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Friday, December 17, 2010

HYPERBOLE

I guess the modern politician whom Edwin Stanton reminds me of most is Dick Cheney. Physically they were very similar, and they shared the post of Secretary of War, albeit a century apart. Like Dick Cheney, Stanton was a Prima Donna who displayed a self indulgent affection for conspiracies, and practiced such hyperbole that “At certain crises…doubts of his sanity were widespread…”(p 286 – “Lincolns War Cabinet” Hendrick). . There were differences, of course. Stanton never actually shot anyone, but when he was a young man he did carry a large knife in his pants, which would have fascinated Freud had he been born yet. In the end, the nicest thing I can say about Stanton is that he was a “rude and offensive” manic depressive lunatic on the right side of history.
When Stanton first set eyes upon Lincoln, in an 1857 Cincinnati courtroom, the bully loudly demanded, “Where did the long-armed baboon come from?” Eight years later Stanton lay literally sobbing on Lincoln’s deathbed. Lincoln was the only man who ever controlled Stanton, and it took a lot of his time. He called Stanton “my rock”, but admitting to devising strategies for “plowing around” that rock. Lincoln’s last official act before heading out to Ford’s Theatre, was to overrule yet another Stanton overreaction.
On the day Lincoln died Andrew Johnson from Tennessee was sworn in as President and inherited the pit- bull lap-dog that was Stanton. Over the next two years the slavery loving pro-Union Democratic President Johnson struggled to find a way to make Stanton “heel”. Finally, on Monday, August 5th, 1867, Johnson just asked Stanton for his resignation. To his surprise, Stanton simply said “no”.
There was a week of stunned silence from the White House, until the following Monday, August 12th, when Johnson tried another tact. He ordered Civil War hero General U.S. Grant  to the War Office, to tell Stanton he was being temporarily suspended. Johnson also told Grant that if Stanton still refused to leave, Grant should arrest him. But Grant didn’t want to do that. Instead he and Stanton came up with a plan of their own. Grant took possession of the office. But Stanton never left the building.
There was a move to impeach Johnson for this attempt, but the votes fell short. The new congress was sworn in on Tuesday, January 7, 1868, and on Monday, January 13th  it voted to back Stanton. The next day Grant locked the Secratary of War’s office, handed the key to an aide, and left. An hour later Stanton arrived and was handed the key. Only then did Grant tell President Johnson he had quit. The b-tch was back.
In desperation, Johnson turned to a character he could control, a 63 year old paper pusher, the Armies’ Adjutant-General, Lorenzo Thomas (above). To this point, Thomas’ greatest claim to fame was that he had help spread the rumor that General William Tecumsha Sherman was crazy. That had not worked, which should have been a hint to Johnson, but he didn't take it. Now, on February 21st, 1868, the President handed General Thomas two letters. The first letter fired Stanton (Again!). The second named Thomas as Secretary of War. Johnson then ordered Thomas to deliver them to both to Stanton. Alas, it was a like sending the Little Dutch Boy to stop a forest fire. All he got was a burned finger.
At the War Office (above), Stanton read both notes, and asked, “Do you wish me to vacate the office at once?” Magnanimously, the old man answered, “Act at your pleasure.” Stanton then went down the hall to make a copy of the letter. While Thomas dumbly waited, and a clerk laboriously wrote out an exact copy of the order, Stanton arranged his thoughts and morphed into a petulant two-year old. When he returned Thomas announced that he would now issue orders as Secretary of War. To which Stanton replied “You shall not. I will countermand.” In front of Thomas, Stanton then dictated a letter to Thomas, saying, “Sir: I am informed that you presume to issue orders as Secretary of War…you are hereby commanded to abstain from issuing any orders other than in your capacity as Adjutant-General of the army.” Stanton then handed the completed letter to Thomas and ordered him out of the office.
A bewildered Thomas informed Johnson of this conversation. The President must have been flabbergasted. He ordered Thomas to return to the War Office and begin issuing orders. Thomas tried that, but discovered he could no longer get in. Stanton had locked the doors.
Stanton now went native. Food was brought in, and and drink, and Grant appointed a special guard to defend the building, against whom he did not say. This military guard was joined by members of the House of Representatives and 100 staffers, who patrolled the basement. I guess because down there Grant figured they could only shoot each  other. That night, at a White House masked ball in honor of George Washington’s Birthday, and emboldened by a little wine, Thomas boasted that in the morning he would break down the walls of the War Office and arrest the Secretary of War. It looked as if come morning, the nation would be either defended for stolen by a coup d’tetat.
What saved the nation this disaster was that Washington, D.C. (above) was, has always been, and remains to this day, a small southern town filled with gossips. Stanton heard Thomas’ boast almost as soon as he had uttered it, and at 2 o’clock in the morning as the White House Party was just breaking up, Stanton was awakening a federal judge to sign an arrest warrent. At eight the next morning, as Thomas was just setting down to eat breakfast, he was arrested and charged with violating the Tenure of Office Act, which Congress had passed to prevent Johnson from firing Stanton without Congressional approval. There was no coup d’tetat because at nine a.m. General Thomas was in court.
After he had been released on his own recognizance (who was he going to hurt?), Thomas returned to the White House, where, once again President Johnson ordered the old man to go to the War Department and take possession if it. So, for a third time, the old soldier pushed his rock of Presidential command up the hill to confront his nemeses. The old man intoned, “I will stand here.” Stanton responded, “You can stand there if you please, but you cannot act as Secretary of War. I am Secretary of War. I order you out of this office and to your own.” Thomas answered, “I refuse to go and will stand here.” It was a circular conversation, and getting nowhere fast.
After trying to issue orders to everyone he could (and meeting impassive resistance), Thomas gathered his wounded pride and asked Stanton, “The next time you have me arrested, please do not do it before I get something to eat. I have had nothing to eat or drink all day.” Now it was Stanton’s turn to be magnanimous. He produced a bottle of whisky and poured them equal amounts. Handing a glass to Thomas, Stanton said, “Now, this at least is neutral ground.”
Over the next weeks, while the Senate heard President Johnson’s impeachment trial for trying to fire Stanton, Stanton remained barricaded in the War Department. He received all dispatches and reports, had full accesss to the telegraph lines. He just never left the building.  Meanwhile Thomas had no access to any of that, but he appeared at daily Cabinet meetings as Secretary of War. But the two never crossed paths. And while the process was argued behind the closed doors of the Senate, a compromise (of sorts) was reached.
On Saturday, May 16, 1868 the Senate took their first vote on an article of impeachment. It fell short of conviction. President Johnson, who had promised to cease obstructing the Reconstruction acts, would survive. The next day, Stanton wrote his letter of resignation. The crises had been resolved. But it would not be until 1887 before the Tenure in Office Act would be repealed.
Edwin Stanton was nominated to the Supreme Court by the next President, U. S. Grant. But the merucrial  clerk died four days after being confirmed by the Senate, Christmas Eve, 1869. It was so unlike him to sneak out of town before the his chance at a really grand performance.
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

BIG FOOT IN MY FREEZER

I do not have Big Foot in my freezer, nor am I "Leaning Forward", nor do I have “The Best Political Team on Television” on my television. I never thought I did have any of those things, and I don’t care how many times Wolf Blitzer tells me that I do; I know I don’t. But I also know I am growing weary of watching Blitzer being reduced to his own punch line just for a paycheck. Frankly, not only is he not “the most trusted name in news”, he is not even the most trusted name in commercial lead-ins, anymore.
What I have developed is an increasingly low tolerance for stupidity, which makes me less and less willing to be entertained by fools, even ones claiming to have collected a dead Big Foot in their freezer. It's just not funny anymore.
I even confessed to my wife one Saturday night a few years ago I found “COPS” to be dull and predictable and I don’t want to watch it anymore. I have given up all hope that one night a COPS "contestant" would pull yet another package of meth or crack out of a suspect’s front pocket, hear the same old tired “It’s not mine” excuse once to often, and just snap. Don't ge me wrong. I don’t even want the cop to shoot the addict. That would be too “Hollywood”.
Instead, I would rather see the officer lock the idiot addict in the back of his or her patrol car, call for a taxi cab and just go home. And never go into a police station again as long as he or she lives. We could call it “Ex-Cops”. It is not a hunger for justice that burns in my heart anymore, but a simple desire for novelty. Honesty on television would be something new.
This is a very dangerous feeling in our culture. I feel the same way about “American Idol”, “Survivor”, “The Nanny” and every hackneyed “reality” show on cable: except, of course, for “Dirty Jobs”. I could watch Mike Rowe read the phone book, as long as he had never read it before. But I do worry that my dissatisfaction with the current state of American culture could be a portent of doom. Except I have even lost faith in doomsday.
The Mayan Calendar predicts that the world will end in the year 2012 - or so we are told. In fact the Mayan's world ended about the year 1100. If they were smart enough to have created a calendar that recorded the end of the world a thousand years after their culture had already been reduced to hot chocolate and chewed cocaine leaves, how come they overlooked the importance of 1492, when a bunch of unwashed Euro-trash showed up on their doorstep with bang sticks and no concept of a public health option?
The Mayan super priests missed that little Armageddon, but they were still on track for a 2012 doomsday prediction? It just sounds like something else Wolf Blitzer will be droning on about as the date approaches.
"Is the world scheduled to end in the year of 2012? We will hear from the experts on both sides of the issue, right after the break”. I have grown weary of reminding Wolf (in my head) that there are no “sides” to insanity. It is not an arguable position. It is not a defensible position. It is a medical condition. Which could bring up the entire health care debate - But let's not get into that. This is a history blog; right?
According to the Washington Post and the New York Daily Tribune, on May 18, 1910, sixteen year old Jane Warfield of Aline, Oklahoma came within a seconds of being sacrificed by a group calling themselves "The Select Followers". They were seeking to appease Haley’s Comet, which was about the end the world unless it was offered the fresh spilled blood of a virgin Okie.
According to the Cherokee Republican of May 27, 1910, the group’s leader, Henry Heinman, told his fellow "Select Followers" outside of Aline, Oklahoma that “…the world would end on the 18th day of May, and the comet now in the sky would sweep with pestilential gases across the earth eliminating all animal life…he had received a revelation that he was to sacrifice the girl and thus avert world calamity. Sheriff Hughes has placed the girl in the hands of safe parties and Heinman will be held to await action by investigating officers.”
What a story! What kind of looney, crazy people have they got living in Oklahoma? What a bunch of rubes! Somebody needs to bring some common sense to the undereducated farmers out on the plains.
Except, the story turns out to have been a fraud. It was the concoction of a newspaper editor named Ed Marchant. According to research brought together by historian Guy W. Moore, on the web site “The Virgin and the Comet”, there is no listing for a “Henry Heinman” nor a “Jane Warfield” in the 1910 Oklahoma census. And in 1910 the sheriff for Major County, where Aline, Oklahoma is located, was Lewis Burwell, not the mythical Sheriff Hughes.
In other words, the tale was a joke the folks in Oklahoma could enjoy at the expense of the rubes in New York and Washington D.C. who bought the story hook line and sinker.
Its the same way the people in Southwest Washington State who knew Bob Heironimus all of his life, and instantly recognized his distinctive arm swinging lope in the infamous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin “Bigfoot film”, got the same joke. Those locals knew right away it was Bob striding around in a monkey suit. Only an rube would think there really was a big foot. What's he been eating all these years in the woods? Vienna Sausage? And where has he been pooping? And why, in all these years, has no poor hunter or tourist ever stepped in a great big pile of Bigfoot big poop? It's a joke. There is not Bigfoot living in the woods. And the only people who believe it are staying in the local "Days Inn".
But there is a difference between a tale of a virgin sacrificed on the plains of Oklahoma or a gorilla suit covered in pig’s entrails and stuffed into a freezer, and a phony bill of sale for Nigerian Yellow Cake uranium ore or Death Panels pulling the plug on grandma. One is a story told for the sheer joy of the story telling. It's a big whopper, told to illustrate a larger truth - that we are all fools at times. It is called in polite circles "fiction".
The other is a story invented out of greed - greed for money or greed for ratings or greed for power. It tells no truth except the truth about those who tell it; they are frauds. Frauds tell lies. And liars too often profit. And all it costs them is their souls. And ours, for believing them.
And, upon reflection, what I really hunger for is not novelty, but truth; honesty in advertising, candor in news gathering, sincerity in politics and just a little athenticity in the lies we tell each other to get through the day- like claiming to be the best team in politics, or calling a staged farce a reality show just because it doesn't have written skript, or airing a news story that has nothing "NEW" in it.
Oh, and speaking of reality; have you noticed that we speak of "primative" cultures sacrificing virgins, while in our "modern" culture we seem determined to sacrifice "fallen" women? What's up with all this punishing of women stuff? And how come the virgin men rarely get thrown into the volcano?'
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Sunday, December 12, 2010

PASSION AND OTHER SINS. PART ONE

“Love without passion is dreary; passion without love is horrific.”
Lord Byron
I should begin by reminding you of one of the lesser known legends of Psyche, which describes her as persecuted by Venus because the girl was so beautiful. I say lesser known legend because, really, few people who survive high school would feel any empathy for a cut-throat cold-blooded narcisitic "pretty girl" like Psyche. Which brings me to the perfect living example of the lady, a walking earthquake of passion and self-centered delusion named Sarah Althea Hill - she didn't much like her first name and was known to friends and enemies as Althea. To describe her as normal, even for San Francisco, would be an insult to the abnormal. In the summer of 1880 she was a “rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed beauty of the Golden West,” in her late twenties, and as looney as a bat in radar factory. And yet she was about to come within a hair's breath of controling one of the biggest fortunes in America, and was about to entertain, frighten and divert an entire nation for a decade. There had been men in Althea's life before our story beings, in particular a lawyer – Althea had a soft spot for lawyers - but he had recently abandoned her. It is also alleged that she had recently attempted suicide, but whether out of desperation or calculation I cannot say. To the point, she was thus unencumbered when she met by happenstance or connivance the sixty year old United States Senator William Sharon.
He (above) was a dirty old man, one of the richest dirty old men in California, and his taxes alone made up 2% of the entire budget of the city of San Francisco. William Sharon was also a widower with three grown children. He was also a Senator representing Nevada. Yet Sharon lived in San Francisco's Palace Hotel (which he owned), and only traveled to Nevada ocassionally. and it is also important to note that what drew the Senator and Althea together was clearly not love. It was passion. He had a passion for young women. She had a passion for his money. At his suggestion they signed a pair of contracts. Or so she said.
“Passion…is violence to which you get hooked by pleasure.”
Isabelle Adjani
“In the city and county of San Francisco…on the twenty-fifth day of August, A.D.1880, I, Sarah Althea Hill….do here, in the presence of Almighty God, take Senator William Sharon, of the state of Nevada, to be my lawful and wedded husband…I agree not to make known the contents of this paper or its existence for two years…” And “…I, Senator William Sharon, of the state of Nevada…take Sarah Althea Hill…. to be my lawful and wedded wife…”  Of course, no ceremony took place, and no license was ever issued. However money did change hands. And in capitalistic nations that fits the definition of a contract. It was, in effect, a pre-nup without the nup.
The Senator wrote a note to Mr. Thorn, the manager of the neighboring Grand Hotel; “Miss Hill (is) a particular friend of mine, and a lady of unblemished character and of good family. Give her the best, and as cheap as you can.” It seems the Senator had agreed to provide Althea with rooms at the Grand, which was connected via a convenient second story bridge across the street with Sharon’s more opulent Palace Hotel (above). He also agreed to provide a monthly payment of $500 to her as well, from which she furnished the rooms. In other words, if it was a real marriage, it was a marriage of convenience. And it was convenient for the Senator for just about a year.
“Purity engenders Wisdom, Passion, avarice…”
Cyril Connolly
As late as October 3, 1881, Senator Sharon was still referring in his notes to Althea as “My Dear Wife”. However, shortly thereafter Senator Sharon offered her $7,500 in cash if she would sign a paper using the name “Miss Hill”. In early December she did so and the next day Mr. Thorn was informed by the Senator that the lady would be checking out.
What followed were desperate letters from Althea. “"My Dear Mr. Sharon… I cannot see how you can have any one treat me so—I, who have always been so good and kind to you—the carpet is all taken up in my hall —the door (the front door to her rooms) is taken off and away…Ah, Senator, dear Senator, do not treat me so —whilst every one else is so happy for Christmas, don't try to make mine miserable… Now, Mr. Sharon, you are wronging me; so help me God, you are wronging me…”
“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.”
George Hegel
By the end of December, Althea was gone from the Grand and the Senator had moved on to other young women, although he occasionally still spent “time” with her. But Althea was not finished with Senator Sharon either. She engaged the services of a big (6') blustery, bowie knife-wielding lawyer, a hot headed ex-justice of the California Supreme Court named David Terry (below). Like Sharon, this would be cupid was sixty when he met Althea, but unlike Sharon, Terry was just as prone to passionate outbursts as the lady. And in September of 1883, under his guidance, Althea had a public outburst, in the local press, and then had the Senator arrested for adultery. Sharon sued, charging Althea with attempted blackmail, and alleging that the marriage contract was a fraud. Althea counter sued the Senator in state court for divorce, and asked for alimony.
The divorce trial entertained the citizens of San Francisco over the summer of 1884, with salacious details of how “the other half” lived, including tales of Althea watching Sharon in bed another woman. In September Judge Jeremiah Sullivan ruled that what Althea and Senator Sharon shared was a common law marriage, and awarded Althea alimony of $2,500 a month. Althea simply purred at the decision. “I feel just like a young kitten that has been brought into the house and set before the fire.” And then on November 13, 1885, Senator Sharon appealed to a higher court; he died. And not very long after his death, Althea miraculously found a new will, in which the late Senator left every thing to her, and nothing to his three children.
“We all need to look into the dark side of our nature – that’s where the energy is, the passion. People are afraid of that because it holds pieces of us we’re busy denying.”
Sue Grafton
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