Saturday, January 20, 2018

Inauguration Day: March Fourth

It’s widely known that inauguration day occurs on January 20 every four years.  But perhaps less recognized is that inaugurations up through 1933 took place on March 4, on the day that the U.S. government was officially launched in 1789. It was changed as a result of the Twentieth Amendment,  the ratification of which came too late to affect the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected president on November 8, 1932. 

Travel considerations were at least partly to blame for the lengthy gap between the election and inauguration.  But it can’t be overlooked that the interregnum created difficulties, especially when the nation was in crisis.  That certainly was the case in 1860-61 as newly-elected Abraham Lincoln was powerless to deal with the rush to secession by southern states between December and February.

The problem also was acute during the long period between the defeat of Herbert Hoover in 1932 and inauguration of Roosevelt.  The outgoing administration tried to address some of the deep challenges of the Great Depression, but the incoming president was unwilling to work with them.  FDR, showing the political acumen—or political manipulation—that he would practice so skillfully in the White House, did not want to share any credit or blame with Hoover and preferred to begin the New Deal with a clean slate. 

Roosevelt was formulating his plan while Hoover pursued his futile effort.  A major architect of the early response of the new administration was William H. Woodin, a successful train foundry entrepreneur from Pennsylvania.  Woodin was an intriguing figure, a Republican who had multiple interests, including being a musician and a prominent numismatist.  He worked tirelessly on banking and monetary issues for about a year as treasury secretary before dying in May 1934.    

Oh, the first president, George Washington—unique in presidential history is so many ways—was inaugurated on April 30, 1789.

Here’s the “Franklin D. Roosevelt March,” composed for the inauguration by the musically-talented Woodin (from my collection).  It is quite lively.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

John Dos Passos at 122

The twentieth-century writer John Dos Passos was born 122 years ago today.  He was perhaps most noted for the novels Manhattan Transfer, published in 1925, and the USA trilogy of The Forty-Second Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, all published in the 1930s.

Dos also had been a great friend of Ernest Hemingway, knowing him in France and during the Spanish Civil War.  But as with many relationships for Hem, the relationship turned sour.  Dos Passos and Hemingway, however, did appear at the 1962 Nobel Prize dinner, one in person and the other by proxy. 

Dos Passos was among the 175 guests invited to dinner by his fellow Choate and Harvard graduate, John Kennedy. Hemingway—who was a Nobel laureate--had died the previous year, but he was represented that night by his widow and fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway.  The main feature of the post-dinner literary entertainment was a reading of an unpublished excerpt from what later became Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream.  

Dos Passos also knew Mary Hemingway, whom he met during World War II.  Both had disagreed with Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Mary’s position was stated directly to the president  when she sat next to him in the State Dining Room that night. I discuss all of this in my forthcoming book, Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House.

John Dos Passos was especially celebrated in the twenties and thirties.  John-Paul Sartre once called him “the greatest writer of our time.” But the rise and fall of his relationship with Hemingway has also been a subject of interest in literary circles.  James McGrath Morris does a magnificent job of discussing this in his book The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War (2017).

This photo of the two writers from happier times is also included in Morris’s book.  It comes from the Ernest Hemingway Collection.  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.   There is no known copyright for it. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

"Snowy Night": The Calm Before the Storm

Alas, winter is here in full force on the East Coast. We’ve only received a small amount of snow in the Washington, D.C., area, but the temperatures are brutal.  Still, other areas north of us have received a lot of snow and snow is on the minds of many people.

Whenever I think of the winter and snow, my mind immediately turns to the well-known photograph of Woodstock, Vermont, taken by Marion Post Wolcott and published in 1940.  Wolcott was noted for the many photographs that she took for the Farm Security Administration in the late 1930s and early 1940s; some of the most remarkable are those showing people living through the Great Depression, especially in the South.

But “Snowy Night” is my favorite photograph of all time.  Not only is there a beautiful stillness depicted, but for me this peacefulness comes on the cusp of another great war.  I can imagine families huddled around the radio listening to reports from Europe, perhaps wondering whether they and their children would eventually be affected.  

Of course, they were.  This town of 2,500 at the time would be touched as were thousands of others throughout the country.  Maybe it’s the historian in me, but this photograph represents the ultimate calm before the storm.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Happy Birthday, Clint Hill

Today is the birthday of Clint Hill, the  Secret Service agent who served several presidents but is most closely associated with President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.  Hill, born in North Dakota in 1932, had a career which brought him around the globe and put him in the presence of a multitude of world leaders.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Clint for my book, Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House (ForeEdge, April 2018).  He was most gracious in discussing his role at state dinners and working inside the White House itself.  Many of his fascinating experiences, which spanned the presidencies of Eisenhower through Ford, are recounted in three books:  one on his role in charge of Mrs. Kennedy's detail; one on the assassination in Dallas, where he was present; and one on his years in the Secret Service.

I reviewed his last book, Five Presidents, for The Washington Independent Review of Books:

Hill's books are full of anecdotes about his experiences, some of which are quite humorous and give readers a fly-on-the-wall view of several of the most historical events of a turbulent period in the twentieth century.  His descriptions of the travels and adventures of Jackie Kennedy are often riveting.  In Secret Service code names, it was "Dazzle" watching over "Lace."

Monday, January 1, 2018

Cuneiform and Marking Time

As we enter a new year, it is interesting to note how we have gauged time.  As a boy I was puzzled by the year zero—there had to be a year zero—as well as how people knew, for example, it was 300 B.C.  Well, I eventually came to understand all that.  But really when you think about it, recording time is all  about written communication.

I often discuss early forms of writing, especially cuneiform, with my college students.  Cuneiform, of course, was an invention of the ancient Sumerians.  Much of these pictograms were used to keep track of commercial transactions. 

About twenty years ago, I purchased a good-sized chunk of clay with cuneiform writing on it.  I don’t know what it says, but maybe it’s a legal document or even a book contract.  I probably should not, but I use this artifact as a paperweight on my desk.

Happy New Year.  I wish I knew how Hammurabi would write that.