I know the Trump administration is supposed to be wealthy upper-crust and all, but when you turn on the news, do you ever feel like you’re watching an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” minus only Jed’s homespun wisdom?
Billy Bob Bannon is keying Uncle Donnie’s pickup truck, so Donnie got back at him by stuffing Billy Bob’s cat in a mailbox. Kellyanne and Sarah Lou, dripping in sarcasm and mascara, are holding up freshly uprooted swatches of the media’s hair. String Bean Stevie’s taking out a peace order on Mooch, who keeps trying to sneak back into the doublewide with a pair of bolt cutters. The cousins over in Congress are getting a little too friendly with the girl help and sometimes, the boy help, but we don’t talk about that. Paulie Clotheshorse and Mikie are in trouble with the law again and who would have thought it, but old Grandpa Newtie is still hanging in there, upstairs in his room cackling away and pounding his cane on the floor, even though the doctors have told him that if he keeps eating Zagnut bars like that, they’s gonna have to take his foot.
It’s like the whole trailer park has moved into Washington, and they’re throwing plates at each other and poisoning each other’s dogs.
Here, we’ve spent 18 months puzzling over why people in Appalachia identify with a jet-setter like the Donald. Well, isn’t it obvious? Deep down, he’s one of them. He’s Donald the Cable Guy. If his daddy hadn’t made a mint in real estate, he’d be sitting around a kerosene heater right now with a long-neck and a handful of scratch-off tickets.
It’s almost exactly like the Golden Globes, where an inbred subset of fabulously wealthy Americans gather a couple of times a year to rend their garments over being so popular — because, you know, if they weren’t busy acting, they would be JFK. “God help us, we are all creeps — and that’s why we should be the ones to lead this country! Or something like that!” (Thunderous applause.)
And I love Donald and I love Oprah as entertainers, but maybe it’s time we step back and take a deep breath and consider that the system of political/military establishment — you know, “government” — that brought us FDR and Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Reagan and Bush 41 wasn’t quite as bad as we thought.
The thing that is striking is that for the past quarter-century, people have been ranting and raving about “professional politicians.” But look at some of the people who are lining up to run for president next time around, and a professional politician doesn’t seem all that bad.
They might not be warm and fuzzy or even someone you would want to have dinner with, but political pros do have some marginal idea of how to do the job. It’s like the fan of an Ivy League school watching the team step off the plane for a game with a school from the SEC. One after the other, they file past the newsstand, picking up copies of the New York Times, or the Economist, or the Wall Street Journal. Finally, a defensive lineman comes along and picks up a comic book and the fan says: “Thank heaven, we have a chance.”
Today, we have an entire generation of people in government who say that the problem with America is the government. Guys who have been in office for 30 years look straight into the camera and, with zero sense of irony, say: “The problem with government is these career politicians.”
So next time around, don’t give me a rapper, or the owner of a basketball team or any other rookie. Give me Hubert Humphrey. And please tell me I didn’t just say that.
Where history is concerned, I'm a jack of all trades and master of none. My specialty in college was the French Revolution, but sadly that era hasn't been marketable since Les Miz. And since I'm more of a story teller than historian, I prowl for interesting subject matter, regardless of the time period, and then learn as I go.
Which is how I found myself in the War of 1812 as it relates to an upcoming book, Strange and Obscure Stories of Washington, D.C. This, of course, involves the burning Washington by the British, after they brushed aside American troops at the Battle of Bladensburg.
Historians differ on the American performance at Bladensburg. Harry Ammon called it “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms,” while in the opinion of J.C.A. Stagg, it was “the most humiliating episode in American history.” The truth is probably somewhere in between.
But be that as it may, the British were able to focus on the Americans largely because of the surrender of Napoleon, who had been occupying most of the Brits' attention on the Continent. So the opening to my chapter went like so:
On the morning of June 18, 1815, a Sunday, Napoleon Bonaparte took his breakfast on a fine set of silver outside the town of Waterloo in modern-day Belgium. To his assembled officers, he dismissed the talents of his opponent in battle that day, the Duke of Wellington, saying that beating him in the field should be of no more trouble than—eating breakfast. The great general might have simply been trying to boost his officers’ confidence, but of course it was a statement that came back to haunt him.
Four thousand miles away, in Washington, D.C., it was unlikely that residents, when they eventually received the news, would have seen any potential cause and effect between Napoleon’s surrender and their own pursuit of happiness. Wiser American statesmen, however, might have understood the implications. Britain had been fighting an epic war on the Continent, affording it few resources to allocate to the United States, where the pesky little brother was at it again. And with reason. The United States had won the Revolution, but to the newly minted Americans it seemed as if Britain hadn’t gotten the message.
One problem. By the time of Waterloo, the War of 1812 had been over for four months. So what happened? The premise was still good—the surrender of Napoleon facilitated British attacks on America. But of course Napoleon capitulated twice, once at Waterloo, and once a year earlier after a disastrous winter campaign in Russia. It was the first surrender I needed to be referencing, not the second. Luckily it dawned on the at some point that 1815 came after 1814, and a great crisis, or at least a great embarrassment, was avoided.
Two essays out of Strange and Obscure Stories of New York City deal with two sides of a common superstition in the 1800s: that if you traveled at speeds in excess of 60 mph you would die.
One story involved daredevils jumping off of high places, specifically in this case, the Brooklyn Bridge. A climber who conquers a mighty mountain says he does it “because it’s there.” In much the same way, men took to jumping off the newly constructed Brooklyn Bridge in the late 1800s. As in came to pass, however, jumping from a platform nearly a football field above the water was not dependably survivable. But, curiously, people argued over the reasons for the high death rate that these aggressive jumps produced.
The second story involved rudimentary attempts at mass transit, in which people were seated in a pneumatic tube, essentially extra-large versions of the familiar canister that transfers transactions at the local branch bank from car window to teller.
Inventors, again in the late 1800s, used enormous fans to pump the air out a sealed tunnel, creating a vacuum that powered the tube and, in theory at least, would whoosh the passengers to their destination at tremendous speed. (Elon Musk’s Hyperloop works on much the same principle.)
The similarity is that both involved human beings traveling at speeds that many people at the time — accustomed to traveling no faster than foot or hoof would allow — assumed it would be fatal. Trains by this time were rumbling along in excess of 50 mph, but much more velocity than that, people assumed, would create enough g-forces to smush one’s internal organs.
So people believed that both pneumatic tubes and daredevil jumps would achieve speeds — 60 or 70 mph — that would cause death. The first man to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, Robert Odlum, did not live, and many figured he was dead before he hit the water (In fact, the key to surviving the jump was hitting the water perpendicularly, something that wasn’t easy in the buffeting winds.)
Pneumatic tubes for human transit never reached their theoretical speeds, at least as a practical measure. But plenty of people wanted no part of such a fast and risky business even if it were possible.
So it wasn’t really until the end of the 1800s that advances in railroad technology and speed proved once and for all that high-speed travel wouldn’t kill you. At least not as a general thing.