Freedom Writing

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.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

History Is a Harsh Mistress

"Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

"And we shall overcome."

Lyndon B. Johnson
March 15, 1965

History is, indeed, a harsh mistress. She beckons to those who will follow her when she deems that a great moment is at hand — but she never mentions that the window of opportunity is slamming shut nor does she identify what it is that must be addressed. She just gives vague nods in a general direction and lets you figure out the rest.

In the context of history, you have only minutes — seconds, really — to act, too. Then that window slams shut, and a new one will open sometime in the future, but history gives no warning until the moment is upon us again.

Nor can you apply what you learned from the last time to the new one — like old generals who are constantly trying to fight the last war and neglecting the things that will enable them to win the current one. "History doesn't repeat itself," Mark Twain cautioned, "but it does rhyme."

Fifty years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson gave what was probably the most inspiring speech of his presidency — his address to Congress advocating passage of the Voting Rights Act. It broke no new legal ground, really. It was designed to enforce what had been the law of the land for nearly a century in the form of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. They were part of the Reconstruction Amendments that guaranteed rights of citizenship, particularly the right to vote, to minorities, but, as everyone knew, they had not been enforced in most parts of the South.

The voting rights legislation came at a time when LBJ was, arguably, at the height of his political power, prestige and influence. In the year following John F. Kennedy's assassination, Johnson's approval rating had been at its highest — in the 70s — and no president can sustain those numbers indefinitely, but Johnson was doing pretty well after nearly 18 months in the White House. Just a few months earlier, he had been elected to a full four–year term as president in a landslide of historic proportions, and, as he delivered his speech 50 years ago tonight, his approval rating, according to Gallup, was 68%.

Johnson wanted to do something about the situation, but he wanted to proceed slowly, possibly because he wanted to conserve his political capital — which, in hindsight, might have been a good thing to do. America soon soured on the war in Vietnam, and he needed that capital to keep his approval ratings above 50% — a point he dropped below almost permanently by the middle of 1966.

What Johnson told his allies was that he didn't think Congress would be eager to take on another civil rights measure so soon after passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Johnson embraced the idea and enthusiastically pressed for the bill's passage in Congress.

As it turned out, his support for the Voting Rights Act appears to have had little influence on his approval ratings. He remained above 60% for the rest of 1965 — even managed to hit 70% in May. But, of course, that was still in the future; he was hesitant to move quickly in the early spring of 1965.

Perhaps the populist, liberal wing of the Democrat Party of 1965 knew what both parties seem to have forgotten in the 21st century — that history is a harsh mistress and one must act quickly to satisfy her. I have read that the liberals of the day were eager to capitalize on their sweeping victories in the 1964 elections, and history certainly indicates there was good reason for that. Following the 1964 elections, the Democrats had the greatest congressional majorities — in both chambers — that any party has had since the Republic's early years.

The lesson of history is that, when such extremes are reached, there is usually a correction that occurs, and huge majorities begin to dwindle. It is only possible in hindsight, of course, to determine when critical mass was reached. At the time, though, the temptation to believe that popularity has not peaked must be hard to resist.

In a democracy, political success is fleeting — and, in fact, Johnson's approval ratings did plummet in the second half of his term. The unpopularity of the war had a lot to do with it; likewise, the civil rights movement almost certainly had something to do with it. As his approval ratings fell, so did Democrat majorities in the House and Senate.

There is a steep price to be paid for failing to act quickly enough — or failing to recognize history's call when it comes. It was the populist, liberal wing that pressured Johnson to send a voting rights bill to Capitol Hill. The events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge accelerated the process.

In my lifelong love affair with history, I have come to appreciate its timing, its ironies. So it is with this moment in history.

Johnson delivered what many believe is the most powerful speech in presidential history only a week and a half after the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's masterful "With malice toward none" second inaugural address. History wasn't repeating itself, but it was rhyming.

Johnson's speech, of course, came a week after "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama — an event that has been re–created recently in the movie "Selma."

Anyone who thinks little progress has been made in racial relations in this country since Johnson gave his speech hasn't been paying attention. I was quite young when LBJ made that speech, and I wasn't aware of the historic events that were happening around me, but I had been to the single–screen movie theater in my hometown, and I had seen blacks being ushered into a corner of the balcony through a back door, and I knew that blacks were treated differently than whites. The public schools in my hometown didn't integrate until I enrolled in first grade. Mine was the first class in my hometown's history to go all the way from first grade through the twelfth integrated.

Since I wasn't old enough to read in 1965, I can't tell you if public drinking fountains and restrooms were still segregated in my hometown when LBJ made his speech, but if they weren't, they must have been at some time. I grew up in the South. Not the deep South where the worst things were happening, but it was still the South. In my home state, Orval Faubus led an ill–fated attempt to halt the desegregation of Little Rock Central years before George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door and Bull Connor let loose the police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights activists in Alabama.

In those days, civil rights activists could be heard singing "We Shall Overcome." The phrase had become synonymous with "the movement," as I heard most blacks in my hometown call it, sanctified by the blood that had been spilled by so many. The casualties in Selma were only the latest, but they were the straw that broke the camel's back. Selma was too high profile for Johnson to ignore.

On this occasion, historian William Manchester observed, the president "concluded his speech with a phrase that had become hallowed by the blood and tears of a new generation of black Americans marching for justice. He said that their cause 'must be our cause, too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.'

"That was fine liberal eloquence,"
Manchester wrote, "but at times during the year it appeared to be a doubtful prediction. The eleventh anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education passed on May 17, and racism seemed stronger than ever."

My memory is foggy — I was, after all, a small child at the time — but I remember hearing the black ladies with whom my mother worked on our local Human Relations Council speaking of how great it was that the president had used that phrase.

It was more than symbolic to them.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Difference It Makes

"Tell people that there's an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

George Carlin

Unless your lifestyle is a reclusive one, like that of the Unabomber — and, if it is, then you most likely aren't reading this, anyway — you're bound to have seen the TV commercial in which the deejay is posing as a financial advisor. He got his hair cut. He put on a nice suit, and he threw around some impressive–sounding financial terms. Then he asked some unsuspecting dupes if they would trust him to handle their retirement planning. They all said they would. Then he revealed the truth about himself. "I have no financial experience at all," he confessed.

The unsuspecting dupes really shouldn't have been all that unsuspecting, though. It's the kind of sleight–of–hand that magicians have been pulling for generations. Sometimes people really should be hesitant based on what they know — and what they don't know. Nevertheless, there are always people who fall for scams.

And there are those who make up their minds and won't change, come hell or high water. In the words of Simon and Garfunkel, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

In my experience, people — particularly Americans — are too quick to give a second chance — and a third one and a fourth one and, well, you get the picture — to those of whom we have ample reason to be skeptical. Most of us have been guilty of it at one time or another. For some, it's just the way they roll — all the time.

Sometimes we are rewarded for giving a second chance; but just as often, if not more, we are disappointed.

Now, in the case of one Hillary Rodham Clinton ...

Most Americans think they have spent a lot of time observing the Clintons, but I've got them beat. I lived in Arkansas before Bill ever won an election. I wasn't familiar with Hillary when she was a legal adviser to the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment inquiry; it was after that that she agreed to marry Clinton and move to Arkansas. They were both in Little Rock by 1977; Bill was elected the state's attorney general in 1976. And that is when I — and, I suspect, most of the people in Arkansas — first became acquainted with Hillary.

From that point on, Bill was a fixture in Arkansas politics, and Hillary was often seen with him — not so much in his attorney general days but after that when he ran for governor. Statewide officials were elected to two–year terms in those days, and governors sort of lived with the fact that, unless they were stepping down voluntarily in the next election cycle, they pretty much had to spend half of each term running for office. There was no season for raising money for those campaigns, either; fundraising was — and, I expect, still is — an ongoing process.

Arkansas changed that law in the mid–1980s. Statewide officers are elected to four–year terms today, but Bill and Hillary Clinton cut their political teeth on the old arrangement.

Anyway, having observed the Clintons for more than half my life, I've kind of gone beyond the point of being disappointed by anything they say or do.

Since we are all, to a great extent, the products of our experiences, it seems fair to assume that experience plays a significant role in the mindsets of both Clintons. Indeed, given their behavior in their political lives, it seems to be — to most reasonable people — a sight more than an assumption.
Hillary Clinton: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans.

Sen. Ron Johnson: I understand.

Clinton: Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?

In the matter of the Clinton emails, Mrs. Clinton and her supporters want the country to focus on the fact that her people have already gone through the emails and decided which ones to release.

Is that sufficient?

As I recall, it wasn't sufficient 40 years ago when the subject of the congressional investigation in which Mrs. Clinton took part — you know, the one involving President Richard Nixon — offered to release certain White House tapes after they had been screened or edited transcripts of the tapes themselves. I can't say that I know what Hillary Rodham said or thought about that, but I do know what just about every Democrat — and some Republicans — said when Nixon tried to pull that one. They didn't go for it. Nixon went ahead and released edited transcripts, anyway, but they were ridiculed to such an extent that no one really gave them any credibility.

As I recall, when the subject of edited transcripts was first brought up by the White House, special prosecutor Archibald Cox rejected it, saying that transcripts "lack the evidenciary value of the tapes themselves."

(There was something Nixonian in the way Barack Obama insisted he had learned of Hillary's private email through news reports. That, of course, is how Nixon claimed he had learned of the Watergate break–in.)

And now Hillary Clinton reaches into Nixon's playbook. But summaries of her email correspondences — or release of certain emails that were selected by Hillary and/or her staff — lack the evidenciary value of the emails themselves.

Of course, there is more to this than merely the resemblance to a long–ago scandal. There is the question of cyber security. In recent years, we have seen how easily the computer files of huge retail outfits can be hacked and private information can be compromised.

Doesn't that make it even more important that Americans be completely assured that the communications of the secretary of state — whose email correspondence may very well have contained sensitive classified information — cannot be intercepted?

What assurance can they have from a privately run server that sufficient security is in place?

We live in perilous times. It shouldn't be necessary to remind people of that, with all the grisly images we have seen on our TV screens — beheadings, people being burned alive and tossed from buildings — but, nevertheless, there are people who will ignore the facts.

Those are the people who will tell you that ISIS and its allies there in the Middle East are savages, primitive, medieval at best. And I will concede that they follow medieval texts and dress in medieval ways — and, most importantly, they think medieval thoughts. But that does not mean that they turn a blind eye to modern technology. They don't like the modern world, but they know that they must use the tools of the modern world if they are to defeat it. Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants turned modern technology against America in 2001, hijacking airplanes and using computers for all sorts of purposes — communicating with each other, financial transactions, reserving seats on the doomed airplanes.

Why should we think that modern jihadists would behave any differently?

We've heard the stories of their active efforts to recruit people from the West. Doesn't it make sense that they would be looking for people who know how to hack computer systems? It wouldn't surprise me if they already have recruited such people.

It wouldn't really matter where they were, either — although I am quite sure there are already sleeper cells across this country waiting for their orders. Computer hackers can be anywhere. As long as they can connect to the internet, they can go about their business.

What guarantee do we have that Mrs. Clinton's emails, which were not under the protection of the government, were not hacked while she was in office? Oh, I know, there are no guarantees anymore. But it still seems — to me — to be an inexcusable temptation of fate to obsessively control one's email records instead of doing as the law requires.

Fact is, under the law, Mrs. Clinton's email correspondence while secretary of state does not belong to her. Regardless of what it was — a highly sensitive official email to a foreign ally or a personal email to an old friend — it is the property of the U.S. government.

Upon entering office, a president swears to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. That means following the laws of the land.

Mrs. Clinton asks her audiences these days, "Don't you want to see a woman president of the United States?"

My answer to that is — yes. But I want it to be the right woman for the job. Not just any woman.

And the right woman for the job will not have a history of playing by the rules of her choosing, thoughtlessly putting others at risk. It is the same standard I apply to any man seeking the presidency.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

'With Malice Toward None:' Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

President Abraham Lincoln (bottom circle) delivers his second inaugural address
while the man who would assassinate him six weeks later listens (top circle).

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Abraham Lincoln
March 4, 1865

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address.

As I have mentioned here before, I have been studying the presidents and the presidency most of my life — and that is not a joke. I really have. And in the course of my life, I have read the texts of many presidential inaugural addresses. I have watched all or part of most of the inaugural addresses that have been delivered in my lifetime.

And the one Lincoln delivered 150 years ago today may be the best ever given. Its words adorn the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Lincoln's first inaugural address is considered one of the great speeches in American history — and rightfully so — with its oft–quoted passage about "the better angels of our nature."

But imagine, if you will, Lincoln's state of mind when he prepared to give his second inaugural address. On the occasion of his first inauguration, Lincoln and just about everyone else knew that war was a foregone conclusion so that was Lincoln's focus. It was obviously going to be the priority of the new administration, and the status of the war was going to be critical to his re–election bid four years later.

For a time in his re–election campaign, Lincoln was convinced that he would be defeated. The war news in the first half of 1864 had not been good for the administration, and Lincoln had resolved that, if he did lose, he would see to it that the North won the war before he left office — because he knew the Democrat who defeated him would be committed to ending the war, not winning it or preserving the Union — but things were looking up in the second half of the year. General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta in his famed march to the sea, and David "Damn the torpedoes" Farragut captured Mobile Bay, Alabama. After that, it was all good news, and Lincoln was re–elected in a landslide. By the time he took the oath of office for the second time, the war was almost won.

I don't know if the weather in Washington was as severe 150 years ago as it has been recently, but historical accounts do tell us that it had been raining quite a bit in Washington in the days leading up to Lincoln's inauguration. On the day of the inaugural, though, the skies cleared, and the sun came out, bringing tens of thousands of people out to witness the historic event. After all, Lincoln was only the sixth president to give a second inaugural address.

"Abraham Lincoln, rising tall, gaunt and outstanding, stepped forward to read his inaugural address," Carl Sandburg wrote in his biography of the 16th president. "Applause roared, again and again was repeated, and finally died far away on the outer edge of the throng. In a silence almost profound the audience now listened. Seldom had a president been so short–spoken about the issues of so grave an hour."

The reconstruction of the Union was on Lincoln's mind, and that called for a brief speech, Lincoln told his listeners, and he reminded them of the circumstances four years earlier when he took office. "Both parties deprecated war," he said, "but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."

And it had gone on far longer than either side had expected.

"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God," Lincoln observed, "and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray," Lincoln said, "that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."

Sandburg wrote that "[a] subdued handclapping and occasional cheers punctuated the address. Reporters noticed at the final paragraph many moist eyes and here and there tears coursing down faces unashamed."

Frederick Douglass reportedly told the president, "Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort."

Douglass was there. He heard the speech when it was given. What a privilege that must have been — especially when you consider that modern presidents seem to feel obliged to speak interminably. Lincoln gave the greatest speeches in the nation's history; frequently, they lasted only a few minutes. His Gettysburg Address was written on an envelope, and his second inaugural address might as well have been.

And the significance was in the eye — or, rather, the ear — of the beholder.

"Like the Gettysburg Address, and more particularly the House Divided speech, the second inaugural took on varied meanings," Sandburg wrote. "To some it was a howl for vengeance, to others a benediction and a plea — with deep music."

Lincoln was re–elected with 55% of the popular vote four months earlier on Nov. 8, 1864, defeating his former general, George McClellan.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Yeah, That's the Ticket ...

NBC has suspended Brian Williams for six months for repeatedly misrepresenting the facts about his work as an embedded journalist in Iraq — specifically as they relate to his experience on board a helicopter that he said was shot down.

Problem is that some folks — folks who were there — don't remember it that way.

Maybe we ought to cut the guy some slack. Things can seem black and white when you're young, but they take on subtle hues of gray as you get older. Whether it's the fabled fog of war or some other kind of fog, it's easy to be mistaken about things. Easier than some people might think.

It's like when I was the 40th president of the United States, and I had to deal with the air traffic controllers' strike, and ...

Wait a minute, you say Ronald Reagan was the 40th president?

Oh, yeah, that's right. I've been studying the presidents most of my life, and I frequently write about presidents and would–be presidents on this blog — but I've never actually been president. (I have been to the White House, but I was a child at the time.)

You know, the same way Brian Williams was in a war zone and may have seen a helicopter get shot down — but, contrary to what he has said on several occasions, no helicopters in which he was riding were shot down.

Well, that is a small detail, isn't it? Just as Williams apparently did, I must have "conflated" truth with fiction.

As I was saying, in the course of your life, you can get mixed up about what happened to you and what happened to someone else. A good example is when I won Best Actor Oscars in back–to–back years, and ...

Oooops, I did it again, didn't I? I "conflated" again. That wasn't me. That was Tom Hanks. I've seen a lot of movies, but I've never actually been in a movie. Therefore, I've never been nominated for — let alone won — an Oscar for my performance in a movie.

And I suppose now you'll tell me that I didn't win the Masters when I was only 21. Right, that was Tiger Woods. I've watched some golf on television, but I have never played golf.

Fact is, I am a writer. I have worked for newspapers and a trade magazine. I've taught journalism on the college level.

And I feel thoroughly qualified to say the following. A journalist's most valuable possession is his credibility. When that is gone, when people can no longer trust what he says or writes, the journalist might as well look for another way to make a living.

Which is what I think Williams should be doing during his six–month suspension.

He might also want to look into the Pathological Liars Club. I'm, uh, president of that organization. Yeah, that's it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Looking Ahead to 2016

Bet you thought that, once the midterms were over, we'd get a reprieve from politics for awhile. Well, you were wrong! At best, all you get is a chance to catch your breath.

America's political pendulum is always swinging. Sometimes the swing is so modest you need a microscope to see it. Other times it swings wildly. In recent years, both parties have made the mistake of misreading election results and assuming they had longer–term implications than they had. Success is fleeting in American politics.

The midterm election was held in early November. By Thanksgiving, I had already read/heard several reports about people who were considering seeking their parties' nominations; then, Jeb Bush put his foot to the gas pedal and accelerated the process. Interested parties need to jump in soon, or all the resources in money and advisers will get locked in for Bush.

As it stands, 2016 will be a non–incumbent year, which means both parties' nominations are up for grabs. Technically speaking, that is. At this point in the process, it's still mostly a name recognition contest. Bush has the name — which isn't as toxic as it was a few years ago — and he's been grabbing up the money and the people even though few people outside of Florida know much more about him than the fact that he is the son of one president and the brother of another.

That was enough for 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, I guess. Romney wisely withdrew yesterday.

I didn't get to see his announcement, but it sounded like an impression of Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront."

Recent polls showed him in the lead, he said, particularly in the states whose primaries come early in the calendar, and he was "convinced" he could have won the nomination a second straight time — something no non–incumbent candidate in either party has been able to do since Adlai Stevenson.

("I coulda been a contendah.")

Once these guys (and gals) get the fever and start looking at themselves in the mirror each morning and imagining "Hail to the Chief" being played when he/she enters a room, the only cure for it seems to be the grave. Maybe it's an addiction. I don't know. But the word addiction has been expanded considerably in recent years. I wouldn't be surprised if politicians are prime prospects for addiction. Many already have addictions of other kinds as well, and being a narcissist almost seems like a key component of a politician's DNA.

I believe Romney is a sincere, well–meaning man who allowed himself to be defined by his opposition. Those things happen in campaigns. Both parties have done it so neither party is innocent; no point in pointing fingers on that one. There's plenty of blame to go around. The bottom line is, once you have been defined by the opposition, it is even more difficult to prevail the next time. To a great extent, Romney had been defined within his own party by his previous campaign for the nomination and by the opposition party in the general election.

Recent speculation of which issues Romney would choose to champion this time seemed to revive the old stereotypes of Romney as elitist, cold and calculating. It reminded me of what I heard when I was a child during Richard Nixon's comeback campaign of 1968. The emphasis was on the new Nixon. Nixon was always reinventing himself, and Romney has slipped into that mode as well.

But he resisted its lure. Good for him. It was the smart thing to do, and it most likely closes the door on his presidential ambitions. If the 2016 GOP nominee fails to win the election, Romney would be 73 in 2020. That isn't too old to win the nomination, but, historically speaking, it is too old to win the election. But my guess is he will continue to hear "Hail to the Chief" when he looks in the mirror each morning.

Barack Obama is barred by law from seeking a third term so, unless he issues an executive order repealing the 22nd Amendment, the Democrats will need a new nominee. Conventional wisdom insists it will be Hillary Clinton.

Really, how often does the frontrunner win the nomination? (I am speaking, of course, about non–incumbent presidential elections. Incumbents are rarely challenged for the nomination if they decide to seek another term — and even more rarely are those challenges serious.)

In the last 40 years, I suppose it has happened more often on the Republicans' side than on the Democrats' — Romney, John McCain (2008), George W. Bush (2000), Bob Dole (1996), George H.W. Bush (1988), Ronald Reagan (1980) and Gerald Ford (1976) all were frontrunners. The narrative on the Republican side was that the nominee always was the runnerup the last time the nomination was up for grabs. That hasn't always been the case, but it has been close to it for nearly 40 years. And those frontrunners almost always faced viable challengers from within before claiming the nomination.

Democrats have been more freewheeling. Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner heading into the primaries and caucuses of 2008 but lost to Obama, a newcomer to the national stage. The argument can be made that the nominees in 2004 (John Kerry) and 2000 (Al Gore) were frontrunners when the primaries began, but they, too, had to fend off challenges.

Clinton's husband was lightly regarded when his 1992 campaign began, but Mario Cuomo decided not to run, and Bill Clinton emerged from a pack of supposedly second–tier candidates dubbed "the Dwarfs."

Heading into 1988, Gary Hart — an insurgent challenger from 1984 — was regarded as the frontrunner until his campaign imploded. Michael Dukakis emerged from a group of largely unknown candidates to win the nomination.

Hart's insurgent candidacy made things uncomfortable for former Vice President Walter Mondale, the original frontrunner who went on to win the nomination. Mondale's former boss, Jimmy Carter, first won the nomination as an unknown riding a populist wave. Four years before that, the extreme left wing of the Democrat Party seized the nomination in the person of George McGovern.

Hillary Clinton may well go on to win the nomination, but she will have to overcome the problems we already know about — she really wasn't a very good candidate the last time, and her recent public remarks suggest that a lifetime in the public eye hasn't taught her much about diplomacy, her years as secretary of State notwithstanding.

What's more, there are rumblings about members of the liberal base pressing for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to seek the nomination. Not surprisingly, Clinton has been trying to improve her standing with the far left wing.

Historically, a non–incumbent presidential election has been an opportunity for both parties to write a new chapter in their history. Unfortunately, it appears that both parties are taking a trajectory that seems likely to give both nominations to dynastic retreads.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The First Attempt on the Life of a President

I've studied a lot of American history in my life.

I've always been something of an amateur historian. I even minored in history in graduate school.

And it pains me to see the state of knowledge of history in this country. As someone who has done some teaching in his life, I can assure you that the shocking stories of what young people do not know are absolutely true. I've seen enough instances of it that it doesn't surprise me anymore — which may be the worst part for me. I am not repulsed by the knowledge of just how many young Americans have no idea who the first president was or what the significance of the year 1776 was. Not anymore.

But I can forgive those who do know some things about American history for not knowing that the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 was not the first attempt to assassinate a president. Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated, but he was not the first to be the target of an assassination attempt.

That was Andrew Jackson on this day in 1835.

Jackson, who was 67 at the time, was leaving a congressional funeral when an out–of–work painter approached him and tried to shoot him. The gun misfired, and Jackson hit his attacker several times with his cane. The would–be assassin pulled out a second gun and tried to shoot the president with it, but that gun also misfired.

The president's aides pulled the president and the assailant apart. Jackson, it is said, was angry but unhurt.

Jackson believed the attacker had been hired by his political opponents, who were fighting with him over the president's attempt to break up the Bank of the United States. Jackson's vice president, Martin Van Buren, began carrying two pistols with him on Capitol Hill.

No connection between the assailant and Jackson's political enemies was ever established.

It was later determined that the odds of both guns misfiring during an assassination attempt were one in 125,000.