Archive for January, 2011

The Thinker

State of the Union

President Obama gave a pretty good state of the union speech on Tuesday. He ended it with the usual rhetorical flourish that speaks more to our aspirations than to reality. He closed with:

We do big things. The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it’s because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.

I won’t be running for president so there is no chance that I will be giving a state of the union speech. However, if I were to give one it would read in part a lot like this:

Thank you very much. As you know it is my duty as president to annually report on the state of the union. Unfortunately, I have to report that the state of our union is fractious. At no time since the Civil War have we been so divided as a nation. Extremes on both sides of the aisle are pulling us apart as a country. This extreme polarity as well as refusal on both sides to move toward meaningful compromise are undermining our national security, economic growth and put our nationhood at jeopardy.

Barry Goldwater once famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Goldwater was dead wrong. Our liberty is only sustained through finding and expanding our common ground. It happens by moving toward consensus rather than confrontation. At this critical time, true patriotism will be measured in our ability to come to consensus and make painful but necessary choices that one Congress and White House after another has punted.

We cannot undo these past damages, but we can move toward a sustainable and prosperous future for our country. Finger pointing no longer serves any national purpose. None of us here are blameless. We all contributed to our national problems. It includes me, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and new Speaker John Boehner. Many of us followed what we believed was the right and sustainable path. Sometimes an individual policy we advocated may have been right for the nation. However, if it is not congruent with our national needs it is still wrong. What can be said is that, in the aggregate, we were all wrong and have been mostly going in the wrong direction for decades.

For example, taking care of our senior citizens in retirement is a worthy national endeavor, but only if programs for them like Social Security and Medicare are put on a sound footing and are soberly and competently administered. It is scandalous that both Democrats and Republicans allowed Medicare costs to expand without addressing its inefficiencies and creating a plan to keep it solvent. Similarly, it is scandalous that both Democrats and Republicans allowed the last Administration to lead us into a war based on false pretenses. It was scandalous to offer tax cuts without offsetting these tax cuts with reductions in government services. My administration, previous administrations and previous Congresses failed to competently manage and govern our own country. Time and time again we put short-term thinking and ideology ahead of the national interest.

These are facts beyond any reasonable dispute. The evidence is overwhelming and can be found in record numbers of mortgage defaults, our bloated budget deficits, the high unemployment, the growing ranks of our homeless, our obesity epidemic and a fouled environment. By virtually any metric that you can use, our government has failed our job as national stewards. We, its leaders, have failed America.

The state of our union is fractious at best and alarming at worse. Now we must right-size our government so that it meets the needs of our nation. We need a new national strategy and we need sound tactics that align with our national strategy. Our strategy requires clear national goals, and both parties must agree on these national goals.

I offer six goals. Our most immediate challenge is not the budget deficit, as wrenching as it is in scope and size. It is to break the back of unemployment in this country, which has been dangerously high. In breaking the back of unemployment, we must do it in a way that creates good jobs that will restore our fading middle class. We don’t want to restore it by putting talented people to work flipping burgers or sweeping floors. Prosperity drives everything and makes anything possible. We can do this today by continuing to invest in common sense infrastructure projects, all of which will aid our current and future prosperity. To facilitate that our infrastructure investments are made wisely, we need an independent commission that places our money in investments that will create an improved infrastructure in the most productive ways possible.

That is our short-term goal and it should be easy for us all to agree on. However, infrastructure does not just happen. It will take money, and if we cannot agree on something simple like raising taxes on the rich to levels that were in effect in the Clinton administration, then we must keep borrowing the money. Projects that promote short-term employment and are most needed to improve our infrastructure should get the highest priority.

Our long-term goals should also not be controversial. I propose five long-term goals, in priority:

  1. Ending the extreme partisanship in this country
  2. Fix the federal government’s deficit spending
  3. Living in a sustainable way
  4. Making the United States the 21st century leader for new technologies and services
  5. Ensuring that all Americans receive quality health care

First, partisanship. Partisanship is not necessarily bad. However, our partisanship has reached extreme and dangerous levels. This did not happen by accident. It happened because we permit gerrymandering of our legislative districts where partisan interests are unduly represented and the interests of moderates were squeezed out. To solve this problem, Congress must pass and the states must ratify a constitutional amendment requiring all states to draw federal congressional districts in a politically impartial manner to be overseen by our federal judiciary.

Our government’s deficit spending has reached dangerous levels. We do not want America’s future to be like Greece’s present. To achieve fiscal solvency, a number of unpopular things must be done. Entitlements like Medicare must either have self-funding mechanisms in place or be limited to a percent of GDP or the federal budget by law. Both must be governed by independent and impartial commissions empowered to make changes to the system to ensure their viability. Medicare spending, for example, could be limited to twenty percent of federal expenditures or require premium increases annually to ensure that it remains solvent. Do these things and most of our other federal financial problems will take care of themselves.

America’s failure to live in a sustainable way increases the likelihood of war and suffering at levels so extreme they are hard to imagine, but are frighteningly real. Climate change and population growth are already causing wars, unrest and mass migration. It contributed to unrest in Tunisia. We must find a way to cap our population growth and live sustainably with nature. Our failure to get our environmental act together inside our country and with the rest of the world ultimately dooms not just our country but also our species. It will change life irretrievably here in our sacred home, the Earth. However, if we succeed we will do so by developing many of the products the world needs so that it too can live sustainably. Being green is not just good for the planet, it is good for our prosperity and it helps mitigate future wars and immense suffering.

To prosper, we must out innovate the rest of the world. Our prosperity rests in nurturing our human capital. Not only do we want to create business environments to allow companies like Google and Apple to flourish, we want to make sure that our children receive a first class education so when it is their time they can out innovate the rest of the world in the future. This cannot happen when we won’t pay teachers salaries that correspond to their importance to our nation, or when school districts in states like Oregon cannot afford to put their children in public schools five days a week.

Lastly, but certainly not least, we must make health care available and affordable to all, not just to those who can afford it. America cannot flourish unless we are healthy. There are plenty of examples in other countries of national health care systems that work. Some align very well with the American way. Japan’s health care system, for example, offers enormous competition at very reasonable prices. Let’s let an independent commission tell us which of these many plans will work best here in the United States, then let’s move aggressively forward to make it happen in our nation.

I am offering six steps toward a prosperous and sustainable future for our country. I need each of you to work in the common national interest. If you do so, you and this Congress will be forever revered in our national history.

Thank you and good night.

 
The Thinker

Wal-Mart: not as evil lately

Back in 2003, I opined that Wal-Mart is evil. I haven’t shopped at a Wal-Mart since the early 2000s. I don’t see that changing anytime soon either. Granted, it is hardly the only retail establishment that treats its employees like dirt. Sadly most retailers will not pay their employees a living wage, and that often includes the managers. So Wal-Mart is not unique, but it is a particularly egregious offender as well as omnipresent. So it deserves to be singled out for my scorn.

I keep hoping that Wal-Mart executives will make some catastrophic mistakes and be driven out of business. This seems unlikely to happen, even if their growth in the United States has leveled off. This may be due in part to the recession, but is just as likely because they have saturated the market. Wal-Mart’s newest territories to conquer include the inner cities, such as here in Washington D.C. Their big box stores will have to be downsized to fit into these denser communities. Wal-Mart is rarely welcomed. Many cities are doing their best to dissuade Wal-Mart from coming.

Wal-Mart employees are still getting screwed, which is infuriating but no longer news. However, Wal-Mart’s prices have not been quite as low recently. Part of it reflects increased costs. Their supply chains have been squeezed about as tight as they can be squeezed. Since food is a larger part of their business, rising food prices has also squeezed them. Their not quite-as-low-prices may also reflect a reality that they have squeezed out most of the competition, which gives them the freedom to raise prices and consequently raise profits. However, their profits are reasonably flat or falling, at least here in the United States.

Wal-Mart rarely has altruistic motives, which is why their recent announcement made in conjunction with First Lady Michele Obama made headlines and captured my attention. Wal-Mart is beginning a multiyear campaign to improve the healthfulness of its food. Obama, who has made improving childhood nutrition her special project, was effusive with praise for the retailer for this new direction.

Wal-Mart’s motives are at best only tangentially altruistic. Its executives may be evil, but they have discerned that this health food trend is one they can ride toward increased profitability. In one of these strange quirks of fate, by selling healthier food not only will they increase their profits but they also may well move the entire moribund food market away from unhealthy processed foods toward foods that, while probably not healthy, are at least healthier. This might actually be palatable to Republicans as well, who would certainly object if the government required it.

This matters because Wal-Mart has become the nation’s de facto supermarket, in addition to being the nation’s largest retailer. When a retailer has as much influence on the market as Wal-Mart has, our food companies are forced to tow the line. This should mean that processed foods that Wal-Mart will sell, including presumably most of its store brands, will have fewer calories, less fat, less sugar and will be made from fewer and more natural ingredients. Perhaps there will also be fewer additives in the food as well. Most likely, once our tongues get over the shock, we will realize these healthier products also taste a lot better.

The food that Wal-Mart sells may begin to resemble, well, food. My late mother, if she were to shop at a Wal-Mart today, would probably question whether much of the food on its shelves even qualified as food. Food should be healthy to eat. Much of the crap that we consume these days simply is not. The good parts like fiber and vitamins are the first things bleached out, and are replaced with sugars, salts, fats and combinations of artificial chemicals. They are designed to make us consume more of them but are nutritionally empty, if not actually harmful to us.

In many parts of the country, you buy food at Wal-Mart because there are really no other alternatives. This includes inner cities, where if you can find vegetables they are probably only at liquor stores. These food deserts result in limited or no places to buy healthy food, which results in people living off fast food. In many communities, the Wal-Mart is your only grocer, or other food stores are prohibitively expensive. So as Wal-Mart introduces these areas to healthier food, it is good for everyone, including Wal-Mart’s bottom line. Even their employees, who often have to buy food where they shop, will benefit. If your diet consists of a preponderance of unhealthy foods like Pop Tarts, anything you eat that is healthier will leave you feeling better and (doubtless this has not escaped Wal-Mart’s attention) more alert, and hence more productive.

I don’t seem to have the power to kill Wal-Mart. It seems to be here to stay, whether I like it or not. I still do not plan to shop there, but given the oceans of obese people who frequent Wal-Marts (documented on the People of Wal-Mart site), they may begin to feel healthier. Perhaps they will even lose some weight and live longer and healthier lives. This would be good. Perhaps this is the start of Americans discovering real food again, and the beginning of the end of our unhealthy obsession with processed Frankenfood.

 
The Thinker

America begins its death throes

My federal salary has been frozen for two years by law because previous administrations and congresses failed in their duty as national stewards. I am not happy about it, but a frozen salary beats unemployment. Republicans are anxious to do a whole lot more than just freeze federal salaries. They want to cut government, not intelligently like a surgeon with a scalpel, but like a medieval soldier with a battle-axe. Apparently, just freezing salaries is for weenies. Cutting federal salaries shows manhood. Republicans have all sorts of ways they want to show their manhood. Most of them actually suggest insanity. Many are actually hoping to put the federal government into default. They will do this by not extending the federal debt ceiling in the spring. Why? Because they say they were elected not to increase the deficit, but mostly because they can and because inflicting pain on people is fun.

Tea Party Republicans want to cut $100 billion from non-defense discretionary this year, for a fiscal year that ends September 30. Apparently they think a trail of unprocessed social security checks and furloughed air traffic controllers are going to improve us. In fact, a Republican plan calls for a fifteen percent reduction in the civil service and a five-year freeze on federal salaries. One Republican congressman wants to furlough federal employees for two weeks a year. Naturally there is nothing like a plan for doing these things intelligently. They goal is to maim with the hope of killing altogether. It’s like setting fire to your crazy neighbor’s house. It’s quite a belly laugh and it feels so good. Only defense spending is sacrosanct.

Governments everywhere are having problems matching revenues with needs and obligations. The State of Illinois is raising taxes dramatically to do minor things like pave its roads and house its prisoners, after papering over its deficits with accounting tricks for many years. Virtually every state with the possible exception of North and South Dakota are not just tightening belts, but also often dramatically cutting services. States are thinking of doing things that were previously unthinkable, such as releasing minor offenders from state prisons to save money. Some Oregon school districts can’t even afford put their children in school five days a week. The children have to hope that four days of education will allow them to adequately compete in adult life. More likely, they will be competing for positions of stock clerks and cashiers at Wal-Mart. Cities are not exempt either. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which hosts the state’s capital, is bankrupt and the financially stressed state government will not bail them out. Meanwhile, to make the new health care reform law work, the federal government is requiring states to add more poor people to its Medicaid roles, which requires more revenue. The states are resisting.

States cannot go bankrupt because they have the power to tax. Those state employee pension plans may be expensive, but to make them solvent states could simply raise taxes. This doesn’t sit well with taxpayers, of course, which is why state bankruptcy holds appeal for some. Everyone sort of assumed that the economy would expand forever, with a few hiccups here and there. When the money got tighter, legislatures did what they often did: they rolled the die and hoped for the best.

Where some see crisis, others see opportunity. “Others” would include former disgraced House speaker Newt Gingrich, who wants the federal government to allow states to declare bankruptcy. He figures it will work the same magic on those evil state and local employee unions that it worked on the auto unions. By freeing states from their pension obligations, states can rapidly get back into solvency. Of course there is the minor matter of state employees, who joined the public sector for inadequate wages on the promise that compensation would come in the form of a decent pension. If Gingrich has his way, they will be eating dog food in their retirement, assuming they can even afford that.

Federal employees like me are not necessarily immune either. A law can make anything retroactive. If a law can freeze my pay for two years, it can reduce my pay by ten percent or find other ways to cut my retirement income. I am eligible to retire in May 2012. Looking at Greece as a worst-case model, I figure a twenty five percent cut in my pension in the name of fiscal solvency is possible, if not probable. It might be more. Some future Congress, citing a grave financial crisis that previous congresses inflicted, may just defund our pensions altogether. (Somehow, I’m betting tax cuts for millionaires would keep going.)

Changing this depends on whether we can keep growing as a nation. If we can then tax revenues eventually start gushing in. Curiously, despite all the rhetoric coming out of Washington, politicians don’t seem to care that much about creating growth, at least the kind that puts money into the pockets of ordinary working people. The House of Representatives, sent to create jobs, is focused on the impossible task of repealing “Obamacare” instead. They are also giving priority to tightening abortion laws, by trying to outlaw abortion coverage in private sector health insurance plans. (So much for getting the government out of our business.) Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, rumored to be angling to run for president in 2012 has prioritized protecting blastocysts in a petri dish above the life of an actual two-year-old girl.

Collectively, our nation is dealing with the repercussions of thirty years of prioritizing ideology and short-term thinking over the nation’s long-term needs. Our new Congress could, for example, be working on ways to make Medicare solvent. That might indicate that they are actually earning their salaries. Instead, at least in the House of Representatives, they are more concerned about investigating all aspects of the “corruption” in the Obama Administration. These actions point to putting axes to grind ahead of the needs of the nation. No end is in sight.

What we need is not a Congress of short-term ideologues, but a Congress willing to address the long term needs of the nation. You know, people charged with being stewards of our nation, looking beyond reelection in two years to making sure the nation is secure, solvent and prosperous twenty and fifty years from now. In short, we need politicians who care as much about our nation fifty years from now when they are dead than two years from now.

I can’t see how to possibly sell this to a political set of ideologues and voters only concerned about the short-term. Other nations, like China, do not have these problems. They instead have long-term strategies and systematically execute them. That we can no longer do this points to the real reason for our national decline. Unless we can collectively envision and work toward the same common future, our national decline is guaranteed. American exceptionalism? Hardly. Instead, America has evolved into a nation that promotes systemic national dysfunction.

And unless you care a whole awful lot about our future and demand these kinds of politicians, your future, your children’s future and our nation’s future will only get bleaker. As for my pension: I had best not count on it, or Medicare, and maybe not even Social Security.  The sad truth appears to be that our nation’s glory days are over and we are in for a long and painful decline. In fact, it is already well underway.

 
The Thinker

There goes the ‘hood

Wasting a couple of hours on Google Earth is usually a lot of fun. I check out the street views on places I am going, so I know what to expect. I go back and look at places where I have been. I toggle layers on and off to see where the precipitation or cloud cover is occurring. And I check my placemarks: memorable places I have been over the years. Occasionally Google will update the imagery and I will see something new.

What fun it is to zoom in on my old college dorm and trace that familiar path to the student union, or look at the pool at the off campus apartment where I ogled women in shapely bikinis. I can zoom in on our old family house in Ormond Beach, Florida where I finished my teenage years. It’s all virtually there in Google Earth, including the house in Scotia, New York where I spent my infancy. Many of my old haunts come with very welcome street views.

Over the weekend, I used Google Earth to revisit my old apartment complex across the Potomac River in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I can drive there in about an hour, but in the quarter century since I moved out I have actually revisited the place only a couple of times. The nice thing about Old Town Gaithersburg is that it hardly ever changes. There is the train depot and Winkler Automotive across the street. There is the Diamond Drug on the corner of East Diamond Avenue and Summit Avenue. The only thing missing is the Ty Gwyn Apartment Complex, on 330-334 East Diamond Avenue, where I spent five years. It’s gone. Demolished. Bulldozed over sometime last year. My heart sank. My home was gone!

I lived at 332 East Diamond Avenue, Apartment 13 for five years, from 1979 to 1984. It was my first real home out of college. It was my bachelor pad, of sorts. I say “of sorts” because while I was a bachelor, I was not one of the moneyed kinds. I was more like the nearly impoverished kind. From 1979 to 1981, I worked at a Montgomery Ward in Gaithersburg selling lawn and garden equipment. Wards of course went out of business, finally succumbing to total liquidation in 2000. (It still has an online catalog store, when the brand was purchased.) So while in the Ty Gwyn Apartments, I had always had a roommate, principally Randy, a guy about my age with long curly blond locks, who did carpentry and ran marathons in his spare time. This kept my share of the rent to around two hundred bucks a month. I didn’t need a vacuum. Rose, the chain-smoking landlady with the flaming red hair was glad to loan me hers when the need arose. I might have stayed in the Ty Gwyn Apartments forever except I met my wife while living there, and we eventually decided to cohabitate across the river in Reston, Virginia. I left but sort of assumed the old ’hood would always be there largely unchanged, much like the Triple Cities where I spent my formative years.

Ty Gwyn Apartments in Gaithersburg, Maryland

Ty Gwyn Apartments in Gaithersburg, Maryland

Spending five years anywhere, particularly as a young adult, is a long time. Gaithersburg became my adopted home. My garden apartment was in fact nothing terribly special, but it was reasonably clean and functional. The balcony overlooked a much less attractive set of brick apartments next door. During the day you could hear the squeals of school children from the elementary school that boarded the property. When there were not squeals, there were the much louder whistles of locomotives hustling through town. You got inured to it after a while, but the noise was always deafening, even living across the street in an apartment with the doors and windows shut. Windows shook and floorboards rattled.

Old Town Gaithersburg was convenient. A Ride On bus stop was right on the street. There were times I needed it as I started out without a usable car, but I could easily walk or bike most places. A MARC commuter train could take me easily into D.C. There was a small grocery down the street, and Lake Forest Mall was about a mile away. Being of modest means, I often commuted by bike. If I wasn’t working, I looked forward to a fresh and hot pizza from Angelo’s on Friday night. It was always delicious. If I needed milk, it was a short walk to the High’s where I often bought a box of Entenmann’s as well. I was poor and mostly loveless, but those days in Gaithersburg were pretty good in retrospect. At least life was uncomplicated. Some part of me wants to return to Gaithersburg and live there again, in spite of the prostitute who I learned later catered to a discreet clientele in a room above the drugstore.

But, I won’t be able to go back to the Ty Gwyn Apartments. It is history and now exists only in my mind and in some ephemeral Google Earth street views. It and the apartments next door have been demolished to make room for a new, more yuppified Old Town Gaithersburg. The city no longer wants a real old town; it wants the image of an old town. You know what that means: new and upscale apartments and condos, with wide sidewalks full of eateries, and parking decks. The new buildings have HUD approval, but I’m betting not one of these new fancy apartment buildings would actually be affordable to someone who made as little as I did when I was living there in my early twenties. Frankly, it’s too nice for the looks of people like me back then.

For I was one of the working class, East Diamond Avenue was our neighborhood, and the living was unsophisticated but enough. It was a neighborhood without pretensions, where you got by, where you did not offend your neighbors, and where geniality reigned. This included a retired couple on a government pension one floor below me who (set your watch to it) made love every Wednesday night at nine o’clock. I never heard the husband but the oversized moans from the wife always culminated in loud ecstasy. They then remained quiet until the following Wednesday night.

Until recently, I could visit the old ’hood. Now it’s gone. It’s going to be newer and shinier while somehow also looking sort of quaint and oldish. There will be virtually no working class people living there but there will be more people there: the upwardly mobile and more-moneyed kind, who won’t park in the lot but in the parking deck, who won’t buy a gallon of milk at High’s (it’s gone) but will buy an overpriced Iced Coffee with Milk at the Starbucks on the street level. The neighborhood’s independently owned Angelo’s Pizza is long gone but there is a Vocelli’s franchise down the street. The new Old Town Gaithersburg thus will look a lot like new Old Towns everywhere, with its character largely squeezed out and young urban professionals squeezed into new loft apartments instead. However, their higher income levels will fill the city’s coffers with doubtless desperately needed funds.

For me, I just sort of grieve. It’s gone. All that remains is some rubble and a fading Google Earth street view. Perhaps the Diamond Drug will still be there and independently owned, but I am betting CVS will soon buy it out.

 
The Thinker

Review: Sunset Boulevard at Signature Theatre

I always approach an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical with caution. As the musical force behind massively successful Broadway musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Phantom of the Opera and Cats, Webber knows how to write successful show tunes. In fact, they are so successful that try as you might you cannot get them out of your head. Being able to have a tune cement itself in your mind is not the same thing as saying the tune is good.

I consider most of his musicals overrated. Cats in particular drives me insane; one performance was enough for a lifetime. However, Cats is almost inspiring next to Phantom of the Opera, the enormously popular but empty headed musical wherein largely the same tune is repeated almost constantly, and glitz, a coloratura, and a falling chandelier substitute for content.

I was encouraged to see Sunset Boulevard on the recommendation of a friend, who said it was probably his best musical. Sunset Boulevard, the story of the fictitious and fading silent screen actress Norma Desmond, first appeared on London’s West End in 1993 and made it to Broadway in 1994, where it ran nearly a thousand times. While popular, it lost some twenty million dollars. It apparently was good enough to win Webber two Tony awards, one for best musical in 1995 and another one for best original score. Having seen two musicals at Signature Theatre in Arlington, where aficionados of musicals can enjoy them in a smaller venue (but with no loss of quality), I knew that if I wanted to see the musical done right, this was the theater.

I was not disappointed by the acting or staging. Signature Theatre has largely cemented its reputation as a top tier theater in the Washington area, where it has plenty of competition from theaters like Arena Stage. It can compete with the best theaters on or off Broadway. Washington’s theater scene has in general only gotten better in the thirty years I have lived here. There is little need for me to take expensive trips to Broadway to see shows anymore.

As The Washington Post noted, Signature’s staging comes with a surprise: a full twenty-piece orchestra. Most orchestras lurk below the stage in the pit. At Signature, they are above the stage. From time to time the curtain will reveal their presence. A twenty-piece orchestra must have cost Signature a bundle, but it so improves the experience because you get such a full and rich sound. During Chess, the orchestra was somewhat muffled behind Plexiglas. Now moved fully behind and above the stage you hear the music probably better than you would if they were in an orchestra pit.

The problems with the staging and acting are minimal. Florence Lacey plays the lead role of Norma Desmond. Lacey is an accomplished actress with a large and long repertoire. She has starred in other Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, including the lead role in Evita on Broadway and Fantine in Les Miserables. She cannot help but dominate the show as her character dominated the silent screen three decade earlier. Desmond’s domain may be limited to her mansion on Sunset Boulevard and her servant Max, but within her small domain she controls all. Lacey brings a lovely maturity to the challenging role. With more than three decades in the theater, Lacey should be considered a natural for the part.

Joe Gillis’s role is perhaps more challenging. As a struggling Hollywood writer who gets caught up in Desmond’s web he has to come across as believable. D.B. Bonds is perhaps not the perfect fit for Joe Gillis; he does not come across as quite vulnerable enough for the part. If there is a surprise in the casting, it is Ed Dixon as Desmond’s always-hovering butler Max. Dixon fleshes out a surprisingly complex character and his bass voice will shake the walls of Signature Theatre. Some of the more minor roles are also notable, including Susan Derry as Gillis’s love interest Betty and Harry Winter as a wizened but gentle Cecil B. DeMille.

If you are not familiar with the music, it is a mixture of Webber at his best and worst. You get piffle tunes like Let’s Have Lunch and glorious tunes like With One Look. But mainly you get the Sunset Boulevard theme restated almost endlessly, which means that it will be ringing through your brain for several weeks. So in a sense I feel cheated. In other musicals, say Lucy Simon’s music in The Secret Garden, every tune is excellent and equal. In an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, he lets repetition substitute for innovation.

However, I do not rue the price of having Sunset Boulevard cemented in my brain for a few weeks. In return I got a rich and live orchestral sound, fine staging and the overall excellent acting and singing. If you want to see this staging, you have until February 13th.

 
The Thinker

Me and my Kindle

Since getting my first eBook reader for Christmas (a complete surprise; I don’t recall asking for it) I have been using it and pondering what it means. My wife selected an Amazon Kindle, largely because it was top rated by Consumer Reports. She loaded it with three books (all histories; she knows what I like) and I am making my way through the first one: a recently published history of Genghis Khan.

Small screens are just one of the many reasons I haven’t bought a smartphone. I just crave more real estate. I have yet to see a computer monitor large enough for my needs, yet I am supposed to run much of my electronic life on a screen a few inches wide, at best? My wife bought me the basic Kindle, which comes with a six-inch screen, typically oriented in a portrait mode. That makes it a wider and bigger screen than a smartphone.

It sort of fits in one hand, but does so uncomfortably. It might fit more comfortably if it had small and strategically placed rubber grips. Grips on the corners or the edges, particularly above or below the page forward and back buttons would help considerably when I try to read in bed. It might also be more usable if it were a bit narrower. The screen size would not necessarily have to shrink; the engineers would just need to get rid of some of the plastic that borders the screen.

I am quickly learning that an eBook reader is not a miniature computer or a netbook. It is network aware, like almost all electronic devices these days. It may be too network aware. Unless you turn off its wireless, it is glad to get on your wireless network and give Amazon insights into what you are reading and how you are using the Kindle. Yes, I am sure Amazon is saying that they are not using this feature inappropriately. Even so I keep its wireless feature shut off, as I probably won’t need to refresh my book list until late this year.

The other big drawback to a Kindle is that unless you want to upload books in a PDF format, you need to get books in a Kindle format, which it will locate only on the Amazon network. PDF is portable, but not necessarily more usable than the Kindle format, which flawlessly reformats a page when you expand or shrink the font size. This means, of course, that they effectively become your sole eBook supplier and your electronic book price is whatever they want to charge you. Oh, and charging you is easy since you give them your credit card information. It doesn’t really have a browser built into it, but you can query Amazon’s enormous book database for other books, download them in within seconds. A Kindle is arguably friendlier to the environment. There is no need to drive anywhere to buy a book. We need to save forests, not turn their pulp into books that we pick up at our local bookseller.

Aside from these rather minor complaints, there is actually much to love about my Kindle. One thing you notice right away is the electronic paper display. The screen is black on white, but it is not lit from behind. Moreover, text is not pixilated. It actually looks printed, as opposed to imitating print. This makes it much easier to read. You should not have the problem you encounter with monitors wherein you end up rubbing your eyes from staring at its bright surface most of the day. It is black and white done right. You may find yourself preferring black and white to all those fancy colors. I imagine colored electronic paper displays will be coming soon. I suspect eventually most of us will want colored electronic paper devices once they are affordable and we have a choice. Our optometrists will probably recommend them.

My Kindle blessedly aims for simplicity and does not try to do more than it should. It is not a web browser. It cannot be used as a smartphone. It does have a headphone jack, although I have yet to find any sound content that uses it. It probably exists so you can download music from Amazon as well. There is also a microphone reserved for future use. So it sounds like the Kindle will not stay simple forever, and may be part of some master strategy to compete in the Smartphone and PDA market.

You can get magazine and newspaper subscriptions on your Kindle. Even I am wondering why I am still subscribing to paper versions of newspapers. One reasons is that there is so much more content on a page in a newspaper compared with a computer screen. My Kindle though suggests that even with a six-inch screen there may be a way to render a usable newspaper in it. At some point I may try a trial electronic newspaper subscription to see if it works well enough. The Kindle should also work well to facilitate reading while exercising. If like me you spend too many hours at the gym on aerobic equipment, you may find that reading your Kindle is a much more superior experience compared with listening to your MP3 player.

My Kindle has a keyboard, but it is not designed for more than casual use. I cannot see writing a blog entry on it. I suspect in time I will be able to use a wireless keyboard with it.

It may be that I am more of an iPad than a Kindle person. With the iPad’s larger screen size, reading electronic newspapers and magazines becomes a much more usable proposition. Apparently there is an iPad app that will let you read books in a Kindle format. Still, the drawback of the iPad is its larger size. A Kindle is much more tote-able. It weighs almost nothing and if you turn off the wireless it hardly ever needs recharging. It slips fine into purses and tote bags.

A few other nits: I miss title pages, page numbers and tables of contents. They are probably there somewhere but hard to find. And while it’s neat to get a picture of a prominent author every time you turn off the device, it would make more sense to show the cover of the current book you are reading instead.

Time will tell if the paper-based bookstore becomes obsolete. I would not discount the possibility, although like the loss of Tower Records I would mourn the opportunity to simply go to a bookstore and browse. Going to a bookstore is very much a social experience these days. There is inevitably a coffee shop attached. It is nice to be around fellow booklovers. The last thing Americans needs is more reasons to spend time alone. Devices like the Kindle appear to be moving us toward that future.

 
The Thinker

Chiropractors are a bit of a stretch

I am not feeling too happy with physicians these days. Most specialists cannot see outside their own specialties. As for our general practitioners, they excel at treating the ordinary but often find themselves baffled by the mysterious, wherein they reach for their referral forms. This leaves us patients with more complicated medical problems often feeling desperate and depending on web sites for dubious guidance.

In 2004, I developed numbness and pain in my foot, which eventually spread to both feet. It was later followed by persistent tingling and burning on the back of my thighs when sitting. Since it started in my foot, I saw a podiatrist who stuck a needle full of steroids into my foot. When that did not work, he sent me to a neurologist and a vein specialist. The neurologist verified neuropathies. The vein specialist noticed my varicose veins and talked me into having the surface veins on my right leg removed. It was supposed to relieve the pressure on the nerves of the foot. Eventually I had tarsal tunnel surgery to treat a condition that apparently I never had. Thousands of dollars in co-pays alone were wasted. It looks like the real problems were upstream, but no one bothered to raise this is a possibility. I sure didn’t have a clue.

My primary care physician was baffled when I last saw him but when I told him I thought I had sciatica he gave me a list of referrals to more specialists. I haven’t reached the bottom of his list yet, which includes pain management specialists. I did see the orthopedist, who verified something I already knew from a previous MRI: my spine was fine. When I said I thought I had sciatica, he sent me to a chiropractor. There you can find me two to three mornings at week, generally at 7:30 AM getting traction on one of their VAX-D machines in my latest attempt to live something resembling a pain free life.

No pain, no gain. Traction is not necessarily painful, but it can be. However, it is uncomfortable. It has quickly risen on the list of things I would really prefer not to do. I would not be doing it at all if I did not feel desperate. Traction involves mounting a tight harness around my waist, lying down on the traction machine and letting the machine methodically pull me at sixty to eighty pounds, for ten cycles, while I hold on with my hands. I need to create space between my bones so things down there can move around. For a while, it made my breastbone hurt. It definitely makes my shoulder muscles hurt.

I have no idea whether this will work or not, but the chiropractor’s approach at least sounds logical. They took X-rays of my waist standing up and bending. When I bend, a space near my hipbone where the nerve to my right leg traverses is noticeably smaller than the one on the left side. The premise is that this is where my nerve impingement is occurring and is the root of my problem. Traction, ultrasound, low level electrical shocks to my lower back and right leg should allow my nerve to transmit data freely, making it go away in a couple of months. It’s like taking your foot off a hose. Or so they say.

It’s just a matter of getting a proper skeletal alignment, my chiropractors Dr. F. and Dr. R. assure me. They show me on my X-rays how one hipbone is slightly below the other. Get it and my spine in alignment so everything is aligned naturally again and I should get real relief. Alas, it’s not a simple thing to get your spine realigned. It means you have to become good friends with your chiropractors, a VAX-D machine, the youthful woman behind their counter and the women in the therapy rooms because you will be seeing all of them regularly. In fact, they may get more intimate with you than your spouse, as their soft hands slip ultrasound pads under your briefs and onto your buttocks. This part of the therapy happens after the traction when I am still trying to walk normally. I am still frequently moaning and feeling like a bat in sunshine because my head had been pushed inside the darkness of a U shaped pillow for twenty minutes. Otherwise, their hands might feel sensual. The electrical sparkly set of pads definitely gives you a tingly feeling; it needs to be “strong but comfortable” they tell me. I think I have some inkling of what it feels to be electrocuted. It would not be my preferred method of execution.

After all this therapy, you finally get to see the chiropractor. Typically, the most intimate I get with my doctor is when he puts his finger where the sun doesn’t shine during a physical. If you feel you are not getting intimate enough with your doctor, you definitely need to see your chiropractor. If they are not repeatedly violating your physical space, they are doing something wrong. Sometimes I figure I should be wrestling with them. Invariably you end up in some unnatural position with their breath close to your face, they push you sharply and some bone on your spine or hips cracks or shifts.

When I think of people with back problems, I think of obese people. Oddly, I have noticed few obese people at this chiropractic center. It’s full of very healthy looking people. Perhaps like me they ended up here in part by doing things “right”. I have been getting regular exercise for more than thirty years. I have run thousands of miles altogether, and pushed or pulled on innumerable weight machines. All of this was to stay healthy, but all that exercise turned out to have some unwelcome side effects on my body by perturbing my natural shape. It seems if you believe in exercise, you need to keep your chiropractor on your speed dial.

Yet I like my chiropractors perhaps because they are so un-physician like. So maybe this means I am starting to groove with the whole holistic medicine thing. Go see a physician and they will order tests and write prescriptions. It seems they cannot wait to get rid of you. Both my chiropractors are personable and don’t seem to be inordinately worried if you keep them a few extra minutes. They care about my problems and since you see them regularly they know you by name. Dr. R. can relate to my sciatica. He gave me his experience. “The pain was so bad I was screaming. I was living on Percocet.” Solution: months of traction and chiropractic care and it went away. “I am very hopeful for you”, he says as he had a 99.7% success rate when he worked for the military’s version of socialized medicine: Tri-care. He gave me his business card and wrote his cell phone number on it. “Call me anytime with any questions,” he says. I am not used to positive attention from doctors. Is he trying to help me, or pick me up, or both?

This is my first venture into holistic medicine. “Chiropractic first, drugs second, surgery last,” their sign says. I need to temporarily turn my spine into something more like jelly than a spine, and let things resettle into a more natural shape. To facilitate this, I must also take calcium supplements. Most importantly, I have to keep coming back, get more traction, have more sparkly things done on my spine, make more small talk with the Swedish therapist and give them a twenty-dollar co-pay. Then I stagger off to work where I periodically place ice bags under my thighs and in the small of my back to dull the chronic pain.

I obviously am not sure this chiropractor thing is going to work out, but I am hopeful. However many visits it takes, it will likely be a fraction of the cost of my two surgeries or the other specialists I saw who largely wasted my money and are causing our health insurance premiums to go through the roof. Time will tell, but I just wish I had been smart enough to start with the chiropractor. I might have removed years of pointless misery from my life.

 
The Thinker

Review: True Grit

The Coen Brothers rarely disappoint. They have brought us movies both quirky and memorable, including the hilarious Raising Arizona (1987) and the weird and grisly Fargo (1996). They even won the biggest prize of all: Best Picture for their 2007 movie No Country for Old Men. The remake of True Grit shares much in common with their other movies, but in some ways it feels more conventional. It takes place largely in Arkansas in its frontier days, so it works as a western although you won’t see any cacti. It has good guys, bad guys, guys in between and, most notably it’s got Hailee Steinfeld as fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross.

True Grit is Steinfeld’s first real movie and boy is she terrific. The Coen Brothers have many great strengths, and among them is an eye for casting just the right person. Steinfeld is a perfect casting as are arguably all the actors in this movie. In a movie full of superstars like Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon as Marshal LaBoeuf and Josh Brolin as the outlaw Tom Chaney, it is newcomer Steinfeld who amazingly steals the show. It doesn’t hurt though for this relatively young newcomer to be surrounded by terrific talent. The result is a movie that runneths over with fine and memorable acting.

You might not recognize Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf as he has been rendered so ordinary looking. Jeff Bridges must have had some trepidation filling the role of Rooster Cogburn. After all, in 1970 John Wayne took home a Best Actor award for his role as Rooster Cogburn. Bridges is as memorable as Wayne, if not more so, in this version. However, I doubt he is eligible for best actor simply because in this version he is a supporting actor. This is not a movie not with Rooster Cogburn at its heart, but Mattie Ross.

Steinfeld renders a fascinating Mattie Ross who prefers to mind her own business, but is forced by circumstance to be assertive. She may be a relative pipsqueak but she has a tongue and a manner that can intimidate men three times her size. With her father murdered by their ranch hand Tom Chaney, the law in no hurry to bring him to justice, and her mother with a ranch to take care of, Mattie decides she is the one who must bring Chaney to justice, so she heads into town with the intent of hiring someone who will do the job. It’s not a task she wants to wholly delegate. She has to come along, to make sure her investment is doing his job, and if necessary to kill Cheney personally. Once focused on her unpleasant task, she resembles a pit bull with its eye on a juicy steak. She seeks out Rooster Cogburn to help find Cheney in the vast Arkansas Indian Territory where he is hiding because she has heard that he has “true grit”. Both he and ranger LaBoeuf are not intimidated by Indian territory, chasing dangerous lawbreakers, gunfights or nights alone in the wilderness. It turns out that Mattie has more true grit than both of them; she just lacks their practical experience, age and larger body mass.

The Old West was rife with ruffians, but this Old West gets particularly dangerous when Rooster Cogburn is around. He may be a U.S. marshal, but it’s clear how he has survived so long: by shooting first and asking questions later. He and Mattie are not on the trail long before their body count skyrockets. There is plenty of true grit, both from the pursued and the pursuers as they search for Chaney in Arkansas Indian Territory. It’s primitive territory where you can find dead people hanging from trees in the middle of nowhere and where carcasses have salvage value. The old West has rarely been rendered in such an austere fashion, which is neat because it makes the movie feel entirely authentic. Many westerns are rendered on Hollywood back lots. This version feels eerily accurate although the Ozark Mountains look awfully tall. My guess is that it was filmed in someplace like British Columbia. The Coen Brothers render what the Old West probably really was: largely lawless, impoverished, primitive, harsh and unforgiving. A gun was not just a good idea; it was an absolute necessity and it was used regularly.

What we get is one of the Coen Brothers best films, better, I think than the over-touted No Country for Old Men. In this movie all the elements of acting, story, staging, directing and producing beautifully come together. We get a reimagined and compelling story delivered in a way that feels far grittier than the 1969 film. It’s not often that a remake of a movie exceeds the original. I think we can safely say the Coen Brothers succeeded, in part because they rendered a story closer to the book. If I had a gun I would shoot it in the air in celebration for such a well-done production.

3.4 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

House Republicans have insanity as their first principle

Republicans officially took control of the House of Representatives today and are intent on getting down to “business”. First up, and probably the only thing really on their agenda for the next two years, confrontation rather than cooperation. After reading the constitution aloud (and doubtless glossing over that part about “promoting the general welfare”), one of the first orders of business will be a symbolic vote to repeal “Obamacare”. Excruciating numbers of oversight hearings are also promised, along with futile attempts to enact promises the sober ones know they cannot keep. In fact, they are already busy qualifying them. Balancing the budget is dreadfully important, so every bill has to come with a way to cover its cost while not adding to the tax burden. Bills to reduce taxes though are exempt. Defense spending is also exempt. This means, of course, that the deficit will just keep exploding unless they can somehow kill Medicare and Social Security. Isn’t Republican fiscal austerity wonderful?

Meanwhile, some Republicans are salivating for a showdown on the federal debt ceiling, which should arrive around March. The smart Republicans like new speaker John Boehner know it will be political suicide if it is not extended and probably cause a catastrophic global financial crisis as well. The reality is that Republicans control just one house, not two, and the executive remains in Democratic hands. So their hand is ultimately a weak one. However, Republicans have also learned that bluster can often suffice for power, so expect to see plenty of hot talk and bravado from their caucus. It won’t intimidate the Senate, which has a habit of looking down its nose at the House, nor Obama. Arguably, with so many principled Tea Partiers now in Congress, they may well put principle ahead of a catastrophic financial crisis anyhow. It would be crazy but it would finally drive a stake through the heart of the Republican Party. Maybe, if we ever recover, that would be a good thing.

If they are smart, Republicans will soon learn that it is best to pay lip service to the causes they supposedly ran on. It is no wonder that they want to cut discretionary spending (except for defense). Attempts here will be mostly symbolic as well, but it’s the one area that won’t get them too much political heat. Many are lusting to cut Social Security and Medicare. While Americans are wary of these costly programs, they are even more wary of sudden changes to them, and want bipartisan solutions to ensure both are fiscally sustainable. This goes doubly for older Americans, paradoxically the people who voted disproportionately for Republicans.

So I expect that voters will quickly sour with House Republicans. In fact, the public already trusts Obama more than Republicans. The Republican “mandate” that John Boehner sees was in reality Republicans voting massively while Democrats and Independents voted in a lackluster fashion. As Democrats also demonstrated in 2008, disproportionate turnout wins elections. The mandate comes from those who took the time to vote, which is not the same thing as the American public at large. This suggests that Republicans hold on the House, as is true with Democrats’ hold on the Senate is tenuous at best.

What polls do tell us is that Americans want jobs and a higher standard of living. Jobs may be arriving slowly, but a higher standard of living does not come cheap. American businesses are awash in tax cuts, credits and other incentives and so far, businesses have largely chosen to hold on to their profits and when they hire or invest, do so overseas where the dynamics are better. Republicans will talk about jobs, but true to form, it will be mostly lip service. They will of course raise the expectation with voters that by cutting taxes and government spending more jobs will emerge. Jobs will return, but not as quickly as the unemployed would like, and they will pay a lot less than the ones that were lost.

As Republicans demonstrated with their tax cut deal, what really matters to them is enriching their class. So I expect they will frequently get sidelined into things that don’t matter. Trying to get rid of “Obamacare” is just the tip of this iceberg. Some Americans are disgruntled by the health care law, but many who are disgruntled are because it did not go far enough. Add these people to those who like the law and you have a majority of Americans that want either the current health care law or want to make it more liberal. Moreover, all the pieces of the health care legislation are connected. Taking away the individual mandate, for example, while keeping the requirement for health care insurers to insure everyone is a way to guarantee astronomical premium increases. This may be good from Republicans’ perspective, but bad to most of us that still have health insurance. The reality is that if health insurance reform truly constrains costs, is one of the biggest ways to grow our economy and jobs. One of the primary reasons that Americans’ median income went down in the last decade was because of rising health care costs. Moreover, Republicans are playing with fire if they try to remove certain popular provisions, like not allowing insurers to turn down those with preexisting conditions.

In short, Republicans will likely prove their own worst enemy unless they take the unexpected path and actually work toward compromise. It is hard to see how that will happen, with a majority of Republicans now Tea Partiers, or endorsed by Tea Partiers. Meanwhile, Democrats will discover that being in the minority is not always bad. Republicans have inherited a hell of a mess, ironically a mess that they largely created in previous Congresses and administrations. House Republicans have also made dangerous and crazy promises about cutting government, cuts that if enacted will just estrange them from voters.

Buckle up your seat belts. Let’s hope there are enough sane Republicans and Democrats in the House to avoid the impending train wreck.

 
The Thinker

Book Review: Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald

Abraham Lincoln was our president that we cannot get enough of. Asked to name a famous American president, and he is as likely, if not more likely to come to mind than George Washington. Washington won the Revolutionary War, but Lincoln saved the union. Arguably, the latter was a far more challenging task than the former.

Like reading the Bible cover to cover, reading an in depth Lincoln biography has been on my list of things to do for decades. As a Washingtonian, his presence is inescapable since I cannot enter Washington from Virginia without seeing his towering memorial. Does Lincoln truly deserve his almost god-like status? He would seem to be a president to be singled out for ridicule. He got plenty of ridicule in his own time from his high-pitched voice to his incredible height, emaciated appearance and pitiful taste in clothes. Lincoln would be the first to admit that he was not particularly handsome. Age only made him uglier. Most sophisticated people thought he was an uncivilized bumpkin. He was often treated like Jimmy Carter was by the establishment crowd.

Part of what makes Lincoln compelling is because he is the closest example we have of a true rags to riches figure. It is hard to imagine any American born in more humble circumstances, although he was typical for his time. Born in Kentucky, he spent much of his childhood in Indiana, then a territory. He endured a childhood that would appall even our most impoverished Americans today. He essentially had no schooling. How does a log splitter with at best a first grade education become a lawyer? He does it by fanatical focus. Lincoln made friends easily and used his family (he was particularly attached to his stepmother) as teachers. Mostly he was self-taught and devoured any book he could get his hands on, including a handful of law books. Since he never graduated even elementary school, he obviously never went to law school. He was mentored by a senior lawyer and became a real lawyer when he convinced the Illinois Supreme Court to let him practice law. He was intensely political, and found it took only a couple of campaigns to be elected to the Illinois state assembly. He was a passionate Whig, which was a political party of the mid 19th century, who were roughly the Democrats of their time. As for the Democrats, they were today’s Republicans concentrated, as now, principally below the Mason Dixon line.

Lincoln, by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author David Herbert Donald provides a biography with a new perspective on Lincoln. Principally Donald had access to many private and unofficial papers that Lincoln, his friends and enemies had written. He meticulously worked his way through all of them and assembled something of a backstage collage of Abraham Lincoln and his times. The biography is roughly divided into two parts: Lincoln’s childhood and adulthood through becoming president, and his presidency.

Of the two major stories, I found the first half more interesting, perhaps because it is not as well known. Indiana and Illinois were at the time emerging into states from territories. As a lawyer, Lincoln spent much of his time following a southern Illinois state circuit court. Circuit courts are essentially appeal courts, but their name at the time was very apt because appellate judges circuited around their large jurisdictions hearing appeals. Lincoln was one of a number of lawyers who followed the circuit. There were no Hampton Inns in those days. The roads were often close to impassable. The grub was bad, the accommodations for travelers almost nonexistent. Lincoln seemed indifferent to these trials, raised as he was on hardship.

He eventually settled in Springfield where he made friends with nearly everyone, eventually becoming the senior partner in a two-person law firm. He married Mary Todd principally because of her connections. She married him for his potential. Mary was also very sociable and encouraged her husband’s forays into politics. She was also temperamental, often flying off the handle and capable of keeping lifelong grudges.

Lincoln served only one term in Congress, but failed at other attempts at higher office. When the Whig Party eventually collapsed, the remnants of it and other minority parties formed the new Republican Party. Lincoln was their first nominee for president. He won the nomination principally by being a terrific public speaker as well as being well versed on the issues of the day. He was very much a constitutionalist. While he personally disliked slavery, the fact that it was in the constitution made it tolerable, as he saw it more important to be constitutional than to be just. His views on the necessity of emancipation for the nation’s slaves evolved very slowly. He advocated policies that now seem incredible naïve. His solution to slavery was to foster a country for blacks to govern and to send them there. For much of his life he saw the United States as a country by and for white people only. This was not unusual. It was the accepted norm of his time, unless of course you were not white.

Lincoln may have been bipolar. He could go from exuberant to deeply depressed. The impression we get from our history books is that he was a serious man, but he was also a very engaging, lighthearted and a perennial jokester always with a half dozen fresh anecdotes to share. He was also very realistic. He did not think he would become president and after winning doubted he could win reelection, which at the time rarely happened.

It is fair to say that for much of his first term, Lincoln was a poor president. Politicians today now praise his “cabinet of rivals”, but in reality, it worked poorly at best. Lincoln liked to delegate. He knew when issues were beyond his ken. He was particularly intimidated by his generals, and deferred to generals like McClellan time and again, even after they continuously lost major battles. He fired generals only reluctantly, gave firm direction rarely and seemed at times more like a kite buffeted by the wind than a leader. It wasn’t until close to the end of his first term that he really grabbed the reins of his power and directed government and the war competently. Yet, it is also probably true that few other politicians of the period could have done better. The Civil War was uncharted territory for our nation. While Lincoln stood firmly on certain principles, he was a political creature and sought the middle path when possible. Unfortunately, there were so many people on the extreme of both sides that he rarely made anyone happy. The only thing he was fixed on was that the union had to be preserved at any cost.

Although he often seemed clueless and ineffectual, Lincoln was certainly principled and most importantly dogged. If something did not work, he would try a different strategy repeatedly until he got it right. He did not shrug off the burdens of office. It is likely that no president had to deal with more difficulty and stress, a stress that extended into his personal life with the loss of two sons, a spendthrift wife, and a son who was likely mentally retarded. Like him or hate him, everyone agreed that Lincoln was honest. He was singular as a president in that he never thought of himself as an exceptional human being, just a common man navigating himself through extraordinary times. His humbleness was innate.

Donald’s 1996 biography is full of interesting detail about both Lincoln and his times. We learn of his close friendship with Joshua Speed, perhaps his best friend with whom he shared a bed for many years, when such things were practical and accepted. Our country was a far different and much poorer place in the 19th century. Anyone could pay the president a visit and he met most of them. They often came with petitions for federal jobs, and he found this part of his job very annoying. In his time, there were no civil service laws, so he ended up hiring much of his government personally.

Lincoln was our first president to be assassinated. At most there was one guard between a citizen and the president, and no one checked visitors for weapons. Both Lincoln and his wife often took carriage or horseback rides alone around Washington. During the war, Lincoln spent much of his time down the street at the telegraph office, where he went unguarded. With the war moving toward a conclusion, there were many concerns expressed for his safety. He largely ignored these concerns, convinced in the goodness of his countryman. On the night of his assassination, there was plenty of concern that he was targeted. As usual, Lincoln dismissed these concerns. You might say his foolishness helped kill him.

Read Donald’s biography for insights likely unavailable in other biographies, as well as to survey the history of a remarkable time in our nation’s history. Despite the six hundred pages in length, this book is still a survey of a remarkable man and his times. It tempts me to learn more about the Civil War. The downside of Donald’s biography is that it has a flat and unemotional tone. The book likely sees Lincoln through a clearer glass than most biographies but, alas, our true view of the man will likely always be somewhat obscured.

 

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