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.

The Long Haul

After the 1929 Market Crash, the world collapsed into nearly feudal isolation, and international trade quickly dried up. Like the rest of the world America focused inward, disillusioned by U.S. participation in WWI. Across the Pacific, the Japanese Empire, too, promoted a sphere of influence, sold to Asians under the moniker of a “Co-prosperity Sphere.” China, a vulnerable prize lay across the Sea of Japan, awaiting the wrath of Japanese aggression for land and resources.

Great Britain, too, struggled with a malaise of its own, as did the French–both nations saddled with debts extended by American banks during the war. Next to the new Soviet Union, Germany, struggled most of all, buried in war reparations the allies demanded from the vanquished.

As the financial fallout worldwide grew wildly unstable, regimes hunkered down and waited for better times.

The solution in that movement-elevate anti-democratic despots to power.

The Italians were the first, having produced a Fascist strongman, Benito Mussolini. He suppressed political diversity, harnessed economic efficiency, and soon, like the Japanese, pursued colonial inroads into Libya, and later the conquest of Ethiopia. Mussolini envisioned a return to the glory days of Rome.

Germany, soon flirted with fascism, as well. In a reaction to impossible debts, and of national pride, Adolf Hitler, a feckless dreamer, stood on beer hall tables, and passionately spoke of national betrayal, and the victimization of Germany. “Mein Kampf” the product of an earlier prison sentence, circled around much the same, blaming Bolsheviks, Capitalists, and Jews for the hated Armistice of 1918.

However, America, unlike the rest of the world, clung with all their might to the national system of Constitutional norms. At the same time Germany elected a Hitler in 1932, the U.S. found their champion in Franklin Roosevelt. 

A popular Roosevelt Coalition steered those hard years holding the United States together. That’s not to say there weren’t kooks, to borrow Lindsay Graham’s phrase, but Americans faced the long haul together, knowing better days had to be ahead..

As FDR did not cause the Depression, Joe Biden did not precipitate the inept handling of Covid-19. Moreover, Biden’s policies did not cause Putin to invade the Ukraine, nor trigger the inflation rate, as financial matters are linear, impervious to election cycles. This new administration is not responsible for China’s economic reach, Britain’s Brexit debacle, Russia’s saber rattling, or global warming, let alone shortages of baby formula. 

The utter incompetence of that last blowhard made the real mess. This moment, like FDR’s, will take more time to sort out and stabilize. 

So, here is the question. Can Americans again remain bound to the framework of our Republic? Will today’s misinformed kooks forsake our financial, social, and political traditions and turn to petty retribution and tyranny?

Will we, as a nation, exchange our democracy for a strong man who insists he has all the answers?

That is the question of this historic moment. 

Gail Chumbley is an author and history educator.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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

Don’t Sit Down

In the political world there are two definitions for the term filibuster. The most common understanding concerns talking bills to death in the Senate, and the other is an unsanctioned invasion of a country to take it over. What both meanings share is a determination to wear out the opposition until the matter is settled. A siege of sorts—never giving up.

Famous uses of the filibuster include Andrew Jackson’s 1818 foray into Spanish Florida. Playing a little loose with his orders, Jackson entered the poorly defended territory, claiming to hunt down runaway slaves, and thump the Seminoles who provided sanctuary.

This extra legal foray caused an international incident. An American general, invading a weaker  target, under questionable authority. In the end, this filibuster paid off. Washington informed Madrid they supported Jackson’s invasion and the US took control of the peninsula from Spain. Done and done. 

The moral to this filibuster story is—never blink, never give up, never excuse.

In 1957, and in 1964, Southern Democrats, made use of the filibuster to talk Civil Rights legislation to death. In the ’57 debate South Carolina Senator, Strom Thurmond nattered on for 24 hours, and 18 minutes, still a standing record. And again in 1964, with Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who droned on for 14 hours and 13 minutes. Despite obstructionist resolve, both bills did squeak through with assistance of compromising northern Republicans.

What America is facing at his very moment is a Trump-style filibuster, containing both meanings. His insufferable, boorish delaying tactics, unblinking lies, and frivolous lawsuits have characterized this nincompoop’s newest version. He is certain he can hold out against America.

And I am tired— we all are tired, sometimes to the point of despair. But, friends this struggle against malignant arrogance, greed, and hate is a filibuster we cannot lose. Not only for a place called America, but for the enlightened spirit of our country. Our legal traditions must be protected from this fallible, flawed, would-be autocrat.

Trump has filibustered his whole life for something he’s never found nor earned—blind adoration. And that doesn’t meet our traditions or expectations for elected leaders. They work for us. In a real sense our country has suffered an unauthorized invasion of our government, a hostile take over, and the man’s filibuster continues, unabated.

Poet, Langston Hughes speaks to our moment in a portion of his 1922 poem, Mother To Son.

“So boy, don’t you turn back;
Don’t you sit down on the steps, 
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard;
Don’t you fall now— 

And Hughes is right. We can not fall. We must stay vigilant and wait this immediate threat out.

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

gailchumbley@chumbleg

A Dreamer

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.

John Lennon

A professor of History and Government, President Woodrow Wilson fervently believed America could fulfill its promise as the world’s beacon of democracy, a “City Upon a Hill.” After WWI, this President aimed to reform old monarchial Europe, and lead the world to a new, enlightened destiny. But perhaps his ambitions were too lofty to be realized in a cynical world of power and greed.

Participants convened at the Bourbon Palace of Versailles on June 28th, 1919 to design a new future for . . . really the entire world. Wilson attended in person, which for an American President was a first. He posed, all smiles with the French president, Georges Clemenceau, the English Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and Italy’s, Vittorio Orlando.

Considering the devastation from the recent war, these leaders had their work cut out for them.

After the Armistice had been signed the previous year, Wilson prepared for his journey by completing a new framework to rebuild a better world. Titled the Fourteen Point Plan, the President outlined a path to enduring peace. The intent was clear: Freedom for all. Free trade, self-government, transparency in treaties, a reduction in weaponry, and most importantly, an international peace-keeping body, The League of Nations. This proposed League had been crafted to resolve international conflicts through open diplomacy. For Wilson, mechanized warfare had proven pointless, so much so, that modern warfare had become a zero sum game.

Naturally many attendees were self-appointed representatives from oppressed ethnic groups around the globe. All had gathered to endorse the American President’s call for free governments, freely chosen.

The Chinese, for example, lobbied for colonial possessions formally held by Germany be returned. China was ignored. Young Ho Chi Minh, a student in Paris, attempted to see President Wilson to discuss the liberation of his home, French Indochina, (Vietnam). But Ho never got trough the gilt doors of Versailles.

The multitudes under British colonial rule, clamored for freedom, as well. Egyptian, East Indian, and Muslim peoples embraced Wilson’s vision of self determination. Zionists, Palestinians, even the Sinn Fein in Ireland looked for release from British subjugation.

Returning home to the White House, the President received a cable that his deputy remaining at Versailles, a Colonel Edward House, had agreed, in Wilson’s absence, to drop the League provision. Wilson flipped his wig and back he sailed, to resurrect his League as a non-negotiable part of the final agreement.

And though the League of Nations was indeed established, the US never joined. After all the horse-trading with his counterparts in Paris, Wilson could not convinced Republican Senators to ratify his treaty. Stunned, the President took his crusade to the American people, via a whistle stop tour. Exhausted by exertion and poor health, Wilson finally collapsed, followed quickly by a massive stroke.

Without the United States participation the League invariably failed. And a broken Woodrow Wilson died shortly after leaving office.

Perhaps President Wilson was foolish to think old world autocrats would give up any power and authority to colonial possessions. Clemenceau and others had viewed him as hopelessly naive. And maybe Wilson’s critics were correct. The man had a stubborn, self-righteous streak, that ultimately was his undoing.

Open government, free elections, and international commitment to fair play. Was Wilson merely a dreamer?

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

 

Armageddon

Univac

Remember that episode on Star Trek, “A Taste of Armageddon?” The crew of the Enterprise encounter two planets at war, waged virtually by computer. Simulated clashes determine, by mutual treaty, real fatalities in execution chambers.

That one aired in 1967. 

Technical advancements, devices to improve life, can make tasks so much easier; and these same advancements can just as easily evolve into weapons of destruction. Glidden’s barbed wire made for cheap fencing for farmers. Carnegie’s steel provided the ribs for building upward in cities, and outward on rail tracks. Rockefeller’s oil meant cheap kerosene for lamps to light up the dark. However, these same improvements found new uses when converted to weaponry:concertina wire draped across trenches, heavy armaments, explosives, and gasoline powered vehicles. World War One demonstrated both the might, and bloody futility of modern, industrialized warfare.

The nature of Twentieth Century warfare had literally been forged from 19th Century industry, which in turn gave rise to an assembly line of annihilation.  

How does weaponized technology apply to now? 

The world depends on computers. From Univac, to Commodore 64, to the MacBook, we rely on computers much as we rely on air. The benefits of cyber technology keep us linked together through social media, and new apps that innovate daily. But the dark side of this ever-evolving technology, poses significant danger, and has been weaponized effectively to undermine the stability of America.

As I write, misinformation, via the internet, has contributed to the deaths of nearly one million Americans, and climbing. Troll farms in Russia ruthlessly still hack away, under the guidance of former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin. Russian meddling in our 2016 presidential election, spewed misleading propaganda enough to tip the scales in the outcome. Though developed through advanced mathematics, and supported by other hard sciences, cyber criminals have succeeded in convincing some Americans not to believe in scientific facts. What an irony.

Our enemies have found their way in, a means to weaken and destroy the country from the inside. Through misinformation campaigns and network infiltration, criminals shut down Colonial Pipeline last May, and universities, government agencies, infrastructure systems, and businesses who are under constant threat of being held hostage–paying millions in ransom to rescue their business organizations.

The indispensable nature of computers, like this one in my lap, is a useful, vital tool. But like the technical innovations of the 20th Century, these advances foreshadow danger; cyber space as deadly as a machine gun, and as real as poison gas. Factor in nations around the globe still vying to destabilize America—especially chief competitors, Russia, and the China. 

Nothing has changed since 1914, aside from more sophisticated weaponry. Fifty-four years after Star Trek aired “Armageddon,” computer-generated death is as real as the death toll in the trenches. Threatening fingers typing the right strokes on a keyboard produces chaos and harm from those who wish us ill.  

Anyway Anyhow Anywhere

The deal is, coming out victorious World War Two, the certainty of America’s omnipotence shaped foreign policy. The US armed forces proved they could expertly parachute behind enemy lines, storm contested beaches, and plant the flag of American freedom at the close of every engagement. US pride meant we only mobilized decent men, and armed them with top notch war materiel, and enough Hershey Bars to treat the world. 

Those lessons of the 1940’s mislead later military planners. The assumption that Americans could do no wrong, and intervening into other nations, an imperative. However, what worked in one moment wasn’t necessarily viable later. America’s entrance had saved the world, but that particular episode ended in September, 1945, and the US moved forward looking backward.

Five years later the Korean conflict exploded, and after three years of fighting, ended where it began, the 38th parallel. That stalemate ought to have signaled a reassessment of America’s role abroad, but the Sergeant Stryker school of war had engrained itself too deeply into foreign poIicy.

I am a child of the Vietnam era. In my head the kaleidoscope of Lucy’s eyes plays, and televised images of soldiers knee deep in rice paddies, flicker in black and white. Protesting students with raised fists, black armbands affixed, occupying college offices, all to the soundtrack of kick ass rock and roll. In fact, the most enduring feature of the Sixties, for this boomer, is that pulsating electric guitar played by the hands of masters.

From 1959 to 1975 Washington dispatched advisers, munitions, and finally by ’65 ground forces to Vietnam. The French had failed to hold their Indochinese possession against the Communists, as they had failed against the Germans in 1940. America would bail them out once again.

But our intervention was premised on dated strategies. Vietnam was not a stand and fight war.

What Vietnam taught policy makers, (for a millisecond) is that patience is a most powerful foe. The NVA and Vietcong played the waiting game with grit and timeless certainty. 

the Our nation was not the first on the scene in Saigon, but certainly the last western power. As for Afghanistan, the dynamic remains. Leaving 10 years ago, or 10 days ago, the outcome would have been the same. The post-911 Middle Eastern conflicts were truly good for the people of those nations, but not for the United States.

Just check with the Brits and Russians. They left too.

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Idle Observations

Foreign oppression has, more than once, moved American policy makers at home to react with oppression. From the French Revolution to today, overseas upheavals frighten those in power enough, to prompt the same repression at home.

For example:

Immediately after World War One, the US endured a period of destabilizing fear–America’s first Red Scare. The U.S., bitter over entering the Great War, grew intolerant of unorthodox political views and worked to silence dissent. Radicals, both homegrown and immigrants from Europe, felt the wrath of political crackdowns. Anarchists, such as emigres, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman, found themselves on trial, then deported back to Russia, while a home grown Socialist, Eugene V. Debs ended up in prison. Scores of other political agitators were targeted by the Justice Department for printing radical views, and voicing public opposition.

Why the oppression?

The reaction began following the bloody 1917 Revolution in Russia. The murder of the last Romanov Tsar, with his family, paved the way for the world’s first Marxist-Leninist government, the USSR. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, (Lenin) seized the reins of the Bolshevik Party, and abolished all political opposition, outlining the aims of this new workers utopia, to overturn Capitalism worldwide.

The response in the U.S. came quick and harsh. Labor organizers, the leftest union, The Wobblies, and any other radical group deemed un-American was quashed. The U.S. government viewed dissent as treason, and Congress shaped specific legislation to silence protest. First passed and signed into law came The Espionage Act, in 1917, shortly followed by the Sedition Act the next year. No public speech, publications, nor use of the U.S. Mail to criticize government policy would be tolerated. Period.

In two test cases, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of both laws. The majority ruled in the first case that nonconformists and draft-resistors presented a “clear and present danger” to the US. In the second opinion the Court ruled much the same, but this time with an important dissent. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote, ” . . . the ultimate good desired is better reached by the free trade in ideas . . .”

Still, non-conformists and dissidents endured government suppression.

The courts, the government, and public opinion merged to outlaw what they feared–an all-powerful, biased social/economic system, much like the restraint simultaneously underway in the Soviet Union.

This was not over.

After Hitler’s death in April, 1945, and the ending of WWII in Europe, Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin kept his Red Army in East Germany and Eastern Europe, nixing a promised democratic Polish government in favor of his puppet Communist regime in Warsaw. And that was just for starters. A frightening Cold War ensued between the Soviets and the West, that by 1963 witnessed the construction of an actual partition, aka, an Iron Curtain. 

In America a political fever seethed, and Congress responded. Establishing HUAC, the House Un-American Activity Committee, to sniff out citizens who leaned to the left, ruining careers and lives in the process. This second Red Scare elevated the careers of Senator Joe McCarthy, and Congressman Richard Nixon.

This post originally intended to discuss the War on Terror. The objective to cast light on the American Taliban; those promoting God, Guns, and Gasoline. But now, with Russia up to its old tricks, all of us again, have a decision to make. Will Americans excuse Putin, grow complacent and emulate his corrupt oligarchy? That path is wide open, visited upon us via the former guy. He proudly rubbed shoulders with that murderer, and publicly praised Putin’s integrity. 

But, at this very moment, another, clearer choice stands before the American public. President Zelensky has conducted a master class on the real cost of freedom.  The Ukrainian people have lain down their lives to remind us we, are the original heirs of freedom.

In that spirit, this upheaval in the Ukraine is one we must emulate here at home. When Putin attacks Ukraine, he attacks us all. We are Americans, it’s time to take a stand for our liberty. This is not a drill.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Gail has authored two historic plays, “Clay,” concerning the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” examining the foundation of American Slavery.

gailchumbley@gmail.com