Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Anne Therese "Terry" Strader, R.I.P.

I'll never have another chance to beat Terry Strader at Scrabble, though even if I did, my chances would be about the same as winning the Powerball jackpot. She always won. But the prospect of beating her wasn't the reason I looked forward to those games at her dining room table in Davenport, Iowa. It was Terry's calm, reassuring voice that told me things were going to be all right, that Kathleen and I could get over the next hurdle.

Back in the fall of '72 I met a lovely young woman at the University of Iowa's Currier Hall cafeteria and I was smitten. Kathleen Crews and I were married in August of '73, in the Rose Garden of Vander Veer Park in Davenport. We were deeply in love, but that doesn't always fix everything. Things didn't always go smoothly.

But beginning in August, 1975, we had a support system. In the summer of that year we happened upon Terry Chouteau on the St. Ambrose College campus, who warmly invited us to her wedding to George Strader, a young man she had rescued from the school's pre-seminary program. And perhaps because of his near-brush with the celibate, priestly life, Terry and George were champions of the institution of marriage. And that included ours.

Their wedding Christ the King Chapel on the St. Ambrose campus was a wonderful affair, with children from the Bethany Home in Moline, where both Terry and George worked, playing roles in the ceremony.

And as the years went on, our visits to the Straders were magical. There was “The Flame,” a winter gathering at what was then Terry's grandmother's house on Newberry Street, where a dozen or so of us sat around the fireplace on the rear sleeping porch, talking and munching on snacks. The highlight of the night was her brother Tom Chouteau's telling of “Nate the Snake,” an interminably long tale with a groaner punchline, but at their gathering, it just added to the magic.

More often it was just a visit, first at their walk-up apartment on West Third, then at their little house on West Fourth, and later at the Newberry Street house that became their home. We'd feast on Harris Pizza and then settle down to a friendly game of Scrabble, which Terry would inevitably win. But it was her soft, even-toned voice that provided us the magic, the unstated message that our marriage was more important than the stresses that sometimes went with it. And when we decided to have children, they supported us in every way they could, including becoming godparents to all three of our children.

Terry and George had five children, and they were all born by Caesarean section. She once joked that the doctors should just install a zipper across her mid-section. Of course, they were way ahead of us in the grandchild department.

Kathleen and I were both looking forward to the time I could retire. We'd move to Davenport and see a lot more of the Straders. Maybe they'd even have a Flame, with the iconic retelling of Nate the Snake. But then, sometime in 2014, Kathleen got the news that Terry had been diagnosed with Stage Four ovarian cancer. It's one of those cancers that's rarely detected early and has a pitifully small survival rate. But her daughter, Jennifer Rakovsky, who had overcome her own battle with cancer, got her into New York's Sloan Kettering Medical Center. And we got our hopes up. Way up. Terry can do magic—surely the magic will rebound on her.

And for a while it seemed to be working. The rounds of chemotherapy had not only kept her alive, but she recovered to the point where she was looking healthy. Last August Terry and George they had a 40th wedding anniversary celebration at St. Mary's Parish House. The magic returned. Terry looked radiant as she and George were showered with love from friends and family. And it was a time for friends and family to reconnect with each other, as well. One magical moment came when Kathleen and her friend Dixie Baker Lewis linked arms and sang “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”
Shortly after the celebration, Terry and George went back to New York, where she was to receive some kind of experimental treatment. We didn't hear anything for quite some time. Then in November she came down with a high fever. After the fever finally broke we learned that she would be evaluated—she'd either go into rehabilitation therapy or hospice care. And a few days later we learned she was going into rehab. Once again, our hopes were up.

Flash forward to Saturday, January 9. I'm on the phone with Kathleen, who's in Davenport to move her mother from an independent living apartment to nursing home care. She's under quite a bit of stress. So I'm in front of the computer with Facebook open, and I see the line, “Terry is back home on Newberry Street!” That exclamation point must mean good news. I was excited enough to read the line to Kathleen. But longer Facebook posts have that “See More” link you have to click on, and when I did, I found the it was anything but good news. Terry and George had been transported from New York to Davenport by private ambulance, where she would receive hospice care. I wasn't ready for it. Neither was Kathleen. The only good news was that she would die in her beloved home surrounded by friends and family. The end came only a few hours after I read the message.

Terry's gone, at least in body, but we still have the magical spirit she passed on. She spent forty years teaching all of us her brand of magic. I pray that we've learned well.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Confessions of a Closet Conservative--my review of Sam Tanenhaus's "The death of Conservatism."

The Death of ConservatismThe Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

More than once I've been accused of being a conservative. That seemed strange, given that I marched against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, cast my first presidential ballot for George McGovern, and proudly backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. I was briefly a member of both the Students for a Democratic Society and the Friends of SNCC. But a couple of years ago I picked up a copy of The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus at a used book store, and realized I was guilty as charged. And that I was still a liberal.

I probably wouldn't have bought the book if it hadn't been for the author's name. I went to high school with his older brother Michael, who's now a psycholinguist at the University of Rochester, and I was curious to read something by Sam, whom I'd seen but never met. The book came out in 2009, to wide acclaim, though some critics have suggested that the reviews might not have been so positive had Tanenhaus not been the New York Times book review editor at the time.

More recently it's been dismissed as false prophecy because of the Tea Party victory in the 2010 elections. But after a rereading, I'm convinced that while Tanenhaus was premature in declaring the death of what he calls “movement conservatism,” his analysis holds up.

“What we call conservatism today,” Tanenhaus writes, “would have been incomprehensible to the great originator of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, who in the late eighteenth century set forth the principles by which governments might nurture the 'organic' unity that bound a people together even in times of revolutionary upheaval. Burke's conservatism was based not on a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies, beginning with their totalizing nostrums.”

In his most well-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke, writes Tanenhaus, “warned against the destablilizing perils of extremist politics of any kind. The Jacobins—in particular Robespierre, who proclaimed a 'despotism of liberty'—and more moderate figures, too, were inflamed with the Enlightenment vision of the ideal civilization and sacrificed to its abstractions the established traditions of what Burke called 'civil society.”

Burke sympathized with the American revolutionists, says Tanenhaus, because they, “unlike the French rebels, didn't seek to destroy the English government; on the contrary, they regarded themselves as faithful adherents of English law and justly accused England of having violated its own political and legal traditions by unlawfully imposing measures like the Stamp Act without allowing the colonists to make their dissenting case in Parliament.”

American conservatism since World War II, says Tanenhaus, has been a debate between “realists who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions” and “revanchists* committed to a counterrevolution, whether the restoration of America's pre-New Deal ancien régime, the return to Cold War-style Manichaeanism, or the revival of premodern 'family values.'”

Tanenhaus gives us a brief but very readable history of modern American conservatism from the New Deal era to the 2008 election. Conservatives railed against Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, but, “[t]he complication was that Rooseveltism worked.” After FDR's successor, Harry S Truman, was elected in his own right, the Republican Party faced a choice in 1952 between the revanchist faction represented by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, and the realists, who persuaded General Dwight D. Eisenhower to seek the nomination.

We learn about the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy and his intellectual defender, William F. Buckley, along with several thinkers of the postwar conservatism, including James Burnham, a former Trotskyite who had soured on Marxism after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonagression pact, Yale professor Willmoore Kendall, and Buckley's brother-in-law and classmate L. Brent Bozell. Whittaker Chambers, another ex-Communist (and the subject of a Tanenhaus biography) is portrayed as a moderating figure in the movement, who “embraced a genuinely classical conservatism.”

Tanenhaus reminds us of the young conservatives who formed the Young Americans for Freedom, who worked tirelessly for the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, but whose memory has been eclipsed by the rise of left-wing groups such as Students for a Democratic Society. Goldwater's landslide defeat, writes Tanenhaus, ushered in conservatism's “greatest phase, a decade-long period, from 1965 to 1975, during which the familiar dynamic between orthodoxy and consensus underwent a remarkable reversal. The liberal sun, even as it steadily enlarged, swerved off its consensus course and strayed into the astral wastes of orthodoxy. And the conservative movement, building a coalition of disenchanted and alienated elements of the old Democratic coalition—blue-collar urban ethnics, Jewish and Catholic intellectuals repelled by the countercultural enthusiasms of the New Left—shaped a new consensus.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, plus President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, had more to do with the rise of conservatism than the counterculture. Political thinkers such as Kevin Phillips, whose 1968 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, was a blueprint for Nixon's 1968 victory. While Nixon made the Party of Lincoln acceptable in the Deep South, Democrats could not recover from the debacle in Chicago, and antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy's refusal to make anything more than a reluctant endorsement of their nominee, Hubert Humphrey. Still, the election was a close one.

Nixon's presidency ended in resignation and disgrace, dividing conservatives, but, as Tanenbaum writes, “Watergate secured the ascendancy of movement revanchism. In the twenty-year period from 1968 to 1988, the Republicans captured four of the five presidential elections. The single defeat, in 1976, was remarkably narrow, given the circumstances: an unelected incumbent, Gerald Ford, who barely survived a challenge in the primaries—by Reagan, the Right's new tribune...”

And when Reagan finally came to power, movement conservatives had a problem, or, as Garry Wills had written earlier in The Confessions of a Conservative (1979): “The right wing is stuck with the paradox of holding a philosophy of 'conserving' an actual order it does not want to conserve.” Reagan, while declaring government “the problem,” failed to rein in the growth of government, as did his designated successor, George H. W. Bush, which brought about what Tanenhaus calls conservatism's “most decadent phase.” Tanenhaus compares Newt Gingrich, who orchestrated the GOP's 1994 “Contract with America” triumph, with the French Revolution's Danton.

The contract's “reforms”—term limits, purging of moderates from committee chairmanships—would have “mystified” classical conservatives who saw institutional traditions as Congress's great strength writes Tanenhaus. “Meanwhile , Gingrich, and the House's Robespierre, Tom DeLay, tried to delegitimize a popular president, Bill Clinton, and assembled a shadow government of lobbyists who gained increasing influence over the legislative business of Congress.”

Tanenhaus cites a 1995 article “Why Intellectual Conservatism Died” by Michael Lind in Dissent: “In 1984, the leading conservative spokesman in the media was George Will; by 1994, it was Rush Limbaugh. The basic concerns of intellectual conservatives in the eighties were foreign policy and economics; by the early nineties thy had become dirty pictures and eviant sex.” Tanenhaus goes on to say, “They not only abandoned Burke. They had become inverse Marxists, placing loyalty to the movement above their civic responsibilities.”

George W. Bush, writes Tanenhaus, “so often labeled a traitor to movement principles, was in fact more steadfastly devoted to them than any of his Republican predecessors—including Reagan.” Deregulation, the $1.3 million tax cut, the plan to partially privatize Social Security, faith-based initiatives, the “war on terror,” and the mission to “democratize” Iraq were all in line with movement conservatism. And by 2008 we were in the midst of the Great Recession.

The Death of Conservatism was published in 2009, after the Obama landslide of 2008, but before the Tea Party resurgences of 2010 and 2014. And as a prognosticator, he was off by at least a few years. Movement conservatism is alive and well, but it seems headed toward another disaster—a government shutdown, or perhaps a default on the national debt. At this writing, all of the Republican presidential candidates, including the so-called “moderates” such as Ohio governor John Kasich, are clearly in the revanchist camp. And the frontrunner is none other than Donald Trump, whose politics seem a parody of right-wing extremism.

“Most of us," concludes Tanenhaus, "are liberal and conservative: we cling to the past in some ways, push forward into the future in others, and seek to reconcile our most cherished notions and beliefs—'prejudices' in Burke's term, 'animal faith' in [George] Santayana's—with the demands of unanticipated events... There remains in our politics a place for authentic conservatism—a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.”

The Death of Conservatism is short—only 123 pages, including the bibliography. It lacks footnotes and an index, which would have been helpful. But those are minor points. It's a valuable resource for anyone—liberal, conservative, or both—to understand the nuances of American postwar conservatism. And perhaps because it failed to predict the rise of Tea Party revanchism, you can buy a used copy for a penny on Amazon. Or, I should say, a penny plus the $3.99 shipping and handling charge.

*Revanchism, from the French revanche (revenge), refers specifically to the French movement in the 1870s and '80s to regain Alsace and Lorraine, which were lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War; and generally to any right-wing movement which aspires to regain something lost or perceived to be lost.

View all my reviews

Friday, July 24, 2015

West Madison Street Revisited

In December of 1966 I was a 15-year-old high school sophomore who had just joined the University High School (Iowa City) chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society. And thanks to a family trip to Chicago, I had the opportunity to visit the SDS national headquarters. We were staying with family friends in Elgin, so I took the Milwaukee Road commuter line to Union Station. I should have simply taken the West Madison bus, but I wanted to ride the L, so I walked up to Clinton and Lake and boarded the Lake Street L. I wasn't familiar with the “A” and “B” stops, so I just got on the first train headed west.. It happened to be a “B” train, so it went right by the Ashland stop, which would have put me within a few blocks of the SDS headquarters. I got off at California Avenue, much farther west than I needed to be, and in the heart of the West Side ghetto. I walked south to Madison Street, where I paid another 45 cents to board an eastbound Madison Street bus.

Chicago was one of America's most segregated cities, and the neighborhood around Madison and California was a solidly black and poor one. Strangely enough, I don't remember any stares from riders on that Chicago Transit Authority bus, even though I must have been the only white person on board. I vaguely remember a couple of blocks where most of the residents looked poor and Asian—perhaps a northerly extension of Chinatown. But I got off the bus at or near Ashland and found my way to the second floor of a nondescript building on the north side of the street.

My visit to SDS headquarters was anticlimactic to say the least. Carl Oglesby wasn't there, nor was anyone whose name I knew. There was a a harried-looking young woman, busy at her typewriter, who had no time to talk. I looked around the lobby of this, the headquarters of the most prominent radical student organization, which could have been mistaken for a dentist's waiting room, took a few pamphlets, and went back downstairs to catch the West Madison bus back to the Loop.

In those days, West Madison was Skid Row. A few blocks east of Ashland most people on the street were white. Most looked middle-aged or older. The street was lined with taverns, cheap restaurants, and Single Room Occupancy hotels, all of which catered to people down on their luck. The Starr Hotel, which I passed but don't specifically remember, was infamous because just a few months earlier, Richard Speck, who had murdered eight student nurses, was found there. Nearly fifty years later, memory has become a blur, mixed with later scenes of Chicago streets, and appears to me as a sort of Ashcan School image, with ghostlike figures in drab overcoats standing on the sidewalk or walking in and out of the taverns and flophouses.

I got off the bus at Canal Street, near the majestic North Western Station, and walked the two blocks south to Union Station and the commuter train to Elgin.

Recently, while on a layover between the Lake Shore Limited from Elkhart and the California Zephyr to Galesburg, Illinois, I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to wander west from Union Station. I walked west on Jackson until I came to a small one-block park. It made sense to head north, and after walking a couple of blocks on Adams, I turned north toward Madison.

It was, as I expected, no longer Skid Row. The transition from downscale to upscale had begun in the early 1980s with the opening of Presidential Towers, which was built on the site of the Starr Hotel. The taverns and flophouses were gone, replaced by condominiums, trendy restaurants, day spas, dog grooming salons and boutiques. Instead of middle-aged men down on their luck, there were beautiful young men and women, their skin tanned, oiled, and glowing. I imagine that many of those Skid Row denizens of 1966 bore tattoos that were mementos of service in the Pacific. In 2015 I noticed a young woman sporting an artistically designed armband tattoo that probably set her back a few thousand dollars. It was certainly more tasteful than the “Death Before Dishonor” inks of the World War II era, but surely less genuine.

There was one holdout from the Skid Row days—the shuttered Phil's Tavern, which appeared to be on the way towards demolition or renovation. In any case, this single reminder of the street's past would soon be gone or turned into another upscale establishment. Pete Anderson, of the blog, Pete Lit,researched the name and location of Phil's Tavern, and found nothing except for a Google Street View image from May, 2014, showing the building with a shingled awning obscuring the sign. That probably accounts for the sign's easy readability. “Based on the drab exterior and the tiny size of the building,” Anderson writes, “it's probably safe to say that Phil's used to be a nondescript, hole-in-the-wall dive, perhaps dating back to the era when this stretch of Madison was the city's skid row.”

Closer to Ashland the neighborhood had become less trendy, but was still no slum. The block where the SDS headquarters had been was now greenspace. But there was one other interesting holdover: the Palace Grill and Sandwich Shop near the corner of Madison and Ogden Avenue. The building appeared to be new, but its owners had preserved the weathered neon sign proclaiming the place had been around since 1938. It had adapted to the changing neighborhood, offering sandwiches on ciabatta bread and a complete line of official Chicago Blackhawks merchandise.West of Ashland I could see the gigantic United Center, where the Blackhawks and Bulls played, looming ahead. It was time to head back to Union Station.

It's easy to ridicule the Young Urban Professionals, or Yuppies (the term has been around since the early 1980s, if not before). Still, I have to remind myself that they have chosen to live in the city. They're living in lofts, condominiums, and apartments, and not in McMansions built out in the exurbs, where farmers recently were growing corn and soybeans.

The West Side has more than its share of slums, but this stretch of West Madison was no longer one of them. It's hard to feel nostalgia for Skid Row. But the place did serve a purpose. The down-and-out are still with us, and the SRO hotels, which gave them a relatively safe place to stay, are mostly gone. They're completely gone from the old Skid Row.

In the world of 1966 there was still a profit to be made from the down-and-out, and while the owners of the SROs weren't always admirable men, they did provide a service that today's entrepreneurs don't. And cash-strapped social service agencies aren't in a position to fill the gap. Nor are charity-run shelters such as the Pacific Garden Mission. So yes, one can mourn the loss of Skid Row, if only because it made life a little more bearable for the poorest among us.

Photo Credits: Pete Anderson (Phil's Tavern)
                        Associated Press (Starr Hotel)
                        www.chicagofoodplanet.com (Palace Grill)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe

Jay Gould's daughter said, 'Before I die,
There are two more roads that I'd like to ride.'
Jay Gould said, 'Daughter, what can they be?'
'The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.'”
I was reminded of the old hobo ballad because I've never ridden over Southern Pacific rails. I've been on the Santa Fe many times, beginning with a Cub Scout trip from Albuquerque to Lamy sometime in the early 1960s, and then a longer trip to California in 1965. And there were several visits to family in New Mexico in the 1980s and '90s. But the storied Southern Pacific has eluded me until this year.
Amtrak has a Service Award Trip program which allows long-term employees to take a “free” trip after ten years of service and every five years thereafter. I've never taken the offer because it isn't completely free: Internal Revenue Service rules require Amtrak to collect taxes on 80 per cent of the tickets' value—usually 30 to 40 per cent. But this will be my last chance to take such a trip. I started work on February 21, 1984, and the service award trip needs to be taken within one year of the anniversary. I turned 63 in November, and don't expect to be working in 2019. So this is my last chance.
Last summer Kathleen and I found out we'd be grandparents for the first time around the middle of January. Our daughter and son-in-law live near Portland, and they wanted Kathleen to stay with them for the first month. It was a great opportunity to use my Service Award Trip. Beginning next Monday (barring unforeseen circumstances, we'll head west on the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, then south on the City of New Orleans to its namesake. After a night in the Crescent City, we'll ride west on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles, where we'll switch over to the Coast Starlight, spend one night in San Francisco, and then head north to Portland on the Starlight. (Sadly for us, the Southern Pacific's successor, Union Pacific, is replacing ties between Eugene and Portland, so the last three hours will be on a bus.)
Not only will this be my last chance to take the Service Award trip, it may be my last chance to ride the Sunset Limited. It's been around since 1894, and is the oldest continually-operating name train in the country. And it was and is central in the fight both to kill off and to save the American passenger train.
In the 1960s, after most American railroads had given up on passenger service, their strategies for dealing with the issue varied tremendously. A few road, such as the Santa Fe, maintained excellent service consistently, even when they were trying to discontinue money-losing trains. But some, led by the Southern Pacific, downgraded service to drive away passengers on at least a few of the trains they wanted to eliminate. And it really wanted to get rid of the Sunset Limited. By 1968 the New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset was a coach-only train, with a the only food service from the road's infamous Automat Buffet.
When Amtrak took over the route on May 1, 1971, regular sleeping, dining, and lounge car service was restored. And it survived the major Amtrak cuts of 1979 and 1997. But in the last few years, it's been the target of conservative politicians who use it as an example in their crusade to eliminate Amtrak. It doesn't have the ridership of other long-distance trains, mainly because of there are no same-day connections on the New Orleans end, along with the elimination of the New Orleans-Orlando segment after Hurricane Katrina and the bypass of Phoenix in 1996. And like 1979 and 1997, 2015 is a year with a Democratic president and Republican ascendancy in Congress. At this writing, it's unclear whether the Obama Administration will follow the example of the Carter and Clinton Administrations and agree to major Amtrak cuts. Unlike the the two previous Democratic administrations, Obama's has been consistently pro-Amtrak. But whether that will be enough to prevent another mass train removal is up in the air at this time. Personally, I believe the Sunset route to be a key one in the national transportation system.
While Kathleen will stay in Portland for about a month, I'll need to get back to work. My plan is to fiddle-faddle my way from Portland to Los Angeles, taking the Starlight to Sacramento and then using a bus-train bus connection that should get me to Los Angeles Union Station in time for No. 4, the Southwest Chief. It's another train with an uncertain future. Just as the Union Pacific downgraded its, line through Phoenix, leaving the Sunset to stop at Maricopa, a little town some 30 miles south of Arizona's capital, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe plans to downgrade the storied Raton Pass route through Albuquerque, Lamy (the stop for Santa Fe), Las Vegas (older than the one in Nevada), and Raton, New Mexico; Trinidad, La Junta, and Lamar in Colorado; and across Kansas through Garden City, Dodge City, and Hutchinson. At Newton, Kansas, the line joins up with the BNSF's main freight route for the run into Chicago.
BNSF is willing to maintain the line to passenger train standards if the states along the route agree to pay the cost. So far, Kansas and Colorado have committed to support the route. It's up to New Mexico. Should the Land of Enchantment fail to support the route, the Southwest Chief could be gone. The alternative would be to route the train on the main freight line through Wichita and Amarillo. It has the advantage of adding these stations to the Amtrak network, but the disadvantage of bypassing some of the West's most beautiful scenery.
In fact, it's the route that inspired “America the Beautiful.” In the summer of 1893 Katharine Lee Bates, then a professor at Wellesley College, made a trip from there to Colorado Springs, where she had taken a temporary teaching position. At Chicago she stopped over to visit the World's Columbian Exhibition, nicknamed the “White City,” which she changed to the more poetic “alabaster.” From Chicago she took the Santa Fe through La Junta. West of Kansas City she heard a fellow passenger complain about the endless wheatfields, but for her they were the beautiful “amber waves of grain.” And as the train rolled west across the plains toward La Junta, gaining altitude all the time, she saw the Rocky Mountains, which really do look purple in the distance.
Bates missed going over the Raton Pass, where passengers can see deer and bear from the train, the grasslands between Raton and Las Vegas, New Mexico, broken by the rock formation that really does look like a Conestoga wagon, as you pass by Wagon Mound. Here pronghorns are common, their white rumps easily visible as they run away from the train.
Las Vegas, a notorious wild-west town in the 1880s, is home to La Castañeda, a former Harvey House that's now being redeveloped. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders came there for their reunions. And in the first movie version of Red Dawn, the inn served as the Soviet headquarters.
At Glorieta Pass there's more mountain scenery. It's where in 1862, Colorado Volunteers, with the help of a local guide, took a hidden path around the Confederate lines, destroyed the Rebels' supply train, and put an end to the plan to extend the Confederacy to the Pacific. From Glorieta the train heads through Apache Canyon and then heads down the Rio Grande Valley into Albuquerque, with the majestic Sandia Mountains seemingly changing with every mile.
The Raton Pass route is truly a national treasure, and I home and pray that New Mexico joins Kansas and Colorado to keep the Chief running over the line.
The upcoming trip has given me inspiration for a writing project—to examine the past, present and future of long-distance passenger trains, with special emphasis on the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.
But right now, I'm just looking forward to a great American rail journey.
Image: The Southern Pacific's Sunset Limited. probably in the 1950s.

Monday, November 10, 2014

There is a difference between the two parties, and the Koch Brothers know it.

“There's not a dime's worth of difference between the two parties” was one of George Corley Wallace's mantras. In 1968, when he was the American Independent Party's candidate for President, the former Alabama governor said it over and over. And too many Americans believed him. They still believe the line, even if they don't associate it with the onetime segregationist Wallace.

But if there isn't a difference, why did the billionaire Koch Brothers spend millions on Republican Party campaigns? They know there's a difference. But so many people who would be better off with the Democrats in power stayed home. All the voter-suppression tactics of Republican legislatures, nefarious though they were, could not compare in effectiveness to the apathy of a majority of registered voters. Not a plurality—a majority. And while presidential elections usually bring out a higher turnout, voter apathy could be the GOP's greatest ally in 2016.

A November 9 article in the Elkhart Truth by Tim Vandenack made the point all too well. The voter turnout in all of Elkhart County, Indiana for the 2014 general election was only 26.63 per cent. No single precinct managed 50 per cent. But the Elkhart 19 precinct, home of the exclusive Greencroft Goshen retirement community, had the highest turnout with 46.06 per cent. You can bet the vast majority of those votes went to GOP candidates. Rural and exurban precincts dominated the “most engaged voters” list.

It's not hard to guess which areas made the “least engaged voters” list. The Concord 6 precinct, between Main Street and the St. Joseph River, and north of downtown Elkhart, topped the list, with a pathetic 5.27 per cent turnout. It includes “The Hole,” an impoverished enclave in the St. Joseph River flood plain, along with other lower-and lower-middle-class neighborhoods. People living there would have benefited by an expansion of Medicaid for people just above the poverty line, which the GOP state government refused to accept. The federally-funded pre-kindergarten program, just turned down by Republican Governor Mike Pence, would have been a great help to their children.

The next two precincts in Vandenack's “least engaged” column were east or south of downtown, including South Central Elkhart, an area that shares some of the demographics of South Central Los Angeles. The two semi-rural precincts on the low-turnout list included one with a large mobile home park and another with several low-rent apartment complexes.

It's true that there were no major statewide races in Elkhart County. The gubernatorial election follows the presidential election cycle, and there was no Senatorial race this year. Still, there was an important Congressional race, with Republican Representative Jackie Walorski, who last year voted for shutting down the government and against raising the debt ceiling. In both votes, she struck a blow against the United States economy; if her side had won the debt ceiling vote, it might very well have sent the economy into chaos. The poor and lower-middle-class would have suffered the most.

The Democratic candidate, Joe Bock, a thoughtful and compassionate man who had served in the Missouri State Legislature, lost Elkhart County by a landslide—22,873 to 9,334. He carried St. Joseph County (South Bend), normally a Democratic stronghold, by only 563 votes. He deserved better.

What the numbers say to me is that the Republican Party didn't win the 2014 election. We Democrats lost. When a reporter asked the late Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley why Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon in 1968, he replied, “He didn't get enough votes.” The same line applies to Joe Bock—the Democratic operation didn't get the votes out for him. That means boots on the ground—people going door-to-door and engaging the voters. It's easier to bring out volunteers during a presidential year, when college students often take time off from their studies to support candidates. But the off-year elections are important as well, as the Tea Party victory in 2010 demonstrated. Republican control of state legislatures resulted in gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts drawn to make it even harder for Democrats to win.

While I voted this year, my job at Amtrak prevented me from doing volunteer work for the Democrats. Constantly late trains brought on by Norfolk Southern freight interference left me exhausted. Assuming I'm able to retire by the middle of 2016, I expect to be working the phones and pounding the pavement for the Democrats. And I encourage others to do so. If we don't take the nation back from the Koch Brothers, we may be looking at becoming a Third World country.

But so long as vulnerable Americans believe there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two parties, the Koch Brothers and their right-wing Republican machine will keep on rolling up victories.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Edith P. Wylder, 1925-2013

In fairy tales the stepmother is almost invariably a wicked woman. And when I first heard of Edith Wylder in the worst of circumstances, I believed she would live up to the stereotype. In the course of some 48 years, I learned differently. So it was with sadness that I learned of her death on July 4 of this year.

 In 1965 my parents divorced. Their marriage had not been a happy one for at least two years and probably longer. It was only after the divorce that I learned of my father's marriage to Edith Perry Stamm. It would be more than a year later, at Thanksgiving in 1966, that I first met my stepmother. By then, my dad and Edith were living in Fort Collins, Colorado. Edith turned out to be a kind, gracious woman, who was quite sympathetic to the situation my brother and I were in.

In the summer of 1967, when I went to stay at Fort Collins, for close to a month, I got to know Edith better, along with her sons Paul and Philip. Though she grew up in a privileged family from the Western Reserve of Ohio and had earned a doctorate in English, she always remained modest. In that summer of 1967, I remember her sitting on the sofa, knitting, and Paul came in and said, “How quaint.” She took it in good humor.

 When Kathleen and I married, Edith welcomed her into the family. Since then, we've had many enjoyable visits with my dad and Edith—first in Marshall, Minnesota, then Murray, Kentucky, and finally in New where they retired. Visiting them meant the long, scenic train ride to Albuquerque, and visits in Rio Rancho and later their little adobe cottage in Corrales, where my dad, Delbert E. “Deb” and Edith lived.

 My dad died December 14, 2005, of leukemia, and Edith told me that not a day goes by that she didn't miss him. During the past few years she had been working on a book to be titled “Talking Between the Rooms,” a study of the influence of John Keats on Emily Dickinson's poetry. She had earlier published “The Last Face,” which analyzed the use of diacritical marks in Dickinson's poetry.

Edith was an inspiration to many students in her long teaching career. But I know her more as a loving stepmother, who always took me seriously.

Edith's ashes will be interred Sunday, October 20 at 11 A.M., in Morrison, Illinois, next to those of Deb Wylder. There was to be a celebration of her life, but there will just be a small family gathering at the Family Chef Restaurant after the interment.

Rest in peace, Edith. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"The Unraveling of America," a book for the Reagan era

Sometimes a history book can tell the reader almost as much about the time it was written as the time it was written about. Such is the case with Allen J. Matusow's The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

“It is currently the fashion to pronounce the liberal effort to improve America a failure. Reared in the liberal tradition myself, I take no pleasure in having written a book that, in the main, documents the conventional wisdom.,” writes Matusow in the introduction. (p. xiv—page numbers refer to the Harper Torchbooks edition.) “Currently” means 1983, during the so-called “Reagan Revolution,” when conservatism was triumphant in America, and liberalism was seemingly discredited. One suspects that after the Great Recession discredited the laissez-faire economics of the Ronald Reagan era, even Matusow might reconsider his conclusions.

“The liberal mood of 1960 was largely defined by elite intellectuals residing on the East Coast, principally in New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts,” writes Matusow (p. 3). One hears echoes of Spiro Agnew's “effete corps of impudent snobs.”

Whether or not “elite intellectuals residing on the East Coast” defined the liberal mood of 1960 is debatable. But William O'Neill, writing in Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s (New York, Times Books, 1971), points out that while liberal intellectuals John Kenneth Galbraith, Edwin Reischauer, and Adlai Stevenson were made ambassadors in the Kennedy Administration, “ambassadors do not make policy. In Kennedy's administration the men who did were people like Theodore Sorenson, Dean Rusk, McGeorge and William Bundy, Maxwell Taylor, and Walt Whitman Rostow. They were not so much liberals as technocrats, men of power rather than passion.” (I'd make an exception for Sorenson, but I don't see him as a major policymaker, either.)

Matusow  “proves” liberalism's failure with carefully selected examples, primarily mismanaged programs in the War on Poverty. But he goes beyond analysis and into ad hominem attacks. For some reason, one figure in the Kennedy-Johnson administrations comes in for special opprobrium: “Sargent Shriver, director of the the Office of Economic Opportunity, waged fierce warfare with the Labor Department to win control of the Job Corps, hoping that it would yield instant results and cover him with quick glory. He never made a greater mistake.” (p. 237) On p. 248 Matusow refers to “Shriver's long-standing ambition to run for governor of Illinois,” yet all evidence I've found points to a brief consideration of the run in 1960—hardly long-standing.

Even in praise, Matusow manages to get a dig in at Shriver: “A devout Catholic and husband of Eunice Kennedy, Shriver had a patrician's sense of obligation so profound that he was known within the Kennedy family as the 'house Communist.” (p. 243) Yet over and over Matusow portrays Shriver as the crass opportunist.

Matusow's chapter on the economy is entitled “War, Inflation, and Farewell to Keynes,” and asserts that Keynesian economics was thoroughly discredited during the Kennedy-Johnson years. Milton Friedman, darling of the Reagan conservatives, emerges as a prophet in Matusow's analysis. But if Keynesian economics was dead in 1968, what are we to do with Richard Nixon's 1971 proclamation that “I am now a Keynesian in economics” after taking the United States off the gold standard. (The quote is often confused with Milton Friedman's 1965 “We are all Keynesians now” statement, which Friedman later qualified.)

To me his most interesting, and for the most part, the best-written chapters are in the last half of the book. Unlike Ronald Reagan and most of his disciples, Matusow makes a distinction between the 1960s counterculture, the New Left, and the antiwar liberals. He also understands the nuanced differences within the student civil rights movement.
In “Rise and Fall of a Counterculture,” Matusow gives us the evolution of the 1960s Hippie, from the black hipsters of the 1930s, through the Beats of the post-World War II era, and into the psychedelic era pioneered by the likes of Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary. Matusow uses Allen Ginsberg, author of the classic 1955 Beat poem “Howl,” as the focus of the transition from Beat to Hippie: “Ginsberg was a new kind of American hero-saint. He had penetrated far enough into the dark recesses of self to risk sanity, and he had returned purified, with reverence for all living things.” (p. 284) Yet his analysis, written from a Reaganite perspective, seems stereotypically Victorian.

“Few hippies read much, but those who did found their purpose strikingly described and anticipated in the strange books of Norman O. Brown,” writes Masutow. (p.277) His analysis of the philosophy behind the counterculture is is very well stated, but today his conclusions ring true only for the cultural conservative. Brown, a Freudian, promoted the releasing the energy of the id—the creative, sexual impulse of Eros. “Like the hippies, Brown was in revolt against civilized sex—exclusively genital, exclusively heterosexual, exclusively monogamous—affirming instead pan-sexualism...” (p. 279)

But Brown had warned of the opposing principle of Eros—Thanatos, or the death wish. (Ethologist Konrad Lorenz, in his brilliant study On Aggression, takes issue with the Freudian concept of the death wish, but in the context of the Matusow's analysis of the counterculture, Brown's warning advances his argument.) Brown proposed a “Dionysian ego” to counter Thanatos, “overflowing with love, knowing no limits, affirming life... The creation of the Dionysian ego, the ego in service of liberated Eros—this was a project project millions of mothers would soon understand and implicitly and fear with good reason.” (p. 279)

Matusow follows the 1967 “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, from the Human Be-In on January 14 to the “Death of Hippie” in October. (A more thoughtful and more sympathetic view of the counterculture in that year can be found in Derek Taylor's It Was Twenty Years Ago Today. [Fireside, 1987].) And he chronicles the slide from Eros into Thanatos, from the Dionysian revels of Monterey Pop and Woodstock to the nightmarish Altamont Festival.

“For a variety of reasons, after 1970 the counterculture faded,” Matusow writes. (p. 305) Yet he admits that it has a legacy, though he sees nothing good in it: “By the 1970s social discipline was eroding so rapidly that fashion condemned the whole of middle-class culture as 'the culture of narcissism.' Parental discipline declined, sexual promiscuity rose along with the divorce rate, worker productivity fell, ghetto obscenity insinuated itself into standard speech, marijuana became almost commonplace, sexual perversions are no longer deemed so, and traditional institutions like the army, the churches, and the government lost authority... Dionysus has been absorbed into the dominant culture and in the process routed the Protestant ethic.” Matusow's alarmist statement ignores that government lost authority as much as a result of the Reagan revolution as the Sixties. And in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, so if Matusow considers it to be a sexual perversion that is “no longer deemed so, his complaint is with a traditional institution.

Matusow has less dire conclusions about the New Left. In his chapter, “The Rise and Fall of the New Left,” he documents its rise from the beginnings of the Students for a Democratic Society to its descent into the violent Weatherman faction. By the 1981 the radical New Left had virtually disappeared—it posed no threat to the Reaganite worldview Matusow embraces. In a similar fashion he covers the Black Power movement, which had virtually disintegrated by the 1970s. Yet the end of black nationalism did not bring African American voters into the Reagan coalition; they continued to vote for liberal Democrats.

The last two chapters of his book, “War, Liberals, and Overthrow of LBJ, and “Rout of the Liberals,” focus on the election of 1968. And again, it's well-written, but seriously flawed. Of the three major (largely) white youth movements of the 1960s, the “Dump Johnson” movement led by Allard Lowenstein was liberal rather than radical, and inspired thousands of idealistic young men and women to trudge through the snows of New Hampshire and Wisconsin for the quixotic antiwar presidential candidate Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota. They were crusaders not for some neo-Marxian radicalism, but for the kind of liberalism exemplified by Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson.

What Matusow does not discuss is the break within liberalism which led to both the narrow Humphrey defeat of 1968 and the Nixon landslide of 1972. In 1968, many antiwar liberals sat on their hands or voted for a third-party candidate such as Dick Gregory rather than support Hubert Humphrey. And in 1972, George Meany of the AFL-CIO made the decision not to endorse any candidate in the McGovern-Nixon race, effectively endorsing Nixon, and driving a wedge between labor and the antiwar liberals. Meany did not live to see the fruits of his decision when rank-and-file union members deserted the Democrats in 1980 to elect Ronald Reagan, who spent two terms eviscerating the labor movement.

Because Matusow finished the book in 1981, at the very beginning of the Reagan-Bush era, he could not foresee the disastrous consequences of the laissez-faire economics that dominated those decades. “Whether Reagan's victory made permanent the trend away from the liberalism of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, whether his conservative policies could weave together the unraveled fabric of the old America, even whether the old America was something that ought to be recovered—these questions were bound to engage historians far into the nation's future.” Matusow concludes. (p. 439)

Today, as we are still recovering from the Reagan Revolution, the nation is more divided than it was in 1968. While some on the far right will agree with Matusow’s conclusions, from this writer’s perspective, he was too quick to endorse the conclusions of the Reagan Right, even though he must have understood that the neoconservative critique of 1960s was based on oversimplification. The book is worth reading, if only to view a more sophisticated critique of the decade than the one given us by most 1980s neoconservatives.

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