9/28/16

By Gaslight an Excellent (though overly long) Read

BY GASLIGHT (2016)
By Steven Price
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 752 pages
★★★

By Gaslight is an intriguing–if overly long–mystery from the pen of Canadian writer Steven Price (The Anatomy of Keys, 2006). It is a tale of guilt, obsession, and intuition with William Pinkerton (1846-1923) of the infamous detective agency at its heart. Price tells his tale from two points of view: Pinkerton's and that of Adam Foole, a member of England's "flash trade," a colloquialism for grifters, pick pockets, and thieves.

The year is 1885 and Pinkerton is in London following a clue that it is there he will find Edward Shade, a man with whom his father Allan (1819-1884) had dealings. What sort of dealings is unclear, though William suspects that Shade is a notorious criminal whom his father wished to bring to justice. Others, including Scotland Yard director John Shore, think he was a mere figment of Allan's imagination, and still others–including Sally Porter, an ex-slave Allan helped to freedom, tell William that Shade was just a boy who was killed in the Civil War. What begins as a son's effort to come to terms with the death of a powerful father takes a gruesome turn when William's supposed line to Shade, Mary* Reckitt, leaps into the Thames when he approaches her and then turns up days later, dismembered.

If you suspect by now that By Gaslight has Freudian undertones, you are correct. Add to your metaphor list numerous references to William brandishing his Colt pistol like a penis substitute. Mainly, though, this novel feels like a mash up of Wilkie Collins, Victor Hugo, and Arthur Conan Doyle–especially the latter, with the elusive (or is he fictional?) Shade as William's psychological Moriarty, and Mary as akin to Irene Adler for both Pinkerton and Foole, who William thinks may be Shade. Price takes us to London's seedy underbelly, especially the area around Embankment–now a posh tourist destination, but then a stinking dock area populated by criminals, the pox-ridden poor, rough workmen, squalid eateries, foul tenements, women of easy virtue, and dangerous taverns. This is a novel in which you expect the fog, miasmic vapors, and blood to ooze off the pages. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in scenes in which Pinkerton and Foole descend into London's sewers. (I half expected Jean Valjean to appear in one of the tunnels.)

What are Pinkerton and Foole doing in those tunnels together? It's complicated, but let's just say that each has his own reason for solving Mary's murder. Plus, Foole might just be your garden variety clever, but non-dangerous, grifter. Or he might be what he claims: an importer of ostrich feathers, the employer of hulking ex-criminal Japheth Fludd,* and benefactor to former street urchin Molly. Alone, these elements would make for a fat novel, but Price also takes us back and forth in time and place: from the 1860s to 1913 and to the American Civil War, South Africa, Europe, and the American Northwest.

Toss in also a diamond heist, spying, a balloon ascension, substitute father figures, betrayal, a stolen painting, and sociopathic behaviors. Whew! Price is an excellent writer, who makes battlefields, cut throat alleys, and gas- lighted streets come alive, but these additional elements are an awful lot to take in. I was never bored reading By Gaslight, but I was often exhausted! I admired the fact that Price did not excuse Pinkerton's obsession, nor did he neatly resolve ambiguities. But did the book need to be this long? Probably not.

Readers should also know–as Price is clear to point out–that this is not a historical novel. There was no Edward Shade, real or imaginary, nor are any of the other characters real in more than rudimentary way. (There was a John Shore, famous for investigating but failing to solve the Jack the Ripper murders. He did, however, solve the theft of a Thomas Gainsborough painting, which probably inspired Price to imagine the art heist in his novel.) Moreover, no one should glamorize any of the Pinkertons–their spy work during the Civil War notwithstanding, they were violent men whose agency ran roughshod over the U.S. Constitution. There was no more hated group in late 19th century America than the Pinkertons, a veritable private army-for-hire by Gilded Age robber barons seeking to crush labor unions or anyone else that dared question their might. (They're now mostly mall rent-a-cops and there's karmic justice in that!) Nor is there a lot of solid biographical information about William, so we don't know if he held tender thoughts for his family or, indeed, if he was the obsessive man Price makes him out to be.

It is not a novelist's job to write history–merely to tell a good story. This is a very good story, indeed. In my view, it would have been an even better one pared back at the insistence of a tough developmental editor. It's well worth reading as is, but you might want to save it for long winter's nights; it will take much longer to plow through than a drifted driveway.

Rob Weir

*I was sent an advance review copy in which Reckitt is always "Mary" and Japheth's last name is spelled "Fludd." I notice references to "Charlotte" Reckitt and Japheth "Flood" in other reviews, but I cannot say whether edits were made before publication, or if other reviewers are in error.

9/27/16

Herbert Hoover and Martin Van Buren: Pairing Presidents X


History hasn't been kind to Herbert Hoover or Martin Van Buren, as both men presided over bad recessions they failed to alleviate, Hoover the Great Depression and Van Buren the Panic of 1837. History suggests there might be cause to reconsider the total vilification of Hoover, but Van Buren might be getting more of a break than he deserves.

How they are similar:

Neither man caused the economic disaster over which they presided. Hoover was Secretary of Commerce from 1921-1929, before becoming president in March of 1929.  This means he was in the Cabinet during the go-go 1920s, a time in which the economy was supercharged, but which historians now look upon as a whirlwind of reckless speculation that contributed to the Stock Market Collapse of October, 1929. The Great Depression was destined to linger into 1941. Hoover, however, cautioned more restraint on the market, and President Calvin Coolidge complained that Hoover constantly gave him "bad advice." In truth, it was Coolidge's own aggressive laissez-faire policies that played a big role, though Hoover must bear some blame for bringing the federal government and the business community into a symbiotic relationship that may have mitigated against more aggressive action when the economy soured. Hoover also bears blame for promoting the ruinous Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 that raised import excise levels to such a high level that other governments levied harsh retaliatory import taxes on U.S. goods. This was especially bad for farmers, who were already reeling from plummeting commodity prices in the Coolidge administration. Scholars continue to debate what exactly caused the Great Depression–the consensus is that it was a global financial "perfect storm"–but few place the blame on Hoover.

In like fashion, Van Buren inherited his mess from Andrew Jackson, whom he served as vice president from 1833-37, before succeeding Jackson in March of 1837. A bank panic roiled the economy in 1833, when Jackson infamously took down the Second Bank of the United States and moved government assets into regional banks. Jackson also insisted upon hard specie, which precipitated a money flow problem. Both of these problems resurfaced for a century, until the Federal Reserve Act (1913) stabilized the money supply and President Franklin Roosevelt insured bank deposits in 1933. Van Buren had been critical of Jackson's bank plan, but he did not reverse it. This made the economy vulnerable. To simplify, it was possible for speculators trying to corner hard specie or manipulate stock values to cause a bank run in which nervous investors tried to remove their deposits; many lost their life savings. Rising interest rates and the calling in of risky loans associated with Western expansion led to bank panics that ripped through the economy, leading to falling wages, lost jobs, and steep rises in valuable commodities such as slaves, land, and cotton.

Neither president did a good job of restoring confidence. Hoover was not the do-nothing president of which he was accused of being. He enacted measures aimed at farmers, banks, stocks, and industry, but his actions were largely directed at those he felt directed the course of the economy. Hoover's aversion to direct aid for workers contributed to unpopularity that led to parody that came to pass as reality: shanty towns were dubbed Hoovervilles, hungry street dwellers consumed rats and called then Hoover hogs, and those sleeping on benches huddled under cast-off newspapers they called Hoover blankets. Especially disastrous from a PR standpoint was Hoover's refusal to approve early bonuses for World War One vets. When vets of the so-called Bonus Marchers were routed (and some were killed) by the existing US military in 1932, the nation was shocked and Hoover's hopes for reelection were dashed. Ordinary Americans felt that Hoover offered them little more than platitudes and vague promises that conditions would improve. It should be noted, though, that Hoover actually set in motion the Glass-Steagall Act that walled off commercial banks from investment banks. This became the basis of FDR's Banking Act of 1933.  

For his part, Van Buren often spoke of problems associated with Jackson's decision to end the Second B.U.S. and he contemplated specie reform, but he never moved from rhetoric to action. He was especially inactive in doing much of anything specific about slavery. He claimed to have moral reservations, but slaves were viewed primarily as economic commodities at the time and he was loath to touch upon the explosive issue in any form—even though high slave prices contributed the 1837 panic. He did try to lower tariffs, but Congress pared back his efforts. In like fashion, he tried to make the Treasury Department completely independent, but Congress refused to give up its oversight. It is doubtful either action fully activated would have made much difference. His only significant economic action was granting a ten-hour workday to federal employees. Van Buren actually fits a do-nothing profile better than Hoover.

Neither was very good on race relations; in fact, Van Buren was awful. As noted, he claimed to be troubled by slavery, but he refused even to consider banning the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Like many moral cowards of his day, Van Buren hid behind the Constitution and argued that he could nothing about slavery, failing to mention that as Jackson's vice president he had supported the gag rule that prevented slavery from being debated. His one positive action was to oppose the annexation of the Republic of Texas as a slave state, but even that decision had less to do with moral qualms than the fact it would destabilize the 1820 Missouri Compromise. He sided with Spain on 1839 Amistad incident and would have returned mutinous slaves to Cuba, had not U.S. courts stayed his hand. Van Buren also proved to be Jackson's henchman in Indian policy. He was the president who implemented the vile and infamous Indian Removal Act that led, among other things, to the tragic Trail of Tears forced march of Cherokees and four other tribes from ancestral homelands in the Western Appalachians to Oklahoma. He also conducted a war against the Seminoles.

Hoover simply did little to advance African American or Native American rights, the latter surprising as recognizing the citizenship rights of Indians was one of the few good things Calvin Coolidge actually did. Hoover basically wanted Indians to acculturate and live as individuals rather than as members of sovereign tribes. His worst racism, though, was aimed at Chicanos. Once the Depression descended, the Hoover administration engaged in underhanded methods to get Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to "voluntarily" go to Mexico by paying for one-way tickets and by inferring they would otherwise soon be deported. In truth, there was no existing US law that would have allowed Hoover to expel them, nor would there be until 1965.

How they were different:

Hoover was a better human being than Van Buren. In fact, had not the Depression occurred, Hoover would have been seen as a late Progressive Era president. He was an ardent conservationist, expanded the number of civil service jobs, supported health care reform, wanted to develop at St Lawrence Seaway treaty with Canada, and pictured himself as a trustbuster in the Theodore Roosevelt mold. He was also tough on organized crime and threw government investigative power behind the pursuit of Al Capone. 

It is odd that history has so vilified Hoover as heartless. As noted, he often behaved in racist ways typical of white of his period, but before becoming president, Hoover had been viewed as a great humanitarian. It was he who coordinated the feeding and housing of Europeans displaced by World War One. He also won kudos for his work in getting aid to victims of a 1927 flood along the Mississippi River. Despite his chicanery regarding Chicanos, in the White House Hoover so dramatically improved relations with Latin American nations that his efforts are now viewed as forerunner of FDR's Good Neighbor policy in the region. He also tried to press Japan on its 1931 invasion of Manchuria, though this didn't pan out.

There simply isn't much in Van Buren's record to see him as much more than a conniving career politician more interested in self advancement than in moral cause, national interest, or idealism. His racial views were loathsome, even by the debased standards of his day.


Rankings:

Because the Great Depression proved to be so horrific, Hoover takes the blame for it. He was ineffective, but he was neither heartless nor culpable. His current rating is #32, but he has already climbed in the estimation of scholars and should continue to do so. Van Buren, inexplicably, is #24. This is completely out of whack with the historical record; he deserves to be ranked in the lower tier, not the middle of the pack.

9/26/16

Carrie Newcomer: September Album of the Month

CARRIE NEWCOMER
The Beautiful Not Yet
Available Light Music 03
★★★★★

It seems silly to call this Carrie Newcomer release—her 16th—a "mature" release given that she's never made an immature one. Nonetheless, this one is filled with such wisdom, grace, beauty, and hope that it has come to occupy a special place in my heart. It's not just my best release for September, it's so good that I cannot imagine I will hear anything else as good this calendar year.  It is relentlessly optimistic in ways that humble and move me to tears. Newcomer doesn't just sing about hopeful things–though titles such as "The Season of Mercy," "When the Light Comes Down," and "You Can Do This Hard Thing" are pretty much their own statements–she practices what she preaches. I write these words in the midst of still another nasty political campaign and, like a lot of folks, I wonder where all the good people have gone. Ms. Newcomer reminds me. Check out her Wikipedia bio and you'll see what I mean. Even better, buy this stunning CD.

Newcomer grabs us from the get-go. The opening track, "Lean in Toward the Light" begins with guitar, strings from Natalie Haas (cello) and Sumaia Jackson (fiddle), a splash of mando from Jordan Tice and banjo from Jayme Stone, and cuts to a gospel-like choir with Newcomer leading all in vocal prayer. Her voice—deep, emotive, and with husky undertones–is one for the ages, the alto equivalent of Judy Collins' soprano. Speaking of prayer, her "A Shovel is a Prayer" reminds us of the utter holiness of life's small and private moments. That same ethos carries over to "Cedar Rapids 10 AM," a fragile song of love, yearning, and road weariness. Newcomer takes a straightforward lyric and makes it transformative. Read these words: You've always been a cup of coffee/You've always been the cream/You've always believed I was better/Than I could ever dream. Now listen to them in musical context. Magic, right? I expect Mary Chapin Carpenter to come calling on this one any day.   

The entire album is like this—so much so that one wonders how she accesses these parts of her mind and soul. The title track pays homage to quickenings, those moments of becoming that have just begun to unfold; her "Sanctuary" is the meaning we find in other people; and "Help in Hard Times" references "lunar spirituality" and is appropriately mysterious, slightly dark, and a tad languid. It's always tricky and perhaps disingenuous to presume the intentions of an artist, but to my ear the two songs that best capture Ms. Newcomer's outlook are "Three Feet or So" and "The Slender Thread." The first is catchy musically, but also a plea to be grateful for what we have whenever we get caught up in wants and desires; the second a reminder that we're "holding on to a slender thread" as we go through life, one that connects to those whom we love.

This is, in short, a beautiful album in both song and spirit. Cynics beware! Listening to Carrie Newcomer might just make you start volunteering at your local food bank. At the very least, you'll be overwhelmed by a desire to hold someone tightly– a slender thread, but maybe one made of steel.

Rob Weir

9/23/16

New Releases: Luke Brindley, Fever Fever, Riley Etheridge Jr. You Knew Me When, Ramblin' Pan, Adam Hastings



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Fans of solo acoustic guitar should check out Luke Brindley, as you're not going to find many better than he. His Invitation to Joy lives up to his title, as do his song titles. "The Lark" is full-bodied music with delicate little slides and death-defying cascades suggestive of flight, whereas "Magpie Spirit" is more enigmatic and unpredictable—just like magpies. "Dervish" has Middle Eastern undertones and, at 4:17, is the longest track on the CD, as befits a meditative composition. I loved the way Brindley occasionally strummed in ways that hinted at a sitar without actually attempting to emulate one. Is that a tabla I heard from percussionist Todd Isler? One seldom gets production credits on a download, but I think I detected a 6-string, a 12-string, and a steel guitar on this album's dozen tracks though, frankly, Brindley is such an amazing finger stylist he can probably make a 6-string sound like a twelve. Think  I'm kidding? Listen to "El Camino De La Muerte" and you'll swear his hands are running from death itself. I'm a big fan of allowing strings to ring and meld, a Brindley trait and one I find more emotive than making sure each note is clean. So listen for harmonics that resonate through the picks and beneath the bass notes. Each track is masterful and tasteful. Another favorite of mine is "The Lat Days of Summer," which is wistful in ways that sum up how I feel about those waning days: thankful, but a little bit melancholy.
★★★★

Another fine album comes from Fever Fever, a Columbus, Ohio lineup that was once a Christian band but has repositioned itself a shimmery indie pop/rock with some folk influences. Lead vocalist Drew Murtin has a very fine voice–the sort that puts you into a mellow place for the optimistic songs found on Native Color II (Noisetrade). "Blue" is fresh, hummable, and upbeat, but realistic about helping a damaged person pick up the pieces. "I can see the beauty in you even when you're drowning in shame," sings Murfin, who also warns: "If you're looking for a break in the clouds it's going to be a while." That's part of a very memorable refrain, and the entire song glimmers with everything from keyboard to xylophone (Wes Blank), and is held together by steady bass (Andrew Bashore) and unobtrusive percussion (Zach Taylor). The chorus of "Curious" is even catchier and the song feels au courant, yet mixed with the vibe of a teen love song from the early 60s. And, yes, there's some more xylophone! Strong songwriting emerges throughout. "Sea Meets the Earth" is a nicely crafted song about a relationship that has trouble gelling—as they sometimes do. "Madness" explores the same terrain: "Take it slow–beautiful/Madness inside–my soul/Everything comes and goes…." "Collapse" is wall-to-wall sound, an appropriate aural maze for pained vocals about a lost soul trying to find the way out. It builds and grows lusher, until keyboards and drums take over the arrangement. Hopefulness seldom sounds this good.

★★★★

The new release from Riley Etheridge Jr. is titled Secrets, Hope & Waiting (Rock Ridge), an appropriate title for a tender, non-ironic, intimate album. The opening track, "Like a Fool," sets the tone for what follows. It's a song about a couple that married way too young and are drifting apart, but our narrator still believes the relationship can be salvaged. Can it be? It didn't happen in "Life Unrehearsed," in which Etheridge sings: "I regret to inform you the prophets prevailed/The vows we have sworn to/Lie tattered and torn in the small details." I like that—not the breakup, but the fact that Etheridge isn't afraid to say that sometimes things don't work out. This song has a folk/blues groove with piano in the lead. Most, though, are in the country vein, with a bit of bluegrass instrumentation thrown in, especially mandolin. My favorite track was "Hush," which explores the power of the quiet, the mysterious, and the unsaid. A good line: "Hush—Silence keeps you safe/Secrets keep you whole." I also found "Hush" to be the most interesting vocally, as Etheridge adds a small slide to his voice that enhances the song's emotional impact. Overall, though, I think the other songs could use more melodic development. This is a pleasant album, but it lacks diversity in its instrumental and vocal colorings. 
★★★

You Knew Me When is the Nashville-based husband/wife team of Cie and Karisa Hoover. Their EP, The Only You is a folk/indie rock compendium of four songs that have the quirky and slightly edgy flair of someone like Aimee Mann. My two favorite tracks were "Into the Wild," in which Cie sings in a style that's like a more down-home version of Cat Stevens and plays electric guitar in a way that sounds controlled, but slightly grungy. I also enjoyed that West African guitar echoes on "Seasons." Karisa is a very strong harmony singer.
★★★

Ramblin Pan is the stage name of Chicagoan Kristian Giglietti and it's a good one. He's a guy who can sing about life gone wrong because his own went haywire when, in a short few months, his father died, a serious relationship ended, and he ended up homeless. He used songwriting as therapy and the road back—aspects heard on his eponymous LP (NoiseTrade). He sings of "Letting Go" on the opening track, but he lays out the depths in "Cheap Motels in Moab": "It's 2 am and I can't sleep/I'm 28-years-old and there's no lying next to me/And all the friends I have are the ones I met last year/The ones before that never bothered to reappear/For the longest time I thought it was them/But, man, it was always me who bailed out in the end."  Giglietti's music falls onto the folk/Americana side of things, with maybe a bit more of the latter in evidence given his penchant for starting a song with some flat top acoustic picking but segueing to electric. He has a lighter voice, one reminiscent of artists such as Ryan Adams, Noah Gunderson, and Tossing Cooper, but he's bold in experimenting with musical styles. "Less of a Man" is soulful and bluesy with runs evocative of B. B. King. And, yes, it sure sounds like he's back on track for real. "Almost Every Time" implores us to trust our instincts and "do what you gotta do," and he rounds off the album with a number titled "Home Again" that's more than just another road song. 
★★★ ½ 

Adam Hastings is a Phoenix-based artist who hails from New Hampshire. His In Black and White released this summer and its mix of folk and Americana also brings Noah Gunderson to mind. The songs I've heard from this release are rendered in a sweet high tenor with a hint of husk and are mostly in the folk idiom, with flashes of soft rock. "Love Games" has an earnest groove in which introspective piano notes clue us that these games are not ones anyone will win on current terms. "The BlackestNights" uses foreboding guitars to darken the mood. I wished the vocals had been a bit more distinct in their articulation. Although this may have been more of an MP3 issue, some of the tones ran together. I did, however, appreciate Hastings' contemplative songs and look forward to hearing him if he ventures back to New England.
★★★


Rob Weir

9/22/16

Teddy Versus Truman: Pairing Presidents IX

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Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman: The Art of Stubborn
Pairing Presidents IX

With the possible exception of Andy Jackson, one would be hard pressed to find two American presidents who marched to their own drummers as often as Theodore Roosevelt (TR) (1901-09) and Harry Truman (1945-53). Naturally, this meant they had detractors, admirers, and those who flat-out feared them.

How they were similar:

They are the only presidents of which I'm aware that threatened to punch opponents in the nose. When TR mediated the 1902 coal strike, one coal baron/lawyer, George Baer, dared to tell Roosevelt he needed to do his "duty" and crush the strikers. No one told TR what to do and the president informed Baer that only the "dignity" of his office saved him from being pummeled. Shall we say that Mr. Baer did not get what he wanted? Truman threatened to thrash Washington Post art critic Paul Hume for panning his daughter Margaret's piano recital. Not Harry's finest moment, but it did establish a precedent that family members were off limits for media slash-and-burn.

Both men took over when their commander-in-chief died in office: TR after William McKinley's assassination in 1901, and Truman after Franklin Roosevelt died in April of 1945. Each pledged to carry out the legacy of their predecessor, but quickly forged their own identities. TR's pledge to "carry out" McKinley's policies prompted one wag to comment, "He carried them out–and dumped them." Truman simply lacked FDR's polish and charm and was more prone to battle with Congress than to cajole it.

Both men became popular culture icons, TR for the Teddy bear for an incident in which he refused to shoot a chained bear cub because it was unsporting; and Truman for reviving the popular song "I'm Just Wild About Harry" from the 1921 African American Broadway show "Shuffle Along." (It was Truman's 1948 campaign song.)

Both men were reformers. TR was the first standard setter for the Progressive Era, an early 20th century movement that marked the federal government's first foray into direct economic and social reform. His Square Deal programs introduced business regulation, especially of the autocratic railroad industry; both the 1903 Elkins Act and the 1906 Hepburn Act curtailed its power, largely through rate setting and by giving more power to agencies regulating interstate commerce. He also ended some of the grossest abuses to public health by signing into law bills such as the Pure Food Act, the Pure Drug Act, and the Meat Inspection Act. The USDA became a strong agency under TR's watch. Roosevelt also gained a reputation as a trustbuster by taking on the beef industry, by breaking up J. P. Morgan's Northern Securities Company (a holding company that sought to exercise backdoor control over railroads), and by initiating action against John Rockefeller and Standard Oil (completed under William Howard Taft). TR's sense of fair play extended to ending special privileges for rich families such as his own. To that end, he also began actions that culminated in the amendment that created the graduated income tax.  TR is rightly acclaimed for his support for conservation. He did not start the National Park System, but he created five new ones and 18 National Monuments (land designation, not statues).  He counted naturalists John Muir and Gifford Pinchot among his friends.

Truman was the architect of the similarly named Fair Deal, which consisted largely of refusing to scale back FDR's New Deal. There were only a few bills Truman managed to get through an intransigent Republic Congress, the Housing Act of 1949 and full implementation of the 1944 G. I. Bill, which had stalled. Much of what he did was act as countervailing force to Congress. He vetoed the anti-labor 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Although Congress overrode his veto, Truman parlayed labor support into his 1948 upset victory over Thomas Dewey. He also made use of executive orders, using one to integrate the U.S. armed forces. He stood up to Southern Dixiecrats on several occasions and was a much stronger advocate for civil rights than FDR had been. He used his veto power to turn down two attempted income tax cuts. Historians now credit Truman's resolve with preserving key aspects of the New Deal, including Social Security.

Both men survived assassination attempts, TR when he ran as a third party candidate in 1912, and Truman when a 1950 plot by Puerto Rican nationalists succeeded only in killing a security officer.

Both men often acted rashly. Roosevelt's fear of and harsh rhetoric against radicals paved the way for brutal repression of left-leaning labor movements, especially the Industrial Workers of the World. His foreign policy (see below) was so aggressively imperialist as to appear piratical at times. Truman acted rashly during steel and coal strikes in the early 1950s—at one point seizing mines and threatening to draft strikers. His actions were struck down as unconstitutional. 

Both presidents made their mark in foreign affairs, though in very different ways.   

How they were different:

TR was an unabashed imperialist, despite his role in mediating the 1905 Russo-Japan War for which he was awarded a controversial Nobel Peace Prize. Roosevelt built up the US Navy and was quite serious about his policy to "talk softly and carry a big stick." He swung that stick often. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine set up the US as the prosecutor, jury, judge, and executioner for perceived misconduct in the Western hemisphere. US troops would be sent to the Caribbean and into Latin America early and often in the pre-World War One years (and beyond). TR also meddled in a war between Venezuela and Panamanian rebels, solely because he wanted an independent Panama so the U.S. could build the Panama Canal. The war in the Philippines ended under TR—officially at least, but not on terms favorable to Filipinos, nor convincingly enough to prevent renewed outbreaks of resistance to US hegemony in the archipelago.

Truman was the first president of the Cold War, but he often possessed nuance that his successors lacked. His quick approval of the Berlin Airlift is now viewed as instrumental in preserving a democratic presence in West Berlin, and his equally quick recognition of the new nation of Israel stamped it with instant credibility. As actions such as the drafting of NSC-68 and his decision to involve the U.S. in the Korean War show, Truman was hardly immune to Cold War fears and pressures, but his decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur demonstrated that he was not a reckless cowboy, as did his restraint over the Chinese revolution and the news that Russia had developed its own atomic bomb. These decisions—wildly unpopular at the time–are now viewed by all except those on the extreme right as having been wise ones that avoided a possible third world war. The same wisdom cannot be claimed for Truman's decision to support France in its reassertion of imperial control over Indochina. This poor choice led inexorably to future US involvement in Vietnam. His most disputed policy was, of course, his decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, though this was much more popular then than now.

Truman's greatest legacy, though, was the Marshall Plan (and Asian equivalents thereof), in which the US poured massive amounts of capital into Europe. These had the net effect of rebuilding Europe in ways that blunted leftwing insurgencies in the region, but the Marshall Plan placed much of the globe under formal economic and political arrangements in keeping with the deals of an American Century. West Germany and Japan were rebuilt as U.S. allies, U.S.-style capitalism and democracy became the Western standards, and military arrangements such as NATO and SEATO cemented the deal. The Marshall Plan set the standard by which US power could be reinforced by a checkbook instead of guns. This sort of thinking was far beyond anything TR ever imagined.

TR reacted badly to radicalism; Truman opposed McCarthyism, though it cannot be said that he handled the Second Red Scare very well. Spy trials and fear marked his post-1948 term.

TR made excellent appointments to the Supreme Court, including the brilliant Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  Alas, Truman made four lackluster appointments.

TR was so popular when he left office that he finished ahead of Taft in 1916 as a third-party candidate (Progressive Party, aka/the Bull Moose Party). Truman's 22% job approval rating is the lowest since Gallup began collecting the data in 1945, as if his overall popularity rating of 45.4%.

Ratings:

Despite being controversial and stubborn, both men consistently rank in the top tier of U.S. presidents. Theodore Roosevelt is currently ranked 4th and Truman as 9th. Both ratings may be slightly elevated, especially Truman's. Truman gets (too?) much credit for what he prevented rather than what he did and, the Marshall Plan notwithstanding, his missteps on Indochina contaminated US policy for the next 40+ years. The A-bomb decision will continue to be debated and is burdened with such moral and geopolitical baggage that it's unlikely a consensus will ever emerge.

TR's imperialism is hard to stomach and he doesn't get enough blame for steering the US into the First World War. The same neglect is true of his racism; TR was an unapologetic believer in Anglo-Saxon supremacy.

Both presidencies were important ones, but I'm inclined to move both men down a few pegs.

9/21/16

New Music for Specialized Tastes

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Specialized Tastes

Music is mysterious. Psychologists say we literally need music in our lives and have shown how the brain responds to tonal stimuli. Musical taste remains an unknown. Maybe it's where nurture trumps nature, but who knows? Why does a Bach fugue induce yawns, whereas an old Beatles tune makes me grin like a Cheshire cat? Every devotee thinks of his or her tastes as "refined" and views those who don't agree as "barbarians," but such judgments are deceits. In that spirit, here are a few recent projects that fall into the amorphous category of "specialized tastes."

Collaborative concept albums are tricky. I liked Songs of Separation (Navigator), but I didn't love it, though it includes many personal favorites: Eliza Carthy, Hazel Askew, Mary Macmaster, and the glorious Karine Polwart, about whom I only half jest I'd pay attention if she were singing binomial equations. I adored her take on an old song reworked as "Echo Mocks the Cornrake." The album's central idea is that the Scottish isle of Eigg is a metaphor for Scotland's two poles—to be independent or to be "British." The musicians seek to transpose the fragment-versus-unify dichotomy to deeper themes of personal, community, global, spiritual, and cultural imaginings through a mix of traditional and original songs in English and Gaelic. I enjoyed Hannah Read's sensitive treatment of Robert Burns' "It Was A' for Our Rightfu' King," Askew's arrangement of two waulking (women's work) songs, Hannah James' "Poor Man's Lamentation," and Macmasters' gorgeous take on "Over the Border." I am less certain of songs that opt for faintly boogie-woogie, jazz, or 1930s echoes and, I must admit that occasionally the all-female group singing made me long for more tonal coloration. It must also be said that some of the larger themes that this talented crew—which also includes Jenn Butterworth, Jenny Hill, Kate Young, and Rowan Rheingans– sought to highlight were probably more poignant in discussion than in music. This is certainly a CD worth considering, but there are some cracks in the Eigg. (Bad pun—it's actually pronounced something closer to Ā'-keyah'.)

Abrazo: The Havana Sessions (Parma Recordings) emerged from the partial restoration of relations between the United States and Cuba. It brings together musicians, conductors, and composers from both lands on an album whose major strength and weakness is its diversity. Jazz has long been a Caribbean staple, so naturally this double CD contains a lot of it: small combo projects marshaled by folks such as Mel Mobley, Juan Manuel Ceruto, and Bunny Beck, as well as big band material in the spirit of Buena Vista Social Club led by Timothy Lee Miller, Don Bowyer, and others. What we don't expect to hear is Roger Bourland-led madrigal singing, a Michael Murray choral project inspired by 9/11, or a burlesque shepherded by John Carollo. My take is that the project is overly ambitious and could have usefully been two separate releases. But, then again, this is based on the fact that, although I appreciate the complexity of jazz, there are forms of it I don't actually like—especially small combo efforts, which often strike me as incoherent look-at-me virtuosity. On the other hand, I was thrilled by the vocals and adore madrigals so much that it felt like a slog through really boring stuff to get to the singing. My taste, for sure, and I wonder how many jazz devotees would feel the opposite. Is this a case of too many irons in the fire? 

On the subject of jazz, a lot of experimental efforts also leave me with mixed feelings, which is pretty much my take on Archipelago by Melody Parker. Ms. Parker is a young singer who calls her music "chamber pop," by which (I think) she means a pottage of experimental and improvisational music leavened with evocations of other eras. I found the album to be interesting in places, but meandering overall. "Love" comes off as music that's a mash of what you'd get from a jazz club, post-punk attitude, and sounds from a Bobo hipster café; and "The Prophet and the Prof" is a cross between girl groups and a '30s film song. Parker likes to mix things. The title track opens with a colliery brass band prelude, but segues to carnivalesque departures; "Everything to Sing About" has blue notes piano, but then subsumes them and Parker's voice in a thicker mix. About Parker's voice: It's your call whether it's unique, or just odd. At times she's close to Betty Boop territory; at others, cool and torchy. I prefer the latter, which is why my favorite tracks were those with less going on, such as "Vertigone" and "Upon theDune." 

Did you enjoy the music of Cabaret? Are you ready to stretch yourself even more? Rescued Treasure from Berlin's Semer Ensemble (Gema) definitely falls into the specialized tastes hodgepodge, as it highlights Jewish music of the Weimar Republic. The 1920s were a golden age for Jewish music in Germany and, of course, we know of the horrors looming on the horizon. The title is apt; much of what we hear has been lost or mostly forgotten for 80+ years. The material spans a bit of everything: arias, Russian folk songs, cantor singing, Yiddish theater, cabaret… and much of it is showy and sometimes schmaltzy. It's a live performance from Berlin's Maxim Gorky Theater, but being able to dip in and out enhanced my appreciation, though I suspect I would find an entire evening of this music to be too much. Samples here.

If you think the last one is specialized, check out Hungarian Noir (Piranha), which devotes 12 tracks to the same song, "The Gloomy Sunday." It has been covered by scores of singers, but was penned by Rezsó Seress in 1933, and has long been known as the "Hungarian suicide song." The artists on this collection seek to make us think about it a bit differently, but it remains doleful and dirge-like no matter who performs it. The most famous rendition, included on the release, came from Billie Holiday. We also , get a global look: Mozambique's Wazimbo, Cuba's Domingo Sombrio, Colombia's Bambarabanda, the Spanish guitar rendition of Triste Domingo, a Ukrainian take from Chango Spasiuk, a rap version from GOG, and (naturally) a Hungarian take by Pál Kalmár. What's the Esperanto word for "melancholy?" Is this a gutsy release, or an exercise in redundancy? Probably both. Samples here.

Few genres of music are as lampooned as New Age. At its best it is hypnotic and transportive; at its worst, it's the musical equivalent of refrigerated Maypo. For me the, The Breath, Carry Your Kin (Real World Records) lacked sparkle because it's in the middle of the hypnotic-versus-Maypo spectrum. There is little doubt that Irish-born Ríoghnach Connolly is a skilled singer, or that her band mates—guitarist Stuart McCallum, drummer Luke Flowers, pianist John Ellis–are equally talented. As the title suggests, though, much of this album consists of loops, vocalizations, sound effects, and breath exercises. When Connolly turns her attention to serious topics such as feminism, colonialism, or the life cycle, the form in which she wraps these issues encourages listeners to drift rather than focus. I'm sure there are many who will find this release relaxing and quietly powerful, but I found myself thinking of Enya, Clannad, and Órla Fallon, who cover this terrain with more flair. Click here for three videos.

Rob Weir


9/20/16

LBJ and FDR: Pairing Presidents VIII


Though separated by circumstance, time, and temperament, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson are the two greatest reformers in American history. At a time in which Congress couldn't pass gas, it's pretty easy to feel a degree of nostalgia for each—their myriad faults notwithstanding.

How they are similar:

Does being a great reformer start by being known by your initials? Roosevelt was known to most as FDR, and Johnson was almost always just LBJ. It probably has more to do with the fact that each man reformed the nation in deed instead of rhetoric. Both took office during incredibly difficult circumstances: FDR during the Great Depression and LBJ after the assassination of President Kennedy. Each had the savvy to seize unique opportunities to experiment and push progressive agendas.

FDR's New Deal was such a watershed that its effects are still felt more than 80 years later. The modern welfare system began with the Federal Emergency Relief Act and was completed by the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, the former which, of course, gave us Social Security pensions for the elderly as well, and the latter of which cemented such things as the eight-hour work day, overtime pay, and the minimum wage. What else? Insured bank deposits under FDIC, Stock Market regulation under the Securities and Exchange Commission, the largest public works project in American history under the Tennessee Valley Authority, farm subsidies under the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the building of trails and other wilderness infrastructure under the Civilian Conservation Corps, federal housing projects and loans, the creation of thousands of federal jobs, and the Glass-Steagall Act, whose 1999 repeal is a major cause of the last two recessions! How about the National Labor Relations Act, which is still the greatest set of worker protections passed in American history (and sad commentary that this is the case). And these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg—FDR's first Hundred Days alone saw a greater output of reform bills than all of his predecessors put together—a dizzying array of legislation still referred to as alphabet soup because of all the new federal agencies established. And let's not forget one of FDR's greatest gifts: the unleashing of (for reasons to be discussed below) his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. She is, by a wide margin, the most influential First Lady in history and was far more progressive than FDR on civil rights, labor policy, and concern for the marginalized. She was so far ahead of the curve on women's rights she can be considered a proto-Second Wave feminist.

What could possibly match the New Deal? Maybe LBJ's Great Society. When conservatives today speak of Big Government, they really mean Great Society. Want a legacy? Here you go: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, tripling spending on education (Head Start, funding for elementary and secondary education, the Higher Education Act, with its grants and endowments for low-income students such as yours truly); tripling spending on health care, creating of the Housing and Urban Development agency, creating Demonstration Cities that set up enterprise zones in disadvantaged areas and the Model Cities attempt at countering urban blight, passing the Economic Opportunities Act, and setting in motion both the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts, the latter of which greatly resembled special initiatives set up by FDR under the WPA (Federal Artists/Writers/Theater/Music programs). LBJ even passed comprehensive gun control legislation. LBJ's environmentalism included the Clean Water Act, the Wilderness Act, and nine other major bills. His 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated preferential quotas for Europeans, which led to (legal) increases in Latino and Asian immigration. (It also eliminated unlimited immigration for Western hemisphere immigrants.)

LBJ declared a war on poverty and there is no bigger lie in contemporary American politics than the assertion that the war on poverty was a failure. This is bullshit of the lowest barnyard vintage. Between 1960 and 1968, poverty decreased from 22.2% to 12.6; for African Americans it dropped from 55% to 27%. This is one of the few periods in which the gap between rich and poor actually shrank. For the record, today's rate is 14.5% overall and 26.2% for African Americans. LBJ would not be happy with this.

Both FDR and LBJ unleashed the IRS against the rich. Both were modified Keynesians in economic terms and believers in positive government ideals; that is, government must take the lead in problems too big for the private sector. FDR famously dunned high incomes to support his programs, a rate that rose to 91% during World War Two. When Barack Obama used the IRS to go after conservative anti-government groups, he had to surrender; LBJ made no bones about his intent and refused to back down! He cut taxes, but mostly in the lower-income brackets.

Both presidents battled critics on the right and left. The business community called FDR a communist, communists called him a capitalist tool, and the masses elected him four times. LBJ was viewed as too timid by civil rights activists, was despised by campus radicals, was called a race traitor  by Dixiecrats, and was public enemy # 1 for conservatives who condemned his programs as government intrusion and wasteful attempts at social engineering.

Conservatives were right that some FDR and LBJ programs were boondoggles. Each experimented in response to social crises—the changing social mores and the rise of liberation ideology in LBJ's case–and each put into effect so many programs that some were bound to fail. Some WPA projects were wasteful "make work" nonsense; a few New Deal programs were deemed unconstitutional, like his ill-advised court-packing plan and the NIRA. LBJ's Model Cities program led to foolish choices such as building high-rise apartment complexes for the poor that turned into dens of crime, despair, and entrenched poverty.

How they were different:

FDR was a man of his time, whereas LBJ was a man out of time. FDR wasn't the first president to use radio, but he recognized the potential of mass media better than any POTUS in US history–only the telegenic Ronald Reagan rivals him. LBJ was just 55 when he became president, but in a day in which the phrase "don't trust anyone over 30" gained purchase, he might as well have been 105. The contrast to the suave, youthful, martyred JFK was striking and LBJ's rough-edged West Texas ways didn't translate well. He was a back room persuader, not a camera-smooth communicator. Nor was he a stellar advocate of his own deeds. He felt hurt when he wasn't beloved by the black community, but didn't make the connection between distrust and his mishandling of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, or his public anger at urban riots—even though LBJ privately understood them. My late 1966, LBJ had a well-publicized "credibility gap" that was out of accord with his actual record.

FDR was unfaithful to Eleanor and though LBJ was later said to have had mistresses, no hint of this occurred when he was president. More substantively, Eleanor traded silence for autonomy and power. If there is a silver lining in infidelity, it is that FDR agreed to give free rein to one of the greatest female minds of the 20th century. (Lest we forget, Eleanor also wrote most of the UN Charter on Human Rights and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)  

It's hard to overlook that FDR won his war—World War II–and LBJ bungled his: Vietnam. FDR loved foreign affairs and LBJ famously remarkied that the problem with foreign leaders was, "You can't make deals with the sons of bitches." FDR saw WWII coming long before Congressional isolationists. He took heat for his back-door support for China after the 1937 Japanese invasion, for his Fortress America ideas, for Lend-Lease aimed (mostly) at Britain, and for his critique of groups such as America First, but his opponents looked awfully stupid after Pearl Harbor. It's hard to imagine a better wartime leader than FDR, though he was probably too ill to have run for reelection in 1944. (He died April 12, 1945—just before VE Day.) Had he lived, his distrust of Charles DeGaulle might have averted the disaster in Vietnam that brought down LBJ.

Johnson neither liked nor understood foreign affairs. His show down with the USSR over the 1967 Israel-Egypt war was either his Cuban Missile Crisis triumph, or a dangerous game of brinksmanship—probably the latter. But there is no polite way of saying that his every move in Vietnam was a disaster—from the manufactured Gulf of Tonkin Incident onward, missteps catalogued in the Pentagon Papers. Johnson called Vietnam "that bitch of a war" and remarked that the war he hated prevented him from fighting the one he loved—the war on poverty. It led him to give up dreams of the second elected term for which he would have been eligible under the 22nd Amendment. This paved the way for the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention, Robert Kennedy's assassination, the election of Richard Nixon, and Watergate. Vietnam practically defines hubris when applied to LBJ.

One the plus side, LBJ was sympathetic to people of color and the lengths to which he went to assure the passage of the Civil Rights Act were both heroic and a textbook case in how to use the power of the presidency. FDR probably wasn't a racist, but he wasn't willing to spend political capital to protect minority rights. He worried about losing the Solid South and never spoke out with Eleanor's forcefulness. Much to her chagrin, he did not push Dixiecrats to support a bill that would have made lynching a federal crime, which would have taken enforcement powers away from Southern lawmakers and juries. Moreover, FDR's authorization of Japanese internment during WWII (and some German and Italian as well) is one of the most shameful incidents in American history.

FDR died beloved and mourned; LBJ was reviled.

Rankings:

No credible source ranks FDR any lower than 4th and he's usually 2nd, just below Lincoln. With no disrespect meant to Honest Abe, I'd rank FDR at the top of the heap. Lincoln was a masterful wartime commander, but FDR was more inspiring—plus he had the Great Depression to manage. No president has had so much on his plate. It is easy to find fault, but it's hard to imagine who could have done better. Forget Reagan; the missing figure on Mount Rushmore is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

LBJ is currently ranked 13th, a rating that would be higher were it not for Vietnam. Look for it to go up, as the Vietnam generation passes. It's damned hard to overlook Vietnam, but given the totality of LBJ's record suggests he should be ranked in the top ten. Vietnam must be viewed within the context of the Cold War and I have come to see "Johnson's War" as one he inherited from John Kennedy's brain trust. I'll take Andy Jackson's # 8 and give it to LBJ. 

Rob Weir