Nick Bosa, Leon Trotsky, And Editing Your Own History

Nick Bosa is a very talented former Ohio State defensive lineman who will be participating in the upcoming NFL draft.  He’s also someone who’s been a regular user of social media and Twitter, where he’s expressed some opinions that other people disagree with — such as saying Black Panther is the worst Marvel movie, calling former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began the movement of players kneeling during the National Anthem, a “clown,” and expressing support for President Trump.

But, as the NFL Draft Day nears, and Bosa is being considered by teams for one of the very first choices in the draft, he’s begun scrubbing his social media presence and Twitter feed and deleting the tweets and comments that might be deemed controversial and, conceivably, might affect his ultimate draft position.  The New York Times recently published an article about Bosa’s effort, and whether his more contentious views would make any difference in where he is drafted, anyway.

leon-trotsky-mediumIt’s an interesting aspect of today’s social media universe that allows users to do what the Soviet Union did after Leon Trotsky became anathema to Stalin and the other Communist leaders:  edit history, and carefully remove the blackballed (and eventually assassinated) Trotsky from official records and photos, the better to present the correct, sanitized “official history” of the Russian Revolution and the early days of the U.S.S.R.  Through the miracle of modern computer technology, users who regret their past ill-advised tweets or Facebook posts can go back and change them or delete them entirely, and hope that nobody notices, or cares, or kept some kind of record of the prior statement.  Nick Bosa’s scrubbing effort is newsworthy, but how many other people — people who are getting ready to run for office, people looking for special jobs, or people who just aren’t comfortable with something they said before — are going back and reshaping their own on-line histories, to delete anything that might be a problem in the future?

Of course, Trotsky disappeared from the official version that Soviet children learned and Soviet leaders espoused, but it didn’t change the reality of Trotsky’s existence, and records kept outside of the Soviet Union just exposed the whitewashing effort.  People who are editing their own social media histories similarly have to hope that somebody, somewhere, didn’t keep a copy of the controversial tweet.  If you are a political candidate who’s done a scrub job, I expect you’d always be a little uneasy, wondering whether a screen shot of the disagreeable statement might turn up somehow — which might just make your editing effort look like a cover-up.

I guess the better course is to think twice before you post things in the first place.

Pickett’s Charge

One hundred and fifty-five years ago today, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Confederate forces near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania began to advance toward Union forces perched on Cemetery Ridge.  It was a hot day, with temperatures in the upper 80s, and the troops on both sides were fatigued from two prior days of desperate battle.

913-004-2f9debccExcept, that is, for the Confederate division commanded by Major General George Pickett.  His division had just arrived at the battle, which is why rebel commander Robert E. Lee selected Pickett’s forces to lead the advance.  Lee hoped that the Confederate forces, which greatly outnumbered the Union troops that were defending Cemetery Ridge, could break the Union line and win the battle of Gettysburg.  Confederate general James Longstreet surveyed the ground where the rebel forces would make the advance — about three-quarters of a mile of open ground, broken up by fences, would need to be covered before the entrenched Union forces could be reached — and thought the troops would be slaughtered by cannon fire and massed rifle fire from the Union defenders.  But Lee’s order was obeyed anyway.

Longstreet was right — the assault was devastating to the Confederate forces.  The rebels were mowed down by the Union forces in appalling numbers.  It is estimated that the rebels sustained about 6,000 casualties in the space of about 30 minutes, before they finally retreated.  The disastrous attack became known as Pickett’s Charge, and some historians believe that it marked a crucial turning point of the Civil War.  It not only ended the battle of Gettysburg, it also ended Lee’s second, and last, attempt to invade the North — which he hoped would convince the Union side to negotiate a peace agreement.  It dealt Lee, who had enjoyed success after success against a revolving door of Union commanding generals, a clear defeat, and it put the rebel forces on the defensive.  Although nearly two years of hard fighting still remained before the Civil War would finally end, after the battle of Gettysburg, and the Union victory at Vicksburg in the western theater that happened one day later, on July 4, 1863 — the Union side had the initiative.

The news of the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, and the Union capture of Vicksburg made July 4, 1863 — the day after Pickett’s forces were bloodily repulsed — a very memorable Independence Day.

Remembering A Great Speech, And A Great Man

Today is the anniversary of one of Winston Churchill’s greatest speeches.  That’s saying something, because the indomitable Churchill — for all his faults and eccentricities and excesses — had a special, unique ability to turn a phrase and galvanize a people.

8ec76852803822411c294f54f33ec32d-1000x1000x1On June 4, 1940, Churchill rose to address the British House of Commons and the British nation.  His speech came in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation of British and some French forces from Dunkirk, in the face of overwhelming odds and the armed might of the German Werhmacht.  He reported to the House on the miracle at Dunkirk — for a miracle it truly was — but also recognized the need to address the terrible predicament created by the Nazi blitzkrieg.  Great Britain’s principal ally, France, had seen its forces routed and its supposedly impregnable Maginot Line bypassed and was on the brink of surrender.  The United States, with Pearl Harbor still more than a year away, was neutral, and the Soviet Union had made a devil’s bargain with Hitler and was, for the moment at least, Germany’s ally.

Great Britain stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut, and Churchill recognized that bombing of the British Isles, and an eventual invasion, were a virtual certainty.  How would the British people, having just absorbed one of the most devastating beatings in the history of the British Empire, react to that prospect?  Churchill knew that he had to rally them somehow, and he used his June 4 remarks to achieve that goal.  The conclusion of his remarks, where he addresses the prospect of continued struggle, is one of the greatest, most inspiring feats of oratory in the history of the English language:

“I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Note the reference to the United States in the last sentence.  Fifty-eight years ago today, Churchill knew that he would ultimately need our help — and eventually he got it.

The First American

I live in Franklin County, Ohio, where the large statue of Benjamin Franklin pictured below is found at the county courthouse, so it makes sense that at some point I would finally turn to reading a biography of the county’s namesake.  I chose The First American, a fine recent biography by H.W. Brands that is well worth reading if you are interested in learning more about the early history of America and one of its foremost founding fathers.

Franklin is a fascinating character for more reasons that you can reasonably count.  During his lifetime, he was easily the most famous American alive, known and lauded in both America and in Europe for his experiments with lightning and electricity, his invention of the Franklin stove and other devices, and his writings, both in Poor Richard’s Almanac and elsewhere.  He was a hard-working capitalist, turning his printers’ shop into a thriving business and engaging in a number of other commercial ventures, yet he also had his eye on the common welfare and the greater good and played a key role in forming colleges, fire departments, lending libraries, and philosophical societies.  He was exceptionally well-traveled for that era, crossing the Atlantic multiple times, living in England and France, and exploring all parts of the American colonies.  Franklin saw a lot of the world during his 80-plus years, and he unquestionably left it a better place than he found it through his efforts.

Franklin’s life story, more than any other, also is the story of the early days of America.  He was born in Boston and began his writing career jousting with the Puritan fathers who dominated the life and politics of Massachusetts at that time.  He moved to Philadelphia, which quickly grew into the largest and most prosperous city in the colonies, where he became a successful printer and public figure, crossed swords with the Penn family, the proprietors of Pennsylvania, and conducted many of the experiments and created many of the inventions that made him famous.  He was a public spokesman for the colonies during the French and Indian War and made one of the first proposals for colonial unification under a single government, served as a de facto ambassador for the colonies in Great Britain during the years leading to the Revolutionary War where he was castigated in Parliament, became a proponent for independence and returned to America just in time to serve as a member of the Continental Congress and an editor of the Declaration of Independence, then traveled to France to engineer the pact that brought the French into the war on the American side, to broker loans and trade deals to help supply the war effort, and then, after the battle of Yorktown, to negotiate the treaty that ended the conflict.  He returned to America, again, in time to serve multiple terms as Pennsylvania’s president and play an important role in the Constitutional Convention and in encouraging popular support for the new Constitution before dying, in the early days of the new Republic, as a revered and celebrated figure.

Franklin was not a perfect human; he had warts and missteps and embarrassing moments and times of hubris and thoughtlessness.  Yet you can’t help but be struck by the enormity of his accomplishments.  Throughout his 80-plus years of life, Franklin wrote countless letters, engaged with countless historical figures, and left a trail of sayings, witticisms, practical concepts, and scientific ponderings that would do credit to a legion of people.  And he invented bifocals, for which I am particularly grateful since I’ve worn them since I was about 6.

When I read about Franklin, I wonder:  where are the Franklins among our current political class, and is there anyone in our government who even comes close to his record?

 

Timing Labor Day

Every year, Labor Day seems to arrive at just the right time.  It’s been a long summer, you’ve worked hard, fatigue and ennui are weighing you down . . . and suddenly a glorious three-day weekend arrives that allows you to sleep in, spend some time with the family, and revel in a little bit more of summer before cooler autumn comes to town.

This year is no different.  It’s been a really busy summer, with lots of time on the road. From my perspective, at least, the timing of Labor Day could not have been better.

220px-grover_cleveland_-_nara_-_518139_28cropped29I’ve written before about the origins of Labor Day — which is one of the oldest federal holidays, next to Thanksgiving — but it almost wasn’t scheduled for the first Monday in September.  The alternative date was May 1, also known as International Workers’ Day.  President Grover Cleveland decided, however, that having a holiday on that date might encourage labor group protests and general anarchist and socialist rabble-rousing, so the September date was selected instead.

If President Cleveland consciously selected the September date because he wanted to discourage rioting and mass labor marches, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. For decades, most Americans have marked Labor Day not with marches and protests, but with grilling out, getting in those last precious moments of pool time, and fortifying themselves against the coming colder weather with a few frosty adult beverages.

Since 1971, when Memorial Day became a federal holiday celebrated on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day and Labor Day have bookended the summer months, giving us those wonderful three-day weekends to really set the warm outdoor months apart from the rest of the year.  When you think about it, it was pretty good decision-making by our elected representatives.  This Labor Day, as I enjoy my frosty adult beverage, I’ll take a swig in honor of President Cleveland and his impeccable sense of holiday timing.

Tearing Down The Confederate Past

Early Thursday morning, masked workers, operating under a significant police guard, removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, that had stood in New Orleans for 106 years.  The statute, located at the end of a park, shows Davis standing next to a pedestal, with one hand on the pedestal and the other outstretched, as if Davis were gesturing during some important speech.

220px-jefferson_davis2c_slave_ownerThe workers who took down the statue were masked and wore dark clothing, and there was a heavy police presence, because there had been anonymous threats to harm the people involved in the removal.  Others in New Orleans simply oppose the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue — which is one of four statues that honor the “lost cause of the Confederacy” in New Orleans that are slated for removal — on the grounds that the Mayor of New Orleans is trying to sanitize history.  The President of a group called the “Monumental Task Committee,” for example, said:  “Another historic monument was removed under the cover of darkness using amateur, masked workers in armor, unmarked vehicles and equipment with a heavy police presence.  [New Orleans Mayor] Landrieu cannot be inclusive, tolerant or diverse when he is erasing a very specific and undeniable part of New Orleans’ history.”  According to a city spokesman, New Orleans is now looking for a “more appropriate” place to put the statues — like a museum.

As far as I’m concerned, the “more appropriate” fate of the statues would be to melt them down for scrap metal value.  I don’t agree with the notion that removing statues of Confederate leaders in heroic poses from public spaces is trying to “sanitize” our past.  History is history, and whether such statues are kept around, or are removed, isn’t going to change that.  In fact, if anything, the design and construction of the Davis monument represented the effort to whitewash the past, not its removal.  When New Orleans decided to erect a statue of Davis nearly than 50 years after the Civil War ended, why didn’t they create a statue that showed Davis scurrying away from Richmond just before Union forces entered the city, or show Davis behind bars after being captured?  It would have been more accurate, because the South — thank goodness! — lost the Civil War.  The fact that some people in New Orleans more than 100 years ago had the bad judgment to erect an heroic statue of Davis doesn’t mean that the people of New Orleans must be stuck with that embarrassing mistake forever.

It makes perfectly good sense to remove a statue that offends many people because it celebrates a rebellion and a government that was created largely because racists wanted to preserve the immoral and brutal practice of slavery, and that was defeated only at the cost of millions of American lives.  The Confederacy should be remembered, but it should be remembered not as some honorable “lost cause,” but as the last gasp of a shameful chapter in American history.  Removing heroic statues of Confederate leaders is a good step toward putting the Confederacy into its true historical context.

Farewell To Fidel

Fidel Castro has died.  The cigar-puffing, fatigue-wearing Cuban revolutionary , who was a thorn in the side of countless American presidents, was 90.

The news of Castro’s death is weird, because he’s one of those figures who seems like he should have been dead for a long time already.  After all, this is a guy who first came to power when Dwight Eisenhower was President, TV was a new form of entertainment, and Chuck Berry and Elvis ruled the radio.  Castro became a geopolitical figure when he played a central role in the Kennedy Administration with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He seems like an anachronism from a long-dead era.

There seems to be no middle ground when you are talking about Castro.  He overthrew a corrupt and dictatorial regime, and some liberals tout some of his policies — such as the apparent quality and low cost of health care in Castro’s Cuba.  During the tumultuous ’60s, at least, he and his cohort Che Guevara had some of that revolutionary cachet and radical chic.  But Castro also was a died-in-the-wool communist, and there is no doubt that his regime was both brutal and repressive, clamping down on freedoms we take for granted and keeping Cuba in the dark ages economically.  People who have visited Cuba since the American embargo has been eased describe a struggling, impoverished country that seems to have stopped its progress in the 1950s.

Castro obviously was a significant historical figure, but how he will be perceived by history remains an open question.  Some of that perception will depend on how Cuba fares, now that some semblance of normal relations with non-communist countries is likely, and some of it will depend on what we learn about the inner workings of the Castro regime, and just how cold-blooded and terrible it was.

History Nerds

Most people don’t know who raised the American flag in that famous World War II photo from the battle of Iwo Jima.  Most of those who do simply accept that information and move on with their lives.

Most people aren’t history nerds.  History nerds question, and probe, and spend countless hours comparing photographs or hunting down film footage.  And in this case, they’ve caused people to reexamine what had long been thought settled about the identity of the American warriors in that iconic image and to ask whether one man who had long been celebrated as a flag-raiser wasn’t in the picture at all.  It’s a fascinating story, and one that you can read about here.

mount_suribachiI’d like to focus, though, not on the Iwo Jima photo and the soldiers, but on the history nerds themselves.  Some will wonder how anyone could be so obsessed with a particular battle from a war that ended more than 60 years ago that they would spend their free time doing the kind of detailed review and analysis that ultimately documented the lingering questions about the flag-raisers on Mount Suribachi.  What, don’t these geeks have lives?

But the reality of nerds the world over is that a passion lurks deep beneath the nerdish, pocket-protector-wearing surface.  Maybe it’s triggered by computers, or by a Star Trek episode or a Dungeons and Dragons game.  In the case of history nerds, it might be a Civil War battle, or a particular historical figure or event that lights the fuse of passion — and once the fuse is lit the nerd feels the need to read everything he can get his hands on about that one historical topic.  Most history nerds stop with binge-reading, but the serious guys go on to the next level.  They participate in Civil War reenactments and take scrupulous care to make sure their uniforms are as authentic as possible, or they fly to the site of the Battle of Agincourt, or they delve into the historical record because a fact that is accepted as settled doesn’t seem quite right.  And sometimes, as in the case of the Iwo Jima photo, those passionate history nerds get to make a bit of history themselves.

It’s interesting that the identity of the Iwo Jima flag raisers could be confused for so long without the actual participants speaking up, but what’s really cool about this story is the unflagging determination of the history nerds to make sure the historical record is right.

At The LBJ Ranch

1b521bd9-3bda-4d9a-9e3f-7ba03d6115d8Kish is down in San Antonio to visit Richard.  Today they visited the nearby LBJ Ranch as well as Lyndon Johnson’s boyhood home.  While at the ranch Kish snapped this picture — proving that Johnson was definitely not all hat and no cattle.

It’s interesting to reflect on people like Johnson.  He was a legendary Senate Majority Leader, was thrust into the presidency when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, ushered in the “Great Society” programs, and then was knocked out of the White House by the Vietnam War, riots in the cities, student protests, and general unrest in the country.  Now LBJ is largely an overlooked historical figure, overshadowed by JFK and Camelot as his predecessor and Richard Nixon and Watergate as his successor.

As Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly said, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”

America Then, America Now

IMG_3454

Yesterday morning in Washington, D.C., I walked past Ford’s Theater.  A small, quaint red brick building among the modern concrete structures of downtown Washington, the theater looks as it did 150 years ago, on that terrible night when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

It’sdownload wonderful that Ford’s Theate still exists; so much of American history has been erased in our never-ending quest for bigger and better that it’s gratifying to see a place that played such an important part in our history has been preserved.  So, too, has the house across the street where our greatest President died, and Edwin Stanton aptly said “Now he belongs to the ages.”

America being what it is, however, you won’t be surprised to learn that, among these sober living memorials to a dark chapter is a cheesy souvenir shop called Honest Abe Souvenir, which was having it’s grand opening as we walked by.  Because, after witnessing the place where American history took a grim turn and a great man breathed his last, who wouldn’t want to buy an Honest Abe mug or T-shirt?

R.I.P. Louis Zamperini

We all hope to live lives that are full and interesting.  Louis Zamperini, who died last week at the ripe age of 97, sets a standard to which the rest of us can only aspire.  If you’ve read the best-selling book Unbroken:  A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, about Zamperini’s life, you know what I mean.

Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent, then a champion runner at USC, then a member of the fabled 1936 U.S. Olympic team that competed in Nazi Germany and saw Jesse Owens achieve immortality.  Then Zamperini fought nobly in World War II, was shot down over the Pacific, somehow survived weeks on a raft that floated hundreds of miles before reaching land on a Japanese-occupied island, and then lived through brutal treatment in a prison camp.  His story reads like the over-the-top plot of a movie, but it’s true — and the movie will be released later this year.

Leonard Pitts has written one of many appreciations of this fine man, who exemplified so many of the traits of the Americans known as The Greatest Generation.  A slightly different take on Zamperini’s life, and the role religion played in the “redemption” part of his story, can be found at National Review Online.  You can’t help but be inspired by the story of an average American who did extraordinary things — and you can’t help but wonder how many average Americans, put in the same circumstances, could have done the same.

Cabinet War Rooms

036In the late 1930s, when war with Nazi Germany became increasingly certain, an employee of the British government was tasked with developing a safe underground complex from which the British government could conduct the impending conflict. The result of his work was the Cabinet War Rooms — or, because they became known by the name of the man who led Great Britain during the conflict, the Churchill War Rooms.

The rooms were locked after victory was achieved in 1945 and left undisturbed for years. Knowledge of the rooms was still restricted, but tours of the rooms were given to some VIPs, who were fascinated and urged that the rooms be made available to the public. As a result, the Cabinet War Rooms were opened to the public. Yesterday Richard and I paid a visit to the rooms, and it was like walking back in time.

031The War Rooms are located in the basement of a government building a block or so away from 10 Downing Street. The museum itself allows you to walk through the complex, looking at the tiny bedrooms and dining rooms and offices of the people who worked there, the map rooms with different colored yarn to denote Allied and Axis positions, and the offices where different colored phones linked the Prime Minister and head of British armed forces to the various branches of the British military. The entire facility very much has the feel (and faint smell) of a place that was locked when it was no longer needed and left undisturbed for years. It’s wonderful stuff for a history buff.

025One of the nicer aspects of the Cabinet War Rooms was a display at the beginning that showed pictures, correspondence, and in some instances video interview footage of the average British people who worked at this top-secret facility as secretaries, messengers, or code readers. These people kept the precise location and nature of their work a secret for years, risked injury and death by being at the center of London during the Blitz, and then went back to their regular lives after the war ended. It’s heartening to see that their important contributions to the Allied cause were recognized.

The Cabinet War Rooms also include a Winston Churchill museum that provides information about the brilliant and inspirational speaker who led Great Britain for most of the war, before being voted out of office shortly before Japan surrendered. Churchill’s speeches, uniforms, odd work habits, and relations with other world leaders are all addressed in the museum, which would be worth visiting on its own merits.

Musee National du Moyen Age

048We’ve had a number of special experiences during our trip to Paris, but one of my favorites was a visit to the Musee National du Moyen Age — the National Museum of the Middle Ages. Formerly known as the Cluny, this Left Bank museum is a wonderful find for the history buff and the art lover.

The museum is located in an actual medieval building, so the very act of entering and wandering around helps to give an idea of life in the middle ages — at least, for the aristocracy and the clergy. You enter the the museum through a walled, cobblestoned courtyard, past the remains of the Latin motto of the place when it was the town house of the abbots of Cluny, and then move through cavernous stone rooms and cellars where various items and exhibits are found.

055The rooms are filled with a rich trove of the art and handcraft of the Middle Ages. If you are a fan of stained glass windows, this is a must-see visit, because the many exquisite examples of glassworker craftsmanship are displayed at eye level, where they can be carefully studied and fully appreciated. It’s great to see the stained glass at St. Chapelle, where the full effect of entire windows is felt, but there is an advantage to examining individual panes, too. The vivid colors and staging of the scenes are spectacular, and the expressions on the people depicted, and the familiar attributes of Biblical personalities, like St. Peter and his ever-present key, come to life when the stained glass is examined up close.

052Another evocative exhibit featured the formerly lost heads of the kings of Judah. When the mob attacked the Notre Dame cathedral during the French Revolution and tried to turn it into a secular temple, they knocked the heads off the kings of Judah who stand in line above the front doors. The heads were replaced in the middle of the 19th century, but the original heads were thought to be lost forever. That is, until 21 of them were unearthed during the 1970s. They now are on display in the Musee National du Moyen Age, still looking somewhat startled that they were removed from their former stone bodies.

There’s lots to see in this museum, such as the mysterious, obviously symbolic series of tapestries featuring a woman, her servant, a unicorn, and other creatures, marvelous wood altarpieces and stone statuary, and many religious items. I particularly liked the flow and pace of the museum, which was in sharp contrast to the jam-packed crowd scenes at the Louvre. There was plenty of room, and time, to enjoy the exhibits and appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the life and craftsmanship of the Middle Ages.047

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela died today, at age 95, after a long illness.  He was one of the most extraordinary figures of our time — a selfless man in an increasingly selfish world, a man whose example was so deeply powerful that it brought down a wicked regime, and a man whose compelling life story was inspirational to millions around the world.

Mandela fought against the evil of apartheid, which legalized and institutionalized racism in South Africa.  He was jailed for his efforts, spent almost three decades in prison cells, and became the most celebrated political prisoner in the world.  He was freed, immediately became a leading voice in the country, and was elected president when South Africa held its first all-race election in 1994.  Crucially, Mandela did not use his ascension to power to obtain vengeance for his years of wrongful imprisonment.  Instead, he supported a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that sought to expose the wrongs of apartheid and heal his divided country.  His actions demonstrated his commitment to peace and inclusiveness and made him the most deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in a generation.

It is interesting that this astonishing historical figure bore the name Mandela — pronounced in the same way as the mandala, a Buddhist and Hindu concept that represents the universe as a circle.  In those religions, a mandala is an instrument of peaceful meditation and a gathering point for essential universal forces.  Nelson Mandela, too, was a gathering point for universal concepts of peace, and freedom, and equality, and he served in that role with decency and without rancor.  A true giant has left the world stage.

 

On That Dallas Day

President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed 50 years ago today.  Fifty years is a long time, but in some ways the Kennedy assassination seems even more distant and remote.  So much has happened since, and so much of it has been bad.  The world is such a different place now, it is almost as if the shooting in Dallas occurred in another reality altogether.

I was a first-grader when it happened.  I remember a scratchy voice coming out of the polished wooden PA system box above the blackboard and announcing that the President had died, and our teacher shocked and sobbing.  But, of course, I was just a little kid, not quite sure who the President was, even, or what this would mean for me or my family.  Everything I know about President Kennedy — the romance of “Camelot,” the inspiring speeches, the successes, the failures, and the details of his personal life — I’ve learned since his death, with the information, always, shaped and colored by the terrible senselessness of his assassination.  The impact of his death on how his legacy was viewed in the years after his death shouldn’t surprise anyone; America lost a vigorous young President and the promise he brought with him, and the country was profoundly shaken.  Even now, half a century later, it is hard to view things with the abstract objectivity of historians.

Students of popular culture tend to put things into neat packages.  For many, the story is of a boring, stodgy America during the 1950s, followed by the short sunburst of the Kennedy years, and then a country that lost its way after bullets rained down on that Dallas motorcade.  That story, I think, is a bit too tidy and, perhaps, confuses a timeline with causation.  The ’50s were not a Norman Rockwell painting, and the Kennedy presidency was not the golden era that it was once depicted to be.  To be sure, the years after the shooting were tumultuous, with race riots, the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, more assassinations, Apollo moon landings, and profound social changes, but did the Kennedy assassination cause, or even contribute significantly, to those events?  We can safely conclude that the Apollo moon landings would not have happened but for the challenge issued by a newly elected President in 1961, and we know from that lesson and others that individual people can alter and shape the future — but how many of the signature events of the ’60s were the inevitable result of historical forces long since set in motion, bound to happen no matter who was President?

Historians will comb the record of the 1000 days of the Kennedy presidency to try to determine whether his assassination should be viewed like that of President Lincoln, whose death clearly affected the course of Reconstruction after the Civil War, or like that of Presidents Garfield and McKinley, whose killings are treated like mere eddies in the onrushing current of history.  For average Americans, the question is much more basic:  If President Kennedy had survived, would our world now be a better place?  Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer.