Friday, October 31, 2008

Massachusetts Travel Journal (Day Four—Boston)

With the temperatures moderating somewhat, climbing all the way to 60 degrees, I decided it was a good day to experience Boston by boat.

I really have this thing for boat tours. Years ago, having dinner with other members of a writing group, we shared the first memories of our childhood we had used in our writing. All involved bodies of water—a harbor, a river, or, in my case, a creek near my house.

Something of the same yearning for the origins of a life probably underlie my fascination with rivers. I relate to the great closing line of the film and movie A River Runs Through It: “I am haunted by waters.”

My host at my bed and breakfast had suggested the prior day that I try the Boston Duck Tours. The name sounded a bit odd at first, but the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I was. I wasn’t disappointed.

I bought a ticket for the one-hour, twenty-minute tour--$29, with tax—at the Prudential Center. The boat was the “Beantown Betty,” and our guide—or, as he cheerfully put it, “guru”—was a genial fellow named Fred. (That’s him with the duck on the walking stick, in the photo I took that accompanies this post.)

As the tour continued, I was delighted not only to learn about history but also to ride on a vehicle that participated in it. The “Ducks,” you see, were converted WWII amphibious vessels. The term is, in effect, a serviceman’s mongrelization of the military acronymn DUKW (D stands for designated, U for utility amphibious cargo carrying vehicle, K for front wheel drive, and W for double rear axle drive).

The Beantown Betty was one of 21,000 similar vehicles built between 1942 and 1945, being used most notably at D-Day. Our boat still had notations reminiscent of the period, including three cartoons with the once-ubiquitous inscription, “Kilroy Was Here,” and another inscription from a British Army commando at D-Day who had ridden on the vehicle years later.

That vet wasn’t the only person from the British Isles to join our intrepid little crew. In fact, the boat seemed full of them. I thought it was mighty nice of them to prop up the American economy, especially considering those unpleasant little matters we had with them from 1775 to 1783 and again from 1812 to 1815.

In any case, Fred kept up a running commentary as we went around the city, through such areas as Back Bay, Copley Square, Boston Common, the Boston Public Library, Beacon Hill, Government Center, the Longfellow Bridge, Bunker Hill, the North End, Faneuil Hall, the “Cheers” bar, and Newbury Street. He gave this film fan a particular thrill by pointing out the location filming, on Beacon Hill, of the upcoming Mel Gibson movie, The Edge of Darkness.

(Incidentally, this is the second time I’ve witnessed location filming of a major motion picture on Halloween. The first was nine years ago, when, unlike this time—when I did not get a glimpse of Mr. Gibson—I saw, in Savannah, Robert Redford, Matt Damon, Will Smith, and Charlize Theron on the set of The Legend of Bagger Vance. I just hope Gibson’s project is less of a disappointment than Redford’s.)

When this fun and informative tour concluded, I ate a fast lunch in the food court at Prudential Center, then took the T train to the Government stop, walked several blocks to the North End, and visited the Old North Church and the Paul Revere House. Both Revolutionary War sites are worth talking about at greater length, which I’ll do in future posts.

For now, it’s worth mentioning another point about Longfellow’s immortal poem about Revere. In prior posts, I mentioned some issues that made this ride not quite the stuff of legend (e.g., the famous lantern signal was not devised for Revere’s benefit but for others, and he never made it out to Concord because he was apprehended by the British).

Well, there’s another legitimate bone to pick with Longfellow. The poem mentions “a friend” of Revere that hung the lantern. That “friend” bit marginalizes not one, but two people who took risks as significant as Revere’s: Captain John Pulling and Robert Newman, sexton of the Old North Church, who hung the two lanterns for up to a minute in the steeple window. (The church was then the highest structure in Boston).

The problem was this: If the patriots could see the lanterns, so could the redcoats, and they immediately began wondering why they were being put up at that hour of the night. By the time Newman came down the stairs, they were waiting for him. To evade capture, he came down the center aisle of the church, then jumped through the window to the right of the altar—now called “Newman’s Window” in his honor.

Newman could not escape arrest for long—General Gage figured out pretty easily who did and didn’t have access to the steeple at that hour—but eventually had to release him for lack of evidence—the same thing that kept them from holding onto Revere himself indefinitely.

This Day in Diplomatic History (LBJ Announces Vietnam Bombing Halt)

October 31, 1968—In what Republicans undoubtedly regarded as scarier than any Halloween vampire novel, the Democrats appeared to be coming back from the politically undead when President Lyndon Johnson announced, that in return for an American bombing halt, the North Vietnamese Communist government had agreed to come to peace talks in Paris. The announcement came at a point when the man chosen to carry Johnson’s record into the election, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, had nearly erased a 30-point disadvantage in the polls.

The term “October Surprise” was popularized in the 1980 Presidential election, when Ronald Reagan’s advisers floated the idea that Jimmy Carter might pull off a last-minute deal with Iranian radicals to release American hostages after nearly a year in captivity. But the one they had most experience with came during twelve years earlier.

In retrospect, we now know, the “surprise” in that earlier race was not engineered by Johnson, the retiring incumbent, but by the Republican nominee for President, Richard Nixon—unbearably hungry for victory after losing a razor-thin contest to John F. Kennedy eight years before and a positively embarrassing loss to Edmund G. Brown for the California governor’s race two years later.

The pact, worked out after months of painstaking negotiations, came apart before the election. The late historian Stephen E. Ambrose has taken issue with the conventional narrative of these events, noting that the man who sabotaged it, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, didn’t need much encouragement from Nixon on this point to know when he was getting a bad deal.

I don’t think that Ambrose’s argument holds water, however. In any case, it doesn’t erase Nixon’s culpability in undercutting not merely Humphrey’s electoral chances, but also the foreign policy of his government.

Here is what Nixon did:

* He transmitted a message through a friend of Thieu’s, Anna Chennault, that if the South Vietnamese President refused to negotiate, he would get better terms under the incoming Republican administration.
* Nixon thus reneged on his support for a deal in a phone conversation that LBJ had on October 16 with the three Presidential contenders (the other was third-party candidate George Wallace).
* He charged, in an Election Eve nationwide broadcast, that the bombing halt was a political decision made at the expense of American troops.
* He lied point-blank on the same broadcast in stating that he’d heard “a very disturbing report” that North Vietnamese troops were now moving supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and American bombers couldn’t stop them.

Before American voters cast their ballots—even before Nixon made his broadcast—LBJ had in his hands evidence of Nixon’s shenanigans. Yet neither he nor Hubert H. Humphrey chose to publicize it. Why not?

Because the proof had come by way of the administration’s own subterfuge. Through intercepted South Vietnam Embassy cables, LBJ got wind of the October 27 message to Thieu from Chennault (who, as the Chinese-born widow of Gen. Claire Chennault, founder of the legendary “Flying Tigers” WWII unit, became a kind of Washington grande dame for the GOP) promising GOP support. The President approached the FBI about conducting surveillance of Chennault and the embassy.

What was J. Edgar Hoover to do? His own deeply conservative instincts would normally lead him to side with the Republicans. But he was a Washington player for five decades now, and, old man that he was, he still wanted to retain his power. So he acceded to the President’s wish, justifying the investigation on the grounds that Madame Chennault’s action possibly violated the Neutrality Act and the Foreign Agents Registration Act, both concerning dealings by United States private citizens with the governments of other countries. Before long, LBJ had his proof.

LBJ confronted Nixon about what he had learned. Of course, Nixon, being Nixon, did what came naturally to him: deny, deny, deny. The President also called Senate Majority Leader Everett Dirksen, telling him, in no uncertain terms, that he would go public, with the result that America would be shocked “if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important.”

Ultimately, Johnson sat on the evidence. Disclosure would have revealed intelligence-gathering methods he wanted kept secret, particularly the ones by the National Security Agency that brought the cables to light. He’d also have to explain why he was tapping the phone of Ms. Chennault. The woman was not only an American ally but also a high-placed member of the opposition party. Finally, though he clearly had Chennault dead to rights, LBJ couldn’t specifically tie Nixon to it. There was a cloud of smoke, but, to use a phrase that gained currency six years later during the Nixon impeachment hearings, no “smoking gun.”

So Nixon won the election, and the war dragged on for four more years. In the next election, Nixon would try his own hand at a late-October announcement with the famous statement from Henry Kissinger that “Peace is at hand.” Of course it wasn’t. Another three months would elapse before that occurred. In the meantime, more soldiers had died.

Nixon resigned in disgrace over his Watergate coverup. But his actions on the brink of the 1968 election were equally disgraceful, perhaps more so. As Ambrose noted, no American political figure except for LBJ had pushed harder for deeper American involvement in Vietnam, dating all the way back to when he had urged use of the atomic bomb to deal with the Communist insurgency in the Eisenhower administration.

But this time, Nixon had not only advocated a misguided policy but, as a private citizen, had undermined American diplomatic efforts and helped drag out a remorseless conflict, for terms that he could not improve on. Ambrose contends that it’s part of the liberal indictment of Nixon. But you don’t have to be liberal to abominate playing with service personnel’s lives for the sake of electoral roulette.

Quote of the Day (Laura Miller, on Vampires)

“The source of vampire wealth is obscure, since few of them appear to be gainfully employed. The assumption seems to be that anyone who’s been around for 300 years must be in a position to take full advantage of the miracle of compound interest.”—Laura Miller, “Real Men Have Fangs,” The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2008

(Happy Halloween, folks! No tricks from the CEO of this blog, but I do have a treat: the above link to a fine essay by Miller, staff critic for, that examines the intersection of the classic romance hero and the suave vampire—both of whom trace their origins back to the same figure, Lord Byron—in the current spate of vampire literature aimed at young women. The piece brims with insight, humor, and something you never knew before in every line.)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Massachusetts Travel Journal—Day Three (Cambridge)

Maybe if you live in an area long enough you get used to such matters as a crazy quilt of roads and parking garages of endless levels. But I was a tourist, so getting around Cambridge posed something of a problem for me today.

When I finally found a space in the Aylwife parking garage, I went down to the T station and took the Red Line to Harvard Square. The day was as raw as yesterday, so I clutched my scarf even harder than before.

Next to the information booth kiosk at Harvard Square, I took a Cambridge Advantage Tour offered by Vince Dixon. Dressed in a green shirt and black tricorn hat, Vince offered a fact-filled two-hour walk through the Co-Op, Harvard Yard, Radcliffe Yard, and Cambridge Commons.

On Cambridge Commons, I was surprised—and glad to see—a statue commemorating Ireland’s Great Hunger of the 1840s—the first statue of its kind in New England. (Former Irish President Mary Robinson came to its dedication in 1997.) My photo accompanies this post.

At the conclusion of that tour, I walked down Brattle Street until I came to the Longfellow House. How could a mere poet afford such a magnificent structure? On the National Park Service tour, I found out: he’d married the daughter of a textile manufacturer, whose daughter prevailed upon him not merely to buy this house, but all the land stretching in a line from here to the Charles River!

Nearly 60 years before the happy couple moved in, the house had been abandoned by a notorious Loyalist and taken over by George Washington as his headquarters during the siege of Boston. Longfellow’s study had been the room where Washington conferred with Henry Knox about hauling the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga that were used to force the British out of Boston, and the rooms Longfellow had rented briefly as a young Harvard professor where the same ones where Washington had slept during his months here.

This Day in Entertainment History (Welles’ “War of the Worlds” Scares America Out of Its Wits)

October 30, 1938—It was just going to be a Halloween episode of the weekly Mercury Theatre broadcast, but instead the CBS radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds frightened the daylights out of a country already on edge—and made an overnight star of its 23-year-old director, Orson Welles.

Nearly 22 years later, in an interview with talk-show host David Frost, Welles identified the following factors as crucial in terrifying the audience—and convincing it that the outlandish events they were hearing about Martians landing in Grover Mills, N.J., were really happening:

* An FDR sound-alike who assured everybody there was no cause for alarm: “I think that’s when they really ran out on the streets.”
* A ham-radio voice trying to talk to others.
* An announcer who coughed, then suddenly stopped.
* The lengthy silence that followed this—and on a full network, no less.
* The faux amateur-radio operator returning to say now, “Isn’t anyone out there?”

You might remember the great scene in Woody Allen’s Radio Days when lovelorn Aunt Beau (played by Dianne Wiest) ends up with the true date from hell, when her boyfriend, hearing the Welles broadcast on his car radio, panics, runs out of the auto hysterically and leaves her out in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t entirely exaggerate how America really reacted that night.

An estimated six million people heard the broadcast. At four separate points in the program—including the beginning—came a disclaimer that this was a dramatization.

But if you came in late—and heard only enough to persuade you that something weird was going on—or if you were a senior citizen who didn’t recognize Welles as the voice of the radio show The Shadow, you might have reacted as the following people did:

* The New England mother who packed her children and all the bread she could manage into her car, then drove away from her home.
* The listeners who hid in cellars, praying that the poison gas would pass over their homes.
* The college senior who broke every speeding record in existence to save his girlfriend. (What a guy!)

This was a radio audience, you must recall, that was hearing a daily drumbeat of worsening news from Europe. Only the month before, Adolf Hitler had gotten everything he’d wanted at Munich. In other words, it was a world ready for the notion that the worst could happen.

Several years ago, at a post-show discussion of The Man Who Came to Dinner at the Roundabout Theatre, I asked Kitty Carlisle Hart, the widow of one of the playwrights who collaborated on the comedy, Moss Hart, about her impressions of Orson Welles’ TV version of her husband’s classic. She groaned and related a tale of an ego run amok, including Welles’ penchant for imbibing so much wine at lunch breaks that most sequences filmed in the afternoon turned out to be useless.

It was a different Welles who updated H.G. Wells’ classic for a new generation. He was young, healthy, and not quite yet (though getting there) at the point where the principal screenwriter of Citizen Kane, Herman Mankiewicz, could later wisecrack, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

(Mankiewicz had reason to be annoyed with Welles: Not content with being an actor-director-producer, Welles wanted sole screenwriting credit for Kane. I’d call it the greatest act of literary larceny I’ve ever heard of, but then I have to remember that this is Hollywood that we’re talking about.)

No, the Welles of Worlds still had the power to exercise his lifelong fascination with magic with authority untrammeled by studio interference or his own creatively self-destructive tendencies. The radio broadcast was nothing if not sleight of hand and misdirection used in a revolutionary new medium.

In that sense, a line of continuity runs from his early success to a final, unfinished project: a movie called The Magic Show, a kind of free-floating film essay in which Welles performed his own magic tricks, related the history of a famous magician, and reenacted a disastrous trick performed by another illusionist. It would have been his way of ending a career with the kind of razzle-dazzle that characterized its beginning.

Quote of the Day (Bishop Joseph Martino)

“I own this building.”-- Bishop Joseph F. Martino of the Diocese of Scranton, at a political forum at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Honesdale, Pa., saying he was “very uncomfortable” with the meeting, quoted by Brian Hineline, “Bishop Blasts Political Forum,” The Weekly Almanac (Wayne County, PA), October 22, 2008

(As a Roman Catholic who has despaired many times over the Democratic Party’s 30-year-tilt toward legitimizing abortion without limits, I have to say that I, too, am “very uncomfortable”—but with Bishop Martino’s reactionary remarks at St. John’s. Accept, if you will, that abortion is the first among equals in terms of issues in this election. If you want, even accept the contention that abortion does so to the exclusion of all other matters. Accept all of that and you are still struck by the fact that, six years after the explosion of the sexual abuse scandal in the church, “I own this building” has the same arrogance that scandalized the faithful.

The bishop took issue with a nun, Sister Margaret Gannon, for distributing a document called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Was this from some sort of splinter or heretical Catholic group? Not unless that’s what you call the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Has the bishop heard of collegiality?

As much as anyone, I think that the usual mantra of Catholic politicians—“I’m against abortion, but I support Roe v. Wade”—is a cop-out. But closing off intellectual debate is against a Catholic tradition going back to Aquinas of using reason and persuasion in the service of God.

“I own this building” sounds an awful lot like “I am the law,” the blunt statement of one of the machine politicians of the 20th century, Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City. Moreover, in its “Father Knows Best” attitude and its undercurrent of privilege and triumphalism, it also smacks all too much of the remark once made about the backward-looking Bourbons of France: “They forgot nothing and learned nothing.”

I’m as impatient with liberals’ invocation of “the spirit of Vatican II” as with conservatives’ allusions to “the magisterium,” as if the mere repetition of these phrases cuts off all arguments. But one of the central insights of Vatican II is of the crucial importance of an involved, informed laity in spreading the value of the Gospel, even in a fallen world. In other words, we are the church.

The bishop could have urged the lay members of the audience to involve themselves in both parties—and yes, if necessary, fight against abortion, rule by rule in meeting after meeting—so that neither Democrats nor Republicans would become the de facto anti-abortion party and Catholics wouldn’t find themselves, in the apt phrase of reporter John Allen, among “the politically homeless.” He could have sought to persuade through the power of argument. Instead, he walked out of this forum. He didn’t want to inform. He didn’t even want to listen.

Instead, he embarrassed one of his own priests for no good reason. Worse than that, he treated a group of sentient, educated adults as children. He should ask forgiveness of his flock for this double insult.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Massachusetts Travel Journal—Day Two (Minute Man National Park and Concord)

Breathless traveling from one end of this blustery, gray day to the other for me. After being fortified for the day by a great breakfast at my Lexington B&B, I headed toward Minute Man National Historical Park. This was what I had wanted to see the most yesterday anyway, and I felt as if I hadn’t even scratched the surface of this subject. I didn’t realize how right I was.

But first, a word of caution. For any prospective historical travelers reading this, make sure you understand that, if you hope to see certain sites associated with literary figures here, you do so before the end of October. Both the Ralph Waldo Emerson House and The Wayside—an establishment associated with three different Concord literary figures (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Harriet Lothrop/Margaret Sidney)—were closed for the season.

At some point, maybe later in the year, I’ll write about the two literary homes I did get to see—Orchard House, the home of the Alcott family for 20 years, and Hawthorne’s Old Manse. But for now, I’m going to concentrate on the sites associated with the Battles of Lexington and Concord that occurred on April 19, 1775.

Minute Man Park sprawls across several towns—Lexington, Lincoln (where the Visitors Center is located), and Concord. It’s fitting because, as Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere’s ride indicates, the alarm was spread “to every Middlesex village and farm.”

Nowadays, historians decry Longfellow for taking poetic license. (One instance was “One if by land, two if by sea”—the signal was not meant for Revere, but was devised by him for others.) But when it comes to myth, everybody’s gotten into the act, from both sides of the historical spectrum. From the far right, the Militia Movement made its impact felt with the ghastly Oklahoma City bombing; from the far left, Michael Moore diminished any effectiveness he might have made in his case against George W. Bush by calling Iraqi insurgents/terrorists “the Revolution, the Minutemen.”

But visiting the park made me aware that there are two other ways that the events of Lexington and Concord can speak to us. One is the issue of intelligence gathering and dissemination; the other, how news is reported of atrocities.

If there’s one thing that the last decade has demonstrated to Americans, it’s the extreme inadequacy of our intelligence system. At the dawn of the American Revolution, the British and Americans struggled to set up their own networks, with varying degrees of success.

British General Thomas Gage sought to make use of several relatives of his American-born wife, Margaret, as well as a source far more insidious because he was so highly placed: Dr. Benjamin Church, a member of the patriot inner circle. After all that effort, however, everything came to naught. As Lt. Frederick MacKenzie of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers noted afterward: “The fact is, General Gage…had no conception the Rebels would oppose the King’s troops in the manner that they did.”

(Incidentally, MacKenzie is a fascinating study in his own right. The son of a Dublin merchant, he had received his first commission 20 years before. He drew the only contemporaneous map of the day’s events, and the diary he assiduously kept has likewise served historians trying to make sense of this chaotic day.)

One colonist who fared far better than Gage in creating an intelligence system was Dr. Joseph Warren. What a loss when this patriot was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. In the period leading up to the war, he had been one of the most intelligent, energetic and resourceful members of the Committees of Correspondence. He showed his talents anew in the 48 hours before that fateful day of April 19, 1775.

From an informer, Warren got wind that Gage was planning a raid on the rebel supplies in Concord. He immediately made plans to alert the two leading radicals, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. He sent William Dawes on one long, primarily land-based route, going through Brookline and Roxbury—but, because that route involved so much danger, he dispatched a second messenger, Paul Revere, going by boat until he mounted a waiting horse.

Both Dawes and Revere made it to Lexington, but it took a third rider—yet another surgeon, Samuel Prescott—to make it to Concord. Ten redcoats came upon the trio, around 1:30 am. Dawes wheeled around and got back to Lexington; Revere was detained by the British before being released without his horse; Prescott—who had been out courting a lady when he bumped into Revere and agreed to help out—got the news to the colonists in Concord.)

And now, about the atrocity stories.

Whoever fires the first shot in a war usually gets the onus for whatever happens next. (That’s why Abraham Lincoln was so careful to maneuver the South into firing the first shot at Fort Sumter.) Warren wanted to make sure that the news spread instantly about the British firing first.

The trouble was that at Lexington, people are still not sure who fired first. At North Bridge in Concord, at least one jumpy British soldier let loose with his rifle, against express orders not to shoot. Then all hell broke loose.

To spread news of the atrocities, Dr. Warren made sure riders were spreading the word as far as New York and Boston within 48 hours of the event, and that his version of the events (the British fired first, without provocation, in both instances) reached London on a fast ship, the Quero, by May 29—two weeks before General Gage’s account reached England.

This Day in English History (Walter Raleigh, Landlord and Oppressor of Ireland, Executed)

October 29, 1618—Sir Walter Raleigh, the soldier, explorer and poet who crushed Ireland in the service of Queen Elizabeth I, then was rewarded handsomely for his efforts, was executed for treason after spending 13 years in the Tower of London.

You know the plotline of The Postman Always Rings Twice, right? How a guy gets away with one murder, only to be executed for another he didn’t commit? Well, something of the same cosmic righting of the scales took place with Raleigh, I think.

I read in a children’s biography of Raleigh how he had thrown his cape on the ground so Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t get her shoes dirty. When I told this some 40 years ago to my Aunt Peg, she took a long drag on her cigarette, then asked, in her inimitable brogue: “Did your history book say anything about him murdering the poor people of Ireland?”

No, it didn’t. And all the more shame to them.

That oft-repeated anecdote about Raleigh and the queen is supposed to illustrate—what? How courtly he was? More like what a shameless sycophant he could be, I think. (The story says something, too, about Elizabeth, who, as far as I’m concerned, has gotten far more credit than she deserves for an age that was more hyped than glorious.)

England’s policy toward Ireland served as a kind of laboratory for its future ventures in colonialism and imperialism. Yet it didn’t come without cost. To me, the truest part of the Helen Mirren TV bio of the queen came when her Elizabeth attempted to conjole her counselors—someone, anyone—to lead an expedition to crush Ireland.

For his role in suppressing the Desmond Rebellion in 1579, Raleigh received a grant of confiscated land. He held 42,000 acres in the towns of Youghal and Lismore in County Waterford, though he could never get enough Englishmen to follow him across the water to populate the island. We can thank him for introducing to Ireland the potato—a humble but nutritious food that enabled the peasants to survive the depredations of landlords that followed in the wake of Raleigh and others. One of his acquaintances in the area was Edmund Spenser, another soldier-poet awarded confiscated land by the grateful queen.

Eventually, Raleigh was forced to sell his Irish holdings. In the 1590s, he landed in trouble with Elizabeth for secretly marrying one of her maids of honor. Funny thing about the queen—she wouldn’t marry anybody, but she couldn’t abide a courtier paying attention (let alone wedding) someone other than herself. She stuck the couple in the Tower of London.

Attempting to get back in the queen’s good graces—i.e., sucking up to her again—Raleigh ran off to try to find the fabled El Dorado, rumored to be in Guiana (now in Venezuela). That didn’t work. In 1603, with Elizabeth now dead, her successor, King James, didn’t waste any time in sticking Raleigh in the Tower of London again. There the old brownnose stayed until he dusted off an old stratagem—he’d find El Dorado.

In 1616, the aging adventurer got sprung out of jail—life imprisonment, no less—on the assumption he’d make good his promise to find El Dorado. The expedition not only was as unsuccessful as the first, but it was even worse, for Raleigh had disobeyed James’ orders not to attack the Spanish. As soon as he made it back to England with his tail between his legs, James decided he’d had enough. Raleigh’s execution would undoubtedly have inspired cheers in Ireland if the poor natives didn’t have so much more to worry about.

Before he died, Raleigh wrote a tender farewell to his wife—a letter that shows him at his best. “To what friend to direct thee I know not, for all mine have left me in the true time of tryall,” he wrote. So much for years of acting as courtier to capricious monarchs.

Quote of the Day (John Yemma, on Old and New Media)

“By freeing people from the print production ball and chain, we make a much more competitive website and we will help the journalists be much more competitive. Everybody seems to recognize that print is on its way out.”—Christian Science Monitor editor John Yemma, explaining why his will became the first national newspaper to stop its daily edition and shift to online coverage, quoted by Jenifer B. McKim, “Delivering the News Without the Paper,” The Boston Globe, Oct. 29, 2008

(Maybe I’m just one of those post-45 technophobe stick-in-the-muds, but I don’t buy Yemma’s justification for this radical step. The Monitor—a century old this year—seems, like so many other print papers, unsure about how to stanch its fiscal bleeding. It sounds to me like the way so many corporate heads used to justify their megaexpensive M&A activity in the Eighties and Nineties by trotting out the mantra of “synergies” between the purchasing and acquired companies.

The fact is, few, if any, newspaper editors and publishers have figured out how to create an advertising model that works in cyberspace. Their current round of cost-cutting feels like so much flailing in the dark.

I, for one, continue to be a fan of newsprint. I just wish newspapers could figure out a better way to serve their readers. Little matters like accuracy and transparency would be a start. Notice that I don’t say “fairness.” I’m not sure perfect objectivity is possible, and in any case I think the American media have become as unapologetically partisan as at any time since the 1790s, when Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson had at each other in papers that, for all intents and purposes, were their mouthpieces.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Massachusetts Travel Journal—Day One: Lexington, MA (Buckman Tavern and Lexington Green)

As I did with my Chautauqua vacation a few months ago, I thought I’d use this blog as a kind of online postcard/letter of my trip to the Boston area.

I spent half of the four-hour trip up here driving through pouring rain that dogged my steps from the moment I left Englewood. By the time I reached Hartford, it began to abate, thank God, and was actually sunny—for a short while—when I reached my bed and breakfast in nearby Lexington.

With not much time left late in the afternoon, I decided to go to the nearest place of historic interest—downtown Lexington. You’d never know it from the kind of chi-chi yuppified establishments lining either side of the downtown—banks, bookstores, restaurants, with chain stores cheek to cheek, so to speak, with antique stores, bread shops, and even an old-fashioned independent drug store—but in 1775, this community was primarily agricultural.

Anyone who attended in its heyday St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J., is familiar with Brandon’s Tavern. So naturally, I just had to stop at the colonial equivalent: Buckman Tavern in Lexington. The original was built in 1709, with a wing added in 1813, then restored in the 1920s. The site (do I have to say that it’s no longer a going establishment?) is now one of three houses that can be visited courtesy of the Lexington Historical Society.

The guide for my small group was Anthony, a fact-filled, charming raconteur who knew everything and then some about this house. (He’s the fellow in period costume next to yours truly in the picture accompanying this post—the first time, incidentally, that the CEO of this blog has ever appeared in an image on this Web site!).

Back when we were memorizing all about “the midnight ride of Paul Revere” as kids, I don’t recall anyone ever telling us about Buckman’s Tavern. But this is where the Lexington militia—filled with dozens of the “embattled farmer” type memorialized by Ralph Waldo Emerson—gathered on the morning of April 19, 1775, waiting for a British force on its way to confiscate the rebel arms supply in Concord. It didn’t turn out quite as well as the redcoats had hoped.

The tavern is one of those small places you see on historic tours, with guides in the dress of the time, but you can still learn much that somehow doesn’t seep out of the pages of historic texts in these kinds of establishments. I learned some more about the first action of the American Revolution here, and even more about daily life in the colonies.

Just down the road a patch, at what is now the Hancock-Clarke House, John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying as the guests of the Rev. Jonas Clarke, at the same parsonage where Hancock’s grandfather had once resided. Royal authorities in London would dearly have loved to have caught the two troublesome rebels, but it was not to be.

Right around midnight, Paul Revere arrived from Boston, coming breathlessly to the tap room at Buckman’s to let Hancock and Adams know the British were coming. The next morning, the Americans were waiting for them.

With only 77 militiamen with him on the Lexington Common, across from Buckman’s, Capt. John Parker didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of impeding the redcoats, let alone defeating them. What he was producing was a show of force—a demonstration of will.

British Maj. John Pitcairn ordered the rebels to disperse. As the rebels slowly, reluctantly, obeyed, a shot rang out—at whose order, nobody was sure afterward—and the redcoats (a large group of new recruits—“greencoats,” if you will) began firing. By the time it was over, eight Americans lay dead. If you ask me, it’s a lot like those hotly disputed police actions when, in the blink of an eye, someone gets nervous and suddenly bodies are lying all over the ground. Except this time, the authority of a global empire was at stake.

Inside, the tavern has examples of six muskets, including two “Brown Besses” that would have been used by redcoats. Anthony noted that, beyond a range of 75 yards, their accuracy was pretty poor—thus accounting for the famous rebel order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” These muskets were famously cumbersome to use, with even a well-trained marksman only able to load, shoot, and reload three or four times in a minute.

It was not surprising that Revere would have come to Buckman’s. As Anthony pointed out, the ceilings of Loyalist taverns were unadorned, but patriot taverns had special markings if you looked overhead—in the case of Buckman’s, this included a mixture of—are you ready for this?—blueberries, crushed eggshells and buttermilk.

Colonial men might have reminded their wives to “keep a civil tongue in your head,” but if they were patriots they didn’t mind picking up whatever their women told them. You think they were minding their own business in the kitchen behind the tap room? No sirree Bob! They were listening very carefully to every word that was said, and ready to pass along anything that an unsuspecting Tory might have blurted out.

And, with the stuff served here, they were liable to blurt out anything. From the beginning of the day, Anthony informed us, colonials were imbibing, starting with “small beer.” A particular specialty that I don’t think Brandon’s Tavern got around to serving was “Flip Beer,” four fingers’ worth of the stuff mixed up with brown sugar and molasses. If that didn’t cure what ailed you, you were a hopeless case.

Buckman’s was a hotbed of intelligence and listening post in other important ways. Let’s start with that word “post.” The term took on literal meaning here because the post by the bar was where news items were put up.

Throughout the day, as the British headed toward Concord, then were chased back to Lexington on their way to Boston, a couple of the men who gathered here in the tavern did more than just exchange news at the bar. Solomon Brown, for instance, came running down from his upstairs room and fired his musket at the passing redcoats. A bullet hole from their return fire is still lodged in a door in the house. Dr. Joseph Fiske tended to several patriots and even rebels who had been wounded. The workbench he used elsewhere in town is now located in Buckman’s.

Just past the kitchen in the tavern is the landlord’s room. If you were traveling, you could use his bed for 10 cents. If you wanted a discount, you could get the bed for 7 cents, but you’d have to share it with at least one, and maybe two, men. A lucky thing that nutrition wasn’t as good back then—the smaller bodies meant it was a bit easier to fit two fellows together. (I don’t think a discount would have done much good for the rebels’ genius at artillery, General Henry Knox—a hefty fellow indeed.)

Believe it or not, Buckman’s Tavern was one of those places where George Washington did indeed come. So did two other Presidents, Grant and Ford, on, respectively, the centennial and bicentennial of the war.

Quote of the Day (Andrew Sullivan, on Blogging)

“Blogging is to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. Blogging is writing out loud.”—Andrew Sullivan, “Why I Blog,” The Atlantic, November 2008

(I don’t always agree with everything Andrew Sullivan writes—in fact, I disagree with quite a lot of it—but few writers have made such an impact in the blogosphere, and there is no doubt that on almost any given moment of any day, he leaves a bit of himself out there. His essay in a bastion of the old print medium, The Atlantic—long one of my favorite magazines, incidentally—is a revealing look at the exhilaration and perils of blogging, and of what he sees as a new golden era of journalism that it will usher in.

Over the next few days, I will be doing a little bit of experimentation myself, with contemporaneous travel writing. We’ll see how this goes

Monday, October 27, 2008

Dog Day Afternoon

Sunday -- like today -- contained gorgeous weather. As you'll see here in this picture I took then, it also featured the biggest assortment of canines outside of metropolitan dog shows. It was a day for them to enjoy perhaps even more than their masters.

This Day in Labor History (Molly Maguires Infiltrated)

October 27, 1873—Using the alias James McKenna, James McParlan, a minor Pinkerton National Detective Agency operative relegated to spotting crooked conductors on Chicago trolleys, boarded a Reading coach headed for the coal country of Pennsylvania. The assignment he eventually carried out, in stunning fashion: to infiltrate the Molly Maguires, an Irish-American group believed to be waging a campaign of violence against mine operators and policemen.

Whether the "Mollies" actually existed--and to what extent--remains a lively question. The high rate of violence in Schuykill County--142 unsolved murders from 1862 to 1877--might argue in its favor. But, as John A. Barnes notes in Irish-American Landmarks: A Traveler’s Guide, this was hardly out of the ordinary for mining regions, even in areas with a comparatively small Irish presence.

What is inarguable, however, is the two different forms of desperation that led management and labor to clash.

It’s easy to see how labor felt constrained. The 50,000 coal miners in eastern Pennsylvania as the 1870s began had to cope with the following:

* Hopelessly inadequate safety precautions;
* Flooded shafts and cave-ins;
* Less than a dollar a day in pay for 14-to-16-hour days;
* As many as eight children crammed into small huts;
* Early deaths from black lung;
* Lack of sympathy from a government that in those years was committed to laissez-faire.

But both McParlan and his company were, in their own way, desperate. Allan Pinkerton, facing looming bankruptcy because of the economic distress sweeping the U.S. that year, looked for a badly needed cash infusion in what was becoming a specialty of his: union-breaking. After six years in the U.S., tiring of small-time jobs, the slight, bespectacled McParlan hoped this assignment would lead to something more.

One hundred thirty-five years after his fateful journey, McParlan remains a particularly vivid example of one of the most persistent and troubling figures throughout Irish and Irish-American history: the informer. The 1970 film that centered on his dilemma, named, of course, The Molly Maguires, follows a line of Celtic self-questioning in cinema that has also included John Ford's The Informer (with Victor McLaglen's Oscar-winning performance as the title character) and David Lean's Ryan's Daughter (with Leo McCarey playing the guilty party).

I'm not sure why director Martin Ritt didn't do a better job with this film. He certainly had a fine pair of leads in Richard Harris and Sean Connery (playing, retrospectively, McParlan and the man he betrayed, Jack Kehoe). Ritt's own status as the victim of an informer, during Hollywood's blacklist period, certainly gave him sympathy with a wronged class. But, even aside from the nearly impenetrable accents involved, this film does not live. (The one point of interest might be the presence of future author Malachy McCourt as a bartender.)

I recommend the late J. Anthony Lukas' essay on the film in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (general editor: Mark Carnes). His essay nicely summarizes the historical revisionism that has sought to understand the roots of a bitter management-labor conflict seen at the time through the lens of dime-store novels and a Protestant-leaning populace that, then as now, is happy to rely on cheap labor but anxious that this has necessitated an influx of disenfranchised outsiders.

Over the last ten years, while visiting my friend Jimmy in the Schuylkill River area, I rode through land that had served as the flash point for the struggle over the "Mollies." The region exhibited signs everywhere of the human toll taken by the collapse of the Rust Belt in the late '70s and early '80s, but when I learned its prior history, it seemed haunted by something even more tragic.

Jimmy lived at the time in Orwigsburg, nearby Pottsville. At the Sheridan House in the latter town, McParlan/McKenna made the acquaintance of members of the group he would betray. Nearly three years later, McParlan's trial testimony in Pottsville would help send some of these men to the gallows.

Two paragraphs ago, I referred to the area being “haunted.” In one sense, an element of the supernatural has given rise to a local legend. County Donegal native Alec Campbell , convicted of being an accessory in the murder of a mine company official, protested his innocence so vigorously that he even left his imprint on the cell wall. His final words supposedly were: “That mark of mine will never be wiped out. There it will remain forever to shame the country that is hanging innocent men.” As of 1995, when Barnes wrote his historical travel guide, that imprint remained embedded in Carbon County Jail in Mauck Chunk (now called Jim Thorpe), Pa.

Pottsville would give rise, three decades later, to a self-described "Doctor's Son," John O'Hara—to my mind, the short-story writer unsurpassed in the 20th century for his understanding of men and women from all walks of life. It's been a long time since I saw the film—which, in any case, mangled his novel—but for me the greatest cry of the heart in BUtterfield 8 occurs when O'Hara's alter ego, James Malloy, lays bare the unease that he grew up with in town:

"America, being a non-Irish, anti-Catholic country, has its own idea of what a real gangster looks like, and along comes a young Mick [i.e., James Cagney] who looks like my brother, and he fills the bill. He is the typical gangster….At least it's you American Americans' idea of a perfect gangster type, and I suppose you're right. Yes, I guess you are. The first real gangsters in this country were Irish. The Molly Maguires. Anyway do you see what I mean by all this non-assimilable stuff?"

It was the tragedy of 19th-century Irish-Americans that they reenacted the anguish of their ancestral homeland with descendants of their tormenters.

In Boston, they encountered the scions of the Puritans, who, under Oliver Cromwell, had carried out a campaign of dispossession in Ireland so fierce, giving the inhabitants the Hobbesian choice, "To hell or Connaught."

Legend has it that the Molly Maguires began as an anti-landlord organization in Ireland of the Famine years. In eastern Pennsylvania, recent Famine immigrants or children of this group suffered at the hands of Franklin B. Gowen, the Protestant Irish president of the Philadelphia and Pinkerton Railroad, whose stranglehold on the manufacture and production of coal in the region must have reminded them more than a little of the landlords they fled.

At the time, it seemed that the three figures responsible for breaking this secret society had gotten what they wanted. Gowen linked the Workingman's Benevolent Association with the Mollies, a group now seen as murderous. Pinkerton would go on to become a detective agency with all the work it could handle in those anti-union times. McParlan became manager of the agency's Western Division in Denver, where 30 years later, he would gather evidence implicating the I.W.W.'s "Big Bill" Haywood in the conspiracy to murder the governor of Idaho.

Historians increasingly agree that the 20 men executed for their part in the Mollies were railroaded. (Not a single Irish-American was enpaneled on the juries.) Kehoe, executed for the murder of a mine foreman, would be pardoned more than a century later by Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp, who took note of the coal miners' desperate plight and Gowen's fear of one of their most popular champions.

And Gowen? He committed suicide, six years after losing his job with the railroad.

Quote of the Day (Theodore Roosevelt, on “Malefactors of Great Wealth”)

“It may well be that the determination of the government (in which, gentlemen, it will not waver) to punish certain malefactors of great wealth, has been responsible for something of the trouble; at least to the extent of having caused these men to combine to bring about as much financial stress as possible, in order to discredit the policy of the government and thereby secure a reversal of that policy, so that they may enjoy unmolested the fruits of their own evil-doing. . . . I regard this contest as one to determine who shall rule this free country—the people through their governmental agents, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization.”—Theodore Roosevelt, Address at the Pilgrim Memorial Monument, Provincetown, Mass., August 20, 1907

(Theodore Roosevelt was not a flawless hero. His "Big Stick" for dealing with Latin America gave the United States a reputation as a "gringo" power that we have never really lived down. Before becoming President, he pushed for an imperialist policy that included quelling insurrection in the Philippines—only to decide privately, by the end of his second term, that America could not retain it as a possession. Like many others of his time, he believed that the "winning of the west" demonstrated the superiority of the Anglo-American race rather than the tragic destruction of Native-Americans here for centuries before whites.

But today, on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Teddy Roosevelt, we celebrate—and mourn the passing of—his willingness to take on the "malefactors of great wealth" in the United States, the forces of greed and destruction in the American West he loved, and retrograde forces in the Republican Party.

Together with Woodrow Wilson, T.R. spearheaded the agenda of the Progressive movement in the United States in the first two decades of the 20th century. Their different temperaments—and eventual clash of ambitions—led John Milton Cooper, in his insightful dual biography, to refer to them as "The Warrior and the Priest." In certain ways—notably, his advocacy of civil rights for African Americans—Roosevelt was superior to Wilson.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to see Roosevelt as fundamentally liberal. And,
Michael Knox Beran's recent retrospective comparison of John McCain and his hero T.R. to the contrary, the President was not an exemplar of "reactionary progressivism."

Instead, Roosevelt was, I would argue, a Burkean conservative. For evidence, look at one of the key passages in
Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke's tract, written in white heat, against the excesses of social tumult unmoored by tradition.

The Irish-born statesman made a crucial distinction between "change" and "reform." The former, he argued, was a mere mindless exchange of one set of policies for another, risking the wholesale loss of great tradition just for the sake of one or two matters that could be changed easily. The latter addressed these specific issues in a prudent, constitutional fashion, without damaging the carefully woven social and political fabric of centuries.

Listen again to any of the major debates that have consumed the electorate over the past year, and what do you hear? The word the candidates prefer—no doubt at the behest of their political consultants—is "change," a word that, throughout this campaign, has become emptied of any content that might allow the eventual victor that ever-elusive "mandate."

I will be voting for Barack Obama in a week's time, but I would have felt more comfortable if he had spoken less of "change" and more of "reform." A mere rotation of parties, as necessary as it is, will cure little of what ails our financial system.

That system hit the skids because Capitol Hill lawmakers, sliding along on financial lubricants provided through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, did nothing to rein them in. Virtually nobody of either party seriously questioned our two-decade-plus experimentation with deregulation until it was too late.

The first Presidential nominee of the post-Watergate era to forego public financing, Obama has managed to reverse the traditional GOP fundraising advantage. At the same time, he has left himself beholden to more than a few well-heeled hedge-fund donors. All this without virtually a peep from
the editorial pages of The New York Times, which until this year had let hardly a day go by without a call for campaign-finance reform.

I'm afraid that I'm voting less for the "audacity of hope" than against the proven fear that the Republican Party just doesn't get that a) they were part of the problem in the first place with their lack of oversight of Wall Street, and b) their harping on William Ayres—at a time when the economy is being sucked into a whirlpool—only demonstrates their lack of seriousness about governing.

T.R.'s assault on the "malefactors of great wealth" attempted to prevent the kind of revolution of the have-nots that Burke feared—rightly, as it turned out—because of its potential for violence. Roosevelt knew that billionaires, for all their philanthropic ventures, could act criminally, and he used the government to save capitalism from their worst excesses.

That same rapacity threatened to despoil large portions of the West—until T.R. pushed through the most enduring part of his legacy, his program for conservation of resources (
something I documented in this post from earlier this year). The photo ccompanying this post comes from a memorial to the President's conservation program—one of 19 outdoor monuments to T.R., but the only one of these specifically commemorating his conservation efforts. The monument is located in the appropriately named Roosevelt Commons of Tenafly, N.J.

As dispiriting as John McCain's clueless campaign has been Sarah Palin's chant, "Drill, baby, drill." Unlike many, I believe that the media have been unfair in reporting a number of aspects of her personal life (her kids, like those of other candidates, should not have be put under a media microscope) and, to a lesser extent, her record as governor. But her full-throated advocacy of drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive areas runs directly counter to Theodore Roosevelt's legacy and, by itself, raises questions of whether she would operate in the national interest if elected.

On a personal note: Roosevelt is just so much more fun than politicians today. His rise from asthmatic youngster to physically fit adult is one that should inspire anyone who thinks he cannot make his life over. As a librarian and writer, I love the fact that he brought whole satchels of books with him even when he went on his safari and campaign trips. Every day he breathed in his all-too-short 60 years, he lived "the strenuous life.” He left his country—and, we indisputably know now, his party—badly diminished when, exhausted by his “crowded hours,” he came to the end of it.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

This Day in WWI History (German Commander Ludendorff Dismissed)

October 26, 1918—With his psyche collapsing faster than the war effort he had spearheaded, German commander Erich Ludendorff resigned under pressure from Kaiser Wilhelm II and his new Chancellor Max von Baden.

Some might say that this is pushing a little too far, but I think that Ludendorff is one of those leaders who bear the responsibility for the loss of the finest young men of not one, but two generations of his country. His errors as, in effect, “national commander” of Germany in World War I—going beyond the Prussian tradition of obedience to rulers, since the general played a key role in the making of that policy—would have been grievous enough. But even worse might be his postwar furtherance of a demagogue who brought not merely ruin but also shame on Germany.

In the past half-century, three fine military minds achieved impressive, even astounding tactical successes, but steered their country toward severe or even catastrophic reverses because of blindness to larger strategic goals. Let’s take them in reverse chronological order—from most to least famous, but also from least to most interesting (at least, to me):

* Douglas MacArthur, in the first year of the Korean War, threw Communist forces on the defensive with a daring amphibious landing on the Inchon peninsula. But, claiming that he knew “the Oriental mind,” he blithely dismissed warnings that North Korea’s ally, Communist China, would intervene in force if the United Nationals troops he commanded crossed the Yalu River. The resulting counterattack wiped out virtually all the gains MacArthur made, prolonged the war for another two-and-a-half years, roughed up his pristine image of infallibility—and contributed to his loss of command.

* Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto believed that, if U.S. forces were to be fought, as the Japanese government had decided, then the American fleet at Pearl Harbor needed to be struck without warning so that naval operations in the Pacific could be totally disabled. (“"We can run wild for six months or a year, but after that I have utterly no confidence.”) The Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 did come off as a total shock and did deal America stunning losses at its Hawaii base. But the consequent furor in the U.S. wiped out all isolationist sentiment at a stroke, united the public behind four years of remorseless combat, fueled an anger that contributed to the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and led air force planes to intercept and kill the Japanese naval mastermind in 1943.

* Erich Ludendorff made sure that Russia ceased hostilities on the Eastern Front by secretly allowing V.I. Lenin to pass through Germany by armed train car from exile in Switzerland through neutral Sweden, where he eventually made his way back into Russia to foment a revolution. Lenin’s revolution did, as Ludendorff hoped, enable the movement of German troops toward the Western front—but it also installed a totalitarian Marxist regime that threatened German security for more than seven decades.

A second Ludendorff decision was less justified and produced more immediate dire results. Against the opposition of Baden, Ludendorff backed the Imperial Navy’s campaign to renew unrestricted submarine warfare, even though the initial effort to do so had only tilted American popular opinion sharply toward Great Britain’s.

Just as MacArthur pooh-poohed the idea of a Chinese intervention, Ludendorff professed not to fear an American entrance into the war. (Dutch or Danish intervention worried him. Go figure.) But, once Woodrow Wilson secured a declaration of war from Congress, the President was able to put at the disposal of the Allied high command four fresh divisions in the field by July 1918—the beginning of the end for Germany.

Nearly three weeks after his exit from the military, with his patron the Kaiser having abdicated and Germany concluding an armistice with the Allies to end the First World War, Ludendorff made one of the more ignominious departures from the stage of any defeated soldier—donning civilian clothes, a fake beard and blue spectacles as he took a train into Scandinavia. From there he wrote his wife: "My nerves are too much on edge and sometimes my speech gets out of control. There is no help for it, my nerves have simply gone to pieces!"

I ask you: Doesn't this all sound a bit like Captain Queeg and his strawberries in The Caine Mutiny? You half expect him to say next something like, "Where are my strawberries?"

In his article "Ludendorff: Tactical Genius, Strategic Fool" in the September/October 2008 issue of Military History Magazine, Williamson Murray credits the German with implementing effective, at times brilliant, innovations (developing the first modern defensive warfare doctrine for the era of machine guns and artillery) but also some terrible ideas, such as advocating the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.

Perhaps Ludendorff’s reputation as the prime mover behind victory on the Eastern Front gained him a reprieve from popular revulsion over the war’s misery, because—at least with the far-right nationalist movement growing in Germany—few blamed him for the sorry outcome of the conflict.

Part of this had to do with his successful if shameless identification of scapegoats who could divert attention from his own actions. The war had not been lost by Germany’s brave soldiers nor their commanders, he said. Rather, it was the fault of Catholics, Communists and Jews—leftists who’d undermined the war effort.

Charles Bracelen Flood's Hitler: The Path to Power (1989) relates the key moment in this mythology. General Neill Malcolm, leader of the British Military Mission in Berlin, wanted to clarify Ludendorff's remarks about who was responsible for ending the war. In the early summer of 1919, the British general asked point-blank, “You mean that you were stabbed in the back?”

“That’s it exactly,” Ludendorff responded with the alacrity of one sensing a lifeboat. “We were stabbed in the back—stabbed in the back.” Before long, that notion of a Dolchstoss, or “stab in the back,” was being adopted wholesale. It became one of the foundation tenets of Nazism.

As a rewriting of history, however, Ludendorff’s statement is breathtaking in its hypocrisy and gall. None of the common soldiers at the time—including Adolf Hitler—knew that Ludendorff and General Paul von Hindenberg had pushed for an immediate end to hostilities at the end of September.

Moreover, Ludendorff made this statement while under the care of a psychiatrist. Nothing wrong with that (in fact, I'll bet it was close to a first, since Sigmund Freud's theories were still relatively unknown to much of the general public). It's just that he had pretty much come undone by this point. "He had never seen a flower bloom, never heard a bird sing, never watched the sun set. I used to treat him for his soul."

It was probably fortunate for the general that the Allies put him on a list of people they'd like to try on war crimes. The resulting outcry united the populace against the victors of the war.

In 1923, Ludendorff, having thrown in his lot with radical nationalists, lent his remaining prestige to Adolf Hitler's "Beer Hall Putsch." The Prussian general sided with the anti-democratic forces in his country at a critical time, doing his nation an even worse disservice than before.

Ludendorff's critical mistakes, before and after the war, illustrate why it's best that generals confine themselves to the battlefield and leave the formation of war aims and overall strategy to democratically elected civilian authority.

Song Lyric of the Day (James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson)

“Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,Shadowed beneath thy hand,May we forever stand,True to our God,True to our native land.”—“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” lyrics by James Weldon Johnson, music by John Rosamond Johnson

(Variously referred to as the “black national hymn” and even “the black national anthem,” this song was composed more than 100 years ago by James Weldon Johnson—writer, teacher, lawyer, diplomat, and executive secretary of the NAACP—and his brother John Rosamond, a popular composer of the time. Could they have ever envisioned a time when an African-American would be on the brink of winning the highest office in the land that had oppressed their ancestors? Perhaps, because their hymn, after all, celebrated the miraculous nature of God.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Quote of the Day (Thomas More, on the Rich)

“When I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can’t, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organizing society. They think up all sorts of tricks and dodges, first for keeping safe their ill-gotten gains, and then for exploiting the poor by buying their labor as cheaply as possible. Once the rich have decided that these tricks and dodges shall be officially recognized by society—which includes the poor as well as the rich—they acquire the force of law. Thus, an unscrupulous minority is led by its insatiable greed to monopolize what would have been enough to supply the needs of the whole population.”—Sir Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

(This year would have been particularly bad in any case for any GOP Presidential candidate attempting to run in the wake of a worldwide financial tsunami. But it’s a sign of the Republicans’ cluelessness that they’re invoking the tired trope of “class warfare” and “socialism” against the Democarts. What was the intervention to save the major banks from their own epic folly but a form of socialism? For that matter, what was the sainted Ronald Reagan’s invocation of “welfare queens” but class warfare from the top down?

At first, I thought of not identifying the author of the above passage and seeing who Republicans might say it was. Whether they would said Karl Marx or Barack Obama, they would be sure to believe the author was fomenting “class warfare” and “socialism.” They’d be all the more surprised, then, to discover these words were created by a man now regarded as a hero of conscience—and, in an age the GOP increasingly regards as being riddled with “secular progressives,” a writer who was canonized.

“Utopia” is a pun on the Greek words for “no place” and “good place,” and there are certain aspects of life in More’s fantasy that are so authoritarian that the great English lawyer-politician-Renaissance man could only have been employing satire. But this particular passage has the ring of truth. As a lawyer and judge, he knew how to see through the “truths and dodges” that came before him, even in an age of capitalism only in its conception period. We know now where “insatiable greed” has brought the world. The real question is, how many times are we going to have to relearn the same lesson? When will we turn “the force of law” against “the conspiracy of the rich”?)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Quote of the Day (Bernard Baruch, on the “Cold War”)

“Let us not be deceived - we are today in the midst of a cold war. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home. Let us never forget this: Our unrest is the heart of their success. The peace of the world is the hope and the goal of our political system; it is the despair and defeat of those who stand against us.”—Financier and industrial Bernard Baruch, appearing before the Senate War Investigating Committee, October 24, 1948

(Headline writers quickly latched onto Baruch’s phrase “cold war,” even more than they had two years earlier when he told the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, “We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead.” Actually, both coinages were the handiwork of a talented phrasemaker in his own right: three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor Herbert Bayard Swope, a friend that Baruch turned to for ghostwriting duty. Like Winston Churchill’s observation two years before that an “Iron Curtain” had descended on Eastern Europe, this new phrase aptly summarized a frightening new state of affairs between the United States and the Soviet Union that would last for another 40 years.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

This Day in Theater History ("Maggie Flynn," NYC Draft Riots Musical, Opens—and Flops)

October 23, 1968 – In a decade when the Broadway musical depicted decadence and Nazism (Cabaret), Russian anti-Semitism (Fiddler on the Roof), and contemporary youth in all its pot-smoking, anti-war glory (Hair), the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 might not have seemed so unpleasant.

But screenwriter William Goldman's complaint about the forecasting powers of Tinseltown—"Nobody knows anything"—might just as easily apply to the Great White Way. The talented real-life husband-and-wife team of Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones did little to smooth the way for Maggie Flynn when it premiered at the ANTA Playhouse. Even in times more forgiving of lackluster box office than ours, the musical was lucky to make it through six previews and 82 performances before its January 5, 1969 closing.

In recent years, interest in the inherent dramatic possibilities of the Draft Riots--a disturbance at the height of the Civil War that became one of the most convulsive urban uprisings in American history--has increased proportionately with historians’ highlighting of the tangled class and ethnic components of the event. Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York) depicted the deadly donnybrook on the big screen (with only intermittent success, as far as I’m concerned), while Peter Quinn and Kevin Baker have done so more successfully in the novel (Banished Children of Eve and Paradise Alley, respectively).

Why did Maggie Flynn tank? It didn’t help matters that critics saw too many similarities between that musical and The Sound of Music, another show about a young woman helping to raise orphans amid a background of prejudice and war. But shows have survived critical pans before.

One problem might have been that even musicals with challenging or even grim subject matter usually have something that lightens the mood. South Pacific, with its scathing denunciation of racial prejudice (“Carefully Taught”), included plenty of comedy and never seriously questioned that American servicemen and their nurses were engaged in a necessary war. Hair possessed novelty, and plenty of it—not only rock ‘n’ roll tunes but nudity.

In contrast, Maggie Flynn possessed no radio-friendly tunes and, despite the presence of a clown, not much in the way of humor; its subject matter darkly mirrored concerns about war and racism that many playgoers were dying to escape; and, unlike the young cast of Hair, Ms. Jones kept her clothes on, hewing closer to her wholesome Laurie character in Oklahoma than to her Oscar-winning turn as the prostitute Lulu Baines in Elmer Gantry.

Maggie Flynn not only didn’t become a hit, but it didn’t even achieve the status of a Sondheimesque success d’estime. Not only has it never been revived on Broadway, but the Internet Broadway Database only lists one other production associated with it: an off-off-off Broadway production at the Equity Library Theater in1976. Even the Goodspeed Opera House of East Haddam, Conn., long famed for bringing to renewed life long-ago shows (and certainly one of my favorite places to catch a musical), hasn’t gone near this one. Set in an orphanage, Maggie Flynn is itself something of an orphan among musicals of yesteryear.

But the factor that makes any show such a crapshoot—the many, many people who may or may not cohere in making it succeed—also offers the opportunity for at least some solitary golden moments. Despite its box-office and critical misfortune, Maggie Flynn was not without these.

Her backup singing behind stepson David Cassidy on The Partridge Family has inevitably colored baby boomers’ perception of Shirley Jones’ musical talents, but they’d be better advised to seek out her work on film in Oklahoma, Carousel and The Music Man (as problematic as those motion picture adaptations could be). What may come as a surprise nowadays, however, is how good the work of her co-star and then-husband, Jack Cassidy, could be.

As I pointed out in a prior post on a more successful musical, She Loves Me, Cassidy was associated with 13 original-cast soundtracks. That might at first only indicate how rich that period was with new musicals, except for the fact that the actor’s work was constantly recognized by his peers. During his lifetime, he was nominated four times for a Tony Award (winning once for She Loves Me). One of those nominations was for his role as Phineas the Clown in Maggie Flynn.

(Cassidy’s stage and TV persona was as a preening narcissist. As I contemplated this, I thought he might have made an interesting Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he’d actually been considered for the role. It’s probably just as well that he didn’t end up on the show. Had he played the part instead of Ted Knight, we would have seen the egotistical anchorman constantly lose not because he was an insecure yet lovable idiot, but because he was too clever by half, thereby diluting the warmth of one of the all-time great ensemble comedies in the history of television.)

I should also mention that Maggie Flynn added to the resumes of three young actors who would go on to greater prominence in the late ‘70s and ‘80s: Stephanie Mills (The Wiz), Irene Cara (Fame), and Giancarlo Esposito (“Bugging Out” in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). Mills especially showed quite a bit of spunk in landing her role as Pansie, the orphaned child of a runaway slave, auditioning three times before she won it.

Quote of the Day (Groucho Marx)

“We took some pictures of the native girls but they weren't developed. But we're going back again in a couple of weeks!”—Captain Spaulding (played by Groucho Marx), in Animal Crackers

(The play Animal Crackers, featuring the Marx Brothers, opened on Broadway on this date in 1928, at the 44th Street Theater, and proceeded to run for 191 performances. While doing the show, the comedy team committed to making their first film, Coconuts—thus bringing their brilliantly anarchic style, filled with the kind of double entendres above, to masses that, during the Great Depression, very much needed to see it.

By the way, the play was written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, who would go on to collaborate with George and Ira Gershwin on the great Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about Presidential politics,
Of Thee I Sing.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

This Day in New York History (Metropolitan Opera Opens)

October 22, 1883—New York's Metropolitan Opera opened with a performance of Gounod’s Faust, starting as a meeting place for Gotham’s new-money class but swiftly becoming an established symbol of culture in its own right.

The nouveau riche of the Gilded Age were like today’s starlets with implants—they’d paid a lot for what they had and, by George, they were going to display every bit of it. One of my earlier posts discussed one occasion for this—the ultra-extravagant Vanderbilt fancy-dress ball, also in 1883.

Another such event was the founding of the Met. It all came about because New York’s millionaires (back when the term meant something) found themselves frozen out of New York’s Academy of Music, located near Union Square. The Academy’s old-line Knickerbocker elite were in no mood to accommodate the rich new upstarts, who regarded their offer of 26 additional boxes to be too little, too late. So the nouveau riche built their own property.

The first Metropolitan Opera House—one where it stood until it moved into its present quarters at Lincoln Center in 1966—was located at Broadway and 39th Street. Fashions could and did change over the years in terms of the repertoire (sometimes in Italian, sometimes in German, but a couple of things remained constant: 1) the constellation of talent that came to the house, and 2) the inadequacy of that venue as an institution for musical theater. (In the latter case, the acoustics were fine—it was limited rehearsal and storage space, not to mention cramped dressing rooms, that represented the problem.)

The latter problem was alleviated by the move to the organization's current home, in Lincoln Center, in 1966. But, whether on 39th Street or further uptown, the talent has remained constant, with the stage serving as home over the years to the likes of Enrico Caruso, Lawrence Tibbett, Maria Callas, Marian Anderson, Joan Sutherland, Renee Fleming, and "The Three Tenors"—Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Contreras. Plus, of course, my favorite—the late great baritone Robert Merrill, who for more than three decades thrilled Yankee fans such as myself with his thrilling renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on opening day at the stadium.

Quote of the Day ("Light-Horse Harry" Lee, Providing His Famous Son an Example to Avoid)

"Do aid me to my friend in one of the British islands." – Henry Lee, former Revolutionary War soldier, Virginia governor and Congressman, to his attorney, Robert Goodloe Harper, October 22, 1808, quoted in Charles Royster, Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution (1981)

Today, "Light-Horse Harry" Lee is better known for his son—Robert E. Lee—than for his own accomplishments. At one time, generations of American schoolchildren and quiz-show contestants could recite the most famous line from his eulogy for his great commander, George Washington: "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen." 

The line to Harper that I've just quoted, however, though less eloquent, has an unexpected relevance for readers today—for this member of a proud Virginia dynasty had decided he must leave the nation he'd helped establish, in order to avoid the creditors who were increasingly haunting him. 

As a kid, you're simultaneously most able to absorb new ideas and, because of your hyperactivity, least inclined to assimilate them. It can be especially difficult to absorb history—a matter not helped by the fact that all human interest is leeched out of most texts. When you're talking about early Virginia, with all those horses and wigs and vast country estates maintained by slaves, the distance from now to then can seem hopelessly vast. 

I think adult Americans, however, would find it compelling to learn about Lee and his class—especially so in these last few weeks. For some words and phrases in the story of how Light-Horse Harry Lee—Revolutionary War cavalryman, three-term Virginia governor, author, planter, businessman—came to ruin come up repeatedly in the last month: Real estate. Speculation. Debt. Creditors. Loss. Bankruptcy. 

At some point, I’d love to get my hands on a title I learned about recently: Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence, by Bruce H. Mann. It describes how traditional notions of manhood, honor and dependency began to give way to debtors’ invocation of the rights of man as an argument against imprisoning debtors—though too late for Lee. 

The Democratic-Republicans that drove Lee's Federalists into the political wilderness for good—Jefferson, Madison and Monroe—would have their own troubles with debt two decades after Lee's troubles. But much of that had to do with the precipitous decline of the Virginia economy in the 1820s.

Lee's troubles derived from a different source: the real estate bubble that occurred in the early-to-mid 1790s. People with great visions for the new nation, especially George Washington, saw endless opportunity in land. In particular, Virginia held immense promise, with the capital of the United States being moved south and with the Potomac River opening commerce to the trans-Appalachian region—a way to diversify the state's economy away from tobacco and slaves. 

Washington was an active but seldom imprudent speculator, and his micromanagement of Mount Vernon, even while commander of the Continental Army and America's first President, cushioned him when the financial winds shifted. Two associates were not so fortunate: 

Robert Morris, the "Financier of the Revolution," who managed to put desperately needed funds at hand for Washington and his troops, got in over his head over investments in the West and along the Potomac—along with construction of an unfinished mansion that became known as "Morris' Folly"—went awry. In 1798 he was thrown into a Philadelphia debtor's prison. The experience broke him. When he came out three years later, his health was broken. He lived out his last five years through an annuity arranged by his old assistant, Gouverneur Morris. 

* James Wilson, one of only six men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, was so hailed for his judicial sagacity that he became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. That didn't prevent creditors from hounding him so much that he could not attend sessions of the high court because he feared arrest. Eventually they did catch up to him, in Burlington, N.J. Still pursued for uncollected debt, he high-tailed down to the North Carolina home of fellow Supreme Court Justice James Iredell, where he contracted malaria and died in 1798. (For the relationships between the two justices and their wives—including a possible affair between Iredell and Wilson's much younger, pretty second wife, Hannah—see Natalie Wexler's fascinating account in The American Scholar.) 

When it came to indebtedness, early American law was modeled on English common law. In the 1790s, when Morris, Wilson and Lee came a cropper, there was still no federal bankruptcy law. The welter of state laws created for debtors a hydra-headed situation in which even imprisonment did not always satisfy financial obligations. 

Brave and warm-hearted, Light-Horse Harry lacked his great chief’s hard-won realism about national and personal governance. If a list could be compiled of 20 financial no-nos, Lee could probably be faulted for violating 19 of these, including: 

* Lack of documentation of claims; 

* Loaning $40,000 to someone (Morris) unable to repay him; 

*Lack of priorities in spending his time—e.g., writing a 30-page manuscript on the evils of Thomas Jefferson at a time when he could have been putting his financial house in order; 

* Selling lands whose titles were often in doubt; 

* Selling land whose dimensions and boundaries were imprecise—for instance, buying what he believed to be a 300,000-acre tract, selling it to New England investors, only to have them stop payment when they learned it was only 133,874 acres; 

* Writing a bad check for a friend helping him pay his debts; 

* Buying land he couldn’t see even while being forced to sell land he knew, as when he insanely bought a tract in Georgia even as he coughed up Virginia property. 

Even Lee’s first wife recognized his instability, leaving her property to her children in trust so her husband’s creditors couldn’t get at it. 

All these efforts to avoid catastrophe proved unavailing. In April 1809, Light-Horse Harry Lee was arrested for a debt of approximately 5400 Spanish dollars, and jailed for a year. When he came out, he had to move the family he had established with his second wife so that his son by his first marriage—Robert’s half-brother Henry—could take over the ancestral estate, Stratford. Two years later, in the middle of a Baltimore riot over a newspaper editor’s opposition to the War of 1812, Lee was not just wounded but badly mutilated. 

Now even more desperate to get away, this time for his health, Lee sailed for Barbados. After five years, he wrote that he was coming home. He never made it, dying off the coast of Savannah, Ga., on property owned by the daughter of his old Revolutionary War commander, General Nathaniel Greene.

Ann Carter Lee, Harry’s widow, loved her dashing but flawed husband, making her all the more determined that “his grim cycle of promise, overconfidence, recklessness, disaster, and ruin should not be rounded in the lives of her children,” according to the great biographer of Robert E. Lee, Douglas Southall Freeman. 

Light-Horse Harry Lee’s fate was all too common in a republic founded on “the pursuit of happiness.” Something remains of this in the national DNA, as seen in a widening economic misery that hardly anybody expected to see three-quarters of a century after the Great Depression.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

This Day in Electoral History (GOP Farmer Commits Fraud; British Envoy, a Gaffe)

October 21, 1888—With the Presidential election only a few weeks ago, The Los Angeles Times – unlike its present incarnation, a mouthpiece of its Republican owner, Col. Harrison Otis—printed a letter that tilted the balance of the contest.

In an unguarded moment, Lionel Sackville-West, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United States, confided to a correspondent he had never met, an English-born American citizen named Charles F. Murchison, that the incumbent administration of President Grover Cleveland was “desirous of maintaining friendly relations with Great Britain.”

A few small problems with all of this:

* “Murchison” was fiction—the letter had been created by a Republican farmer named George Osgoodby.

* Sackville-West had fallen for a diplomatic version of a trick that pugilist Muhammad Ali later tried out on George Foreman in a boxing ring—i.e., “Rope a Dope.”

* The Cleveland administration not only didn’t invite the errant envoy’s endorsement, but would have been thrilled if he could have been dropped into a deep, deep well—for at one stroke, Sackville-West had alienated a constituency that had put the President over the top in the key state of New York four years before—Irish Catholics.

In the end, the fury of this voting bloc led to the loss of New York for the Democrats in 1888. While narrowly winning the popular vote, Cleveland lost the all-important Electoral College vote to his Republican challenger, Benjamin Harrison.

I could go on and on about this event, but I’ve found someone who can relate it a hundred times better than I ever can. I’m talking about Robert B. Mitchell, an assistant editor with the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.

The longtime journalist has indulged his fascination with history in Skirmisher: The Life and Times of James B. Weaver, the Populist Party candidate of 1892.

Now he displays his smooth writing style and considerable erudition on a blog called “The Greased Pig.” (If that term sounds slightly unsavory, well, it is—it comes from Ambrose Bierce’s description of the Presidency as “the greased pig in the field game of American politics.” The more things change, etc….) Here is Mitchell’s post about this imbroglio.

Mitchell only started his blog a fortnight ago, but I’m impressed enough that I’ve already bookmarked it. I hope you will, too, faithful reader.

Quote of the Day (Stritch, on Brando)

“Marlon’s going to class to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.”—Actress Elaine Stritch on Marlon Brando, her fellow-student of acting teacher Stella Adler

(The always quotable Ms. Stritch is cited in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s article “Method Man,” appearing in this week’s New Yorker. The magazine, bless its chintzy little heart, has not posted the full text online, in keeping with its policy of only putting some pieces from each issue up. You can see an abstract here, then, if you want, either shell out the dough at the newsstand or—if you’re looking to economize in these troubled times—look it up at fine libraries everywhere—a prospect that, as what is called an “information specialist”, I certainly have no objection to.

In any case, Pierpont hasn’t produced a radical reconsideration of the man who, it’s commonly agreed, transformed American acting, but she does include—besides the lovely quote from Ms. Stritch—some details about the actor’s life that I, for one, did not know. Did you realize, for instance, that John Garfield was originally considered for Stanley Kowalski in
A Streetcar Named Desire, until his demands led director Elia Kazan to look elsewhere?)