Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Reagan-Bush Legacy: Breaking Precedents

Let it never be said that I don’t credit the Reagan-Bush era for something. Now that it’s approaching its end (except in the Supreme Court, where its legacy will, unfortunately, live on), it’s time to note some amazing accomplishments of the three Republican presidents of that era. All three broke long-established patterns in the history of the American presidency.

Ronald Wilson Reagan broke the Prophet’s Curse, but just barely. The story begins with the Battle of Tippecanoe. Tenskwatawa, brother of Tecumseh, was a religious leader known as the Shawnee Prophet. He definitely didn’t have the military skills of his brother. In 1811, Tecumseh had assembled a coalition of native peoples at a camp on Burnett’s Creek near present-day Lafayette, Indiana. He had convinced people from tribes all over the region that they should stop fighting amongst themselves and unite against the Americans, who were steadily encroaching on their lands.

William Henry Harrison, whose military brilliance matched Tecumseh’s, had his army outside the Indian camp. Harrison knew that Tecumseh would never be so foolish as to mount an attack on the American army with his fairly small force. But Harrison also knew that Tecumseh was away from the camp, known as Prophetstown, and seems to have goaded Tenskwatawa into attacking. It’s unclear who shot first, but it appears that Tenskwatawa’s forces were moving in on the American camp. Harrison was prepared, and defeated the Indian coalition.

Two years later, at the Battle of the Thames, (at present-day Chatham-Kent, Ontario), Tecumseh, allied with British forces in the War of 1812, faced Harrison again. Harrison, with superior numbers, triumphed, and Tecumseh died in the battle.

The story goes that Tenskwatawa cursed Harrison and every president elected in a year ending in zero. Harrison, after giving a two-hour inaugural address in the rain, and without a topcoat, died a month after taking office. It's a pretty unlikely story, especially since Tenskwatawa died in 1834, six years before Harrison's election. But until Ronald Reagan, every president elected in a year ending in zero died in office:

Abraham Lincoln, elected 1860, assassinated 1865
James A. Garfield, elected 1880, assassinated 1881
William McKinley, elected 1900, assassinated 1901
Warren Gamaliel Harding, elected 1920, died of a heart attack 1923
Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected 1940, died of a cerebral hemorrhage 1945
John F. Kennedy, elected 1960, assassinated 1963

The only president to die in office outside the Prophet’s Curse was Zachary Taylor, who was elected in 1848, and died in 1850, after eating a dish of iced milk and cherries at a Fourth of July celebration. The cause of death was never established. Of course, Taylor was an officer in the War of 1812, and had fought Tecumseh’s ally, Black Hawk, at the Battle of Credit Island, (in present-day Davenport, Iowa). But Black Hawk and his British allies defeated Taylor’s forces in an ambush.

Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt on March 30, 1981. Modern medicine triumphed over the Prophet’s Curse. It appears that George W. Bush, elected(?) in 2000, will also live through his presidency. But then, does an election by a 5 to 4 vote in the Supreme Court count as an election?

George Herbert Walker Bush broke the Curse of the Sitting Vice President. Before 1988, the last time a sitting vice president had been elected to the presidency was in 1836, when Martin Van Buren, vice president under Andrew Jackson, was elected in his own right. Of course, there haven’t been many sitting vice presidents who have been nominated to run. John Breckinridge (1860), Richard Nixon (1960), and Hubert Humphrey (1968) are the only ones that I could find between Van Buren and Bush I. But still, it was a first.

That leaves George W. Bush, the only president to win office with less than a plurality of the popular vote and win re-election. The other three presidents who lost the popular vote either lost re-election (John Quincy Adams (elected 1824, defeated by Andrew Jackson, 1828) and Benjamin Harrison (defeated sitting president Grover Cleveland 1884, beaten by Cleveland, 1888) or did not seek a second term (Rutherford B. Hayes, elected 1876). Of course, vote suppression in Ohio probably cost John Kerry the 2004 election.

I don’t have a lot of good things to say about any of the three, but they all broke precedents.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bah! Humbug!

Bah! Humbug! When the early Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Christ sometime in the fourth century, why did they choose December 25? Some say it was simply nine months after the Annunciation, March 25. Others suggest they wanted to co-opt pagan midwinter ceremonies, such as those of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. Of course, they were living in the Mediterranean, where the weather is relatively mild in December. They had no idea that the celebration of Christmas would become the commercial frenzy it is today. And they certainly didn’t expect that people in northern climes would insist on traveling long distances in abominable weather in order to be together at Christmas.

After dealing with trains delayed by broken rails, switch failures, and engine breakdowns, driving past slide-offs on Interstate 74, and finally being diverted off the same highway due to a fatal accident, I concluded that we’re insane to be traveling at this time of year. I’m insane, as I had been planning to drive back to Indiana in below-zero weather to be home with my family. Kathleen talked me out of it. With another winter storm rolling across the Midwest tomorrow, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially since I‘ve got to be back to Galesburg to work on Wednesday. (I’ll be working the evening shift Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.)

I’ve often muttered, “The Puritans were right.” Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas when he became Lord Protector, though Charles II brought it back when the crown was restored. The Puritans of Massachusetts banned the public celebration of Christmas. Puritans saw the trappings of Christmas--the Yule Log and wassailing--as pagan. And of course they were. There’s some indication that wealthy Puritans were more bothered by wassailers demanding food and drink.

What became Christmas--the tree, the presents, Santa Claus, et cetera--was a Victorian invention. In fact, by marrying Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Queen Victoria had a lot to do with it. Albert brought the Christmas Tree, a German tradition, to England, where it migrated to America, and to the rest of the world. Charles Dickens, “the man who invented Christmas,” gave us The Christmas Carol, which is still a major influence on our perception of Christmas. (I admit to enjoying the book, and even more, the movie with Alistair Sim as Scrooge.)

Over here in the States, Clement Clarke Moore, or someone (there‘s a controversy about the authorship), wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” usually known by its first line, “Twas the night before Christmas.” The poem confounded the Dutch traditions of St. Nicholas’ Day with Christmas. There are many legends about Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century Greek bishop who lived in what is now Turkey, but the most famous is of the three bags of gold. A poor man had three daughters, but not money enough to provide dowries for them. Without dowries, the young women would almost certainly have had to become prostitutes just to support themselves. The man was too proud to accept charity, so Nicholas, under the cover of darkness, tossed three bags of gold, one for each daughter, through the man’s window. Thus began the tradition of gift-giving on St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6. In Holland and Germany, children set their shoes outside their door or by the chimney on the night of December 5, and “Saint Nicholas,” (Sinterklaas in Dutch) fills them with candy or small toys. (Kathleen brought this tradition to our household. This year was the first where there were no children at home to put shoes outside their door.) Moore (or whoever wrote the poem) took these Dutch St. Nicholas Day traditions and transferred them to Christmas. Sinterklass became Santa Claus, lost his bishop’s miter, and began saying little but “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

And while I’m down on Christmas right now, especially the way we celebrate it here in the United States, I expect to be enchanted by a beautiful Episcopal mass Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Once the buying spree is over, and we get to the babe in the manger (or in the house, if you use Matthew’s gospel), then Christmas is an entirely different holiday. In fact, the celebration of Christmas goes on, culminating on January 6, with the arrival of the magicians from the East. My Bah! Humbug!, will, I hope, turn to “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Thursday, December 18, 2008

My first disappointment with Barack Obama

It had to happen. Every new president has to move toward a consensus. But I'm troubled by Barack Obama's decision to have Rick Warren give the invocation at his inauguration. Yes, it's purely symbolic. But symbolism is important in a presidency, and Warren symbolizes intolerance. Most recently he was active in supporting California's Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in that state. But personally, his his efforts to bring about a schism in the Episcopal Church--my church--trouble me even more. He's been working to break up my church for at least three years. In November, 2005, he spoke at a Pittsburgh meeting of Episcopal Church dissidents opposed to the consecration of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man in a committed relationship, as Bishop of New Hampshire. An excerpt from a November 11, 2005 New York Times article:

The Episcopalians and Anglicans were joined by well-known American evangelical Christians, most notably the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of "The Purpose-Driven Life." Mr. Warren gave encouragement to conservative church dissidents who are trying to break with the Episcopal Church but who have often been stymied by disputes with their dioceses over ownership of church property.

"What's more important is your faith, not your facilities," he told the crowd at the Convention Center here. "The church is people, not the steeple. They might get the building, but you get the blessing."

Warren, whose megachurch is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, is self-serving at best when he works to break up another church. He is a divider, not a uniter. There are conservatives who oppose the ordination of gays and lesbians, but are committed to the staying in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Edward Stuart Little of the Diocese of Northern Indiana is a good example.

For Obama to un-invite Warren would cause even more problems for the president-elect. If Warren has any decency, he'll politely decline the invitation and allow Obama to choose someone who will bring the country together.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Monday, December 08, 2008

Changing Place Names: Would You Fall in Love in Jesselton? Or Kota Kinabulu?

As I listened to coverage of the terrorist murders in India's financial capital (sadly, one rarely hears news from that part of the world unless it involves the loss of human life), I noticed that the correspondents referred to the city by its official name, Mumbai, while the vast majority of Indians called it Bombay, its former name. My son-in-law, who comes from a city nearby, calls it Bombay, as does Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

The Portuguese, who in 1534 appropriated the islands that would make up the city, called the area Bombaim, which may mean "good bay" or "little bay." When the English took over in 1661, after receiving the island as dowry for Catherine de Braganza, who married Charles II, they Anglicized it to Bombay. Hindi- and Urdu-speakers called it Bambai, while Marathi- and Gujarati-speakers called it Mumbai. In 1996 the government of Maharashtra renamed the city Mumbai, in an effort to remove colonial names. Mumbai is derived from the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi.

Other cities in India have had similar changes: Madras became Chennai in 1996 because Madras was believed to be a Portuguese name (a contraction of Madre de Deus), or more likely from the Madeiros family. Although Chennai predates Madras, quite a few of the residents still refer to the city by its old name.

Malaysia has also changed names--most notably Jesselton, in Malaysian Borneo, which was renamed Kota Kinabalu--literally, the city of [nearby] Mount Kinabalu--in 1968. I suspect the new name has been more accepted there, but Malaysian singer Pete Teo's hit, "Jesselton Tonight," uses the old name. But its line "Would you fall in love in Jesselton ere days of 'burn baby burn' hearkens back to earlier days. "Burn baby burn" refers not to H. Rap Brown's slogan of the 1960s but to the destruction of forests for agriculture.

Other countries have been much more successful in getting new names to stick. I don't expect Zimbabwe to revert to Rhodesia after Robert Mugabe is out of power. Nor will Kinshasa go back to Leopoldville. If a name represents a despotic government, it usually will be replaced. Leningrad is now St. Petersburg, thus replacing the name of one despot with that of an earlier one (though Tsar Peter the Great had the modesty to name it for the saint who shared his name). Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad in 1925, but Nikita Khrushchev renamed it Volgograd in 1961. I suspect that someday Myanmar will again be Burma. In fact, virtually all the opponents of the despotic Myanmar government call the nation Burma.

But the most successful sub-Saharan African country, the Republic of South Africa, has kept Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, etc. , even though they're reminders of the colonial past. Maybe they've decided that changing the name doesn't change the reality.

But if a name change is to be truly successful, it needs to be supported by the people. Had India changed Bombay to Mumbai in 1947, in the days of independence, the people might have embraced it. But to change the name a half century after Indian independence and without any popular referendum made no sense. But then, the expense of changing it back may make even less sense. There's the old joke about the expense of changing Boulder Dam to Hoover Dam--that it would have cost less if Hoover had changed his name to Herbert Boulder. So I suspect that Mumbai will continue to be the official name of India's largest city, while its residents will keep calling it Bombay.