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I Got Dem Ol’ Ballot-Tallying Blues Again, Mama

August 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Was it really only twelve years ago this November when the eyes of the world were focused on one state, when just a few hundred votes separated the two men vying to be the leader of the free world? I remember it so vividly, the drama, the political machinations and partisanship, the sense that Election Day snafus or faulty tabulation had denied the true intent of the voters in that crucial state.

I am, of course, talking about my new home, the great state of New Mexico.

Damn these punch cards…

What’s that you say? Didn’t another state dominate the news in the weeks after the 2000 election? Hmm, I suppose Florida was the focal point of all the post-election hijinks. But New Mexico actually had a closer vote tally: Gore won there by less than 400 votes, while Bush took Florida—theoretically—by 537. Of course, a few million more votes were cast there, and Florida’s 25 electoral votes were a wee bit more important in deciding the election than New Mexico’s measly five. Still, for a time, the unsettled results in both New Mexico and Oregon were mentioned in the same breath as Florida’s disputed outcome, and it wasn’t until December that the Bush team publicly announced it would not seek a statewide recount in NM (something, of course, it fought tooth and nail in Florida; hell, Bush didn’t even want the manual recount in four counties).

Still gotta wonder how things might have been under President Gore…

Why is the 2000 election debacle on my brain? Probably because I just finished a book on it–for a client who informed me this week it is ceasing publication of all books, this one will most likely never see the light of day, and my getting my second payment for it is not a done deal. Given all that, I might be tempted to post the whole thing online, because I think it was a pretty good book, if I say so myself.

And because, as much as Antonin “Funny Man” Scalia exhorts us all to “get over it” (it being specifically the SCOTUS decision that ended the recount and left legal scholars from all over the political spectrum gape-mouthed), immersing myself in the details of what went on in the 36 days after Election Day (and various vote-stifling efforts before and during it) leaves no doubt that if voter intent were truly discerned, as Florida’s law calls for, Gore won Florida and the election.

I know, I know, the usually mild-mannered History Nerd is opening up a can of really big and disgusting worms here; let me say right off the bat that I’m not going to engage in any online debates with people who disagree. It’s an opinion, though one based on a lot of reading of what went down. And as one lawyer (a pro-Gore lawyer) said in 2002, “There is no neutral view…of Bush v. Gore.” Hell, even Sandra Day O’Connor, who was in the 5-4 Republican majority that halted the recount, said she wasn’t sure if they made the right decision.

But John Paul Stevens, a dissenter, was completely sure of this: The Court never should have issued a stay of the recount in the first place and heard Bush v. Gore. “There just obviously wasn’t any irreparable injury to allowing a recount to go through because the worst that happens is you get a more accurate count of the votes.”

Yup, just your typical spontaneous protest of disgruntled local voters…

Reading about all the legal maneuvering that went on after November 7, rediscovering the nuances of hanging and dimpled chads and the flawed butterfly ballot, learning for the first time about the Brooks Brothers riot and the steps Bush was taking even before the election to sway public opinion if things didn’t go his way—it set my mind a-spinnin’.

But perhaps even worse was realizing that even after states got rid of error-prone voting machines (though in some cases replaced them with machines susceptible to hacking and that left no paper trail) and Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (which some Republicans are now trying to hamstring by defunding the Election Assistance Commission the law created), the election process in this country is AFU.

Adding to the problem: The two parties have diametrically opposing views (quelle surprise!) about voting. Republicans, in the face of almost non-existent fraud, want to make it harder for people to register and vote, which several studies have shown will potentially drive down the votes of certain constituencies that tend to vote Democratic. Democrats believe everyone who is legally eligible to vote should be able to, with of course some safeguards to prevent fraud (voter ID–good; government-issued photo  IDs–not so much). Yes, yes, I’m partisan, but which one sounds like the definition of “participatory democracy” most people would prefer?

We know that the 2000 election was followed by another fairly close contest, with Ohio being the deciding state. The popular-vote contest there was not a nail-biter, though more than one person thought some shenanigans (deliberately creating long lines at polling places in poor, urban, traditionally Democratic areas; possible rigging of machines) helped give Bush that large margin. And once again, though under the radar, New Mexico seemed to have some voting irregularities of its own (and compared to Ohio, its vote was fairly close: Bush won by about 6,000 votes). A study conducted by Help America Recount.org showed that the state had a high percentage of presidential undervotes (no vote recorded) on a certain type of voting machine. Some areas also had high tallies of “phantom votes,” meaning more votes recorded than ballots cast.

By 2008, New Mexico had passed a law that required an automatic recount in close elections, though the issue was moot that year, as Obama swamped McCain in the state. In general, Obama’s comfortable margin across the country didn’t raise the specter of 2000 and 2004. But what will happen this year? Could another close election be decided by court battles and inaccurate counting of votes? Sadly, yes. We’ve already seen Florida trying another voter purge that has raised questions, as the one in 1999-2000 did. We have tough voter ID laws in place that will suppress some Democratic votes. And most damaging of all to the voting process, we have too many partisan officials, from secretaries of state to county canvassing board members, overseeing elections and the counting of votes. Whichever party you belong to, how good would you feel about a partisan from the opposing party deciding the outcome of a tight election?

The 2000 presidential race showed that the idea of one person, one vote—and then having that vote counted properly—is an ideal not being practiced. And that’s one reason why we shouldn’t just “get over” the results of Bush v. Gore and the Florida recount.

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.

Thoughts of Persia

April 18, 2012 2 comments

Mitt Romney has a history problem. I’m not talking about his personal history; his public persona suggests his worst infraction was sneaking a sip out of a bottle of Coke behind the family’s sprawling Bloomfield Hills home. No, I mean he has a problem getting the facts of history right, as an op-ed piece he wrote to rattle his saber at Iran shows. The thrust of the piece was to paint Barack Obama as weak in the face of Iran’s rising nuclear threat, and he would be different, by gum. He started the piece by referring back to the release of the U.S. hostages on January 20, 1981, just minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.

The hostages, back on U.S. soil, after more than a year in Iranian custody.

To Romney, the release was Iran’s acknowledgment that they faced some tough times under Reagan’s watch if the hostages weren’t freed (not, as is widely accepted, because months of negotiations and internal Iranian concerns led Ayatollah Khomeini to agree to their release). Yup, why Reagan was so tough on the Iranians, he secretly sold them weapons, in violation of U.S. law and his own promise never to deal with terrorists. Yeah, Romney pines for the good ol’ days, under Sheriff Ronnie. You probably won’t hear too much from Romney on the Iran-contra scandal…

Attending Phyllis Bennis’s recent talk about U.S.-Iranian relations got me thinking about the shared history of those two countries. The recent past, with the hostages and ever-tense relations often inflamed by bellicose rhetoric, has not been pretty. But the History Nerd wondered: Was it always thus?

Our man in Tabriz…

Depends on who you ask, I guess. Justin Perkins recounted receiving some good treatment at the hands of the Muslim government of Persia, circa 1835. Perkins was the first American missionary to live in what we now call Iran, arriving there in 1834 with his wife. His mission was to work with the Nestorians, a Christian sect that traced its roots back to a 5th-century dispute over the teachings of Nestorius. The Persian Nestorians lived in and near the mountains of Kurdistan. Perkins not only had to deal with a foreign culture as he spread Congregationalist teachings and general learning. He also confronted religious obstacles in the form of local superstitions and “papal errors” that had crept into Nestorianism, the latter courtesy of missionaries sent from Rome. Perkins’s son recounts these years in Persia in the biography he wrote of his father, noting that even though the Nestorians were surrounded by “the gross darkness of Mohammedanism,” the land’s Muslim rulers treated the elder Perkins well.  One member of the ruling family ordered that Perkins and his associate have army protection, as thanks for their “attending to the education of the people, and render[ing] the people useful by teaching them European science.”

Learn more about those ancient Persian empires in a book by yours truly.

The Americans and Iranians first established official diplomatic relations during the 1880s. (An earlier trade treaty had been negotiated but never put into effect.) By this time, Persia was still an independent nation, but a shell of the great empire it had once been. Actually, three separate empires had risen and crumbled in the region, starting with the Achaemenid dynasty of the 6th century BCE. By the 19th century, however, Persia had become another battleground in the “Great Game” between Russia and Great Britain for dominance in Central Asia. The glory of Cyrus and Darius and Mithridates and, yes, even  Khosrow I, was long past.

That point was forcefully driven home in 1919, when the Anglo-Persian Agreement gave the British virtual control of Iran. The people, as U.S. State Department correspondence indicates, were incensed by their government’s capitulation, but feared demonstrating against it because of the presence of British troops. One report said that Iran’s intelligentsia realized some foreign influence was inevitable, and “they would have welcomed such on the part of the United States.” Persians hoped for some sort of American remedy, and some were disappointed when it never came. The rising tide of nationalism, though, led to the takeover of the government in 1921 by the first Pahlavi shah, the father of the infamous shah who would be one of the greatest U.S. allies in the region—and a player in the later hostage crisis.

U.S. troops prepare to move supplies along the Persian Corridor.

By this time, a discovery beneath Persian soils set the groundwork for those deepening U.S.-Iranian ties. The country had oil, lots of it. And as we all know, America would eventually need some of that oil, and a general balance of power in the region that favored its interests. But Americans did not arrive in any force in Iran until World War II. Fearing a German takeover of the country (the first shah had established close ties to Germany), the Soviet Union and Great Britain invaded Iran in 1941. A small number of U.S. troops and civilians arrived to help move supplies through Iran–the so-called Persian Corridor–to Russia and keep oil flowing to the Allies. The Americans built roads and operated plants that made vehicles and aircraft for the Soviets. Thousands of Iranian civilians also took part in these efforts.

At the end of the war the Soviet Union was not happy, because it didn’t have the oil interests that the Brits and Americans had secured during the war. Joseph Stalin tried to reassert old Russian influence over northern Iran, supporting rebels there. He ended that support in April 1946, and Iranian troops, working with a U.S. military adviser, crushed the rebellion. The Soviets were out of what was a historical sphere of influence for them, and we were in. But U.S. leaders would continue to fear Communist influence in Iran and do whatever they had to do to keep a friendly regime in power there.

Those steps included using the CIA to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 and putting the second Pahlavi shah onto the Peacock Throne. This part of the story is more familiar, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say, said shah used petrodollars and cozy U.S. relations to build a brutal dictatorship, which led to the revolution of 1978 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Which begat the hostage crisis and 30-plus years of tensions and talks of going to war with an Iran that supposedly covets nukes, to intimidate Israel and no doubt tweak the Americans yet again.

To the Iranians, Iranian-American professor Vali Nasr claims, 1953 was a motivating factor in the future animosity between Iran and the United States. The U.S.-inspired coup was a “humiliation,” one that was “exorcised by the taking of the American hostages in 1979.” The Iranian nationalism that first emerged during the 1920s had been stoked anew, and remains today, even if many Iranians oppose the new authoritarian regime that replaced the old one (“Meet the new boss…”).

What do the Iranians think of the tough talk from a Romney or other Americans? Efraim Halevy, a  former head of Israeli intelligence, said that Romney’s op-ed piece could fuel Iran’s desire to quickly do more work on a weapon, before Romney—conceivably—wins the election. But Iran’s real concern was not building a bomb, Halevy asserted, but preserving its regime, as economic sanctions begin to take effect. Whatever happens, our relations with Iran will remain complex–perhaps a little too much so for the historically challenged Romney.

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.

Welcome to the 1940s

March 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Fifty-two years ago this week, the History Nerd came into the world, kicking and screaming, I imagine, as much as any infant does. I bring up this historical tidbit only because my birthday got me thinking: What if my parents had used birth control nine months earlier? Why, I wouldn’t be penning this, that’s for sure. Or maybe I would have come along at a later point, but not become a history-loving nerd so obsessed with the past I have to blog about it in my idle moments.

Another great thing to come out of CT--the end of laws against birth control. Thank you, Estelle Griswold!

Of course, if my parents had been using birth control, they would have been criminals, since another five years had to pass for the Supreme Court to overturn a Connecticut law that made birth control illegal. Unless, of course, it was natural birth control, like the rhythm method, the form championed by my parents’ Roman Catholic faith. For all I know—and I don’t really want to think about it too deeply—they were practicing the method, it failed, and there I came.

Jeez, who thought this women's suffrage thing was a good idea?

Thoughts about contraception, of course, were fueled by the ongoing ridiculousness spouted by certain Republican males this political season (with the most recent coming the other day, courtesy of Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett). Why are these guys so obsessed about sex and women’s bodies—in such a demeaning, patriarchial way (not in the normal, red-blooded, straight-guy way that millions of other American men obsess about those topics)? A female friend said what I had been thinking: These recent attempts to limit contraception and invade the privacy of pregnant women make it feel like we’re stepping back into another era. You just keep waiting for some conservatives to start with, “And that voting thing, maybe that wasn’t such a smart idea either.” (Certainly not for the candidates who keep spewing all the crazy talk…)

I’ve come to believe that the men leading the attack on women, whether fueled by religious conviction, misogyny, or both, aren’t conservatives at all. They’re reactionaries. Instead of trying to conserve something fairly long established and widely believed—women should have equal rights—they want to turn back the clock. They certainly aren’t being good Republicans. It was, after all, Richard Nixon who championed Title X of the 1970 Public Health Service Act. Yes, Tricky Dick had plenty of faults, but he supported some key government actions that served the public weal. Title X made good on Nixon’s pledge the year before: “No American woman should be denied access to family planning.” The government would provide assistance to women who could not afford birth control. Funds went to Planned Parenthood and independent clinics for this purpose.

Title X—so hard to believe in this climate—had bipartisan support in Congress. Here are the words of one Republican representative from Texas: “We need to take sensationalism out of this topic. If family planning is anything, it is a public health matter.” That was George H.W. Bush, who later, as president, reiterated his support for contraception, even boasting about his efforts to support family planning. By then, though, he had jumped onto the anti-abortion bandwagon, and–based on several public comments he made as a presidential candidate and once in office–he seemed hung-up on the idea that people were using abortion as birth control. The man had obviously never talked to a woman who had an abortion. None I know who have gone through that experience ever equated it to popping a pill or inserting an IUD.

From now on, we should call 'em "bushies."

Bush, of course, came from a family that long championed “family planning.” Before going to Washington to serve as a Connecticut senator, Prescott Bush helped raise money for (cue the evil-sounding music) Planned Parenthood! Bush and his family later claimed the senator never had any affiliation with PP (read more about it here and here), but George H.W. was so gung-ho about family planning that in some circles he was known as “Rubbers.”

Of course, I can hear some of today’s Republican say that Nixon and the older generations of Bushes were not conservatives. If you want to see the roots of today’s Republicans, go back to the revered Ronald Reagan. All right, and as a quick search of the public record of his eight years in office reveals, he almost never mentioned contraception or birth control. When he did, it was usually in reference to a change to Title X his administration tried to ram down the throats of federally funded clinics that dispensed birth control. Under the so-called “squeal rule,” the clinics were supposed to tell parents if teens under 18 received birth control. Reagan said in February 1983, “I don’t think government has a right to stick its nose into the family and tell parents what they can or cannot know about their children.” So, he tried to paint it as an “anti-big government” position rather than an anti-contraception one. Still, there was no doubt that the measure was a sop to the social conservatives Reagan turned to for support. The courts, though, struck down the change. Despite those efforts, Reagan said very clearly early during his presidency that he was not against contraception. And he told a group of evangelicals he did not fault the intent of Planned Parenthood and other clinics to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortion.

Which brings us to today. When Mitt Romney wants to do away with Planned Parenthood (what would Prescott say?), and Sick Rick Santorum offers us these sentiments:

“One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country…. Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

Is that conservative? Or a desire to return to a Dark-Ages past, fueled by religious tenets, that is so out of step with what most Americans believe? And, of course, a slap at the rights of women, to control their sex lives and their bodies.

I keep hoping Santorum and the Catholic bishops and evangelicals who spout such things would just go away. Or that Republicans with some sense of decency would call them on the carpet. Since Nixon and Prescott Bush aren’t around, I guess it’s up to George H.W. Bush. Are you listening, Rubbers?

The S Word

February 10, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been waiting, oh, more than three years now. Waiting for someone to draw some historical parallels, look to the past for tips on how we might get out of the economic mess spurred by the burst housing bubble and the other financial shenanigans that had so many people talking doom and gloom in the waning days of the Bush II administration (seems so long ago, doesn’t it? And have you read anything about what W is up to these days, or seen a picture, any time recently? Me neither).

What we did have, at the beginning of the Obama Administration, was a bit of debate over the need for government stimulus to keep things from getting worse. Republicans knee-jerked their usual response: No more federal spending to boost the economy! We’ve got this debt to tackle (debt which ballooned after the Bush tax cuts and funding two wars that began on his watch, but we won’t walk about that). Elected Democrats generally went along with the idea of a stimulus, though none seemed eager for the ginormous package some liberal economists insisted was needed to really rejuvenate the economy. Obama got through a package that has been unthinkable since 2010, when the Republicans took control of the House. But the package could have been bigger. Despite conservative protestations, Keynesian economics does still work.

Right?

Such an intellectually honest man! Could he be the one I seek? Nah...

It’s been amusing, when my teeth haven’t been clenched, to watch John Boehner and others bad-mouth recent good economic reports. Not good as in “We can all jump for joy because the economy is booming again,” but good in the sense of, “Well, it’s better than it has been for a long while, it seems like the positive news can be sustained (barring further turmoil in Europe and war with Iran…), and it might have better even earlier, if we had had more stimulus.” But the time for stimulus is over, and some liberals don’t even want Obama to talk about the good his limited program did, according to The Economist. The program “remains unpopular with the general public,” a public that has been inundated with Republican talk of the evils of the deficit and more government spending.

Of course, maybe we should listen to the experts The Economist refers to, who generally believe that the stimulus kept unemployment from rising another 2 percentage points above its 10 percent peak, and particularly saved the jobs of municipal  employees—you know, such inconsequential folks as cops, firefighters, and teachers—as states and cities grappled with their own budget crises. Even a former critic of the stimulus has come around to say that deficit spending during a recession has its uses. And a Kiplinger columnist recounts some of the thinking of Carmen Reinhart, co-author of a new study on the nature of financial crises and recessions. In a nutshell: the downturns generated by the financial crises, historically, have been worse than your-run-of-the-mill recessions. So get used to sluggish growth, as we are not nearly out of the woods. But Reinhart also believes that the Obama stimulus and the bailouts kept us out of a depression.

Uh, here’s a guess: You won’t hear much about any of that coming from the mouths of Republicans or their media pals during the next nine months.

The Arsenal of Democracy, baby!

So, all that brings me back to my history lesson. I’m not an economist, god knows, but I’ve written a few books about the Great Depression. And you know what pulled us out of it? It wasn’t Roosevelt’s New Deal. No, it was World War II. I am not, of course, advocating that we gin up the military-industrial complex even more than we have the past decade. But I’m searching, lamp in hand like Diogenes of old, for the one intellectually honest Republican to admit that the worst economic crisis in our history was not solved by austerity and tax cuts for the rich. It was solved by massive government spending. Historian John Steele Gordon, in his An Empire of Wealth, outlines the scale of the spending: “In the first six months of 1942, the government gave out more than $100 billion in military contracts, more than the entire gross national product of 1940.” In 2009, if Obama had called for government spending just one-tenth of the GDP of 2007, the country would have spend just over $1.4 trillion—about double what was spent.

In 1940, U.S. unemployment was still close to 15 percent. By 1943, 7 million more Americans were back at work, either in the military or in defense factories. These figures can be found here, a fairly conservative website, and the author seems to discount the war’s overall impact on reviving the economy, at least for consumers. But there’s no question that government spending put people on the payrolls. By 1945, just 1.9 percent of Americans were out of work.

Again, I don’t want to ratchet up the war machine even more than we have since 2001. But we can be honest and say that the government had a large role to play in putting people back to work. And maybe we could look back to the Great War era to get some guidance on our tax policy. The highest rate during the war years was 94 percent on people making more than $1 million per year. I don’t have exact figures, but that would probably be today’s One Percent. Don’t worry, neither I nor anyone else is calling for anything that drastic. A simple repeal of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest would be a start. I’ll keep out the lamp out to spot any lone Republican calling for that, too.

 

Ragged Mitt

January 25, 2012 Leave a comment

How much do you pay in income taxes? I really don’t care, and I’m not sure I need to know how much my president pays either.  But the news that Mitt Romney finally released his most recent tax returns, and that he pay less in taxes than your run-of-the-mill millionaire, or run-of-the-mill American, was interesting fodder for the news pundits in this campaign season. How does he do it? By getting most of his income from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate than earned wages. Of course, his supporters say he earned the money long ago, when Bain Capital made its many deals. Hmm. Needless to say, even some millionaires—you know, the ones who actually work every day for their income and are intellectually honest—know that hedge-fund billionaires and those who live off their capital gains are not paying their fair share.

The other thing that struck me today as I heard the spin on Romney’s taxes: comments from staff and supporters that Romney did indeed earn his money; no trust-fund baby here. No, Romney pulled himself up by his bootstraps and did the work himself. Why, he’s a regular Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story.

OK, nobody actually mentioned Horatio Alger. Remember him? Probably not, unless you too are a History Nerd. More on him later. But let’s put something to rest right here: Mr. I-Earned-My-Wealth-On-My-Own had advantages that few Americans do. Through much of his childhood and adolescence, his father George was president and chairman of the board of American Motors, which at that time was a pretty major corporation, the creature of the largest merger of the era (though its Javelin and Gremlin, perhaps the company’s best-known models today, were still off in the future). Romney the elder then served as governor of Michigan and briefly in Richard Nixon’s first cabinet.

None of this is news, of course. But the corporate success and political power of Romney the elder suggests that  little Mitt did not exactly want for much, hmm? He attended prep school at Cranbrook and grad school at Harvard. And just maybe his dad’s various positions made it easier to forge meaningful business connections that greased the wheel for his success at Bain.

Of course, I don’t know that for a fact. Pure speculation on my part. But I do know Romney is not cut from the same cloth as Ragged Dick, one of the heroes of the Horatio Alger books. At one time, many Americans knew Alger and his creations, and the stirring theme his book stressed—that through pluck and some luck, even a street urchin could achieve financial success. Ronald Reagan touted the Alger story line, or at least the values Alger championed. Only, as I noted in the first published article I ever wrote (almost 30 years ago…), the Alger story was largely a myth. (And one that Mark Twain thought was ripe for parody.) For every near-penniless Andrew Carnegie who made a fortune, most business titans of Alger’s era came from fairly well-off, WASP backgrounds. Kinda like Mitt (ignoring that Mormonism is not really Protestantism. Or Christianity). And one of the great ironies of the Reagan era was that while Ronnie decried the role of government in society, and particularly the economy, Reagan and his family were beneficiaries of the New Deal (documented in Garry Wills’s Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home).

So, will some Romney staffer or supporter trot out Alger as they try to show their candidate’s hard road to riches? Don’t know. But if they do, don’t believe it—or the reality of the rags-to-riches myth.

Happy–Mostly–Anniversaries

January 6, 2012 Leave a comment

In these parts, no one has put away the party hats and noisemakers with the passing of New Year’s Day. No, we have a centennial to celebrate here in New Mexico: 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of that famous dance, the kangaroo dip.

A map of the territory of New Mexico, 1873

Oh, I’m joking, of course. No one knows for sure when that hot-footed step and its bestiary cousins, the camel walk, the crab step, and the bunny hug, were first introduced, though Gordon Carruth, in his What Happened When, says 1912 was about the time when the still-popular ragtime craze inspired these steps. No, what we New Mexicans are about to start celebrating on January 6 is the inclusion of our fair state in the Union. It only took some 60 years after the Kearny invasion (described a bit here), which is rocket-like speed, really, when you consider Californians had to wait, uh, about two years. And Missourians sat on their hands some 18 years after the Louisiana Purchase before they—wait a minute. Two years? 18? And New Mexicans had to wait more than half a century? What gives?

Well, racism, partly. And religious prejudice. Because to the conquering Anglo mind, how could Spanish-speaking Catholics and various Native Americans be trusted with the delicacies of democracy? One Eastern visitor during the 1850s berated the New Mexicans as “lazy and indolent.” The Civil War hero William T. Sherman said the United States should go to war with Mexico again—to make it take back New Mexico.

And when talk of statehood came up during the 1880s, members of Congress who opposed it noted that the New Mexicans themselves were not exactly clamoring for a change in their status: “No agitation of the question in late years has been noticeable. “ (You can read more on this here.) In 1889, when the residents had a chance to approve a constitution—a prerequisite for statehood—they voted it down. The Santa Fe New Mexican (still published) noted that many residents feared their taxes would increase if they joined the Union. Good guess.

Uh oh...

TR on the stump, 1912

I’m sure every two-bit historian in the Land of Enchantment (including, of course, the History Nerd), will be trotting out various state centennial stories in the months to come. But I wanted to highlight some of the other events of 1912 that are worthy of exploration during this 100th-anniversary year, some of which I hope to delve into here:

  • The one you are apt to hear about most: the sinking of the Titanic. I’ve written about it twice for kids and will certainly be able to dredge up a few interesting tidbits: the alleged ghost stories, the myths, the heroics.
  • And Big Centennial Event number two, especially if a third-party candidate runs in November, is the presidential race between Teddy “Bull Moose” Roosevelt, William Howard “I Did Not Get Stuck In a Bath Tub (but I did order a larger one for the White House)” Taft,  and Woodrow “Prig and Racist” Wilson. It is, as far as I can tell, the only time a current, ex, and future president squared off in a three-way race. And amazing to consider when today’s Republicans fall over each other to display their conservative bona fides, two of them were liberal GOPers at heart, back when that concept was not an oxymoron.
  • The passage of key federal labor laws, including one that gave workers under federal contract an 8-hour work day.
  • The violent “Bread and Roses” Lawrence, MA, textile strike, which featured immigrant workers and the Wobblies—you know, back when workers were actually ready to fight for their rights.
  • The rise of Jim Thorpe as an American sports hero—and the subsequent black cloud that smothered his reputation.
  • And perhaps most important to me, the Boston Red Sox’s victory in the World Series (something I seriously doubt will happen in 2012…).

I’m sure other noteworthy centennials will pop up as the year goes on. Stay tuned to the History Nerd for all the excitement.

Deja Vu All Over Again?

November 4, 2011 Leave a comment

They call it Liberty Square, the hundreds of people who have been staying at what was commonly known as Zuccotti Park until Occupy Wall Street began some six weeks ago. Now, the leaderless organization, holding “general assemblies” that rely on consensus, has built a small community that is the nexus of the larger protest movement that has spread so far beyond Manhattan. Within Liberty Square you’ll find a sleeping area, a medical station, a supply depot, a commissary, and—what caught my eye, as well as the peepers of many others–a library.

Plan your next stay in NYC

What do you know, this rabble, as the vulpine conservative pundits would have you think of them, can actually read. Yes, and they can create their own security force, provide sanitation, produce media accounts, and even rein in the drumming circles that once kept awake neighbors.

This exercise in spontaneous community building during an era of economic hardship led me to think of the Bonus Army. You remember that fighting force, yes? Not a crack team sent to drive out some foreign tyrant or bring democracy to a distant land, the Bonus Army was made up of veterans who, during the early years of the Great Depression, wanted the bonus they had been promised for fighting in World War I. You see, losing jobs and homes and life savings made some of the vets a little desperate—and impatient.

After years of wrangling, Congress in 1924 agreed to give the vets money as compensation for the pay they lost giving up their civilian jobs to answer their government’s call (you know, for that war to end all wars—and, as some of its critics would have it, the war to aid all capitalists). President Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge vetoed the bill, saying it would be a budget buster. Congress overrode the veto, and the vets had their so-called bonus: money based on their length of service, plus interest, payable in 1945, or when they died (which of course meant some would not get much pleasure out of their hard-earned bonus. This led to a nickname for the payment—the Tombstone Bonus).

The Depression, though, convinced many of the vets that they couldn’t wait till 1945 or their interment. Starting in 1932, some of them demanded the money pronto. One of them was Walter W. Waters of Portland, Oregon. He led a group of vets from his hometown on a march to Washington D.C. Along the way, many more former doughboys and their families, from all across the country, joined this Bonus Army. In DC, they set up camp at the Anacostia Flats not far from the Capitol. Some military and government honchos saw a subversive element at work, and several Communists did try to exploit the movement, Still, most of the 25,000 or so strong at the main Anacostia camp and smaller ones around the city were what they said they were: honest, patriotic vets looking for what they felt they were owed for their service. Waters, fearful of disruptions that would bring down the authorities or turn public support against them, laid down this edict: “No panhandling, no liquor, no radical talk.”

Camp Marks

Like the Wall Street occupiers, the vets soon built a self-regulating community, but on a much vaster scale. Camp Marks, as it was called (named for a friendly local cop), had a barbershop, its own newspaper, classes for the children, musicians (but as far as I know, no drum circles), baseball teams, and, yes, a library. Most amazingly for the times, the camp was integrated. For housing, some of the “soldiers” slept in donated tents, while other scavenged a local dump for items they could use to cobble together makeshift huts.

Occupy Wall Street, its spokespeople say, has few specific demands. The Bonus Army, though, was in Washington for one thing: to get their bonuses as soon as possible. In June, Congress considered a bill that would do just that, drawing several thousand of the marchers to Capitol Hill. The House approved the early payment; the Senate nixed it. The protest seemed to be over, but Waters and others vowed to remain in DC until they got what they wanted.

A certain general loved the smell of wooden shanties in the afternoon...

I wish I could say there was a happy ending to this tale. Alas, alas…On July 28 police and Bonus Army participants who had been camped in downtown DC clashed. This led the military to head into the city, using a force that had been secretly preparing for just such an event. Eagerly leading the army was none other then General Douglas MacArthur, with a somewhat more reluctant Major Dwight D. Eisenhower by his side.  Also taking part was some officer named Patton. Cavalry troops, tanks, and tear-gas tossing infantry drove the people off the streets, then headed for Camp Marks. More tear gas and the fires the soldiers set dispersed the remaining marchers. Not an episode of our glorious history certain Americans would like you to know too much about, hmm?

It wasn’t just the library that led me to connect the Bonus Army to the Occupy movement. The attack on Iraq War vet Scott Olsen did it too, though he is obviously looking for something different than what the marchers of ’32 sought. Or is he? I guess you could say social justice is at play in both circumstances. I just hope the larger Occupy movement doesn’t face today’s equivalent of MacArthur and Patton on some city street.

(An added note on Olsen: It appears there may have been an attempt by some right wingers to smear him, just as good ol’ J. Edgar Hoover tried to taint the Bonus Army with exaggerated claims of Red influence [uh, people do still remember that Red=Communist, right?]. Read more on that here and here.

And for more info on the Bonus Army, check out Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, The Bonus Army: An American Epic; this Smithsonian article; or this website.)

Father and Son, Fallen Senators

January 12, 2010 Leave a comment

The senator

Senator Chris Dodd’s announcement that he would not seek reelection this year stirred up mixed feelings. He has been one of my U.S.  senators for most of my adult life, and I’ve respected most of his stances as well as his political skill. I was out of the state during the last few years, when bad judgment and perhaps the disease fatal to so many incumbents – creeping entitlementosis – derailed his career. By choosing not to run, I think he made the right decision for the Democratic Party, and maybe he can use his last year in Washington to salvage his reputation a bit, instead of fending off constant attacks, as he would have had to do on the campaign trail.

Dodd with LBJ - a happier time in the Senate

Some political pundits say that for many years now, Dodd has also tried to salvage another man’s reputation: his father‘s. Through the years, I knew that Thomas Dodd faced censure in the Senate, though I had never delved into the details. Afterward, in 1970, he lost the support of Democrats in Connecticut and unsuccessfully ran as an independent, losing to Lowell Weicker. (Weicker then made his national reputation during Watergate and showed rare political backbone as governor of Connecticut, calling for an income tax. And as any political junkies reading know, Weicker lost his Senate seat to Jowlin‘ Joe Lieberman.)

Chris Dodd's wee bit o' Eire

Dodd‘s loss may not have impacted his health, but it‘s hard not to think that his death in 1971, of a heart attack at 64, came sooner than it might have if his career had not taken such a turn. No, no passive voice there: if he had not erred, had not flouted ethics and diverted campaign funds to his own use. A man respected for many years of public service made a big mistake, just as his son seemed to do by accepting a sweetheart mortgage and paying less-than-market value for a vacation home in Ireland.

The elder Dodd had stepped into controversy earlier in his career as well. He failed the Connecticut bar exam and friends supposedly had the rules changed so he could still practice law in the state. (Details of this were not revealed, as far as I can tell, until the 1960s, in a column by Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson. Their digging also led to the charges that put Dodd in hot water in the Senate. Dodd later sued the newsmen, who had informants sneak into Dodd’s office to retrieve personal files. Dodd lost his case.) But for the most part, Dodd had served well, earning high marks for his work as assistant prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. If he had not entered politics, Dodd would have sealed a favorable reputation in the history books.

During the mid-1930s, Dodd had been a G-man, once taking part in a trap meant to capture John Dillinger. Starting in 1938, he worked in the U.S. attorney general’s office, prosecuting the KKK on civil-rights charges and overseeing cases involving such crimes as fraud and espionage. But the Nuremberg assignment was the topper. Leading the prosecution was Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson, who had briefly been Dodd’s boss in the Justice Department. He respected Dodd’s work in court and eventually made Dodd his right-hand man on the U.S. legal team.

Dodd was not universally loved, even then. Joseph Persico, in his book Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial, notes how one critic called the prosecutor a “phony grandstander” and another said he was a “glory hound” (charges some of his son’s critics might wield today?). But others, Persico writes, considered Dodd “a formidable prosecutor and a quick study” who could, with the right material, “make it sing” in court.

I came across Dodd’s Nuremberg accomplishments while writing a book on the trial (which, alas, was killed by the publisher before I finished it). Here’s how I described Dodd’s most memorable day in the German court, December 13, 1945:

Presenting the gruesome evidence

Thomas Dodd introduced more shocking evidence from the camps. One commander had killed prisoners who had colorful tattoos on their skin. The skin was then removed and made into lampshades for the commander’s wife. Dodd revealed some of the lampshades to the stunned court. Then he began to describe another object taken from a camp: “…a human head with the skull bone removed, shrunken, stuffed, and preserved.” The Nazis had decapitated the prisoner, Dodd explained, “and fashioned this terrible ornament from his head.” At times, the evidence brought gasps from the people in the courtroom. Other times, they fell silent as Dodd explained more Nazi horrors.

Grandstanding, or an effective prosecutor doing his best to viscerally convey the horrors of the Holocaust? I go with the latter, realizing that grandstanding is not necessarily a bad thing during a trial. And Persico presents a Dodd who voluntarily passed up the chance to question one of the most famous Nazi defendants, Albert Speer. Dodd granted Speer’s request to give Jackson the honor. Dodd had “no ego stake in the assignment,” Persico writes. Others at the court thought Speer wanted the higher-ranking Jackson to cross-examine him because of Dodd’s reputation as a “tough, skilled, dangerous prosecutor.”

Dodd had another strong day in court in April 1946, as he cross- examined Dr. Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi Party’s chief theorist on the superiority of the Aryan race and inferiority of the Jews. During the war he served as head of the Reich’s occupied eastern territories. Rosenberg, the New York Times reported, tried to portray himself as a “kindly benefactor” who called for good treatment of the Jews and Slavs under his control. Rosenberg said, “Where an excess took place – and some terrible excesses took place – I did my utmost to prevent it or alleviate it.” Dodd, the paper said, “destroyed” Rosenberg’s self-serving self portrait “and forced the German to admit responsibility for the Nazi regime in the plundered and devastated lands of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.”

For his work in Nuremberg, Dodd received several honors, including the Medal of Freedom. He entered politics in 1952, winning a seat in Congress. For the next four years, he was the only Democrat from Connecticut in the House, showing how much the political pendulum has swung in the state since then; today, all five representatives are Democrats, though I don’t think anyone will be surprised if that changes come November.

The loving father with his son

In 1956 Dodd ran for the Senate and lost to the Republican incumbent, Prescott Bush (that last name might ring a bell. And isn‘t it amazing that over the last sixty years, the small state of Connecticut has turned out so many senators who made a lasting impact on national politics – for good or ill…). Dodd lost that race, but finally won a Senate seat in 1958. He gained a reputation as a staunch anti-Communist, influenced by what he saw of Soviet tactics and attitudes during the Nuremberg trial. According to a 1966 Times report, Dodd also alienated his fellow senators, sometimes ignoring the institution‘s traditions and generally stepping on toes. The article appeared as a Senate committee was already investigating Dodd’s alleged improprieties, which soon drew national attention.

Dodd’s reputation probably did not help him the next year, when the censure vote came up. 92 out of out 97 senators voted for censure. The Senate heard that Dodd used some of his campaign fund to make home improvements (shades of Alaska’s Ted Stevens and Connecticut governor John Rowland, both brought down, in part, for a similar offense) and pay taxes. Dodd was just the seventh senator to be censured, a punishment that does not take away any senatorial prerogatives, just a person’s good name. Dodd maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal and said on the Senate floor, “I believe now, I shall continue to believe, that history will justify my conduct and my character.”

Yes, history –  or the people who write it and read it – do judge after the fact. I’m not sure if the good of Dodd’s career outweighs the bad. Thankfully, my verdict really doesn’t matter. I do believe, like others, that Chris Dodd hoped to vindicate his father. That was part of the reason why he published letters his father sent  home during the Nuremberg trial, trying to remind Americans of the elder Dodd’s important service. (The book was also timed to give Dodd some positive public press as he began his quixotic run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, as well as launch an attack on some Bush-era policies.) But even that opened a can of worms, as some people thought comments Thomas Dodd made in his letters about “too many Jews” at Nuremberg hinted at anti-Semitism. Chris Dodd rejected that notion, which is why he published the potentially incendiary words. (See more on this here.)

Removing the tarnish from his father’s reputation surely motivated Senator Chris Dodd to take the lead in establishing a research center at the University of Connecticut named for the elder senator. The Thomas J. Dodd Research Center houses a human-rights institute, a center for Judaic studies, and various special collections – including Dodd’s papers. And winning a Senate seat was also part of the redemption for the father by the son. Chris Dodd once told his brother, “Every time I walk on the Senate floor, I feel that he’s vindicated.”

That vindication will end in January 2011. Chris Dodd will have to find other ways to honor his father. And perhaps he will find some way to restore his own reputation, so history will justify his conduct and character, highlight the good he achieved in public office, rather than illuminate the missteps and perhaps arrogance that ended his tenure.