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Freedom Writing

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Hindsight Is 20/20



Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It really is. I believe it is an extremely good quality for a person to possess, to be able to look back at a decision that turned out to be the wrong one and learn from it.

The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was the wrong decision. I believed it was the wrong decision at the time, but that was not a popular position to take. It took a certain amount of courage, back in those post–September 11 days, to tell one's friends and co–workers, many of whom supported the decision to invade Iraq, that it was a bad decision, and I did not always have the strength of will to argue with people about it, especially as confident as supporters of the invasion were that weapons of mass destruction would be found.

After a certain amount of time had passed and it became clear that the pretext for the invasion — the alleged existence of those weapons of mass destruction — was based on faulty information, public opinion began to sour on the war. But I think it is important to remember that a lot of people supported the invasion initially — including Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 2016 — no matter how much they may pretend otherwise today.

Mrs. Clinton wasn't the only Democrat who voted to authorize George W. Bush to use force against Iraq. When the Senate voted on Oct. 11, 2002, 29 of 50 Democrats joined 48 Republicans in a 77–23 vote giving Bush the authority he sought. Her colleague from New York, Chuck Schumer, voted to authorize the use of force. So did Joe Biden and Dianne Feinstein and Harry Reid.

In my lifetime, I have had the opportunity to vote for national tickets with a Bush on them half a dozen times. I have never voted for one and, if Jeb is nominated next year, it will make seven times I have refused to lend my support to a Bush in a national campaign.

But I find myself sympathizing — to an extent — with his recent stumble on the question of invading Iraq.

Fox News' Megyn Kelly asked him, "Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?"

Bush tried to answer a different question. "I would've, and so would've Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got."

He kind of got back to what Kelly was getting at when he elaborated: "In retrospect, the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty. And in retrospect, once we … invaded and took out Saddam Hussein, we didn't focus on security first. And the Iraqis, in this incredibly insecure environment, turned on the United States military because there was no security for themselves and their families."

Kelly was dealing in hypotheticals, and what Bush should have said — but, obviously, did not — was that he won't answer hypothetical questions. I'm an amateur historian, and what–if is the kind of game historians love to play. But it is a game that really cannot be won because the past is what it is. It's no trick to look back on a bad decision and know it was a mistake, but human beings are not blessed with the ability to see the future. If they were, I guess many would not marry the people they married or invest in companies that go belly up.

Or bet on the wrong horse at the racetrack.

There seems to be an impression among many Americans these days that a president must be infallible, that he must be capable of all things — including superhuman stuff like seeing the future. But anyone who looks for an infallible leader, someone around whom everyone can rally, is just asking to be disappointed. In the life of every presidency, there will be those who think the president does everything right and those who think the president does everything wrong — and everyone else who falls in between those two extremes. To misquote Abraham Lincoln, you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all the people all the time.

A president can only act within the reality of his times — and hope, at the end of the day, that he made the right decision. Seems to me that the best presidents have been the ones who second–guessed themselves and tried to learn from each decision they made — and the worst presidents were the ones who would not admit to having made a mistake.

If one is going to answer Kelly's question, though, it would have to be something like this: "In hindsight, it was a mistake to invade Iraq." That's it. Bush's inclination to defend his brother is admirable, but it does not have to be part of his answer to that question.

It can be the answer to another question if it is asked. He is right when he observes that a president must act on the information he has. But that is not the question that was asked. So don't answer it.

Better still, though, not to answer hypothetical questions at all. Politicians can't win hypotheticals, and politicians always want to play games they can win. Hypotheticals require proving a negative, and that cannot be done.

One time, I saw illusionist Penn Jillette talking about Nostradamus' prophecies that supposedly predicted Napoleon and Hitler and many other events that occurred long after his death. Jillette complained that the prophecies, which were apparently written in a deliberately obscure way, never named names, places or dates. What good is that, he wanted to know, if we want to prevent or avoid a certain event?

It's a fair point.

Let me ask you something. If time travel was possible, and you could go back in time, would you kill an infant Adolf Hitler sleeping in his crib? It is safe to say, I believe, that nazism would not have seized control of Germany without a charismatic leader at the helm. Snuffing out an infant who, knowing what we know now, grew up to plunge the world into a war that claimed millions of lives could be seen as heroic.

But could you take the life of a baby? You might say now that you could, but, when the chips were down, you might find it incredibly difficult to kill a small child, even knowing that, by doing so, you could save millions of others.

In the two decades between his resignation and his death, Richard Nixon might have said that, in hindsight, having the taping system installed in the Oval Office was a mistake — but that would have been with the benefit of knowing how it eventually played out, producing the evidence that brought his presidency to an end. But when the system was installed, his motivation (ostensibly) was the preservation of the historical record.

As Dr. Phil would say, how did that work out for ya?

Monday, May 4, 2015

Of Flowers And Water And Bullets



There certainly were a lot of lingering images from Baltimore last week.

There were, of course, the images of the plundering of small businesses, the burning of public property, the clashes between protestors and police. Those images overwhelmed everything else.

There were also the images of a city government that was caught flat–footed in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death while in police custody. One had to wonder if this was an isolated incident, or if this sort of thing, albeit on a much smaller scale, goes on all the time. Could the government of Baltimore really be that inept, that incompetent?

And there was the image of the Baltimore mom slapping her son around. I think there must have been a lot of people who applauded that assertion of parental authority. There seems to be far too little of it these days.

I felt some of the most powerful images from Baltimore were the less public moments, the ones that photojournalists always seem to find. Sometimes, unfortunately, those moments have been manufactured, but the spontaneous ones have the power to remain in your memory.

Like the one at the top of this post of the black child distributing bottles of water to city police in riot gear.

It reminded me of a mental image I've carried with me for many years — I say mental because it is entirely the product of my imagination based on accounts I have read and heard. As far as I know, there is no photograph of it. But it is said to have happened 45 years ago — yesterday, I believe, maybe the day before — in Ohio.

To put it in historical perspective, President Nixon had just told the world about the Americans' previously secret invasion of Cambodia. Angry protests had erupted on college campuses all across the country. In Ohio, the National Guard had been called out to bring order to the campus of Kent State University.

Lots of people think that the Guard only appeared in Kent on the day of the shootings — Monday, May 4, 1970 — but the Guard was there that weekend. Sometime that weekend, Allison Krause, who had just turned 19, approached one of the Guardsmen with a flower in her hand. She placed it in the barrel of his weapon and said, "Flowers are better than bullets."

On Monday, May 4, Krause was one of four Kent State students who died after being shot by Guardsmen. Her comment about flowers and bullets is chiseled into the stone that marks her grave.

It seems to me that those two moments, separated by nearly half a century, summarize the differences in the thinking of the two sides in our ongoing political debates.

Liberals are like the image in my mind of Allison Krause. They see an ideal world that doesn't exist — but, in their minds, it should, and it frustrates them that it does not.

Conservatives are like the young black boy distributing water bottles to combatants. They see the world — and deal with it — as it is. They wish the world was better, but it is not, and it frustrates them that it is not.

I wonder if the two sides will ever find common ground.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Day Hitler Died



"Outside in the passageway, Dr. (Joseph) Goebbels, (Martin) Bormann and a few others waited. In a few moments a revolver shot was heard. They waited for a second one, but there was only silence. After a decent interval they quietly entered the fuehrer's quarters. They found the body of Adolf Hitler sprawled on the sofa dripping blood. He had shot himself in the mouth. At his side lay Eva Braun. Two revolvers had tumbled to the floor, but the bride had not used hers. She had swallowed poison."

William L. Shirer
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

World War II and Adolf Hitler and the Nazis all came before my time so I only know what I have read or seen in documentaries.

It was real for my parents, though. They were not quite grown when the war began, not even when the war ended, but they were old enough to know who was fighting and what the stakes were.

And when the news that Hitler had committed suicide 70 years ago today reached them, they must have known that the war in Europe would be over soon.

I don't know if that means they felt the war in general was over — or if they realized that the war in the Pacific continued.

My guess is that, in 1945, most people who were old enough to remember Pearl Harbor knew there would still be a fight to finish in the Pacific. There was considerable angst about the prospect of an invasion of Japan — widely believed in April 1945 to be the only way to end the fighting but just as widely believed to be likely to claims hundreds of thousands of American lives in the process.

The Japanese were determined fighters, and no one thought they would go down easily. The invasion of Japan was expected to be won by whoever was the last man standing.

But that was a matter to consider some other time. Seventy years ago today, Hitler was dead, and the German surrender was only days away.

Hitler's death, TIME magazine recalls, was shrouded in mystery.

"It wasn't immediately clear what had happened on April 30, 1945," wrote TIME. "This much the world knew: Adolf Hitler was gone, one way or another."

And Hitler had been at the core of Nazi Germany. The tide had turned against the Nazis — it was why Hitler committed suicide — and, when Hitler was gone, all motivation to continue fighting was gone, too.

Questions remain, though, about Hitler's final hours, even after seven decades. Was his suicide the last act of an irrational man who had been waiting vainly for the arrival of Nazi troops who never came? Or was it the cool, deliberate act of a man who had considered all the possible endings to the scenario and concluded suicide was the best choice? The people who were with him in the bunker insist they heard a single gunshot — and that Eva Braun's revolver was not fired. Papers in the Russians' files indicated that Hitler poisoned himself. Were both accounts true? Did Hitler shoot himself after (or while) biting down on the poison capsule? Or did someone else pull the trigger?

We'll probably never know — and it really doesn't matter, does it?

Forty Years Since the Fall of Saigon



The picture at the top of this post is the image that comes to my mind when I think of the end of the war in Vietnam 40 years ago today.

As far back as I can remember, the war in Vietnam was a fact of life. To a young boy, it seemed that there had never been a time when U.S. forces were not in Vietnam. Anyway, it seemed that way to me. It was probably different for people who were even a year older than I; I was born at the right time to have no real memory of the pre–Vietnam era, but I know that older brothers and sisters of my contemporaries did know of that time, had memories of it.

I knew nothing of it, and I guess I've always assumed that the others who were my age had no memories of it, either, but I could be wrong about that. I can think of a few people I knew who were probably more aware of the outside world than the rest of us, but they were definitely the exceptions. Anyway, Vietnam influenced everything. It was on the news every night with updated casualty counts. Late in the '60s, if there was a demonstration somewhere or someone important was giving a speech, it was a pretty good bet that it was about the war. It was everywhere.

My father was a religion professor at a small college in my hometown. For a small college, it had some impressive things, though, like an Olympic–sized swimming pool. In the summer, one hour was set aside each weekday for faculty members and their families to have exclusive use of that pool, and my brother and I were regulars there. Anyway, on one of those occasions, I have a vivid memory of swimming in the pool and, for whatever reason, I started to muse about whether the war would still be going on when I got old enough to be drafted. I didn't think about it that much; after all, the prospect still seemed far away, and I was still just a boy, cooling off on a hot summer day in Arkansas. But that moment made enough of an impression on me that I can still remember it all these years later.

I don't remember how I imagined the war would end. I guess I pictured a Hollywoodesque finish with bombs and rockets bursting, and the Americans finding some way to win the thing in the end. I guess I imagined a John Wayne movie. It wasn't like that, of course. The fall of Saigon was far from glamorous. The Viet Cong swept the city, capturing all the important places, and South Vietnamese refugees evacuated.

In fact, the fall of the city actually came after many of the civilians and the Americans there had fled. In that picture, you can see some of the South Vietnamese trying to climb aboard a single helicopter on April 29, 1975. It looks reasonably orderly in the picture, but my memory is of chaos. I guess it was controlled chaos. In 24 hours, American helicopters evacuated about 7,000 people — roughly a dozen at a time — and it was not orderly.

But there were times when I watched the news coverage of helicopters like the one in the picture struggling to get off the ground, so heavy were they with passengers.

Strange as it might have seemed to people at the time — which explains why I never mentioned it to anyone — I found myself sympathizing with Gerald Ford. I liked him when he first became president. He was such a likable guy, a breath of fresh air after the Nixon years, and then he pardoned Nixon and threw away all the good will the American people had given him. In hindsight, I have to grudgingly admit that he was probably right when he said that pardoning Nixon was the only way to close the chapter on Watergate and move on. At the time, I thought it was a flimsy excuse. So, too, apparently, did a lot of people.

The Nixon/Watergate matter wasn't the only challenge Ford faced. The loss of Saigon was another. Ford's approval rating, which had been in the low 70s right after he took office but tumbled after the pardon, had been hovering around 40% since before Christmas in 1974, which was when the North Vietnamese broke the 1973 accords and invaded a South Vietnamese province along the Cambodian border. In Gallup's last survey before the fall of Saigon, Ford's approval stood at 39%.

Ford had a reputation for not being too bright, but I have come to believe that was mostly a facade for him. He used that image to his advantage. It made his adversaries underestimate him, some more than others.

I don't think anything illustrated that quite as well as the Mayaguez incident a couple of weeks after the fall of Saigon. The Mayaguez, a merchant ship, was seized by the Cambodians on May 12. Three days later, a rescue mission was launched, making Ford appear decisive and assertive — qualities he would need in the campaign for the Republican nomination against former Gov. Ronald Reagan; if that was what he was seeking, I'd be inclined to say he got it. In Gallup's next survey, Ford's approval was over 50%.

Ford and his people were products of the Cold War — he had three chiefs of staff while he was president (Alexander Haig, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney), and they almost certainly influenced his actions in Southeast Asia. They were worried about the other Southeast Asian countries, whether they would be more likely to fall prey to communism after the fall of Saigon, and they were determined to make a stand.

At the time, the expectation had been that the South Vietnamese could resist the North Vietnamese until 1976. Obviously, that prediction fell a bit short of the mark.

It is a tricky proposition to see into the future.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Glance at the Race for the White House



Each time we prepare to elect a president, there always seems to be someone seeking a party's nomination who sought it before but fell short. Most of the time, that candidate (or those candidates in especially active presidential election cycles) is said to be taking a different approach this time — presumably because the original approach failed the first time.

The message may be different, or the candidate may choose a different way to convey that message. The latter appears to be what Hillary Clinton is doing. "Clinton plans to forgo the packed rallies that marked her previous campaign," writes the Associated Press' Lisa Lerer, "and focus on smaller round-table events with selected groups of supporters."

Sometimes that is a good idea; other times, not so much. I am skeptical that it will help Clinton avoid questions about her email or acceptance of cash contributions from foreign governments seeking access while she was secretary of State. In the context of previous presidential campaigns, that isn't really surprising. It is frequently — but not always — difficult to know whether changing the message or how the message is presented is the right approach the second time around — until after the campaign is over.

By that time, of course, one need look no further than the election results to decide if the candidate (should he or she win the nomination) made the right choice. If it wasn't, there will be no shortage of scapegoats and other excuses in what boils down to a circular firing squad.

What is more certain these days is that it is difficult for a party to prevail in three consecutive national elections. Some people attribute that to fatigue with the incumbent party. Since the postwar era has coincided with the advent of television — which, in turn, has led to Americans having unprecedented access to a president's daily activities — that makes sense.

And I do think that plays a role in it, but I think it is more complex than that. Now, I'm going to lay a little groundwork here. I apologize in advance if it seems elementary.

There are two kinds of presidential election years — incumbent years and non–incumbent years. An incumbent year is when America has an incumbent president who is eligible to run for another term — and usually does. I think the last such incumbent who chose not to seek another term was Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Three other presidents in the 20th century made the decision not to seek another term when they legally could have — Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, Calvin Coolidge in 1928 and Harry Truman in 1952.

(Truman was president when the 22nd Amendment was ratified. He had served nearly two full terms by 1952, having succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, but the amendment made the specific point that it would not apply to whoever was president upon its ratification.)

Since we always have an incumbent, the matter of eligibility would seem to be the determining factor, but it isn't. LBJ's decision, which was largely the product of the public's increasingly sour mood about the war in Vietnam, not to seek another term as president instantly turned 1968 into a non–incumbent year. That's a year when the incumbent is not on the ballot in the general election, whether by choice or circumstance.

In recent times, non–incumbent years have tended to favor the nominee of the out–of–power party because those years have come when the incumbent usually is ineligible to seek another term.

It wasn't always that way. For whatever reason, it seems to have been largely a byproduct of World War II that parties almost never win three straight national elections. At least, that's when this pattern emerged. Before that, victories tended to come in bunches. Democrats won five straight elections between 1932 and 1948. The Republicans won the three elections prior to that — and 11 of 15 between 1860 and 1916.

Of course, it was after World War II ended when the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two full terms in office was ratified, and that was a game changer. Few presidents were tempted to seek a third term before the amendment was ratified, but it was always a possibility. Since the 22nd Amendment was ratified, it has been generally understood that, after winning his second term, a president gradually slips into irrelevance, essentially becoming a lame duck the day he takes the oath of office for the second time. Maybe that explains the pattern that has emerged in the last 67 years.

Since Harry Truman's "upset" victory in 1948, Americans have voted for the same party's nominees for president three straight times only once — in 1988 when Vice President George H.W. Bush was elected to succeed Ronald Reagan. Otherwise, it has been so predictable you could set your calendar by it.

Bush was helped by the fact that President Reagan was still popular after eight years in office — Gallup had Reagan at 51% approval just before the 1988 election — but the popularity of the incumbent does not necessarily help the nominee of the president's party.

Prior to the 2000 election, Bill Clinton's approval rating was between 59% and 62%. Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, narrowly won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote — in large part because he did not take advantage of Clinton's popularity and political skills during his campaign against George W. Bush.

Of course, if the incumbent's popularity is below 50%, his party's nominee to replace him is probably toast before the convention adjourns. George W. Bush's approval ratings were mostly in the 20s just before the 2008 election, which John McCain lost in a modest landslide.

And Lyndon Johnson's approval rating just before the 1968 election (42%) almost precisely mirrored Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey's share of the popular vote — and 1968 turned out to be a cliffhanger but only because independent candidate George Wallace was on the ballot.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Rising From the Ashes of Oklahoma City



"The Oklahoma City bombing was simple technology, horribly used. The problem is not technology. The problem is the person or persons using it."

Rev. Billy Graham

It's hard for me to believe it has been 20 years since the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

I wrote about this back on the 15th anniversary, and I observed much the same thing then as I do now. It's hard to believe, probably even harder now. Maybe that's because it seems as if I have lived another lifetime since it happened.

There were many things going on in my life at that time — and other things that happened in the weeks and months that followed — that make my memory of the bombing something of a blur.

I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, about 30 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, when the bombing occurred. In fact, I was scheduled to be in the classroom less than half an hour after the bombing happened. My office was just across the hall from the student newspaper newsroom, and I had been doing some work in my office for about an hour or so. There were never very many students in the newsroom in the mornings — it was a daily paper, and the staffers worked in there in the late afternoons and into the evenings — but there were a few students in there that morning, and they had the TV on. I could hear the news reports — still sketchy — as I walked down the hall just before the start of my class.

I knew something had happened, but, like most of the people watching the news reports on the local TV stations at that time, no one really knew what it was. In those days, people didn't automatically think of terrorism when something unpleasant happened. Well, maybe some people did — there was a report that day of a man of Middle Eastern descent who had the misfortune of boarding a plane in Oklahoma City that morning and flying to Chicago, where authorities stopped and detained him after he got off the plane. There was some modest hysteria about that, but it was nothing, I am sure, compared to what it might have been if the Oklahoma City bombing had occurred maybe a decade later than it did.

In those more innocent times (by comparison), terrorism was one of many potential culprits; in fact, the early speculation that day was that a gas line had exploded. As far as most Americans were concerned in 1995, terrorism was still something that happened in the other hemisphere. I could be wrong, but I don't think that man had any idea what had happened when the agents descended upon him in Chicago. Fast forward a few years. If the bombing had occurred in 2005 instead of 1995, terrorism probably would have been the first — and, perhaps, only — suspect for many.

My class lasted for an hour, then I returned to my office to do some work before going home for lunch. While I was at home, I watched the news reports. Considerably more was known by that time. The gas line explosion theory had been ruled out by noon. It was now believed to have been the outcome of a deliberate act.

That afternoon, I had a writing lab. Before it started, some of my students approached me about letting them leave early so they could donate blood for the injured. That was the kind of thing I wanted to encourage so I said I would try to wrap things up earlier than usual to allow them to do that — and that is what I did.

By mid–afternoon that day, a suspect was in custody. His name was Timothy McVeigh. He was convicted in 1997 and executed in 2001. His accomplice, Terry Nichols, is serving several life sentences in a super maximum security prison in Colorado.

For them, the Oklahoma City bombing is a closed chapter, I suppose — but not so for those who must live with the consequences of their acts.

The most obvious victims, I imagine, are the ones who were injured that day, and many have been the subjects of followup articles in newspapers and magazines. The survivors have not all been eager to share their stories. Some chose to avoid the spotlight on what must be a very personal anniversary for them; others reluctantly went ahead with the interviews but insisted that they would not let what happened 20 years ago define them.

I have to admire that.

But, as I have often said in these last 20 years, I also admire the commendable work that was done by the student journalists with whom I worked at the University of Oklahoma at that time. Many of them grew up in Oklahoma City or one of the many nearby towns; they were touched by the bombing, too, but they persevered with their work as journalists.

The student newspaper had its staffers at the bombing site for the rest of what remained of that semester. At a time when nearly every other newspaper — professional or academic — was using articles, photos and graphics supplied by the wire services, the OU student newspaper relied on its reporters, photographers and graphics artists to produce all original material — material that was posted online at a time when many professional periodicals still did not have an online presence, let alone most college newspapers.

They put aside their personal feelings and covered the event with the professionalism it deserved. That accomplishment was even more impressive than you may realize. One of the staffers actually lost her father in the bombing.

But she, like the city, has risen from the ashes. She has gone on to pursue a career in broadcast journalism and has refused to let what happened to her family 20 years ago define her.

At the site of the bombing, a memorial now stands.

I haven't been there, but I have heard it is a serene place with a reflecting pool, a "gate of time" and a field of chairs symbolizing each life that was lost that day. The chairs representing the adults are a little larger than the ones representing the children who died. That is a nice, subtle touch.

Another interesting touch is the "survivor tree." It was part of the building's original landscaping and, somehow, it survived the bombing and the fires that followed. It still stands. I presume it will be mentioned during today's memorial service.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The First Presidential Assassination



In hindsight, some things seem to confirm the concept of predestination. The shooting of Abraham Lincoln in Washington's Ford's Theater 150 years ago today is such an event.

Predestination has always played an important role in the story of Lincoln's assassination. About two weeks before he was assassinated, Lincoln claimed to have had a dream in which he saw a deceased person in repose in the East Room. In his dream, Lincoln said he asked a soldier who was dead in the White House. The reply was that the president was dead. He had been killed by an assassin's bullet.

For anyone who grew up in the United States, was educated in its schools and studied its history (even half–heartedly), the story of Lincoln seems to be an integral part of the story of America — which, indeed, it is, as is the story of each president. We tend to remember periods in history, after all, by the chief executives who presided over them — i.e., "the Reagan years" or "the Roosevelt years."

Not all presidencies are created equal, though, so it doesn't always work that way, especially the farther back one must go to locate a particular president. I would venture to say that, if you mentioned "the Fillmore years" or "the Pierce years," you'd draw blank stares from 21st–century listeners. (Heck, you'd probably get blank stares from many if you spoke about the Ford years.)

In part, I suspect that reflects the changing nature of American government. The modern president has more power than many of his predecessors, especially those who lived in the 19th century. When Fillmore and Pierce (and others — they just happen to be the two I mentioned earlier) occupied the White House, there were giants in Congress like Daniel Webster, and they were the ones who held most of the authority.

In the early days of the republic, two–term presidencies were not uncommon. Five of the first seven presidents were two–term presidents — the exceptions being the Adamses, John and his son John Quincy — but none of the next eight presidents served more than a single four–year term. I guess that made the American president seem more like a transitory figure.

Lincoln was elected twice, the first president to be re–elected in nearly 30 years, and he presided over the North's triumph over the South in the Civil War.

Other than Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, most of the early presidents are largely unknown to modern Americans. There is no special reason why they shouldn't be, I guess. It was the nature of the times — and the nature of the presidency is that it has been an evolving office, one that has grown more powerful as time goes by. Consequently, the men who have held that office have been more powerful as time has passed.

That's really a topic for another time, though. My point here is that Lincoln's administration had a lot to do with the evolution of the presidency. It was a consequence of the unique situation in which Americans found themselves at that time — at war with each other. There was no precedent for what Lincoln faced, no opportunity to reflect on what some previous president did right or wrong in a similar situation and learn from it. It was uncharted territory, and it required Lincoln to do things that the founding fathers couldn't have anticipated. It required him to act quickly in many cases. It made his a different kind of presidency than any the country had seen before.

But 150 years ago today, that war was over. It was Good Friday. Able to relax for the first time since entering the White House, Lincoln and his wife made plans to go to the theater on this night and see the British play, "Our American Cousin."

Of the evening at the theater, Carl Sandburg wrote, "The evening and the drama are much like many other evenings when the acting is pleasant enough, the play mediocre, the audience having no thrills of great performance but enjoying itself."

Actor John Wilkes Booth wasn't in the cast, but he knew the play. He knew which lines drew the biggest laughs and which actors were on stage at particular points in the performance.

And he had determined a good point in the play to shoot Lincoln. It was just after one of the biggest laugh–getting lines in the script, which he hoped would muffle the sound of the shot, and only one actor would be on stage. After shooting Lincoln, he planned to make his escape by leaping to the stage and running off in the confusion. He figured it would be just after 10 p.m. when the moment came so, in his last meeting with his co–conspirators, he instructed them to kill the vice president and the secretary of state at about the same time. The would–be assassin of the secretary of state only succeeded in wounding him, though, and the would–be assassin of the vice president lost his nerve; if things had gone off the way Booth envisioned, all three would be attacked and killed at roughly the same time.

After the assassination, at least one witness to what had happened in Lincoln's box came forward. He had been watching the box instead of the stage at the moment the shooting occurred, and he said Lincoln was laughing

Booth began making his way to the presidential box around 10 o'clock. Presidential security in the mid–19th century was almost nonexistent by 21st–century standards; even if it hadn't been, Booth was well known. His presence in a theater would not have been questioned if anyone had confronted him — but no one did. Lincoln's friend and self–appointed bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, was not on hand; the president had sent him to Richmond, Virginia. Lamon's substitute left his post and was drinking at a nearby tavern, leaving the president unguarded.

He was able to stroll into the theater and make his way to Lincoln's box almost without being stopped — and then only for a cordial greeting and some brief small talk. Walking at a fairly leisurely pace, Booth reached Lincoln's box in time to barricade the first door that led to the box. Booth would go through the second one and shoot Lincoln in the back of the head, then leap to the stage, but the Lincolns' companion for the evening, Major Henry Rathbone, tried to stop Booth, and he tumbled out of the box instead, catching the spur of a boot in a flag, and landed awkwardly on the stage below. He suffered a fracture, but still managed to get away in the confusion as planned.

As I observed the other day, Booth swore to kill Lincoln a few days before actually pulling the trigger, so we know he had thought about it before he did it, but there is plenty of reason to suspect that Booth did not decide to shoot Lincoln on Good Friday until that day, when he went to Ford's Theater to pick up his mail and learned that the Lincolns would be attending that night along with General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant.

As it turned out, the Grants did not attend, but upon hearing the president would be there, the idea of assassination began to percolate in Booth's mind. He walked around the theater, observing its layout for a much more substantial performance than any he had given there before. Bishop wrote that Booth made plans for his getaway before leaving the theater around noon.

After that, it was simply a matter of time.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Day FDR Died



My parents were both teenagers when, 70 years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Ga. He was 63 years old.

Like millions of other teenage Americans, my parents could not remember a time when FDR had not been president — and, unless the 22nd Amendment is repealed, theirs will be the only generation like that. No succeeding president will ever be able to serve more than 10 years; if circumstances ever do permit one person to serve as president for 10 years (which can only happen if a vice president succeeds a president who has just under half of his current term left and then is elected to two four–year terms), it will be nearly, but not quite, as long as FDR's actual tenure turned out to be. Roosevelt was elected to four four–year terms, but he died only a few months into his fourth term so he wound up serving 12 years, not 16.

The authors of the 22nd Amendment made it clear the restriction would not apply to whoever was president when it became the law of the land. So Harry Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt and was the president when the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951, could have served more than 10 years. Truman, of course, did go on to win a four–year term of his own in 1948, but his popularity had deteriorated so by 1952 that Truman chose not to run again.

Thirty years from now, we may be able to find out if the New York Times was correct when it wrote, following FDR's death, "Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House."

That story is yet to be written, of course, and I often doubt that it ever will, so little regard do most people seem to have for history anymore. By the time 2045 rolls around, it is possible that few people will remember his name, let alone his actual existence. There will be fewer still who will remember him as a living, breathing human being who led his country through its worst economic crisis and a war to stop fascism.

Here's a tip for anyone who may be reading this 30 years from now: Those who are alive in 2045 who want to know more about FDR's life and death should read Jim Bishop's book, "FDR's Last Year: April 1944 to April 1945." It is likely that those who read it will learn more about FDR and the decisions he made (and why he made them) than nearly all Americans knew at the time.

That isn't unusual, I suppose. At one time or another, every administration must operate in secret. Some do cross the line and use unlawful tactics, though, so a republic must remain forever wary, and the press must never lose sight of its primary role — watchdog.

Of course, there are certain things that were long considered personal and off limits that are not that way anymore. The members of the press who covered FDR knew that he was handicapped, but they never mentioned it in their articles nor did they photograph FDR in a way that showed the heavy leg braces he wore or the wheelchair in which he sat.

And it seems no one outside Roosevelt's inner circle knew that the woman with whom he had been having an affair for two decades, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, was with him at the Little White House, the cottage where he had stayed when he came to bathe and exercise in the natural spring waters of western Georgia, when he died. In spite of reports of an affair between FDR and an unnamed woman — and the mention in a book by FDR secretary Grace Tully, who was also there, of Rutherfurd as one who was present when Roosevelt died — the affair itself wasn't public knowledge until the 1966 publication of a book written by a former Roosevelt aide.

Over the years, I have become convinced that the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt should be a cautionary tale for presidents and their doctors. Indeed, in some ways, I guess it has. Bishop's book showed that the president's doctor knew FDR was dying, could see it in his face and body, for at least a year before Roosevelt finally died, but he did not stop Roosevelt from doing many of the things that were accelerating his decline. Presidential physicians seem to have more authority with their patients now.

Bishop's passage about the moment when FDR was stricken paints a vivid domestic picture of a spring afternoon. It was lunch time, and Roosevelt was posing for artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who was painting his portrait. It seemed like a fairly ordinary kind of lazy afternoon when Roosevelt began rubbing his temples. "I have a terrific headache," he said, almost in a whisper, then slumped and his hand fell to his side.

One of the women on hand thought perhaps the president had dropped something and asked him what he had dropped. Roosevelt's eyes were on Rutherfurd who was standing straight ahead, Bishop wrote, then he slipped into unconsciousness. Shoumatoff screamed and never got back to the portrait she had been painting as the folks on hand focused all their energies on trying to save the president's life. For the last 70 years, her painting has been known as the "Unfinished Portrait."

As a veteran of newsrooms, I have often wondered what it must have been like for people who were working on days when important, truly historic events, like the death of a president, occurred out of the blue. Oh, I've had my share of races with the deadline clock, but there haven't been any major unexpected events on days when I have been at work at a newspaper. So it was that I read with interest Val Lauder's recollections of being a young copygirl for the old Chicago Daily News, an afternoon daily, when FDR died. When the news came racing across the newswire, she wrote, the newsroom was sucked into "the silence of shock."

Newsrooms are noisy places. When a cloak of silence descends upon one, it becomes an eerie place.

Then, like an aftershock, the newsroom sprang into action. "The Daily News, an afternoon newspaper, was strictly limited in the hours it could publish," Lauder wrote. "Only an hour or so remained for EXTRAs."

Observing that "I knew clips would be needed," Lauder made a beeline for the newspaper's morgue. A newspaper morgue isn't a place where bodies are kept (well, I guess that is a matter of opinion); it is or was, basically, a newspaper's library where clips and photos were kept in file folders (perhaps they are now extinct, like photographers' dark rooms, with everything being stored digitally).

Anyway, Lauder discovered there was a lot of material on FDR but not so much on the new president, Harry Truman. It reminded me of the first time Ross Perot ran for president. I was working for an afternoon daily in Texas, and we had just finished putting together that day's paper and the presses were running when the news came that Perot was officially in.

It was a chance for the managing editor to go to the pressroom and say something I've always wanted to say — "Stop the presses!"

Which he did.

And I was dispatched to gather information from our morgue for a story on Perot — but I found, when I went to the morgue, that the material we had on Perot was sparse, even though Perot had been a prominent Texan who had been making news as an entrepreneur for 30 years. We went with the newswire story instead.

By the way, an observation here: From time to time, a populist candidate like Perot will gather some momentum, presumably on the logic that, as a political neophyte, such a candidate has not been corrupted by the system. For some, there is a desire to return to the days when it seems it was possible for someone to rise from the ranks of ordinary civilian to the highest office in the land. But political neophytes are apt to make mistakes, which is why they almost never win the presidency — unless they happen to be General Eisenhower fresh from winning World War II against the Nazis.

And which is why I don't think a Ben Carson candidacy will get very far, regardless of what some have told me.

But I digress.

For those who had been close to Franklin D. Roosevelt, his death 70 years ago today was a loss, but it may not have been a surprise. For the rest of the nation, though, it must have been a shock. Roosevelt's appearance clearly had changed in his 12 years in the White House, but many people could rationalize that as normal aging. In the aftermath of his death, they had to come to terms with some unpleasant facts.

The Dearborn (Mich.) Press & Guide probably summed things up for many when it wrote recently, "This year marks the 70th anniversary of several events huge in our nation’s history. None stunned us more than the sudden death in office of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ..."

It was a milestone in mass communication, though, as the Press & Guide observed: "It had been 22 years since President Warren G. Harding had died in office in 1923, and there were no networks then. Radio news, if there was such a thing, meant an announcer grabbed a newspaper and read it on the air. ... In 1945, within minutes of the 5:47 p.m., Eastern time, INS announcement, the sad message had been flashed to a nation."

The next time that a president died in office — John F. Kennedy in 1963 — many Americans got the news and followed the developing story on television.

We've had no presidential deaths since then, but the next time we have one, my guess is that most Americans will get the news via the internet — or whatever technology is dominant at the time.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Lincoln's Last Speech



"It is unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent and on those who serve our cause as soldiers."

Abraham Lincoln
April 11, 1865

On this day 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln gave what would prove to be his final speech.

That wasn't the only thing he did that day, of course. Carl Sandburg observed, in his biography of Lincoln, that the president dispensed a proclamation closing Southern ports. If any vessel from outside the United States attempted to enter a Southern port with a cargo for which duties would be owed, such cargo would be "forfeited to the United States."

The president issued another proclamation barring foreign war ships from all U.S. ports if those war ships came from countries that would not give similar privileges to U.S. ships.

It was all part of the necessary, if somewhat routine, business to which Lincoln had to attend in the new postwar environment. Most students of history probably do not know the details, and, really, the only detail anyone needs to know is the big picture: The war was over.

Truth be told, Lincoln didn't devote that much time to such postwar business on this day in 1865.

"The president spent his best working hours this day on his speech for the evening," Sandburg wrote. "He was seizing the initiative to set in motion his own reconstruction program. Not until next December would Congress meet, not unless he called a special session. He intended to speak to the country so plainly that before Congress met, he could hope the majority of the people would be with him."

Those who are accustomed to the speed with which information travels in the 21st century need to understand how slowly news traveled in the mid–19th century. It didn't move at the speed of lightning, more like the speed of a snail. On this day, Lincoln probably envisioned having to go on some kind of barnstorming speaking tour through the American Midwest to ramp up support for his plan. At the same time, he had to educate his listeners about the issues — for, unless they read newspapers, and many could not read, they probably were not acquainted with much of the news that took place outside their towns and villages — and persuade them that his approach was the best.

It might have taken most of the rest of the year to accomplish, but, as Chinese philosopher Lao–tzu said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lincoln clearly intended to take that first step 150 years ago tonight.

Actually, a crowd clamored for him to speak to them the night before, on Monday, April 10, and many waited in the rain outside the White House, hoping to hear him speak, but Lincoln sent word that he was behind in his work because of a recent trip, and he asked those who were gathered there to disperse. He would speak the following evening at the formal observance of the South's surrender.

Lincoln did sit for a photographer that day, a session that was occasionally interrupted by Lincoln's 12–year–old son, Tad, who "frolicked around the room," Bishop wrote, "bouncing on and off his father's lap, distracting Mr. Lincoln to the point that, for the first time, he smiled faintly in a picture."

At one point, Tad dashed outside with a captured Rebel flag and ran up and down a porch "trying to make the banner snap in the breeze," Bishop wrote. Lincoln stepped out to retrieve his son, waved to the crowd and insisted he would speak the next night. The Navy Yard band was on hand, and Lincoln asked them to play for the folks who had gathered. Lincoln was asked what they should play; after a moment's reflection, he suggested "Dixie." He had long admired the song, and "it could now be considered the lawful property of the United States," Bishop wrote.

Lincoln is remembered for many things, of course, including some of the most important and most memorable speeches in American history, but the speech he delivered 150 years ago has always seemed to me to be the one that sealed his fate.

It was also a remarkable example of what made Lincoln such a unique and truly visionary leader. Those who had gathered "listened for exultation, and there was none," Bishop wrote. "They strained for eloquence, and there was none. They waited patiently for vengeance, and there was none."

Lincoln took the occasion to speak of the challenge of reconstruction (he observed that it was "fraught with great difficulty") and the problems of the postwar environment. And he advocated voting rights for black Americans.

The man who would assassinate Lincoln a few days later, actor John Wilkes Booth, was in the crowd listening to Lincoln's speech. When he spoke of giving blacks the right to vote, Booth turned to his companion, Lewis Paine, and said, "That means nigger citizenship! Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make."

"The two men edged out of the crowd," Bishop wrote.

Booth was a Confederate sympathizer, and he may well have assassinated Lincoln, anyway, even if the president had not delivered the speech he made 150 years ago today. Booth and some co–conspirators had plotted earlier to kidnap Lincoln in an attempt to help the South's cause, but the plan fell through.

It is possible that the idea of killing Lincoln first seriously came to Booth 150 years ago tonight. I'm not sure if anyone really knows when it became more than idle musing on Booth's part.

Historian Jim Bishop wrote that it was probable that the idea first came to Booth following Lincoln's re–election in 1864. "Lincoln," Bishop wrote, "had been Booth's emotional whipping boy for four years." That may be so, but Booth may never have seriously entertained the idea of killing Lincoln until a few days before actually assassinating the president.

Lincoln's assassination was clearly the outcome of a premeditated conspiracy, but the conspiracy may have been as spontaneous as that. In modern times, the assassination of American leader undoubtedly would require more advance planning if only because presidential security in the mid–19th century was so unsophisticated compared to today.

If Lincoln's words were not what the crowd came to hear, they got it, kind of, from the next speaker — Iowa Sen. James Harlan who had been designated to be the next secretary of the Interior and whose daughter would, in a few years, marry Lincoln's oldest son, Robert.

"Mr. Harlan had excellent intentions," Bishop wrote, "but he did not know that a good speaker never asks an explosive mob a question.

"'What,' he said with arms outstretched, with silvery syllables echoing in the trees, 'shall be done with these brethren of ours?'

"As one, the crowd roared, 'Hang 'em!'

"The senator smiled in the face of thunder and said that, after all, the president might exercise the power to pardon.

"'Never!' the crowd screamed.

"The senator tried to educate and inform by suggesting that the great mass of Southern people were not guilty. He got silence. The senator was not up to further effort. He finished haltingly by proclaiming that he, for one, was willing to trust the future to the president of the United States."


Harlan, naturally, believed that president would be Lincoln, as did nearly everyone in the crowd that night.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The End of an American Tragedy



Today is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War — the day that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant — and I am reminded of my favorite story about that war.

Wilmer McLean's name is not one that most people recognize in conversations about the American Civil War, but he holds a unique place in its story. His farmhouse in Manassas, in northern Virginia, had been the headquarters for Confederate military leadership during the First Battle of Bull Run, the first real battle of the Civil War back in July of 1861, and it had drawn plenty of fire from Union forces.

McLean, a grocer, moved his family south in the spring of 1863. Most of his business dealings were in the southern part of Virginia; I'm sure that played a role in his decision. The presence of the Union army made it hard for him to continue to conduct business in the northern part of the state, but I have no doubt that McLean also wanted to make life easier for his family by putting some distance between them and the fighting.

All of which makes the fact that Lee surrendered to Grant in McLean's home at Appomattox Court House 150 years ago today more than a bit ironic.

Initially, he wasn't too keen on the idea of the surrender taking place in his home, but he agreed and, apparently, retained his sense of humor, observing, "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor."

There aren't many uplifting stories about that war. Inspiring? Yes. Uplifting? Not so much.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, the last real battle of the Civil War was fought. There would be skirmishes here and there, but, by and large, the Battle of Appomattox Court House was the last one. The Confederates were essentially a beaten army before the battle began. They were tired and hungry, inadequately equipped for battle. In the face of Union fire, they had abandoned their capitol, Richmond, Virginia, and retreated. The Union forces — superior in numbers, preparation and equipment — cut off the Confederates' retreat, forcing the battle at Appomattox Court House.

Lee attacked that morning, believing the Union forces to be entirely cavalry, but he soon learned the truth — the cavalry was backed by two corps of infantry — and he was left with no choice but to surrender. The surrender, in McLean's parlor, came that afternoon.

On that day, Grant displayed the kind of wisdom that, unfortunately, he seldom showed in his later actions as president. He permitted the Confederate soldiers to keep their sidearms and horses. None of them would be prosecuted. They could return to their homes, their dignity intact. After all, the Yankees and the Rebs would be compatriots again, just as they were before the war.

As Lee rode away, Grant's men began to celebrate, but Grant sent word that it should stop. "The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall," he said later.

I've been hearing and reading about the Civil War all my life, and I have long believed that there were many examples of heroism, sacrifice and courage on both sides of that conflict, but it was a tragedy from which this nation is still trying to recover. Sometimes I wonder if it will ever fully recover from it.

It was a traumatic experience for the people who lived through it and the people who have lived and are living with the cultural consequences.

On this occasion, I suppose it is tempting to suggest that the war never really ended. It's a temptation that some, like David W. Bright of The Atlantic, seem to have found impossible to resist.

The war did end, of course — 150 years ago today. And what I can't help wondering is how different this country could have been — not if there had never been a Civil War (because I believe, as agonizing as it was, the Civil War was necessary to re–define what America stood for), but if Lincoln had not been killed only a few days later or if Grant had displayed the generosity to the South as president that he had shown to the South's soldiers 150 years ago today.

Lincoln, of course, was killed a few days later, and Grant's presidency lacked many of the fine qualities he had shown as general (among them backbone). As a result, those who wanted to punish the South did so in the form of Reconstruction. It is my belief that Reconstruction produced much the same result in this country that post–World War I sanctions on Germany produced in Europe — chiefly, resentment from those who felt oppressed.

I believe that much of the racism and bigotry that has survived for the last century and a half in the South was conceived in Reconstruction. The Jim Crow laws were enacted after Reconstruction had ended but the pain endured. In the Germany of the 1920s, much the same thing happened although the economic sanctions continued.

For the most part, I am inclined to think that a lot of what happened in 19th–century America and 20th–century Europe can be classified as unintended consequences. Oh, sure, I know there were some folks in both places and times whose only desire was to inflict pain on the vanquished — and they succeeded, perhaps beyond their wildest dreams. But I believe most simply wanted to fulfill a code of justice — arbitrary though it may have been.

I would like to believe, anyway, that what came to pass in 19th–century America and 20th–century Europe was not intended — because, if it was, that would be a greater tragedy than the one that preceded it.