July 4th Or “Birth Of A Nation”? Leni Riefenstahl Type Film To Follow?

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We can title this one ‘Birth of a Nation’–the sequel.  Or the follow-up to the work of  Leni Riefenstahl.

Historians will write of this year’s hubris and undermining of what the Founders had wished to be front and center on July 4th.  And what happens when an under-educated egomaniac takes power. And they will also write what happens when a segment of the nation either does not care, nor knows better.

Trump is remaking Washington, DC’s Independence Day celebrations into a political event.  If one has never learned the value of our past it is easy to smear–and we have proof of that in what Trump is planning for July 4th.

There will be a cordoned-off area for dignitaries, family, and friends only accessible to those with White House-distributed tickets.  Well, that makes it clear as to what is being planned.

With the racist moves against brown people at the southern border, the coddling of White Nationalists,  and the bonding with international dictators and strongmen there must be deep concern when the holiday designed to showcase our values is turned into a political rally.  Grotesque is an understatement. 

Meanwhile at the Madison, Wisconsin home of your blogger a special American flag will fly high and proud.  The flag was flown over Mount Vernon and is lifted up the mast at our home once a year and then stored in a protective bag for the following year.  That is what reverence for the holiday looks like.

What Trump is planning can be summed up in one word.

Unprecedented.

Given the event will showcase flyovers by Air Force One, the Blue Angels, and other military aircraft there is a clear message of power and bombast as opposed to the deep meanings of the written words in the Declaration of Independence.   History proves what happens when nationalism is misused, and power upstages the quiet contemplative tones that people need to have about their country.

Only one other president attempted such a spectacle as Trump is now doing.  And it resulted in a disaster.  Long-time readers will not be shocked to find I now head back to the Nixon presidency.

Nixon had, in 1970, deepened U.S. involvement in the extremely unpopular Vietnam War by invading Cambodia. That was the year that four college students were killed at Kent Sate.  So to drum up support for the war, and his administration, some high-profile supporters decided to hold an “Honor America Day” on July 4th in DC.  In the end teargas was used on protesters and mayhem of all sorts broke out.  It was a political fiasco.

No other president has ever before attended DC’s annual Independence Day celebrations, in part because of security concerns.

The more important reason why other presidents have not acted so cavalierly, is the weight and gravitas of this day, given the meaning it has for the entire narrative of our nation.  Only those too diseased in spirit and soul will find joy in Trump’s plans.

Donald Trump’s self-serving upstaging of the national holiday requires a national rebuke.

And so it goes.

Donald Trump Embarrasses Nation At Mount Vernon

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Where I wanted to drink a cup of coffee and watch the sun set…

What Donald Trump does not know about American history continues to make news, and further underscores why he is such a national embarrassment.

Long time readers to this blog are fully aware of my love of history.  While I never assert everyone needs to have an in-depth background on all parts of our story, I do strongly contend there needs to be a firm grasp of the themes of our history and a friendliness with the narrative of our time as a republic.  That is what I believe each person and voter should have to be a good citizen.  But when it comes to a president I want a full and rich grasp of what came before so to steady the current hand of leadership.  Call me old-fashioned, but I think my view to be most reasonable.

Which then leads me to the story about Donald Trump visiting Mount Vernon. Today it is being reported that when Trump had a guided tour of Mount Vernon last April with French president Emmanuel Macron, Trump proved to be a simpleton.  I call it as I see it.

For the record I was able to visit Mount Vernon two years ago–just about this time of year.  It was a thrill that went to my inner core as it resonated so much with what I read and think about concerning the formative days of our nation.  I spent several minutes just standing on his lawn in reflective thought looking over the Potomac.  I would have so loved to been able to sit with a cup of coffee and watch the sun lower over the home and water while sensing more fully what Washington would have viewed so often.   James and I visited on one of those hot days when the humidity was very high, but that suited me just fine so to experience the conditions that often confronted those who lived and worked on this large farm.

I was so moved with this slice of history we brought back a flag which was flown at Mount Vernon.  We have only flown it at our home on July 4th.   It comes down the evening of that holiday and stored in a special container for the following year.

Trump never once came close to any such observations or sentiments as he visited Mount Vernon.  What is worse to know is that he has no curiosity about our national story or the people who made the nation great.

The president’s disinterest in Washington made it tough for tour guide Bradburn to sustain Trump’s interest during a deluxe 45-minute tour of the property which he later described to associates as “truly bizarre.” The Macrons, Bradburn has told several people, were far more knowledgeable about the history of the property than the president.

A former history professor with a PhD, Bradburn “was desperately trying to get [Trump] interested in” Washington’s house, said a source familiar with the visit, so he spoke in terms Trump understands best — telling the president that Washington was an 18th century real-estate titan who had acquired property throughout Virginia and what would come to be known as Washington, D.C.

Trump asked whether Washington was “really rich,” according to a second person familiar with the visit. In fact, Washington was either the wealthiest or among the wealthiest Americans of his time, thanks largely to his mini real estate empire.

“That is what Trump was really the most excited about,” this person said.

If Trump was impressed with Washington’s real estate instincts, he was less taken by Mount Vernon itself, which the first president personally expanded from a modest one-and-a-half story home into an 11,000 square foot mansion. The rooms, Trump said, were too small, the staircases too narrow, and he even spotted some unevenness in the floorboards, according to four sources briefed on his comments. He could have built the place better, he said, and for less money.

America’s 45th president is open about the fact that he doesn’t read much history. Trump said in July 2016 that he had never read a presidential biography — and had no plans to do so. Though he is an avid fan of George Patton, the flashy, tough-talking World War II general, he has shown less interest in learning about his presidential predecessors or about the office he now occupies. Former White House aides say Trump initially did not know the history of the Resolute Desk, which has been used by presidents since Rutherford B. Hayes, though he now enjoys showing it off to visitors to the Oval Office.

Trump’s lack of interest in presidential history, said the historian Jon Meacham, means that he has “basically thrown out the one data set available to him. We don’t have anything else to study. It’s all you got.” It also stands in contrast to the fascination of other presidents with their predecessors. Even former President George W. Bush — not known as a tweedy intellectual — consumed several presidential biographies while in office.

Paul Soglin, George Washington, And The Symbolism Of Keys

The gotcha moment last week in the Wisconsin gubernatorial race was designed to create much chatter.  For having the ability to hit a controversial nail square on the head Governor Scott Walker succeeded.  Walker stated how alarming it was that in 1975 Madison Mayor Paul Soglin gave the key to the city to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.  Politicos of all stripes are talking about it, mentioning it on social media, and writing columns concerning it in newspapers.

There are many favorable things to say about Soglin.  He is a respected leader, effective politician, and able to stand before an audience without notes and respond to questions with paragraph-length answers strewn with data.   One has to truly admire such a person.  Just recently I again called his office to register support for an action he took–the latest being his tough stand about liquor sales on State Street.

But when it comes to the symbolic move of giving the key of the city to Castro there is no way to say it other than to admit history agrees with Walker.  Except in some tortured revisionist writing the real world of the Castro dictatorship is well known.   Simply brutal and unforgiving.  That view of the Castro regime was known in 1975 when Soglin made his move.  As compelling as it may seem to link that symbolic gesture to improving communications and fostering better international relations in Cuba, let it not be forgotten that allowing a dictator to have the type of positive inroads with such propaganda was not warranted considering the despicable way he ruled.

Some argue that Soglin’s action was merely a symbolic move, and Good Lord, it was more than 40 years ago so let us move on and talk about the issues of the day.  But for many people symbolic actions are taken more seriously and it can be argued, should not be treated so cavalierly.

At George Washington’s Mount Vernon there is among so many artifacts, one that simply demands to be gazed at and pondered–regardless of how many others are pressing behind urging for those ahead to move along.  (Believe me, I know.)  Sent by Washington’s longtime friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, the key to the Bastille is hung prominently in the president’s state dining room.   The key represented a major turning point in the global surge of liberty.  It is noted Washington knew the significance of the key as a “token of victory gained by Liberty over Despotism by another.”

Do symbols, such as the key to Washington, or the one to Castro, matter?  I believe they do.

Not because they are, as in the case of the one in Virginia, something that can be seen and almost touched but because these symbols go beyond the tangible.  These symbols are steeped in their own significance of idealism and hope.

It is proper to always urge for the democratic rights of others in places around the world.  I applaud Soglin for making the verbal pleas for a more reform-minded Cuba during his discussions with Castro. But a repressive regime should never score a propaganda victory, as with a key to one of our nation’s capital cities.

Instead of Soglin now doubling down on why he thought the gesture with the key was important at the time, I wish he could be reflective about the decades of misery that Castro inflicted on his country.  I genuinely think elected officials who can concede making mistakes are stronger as a result.

And so it goes.

First Flown At Mount Vernon, Now At Our Madison Home

There were three very special things we brought back from our spring trip to Washington, D.C.

At the Iwo Jima Memorial two workers were taking apart a flower bed that had hundreds of tulip blooms just weeks before.  The pile of bulbs was quite large and after we passed them I turned and went back with a question for one of the workers.

“What are you going to do with those bulbs?’

“Not really sure,” was his reply.

“Might I have one?” I inquired.

“Take as many as you want,” he added with a gesture of his hand over the pile in front of him.

My Midwestern sensibilities did not allow me to place handfuls into my shoulder bag as I had the space–but I did take two and they are planted in a special place in our lawn.

The other extremely wonderful item we brought back is a flag that was flown at Mount Vernon, the home to George Washington.  Today we raised it here for the first time to fly at our home for July 4th.   It will come down tonight and be used only for future Independence Days or Presidents’ Day.

James has a special bag to store it in, and place it away for safe-keeping.

Mount Vernon Memories: Thoughts Of Military Might, Constitutional Compromises, And Too Many Teenagers

As I walked the long hall at Mount Vernon I thought of what it must have been like to see George Washington, perhaps after his arrival back home after duties with the Revolutionary War, or perhaps as an older man following two terms as president.  He would open the doors to the large front of the house and look out on the sloping hill that bent down towards the Potomac River.   Throughout the day spent at the home of our first president I tried to stop and just reflect what that place represented.  Who had stood on those grounds, felt the heat and humidity, and pondered the great issues of a people who championed liberty.  They had to not only grapple with how to attain freedom from England but then later when the union of colonies was created determine how to manage and adapt to the  growing and changing demands of nationhood.

How many times might Washington have seen this view from his home porch and wanted so badly to stay and enjoy the beauty but still felt the call to participate in the frothy construction of a new nation?

From down the slope of the hill one can perhaps image the tall and sturdy-built man looking out from his grand home.

I admit to only once over the entire trip wanting to spin around and inform a large group of school children ranging in ages from 7th graders to freshman in high school to “Shut up”, or some variation thereof.   May is the month every state sends this age of student on a class trip and only a very small percentage that I witnessed over 10 days had any care or interest in any part of what they saw.  They could have been at a beach or theme park and had just as much fun.  Their absence from D.C. would have made it so much more enjoyable for all the rest.

So it was as we passed the room at Mount Vernon where receptions would take place for the likes of Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry that I wanted to tell these sweaty teenagers to stop and think about the place they stood and who had graced these halls and helped usher in a grand experiment that still plays out today in this land.  If these walls could talk!

There is no way to be at this home and know the role of Washington and the times in which he lived without feeling the chasm of the stated ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence on the one hand and the sad reality on the other of how blacks were used as slaves.  The kitchen table of Martha always had a Virginia ham and places were usually set for many as Washington was adored and honored by visitors.  There was food to be made in the kitchen at the end of the home so to not heat up the residence.  Clothes and household items needed to be washed six days a week.  The slave quarters were small and would have been wretchedly hot.  There were over 8,000 acres in Washington’s hands and slaves made those farms economically sound.

Reading since a teenager of the disputes at the Constitutional Convention and the needed compromises to ensure passage by the states is one thing.  But it was really sobering to be where the joining of such high laudable hopes that Washington symbolized also was met and meshed with the immoral nature of slavery.  There was no way to walk on a very steamy Virginia day past the place where slaves would have toiled at washing or weeding crops and then look back up where the home was located and know who lived there and what was proclaimed in a document from 1776 and not feel another heat hotter than that of the sun.  It was that real of a feeling for me.

Granted, that perhaps comes from my love of history and all that I have read over the years.  On the way home that day I wondered how many others who made that same tour felt the same sense of unease and discomfort and pondered the complexities that some of the Founding Fathers lived every day.

The start of the end of Washington’s life has been told often–my favorite historian of this era, Joseph Ellis–writes the best narrative in His Excellency.  Bad weather and a long horse ride and wet clothes is the start of the end.  At Mount Vernon the resting place for the first First Couple is simple and yet quite remarkable.  It was one of four presidential burial sites we visited on this trip.

The resting place for President George Washington (below)

 

The resting place for Martha Washington (below)

I had often read of presidents taking the presidential yacht, USS Sequoia, down the Potomac for evening outings or to show a leader of another country a part of this nation’s charms.  So when James and I planned to visit Mount Vernon the idea of seeing the home of our first president via a trip on the Potomac was simply irresistible.

The War College is but one of the many sites that ones passes.  As it came into view the role that the military plays in the power structure of our nation’s capital was once more most obvious and clear.  The day we visited Capitol Hill there were members of the off-duty military walking about with uniforms emblazoned with medals.  The lady we rented our apartment from worked for the NSA.  The city pays tribute to past wars and soldiers with statuary everywhere.  One could easily sense Jack Ryan could pop out of any scene and get to work.

The military aspect is both historical and also very real.  To see a grouping of large Navy helicopters fly overhead and hear the intense beating of the rotors or to look out on the Potomac and know not so far away the battles that Lincoln was concerned about once raged makes for a sense of pride, and awe, and respect.  It creates a mood and a feel that is old-fashioned and that is just fine.

Needless to say D.C. takes on an epic feeling as you take the river route.  And as we came back to the city there above the fray of politics and all that we have endured for centuries stands the symbol of sturdiness and steadfastness–the Washington Monument.