Gregory Humphrey’s Second Book Moving Along To Completion

When people say off-the-cuff at a barbeque or dinner party, and usually after a couple of beverages, ‘I should write a book’ it sounds as if the experience will be effortless and just smooth sailing with smiles the whole way through from start to finish.  After completing my first book Walking Up The Ramp I am more than able to dispel any fanciful idea that the process is easy or not taxing on the stress level.  Meaningful, yes. Introspective, certainly. Time-consuming, absolutely. Enriching…well, check the many meanings of the word in a dictionary and one will actually fit!

As I am in the final stretch of my second book, knowing full well the lure of the summer sun and warm nights having too easily pulled me from my desk I can say the journey of writing and packaging this effort is well worth my investment of time and resolve.   But the self-imposed deadline for the publication to meet the change of seasons from summer to fall will not be met.  But I do see land ahead! Like any good journey on water, it all gets better when seagulls fly overhead, and I can say that is the case here.

As I ponder this project that started last November, I am reminded of a cartoon that sums up the book-writing experience for folks like me who do not have a New York agent.

Stay tuned for updates, the project will be worth the wait. 

Thank You, David McCullough

American author and historian David McCullough in his writing shed where he still used a 1941 Royal typewriter, at his home in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, USA, 4th February 2002. (Photo by Stephen Rose/Getty Images)

Several years ago, on a summer evening, as the Amtrak train pulled out of Washington D.C.’s Union Station, James and I sat in our sleeper car ready for a trip that would take us overnight to Chicago. It was 2017, and the weight of the outcome of the previous fall’s election was pressing against the contours of our national sense of norms and traditions. In our compartment, as the train trekked towards Pittsburg, over the swaths of America that were like painted vistas as the sun set, we settled back with some books we had purchased on our vacation.  Among them was The American Spirit by David McCullough.  It was subtitled Who We Are and What We Stand For.

The collection of speeches from the famed historian had been released just weeks prior and James was immersed within the pages.  (I had Thomas Fleming’s book on the Founding Fathers as my selection while drinking a cup of coffee from Amtrak’s kitchen car.) We had followed the advice from only a couple of weeks prior upon hearing McCullough, in a wide-ranging interview, and in his usual eloquent way about why people needed to see this country’s national parks and historic sites. He spoke about the need to show young people the wonders of the past. James and I were already months into the planning for such a trip that took us to Washington, D.C., and some sites in the general area. Connecting with the touchstones of the past was exactly the very thing that McCullough urged.

Tonight, America is learning of the death of David McCullough, a man so many truly respected and admired. He was 89 years old.

In 1992, as President George Herbert Walker Bush was campaigning for reelection his Truman-like train came into Plover, Wisconsin with a long blowing of the whistle. It was a cold and blustery day across Wisconsin.  Light snow flurries swirled through the air as many thousands stood for hours at the old train depot. The presidential campaign that year was winding down, and Bush was campaigning with David McCullough’s latest book Truman in his hand while reminding voters that he too could win the election as Harry did in 1948.  In spite of the polls, there were still campaign stops to be made as Bush was working overtime at trying to make his Truman moment come true.

(As a side note my mom and dad attended that rally with me. We arrived very early which allowed us to stand up front near the podium.  It needs to be noted that in 1944 this is where my mother’s family had debarked upon their arrival from Ozone, Arkansas.  It was that tidbit from history and the circle coming around again that would have made McCullough smile.)

Again, that fall in Waukesha I would attend a Bush rally where the candidate alerted the huge turnout that he had read McCullough’s book and he was going to be like the Missourian come Election Night.  That was the trip I was able to shake both George’s and Barbara’s hands.  Again, the historian would have smiled as he knew American values, as expressed by joint efforts to accomplish things, mattered in our system of government; that joint effort starts with listening and respecting each other.

In Washington, it is one thing to see the Lincoln Memorial in daylight, but to stand in the lighted wonder at night and ponder Abe is quite another.  I had found myself talking to many people day after day and asking them their impressions of sites all over the city. As such, I asked a black woman who was, I learned, age 88 what her feelings were about the memorial. It was her first time to see it and being from Jamaica she spoke as one who knew of the power Lincoln’s words gave to those outside this nation. “It is very powerful for everyone,” she said with soft words and dark knowing eyes.

On the backside of the memorial looking out across the Potomac, I spoke to a father and then told his young teenage children about the battle of First Bull Run and how many townspeople took carriages and boxed lunches to watch the battle as many felt the war would be a short term operation.  Hours later the beaten and badly wounded soldiers would be limping or being carried back over the river into Washington.  Some without shoes, others without guns, others without an eye or limb.   It was interesting to see the young look out and hear of the events and perhaps in their mind see history play out.  

I just know Dave McCullough would smile at such a conversation.  It was exactly what he hoped our nation’s citizens would do, and how we might engage with one another. Caring about history, along with our nation’s highest ideals, and the continued desire to reach them is the best way we can remember and honor this man.

Godspeed, David.

Kansas Looks Like Modern America, Problem For Conservatives In Mid-Term Elections

It was not so long ago that the nation was reading and talking about Thomas Frank’s book, What’s The Matter With Kansas?  The author went back to his home state to dive into the reason for the right-wing fascination with culture wars.  More to the point, he pondered why do so many Americans vote against their economic and social interests.

Tuesday night, like so many others across the nation, I was following the counting of the ballots in Kansas as it related to a constitutional question regarding abortion rights for their citizens. I was certainly heartened by the outcome, but also stunned that it happened, and by such a wide margin of victory.

The question for the voters in the conservative state could not have been any clearer and to the point. Do you favor removing state constitutional protections for abortion access?

Given the ideological ruling by the conservatives on the Supreme Court in the Dobbs case, state after state will become election battlegrounds where the citizenry will be asked to stomp down the overzealous nature of those who feel a need or a ‘right’ to interfere with a woman’s reproductive health care decisions. The question going forward will be how strident the GOP acts given the reality of the mood among the voters regarding this issue.

To be fair with the facts—and I try to be on this blog–Republicans could feel confident going into the balloting about the political landscape, given the voting record of Kansas.  I noted last night that only one Democratic presidential nominee won Kansas since 1940! That was Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964.  Today, conservative Republican supermajorities control the legislature.  Add in the politics of a midterm primary with GOP candidates up and down the ballot and the suspected low-voter turnout for such balloting could lead the GOP to believe the amendment was a slam-dunk.

If the conservatives watched the polls, they would have had more reason to feel confident, as every pre-election poll suggested passage was most certain.  They could feel the power in their hands, as it was likely that voters would say yes, thus striking the abortion language in the state constitution, and come January a total ban on abortion would be passed in the legislature.  

So, what happened?

The problem of course, for the conservative Republicans, is that they have lost insight into the importance that women, and supportive men, too, place on the right to abortion services along with the ability of women to make their own decisions about their body. They misjudged suburban voters…Lord, how they misjudged them. The giddiness that followed the stripping of a fifty-year-old precedent in the nation was not lost on the people in Kansas.   A conservative state, I must add, once again.

Kansas voters favored abortion rights by over 20 points.  Now, I am not a consultant or even engaged directly in any race come the fall elections. But if I were advising a candidate, it would be to make hay with the backlash that is building in the states about a woman’s right to choose.  I would urge candidates to take this battle directly into the heart of conservative country.

This morning the data from Kansas shows that turnout was near a record level for a midterm primary election.  Looking at the map today of the outcome the success in balloting occurred not only in progressive areas, but far direr for the GOP across the nation come the midterms, success Tuesday took place in Middle America and more moderate Republican areas like the Kansas City suburbs.  There were also red areas of the state that said to Alito and Company “get your hands off my body”. That message needs to resonate within the Republican Party from top to bottom.

When this election cycle is over another assessment will need to be made of the political culture wars perpetrated by conservatives.  A new book might be required, and the title I propose is It Started In Kansas.

What Happened To Republican Party? How Conservative Movement, White Resentments Impacted United States, Rick Perlstein Books Must-Reads

In 2008 I tried to understand, as best as I could, what drove the intense hatred during the presidential election from conservative Republicans toward Barack Obama.  For a very large segment of the nation, the nomination and then election of the first Black American to the Oval Office was uplifting, reminding all about the national ideals as our better angels secured another victory.

But as I read and heard the voices from the far-right it became apparent to me that a sizable segment of the conservative movement could not at all compute how the nation had elevated a Black person to the highest office in the land. The intensity of the conservative reaction to President Obama taking over the levers of power in the White House was the result of decades of social advancements and policy moves in the United States that had the right-wing feeling—in their minds—somehow marginalized.

Fast forward to 2015 and the words from Donald Trump during an ABC News phone interview stating he did not owe Senator John McCain an apology for saying on-stage in Iowa the previous day that the former Vietnam War POW “is not a war hero … I like people that weren’t captured, OK?”

Coming from the home of a WWII veteran, having worked for many years in various political activities, and having watched decades of elections come and go made me most certain, due to those words, that Trump’s campaign for the White House was over.  I wrote on this blog that “there is one thing that I feel most confident about and that is the fallout will take Donald Trump and flush him out of the presidential race”.

I could not imagine that all the sensibilities that had been wedded to the American mindset when it came to our politics would no longer apply.  I could not imagine that the conservative values about our military members would just evaporate when it came to POWs.  Boy, was I wrong!  (I do not believe I have been so wrong about anything so fundamental in our nation before or since.) 

So how does one explain what happened to the Republican Party and how did the conservative movement secure itself so strongly and willingly to racism, Trump’s Islamophobia, along with recent political attacks on transgender people, while embracing all-out conspiracy theories? 

Since Inauguration Day 2017 I have been on a quest to better understand what happened to the Republican Party and how it morphed into what we witness today. The need to know is important as what is happening directly impacts our democracy.

I expressed my purpose online and was steered by a Facebook friend to read the works of Rick Perlstein.  To know where we landed politically requires knowing how the conservative movement started. Before we can discuss the current claims that the 2020 presidential election was not ‘legitimate’, we need to traverse through the world of Nixon who unabashedly played on the resentments of white middle-class Americans.  We need to step back from the travel bans during Trump’s administration and examine the racial chords being struck in 1968 during a heated presidential season. And again in 1980.

To see forward, we must know from whence we came. As a lover of history and well-researched and powerfully written narratives, I believe these books are nothing short of masterful.  I have read two of the four, and today the first volume, Before the Storm landed on my front stoop.  I await the journey into the pages.

With awards aplenty and critical acclaim from all points of the political spectrum, Perlstein writes dense and vivid accounts of the decades in American politics that have greatly impacted our nation. I can attest that one only needs a love of history to turn the pages. 

Let Kids Read…Whatever They Find Interesting

I read a column this week in the Los Angeles Times that again called our attention to banned books. The column also raised a memory from my childhood that strikes at the heart of this issue.

David Ulin composed a tightly written and fast read about the place we find ourselves with the latest pushes for banning books in places all over the nation. We might like to believe that such behavior is located only in red counties and conservative states. But that would be very much mistaken.

In 2018 the Monona Grove School District in Dane County was considering whether it should continue teaching To Kill a Mockingbird after a parent complained that the racially charged language in the novel is inappropriate.  That would suggest some in our area have no more ability to digest and discuss thought-provoking books than people we now argue with about banning James Baldwin. In the end, the school board continued the use of the book in the classroom.

That episode crossed my mind as I read Ulin’s opinion article.

The house where I was raised had an open shelf rule. This meant my brother and I were allowed to read anything, no matter how inappropriate or beyond our years. We never had to ask.

I spent hours of my childhood perusing the volumes on my father’s bookcases at will, trial and error. Histories, thrillers, science fiction, books on politics and culture — all of it was available to me.

I keep thinking about this as more and more school districts participate in what is shaping up to look like an open war against reading. According to “Banned in the USA,” a report issued by the writers’ organization PEN America in April, nearly 1,600 individual books were banned in 26 states between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022.

Among the titles challenged or removed are Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” Elizabeth Acevedo’s “The Poet X,” Roxane Gay’s “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” and Robin Benway’s “Far From the Tree.” All are works of abiding literary merit that address issues of identity and race and family — in other words, exactly the kinds of books students should be reading now.

Although the challenging of books and curriculum is hardly new in the United States, what we’re facing now is somewhat different. Of the current bans, PEN notes, “41% (644 individual bans) are tied to directives from state officials or elected lawmakers to investigate or remove books in schools.” It is not parents or even school boards driving many of these challenges. It is the power of the state.

I have a visceral reaction when the topic of banning books is raised. To place constraints on an individual as to what can be read and learned and what ideas can be entertained is just unacceptable. Books are a gateway to new concepts and allow for a higher level of reasoning.

My memory of attempted censorship took place when I was in grade school, the 6th grade.

“Do your parents know you are reading this book?”

That question from Mrs. Tunks, a schoolteacher of mine, was as close as book censorship ever came my way.  I still recall the stair steps in the old schoolhouse where she pointed at my copy of The Throne Of Saturn by Allen Drury, and while looking at it sounded her prudish alarm, though for what reason I could never understand. 

Other than the fact the book was 600 pages, and ‘kids’ were not supposed to read anything other than the Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys series–which I blew through in the 4th grade, provides no real explanation for her remark. 

The fact my parents encouraged me to read, as it kept me interested in all sorts of things, did not seem to settle her skeptical mind as to why that book would intrigue me.  A space adventure between the United States and the Soviet Union was high drama for my 6th-grade mind, and I guess for lots of adult readers as well, or it would never have been published.  I finished that book and kept Allen Drury as a writer I have long enjoyed into my adult years.

And when the book was finished dad drove me to our little local library to get another one to read. Those drives were a Friday evening ritual.

Today the hard copy edition of that book sets on my shelf as not only a reminder of a good read but also to underscore a long-held belief of mine.  No one should be censoring reading material for inquisitive minds.

Let young people be exposed to books and ideas!

Different Way To Ponder Watergate Break-In 50 Years Ago Today

Though I am busy with the final stages of finishing my second book there was no way to not post about an event in history that not only energized my interest in Richard Nixon, but also one that profoundly changed the nation.

Fifty years ago tonight the Watergate break-in occurred. Five burglars were arrested at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, but what was to be uncovered in the following two years turned out to be a cast of characters best described as “white-collar criminals, hatchet men, and rogues” as Garrett Graff wrote in a Watergate: A New History.

The illegal, devious, and at times, truly absurd and comical activities would ultimately lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Though Nixon was well-read, educated, and to be praised for grand chess moves on the international stage, such as with the opening to China, his glaring character flaws defined his presidency. His actions and those he either condoned by others or by his conveyance of an attitude that stepping over legal boundaries was allowed proved his major ethical failing.

In 2017, more revelations were reported to underscore why a lenient tone and mindset from the Oval Office about illegal political activities gave license to others to act recklessly. It was stunning to learn Watergate prosecutors had evidence that operatives for Nixon planned an assault on anti-war demonstrators in 1972, including potentially physically attacking Vietnam whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

Anniversaries, such as the one we observe today, almost force one to reflect on the past. American politics would be vastly different had Nixon not used dirty tricks on his political opponents, or used the power of his office to attempt to thwart an investigation into wrong-doing.

But one can go a step further, as I have long argued, that had there been no stolen election in Texas that placed Lyndon Baines Johnson in the U.S. Senate the war in Southeast Asia would have played out differently. The anti-war movement and resulting violence and social upheaval might not have occurred, removing a theme Nixon used most successfully to win the 1968 balloting.

Longtime readers know of my deep respect for author and historian Robert Caro. His book Means Of Ascent about the 1948 special Texas senatorial election where LBJ’s win by 87 votes–votes that were manufactured by his backers and created from a phone book–makes the later newsreel footage of “Landslide Johnson” as it relates to Vietnam all the more biting and troubling.  

The story of Box 13 from Alice, Texas is not new by any means,   But the fully detailed and piece-by-piece unwinding of the drama over a large segment in Volume Two of Caro’s work on LBJ is not only masterly crafted but also a gut-punch even to those who know the background prior to opening the pages.  Caro submits an exhaustive amount of research in a polished manner where it seems that only intricate details are the ones fit to print.  In other words, he respects the readers he writes for, and that is most uplifting.

I had never before read the testimonies given in court by the individuals who conspired with LBJ to steal the election.  It was riveting.  The Johnson family is not fond of Caro and that is due to the writer, in grand detail providing historical evidence that coercion, lost ballot boxes, and corruption were practiced as high art by Johnson. Also, it needs noting for many decades by many Texan pols.

But the point here is that had Johnson not ‘won’ in 1948 he would not have been a national figure at the time of the Vietnam War.

In fact, had there been the lack of national angst that rose to levels of bombings and university strife and mayhem on the streets, due in large part to the Vietnam War, Nixon would not have had a natural opening to revive his political career. His loss in 1960, coupled with a spiritless race for governor in California had already removed him from national prospects for office.

The nation’s faith in elected officials, political institutions, and our standing on the world stage was tremendously impacted both by Vietnam and Watergate.

Those types of thoughts swirled around many years ago when James and I left the Jefferson Memorial and took a taxi to the Watergate. I thought perhaps there would be a coffee shop where we could catch a late lunch. Once we made the large arc of a driveway to the Watergate and were greeted by a uniformed man opening the car door I knew this was going to be even grander than I had first thought.    We asked about some food options and were seated outdoors. As you might expect, it was easy to get caught up in the history of the place.

To sit there and just take in the surroundings, while pondering the enormity of the break-in that would lead to the constitutional crisis that would envelop this nation was truly sobering.  Later that evening I would pass the courthouse where Judge John Sirica would make his rulings.

There were only a few items on the lunch menu and since visiting Washington requires carbs and calories for the constant adrenaline rushes I settled on bagels with cream cheese, lox, and capers.  It came with a side dish of fresh fruit–blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries.  And of course, coffee.

During lunch, I thought of former Wisconsin State Representative Lary Swoboda, an avid reader of books about Nixon who had many recollections about the events and mood of the nation during those tumultuous years.  He had died without making it to the famed building, so in some sense, Lary did make it to the Watergate–at least in memories.

Telling the friendly waiter at the end of lunch how pleased I was to have had the experience and made my interest in Nixon known, she put both hands over her head–the peace sign made with fingers in each hand–and said “I am not a crook.”

It was perfect!

Slow-Down In Blogging At Caffeinated Politics Until Publishing Project Completed

Starting May 3rd, and expected to continue for no more than three months, Caffeinated Politics will seem to have fewer opinions and musings on a daily basis. Most weeks there have been five or six articles, some of which were linked by local media sites in Madison or Milwaukee.

But starting tomorrow, I will post no more than once or twice a week as my attention will be focused on a book project aimed to be published this summer. It will be my second book.

Over the winter, and into the start of spring, I have juggled a writing project with everything else I feel committed to doing, which was not so bad as winter held sway outside. But with spring trying to land in Madison, and knowing at some point soon it truly will, means I really need to stay focused and make progress with the project.

As such, I will slow down on posting for a few months. I am excited about the future and love the project that is engaging my time.

And so it goes.

How To Excite Students About History

Some years ago, I tutored a high school student in history for one semester. We were starting with the Articles of Confederation and the War for Independence on this side of the pond. He truly was not interested in ‘those dead men’ and looking at his textbook I could not argue that the writing was tortured and not aimed to excite a young mind.

Enter my favorite Founding Father.

I brought some copied pages from a book that told the story of the morning Alexander Hamilton and Arron Burr met for a duel that killed one and ravaged the reputation of another. I added the slice of trivia about how Dolly Madison and Hamilton’s widow, Elizabeth Hamilton, waved from carriages at the celebration when the cornerstone of the Washington Monument was put in place.

Bit by bit over the weeks I supplemented the staid textbook with the richer and more colorful aspects of the lives of the ones he was to learn about for classroom discussion. While I am sure the student did not become a history major, I know he passed that class.

Using outside sources to aid in teaching history would seem to be essential for teachers, as I can not imagine the school textbooks have improved to the point where they are engaging for students. Recently that thought came to mind when reading Russian history. (If you think teaching American history is tough—ponder Russian history from the early 1700s!)

Over the decades the caliber of historical writing has grown along with easier ways to research the past. Using the outcomes of such advancements in the classroom (even with the restriction on copyrights) can go a long way in creating the context for students to ‘see the past’, and better understand why it matters.

From The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore.