Thursday, January 21, 2021

Quote of the Day (Anton Chekhov, on Suffering)

"There will come a time when everybody will know why, for what purpose, there is all this suffering, and there will be no more mysteries. But now we must live."—Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), Three Sisters (1901)

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Photo of the Day: Woman’s National Democratic Club, Washington, DC

I had no idea what this building was about when I visited Washington back in November 2015; I merely thought the exterior would make for an interesting photo. I did not have an opportunity to enter the building. But a plaque in front of this structure on New Hampshire Avenue, just off DuPont Circle, gave me some clues to its history and its present purpose.

The Woman’s National Democratic Club (WNDC) is located in the Whittemore House, which, like much of the surrounding neighborhood, began as an elegant 19th century mansion. Whittemore House takes its name from Sarah Adams Whittemore, a descendant of President John Adams.  An opera singer, she had enough wealth to create a home to accommodate her passion, so the acoustics inside are reputedly first-rate.

The home was built between 1892 and 1894 by architect Harvey Page, who also reconfigured another DuPont Circle residence, the Phoebe Hearst House. Over the next three decades, Whittemore House was rented by several prominent Washingtonians, including Sen. John Dryden, a founder of Prudential Insurance; banker John W. Weeks, who became a Republican congressman, senator and Secretary of War; and Ms. Whittemore’s son Walter Wilcox, an explorer, travel author, and photographer.

In 1927, Whittemore House was purchased by the five-year-old WNDC, the first socially acceptable meeting place for Democratic women in the nation’s capital. It has continued its mission to “provide a forum where Democrats meet to study, discuss and act upon current issues, to further the participation of women in the political process, and to help build an effective and compassionate political party.”

Amid a setting furnished with antiques, art and political memorabilia, club members over the years have been able to attend twice-weekly programs featuring speakers such as Madeleine Albright, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Tom Daschle, Jim Lehrer, Vernon Jordan, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Loretta and Linda Sanchez, Mark Kennedy Shriver, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

The library, on the second floor, is of particular interest to aficionados of First Ladies, as it was the site where Eleanor Roosevelt held women-only press conferences at a time when female journalists battled discrimination.

Whittemore House, listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1973, was granted museum status in 2000. It has been used for a variety of events, from conferences to weddings—and, of course, to empower women.

Quote of the Day (Abraham Lincoln, on the ‘Virtue and Vigilance’ of the American People)

“By the frame of the Government under which we live this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief, and have with equal wisdom provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years.”—President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

Like many people who have read this relentlessly logical address by Abraham Lincoln, I much prefer his ringing, eloquent conclusion:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This spirit of generosity and reconciliation will surely be much on the mind of Joe Biden today as he attempts to close the divisions open for all the world to see in the storming of the Capitol two weeks ago. Let’s hope that some of his countrymen take to heart his Lincolnesque message of unity and a common patriotism.

If not, you can bet that what Gerald Ford called, at his own swearing-in, “our long national nightmare” will be far from over.

I worry about whether Biden’s expected appeal for bipartisanship will be enough at this unusually fearful inauguration. After all, Lincoln’s strenuous forswearing of any attempt to interfere with slavery in the states where it was already established was not enough to prevent southern extremists from pushing secession, instigating calamitous civil war.

Moreover, Lincoln’s confidence that no President could seriously harm the government in a single short term now seems, following the last four years, overly serene.

True, that time limit may be the optimum possible, given the need to allow Presidents the opportunity to look beyond short-term electoral considerations. But an office with so much potential for good possesses equal potential for evil, a negative capability demonstrated most dramatically by the latest outgoing occupant of the White House.

In the 20th century, historians used a short phrase, often picked up from inaugural addresses, to identify a President’s agenda: the Square Deal, the New Freedom, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier.

Given the lives lost in the COVID-19 pandemic and on January 6, historians might appropriately borrow a phrase from Donald Trump’s single inaugural address to characterization his administration: the American Carnage.

It feels like meager recompense to the nation he devastated that, through his own cupidity and madness, the outgoing President laid waste to "the Trump brand." He left divisions surpassed only by the one confronting Lincoln.

An “extreme of wickedness or folly” occurred over the past two months through patently false but endlessly propagated accusations of electoral fraud—charges now acknowledged to be untrue by the two leading Republicans on Capitol Hill, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy.

In the two-month interval between the election and the start of a new administration, Trump did nothing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 across the United States, choosing instead to transmit the virus of falsehood to nearly half of the American electorate.

That recklessness spurred the most serious insurrection on U.S. soil since the Confederacy that Lincoln had to destroy. That riot undercut America as an exemplar of democracy abroad, as the embodiment of what Lincoln called, nearly two years after he took the oath of office, “the last best hope of earth.” 

For whatever reason, far too many ordinary Americans were insufficiently vigilant four years ago in voting for a leader without the slightest electoral or national security experience. In the process, they also elected a man without the virtue that Lincoln mistakenly believed would be possessed by all of his successors.

Because of the vacuum of "virtue and vigilance" in the past four years, I am forced to agree with Garrett Epps’ contention in The Washington Monthly: “Until the nation receives a full accounting, and until criminality pays a suitable price, our institutions will lie open, undefended against those who openly aspire to break them up by force.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (Fran Lebowitz, on Dolly Parton and NYC’s Bill de Blasio)

“The present mayor, Bill de Blasio, is pretty much the most unifying politician in the country. Everyone hates him. Everyone. The city is as one in its hatred of de Blasio…. Rich people hate him, poor people hate him, white people, black people, young people, old people, men, women. He’s universally hated. He’s like the opposite of Dolly Parton. Like, everyone loves Dolly Parton and everyone hates Bill de Blasio. There’s no doubt in every New Yorker’s mind that Dolly Parton would be a much better mayor than Bill de Blasio.”—Humorist Fran Lebowitz appearing on Late Night With Seth Meyers, Jan. 8, 2021 episode

Even as I laughed hard at Ms. Lebowitz’s description of Bill de Blasio, I wondered: Is it that bad for him now? Surely his family are still with him, right? And doesn’t he have any remnant of the original coalition that brought him into Gracie Mansion?

As for Dolly Parton (pictured, of course)—who, incidentally, was born 75 years ago today in Locust Ridge, Tenn.—it’s only been in the last 20 years or so that I’ve come to appreciate her. But it really is rather hard not to love a woman who:

*can poke fun at herself with lines like, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap”;

*stole the film 9 to 5 right from under the nose of veteran actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin;

*not only made millions singing herself but made even more millions for others by writing songs covered by the likes of Whitney Houston, Olivia Newton-John, Merle Haggard, Skeeter Davis, and Tina Turner;

*boosted literacy among children by founding the Imagination Library; and,

*helped fund Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine through a $1 million donating this past spring.

Over the years, Dolly has given people plenty of reasons to smile. These are just a few of them. But even one is enough to lead us to wish her a very Happy Birthday.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Quote of the Day (John Lewis, on the Press and the Civil-Rights Movement)

“If it hadn’t been for the press, the civil-rights movement, the whole struggle would have been like a bird without wings…. For the press, it was very dangerous, especially in the American South, to be a reporter, to be there with a pen and a pad, with a camera. I saw members of the Klan and racists turning on the media, beating people, leaving them bloody, and then turning on us.”—John Lewis (1940-2020), civil rights activist and Congressman (D-GA), quoted in Jamil Smith, “‘We Cannot Lose Hope’: John Lewis Looks Forward,” Rolling Stone, May 2019

In the last four years, the media faced new dangers, including crowds egged on by a President who called reporters “enemies of the people.” His undermining of those who dared to tell the truth culminated on January 6 with a mob aiming to overthrow the legitimate electoral victory of a multi-racial coalition.

One image lingering with me from that infamous day is of an African-American Capitol Police officer standing against an overwhelmingly white mob ready to breach the building. His presence would have been impossible without the similar courage shown decades before by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and, as the latter noted, the media that covered them.

Like many people, I have had my beefs with reporters from different outlets. But without media coverage—most crucially, during January 6 and its aftermath—most Americans would not have grasped the extent of the relentless assault on liberty occurring in the last four years.

For a long time, I have seen in local libraries a Library of America anthology, Reporting Civil Rights, containing roughly 200 eyewitness accounts of the movement from 1941 to 1973. Recent events have made it more imperative than ever, I think, that I read these two volumes.

(The image accompanying this post was Lewis’ official congressional photo, taken Feb. 13, 2006.)

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Quote of the Day (Richard J. Evans, on the Nazi Path to Power)

“By the time he came out of prison [in late 1924, for leading a coup attempt the year before to overthrow Germany’s Weimar Republic], Hitler had assembled the ideology of Nazism from disparate elements of antisemitism, pan-Germanism, eugenics and so-called racial hygiene, geopolitical expansionism, hostility to democracy, and hostility to cultural modernism, which had been floating around for some time but had not so far been integrated into a coherent whole. He gathered around him a team of immediate subordinates—the talented propagandist Joseph Goebbels, the decisive man of action Hermann Goring and others—who built up his image as leader and reinforced his sense of destiny. But despite all this, and despite the violent activism of his brownshirt paramilitaries on the streets, he got nowhere politically until the very end of the 1920s….In October 1929, however, the Wall Street crash brought the German economy tumbling down with it....The political effects of the Depression were calamitous. The Grand Coalition broke up in disarray; so deep were the divisions between the parties over how to deal with the crisis that a parliamentary majority could no longer be found for any kind of decisive action….The Nazis, then, as the elections of September 1930 and July 1932 showed, were a catch-all party of social protest with particularly strong middle-class support and relatively weak, though still very significant, working-class backing at the polls. They had broken out of their core constituency of the Protestant lower middle classes and farming community.”— Cambridge Univ. historian Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939 (2005)

Unfortunately, the blueprint for Fascism remains fundamentally the same in the 21st century as it was in the 1920s and 1930s: the exploitation of multiple far-right ideologies by a single demagogue; the assistance of propagandists who tended to imagery; legislative deadlock; calamitous economic conditions; and then, seemingly out of nowhere, a political coalition with sudden breakout appeal.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Samantha Power, on Resilience and Her Faith)

“My faith doesn’t give me an optimism that things are going to turn out OK. I don’t think that’s something that comes naturally to me—to believe that everything’s going to just get back on track. Instead I think my faith gives me a necessary resilience. If something isn’t working, if the kind of cooperation that’s needed across borders is not happening or the policies by different actors are getting less humane, having this lodestar of Jesus’ teachings and life gives me an incentive to keep getting back up. Not because I think inevitably things are going to work out because God wants them to work out. But because I see that in order for anything to improve, it’s going to require individuals to dust themselves off and keep at it.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning human rights advocate, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations—and lifelong Catholic— Samantha Power quoted in “How Faith Fuels Samantha Power’s Tireless Activism,” U.S. Catholic, January 2021

Thanks to my friend Rachel for bringing this article to my attention.

(The attached image of Ms. Power was the official White House photo taken when she was a member of the Obama Administration.)