Thursday, November 13, 2008

Washington Journal

November 2, 2008

It is inspiring, surprising and quite sobering to read T.H. White’s The Making of the President 1964 as the current election campaign draws to a close.

How powerful, nay unassailable Johnson appeared on November 4th, the day after the election. He had won 61% of the popular vote and carried at least a dozen states not carried by a Democrat since: Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, Idaho, Virginia, Montana . . .

It was a tsunami of an election, the likes of which we have not seen since. Although both Nixon and Reagan, in 1972 and 1984, won personal victories as sweeping, they carried few people into office with them. The 1964 election was the real tidal wave, sweeping the Democratic Party to 2/3 majorities in both houses of Congress, making LBJ the only president besides Roosevelt ever to have the will and the votes to pass a massive legislative program. The only time the Republican Party had anything close to such a mandate was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s personal victory was so shocking that a Democratic Congress generally went along with his proposals. In 2002, the Republicans had another window of opportunity, winning both houses of Congress while George W. Bush occupied the White House, but all by slender margins.

In January of 1965, LBJ bestrode the United States like a colossus. Ted White, and every other political reporter, expected him to be president until 1972. All political reporters were certainly aware of the trouble in Vietnam, but none predicted that it would come to such a nation-shaking boil within two years.

All of this came about because of the enormous popularity of John F. Kennedy, the grief upon his death, the obvious ability of Johnson, who firmly took control of the government when we desperately needed it, and, of course, the amazingly inept campaign of Barry Goldwater, who just about destroyed his own party before the campaign against the incumbent had begun.

Ted White portrays him as full of outraged certainty, a prophet out of the desert given to philippics and denunciations. Yet he and his lieutenants brilliantly seized control of a majority of Republican delegates while the other candidates dithered, did not become candidates at all (Lodge and Romney); won a key primary, Oregon, but lost the big one, California (Rockefeller); or became candidates far too late (Scranton). By the time of the convention in San Francisco - can anyone imagine the Republicans ever meeting again in San Francisco? – it was all over but the shouting, and there was plenty of that.

When Nelson Rockefeller gave his speech in favor of modifications to Goldwater’s platform, the conservative revolution, boiling in the Republican Party since the days of Bob Taft, boiled over. T. H. White describes the scene:

“It was as if Rockefeller were poking with a long lance and prodding a den of lions – they roared back at him. This was the face of the enemy . . . the man who had savaged Barry from New Hampshire to California all through the spring. This was the man who called them kooks, and now, like kooks, they responded to prove his point. This reporter was sitting in the Goldwater galleries to savor the moment , but suddenly found two men peering over his shoulder, noting every word written in the notebook – and commenting angrily as they read. As Rockefeller progressed and the roars grew, his tone alternated between defiance and mockery; he smiled; the audience yelled and roared, and the bass drum thumped; and Rockefeller taunted them all. In a passion that he had rarely achieved in his entire spring campaign, he was reaching emotion – and delighting in it. As he taunted them, they raged. Nor did they, apparently, know what they were raging at: the East; or New York; or Communists; or liberals . . . As Rockefeller, enjoying the spectacle and combat, a lock of his full hair tumbling over his forehead, taunted them (“This is a free country , ladies and gentlemen”), they yelled even louder. . . . as the TV cameras translated their wrath and fury to the national audience, they pressed on the viewers that indelible impression of savagery which no Goldwater leader or wordsmith could later erase.”

The election of 1964 was all but decided then and there. Who could have imagined that the Democratic Party would similarly cripple itself a short four years later in 1968, then nominate its own prophet of the desert in 1972?

The following months were the halcyon days of the Democratic Party. Lyndon Johnson masterfully and mercilessly took advantage of Barry Goldwater’s weaknesses and coasted to victory. All he really had to do was look and act presidential. He did that and infinitely more, as White wrote:

“. . . President Johnson’s personal campaign was more than efficient; it was entrancing. To travel with him was to climb one of the rare heights of American political and dramatic art. It was like watching a great performer, at the height of his power, moving through a repertory and range that could not be topped – and yet seeing him top them again and again. Not for years had a campaigner – not even Mr. Harry Truman in 1948 – brought so finished a style of country oratory to a national audience.”

The Democrats had lost a great president, but had not lost their cause, their sense of direction or their leadership.

Then in just two short years, events spiraled out of control. For most of 1965, LBJ could do what he wanted: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, money for cities, money for schools, the list could go on and on. One of his acts, not much noticed at the time in the flurry of legislation, was to authorize the sending of troops to Vietnam with orders to engage the enemy. He was so confident that he thought he could end poverty and racism at home and defeat communism in Vietnam, probably in time for re-election in 1968.

Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad.

Within a few years, the whole nation was mad. George Wallace was happy to tap into the rage the nation saw in the Republican convention galleries beyond the control of Goldwater’s lieutenants. Within a few years many people my age and a little older vowed to stop at nothing that would stop the Vietnam War. Soon there developed a left-wing rage and resentment coalition, composed of angry young people, angry blacks, angry women, angry gays, angry minorities. They did not like each other very much; all they had in common was anger at the current order. Meanwhile, the right-wing rage and resentment coalition did not stop operating with Goldwater’s resounding defeat; indeed many a right-wing pundit today looks back lovingly to that 1964 campaign as the founding moment of the modern conservative movement that has flowered into the rage and resentment echo chamber of conservative think-tanks and talk shows.

The Republican Party went back to basics: defend America, cut taxes, put bad people in jail, distrust minorities and their angry demands. The result is the familiar sea of red in electoral college maps, a wide L-shaped swath from the Canadian border down through the plains and western prairie states to Texas and east through the south to the ocean. All Republicans had to do to win these states was repeat the above mantra. Add Indiana and Ohio and you’ve won the presidency yet again, by a slender majority of the popular vote, or, as in 2000, no majority at all.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party could not manage a majority either. Al Gore got more votes than Bush in 2000, but not 50%. Thanks to Ross Perot, Bill Clinton never got a majority of the popular vote. Jimmy Carter was the last, at a razor-thin majority of 50.08%. Gerald Ford got about 48% that year, and Gene McCarthy, by then a Harold Stassen of the left, got .91%.

Now, finally, if you are a Democrat, it looks like the nightmare is about to end. Barack Obama has run a steady, competent race from start to finish. Most importantly, he has steadfastly refused to play the rage and resentment card or let that card play him. Jeremiah Wright briefly emerged from the wilderness to issue his prophecies; Obama threw him under a bus. Jesse Jackson was upset that Obama did not sound enough like, well, Jesse Jackson. By that time, Obama was racking up primary victories and nobody cared what Jesse Jackson said. Many of Obama’s young supporters yawned and wondered who Jesse Jackson was.

Nothing focuses the mind like defeat. Members of the left-wing rage and resentment coalition, sobered by all these years of Republican presidents, especially the last eight, have quietly decided to vote for Obama and do nothing to imperil his election. Feminist organizations are backing Obama. Most of Hillary Clinton’s supporters will vote for him. Gay organizations are waging some local campaigns but have not said much, if anything, about Obama’s support of civil unions but not gay marriage. No one besides Jeremiah Wright and James Cone is upset that Obama may not be black or angry enough. No one wants to bear the blame for four more years of Republican leadership, especially not since the economy imploded a few weeks ago.

Throughout all these years of Republican White Houses thanks to a majority of the white majority, that majority has been slowly shrinking. T.H. White asked in his 1964 book if the Republican Party could simply ignore the 10% or more of the electorate that black voters represented. The answer turned out to be that it could and it has. This year, with the nomination of Sarah Palin, the Republican Party has gone as far as it could go towards becoming exclusively the party of White Folks; it probably went beyond the point of caricature. She may have revved up the Republican base, but I cannot imagine she has any appeal to Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, independent voters or anyone who is not a Republican to start with.

T. H. White wrote in his first book that every American election summons the individual voter to weigh the past against the future. While speaking to the nation as a whole of its national future, the candidate can never forget that he speaks to the dozens of American voting blocs in terms of its past. The successful candidate then urges Americans to move forward with him to a common future. Obama appears to have done this. The key may well be the 20 – 30 age group, much talked about as people on the other side of the culture wars and enjoying the diversity of America, people dating and marrying across racial and cultural lines, relaxed about gender differences and sexual preferences. The mid-1960s, when the culture wars exploded and America’s cities burned, are ancient history to them. These folks are living and partying in the very neighborhoods that burned. If they turn out in force for Obama, we just might feel the tsunami.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Washington Journal

August 29, 2008

The Campaign of John F. Kennedy, Forty-Eight Years Later

It is inspiring, surprising and more than a little heartbreaking to read T.H. White’s Making of the President 1960 now that forty-eight years have passed and another presidential election proceeds on its frantic pace, as summer nears its end and the election itself is still over two months away.

The electorate is deeply divided as then. The economy is not doing particularly well. Likewise America’s reputation abroad. A two-term president is about to leave.

But as Dwight David Eisenhower was enormously popular throughout his presidency, President Bush is now so unpopular that it is doubtful he will campaign at all. Appearances by the aging but ever-ebullient Eisenhower in the last ten days of campaigning coupled with a powerful burst of television almost surged then Vice-President Nixon to victory. Yet the young Senator from Massachusetts, illuminated by his stellar performance in the first televised debates, drew even larger and more enthusiastic crowds than the President, including a crowd of over one million in New York City, and held on to win.

T. H. White wrote this book when John F. Kennedy was just finding his feet in the White House. Robert Kennedy was Attorney General and Ted Kennedy was just beginning to think of running for Jack’s seat in the Senate. Martin Luther King was hitting his stride as public orator and conscience of the nation. The Peace Corps had just begun.

I first read it in the summer of my first year in college, during lunch breaks while working at E.J. Korvette’s, an early big-box discount store, long since gone out of business. It was 1970, perhaps the dreariest year ever to be alive in America; except for the year before, and the year after. The campus protests over the Kent State killings in May were supposed to transform America. It was clear even a week afterward that they had accomplished little, if anything. It was as if Richard Nixon were the President of a United States in which the battle between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd had finally ended, with Fudd winning.

I had come to consciousness of American politics ten years earlier. While most households in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge were dark with disappointment on election eve of 1960, including the Rodham household on the other side of town, my Irish Catholic family was dancing for joy. Aunt Caroline came over for dinner that evening, which always made for a party; that night the party began early and continued late. The adults drank and told stories and laughed: how Mom became a Democrat and voted for FDR in 1932; how Dad’s parents welcomed her, a Protestant, to the family because she was a good Democrat. Dad and Caroline talked about being Democrats and Catholic in Iowa in 1928, in public high school, wearing Al Smith buttons.

My brother and I even enjoyed the unprecedented of privilege of listening to the radio after we were sent to bed and lifted a cheer when NBC News awarded New York’s forty-five electoral votes to John F. Kennedy. In the morning I walked into my fourth-grade classroom in the Sanford E. Merrill Primary School to celebrate with the only other Democrat in the class, Mike Udolph: the only Catholic and the only Jew, a proud alliance.

T.H. White may have been the best political reporter ever, writing history with a novelist’s flair. He began the book with election eve in Hyannisport, then told the whole long story beginning in 1959 before ending dramatically in the wee hours of the following morning:

“At 5:35 Am, Easter Standard Time, Chief of the Secret Service Urbanus E. Baughman noted that television had given Michigan’s 20 votes to Kennedy, to make a tentative 285 and a tentative majority. It was now too late to wonder or doubt any longer, for his responsibility was clear, and at 5:45 Baughman telephoned Inspector Burrell Petersen in Hyannisport at the Holiday Heath Inn and instructed him to establish security at the Kennedy compound. . . . The candidate and his staff still slept as the sixteen agents in their borrowed cars set out in the night for the compound by the beach; by seven in the morning, security had been established and the President-elect was walled off, as he would be for four or eight years to come, from all other citizens and ordinary mortals.”

Later that day, as White told the story, the newly-arrived agents looked on in horror as the Kennedys indulged in an all-afternoon game of touch football that often left the President-Elect of the United States at the bottom of a pile of laughing, tangled bodies.

If nothing else, this president was fun.

White concluded with a section “The View from the White House,” surveying the state of the nation in the winter of 1960-61. He was extraordinarily prescient:

“In the sixties, the office of the Presidency, which John F. Kennedy held, was above all an intellectual exercise. For the courage and skill required in the sixties in war and peace was no longer the simple manly courage and skill that dominated war from the days of the caveman to the last screaming combat of American P-51 and Japanese Zero over Okinawa. Of this old courage and skill, this new President of the United States had much. . . . But such courage and nerve is, in modern war, all but obsolete. This old kind of courage may possibly be reflected in an ultimate decision over the telephone console to trade the death of New York for the death of Moscow, the death of Los Angeles for the death of Leningrad, the death of Washington for the death of Peking. But it would require greater courage and exertion of mind to decide to change the rules of the new chess game, and greater skill to persuade his adversaries and friends, at home and abroad, to abandon dogma and meet him on the plains of reality.”

Less than two years later, Kennedy survived just such a test. With authority from his handling of the missile crisis, his speech in Berlin and his relationship with Khrushchev and Congressional leaders, he signed the Limited Test-Ban Treaty in the summer of 1963 and was riding the waves of public opinion and world affairs like very few before him and none since.

Though only nine years old, I loved this president. This smiling, confident, radiant, Roman Catholic man was my President. He is my President still. It is his flag and the flag of his clan that I have followed.

I only saw Robert Kennedy once, in the parking lot of a shopping center in Mt. Prospect, Illinois. It was a dreary overcast day in October of 1966. He appeared with Senator Paul Douglas who was to lose a few weeks later to Charles Percy. Both men spoke briefly. Robert Kennedy, although suntanned and fit, seemed short, shy and almost infinitely sad, even when smiling. We had to strain to hear him. Only when Senator Kennedy of New York reached out to shake hands did the crowd come alive, surging forward, women squealing, hands reaching over hands like one writhing organism striving to touch him.

I saw Edward Kennedy speak at Harvard in the mid-nineties. He was warmly welcomed by a capacity crowd in the Kennedy School of Government. What I remember most from that now distant afternoon, aside from how proud I was just to be there, was the apparent absence of security other than one Harvard University policeman. There must have been a plain-clothesman somewhere. But the courage of Ted Kennedy to get up in front of a crowd year after year touched me then as it touches me know.

Then there was his voice. The most Irish-looking of them all, large and ruddy-faced, looking more like a Daley of Chicago than a Kennedy, he sounded like a Kennedy. Watching any of the Kennedys on old videotapes often gives me a lump in the throat, but it is the voice that does it, that wonderful tenor, eloquent, plaintive, inspiring. I will never forget how Ted Kennedy’s voice broke during his eulogy of brother Robert in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in June of 1968.

I find it hard to imagine a world without him, one of the last living links to the thousand days; those days when we were touched by fire.

For years to come shall their names be familiar in our mouths as household words:
Jack the President, Bobby and Ted
Sorensen and Salinger, O’Donnell and O’Brien -
Be in our flowing cups freshly remembered
These few, these happy few, this band of brothers.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Washington Journal

A Nocturnal Visitation

All roads once led to Rome. Now, sooner or later, every one comes to Washington. I experienced this fact anew a couple of nights ago when I was at home, minding my own business.

There came a distinct whirring sound from outside, as if a high performance automobile were going by, which was impossible, because Wisconsin Avenue is eight stories below my apartment here in the nation’s capital. Perhaps, I thought, a small helicopter was getting ready to land on the roof.

The noise soon ceased entirely and it was again quiet, so I returned to my reading.

Then there was a knock at the window and I looked up to see my old friends, Gidney and Cloyd, the Moonmen, hanging upside down, smiling as broadly as ever.

I opened a window and exclaimed:

- Hey guys -- how did you ever find me here?

- If we told you, we’d have to scrootch you, they said, in unison.

- Very funny. And the saucer? Where’d you park the saucer?

- It’s up there, said Gidney, pointing.

I stuck my head further out the window, looked up and saw just the stars in the sky.

- We set it on ‘hover’ and turned on the cloaking device, continued Cloyd.

- May we come in?, they asked in unison.

- Yeah, like, how long do you think we can hang out here upside down? Do you think we’re bats or something?, added Gidney.

- Oh. Uh, uh, of course.

I cranked open another window, removed the screen and they swung in like acrobats. Flipping in mid-air, they landed on their feet with aplomb and a little bow.

- Well, gosh, guys it’s been a long time. May I put on a pot of the usual . . .

- Green tea! They shouted. Conversation is always like this with the Moonmen. They complete each other’s sentences, and mine. After a few minutes the tea had steeped and the moonmen’s faces took on a contented, dreamy expression as they took their first sips.

- Ahh, they sighed. Just like old times.

- It’s great to see you again. I never expected -- I mean, I thought you had been permanently reassigned to another sector of the galaxy.

- Nothing is permanent, in this galaxy or any other. We were recalled from our previous assignment because of our expertise and experience in Earthling Affairs, said Gidney.

Assuming a suddenly serious tone of voice, he continued:

- We’re on a mission from the Supreme All-Lunar Council to study Earthling scientists since the end of the Cold War and the rise of terrorism. We want to find out if Earthlings are any closer to the spiritual insights they will need in order to become members of the Inter-Galactic Council.

- The smartest people on earth in terms of technological sophistication have developed a puzzling, and, in our opinion, self-limiting materialism that prevents them from the spiritual and emotional growth necessary to become good citizens of the universe.

- Until we are satisfied that such growth has taken place . . .

- We will continue to cloak all of our activities from Earthling view and carry on conversation with only selected Earthling intellectuals, such as you.

- Aren’t you concerned about being discovered?, I asked as I poured more tea. You know, don’t you, that our physicists have figured out that some 95% of the matter in the universe is invisible?

- Of course, they chimed.

- Perhaps they’ll figure out that a lot of this matter is part of the vast inter-galactic civilization . . . . ?, I queried.

- We’re not concerned about that. Remember our comments about the self-limiting materialism of Earthling science. They’ll never get it at the rate they are going. But they might do some damage to earth’s delicate ecology . . .

- and perhaps the galaxy’s . . .

- if present trends continue, they concluded.

- By the way, your tea-making abilities are undiminished. Where’d you get this stuff?, asked Cloyd.

- Oh, it’s grown organically out in California and harvested under the full moon, as you suggested at your last visit.

- See, Gidney, some Earthlings are capable of learning.

They both smiled dreamily and drank long drafts of steaming tea.

- Well, aren’t you concerned that I might mention this visit in one of my columns and blow your cover?

They burst out laughing.

- No one would believe you, said Gidney, shaking his head.

- Remember our comment about self-limiting Earthling materialism, above, continued Cloyd with a knowing grin. Further, nobody important reads your essays . . .

- And still further, they all know that you are an inveterate jokester and would just assume that you were putting them on again, like in your essay on arugula. Remember? You claimed that the original name was Ur-oogla, used by the south seas oogle bird to make its nest more comfortable, or some such. Oogle birds, Moonmen – haha. Obvious nonsense, added Gidney.

- Anyway, getting serious again, can you enlighten us as to how Earthling science has stuck itself in such a cul-de-sac?

- Uh, um, why are you asking me?

- Well, we have asked others . . .

- While disguised of course as Earthling college students and occasionally news reporters.

- We have attended lectures . . .

- queried learned professors in their offices . . .

- but all we get, they continued in unison, is the usual blather about science, rationality, the evils of religion. Scientific materialism, which everyone else in the universe got over millennia ago, somehow remains the only philosophy. They are so dedicated to eliminating irrationality that they have become spiritually dead. And they have no idea how irrational they remain.

- It got so tiresome that we decided to conduct a little experiment, said Cloyd with a wicked twinkle in his eye. So we . . .

- Guys, you didn’t . . .

- . . . scrootched them! They shouted and tried to suppress their giggling.

- But guys, you’re not supposed to experiment on human subjects.

- but . . . but . . . but . . . . no one could tell the difference!

- Guys. Come on. You mean no one could tell that they were immobilized, frozen in place?

- No, no, no. There’s a special setting on the gun to scrootch the mind while leaving the body intact. We wanted to see if any other Earthlings could tell the difference between pre- and post-scrootching.

- So which ones have you scrootched – Dawkins? Hutchins? . . . . . ?

They kept nodding. I went on and on, naming every materialist scientist and polemicist I could think of. The Moonmen just shouted “Yes!” after every one. They were gasping for breath and pounding the floor. I checked the teapot to make sure they hadn’t slipped something into it.

- And, and, and . . . nobody noticed! We scrootched them and nobody noticed!, they repeated.

They were rolling on the floor now, their little green bellies showing under their shirts, which they always wear untucked.

- Guys – keep it down. The neighbors might notice if you carry on like this . . .

I noted with relief that Cloyd was not wearing his shoulder holster. At least I’m not getting scrootched this evening, I thought.

- Now when are you going to un-scrootch them?

- Why bother?

- It doesn’t make any difference, they said, wiping tears of laughter from their eyes.

- Somehow this still doesn’t seem ethical . . .

- Well, if you’re a thorough-going materialist, you can’t get from is to ought, said Gidney with a naughty smirk.

- Don’t worry, continued Cloyd, the scrootching gradually wears off and there are no ill effects.

- Now can you explain the appeal of this desiccated world-view?, asked Gidney as they finally composed themselves. That’s the purpose of our visit tonight. From our vantage point and with our powerful observational devices, we can see that Earthling religion is thriving. Earthlings gather in great numbers to worship a variety of deities in vast outdoor temple-stadii, although you prefer to call this activity “sports.” Traditional religious figures like Pope Benedict occasionally use these facilities as well. Earthlings continue to gather in sites of long historical usage, according to our historians, such as Mecca, the banks of the Ganges, Lourdes. Rites of homage to Reproduction take place all over the planet, in underground “clubs,” “concert halls” and so on. A wide variety of traditional deities receive their due in churches, mosques and temples.

- Yet, said Cloyd, Earthling intellectuals and scientists like to tell themselves that they live in secular societies, under secular governments and that secularization (somehow not a religious movement) proceeds apace. You might as well try to explain. No one else can.

I let out a long sigh.

- No one can understand now how Calvin’s predestination appealed to people in the 16th and 17th Centuries. It no longer appeals to us. The so-called objectivity of the so-called scientific world view somehow appeals to a certain sort of person. Because of their know-how, these are very powerful people, whose opinions strongly influence others. William Blake and a host of other poets have been sharply critical of scientific myopia, but, as you know, not that many people read poetry, or take it seriously if they do. Science is knowledge – the only knowledge.

- Some people hoped, I continued, some years ago, during the 1960s, that LSD might liberate the scientific mind from its cage, but the genuine psychic exploration got lost in the political shuffle, as it were. It’s not at all clear that the behavior loosed by that chemical attaining wide circulation was at all to the good. Now the materialists endorse better living through the chemistry of anti-depressants of limited efficacy and disturbing side effects, but easy to use. Doctors and scientists generally do not want to do anything else because spiritual practices, meditation, breathing, moving to music, and so on, strike them as somehow un-serious, something a witch doctor would prescribe instead of a serious scientist.

- Yes, that is precisely the problem we have noticed. Is it truly hopeless?, they asked.

- No. It’s never hopeless. There are a few people you might talk to: Bryan Appleyard over in England, Charles Townes in Berkeley, Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest, also in England. But they are truly exceptional. The cultural divide between materialist science and religion, not to mention culture in general is wide and getting wider. Contemporary scientists spend so much time just keeping up with their own field and have little time for philosophy. They often have had no training either. I might add that while they are very smart people with a lot of education, they act as if they had flunked kindergarten: they don’t play well with others.

There was a long pause, one of those silences that descend on conversations from time to time.

- Perhaps you could write something, suggested Gidney.

- Like what? A play? A novel? Reinhold Niebuhr has already written about the propensity of the intelligent to self-deceive . . . .

- Yes, we know. He is required reading at the Lunar Service Academy.

- Perhaps you could run for office. The Lunar Council might be able to funnel some precious metals to your campaign. No one would ever know where it came from.

- We’ll advise you, they chorused.

- Could you, uh, scrootch my opponents?

- No need to! They giggled.

- Just go for the gold, suggested Cloyd, with a wide grin.

- Well, I’ll think about it.

Then they nodded towards in each other in the unspoken communication of a long partnership and said:

- Well, it’s time for us to go. Do think about it.

I walked them over to the windows. Their tiny, three-fingered hands shook mine and they grabbed the ropes that still dangled from above, as if suspended from sky-hooks, whereupon they curled into the sky.

- How do you do that? I asked, incredulously, looking up into the darkness.

- If we told you, we’d have to scrootch you, came the chorus from above.

A low mechanical sound followed, a flash of light, and they were off.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In Search of a Sense of Place

Washington Journal
June 17, 2008

How can one live in the nation’s capital and not pay attention to the presidential election process? Why bother to live here if one does not care about such things?

It is like living in the eye of the hurricane. While the actual campaigning and the deluge of television advertising usually take place elsewhere, the analysis and strategizing take place here. The thousands of commentators, newscasters, news analysts, pollsters, mavens, pundits and their attendant publications or broadcasts are usually based here. This year, somewhat unusually, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain had their national headquarters across the Potomac in Arlington County. Living in Washington gives you a ring-side seat to watch the fight.

Finally, in early June, we know for certain who the Democratic Party’s nominee will be. Hillary Clinton started out as the presumed front-runner, soon fell behind as Obama, Edwards and Clinton finished 1-2-3, separated by a single percentage point, in Iowa. She made a quick recovery in New Hampshire, won Nevada, lost South Carolina and emerged from Super Tuesday in early February with a slight lead in delegates.

Then came her nightmare: ten straight losses in caucuses and primaries, all by substantial margins, which put her behind in delegates and stopped the superdelegates, as long had been expected by this point, from declaring for her. Obama suddenly had the momentum and the money. He had out-organized and out-hustled what should have been the smarter campaign, a campaign run by two of the smartest politicians in the country and a host of experienced, battle-tested advisers.

She shook up her campaign, focussed her message, found Obama’s weak points, caught some lucky breaks and essentially re-launched her campaign. For all that Howard Wolfson, Harold Ickes and her other spokespersons have said about how her campaign has made a better candidate out of Obama, perhaps they could return the compliment, for it is certainly the Obama campaign that has made Hillary Clinton the focussed, energetic campaigner that she has been for the past couple of months.

But the last primary has taken place and it is clear that Obama has the delegates. As President-elect Richard Nixon said in 1968, after perhaps the bitterest year ever in American politics, and after an extremely close election, “I have won some and I have lost some. Winning is a lot more fun.”

Yes, winning is fun and defeat is a foretaste of hell. Yet defeat is the ultimate test of character. Only those who lose gracefully deserve ultimately to win. Usually they are the only ones who do. It is a rare politician who has not tasted defeat and tasted it rather often. Likewise athletes. The vast majority of them never win a championship. As the Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter of all time, put it, “Even the best hitter in baseball walks back to the dugout looking foolish more than half of the time.”

There is some debate about the role of sports, particularly team sports, in American life. Perhaps these sports are over-valued in high school and college. Professional sports are awash in money and who knows, drugs and cheating. Nonetheless high performance athletes model for the rest of how to win and how to lose. In a highly competitive society, this is valuable behavior.

Generally, athletes don’t complain much. Their coaches do not allow it. They know that if you complain while being a loser, you will never be a winner. After the New York Knicks lost another heartbreaker to the Chicago Bulls several years ago, the New York papers showed photographs of what looked like fouls in the closing seconds. One member of the Knicks, I forget whom, responded with something like: “OK. There may have been fouls. But we still needed to put the ball in the basket, and we didn’t.” That was the end of it.

Richard Nixon did not lose particularly gracefully, but he did nothing to make it difficult for President Kennedy or Pat Brown to govern. He directed his bitterness toward the press, not towards the victors and eventually won his party’s nomination in 1968 because he simply did not give up. He toured the country giving speeches at every Republican Party gathering he could find. After a few years, almost every important Republican in the country owed him a favor. He was essentially unopposed in the Republican primaries in 1968.

This is a good lesson for Hillary Clinton, not to mention everyone else who is jostling for power in Washington, or wherever, which is just about everyone, sooner or later. She is in good health and can expect to live another twenty years. Compared to other Senators, she is not old and still will not be old in 2012 or 2016. In 2020 she will be as old as John McCain and younger than President Reagan when he ran for re-election. If Obama wins the coming election, she will be in good position to run in 2016, or 2012 if he loses.

Despite some disturbing signs from her and some supporters that they wanted to fight all the way to the convention, she stepped up to the microphones and klieg lights on Saturday to tell everyone to accept the verdict of the party, however it was determined, and support the nominee. If she and her supporters ever want to win in the future, they have to do this. How well they all do this will determine whether she will ever become an older and perhaps wiser president than she so ardently wants to be seven months from now.

- Richard Allen Hyde

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Washington Journal

In Search of a Sense of Place
Washington Journal: The Union Jack and Other Emblems
March 5, 2008

“One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.”

So wrote Joan Didion in Where I Was From, a deeply personal history of California.

Back in June I drove down to Charlottesville, Virginia for a wedding, which took place in a large red brick Episcopal Church near the campus of the University of Virginia. I spent the night at a motel. In the morning, I walked around the famous old red-brick porticoed campus designed by Jefferson and justly celebrated since. Standing in front of the rotunda one looks past receding columns of student residences towards the southwest. It is like a miniature National Mall or Versailles, made all the more beautiful by being smaller and quite functional. Students still live here and I presume it is a very dear place to them during their college years and for the long years of remembrance afterward. I know that there are plenty of busy streets and highways not far beyond the horizon, which is partially blocked by a large building, but as the grassy lawn sweeps gradually downhill it leads the imagination into the infinitude of the American west.

I noticed some plaques on the wall of the rotunda building, monuments to the students of the University who had died in the Civil War. Their names were listed in alphabetical order with a quotation at the bottom:

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

It touched something deep within me, but I was unable to place it. I inquired of the student guides within. Not a clue. Look it up on the web, they suggested, motioning to a nearby screen and keyboard. It is from For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, not a southerner at all, but one of the British World War I poets. He was too old to serve in the army, but he visited the front and served in the Red Cross. He wrote For the Fallen in 1914 and it is still used in services of remembrance by the many countries of the British Commonwealth, as I learned when I was a university student in Canterbury over thirty years ago.

I was working as a volunteer for one of the drug crisis centers that sprang up like mushrooms in those years and somehow got the assignment of contacting a veterans group that had some experience in counseling shell-shocked and lonely veterans. So one warm spring evening I found my way into a church basement in that ancient town to talk to these aging veterans about my work with teenagers freaked out on LSD and etc. They listened attentively, responded in some fashion that I forget, thanked me for coming and asked me to join them in their closing prayer. We stood, they lit some candles, my teenage brain came to some sort of stillness, and they recited, slowly, deliberately:

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them,” the last words intoned loudly and deliberately.

They blew out the candles.

I slowly walked up the hill to my residence hall, taking in the view at dusk of Canterbury Cathedral below. Birds twittered. Church bells rang. It was spring of 1972. The Vietnam War was sputtering to a conclusion. Apparently these guys had been meeting regularly since 1918 to pray and care for anyone who needed help. Their war ended over fifty years ago, and there was yet another war after that. They had been dodging bullets and artillery shells at age 19, while my contemporaries and I were dodging the draft and drug-induced demons.

Later that spring a friend and I hitch-hiked back to Canterbury from London and caught a ride with a lorry driver. He remarked matter-of-factly at one point that his entire unit was wiped out in Normandy, except, obviously, for him. We shook his hand when he left us off by the Norman walls that still encircle the city.

No question about Europe being bloodied with history; or Washington, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where a general’s statue graces every traffic circle, where the crocusses and daffodils are blooming. In my study overlooking the National Cathedral, I keep thinking about the Royal Navy Ensign flying above HMS Rodney and HMS King George V as they destroyed the Bismarck in May of 1941. The Royal Navy Ensign is a red Cross of Saint George on a white flag, with a Union Jack in the upper left quadrant, not unlike the banner that we often see these days fluttering in front of an Episcopal church. What difference does a symbol make?

A red cross in use since the Crusades, if not before, versus a swastika, a symbol found in many cultures, used by German nativist groups in the late 19th Century, then borrowed or absorbed by the Nazi Party and used as a battle flag. The German armed forces in World War II also used the traditional black iron cross as a personal decoration and identification device on its vehicles, but the symbol of choice for parades, ships, planes and tanks was the swastika. The word “swastika” comes from the Sanskrit, I have read, and simply means “good luck.” Rudyard Kipling used the symbol as decorations for his book covers until the Nazis started using it.

An anti-Christian regime that wanted to remake history confronted the European nation that was most proud of its ancient heritage, still ruled by a king, whose ships flew an ancient Christian emblem, yet were strong and modern enough to keep the German Navy at bay.

His Majesty’s ships had to break off the engagement that distant morning in May because they were running out of fuel and because the firing of their enormous guns was threatening to shake the ships apart. They fired over 2,000 shells at the Bismarck. Somewhere around 500 of them found their mark, leaving the ship a smoking ruin. The Nazi captain never struck his colors. Destroyers moved in to sink it with torpedoes, but a recent investigation of the hulk on the ocean floor revealed that the ship finally sank because it was scuttled. The Nazi crew opened up the valves to let in the sea before abandoning ship.

British cruisers moved in to pick up the survivors, some 200, then quickly departed for fear of submarines. Some historians have criticized the British commanders for not lingering longer. After sinking the battleship Scharnhorst in waters off of northern Norway in December of 1943, the British could rescue only 36 out almost 2,000 crew members. Conditions then were even worse: a boiling pitch-black sea in the middle of winter. It is worth noting that German submarines or surface ships during World War II rarely picked up anybody. They offered no quarter and fought until they sank.

The captain of the Scharnhorst decided to go down with guns blazing, which sounds in a way admirable until one learns that his radar had been knocked out and all his gunnery officers could do was fire at muzzle flashes. They did virtually no damage. The radar-guided British guns eventually found the range and literally broke the Scharnhorst in two, whereupon it sank within minutes.

Afterward, Admiral Fraser said to his officers on board HMS Duke of York: "Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today.”

What difference do flags and national anthems make? Would the British Captain and crew have been as courteous, as chivalrous without an ancient Christian symbol fluttering above their heads? Would the Second World War have come to as satisfactory a conclusion without President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and ship’s company singing hymns that they learned in school on board HMS Prince of Wales off the coast of Newfoundland in 1941?

During World War II, over 1 million agents reported to British intelligence, people from every country in Europe and every continent on earth. They all knew that the English-speaking world offered them a far better deal than what the Germans and Japanese had in mind. Every time a Nazi raider left its moorings in a Norwegian fjord, the Norwegians relayed the news to London.

In the end, a sense of fair play may be the best thing we have to offer a world that is bloodied with history.

California Journal

In Search of a Sense of Place
California Journal
November 12, 2007

I arrived in California again in late October. While I have spent the last twenty years living on one coast or the other, over the past couple of years I have developed a truly bi-coastal life. Home base is still an apartment on the highest point of land in Washington, but for several months each year I become a migrant worker of sorts and practice massage in beautiful places in California.

I found a classy yoga studio and restaurant (yoga upstairs, restaurant downstairs) in downtown Napa (Napa is a city, a county, a river, a valley and the second most visited place in California after Disneyland), where, it so happens, every Thursday night there is yoga class followed by dinner, family-style at a great long table. The young chef rolled out roasted Jerusalem artichokes to start with, followed by an arugula (urugla? aroogla?) - persimmon salad with shaved parmesan.

Geez, just three days in California and I’m eating stuff I don’t even know how to SPELL.

Then several enormous round platters appeared: radish salad (three kinds of radishes, or was it four? Five?). Thin ones, thick ones sliced into long curlicues, a red one, a black one, plus some little green things. I think. Next came great shallow bowls of roasted Brussels sprouts in a dark, yummy sauce, surrounded by grits; not polenta, but white, thick, viscous, creamy gree-its. Lordy.

What next? Thin-crust pizza. Accompanied by local wines, of course. I had a light pinot grigio and a spicy zinfandel, both of which complemented everything.

Dessert? Dessert: various sorbets and a lime tart with orange-pomegranate sauce.

The great architecture historian and critic Vincent Scully wrote of the old Pennsylvania Station in New York, that through its arches, modeled on the baths of Caracalla, one entered New York City like a god. In California,the food and wine are godly enough.

I dined with some friendly people mostly in my age range, somewhere around fifty, including a gentleman who looked so much like New York Mayor Bloomberg that I had to remark on it. Everyone notices, he said.

Several of them had been to Burning Man.

Burning Man?

A great Woodstock festival, sans rain, held in the Nevada desert every September. Pack everything in, pack everything out. A city in the middle of nowhere appears, then disappears after three or four days, during which everyone there is a work of art, or gets to act like one. Everything is free. The climax is the burning of an immense effigy of no one in particular, hence the name.

I announced my recent arrival from Washington. People shook their heads, grimaced, scowled, made gestures with their hands as if waving away insects, or bad smells. Can you go back there and change it?, someone asked. Well, welcome, someone else said, as more food appeared and smiles returned. These people seemed happy as clams in the wine country and apparently hadn’t thought of moving anywhere else; perhaps Hawaii.

Now that I’m in a good mood, and having referred to the unpopularity of Washington, I would like to amend my last missive, which, in its early redaction, was rather embittered in tone, if not outright Manichaean. I added the following paragraph to balance things out a bit:

Yet unselfish acts occasionally take place in this city. The Bush administration announced stronger sanctions against and froze the assets of the weird generals who run Burma. President Bush and members of Congress warmly welcomed the Dalai Lama and gave him a medal, which left the Chinese government fuming. Acts like this remind us that freedom is still the name of the game in Washington, and throughout America. Our government, like all government, everywhere, makes compromises. Likewise, it makes clear occasionally what it ultimately values. In this country, it’s freedom.

This seems worth repeating on Veteran’s Day.

Now how DO you spell “arugula”? And what IS it, anyway? Let’s see. I think I have Hoefnagel’s Comprehensive Guide to Edible Plants, Fifteenth Edition, 2005, lying around here somewhere . . .


Arugula: South Pacific herbaceous plant related to the common dandelion, with soft furry leaves, favored by the famous south seas Oogle Bird for making its nest. The happy cry of the bird “oogle, oogle, oogle,” while nesting gave both plant and bird their names. 19th century Christian missionaries cultivated the plant, hybridized it into its current form and transplanted it in Europe. In the process they got rid of the furry texture but retained its wonderfully astringent flavor. German botanists theorized that it was one of the first plants on earth, hence adding the prefix ur- and giving us the current pronunciation, “ur-oogle-a,” meaning the original or primordial “oogla”(Germans pronounce the final “e.”) Late Twentieth Century marketing consultants hired by the International Uroogle Growers Association concluded that the plant needed a further Europeanizing of its spelling for the English-speaking market (double o’s did not pass with a number of focus groups, neither did the initial “u” or final, enunciated “e”), which gives us the current, “arugula,” which looked vaguely Italian and thus excellent for sales to international food fanciers; although this, like all English spellings, is contested.

Well, whaddya know?