10/28/16

Faithful: Alice Hoffman's Latest Looks at Self-Victimization and the Search for Healing

FAITHFUL (2016)
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages
★★★ ½


The latest novel by Alice Hoffman is more personal and less sweeping in scope than recent works such as The Marriage of Opposites or The Museum of Ordinary Things. In tone, though not subject, it's more evocative of works from the 1990s such as Turtle Moon or Practical Magic. As such, it probably won't thrill those seeking highbrow literature, but like most of Ms Hoffman's books, Faithful charms in ways that make the reader yearn for just a wee bit more.

This one follows the saga of suburbanite Shelby Richmond, a happy-go-lucky high schooler whose world is shattered in an instant when she's behind the wheel on an icy night and spins out of control. Although the crash is an accident in the literal sense of that word—no recklessness or substance abuse to blame–Shelby is consumed by guilt when she walks away unscathed, but her BFF Helene–the high school golden girl—is left comatose. Faithful is a tale of loss, self-inflicted punishment, and the struggle to live in moments present and future rather than a single tragic point from the past. When has one suffered enough for one's sins (real and imagined)? How does one know when it's time to move on? It doesn't help Shelby's process when stories begin to circulate of small miracles associated with viewing Helene reposing in angelic and comatose in her parents' home. Call it survivor's guilt or call it post traumatic stress disorder, Shelby simply can't get beyond the feeling that she, not Helene, should have been the victim. Since she wasn't, Shelby victimizes herself.     

In the tradition of Great Expectations, Shelby has benefactors who seek to help her, including Ben Mink, her pot dealer, but one with ambitions of becoming a pharmacist. At first, Ben reminded me a lot of Gus in Hoffman's The River King, but I'm glad she veered in another direction. We witness Shelby leave Long Island for New York City, with Ben, but the Big Apple is not a Big Magic Wand–Shelby's struggles continue and she's really not cut out for anything more demanding than working at a pet store. There she meets another touchstone: Maravelle Diaz, a single mother with three children, but with bigger dreams than Shelby allows herself. There is also a mysterious Guardian Angel who periodically sends postcards with Hallmark-like upbeat messages: "Save something," "Forgive someone," etc. Hoffman cleverly juxtaposes these seemingly trite notes with the ones often tucked inside Chinese fortune cookies–something we know but Shelby doesn't. Though she pretty much subsists on takeout Chinese food, Shelby steadfastly refuses to crack open a fortune cookie, as befits one who doesn't think she has a future.

Without revealing any plot details, let me say that the book also deals with rescuing imperiled dogs, musing on the meaning of family, reluctant role models, and acceptance. We also learn along with Shelby that quite a few other people need to learn how and when to let go. Don't expect Practical Magic or The River King; most of this book's miracles are less dramatic, but more real. If you get sentimentally caught up in novels, a warning–this is not a work for the puppies-and-rainbows crowd. There's palpable pain on the page and you won't like a few of Hoffman's characters. (You're not supposed to like them; they are awful people.) Recognize also that Hoffman has matured as a writer and doesn't feel the need to write fairytale endings any more.

Objectively speaking, it's unlikely that Faithful will be remembered as among Alice Hoffman's greatest works. It's a very good and thoughtful novel that you'll probably sail through–a classic "good read." It feels honest but, like takeout Chinese, it satisfies without quite sating one's hunger. Looking for miracles? Try a fortune cookie.

Rob Weir

   

10/27/16

Andrew Jackson versus John Tyler: Pairing Presidents XIX

Andrew Jackson versus John Tyler:

The election of 2016 is nearly upon us. Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly promises —H. Ross Perot-like—that he would lead by kicking butts until his will is done. Such swagger sounds good, but history suggests it’s a losing strategy unless the president possesses the political skill to bend or isolate countervailing powers like the legislative and judicial branches. Let’s look at two of the most pigheaded individuals to hold the presidency, Andrew Jackson (1829-37) and John Tyler (1841-45). The first was one of the nation’s most powerful presidents; the second one of its least successful.

How they were similar:

Neither man liked to be told “no.” Jackson was so stubborn that cartoonist Thomas Nast drew his face on the body of a jackass, which backfired when Jackson appropriated the image and it became the symbol of the Democratic Party. Jackson also promptly packaged himself as a poorly educated rough-and-tumble Indian fighter and Tennessee frontiersman (accurate) who was the “workingman’s friend” (a whopper). He left behind terminology that has confused students for nearly 180 years. Textbooks speak of “Jacksonian Democracy,” which should not be confused with lower case democracy. Upper-case “Democracy” was an alternative way of referencing the Democratic Party. Jackson, the seventh president, was the first not born in either Virginia or Massachusetts. In that sense, Democracy implied appeals to Americans moving west of the Appalachian Mountains, especially a coalition of hardscrabble farmers, woodsmen, and pioneers. Technically, Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic Party (then called Democratic-Republicans). Jackson so reshaped the party in his own image that some scholars credit him as the first “Democratic” POTUS, but that’s open to interpretation. Aside from inviting commoners to attend his inaugural ball—where they wrecked a parlor room—and his call to dismantle the Electoral College, Jackson was no great lover of lower-case democracy, and his alliance with the urban working class seldom went deeper than shared humble roots. The term “workingman” was chosen strategically; from the late 1820s to around 1837, scores of independent reformers vied for state and local power—many of them trade unionists—and were dubbed by newspapers as the “Workingmen’s movement.” That’s also a misnomer; there was no single movement. Call Jackson the first “modern” candidate in that his campaign packaged him as more of an Everyman than he was. (Not many commoners owned 150 slaves!)

John Tyler took over when Whig victor William Henry Harrison died one month into his term. Tyler was dubbed “His Accidency” because he wasn’t really a Whig--in temperament and in his unflagging support for slavery and territorial expansion, he was quite a lot like Jackson. As president, Tyler’s own Whig Party sought to impeach him and blocked all four candidates he put forth to fill two vacant Supreme Court vacancies. Whigs failed to impeach him, but dragged it out and successfully argued his successor should get to appoint the new justices. In 2016, Republicans invoked Tyler to block Barack Obama’s SCOTUS nomination—failing to mention the context of Tyler’s situation. Warning: Whigs thought their man, Henry Clay, would win in 1844. Tyler had the last laugh when Democrat James Polk won. By then, Tyler had quit the Whigs and returned to the “Democracy.” He remained pigheaded to the end; he died (1862) as a member of the House of Representatives for the Confederate States of America.

Both men were ardent supporters of states’ rights and espoused theories of the negative state. The latter term refers to the belief that central government ought to be relatively weak; it should serve as a guarantor of basic liberties outlined in the Bill of Rights but should leave decisions about economics, property, Indian policy, education, patronage, or social reform to individuals and/or state and local government. This was often expressed as a debate between federalism and republicanism, sometimes shorthanded as a dispute over whether citizens lived in the United States or these United States. Jackson’s negative state ideals got a boost by a SCOTUS decision originating in Massachusetts: the 1837 Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge case settled competing bridge-building lawsuits by deferring to the state’s right to mediate property matters.

Jackson was the very architect of the spoils system that roiled 19th century patronage politics. He admired Julius Caesar’s adage “to the victor go the spoils” and stuffed government bureaucracy with his friends and allies.

Both men launched Indian wars, Jackson the Second Seminole War, which Tyler ended. In between, Martin Van Buren oversaw Indian removal from western Georgia and surrounding states. Part of the forced relocation was the infamous Trail of Tears that decimated the Cherokee, Creek, and three other tribes. Tyler favored the forced assimilation of Natives to white society, apparently unaware that many within the relocated peoples had already done so.

Both men were slave owners and their presidencies can be viewed as direct antecedents of the Civil War. Each set a no-compromise policy on slavery that hardened positions for or against it. Jackson’s Congressional allies enforced an infamous gag rule that ruled out-of-order any attempt even to discuss slavery. Tyler’s obsession with the annexation of Texas assured the gag would fall. Consider that before Texas, Congress actually debated slavery just twice: when it hammered out clauses in the Constitutional convention agreeing eventually to phase out importation of slaves from abroad; and again during the 1820 Missouri Compromise. After Texas, virtually every issue before Congress—from railroads to homesteading to Manifest Destiny—opened heated debates over chattel labor.  

How they were different:

The two could have been considered twins separated at both were it not that Jackson was politically astute and Tyler couldn’t have sold water to a man dying of thirst.   

Important lesson: If you’re going to be obnoxious, supplement by becoming the most popular man in America, and season with the appearance of having been cheated. Jackson became a national hero for his victory over the British during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815—never mind that it was meaningless because, unbeknown to combatants, a peace treaty had been signed several weeks earlier. Jackson should have been POTUS in 1824. He easily won the popular vote, but his own party split five ways and a backroom deal shifted electoral votes to John Quincy Adams. Jackson launched a four-year program to undermine Adams at every turn, the crowning achievement of which was to disassociate with something he actually supported: a high tariff. Adams signed said tariff into law, Jackson feigned outrage, and it was so unpopular in the South that it was labeled the Tariff of Abominations. Adams’ own VP, John C. Calhoun, defected to run with Jackson in 1828. They trounced Adams.

Upon taking the presidency, Jackson told Calhoun to accept the tariff, which led Calhoun to bolt again and (eventually) join the new Whig Party. Jackson did just enough to keep the lid on: he threatened to hang Calhoun for treason, passed a Force Bill to compel South Carolina to accept the tariff, but then ‘magnanimously’ offered a lower “compromise” tariff.

He showed his mettle again over Indian removal. An 1832 SCOTUS decision, Worcester v. Georgia, found in favor of Native-Americans seeking to avoid ouster from lands ceded to them by treaty. Jackson simply ignored the decision. He probably never said, “(Chief Justice) John Marshall made the decision, let him enforce it,” but Jackson certainly knew that Congress wasn't going to impeach the most popular man in America for violating the rights of Indians; in 1832, Jackson’s action was exactly what most voters thought should happen.

He used personal clout again in his destruction of the Bank of the United States. When B.U.S. President Nicholas Biddle enlisted Jackson’s (many) political opponents to call for early reauthorization of the B.U.S. and embarrass Jackson, he vetoed the bill, thereby killing the bank when Congress couldn’t override him. Jackson then dispersed federal funds among state banks.

He was also smart enough to know which battles he couldn’t win and that included Texas—then the independent Lone Star Republic after seceding from Mexico in 1836. Jackson favored its admission into the Union as a slave state, but realized it would never muster the two-thirds vote necessary in the Senate. He quietly stepped away.

Jackson’s most surprising act was his vigorous defense of Secretary of War John Eaton’s marriage to a woman whom many said had been a prostitute. Jackson once fought a duel when his wife’s honor was impugned and this probably played a role in his defense of Peggy Eaton. Whether or not it was intended, this seldom remembered event is viewed by suffrage scholars as a trigger for the women’s rights movement.

Tyler wore his proslavery sentiments on his sleeve and was obsessed by desire to annex Texas. He was able to ramrod an annexation resolution in 1844 but, predictably, Congress failed to ratify it. (His more skillful successor, James Polk, used a political ploy to annex Texas in December of 1845.)  Tyler did himself no favors when Rhode Island underwent a popular democracy upsurge during 1841-42 called the Dorr Rebellion. Tyler considered sending federal troops, but backed down when it appeared to Northerners he was anti-worker and to Southerners that such matters should be disposed of by states.

Tyler had a penchant for making enemies rather than building alliances. He didn’t do much to reverse the course of the Panic of 1837 either. His one triumph came in 1843 when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty amicably settled a border dispute between Maine and Canada, though Secretary of State Daniel Webster soon resigned with the rest of the Cabinet when he grew disgusted by Tyler’s antics. Democrats never considered nominating Tyler in 1844, though he had left the Whigs and was the incumbent president. By trying to go solo, Tyler found himself alone.   

Rankings:

Tyler s ranked #37 and very few would argue he deserves better. Jackson, though, is currently ranked # 8. I disagree rather vehemently, though I’d certainly concede that his was an important presidency.

In my estimation, Jackson’s reputation is inflated by his personal popularity, his influence over the Democratic Party, and his role in evolving negative state ideals. These were significant, but wisdom is another matter. For instance, economic historians now blame Jackson’s battle with the B.U.S. for precipitating the Panic of 1837. He issued an 1836 executive order on specie that led to a bank run. In his day, property loans were rare and land was purchased by cash; banks simply ran out of money. The Panic of 1837 was long and deep—lingering into Tyler’s term.

Jackson’s intransigent defense of slavery was such that it became imaginable that the North and South were psychically different nations before they became so politically. One could/should date the coming of the Civil War from Jackson’s ascension to the White House. Let’s not forget that he appointed Roger Taney as Chief Justice of the SCOTUS; Taney wrote the majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott decision that unleashed the hounds of war. For deeds rather than impressions, Jackson deserves a much lower ranking.

Rob Weir 




10/26/16

The Fretless: October 2016 Album of the Month


THE FRETLESS
BIRD'S NEST
Canada Council for the Arts

Who doesn't love a great instrumental album now and again? October's album of the month comes from a talented Canadian ensemble, The Fretless, who will push the boundaries of how you think about "string bands." The Fretless are fiddle/viola players Karrnnel Sawitsky, Trent Freeman, and Ivonne Henrnandez, plus cellist Eric Wright. Place Mr. Wright's cello approach in the percussive style of folks such as Natalie Haas, Tristan Clarridge, and Ben Sollee. As for the band sound, someone coined the term "progressive chamber traditional" and for once I'm in accord with an invented handle. If you're not sure what that might sound like, think a blend of Celtic, folk, old time music, light classical, and whatever else comes down the pike.

Bird's Nest certainly lines the roost with many-colored feathers. The "Alphonse Mckenzie's" set begins with a faintly Scots-like melody as interpreted by a frenzied fowl. It's fresh and energetic–filled with hops, glides, and embellishments in which the dominant melody emerges from the melding of the various parts. "Jig of the Blood Moon/Kyleback Rambler" *is not your grandmother's Irish music. It sounds odd to say this, but the fiddle notes splatter through the mix until a beat is established that (to me) was evocative of wooden pegs clacking in the cogs of an old mill wheel. But then there's a semi-classical bridge, and the set quickens. But one of the very cool things about this album is that The Fretless are as unbound by expectations as the style of instrument from which their name derives. The title track is moody and mystical–almost as if a bird was gliding home through the fog. "Maybe Molly," one of two traditional tunes on the album, follows it. It has an old-time feel, but instead of adhering to the bluegrass custom of using the theme to segue to solo breakouts, The Fretless blend and overlay sounds. "38 and Gone" goes a different route–it's wistful, contemplative, and deliberate. Also gorgeous. Get the picture? These folks understand that the key to a great instrumental album is to keep listeners slightly off-guard.  Listen carefully for small backswings, nearly imperceptible tempo shifts, and musical ornaments tossed in to embellish, not impress. Listen also to how Wright's cello takes on the growly characteristics of a sleepy bear awakened and ready to swat at his adversaries.

Loved this release–and I think you will too. It's varied, thoughtful, and dynamic.

Rob Weir

*Sometimes the YouTube link to this is prefaced with a pro-Question 2 ad for the upcoming election for Massachusetts residents. I do NOT endorse Question 2.  

10/25/16

George Washington vs. Abraham Lincoln: Pairing Presidents XVIII

George Wshington vs. Abraham Lincoln:
Pairing Presidents XVIII

Need a break from the horrible? George Washington (1789-97) and Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) deserve to adorn Mount Rushmore.

How they are similar:

It's no stretch to say that Washington presided over the birth of the nation and Lincoln was there at its rebirth. This presents certain analytical problems. More has been written about these two than any other president, but Washington and Lincoln are so revered that they often emerge as more mythical and symbolic than real. When sociologist Robert Bellah coined the phrase civic religion, he noted that Washington and Lincoln were treated as if they were semi-divine.

Washington helped define the American republic. It was he who insisted upon the title "President of the United States," rather than emperor or king. He also rejected being addressed as "Your Excellency" in favor of the more common "Mr. President." This was more than wordplay. When Washington took office in 1789, the Constitution had been ratified, but the Bill of Rights was still two years from adoption. Moreover, both were theoretical documents at the time. How would a president's Cabinet function? There was no functioning judicial system nor was there an Attorney General until the Judiciary Act of 1789, no way for the nation to conduct business as an entity until the Bank Act of 1791, no certainty that the government would be able to collect taxes until Washington personally led troops that quashed the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion, and no circulating money supply until the Coinage Act of 1792. The U.S. Constitution is an inspiring document, but if you actually read it, it's also maddeningly vague in places. In practice, the entire machinery of federal government and bureaucracy was improvised under Washington and even then, the Supreme Court wouldn't have the power of judicial review until the Jefferson administration. Washington did, however, appoint every member of the first SCOTUS.

Lincoln's task was to assure that the foundations laid by Washington and evolved in the intervening sixty-five years remained in place rather than perishing via secession. Remember: seven states quit the Union before Lincoln even took office. It is hard to imagine the Union could have been preserved had Lincoln been as inept as Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan. It fell to Lincoln to address the intractable problem of race sidestepped by all of his predecessors, Washington included. The first eleven amendments to the Constitution came to life under Washington, but just one more before Lincoln. His role in securing the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery during a lame duck session of Congress was a skillful political act that redefined American freedom.

Few presidents have understood the military as well as Washington or Lincoln. Washington was, of course, a general long before he became commander in chief. In the latter role, he exercised the wisdom to avoid conflict when he felt it would endanger the new nation. Though it was unpopular, he refused to involve the United States in aspects of the French Revolution that might lead to more conflict with Britain, and authorized the unpopular Jay Treaty, which compensated some British financial losses during the American Revolution rather than risk war. The 1796 Treaty of Tripoli attempted to resolve piracy issues via diplomatic means. This was a short-term fix that bought the new nation breathing space and established the United States as willing to negotiate. The latter paid dividends in a treaty with Spain (Pickney's Treaty) that proved useful in the future (such as the 1821 purchase of Florida).

Has any other president been as masterful as commander in chief role as Lincoln? The North entered the Civil War with many advantages, but brilliant generalship wasn't among them. When it became clear that a hands-off approach would not work, Lincoln took charge of the military. Perhaps his greatest hour was the demotion of the egotistical and battle-averse George McClellan in 1862. Lincoln dismissed quite a few others until he found a general he trusted (Ulysses S. Grant). After ridding himself of the conniving McClellan, generals understood who was in charge!  

Each figure was viewed as incorruptible. Both played politics when needed, but even enemies believed each man placed the nation above self-interest. The story–invented by Mason Weems–of Washington's admission of chopping down his father's cherry tree is more than a trite folk tale; it's an allegory on Washington's character as seen by his peers. Lincoln carried the "Honest Abe" handle. Many individuals disrespected Lincoln and made impassioned speeches cataloguing his sins, but only wild-eyed conspirators actually believed Lincoln could be bought. In fact, many of his critics were angry because they couldn't corrupt him. 

Both surrounded themselves with brilliant advisors; neither appointed enablers or "yes" men. Washington's inner circle included Vice President John Adams, but his secretary of state was Adams' rival, Thomas Jefferson. Another Jefferson rival was Washington's enormously influential Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who put the U.S. on firm financial footing at home and abroad. He was the mastermind of the First Bank of the United States, the U.S. Mint, and the decision to fund the Revolutionary War debt at par rather devaluing wartime promissory notes. This was denounced as a money grab by speculators who held those notes, but Hamilton believed that securing the nation's credit reputation outweighed other concerns. Hamilton also launched internal improvement schemes to build the national infrastructure (roads, canals, buildings). An underling ( Tench Coxe) developed plans for manufacturing–much to Jefferson's chagrin. It is but mild exaggeration to say that the early blueprint for the United States was as much Hamilton's as Washington's.

Lincoln assembled what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin dubbed a "team of rivals," from Cabinet members who thought they, not Lincoln, should be POTUS. No leader since Louis XIV of France was a skilled as Lincoln at keeping his enemies within sight and playing them off against each other. Secretary of State William Seward initially thought himself Lincoln's superior, but he soon became one of Lincoln's greatest admirers. Just to make sure, though, Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase hated Seward. Lincoln made Simon Cameron his Secretary of War, though everyone thought Cameron was corrupt. He was too powerful to ignore, so Lincoln put him in a place where he could watch him. And so it went. And it worked brilliantly–which brings a smile to my conflict theorist's heart.

Lincoln took several of Washington's plans to the proverbial next level. One generally thinks of Lincoln as a wartime president, but he also governed what was left of the United States. His 1863 National Banking Act was the first serious attempt at creating a single national currency. (That didn't happen entirely until Woodrow Wilson was POTUS.) The Union also issued greenbacks and made them sound–something the Confederacy never achieved. How about the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act that (eventually) set up state colleges and universities, the 1862 Homestead Act that opened the Plains for settlement and converted it from what was called the "Great American Desert" to "America's Breadbasket," the creation of the Department of Agriculture, and passing the enabling legislation that led to the building of the first transcontinental railroad, and preserving lands that later became Yosemite National Park?

Neither Washington nor Lincoln showed great sympathy for Native Americans. Washington authorized Indian wars in the Northwest Territory (most of today's Midwest). Indian wars occurred simultaneously with the Civil War under Lincoln, who was uncharacteristically non-merciful during the uprising of the Santee Sioux. Lincoln signed over 300 death warrants and, in 1862, 38 Sioux were hanged in Minnesota–the largest one-day execution in U.S. history.

Both men acted, either forcefully or tyrannically depending upon one's perspective, ­if they felt it was in the nation's best interest. Jefferson called Washington's brutal suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion "like taking a meat axe to kill a spider." Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the war, especially in Maryland, where numerous Confederacy-sympathetic officials were jailed to make sure Maryland did not leave the union.

How they were different:

Washington was not very religious; he was a deist who disbelieved in a personal god. Lincoln was far more pious, invoked Christianity frequently, and was sincere in doing so. Not coincidentally, Lincoln was the first to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Even Washington's greatest admirers described him as cold, aloof, and humorless. Lincoln was warm, self-deprecating, and approachable. He is probably the funniest or all presidents, wielding what might be (anachronistically) considered a Twain-like humor. Lincoln's traits served him well, as few politicians have been as denigrated and slandered as he. Lincoln also endured personal tragedies that mirrored those of the nation. His 11-year-old son Willie died of typhoid in 1862, and his wife, Mary, was thought to be mentally unbalanced. Washington is called the "father of his country," but he wasn't much of a family man. He provided support for Martha's children by her first marriage, but never fathered children of his own (and was probably impotent). Intimacy was simply not a Washington trait. 

Lincoln was a fine orator and his Gettysburg Address is now scrutinized as a model of rhetorical brevity and clarity. Washington disliked public appearances and was stiff at the podium.

A big difference: Washington owned slaves–around 500 at the time of his death–and Lincoln emancipated slaves. Washington signed into law the first Fugitive Slave Act (1793), though he was also the first POTUS to curtail importation with the Slave Trade Act (1794). Lincoln was far more admirable on all racial fronts. As late as 1858 he held fast to ideals of white supremacy, but he underwent a genuine change of heart courtesy of a friendship he forged with Frederick Douglass. His assassination clouds discussion of what he would have done had he been in charge of Reconstruction, but evidence suggests he would have pushed for the greater social freedoms his successor, Andrew Johnson, rejected. The Freedmen's Bureau was a Lincoln ideal and, Southern revisionist efforts notwithstanding, a Reconstruction program whose only major flaw was not being more expansive.   

In foreign affairs, Washington counseled the nation should avoid "entangling foreign alliances." As we have seen, his administration was more defensive than proactive. Lincoln was easily the superior diplomat. Consider the misunderstood Emancipation Proclamation. It did not "free the slaves," as glibly reported. Had the South surrendered before January 1, 1863, it would have freed none at all! It applied only to areas "still under rebellion," which meant it was unenforceable. Lincoln knew that the Confederacy hoped to leverage Britain's desire for Southern cotton into support for its rebellion. The Emancipation Proclamation converted the Civil War from one about preserving the Union to one about slavery. Lincoln knew that it would be difficult for any British prime minister to support a war abroad whose intent was to expand slavery, which Britain had banned. Lincoln also knew it would take a Constitutional amendment to end slavery, which is why the 13th Amendment was passed before the Civil War ended.

In his 1797 Farewell Address, Washington counseled the nation to avoid foreign entanglements, the development of political parties, and regional disputes. Washington wasn't being prescient about what could happen–these things were already occurring. By Lincoln's time, it was na├»ve to imagine such things could be ignored. After all, Lincoln was the first president of the new Republican Party, faced a secession crisis, and the above-mentioned possibility of foreign intervention into the Confederacy's rebellion.

Washington was calculating, whereas Lincoln was occasionally overly optimistic. His second inaugural address expressed hope for peace based upon the principle of "malice toward none, with charity for all." These were noble, but foolish words. The Civil War was too bloody for a forgive-and-forget solution–as Johnson discovered. Lincoln grossly underestimated the moral culpability of the Confederacy in precipitating and prolonging the conflict. Lincoln probably should have pushed for tribunals akin to today's "truth and reconciliation" panels. Put another way, if he could hang 38 Sioux warriors, there were at least that many Confederate leaders and generals worthy of that fate. Imagine the future had Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and others been hanged as traitors instead of becoming revered members of the Lost Cause myth.

Rankings:

Most nations would be happy to boast such outstanding leaders. Lincoln currently ranks at the very top of the heap and Washington is # 4. I'd rank Franklin Roosevelt as # 1 simply because he had to deal with the worst depression in American history and then lead the nation into World War II against an evil (fascism) more vile than Confederate slaveholders. (Fascism, after all, would have occasioned global slavery.) But is Lincoln vs. FDR worth a rhetorical catfight? Call 'em 1A and 1B.



10/24/16

Turned Off by the Election? Back in 1996...

LOUIE IN ‘96



For those of you dispirited by the upcoming election, cheer up: I was so depressed back in 1996 that I read the following commentary on my local NPR affiliate.

I have warped sense of humor, a confession that will startle none who know me. A few months ago, I changed my telephone answering machine. In addition to the usual “leave a message” drivel I added, “If the election were held tomorrow and the choices were Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Ross Perot, or a large furry hamster named Louie, for whom would you vote for and why?”  To enhance the effect, I even attempted impersonations of the first three. Several callers have told me that David Frye’s place in the history of political mimicry is secure, and my wife suggested I stick to my strength: Elmer Fudd sings the greatest hits of the Doors.

I’d like to say I had some grand purpose in mind in concocting my phone message, but the truth is that it was simply one of those days when I was feeling more surreal than real. Little did I know how deeply my silliness would capture the zeitgeist of the 1996 electorate.
           
I’ve fielded scores of recorded thoughts since my initial foray into foolishness, but a clear pattern has emerged: voters are overwhelmingly in favor of Louie. Many simply laugh and hang up, but of those bold enough to venture an opinion, no one has professed a preference for Dole or Perot. The closet either came was a woman who thought that Perot was also a hamster, and worried that Louie’s entry into the presidential rat race might split the vermin vote. As for the incumbent, only two callers confessed that despite Louie’s considerable charms they’re still Friends of Bill and will vote for Mr. Clinton in the fall. Surprisingly, quite a few have offered campaign contributions to help Louie break out of the pack.
           
I’ve not tested Louie’s strength against Richard Lamm*, but I suspect my furry friend would easily shear his ovine challenger. My favorite comment came from a caller who said he would definitely vote for Louie because, “He’s the only candidate who knows he’s a rodent.”
           
To venture a serious thought at this juncture is to skate on sand, but I won’t let that stop me. Sure the Louie the Hamster for President campaign is frivolous, but that’s exactly why so many people are leaving their equally frivolous thoughts on my answering machine. They, like legions of others across the country, are as excited about the 1996 presidential campaign as they are at the prospect of adding paint drying as an Olympic sport. Dole?  Perot?  Clinton?  Is this the best we have to offer? More than one person has told me that were it not for the Kerry vs. Weld Senate race, they’d sit this one out. [Yuppie Billy faces an uphill battle in Western Massachusetts despite his attempt to bribe us with free Turnpike tolls.]** 
           
To switch from huckster to historian, I haven’t seen so little interest in a presidential race since the post-Watergate Ford/Carter election. That one gave us voters so turned off that they evolved thrilling slogans like “Stay Bored With Ford,” and “Don’t Vote, It Only Encourages Them.” The 1992 election reversed a steady trend of declining voter turnout, but unless I miss my bet, 1996 will return us to that disturbing scenario.
           
As many Americans see it, our choice is between a geezer, a lunatic, and a sleaze. I can envision bumper stickers like “Dole: Old, Mean, and Clueless;” “Perot: I’ll Save You From Deficit-Spending Aliens;” and “Clinton: They Can’t Prove Nuthin’.” (Or perhaps, “Clinton: Who’s Gennifer?”)
           
Oops, I’m being cynical again. Well, that puts me in the mainstream for 1996. Guess I’ll give up trying to make any intelligent points whatsoever and leave you with a plea: Give generously to the Louie the Hamster for President campaign. With your help Louie can squeak out a victory in the fall. Contributors of $50 or more will receive a complimentary copy of “A Wider in the Stowm: Elmer Fudd Sings the Gweatest Hits of the Doors.”

* Richard Lamm is a semi-forgotten figure. He was a former US Representative from Colorado (D) who, while serving as Colorado's governor, briefly contemplated challenging Clinton as a member of the Reform Party. He claimed that both the Democrats and Republicans were brain dead (!) and that a new party was needed. Less than 48 hours later, the Reform Party announced it was running Perot, not Lamm, as its official candidate. Should I say "Bah!" to the party's decision to choose the floppy eared Perot over the fuzzy Lamm? That would be wrong of me.

**John Kerry defeated Bill Weld by 8% in 1996, despite the fact that Governor Weld eliminated turnpike tolls in the western part of the state. And, despite that little handout, Weld got clobbered in Western Mass. You may have heard that Clinton got reelected, once Louie decided to hibernate instead of run. That explains why I was right about lower voter turnout.