Tag Archives: American history

A feast for hungry lovers of superb writing

June 20, 2012

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I’ll tell you how I know good writing: I savor the words and sentences as I read them.

I go back and slowly re-read paragraphs, tasting the language in the same way I slowly enjoy a sip of cabernet or a bite of an Italian beef sandwich, the Chicago kind that drips gardiniere down my arms and onto my shirt.

When writing is good, it lingers in the tastebuds of the brain.

Like you I’ll bet, I usually can’t wait to get to the end of a good book. But with the best books, I tend to read in small bites, stretching out the joy of reading to make it last longer.

I’ve been doing that with “Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns.” There are 400 pages in this Overlook Press hardcover, and although I bought it sometime this winter I’ve just finished the last entry here in June.

Yep, it’s that good.

Columnists, my heroes

Okay, maybe it’s because I’m a newspaper guy that I’ve been so taken with this is collection of commentary pieces that appeared in American newspapers over the past 250-plus years, Ben Franklin’s from before this country even was this country.

But no matter what your life’s work, if you want a thorough refresher course in history, if you want to know what Americans have cared about over the years, if you want to get in touch with the spirit and soul of the United States, just read these columns.

 There’s Ernie Pyle writing from the front lines of World War II about “the God-damned infantry,” Mary McGrory covering the funeral of JFK, Mitch Albom on a college basketball team you’ve never heard of and Mike Royko skewering the infamous Picasso that sits (where else?) but in Chicago’s Daley Plaza.

There’s great sports stuff. You can re-read the renown Grantland Rice’s piece on the famous Notre Dame football backfield — you remember, “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again.” There’s equally famous Red Smith on the ’51 Dodgers, the “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.”

But there’s also intriguing columns about obscure people and events. A guy a never heard of from the LA Times, Bill Plaschke, wrote a beauty of story, one I didn’t want to end, about a letter-writer who used to rip him — and, well, you gotta read that one yourself to find out the ending.

Back in 1956, a Southern writer named Harry Golden wrote this hilarious and courageous column satirizing racism in his neck of the woods with an ingenious idea called “The Vertical Negro Plan.” The theory? Black people are only a problem for whites when they “set.” So his solution to school segregation is to remove all the seats, so that white students don’t have to “sit” next to a black student. And that’s just the start of Golden’s superb commentary piece.

There’s so much more. There’s Art Buchwald and Dave Barry. There’s Ernest Hemingway (yeah, he was a newspaper guy) and Dorothy Thompson. There are writers newspaper junkies of a certain age (always wanted to work that phrase into my writing) hold up as heroes, folks like H.L. Mencken, Langstson Hughes, Damon Runyon, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and so many more.

With time running out…

Perhaps the one piece that jumped out at me as the penultimate example of the columnist’s art — superb writing as the clock ticks toward the newspaper’s press deadline — was written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, a piece syndicated in newspapers across the country.

It was carried in papers on 9/12/2001.

It was headlined, “We’ll Go Forward From This Moment.”

It was addressed to the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center towers.

It asked the questions, “What lesson did you hope to teach up by your coward’s attack?…What was it you hoped we would learn? Whatever it was, please know that it failed. Did you want us to respect your cause? You just damned your cause. Did you want to make us fear you? You just steeled our resolve. Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together.”

There’s more, so much more. In this and in just about every entry.

If you savor good writing, treat yourself to a great big serving. But one bite at a time.

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Why a parish just for black Catholics?

February 1, 2012

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St. Peter Claver Church has served black Catholics in Minnesota’s state capital for nearly 125 years, but the archbishop who established the parish wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do.

Archbishop John Ireland

Archbishop John Ireland, the legendary leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, was ahead of the curve when it came to racial equality, preaching that blacks were just as much children of God as were whites.

He acted on what he preached as well.

As St. Paul’s first archbishop (1884 to 1918), he was the first American bishop to allow a black man to study at the diocesan seminary — the St. Paul Seminary — and be ordained a diocesan priest in the United States. Father Stephen Theobald was ordained in 1910 and served at the Cathedral of St. Paul before being named pastor of St. Peter Claver Church in St. Paul.

Archbishop Ireland’s vision was that there should be no “race problem,” that the United States should be an integrated society. Daniel Rudd, the editor of a widely read black Catholic newspaper of the time, the American Catholic Tribune (circulation 10,000), saw in the archbishop an ally in his own vision that the Catholic Church was the best hope for racial justice and equality for black people in America.

Rudd was a sought-after lecturer, and in 1890, through a series of benefit speeches, he raised funds to build the first permanent church for St. Paul’s St. Peter Claver Parish. Archbishop Ireland had founded St. Peter Claver as a parish for “Colored Catholics” two years earlier and named it after the Spanish Jesuit who ministered to slaves in New Spain. But it wasn’t until 1892 that St. Peter Claver Church was built.

Historian Gary B. Agee, writing in the just-released biography of Rudd, said the black Catholic newspaperman and the archbishop both heard the demand from black Catholics for their own parishes, just as other ethnic groups had theirs, but they had trouble with that line of thinking.

Here’s an excerpt from “A Cry of Justice: Daniel Rudd and His Life in Black Catholicism, Journalism and Activism, 1854-1933″ (University of Arkansas Press):

“Rudd’s position on the existence of separate black parishes seems to have paralleled that of Archbishop Ireland. For example, when Ireland dedicated a new black parish in the city of St. Paul in 1892, the prelate expressed some ambivalence over the matter. He stated the establishment of a separate church for African American Catholics was only a temporary measure designed to benefit blacks. Further, Ireland desired all races to worship together. He also emphasized the fact that blacks were free to attend any of the city’s parishes.”

In his newspaper, Daniel Rudd echoed much the same sentiment, again excerpting from Agee’s book:

“If every so-called Colored Catholic church in the world was done away with instantly the Colored Catholics would be at home in any other Catholic church beneath the Sun.”

Obviously, given the racial history of our country and our church, both Archbishop Ireland and Daniel Rudd were ahead of their time in their vision.

 

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Quilts, yes, but so much more

January 10, 2012

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A poet and an illustrator patch together history, art and spirituality in boisterous words and blooming color

What it was like to be a Black slave in the American South — the back-breaking work, the pain, the evil masters, the broken hearts and yet the joy, the inner satisfaction, the compassionate masters, the deep faith — all of it comes at readers full bore in “I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery.”

Cynthia Grady has provided the poems — themselves named for quilts and structured like the patchwork craft of the seamstress — and illustrator Michele Wood uses quilt patterns to the max to dress the poet’s stories in form and color that simply can’t be ignored.

A book just of the poetry itself would be worthy. Grady’s storytelling is teacher-like, thought-provoking as all good poetry is, and musical in the dialect of the slaves themselves.

Phrases like “the devil hisself,” “fetch a good price” and “make your skin goose up” grab your senses — and your sensitivity to what Black people went through during those pre-Emancipation Proclamation decades.

Just like a quilt, each poem incorporates three layers — intentionally, Grady explained — with spiritual, musical and sewing references. Even the shape of each poem — 10 lines of 10 syllables — mirrors the squares of quilt blocks.

Each poem is accompanied not only by one of Wood’s creative illustrations but by a paragraph or two or three of historical background that makes each two-page spread even more informative.

Looking for something different yet spiritual and substantial for Black History Month in February? This Eerdmans Book for Young Readers would fill the bill nicely. Order here from the publisher or check at your local bookstore.

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If only FDR had listened about Hitler

July 1, 2011

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Are you a World War II junkie?

Love history and politics?

Here’s a great read for you.

As Adolph Hitler was gearing up his Nazi steamroller, American diplomat William Dodd tried to warn the U.S. government.

The Holocaust and World War II are evidence that Ambassador Dodd failed.

“In the Garden of Beasts” tells how and why Dodd couldn’t convince either Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the president who appointed him — or the high-society members of the U.S. Foreign Service that Hitler shouldn’t be treated like the leaders of other countries.

The four short years of Dodd’s tenure as ambassador to Germany come alive in Erik Larson’s latest superb nonfiction work. The brutality of Hitler and his Nazi brethren is palpable. The internal politics of 1933-37  Germany are ruthless and bloody.

And the snooty wealthy class that populated U.S. consulates at the time played no small part in enabling Ambassador Dodd’s cautions to go unheeded.

Unlikely and disliked

Plucked out of the history department of the University of Chicago, Dodd may have been a third or fourth choice for the post in Berlin, an appointment FDR made under pressure of a deadline. Naive enough to have his family Chevrolet shipped to Germany when the world’s ambassador class generally used limos and chauffeurs, Dodd’s middle-class values put him at odds with the consulate staff in Berlin, made him the source of German leaders’ ridicule, and worst of all caused his reports to be disrespected by those in Washington who should have been listening to his warning cries.

Don’t be put off by the nonfiction character of “In the Garden of Beasts.” Larson has done amazing research here, but the way he fashions the change in Dodd and Dodd’s daughter Martha, too, from being lovers of all things German (Martha in more ways than one!) to a critical analyst of that country’s leadership and people is brilliant and makes for meaty reading.

As you’re reading, try to be aware of parallels in the social culture of 1930s Germany and some aspects of 21st century life. A word to the wise?– bz

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When Catholics, Irish (or any other immigrant group) were ‘real Americans’ greatest fear

May 18, 2011

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Along with the oppressed immigrant angle, I really liked the history Peter Quinn’s captured of the anti-Catholicism the Irish faced in “Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America.”
Here’s a line to remember from this work of non-fiction: “If I thought less of my saliva, I’d expectorate in your face.”
It’s a quote from the author’s father, who was a member of Congress. A Republican heard Quinn’s Democrat father quote Shakespeare and remarked that he was “unusually cultured for an Irishman.”

And then there was the description of a Quinn’s grandfather by an aunt: “He’ll be the last man out of Purgatory, if, God willing, he was lucky enough to get in.”

The connection I made is that the immigrant experience of the Irish translates pretty well for other ethnic groups who came to this country. It’s American history at gut level.

I was impressed with the quality of research Quinn did. His connecting historical fact with fictional writing on those facts is an interesting tool. It reinforced for me the concept that in some ways fiction can tell history better than non-fiction.

As an active Catholic — one who works for a Catholic diocesan newspaper — and as a “hypenated-American” although non-Irish — I connected with Quinn’s understanding of the cultural value of Catholicism.

I’ll need to think a bit more about this, but my first thought is that he crossed the line when he included his opinions about a celibate clergy, for example. Not that that opinion shouldn’t have been expressed — I’m not saying that at all — but it seemed as though that subject matter belonged in a whole other book, not one about the Irish-American immigrant experience.

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Quotes show comments in past were as nasty as today’s

September 20, 2009

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“Distory,”
by Robert Schnakenberg

Don’t believe the voices clamoring about our 21st-century society being exceptionally rude and willing to belittle others more virulently than ever.

“Distory” proves that people — especially some in high office — have been saying ugly things about the rest of God’s children for a good long time.
When Charles the Fifth led the Holy Roman Empire, he slammed an entire country: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

Nineteenth-century Speaker of the U.S. House of Representative Thomas Reed blasted congressmen of his time with the cutting remark, “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.”

And author Charles Dickens once called Henry VIII “a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England.”

The whole book is like that, a series of quotations by individuals who have taken the kidgloves off and vented about another.

Insults through the years

Because the quotes are organized into chapters of insults by and about a) Americans, b) Brits, c) military figures, d) other nations and e) miscellaneous, and because they are listed chronologically, “Distory” can claim to teach us a bit of history as well.

Robert Schnakenberg subtitles this St. Martin’s Press work “A Treasury of Historical Insults.”

“Treasury” might not be the choice of nouns that polite folks would have used. In fact, some of the remarks are clever and witty. Others plain mean and graceless.

But I found it valuable to read the American chapter from beginning to end. It was a refresher course in history — and a mostly witty one at that. I learned, too, what some of the great names in history felt about others of their time, perspectives that weren’t in my elementary or high school history books.
Guess about whom pamphleteer Tom Paine — the lauded author of “Common Sense” — called “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life”?

Would you believe George Washington?

John Quincy Adams termed Andrew Jackson “a barbarian who cannot write a sentence of grammar and can hardly spell his own name.”

General George McClellan called Abraham Lincoln “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.”

Teddy Roosevelt said that William McKinley “has a chocolate eclair backbone.”

Press no shrinking violets

Media are often accused of being much more mean than their predecessors, but Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken was as nasty as they get when it comes to insults. He wrote this about Franklin D. Roosevelt:
“If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he sorely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday.”
Journalist Hunter S. Thompson at the end of the 20th century had a poison pen as well. Thompson on Richard Nixon:

“He was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad.”

And Gerald Ford said, “Jimmy Carter wants to speak loudly and carry a fly swatter.”

Brits: Masters of the ‘craft’

Our friends across the pond, of course, have made political insults a science. Politico John Bright in the 19th century said of prime minister Benjamin Disraeli: “He is a self-made man and worships his creator.”

Disraeli came back with this about the man who was both his predecessor and his successor, William Gladstone: “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone pulled him out, it would be a calamity.”

My favorite quotations, however, are this clever bit of repartee between playwright George Bernard Shaw and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Shaw: “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play, bring a friend — if you have one.” Churchill replied: “Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second — if there is one.” — bz
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Tales from Minnesota

June 15, 2009

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“Pilgrims to the Northland,”

by Marvin R. O’Connell

The story of the how a Catholic archdiocese took root on the bluffs along the upper Mississippi River is chock full of stories — stories about the people who planted those roots and those that nurtured them, stories that will enlightne you, force a chuckle out of you, perhaps even shock you.

Marvin O’Connell tells as many as he could fit into 615 pages of this early history of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Take this lovely anecdote:

When a German-speaking Benedictine priest served the fledgling Bohemian parish of St. Wenceslaus in New Prague back in 1859, a unique way to overcome the language barrier was devised so that the Czech-speaking parishioners could confess their sins via an interpreter. Father O’Connell writes:

“The priest faced the penitent, and both of them were separated from the interpreter by a thin wall. The priest enunciated in turn the Ten Commandments in German, which the interpreter translated loudly into Bohemian. The penitent either nodded — meaning he had transgressed in that regard — or shook his head in denial. Thus secrecy was observed and embarrassment avoided, and sacramental absolution could be duly administered.”

No mere ecclesial history

There is a minimum of the kind of statistical growth numerology that populates too many accounts of church history. Instead, Father O’Connell puts the history of the Catholic Church in the United States — and of U.S. Catholics — into its national and international perspectives, always with human touches.

So valuable are the introductory pages to each chapter that explain what was going on in the nation — or in the world — at a particular juncture in time between 1840 and 1962, where O’Connell ends this work. As much as he can the priest of the archdiocese and University of Notre Dame professor emeritus helps readers understand what shaped the church that straddles the Mississippi today, and especially what — and who — was responsible for making that happen.

Of course bishops and archbishops play major roles, with the iconic John Ireland taking over the stage by force of length of service from the community’s earliest days through the early 20th century, and by force of personality. It was Archbishop Ireland’s presence on the national stage as the spearhead of Americanization — that movement that promoted the concept that this new land of freedom was the best place for the Catholic faith to flourish, and that freedom and faith were the best of partners.

Not everyone agreed, including some in high places in the church both in the United States and at the Vatican.

O’Connell covers the controversy with balance, framing well the crucial questions that made the controversy so volatile. As European immigrants arrived, he asks,

“Did they, once landed in New York or Philadelphia, discard their language, their traditions, their folkways, in short their nationality? And did the Catholics among them, faced by a culture created and dominated for two and a half centuries by Protestant Anglo-Saxons an Scotch-Irish, discard their faith? These were the crucial questions confronting the American bishops in the 1880s. and they intertwined to form another: to what degree did the preservation of the immigrants’ faith depend upon maintaining the habits and customs of the old country?”

Ireland was of the mind that immigrants had to untie the apron strings to the old country and become American in order to be respected and take their rightful place in order that their faith influence American culture.

Heroes among the priests

The challenges that had to be overcome by the area’s episcopal leaders fills pages, to be sure, but O’Connell spends just as much if not more time on some of his priest heroes, people from the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese who have influenced both the world and the church. He lovingly gives credit, too, to the women religious — the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in particular — for their selfless service to the People of God not just in the Twin Cities but across Minnesota and the Dakotas, as the Diocese of St. Paul was originally defined.

Generous oil man Ignatius A. O’Shaughnessy is granted his due in this history, too.

But two priests capture many pages, and deservedly so, because they influenced so many others, both clergy and lay.

There is the passionate teacher and advocate for social justice, Monsignor John A. Ryan, who grew up on a farm in rural Vermillion Township and became an adviser to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Labeled “The Right Reverend New Dealer,” Ryan was the architect and advocate of social justice principles that are now woven into the texture of American life: the minimum wage, a progressive income tax, the eight-hour work day, unemployment insurance, etc.

The early adopters of the Liturgical Movement, Benedictine Dom Virgil Michel, the St. Paul Seminary’s Father William Busch get well deserved notice, but historical ink tells us more about Father John Bussard, a founder of the Leaflet Missal and Catholic Digest, which in 1936 enjoyed a circulation of a million copies a month.

Bussard — in 1938 mind you — convinced Archbishop John Gregory Murray — to have the altar in the lower crypt of the new Nativity of Our Lord Church in St. Paul to be free standing, so that at Mass the priest faced the congregation and the worshipers could see and follow his actions at the altar and pray with him from their vernacular missals.

Father Bussard had argued, “The one thing necessary is to unite the faithful closely with Christ. Can that ever be done by a priest who stands with his back to them and reads Sacred Scripture to a wall?”

O’Connell faithfully reports the successes and the failures of archbishops Grace, Dowling, Murray, Brady and Byrne, but it is Paul Bussard and John A. Ryan who he calls “the two most influential Minnesota Catholics” during the middle third of the 20th century.

“Their influence spread far beyond the confines of their native state. Their approach to events and their manner of dealing with challenges, no less than the theaters in which they played out their roles, were very different. But a ‘golden thread of Catholic thou
ght’ did bind them together to a degree Bussard’s crusade for liturgical renewal — its insistence on the unity and participation of the whole worship community — possessed an unmistakable collective component, which Ryan’s tireless drive for social and racial justice derived directly from his conviction that Jesus had called for a communal solution to the problems of the ages.”

The war that changed everything

Archbishop Murray’s opposition to the Nazis is part of the history, including his invitation to his priests to volunteer to be chaplains during World War II. The archbishop promised that any curate (associate pastor) who volunteered to be a chaplain would be named a pastor after the “inevitable triumph” (Murray’s words). He kept his word.

It was the aftermath of World War II that changed Catholic status in the United States, O’Connell opines.

The G.I. Bill of Rights destroyed the traditional American class system. Young Catholics who before the war never dreamed of going to college or owning their own homes took advantage of the G.I.Bill to earn college degrees and enter the professions and management ranks, “and so participated fully in the expanding economy as they moved their big, bustling families into secure new homes.” O’Connell’s analysis?”

“In short, Catholics achieved what John Ireland had striven so hard for: they became part of the great American middle class. And in 1960 one of their own was elected president of the United States.”

Unfortunately a review can touch only a fraction of the topics and tales Father O’Connell shares, and that’s how it should be. Buy the book.

At $70, this University of Notre Dame Press tome is pricey, but it’s great reading. O’Connell has a marvelous literary style with clever segues and a timely sense of humor. For example, at the installation Mass for Coadjutor Archbishop Murray, there were 5,000 worshipers (“nine of whom fainted during the lengthy ceremony”), O’Connell inserts.

Some of the history is admittedly not what a public relations person might put forward, but then O’Connell’s task was history, not PR, and the author doesn’t shy from the seamy side of Catholic history. There were some disreputable characters in this neck of the woods over the course of the years.

The very best anecdotes are from priests he interviewed who shared the stories of their own encounters in the seminary, parish or chancery office that add in sight and color as to what Catholic life was really like.

Finally, Father O’Connell’s personal memories inserted into many footnotes add humanity to this scholarly work. Don’t pass them by. — bz

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Power of the presidency comes alive in history of Andrew Jackson

February 7, 2009

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“American Lion,”
by Jon Meacham

As a new American president takes the stage, reading a history of an American president some 180 years prior is an enlightening joy.
Watching Barack Obama utilize his mandate from the 2008 election has been the perfect backdrop for going back in time to learn how — in 1828 and during the eight years of two terms Andrew Jackson showed many U.S. presidents how the power of the presidency might be used to lead.
A youth during the War of Independence, a hero of the War of 1812 and a renown Indian fighter, the man those close to him called “the General” won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote in two elections, and he never let it be forgotten by those who disagreed with his reasoning.
Meacham paints a thorough portrait of Old Hickory — warts and all — yet his loving brush strokes are obvious. Readers, too, will find much to admire in Andrew Jackson, yet much for which to find fault with him as well, and that’s to the historian Meacham’s credit: He lets Jackson be human, not all good, not all bad, but multi-dimensional.

One way: Jackson’s
Jackson was the break-through candidate, the one who saw the president as the representative of the people against entrenched interests. He took that mandate from his election as a voucher giving him the right to make changes — and that he did.
Coming from his Tennessee home (the Hermitage) to a Washington that was just decades old but already seemingly set in its ways — particularly with regard to who had a “right” to government jobs — Jackson made it plain that he do things differently — and his way. Hundreds of long-time government staff found they were replaced by Jackson appointees, for one thing. That was new.
When it came to Congress, Jackson initiated greater use of the veto, enhancing presidential power: In 40 years no more than four or five Acts of Congress had been vetoed by six presidents; Jackson vetoed four in three days.

A man of firsts
Jackson was the first Democrat, and might be credited — for good or ill — as the one who started party-line voting, and a president who offered favors for votes in Congress.
During the election year of 1832, when he sought a second term, Jackson broke with tradition and initiated the first presidential campaign tour. Not willing to let others do his bidding, Jackson made the barbecue circuit, shaking hands and being seen as he made his way from his home in Tennessee to Washington and elsewhere. In New York City, one observer likened a Jackson torchlight parade to Catholic processions.
The campaign of 1832 may be where image first played a major role in how Americans voted. Jackson’s men repeated the message that “a vote for Jackson was a vote for the people while a vote for (Henry) Clay was a vote for the privileged,” Meacham noted.
Jackson understood the power of his personality and how the power of personality gave a president power.

Pro-slavery, anti-Indian
Along the way, though, President Andrew Jackson made what today society would say were serious errors — even immoral ones.
For one thing, Jackson was a slave owner and upheld the practice of slavery. He moved to curb the forces of abolition, even suppressing with presidential orders the right of printed material to be delivered from abolitionist writers.
He also saw Native Americans as just in the way of the progress of white U.S. citizens, and his policies and practices led to cruel resettlement of Indian tribes. The “Trail of Tears” — the forced removal of the Cherokee to the west — was a shameful result of Jackson’s Indian policy though it took place a year after he left office. An estimated 4,000 of the 16,000 Cherokees forced out of Georgia died along the way due to brutal treatment by the U.S. military.
Reading of his life now, though, is a good reminder, Meacham points out, “that evil can appear perfectly normal to even the best men and women of a given time.”
Ironically, despite his own participation in slavery, Jackson is also credited with preventing the southern states from seceding from the Union. When South Carolina felt compelled to reject Acts of Congress, Jackson stamped down and denied that any state had the right to do that.
When the tariff on southern cotton proved to be a divisive issue that could lead to succession, Jackson worked out a compromise that cooled tempers.

He is still with us
For my taste, too much of Meacham’s work pays attention to the pettiness of Washington society and how it impacted Jackson’s cabinet and household.
But Meacham shines in showing how Jackson has influenced and continues to influence the presidents of the United States:
– Running at the head of a national party;
– Fighting for a mandate from the people to govern in a particular way on particular issues;
– Depending on a circle of insiders and advisers;
– Mastering the media of the age to transmit a consistent message at a constant pace;
– Using the veto as a political weapon.
“He gave his most imaginative successors the means to do things they thought right,” Meacham noted, citing examples of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman as evidence.

A man of prayer
Readers interested in Jackson’s spirituality will find consistent references in “American Lion” that show the seventh president to have been a man of prayer.
Jackson’s rhetoric regularly includes mention of the Almighty, he is seen in prayer and frequently a nearby church, though he didn’t join a particular denomination — Baptist — until after he left office. His reasoning? He didn’t want it to look like he was joining just to improve his image.
One wonderful anecdote that captures a whiff of Jackson’s spirituality and a large bite of his sense of power is told upon his death near the end of the 360 pages of prose in this Random House book. Meacham writes:
“In Nashville,
according to legend, a visitor to the Hermitage asked a slave on the place whether he thought Jackson had gone to heaven. ‘If the General wants to go,’ the slave replied, ‘who’s going to stop him?'”
— bz
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Know D-Day like never before

July 14, 2008

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“THE STEEL WAVE,”
by Jeff Shaara

You’ll feel like you’re in on the planning of the Normandy invasion with Ike and Monty.
You’ll ride the landing craft with the foot soldiers as they near Omaha Beach.
You’ll drop from the sky with the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne.
And you be there as so many of the men who landed in France on June 6, 1944 died in order to free the world from tyranny.

The middle novel of Jeff Shaara’s three-part World War II saga rivals the film “Saving Private Ryan” for realism. War is hell, as we’ve heard, but Shaara pounds in the point.

His reader-gripping fiction puts you right in the violence of the battles, the mental strain of those leading the attack that started the end of Hitler’s Third Reich, the political hurdles that challenged Eisenhower and his foe across the English Channel, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

So much has been written about D-Day, so much known through film, that Shaara’s work in a couple of instances seemed less than original. In fact, when they made those great war epics, good screen writers may have been using some of the same source material that Shaara did for “The Steel Wave.” Insight into Rommel may be the most enlightening chapters.

But where this book is at its best is jumping from the plane and walking in the boot steps of Sgt. Jesse Adams, a real-life soldier whose ordeal leading a platoon as it fights its way across the hedgerow country of France is what brings drama and punch to “The Steel Wave.” Finding out what happens to Sgt. Adams and many of the other players in the Normandy invasion is a fitting end to a very nice read. — bz

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Dust Bowl history makes sad era a reality show

March 10, 2008

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“The Worst Hard Time,”
by Timothy Egan

You may have seen photos of the Dust Bowl, but read Timothy Egan’s comprehensive history and you can taste the dirt and feel the wind blast against your skin.

Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl,” paints such a vivid portrait of those 1930s years of dry, violent storms that you’ll find yourself coughing and swallowing hard just imagining what it must have been like when nature punished farmers for turning millions of acres of grassland into billowing towers of dust, dirt and sand.

Imagine how hard times must have been that people in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and southwestern Colorado would be driven to eat pickled tumbleweed to survive.

Imagine going three years without a paycheck.

Imagine your small town newspaper editor describing as “sissies” those who — after losing all the top soil from their land, not having anything to feed their cattle, watching their children, spouses and relatives die from “dust pneumonia” — didn’t have the “courage” to stick out the hard times.

Through interviews with people who lived through the 1930s in the Dust Bowl counties and terrific research, including amazing diary entries from a farmer who lost everything, Egan helps his readers know this little-known era of American history.

It’s a dense work, filled with information, especially information about real people – how they felt, how they cried, how they survived.

It’s an honest history, too, one not afraid to acknowledge both the failed recovery programs of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration and the conservation-minded ones that began to work to revive the land in places.

Whether or not you believe that the planet faces climate change today, this is a book that should help everyone understand how connected humanity is to the soil. The consequences of not valuing the soil result in tragedies like the Dust Bowl — something no one who reads this book would ever want to go through. — bz

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