Archive

Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Shameless Self-Promotion Part II

April 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Another post for the Bloomberg Echoes blog, this one in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act.

And the struggle continues…

 

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-10/a-pioneer-s-unfinished-struggle-to-give-women-equal-pay.html

 

Napoleon of the Stump

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

For the last several months, for two hours a week, I have been locked in a soundproof room with James K. Polk. Yes, that Polk: 11th President, architect of the war with Mexico, subject of a They Might Be Giants Song (alas, to my ear, not one of their best efforts; I suppose they thought the obscurity of the subject was good enough.  Me, I would have gone for Millard Fillmore).

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

OK, I am not actually locked into that little booth. And of course Mr. Polk has been dead for some 160 years. What I am doing is recording his diary for the New Mexico State Library’s division for the blind. It’s very similar to the volunteer gig I did a few years ago in Chicago, with one main difference. There, we read books requested by our clients, and multiple readers did one book. Here, it’s one reader, one book. And the readers choose the books to record.

Yes, that’s right, I chose to read aloud Polk: The Diary of a President 1845 1849 (edited and annotated by esteemed historian Allan Nevins), thinking some hearing-impaired person might be longing to share in its wonders too.

Gotta keep those History Nerd bona fides up.

Actually, the diary makes some sense for our library. We try to focus on books that have some appeal to Southwestern clients, and what could be more relevant than getting the perspective of the president who brought much of that region into the Union? And it seemed right up my alley to choose something that would give me new insight into one of our presidents—perhaps a bit of a controversial one—given my role at Biographers International Organization (here’s a sample of the newsletter I edit, for the curious). Finally, if I’m gonna read a book out loud, it might as well be about history, since that is my vocation.

I say Polk is controversial because as a champion of manifest destiny at the expense of Mexico, he seems to have tapped early on some of the imperialist impulses that truly emerged some 50 years later, and there was a chauvinistic element in his attitude toward the Mexicans. And of course he was all for letting slavery expand into America’s newly gained Western lands. Or am I wrong?

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

In his introduction, Nevins offers a historiographical view of Polk that dismisses earlier claims such as those. He says an “anti-slavery interpretation of the Mexican War” led late 19th-century historians to paint Polk as a conqueror marked by “Machiavellian adroitness” who lied to Congress—or suppressed facts, as Nevins puts it, to get a war with Mexico he already wanted. Not so, Nevins claims: Polk was honest and conscientious, if stiff and mediocre, and not capable of “deceit and double dealing.” (Of course, there is this observation of Polk from a contemporary political adversary, John Quincy Adams, who called him a “slaveholding exterminator of Indians.”)

Nevins wrote in 1952; later historians were more apt to side with their 19th-century brethren in assessing Polk’s aims and attitudes. After all, he ran on a Democratic platform in 1844 that was staunchly expansionist. Still, as one college textbook from 2000 notes, war was not inevitable with Mexico; Polk just “made decisions and carried them out in ways that exacerbated already existing tensions and made war difficult to avoid.” In the end, the authors claim, Polk was lucky things turned out as well as they did, but many of the gains he sought—primarily California and the Rio Grande as a border with Mexico—might have been obtained without a war that killed 50,000 Mexicans and left many others under the rule of a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon nation that disdained them.

H. W. Brands, writing in 2002 (The Age of Gold) emphasizes that California was the prize Polk truly craved. He asked Mexico to sell the land; when it refused, Brands says, “Polk determined to take California by force.” Not a vote for casting the Mexican War as an accidental conflict, I don’t think. And, apropos of the Adams’ description quoted above, the 2003 work Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre, shows how Polk’s Southern roots and slave holdings shaped his pro-slavery political views, including support for the gag rule in the House.

So what does the Polk diary reveal about the man? To be fair, I’m only about halfway through, but he does come across as someone who knows his “private” words will be read by others (as surely all president have for generations, if not all the way back to Washington). He also also endured something modern presidents I’m sure are glad to be done with: entertaining complete strangers who come to the White House seeking handouts and loans. Not government money, mind you, but Polk’s personal funds. Perhaps that’s what made him seem so humorless, except when recounting his exasperation with Congressmen and others seeking political favors (so glad that practice has ended). He also seemed to keep close track of personal and political slights, sometimes impugning the motives of those who disagreed with him, showing some of the self-righteousness and pettiness he has been criticized for by some historians.

I don’t particularly like the Polk who emerges from his own words, but that probably reflects my biases. But like anyone else, he has his high and low moments. He condemns one Protestant minister seeking a chaplaincy in the army for his “abuse of Catholics and…fanaticism,” and he made a personal loan of $100 in gold to a Congressman, even as he deplored the man’s descent into alcoholism (the lawmaker soon after killed himself, leaving Polk to comment on the “melancholy” of intemperance). Yet Polk also had derogatory views of the Mexicans (though not an uncommon stance for Americans of the day), and he found it amusing when a Portuguese diplomat gave a “solemn account” of the queen of Portugal’s miscarriage. Huh?

I’ve seen several sources that say at one time Polk was often included in historians’ lists of the top ten presidents, primarily, I assume, because of the huge expansion of the country that went down on his watch. A 2010 poll I found still had him highly ranked, at #12. So, as I keep reading and recording, I’ll try to keep an open mind about Young Hickory.

And dead last in that survey? Andrew Johnson. I don’t think I’ll be reading his diary any time soon.

Shameless Self-Promotion

October 15, 2012 1 comment

No new post today from Santa Fe (though there is lots a-cookin’; maybe more on that later). Just wanted to plug a blog post I wrote for Bloomberg View, the op-ed section of the Bloomberg media empire. If you are a fan of history or trains, you might enjoy it.

Amtrak Chugs Along Despite Decades of Political Battles

Thanks for reading the post and the History Nerd.

The Barton Lies

August 16, 2012 Leave a comment

What, only fifth-least credible? Ooh, Bill must be pissed…

In my new role as seeker of all things biographical, I stumbled across a small news item: The History News Network had conducted an online survey, trying to find the least credible history book currently on the shelves. The top five turned up some heavy hitters: Bill O’Reilly on the right, Howard Zinn on the left. But taking the top prize was David Barton, with his biography of Thomas Jefferson (and a forward by Glenn Beck!), The Jefferson Lies.

Barton is not a professional historian. He is, like me, a History Nerd of sorts, delving into the past for his own enjoyment. OK, that’s not entirely true. Barton has an agenda (yeah, yeah, I do too, but finding the truth, at least as much as that’s doable, is at least part of it). Barton is also an evangelical Christian who thinks Christians should be running things, damnit, like they did in the good ol’ days, when our Founding Fathers created America as a Christian nation, based on the Bible. The same Bible that contains heavenly inspired writings and teaches us it is God’s wish to oppose the minimum wage  and a progressive income tax and government efforts to combat global warming.

Uh, yeah.

The Puritans, who took some of their laws–including ones that called for capital punishment–from the Old Testament: theocrats? Discuss.

Somewhere in the midst of his born-again zeal, Barton seemed to confuse the theocratic Puritans (though some would debate that adjective) with the FFs, who included several Deists and a few other guys who did not want religion shaping laws, as much as they might personally accept religious values. But don’t tell that to Barton or the folks who accept his version of history as, shall we say, gospel.

Barton caught the media’s eye a few years ago, though I had never heard of him until he clinched his recent dubious historical honor. Seems like some right-wing pols had found him useful for winning evangelical votes, going back to W. in 2004 and presidential candidate wannabes Bachmann and Gingrich this election cycle. The Ph.D.-wielding Newt even went so far as to say that he “”never listen[s] to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things.” (Which just goes to show what a Ph.D. is worth these days.)

The Jefferson Lies, critics said (including some conservative Christian scholars), is filled with several distortions and plain untruths about our 3rd pres and the author of the Declaration of Independence. Barton tries to paint Jefferson as Christian who wanted a Christian nation and did not want to build a wall between church and state—at least not at the expense of Christianity in the political realm. But in all his supposed exhaustive research, Barton apparently never came across the tidbit that one of the three things Jefferson himself said he wanted to be remembered for—along with creating the University of Virginia and writing that declaration thingy–was crafting Virginia’s Statue for Religious Freedom.

Flawed? Of course. But still good for one or two things…

Jefferson was a Deist—he believed a creator, call him/her God if you will, did indeed set things in motion in the universe. And then he/she gave humans free will and the capacity to think for themselves. So in the statute, Jefferson wrote: “All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities,” because “all attempts to influence it [a free mind] by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness.”

Thank god for those words! Because as we know, hypocrisy and meanness from religious types seeking to impose their way have been driven from the land.

The brouhaha over Barton’s book led his publisher to pull it from the market, though you can still buy it at Barton’s own website. And presumably the little media empire he has built, with a radio show and public speeches and a staff to help coordinate it all, still chugs along. Apparently spreading historical distortions in the name of religion pays. But of course, Barton’s fame—and perhaps hubris?—led to the public outcry against his brand of history. How many others out there, of all political stripes, stay beneath the radar and manage to poison the minds of voters, one lie at a time?

Courageous Writing?

June 24, 2012 Leave a comment

A first edition sells today for hundreds of dollars, in case you were thinking of adding it to your library.

As I mentioned previously, I’ve been immersed of late in a biography of John Kennedy, which has renewed my interest in the biographer’s craft (which, not coincidentally, is the name of the monthly newsletter I’m now editing; you can see a sample of an old issue here). I was particularly struck about all the scholarly ink spelled over who exactly wrote JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, which took the 1957 award in the biography/ autobiography category. I suppose professional historians take an interest in this kind of thing because, you know, they do their own research and writing and like to see others in their field rewarded for the same.

So here’s what the latest scholarship seems to suggest (at least as outlined by Robert Dallek in his An Unfinished Life): Kennedy relied on the research and first drafts of others (primarily Ted Sorensen) but wrote the final draft. Dallek sums it up this way: “Jack did more on the book than some later critics believe, but less than the term author normally connotes.”

Hmm. But only JFK’s name is listed on that prize, yes, not the “committee” Dallek says did the work.

What one of those babies looks like, because God knows I will never see a Pulitzer in the flesh…

Both Dallek and Sally Bedell Smith note that Joseph Kennedy’s journalist friend, New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, lobbied Pulitzer voters to make sure JFK got the prize. (Krock had previously helped turn Kennedy’s senior thesis from Harvard into the well-received book, Why England Slept.) Dallek says the voting committee had five books above Kennedy’s during their deliberations; Smith specifically mentions books on FDR and jurist Harlan Stone as biographies that were originally deemed more worthy. Yet Kennedy got the prize and increased prominence. The book and its success stirred this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, who was not very impressed with Kennedy’s liberal credentials (though to be fair, JFK never considered himself a liberal). To the former First Lady, the Senate’s rising star would have been more impressive if he had “a little less profile and a little more courage.”

I don’t know what other books were in the running for that Pulitzer in ’57. The Pulitzer website does not list the finalists that far back. But you can get an idea of some of the competition for that year by checking out the finalists for the National Book Award (NBA) in history. The biographies included what I assume is the same FDR bio that Smith mentions, James MacGregor Burns’s Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. (Burns went on to write a glowing pre-presidential campaign profile of Kennedy in 1959). Or it could have been another FDR bio, Frank Freidel’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Triumph. Also on the list: Old Bullion Benton, a study of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and Samuel Flagg Bemis’s John Quincy Adams and the Union, the second part of a two-volume biography by one of the most respected historian of the first half of the 20th century. (Interestingly, Benton and Adams make up one-quarter of Kennedy’s profiles.) Another finalist that year was Richard III, by Paul Murray Kendall; several sources say Kendall’s book was the runner-up for the NBA.

So, Kennedy had some stiff competition for his Pulitzer. Authorship aside, did he deserve it? I can’t answer that, but his experience could be another example of the importance of having friends in high places. After his lobbying efforts, Krock said in an interview, “I worked as hard as I could to get him that prize.” It would be flip for me to say, “Perhaps harder than Kennedy did in marshaling the work of his committee.”

Oops.

But it does seem fair to say that Kennedy never felt any remorse about how the book was written or how it won the prize. Not like Krock later did. After explaining his hard work for Kennedy, the journalist added: “Those are the facts. I don’t take any pride in them.”

All Bio, All the Time

May 9, 2012 2 comments

At least that’s how much of my life has felt the last week or so, as work has led me to write another biography of another president (I’ve lost track how many this is; suffice to say, I know more than I care to about a lot of presidents).

You mean I can’t mention the threesomes?

This is one is about the much-beloved and –reviled JFK. I’ve written one about him before, and plenty about his involvement in the Cold War. I started this round of research with Thomas Reeves’s A Question of Character. Reeves said he spent much of his life enamored with Kennedy, but as a professional historian he wanted to puncture the myth of Camelot and get at the true essence of the man. And as most historians now know, even if most Americans don’t, it’s not a pretty picture: Papa Joe’s spending to help buy influence (and votes), the Mafia ties, the philandering, the lies about his health (and about his authorship of a Pulitzer-Prize winning book), the drug use. You read this and think, “This is the caliber of person we elect to the most important political position in the world?” Of course, all presidents have flaws. But if the truth had been known about JFK in his lifetime, would he have been the 35th president? And could he have taken on the saint-like characteristics  that some still cherish today if not for his assassination?

Probably not. And no.

But my book, alas, will not delve too deeply into the sordid underbelly of American politics and this president’s life. Though I do hope to show the kids how a public image can be oh-so-artfully manufactured. Surely that has only become more relevant in the 50 years since Dallas.

My other biographical endeavor has a totally different angle. I belong to a group called Biographers International Organization (BIO), the only craft guild/support group for those scribes who attempt to document others’ lives for a living (not that more than a handful actually make a living at it). Last year, in my defunct blog, I chronicled my experience at the BIO national conference in Washington, DC. I was moderator of a panel on writing YA bios, got to meet lots of interesting writers, and developed the sense that what we biographers do is something special, if not always as impressive to others as what novelists or poets or reality-TV stars do.

I’ll be at this year’s conference too, an unexpected development thanks to my new role in helping put out BIO’s monthly newsletter. I wrote some of my first pieces for the May edition, and found it quite gratifying to research all things bio and then write about it for adult readers who share my passion for biographies in particular and reading/writing in general.

Here’s some of my first scribblings for The Complete Biographer, commenting on the release of Robert Caro’s fourth volume of his The Years of Lyndon Johnson:

Along with the recent praise for the book have been profiles of the author almost everywhere you turn: a long piece in Esquire, stories by CBS and NPR. Some of the attention for both book and author, one BIO member swears, is simply the media’s excitement over getting to use penultimate so often, since Caro plans one more book to close out Johnson’s life (due in two or three years). Yet even the casual fan of biographies can see something approaching heroic in a man devoting almost 40 years of his life to trying to capture the essence of such a towering political figure as Johnson.

Caro’s dedication to and skill at his craft was apparent at the 2011 Compleat Biographer conference. Winner of that year’s BIO Award, Caro delivered a keynote speech that addressed the importance of place in defining a subject’s character. He had immersed himself in the West Texas hill country of Johnson’s youth—just one part of the research that has made Caro so admired. But don’t, Esquire writer Chris Jones says, call Caro obsessive. The biographer told Jones, “That implies it’s something strange. This is reporting. This is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to turn every page.”

When The Years of Lyndon Johnson is done, readers will have turned several thousand book pages—and know Caro has turned every page in the former president’s life.

40 years. Thousands of pages. The LBJ bio does strike some as obsessive, but to biographers, Caro is a master of our craft: a dedicated researcher, a striking writer, a seeker of the truth—as much as any historical writing delivers “the” truth.

My book on Hooke, scientist and coffee addict…

My new BIO gig got me reflecting on biographies in general: Reading my first in elementary school, almost always of athletes. One of Sal “the Barber” Maglie has always stuck in my mind. Writing biographies, from the long list of presidents to Robert Hooke (about whom I knew nothing beforehand) to a graphic-novel treatment of the life of Muhammad Ali.

Plutarch; yeah, they’ll still be reading my bios in 2,000 years…

Thinking about the biographers through ages, especially Suetonius and Plutarch. Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars was the first history book on ancient Rome that I ever read. As to Plutarch, his Lives still reach us today, even if we don’t know it, since Shakespeare used him as a source for some of his historical plays. Then there are the ancient biographies of a guy who had some worldwide impact: Jesus Christ. You may have heard of him? Of course the writers of the Gospels were not exactly trained in the nuances of objective historical writing…

I find it interesting that the primary biography of the New Testament, along with Plutarch’s writing, were intended to show the lives of other to make moral statements. Biographies often try to show the goodness in others to inspire us, as we immerse ourselves in their courage and wisdom. And other times they are cautionary tales that warn of the dangers of hubris and roads taken that lead to perfidy.

Every life is a narrative. We all crave narratives to explore, whether our own or others. I may never be a Robert Caro, but when I write my 5,000-word, watered-down presidential bios, I still aspire to reach the standards set by the best practitioners of my craft. And give my readers a narrative that satisfies some deeper need.

The Big Election of ’12

April 4, 2012 3 comments

Big election coming up later this year, I hear. Don’t want to get into that yet; let’s wait till the Republicans choose between Sick Rick and Ragged Mitt, though Mr. Remove-Silver-Spoon-and-Insert-Foot seems to have it locked up. Tonight’s results could spell the end for Rick, though the grossly self-righteous never seem to go away quietly.

No, today the History Nerd wants to look back to another big election, one from a century ago that at least one historian thinks changed America. The election of 1912 featured some heavy hitters, the caliber of which makes the current crop look like Doug Wilson and his cohorts in Agrestic (yes, I’ve been rewatching early seasons of Weeds).

The 1912 election was the only time in our history that three men who had or would sit in the Oval Office faced each other: the incumbent William “Big Boy” Howard Taft, former president Teddy “Manly Man” Roosevelt, and soon-to-be pres Woodrow “What, me racist?” Wilson. And there was even a fourth candidate of renown (or to some, infamy): Eugene “You Don’t Know Nothin’ from Socialist” Debs.

Perhaps even more amazing, the field included a progressive Republican. Imagine that, a time when that expression was not an oxymoron. Hard to believe given how this year’s GOP presidential hopefuls seem to covet the label “Neanderthal” (and with apologies to Neanderthals everywhere with that crack).

Now that's a globe!

Here was the scenario: Roosevelt had served from 1901 through 1908, earning a reputation as a “trust-buster,” a progressive who wanted to conserve public lands, who said “corporations engaged in interstate commerce should be regulated if they are found to exercise a license working to the public injury.” Of course, TR was immediately branded a socialist by the right wing of his part—no, actually, not. While Roosevelt wanted to control corporate excess, he was still a capitalist, still had respect for the “strong and forceful men upon whom the success of business operations inevitably rests.” And he was a devout imperialist, always ready to swing that big stick.

Man, I just wanna be on the Supreme Court...

Taft, a one-time friend of Roosevelt, was a reluctant presidential candidate in 1908, running more to appease his wife than satisfy an urge to wield power. Ironically, while historian James Chace, author of the book 1912 considers Taft a “moderate conservative,”  he busted more trusts in four years than TR did in eight. Chace (who discusses his book here) also calls Taft “an extremely decent man,” a decency I’d like to think was shaped by his Unitarian faith. Given the dogma-less, pagan-accepting church the Unitarian-Universalist body is today, could a 21st-century UU even think of running for president? And isn’t it sad to think that belonging to a congregation with such deep historical roots in America and with such a tolerant, loving nature means you couldn’t get elected in a political climate that seems to thrive on religious litmus tests of all kinds?

Moderate conservative that he was, Taft was not progressive enough for Roosevelt, who also had a stronger hunger for executive prerogative than Taft. TR ran for the Republican nomination, lost it at what he and his supporters thought was a rigged convention, then joined the Progressive Party, which was soon known as the Bull Moose Party . The nickname came after TR compared himself to that hardy creature. The name seemed particularly apt when Roosevelt was shot while on his way to deliver a campaign speech. The fifty pages of the speech, tucked into his pocket, slowed the bullet somewhat (let’s see a Teleprompter do that), though it still entered his lung. Roosevelt gave the speech and then went to the hospital. During his two-week recovery, the other candidates refrained from campaigning. Would today’s candidates extend the same courtesy? Perhaps, but of course they could count on the Super PACs to keep doing their dirty work.

What were some of the wacky tenets of the Progressive Party? Well, its platform spelled out some of the lunacy pretty clearly: “The Progressive party, believing that no people can justly claim to be a true democracy which denies political rights on account of sex, pledges itself to the task of securing equal suffrage to men and women alike.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, sometimes it seems a few modern-day Repubs rue that. And TR also wanted “the fixing of minimum safety and health standards for the various occupations, and the exercise of the public authority of State and Nation, including the Federal Control over interstate commerce, and the taxing power, to maintain such standards.” Talk about a Republican turncoat! And then there was this: “The protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use.” Sounds like the germ of Social Security and—dare we say it—national health care. Why, if that had happened back then, we’d be like a Third World nation by now. Oh, wait, with the growing disparity in wealth between the top and the bottom classes, we are like a Third World nation…

Back when a Southerner was proud to be progressive.

Then there was Wilson, the former president of Princeton, a historian, the governor of New Jersey. He had some progressive bona fides, thanks to his efforts to clean up corruption in NJ. But he was also, as Chace bluntly says, a Southern white supremacist. In later decades, post-Nixon, he might have been one of the many Southern Democrats who turned Republican. Whatever his party, Wilson was by all accounts prickly and stubborn. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he could also be holier-than-thou—but not so holy as to refrain from a marital affair. In another instance of “Could this happen today?” TR knew about the indiscretion and did not use it against his opponent.

Debs snagged 900k votes in 1912.

Debs, of course, was sorta the Ron Paul of his day, though with a decidedly different ideological bent. He had no chance in hell of winning, though he had a small number of devoted supporters (in sheer numbers, Paul probably has more, but of course the electorate was much smaller then). Chace sees Debs as more of a pro-worker union organizer than a full-blown Marxist. Starting in 1900 he ran for president five times as a socialist, the last one, famously, while in jail for protesting America’ involvement in WWI.

So, take a step back and see what we have: Four candidates more liberal, in some ways, than the last two Democratic presidents, and certainly more liberal than any Republican since then. These men ran at a time when people could challenge the power of corporations and not be seen to be seeking “to destroy America.” It seems so distant and fairy-tale like…

The outcome of the election was not too surprising. With basically two Republicans running, they split their party’s vote and Wilson won. Taft actually came in third in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. And the true importance of the election was perhaps showing that progressive ideas had a home in American government, even if the Progressives didn’t win. Chace says the election set the tone for the rest of the century, with progressive idealism taking on conservative values.

Never again, I reckon, will we see a Republican who champions the progressive. Instead, we get Republicans who are reactionary, not merely conservative. I can’t imagine what TR or even Taft would think of what has become of the GOP. We’ll see what becomes of it after this ’12 election.