March 12, 2013
The recent movie Lincoln is serving an important function if it adds some balance to the public perception of the 16th president. No film that I have seen has presented Abraham Lincoln in such realistic terms, and the decision to focus on his campaign to get the 13th Amendment enacted was inspired, because that aspect of Lincoln’s presidency is not well known.
In a way, Lincoln is a victim of his own success. Under his watch, the Union was preserved and human slavery was outlawed in the United States. As a result, Lincoln is enshrined in the national memory as a miracle worker, a savior, almost super human. The apotheosis began almost the moment the public learned of his death.
Among the titles applied to Lincoln is “great emancipator,” but the sobriquet doesn’t reflect Lincoln’s internal struggle and his political struggle over the notion that the federal government should free the millions of people who were being held in bondage in the South when the Civil War erupted.
The book is marketed by the publisher, Abrams, as being for young readers but the clear and concise treatment would be serviceable for any adult who wants to catch up on this topic.
Lincoln was progressive for his time. He hated human slavery and would have abolished it if he thought he could. But the relationship between the states and the federal government was still evolving in the mid 19th century, and Lincoln didn’t think Constitution gave the federal government the power to interfere with slavery where it already existed.
Inasmuch as the Civil War erupted shortly after and largely because of Lincoln’s first inauguration,he was preoccupied with one thing, and that was saving the Union. He said in so many words that whatever he did about slavery — abolish it, modify it, leave it alone — he would do only because it would save the Union. In the end, he was true to his word, because the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared free only those people who were being held as slaves in states or parts of states in rebellion against the federal government, was a war measure. Lincoln reasoned that he could take that action as commander in chief even if he couldn’t have taken it as a peacetime president. Even then, he hesitated.
While Lincoln was considering the advisability of freeing slaves as a way of weakening the southern economy, he had to take into account the potential reaction of the border states — slave states that hadn’t left the Union — as well as the reactions of white Union soldiers who were willing to fight to save the Union but not to free black slaves. Meanwhile, he was under pressure from the swelling abolitionist movement to simply put an end to slavery in one sweeping gesture.
Lincoln also gave a lot of thought to what would become of the slaves once they were emancipated, and his thoughts were shaped by the fact that he didn’t believe in the equality of the black and white races and didn’t think black and white people could live together in peace. Accordingly, his solution was to colonize the freed slaves, preferably in South America or West Africa, even though most slaves at that time had been born in the United States. But by February 1865, Lincoln was publicly endorsing voting rights for at last some educated black men.
This is an attractive book — an art book, really — richly illustrated with images from the period and embellished with break-out quotes from prominent men and women with an interest in the subject of emancipation.
December 18, 2012
If the Chicago Tribune had it right, William H. Seward was the prince of darkness.
In 1862, when Seward was Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state and the Civil War seemed as likely as not to permanently destroy the federal union, the “world’s greatest newspaper” knew whom to blame. Seward, the Tribune said, was “Lincoln’s evil genius. He has been president de facto, and has kept a sponge saturated with chloroform to Uncle Abe’s nose all the while, except one or two brief spells.” The Boston Commonwealth was about as delicate in its assessment of Seward: “he has a right to be idiotic, undoubtedly, but he has no right to carry his idiocy into the conduct of affairs, and mislead men and nations about ‘ending the war in sixty days.’ “
This demonic imbecile, as some editors would have it, is the subject of Walter Stahr’s comprehensive and engaging biography, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man. Stahr has a somewhat different take than the Tribune’s Joseph Medill. While Stahr acknowledges that Seward was overly optimistic about prospects for the federal government to prevail over the seceding states, and while he acknowledges that Seward sometimes turned to political chicanery and downright dishonesty, he also regards Seward as second in importance during the Civil War era only to Lincoln himself.
Seward, a former governor of New York and United States Senator, was by Stahr’s account, very close to Lincoln personally, which probably contributed to the rancor directed at Seward from others in the government who wanted the president’s attention. Their relationship was interesting in a way that is analogous to the relationship between Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton in the sense that Seward was Lincoln’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Seward’s presidential ambitions, which were advanced by fits and starts by the political instigator Thurlow Weed of New York, are well documented in this book. But, as Stahr makes clear, Seward’s disappointment at losing the nomination to Lincoln did not prevent him from agreeing to serve with Lincoln at one of the most difficult periods in the nation’s history nor from serving him loyally.
As important an office as secretary of state is now, it was even more so in the 19th century, because its reach wasn’t confined to foreign affairs. It wasn’t uncommon for the secretary of state to be referred to as “the premier.” At first, Seward’s view of the office might have exceeded even the reality; he seems to have thought at first that he would make and execute policy and Lincoln provide the face of the administration. Lincoln soon made it clear who was in charge, and he and Seward worked well together from then on.
Seward’s service in Lincoln’s administration nearly cost him his life on the night that Lincoln himself was murdered by John Wilkes Booth. One of Booth’s accomplices, Lewis Payne, forced his way into the house where Seward was lying in bed, recovering from injuries he had sustained in a serious carriage accident. Payne, who was a wild man, tore through the place, cutting anyone who tried to stop him, and he attacked Seward, slashing his face. Payne fled the house — he eventually hanged for his crime — and Seward survived.
After the double trauma of Lincoln’s death and Seward’s own ordeal, it would have been understandable if Seward had withdrawn from public life. Seward wasn’t cut of ordinary cloth, however, and he agreed to remain at his post in the administration of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Johnson was an outstanding American in many respects—he was the only southern member to remain in his U.S. Senate seat after secession, and he gave up the relative safety of the capital and took his life in his hands when Lincoln asked him to serve as military governor of Tennessee — but he was not suited for the role that was thrust on him by Booth.
Stahr explores the question of why Seward stayed on during the troubled years of Johnson’s tenure. He infers, for one thing, that Seward agreed with Johnson’s idea that the southern states should be quickly restored to their place in the Union without the tests that the Republican majority in Congress, and especially the “radical” wing of the party, wanted to impose. Stahr also writes that Seward believed that if Congress succeeded in removing Johnson on impeachment charges that were politically motivated it would upset the balance of power in the federal government for decades to come.
I mentioned Seward to a co-worker today, and she said, “of the folly?” She was referring to the purchase of Alaska, which Seward completed during Johnson’s administration. Stahr writes that much of the press supported the purchase of “Russian American” at first, and although the term “folly” was tossed about later, prompted in part by Seward’s further ambitions for expansion, the epithet was never widely used.
Alaska was only one of Seward’s achievements. He was a skillful diplomat who was equipped to play the dangerous game that kept Britain and France from recognizing the Confederate States of America. Although he may have underestimated the threat of secession and the prospects for a protracted war, he was at Lincoln’s side every step of the way—playing a direct role, for instance, in the suspension of habeas corpus and the incarceration of suspected spies without trial. He was not an abolitionist—and in that respect he disagreed with his outspoken wife, Frances— but Seward was passionate about preventing the spread of slavery into the western territories. He believed that black Americans should be educated. He did not support fugitive slave laws and even illegally sheltered runaway slaves in his home in Auburn, N.Y.
Seward was a complicated character who stuck to high moral and ethical standards much of the time, but was capable of chicanery, deceit, and maybe even bribery if it would advance what he thought was a worthy purpose.
A world traveler, he was one of Washington’s leading hosts, known for his engaging manner, and yet with his omnipresent cigar and well-worn clothes he appeared to all the world as something akin to an unmade bed. Henry Adams, who admired Seward, described him as “the old fellow with his big nose and his wire hair and grizzled eyebrows and miserable dress” who nevertheless was “rolling out his grand, broad ideas that would inspire a cow with statesmanship if she understood our language.”
May 24, 2012
When I discussed the book I wrote about in a post here this week, I got an unexpected response from several people who thought I couldn’t distinguish a camel from an elephant.
The book was “The Last Camel Charge” by Forrest B. Johnson, which reports on an experiment in which the U.S. Army imported several dozen camels from North Africa in the 1850s to see if they would perform better than horses and mules in the difficult conditions in the American Southwest. In about a half dozen cases in which I started to discuss this book, my companion asked me if I didn’t mean elephants. In all of these cases, they were mixing up the episode Johnson wrote about with the incident in which the King of Siam offered to send elephants to the United States for use as beasts of burden.
Most people who know about that offer heard about it in the musical play or the movie “The King and I,” in which, not surprisingly, it was badly distorted. In the movie and the musical, the King of Siam—Rama IV Mongkut—dictates, in English, a barely literate letter to Abraham Lincoln, offering to send the elephants. In reality, the king — who was fairly fluent in English — wrote such a letter, in his own hand, to Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, James Buchanan.
The king’s idea was that the elephants could be set free in the American wilderness and allowed to breed so that, as the herd grew, the animals could be captured and trained to carry cargo. Transportation being what it was in those days, that letter didn’t reach the White House until Buchanan had left office. So it was Lincoln who responded.
Lincoln, who signed the letter “your good friend,” wrote in part,
“I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States.
“Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”
From what I can tell, the portrayal of Mongkut in the stage show and the film was inaccurate in broader ways. While Yul Brynner, who created the role in both cases, represented the king as ignorant and in some ways boorish, Mongkut — a Buddhist monk and eventually an abbott — seems to have been well informed. He studied English, Latin, and astronomy and was an admirer of Jesus of Nazareth if not of Christian theological dogma.
April 16, 2011
Maybe I’ve read too much about the plot against Abraham Lincoln; that may be why I can’t get up any enthusiasm about Robert Redford’s film “The Conspirator.” For more than 50 years, I’ve been wading through so many accounts either exonerating or condemning Mary Surratt for complicity in the crime, that I’m practically schizophrenic on the subject. I first took interest in the assassination when my dad subscribed to the Reader’s Digest condensed book series. The first book we got included a truncated version of Jim Bishop’s 1955 history The Day Lincoln Was Shot. Being a sucker for a sob story, my first inclination was to sympathize with Mrs. Surratt as an innocent victim of Edwin Stanton’s over-the-top response to the death of the president — which occurred, incidentally, 146 years ago this very day. I was about 14 when I read that book, and I think the idea of a woman being hanged superseded any calm analysis of the evidence.
I’m probably more suspicious of Mary Surratt now than I was then, although I think the way the defendants were tried in that case was outrageous. Meanwhile, the most interesting figure in that case — well, the most entertaining, anyway — was Mary Surratt’s son John, whose story — as far as I know — has yet to be put on film. John Surratt was 20 years old at the time of the murder, and he had been active as a messenger and a spy for the Confederacy.
Surratt was involved with John Wilkes Booth in a conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, take him to the Confederate capital in Richmond, and try to exchange him for southern war prisoners. That plot was unwittingly derailed by Lincoln, who changed the travel plans that the conspirators were relying on. It’s well established that Surratt wasn’t among the little circle of characters Booth enlisted after ramping his plan up to murder. But Surratt beat it out of the country as soon as the foul deed was done, leaving his mother behind to face the wrath of a seething Union. He may have been in upstate New York on a spying mission when Lincoln was killed. At any rate, he turned up in Canada and, after his mother had been hanged, he went to England, then to Paris, then to Rome. The unification of Italy hadn’t been completed yet, and John Surratt was able to enlist in the papal army and engage in combat with the forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi. According to Surratt, he wrote to an influential person in the United States to ask if it would be safe for him to return — by which he meant, would he be tried in a civil court or by an illegal court-martial like the one that had convicted his mother.
Although his correspondent advised him to stay away for three more years, Surratt decided to take his chances and go home. Before he could do so, however, someone in the Vatican recognized him, and Pope Pius IX ordered him arrested. Surratt was confined to a monastery on a mountain somewhere between Rome and Naples. Meanwhile the Vatican secretary of state informed the United States Secretary of State William Seward, and a man-of-war was dispatched from the Indian Ocean to fetch Surratt. When he was removed from his cell to be transferred to Rome, he broke away from his captors and dove over a wall onto a rock ledge about thirty five feet below. He was momentarily unconscious, but came to himself and scrambled down the mountainside to the village below. As he continued his flight, he fell in with a company of Garibaldi’s troops and told them he was an American deserter from the pope’s forces. They protected him until he departed for Alexandria, Egypt. There, he decided again that he should return to the United States, and he stopped disguising his identity. He was tracked down and arrested and sent home via Marseilles on the U.S. Navy sloop Swatara.
At home, Surratt got his wish, as it were, when he was tried for murder by a civil court in a proceeding that lasted from June 10 to August 10, 1867. The jury was divided — eight voting to acquit and four to convict — and Surratt was a free man. He lectured on his involvement in the Lincoln case without much success. He later became a teacher and eventually worked in the offices of a steamship company. He married, and he and his wife had seven children. He died in 1916.
John Surratt is one of those captivating figures who flit around the outskirts of historical events which we sometimes think about only in terms of the major players. Judging by his previous relationship with Booth, this story probably would have been very different if Surratt hadn’t been out of town on April 14, 1865. As it is, he comes across as a scamp who makes good copy and probably would make an even better movie.
The text of one of Surratt’s lectures is at THIS LINK.
April 11, 2011
In the Capitoline Museum in Rome there is a bronze statue of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. This is the only complete bronze statue of a Roman emperor that still exists. It was erected while the old stoic was in office – 176 AD. The reason that there are no other bronze statues from that era is that it was routine in the fourth and fifth centuries to melt them down so that the metal could be used for other statues or for coins. Sic semper gloria, as the saying goes. Statues of the emperors were destroyed also because Christians — apparently with no regard for the historical curiosity of future generations — regarded them as offensive remnants of paganism. In fact, it is said that the statue of Marcus Aurelius survived because it was erroneously thought to be an effigy of the sort-of Christian emperor Constantine.
It has not been unusual for statues of great, or at least dominant, figures to be desecrated by unappreciative come-latelies. Just the other day, some Syrians who are impatient with the fact that they lack basic political and economic rights did insulting things to an image of their former president, Hafez al-Assad, affectionately known as the “butcher of Hama” because of an unpleasant incident in which he caused the deaths of from 17,000 to 40,000 people.
There was some unpleasantness of a different sort about 8 years ago concerning a statue erected in Richmond representing Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad. The statue reflects on Lincoln’s visit to the ruined city in April 1865 at the end of the Civil War. There were bitter protests by people who objected to the statue, apparently still not able to concede Lincoln’s conciliatory attitude toward the southerners whose treason brought on the war in the first place.
Meanwhile, there has been some statuary-related turmoil in England. The trouble isn’t about figures of Neville Chamberlain or Guy Fawkes or Edward VIII. No, the man at the center of the maelstrom is Michael Jackson. There are two new statues of Jackson in place in the UK, and both of them are getting the raspberry from some of Jackson’s fans.
One scuffle is about a statue of Jackson dangling his baby son out of a hotel window. The life-sized image — which the artist calls “Madonna and Child” — recalls the incident in which Jackson held his son Prince Michael II out of a window in Berlin in 2002 while hundreds of fans were gathered below.
The sculpture is by a Swedish-born artist named Maria von Kohler; it’s displayed in the window of a music studio in East London. Jackson’s fans — who apparently haven’t been lured away by any of Simon Cowles’ instant sensations — find the sculpture revolting. They see it as an part of a persistent campaign of slander against Jackson, who set the bar for slander rather high. Viv Broughton, chief executive of the music studio, has a different view. He called the sculpture a “thought-provoking statement about fame and fan worship.”
The other skirmish has been prompted by a statue of Jackson erected outside Craven Cottage Stadium in London. The stadium is the home of the Fulham Football Club, a soccer team. Mohamed al-Fayed — whose son Dodi died in the auto accident that killed Princess Diana — owns the football club. The elder Fayed was a friend of Jackson.
Art critics have had a field day with the statue and some of Jackson’s disciples have criticized it, too.
Fayed responded to the criticism with a certain delicacy: “If some stupid fans don’t understand and appreciate such a gift, they can go to hell.”
I’ve often thought, when I pass the statue of Vice President Garret Hobart in front of City Hall in Paterson, how melancholy he must be as hundreds of people pass him each day without a glimmer of recognition. On the other hand, he has nobody attacking him except the pigeons.
August 27, 2010
For my own amusement, I keep a file of presidential trivia, but there is one fragment of information about the 36th president that I have chosen to omit: Lyndon Johnson was the only president who conducted staff meetings in his bathroom while he was moving his bowels. The fact that he bullied his staff into participating in this bizarre behavior speaks to one of the worst characteristics of the president. And, I suppose — to the extent that they didn’t have enough personal pride to tell him to go take a whaddyacallit — it speaks to the self image of Johnson’s toadies. He was a coarse, loud-mouthed bully, and that went along nicely with his appetites for alcohol and women.
Johnson, in a few words, was no damned good. That is, he would have been if he hadn’t conducted the most successful domestic policy of any president except Franklin Roosevelt; if he hadn’t used his political brawn and skill to enact such measures as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Voting Rights Act, and if he hadn’t sponsored such programs as Medicare. These contrasting realities about LBJ are described in “Lyndon B. Johnson” by Charles Peters, one of a series of short presidential biographies by Times Books.
Maybe it has been true of every president including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that the nation has had to accept the bad with the good sides of a man, but that lesson has hardly been more boldly drawn than it was in the case of Lyndon Johnson.
Peters, who was a member of the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Johnson, gives plenty of examples of Johnson’s petulance, pettiness, and cruelty, including his weakness for publicly humiliating the people around him. Peters reports instances in which Johnson obfuscated or simply lied, including to the American public, in order to get his way — although LBJ hardly originated that tactic. In fact, Peters describes the scenario in which LBJ, then vice president, was left out of the loop when Robert Kennedy secretly agreed to the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey as a quid pro quo for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. LBJ succeeded to the presidency and pursued what turned out to be a very aggressive policy against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong without knowing how the missile crisis had been resolved.
Johnson was an extraordinarily ambitious man, and he never made decisions without weighing the political consequences for himself. For instance, he abhorred the idea that he would be cast as a weakling if he publicly vacillated from a determination to prevent the fall of South Vietnam — even while he seriously doubted that the war could be won and made several efforts to achieve a negotiated peace.
The war — or, at least, the way the war was perceived by much of the American public by 1968 — was Johnson’s undoing. People may forget about Johnson showing off his surgical scar, using an aide’s lap as a footrest, lifting his hound by its ears, or even pursuing one sexual affair after another. However, as Peters notes, the bloodshed and the divisiveness and LBJ’s unprecedented decision to decline to run for reelection will always be associated with his memory.
Still, this unlikeable man took a courageous stand during a time of great uncertainty in the country and doggedly promoted his programs to help the poor, to assure medical care for the elderly, to assist students, and to finally bring true political equality to black Americans. Historians can spend eternity speculating whether all of that could have been achieved in the America of the 1960s without an SOB of Shakespearean proportions in the White House.
June 27, 2010
The recent decision by President Obama to remove Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his command in Afghanistan in favor of Gen. David Petraeus prompted a lot of people to reflect on the analogous event involving President Truman and Gen. Douglas McArthur. My mind reached back further, however, because I happened to be reading Lincoln and McClellan, a recent book by John C. Waugh about another president and general whose relationship came to grief.
Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan is remembered today mostly for his reticence on the battlefield and for the effect that had on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln finally removed the general from command of the Army of the Potomac after the carnage at Antietam. It’s hard to say that there was a winner or loser in that awful battle, but Lincoln’s frustration was that McClellan let Robert E. Lee and his army slip away without pursuit — this after McClellan had repeatedly resisted Lincoln’s urgings to attack or pursue the enemy.
In a way, McClellan, like so many of his contemporaries, was one more victim of the Civil War. He was a charismatic and erudite man who was well trained at West Point — but not as a fighter. McClellan had served in the Mexican War and had left the army for a lucrative executive position with a railroad, but he returned to arms when secession made war inevitable.
Lincoln called on McClellan after the disaster of First Bull Run, and McClellan used his considerable skill to, in effect, create the Army of the Potomac and mold it into a formidable fighting force. His personal qualities endeared him to the troops, and that sentiment spilled over to the Northern public. McClellan was lionized as a new Napoleon. He believed his own publicity, but he fell short of its promise. Among his errors were that he was never quite satisfied with the readiness of his army and that he wildly overestimated the size of his enemy with the result that he ended up being embarrassed by much smaller forces than his own.
Although McClellan ran for president in 1864 and in later life served as governor of New Jersey and campaigned for Democratic presidential candidates Winfield Scott and Grover Cleveland, he hated politics and despised politicians.
He resented any interference in military affairs by civilian authorities, and that put him on a collision course with Lincoln who, for better or for worse, had his own ideas about strategy and let the general know about them. There were bitter exchanges between McClellan and both Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was something of a troublemaker in his own right.
This condition was complicated by the fact that McClellan came from an elite Philadelphia family and regarded people with humbler pedigrees as his social and intellectual inferiors — and that included, one might say especially, Abraham Lincoln. In letters to his wife, Ellen Marcy McClellan, the general dismissed Lincoln as “an idiot” and “a gorilla.” This was consistent with a pattern in McClellan’s life in which he usually regarded his superiors as incompetent.
Like many or maybe most northerners, McClellan was not concerned about the institution of slavery or about the slaves themselves, and he insisted that they were not a factor in the war. He maintained that the war should be conducted with the least possible impact of southern institutions and property – and he pointedly included slavery and slaves in that philosophy. As as result, he was scandalized when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the fact that Lincoln insisted that the proclamation was a war measure didn’t mitigate McClellan’s disgust.
McClellan has often been brushed off as an almost comical figure who dithered while Lincoln fumed, but passing easy judgment on the men and women who lived through and participated in the war and the events surrounding it is a disservice to them. That’s why I appreciate books like this one, in which John Waugh presents a balanced view of the life and career of a complicated man caught up in a complicated epoch.
April 12, 2010
I had an opportunity this week to talk to William Henline, a young playwright who is about to introduce a drama about Edwin Booth, the most prominent American actor of the mid and late 19th century and the brother of John Wilkes Booth. The focal point of the play is Edwin Booth’s effort to come to terms with what his brother had done. The dynamics are not the obvious. Edwin and Wilkes Booth lived at politically opposite poles. Wilkes was a Confederate sympathizer and operative who despised Abraham Lincoln, as many people did at the time. Edwin supported the Union, and Henline’s research shows that the only two times Edwin Booth is known to have voted, he voted for Lincoln. The brothers’ political differences ran so deep that they were incapable of discussing the subject.
Still, Henline discerns that there was a fraternal love that underlay this fissure between the brothers and that survived even Edwin’s revulsion and humiliation over the murder of Lincoln. Edwin, it seems, was constitutionally incapable of rationalizing or excusing Wilkes Booth’s crime, but was equally incapable of casting off his sibling — even if he did once say that he didn’t want Wilkes Booth’s name mentioned in his presence.
Edwin Booth’s rooms at the Players Club in New York have been preserved as they were on the day he died in 1893. Near his bed is a portrait of John Wilkes Booth.
Henline also called my attention to the fact that there is a recording available of Edwin Booth reciting part of a speech from William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” The quality is as poor as one might expect from such an early recording, but if you listen to it at THIS LINK, you can follow the text on the screen and understand most of the speech. Considering who Edwin Booth was and when he spoke these words, it’s a stirring experience to sit at a laptop in 2010 and hear his voice.
It’s been a good reading season squeezed in between semesters. The pace will slow down when classes resume next week, though I just started a fascinating book about Isaac Newton’s little-known career as the scourge of counterfeiters. Of that, more later.
I just finished “The Girls of Room 28″ by Hannelore Brenner, which describes the lives of children who were incarcerated at the Jewish ghetto in Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, between 1941 and 1944. An estimated 13,000 children passed through there; 25 survived. Some died of disease or other consequences of neglect. Most died in the concentration camps further east. Brenner presents first-hand accounts from some of the survivors as well as material from diaries and other such documents. She also records how the Nazis bamboozled the International Red Cross into thinking that Theresienstadt was a model community for Jews, founded on the benevolent nature of Adolf Hitler. There is a lot of information and photographs about the ghetto on the YAD VASHEM web site.
I can’t read too many books about Abraham Lincoln, and I was delighted with “Lincoln, Life-Size,” a volume that includes digitized reproductions of all 114 known photographs of Lincoln, most of them portraits. The book was assembled by three descendants of Frederick Meserve, one of the best-known collectors of Lincoln images. The authors used high technology to calculate the size of Lincoln’s head. The head was cropped from each of several dozen photographs and reproduced on the facing page in life size. The result is fascinating and, at times, unsettling. The authors also accompany each photograph with texts drawn from a variety of sources, some putting the photo in context, others illuminating some aspect of Lincoln’s public or private life.
“America’s Girl” is a biography of Gertrude Ederle, a young woman from New York City who, in 1926, not only became the first woman to swim the English Channel, but far surpassed the previous record — set, obviously, by a man. Ederle did not lead an exciting life in the long term, but in the weeks and months after her achievement, she was a celebrity of proportions that have only rarely been exceeded — even in our own age of instant notoriety. More important, really, is that her accomplishment had a significance that transcended her personal fortunes. Ederle confounded the widely accepted assumption that women were not capable of feats like the one she performed. Her crossing helped to accelerate brewing changes in how women were regarded and what they were permitted to do in a society in which only men were allowed to vote until only five years before. The book was written by Tim Dahlberg with Mary Ederle Ward – the swimmer’s niece – and Brenda Green.
“Perfect” by Lew Paper, is based on Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Paper examines the well-worn but still fascinating fact that this feat – achieved only once since the World Series was inaugurated in 1903 – was carried out by a mediocre pitcher whose name would long have been forgotten if it hadn’t been for that day. But Paper makes his book good winter reading for baseball fanatics by devoting each of his 18 chapters to one the half-innings in that game, and focusing each chapter on one of the players who participated. In one instance only, he profiles two players – Jackie Robinson and Gil McDouglald – in a single chapter. In each case, Paper recounts the personal history that brought the player – Mickey Mantle, Enos Slaughter, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese – to that historic moment in sports. Not the least of these figures is Dale Mitchell of the Dodgers who was pinch hitting for starting pitcher Sal Maglie in the top of the ninth when he took the called strike that sealed Larsen’s place in history. Mitchell, who had one of the best batting eyes of his era, thought the pitch was high. So, according to Paper, did most of the Yankees on the field. But, as one baseball wag observed, when the umpire calls strike three on you, even God can’t get you off.
January 8, 2010
The relationship between baseball and presidents of the United States has been well documented; in fact, there is a room devoted to the subject at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The earliest association seems to be with Abraham Lincoln and it is most graphically represented by this Currier & Ives political cartoon, published in 1860, after Lincoln had outlasted three opponents to win the presidency. Lincoln is saying, “Gentleman, if ever you should take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have a good bat to strike a fair ball and make a clean score and a home run.”
How close Lincoln was to the game seems to be a matter of debate, but it is documented that his successor, Andrew Johnson, was the first president to witness an intra-city game and the first president to invite a baseball team into the White House. Among his papers are several honorary membership cards in baseball organizations.
Another president who had a particular connection to baseball was Dwight Eisenhower, who loved the game and said more than once that he would have liked to have played professionally. There is a lingering discussion about whether he did, in fact, once play semi-pro ball under an assumed name — something that would have fouled the amateur status under which he played football at West Point. A number of prominent witnesses said that Eisenhower had admitted to this in later life, but Eisenhower never publicly owned up to it.
Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor has looked into the subject of presidents and football — specifically, which president was the best player. The candidates are Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.
Even after one gets over the image of Nixon playing football, the answer isn’t as obvious as it may seem.
If you can’t guess, you can read about it at THIS LINK.