Vinny is one of my grandsons (I have six, and one granddaughter—thanks for asking). He’s seven years old. The other day, as he showed me a screen and explained the latest level he’d reached in a game I didn’t know or understand, I was struck by the thought that I was exactly his age when my second grade teacher, who for some reason had left a classroom full of, well, second-graders, reentered the room. She was weeping. She wrote on the chalkboard: “President Kennedy has been shot.”
Then she left the room—again.
A few minutes later, right about the time I had my friend Tim in a chokehold (or was it the other way around?), she came back and went to the chalk, once again, writing: “President Kennedy is dead. You are dismissed. Go straight home.”
So we did. These were the days before carpools and long lines in front of schools where parents waited. We just walked home. Hundreds of kids poured out onto the sidewalks, with little security, but for a few fellow students wearing special belts around their waist and over one shoulder. They were the “safety patrol.” Becoming a member of that elite “special forces” group was an early ambition of mine, but I digress.
I remember walking home briskly, so that I could tell my mom what had happened. But she already knew. Everyone did.
Now, my folks weren’t Kennedy supporters—they voted for Nixon, and later Goldwater, and then Nixon, again. However, my mother always had the latest magazine lying around featuring the young First Lady on the cover. It’s hard to believe now, but Jackie was only 34 years old when her husband was taken from her, and us.
Over the past 50 years, since that fateful day in Dallas, the Kennedy story has been told, and retold. The thousand days of his presidency are often referred to as “Camelot,” a name pregnant with a sense of wonder and magic. In fact, the nomenclature is used so often, that there are some who may assume that was the way people referred to JFK’s White House when he lived and worked there.
Actually, the Camelot image began to be associated with all things JFK when Jackie Kennedy met with a famous writer after her husband’s murder. His name was Theodore H. White.
The day after Thanksgiving in 1963, and one week to the day from the assassination, Mrs. Kennedy had a late evening meeting with Mr. White at the Kennedy home in Hyannisport, Massachusetts. She had made it clear to the editors of Life Magazine that she preferred White write the primary essay in the special issue they were getting ready to publish. He had covered their wedding for the magazine in 1953, and more recently, he had written sympathetically about Kennedy in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Making of the President, 1960.
During their conversation that night, the President’s widow, talked about how much her late husband had enjoyed the Broadway play, Camelot—particularly its music. He regularly played the original soundtrack record in the White House, usually before they drifted off to sleep.
Don’t let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot
White was on deadline. They were actually holding up publication of the magazine, at a cost of $30,000, and waiting for his copy. So after his conversation with Mrs. Kennedy, he went to another room and spent 45 minutes composing the essay. Then he went to a telephone in the kitchen to dictate the story to an editor.
Jackie Kennedy came in as White was debating back and forth with the editor about toning down the whole “Camelot” angle. She gave White an angry look, while shaking her head emphatically—“No.”
And the rest is, as they say, history.
[This article was written for VENTURE GALLERIES–an excellent site for readers and writers. – DRS]
I was thinking recently about what was going on 53 years ago—in 1968. It was time of conflict, assassination, national division, international disorder, and cultural explosion.
But I remember it also as a great year for baseball. It was the last year before divisional play began to fill October wall-to-wall. Back then, there were just two leagues—American and National. No divisions. So October baseball competed with Sunday football for barely one weekend.
It was also the year of Mickey.
There was Mickey Mantle, who was retiring at the end of the season after a certain-to-make Hall of Fame career. His last visit to league stadiums became a farewell tour of sorts. I saw him play his last game at Tiger Stadium in Detroit near where I grew up. And when he came to bat for the final time, I saw pitcher Denny McLain throw him a fat pitch designed to let Mickey hit it into the right field stands. When The Mick rounded second base on his final home run trot in Detroit, he tipped his hat to McLain.
It was very cool.
Of course, being a life-long Tiger fan, the mention of the name Mickey immediately brings to mind a guy named Mickey Lolich, a talented left-hander who found the ultimate groove that October. He had long pitched in the shadow of teammate McLain, who won 31 games that year (the last man to win 30). But the locals knew he had the stuff. And in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, he pitched game seven on just two days rest and went the distance (that’s nine full innings—there’s no law against this) to lead the Tigers to the World Championship. This was long before baseball discovered “closers,” “middle-relievers,” and “pitch counts.”
But there was another Mickey that year—and he’s one of baseball’s forgotten heroes. His name—and you may have to scratch your head to remember—was Mickey Stanley. He was a gold-glove centerfielder, and a pretty fair hitter.
As the Tigers coasted toward the series that year, manager Mayo Smith knew he had a problem. You see, he had four great outfielders and only three positions: Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup, Willie Horton, and another man destined for the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. His name was Al Kaline, one of the greatest all-around players ever. He came straight to Detroit from High School in 1953, and never spent a day in the minor leagues. In 1955, he became the youngest player ever to lead the league in batting, with a .340 average.
He broke his arm in ’68 and missed many games. The outfield performed well in his absence, but Manager Smith knew that this might be Kaline’s only shot at playing in a World Series. So he conceived a gutsy plan.
Ray Oyler was the Tiger shortstop. The guy was amazing with the glove, but couldn’t hit a lick. I mean the guy could strike out in Tee-Ball. So Smith talked to Mickey Stanley and asked him if he’d ever played shortstop. He hadn’t. The two positions were very different.
Nevertheless, Mickey Stanley was moved from outfield to infield just for the World Series. This made room for Kaline in the lineup (this was also long before things like the “designated hitter” and “”Money Ball”). By all accounts, Stanley accepted the role without complaint, demonstrating what it meant to be a team member. He played almost flawlessly.
It was a great example to young ball players, who for many years heard Little League coaches bark: “What do you mean you don’t want to play where I need you? Did Mickey Stanley complain when he was put at shortstop?” Coaches loved Mickey Stanley.
Not long after the ’68 season, baseball began to change. Free agency came, along with more money, money, money. Players moved around a lot more. They started building stadiums where you could actually see the game from any seat (go figure).
I still love baseball. But occasionally I wonder if the spirit of Mickey Stanley is anywhere to be found.
Hollywood put out some great movies in 1939, films such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But one movie that year—now largely forgotten—served a purpose even greater than helping a Depression-ravaged American public forget their dire straits, not to mention the storm clouds gathering around the world. It was called, Code of the Secret Service, and it starred a handsome young actor named Ronald Reagan.
Jerry Parr was nine years old the day his dad took him to a Miami theater to see Reagan play a G-Man named Brass Bancroft. Nearly forty-two years later, Jerry Parr was the Agent in Charge of the detail protecting that once-young actor who became the President of the United States.
And on March 30, 1981, Parr’s quick thinking and reflexes became part of history as he pushed President Reagan into a limousine when gunfire erupted outside the Washington Hilton Hotel following a speech to a labor group. There is an iconic photo of the moment capturing the intense grimace on Parr’s face as he forcefully protected his charge.
Parr, who retired from the United States Secret Service in 1985, shares a moment by moment recap of what happened on that sidewalk and in the limousine, including his decision to change course and head to the hospital instead of back to the White House. Mr. Reagan mentioned to Parr, “I think you broke my rib.” And while the agent pondered the prospect of having so wounded the president he noticed Reagan wiping some blood from his lips. “I must have cut the inside of my mouth.” But Parr saw that the blood was “frothy” and instantly realized that as a sign of a lung injury. Next stop GW Hospital. It was a decision that saved Reagan’s life.
Jerry Parr’s career in the USSS began a little more than a year before another president was shot—that one in Dallas, Texas, and with no happy ending. Parr was in Tennessee at the moment of the shooting, but made his way to Dallas a few days later to conduct numerous interviews, including many members of Lee Harvey Oswald’s family.
The book is filled with interesting stories about the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter years, as well as the Reagan tenure. But there are no salacious tidbits of gossip—the stuff of tell-all books written by purveyors of innuendo and helped along by a few disreputable miscreants who sell their souls and betray vital trusts for selfish reasons. In the Secret Service is a reminder that there are some—many, many—dedicated public servants who do their jobs because they have integrity and a sense of mission above and beyond themselves.
Parr was uniquely positioned to observe the impact of the shooting on Ronald Reagan, particularly his faith that God had spared him for a purpose. Reagan was comfortable talking about spiritual things because they were, indeed, very real to him. In fact, the book is really a story of God’s grace—in Reagan’s life, and the lives of Jerry and Carolyn Parr.It is also a story of finding and doing God’s will.
After the events of March 30, 1981 were long in the rear view mirror, and Mr. Reagan had fully recovered, Jerry Parr asked him, “Did you know you were an agent of your own destiny?” He told the president about the visit to that Florida movie house back in 1939, and how he saw the film many, many times thereafter. It inspired a little boy to become an agent like Brass Bancroft. Reagan smiled and in a typical use of humor replied: “It was one of the cheapest films I ever made.”
It was also—in a very real sense—the most important one he ever made. Nancy Reagan said, “Jerry put himself in harm’s way to protect Ronnie, and I am forever grateful.”
So are we.
[Watch a trailer of CODE OF THE SECRET SERVICE with Ronald Reagan HERE]
One day in 1974, as Spring began to give way to Summer, Frank Gannon—wordsmith and White House Fellow—took a walk in Washington, largely to get away from the stress induced by the Nixon White House’s ever-increasing Watergate milieu. He found his way to an old theater—one that happened to be featuring a triple billing of anti-Nixon films. He felt uncomfortable—even somewhat guilty—for being there, but for whatever reason even this was a welcome break from what was happening a few blocks away. He looked around and, though the lights were out, sensed the crowd’s unmistakable derision every time Richard Nixon’s familiar image appeared on the screen.
Then something curious happened.
The final feature of the odd cinematic trilogy was the simple replaying of a speech Mr. Nixon had given more than two decades earlier—on September 23, 1952—at another embattled moment in his career. The grainy video was designed to be the program’s pièce de résistance. But as a much younger Richard Nixon delivered his remarks on the screen that day, it was the audience that Gannon noticed. For whatever reason, the sarcastic hisses had stopped as Nixon spoke of finances and family and a dog named Checkers. It was almost as if these decidedly anti-Nixon partisans were suddenly fascinated.
They were. Many still are.
He was 39-years old and on the verge of national leadership—the junior United States Senator from California and the Republican nominee for Vice President. He was living the American dream and fulfilling many of his own. And along the way, he carried the hopes of a new generation of Americans, those who had emerged from the darkness of global conflict with renewed resolve to embrace life and ensure that such a catastrophe never happened again.
In fact, this rising political star whose magnitude had increased so dramatically in six short years, had already experienced the clash of personalities and ideologies that was to define his generation. Richard Milhous Nixon would be a transcendent political figure in America for quite some time. His name would appear on five national ballots—a feat equaled only by Franklin Delano Roosevelt—two times for Vice-President and three for President. And like FDR, he would lose only once, and that barely to another young politician, this one from Massachusetts, who was making his own history in 1952.
Mr. Nixon is most often remembered through the prism of how his career—at least the public part—ended in August of 1974. This is not only unfortunate, but it also prevents us from figuring out how this man who fathomed such deep valleys managed to actually scale the highest political mountains extant. How could Nixon have done all he did if the caricature of him in the minds of so many Americans was an accurate characterization?
Understanding what he did in 1952 is crucial to processing all the rest. What is lost to so many in the fog of all that later transpired, is that Richard Nixon was actually right on the facts, as well as the politics, in 1952. He did not wiggle out of a mess. In fact, he demonstrated a clear capacity for communication and connection with the American people.
It was the dawn of the television age—the beginning of an entertainment, information, and communication seismic shift. In living rooms around the country, the large radio, complete with it’s prominently displayed dials, would be exiled to elsewhere in the house and the furniture would begin to arrange itself around the new media kid in town. The device that Edward R. Murrow would later characterize as “lights and wires in a box,” would eventually become so essential to Americans that they wondered how they ever lived without it. Although, until that September night when Richard Nixon spoke “coast to coast,” the shift from wireless to tube was anything but a done deal. And as the young politico prepared to make his case to the American people, he had no way of knowing that not only what he had to say would be important, but where he said it would be, as well—even more so.
It was the first synchronization of medium and message for a new age. This was the moment when television began to trump radio—even motion pictures—as the entertainment choice du jour of Americans. We loved Lucy, watched “Uncle Miltie,” and got our information more and more as much from Edward R. Murrow as from the venerable morning and evening newspapers.
In fact, in many ways it was the Checkers speech that signaled the beginning of our ever since fascination with the glowing tube. More Americans watched Nixon that September night than would watch any single event on T.V. for many years to come. But even politicians were slow to figure out what it all meant. The Republican National Committee put their Vice Presidential candidate on two radio networks (Mutual and Columbia; MBS, CBS), while on only one television hook-up (NBC). But, no matter—suspense built, and by airtime at 9:30 p.m. (eastern) on Tuesday, September 23, 1952 nearly 60 million viewers tuned in—an unheard of audience up to that point and well beyond.
Forget what else was airing or happening, or that Jersey Joe Walcott was defending his World’s Heavyweight Boxing Championship that very night and hour against a guy named Rocky Marciano—the fight had been blacked out on radio and television anyway and could only be seen live in Philadelphia or via a primitively skeletal network of closed circuit venues (complete with its famous knockout punch)—people wanted to hear what this man accused of financial improprieties would have to say. Would he resign from the Republican ticket? Would he tell the truth? Would he really give out his personal financial details when no other politician at the time did?
What viewers saw that night was a presentation—primitive in its production quality, in keeping with the technology of the young medium—carefully crafted and skillfully delivered. It was a deliberately arranged combination of facts, figures, family, and country. At moments it was clinical. Occasionally it was corny. But it all worked.
The great General of World War II and D-Day, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican candidate for President and the man who held Nixon’s fate in his recently-indecisive hands, made notes as he watched his young running mate on television. And at one point, something Nixon said so disturbed him that he broke his pencil on his pad of paper.
Mrs. Eisenhower wept as she watched.
Mrs. Nixon sat near her husband at the otherwise empty El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. Some reporters saw his wife’s presence cynically, but they soon forgot about it as Mr. Nixon told a story that would chisel this small screen moment in storied stone. It was about a cocker spaniel: Yep—a dog. A dog named Checkers.
The broadcast was missed by many and dismissed by many more. The Democratic nominee for President that year, Adlai Stevenson—a man who prided himself on his use of the spoken word—didn’t even bother watching. He was convinced that television was a passing fad for plebeians. And even after watching the speech, Mr. Eisenhower still did not know what to make of, or do, with Nixon. It was powerful political drama, but more than that—it was great cultural drama.
Nixon didn’t read a script or use a teleprompter, but rather he used a few notes to aid his prodigious memory, as would be his style throughout most of his public career. He demonstrated a mastery of detail and appeared to Americans as a sort of new kind of political communicator—just a guy having an animated conversation with friends. When the half-hour was up, the camera lights turned off before the candidate could actually give out the contact information for phone calls and telegrams to the Republican National Committee. Mad at himself for such an inexactitude, he was certain that he had failed—until he noticed one of the cameramen crying.
A few minutes later Darryl Zanuck, the Hollywood mogul whose career included the production of the first “talking” movie (The Jazz Singer in 1927) and hits such as All About Eve (1950), phoned. He told Richard Nixon that the broadcast was “the most tremendous performance” he’d ever seen. This from a man known for the saying: “There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic.”
Calls and telegrams overwhelmed the RNC. It was quickly obvious that Nixon had not only won the day, but that he had tapped into something powerful. He had gone directly to the people in a way not really done before. Americans had read and heard speeches for generations, but this was something different—they saw and, for a brief and shining moment, they connected. And what too many casual observers miss is that Richard Nixon not only survived his first firestorm, he triumphed that night in 1952.
Vladimir Putin is currently cashing in on an ill-advised promise made when two presidents thought no one was listening. You may recall President Obama’s whispered assurance, back in March of 2012, to then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev: “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
We are now witnessing that promised flexibility. America’s foreign policy is becoming a caricature—international affairs according to Gumby.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a mix of Joseph Stalin and Lavrenty Beria—an experienced strongman and savvy intelligence officer. He is hardly someone to be impressed by “flexibility.” Vladimir is all about power and the expansion of Russian influence on the world. He also enjoys it when America looks bad. It makes him smile—sort of.
A while back, I read Michael Dobbs’ account of what happened when the “Big Three”—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—met at Yalta to carve up what was left of Europe. The book is called, Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War. I heartily recommend it to anyone wondering if history repeats itself, or at least rhymes.
Dobbs gives a wonderfully detailed account of a weak president being bested by a determined Soviet dictator. FDR gave territory and history away to a ruthless tyrant. A war that started, in part, with a Soviet invasion of Poland, ended with Soviet dominance of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.
Now with Vladimir Putin inserting himself in a grand way into the current Syria crisis, not to mention joining the editorial staff of the New York Times, the voice of Yogi Berra can be heard crying in the wilderness: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
We must learn from history’s clock. It was dangerous and wrong to trust the Russians back then, and it is dangerous and wrong to trust them now.
In May of 1945, George Kennan was an American diplomat living and working in Moscow. Most Cold War buffs know very well of Kennan’s memo writing skills. His February 1946 “long telegram” is considered to be one of the seminal documents of the Cold War. In it, he described the Soviet Union’s “neurotic view of world affairs” and the “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” not to mention their, “secretiveness and conspiracy.”
But ten months earlier, Kennan wrote a memo that was largely overlooked at the time due to his relatively insignificant role as “nothing more than a highly competent clerk.” It is, in fact, that memo Mr. Obama and team should revisit right now. In language similar to what he would use in 1946, he bluntly acknowledged that Joseph Stalin knew just what buttons to push to get the United States to do his bidding. The Russians were already manipulating reality and events and had been all along. Kennan wrote: “They observe with gratification that in this way a great people can be led, like an ever-hopeful suitor, to perform one act of ingratiation after the other without ever reaching the goal which would satisfy its ardor and allay its generosity.”
Franklin Roosevelt gave the store away to Mr. Stalin and company at Yalta. His inexperienced successor, Mr. Truman, didn’t do much better at Potsdam. But of course, they were dealing with a Soviet dictator and we are dealing with Vladimir Putin. Putin is nothing like Stalin, right?
Actually, Mr. Putin has more in common with the pock-faced “man of steel”—referred to at times by Roosevelt and later Truman as “Uncle Joe”—than most people care to notice. He is driven by power and is one dangerous dude. The decision to portray him in sinister terms in my novel, Camelot’s Cousin, was not just a fictional tool, but rooted in scary reality. There are good guys and bad guys in the world. And then there are dumb guys who can’t tell the difference. They may be the most dangerous of all.
As President Obama looks for solutions in Syria and the Middle East by dancing with Vladimir Putin, he is looking for love in all the wrong places.
Sixty-eight years ago, it took a glorified clerk and a recently-booted-out-of-office politician to remind the world that Russia could not be trusted. Kennan wrote his telegrams. And Winston Churchill gave a speech about “the sinews of peace” and that ominous “Iron Curtain.”
In many ways, the key to the present crisis and future success is a good long look at the past.
Now that Vladimir Putin has apparently joined the editorial staff of the New York Times :-), I am wondering how long it will be politically acceptable to make him and/or the Russians the “bad guys” in fiction?
Those of you who have read my novel, CAMELOT’S COUSIN, know that Mr. Putin is a player in the story. How did I connect him to the Kennedy Assassination, of all things? Well, you’ll have to read the book.
It now has more that 170 customer reviews at Amazon, with an average rating of 4.6 stars out of a possible 5. I am so grateful to the thousands of readers who have enjoyed the story. If you haven’t read it, grab a copy today, either in e-book or paperback format.
Here are a few of the customer comments about CAMELOT’S COUSIN. — Best Regards, — DRS
What some readers are saying (from Amazon Customer Reviews):
“The author has taken true historical facts of the Cold War era and woven a most wonderful tale which is difficult to put down. Even touching upon and offering a believable reason for the assassination of President John F Kennedy, the book is very readable for someone like me who has lived through the post war sabre rattling between the USSR and the USA. A book to be enjoyed and one that makes for much conjecture as to what really happened.” – Barrie M
“Love the book. Gives you a new possible view of the Kennedy assassination . It is fictional but very believable story.”- Mary Faust
“I was interested to read this because I used to work for an attorney in Memphis, now deceased, that was a member of the OSS and was stationed in London during WWII. He had spoken to me of Kim Philby and he had several books in his library about him so the subject was of great interest to me. I really enjoyed the writing style of Mr. Stokes and the story moved along nicely. As a fan of historical fiction I recommend this book to any one who is interested in the subject.” – Florence Izzi
“I tried this book on for size because I enjoy reading espionage stories and this one sounded interesting. I was not at all familiar with the author but I am a huge fan now. This is a terrific book! Stokes writes in a style that flows and informs as well as entertains. I found the Kennedy tie in to not only pique my interest but hold it firmly tight. This is one of those keep me on the edge of my seat–I hate to put it down for fear I’ll miss something books. I will most definitely turn to other books by Mr. Stokes. Check this out my friends–you’ll be glad you did” – Daniel
I ordered this e-book because it was cheap. Boy, was I in for a big surprise. The storyline is fast-paced and really, really believable. My acid test for a book is whether it keeps me reading at bedtime. This one passed with flying colors. My only disappointment is that there’s no sequel.- Longtime Sailor [Note to Longtime Sailor – I am working on sequel now, stay tuned! — DRS]
“This book is a wild ride through history and into the present, pulling in the famous Cambridge spy ring and its star defector Kim Philby, Putin’s Russia, and with side trips into JFK’s Oval Office. The book is fiction, but is presented in such a way that builds a case for believability as each piece of information gathered is placed into the growing puzzle. It’s well-crafted and digs deeply into the old late 20th century world of spying and tradecraft, enough to warm the heart of most spy thriller veterans. Most of the book is presented at a pretty fast clip, but slows down near the end as both the hero and the reader need time to wind things down to a realistic and satisfying conclusion. Just because the Cold War is over, it isn’t necessarily the end of exciting, modern spy novels. This book proves it by using the past as a basis for adventure and excitement in the present. Recommended.” – Nyssa
“In recent moths I have read many books associated with JFK and his assassination. This one was an up-all-nighter..I recommend it for a new POV for the conspiracy theories around this event..”- Mary K. Hunt
As someone who was beginning a career in counterintelligence in 1963 I found this book to be very interesting and informative with great historical insights. Anyone interested in the Cold War period, espionage and spies will find this a great read. – Harry J.
Read these and the rest of the 171 customer reviews HERE.
Today, on Labor Day 2013, it’s likely that many Americans know little about the circumstances and conditions that influenced the labor movement in America. I am a supporter of “right to work” laws, but I also know that there was a time when unionism provided the only hope millions of workers had for better working conditions–not to mention better lives.
On March 25, 1911, approximately 500 workers were crafting “shirtwaists,” blouses with puffy sleeves and tight waists. These garments were the height of feminine fashion in America during the years before World War I and worn by “Gibson Girls.” It was part of an image personifying beauty, with a touch of independence, popularized by illustrated stories developed by a guy named—yep, you guessed it—Charles Dana Gibson.
But the women and girls (primarily) working long hours to produce the “shirtwaists” were not likely to actually wear them. They were immigrants for the most part, underpaid and overworked. They labored on the Lower East Side of New York City in a sweatshop at 29 Washington Place—specifically on floors seven through ten. On that particular Saturday they were wrapping up their otherwise typical workweek of many more than 55 hours or so, when a small fire started in a scrap bin. One sad hour later, glowing embers bore witness to an event of unspeakable horror. Sirens wailed throughout the city and hundreds of people made their way toward the scene of billowing smoke, “arriving in time to see tangles of bodies, some trailing flames, tumbling from the ninth-floor windows,” as described in the 2003 bestseller by David Von Drehle, Triangle—The Fire That Changed America.
It was a moment as pivotal as it was tragic.
The death toll reached 146, most of them women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. They died from burns, asphyxiation, trauma from a fall, or combinations thereof. In the aftermath of the Triangle fire, the movement toward trade unionism accelerated. Various governmental entities investigated and acted on issues such as low wages, the use of child labor, and employee safety. Eventually, several dozen laws and ordinances were enacted or enhanced, permanently changing the American workplace.
And part of the equation was the development of a strong labor movement in the country. In fact, standing in the crowd watching events unfold on that fateful day 100 years ago was a young lady named Frances Perkins, who would later serve as President Franklin Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary (the first woman in a presidential cabinet). She was famous for her observation that the Triangle fire was “the day the New Deal began.”
Few Americans today, no matter the political posture or affiliation, would seriously challenge the idea that things as they were in sweatshops in 1911 needed to change. And the next year, 1912, when the Titanic sunk, things changed to make sure ships had more lifeboats. Tragedies have often been the catalyst for constructive change and this has a way of honoring the memory of the fallen.
Not wanting to go the way of its former print rival, Newsweek, it is no surprise that Time magazine is looking for ways to generate buzz. Thus the provocative current cover story: “The Child Free Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children.” I read the article while on vacation. Vacation with my family—including seven grandchildren, ironic, huh?
I immediately remembered reading something Theodore Roosevelt said, directly on point, in a famous speech more than a century ago—on April 23, 1910. I am aware that most American conservatives find little in the political ideas by Theodore Roosevelt worth salvaging, much less translating into present day policy. But he nailed it that day, not only by giving us his famous quote about “The Man in the Arena,” but also with something he said about “child free living.” It was part of a major address delivered at The University of Paris (The Sorbonne) titled “Citizenship In A Republic.”
Roosevelt left the White House in 1909 and was at the pinnacle of his renown a year later when he toured Europe. One journalist wrote at the time, “When he appears, the windows shake for three miles around. He has the gift, nay the genius of being sensational.” TR addressed a massive audience in the school’s grand amphitheater. The crowd included academicians, “ministers in court dress, army and navy officers in full uniform, nine hundred students,” and another 2,000 “ticket holders.”
The former president was introduced that day as “the greatest voice of the New World.” And hiding in the shadows of his remembered-as-the-man-in-the-arena-speech is a long since forgotten rhetorical rebuke to the ideas promoted in the current issue of Time:
Finally, even more important than ability to work, even more important than ability to fight at need, is it to remember that chief of blessings for any nations is that it shall leave its seed to inherit the land. It was the crown of blessings in Biblical times and it is the crown of blessings now. The greatest of all curses is the curse of sterility, and the severest of all condemnations should be that visited upon willful sterility. The first essential in any civilization is that the man and women shall be father and mother of healthy children so that the [human] race shall increase and not decrease. If that is not so, if through no fault of the society there is failure to increase, it is a great misfortune. If the failure is due to the deliberate and willful fault, then it is not merely a misfortune, it is one of those crimes of ease and self-indulgence, of shrinking from pain and effort and risk, which in the long run Nature punishes more heavily than any other. If we of the great republics, if we, the free people who claim to have emancipated ourselves from the thralldom of wrong and error, bring down on our heads the curse that comes upon the willfully barren, then it will be an idle waste of breath to prattle of our achievements, to boast of all that we have done.
That’s right. Theodore Roosevelt told the French that they needed to keep having babies.
At the time of Roosevelt’s speech, France was a major world power. Today—not so much. There is enough blame for such decline in global influence to go around, but the increased secularism of Europe, with its penchant for socialized everything, has certainly played a role.
Now more than 100 years later, there is an even greater threat to their cherished way of life. If only the French today would rediscover Teddy’s advice and reverse the birthrate trend—they might have a fighting chance. But such is the mindset of secularism, it is all about self and “fulfillment.” Issues of family, not to mention progeny are secondary, if thought about at all. Marriage is deferred—even eschewed. Children are planned—or better, planned around. And over time the birth rate in Europe has fallen far short of what is needed to keep up with the various demands of the future. In other words, the nations are aging. There are fewer children, yet more grandparents—a trend that will continue and accelerate.
It takes a fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman to keep a nation’s population stable. The United States is drifting away from that. Canada has a rate of 1.48 and Europe as a whole weighs in at 1.38. What this means is that the money will run out, with not enough wage-earners at the bottom to support an older generation’s “entitlements.”
But even beyond that, the situation in France also reminds us of the opportunistic threat of Islamism. It is just a matter of time before critical mass is reached and formerly great bastions of democratic republicanism morph into caliphates. In the United Kingdom the Muslim population is growing 10 times faster than the rest of society. In fact, all across Western Europe it’s the same. The cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam are on track to have Muslim majority populations in a decade or two. A T-shirt that can be seen on occasion in Stockholm reads: “2030—Then We Take Over.”
A few years ago, Britain’s chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, decried Europe’s falling birthrate, blaming it on “a culture of consumerism and instant gratification.” “Europe is dying,” he said, “we are undergoing the moral equivalent of climate change and no one is talking about it.”
Ninety years ago today, on August 2, 1923, President Warren G. Harding died at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California. It was sudden, shocking, and has been fodder for conspiracy theorists ever since. His wife, Florence—described derisively by some as “The Duchess”—didn’t allow an autopsy, so we’ll never know exactly what caused the demise of the 29th President of the United States.It might have been congestive heart failure, or food poisoning, or even something more sinister.
Seen in retrospect, through the prism of the scandals associated with his White House tenure, Harding is usually ranked well toward the bottom of the list of presidents.In reality, he was a very popular and effective leader. But he was cursed with cronies—men who ensured that his name would forever be associated with political corruption. What is sometimes forgotten about Harding is that he also had some effective public servants on his team, men such as Andrew Mellon, Herbert Hoover, and above all, Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Harding.
Historians tend to bunch the three Republican presidents of the 1920s – Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover – together in a way suggesting they were identical triplets separated at birth.But there were many differences – some subtle, some not so much.
Herbert Hoover, all of his speechifying about “individualism” notwithstanding, was not the fiscal conservative many today make him out to be. Mr. Hoover had a strong interventionist streak in his personality.So, in many ways, he helped to turn a recession into the Great Depression.Ironically, when closely examined, Herbert Hoover’s approach to economics had more in common with his successor than it did with the two men preceding him in the White House.
What is usually missed about Harding, though, is how effective he was on the issue of the economy.When he assumed the presidency in March of 1921, he inherited a mess.Woodrow Wilson had expanded the role and size of government dramatically, incurred a $25 billion dollar debt, and cracked down on political opponents – even imprisoning some (socialist activist Eugene V. Debs, etc.).
In fact, the economic problems in the 1920-1921 Depression were actually worse in many ways than the Great Depression a decade later.But that downturn didn’t last as long – thankfully.Warren Harding cut federal spending and lowered taxes.And in less than two years the number of unemployed in the country fell from 4.9 million to 2.8 million, en route to a rate of 1.8 per cent by 1926 under his successor, Mr. Coolidge.
Oh – and Harding set the political prisoners free, even inviting Debs to the White House.He was a classier act than many now remember.
The night Harding died, Coolidge was at his family home in Vermont. The house had no electricity or telephone, so word came to the vice president via messenger. He got up from bed and dressed. Then he knelt beside his bed and prayed, after which he went downstairs where his father, a notary public, administered the presidential oath to him.
By the time Calvin Coolidge became president, the country was on its way to enjoying some great years of prosperity. He was a fiscal conservative who tried his best to stay out of the way.He knew that the government functioned best as a referee – not as a participant in the economic game – or as a team owner.
Amity Shlaes has written the definitive biography of the man. It’s called, simply, Coolidge. It came out earlier this year, and I interviewed her on the radio about the book and the man.
After he was elected in his own right the next year, he told the nation in his March 4, 1925 inaugural address:
I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves.I want them to have the rewards of their own industry.That is the chief meaning of freedom.Until we can re-establish a condition under which the earnings of the people can be kept by the people, we are bound to suffer a very distinct curtailment of our liberty.
Then on yet another August 2nd, this one in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge had breakfast in the White House residence with his wife, Grace, and remarked to her “I have been president four years today.”It was one of those quick, concise, directly-to-the-point sentences she had been used to hearing since they met in 1905.It was also something the American people were familiar with, having nicknamed the 30th president “Silent Cal.”
He had a 9:00 meeting with reporters in his office that morning.Before fielding a few questions, he told those gathered: “If the conference will return at 12:00, I may have a further statement to make.”Curious, but compliant, in those long-since-gone days of semi-civility between presidents and the press, the journalists found their way back at noon.
An hour or so before that conference encore, Coolidge took a pencil and wrote a message on a piece of paper.He handed it to his secretary with the instruction to take it to his stenographer and have him make several copies – enough for the newsmen who would be at the 12:00 meeting.Ever the frugal man, he suggested that the brief statement could be copied several times on the same sheet, thus only using a few sheets of paper.He told the secretary not to give the note to the stenographer, though, until about 11:50 a.m.
He really wanted to manage this story.
He asked for the pages to be brought to him uncut and before the reporters were admitted to the office, he took a pair of scissors and cut the paper into smaller slips.When he was just about ready, he told his secretary: “I am going to hand these out myself; I am going to give them to the newspapermen, without comment, from this side of the desk.I want you to stand at the door and not permit anyone to leave until each of them has a slip, so that they may have an even chance.”
An “even chance” at a big scoop, that is.
The handwritten note from the president said: “I do not choose to run for president in nineteen twenty-eight.”Though the now classic Broadway play (made into several film versions), The Front Page, was yet a year away from being published and produced, it comes to mind with the image of dozens of reporters rushing to find telephones.
Calvin Coolidge could have been re-elected if he had wanted the job for another term.His anointed successor, Herbert Hoover, won big in 1928, though it is clear that Coolidge was less-than-enthusiastic about the “Great Engineer.”It is one of those curious “what ifs” of history – would Coolidge have dealt with the coming of the Great Depression better than his successor?
His decision not to run in 1928 – at the height of his popularity – puzzled many.But Coolidge understood the nature of leadership, and its seductions.He explained it this way:
It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers.They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness.They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation, which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless or arrogant.
Of course, it can never be proven, but I suspect that had Calvin Coolidge decided to run again in 1928, he might have responded to the initial shockwaves of 1929-1930 differently than Hoover.And maybe, just maybe, the Great Depression would not have lasted so long.And maybe, just maybe, people who should know better these days would stop trying the same old failed “interventionist” tactics that never really worked backed then.
At any rate, Mr. Coolidge died suddenly on January 5, 1933, after Hoover had been badly beaten by Franklin Roosevelt.He did not live to see what a prolonged depression looked like, but I suspect that he would have ventured an opinion or two.
His words would have been brief and directly on point.
Having spent years writing primarily non-fiction—history articles, a narrative nonfiction book, some current events and politics—developing my novel, Camelot’s Cousin, was a learning experience. But one surprise came after the book was published.
I began to hear this from readers: “So, David, when do we get to read the next story in your series?”
Next story? Series? Such a thing had never been even a blip on my writing radar until people starting reading Camelot’s Cousin. My plan was to move on to one of about a dozen new nonfiction projects, such as my recently book, Firebrand. I had always seen my books and stories as “stand alone” creations. One stop. One shot. File the material in a closet. Move on.
Then it happened—minor clamor for the next edition. At first, I resisted it. I have too many other things I want to write. The novel was a somewhat of a lark. I wanted to see if I could do it.
Then one night, when my wife and I were catching up on one of our favorite television shows, watching a few episodes recorded on our DVR—it hit me. When it comes to fiction, people enjoy continuity, and they want to know what happens next. This revelation came to me after I heard myself say, “Wow, I can’t wait for the next episode.” It was one of those head-slapping, should-have-had-a-V-8 moments.
So I began to envision a new story involving the cast of characters from Camelot’s Cousin. I am several chapters into it, and I am hooked. I still want to write that other stuff, but I can now see about four or five stories built around my lead character, Templeton Davis, the popular and successful host of a nationally broadcast radio talk show.
Now, some reading this blog—especially my author colleagues—will likely see my teachable moment as something all too obvious. They might be tempted to think, “Sure, David, we get it. You saw the truck and flagged it down. And then you made a great discovery—they have these vehicles that drive around selling ice cream. You can buy it right in front of your house. Dude—do you live under a rock?”
Edward R. Murrow once said, “The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.” I think all of us are like that to a point. It was just a couple of years ago that one of my daughters—32 years old at the time—figured out that the insignia on a New York Yankee baseball cap was actually the letters, “NY.” But then, I only recently noticed that the tune behind the song teaching children their “ABC’s” is the same as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
I don’t know how many books I’ll produce in the Templeton Davis series, but it will be fun watching the characters grow. Hopefully they’ll learn obvious things much quicker than the man with the computer behind the curtain.