Posted by: cousindampier | 8 November 2016

Was That Election Like This One, Part II: 1892 – 2012

There are fewer accusations of prostitution, significantly more landslides, and at least one JFK boner joke to read about while you wait for the Florida exit polls.

ouldxyh

1896: On one side of the 1896 election, we have a candidate backed by a organized, developed, and well-funded campaign. On the other, we a populist who travels through the country giving speech after speech, working to rouse his base through words and personality.

William McKinley and William Jennings Bryani are perfect candidates for 1896. Each showed a segment of society and a vision of where American was headed.

Beyond the surface, the more dissimilar 2016 and 1896 become. The key reason is Bryan. The semi-populist Democratic nominee based his political tactics around his skills as an orator and rousing a popular base, but his campaign actually argued for something, for a vision of America, and not just against the status quo (like 2016).

Every campaign argues against something. A nominee will either make the argument against the opposing candidate or against the status quo of the President in office. Both Bryan and William McKinley, however, argued for their respective visions of America. Trump is not an outlier in this sense – both the 1840 and 1848 were campaigns in which the Whig Party dodged real issues as much as possible, and the Cleveland-Blaine battle of 1884ii was a personal referendum on each candidate. Trump dodging the issues and focusing instead on character attacks against Clinton and rousing populist sentiment remains a few steps away from the 1896 contest, even if Bryan used a similar strategy.

Anyways, McKinley wins in a huge landslide by promising the gold standard and high tariffs and he doesn’t have to leave home.

Fun Fact: According to the latest Presidential Rankings, McKinley comes in at 21 which means he is +1 PARiii in rank or +.47 PAR in rating. Brookings has John Quincy Adams as the replacement level president though, which seems suspicious.

1900: McKinley and Bryan run against each other again, and Bryan’s position is weaker than 1896. Silver is less of an issue with a growing economy, and McKinley is now a successful war president. McKinley has another asset – Theodore Roosevelt is the new vice-presidential nominee, and Roosevelt can match Bryan in oratory skill.

McKinley wins, proceeds to die, and renowned knife-fighter Roosevelt becomes President.

teddy

Relation to 2016: Very little. If you squint, the context looks similar – a recovering economy finally turning the corner. However, the Spanish-American war was seen as a success, while Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Islamic State are not yet ended, much less successful. Comparing Roosevelt to any other candidate is generally frail, but in context – a vice-presidential candidate who can take the fight to the opposing presidential candidate – isn’t really there.

Fun Fact: Six times have the same two candidates come to blows two elections in a row, and 1900 was the fifth of these.iv

1904: Theodore Roosevelt beats Alton Parker, as they both basically run on the same platform. SPOILER ALERT: Elections involving Roosevelts are devoid of drama.

Relation to 2016: None. Seriously, none. It was a little dirty but not out of the ordinary.

Fun Fact: Teddy became the first former Vice-President to ascend to the office of President during the middle of a term and then go on to win his own term outright. Former VP’s who moved up the chain: Tyler, Fillmore, Johnson and Arthur. None would serve again. VP’s after Roosevelt who moved up: Coolidge, Truman, LBJ and Ford. Only Ford failed to win re-election.

The lesson: Roosevelt really did make the President a more visible, powerful office.

1908: WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT HAS A COW AS A WHITE HOUSE PET.

pauline-taft-pet-cow

That is all.

Oh, and William Jennings Bryan runs again and loses.

Relation to 2016: Bryan is one of the more incredible figures in American history – he worked for years on causes he believed in and they were widely accepted (McKinley only garnered 51% of the vote over him in 1900).v Yet, while his ideas were popular, they always fell just short. He has a number of dubious distinctions – my favourite being that he is supposedly the basis of the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz.

For all the good things he worked for, his historical legacy is decisive. He was for the continued disenfranchisement of Black Americans, but he inspired a generation of leaders in the Democratic Party, with Truman citing Bryan as the reason why liberalism remained alive in the mid-20th Century. Questions continue about how he really viewed working Americans – was he a full champion of their cause, or simply a populist looking to get elected?

He is often forgotten, as most losing candidates are. Yet his legacy runs through the veins of both parties.

Anyways, Donald Trump is no William Jennings Bryan. 

Fun Fact: Linked in the above article is the story of how the Washington Post interviewed the cow.  That alone would fit in this election. 

1912: In the closest a true third party ever comes to winning the White House, Woodrow Wilson defeats Teddy Roosevelt (Progressive) and William Howard Taft (Republican) to become the first Democrat elected since Cleveland in 1892.

1912 ranks along with 1828 as one of the most fascinating elections – minus the prostitution and slavery accusations.vi The Republican Party of 1912 controls the electoral landscape – Wilson is the only Democrat who serves as President between 1896 (Cleveland) and 1932 (FDR). The GOP has such a dominant position, the only way it can lose is if the party tears itself apart, which it proceeds to do. Taft and the conservatives clash with Roosevelt and the progressives, and with both men running, a Democratic victory becomes assured.

Relation to 2016: Somewhat. The Republican Party of today does not have the popularity nor strength of 1912, but if Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz, or John Kasich stayed in the race, it would look similar to this. Except the 2016 version would be about who can say the most racist things, instead of the 1912 issues of tariffs and workers rights.

Fun Fact: Thomas Woodrow Wilson was kind of a racist asshole! 

1916: For all his issues not liking people of different colour, Wilson was deceptive (or, perhaps, a good) politician. His core campaign issue was his ability to keep America out of the First World War; yet he believed that with the growing conflict, if he lost, it would be imprudent to keep Charles Hughes waiting and devised a plan to usher him into the White House as soon as possible.vii He pushed for a stronger military while claiming progressive ideas from the GOP.

1916 was closer than most elections of the era. Wilson faced the unique situation of having a larger share of the popular vote than in 1912, but far fewer electoral votes – he squeaked by Hughes by just 23 electoral votes, the sixth closest election in American history.viii

Relation to 2016: Very little. Mexico was in revolt and everyone in Europe was shooting everyone else.

Fun Fact: Charles Hughes was a sitting Supreme Court Justice when he decided to run. He gave up his seat, ran for President, lost, and later served as Chief Justice.

1920: 1920 was the year without a President. While working up support for the Treaty of Versailles during the summer and fall of 1919, he collapsed and never fully recovered. His wife, Edith, worked as his surrogate.

The decline of Wilson corresponded with a decline in the economy, a rise in social unrest, and a question of the American character (stay open to the world or close back up). His personality and popularity may have forced American involvement in the League of Nations, but without his backing the project was doomed, as was the Democratic party. Warren Harding – he of Blink fame – took up the Republican mantle and trounced James M. Cox in the largest popular-vote victory in recorded American history.

Relation to 2016: Very little. Much like Stella, Harding and the Republicans got their groove back. The GOP peaked again during the 1920’s beginning with Harding’s landslide.

Fun Fact: Teddy Roosevelt reacted to his defeat in 1912 like any normal man: he went on an expedition to the Amazon. While there, his malaria flared up (due to yellow fever, contracted from a wound he received after leaping into the river to save a pair of canoes). He was bothered by this the rest of his life, and it prevented him from seeking the Republican nomination of 1920. When he died in 1919, leaving the Republicans without a standard bearer, the Democrats seized on the opportunity and nominated his distant cousin, Franklin, as the vice-presidential nominee.  

Theodore Roosevelt is the reason Jules had that wallet. 

1924: Harding dies in 1923, which came as a surprise and really shouldn’t have. Keeping something like seventy-eight scandals and an affair hidden from the public was much easier in 1920 than it is today, but all the stress took a toll on Harding. Fortunately, he had a well-spoken and garrulous Vice President in Calvin Coolidge who took over and handily defeated a divided Democratic Party in 1924.

Relation to 2016: Very little. The public knew little about Harding’s transgressions and he remained popular after his death. Coolidge rode excellent credentials and an incredibly popular Republican wave to victory.

Fun Fact: This is the end of the Confederate voting block – the last time a winning candidate takes none of the states from the Confederate South.

1928: The 1920’s is starting to feel like the Madison/Monroe/“Era of Good Feelings” elections – predictable.

So thank goodness for 1928. Coolidge refuses to run again – tells absolutely nobody of this decision until he hands his secretary a press release saying concisely “I do not choose to run for President in 1928,” and then at the press conference he gives the media copies of his statement and refuses to speak about it. The Republicans turn to Herbert Hoover, Commerce Secretary and famous inventor of household cleaning goods, while the Democrats counter with Al Smith.

Smith is Catholic and anti-prohibition, as the Democrats were chasing that all important drinkers vote. His nomination put the Democrats between a rock and a hard place – while there is a wealth of pro-Catholic sentiment, he simultaneously faces the broadside of anti-Catholic conspiracy.

That conspiracy grows fast and wild. The Klan gets involved, terrorizing a Smith campaign trip. Protestants across the country are told if Smith gets elected, marriages will be annulled, and while Hoover himself claims his opponent’s religion has no bearing on the contest, the Republican Party pushes the Catholic narrative out to hide their man’s straightforward aloofness.

Relation to 2016: Lots. The virulence against the Smith campaign was similar in nature to the populism excited by Trump, and not just because the Klan gets involved.ix On some level, all political campaigns are dirty and involve lies; fewer devolve to activating baser group-mentality truths about human nature, an us-vs-them mentality which paints the other candidate as morally vacant and evil. Smith faced a lot of this in 1928.

Oh, and the economy was about to implode.

Fun Fact: Blacks and the Klan find themselves on the side of Hoover. While the Klan hated Catholics, Black Americas thought Hoover to be anti-segregation at worst, and possibly supportive of integration.

Also Babe Ruth campaigned for Smith in such a way as to make all future sports endorsements pointless:

Unfortunately, Ruth wasn’t the most dependable spokesman. He would sometimes appear in his undershirt, holding a mug of beer in one hand and a spare rib in the other. Worse, if he met with any dissent while praising Smith, he would snarl, “If that’s the way you feel, the hell with you!” and stagger back inside. 

If athletes aren’t going to campaign drunk, then why campaign at all

1932: The economy implodes in 1929. Franklin Roosevelt wins in a landslide.

Relation to 2016: Very little. There’s not much to say here. Hoover ran again because he controlled the Republican Party, but the heyday of the GOP was over. They wouldn’t win a Presidential election again until 1952. It is unclear what Hoover really thought – obviously that he could fix the country, but the vast majority of Americans blamed him for the collapse. It would be similar to 2008 if the race was Obama vs. Bush instead of McCain. 

One event does stand out – Hoover was so unpopular in the GOP that some prominent Republicans refused to back him, and others openly spoke of a Roosevelt victory.

Fun Fact: Herbert Hoover oversaw the total and utter meltdown of the American economy and the beginnings of a worldwide depression and still ran for office.

1936: FDR ran again, facing off against Alf Landon. The race is close, surprisingly so until the first weekend in October, when NBC sues Landon for using the ‘Alf’ theme song without permission. This marks the first ever ‘October Surprise.’

Just kidding. Landon disappears about halfway through the campaign and FDR wins every state except Maine and Vermont.

Relation to 2016: I can’t find any. Maybe if Obama ran against Trump – that might cause a 1936 type of landslide.

Fun Fact: College football teams use FDR as an example when scheduling teams to play during the upcoming season. “He ran against Hoover and Alf Landon? Lets schedule Bourgeoisie State and the U.S. Virgin Islands junior varsity swimming team!”

Also George Gallup starts asking people lots of questions, Nate Silver correctly predicts every state except Vermont, and Peggy Noonan claims that Landon “can pull this thing out of the hat” with a high Kansas turnout on election day.

At least Landon had awesome campaign buttons:

1940: Hindsight is everything, and it makes 1940 a strange election. It is clear that the war going on in Europe, Africa, Asia, Antarctica, the North Pole, and Mars is going to reach American shores soon, but Americans don’t believe that. FDR certainly does, but he is forced to campaign on an isolationist message while simultaneously quietly working the public to prepare them for war. His opponent is Wendell Wilkie, who looks like Don Draper’s father.

FDR eventually wins, but not as easily as ’32 or ’36. Wilkie is a strong campaigner; while he faces an uphill battle in regards to FDR’s popularity and lingering memories of the Depression, he works to expand the Republican map and does so in the Midwest.

Relation to 2016: Very little. With an imminent war, popular president, and lingering distrust of big business, 1940 is a poor guide for the 2016 campaign.

Fun Fact: In 1940, the Republican Party won ten times the electoral votes compared to 1936, and they still lost by 367.

1944: A dying FDR picks Harry Truman as his vice-president and possible successor and runs against Thomas Dewey. Dewey fights hard, expands the electoral map for Republicans, and still loses by 300 electoral votes.

Relation to 2016: None. Running against a successful war-time President is nearly impossible.

Fun Fact: After 1944, pundits are able to start referring to ‘temperament’ and ‘nuclear codes’ and ‘finger on the button’ and America is worse for having to listen to them, especially this year.

1948: Fucking Thomas Dewey runs a great race, looks poised to win, and loses at the last minute to Truman, and forces all of us to endure years of ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ references in regards to a candidates chances. He also gives rise to Peggy Noonan. In a just world, he either loses in a landslide or wins and we avoid this catchall.

Dewey Defeats Truman Newspaper

We will see this image until the End of Days.

Relation to 2016: It depends on how election day goes, but dammit if there’s not hope!

Fun Fact: By 1948, America was on the up! Things were looking nice, recovery was cruising along, and Truman was making inroads on segregation. Death and taxes may be the only two certainties in life according to some, but there is a third, little known subsection to that rule:

We can’t have nice things.

And so Strom Thurmond runs for President as a Dixiecrat.

1952: Truman discovers that while it is hard to defeat a successful war president, it is easy to run against a not-successful war president, and the Korean War is going…poorly. Truman fires MacArthur in early 1951, and while America is no longer losing, they certainly are not winning in 1952. Truman toys with the idea of running again – though the 22nd Amendmentx is now law, Truman is exempt from it (the last President with the chance to run for a third term until President Trump overturns the Constitution in 2024). Adlai Setevenson emerges from the Democratic mess.

The Republicans see their chance and grab onto war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, who defeats Stevenson, sweeping everywhere but the deep south and ushers in an era of gentlemanly goodwill for all.

Relation to 2016: Very Little. Ike ran against the war in Korea and Truman’s Cold War policies; Stevenson seemed to never really commit to running.

Fun Fact: Truman had to relieve Eisenhower of his rank in order for Ike to run for office.

1956: REMATCH! The final rematch in American history.

*please don’t let 2020 be a rematch*

Ike and Stephenson square off again and it is never really a contest. Ike is remains incredibly popular – war hero status and a growing economy will do that to a President. Just look at Ike’s approval ratings

ike-2

Stevenson retained a strong following amongst Democrats, and he campaigned heavily, but it was never a contest.

Relation to 2016: None. A popular incumbent facing off against the same rival is about as boring and opposite from 2016 as we can get.

Fun Fact: This is the last 48-state election. Alaska and Hawai’i would make Richard Nixon’s life hell in 1960.

1960: Eisenhower’s handpicked successor is Richard Nixon, who campaigns with a pledge to visit all fifty states. His opponent is Democrat John F. Kennedy, who is a bit of an underdog in the primary and runs a tight race with Nixon throughout the campaign – the race was rarely more than five points apart.

A lot of circumstance dominated the race. Nixon’s pledge hits a bump when he hurts his knee and spends two weeks in the hospital. Kennedy’s VP nominee – Lyndon Baines Johnson – was an ambivalent choice, in terms of pairing, but LBJ remains one of the best campaigners in American history. The two candidates were simultaneously faced with the medium of television. JFK’s youthful appearance famously helped him.

Kennedy won – barely – and Nixon’s choice to not contest the results of the election placed him in good standing until he actually won in 1968 and then tried to lie to everyone.

Relation to 2016: Somewhat. Comparing the issues of 2016 and 1960 – or any Cold War election – is difficult because of the overarching American strategy, but both elections have an element of redefining an enemy and focusing on him. JFK famously ran with the idea of a bomber gap, claiming Ike let America fall behind on defense.

The race was also often close, as 2016 has been at times, but that is also what makes 2016 hard to compare. The bottom fell out from Trump, but he has worked his way back to within striking distance.

Fun Fact: Early in his term, JFK dares America by saying, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

America thinks he is talking about getting to the moon in space and we start launching giant rockets whereas JFK is just talking about seeing Marilyn Monroe naked.

1964: Kennedy dies in 1963 and Johnson takes office. Riding the popularity and mourning of JFK, he runs in 1964 with a huge approval rating and faces one of the most unpopular nominees since the Great Depression, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater proceeds to win six states and under 40% of the popular vote.

He is, however, the first Republican to ever win Georgia, and sets off a realignment within the GOP culminating in Reagan. Who leads to Bush. Who leads to Trump.

Relation to 2016: Similar. Goldwater was an unpopular Republican nominee, on the extreme edges of the Party. He was unwilling to support Civil Rights legislation, losing the votes of Black Americans in the process, and was either crazy or willing to use threat of nuclear activity on the Soviet Union. Johnson easily painted him into a corner in which Goldwater was unable to broaden his support.

Party dynamics are different today than 1964 – most Republicans came home to Trump instead of look elsewhere, but both Goldwater and Trump ran on a relatively specific part of the party base.

Fun Fact:

1968:

The New Deal Coalition is used to refer to the structure FDR created in 1932 to win election; that structure was passed down to Truman and then Stevenson, to Kennedy and Johnson. 1968 is the year where the Coalition is thought to end.

And it was a chaotic year. Johnson’s second term is full of promise which never sees the light of day. Vietnam is sucking more and more American troops into Asia with little result. The pushback against the Civil Rights Acts are in full swing and 1968 sees both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy gunned down. A major shift in party dynamics is occurring as well – Nixon bases his comeback strategy on winning the south, and the modern political map we see today dates from 1968.

After RFK’s assassination, the Democrats are left without a standard bearer. Humphrey is a leader in the party but the Democrats are splitting on the Vietnam War, and the anti-war side of the party sees Humphrey as an extension of LBJ – and therefore the war. The 1968 Democratic Convention is combustible to begin with and it explodes; images of the Chicago Police beating protesters are shown worldwide. Humphrey wins the nomination of the Party, but throughout his campaign the support of the party is slow to arrive.

So Humphrey is off to a hard start and Nixon has the united Republican Party behind him and a strategy to win, and then the fun begins.

LBJ is working to end the war, and ends up suspending bombing and calling for peace talks in October 1968 – the first true October Surprisexi. Humphrey is polling close to Nixon at this point, and Nixon is growing wary. He sees this as an attempt to throw the election to Humphrey, and counters with a secret promise to the leader of South Vietnam, telling him to not attend the peace conference and that under Nixon, South Vietnam will get better terms.

LBJ finds out and is irate. He passes the information to Humphrey, who does nothing with it. Nixon goes on to win a close election, though he loses the south to George Wallace.

Relation to 2016: Somewhat. Trump’s dealings with Russia harken to Nixon’s dealings with South Vietnam, and Clinton does show some similarities to Humphrey, especially with the difficulty in pulling the left-leaning part of the party onboard her campaign. However, the Vietnam context makes any comparisons seem shallow.

Fun Fact:

1972: Nixon remains somewhat popular, with an approval rating hovering between 50 and 60%. He runs against George McGovern in a mirror image of the 1964 race – Nixon, the popular incumbent, and McGovern, the ideologue extremist. McGovern wins Massachusetts and DC, and Nixon wins nearly everywhere else.

In the process of completing one of the most devastating electoral landslides in American History, Nixon sends agents to break into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate hotel. While noting came of it at first, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman eventually broke the story, leading to Nixon’s downfall and resignation.

Relation to 2016: None. Too much of a landslide.

Fun Fact: 

I wanted the final scene from the movie and couldn’t find it.

1976: No winners emerged from 1976 – literally.

Nixon’s Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign in 1973 after a bribery scandal broke. Nixon asks Gerald Ford to take his place, as Ford is seen by the public as a man with integrity. When Nixon resigns a year later, Ford becomes President – the only man to do so having never been elected President nor Vice-President.

He is beset by problems. The economy is beginning to slow, South Vietnam is falling apart, and he decides to pardon Nixon in an effort to move on from the Watergate scandal. Running against Jimmy Carter in 1968, Ford is blamed for both the nation’s problems and a corrupt bargain to become President, and Carter’s campaign of being a Washington outsider wins him the office.

Relation to 2016: Very little, as 1976 was on the coattails of the least popular president of all time.

Fun Fact: Each of the four candidates in this race would go on to lose a Presidential election – Ford loses in 1976. His running mate is Bob Dole, who loses in 1996. Carter would lose the 1980 election, and his running mate – Walter Mondale – will go on to lose in 1984.

1980: The more interesting race in 1980 is for the Democratic nomination, as Ted Kennedy gives Carter a very difficult time. Carter eventually wins and Kennedy gives one of the best campaign speeches of all time. On the other side stood Ronald Reagan, an economy on the verge of depression, and the Hostage Crisis in Iran.

Reagan wins easily, ushering in a decade of Republican domination.

Relation to 2016: None in the general campaign. The primary races of 1976 and 1980 both have some ties to 2016, however. Ford was pushed to the brink by Reagan in ’76, and Carter by Kennedy. Both lost, which may hold over to the Cruz-Trump ending of the 2016 Republican race (though it did not the 2008 Democratic primary).

Fun Fact: After retirement, most presidents find they get an aircraft carrier named after them. This was true for FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Ford, Reagan, H.W. Bush. As a former submariner, Carter got a sub named after him instead.xii

1984: Walter Mondale runs against Reagan and wins Minnesota and DC.

Relation to 2016: None. It was a blowout loss for the Democrats.

Fun Fact: These 1980’s elections are boring.

1988: Michael Dukakis revolutionizes politics with his radical Canada strategy, where he attempts to win only states along the Canadian border. He loses to George H.W. Bush, 426-111.

Relation to 2016: None. The Republican Presidential machine was at its apex, and the party was about to undergo another revolution.

Fun Fact: This Photo:

michael_dukakis_in_tank

It will never cease to be amusing.

1992: George H.W. Bush manages to break a long-held American truth: successful wartime Presidents never lose, and unsuccessful wartime presidents always lose. By 1992, HW has seen the collapse of the Soviet Union and successfully prosecuted the First Gulf War, but the economy begins to tank in 1992. Bush also breaks with the Republican Party and offers a budget where he – gasp – raises taxes. This is anathema to the GOP after the Reagan years.

On the other side, the Democrats nominate popular southern-charmer William Jefferson Clinton, only recently emerging from some sort of sexual harassment allegation. They pair him with Al Gore and go on to prove that if you have an accent of any sort, secret doors will open for you in America.

Clinton’s victory is fascinating in hindsight. Bush had a number of advantages and seemingly happened to be the wrong candidate for the wrong time. The economic downturn hurt him, as did the rise of Ross Perot, who ran as a third-party candidate. His character attacks against Clinton did not stick but within a decade they would easily have done so. The rise of the moral Republican Right was beginning in 1992, but was not full force.

Meanwhile, Clinton just looked at us and we swooned.

Relation to 2016: Very Little. Aside from the Clinton connection, 1992 holds few parallels for 2016. Both candidates were experienced, the economy was the main issue, and there was a popular third party to deal with.

Fun Fact: HW wrote Clinton a heartwarming letter upon his inauguration, going to show that politics isn’t full of deplorables.

1996: After seeing him on an episode of Family Guy, the Republicans nominate Bob Dole to run against Clinton. The Democrats had lost the House and Senate in the 1992 Republican Revolution and Clinton was thought to be vulnerable; but the mid-90’s economic recovery solidified his Presidency, even as Newt Gingrich was fucking everything up.

Relation to 2016: Somewhat. The partisan divide in 2016 dates back to the 1992 mid-term elections, which brings forth a Republican Congress unlike any seen before – radical, unwilling to compromise, and angry. Dole is not that brand of Republican – he harkens back to an older era of politics where parties get along, and his candidacy is a passing-the-torch type moment, only instead of holding the torch high, the Republicans use it to try and burn everything down.

Fun Fact: The reason Carter was a one-term President was because his initials are bad. Democratic Presidents since the Depression: FDR, HST, JFK, LBJ, WJC…and Jimmy Carter.

2000: George W. Bush and Al Gore and I don’t want to think about how this election might be similar either. Let’s move on.

2004: The Democrats nominate John Kerry, who is immediately attacked over his war record…and the attacks manage to stick. Bush is running as a recently successful war president – his near 100% approval ratings post 9/11 were declining, but still hovering around 50%. More the point, Iraq has not yet descended into chaos and Afghanistan looks like it will not be a problem either.

Much like 1812, the lesson here is to win re-election before they burn the White House. Or throw your invasion plans to hell.

Relation to 2016: Somewhat. In other circumstances, the Kerry-Bush campaign would be fascinating. One experienced, well-respected politician running against a relatively popular incumbent President. It was not that environment though. Bush worked to portray Kerry as weak on defense, which is the exact reason Democrats chose him to run; Kerry was never fully able to find his legs and the night was over early on election day after Kerry lost both Ohio and Florida.

Fun Fact: Obama gives the 2004 DNC Keynote address, and everything changes.

2008: Obama faces off against John McCain.

Relation to 2016: Very Similar, with one key difference. In 2008, the GOP didn’t know what it wanted to be. Bush was massively unpopular, though his final two years were the best of his term. Cheney wasn’t going to run (he was liked less than Bush) and there was no Republican waiting in the wings. McCain was an old Republican veteran who ran against Bush in the 2000 primaries, but the Party was starting to split along domestic lines. Conservative Republicans pushed against all the social change happening within the country and for a more isolationist America, all the while praising Reagan; meanwhile the Reganites were beginning to feel pushed away from the party as it moved more extreme and further away form mainstream Americans. These were not surface level changes yet, just inklings of what was to come.

Oh, and the economy was self-immolating and threatening a worldwide depression.

Fun Fact: The only way 2016 would be better is if Trump had picked Sarah Palin as his Vice President.

2012: Obama runs for re-election against Mitt Romney in an election Democrats will feel awful about for decades to come.

Obama is not a given for re-election. Pushing through the Health Care Act saps into his popularity, and though he manages to wind down Iraq and Afghanistan and get Osama Bin Ladin, those wars are not completely over yet. The economy is doing better, but unemployment is still high, and part of the Obama message is “We’re on the right track.”

Meanwhile, Romney is a standard Republican and is vilified by the left for being out of touch, a wealthy plutocrat with no knowledge of what middle America is going through through every day. He is attacked for being too scripted and moving from position to position on the issues like he is playing defense in basketball.

He loses – in the race Peggy Noonan actually calls into question on election day – and Obama won and America moved on believing that we’d never think of it again.

And then 2016 happens, and Romney emerges as the leader of the Never Trump movement.

The Presidential cycle of 2012 holds few lessons for 2016 (the Congressional Cycles hold a lot of lessons about what Democrats should have expected). But the idea that Mitt Romney – the most recent Republican candidate for President, would lead a charge against his own party is not something one could see coming in 2012, and it is a fantastically difficult position to take.

Romney ran against Obama and essentially wanted to do the opposite of what Obama did from 2012-16. Hillary is not going to be the same, but she will, broadly, continue a lot of Obama policies, and Romney is saying that she is a better candidate because she won’t bring about the downfall of the Republic.

Who knows how much effect his actions will have. This is not Alexander Hamilton throwing the election to his hated rival Jefferson, nor Henry Clay working to get a cabinet position under Adams, but it is in the same vein as those two individuals. In a different era, with a less black and white electorate, it would be a Roosevelt maneuver, running against your own party because it has moved too conservative.

Either way, Romney – and the others like him who have disavowed Trump – have decided that the country is more important than their preferred policies; and America is strong enough to survive four years of someone they disagree with.

**

2016 is unlike any other specific election because of one reason: Trump. He is a radical candidate, which knocks 80% of elections off the table, but when you combine his personal issues, a divided electorate with no third-party outlet, and a relatively unpopular Democrat, the election stands in its own tier. Other elections have been just as crazy in their own right – along with the contests in 1800, 1828, 1860xiii, 1884, 1912 and 1968, this year’s campaign fits in with those as the craziest elections in American history.

This year is not a one-off election. It is not unique and it is not without historical precedent. The partisan divide and black-vs-white outlook today dates back to the Republican Revolution of 1992, and from there to the 1976 Republican primary, and from there to the 1964 Presidential election and from there to the Republican collapse in 1932 – and this is only focusing on the political aspect. Take into account any number of social, economic, and foreign changes and that mix gets more difficult to map.

It is the general lesson of American politics. We may drift to the extremes, but we will always snap back towards the center. One party may win six elections in a row, but it does not mean that party has figured it out; it is far more likely to mean that party has reached its apex.

The problem with this election, as pointed out by the Keepin’ it 1600 crew, is how close it all has come. Trump is an undisciplined fascist who, at the time of this writing, may still win. If he doesn’t, he is going to get over 40% of the vote and carry 200+ electoral votes. What happens if a disciplined fascist takes hold?

Let’s go back eighty years to 1933. Franklin Roosevelt is just elected and is sorting through the Depression. To get elected in 1932, Roosevelt has the support of Huey Long, a former governor of Louisiana and current Senator. Long is a left-wing populist ideologue. If Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had a love child, it may well be Huey Long.

Roosevelt isn’t comfortable with Long and calls him one of the two most dangerous men in America – and he is not entirely wrong in doing so. Long holds a wide network of devoted supporters who hang on his every word. He is a great speaker, able to motivate people through his rousing speeches. He essentially controls Louisiana, and at some point in 1933 he begins to split with Roosevelt and starts to lay the groundwork for his own Presidential campaign in 1936. He wants a wealth redistribution, net asset taxes, and more spending on public works; and in the height of the Depression this begins to spiral into antisemitism and egomania.

Long is assassinated in 1935, and a race against a popular Roosevelt is probably a poor idea in the first place, but the popularity of his positions and the Democrats ability to take him under their umbrella, thinking they can assimilate him is a cautious tale for 2016. People can change; demagogues often do not, and to expect that one will after his election is a folly proven by history.

i I think this is the first year where both candidates have the same name

ii The Cleveland-Blaine battle of 1884 is about as exciting as a Jets-Browns mid-December matchup to decide the fifth overall pick.

iiiPresident Above Replacement

iv 1800, 1828, 1840, 1892, 1900, 1956.

v WJB garnered just over 45%

vi Go and read the 1828 section again. It’s certifiably insane.

vii Wilson would nominate Hughes to be Secretary of State, and upon his confirmation, Wilson and his vice-president would resign. The modern line of succession – which includes the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate – came into being in 1945.

viiiCounting the draws in 1800 and 1824 here.

ixLet’s pause for a moment here and get a drink as we all realize that the Klan is still a thing.

x So you don’t have to google: Presidential Term Limits

xiI lied to you earlier.

xiiI just discovered that LBJ is getting a Zumwalt-class destroyer named after him. The Navy either has an amazing sense of irony or no historical knowledge.

xiiiWe didn’t talk much about 1860, but it caused a Civil War.
Posted by: cousindampier | 8 November 2016

Was That Election like This One, Part I: 1788 – 1892

Election years bring out the most virulent part of the American psyche.  2016 is almost over, and the overwhelming theme seems to be “we seriously cannot handle any more of this.”

The fun part of American elections, however, is that a lot of what happens today has come before.  Events might be specific to an individual year, but the theme is there.  The violence and personal attacks of 2016 are nothing compared to the slander of 1828, and the personal scandals of Clinton and Trump are a replay of Cleveland and Blaine.

2016 will rank as one of the craziest elections and the best lesson we can take from American history is that crazy elections are usually followed by some really boring ones.

1788: No.

1792: No. It’s George Washington.

1796: Washington steps aside and a two-party system erupts. John Adams (Federalist) runs against Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican)i, and in ways it was modern: the Federalists accuse Jefferson of sympathizing with the horrors of the French Revolution, having an affair with a slave and running away from battle during the Revolution. Meanwhile, the Democratic-Republicans accuse Adams of wanting a return to the monarchy. This is no basic slander – it is an accusation of wanting to upturn the results of the revolution and betray American independence.

Everything works out.ii Adams is elected President and Jefferson is elected Vice-President as no system exists for electing a Presidential ticket. It is the most awkward Presidential term in American history until 1800.

Relation to 2016: Some, but very little. Washington is the most popular President in American historyiii and comparing any election to his coattails is problematic. The immediate and violent personal attacks, however, does speak to a strain of American politics which holds true today.

Fun Fact: Theodore Roosevelt was not a fan of Thomas Jefferson and despised Jeffersonian Democracy.

1800: Adams’ Presidency is not the most successful. By 1800, the French Revolution is in full swing, the British are testy over sailors, and Adams has worked to pass two unpopular laws – a tax to pay for an army and navy, and the Alien and Sedition Acts to silence any critics. The Federalists also split – Adams and Hamilton emerge as rivals within the party, so much so that Hamilton works to bump Adams from the ticket. When a fifty-four page letteriv blasting Adams was released to the press, the Federalist movement was tarred. 

The lesson here: in the early years of the Republic, don’t tax and take away rights.

Then, because this is America and we learn from our mistakes, we screw up again. Jefferson is running against Adams with Aaron Burr as his running mate. In 1800, the presidency and vice-presidency are recognized to be a) different and b) held by members of the same party. However, the electoral college has no way of voting for each position separately. The Adams-Jefferson debacle remains: the highest vote-getter became President, and second place went to the Vice-President.

The Democratic-Republicans find a solution – have one member refrain from voting for Burr, so Jefferson will win. Perfect, right?

The guy forgot.

Now, Jefferson and Burr are tied. Under the constitution, the election goes to the House of Representatives, and while the election of 1800 is going to bring in a new Democratic-Republican majority, the old collection of members is still in session. They are dominated by Federalists who hate Jefferson, their political opponent since forever. Burr stands a real chance of winning.

And then Alexander Hamilton gets involved again, telling the House Federalists to vote for Jefferson. He would rather have someone he disagrees with as President rather than someone who might be the literal incarnate of Satan.v

Jefferson wins, and this was definitely the most awkward Presidential term. Especially after Burr kills Hamilton in a duel and, in later years, tries to start an insurrection out west.

Relation to 2016: The Federalists split in 1800, handing the election to the Democratic-Republicans. Yet, it is the Democratic-Republicans who nearly split and blow the party into a million pieces. It is Alexander Hamilton – Great Britain-leaning, Federalist Alexander Hamilton – who saves Jefferson’s election. And that rings true this year. The Republicans who have come forward, looked at Trump, and decided they would rather vote for Clinton run in the path set by Hamilton.

Fun Fact: We can revisit this later if Mike Pence kills Mitt Romney in a duel and tries to start the independent nation of Hawai’i

1804: The Federalist Party disintegrates, and the elections become landslides. Jefferson wins with the usual slander. The Federalists do run a vice-president named Rufus, which is the closest America is to getting Droopy in the White House.

droopy-wallpapers-hd

Relation to 2016: None. Literally none.

Fun Fact: Did you know that George Clinton is one of only two men to serve as vice-president under two administrations? Always the bridesmaid, never the guy holding the nuclear codes.

1808: The way I remember the Presidents is that Madison comes before Monroe alphabetically, and also in Presidential order.

Relation to 2016: I guess Madison did serve as Jefferson’s Secretary of State, as did Hillary.

Fun Fact: The Federalist ticket was the same as 1804, and George Clinton was the VP nominee again. Much to the joy of typesetters everywhere, Madison was the only new name on the ticket.

1812: Facing off against DeWitt Clinton, Madison puts the successful war president theory to the test. He is not yet a successful war president, but the British also haven’t burned the White House yet, so he squeaks by with 50.4% of the vote.

Relation to 2016: Get elected before the invasion happens.

Fun Fact: Clinton is the nephew of Madison’s late vice-president, making this another awkward contest. There is a theme somewhere in this.

1816: Rufus King is back, starring in “The Last Federalist Candidate,” which fails at the box office and James Monroe is elected President. The early 1800’s are devoid of drama.

Relation to 2016: The previous decade saw the Federalists hang on by bits and pieces, and King would be their last stand. The party fell apart after 1816, so when I write this again in four years 1816 might be the most similar election.

Fun Fact: Monroe is the only President with a foreign capital city named after him, in Liberia.

1820: Monroe runs unopposed. Literally. Peggy Noonan still finds a way to call the race a toss-up on election day.

Relation to 2016: None.

Fun Fact: Monroe was the third consecutive president to get re-elected, which doesn’t happen again until 2012.vi

1824: The House of Representatives is good for three things. They control the purse strings (Thanks, history class). They are the most populist branch of government, charged with keeping their collective fingers on the pulse of hard-working America and responding in kind, usually poorly. And they decide ties, ranging from a Presidential election to who wins in a triple-overtime Super Bowl.vii

Providing role-models for father-son figures for the rest of time, John Quincy Adams is eventually elected, but not without a tremendous amount of bile, anger, and eternal hatred. The election split one party (possibly happening), created another (probably not happening), and even forced Andrew Jackson to stop focusing on which Native American tribe he was going to expel and slaughter next (Does Donald Trump know that Native Americans exist?)

With Monroe taking his leave, the last of the Revolutionary leaders is gone, and the Democratic-Republicans cannot unify behind one candidate. The result is a four-way race, with Adams, Jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay all receiving electoral votes.

Jackson receives the plurality, but not the majority. 131 electoral votes are needed, and he only received 99. Adams had 84.

The 1796 and 1800 election prepared for this – sort of. The election went to the House, but only the top three candidates are considered. Clay is left out, the first of his many attempts at the Presidency defeated. Like Hamilton before him, he considers Adams to be more in tune with America, and he hates Jackson. With Clay’s support, Adams proceeds to win 13 of the 20 states in the House, become President, and Jackson was left to brood until 1828.

Relation to 2016: Similar. The animosity between the candidates is palatable. Any Adams-Jackson debate would be similar to the second debate this year, minus the whole dumb “DO YOU LIKE THE OTHER PERSON PLS SAY YES” question at the end.  

It is also striking because of the end of the Democratic-Republican Party. Jackson inherits the Democratic mantle, and this is where the modern Democratic party begins. Adams’ segment of the party will eventually become the Whigs, which…we will get to the monstrosity that is the Whigs.

Fun Fact: 1824 does hold a striking resemblance to one election. When the 1989/90 NBA awards were announced, Magic Johnson won the MVP despite receiving fewer first place votes than Charles Barkley, and the idea of Charles Barkley and Andrew Jackson having something in common should make everybody happy.

1828: This election has everything: A bitter re-match, accusations of adultery and prostitution, slave-trading, possible improprieties with public funds, slanderous use of a formal President’s dying endorsement and, of course, a riotous mob quieted only by the delivery of alcoholic punch.

The setup is this: Jackson and Adams have four years to prepare for each other, but Jackson has a bit of an upper hand. Adams has to spend the past four years governing, while Jackson spends it plotting revenge. From the beginning of the Adams Administration, Jackson slanders him for choosing Henry Clay as his Secretary of State after Clay had thrown him the Presidency. This move is seen as corrupt, political, backhanded, especially since Secretary of State is a stepping stone to the Presidency – Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all held the position.

And this is just the beginning.

Jackson is also seen as a man of the west, and America is rapidly expanding in that direction. In that same vein, Jackson is also the Southern Candidate, and during the 1820’s this began to matter quite a bit. During the next forty years, the South would increasingly vote together behind the Democratic candidate.

Adams’ Presidency isn’t useless. He manages to fund a significant number of public works projects while paying down the national debt. His problem is the hostility he faces with the Jacksonian faction in Congress. While Jackson and Adams ran under the same party banner in 1824, by 1828 the two factions move far enough away to be two different parties.

Jackson wins a resounding victory, after the following happens:

-Jackson is accused of adultery, as he marries his wife before she is officially divorced (unknown to either of them).

-Adams is accused of gifting a young girl to the Tsar of Russia while posted there as ambassador.

-Adams is also accused of using federal funds to purchase gaming tables for the White House, later proven false.

-Jackson is dogged during the campaign by his pro-slavery and pro-slave trading stance. The north-south division was already clear at this point.

-Both men campaign for Thomas Jefferson’s endorsement. Jefferson would die in 1826, leaving mixed messages with his support. At various times, Jefferson views Jackson as dangerous and unfit, while also blasting Adams’ stance on government, fearing a monarchy even in his late years. This is revealed as bits and pieces of Jefferson’s papers are released after his death but before the election, likely due to the Tsar of Russia hacking into the server holding Jefferson’s papers.

It’s likely he distrusted both, which did not stop either man from claiming Jefferson’s mentorship and support and decrying the other for doing the same.

-At one point – either the day the results are announced or the day Jackson is inaugurated – a pro-Jackson mob rushes into the White House. Windows are smashed and items destroyed, and the rioters are only quieted by dragging bowls of punch out into the lawn to encourage the rioters to go outside.

-Jackson’s wife dies shortly after his election, and he blames it on the stress caused to her by the accusations of adultery, singling out Adams and Clay.

-In 1830, after his defeat, Adams runs for the House of Representatives and wins, as a congressman from Massachusetts. He is one of only two Presidents to serve in government after holding the Presidency.viii He quickly becomes a leader of the abolitionist movement, putting him at odds with President Jackson.

Relation to 2016: No one election is quite like another, but 1828 has just enough crazy circumstance, personal vitriol, and ugly campaigning to be very similar to the 2016 campaign. Seriously, look at that list again. Adams was accused of child slavery and prostitution, while the other guy OWNED ACTUAL SLAVES.

Other threads persist – Jackson was dogged by his ‘business practices” (most of his fortune was made off the backs of slaves on his plantation) and Adams was occasionally viewed with suspicion as the son of a former President and an elite – he was, at his time, a well-traveled and seasoned diplomat who had spent most of his life in public service.

Any comparison is difficult because America is far different from it used to be, a world power as opposed to a continental one. Yet, the political threads established by the Jefferson-Adams campaign of 1796 – the focus on personal context and attacks – reaches a high in 1828 which it will not again for some time.

Fun Fact: There is one other way 1828 is like 2016 – there is nothing to say to make it seem more crazy. There was a riot when Jackson took office, and they had to bring out booze to stop it. I mean, booze probably caused it too, but that remained the solution – and it worked.

Both 1828 and 2016 are in the Tyson Zone of Presidential Elections.

While Jefferson was quite possibly correct in liking neither. Having said that, at least both Jackson and Adams were both qualified to be President.

1832: A theme of Jackson’s Presidency is the city and rural divide. Jackson casts himself as the frontiersman, saving hard-working Americans from the elites of the northeast. He wins in 1832, defeating Henry Clay’s second attempt at the office, but not as broadly as in 1828. He would spend the rest of his time in office pissing off John C. Calhoun (always a plus!) and scheming ways to steal land from Native Americans.

Martin van Buren makes his first appearance in government. All you need to know about van Buren is that he is Dutch and his political mentor is Aaron Burr.

Relation to 2016: More similar to 2012 than 2016. Popular incumbent wins again, but the popular vote is slightly less.

Fun Fact: As far as I can tell, Henry Clay is the only man to run for President three times under three different parties and lose each time.ix

1836: America elects a Dutchman and then we all agree it never happened.

The 1836 election also brings us to the era of the Whig Party. While the people who formed the Whig Party probably did not mean to be historically hilarious, their legacy is one of unintentional comedy. Consider 1836, the first year the Whigs run presidential candidates. Martin van Buren is riding the coattails of Andrew Jackson, so the Whigs devise a strategy.

What if,” one Whig says to another, “we run three candidates for President and split the vote, forcing the election to the House of Representatives? Then we can choose like Henry Clay did!”

The other Whig turns to him and says, “Thats the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Why run three when you can run four?”

And so the Whigs ran FOUR candidates in 1836x, all from different regions, and somehow Henry Clay isn’t one of them.

Van Buren wins easily.

Relation to 2016: None. Yet, I can see a 2016 where the Republican Party does this and it works.

Fun Fact: The next 3,000 words are going to poke a lot of fun at the Whigs, because they are hilarious. The party did rest on a solid foundation – they looked to build America up internally before expanding, looking to the Constitution and rule of law to balance Jeffersonian Democracy. They were hesitant about westward expansion because they wanted to contain slavery to the South, though a full-fledged abolition movement was not quite a force in politics yet.

1840: We all have our 8th grade history teachers to thank for “TIPPACANOE AND TYLER TOO!” William Henry Harrison takes a paddle to van Buren and sends him up a certain kind of creek minus said paddle, but in a canoe.xi

Harrison wins and then dies, inspiring a billion pub trivia questions and one of the best Drunk History Videos of all time:

Relation to 2016: Outside of a snappy campaign slogan, 2016 and 1840 have another similarity: the Whigs refused to discuss any issues. Van Buren was unpopular, the Whigs were able to run against his failed policies rather than discuss, you know, slavery.

Fun Fact: John Tyler became President after Harrison’s death. He proceeded to split with the Whigs and alienate the Democrats leaving him with few avenues to pass any legislation. The Whigs expelled him from their party before his term was up, which may happen if Donald Trump wins.

1844: James Polk defeats Henry Clay, in Clay’s last appearance as a Presidential candidate. He goes 0 for 3, which are some Tim Tebow baseball numbers.

Polk is considered a “dark horse” candidate, due to his lack of national recognition. From Tennessee, he initially aspires to be van Buren’s running mate. Splits are appearing in the Democratic Party, and Tyler’s annexation of Texas makes them apparent, but a bloc of Southern Democrats holds sway, and Polk – running on expansionism more than slavery – ends up with the support of Andrew Jackson and the nomination. Van Buren tries to run again before Americans remember how bland it was the last time they elected a Dutchman.

Relation to 2016: Both Trump and Polk were dark-horse candidates, except Polk had the support of the greatest living President, while every living President has refused to support Trump. I suppose Polk did take us to war with Mexico. That could happen under President Trump.

Fun Fact:Polk died of cholera, because the early American frontier was like the zombie apocalypse minus the zombies.

1848: In 1848, the Whigs adopt a strategy which continues to haunt American politics, and justifies the party’s downfall. Desperate to win, they nominate a war hero, General Zachary Taylor, even though he sort-of-kind-of-just-barely agrees with Whig politics.

Polk declines to run again so the Democrats nominate Lewis Cass, except the Northern Democrats are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with slavery…Anyways, Taylor wins.

And then he dies! Harrison and Taylor are the only two Whig Presidents, and they both die in office. The lesson here: If you are on the Whig ticket, always run as the Vice President.

Relation to 2016: Somewhat. The Democratic Party is going through an upheaval. They somewhat recover for the 1852 and 56 elections, but Polk’s nomination and victory is really the last move of the party before the Civil War. What happens to the Republican Party is to be seen, but they likely are not going to fall apart, and will find some sort of inner-party balance.

Fun Fact: Taylor was opposed to the Compromise of 1850 and wanted to ban slavery from the western provinces. The Compromise of 1850, however, was created by Henry Clay (Whig) and when Taylor died, Millard Fillmore (Whig) pushed it through. The Democrats sat back and watched the Whig Party destroy itself.

1852: Ah, the antebellum years. How sweet and blissful they are; a generation not yet destroyed by the horror of violence. I mean, except for all the people who are still enslaved.

A quick overview of the Whig Strategy for Winning the White House:

  1. Nominate a successful war hero along with a less-successful vice-president.
  2. Ensure the War Hero dies in office.
  3. Ensure the Vice-President is unpopular, so unpopular that the party refused to nominate him when his term is up.
  4. Lose following election in a massive landslide.
  5. Profit?

Millard Fillmore is best known for sounding vaguely like the conservative-leaning comic strip that always appeared in the strangest places in your local paper, and for being the only Whig President to not die nor get expelled from the party.xii He is, however, massively unpopular, so the Whigs run another war hero – General Winfield Scott. To his good fortune, he loses and proceeds to live a long-if-not-healthy life, dying in 1866.

The Democrats run an unknown, Franklin Pierce. If the Whig grand strategy is to pick candidates who continually die, the Democratic grand strategy is to stick heads in the sand. To that end, Pierce’s campaign slogan was: “Everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?” George Lucas would later turn to Pierce for inspiration when writing Star Wars: A New Hope.xiii

Pierce wins and has a rough for years. Charles Sumner gets caned on the floor of Congress.

Relation to 2016: Very Little. The Whig Party falls apart after the election, so if that happens then sure.

Fun Fact: Pierce becomes the first sitting President to seek a second term and get denied by his own party.

1856: The Whig Party tries a novel strategy – instead of picking candidates who are going to die in office, the whole party dies instead. Taking its place as the second party is the GRAND OLD PARTY, the Republicans are here!

They lose to James Buchanan. Millard Fillmore is back! But he loses too.

Relation to 2016: Very Little. Both parties were broken in 1856. The Whigs were gone, the Democrats could barely agree, and the Republicans were brand new. Somebody had to be elected, and Buchanan was not what the country needed.

Fun Fact: Buchanan is the only bachelor President.

1860: The Democratic Party splits, the Republicans unite behind Lincoln. 1860 is one of the three or four strangest elections in American history. Civil War may or may not have been inevitable, but Lincoln’s election catalyzed southern sentiment in a way that there was no going back.

Relation to 2016: Lincoln is better than both of these candidates, so no. His election did cause a civil war, so…maybe?

Fun Fact: None, because the Civil War is really sad.

1864: Check back in four years.

1868: The Republicans nominate Ulysses S. Grant, most famously known for cigars and his portrayal by Kevin Kline in Wild, Wild West. Grant is one of the more fascinating Presidents in American history solely because of his rags to riches to rags story; poor and broke, he found wild success leading the Union Army during the Civil War only to reach too far – the Presidency broke him and he barely finished his memoirs, which were to save his family – before dying.

kevin-kline

By 1868, the southern states are being re-admitted to the Union and voting primarily Republican – the newly free black vote ensures that Grant wins nearly the entire region, defeating Democrat Horatio Seymour.

Relation to 2016: Somewhat. The influx of both a massive number of new voters and the changing demographics of the voting public are the primary similarities to 2016, but the context is far too different to have any real resemblance. Strangely, while Grant gained 214 electoral votes to Seymour’s 80, Grant only won the popular vote by five points.

Fun Fact: The ghost of the Whig Party strikes one more time, as the Republicans put Andrew Johnson on the ticket with Lincoln. Upon Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson proceeds to get impeached and the Republicans turn to Grant.

1872: Grant defeats Horace Greeley in the last election where the Democratic and Republican parties did not face off. By 1872, the Republican Party is splitting over Reconstruction – enforce it or finish it? – and the Grant administration’s corruption aids the schism. Greeley ran under the Liberal Republican headline and the Democrats – in their desire to defeat Grant – refuse to nominate a candidate and throw the Party’s weight behind Greeley.

Greeley proceeds to lose in massive fashion. Grant carries 31 of the 37 states. His record as the Union’s savior and Lincoln’s heir remains strong despite the middling performance of his administration, and Grant again carries much of the South.

Relation to 2016: Greeley remains an interesting figure and does have a striking resemblance to the Republican of this year’s process. A newspaper editor, Greeley was never a politician until 1872, and the Republican party had years of literature and editorials to use against him. He was also a poor campaigner, especially compared to the local and national strength of the traditional Republican Party in regards to running a campaign.

Fun Fact: In a strange twist, Greeley died after the election but before the Electoral College met. As a result, though he earned 66 electoral votes, he only received three. It’s almost as if he ran with the Whig Party.

1876: I really hope this election has no bearing on this year. I really, really hope it stays as far away from 2016 as historically possible. Let’s move on.

1880: The single best election in American history, because the guy who wins is named James ABRAM Garfield. Of course, he dies in office. Small historical detail, that is.

Garfield defeats General Winfield Scott Hancock, who continues to serve as he runs (bearing in mind that candidates did not have an active role in elections at this time – party mechanisms drove presidential campaigns more than personality and charisma). 1880 holds a number of distinctions. It has the highest turnout ever recorded, close to 80%. It is also sixth election won by the Republican Party, tying the Democratic-Republican streak from 1800 through 1820. 1880 is also one of the narrowest elections in history – Garfield defeats Hancock by less than 2,000 popular votes, while smashing him in the electoral college.

Relation to 2016: Very Little. Garfield won by .02% of the vote, but won the electoral college 214-155. Something like that probably won’t happen in 2016, but it remains a possibility.

Fun Fact: Garfield is assassinated in 1881 and Chester A. Arthur’s facial hair becomes President, pushing through civil service reform and changing the fundamental nature of American government and politics. That is a lot of work for some facial hair, and his whiskers decline to run again.

1884: Grover Cleveland ran against James Blaine, which sounds boring and really, who can name the Presidents, in order, in between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt anyways?

Except it is not boring because Cleveland is accused of fathering an illegitimate child and Blaine is accused of accepting bribes, so this campaign is based a lot around the personal character of the two candidates. On top of each party spending the majority of the campaign engaged in character defense and attacks, near the end of the race a Republican surrogate accuses the Democrats of alcoholism, insurrection, and the mortal sin of being Catholic. Cleveland wins – barely – but both Blaine and he seem to be pretty unlikable candidates.

ma_ma_wheres_my_pa

Cleveland is confronted with his illegitimate child

Also some guy named John St. John gets involved.

Relation to 2016: Similar. The election was largely a personal referendum on the two candidates. The polling data at 538 says that Cleveland and Blaine were the two most unlikable candidates until this year, but the results are skewed by the lack of phone access in many parts of the country.

Fun Fact: Cleveland is the first President named after a Sesame Street character.

2773grover

President Cleveland

1888: Benjamin Harrison is known primarily as the grandson of William Henry Harrison and by his colloquial nickname, “Benjie.xiv” Unlike his grandfather, he does not run as a member of the Whig Party, and therefore lives through his term much to the consternation of Vice President Levi Morton and Levi Morton’s incredible mutton chops. To this day, scholars debate who would have assumed the role of President had Harrison died while in office. Morton and his Mutton Chops work against each other behind the scenes of Harrison’s presidency, splitting the cabinet in two and almost causing a constitutional crisis.

levi_morton_-_brady-handy_portrait_-_standard_crop

It’s like staring into the whiskers of God.

Relation to 2016: The 1888 election focused a lot on trade, tariffs, and the building of American industry. We hear a slight refrain of that in 2016, focusing primarily on leaving the North American Free Trade Agreement, but the 2016 refrain on trade is much smaller. Tariff policy was the economic issue of the era, while the economy is more diverse now.

Fun Fact: 1888 was also the third of four elections in American history where the popular vote winner was not elected. It should stay that way.

1892: REMATCH! Kind of like the 1828 election, just minus all the accusations about prostitution and slavery. 1892 is somewhat anticlimactic – Cleveland won the popular vote in 1888 but lost the electoral college. He spends eighteen months watching Terminator before declaring that he will be back and returns to remedy that issue.

Relation to 2016: None. 1892 might be the most dissimilar campaign to 2016, because when Harrison’s wife died a few weeks before election day, both Harrison and Cleveland ceased to seriously campaign out of respect.

Fun Fact: Cleveland becomes the second President to win the popular vote three times in a row. Andrew Jackson won it in 1824, ’28, and ’32, and Franklin Roosevelt would win it from 1932-1944.

 

i Yes, that was the party name. It’s length will infuriate scholars and excite students until the end of time. TAKES UP SO MUCH PAGE SPACE.

ii No it doesn’t.

iii Go check the 538 archives for their 1796 predictions. I’ll wait.

iv  I’m doing my best to impersonate Alexander Hamilton’s writing length with this post.

v Or something like this.

vi  About 10,000 words from now.

vii  Somehow they would mess this up and make Roger Goodell seem likable.

viii  The other? ANDREW FUCKING JACKSON.

ix  Democratic-Republican, National Republican, and Whig

x  Seriously. They ran four people. The Whigs would die out soon.

xi  You’re welcome for that.

xii Someone needs to write a book on all the messed-up things surrounding the Whig Party. It’d be like, 700 pages long.

xiii Isn’t American History great?

xiv  The more I started at Benjamin Harrison’s photo, the more sure I felt that he was the architect of the Matrix.

Posted by: cousindampier | 1 November 2016

Midnight Colombian Peace Thoughts

A month ago tomorrow, the Colombia people rejected a settlement to end the longest running Civil War in the Americas.  The Colombian government, led by Juan Manuel Santos, and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) came to an agreement in late September which would essentially re-launch FARC as a political party and avoid much of the legal retribution an end to an internal conflict usually brings.

And then the accord was brought to the Colombian people, who narrowly defeated it, sending four years of work into a tailspin.

One one hand, in A Great Perhaps, David Spencer argues that the FARC are working the peace process to advocate for causes they were unable to win on the battlefield.  In the attempt for peace – Santos’ term runs out in 2018 – the Colombian government has given way on nearly every point to secure a peace agreement, and FARC has not yet retracted its long-stated demand to see a communist Colombia.  The peace treaty, in this sense, is an end-goal for the government and a step towards victory for the FARC.

On the other, as covered by Chapo Trap House, just end the damn war already.  The price of ending a  fifty-year war is worth it.*

Somewhere in the middle lies this Washington Post briefing.  The Post attempts to compare the Colombian Peace accord with similar accords throughout history, but the underlying point is that the Post had to reach down and find three.  The Colombian conflict is not something easily related to other peace accords, especially Brexit.  Colombia and Brexit have about as much in common as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Beethoven.

The intrigue continues, if one may label war in such a passive way.  The government gave ground on a wide scope of items to secure peace.  Now, they get to have some back; and FARC has to decide if they truly desire peace, or if the peace process was simply a way to gain space.

*As far as I can tell, this is the first time Chapo Trap House has been compared to anything associated with David Kilcullen.  I’ve never been prouder, boys and girls.

Posted by: cousindampier | 31 October 2016

Week in Review

The Scenery: The Gherkin.  It’s a fantastically strange building, looking like a teardrop.  For a  skyscraper – or as much of a skyscraper as London has due to aviation restrictions – it fits into the cityscape in a subtle way.  The building seemed to play hide-and-seek as I walked towards it, peeking out from amongst the surroundings; and even when I stood at its base, it didn’t seem like…what it was.  Because it looks strange as hell.

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This statue in front of it was unique as well.  I took five steps to the right for each photo.

Beer: BrewDog.  For a few weeks I attempted to drink all of the BrewDog at the local Tesco market; then I had to switch to Heineken because it is cheaper.  It is one of the best beers widely available, and the brewpub is in London.  I haven’t been to the brewpub yet, because that requires putting on pants, but their punk IPA is the first thing you’d drink after a long voyage on some sort of a ship, where you’re desperate for beer.

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Song I’ve been listening to on repeat: Genghis Khan by Miike Snow.  In DC I learned the fun of walking through an art museum while listening to music, and sometimes I think of London as a giant art museum.  It is pretty impossible not to have a surreal moment with this song, especially when crossing a bridge.  

Thesis note for the week: 90 tons of heroin flows into Central Asia from Afghanistan and only 75-80 flows out.  This would seem like a good note, except there are country by country breakdowns throughout the region, and over the past week my thesis has gone up in smoke.  Having said that, I do get to draw a lot.

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Posted by: cousindampier | 19 October 2016

The Obama Era, I Miss It So

By Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Meneguin, USAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Barack Obama’s Inauguration

 Eight years ago – almost to the day – I was at a Citizen Cope concert in Bethesda, Maryland. I was lucky to be there – my girlfriend at the time had grabbed tickets for my birthday – but I’d begun working for a progressive political consulting firm ahead of the 2008 elections and it was not the quietest of times.

Three weeks later, we’d had a role – very small, but a role – in getting Barack Obama elected as President. (More importantly, we’d helped downballot progressive races throughout the country, getting issues passed or candidates elected). And I discovered that election days were a little anti-climactic, because as the east coast results began to appear we had less and less to do. Eventually we retired to a bar in Adams-Morgan, drank Miller Lite, and watched America elect Obama.

Tonight is the final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and in three weeks – the longest three weeks in the history of America aside from that time it took William Henry Harrison to die of pneumoniai – it will all be over, and the eight years of the Obama era will have passed far too quickly.

**

My peers in age and I can mark out our lives in three phases: the Clinton, Bush, and Obama eras. More to the point, those eras have corresponded with distinct life changes. My first memories are from the early 1990’s – I was seven when Clinton took office. By the time Bush was inaugurated I was 15 and beginning to learn to drive (I also have a distinct memory of staying up late the night of his election to figure out if I should colour Florida red or blue on my homework assignment. That wasn’t the worst of it – I got Nevada wrong).

The Bush era was a different kettle of fish. His first term was high school; his second was college. I was ‘coming of age,’ though I have no idea what that means and refuse to read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ to find out. There was 9/11 and Iraq and the thought I might join the Navy and arguments about Bush and Kerry. They were political arguments of the type and scope which only high school kids can have – overly moralistic and not very nuanced.

The summer of 2008 I graduated college. Obama didn’t secure the nomination until after I graduated, because my friend Katie was still in Oregon or South Dakota or some random state. Soon after, the 2008 Hillary campaign ended and Katie was back and working for a private consulting firm and she started to ask me if I wanted to come to work.

I said no. I was a new graduate, and who wasn’t going to hire me to research Iraq and Afghanistan?

She kept asking.

No. The Brookings call was on the way!

She asked again.

I said yes, with just a little bit of “please?” mixed in, and to her word, Katie got me out of there that night and took the heat.

The three weeks between the concert and election day were the most exhausting, exhilarating, crazy and rewarding weeks of my life. I wasn’t really in charge of any aspect of any race – the only time I recall making a decision on a campaign was when Katie had been up for something like 30 hours and was trying to get some sleep on a couch. But that feeling you get working to get someone elected, working to get some random small ballot measure passed, staring at results of phone banks and trying to determine the next day’s strategy – its a spark that spreads, very quickly, into a fire.

Politics and voting is often derided, and sometimes justly – look no further than Congress overriding a Presidential veto only to immediately try to figure out how to override its override. But Congress isn’t really the problem. In 2014, members of congress were re-elected at a 95% clip, though the institution as a whole had an approval rating of 11%. The lesson, obviously, being that my congressperson is perfect and its all you idiots out there who should figure it out.

No theory really covers why politics is so unpopular. Maybe the system is broken. Maybe it is elitist – in that the horizontal movement is between the elite and public office. Maybe the money is too much – check out this Planet Money investigation which revealed former Idaho representative Walt Minnick’s statement that he needed to raise $10-15,000 per day. PER DAY. During the working week, he had to raise enough money to subsist a middle-class family for a whole year.

Or maybe it is because each generation has their superstars, their careers which call out for a larger purpose. Growing up, the names thrown about – Gates and Buffett and Jobs and Oprah and Zuckerberg – they were all people who ran multi-million dollar businesses.  The business generation began in the 1980’s, with Reaganomics, and peaked in the early 2000’s. Before that, it was artists and musicians, birthed in the 60’s and peaking in the 70’s. Today, its probably Silicon Valley and entrepreneurs.  It hasn’t been politics for a generation.

This is why I will miss Barack Obama – he made politics cool again.

**

In just under four months, 44 will be gone and 45 will be inaugurated, and the Obama era will be over. It already should be over, except he keeps doing fun things like letting Stephen Colbert interview him and pulling a Kobe Salute at Correspondents Dinners.

I don’t necessarily like everything he’s done. Obamacare needs some fixing and the sheer number of drone strikes is disconcerting, much less the bystanders killed, and we still don’t seem to have a coherent strategy in the Middle East. There’s a lot I do like as well – he got health care passed, oversaw a massive economic re-growth and put Joe Biden in a position to speak publicly multiple times per week, which is just a fantastic concept.

(Aside: Skip the “Bernie could win” debates. Imagine a Biden-Trump debate. Think of what we’ve missed, America. Think of the comedy we’ve missed.)

It’s not that he was a cool guy – that rationale is a terrible way to judge both presidents and potential flatmates. It was the how. The entire time, Obama was a politician and never tried to hide that; but he was so damn good that we often forgot. Go watch Jerry Seinfeld’s interview with him in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It’s funny, but the whole thing is an appeal for the ACA. He understood how to appeal to a growing generation of voters, and he was so charismatic that he made us laugh in the process.

However, the simplicity of being a politician doesn’t do him right. There were moments where he seemed approachable. Not ‘one of us,’ but someone we could aspire to be. He was amazed by the same things we were. He had intense sports fandom. He sang happy birthday to his daughter. He was – and is – a really great dad. Obama’s charisma stemmed from his sense of self. He was, by all accounts, humble enough to have that quiet confidence which we all aspire to have, the detachment which allows him to keep calm and come through in the clutch, ranging from debates to three pointers.

Aside from his graying hair, he never really seemed to let the job get to him, and he dealt with some incredibly complex and difficult issues.

He remains a brilliant speaker, and anybody who decries that needs a reality check. America remembers the words of Presidents. In my first grade class, the Gettysburg Address and the Constitution were taped to the wall. Not only do we remember words of Presidents, we remember morals – “I cannot tell a lie,” and “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” and “Slavery? What slavery? I don’t know what you speak of,ii” and “Don’t boo – vote.”

His speech on race during the 2008 campaign will be remembered and read. (He also looks so young as to be another person. Coincidentally, this is also a debate topic on Fox and Friends next week. Headline: BARACK OBAMA BODY DOUBLE?). His press conference after Sandy Hook was good. His speech at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was brilliant, and that was before he sang Amazing Grace. And Selma somehow tops all of those.

America is very fundamentally different now. Society is more open and less constrictive. Health Care has been breached, and there is probably no going back – only modification. We are only partially embroiled in war, instead of totally embroiled. The economy is in such better shape as to also be unrecognizable (another Fox and Friends topic this week).

When the legalization of gay marriage was upheld, the White House was bathed in rainbow lights. He brought the science fair to the White House, declaring “if we are recognizing athletic achievement, we should also be recognizing academic achievement.” Apparently, the fair was one of his favourite events.

The man danced tango in Cuba, which gets lost in the shuffle of crazy things Obama did. For my entire life, and most of the lives of my parents, Cuba was the Elephant Graveyard – we don’t speak of it and we don’t go there. Then, suddenly, the President of the United States of America was there watching baseball and dancing tango, and that does not get nearly enough press.

**

In January 2009, a few friends of mine and the same girlfriend who bought the Citizen Cope tickets – and who had stuck with me even though I was, quite literally, barely home for six weeks – came over to sleep at my house. The next morning, we put on every piece of clothing we had and trekked through the absurd cold to Obama’s inauguration. Inaugurations are held in front of the Capital Building, but it was too crowded to slip in there, so we kept walking.

And walking.

And walking.

We settled in somewhere on the far side of the Washington Monument. This is more than a mile away from the steps of the Capital, and still more people packed in behind us. Nearly two million people attended Obama’s inauguration, and if he had an outgoing party there would surely be as many.

Perhaps Obama appeals to me. While my favouite Presidents are Republicans, I lean left. He was a young President who understood how to appeal using the internet; a brilliant speaker and a good comedian. Perhaps I have a bias because he is my generation’s President – my President.

But that doesn’t weigh down the fact that he will leave office as an incredibly popular President, and someone I – and millions of other Americans – look up to. Those months in 2008, I knew he was a politician but I was caught up in the lights and flash and cult of personality and I didn’t understand what that meant. Now, having seen Obama the President, I get it. He is a politician, and that term does not have to be dirty. He worked hard to sell the issues he cared about. He worked hard to find solutions where there were none, which is an underrated skill in a leader. He not only dealt with tragedy, he worked to find a larger theme of what it meant to be American – the sense of American exceptionalism, not found in American actions abroad, but found in our equality at home.

He wasn’t perfect, but no President is – and he was, and is, my President.

And I hope his legacy is not as the ‘cool President’ – not at all. Instead, I hope is legacy is the President who made politics cool again.

i Everyone dreaded a John Tyler Presidency.

ii Attributed to Millard Fillmore.

Posted by: cousindampier | 10 October 2016

A Day In Communist Budapest

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I stood at the head of a hundred faces, the wave of sunshine making it difficult to see. Some marching music played behind me, but the weight of the wave drowned it out and muffled it. As the music receded, the deadened faces stared back at me, bronzed and determined.

I focused on the music, even as the sun stared me down. It was a lifeboat, a cord to ground me to this place. Without it, I may as well have been on the moon or Mars or in the apocalypse. That same sun brought a heavy haze, distorting any length of vision. The red brick wall blended in with the yellow sky, as if the sun was simply a drop of paint and a brush came along to sweep the yellow across the page.

The faces looked far into the horizon with a sense of purpose. The horizon they looked to was not the rising sun – the era the remembered was long into the darkness. A fallen hero here and an idol there, members and moments of Communist rule in Hungary, all captured and locked up in a flat space of ground surrounded by one story houses and small warehouses outside of Budapest.

In the early 1990’s Hungary found itself facing a question of history. The Soviet Republic had worked hard to re-create Hungarian history, and with its fall left history etched in bronze and marble. Those memorials had to go somewhere. Now they stood behind large walls on a deserted field outside of Budapest, as if the new Hungary had simply wanted them to disappear.

**

As I entered through a small brick passageway, to my left power lines stretched towards the end of the sky, towers connected by silver rope. On my right stood a different tower of sorts, an enormous Y-shaped concrete funnel-except some sort of structure was built in the funnel part, a gray dome and though I stared at it from many angles I could not determine what it was. I decided on water tower, but it easily may have been an antenna, air-traffic control tower, anything out of a James Bond movie and as I moved the gravel crunched underneath my feet and I’d hear the occasional chirp and bark and growl of an engine, but there was nobody else, only me and the faces and the sun.

I’d reached the end of the earth.

It is sometimes difficult to remember that before the Cold War ended, there was no end in sight. There was no capture of territory or sacking of capital which would bring the conflict to a close. In the mid-80’s some voices could be heard predicting the collapse of the USSR, but the rapidity with which the bottom fell out surprised nearly everyone. It was an endurance affair with no end until suddenly there was.

It is also somewhat difficult to remember that the Soviet Union only existed for a short period of time, given how much of the 20th Century revolves around the USSR. With the end of the civil war in 1922, the USSR came into being; by the end of 1991, it was over. As a superpower, the time is even shorter – the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949. A person born in 1941 likely remembers both the rise and collapse of Soviet superpower.

However brief, that period was intense.. The Soviet Union worked with rapidity and purpose to create history anew. “All post-communist societies are uprooted ones because Communism uprooted traditions, so nothing fits with anything else,” the philosopher Horia-Roman Patapievici told Robert Kaplan. The socialist governments of Eastern Europe attempted to overwrite the history of their nation-states, emphasizing different figures and movements. These manifested themselves in monuments, statues, and places of memory – all key in creating a new historical narrative. Memorials are cultural icons, created and displayed publicly to convey a sense of meaning and purpose, a place for all to gather and share in some emotion. They are, largely, generalist, conveying a sense of theme instead of the specifics of the event – details are often messy.

Put enough of them in one place, however, and a historical textbook begins to appear.

**

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Getting there was a process.

After taking the subway out to a bus depot, we spent some time on a busy road headed south. I sat on a bus staring out the window on a warm November day. The driver was speeding away from the Buda side of the city, the Danube somewhere off to our left. Memento Park was the only stop in English on the route.

As the bus sped away with a goodbye of dust, I found myself in the middle of a lonely stretch of road. Some tall wooden walls guarded a building supply storage area, painted solid colours with the occasional two panel gap for an entryway. I could pick out some peaked roofs and what looked like a few blocks of houses in the near distance, and the sound of the highway was not far off.

An elderly man with a cane got out the front door as I hopped out the back. I watched him for a second because I did not know where to go – how could I have not looked up where to walk, dammit – but a tall brick wall stood out above the low-level structures, a brick wall with an open arch for an enormous statue.

I headed that way, passing the old man.

The statue came into form as I stood at a crosswalk waiting for traffic to part. That proud face, with the unmistakable goatee. One arm held back a jacket, revealing a tight-fitting vest while the other beckoned me to come and listen. Vladimir Lenin towered over me. I was so tiny underneath him I felt I was entering an ancient temple underneath the gaze of a god carved out of brick and stone, protecting the history inside. There was no sign or announcement that I’d arrived, just an open entryway leading to a white building, marching music drifting out.

A glass window appeared as I stepped through the entryway, the kind from a movie box office with the small hole at the bottom to exchange money. Images were taped to the glass and some small mementos laid neatly behind it. A lady stood there, unsmiling as I approached and pointed to the sign. 1500 florents to enter.

I handed over the money.

She gave me a ticket.

“Guidebook?” I asked.

She pointed to a little book next to her. “one thousand five hundred.”

“Ah. Kusunum.” Thank you was one of the few Hungarian words I knew. I smiled at her and she stared back at me with the same apathetic look as before. I walked around the corner and into the park and found myself on a wide path between the brick entryway and the white wooden complex I’d seen through the door.

I didn’t see anybody else in the park. A river of cars flowed by in the distance. I hadn’t bought the guidebook, and didn’t know where to start, so I went right, where a bronzed man proudly held a flag, a gun strapped tightly to his chest, memorializing the liberation of Hungary by the Red Army. The soldier was immense and looked proud and it was difficult to determine if the solider brought with him freedom or slavery. The memorial said liberation; he looked like a conquering hero.

Hungary is a nation which has always been strong enough to maintain a vibrant and unique culture, but not always strong enough to be independent. It was absorbed by the Hapsburg Empire in the 17th Century, after control of the land was wrestled from the Ottoman Turks. The Revolutions of 1848 began process which forced upon the Hapsburgs the Dual Monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted until the end of the First World War.

The years between the wars were chaotic at first. Hungary elected Count Mihály Károlyi to lead the new state. A devotee of the west, he demobilized the military and accepted temporary borders, believing the final map to be drawn at a later date. Everyone else invaded. French, Serb, Czechoslovakian and Romanian troops all occupied Hungarian territory; as all inched further and further into Hungary, Károlyi lost support, eventually handing control to, he thought, the Social Democrats.

The force behind the Social Democrats was the Hungarian Communist Party, and their leader, Bela Kun, was installed as leader and the new Hungarian Soviet Republic was born in the Spring of 1919.

It was short lived.

Romania continued to push deeper into Hungary, eventually occupying roughly a third of the modern state. Kun asked for an armistice, the Romanians temporarily agreed. Despite intervention from the Entente Powers, Romania refused to move back to the pre-war border until Hungary demobilized, and Hungary refused to demobilize until Romania moved back.

The two nations came to blows again, and the might of Romania won out; advancing to Budapest and controlling nearly all of modern Hungary, Romania forced Kun from power (he fled to Austria and eventually the Soviet Union). The former Austro-Hungarian Admiral Miklós Horthy was installed as regent and ruled until 1944 – when once again Hungarians would lose control over their nation. First occupied by Nazi Germany, the Red Army lay seige to the city, and by 1945 would liberate the nation. Hungary would be a Soviet satellite state until the end of the USSR.

* *

Next to the soldier stood a monument to Soviet-Hungarian friendship, the first of many such memorials in the park. Every decade or so, the Soviet powers seemed to deem it necessary to remind Hungarians of the friendship between Moscow and Budapest and the whole process brought to mind the apocryphal story of the triumphant Roman General and the slave who would follow him through the streets, whispering in his ear, “You too are mortal.” The Soviets brought liberation and proclaimed freedom and all the while their monuments came with a whisper, tangible mementos reminding people of power and control.

Faces began to appear. Dmitriov, leader of communist Bulgaria and advocate of a trans-Balkan Slavic state. Kun, Landler, and Szamuely shared a memorial together, three of the leaders of the initial Hungarian Soviet Republic etched in stone and jutting out of a brick wall as if they were part of the wall, the inward face of the communist state, guarding against what lie outside. János Asztalo, member of the Communist party in 1956, killed while defending party headquarters. His nose is missing, with no mention if it was purposeful or just the result of age.

It is the forgotten history of Hungary, a park of statues which tried to Hungarians forget their own past and create one anew.

* *

I discovered later the first ring of the park focused on liberation movements. It spanned the whole run of Communist Hungary. The statue memorializing Hungarian “liberation.” Bela Kun and the initial steps towards a communist state after the First World War. Janos, and the revolution of 1956.

The Revolution of 1956 did not just alter Hungarian history. It fundamentally altered the way in which the Soviet Union administered its empire. What began as a peaceful protest turned violent after shots were fired outside the Parliament building, the first real threat to Soviet control of Eastern Europe since Nazi Germany. The Soviets were not prepared – the Stalinist regime in Hungary collapsed, and Hungry declared its intentions to leave the Warsaw Pact only to have Soviet troops invade, crush the uprising, and install a puppet regime, silencing dissent until the 1980’s.

The blockade of Berlin changed the Cold War in that it clearly marked a smoldering conflict. It was a move by the Soviets to force the West out of Berlin, and possibly out of Germany. The detonation of an atomic bomb increased the tension, and led to Mutually Assured Destruction. The Hungarian Revolution, seven years later, marked a different theme – the willingness of the Soviet Union to crush any uprising within its newly-formed empire. Like the Prague uprising of the next decade, the Soviets reacted to revolutions within satellite states as if they were revolutions within the homeland.

In the west, they may well have been. No matter the emotional pull of the November Uprising – Time awarded its ‘Man of the Year’ to the Hungarian Freedom Fighter in 1956 – the west did not attempt to push back. President Dwight Eisenhower, an advocate of pushing back Soviet advances, declined to intervene, fearing a third World War with nuclear weapons. After 1956, the Soviets had free reign in Eastern Europe. Containment won out over interference.

* *

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I kept moving through the statues. The glorification of the Soviet Union ended as I moved into the second loop, focusing on workers movements. Monuments to Hungarian communists began to appear. The Red Army may have liberated the nation, but the memorials they installed were local, focused on the homegrown Hungarian movement. A mass of silver people appeared on the left, layers of men, the front row marching while the back rows seem to break rank and give a sense of charging forward. Over the top stands a man in a thick coat, arm straight out to one side with a cap in his hand, pointing the way for the mass of revolutionaries below.

Bela Kun appears again and again to stands watch, though for many years he did not.

The First World War changed everything within Europe. “It had been World War I that legitimized armed conflict in a way no other war had or could,” writes Robert Kaplan, “the emblematic and meaningless sum total of all the wars that Europe had fought in its thoroughly violent and therefore discredited past.” The war did not end all wars, but it brought an end to the sense of order within Europe. War no longer renegotiated the balance of power – it had become total.

The end brought with it the last gasp of air from Central Europe. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw Central Europe emerge, briefly, as a series of nation-states. Kun was part of this, the brief leader of Communist Hungary. By the early thirties, with depression spreading worldwide and the early murmurings of Nazi Germany, Central Europe would begin its slide into history.

Bela Kun bridged one era to another. Communist Hungary existed for a blink before he fled. When the Soviets returned, Kun was not with them, having been caught up in Stalin’s purges in 1938.

* *

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I reached a monument of three bodies which, at first glance, had no faces. The individuals stood tall and broad-chested, hands saluting someone in the distance. This was a recurring theme – staring off into the horizon, looking towards the future or, at the least, towards some other, far-away meaning. After seeing so many with this theme, I started I felt small and like I was not part of the movement, which was probably the point.

As I moved closer, features appeared in the faces of the three soldiers. The monument was to the communist brigades which fought in the Spanish Civil War. They looked beaten and smoothed by weather, but it may have been a purposeful move. Other monuments also contained unrecognizable faces, I presumed to subvert individuality to the collective whole.

This last ring focused on the people’s movements themselves, not just the individuals leading them. A bronzed man held his jacket in his hand as if a flag, frozen in time as he rushed forward towards some life-defining event. He was a celebration of the first version of Communist Hungary by its alternative name – the Hungarian Republic of Councils.

When Kun and the Social Democrats took control of Hungary in 1919, the Communists had the only organized fighting force in the state. Károlyi’s demobilization left Hungary without means to fight. The Social Democrats – who merged with the Hungarian Communist Party – were not only the most popular political group in the state at the time, Kun also promised the help of the newly formed Red Army.

No help was forthcoming.

Given the circumstances of Kun’s death, the sheer number of images dedicated to him was impressive. His presence trailed me around the park, part of every ring of memory. The first ring contained a monument of three blocks of stone, each with an individual carved out. The two outside faces stared towards the middle; and the man there stared straight ahead, jacket neatly buttoned and hair swept back. Bela Kun seemed to have a strong jaw, and even in the stone his face seemed weathered. His hands rested at his sides and proved his most ominous feature, his left clenched into a fist and his right open, as if ready to extend friendship. Tibor Szamuely and Jenő Landler, two other individuals instrumental in the creation of that first communist state, simply looked to Kun for guidance.

Further down was a solid concrete block with a single star in the middle. The concrete was chipped away exposing steel rods which helped articulate individuals, soldiers – though again, never enough to define features. It was a celebration of the Volunteer Regiment of Buda, Hungarian soldiers who fought with the Red Army to free Hungary from the Germans.

I lingered in this section for longer than the rest. Here was the epochal history of modern Hungary, a focus on the historical forces which swept through the nation. The stone and bronze testified to the youthful rise and the angry fall. The reminders of Soviet-Hungarian friendship seemed to get harsher and larger, harder to miss. In a corner of this third ring a man falls forward with one hand in the air and the other over his heart. In ways it was the same man as earlier, the youthful man who led the way with his jacket in his hand. There, he was fighting for a communist state. Here, he was protecting it, fighting against the 1956 uprising, protecting the people’s republic.

This last ring was a testament to the forces which went into that state. In 1989, Hungary removed the fence along the border with Austria, which resulted in a flood of movement across the border into the west. Later in the year, the Communist party re-branded itself as the Hungarian Socialist Party and by 1990, Hungary was holding free elections.

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**

As the 1980’s dragged on, there was a growing sense of Austrians being better off. While partially due to an economic downturn which lasted most of the decade (and inevitably helped push the country towards the end of communism), it was also true. By the 1980’s, the west was pulling economically ahead of Eastern Europe.

But it also once again brought a theme of division. Hungary – or perhaps the Hungarians – had always existed near the schism between Western and Eastern Europe. Imperial Roman territory stretched to the Danube, which splits the nation in half, and Rome’s primary settlement formed the basis of Budapest. From the collapse of that empire until the early 1700’s, Hungary remained a crossroad, conquered by Huns, Germanic tribes, Mongols, and Turks. Along the way, the nation realized a series of homegrown regents and became one of the most wealthy nations in Europe. For a few years the Hungarians found themselves with a King who was simultaneously the head of the Holy Roman Empire; nearly a century later, Budapest would be under threat from the Ottomon Turks, eventually conquered by them and only freed in 1718.

On the Hungarian Plain, two historical rivers met and swirled together.

The regency ended after the First World War, but the crown remained emblematic of Hungary. Patrick Leigh Fermor described it as the defining symbol of this congruence: “Wrought in battered gold, with its culminating cross askew, it was the actual diadem Pope Sylvester II sent to St. Stephen when he was crowned first King of Hungary in AD 1000. But the later addition of enamel plaques, gold chains, and pendant gems give it an unquestionably Byzantine look, fitter for a mosaic sovereign by the Bospherous or at Ravenna, one would think, than for a canopied monarch of the west. No wonder: the gold-and-enamelled circlet was a gift of a Byzantine emporer to a later sovereign, who promptly had it clasped round the Pope’s original gift to his ancestor, and the gleaming hybrid is an apt symbol of the early Hungarian kingdom, for blandishments from the East as well as the West had flickered over the great Hungarian Plain with the ambivalence of a mirage.”

As I stood in the park, the borders to the east were closed. Movement into Croatia or the rest of the Balkans was impossible except by air. Refugees from the Middle East triggered a conservative response within Hungarian government. The nation, meanwhile, continued to move towards the west. Though an ancient city, dating from Roman times, the people and culture were young, bars and coffeeshops marking the map of the city. Students were everywhere and English was common.

Memorials can be removed, but art and architecture and design cannot. Though Budapest may look western and be moving in that direction, the city held too many memories of the communist years. New memories had been added – walk along the river and one will find bronzed shoes, a remembrance of Jews ordered to take off their footwear before being shot along the riverbank.

The city was alive and vibrant, built upon layers of history difficult to untangle while facing another moment adding to that layer of history.

**

In an essay on Orwell and censorship, Christopher Hitchens writes that in Orwell’s own experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he found “that the Communists relied very heavily upon the horror and the terror of anonymous denunciation, secret informing, and police espionage.” While it is easy to remember the Soviet Union and communism as a police state – in addition to oppression, the statues surely reminded Hungarians of their own mortality if they were to speak out, especially post-1956 – in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, there were doubts as to the oppression of the Soviet Union. Communists had, after all, been the ideological force fighting Nazi Germany during the 1930’s, when the West was struggling.

The memorials stored in Memento Park were an attempt to re-write history. Here was the physical evidence of what Communist Hungary wanted to remember. Hindsight calls communism what it was – totalitarian – but at one point, it was a possible version of the future. Like all eras, communism had its end, yet Memento Park brings the reality of living in it one step closer. For the man with his jacket in the air, running towards history and the liberating solider gripping his gun may now be historical symbols in the open air of a far-away park; but at one time these were the icons Hungarians passed on their way to work.

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Posted by: cousindampier | 19 April 2016

The Great Road Trip: Part IV

Curtis

Curtis looks west and John Muir speaks: “That memorable day died in purple and gold…”

San Diego.  San Diego. San Diego.  The engine screamed out the sound of the road, every turn of the belt singing out our destination as the sky grew first dark and then black and all that the world became was the flow of the road, the red river moving west and the white flowing east.

Flagstaff was marked by some burritos, California by a bridge, Los Angeles by light on the horizon and taillights in front of us and a turn south. I opened the window, hoping to smell ocean instead of exhaust.   The air was warm, a blanket of California sky wrapping layers around us, making the cold of Colorado and the Rockies and the high desert where we’d begun the day disappear.

The Nissan hummed along the freeway until we moved around a step curve and suddenly the freeway dropped us right into the heart of San Diego and Curtis and I were on 10th Avenue, the speed of the highway gone and everything moving by slowly.  The night also seemed gone.  The lights of the city chased away the loneliness and sublime of nighttime in the desert where the only sign of life was the yellow lines disappearing as quickly as they’d arrived.   In the city night was marked by the luminescence of a thousand people moving in a thousand directions, all showcased by the lights of storefronts and bars and streetlamps.

We were in San Diego because we had to turn north somewhere and we didn’t want to yet.  North meant home and home meant the math of school debt, living upstairs from my parents and wondering if I’d really made the right decision in passing up school the previous fall.  We’d thought about going to Vegas and cutting up through the deserts of Utah; or heading to Reno and then San Francisco.  Both of us had our own reasons for picking San Diego, and at the same time we only chose it because it was as far west as we could go.

Curtis had a friend in the city, a Spokane transplant, staying at the Hotel Salomar.  We circled it like birds, eyeing parking spaces until we found a city garage with a spot up at the very top, and put the Nissan to sleep after thirteen hours and a few thousand miles.

And for the first time in our journey, Curtis and I split up.

His friends headed out to a nearby bar, and I was off to meet my own friend, Sandra from San Diego.  We’d become friends years ago in the DC airport, waiting for a flight to Denver which materialized late.  I was eating a bag of chips and had just turned around to throw them away; Sandra was right behind  me and I nearly knocked her out with my elbow.  A few years were gone since I’d seen her but in the heat of the San Diego night, she was unmistakable, standing on the street corner in a long black jacket, wry smile still on her face. It was as if the Hollies had written that song for her, a long cool woman in black jacket.

I found the jacket funny and told her so.  Only later did I understand that just because San Diego is southern California doesn’t mean it’s always warm.

Others connect you to names long forgotten, places long gone.  DC was a place I’d been, part of my story and though I’d moved on, seeing Sandra brought it back.  I’d met her the last time I was ever in the city, at a friend’s wedding, a bipolar weekend of stunning happiness and extraordinary difficulty, during a time I was drifting.  I was ecstatic to be fleeing DC for the final time, and since I have thought it fortunate I met her when I did.  Soon afterward I would leave for Asia and meet Jon and Saranna and Davinia, hold baby Minar, and begin to realize that embracing the chaos of life was much better than attempting to bring order to it.

We spent some time in a bar catching up.  I was delighted to see her.  We’d occasionally chatted, but always with gaps of time.   “What are you doing these days?”

I told her I had no idea.  School was still an option, but the expense made me hesitant.  Besides I didn’t know how going to an expensive school was going to help me be a writer and that’s what I wanted and…I trailed off.  “What about you?  Now that you’ve moved there, how do you like Los Angeles?”

It was different than she’d imagined.  She’d moved there from San Diego with the highest of hopes about a career in the music industry, and now she was thinking of moving back.  It was difficult and disillusioning.

“What are you going to do back in San Diego,” I asked her.

She shrugged.  I felt the same.  I hadn’t thought about my future since I stepped on the train.  Wasn’t the point of this drive to forget all that?

San Diego on a Friday night was drunk.  We bar hopped and I got to see some of it and eventually Sandra had to go, headed to Mexico the next day, family there and I wandered the streets with no real destination.  I was wandering like we’d been driving, no real idea in mind.  Sometimes I was lost in thought and others I was watching people puke in the street and others I was dodging six figure cars.  I heard something which sounded like gunshots and saw lights fly past and eventually the boxy ambulance followed and someone tried to rob someone and it didn’t go well and I kept walking in circles until it was two am and I hadn’t seen Curtis since eight.

I stumbled back to the hotel where the party was dying down, a pizza box on the table and the television blaring something .  I fell asleep with the sense that everything was going to be all right.  

*  *  *

Curtis and I slept in, and much like the day before I awoke to Curtis milling about, his engine already running except this time he was sitting in the window, coffee in hand, and only in his underwear.  

We didn’t have anything planned, so we headed to explore San Deigo’s beer scene.

Beer and Southern California have a long history.  The earliest brewery opened in 1896, and before Prohibition went into effect seven breweries were operating in the region.  Prohibition killed the brewing movement, and by the time small breweries grew again, the Big Three American Breweries (Coors, Miller, Anheuser-Busch)  already controlled the American market.  

The shift away from the big three began in the 1970’s, with the legalization of homebrewing.  Brewpubs followed in the 80’s, and in the 1990’s, the first new regional breweries emerged.  Stone was one of the first leaders of the movement, and remains the most known brand today.  The early version of Port Brewing emerged at the same time as Stone.  In recent years, Ballast Point and Green Flash emerged with multi-state distribution. 

To Curtis and myself, it was a small slice of heaven, and we started with a lunch beer at Stone.  

During the drive to Escondido we never seemed to leave buildings behind.  We passed through the greenest of hills with gray block buildings never far away, a low-level, a continuing civilization which intruded but never stood out, a city that never ended.

We nearly missed the inconspicuous turnoff to the brewery.  A left off the highway put us in a parking lot, and a path led to a garden, high stone walls covered by leafy branches; through the walls lay a glass-enclosed entryway and brewpub, a patio sitting in the sunlight and enormous maturation tanks sitting behind yet more glass.  We’d walked into a museum, a glass monument to the twenty years of Stone Brewing’s existence.  Lending truth to the name, there was actual stone everywhere – the bar, the toilets, surrounding the patio.  

In a way it was all grandiose.  We’d been on the road for so many miles that sitting in such a monument was uncomfortable.  Big cities can leave everyone feeling equal, but big buildings can leave you feeling poor, and though I loved Stone’s beer, in the brewhouse I felt out of place, somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be.  I was invading a world which was a station above my own.  After a beer we left, retracing our steps through the enchanted, shadowed paths to the modernity of the parking lot and headed south, back to San Diego and the city and the beach.  

The west still called.  A quick glance at a map shows Coronado to be an island.  Look closer, and a thin peninsula runs south, connecting it to the mainland and forming a barrier to the sea, creating the beautiful harbour that is San Diego.  

The Navy is here because of that harbour.  The naval influence on San Diego reaches back to Spain.  The harbour drew Europeans to the southwestern coast of America, and the first part of California settled was San Diego.  The United States acquired California after the Mexican-American War, and half a century later, in the late 1800’s San Diego was connected to the Trans-Continental Railroad and the military money started flowing.  San Diego was the gateway to Hawaii, the Pacific, and Asia; and as the American Navy grew to a two-ocean Navy, San Diego became one of the most important harbours on the west coast.

It remains so.  Walk around downtown on a weekend night and the gaslamp district is covered by Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines.  As we drove across the bridge to Coronado, a long, looping curve necessitated to reach the 200 foot height mandated by the Navy, the harbor opens up and shares its corners.  It is as if we were on a low-level aircraft, buzzing the bay; but we flew by, on to the Pacific.

Coronado is rich.  We drove by multiple story homes with perfect lawns, painted as if out of a catalog and eventually pulled to a stop in front of one of them, white with some orange trim, a block away from the beach.  We were somewhere surreal. A day ago we were diving out of the Nissan into snowbanks and flowing down roads into wide valleys and watching peaks fight with clouds for control of the skies.  

Kids ran through the waves, splashing and squealing with laughter before running back out.  In the distance the Hotel del Coronado stood, its red roofs calling out to the beachgoers as if a lighthouse.  The main building is over a century old, and the rooms run at $300 per night – a luxury, wooden beach resort, one of the tallest wooden structures in the United States.  People walked along the beach, feet in water and heads in sunshine, trekking back and forth across the sand.  

Curtis and I tossed a frisbee back and forth, a New Belgium one that the company graciously gave us.  Neither of us had proper swimwear.  I was wearing cargo shorts and Curtis the same.  As the waves lapped higher and higher, the shorts seemed to double in weight.  As we tossed the disc back and forth, we were together but alone with our thoughts.  From San Diego onwards, we were headed home.  California, San Francisco, Oregon, Spokane all waited for us.  We’d hit the moment in which the more we travelled, the closer we got to it being all over.  

Few things make me feel as small as the ocean.  The sun is overhead but heading west, and from the beach we can see nothing but water until the horizon takes control and the sky begins.  It was a strange feeling to be able to go no further.  We talked about getting a boat, setting sail and ending up in Wellington or Brisbane or Singapore.  Learning how to sail one summer and leaving the next, a grand adventure of the two of us versus the waves.  Mostly we just stood knee deep in saltwater and enjoyed the sunshine and the sense of the sublime. The water felt warm, much warmer than anything I’d experienced on the coasts up north, almost as if the ocean became more mature down here.  

We were comfortable now.  The first few days in Denver were spent getting used to each other, the car, and the sense of wandering.  Not having plans was initially stressful.  At home, there were always small errands to run, little accomplishments to mark my day.  Now we were finding something to do with each day and throwing ourselves into it.  The trip through Colorado and seeing Jon brought me back to a version of myself that wasn’t Spokane.  The freedom of driving through Arizona to the coast started to bring the sense of continuity – we could do this forever.  

I’d left Spokane hesitant to go, hesitant about what I’d miss – my friends hanging out, the hours at work, the small little responsibilities.  I’d arrived at the beach in Coronado no smarter nor wiser, just more serene and accepting.  

The frisbee hit the sunlight and then the water.  Curtis picked it up and threw it back to me.  Sometimes I caught it, other times it was too far and the water too heavy for me to move.  Two little girls ran from the waves as their mother watched and we did our best not to veer the disc towards them.  With a swish the disc would fly back to Curtis and then another swish towards me.  With every swish the sun sank in the sky and with every errant throw ending in a splash it dropped until it was just over the water and the wind picked up and it blew everybody back from the beach.  The warm sun became cold shade, and the water became more angry and hostile and Curtis and I retreated from the beach and headed back to the only home we needed, the Nissan.  

Coronado

***

The engine throbbed again but nothing called to us.

The wind at Laguna Beach was warm and the water turquoise.   Ocean clouds dominated the sky, the kind that run forever into the horizon, just as epic and humbling as the water.  Driving from San Diego to Escondido, civilization never stopped but we never stopped to explore civilization.  Now, as we skipped from beach to town, we got out to get some coffee, walk along the beach, feel the warm wind on our faces.  Our jackets were thrown into the back of the car and we hadn’t needed them for days.

As we drove the reality of California grew outside our windows.  The coastline ran for so long that the Pacific became a different beast as we moved north.  San Diego and Coronado sparked visions of the tropics, the islands of the South Pacific; just over the horizon were brightly colored birds and Hawai’i and Australia.  Back home in the North, especially up along the Washington and Oregon beaches, the Pacific starts to take on a harsh demeanor, as if to remind us that this is the same ocean that runs to Alaska and has massive storms.  

We were cruising along Route 1, our music pouring out the open windows.  Outside was convertible weather, throw the top down and sunglasses on but at this point neither of us wanted to be anywhere but the Nissan, the trusty Nissan.

We headed north.  Route 1 was shut down somewhere around Santa Monica, so we cut back up through I-5 and the middle of the state.  Leaving southern California we got to see the beauty of it all, how the roads on beaches led to roads cutting through green hills.  The Nissan was driving through mountains, winding roads around mossy tree hills and then in one long stretch we left the hills of southern California and emerged into the flatlands of Central California, all the way to San Francisco.

The days began to matter.  We had a night in San Francisco and a night in Bend if we wanted it.  We become a little quieter as we headed north and the setting sun reminded me of our own time winding down and the endless dusk of California seemed to wrap us in a dark blanket.

***

Chris

Tall and lanky with jet black hair, Chris awaits.  My roommate at university, he now owns an apartment north of San Francisco in Marin County and works for a bank, one of the too-big-to-fail banks, researching money laundering.  The job keeps him both energized and cynical, predicting the downfall of capitalism while simultaneously brightening up when talking about drug cartels.  

We’d gone different directions since university, both part of the generation that can’t make up its mind.  I used to joke that the internet ruined us because the internet blew everything up.  Suddenly we had this platform in which to do anything, research any option, apply for any opportunity but we had no idea how to use it yet, the amount of information and options overwhelmed us and it took us too long to figure it out. 

We graduated and Chris moved back to San Francisco and I moved to New Zealand and it was the first time I’d seen him since.

He greeted us at the door.  “I’m glad you discovered how to be on time.”

We were two hours behind.  “I know.  I’m doing pretty well these days.”

Curtis falls asleep in the extra bed as Chris and I stayed up and shared a beer.  I hadn’t lost touch with him, but I hadn’t kept up in the best way.  I didn’t know a lot of the facts I should,, basic stuff about how long he’d been dating or what he did on weekends.  

As we talked, I felt bad, guilty, as if I wasn’t a good friend or person.  I’d felt the same during the first few moments in Silverton, with Jon and during the train ride over to meet Curtis – I’d really not kept up with any of them in the best way.  

Chris mulled this over with me until were only going to get five hours of sleep.  He has a real-person job, and bid me good night.  He was out early the next day, back to work and the norm of his life.   

For Curtis and I, once again the norm was finding an adventure.  I woke up with the prior night’s conversation bouncing in my head and no time to think about it because the Golden Gate was there and we had to drive across it, the sun still hanging in the eastern sky as if framing us for all the western world to see. I stared out the window, past the bay and onto the ocean, the green hills forming a doorway to the west.  Through that doorway was tough ocean, and all I could think about was pirates and sailing ships and what the first sails must have looked like coming in through that channel.  

The streets were like the movies, straight and sharply-cornered and always on a hill.  We found a breakfast place to eat and got some strong coffee before heading to the beach.  Already we were halfway between the stormy north and the calming south, the water cold and blowing in mist off the ocean but the beach is wide and sandy and long.  On warmer days, it seems the beach has enough room for the whole city.    

February is not one of those warm days, and we had the beach to ourselves.  

We walked.  Nowhere called to us, and so we traversed the beach and stood next to the water, picking up some stones and throwing them in.  It was gray, as if the water and the horizon were mixed together in some watercolour painting.   For a few minutes we simply stood and stared out at the ocean.

“Want to take a walk up the hill,” I turned to Curtis

“Let’s do it, Abester.”

We left the Nissan behind and started walking back to the seawall at the end of the beach, and then left up the road.

Later I found we were hiking up Point Lobos Road, the house in the distance being Cliff House with Sutro Heights Park and Lands End beyond.  At the time, it was just a house in the gray distance.  We passed it and climbed down to the paths on the hill behind it, walking parallel with the shore as we stared down at it.  The beach looked sad from up there, in the way that it seemed as if something was lost and was never to be found.

We headed into the woods, vaguely thinking of finding Lands End. Mostly, it was for the hike.  In a half day we’d seen San Francisco the monument; San Francisco the city; San Francisco the beach and now we got San Francisco the urban forest.  

The trees covered us from the gray clouds above, and we dodged in and out of green-walled paths, sometimes wandering alongside a golf course.  The ocean was never far away, always roaring at us, simultaneously telling us to come back and warning us to stay away at the same time.  Some others walked different paths as we passed them – a lady with a dog, a couple holding hands –  and we joked about doing the same.  

Curtis found a small path leading down to the shore, and we followed it, down some wooden stairs dark with mud and around a hairpin curve where we saw some trash and a campsite.  It straightened out and went on a small rise narrowly through some dirt except the dirt had suddenly turned to beach sand, when did that happen? and suddenly we were there, somewhere around Lands End and the bridge appeared before us.

We were on a cliff.  Not a massive one – it could also be a small hill with a sheer drop at the top, but either way it was under some trees and dry and we stared east across the bay to the bridge, sitting there massive and stoic, arching across the water like it was there centuries before humans ever arrived. 

And for the first time in our journey, Curtis and I stopped.  

We sat down and our eyes wandered across the scene. We were in San Francisco the museum, the living tundra and all its moving pieces contributing to the painting in front of us.  The way the sun played with the clouds at the tail end of a storm.  The freighter moving up channel and into the bay, horn blaring.  The gulls in the air and the wind moving through the trees.  We didn’t say much, just the random alerts to some interesting scene or movement.  The sun moved higher in the sky and Curtis would get up and explore our little cliff peninsula, and I sat to write, turning the collar of my jacket up as I did.  

I sat and wrote about the trip.  Travel.  Freedom.  I was holding the pen too close to its base and my fingers grew black as I thought back to my conversation with Chris.  I look at travel as not reality, I wrote, but that is just because I get sucked into all the small things, the unimportant things, and I lose track of what is urgent and important.  

There isn’t the wake-up alarm for work, the day after day repetition. Judging a place based on a few hours time is difficult and foolish, yet I do it all the time.  Everybody does it all the time.  Travel is not reality and yet it is, for it brings out the senses and adrenaline as well as the inner peace and calm; for it is through travel or any individual experience like it that one realizes life’s responsibility, the all encompassing responsibility, to be happy and to experience being alive.

As I sat and wrote, I came to understand that I wasn’t a bad friend for missing out on Chris.  I needed to figure myself out, and get rid of some of the responsibilities I was carrying around which only provided added weight, never any accomplishment.   I could not avoid the responsibilities of life, but I felt I could try to choose them as best I could while always remembering that they included that euphoria at the top of some ridge in San Francisco, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, waves crashing in and a foghorn in the distance.   They included the beautiful sense of being lost in San Diego, the surreal lack of sleep while driving through Wyoming in the middle of the night, the harsh and jagged beauty of the high desert sands covered in snow.

I put the pen down.  Time had passed, a lot of it, and Curtis was no longer beside me.  He was standing back under the tree.  

“We can’t be in San Francisco and not go to Chinatown.”

He smiled.  Time unfroze, and for the first time since leaving I looked forward to the drive north.

Curtis and me

Posted by: cousindampier | 20 November 2015

McCaw’s Final Match

mccaw

Rugby sunk its teeth into me because of Richie McCaw.

In 2011, New Zealand was electric with rugby. Matches of the Rugby World Cup were being hosted throughout the country, and the national team – the All Blacks – were peaking as one of the best teams in the world. They were very likely the best, but while the first decade of the 2000’s left fans optimistic, they were also bracing for a bad match at the wrong time. 2007 was the low point, as the AB’s didn’t make the final four of the RWC for the first time since its inception; by 2010 that changed and they won 15 international matches in a row. They entered the 2011 RWC as one of the favourites.

Even for an American kid who understood little, the themes were apparent. The home team was playing in front of home fans; the pressure was immense. New Zealand is widely recognized as one of the best rugby teams of all time, but they had only won a single World Cup, the inaugural 1987 competition. They were in their prime – veterans who had played with each other through a number of tournaments. They were good – very good – but carried the weight of knowing they were good in a sport in which the bounce of a ball can be devastating.

A loss in front of the home crowd would be shocking, and questions about the direction of the program, justified or not, would arise again.

In America, only soccer and hockey can currently capture the electricity of multinational competition – Soccer has its own world cup, and despite the growing process (and pains) of the America squad, the Football World Cup is one of the single most exciting and dramatic sporting events to watch. Hockey has the Winter Olympics, and with the number of Canadians and Russians in the NHL, it makes the games tense, an American-Canadian match bringing out bad blood and vicious fandom.

American football doesn’t have the same type of drama; the state of Illinois may live or die by the Bears but the rest of the country is apathetic at best. Baseball has its own World Cup, but it does not draw the numbers nor popularity in America that it does in Latin America and Asia. Basketball is growing and now very international, but the American team is too dominant to make international competition that dramatic.

I barely knew what rugby was up until a few weeks before the tournament began, but I was working on a ski resort and there was a bar at the bottom and I could watch rugby and drink beer, surrounded by fans who were smart and passionate and who could answer the questions I had, questions like “Do they were cups underneath the shorts? Those are some short shorts.”

I was in New Zealand, surrounded by Kiwis. Gravitating towards the All Blacks was inevitable, and Richie McCaw was the face of the team. He was on the ads, the interviews; he was shown on tv whenever the All Blacks were playing. He was number seven – good luck and easy to follow, and he was distinct. Between the chest the size of a barn and the somewhat spikey hair, you knew who he was, immediately.

So they won, and I watched it from Nelson in a little bar about 10 minutes walk from the hostel I stayed at and everyone was talking to everyone else, a weight lifted from everybody’s shoulders for though New Zealand, in the end, was the dominant team there was that fear every fan had, almost permeable, that they would blow it. It was smiles and beer and cheers, and the fact that I was there to see it made me part of the club, even if I barely understood why they dived into the endzone – or whatever it was called – after a try.

So I moved back to the States and suddenly Rugby 7’s was on NBC, a faster and quicker and more random game and my dad found it immensely entertaining. I started following Super Rugby – the 15 team league based around New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa – and naturally I gravitated towards the Christchurch Crusaders, largely because of McCaw (the Hurricanes of Wellington and the Otago Highlanders remain beloved teams as well). I stared at my phone on game days, watched as much as I could and even tried to start a rugby blog.

I was hooked.

And then 2015 rolls around and it has been four years since I was in New Zealand and the RWC is happening again and the All Blacks are not old, but they are veteran; McCaw and teammate Dan Carter are probably playing in their last RWC. Suddenly the games are easy to access – I can buy a pass from NBC and watch all the games online and I get to see many of them, Japan’s upset of South Africa and the Wallabies of Australia holding on with 13 men against Wales. The final comes down to New Zealand vs. Australia, little brother vs. big. I awoke early to watch it, and even though New Zealand had an immense halftime lead, it wasn’t safe. Australia roared back.

Richie McCaw played in 148 international matches. I have not seen all of them, but in this final match he seems to be everywhere. Every tackle New Zealand needed to get, he was there. Players needed to protect the ball so it could be cleared, he was there. Setting up a beautiful pass, he was there.

Perhaps I’d finally started to understand the game, to see it better and notice the nuances more, like watching the offensive line in American football or the weakside of the court in basketball. Or maybe McCaw had the game of his life, knowing it was his last despite telling every reporter that it was a decision to be made after the tournament.

On Thursday, he retired. And as much as a 30-year old can thank a sports figure, I thank him. For being an inspiration to work hard and love what you do, but also for being the face of a team, and a nation, which hooked me on my favourite sport, the sport I get the most passionate about and the sport I will stay up until the early hours of the morning watching. It is the sport I get texts about – “I saw that team of yours on tv” – and the sport I crave to learn to play, follow, and someday, somewhere, not only to sit in a bar once more, but to sit in the stands as New Zealand plays in yet another World Cup. And so while Mr McCaw may be retired, among his many, many accolades, a tiny needle in the haystack of things he accomplished during his career, is that he got one more fan into the sport he loved.

Posted by: cousindampier | 25 October 2015

Creed

The rumoured third fight scene gets me every time.

Posted by: cousindampier | 22 October 2015

The Great Road Trip: A Route 66 Story

We drove all day.

Four Corners was muddy. Snow and rain pelted down as we turned from highway to smaller highway to dirt road and in front of us appeared what seemed to be an arena surrounded by dirty, short wooden buildings. The Nissan’s wheels churned through mud as we came to a stop.

The Four Corners are the dividing line between Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, the only spot in the country where four states meet. Four semi-squares embedded in the ground with sharp 90 degree angles marks the location, and on a cold February day, it seems even more lonely, as if we’d travelled through nowhere to get to its middle. We were freezing in the desert and nobody was about except for a bus full of students who seemed to be everywhere at once. We walked around, jackets bundled up as far as they could go. Neither of us had anticipated the sleet and the cold, and we wore every layer we had.

The center of the monument finally cleared out and we got a couple of pictures before stepping back through the mud to the Nissan, the trusty Nissan and we headed away from the monument, west to Flagstaff and Los Angeles.

The weather remained poor as we drove west. Around a few bends, the snow came down hard enough to make visibility low and it added a strange sense to driving through the desert. On some stretches of road, we’d be by ourselves, just Curtis and me and his Nissan and the white-brown sand and the gray sky. Sometimes the sky would open just enough to allow us to see miles around, and it was like that night back in Silverton – just us against the earth. We had a destination – San Diego – but the excitement of driving to San Diego was suddenly mixed with the reality of driving to San Diego, the twelve hours we had to go.

At some point, I drifted off for thirty minutes or an hour. When I came to my senses, we were out of the desert snowfields and driving through what seemed more appropriate desert scenery. The skies were still gray, but the snow was gone and the earth took on its appropriate red and brown colours.

We were also seeing signs for Route 66.

Much like the skiiers, if one were to poll drivers about the dream roads to drive, the answer would be ‘all of them;’ yet Route 66 remains The Road, or more frequently, The Mother Road. Myth runs rampant. The singer Bobby Troup’s wife leaned over and whispered into his ear, “Get your kicks on Route 66” and a song was born. Ghosts exist. Kerouac allegedly heard the song and decided to go west, and though he only mentions Route 66 briefly, the road was the icon of the traveling beat generation. Forrest Gump ran parts of it. As America became a driving nation, and as road trips entered popular consciousness, Route 66 entered legend as the road from Chicago and the east to Los Angeles and the Pacific.

As the Interstate system came into being, Route 66 was forced out; sections of I-55, I-40, and I-44 making up the path from Chicago to the Californian Coast. Some of the road was co-opted into the new interstates and much of it was bypassed but it remains in lore with Troup’s refrain,

‘It winds from Chicago to L.A.
More than two thousand miles all the way/
get your kicks on Route 66’

And finally, somewhere before Flagstaff, we found a stretch of old Route 66, a spur moving away from the Interstate. It is a state highway now, one of those two lane roads where you are just as likely to see a tractor as a car. We pulled over and Curtis let me behind the wheel, an old pair of aviators we found in his car on my face, one of the nosepieces missing so it pinches my skin. I throw on a song – Springsteen, or maybe Everclear’s ‘Santa Monica’ since we are headed to Los Angeles, but the stretch of 66 we are on is straight and runs into the horizon, down a small grade and then it runs straight with a slight uphill, a path that leads somewhere but there are no other cars, no other people, so wherever it leads isn’t somewhere anyone wants to be.

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The Mother Road

We drive, not in silence – the radio is on and I am probably singing to myself – but we’re both with our own thoughts. The road trip, that thing which Route 66 is a symbol of, is different now. We’re not out of touch and on our own unless we want to be. We can stop and take a snapshot of any place or sign or monument we want. We are instantly connected, and yet there is something in the movement, the constant movement which forces upon us the realization that nothing is happening, that being instantly connected is still a thing, but we don’t need to be because no matter how many times we check our phones, it is still just Curt and I driving along a vacant stretch of highway in the middle of Arizona and the things on our phones are the same as they were an hour ago. We are missing nothing; life back home is just the same as it once was and whatever monotony we feel in driving is overwhelmed by the sense of purpose in going somewhere.

Wherever my thoughts may be, they get snapped back to the present by red and blue flashing lights. A set of three police cars is ahead of us and the highway is roped off and I slow down to pass them. We move past a motel and a restaurant and see a sign leading back to the interstate and only then realize we have not seen a single 66 sign. There are no more of them, or just very few, because they are so iconic that people pull over and tear them down as mementos and I am sad about that because more than anything I can hold in my hand, I just want a picture of me and Route 66.

We are both looking at the road, trying to find a painted image of the highway sign when Curtis sees it in the rearview mirror. I slam on the breaks and turn around and come to a stop underneath a nest of signs, three of them stacked on top of each other, and the topmost sign was the most pleasant scene of painted metal I may have ever seen: Route 66, the old highway sign, ten or twelve feet off the ground, above the green signs proclaiming distance to wherever, impossible to steal unless you have a ladder. And we stopped and got out and took a picture and then, only then, did Arizona end and Los Angeles begin.

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