Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jack Mabley, R.I.P

In doing research for my Dickens Challenge novel, which in part takes place during the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, I stumbled upon Jack Mabley, the Chicago American columnist who, in August 1968, publicized the Yippies' so-called plans to put LSD in the Chicago water supply, have Yippie women seduce delegates by posing as prostitutes, and then put LSD in their drinks, etc. I had read Mabley before and believed him to be something of a right-winger. I was wrong. While the American was a right-wing paper (the afternoon paper published by The Tribune Company), Mabley was not a rightist, but someone who was alarmed by the Yippie movement and took their guerilla theater a bit too seriously.

When I did a Google search for Mabley, I learned he had died in January, 2006, at the age of 90. I also found his blog, Jack Mabley's Web Log. And in it I found two predictions: one sadly wrong, the other dead-on:

I’ve never hesitated to make predictions. They don’t jeopardize my reputation because my reputation is being wrong more than right. On that note, I predict that Kerry’s margin of victory will be substantial. And he’ll carry a flock of Democrats into public offices with him. And Barack Obama will be the first person of color to become President.

Rest in peace, Jack. Sorry you didn't live to see your prediction come true.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Forty-five years

Like most of the people in my generation, I can remember where I was when I first learned of President Kennedy's assassination. For me it was outside the cafeteria at Madison Junior High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I wasn't having an easy time in seventh grade, and the announcement of this catastrophe didn't make it any better. When it was time to go to math class, which met in one of the many barracks-classrooms erected to house the overflow of students of the postwar baby boom, I learned a little more.

I don't remember the teacher's name. I wasn't good at math, and this teacher wasn't my favorite. She had once confiscated a little doodle I made--spacemen getting out of a flying saucer while people all around ignored them--and sent it to the counselor, who decided it was a clear sign of serious emotional problems. That day she tried to calm students down, giving us in somber tones the facts as she knew them. At one pont a girl asked if Kennedy had been shot "with a rifle or a gun," causing some titters, and easing the tension. But the teacher berated the titterers and brought the tension level back up.

Mercifully, Albuquerque Public Schools decided to dismiss students before math class was over. I watched the coverage of the assassination, and the funeral, on our black-and-white TV. The news commentators referred to the new president by his full name--Lyndon Baines Johnson--which prompted my father to say that he hoped they'd stop using the Baines.

I was eleven that year, and turned twelve at the end of November. (Being a year younger than most of my classmates surely exacerbated my problems in junior high.) For me, the Kennedy assassination was tied in with sad events in my personal and family life. I had been a top student in sixth grade, but ended up with three Ds on my report card that semester. I probably would have received them had there not been an assassination, but the shock of Kennedy's death did affect my studies. My father, at a loss to know what to do , spanked me for the 3-D report card. I resented it for a long time, and fantsized about running away, escaping to the Midwest, where the world seemed more civilized.

The next year, my parents sent me to the Albuquerque Academy, where I did much better. I wasn't fantasizing about running away, but my dreams of returning to the Midwest came true, though not in the best way.

For this was also a time when my parents' marriage was deteriorating. I must have sensed it emotionally, if not intellectually. My brother, four years younger, sensed it better than I. When our mother asked him if he knew what a divorce was, he said, it was when you got "unmarried." "You're going to get one," he immediately added.

The divorce took place in the summer of 1965. My mother, brother, and I moved to Iowa City, wher she worked on a Master of Fine Arts and eventually began working for Paul Engle, who was then in charge of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

All of this turmoil in my own life, and that of my family, took place in the aftermath of that terrible day in November, forty-five years ago. I'm sure I would be a different person--perhaps less fatalistic and more self-confident--had Oswald's bullet missed the president.

On January 20 of next year, we shall, for the first time in forty-five years, have a young, attractive, energetic, optimistic, and progressive president. let us hope and pray that he is able to serve his term and be re-elected in 2012. For the sake of our nation and of all the people, at home and abroad, who have put so much hope in him, I pray that Barack Obama has a long and successful presidency.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Barack Obama, FDR, and NPR

Driving from Galesburg to Elkhart Sunday afternoon, blissfully unaware of the lake-effect snowstorm awaiting me in northwestern Indiana, I was listening to Weekend All things Considered on National Public Radio. I've never met the host, Andrea Seabrook, but I think of her as a friend--someone who brings a smile to my face by just the sound of her voice. Seabrook's audience may be in the millions, but she makes you feel as though you're part of her special circle of friends.

Susan Stamberg is a woman I'd trust about anything except Thanksgiving food. I've listened to her since she was co-host of All Things Considered in the early 1970s. She doesn't have the intimacy of Seabrook, but her voice has an air of authority and experience.

But that afternoon, Seabrook got Stamberg on the line to grouse about Barack Obama's decision to put his weekly radio talks on YouTube. I'm not sure they were entirely serious, but it bothered me that Stamberg made the comment that if radio was good enough for FDR, is should be good enough for the president-elect. The trouble is, radio wasn't good enough for Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the YouTube video shows. Of course there was no YouTube during FDR's presidency, and television was in its infancy. But there was video, in the form of newsreels. I'm old enough to remember when movie theaters showed newsreels, along with cartoons and short features, before the main attraction. By the mid-1960s most cinemas had abandoned the newsreel. But in FDR's time, newsreels were the only way to see and hear the news. And FDR took advantage of them by making his "Fireside Chats" avaialble to the reels. If there had been a YouTube, he would have been on it.

I rely on NPR almost exclusively for my news. And I agree with Stamberg and Seabrook about the advantages of radio over audio-visual. For one thing, it's something I can do while I'm driving, or lying in bed with my eyes closed. But Obama has the duty to communicate with as many people as he can. That includes the people who don't listen to radio, as well as those who don't happen to be listening at the time of day he gives his weekly talk.

An outrage? Or, as Stamberg says, like having roast beef on Thanksgiving? No to the first. And as for the second, roast beef on Thanksgiving isn't such a bad idea. The Pilgrims of the Plymouth Plantation, whose 1621 harvest festival inspired the American Thanksgiving, ate venison along with turkey and fish. While a steer isn't a deer, it's still a hoofed animal. Close enough. Besides, Stamberg's ideas about Thanksgiving food are, well, a little bit suspect.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

My thanks to the Millennials

I first noticed the brilliance of Barack Obama’s campaign when I was looking up Hanover College on the Internet. I believe it was on the U.S. News college rankings website. When I pulled up the Hanover College page, there was an ad for Barack Obama, telling prospective Indiana students that there was only one day left to register for the primary.

My son, then a senior at Elkhart Memorial High School, voted for Obama in the primary, as did many of his classmates. Obama nearly won that primary. Hillary Clinton’s Pyrrhic victory in Indiana, coupled with her huge loss in North Carolina the same day, sealed the nomination for Obama. While Obama put together a vast coalition, the Millennial Generation--those between 18 and 30--was crucial to his victory.

Thirty-six years ago, another insurgent Democrat was counting on another huge generation to put him into the White House. He was, of course, George McGovern, and the generation was mine. I voted for him in 1972, but so many of my fellow Baby Boomers failed even to register, let alone vote.

The ‘72 campaign also occurred at a time when we were fighting an unpopular war and when the administration in power was trampling on the Bill of Rights. But the McGovern campaign (though not McGovern himself) spent much political capital righting past wrongs against fellow Democrats. Perhaps Richard J. Daley deserved to be thrown out of the Democratic Convention, but that one act cost McGovern Illinois.

McGovern gave his beautiful “Come Home, America” acceptance speech at around three in the morning, thanks to his supporters’ petty squabbles on the convention floor. Of course, he has to take responsibility for failing to control his enthusiastic, but vindictive, adherents. His failure to vet his first vice presidential choice, Thomas Eagleton, cost him dearly, in those days when clinical depression was far less understood. And his campaign was so tightly focused on opposition to the war that when Henry Kissinger announced that peace was at hand, McGovern had lost his main issue. The threat of being drafted to fight in Southeast Asia had been lifted; Richard Nixon coasted to a landslide victory.

Barack Obama was against the Iraq war, but General David Petraeus’s brilliant strategy of co-opting the Sunni militias and drastically reducing the violence in that war did not put an end to the Obama message. He did not depend on the antiwar issue, but talked as much about the economy, the environment, and America's role in the world as a whole, that his candidacy did not implode. His campaign had the benefit of Hillary Clinton’s endorsement. The prediction that her supporters would defect to the Republicans, widely touted, did not come true. (John McCain’s patronizing selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate surely hurt him with former Clinton backers.) In contrast, the 1972 credentials fight between McGovern and Hubert Humphrey was still smoldering in November.

But Obama’s greatest strength, through the whole campaign, was his unrelenting optimism and message of hope. It is was the strength of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John and Robert Kennedy. It connected with so many of us from every generation. And it brought a great new generation to the polls in large numbers. The Millennials did what we Boomers could not do: elect an insurgent Democrat to the White House.