The Enduring Lure of Richard Nixon

Nixon on his second day as president, Jan. 21, 1969.

Nixon on his second day as president, Jan. 21, 1969.

Coming up to the 41st anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency (August 9), we find that he’s still part of our national culture, like a barnacle that simply won’t be scraped off.

He was the heavy in the the first presidential election I remember — the jowly, borderline-scary guy who opposed the cool, collected, in-command John Kennedy.  To a nine-year-old, the choice was clear.  Who could trust this figure composed of so many dark elements?

Nazi Fatigue

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I need a break from Nazis, Nazism, SS officers, concentration camps, swastikas, and the crazy guy with the toothbrush mustache.  Yeah, this guy.

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They’re all powerful symbols, with deep back-story and instant cultural connections that are so useful to writers and movie directors.   And, to be fair, the Nazi era represents a moment in human history when the most educated society on the planet managed to come very close to collective insanity.  Pretty interesting.

Madison on TV: August 1814

White House burning

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the slick trailer just posted for a new TV documentary on Madison’s flight from Washington in August 1814, one jump ahead of British troops victorious from the Battle of Bladensburg.  After fleeing across the Potomac and spending the night in Virginia, Madison made his way to Brookeville, Maryland to try to reassemble the shattered American government after the British had burned Washington’s public buildings, including the White House (above).

What’s so bad about saying you were wrong?

I recently became fed up with the media reports about the presidential candidates and their “flip-flopping” on various issues.  For the rest of us, changing our mind is often described as learning, or even considering a matter more deeply.

For politicians, we have made it a sign of weakness, weak-mindedness, or craven pursuit of political advantage.  Don’t get me wrong.  Sometimes a politician’s change of position is due to those considerations.  But let’s talk about what the positions are, not the “gotcha” politics of hunting down inconsistent statements.  Was Lincoln a less credible advocate of emancipation because he previously didn’t support it?

Danger: Constitutional Convention Ahead?

I’ve got a piece today in the Baltimore Sunwarning of the dangers of a second constitutional convention, which a shocking number of state legislatures are proposing willy-nilly.  They need to stop and think.

James Madison fought every proposal for a second constitutional convention, warning that it could be the scene of all manner of mischief.  He knew whereof he spoke, since he and others diverted the first Constitutional Convention from its professed purpose of rewriting the Articles of Confederation and converted it into the vehicle for creating a completely new government.

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Books and (Semi) Mass Media

Having published my book on James Madison last month (Madison’s Gift), I share one trait with most authors of a recently-released book:  A wistful desire that great chunks of the reading public will exercise their right to pay a modest sum to own my book.

This desire to sell books makes authors willing to undergo many forms of humiliation.  One is the media interview.  We do them in order to build the buzz around books on which we have just lavished a significant chunk of our time on earth.

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Truthiness Triumphant!

At page 117 of my novel about the John Wilkes Booth Conspiracy, The Lincoln Deceptiona character laments that the Union and Confederate armies failed to join together at the end of the Civil War to mount invasions of Canada and Mexico.  “A terrible missed opportunity,” he complains at page 118.

I had no historical basis for the interlude.  It seemed like something that some people might have considered in 1865.  My goal wasn’t truth so much as “truthiness” (to borrow from Stephen Colbert).  You know, it’s a novel.  Fiction.

Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan

Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan

New “Hamilton” Show in NYC: HipHop Hooray!

Nah, I don’t listen to hiphop.  Not ever.  But Lin-Manuel Miranda is building a beautiful bridge between that music and old farts like me with his new “Hamilton” musical, which has opened for previews at the Public Theatre in New York.  I caught the show last night with the Girl of My Dreams, and was blown away.  If you can get to New York in the next couple of months, you’ll curse yourself for not seeing this one.  (Its run has been extended to early April.)

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The Emerging Indian Colossus

A 10-day visit to India this month kindled thoughts about a part of the world I have known only through novels and Merchant/Ivory movies.

The ambitions and dreams of the place are huge.  Indian newspapers speculate avidly about a second Indian mission to Mars.  (Did you even know about the first one, completed just two months ago?)  I was blown away by a tour of a new planned city, Naya Raipur, being built in Chhattisgarh province, an obscure area of heavy industry and relatively backward “tribal” peoples.  Rising from the plains of Naya Raipur are solar arrays, carefully planned infrastructure, lakes, recreational areas, and mixed commercial, office, and residential developments.  It’s an immense undertaking to build an entirely new city of a half-million people, and they’re doing it.

One Perilous Joy of the Season

I vividly recall the Christmas morning.  My father opened the book I had carefully picked out for him.  I hadn’t read it, but I thought it would be perfect for him, neatly matching his interests.  He looked at the spine, regarded the cover, and said, “I enjoyed this very much when it first came out.”

Not a good moment, but the beginning of a lifetime of mistakes — and occasional successes — in selecting books as gifts.

My column this month at the Washington Independent Review of Books takes a lighter look at the risks of giving books for the holidays.