Monday, October 16, 2017

Tom Hanks is well known because of his roles in some of the most memorable movies of the past three decades.  Those of us who are typewriter aficionados also know him as a kindred spirit—even fanatic—who proselytizes the values of these machines.  He had a prominent role in the recent limited-run documentary California Typewriter and his book Uncommon Type: Some Stories—which has a typewriter thread running through it—will be released tomorrow.

Hanks also is a reader.  We get a glimpse of his reading tastes in a “By the Book” interview in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review.  What struck me was his response to this question:  “If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?”  His response was William Manchester’s sweeping The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972.

Manchester is better known for his The Death of a President, the gripping chronicle of the assassination of President Kennedy and its immediate aftermath.  He also achieved wide acclaim for a two-volume biography of Winston Churchill (a third volume, which he began, was completed by Paul Reid).  He wrote other notable books, including a biography of Douglas MacArthur.

I purchased The Glory and the Dream when it was published in 1975 and its two volumes rest in a bookshelf across from my desk.  As with all of Manchester’s books, this work is filled with superb writing, extensive detail and brilliant scene setting.  It also tells the story of how the United States emerged as a world power and the challenges which confronted it in the post-war era. 

Had that interview question been posed to me, I’m not sure how I would have answered.  But Hanks’ recommendation was superb.  

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Former President Theodore Roosevelt a dodged a (fatal) bullet 105 years ago today.  Running as a third-party candidate he was shot point blank outside a Milwaukee hotel en route to a campaign speech.  Fortunately, the bullet fired into his right rib by a deranged saloonkeeper was minimized by a sheaf of paper and an eyeglasses case.  Roosevelt was bleeding but went on to deliver his speech, telling his audience that “it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose”; the Bull Moose was the symbol of his new Progressive Party.  He was later taken to the hospital, but the bullet was never removed.

This was only one of the dramatic developments of the wild 1912 presidential election in which there were four notable candidates:  incumbent president William Howard Taft, the Republican; Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey, the Democrat; Roosevelt; and Eugene V. Debs, the radical union leader running on the Socialist Party ticket.  Wilson won and Taft secured a dismal third-place finish.  TR came in second with eighty-eight electoral votes and amassed twenty-seven percent of the popular vote.  It was a strong third-party showing yet a disappointment for a former president who at age fifty-four still had a political agenda.

The election created a split between the progressive and conservative wings of the Republican Party which essentially lasted for a century.  The platform of the party, identified as “A Contract with the People,” was a blueprint for progressive policies, many of which would be enacted during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.  

Friday, September 22, 2017

One hundred fifty-five years ago today Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  He waited for a Union military victory, which was achieved at Antietam.  The landmark document was officially released and signed several months later, on New Year’s Day 1863.

Later artist Francis Carpenter memorialized the event with his huge oil painting “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln,” now hangs in the U.S. Capitol.  He also wrote about his experience in working on the painting, which was done when he camped out in the State Dining Room; the book was entitled “Six Months at the White House.”

Lincoln’s five-page handwritten document was a proclamation as well as an executive order.  It was an important measure on the road to ending slavery in the United States.  Among those rejoicing in the president’s action was William Lloyd Garrison, who had been in the forefront of the abolitionist movement with his weekly newspaper “The Liberator,” which had been launched in 1831. 

Here are copies of the paper from three different decades— the years 1836, 1845 and 1860--each one of which has a slightly different nameplate.  This is riveting reading.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Although I spent a long time in government and politics, I have few political heroes. My idealism has been tempered by a healthy dose of skepticism.

Among the political figures that I admire is the late Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Smith was the first woman elected to both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.  A new backbencher, she was one of the very few to take on fellow Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy early on--and she did it on June 1, 1950, four years before McCarthy was condemned by his peers.

Smith's Senate speech, "Declaration of Conscience," called out her Wisconsin colleague, and she experienced verbal abuse from a man who was a master at slinging it.  One of her passages:  "I do not want to see the Republican party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny--Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear."  The speech is worth reading.

She eventually went on to serve twenty-four years in the Senate.  In 1964 her name was placed in nomination at the Republican National Convention; she became the first woman so honored by a major political party.  Six years before she died in 1995 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I have Smith buttons and biographies in my political memorabilia collection.  Here's the news:  Today I received my Margaret Chase Smith bobblehead.  It has been placed in my library.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

No doubt one of the key people who will be profiled on “The Vietnam War” series beginning tomorrow is Ho Chi Minh.  Ho, who became familiar to millions of Americans during the 1960s, had an interesting career. When I taught Asian history to undergraduates, I would surprise them with two interesting facts about his life.

First, he was a baker in Boston before World War I.  He worked at the old and fabled Parker House Hotel in Boston.  Last year I visited the reconstituted hotel and got a sense of his work there.  The hotel has a gallery of photos of him.  And, it is reputed that the table he worked out actually survives. He also worked as a chef in London, even training with the great Auguste Escoffier.

Second, during the peace conference at Versailles, where all the great dignitaries of the world gathered, Ho, then twenty-nine, was advocating against French colonialism in Indochina.  He got nowhere and afterward became radicalized.  The history of twentieth-century Vietnam became inextricably linked to Ho Chi Minh. 

“Ho Chi Minh: A Life,” an excellent book on this multi-faced man who became a staunch foe of the United States, was written by William Duiker in 2001.

This image of a young Ho Chi Minh is taken from the photo gallery at the Omni Park House, Boston.