Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Book Review: Henry Clay - America's Greatest Statesman By Harlow Giles Unger




Henry Clay is one of the great statesmen in American history.  It is not too broad a paint stroke to say that - without Clay - the Civil War would have been fought long before 1861 and well before the North would have had the strength to win it and preserve the Union. While Clay attempted to become President many different times, without success, he had more influence - save Lincoln - than any 19th century American president. Indeed, I've often felt that - had Clay won any of his attempts at the presidency - the Civil War would have started years before it did because Clay would not have been in Congress to keep the forces for disunion apart.

For me, the seminal text in Henry Clay historiography remains Robert Remini's 1992 biography, Henry Clay.  The irony there is that Remini was a biographer of Clay's arch-nemesis, Andrew Jackson. After years of researching Jackson, however, Remini was enchanted by Clay and the result is a wonderful biography.

Harlow Giles Unger's Henry Clay: America's Greatest Statesman falls considerably short of Remini, but perhaps that is not fair - Remini set a pretty high bar. For those unfamiliar with Clay's story - and his story is the story of the first fifty-plus years of American post-Constitutional history - Unger's short biography does the job.

Before delving into the political, one of the lesser known aspects of Clay's life among the general public is the large number of great personal tragedies Clay suffered in his life. Six of his children died during his lifetime [Henrietta (1800-1801); Susan Hart (1805-1825); Anne Brown (1807-1835); Lucretia Hart (1809-1823); Henry Jr (1811-1847); and Eliza (1813-1825)]. In addition, in a two-week period in 1829, his mother, stepfather and brother all died. Because of the death of his children and many of their spouses, in the 1830s his wife, Lucretia, was often taking care of up to seven orphaned grandchildren at a time.  For this reason, she never returned to Washington after the mid-1830s. 

In terms of politics, Unger gets the thesis right when he notes, "Clay held the states together long enough for a new generation of Americans to emerge who embraced nationhood - and were willing to fight and die to preserve it."

Clay's major tool to keep the Union together was what came to be called the American System: a nation-spanning network of roads, bridges, and canals to link every state and territory with each other. The point of Clay's "American System" was to bind the United States politically, commercially and socially through a series of internal improvements [roadways, canals, etc.], the creation of universities, a tariff wall to protect American products, and using money from the sale of western lands to pay for those internal improvements.

After serving in the Kentucky legislature, Clay was elected to the U.S. House in 1811. Unger does an excellent job of capturing what the House looked like upon Clay's arrival: "Members walked in, out, and about at will, shouting to [or at] each other, shoving each other, oblivious to cries for order from the Speaker and appeals from colleagues to support legislative proposals. Unlike the dignified elite portrayed in history tomes and stately oil paintings, frontiersmen in buckskins chewed tobacco and shot spittle toward brass spittoons - sometimes hitting their mark."

Unger also accurately captures what Americans meant when they spoke of their "country" - they meant their state, not the U.S. As Unger notes, "Far from a single nation, the 'United' States were a loose association of semi-independent nations with few ties to hold them together..." Geography was also major impediment to fostering a sense of being one nation. As Unger notes, "In the best of weather Washington lay more than five days' travel from New York, ten days from Boston, and all but inaccessible from far-off Charleston, South Carolina."

Amazingly, Clay was immediately elected Speaker of the House upon his arrival on November 4, 1811 - the youngest man to ever hold that office and the only freshman congressman to ever do so.

Clay, John Calhoun and other young congressmen were largely responsible for providing the support - and, indeed, even the impetus - for U.S. entry into the War of 1812.  Unger does a fine job of bringing to the fore one of the little known facts about that war: it needn't have happened. On June 23, 1812, the British Parliament voted to restore good relations with the U.S. by ending impressment of American sailors and other violations of international law about which America had long complained. But by then, the U.S. had already declared war. Unger explains that, once it became known in the U.S. that Parliament had yielded,  "America's maritime and commercial states - Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Delaware - demanded that the federal government rescind its declaration of war and resume negotiations with the British..." But by that point the U.S. had suffered defeats on the battlefield that made it impractical to do so.

Clay resigned from Congress in 1814 to serve on the peace committee sent to Europe to negotiate an end to the war.  The result of the war was status quo antebellum. It was a useless war, but as Unger notes, "...Americans - almost unanimously - deluded themselves into calling it a great victory."

One of the major problems with Unger's work is his treatment of slavery and African Americans.  He often writes as if he is living in the 1950s. Throughout the book, he is an apologist for Clay's own slaveholding and for slavery in general - a truly incredible offering from an author in 2015.  In discussing Clay's hypocrisy  [a slaveholder who 'opposed' slavery], Unger actually writes: "Publicly [Clay] called slavery 'a deep stain upon the character of our country,' but privately he insisted that slaves were better off under his care than anywhere else - as indeed, they probably were [my italics]." That's right: Unger says the slaves were probably better off under Clay's ownership than anywhere else.  He wrote that in 2015.   Not 1815.

Another example of Unger's 19th century view of African Americans: "Unlike the North, the South had no towns or cities to absorb slaves in industries and apprenticeship programs. The South was agricultural. The road out of one plantation led only to the road into the next; unskilled slaves had no recourse but to work the land. Emancipation would leave untold thousands of  unskilled men, women, and children without work, without homes, with no place to go or means of survival." Unger then has the audacity to call Clay's slaves "all deeply loyal" - as if they had a choice! Writing about Clay's work on his plantation after "retiring" from Congress in 1821, Unger says, "...Clay set slaves to work. A carpenter and painter restored the house and outbuildings while others worked on lawns and gardens - mowing, weeding, planting or transplanting dogwoods, hollies, and a small forest of flowering trees and ornamental shrubs....As [Clay] increased his crops, he doubled the number of slaves to about two dozen, buying some, selling others, leasing a few and trading less capable slaves for stronger or smarter ones." Again, Unger is writing for a 1950s audience. Indeed, many times in the book, rather than calling them "slaves" he calls them "workers" as in "...[Clay] threw himself into farm work, helping workers repair, renovate, and improve..."

Clay's retirement in 1821 - like most of them - was short-lived. His constituents returned him to the House in an election in August 1822 - where the House elected him Speaker again. Clay had tremendous success during this run. He was able to get President James Monroe to sign a major internal improvements bill and a high tariff. With that success, the Kentucky legislature nominated Clay for President in 1824.  With no political parties at the time, six states chose nominees by legislature.  In other states, voters chose electors committed to a particular candidate.

The outcomes and subsequent dealings in the campaign of 1824 would prove to be the end to any hope Clay had of ever becoming president, although he could not know it at the time.  Rather than campaign, Clay spent most of the time at home in Kentucky. He believed that none of the candidates - himself, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson - would get a majority of electoral votes and that the tally would go before the House to decide.  Based on his support in the House, he figured, he could secure the Presidency there.

Clay made a mistake. Not about the race going into the House, it did - with no one getting a majority of electoral votes.  But the Constitution says that only the top three electoral vote-getters are to be considered and Clay finished fourth with only 37 electoral votes [compared to Jackson's 99, 84 for Adams and 41 for Crawford]. In the popular vote, there was no doubt: Jackson won 153,000 popular votes compared to 114,000 for Adams, and 47,000 each for Clay and Crawford.  

In the House, each state would get one vote. Although out of the running, Clay was going to make a president based on his power in the House. Clay told his friend, Virginia Judge Francis T. Brooke, that Crawford's health [he'd had a paralyzing stroke] made him ineligible and as for Jackson, "I cannot consent to the election of a military chieftain." Clay told Francis Preston Blair, "I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans [in 1815] qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy."

It would be Adams, then. In reality, there was never any other possible choice for Clay. There was no way that Clay was going to support Jackson - whom he loathed. Clay asked for a meeting with Adams on January 9, 1825. Clay told Adams that he would support him.

On January 24, 1825, Clay got the Kentucky House delegation to announce it would cast its vote for Adams even though Kentucky's legislature had given them express instructions to vote for Jackson [not to mention the fact that Adams had not won a single Kentucky electoral vote]. On February 9th Adams won in the House on the first ballot. Then, on February 14th, Adams named Clay Secretary of State, launching a firestorm that would follow Clay for the rest of his life.  Years later, Clay admitted, "It would have been wiser and more politic to have declined the office of Secretary of State. Not that my motives were not as pure and as patriotic as ever carried any man into public office."

Here, Unger presents an interesting argument: despite common belief that Clay asked for the State Department in return for his support of Adams, Unger believes it was Adams who offered it and - most importantly - that Clay did not jump at the offer right away.  Unger says that Clay knew that accepting the position could be political suicide, "but [Clay] believed that the only hope for establishing the American System and cementing the Union was as Secretary of State. Then the most powerful post after the presidency, the Secretary of State in the 1820s wielded powers variously held in the twenty-first century by the secretaries of. Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Transportation, and Energy..." It was for the American System, Unger argues - as well as the fact that the State Department had launched the last three presidencies [James Madison, Monroe and Adams] - that Clay accepted Adams' offer.

Unger accurately points out, however, that, "Adams and Clay did not seem to understand that objections to the American System lay not in the proposal itself but in the cession of state powers to the federal government it required." Plus, "Federal highways and waterways, [opponents] feared, would open routes both for federal troops to march in and for slaves and poor whites to march out....The American System threatened the future of slavery and the wealth of the southern oligarchy by opening the South to transportation, commerce, education, ideas, competition, and emancipation."

The result was four miserable years for both Adams and Clay followed by a landslide victory for Jackson in 1828.

Kentucky sent Clay back to Washington in 1832, this time in the Senate, where he became Majority Leader.  This after he was again nominated for President by the Republicans [soon to be the Whigs]. The corrupt bargain and Jackson's popularity gave the latter another landslide, winning 210 electoral votes to Clay's 49.

Despite another presidential loss, Clay once again stepped forward to prevent what could have been the start of the Civil War. South Carolina had threatened secession after 'nullifying' a tariff bill. To diffuse the crisis, Clay worked with John Calhoun to get a compromise. Clay proposed gradual changes in rates. The Clay-Calhoun plan would reduce tariffs on a handful of imports deemed essential to the southern economy but gradually reduce all other tariffs over a decade, until 1842, when they would drop to 20% They'd be high enough to offer some protection while keeping prices reasonable. As Unger notes, "The compromise offered a little to everyone without giving everything to anyone." On March 1, 1833, Clay's Compromise Tariff passed. In return, South Carolina repealed its ordinance of nullification.

Meanwhile, Jackson's ridiculous, childish and dangerous 'killing' of the Bank of the United States [BUS] created a national financial collapse. It provided Clay, Calhoun and Daniel Webster with the momentum to create the Whig Party in opposition.  Clay brought into the Whig party a coalition: remnants of the Anti-Masons, Democrats opposed to Jackson's bank policy, northern and southern industrialists [who favored tariff protection] supporters of state sovereignty and Republicans who had supported Adams' and Clay's American System.

As the 1840 election neared, Clay - who had done more than anyone to preserve the Union - found that that willingness to compromise would cost him the nomination. As Unger notes, "New York State's Whig leaders [discounted Clay]....by citing political compromises as having turned [Clay] into a political liability as a presidential candidate. Although they agreed he had saved the Union, the benefits of every compromise have political costs, and voters often tend to remember the costs more than the benefits. Few Americans treasured Union as much as he." Indeed, Unger maintains that, "Neither southern slaveholders nor northern abolitionists, therefore, saw preservation of the Union as a reason to modify their political positions: indeed, many saw considerable advantages to North-South separation."

Indeed it is clear that Clay was one of the few leaders at the time who wanted reconciliation. In fact, Unger argues that some wanted dissolution of the Union, seeing it as the only peaceful resolution possible - the only way to avoid civil war. In writing about political leaders of the time, Unger notes,  "Far from seeking national reconciliation and unity, [Thurlow] Weed, [William] Seward and [John] Tyler saw disunion and separation of North and South as a peaceful solution to the national conflict over slavery and state sovereignty. All three considered Clay a political liability, given his efforts to reconcile the two regions." They were not the only ones. Pennsylvania's Thaddeus Stevens was equally determined to block Clay's nomination. "With most Americans blaming [President] Van Buren for the economic collapse [of 1837], the Whigs believed victory a certainty, and the Stevens-Weed bloc wanted a man in the White House whom they could control - they knew no one could 'control' Clay but Clay." Thus William Henry Harrison was their choice, and he took the nomination from Clay, winning the White House over Van Buren in November 1840. 

Harrison's death only a month into office left Tyler as President. He refused to bend to Whig leaders, who drummed him out of the party. Again, Clay would run for President.  In February 1842, he resigned from the Senate to begin his presidential campaign. Clay went on a cross-country tour to promote the American System and his candidacy.  Unger argues that part of the campaign was designed to, "expose emancipation as far more complex than" most imagined.  Well received,  Unger argues that nonetheless, "Clay evidently misinterpreted the good will of his audiences, however." While they respected and admired him, and while they enjoyed the pageantry of his visit, it didn't mean they were going to vote for him.

And, indeed, more didn't than did. The turnout for the 1844 election was an incredible 79% of eligible voters.  James K. Polk won 1,339,494 popular votes and 170 electoral votes [15 states]; Clay won 1,300,004 popular votes, and 105 electoral votes [11 states]; while James Birney's single-issue [abolition] Liberty Party won 62,054 and - according to Unger - cost Clay the election. Unger argues convincingly that Birney's votes were, "almost entirely ultra-abolitionist - who cost Clay victories in New York and Pennsylvania, key states that would have earned [Clay] the presidency."

Polk's presidency saw the Mexican-American War and a strong expansion of American territory.  Indeed, had he not committed himself to a single-term when first elected, it is most likely that Polk would have easily been reelected in 1848.  Amazingly, even after all of the defeats, Clay remained the favored [and assumed] nominee for the Whigs in 1848. Even though by now Clay had finally accurately sensed the mood of the country and it's aversion to reconciliation, he couldn't help himself. At this point, it was not personal ambition so much as a belief that he and he alone could save the Union and he could only do so from the White House. 

And yet...the Whigs would not allow it.  As Unger writes of the Whigs, "Although Henry Clay had been able to unite them against Jackson, Van Buren, and Tyler, he had never been able to unite enough of them for Henry Clay." At the convention, Whigs again turned to a military hero - this time Zachary Taylor. Despite pleas from supporters, Clay refused to run as an independent. Taylor went on to win the presidency.

The Kentucky legislature again returned Clay to the Senate in 1849. It would be there - in 1850 - that Clay would present his final compromise, this time on the issue of California and the expansion of slavery.  Clay presented his compromise in five resolution on January 29, 1850: 1) California would enter the Union as a free state; 2) Utah and New Mexico would enter as territories [not states]; settlers there would eventually determine whether slavery was to be permitted; 3) Abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia; 4) Tightening of the Fugitive Slave Act; 5) Texas to abandon claims to territory in New Mexico in exchange for $10 million.  Although supported by many, President Taylor was inclined to veto the bill if it reached him.  He never got the chance. He died on July 9, 1850, after a short - and some still say 'mysterious' - illness. With Taylor dead, it fell to new President Millard Fillmore, who eagerly signed the bill that became known as the Compromise of 1850. With it, Unger writes, "Clay - and the nation - believed he had fulfilled his dreams of saving the Union without civil war."

Henry Clay died on June 29, 1852, "believing he had saved the Union," as Unger notes. Of course, we know that it simply delayed by eleven years what had long been inevitable. Yet that delay was crucial to the eventual Union victory.  Such an event was possible in 1865.  It would not have been possible in 1821, 1833, 1844, or 1850. The time that Henry Clay "bought" was crucial.  Although his version of the Union differed considerably from ours - specifically in regard to African Americans - we nonetheless owe Clay a great debt of gratitude. He once said, "I would rather be right than be President." 

That was, perhaps, his greatest compromise.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Sitting with Weird


Weird and me, just looking out the window on a foggy morning back in The Homeland.


It's been four weeks [tomorrow] since I nearly left the building permanently, and I have to admit that I'm still sitting here with 'Weird'.  I'm noticing things more - little things that I took for granted, even things that are a pain in the ass.  I have to say, though, I kind of hope this Weird character sticks around a while longer, albeit accompanied by a less-startling, jolting personality. Because it is often with a jolt that I'll do something and Weird says, "Jeez - we wouldn't have been able to do that today if......" Still, it is nice to make a conscious effort to appreciate little things like the faces of your wife and children; the pine smell from your Mother-in-law's Christmas tree as you sit and drink coffee looking out the window on a foggy morning in the land of your ancestors two days before Christmas; the pizza from the rest stop that you've been visiting for the nearly 5 years since you left. Something nice about it indeed.

This time The Wife did The Drive back to our homeland. With my recent track record for losing consciousness, it was thought by all concerned that it might be best not to test The Wife's CPR skills in a moving car cruising at 75 on a four/sometimes-six-lane highway. The last time The Wife drove was after my cancer surgery three years ago. Weird was with me that time, too. But a lot more quiet. Sure, there were moments of "what if" then, but I think I'd been so prepped by my doctors that - as painful and long as the recovery would be - there was an insanely high survival rate. Because of that, I don't think Weird was as strong or vocal during the Christmas visit after my surgery.

Indeed, what I remember most about that visit was being embarrassed over the 25 pounds I'd gained [thus becoming the first person in recorded human history to gain weight from cancer]. No, I don't remember Weird being this vocal back then. This time, I've "only" gained about 15-20 pounds but there's a beard and a gaggle of [at-least-it's-real] hair rather than the normally conservative, coifed look I donned for 20+ years when I had to give a damn about the length of my hair. Sure, I'm still kind of self-conscious of my appearance this time, too, but Weird's presence has taken my mind off that.

With The Wife driving, I got the passenger-side view of the trip here, so I thought a lot. I thought of the 36,600 miles I traveled from March-August 2011 on this road to-and-from my home to my new job. I thought, "Little did I know that I'd get cancer, fired, and seizured all within five years".  Yes, it's been a helluva five years. Also on the view on the ride to the Homeland this time I recognized some of the landmarks, particularly the closer we got to home. And I kept thinking, "I would have never seen that again if things had gone down differently." Now, it's hard to explain to someone how you can possibly get nostalgic seeing a road sign - but the road sign I was appreciating in this case was one I'd driven past for years, and years, and years on my daily commute many years before. It is a redundant sign announcing "Low Bridge". It hangs on a....low bridge.  Why a sign is needed at all is beside the point - the point is that I almost never saw it again.

So. this morning as I gaze outside of the window in my Mother-in-law's sun room, where twice a year I spend mornings with a cup of coffee and my iPad, this year I'm joined by Weird. I'll suddenly look up and see the trees [in a fog this morning] in the back and remember how during the summer I enjoyed watching the birds in the feeders. Far fewer of them this time of year, of course, but a few of the little guys [completely confused by this warm weather] were out there looking back at me this morning. I don't think you can hug a bird without actually killing it, but if you could, I'd have gone out and hugged each and every one. "I almost never saw you again, Birdy!" I'm sure Bird would have thought something like, "That's nice - but you're crushing my lungs you fat, bearded, hippy-haired bastard!"

Yes, I hope Weird and I hang out together a while longer or more. As I say, I could do without the jarring emotions Weird brings sometimes, but appreciating a quiet morning looking at my Mother-in-law's Christmas tree, drinking a cup of coffee and marveling at the fact that I'm alive and able to do these things is a pretty cool kind of weird.

Merry Christmas

Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Review: Franklin D. Roosevelt - Road to the New Deal, 1882-1939 by Roger Daniels



My son saw another FDR book under my arm the other day and asked, "How many books on Franklin Roosevelt have you read?!?" The answer, incidentally, is dozens. I think the point of the question was: "What else could you possibly learn about Roosevelt that you don't already know?" Ah, now that's a question asked only by those who haven't yet read dozens of books on FDR. I could read nothing but FDR books for the rest of my life and still not get 100% of the essence of the man. His presidency of twelve years so impacted his own and our own centuries that I think we can now safely say that historians will never run out of topics to explore about the man.

Roger Daniels makes his latest foray into the Franklin Roosevelt historiography, with the first of his planned two-part biography of FDR: Franklin D. Roosevelt - Road to the New Deal, 1882-1939. The 386-page first-volume concentrates primarily on domestic policy and takes us to the beginning of 1939.  Daniels states that his goal once volume two is published, "is to make it clear how Franklin Roosevelt managed to achieve liberal results in peace and war in a nation whose people were far from liberal and with a Congress that was increasingly conservative." Daniels' work is a political biography, largely leaving FDR's personal life out of the story. 

From the start, let me commend Daniels on his unique [I've never seen it] usage of inserting into the text the year of birth and year of death for every character introduced to the story. This is particularly helpful, I think, to those not yet well-read in the FDR-era, to give a sense of whether an individual mentioned lived beyond FDR [1945]; whether they didn't survive to see the success of the New Deal; etc. It is also worth noting the large number of characters who lived on into the 1970s, 80s and even a few into the 1990s.

Daniels shares what all FDR-philes know: "Despite a professional life spent reading, writing, and, above all, thinking about Franklin Roosevelt, I have not the slightest notion of what his inner essence was like. None of the attempts to describe that essence, including those of his wife, inspires confidence." Daniels relies strongly on FDR's speeches to get at what he believes really mattered to Roosevelt.

After a preliminary look at Roosevelt's life prior to his 1910 election to the New York General Assembly, Daniels posits that his service in Albany - despite being brief [two full years] - had two significant effects on his future as a politician: first, it brought FDR and Louis McHenry Howe together.  Howe would go on to become the single greatest force in Roosevelt's political career, until his death in 1936.  Secondly, FDR's brief legislative career gave him some basic lessons in practical politics.  As Daniels notes, "He learned, some critics would say too well, that while it was good to fight for principles, it was necessary to know when to compromise. He soon came to understand that he needed to embrace urban issues as well as those that chiefly concerned his largely rural constituency."

After his service in the Wilson Administration as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR became a national political figure with a May 1919 speech at a national Democratic Party dinner in Chicago. This led to talk about FDR as a possibility for the vice presidential spot on the 1920 Democratic ticket.  Daniels argues that FDR wanted the position because he knew the ticket would lose - that is, he never had any intention of actually becoming vice president. But the campaign itself would provide him with wonderful opportunities to network nationwide for 1924.  Indeed, when he was nominated for vice president, Daniels notes of FDR, "Unlike every other major party vice president nominee since Theodore Roosevelt in 1900, Franklin was regarded as a nominee with the future rather than a past."

Although the James Cox-FDR ticket was soundly defeated in 1920, Daniels postulates that, "had someone else been chosen as the vice presidential nominee in 1920, or had Franklin, once chosen, not campaigned seriously, it is highly unlikely, given the disabling polio attack that struck less than a year after the campaign, that he would ever have become governor of New York, much less President. His campaign swings left an image of a vigorous and buoyant extrovert in the minds of many thousands of political activists from Maine to California. And it also provided the names and addresses of persons he met that were entered on file cards and formed the basis of the extensive political correspondence that Roosevelt and his staff conducted throughout the years in which he held no public office."

Daniels recounts FDR's contracting polio and the effects on his political career.  Daniels differs from many authors, however, in that he is not convinced that FDR contracted polio at a Boy Scout camp he visited prior to his affliction. That has become the conventional wisdom among historians as to the origins of FDR's disease. Daniels notes that, while the Boy Scout camp is certainly a possibility, "it is impossible to know exactly where or when [FDR's exposure to the virus] occurred". Daniels also says that FDR himself never made a connection between that trip and his subsequent polio.

While there was an absolutely calculated campaign of misinformation to hide the seriousness of Roosevelt's disability from the very beginning, Daniels agrees with medical historian Naomi Rogers that Roosevelt transformed polio from a disease associated with immigrants and urban slums, "to one associated with cleanliness and occurring largely among those children - and occasionally adults - who had been protected from contact with the virus in early infancy [only to be exposed to it later]." Daniels also praises FDR for his fundraising efforts that eventually became the March of Dimes.  Daniels writes, "Almost certainly, without the associated glamor of Roosevelt's presidency that helped raise the funds to finance the search for the vaccines that virtually rid America and other modernized societies of the once dreaded disease of infantile paralysis, the vaccines would not have been developed nearly as soon as they were."

Daniels makes a convincing argument that FDR knew from the very beginning that New York Governor Al Smith could, "never be a force to unify the Democratic Party and lead it to national victory." Yet, since FDR saw his own road to the White House running through the governor's mansion in New York, having its current occupant - Smith - running for President was a good way to get Smith out of Albany, freeing up the job for himself. Supporting Smith helped FDR gain the backing of Tammany [not to mention Smith himself].

Smith's first run for the White House came in 1924 - a crucial year for FDR.  As Daniels notes, "The importance of the 1924 campaign in Roosevelt's political career cannot be overemphasized. When added to the prestige of his name, wartime service, and the 1920 vice presidential campaign, his showing [nominating Smith at the. Democratic Convention; his first public appearance in nearly three years] before the assembled Democrats made him a person who could not be ignored when possible presidential candidates were discussed. For any politician only forty-two years old, this would have been a considerable accomplishment. For one who was crippled and had been out of office and largely out of sight for almost four years, it was an amazing situation."

Once elected governor of New York in 1928, FDR used those four years in Albany to prepare himself for what he expected from the very beginning - a run for the White House [although, before the severity of the Depression became apparent, FDR anticipated that he would run in 1936 rather than challenge the incumbent Herbert Hoover in 1932]. As Daniels notes, FDR's years in Albany were important because, "they enabled him to hone his skills of management and conciliation, to learn about many issues with which he would have to deal as president, and, after the Great Depression began to set in, to gain the kind of knowledge of and contact with the problems of mass poverty and work relief that were invaluable in his early years in the White House."

With regard to the Depression, perhaps Daniels' most important contribution to the Roosevelt historiography is his analysis of FDR's reaction to the early days after the Stock Market crash in 1929, and his subsequent pre-White House years dealing with the fallout. While conventional wisdom is that FDR was immediately proactive and the antithesis of the foot-dragging Hoover, in fact, Daniels finds that Roosevelt's reactions to the aftermath of the crash were interchangeable with those of Hoover. As Daniels notes, "The notion that Roosevelt's first term as governor was the genesis of the New Deal, put forth by [FDR's longtime aide] Sam Rosenman and others, is unconvincing...The degree to which Roosevelt actually believed in October 1930 that state as opposed to federal policy was chiefly responsible for economic health is impossible to measure. But the claim that Roosevelt was in 1930 an incipient New Dealer, ready to reverse almost a century-and-a-half of state primacy, is difficult if not impossible to demonstrate from anything he had done or said up to that time."

Indeed, Daniels says FDR's message to the State Assembly on August 28, 1931, "is the first evidence, it seems to me, that Roosevelt was something more than an advanced progressive." FDR established a three-person Temporary Emergency Relief Administration [TERA], funded with $20 million on May 31, 1932, and named Harry Hopkins its executive director. Ironically, Daniels says, "Roosevelt played no part in this fateful appointment of the man who, apart from his wife, would become his most important political associate." 

Despite the fact that FDR's 1932 presidential campaign speeches, "presented no clear picture of what the new administration would propose", and despite the fact that Daniels finds that, "there is no evidence that Roosevelt had any clear notion of how he would proceed" if, elected, Roosevelt stunned Hoover in both the popular vote [22.8 million vs. 14.8 million; 42 states vs. 6 states] and the electoral vote [472-87].

Daniels is adamant that FDR did not have a firm plan as he entered the White House. Daniels writes, "The notion that once Franklin Roosevelt became president he had a plan in his head called the New Deal is a myth that no serious scholar has ever believed." Yet ordinary people in 1933 - and for 80+ years thereafter - believed that the combination of the slew of legislation that came out of Washington combined with FDR's superb self-confidence were proof positive that Roosevelt had known all along how he was going to proceed.  

Daniels also take aim at the myth that the New Deal ended the Depression. In fact, Daniels argues, the president's closest advisers seriously underestimated the difficulties of restoring the stricken nation to prosperity, and none of the nostrums of the man who delighted in calling himself Dr. New Deal produced anything like prosperity."  Indeed, according to Daniels, the real cure for the Depression was World War II.

Indeed, the first three items FDR attacked upon taking office had little to do with creating jobs: the banking issue, the Economy Act, and the Beer Act. Daniels says the first action that may be considered the beginning of the New Deal was the fourth action item, the Agricultural Adjustment Act [AAA]. Although proposed in mid-March, it took much longer than FDR expected [it would not be signed until May 12, 1933]. 

On that same day, FDR was able to sign the Federal Emergency Relief Administration [FERA]. Daniels notes, "why it took more than two months to make significant provision for those who had lost their jobs, once Roosevelt had declared in the Inaugural Address 'that our greatest primary task is to put people to work', is one of the largely undiscussed anomalies of the Hundred Days." Overall, Daniels' assessment of those First Hundred Days is mixed. Much was accomplished, he says, but it was really never geared at "the forgotten man" but rather on the middle class in an effort to help them regain their former levels of security.

Daniels cites as the first real change in Roosevelt's approach to the Depression the Civil Works Administration [CWA] in October 1933. The plan, proposed by Hopkins, called for massive work relief.  Daniels says that Roosevelt's acceptance of, "this radical program of work relief signals a little remarked change in his approach. From the inception of his presidency - and before that in his campaign - the stated purpose was to put people to work, but his emphasis had been on restoring the economic health of employers so that what we now call the private sector could provide the jobs. The failure of the National Recovery Act [NRA] to reach its reemployment goals impelled Roosevelt to try something else, as he had promised."

The issue of FDR's relationship with - and help to - African Americans is also addressed, particularly within the context of federal vs. states rights.  Daniels concludes that, "Despite his daring innovations, Roosevelt remained bound by his notions of the appropriate division of responsibility between federal and state governments." Roosevelt's view that states rights were still paramount,  "left millions of Americans, and a majority of black Americans, at the mercy of state governments that neither had the ability nor the desire to care for their most disadvantaged citizens."

The role of the Supreme Court and its rulings on the New Deal is a topic handled thoroughly. Daniels believes that FDR's first mistake was believing that - once the Supreme Court upheld the Gold Clause Act as Constitutional - he was in the clear on the Constitutional questions about the New Deal. His mistake became crystal clear on May 27, 1935, when the Court unanimously declared the NRA unconstitutional. It shocked not only FDR but the country as a whole. While some historians - such as William Leuchtenberg - have claimed that this decision created a massive crisis in the White House - Daniels disagrees.  He argues that the only evidence for this comes from the diary of Roosevelt aide Rex Tugwell. Otherwise, Daniels argues, the evidence suggests that, Roosevelt, the habitual optimist that he was, continue[d] to believe that minor adjustments could be made, as the administration had done in response to [an earlier Supreme Court defeat, the Hot Oil Act], that would bring the NRA into line with what the Court might accept."

As with the efforts to rebuild the middle class rather than lift up the forgotten man, Daniels argues that FDR's farm policies were geared toward helping the larger commercial farmers. While, "no large group of Roosevelt constituents was served as well as the established commercial farmers who survived the depression," Daniels says, "for millions of farmers, sharecroppers, and farmworkers, white, black, and Latino, there were no such benefits." Indeed, "farm laborers, unlike most other American workers, were excluded from the benefits of Social Security."

Roosevelt's reelection in 1936 was never really in doubt. His triumph was thorough and complete. Six million more people voted in 1936 than in 1932. FDR carried every state save Maine and Vermont. He received 60.8% of the vote over Alf Landon. He won in the Electoral College 523-8. Democrats picked up six Senate seats [for a total of 75] and 11 more Democrats would sit in the House [for a total of 331].  Of the election, Daniels writes, "The election of 1936 was what many students of politics describe as a transforming election in that it made the Democratic Party the majority party in the nation for many elections to come. It welded disparate groups of voters into an effective block."

Daniels also delves into the Court Packing plan of 1937. Although somewhat complex, FDR's proposal basically stated that - for every sitting federal judge who reached or would soon reach age 70, and had been on the bench for at least 10 years - the president could appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate, an additional judge to sit on that Court. The appointment of new judges was subject to the following limitations: a maximum of 50 judges could be appointed under the bill's provisions, no judge could be appointed if that appointment would result in more than 15 members of the Supreme Court or more than two additional members of other appellate and special courts, or more than twice the number of judges now authorized for any district court. Based on the current makeup of the Court, if the bill had passed it would have allowed FDR to appoint six new Supreme Court justices immediately.  He would also have been able to appoint 44 more judges for lower federal courts.

FDR mistakenly believed he could sell the plan as an overall restructuring of the entire court system, focusing more on the lower courts and the positive effect it would have there.  Daniels points out, however, that this argument never got off the ground.  To the pubic, it was always about the simple question of whether the president would get to create new Supreme Court judges. Daniels notes, "The failure of that attempt [to keep the focus on the lower courts] epitomizes the other ineptness of Roosevelt's strategy and tactics. Why this masterful politician was so uncharacteristically ineffective for so long [during the five months of fighting for the plan] remains a mystery that no biographer has adequately explained. The suggested explanations - overconfidence after a stunning victory, hubris, miscalculation, the absence of Louis Howe [who died in 1936] as a naysayer - are perhaps adequate to explain his initial errors, but not his continuing intransigence."

Of course, the Supreme Court itself settled the issue in West Coast Hotel vs. Parish, which upheld minimum wage law. This is the famous "switch in time that saved nine". Yet the chronology of the case disproves the theory that the Court was reacting to Roosevelt's Court-packing plan.  Although Daniels believes they were reacting to the 1936 election. The voting on the case had actually done by the Justices in January 1937 - a month before FDR announced his plan. Still, why did Justice Owen Roberts change his vote? And what role did Justice Charles Evans Hughes play in convincing him to make that switch? While for years scholars speculated that Hughes had influenced Roberts, none could offer evidence to support it. Only in 2005 was William Leuchtenberg, using remarks made by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins in an oral history interview, able to show that Hughes' putative effort to change Roberts' mind might have occurred in the summer of 1936, as a preemptive strike against the onslaught he expected to come from Roosevelt after he won the election." Daniels concludes, "It may well be that Hughes, who was concerned for the country and the court, influenced Roberts' crucial vote....Had Roberts voted against [the minimum wage] it would have provided further ammunition for those supporting the President's plan."

And yet, Roosevelt refused to accept victory and shelve the Court plan. He had gotten what he'd wanted - the Supreme Court on board - and the subsequent battle he made to get the bill was wasted energy.  Daniels agrees with the "pummeling" that scholars have given Roosevelt over both his strategy and his tactics during the court fight. However, he disagrees with the idea that the fallout from the Court plan was the reason for the New Deal failures in the second term. Daniels writes,  "Such an analysis gives too much weight to the court fight and ignores the fundamental difficulties Roosevelt faced in trying to modernize America with the party and a congressional base that gave disproportionate power to southern oligarchs intent on preserving the system based on segregation and inequality." 

The Court plan was followed by the so-called Roosevelt Recession of 1937. Most historians give Roosevelt failing grades for his performance as economist-in-chief. But Daniels suggests that a sounder judgment, "it seems to me, is that Roosevelt did err badly in taking his foot off the economic gas pedal after the 1936 election and was slow to realize that a serious recession was in progress [in mid-1937]...But within a few months, he put together and sold to Congress a collection of measures that ended the decline and resumed the pattern of economic improvement that had begun in the Hundred Days [in 1933]." Indeed, Daniels believes that FDR had learned a great deal since 1933. Daniels writes, "Compared with his initial understandings of the economy in 1933, his perception and understanding of the nation's economic processes had expanded enormously [by 1937]."

The third trauma of the second term was the attempt to purge some sitting conservative Democrats in various 1938 primary elections. For Daniels, it was in a Jackson Day speech in 1938 that Roosevelt struck a new note in speaking about the need for change of the Democratic Party.  According to Daniels,  "this marks, it seems to me, the first hint of what became the celebrated attempt to purge some sitting conservative Democrats in various 1938 primary elections." By June 24, 1938, in a Fireside Chat, Roosevelt confirmed that, "he would intervene in the year's Democratic party primaries, as had been rumored for months."

Daniels' take on what has long been considered an unfathomable political mistake by such a shrewd politician is unique.  Daniels argues, "Roosevelt made a distinction that few presidents, or for that matter scholars, make: the difference between his role as president of the United States and as leader of the Democratic Party. He would not, as president, ask the voters to vote for Democrats in November, nor was he, as president, taking part in Democratic primaries. But he insisted that as head of the Democratic Party he had every right to speak in the few 'instances where there was a clear issue involving basic principles or involving a clear misuse of my own name.'"

The so-called purge targeted three Southern Democrats who had voted against FDR's Court plan - all three attempts failed. He was successful in two cases [retaining Senate Majority Leader Joseph Robinson; and jettisoning Chair of the House Rules Committee John O'Connor]. Daniels agrees with the general consensus of historians that the purge and the subsequent general election in 1938 were set-backs for FDR.  But he questions some scholars [James MacGregor Burns and David M. Kennedy to name two] as to the severity of the setback. "They and others have magnified the significance of the purge and underplayed the importance of other aspects of domestic politics in 1938."

In conclusion, Daniels does not view FDR as on the wane by the end of 1938.  He writes, "The general notion that by the end of 1938, the New Deal had (James MacGregor Burns writes) 'been reduced to a movement with no program, with no effective political organization, with no vast popular party strength behind it, and no candidate' has been iterated and reiterated for more than seven decades. It is true that Roosevelt would never again, in peace or war, have the same control of Congress that he had once exercised, but there would be future New Deal victories, not so much in new programs, but in the refinement and expansion of existing ones. And, of course, there would be a most successful candidate (FDR)."

And, for that story, we await Volume II.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Empty Suits

Empty suits - a great tax write-off, hanging in a closet.


Staring at a closet full of my empty suits the other day  - something I've done occasionally since July - I realized that here was something else that The Wife would've had to deal with had things gone the other way Thanksgiving Day 2015. Had I died, I think even three weeks later the closet would still remain as it is now, untouched. At some point - soon, probably - The Wife would have had the unenviable task of going through this collection of suits, shirts and ties and donating most if not all of it to charity. Because of the unknown effects that the change in our income these last five months might have on our taxes, my spirit - if allowed - would have been whispering in her ear, "Do it before December 31st! You can claim it on our taxes!"

Staring at those suits, though, is like staring at my life - at least my professional life. Certainly over 20+ years many suits have come and gone; and the current batch are mostly of recent vintage. But they represent, to me, my professional life which may or may not be over. Obviously, had things gone the other way on Thanksgiving, there'd be no mystery as to the finality of that professional career.  But staring at the suits the other day led me to thinking about what happened in July as well as what happened in November. The events are not unrelated, after all. One was a symbolic ending, one was nearly a real one.

And from July through now, those suits have hung there just as they did the morning of what might be the last day [unbeknownst to me] of my professional career. Just as they would be hanging there today if Thanksgiving had been my last day permanently. Well, had I passed they might still be there, but not for long, obviously. Goodwill would've been their future home. So, they're probably glad I didn't shuffle off that mortal coil.  I realized, too, that the wardrobe had a front-row seat to the drama on Thanksgiving. It was within a few feet of that closet that everything [including me] went down.

There's something sad about that closet - and not just that I've gained 15 pounds since July, making about 1/2 of those suits obsolete until I become less obese. No, it's that - just as if I'd died - they hang there untouched, unworn, unused day after day. It took me 20+ years to build up a wardrobe and a career. It ended in less than 10 seconds. Yet, the wardrobe remains. Without the career, though, the wardrobe is just the closet of some middle-aged, portly-yet-diminutive guy with conservative tastes in ties.

At this point, because of the weight, I dare not try on any of the clothes. If I can secure an interview down the line, I'll figure something out. In the meantime, I'll let the clothes hang there and mock me, "Remember us? You used to be needed somewhere at 8:30 am on a Tuesday. Remember when others looked at you as an authority figure? No, we don't either"

It's a helluva thing to be mocked by your wardrobe. Still, it's better to be here to accept the humiliation than hearing it posthumously.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

I Love You Too, Grandpop

The now-shuttered Casino Deli [above]. At one time, my grandfather held court here and his kingdom was good and loving.

The whitefish-on-a-toasted-onion-bagel has left the building. After 35 years, the Casino Deli on Welsh Road in the Great Northeast closed a few weeks ago.  If you never had the pleasure of enjoying the ambiance, imagine walking into a trailer home jam-packed with people you recognize and occasionally banter with but only barely know - even though technically you've eaten breakfast with them since 1980. Now, imagine your food served by a wise, often-funny, waitress who knows you by your first name and has your first coffee at your table before you can unbutton your jacket. Who soon says, "Whadd'ya want, hun?" and says it with such affection that you really believe that 'what you want for breakfast' is just about the most important question she's ever asked anyone. She has suggestions; recommendations; things like, "stay away from that, hun. It's older than me."

And, once the waitress leaves with your order, you are face-to-face for the first time in who-knows-how-long with your grandfather. Your buddies may be with you, too, because - like everyone who ever met him - your buddies think your grandfather is about the most charming, funny, warm person they've ever met.  And, God, he sure could be.  The man could charm an igloo from a penguin. What the hell he'd do with the igloo was a challenge he'd deal with later.

My grandfather was an enigma. But a loveable enigma. He passed a year ago.  I last saw him in 2013 and before that I don't think I'd seen him since 2009; and before that I may not have seen him since 2006. He moved full-time to Florida in 2006. I'm not much of a phone person and neither was he. So, occasionally he would call me, but just to berate me for not calling him. This would have been hysterical had it not become so tedious, and so for much of his last decade or so I'd say our relationship was strained.  There wasn't any one particular incident. Just a lifetime of slights plus a great geographic distance, plus the business of life. When he died I was sad, of course. Sad over what might have been, I guess. What might have been if he'd been a 'typical' grandfather, doting on his great-grandchildren and not allowing nearly 10 years to elapse between seeing them.

This is not, though, a piece about how my grandfather disappointed me; or a 'poor me' or a 'boo hoo' piece, either. No, I give you the background above just to paint an accurate picture.  Equally accurate, however, is that my grandfather was as loving as his upbringing allowed him to be; he was as devoted as his upbringing allowed him to be; and if he became a narcissist to cope with that upbringing, well, that had nothing to do with me and - in the end - he owed me nothing more than what he gave me. If one can be a loving narcissist, that was my grandfather.

It took me years, and years to understand and accept this. And all of those breakfasts at the Casino Deli helped. Because it was there, among his friends [and occasionally mine] that I could truly enjoy my grandfather and accept the love in the only way he could give it - over something like a whitefish-on-a-toasted-onion-bagel.

We'd talk about first school [in the earlier years], then work, the family, politics, guns, the declining state of the world, all topped off by a series of jokes and stories that he'd told a few thousand times already. And I soaked it all up. I look like my grandfather - a lot - and so as all of this was going on I'd often just watch him and see myself in ____ years. Invariably, he'd stop someone [a waitress; another patron], grab their arm and point at me with the other hand and say, "Abe - this is my grandson I was tellin' you about!"  Even though he often couldn't remember where I was going to school/where I worked/or what I did for a living, he was proud. That was how he showed me he loved me.

I never once gave the Casino Deli a single penny. One time I tried to pay the check and you would have thought I'd punched my grandfather in the stomach. "The day I can't take my grandson to breakfast..." So, I figure over the years I probably had a good couple-hundred-dollars worth of free food.  As good as the food was, though [and it was], that isn't what I'll remember about the Casino Deli.

I'll remember Bernie. A man I loved who hasn't been in my life for a long while, even before his death last year, but who at one time had me over for breakfast at his place - for the Casino Deli was his place - for good conversation and food.

And to tell me, in his own way, that he loved me.  I love you too, Grandpop.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It's OK To Hate This Post

Pete Rose demonstrates why nearly 75-year old men shouldn't bare their tattoos...or anything else, for that matter.

I should preface this with a warning: the topic of today's post isn't likely to be popular back East in my old stomping grounds. That said, here 'tis: I'm glad Pete Rose is still banned from baseball.  There, I said it. After 26 years of defending him - granted, with less and less enthusiasm as each year passed - I've come to the conclusion that it is good and it is right that Rose should be banned from baseball.

We need Pete Rose banned from baseball. At least I do.

We need it because - at least for those of my generation, particularly those who played baseball or softball as youngsters in the Greater Philadelphia-area - Pete Rose was, at one time, God. I wanted to play like Pete; I wanted to hit like Pete; I wanted to win like Pete; I wanted a young blonde wife like Pete....uh, is this thing still on?  Sorry.  You get the point.

By 1989, Pete was retired and back with the Reds as manager, but he remained - for me and countless others - the pinnacle of our childhood, the man who brought that World Series title to the Phillies. The Savior. Sure he was looking more and more like Moe Howard every day; sure, he largely dismissed his Phillies' years in interviews, focusing on his past and present Reds. He was still Pete. He was everything that was good and decent about our childhoods.

Then he wasn't.

The news came - seemingly out of nowhere - from a man who more resembled a troll than even Rose did (Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti), telling us that Pete had to step off that pedestal - and stay off, you bastard! The details were all there for anyone who wanted to read them [I didn't] in John Dowd's famous report about how, as manager of the Reds, Rose placed bets on baseball in clear violation of Baseball's Rule 21, which calls for a lifetime ban for betting on any game "with which the bettor has a duty to perform."

It turned out Pete wasn't a Savior. He was a monster. He cheated on his taxes [and that blonde wife]; consorted with half the cast of The Sopranos ['Carm?! Whadd'ya want?! It's my busy season!"], and was just a rotten human being in complete denial as to his own awfulness.

At first, like most, I didn't believe it.  Then, I didn't care if it was true. Even if it was all true, I reasoned, the gambling occurred after Pete played.  Just because he was a degenerate gambler as a manager shouldn't deny him his rightful place in my childhood bank of heroes [not to mention the Hall of Fame].  Dowd - the lawyer who wrote that report - always suspected there was more: that Pete had bet while still a player. But he could never find the evidence to prove it.  That changed once  MLB, during the last year, finally unearthed the betting slips kept by Rose associate Michael Bertolini - long thought destroyed - proving that Rose did, indeed, bet on the Reds while playing for the Reds.

But that's not why I'm glad Rose is still banned.  I'm glad because Pete Rose was the hardest and most jarring lesson in my transition from child-to-adulthood. Starting with Rose's downfall, I slowly began questioning other aspects of my childhood.  Some of them ended in even more jarring - and much more shattering - discoveries that destroyed  many golden images I'd held of large swaths of my childhood. Religion. Friends, Family. My entire belief system came under question over the next few years, and it started with the ban on Pete Rose.

Dealing with Pete's downfall made me more skeptical, more discerning but - surprisingly - less judgmental. While that may seem counterintuitive, remember Pete never said he was a Savior.  I did. That's my fault, not his. I learned not to judge people for failing to meet expectations that I placed on them - as opposed to expectations based on promises made to me.

Those life lessons continued [and continue] into my 40s as I learned that sometimes a memory of a beloved childhood figure really turns out to be a monster.  That is devastating to learn at nearly 40 years of age; but it puts into proper perspective the supposed "devastation" I felt about Pete Rose at 20 years of age. The banning of Pete Rose prepared me in some ways for the shocks I've had about other aspects of my childhood that were far more egregious.

As long as Pete is banned, then I know that things are not always as they seem. That I need to better-manage my expectations of others. That there are no Earthly saviors. You can idolize and emulate how a guy hits a baseball.

Just don't expect him to walk on water as he heads down the first base line.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Me and My Shadow

Our Christmas tree, 2015. That's not The Shadow on the wall. It makes me think of The Shadow, though, whenever I look at the tree I almost missed.
This year, I wanted to put up some of the Christmas ornaments myself. For the last few years, typically, putting up the Christmas tree in our house is a shared duty: I put the actual tree up, and then The Wife and The Kids put up the ornaments.  This year, though, I wanted to look at and put up some ornaments myself. I used to do that all the time, particularly before the kids were old enough to do it. After all that's transpired - and considering I probably shouldn't even have been here to put up the tree [let alone look at ornaments] - I wanted to see some of the ornaments again.  Many have great meaning to me. There are a series of ornaments that my Mother-in-law gave us over the years; some from The Wife's late-grandparents; one with my name on it from 1972; my prized 2009 New York Yankees World Series trophy ornament.  A lot of memories.

For many, many years, memories were not my friend. That's probably also why I stopped doing the ornaments. Memories - at least until a few weeks ago - made me terribly sad. Better not to go down that road, I'd think.  So, over the past decade or so, I've avoided memories, photographs, just about anything from the past.

The past.

I have a feeling that's where The Shadow is from. Ah, The Shadow. Let me stop here to point out that - for those who know me - I generally didn't believe in spirits, the Afterlife, or anything else that I couldn't see, until recently that is. About five months ago, though, I first saw The Shadow. I was sitting in my chair in the living room - where my body has left a permanent indentation from spending about 160 hours a week in it - when, out of the corner of my eye I saw what I thought was The Wife get up from the dining room table and disappear into the kitchen.  This would have been fine...except I almost immediately realized that The Wife was at work and I was home alone. I thought, "Hmmm.  That was weird." And gave it nary another thought.  That first time.

Over the next few months, though, The Shadow would appear again. Always in the dining room; always heading into the kitchen; and always gone before I could make out what/who it was. After a few months of this, I came to an uneasy acceptance that there was something in the house. I told The Wife, only because I thought she'd endured 25 years of my making fun of her for believing in such things and thus she deserved to laugh at me and say 'I told you so'.  She asked me questions about The Shadow that I couldn't answer ["Was it male or female?"; she might as well have asked me if it was Democrat or Republican]. What I didn't tell her, though, was that I was slowly becoming convinced that it really was some kind of spirit. Whether it was someone [either of my deceased grandfathers perhaps; my beloved uncle; Melissa's equally beloved uncle, etc.] I knew not.

I'd see The Shadow a few times a week.  Ironically, though, in the week before my medical emergency - and I realized this only in hindsight - I didn't see The Shadow at all. Perhaps it was away for Thanksgiving. Or getting ready for it.

Thanksgiving. I would love to say that when I collapsed and was in a semi-conscious state aware that The Wife was trying to keep me breathing long enough for the paramedics to arrive that I saw a "light" or someone, or something; or even The Shadow.  Or that I saw The Shadow as I sat at the dining room table just as the room started to go dark, a wave of nausea overtook me, and I snuck away to try to make it to the bathroom. I didn't see The Shadow.  There were two things, though, that did happen that - in hindsight - I think are related to The Shadow. 

First, a brief background - growing up, I spent many, many days and nights at my aunt and uncle's home with my four cousins. So many of my happy memories took place in that house. Indeed, when we bought this house one of the perks was the fact that it is laid out similar to my aunt and uncle's house - that was comforting to me.  Well, as I sat at my dining room table on Thanksgiving and the room started to go dark....I was no longer at my dining room table. I was sitting at my aunt's dining room table. I haven't been in that house in 20 years. I didn't see anyone at the table [relatives long gone, etc.] but I was definitely at the head of my aunt's dining room table.

The second thing that happened was that, as I was lying on the bathroom floor, I did feel my father's presence there in the room.  I'm happy to say that he is alive and well and with us.  But he didn't make the trip to the 'Burgh for Thanksgiving. It was my Mother solo.  Yet, lying there, I had the sense that both parents were there with me. I've been wracking my brain trying to figure this out. In the end, I think that it was The Shadow.  There, I said it. The Shadow took the form in my mind of my father for whatever reason. But it was definitely The Shadow there with me. For whatever reason, The Shadow has ben hanging around for five months. Was it to give me the strength to hang on three weeks ago? Is it a guardian angel looking out for me? I've no idea.

For about 10 days after I got home from the hospital, I didn't see The Shadow. Until the other day. This time, it was on the other side of the glass double-doors connecting the dining room to our deck. I was in my chair [surprise] and saw The Shadow outside on the deck now, and it quickly moved in the direction of the outer wall of our master bathroom. I've seen The Shadow twice since then. Same place. Same direction - from the deck into the bathroom wall.

I looked for The Shadow as I was putting up those ornaments I mentioned. I didn't see The Shadow, but I did notice A Shadow - the Christmas tree's shadow is cast on the wall thanks to the light in the living room.  I've found myself staring at our tree a lot this year. When I see the tree's shadow, it makes me wonder again about The Shadow. I don't know what/who that spirit is.

But I welcome it now, anytime.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Now What?


The remains of my 2013 Eagles NFC East Champions shirt after emergency medical technicians needed to cut it off my body while resuscitating me on Thanksgiving 2015. The lesson here is: always dress nicer than I did for Thanksgiving.

I almost died. For the past two weeks, every once in a while I stop on a dime and remember that. I almost died. Not 'I could have died' or even the close cousin, 'I nearly died'. But I almost died. That realization is one, you would think, that would be constantly on what's left of my mind two weeks after I almost stopped breathing long enough during a medical emergency to almost die. But there are actual periods of normalcy, when I forget. I get angry over something stupid. Or maybe even not stupid, but something worthy of anger. I'm reading the paper. I'm yelling, "Goddammit!" each time the Flyers give up a goal. Then, BOOM: I almost died.

Again, this may seem simplistic: of course your life is irrevocably changed, 24-hours a day, after you've almost died. But it isn't all the time.  There are stretches were you forget. Then, though, there are moments. Like the first weekend afterward I thought: gee, would today have been my funeral? Would it have been tomorrow? Where would The Wife [the hero of this tale as you'll recall] have planted me? Here or in our ancestral home to the East? When would the kids have gone back to school? When would The Wife have gone back to work? Would my Mother have remained here to help The Wife for a few weeks?  What would Christmas 2015 have been like without me? 2016? Christmas 2025? Would anyone even notice by then? Should I even expect them to? Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, my friends.

By 2025, the kids will be in their early-to-mid-20s, The Wife would no doubt be The Wife for someone else. I would like to think my parents would still be here; so I'm sure they'd think of me. I would think the kids would always 'remember' me, but the sound of my voice, or details about our daily interactions? No, I think those would have faded by then.  The Wife is still young and beautiful with many, many years of life remaining.  She must move on. I would think that Christmas 2025 would see her with her husband, and their blended family of adult children. I'd be nothing but a photograph in the guestroom of The Wife's new home [a room where no one goes].

My friends? Well, through no one's fault, most had largely passed out of my daily life before Thanksgiving 2015. Like all fortysomethings, we had our own lives, traumas, joys, stories.  Living 350 miles away from most of them meant that going out for a beer to shoot the shit just couldn't happen. I think initially there'd probably be pangs of guilt among my friends - not that they did anything wrong; just that life had gotten in the way for all of us and that now we'd never again get together like we used to - even though it'd been almost ten years since the four of us had been able to do that anyway.  But, now that I was dead, that possibility of all getting together was gone. Some of my friends would go into action: they'd be up here every other weekend taking the kids out for a movie, or helping The Wife get the house ready to be put on the market. A few - assuming I was planted East - would make monthly pilgrimages to my grave for a while. Eventually though, life would take over. The shock would ease. And I'd be remembered, certainly; but more as 'the first to leave' among our Fab Four than for anything else.

These are the things I think about during the day. My life since July has been a downward spiral at great speeds. I certainly hadn't planned for July; I most definitely hadn't planned to almost die. Now, those two events are conjoined, however, and leave me with much too much time to think and sit and watch the wheels go round and round. I don't know what happened to me on Thanksgiving. Probably will never know. They tell me it most likely won't happen again but they can't guarantee it obviously.  Nor can they guarantee that - if it does happen - The Wife will be there again to perform CPR and keep me breathing adequately enough so as to keep enough oxygen going to my brain to keep me alive until the EMTs can get there. There are so many, many, scenarios where that medical 'event' could have occurred when I would have been alone. And I would have died. It just happened that it occurred in the evening when people were home; it just happened that The Wife checked on me before I'd stopped breathing completely. What happens if the medical 'experts' are wrong and there is a next time. And I'm alone? And I die? I feel like a ticking time bomb.

I need to do something with my life to make sure that - if that does happen in a year, five years, or ten years from now - there is a definite sense among my survivors that I made the time post-Thanksgiving 2015 mean something. That I lived. That I didn't squander the second chance I got. Yes, it' a shame he's really dead this time, but Goddammit that guy really lived the hell out of life in those extra years The Wife gave him. 

It's figuring out how to make that happen that keeps me up at nights now. I don't know what my 'something' will be. A new job? A new career? Permanent unemployment that permits me to write the great American historical fiction novel? A series of dead-end jobs that bring in a fourth of what I used to earn but which subsequently reduce my stress by three-fourths, thus making my remaining days more happy [the Flyers' notwithstanding]?

I almost died. But I didn't. I lived. Now, how do I make sure that's what they say about me when I really am gone?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

37

Yoko Ono, center, is aided by a policeman and David Geffen, right, of Geffen Records as she leaves Roosevelt Hospital in New York late Monday night, December 8, 1980, after the death of her husband John Lennon.

Today's post is about 37. 37 minutes of time, 37 years ago today, the murder of John Lennon. 37 years ago the world was left wondering, as Yoko Ono once eloquently put it, "He was an artist. Why would you kill an artist?"

Unfortunately, there is no way to consider John's life in its entirety without recounting those 37 minutes that transpired one night 37 years ago. Indeed, for a good number of those who have ever lived - particularly the famous - their lives are largely seen through the prism of their deaths. Just off the top of my head I can think of Elvis Presley, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Michael Jackson, Liberace, Rock Hudson, John Belushi..... When you think of their lives, invariably it is often through the lens of how their lives ended more so than how they lived those lives. That is just the way it is.

So, on this 37th anniversary of John Lennon's assassination [and, let's be clear, that's what it was. Many mistakenly believe that 'assassination' is only the murder of political leaders. The Webster's definition of 'assassination' is, "to kill suddenly or secretively; to murder premeditatedly and treacherously"], I'm compelled to write about December 8, 1980.

Specifically, the last 37 minutes of his life.

The evening of December 8, 1980, was about to become a painful one for Alan Weiss. Weiss was working for WABC-TV in New York City and won two Emmy's before his 30th birthday. After a long day at work, he jumped on his motorcycle and headed home.

The evening of December 8, 1980, was the end of a 30-hour shift for Dr. Stephan Lynn, head of the Roosevelt Hospital Emergency Room in New York City. He was exhausted and looking forward to sleep. He headed home for a quick hug of his wife and two young daughters and a nice warm bed.

The evening of December 8, 1980, was just beginning for New York City Police Officers Pete Cullen and Steve Spiro, who did the night shift on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Not necessarily a 'cush' job, but better than 99% of the other ones available to a New York City cop in 1980.

The night of December 8, 1980, was a typical one for Jay Hastings, working as a doorman at the Dakota. Earlier that night, a friend of one of his highest profile residents, John Lennon, had stopped by to drop something off for the former Beatle. Hastings had seen Bob Gruen with John Lennon just a few days ago, so he took the package and promised Gruen that he would give it to John when he returned that evening. Police would later open the package - as part of their investigation - to find it containing some tapes of the The Clash that John had asked Gruen to make for him [Gruen had told John that he would love The Clash and John "wanted to take a listen"], as well as some of the negatives from a photo session Gruen had done with John and Yoko two days earlier. All of that would be later, however. For now, though, all was quiet as Hastings watched Monday Night Football on a tiny black and white television propped up on the counter of the front desk.

The lives of these five men would converge unexpectedly and suddenly in a violent collision with the last night of John Lennon's life.

The night of December 8, 1980, was the completion of a task Mark David Chapman had set out to accomplish a month earlier. He'd come to New York in November 1980, to kill John Lennon but got cold feet and returned home to Hawaii. He was back now and determined to finish what he'd set out to do. It was an unusually warm evening for early December in New York City. Despite that, Chapman stood patiently in the dark outside the Dakota wearing a winter's coat - attire not suited for Hawaii but perfect for the conditions that he thought he'd find in December on the East Coast. Instead, in the heavy winter gear Chapman stood out. Chapman carried a well-worn copy of The Catcher In the Rye, the J.D. Salinger tale of disaffected youth. In his pocket was a five-shot Charter Arms .38-caliber revolver - the ammunition provided by an unsuspecting old friend of Chapman's, whom the 25-year old Chapman had suddenly visited in October 1980.

The evening of December 8, 1980, was a pleasant and accomplished one for John Lennon. The day had been hectic - a photo session with photographer Annie Leibovitz, a three-hour interview with R.K.O. Radio, and a five-hour session at the Hit Factory Record Studios to tweak a song by Yoko called "Walking on Thin Ice".

As John and Yoko's rented limousine stopped on 72nd Street at the ornate gate of the Dakota [John had told the driver to stop there rather than inside the courtyard - and past Chapman - which was more the standard route on a cold December evening....which this was not], Lennon grabbed the reel-to-reel tapes of the evening's sessions, placed them under his arm, and followed Yoko out of the car. It was 10:50 p.m.

Yoko had wanted to stop for a bite to eat at The Stage Deli, but John wanted to go home. So, as they emerged from the limo, John strode ahead of Yoko as they entered the gate. He was eager to check in on his 5-year old son, Sean. While the boy would [hopefully] be asleep, John hadn't seen him for a few days, as Sean had spent the weekend with his nanny's family in Pennsylvania. After that, John would go into the kitchen to get a bite to eat - knowing that, as usual when the kitchen door opened, his three cats would come bounding forward to greet him.

There is some dispute as to whether Chapman really said, "Mr. Lennon?!" as he stepped out of the shadows about five strides after John had passed him unseen. For years that was the story; recently, though, Chapman has said he said nothing. It is possible, in fact, that he is right. John never stopped walking, nor did he turn around - headed instead in the direction of the door some 50 feet away. Had his name been called so loudly and unexpectedly in the dark of night, one would assume that the startled Lennon would have turned to face the sound.

What is indisputable is that Chapman now stood in a combat stance a few feet from Lennon and Ono with his handgun leveled at the back of John's midsection. Very quickly, Chapman fired four bullets, three of which pierced John from the back through the lungs, the chamber around his heart, and his shoulder. The fourth missed John and hit the glass window by the front door of the complex.

Although at first in shock, John immediately knew what had happened and screamed, "I'm shot!" Despite a massive loss of blood - even in just the few seconds that had passed - John started to jog forward toward the door. He stumbled up the steps and fell face first onto the marble lobby floor in the foyer, somehow leaving his glasses unbroken - albeit bloodstained - as they, too, hit the floor. Somehow, the reel-to-reel tapes he'd been carrying had stayed lodged under his arm. They now crashed to the floor beside his glasses.

Startled by the broken glass - initially he'd assumed the firing of the gun to be a car backfiring - doorman Hastings ran from behind the desk just as Lennon came stumbling through the door. Despite the blood and his own shock, Hastings knew immediately that the grievously wounded man at his feet was John Lennon, as Yoko quickly came to the door at a gallop screaming. Hastings rang the alarm that connected the Dakota to the police. He then went back to John and instinctively removed his own jacket and placed it over John's crumpled torso. Also instinctively, although he was unarmed, Hastings ran out the door to approach the shadowy figure 50 feet away who was still in a combat position. Although the gun was still in Chapman's hands, he'd lowered his arm to his side with the gun pointed toward the ground. Incredulous, Hastings approached Chapman and screamed, "Do you know what you just did?!".

"I just shot John Lennon," Chapman replied softly.

At 10:51 p.m., Officers Cullen and Spiro were the first to answer the report of shots fired at the Dakota. As he got out of the patrol car, Cullen was struck by the lack of movement: the doorman, a Dakota handyman who had run out of his basement apartment at the sound of Lennon's body hitting the floor above him, and the killer, all standing as if frozen.

"Somebody just shot John Lennon!" the doorman finally shouted, pointing at Chapman.

"Where's Lennon?" Cullen asked. Hastings pointed to the nearby vestibule in which John - with blood pouring from his chest - lay dying. Cullen ran to Lennon's side as Spiro threw Chapman against the stone wall and cuffed him.

Two other officers soon arrived to lift John up and take him to a waiting police car. As they did, one of the officers would recall his stomach sickening as he heard the unmistakable cracking of Lennon's shoulder blade as they lifted him up, the bones shattered by a bullet. As they were carrying him to the waiting police car, Lennon vomited up blood and fleshy tissue.

With Lennon placed gingerly on the backseat of the patrol car, one of the officers jumped into the back to hold his head while the other two officers jumped in the front seats and sped downtown to Roosevelt Hospital, located exactly one mile away. In the midst of the chaos, Cullen spotted Yoko Ono. "Can I go, too?" she asked as her husband disappeared. A ride was quickly arranged.

Cradling Lennon's head, the officer in the backseat of the speeding patrol car looked into John's glassy eyes. Breathing heavily, with the gurgling of blood audible to all in the car, Lennon was fading. The officer tried to keep Lennon conscious, screaming at him. "Do you know who you are?!?! Are you John Lennon?!" John - who, with the other Beatles had popularized the 'yeah, yeah, yeah' phrase 16 years earlier - uttered what would be his last word: "Yeah...." He then lost consciousness and his breathing stopped.

Meanwhile, back at the Dakota, Officers Spiro and Cullen were trying hard to remain professional. Avid Beatles fans, both had often seen John, Yoko and Sean walking the neighborhood. Although they'd never spoken to John, both felt as though this was a family member or friend that Chapman had just shot. Trying to control the urge to hit Chapman, Spiro thought of the only thing he could think of: "Do you have a statement?!" Chapman pointed with his cuffed hands down to the ground nearby where his copy of Catcher in the Rye lay. Spiro opened the book and saw the inscription, "This is my statement." Spiro fell into a brief shocked daze at the scrawl. He was startled back into reality when Chapman - answering a question that hadn't been asked - said, "I acted alone."

Cullen and Spiro then roughly loaded Chapman into their car for a trip to the 20th Precinct. "He was apologetic," Cullen recalled in a 2005 interview - but not for shooting Lennon. "I remember that he was apologizing for giving us a hard time."

Nearby, unnoticed and - for the next 12 hours, untouched - was the copy of Double Fantasy that Lennon had signed for Chapman six hours earlier. Chapman had placed it in a large potted plant at the side of the gate, where it would be inadvertently discovered by one of the scores of officers who would be called to the Dakota for crowd control as word of Lennon's shooting spread.

Dr. Stephan Lynn's 30-hour shift at Roosevelt Hospital had ended twenty-five minutes earlier when, as he had literally just walked through the door and sat down on the sofa, his phone rang. Picking it up, a nurse asked him if  he could come back to the hospital to help out. A man with a gunshot to the chest was coming to Roosevelt.

Lynn walked back out the door and hailed a cab to the hospital. It was 10:55 p.m.

Meanwhile, at Roosevelt Hospital at that moment, TV producer Weiss was lying on a gurney wondering how his night had turned so shitty so quickly. An hour earlier, Weiss' Honda motorcycle had collided head on with a taxi. Somehow, Weiss seemed to have escaped with what he suspected to be cracked ribs. It was as he was lying on the gurney in an emergency room hallway contemplating his ruined evening and awaiting x-rays that Weiss was about to get the news scoop of a lifetime.

BOOM! The doors of the hallway where Weiss lie burst open with a gunshot victim on a stretcher carried by a half dozen police officers, who passed Weiss as they brought the victim into a room nearby. As doctors and nurses flew into action, two of the police officers paused alongside Weiss' gurney. "Jesus, can you believe it?" one officer rhetorically asked the other. "John Lennon?!"

Weiss was incredulous. He immediately rose from the gurney and grabbed a nearby hospital worker. Realizing he couldn't walk, Weiss shoved $20 into the man's hands and told him to call the WABC-TV newsroom with a tip that John Lennon was shot. As it turned out, the money disappeared, and the call was never made.

By 11:05 p.m., Weiss was doubting the news instincts of the bribed hospital worker. As he was contemplating this, Weiss was startled by what he later described as a strangled sound. "I twist around and there is Yoko Ono on the arm of a police officer, and she's sobbing," Weiss recalled in a 2005 interview.

With the sight of Yoko, Weiss decided he had to make the call to WABC-TV himself. He finally persuaded a police officer to help him up and walk him to a hospital phone, under the ruse that he had to call his wife to tell her he was in the hospital. Instead, out of earshot of the officer, Weiss reached the WABC-TV assignment editor with his tip about John Lennon. Before hanging up the phone with Weiss, the editor on the other end of the phone was able to check and confirm a reported shooting at Lennon's address.

By 11:10 p.m., Lynn and two other doctors had been working on the victim for nearly ten minutes. The man lying on the table had no pulse, no blood pressure, and no breathing. Lynn did not know that the man on the table in front of him was John Lennon. "We took his wallet out of his pocket," Lynn recalled in 2005. "The nurse immediately chuckled and said, 'This can't be John Lennon'. Because it didn't look anything like John Lennon."

Whether or not it was Lennon, Lynn was not quite sure. What he did know, though, was that, "He was losing a tremendous amount of blood," Lynn remembered. "And he had three wounds in his chest. We knew we had to act quickly. We started an IV, we transfused blood. We actually did an operation in the emergency department to try to open his chest to look for the source of the bleeding. We did cardiac massage - I literally held his heart in my hand and pumped his heart - but there was complete destruction of all the vessels leaving his heart."

After nearly 30 minutes, the three doctors gave up. It was 11:27 p.m. The damage was too great. Lennon was dead. Lynn recalled that Chapman's marksmanship was extraordinary. "He was an amazingly good shot," Lynn recalled. "All three of those bullets in the chest were perfectly placed. They destroyed all of the major blood vessels that took the blood out of the heart to all of the rest of the body." As a result, "there was no way circulation of blood could take place in this man and there was no way that anyone could fix him."

Weiss continued watching in disbelief as the doctors frantically worked on Lennon. It took him a moment to realize the song that was playing on the hospital's Muzak system - the Beatles' "All My Loving."

Meanwhile, Dr. Lynn made the long walk to the end of the emergency room hallway where Yoko was waiting in a room with record mogul David Geffen, who had rushed to the hospital after receiving a call that John had been shot. It was now Lynn's job to deliver the word that John Lennon, Yoko's soulmate and spouse, was dead.

"She refused to accept or believe that," Lynn recalled. "For five minutes, she kept repeating, `It's not true. I don't believe you. You're lying."' Lynn listened quietly. "There was a time she was lying on the floor, literally pounding her head against the concrete, during which I was concerned I was going to have a second patient," Lynn remembered. "Many, many times she said, 'You're lying, I don't believe you, he's not dead,' " he added. "[Geffen] was helpful in getting her to calm down and accept what had happened. She never asked to see the body, and I never offered. She needed to get home [to tell Sean], and she did."

By the time Yoko left the hospital, Weiss' tip had been confirmed and given to Howard Cosell, who told the nation of Lennon's death during Monday Night Football.....which was still on the screen of the little black and white television on doorman Hastings' front desk counter.

This brought a throng of reporters to Roosevelt Hospital, leaving Lynn to inform them that Lennon was gone. "John Lennon...," Lynn began before pausing for a moment. He then went on, "....was brought to the emergency room of St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital...He was dead on arrival." With that, a collective groan emanated from the normally cynical assembled media.

After finishing with the media, Lynn returned to the emergency room. Thinking remarkably clearly - and with great foresight - Lynn arranged for the disposal of all medical supplies and equipment used on Lennon - a move to thwart ghoulish collectors. "I said, 'Not a piece of linen with Mr. Lennon's blood is to leave this department except in a special bag,' " Lynn recalled. "I had to tell the nursing staff that they could not sell their uniforms, which might have been stained with John Lennon's blood." He personally supervised the disposal of everything.

By the time Lynn was done, it was 3:00 a.m. He decided to walk home, heading up Columbia Avenue. "I was afraid that someone would run up to me and say, 'You're the doctor who didn't save John Lennon and allowed him to die,' " Lynn said.

Back on the 25th anniversary of the murder, Lynn stated that he believed that - despite medical advances in the ensuing quarter century - John's gunshot injuries would still be untreatable in 2005. "There was no way of repairing that damage then and, to my knowledge, there's no way to repair that amount of damage today," Lynn said. "There was absolutely nothing we could do."



For days afterward, up in Apartment 72 of the Dakota, whenever the kitchen door opened, three cats came bounding forward to greet a man who was never coming home.....