Review of “50 Things You Should Know About American Presidents” by Tracey Kelly

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This book has an “interesting” collection of information about American Presidents. Each president gets a page and sometimes a double-page spread. The omissions are of course as informative as the inclusions.

On the page for Andrew Jackson, for example, we do learn that he “signed” the Indian Removal Act, but not that he was instrumental in pushing it through, nor about the vast tracts of land he took from Indians through force and/or deceit. His speculation in that land is also not mentioned.

On the page for James K. Polk, we learn he tried to buy land from Mexico to expand the U.S., but Mexico refused and then in 1846 “its forces attacked U.S. troops as they entered disputed territory claimed by Mexico.” Abraham Lincoln, then a member of Congress, lashed out against the Mexican War, challenging the alleged “facts” promulgated by Polk to justify the war Lincoln believed was “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced.” We do not learn of any questioning of the war and the resulting land grab in this book.

President James K. Polk

President James K. Polk

As for Lincoln, who gets a double-paged spread, the author allows that Southern states seceded from the Union over slavery, but phrased it as “Angered by President Lincoln’s support for the abolition of slavery….” In fact, this is not a good representation of this very complex issue. Lincoln said in his first inaugural address, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” The book also errs in implying that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, which it did not do. Lincoln declared slaves free in areas that he did not control, while leaving slavery untouched in areas that he did.

Andrew Johnson gets a huge pass on his page. Although he is widely considered to be “the worst president in U.S. history,” this is nowhere mentioned. The book does not even tell us that Johnson was impeached in 1868, keeping his job by only one vote in a Senate trial! The most egregious piece of information on Johnson’s page was that African Americans gained freedoms in his administration by virtue of The Civil Rights Act of 1866. But Johnson vetoed that legislation not once but twice! His vetoes were overridden by Congress.

President Andrew Johnson

President Andrew Johnson

On the page for Ulysses S. Grant, there is no mention of the incredible number of corruption scandals that rocked his administration, involving a group that included his personal secretary, his vice president, and a number of cabinet members, inter alia. [Historians agree Grant was not a great judge of character when it came to the men who served under him.] Instead, a big box is given over to his work “to change policies toward Native Americans. He thought that housing them on reservations and helping them become farmers would help.” In fact, Grant wanted to “civilize” the Natives by making them embrace white culture and eschewing their own.

After the page on Grant, we get a spread on “Expansion and Power,” which declares “The end of the Apache Wars in 1886 allowed settlers to spread across the entire continent.” Really? This is how the genocidal massacres by the U.S. Army are described?

The rest of the book continues in the same vein. Woodrow Wilson’s racism and segregation policies are omitted. For instance, while during his 1912 presidential campaign, Wilson promised fairness for blacks if elected, less than a month after his inauguration, his administration took the first steps towards segregating the federal service. (His wife Ellen was worried about black men’s “sexuality” and “disease.”)

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

On the double-page spread for Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt gets a small box as a “Groundbreaking First Lady.” We learn that “Eleanor Roosevelt understood the social conditions of the Depression and became very active as First Lady….” Interesting that yet again the racism issue is avoided, since this first lady made “groundbreaking” strides in attacking racism.

John Kennedy is lauded for the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Moon Quest, Civil Rights, and the tragedy of his assassination. But Kennedy was more interested in strengthening existing weak civil rights laws than passing new ones. Worst of all, he placated the southern senators by appointing federal judges in the South who were “acceptable” to them (read: racist and apt to enforce anti-black codes in the South, which is just what they did.) His active interventions in civil rights only occurred when accompanied by increasing instances of violence as Martin Luther King, Jr. ramped up his crusade for rights.

President John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy

George W. Bush also gets a two-page spread (generally reserved for the “greats”). The box on the Iraq invasion is interesting. It mentions that Bush justified the war by claims that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and connections to al-Qaida terrorists — almost all of which turned out to be false.

Finally, only Clinton of all the presidents is called out for using the office to secure sexual favors.

The author has also written 50 Ways to Detox Naturally and 50 Natural Ways to Stay Young, inter alia . . .

Published by QEB Publishing Inc., 2016

August 27, 1963 – William E. Du Bois Dies in Ghana

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced doo-BOYSS) was an American civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, historian, author, and editor. He was born three years after the end of the Civil War in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His family had lived there for generations and his ancestors had fought in the American Revolution.

An inspirational mural in Du Bois's hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts

An inspirational mural in Du Bois’s hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Du Bois attended Fisk University in Nashville, where he encountered for the first time, in his words, “a region where the world was split into white and black halves, and where the darker half was held back by race prejudice and legal bonds as well as by deep ignorance and dire poverty. … A new loyalty and allegiance replaced my Americanism: hence-forward I was a Negro.”

Du Bois at Atlanta University in 1909

Du Bois at Atlanta University in 1909

DuBois is perhaps best known for his 1903 collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, in which he criticized Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of accommodation to the status quo in racial matters. You can read the book or selections from it online, here.

His thoughts remain timely today. As he says in the Preface:

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”

Ironically, Dr. Du Bois died at the age of ninety-five on August 27, 1963– the day before the March on Washington, with its famous “I Have A Dream” speech that marked the climax of the civil rights struggle in the United States.

Du Bois, ca.1950s

Du Bois, ca.1950s

The Power of Images to Affect Cultural and Political Discourse

In an article from almost 25 years ago, J. Francis Davis, a media education specialist, listed six myths consistently invoked and reinforced by the media. The amazing and sad truth is that these myths are as prevalent today as they were at the time this article was written. They include:

MYTH #1. The world is a dangerous place and we need guns, police and military to protect us.

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MYTH #2. Leave it to the experts (who are usually white men).

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MYTH #3. The good life consists of buying possessions that cost lots of money.

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MYTH #4. Happiness, satisfaction and sex appeal, just to name a few, are imminent – and available with the next consumer purchase.

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MYTH #5. Your body is not good enough.

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MYTH #6. Businesses and corporations are concerned for the public welfare.

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You can read a full delineation of the nature of these memes as well as examples of images found in advertisements, movies, television, newspapers and books supporting these myths in Davis’s article, here.

As Collins and Skover wrote in David Skover and Ronald Collins, Commerce & Communication, 71 TEX. L. REV. 697, 716 (1993):

Ours has become a commercial culture in a[an] … intrinsic and pervasive sense. The beliefs, ideas, and behaviors that mold or reflect our national character are now re-created in a product’s image. Once this occurs, the old norms take on a new meaning inseparable from the commercial ethic.”

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Recognition of the importance of images to affect both conscious and subconscious effects of messages are well understood in litigation too, as attested to by just a sampling of articles, here, here, and here.

Book Review of “Scotland” The Story of a Nation” by Magnus Magnusson

Each chapter in this somewhat quirky history is preceded by a summary of the events to be discussed as they were described by Walter Scott (1771- 1832) in Tales of a Grandfather. As explained by the Walter Scott Digital Archive of Edinburgh University Library:

While putting the finishing touches to his Life of Napoleon in May 1827, Scott had the idea of writing a History of Scotland addressed to his six-year-old grandchild . . . The project was partly inspired by the success of John Wilson Croker’s Stories Selected from the History as England (1822), but Scott felt that Croker underestimated the intelligence of his juvenile audience. Children, Scott believed, disliked books ‘written down’ to their level, preferring a challenge to their understanding and curiosity. He hoped to cater, moreover, for both a juvenile and a popular audience and thus to find a way ‘between what a child can comprehend and what shall not yet be absolutely uninteresting to the grown reader’ (Journal, July 8, 1827).”

It’s also a history that includes extensive detail only up until the Battle of Culloden. With the end of the Jacobite Movement, there is only one more chapter covering the period after 1746, which is mostly about the personal history of Sir Walter Scott. A short Epilogue takes us to the 1990s. But Magnusson seemed to be “finished” even before the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie; clearly the author lost heart for the story of Scotland with the Act of Union in 1707 and “the end of an auld sang.”

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Thus, most of the book is focused on warriors and royalty of old. Those looking for information on the cultural advances that followed Culloden and about the great Scottish Enlightenment should look elsewhere; there is practically nothing on it in this book. On the other hand, if you want to know how punitive the English were toward the Scots throughout the history of the two countries, this is a great place to begin. You also get a large dose of how rough the austere Protestant fundamentalists were on their own people in Scotland. In fact, this is not a book at all about religious toleration or Christian mercy; religious realism, one might say, is more like it.

The author served at one time as Chair of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, and so peppers his history with tidbits about where to find markers today commemorating some of the historical events he describes. Additionally, there is a chronology at the end of the book as well as a list of Kings and Queens of Scotland.

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Evaluation: This is an entertaining book, often reading more like a television history broadcast than a standard history, with elements of a travelogue. The addition of passages from Tales of a Grandfather is very illuminating. It is rather heavy on battles though, and I wish the author had added more information on what happened after Culloden. On the other hand, it already weighs in at 700 pages.

A number of maps and pictures are included.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by HarperCollins, 2000

August 21, 1858 – The First Lincoln-Douglas Debate

On this day in history, the first debate between senatorial contenders Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place in Ottawa, Illinois. They each gave incredibly long speeches, allowing rebuttals as well as questions from the audience, and yet between 10,000 and 12,000 people stood in attendance throughout the whole afternoon. A word search reveals 57 occurrences of laughter; no doubt this was essential to the process!

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In this debate, Lincoln strongly expressed his loathing of slavery:

I think, and shall try to show, that it is wrong; wrong in its direct effect, letting slavery into Kansas and Nebraska – and wrong in its prospective principle, allowing it to spread to every other part of the wide world, where men can be found inclined to take it.

This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites – causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty-criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”

Lincolns arguments are subtle and astute, as when he asserts that the ostensibly neutrality of the concept of “popular sovereignty” is deceptive:

What is Popular Sovereignty? Is it the right of the people to have Slavery or not have it, as they see fit, in the territories? I will state – and I have an able man to watch me – my understanding is that Popular Sovereignty, as now applied to the question of slavery, does allow the people of a Territory to have slavery if they want to, but does not allow them not to have it if they do not want it.”

You can read the full text of the remarks of both Lincoln and Douglas here.

August 19, 1985 – Important West German Spy Defects to East Germany

On this day in history, Hans-Joachim Tiedge defected to the security services run by the infamous East German spymaster Markus Wolf. East German authorities also announced that they had arrested 168 West German agents in East Germany pursuant to information provided by Tiedge. The West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, described the former spy chief’s defection as “catastrophic”.

Hans-Joachim Tiedge

Hans-Joachim Tiedge

Tiedge had been a head of West Germany’s counter-intelligence in the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Cologne. Questions were later raised as to how Tiedge managed to hold on to his position despite serious debts, family issues and a drinking problem. Herbert Hellenbroich, his immediate boss, claimed that he “was loth to fire Tiedge or move him on to less sensitive work, for fear of ‘tipping him over the edge’.” Hellenbroich resigned within weeks of the defection.

According to the UK Telegraph, Tiedge was supposed to have been leading the hunt for East German and Soviet spies in West Germany. It seemed that instead, he was protecting them. The Telegraph reports: “In the weeks before he defected, for example, three women thought to have been East German spies fled to the safety of the GDR.”

After his defection Tiedge lived in East Berlin under the name Helmut Fischer, taking a degree at the Humboldt University (where his dissertation was on West German intelligence). On August 23 1990, with German reunification underway, he moved to Moscow.

It was then the plot thickened. With the oncoming reunificaiton, Tiedge’s deputy, Klaus Kuron, confessed that he too had been a double agent, having received almost half a million dollars from Markus Wolf.

Markus Wolf, regarded by many intelligence experts as one of the greatest spymasters of all time

Markus Wolf, regarded by many intelligence experts as one of the greatest spymasters of all time

Tiedge’s defection allowed Kuron to remain undetected by leading West Germany to think that its intelligence leak had been plugged. In fact, the Telegraph reports, Kuron was the real source of information. It is still not clear who was working for whom.

Tiedge died in Moscow in 2011 at age 73.

August 17, 1960 Eleanor Roosevelt Endorses John Kennedy for President

On this day in history, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a favorable opinion of Kennedy in an installment of her newspaper column “My Day”:

I think Senator Kennedy is anxious to learn. I think he is hospitable to new ideas. He is hard-headed. He calculates the political effect of every move. I left my conversation with him with the feeling that here is a man who wants to leave a record of not only having helped his countrymen, but having helped humanity as a whole.”

She concludes:

I had withheld my decision on joining Herbert Lehman as honorary chairman of the Democratic Citizens Committee of New York until I had a chance to see and talk with our Democratic candidate. After Senator Kennedy’s visit, I telephoned my acceptance to serve with Mr. Lehman, and I told Senator Kennedy that I would discuss what help in the campaign I could give, for I have come to the conclusion that the people will have in John F. Kennedy, if he is elected, a good President.”

The endorsement was important to Kennedy. Roosevelt was a powerful figure within the Democratic Party, and had initially supported Adlai Stevenson for the party’s 1960 presidential nomination, as she had supported him in 1952 and 1956. Kennedy set out to woo her to his side, and Roosevelt proved as susceptible to his legendary charm as everyone else.

Eleanor Roosevelt and John Kennedy, March 1961

Eleanor Roosevelt and John Kennedy, March 1961

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