Monthly Archives: September 2020

Surprise: Partisan 19th Century Supreme Courts

But Lincoln Waited

Abraham Lincoln thinking in his untidy world. Free Art

Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Roger Taney died October 12, 1864, in an election year. Not unexpectedly, as he had been ill most of Lincoln’s first term. At the time of Taney’s death, Lincoln was in the thick of his re-election campaign and in the fourth year of the Civil War that he hoped to conclude soon, but it alluded and frustrated him.

John Hay, Lincoln’s wordsmith, wrote of Taney in his diary that night: “Already (before his old clay is cold), they begin to canvass vigorously for his successor.” Chase men say the place is promised to their magnifico.” (1) Lincoln had several cabinet members competing, but primarily his former Secretary of Treasury, whose resignation Lincoln had accepted earlier because Chase was working against him politically.

Lincoln let the question of Taney’s replacement on the Court settle a bit, not rushing to fill the seat before the election. He took time to consider which choice would benefit him most after the election and the nation after the war. He could have sent around the name of a person he favored, but he didn’t have the experience of the “Big Reveal” that came 170 years later. In reality, there would not have been enough time to nominate, pay respects to Senators (some of whom were out campaigning for Lincoln), and bring them back for a vote before the election.

In the meantime, Lincoln made it clear that he expected loyalty, which included campaigning on his behalf. Former Ohio Senator, Governor, and former Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase went to the Midwest and barnstormed for Lincoln (he really wanted to be Chief Justice (2). Rumors of a bargain surfaced. (3)

Lincoln won election to a second term on November 8, 1864, immediately focusing on the war effort after re-election, then turned to consideration of a Chief Justice. He knew that despite Chase’s multiple flaws, including naked ambition, imperious nature and arrogant style, the President believed that on the two critical, fundamental articles of his political faith—abomination of slavery and the righteousness of the war effort—Chase was a true ally, according to Michael Kahn, President of the Board of Directors for President Lincoln’s Cottage.(4)  

Legend held that Lincoln said he would “rather have swallowed his buckhorn chair than to have nominated Chase,” according to J.G. Randall and Richard N. Current, Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure. (5) Maybe buckhorn chairs passed for “crow” back then.

Lincoln followed a pattern established from his first election—attempting to harness and co-opt Chase’s political and personal power to use in his own causes. But in these two critical areas, Lincoln did not have to strain because the two men were to grab a phrase from Forest Gump, “like two peas in a pod” in their fundamental beliefs. On December 6, 1864, Lincoln nominated Chase and sent his name to the Senate, which approved him by unanimous consent.

In all Lincoln nominated five jurists to the Supreme Court during his Presidency. In 1862, John Campbell, known as a Confederate firebrand, left the Court to go South to be named Assistant Secretary of War in the Confederacy. Another Justice died (before Taney) and they expanded the court to ten (still determining why). Of some interest as the partisan question is considered, Lincoln named a friend he made from the Illinois Eighth Circuit, David Davis, who remained a friend throughout their lives. Later Davis became the executor of the Lincoln estate. He was one of a trio who managed Lincoln’s Presidential campaign in 1860.

Lincoln nominated Davis as a recess appointment, when Congress was not in session in 1862. Davis wrote the opinion that year limiting the authority of military courts to try civilians that is seen as a restraint on arbitrary military power to this day. He became a member of the 1872 Electoral Commission that would resolve the 1876 Presidential election, just as the 2000 Court would do, but he resigned to take a seat as Illinois Senator (a seat for which I presume he campaigned). It wasn’t until the 1960s that politicians were not considered for positions on the Supreme Court in favor of sitting jurors on the federal courts.

Slowly Change Occurs

Quick review: Chase’s predecessor Chief Justice Roger Taney resided over the Dred Scott Decision (7-2) March 6, 1857, ruling that Blacks were not included in the U.S. Constitution as citizens and did not have the rights and privileges the Constitution confers, regardless of being slave or free. This ruling was overturned by Constitutional amendments XIII, XIV, XV and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, just after the end of the Civil War.

Chase was installed as Chief Justice on December 15, 1864. John S. Rock, an African-American lawyer, was the first of his race admitted to practice before the Supreme Court on February 1, 1865 on a motion by Senator Sumner (who had lobbied Lincoln ceaselessly for Chase), which assured Rock’s acceptance.(6)

Notes:

(1) Quoted in Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A biography, (New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 1952)   at 491.

(2) David H. Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), at 536.

(3) J.G. Randall and Richard N. Current, Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1955), at 273.

(4) Michael Kahn, “Lincoln Names a Chief Justice,” Abraham Lincoln’s Appointments to the Supreme Court: A Master Politician at his Craft,” Journal of Supreme Court History 1997, Vol. II.https://www.lincolncottage.org/lincolns-election-year-supreme-court-nominee/

(5) J.G. Randall and Richard N. Current, Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1955), at 271.

(6) David M. Silver, Lincoln’s Supreme Court (Urbana, Il.: The University of Illinois Press, 1987), at 203.

Where There’s a Will. . .

Justica by Fabiano Millani useum.org

We look up to tall people—think George Washington and Abe Lincoln—both at 6’4” stood out in a crowd. Today there are more people that reach that height or higher– the Lakers’ LeBron James and former New England QB, now Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady.

Consider a person who would barely come up to the waist of any of these men and whose bird-like body weighed a fraction of any of them, yet she trained that body and worked her essential muscle, her brain, to lay out a positive future that will live on. Whatever scenarios play out while prayers over her body are yet to be sung, her legacy will not be stolen from us.

I can attest to her small stature. Seven years ago, I saw her step out of the back seat of a black car and make her way slowly towards the Watergate residences, where she owned an apartment. Surprised that she was indeed as diminutive as reported, I could see the strength of purpose that came from within this then 80-year-old woman as she walked.

Steel Will

Born in 1933 to a low-income, working-class family, Ruth came a generation after my grandmothers who daily swept the steel filings off their porches in Gary, Indiana, both living to be near 90. We swore that steel found its way into their spines. Ginsburg forged her own steel as she met and overcame challenges that could have melted a lesser woman. How did she become RGB? Let me count the ways.

  1. Her mother struggled with cancer throughout her daughter’s high school days, dying the day before Ruth graduated. She carried her mother’s memory as she attended Cornell, graduating first in her class with a degree in government in 1954. Ruth Bader married Martin Ginsburg and he was drafted that year.
  2. Two years later, military duty completed, now with a child, they enrolled in Harvard Law School together. Ruth was one of eight women among 500 law students, unlikely any of the women had a child and needed to balance that role with that of a law student and wife.
  3.  The law school dean reprimanded those eight women for taking the place of a qualified male.
  4. Her husband, Martin, contracted testicular cancer in 1956. Ruth took notes for him in class, cared for him and their daughter, and continued her own studies. Still she excelled academically to become the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.
  5. Martin recovered, graduated Harvard Law and accepted a job with a New York law firm.
  6. To keep the family together, she transferred to Columbia Law School and was again elected to the school’s law review.
  7. Despite graduating FIRST in her class at Columbia, law firms put out a “no women need apply” sign.
  8. Ruth clerked for a federal judge for two years, then taught law students at Rutgers for nearly a decade, before accepting a position at Columbia. There she taught for eight years and became the FIRST woman at the law school to receive tenure.  
  9. She directed the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU in the 1970s and brought six cases to the Supreme Court, winning five. One came out of the Social Security Act (SSA). A man’s wife had died in childbirth, making him a widower. He wanted to raise their child himself. Then if he had been a widow, he would have received benefits enabling him to do so, but not as a widower. She argued successfully that SSA should cover men as well as women.

 This background propelled Ginsburg onto the U.S. Court of Appeals for DC, when her accomplishments caught the eye of President Jimmy Carter. In 1993 President Bill Clinton selected her to fill the seat vacated by Justice Byron White. Some on the Judiciary Committee grumbled about her evasive answers to hypothetical questions, but candidates for the Court rarely engage queries of that nature, including the two most recent additions to the Court. The Senate confirmed her with a 96-3 Senate vote. After the Assistant Attorney General administered the oath, his son slipped around from behind him and the face of the newly sworn Justice lit up, welcoming the boy and shaking his hand. A warm human reaction she would also extend backstage to opera singers of Washington’s Metropolitan Opera, according to opera lover Thomas Saunders III, Chairman of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative group in DC. Antonio Scalia, her polar legal opposite on the Court, enjoyed discussions about music and opera with her—anything but the law. They laughed about it.

Moderate-Liberal for Gender Equality, Worker’s Rights Cases

United States v. Virginia – Ginsburg wrote the 1996 landmark decision that state-supported Virginia Military Academy could not refuse to admit women.

Bush v. Gore – She dissented in the Court’s decision in the 2000 presidential election, concluding with the words, “I dissent,” not adding “respectfully.”

King v. Burwell – Ginsburg upheld critical components of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in 2015 allowing the federal government to continue providing subsidies to Americans who purchase health care through “exchanges,” whether they are state or federally operated in a 6-3 decision.

Obergefell v. Hodges – Ginsburg had officiated same-sex marriages and ruled with the 5-4 majority.

During the 2016 campaign, she registered her opinion of the Republican candidate that he was a “faker,” then later apologized for speaking out. He released a list of candidates he would consider for the Court, as he discussed the future of elderly justices, including Ginsburg, then 84. The petite Justice responded by hiring a full slate of clerks through 2020, when she would turn 87.

Fighting to the end, Ginsburg pushed her diminished body through five bouts with cancer, but finally the strength of her will could not win a battle against a physical foe she had held at bay for over a decade.

RBG They Would Call Her

Eight tall men walked across a well-trod stage followed by a diminutive woman in 1993. When they sat down, the woman’s face barely rose above the dais. Her soft, quiet voice barely created a ripple in the room. But the steel in her words and the content of her character woke a nation, slowly bending the arc of justice towards progress that will not be stopped.

Make it Better!

Pay It Forward Foundation – Making life better one deed, one person at a time. A good deed expands exponentionally as the picture shows. There’s benefit to the giver as well as the receiver.

When we feel life is running us over, it’s time to take an action to stand up, take an action that says, “I am not defenseless—I can act” in response.

Today, September 11, marks nineteen years, the space of a youth grown out of high school, since America lost nearly 3,000 people in a series of terrorist attacks at three locations. Now over the last six months a much larger number, 23,000, have died in the Pandemic in New York City alone. The total nationwide climbs over 181,000 and still grows. Staggering numbers. Yet fifty years after it was written, I think of “Hey, Jude,” one of the Beatles’ most popular songs. “Take a sad song and make it better!”

Rather than sitting silently in fear of the future, we can act. Take action to protect our communities and ourselves—covering our mouths and noses, staying 10 feet away, but there is something else we can do for ourselves while assisting others.

We can “pay it forward,” reaching out in ways large and small to show gratitude and to assist others.

This is not an idea I cobbled up myself. Kevin Tuerff (a distant, but wise cousin) boarded a plane on 9-11, 2011, and ended up in Gander, Newfoundland, when American air space closed. The plane’s refugees came to be known as “Come from Aways.” They came from all over the world on 38 suddenly landed planes brought together on this eastern corner of Canada on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

All 6,579 strangers were fed and clothed after a call went out to Gander, a town of 9,000 people. The residents donated enough sheets, sleeping bags, and pillows to turn their community college into a refugee shelter for the five days the “plane people” lived among them.

Passengers wanted to repay their hosts for their generosity. Kevin used his public relations skills and borrowed an idea from Catherine Ryan Hyde’s book and movie, Pay It Forward. He took the Gander experience and grew it into The Pay It Forward Foundation.

The idea is simple: doing a good deed for a stranger. If you are at the drive-through picking up coffee or lunch, pay extra to cover the cost for the person behind you. Take whatever you do–cut trees, sew on buttons, make muffins for a soup kitchen, sketch a sign, bake a cake, fix a neighbor’s gate, whatever you do, offer it to another. Extend yourself to grow good feelings, which help tear a little hole into the isolation and impotent feelings we can experience now. It need not be big.

Reaching out helps the giver as well as the receiver. Expressing gratitude rewards by warming two hears and may inspire future good deeds by giver and receiver. In these times of uncertainty, there are few acts that warm not one, but two hearts. Try it. 

His short stay at Gander resulted in Kevin Tuerff’s book, Channel of Peace, Stranded in Gander on 9/11 and the Broadway play, “Come From Away,” which ran on Broadway and in Toronto, where it had a separate Canadian cast. He went back to Gander for the tenth anniversary and became an official Newfoundlander by “kissing the cod.” Formerly of Austin, he now lives in Manhattan, where he continues to practice Pay It Forward.

9/11 will be etched forever in my soul as I sat that day on the fourth floor of a building in Alexandria, Virginia. That structure where I sat trembled as the plane two miles away powered across the GW Parkway into US Department of Defense headquarters. A black plume of smoke rose, foretelling the disaster below.

That’s not something you forget, even nineteen years later. But it makes it all the more important to do a selfless thing today as we experience a much greater loss and we don’t know exactly when the deaths will stop. Gratitude is a salve I highly recommend.

Inside the Oasis

An Oasis of Heaven, a photograph by Marmie T. Edwards May 26, 2020

Inside the Oasis

Don’t you wish you could escape to an enchanted sanctuary where this convoluted existence would slip away? I am not talking about a two-day binge or a weekend of Netflix (that could make your brain cry out for a Bloody Mary).  How about a refuge of the mind?

I know Netflix has been popular this Labor Day weekend because my internet/zoom connection fluctuates. Total Beverage made multiple deliveries to my neighborhood in preparation for the three-day. So, the bird has flown for some of you.

Just on a lark I offer some ideas from books to provide a break for however long we are sequestered. Browse through these paragraphs until you find something that appeals. Anne Lamont in Bird After Bird says it better: “. . out of these small flat rigid squares of paper unfolds. . .worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. . . They show us what community and friendship mean.” Lamont points out the lyrical language and attention to life’s enchanted details that we rarely stop to enjoy.

For Pure Pleasure

One book gifted to me by my daughter, Life with Picasso by Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, shows the demands Picasso placed on friendship. He took Francoise, whose paintings were already gaining interest, to meet his oldest friend, Georges Braque, a few weeks after she had come to live with Picasso. They met briefly and the couple saw his recent works. Afterwards Picasso said: “Now you see the difference between Braque and Matisse.” (Matisse was warm and called Francoise by name immediately.)  “He (Matisse) wanted to paint your portrait.”

Picasso complained that even though he made a point in his introduction to explain Francoise was “not someone I just happened to bring by chance,” Braque repeatedly referred to Francois as Mademoiselle, a term that could refer to anyone. Picasso exchanged art with his friends, including Braque, and hung them in his atelier among canvasses of Matisse. When Picasso returned from Baraque, that painter’s still life with a teapot, lemons, and apples that Picasso had displayed prominently disappeared.

My curiosity about Picasso grew from childhood when I saw his cubist painting of a guitar. Later when I lived in New York briefly, I saw the muted gray and brown tones of distorted human heads and horses in “Guernica.” The painting with simmered with the strong emotion of a Spanish native reliving the destruction of German planes that strafed this Basque village in 1937. “Guernica” lives on as an ugly reminder of the human toll of war, yet its message goes unheeded.

A Love Letter to Paris

A contemporary of Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, fascinated me as a child. I read and reread An Old Man and the Sea, enjoying the simplicity of the words. Somehow, I did not realize the structure under the words or the many personal revisions and edits that went into each of his books. When I read it the first time, I thought when Heminway pulled a typed page out of his Remington typwriter, it was a finished masterpiece. Great disservice that nearly pushed me off the idea of writing, as an impossible act.

So, this summer I found a copy of A Movable Feast­ about his years in Paris from 1921-26. But Paris was in the rear view, even if it stayed in his mind, when Hemingway started to write this book thirty years later in Cuba. He took the manuscript with him to Spain and home to Idaho before he was satisfied with it in 1960, four years before he died. In the book, Hemingway speaks of Gertrude Stine and Sherwood Anderson and drinking at the bar in the morning with Scott Fitzgerald. He offers an inside take on writers of the 1940s and 1950s.

If you seek an oasis in Paris, maybe where someone does the drinking for you, this is your book. Hemingway finds Paris a never-ending place, where “each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.” Your experience as a reader may differ as well, but it will not be boring. Writing to a friend in 1950, Hemingway explains the title: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then where ever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Dog Lovers’ (and Ferrari Lovers’) Bonanza

Maybe you’d like something at appears more down to earth, but that takes you inside the car racing at rallies around the world?  Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain has it all—an adorable Golden Retriever (I have a very soft spot in my heart for Goldens), a relationship, a deathly illness, car racing, Ferraris and human-dog friendship. Human wisdom runs through the book, but this particular gem speaks to me: “There is no dishonor in losing the race. There is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose.”

Finding Humor, Inspiration or Poop in Memoir

When someone else steps into dog poop, it is less of a nightmare than it when we dip our soft slippers into a nasty, brown mess. When a story of life gone wrong is not lethal, it can be downright instructive, even hilarious, if the account is beautifully written. Writers have crowned Mary Karr queen of Memoir. Chicago Tribune points out. “What distinguishes Karr is the ability to serve up her experiences in a way that packs the wallop of immediacy with the salty tang of adult reflection.”

Her title Liar’s Club comes from the stories her father and his collection of friends told around the bar. She must have been listening in to create these 1950s tales of family life in East Texas in a town depicted in Eastern publications as #1ugliest. Karr described her mom as a painter who “married instead of dating,” racking up five marriages. But her father, an oil and gas wildcatter, disappeared periodically. He had met her mother in Louisiana when she got a flat tire fleeing from number two. Her mother’s favorite book, Anna Karenina, indicates she had a serious interest in literature that could have been her greatest gift to her daughter.

Tent Revivals Provide Canvas for Holy Ghost Girl

Totally different, but equally compelling Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson, an Austin writer, takes on the sawdust trail of the ginormous canvas-tent revivals of the 1940s and 1950s. A charismatic preacher drew in Donna’s mother as organist—requiring the four-year-old and her siblings to tag along. Brother Terrell seems to be so entwined with his own rapture that there is room for little else, though there are dalliances. Yet he rushes across multiple states to attend the bedside of his son, who has a rare blood disease that pools blood in his stomach when he’s stressed. Lacking any scientific underpinning and fearing the medical world, Terrell refuses to leave his son behind and pulls the tubes from his son’s arms and pushes his way out of the hospital. Returning to his kingdom of the tent, he uses his son as an example of the miracles he has wrought.

Donna, like Karr, many years from the tent, found solace in reading books. She leaves the world of evangelical preachers at 17. Yet her knowledge of this unique experience finds rest as a religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News and later teaching others how to draw personal stories onto the page.

Texas Wives’ Club and Men Who Run Towards Danger

Rachel Starnes knows what it is like to love a man who feels compelled to seek danger far from home. Her father was an oil rigger who worked in Saudi Arabia, where she lived for a year as a teenager. Back in Texas sshe fell in love with her brother’s best friend, who grew into a Top Gun pilot. Before marriage and kids, it was easier to believe this would just be Phase 1 of their life together and they would survive it to enjoxcczy Phase II. War at Home, A Wife’s Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible), weaves a story of a woman trying to carve out a life as a writer while making a life with the often-gone pilot, then raising their sons. Praised for being “elegantly written and with deep feeling and insight about a common, but little written-about and increasingly less understood, facet of American life.” (Karl Marlantes, New York Times bestselling author of What it is Like to Go to War).

History Makes Good Stories

Texas native Sarah Bird’s skills are exhibited in her 2020 book, Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, tale of Cathy Williams, the only woman Buffalo Soldier from the 1870s. These Black soldiers, trained during the Civil War, did not find situations in the North and certainly not in the South in 1865, so they were sent west to fight Indians. To protect herself from her brothers in arms, she needed to hide her femininity. Until she found a soldier to whom she would eventually tell her secret. Further background and questions to jump start book clubs are in the back of the paperback.

S.C. Gwynne, another Austinite, wrote about Native Americans in several of his books. Before the Pandemic settled in, he spoke at the LBJ Auditorium about his 2019 book, Hymns of the Republic, and relayed how he was able to leave his job to research and write his first book. His wife, Katie, sold her first painting and offered him the payment as the investment needed to commence writing full time.

Empire of the Summer Moon, became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Years later I stood in a crowded tent as he discussed his book about Stonewall Jackson, Rebel Yell, at the 2014 Texas Book Festival in Austin. Before the Pandemic, he talked about Hymns of the Republic, concerning the last year of the Civil War, when the end did not come peacefully as the brutal slaughter continued, but Lincoln knew the end was in sight. Many writers have attempted a new take on the Civil War but Gwynne’s gifts are noted by Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, who called him a “master storyteller and a dogged reporter” who makes history come to life, making it “irrestible.”

Never Forget Leech’s Reveille in Washington, Well-deserved Pulitzer

Finally, Reveille in Washington by Margaret Leech, (1893-1974) who won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1942, while others were consumed by the pending war in Europe. A Vassar graduate she worked in publicity for Conde Nast before starting into journalism in the 1920s. The fact that she married Ralph Pulitzer in 1928 might cause one to question her second Pulitzer for In the Days of McKinley in 1960. But it should not. Civil War books are most always on my bedroom table, have been for years, but this book carves out an entirely new perspective. Leech takes you deep inside the story, placing you there at the critical dinner parties, as she paints the intimate lives of all the key players in the 1860s. That her work lies buried beneath more contemporary historians is painful. Here’s an example:

“At a dinner party at Mr. Corcoran’s, General Scott witnessed the passionate outbursts of Senator Toombs and Senator Benjamin, who cursed the President, along with Major Anderson (at Charleston) and the Union,” Leech writes, describing the event. “In the end, this sundered country was united only in the opinion that Mr. Buchanan was a coward and a fool. Sinking heavily into a chair in Scott’s headquarters, he exclaimed,” The office of the President of the United States is not fit for a gentleman to hold!”

I’ll leave it there. Plenty of other talents remain, but I’ve overstayed!

Unconventional Summers: 1968 and 2020

        Pick the 50-year-old songs!

        “Hey, Jude”   The Beatles

        “Jumping Jack Flash”  The Rolling Stones

        “People Got to be Free”     The Rascals

        “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”     Otis Redding

        “This Guy’s in Love with You”     Herb Alpert

      “Living in a Ghost Town”    The Rolling Stones

        “Wish it would Rain”  The Temptations

        “Say a Little Prayer”    Aretha Franklin

         “Stupid Love”       Lady Gaga

        “The Box”          Reddy Ricch

Take a Sad Song and Make it Better

Remember the Beatles’ tune “Hey Jude”? Not their usual upbeat tune, but it carries positive advice: “Take a sad song and make it better.” “Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.” Hard to imagine that these songs hit the charts in 1968, fifty years ago. (Pick the three that were produced in 2020).

Beatles contemporaries, the Rolling Stones, inspired by the current Pandemic, issued a more somber release this year: “Living in a Ghost Town.” This reggae-tinged blues rock tune’s lyrics speak to us today: “Live was so beautiful, then we got locked down” and “Please let this be over/not stuck in a world without end.”

 Today we are enmeshed in an emotional patchwork of slow and fast, a time of reflection and confusion, being solitary while others are packed in like sardines, an unusual time of rising temperatures and falling perspectives. Life goes on in America in 2020, like in 1968, but civil unrest, anger and chaos brought on by injustice, justice delayed, or justice denied and the stresses of job loss and disease has come to our streets.  Protests have turned violent with fatalities in Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Kenosha. Yet, as then, absent a voice of calm. While the nation holds its breath, the Pandemic numbers rise and fall and rise again. The nation’s political divide accentuates the situation, as opponents take opposite responses—one tempting the Pandemic with thousands of people seated close together, rejecting masks as “unConstitutional” while the other practices “social distancing” of six feet wearing masks in groups of 25, making traditional politicking challenging. Crucial to both sides: finding a way to educate all our children while protecting them from Corvid, eventually safely returning Americans to work and coming together to provide justice and dignity for all. Seemingly impossible goals, given that our country seems cleved with a knife.

You can get the play-by-play of ping-pong paddle thrashing political analysis elsewhere, I take a different tact since this is Past Becomes Present, right?  

Millions of Americans Suffered Hong Kong Flu in 1968

We share more than political conventions with 1968. You do not hear a lot about it, but 50 years ago Americans were stricken by the Hong Kong Flu (H3N2) beginning in July, contrary to reports that viruses recede in the summer. It began as an upper respiratory disease, then escalated to 500,000 cases in two weeks. Smithsonian Magazine in 2018 reported between one and four million people died of the Hong Kong Flu (evidently reporting from hospitals, doctors and morgues was not as exacting as it is now and there were no computers to instantly send the information). 

Upon reflection after collecting data in 1968, public health managers determined that soldiers returning from Vietnam likely carried the disease to California and the rest of the country. An even wider discrepancy is charted in the number of fatalities in the 1918 Pandemic, when testing and hospital and coroner reporting were hampered by lack of time and equipment in the midst of the outbreak: their best estimate between 25 million and 50 million, according to the Britannica.

In 2020 as of August 31, 2020, a total of 182,622 have died of Covid19 in America with just under 6 million reported cases since January 21. Concern now is whether the U.S. can continue or begin to be vigilant until at least the end of the year when a vaccine may appear. There were two waves of the disease in 1968, as we are seeing new waves throughout Europe, and in 1968, the second wave proved then to be more lethal than the first.

“Law and Order” Focus of Trump and Nixon

As the folding chairs and the cameras from the two 2020 conventions are repositioned, I attempt to recover from a Pandemic-enforced Zoom sensation unlike prior political meetups. I have watched both party’s conventions since 1960, when I was pre-teen. My family was not in a position to contribute to any party, but every four years we were positioned in front of that 12-inch black and white, until it became a little larger color box.

What I saw in August 1968, made all other conventions until now pale in comparison. The Republican GOP Convention that nominated Richard Nixon in Miami selected the location in part because the bridges there could be closed to block off protesters from the convention. But African Americans in the impoverished Liberty City neighborhood protested. From the podium, Nixon pledged to restore “Law and Order” to America. Later in 1968, the Democrats nominated Herbert Humphrey, who predicted the election would be about “common sense, and a time for maturity, strength and responsibility,” saying he would “unite the party” after a bruising primary, then unite the nation. The public had difficulty hearing his message as protesters and rioters battled with Chicago police. The civil unrest paralleled what had happened months prior throughout the country that year after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

1968 Vietnam and Civil Rights Protests

Those of you born after 1958 probably have no memory of the 1968 political conventions. Five years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the country mourned as the Vietnam War heated up. Five-hundred thousand Americans were fighting in southeast Asia and college campuses nation were lit up with protesters marching and chanting. Draftees made up 42 percent of the military but 58 percent of the casualties, dispatching military officers to inform anxious families nationwide. Nearly 1000 Americans were being killed each month in Vietnam and many more were injured, as Walter Cronkite gave an all-business, play-by-play and gruesome video from the battlefields filled our living rooms for the first time.

 Riots prior to 1968 revealed anger and destruction previously unrealized in American cities. Rev. King and Senator Kennedy’s assassinations combined with long-term grievances fueled discontent in cities coast-to-coast and torched black businesses.

2020 Conventions During Pandemic and Civil Unrest

First in mid-August 2020, the Democrats nominated for President former Vice President Joe Biden. In his acceptance, he noted the nation faced four major threats: The Pandemic, economic decline equal to the Great Depression, protests of racial injustice and the accelerating threat of climate change. He selected as his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), the first black and first Asian woman nominated for Vice President. He spoke of “inequity and injustice that has grown up in America. Economic injustice. Racial injustice Environmental injustice.”

A week later Republican incumbent Donald Trump accepted the nomination from the White House lawn (A first given that the Hatch Act prohibits mixing politics with performance of professional duties on federally owned property paid for by American taxpayers.) He made it clear that he would follow the path of Richard Nixon (without mentioning him by name) to be the “Law and Order” President, to put an end to riots across America, using a military response. Behind in the polls during the summer, he planned a November victory mimicking Nixon. Not being known for the “long game,” Trump did not consider Nixon’s endgame.

Racial Disparity Pinpointed in 1968

Tone deaf response to America’s inequities reaches far back in our history. After the modern wave of civil unrest 50 years ago, some in Congress attempted to uncover the source of the riots by reviewing events in1965 (Watts), 1967 (Detroit) and 1968 (nationwide after Martin Luther King’s death). The Kerner Report found white society “created, maintained and condoned” conditions that reinforced despair in black neighborhoods and added fuel to the pre-existing anger. (Smithsoniamag.com, “Martin Luther King’s Assassination Sparked Uprisings in Cities Across America,” April 4, 2018) But putting words on paper was not enough to turn around the future of kids in a ghetto or restore hope to adults in 1968.

That year protests and riots occurred in 200 cities with major damage occurred in ten cities, including Washington D.C., Baltimore, New York, and Kansas City. Within ten days there were 43 deaths, 3,500 injuries, and 27,000 arrests. A total of 58,000 National guardsmen and state and federal troops were sent in to stop looting, arson, and sniper fire. Fifty-four cities had more than $100,000 in property damage. To put that amount into perspective: Washington experienced 1,200 fires and $24 million in insured property damage, which totals $174 million in today’s currency.  (Smithsonian Magazine, April 4, 2018) Obviously that expenditure did not begin to overcome the core problems that lead to civil unrest.  

Technology Speeds Up

How did modern communication change over 50 years? Cell phones make it easier to gather a flash mob by simultaneously notifying protesters to gather at a specific location and time. In 1968 iPhone video cameras did not exist to film what took place in the tight corners of a protest or to show what happened immediately prior to an altercation. Mayors and city leaders are able now to reach out to constituients or protesters with a message if their is an opportunity to dialogue. It depends on the communications skills of the leader. The challenge is to select the right words and determine the best person to deliver the message at the optimal time.

Today there are many more splinter groups not under united leadership making negotiations difficult and complicated. Protesters, anti-protesters, far-right and far-left contingents are ready, able, and willing to fight instantaneously. Each of these groups can recruit new members online without having a specific address. Protest rallies are catnip for angry or bored teens and twenty-somethings unemployed by the Pandemic. At the same time, idealists are determined to speak up for their cause, see a protest as an opportunity to make their voices heard.

Dialing up the danger for all sides: Open carry laws allowing a civilian to openly carry a firearm generally were not on the books in 1968. But by 2018, 45 states allowed open carry with a variety of specifications. Just four states, including the District of Columbia, prohibit the open carry of handguns. The last week of August a 17-year-old from illinois carrying a long gun was arrested in conjunction with the deaths of two protesters and injury to another in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The state’s disorderly conduct statute (Wis. Stat. 947.01) was amended nine years ago to allow a person to carry a firearm “without regard to whether the firearm is loaded or is conceealed or openly carried” unless with criminal intent. The intent is the question.

No matter how lethal or messy the situation in 2020 may appear, I want to believe in Americans’ ability to register our choices peacefully. That is essential in order to create a just world for all Americans, now and for generations to come. While I remain optimistic, my favorite: Aretha Franklin song from 1968: “Say a Little Prayer for You,” might provide solace 60 days out from Election Day.

Great-niece Abigail’s baby blanket. Her room is pink and gray. Not sure my kniting has improved since the 1960s. Knit during the 2020 conventions.