Pioneer movie makers of the early 20th Century quickly discovered that “motion pictures” were what audiences wanted. Kinetic action of one sort or another filled the nickelodeons and later, theaters, screens displaying endless chases, fights, flights, dives, crashes, pratfalls, etc. Mounted cowboys and Indians chasing each other endlessly at breakneck speed became a reliably staple feature of film makers.
Ever since, film directors have never lost sight of the fact that story lines may be ignored or prove nonsensical so long as the action is ongoing and feverish. That, of course, has put a premium on upping the ante on such scenes, extending them, orchestrating improbable encounters, staging spectacular confrontations, casting aside notions of human limits and endurance, understanding that viewers, caught up in the moment, will willingly suspend disbelief and breathlessly thrill to it all. But even as efforts to provide more elaborate spectacular action scenes continue, film buffs are able to recognize certain recurrent patterns amidst the ongoing chaos and frantic maneuverings. Take note:
Car Chases – A standard fixture of action films, car chases ever more creatively reckless and destructive; nevertheless, proceed along familiar paths.
• Principles immediately jump into any car at hand where somehow “keys” conveniently await them. Gas is never a problem.
• The “hero” immediately proves to be an uncommonly expert driver.
• Blowouts and flats are rare, except when shots are deliberately aimed at the tires. Otherwise, gunfire during chases rarely hit their targets.
• If police cars are part of the chase, several will inevitably collide, allowing their “prey” to escape.
• During the chase the “lead” car will unfailingly upend cars, wagons, street vendors, garbage cans, outdoor displays, etc., especially upon entering narrow alleys.
• As the cars head on to nearby highways, they will surely enter lanes against oncoming traffic, leaving numerous collisions in their wake.
• At some point they will speed onto sidewalks, pedestrians frantically scattering to get out of the way.
• Cars will definitely become airborne at some point, land and head off.
• Expect a 180 degree change of direction just when the vehicle appears trapped.
• Despite several “collisions” along the way, resulting in numerous body parts ripped off, the car remains capable of extremely high speeds, operating as if it had just left the showroom.
• However the chase ends, you can be sure it featured almost all the elements just described.
Fights – The fights between principal adversaries have been increasingly drawn out, no-holds-barred punishing affairs of extreme ferocity. Expect no instant knockouts such as Mike Tyson once delivered in the ring.
• Marquis of Queensbury rules do not apply. Anything goes. An object within reach can be employed to batter the opponent. Knives and guns usually are swept aside. Hand to hand fighting will determine the outcome. Martial Arts moves have become standard.
• Blows that would ordinarily appear crushing and conclusive have but limited and temporary effect.
• The fighters will be thrashing from one location to another, crashing through windows and tumbling down stairways, or falling off yachts into water.
• The fights will go back and forth, first one individual seeming to gain the upper hand, only to have the other stage a comeback. There is never a quick conclusion.
• Lots of stuff gets broken along the way as they crash into everything around them. Occasionally an object is thrown,but almost always misses.
• If it is a period piece sword fight, expect a lengthy contest, much parrying, considerable back and forth and abrasive sword scraping. If it ends with a successful thrust and gaping wound, count on a drawn out death scene.
Rooftops – More and more roof top chases have been incorporated with action films. They provide numerous and varied opportunities for heroes and villains to display their physical prowess. Besides which, heights scare a lot of people; it’s a good place to generate excitement.
• Jumping from one roof to another one over a gap between the two produces sure fire thrills. Almost always they make it.
• Convenient hiding places exist on the roofs.
• Leaping from roofs through adjacent windows is ever a crowd pleaser, especially when viewing the shocked faces of those in the apartments.
Expendable Sentries – Many action films incorporate a climactic surprise attack against an enemy whose location has been pinpointed. Audiences eagerly await the assault and the fierce fighting to follow. Almost always there are sentries on guard who, if not neutralized, can eliminate the element of surprise, blunt the attack and disappoint movie goers. Fear notPredictably the sentries are disposed of as attackers employ silencers, knives and lethal choke holds to do them in. Those given roles as sentries can expect very limited screen exposure.
Action movies will continue to flourish, as will our ability to anticipate much that’s on the screen, even as intrepid stuntmen and computer graphics experts provide audiences with even more imaginative thrills that will keep us coming back for more.
Here, in the midst of the corona crisis, the cough has become Public Enemy #1. Sneezing is a close second, though it has rarely borne the same stigma as a cough, normally evoking supportive “God Bless You” responses. (Item: During the anti-German hysteria, following America’s entry into World War I the word “gesundheit” was declared illegal.) In today’s fraught climate the cougher has become a social pariah, a thoughtless assailant.
Not much new here. Coughing has traditionally prompted alarm, signaled serious underlying ailments – whooping cough, influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, severe asthma – all producing worrisome coughing, so much so that writers and playwrights have often set characters to coughing as a way of communicating health problems ahead (tuberculosis being perhaps the most common literary device).
Coughing, an individual action, also has an observable social dimension, so it is to certain such situations that we turn:
The Crude Cougher – Just about every child was instructed, repeatedly no doubt, “to cover your mouth when you cough,” neither a natural or automatic response, especially when it erupts instantly and unexpectedly. Who wants to deal with a sticky, yucky cough residue on your hands? So, what children frequently neglected to do carried over into adulthood. But covering the mouth also had its downside, became especially offensive and thoughtless when that same person subsequently shook hands with another! The single random cough may not concern us, but continuous coughing does raise alarms. We expect this individual offender to offer a reasoned explanation and, if necessary, to distance himself.
Cougher Rationales – Coughers, feeling guilty, often attempt to normalize their hacking. “Not to worry. It’s a smoker’s cough.” – “I’m over the cold. This is just what’s left.” (A favorite of parents hoping to return their kid to school.) – “There’s just a tickle or frog in my throat.” – “I just swallowed the wrong way.” – “It’s my allergies acting up.” Will anxious bystanders take comfort in such explanations?
Cough Contagion – In a group setting one cough is likely to spread. It grants permission for others to do likewise. Listen to what happens during those quiet intervals between movements of a classical symphony. As if on cue, coughing ripples through the audience. Coughing is catching. And when lots of folks indulge no one person can be held accountable.
Cough Cover-ups – Expect strategies to be employed to mask bouts of coughing. Playing loud music or generating some form of noise can provide the necessary sound barrier. Also, watch people suddenly turn away, distance themselves, even leave the room, in order to cough unobserved. Some even manage to merge their cough into a more socially acceptable sneeze or an inoffensive “clearing of the throat.”
Counterfeit Cough – Feigning a cough can substitute for verbal communication. A brief muted cough can register mild dissent to an issue under discussion. Such a contrived cough can also serve to announce yourself, alerting, for example, a service person nowhere to be seen. Also to avoid startling someone unaware of your presence. Should you choose to beg off an upcoming obligation, a well-timed cough will explain and confirm your unavailability.
Cough Suppression – As a child my parents led me to believe that when I began coughing it was largely my fault and my punishment. I hadn’t dressed warmly enough and became chilled; or I’d gone out into the rain without wearing rubbers, or insisted on playing with a friend I knew to be sick. My coughing, therefore, meant I’d been negligent, ignored their directives. I recall doing all I could to keep from coughing in front of them, lest it expose my misdeed. To suppress a cough I’d draw deep breaths, swallow repeatedly, suck on a candy and drink lots of water. If I were in bed, I’d cough into my pillow to muffle the sound. I was frantic. On occasion I succeeded, but just as often the reprimand, “I told you so,” greeted my failed efforts. Among adults cough suppression proceeds in much the same way, with the results at best limited.
The corona onslaught will, in due course, pass but all of us will, in many a future occasion find ourselves coughing once again, but also coping in one way or another with one of our body’s more insistent and socially alarming warning signs.
The recent passing of Kirk Douglas at the age of 103 reminds us that this celebrated giant of the silver screen (“Spartacus,” “Lust for Life,” “Paths of Glory,” etc.) was born just as the golden age of Hollywood was getting underway. (Imagine, just a year before saw the release of “Birth of a Nation” – 1915 – the first movie blockbuster that demonstrated the cultural impact this new media could exert.) While we properly emphasize the extraordinary growth of the United States as an industrial power in this period (e.g., Henry Ford and the mass production of automobiles), the concurrent rise of the movie industry foreshadowed the over-sized role entertainment would play in the rapid economic advance of the U. S. in the 20th Century.
It all began on a modest scale – store fronts in urban areas, often in working-class districts, given over to penny arcades and peep shows, popularly referred to as nickelodeons. Sitting in front of a screen, often in chairs borrowed from the local funeral parlor, patrons watched up to 20 minutes of short scenes in motion. Typically, they might include moving trains, parades, chases, pranks, fights or scenes from a familiar play. A longer presentation (12 minutes) of “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) was hugely successful and demonstrated the potential of offering dramatic plot lines to audiences. These brief entertainments proved exceptionally popular and, for these who invested in them, remarkably lucrative. While many regarded these amusements as little more than passing fads, those in the business thought otherwise and began expanding from one neighborhood to another.
These entrepreneurs were a surprisingly homogeneous group of Jewish immigrants or sons of immigrants recently arrived from Eastern Europe. Eager to make their mark in the new country they sensed an opportunity here where few others did, and they made the most of it, gradually building more elaborate theaters (ultimately movie palaces like the Roxy, Rialto, Rivoli, Capitol, and The Radio City Music Hall – 1932 – all in New York), displaying lengthier features, then moving on to become producers and film makers themselves.
Most all of this activity happened back East, primarily in and around New York City. And then, in short order, the “movie industry” picked itself up and headed West, specifically to Hollywood, California. By 1918, 80% of the world’s movies were made by 70 production companies in Los Angeles. “Sunny” California played a role in this: one could film scenes outdoors mostly all year round. Also, land was cheap. And bankers, who financed most projects, were back East and thus would not be snooping around, asking too many questions. And, finally, the movie pioneers – Adolph Zukor William Fox, Benjamin Warner, Harry Cohn, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, and others could fashion their own separate world here, a social system and pecking order independent of the genteel establishment back East, which had kept these aggressive newcomers at arm’s length.
And so the stage was set as the 1920’s began, and Kirk Douglas was yet a child, for the first golden age of film in Hollywood. The decade would see the emergence of the major movie studios, such as Fox, Paramount, RKO, Warner Brothers, Universal, Columbia and MGM, all operating with tight control over the industry, from the talent to production, distribution and exhibition. Movie goers in major cities were entertained in luxurious settings in new vast theaters, seating thousands and including full orchestras. And movie stars were created, the likes of Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and Rudolf Valentino, whose fans eagerly awaited their latest film releases. At the end of the decade “Talkies” arrived (“The Jazz Singer”) so audiences could hear dialogue and enjoy movie musicals.
A mature film industry now entered the 1930’s, a decade of economic depression. The studios, though under stress, nevertheless continued to release a torrent of new titles enabling Americans, at least temporarily, to forget their troubles as they flocked to the movies, now a familiar, even an essential feature of their lives.
Generations of Americans have read and praised those classic autobiographies of Ben Franklin and Frederick Douglass. Mention the autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, however, and you’re likely to get mostly blank stares from these same people. Perhaps because it is less personally revealing and flavorful than those other two, and granted that Jefferson concluded this work even as much of his career still lay ahead, the autobiography nevertheless stands as a highly rewarding historical account rightfully deserving our attention.
It should be better known not because it reveals much about the author himself – which it doesn’t, but rather because it is a unique first-hand, eye witness account of arguably the most absorbing and significant period of our country’s history. In it we encounter Jefferson still in his early twenties, already in the midst of the action, in a positon to serve as a reliable guide to the many stirring events that led the colonists to take up arms against England, achieve independence, and ultimately form the United States of America. First as an engaged bystander, but soon after as an active participant, Jefferson reveals what went on both in his native Virginia and in the various colonial assemblies to which he is appointed or elected.
He writes to settle no scores or aggrandize his role. It is in 1821 that he prepares his autobiography, his position in the pantheon of American heroes long secure. He undertakes this project, he explains, “to make some memoranda and state some recollections of dates and facts concerning myself for my own ready reference and for the information of my family.” Such modesty aside, the “dates and facts” he presents represent an exceptionally valuable insider’s narrative of the birth of our nation.
Early on, Jefferson avows that he has, lost faith in the supposed benefits of English rule. “During the regal government,” he observed, “nothing liberal could expect success.” While studying law in Williamsburg under the tutelage of George Wyeth, Jefferson, in response to the growing opposition to the Stamp Act repairs to the House of Burgesses and positions himself, he says “at the door of the lobby.” There, “he heard the splendid display of Mr. [Patrick] Henry‘s talents as a popular orator. They were great indeed; such as I have never heard from any other man. He appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote.”
As protests swelled along with boycotts of English goods, many hoped England would respond by relaxing its grip over the colonies. Not Jefferson. To him, “the Royal negative [veto]” closed, “the last door to every hope of amelioration.” Unfortunately, many colonists remained indifferent, still did not think to question English motives “out of habit and despair, not of reflection and conviction.” And when England, bowing to colonial pressure, rescinded the Townshend import duties, Jefferson became discouraged, noting in 1770 that “nothing of particular excitement occurring for a considerable time our countrymen seemed to fall into a state of insensitivity to our situation.” Now part of the elite inner circles of Virginia’s gentleman patriots including Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, he encouraged the formation of “a committee of correspondence” in each colony as” the best instrument for intercommunication.” Here we find one of the rare instances where Jefferson attempts to correct the record, writing that it was Virginia, not Massachusetts that should be credited with inaugurating this vital network for intercolonial communication.
In reaction to the Boston Tea Party (1773), England closed the port of Boston. Would Virginia take up the cause of Boston? Jefferson wasn’t sure. Fellow colonists, he stated, needed once more to be aroused “from the lethargy into which they had fallen as to passing events.” Now seated in the House of Burgesses, Jefferson and others proposed that, as the Puritans had often done, there be a “day of general fasting and prayer.” So “we cooked up a resolution,” Jefferson writes and after modernizing certain phrases, called for “a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer to implore heaven to avert us from the evils of Civil War.” For such impertinence the Royal Governor, as had happened before when openly challenged, “dissolved the legislature.”
By this time (1774) Jefferson’s thoughts on America’s connection to England are quite radical. “Our emigration from England,” he writes “to this country gave her [England] no more right over us than the emigration of Danes and Saxons gave to its present authorities of the mother country over England.” He gathered such inflammatory thoughts (later printed in a tract – A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans) and sent them on to Patrick Henry about to leave for Philadelphia, where the First Continental Congress would be meeting. He feared, however, that Henry “was too lazy to read it (for he was the laziest man in reading I ever knew)”, Jefferson nevertheless informs us that, in fact, the pamphlet did circulate widely, including within England.
Jefferson now takes us to the Second Continental Congress, convened in Philadelphia, with most members, he observed, prepared to sever ties with England. But not all, especially one John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who still “retained the hope of reconciliation” and because he was “so honest a man and so able a one that he was greatly indulged, even by those who could not feel his scruples.” Despite this, on Friday June 7, 1776, Virginia urged that Congress should declare that these united colonies are “of right ought to be free and independent states.” Jefferson worried such a move might be premature insofar as the middle colonies “were not yet ripe for bidding adieu to the British connection” and as a result could “secede from the Union.” Furthermore, he was not confident Americans could count on French and Spanish assistance because both countries “had reason to be jealous of that rising power which would one day certainly strip them of all their American possessions.” Even so, he regrets not having enlisted France because the French “might have marched an army into Germany and prevented the petty princes there from selling their unhappy subjects to subdue us.”
Even as Congress worked for greater unity of opinion to emerge, Jefferson mentions that he was placed on a committee and instructed to prepare a declaration of independence. Readers will surely be disappointed here because Jefferson tells us next to nothing about how he fashioned this extraordinary document. The committee, he states, simply “desired me to do it” and “it was accordingly done.” He does, however, include a preliminary draft of the declaration and includes certain specific stylistic and word changes that were introduced. Eliminated was censure of the English people because of, according to Jefferson, “the pusillanimous idea that we have friends in England worth keeping terms with still haunted the minds of many.” The final draft also omitted casting blame for slavery on King George III because Jefferson writes our “Northern brethren. . . for though these people have few slaves themselves yet they have been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”
Independence declared, war with England underway, Jefferson still a delegate to the Continental Congress offers a lengthy account of that body’s efforts to devise a permanent government in order to conduct the war and secure assistance from Europeans. Endless wrangling ensues over how to balance small and large states and whether slaves should be counted when tabulating population. Should taxes be apportioned based upon population or property values in each state? These debates, Jefferson reports would continue endlessly before the Articles of Confederation government finally is formed.
Well before that Jefferson departed the Congress, having been elected in 1778 to the Virginia legislature. Here he and others threw themselves into the monumental task of revising archaic colonial laws, modernizing the language of statutes and introducing new legislation that reflected the reform spirit of the age. Jefferson endlessly writing reports and drafting laws was especially keen on revising land law which had, he asserted, “enabled families to amass, retain and pass on undivided large tracts of land.” He wishes instead “to annul this privilege and instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger than benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent. . . essential to a well-ordered republic.” Jefferson would win out here but not before doing battle with Edward Pendleton, “who was zealously attached to ancient establishments; and who. . . was the ablest man in debate I have ever met with.”
Jefferson also took aim at the “spiritual tyranny” represented by the Anglican Church establishment in Virginia for the support of which Quakers, Presbyterians, Baptists and other dissenters were taxed. Jefferson and other like-minded colleagues carry the day and, as he notes, “the establishment of the Anglican Church [was] entirely put down.” What is remarkable is that these and many other reforms are considered and achieved during war time, and despite “the endless quibble, chicaneries perverseness, vexations and delays of lawyers and demi-lawyers.” Having said this, Jefferson does concede that the reform tide left slavery largely intact. He observes though that
“nothing is now certainly written in the book of fate that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation, deportation peaceably and ensure slow degree so that the evil will wear off insensibly and their place is pari passu filled up by free white laborers.”
Once more Jefferson is on the move, having been appointed (June 1, 1779) Governor of Virginia. About his term of office he writes but a few words, excusing the omission by stating that others have written about this period of Virginia history. Such evasion is probably best explained by the fact that his term of office was generally regarded as unsuccessful, most historians agreeing it was not a high point in an otherwise remarkable career of public service. But as usual, Jefferson then eased into yet another post, back in Congress representing Virginia. As before, little is accomplished here, Jefferson remarking how erratic attention, frequent recesses and the lack of an executive resulted in considerable laxity and irresolution. No doubt he was relieved when the Congress appointed him to join John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in Europe to negotiate commercial treaties. He soon discovered, however, that most nations “know little about us,” regarding Americans as mere “rebels who had been successful in throwing off the yoke of the mother country,” the exception being France, its “government entirely disposed to befriend us on all occasions.”
Unfortunately for the Americans, the French government (so critical to American victory in the Revolutionary War), itself would succumb to revolution. Jefferson was on the scene during its early stages and begs readers to excuse him if he provides an overly detailed account of events there, which is what he does. “But I have thought it justified by the interest which the whole world must take in the revolution.” He is energized and reasonably hopeful about the prospect for reform, believing that the American Revolution had “awakened the thinking part of the French nation in general from the sleep of desperation in which they were sunk,” and that they were entirely justified in reacting against “the monstrous abuses of power, under which their people were ground to powder.” “I went daily from Paris to Versailles and attended their debates.” I was “much acquainted with the leading patriots of the Assembly,” who he tells us appreciated his role in America’s revolution “and had much confidence in me.” Alas, Jefferson writing his autobiography from the perspective of 1821 knows full well that early hopes dissolved into destructive upheavals and that the reformers “were unconscious (for who could foresee?) the melancholy sequel of their well-meant perseverance.”
But even as the French lost faith in their government, so had many Americans in the late 1780s, and one could even claim that they also overthrew their existing national structure, except that it was accomplished via a well ordered convention (albeit held in secret) which then submitted the new constitution to the people for their ratification. For all of this, Jefferson was not on the scene, had no role at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. He nevertheless applauded the fact that the “people as soon as they perceived the incompetence of their first compact, instead of leaving its correction to insurrectionists and civil war,” sent representatives to create a new framework of government. After receiving copies of the document, Jefferson wrote to James Madison and General Washington expressing “my approbations and objections.” The absence of a Bill of Rights disturbed him, as did the failure to limit a President to two terms. Without such limits he warned about the danger “of interference with money or arms by foreign nations, to whom the choice of an American president might become interesting.”
Whatever his misgivings, Jefferson was about to experience firsthand how well the new government would function. Summoned from France by President George Washington Jefferson would now serve as the nation’s first Secretary of State. And it is at this point that Jefferson’s Autobiography abruptly halts. He offers no explanation, even though he knew (in 1821) that he was about to embark on two exceptionally eventful decades of public life.
No matter. Let us appreciate the fact that he left us an autobiography of exceptional historical value, not by exposing the inner man, but by taking us step by step along a path he and fellow statesmen followed as they launched a wondrous national experiment.
How far should certain Democrats go in their policy prescriptions for the 2020 Presidential race? Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders insist that Americans are eager for major initiatives, for breakthrough programs involving healthcare, higher education, infrastructure, the environment, child care, etc. Incrementalism simply won’t do any longer, not in the face of so many unmet critical needs.
Calls for such decisive actions are not received favorably by those who believe these proposals, while surely praiseworthy, are unrealistic, given current legislative realities, and so represent a leap too far. As an American historian, I would point out that most all of our much heralded and long-celebrated reform legislative breakthroughs were, when passed, considered as unduly restrictive in scope (though often expanded later on), contained unavoidable concessions. An analysis of such landmark legislation, as the Homestead Act (1862), Civil Service Reform (1883), Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890), Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), Social Security Act (1930), Wagner Labor Relations Act (1935), Americans With Disabilities Act (1990), Affordable Care Act (2010), etc., reveals that reformers rarely achieved all they hoped for. Obliged to accept the realities of the situation, they accepted compromise and prepared to fight another day. The clear message and lesson from our past: shoot for the moon and take heart even when heading back down to earth.
Here was Harry Truman, age 34, yet to find himself. He’d held a variety of odd jobs and has, for the last ten years, worked his land as a farmer while pursuing mining and oil exploration ventures without notable success. Still there’s a fire burning within, an unquenchable desire to succeed. “There’s no one wants to win,” he notes, “half as badly as I do.” And whatever disappointments he’d experienced, were more than compensated for; he’d found the love of his life and was certain he would soon marry Bess Wallace, 33.
But, before that glorious day, he’d decided to embark on what he expected to be the great adventure of his life. He would fight for his country, the U. S. having entered World War I to help France and Great Britain defeat Germany. That decision would, in retrospect, represent a major turning point, would demonstrate to himself and to others that Harry Truman was indeed cut out for greater things beyond tilling the soil, that a much larger stage awaited him. While eager to enter the war, Truman understood Bess would not take kindly to this decision. He asked to be forgiven for “my enthusiastic action in getting myself sent to war,’ in the hope, he added, that “a little war experience…. will make a man of me.”
We’re fortunate in that we can follow Truman as he goes off to war because he will report much of what happened in the numerous letters he wrote to Bess. (Remarkably, he received a constant flow of correspondence from her as well, even as the war raged in France.) But, before landing in Europe, he had first to be trained as a soldier, specifically as an artillery man, then travel east and ship out across the Atlantic. At the outset he enjoyed such success recruiting men into his unit that they elected him first Lieutenant of Battery D of the 129th field artillery. Training was rigorous, he and his men subjected to much resented inspection routines. The colonel, he remarked, has “eyes in the back of his head and nothing, absolutely nothing gets by unseen.” More importantly, they began “to teach us the English and French methods of artillery fire” (which included weekly exams), an English colonel straight from the Western Front providing instruction, as well as assuring Truman that “I wouldn’t be left out of the greatest history-making epoch the world has ever seen.” Defense against gas attacks were also part of the training regimen. “Had to take a mask like a diver’s,” he reported, “and get into it and then into a gas house and sit there ten minutes.”
At the same time, his entrepreneurial instincts, long in evidence though rarely productive, came to the fore. Army regulations allowed him and his fellow soldier, Eddie Jacobson (a “crackerjack,” Truman noted), to open and independently operate a canteen for his unit. The two purchased their own supplies, set their prices, and, unlike the many other such enterprises on the base, ran it at a considerable profit. At the same time, on a typical day, Truman was also exercising and drilling his men, instructing them and seeing to all their personal needs, particularly clothing. And also getting them out on the firing range for target practice. (“It takes exactly seven and a half seconds for the shots to go three thousand yards. But it seems likes hours.”)
Finally, in March of 1918, after many months, Truman and his unit moved out, left training camp in Oklahoma and headed east to Camp Merritt in New Jersey, a location that allowed this farmer from Missouri to take in the great metropolis of New York City. In no time he became the eager tourist hailing a cab, heading to the top of the Woolworth Building, then Central Park, hunting down the subway and taking in a show at the Winter Garden Theater. Overall, he was unimpressed, both with the performance and with New York City in general. It was, he wrote, “The rottenest Vaudeville show I ever saw or hope to see. It couldn’t even play at the Globe and get by in Kansas City. New York is a much overrated burg. It merely keeps its rep by its press agents, continually harping on the wonders of it. There isn’t a town west of the Mississippi of any size that can’t show you a better time.” Conversations with New Yorkers convinced him that they were incredibly gullible. “Anyone from west of the Mississippi can make these people believe anything. I believe I could sell gold bricks on Broadway and make ‘em cry for more.” He even complained about having a “very uncomfortable pair of feet because they’re not being well acquainted with hard pavements.” He had no regrets, therefore, leaving New York behind, so eager was he to get into the fight, be present at the death of the “scourge of God,” having already come “to hate the sight of a German (they have no hearts, no souls).”
Truman’s trip to France on the George Washington (a converted German liner that would later take President Woodrow Wilson to Europe for the Paris Peace Conference) proceeded uneventfully. Soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force soon learned that all their letters home would be censured and that they were strictly forbidden to reveal their whereabouts or comment upon the conduct of the war. Truman conceded he knew no French (“All I can say is, Je ne comprend pas”), but also revealed that for a time he was being housed in a very comfortable chateau, found the French countryside wonderfully attractive, had already visited art galleries, attended an opera and an American movie starring Douglas Fairbanks. “The country is very pretty,” he wrote, and…. if I had to give up being a Missourian, I’d be a citizen of France.” “I’m for the French,” he added, “more and more. They are the bravest of the brave.” The French girls, though “pretty and chic,” cannot, he wrote, “hold a candle to American girls.”
Soon it was down to the serious business of war, Truman receiving intense instruction in Artillery School, learning topography and the proper methods of artillery fire and troop support. “I had an examination,” he noted, “that would make the president of Yale University bald headed scratching his head trying to think of answers.” He was then obliged to practice every day and pass on the firing techniques to members of his unit. He had by this time been promoted to Captain of Battery D. “You should hear me hand these fellows bunk and make them like it,” he informed Bess. “It’s rather funny for an old rube to be handing knowledge (of a sort) to the Harvard and Yale boys. The hardest work I ever did in my life. I’d rather saw wood or pitch hay.” There was every incentive to get it right because the best prepared artillery battery would be given the privilege of firing the first shots by the brigade at the Germans. Truman’s enthusiasm was unmistakable, his having attained “my one ambition to be a battery commander. If I can only make good at it, I can hold my head up the rest of my days.” Could he stand up under fire? He wasn’t sure. “I have my doubts about my bravery. When heavy explosive shells and gas attacks begin…. I have the bravest kind of head and body, but my legs won’t start. It is sure a great game if you don’t weaken.”
Before heading into battle, his principal challenge, he recognized, was to gain control of the men (including quite a few Irishmen, he commented), many “lax in discipline.” “Can you imagine me,” he wrote, “being a hard boiled Captain of a tough Irish battery?” Still, after he “started things in rough cookie fashion,” he succeeded in shaping up his once unruly unit, his men impressed by his leadership and now prepared to engage the enemy. And in addition, he noted, to loot the enemy, war trophies, e.g. German helmets and iron crosses, being much in demand (Truman admitted the Americans were “souvenir crazy,” and in fact he did purchase German artillery shells fashioned into vases and sent them off to Bess.)
By late summer of 1918, Truman’s unit went into action starting off with a barrage of some 500 gas shells. In his letters Truman did not omit mentioning the dangers he and his men faced from the frequent German shelling aimed at their ranks (though he conceded that the infantrymen had it far worse). But he also reassured her he’d emerge intact. “So don’t worry about me because there is no German shell with my name on it.” He did recount several harrowing scenes in which horses in his unit were killed, certain of his men bolted to the rear, guns first abandoned had then to be retrieved in pitch darkness. “Had shells fall on all sides. I am sure as I am sitting here that the Lord was with me.” Still, he reported, “I have gone as much as sixty hours without sleep and for twenty-two days straight I marched every night,” and “I‘ve almost gotten so I can sleep with a gas mask on.” He had, he boasted, forged the men under his command (numbering 194) into a cohesive, highly motivated unit. “My noncoms now are whizzes. I sorted ‘em over, busted a lot and made a lot. They’ve gotten so they don’t know whether to trust my smile or not, because I smile when I bust ‘em, and the same when I make ‘em.” And he and his men have, he confessed, been supremely fortunate. “I have been very lucky,” he wrote, “in that I have had no one gassed, have not been shelled in any of my positions (and I’ve occupied several in the last month). I haven’t shot up our infantry yet – at least haven’t done it so they could catch me at it.”
The overall toll of the war was devastating, a once beautiful countryside utterly destroyed. “Sahara or Arizona would look like Eden beside it,” according to Truman. “There are Frenchmen buried in my front yard and Huns in the back yard, and both litter up the landscape as far as you can see.” Still, it was clear by the fall of 1918 that Germany stood on the edge of defeat. “I’m for peace,” Captain Truman wrote on October 30th, “but that gang should be given a bayonet peace and made to pay for what they’ve done to France.” A week later he wrote, “A complete and thorough threshing is all they’ve got coming, and take my word they are getting it and getting it right.” (On November 11th, the day hostilities ended, Truman’s battery, for good measure, fired off 164 rounds in the direction of the Germans).
Captain Harry Truman and his unit in the months they’d fought in France, had been involved in four major engagements. He could not have been more delighted about what he’d achieved.
“You know I have succeeded in doing what was my greatest ambition to do at the beginning of the war. That is to take a Battery through as Battery Commander and not lose a man. We fired some ten thousand or twelve thousand rounds at Heinie and were shelled ourselves time and again, but never did the Heinie score a hit on me.”
He had also, he noted with pride, gained the affection and respect of his men. While censoring letters written by some of them he read one that referred to him as “the Captain that could take them to hell and bring them all back.”
Truman’s war experiences had been all he’d hoped for and more. He had shown courage, competence, endurance and an ability to lead while gaining considerable self-confidence under the toughest of circumstances. What lay in the future he wasn’t sure (though he did hint in several letters he’d consider trying his hand in politics). That he would do, and at his inaugural parade, after being elected President in 1948, there were men of Battery D walking proudly in single file on each side of the president’s limousine. They’d come to honor and celebrate the man who had once, long ago, stood with them in the heat of battle.
Recently, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, interviewed on CNN by Fareed Zakaria, predicted that ongoing reforms in his country would soon enable Greece to “punch above its weight.” (Mr. Mitsotakis did spend six years in the U. S. studying at Harvard and Stanford.) Sometime earlier, the veteran journalist Andrea Mitchel, noting that no one had expected Donald Trump to cross into North Korea to meet with Kim Jun Un, speculated that it was likely an “audible,” assuming that most everyone in her audience understood the football reference, a term referring to a quarterback who on his own changes the upcoming play at the line of scrimmage.
If an “audible” can be considered part of everyday parlance, what other words and/or sports references have entered our vocabulary? Which sports have contributed more than others? Can we gauge the popularity of a sport based upon this measure? Probably not. Interest in soccer has exploded in the U.S. Yet that sport has not contributed much to our vernacular (“push the ball forward”). Auto racing enjoys a huge following, but, except for “victory lap,” “pit stop” has had little impact on our language. Then again, neither has the enormously popular game of golf (“par for the course,” “mulligan,” “gimme”), or hockey for that matter (“enforcer,” “face off,” “dropping the glove”), or surprisingly basketball (“slam dunk,” “full court press,” and “the ball is in their court”). There’d be little expectation of contributions from pool (“behind the eight ball”) or cricket (“bowled over”). Before turning to those sports that have expanded our vocabulary, let’s first consider the body of general sports terms that enrich our everyday conversations.
“A” game… also ran… all-star… ahead of the game… ahead of the pack… a run for your money… bad sport… back in the game… ballpark figure… bench… be in the race… bounce it off… bloodied… bush league… bye… betting man… catch up… cheap shot… Cinderella team… cheerleader… champion… come from behind… comeback… come into play… dead last… deep bench… defending champion… drop the ball… end game… even money… fair play… fans.. fair weather fan… field (a team)… first string… front runner… fix is in… gamer… game on… gamesmanship… game face… game plan… game, set, match… get the ball rolling… got game… get a jump on… good sport… go to the mat… grandstanding… game over… heavy hitter… head fake… hot hand… hot streak… home team… in the zone… in the hole… in a league of their own… in the running… it’s a whole new ballgame… It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game… junior varsity… keep your eye on the ball… keeping the pressure on… lost a step… level playing field… long shot… last licks… meet your match… money player… may the best man win… match up… misplay… nip and tuck… odds on favorite… out of bounds… on the ball… old college try… out of your league… off and running… off to the races… on the fly… on the run… out of the running… one-sided… odds-on favorite… off the wall… opening round… overmatched… outplayed… playing catch up… play ball with… pass the baton… play by play… picked off… run out the clock… runaway… running up the score… rookie… rematch… running start… run the table… runner up… rope-a-dope… race to the finish… rain check… sitting on a lead… scrimmage… sportsmanship… square off… scored… score card… second team… scoreboard… subpar… shadow boxing… showboating… sure bet… showdown… second string… sweet spot… that’s the way the ball bounces… tryout… toss up… take one for the team… time out… tie… team player… top of your game… team spirit… three strikes and you’re out… team up with… trash talk… wild card… wheelhouse… winner… win, win… winners circle… win or lose… winning streak… wait ‘til next year… unforced error… underdog… upset.
Where should we turn to uncover more specific verbal crossovers?
HORSE RACING – Across the board… At the drop of a hat… by a nose… down to the wire… dark horse… fast track… finish line… hands down… home stretch… in the saddle… jockeying for position… photo finish… neck and neck… play the field… quick off the mark… race to the finish… rein in… right out of the gate… saddle up… spit the bit… spur on… starting gate… stretch run… thoroughbred… trifecta.
FOOTBALL – Backpedal… blindsided… blitz… bomb… carry the ball… bench… bench player… end run… fumble.. ground game… hail Mary… handoff… kickoff… Monday morning quarterback… moving the goal posts… out of bounds… piling on… playbook… political football… punt… quarterback… run interference… run with the ball… sack… sidelined… spike the ball… tackling.
BASEBALL – Backstop… batting average… born on third base… ballpark figure… balk… Bronx cheer… between the lines… bullpen… catch… curveball… drop the ball… go to bat for… grand slam… hit a home run… in the ballpark… hit it out of the park… heavy hitter… keep your eye on the ball… major league.. on deck… off base… late innings… pitch… out of left field… pinch hitting… pitching in… play hardball… play the field… right off the bat… rhubarb… run down… screwball… softball (question)… strikeout… step up to the plate… switch hitter… three strikes and you’re out… touch base… thrown a curve.
Most surprising is the linguistic imprint of boxing. No longer does it have the audience it once did, but it has surely left its mark.
BOXING – Back into a corner… bare knuckles… beat to the punch… blow by blow… come out swinging… beat the daylight out of… contender… counted out… counterpuncher… down for the count… down and out… don’t count him (her) out… early rounds… fair fight… go the distance… go toe to toe… have someone in your corner… hang up the gloves… haymaker… hit below the belt… hit the canvas… infighting… knockout… knockout blow… land a punch… lightweight… low blow… mouthpieces… on the ropes… no holds barred… one two punch… pack a punch… pull your punches… punch drunk… put the gloves on… round… roll with the punch… saved by the bell… square off… sucker punch… take a dive… take it on the chin… take the gloves off… take a punch… throw in the towel… throw your hat in the ring.
So, next time you’re at a loss for words, sports lingo could come to your rescue, to “get you back in the game.”
Early in April 2019, President Donald Trump hinted to reporters that he’d be writing a book. It would, he assured them, be “explosive” and would “settle scores.” And no doubt he knew it would be “hugely” lucrative, publishers, in recent years, willing to provide presidents with outsized cash advances for their literary projects. Should it come to pass, Trump would likely be the first Chief Executive to write a book while still in the White House. But he would also join many other presidential authors who’ve written about themselves, their experiences in office, or indeed about any other subject they judged important. Some publications appeared before they were elected, others after they’ve left office. Not all have been noteworthy. Still, they represent, in one way or another, valued additions to our historical record. Which books should we remember? Which deserve honorable mention?
George Washington, “first in the hearts of his countrymen,” was not, however, the first to write a book. That distinction belongs to his successor. The irascible, combative John Adams was a deep thinker and a prolific writer (diaries, letters, pamphlets, an autobiography). His principal concern: how to construct a government that represents the popular will and protects the people against the powerful, which he identified as the “rich and the well-born and the able.” In his magisterial three-volume work, A Defense of the Constitution of the Government of the United States of America, he gave his answer – a separation of powers in the Central Government with “orders of men watching and balancing each other (as) the only security; power must be opposed to power and interest to interest.” “It is,” he insisted, “of great importance to begin well. Misarrangements now made will have great extensive and distant consequences.” Contemporaries did not always appreciate John Adams, but few questioned his service to the nation, his commitment to the freedoms for which Americans had recently fought.
The Founding Fathers, while debating the proper structure of central authority, were more closely wedded to their respective states (Hamilton probably excepted). That explains Thomas Jefferson’s most influential book, Notes on the State of Virginia. In it he offers an encyclopedic, detailed survey of his native state, even as he was refuting a prominent French naturalist’s (Buffon) theory regarding the degeneration of species in the Western hemisphere. Historians consider this book the essential Jefferson, i.e., incorporating his core beliefs regarding liberty, freedom of speech and religion, checks and balances in government, the bedrock virtues of agriculture and of yeoman farmers and his insistence upon limited government. Also exposed are the long unresolved tensions of the South, Jefferson doubting the inherent capacities of the black race, while warning that plantation owners would one day pay dearly for maintaining a slave society. Readers gain exceptional insight into America in the late 18th Century and into the mind of one of our most influential thinkers.
Strictly speaking, James Madison doesn’t belong in our survey. He did leave us his notes on the proceedings at the Constitutional Convention, but what he recorded were the words of others. And we know about his influential essays in defense of the proposed Constitution printed in various newspapers. Still, he will qualify because those writings (along with essays by Alexander Hamilton and John Jay) were gathered together and published in book form in 1787 (The Federalist). Students of this period credit Madison for his penetrating analysis and his challenge to conventional wisdom by arguing in favor of an expansive Republic, such as the U.S., where he predicted numerous and diverse interest groups would emerge, thereby fragmenting a potentially dominating majority. Add the checks and balances built into the Constitution and the division between Central and State authorities and you may just succeed in curbing the excesses of the powerful. To this day Madison’s views remain a starting point for studying and judging our federal system.
It would have been hard, if not impossible, for anyone to match the years in public service of John Quincy Adams, in a career that saw him as Ambassador, Senator, Secretary of State, President of the United States, and then from 1831 until his death in 1840, a Congressman from Massachusetts. Almost as impressive was the fact that he kept a diary nearly every day for close to 70 years (that would total 15,000 pages), a diary first published in 1874, and more recently in 2017 (two volumes). In addition to family matters and daily observations, we read of his growing outrage at the mortal threat he believed slavery posed to his beloved Republic. Not spared were the Founding Fathers who had, he said, “the Declaration of Independence on their lips and the merciless scourge of slavery in their hands.” To Adams, slavery was “the wedge which will ultimately split up the union.” Although he did not live to witness secession by the South and the horrific Civil War that ensued, he did, years before, predict the conflict and that black emancipation would be the result.
The shadow of slavery also spread across the administration of James Polk, once America incorporated Texas and gained extensive territories after victory in the war with Mexico. Polk died shortly after his term expired, but he did record daily events during his years as president. The Diary of James Polk During His Presidency, 1845-1849 (four volumes, not published until 1910), offers insight into this most energetic administration involved with such crucial matters as the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the acquisition of the Oregon Territory, as well as significant tariff legislation and financial reorganization. Polk kept his pledge to serve but one term. Even so he managed to be that rare Chief Executive singled out by historians for actually achieving all his stated objectives.
Debating the causes of the Civil War probably started the day Grant and Lee concluded hostilities in 1865. All agree that whatever the underlying factors, political leaders in the 1850s failed to rise to the occasion, but rather allowed events to overtake them. Much of such
criticism specifically targeted President James Buchanan (1856-1861). Bristling at these charges, the former president in 1865 published Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion to defend his actions. Congress, he declared, was responsible given its inability to resolve outstanding sectional issues. Besides, had it not been for the Abolitionists inflaming public sentiments, the armed conflict could have been averted. The most sensible approach, he claimed was simply to have been patient and allow slavery to die out on its own. While war surely was not inevitable, given the vitality of the institution in 1860 and ongoing plans to expand slave territories, there was little likelihood slavery was then on the road to extinction.
Slavery did not end until southern armies were swept from the field and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution signaled the end of this grim chapter of American history.
Regrettably, even the transcendent Lincoln, the unrivaled master of memorable prose, left no book documenting his role in these critical years. (Collections of his speeches, letters, wit and wisdom did become available.) Imagine the impact of his words had he had the opportunity to consider and reflect upon his tumultuous years as president. Unexpectedly, such a singular contribution does emerge, but from a most unlikely source, Lincoln’s supreme commander, General Ulysses S. Grant. Dying of throat cancer in 1885, and in straitened financial circumstances (victimized by a con man), his friend Mark Twain persuaded him to write his memoirs. Despite persistent pain, he turned resolutely to the task (completing as many as
25-50 pages a day) and produced a two-volume work, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. In concise, unadorned prose, filled with candid observations, he composed what arguably stands as the best of all presidential memoirs. It focused first upon his participation in the Mexican War, then takes us through his Civil War battles and the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House. Grant regarded the war against Mexico as “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” In 1865, at Lee’s surrender, Grant avoids any expression of triumph, but rather is “sad and depressed” though acknowledging that the Southern cause was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought.” Nonetheless, Lee, he concedes, “fought so long and valiantly and had suffered so much.” There are countless other revealing observations in this most valuable work. The book proved an instant best seller, an enormous money maker, thanks to Mark Twain’s ingenious marketing scheme. (He employed Civil War veterans, in uniform, to peddle the memoir.) Grant died several days after completing the manuscript but would, as he had hoped, eventually leave a fortune to Julia, his wife.
Certainly, the honor for most prolific of presidential authors should go to the hyperactive, irrepressible Teddy Roosevelt (with upwards of 35 books to his credit and, by one estimate, 150,000 letters!). Indeed, Roosevelt relied upon income from his writing to help support his large family. His range of interest was vast: consider his books on history, biography, nature, hunting, travel adventure, the American West, the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American war, an autobiography, as well as Letters to His Children. Teddy was a fervent advocate of the “strenuous life,” of being a “doer,” engaged “in the arena.” “I have,” he said, “a perfect horror of words not backed up by deeds.” Roosevelt, in truth, produced plenty of both.
Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor as president, William Howard Taft, mostly lived in the shadows of the flamboyant Roosevelt. Nor did his literary output measure up to the publication record of his predecessor. Taft did, however, after leaving office, support himself by writing articles and delivering paid speeches, an avenue of opportunity future presidents would fully exploit. His collected lectures, particularly at Yale (Questions of Modern Government), and Columbia (Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers) were published. But lest we dismiss Taft as a colorless placeholder wedged or between two notable presidents (Roosevelt and Wilson), there is a published collection of letters to his wife (My Dearest Nellie), 2011, in which he is often gossipy and insightful, commenting upon the major issues of the day, the Washington scene, and the new social and political landscape of the Progressive Era. And let’s not forget he had yet one other major role to play – Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1921-1930).
Because Roosevelt wanted once more to be president, in 1912 he ran on the Progressive Party ticket, thereby helping to elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who is our next presidential author of note. No surprise here because Wilson was an academic (with a PhD in history and political science from Johns Hopkins University), and that’s what professors do – write. He authored what became the standard university text on late 19th Century American history, in addition to a biography of George Washington, and a five-volume historical survey of America. His book, The State, presented an unusually expansive view of government’s obligation to promote the general welfare, an activist position he later assumed upon becoming president. Still, his most celebrated work was Congressional Government (originally his doctoral dissertation, 1885). In it he expressed admiration for Great Britain’s Parliamentary system of party government and was highly critical of our system because it encouraged obstruction – via congressional committees, the checks and balances and separations of power, the courts, the special interests, etc. The book raised numerous provocative issues, many still debated, made especially relevant during periods of government dysfunction.
No volume of presidential wisdom emerged from the widely popular Warren Harding (that is, until scandalous stories surfaced), but his successor Calvin Coolidge did leave us with an autobiography. Like the man himself, reviewers noted it was remarkable for its brevity but short on revealing observation. Herbert Hoover, who followed, had much more to say. His least controversial words were to be found in his 1909 text, Principles of Mining (Hoover was an engineer). Later, in two of his books, The Challenge of Liberty and his Memoirs, he vigorously defended his actions as president during the onset of the Great Depression and deplored, what in his view, was the New Deal’s assault on liberty and its alleged flirtations with Fascism.
Our two greatest presidents before Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, left no books. Roosevelt, the third member of this illustrious trio, surpassed them, but regrettably produced no major work. (If only he’d not been pre-occupied with the Great Depression, The New Deal and the Second World War. His wife, Eleanor, almost as busy, nevertheless, wrote one book after another.) Publishers, however, capitalized on FDR’s many years in office and produced the usual assortment of books (collections of his speeches, letters,
quotations, public papers, along with his Fireside Chats, as well as his early plans for the New Deal – On our Way). Overall, Roosevelt would influence the public less with his writings and more through the spoken word, his radio broadcasts and speeches, providing a re-assuring voice during perilous times.
Harry Truman picked up the slack after FDR’s somewhat meager output. Truman was an avid student of the past, his “debt to history,” he declared, [being] “one which cannot be calculated.” He wrote two well-received books about those critical years after World War II with the Cold War already underway. While these volumes (Years of Decision and Years of Trial and Hope) offered much useful information, they were also a godsend for Truman. Having accumulated little personal wealth, the royalties from sales became his principle source of income. (A presidential pension did not exist. Not until 1958 did the government provide one via the Former Presidents Act.) We also have an autobiography, a memoir (Where the Buck Stops), as well as several compilations of letters, including Strictly Personal and Confidential: The Letters Harry Truman Never Mailed. He wrote frequently, lovingly, to his wife Bess (who, uncomfortable in the White House, returned often to their home in Missouri), plus a volume of letters to other relatives. That he was a family man no one could doubt.
With Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, there was much ground to cover and many stories to tell. given his lengthy military career, followed by two terms as president (let alone his lifelong passion for both bridge and golf). Starting with Truman, but more fully realized under Eisenhower, publishers saw the commercial possibilities of packaging in book form a Chief Executive’s own words, both before and after he occupied the White House. So, with Ike we are treated to his diaries (two separate volumes), letters, also Letters to Mamie (his wife), speeches, favorite stories (At Ease) and state papers, and of course his major work, Crusade in Europe. Here is Ike directing troops through American-led campaigns in North Africa, Italy, and the cross channel invasion of Europe, all the time trying to keep certain prima donna generals (Montgomery and Patton) in check. (For that book, he received a publishers advance of $635,000, which would have been heavily taxed had he not received a favorable decision from the Treasury Department, taxing it not as ordinary income but as capital gains.) The book became the basis for an Emmy-winning ABC-TV series (26 episodes), the first such documentary produced for television.
The hero of World War II won the White House in 1952 and again in 1956, all of which Eisenhower recorded in Mandate for Change 1953-1961 and The White House Years 1956-1961. Historians have, over time, become kinder to Eisenhower than many of his contemporaries, his effectiveness and relative ranking as Chief Executive steadily rising with the passage of time.
It is generally acknowledged that the two books written (to what extent is not clear) by John F. Kennedy (While England Slept and Profiles in Courage) were primarily “campaign” documents (encouraged by Joe Kennedy, father of the future president) to enhance his reputation and provide a measure of gravitas to the young, ambitious Senator from Massachusetts. It worked wondrously as Profiles in Courage became a best seller and won a Pulitzer Prize. Three years later Kennedy captured the presidency, possibly because Richard Nixon, his rival, had not yet written his book, Six Crises, his own exercise in self-promotion.
Lyndon Johnson was more a force of nature, given to persuasion and exerting political pressure than to literary composition, yet he pursued by now a well-worn path, resulting in a familiar spate of books. There was the usual collection of speeches, state papers, quotations, press conference compilations, in addition to an account of his years in office, The Vantage Point, plus reflections on developments both at home and abroad, The Choices We Face. Having left office under the cloud of Vietnam, the accounts of his years in office seemed not to have left a lasting impression.
Richard Nixon’s “delayed” answer to John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, his self-inflating Six Crises (1962), detailed formidable challenges he had already faced and successfully overcome. These self-described triumphs, however, apparently were not enough to bring victory in the 1962 California gubernatorial contest against Pat Brown. But Nixon was nothing if not persistent. Six years later he won the White House. Upon leaving office in disgrace (1974) he attempted, in the years that followed, to rehabilitate his image, projecting himself as a shrewd observer of international affairs (e.g., Real Peace, 1984; No More Vietnams, 1985; In the Arena, 1990). Many acknowledged his sophisticated understanding of the world scene, but he could not fully dispel the image of “Tricky Dick” long attached to him. Still and all, he was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, who explained that decision and other matters in his only book, A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald Ford. Ford’s brief stay in the White House, his modest demeanor and generally moderate views did not make for literary fireworks.
It helps that Jimmy Carter has lived a long life (A Full Life), but it’s also the case that he had a flare for writing (credit him as the first president to produce a work of fiction, The Hornet’s Nest (Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, a romance novelist, would be the second, were she to be elected), and much like Teddy Roosevelt, Carter drew upon a broad range of experiences and interests both before and after his term of office. We have his White House diaries and multiple memoirs, but he has also filled a shelf of books written on such diverse topics as women’s rights, aging, the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, outdoor life, his faith, spirituality, peace. Even at age 95, there could well be another volume forthcoming from this prolific author and tireless “do-gooder.”
One would not have expected Ronald Reagan to approach the literary productivity of Jimmy Carter. Reagan was, after all, more comfortable in front of a movie camera or at a lectern than at a writing desk. Nevertheless, he dutifully produced (or had ghostwritten) the by now standard output of published letters, favorite stories, timeless wisdom, speeches and autobiographies, and An American Life, relating to his years as president. A hundred years had passed since a president (Grant) had published a diary, which Reagan did in The Reagan Diaries, accounting for nearly every day spent as president. America appeared just as surprised by and enthusiastic about the book, as it was nearly a century earlier when Ulysses S. Grant had penned his engaging account of his life and battles. These Reagan diaries reveal someone not much different from his public persona – straight-forward, without much artifice or deep insight, convinced of America’s genius, the evils of Communism and the pitfalls of taxation and central authority. Also, that he very much loved his wife Nancy (Mommie) and could not bear the times spent away from her. For those unalterably critical of Reagan, his diaries could serve to soften their assessment by revealing an up-front affable guy who, while he sought public adulation, never seemed too full of himself or overly vindictive toward his critics.
The tributes directed toward George H. W. Bush at his death in 2018 offered praise for his being the last of the old school gentlemen, decent, kindly, with a keen sense of responsibility and devotion to duty and to public service. Little was mentioned regarding his literary output for, in truth, he followed by now the well-worn path of diaries (China Diary), collected speeches and letters and two autobiographies, one while Vice President, the other Looking Forward, far more inclusive. He teamed with Brent Scowcroft to write A World Transformed, an account of the dramatic conclusion of the Cold War (rekindled, unfortunately, in recent times).
Compared to several of his predecessors, Bill Clinton’s output was decidedly meager. But in two respects, he outdid them all. In his autobiography, My Life (2004), Clinton consumed nearly 1,000 pages to tell his story. (He was given to verbal excess as well.) The book sold in the millions, but given its length many wondered whether most readers got through it all. This may have been but a minor concern to Clinton since he received a $15-million advance from his publisher (Knopf). Clinton had declared, “The era of big government had ended.” Nevertheless the opportunities for big presidential book advances was just underway. (See Barack Obama.)
So, by this time, every president could expect to be put through his varied publishing paces (viz., quotations, public papers, uplifting speeches, recollections, favorite causes, etc.). Accordingly, George Bush came forth with his memoirs, two in fact: A Charge to Keep, 1999, and Decision Points, 2010. Of interest here, Bush first consulted with historians before undertaking the second book. He was encouraged to read U. S. Grant’s Memoirs, which he did and came away impressed. Then, similar to Grant, he set out “not to write an exhaustive account of my life as president” but rather focus upon select critical moments along the way. Bush also headed off in some unexpected directions. His was the first presidential book (A Portrait of My Father) about a father who also once occupied the White House. (Only John Quincy Adams had such an opportunity.) Bush’s Portraits of Courage featured original portraits, well-executed oil paintings, by the president himself, to accompany the text. Then there were several books exploring his penchant for “Bushisms” chronicling his occasional misuse and abuse of Standard English language and usage (e.g., “I think we agree the past is over,” or “Is our children learning?”). With Bush in retirement we likely will, in the future, be treated less to literary output than selected artwork.
It is fair to speculate whether either of the following two presidents would have won office had it not been for the books they wrote. Barak Obama published Dreams From My Father in 1995, a compelling coming-of-age memoir in which he shared with readers his effort to understand and come to terms with his biracial identity, having been born to a black father (from Kenya) and a white woman from Kansas, America’s heartland. Reviewers considered it as an honest, mature, revealing, compelling personal quest by Obama to locate himself within American society. A year after its publication he was elected to the Illinois State Senate. Then in 2006 he published The Audacity of Hope, elaborating upon many of the positions and policies he’d staked out in his electrifying speech two years earlier at the Democratic National convention. Best sellers, both these books helped introduce Obama to a wider American public and helped propel this first-term Illinois Senator to the Democratic Party nominee for president in 2008. Now the public awaits the publication of his memoir recounting his two terms in office. Expectations are high, especially in view of the extraordinary world-wide reception given to his wife Michelle’s autobiography, Becoming, and the fact that Obama received an eye-opening multi-million dollar advance to write the book. Will it outsell Michelle Obama’s memoir? Time will tell.
Just how much he contributed to The Art of the Deal, 1987, is not clear but Donald Trump nevertheless claims authorship, regards it as his second favorite book (next to the Bible). And well he should because it remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for nearly a year and contributed mightily to his image as an unrivaled winner, one Trump carefully cultivated over the years. The book guides us through his blockbuster real estate deals and boasts of the riches accumulated along the way. Included is his blueprint for outsized success (“Think big.” “Fight back.” “Deliver the goods.” “Use leverage.” …. while also advising that “a little hyperbole never hurts,” and to be sure to “play to peoples’ fantasies”). The book served both to establish and reinforce Trump’s reputation as a savvy, aggressive swashbuckling businessman who knows how to get things done and vanquish the competition. When in 2016 he ran for president millions believed him when he proclaimed, “We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal.” And on November 8th he was “dealt” what many characterized as a rare “inside straight,” winning key electorates and landing in the White House. We shouldn’t be all that surprised. “I just keep pushing and pushing,” he confessed in his book, “to get what I’m after.”
With the 2020 election season underway, books by presidential hopefuls have become part of the conversation. Many of the Democratic primary candidates have already written “their books,” including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg. “Campaign Publications” have now become a standard feature of election strategy, with candidates eager to tell their stories to the public while personally pocketing substantial advance royalties. Such payments, however, can spark controversy.
Can writing a well-received book undermine a potential presidential bid? Can a self-proclaimed Socialist maintain credibility, if it turns out he’s a millionaire, especially one who has consistently raged against rising income inequality in the U.S.? Bernie Sanders has revealed that he earned over a million dollars in two consecutive years. The source of his new-found riches – advances and royalties from two books he wrote – Our Revolution, A Future to Believe In and Where We Go From Here. Will robust book sales prove to be a potential liability? Can Bernie remain a tribune of the common man when he earns a seven-figure income?
Early speculation had it that a collection of Trump’s unending stream of tweets would provide the necessary ingredients (not unlike the diaries of many of his predecessors) for a presidential memoir. Fully annotated, we’d have a daily barometer of the moods and meanderings of this most mercurial Chief Executive. But then, as we’ve noted, Trump recently remarked that he intends to write a book (this time without the assistance of Tony Schwartz, ghost writer for The Art of the Deal, who had long since broken with Trump). In Trump’s world, critics, opponents, enemies abound and must be confronted. Few doubt that on most pages he will take aim and fire at an almost endless series of targets. Some commentators immediately responded to the possibility of a Trump memoir by accusing him of using his office to enrich himself, forgetting that all modern presidents, had, with their publications, done likewise. One observer, untroubled by the prospect of another book by Trump predicted it would once again top the best seller lists – suggesting, however that this time it be properly listed – under Fiction.
Once, having announced my intention, I received plenty of encouragement from people telling me how they had often thought of doing it themselves – just hadn’t gotten around to it. “It’s so wonderful you’re willing to take on this responsibility; accept such a commitment.”
There had been signs all along urging me to do it. Then came the decision to act, to make a difference. I was going to adopt.
I could even choose. But I knew in advance what I wanted. It would be between three and four miles long, in a semi-rural low-density area. With the paperwork completed, it became official. I had qualified to Adopt-a- Highway,
A visit came soon afterward. To take stock, get oriented, I needed to familiarize myself with what I would now care for. An Exxon Mobil Station, I’d been informed, marked the southern boundary of my route: that’s where I headed first. There would be no formal reception. I could survey the scene without being recognized. Still, I hoped to meet up with some of the locals.
I located and entered the service station, extended my hand to the fellow behind the counter, then mentioned my recent adoption. Puzzled, he nevertheless managed a smile, then offered me a cup of fresh brewed coffee – on the house (though afterwards I thought it best that in the future, given my position, I not accept any gifts). Still, I was off to a good start,
Back on the road, I’m navigating around a succession of nasty potholes. It had been a severe winter. I’d best notify the Highway Department. Further along there appeared an abandoned barn, near collapse (unsightly, I’ll see that it is levelled). Meanwhile, the toll of dead, crushed and decaying animal carcasses – squirrels, skunks, raccoons, and a bird or two – seemed unusually high. What was at fault here? Could the Deer Crossing sign I spotted be modified, apply as well, to these other creatures?
A police patrol car passed by. I waved, then realized he’d have no idea at this point, who I was. Made a mental note to drop into the local police station, introduce myself, let them know I was now part of the team.
Soon afterward, on the right, a roadside rest stop came in sight with a lone picnic table and a car parked alongside. At first I saw no one so I pulled in to check things out, just as the driver emerged from the bushes, zipping up his pants. I will recommend a bathroom there.
A mile or so beyond the rest stop a food truck is parked along the side of the road. I imagined he relied on regular customers. I ordered a hot dog and a soda, after which he asked where I was heading. “I recently adopted this road,” I replied, quickly realizing however he’d have no idea what that meant. He appeared not to welcome the news. “I’ve been working this spot,” he said, “for nearly two years now.” It then hit me that he probably had no “right” to be there. And that I might be in a position to make trouble for him.
Actually, I had no idea what I could or would do. What, after all, was the extent of my authority along this road? The adoption had been legal, but I would also need to adapt and ease my way into the relationship.
Of course it is too early. We have more pressing matters at the moment besides fixating on the 2020 presidential election. But we can’t help ourselves. We’re hooked already. There are endless polls to weigh, fund-raising totals to measure, issues to debate and primaries to handicap. And looming over all of this is the demonic presence of Donald Trump, insatiably grabbing for the daily headlines. So, to feed this ongoing frenzy let us offer up two certainties: 1. Donald Trump will surely be re-elected; 2. Almost any Democrat will capture the White House next year.
Trump Will Triumph
• The general consensus is that the economy is doing pretty well (jobs, stock market, low inflation, consumer confidence, etc.). Trump will surely claim credit for this.
• Presidential incumbents have a decided advantage. Most chief executives get a second term.
• Money is pouring into Trump’s coffers. He ran on a shoestring in 2016. This time his financial resources will be impressive. Money helps greatly in messaging and in getting out the vote.
• Trump’s base has been unshakedly loyal and highly motivated. He begins with a solid core of support. Republicans back him to the hilt. Evangelicals, a solid electoral block, remain fully supportive.
• Trump reigns as master of the media. Beyond the torrent of tweets he is a daily presence in the newspapers, on TV, social media, etc. His “brand” is instantly recognizable.
• Russia will likely do its part (in an even more sophisticated way) to boost Trump vote totals.
• Fear, anxiety and anger remain highly effective motivators and Trump will continue to stoke the flames of resentment and vilify the many “enemies” of America.
• Abortion, immigration, guns remain hot button issues that will get out the Trump voters. Add to this, the ceaseless stockpiling of Conservative judges.
• He will continue to signal that he is the champion of “white” Americans.
• A “win” related to China, Russia, North Korea or Iran will surely boost Trump’s standing. Starting a war would also likely help his cause.
• Divisions among the Democrats will dampen motivation and reduce turnout (also likely to shrink owing to various strategies of voter suppression by Republicans).
• Trump cannot afford to lose the presidency. Not only will his immense ego be crushed, but he would face prosecution on many fronts, with convictions not unlikely. Accordingly, out of desperation, he’s likely to resort to any tactic to avoid defeat.
A Democrat Enters the White House
• Hilary Clinton ran what is widely conceded to be a highly flawed campaign in 2016. Democrats will learn from these missteps and improve their election operations.
• The 2018 elections demonstrated that the tide is turning to the Democrats
• Women, African Americans, Latinos, gun opponents, environmentalists, climate change campaigners, etc., have all mobilized and will be out in force in 2020. Republican attacks on health care insurance will galvanize legions of voters.
• Trump’s extremely narrow triumph in 2016 resulted from a once-in-a-lifetime, highly unusual, set of circumstances, unlikely to happen again.
• Even with a “good” economy Trump has never been able to rise above a 50% approval level. He has, since 2016, not gained supporters, whereas registered Republican totals have shrunk.
• Chances are the economy will falter and certainly slow down further in 2020. The stock market has, in all likelihood, peaked, plus the strong economy has not benefitted millions of Americans. If you’re boasting about a robust economy but individuals are not experiencing it – look out.
• Multiple ongoing investigations of Trump’s activities may produce damaging revelations.
• With no one able to curb the president’s erratic impulses, there’s no predicting how far off the grid Trump could go.
• Trump fatigue will set in, triggering a widespread desire to return to “normal.”
That’s where matters stand as of now. The edge goes to the Democrats. But they also enjoyed the advantage in 2016. And you know what happened.