October 2010 Archives

Deja Vu All Over Again?


For all my flaws as a historian, I'd be the first to tell you that I'm still a heck of a lot better at trying to sort out the past than trying to predict the future. However, like most of you, I'm all caught up in next week's bid-term congressional elections and what the heck? I can't be much worse at political prognostication than I've been picking football games this fall. Like choosing winners and losers on the gridiron, election-guessing involves some attention to the polls. My favorite place to go for aggregated poll data is RealClearPolitics.com.   Unlike Fox and NPR, these folks really try to  retain a modicum of objectivity, and anybody inclined to suspect a liberal bias need only take a look at the butt-whipping they project for the Dems on November 2.  With 218 seats constituting a majority in the House, the Democrats currently hold 255 to the GOP's 178. The boys and girls at Real Clear (here's hoping they're not into some "Everclear") foresee the Repubs with a veritable lock on 223 seats already and in the hunt for at least 36 more.  Without splitting too many hairs, it seems likely that the GOP could wind up just south of where the slumping Democrats have been perched the last two years. Speaking of "South," that's where 30 to 40% of the seats that will likely change hands - or posteriors - next week are situated. White southern Democrats have been on the "endangered species or perhaps "dead and just don't know it yet" list for quite a while now. Of the 59 Democrats representing the old Confederacy in the House, 43 of them are white. Based on a quick sweep of congressional Dems in decidedly dire straits this year, I'd say that number might be down in the mid-to low 30s after November 2. White Democrats representing a majority white constituency who survived this year's potential debacle in the House are not just skilled politicians. They are flat-out magicians or perhaps better yet, charlatans.

  Meanwhile, the outcome in the Senate is a bit harder to call. With the Democrats currently up 59 to 41, Real Clear sees eight tossup races but is inclined to think that the GOP will win them all.  Reports elsewhere suggest that the embattled Democrats in a few of these contests seem to be rallying, however.  On the basis of nothing more than a hunch and the fact that it's just plain harder to dislodge an incumbent Senator, where the folks in the know see the Dems emerging from the fray with a whisker-thin 51-49 advantage, I'm thinking it might be more like a still fairly anorexic 53-47.

 Over the last two years, the Dems have found Republican bipartisanship about as scarce as Brittany's undies. If they manage to cling to the Senate, things won't change much there.  If the Republicans do in fact claim a modest majority in the House, they may well fare a little better, because in order to survive, many across the aisle have already found it necessary to become DINOS--"Democrats In Name Only." 

In re underdrawers, it sure seemed as if Georgia Republican gubernatorial nominee Nathan Deal got caught with his around his ankles several times in recent months, at least according to the Office of Congressional Ethics (How's that for an oxymoron?), which raised questions about the propriety of Deal's alleged efforts to pressure Georgia officials to maintain operating policies favorable to his salvage company's operation.  Deal effectively ended the probe when he resigned from Congress, but the ethics investigators already had enough evidence to issue a report saying he had used his office improperly for personal gain and then exceeded congressional limits on outside income to boot. Reportedly this information attracted the attention of some folks at the Justice Department, so, apparently, there's still a chance that if Deal is elected, the sovereign voters of Georgia may see him indicted before they see him inaugurated.

There's also that matter of an approximately $2.3 million loan that he allegedly secured and renewed on suspiciously favorable terms.  Deal has tried to bomfog on this issue by saying that, like any loving father, he sought the loan in order to bolster a business operated by his daughter and son-in-law.  The belly of said business is now pointing heavenward, leaving Daddy on the hook and apparently teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy.  On the face of it, all of this should add up to an easy time of it for Deal's Democratic opponent, former Gov. Roy Barnes. However, most recent polls have Barnes mired in the low to mid 40s where he's been since the campaign began while Deal is hovering near the 50% mark.  The inelasticity of Barnes's numbers reflects the reality that, as a former governor and legislature or before that, he has a pretty well-defined set of friends and enemies and is having trouble making more of the former.  Barnes is the first to admit that he made some serious errors during his first go at the governorship, but the prospect that half of Georgia's voters might be mashing the button for a guy totin' as much suspicious baggage as Deal is about as startling as poll numbers showing 40% support for that Wiccan Wacko, Christine O'Donnell in the Delaware Senate race.( My perceptive friend Jim  points out that these figures may well understate Ms. O'D's strength because wiccans, warlocks, vampires, etc. are typically in the sack during daylight hours when pollsters come calling.)  I'm inclined to think that part of this is purely and simply good old-fashioned Obama hate--Deal is a "birther" and both are ardent Obamaphobes and faithful adherents to  the gospel according to Palin, i.e., so long as you are fervent enough, what you  profess to believe is far more important that what you actually know.

In the long run, the really big question is not what happens next Tuesday but what happens thereafter. Although Obama is vulnerable primarily because of the stubbornly high unemployment rate, the Republicans have  hitched their wagon to the frenetic agitators of the Tea Bagger movement, none of whom, so far as I can tell has ever offered any opinion or even suggestion as to how our economy might be brought around.  They are more concerned about proving once and for all that our president is an alien infidel, or preventing stem cell research, or guaranteeing our rights to take our Glocks  and Berettas into restaurants, pre-schools, airports, or anywhere else we damn well please.  This outfit won't constitute anything like a majority of any new Republican majority in Congress, but you can be assured they will think that majority is totally beholden to them, and hence their agenda should prevail over trivial matters such as joblessness, homelessness, or health care.  I wouldn't be surprised if dealing with these folks for a few months makes the Republican leadership nostalgic for Ms. Pelosi.

 Frankly, this scenario reminds me a good bit of 1994, when Newtsie-Tootsie and all the young Republicans with their hair on fire blew in and took control of Congress for the first time since 1952, promising "cross their hearts" to implement every jot and tittle of their vaunted "Contract with America."  Remember term limits and mandatory budget balancing? Anybody recollect how that went, and while you're at it, could you refresh my memory as to who was elected president in 1996? It's great fun and not terribly difficult to blame the government when things are going badly. Of course that strategy has its limitations if you actually become part of government yourself and don't have a clue about how to make things better for people who don't give a damn about your narrow little agenda. I'll grant you that a lot can happen in the next 24 months, but let me point out that national polls still put B. O.'s approval rating at 46% compared to 31% for the Republican congressional antagonists who seem poised to clean his party's clock in a few days. Nancy Pelosi may well lose her job to John Boehner on Tuesday( provided of course, his tanning bed doesn't short out and turn him into a strip of beef jerky before then), but that doesn't mean that Barack Obama is destined to lose his two years from now. 

Bet Your Mama Doesn't Have a Ferrari Named for Her!!

      I have no earthly idea how my Mama, Modena Vickery Cobb, whose folks lived in the rural-as-they-come Reed Creek section of Hart County, Georgia, came to be named for an Italian city once known principally for producing balsamic vinegar and now known primarily for producing ultra-high-end sports cars like Lamborghinis, Maseratis, and, naturally, the Ferrari "Modena 360," which in addition to Ferrari red, also comes in Modena yellow.


       Although the Italian connection is rendered a bit shaky by the fact that as a Georgian, Mama was naturally known as "Mo-Deena," I still think it's fitting that she was born on Columbus Day, more specifically, October 12, 1910. That's right, had she not exited this world on February 2, 1989, she would be 100 years old this week.

       I often ask my students to try to comprehend the changes witnessed by people whose lives spanned a particular historical era. In my Mama's case, she was born roughly three months after the famous fighter Jack Johnson defeated Jim Jeffries in a bout that ignited racial violence across the country. William Howard Taft was president and still in the reasonably good graces of his imperious predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, who had recently returned from a protracted hunting expedition on which he likely slaughtered at least one of every creature known to inhabit the continent of Africa. It would be four years before Europe was plunged into war and three more before the United States was drawn into the conflict that Woodrow Wilson called the "war to end all wars." Roughly eighteen months later, according to Mama's recollection, she would stand on the banks of the Tugalo River and hear the cotton mill whistles in the towns just across the river in South Carolina signaling the signing of the "Armistice," meaning that the boys who had gone "over there" would be coming home soon.     

      There would be other wars of course, not to mention the Great Depression, which---after tying the knot in 1932---she and my dad (who was five years older) would survive pretty much by growing as much of what they ate as they could and bartering eggs, butter, and an occasional ham for necessities they could not produce on their own. She recalled quite well when, as a child, she and her family were out working in the field and saw their very first airplane, but she would live to sit with her son and watch a man set foot on the moon for the first time and later to hop on a big jet on numerous occasions to visit him and his family.


      The Russian Revolution was still seven years away when she was born, and she would live long enough to see the Great Soviet dream of empire largely come to grief in Afghanistan. She was ten years old when commercial radio broadcasting began, but she would become a fanatical television viewer and a huge fan of TV remote controls. She delighted in telling of the time when she was hospitalized and her neighbors in nearby rooms were playing their sets at what she considered to be excessively high volume. Upon discovering that all of the hospital remotes operated on the same frequency, she began patrolling the halls "adjusting" the sound levels for other patients who must surely have thought they had experienced sudden and dramatic hearing loss.

       She passed on before most of us had ever heard of an Internet, and I'm fairly certain she would have generally disdained it as too trashy for her, although I'm guessing she would've made an exception when it came to Skyping with her great-grandson. (As fascinating as intergenerational connections can be, the times when they are short-circuited are worth pondering as well. I find it mind-boggling, for example, that my Grandma Cobb and I missed connection by nearly thirty years because she died in the horrible influenza epidemic of 1918.)

In the long run, an individual's historical longevity is measured not simply in terms of when they were born and when they died. Rather, it is a reflection of their lasting impact on those who survived them. Using this standard, I would cite the exceedingly long shadow of former UCLA coach John Wooden, who died in June but would have reached the century mark this week as well. My Mama's fame was largely local, of course, but I know for sure that she made it onto the "most unforgettable character" lists of most folks who ever came to know her. As for her impact on me, I tried, however inadequately, to do it justice in the dedication of my last book:

Whatever else may be said of this book, few will deny its ambition. It seems fitting, therefore, that it should be offered in tribute to the person who instilled in me the determination and drive (my strongest suits by far) to undertake such a project. "'Can't' never did anything, Jimmy," she used to say, and I have recalled those words countless times over the years when I had almost convinced myself that I had set my sights too high or overestimated my abilities. Her example spoke to me even more authoritatively than her words, however. Here was a woman with eleven years of formal education who spent the prime of her life on a played-out farm where ends didn't always meet and never traveled more than 100 miles from home until she was in her sixties. Yet her grasp of history and current affairs was encyclopedic and sure, and her love of language and poetry both pure and profound. A skilled seamstress and cook, she was also a natural mechanic [She could have kept her namesake Ferrari purring like a kitten, without breaking a sweat.] and a more accomplished and exacting carpenter than any man I ever saw. She always demanded his best effort from her son, but once she knew she had gotten it, that was always good enough for her.

I don't have any illusions about making it to a hundred. In fact, the next couple of weeks look pretty shaky, but I do know that however long anyone who knew my Mama lives, she will too. 

It's Hard to Be Humble, When You're "Class of '65"

nancy hart.jpg

The aggregation of innocents pictured above is my first grade class at Nancy Hart Elementary School, Hart County, Georgia, taught by Mrs. Mamie Brown, a true saint if this world has ever known one.  In case you're curious, yours very truly is seated at the left on the very first row. Note that the picture was taken in April and I am unshod. ( If this, plus the fact that I actually picked cotton and lived in a mobile home twice, doesn't solidify my credentials as a purebred--and who knows, perhaps inbred as well--southerner, then I don't know what it will take.)  Nine of my fellow first graders at Nancy Hart were in attendance when the famous (If you ain't heard of us, it's definitely on you.)Class of 1965 gathered on September 25 to commemorate the 45th anniversary of their graduation from Hart County High School.

Some folks, I suspect, would find little attraction in the idea of commemorating their forty-fifth year out of high school by getting together with a bunch of people who generally look their age and remind you that you probably do too. Not me, brothers and sisters. I ate up every minute of this past weekend's activities, even though I found myself looking at name tags a lot more this time than at our fortieth.

There were 204 of us who claimed our sheepskins on May 31, 1965. Not only were we the largest graduating class in school history, but we were also the last all-white one. A court order issued over the summer would see to that. Moreover, while we were bopping along to the Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda" (the number one song the week we graduated), decisions that would profoundly affect our generation were coming to light as it became increasingly clear that the Johnson administration intended to escalate our involvement in the Vietnam conflict dramatically. There would be 184,000 American troops in Vietnam by the end of the year and some 537,000 at the peak of the fighting to come.

This war would claim the lives of several classmates, some directly and immediately and some by degrees. One of the latter, the most recent of our thirty classmates who are now deceased, lost his leg in Vietnam and struggled the rest of his life to find his place in the world. When he suddenly fell terribly ill a few months ago, his country offered him no recompense for his sacrifice. Even as he lay ravaged and dying with cancer, the VA hospital would not accept him as a patient, and the Veterans Administration accepted no responsibility even for providing him with a decent place to die. At that point, two of his former classmates, both also fellow vets, stepped forward with the kind of compassion and character that made me doubly proud to be a member of the HCHS Class of 1965 and made arrangements to get our stricken comrade into hospice care.

He lasted only a few days there, but when the VA declined to reimburse them, the hospice folks were out some $5,100 in expenses. Determined not to see the matter end this way, one of the 1965ers who had gotten him into the hospice unit called on the rest of us via the listserv for the upcoming reunion to see to it that one of our own who had been so ill-served by the country he had defended so courageously should not have his passing recorded in red ink. Within a few weeks, contributions to the hospice in honor of our classmate exceeded the expenses for his care by roughly $2,000.

I'm sure some weighed in more heavily than others on this, but I know for a fact that a chunk of it came from folks who ain't exactly lighting cigars with $20 bills. I wouldn't argue if you told me  that members of other groups would step up like this to honor the memory of someone they knew forty-five years ago and hadn't seen much, if at all, since, but that doesn't mean I believed you. What I saw and sensed among our crew on reunion night was the same feeling of cohesion and mutual acceptance that I always associated with our class.


Speaking of weighing in heavily, this is what I looked like when I graduated from high school.  Not only had I obviously developed quite a taste for my mama's biscuits since the first grade, but I lived out in the country in a tiny little tin-roofed house which had only recently been outfitted with indoor plumbing. Yet fat and "country" as I was, I never felt anything but complete acceptance from the "town" kids who lived in circumstances far more elevated than mine. I'm sure there were class divisions back then just as there are now, but they sure didn't seem to count for much at this event. I bragged on our new grandson to any and all, and they reciprocated heartily in kind.   There was also talk of that time some of the girl's basketball team got caught smoking in the janitor's closet, not to mention all the Saturday night hi-jinks in the Dairy Queen parking lot, which was the absolute epicenter of our social universe in 1965.  For a few hours, at least, waistlines seemed to recede while hairlines advanced.


Ah, the stories we could tell.

Though it was clear that on a day-in, day-out basis, many of us might not have that much in common, for a night, at least, whether we worked in three-piece suits or coveralls mattered a whole lot less than a shared connection that was rooted in a particular place and a particular time but has held fast even as times have changed enormously. In a time when discord, division, and just pure-tee meanness seem to be the order of the day for a whole lot of politicians--not to mention quite a few preachers--who are hellbent on demonizing those who seem "different," it was mighty good to be amongst people who, despite their differences, were still genuinely proud to be a part of a group where they knew without a doubt they belonged.

However earnest they may be at the time, individual promises to "stay in touch" are rarely fulfilled when reunion-eers are forced to abandon their nostalgic revelry and re-enter their own present-day, real-world lives, but being "in touch" isn't always a matter of emails or phone calls so much as a mindset that willfully refuses to let old emotional connections to others wither and die. Talk of such might seem archaic or purely wishful these days, but I've seen just that mindset endure among my old classmates for forty-five years now, and I'm bettin' a half century is well within our reach.

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