Monday, October 22, 2018

The Context Defined

Meet tomorrow's headliner today.

There's news, and there's news that tells the future.  Which is more significant?

The insects are dying out. According to the Washington Post, one recent study of a Puerto Rico forest showed that beetles, bees and other invertebrates have declined in number by 45%--nearly half--in just the past 35 years.  In German nature preserves, flying insects have decreased by three-fourths.

In that Puerto Rico forest where the insect crash was calculated, there is also a noticeable decline in birds, as well as lizards and frogs--animals that feed on insects.  This trend appears to be global.

The report concludes that "climate warming is the major driver of reductions in arthropod abundance, indirectly precipitating a bottom-up trophic cascade and consequent collapse of the forest food web."

In other words, when the insects go, all lifeforms are threatened--from plants and on up the food chain.

If this trend continues, there is no way that the current global population of humans, and probably its current interconnected and interdependent civilization, can survive.

But we might just call that the nail on the coffin.

 Civilization is threatened now in many parts of the world, and will be likely be in most or all of the world in this century, with conspicuous challenges evident everywhere--even the US and other rich nations-- before the century is half over.

One look at the climate crisis data concludes:

"It’s already bad. But when will things get so bad that it is obviously — obviously — the worst problem in the world? How long until we go over the cliff? That depends on how much we’ve heated up already, and how fast we’re getting hotter.

Bottom line: at the rate we’re going, we’ll hit extremely bad, possibly intolerable, probably between 2040 and 2045. Maybe a couple years later, maybe a couple years earlier, but it’s not far away."

That comports with other views. A few years ago, by the way, that date used to be 2050, but the climate news has been worse that expected.

Could the worst be avoided?  Probably, though it's too late to avoid it completely.  Twenty years ago, experts said we had ten to twenty years to address the climate crisis.  They meant take meaningful if gradual steps to reduce the output of greenhouse gases.  But not much was done.  So that option is no longer available.  Nothing will stop the climate crisis--it has started, and it's unlikely to go back to the way it was for a very, very long time.

Now you may hear some saying we have ten to twenty years to act in order to avoid climate catastrophe.  But this time, they mean going all out--transforming global civilization to reduce carbon and other greenhouse outputs to nothing-- immediately.  In the meantime, it will still be getting hotter.

There's a lot going on that doesn't make headlines.  A lot of local and regional plans, many promising new energy and carbon sequestration technologies, a high proportion of them involving sophisticated uses of plants, but also conceptually simple tasks such as planting trees (as well as a complete end to cutting down existing forests.)

But there isn't the political will, the consensus on any level, that is necessary.  Not now.  So...

So in a couple of decades, or maybe sooner, there will be no news that isn't in one way or another climate crisis news.

Among the big newsmakers will be insects.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Unimproved Ends: Emerson for the Day

"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.  They are but improved means to unimproved ends...

...a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone."

Walden 1854

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Quote From Memory

"I get all the news I need from the weather report/
I can gather all the news I need from the weather report/
Mmmm, I got nothing to do today but smile
dodio dodio dodio dodio.../Here I am..."

Paul Simon
"The Only Living Boy in New York"

Friday, October 05, 2018

History of My Reading: Primary Group

Anderson House. Photo courtesy of Chip Evans, who also lived there.
Apart from my English 103 course, essentially an independent studies to write a paper, I had four actual courses(plus phys ed)  the first semester of my freshman year at Knox College, in the fall of 1964.

That included an eight o'clock class, the only one I took in those four years. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a morning person.  But I was arising early enough to hear the only program my radio could muster on the local Galesburg station: the Farm Report.  It was not, as I remember, a report on farm techniques and news affecting local crops.  What I recall, washing my face and brushing my teeth at the iron-stained wash basin in my third floor Anderson House room, was a daily drone of stock market prices.  Hog futures featured prominently.

That and the sound of chainsaws in the distance, felling the last of the diseased elms on and around campus, form my memories of those early mornings.

Prof. John L. Stipp
 I don't recall which course that 8 o'clock was, although judging from my mid-term grades I'd bet on Western Civ with Prof. John Stipp.  Ramrod straight and entering the classroom in something like a cape, professor Stipp reminded me a bit of Bishop Sheen and his inexplicable hit TV show in the 1950s.  Also oddly the model of what I'd imagined a university professor would be.

He was formal and well-spoken, dryly humorous, exacting and a bit dramatic.  I didn't know until recently of his work on Nazi Germany.  But in a couple of years from that fall he would be among the faculty leaders in speaking out against the Vietnam war.

I have no memory of what this book
looked like in 1964.  Maybe this.
In this course he was rigorous, teaching from a widely used textbook he'd co-authored (and if memory serves, he donated royalties back to the college.)  For some of our classmates who majored in history he was an inspiration.  For the rest of us I suspect he was most famous--or infamous-- for his exams, and his unique multiple choice questions on which event in history happened third.

I don't remember anything about that textbook, or the form and content of the course. My only actual memory of this course involves another exam question.  It involved choosing the right sequence of parts.  I'd finished the exam and was taking it to the front of the room when another student somehow saw my paper and whispered that the answer was supposed to have three parts, not the five I'd written down (or something like that.)  I took it back to my seat and re-did the answer, then turned it in.

As he returned the corrected exams at a subsequent class, Prof. Stipp in his most magisterial tone pronounced the (to me) immortal words: "I am sure I will endear Mr. Kowinski to the rest of you by announcing that he was the only one in the class to answer [that question] correctly."

Nevertheless, my final grade for the semester was B-.  Though an improvement over the C- at midterms, I got a better final grade in PE.

That first semester I was also taking Spanish 101 (the low-level horror of that experience I described in this earlier post), and Math 121, about which I recall very little.  The young professor Ron Hourston taught it.  I remember he seemed nervous but likable, and clearly very smart.  I did surprisingly well the first half of the semester (I got a B on the only test, and nobody got an A) but in the end I barely passed the course.

Something like these pinstripes in the 1940 film "The Philadelphia Story"
The course I remember best--and the one I enjoyed most at the time--was Sociology 201.  It was taught by a tall young professor, Michael La Sorte.  I recall him striding in a kind of controlled lope across the front of the room, back and forth in front of the blackboard as he talked, and I especially remember his suits.

 The typical men's suit of the mid-60s can be seen in any photo of President Kennedy: form-fitting, soft shoulder, two-button, short jacket with fairly narrow lapels and uncuffed trousers.  I was fascinated with La Sorte's suits because I hadn't seen anything like them outside of 1940s Hollywood movies:  loose fitting pants with cuffs, oversized long jackets with padded shoulders and wide lapels, often double-breasted.

Once when he was talking about the characteristic dress of certain immigrant subcultures (Latino and Italian) in big cities,  he mentioned the "zoot suit."   As he described it he glanced at himself and added, "I guess that's what this is."  His weren't quite that elaborate but I always had the feeling that his suits were inherited, perhaps from his father, and this was his first teaching job.  (It was in fact his first year at Knox.)

Anyway, the course was interesting, and I learned a lot from its textbook: Society by Ely Chinoy.  It remained so clear in my memory that I immediately recognized a copy when I came upon one more recently: it's the second, 1967 edition (ours was from 1961) but it has the same cover and seems basically familiar.

It was my academic introduction to such concepts as social stratification, cultures and subcultures.  It pertained to my previous interest in books about the relationships of the individual and society, and political power.  But it also brought me further along in recognizing the role of ethnic and status distinctions, of which I was only vaguely aware, and mostly ignorant.

That was partly due to my previous education. I was educated in Catholic schools to fix my identity on two things: being Catholic (first and foremost) and being an American.  I'm sure my classmates were smarter about other distinctions, but I literally could not recognize so much as an Irish name (unless it started with Mc), let alone a Jewish one. I didn't even consciously know Polish names (all I knew was that, like my own, they were long and made people uncomfortable) or even Italian names, beyond the Italian American culture I partly grew up in. I guess I had some awareness but in my time and place, Italian American culture was shared by everybody.  Big figures in the culture included Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Graziano, Frank Sinatra.  There were Italian language hit records.  Even Rosemary Clooney sang Italian songs.

I gradually learned more from Knox classmates.  One of the first I remember meeting outside Anderson House was Neil Gaston.  He told funny stories that also elucidated status assumptions.  I knew nothing about prep schools, or the relative social standing of various Chicago high schools and suburbs.  Or how snobbish pretension could be undermined by a jacket with a Penney's label.

Early in my freshman year I also met Holly Sue Thompson of Morton Grove and her friend Edie Haptonstahl, who lived with her large family not far from the Knox campus.  Perhaps they were both in my Sociology class, but I'm pretty sure Edie was, because I recall her referring to the three of us as our "primary group," a concept from the Chinoy text, defined as "characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation."  We went around together for those first months.  I got some home-cooked meals at Edie's, to supplement the food service fare.

As for that sociology class, my final paper was about a book, Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry by Robert Blauner, new from University of Chicago Press that year.

 Alienation was a hot topic then, though not everyone defined it the same way.  Scholars worried that industrial workers, subject to the tedium of repetitive jobs in noisy and sometimes unhealthy and dangerous workplaces, felt powerless, bored and angry.  That's when industrial jobs were plentiful and seemed like they'd last forever.  Now that many of those jobs are gone, together with their relatively high pay and security, there's nostalgia about them, and their alienating effects forgotten.

Chaplin in "Modern Times" expressed
industrial alienation in now iconic images
The book studies workers in 16 industrial job settings.  The most attention is paid to an automated chemical plant, and this is what I remember about the book: that these workers, who had little to do but trouble-shoot the automated machinery, were the least alienated, because they were the most involved in what they were doing, and in the process as a whole. (Automation was another hot topic, leading to much discussion later in the 1960s about the Guaranteed Annual Income as a way to safeguard against the effects of widespread unemployment due to machines taking over human jobs. That discussion, moribund for 40 years or so, is alive again.)

In my paper I was supposed to summarize and illustrate the data and findings, and offer my judgment. I was skeptical that automation was going to lessen or end worker alienation, or would prove to be more fulfilling.  I felt that the "freedom" it promised was illusory, and fragile at best.

Since I enjoyed this eye-opening class, I've since wondered why I didn't take another sociology course.  Maybe doing the actual science seemed dull--designing and evaluating questionnaires, etc.  Or more likely, I wanted to keep exploring different fields, and never got back to it.

As for Michael La Sorte, he became part of the Knox "brain drain" of younger professors that was so controversial in later semesters. He wound up at the State University of New York at Brockport, and authored a book I wish I'd known about at the time: La Merica: Images Of Italian Greenhorn Experience, published in 1985, just a month after my The Malling of America (some reviews of which identified me as a "sociologist," which I had never claimed to be.)

I certainly have responded in recent years to the ethnic stereotyping of Italian Americans as Mafia goons (as in the collection of Italian love songs--which dominated American cultures in the 40s and 50s--as Mob Hits.)  Since retiring, "Mike La Sorte" continues to write about such subjects.

Outside of course work, I recall a few books I read that first semester, introduced to me by classmates.  Ted Szostkowski, who lived in the room next to mine at Anderson House, recommended A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a novel spanning centuries concerning the slow rise and abrupt fall again of civilization after a 20th century nuclear holocaust. Perhaps we'd been talking about science fiction, for Miller was an accomplished author of science fiction stories published in the pulp magazines, including the linked stories that he turned into this novel.

An underground cult novel as well as supposed genre fiction at the time I read it, A Canticle For Leibowitz (first published in 1959) has since become one of the most highly praised American science fiction novels and post-atomic novels.  There weren't courses in science fiction then, at Knox or almost anywhere else, and certainly not doctoral dissertations, but this novel has since been taught and written about extensively. Re-reading it now, I can see why.

For many readers the world in which the novel takes places is unfamiliar: largely the Roman Catholic Church structure revived out of the ashes of an incinerated civilization and a long Dark Age.  Much of the book takes place in a monastery in the desert Southwest of the "Albertian Order of Leibowitz" which is dedicated to preserving the last fragments of knowledge that survived the destructive frenzy of "the Simplification."  (The desert landscape would become familiar in subsequent apocalyptic novels and movies.)

However, I was familiar with the traditional structure and vocabulary of the Church that dominates this novel, though even by the mid-1960s this was itself changing rapidly.  Miller's future Church for example used Latin, as was traditional until the early 1960s, when the vernacular languages were becoming the official ones.  Most of my education had been in the traditional Church.  For at that time Catholic school students studied the structure, history and government of the Church and Church doctrine at least as intensely as studying the U.S. government and its founding documents and arguments.

Miller's use of this language and institutional structure, right down to the logic of degrees of sin, was elaborate and intricate, even if his purpose was ironic: to show that the response to the post-nuclear Dark Age of the Simplification was identical to the response to the first Dark Ages and barbarian invasions, in which ancient knowledge and literacy itself were preserved by monks in European monasteries.

That humanity managed to start from almost nothing (in the book's first section, the last scraps of technical manuals were completely misunderstood, and turned into holy books) to reinvent science and eventually the nuclear weapons with which it destroys civilization again, did not make me feel my investment in reading the book was immediately rewarded.  Of course this is the essential battle, in science fiction as elsewhere, between the fate of being captive in cycles of self-destruction, and the possibility of learning enough and applying courage to change enough to escape those fatal repetitions.

The book recognizes this, and the religious imagery adds richness to the insight and the ambiguity.  Especially in the middle section, it bears on the role of science, a discussion opened for us in the "two cultures" debate.  Miller places the proto-scientist in the role of Pontius Pilate, who washes his hands of responsibility, while taking his livelihood and power from the rulers he knows are hell-bent towards societal self-destruction.  (There's also a mischievous suggestion that Lazurus, having been raised from the dead by Christ, stays alive forever.)

Ted recommended another book I read that semester. I must have mentioned John Updike's short stories, or perhaps he saw the two volumes I had, The Same Door and Pigeon Feathers. Plus I was eagerly reading Updike's new stories as they came out in the New Yorker.  I hadn't yet read any of his novels (although there were only three by 1964.  Eventually there would be 22.)

Ted recommended Updike's latest novel, The Centaur, which by then was in paperback.  It is the story of a central Pennsylvania small town schoolteacher, told through a particular version of the Chiron myth in Greek mythology.  The teacher, Updike said in his Paris Review interview, is based on his father.

There is a certain magic in the opening scene, in which myth and reality interpenetrate.  There is plenty of the surprising and vivid imagery of everyday life that became associated with Updike.  For instance: "Doc Appleton removed the stethoscope from around his neck and laid it on his desk, where it writhed and then subsided like a slain rubber serpent."  The choice of words and the rhythm of the sentence are part of what made Updike's writing special, and made him a model for me.

I was not yet ready for this book as a whole--as the length and density of A Canticle for Lebowitz also challenged my reading energies and ability to fend off the hormonal impatience of youth long enough to stay in the pages.  But each attempt and each experience helped make the next easier and more natural, and soon I would be shown tools to help me.

I did move on to Updike's second novel and the one that first made him famous, Rabbit, Run.  It was something new, not only to me but to at least popular literature.  For the time it was fast-paced, and used pop culture more readily and effectively than other writers.  Though the present tense became a trademark of the 1980s minimalist fictionists, Updike wrote Rabbit, Run that way in 1960.  By the late 60s, Updike would get a never wholly deserved reputation as a conservative stylist.  But he burst on the scene as something of an experimental writer, and in some ways remained one.

Re-reading Rabbit, Run I was surprised as how tawdry its world and its characters now seemed.  But I do recall that its lovemaking scenes were among the first--if not the very first--that I'd read: somewhat educational and eventually, in part, useful.  As a writer, Updike would continue to be a guidepost for me, especially in the next few years.

I'd also written verse in high school and had been exposed to a range of poets in our literature anthologies.  On my own I had gravitated towards certain poems by Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy I found in my uncle's college anthology.

I'm not entirely sure this happened in that first semester, but I'm pretty sure it was Holly Thompson who introduced me to the Selected Poems of  D.H. Lawrence.  I'd read some Lawrence short stories, and would read several of his novels, but I knew nothing of his verse.  Some of it was rhymed but other poems--such as "At A Loose End"--are short, astringent and tersely expressed, more like his prose.  I'd never read poems like that.

Towards the end of that first semester I began seeing Susan Lee Barry. I have fond memories of Sue, as I have of Holly--who were friends with each other and remained so for our allotted four years.  At some point, Sue was the first to explain to me the outline of human evolution--from tiny ground mammals, chased into the trees, and down from the trees again to the savannas.  I remember feeling sad that we ever left the trees.  I feel that even more now.

Fall had for me an unexpected series of events called Rush.  It was the period in which individual fraternities and sororities harvested first year students as new members.  I knew very little about fraternities, beyond the one Ricky Nelson had belonged to on Ozzie and Harriet.  I saw no reason to join one.

But in 1964 the Greek system was particularly controversial.  Stories and letters to the editor in the Knox Student leveled serious criticism, and revealed unappealing hostility from the Greek side.  Though nearly every classmate at Anderson House I knew of was eager to join a fraternity (and I recall being questioned as I showered in the second floor bathroom by a  classmate who couldn't understand why anyone wouldn't join), I soon learned that there were students in classes ahead of ours who were against the Greek system generally, and its influence on the campus.  They were known as Independents, or Indies.

Cecil Steed, Gary McCool
from Knox 1964-65 yearbook
I absorbed their arguments, and began to meet some of them.  Their arguments made sense to me, but the emotional clincher was learning that the the year before, the climactic weekend of Rush had been held as scheduled, even though it was the weekend that President Kennedy was assassinated, mourned and buried.  All of it together made me consciously an Indie.

It was probably then that I met some of the older students who would remain important to me for the rest of the year, and as long as they were there.  I definitely remember Mary Jacobson and Gary McCool (the intellectual Buddy Holly), George Bookless, Jay Matson and Cecil Steed from my first year.  I would get to know others in subsequent semesters.

But I'd already met some other older students, particularly women.  This was the aspect of Knox that was like a sudden Wonderland, an unexpected paradise: all of these lovely and intelligent young women, so varied and so new to my experience, all in one place, and with the relative freedom to see them, speak with them, and walk with them.  Without dreary games or too much self-consciousness.

Even the relative part of that freedom worked to my advantage that year.  This was the era of curfews for women living in dorms, as they were all required to do.  At Knox it was called Women's Hours.  I was among the students who campaigned over the next several years against women's hours, but that year, that semester, they worked to my advantage.

Curfews were staggered, so that on weeknights freshmen women had to be back in Whiting Hall by 11 p.m., sophomores and perhaps juniors had to be in their dorms by 11:30, and seniors by 12.  Or something like that.  So it was possible for me to see three women from different years in a single evening, and walk them each back to their dorm.  And there were evenings when I did just that.

Partly because I was socially and sexually naive and inexperienced,  but mostly because I was fascinated by the opportunity to know these young women without a lot of artificiality,  these exploratory evenings amounted to little more than coffee and conversation in the Gizmo (for instance with classmates Jill Crawford or Kathy Lydigsen, who remained friends in subsequent years), and/or a long walk.  I especially loved the walks.  The freedom and opportunity to walk with a young woman in the night air, along as yet unfamiliar streets and ways, was itself dazzling, especially combined with the charm and beauty of my companions.

I remember a moment, walking with Martha Hoagland--she was from some exotic place like Iowa or Nebraska--and the light on her long hair (unusual that year).   I was fascinated by the hazel eyes of Alix Metcalfe that fall, who left Knox the next year I believe, and who may still be a reader of this blog.

Maybe it was a Knox tradition anyway, since there wasn't a lot to do in Galesburg, but the evening walk became a staple of my social life in later years as well.  I remember walks with Judy Dugan (the wind in the trees in the cemetery), and with Mary Jacobson through Standish Park, and with Sue Werheim on a particularly chilly night, when Mary and Sue were roommates at Williston Hall.

These walks usually happened during the week, and were mostly not "dating."  But if the dorm we walked back to was Whiting Hall, there was the scene at curfew (especially on weekends) that I suspect would be impossible to believably describe to a student today.  The "passion parlor" exhibition of couples necking and writhing on couches (with at least one foot on the floor, that was the rule) while attendants at the front desk impassively ignored it all until closing time, was a shock to me when I first witnessed it, returning Holly or Sue to Whiting.  It was so ridiculous I vowed I would never participate.  But of course, before the year was out, I did.

I'm not sure what my fledgling social life has to do with books, except that it influenced me as a person and therefore as a reader. Books after all were among the topics we talked about. My acquaintances and friendships particularly with these older students did propel me into new experiences (and new reading.)  Books and ideas were at least as important as anything else in all these conversations.  "The college world is unbelievably unlike the real world," I wrote in a letter home.  "No one really has time for anything but honesty."

There are a few more notable memories from that first semester.  Early in the term, I was approached near the Gizmo counter by a skinny stranger, Dave Altman, who ambushed me with the demand, "Say WVKC!"  Somehow I understood the test--it was the proper pronunciation of "W."  I passed the test, and wound up with a radio show, then two, then got into the rotation to read the news for one of the two 15 minute news broadcasts.

This involved ripping news stories off the wire service teletype machine, rudely puncturing them on pegs by category, selecting and assembling them in some sort of priority, and either writing a script--though there usually wasn't time--or just reading them on the air, or improvising a combination.  Eventually I became aware that nobody I knew was actually listening to these broadcasts, and I compensated by doing David Brinkley imitations to amuse myself and the sound engineer.

In November, I participated in the WVKC election coverage, which went on deep into the night. Unfortunately our wire service reports were considerably behind in reporting returns, so much of our news came via Dave Altman, who stood outside in the rain listening to network news on his transistor radio, and ran back in with their new figures.  By midnight we were improvising wildly, and I remember describing western Pennsylvania politics while Mike Bourgo (silently) simulated playing a trombone in a marching band.

At Thanksgiving I was scheduled to help take food and clothing to a couple of former Knox students who were part of the (state of) Mississippi Project to register African American voters--this was just after Freedom Summer.  In the end my place was taken by one of these ex-students who'd returned for a brief visit, and was going back.  I think also they all had second thoughts about a freshman going along in what could potentially be a dangerous situation.  All the other students were seniors.  But they returned without incident.

There was also a tragedy on campus that fall, but I'll try to put it in a different context in a future post.

Meanwhile I was going to concerts and talks, and seeing foreign films and stage plays for pretty much the first time.  The CFA's new Harbach Theatre finally opened in December with Hamlet, starring Jim Eichelburger, directed by Kim Chase.  Who could forget that cast? Among them were history professor Gabe Jackson as a pedantic Polonius,  Russ Irish and Ric Newman as the supercilious Rosencranz and Gildenstern, and David Axlerod as the chatty gravedigger.

I was also learning the skills of being on my own for the first time, such as how to use a laundromat, and iron my own shirts (though I blush to recall I took advantage of Holly's good nature and asked her to iron a few for me.  She did a much better job than I did, though, and I pretty much gave it up. Permanent Press to the rescue!)

In all of this, I also experienced a fair amount of culture shock. The flat midwestern landscape had me yearning for the hills of home.  The continual buzz of campus life was exciting but also exhausting, and at a certain point it got to me that I never had a reliable hour alone.  I needed some quiet.

  A lot that happened was confusing, and despite the constant presence of others and the easy social moments, there were stretches of loneliness.  My feelings towards some back home became more sentimental, and letters were flying back to Pennsylvania, with the replies layering my mail slot outside the bookstore, or dropped on the black table across from the wide first floor stairs at Anderson House.

But I could count on one friendly voice at virtually every meal: a young man in an apron who was sometimes behind the counter serving the food, or who otherwise came around to the tables, and with a hand on my shoulder asked, "How's it going, scholar?"  His name was Ray Gadke.  His gentle, indiscriminate friendliness was odd but often a comfort.

This first semester was in many respects a kind of prologue.  The virtual revolution that constituted my college education began the next semester. For it was that spring that my education took a quantum leap into new worlds--populated with a lot of new books, of course.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

View From the Future: The Real News

I can't say that the Kavanaugh story isn't important to the future. If he is confirmed as expected, the ideology he represents and decisions he is likely to make, and now the severe damage to the credibility of the Court will further erode the resources and damage the trust that government will need to respond to the enormous challenges that are surely coming.

 Any further damage to government's ability to respond to inevitable emergencies the likes of which this country hasn't seen obviously will make those situations more chaotic, devastating and longer-lasting.  And the further tumble into our own Dark Age threatens to rend the social fabric on a even larger and potentially irreparable scale.

But this is this secondary to the causes of the coming crises, which the fast-moving controversies of the moment comfortably obscure. Last week in the midst of this uproar of the moment, the UN issued a report indicating that the world is nowhere near on target in reducing atmospheric carbon that will push the global environment into near total disaster.  It says the initial target of no more than a 1.5C increase in global temperature is already out of reach.

Meanwhile the otherwise climate crisis-denying White House supported this view in a report that assumes the global temperature will have risen by a super-catastrophic 4C by the year 2100.  They use this figure to justify getting rid of emissions restrictions because in themselves they won't be enough to prevent this outcome, so fossil fuel companies can just go ahead and make their money while their children's and grandchildren's planet burns.

Though the hurricane disaster in the Carolinas also sped off the front pages, the effects continue--most recently with giant mosquitoes, and potentially mosquito-borne diseases to come.  Evidence continues to grow that the global heated oceans contribute to the severity of these storms.

Then there is the news in disease.  Somehow it seems, a rough total of 80,000 deaths from last year's flu in the US managed to escape everybody's notice.  It is an unheard of number in a country with presumably good health care and public health resources.

Disease meets the Dark Age, with Ebola as exhibit #1.

 When this deadly disease struck central Africa four years ago or so, thousands of people died in a frighteningly short period of time.  There was panic over the contagion, but also other Dark Age manifestations: suspicion of healthcare workers (eight were hacked to death in Guinea), quarantine centers and burial teams were attacked. Conspiracy theories that the disease and then the vaccines were plots were spread by ambitious politicians.

Now there is an Ebola outbreak in the Congo, with a "very high" risk that it will spread beyond.  Today effective vaccines exist as they did not in 2014.  But various manifestations of panic, poor public health and especially Dark Age politics threatens to make the situation much worse:

"That led the WHO's emergencies chief, Peter Salama, to warn that insecurity, public defiance about vaccinations and politicians fanning fears ahead of elections in December could create a "perfect storm" leading the outbreak to spread."

Note that these Dark Age manifestations are hardly restricted to "backward" or "non-great" countries.  They echo the dark strains we hear every day in America.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Supremely Unfit

If Brett Kavenaugh were fit to be on the Supreme Court, he would withdraw his name from consideration immediately.  That he has not withdrawn his name is yet another indication that he is unfit.

Kavenaugh may be guilty of sexual misconduct--perhaps multiple instances.  Regardless of his guilt or innocence, he has been caught in a number of evasions and outright lies in his Senate testimony under oath.  He has wrecked his reputation as a jurist capable of non-partisan judgment.  As a Justice, he will damage the integrity of the Supreme Court for a generation.  Therefore if he cared about the Court, as any potential Justice should, he would withdraw now.

Beyond the particulars of misconduct and deception, the case against him could hardly be expressed better than in an editorial appearing in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, urging Maine Senator Susan Collins to vote against him, regardless of the FBI investigation's outcome:

“Based on what he demonstrated in his own testimony, Kavanaugh lacks the character and judgment to serve on the Supreme Court…. Kavanaugh revealed that he has an explosive temper and resorts to bullying when he feels threatened… Kavanaugh also showed himself to be impermissibly political for a job that is supposed to be above politics. We’re not na├»ve. But we have never had a Supreme Court nominee who ripped off the nonpartisan mask the way Kavanaugh did Thursday… After his partisan rant, Kavanaugh will never be able to judge a case without the animus he expressed being considered a factor in his decision.”

It is clear from all of this that his presence on the Court will damage the institution itself.  There will most likely be continuing controversy and investigations into his statements and conduct, including impeachment proceedings, when Democrats become the majority in the House (probably this year) and Senate (if not in the 2018 elections, in the 2020.)  No Supreme Court decision will escape being tainted, and trust in the institution as the supreme law of the land will fall precipitously.

So if Judge Kavanagh truly values the Court and the Constitution above personal ambition and political partisanship, he would recognize this and withdraw his name from consideration.

But he probably doesn't.  He clearly values partisan advantage over jurisprudence.  His refusal to call for an FBI investigation seems to have been motivated as much by taking instructions from the White House as fear of what the FBI might find.

But of course, his complete fealty to extreme right Republican dogma and Republican politics is what makes him attractive to the current Republicans in the Senate.  None of them care about the integrity of the Court either.

At this point it seems unlikely that the results of the limited FBI investigation will be interpreted by the Republican hierarchy as definitive enough evidence to alter the outcome they so want more than anything else, even electoral victory.  As of now, it still seems likely that the Senate will confirm him, with all Republicans and possibly even one Democrat's votes.

But this time the searchlight will not be turned off, as it was with Clarence Thomas.  More will probably be learned very soon.  For example, if someone who obviously had a serious drinking problem can't admit it, does it not seem possible if not likely that he still has one?  The lies and the flaws will be exposed and will be remembered for a long time to come.
Placing the integrity, fairness and stability of the Supreme Court over personal ambition, ideology and political partisanship should be the first qualification of any candidate to be a Supreme Court Justice. Given the current situation, the only way Brett Kavanagh can support the integrity, fairness and stability of the Supreme Court is to withdraw his name.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

In Their Court

In the hours after the testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee, watched by millions of Americans, the Republican leadership pushed hard to bring the confirmation process to a vote, reportedly so that Senators wouldn't have too much time to think about what they'd seen and heard.

Christine Ford was credible, and Brett Kavanaugh was incredible.  As numerous columnists and commentators pointed out, he was so angry and unhinged in demeanor, and so intemperate in his accusations against Democrats and "the left" that he disqualified himself from any kind of judgeship, let alone the Court that routinely decides political questions.  Any illusion that he might be impartial was completely and shockingly shattered.

And that's without the actual threat that he made in his opening statement, to wage war on his political opponents, which he now still hopes to do from the Supreme Court bench.

I saw the above photo on a story and thought that the editors had chosen an especially unflattering one.  But then I saw his actual testimony and realized this is what he looked like throughout it.  Self-righteous, sneering, self-pitying, entitled, contemptuous, vicious, as well as untruthful on known facts, and evasive by means of repetitiveness.  You could not cast a more obvious villain.

He was in essence mirroring the antipresident, and Republican Senators on the committee then took turns mirroring him.  They worked themselves up into a partisan frenzy, fueled by charges of a conspiracy against them for which there is no evidence--not that they bother with evidence anymore.

So now the Senate Republicans may take the elevation of total partisanship to its most brutal and obvious extent yet.  With this vote on an unfit appointment to the Supreme Court, party and ideological partisanship becomes officially supreme.  There is no other value, including justice, fairness and the common good.

It is a bitter irony that extreme right ideologues belong to something called the Federalist Society, and claim adherence to the "original intent" of the Founders.  For there was nothing the Founders found more threatening to the Republic than unbridled party partisanship.  President George Washington believed that the very existence of political parties could doom this democracy.

Their nightmare came true with Mitch McConnell and a Republican majority that is without a single statesman, a Senator with conscience informed by history and law and the delicate balances of government.  Beginning at least with 1994, the Republican party has elevated a combination of ignorant ideologues, corrupt bullshitters and hypocrites to Congress.  Caring about nothing but party politics and their ideological agenda, they effectively hijacked the electoral system in the states, to unfairly maximize Republican seats and unconstitutionally suppress non-Republican voters.

As a result, Dan Wasserman points out: "a majority of the Senate now represents 18% of the population and answers to a subset of voters that is considerably whiter, redder and more rural than the nation as a whole."

Still, the Republic had survived eras of incompetence, corruption and destructive passions, because there were a few in responsible positions who rose above it, and there were lines that no one dared to cross lest the integrity of basic institutions be compromised.

Now the traffic crossing those lines is so routine that they have been wiped away. We have learned how vulnerable our system is, and how much depended on common beliefs and ethics that the Founders and following generations simply assumed.  They thought they'd covered all the infamous possibilities with their careful checks and balances in the Constitution.  But they didn't imagine this.

Now at this hour before the votes, there is no bulwark against this deep injury to the American system and ethic beyond a few Republican Senators who might make the right decision for the wrong reasons.

Women will rightly see this as the worst recent example of male privilege--that is, of the already privileged males.  It is well known to psychologists like Dr. Ford as well as most minorities and the powerless that it's hard for the powerful to pay any attention to them.  But that's only one level of what's going on.

How can any reasonable person look at that photo and decide that this man is fit to serve on the United States Supreme Court?

Yet it's likely that Kavanaugh's most fervent extreme right supporters would happily make the above photo the official portrait of him as Supreme Court Justice.  It is a portrait of how far we've fallen.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

In Our Court

Ignoring the news most of the time is how I imagine I'd feel taking time off from working at a pre-20th century insane asylum.


1. Just to point out that it was reported that on Monday the anti-president proposed firing Rosenstein from Justice in order to deflect attention from the Kavanaugh news.

So now the Kavanaugh hearing is Thursday--and so is the anti-president's meeting with Rosenstein.

2.  At this point, what Kavanaugh did or didn't do in high school and college may be somewhat uncertain, but his present day response to the accusations is in itself so troubling as to be disqualifying.  There are many ways to respond, but a blanket denial, along with a decidedly weird claim of temperance and sexual innocence beyond college years, is so--well, first of all nuts, especially given the evidence of his male friends--but also so arrogant and clueless that it suggests psychosis.  Given other evidence, he may even be a pathological liar--just like the guy who picked him.

3.  There are so many reasons to reject K. for Supreme Court Justice that any sensible Senator can simply take their pick.  But one especially strikes at the integrity of the Court, raised on Tuesday by Chuck Todd: the expectation of judicial impartiality, called into question by Kavanaugh's partisan political activity, but shattered completely in recent weeks, by his daily residence at the White House and his Fox interview:

"But how impartial can a Supreme Court nominee be when he goes on Fox News — of all possible platforms — to defend himself?

Indeed, you can argue that the entire process of this nomination — the protests, the accusations, the defenses and now the Fox News interview — makes it almost impossible for Kavanaugh to be viewed as an impartial player. And it’s doubly tough for someone who, despite serving on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, worked on the Ken Starr investigation in the 1990s and in the George W. Bush White House in the early 2000s.

It’s that perception as a partisan warrior that has always made Kavanaugh’s nomination problematic — even before these allegations against him. And it’s a perception that gets reinforced when you go on Fox News."

The integrity of the presidency has been shattered.  The concept of impartiality may not even be real to this Congress, and certainly isn't to the new R party.  But if K. is elevated to the Court, it's officially chaos in America for a long time to come.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Weekend Update

How bad are things?  I just watched the 1956 film Earth v. the Flying Saucers, in which Washington is invaded by extraterrestrials, trying to zap the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House--and I was rooting for the flying saucers.

President Obama spoke in Philadelphia.  Viewing the video, his themes are familiar now from that first speech in Illinois but the interaction with the crowd is always new.  This time I was impressed with the people behind him as well as in front of him: white people have learned call and response.  At last!

On the so-called Economic Miracle, Obama: "They act like it just started.  Please."

"On November 6, you can restore some sanity to politics."

Though he mentions it, the issue that gets to the common heart is the destruction of children whose parents were desperately seeking protection, or a better life, but for whatever reason they arrived, the destruction of families and the destruction of children is a despicable act that needs to be repeatedly repudiated more often and more loudly.

Of course the latest despicable circus in Washington that threatens to destroy the Court and country may get louder than anything.

That's two "despicables" in one post.  So time to sign off--

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Year of the Women

2016 was supposed to be the Year of the Woman.  It wasn't, quite.  A lot of women voted for the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major party, but not enough--especially white women.  This alone is not why she lost.  But this alone is how she could have won.

Women are not an easily definable political group--particularly as a self-defined group.  They don't all go to the same churches or live in the same cities or states, or the same neighborhoods with mostly other women.  They aren't defined as a political group by their union membership, with its economic incentives.  They aren't mostly found on college campuses.  They are different ages, of different cultures and socioeconomic status.

In 2016 women's votes were (generally speaking) more defined by their race, education level, geographic location and economic status than their gender. (Though psychological factors relating to gender relationships probably did have a role.) Women didn't have--or didn't perceive themselves as having--enough in common.

But now it's 2018.  And what women do have in common appears on the front page.  Almost all women have faced decisions regarding birth control and abortion--the whole range of reproductive rights.  And virtually every woman in America has experienced--or knows someone well who has experienced--sexual harassment, sexual abuse and/or sexual assault.

Some women in 2016 had no trouble with allegations against the Republican candidate, and his recorded words.  Since then we've had the MeToo movement and the fall of one establishment male after another.  Some of those cases were probably injustices, but the accumulation of them said something.

I also would not discount the effect of the revelations in the Pennsylvania grand jury report of widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and the apparent cover-ups by the hierarchy.  These were front page news for weeks in western Pennsylvania, for example, and shook the faith of many working middle class Catholic families, not only in the Church, but in male authority figures.

So it's not 2016 anymore.  2018 is shaping up to be the Year of the Women anyway, with more women running for high office than ever, with the first minority white male slate of Democratic candidates in congressional history.

A wave election is one in which a national issue or issues predominates over state and local issues and even to some extent party loyalties.  Women voting for women, women voting for reproductive rights and against those who minimize and justify crimes against women, can themselves make this wave.

But now on center stage is a nominee for the Supreme Court whose record shows that he threatens a range of reproductive rights, who appears to be a skillful liar with a political agenda, and who is now credibly accused of attempted rape as a teenager.

Kavanagh is claiming that he was not even present at the asserted time and place.  Unless there is incontrovertible evidence that he was elsewhere--out of the country for that period, for example--this appears to mark the transition from skillful lying to audacious lying.

It will be up to male Senators to begin redeeming the Senate from the outrages of the Clarence Thomas hearings.  But it will be up to the women of America to demand an investigation and a fair hearing.  Their voices on issues raised by this court appointment beyond this accusation need to be heard loud and clear.  The Year of the Women begins now.

Monday, September 17, 2018

JFK Books

Before I pack many of these JFK books back in their box (for there is no room on the overflowing shelves) I thought I'd give them their close-ups.

These books remind me that at least in my lifetime there has never been as broad and extensive interest in a presidency as there was of JFK in the early 1960s.

Consider this as well as an appendix to previous History of My Reading posts, such as this one and this one.

These are books that JFK authored.  Why England Slept was based on his Harvard undergrad dissertation, originally published in 1940, about how and why England failed to prepare for World War II.  He authored Profiles in Courage while a US Senator while recovering from a recurrent back problem.  It profiles 8 Senators in history and their acts of political courage  It was a best-seller and won the 1957 Pulitzer for biography.  JFK acknowledged the role of special assistant and speechwriter Ted Sorensen, though perhaps not the extent of his contribution.  The role of writers such as Sorensen in books by public figures is now assumed.

A Nation of Immigrants was JFK's statement on immigration policy published in 1958 when he was in the Senate.  The other books are principally collections of speeches: To Turn the Tide covers roughly the first year of the presidency, The Burden and the Glory covers the remainder.  The Strategy of Peace selected Senator Kennedy's statements on foreign policy issues, plus an interview with him.  Published in 1960, it was meant to articulate positions he would advocate in his presidential campaign.  I got my first copy from the Citizens for Kennedy office on Main St. in Greensburg, PA, where I did some campaign work.

Three editions of Profiles in Courage still in my possession.  My first was a paperback written by "Senator John F. Kennedy." It was reissued when he was President, without changing the photo or the cover.  That's the bottom one.

 I'm not sure when I got the Inaugural Edition but I got the Memorial Edition as a gift in 1964.  It's physically a little bigger than the Inaugural Edition with a different back cover photo.  The foreword by Robert Kennedy is notable for the sentences: "President Kennedy would have been forty-seven in May of 1964.  At least one half of the days that he spent on this earth were days of intense physical pain."

Theodore White's account of the 1960 presidential campaign, from the primaries through the general election contest between JFK and Richard Nixon, was the first of a now-familiar genre.  It just hadn't been done before.

 Published in 1961, The Making of the President 1960 was a sensation, at the top of the best-seller list for months.  Teddy White wrote three more in his series, and using the Making of.. title or not, taking an inside view of presidential campaigns has become a publishing tradition ever since.

John Kennedy: A Political Profile was the first JFK biography and for awhile the only one.  Researched by historian and political science professor James MacGregor Burns in 1959 and 1960, it was published in paperback in 1961.

   P.T. 109 was the best-selling account of JFK's WWII exploits in the Pacific, leading 11 survivors away from their severed P.T. boat to swim for 4 hours to the nearest small island, JFK towing one injured man by a rope held in his teeth.  There were a number of articles about this incident (notably John Hershey's in Reader's Digest) but this book by a New York Herald reporter published in 1961 became the standard.  The 1963 feature film starring Cliff Robertson as JFK was based on it.

You can gauge the early 60s voracious interest in JFK--generally as well as mine--by the fact that The Kennedy Government, nothing more than bios of JFK's cabinet and White House advisers, was published in mass market paperback in 1961.

America's first man in space (Alan Shepard) and first to orbit the earth (John Glenn) were major events of the JFK years, leading to his commitment to land on the moon by the end of the 1960s.  This paperback (First American Into Space) is notable for its author, prominent science fiction writer and anthologist Robert Silverberg.  It was a time for s/f authors to claim some respectability, as the future they'd written about in their fantasies was becoming reality.

In the Kennedy government were authors of books already published, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., J.K. Galbraith and Robert Kennedy.  Others published during the JFK administration, notably these two.  Point of the Lance was a selection of Sargent Shriver's speeches plus some additions relating directly to the Peace Corps, of which he was the first director.  Many years later I had dinner with Harris Wofford, an associate of Shriver's as well as White House operative in the JFK years, and later Senator from PA.  This book came up in the conversation, and Wofford said that he'd written most of it, completely uncredited. Under his own name he authored Of Kennedys and Kings, an account of the 60s.

The Quiet Crisis by JFK's Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall is a different matter.  It's first of all a real book, not a collection of speeches.  Published in 1963, it is an early argument for government action to save the environment, as well as a historical look at attitudes towards the natural environment in the US, beginning with "The Land Wisdom of the Indians."  Popularizing the great Aldo Leopold's concept of "the land ethic," Udall's book is a conceptual and policy breakthrough for the US and the US government.  President Kennedy wrote the introduction.

The early 1960s were rife with satire and political humor.  The Kennedys were gently spoofed in enormously popular recordings, beginning with The First Family in which comedian Vaughn Meader imitated the unique characteristics of JFK's speech and voice.  There were books of political humor as well, such as the Gerald Gardner series of photos with cartoon dialogue balloons, beginning with Who's in charge here?

Meader and Gardner were witty about JFK, but JFK surprised the country with his dry sense of humor and deadpan delivery.  He was particularly adept at demonstrating it in his press conferences, which were carried live on national television.  Bill Adler selected zingers for his very popular paperbacks such as these two, The Kennedy Wit and More Kennedy Wit.  For example, from a press conference:
QUESTION: The Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution saying you were pretty much of a failure.  How do you feel about that?
PRESIDENT KENNEDY: I assume it passed unanimously.

Before digital, there was usually about a year between an author finishing a book and its publication.  So many books that were prepared during the JFK administration only came out when it was abruptly and unexpectedly over.

Jim Bishop had done a series of "A Day in the Life" books.  He followed the Kennedys for four days in what turned out to be during the final weeks of JFK's life.  It is written in October and November 1963, and JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger was reading it in typescript when he learn of the murder in Dallas.
Written in the present tense, and published in 1964 exactly as written (according to Bishop),  there are the inevitable eerie presentiments, especially as JFK spoke fairly often about the possibility of assassination.

 Hugh Sidey was the White House correspondent for TIME Magazine, and was granted a lot of access and time with JFK.  His book, he says in the preface, was supposed to be "the beginning of the story."  Instead when it was published, also in 1964, it became the first book about the entire Kennedy presidency.

President Kennedy was killed by an assassin's bullet on November 22, 1963.  There were many memorial issues of newspapers and magazines (I still have several) and there were books that were quickly published like this one, compiled by UPI and American Heritage Magazine.  It is mostly photographs covering that indelible weekend from the murder in Dallas on Friday to the funeral and burial at Arlington on Monday.

The official investigation into the Kennedy assassination was headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren.  The Warren Report, widely criticized over the years, was published in 1964.  My copy was a Christmas gift from my mother, which seems weirder now than it was then.

Death of a President is a long and thorough historical account--more than 700 pages--published in 1967.  It is by historian William Manchester (his two volume set, The Glory and the Dream, has been my Bible on the Roosevelt 30s to 1972.)   Manchester had the cooperation of the Kennedys but Jacqueline Kennedy had strong second thoughts and tried to stop publication.  Deletion of a few paragraphs concerning the assassination was negotiated.  The book was an immediate best-seller but went out of print until 2013, which perhaps makes my crumpled second-hand paperback a rare book.  

These are the first definitive accounts of the Kennedy presidency by insiders who also were adept at objective research and were exceptional writers.   Kennedy by Ted Sorensen was published in 1965.  I wrote a long review of it published in the April 1966 issue of Dialogue, the Knox College magazine.  Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days was published later in 1965, which won both a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.  These are my well-worn, much-used paperbacks.

Then there were the personal memoirs, such as these two, written by Kennedy's secretary Evelyn Lincoln (published in 1965; paperback a year later) and another by Kenneth O'Donnell and Dave Powers, who had known and worked for JFK since he first ran for Congress.  To suggest the continuing fascination with JFK, this one wasn't published until 1972.

The 50th anniversary of the Kennedy administration was the occasion of another flood of books, including two unique volumes, both essentially transcripts of enclosed audio recordings.  Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy (Hyperion 2012) presents mostly recordings from 1962 and 1963, after JFK installed a hidden taping system in the Oval Office, and took to recording phone conversations.  The technology was comparatively primitive, so transcripts are essential.  (The recordings themselves can also be heard over the Internet from the JFK Library.)

There are also JFK's private dictations, all meant to create an historical record and probably to aid him in writing his memoirs.  Some of the recordings are stunning--as we hear General Curtis LeMay sounding like Gen. Buck Turgenson in Dr. Strangelove--as well as mundane and vaguely interesting, as in a brief presidential conversation with the teenage Jerry Brown at the end of a call with his father, California Governor Pat Brown.

More impressive is the 2011 Hyperion volume of Jacqueline Kennedy's reminiscences with Arthur Schlesinger in 1964.  She speaks with clarity and insight about specific events and policies in their historical contexts as well as observations on family, personalities and her own role in the White House.  Because she never spoke on the record about the White House years, which (her daughter Caroline recalls) she later called the happiest years of her life, her voice and to a great extent her role in that history has been overlooked.  Now it can be heard, in 7 CDs. Again, the recordings are online, as are many others in the Kennedy Library oral history project.

Both volumes include forewords by Caroline Kennedy, who was instrumental in releasing these sound recordings and creating these volumes.

These are two of the many new histories published during the 50th anniversary. (I wrote about them in more detail here.)  Though Clarke's book is a straightforward history (making much use of information that has come to light in the past 50 years) and Jeff Greenfield's speculates on what JFK's second term might have been like, based on the same sort of information, they come to remarkably similar conclusions, especially about American participation in the Vietnam War, which both agree JFK would have ended by 1965.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Let Us Begin

I was not yet 15 when I stood in the Washington cold to watch the Inaugural Parade for President John F. Kennedy.  Lou and Mary--a family relation (through the Severinis I believe) and his wife-- who were my hosts had brought along a friend of theirs, an affable, lanky man they'd described as a funny guy.  He was.  He had with him a pair of binoculars, but they helped us see only in a general way.  They were actually a flask, filled with tea laced with whiskey to keep us warm.

Somewhere nearby President Kennedy was also watching the parade.  He'd just been sworn in as President, and was about 44 hours away from another milestone (which was shaking my hand.)  But President Kennedy saw something in that parade that I didn't.  Moreover, he did something about it, and it changed history.

Robert Kennedy is in one of those cars. My photo
mostly shows the job done clearing Constitution Av.
of snow that had piled up from a storm the days before.
The parade consisted of cars carrying various officials and politicians (I snapped a photo of Robert Kennedy, though at quite a distance), floats from the various states, military vehicles (including--as history has seemed to forgotten--tanks) and marching contingents from the various armed services (I snapped the marching Midshipmen from Annapolis.)  But when the Coast Guard Academy contingent passed the presidential viewing stand, Kennedy noticed that there were no black cadets among them.

Back at the White House, he asked why.  Eventually he was told that there was only one black officer in the entire Coast Guard.  Again, he asked why.  It turned out to have something to do with Academy requirements.  Eventually he got those requirements changed. From today's perspective, we can see that it was in a real way a seed of Affirmative Action.

Washington Post front page 1/21/1961
I'm taking this story from the Sidney Hyman and Martin Agronsky chapter ("But Let Us Begin") from the book Let Us Begin: The First 100 Days of the Kennedy Administration.  The title is from one of the many celebrated quotes embedded in JFK's Inaugural Address, which the Washington Post in its first report (which I brought back with me)  recognized as "surely one of the most eloquent in history,"
a reputation it maintains to this day.

 Towards the end of his address, after speaking about the major goals and policies of his upcoming administration, Kennedy cautioned: "All this will not be finished in the first 100 days.  Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor perhaps even in our lifetime on this planet.  But let us begin."  

The "let us begin"--three short words, four syllables--he separately emphasized, pounding out the rhythm on the lectern.  References to the future now are prophetic and tragic.  But the words of action--that emphatic burst of intent--remain inspiring.

And they were true.  For reading this chapter now, I see how many beginnings there were: how many seeds were planted that did not fully bear fruit for years or even decades, but eventually changed things.  JFK and RFK often talked about "the unfinished business of this country," and of course that business remains unfinished.  But there was progress, and it was seeded, or began or was accelerated in the Kennedy administration.which began that day, January 20,1961 and ended on November 22, 1963.

Kennedy fought a tough primary in West Virginia and spent a lot of time in the state.  It was perhaps his first close-up view of poverty--including white poverty-- particularly in rural areas of Appalachia that rivaled anything seen in the Great Depression.  Perhaps this was behind his first executive order as President: to increase the quantity and quality of surplus food available to low income Americans.

The federal government distributing "surplus food" had been its main way of addressing hunger since the Great Depression.  Being on welfare was not required--families below a certain income could go to distribution centers and get everything from powdered milk and eggs to cheese and canned meats (including Spam.)  At a particularly lean time for my family in the 1950s, big blocks of surplus cheese and tins of roast beef (which tasted more of the tin than the beef) began showing up in our household.

Also in those first 100 days, Kennedy ordered a pilot food stamp program, so that eligible citizens could get the same food as everyone else at the supermarket, including fresh produce.  That became a full-fledged program in the Johnson administration, and food stamps replaced surplus food in the 1970s except as a supplementary program for targeted populations, such as Indian reservations.

Much of what Kennedy set in motion immediately was designed to take up the slack in the economy and "get America moving again," as he'd promised in the campaign.  But he made crucial changes within the government that seeded more changes to come.  His appointees made entire departments--from Defense to the Post Office--more professional and accountable.  He changed the composition of the Business Advisory Council within the Commerce Department from a self-appointment gang of cronies who used it to enrich themselves to a group selected by the Secretary of Commerce, with their meetings open to the press.  Greater transparency was coming to government.  At the same time, a more active Labor Department was looking out for workers but also entering labor disputes as arbiter.

Some of the most eye-opening changes concern the US military.  The defense budget had become a disorganized grab-bag decided on by the various services in conjunction with big arms contractors.  Kennedy ordered a complete review of US defense capabilities and needs, and after hearing from the military services and congressional leaders, created a defense budget that aligned with the findings of this review, and choices to upgrade and make defense more flexible.

This was a specific result of a more general policy of great importance.  Kennedy, this chapter asserts, "inherited a government in which high-ranking military officers had grown used to issuing pronouncements on diplomatic and security policies, however embarrassing to their civilian superiors.  President Kennedy lost no time in reasserting the Constitutional principle of civic supremacy."

This was a battle that would extend throughout his presidency.  Deferring to the military caused the Bay of Pigs debacle, while defying top military leaders essentially saved the world from thermonuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But when the novel Seven Days in May, which depicted an attempted military coup in contemporary America was published in 1962, Kennedy told friends it was a plausible scenario.  Today civilian control of a more professional military is established.

Kennedy sent a stream of legislation to Congress, on everything from housing to national parks and scientific research.  Some of it notably was to continue or finish projects begun in the Eisenhower administration, including the federal highway program.  But much of it was innovative, and among these bills were several seeds for the future, notably the legislation on the issue then called "medical care for the aged," to be administered through Social Security.  Republicans opposed it as "socialized medicine" (much as they opposed Kennedy's call for a raise in the minimum wage to a grand $1.25 an hour, which they said would ruin the economy.)  Eventually "medical care for the aged" would result in what we know as Medicare.

In 1961 ecology was a future word and the environment was not yet a thing, but thanks mostly to his pioneering Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, Kennedy sent a special message to Congress about coordinated federal responses and policies to control air and water pollution, conservation of forests and water, and preservation of public lands.  These were the seeds of environmental action.

Early class of Peace Corps volunteers
The instant success of those first months was the Peace Corps, which he proposed in the 1960 campaign and was embraced in particular by the young.  Kennedy created the Peace Corps by executive order in March, 1961, and the first volunteers were in the field even before Congress formally authorized it in September.  The program got fully underway in 1962, and has been sending volunteers around the world ever since.

In Civil Rights, Kennedy instituted reforms that would ultimately result in the federal government leading the country towards equal opportunity and diversity in the workplace.

After the specific efforts to encourage racial diversity in the Coast Guard, the Kennedy administration took a number of meaningful steps in the civil rights area, including the Kennedy Justice Department entering several desegregation cases on the side of African American litigants.  But in terms of the future, Kennedy's major step in the first 100 days was to ban discrimination in federal government employment, as well as the contractors it hired. This covered nearly a quarter of the national workforce.

 But he did more to make the order effective.  He ordered a report "which would provide for the first time a statistical breakdown by color by all those whose work entailed the use of federal funds," as well as recommendations on how to remove inequities.  He created an executive structure to receive this report and to use it to end those inequities.

But even planting the seeds was not over in the first 100 days in the brief life of this Administration.  Some of the better known seeds were planted very close to the end.  The Limited Test Ban Treaty not only seeded the many arms reduction and anti-proliferation treaties entered into by the US, Russia and many other countries, it changed the dynamic of the Cold War.  Lines of communication and trust based on common interests and respect were, for one thing, suddenly crucial when the Soviet Union fell apart and nightmares of scattering bombs, or a collection of small and barely formed nations all with nuclear weapons, were avoided.

Kennedy breathed new life into the treaty negotiations with his historic address in June 1963, often considered his best speech after his Inaugural. (The basic themes were sounded in fact in that Inaugural.) The treaty proved unexpectedly popular, and Kennedy milked public support and also called in some crucial favors to see it ratified in the US Senate, which was in some ways more difficult than getting the USSR to sign it.

Then the evening after that landmark speech, he made another one--a television address, scheduled at the last minute, in which he announced his Civil Rights bill, the most sweeping in history.  He would not live to see it passed, but eventually two bills including the Voting Rights Act would become law.

The seeds continued to be sown until the end. Thurston Clarke's 2013 counterpart book, JFK's Last Hundred Days, uses facts gathered during decades of historical research and reportage to flesh out and at times reveal some of the dramatic accomplishments of Kennedy's last months, which included securing the Test Ban Treaty ratification.

Clarke makes a convincing case that JFK's horror of war and suspicion of military brass that began with his experiences in World War II, were paramount.  Some of the most prominent military leaders were pressuring him to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union in late 1963, when US missile superiority was at its height.  The Test Ban Treaty was even more crucial because of this pressure.

Still, the forces within the government opposing him, particular on military matters and policy regarding the Soviets, were known to simply not carry out his orders.  This included the failure to send the response that Kennedy wrote to the Soviet premier's friendly letter, and disregarding his order to close obsolete missile bases in Turkey that later became a point of conflict during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

March on Washington leaders with JFK immediately afterwards
In an important nuance often overlooked, the timing of the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was to support JFK's Civil Rights bill, and President Kennedy supported the march.  He considered going, decided against it and immediately regretted not participating (Clarke writes.)  But he happily hosted the March's leaders in the White House immediately afterwards, greeting Martin Luther King, Jr. with the words "I have a dream."

There were smaller seeds sown as well in these last months.  He had ordered a report on how equality in hiring for women in the federal government and the private sector could be encouraged, and he spoke at the presentation of the report, despite being (in Clarke's terms) a male chauvinist through and through.

He also took affirmative action of another sort by appointing the first Italian American and the first Polish American to the cabinet.  He was criticized for doing so as base politics, not taking into account "Kennedy's determination to make it easier for other ethnic groups to walk through the door that his election had kicked open," as Clarke writes.  For Kennedy was the first Catholic to be President, and the first Irish American.

Clarke noted that these appointments of individuals from immigrant groups of a few generations past came at the same time as Kennedy (who'd authored a short book called A Nation of Immigrants and had sponsored bills expanding immigration as a Senator) had submitted to Congress an immigration bill that summer that promised "the most radical transformation of U.S. immigration laws in almost half a century."

Kennedy had argued for the end of discriminatory national quotas.  An immigration bill passed in 1965 (with the support of Senator Ted Kennedy),  that came significantly close to this goal, and effectively dumped the discrimination in favor of northern European immigrants that had been US policy since 1920.  Apart from issues of illegal immigration, this provision alone added to the diversity of immigrants and the country ever since.