertainty about the proper way to eat one, Roosevelt said, "It's easy, your majesty. You just put it in your mouth and push!"
In the movie, the serving of hot dogs is a very big deal.
The visit and surrounding events are seen through the very wide eyes of Daisy Suckley, who has become a frequent houseguest at Hyde Park at the invitation of the President's mother. The elder Mrs Roosevelt has the idea that in Daisy's innocent and totally unpolitical company, her son will be able to put aside his burdens as President and relax.
This works out, although probably not exactly as Mother Roosevelt expected.
Laura Linney plays Daisy as a woman on the brink of middle age who for some reason has apparently regressed to a shy and timid teenager. It's not explicitly explained how, when, or why this happened or even if it was a thing that happened as opposed to its just being who she is. Historically, FDR and Daisy became close in the early 1920s when he was fighting his way to the degree of recovery from polio he managed and she was still reeling from the deaths of her father and one of her brothers. But Daisy tells us enough in her narration to imply that it's the Depression and her side of the family's come down in wealth and status that's knocked her for a loop. She's sapped of confidence and energy and, practically, of will. On her visits to Hyde Park, she sees herself as more of a servant than a member of her family, and all she hopes to be around the house is useful and invisible.
In a way, then, she's symbolic of what the Depression did to the whole country, which sets her up to become another one of FDR's New Deal rebuilding projects.
We see him best at work on this project in the scenes of him driving her around the still very rural and bucolic Dutchess County where he grew up in the Packard convertible he had fitted with hand controls instead of pedals for the brakes, gas, and shifting. He enjoys showing her the countryside. He enjoys scaring---and thrilling---her with his apparent recklessness behind the wheel. We don't get to hear him at it, but Daisy tells us he teaches her to identify the local birds and wildflowers.
Unfortunately, there isn't a scene of them doing something FDR made a point of doing when he went out for his drives, stopping to chat with various people (voters) along the way. A scene something like this. Besides possibly saving us from an embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture by getting it consigned to the cutting room floor for time's sake, a scene like that would have done two other important jobs.
It would have shown Daisy coming out of her shell to learn some lessons about the art of politics and it would have provided a set up for a couple of later scenes, one involving Daisy and some unemployed working men doing odd jobs around the Roosevelt estate and the other a scene in which the King tries to mimic an American politician by doing the democratic thing and stopping his car so he can say hello to some ordinary Americans on the roadside, which doesn't go over as well as he'd hoped.
I have to mention: that embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture is embarrassing and unnecessary, but it's also ridiculous and belittling to both characters and insulting to the audience, not to mention totally out of keeping with the mood and tone of the movie itself. It's ruined the movie for some people. But Pop and Mom Mannion shrugged it off and so did Old Mother and Father blonde. You can tell when it's about to happen and fast forward or leave the room to go get a drink.
Daisy doesn’t appear to learn any political lessons from Roosevelt. We aren't shown her developing the insight and the acumen that would make her useful to both Franklin and Eleanor as President and First Lady over the coming years and eventually lead to her becoming one of the first archivists at the Presidential Library. And her narration doesn't seem to contain the keenly descriptive voice of the letters and diaries that were found under her bed after she died and which have become a treasure trove for historians and biographers.
But she blossoms. She takes up smoking. She mixes it up with the working stiffs doing odd job round the estate (a scene that should have been an echo of an earlier one like what I mentioned, FDR stopping to banter and exchange gossip with all and sundry when he's taking her on a drive.) We watch her grow more sophisticated and adult. We see her recovering from the Depression.
Drama ensues when she discovers she’s not his only rebuilding project.
Drama being a relative term.
Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson are determined to keep things light and frothy. They don’t explore their characters’ psyches and motivations. And we're not given any real insight into why these proud, smart, talented, spirited women put up with him or what FDR needs from them.
Whatever it is, it doesn't appear to be sex---or, at any rate, not just sex---or to be coddled and taken care of, although he expects that. And why all of them? (Two more lovers are said to be waiting offscreen.) Were his burdens so great that one person alone couldn't lift them? Was it that because he worked round the clock he needed them to work in shifts so there was always a nurse on call? The movie doesn’t give any answers. Or even look for them
It simply appears as though they liked thinking they were needed by him while needing him more and he needed to be needed by them and and that his way of relaxing from his burdens as President was to take on other burdens. He was doing for them what he was doing for the country, putting them on his shoulders and enjoying it. I like to think this is true. It fits with my ideal of the man. But the movie doesn’t try to persuade us that it is.
But then Hyde Park on Hudson isn't a psycho-drama or even a historical drama. It's not a drama at all. It's a drawing room comedy that happens to have one of the greatest Presidents of the United States as its main character. It has more in common with The Man Who Came to Dinner than with Lincoln or The King's Speech.
The fun is in watching a set of eccentric characters interact and in being amused or appalled or both at their misbehavior, although on that ground it should have been funnier.
Keep in mind that it is funny. And its funniest moments are provided by FDR's most serious rebuilding project, his efforts to teach the King of England how to be a leader not just his own people will look up to but who will inspire Americans as well.
So we arrive at that crucial scene, the centerpiece of the movie, an extended two-hander between Murray and Samuel West as George VI in which we see FDR at his manipulative and mischievous best subtly letting Bertie know he’s already taken England on his shoulders, but it’s time for Bertie to stop being so Bertie-ish and start acting the part of King and share the load. The weekend’s a test that will let them both, and their countries, know if he’s up to it.
West plays the king as superficially enough like Colin Firth in The King's Speech as to be a comic counterpoint if not an outright caricature. His Bertie is more callow, more boyish, even more easily embarrassed and cowed. His stammer is the least of his reasons for his chronic insecurity.
But he's smart and he's eager and he's quick. What makes their big scene together work isn't Murray's gentle and witty fatherliness but West's thoughtful resistance on the grounds he's just not bold enough to pull it off slowly but surely giving way to a suddenly cheerful but still characteristically modest determination to give it a jolly good try.
The capper is a little moment of private triumph Bertie giddily allows himself on his way up to bed where he knows the queen will be waiting to listen sympathetically to how he's botched things once again.
Olivia Colman plays Queen Elizabeth (the present Queen Elizabeth's mother; Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech) as a proud but fussy woman who's found herself in a situation where neither her pride nor her fussiness avail her or even make sense. To her horror and consternation her husband's being democratized, even Americanized, right before her eyes and all she can do is let herself be democratized along with him and that's going to mean a bunch of appalling things are about to happen, including eating a hot dog.
Physically, Colman looks to me like a more likely choice for Eleanor Roosevelt than the other Olivia in the cast. The real Eleanor Roosevelt, always insecure about her looks, probably would have wished she was as youthful and lantern-jawed handsome and as apparently indestructible as Olivia Williams who plays her in the movie as a cunning-eyed enigma with a roguish grin and a devil may care brazenness that I don't see in any of the photographs but which she must have had or been able to muster in order to accomplish what she accomplished as her husband's eyes, ears, legs, and public conscience when she went out into the country and then into the world while it was at war on his behalf and in her own later public career.
Williams’ Eleanor is hard to read except in that she's clearly made herself FDR's best student in the art of manipulating people. She and Murray share one brief, silent, but persuasive moment in which we see that whatever else is going on between them, they are happy partners in this game.
Disappointingly, the script seems to accept that the reason for Franklin and Eleanor's estrangement was her latent lesbianism and not his heartless caddishness. But Williams deftly swats this aside when she meets another character's clumsily alluding to Eleanor’s “friends” with a big, blithe but steely smile as if to say, I'm not saying you're right, but if you are, so what? It doesn't change anything about you, about me, about my husband, or the importance of what's happening here this weekend, does it?
As Missy LeHand, Elizabeth Marvel does more with the lighting and quick stubbing out of a cigarette to let us know the crucial facts about LeHand than other good actresses could do with all her lines. This is a brisk, active, extremely intelligent and competent woman who has given over her life to what’s decided is the most important job she could ever have, being indispensible to the President of the United States in every way possible, at the expense of her pride, her feelings, and her health.
This is the only note of realistic sadness Michell allows into the movie. He’s determined to keep things lighthearted. For the most part he relies on our knowledge of history and some special pleading in passages of Daisy’s narration to provide the tragic background to the comic events on screen. Hyde Park on Hudson is a temporary relief from history, which in a real way was the point of the actual picnic.
It’s a slight and small-scale film that doesn't do a particularly creative job of expanding upon its origins as a radio play. The reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is, as I said, Bill Murray’s Roosevelt, which, again as I said, is more suggestion than impersonation, a sketch rather than a detailed portrait. Up close and sitting still, Murray doesn’t look like the real FDR. He doesn’t sound like him either. The cigarette holder, the pince-nez glasses, and the hat with the pushed up brim aren’t much more than props for a Halloween costume, and fortunately he doesn’t rely on them. What he relies on is misdirection. A line here, a gesture there, a look, a grin, and he has us looking over here instead of over there and what appears to be over here is the impression we just saw Franklin Roosevelt, a magician’s trick appropriate to the spirit of one of the great political sleight of hand artists this nation has known.
I left Hyde Park on Hudson feeling the way I often do when I leave Hyde Park, as if I’ve been in his company and that, if I’d needed him to, he’d have been glad to add my troubles to his shoulders.
Hyde Park on Hudson, directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Richard Nelson. Starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Marvell, and Elizabeth Wilson. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Here’s the real Daisy Suckley playing with Fala in the President’s study in the White House, December 20, 1941. Suckley gave Roosevelt Fala, which is the subject of a blink and you’ll miss it joke early in Hyde Park on Hudson.
In an interview with NPR, historian Geoffrey Wolff goes to town an the many things Hyde Park on Hudson gets wrong. But this about the movie’s portrayal of Roosevelt’s polio confused me:
First of all, he's seen doing all kinds of things in the film which he never could have done. He could not walk on crutches by himself.
I wonder what Wolff means by “by himself.”
In the year before filming began on Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray and some other members of the cast visited Hyde Park to do some research.
In December of 2010, someone else paid a call.
Great Democrats. Pop Mannion and his President.
During the second episode of The Roosevelts, one of the historians providing commentary extolled Theodore Roosevelt’s natural leadership abilities. The man could walk into any room and within minutes be running the show. But this wasn’t as inevitable nor was he as irresistible as it might sound. His talent and charm failed him regularly often because he let his vanity and self-importance take over. This happened when he was serving as police commissioner of New York City, a story well-old in Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks. I don’t have a favorite biography of TR but there are several small books about episodes in his life I like a lot. River of Doubt. The Big Fire. And Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West by Richard L. Di Silvestro.
My impression is that many viewers of the first episode were surprised by the young Roosevelt’s adventures on his ranches in the Badlands. And it was a wild and exciting life. But it was also a learning experience for him. He credited it with making him more of a democrat. It intensified his love for and knowledge of natural history. And it inspired his ambition to preserve great chunks of American wilderness for the people to enjoy in their wild beauty forever.
Here’s my review of Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands from the summer of 2011.
People in those parts, other ranchers, their cowhands, folks in what passed for towns, thought of him as something of a dude, and he was. His boots were made of alligator hide, his chaps of seal skin. His spurs were real silver. The six-shooters in his holsters were ivory-handled and etched with his initials, TR. His big hunting knife had been custom-made for him back in New York City at Tiffany’s. He favored fringed buckskin shirts and jackets that were impractical in wet weather but which he thought appropriate because they made him look like the frontiersmen heroes of the boys adventure stories he’d loved when he was a boy himself, which wasn’t that long ago---he was in his mid-twenties and still very boyish in looks and outlook and behavior.
Later in life he would grow a little stout and decidedly barrel-chested, but at the time he was slender and frail---“a slim, anemic-looking young fellow” is how one cowboy described him---not all that surprising considering he was asthmatic and suffered from chronic indigestion. He was near-sighted too and wore big round glasses that didn’t always help. Once out hunting, he sighted his rifle on what he thought was an antelope in the distance. It turned out to be a dead sunflower not all that far off.
He talked funny, too, in a high, squeaky rush, and when he was excited, riled, or thrilled, he would shout out things like, “By Godfrey!” and “By golly!” which were interchangeable as curses and whoops of delight.
It was hard to take the dude seriously, except that he was so good-natured, outgoing, hard-working, and rich---and he spread his money around.
Really, though, no one expected him to last a month as a rancher in the Badlands, never mind three and a half years!
Then one night:
He had been riding the range all day when he stopped in Mingusville, Montana, about thirty-five miles west of Medora. As he approached Nolan’s Hotel, where he hoped to find a bed for the night, he heard shots from the saloon on the hotel’s first floor. He was reluctant to enter, but he had nowhere else to go on a cold night.
Almost as soon as he stepped inside he was confronted by a bully with a six-gun in each hand who just put two or three bullet holes in the face of a wall clock. He called Roosevelt “Four Eyes” and ordered him to buy drinks for everyone in the bar. Roosevelt tried to laugh it off and found a seat behind the stove, hoping to avoid further notice.
The armed man followed and again ordered Roosevelt to buy drinks. “My assailant was neither a cowboy nor a bond fide ‘bad man,’ but a broad-hatted ruffian of cheap and commonplace type who had for the moment terrorized the other men in the bar-room, these being mostly sheep-herders and small grangers. The fact that I wore glasses, together with my evident desire to avoid a fight, apparently gave him the impression---a mistaken one---that I would not resent an injury.” Concluding that he had been pushed as far as he could reasonably allow, Roosevelt said, “Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got,” stood up, and delivered his fists right, left, right to the man’s jaw. The guns went off, and the man fell, hitting his head on the bar and sprawling senseless on the floor. Roosevelt collected the guns, and the other patrons dumped the unconscious man in a shed outside. The following morning, Roosevelt was pleased to hear that the bully had fled town on a freight train.
Word got around, and that was the end of anyone’s thinking of Theodore Roosevelt as just some funny little tenderfoot from the East.
In Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West a likeable, lively, often exciting and always informative account of the future Cowboy in the White House’s adventures as a real cowboy on and around his ranches in the still wild west of Dakota Territory in the mid-1880s, author Robert L. Di Silvestro tries to keep things reined in, which is a trick, considering that one of the things he has to keep reined in is his main character---Teddy Roosevelt was a prolific writer and the best source for the story of his life in the West, but his prose often shades purple and he had a tendency to idealize and romanticize, particularly when the subject was himself, and he never met an idea he didn’t feel needed his best efforts to sell---but the fact is that TR’s confrontation with the ruffian in the saloon was just one of many real life incidents that come across like scenes from those boys adventure novels Roosevelt loved.
Roosevelt set out to make his life one long hero’s journey and his time in the Badlands is a large and important and thrilling part of that story.
He chased down outlaws, squared off against wild Indians---well, he thought they were wild. They probably thought they’d encountered a wild white man---broke broncos, branded cattle, hunted grizzly bears, and prepared to fight a duel with a colorful transplanted Frenchman, a rival rancher named Antoine-Amedee-Marie-Vincent-Amat Manca de Vallobrosa, known better by his title, the Marquis de Mores. He endured long days in the saddle in the hellacious heat and murderous cold of the Badlands, a region of breathtaking but primitive beauty that offered humans and animals little in the way of shade, shelter, and, at times, water. The land itself regularly seemed to turn on him.
A rattlesnake nearly bit [his guide Joe Ferris’s] horse; a bluff along which they were riding crumbled under them and sent men and horses falling in a tangled mass; [Roosevelt’s horse] Nell somersaulted after plunging her front hooves into a hole, and Roosevelt catapulted a good ten feet beyond her; and then, when crossing an apparently dry creek, the ground gave way, and Nell was up to her withers in sticky mud, though Roosevelt was able to scramble free to the bank; with a lariat they dragged the mired horse to solid ground, nearly strangling her in the process.
He roped, rode, and shot with the best of them, although when it came to roping and shooting, not nearly as well as the best of them. He often got in the way of the cowboys and by his own admission he was not a crack-shot.
He wasn’t bad on a horse though.
Roosevelt was pulled from his blankets the night of Tuesday, June 2, near Chimney Butte to help control a herd in the storm. He rode out to find the animals stirring. “After a while there was a terrific peal of thunder, the lightning struck by the herd, and away all the beasts went, heads and horns and tails in the air. for a minute or two I could make out nothing except the dark forms of the beasts running on every side of me, and I should have been very sorry if my horse had stumbled, for those behind would have trodden me down.” At that moment the herd split into two, part of it veering to one side and the other going straight. Roosevelt stayed beside the latter, galloping at top sped to try to get ahead of the lead cattle and turn them, “when suddenly there was a tremendous splashing in front. I could dimly make out that the cattle immediately ahead and to the one side of me were disappearing, and the next moment the horse and I went off a cut bank into the Little Missouri.” The horse stayed upright despite its plunge into the river and made it to the other side. There Roosevelt met another cowboy, from whom he was immediately separated. Galloping hard, he stopped the part of the herd with which he was riding, but it stampeded again; he had to stop it two more times…
When Roosevelt reached camp he found that only about half the night herd had been recovered. He changed horses and set out again after a quick breakfast. He did not return for ten hours. He then changed horses and rode with the cattle until after dark before coming back to camp. He had spent nearly forty hours in the saddle---his longest stint on horseback---changing mounts five times. His clothes, soaked in the rain, had dried, and he rolled into his blankets and fell instantly asleep…
The Badlands lie in the northwestern corner of what is now North Dakota, not far from the Montana Border. The Maltese Cross operated along the eastern bank of the Little Missouri River, south of the town of Medora. Roosevelt’s second and larger spread, the Elkhorn, was to the north, on the western side of the river. He lived out there on and off for three and a half years, from the summer of 1884 until the spring of 1887. Starkly beautiful and infernally ugly, it’s a difficult country to love---
Sometimes they rattled along a valley a mile or more wide, and other times buttes rose abruptly from the riverbanks; surrounding hills were capped with tawny grass, ravines were dark with cedars, and the river bottoms were shadowed by cottonwoods. When the trail snaked over the buttes, they could see the Badlands spreading out in a maze of hills and ravines where seams of coal burned for years when struck by lightning, sending up clouds of smoke by day and glowing red in the night, overhung with the smell of sulfur. Left in the ground, the burning coal heated the stretches of earth into a red, brick-like substance called scoria. Roosevelt concluded that “when one is in the Bad Lands he feels as if they somehow look just exactly as Poe’s tales and poems sound.” In one of his books he would the Badlands the “devil’s wilderness.”
But Roosevelt loved it, at first sight for itself, later and forever afterwards, because it saved his life.
It’s a terrific story and a key chapter in Roosevelt’s legend, how, devastated by the deaths of his beautiful young wife, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, and his beloved mother Mamie on the same day in the same house, the up and coming young politician walked away from his rising career in New York State politics and went west to escape his grief and how out there riding the range and chasing after mountain lions and outlaws he restored himself to emotional and physical health. It’s not only a good story, it’s a true story, except that the double blow of his wife’s and mother’s deaths is the reason he went back and went back when he did.
Alice and Mamie Roosevelt died in February 1884, five months after he returned from his first trip to the Badlands in September of 1883, and the reason he’d gone out there that first time was to hunt buffalo. He fell in love with Dakota Territory and established his first ranch, the Maltese Cross, while he was out there, but he was out there to shoot a bison and bring back its head as a trophy before the buffalo were all gone.
Roosevelt knew they were on the brink of extinction but not only did that make him more determined to hunt them, he thought it would be a good thing to wipe them out. Ridding the west of bison would force the Plains Indians who depended on the buffalo to abandon their way of life and settle down and get themselves civilized. By killing a bison, he would be taking part in killing off a culture and he was happy to help in that.
“From the standpoint of humanity at large,” he wrote, “the extermination of the buffalo has been a blessing.”
And when he returned to the Badlands to live, he did far more hunting than he did cow-punching. He left the ranch regularly for days and weeks on end to go off to shoot whatever game took his fancy or had the bad luck to wander into rifle range. On one trip to the Bighorn Mountains to hunt grizzly bears, he and his companions shot dozens of animals of various other kinds---elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelopes, jackrabbits, sharp-tailed grouse, and ducks---eating very little of what they killed. Roosevelt was out for sport and trophies and after he’d taken horns or head or hide to send back to adorn the hallways of his Long Island home, the rest of the animal was left where it lay to feed vultures, wolves, coyotes, and worms. His casual and callous attitude towards the waste, his out and out blood lust and the joy he took in killing---he amused or annoyed his companions, depending on their temperaments and moods, by doing little war dances, whooping and hollering, after each kill---are almost as appalling as his racism, which, along with his warmongering and imperialism, makes him a problematic figure for contemporary liberals for whom he would otherwise be a great hero.
His was a Take Up the White Man’s Burden form of racism. (Kipling probably didn’t write his poem with Roosevelt in mind as his audience, but TR read it and admired its sentiments, although to his credit as a judge of literature he did not think highly of its merits as poetry---Roosevelt loved to read, could recite from his favorite poems at length, and, among other books, he carried a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in his saddle bag.) He believed that it was the job of the white race to improve the lot of the lesser orders who, conveniently, were a long way from being improved to the point of being ready to share power, status, and liberty with their white superiors.
As was the case with a lot of what he said and wrote on every subject, many of Roosevelt’s pronouncements on race have the sound of a man yelling at himself to shout down his own doubts and conscience. He thought and felt things deeply, and by Godfrey, he believed those things to be right and true, but at the same time, he seemed, at some level, to suspect he was wrong. But that’s probably just wishful thinking. Roosevelt was a racist and his racism can’t be excused on the grounds that he was a product of his times. Other whites of his time and place did know better. Friends of his in the Badlands knew better. He had the education and the experience to know better. Roosevelt understood that injustices were being done to the Indians but he had little sympathy. He thought the Indians needed to be forced to live like the white settlers or get out of their way and whatever happened to them if they didn’t they brought on themselves. “I don’t go so far as to think the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
His stand-off with a party of “hostiles” may have been a figment of his imagination colored by his prejudices. Roosevelt thought the Indians were up to no good. His friend, neighbor, and fellow rancher Lincoln Lang thought Roosevelt had mistaken the intentions of a peaceful hunting party.
The Lang range bordered the west side of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, so Lang though, “we must have found out something about [Indian depredations] from our twenty-odd years of residence there.” What the Langs found was that “from ‘85 on, we saw a good deal of them at the ranch. And they were always hungry. Hungry because they had no food with them, that we ever saw; because game was steadily growing scarcer, and because such rifles as they were permitted to carry were more or less antiquated and inadequate. When Indians showed up at the Lang ranch waving travel permits […] the Langs fed them and made friends with them. Lang called the permits “a passport of the invading White Man---symbol of Reservation slavery---beneficently entitling them to hunt for a couple of weeks in their own country. In their beloved Bad Lands---their stolen hunting grounds---where for aeons the race had hunted before he came; title to that which they held from God Almighty Himself.”
Di Silvestro notes that Roosevelt’s views and his heart softened over time and that as on most subjects his thinking was complex and self-contradictory, but he isn’t interested in writing either an apology or an indictment. He doesn’t ignore Roosevelt’s politics, which at that point in his life were both elitist and reformist. Roosevelt’s attitudes towards most white Americans weren’t much more egalitarian than his attitudes towards people of other colors, although his time out west opened his eyes about a lot of things. He was able to make several trips back east and kept his hand in enough that when he finally returned home to stay he was able to jump right back into the thick of things and pick up practically where he left off, only this time as something of a folk hero, the cowboy from New York by way of the Dakota badlands. It wasn’t his reason for going west, but being out there gave him an excuse not to take an active part in the 1884 Presidential campaign. The Republicans had nominated James G. Blaine of Maine, a man Roosevelt regarded with good reason as utterly corrupt. Roosevelt was a good government man but he was also a good and loyal Republican. From his ranch he could “support” Blaine but there was no way he could be expected to lend much of a hand to help get the man elected. And he wasn’t around for anyone to point fingers at when when Blaine lost to Grover Cleveland and party regulars and sachems were looking to place the blame.
But Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands isn’t a political biography. It’s a depiction of life in the Dakota territory in the 1880s as seen through the eyes of a particular young man who happened to have an amazing career in politics ahead of him. Di Silvestro observes qualities of Roosevelt’s character and details about his politics and prejudices with the same clear-eyed journalistic detachment as he observes the features of the landscape of the territory and the living arrangements and natural history of its inhabitants, two and four-footed. He’s wise to keep things low key, because his primary source is Theodore Roosevelt himself, and TR was as excitable in print as he was in person.
Roosevelt wasn’t the best writer ever to be President. That would be Lincoln, with Thomas Jefferson a close second, then John Adams. Grant gets an honorable mention. But Roosevelt is the only President who could claim to be a professional author when he got to the White House. (Of all the things Jimmy Carter listed on his resume when he was running for President, author wasn’t one of them. He started his writing career after he left office.) Roosevelt wrote and co-authored over forty books, twenty or so---it depends on how you count the multiple volumes of The Naval War of 1812 and The Winning of the West---by the time he became President, at the ripe old age of 42, three of them about his time in the Badlands. Di Silvestro knows a gift when he’s been given one and he quotes extensively from TR’s writing. But he doesn’t let Roosevelt hog the page.
Di Silvestro’s own more even-tempered but still elegant and descriptive prose complements Roosevelt’s, lowering the pitch, slowing the tempo, underscoring Roosevelt’s general accuracy and reliability, toning things down when Roosevelt gets carried away, providing doses of naturalism where TR grows fanciful.
And Di Silvestro is good at filling in, adding facts and background and bits of history that Roosevelt couldn’t have known at the time, providing details that Roosevelt was too busy to notice or that he saw only peripherally as he galloped along hell-bent for leather on whatever enthusiasm had taken hold of him at the moment. Since Di Silvestro is a nature writer, a senior editor for National Wildlife and the author of several award-winning nature books, much of what he adds is descriptive, of the landscape, the weather, and the flora and fauna of the Badlands. Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands includes a a barely hidden field guide to that area of North Dakota, then and now.
The valley flats and the slopes of the surrounding hills were grassy, but the domed faces of the bordering buttes were rutted and torn by wind and water, pale in color, bleaching almost to white when the sun stood high, warming almost to gold when the sun lay low, and marked with with horizontal bands of black, blue, and red earth.
The sun shone brightly as the duo rode up the river valley, flanked by sheer bluffs. The greening grass was dappled with spring blossoms, the river valley thick with fodder, the air scented with the fragrance of silvery sage brush. Cattle fed peacefully, stopping to watch the riders pass by. Birds called from all directions. Overhead, western kingbirds, about the size of robins, with gray backs and yellow breasts, dive-bombed hawks that ducked and swooped to avoid the attacks.
They soon came to a gulch that allowed them to ride out of the river valley and on to the broken plains above, where travel was easier. There they began to see pronghorn antelope---tan and white animals with black markings that are not really antelope; their closest living relatives are goats, and they themselves are the lone species in a family all their own. They are unique among horned animals in that their forked horns, usually found only on the males, or bucks, shed the black outer layer each year. Pronghorn are the fastest mammals on the continent and one of the fastest in the world, capable of hitting sixty miles per hour. Prior to European settlement in the West, pronghorn mingled with bison and elk on western grasslands and may have numbered forty million as late as the 1870s. By 1908, the U.S. Biological Survey estimated that only about seventeen thousand remained after years of uncontrolled hunting. At the time Roosevelt came to the Badlands, pronghorn had become wary; on that first morning he decided not to stalk them , because the wind was to his back, making it easier for the animals to scent him.
Lang noticed that hunters had killed off most of the beaver native to the Badlands, the largest rodent in North America and builder of dams on streams. These dams created pools of water that lasted year-round. As beaver vanished, so did their dams, and by 1886 streams were beginning to run dry part of the year. The myriad cattle crowding the Badlands had to search farther for water, cutting a spiderweb of trails across the fragile prairie, trails that eroded in the heavy rains and evolved into washouts…
As useful and informative as it is this way, Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands is still an adventure story. The book is packed with so many exciting incidents and encounters with colorful characters that by the time we reach the chapter about the outlaws who stole a boat from his ranch and we read how Roosevelt set out in pursuit and captured them, we think, “Well, of course he did. That’s what heroes of Westerns do.”
And where would the hero of an adventure yarn be without a romance?
Alice Roosevelt died of kidney failure, probably from an undiagnosed case of Bright’s Disease, shortly after giving birth to the couple’s only child, a daughter also known as Alice, soon to be notorious as the roller-skater in the halls of the White House and then as the doyenne and terror of the Washington social scene, Alice Roosevelt Longworth. As soon as he could arrange it, Roosevelt packed up and went west, leaving baby Alice in the care of his sister. Strangely, almost perversely, it was a long time before Roosevelt mentioned his daughter or asked about her in his letters home. Convinced that without Alice his life was over, he seemed determined to act as if he’d had no life with her as well, and his infant child was about to pay for that through his indifference and benign neglect.
Then, something changed. He began to show an interest in Alice and on trips back home he doted on her. It was the first real sign he was getting over his grief and was readying himself to move on.
Before he met and married Alice, family and friends had expected him to marry his best friend from childhood and eventually his sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow, and in fact Roosevelt proposed to her several times. But they had a falling out, over what neither ever said. They drifted apart and after he married Alice, they avoided each other as much as was possible within their narrow social set. But on his visits home from the Badlands, they kept bumping into each other. Slowly, then swiftly, one thing led to another and…well, you can guess the rest.
So Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands is an exciting adventure yarn and a lyrical and lively natural and social history of that part of the still wild West. But it’s also the story of a young man’s journey towards maturity and wisdom.
Theodore Roosevelt was a natural leader, intensely charismatic, charming and seductive without hardly trying or noticing. People just liked him. More than that, they trusted him. He couldn’t enter a room without people in it wanting him to put him in charge of something. If he said, Let’s go this way, they went, if he said, let’s do it like this, they did it, even when they felt they were acting against their own better judgment. Much of his appeal was due to the delight he took in the company of others. He liked people, he enjoyed being around them, and he was interested in them. As prone as he was to letting his mouth run away with him, he also knew how to listen. The story of Theodore Roosevelt out west is a story of healing. But it’s also a story about learning.
In later years Roosevelt would write of the Badlands, “I owe more than I can ever express to the West, which of course means to the men and women I met in the west. There were a few people of bad type in my neighborhood---that would be true of every group of men, even in a theological seminary---but I could not speak with too great affection and respect of the great majority of my friends, the hard-working men and women who dwelt for a space of a hundred and fifty miles along the Little Missouri.”
Di Silvestro doesn’t moralize or do much in the way of political analysis, but he has a theme that has political implications. He sees Roosevelt’s sojourn in the Badlands as a democratizing experience. It brought him into contact with and forced him to rely on people of all classes, backgrounds, social standing, race, and gender. It’s easy to infer how later the President known as the Trust Buster, comparing the rich men and their political flunkeys in Congress to the men and women he’d known out west, the hard-working, practical, and self-reliant ranchers and cowboys and farmers and sheepherders and trappers and small businessmen and women, would have had little patience and less sympathy for their self-interested ideas of what government is for, the aggrandizement of the already rich, how he’d have seen the self-satisfied and self-congratulatory inheritors of great wealth and self-made millionaires who were essentially skimmers wringing their fortunes out of the sweat and idea of others for the parasites and thieves they were.
As I said, Di Silvestro doesn’t moralize. That lesson’s there if you want to draw it. More explicit, however, is the theme of Roosevelt’s habit of treating life as an infinite series of lessons to be learned. He appears never to have met a man or woman he didn’t expect to teach him something.
One of his most famous teachers was the photographer, muckraking journalist, and social reformer Jacob Riis, who when Roosevelt was New York City’s commissioner of police, guided the future President on a long explore of the city’s slums and underworld, an exploration that helped shift TR’s views on crime, poverty, immigration, labor, and the role of government farther to what we would now call the left.
But another teacher who ought to loom as large in the legend of Theodore Roosevelt as Jacob Riis is someone he met as a consequence of his time in the Badlands.
Of course it’s ironic that our most ardent conservationist President, the founder of our National Parks system, was such a relentless, reckless, and indiscriminate slaughterer of animals with an especial interest in hunting down species on the brink of extinction. When he heard that elk were all but gone from the Badlands, he set out to shoot the last one. And he was proud to think he had done it.
But as it happened the first book he wrote about his life out west, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, was given a critical review by the editor of Forest and Stream magazine, George Bird Grinnell.
A snippet of Grinnell’s resume:
In summer 1870 he accompanied paleontologist O.C. Marsh on a six-month fossil-hunting expedition across Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Utah. He made annual trips west after that one---more time in the West than Roosevelt ever spent---and in 1874 served as naturalist on a Black Hills expedition led by George Armstrong Custer. Also in the mid-1870s, Grinnell explored the area then recently set aside as Yellowstone National Park and hunted bison when the herds were still vast. Custer invited him to join a military foray in pursuit of Indians in Montana Territory in 1876, but Grinnell’s work as the assistant in osteology at Yale’s Peabody Museum kept him from going; he might otherwise have sown the earth of the Little Bighorn with his own bones. In 1880 he received a doctorate in osteology and vertebrate paleontology.
Grinnell took a leading role in a movement then in its infancy---wildlife conservation. In the mid-1880s he founded the National Audubon Society…
Roosevelt was on a trip back east when the review came out, and he went to see Grinnell in his office at Field and Stream.
Not to complain.
To learn something.
He wanted Grinnell to give him a more detailed criticism of the book so that he’d know where he went wrong and where he went right so and be able to make his next book better. Something else, something grander came out of that meeting.
While discussing the book, the two wildlife enthusiasts segued into talk of hunting in the West. Grinnell: “I told him something about game destruction in Montana for the hides, which, so far as small game was concerned had begun in the west only a few years before that, though the slaughter of the buffalo for their skins was going on much longer and by this time their extermination had been substantially completed.” Grinnell did not record Roosevelt’s response. They continued their discussion when Roosevelt made repeat visits to see Grinnell, giving Roosevelt “his first direct and detailed information about this slaughter of elk, deer, antelope, and mountain sheep. No doubt it had some influence in making him the ardent game protector he later became.”
No doubt. Still:
However much conservation loomed in Theodore Roosevelt’s mind, that issue alone would not have ushered him into the White House. A complex of factors saw him through that door, but Roosevelt rated his Badlands experiences high among them. His friend John Burroughs, the naturalist, recalled that when the two traveled together in the West in 1903, Roosevelt---then in his first term as president---said that “his ranch life had been the making of him. It had built him up and hardened him physically, and it had opened his eyes to the wealth of manly character among the plainsmen and cattlemen. Had he not gone West, he said, he never would have raised the Rough Riders regiment; and had he not raised that regiment and gone to the Cuban War, he would not have been made governor of New York; and had not this happened, the politicians would not have unwittingly made his rise to the Presidency so inevitable.”
One minor note of disappointment for me: Di Silvestro makes no mention of Roosevelt’s friend, the real life version of Deadwood’s Seth Bullock. Di Silvestro lists letters TR wrote to Bullock among his sources, but he doesn’t bring him into the narrative proper.
I still wish the TV show had lasted long enough for Roosevelt to become a character, as I wrote in my post All trails lead to Deadwood.
Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West by Roger L. Di Silvestro, published by Walker Books, is available from Amazon. For those of you who like to ride fast and light, there’s a kindle edition.
Excerpt. TR accepts a challenge to a duel that was never given.
Two days later Roosevelt chaired the Badlands livestock association meeting. the members set the date and place for the fall roundup and unanimously reelected Roosevelt chairman, over his objection that they should install someone who lived locally year-round. The real drama occurred behind the scenes. Either the evening of September or the following morning, Roosevelt received a terse letter from [the Marquis] de Mores, then [under indictment for murder and] cooling his heels in a Bismarck jail after a change in venue from Mandan. Dated September 3 and written on the Marquis’ Northern Pacific Refrigerator Car Company letterhead, the note read:
My Dear Roosevelt
My principle is to take the bull by the horns. Joe Ferris is very active against me and has been instrumental in getting me indicted by furnishing money to witnesses and hunting them up. The papers also publish very stupid accounts of our quarrelling---I set you the paper to N.Y. Is this done by your orders? I thought you my friend. If you are my enemy I want to know it I am always on hand,as you know, and between gentlemen it is easy to settle matters of that sort directly.
Yours very truly,
I hear the pople want organize the county. I am opposed to it for one year more at least.
Apparently de Mores had misinterpreted, or been misinformed about, certain activities in Medora. Sixteen witnesses had been subpoenaed for his trial, probably all Medora men. They had needed money for train fare and other expenses, and they got the money from Joe Ferris, who acted as an unofficial banker among cowboys who trusted him. Two key prosecution witnesses, Dutch Wannegan himself and “Dynamite Jimmie” McShane, were among those who withdrew money from Ferris before the trial. The Marquis had concluded that Ferris was paying these men to testify against him, perhaps on behalf of Theodore Roosevelt, who had invested in Ferris’ store and had a room on the store’s second floor.
With his penchant for melodrama, Roosevelt concluded that the Marquis was challenging him to a duel---the de Mores’ postscript hardly seems the kind of amendment a duelist would add to a challenge. Roosevelt told Sewll that he was opposed to dueling, but if challenged he would accept. As the challenged party, he would have the choice of weapons, and, in deference to his poor shooting ability, he thought he would choose Winchester rifles at twelve paces---near enough that he might be able to hit a Frenchman renowned for shooting birds on the wing with a rifle. They would fire and advance until one of them was satisfied. He asked Sewell to be his second, and Sewall agreed skeptically, saying that a man who would lay in ambush and shoot at unsuspecting men [the trumped up charge against the Marquis] would not fight such a duel as that. Sewell apparently did not know that the Marquis had already killed at least two men in duels in France.
Roosevelt drafted a response to the Marquis on the back of the note de Mores had sent him:
Most emphatically I am not your enemy; if I were you would know it, for I would be an open one, and would not have asked you to my house nor gone to yours. As your final words, however, seem to imply a threat is due to myself to say that the statement is not made through any fear of possible consequences to me; I, too, as you know, am always on hand, and ever ready to hold myself accountable in any way for anything I have said or done.
Yours very truly,
---from Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands by Roger L. Di Silvestro.
You never know when having information like this may come in handy:
Not all alligator hunting is against the law: The legal way to hunt an alligator is to hook it via the "fishing method" during hunting season, which is about one month out of the year. You can sneak up on it with a harpoon, and once you harpoon it, a bow-and-arrow or a bang-stick may be used to kill the alligator. The rules of alligator hunting are: no shotguns, you can only hunt during the daytime, and a permit is required. Hunting isn't the only way to get a dead alligator. Alligator farming is legal in Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida.
This nugget and the photograph above by Adam Krause come from a post over at Inc. that features twelve terrific photos of some alligator farmers and hunters and their livestock and prey. The photos are as interesting for the portraits of the people as for the illustrations of the crocodilian circle of life, although YMMV. Some people find baby gators cute.
Check them out for yourselves here: Inside the Dangerous (and Lucrative) Business of Alligator Farming: A Photo Gallery.