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?

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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.

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.

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.

Justice for All…

March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m a liar.

Not something easy for a History Nerd to admit, given my vocational and avocational dedication to history, to finding the truth, as much as it can be known, and as much as it’s ever “the” truth.

But the reality is, in some of the words I have penned over the years I’ve said things I believed to be untrue, knew objectively were false, in the name of spreading civic values. Two book reviews in yesterday’s NYT showed me the error of my ways.

I’ve written and we are taught that our great republican nation is a country of laws, not men. (Of course, of late certain Republicans, Supreme Court justices, and Catholic bishops have preferred to stress the specific prerogatives of men, and give women less of a say in certain arenas, such as public health, but that’s another story…) That noble concept means, in a nutshell, that we govern our society and administer its courts by written principles that everyone can turn to, and can feel secure knowing they are applied equally to all, high and low, rich and poor.

All right, all right, stop laughing now. No, the book reviews didn’t just make me realize that the concept of laws, not men, is sometimes hokum. But the books in question take a look back at two recent legal battles that too clearly show how the system is too often stacked against the powerless, the marginalized, the detested.

Review #1 was of Flagrant Conduct by Dale Carpenter. The author looks at the details of the case Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned sodomy laws in the United States. The NYT review introduces us to the biracial gay couple at the heart of the legal dispute, and to the deputy who arrested them, a law officer notorious for inflating minor offenses into something major. Of the four officers at the scene of the “crime,” only he saw anal sex taking place. Factor in that one of the accused men was drunk and belligerent, and the couple was biracial, and you have a scenario in which the deputy chose to take the most extreme action—arrest the men.

Turns out no one really believed the deputy’s claim that he saw the men having sex, and the prosecutor wasn’t eager to touch the case. But political pressures kept it alive, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Seventeen years before, SCOTUS had affirmed a Georgia law making sodomy a crime. One of the justices in that 5-4 majority, Lewis Powell, later admitted he had made a mistake. Surely, if straight couples have an expectation of privacy in their homes, gay couples should  too? This time the court agreed.

The second review was of Anatomy of Injustice by Raymond Bonner. He looks at the case of a young South Carolina man who was sentenced to death for murdering an elderly, well-off, white woman. The accused murder was poor, black, and had an IQ of 61. Guess how this case turned out. Edward Lee Elmore was sentenced to die after the jury deliberated for under three hours, following severely underwhelming work by his public defenders. And it wasn’t like Elmore was equipped to provide much help in his own case. As reviewer Kevin Boyle notes, the accused’s mental capacity left him unable to tell time, “much less able to follow the intricacies of the case.”

Thankfully, Elmore had a savior, in the form of law student Diana Holt. She studied the details of his case and uncovered the prosecution’s many omissions and deceptions. The state’s attorneys were not looking to conduct a fair trial; they simply wanted a conviction. She also faced the harsh reality of the SCOTUS decision in Herrera v. Collins (1993), that said a person duly convicted of murder and given a death sentence could not claim a right to another trial if new evidence appeared proving his innocence. (In a dissent, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, “Nothing could be more contrary to contemporary standards of decency…or more shocking to the conscience…than to execute a person who is actually innocent.”)

But through her tireless work, Holt was able to convince a South Carolina judge to change Elmore’s sentence to life in prison. Next she won a new trial for him, based on his original attorneys’ incompetence. Elmore is today free, though first he had to go into court and confess to a murder he still says he never committed.

These two stories, along with other recent ones (here’s a doozy from Virginia, involving the grossly unrepentent county attorney Gary Close), plus the number of wrongly convicted Death Row inmates later freed, often through the work of the Innocence Project, belie so vividly those platitudes I and others have spewed:  A nation of laws, not men. Justice is blind. Innocent until proven guilty.

And the two cases featured in the book reviews also led me to this thought: Antonin Scalia is a blight on whatever good name the SCOTUS still has. Put aside his putative legal brilliance: the man is a bully, and as his comments on Blackmun’s dissent cited above show, his supposed wit rests too often on belittlement. I’m amazed at how many of the prominent “moral” Catholics in this country use their faith as a cudgel against the people they don’t like. In the Texas sodomy case, reviewer David Oshinky writes, Scalia “stunned” his audience with a facile comparison between imaginary laws on flag-pole sitting (!) and the rights of gay Americans. And in 2009, he seemed to gleefully restate the findings in Herrera, though in a losing cause. Troy Davis of Georgia was seeking another trial after many witnesses who first testified against him recanted and fingered another man for murdering a cop. There seems little question that Davis was a bad guy, but less proof he was a cop killer. The Court agreed to give Davis another trial. Scalia wrote, “This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”

Read that again, and then let it sink in. You can be “actually innocent,” and it’s still ok for the government to kill you, as long as you received a fair trial. Though as the Elmore case showed, that’s a big if. For Davis, the new appeal did not lead to a happy ending. A judge rejected all but one of the recantations, and he was executed in September 2011.

[One more Scalia tidbit, from 2011. As a devout originalist—we must rule based on what the Founders intended—he says the 14th Amendment does not provide equal protection to women, since it was only intended to protect black males. Boy, think of all that undeserved protection against sexual discrimination those broads have been able to finagle over the years…it must make his blood boil.]

I don’t think we should stop aspiring to be a country of laws, But let’s hold the humans calling the shots on so many parts of the judicial system—the cops, the prosecutors, the judges, and the pols who use high-profile cases in self-serving ways—to a higher standard. And let’s hope to god we have Democratic presidents for a while, so we don’t get any more Scalias.