Saturday, November 4, 2023

Monday, September 11, 2023

Friday, August 11, 2023

Happy Friday

Forty-nine years ago this week, Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency because, as he said in his speech on the night of August 8, 1974, he could no longer do his job because he’d lost the support of Congress… not because the smoking gun tapes of him committing obstruction of justice had been released during his impeachment hearings over Watergate.  He may have been a crook, but he also knew when the jig was up.  He went to his grave believing he had done nothing illegal, but he also accepted the pardon from President Ford, which is tantamount to an admission of guilt.  But he left.

Trump says, “Hold my beer.”

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

That Morning

This is a re-run of a post from 2019 and before, but some things bear repeating.

On June 5, 1968, I woke up early in my dorm room in Auchincloss Hall at St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island. It was the last week of my freshman — and only — year at the school, and we were in the middle of final exams. I had gone to sleep the night before, after cramming for my Old Testament exam, listening to WBZ Radio out of Boston which had been reporting the early results of that day’s primary election in California. Bobby Kennedy was favored to win, but the final results hadn’t come in by the time I had to obey the prefect’s order for Lights Out and turn off the radio.

I was only fifteen but I was already getting interested in politics, especially since President Johnson had announced in March that he would not seek and would not accept the nomination of his party for another term as president. Eugene McCarthy, the anti-Vietnam War candidate, had showed surprising strength in the New Hampshire primary, and with the entrance of Bobby Kennedy into the race in March, it looked like the Democrats were poised to take the party in a whole new direction and put forward a charismatic and dynamic candidate who could beat the Republicans, even if they nominated that old war horse, Richard Nixon. Bobby Kennedy was drawing huge crowds everywhere he went; crowds of all ages, including high school and college kids who were still too young to vote (the voting age wasn’t lowered to 18 until 1971). And I was caught up in it; I read everything I could about him, including the cover story entitled “The Politics of Restoration” in the May 24, 1968 edition of Time, and I put the cover of that issue on my wall like it was a rock concert poster. I saw in Bobby the continuation of the hope and optimism that I remembered from his older brother Jack, the first president I remembered not as some vague and distant old man, but as a person and someone I cared about. I looked forward to Bobby Kennedy sweeping into Chicago in August and capturing the nomination, picking up the torch, and sprinting to victory in November against the dour and scary Republicans. Camelot was going to make a comeback, and the White House would be crawling with Kennedy children once again.

And then I turned on the radio.

At first I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. Instead of the normal news, weather and sports from Boston, I tuned in to hear the morning news announcer stumbling through a wire service report that “the doctors would be holding a press conference on Senator Kennedy’s condition in a few moments,” and then he said, “To recap, Senator Robert Kennedy was shot last night in Los Angeles after winning the California primary against Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. He’s in critical condition at Good Samaritan Hospital….” I listened for a few more minutes, then knocked on the door of the kid next door, a guy named Jeff. He was still asleep — it was a little before seven and we didn’t have to be to our final until 8:30 — but soon the entire floor was buzzing with the news. When we gathered in the cavernous second-floor study hall to sit for our exam, the chaplain led us in prayer for Bobby, and then we methodically took the exam. Afterwards, we waited for any news, but we all had the sick feeling that we knew what was coming. We had heard it before with John F. Kennedy less than four years before and with Martin Luther King in April.

Three days later, June 8, 1968, was graduation day — they call it Prize Day at St. George’s. That was also the day of Bobby Kennedy’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, but I missed it on TV since I was sitting in the stuffy gym watching the senior class pick up their diplomas. After lunch I got on a charter bus to Boston to catch a plane back to Toledo, knowing I would not be returning to St. George’s in the fall, and arriving at home in the dusk of a June night in time to see once again the grainy black-and-white images of yet another Kennedy funeral procession up the hill of Arlington National Cemetery. Night had fallen — the funeral train trip from New York had taken longer than expected — and the procession, including the teenage sons of Bobby and Ethel bearing their father’s coffin, made its way to the grave site under the glare of floodlights. He was buried under a simple white cross near the eternal flame of his brother.

That was the summer that cities burned, the police rioted at the convention in Chicago, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, and Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie began their campaign to keep the White House in the hands of the Democrats while trying desperately to distance themselves from the Johnson administration; not an easy task since Humphrey was LBJ’s vice president. The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in Miami, and George Wallace, the governor of Alabama who stood in school house door and swore to uphold segregation now and forever, launched a third-party run to draw off disaffected conservative blue-collar Democrats, a lesson not lost on Richard Nixon and the GOP when Wallace carried five southern states with ten million votes. I volunteered for the local Democratic campaign office and spent many weekends after I got my driver’s license in September handing out literature to inner city neighborhoods in Toledo. Vote Humphrey-Muskie said the little red, white, and blue stickers, and I tried hard to be as enthusiastic as possible, but I sorely wished they said Vote Kennedy.

We watched the election returns in November, the race too close to call until the next morning. My history teacher wheeled in the big TV on the VTR cart and we watched Walter Cronkite pronounce Richard Nixon as the next President of the United States. Vice President Humphrey conceded gracefully, and I spent the evening scraping the last of the Humphrey-Muskie stickers off the bumper of my mom’s 1967 Ford Country Squire.

*

It’s been fifty years since I felt the same way about a presidential candidate as I did about Bobby Kennedy. Perhaps, like your first love, you can never recapture the intensity, the newness, the thrill of hearing someone express the feelings you feel and you experience a passion that goes beyond yourself; you start to see the world in the third person, and you take it so personally that it becomes a part of you. And when the shock of the loss hits you, it numbs you. The grieving process is excruciating, and you feel as if nothing could ever be the same again. And the next time you know that no matter what the next person says, be they a candidate for president or a lover, you will never forget the first one and you will subconsciously compare them, and the new one will be found lacking. It’s not their fault that I can’t fall for them the same way I fell for the first one. In a way, I wish I could. I admire the passion of the people I see taking up the cause of their candidate, no matter their party, and I am envious of their devotion to the cause. I hope they never lose it, but I also hope they realize that sometimes it can be taken away with a terrible force and brutal reality that leaves a scar that is never truly healed.

In one small way, the spirit and youthful passion of my admiration and support of Bobby Kennedy has never left me. When I first envisioned the character of Bobby Cramer in 1994, I knew where his name came from; he was born in 1961 and his mother adored Bobby Kennedy. I think the same sense of hope that I saw in Bobby Kennedy comes through in the boy in the novel and the play, even if he does believe that hope is his greatest weakness. But I wish that I — and the country — can find that hope again; that we all find that same sense of wonder and purpose to do what we can to make this country and world a better place that I had on that June morning in 1968, the moment before I turned on the radio.


Bobby Kennedy
 

Saturday, May 6, 2023

The Unique Weirdness of Britain Itself

Watching the coronation of King Charles III reminds me that no one does traditions, no matter how old or weird, like the British.  From the BBC:

Does anyone understand what the Coronation is about?

It may have fallen to a 65-year-old Australian rocker, looking in from the outside, to explain.

Nick Cave is, he says, neither republican nor monarchist. But he will be attending on Saturday for “the bizarre, the uncanny, the stupefying spectacular, the awe inspiring”.

The Coronation will be all these things and more.

Because every big royal occasion, jubilee or wedding, birth or death, is an opportunity of sorts.

A chance to remind the nation and the world of the institution’s role and relevance. And a moment to reinvent and rebrand.

That reinvention needs to be done with a good deal of subtlety. An institution based on the hereditary principle and rooted in a millennium of tradition is not exactly suited to re-launches.

And this Coronation comes against a challenging backdrop. This will be the third time in 12 months that the trumpets have sounded, the uniforms glinted and the carriages rumbled through London’s streets and across TV, radio and online.

For an institution that is supposed to chunter away genially in the background, it has been quite in-your-face for a while now.

There are more questions too than before – about the cost of the monarchy, about the wealth of the Crown, about the principle of a hereditary head of state, questions that were largely below the surface in the last decades of the late Queen’s reign.

And questions about whether support for the monarchy – pretty strong in the last few decades – was actually more about support for the late Queen herself, less about popular feeling towards the institution she led.

Answers to these questions will not be found at the Coronation. The symbols and symbolism of a thousand years will crowd out much else. But the Palace is listening, closely, to the Britain of this Coronation.

Look carefully and some guide to the reign to come will be seen behind the flummery and pomp.

Swept from the congregation are the hereditary peers who, in a bustle of coronets and ermine, crowded into the Abbey last time in 1953.

One in five of those attending this time will be charity workers and community volunteers – a reflection of the “welfare” or “service” monarchy that has evolved over the decades.

The changing face of Britain will be at heart of the service. Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, of Irish-Nigerian descent, and Baroness Benjamin, born in Trinidad and Tobago, will carry in some of the ornate regalia.

Five of the twelve composers of the music specially commissioned for the service are women. Last time around it was an all-male affair.

One of the four clerics presenting the regalia to the King and Queen will be the Jamaica-born Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin. And after the service finishes, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and Islamic faith leaders will deliver a greeting to the newly-crowned King and Queen.

As Prince of Wales, the King spent decades meeting people from every quarter of the UK. He knows how it has changed from the days of his late mother’s Coronation.

And he knows the Crown has to reflect that change. Thankfully for him, those changes chime with his sympathies.

‘Tradition blended with modernity’ is how the Palace likes to describe aspects of the day to come. In other words, the same, but different.

The differences will be telling. The similarities will be what draw the eye and ear.

Not for 70 years has such ornamental bling seen the light of day like this. Not since that Coronation in 1953 has such a military procession been seen on the streets.

A moment in national life like no other. A moment of extraordinary colour and history.

It is hard to dispute the oddity of the day to come. The curious titles. The sashes and swords, robes and spurs. The crowning of a man already King. But perhaps that’s the point.

Another royal excursion for a nation at ease with its own eccentricity. Or as Nick Cave puts it “the unique weirdness of Britain itself”.

Something, perhaps, every now and then, worth marking and celebrating.

Nobody does it better.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Old Times There Are Being Forgotten

Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker on Ron DeSantis’s attempt to whitewash Black history.

The debacle surrounding the Florida Department of Education’s recent rejection of an Advanced Placement course in African American studies is a reminder that battles over the past are almost always tied to efforts to win some war being waged in the present. The late-nineteenth-century romanticization of the Confederacy was meant to justify the new regime of segregation then being implemented across the South. That campaign was so successful that, in 1935, when W. E. B. Du Bois published “Black Reconstruction,” his reconsideration of the period following the Civil War, he devoted an entire chapter to the ways in which the South had lost the war but won the historiography.

The road runs in both directions. The social movements of the nineteen-fifties and sixties spawned their own, generally corrective takes on the nation’s past. The discipline of Black studies, which originated in the late sixties and is now more often referred to as Africana or African American studies, is a direct product of that wave of scholarly revisionism. Today, during a period in which states, particularly with Republican-led legislatures, have taken to removing books from libraries, stoking fears about critical race theory, and eviscerating diversity-equity-and-inclusion programs in schools—forty-two have proposed restrictive measures—it’s scarcely surprising that a discipline built on an interest in exploring Black humanity would find itself in the crosshairs. That such a thing would happen in Florida is even less so.

Last year, Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is frequently mentioned as a 2024 Presidential contender, signed into law the Stop WOKE Act, a piece of Trumpist culture warfare that regulates how subject matter relating to race can be taught in public schools, picking up from where the right-wing crusade against Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project left off. (The State Board of Education had banned the teaching of critical race theory in public schools in 2021.) DeSantis also signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which limits discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools and became the centerpiece in a conflict over gay rights with Disney, one of the state’s largest employers. (The Governor voiced concern, too, about the inclusion of “queer theory” in the A.P. course, saying last Monday, “When you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.”) Both laws have been challenged in court, but together they show the demagogic lengths to which DeSantis is willing to go to burnish his profile among conservatives nationally.

DeSantis shared some of his own ideas about the nation’s past during a gubernatorial-campaign debate last fall, stating that “it’s not true” that “the United States was built on stolen land.” That claim, of course, is starkly at odds not only with the history of westward expansion but with the history of Florida; thousands of Native Americans were forcibly relocated from the region, with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In general, the Governor’s objective is seemingly to provide white Floridians, from a young age, with a version of the past that they can be comfortable with, regardless of whether it’s true.

The A.P. course is being piloted in sixty high schools across the country, including at least one in Florida, and is scheduled to be available to any schools that offer A.P. courses in the 2024-25 school year. There appear to have been few problems with teaching it, even in Florida, but on January 12th the state’s education department sent a letter to the College Board, which oversees the creation and implementation of A.P. courses, notifying it that the curriculum is “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” On January 20th, Manny Diaz, Jr., the commissioner of education, tweeted, “We proudly require the teaching of African American history. We do not accept woke indoctrination masquerading as education.” He cited the course’s references to notable academics, including Robin D. G. Kelley, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and the late bell hooks, as supposed examples of such indoctrination.

A day earlier, the College Board had released a statement saying that the course was still in draft form, and that “frameworks often change significantly” during the revision process. But the official framework of the course is scheduled to be released to the public on February 1st, the first day of Black History Month. The course guide for instructors, which runs to two hundred and forty-six pages, states in its preface that A.P. “opposes indoctrination” and that courses are built around an “unflinching encounter with evidence” and empirical analysis. It’s an odd note to direct at teachers of high-school students who have displayed the intellectual and emotional maturity to engage with college-level coursework. However, it’s likely intended not for them but for any bureaucrats and politicians who believe that “wokeism”—a threadbare slang term for social awareness—is an actual ideology.

Of all the criticisms aimed at the course, the most questionable is the department’s contention that it “lacks educational value.” The course includes contributions from some of the most highly regarded academics in the field, including the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the historians Nell Irvin Painter and Annette Gordon-Reed. Faculty from Harvard, Emory, Georgetown, the University of California, and the University of Connecticut are on an advisory board. With that contention, the department is, in effect, dismissing the import of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography “My Bondage and My Freedom,” excerpts of which are included in the curriculum; the Dred Scott decision, also excerpted; and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, whose origins are explored in detail. In fact, the idea that the subject matter covered in the course does not warrant a place in the classroom is contradicted by Florida’s own educational standards. Among the topics examined are the transatlantic slave trade, the roots of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the birth of the civil-rights movement, some of which students are taught as early as the fourth grade.

Last Wednesday, three Florida high-school students, represented by the civil-rights attorney Benjamin Crump, said that they were prepared to sue the DeSantis administration if the ban on the course is not lifted. But there is little likelihood that the course can be revised in such a way that it is palatable to DeSantis and the state’s education department without losing the essence of what it is attempting to convey about the miasma of race in American history. Their sense appears to be that the evils of the past are not nearly as dangerous now as the willingness to talk about them in the present.

I’m honestly puzzled as to what makes Gov. DeSantis thinks this a winning strategy for a run for national office. Right now he’s screeching at his Florida MAGA base, but there are lots of other states where Black history is taught without incident. Everyone says he’s the smarter Trump, but I’m not seeing it.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Sunday Reading

2022 Could Have Been A Lot Worse — Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker.

Twelve months ago, on December 29, 2021, Joe Biden closed out the first year of his Presidency with abysmal approval ratings—the lowest at that point for any President, except Donald Trump, since modern polling began. According to the Web site FiveThirtyEight, he had a 43.1 per cent approval rating and a 51.8 per cent disapproval rating. Coverage of his leadership and future prospects was brutal. Biden had seemingly turned Republican predictions of his failure into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A year later, Biden’s numbers are all but unchanged. His approval rating stands at a meagre 43.2 per cent—an increase of one-tenth of one per cent—and his disapproval rating is 51.4 per cent. America’s oldest President at age eighty, Biden is poised to announce a reëlection bid soon, with a large majority of voters—including Democrats—hoping that he won’t run again.

A year that began in crisis, 2022 is hardly concluding with peace and good will. The biggest armed conflict in Europe since the Second World War rages on as Russia, with barbaric intensity and kamikaze drones, seeks to eviscerate its neighbor Ukraine. Inflation, having hit forty-year highs, is running at more than seven per cent annually. Republicans, many still in the thrall of Trump and his lies about his 2020 election defeat, reclaimed the House of Representatives. And Trump himself is campaigning for President again—a front-runner, if a tarnished one, for the Republican nomination. Thanks to a Supreme Court remade by the right during Trump’s Presidency, Roe v. Wade, with its guarantee of women’s reproductive freedom, stands no more. COVID, diminished but not destroyed, continues to kill, on average, several hundred people in the United States every day.

The nation, understandably, remains in a sour mood. It’s hardly good news that seventy-six per cent of Americans in the most recent Gallup survey think the country is on the wrong track, down from a high of eighty-seven per cent last summer.

But expectations are everything in politics. And the one truly good thing you can say about 2022 is this: It could have been worse. Much, much worse. Russia could have won. A Republican red wave, predicted by history and the polls, might have swept radical Trumpist election deniers into control of both houses of Congress and key state-election offices. Inflation might have kept going up. The economy could have entered a full-fledged recession.

No wonder, then, that Biden and his crisis-battered Administration are ending the year on a strikingly positive note. “Biden and his team feeling vindicated by a 2022 turnaround,” CNN reported this week. New York magazine called 2022 “Joe Biden’s Actually Not-at-All-Bad Year.” Over at The Atlantic, my fellow-pessimist Tom Nichols was cheered enough by Russia’s battlefield reverses and the defeat of anti-democracy Republicans to make “the case for a certain amount of optimism in 2023.” Legislatively, Biden managed to secure passage of a long list of bills in his first two years, including measures to spend billions on infrastructure, climate-change mitigation, and health care, as well as a CHIPS Act that seeks to shift manufacturing of critical technology components back to the U.S. Some of those bills even cleared with bipartisan support, despite a fifty-fifty Senate and a narrow House majority. Politically, Democrats overcame Biden’s unpopularity to register the best midterm results in twenty years for a party in power, keeping hold of the Senate as voters rebuffed the most extreme Trump-backed Republican candidates in battleground states.

On the world stage, Biden has rallied the West to Ukraine’s defense, secured large bipartisan majorities in Congress to send billions in military assistance, impose sweeping sanctions on the Russian economy, and negotiate the accession of previously neutral Finland and Sweden into NATO. With this unprecedented aid, Ukraine has managed to fight Russia to a standoff. Kyiv, predicted by experts in the Pentagon and elsewhere to fall within days, still stands. “Against all odds and doom-and-gloom scenarios,” Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, said in a buoyant thank-you speech to a joint session of Congress this month, “Ukraine didn’t fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking.” He called this “our first joint victory.”

Biden’s rebound is a marker, it seems to me, not only of a President whose great skill is persistence in the face of adversity but of a leader whose foes have underestimated him—and the fractious country he heads—at great cost to themselves. Both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump seem to have made the mistake of believing their own propaganda. They did not see Biden as the formidable opponent he has proved to be. The American President, aided by the catastrophic overreach of their attacks on democracies at home and abroad, brought something that turned out to be incalculably valuable to the fight: clarity.

For several years, Biden had warned of a new era of conflict between rising autocracies and the world’s democracies. When Putin tragically proved him right, he did not back away, as his predecessors in both parties had so often done when confronted by the Russian leader’s outrages throughout two decades. “This aggression cannot go unanswered,” Biden said on February 24th, the day of Russia’s invasion, and it did not. As for Trump, the existential threat he posed to American democracy brought Biden into the 2020 Presidential contest in the first place—and Biden closed out the 2022 midterm campaign by warning as well about the high stakes. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden warned voters. Many, it seems, actually listened.

I’m not ready to go all in on optimism just yet. Nor, I’m sorry to say, should you. America remains perilously divided, a fifty-fifty country where candidates of a rogue G.O.P. as manifestly unqualified as Herschel Walker in Georgia and as viciously untruthful as Kari Lake in Arizona can receive 48.6 and 49.7 per cent of the vote, respectively. Donald Trump, despite the sudden outbreak of Republicans blaming him for all the losing, has not yet been decisively repudiated by the Party that inflicted him on the rest of us. Nor has he been held to account in a court of law for his growing list of offenses against the Constitution and the democratic order. Exiled to Mar-a-Lago and reduced to hawking virtual playing cards of himself as a would-be superhero, he is a punch line, but also a malign ongoing threat.

The state of the economy, meanwhile, remains uncertain, as does the health—mental, physical, environmental, and spiritual—of the nation. Mass gun deaths, a uniquely American phenomenon, included the murder of nineteen children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas—one of hundreds of shootings this year alone. Against such a backdrop, all too much of what passes for politics is profoundly unserious, performative B.S., whether it’s the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, making war on Walt Disney World or Elon Musk spending forty-four billion dollars on Twitter in the name of “free speech” only, apparently, to destroy it, and billions of dollars of shareholder value in his Tesla car company, while he was at it.

But a glimmer of hope has been purchased at great cost at the end of a long, awful 2022—in the unmarked graves of Ukrainian suburbs and the terrified clandestine abortions of America’s red states. I’ll save the pessimism for another day. 2023 awaits.

Happy New Year.

Doonesbury — Mixed messages.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

November 22, 1963

JFK 11-22-06Friday, November 22, 1963. I was in the sixth grade in Toledo, Ohio. I had to skip Phys Ed because I was just getting over bronchitis, so I was in a study hall when a classmate came up from the locker room in the school basement to say, “Kennedy’s dead.” We had a boy in our class named Matt Kennedy, and I wondered what had happened: an errant fatal blow with a dodgeball? A few minutes later, though, it was made clear to us at a hastily-summoned assembly, and we were soon put on the buses and sent home. Girls were crying.

There was a newspaper strike at The Blade, so the only papers we could get were either from Detroit or Cleveland. (The union at The Blade, realizing they were missing the story of the century, agreed to immediately resume publication and settle their differences in other ways.) Television, though, was the medium of choice, and I remember the black-and-white images of the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews, the casket being lowered, President Johnson speaking on the tarmac, and the events of the weekend – Oswald, Ruby, the long slow funeral parade, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” – merging into one long black-and-white flicker, finally closing on Monday night with the eternal flame guttering in the cold breeze.

I suspect that John F. Kennedy would be bitterly disappointed that the only thing remembered about his life was how he left it and how it colored everything he did leading up to it. The Bay of Pigs, the steel crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the Test Ban Treaty, even the space program are dramatized by his death. They became the stuff of legend, not governing, and history should not be preserved as fable.

At the age of eleven, I never thought about being old enough to look back fifty-seven years to that time. More than two-thirds of Americans alive today were not yet born on that day, and I doubt that other than here, there won’t be any commemoration of that awful day in the news. Today the question is not do you remember JFK, but what did his brief time leave behind. Speculation is rife as to what he did or did not accomplish – would we have gone in deeper in Vietnam? Would he have pushed civil rights? Would the Cold War have lasted? We’ll never know, and frankly, pursuing such questions is a waste of time. Had JFK never been assassinated, chances are he would have been re-elected in 1964, crushing Barry Goldwater, but leading an administration that was more style than substance, battling with his own party as much as with the Republicans, much like Clinton did in the 1990’s. According to medical records, he would have been lucky to live into his sixties, dying from natural causes in the 1980’s, and he would have been remembered fondly for his charm and wit – and his beautiful wife – more than what he accomplished in eight years of an average presidency.

But it was those six seconds in Dealy Plaza that defined him. Each generation has one of those moments. For my parents generation, it was Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the flash from Warm Springs in April 1945. Today it is September 11, 2001, and now January 6, 2021. And in all cases, it is what the moment means to us. It is the play, not the players. We see things as they were, contrast to how they are, and measure the differences, and by that, we measure ourselves.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Sunday Reading

Sound Familiar? — Charlie Pierce on history repeating itself at the hands on Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott.

The good people who manage the vast archives at the John F. Kennedy Library down by the bay in Boston are not people known to miss a trick. There is so much history stored there because, as we oldsters will tell you, the 1960s were a pretty target-rich environment, history-wise. Of course, JFK’s time in office was cut off before what we call the ’60s really got rolling. Consider: If he had not been murdered, Kennedy would have been president of the United States when the Beatles arrived and throughout the Summer of Love in 1967—but a lot of the seeds that sprouted later can be found in the stacks of his library, which sits like the prow of a ship, pointed out over a domesticated slice of the Atlantic Ocean.

For example, during his entire time in office (but especially after the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961), Kennedy and the CIA were at sword’s point. Kennedy didn’t trust the CIA as far as he could throw Allen Dulles—and, in the aftermath of the Cuban fiasco, JFK threw him pretty far—and the spooks out at Langley thought the president was callow and not up to the job of being butch with the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro. (So many of the ‘Who Shot John?’ theories surrounding Kennedy’s murder have their roots in this undeniable conflict.) Anyway, on March 16, 1963, looking to manufacture a casus belli with which to justify another Cuban invasion, the Joint Chiefs of Staff came up with a plan called Operation Northwoods, a blatantly illegal and utterly batshit plan to create false-flag domestic terrorist attacks that could be blamed on Castro’s regime. One of these proposed actions involved blowing up John Glenn on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The memo read, in part:

The desired result from the execution of this plan would be to place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances from a rash and irresponsible government of Cuba and to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere.

This sounds like so much Hollywood ballyhoo until you go to the JFK Library and hold the actual Operation Northwoods memo in your hands, and you look down at the signatures of receipt and discover that this cockamamie scheme went all the way up the chain of command to the president’s desk. Kennedy reacted by removing Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

But the plan existed, right there on paper. It was declassified in 1992, and its existence was revealed a decade later by author James Bamford. When Northwoods was abandoned, Alex Jones would not be born for another 12 years, but that yahoo has anchored his “false flag” theories for everything from the 9/11 attacks to the massacre at Sandy Hook in the fact that Northwoods was seriously contemplated in 1962.

Then there was Civil Rights Movment, the other great gathering storm of the Kennedy presidency. It can be argued forever whether JFK was too dilatory in engaging the great moral struggle of the age, that he might have acted too much as the party man in a Democratic Party still beholden to the segregationist Old Bulls of the Congress. But he sent in federal troops when open insurrection broke out at the University of Mississippi in 1962 over the admission of James Meredith, the first black student to enroll there. A year later, he signed an executive order federalizing the Alabama National Guard, which moved Gov. George Wallace out of the doorway so two black students could enroll in that state’s university. That same night, June 11, 1963, Kennedy spoke on television to the nation:

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

It was an important speech. Kennedy seemed to be climbing down off the fence. In Jackson, Mississippi, Myrlie Evers watched the speech with her young children. Shortly after it ended, they heard their father, NAACP leader Medgar Evers, turn into their driveway. They ran to meet him. Across the street, a racist monster named Byron de la Beckwith shot Evers in the back in front of his family. (It took 31 years and three trials before he was convicted in the shooting.)

In the archives of the JFK Library, there are thousands of pieces of paper dealing with the civil rights struggle. And on Thursday of this week, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took credit for the ‘own the libs’ human-trafficking stunt of flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, the archivists at the library thought the tactic sounded familiar and they leaped onto the electric Twitter machine with an old newspaper clipping showing why that was.

In February of 1963, the president of the White Citizens Council of Mississippi announced that he had paid a black family’s passage by bus from Mississippi to New Jersey, where they would be deposited in front of the home owned by the parents of Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, with whom the Mississippi racists were still angry due to his role in putting down the insurrection at the state university the previous fall. The clever dicks of the time called this a “Reverse Freedom Ride.”

These stunts sent impoverished black families, gulled by empty promises of housing and employment, off to other northern destinations connected to various government lawyers involved in the dismantling of the Jim Crow system in the South. One bus from Arkansas was dispatched to the Hyannis compound owned by the Kennedys. An Arkansas organizer explained that:

“For many years, certain politicians, educators and certain religious leaders have used the white people of the South as a whipping boy, to put it mildly, to further their own ends and their political campaigns…We’re going to find out if people like Ted Kennedy … and the Kennedys, all of them, really do have an interest in the Negro people, really do have a love for the Negro.”

Another White Citizen goober named Ned Touchstone explained the strategy thusly, “Katzenbach has shown himself to be a friend of the Negro and a great civil rights leader.”

Does any of this sound familiar?

For more than six decades, the Republican Party—and the modern conservative movement that is central to all of its success—has energized itself over and over again by subsuming the foul flotsam of American apartheid. The late Republican ratfcker Lee Atwater explained the plan and the process in a now-infamous 1981 interview:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.”

The strategy has succeeded so well, and the Republican Party has so deeply imbibed its message, that the party has grown careless in its implementation and reckless about the state of its camouflage. In 2016, it elected a president* that gave it permission to dispense with the camouflage entirely.

So we have the governor of Florida, apparently in league with the governor of Texas and god only knows who else, adopting an attitude toward asylum seekers that he transparently has cribbed from one the Klan employed in a time we thought we were long done with. And there is an audience for this kind of thing throughout the Republican Party because that audience has been carefully constructed for longer than many current Republicans even can remember. It is their natural constituency. They are our White Citizens Council now, even though most of us didn’t ask for one.

Doonesbury — What’s in a name?

Monday, July 4, 2022

The Declaration of Independence

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

That Morning

This is a re-run of a post from 2019 and before, but some things bear repeating.

On June 5, 1968, I woke up early in my dorm room in Auchincloss Hall at St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island. It was the last week of my freshman — and only — year at the school, and we were in the middle of final exams. I had gone to sleep the night before, after cramming for my Old Testament exam, listening to WBZ Radio out of Boston which had been reporting the early results of that day’s primary election in California. Bobby Kennedy was favored to win, but the final results hadn’t come in by the time I had to obey the prefect’s order for Lights Out and turn off the radio.

I was only fifteen but I was already getting interested in politics, especially since President Johnson had announced in March that he would not seek and would not accept the nomination of his party for another term as president. Eugene McCarthy, the anti-Vietnam War candidate, had showed surprising strength in the New Hampshire primary, and with the entrance of Bobby Kennedy into the race in March, it looked like the Democrats were poised to take the party in a whole new direction and put forward a charismatic and dynamic candidate who could beat the Republicans, even if they nominated that old war horse, Richard Nixon. Bobby Kennedy was drawing huge crowds everywhere he went; crowds of all ages, including high school and college kids who were still too young to vote (the voting age wasn’t lowered to 18 until 1971). And I was caught up in it; I read everything I could about him, including the cover story entitled “The Politics of Restoration” in the May 24, 1968 edition of Time, and I put the cover of that issue on my wall like it was a rock concert poster. I saw in Bobby the continuation of the hope and optimism that I remembered from his older brother Jack, the first president I remembered not as some vague and distant old man, but as a person and someone I cared about. I looked forward to Bobby Kennedy sweeping into Chicago in August and capturing the nomination, picking up the torch, and sprinting to victory in November against the dour and scary Republicans. Camelot was going to make a comeback, and the White House would be crawling with Kennedy children once again.

And then I turned on the radio.

At first I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. Instead of the normal news, weather and sports from Boston, I tuned in to hear the morning news announcer stumbling through a wire service report that “the doctors would be holding a press conference on Senator Kennedy’s condition in a few moments,” and then he said, “To recap, Senator Robert Kennedy was shot last night in Los Angeles after winning the California primary against Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. He’s in critical condition at Good Samaritan Hospital….” I listened for a few more minutes, then knocked on the door of the kid next door, a guy named Jeff. He was still asleep — it was a little before seven and we didn’t have to be to our final until 8:30 — but soon the entire floor was buzzing with the news. When we gathered in the cavernous second-floor study hall to sit for our exam, the chaplain led us in prayer for Bobby, and then we methodically took the exam. Afterwards, we waited for any news, but we all had the sick feeling that we knew what was coming. We had heard it before with John F. Kennedy less than four years before and with Martin Luther King in April.

Three days later, June 8, 1968, was graduation day — they call it Prize Day at St. George’s. That was also the day of Bobby Kennedy’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, but I missed it on TV since I was sitting in the stuffy gym watching the senior class pick up their diplomas. After lunch I got on a charter bus to Boston to catch a plane back to Toledo, knowing I would not be returning to St. George’s in the fall, and arriving at home in the dusk of a June night in time to see once again the grainy black-and-white images of yet another Kennedy funeral procession up the hill of Arlington National Cemetery. Night had fallen — the funeral train trip from New York had taken longer than expected — and the procession, including the teenage sons of Bobby and Ethel bearing their father’s coffin, made its way to the grave site under the glare of floodlights. He was buried under a simple white cross near the eternal flame of his brother.

That was the summer that cities burned, the police rioted at the convention in Chicago, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, and Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie began their campaign to keep the White House in the hands of the Democrats while trying desperately to distance themselves from the Johnson administration; not an easy task since Humphrey was LBJ’s vice president. The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in Miami, and George Wallace, the governor of Alabama who stood in school house door and swore to uphold segregation now and forever, launched a third-party run to draw off disaffected conservative blue-collar Democrats, a lesson not lost on Richard Nixon and the GOP when Wallace carried five southern states with ten million votes. I volunteered for the local Democratic campaign office and spent many weekends after I got my driver’s license in September handing out literature to inner city neighborhoods in Toledo. Vote Humphrey-Muskie said the little red, white, and blue stickers, and I tried hard to be as enthusiastic as possible, but I sorely wished they said Vote Kennedy.

We watched the election returns in November, the race too close to call until the next morning. My history teacher wheeled in the big TV on the VTR cart and we watched Walter Cronkite pronounce Richard Nixon as the next President of the United States. Vice President Humphrey conceded gracefully, and I spent the evening scraping the last of the Humphrey-Muskie stickers off the bumper of my mom’s 1967 Ford Country Squire.

*

It’s been fifty years since I felt the same way about a presidential candidate as I did about Bobby Kennedy. Perhaps, like your first love, you can never recapture the intensity, the newness, the thrill of hearing someone express the feelings you feel and you experience a passion that goes beyond yourself; you start to see the world in the third person, and you take it so personally that it becomes a part of you. And when the shock of the loss hits you, it numbs you. The grieving process is excruciating, and you feel as if nothing could ever be the same again. And the next time you know that no matter what the next person says, be they a candidate for president or a lover, you will never forget the first one and you will subconsciously compare them, and the new one will be found lacking. It’s not their fault that I can’t fall for them the same way I fell for the first one. In a way, I wish I could. I admire the passion of the people I see taking up the cause of their candidate, no matter their party, and I am envious of their devotion to the cause. I hope they never lose it, but I also hope they realize that sometimes it can be taken away with a terrible force and brutal reality that leaves a scar that is never truly healed.

In one small way, the spirit and youthful passion of my admiration and support of Bobby Kennedy has never left me. When I first envisioned the character of Bobby Cramer in 1994, I knew where his name came from; he was born in 1961 and his mother adored Bobby Kennedy. I think the same sense of hope that I saw in Bobby Kennedy comes through in the boy in the novel and the play, even if he does believe that hope is his greatest weakness. But I wish that I — and the country — can find that hope again; that we all find that same sense of wonder and purpose to do what we can to make this country and world a better place that I had on that June morning in 1968, the moment before I turned on the radio.


Bobby Kennedy
 

Sunday Reading

Comfortable Clichés — Adam Gopnik on Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee.

We try to use language to avoid cliché, but there are certain public occasions that are so deliberately crafted as clichés, or so allow themselves to be entangled in them—clichés in the positive sense of consoling continuities, familiar things that capture unchanging tradition, like Christmas lights or the first pitch of baseball season—that to avoid the cliché is to fail to capture the event properly. An event of that kind can slip away uncaught, because resisting the familiar language resists the familiar point. Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee—her platinum, in fact, celebrating seventy years since her coronation—which began to be seriously, formally celebrated in London on Thursday, at the start of a four-day bank-holiday weekend, is of that kind. One looks for signs of discontent, dismay, the disconsolate, and the disillusioned—all the disses, in fact—and, though they must be lurking, on these days they merely lurk. There is Partygate, the scandal surrounding Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s participation, or non-participation, in a series of Downing Street parties held in defiance of lock-down rules, and Brexit, which to a cosmopolitan outsider seems like the squalid, pointless mess it was always sure to be, but they are not on the day’s shipping manifest. What is manifest, instead, is a touchingly resilient holiday spirit.

Around 1 P.M. on Thursday, the Jubilee flyby flew by. Composed of composite elements of the British armed forces—first helicopters, looking at once comic and ominous, like giant double-winged dragonflies, then neatly organized runs of vintage propeller planes, flying worryingly low over the south of England—it finished with fifteen Royal Air Force jets forming, with what at first seemed peculiar asymmetry but then quickly revealed itself to be a giant “7” and an accompanying “0”—a virtuosic feat. The jets were followed by nine Red Arrows, the R.A.F.’s aerobatic squadron, which trailed the colors of the Union Jack: red, blue, and white (which are somehow differentiated from the American or French hues of the same colors; that all three flags share the same colors but are somehow always seen, on their home ground, at least, as distinct, is a small modern miracle).

Later, walking through Hyde Park, in an enormous multicultural crowd—as diverse as modern Britain is—had the same holiday feeling. One did not have to be an aficionado of nineteenth-century literature to recognize, in the pastimes on display, verbs in pleasant ways continuous with the past. Children larked, dogs romped, and weary grownups slumbered, while some enjoyed a restorative, and others were, well, deep in conversation. Meanwhile, parties of locals roistered and feasted—or, at least, emerged from a Pret a Manger. These clichés, too, seemed unforced. If people seemed less dressed up than they would have been at such an event seventy years ago, wearing shorts and T-shirts and jogging pants and sneakers—sorry, “trainers,” as the British call them—the hum and vibe of the city seemed to have none of the threatening energy that a London celebration can sometimes have, overcharged as such occasions can be, particularly when football-related. No, this seemed happy. Very cheery. Nice enough for now.

The Queen herself made an appearance on the familiar Buckingham Palace balcony, accompanied by the eighty-six-year-old Duke of Kent, along with Prince Charles, Prince William, Princess Anne, and Prince Edward—all resplendent, another applicable cliché, in tunic, sash, and medals—and various other family members. The Queen was immediately visible on every phone in every hand along the London streets, as she must, at the time of her coronation, have been visible on every black-and-white television in every shop window, and one realizes, even when not a monarchist (or not much of one), how much magnificence there is in simple persistence. Seventy years is a long time—in 1952, television was just beginning, a woman was not remotely considered Prime Minister material, Jack Kennedy was a skinny young congressman, and the Beatles were still boys.

Naturally, the Jubilee has inspired the British publishing industry. Countless new books have appeared on the Queen and her reign, most of them reverent if not worshipful in tone. There is even an official Platinum Jubilee textbook, distributed to primary schools across the nation, and presented to one primary school in particular by the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi—it is some sign of how much Britain has altered during the past seventy years that there is an Education Secretary at all (the post was only created in 1964; before that, there was only a minister) and that the current one is named Nadhim Zahawi. No republican manifesto seems to have made it onto the best-seller lists, though the Twitter hashtag #abolishthemonarchy certainly has had its moment.

It is, nonetheless, possible to read the literature of the Jubilee with a skeptical smile. The fine English parodist Craig Brown has written a best-selling book about the Queen’s late sister, Princess Margaret, called “Ma’am Darling,” which is, in essence, a critical anthology of royal clichés. Each turn in Margaret’s tale is taken chronologically, but they add up to an anti-biography, since the outlines of the actual person are much weaker than the lineaments of the public image, which is refracted through countless adoring worshippers at the royal fount—some of them such usually hard-to-fool witnesses as Kenneth Tynan and Gore Vidal. Each moment of the princess’s life is described not magisterially but provisionally and kaleidoscopically—first with the details related enviously by some diarist, or shared in some tell-all, and then with a comparison to how it was related by another diarist or shared in another tell-all. One realizes that to be forced into a uniquely public role is to be dissolved by it.

Celebrity, John Updike said once, is a mask that eats into the face, but where, for almost all but the very famous, some face remains, the royals were born with masks and seem to want only a chance to take them off and see what faces might lie beneath. That was Margaret’s case, it seems, and one feels for the imprisonment, even if the royal prerogatives she enjoyed—one can’t really call them “privileges,” in the American sense, as they carry numberless dreary obligations alongside the sweet stuff—can appear unbelievable. The custom of the country is that you can’t leave a party until the royalty does. That left many guests, friendly and unfriendly, waiting for Princess Margaret to be done partying before they could think of going home.

At one such party, Vidal is said to have mentioned to Margaret that Jackie Kennedy found the Queen, her sister, “pretty heavy going,” and the princess replied, “That’s what she’s there for.” Heavy going, gone on long enough, does lighten one’s verdict. It was hard not to be moved by the Queen’s appearance, as a reminder of the power of cliché to stir us, even when we recognize it as such. Some clichés feign at continuity; some reflect it. The Jubilee events feel persuasively traditional and national, even if, as an American, one feels left out.

The alarming but not surprising news arrived late on Thursday that the Queen was, again, having “episodic mobility problems” and so would miss Friday’s service at St. Paul’s, a reminder that the central indignity of old age lies in a machine no longer biddable to its owner’s purposes, or to the mind’s motivations. Beacons have been lit across the country—there have apparently been panicked emergency calls in Yorkshire, with wily Northerners rightly concerned about the fires—and street parties in the streets that want them will continue through the weekend.

“Never such innocence again,” Philip Larkin wrote about a photograph of soldiers taken in the catastrophic year of 1914—who at that moment looked to Larkin like ordinary people enjoying bank-holiday pleasures. Perhaps such innocence is less a thing drained and never to be replenished than an illusion fitfully sustained and capable of being sporadically revived, at least for an afternoon or two in June.

Doonesbury — BOHICA.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Felice Cinco de Mayo

19 Mexico

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the the victory of the Mexican Army over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It’s a big deal in Mexico and in parts of this country with a large Mexican population, like California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico (where I had some of the best chile rellenos with enough green chile to take the top of your head off), although it meant more to some than others. I had a guy I worked with who was of Mexican descent who actually asked me, “Hey, when is Cinco de Mayo?” (We always suspected that he was a burrito shy of a full combo platter anyway.)

Here in South Florida, outside of Homestead with its large Mexican population (and some of the best food in the state), it’s not a big deal other than party time and a double margarita, the same way this multiethnic community deals with other national holidays like St. Patrick’s Day; we don’t really know why we celebrate it (as if defeating the French in a battle was like a huge military victory in the first place), but any excuse to eat and drink is good enough, so why fight it?

Pass the salsa.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Sunday Reading

Amanda Gorman: Why I Almost Didn’t Read My Poem at the Inauguration.

It’s told like this: Amanda Gorman performed at the inauguration, and the rest is history.

The truth is I almost declined to be the inaugural poet. Why?

I was terrified.

I was scared of failing my people, my poetry. But I was also terrified on a physical level. Covid was still raging, and my age group couldn’t get vaccinated yet. Just a few weeks before, domestic terrorists assaulted the U.S. Capitol, the very steps where I would recite. I didn’t know then that I’d become famous, but I did know at the inauguration I was going to become highly visible — which is a very dangerous thing to be in America, especially if you’re Black and outspoken and have no Secret Service.

It didn’t help that I was getting DMs from friends telling me not so jokingly to buy a bulletproof vest. My mom had us crouch in our living room so that she could practice shielding my body from bullets. A loved one warned me to “be ready to die” if I went to the Capitol, telling me, “It’s just not worth it.” I had insomnia and nightmares, barely ate or drank for days. I finally wrote to some close friends and family, telling them that I was most likely going to pull out of the ceremony.

I got some texts praising the Lord. I got called pathologically insane. But I knew only I could answer the question for myself: Was this poem worth it?

The night before I was to give the Inaugural Committee my final decision felt like the longest of my life. My neighborhood was eerily quiet in that early morning dark, though I strained my ears for noise to distract me from the choice that lay ahead. It felt like my little world stood still. And then it struck me: Maybe being brave enough doesn’t mean lessening my fear, but listening to it. I closed my eyes in bed and let myself utter all the leviathans that scared me, both monstrous and minuscule. What stood out most of all was the worry that I’d spend the rest of my life wondering what this poem could have achieved. There was only one way to find out.

By the time the sun rose, I knew one thing for sure: I was going to be the 2021 inaugural poet. I can’t say I was completely confident in my choice, but I was completely committed to it.

I’m a firm believer that often terror is trying to tell us of a force far greater than despair. In this way, I look at fear not as cowardice but as a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear. And now more than ever, we have every right to be affected, afflicted, affronted. If you’re alive, you’re afraid. If you’re not afraid, then you’re not paying attention. The only thing we have to fear is having no fear itself — having no feeling on behalf of whom and what we’ve lost, whom and what we love.

On the morning of Inauguration Day, I went through the motions of getting ready on autopilot, mindless and mechanical, doing my hair and makeup even as I anxiously practiced my poem. On the way to the Capitol, I recited the mantra I say before any performance: I am the daughter of Black writers. We’re descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains, and they changed the world. They call me.

Though I spent the next hour shivering in my seat from nerves and the unforgiving January cold, as I stepped up to the podium to recite, I felt warm, as if the words waiting in my mouth were aflame. It seemed that the world stood still. I looked out and spoke to it. I haven’t looked back.

On that Jan. 20, what I found waiting beyond my fear was all those who searched beyond their own fears to find space for hope in their lives, who welcomed the impact of a poem into protests, hospitals, classrooms, conversations, living rooms, offices, art and all manner of moments. I may have worked on the words, but it was other people who put those words to work. What we’ve seen isn’t just the power of a poem. It’s the power of the people.

Yet while the inauguration might have seemed like a ray of light, this past year for many has felt like a return to the same old gloom. Our nation is still haunted by disease, inequality and environmental crises. But though our fears may be the same, we are not. If nothing else, this must be known: Even as we’ve grieved, we’ve grown; even fatigued, we’ve found that this hill we climb is one we must mount together. We are battered but bolder, worn but wiser. I’m not telling you to not be tired or afraid. If anything, the very fact that we’re weary means we are, by definition, changed; we are brave enough to listen to, and learn from, our fear. This time will be different because this time we’ll be different. We already are.

And yes, I still am terrified every day. Yet fear can be love trying its best in the dark. So do not fear your fear. Own it. Free it. This isn’t a liberation that I or anyone can give you — it’s a power you must look for, learn, love, lead and locate for yourself.

Why? The truth is, hope isn’t a promise we give. It’s a promise we live. Tell it like this, and we, like our words, will not rest.

And the rest is history.

Doonesbury — If at first you don’t succeed…

Monday, November 22, 2021

November 22, 1963

JFK 11-22-06Friday, November 22, 1963. I was in the sixth grade in Toledo, Ohio. I had to skip Phys Ed because I was just getting over bronchitis, so I was in a study hall when a classmate came up from the locker room in the school basement to say, “Kennedy’s dead.” We had a boy in our class named Matt Kennedy, and I wondered what had happened: an errant fatal blow with a dodgeball? A few minutes later, though, it was made clear to us at a hastily-summoned assembly, and we were soon put on the buses and sent home. Girls were crying.

There was a newspaper strike at The Blade, so the only papers we could get were either from Detroit or Cleveland. (The union at The Blade, realizing they were missing the story of the century, agreed to immediately resume publication and settle their differences in other ways.) Television, though, was the medium of choice, and I remember the black-and-white images of the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews, the casket being lowered, President Johnson speaking on the tarmac, and the events of the weekend – Oswald, Ruby, the long slow funeral parade, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” – merging into one long black-and-white flicker, finally closing on Monday night with the eternal flame guttering in the cold breeze.

I suspect that John F. Kennedy would be bitterly disappointed that the only thing remembered about his life was how he left it and how it colored everything he did leading up to it. The Bay of Pigs, the steel crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the Test Ban Treaty, even the space program are dramatized by his death. They became the stuff of legend, not governing, and history should not be preserved as fable.

At the age of eleven, I never thought about being old enough to look back fifty-seven years to that time. More than two-thirds of Americans alive today were not yet born on that day, and I doubt that other than here, there won’t be any commemoration of that awful day in the news. Today the question is not do you remember JFK, but what did his brief time leave behind. Speculation is rife as to what he did or did not accomplish – would we have gone in deeper in Vietnam? Would he have pushed civil rights? Would the Cold War have lasted? We’ll never know, and frankly, pursuing such questions is a waste of time. Had JFK never been assassinated, chances are he would have been re-elected in 1964, crushing Barry Goldwater, but leading an administration that was more style than substance, battling with his own party as much as with the Republicans, much like Clinton did in the 1990’s. According to medical records, he would have been lucky to live into his sixties, dying from natural causes in the 1980’s, and he would have been remembered fondly for his charm and wit – and his beautiful wife – more than what he accomplished in eight years of an average presidency.

But it was those six seconds in Dealy Plaza that defined him. Each generation has one of those moments. For my parents generation, it was Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the flash from Warm Springs in April 1945. Today it is September 11, 2001, and now January 6, 2021. And in all cases, it is what the moment means to us. It is the play, not the players. We see things as they were, contrast to how they are, and measure the differences, and by that, we measure ourselves.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Random YouTubery

Here’s some trivia that you can share at the Thanksgiving table instead of arguing with your crazy uncle about politics.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Sunday Reading

Don’t Tell DeSantis — The Miami Herald editorial on the history of getting vaccinated goes far beyond his beady little eyes can see.

In 1777, there weren’t chants of “My body, my choice” at political rallies or governors selling “Don’t Fauci my Florida” campaign T-shirts.

But George Washington’s decision to mandate that Continental Army soldiers be inoculated against smallpox wasn’t easy. There were no safe, widely tested vaccines like the ones used for the coronavirus today, and inoculation in the 18th century was controversial and risky. It required exposing healthy people to the smallpox virus by scratching it into their arm or having them inhale it through the nose, generally causing a mild infection that led to immunity but, also — occasionally — death.

Washington wrote that if his army got widely infected, “We should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.”

That was the first mass military inoculation, according to the Library of Congress. Since then, vaccine mandates inside and outside the military — and opposition to them — have been woven into the fabric of American life. In fact, we’re living with vaccine mandates right now — and not just for COVID-19.

But in the GOP playbook, vaccine mandates are a new concoction by the freedom-hating far-left and government bureaucrats. Could long-standing vaccine mandates be the next target in Republican-led states like Florida? We once thought that would be a far-fetched possibility. Not so much today.

Want to attend state-funded Florida International University? You must show proof of two MMR shots, for measles, mumps and rubella. Vaccination for hepatitis B and meningitis are also “strongly recommended,” but not mandatory, and require the signing of a waiver.

Want to work at taxpayer-funded Jackson Health System? Whether you’re a doctor or a cafeteria worker, you’ll need a flu shot and proof of MMR and chicken pox vaccination. The hospital system also requires workers to get COVID shots or face restrictions, such as wearing an N95 mask at all times. Religious and medical exemptions apply for the COVID and flu shots, spokeswoman Lidia Amoretti-Morgado told the Herald Editorial Board.

Want to send your children to a public school in Florida? Unless you have a religious or medical exemption signed by a doctor, get ready to prove they received shots for polio, hepatitis B, chicken pox, MMR and DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis).

Florida’s school mandate is stricter than those of other states such as Colorado, where parents can object to vaccination on “philosophical” grounds or because of personal beliefs. But don’t tell Florida’s lawmakers. They don’t need any help coming up with bad ideas.

Vaccine mandates have been part of everyday life for Americans for more than a century for the simple reason that they work in controlling or eradicating diseases. Thanks to widespread vaccination, the last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States happened in 1949.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is leading the charge against local governments that require COVID vaccination from employees, announcing in a recent news conference that he will start fining local officials. Mandates seem to be a greater issue than the misinformation that was propagated at his own event, when a Gainesville employee took the stage to claim falsely that the COVID vaccine “changes your RNA.” DeSantis, apparently suffering from a case of amnesia, said he doesn’t “even remember” what the man who was standing next to him said.

Many say the COVID vaccine is just too new to be mandated. But the approval standards set by the Food and Drug Administration — which gave the Pfizer shot full authorization last month after reviewing data from more than 40,000 people who participated in a clinical trial — are more stringent than what was in place in 1809, when the first state vaccine law was enacted in Massachusetts for smallpox.

In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts upholding a Cambridge City mandate. The court rejected the idea of an exemption based on personal choice because it would strip the legislative power from its function to “care for the public health and the public safety.” In 1922, the court denied a challenge to childhood vaccination requirements. More recently, the Arizona Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to a Maricopa County policy that excluded unvaccinated children from school when there is an unconfirmed but reasonable risk for the spread of measles.

“The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good,” the court wrote in the 1905 case.

In other words, the Supreme Court said freedom doesn’t give you the right to harm others.

But these days, the liberty that Washington’s inoculated troops fought for has been turned into a cloak for anti-vax entitlement and selfishness. Those attitudes have always been part of American society, but partisan politics has never played such an important role with conservative principles becoming intertwined with vaccine hesitancy.

And that raises a scary possibility: If so many Americans believe the COVID vaccine to be harmful or ineffective, who’s to say vaccine mandates for diseases that we thought long eradicated won’t come into question next?

A flawed — and later debunked — study and online conspiracies fueled by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy led many parents in the late 1990s and 2000s to believe MMR vaccines caused autism. There were 22 measles outbreaks across the nation in 2019, the second highest number of reported outbreaks since measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We’re already seeing that the fervor against the coronavirus vaccine has jeopardized public access to information about immunizations in general. Tennessee health officials, under pressure from lawmakers, stopped all adolescent vaccine outreach for COVID as well as other diseases in July. Health department employees were told to remove the agency logo from vaccine information given to the public, and the state fired its top vaccine official. After The Tennessean broke the story, drawing national condemnation, the state resumed most outreach efforts.

In past times, we would brush off what happened in Tennessee as an isolated case of lunacy. But today we cannot so easily dismiss the idea that lunacy might prevail against established — and effective — public-health measures.

Doonesbury — Dream a little dream…

Saturday, September 11, 2021