Recently I read that high school students who have lived through the Pandemic mainly choose to live in the Present, letting the Future fend for itself. They are not willing to trust they will be around tomorrow, so why plan for it?
Some are still willing to slug through calculus or biochemistry or trigonometry to prepare for careers in engineering and medicine. But that is not a large number.
Those parents who are able are speeding up their plans for retirement, now more aware that life is short. Why not begin to enjoy the benefit of one’s efforts as soon as possible, not knowing what the future may bring? While others are still struggling to feed and educate their children today.
Many of us vaguely remember the “Before Times,” as some call them, and are not certain that we can return to what now seems to be the distant past. Frankly, the times of being crammed like sardines into stadiums, music venues, and offices are not as appealing as they once were and will require mental and physical retrofitting.
While we are thinking about the future, will we be able to blindly return to following one political party or another out of habit or will we require something more?
“Identity politics” some call it, following along with a particular label because it is what you have always done, blind allegiance to the Dems or the GOP Party. Not because you believe what it stands for. But because you feel a part of the group.
Originally the parties were considered “shortcuts” that provide a range of choice between alternatives of action. “The act of choosing a party is the act of choosing whom we trust to perform our values across a vast range of issues that confront the country,” according to Ezra Klein, who believes the most valuable opportunity to influence the course of public affairs is in their choice of a party. He authored “Why We’re Polarized.
The rub can be traced to 1923 when Idaho Republican Senator William Borah said: “Any man who can carry a GOP primary is a Republican. To Borah it did not matter if the guy (then they were all guys) believed in free trade, states’ rights, or every policy of the Democratic Party.
Move to the 1950s when the positions of the two political parties became muddled as much by regional thinking and historical perspective. Voters could not define the party by the beliefs of their individual candidates. Democrats in Minnesota ran liberal candidate Hubert Humphrey, while in South Carolina the same party put uber-conservative Strom Thurmond on the ballot, both in Senate races.
Without the restraint of party unity, some argued political disagreements escalate. Debate on issues, like health care, motivates supporters and turns them against opponents. But in the end, issues get aired and resolved. Divisions get deeper and angrier.
Think about 1964 or consider this if you were not around for that initial foray into the political ring we encounter today. Republican Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater promised an election that “would not be an engagement of personalities, but an engagement of principles.” But the conservative wing of the GOP got hung up with purity and worked diligently to “expel the moderate wing” of the party, forgetting they would need them to win the election. Goldwater got creamed by Democrat Lyndon Johnson.
George Romney, then moderate Republican governor of Michigan who would be a candidate for President in 1968, (and the father of Mitt Romney, who ran for President on the GOP ticket in 2008) outlined his disagreement with Goldwater’s “take no prisoners” approach.
After the Goldwater disaster, George Romney wrote his Republican colleagues: “Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, leading to government crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromise so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress.” Think about that.
Interesting that Mitt felt it necessary to brand himself as “severely conservative” during the 2008 Presidential Campaign. And he went down, not as severely, but lost his bid never-the-less. In 2021, Mitt has taken sides again, more as a moderate, perhaps taking a longer view, sees the impact of following the former President down a purist rabbit hole could have on our democracy.
Shortly the Republicans in the House will stage another “purity contest.” This one based on whether a House leadership position should be held by a conservative woman (Liz Cheney, daughter of a Republican VP under Bush II) who has been vocal in her opposition to Trump and his continuing cries of “foul” over the final tally of the now fading 2020 Presidential Election. She also objects to the former President’s role instigating the June 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Fear that Trump would back a Primary challenger against them weakened the knees of many Republican House members who voted against accepting votes cast for Joe Biden. Nevertheless, the election results were approved on a vote of 306-232 at 2:15 am on the long day-into-morning of January 6-7, 2021.
William Faulkner, a writer who I suffered through in college, but respect more with age, wrote: “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” He noted that “the past is never truly past, but it returns through haunting and repetition.”
Ezra Klein, Why We are Polarized. New York: Avid Reader Press, 2020. In November Klein resigned as editor-at-large at VOX to become a New York Times columnist and host of a political podcast.
Stay tuned for interesting thoughts on what percent of the country is fully invested in the political divide (six percent). And how the rest of us can help pull the needle from the far walls. What can be done to give thinking a chance and avoid having the noisiest among us rule.
“Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” Jazz Great Miles Davis
Endless time seems to move so slowly as to drip like a leaky faucet, making every moment pregnant with ideas, some alerting our fears to endless possibilities.
Time has taken on new meaning, while simultaneously dropping away into nothingness as we struggle to answer a multitude of WHEN questions.
It has been barely two months since my family flew off to work in London and a month since their dog, my part-time companion, joined them. Sometimes it seems like it’s been six months. Naturally due to the pandemic’s quarantine, I wonder when I might see them again. Even now, a visit this summer is rapidly slipping off the plate, but I am coping by writing, exercising, and appreciating every sunny day.
WHEN? The Universal Question
We’ve all joined in questioning WHEN? When did life as we knew it screech to a halt? When won’t I depend on Zoom to see colleagues or Facetime for friends and relatives? When can I walk in the woods, go to the library, or gym, or get my hair cut, or leave home to hear any concert in person? When will I enjoy the aroma of cooking not my own? Far more important to more than 36 million Americans: When, if ever, will my job come back, so I can resume living without losing a place to live and be able to feed my family?
No matter where we sit politically, or whether we stand in the unemployment line, the food bank line, or the grocery line, stress rides along daily with each of us.
There are few universal answers to WHEN. Many are being made state by state or county by county. As of mid-May, 90,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 and 1.5 million tested positive, while 260,000 have recovered. This nationwide pandemic has only engendered more stress and fear and seems in some parts of the country to have widened the divide. But in some communities, people from a wide spectrum of political and religious beliefs are working together to feed the hungry unemployed and their children—taking action, which often lessens the feeling of helplessness and anxiety.
Recently I saw an article that sheds some light on this question:
“In Stressful Times, Make Stress Work for You,” by Karl Leibowitz and Alia Crum, which brings down to lay terms a study of the mindset of Navy SEALS, college students, and business leaders experiencing stress. They consider how to harness stress. Here are their three steps:
Acknowledge Your Stress
Seems by taking on stress we move the place it resides in our mind. Normally before we address our fear, it sits in the amygdala, the brain center for emotion. When we begin the acknowledge our stress, our thoughts move to the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is where executive control and planning take place–where we can be more thoughtful and deliberate in our actions– where we can do something about it.
Have you ever tried to stop thinking less about something and instead your mind returns to it even more often? That is the “ironic mental processing” at work in the brain as we stress over something. According to the scientists, the brain tries to help us out by constantly checking in to see if we continue to think of it. Suppression does not work.
Now is where you need to determine what is at the heart of your personal stress or anxiety.
Are you most concerned about getting sick yourself? Or your mate or partner? Is it your children, their education or health? Are you worried about a loved one who is at high risk? Is your anxiety caused by balancing working from home and family responsibilities?
Once you determine this, then you can examine your reactions to these stressors. What emotions come with this? Frustration, sadness, anger? What do you notice in your body? Tight neck and shoulders or do you have difficulty sleeping?
Own Your Stress
Why welcome stress into your life during a pandemic? We only stress, really stress, about the things (and people) we really care about. By connecting to the stress, we identify what is at the core of our anxiety. By denying or trying to avoid our stress, we can do the opposite and avoid what is really important to us.
Difficult task? Try completing this sentence, “I am stressed about (list answer you gave in step one) because I deeply care about. . .”
Use Your Stress—Make it Work for You!
If you connect to the core values behind your stress, then you set yourself up for the most essential ingredient: using or leveraging stress to achieve your goals and connect more deeply with the things that matter most to you.
Are your typical responses aligned with the values behind your stress? Think how you could adapt your response to this stress to facilitate your goals and your responses. There is a lot happening that we cannot control, but there are also unprecedented opportunities amid the fear. It is a matter of connecting with people and materials at hand. Action will help you overcome your anxiety and begin to tackle fear of the unknown. Addressing the here and now. The trick is to channel your coronavirus stress as energy to make the most of this time. Difficult though it seems, if we fail to embrace our stress and utilize it, it will only grow. Take baby steps forward to tackle your anxiety.
On a personal note, much earlier in my life, I needed to learn coping skills after a difficult period. I developed a calm approach to crisis that helped me professionally and has stood by me for three decades. Sticking to our universal values, working to overcome fear and anxiety, we can develop stable solutions to serve us and the next generation.
Daniel Pink, When, the Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2018)
Karl Leibowitz and Alia Crum, Stanford University, “In Stressful Times, Make Stress Work for You,” New York Times, April 1, 2020
Alia J. Crum and Peter Salovey, “Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2013, Vol. 104, No. 4, 716-733
A classic tenant of crisis management for savvy leaders. Even if your personal chipmunks are running a marathon in your stomach, when you have a team—whether its four classmates, a room full of colleagues, or all 328 million Americans—a time comes when it hits the fan, you set up your essential goal, put on your game face, hunker down, and pass out the assignments to the most qualified, most tested in the room. That makes it much easier to appear sweat less!
Establishing the Critical Goal
Leading a country and overseeing a military at war requires an intensely capable person. Lincoln wasn’t that person at the beginning of the Civil War, but he made it his business to catch up. Some say it took him until he hired U.S. Grant in March 1864, but Lincoln established his goal at the get-go. He did not waiver in his belief that preserving the Union was his prime responsibility. Everything else came second, was collateral damage, or would be a tool to accomplish this goal.
Lincoln preferred to focus on the essential foe and not push a blanket plan to prohibit slavery as he prepared the Emancipation Proclamation. He battled flames in front of him on the battlefield and saw significant matters smoldering behind him, threatening to ignite the abolitionists and the opposition Copperheads at his rear. This messy political stew revealed the alchemy he brewed while working to weave the nation together and draw his critics apart. Developing the persuasive mixture eluded him as his supporters began to lose faith that Lincoln could manage the broth before the wildfire consumed him.
Jousting with Journalists
Being a writer himself who appreciated a turn of phrase, Lincoln enjoyed mixing it up with journalists. Due to his seemingly “rustic” communications skills and quick mind hidden beneath a slow delivery, he could be waiting for reporters’ questions twenty steps ahead of them and have a fitting quip ready. Today wrangling with the media is a required sport for office holders, particularly if they seek or have achieved higher office. Disarming humor, not used as a spear but as a reminder of shared humanity, seems to have nearly disappeared with an earlier generation (think Ronald Reagan, who often appeared with a smile to friend or foe alike, or Barack Obama, who could flash a smile when he wasn’t preoccupied with a financial implosion).
Lincoln saw journalists as another branch of politics. (At the time 3,000, or three-fourths of the newspapers published in America, were supported by a political party). He worked to establish a mutual understanding with the big three of the day: James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, Democratic, pro-slavery, against most of Lincoln’s stands; Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, an abolitionist who had a love-hate relationship with the President, but got special treatment on several stories; and Henry Raymond of the New York Times, a Republican and formerly Greeley’s chief lieutenant, later founder of the New York Times in 1851.
Greeley, like Bennett. loved his role in journalism, but the two loathed each other, primarily for political reasons; A final Greeley-Raymond final split came when Raymond beat him to become New York’s Lieutenant Governor in 1854. Setting up the perfect storm between the three major newspaper editor’s Lincoln needed to cajole. In 1864 he helped engineer Lincoln’s 1864 re-nomination.
Disagreeing Without Being Disagreeable or Worse
Bennett came from the pro-Democratic Party, pro-slavery and against pretty much everything Lincoln valued, but Lincoln wooed him rather than pushing him away, most of the time. Lincoln walked a tightrope between Bennett and Greeley when he fed stories and news tips to Greeley, but at times the Tribune bit the hand that fed it, angering Lincoln.
In August 1862, Horace Greeley published “The Prayer of the Twenty Million,” a plea of the “Loyal Millions” requiring a “frank, declared, unqualified, ungrudging execution of the laws of the land.” Greeley wanted Lincoln to enforce the emancipating provisions of the Second Confiscation Act (July 17, 1862) removing slaves from the Confederate states. Greeley believed his readers had carried Lincoln to victory and “now feel that the triumph of the Union is dispensable not only to the existence of our country to the well-being of mankind.” They expected Lincoln to deliver on their request.
Lincoln responded on August 22, 1862 in the Daily National Intelligencer, a newspaper long a part of the Washington scene, founded by George Washington. Lincoln said he did not argue with what Greeley said, but reaffirmed his own chief goal to “save the Union and not either to save or to destroy slavery.” At the very bottom of the letter, Lincoln affirmed: “I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere be free.”
Concerning the letter, historian David Herbert Donald pointed out Lincoln sought to assure the large majority of Northern people that he did not want to see the war transformed into a crusade for abolition, while offering himself time to contemplate further moves against slavery.
No doubt that Lincoln suffered at the hands of the press, but he also knew how to give as well as he got and used humor as honey to make the message go down a little easier. Yet he chastised a visitor to his office who pestered him for “one of his stories.” Lincoln noted his stories were not a “carnival act but were a useful way of directing discussion.” (Elihu B Washburne Chapter3 note 15)
Lincoln exercised patience, waiting for a victory, or close to it, to bolster his proclamation. He only freed the slaves in the states that were in Rebellion—the Confederacy, holding the freedom of slaves throughout the country for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Who Was the Greater Martyr?
The question came up recently as to whether Lincoln or the current President were the greater “martyr” (poor word choice, given that one made the ultimate sacrifice) to the slings of the press. While the current President has a wide array of broadcast and digital media to pester him, Lincoln could only rely on the telegraph and the vital coast-to-coast postal system to send his lithograph—with his warts, wayward tie knotted under his collar, and an unruly mop of black hair—far and wide. His tired, sympathetic mug became fodder for frequent political cartoons that etched in the brains of the electorate.
Lincoln’s low key personality and friendships helped him take on the darts that were flung his way. He had fewer instruments available to respond, being able to utilize only the overhead wires and the power of his pen. He aimed his words at “the people” of the entire nation—North and South alike. The modern president reacts by email or sends a barrage of Twitter messages laser-focused on those aligned to him, “his base,” not concerned about increasing his support or addressing the entire country.
Seven years ago, Mark Bowen of The Atlantic looked at “How Lincoln Was Dissed in His Day.” He said that the “bile poured on him from every quarter made today’s Internet vitriol seem dainty.” Lincoln seemed caught in a no-win situation, always criticized by those who felt he had gone too far versus those who believed he hadn’t gone far enough. (Mark Bowen, “How Lincoln Was Dissed in His Day,” June 2013.)
Lincoln’s critics came not just from the South, but from Northern sources, causing him “great pain,” according to his wife, in part because he had thin-skin and felt the thorns others might ignore. Reverend Henry Ward Beecher ‘s attack specially grieved the President, who was sensitive about his lack of formal education. Beecher wrote:
” It would be difficult for a man to be born lower than he (Lincoln) was. He is an unshapely man. He is a man that bears evidence of not having been educated in school or in circles of refinement.”
After reading such an attack, Lincoln exclaimed: “I would rather be dead than, as President, thus abused in the house of my friends.” Note, he did not take Beecher off his list of friends. When faced with a raft of such statements, Lincoln would wave his hand and say, “Let us speak no more of these things.” (Ibid.)
In 1861, Ohio Republican, Lincoln’s own party, William M. Dickson charged that Lincoln “is universally an admitted failure, has no will, no courage, no executive capacity. . . and his spirit necessarily infuses itself downwards through all departments.” Early in the war, Lincoln was still learning the ropes, but this had to sting.
Charles Sumner, a Republican from Massachusetts, to whom Lincoln often turned for advice, opposed his re-nomination in 1864, wrote: “There is strong feeling among those who have seen Mr. Lincoln, in the way” of business, that he lacks practical talent for his important place. It is thought that there should be more readiness and also more capacity, for government.” (Bowen)
Could Jealousy Have Framed the Response?
If one looked at Lincoln’s Inaugural Address through a clear, clean lens, would not the words sing?
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this road land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
And yet, an editorial writer for the Jersey City American Standard (surely a Democrat) found the speech “involved, coarse, colloquial, devoid of grace, and bristling with obscurities and outrages against the simplest rules of syntax.” Ouch!
The Gettysburg Address Didn’t Fare Much Better
“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” The Harrisonburg Patriot & Union printed a much-belated apology 150 years later. Thank goodness they weren’t, and we have this example of clean, heartfelt writing.
The responses pro and con to the Gettysburg Address no longer sway modern opinions. It’s established that positive responses were from the Republican press, while the negative came from the Democratic. Those in-between might have been caught up in the custom of the times that believed the longer the speech, the better it was. Though the crowd that day, most standing throughout, would appreciate a two-minute speech. Perhaps the true nature of Lincoln’s pared-down speech, using exact, purposeful words and few of them (269 in the original speech) would fit nicely on the front pages of newspapers across the country. His intention: to reach the masses.
The celebrated orator who spoke for two hours ahead of Lincoln, Edward Everett, knew a good speech when he heard it and gave credit to Lincoln in a note. “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Inside the Lincoln Shrine
Since he did not sit for TV interviews, Abe did not require Pancake makeup and likely would not have taken to it, indicating with a quip that not much could improve his physical image. Today the lights in the Lincoln Memorial and the exquisite work by sculptor Daniel Chester French do not require a touchup. Recently the current White House occupant chose a respite in Lincoln’s shine to seat his favorite contemporary news team for a partisan report.
Maybe the 16th President would have equated that with his sit-down with Greeley of the Big Three Newsmen in the 19th century, but maybe he would have preferred the sound of school children instead. Lincoln, accustomed to working in the White House all but three weeks of the Civil War, might have been surprised that a month sequestered there be such a burden for the current president. Likely Lincoln would see the visit inside as a respite—maybe to catch the draft from the former’s reputation.
The World Sweated After His Final Speech
Once the ink on the Appomattox surrender dried, Washingtonians rushed to the White House portico to hear a response from their President, expecting a grand announcement of victory. They didn’t know Abe, who asked the army band to play “Dixie” on the lawn outside his window, calling it a “good tune.”
Lincoln didn’t gloat, instead moved on mentally to the essential work–bringing the nation together. He called for national thanksgiving. He did not plan vengeance against the South’s leader and agreed with a letter he’d received that said: “The people want no manifestations of a vengeful spirit. They are willing to let the unhappy rebels live, knowing that at the best, their punishment, like Caine (sic), will be greater than they can bear.”
Instead Lincoln talked about the hard task ahead: Reconstruction and bringing the tattered nation back into one. John Wilks Booth, a late entry to the far edge of the audience, did not have to strain to hear the President’s high-pitched voice. His disgust grew into rage as Lincoln advanced the idea of the elective franchise for the colored veteran men.
Lincoln told the crowd that by keeping the vote from these men (now 140,000 strong after the deaths of 40,000 black Union soldiers), were saying:
“This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how.”
The President sealed his fate when he spoke of rewarding those who had sacrificed the most, (see note) extending the vote to any black male veteran. With these words, the anger in Booth’s mind boiled over to rage. His initial plans were to kidnap Lincoln to exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war. In his wrath, Booth heard Lincoln’s words as the ultimate sin and from that moment planned for Lincoln to pay the ultimate price.
Yet the country and the Southern states suffered more because of Booth’s action. Bleeding emotions from those fateful days 155 years ago, misunderstandings and grievances surrounding race shape the national psyche and influence the nation’s divisions today, threatening to bring more destruction to America than a pandemic ever could.
You decide: Who was the greater martyr?
Jennifer Weber, “Lincoln’s Critics: The Copperheads,” University of Michigan Vol. 32, Issue 1, Winter 2011, p. 33-47
Mark Bowden, “How Lincoln Wad Dissed in His Day,” The Atlantic Magazine, June 2013
David Blanchette, The State Journal-Register, Springfield, IL. “Abraham Lincoln, like Donald Trump had his media enemies, too” February 25, 2017
Horace Greeley’s” Open Letter to President Lincoln,” New York Tribune, August 19, 1862
Abraham Lincoln’s “Letter to Horace Greeley,” Daily National Intelligencer, August 22, 1862
Donald Herbert Donald, Lincoln, (London: Random House, 1995)
Ryan Holiday, “Abraham Lincoln as Media Manipulator-in-Chief: The 150-Year History of Corrupt Press,” Observer, November 5, 2014
National Archives: “Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War,40,000 of the 180,000 negro ground troops died in the Civil War; 10,000 in battle and 30,000 of disease, receiving different treatment than white soldiers. Thus 75% of blacks died of disease vs. 50% of whites.
Louis P Masur, Lincoln’s Last Speech, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) p. 12
NOTE: Michael Burlingame’s 1000-page tome, Abraham Lincoln, Vol II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) p. 810 The week of the murder Booth was challenged as to what he had done for the Cause. While he had thought of the death of Lincoln, he had not moved on it, instead having put together a group to kidnap the President, planning since the prior fall. But the events including the surrender, pushed him to act.
Ronald Amundsen and CaptainRobert Falcon Scott each led a team of adventurers competing to reach the South Pole first. Note how each team leader prepared BEFORE they hit the trail. Each planned for a three-four months’ expedition and had 56 percent of good days of weather, and expected a 1400-mile trip (think New York to Chicago and back) without any means of modern communication onboard. Can you determine which team returned first?
Captain Scott, 43, led a British Expedition to the South Pole nine years earlier, reaching 82 degrees South, 530 miles from the South Pole. A member of the Royal Navy instead of a scientist, he trained on torpedo boats though one he captained ran aground in 1893. Seeking to become an explorer, he befriended the man who would select the team leader. The dogs his team trained prior to the expedition died of disease, which might have encouraged him to switch to ponies. On the first expedition, he squabbled with Ernest Shackleford, a well-known Artic explorer who had sought the pole with Scott in 1901. The disagreement came regarding the territory each man had staked out for exploration.
For the expedition, Scott:
Selected ponies as the beast of burden
Placed a single flag at their depot destinations
Used untested “motor sledges” to carry the supplies
Complained about his “bad luck” in his journal
Brought one thermometer for key altitude-measurements and exploded “in an outburst of wrath and consequence” when it broke
Amundsen, 39, showed a fascination for discovery. At 28 purchased a small, Gjoa ship and became the first in 1900 to sail through the tiny islands of Northern Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Shortly after he determined to enter a sailing race in Spain, two-thousand miles from Norway and bicycled the distance. Then he sought to participate in the trek to the North Pole, but Perry and Cook had claimed it. So he angled himself into the leadership of the Norwegian set out to conquer the South Pole. It bothered him little that Scott announced his intention first or that the Norwegian Queen, Maud, was British and might not smile upon his competing with her countrymen’s adventurer. Amundsen moved forward. His intensity marked him among the explorers and drew on this in training, to overcome whatever obstacles might suddenly appear in his way (like a 9,000-foot mountain or a glacier in the middle of the route.) Before arriving in Antarctica, Amundsen laid down the gauntlet to Captain Scott, who was in Australia purchasing final provisions for his expedition. “Beg leave to inform you Fram (Amundsen’s ship) proceeding to Antarctica. Amundsen”
Posted 20 flags four miles out, so in a blizzard his crew would still find the route to the depot on their return
Built buffers for distance, time, weight of sledges to carry provisions and amount of food necessary
Plotted a route that placed his base camp 60 miles closer to the South Pole than Scott’s camp, shortening the arduous over-land travel coming and going
Embraced the possibility of change, presuming unfavorable conditions and chance events
Built a contingency plan should something happen to him so the expedition could be successful without him
Amundsen’s team reached a sunlit, -10 F degree South Pole on December 15, 1911 at the same time Scott, who started five weeks later, was 360 miles out as the British Expedition man-hauled supplies through the ice and snow. Scott’s team saw the Norwegian flag on the South Pole on January 17, 1912 and recorded their “bad luck” at the time. The Norwegian team reached the sea on January 25 on the exact day Amundsen had built into his plan for their return.
Scott’s crew, had nobly performed hundreds of scientific experiments as intended for their expedition, collecting wildlife and rock samples. This ate up valuable time, but did result in 15 bound volumes of never-before discovered biological, zoological, and geological findings and transformed use of a camera on an expedition. This was the Royal Society’s intention for the expedition, Captain Scott tacked on a desire to race to the South Pole.
Unfortunately, no one from the British Expedition survived to provide a personal account. The findings came from documents left behind. Captain Scott and his crew all were stuck in their tents in a blizzard just 11 miles from their base camp. Scott and the last two died of hypothermia March 29, 1912. Eight months later their frozen bodies were found in the snowbank that drifted over their tent.
Sadly, the Scott party also learned that ponies do not hold up in the snow and had to be shot. Sweat on the horses turned to ice on their hides. The mechanized sleds sounded like a great idea but broke down in the extremely cold. The human team was forced to pull the supply sleds, which proved to be too heavy a burden. The single flags by the depots made it too easy to miss the mark, particularly in a blizzard, which wasted time and energy.
While Amundsen’s crew had good weather on their return, they were also traveling a month earlier, when better weather could be expected. March 1912 brought -40 below weather and blizzard conditions in Antarctica for Scott’s exhausted team.
Investing Time in Preparation
Amundsen invested the time and developed the skills needed to survive and lead a team in the Artic. He had lived among the Eskimo to learn how they survived in sub-zero temperatures, ate raw dolphin meat, dressed in loose fur. Amundsen noted the Eskimos’ slow movements to prevent excessive sweat that could turn to ice in sub-zero temperatures. The Eskimos also taught him how they used dogs to pull their sleds, how much dogs could transport, and the amount of food men and beasts needed in the cold. He built redundancy into everything he did, so when one system failed, he could develop a work-around to save the day and his team.
Amundsen’s philosophy: You do not wait until you are in an unexpected storm to discover that you need more strength and endurance. (Jim Collins, p. 15)
The Artic explorations were a century ago when self-reliance substituted for reaching out on social media. Conditions were such, though, even if Scott’s team could have reach out, it is unlikely help could have reached them in time. But these explorers, not entirely unlike us, seek to succeed in uncommon times and in a place we do not entirely recognize.
Jim Collins, a student of leadership for over twenty years, talked about the need to be “hypervigilant” in good times and bad—even in calm, clear, positive conditions. It is a certain type of “productive paranoia” that leader’s practice or can learn to duplicate. He believes that conditions will –absolutely with 100 percent certainty—turn against each of us without warning, at some unpredictable point in time, at some highly inconvenient moment.” P 29 Collins
That is why it is wise to think and strategize about the “horrible what-ifs” that impact a state, a nation, a continent, and in this case an entire world in lightning fast action.
Ronald Amundsen set the standard: “Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”
Ronald Amundsen, The South Pole (McLean, VA: IndyPublish, 2009), 192.
Jim Collins, Great by Choice, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011)
What we “know” about the past or even its most celebrated characters—might not be true! Or it might once again warm us to a visionary leader whose actions continue to serve us to this day.
21st Century Americans are fixated on Washington’s white “wig,” which appears everywhere, particularly in the Gilbert Stuart portrait that hangs in the White House (nearly consumed by flames in 1814 when British soldiers torched the “Executive’s House” along with the U.S. Capitol). It wasn’t a wig. One of his slaves, possibly valet Billy Lee, the only slave he freed outright, gathered his long, natural hair, fluffed, curled, and powdered it white. This from Alexis Coe, author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington. His hair color (shows below his military hat in the painting from the French and Indian War years earlier): Red!
About the “Executive House” — the name given the President’s home before the fire. After the application of whitewash to the remaining walls to cover the smoke stains left by the blaze and the rebuilt mansion, the building became the “White House.”
The story that Washington freed his slaves seems also to stick in the minds of his countrymen, maybe because we want to believe it. Washington did put into his will that his slaves would be freed when he died (1799). This may have come after letters from the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who at 18 came to America and helped Washington fight the Revolution. Strongly against slavery, the Marquis encouraged those American officers he fought with to free their slaves in respect for the battle for liberty.
In his will, Washington passed the ball to Martha, saying the slaves would be freed when she died, probably not wanting her to be “without help.” But he may not have realized how this would impact his wife and household after his death. Slaves who had waited a lifetime for the General to die believed they would be freed then, not upon the death of Martha. Within the year she freed the 126 slaves she controlled, unfortunately more in fear for her own safety than in a gesture of good will, according to Abigail Adams. There were other slaves, maybe 100 or more, who were chained to the next generation through inheritance and whose future generations would be held in slavery until Emancipation in 1863.
Benjamin Franklin, not a President but as a multi-faceted, multi-talented Founding Father who spent a great deal of time in France as a diplomat, freed his slaves long before he died. He also petitioned Congress to abolish slavery in keeping with the liberty achieved through the American Revolution. But instead of freeing slaves, Congress in 1793 passed the Fugitive Slave Act, granting slave owners the right to track down their “property” across state lines and take slaves back into captivity, even after they reached “free” territory. Washington signed this bill into law.
Lincoln, the great American martyr, left many things undone when he expired never regaining consciousness to offer final words to family or those left to attempt to put the country to right after that week’s surrender. James Tackach, a professor at Roger Williams University, reminds us of Lincoln’s visit to Petersburg, VA, with his wife and friends as the Civil War wound down in April 1865. He urged the entourage to stop at the site where months of trench warfare took the lives of tens of thousands. Lincoln stopped to look at a huge oak—the only one left standing that he called a “magnificent specimen of the stately grandeur of the forest.”
Tackach labels Lincoln the first “green president” in his book “Lincoln and the Natural Environment, exploring the famous president’s relationship with nature. Earlier Lincoln set aside thousands of acres of California forest in the Yosemite Grant Act—laying the groundwork for the U.S. efforts to preserve, protect and study the environment. This precedent also nudged President Theodore Roosevelt to expand the national park system, though certainly he shared Lincoln’s admiration for mother nature.
As a boy Lincoln may not have had vast personal resources, but when he laid upon the forest floor and looked up at the variety of trees and wildlife around him, he enjoyed the tranquil beauty. My bet is that he believed by helping nature back into place after the war, he would assist generations of children, their relatives, and friends to regain the calm that he’d enjoyed. He’s left it to future generations to see and protect what he saw. When I visited Yosemite several years ago, I had no idea that Lincoln’s pen protected it. Knowing that only makes me savor it more.
This Presidential Week pick up something you haven’t read about one of our Presidents to get a renewed vision.
Alexis Coe, “Five Myths about George Washington,” February 14, 2020, Washington Post
Take stock now that a year has turned. It’s not so easy I know as I recalculate the completion date for my book. Disappointment in myself could be an easy response. But this creative process, whether with books, frying chicken, or basketball takes time. Sometimes it takes more time than we want to allow and we give up. Not yet in my case because I saw what the people noted below were able to accomplish when they stuck with it.
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill
I’m not recommending that you wallow in failure, but that you consider it a steppingstone. What can you learn from it to take away to project 2.0, 3.0, or 500.0? Failing today can build a foundation for a successful tomorrow, if you embrace what you’ve learned and moved it forward.
Extraordinary belief yields amazing results
That’s what Thomas Edison did when creating the light bulb. It took 10,000 experiments with different materials and timing to create the perfect GE light bulb. As a boy, he finished his schooling at home with his mother, who believed in him, after his schoolteacher found him “stupid” and beyond learning. Maybe he was just resting his mind so he could later create 9,000 U.S. Patented inventions and found a laboratory to mold scientific minds following in his path. Edison never gave up and when he hit his stride very few could keep up or meet his success.
J.K. believed and Stephen had a believer
The writer J.K. Rowlings, known today as the creator of the internationally renown Harry Potter series, which has captivated my grandson and millions around the world, hatched the idea for the books on a train in England in 1990. Not until 1997, after the loss of her mother and her marriage and with a child to raise, did Rowlings publish the first novel. She believed in the idea and with each publication more rolled from her fingers. Now financially secure, she doesn’t stop but keeps creating new ideas to play with our imagination—that’s what she does.
Stephen King, who has 50 spooky novels to his international credit, received 30 rejections for Carrie, his first novel that was later made into a movie. When he placed that manuscript in the trash ready to give up, his wife pulled it out and gave it another try. Having someone who believes in you can be a blessing, but sometimes you need to rely on yourself to keep on.
Harlan believed into his 60s and beyond
No doubt you’ve heard of Colonel Sanders, the fried chicken magnet. It’s shocking to know that his recipe has traveled around the world—something about salty that translates well. Well enough that Col. Sanders stores are ubiquitous in Beijing and Shanghai, popping up on many corners in the business district. But do you know the backstory? Harlan Davis Sanders submitted his special recipe for fried chicken using a faster pressurized method to 1,009 restaurants before one in Salt Lake City, Utah brought it in 1952.
Born in Indians, Sanders originally developed the recipe when he was 50 in 1939, but he didn’t take it around until he used a $105 social security check to help fund the trip when he was 65. He built his brand as the white-suited, mustache-wearing, Kentucky colonel, and the company grew to become internationally recognized. When Sanders turned 74, he sold the company for $2 million, retaining rights to the Canadian market and becoming a goodwill ambassador. Not a billionaire, but comfortable until his death at 90, when bhis body laid at the Kentucky State Capitol for viewing before burial.
Michael wasn’t always a superstar, but he practiced
Not all successful people are inventors or whip up a lip-smacking recipe, some enjoy a game and play it so well the world takes notice. Take Michael Jordan, an athlete born in Brooklyn, but raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, a small town the parents of five thought would be a better influence. Michael wanted to follow in the footsteps of his athletic brother, but being much shorter, he stuck with baseball, where he was an MVP pitcher and outfielder.
When a position on the varsity basketball squad opened, he thought the position would automatically be his, though he was 5’11.” Another player, 6’5” grabbed the spot. That got Michael’s attention and his lazy approach to practice evaporated. By the time he was a high school junior, Michael had grown to 6’3,” taller than any family member, and continued to perfect his skills. He made the varsity squad and scored the winning point for the University of North Carolina in the 1982 NCAA Championship against Georgetown. He played on the gold medal-winning 1984 and 1992 Olympic teams. For the Chicago Bulls, Jordan led the way to becoming an NBA All-Star 14 times, six times the NBA champion, and five times the NBA MVP. The official NBA website proclaimed him “the greatest basketball player of all time.” Quite a feat for someone who struggled to make the team as a sophomore.
Keep on keeping on!
There are days, many days, when it’s easy to question my progress on the book and I’m briefly tempted to hang it up. But I still believe I have a story worth telling. So in 2020 I’m vowing to keep at it, set goals, limit distractions, and move to the finish to get ‘er done. Join me in your quest, whatever it is, so we can be satisfied when 2021 rolls around!
My grandsons’ voices rose to fever pitch, but it wasn’t about the possession of a prized Lego piece. Each loudly defended his position in what appeared to be a battle royal, swiftly moving towards fisticuffs—the youngest yelling: “Christmas is about Jesus, the baby, coming. That’s it, nothing else.” His brother, just as passionately, “No, Christmas is about family. Jesus may have started it, but now it’s about family.”
Refreshing that boys under ten could engage in a lively discussion their elders have been debating in one form or another for centuries. Granted the elders may take this discussion further by disagreeing about WHO the redeemer is, WHAT his true mission might be, WHEN or if he might return, WHERE his preferred altar might be, and WHY 2,000 years or so after this birth we should care.
They touched upon a tender nerve—religion—that has over the centuries resulted in the death or injury of millions of people, forcing them away from their original homeland and against their natural family. Sometimes they argued over the “rightful” possession of land associated with their religion and whether God gave it to one group or another. Certainly it would have been easier and less bloody if God had taken a huge Sharpie and drawn lines on the earth, defining who “owned” what, making sure everyone had water and tillable land. Of course in the desert where much of this started out, there wasn’t much of either. The competitive nature, that God may or may not have instilled in certain humans, and a burning desire for MORE—the greed factor—set off these battles. But maybe God wanted us to figure it out for ourselves, since earth wasn’t expected to be perfect, but life would have its high and low points.
Taken to its common denominator, we have family, where hopefully we learn what we need to survive in the outer world. If we’re lucky, we find the love and nurturing there that will gird us like Gladiators to protect us from what the world will throw at us over a lifetime. More times than not we utilize whatever physical, mental, and emotional resources are available and we pull ourselves together, moving forward day by day , not just surviving, but eventually thriving with those we’ve drawn to us.
It’s refreshing that a youngster born in 2014 considers Jesus to be the center of Christmas. And it’s encouraging for a seven-year-old to believe in family as the focal point. I’d like to believe they both have a point, just as I’d like to believe there could be space for every organization or person who fiercely believes in their message but would “do no harm” to those with different or opposing beliefs.
This caveat might be the hardest of all–tolerance and physical protection for those “nonbelievers” who do not follow the tenants of another religion’s beliefs, providing they do no injury to others. And there’s the rub. Should we not make room for those believers who do not want to kill others in the name of their God or lack because they do not belong to the religion of choice?
Maybe the world has grown too complicated with too many divergent interests. But could each of us reach out a hand to another to learn about them–working to achieve an open-ended discussion, to learn what we do have in common. What would it take to find the tolerance to examine the layers of the onion of each other’s beliefs to come to the bedrock of it? If we did, could we find something in common?
Would there, could there be, a family tie or the basic elements of community somewhere near the center?
Returning from the 100th Anniversary celebration for the League of Women Voters in San Antonio, I thought about the relentless struggle of the women who fought for the right to vote,–something we take for granted today—but many forget to exercise. Now the League works to register America’s voters and ensure we have the same right the women fought years for and finally received when the 19th Amendment was ratified by 36 states in 1920.
What does voting have to do with “civility”? One answer might be: everything. The ability to conduct a fair election without verbal use of people, places, or things has become a challenge. One might be tempted to chalk it up to the last election cycle, but if we’re honest, we’ve been sliding along the slippery slope of bad manners and “saying almost anything to get elected” for some time now. Window dressing, painting the situation over with a fake azure blue sky and white fluffy clouds will not solve our problem.
A dose of civility could be in order. Some say they learned how to behave in public from their parents—how to introduce themselves, pass the plate to the person on the right, how to be excused from the table, listening before breaking in with your two cents. And saying nothing if you have nothing “nice” to say. In Texas and other Southern states, children learn respect when they’re taught to respond to adults: “Yes, Mam,” or “No, Sir”– a practice that irritated me at first, thinking it pertained just to elders. Now I’m proud that this act of civility continues to hold, at least here in Texas.
Many of America’s seniors remember “Civics” class as the place we studied about mayors, governors, and presidents, acted out the steps in passing a bill through Congress, and often learned that our public schools, parks, and rec centers were paid for mainly by state or local taxes. Now that these classes are gone, basic knowledge about government has disappear from many states, making it much easier for shifty candidates to sway the opinion of unschooled and sometimes lazy Americans, who do not double check politicians’ statements or question their promises.
Yet demonizing the opposition does not serve our purposes. India’s former leader Mahatma Gandhi reminded his followers: “We must resolutely refuse to consider our opponents as enemies.” That serves only to strengthen their resolve, doing nothing to bring us together after the election.
When Being Civil was the Civil Thing to Do If we look back to another time of political stress prior to the Civil War, we find surprising examples where people of opposing political perspectives were willing to help each other in time of need. When Jefferson Davis (future President of the Confederacy) served as Secretary of War under President Pierce, Varina Davis became critically ill late in her second pregnancy. A paralyzing snowstorm hit Washington, preventing her nurse from reaching her. New York Senator William Seward, who strongly opposed slavery and would serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State during the Civil War, picked up the nurse in a horse-drawn sleigh pulled by his own fine horses and delivered her to the Davis residence. Both survived and Varina, who would become a journalist after the war, had three more children with Davis.
The Founders’ descendants and their families, struggled at times to maintain decorum with opposing politicians. Firebrand Abby Adams, married to Charles Francis Adams– the son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams–became a popular guest in Washington with many political friends, including staunch anti-slavery proponent, Charles Sumner, prior to the war.
Abby accepted invitations from popular Washington hostess and Southern sympathizer Rose Greenhow, whose views were well known from her articles in the New York Herald. Mrs. Adams voiced her own views at one of Greenhow’s soirees and “waded right into the hottest political topic of the day,” declaring John Brown of Harper’s Ferry a “holy saint and martyr.” Rose, equally quick on the draw, shot back, “he was a traitor and met a traitor’s doom.” Such was dinner conversation in the late 1850s. Gossip moved along at a dramatic clip. Widow Greenhow would spend time in the Old Capitol Prison, which held Confederate spies.
While no American forts are under fire or cannons lit today, civil words are at a premium and distaste for the actions of an opponent are turning politics from a natural component of life into a blood sport, where the vitriol saps voters’ interest in participation. Democracy’s future waivers in a country where 59 percent of the people are turned off by politics and the number of voters declines. (2017 Civility study by Weber Shandwick Powell Tate and KR Research)
Too easily we forget that the Constitution revered by Americans grew out of The Great Compromise of 1787, imperfect in its own way, but a point from which the nation could begin. Those at the Constitutional Convention kept their eyes on the nation they wanted to create. More than two centuries later, the stakes have risen with a population that has grown from 2.8 million (1780) to 329 million people (2019), bringing a complexity of education, transportation, health care, commerce, agricultural, social service, and government issues beyond the scope of Colonists.
Taking the first steps How do we start to roll back from the brink? In Maine, Craig Foster began a “Make Shift Coffee House,” where people with opposing views meet to learn from others and drink good coffee. Citizens for Reviving Civility in Arizona believes that listening to others is the key. Reflection, not reaction, works well to avoid debating issues and eventually move on to solving more difficult problems over time.
Better Angels, a national citizens’ movement works to reduce polarization by bringing liberals and conservatives together, face-to-face, to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, and teach practical skills for communicating across political differences. (More than a thousand people have participated in over thirty states).
Founder David Blankenhorn says the group’s goal is not to get people to change their views, but to get people to listen well to one another. “If you listen well,” he explains, “and if you try to understand—and if you’re confident that people are going to listen to you—you become a human being, friendship develops despite the political differences, and the rancor goes down.”
In Duluth, Minnesota, Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project began in 2003 to address political tensions caused by economic decline, plants closing, and rising anxiety. Proponents were quick to point out it was not a campaign to end disagreements, but one to improve public discourse by reminding the community of the basic principles of respect. They are inclusive, welcoming all groups of citizens working for the common good. The group looks for opportunities to agree, encouraging participants to avoid contradicting others’ because they can, to accept individual responsibility by looking in the mirror before pointing fingers at others.
Phillip Browne, vice president-communications, offered tips to help restore civility in the National Notary Association’s Notary Bulletin: • Seek out a variety of news sources with different perspectives • Allow others to speak and listen closely to build mutual understanding • Seek common ground in your conversations • Avoid rumors and don’t jump to conclusions or assume you know another person’s perspective or next word will be.
Wehner in The Death of Politics mentions Calvin Coolidge, who warned his countrymen not to just ward off the dangerous elements that threatened government, “Our hope lies in developing what is good.” Interestingly enough in that 2017 survey of Civility 94 percent reported they “always” acted in the interest of “civility,” which may indicate we are almost there or have even farther to go than we thought! Here’s to drinking coffee or tea together, toasting “civility” . . . then working slowly to come back from the brink.
—————— Peter Wehner’s book, The Death of Politics (New York: HarperOne, 2019) inspired this column and included stories not just about America’s problems, but ways we can work together to solve them. “New York Senator William Seward picked up the nurse..” Cokie Roberts, Capital Dames, (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), p. 59. The week after Roberts died it seemed appropriate to remind myself this NPR trailblazer also studied and wrote about the roles of strong American women in history . “Holy saint and martyr,” Ibid. p. 69 “Our friends who positively hate him…” p. 76 Better Angels Help Communities Ease Political Tensions,” CBS This Morning, March 26, 2018, on YouTube, https//www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mLDgtUuK34 In Duluth, Speak Your Peace, Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, “Speak Youth Peace: A Civility Project,” http://dsaspeakyourpeace.org/index.html Civility tips from P.M. Forni’s book: Choosing Civility. Phillip Browne, National Notary Association’s Notary Bulletin, October 2017 Members routinely notarize documents for clients of all backgrounds, across all issues. https://national-notary.org/notary_bulletin/civility-in-crisis/ “How to Teach Civics in School,” The Economist, July 6, 2017, https://www,economist.com/democracy-in-school
The word “politics” now comes covered in green slime, piling on with every evil word, contradictory statement (previously called “a lie”), and rolled eye at an opponent. The sense of political life as a profession has been on a steep decline for several years, but now politics appears to be on a downward roller coaster ride headed for a brick wall. No political party appears to get a pass on this. It’s the last thing you would recommend as a calling for a son or daughter. ”Why get caught up in all that? You could ruin your reputation.”
Complicates life for a sincere candidate who wants to represent the concerns of the people in their district or state. And even harder for someone who doesn’t want to be lumped with the “in-it-for-me” candidates. No doubt many of those entering political races in the past were required to have an out-sized ego in order to overcome the jabs and barbs anticipated in modern politics. Unless a candidate has gobs and gobs of personal funds that they’re willing and able to throw into the contest to purchase advertising—digital and broadcast—they’ll be spending hours and hours cozying up to wealthy people they don’t know (and might not care to otherwise).
In 2012 Each Senate Candidate Spent $410,476,451
An average Senate candidate in 2012 (last figures available from Maplight) spent $10,476,451—that’s per candidate—one-third of the Senate are elected each year. That comes to a continuous fund-raising of $14,351 per day. The most expensive Senate race in 2012 belonged to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who spent $42 million to defeat Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Congress and statehouse elections cost $6.3 billion in 2012, according to Maplight.
Prior to that election, in 2010, the Supreme Court voted to complicate political spending, agreeing to allow U.S. corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections. This would not be the first time that “unlimited money” would create chaos in any American system. With money comes influence, an influence John Q. Citizen cannot match. Decision making begins to float away from “the people” as in “government of the people, by the people for the people,” as defined by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address as he worked to pull a nation back together.
Thirty-five years ago, I left my role as a Senate aide and never looked back, though I continued to work in communications in DC until 2014. When I moved to Texas, truth be told, I didn’t mention working in DC, fearing what expletives or disparaging words I might hear from people across the table. Prior to working on the Hill, I’d worked as a reporter, if not a noble profession, then not something we’d hide from the neighbors and whisper to the kids. No one picked apart our stories (except maybe an editor) or called us out as “crooked” or “liars.” When a journalist’s story came into question, it was judged individually on its own merits or demerits. One journalist does not make up the press gallery, but then we knew calling out the entire press corps and questioning the viability of every story left the public without a counterbalance to politicians’ statements. Something a free nation depends upon.
Checks and Balances Worked in the Past
When we’ve had a wily President in the past, say Nixon, the media-government contest got heated in the lead up to the Pentagon Papers release and Watergate, but the stories came out and the public had an opportunity to make their own decisions. It didn’t devolve into a he-said-she-said contest that passes for fast-paced political coverage these days.
Congress, America’s chief political body, has been on slow-go because of the split between the Democratic House and the Republican Senate nearly since the inauguration in 2017. But now as both political parties throw venom, the question will be whether or not the States follow their example or work to serve their own constituents throughout what promises to be a nasty 15 months until the November 2020 elections.
Decisions about the future of American Politics depend as much on us as on the politicians themselves. What will voters be willing to accept from their leaders? Will we work in our individual states, attempting to ignore the shenanigans, working to solve the issues at home, waiting for a more productive future? Will we fall into the trap of divisiveness? What will be required of the media in order to restore their role as the Fourth Estate, necessary for an informed public? As others have said, it will be a bumpy ride, but it will be up to us to create America’s political life and determine if we can melt the slime to show its value when politics is not played like a blood sport.
Stayed tune next week for a discussion of How Politics Could Change (for the Better)
America has held its reputation as a leader in democratic thought and voter participation, despite the fact that just 58 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2016 Presidential Election. Mainly because much of the rest of the world hasn’t been able to boast a longer democratic tradition. Now the world seems to be sorely in need of a booster shot of democracy, the nation faces new challenges around the world that press on us with instant electronic stories from far-flung spots like China, North Korea, India, Russia, and Israel.
Much earlier, Americans born between 1776 and 1800, who knew
of the Revolutionary struggle for freedom, though they had not participated
first hand, worked optimistically to shape a new nation, but clung with sharp
claws to their own vision of the future.
Lest we forget in 1790 party politics were viewed with suspicion
by the Framers of the Constitution, including George Washington (who would live
until 1799). After Alexander Hamilton announced his plan for a National Bank, those
in support or opposition immediately chose sides. Political legends, like
Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican
Party) and John Adams (Federalist) led their parties in different
directions. In 1796 Federalist John Adams, who preferred a loose interpretation
of the Constitution and a strong federal government, gained the Presidency. Jefferson,
who developed the Democratic-Republican party of strict Constitutionalists and
states rights, came in second—providing Adams with a VP representing the
opposite political views.
Four years later, by 1800, the tables turned and Jefferson gained
the Presidency in a brutal campaign. In the runoff between Jefferson and Aaron
Burr, who voted even with him even though he was the intended vice president, the
House of Representatives voted 36 times.
Voting started on February 11 while a snowstorm raged
outside, but only one Congressman missed the vote despite the lack of snowplows.
Burr sent a note bowing out of the race to Jefferson and “your administration,”
but then worked behind the scenes to garner votes for himself.
Disabuse yourself of any ideas that campaigns were less divisive
in 1800. Jefferson wanted to lay claim to the “spirit of 1776” in part because
he supported France in the ongoing European battles vs. the British. During
this period Jefferson uttered the phrase that now rims the interior of his
memorial’s dome in DC: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility
against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” These noble words are
tarnished a bit by the vehement sentiments of the political brawl then being
According to Jefferson’s followers, Adams, Hamilton and the Federalists
were conducting a “reign of witches” and acted “adverse to liberty,” which was
a potent scourge 17 years after the Revolution’s end. There were reasons for
voters to question the Federalists, particularly the Ultra branch that swept
the 1798 election and proceeded to establish a provisional army, approved
Hamilton’s bank, imposed higher taxes to pay for the army, and passed the Alien
and Sedition Acts against “any false, malicious or scandalous” statements
against the government, stomping on the Bill of Rights.
John Adams struck back with a bit of humor when challenged that
he would bring in the French to support him: “There’s no more prospect of
seeing the French Army here than there is in Heaven.” His proponents saw
Jefferson as a coward who fled rather than fight the British as Virginia’s
governor and falling back on the question of religion, referred to Jefferson as
a “howling atheist.” Once the smoke cleared, it became apparent that the line
in the Constitution counting each slave as three-fifths of a man tilted the
vote to the Democrat-Republicans just enough for the Federalists to lose.
An exhausted Federalist Speaker of the House said “enough”
after the delegate from Delaware agreed to abstain from voting to move forward,
“The gig is up.” This pleased House members who’d heard rumors that a mob had
stormed the arsenal in Philadelphia and were planning to come south to
Washington once they were well armed.
Background negotiations with Jefferson continued to the last
vote, but Jefferson denied he’d made any concessions to the Federalists. His
record might resolve that question. Once in office, Jefferson acquiesced to the
Bank of the United States and did not limit continued borrowing by the
government, and he did not remove most Federalist office holders. His Vice
President Aaron Burr may not have been able to bargain with ancient adversaries,
perhaps part of his animosity carried into his final showdown with Alexander
Hamilton three years later, which destroyed Burr’s political future as it took