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.

Insulting The Past

The first time a parent challenged my teaching in history class, took place my first year. The topic concerned the creation of the Constitution, and the era of the Early Republic. I introduced the three branches, and separation of powers, census, representation, and that type of basic information. Definitely the bare bones of Civics.

During that lesson I explained how Electors were determined, and role the Electoral College played in choosing the president. End of lesson. The following day the topic moved to ratification and the addition of the Bill of Rights. From out of nowhere a hand shot up, and an upset student blurted, “My dad says you’re a liar!”

Yep, a liar. 

That was my baptism into the sliding scale of historic facts, and that initial chill of suppression stopped me in my tracks. Following that episode, censorship never strayed far from my thoughts. It was the beginning of a caution that lasted the whole of my career.

Fast forward 30 years in history education, when a similar event repeated.

The topic this time concerned the Reagan Revolution, and the events surrounding those years. 

Students learned about the Evil Empire, “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall,” Perestroika, Glasnost, Reaganomics, Laffer Curve, Trickle Down, etc . . .

Foreign policy topics covered Central America and the Middle East, particularly Nicaragua and Iran. Reagan officials were selling weapons to America’s enemy Iran, using the funds to put down a Marxist insurgency in Nicaragua. A privatized foreign policy if you will.

The calls came the following day. “How could I teach such nonsense in a public school! My student came home and shared her notes, textbook and graphs. This is not right, Ronald Reagan is the beloved champion of conservatism!”

The principal called me in and wanted to know what caused the dust-up. Flustered, I didn’t know where to start. Quickly I explained the general outline of the unit, and, well, he didn’t have the time to listen to the details. And he shouldn’t have. He hired me to do that job.

The episode sort of blew over, though that parent did call me at home a number of times over that summer. Weird behavior for sure, like the dad couldn’t let it go. 

For me the matter became philosophical; either educators prepare kids for the path, or parents attempt to manipulate that path for their kids.

Touchy parents revising America’s story to force their current politics on schools does nothing less than highjack education. Talented people leave the classroom endangering the US’s most essential institution. Worse, the exertions and sacrifice of those who came before, are papered over to suit today’s furor.

America’s lifeblood is our shared story, it’s what defines us as a distinct people. We must understand those central principles from our past to move forward as a nation.

To those students whose parents challenged the historic record, it’s unfortunate they cannot let go, just a little and trust public education. This is our kids birthright.

And know this-I wasn’t lying.

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. Chumbley has also written two stage plays, “Clay,” regarding the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an exploration into American slavery.

Distraction By Design

On October 30, 1938, radio listeners tuned into Mercury Theater on the Air, a CBS radio program.  The broadcast, scripted and narrated by actor Orson Welles, dramatically detailed a moment by moment invasion of Earth by Martians. To the folks who tuned in late to the program the events were construed as real, that indeed the planet had been attacked, followed with authentic panic erupting onto American streets.

Welles, and Mercury Theater producers intended the script to sound like breaking news, and real it had been received. Bedlam broke out, threaded through with stories of injury, and of suicides. The whole episode left Welles and his producers with a lot of explaining to do.

The following day, CBS Radio and young Welles, (23 at the time) made an on-air apology for the chaos. Eventually the story died down, relegated to an interesting moment of Depression-era America.

Much like October, 1938, mass hysteria has again let-loose upon the country. Only this time the  alarm, and distraction is by design, jolting anew on a 24-hour news cycle. Cannibals, sex trafficking politicians, lizard people among royal families of Europe, and poisonous contrails find gullible believers who hang on every fearful word. 

And the heaviest assault is lobbed directly at main stream media.

How? Don’t believe any of what you see and hear, unless endorsed by the Right-wing echo chamber. In a real world of Covid, climate change, and other pressing issues, the blaring noise of the propaganda machine has sabotaged progress creating more avoidable problems.

Unlike Orson Welles, the profitable rot pumped continually through cable, books and the internet is disseminated without a self conscience blush, let alone any apologies for damages done and lives lost. American consumption of news has degraded far below any sort of accuracy or structured analysis.

Sadly, a large segment of society cannot separate the wheat from the chaff. Consider those who died consuming ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, and even bleach. Misinformation and fear is lethal.

As the unvaccinated “do their own research,” and die, the insanity refuels every second across media platforms. Makes one long again for a time when truth and responsibility mattered, and mass-hysteria with all its dangers was to be avoided. 

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. In addition Gail has also penned two stage plays, “Clay” on the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” examining the normalization of racism in America.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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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

It’s Only Fair

In his 1975 book, “The Russians,” author Hedrick Smith tells a story about a domestic fire in Moscow. He noticed passersby strolling along without a glance, despite urgent smoke and water damage. Neither Tass, nor Pravda covered the story–for Soviets, there was no bad news. This lack of public reaction, Smith concluded came from weary resignation. Citizens had long ago given up on honesty from Party authorities.

In stark contrast, an informed electorate founded the American system; information an essential component of our democracy. Cynical will not do. Without facts reported by a free press, it is game over.

Recognizing the influence of television as a news source, Congress, in 1949, codified equal time when broadcasts touched on public policy. The Fairness Doctrine the second of its kind (the first governed radio) was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandating broadcasters to present equal sides of public information, or lose their license to operate.

And that doctrine governed news coverage until killed by the smiling, ever popular Ronald Reagan in 1987. His personal charm camouflaged the catastrophe his administration lobbed against journalism and, in turn, our democracy.

In 1968 when the most revered news anchor of his day, Walter Cronkite, returned from assignment in Vietnam, he broke with precedent by publicly admitting Vietnam a lost cause. Later the anchor conceded Woodward and Bernstein were probably on to something with Watergate. Cronkite’s statements spelled the end for both the war, and the Nixon Administration.

The modern GOP hasn’t cared much about the equal time component since Richard Nixon crashed and burned in 1974. From his earliest days “Tricky Dickey” gained attention as a ruthless Communist-hunter, first in the House, as a Senator, and then as Vice President. Following his 1960 loss to JFK, Nixon loathed the press and like Trump saw the media as “The Enemy of the People.” In Nixon V The New York Times, the White House challenged publication of the Pentagon Papers, and lost, then in US V Nixon, ruled the release of the disastrous tapes proving Nixon’s Watergate coverup.

Nixon and other Republicans believed reporters, the networks, and the media, in general, was out to get them.

Before his own 1973 resignation in a separate scandal, Vice President Spiro Agnew did not mince words concerning the press. Agnew referred to the media as the “Nattering Nabobs of Negativity.” Soon the press found there was quite a bit to natter on, when Agnew pleaded guilty to bribery and resigned.

Today, the far Right has capitalized on the end of the Doctrine, manipulating facts, and generally reporting misinformation, without even a blush.

In some respects the end of the Fairness Doctrine has set a course for gutting American democracy.

To hear about it now, the fiasco of January 6, 2021, according to the right-wing media, was no more than a pleasant tour group visiting the nation’s capitol. That violence we all witnessed, is just a misunderstanding. Bear spray, tear gas, and baseball bats used against the D.C police didn’t actually happen. The “Liberal” press exaggerates.

Perhaps before 1987 Americans actually wanted to know whether or not a national fire was raging.

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

An America To Believe In

Religion in politics presumes all citizens essentially hold to the same beliefs. This premise also maintains that religious conformity assures civic virtue, and good order. However, in practice theocracies actually run counter to effective government, as invoking God in public debate stymies the free exchange of ideas. Without the “free market of ideas,” nothing advances, resulting in national decline.   

The Constitution’s framers did not lightly pen any Article, Section, or Clause in their work, nor in the later Bill of Rights. James Madison, in particular, analyzed other government systems, both past and current to his time. What he and other’s found was politics combined with religion sows inevitable public conflict; damaging both political and religious institutions. Madison’s purposeful language in drafting the First Amendment signaled the United States would not make that same mistake. 

This legal tradition stemmed from the lessons of Colonial New England. Puritan dissenters, such as Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson publicly rejected mandatory church compliance. Williams, later exiled to Rhode Island, defended his convictions writing,

Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.

As the first Catholic-Presidential candidate, John F Kennedy later echoed,

. . .it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

And that was the point. American citizens can freely worship, or not-that is the essence of our liberty. Law cannot dictate conscience, as our thoughts are as unique as our finger prints.

Despite the secular legacy of American law, religious prerequisites still surface in one era or another. In the earliest years of the Republic a fervor of evangelism blazed, recognized today as the Second Great Awakening. Beginning around 1800, and lasting until the Civil War, endless, exhausting revivals across the country grew routine. Loosely paralleling “The Age of Jackson,” a political leavening with evangelicalism made for an interesting amalgam, a blend of both the sacred and secular . .  .individual choice. 

As democracy advanced inland as swift as any camp revival, voting rights increasingly extended to the lower classes. White farmers and tradesmen were permitted, in exchange for a poll tax, to cast votes. Working class men could not only choose to follow their vision of Jesus, but back political favorites, with the same evangelical passion. 

Another unexpected outcome of the Second Great Awakening came in the form of countless spinoffs. Rural isolation cultivated a veritable Golden Corral of new religions. William Miller, of upstate New York, forecast the return of Christ as imminent. He, and his followers believed Jesus would reappear sometime between 1843-1844. After the dates passed, with no rapture, the church regrouped becoming today’s Seventh Day Adventists.

Methodists dispatched “circuit riders” into America’s eastern interior. Men like Peter Cartwright, the epitome of a woodland “stump speaker,” could preach the Word of God, while beating the hell out of any heckler. Presbyterians split a couple of times before the Civil War. First, regarding whether or not untrained missionaries could lead revivals, or only seminary trained ministers. This controversy tore believers apart.

The final schism among churches came from the controversy over slavery. And that time bomb came through Biblical interpretation as well. In the North believers felt their duty was to take action against such a grave sin. Southerners, however countered that God made no mistakes. In fact, it was God himself who appointed masters, and placed the slaves beneath them. Rather a handy absolution.

Wisdom, indeed, abounded inside the chamber of Constitution Hall. Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and other lights hoped to avoid religious mistakes from the past, and took measures avoid the danger.

Perhaps the best advice on separation came from Justice William O Douglas in the court’s ruling, Engel V Vitale, 1962.

“once government finances a religious exercise it inserts a divisive influence into our communities.”

Dictating conscience is a fools errand, and a liberated conscience is the promise of America.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, blogger, and author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Humiliated, Angry, and Hurt

After losing reelection, he left Washington early. Humiliated, angry, and hurt, John Adams boarded a morning coach leaving the Capitol.

The prevailing issue in the campaign of 1800 concerned France, and that nation’s ongoing, and bloody revolution. Moreover, the French had declared war on England, and both belligerents  meddled in American domestic politics to turn public opinion.

As President, Federalist John Adams, had skillfully steered America clear of the European conflict, avoiding the danger of being ensnared between the two superpowers. Proud of his diplomatic accomplishments, Adams still brooded, unhappy with his lack of support from the country. His detractors belittled him, disparaging Adams as a pale substitute to the legendary George Washington.

His political challenger in 1800? The clever and calculating Thomas Jefferson. 

An outspoken critic of the Adams Administration, Jefferson had been hurling plenty of invective toward the sitting President. What had once been a warm friendship between the two men quickly soured. Petulant and  thin-skinned, Adams had lashed out by pushing laws that restricted the free press and cracked down on immigration. Outraged by these policies, Jefferson, and his growing cadre of supporters, challenged the clear violations of the Constitution. 

In only the nation’s third presidential election the moment appeared volatile and uncertain. On one side was the defensive and testy incumbent, and on the other, a political foe intent on replacing him.  

Adding to the turbulence, a political wildcard entered the fray; New Yorker, Aaron Burr.

Burr, like Jefferson, had opposed unpopular and heavy handed Federalist policies, and Jefferson knew the ticket needed an electoral-rich northern state for strength. As party leader, Jefferson assumed Burr understood his lesser place, and only when the electors met did he learned just how wrong he had been. 

In the final tally, poor John Adams not only lost the election, but came in a distant third behind both challengers. Thomas Jefferson garnered 73 Electoral votes, followed by Burr with 73 of his own. Adams came in last with 65. (That tie is another story.)

Humiliated, Adams left Washington DC in a huff, but made no move to challenge the outcome. And though the former President did not greet the President-Elect, and pointedly skipped the inauguration, John Adams did not put his interests above the nation’s. 

He conceded in silence because he valued our country over his own interests. 

There is no precedent for false assertions from the clear loser in 2020.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Heartfelt Objections

We couldn’t find a seat on the Washington Metro. In truth, we couldn’t see the Metro station, just a mass of humanity.

This gathering challenged the notion of enormous. The moment was historic.

Dumb luck came to our aid. A city bus hissed to a stop at the curb, and my friend and I hopped aboard, joined by a couple hundred of our new best friends. The atmosphere crackled with joy, solidarity and diesel fumes. I nearly busted out with “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

The driver seemed to catch our enthusiasm and peppered us with questions about the Women’s March. What time, where, how long would it last? She smiled realizing her shift would end before the speakers began, and I still wonder if she made it.

Nearly five hundred thousand of us convened on the National Mall, and expressed our heart-felt objections concerning the newly elected president. We marched as one.

By the way, no one violently attacked the halls of government. Though, if memory serves, I did flip off the Trump Hotel.

In October, 1969, 250,000 opponents of the Vietnam War descended upon Washington DC. In an event called Moratorium Day no one violently attacked the halls of government.

In the swelter of a 1963 Washington summer, Dr King convened the “Poor People’s” March on Washington. 250,000 Americans petitioned their government for a voting rights bill. No one even considered attacking the halls of government.

In the Spring and Summer of 1932 during the depth of the Great Depression, somewhere around 20,000 desperate men, some with their families in tow, marched on Washington DC as part of the Depression-era Bonus Army. For their trouble the marchers were attacked by Douglas McArthur, and an army detachment, who instead, burned out the shanties of the desperate. Again, no one attacked the halls of government.

On March 3, 1913, the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, nearly 10,000 women paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue promoting women’s suffrage. Though they were attacked by angry men along the route, not one woman attacked the halls of government.

Nearly 10,000 American’s joined Jacob Coxey’s Army in May of 1894. An extended economic depression caused mass unemployment, and the “Army,” demanded a public works bill to create jobs. Though the marchers reached the Capitol, and Coxey, himself leaped up the stairs to read his public works bill, the police opened up some heads, and the crowd dissolved. No one entered the Capitol.

Public protest is as American as baseball. The difference lies in our use of free speech. On January 6, 2021 a mindless, misguided, and dangerous mob hijacked the right to assemble, instead escalating into a violent attack on our center of government. There is no middle ground; this was an attempted coup to seize power.

We were correct in 2017, as were those in 1894, 1932, 1963, and 1968. Marchers were seeking “the blessings of liberty” within the rule of law. None of us ignored nor defiled the spirit of protest.

And that sense of heart-felt objection, to that president proved accurate.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Peer Review #3

The military choir filed out of the Entrance Hall in a precise formation, trailed with a warm wave of applause. The President had enjoyed the evening performance, and bristled that no reporter had stayed to detail the concert for the public. “This is the kind of story real Americans would like to see on the news,” he complained, as he shook hands and chatted with departing well-wishers. 

The grand chamber soon emptied and the White House staff swept in, quickly stacking chairs, breaking down risers, and disconnecting sound equipment. The President turned from the racket, and headed toward the white Doric columns separating the hall and staircase. And it was there, beside an alabaster column, that the President stumbled upon a most unexpected visitor.

Lounging against the smooth white marble leaned a tall, lanky gentleman dressed in an antiquated silk dressing gown, white hose, and embroidered slippers. The man cooly assessed the stunned President.

“Are you familiar with the story of John Peter Zenger” the intruder murmured in a soft drawl. 

“Why are you still here? The entertainment left that way,” the President snapped, thumbing toward the side entrance.

“Zenger, a German immigrant, edited and printed a newspaper in New York,” the visitor continued, calmly shifting his position against the pillar. “Zenger had published an unflattering editorial of New York’s Colonial Governor, and the testy royal had the journalist jailed, charged with libel.”

The President, annoyed by the imposition, wanted to hurry up the stairs to his living quarters, but his legs remained stubbornly rooted in place. 

“Well, that Zenger character deserved it, he barked, unable to control his tongue. “Reporters need to watch what they write, and who they offend—like me. I’m the President, and they say terrible things about me, all lies and more lies.”

The tall figure crossed his arms and looked evenly at the President. “A jury of Zenger’s peers acquitted him, opining that if truth was stated, there is no libel,” the stranger subtly smiled. “That particular case established freedom of the press in this country, a principle I later insisted appear in the Bill of Rights.” 

“Do you understand how much I could accomplish if . . .”

The apparition spoke quietly over the President. “I, too criticized a president bent on stifling  free expression” the visitor thoughtfully paused. “President John Adams supported passage of the Sedition Act in 1798 to silence critical voices such as mine.” 

The oddly dressed gentleman began drifting through the pillars into the Entrance Hall, as if floating on a sudden breeze. Unwillingly, the President followed. “I’m particularly fond of this room,” the visitor whispered, “it was the only finished room in my time.”

“The press wants to destroy my administration,” this time the President spoke over his visitor. “With their unlimited snooping, the constant leaks, and the treasonous things they say about me on cable tv.”

The apparition appeared indifferent to the President’s complaints. “A particular writer, James Callender, cast enough aspersions upon Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Adams, that he found himself jailed under the Sedition Act. Once I moved into this House, I pardoned Callender, and hired him to again take up his poison pen.” The spirit seemed sadly amused, “when I refused to appoint Callender to a government post, his pen turned full force upon me, exposing my deepest, most safeguarded secret.”

“The Sedition Act. I like that,” the President beamed, indifferent to the visitor’s revelation. “What’s the matter with my lawyers. They never told me we have that law.”

Instantly the apparition jutted his face directly into the startled President’s. “You must not respond,” he breathed.  “You must ignore what is written and reported regarding your administration. Never, never challenge the freedom of the press, to do so diminishes the office of chief executive, exposing you as petty and small.”

“But the Sedition Act says . . .” the President squeaked, unnerved.

“Is unconstitutional,” the visitor finished the sentence. “I, too, resented what appeared in the press, besmirching my personal life, and my family. However, I resolutely remained aloof to the reports. And so must you.” 

The visitor began to sound weary, worn by the conversation. “I once stated that if I had to choose among the freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment, I would preserve Freedom of the Press. With that liberty secure, all others are assured.

As the visitor finished his statement, he lifted his eyes to some mysterious point above, and vanished. 

Dismayed by the experience, the President scrambled up the stairs.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com