My grandson. He inherits the promise that is America.
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.
Are the awful events of these last twelve months a once-off, bad patch of misfortune? Or is there a deeper explanation for the emergence of Trump, Covid, economic disaster, and civil unrest?
American History is steeped in a collection of pivotal moments, episodes that molded the nation’s continuing path. Can the events of 1776 stand alone as a turning point, or of 1865?
A long metaphoric chain links one scenario to the next, marked by momentary decisions, government policies, or beliefs, that surface at one point in time, and voila, America’s story fleshes out to the future.
Add chance circumstances to the narrative and predictability flies out the window.
Does 2020 stand alone as a singular event, or an inevitable outcome seeded somewhere in the past? Surely the march of history can be much like a chicken-egg proposition.
Mention 1776 and thoughts gravitate to the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, and the emergence of General George Washington. But that struggle for freedom actually began at the end of the French and Indian War.
As for 1865, when the guns silenced at Appomattox Courthouse, Robert E Lee’s surrender affirmed America as a nation-state. But thirty years earlier, President Andrew Jackson’s administration had sparked the eventual war over the issue of slavery. Thinly disguised as the doctrine of states’ rights, the intractable argument of slavery festered. The “Peculiar Institution” is, was, and always be the cause of that bloodbath. In point of fact the fury of one man, John C Calhoun, South Carolina Senator, and former vice president, lit the fuse of war thirty years before Fort Sumpter.
As to the folly of Trumpism, arguably the roots are deeply burrowed in America’s collective past. Author, and historian Bruce Catton, wrote about a “rowdyism” embedded in the American psyche. Though Catton used that term in the context of the Civil War, his sentiment still resonates in the 21st Century, i.e., Proud Boys, and the like.
Closer to today, the Cold War seems to have honed much of the Far Right’s paranoia. The John Birch Society, for example, organized in the late 1950’s escalating anti-Communist agitation. Senator Joe McCarthy rode to fame on that same pall of fear, (with Roy Cohen at his elbow) only to fail when he went too far.
But the presidential election of 1964 seems to mark the most distinct shift toward the defiant opposition that fuels Trump-land.
Vietnam, in 1964 had not blown up yet. JFK had been murdered the previous fall, and his Vice President, turned successor, Lyndon Johnson was the choice of a grieving Democratic Party. The GOP fielded four major candidates in the primaries: three moderates and the ultra conservative, Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Senator Goldwater gained the nomination that summer with help from two men, conservative writer Richard Viguerie and actor Ronald Reagan.
Viguerie broke political ground through his use of direct mailing, and target advertising (what today is right wing news outlets). Reagan, once a New Deal Democrat, crossed the political divide and denounced big government in “The Speech,” delivered on behalf of Senator Goldwater. These two men believed Conservatism, and Laissez Faire Capitalism had been wrongly cast aside for liberal (lower d) democratic causes.
Their efforts struck a cord with legions of white Americans who felt the same resentment. The Liberal Media and Big Government from the Roosevelt years were Socialistic and anti-capitalistic. No urban problem, or racial strife or poverty appeared in their culdesacs or country clubs. And taxes to support Federal programs squandered and wasted personal wealth.
So many other issues shaped the modern New Right. Communism, the Cold War, Civil Rights, Vietnam, and progressive politics alienated the wealthy class.
But here’s the rub. Ultra conservative ideology is unworkable, an ideal that awards only a small, exclusive few, (today’s 1%). So 2020, and 2016 both have roots running deep in the core of the American experience.
2020 isn’t about this moment, not really.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” a two-part memoir available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle. Also the stage plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears” (the second in progress.)
With only days until Christmas 1776, General Washington found his army melting away. Since July of that year the Continental Army had been chased from Long Island, through Manhattan, and across the Hudson into New Jersey.
Earlier, in August, Washington had been flanked by British forces and the untrained Patriot army turned tail and ran. So furious was Washington at their conduct, he threatened to lead another assault himself, against far superior, professional troops.
Amongst King Georges’ regulars were legions of Hessians, hired guns, from the German kingdom of Hesse-Kassel. These mercenaries were particularly brutal, taking a psychological toll on the all-volunteer Army with their skilled use of glinting, charging, bayonets.
Leaving camp fires burning, Washington directed Colonel John Glover, a New England mariner to gather enough vessels to ferry his surviving soldiers across to Manhattan, and then onward to New Jersey. To exude confidence, Washington waited until the last boat to cross the East River.
Battling through Manhattan, his army ferried west again, via the Hudson, with Colonel Glover’s expertise. Eventually the dash to safety near Trenton, succeeded.
Demoralized, and outgunned, the Continental Army appeared doomed and despondent. The general consensus among all was the war was hopeless, a lost cause, the Patriots ardor over.
By winter, Washington’s command seemed to be unraveling. Little food, too few supplies, or support came from the local population. At the same time the Brits, flush with currency, settled into cozy New York accommodations.
With circumstances conspiring against him-the weather, scarcity, and outgunned by enemy Hessians quartered in nearby Trenton, Washington had to act. The General faced a critical moment. To his cousin, (and Mount Vernon’s caretaker) Washington confessed his anguish.
. . .your immagination can scarce extend to a situation more distressing than mine—Our only dependance now, is upon the Speedy Inlistment of a New Army; if this fails us, I think the game will be pretty well up . . .
Out of desperation Washington expressed to his cousin what he termed as the “clarity of despair.” The General had to do something.
First he sent feelers out to bring in an operative who sold provisions to the nearby Hessians. John Honeyman came into camp and apprised Washington on the disposition of King George’s contracted killers. The General learned from Honeyman these Germans were settled in for a Christmas celebration, assured that the Americans were all but defeated..
In his second order, Washington commanded Colonel Glover to, once again, requisition every boat the Marblehead seafarer could find. Between Honeyman’s report and vessels secured, his men were mobilized for a Christmas morning assault on Trenton.
Once again, Glover pulled off a miracle amphibious operation. And once again, General Washington was the last man on the last boat. In two files the disheveled Continental Army marched, braving more than just the weather. His forces arrived to the New Jersey capital by first light.
The hungover Hessians were completely routed in the surprise assault, providing the Patriot cause with desperately needed victory. The army again breathed life.
So tonight as you enjoy the warmth of the season, remember those who came before. For Christmas they marched through the inky, icy cold, missing their families, yet committed to the long game of founding a nation.
Despite this current, disastrous administration, and especially this last lamentable year, our game is certainly not up. America can and will move forward. We have done this before. Much like General Washington our desperation makes our choices clear.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Gail has recently completed a stage play, “Clay,” on the life of Henry Clay.
Let me be brief. What the GOP is attempting with this frivolous lawsuit concerning the 2020 election is dangerous and cynical. Party fidelity is certainly an American hallmark, but not at the cost of our political system. This dangerous precedent, pursued in a moment of expediency chips away at the foundation of our traditions.
The Constitution quite clearly established the rules on elections, and has endured since 1788. This moment of danger is more crucial to our nation than any excuse for undermining the transfer of power.
Clearly the steps taken by the Republican Party reveals an organization with nothing to offer. Ruthless partisanship is as much an epidemic as any virus.
Each state has verified no irregularities in voting exist, choosing instead to act on one fallible man’s loose talk. The Framers did not dedicate their lives and fortunes to establish a government that dissolves on the whims of any person or moment. The United States relies on people of good will to respectfully honor election results.
As reluctant as I feel about using this analogy, Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor in 1933 in a free election, only to turn around and outlaw free elections.
Stop this now. Your party will lay in ruins if you forget who we are as a people. The process in presidential elections could not be clearer than stated in Article 1.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” and the stage play, “Clay.”
If you feel like contacting your Republican Senators copy and paste this one. Tweak it for your own state and issues.
Donald Trump’s stubborn refusal to face the reality of his election loss is as dangerous an assault on our nation as 911, and much more damaging than Pearl Harbor.
This election fiasco flies in the face of American traditions. General Washington sacrificed much of his personal happiness to found our nation. As America’s first president, he placed our republic above any personal comfort, and Washington’s legacy bears that out. When his officers suggested he take the reins of power, the general declined and went home to Mt Vernon.
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln preserved what Washington had begun, our Union. And though it cost him his life, the United States was Lincoln’s primary concern.
Both men, a founding father, and the savior of the Union, counted their interests as secondary, because America mattered more than any one man. Now, through a series of events, that responsibility has fallen to you. The GOP majority in the Senate can end this assault on our heritage, and you can make that happen.
Your forebears would be proud.
The Republican Party came into being on a noble, decent premise. It is the Party of Lincoln, not a lout from Queens.
*Please don’t patronize me with excuses.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.
Just My Imagination, Running Away With Me.
*Whitfield & Strong
The President fumed, crushing buttons on his cell phone, as if each tab detonated an explosion. On the big screen Wolf Blitzer, voice flat and controlled, droned on how the President continued to lag in the polls.
“Fake news,” he muttered out of habit, and switched the channel.
Perched on the edge of an upholstered armchair, he clutched his remote in one hand, and his cellphone in the other, seething at the unfairness of the coverage.The broadcast cut to a political commercial; a carefully spliced montage of his public faux pas, ending with an endorsement from his adversary.
“Ukraine,” he muttered, “Got to talk to Mitch and Kevin about a new Ukraine investigation.”
“You cannot coerce them, you know.” The voice came from behind. “The people. They cannot all be manipulated, much as you might try. Most are not fools, and any goodwill must be earned.”
Not accustomed to direct insolence, the President twisted around in his chair snapping, “Just who the hell are . . .,” then trailed off. A tall, painfully angular man stood near a richly paneled door. Attired in a long black coat with tails, the visitor sported whiskers along his jawline.
“And they will never all love you. Ever. Such is the raucous nature of American democracy.”
The apparition paused a long moment. “Sowing divisions through fear and vitriol is not governing, and you shall surely fail.” The visitor stepped closer as he spoke, prompting the President to spring out of his chair, phone and remote forgotten on the carpet.
“I recognize you . . .,” the President sputtered.
“We, all of us, sought this office fueled with purpose and ambition,” the visitor continued in a prairie twang. “However, once under oath, the campaign is over. A president faces the duty of serving all Americans, a challenge in the best of circumstances.
From the flickering screen a news anchor admonished, “Aides have confirmed that the President knew of the virus as early as February.”
“It’s those hacks,” the President stabbed his finger accusingly at the big screen. The press is out to. . .”
His visitor laughed without humor. “Criticism of elected officials is as natural as the sun rising, and as perpetual. ‘Baboon’ was the nicest insult slung my way . . .by a serving general, no less. Then he up and ran against me in 1864.” The visitor chuckled lightly. “Still, the truth is we are all better with free speech than without. In our differing views we discover our deepest truths.”
By now the President began tuning out much of what the visitor was saying, his irritation making him bold. “You need to leave,” he snapped. “I have a busy schedule.”
Unruffled, the unwelcome guest studied the President intently. “In my time an entire section of the nation disputed the results of my election.”
“You lost the popular vote, but won the Electoral?” The President couldn’t help but ask.
“Indeed. Eleven southern states chose the battlefield over a peaceful transfer of power.”
“What did you do?”
“I defended the Republic.”
His visitor continued sadly. “However the butcher’s bill for this unity came dearly; 700,000 American lives.” The visitor heaved a weary sigh. “And that delicate balance has endured through all national crises, preserved only through considerable effort and executive leadership. A unity you undermine at every opportunity. ”
“Wrong, wrong, wrong. My supporters all love me. You should see the crowds at my rallies.”
“And the rest of America?” The visitor peered intently at the President. “Remember sir, we are friends, not enemies. We must not be enemies.” His voice quietly trailed off in an echo, and he was gone.
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 the Election of 1800 Thomas Jefferson of Virginia tied with his running mate, New Yorker Aaron Burr. The Constitution, still in its infancy, detailed that the President would be the candidate who secured the most electoral votes, while the second place winner would become Vice President.
Though these directions looked clear on paper, they failed in operation. In only America’s third presidential election the results, ironically counted by Vice President Thomas Jefferson himself (as president of the Senate), gridlocked at 73 electoral votes each. A draw.
There was no provision written for a tied vote in the “new users manual” except to move the final selection to the House of Representatives where each state cast one vote.
35 exhausting ballots later, Alexander Hamilton finally intervened and engineered a victory for Jefferson. Though Hamilton disliked “The Sage of Monticello,” he did so from their shared history of political battles; differences that were not personal. But, this former Secretary of the Treasury also chose Jefferson because he thoroughly detested Aaron Burr, his fellow New Yorker, and rival.
This animosity simmered deadly and personal until resolved with their famous 1804 duel.
After his hard fought victory Jefferson kept his Vice President at an understandable distance, Burr becoming a marginalized pariah in the new administration. The new president had only picked Burr in the first place because he was from New York and could boost the ticket–not render the race more frustrating and complicated. In fact in 1804 George Clinton, also a New Yorker, became Jefferson’s more compliant second Vice President.
In 1803 the Twelfth Amendment changed how presidential elections were counted; each vote specifically cast for President, and separately for Vice President-thus avoiding any future, similar disputes.
On a personal note, remember each of our votes breathe life into this unique experiment called America. Commit yourself to flex that essential muscle of liberty on November 3, 2020.
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.
This is a letter of support recently send to newspapers across Idaho. With Kamala Harris named as Biden’s running mate today, it is clear good government awaits America in 2021.
Joe Biden has my enthusiastic support for president. Joe is humble, compassionate, and has dedicated his career to America. His experience in foreign affairs will fortify our country against unfriendly powers; those foes across the sea who would like to see the US collapse from within.
Domestically, the VicePresident honors our legacy of rights, balanced with the courage to tell us when we must reach out for the common good.
Biden’s experiences reflect our own. We have also lost loved ones, lived paycheck to paycheck, and most importantly he understands that America is about people, not just about racking up wealth. There is a proportion in Joe Biden’s character, and he listens in order to understand the difficult situations we all face.
As our first President, George Washington knew he was no orator, nor a writer. But he was honest like Joe, and knew himself. Washington surrounded himself with the brightest; Hamilton, Jefferson, Henry Knox, and others, setting the nation we have today into motion.
Joe Biden will restore it.
The lights rise on an empty stage. The back curtain ripples with an image of the American flag, circa 1824. “Hail to the Chief” plays in the background. Only the table and two chairs rest at stage left, with a liquor bottle and two glasses. Clay enters from the wings. As Clay speaks the image and music fade.
CLAY A festive atmosphere greeted the 1824 election season. And some apprehension, as well.
Clay pours a drink, leaning against the table.
CLAY Secretary of War John C. Calhoun hoped he might find enough political momentum to land the highest office, but discovered little outside his home state. Though I never forged a warm friendship with Calhoun, we shared common cause promoting a protective tariff and investment in the American system.
He sips his drink.
CLAY As electioneering heated up, reports circulated in Washington City that the frontrunner, Georgia’s William Crawford, had fallen perilously ill. Initially, details were scarce, but in due order, a diagnosis arrived suggesting apoplexy. His allies vowed to continue the race, though Crawford’s prospects appeared dim.
Clay ponders a moment before continuing.
CLAY My old associate, John Quincy Adams, entered as well, with support from the whole of New England, including dispersed Yankees throughout the North. His supporters detested slavery, and as it happened, me, the slave holder. Resolving the Missouri crisis did nothing to gladden our fellow citizens of the North. Such is the thankless plight of public resolutions.
He smiles sadly, and sips. A melody, “My Old Kentucky Home,” increases in volume.
CLAY Despite my very public stance on gradual emancipation, the Adams people were not moved a whit. Their fierce intransigence gave me pause.
Clay stares a long moment. The music fades.
CLAY Then there was Andrew Jackson.
He issues a mirthless laugh.
CLAY As Jackson waited to enter the 1824 race, the Tennessee legislature elected Old Hickory to the United States Senate. Taking great pains to avoid any public positions, the honor must have horrified him. Jackson had to publicly commit to policy votes, and vote he did. Bills for the protective tariff, and for funding internal improvements. Hrrumph! But he had nothing to fear. Jackson’s reputation remained firm with his states rights’ proponents. I believe he could have shot someone in the lane and preserved his support.
Clay refreshes his drink while sitting at the table. He rises.
CLAY I too, craved the presidency. Forgive my repetition, but the so-called “American System” program was too vital to tolerate an ignoramus in the White House.
CLAY Celebrity is no guarantee of competence.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” She is also the writer of Clay, and 3-act play, and Scenes Of A Nation, in progress. Both books are available on Kindle.