Friday, September 30, 2011

Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt (2010)

Franklin Pierce (The American Presidents, #14)Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Holt does an admirable job of exploring the failures (I'm not sure if there were any successes - I certainly don't remember any from the book) of the Pierce presidency. There's actually not a whole lot to say about what Pierce did do during his one term in office, but it sounds like he basically sat back and did mostly nothing. At least some presidents dither and worry - Pierce seemed to just sit. He makes Calvin Coolidge seem like a mover and shaker, that's for sure. Nero at least fiddled while Rome burned. Pierce did a whole lot of nothing. He was a mostly forgettable legislator. If only he were as forgettable a president - he is memorable, but for his proclivity to do nothing. His post presidency, when he could have built a legacy (Carter, anyone?) he spent drinking like a fish. Franklin Pierce will (hopefully always) be the example of what NOT to do as president. Holt made his material as interesting as he could. As Julie Andrews sang: "Nothing comes from nothing." Actually, something did come from nothing: the Civil War. The 1860s say "thanks."

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt (2010)

I've gone back in time a considerable way in my quest to read The American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. I'm going to read Pierce through Ulysses S. Grant, with a detour into Robert E. Lee (and the Penguin Lives series) along the way. This is the 160th to 150th anniversary of many of the events described in the book. Michael Holt, the author, is a professor at the University of Virginia, and one web site I read about him said his main interest was antebellum political parties. That's the tack he takes with Franklin Pierce. Holt points out that almost all writers of presidential history rank Pierce at the very bottom of the barrel, rotting along down there with Nixon, Buchanan (he's next for me) and Harding. And most authors blame Pierce because "personal mistakes in judgment and a lack of farsighted statesmanship... Others portray Pierce, for all his amiability, as a fundamentally weak man who craved the approval of his peers and who deferred to stronger personalities in his cabinet and party." (many also blame Pierce's alcoholism, but his hard drinking was more of a problem at the end of his life than during his presidency). Holt showed that all three played a major part in the fall of the Pierce presidency. He also makes a good case for Pierce's desire to keep the splintering Democratic Party from completely falling apart to the detriment of keeping the country together. He was certainly in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation, but his leadership of the country during this crucial time certainly led the USA down the road to Civil War.

Pierce sounds a bit spoiled to me. He was definitely a political wunderkind, and only JFK has been elected at a younger age (Pierce was 48, Kennedy was 43). He was a strict constructionist, weak executive branch, states' rights Democrat (which sounds more like a Republican to me - how the times have changed). With so much distance between the time of Pierce and now, I think we forget how sectionalized the country was before (and even after) the Civil War. The South is still distinct, but in the antebellum period it was distinct and distinctly politically powerful. The South still votes in a block for the most part, but back then it really was another country, even before they seceded. The executive branch was weak; Congress was all powerful, and Southerners held sway in the Legislative and Judicial branches of government, in the Democratic Party and other parties, and definitely had Pierce's ear and heart. In one sentence, Holt describes Pierce as taking a public stand (over Kansas - Nebraska) that "seemed overtly prosouthern." Even 160 years later, Pierce's actions don't just "seem" prosouthern - they read as prosouthern and I would say are prosouthern. This may have been an attitude he held all along, but more likely as his term progressed his attitudes changed. He comes across as very benign - the country was certainly heading towards war (although no one knew it then), and Bleeding Kansas (the opening salvos of the Civil War) had started under Pierce's watch. His reactions seem almost nonexistent; in Holt's narrative, Pierce seems like an observer, neither actor or reactor. That's certainly probably the main case against Pierce - when he could have done or said something that averted the war, he did not. To give Pierce a bit of credit - no one knew a war was coming (although certainly many probably suspected it), the bully pulpit presidency was a long time coming (Teddy Roosevelt wasn't even born yet), and Pierce was hampered by his own ideology (party over country, legislative over executive, certain conservative action over liberal action). There weren't many alternatives to Pierce. The Whigs were in the process of falling apart; the Know Nothing Party (the party was so secretive that if asked about themselves, members "knew nothing" ala Sergeant Schultz). was strong, but sectional differences splintered that party as well. "General Apathy is the strongest candidate out there" Holt quotes; this would remain the lowest turnout among voters until the 1920s). The slate that year was actually kind of interesting -- including former president Millard Fillmore (Who knew that Millard Fillmore was actually sort of interesting and certainly popular; I'm definitely headed in that direction next), war hero Winfield Scott, and Senator Daniel Webster. The Democrats were able to stand together more than the other gradually eroding parties, and Pierce was the man of the hour. For about an hour, and then everything certainly starting falling apart.

Poor Pierce. A doomed Presidency, the party turned against him and refused to renominate him, turning to James Buchanan instead (another rotten apple at the bottom of the barrel). He was a good sport about it, and still supported the Democrats. As the country started to fall apart, he said some things about how important the Union was, but it didn't seem like he did a whole bunch to keep the country united. His wife was dying at that time, and his drinking had hit a new high. He asked Jefferson Davis to run for president, and predicted the north would also splinter into sectionalized violence once the South seceded. He continued to be more of a Democrat than an American, and was "dismayed" at the breakup of the Democratic Party. There wasn't probably a whole lot Pierce or anyone else could have done at that point to prevent the South from breaking away and from the Civil War starting.

I want to play a game called What Would Pierce Do (WWPD). If we had a time machine, and took it back to 1852, and we picked up Franklin Pierce and brought him to 2008-2011, and then took Barack Obama back to 1852 - WWPD as a 21st Century President? How would he have handled the challenges of the last few years? Here are some challenges Barack Obama has faced, and how I think Pierce would have handled them.

1. Economic Crisis and Fiscal Crisis. Franklin Pierce would not support any kind of government bail out, that's for sure. He was a "strict constructionist" and didn't believe the Constitution allowed any kind of appropriations from the federal government. He vetoed bills for appropriating public works. Actually, the United States was doing really well economically during Pierce's single term in office, but that was probably not due to anything he said or did.

2. Rise of the Tea Party. Democrat Franklin Pierce governed more like a tea partier than most Republicans are even able to think about doing today.

3. Health Care Debate. Again, the strict constructionist Pierce would have been solidly on the side of those espousing anti-national health care views. If slavery was the issue of the 1850s, maybe health care is the similar issue of now. Pierce believed slavery was allowable and defensible because the Constitution said so. The Constitution makes no mention of health care, but does give states various rights over the federal government; I think Pierce would have thrown health care back at the states for them to take care of.

4. The Middle East. Entangling alliances between the United States and foreign countries were a big no-no. Franklin PIerce would have left the Middle East alone as a European problem to solve. I imagine brown people rising up against their government during the Arab Spring would have given him the willies. The problems of Israel would first all make no sense to him, and secondly those pesky entanglements would have prevented him from making any sort of move to help or hinder Israel. The Middle East, you're on your own.

5. Immigration. That whole "brown people" thing would have probably kept Pierce firmly on the side of the tea party and anti-immigration folks. Plus, he probably wasn't a huge fan of Mexicans, having been a general in the Mexican-American War. He was for fiddling around with other governments in our hemisphere and supported the whole Manifest Destiny thing (for example, hinting at wanting to buy Cuba), so I think he would have been actively involved in the Mexican government, and maybe even trying to buy Mexico or Canada. Or invading Cuba.

6. Divided government. Franklin Pierce was completely ineffectual during the divided government - and divided country - of the 1850s, and I think he would have been equally "at home" with the divided government of today. Party before country seemed to be his motto, which to me again sounds more Republican than Democrat.

7. Iraq and Afghanistan. See Middle East.

8. Climate and environment. Once again, the Constitution isn't very specific about preservation of our natural resources or global warming, and I think Pierce would have mostly ignored the problems. I'm not sure FEMA would exist under a Pierce administration.

Doctor Dolittle's Caravan by Hugh Lofting (1924)

Doctor Dolittle's CaravanDoctor Dolittle's Caravan by Hugh Lofting

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my favorite Dolittle book in the series as a kid, and re-reading it as a grown up did not change my feelings about it one bit. As a kid, I don't think I knew anything about opera that wasn't in a Bugs Bunny cartoon; now that I know a little bit more, Lofting's wit and parody is pretty clever. His Canary Opera could be a real opera, complete with a tiny temperamental prima donna, mixed reviews, an Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque set, modern music, royal fans. Setting a fantasy is recognizable time period is one of my favorite conceits, and Lofting plunks Dolittle's Caravan right in the middle of a very believable London of 1838 or 1839. Lofting resented having his books referred to as "juvenile literature", and i>Caravan might be the proof that he was writing sophisticated literature that both parents and children could simultaneously enjoy. Like all books in the series, the Dolittlian digressions are many. But the humor is funny (and punny) and the plot (whenever you make your way back to it) is a joy.

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Doctor Dolittle's Caravan by Hugh Lofting (1924)

My favorite Doctor Dolittle book as a child is still (so far) my favorite as a grown-up. This starts like the best Broadway stories, with the Doctor as a brilliant impresario discovering Pippinella, the mezzo contralto canary, in a pet shop. After some information about Pippinella to set the scene - her childhood, her various scrapes and adventures with various owners (Doctor Dolittle books are nothing if not episodic and full of stories), the meat of the book begins - in the classic words of Judy Garland and Micky Rooney "Hey kids, let's put on a show." And that's exactly what happens - fresh off the Puddleby Panto, Dolittle and Co. writes, directs and produces the Canary Opera, starring diva Pippinella, and featuring various birds (flamingos, pelicans, wrens, sparrows) in various roles (sailors, cheeky urchins).

I don't think I probably knew a thing about opera outside of Bugs Bunny as a kid. I know more now, and I enjoyed Caravan all the more. Pippinella's voice, referred to a "mezzo-contralto," is an old fashioned term to refer to a certain kind of dark, hefty soprano - an ironically funny way to describe the pure, sweet voice of a little bird. In fact, describing and portraying Pippinella as a (little bit) temperamental and opinionated prima donna takes some witty literary chops. The entire opera plot is not exactly parody - Lofting's Canary Opera is filled with some serious verisimilitude down to the appearance of violin wizard Paganini (probably putting the story in the late 1830s; the reference to the Queen probably makes the Canary Opera premiering in 1838 or 1839). Those touches of realism in a fantasy work make Caravan all the better; fantasy set in a specific time period is always my favorite kind of fantasy (perhaps stemming from my early love of this book).

The other animals in the Dolittle household get their fair share of fun and funniness, particularly Gub-Gub the pig vs. Dab-Dab the duck over the dumbwaiter (the funniest scenes in the book by far). The Princesses dinner party was memorable but too short - this was a missed opportunity by Lofting in creating a "comedy of etiquette."

There is the prerequisite Dolittlian meandering of plot, or, as Michael Cart put it in his book What's So Funny: Wit and Humor in American Children's Literature: "If Lofting has a fault as a writer, it may be a product of his respect for his young readers and an overestimation of their capacity for patience... Lofting... never met a digression he didn't like." I totally see what Cart is talking about - the "release of the blackbirds" -- seemed to majorly punch a whole in the middle of the story that took a long time to fill in again. But I also think these digressions add background, character development, extra-humor to the Dolittle books. Making the books longer didn't stop me from reading them - in fact, the longer books were more delicious, because you could even fall deeper into the rabbit hole. As a grownup I was more annoyed by the digressions in Post Office, but for the most part, the digressions in Caravan never detracted from the epic canary tale.

Some Lofting wit:


"I have day dreams about food - twenty course meals, you know - they are so much better than the lunches and dinners I ever get in real life. Real life, I find, is not nearly so thrilling -- seldom runs to more than boiled beef and cabbage and rice pudding."

"You have a romantic soul," growled Jip. "Food -- always food."

"Well," said Gub-Gub, "there's lots of romance in food if you only knew it. Did you ever hear of Vermicelli Minestrone?"

"No," said the white mouse. "What is it - a soap?"

"Certainly not," Gub-Gub retorted. "Vermicelli Minestrone was a poet - a famous food poet. He married Tabby Ochre. It was a runaway match. But she stuck to him through thick and thin. People said she was a colorless individual and would stick to anything. But he loved her dearly and they were happy. They had two children -- Pilaf and Macaroni. He was a great man, was Minestrone. his library consisted of nothing but cookbooks -- cookbooks of every age and in every language. But he wrote some beautiful verses. His Spaghetti Sonnets, his Hominy Homilies, his Farina Fantasies, well, you should read them. You would never say again there was no romance in food."

"It's sort of a cereal story," groaned Jip... (AND US!)... "mushy."

The Doctor wants to start a bank where animals can save up their earnings, and asks Jip the dog if it should be called "The Cat and Dog Trust Company" :

"No I would have it the Cat-and-Dog anything," said Jip. "That sounds
like a fight to start with. Besides, cats wouldn't go into it. They
have no use for money. They'd never earn any. Cats are not
public-spirited. They are naturally lazy. All they want is a soft
place in the sun or a fire to sleep by."

I must be a cat - that's all I want too.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (2008)

I feel like I'm suppposed to like The Wordy Shipmates because I so much liked the last two Sarah Vowell's I read - Assassination Vacation and the one about Hawaii (whose name escapes me right now). But whereas her circular peculiar humorist style really intrigued and impressed me in those two books, it annoyed me in this one. I couldn't quite pin down exactly what this book was about -- Pilgrims? 9/11? Ronald Reagan? It all just felt very pedestrian. That may be the subject matter (probably my least favorite historical time is Colonial America) but I have enjoyed other books from that time period (I'm reading a potboiler set in Colonial New York City right now!). So I fear it's Sarah Vowell this time. I'm going to go to Goodreads and read some reviews, and I'll be I'll kick myself for not finishing it, but I can't - I'm just not caring what is going to come next.

One good line: There isn't that much difference between tall tales that start "Listen, my children, and you shall hear" and "Here's the story of a man named Brady." In other words, Americans have learned our history from exaggerated popular art for as long as anyone can remember.

a few minutes later. Literary redemption is sweet. Others felt the same way!

Crow Call by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (2009)

I actually watched this as a short film first before reading it. I was incredibly moved by the film. Early one November morning, sometime in the mid-1940s, a father and daughter go out hunting crows together. Right away, the narrator -from the illustrations a young blonde girl with bright inquisitive blue eyes, lets us know that she has an older sister at home asleep (we see this too, sister asleep next to a just vacated bed with dawn breaking through the windows); this journey is just between she and her father. Ibatoulline's illustrations (watercolor and acryl-gouche) set the tone perfectly - muted in that 1940s kind of way, everything looks like a faded old yellowed photograph. Ibatoulline's dedication is in memory his favorite artist, Andrwe Wyeth, and that influence clearly shows. Father is illustrated with just the right touch of old and young; a young man aged from the war, but not destroyed to the point of being unable to enjoy the company of his daughter. Daughter does point out that they are strangers to one another after so long: "The war has lasted so long. He has been gone so long."

The text is poetic, the plot almost magical. A look back at buying the plaid boys hunting shirt together is sweet; their early morning breakfast in the diner is equally so, especially when the waitress (described as groggy by Lowry but looking fresh and clean as a 1940s waitress could be by Ibatoulline) mistakes daughter for a son, causing them both to giggle.

But really the book grabs you - and makes you think - when the two begin their hunt for crows. The crow call of the title is a small device that, when blown, imitates the sounds of crows and makes them rise in answer, which in turn allows a hunter to kill them. Daughter enjoys making the sound of the crows, but isn't so sure about the hunting part. (it's also these midwestern thicket scenes where Ibatoulline really captures the moment of November, the crisp, leafless trees and empty white morning sky; you can almost see their frozen breath, hear the leaves crunching under foot, and smell the Thanksgiving turkey cooking just over the rise). This alone time also gives her a chance to ask some questions she's probably been too scared to ask and also which the idea of hunting and guns has brought up in her mind: "Daddy, were you scared in the war?" "Yes, I was scared." "Of what?" "Lots of things. Of being alone. Of being hurt. Of hurting someone else." "Are you still?" "I don't think so. those kinds of scares go away." (not always) "I'm scared sometimes..." "I know... are you scared now?" She starts to say, but "the word that scares me: hunter." "Maybe a little... I wish the crows didn't eat the crops."

Then profound words: "They don't know any better," he says. "Even people do bad things without meaning to." I read that and thought: yeah, like follow a government that tortures and kills millions of people, invades neutral countries, and seperates families... we all blindly follow sometimes, and end up doing bad things without meaning too. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Of course (like war), crows eventually show up. She is delighted that they think that she's a crow and are talking to her, and then she says something incredibly sad. "Look Daddy! Do you hear them? They think I'm their friend! Maybe their baby, all grown up!" And I thought, "you are his baby, all grown up, and you have called to him, and he's answered." Father ends up not hunting any crows that day (which is a good thing) but there aren't any promises made that crows won't be hunted in the future (war will return, and daddies and little girls will be seperated again).

Although tecnically fiction, Lois Lowry writes at the back of the book: "The details of this story are true. They happened in 1945, to me and my father. But parents and children groping toward understanding each other - that happens to everyone. And so this story is not really just my story, but everyone's."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Doctor Dolittle's Post Office by Hugh Lofting (1923)

Doctor Dolittle's Post OfficeDoctor Dolittle's Post Office by Hugh Lofting

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was one of my favorite in the series as a kid, but it hasn't held up as well. It's too meanderingly episodic, and Lofting's fantasy rules don't quite hold water all the time. Doctor Dolittle isn't racist, and according to what I read neither was Hugh Lofting. But he writes in a certain time period when it was considered okay to write about Africans in a derogatory way and that fact certaily rings true in Post Office. Certainly, if this were written today it would have a far different feel. That large complaint aside, I still had fun reading it. I love Gub-Gub the pig; and racist though he may be, Cheapside the Cockney Sparrow can be quite fun. "Jip's Story" is the best of the animal stories; it could certainly stand alone.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Doctor Dolittle's Post Office by Hugh Lofting (1923)

It's kind of funny, because I remember Doctor Dolittle's Post Office as being one of my favorites as a kid, but it wasn't nearly as good as Doctor Dolittle's Circus. It's very episodic and meanders here there and everywhere. The timeline is off too. Written after Story and Voyages, it takes place after Story and Circus -- but Circus was written afterwards! It's got some sort of cringing racism -- the illustrations are gruesome -- and "white man saves the colored folk" sort of plotline. Very similar to Voyages, actually. Lofting kind of teeter-totters on his portrayal of black people. On the one hand, they are children who need the White Father to show them the error of their ways and bring them to civilization. But on the other hand, he's (rightly) harsh on the colonial powers treatment of African nations; other white people are portrayed as treating blacks in far worse ways than Doctor Dolittle does.

If you think about the swallow mail, the post office, the weather bureau, and all in too much detail, it all starts to fall apart. This was Lofting's third Dolittle book; I think by Book 4 his "world" is starting to have some clearer rules. He's still developing them in Book 3.

The doctor's family of characters truly resemble themselves now. Gub-Gub - who really comes into his own in Circus -- Dab-Dab, and Too-Too all are more developed. Jip acts gruffer than ever. He tells a story in which he comes off basically as an opportunistic thief, which if you think about it, is how dogs really act - their moral code should obviously be different than our own.

The Doctor is thrown in jail - again. At least this time he doesn't have a shipwreck. Cheapside the Cockney Sparrow - who says some of the most racist things - is still one of my most favorite characters (after Gub-Gub).

Shhhhh... dont' tell...

I read three pages of Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West and threw the book down. UGH. Maybe later I'll try Day of the Locust. I know I was supposed to read this for some class in college, and distinctly remember not finishing it then.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What's So Funny: Wit and Humor in American Children's Literature by Michael Cart (1995)

What's So Funny?: Wit and Humour in American Children's LiteratureWhat's So Funny?: Wit and Humour in American Children's Literature by Michael Cart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I guess literary criticism is most interesting when you've actually read what the author is writing about. When Michael Cart was writing about books I'd read and adored -- Doctor Dolittle, Ramona, Frog and Toad, By the Great Horned Spoon, then I totally dug the book. When he was writing about stuff I hadn't read (such as Freddy the Pig) then it wasn't as interesting (although he's still a great writer). The chapter on tall tales was particularly enlightening - who knew that Paul Bunyan was essentially a creation of marketers?

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What's So Funny: Wit and Humor in American Children's Literature by Michael Cart (1995)

Literary criticism is much more interesting when you've actually read what the author has written about. The chapters on Doctor Dolittle were rad because I'm currently reading the Dolittle series beginning to end. The chapters on Freddy the Pig, not so interesting - although I'm aware of Freddy the Pig, I've never read any of the books, and really don't have a plan to any time soon (sorry Mr. Cart, you didn't sell me on Freddy). I liked the chapters on Robert Lawson and adored the Frog and Toad chapters (I love, love, love Frog and Toad). The tall tale chapter was interesting - I had no idea that Paul Bunyan was a commercial creation, with Pecos Bill a close second - they aren't technically folktales, and have only been around since the 1920s... who knew?! I love Sid Fleischman, but I haven't read all of his books - one of my favorite books of all time is still By the Great Horned Spoon . I am definitely going to have to read the Ramona books from beginning to end - I didn't realize how dark they become.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Wilder Life : My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure

All of my colleagues know of my extreme love for Little House on the Prairie; last year, when I re-read the entire series - plus some biographies and literary criticism - I was constantly saying "Did you know that Laura..." and "Did you know that Pa and Ma..." None of the people I work with are as crazy about Laura Ingalls Wilder as I am (and they are all librarians - the nerve!). I guess Laura Ingalls Wilder and her ilk are one of my (many) secret guilty pleasures: I love Prairie Girl stories (don't tell Laura - I think Caddie Woodlawn could definitely take her in a fight). After reading The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure (2011), I know that I'm not alone in my love for the Little House. And I'm definitely not a fanatic! McClure's journey to all the sites of the various places the Ingalls and Wilders ended up (they moved around a bunch) is sort of a sad one. Little House is funny(funny strange not funny ha-ha), because nothing AND everything is left. By nothing, I mean that the books were written a long time ago, and they were about a time that took place a long time before that. Rose Wilder Lane (hero or villain? You decide. Certainly interesting, and not necessarily in a good way) was the last direct descendent of Pa and Ma - an only child of Laura -- Mary, Carrie and Grace never had children (interesting, huh?). All the homesteads and sites are kind of gone, some physically gone, and some spiritually gone. Yet at the same time, McClure - and you the reader - find that the cup of Little House is overflowing. Everything is left - rebuilt homesteads, theme parks, sunbonnets galore, Laura look-alike contests, Christian fundamentalists and homeschoolers, pageants and lawsuits over who owns the rights. Laura World (that's what the author calls it, and that's a great description) is jam packed full of people who loved the books, for many, many different reasons. Many people McClure met called the Laura World simple, that the appeal of Laura world lay in its simplicity. I guess I understand that, but talk to someone of a certain age -- 70s and above - who grew up in a rural area about how wonderful simplicity is - and they'll tell you how cold a cows teats are at 5 in the morning and how much chicken shit smells. Life wasn't simple back then - pioneer life was all about eating, a constant struggle to grow or find food. That doesn't sound so simple to me. Our lives are complex - and Laura's life was complex too, just in a different way.

McClure's journey to the Laura World ended up being as much about her and the recent death of her mother; a search for the past (at least that's the way I read it). I guess that's what Laura World is all about. I re-read the series to see if they "held up" (they did) but also as a nostalgic trip down memory lane (it was).

McClure and I must be about the same age - she talks about many of the same seventies "memes" that I remember fondly or otherwise. She did not watch the television show growing up. Now I know we did - I vividly remember many of the episodes. I would have said we watched every Monday. But here's the deal - there isn't a way we could have done that. She had this excellent bit about the differences between family television back in the70s and what family television means today. Today, family television is scrubbed clean of everything. But back then, when households usually had only one television - with three or four channels at the most-- family television meant sitting down and watching a show together. If something weird or unsettling came up -- and Little House was full of weird and unsettling (Remember Albert as a dope fiend? The blind school burning up Mary's baby?) - then during the commercial your mom (never your dad!) would turn to you and say "You understand what's going on, right?" and then you TALKED about it. That was family television. McClure points out that she never watched Little House because her family watched WKRP in Cincinnati. But wait... I think we watched WKRP too... so how did we pick which one we watched? I don't remember - I just remember them both.

Daisy Miller by Henry James (1879)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Do all literary classics have shades of Mean Girls, or just the ones I like? Because Daisy Miller is first of all a carefully constructed novella by Henry James and secondly a subtle look at the differing Gilded Age mores and values between Europeanized Americans and American tourists. But it's also this wicked story of a outsider girl who could have been played by Lindsay Lohan who hangs out with a bad boy, and another boy likes her, but all of these mean rich b****** start all these rumors about her and then give her the cold shoulder. These old stories may have different clothes and hairstyles, they may have grand dames pulling up in horse drawn victorias and have a set of social mores that are completely foreign to us. Like lots of other old stories - Ethan Frome comes to mind -- some of what bothered those old timers isn't so worrisome today, but parts of the story still resonate. We might not have the same type of stratified society we did back then, in which girls are considered "vulgar" if they walk alone with men. But we still have gossip, and flirty girls who are attracted to bad guys, and groups of biddies (young or old male or female) that practice shunning and the art of the cold shoulder in every group (work, church, school, bowling alley, etc). We still have regrets and injustices done that can't be fixed. In that respect it's still a pretty good book.

Daisy Miller by Henry James (1879)

The Modern Library edition has a "reading group guide." Since this is a book discussion group - albeit the group consists of myself - I'm going to attempt to discuss.

1. Henry James is as much an international writer as an American. Shortly before his death he became a British citizen in protest of America's unwillingness to come to the defense of Britain and France in the early years of World War I. He spent much of his adult life abroad, observing Europeans, Americans in Europe, and what he called Europeanized Americans, those who had lived for so long in Europe that they had taken on many, although not all, European traits and values. Many of Henry James's novels and stories depict these three types of characters in interplay. How does James explore the American versus-European theme in Daisy Miller? What are some of the ways that the Millers differ from Winterbourne, his aunt, and Mrs. Walker?

There are only two Europeans described in the book in any detail - the courier and Giovanelli. The other two types are different types of Americans: the Millers and then Americans like Winterbourne, Aunt Costello, and Mrs. Walker. The courier seems to be just a servant, but the Millers, particularly Daisy, have developed an unhealthy relationship with him. Henry James doesn't give the servant much personality. Giovanelli doesn't have much personality either, but James at least makes a point that he's of the same middle to upper class status as the Millers, although Italian, so that makes him suspect in the eyes of Mrs. Walker and Co. (why they are in Italy if they don't like Italians is always a mystery - first a Forsterian mystery and now a Jamesian mystery). The Millers are inappropriately friendly with servants, they are loud, they run about alone with strange men. They are vulgar, the Walkers and Costellos of this little world are not.

2. Henry James was always interested in children and young adults, and Daisy Miller is one of his most successful creations. She is more vibrant than sophisticated, a child, as James describes her, of nature and of freedom. Some have argued that her plain name (the unpretentious flower, the common profession) symbolizes her simplicity. Do you agree with this? Why does Daisy Miller make a full-blooded protagonist? Is Daisy Miller an innocent, unaffected young woman? Are there hints of her self-awareness? Does she demonstrate a desire to manipulate others?

What I thought was interesting was that Daisy wasn't her given name. Why did she change her name from the plain "Annie" to the flowery, most interesting "Daisy?" I don't think Daisy is an innocent as she wants people to think. I think some of her responses to Winterbourne about her behavior are ironic statements - she knows exactly what she's doing. She's a free spirit, she's trapped by convention and she's tired of it, she's in Italy, a land of passion and romance, and like Mame Dennis she's going to live, live, live! (and then die, of course). Manipulative - yes. She was dating two guys at once, both kind of wrapped around her little finger. You may argue that Giovanelli (with his string of American heiresses) was an opportunistic gigolo. But she certainly played him off of Winterbourne, who apparently she really liked. Daisy wasn't the evil queen, but she wasn't Snow White either.

3. In discussing the origins of the novella in his Preface to the New York Edition, Henry James tells of hearing the story of an innocent but eager American girl who has recently visited Italy and picked up a Roman of vague identity. What in this secondhand anecdote do you think appealed to James, inspiring him to, as he put it, dramatise, dramatise!? Does James do more than dramatize? Does he moralize?

You can't kill off someone at the end because of something they did to themselves without moralizing. But I'm not exactly sure what the moral is supposed to be. Was it that Daisy, in trying to be free, ended up killing herself? Or that Winterbourne was a douche bag, and that we should appreciate the people around us more and give them support?

4. James describes Winterbourne, an American who resides in Geneva, as having "an old attachment for the little capital of Calvinism." When James introduces him, Winterbourne is in a hotel lobby in Vevey while he waits for his aunt, who is upstairs. Essentially, however, he is waiting for something else. How would you describe Winterbourne and why do you think he is susceptible to Daisy's charms? Is he an honest man? How does his surname fit into James's scheme of identifying characters?

Oh wow, I never thought I should be concentrating on everyone's names having meanings, dammit. Let's see, DAISY can mean she's innocent, that she's always turned towards the sun and light, that she's common like a weed, that even common weeds can be beautiful. WINTERBOURNE, cold - also bringing winter with him, killing the daisies. WALKER, street walker, maybe a shady past herself (okay, I'm just kidding). I think we are supposed to think Winterbourne is kind of dick who can't make up his mind whether he wants to live like the Walkers and Costellos or be free like Daisy. Maybe that's the whole European thing - that Aunt Costello comes to Europe and then lives with a feudal mindset, everyone divided into strict classes and a certain way to behave, and no one can stray from that. And Daisy represents the freedom and light of America, where everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves, and walk around with anyone they damn well want to thank you very much. Only Daisy ended up dying because of it... mmmmm....

He is succeptible to Daisy's charms because she wanted him to be. But also because she represents something new and different, a different type of girl, who speaks her mind and does what she wants - although I don't know, I kept thinking that this whole thing might get kind of old after a while - would he really been able to change appreciate the way she was different, or was that going to be glaringly obvious every time he tried to introduce her into his society from then on?

5. Does James present Giovanelli as a complicated, fully imagined character, or is Giovanelli merely the proverbial mysterious stranger? Does James explore Giovanelli's subtleties with as much insight as he applies to Daisy and Winterbourne? What attracts Daisy to Giovanelli? Is this attraction plausible? Why at the end of the novel does he say, "If she had lived I should have got nothing. She never would have married me?"

I think Giovanelli doesn't have a whole lot of personality beyond being a plot device, although I guess Henry James does try to give him some character. Winterbourne sticks up for Giovanelli (and he certainly doesn't have to) and says, in a nutshell, that while Giovanelli is Italian, he's not that sort of Italian (the greasy sort, ugh, what horrid people), not that it matters to Mrs. Walker. But because of Winterbourne's pro-Giovanelli stand (although it probably has helluva lot more to do with standing up for Daisy), we find out that he's sort of gentry/middle class. Giovanelli has a past full of American heiresses, which makes him sound like a cad. Which, lets be honest, he probably is. But Winterbourne is kind of a cad himself, so there. Giovanelli disappears when Daisy gets sick; maybe he just couldn't stand being there. He does show up at the funeral, and, as a perfect plot device, serves to make Winterbourne feel shitty about the way he treated Daisy. Which is why he uttered those fatal words, "she would never have married me." Subtext: "She loved you! You!" Daisy is attracted to Giovanelli for the same reasons Wintebourne is attracted to her - he's something new. And he takes her to cool places. He's dangerous, almost a bad boy. Some girls are like that, you know?

6. What do you make of Daisy's fate? Why do you think James set the novel's tragic event in the Colosseum?

Daisy's fate is kind of a mystery to me. On the one hand, shouldn't we be celebrating the fact that Daisy "gathered ye rosebuds" and "made hay while the sun shined?" But if the story isn't really about Daisy but more about Winterbourne, then Daisy's fate is HIS fault, really... he could have supported her relationship with Giovanelli, continued to go around with her and maybe then steered her away from the Colosseum and Roman fever. But that's total conjecture; more than once, explicitly and implicitly, we read that Daisy is going to do whatever she wants, to hell with the rest of the world and its conventions. I think no matter what Winterbourne could have said or done, Daisy wanted to see the Colosseum by moonlight and that's what she did. I have no idea what the Colosseum represented to James and was supposed to represent to us. Perhaps Europe - that in the end Europe killed Daisy? "Roman" fever killed her - again an illusion to Europe. If Wintebourne had practiced Daisy's free wheeling attitudes and not been tied down to European strict mores of what's vulgar and non-vulgar, perhaps she would still be alive... I don't know.

Daisy Miller by Henry James (1879)

Like The Age of Innocence, I thought I had read Daisy Miller in college. In fact, I thought I wrote a paper comparing the two. I vaguely remembered the plot - innocent girl in Rome dies of malaria - but that was about it. Perhaps that's what 20 years does, erases what we read in college. Quite frankly, I can't remember much of what I read. John Donne. Emerson and Thoreau. My Last Duchess. The Light in August, which I hated. Some Dickens. Willa Cather for sure.

The title character, Daisy Miller, is indeed a young girl in Rome - although she starts off in Switzerland. She meets this guy, Winterbourne (Frederick is his first name, but he's always called by his surname), who is there visiting his aunt. The Millers are clearly nouveau riche New Yorkers on a jaunt through Europe to polish themselves off and have stories to tell when they return home. Perhaps they are also escaping from some stories themselves - because Daisy soon reveals herself to be "vulgar." At least according to Winterbourne's aunt, Mrs. Costello, who is a snob. Rudolph, the nine year old son, is "obstreperous" which I had to look up (it means "noisy and difficult to control;" a useful fifty cent word to have around; Henry James is full of jawbreaker words like this). Mrs. Miller is washed out and weak; I pictured her as this sort of frizzled hair Eileen Brennan type of character. Daisy is the most modern girl I think I've read about in a classic, and the situation is familiar - weak parents lead to wild children.

So Winterbourne and Daisy flirt flirt flirt, he bemused, she innocently (yeah, right). They come up with scheme to go see a nearby castle, from a poem by Byron it's where this prisoner spent all of his years alone. Perhaps this has literary symbolism. I'm not sure I'm that deep. Anyway, even I know that a young girl and a man going about alone together in the 1870s is a big no-no, but it must have happened more than we modern folk think - Almanzo Wilder and Laura Ingalls were riding around alone together in the 1880s, weren't they? Judy Garland danced behind the Christmas tree with her beau in 1906. So love will find a way - to be alone and make out. But some old lady is always going to disapprove heartily of the whole thing.

So Winterbourne is called away on business, which pisses Daisy off. She wants him to stay. But he can't. End scene.

Now we are in Rome, and Winterbourne shows up a few months later to find the Millers ensconced in scandal. This is Forster territory we're treading through now - only unlike Lucy Honeychurch, Daisy Miller knows her mind and does whatever she wants, damn the world. Carpe diem, bitches. She's running around with his Italian Giovanelli, who Henry James tries desperately to NOT make a stock Italian character; he still comes off as one, just a bit (again, shades of Forster; or perhaps I should say, Forster is full of shades of James). The Millers have befriended a lady, Mrs. Walker, who I had in my head that Winterbourne had been having an affair with, but now I'm not so sure - it's hard coming off of Vita Sackville-West to not automatically assume everyone is doing it behind everyone else's back. Mrs. Walker and Winterbourne are worried about Daisy's reputation. Winterbourne begins hanging out with Daisy and Giovanelli, I think to try to add some respectability to the whole mess. Mrs. Walker finally decides to take matters into her own hands, and when Daisy and the two gentleman are out walking alone together - a girl and two men! Fast and vulgar! She drives up in her victoria and basically orders Daisy to climb in. Daisy, in her innocently American way, basically flips Mrs. Walker the bird. She's gonna walk with whoever she wants to, thank you very much, her reputation be damned.

Of course, this infuriates Mrs. Walker, and a party later, the old broad gives Daisy and her Italian boyfriend (Henry James calls him Daisy's amoroso, which is Italian for boyfriend) the cold shoulder; as Daisy is leaving, she turns her back on her and cuts her dead (I love that saying, which I think I first read in Gone With the Wind). Daisy doesn't give a fig though. Eventually, everyone is talking smack about her, but she's happy with her Italian. She's running wild through Rome. Winterbourne has almost given up on her as well, especially after he finds her one night walking in the moonlight through the Coliseum. He chides her for doing this, and warns her that she will catch Roman fever is she's not careful. He asks Giovanelli what the hell he thinks by bringing Daisy out so late at night and risking her life - and Giovanelli shrugs. Daisy will make up her own mind, and who can stop her?

Well, death for one thing. Because Daisy Miller does indeed catch Roman fever - malaria - which I guess Henry James didn't know at this point was caused by mosquitoes, because Daisy could have caught malaria at Mrs. Walker's party just as easily, but that would ruin the tragi-romance of the whole story. Winterbourne comes to Daisy's hotel, where some vultures are waiting to watch her die - but not Giovanelli - that's made very clear. Mrs. Miller says that in her more lucid moments, Daisy left a message for Winterbourne - that she was NOT engaged to Giovanelli. Meaning, I supposed, that she really loved Winterbourne. Even if they had only known each other for a few days. Fickle flirt. At the cemetery, Winterbourne runs into Giovanelli, who confirms that they weren't engaged. Winterbourne once again tries to blame Giovanelli for the whole Roman fever thing - but Giovanelli does that whole Italian shrug thing again, "whatever."

Last scene, Winterbourne in Switzerland again with Aunt Costello, and he brings up his guilt over basically dumping Daisy those last few months of her life.

One day he spoke of her to his aunt - said it was on his conscience he had done her an injustice. "I'm sure I don't know --" that lady showed caution. How did your injustice affect her?" "She sent me a message before her death which I didn't understand at the time. But I've understood it since. She would have appreciated one's esteem." "She took an odd way to gain it,"
the old lady harrumphed, and then asked him what he meant. Winterbourne didn't answer, but I think he knew that he'd been a total dick, and if he really liked Daisy, he would have courted her strongly instead of being such a pussy and listening to the all the old biddies cackle about her. Oh, mean girls. Always in the way of love. Even so, Daisy WAS flirting with another guy and playing her own game - the same game girls continue to play and play. The age old story.

The last line was pretty wicked - Winterbourne returns to Geneva, "whence there continue to come the most contradictory accounts of his motives of sojourn: a report that he's studying hard -- an intimation that he's much interested in a very clever foreign lady." So Daisy was his last chance at respectability too, and now he's some rich foreign lady's gigolo.

Like lots of other old stories - Ethan Frome comes to mind -- some of what bothered those old timers isn't so worrisome today, but parts of the story still resonate. We might not have the same type of stratified society we did back then, in which girls are considered "vulgar" if they walk alone with men. But we still have gossip, and flirty girls who are attracted to bad guys, and groups of biddies (young or old male or female) that practice shunning and the art of the cold shoulder in every group (work, church, school, bowling alley, etc). We still have regrets and injustices done that can't be fixed. In that respect it's still a pretty good book.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Doctor Dolittle Circus by Hugh Lofting (1924)

My original plan was to read all the Dolittle books in order - which I just screwed up; Doctor Dolittle's Circus (which I just read) was written after Doctor Dolittle's Post Office (which I accidentally skipped). I'm going to have to do some back tracking.

I can remember as a child reading Circus and finding the Sophie the seal chapters interesting, but not as interesting as the later chapters about the circus and then about the Puddleby Pantomime. I still agree with that sentiment. I think it's because the Dolittle menagerie with their personality (and conflicts) are more interesting than the cross country scrapes of an escaping seal. This is all degree though - the Sophie chapters are still fun (particularly the night when Sophie escapes and Theodosia knocks Higgins into the seal pool).

The Harlequinade, for whatever reason, was something I loved imagining while reading the book as a child, and still do. In my mind it consumed most of the book - I was actually surprised at how few chapters of the book actually detailed the Harlequinade!

Here are some intriguing or funny notes of interest from Circus. What's most interesting about Hugh Lofting's writing for children is how sophisticated it is.

"But the leader of the bloodhounds, like many highly trained specialists, was (in everything outside his own profession) very obstinate and a bit stupid."

"Toby, the other, was as different from his friend Swizzle as it is possible to be. He was a small dog, a dwarf white poodle. And he took himself and life quite seriously. The most noticeable thing about his character was his determination to get everything which he thought he ought to get. Yet he was not selfish, not at all. The Doctor always said that this shrewd business-like quality was to be found in most little dogs--who had to make up for their small size by an extra share of cheek."
This described our small dog Quincy to a T; when I read this aloud, my partner Scott (who is shall we say more vertically challenged than I) made a (fake) wry face and wondered if was reading it aloud as a reference to HIM.

I like every character - animal and human - in the Dolittle books, but Gub-Gub seems to have a special place in my heart. He's stupid and vain, mostly cowardly and lazy, very childish - but at the same time, incredibly lovable; he gets many of the best lines in most of the books. He can also - very occasionally - be quite philosophical, as with the chutney vs. non-chutneys, which came about as a discussion between Dab-Dab (usually no philosopher herself) and the Doctor about habits:

"Oh, we're traveling to-morrow, Doctor," said Gub-Gub. "It doesn't matter what time we get up. Let us stay a little longer. We have to settle on what play we are going to give."

"No, you don't," said Dab-Dab--"not to-night. The Doctor's tired."

"No, I'm not tired," said John Dolittle.

"Well, it's bad for them to stay up late. There's nothing like early bed as a habit."

"Yes, I suppose so," said the Doctor. "But myself, I don't like getting into habits, you know."

"Well, I do," said Dab-Dab--"when they're good ones. I like regular people."

"Do you, Dab-Dab? That's why you're such an excellent housekeeper. There are two kinds of people: those who like habits and those who don't. They both have their good qualities."

"You know, Doctor," Gub-Gub put in, "me--I always divide people into the pickle-eaters and the plain feeders--those who like chutneys and sauces on their food and those who like everything plain."

"It's the same idea, Gub-Gub," the Doctor laughed. "Those that like change in their lives and those that like sameness. Your chutney-eaters are the change-lovers and your plain-fooders are the er--housekeepers. Myself, I hope to grow more adaptable as I grow older."

"What's adaptable, Doctor?" asked Gub-Gub.

"It would take too long to explain now. Go to bed."

I decided that Gub-Gub must have appealed (and still appeals) to me because of all the characters in the book, I'm probably the most like him. Certainly, his sense of adventure matches mine:

"When the Dolittle household awoke next morning they found that the wagon was moving. This was nothing new for them. It only meant that the circus had got under way very early while they were still asleep--as it often did in moving from town to town. It was a part of the life, this, that Gub-Gub greatly enjoyed--waking in the morning and looking out of the window to see what kind of new scene lay around their moving home.

"It was a part of the life Gub-Gub greatly enjoyed"

Gub-Gub used to boast that this showed he was a born traveler, that he loved change, like the Doctor. As a matter of fact, he was really by nature much more like Dab-Dab; for no one loved regular habits, especially regular meals, more than he. It was just that the gipsy life provided a continuous and safe sort of adventure for him. He liked excitement, but comfortable excitement, without hardship or danger."

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (2010)

I tried, I really tried... but I am just too tired to continue. I need some sort of common thread, someone to start turning the lights on, something, anything. After 198 pages, nothing connected these characters and their stories together except I think - I'm not even sure - that they all live in the same house. The ONLY reason I picked this up was because it was a Hugo nominated book. Bah. I won't make that mistake again. Clearly someone likes this book. That someone ain't me.

Gerald R. Ford by Douglas Brinkley (2007)

These short sketches -- the essence of a president - are really quite good; first Theodore Roosevelt (written so well by Louis Auchincloss), and then Richard Nixon, and now Gerald R. Ford. I was four years old when Ford became president. What strikes me is how little then politics were a part of our lives; I remember next to nothing about President Ford. Everything I know and see in my head comes from knowledge gleaned much later. As I've mentioned before, my earliest political memory is John Chancellor talking about Watergate on NBC news, and thinking that "Watergate" referred to the watery greenish blue background behind the newscaster. I vaguely remember that Ford and Bob Dole announced their 1976 candiday in Russell, Kansas (a couple of towns over from my hometown of Wilson). I don't remember anything about Carter being elected. I do remember Carter running again against Ronald Reagan and John Anderson; by that time I was in fourth grade and memories start to gel a little bit more (even so, that's pretty thinned memories after 32 years).

After reading about Richard Nixon and now Ford, there certainly was this theme that the nation was about to come crashing down. It didn't feel like that when I was five or six, but I suppose things must have been pretty scary. I remember being terrified about "hippies" who I associated (in my six year old head) with motorcycle gangs; by the mid-70s the peace movement had turned ugly, with Weathermen and Charles Manson and Hells Angels, and that conservative backlash against the summer of 1968 must have still been filtering through down to the first graders. I never think about it this way, but I've lived through four wars - Vietnam was still going on when I was a child (it always seems like a 60s thing to me), two Iraq's plus an Afghanistan (and numberous other engagements, including most recently Libya).

If the essence of Elizabeth Drew's Richard Nixon was evil, evil and more evil, the essence of Douglas Brinkley's Gerald Ford was the consummate politician who at heart is a really good guy. It seems like Gerald Ford never really did a bad thing. He might have willfully ignored some bad things or pretended they didn't exist, but he certainly never did anything illegal. I'm not even sure he ever did anything unethical, pretty difficult for any politician to accomplish. If Teddy Roosevelt led the liberals out of the Republic Party in 1912, Gerald Ford made them all into a solid voting bloc in the 1960s; they've voted as a bloc ever since (with exceptions, of course).

If history were a chess game, and pieces could be interchanged, I wonder if Gerald Ford would survive today? He's many gestures of conciliation and middle of the road moderation would probably get him canned. It's definitely a different world politically.

Ronald Reagan is always portrayed as the patron saint of the Republican Party, but it was definitely Gerald Ford who brought them back from the Nixonian depths, and it was Ronald Reagan who turned against him.

Nixon is always, always the ghost that haunts the Ford White House, everything Ford did or said was always going to have Nixon in the corner rattling chains.

In the three presidential sketches (four if you count the Wilson sketch from Penguin) - two are in the early part of the 20th century, and two are in the latter part. What's really the most different is the press. The press played little or no role in the stories of Roosevelt and Wilson; the press was like another branch of government in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Richard M. Nixon by Elizabeth Drew (2007)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Someone below/before reviewed this as "capturing the essence" of Richard Nixon, and I think that's a great description of this book. How do you write a short biographical sketch of Richard Nixon without dipping a toe into left wing hatchet jobbery - or right wing hagiography? I'm not sure Elizabeth Drew succeeds in keeping her hatchet sheathed, but then I'm not sure it's possible to write about Richard Nixon and not make him sound like at least a little bit of a snake in the grass (apologies to the serpent family). Maybe the "real Richard Nixon" will always allude us, a historical mystery like the Princes in the Tower.

Vita: A Biography of Vita Sackwille-West by Victoria Glendenning (1983)

I'm positive the life of Vita Sackville-West is interesting. This biography, however, made it seem boring.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Richard M. Nixon by Elizabeth Drew (2007)

I like the idea that The American Presidents series captures the "essence" of each president written by a distinguished author or historian; my second in the series (Woodrow Wilson was a Penguin Life), Richard Nixon by Elizabeth Drew may capture Nixon's essence, but I think more likely it captures his stench. I wasn't sure if this was a hatchet job or not. Was Nixon the power- hungry, suspicious, foul-mouthed, utterly Machiavellian, completely without morals or values, opportunistic, almost junta instigator that Drew makes him out to be? I think it must be difficult to judge the presidency of a living (or in Nixon's case, relatively recently deceased) president without any degree of impartiality; afterall, Elizabeth Drew vividly lived through Watergate and the Nixon regime, and while I think I trust her historical judgement, Richard Nixon is still after all these years a polarizing political figure. What Drew certainly does is separate the Wizard of PR that Nixon became from his real impact on domestic and foreign agendas of the late 60s/early 70s, which she called at one point "pragmatic." Perhaps NIxon was the first modern president, constantly worried about poll numbers, willing to modify and change in order to keep those numbers high. Things are still the same; I recently saw Barack Obama referred to as a "pragmatic" politician as well. Maybe that's not such a bad thing - but what exactly do they stand for?

I was surprised to discover players from the 21st century making their first appearances during this time period, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, both who return to haunt us 30 years later. Fred Thompson, erstwhile presidential candidate, also made an appearance. I'm sure everyone who lived during Watergate knew this; but Watergate happened when I was just a baby; I thought "Watergate" was the green background behind John Chancellor on NBC Nightly News. We certainly never studied Watergate in high school, and this was almost my first exposure to it (I've been to the Nixon Library, pre-National Archives, and I don't remember much about Watergate from there, but do remember Nixon's child hood house and the pie cooler).

Bob Dole commented about Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Nixon all in the same room -- "See no evil, hear no evil, evil" which is one of the best snarks I've ever heard. Those Kansans and their near drag queen humor.

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