Merry Christmas, And Happy New Year With Mom’s Angel Cookie Recipe…Caffeinated Politics Returns In Early January

Earlier this week I told James that my upbeat mood about the Christmas holiday could not feel any better. Then it snowed and the kid in me was pressed to the window very late Wednesday night watching as the landscape transformed into the way it should look at this time of year. Since moving into our old Victorian on the Isthmus in 2007 it seems each year the holiday season takes on a stronger meaning as we seem to decorate every inch and ‘over-stuff’ the home with seasonal charm. We are not thrilled with the commercialization of the season and know the family and friends we gather with to laugh and share a meal and memories are what not only matters but what is most enjoyable.

This year we were able to resume, following the pandemic, a holiday tradition that goes back to 2005 when James’ parents visited our home on the west side of Madison.  People are asked to come to our home where a large box is opened which contains solid colored ordinary Christmas ornaments or other items such as milkweed pods, etc. which are then used to create painted ornaments using acrylic paints, or paint pens.  

With my lack of artistic skills ‘unique’ is the kindest one can say about the result.  But as most of our friends have proven, and as James does each year, there is a lot of talent when there is patience with a small paintbrush.  When the painting and laughing are completed, and the ornaments are dried with the hair blower, they are placed on the tree.  Or people can take them home to hang on their tree.

Every year when decorating the tree James and I remark on this or that ornament, who made it, and recall the memories along the way.  Out of the over 500 ornaments on the tree, this year about 50 are made with the love and smiles of friends.

This year my long-time broadcasting school friend, Bruce, and his partner, Ronna, laughed and created their way through a Sunday afternoon.   Such hours are what make the season meaningful to me.

Our Victorian home looks like a Christmas from the late 1800s landed all about.  There is a warmth and a gentle manner to the holiday in our home that lands far more on tradition and nostalgic moods than commercialism.  I would have it no other way.   The photo in the banner, through the end of this year, is what my family home in Hancock looked like during a snowstorm.  Love the look and the way it makes me feel. The memory of those wintery days when as a child I watched the snow piling high still brings broad smiles.  Just as it did this week as the snow fell heavily and I knew why until the bustling New Year takes hold everything will now slow to a crawl for those in this home.  Trust in yours, too.

But before I end this post I need to head back in time to a recipe that is over 60 years old. It is a winner, easy to make, and very tasty!  They are great to eat just out of the oven, and they also store well for late-night munchies.  If you make them, I guarantee that you will be back in the kitchen soon to whip up another batch.  They do not last long if you have kids at home…even big kids aged—well, like me!

When I was a boy these cookies became my favorite, and no Christmas season would be complete without several batches being whipped up and baked.  Every year at about this time I called Mom and asked if she had done any baking yet.  I always seemed to call before the cookies were made, but soon thereafter they were always in the cupboard where they had been placed since I was in the third grade.  If they can leave a memory like that in a man who is 60 years old,  it must mean they are good!

Angel Cookies

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

2 cups shortening

2 eggs

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp vanilla

2 tsp. cream of tartar

2 tsp. baking soda

4 cups flour

Mix sugar and shortening.  Add eggs and beat.  Add flavoring.   Add dry ingredients.  Shape into balls the size of a walnut and roll in colored sugars.  (As the years went along my mom at times left this out, and it did not detract from the yumminess.  I also recall that as a boy my mom placed the sugars on the cookies midway through the baking process.)  Place 2 inches apart on a greased baking sheet.  (Not the non-stick kind.) Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. 

As the recipe notes it “Makes a pretty Christmas cookie.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

The first of five Christmas trees in our home greets visitors as they enter and remove their shoes in the entryway.

Frank Shakespeare Dies In Dane County At 97: RKO And CBS Division Presidents, Vatican Ambassador, Roger Ailes Friend In ’68 Nixon Campaign

Frank Shakespeare, a consequential man who lived a life at the intersection of business, media, politics, and diplomacy, died Tuesday at the age of 97. He had resided in Deerfield with his family for well over a decade.

If there was any single person in Dane County who merited an oral history recorded about his work and interactions with the likes of Edward R. Murrow to Pope John Paul II, it was Frank Shakespeare. Sadly, however, that never happened.

His resume ranges from being division presidents at RKO and CBS, ambassador to Portugal and the Holy See, and Chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting, an attempt to further the call for democracy during the Cold War.

Many years ago Shakespeare sat on our front lawn in the Adirondack chairs for just a friendly summertime visit. I can honestly say the quirk of circumstances that brought him into our lives is vastly far less interesting than the life he lived.

I will never forget Shakespeare describing, both with words and mimicking, the hand movements of the chain-smoking Murrow trying to balance an ashtray on the thin arms of a chair. When I asked about Walter Cronkite the response from Frank seemed to sum up the way he viewed most of the public names we easily recognize.

“They did not awe me, they put their pants on like any other man.”

When making an inquiry about Pat Nixon, Frank said, “I only knew of her”.

At one point I told him that anyone who knew Edward Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Richard Nixon is always welcome at our home!

James Wilson, Gregory Humphrey, and Frank Shakespeare

Sitting there that day talking with him I wished it was a decade earlier so that the sharp recollections of a man who had lived and seen so so much history could have been captured on tape.

Though he was an unassuming man, history almost begs us to better know his views and perspectives. The sharper edges he required to navigate corporate boards or be heard in a political campaign, or parry with others at the Vatican as the Cold War was at a pivotal point is part of why a deep-diving series of interviews should have been conducted. How did it all look for Shakespeare decades later in the rearview mirror?

I know who would have been an ideal interviewer, too. Me. After all, the intersections of his life are the ones that I have concentrated on with books and history for the past 40 years. Frank and I would have had a delightful dialogue. I just know it. He enjoyed my coffee-making skills, too. His request was for some sugar and cream in the cup. (I admit to taking odd contemporaneous notes.)

When he was on our Madison isthmus lawn it was not my first awareness of the man or the part he played in Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign. After all, I am a Nixon history buff. I had Joe McGinniss’ book on my shelves, The Selling Of The President 1968, which starts out with the first paragraph featuring none other than Frank Shakespeare.

McGinniss at the time was a 26-year-old former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who functioned as part of the Nixon campaign team. What he witnessed in that campaign and the strategy for winning national support was illuminating at the time his book was published and serves now as a place in history where one can see a time before the ’68 race, and a time after.

Shakespeare was a professional image shaper who surely knew full well that the line from McGinniss about Nixon in the 1960 presidential election was true. “He failed because he had no press to lie for him and did not know how to use television to lie about himself. The camera portrayed him clearly. America took its Richard Nixon straight and did not like the taste.”

Page 60 “The Selling Of The President’

Another up-and-coming voice in conservative media who played an instrumental role in Nixon’s victory was Roger Ailes, who later in life would define factless television disguised as news. In 1968, however, he produced Nixon’s TV shows which were slick staged ‘town hall meetings’ that were as prefabricated as the cheap homes then sprouting up around the nation. Over the years, I have likened those 30 minutes of hokum as being a third cousin to Col. Tom Parker placing a live electric wire under hay so fairgoers would think chickens really danced.

Shakespeare was the one, as Rick Perlstein writes in Nixonland, who brought Ailes into the fold of the campaign.

Ailes and Shakespeare well understood how Nixon would need to look, stand, be lighted, and smoothed over for an electorate who knew the candidate all too well. Teddy White offers his readers in Making Of The President 1968 the view from Shakespeare that Nixon they presented to the nation was “spontaneous, with no rehearsal, in a serious posture with a mixed bag of questioners…”

As a decades-long Richard Nixon history buff the manner that he was marketed to the public in the 1968 presidential campaign, much akin to toothpaste or ketchup, was a defining moment in the further weakening of our politics. While messaging and artifice have long been political tools–who can forget the rail-splitting image of Abraham Lincoln–I have long hoped that our elections could be elevating experiences. The 1968 Nixon campaign was the exact opposite. And, of course, the history of the Nixon Administration shows what happens when character considerations are tossed aside for the salesmanship of a candidate.

So how then would one of the architects of the ’68 Nixon effort reflect on how our national politics emerged in the presidential cycles which followed? That is what I would have truly enjoyed discovering in an oral history with Frank Shakespeare.

Frank Shakespeare surely had a deep and abiding love for our nation, just as it is fair to say the television era changed and shaped our politics in detrimental ways. It was that thumbprint on history that I wished we had the chance for him to review.

And so it goes.

Letter From Home: “Book Guilt” 12/14/22

I have never watched any of the Jason Bourne films from Hollywood. I felt a need to first read the books, knowing that in most cases a film version of printed works is always weak and unsatisfying.  Outside of Gone With The Wind and The Godfather I have regretted how filmmakers have adapted gems of reads into tinsel town fluff. I simply adored Angela’s Ashes, the must-read memoir from Frank McCourt. I found the film version limp and not inspiring. I literally had to get up and leave a coffee shop when reading John Berendt’s Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil as I was unable to stop heartily laughing at page after page of perfectly-styled humor. Is it no wonder the book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for four years? The film, however, totally dismissed the magic of the printed pages.

While I have read some of the work by Robert Ludlum and enjoyed it, I have found it impossible to get past the 6th chapter of The Bourne Identity. I can say that even after the second try. Several years ago, I picked the digital copy from my local library and found yet another fistfight and action-packed set of pages just not rewarding. Following the recent midterm elections, I was ready for escapism and while roaming the Libby site decided to give it the old college push and make my way through the book.  I should have been more mindful that when I download the book it opened at the place I had previously stopped reading. Heedless of that glaring red sign I started, like anyone with a touch of OCD, at the beginning. Let’s just say I never made it to the 6th chapter a second time.

I have noticed over the years that while my love of reading has not lessened my desire to have more intricate plots and far less bang-bang and fisticuffs is much more pronounced. That goes for my movie-watching, too.  I love James Bond since the day as a kid he first entered my world via a book. Under the large oak tree on the front lawn, I had experienced Bond as Ian Fleming wished him to be known. This fall we watched one of the last Bond movies to be made and while it was pure adrenaline the smoothness and dapper qualities of the icon were totally missing.  I well understand Bond has ‘evolved’ for contemporary audiences.  But it seems sad to think that most young people will not know the ‘real’ Bond that comes to life in Moonraker.

The tree at the Hancock family home under which, as a boy, I first read Ian Fleming as James Bond came to ‘life’.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth and The Hunt For Red October by Tom Clancy is perhaps the epitomes of what I consider perfectly crafted tense international dramas. Forsyth is one of my favorite fictional authors, having read each of his works. But I have found over the years the nuanced and evolving plots often missing from mainstream authors, and instead, we are given shootings and then a beat-down and then….

It is difficult for me to not complete a book once I start it, and since I have a strong sense of what I like in a book it is rare that one is discarded.  The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson looked like a good read, but the author had an anti-Muslim bent that soon was demonstrated and the book was tossed. I probably have such let-downs only once every other year. I now find that ability to move away from a bad read more easily done in my life than when I was younger and encountered a less-than-fulfilling book.

My parents did not have a finish everything on your plate policy, but I never recall anyone at our family table ever not finishing a meal. My mom was a really good cook. The grandkids, however, grew up under different roofs and mom gave great allowances for what need not be eaten once on the plate.  As I returned the Bourne digital book back to the library I thought of the words mom would use to let a young one know that eating all the green beans was not necessary to have a slice of pie.

With that, I turned to my bookshelves upstairs and pulled out a volume by David Liss, an author who has never let me down.  A Spectacle of Corruption with my favorite 18th-century Londoner, Benjamin Weaver. Book writing the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

And so it goes.

National Praise For Senator Tammy Baldwin

When a determined effort for a just cause bears fruit there is a need to praise the ones who led the way forward.

US President Joe Biden signs the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House, Senator Tammy Baldwin above the president’s head. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

That is the mood from the White House and across the country as Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin received sincere thanks and kind words as President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act.  Also meritorious of thanks were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Maine Senator Susan Collins. The majorities in each legislative chamber who gave their vote for passage were also part of the reason for the national uplift as the president added his name that concluded this law-making process.

It is not every bill signing in D.C. where those assembled get musical performances to highlight the significance of what was achieved by members of Congress.  Tuesday those on the South Lawn were treated to musical performances by Cyndi Lauper and Sam Smith.  For those in the land who yearn for how Washington once worked when crafting legislation came the knowledge that the Marriage Act was passed with bipartisan support.  No matter from what perspective one looked at the ceremony there was something to cheer about with sincerity.

While watching the event, it struck me again how much progress has been made in this nation for gay rights.  While having been a Biden supporter since his short-lived and, yes, embarrassing presidential run in 1987, I readily admit to great displeasure with his vote for the Defense of Marriage Act in the 90s.  That political mistake from Biden made his signature of the Marriage Act even more meaningful, as it demonstrated how our society and the political culture have adapted to the requirement of including gay Americans fully into the laws of the land.

But as we know there are always reasons never to relent in that work of democracy.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas stated this summer in a concurring opinion in the Dobbs case that the same rationale the Court used to declare there was no right to abortion should also be used to overturn cases establishing rights to contraception, same-sex consensual relations, and same-sex marriage. Thomas wrote that the court “should reconsider” all three decisions, saying it had a duty to “correct the error” established in those precedents. Then, he said, after “overruling these demonstrably erroneous decisions, the question would remain whether other constitutional provisions” protected the rights they established.

Senator Baldwin has been a continuous advocate and skilled tactician within the senate so to achieve desired results with legislation. That was noted at the White House when Biden praised Baldwin by name, saying the bipartisan vote “simply would not have happened without the leadership and persistence of a real hero.” Wisconsinites could not agree more.

Those who voted against the bill and tried to thwart progress in this nation concerning civil rights will face the judgment of historians.  But first, they will undoubtedly, hear from gay relatives and members of their community.

Baldwin has always earned my admiration.  To be openly authentic in living her life and proving that a gay person can achieve continuous statewide election victories means more to me, perhaps, after having grown up as a gay teenager in a rural part of the state. I know many legal steps have been taken over the years to better secure gay rights.  But I never forget how it felt, when younger, to know there was no protection for two adults of the same sex who loved each other and only desired the same rights as others who were able to wed.  Baldwin never relented from doing her job with empathy along with an understanding of where our nation must head.

There is deep gratitude for Senator Baldwin and the many others in Congress who know the work of democracy continues.

Assault Weapons Face Wrath Of Illinois Citizens

When the legislative process works in accordance with the needs of society, and the desires of the majority for public safety there is a reason for general applause. Too often the monied interests and top-name lobbyists pull the levers in legislatures. Therefore, when long-simmering issues finally reach the committee process and the top half of newspapers, we can cheer both the governing process and the topic at hand. Simply put Illinois had more than 50 mass shootings in the state in 2022 and people are tired of the death and bloodshed.

Today, Illinois lawmakers held a hearing on legislation that would ban the sale and ownership of assault-style weapons.  The measure is akin to what both California and New York, upon listening to their citizens, have done with the enactment of similar laws.  House Bill 5855 would outlaw the manufacture, possession, delivery, selling, and purchasing of assault weapons, .50 caliber rifles, and .50 caliber cartridges.

It comes as no surprise why such a bill is clearly warranted as data proves firearm homicides increased by 35% from 2019 to 2020 nationwide, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Legislators have heard the calls from Illinois voters and seen the polling from Global Strategy Group which shows support among registered Illinois voters at 58% for an assault-style weapons ban in the state while 66% said they wanted the minimum age to obtain a FOID card raised from 18 to 21.  (Illinois is one of four states to require a state-issued Firearm Owner Identification Card — known as a FOID card — to own a firearm, which it has done for decades.)

It likely does not need to be explained to folks in the Midwest what spurred this measure. The dastardly July 4th massacre in Highland Park gave impetus for sensible gun control legislation.  This bill will ban over 100 guns which include the AR-15 rifle which was used to kill seven people and also injured 48 others in that one shooting event alone.  I very much agree with the provision that makes it illegal to purchase or possess magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds and also bans the sale or purchase of “switches,” which can increase a weapon’s rate of fire. Equally important, in my estimation, is the aim of the bill to increase the age for people to carry a firearm from 18 to 21. The data shows what happens when unstable young men with mental health issues or feverish extreme political views have easy access to purchasing assault weapons that can kill scores of people in mere seconds.

I have been reading and following the politics of this measure, which is as important as the bill’s content.  I sense a strong move for passage. This bill will get over the finish line.  As of this morning, there are more than 25 co-sponsors and in interviews over the past month, top assembly leaders have promised the matter is not only a priority piece of legislation but could be passed in a lame-duck session in early 2023. Governor JB Pritzker is a solid supporter of the bill and will affix his signature as soon as the paperwork is placed on his desk. 

The gun epidemic is so pervasive and perverse that it will take a series of bills and avenues of strategy to start to stem the death and bloodshed. At this point, the aim is to reduce gun crimes by limiting the sale of certain types of guns and curtailing the ability of young men to purchase weapons designed for the battlefield. While we know the gun-toting NRA types will swirl about with lawsuits and legal procedures let us not forget that in the reality of how people are confronted with gun violence in churches, grocery stores, schools, and too many neighborhoods it is incumbent that elected officials grasp one solid fact. 

The tail should never wag the dog. Citizens have had their fill of selfish gun owners, easy access to gun sales, along with deadly and reckless outcomes.  Illinois is fighting back.

And we can strongly applaud their efforts.

“Never Kevin” McCarthy Conservatives Will Bend By January 3rd, Motion To Vacate Will Be Flushed

If one were to place bets on who the next Speaker of the House of Representatives will be the odds must be with Congressman Kevin McCarthy. While it is true the California conservative has fawned over Donald Trump and weakened his own hand with such embarrassing displays and was at the heart of the GOP-wide campaign to whitewash the details of the insurrection on January 6 and therefore should never hold the prized gavel, we should think again.  Perhaps McCarthy is getting what he deserves.

With a very slim margin of seats, McCarthy is seeking the third most powerful office in our national government. He needs 218 votes on January 3rd, and there are several ways to get there, including having a few Democrats not on the floor or merely voting “present”. But to attain the speakership, and more importantly retaining it, requires a battle with the most absurd right-wingers the Republican Party surely now regrets fostering.  There are, as of this posting, five staunch and verbal conservatives who have said they cannot and will not support McCarthy for the job of speaker. I suspect they can be and will be cheaply bought off with a committee assignment or a tote bag filled with boxed wine and coupons for Chick-fil-A.  Getting these rabble-rousers in line will be achieved. At some point before the January vote, it will happen.

But until then the circus performance from the likes of Arizona Congressman Andy Biggs is underway.  He has ‘graciously’ offered himself up for the title but to be a leader there need to be followers.  Other than the ‘titan of boorish behavior’ Congressman Matt Gaetz and a few others in the always discontented column the rank and file has mostly stayed quiet and away from the carnival tent. The far-right is demanding that the House reinstate what is known as the “motion to vacate” which would allow any member of the House to force a vote to oust the sitting speaker.  It should not surprise anyone that what the right-wingers want is simply what they are never going to achieve because no leader with a desire to prevail in the long run would ever consent to his own destruction.

Biggs has stated that if McCarthy does not step aside or surrender to his demands “unnecessary chaos” will occur at the start of the new year when Congress reconvenes. If McCarthy were smart, he would call up author and historian Robert Caro and have a long conversation about how Lyndon Johnson snapped members like Biggs in two and then used them like pool sticks in the game of politics.

It goes without saying McCarty has stated the motion to vacate is off the table and out the door. He has the bulk of his caucus behind him on this issue, as a majority of the House GOP voted against the idea during a closed-door meeting last month. No logical person or organization allows steps for its own destruction. Even the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War did not provide, ironically enough, for the secession by individual states. 

It has been cheap theater to see all the hurdles McCarthy is jumping over and those people he otherwise might have at arm’s length (Congressman Jim Jordan) now at his side.  He will have a constant thorn pricking him from the most rigid ones in his party, even after allowing him to be speaker. While McCarthy is not an honorable man, given his lack of regard for ferreting out the root causes of Donald Trump and his ilk that created the insurrection, we should still desire him to be speaker.  First, it will derail the most rabid on the right in the House from securing their sense of victory.  Secondly, we should want McCarthy to be speaker because at times the worst thing one can achieve is what has so long been fought for, and once in hand, backfires.

Kyrsten Sinema Plays A Mighty Weak Hand With Political Stunt

This is one of those posts that in two years I will re-clipping segments of to underscore what we knew to be true at the beginning pages of the final chapter of Kyrsten Sinema’s political career.

From a strategy point of view, in that Arizona voted Democratic for every major seat in the state this year, the news today that U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema is leaving the Democratic Party, labeling herself instead as an “Arizona independent.” seems like a bad move.  The major players in Washington, while obviously having much to say out of the reach of a microphone, are acting in politeness as she keeps her committee seats and is treated to niceties for acting favorable with the large bills thus far passed in this session of the congress.

But the voices that really matter are those in her home state, where the Democratic Party which knows her best and reviles her most, is already designing the 2024 primary election season which will send a message that she will doubtless then be able to understand.  By weakening her hand with a truly baffling and artlessly played statement today she has likely ceded her role in any future political body.   In other words, her career as a senator is in its waning years.

Republicans were already licking their chops with a vision of capturing her seat and are not going to give her anything that makes her look credible in the coming session.  Democrats will play along to get along as pragmatism in governing is always the smartest way to plow ahead.  But the sleeveless woman now finds herself in the lonely world that fits best in the middle school context.

The kid who eats lunch alone at the far end of the cafeteria.  She knows she could not survive a primary in the Democratic Party but seemingly forgets that she still has to move up and down and over and around the increasing number of political dodgeballs that will plague her in what now will be a never-ending type of nerve-jarring gym class.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on Congressman Ruben Gallego who is one of those ideal candidates Arizona is known for when sending people to the senate.  Famed POW John McCain or astronaut Mark Kelly. The outspoken, bilingual Marine Corps veteran has been quietly assembling a Senate campaign team, and with the bizarre news today Gallego is soon to strike the bell of his entrance as a candidate.

He struck the right tone and approach this morning.  “Whether in the Marine Corps or in Congress, I have never backed down from fighting for Arizonans. And at a time when our nation needs leadership most, Arizona deserves a voice that won’t back down in the face of struggle. Unfortunately, Senator Sinema is once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans.”

What this all proves is what I have known since entering high school in 1976.  Politics is never, ever boring.

Gregory Humphrey History Minute Video: Inauguration Day And Death 1853

My 60-second history video. Few know this story about President Franklin Pierce and former First Lady Abigail Fillmore. Read more history and never be bored again. But first, watch this fast story.