Archive for April, 2013

Nothing New Under the Sun

April 30, 2013 Leave a comment
Dixon Hall Lewis

Dixon Hall Lewis

Or so I’ve heard, though the guy who said it probably wasn’t thinking about Higgs bosons. Still, he may be right.

I came across additional evidence yesterday in the book I’m currently reading, Harvey Jackson’s Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State. About a fourth of the way in, Jackson introduces Dixon Hall Lewis, who represented Alabama in the US Senate in the 1840s. Two decades earlier, he was a state legislator, then ran for Congress. In that race,

the issue he chose to exploit was federally funded internal improvements, which he opposed because (he claimed) they would open the door to tyranny by making people dependent on Washington instead of on themselves and their states.

Jackson contrasts Lewis with William Rufus King, long-time Alabama senator and briefly vice president under Franklin Pierce, until his death.

Together King and Lewis represent the bipolar nature of Alabama politics along with the tension that existed, and still exists, among Alabamians and their leaders. This was the issue: Should the state divorce itself, as much as possible, from the central government and go its own way even though such philosophical purity demanded that it give up advantages that come from collective action within the Union? Or should the state accept federal aid, with accompanying regulations and restrictions so that its people could have the same advantage enjoyed by other states? It was a dilemma, and efforts to solve it have made up much of Alabama’s history.

So while Dixon Hall Lewis denounced federal intrusions and suggested that states had the constitutional authority and moral responsibility to oppose laws that infringed on their sovereignty, William Rufus King offered a more moderate course. And Alabamians rallied to both. Understand that, and you are at the heart of the matter.

A hundred and eighty years later, Lewis’s descendants continue to turn down federal aid, from New Jersey Governor Christie’s rejection of funding for a new train tunnel under the Hudson to New York to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s (and others’) rejection of federal Medicaid funding under Obamacare. And NRA chief Wayne LaPierre fights gun control in an echo of Lewis’s warnings, reminding “senators that the founders didn’t want Americans to ‘live under tyranny.'”

Nothing new under the sun indeed.

Categories: History, Politics

Rehabilitating War Criminals

April 29, 2013 Leave a comment

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Location:Dallas TX

We sure love our war criminal presidents, don’t we? Or at least we love rehabilitating them after they spend a few years in purgatory.

Let’s talk a bit about Nixon. The 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi were criminal enough, but have a look at this article by Bob Parry last month (hat tip, Charles Pierce), in which we learn of Nixon’s successful efforts to derail Johnson’s negotiations with the North Vietnamese in 1968 that could have ended the war. Moreover, Parry suggests, Nixon’s desire to hide the evidence of this lay behind the Watergate break-in of 1972.

Shortly after Nixon took office in 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover informed him of the existence of the file containing national security wiretaps documenting how Nixon’s emissaries had gone behind President Lyndon Johnson’s back to convince the South Vietnamese government to boycott the Paris Peace Talks, which were close to ending the Vietnam War in fall 1968.In the case of Watergate – the foiled Republican break-in at the Democratic National Committee in June 1972 and Richard Nixon’s botched cover-up leading to his resignation in August 1974 – the evidence is now clear that Nixon created the Watergate burglars out of his panic that the Democrats might possess a file on his sabotage of Vietnam peace talks in 1968.

The disruption of Johnson’s peace talks then enabled Nixon to hang on for a narrow victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey. However, as the new President was taking steps in 1969 to extend the war another four-plus years, he sensed the threat from the wiretap file and ordered two of his top aides, chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, to locate it. But they couldn’t find the file.

We now know that was because President Johnson, who privately had called Nixon’s Vietnam actions “treason,” had ordered the file removed from the White House by his national security aide Walt Rostow.

Treason indeed. As Charles Pierce comments:

There were 22,000 more Americans who died in Vietnam after Nixon sabotaged the peace talks in order to win an election. That’s 44,000 more American parents. That’s thousands and thousands more American children. That’s god alone knows how many more men, women, and children in Southeast Asia, all of whom died, very likely unnecessarily, because of Richard Nixon’s treasonous ambitions.

By the time of Nixon’s death in 1994, the rehabilitation was complete. We learn in the NYT obit that at the opening of his presidential library in 1990, he was “hailed as a statesman and a peacemaker.”

And now it’s time for the opening of yet another presidential library, which served as the occasion of more rehabilitation. Last week, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum (pictured above) opened in Dallas on the campus of SMU. Here’s a sight to stir your heart:

The jacket worn by President George W. Bush to serve a turkey dinner during his secret Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad in 2003.

The jacket worn by President George W. Bush to serve a turkey dinner during his secret Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad in 2003.

[From the presidential library website]

Bush did more than prolong a war. He lied us into one, helped along by a host of government officials and an accommodating press. No point reviewing the familiar details. Oh, and he introduced torture as government policy, this being confirmed (if it needed confirmation) by a report two weeks ago.

A nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it.

The sweeping, 600-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”


The use of torture, the report concludes, has “no justification” and “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.” The task force found “no firm or persuasive evidence” that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. While “a person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information,” much of the information obtained by force was not reliable, the report says.

Yet, the opening of the Bush library offered an occasion to reassess Bush and place him in a positive light, which his fellow presidents were only too happy to do.

On this day, they collectively wrapped their arms around a fellow member of the club.

“We know President Bush the man,” Mr. Obama said. “To know the man is to like the man. Because he’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man.”

Mr. Obama, whose first presidential campaign was built on opposition to the Iraq war, praised Mr. Bush for his bullhorn-in-the-rubble fortitude after Sept. 11 and said his predecessor fought for what he thought was best for his country. He linked his own effort to overhaul the immigration system to Mr. Bush’s.

“If we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Clinton, who has become close to the Bush family, offered warm words and recounted how he and Mr. Bush used to talk politics while his successor was in office. Referring to the library behind him, he joked, “Dear God, I hope there’s no record of those conversations in this vast and beautiful building.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, sitting onstage with the other presidents and first ladies, laughed robustly.

Mr. Carter, one of the fiercest critics of the Iraq war, talked about how Mr. Bush ended war in Sudan and helped Africa. “I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth,” he told Mr. Bush.

Really? Spare me. I know it’s a complicated world and not everything is black and white. But here’s some black and white: President Bush was a war criminal and a liar.

Categories: History, Journalism, Politics, War

Inside Alabama

April 28, 2013 Leave a comment


A little over a week ago, I wrote about my surprise at finding myself reading Harvey Jackson III’s The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera: An Insider’s History of the Florida-Alabama Coast. I’m no less surprised by my decision last night to start his 2004 book Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State, which I’m now about sixty pages into.

More about the book soon. First let me review how I found my way to Harvey Jackson’s books.

It started early last month, when we committed ourselves to visiting Athens and Augusta, Georgia. Eager to learn more about the state, I began with James Cobb’s short history, Georgia Odyssey, which I wrote about here and here. Next I read Ron Rapoport’s biography The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf of one of the Masters co-founders, which I wrote about here.

I was ready next for a treatment of the South more broadly, so I decided it would be good to read Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, which had been on my reading list for some time. It’s a massive book. Partway through, I set it aside for a book on an entirely different theme. On returning, I had reached the halfway point when the latest of James Cobb’s occasional blog posts appeared. After reading it, I went to his blog’s home page, where I noticed an image of Jackson’s Redneck Riviera, which Cobb had written about last June. Soon I was reading it.

I finished Redneck Riviera on Thursday. Jackson is an amiable host. There was a stretch in the middle when I wondered how much I cared about the late twentieth century battles over developing the Gulf Coast in the stretch running east from Mobile Bay in Alabama past Pensacola, Fort Walton, and Destin and on through Seaside to Panama City. But the stories got better and better, and by the latter stages, I could hardly put the book down. Storms, beach destruction and restoration, a case on whether a particular beach should be restored that went to the Supreme Court, the marketing of Spring Break, student mayhem, and Girls Gone Wild movies (more court cases), the fortunes of Destin as fishing village, the development of Seaside as a planned urban community (later the site where the movie The Truman Show was filmed), the contrast between Seaside and the author’s own adjacent community of Seaside, the arrival of a wealthier class of people, the more problematic arrival of speculators, the 2007 bursting of the real estate bubble, and finally, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Who knew this was such an interesting region, just a thin 135-mile stretch on the Gulf?

On its completion, I returned to Foreman’s account of the Civil War, circa spring 1863. The book has a Stoppardian Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead quality, with major events such as the Battle of Chancellorsville told through the eyes of minor characters, typically British observers or participants. Whoever’s eyes, it’s quite a story, and Foreman’s writing is vivid. I should really read to the book’s end. But my pattern appears to be set. After another 50 pages or so of reading, I was already thinking yesterday about what to read next.

Should I wait for the Tuesday release of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs? It already has a strong review in the New York Review (behind their paywall) by Alison Lurie, and another, by Sam Sacks, in yesterday’s WSJ. I considered it, then remembered that Jackson has a short history of Alabama. Here’s the publisher’s description of the book:

This book tells Alabama’s history in a conversational style with an unapolo-getically subjective approach. Accessible to general readers and students alike, it recounts the history and politics of a state known for its colorful past, told by one of the state’s most noted historians and educators, whose family came to the territory before statehood. A native and resident Alabamian, Harvey Jackson has spent a lifetime discovering and trying to understand his state. Expressing deep love for its people and culture, he is no less critical of its shortcomings.

Inside Alabama, as the title implies, gives Jackson’s insider’s perspective on the events and conditions that shaped modern-day Alabama. With humor and candor, he explores the state’s cultural, political, and economic development from prehistoric times to the dawning of the new millennium. Mound-builders, Hernando de Soto, William Bartram, Red Sticks, Andy Jackson, Bourbon Democrats, suffragettes, New Dealers, Hugo Black, Martin Luther King Jr., George Wallace, Rosa Parks all play colorful parts in this popular history. By focusing on state politics as the most accessible and tangible expression of these shaping forces, Jackson organizes the fourteen chapters chronologically, artfully explaining why the past is so important today.

Searching brought up as well a short review by Susan Pace Hamill that convinced me to download the opening portion and begin. She writes:

[Jackson] explores how historical myths surrounding the antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods made it easy for otherwise good respectable moral people to believe excuses justifying what we now acknowledge as indefensible injustice.

Jackson’s blunt and blistering evaluations of Alabama’s lowest points will be uncomfortable for many to swallow but will also be difficult to ignore. Despite his substantial professional qualifications as a distinguished professor and scholar of southern history and culture for over forty years, Jackson does not come across as an aloof and judgmental academic locked up in the ivory tower at Jacksonville State University where he currently teaches. Rather, his affectionate tone clearly expresses unconditional love for the state. A native of Grove Hill with ancestral family roots going back before statehood, that include slaveholders and Bourbon Democrats who supported the 1901 Constitution, Jackson is very much connected with Alabama’s mainstream population – the very people who tolerated the terrible injustice dominating our past and who are currently allowing it to continue. In his coverage of segregated Alabama Jackson not only recaps the historical events but also ponders regretfully why so many good moral citizens, including himself, his own family and friends as well as others in his community accepted what we now understand was clearly wrong.

Once again, Jackson is a warm host. So far, I’ve read a short overview of Native American centuries, the arrival of French, Spanish, and British settlers and traders, the Revolutionary War, the familiar horrors of the Creek War, which took place in parallel with the War of 1812 and was one of Andrew Jackson’s great successes, the writing of a state constitution and coming of statehood in 1819, the first years of state government in the 1820s.

Featuring prominently in all this is Alabama’s geography, the river systems and early settlements, trade and development of agriculture. I’ve been studying maps, tracing the routes of the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers, their joining just above modern-day Montgomery to form the Alabama, its route west to Selma and then southwards to Mobile Bay, with a name change to the Tensaw when the Tombigbee flows in. And then, up north, I’ve learned about the settling of Huntsville and its location on the Tennessee River, which maybe I once knew but, if so, have learned anew. The old trading and migration routes have given me a better understanding of the state’s major features.

This morning I was inspired to go to Alabama’s tourism site, page through the online version of their vacation guide, and order a print copy. I don’t know when we’ll get there, but I sketched out a trip that would at least cover Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Selma, Mobile and the Redneck Riviera. For now, I’ll be content with Jackson’s book.

Categories: Books, History

Neighborhood Eagle, 2

April 28, 2013 Leave a comment


In March a year ago, I posted a photo of an eagle I spotted on the north end of Foster Island, a leisurely 15-minute walk north of our house. As I said then,

it’s not entirely news that there are eagles from time to time in our neighborhood, but when I see one, I still get excited. … We are fortunate to live close to Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum … . Foster Island is its northernmost portion … [with] a clearing on the edge of the island, on the shoreline of Union Bay, with an outlook across Lake Washington to the east, the Montlake Cut (an artificial waterway with a drawbridge) dividing the north and south sides of Seattle to the west, the university to the northwest, and the Laurelhurst neighborhood to the northeast. The northernmost tall tree on the east side of the clearing is the eagle hangout.

This afternoon, I was just approaching the clearing from the south when I heard a rustle in the trees to the right and saw two large birds taking flight, emerging from a tree and flying right to left just ahead and above me. As their path took them straight ahead, I could see that they were bald eagles.

Arriving at the water’s edge, another hundred yards north, I surveyed the scene, but there was no evidence of their presence. Then I wandered around a bit, reaching the shore to the west just in time to spy a large bird approaching, not more than 20 yards above the water’s surface. A couple of wing flaps, glide, two more flaps, glide. It was a ways out, and I didn’t want to get excited about an approaching eagle that would turn out to be a gull. But sure enough, as it drew nearer, it became more and more eagle like, until it gained height on reaching land, passed by with full eagle features, and landed back in the tree from which it had taken off three minutes earlier.

I headed back to the tree, pulled out my iPhone, and took a lame series of photos, one of which you can see above. The blob almost dead center is the eagle, sitting almost exactly in the spot that was home to the eagle I photographed last year.

There’s no sign of a nest. Perhaps this is the same pair that nests a few hundred yards to our east, with the tree serving as their Union Bay fishing base.

I’ll be watching for them.

Categories: Birds

The Good Life: Cadbury Fingers

April 24, 2013 Leave a comment


I mentioned in my post minutes ago that our friends Tom and Carol arrived from Edinburgh last night. They did not arrive alone. In their luggage was four boxes of Cadbury Fingers.

Whenever we go up to Vancouver—less often than we should—we make it a point to pick up a box or two of Cadbury Fingers. And when our friend Cynthia used to get up there a lot, she would generously do the same. But these are even better: straight from the UK. As described on the back of the box, they are

Delicious finger shaped crisp biscuits smothered in yummy Cadbury milk chocolate.

Or, from the website:

This little biscuit is a national treasure and with its delicious combination of milk chocolate and crunchy biscuit, along with its compact size, it’s the perfect treat for the whole family. But be warned, one is never enough!

It’s true. One is never enough. They’re so good that you might think Fred is singing about them in the video below.

Categories: Food, Travel

Emma Turns 17

April 24, 2013 Leave a comment


Our sweet geriatricat Emma celebrated her 17th birthday today. Here she is, a couple of hours ago.

Emma wasn’t always so sweet, I have to admit. But her days of fierce independence have largely passed. No racing up the cherry tree to a branch twenty feet above the ground in the blink of an eye. No jumping onto the kitchen counter, or the desk. Just getting up onto the bed is chore enough. And ever since January, when we adopted Brooke’s suggestion of putting an electrically heated pad on the floor, there seems to be less reason to make the effort.

But Emma remains determined to get around. Last night, when we returned from the airport with our friends Tom and Carol, just in from Edinburgh, Emma came to the top of the upstairs staircase to greet us on the main floor below. A few minutes later, as we lingered in the basement guest bedroom after bringing the luggage down, Emma appeared—a rare trip to the basement—to make her presence known and be acknowledged. She’s a tough old gal.

Happy birthday.

Categories: Cats, Family

Richie Havens

April 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Richie Havens died today. I was a fan. I played his 1967 album Mixed Bag until it was wearing out. I saw him perform at Forest Hills as the opening act for Janis Joplin. (This would have been summer of 1969 or 1970, but I can’t remember which.) I never tired of hearing him sing Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. And he did a pretty good job with another Dylan song—Just Like a Woman.

From the end of tomorrow’s NYT obituary:

Mr. Havens played many songs written by Mr. Dylan, and he spent three days learning his epic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” A man who heard him practicing it stopped him on the stairs as he headed for the dressing room of a nightclub, and told him it was the best he’d ever heard the song sung.

“That’s how I first met Bob Dylan,” Mr. Havens said.

For more, check out this compilation of TV appearances between 1969 and 1971.

Categories: Music, Obituary