Friday, December 30, 2011

Next up, Rick Santorum.

OK, yes, I confess again.  I've met Rick Santorum, but also only once, and also having nothing to do with politics -- at least directly.  

Back during the 1990s, when I was working at the US Department of Agriculture as administrator of the Federal crop insurance program,  a problem came up involving Pennsylvania farmers.   The farmers had suffered crop losses and they complained to their United States Senator, then Rick Santorum, about how the government programs were covering the loss.  Santorum's office, in turn, asked that I come to Capitol Hill on behalf of USDA and brief him on the situation.

The result was a small, informal, half-hour meeting with Senator Santorum in his office.  What I remember most about it was how well it went.  Santorum was friendly and good-natured, but also focused and effective.  He had a bright young staff member specializing in agriculture programs and he let her take the lead on the technical points.  He listened, he asked good questions, he let people speak, and in the end he pressed us very strongly -- in a friendly way -- on how to get the best deal for his Pennsylvania farmers.   It was just what a Senator should do, and we ended up with a solution.

So what's the problem?  I always find it strange when political figures who come across as likeable and reasonable face-to-face on relatively small issues -- like agriculture programs affecting, in this case, a few dozen farmers -- can turn around and take positions on big things affecting large numbers of people that are simply mean-spirited and harmful.

Rick Santorum, whatever he says about limited government, has made a point of being the strongest voice in the current political contest for government intrusion into people's' private lives based on his religious beliefs -- be it Terri Schiavo (chief sponsor of the bill for Washington to interfere in her case), recognition of gay relationships (opposes both gay marriage and civil unions), permitting abortions even in pressing personal circumstances, and so on down the list.

Rick Santorum's own web page (click here to visit it) makes this unabashedly clear.  It touts his ties to the most pointed cultural advocates in the country:    "Sarah Palin praised Rick for his 'consistency on protecting the sanctity of life.' Mike Huckabee said he 'adores Rick Santorum’s conviction.' Glenn Beck called Rick Santorum the 'next George Washington,' and encouraged voters 'to take a look at him.' And Rush Limbaugh said it would be 'great' if Rick Santorum became President."   He makes no secret of fighting his campaign on behalf of religion.  Again quoting his web page:  "Rick understands that our freedom to practice our faith is not just under attack through the redefinition of marriage, but in nearly every facet of the popular culture."

Rick Santorum is now the latest Republican candidate to enjoy a surge in public opinion polls for the Iowa Caucuses.  (Click here for the latest from Real Clear Politics.)   Think I'm exaggerating?  Check out this video clip of Santorum discussing science and religion.  Yes, he is a very nice person and appears to be very sincere.  But is this who you want running public policy in the USA?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

REALITY CHECK: Newt Gingrich as historian?

OK, I confess.  Yes,  I've met Newt Gingrich.  But only once, and it had nothing to do with politics -- at least not directly.  

I happen to belong to a very fine organization called the Capitol Hill Civil War Roundtable, a proud coven of Washington, D.C.-area history zealots enamored with the Civil War.   Yes, that includes me. I love going to their meetings when I can.  They usually bring in a guest speaker, and they manage to attract some terrific ones -- authors of new Civil War books, expert guides from local Virginia civil war battlefields, staff experts from museums, so on.  

For a speaker, they can be a tough audience.  Everyone in the room is an expert, and if you make even the slightest mistake in describing a Civil War battle or personality, someone will always catch it.  (Full disclosure: I gave a talk to the group once about my own book DARK HORSE on the assassination of president James A. Garfield, focusing on Garfield's time in the Civil War, and it was great time, even if a few members made a point to stress that Garfield, as anyone should know, was only a very minor Civil War figure as compared to Winfield Scott Hancock, who opposed Garfield in the 1880 presidential election, who was much more important.)

In any event, one time, as its monthly guest, the group invited Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and current leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.  Gingrich, along with a fine co-author named William Forstchen, had just published a new book called Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War (2005) --  a "what if" story showing how, with a few key changes, fortunes at the famous 1863 battle easily could have changed, with Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia winning the day over the Union's Army of the Potomac.  It was the first of a trilogy that later would be followed by Grant Comes East (2006) and Never Call Retreat (2007).

As much as I hate to admit it, and as much as I may dislike his politics, to his credit, Speaker Gingrich did a very nice job that day talking about the Civil War and his book.  He knew his facts, he knew his story, and he knew his audience.  After a brief talk, he let the group pepper him with questions for almost an hour -- sharp, hard questions from people who really knew their Civil War stuff.  Gingrich was clearly in his element -- relaxed, engaging, interesting, and looking like he was clearly enjoying himself.

The book itself was generally well received among Civil War fans, even if somewhat slanted toward the South, and it made no pretense at scholarship (no footnotes or archive references, for instance).  Here's how Publisher's Weekly summed it up--   

"This well-executed alternative history imagines a Confederate victory at Gettysburg. Former House speaker Gingrich (Contract with America) and historical fiction author Forstchen (Down to the Sea) create a plausible scenario: Robert E. Lee resolves to command, rather than merely coordinate, the efforts of that gaggle of prima donnas known as the high command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Thus, when he leads them into battle against the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, he does not commit his soldiers to a desperate head-butting on the ground chosen by the Union's General Meade. Instead, he maneuvers around the Union flank, placing his tightly run army between Meade and Washington, D.C., scooping up Union supplies and forcing Meade to launch desperate attacks with disastrous results for the Union cause. 

"The authors show thorough knowledge of the people, weapons, tactics and ambience of the Civil War, though their portrayals of historical figures like Lee, Meade, Longstreet and Richard Ewell betray a certain bias (the Confederate men are noble and wise, the Union leaders hot-tempered and vindictive). The novel has a narrative drive and vigor that makes the climactic battle scene a real masterpiece of its kind (it's not for the weak of stomach). The military minutiae probably makes the book inaccessible to anyone who's not a Civil War buff or military fiction fan, but those two sizable groups will find this a veritable feast."

So does writing a first-rate Civil War book qualify somebody to be President of the United States?  Not really, and I'm definitely with the group that thinks Gingrich is too bombastic, erratic, self-absorbed, confrontational, and out of touch for the job -- before even starting on his positions on policy issues.   

Still, after you finish voting against him in the primary or caucus of your choice, don't hesitate for a minute about buying one of his Civil War books.  You'll be glad you did both things.   

Friday, December 23, 2011

REALITY CHECK: Who really is Ron Paul ??

Yes, it is amazing that the Republican Party is now on the verge of making Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) the front runner for its nomination for President of the United States.  Paul holds a clear edge in the upcoming Iowa Caucuses (click here for the latest polls from Real Clear Politics) and, if he wins there, he will be a clear, legitimate first-tier contender.

Why is this so strange?  Who, really, is Ron Paul?  Sometimes he talks like the ultimate peace-nik and civil libertarian; other times like a right wing ideologue ready to let poor people starve and sick people die.  He is always engaging, consistent, and unabashed.  Where is truth?

Take a listen to this video (above).  2012 is not the first time Ron Paul has run for President, and it was not always as a Republican.

Back in 1988, Congressman Paul, a practicing doctor (obstetrician) in Texas who had already served eight years on Capitol Hill (1976-1984), ran for President on the Libertarian Party ticket.  During that campaign, Paul received an invitation to match wits with the leading conservative intellectual of the day, William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review and author of the seminal book God and Man at Yale.  Buckley back then hosted a weekly TV show called Firing Line that was the cutting edge forum for conservatives.

The video above is the result.  During this one-hour program, Buckley grills Paul on what he considered a long list of Paul's unrealistic, radical views, including the abolition of the FBI, the CIA, the draft, the entire Federal income tax, and about 40 percent of the United States government.

Several things about it are striking:  (a) how well Paul defend's himself against Buckley's attacks, (b) the consistency between his views in 1988 and 2012, (c) the fact that Paul's views -- particularly on taxes -- that were considered so extreme by a conservative like Buckley have now become Republican mainstream and (d) that as recently as 1988, a major TV show in America could still present an intelligent, respectful, interesting, and thoughtful debate on these points.

Congressman/Doctor Paul won 432,179 popular votes for President as a Libertarian in 1988, about 0.5 percent of the total, and would then return to Congress in 1997.   Deep changes are taking place this year in the American body politic, and the emergence of libertarian Ron Paul as the Republican front runner for president may be the most dramatic sign yet.

Who, really, is Ron Paul?  Check out the video.  And if you like the first part, here are the links to Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

And if you happen to live in Iowa or New Hampshire, do not vote without seeing this first !   Enjoy.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Which was the worst presidential campaign in American history, from the viewpoint of the winning candidate?  How about 1880, when the bad blood and infighting got so intense that the new president was shot in the back four months into his term by a follower of a rival faction in his own party -- in an argument over patronage jobs?

Today, on the eve of what promises to be a rocky, ugly 2012 political year, we proudly announce the new Viral History Press LLC edition of DARK HORSE: The Surprise Election and Politicial Murder of President James A. Garfield.

For this year, it is exclusively at  

Check out possible savings here.

James Garfield's 1880 "dark horse" nomination for president after the longest-ever Republican convention (36 ballots), his victory in the closest-ever presidential popular vote, his struggle with feuding factions once elected, and its climax of violence, all produced one of the most dramatic presidential odysseys of the Gilded Age. The era's decency is seen contrasted against sharp and bitter partisanship, hauntingly familiar to modern America. But in this case, it ended in the pistol shots of assassin Charles Guiteau.

Featured on C-SPAN's "Booknotes" and NPR's "All Things Considered" when first released in 2003, DARK HORSE has since become a true underground classic in political circles.

Now we are making it available again. You can read the story yourself and share it with your politico friends.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Own Clyde Tolson's actual apartment ! Yes, this is FOR REAL !!

The Marlyn building, 3901 Cathedral Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. -- just a short walk from J. Edgar Hoover's own home on 30th Place, NW.

Yes it's true.  The actual apartment of Clyde Tolson, long-time friend, companion, associate (and more?) of long-time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, is now for sale and your's for the tantalizing, reduced price of $379,900.  Thanks to our friend Ryan Stroschein for sending us the link to this amazing real estate listing.  Here's how the agent describes it:

Hoover and Tolson with matching hats, 1950s.
          "Reduced 14K!  Historic 2 BR condo 
             w/ updated kitchen & Ba.  In
             James Goode's book Best Addresses"
             Unit 515 @ The Marlyn was a long
             term residence of FBI Dir. J. Edgar
             Hoover's closest colleague - Assoc.
             Dir. Clyde Tolson.  The unit 
             has a sense of openness & old world
             charm w/ a DR leading to step    
             down LR w/ a picture window
             to  enjoy sunset views. Garage
             pking & storage unit. Pets OK."

And yes, the apartment is just a short walk or drive from Hoover's own home during the period on 30th Place, NW.

Interested?  Here's a link to the real estate listing with lots of photos.  Happy shopping !!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

CONTEST: Who is your favorite rattlesnake? Does this sign remind you of someone? Send us a comment. We'll post the best ones.

Sign from a hiking trail at the Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve near San Diego, California.  They love their snakes there.  

Boss Tweed: A few more cartoons, from people besides Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly was not the only cartoonist to aim his pencil at William M. Tweed, Boss of Tammany Hall.  When the scandal broke in 1871 after The New-York Times published proof of massive frauds by Tweed and his circle, every paper in town with an artist on staff joined the frenzy.  Here are few samples:

This unsigned, front-page drawing from the Evening Telegram, a friendly newspaper (that was taking plenty of subsidy money from City Hall), shows Tweed before the scandal, celebrating New Year's Eve at a party for his Tammany crowd at the New York Academy of Music on Union Square.   

Just a few months later, the same Evening Telegram changed its tune after the Tweed frauds became public knowledge.  Holding onto the City Treasury vault are the core members of Tweed's Ring: (from left) City Chamberlain Peter ("Brains") Sweeny,  Comptroller Richard ("Slippery Dick") Connolly, Tweed, and the mayor, A. Oakey Hall. 

As the scandal worsened, Sweeny and Hall tried to save themselves by blaming Connolly, the Comptroller, for the massive thefts.  Here, they try to convince Connolly (seated in the center) to take the fall by resigning his post,  thereby admitting guilt.  Connolly, of course, refuses.  "Tamani Tycooni invite Connolli to Hari-Kari -- No-go-he."   From Frank Leslie's Illustrated, October 7, 1871.

In the end, all four of the Ring members are forced out, though only Tweed spends time in prison.  Sweeny and Connolly flee to Europe and Hall wins an acquittal after three criminal trials.  This drawing by artist A. Hoyt shows Tweed leading them off into the subset.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A rare Tweed photo -- at his clubhouse in Greenwich, Connecticut

Yes, that's Boss Tweed.  He's the one with the beard, sitting up front in the middle, a white hat in his lap, surrounded by his friends.  Tweed had so, so very many friends back then, in 1870 -- before they all abandoned him in the scandal.

But surprisingly, this is not New York  City.  By 1870, as Tweed sat at his very pinnacle of power as supreme leader of New York's political and financial worlds, having made himself filthy rich from years of graft, Tweed had largely moved his summer headquarters away from  his usual Manhattan haunts -- his law office on Duane Street and his mansion on Fifth Avenue at 43rd -- to Greenwich, Connecticut. 
Tweed owned two steam-powered yachts (even though he got constantly sea-sick and hated being on the water) to make the quick trip from lower Manhattan across the Long Island Sound to Greenwich.   In Greenwich, he owned a 40-acre estate with wide green lawns and gardens.  And on a beautiful, sunny inlet called Indian Harbor, he founded his own playhouse-- the Americus Club -- where he served as president.

Tweed's political friends from New York City all jumped at the chance to join him there.  They all loved making the summer weekend pilgrammages to Greenwich.  By all accounts, they had a wonderful time and lots of fun -- with swimming, boat races, fancy dinners, lots of music, brandy and cigars.  They laughed and talked and told stories until the late night hours.  

Back in New York, the high society Union League and Manhattan Clubs would never allow these grubby politicians inside, but Tweed happily relished their company.

Also back in New York, forces were secretly converging during that summer of 1870 to destroy Tweed's life: Thomas Nast's relentless stream of humiliating cartoons, the relentless attacks by the New York Times (which soon would obtain a stolen copy of the Tweed Ring's secret account books, disclosing an amazing record of theft and kickbacks),  and secret plotting by enemies inside his own camp.  Within a year, Tweed would be toppled from power.  Within two years, he would be in prison.  After that, he would never walk free again, and his reputation would be blackened for over a century.

But look at Tweed on this pretty summer day in 1870.  He looks as if he didn't have a care in the world, surrounded by friends at his Greenwich summer retreat. 

If only time could have stopped for him at that moment.

Thanks to our friend Alan Bennett for finding this photo on Greenwich Nostalgia group page on Facebook.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Thomas Nast cartoons -- some appetizers

Thomas Nast in the early 1870s, about the time of his
Tweed cartoons.

You can't tell the story of New York's Boss Tweed, who ruled the City with greed and grandeur in the years after the Civil War and was driven from power in a citizens' uprising in 1872, without the fantastic drawings of Thomas Nast -- the brilliant, young cartoonist for Harper's Weekly.    

Here are a few appetizer samples.

Click here for more of the story -- from our newly-reissued book Boss Tweed: the Corrupt Pol who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York.

"As long as I count the ballots, what are you going to do about it?"  This is the most famous quote attibuted to Tweed.  In truth, there is no evidence that he ever said it.  Most likely, Nast simply made it up to get people mad at the Boss.   

In 1871, Tweed chose these three leading New York businessmen -- John Jacob Astor III, Moses Taylor, and Marshall O. Roberts -- to examine the City's financial books.  The three spent just six hours at it, looked only at the papers Tweed showed them, and didn't ask any questions.  Based on this, they gave the City's finances a clean bill of health -- somehow missing over $100 million in frauds.  Nast dismissed them as "Three Blind Mice."    

This cartoon, from June 1871, is the first where Nast uses the famous quote "What are you going to do about it?"

Notice the big object on the front of Tweed's shirt, looking big as a grapefruit.  It is a 10.5-carat diamond pin costing that some of Tweed's friends game him that year as a Christmas present.  It cost $15,500 in 1871 dollars -- about half a million in modern money.  Nast made it a regular feature.  

Here is Tweed stealing from the Public Treasury to pay off his poor, immigrant supporters.  Tweed was no Robin Hood.  He stole from the rich, but kept most of it for himself and his friends.  Even so, the poor got a better deal from Tweed than from anyone else.