THE ROADS AHEAD
Is America, our country, at a crossroads? Can it be reunited, recommitted, restored, repaired, energized, or have we lost our resiliency, our ability to rise to the occasion, to act boldly, with confidence in our future? Let us pause at his crossroad and consider the directional possibilities ahead. Which path will we choose?
• Can we break the logjam in congress and achieve bipartisan support for essential legislation?
• Can we undertake a massive vaccine rollout that breaks the back of the pandemic, gets our schools up and running and allows us to resume the normal routines, rhythms, and responsibilities of our lives?
• Will we speed relief to the unemployed and small businesses about to expire, to renters threatened with eviction, and immigrants waiting to pursue the American Dream?
• Can we devise effective ways to address racial disparities, income inequality and educational shortcomings?
• It’s about time we initiated a program to modernize our infra structure while accelerating entry into the world of clean energy and environmental stability.
• Will those seeking partisan advantages stall these steps needed to move forward?
• Will deceitful leaders and angry voices keep us from advancing?
• Will those scornful of the facts continue to elevate ignorance, sow confusion and promote conflict?
• Will our efforts prove inadequate, fall short, and our situation remain little improved?
Soon enough we will get some answers to those urgent questions. Meanwhile, perhaps we can take heart from the stirring words of our inauguration poet, Amanda Gorman, who urged us to “. . . .lift our gazes not to what stands between us,” and by so doing “….. forge our union with purpose.”
,Now that Donald Trump has exited the White House, how much influence will he wield on the political scene? Only time will tell. Our history, however, does offer a possible answer. Very, very few American presidents retained much power upon leaving office. Most passed quietly from the scene, some became respected “elder statesmen,” but not the “decision makers” they had formerly been. Of course this is not an entirely fair inquiry since our greatest presidents, Lincoln and Roosevelt, did not enjoy a post-presidency, and Washington died shortly after leaving office. Still there are some notable exceptions who should be considered in this survey. Andrew Jackson, who left office in 1837, remained an acknowledged player in the Democratic Party, forcefully supporting the annexation of Texas and the selection of James Polk as the party’s presidential candidate in 1844. Our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, after his term of office, became a nine-term Congressman from Massachusetts and an outspoken champion of the antislavery movement. William Howard Taft, after leaving office in 1913, joined the Yale law faculty, and then in 1920 became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during a period in which judicial conservatism was in the ascendancy. Though resigning after the disgrace of “Watergate,” Richard Nixon nevertheless managed, in the view of many, to “rehabilitate” himself and to enjoy an extended career as an elder statesman and sagacious analyst of the international scene. It’s been forty years since Jimmy Carter left the White House and his reputation as President still seems to register not much beyond lackluster. Nevertheless, his post-presidency has been remarkable, not in terms of wielding power, but rather for the “good works” he has performed. His peacekeeping, election monitoring and humanitarian efforts have been widely acclaimed, his religious convictions admired, and his writings widely appreciated.
So we finally arrive at the President who, compared to all others, managed to remain influential well beyond his White House years. Teddy Roosevelt, who became president in 1901 upon the assassination of President McKinley, could have run again in 1908 but, to his lasting regret, publicly announced well before that he would not. But upon breaking with his successor, President William Howard Taft, he chose to return to the political wars. He re-entered the fray in 1910, this time championing a “New Nationalism” and laid out an extensive progressive agenda. He ran for president in 1912 under the banner of the “Progressive Party.” And though he lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, he far exceeded Taft’s tally and gained the largest percentage of the overall vote of any third party ever. He determined to run again in 1916, but failed to gain the support of Republican leaders. Nevertheless, he did obtain Congressional support to raise a separate military unit under his command, to fight in World War I (as he’d done in the Spanish-American War). President Wilson, however, would not approve. Still, as the 1920 presidential campaign, was getting underway, it appeared that Roosevelt had the inside track to his party’s nomination. It would not be. Roosevelt died in 1919 at the age of 61. So, what does this excursion through our past reveal? It’s clear, if you exclude TR, no other president has been able to remain the master of events after his term in office ends. The nation moves on; other individuals move up and take control. Donald Trump, in essential ways, is no Teddy Roosevelt. Still, Roosevelt was the consummate showman, was bombastic, played to an attentive press, loved the military, threatened war, and attracted an adoring public. Sound familiar?
We talk to lots of people each day. Some of it is perfunctory (“We will be there at 11 o’clock”), transactional (“I’d like to reserve a table for four at 7PM”), casual (”Tell me what your weekend plans are”), or conventionally polite (“Send my best to your wife”). Such exchanges are spontaneous and informal and of brief duration.
Distinct from these are conversations that are regarded as more serious and consequential. When they occur we assume matters of some substance are being discussed. Accordingly, we’ve assigned special conversational categories to suggest their likely significance:
• Talking Turkey is when you stop “beating around the bush” and get down to business. No more “dancing around the subject.” Let’s come to grips with what must be decided. Or are you “all talk?”
• Man to Man Talk (with apologies to women). It’s time we had a frank and open conversation. We’ve been evading the issue. It is essential we confront it openly.
• Heart to Heart Talk. No more polite platitudes. We must reveal our true feelings; put them out “on the table.”
• Talking Shop. You shouldn’t be discussing work issues and business beyond the workplace. On the other hand, “Talking shop” in the office often leads to a fruitful exchange of ideas, reveals ways to enhance efficiency and profitability.
• Table Talk. Families gathered at the dinner table are expected to discuss “serious” matters that affect many of those present. Here is where frank and open discourse about money, jobs, vacation plans, and educational options can take place and decisions reached.
• Pillow Talk. Couples are normally too busy during the day to engage in meaningful conversation. But once in bed at night, and before falling asleep, there’s an opportunity to open up, get certain matters “off their chests,” clear up misunderstandings.
Talk, as they say, may at times be “cheap,” no more than “idle chatter,” but there are – as
we have just noted – times set aside where the opportunity exists for constructive and candid conversation.
Americans have long considered themselves a “can do” people – especially at over-coming technological and physical challenges. Establish an objective, mobilize resources and then watch American “know-how” get the job done. Still, no one ever imagined, given the usual pace of vaccine development, that an effective Covid antidote would appear so rapidly. Let us remember, however, that America had beaten the odds before, could claim a remarkable history of groundbreaking technological achievements.
• Right after a prolonged and bloody Civil War the United States undertook the prodigious effort to bind the nation together with a transcontinental railroad. The challenge involved vast distances, predictably hostile Indians, stubborn hard rock formations, broad rivers, and forbidding mountain ranges. But constructing the nearly 2000 mile rail network (completed in 1869) required just a few years and helped thrust the U. S. toward world economic leadership in the decades that followed.
• Equally ambitious was the American decision to link the Atlantic and Pacific coasts so that ships were no longer obliged to navigate around South America before heading north to California. The solution: construct a canal through Panama, a devilishly complicated undertaking. Man-made lakes and locks had to be created, widespread disease (yellow fever and malaria) overcome, and innovative earth-moving equipment devised and transported to the numerous work sites. But the project was completed two years ahead of schedule to the enormous benefit of world commerce.
• There are many reasons the U. S. won World War II; foremost among them was our ability to re-engineer our economy in order to produce enormous quantities of armaments – airplanes, ships, tanks, etc. Furthermore, many of the weapons became increasingly sophisticated as the war wore on. This all culminated with the “Manhattan Project,” a vast scientific effort that resulted in nuclear weapons that brought an end to the devastating conflict.
• Once Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut, orbited the earth in April of 1961, it was inevitable that the U.S. would enter the space race. Shortly thereafter President John Kennedy committed the nation to a moon landing by the end of the decade – an extraordinarily ambitious and costly undertaking. It succeeded, testifying once again to America’s ability to rise to the occasion, no matter how formidable the scientific challenges and technological obstacles.
• Combatting Covid raised the question of whether a deeply divided people, many grown skeptical of science could support a complex, coordinated effort to produce a vaccine to overcome this horrific scourge. Happily, the U. S. once again has demonstrated it was up to the task. May this remarkable achievement provide the spark, serve to give us the confidence to put aside our doubts and our differences in order to attend to the persistent ills that continue to beset our society.
As late Fall retreats toward Winter, the woods grow silent and grim, largely lifeless. Winged creatures of all sorts have long since departed, while familiar four-legged denizens become mysteriously scarce. But it is the trees, most all nearly bald and indecently exposed, that underscore the bleak landscape that greets the observer. Not long before these same trees -resplendent in their green mantles – filled the woods with millions of leaves of all sizes and shapes, swaying and rustling restlessly as breezes hurried their way through its ranks. Then came Fall and the extravagant palate of color, nature’s own dramatic “fireworks” show, rivaling by day the managed explosions of night sky displays.
But with Fall’s passing forests around here now have little to offer except a dispiriting landscape of decay and death. Upon the forest floor are endless layers of dead and rotting leaves, once proudly on display upon the branches above, now cast off, destined to serve merely as shapeless ground cover in the years to come. All about, trees stand disfigured, having been rudely assailed by wind and rain, limbs broken, trunks cracked, root systems exposed, detached from the soil which once sheltered and nourished them. Most ominously, lying in every which direction, one discovers an arboreal graveyard: Trees, many of great length and bulk, which once soared toward the heavens, now strewn upon the ground, their fate sealed, at rest but not at peace. Were this a battlefield (which in some ways it resembles) no commander would dare proclaim victory. Indeed, the many jagged stumps would serve as forlorn monuments to the fallen.
Nature, perhaps out of respect, has begun draping some with green moss, hiding the advance of deterioration and decay. Most, however, lie about helter-skelter, frozen often at awkward angles, lifeless wreckage to haunt the area for decades to come, a morbid message to those sturdy trees around them.
The good news for those disposed to dwell on this desolate scene is that in time Spring and Summer will once again arrive, new life and a fresh dense vibrant mantle of green returning to blot out the underlying wasteland revealed by Winter.
TIME-TESTED Quantifiers usually have the upper hand in discussions when they marshal “hard evidence” to support their arguments. The numbers are assumed to “speak for themselves,” what-ever their origin or presumed precision. In that spirit, we present a recently compiled set of numbers, hitherto unavailable, derived from informal surveys conducted with real people relating to their daily experiences. • How late do you usually arrive at parties? 15 minutes • How much time elapses before you patch up a dispute with your wife? 2 days • How often do you change bedsheets? 6 days • How long do you wait before passing a “slow” moving car on the road? 2 minutes • Brushing your teeth takes how long? 1 ½ minutes • How long do you take to fall asleep? 15 minutes • If your car is rattling, How long do you wait before bringing it in to a mechanic? 3 days • How long after you decide you should have a will do you execute one? 3 years • How much time elapses before you return the call of a bill collector? 2 days • How much time do you spend showering? 6 minutes • How long does it take to pass on a juicy bit of gossip? 2-3 hours • After how many rings do you pick up a telephone? 3 • How long before you honk at the car in front of you after light changes? 2-3 seconds • How long does it take you to complete your main dish at dinner? 8-10 minutes • How long before you deposit a large check? Next day • How many times have you watched your favorite movie? 4-5 times • How often do you make physical contact with your husband (hug, kiss, pat) ? twice weekly • How often do you check the weather report in a day? 2-3 • When driving, how long will you wait before locating a bathroom? 22 minutes • How often do you look in a mirror each day? 4-5 times • How often do you check the time each day? 8-10 times • Duration of social telephone conversation(female) 26 minutes • Duration of social telephone conversation (male) 11 minutes
Theodore Roosevelt, larger than life in so many ways, belongs on Mt. Rushmore, but I’m not sure that many Americans can explain why. The issue is that neither political party is eager to claim him. Republicans, despite Roosevelt’s achievements, have problems embracing his belief in activist government, his impatience with “stupid” Capitalists, and his 1912 campaign that split Republicans and handed the election to Woodrow Wilson. Democrats, while welcoming his reforms, are reluctant to credit a rival party or accept his views on racial hierarchy, not uncommon in his time and among his class, but hard to swallow today. Roosevelt did it all. He was a western rancher, a cowboy, intrepid explorer, naturalist, hunter, athlete, soldier (he preferred being called Colonel), a wonderfully engaged father (to his six children) and yes, President of the United States, a figure known round the globe. And arguably the most well-rounded and intellectually gifted person to occupy the White House (in a close contest with Thomas Jefferson). A Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard, he wrote over thirty books and countless magazine articles on a wide variety of subjects, loved poetry, read a book a day (there is wide agreement on this), spoke many foreign languages, and possessed an astonishing photographic memory. Every American knew Roosevelt. He gave informal press conferences almost daily while his barber shaved him. Cartoonists had a field day caricaturing his teeth, smile, hat and glasses (he lost an eye while boxing in the White House). For a time the “Teddy Bear” became the rage across the country. His energy was boundless, one might say manic. Shot at close range in Milwaukee during the 1912 presidential campaign, the bullet, while entering his chest, was slowed down by a metal eyeglass case and the folded speech in his jacket pocket. He was bleeding but still delivered the scheduled 90-minute address! (The bullet would never be removed.) Roosevelt embodied the best of America together with certain less admirable features. He battled political corruption, raged against corporate excess and inequality, championed individual self-improvement and physical well-being, exemplified family values, promoted far ranging conservation measures and maintained that the federal government must assume an active role in redressing societal ills. On the other hand, he viewed white Anglo-Saxons as the essential bearers of civilization, and was inclined to be bellicose and to glorify war. But he could be excused when, on September 2, 1902, while passing through Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he threatened to physically assault a street car motorman who accidentally crashed into his carriage, injuring the President. It would have been no contest.
Corona has triggered a great hunger in the land. Symptoms of sports deprivation are widespread for good reason. The usual calendar of sporting events has been wiped clean –basketball’s “March Madness” vanished as has the NBA season. Ice hockey left us, and the regular baseball season never got under way. Ditto soccer. The Kentucky Derby was postponed, and it’s unclear whether the Japan Olympics will ever take place. We’re told pro football might be back, but who knows? Same with college football. It’s tough enough sheltering in place, but without sports, what’s a fan to do? Watching games and rooting for our teams has always consumed so much of our waking hours. So did talking about sports – what’s there to talk about these days?
What follows is surely no substitute for the games, but merely an effort, since we have the time, to examine why they mean so much to so many people. It is a given that fans, often so passionate, rarely are asked to explain their preoccupation. But in the absence of live sports, let’s step back and try to account for this enduring attachment.
• For many, it all began during the years in which they were growing up, especially for boys, and more recently for girls as well. Whether in school or afterwards, they played sports formally or otherwise. Many a suburban driveway featured baskets and backboards attached to garages. Informal pick-up games with friends were common. Out in the street fathers could be seen playing catch with their kids. If tennis courts were nearby there’d be many an occasion to play. Back inside the TV often was tuned into a game, sounds of joy or anguish erupting periodically as it progressed. Family outings to sports arenas and stadiums were events eagerly awaited, whether for football, baseball, soccer, basketball or hockey. Bottom line: whether as participants or spectators, sports activities were a joyful component of growing up in America. Fathers took the lead here, and even when mothers were not involved directly, most all were properly supportive.
• To be into sports almost always means you have favorite teams. The origin of fan identification and affiliation can at times be a mysterious process, but by and large it is linked to hometown loyalty. Of course Americans do move around a lot, so you may end up rooting for a team linked to a previous residence. Fans, however upon relocating, are capable also of switching loyalties. Of course, areas with more than one team can complicate matters, but also enliven the sports scene. In L.A., for example, the Clippers and Lakers contend for support; in the New York area it’s Giants and Jets, Yanks and Mets, and Knicks and Nets. Fans just don’t simply support their teams, but live and die with them. It becomes intense once they immerse themselves in the minutia of each team, viz. players, managers, owners, trade rumors, past history, future prospects, etc. They listen to hometown sports shows, pay close attention to the “experts” and analysts and to other fans calling in to voice their views. Being a fan confers identity, produces pride, introduces purpose, offers occasional exhilaration, but is not without its disappointments. Fandom means continually riding an emotional rollercoaster.
• People often become sports fans because they’ve come to idolize a particular player, often a star performer. They will declare their loyalty, demonstrate their familiarity with his record, and defend him against those who might question his achievements. They will confirm their connection by wearing a uniform or a jersey that bears his name and number, or collect memorabilia related to his career. We could mention such players as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Pele, Messi, Tiger, LeBron, Trout, Serena, etc., but it could also be countless others that fans for one reason or another are drawn to, welcome into their extended family.
• All sports have become immersed in statistics, each one generating an ever-growing cascade of numbers that drill down into and evaluate performance. Sports fans have been drawn into this often numbing numerical universe. As a result they’ve become conversant with “records” of all sorts and are quick to cite those that substantiate whatever sports debate may be underway. They may, for example, insist that DiMaggio’s 56-game batting streak will never be broken, or that no one will ever play more consecutive games than Cal Ripken, Jr. Don’t expect anyone to win more majors (14) than Jack Nicklaus, or collect more Olympic medals (22) than Michael Phelps. Remember when the Boston Celtics won eight consecutive NBA titles (1959-1966). Can any team ever top that? It need not be record setting numbers that trigger debates. Fans now recognize that you can’t talk sports these days without statistical corroboration. The numbers don’t lie; do they?
• Of course the essence of all sporting contests is what actually happens on the field of play. For fans the outcome of each game is of principle concern, but along the way there is much to cheer and savor. Each sport has its distinctive and essential elements and moments of high drama. In baseball it may be a disputed call leading to a heated jaw to jaw standoff between a red faced umpire and manager, or an outfielder stretched out fully, glove extended to snare a long fly ball. In football thrill to a reverse, the running back, a phalanx of blockers in front, speeding ahead or a wide out weaving his way downfield, gaining a step on the defender and looking back as a long arcing pass heads his way. In basketball, a fast break is a thing of beauty, the ball whipped from player to player streaking down court, defenders unable to divert or slow down this offensive thrust. So is a series of snapped passes that finally arrives at an open man positioned in the corner, who gets off a three pointer that barely disturbs the net. In tennis there’s the moment of truth when a player, following up a looping shot deep into the corner, charges the net, hoping for a put away, or in hockey when forwards swarm around the net peppering a sprawling goalie with shot after shot at close range.
• No sport contest is without its dramatic moments. Can a boxer, backed into a corner and pounded by blow after blow, survive until the bell? What about no score, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, three and two on the batter, or fourth and a goal from the three yard line with seconds remaining in the game, six points separating the two teams? Consider shootouts in hockey or soccer and the emotional rush and excruciating tensions they produce. In any sport there’s much to savor; every fan understands such rewards await him time after time.
• And for every man (less frequently woman) the world of sport is a place they can enter comfortably and find camaraderie, a common vocabulary, a space to congregate, debate and share vicariously in the athletic achievements of their heroes. It is an alternate universe where much can seem to be at stake, where victories can be celebrated and losses mourned, but in time forgotten. Always, there is hope – so long as there are games to be played.
Not for America the prerogatives of royalty or the privileges of aristocracy. No, the majority of those who came over to our shores were ordinary people. No surprise then that we’ve long celebrated the “Common Man.” In one way or another we’ve declared that the “average Joe” provides the essential ballast for the United States, the most durable democratic society known to the world. Indeed, it was “Common Sense,” that extraordinary piece of plain pleading by Tom Paine that in 1775 helped persuade the “man in the street” that the only logical and sensible course for America was to declare its independence from England. And not long afterwards, when the victorious revolutionaries concluded it was time to establish a national government, it was, they agreed, to be based not on Holy Writ or Royal Proclamation, but upon “We the People,” forever protected by a “Bill of Rights.”
Over the years, even as great wealth accumulated in America and the well-to-do established their pre-eminence, we continued to view the common man as properly representative of America. Thomas Jefferson was but one of a long line of observers who placed the simple yeoman farmer and the independent husbandman at the center of the new republic he wished to form. Andrew Jackson went even further, insisting that his presidency (1828) had ushered in a new dawn for ordinary Americans, whose interests he would champion. Every man, he asserted, was qualified to hold public office; the days of an elite cadre of office holders were over. Moreover, Jackson from Tennessee saw himself as representing the hardy men of the western frontier, those intrepid pioneers rapidly spreading out to establish new western states, the driving force behind American expansionism and “Manifest Destiny.” Back, in parts of the east, at about the same time, individuals began attending common schools at public expense. Nowhere else in the world were ordinary people given such opportunities for formal schooling and advancement.
Throughout the 19th Century and into the twentieth, America’s self-image remained focused on the common man, in one form or another, starting with William Henry Harrison’s Log Cabin Campaign for the presidency in 1840. That basic structure of frontier life came to symbolize all that was simple and sturdy in the American character. Abe Lincoln’s days as a “rail splitter” confirmed his standing as a typical son of the pioneer West. Later on the cowboy took the place of the pioneer, assuring Americans that plain folks could be both essential and heroic. Decades later Charles Lindbergh took to the sky to remind the country that an ordinary American embodied all that was admirable and brave in the national character. When it came to heroism, GI Joe showed he was up to the challenge in World War II, vanquishing the formidable military forces of both Germany and Japan. Back home, millions upon millions of working men and women demonstrated that almost overnight they could produce absolutely astounding amounts of armaments and war materials, as well as consumer goods. And later on, during the Cold War, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), our everyman, proved able finally to defeat his Russian Communist adversary in the ring and after that, as Rambo, salvage some honor for Americans in Viet Nam, thanks to his heroic actions there.
But any discussion of the common man must not omit the challenges presented to that venerable tradition, including the contradictions and inconsistencies that cropped up along the way. While the social and economic standing of your average American tended to locate him in the working classes, Americans came to see themselves either as aspiring to or occupying the middle class. The workingman (perhaps because so many were immigrants) rarely received the credit or status due him (except among Socialists). As their numbers declined, however slowly, farmers also suffered diminished status, especially as urban populations swelled and cities became cultural and commercial centers. It didn’t help that over the years rural people stuck to their guns or that “good old boys”supportedJim Crow and lynched “uppity negroes” or that “hard hats” rallied round the flag and used it to demean dissidents. Consider also the impact of comedian Jay Leno’s TV stunts with his “man (or “woman”) on the street” interviews and quizzes. What did it say about typical Americans when the following questions were put to them? – “Who did Americans fight in the War of Independence?” “What divided East and West Germany?” “What month of the year do we vote for president?” and no one answered correctly? (“This is frightening,” remarked Leno.)
In recent years, defining the “average Joe” or analyzing “John Q. Public” or placing “everyman” under the microscope has become ever more complicated. Cultural expression has exploded into numberless enclaves; political polarization has confounded conventional conversation, and ethnic diversity has undermined unifying symbols. Speaking for the “silent majority”is no longer a simple matter.
At present, the common man has, however, a most prominent spokesman – Donald Trump. Admittedly not “of the people,” he has, however, positioned himself as “tribune of the people.” Both a creature of the mass media, and as the great “white hunter” of the business jungle he has tapped into many of the admittedly less admirable themes associated with ordinary Americans. He has encouraged isolationist sentiment and has embraced the military. He has lampooned elites and elitist institutions. He has promoted a narrowly cast version of religious expression. He’s tilted the scales in favor of white ethnic solidarity and demeaned minority populations. He has questioned the value and the substance of scientific thinking and the role of expertise. He has voiced the prerogatives of male chauvinism. His vanity and grandiosity far exceed the boundaries of traditional “tall tales.” Trump retains his hold on his base because he speaks like them, gives voice to their concerns, disappointments, and to elite dismissals of common folks.
Ironically the Pandemic could rekindle our faith in and respect for the common man. We’ve come to recognize just how dependent we are on those that enable our society to operate (if even on a limited basis) so that the rest of us can shelter in place. The workers who keep the mass transportation system up and running, the trucks rolling, the garbage collected, the folks who police our streets, maintain our power grids, drive the ambulances and staff the hospitals, deliver our mail and packages, grow and harvest our food, stock grocery shelves – without them our society would rapidly descend into catastrophic collapse. And most of those folks have not done well by us in recent times. They’ve fallen behind, become more vulnerable, their rewards limited, their hopes diminished. Recognizing and celebrating these “essential workers,” highlighting their seemingly prosaic, but now heroic, roles could serve to renew our faith in and appreciation of ordinary Americans.
Throughout this crisis we’ve heard repeatedly that when in the past ordinary americans were challenged, were called upon to confront hard times, deal with severe setbacks and
adversity, they rose to the occasion, persevered. If they are still made of that same “right stuff,” they should be able, once more, to lead us through this crisis.