Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Teddy Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Brought Us Progressivism

So much of Theodore Roosevelt's life comes to us now in what seems like caricature:  The Rough Rider, the bellowing bull, the hearty back-slapper, the rugged outdoorsman--all images the man himself would be happy to know we've kept alive.  The handle-bar mustache, the pince-nez, the rakish explorer's hat, the exaggerated movements of a stage actor. . .all carefully created and nurtured by a man who saw himself as destined for American greatness and struggled to make it happen.

He is credited today with preserving our public lands and starting the movement to establish a National Park system.  He preserved natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and the petrified forest, and is memorialized on Mt. Rushmore, along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.  He was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and without him there might never have been a Panama Canal.  He is the "Teddy" our beloved American Teddy Bear was named for.

He built himself into a character so much larger than life, we tend to ignore the impact his actions as a progressively Progressive Republican president made on a country just entering the 20th century; a country badly in need, after a period of rapid, seemingly uncontrollable industrialization, of some common-sense reforms.

In Michael Wolraich's new book, "Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics",  Roosevelt's journey from an accommodating ally of the top American industrialists to a reluctant but pragmatic Progressive leader is spelled out in prose as rousing as the tale itself. 

And what a tale it is:  Roosevelt's story has been told many times and is, on the surface, familiar, but "Unreasonable Men" tells the backstory of the men who guided, prodded, and influenced the president, effectively splitting the Republicans into two factions--the Standpatters and the Progressives.  TR worked both sides, trying to stay above the fray, but found himself leaning more and more toward the progressives.

"Fighting Bob" La Follette, the raging populist senator from Wisconsin, along with militant progressives like Gov. Albert Cummins of Iowa and Senator Joseph Bristow of Kansas, and Muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens,  Ray Stannard Baker and Ida Tarbell, all played significant roles in the demise of the Standpatters (conservatives of the day) and the rise of American Progressivism.

Fighting Bob's unstinting tenacity as he fought to bring his progressive agenda to the forefront of his Party's platform both frightened and amazed Roosevelt.  They became unlikely partners in the battle for the people, but eventually, as might have been predicted, whatever relationship they once had crashed and burned.  The fact that they both wanted to be president--La Follette for the first time and TR for the second--didn't help.

 La Follette never had a chance--too many bridges left burning behind him--but TR, though he didn't win,  got a second chance to be a leader again.  In August, 1910, a few months after Roosevelt, then a private citizen, returned from England to find crowds of well-wishers clamoring for him to lead them again, he jumped back in and gave the speech of his life standing on a kitchen table in an old battlefield near Osawatomie, Kansas.

From Unreasonable Men:
"Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War," [Roosevelt] proclaimed, "so now the great special business inerests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit.  We must drive the special interests out of politics."

With these words, Roosevelt turned a corner.  In one rhetorical stroke, he eliminated the middle ground on which he had balanced for his entire political career.  By framing the political conflict as a historic conflict between privilege and democracy, he left no place for conservative-progressives, rendering them as improbable as royalist-patriots or pro-slavery-abolitionists.  And by praising John Brown--the wild-eyed fanatic of an earlier era--he implicitly made common cause with the "demagogues" and "agitators" whom he had so long condemned.
He was running against William Howard Taft, the incumbent he would eventually lose to at the Convention in Chicago in 1912, bringing TR to the establishment of a third party--the Progressive, or "Bull Moose" Party.  Both he and Taft lost to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. (Wilson confessed during his campaign that he didn't know how to run against TR. "When I sit down and compare my views with those of a Progressive Republican, I can't see what the difference is.")

The intrigues, the betrayals, the cautious, often spitting relationships between men who banded together to thwart the oligarchs and worked to build a nation for the people--it's all in there, along with the intricate, often inadvertent or serendipitous machinations of both houses of Congress and the courts.

And, as it is, it's impossible not to draw parallels between then and now.  Wolraich's book comes along at a time when we're on that same threshold:  Do we give in to the oligarchs or do we fight for Democracy?  "Unreasonable Men" doesn't provide the answers, but it could well be the guidebook on how to get it done.

Because those uncommon men of the people fought hard against all odds, and, at least for a time, got it done.


Additional reading:

Washington Post review of "Unreasonable Men".

Excerpt at The Atlantic by Michael Wolraich

Excerpt at National Memo

Q&A with Michael Wolraich at Salon.

Michael Maiello:  Unreasonable Men and the Art of the Political Long Game

(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland. Featured on Crooks and Liars MBRU)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Harper Lee: You Don’t Know Me

Harper LeeMore than 50 years ago Nelle Harper Lee wrote a book called “To Kill a Mockingbird”.   It was her one and only book and it is a masterpiece, but the story behind it has always been a tantalizing enigma.

Through the years there have been rumors that her best friend and neighbor, Truman Capote, edited her writing so much, by rights he actually wrote it.

The fact that Lee never published another book gives doubters reason to corroborate that notion, but I’ve never bought it.  She lived in a small Alabama town, her father was a trial lawyer, she knew well the story of the 1930s Scottsboro trial, where a group of young black boys were accused of raping a white woman in Alabama, she studied law herself, was a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford, and she was not a novice at writing.  

It isn’t that Capote couldn’t have overwritten it to suit his own style–his early book, The Grass Harp, is as sublime, as bitter-sweet, and was also written from a child’s point of view.  But everything I’ve read about Harper Lee says she has her own specific talents as well as a formidable stubborn streak.  Her friend Truman might have helped her with the technical aspects of a manuscript, but it’s an insult to suggest she’s not the true author of that beautiful book.

We’ll never know for sure, of course, because Harper Lee isn’t talking.  She sees no need to tell her side of the story.  The story is the book.  She is a writer, not a celebrity, and the limelight isn’t what most writers strive for.  Their goal is to tell a ripping good tale, and Harper Lee has done that.  She owes her fans nothing more.

She is now 88 years old.  For over a half-century people have been knocking at her door, trying to find out who Harper Lee really is. In all these years she has never let them in.  It isn’t that she is such a recluse she has never appeared in public, never spoken publicly.  She has.  Many times.  And it isn’t as if she has never left Monroeville, Alabama.  She kept an apartment in New York City until fairly recently and went back often, for months at a time.  Until recently, when both of them moved into a nursing home, she lived with her older sister, Alice (102 years old!),  in the town where they grew up.

She speaks publicly but only when she wants to.  She is not keen on inviting the inevitable over-analysis of her famous book, and has no interest in being a celebrity.  So because she is who she is and would rather be left alone, she is seen, of course, as the ultimate “get”.

No matter how much time has passed since her one and only book was published, the author Harper Lee can’t get away from celebrity scrutiny.   In 2004 Marja Mills, then a journalist on leave from the Chicago Tribune for medical reasons, moved into the house next door to Nelle and Alice and stayed for a year and a half   She had many conversations with Nelle’s sister, and with friends and neighbors.  She assured her publishers that she had also spent a considerable amount of time talking to Nelle.  But Nelle denies ever giving her more than the time of day.

Now, 10 years after Mills left Monroeville and the Lee sisters, the book, awkwardly titled The Mockingbird Next Door, Life With Harper Lee, is out.  If you believe Harper Lee,  Marja Mills lied to get this book published. There is no other way to look at it.  Yet the publisher’s note on the Penguin Press page says the following:
In 2004, with the Lees’ encouragement, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, talking and sharing stories over meals and daily drives in the countryside. Along with members of the Lees’ tight inner circle, the sisters and Mills would go fishing, feed the ducks, go to the Laundromat, watch the Crimson Tide, drink coffee at McDonald’s, and explore all over lower Alabama.
Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the quirky Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story—and the South—right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.
Nelle Harper Lee says that never happened.  She says she never agreed to tell her story to Mills, and she never developed a friendship with her.  In fact, Lee says, she would go out of town whenever she heard Mills was coming because the woman hounded her so much.

As early as 2011, when the news came out of the forthcoming book, Harper Lee denied any cooperation with Mills.  Mills’ agent calmly suggested that Lee may have “forgotten” her cooperation since her stroke in 2007.

So even with Harper Lee’s painstaking efforts to get the word out that Marja Mills’ book about “life with Harper Lee” is stacked with lie upon lie, the presses rolled.  The book is in print.  The reviews have been written.  (Note that there is no mention in the Washington Post review of Lee’s 2011 insistence that she did not cooperate with Mills.  Not a hint that she fought hard against it.)

If Marja Mills had written an unauthorized book about Harper Lee, I might hold my nose but be forced to agree that she has that right.  But if, as Harper Lee accuses, Marja Mills and her publisher, Penguin Group, pushed forward with the publication, knowing full well that the entire book was built on the lie that Lee gave it her blessing,  that whole conversations were real and not imagined, then the subtitle, “Life with Harper Lee”, is a falsehood.

So who are you going to believe?  Nelle Harper Lee or Marja Mills?  Is there some truth, some lie in both stories?  Could be.  But if Harper Lee says she’s the unwilling subject of a book and the author claims otherwise,  there’s a problem.

I don’t know Harper Lee but I do know “To Kill a Mockingbird”.   More than fifty years after it appeared, the book still resonates.  It is still a classic, so beautifully written we’ve never been able to get over it.

The author did good.  She gave us an amazing gift.  Now she should be able to rest.

(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland)

Friday, July 11, 2014

These Children Are Lost and They've Entered Our Village

Thousands of Latin American children have been arriving in the U.S. over the weeks and months, in scenarios more like that of a fictitious screenplay than of real life.  Out-of-control gangs, drug cartels, and corrupt government officials are the antagonists in horror stories of a kind we can only imagine. Poverty, exploitation, rape, torture, murder--so common now in Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, there is little chance those countries will ever float free.

The parents, seeing no future for their children, have taken the most extreme, heartbreaking measures: they're sending their young ones away.  They're forced to pay dubious characters large sums of money to transport their kids over the Mexico-U.S border into what they've been told would almost assuredly be a safe sanctuary.

The children, some of them barely walking age, don't know why they were sent away or why they're here.  They don't even know where "here" is.  They're in a strange place, far from anything familiar,  their only safety in a group of other terrified children.

The older ones, hardly old enough to take care of themselves, have been charged with caring for the young.  By the time they've reached the border leading into the U.S, they've traveled over a thousand miles from home.  They're dirty and hungry and the fear of what's ahead (or behind) stays with them every waking moment.

Once across the border they're in desperate need of some proof that they are safe.  The promise was that the hellish thousand-mile journey would be worth it in order to get them to a place where they could breathe free, where they could ease their own fears and those of the smaller children they carried, and where, maybe, possibly, they might finally face a life where there is hope.

Instead, soon after they cross the border they're being met either by officials who move them into jail-like pens where they'll wait until, most likely, they'll be sent back to their home countries, or--and this is where it gets crazy--by angry protesters carrying ugly signs telling these small, defenseless beings to go home.  They're being told by snarling grown-ups that we don't want them here.

These children are refugees from war-torn countries.  We are the kind of country that demands of other countries the safe passage of refugees.  The U.N has already declared these fleeing Latin American children refugees and is asking the United States to treat them accordingly.  If we turn these children away, forcing them to return to their homes, we do it knowing we're sending them back to a life of abject, unrelenting misery. 

There is no good answer, no ready solution when thousands of children arrive at our borders without our permission, but at this moment we're in the throes of a humanitarian emergency.  We have children in need in our midst and if we're who we think we are, we will dry their tears and calm their fears.  We will fill their bellies and tuck them into warm beds.  We will keep them safe.  They came out of the darkness and into our light.  While we didn't ask for this, they are children and they are here and now it's our job to take care of them.   

  So who are these screaming, sign-carrying monsters who see these kids as some kind of marauding enemy?  Where do they come from?  Who taught them to hate so broadly they think nothing of scaring already terrified kids?

This was the scene near an intake center in Murrieta, California last week.  The buses being held back by American-flag-waving protesters are full of scared kids who spent many uncomfortable if not terrifying days trying to get to our border and the safety beyond.  They were instead caught by border patrol agents and put on these buses heading for a detention center, where they're to be housed until our people can figure out what to do with them.

In quiet moments I see in my mind's eye busloads of frightened children.  I see a menacing mob pushing toward those buses, blocking the drivers from moving forward.  I see signs that say, "Go away!  We don't want you here!"  And I have to remind myself that this is not a scene from their own ravaged countries but is, instead, a scene unfolding in the United States of America. 

I worry about those children and what will happen to them, but I worry, too, about the people waving those signs and turning away busloads of frightened, defenseless children.  They are a problem; their numbers are growing, and someday soon, when we've figured out how to keep those kids safe, we're going to have to figure out how we're going to live among people who would knowingly, purposely do this.

(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland. Featured on Crooks and Liars MBRU)