Thursday, February 7, 2019

Sinclair Lewis at 134

Writer Sinclair Lewis was born on February 7, 1885.  Lewis was the author of “Main Street,” “Babbitt,” “Arrowsmith,” and “Elmer Gantry,” among many other works.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.  Lewis was one of three deceased laureates honored with after-dinner presentations at the dinner President and Mrs. Kennedy held for Nobel Prize winners in April 1962.

Lewis has enjoyed somewhat of a Renaissance with readers rediscovering his chilling novel “It Can’t Happen Here” about a rise of a demagogue as president and the authoritarianism that follows.  Published in 1935 during the Great Depression and the advent of Hitler, the book provides a cautionary tale about politicians promising seeming easy solutions during difficult times.

Lewis died in 1951.  Despite being highlighted at the Nobel dinner, no family member represented him.  Overall, forty-nine Nobel laureates were honored at the White House.  Lewis had refused the award of a Pulitzer Prize for “Arrowsmith” in 1926.  He said, “All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous.  The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee.” 

Still, he did not decline the Nobel Prize for which he was selected four years later; he was the first American writer given the prestigious award for literature.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Stewart Udall, Conservationist and Art Supporter

Stewart Udall, President Kennedy’s interior secretary and a prime promoter of the arts in Washington, D.C., was born on this day in 1920.  Udall, who continued his service through the Johnson administration, was an early advocate of conservation and environmental issues, including the publication of a landmark book, “The Quiet Crisis,” in 1963. 

Udall and his wife, Lee, were nearly as active as President and Mrs. Kennedy in encouraging artists, especially poets.  They launched the President’s Cabinet Artist Series of distinguished cultural leaders at time when the nation’s capital was largely devoid of such opportunities.  

Stewart Udall became a great friend of Robert Frost, and it was he who was the interlocutor between the president and poet.  Indeed, Udall was responsible for Frost delivering his poem at the 1961 inauguration as well as going to Russia on a highly-touted cultural exchange tour in 1962. 

He also was responsible for the reopening of historic Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., after an absence of more than a century.  And he was a vigorous promoter of Southwestern art.

Udall is perhaps today overshadowed by the memory of his popular brother, onetime congressman and presidential candidate Mo Udall.  But he was one of the most important members of the Kennedy cabinet and, indeed, was the last surviving member of the original group when he died in 2010.

The photo is of Secretary Udall with President Kennedy looking on.  The occasion was the White House Conference on Conservation, 1962.  Credit:  Abbie Rowe.  White House Photographs.  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

"The Buck Stops Here"

On the evening of January 15, 1953, President Harry Truman broadcast a farewell address to the nation.  Most of the remarks summarized the events during his presidential tenure, but he also talked about how he conducted himself in office.  At one point he said, “The greatest part of the President’s job is to make decisions—big ones and small ones, dozens of them almost every day.”  And, he added, “The President—whoever he is—has to decide.  He can’t pass the buck to anybody.”

Indeed, the slogan “The Buck Stops Here,” is the one most commonly associated with Truman.  He had a desk sign which said just that.  The sign was made at the federal penitentiary at El Reno, Oklahoma, and was given to him in 1945. 

The idea that Truman expressed in this plaque was echoed in a different, but similar, way by President Kennedy in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.  At a news conference in 1961 he remarked, “There’s an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.”  

Understanding that the buck stopped with him for the ill-fated adventure, he added, “Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I’m the responsible officer of the Government.”

Truman and Kennedy articulated a good reminder for any president.

Here’s my copy of the famous sign, which was obtained at the Truman Library a number of years ago. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

J.F.K. Runs for President

John F. Kennedy launched his presidential candidacy fifty-nine years ago today in the Senate Caucus Room at the Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. 

In concluding his brief remarks, he said:  For 18 years, I have been in the service of the United States, first as a naval officer in the Pacific during World War II and for the past 14 years as a member of the Congress. In the last 20 years, I have traveled in nearly every continent and country--from Leningrad to Saigon, from Bucharest to Lima. From all of this, I have developed an image of America as fulfilling a noble and historic role as the defender of freedom in a time of maximum peril--and of the American people as confident, courageous and persevering.

That room, where Robert F. Kennedy also began his presidential campaign in 1968, is now known as the Kennedy Caucus Room.  Since 1972 the building has been identified as the Russell Senate Office Building.

Theodore H. White’s first foray into presidential post-mortems, “The Making of the President, 1960,” has become a classic of the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns.  But also noteworthy is Tom Oliphant and Curtis Willkie’s excellent book, “The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign.”  This book tells how the Kennedys methodically laid the groundwork for the 1960 nomination after JFK’s defeat for the vice-presidential nomination in 1956. 

The photo here is a recreation of a 1960 campaign headquarters, which is on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Happy Birthday, Al Smith

Al Smith, the New Yorker who rose from humble origins to become a successful governor and unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee, was born on this day 145 years ago.  Smith, who quipped that his education was restricted to the Fulton Fish Market, made a run for president in 1924 and was his party’s standard bearer four years later.  The resulting loss was attributed to a number of reasons, including his Catholicism, his position on temperance (he was a “wet”), and perhaps his gravely-voiced New York persona. 

Smith’s presidential campaign opened up the New York governorship, and he encouraged Franklin Roosevelt to run in 1928.  Smith thought FDR weak, physically and politically, and expected that he would be able to control him.  He was wrong.  The onetime friendship became a bitter rivalry, especially after Roosevelt defeated him for the presidential nomination in 1932.  The bitterness continued for another decade when they more or less patched things up.

Most know of the close relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill during World War II.  Smith also had a cordial relationship with the British prime minister.  Here is a telegram from Churchill to Smith in 1941.  Churchill also spoke by phone to the second Al Smith Dinner in 1947.  During that fifteen-minute talk, he revealed that he had once offered a political slogan for Smith:  “All for Al and Al for All.”