A Scandalous Life

Through open doors down a long hallway, reminiscent of The Shining, a cacophony of noisy televisions competed. Soap operas, news reports, and talkshows spilled from empty uncleaned guest rooms. It was the summer of 1974 that I began a brief stint as a hotel maid in Spokane, Washington. Through the course of that summer I began to notice each maid had different approaches to their routine. Some girls stripped the beds, or beelined for the bathroom, but all, to the last dust mop, first switched on the television. 

And the biggest news that summer, outside of Expo ‘74, was the Watergate hearings. Chairman Sam Ervin, Senator Howard Baker, Congressman Pete Rodino, and others became my new favorite TV personalities. Watergate Burglar, Alexander Butterfield spilled the beans on Nixon’s White House taping system, and John Dean spoke of a ‘cancer on the presidency.” For me these hearings were riveting as I placed fresh towels on the rack, and changed toilet paper rolls.

By the end of that summer, August 9, 1974 Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. 

Fast forward 13 years later, and I had just given birth to my second baby, a girl, and she and I cuddled as the television introduced a whole new set of “off the books” operatives. This time the scandal concerned the Reagan Administration’s convoluted plot known as the Iran-Contra Affair. American arms were illegally sold to Iran, our sworn enemy, to continue their war against Iraq. The proceeds from those sales were funneled to anti-Communists fighters battling in Nicaragua. Both efforts violated the Boland Amendment, passed by Congress, explicitly prohibiting American meddling in Central America.

Reagan operatives had hoped that selling Iranians weapons would soften them up because the White House needed a favor. Would the Ayatollah Khomeini help encourage Lebanon’s jihadists to release American hostages secreted around Beirut? The Reagan people gambled that trading illegal arms would secure Tehran’s help. 

While rocking my infant I learned a litany of new names: NSA chief, Robert McFarland, Marine, Oliver North, North’s secretary, Fawn Hall, and the recently deceased mastermind, CIA director, William Casey. My take, as I patted my girl’s little back, was that the Reagan White House had privatized foreign policy in defiance of Congress through renegade agents.

In 1988 Ronald Reagan, in a video deposition, admitted he had done just that, but due to his failing memory, couldn’t recall. 

That brings me to my golden years. I tuned in to the January 6th hearings, as a retired grandma. My husband and I watched and listened to the evidence regarding the violent attack on our nation’s capitol. To say this hearing was electric would be an understatement. Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Capitol Police Officers, particularly Caroline Edwards, left me spell bound. Representative Liz Cheney owned the evening, making clear the person responsible for the attempted coup-the former guy. 

Donald Trump is the first sitting president in American History to be impeached twice.

So what element ties all three scandals together? For one, the course of a single life-from college kid, to motherhood, to grandmother. And I suppose one could conclude I’ve watched a helluva lot of television. 

But for me the message means something else. 

The modern Republican Party has undergone a long death spiral marked by greed, rot and decay. As Liz Cheney said, “there will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

For nearly 50 years, from 1974 to 2020 the Grand Old Party has cast off its once, principled moorings, slowly imploding before our eyes. As my generation grew from young students to senior citizens the party of Lincoln silently died. 

And like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, there is no redemption, nor any future, only relief these mercenaries can do no more harm.

Gail Chumbley is the author of a two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Chumbley had also completed to historic plays, “Clay,” regarding the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an examination of slavery and racism in America.

Why We Try

2017 Women’s March

When I first began this essay it ripened to nearly five hundred words to share one idea. Why I am a life-long Democrat. 

The original essay discussed the New Deal, the creation of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, and how strengthening Labor Unions evoked a sense of common purpose; how the economy boomed, and the middle class flourished.

Now all I want to impart is that Ronald Reagan was wrong. Big government is not the problem. Big government checked by regulations works remarkably well. 

I am a Democrat because with all its flaws, we stand equal in the eyes of Constitutional Law.* People made the Constitution, and we must preserve it. In general, States’ Rights is no more than a distraction perpetrated by selfish insiders who legislate their own interests. Residents are convinced through a wink and a nod, that the enemy (Big Government) must be defied, using catch phrases like “our values,” and “real conservative.”

In truth, the Federal Government can do more for all of us than any individual state, or any individual citizen can do for themselves. As I write, Idaho’s governor has asked for, and been granted federal funds for drought aid. Talk about biting the hand that feeds the State.

I am a Democrat because I’m inspired by the nobility of America’s past champions; the persistence of General George Washington, the compassion of Abraham Lincoln, the purpose of Alice Paul, and the articulate vision of Barack Obama. I am a Democrat because James Madison instructed us to create “A More Perfect Union.” Without that persistence, compassion, purpose, and vision America cannot continue as “the world’s last best hope,” as Lincoln also described us.

At bottom I am a Democrat because I know not one of us is perfect. We just keep trying. 

*Just heard the headline regarding the reversing of the Roe decision. Time to gather 4,600,00 of my best friends (2017 Women’s March) and organize.

King of the Hill

General Washington had not yet been appointed commander of the Continental Army. Nonetheless, the conflict against Great Britain, though running hot after Lexington and Concord, remained an informal, isolated brushfire in the eyes of the Crown. Still, the very presence of soldiers grated Bostonians, enough that outraged patriots plotted retaliation.

June 16th, after dark, these Sons of Liberty acted, digging in on Breeds Hill located near Bunker Hill, north of the city in Charles Town. All that night these newly minted Minutemen stacked preloaded-muskets, entrenched, and waited for sunrise. At first light, the startled Redcoats scrambled to form lines and launch an offensive against the rebels. Though holding the line through three assaults, the Bostonians, low on gunpowder, were forced to melt away into the surrounding area. The shocked Brits decided to call the contest a victory.

But as one royal officer candidly admitted, “if we win anymore like this, we’ll lose this war.”

That is the lesson of Bunker Hill, hold the high ground, and draw the fight uphill to a well-defended position.

General George Washington arrived in Boston the next month, taking command of the motley Continental Army. Positioning his inexperienced troops on the heights surrounding the city, Washington bluffed his military strengths. When actual heavy guns finally reached Washington, the Redcoats had had enough, and on March 17, 1776, all the King’s men evacuated to Canada.

Two philosophers on warfare, China’s Sun Tzu, and Prussian, Carl von Clauswitz had committed to paper their respective views on the value of the high ground. Sun Tzu in the 6th Century, and Clausewitz in the early 19th Century argued its significance. Much like that game, “King of the Hill,” we played as kids, the advantage belongs to the person on top. That essentially defines both tacticians principles.

Yet, physically holding a hill doesn’t go far enough. Both philosophers argued that a moral high ground is equally essential, an armed force must be clad with a virtuous cause. 

A higher moral purpose fills the sails to victory.

In 1860, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, becoming America’s 16th President. That moment weighed with foreboding, as Southern States, one by one, chose to secede from the United States. The new President viewed this idea as impossible–statehood was not a revolving door. In his inaugural address. Lincoln spoke plainly, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

Then Lincoln, and the the rest of the nation watched and waited. On April 12, 1861 guns thundered from Charleston, South Carolina, smashing into Fort Sumter, a federal installation in the harbor.

Boom, done and done.

The Rebs drew first blood, and Lincoln, by default, seized the moral high ground. After a duration of four long, bloody years, the rebellion collapsed, and slavery ended.

Both the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, elevated America’s retaliation as morally justified, drawing the nation into both World War Two, and the War on Terror.

Everyone around the world is watching the Ukrainian people standing tall against a mystifying invasion by Russia. Ukrainian President Zelensky has brilliantly executed the lessons of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz. His articulate, moral leadership, and courage has more than won the moral high ground test. In contrast, Vladimir Putin has proven his lack of preparation, and barbarity, assuring the Russian President an international pariah.

These principles are timeless and universal, not only in America, but in past conflicts like Thermopylae in the 5th Century, and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1940.

Whether the Ukrainian President, is aware or not, he has benefitted from the teachings of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz, and this is Ukraine’s finest hour.

The possession of high ground may decide a battle, war or the fate of a nation.

Carl von Clausewitz

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, and writer.

gailchumbley@chumbleg

Rebellions

The Republican Party emerged in 1854 as a voice for liberty, and of opportunity. Forged in sectional controversy, members dedicated themselves to one overriding priority, no slavery in America’s western territories. On that point the fledgling party stood firm.

A lawyer in Springfield, Abraham Lincoln, joined the growing party early, concerned, as were others, with escalating tensions between the North and South.

In 1860, Lincoln threw his very tall hat into the ring, and declared his candidacy for President. Defying considerable odds, Lincoln prevailed over other, more prominent Republicans at the GOP Convention in Chicago. Lincoln grasped the nomination. 

The South responded as one. If Lincoln won the Presidency, they would bolt the Union. He did win, and tried to reason with Southern States through his inaugural address. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

The sticking point of course, slavery. 

By the time Lincoln took the oath of office, eight Southern States had voted to secede from the Union. This president understood the fears of the South, and knew what drove the secessionists. He didn’t hate them, he did not want them punished. During the last year of the war Lincoln, in his second inaugural address gently offered an olive branch stating, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”

Lincoln’s lasting legacy held that the Civil War meant more than reunification of the states. His  “new birth of freedom” implied a higher ideal, the turmoil meant something more honorable, and timeless: the cause of humanity. The Emancipation Proclamation came first, then the 13th Amendment, forever freeing those held in bondage. This president took no credit for prevailing over the Rebels, hoping only to heal the divisions that fueled the rage.

His martyrdom on April 15,1865 left the GOP imprinted with Lincoln’s goodness, modesty, and nobility. This first Republican President endured four years of national hell, and never forgot his mission.

Lincoln met the Rebellion, and vanquished it.

America today hears no soaring rhetoric from the GOP, nor elegant prose, only hate speech and bellyaching. The GOP has severed the cords of duty to country, replacing patriotic obligation with an unapologetic lust for power, and self interest. 

For four years the taxpayers have been fleeced, and minorities targeted, the kind of intolerance Lincoln abhorred. Long standing alliances were cast aside as a self-serving dunce cozied up to America’s enemies. The Republican members of Congress have forsaken their obligation to country first, pretending and excusing that all was normal in the turbulent White House. 

The greatest harm perpetrated by, and enabled by the current GOP, is the violent attack on the heart of our democracy: the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The irony is rich. As the Republican Party grew from a rebellion, it will now perish from another.

Inheritance

Harry Truman understood the gravity of his duty right off. When FDR died in April, 1945, the newly installed Vice President got the word he was now president. And what a Herculean task he had before him. A world war to end, conferences abroad, shaping a new post-war world, and grappling with the human rights horrors in both Europe and in the Pacific. Add to all of that, he alone could order use of the newly completed Atomic Bomb.

On his White House desk, President Truman placed a sign, “The Buck Stops Here.” With that mission statement Harry Truman stepped up to his responsibilities despite the formidable challenges he faced.

Did Truman inherit the worst set of circumstances of any new president? Maybe? But it is open to debate.

America’s fourth President, James Madison, found himself  in one god-awful mess. His predecessor, Thomas Jefferson had tanked the US economy by closing American ports to all English and French trade. Those two powerful rivals had been at war a long time, and made a practice of interfering with America’s neutrality and transatlantic shipping. Despite Jefferson’s actions the issue of seizing US ships and kidnapping sailors never stopped. By 1812 President Madison asked for a declaration of war against England that, in the end accomplished nothing but a burned out White House and defaced Capitol.

Following the lackluster administrations of Franklin Pierce, then James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln stepped into a firestorm of crisis. Divisions over the institution of slavery had reached critical mass, and Lincoln’s election was enough for Southern States to cut ties with the North. So hated was Lincoln, that his name did not appear on the ballot below the Mason-Dixon. And the fiery trial of war commenced.

The Election of 1932 became a referendum on Herbert Hoover, and the Republican presidents who had served since 1920. Poor Hoover happened to be in the White House when the economic music stopped, and the economy bottomed out. And that was that for Hoover. His name remained a pejorative until his death. 

Franklin Roosevelt prevailed that 1932 election, in fact won in a landslide victory. Somehow Roosevelt maintained his confident smile though he, too, faced one hell of a national disaster. 

In his inaugural address the new President reassured the public saying fear was all we had to fear. FDR then ordered a banking “holiday,” coating the dismal reality of bank failures in less menacing terms-a holiday. From his first hundred days the new President directed a bewildered Congress to approve his “New Deal.” 

The coming of the Second World War shifted domestic policies to foreign threats as the world fell into autocratic disarray. FDR shifted his attention to the coming war. When President Roosevelt died suddenly, poor Harry Truman was in the hot seat. But that is where I want to end the history lesson.

If any new President has had a disaster to confront, it is Joe Biden. Without fanfare or showboating Biden, too, has stepped up to the difficulties testing our nation. 

Much like Truman and Lincoln before, 46 is grappling with a world in chaos, and a divided people at home. In another ironic twist, like Madison, Biden witnessed, a second violent desecration of the US Capitol.

To his credit, though his predecessor left a long trail of rubble, Biden understands the traditional role of Chief Executive, while clearly many Americans have forgotten, or worse, rejected. Biden is addressing the issues testing our country, not only for those who elected him, but those who did not. An American President can do no less.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. She has completed her second play, “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Custodians of Now

Gratitude underpins America’s oldest quasi-secular holiday,Thanksgiving. In the 21st Century it is rather easy to scoff at a quaint observance that predates the founding of the country, and today’s America is a bit too cynical, busy, and self involved for meaningful reflection.

Separatists in 1621 Plymouth had risked all to worship freely in the New World. Suffering starvation and disease, the Mayflower survivors managed a successful harvest with the essential aid of local Natives. In an outpouring of gratitude the newcomers organized a potluck of sorts, and invited their benefactors to pause, count their blessings, savoring both the moment and the food.

General Washington announced a day of Thanksgiving after the fortuitous American victory over the British at Saratoga, and again after the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Moments of mutual gratitude implied a common bond, and an acknowledgment of common sacrifice. 

Later, in 1863, America, once again, faced a crisis of unity.

A grisly Civil War had raged for two years, when emboldened Confederate forces crossed north into Pennsylvania. Soldiers of the Blue and the Gray clashed at the crossroads town of Gettysburg. After a three-day struggle, the tide shifted in favor of the Union, and soon after Confederate troops retreated back into Virginia.

In the aftermath, President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, and shortly after called for a national day of Thanksgiving. Lincoln set aside Thursday, November 26th for the observance, calling for contemplation and gratitude. Later, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law a permanent observance of Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November. 

Aside from roasted turkey, televised parades, football, relatives, and tryptophan-induced naps, this day is meant for reflection; a national respite from other distractions. As Americans we remember those who struggled through their American moment, and refresh our personal obligation to our communities, and to our nation. 

Whatever spirit guides our personal devotion, on this day we place ourselves second to something much greater-the United States of America. We recommit to our highest aspirations as a fortunate and free people; a people who respect what came before, and resolve to protect our democracy for the future.

This Thursday remember we are the custodians of now, and unity is not easy with such diverse and noisy citizens. Still the responsibility remains, carried forward from earlier generations. We Americans have an obligation to nurture solidarity over discord, amity over selfishness. 

All Americans can resolve to preserve this hard-won gift of democracy to those not yet born.   

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. She has also completed the play, “Wolf By The Ears,” a historic look on the advent of American Slavery.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Forgotten Cause

In 1938, old men aided by young volunteers, shuffled off of trains arriving from all points of the compass. For the most part these gents were in their early 90’s, and looked forward to comradeship and scheduled festivities. 

Organizers had planned three full days of tours, music, and ceremony, complete with a flyover and fireworks. The Battle of Gettysburg’s 75th commemoration had begun.

There had been an earlier anniversary event, in 1913, but this time visitors knew this gathering would be the last. Those in attendance understood, as did the elderly guests of honor, that those who hadn’t fallen on that Pennsylvania battlefield in 1863, would soon join the brethren who had. 

After this commemoration, the narrative would pass from eye witness accounts into America’s collective memory.  

No longer wielding rifles, many maneuvered the grounds pushed about in wheel chairs, walkers, and canes. Old men brandished ear trumpets to catch the orations of the many visiting dignitaries. The men listened as President Franklin Roosevelt delivered remarks dedicating the Eternal Light Memorial, located near the “Bloody Angle.” Battlefield tours transported veterans, and well-wishers from Cemetery Hill, to Seminary Ridge, Little Round Top, the Devils Den, and finally the exposed fields of Picketts Charge.

There, at the stone fence, gray old men in blue, and others in gray and butternut, shook hands at the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. The original climax of a fateful third day offensive, signaling the eventual doom of the the Confederacy.

Ironically, left uninvited were the scores of African Americans who had harbored such hope for new lives after emancipation. Unfortunately, Reconstruction had ended with little to show for progress or Civil Rights. Instead Freedmen found a new enslavement, recognizable in every aspect, but iron chains.

Forty Acres and a Mule had never materialized, as promised by victorious Union commanders. Now relegated to tenant farming, Freedmen struggled in the same conditions as before, but now as sharecroppers. Stuck in a never-ending cycle of poverty, black farmers found insufficient harvests debited into the next season, and then the next, in an endless cycle of debt peonage. 

The Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy V Ferguson legalized segregation by insisting any negative correlation attached to feelings of inferiority lived only in the minds of Blacks. Separate water fountains, parks, transportation, and schools worked just fine for the elderly veterans from the North and South.

The moral force of the Civil War had died as thoroughly as the nearly 7-million who perished upon the scattered battlefields.Those veterans who reunited in 1938 Pennsylvania found white identity and brotherhood far outranked any new birth of freedom envisioned by President Lincoln 75 years earlier.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Ms Chumbley recently completed her second stage play, “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Die was Cast

The threat of disunion appeared long before either the Civil War, or the insurrection on January 6, 2021. The architects laying the chaotic cornerstone? President John Adams, and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson.

David McCullough in his celebrated biography, John Adams, portrayed this Founding Father as a brilliant man, and that is true. However, his self righteous streak succeeded in undercutting his talent and better judgement. As the second president of the United States, John Adams, proved to be a prickly, and thin-skinned chief executive. A dour Yankee, Adams could not tolerate public criticism, and as many later presidents, came to view the press as an adversary—enemies of the government.

In a rage over newspapers excoriating his administration, Adams shepherded the Sedition Act through Congress in 1798. Opposition editors soon found themselves in the President’s cross hairs, and some were actually jailed. The Alien Act, also passed in 1798, aimed to delay new voters, by lengthening time for naturalization, as immigrants were certain to vote against Adams and his Federalist Party. (Hmm. The press, immigrants, and voting rights. Imagine that).

Jefferson, (still Adams’ Vice President), promptly took action to counter Adams’ wrong-headed legislation.

Launching a full out, but anonymous denunciation of the Adams Administration, Vice President Jefferson published tracts vilifying Adams, and emphasized the sovereignty of the states guaranteed under 10th Amendment.

Returning from France, where he had served as American ambassador, Jefferson had been appalled by the powerful Federal Constitution created in his absence. As a ‘natural aristocrat,’ and slave master, Jefferson was unwilling to cede power to any higher authority than himself, and his fellow patricians. Instead the “Sage of Monticello,” asserted the right of states not to obey laws they didn’t like.

Two state legislatures agreed to debate Jefferson’s counter measures, Virginia and Kentucky. Penned secretly by Jefferson, and Madison, these resolutions insisted the states were the final arbiters of what was legally binding. A new term emerged from this controversy—Nullification.

The die was cast, the seeds of disunion sown. In the years following, nullification intensified, fertilized particularly in 1832 by John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina Senator. That that state became the first to secede in 1861, sparking the US Civil War, is no coincidence.

The traitors who invaded the halls of Congress last January took their cue from Jefferson, as if they, too battled the evils of John Adams. Scapegoating the media, immigrants and the Federal government has left a long, bloody stain on American history. As I write, the States of Georgia, and Texas among others, are attempting to limit voting rights once again. Texas has also taken a nullifying stance, limiting a woman’s right to her own body, despite Federal protections.                        

No government has a self-destruct button, none. John Adam’s pique, and Thomas Jefferson’s reaction stamped an incompatibility that still, today, inflames American politics. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com