The Revolutions of July

[My article appears at today — DRS]

On July 14, 1789, Thomas Jefferson was serving as America’s Ambassador to France. The author of the Declaration of Independence in another July, thirteen-years earlier, was an eyewitness to the political unrest leading to the storming of a political prison called The Bastille. Though the fortress housed only seven inmates at the moment, including four forgers, it remains the iconic symbol of beginning of The French Revolution.

Charles_Thévenin,_The_Storming_of_the_Bastille_on_14_July_1789,_ca._1793Our Constitution had been ratified a year earlier, and George Washington had recently been inaugurated as our first President, so there was great interest in America about what was going on in France 225 years ago. After all, the French had been extremely helpful to us during our successful struggle to, as Jefferson phrased it, “dissolve the political bands” that connected us to the British monarchy. Americans were therefore understandably sympathetic with a movement against monarchial tyranny in France.The American and French Revolutions are linked in history largely because of chronology, but they were vastly different affairs. One led to a new birth of freedom—the other to terror and tyranny, becoming the prototype for unspeakable horrors to come.

Most Americans are familiar with a phrase from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961—that whole “Ask not…” thing. But I think the most important thing JFK said that day was this:

And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. [Emphasis added]

But what is happening in our nation right now may resemble what happened in France in 1789 more than what happened in Philadelphia in 1776. For many Americans, especially those on the left, the cry of “Liberty – Equality – Fraternity” is much more resonant than the one about “Life – Liberty – and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It is in the parsing of those vitally important words that we find the keys to understanding where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. One revolution was about individual rights and dreams. The other was about “the people” as a group and the highest virtue being “the greater good.”

When Thomas Jefferson wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”in the Declaration of Independence, he was borrowing from 17th century English philosopher John Locke who wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” Jefferson’s use of this language was clearly designed to describe the rights of individual people to live free, be free, and pursue their dreams in a free marketplace. Those thoughts were very much present in that Philadelphia birthing room.

The French Revolution, on the other hand—though similar to what happened here in America, in the sense of changing things and breaking free from an old order—had little to do with individual rights.

It was all about collectivism.

And in many ways, the French Revolution is the ancestor of all totalitarian systems to follow. Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Lenin, and all other political gangsters were heirs of Robespierre, and later Napoleon. Those tyrannical manifestations were not misguided aberrations—distortions of something that started out good (as in, “Lenin was cool, too bad Stalin messed it all up”)—the seeds of the horror were present at the beginning. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th century Enlightenment philosopher, wrote about volonté générale or “general will,” and the Jacobins, followed by others, ran with it. In their thinking, “the will of the people” could only be expressed by enlightened leaders.

Yes, our revolution indeed drew a measure of strength from the Enlightenment, but it was of the earlier Lockean variety. America’s use of Enlightenment concepts was tempered by something else; something that set it apart from what happened in France—a spiritual foundation.

Vive la revolution – Vive la difference.

The French not only declared war on the monarchy, they also attacked Christianity, replacing it with a religion of the state and introducing the worship of secularism. Sound familiar?

In America, it was very different. I am not one of those who spends a lot of time trying to prove the Christian bona fides of every founding father, but I do believe that the influence of what was called The Great Awakening, which ended about twenty years before the shot heard around the world was fired, was still very much a part of our national fabric.

And another such movement, often referred to as the Second Great Awakening, began while the French were unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to be free. To ignore those religious and cultural movements in America is to miss an important piece of the puzzle. The very concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity sound nice and make for great propaganda. But in the end, without virtue born of something deeper and greater, even the best rhetoric is mocked by what actually happens when human nature runs amuck. This is why all totalitarian regimes like to call their realms things like The People’s Republic of China, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or The People’s Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

We need to beware of those who share our vocabulary but use a different dictionary.

The reason it has all worked and endured so well in this land is because we are a nation “under God.” There, I said it. There is no real liberty without that. All attempts at actual freedom end up moving toward tyranny without some sense of higher purpose and power. I believe firmly in the separation of church and state. But minus positive religious influence, a nation cannot long remain free.

C. S. Lewis said it very well in The Screwtape Letters 70 years ago:

Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn’t know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side), we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state. Even in England we were pretty successful. I heard the other day that in that country a man could not, without a permit, cut down his own tree with his own axe, make it into planks with his own saw, and use the planks to build a tool shed in his own garden.

Sound familiar?



D-Day in Poetry and Prayer


Nearly one hundred years ago, the late poet Robert Frost penned the famous lines: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” His metaphor has endured as testament to the importance of making choices based on factors other than superficiality and popularity.

Shortly after Frost’s death in 1963, President John F. Kennedy traveled to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where Frost had taught for many years, to deliver a eulogy about the famous wordsmith he had invited to participate in his inauguration. That day, Kennedy shared a line that, like Frost’s about those fabled two roads, has since morphed into something beyond its original intent and focus. In my opinion, it was one of the best things Kennedy ever said: “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”

Next to ingratitude, forgetfulness is the most serious indicator of cultural decline…


Not Revisionism–Just Dumb ;)

Having missed the broadcasts when they were presented in prime time last week, I’ve finally gotten around to working through the multi-episode series, “The World Wars,” on the History Channel.

I’m about halfway through.

images-1As an avid student of 20th century geopolitical history, I’m sort of torn as I watch the great story and stories unfold. First, I enjoy dramatic portrayals of great events, while recognizing that what is shown on the screen—whether big or small—will inevitably include a measure of license. Yes, I am one of those viewers who tend to talk back to the narrator, injecting my own commentary.

Karen simply loves it when I do that.

But here’s the thing—I find myself annoyed when something is presented as true history yet gets basic facts glaringly wrong. It’s one thing to give one side of something in dispute, but quite another to get basic chronology wrong. I’ve seen several examples of this, but I’ll give you two for now.

First, in the introductory episode called “Trial by Fire,” the writers have Vladimir Lenin taking control in Russia—and pulling his nation out of the First World War (a move that helped Germany) via the Treaty of Brest Litovsk—before America’s entrance into the war.


The facts are that America joined the conflict in April 1917. Lenin came to power later that year (October/November 1917, depending on the calendar you use). The treaty with Germany was then signed the next year—in March 1918.

The second glaring thing I saw had to do with Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain. In the episode called, “A Rising Threat,” it shows Chamberlain bringing Churchill into his government (as First Lord of the Admiralty) long before the Nazis invaded Poland.

Double yikes!!

2ChamberlainChurchillThe actual timeline is well known. First, Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Then, a few days later, Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany. It was after this that he summoned Churchill and gave him his job back (Winston had been First Lord during World War I).

Now, these may seem small, but they aren’t. They show a carelessness that is simply unnecessary. I wonder what the historians who appear on the series must think. I’m sure the insertion of their commentary was an editorial matter for the producer(s). But if I were Douglas Brinkley, or Paul Reid, or H. W. Brands—or any of their British counterparts, I’d be a little ticked.

I really can’t figure out why the producer(s) allowed such basic glaring mistakes to be presented.

Now, the series otherwise is actually pretty good. I think it captures the personalities of the good and evil giants—the men who made the history.

That’s valuable.

I am enjoying the series—mostly. But have to give it only two out of four stars for accuracy.

It’s almost like I half expect to see Pearl Harbor happen on a Saturday.

Old Yankee Stadium’s Best Night Ever

[This is one of the chapters in my book, “IN THE ARENA: Reflections on Culture, History, Politics, and Faith,” available as an ebook and paperback at — DRS]

THE OLD STADIUM in the Bronx—built more than 95 years ago—closed for business in 2008. The house that Ruth built had been home to the New York Yankees since before the days when their line-up was dubbed “Murderer’s Row.” Ghosts of legends like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle inhabited the place.

But the edifice located at East 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx was much more than a baseball park; it was America’s premier outdoor arena. If we were to pick a place that has been to us what the Coliseum was to Rome in days of glory, most would nominate Yankee Stadium, whether they liked the Yankees or not.

Looking beyond the Yankees, and their inseparable relationship with the stadium, we note that the venue provided the backdrop for many sports and cultural events that transcended baseball. From concerts, to religious services, to a national memorial service for victims of horrific terror just twelve days after 9/11, Yankee Stadium has been part of the scenery of American life.

When it comes to sports, the stadium has not just been a place for home runs, but also the field of battle for gladiators of the gridiron and soccer stars.

And, of course, there was the boxing.

Louis-schmeling-1938It’s been a generation since a championship fight was held at Yankee Stadium (Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton in September 1976), and they were becoming rare events for the venue even then. But during the sweet science’s heyday in the 1920s-1950s, the stadium ring planted over second base was the scene of many epic battles.

Sugar Ray Robinson, often referred to as the greatest “pound for pound” boxer of all time, had already won welterweight and middleweight titles. On a dreadfully hot night in June 1952, he tried to win the light-heavyweight crown against champion Joey Maxim. And he was clearly winning when he succumbed to heat exhaustion in the fourteenth round. He did, though, last longer than the referee, who had been carried out two rounds earlier.

Jack Dempsey, on the comeback trail seeking a rematch with Gene Tunney, fought at Yankee Stadium in 1927. Tunney fought there, too. In fact, there were 30 championship fights held on that field.

Calling something the best, or most significant, is always subjective and therefore risky. But I think I’m right when I suggest that Yankee Stadium’s greatest moment did not involve Babe Ruth or even Reggie Jackson. It wasn’t even a baseball game.

Seventy-five years ago, two boxers climbed into the famous stadium’s ring and squared off in the most historic boxing match, if not sporting event, of the decade – maybe the century. Max Schmeling and Joe Louis had fought in the same ring two years before, and the former world heavyweight champion from Germany had somehow, some way, found a flaw in Louis’ style.

The Brown Bomber from Detroit (the Yankees would soon be called “Bronx Bombers” as a take off on Louis’ nickname), as he was called, had been well on his way to pugilistic immortality, easily dispatching opponents—even former champions – hardly breaking a sweat. He seemed to be invincible. But the first fight with Max ended with Joe on the canvas in the twelfth round trying to remember who and where he was.

It was the 1930s and the world was becoming a very ominous and confusing place. Hitler’s Nazi-Germany was on the move, and the dictator was beginning to look invincible himself.

Schmeling, as a German, was blocked from fighting James J. Braddock for the title, even though he was clearly the number one contender. It fell to Louis to fight the Cinderella Man in 1937. Braddock was defending his title for the first time. Louis went down in round one of that fight – only to come back strong and knock Braddock out in the eighth.

Yet, though he was the champion in name, Louis knew that he wouldn’t be able to think of himself that way until he could settle his score with Mr. Schmeling. Most fight fans felt the same way.

In ancient times there was something called representative warfare, where one man from an army would do battle with an opponent sent by the enemy, and the larger conflict would be decided by this “one on one” ordeal.  The Philistine giant, Goliath, who taunted the ancient Israelites, proposed this kind of settlement to the issues of his day. Then he met a boy named David.

In 1938, as the world was becoming increasingly polarized in the face of impending war and as it was becoming clear to all people of freedom and good will that the Nazis were evil, the situation was ripe for a representative battle of sorts. And the rematch of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fit the bill.

51sD86yfPZL._SY300_So, on June 22, 1938, veteran referee Arthur Donovan gave his ring instructions to two determined boxers as nearly 70,000 Yankee Stadium spectators looked on. More than 100 million radio listeners tuned in from around the world. This was the largest broadcast audience ever up to that time and included just about half of the American public. That morning, the New York Journal-American had a large cartoon in the paper, one that showed a stadium and two figures in a boxing ring.  Hovering above the ring was the image of an immense globe bearing the face of a man. He was looking down on the scene on behalf of all humanity.

Yes, it was that big of a deal that night.

Author David Margolick, in his definitive account of that evening entitled Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink, wrote: “The fight implicated both the future of race relations and the prestige of two powerful nations. Each fighter was bearing on his shoulders more than any athlete ever had. One didn’t need to be an anthropologist to know there had never been anything like it, or a soothsayer to know there would never be anything like it again. If Louis won, no rivalry on the horizon could possibly generate as much excitement. And with Europe and, inevitably, America, on the brink of war, the world would soon enough have more than prizefights on its mind.”

If you ever get a chance to see a film of the fight that night, try to find the audio of the radio broadcast by NBC’s Clem McCarthy as well. His gravelly voiced blow-by-blow description turns the ear into an eye. Joe Louis was ready this time – he knew what he was fighting for, and he didn’t want to waste any time.

Seven seconds into the bout, Joe Louis snapped the head of his opponent back with a left-jab, then another, and another. Later opponents would suggest that Louis’ jab wasn’t a Muhammad Ali-type flick but more like putting a light bulb against your face, then breaking it. Thirteen seconds later he had Schmeling on the ropes. McCarthy could hardly keep up: “And Louis hooks a left to Max’s head quickly! And shoots over a hard right to Max’s head! Louis, a left to Max’s jaw!  A right to his head! Louis with the old one-two! First the left and then the right! He’s landed more blows in this one round than he landed in any five rounds of the other fight!”

You get the picture.

In two minutes and four seconds it was over. But no one felt cheated. There were no catcalls that might usually accompany a lop-sided battle. Referee Arthur Donovan later said: “A referee lives a lifetime in two minutes like that.” 

So does a nation.

The rest is history. The defeat of the German in the ring didn’t slow the world’s long slide into war – nor could it have. Louis went on to fight again and again and again, defending his title successfully fifteen more times before December 7, 1941. Schmeling went home in disgrace. Nazis didn’t like it when someone from their master race got beaten up by a black man.

A few months after the fight, on November 9, 1938, as Nazis terrorized Jewish businesses and houses of worship during Kristallnacht, Max Schmeling sheltered two Jewish young people in his hotel suite in Berlin.

Joe Louis served his country in uniform during the war and emerged after to continue his career, though the clock was running out on his days of glory. He died in 1981. His former foe helped pay the cost of Joe’s funeral. Max Schmeling, who lived to be just seven months shy of a hundred years old, died in 2005.

Their brief, but explosive meeting in June 1938 at Yankee Stadium captured the attention of the world and the imagination of our nation. So, the great ballpark should be remembered as a place for more than baseball.

Yankee Stadium was a field of dreams, history, and glory.








He Had a Way With Words

[This blog is posted at VENTURE GALLERIES E7DC4EA9236857D984A33483589CB_h498_w598_m2— DRS]

I’m a student of history. I’m also a Churchill buff. Maybe I’m just drawn to highly effective overweight people who achieved greatness and longevity.

Yes, Churchill was indomitable, often rude, terribly stubborn, and clearly enamored of his opinions – but he also had a great capacity for graciousness.

For example, though he had been Neville Chamberlain’s persistent, and at times vociferous, critic, Churchill was overwhelmingly kind to his predecessor, who was, though no one knew it at the time, not long for this earth when he stepped down as British Prime minister, making room for Winston on May 10, 1940.

One of the first things Churchill did after coming to power was to tell Chamberlain that he and his wife could stay in their home at 10 Downing Street for the immediate future.  Neville’s wife, Anne, not only enjoyed living in the Prime Minister’s residence, but she had actually done much to improve the dwelling.

Neville was moved by this generous gesture.

Though Chamberlain had taken chronic offense at Winston for his personal attacks in the House of Commons and the press, considering him something of an enemy (even once having Churchill’s phone tapped), it’s clear that this feeling was not reciprocated.  Winston remained personally loyal.  This would pay significant political dividends during fragile moments when the War Cabinet was debating whether or not to make peace overtures toward Hitler.  Chamberlain backed Churchill on that.

“Blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” are famous words to us today.  They evoke thoughts of courage, fearlessness, and an unwavering determination to succeed.  And other Churchillian phrases echo down to us through the corridors of time – words like: “finest hour,” “we shall never surrender,” “we shall fight on the beaches,” and so forth.  They are timeless and meaningful.

But I think one of Winston Churchill’s best orations from those days has been overlooked for too long. It was the eulogy he shared about Neville Chamberlain, who succumbed to complications due to stomach cancer on November 10, 1940, just six months after leaving office:

It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart–the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.

Frankly, Winston Churchill was not the one-dimensional warmonger some in his day thought him to be, and that some even today persist in insisting he was.  He was an inspiring leader at the right time and in the right place.

And the guy had a way with words.

Area 51–In New Jersey?

By the late 1930s, radio was a living room fixture in the majority of American homes. Furniture was arranged around the device, like big screen televisions today (which my wife still won’t let me have—sigh…). People back then were increasingly entertained, amused, and informed via the talking box. It was a great time for the imagination. Images were created in the brain, not on a screen.

MiniatureAntiqueRadio1Though radio news had been part of broadcast schedules for many years, the events in Europe leading up to World War II did for that medium, what the first Gulf War did for cable television news in the early 1990s. The marriage of medium to moment brought radio to critical mass.

In September 1938, the famous broadcaster of the day, H.V. Kaltenborn, made 102 broadcasts in eighteen days as the rumors of war in Europe reached fever pitch. That was during the Munich Crisis as British and French leaders persisted in denial and pathetically continued to try appeasement with Hitler.

More radio sets were sold during those eighteen days than any other similar period in history. People sensed war was coming and they wanted to be able to know the latest. Radio news became a major part of the line-up as the time allotted for news swelled to more than ten percent of total airtime.

As the world grew more dangerous, it was also getting smaller.

Of course, people also wanted and enjoyed the entertainment. There was no doubt about that. It provided a measure of escape from the challenges of domestic life in a time of economic depression (there was actually a 2nd Great Depression in 1938) and from a larger world that seemed determined to destroy itself.

There was comedy with Jack Benny, suspense with The Green Hornet, and even more suspense with The Shadow. Big companies would purchase blocks of time for advertisement. So some shows bore corporate names—sort of like a lot of sports stadiums today. For example, The Texaco Star Theater, debuting October 5, 1938, featured comedy and variety.

But the favorite entertainer that year—especially for boys like my dad and his older brother—was the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Never mind that even I could do ventriloquism on radio. the Stokes brothers never missed a Sunday night broadcast of The Chase and Sandborn Hour.

One Sunday that autumn, the Stokes brothers stayed a couple of nights at their Uncle Joe’s house in Detroit. The next night was Halloween and his neighborhood was a great place to fill their pillowcases with candy. So Jerry (my dad) and his brother Jim took their places on the rug near the big console radio in Uncle Joe’s living room at 8:00 p.m. and set the dial to WXYZ, which carried the NBC Blue Network.

They laughed at the opening bit, a typically hilarious Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy routine. Then their laughter turned to near instant boredom as some dumb lady came on and did a drama thing. Never mind that the lady was Madeleine Carroll, a famous British actress—the highest paid that year in Hollywood, earning more than $250,000. She became a big star via her recent performance in a popular Alfred Hitchcock film called The 39 Steps.

None of that impressed Jerry and Jimmy; they wanted to hear the funny stuff.

So they turned the dial back and forth and soon found some pretty cool music on WWJ, which carried CBS shows. Mercury Theater was scheduled to be on the air at that moment. So they left the dial there and tapped their toes to a band playing a Spanish-sounding song, fully planning to check back at WXYZ a few minutes later for more Charlie McCarthy fun. Possibly this is exactly the moment channel surfing was discovered.

But the boys never made it back to the NBC Blue Network that night. In fact, all across America in thousands upon thousands of homes, little boys and girls and all grown up adults glued their ears to what was being piped into their living rooms. It began like this:

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, Central Time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity…

Then all of sudden, it was back to the Spanish music as Jerry and Jimmy stared at each other. They called out, “Hey Uncle Joe, come here, something just happened on the radio.”

ORSON WELLESSimilar scenes played out all across the country that night. The music was interrupted again and again with more details about a spaceship crashing in a place called Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Something snake-like crawled out. Fields caught fire. All reported on the radio.

Forget that Hitler guy who wanted to take over some far away place called Czechoslovakia—these were Martians—and they wanted New Jersey!

Of course, it was all a hoax first dreamed up by a young radio actor named John Houseman (he grew up to become Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase) and brought to life by his boss, 23-year-old Orson Welles. It had been advertised right in newspapers earlier that day in the section where it showed the radio lineup for that night. There in plain sight it said: “Play ‘War of the Worlds,’ Mercury Theater. CBS Radio.” And the broadcast began with a disclaimer—which didn’t help all the people tuning in late.

The radio spoof became a textbook case of mass hysteria. In an instant, millions of people believed we were under attack by aliens.

Of course, H. G. Wells and Orson Welles were ahead of their times with their interest in aliens. These days you can find countless books and movies about the idea of odd-looking life forms coming from somewhere “out there” to do us harm. Just do a Google search on “Area 51” and you’ll find thousands of pages of theories about the subject.

Oh, and by the way, you’ll also be placed on an interplanetary watch list—just sayin’.

Yet according to the Scriptures, aliens have been on the earth for thousands of years.


The first real life alien was a fellow named Abraham. And he passed on his alien DNA to his son, and now there are millions of people with the “not from this world” gene in them. It’s called “incorruptible seed” in one place. And when you have this gene you are born again.

Cue the church organ.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews said this about Abraham and his heirs:

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were aliens and strangers on earth.” — Hebrews 11:13

The words “aliens” and “strangers” are from similar Greek words meaning “belonging to another”—in other words, from somewhere else. Having done my share of world travel, I have managed to provoke the question loosely translated: “You’re not from around here are you?” This has also been expressed to me on occasion without the use of words—just a condescending stare.

Have you ever known someone who was really “different?”

Have you ever said of someone, “That guy must be from another planet?”

Better yet, has anyone ever noted such a difference in you because of your faith, that it just seems to them to be—strange?

[You’ve just read a brief excerpt from “HOW TO KEEP CALM & CARRY ON: 1st Century Wisdom for 21st Century Living” — available at AMAZON as an EBOOK, and PAPERBACK]

History in the…Movies

One of my favorite movies from the past few years is “The King’s Speech”—the story of Great Britain’s King George VI, and his struggle to overcome stuttering.  Colin Firth received the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of the king.  Watching the Academy Awards that year, I was rooting for Firth. My biases are seldom reflected by the academy—for a variety of reasons—but I was thrilled when he won.

TheKingsSpeechIt was a great movie because it was a great story.

I am looking at movies a bit differently these days as I attempt to adapt one of my books into a screenplay. Stay tuned.  I have been reading screenplays—a lot of them—to get a feel for the medium.  And I just read the shooting script for “The King’s Speech,” complete with an introduction by David Seidler, the guy who actually wrote it.

As I read Seidler’s introduction, I was struck by how his own life narrative was connected with the story. You see, he stuttered as a child growing up in England the 1940s.  So it should come as no surprise that he became fascinated with the King’s story.  The screenplay was actually the culmination of a life-long obsession.

Seidler read everything he could about the King, and every once in a while he’d come across the name Lionel Logue. He would write, “who is Lionel Logue?” in the margins. And here’s the salient point—Seidler seemed to instinctively sense that Logue was the story he was looking for.

Of course, he was right.  And with the help of a friend in the U.K. who simply looked in the telephone book for anyone named Logue living in London (forty years after the story), he was led to Dr. Valentine Logue, an eminent brain surgeon. He’s the boy in the movie who always has his nose in a science book. The good doctor told Seidler that he would be happy to talk about his father and show him his notebooks—but first the writer would need to get permission from the Queen “Mum.”

So he wrote to her.

Several months later, the writer received a reply: “Please, Mr. Seidler, not during my lifetime, the memory of those events is still too painful.”

So he waited.

That letter arrived in 1981. Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) died in 2002. By that time, the brain surgeon was gone, too—so no notebooks. They did finally appear just before filming began, but long after the screenplay had been written.

So, how did David Seidler write about Lionel Logue’s treatment of King George VI—“Bertie” in the movie?  Well, this is where fate stepped in. He found out in an almost incidental way that his own uncle had also been treated by Logue back in the day and the techniques used were similar to what Seidler himself had experienced during his own childhood struggle.

So he wrote from memory.

It was written as a stage play at first, but someone later saw the potential for the story on the big screen, and the rest is, as they saw, history.

Really good history—for a movie.

[This blog was originally written for and posted at VENTURE GALLERIES -DRS]


The World Leader Who Didn’t Attend CHURCHILL’S Funeral

[This column is currently posted at TOWNHALL.COM]

Why did one of the most politically savvy leaders ever to occupy the White House—Lyndon Baines Johnson—decide not to attend the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965? And why didn’t he send his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey?  Questions remain nearly 49 years later.

Nearly 100 world leaders are now making their way to South Africa for the state funeral of Nelson Mandela. It will be a who’s who of global power-players. It’s important for them to be there, because it’s a risky thing to miss a great man’s funeral.

Obama_Bush_and_Clinton_discuss_the_2010_Haiti_earthquakePresident Obama invited George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and their wives, to join him on Air Force One for the trek to Johannesburg. When Anwar Sadat was assassinated in October 1981, President Ronald Reagan’s security team strongly advised against him traveling to Egypt.

That was just a few months after Reagan was seriously wounded and barely escaped death at the hands of a would-be assassin, so the concerns were understandable. Mr. Reagan decided to play a “Presidential Hat Trick.” And the next day Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon boarded the presidential jet for the journey. Because Secretary of State Alexander Haig was “head” of the official delegation, he claimed the President’s Quarters for himself, leaving the three formers to make do in coach.

Churchill died at the age of 90 on January 24, 1965, after a series of debilitating strokes. His final illness became an international vigil for nearly two weeks, so there was plenty of time for world governments to prepare.

In fact, the British government had been prepared for a long time. More than ten years earlier, at the direction of Queen Elizabeth II, a plan called, “Operation Hope Not” had been developed for Winston’s eventual passing.

US President Lyndon B. Johnson delivers a speech 2Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated for a full term on January 20, 1965, following his landslide electoral victory the previous November. He was at the top of his political game and riding high in the polls. But a few days later, on the night Churchill died, LBJ called seven reporters to his bedroom at the White House and told them that his doctors had advised him not to fly to London. He said: “I don’t have the bouncy feeling that I usually have.”

Presumably because “no bouncy feeling” isn’t an actual recognized disease, the “official” diagnosis was a bad cold.

He also told them that he was not sending Vice President Humphrey, but instead he would send Secretary of State Dean Rusk (who didn’t actually attend either, citing illness) and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.  Johnson also noted that former President Eisenhower was attending as a private citizen. The grand farewell for Churchill was a global media event, watched on television by more people than President Kennedy’s funeral fourteen months earlier.

The reporters at his bedside described Johnson as looking “sicker” than they had expected: “Hair disheveled, he lay in a four-poster, canopied bed speaking softly, coughing lightly from time to time and blowing his nose.”

Johnson was widely criticized—here and abroad—for his failure to make the trip.  Many in the British government saw it as a slight. And in some ways it represented a minor setback in American/Anglo relations at a crucial time in the Cold War.

Some of President Johnson’s biographers take great pains to write about the man’s energy and perseverance. For example, Robert A. Caro writes in his tome, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, about how the man had regularly “refused to allow the illness to interfere” with his work habits. And how LBJ drove himself “mercilessly” even when he was supposed to be ill, with aides wondering, “how could a man have such energy if there was something seriously wrong with him?”

This description flies in the face of the image Johnson projected to the journalists that day.

A couple of weeks later, in a White House press conference, Johnson seemed to reveal a hint of thin skin when he was asked about his decisions related to Churchill’s funeral:

“I am glad to have the press reactions and the reactions abroad on the protocol involved in connection with funerals…In the light of your interest and other interests, I may have made a mistake by asking the Chief Justice to go and not asking the Vice President. I will bear in mind in connection act in accordance with our national interest.”

Soon after Johnson’s non-apology apology, someone coined the term “credibility gap” and affixed it to Lyndon Johnson. As with many things about LBJ, the truth is elusive.

Mandela’s Secret

Nelson Mandela was a giant, a colossus who seemed to stand astride history and above the everyday. His passing at the age of 95 is being marked by expressions of condolence and admiration from around the world.

As I’ve reflected on this man’s life, I’m drawn to how he managed to emerge from unspeakable pain and persecution without the baggage of bitterness and malice. This is not only a great example of practical character and grace—it’s also likely one of the keys to Mandela’s greatness.

N.Mandela in his cell on Robben Island (revisit} 1994The evening before his release from 27 years in prison, Mandela met with South African President F.W. de Klerk. They had an extraordinary conversation. It was Saturday, February 10, 1990.

A week earlier, De Klerk had made a public pledge that Mandela would be released from incarceration, but he gave no specific timetable, so the prisoner was surprised when the President told him that he would be freed the next day.  In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote: “I deeply wanted to leave prison as soon as I could, but to do so on such short notice would not be wise,” adding, “I thanked Mr. de Klerk, and then said that at the risk of appearing ungrateful I would prefer to have a week’s notice in order that my family and my organization could be prepared.”

The President was surprised by Mandela’s request and turned him down. He insisted that the prisoner would have to leave the next day. It was just one more indignity. Then de Klerk offered Mandela a glass of whiskey—maybe it was a peace offering of sorts.

Mandela had become the iconic face of global opposition to the very idea of apartheid since his imprisonment in 1964. He spent most of his prison life on Robben Island, laboring in a limestone quarry.  And the man, who would ultimately embody the political transformation of his country, began that process by somehow turning his prison cell into a place of personal progress. As his legend grew—the mystique that would one day fuel his political presence and power—so did the man himself.

How do we know this?  Well, because Nelson Mandela clearly learned and was determined to demonstrate one of the most important lessons in life, that being—no matter how much you know, or how gifted you are, all of your potential can be squandered if sacrificed on the altar of pettiness, bitterness, and a lack of personal grace and mercy.

This capacity is what made Lincoln great with his words about having “malice for none and charity for all.” And in contrast, the lack of this quality brought down one of our U.S. Presidents, Richard Nixon, who seemed to grasp the concept too late when he said upon resigning from office in 1974: “Always remember, others may hate you, but they don’t win, unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”

In contrast to the all-too-common human tendency to bear grudges and harbor resentment, Nelson Mandela had something different in mind when he emerged from captivity on February 11, 1990. He said it this way: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”













Thank You, Mr. Schieffer

The Fort Worth Star Telegram issued four “Extras” on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy died. The driving force was a 26 year-old cub reporter by the name of Bob Schieffer.

nschiefferhat[I am personally grateful to Mr. Schieffer for another reason—but I’ll get to that in a bit.]

Bob Schieffer happened to answer the phone in the busy Star-Telegram newsroom about an hour after the news broke about the assassination. The caller—a woman—asked if anyone at the paper could give her a ride to Dallas. The young reporter was about to hang up, telling the caller that the newspaper wasn’t a taxi service, when the woman said that she was the mother of the man who had just been arrested in Dallas.

Bob Schieffer drove over to the home of Marguerite Oswald—mother of Lee Harvey Oswald—and gave her that ride to Dallas. Over the next few hours he was with her and able to phone in regular updates to his paper from the Dallas Police Station.  

It was what they call a big scoop for the young reporter.

These days, Mr. Schieffer is one of the elder statesmen of the news business, close CBS heir to Murrow and Cronkite.  Recently, his alma mater, Texas Christian University, in his beloved hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, renamed their excellent journalism school after him.

It was that love of Fort Worth that led Bob Schieffer to take an interest in a book I was writing a few years ago. It was about that town and one of its more “colorful” citizens—a famous preacher. And I’m deeply grateful to Mr. Schieffer for agreeing to write the Foreword to that book, The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America.

TheShootingSalvationistHere’s part of what he said about the book:

“For all the colorful characters who became part of Fort Worth’s history, surely none surpassed J. Frank Norris, the fiery fundamentalist preacher at Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church in pure outlandishness. His oratory and penchant for publicity brought thousands into his congregation and at one point First Baptist was among the largest churches in the world, a mega church before the phrase was coined. Unfortunately, for all his oratorical skills, Norris’ horizons were limited by several criminal indictments brought on by his tendency for violence.

In this book David Stokes tells the J. Frank Norris story.

If I hadn’t grown up in Fort Worth, I would have thought someone made all this up but no one did.

It really happened.”

Thank you, Bob Schieffer!