October 15, 2019

In Appreciation for the Ground Thumpers

The special forces guy would have been amused that I watched his feet when told of his background. We were golf partners. We’ve been putting one foot in front of the other since the beginning, at least our own beginning, and the feet have looser lips than the lips. The feet tell the truth about where we’ve been and where we’re going. A young relative of mine is showing some real athleticism so naturally I had to scout out his feet during a wedding reception. History is made through good footwork. Everything else is merely wedding cake. I was torn between naming this page turner blog either groundthumper or skyaisle and went with the latter because it sounded so much more hip than the real me with the attitude of a ground thumper. So I flunked the authenticity test right from the get go. The cloud is getting all the talk from the techie people but  staying grounded is the most underrated of character traits. Unless you’re playing a water hole.

A toast should be made this Memorial Weekend to the felt boot that was sent to Russia through the Lend-Lease program. While the Germans suffered debilitating frostbite, Russian soldiers defended the Eastern Front thanks to the millions of felt boots with the USA label.

That was my little history lesson for the day.

I didn’t intend to take the picture of this memorial to Michigan soldiers who “made the ultimate sacrifice,” as it is written with the admonition to also never forget. Frankenmuth had a “dog bowl”. Sponsored by Purina, no less. The dogs of war weren’t entered, busy like our soldiers with a more important agenda. Bad weather cancels most everything but war and the NFL and I ran for cover in the Asics running shoes. I stopped when I saw this little memorial. Staying dry didn’t seem as important.

After taking a picture, I jogged in the rain and stopped when I saw the Silent Night Chapel on the Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland property. This chapel was built as a replica of the Silent Night Chapel in Austria. Inside the chapel are copies of the song in more than three hundred languages. I had never gone in, not paying much attention to it like I had ignored the little war memorial. I went inside and felt like I had intruded on an African-American family sitting quietly, pondering the meaning of “Silent Night” as it played softly over the beating of the rain and occasional thunder. They looked self-consciously over at me and said a curious “Hello.” I stood in the middle of the chapel, not sure what to do, and looked dumbly at them as the words of “Silent Night” drifted into the rain.

I sat near the family and thought of Walter Cronkite’s ‘Silent Night” recital with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Ten million died in World War One, the Great War, as the historians call it. But the Christmas of that first year, British and Germans sang carols, including the heart wrenching words of “Silent Night.” No Man’s Land was filled with barbed wire and frozen corpses. A brief truce is negotiated but the young soldiers on both sides have already crossed No Man’s Land to greet the enemy they would resume killing with ferocity for three more years. At the end, ten million ground thumpers dead.

Racial segregation created a No Man’s Land between whites and blacks here that was eventually crossed only after a terrible cost. The ground thumpers paid it with their blood. The course of history is shaped by footwork of the ground thumpers. The African-American family nodded to each other and said in a hush voice that they should go. I followed them into the rain.

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The Day Ernest Hemingway Kicked the Can

“At 60 and still full of the old Nick, Papa Hemingway booted a beer can high in the air along an Idaho road. This was, he said, ‘the best picture I ever had taken.'” – Life Magazine, July 14, 1961

Life Magazine’s retrospective of Ernest Hemingway in the July 14, 1961 issue has a picture of  Hemingway kicking a can of beer. Hemingway said the picture was his favorite. He would kick the can again for good within a year, shooting himself as his father had done. Hemingway’s idealized life came to an end with one more fictional tale. This one was of how he died. The New York Times reported his wife’s claim that the double barreled shotgun aimed at his temple was accidental. The first  news accounts were that Hemingway died while cleaning his favorite gun for shooting pigeons.

At the end of January 1961, a new president was inaugurated with bold words. John Kennedy seemed to embody the ideals of Hemingway- an almost mythical mix of brains and brawn. Kennedy proclaimed these words to mark the beginning of his presidency:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more.”

Within six months, two days before the Fourth of July celebrations, Hemingway put on his “emperor’s robe” and pulled the trigger. After the flags and fireworks, Hemingway’s on the cover of Life Magazine. The portrait is the rugged, classic image you would expect of Hemingway. The Old Man and the Sea earned Hemingway a Nobel and Pulitzer as Eisenhower took office. Hemingway confesses he read The Old Man and the Sea more than two hundred times. Hemingway writes this:

“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.

Don’t think, old man

But I must think, he thought. Because it is all I have left.”

The advertisements in Life proclaim that General Motors leads the way, with help from Standard Oil, good tobacco, shiny new refrigerators, and Tang to start your day. Hemingway has to share the issue with William Faulkner who types with two fingers and insists with a “mustache that doesn’t smile” that he is strictly an amateur writing with no set schedule. De Gaulle is busy with an Algerian problem. The picture of the week is Krushchev getting “corny” with Iowa farmers. A “frank” documentary is out about breast cancer and a new Zenith radio fits in your pocket. Big glossy ads for martinis and Kool-Aid, America’s best loved instant drink, will help you and the kids get through the week until the next issue of Life. Letters to the editor cover a wide range of subjects, from increased cheating in the classroom to the story of several hundred women amputating their toes to wear pointed high heel shoes. One reader challenges the Life story that one third of the 1936 graduating class at Smith College received psychiatric counseling. The Smith girls counted marriage and family counseling as part of their psychiatric cases so the number of Smith girls truly cracking up was less than 33%.

British tanks have moved into Kuwait to protect it from Iraqi threats of invasion while Jimmy Hoffa is crowned Little Napoleon of the Teamsters. The Arab world “shudders” at news reports of Israel testing rockets rumored to be for nuclear weapons. Sixty percent of Americans are willing to use nuclear weapons if necessary to defend Berlin. General MacArthur has returned to the Philippines to celebrate the anniversary of its liberation in World War Two and receives a big kiss from Miss Philippines.

Finally, the pages turn to Hemingway and his “Enduring Passion- the Gift of Death.” The true account of Hemingway’s suicide is not publicly confirmed. Life celebrates Hemingway’s criticism of dying “badly,” with an oblique reference to Hemingway’s death seeming to be no accident. Hemingway’s life was dedicated to physical violence, scarring him physically and mentally.

Archibald MacLeish writes that “memories must become blood within us” and this is Hemingway’s greatest triumph. Intensity of experience must become so great that it contains our being, enabling us to learn who we are, and keep us dreaming “about the lions” as Hemingway said at the end of The Old Man and the Sea. The girls of Smith College have joined the hunt.

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Meditate on Things Pure, Lovely, If That Doesn’t Work

The Arab store owner from Libya just shook his head and grumbled, “There’s just too much drama. Too much drama!” He wasn’t talking about civil war in his old homeland. The source of his stress stood in front of him, here in good ole Facebook USA. She was grinning at his distress. Gossip was circulating at his workplace like bullets in Beirut. Another one of his girls talked of her postings on Facebook like her Facebook account was a byline at the New York Times. If he had an AK-47, he’d have calmly gone outside and started shooting into the air until out of bullets. He grumbled again about all the drama and looked over at me for some kind of diplomatic support. An alliance of guys against the women with a long supply line of bullets and gossip. It was time to cut and run.

My first effort at diplomacy occurred in baseball with our Bad News Bears team. The new Arab kid from Bethlehem wanted to play this American game that historian Bruce Catton to George Will for some strange reason believe came from the American soul. I was told to help him melt in and if possible find him a position. The kid had a good arm. Probably because he was older than allowed. But birth dates can be altered. League officials are not independent prosecutors, especially when dealing with a Bad News Bears caliber team. The Arab kid had a fantastic fastball. He became our best pitcher, which meant nothing because our team set the bar low as you can go. He had a pleasant personality. There were no signs of the Intifada in him until the umpire got under his skin and he threw a rock at the ump with more heat, and accuracy, than the baseball.

The Arab kid was banned and disappeared into the landscape. He could have returned to the Middle East to lead the rock throwing Intifada. Or he could be working a the Huffington Post, working up the rage with thousands of robo comments at the latest contrived scandal.

There are no more secrets left and it’s making everyone nuts.

Secrets are supposed to be the recruiter’s blood. When a recruiter called about a job interview a few years ago, I did the perfectly snoopy thing and looked him up on the Internet. I found him and had to wipe the snot off the computer screen after snorting in disbelief. He was a staid corporate recruiter during the day. But at night, at night, he was a rock and roller, impersonating Gene Simmons from the band KISS. Meditating on things pure, lovely, and good is impossible when you have the image stuck in your head of a chunky recruiter all painted up like Gene Simmons. I smiled and laughed so hard, I thought my jaw was going to lock.

But then he found me out. He had a snoopy website visitor from Michigan. He knew I knew his little secret and left an angry, anonymous phone call on the answering machine at 3:00 AM. A few days later both of us pretended this episode didn’t happen as he explained I wouldn’t be getting the job.

The gossip and bullying is getting worse. The bullying isn’t physical. It’s the media and social media bullying that’s making everyone mad. A story about Mitt Romney gets more than 12,000 comments on the Huffington Post. Many comments seem to use the same key words. The Huffington Post uses algorithms to filter comments, creating drones of computer induced rage. You almost expect a flash crash like what happened with the New York Stock Exchange. The real drama occurs with little notice or commentary from the drones. California’s debt is swelling like Greece and Spain. The Huffington Post’s computer generated rage is focused on Wisconsin, a state that unlike California, is at least trying to solve its economic problems. Rage against the machine has turned into rage fueled by the machine.

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Building a City on a Still or a Hill

Abraham Lincoln's grog shop

Abraham Lincoln's "grog shop" in Illinois

One political slogan I’m almost certain won’t be heard this election cycle is that “It’s Grog Time in America.” Neither President Obama or Mitt Romney have much resemblance to Andrew Jackson’s White House partying that forced the festivities being moved outdoors to protect the furniture. Abraham Lincoln’s grog shop in Illinois, however, looks like some liquor stores around the Detroit area that was known as the City on the Still during the Prohibition era.

My road travels on these wonderful cement carpets have taken me to many interesting places that do have some resemblance to the grocery store where young Abraham Lincoln tried to make a living. At an inner city grog shop, or party store as they’re called around here, the owner lifted the huge metal door to let me inside. Black bars were on the window and signs were plastered all over the brick walls for beer and food stamps. Liquor, food stamps, lottery tickets, and illicit material hidden from sight behind the counter with the owner’s gun. The carpet had been ripped out and the cold floor added to the decor of defeat. A stricken look of fear flashed across the face of the owner when I came inside. In this area, clean cut people usually mean trouble. They’re usually from the government and rarely if ever come inside to help. No one comes to help here. The posse isn’t coming. That’s very obvious from the signs on the wall offering deals for liquid courage.

One morning I met the owner of an inner city grog shop and he said his clerk had been shot the previous night. I asked him why he refused to move, get out, go somewhere safe like nearly everyone else who could do so. He had money. The new SUV was parked around the corner. He looked at me with heaviness and said, “Liquor’s my blood.”

The stories are in my blood. Like writer and historian Studs Terkel, I like listening to people tell their stories. A background in history and human resources will do it to you. I could have stood there and listened to this man owning a bullet ridden liquor store like he was Abraham Lincoln standing outside his little grocery store. At another decrepit liquor store, the son of the Lebanese owner apologizes for his father’s business, which he shouldn’t have done. The son had been accepted to the University of Michigan and planned to become a doctor. Lincoln would have approved.

The famous preacher and ballplayer Billy Sunday put up his cleats in 1890 to go hand to hand combat with the Devil. Sunday believed liquor was ‘God’s worst enemy” and at a University of Michigan Prohibition rally, proclaimed, “I will fight them till hell freezes over. Then I’ll buy a pair of skate and fight ’em on the ice.” Daniel Okrent’s Last Call is about the Prohibition era. Detroit was the epicenter for the Prohibition era as bootleggers from Canada came across at Windsor and went on to markets like Chicago.

Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby made his bootlegger money from the “drug stores.” Red means stop, green means go, from the illicit red light streets to the green light at the end of Gatsby’s dock. Sinclair Lewis uses the first sentence of his great novel to deliver the blow- “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” Ernest Hemingway declared, “A man does not exist until he is drunk.”

Prohibition collapsed because it was unenforceable. Coca-Cola was one of the beneficiaries of Prohibition with the slogan “The Drink that Cheers But Does Not Inebriate.”

I confess to having two ringtones- one from the movie Rocky, and the other from the sitcom Cheers. Prohibition still exists in the form of emotional black bars in a lot of these areas. Some cheers that don’t inebriate could help.

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The Difference Engine and True Measure of Influence

Allie POWs in 1945

Allied POWs are released in Japan at end of World War Two. Credit: AP

Time Magazine’s One Hundred Most Influential People in the World was off by about seven billion or so, depending on the latest update from the world population clock. These two half starved POWs from a Japanese prison camp in World War Two were among the billions of reasons why the media is free to make its most influential lists. Trying to count the most influential, in my opinion, is like Carl Sagan trying to count the stars. The list can go on for billions and billions…

The POW picture came from Laura Hillenbrand’s Facebook page. She deserves to be on the Time 100 list one of these years. Unbroken was Time’s non-fiction book of the year when published in 2010 and has stayed on the bestseller list.

Trying to calculate influence might require a Difference Engine more meaningful than Klout. Charles Babbage devised the principles for a computer nearly one hundred years before the World War Two era mainframe was created. Babbage called his machine a Difference Engine, believing the true essence of man could be calculated by the “algebraic equation of his character.”

Babbage was consumed with his dream that “all these tables might be calculated by machinery” and rose at 3:30 AM every morning and worked until late evening. Historian Paul Johnson writes in The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 that Babbage was a brilliant thinker but lacked the literary skills to explain the vision of his Difference Engine. He would require the poets, such as Edgar Allan Poe, to put the vision on paper- “foreshadowing the science fiction that H.G. Wells was to use to popularize science.” This intersection of art and the computer also foreshadowed the presence of Steve Jobs.

Today, the Difference Machine has made meaningless Time’s 100 Most Influential. Once you start naming names, it’s impossible to stop at a hundred.

Hitler said these words at dawn of the mainframe era, and one hundred years after Babbage’s Difference Machine:

“If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this: In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people… Everyone must know for all future time that if he raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.”

Eric Metaxas writes in his bestselling biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that a “crippling fear rose up like a bad odor.” Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a propaganda front for a “new Germany,” hiding the internecine warfare between factions that understood the true aim of Hitler and the Nazis. At the Berlin Olympics, Bonhoeffer watched with increasing unease the effect of Hitler’s propaganda machine. Bonhoeffer and his supporters had pitifully little “klout” or influence compared to the Nazis. Inside the Olympic stadium, a young American track star named Louis Zamperini competed as Hitler watched, admiring his strong finish.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics is where the subjects of Laura Hillenbrand and Eric Metaxas cross paths. Years later, they would cross again on the bestseller list. One man, the American track star and POW, surviving the war with a remarkable story of resilience. The young German theologian Bonhoeffer hanged at the end for plotting to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer’s real influence would slowly emerge from the rubble and devastation of World War Two. Thomas Nelson, with Michael Hyatt at the helm, published Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer in 2010, the same year as Unbroken. Michael Hyatt has built up remarkable influence in this information revolution, offering advice on all sorts of way for someone to build up their own influence.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer disliked the camera and had few good pictures, something that Eric Metaxas believed was significant in explaining his character.

‘Why should it always have to be the bad people who make the revolutions,” Bonhoeffer asked.

It’s a great question for a Michael Hyatt podcast, and for the rest of us.

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A Good Man is Hard to Find

Hugo Chavez asks God to spare his life

Finding a good man (and woman) requires a lot of trial and error. Flannery O’Connor’s short story A Good Man is Hard to Find does a good job of nailing mankind to the cross. The devout grandmother and her family in A Good Man is Hard to Find are self-absorbed in their own welfare and indifferent to the plight of others. The children exchange comic books on the trip to Florida as a black child, too poor to wear britches, stands in front of a shack. A car accident leaves them stranded on a dirt road. The Misfit, “aloose from the Federal Pen,” finds them and shoots them dead in the woods.

The Misfit gives the kind of sermon probably not heard on Easter:

“‘Pray Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I got!” says the grandmother pleading for her life as her family is executed in cold blood.

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead.” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if he didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can- by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

The grandmother touches his face, acknowledging he is one of her own, like the black child without britches. He recoils and shoots her dead.

“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” one of his partners says.

“She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Economics writer Tim Harford talks of the importance of trial and error versus the God Complex in a TED Talk last year. The God complex keeps us from acknowledging mistakes and recognizing the incredible importance of good mistakes that lead us in the right direction. We’re too much the grandmother in O’Connor’s short story, and other characters in her great work, or worse, like The Misfit. We play God in our own little world. School systems validate the God Complex with tests that always have a correct answer. The real world doesn’t work that way. The Misfit Hugo Chavez, dying of cancer, now pleads and cries out like the grandmother for Jesus to save him. The victims of his tyranny are like the black child without britches.

Renowned Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson performs on average 450 brain surgeries a year. Not bad for a guy who was told his first year of medical school at Michigan to give it up. His academic adviser called him in for a meeting and told him to do everyone a favor and just quit. If he persisted, he would just cause grief for everyone. Carson had experience with that kind of rejection, trial and error. He was the worst student in his class growing up in Detroit. His mother only possessed a third grade education but she observed successful habits of the people whose houses she cleaned. She noticed that the most successful read a lot of books and watched little television. Like a brilliant researcher worthy of a TED Talk, the maid tested it out on her own kids, making them read two books a week and write a report. Ben Carson went from last to first in his class. Whenever he whined to his mom in Detroit, she’d reply, “Do you have a brain?”

If so, use it. Carson thrives on his formula for risk taking which is very similar to what Tim Harford explained in his TED Talk. Creativity, innovation, and exploration require the right kind of risk taking that leads to the right kind of errors and puts us on a path safe from The Misfits.

While Hugo Chavez desperately searches for a medical cure and Hail Mary from Jesus, his fellow Misfits in Argentina have banned foreign books under the phony excuse of containing too much lead. If a good man or woman is hard to find, so is a good cure.

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An Anatomy of American Tragedies

Roberta drowning in 1931 movie An American Tragedy based on Theodore Dreiser's novel

“What’s the matter, Clyde? Afraid of the bow-wow?”

The real culprit in American tragedies is the bow-wow. Sondra, the other woman in Clyde Griffiths’s craving for love of luxury and social status, taunted him for being unable to choose between her and the poor, religious Roberta. Sondra had everything going for her, beauty, the social circles. Roberta was almost poorer than dirt. Her house was the 1920s version of ghetto. Roberta was the 1920s definition of white trash. Roberta demanded Clyde make a decision about marrying her. But to Clyde, Roberta’s poverty and moral strictness reminded him of what he was trying to escape for he was also white trash. Sondra reminded him of what he aspired to- a love that included position and power. Roberta’s life was too similar to his own. Marrying her meant he was strangling himself.

The bow-wow tormented Clyde with sweet talk, purring in his ear,cajoling him to come to her, Sondra.

Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, based on a 1906 murder case in upstate New York, was turned into a film in 1931 and remade into the 1951 movie A Place in the Sun that won six Academy Awards.

Most murder cases don’t make the cover of People Magazine due to failing the bow-wow threshold. The real tragedy is that human life is assigned a rating based on the bow-wow for journalists aspiring to climb the social ladder.

Historian David Hebert Donald’s Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War is about the greatest American tragedy and bow-wow of all- the Civil War. Donald writes, “When Washington was inaugurated, ‘Slavery had no national flavor, existed nowhere on the national territory, beneath the national flag, but was openly condemned by Nation, Church, Colleges, and Literature of the time.'”

Slave owners and mercantile interests using “skillful tactics” eroded over time the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence and caused deep divisions in the country, culminating in the Civil War. Charles Sumner, still recuperating from the terrible flogging from Preston Brooks in the Senate chamber, met the new President and was shocked at the lack of social sophistication and culture in this man named Lincoln. Sumner felt Lincoln lacked the breadth of “bow-wow,” as one might say, especially for the President of the United States. Lincoln seemed more suited for a Roberta than a Sondra.

Sumner’s perception of the new President changed as the two of them talked. Sumner was confused by Lincoln’s droll humor but thought Lincoln displayed extraordinary flashes of insight. Sumner still had his doubts about Lincoln, this “untutored child of nature.'” Lincoln was born, after all, in circumstances similar to a Clyde Griffiths.

Lincoln admired Sumner’s height and wanted to “measure backs” to see who was taller. Sumner replied that this was “the time for uniting our fronts against the enemy and not our backs.”

Perhaps Lincoln knew the importance of a stiffened spine in maintaining a brave front.

In high school, a group of us were attacked by a group of football players from the suburbs because we were from an “(insert N word) school.” Their biggest guy was an offensive lineman recruited by Michigan and other Big Ten schools. He slugged the smallest guy in our group, a five nine member of our golf team. On paper not a good match up. But this golfer would become a Marine after beating the crap out of the lineman twice his size. Police were called to the “disturbance” and when told of the reason for the brawl, acted like hockey refs and let the small golfer give the lineman the lesson of his life. The future Marine had the knock down of his life a few years later when he fell off a skateboard, breaking his arm, and missing the bombing of his Marine barracks in Lebanon.

A trial lost in the media firestorm of the Florida shooting was the Justice Department losing its case against the Michigan militia group. The judge ruled more against the excessive bow-wow of the Justice Department lawyers than the motive of the militia group. The Huffington Post can boast of an incredible number of hits on its website but in the real world, it only takes one hit from a judge, or a five nine Marine, to change the verdict.

Bow-wowers take note.

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America’s Caesars and the Ides of March

America's Caesars: Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower

Designs for the new Eisenhower Memorial in Washington is creating controversy which shouldn’t be surprising or necessarily a bad thing. America’s Caesars have made this country a safe place to work for the renegades from all professions, including architects. The stage for the ides of March is a buzzer beater in college basketball’s March Madness.

CAESAR
Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

The Frank Gehry design has a young Eisenhower, overshadowed by the vastness of the Kansas landscape. The critics argue that Gehry is making Eisenhower look ordinary by minimizing his military career and presidency. Gehry has the renegade reputation. His conventional design, so say the critics, is an insult to Eisenhower. The super sized memorial consumes four acres of Washington real estate and neglects Eisenhower the supreme allied commander.

They just don’t get it. Gehry probably doesn’t get it, either. Maybe his design is an intentional snub of Eisenhower as a merely conventional thinker and doer, amiable, plain as Kansas lucky. But unintentionally, the design is extremely radical and emphasizes the radical ideal of the Founding Fathers and the first great American Caesar, George Washington. Gehry created a design of enormous time and space. Critics expected Gehry to say at least something about the greatness of Eisenhower. The memorial design allows visitors too much freedom to think for themselves.

Eisenhower was buried in a simple wood coffin, leaving behind his medals and a reputation that grows like an oak tree with every passing decade. His real memorial is on the walls of simple clapboards and ranch houses. The framed pictures of the World War Two family members in their uniforms. Take the men who are fat and vain and build them great memorials and presidential libraries and over time their reputations will rot into the earth like an old barn. The monuments and libraries get bigger as the accomplishments become smaller. Taxpayers could award every president a Kindle for their library from this point on and be done with it. One of Eisenhower’s generals was Jim Gavin, the jumpin’ general. As with Eisenhower, Gavin dreamed of escaping the confines of a conventional life. Gavin was given up for adoption at the age of two and suffered from the abuse of an alcoholic foster mother. He ran away from home at the age of 17 and joined the military. Gavin had an eighth grade education but a remarkable passion for reading. He studied another great American Caesar, Ulysses Grant, whose memoirs have been praised by historians and Mark Twain. Gavin earned appointment to West Point, studying early every morning in the bathroom to overcome his educational deficiencies. Gavin always led from the front. Eisenhower didn’t want him to jump with his troops at Normandy, telling Gavin that generals were harder to replace than the soldiers. Gavin jumped with his men.

“The place for a general in battle is where he can see the battle and get the odor of it in his nostrils,” he said. “There is no substitute for the general being seen.”

I read somewhere that the gap between CEO compensation and the typical employee is now something like sixty times higher than during the Eisenhower presidency. In Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, applauded by liberals and conservatives, he warns of the danger in a ruling class of technical, political, industrial, and military elites. Grant writes with great clarity in his military memoirs, criticizing the ruling factions for causing the Civil War and then staying well behind the front lines as recruits from the hill country paid the terrible price for allowing the leadership to exploit their ignorance. Grant wrote his memoirs while dying and bankrupt, receiving encouragement from Mark Twain.

George Washington, the first and greatest of American Caesars, believed liberty and the struggle for freedom was a cause much bigger than the individual. How radical to believe in something bigger than yourself. The Eisenhower memorial design is much larger than the man. America’s Caesars might approve of it more than Julius and the contemporary critics.

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Humanity in the Kill Zone

I would bet A Time To Betray has the highest completion rate of any book published in the last five years, and maybe going back to 1979 and the Iranian Revolution. I can’t imagine anyone not finishing this book once they started reading it. There were skeptics that the man writing under cover of anonymity was really a CIA agent in Iran. Washington journalist David Ignatius did his own background check before reviewing and praising the book. One of the case officers told Ignatius that Reza Kahlili was brave. Yeah, and Tiger Woods is a pretty good golfer. He describes the savage torture, rape, and execution of teenage girls. Their crime is merely being related to suspected spies and traitors. The spies who have been caught get worse treatment, if that’s possible.

CIA spies are not known for documenting their books with footnotes. Names and locations are changed in places for protection. But the danger and demented behavior of the Islamic radicals so obviously challenges the passive view in Washington that you feel we’re in the 1930s trying to explain away Hitler. It wasn’t so long ago that the Iranians tried to blow up a Washington D.C. restaurant in an assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador. Now they’re called rational by the top national security advisers in Washington.

Reza Kahlili is the pseudonym for a CIA spy and computer expert working for the Revolutionary Guards in the 1980s. He was stunned when the Reagan administration got caught in the Iran-Contra scandal. He writes, “I realized how foolish I had been. I had been risking my life to rid my country of the criminals running it and the Americans were negotiating with them. The CIA knew that the Guards were responsible for the barracks bombing in Lebanon that took the lives of 241 American servicemen. They knew their own people, like William Buckley, were kidnapped, tortured, and killed. Yet they were offering appeasement to these two-faced donkey-riding mullahs.”

I doubt the Iranians would be described as rational if they had succeeded in blowing up the D.C. restaurant, killing dozens. Kahlili describes a stoning of a young woman, with her mother forced to watch:

“The guards started shoveling more dirt in the hole until they buried Asieh up to her shoulders…A young woman was being slaughtered, and I had to stop hiding behind my shadow. I had to know her pain…The crowds attacked the pile of rocks. With all of the hatred they felt in them, they threw rocks at Asieh…Die you filthy, sinful woman. Die.”

Her mother sat in shock and utter despair in the dirt, unable to speak, unable to even cry. A Time to Betray is filled with these horrific accounts. Ask a national security adviser in Washington their favorite sport and the answer will probably be golf, jogging, swimming, skiing. A “national security adviser” to the ayatollahs lists his favorite sport as “Jihad in fierce war.”

Go Tigers…

Israel’s assassins have used motorcycles to do their hits on the Iranian nuclear scientists. Khalili and his boss in the Revolutionary Guard were attacked by motorcycle assassins. He barely escaped while his boss was killed. The CIA had few resources inside Iran after the 1979 Revolution. He was their “eyes and ears,” mailing letters written in code to England. A Revolutionary Guard member suspects Khalili is a spy but the man is killed during a battle in the Iran-Iraq War before Khalili can be interrogated.

Khalili tells a CIA case officer of the evil he has witnessed and the radical ideology. The CIA man says, “They really believe this stuff, don’t they?” You can imagine that question still being asked around Washington today as if nothing has been learned. While China provided training for the Revolutionary Guard at a base in China, the Russians provided expertise in the polygraph, torture, and truth serums at the notorious Evin prison.

I didn’t know the saying “One for the road” came from the British. A condemned man would be allowed one drink from the pub on his way to the execution. The saying “On the wagon” came from the guard who wasn’t allowed to drink and had to stay on the wagon with the prisoner. Falling off the wagon must be when the donkey riding mullahs have taken the appeasers into the kill zone.

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Politics and the Great American Novel

The Thomas Mallon article about going to Thomas Dewey’s hometown of Owosso, Michigan made me think. He wrote the article in the summer of 1992. In the article, he writes of finding a poetic and disturbing threat scrawled on a rail, this graffiti writer “praying my bullet find its mark.” The graffiti writer also signed his name. The guy probably never thought a writer from Washington D.C. would sit near the wood rail in Owosso and notice the graffiti. This was also before Google and a snoopy person like myself could type in the guy’s name to find out if there was any more intrigue. Nothing came up on Google when I typed in his name except for a Facebook comment in December asking for his whereabouts. He has a 20th high school reunion. His high school pals can’t find him, either. He could be hard at work on the great political novel. Or he could be…. In the 1992 presidential campaign, President Bush campaigned in this area only a few months after Mallon wrote the article. While nothing came up about the graffiti writer, there was someone in the Thumb area with the same last name. It’s the same area where the plot was devised for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Thomas Mallon’s new novel is about Watergate, curiously titled Watergate. His next one should be about Camelot. I have a theory why the Great American Novel is rarely about politics, with the exception of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. There’s the political saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Media coverage can also corrupt and absolute media coverage ruins everything. A great story requires mystery, intrigue, and curiosity.

From Richard Nixon’s Watergate speech, written for the media and millions of voters :

“I looked at my own calendar this morning up at Camp David as I was working on this speech. It showed exactly 1,361 days remaining in my term. I want these to be the best days in America’s history, because I love America. I deeply believe that America is the hope of the world. And I know that in the quality and wisdom of the leadership America gives lies the only hope for millions of people all over the world that they can live their lives in peace and freedom. We must be worthy of that hope, in every sense of the word. Tonight, I ask for your prayers to help me in everything that I do throughout the days of my Presidency to be worthy of their hopes and of yours.

God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.”

Nixon and the speech writers put on a public face. Now returning to the words of someone writing alone, in front of no audience but his own demons:

A sovereign soul: despised…Creation damned, psychotic…American dream: demised…Assassin embryonic…Through the sniper’s scope I see…This intruder oligarch…The perfect society…Pray my bullet finds its mark.

These are not the words you’ll read from a William Safire or Peggy Noonan or Thomas Mallon. To find the source of these dark thoughts you must go where Shakespeare and the FBI intersect. The Washington Post and New York Times have written volumes celebrating their role in Watergate while succumbing completely to the Kennedy Camelot myth. So have most novelists and historians. Nixon gets it from everyone. Robert Penn Warren created a fictional image based on Huey Long and Louisiana politics for All the King’s Men. There was another Louisiana governor who once boasted he could only lose an election if the media found him in bed with a dead girl or live boy. John Kennedy could have said it. Writers could use a What Would Shakespeare Do wrist band and snap it when a story seems to good to be true.

While autocrats in the Middle East fight to their last bullet trying to save themselves, their email is hacked and leaked, revealing craven lust from admirers in the West celebrating their power and might. Power is an aphrodisiac. Groupies are found in more places than sports and music. I was always amused by the girls in high heels stumbling in the grass after pro golfers playing the tournaments. The groupies in capitals around the world make it hard on the rest of us.

A friend showed me a sample of a novel that a friend of hers had written. She was revolted by the darkness of it. She gave me the pages like she was giving me a bag of dog poop. “Ewww!” she said, grimacing. The writer was also from Owosso. It read kind of like the graffiti. I kind of liked it, a lot more than the Secret Service would.

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