Presidents Who Make For Grand Stories

Simply one of the best columns to be found in today’s newspapers. History placed in this context always works as a column maker. Here is a snippet.

Bret Stephens: Gail, your last column reminded me that we share a peculiar obsession with obscure presidents: Franklin Pierce, Benjamin Harrison, his grandfather William Henry. I was a little disappointed that you had nothing to say about Chester Arthur. Was he too obscure to make the obscure list?

Gail Collins: Bret, this is why I love conversing with you. Breakfast followed by Chester Arthur.

Bret: Our readers can barely contain their excitement.

Gail: So here’s Chester’s story. There’s a Republican National Convention in 1880. Very bitter, 36 ballots. Roscoe Conkling, the New York party boss, wants to bring back Ulysses Grant for a third term but finally James Garfield gets the nod. To make peace, the Garfield folks offered the vice presidency to Levi Morton, an accomplished businessman.

Bret: Conkling sounds like a name that belongs in a dirty limerick.

Gail: But — stay with me, I’m almost done — Boss Conkling is still sulking over Grant and tells Morton to turn it down. Then the Garfield people — still looking for a New Yorker — turn to Arthur, who almost faints with joy.

The Garfield-Arthur ticket is elected, Garfield is assassinated and Arthur, who everybody thought of as a party hack, turned out to be a better president than expected.

Now tell me, whence comes the Chester Arthur interest? Was he a long-ago term paper topic?

Bret: My father turned me on to the joys of the historical footnote, literal and figurative. The biggest thing Arthur did as president was sign the Pendleton Act, which was the first step in professionalizing the Civil Service and eliminating the spoils system. Approximately 138 years later, Donald Trump tried partially to reverse the Pendleton Act through an executive order, which is only the 138th worst thing he did as president. But fortunately Joe Biden reversed Trump’s reversal, so the Arthur legacy lives on.

Labor Day Democratic Presidential Rally In Merrill, Wisconsin: 1984 And A WDOR Reporter


A brief shower failed to dampen the enthusiasm of Democratic Presidential candidate Walter Mondale and Vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro during a Merrill campaign visit. Applauding them is Congressman David Obey who represented that area in Congress.

On Labor Day 1984 I was attending the first major political rally of my life.  It was also the first major political rally that I would report on for WDOR radio news.

I was young, eager, and so excited that I could barely contain myself.  Days before the event I had gone through a background check to gain press credentials which allowed me onto the risers with the national press.  Knowing I was going to stand alongside some of the journalists I had a deep respect for was as electrifying to me as being at a rally with a presidential nominee.

I had traveled from Sturgeon Bay to Lincoln County Fairgrounds in Merrill, Wisconsin in my light blue Chevet and still recall the feeling that life could not be better.  I was doing what I had always really wanted to do, which was get close to politics and report about it.  I knew then not everyone could say they get to live what they dream, and I recall attempts to slow down to better take in every moment, every detail.

Many broadcasters were questioning whether the traditional start of the presidential fall campaign was best done in a place like Merrill.  If memory serves me right Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro started that Labor Day in New York and encountered rainy weather.  That the sky was gray and filled with sprinkles in Merrill was not lost on those who thought it an omen for the election outcome.

But Mondale saw it far differently.  With rolled-up shirtsleeves, Mondale told the audience it did not matter whether it was rain, hail, sleet, or snow.  The Democrats would make it to the polls on Election Day!

Here is the final draft of that speech.

Once at the rally site I climbed to stand with the press and was truly pleased to be about three feet from Lynn Sherr and Brit Hume, both from ABC.  I smiled to myself when Sherr asked Hume how to pronounce “La Follette” and I then laughed out loud later than night when she mispronounced it on the national news.   Everyone has on-air slips, and it was comforting to see it play out in front of me.

To be honest being on the risers with the press could have been the culmination of the day and I would have been totally content.

When the music ramped up and Mondale and Ferraro took the simple outdoor platform and gave punchy dramatic stump speeches I knew at once that my political infection was for real.  Never before had I felt so alive.  So in the moment.

Geraldine Ferraro was loved by that crowd in Merrill.  The applause was enthusiastic, and the warmth for her was genuine.  Later I went down and recorded some interviews with voters and my thrust of the news story was how they viewed the first female nominee.  Ferraro was breaking new ground and they were glad Labor Day in Merrill was where she spent some of her time.

I will never forget that first major rally, the sense of being young and living life.

I am pleased that in some small way I was able to brush up alongside the historic campaign year when Geraldine Ferraro was on a national ticket as the first woman.

As we now observe this Labor Day in a national health crisis and a most troubling presidential election year, there are many reasons for anxieties and dread. But I have found one personal story which has made for smiles in our home.



Russian History At Its Best With Robert Massie–Catherine The Great Lives Again

Consider the audacity, enormity, and power of the following sentences from Robert Massie’s masterpiece, Catherine The Great.

The final sequence in the ceremony was the acknowledgment the coronation represented a pact between God and herself. 

She kneeled and, with her own hand, took the communion bread from the plate and administered the sacrament to herself. 

Now consider the way you or I might feel when inviting a guest to our home.  Perhaps we try to push them off until the blooms are perfect in the gardens or a house project is complete.  We, therefore, can see the logic, and even humor, when Voltaire wishes to visit Russia.  Empress Catherine is nervous about exposing her country and its rustic nature to his analytical eye and writes a friend the following.

“For God’s sake, try to persuade the octogenarian to stay at home.  What should he do here? He would either die here or on the road from cold, weariness, and bad roads.

She will write about Diderot and the way she first observed him.

“…a high brow receding on a half-bald head; large rustic ears and a big bent nose, firm mouth…brown eyes, heavy and sad, as if recalling unrecallable errors, or realizing the indestructibility of superstition, or noting the high birth rate of simpletons.”

Pages and pages and more pages of coming almost face-to-face with the main character is what makes this book so meaningful.

I am most interested in how Catherine reads about the Enlightenment and tries to channel thoughts about how her society should be constructed. How  the populace and her government might interact to the betterment of all. There was so much potential because Catherine had the willingness to grow intellectually and had the desire at times to remedy the fundamental ills that inflicted her people. I am struck, time and again, with how Catherine almost becomes a teacher rather than just the head of state. How she aspires to greatness both in terms of  being empress, and also with the power of intellectual thought.

Many years ago a long-time friend and Madison artist David Burkard recommended Robert Massie’s book.  Russian history is always bold, brassy, and leaves one wanting more.  Massie has the knack for dropping us in the world and time of his subjects.  So thorough is his knowledge of Russia that this series of books from Peter The Great (which received the Pulitzer Prize and this fall or winter will be my next Russia deep-dive) to Nicholas and Alexandria are recommended to better understand the Russian people and their fascinating history.

I strongly concur with the critical praise that was heaped on the book about Catherine and kick myself for not turning the pages before now.  The pandemic has certainly allowed for more reading time, and finding my way back over the years of book recommendations has provided fond memories of friends and events.

If anyone reading this post wants to step far aside of the frenzy over the current national election, or the bombast of our nation, and instead be immersed in drama and intrigue that is nuanced and presented from the hands of an erudite historian then please consider the following.

This book is brilliant and totally captivating.



“Frost/Nixon” An Oscar Contender?

While it is only opening weekend in selected cities for the political film of the year, there is talk among some that the film, “Frost/Nixon”, may be one that will bring an Oscar nomination.  Or more?  Good films that explore and entertain are always high on my list.  And I suspect that will be the case nationwide.

I was a high school student when I watched PBS, and the first airing of the David Frost interviews with Richard Nixon.  I recall the drama, and the edginess of the interviews given the events that preceded it.  I also was struck even then that a former leader who had so much power was being peppered with the most pointed and penetrating questions, and that the tension in the room was often as visual as the men themselves.


About a decade ago I bought the complete Frost/Nixon interviews on VHS tape, and I admit to loving them.  With a more solid understanding of the events from RN’s life they are a treasure trove of continual giving which makes viewing after viewing always enriching.  For the record, I think Frost did a professional job, which while tough, was also fair.

(If I have wet your appetite for your own copies of these gems I suggest

A couple years ago I bought the book “Exile” by Robert Sam Anson, which has a remarkable section on the background of the interviews, and the tension between these men that I had felt as a teenager through the television screen.

The movie, I trust, given Ron Howard’s past film successes, will allow for a well-rounded view of the events that led to this famous series of interviews that are as close as we ever come to Richard Nixon admitting to his past flaws and failures.

I am looking forward to the movie in my local theatre.

Last Of LBJ Presidential Tapes Released

It has been a great week for lovers of history as White House recordings from both President Nixon and President Johnson have been released to the public.  For accuracy’s sake I need to add that in the case of the RN tapes, the recordings might have been taped at places other than the White House, such as the Old Executive Building, though they all get titled as the White House Tapes.

The LBJ tapes released today continue to show the frustration over the Vietnam War, and the keen political mind of the former Senate Majority Leader at work.

Forty years before Democrats nominated their first candidate of color, President Lyndon Johnson told 1968 presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey that he should pick a Japanese-American as his running mate.

It was Sen. Daniel Inouye, who was awarded a silver star in World War II, and who lost an arm in battle.

“He answers Vietnam with that empty sleeve. He answers your problems with Nixon with that empty sleeve. He has that brown face,” Johnson said.

Humphrey, though he was one of the Senate’s foremost liberals, balked.

“I guess maybe, it’s just taking me a little too far, too fast,” Humphrey said. “Old, conservative Humphrey.”

The Vietnam War was tearing the country apart. Democrats wanted their convention platform to call for a halt to U.S. bombing.

From his Texas ranch, Johnson – whose son-in-law was serving in Vietnam – told an aide “no way.”

“I’m telling ’em what our position is as Commander-in-Chief that I’m not about to stop this bombing unless they arrest me and take my power away from me,” he said. “Because I’ve got some of my own right there and I’m not gonna shoot ’em in the heart. Not for a bunch of goddamn draft dodgers.”

Johnson got his way, but the convention in Chicago was a disaster. He listened without comment as his attorney general, Ramsey Clark, blamed the police.

“It was a very disgusting moment in my judgment, Mr. President,” Clark said. “I think it was caused by law enforcement.”

But Johnson, who sympathized with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, was having problems with his attorney general.

“Well, he doesn’t see this as you and I see it,” Johnson said

Daley argued that his police had been provoked.

“What are you gonna do if someone hits you with human manure in the face, are you gonna stand there?” Daley said.

Johnson did halt the bombing just before the election, which was extremely close. The morning after, Humphrey called to apologize for losing.

“I’m sorry I let you down a little,” he said.

Johnson replied: “No you didn’t, no you didn’t, it’s on a lot of other folks but not you. It’s our own people in the party that created all the problems.”

When Can We Stop Beating Up Richard Nixon?

History shows it is always easy to hate Richard Nixon, but the real pleasure is digging into history and trying to understand him.

I realized that I was truly a Richard Nixon history buff when I sat and listened (over time) to some 50 hours of Richard Nixon recordings that were available online. The tapes that were recorded by the former President show a multi-faceted human being.  Granted, some are laced with profanity, and human weaknesses, but I also know that others proved the depth of understanding Nixon had on foreign policy, his desire to craft a media message that clearly stated his intentions, and his sharp analytical skills dealing with American politics.

Today another set of tapes were released, and the same folks that always snarl at such recordings are back in full force.  While I would never condone the actions of Watergate or related activities, I also have never forgotten the brilliant mind that the 37th President possessed.  While I too will read, and hopefully hear the tapes that were released today, I know how to put them into the broader perspective of his years on the national stage.  Richard Nixon has been a many decades long fascination of mine, and I find it more pleasurable to try and understand what made him tick than continually beat him up.  I can assure my readers that Nixon is a treasure trove of history!

The fact that these recordings exist allows us into the inner workings of a White House.  I am fully convinced that the inner workings of any Administration, if tapes were made and allowed to be heard, (such as with LBJ) would make many blush, gasp, and be outraged.  Nixon had the ability to burn the tapes, but chose not to.  Lets give him credit for allowing history to be the final judge.  

But then let us judge Richard Nixon in the context of the times he lived, and the experiences of his life.  To do anything other than that is just wrong.

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“The Children’s Blizzard” By David Laskin

If you only read one book review on this blog, this is the one.

January 12, 1888 dawns as very warm across the Dakotas and Minnesota.  Children walked to school without coats, farmers went into their fields to take advantage of the weather to mend fences after what was already a long winter.  Later that day without warning hell opened a door on the open prairie.  In three minutes the temperature would fall 18 degrees.   Hurricane-like winds whipped snow and ice as a cold front raged over the countryside.  Sod homes were blown away.  School roofs were ripped off.  Windows exploded.  Animals beat to the ground by the force of Mother Nature.  And children in schools wanted to get home……..

On January 13th, some 500 people were dead, many of them children.  Some would survive the snow and darkness, but come Friday the 13th as they got to their feet they would succumb to the intense cold.


This true account of one of America’s most ferocious storms starts in Norway, and the Ukraine as David Laskin introduces us to five families who will sell their belongings, say good bye to graves and loved ones, and set sail for America.  The tale moves along as the immigrants settle in the Dakota territories and Minnesota.  The first winter they make holes in the earth, put a few wooden slabs over the top, cover that with sod and try to survive a winter.  Some try to do so on flour mixed with a little water and cooked with only salt and pepper for flavoring.  In the summers they deal with grasshoppers and fire.  They thought the long winter that Laura Ingall Wilder would write of was the worst…….but in 1888 a winter storm came that made everything tame by comparison.

This book was mentioned on WGN this spring, (though it was published in 2004) but after the winter we had endured in Madison the last thing I wanted to do was read about a blizzard.  So I waited until the seasons had changed, and opened this amazing read last week.  Rarely have I found an epic read that makes the mouth drop in utter disbelief.  The enormity of the storm, the inhospitable nature of the prairie, and the desperate solitude that so many felt all alone in a new country on the wide open expanse of the Dakota territories, all make for a MUST READ.

Trust me on this one.

You will not be disappointed.  History comes alive!

Pictures Of Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Tour Bus

The free exhibit, as mentioned here, continues in Verona, Wisconsin on Saturday, November 15, from 9-4.  I was pleased to see so many people and kids on Friday afternoon visiting the semi that expands into a most remarkable, and very well presented exhibit on the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.

A few pictures from the outside, and inside.




Below is an exact replica of a music box, with the same music being played, as was found in the Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois home.


A funny brief story on a plaque summed up the humor of Lincoln during his days as a lawyer.


Actual campaign banners (buttons) from 1860.