Historical perspective

Tidbits I learned from reading Patricia O’Toole’s new biography of Woodrow Wilson

1. First impression was that he reminded me of Barack Obama. Wilson thought oratory was a leader’s greatest gift. He thought he could talk others into following him. O’Toole describes his first inaugural speech as “half civics lesson, half sermon.” The title of this biography, by the way, is “The Moralist.”
2. Wilson, facing off against the industrialists, wanted to serve the “public good.”
3. Just before WWI, the U.S. army comprised 108,000 men. More than that were eventually killed. My father’s mother’s brother was one of them. My mother’s father, an Italian immigrant, also served—and survived. U.S. forces grew to nearly 5 million. Quite a mobilization. Unlike W, Wilson proposed to pay for the war with new taxes.
4. Wilson demonized German-Americans, which included my ancestors. He passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which basically curtailed free speech in the U.S. Oppose the war, and civil servants could be fired and imprisoned. Some Democrat, that Wilson. Eugene Debs, the socialist, got 10 years for criticizing the Act. Still, while imprisoned he got nearly a million votes for president in 1920.
5. Some of the stiffest opposition to the war came from Southerners. They weren’t pacifists, but they didn’t like the idea of maybe having to fight alongside blacks. More important, according to the army’s chief of staff, “they do not like the idea of looking forward five or six years by which time their entire male Negro population will have been trained to arms.” Oh yeah, and Wilson re-instituted segregation in the civil service and refused to back Afro-Americans’ fight for civil rights. Some Democrat, for sure.
6. Finally, H.L. Mencken, writing about the 1920 election, lamented the quality of candidates, in this case Warren G. Harding, whose inspired vision was “normalcy,” and James Cox, founder of today’s Cox Enterprises, who H.L. saw as willing to please any audience with anything they wanted at that particular time. Mencken was so pessimistic of the future leadership of this country that “[o]n some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” H.L. is snickering somewhere.

A Team of Rivals?

Wasn’t it about a year ago we heard of the daring moves by President Obama to gather around him in the Cabinet Room a “team of rivals,” a la Abe Lincoln.  LaHood, Clinton, Gates.  Do you see much impact from these unprecedented moves?

Is it just another example of a story line that adds drama but little else of substance?

Politics the Way It Used to Be

Given what many think is a poisonous political climate, I harken back to an earlier time. 

Shortly after the House of Representatives gave John Quincy Adams the presidency, his rivals, especially his former ally Andrew Jackson, were incensed.  (Jackson had won the plurality of electoral college votes but lost the vote in the House due to Speaker Henry Clay’s influence.)  In the early days of the junior Adams’ administration, Latin American countries, many of which recently won their freedom from Spain, proposed a Panama Conference to discuss common objectives and pursue alliances.  Adams’ opponents didn’t like the idea, especially Virginia senator John Randolph.  An accomplished orator, despite an unusually high-pitched voice that was a result of illness, Randolph went after Clay who was advocating the United States’ participation in the conference..  Randolph, who once said, “I am an aristocrat.  I love liberty, I hate equality,” called the conference “a Kentucky cuckoo’s egg, laid in a Spanish-American nest.”  Clay, of course, was from Kentucky.  Randolph said the conference was the result of “the coalition of Blifil and Black George,” a reference to disreputable characters in the novel Tom Jones. 

Clay was incensed and challenged Randolph to a duel, “which ended with the Kentuckian firing a bullet into the Virginian’s coat and the irrepressible Virginian firing into the air.  Then they shook hands. According to Senator [Thomas Hart] Benton, who was hiding in the bushes at the time, it was one of the last high-toned duels in Washington.” (from The Birth of Modern Politics, by Lynn Hudson Parsons, pg.119)

Forget the “high-toned duel,” I’d be happy if Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell would just shake hands.