A few weeks ago the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s hosted it’s annual dinner. The only reason anyone outside of New Hampshire payed attention to it is because Alec Baldwin was the keynote speaker and offered up a firebrand soundbite that said in part, “we need to overthrow the government.” I’m utterly indifferent to Alec Baldwin and his speech isn’t what really caught my attention in the article from the Union Leader.
The thing I found interesting was the trouble New Hampshire Democrats seem to have at leaving the “name” of their dinner alone. Once upon a time it was known as the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.” Of course the Democratic Party no longer celebrates Jefferson or Jackson, despite their being lions of the young Democratic Party. In 2016 it became the Kennedy-Clinton Dinner. By 2018 throwing over Jefferson and Jackson for two of the 20th century’s noted philanderer presidents suddenly felt like a bad idea too. So this year they settled on hosting their first annual Eleanor Roosevelt Dinner. She’s at least a (mostly) non-controversial figure in Democratic circles.
I only note this because I’ve been watching the great upswell over the last several years that tells us we’re supposed to be embarrassed by our history – that we should hide it, hide from it, and only dare speak of it in hushed tones. Well, I suppose Democrats in New Hampshire are free to be embarrassed by whatever ruffles their garters. If men like Jefferson and Jackson are no longer welcome in their pantheon of heroes, they’re surely welcome to find a home in mine.
Last week I finished reading a book, The Gentle Madness, that outlined the lives of some of the great book collectors and personal libraries assembled over the last five hundred years. It also covered how many of those libraries were broken up over time – sold off in toto or in part, lost to fire, stolen, gifted to public institutions, or released back into the wild through glittering auctions. These were the “important” libraries of history – the first printed books, manuscripts on velum, hand-copied tracts carefully illuminated by monks in the Middle Ages – the incredibly rare and the magnificently expensive. These were the libraries of royal dukes and titans of the industrial age.
It makes me extraordinarily happy that such collectors and such libraries even exist. Even so, I walk away from that read feeling just a little bit sad – mostly because, unless there’s a multi-state lottery jackpot in my future I’ll never be able to possess books like that. I’ll never have the opportunity to walk into a room filled with five hundred year old volumes and revel in their smell and feel and the sheer joy of knowing that for just a short slice of history I am custodian of such rarities.
I love books. I love being surrounded by them. If I had but the funds, I’d like nothing more than to assemble a first rate, proper library – old classics well made and maintained dating back from the dawn of printing and beyond. Given the reality of not having fabulous mountains of wealth, mine is a simple working collection of books. It’s hardly worthy to be considered a library at this point – just 500 or so volumes of history mixed with fiction, some government and politics, and a few outliers straying into sociology. Hardly a blip when compared to some of the lions of book collecting, whose personal libraries swelled to hundreds of thousands of books.
I read what interests me at the moment, acknowledging that it would be impossible to dive down every rabbit hole – or even one tenth of the rabbit holes given the limitations of time. Sure there are a few modern first editions living in places of honor on my shelf. There are a few well worn favorites that I keep coming back to time and again. If nothing else, I can at least claim that every book that ends up on one of my shelves is one that I’ve read. Nothing earns its spot there simply for decoration or adornment.
I could save a shitload of money if I were just able to borrow books from the public library like a normal person. I’m touched lightly by that gentle madness, though. The books possess me at least as much as I possess them… and I don’t mind it even a little bit.
I’ve spent the last year living with the ghost of George C. Marshall in the form of Forrest Pogue’s 4 four-part biography. I’ve read a lot of dense history on a host of obscure topics over the years, but this was likely some of the hardest reading I’ve done since diving into the rich esoterica of imperial Russian history about 20 years ago when I thought history was going to be a legitimate way to make a living. There are a dozen respectable biographies of Marshall that would have been far more accessible, but Pogue’s was a master class that truly offered a “one over the world” view.
Weighing in at 1,882 pages taking up a third of a shelf, I don’t supposed you dive in to this biography unless you have more than a casual interest. I picked it up, set it down, let weeks pass between volumes, and faced names, places, and events that sent me down dozes of separate rabbit holes of additional research and reading. I should be happy that I managed to get through it in 1/24th the time it took Pogue to write and publish the set in the first place. The thing really is a monument to the historian’s art.
I walked away from my experience with the general a little sad that he’s been so constatly overshadowed in popular memory of the war years by more glamorous subordinates – Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur even now 70 years later are names recognized by the average household. Outside of those who study the Army, a few professional historians and soldiers, Marshall fades into the background. It’s a shame, though it strikes me as what the man himself would have probably wanted.
So what am I left with after spending a year with General Marshall? Aside from a really great looking bookshelf trophy, I’m left with the determined opinion that George C. Marshall was only the second truly indispensable man in the history of the republic.
I remember growing up hearing stories about where people in my parent’s generation were when President Kennedy was assassinated. My grandparent’s generation could tell you where they were on a Sunday in December when news broke of a sneak attack on America’s fleet in the Pacific. To me, those dates and names were pages in a history book. I was too young then to appreciate that these events weren’t dusty history to the men and women who lived through them. They were visceral, living parts of their life’s narrative.
As each year we’re further removed from the shock and disbelief of a September morning. For more and more of our citizens, September 11th is just one more of those dates that mark an historical reference point rather than a life experience. For those of us who lived through it and the days that followed, though, I have an increasing suspicion that the day will always feel a bit like current events – a recent memory, still very much alive and tangible.
The stories of where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with will probably always be seared into our individual and collective memories for as long as one of us remains to tell it. The confusion at first report, the wide mouthed disbelief at seeing the second plan burrowing in, the continuous loop of smoke rising from the Pentagon, and two buildings that crumbled in front of us are were a clarion call to arms, to unity, and to remind us that our long experiment in democracy was and remains surrounded by those who would snuff it out.
Seventeen years on, it’s a punch to the gut I can feel just as strongly today as I did all those years ago. Over all the long years from then to now, we sought justice and rough vengeance, we rebuilt, thousands of families found the internal fortitude to go on living and endure, but most important, on this day and always, we remember.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had to think of an original post to cap off the week on a Friday night. With the archives now well and truly exhausted, though, I’m left with no choice.
What I’m thinking about doing, now that there’s a more than twelve year deep back catalog of posts, is to use Friday evenings to revisit some of the “best of” posts from the last 4,380+ days. Maybe this is the chance to trot some of the golden oldies out of the barn for a fresh look using something like an “on this date” format.
I’m giving it some thought – do I add fresh commentary, note where I’ve changed my mind and where I haven’t, try to provide some fresh insight? Yeah, I don’t know yet.
The thought of going on a deep dive expedition way back to 2006 is equal parts tempting and terrifying. I like to think that in the intervening years my writing style and substance has improved. Then again maybe it hasn’t. Honestly so much of that was written so long ago I’ve entirely forgotten it. I want to imagine that the Jeff who’s sitting here at the keyboard now is very much a kindred spirit to the one who wrote those early posts. Believe me, you don’t want me to delve too deeply into how much of my self-identity is tied up in being blissfully consistent.
So, I guess the only think I’ll say tonight is “we’ll see.” If next week around this time you find yourself reading something dated from 2006, don’t worry. You’re not caught in a time warp, it’ll just be me doing more excavation of the past in the never ending search for clicks.
I guess you can say I got to have the real fanboy experience this past Friday. Now, I can sit comfortably and interact with generals, political appointees, and elected officials all day long without being the least bit impressed, but put me in front of seven random guys from California and I’m a mumble mouthed mess who can barely bring himself to make eye contact with the god of his own making. It’s good to know that I can still feel over-awed by something, I suppose.
A quick photo op and a few mumbled words would have been plenty enough to make my day, but with my 40th just passed, I wanted to do something a little more out of the ordinary. I’ll say without reservation that sitting fifteen feet above the stage watching your favorite band belt out the songs that have become the staple soundtrack to your life was really one one those thrill of a lifetime moments. I’m still trying to get the dumb grin off my face.
Sitting behind the main speakers, the sound is a little muddled and some of the site-lines are better from the front row, but for seeing the “whole picture” there’s really nothing better. You get to see the organized chaos of on the fly equipment swaps when earpieces stop working and the interplay between shadowed band mates when someone else is taking their moment under the spotlight. You get to see the massive human effort involved in making the seven guys on stage look like they don’t have a care in the world beyond being there making music.
I wanted an experience, bought my ticket, and saw the show. It would have been an absolute steal at twice the price.
The Washington Post ran an editorial recently that went to great pains to denounce Sir Winston Churchill as a genocidal despot in the same vein as Stalin and Hitler. I’m not going to link to it as a matter of principle. It’s bad enough that I gave them the benefit of my click. I don’t want to be directly responsible for any others. Im satisfied enough calling it an agenda driven hatchet job along the same lines as those penned by scads of contemporary revisionists who want everyone to trip over themselves apologizing for history.
There will be no apologies here. I will not gnash my teeth nor rend my garments. I’m simply unwilling to suspend disbelief and malign the clarion voice that stood alone and rallied the world to the defense of Western democracy in it’s most endangered moment.
Was he a man of his time, a voice for empire in the imperial age? Yes, of course. Did he advocate actions that, from our oh so enlightened vantage point deep into the 21st century, strike a sour note? Yes. Was he a man full of human faults and failings? Undoubtedly.
Still, taken all in all, if I were pushed deep into a corner and could have only one man rise to my defense, I would take the lionhearted Churchill over the poisoned pen editorialist any day of the week and twice on St. George’s Day.