Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ice Skating in Central Park, late 1850s.

For the New Year, I give you ice skating in Central Park, an undated, six-penny lithograph print from Currier & Ives, New York City, circa late 1850s.  Click on the image for full size.  It shows a beautiful crisp day, friends sharing good health and good spirits, enjoying an escape from the teeming city.  (More than 800,000 people lived on the southern tip of Manhattan Island at this time, making it one of the most densely populated spots on earth.)  Enjoy.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Faces: Theodore Roosevelt takes the national stage

Here is one of my favorite cartoons of Theodore Roosevelt, a full-page image from Judge magazine drawn by the prolific political satirist Victor Gillam in June 1900.    By then, Roosevelt, just 41 years old, had already overcome youthful bad health, the death of his first wife, and exile as a cowboy on the Dakota Territory.  He had then gone on to build political fame as State Assemblyman, New York City Police Commissioner, member of the federal Civil Service Commission, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, military hero of the Spanish-American War,  and, most recently, as Governor of New York State.

As Republicans gathered in Philadelphia that month for their national convention, rank-and-filers enthusiastically talked up the popular young hero-reformer for high office.   The anything-but-reform party bosses detested Roosevelt as an unpredictable hothead maverick, but he was just too well liked to ignore.  And so the cartoon asks: "Republicans!  What are you going to do?"

Click on the image to enlarge it and enjoy the rich detail.  Gillam shows Roosevelt larger than life in full military regalia, calmly looking down on the spectacle, the roomful of frightened politicos, taking the podium as he had taken San Juan Hill during the war.  In fact, by the time the convention finished that week, those Republican bosses -- led by New Yorker Thomas C. Platt who particularly hated TR -- had concocted what seemed a brilliant idea to get Roosevelt out of the way: Make him Vice President, traditionally the most meaningless, invisible, dead-end job in the country.

Ans so it happened that Roosevelt found himself nominated as running mate to President William McKinley and, together that November, he and McKinley easily defeated Democrats William Jennings Bryan and Adlai E. Stevenson.  Click here for the detailed poll results.

Then fate took its turn.  Within ten months of the election, a mentally-unstable anarchist named Leon Czolgosz would shoot McKinley as he was attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.  When McKinley died six days later, the Republican Bosses found themselves facing by their worst nightmare: "Now that damn cowboy is President," moaned Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, who had earlier called Roosevelt a "that madman."

Click here for a few more Victor Gillam cartoons.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Yes, Thomas Nast invented Santa Claus

For Christmas Eve, I give you Santa Claus, as created in America by Thomas Nast, the brilliant, edgy cartoonist for Harper's Weekly who almost single-handedly created the art of modern visual satire.

Nast's cartoons of New York City's untouchable corrupt Boss Tweed made Nast a unique national media star and political terror after they helped force Tweed's arrest in 1872.   Among other things, Nast created the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant, and pioneered personal attack politics.   But he had a soft side.

Born in 1840 in Alsace, son of an army trombone player, Nast came to New York as an 8 year-old, learned English from scratch, and soon exploded on the scene as an artistic prodigy just as the newest media technology -- graphic magazines -- was coming of age.  Barely in his 20s, he drew national fame for his sketches of Garibaldi's march through Italy, American Civil War battlefields, and dazzling sports events like prize fights and horse races.

Nast created the drawing on the right below for Harper's Weekly in 1863, at the height of the Civil War when thousands of families were split apart and husbands-fathers-brothers were being butchered on faraway battlefields.  It's simple sentiment made it a sensation and helped boost regular sales of Harper's into the stratosphere.   People posted copies of Nast sketches in saloons, kitchens, and storefronts.

Around this same time, Nast began making the old German fold legend Saint Nicholas a regular in his Christmas-time fare, gave him a fat belly, beard, sled, and mission to give presents.  Nast drew Santa visiting Civil War soldiers at the front, then on the home front climbing down chimneys, hugging children, stuffing stockings with presents, and the rest.  He made him a household name as well, as in the 1874 Harper's cover above.

Nast himself would make a fortune as the most famous illustrator in America, but then lose it in 1885 after investing his money in a Wall Street firm run by former President Ulysses Grant (Grant and Ward) that went belly up after being victimized by an embezzler.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Portrait: Chester Alan Arthur's inauguration, 1881

Of all the presidential inauguration scenes of the late 1800s, my personal favorite is this one, a full-page cover from Leslie’s Illustrated showing Chester Alan Arthur taking the oath in the living room of his New York City townhouse. It took place at about 2:15 am on Tuesday morning, September 20, 1881, just hours after word reached Arthur by telegraph that President James A. Garfield had died, making Arthur a thoroughly accidental and reluctant chief executive. Arthur’s aides had to scour the neighborhood to find a judge — John R. Brady of the New York Supreme Court — to administer the oath.

The whole nation had been on a tense death-watch for Garfield ever since early July when Garfield had been shot in the back by a psychopath named Charles Guiteau at the Washington, D.C. train station. Garfield could have survived the gun shot, but his doctors had infected him by probing the wound with dirty fingers. During his struggle for life that summer, Garfield had become beloved in America, while Arthur was distrusted and feared.

Arthur never aspired to be President. His selection as candidate for vice president on Garfield’s 1881 ticket had been a political fluke — the product of a stalemated nominating convention. ”A greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining,” he called it. Known as Gentleman Boss for his role managing New York’s statewide Republican political machine, Arthur as vice president had openly opposed Garfield in the bitter argument over patronage and intra-party factions that had set the stage for Guiteau’s attack. As Guiteau was being arrested minutes after shooting the president, he announced: “I did it! I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be President!”

These words by the assassin, coupled with Arthur’s role in the patronage fight, led many Americans to believe Arthur in fact was involved in the shooting. Arthur himself, a mild-mannered, dapper man, was horrified at the thought and dreaded the reaction if he took office. When told of Garfield’s death, Arthur broke down in tears. Look at Arthur’s eyes in the image above, (click to make it full size) and notice how the artist sought to capture the mix of fear, sadness, and determination.
If fact, once sworn in, Chester Alan Arthur became admirably independent. He surprised friends by signing the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883, the most important and successful government reform of the era. When old cronies came asking favors, he turned them away — often after bitter arguments. Said one: “He isn’t ‘Chet’ Arthur anymore; he’s the President.” Arthur guarded his privacy, telling one nosy temperance lady hectoring him about alcohol in the White House: “Madam, I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s dan business!”

Arthur’s admirable record won him no friends. His party refused to nominate him for re-election in 1884. That same year, he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a painful, then-uncurable kidney ailment that would kill him in late 1886.
Today, a century later, Chester Alan Arthur is largely forgotten. His name is the punchline to a dozen jokes about obscure dead presidents. I think this is shameful. Arthur, for all his faults, was also one of the most human and compelling presidents we’ve had, a flawed person who found integrity and grace in the most difficult circumstance.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Portrait: Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, March 1861

Abraham Lincoln had little time to celebrate his inauguration as President of the United States on March 4, 1861. Already since his election the prior November, his country had crumbled. Seven states had seceded to form the Confederate States of America and inaugurated Jefferson Davis their president. War seemed likely. Lincoln himself literally had to sneak into Washington to avoid assassination plots. Soldiers guarded his every move. His former law partner Billy Herndon described Lincoln that day as “filled with gloomy forebodings of the future.”
Still, thirty thousand well wishers crammed into Washington for the swearing in that day. After a damp and cold morning, the sun broke through by the time Lincoln reached Capitol Hill. His inaugural speech, which he read while standing beneath the unfinished Capitol Dome, would be among his finest, and both the ceremony and the ball that night went off without a hitch.
The drawing here, a full-page panorama from Harper’s Weekly, shows Lincoln and outgoing President James Buchanan riding together to the ceremony, just reaching the foot of Capitol Hill. Buchanan tips his hat to the crowd. Click on the image to see it full size. Notice the double row of soldiers with bayonets lining the route, the cavalrymen leading the carriage. One soldier on a horse just behind the carriage holds a spyglass toward the crowd. Not seen here are the sharpshooters stationed in nearby windows and on rooftops, the soldiers patrolling side streets, and the additional infantrymen marching behind — all in case of trouble.
The pomp and ceremony seem so normal in this image, and give little sign of the carnage to come. Within a few months, war would come and, before it was over, over 600,000 soldiers North and South would die and countless thousands more would be crippled or maimed for life. But on this day, the transfer of power went smoothly, crowds could still cheer, politicians could still wave their hats, and people could still be happy.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Portraits: James A. Garfield's inaugural ball, March 1881

Here’s a snapshot I took recently of a rarely seen two-page spread from the Leslie’s Illustrated of March 19, 1881. It took a team of artists to sketch and then carve it by hand onto wooden block for printing. It shows the grand inaugural ball for PresidentJames A. Garfield, held in the Smithsonian Building that year. Garfield, a popular and moderate Ohio Republican, was doomed to serve only four months in office before a psychopathic hanger-on named Charles Guiteau shot him in the back as Garfield was entering the Washington, D.C. train station on a Saturday morning that July. Garfield would die from infection (yes, the doctors killed him by failing to wash their hands) a few months later on September 19, 1881. His assassination would shock the nation and make Garfield widely popular for a generation. There is hardly a town or city in America with a Garfield Street or two.
Click on the photo to blow it up and marvel at the detail. So accurate is the sketch that you can make out literally dozens of prominent faces in the crowd: Garfield, his wife Lucretia, Senators Roscoe Conkling, John Sherman, and Carl Schurz, plus incoming Vice President Chester Alan Arthur, incoming Secretary of State James G. Blaine, and a bevy of foreign diplomats. Look at the women’s gowns, the bunting on the walls, the guarded conversations. The band that night played tunes from the latest Gilbert and Sullivan operetta H.M.S. Pinafore — Garfield’s favorite. — that had premiered in London just two years earlier.
It’s a group portrait of a vanishing generation of politicians taken at a moment of graceful indulgence. Could any photograph or video have captured the moment so well?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Portraits: President Grant's inaugural ball, March 1869

I love the way that old 1800s tabloids like Harper’s Weekly, Leslie’s Illustrated, and the others, long before photographs could be copied on newsprint, used artist’s sketches to capture dazzling visual scenes. The process was primitive and tedious by modern standards. Artists literally had to take their pencil drawings and carve them by hand onto wooden block or steel plates for the ink-slathered printing machines. But the results could be breath-taking, the first time many American’s in their lifetimes ever saw the faces of famous people, the insides of well-known buildings, or glimpses of how the other half lived.

Here’s a nice one: A full-page panorama of the great gala inaugural ball thrown for Ulysses Grant, newly elected president of the United States, in the great chandeliered hall of the Treasury Department in March 1869. It appeared in Leslie’s Illustrated on March 20th that year, drawn by a young artist named James E. Taylor who earned his wings sketching battle scenes during the Civil War.

Click on the photo to see it full size. Look at the detail, the faces, the clothes, the room, and imagine the hours of labor it took to capture each line and nuance. The drawing is so accurate that you can make out individual faces in the crowd, not just President Grant and his wife Julia but also House Speaker James G. Blaine (standing behind Mrs. Grant’s shoulder), Senator Carl Schurz (over to the right), and several Civil War generals.

Photographs and videos are fine, but some of these artist sketches are true Pop Art masterpieces. Hope you like it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Is this Obama's "Read my Lips" Moment?

Way back in the last Century, in 1988, 22 years ago (Gasp! Am I really that old?), George H. W. Bush convinced the voters of America to elect him President, defeating Democrat Michael Dukakis in an electoral college landslide, 426 to 111. Central to Bush's campaign, however, was a single memorable promise that made him a hero with conservatives coast to coast: that he would never, ever, ever raise taxes.

Bush immortalized this pledge in his acceptance speech to that year's Republican Convention in New Orleans, uttering his most-ever-cited statement, as follows: "Read my lips! No New taxes!" -- taken from the Clint Eastwood tough-guy movie "Dirty Harry." Here's the video in case you've never seen it. It's a beauty: Click here.

The irony, of course, is that in 1990, just two years later, Bush broke that pledge. Facing soaring deficits and a sinking economy, Bush decided to compromise with Democrats and sign a deal cutting Washington government deficits by $500 billion over ten years. Though it contained many spending cuts painful to Democrats, it also raised many key taxes, including the Federal gas tax.

The photo above shows Bush as President siging the 1990 deal. Not much of a smile on his face.

Not surprisingly, conservatives erupted in anger. "Read my lips. I Lied!" headlined the New York Post. The Cato Institute called it the "Crime of the Century," and the
Heritage Foundation quickly tagged it a failure. Most Republicans in Congress voted no (or Hell No!!) on the package; Bush had to rely on Democratic votes. Then, in 1992, when Bush stood for re-election, the pigeons came home to roost. Despite his widely-admired leadership during the 1991 Persian Gulf War that sent his popularity soaring to near 90 %, Bush's budget deal and a worsening recession soured his prospects. Television pundit and former Nixon speech-writer Pat Buchanan managed to embarrass him by winning 40% of the vote in the New Hampshire Primary, running largely on Bush's violation of his tax pledge. In the general election, Democrat Bill Clinton cited it too, and won a comfortable victory in a three-way contest that also included businessman Ross Perot. (click here for 1992 election results.) By the next January, George H.W. Bush was out of a job.

All of which brings us to today's president, Barack Obama, and his decision this week to join in a deal with Congressional Republicans to extend the large, due-to-expire, Bush Junior-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The deal contains other things, but none more important. As with Bush Senior in 1990, this too violated a position central to Obama's candidacy and presidency. Obama has made his opposition to continuing the Bush tax cuts for Americans with incomes above $250,000 per year a matter of basic principle, one widely shared with his supporters. Already, many Democrats are calling it a betrayal or worse.

Will this be the beginning of the end of the Obama presidency, just as the 1990 budget deal marked the beginning of the end for George H.W. Bush? Obviously, it is way too soon to say. Obama still has time to win back his critics, and perhaps even win on the tax-cuts-for-the-wealthy issue itself when it comes up again in two years. Still, the parallel is hard to ignore. Stay tuned. This will be very good drama.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Best statues in NYC's Central Park: Poland's King Jagiello, hero of 1410

Six hundred years ago, this man atop his bronze horse in full battle regalia, pointing his dual sabers to the sky, was the single most powerful on earth. He was Poland's King Wladyslaw Jagiello, and on July 15, 1410, he led an army of 50,000 Polish and Lithuanian knights, cavalry, and foot soldiers against a marauding horde of 32,000 invading Teutons -- primarily Germans -- near the small town of Grunwald.

By sundown, Jagiello's soldiers had slaughtered over 26,000 of the invaders, utterly demolishing their army. The Battle of Grunwald, as it came to be called, would reshape Central Europe for the next 300 years, placing King Jagiello in command of a vast, united Polish-Lithuanian empire that included large swaths of modern Germany and Russia. It was also one of the most civilized places in Medieval Europe, complete with bicameral legislature, checks on royal power, religious tolerance (this is when Jewish people came to escape persecution further west), and a home to Renaissance art. Jagiello's vistory was one of two game-changing military events of the Fifteenth Century, the other being England's 1419 triumph over France at Agincourt, immortalized by William Shakespeare in his play Henry V. (Click here to see Kenneth Branagh delivering Henry's terrific speech to his troops.)
Personally, I had never heard of King Jagiella (damn American education system!!) until last week when I happened to come across this fantastic statue of him in New York City's Central Park. The work of Polish sculpter Stanislaw Ostrowski, it served originally as centerpiece for Poland's exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. But the outbreak of World War II, in which Poland was quickly devoured by Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, left it stranded in America. New York Mayor Fiorello Laguardia fell in love it and lobbied to keep it in New York City. In 1945, the Polish government-in-exile agreed, and it was moved to its current spot in Central Park.

Next time you're in the neighborhood, don't miss it. It's at the east end of Turtle Pond, near the Great Lawn, not far from Cleopatra's Needle, and an easy walk from the Upper East Side.