Archive for history
Was George McGovern the worst presidential candidate to come from the two major parties, in history?
We love anniversaries in this country, good, bad or those of infamy.
The dates dance around our minds: December 7; November 22; September 11; July 4.
Today is another one of those dates.
It was 44 years ago today when James Earl Ray took aim and cut down Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he stood on a motel balcony in Memphis, TN.
There’s film footage of U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, addressing a crowd and breaking the news to them of Dr. King’s assassination. There are audible gasps and cries of anguish heard.
Kennedy himself would be murdered about two months later.
I suppose the anniversary of Dr. King’s murder is as good as time as any to ponder: have things gotten any better, really, in this country when it comes to race relations?
Is it mere irony or an indictment on us as a society that April 4 arrives as the nation is still loitering around the water cooler, talking about the February 26 killing of Trayvon Martin?
The Martin case would appear to be a prime example of how little we’ve come re: how blacks are perceived by non-blacks.
April 4, 1968; Memphis, TN
You don’t want to think that we’ve done little to no evolving since April 4, 1968, but I submit that it would be a tough case for you to make that we have—evolved, that is.
More like spinning our wheels, it seems at times.
Yes, we have a black president. Yes, blacks have ascended to other positions of authority where they hadn’t in 1968. That’s all well and good.
But are those exceptions rather than the rule?
It’s 2012, some 44 years after Dr. King said on the night before his death that “I may not get there with you”, and being a young black male wearing a hoodie is no less dangerous than being of color in 1968 and before.
I’m not suggesting that Dr. King died in vain. But nor can I confidently say that his death paved the way for improved race relations.
Who doesn’t love a good mystery?
Whether it’s a novel, a movie or a story lifted from a true crime magazine—we love a whodunnit, a “what happened to it,” and a “where did it go?”
It’s coming up on 75 years ago when one of America’s—and indeed the world’s—greatest mysteries was born.
Amelia Earhart, the beloved female aviator, went missing on July 2, 1937, somewhere in the South Pacific. Her plane crashed, and that’s pretty much all we’ve known for three quarters of a century.
Now there may be some sort of closure on the horizon, though it would be wise not to get your hopes raised too high.
This summer, the U.S. Government, with the help of $500,000 provided by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, will focus on the remote island of Nikumaroro, in what is now the Pacific nation of Kiribati.
There, they hope to use state-of-the-art equipment and technology to locate the remains of Earhart, her navigator Fred Noonan, and/or her aircraft.
The group believes that Earhart and Noonan may have survived for days or even weeks on what was then known as Gardner Island.
The rejuvenation of the Earhart mystery isn’t being driven solely by the 75-year anniversary of her disappearance.
There is a photographic “smoking gun,” maybe, that has cropped up, and it has enough credibility, apparently, to mobilize the Obama Administration and the historic group.
“We can be as optimistic and even audacious as Amelia Earhart,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., to announce U.S. support for the expedition. “There is great honor and possibility in the search itself.”
According to a story posted on MSNBC’s website, new analysis of a photo taken at Nikumaroro three months after the disappearance shows what some people believe could be a strut and wheel of the plane protruding from the water, the group says. The photo was not immediately released to the media on Tuesday but the hypothesis is that the plane crashed on a reef before eventually being washed deeper into the sea.
It is because of this new evidence that the U.S. government will provide some logistical direction, while the historic group puts up the $500K.
The search comes about two years after bone fragments were found on the island that are believed to be those of either Earhart, Noonan, or both.
A young Amelia Earhart
Other items were found on the island that suggest the aviator and her navigator might have survived for a short time before perishing.
If this summer’s search proves successful—to the point of being nearly irrefutable in its findings—then one of the greatest mysteries of all time will be, if not solved, certainly more clear.
There would be, to a degree, some closure.
The entire mystery won’t ever be solved, of course. Questions about what ultimately happened to Earhart and Noonan, how long they survived, what caused their demise, etc., will never be answered.
But to find evidence of the aircraft, or the two lost souls themselves, would be huge.
The fact that a presidential administration is getting involved shows how excited officials are about finding something, and how little they fear being embarrassed by the search’s results.
Amelia Earhart was an energetic, brave and attractive woman—a dreamer and a curious explorer. As fun as it’s been to speculate about her disappearance—that whole “love a mystery” thing—how much better would it be to cross it off our list of cold cases?
We’ll see, come this summer, whether we’ll be able to do that or not.
It has often been the M.O. of the American assassin to not have much of an exit strategy—no real end game beyond committing the act itself.
Leon Czolgosz had absolutely no chance of escape following the murder of President McKinley in 1901. Same with Charles Guiteau, killer of President Garfield 20 years earlier.
Witness the random, aimless meanderings of Lee Harvey Oswald following the shooting of President Kennedy, when he couldn’t even get out of town despite the chaos within it.
There was one exception, however.
One hundred and forty-six years ago Thursday, actor and miscreant John Wilkes Booth sneaked into the suite of President Abraham Lincoln in Washington’s Ford’s Theater and shot him point blank in the back of the skull.
Booth’s mission was accomplished; Lincoln was mortally wounded and he would die several hours later.
Beyond that, Booth knew what he wanted to do—get out of Dodge, and fast.
After pulling the trigger of his pistol, Booth leaped from the suite to the stage, severely injuring his leg in the process. He shouted something, “Sic semper tyrannis,” Latin for “Thus always to tyrants.” It was part of Booth’s flair for the dramatic; it was also a reference to what Brutus said at Caesar’s assassination, and it was the motto of Virginia.
Booth had arranged for a getaway horse and an escape route was in his head. Booth was part of a plot that was to not only kill Lincoln, but also Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward. The mission was to take out the president and the next two successors, in an effort to throw the government into panic and leave an opportunity for the Confederacy to take advantage.
In his 2005 analysis of Lincoln’s assassination, Thomas Goodrich wrote, “All the elements in Booth’s nature came together at once – his hatred of tyranny, his love of liberty, his passion for the stage, his sense of drama, and his lifelong quest to become immortal.”
That pretty much sums it up well.
John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865)
Booth died 12 days after shooting Lincoln, after being shot inside a barn on the farm of the Garrett family in northern rural Virginia. He was ratted out by William S. Jett, a former private in the 9th Virginia Cavalry.
But Booth had an exit strategy; he just couldn’t quite pull it off.
His dying words, allegedly, were, “Tell my mother I died for my country.”
Booth blamed Lincoln for the country’s troubles, and believed himself to be the man deemed to punish the president.
Unlike the assassins of our other fallen presidents, John Wilkes Booth never intended to be caught. He fully expected to escape and live the rest of his life basking in the glow of his misdeed.
Even Oswald, it could be argued, believed himself to be doomed following the murder of Kennedy. In fact, I would suggest that Oswald didn’t even think he’d be successful. I believe his panicked moves after the killing suggests those of someone who was scared to death that he actually killed the president, and didn’t know what the hell to do or where to go.
Not Booth; he didn’t want to be a martyr, he wanted to be a Confederate hero, and live to enjoy that status.
Booth’s sister Asia had been given a letter by her brother in January 1865, some four months before the assassination. Booth instructed her not to read it until after his death.
“I know how foolish I shall be deemed for undertaking such a step as this, where, on one side, I have many friends and everything to make me happy … to give up all … seems insane; but God is my judge. I love justice more than I do a country that disowns it, more than fame or wealth.”
Such is the mind of the determined—and organized—assassin.
Whatever one thinks of Ronald Reagan, I submit this without too much fear of contradiction.
He was a much better president than he was an actor.
That’s about as far as I’ll go, and as far as a lot of other people will go.
There are many others, as you know, who’ll go much further than that.
The Gipper’s 100th birthday is almost upon us. Reagan was born on February 6, 1911.
He was 69 when he was elected president in 1980, and almost 70 when he took the oath of office.
Reagan was among the eldest of presidents, on the cusp of turning 78 when he gave way to George Bush I.
I feel bad for the Reagan legacy, no matter what you think of it, because those who are enamored of him have unwittingly cheapened it by going overboard with their exultation.
The pro-Reagan zealots want everything to be named after him, and then some. They want him on currency. They want him added to Mt. Rushmore. And that’s just the beginning.
All this does is make the fence-sitters and the anti-Reagan folks look at the Reagan Years with disdain, when that’s not even fair.
Ronald Reagan, and I’ve said this before, was probably the right president at the right time for the country. I didn’t always agree with him, but I had to admire his relationship with the American people.
Reagan had a “get tough” approach to the ne’er do-wells in the world, and it gave the United States a much-needed shot in the arm, coming on the heels of the emasculation caused by the Iranian hostage crisis.
I’m deadset against Reaganomics, but I can almost understand, at least a little, those who would support it.
Part of that is because of Reagan himself, who could tweak his opponents with a wink and not come off as mean-spirited or nasty.
Reagan, more than any president in recent history not named Richard Nixon, enjoyed the power of mandate when he buried Walter Mondale in the 1984 election. It was a landslide of monumental proportions, and by 1986 Reagan’s mystique was at its strongest.
Today’s Republicans have latched onto Reagan as the Democrats used to do with the Kennedy years of the early-1960s. Tit for tat—I’ll give you that.
But I still think the Reagan fans have carried it too far, and have made their hero into more of a caricature than what he really was, which was one of the most effective, relevant presidents of the 20th century.
While you could make an argument that the Reagan fanaticism is more reflective on the fanatics than Reagan himself, it nonetheless tarnishes the man’s legacy.
Ronald Reagan was the right president at the right time. And much of that was for what he accomplished, not merely his name and image. He was more substance than style—more than you might want to believe.
I just wish his admirers would tone it down, because all they’re doing is making folks sneer at a legacy that should be embraced more warmly.
In the days leading up to President John Kennedy’s fateful trip to Dallas in November, 1963, it would seem that, by today’s standards, all the wrong things were done—if you wanted to keep a president alive, that is.
Maps of Kennedy’s motorcade route through the city were published on the front page of the local newspapers. The “bubble top” of his limousine was removed, so people could more easily see him—and shoot him.
All this in a part of the country where he wasn’t exactly a native son.
Can you imagine such egregious decisions being made today?
Of course not. Today, presidents can bug in and out of town in almost stealth-like fashion, compared to JFK’s Texas trip in 1963. Often, news of the president’s impending visit doesn’t hit the papers until the day before or even the day of the visit. And those stories certainly wouldn’t publish the president’s planned route from stop to stop.
But it wasn’t as if Kennedy’s peril didn’t have some precedent.
In 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists tried to kill President Truman while he was staying at Blair House, across the street from the White House. And in the 1930s, President Roosevelt was in grave danger in Miami, as his motorcade was shot at, leaving the mayor of Chicago dead.
Presidents McKinley (1901), Garfield (1881), and Lincoln (1865) had been assassinated, so it wasn’t like Kennedy’s safety should have been considered guaranteed, no matter the missteps.
Since the JFK murder, presidents don’t ride in open-roofed cars in motorcades. And newspapers don’t publish routes and other information helpful to a would-be assassin.
But you can’t protect 100% against crazy.
Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D) is fighting for her life, having been shot in the head by 22-year-old, mentally disturbed Jared Loughner, who killed six and wounded 14. It was at a meet and greet at a Tucson shopping center where the carnage occurred.
In the hours after the shootings, lawmakers were speaking of putting an end to such public gatherings.
I can understand that knee jerk reaction, but it’s misguided. How many such occurrences are there every day in this country—where an elected official appears in public to meet constituents?
Multiply that by 365 days in a year, and that’s a LOT of appearances by a LOT of electeds.
I’m not downplaying Giffords’s shooting—not at all. But let’s keep it in context and perspective. The Secret Service can’t protect every member of Congress at all times. And even if they could, a wacko like Loughner could still inflict damage.
Loughner seized an oppportunity that any determined nut job with a gun could have seized: a low-profile visit to a shopping center on a Saturday afternoon by the local Congresswoman—with low security and even lower perceived threat.
Loughner got to within three or four feet of Rep. Giffords, according to witnesses. Of course he did—everyone’s guard was down.
Sadly, violence against politicians in this country has been on a fairly consistent cycle ever since Lincoln was killed in 1865. You had Garfield 16 years later, McKinley 20 years after that, the attempt on FDR about 30 years after that, the try on Truman 15 years or so after that, the murder of JFK 13 years later, and the killing of Bobby Kennedy less than five years after that.
Then it was Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, gunned down at a Maryland shopping center in 1972 as he ran for president, leaving him wheelchair-bound.
Arthur Bremer is subdued after shooting Alabama Gov. George Wallace at a presidential campaign stop at a Maryland shopping center, May 1972
Two years after Wallace, President Ford’s life was in peril—twice within several weeks, both in California, and both by women.
John Hinckley tried to kill President Reagan less than seven years after the Ford attempts.
Now, not quite 30 years after Reagan, here comes Jared Loughner.
The cycle continues.
I’m sure that the Giffords shooting will have lawmakers on edge, at all levels—local, state and federal. That’s totally understandable. But the reality is that 100% protection is impossible. All you can do is be on the lookout.
What should give the elected officials more pause is how a mentally ill guy like Jared Loughner came into possession of a firearm in the first place.
Vice President John Engler?
It almost was, according to a recently published memoir from former President George W. Bush.
Bush, in “Decision Points,” writes that the former Michigan governor was among nine finalists for the Veep nomination in 2000.
Engler, Bush says, was one of four current and former governors considered for the ticket, joining Oklahoma’s Frank Keating, Pennsylvania’s Tom Ridge, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
But among those four, the top two candidates were Engler and Keating.
“I knew I could work well with either one,” Bush writes.
If that had happened—Engler as Bush’s vice president—how would that have changed the political landscape in the Mitten State?
John Engler as U.S. Vice President? Not as far-fetched as you might think
The 2000 presidential campaign occurred right smack in the middle of Engler’s third term as Michigan’s governor (this was pre-term limits). Had Engler joined the ticket, he would have left for Washington, since Bush, of course, became president.
Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus would have become governor, serving the remainder of Engler’s term. As it was, Posthumus ran against Democrat Jennifer Granholm in 2002 and lost, despite GOP victories all over the country and in the state.
So why not Engler as VP, the position that went to Dick Cheney?
Engler’s inability to deliver Michigan to Bush, despite the GOP wave, was one reason, some suspect. For that transgression, Engler didn’t get a cabinet position, either—something for which he was also being considered at one point.
I didn’t agree much with John Engler’s policies, but there was a window of about 2-3 years when the governor was considered an up-and-coming star within the Republican party. Once Bill Clinton’s second term was nearing an end, and the jockeying began for presidential runs, Engler was at his hottest.
Engler for VP. Engler in a GOP cabinet. Engler as head of the RNC. And it wasn’t all just talk; the Republicans liked Engler. But after Bush lost Michigan, the elephants didn’t like him so much anymore.
Had Engler been tabbed by Bush, though, giving Governor Posthumus a nearly two-year head start in his own 2002 gubernatorial run, maybe the latter beats Granholm. As a die-hard Democrat, even I have to wonder if the state would be in the shape it’s in today under those circumstances.
The 41-year-old explorer obsessed with finding a western route to Asia struck land 518 years ago today, believing that he’d accomplished his goal. He hadn’t, but that’s OK; he accomplished much more.
Christopher Columbus, the Italian from Genoa, was born to be a seaman. He started at a very young age and eventually became a maritime entrepreneur. It wasn’t much longer before he was brimming with how delectable it would be to head west and end up in China, India, and the gold and spice islands of Asia.
Because of the Ottoman Empire’s barricades of both land and sea, the route to Asia via Egypt and the Red Sea was closed off to Europeans. That left Columbus with only one direction to his white whale of destinations: west.
Columbus and others of his ilk had no idea that the Pacific Ocean even existed, so when he struck land with his fleet of three ships (Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria) on October 12, 1492—a little over two months after departing from Palos, Spain on August 3—Columbus believed he had indeed reached Asia. Instead, he landed on a Bahamian island. He thought Cuba was mainland China.
Contrary to popular belief, Columbus and other intellects of the day didn’t believe the world was flat; however, they grossly underestimated its size.
With only the Atlantic Ocean, he thought, lying between Europe and the riches of the East Indies, Columbus met with King John II of Portugal and tried to persuade him to back his “Enterprise of the Indies,” as he called his plan. He was rebuffed and went to Spain, where he was also rejected at least twice by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. However, after the Spanish conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492, the Spanish monarchs, flush with victory, agreed to support his voyage.
Artist’s depiction of Columbus’s Santa Maria vessel
The Columbus Expedition continued on, and in December he hit Hispaniola, which he believed to be Japan. Columbus established a small colony there of 39 men.
Columbus would return to Spain in 1493 a hero—bringing back with him gold, spices, and “Indian” captives. The Spanish court bestowed upon him the highest honors.
Before passing away in 1506, Columbus would lead a total of four expeditions, discovering various Caribbean islands, the Gulf of Mexico, and the South and Central American mainlands.
But he’d never realize his original goal of reaching the great cities of Asia via a western ocean route. No matter—what Columbus did do was much greater: he discovered for Europe the New World, whose riches over the next century would help make Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.
“By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions,” Columbus once said, “one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.”
Or at least come close enough.
Bernard Schwartz was a Bronx kid spawned by Hungarian Jews, his mother a diagnosed schizophrenic. He didn’t even learn to speak English right away—Hungarian was his first and only language until age six.
He was inspired by the actor Cary Grant, even enlisting in the U.S. Navy because he marveled at Grant in the film “Destination Tokyo.”
Bernard Schwartz was further inspired by Grant to pursue acting, and went to Hollywood mainly for the girls and the money more than for the craft.
It was on the Left Coast, in 1948, when Schwartz borrowed a first name from the novel “Anthony Adverse” and a version of the surname Kurtz from his mother’s family and became, just like that, Tony Curtis.
In his younger days in film, Curtis was a raven-haired ladies man with beveling eyes and a slight pout. The Bronx accent never left him.
Curtis played the ladies man on film and in real life. He was married six times, and infidelity played a role in the breakup of his first, to actress Janet Leigh.
But he was married long enough to Leigh to father the actress Jamie Lee Curtis, a daughter with whom he became virtually estranged as Jamie grew older and she gravitated more to her mother.
Curtis hit it big with “Some Like it Hot,” a 1959 vehicle with Jack Lemmon in which Curtis famously played a cross-dresser.
Curtis died Wednesday, at age 85, from cardiac arrest. He’s another who takes with him a mold that has been broken.
One of the most enjoyable interviews I ever saw was with Curtis, who was being queried a few years ago on one of those movie channel specials. He was a cornucopia of anecdotes, back stories, and self-criticism of his work. It was, at the risk of sounding cliche, captivating.
Curtis enjoyed painting, and did more of that as the acting lessened. One of his works sold for $25,000.
But his relationship with Jamie Lee, as he outlined in the aforementioned interview, saddened me. It was evident that his trysts with other women, after Jamie Lee learned of them, put a wedge between father and daughter.
Worse was what happened to his son Nick, who died of a heroin overdose in 1994 at age 23.
“As a father you don’t recover from that,” he once said.
Curtis revived his career by playing hotel owner Mr. Roth in the TV series “Vegas” from 1978-81. In fact, Curtis ended up dying in Henderson, Nevada—not far from Vegas, a city he adored.
He was a walking history book of Hollywood, both good and bad. You looked at Tony Curtis and you knew there were stories that were aching to be told. And Curtis was often eager to oblige.
His wife at the time of his death, Jill Vandenberg Curtis, was 42 years his junior. That shouldn’t have been a surprise.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead,” Curtis once said, “marrying a woman old enough to be my wife.”
So wry, so self-effacing.
So Tony Curtis.
Somewhere, way upstairs, Forrest Pitcher will be smiling on October 9.
Mr. Pitcher was my grandfather and he passed away on April 30, 2005 at the age of 96. Just six months prior to his passing, he had to endure the heartache of his adored Yankee Air Museum in Willow Run being ravaged by fire.
The date was October 9, 2004, and the museum’s hangar caught on fire, destroying eight aircraft and thousands of artifacts, along with tools. While most of the museum’s collection survived, the fire essentially put an end to the tours and day-to-day operations.
That’s where my grandfather comes in.
Forrest Pitcher, well into his 90s, conducted guided tours of the museum. I took my family on one such jaunt not long before the fire, and what a treat it was—not only to see the museum’s unbelievable collection of air and military history, but to be guided by my grandfather and our daughter’s great-grandfather.
On October 9, the Yankee Air Museum will re-open to the public—six years to the day after the fire. The new Collections and Exhibit building will have an Inaugural Gala to celebrate.
I can see grandpa’s smile as I type this.
This was the scene at Yankee Air Museum on October 9, 2004
Few people had a sense of history as firmly handled as my grandfather. Hell, he WAS history! The man was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge, folklore, and anecdotes.
The volunteer tour guide gig at Yankee was right up his alley. He was like a pig in slop, escorting folks through the museum and bending their ears about the artifacts and the stories behind them.
Grandpa was a plumber for Ford Motor Company but that’s not WHO he was—it was what he did. He and grandma—she’s still living and is 94—enjoyed traveling, sometimes as far away as Spain. They pretty much did most of the United States, pulling a trailer and camping all over the country.
They’d winter in Texas or Florida, before moving back to the Detroit area full time circa 1993.
For nearly 20 years (1976-93), after moving from the Wayne-Westland area, they owned a modest home about 50 miles west of Marquette in the Upper Peninsula, which was playfully coined “Pitcher’s Paradise.”
Grandpa gave guided tours up there, too.