Monday, August 30, 2010

August Cuteness

Hard to believe, but Daughter of Dez is 6 months old. Here is some of what she was up to this last month...

She seems to be at the stage where she investigates most objects by putting them in her mouth. Here she tries to eat a laptop screen...

The dog is a bit wary of her because she enjoys pulling on his ears...

A true milestone in life: sitting up unassisted!

Another milestone: this is a photo of her enjoying her first taste of food other than mama's milk. It is some rice cereal. She also likes bananas.

I mentioned earlier that the dog was wary of baby. The wariness vanishes if there is food around. And since half of what is intended for her to eat ends up on her hands, elbows, feet, the floor, her tray and various other locations, it is a bounty for dog. Here dog does her the favor of cleaning her hands of some rice cereal...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dez Reviews John Mellencamp's No Better Than This, 2010

I had given up on John Mellencamp awhile ago. The last consistently interesting records he made were in the early to mid-1990's. His latest, No Better Than This, is defiant evidence that it is never too late to recapture that magic. This is a record that he could not have made in his younger days. It is a significant record for him too, one that may set him up for musical relevance for the next 20 years or so if he can continue down this path in inspired ways.

I say it is defiant, and it is. It is stubborn music, down to how he recorded it. Recorded all in mono using vintage 50's and 60's recording equipment, he even carefully chose the three recording locations to ensure the right mojo: Sun Studios in Memphis, The First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga. (a church dating back to 1775) and most interesting to me, in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel here in San Antonio, which is where Robert Johnson conducted one of the only two recording sessions of his life back in 1936. As you can imagine by now, this music has a retro feel. It is more rockabilly, country, folk and blues than modern rock and roll (and not coincidentally, it is Mellencamp's debut on Rounder Records). Which is fine, because this music really suits Mellencamp these days. His lyrics have always been connected to these older musical genres of the common man, but he rarely made records that committed 100% to those styles musically. He would add elements to be sure (Lonesome Jubilee is a brilliant example of combining those elements with modern rock), but he always kept one eye on the pop charts. Evidently he has given up on mainstream chart success.

As he approaches his 60's (!), his voice is rougher through years on the road, smoking cigarettes and hard living. It works perfectly with gritty rockabilly beats and bluesy/folky acoustic guitars. He tentatively set off down this road on his most recent records (Trouble No More, Freedom's Road and Life, Death, Love and Freedom), but he hedged his bets on those records. Here he finally commits. A reviewer on stated that this record reminds him of the Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash records during the musical renaissance in the last decade or so of Cash's life. I could see Mellencamp filling that gap easily for the next 20 years, recording gritty records of Americana based in folk, blues, country and rockabilly idioms, and only occasionally veering into rock and roll.

That is why this record is significant. Mellencamp has set himself up for the next few decades in a musical world where he is at home and where he can age gracefully instead of trying to belt out more "Jack and Diane"-clones in his 60's. It also helps that the tunes here are quite good, catchy and the record has a wonderful organic and coherent sound to it.

ABOVE: This is the video for the title track, "No Better Than This." Far from the best tune on the album, it does at least give you a feel for the sound. (It was the only tune from the album I could find on YouTube.)

Rating: **** out of *****

Friday, August 20, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: American Zeus

#1 of 39:
George Washington (1st president)

It was a close call on whether to put Lincoln or Washington at #1, but I asked myself this question: could anybody else have accomplished what he accomplished? While Lincoln was a rare individual indeed, George Washington was the only man who could do what needed to be done in his time. Yes, Lincoln saved the Union (and ended slavery), but there probably would not have been a Union to save by the 1860's if we didn't have Washington.

George Washington is difficult to humanize. He didn't wear his foibles on his sleeve like a John Adams, Alexander Hamilton or even Thomas Jefferson. Everything he left us in writing was self-consciously composed with posterity in mind. What was he really like in his off hours? We will never know. He was always playing the American Zeus, even when he claimed to just be a "simple" farmer (when in fact he was one of the wealthiest men from the wealthiest state, Virginia). Even the great Abraham Lincoln has had time periods where historians have dug up the dirt, but never Washington. To this day he remains unblemished in our history and memory. Washington should be honored not only for what he did, but also for what he did not do. Much like how Miles Davis is great in part for his silences, so was Washington.

What was so great about Washington? As a general, he lost more battles than he won. When he presided over the Constitutional Convention, he offered no ideas or substantive comments. In fact, most accounts are that he hardly uttered a word as our Founding Fathers hammered out the Constitution. His administration was filled with men more visionary and brilliant than he. Jefferson gave Washington the faint praise of "his mind was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion."

The place to start with Washington is his unshakeable moral character. That is really the key. As an infant country, and despite the fact that we had just fought a war to throw off the yoke of monarchical rule, the people yearned for strong, patriarchal leadership. A Republic of this sort was uncharted waters, and they wanted a sure captain to at least guide them out of the harbor. George Washington was the only man in America universally respected by the people and without enemies, as he had led the colonists to independence. He was above faction. Virtually drafted by the people to be their first president under the new Constitution, a reluctant Washington was the only president to receive a unanimous election in the electoral college (in 1789.) It must be remembered that a democratic-republic was a new type of government that was expected to fail. The vast majority of the rest of the civilized world lived under authoritarian rule of some sort. Washington was popular enough (and many wanted him to) to make himself King George I of America. But he did not. He instead surrendered his sword to Congress and resigned his position as General of the United States Army before he took office as Chief Executive.

There was no precedent to follow. He was the first so he set the precedents. He decided to only serve for two terms, when he could have easily been re-elected for the rest of his life. He fulfilled the peoples' need for patriarchal leadership by insisting on formality and royal iconography. But he balanced that with republican (small "r") values.

ABOVE: This is the artwork on the ceiling of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. It is called "The Apotheosis of Washington," where George Washington is depicted taking his place amongst the gods (remarkable in this nation supposedly founded on Judeo-Christian principles). Washington was indeed viewed as more than a mortal man, and it was essential that he be the first president of the new nation. (Click the picture for a closer look).

The United States was far from a long term prospect in the early days after the Revolution. In many ways, winning independence from Britain was the easy part. Now what? He was the only man with the stature to keep this thing from falling apart. And he knew it. Historian Gordon Wood has pointed out that in the early days Washington's birthday was a bigger celebration than the 4th of July, and he allowed this cult of personality to flourish in the early days to take the place of an absent patriotism. But one of the things that separates him from a Stalin or Castro is that he allowed it to take root only for a short time when necessary, and then walked away from it. That is remarkable. He personally toured the young country several times to give the people a direct connection to their federal government (vs. their state governments, which they were often more loyal to.) One of the last things he did before leaving office was to personally help design the new capital city that would bear his name.

He had help, of course. George Washington's administration is the most impressive group of men that a president has ever had to serve under him. Hard to go wrong with Alexander Hamilton as your Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson as your Secretary of State and John Adams as your vice-president. Washington recognized that each of these men were more brilliant, and he leaned heavily on their advice. But the buck always stopped with Washington. He would consider their counsel (often asking for memos) and then make his decision. Washington's administration was full of intrigue and vehement disagreement. Hamilton and Adams hated each other, Adams and Jefferson distrusted each other, and the rift between Jefferson and Hamilton was the beginning of political parties in America. During Washington's second administration, the first two political parties formed within his very own cabinet with what started as a personal feud between Jefferson and Hamilton! The administration would have fallen apart had it not been for Washington himself keeping these men in check. A lesser man would not have been able to reign in the likes of Jefferson and Hamilton. James Monroe simply said that "[Washington's] influence carried this government." Jefferson said that "the moderation and virtue of [Washington] probably prevented this revolution from being closed."

ABOVE: An All-Star Cabinet (L-R): Washington, Secretary of War Henry Knox, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. Hamilton is appropriately in the center and standing, as he dominated Washington's administration.

What did he actually do as president? Keeping this infant nation from falling apart was the primary thing, but he did have other accomplishments during his administration as well. He allowed Hamilton to establish the Bank of the United States in the face of vocal opposition from Jefferson when we needed financial stability. He supported the unpopular Jay's Treaty with Britain that helped us avoid a war that we probably would not have survived. He was an early supporter of internal improvements. He was involved with designing Washington D.C. (D.C.'s location was the result of a backroom compromise deal between Hamilton and Jefferson. Jefferson secured the capital near Virginia and he in turn did not oppose Hamilton's wish for the federal government to assume state debts).

Washington may have surrendered his sword, but he was always a military man at heart. During the infamous Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania (where backwoods farmers instigated a tax revolt and refused to pay taxes on whiskey), Washington personally led the military into Pennsylvania to put down the revolt. Once Washington showed up on his horse, the rebellion immediately ended. That was the first and last time that the commander-in-chief actually led the military on the battlefield. We have not had a tax revolt since.

ABOVE: Washington arrives to personally squash the Whiskey Rebellion

His famous Farewell Address both set policy for the next 100 years (he warned of entangling alliances and many interpreted his message, although it is not entirely clear, as one of isolationism) and was prescient of future problems, warning against extreme partisanship and stressing the importance of preserving the Union. Historian Gordon Wood states that "Although Washington had aristocratic predilections and never meant to 'popularize' politics, he nonetheless performed a crucial role in creating that democracy. He was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: Unlikely Icon

#2 of 39:
Abraham Lincoln (16th president)

ABOVE: "He is a barbarian, scythian, yahoo. A gorilla in respect of outward polish, but a most sensible, straight-forward old codger." - Lawyer George Strong on colleague Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a complex personality. An engaging conversationalist and a man with a natural curiosity about a host of things, he was also beset with bouts of severe depression and anxiety.

Lincoln is #2, so you can now figure out who is #1. I will explain why #1 is who it is on his post, and why he edged out Abe.

Abraham Lincoln is the only president who had his entire administration framed by and defined by war. In fact, he gave his life in that war, just as a soldier on the battlefield. The Union's victory in the Civil War was far from guaranteed, and at several points the Confederacy could have possibly secured its independence. The actions and decisions made by Lincoln saved the United States. Many other Northern leaders of the time had the attitude of "if they want to go, let them go." But Lincoln believed that this people could only survive as one, not two. He recognized that the co-existence of a United States of America and a Confederate States of America could not be geographically sustainable. The very fact that our major mountain ranges and rivers flowed north to south instead of east to west made separability impossible. "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

No other president took office under such stressful conditions, not even Washington or FDR. By the time he was sworn in, seven states had already seceded from the Union, and four more would secede soon after. He was an unlikely hero. Gangly and shy, he was a goofy looking man. But he was also a shrewd politician, brilliant mind, and had a wonderful self-deprecating sense of humor that served him well.

ABOVE: Lincoln at Antietam

Lincoln skillfully walked a tightrope when dealing with slavery and emancipation. While he always personally found slavery abhorrent, he also knew that he had to keep the Border States of West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and Kentucky within the Union. He is quoted as saying "I hope that God is on our side, but I have to have Kentucky." Some of the border states had slavery, and so Lincoln initially had to tread lightly. Had the teetering border states seceded, the Confederacy would have doubled its manpower and manufacturing capacity. He had to keep them in line, and he did it both with the carrot and the stick. This is why Lincoln initially stated that the Civil War was fought to preserve the Union. It wasn't until Antietam that he felt he could shift the focus to ending slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation itself only proclaimed to free slaves within the Confederacy, not the border states or conquered southern territory. In other words, it only freed the slaves that it could not free, and did not free the slaves that it could free.

Lincoln was also a gifted military strategist. He was central in developing the Northern strategy of: 1. naval blockade of Southern ports, 2. cutting the South in two vertically by controlling the Mississippi River, 3. cutting the South in two horizontally with Sherman's March, 4. taking the capital of Richmond, 5. using superior numbers and supplies to wear down the Confederacy in a brutal war of attrition that cost over 600,000 lives (more American lives were lost in the Civil War than all other wars fought by the U.S. combined), and 6. ending slavery and disrupting the Southern economy. He manipulated the South into drawing first blood at Ft. Sumter. Plagued by inferior generals, he also boldly fired a string of incompetent generals (McClellan twice) until he settled on Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln also violated the Constitution several times in this extraordinary time, raising an army without congressional approval and suspending habeas corpus.

It is a great "what if" of history to contemplate how he would have handled Reconstruction and a defeated South. His plan was very conciliatory towards the South, and as a conquering president he would have had the moral authority to see it through. Imagine no Andrew Johnson, no Radical Reconstruction by a vengeful Congress. It is telling that initially Southerners were jubilant at the news of his assassination, but later came to regret his death, because they came to understand that Honest Abe would have indeed dealt with them fairly.

ABOVE: Lincoln was assassinated by embittered actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth five days after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox to Grant.

Historian James McPherson summed Lincoln up thus: "Without Lincoln's determined and skillful leadership, the North might have lost the war, and the United States as we know it today might not exist. Instead, Union victory resolved two festering problems left unresolved by the Revolution of 1776 and the Constitution of 1789: whether the Republic would 'long endure' or 'perish from the earth' and whether the 'monstrous injustice' of slavery would continue to mock a nation 'conceived in liberty.' The Republic endured, and slavery perished. That is Lincoln's legacy."

ABOVE: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." - Abraham Lincoln, ever the optimist. One of my favorite spots to visit in Washington D.C. is the Lincoln Memorial at night. It is beautifully lit, and there is always a decent crowd of people there, it is an unofficial national hang-out spot at night. Always a diverse crowd, it is one of the most peaceful and moving places to sit in the evening hours. No wonder that was where Richard Nixon impulsively drove one night during his embattled presidency at the peak of the Vietnam War protests and engaged protestors in a fascinating and calm conversation and exchange of perspectives.

* Took office during the most stressful time of our history, and immediately took charge
* Skillfully manipulated the South into firing first at Ft. Sumter instead of the North, starting the War off on the moral "high ground," a crucial issue in keeping the Border States from seceding
* Throughout the War, he prevented the Border States from seceding, which might have turned the tide. He used the carrot (holding off on emancipation, a host of what we would call "pork barrel" projects) and the stick (sending Federal troops to "monitor" their elections). Lincoln was also not beyond a little election shenanigans, such as giving the entire Union Army a "break" so they could come back home and vote (for him) in his re-election
* Recognized early that separation was impossible and fought to keep the U.S. united
* Came up with the complex and multi-faceted Northern strategy for victory, including keeping an agitating Britain and France from aiding the Confederacy
* Had a conciliatory Reconstruction Plan that, had it been implemented, may have made the Reconstruction period and the century after a very different and more positive time for the South

* None

Friday, August 13, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: 20th Century Giant

#3 of 39:
Franklin D. Roosevelt (32nd president)

This is actually a rather controversial choice this high up. Depending on your political persuasion, FDR was either a saint or (an unwitting) devil for the future of this country. I’m generally a moderate politically, so naturally I don’t fall in either camp. But there are several things that you cannot deny. FDR had an unparalleled rapport with the American people when they really needed someone to look to. Winning an unprecedented four terms in a row (a Constitutional impossibility now with the 22nd Amendment), he obviously connected with the people unlike almost anyone before. Also, FDR guided us through two of the most defining events of the 20th Century, The Great Depression and World War II. So his impact is absolutely undeniable. At least on that we can all agree.

The Depression was already in full swing when FDR first took office in 1933. The cautious approach of Herbert Hoover did not seem to be working (although he was not as bad as history has painted him), and the country was desperate for more decisive and daring leadership. FDR’s New Deal was not a carefully planned roadmap, instead it was rather like throwing a lot of things at the wall and seeing what sticks. Roosevelt himself said “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average.”

Once he took office, he immediately took charge. One of the most effective things he did was not really policy at all. He hit the radio airwaves with his weekly “fireside chats,” talking through his ideas with the American people and giving pep talks. Sounds a bit hokey nowadays, but you cannot underestimate how effective these chats were. When unemployment peaked at 25%, FDR was a lifeline to a government that gave the appearance of actively trying to make things better. This is the blueprint of Clinton’s “feeling your pain” or Reagan’s equally effective use of television in the 1980’s. Probably more important than anything else, Roosevelt inspired a confidence when it was most needed (“the only thing to fear is fear itself”), exemplified by his own heroic struggle against polio which had paralyzed his legs (the media environment was such that the average American had no clue that their president was actually a cripple. He masterfully disguised his condition, and was either discreetly propped up at podiums or conveniently seated when photographed).

ABOVE: FDR giving one of his fireside chats. Doesn't look all that cozy, does it?

As far as the substance of the New Deal itself, it was a mixed bag of an alphabet soup of programs. My students groan as I make them memorize at least 20 or so acronyms, from the AAA to the TVA. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) brought electricity to the dark ages of Appalachia, built needed dams throughout the region, and employed many workers on these projects. It is the best example of internal improvements both being beneficial in themselves and also helping to employ out of work folks. He had many other less spectacular public works programs, but they did give many workers employment, albeit temporary (kind of like census workers?) Much needed banking reform was enacted, most notably the FDIC protecting our savings from bank bankruptcies. Of course, we also have Social Security thanks to the New Deal. His one real misstep during this period was his attempt in 1937 to pack the Supreme Court with New Deal-loving judges. The conservative Court had struck down several New Deal programs as unconstitutional (such as the AAA), and so Roosevelt proposed, with a straight face claiming he wanted to lighten the workload for elderly Justices, to expand the Court from 9 to 15 justices. As president, he of course would get to appoint all of the additional justices. Congress struck it down as a blatant attempt to pack the Court with friendly Justices, and it was a rare political disaster for the president.

ABOVE: Appalachia received much needed help from the TVA. Look at them now.

Alas, the New Deal did not end the Great Depression. I know some argue that it actually prolonged it, but I don’t buy that argument. The Depression was the result of rampant speculation, a concurrent agricultural crisis, an unregulated stock market plagued by margin buying, a crumbling international economic system, unregulated speculative banks, lack of deposit protection for the consumers, consumer credit run wild, and other factors. It was due in order to correct these problems. The New Deal, at best, enacted some policies that helped fix some problems, eased some of the symptoms of the Depression, and inspired some hope when it was needed. But what got us out of the Depression was World War II.

Nothing like a world war to end unemployment and spur industry. The country still had a strong isolationist streak in the late 30’s as the rest of the world burst into chaos, but FDR wanted to get involved from the beginning. He was savvy enough to know that the American people were not there yet. But his Lend-Lease program saved Great Britain, and in turn saved the Allied cause against Hitler and fascism. Britain was the lone bastion against Hitler in the West after the rest of Western Europe fell like dominoes to Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, and our money, supplies and weapons kept them alive in those crucial months before we got directly involved.

Once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we were ready to dive in. (The theories that FDR knew ahead of time of the Pearl Harbor attack and let it happen to get us into the War are intriguing). FDR’s leadership during the incredibly complex WWII was as vigorous as his New Deal had been at home. He didn’t always make the right decisions, but he guided us through a War like no other and was intimately involved in strategy every step of the way.

ABOVE: The Manzanar internment camp in the Southwest U.S.

His WWII decisions are not without controversy. He and Churchill delayed for a long time opening their second front in Europe (D-Day), probably too long, allowing the Russians to bear the brunt of Nazi might. This is something that forever embittered Stalin and the Soviets, and is one of the key roots of the Cold War. FDR and other Allied leaders knew of the horrors of the Holocaust much earlier than the general public, yet instead of bombing key rail lines leading to Auschwitz and other camps, they focused on destroying Hitler’s industrial capacity to make war. The thinking was that industry had to be priority to most quickly end Hitler's reign. Also, the internment of Japanese-Americans on the west coast is definitely a stain on his legacy. There were fears, but little to no proof, that Japanese-Americans on the west coast would aid the Japanese Empire through sabotage and espionage, and so hundreds of thousands were rounded up and placed in prison camps in the interior of the country. They lost their homes, jobs, everything. This is not comparable to Hitler’s death camps (which some people stupidly compare them to), but it was still a horrible thing to do. And this was done by direct Executive Order from FDR himself. Nearing the end of his life and in frail health, it is generally acknowledged that FDR was taken advantage of by Stalin at Yalta. Stalin steamrolled and got way too many concessions from a sick FDR and politically desperate (at home) Churchill in planning out the postwar world (but to be fair, we were thinking that we would need Soviet help to defeat Japan).

These sound like serious criticisms, and they are, but what he did right in World War II far outweighs these missteps. The War could have been even more devastating than it was if we had had weaker leadership.

Alright. Disagree on FDR? Fire away.

ABOVE: FDR's landmark "day of infamy" speech the day after Pearl Harbor

• Provided confident leadership during the darkest days of the Depression (fireside chats)
• Vigorous attempts to fix the symptoms, if not the causes, of the Depression
• Some New Deal programs have a lasting legacy like TVA, FDIC, Social Security
• Lend-Lease
• WWII leadership

• Court Packing
• Japanese-American Internment
• Yalta

NOTE: I know that it is shocking that this has come down to Lincoln and Washington for the top spot, but that is where we are. Who will I choose? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: Contradictions

#4 of 39:
Thomas Jefferson (3rd president)

“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House - with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” – John F. Kennedy to a gathering of Nobel laureates

Scientist, politician, architect, farmer, slaveowner, philosopher, Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson was the purest American example, along with Ben Franklin, of the Renaissance Man. Jefferson was a fascinating study in contrasts. He firmly believed in a nation of citizen-farmers and a small federal government that would stay out of the business of the people (an early hero of conservativism), yet he ended up exercising as much executive power as any president that we have ever had (more in line with liberal leaders). He tried to bring order to the young country with a firm hand, yet he also once famously said that “every generation needs a revolution” and was a supporter of the bloody French Revolution longer than most. He signed legislation ending the importation of slaves, yet was also a slaveowner. Even further, he openly acknowledged his contradictions, because above all else, he was a pragmatist.

I already wrote about the crucial Election of 1800, which was the first election where an opposition party won the office of president. John Adams performed a great service for this country by not resisting the transition of power, and Thomas Jefferson was the other side of that transaction. He was as crucial in that power transition as Adams. Instead of seeking retribution on his political enemies, he declared in his inaugural address that we are “all Democrats, we are all Federalists.” Mortal enemies Adams and Jefferson must be honored for setting the precedent of peaceful transition of power, far from a given in the world of 1800. (Adams and Jefferson would later mend their differences in old age through an extraordinary exchange of letters, and both died on July 4, 1826, with Adams desperately trying to hold on in order to outlive rival Jefferson, even if only by hours).

ABOVE: Jefferson saw himself as a man of the people, and quickly dispensed with the more formal traditions that had been established by Washington and Adams before him. He had frequent dinner parties at the White House, but allowed seating to be first come, first serve, regardless of rank. He would often greet diplomatic visitors to the White House wearing slippers and his pj’s

The defining moment of Jefferson’s administration was the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States and was, frankly, unconstitutional. Napoleon Bonaparte was in a desperate struggle to conquer Europe, and he needed quick cash and did not want to have to worry about protecting France’s vast holdings in North America. He unexpectedly offered the French territory from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains to the Americans for $15 million. Jefferson, and many others, strongly believed that Westward expansion was crucial to grow and preserve this young, agrarian Republic. He personally took over negotiations, but time was of the essence before the unpredictable Napoleon changed his mind. Jefferson could not wait for Congress to meet and approve the purchase, so he authorized it himself, acknowledging that “the less that is said about my constitutional difficulty, the better. It will be desirable for Congress to do what is necessary in silence.”

ABOVE: Lewis & Clark (with Indian guide)

After the Purchase, he authorized the controversial Lewis & Clark expedition to explore the newly acquired territory. The boundaries of the Louisiana territory were always vague and approximate, so he instructed Lewis & Clark to be generous in their definition of what was the Louisiana territory, thereby grabbing even more territory than he had purchased. He illegally sent them into Spanish territory all the way to the Pacific, claiming it was only a “scientific” expedition. He then got Congress to authorize almost dictatorial powers to where Jefferson himself ran the territorial government. Historian Joseph Ellis calls Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase actions “the most dramatic and far-reaching executive decision ever made by an American president.” The irony here is that Jefferson sincerely believed in limited federal power and distrusted a centralized government, yet he exercised it more grandly and expansively than almost any other president we have had. He rightfully saw the opportunity of a generation, and he took it, constitutional scruples be damned.

ABOVE: The Louisiana Purchase

Jefferson’s one huge mistake was the Embargo Acts. Trying to stay out of the world war between the French and the British, he imposed the ridiculous Embargo Act of 1807, closing off American trade internationally, thinking that it would bring the French and British to their knees and force them to deal more favorably with us. Vastly overestimating our importance to world economics at that point, he brought on an economic catastrophe for the U.S. and ended up not avoiding the war with Britain, although that came under his successor and acolyte, James Madison.

• Smooth transition of power from one party to another
• Ended the importation of slaves
• Louisiana Purchase
• Willing to allow pragmatic opportunities override strict principles
• Probably the most brilliant man to ever hold the office

• Embargo Act of 1807
• Willfully kicked the slavery issue down the road for successors to deal with, especially by not addressing it in the new Louisiana Territory

Friday, August 6, 2010

Dez Reviews Tin Can Trust by Los Lobos, 2010

Yes, this blog is about more than presidential history. We will wrap that list up soon, just needed to take a breather.

I've long been a booster of this great band from East L.A. Since their debut in 1978, Los Lobos has masterfully blended their Hispanic cultural heritage with rock and roll and musical experimentation. Their 1992 release Kiko is a masterpiece, in my Top 10 of all time. For the next ten years after Kiko, they tried to recapture that record's elusive magic and failed rather disappointingly. But starting with 2002's Good Morning, Azatlan, they found a comfortable, if unremarkable groove, releasing good records with a couple of standout tracks each surrounded by pleasant filler. The new Tin Can Trust is their strongest record since Kiko, and while not reaching Kiko's peaks, it is nice to hear that the Lobos still have it in them to make engaging records that can grab you from start to finish.

Tin Can Trust mines similar territory as 2006's The Town and the City, taking a complex look at working class life in these hard times from a particularly Southwestern point of view. Think of Hispanic Springsteen or Mellencamp, but a little more trippy and less straightforward. But whereas The Town and the City was musically muted and had a sameness about it, Tin Can Trust really stretches out musically with enough variety to keep your interest. In fact, it is the most natural and relaxed attempt at capturing some of Kiko's musical textures that they have been able to pull off. I've got to say that the guitar playing from David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas here is some of their tastiest and best on a studio record. From the blistering solo that closes "Burn It Down" to the spacy jams on "Jupiter or the Moon" to the bluesy riffs on the instrumental "Do the Murray," this record should be particularly satisfying to fans of great guitar playing.

There is not a bum track here, really. Even the unnecessary Grateful Dead cover "West L.A. Fadeaway" is a groovy listen. Cesar Rosas gets his requisite cumbias and Mexican folk tunes with the spirited "Yo Canto" and "Mujer Ingrata." But the highlights remind me of older Los Lobos records like 1987's By the Light of the Moon, gritty acoustic/electric tunes of Americana (again, Southwestern style) like opener "Burn It Down," "All My Bridges Burning," "The Lady and the Rose" and the haunting "27 Spanishes," but with light Kiko-like touches added to them to make them more interesting.

***1/2 out of *****

ABOVE: This is not from this record, but it is a great clip nonetheless. It is from Los Lobos's appearance on 'Sesame Street,' where they adapted their tune "Kiko and the Lavendar Moon" to be "Elmo and the Lavendar Moon." Good stuff. Who knew Elmo took acid?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: The Imperial Presidency

#5 of 39:
Theodore Roosevelt (26th president)

“Now look! That damned cowboy is president of the United States!”-Republican power broker Mark Hanna.

Teddy Roosevelt was a scary prospect to Republicans and Democrats alike. He was an impulsive, charismatic, independent, unpredictable, uncontrollable force of nature. The Republicans had been so alarmed at his popularity within their own ranks that they neutralized him by making him William McKinley’s vice-president (a political dead-end job where troublemakers could often be set aside where they would do little damage). Unfortunately for the powers-that-were, McKinley got shot. TR may have had the justly earned reputation as a cowboy ruffian who was always ready to step in the ring for a boxing match (one of his favorite pastimes), but he was also one of the most intelligent men with the most diverse interests to ever inhabit the White House, with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson. He was the kind of man who would indeed slog it out with you in a boxing ring, but after showering off in the locker room, he could sit down with you and engage in a discussion of taxidermy, political theory or religion.

The fears of party leaders were well founded. Teddy served more as a dictator than a president, but always claiming to be ruling through the will of the people. He once said, “I think it [the presidency] should be a very powerful office, and think the President should be a very strong man who uses without hesitation every power that the position yields; but…he should be sharply watched by the people and held to a strict accountability by them.” Well, he actually practiced the first part of that statement. Not so much the second part. He used what he called the president’s “bully pulpit” to rage against power unchecked, be they powerful monopolistic corporations, uppity unions or uncooperative foreign allies and enemies. TR saw his job as forcing justice upon all of these disparate elements, whether they wanted it or not. Fortunately, though, he actually did a fine job while in office, so despite his dictatorial tendencies, he still has a high ranking. The precedent was dangerous, though.

ABOVE: “When Theodore attends a wedding, he wants to be the bride. And when he attends a funeral, he wants to be the corpse.” – a Roosevelt relative

He completely dominated his era, making his name leading the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. TR was a bold reformer in a time that needed reform badly, and he defined both the Progressive and Imperialist Eras in the United States.

Domestically, Big Business finally met its match in Teddy Roosevelt. The Carnegies, Rockefellers and J.P. Morgans of the country had called the shots for too long, and Roosevelt was here to wrest some of the power back from the private sector. Although much has been made of Teddy as a trustbuster, he was still a capitalist at heart, working for regulation and oversight, not destruction of these companies. Basically, he wanted to bring them to heel and show them that they did not have complete free reign over the economic life of this country. He decided to use the previously anemic Sherman Anti-Trust Act and set up a showdown with J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company. In a landmark 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court sided with Roosevelt and the Company was split up. This set the groundwork for all future antitrust regulation. He created the Department of Labor, and urged Congress to pass child labor laws and worker’s comp regulation. But Roosevelt was equally willing to go after unions. While he threatened to nationalize the coal mines unless management came to agreeable terms with labor, he also used federal troops to bust many other strikes.

ABOVE: The teddy bear was, of course, named after Teddy Roosevelt. The story goes that Roosevelt was hunting with a group of friends in Mississippi. Some of his buddies captured a Black Bear and tied it to a tree in order for Roosevelt to bag a kill on the trip. Roosevelt refused to shoot it, claiming that it was unsportsmanlike to shoot the bear while tied down. He did order the bear killed to put it out of its misery, though (it had been wounded when it was captured). A political cartoon publicized the incident, a toy maker starting making the "Teddy Bear," and Teddy gave his blessing to the use of his name.

Like the rest of the nation, Roosevelt was shocked by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and so he pushed through the Meat Inspection Act as well as the Food and Drug Act. TR was an avid outdoorsman and hunter, and so he became the first environmental president. Previous presidents had set aside some token land for national parks, but Roosevelt set aside an astonishing 200 million acres of land for protection. He was an avid protector of our national resources, and it was Teddy Roosevelt who brought environmental protection into the national conscience. He also wanted to bring the Progressive spirit to Civil Rights, controversially inviting civil rights leader Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner. But the country was not ready to embrace real civil rights at this juncture, and so Teddy backed away after the backlash for the Booker T. dinner.

ABOVE: TR and another one of his victims. Ironically, it is the Republican elephant. In the election of 1912, after failing to wrest the Republican nomination from sitting president William Taft, he bolted the party and formed his own 3rd party, the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party, and ran for a 3rd term, splitting the Republican vote and ensuring Woodrow Wilson's election

TR was just as vigorous on foreign policy. He famously took personal control over the Dominican Republic’s treasury when they defaulted on debts to European banks. The Europeans were still looking for excuses to reassert their power over their former Latin American colonies, but Roosevelt would have none of it. European powers, also stretching their Imperialist muscle during this time, saw an opportunity to use Latin American loan defaults as an excuse to take control of these countries. TR announced his Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, stating that the United States would “oversee” Latin American debt problems with Europe. Translation: this is still our neighborhood, and TR will use the military to protect our domain from European influence. He sent the Great White Naval Fleet around the world on a “goodwill” tour, stopping at major ports of call. Translation: we are now a naval badass, so don’t screw with us. Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 when he mediated the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War (although some historians say that this laid the roots for Japanese Imperialism in the Pacific, leading to that Theater of World War II).

Of course, his crowning Imperialist achievement was the Panama Canal. This was pure Teddy Roosevelt. Colonial powers had dreamed for decades of building a canal across Central America to cut the Atlantic to Pacific trip down by thousands of miles. Teddy offered money to Colombia for a lease to build the canal across the Panamanian Isthmus, then a province of Colombia. Colombia refused. Teddy then decided to back the Panamanian “Revolution,” and sent warships to prevent the Colombians from putting down the Revolution. The newly recognized nation of Panama, naturally, granted the United States the desired lease for the Canal. As Congress dithered over whether we should do this, TR commenced with building the Canal, saying later “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate, and while the debate goes on, the Canal does also.”

ABOVE: Roosevelt's famous policy of "speak softly but carry a big stick" served him well in Latin American dealings

• Strong use of the Bully Pulpit
• Dept. of Labor
• Regulation of trusts
• Labor laws
• Environmental policies
• Panama Canal
• Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug Acts
• Expands America’s power across the world
• Mediates Russo-Japanese War treaty
• Roosevelt Corollary and actions keep Europeans from re-colonizing parts of Latin America
• Great White Fleet

• Dangerous precedents set for an Imperialist Presidency (a precedent that cousin Franklin Roosevelt would use later with gusto)
• Backs down on Civil Rights, though he personally felt strongly on the issue