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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Sorry, but. . .

 . . .there will be no new post this week. I started something but decided I didn't like it. There will be next week.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Another anniversary

 It's been 59 years and it's not surprising that the November 22 anniversary last Tuesday passed unnoticed.  I want to commemorate it by offering up this extraordinary 2013 piece from the Boston Globe on the impact of the assassination in New England. The author was very young, but he had real historical/journalistic talent.  I can't remember exactly how he found me but I am very proud to have contributed one paragraph.  Do make sure to read to the end.  It really captures that very different era.

Click the link to open in Google Docs.  You probably can't access the proquest link unless you have proquest access.



Friday, November 18, 2022

By the numbers

The World Cup begins on Sunday.  It has been the single biggest event in my sporting calendar since I first had the opportunity to watch one in 1974, and although its award to Qatar was a disgrace, I am thrilled that it will fill up my time for what is always the most depressing month of the year for me because of the early New England sunsets.  After nearly 18 years of diligent weekly postings I could use a brief vacation from History Unfolding and I may decide to give myself one--we shall see.  I promise to be back for the new year.   Meanwhile, I have time for some election commentary, and trust me, you are most unlikely to have seen similar commentary anywhere else.

It is now clear that while the Democrats have definitely held on to the Senate and will probably, in my opinion, increase their majority by one next month, the Republicans have regained control of the House of Representatives by a majority of between one and five.  Previously worried about a red wave, the mainstream media are portraying this as a Republican defeat.  It isn't--the Republicans are substantially more powerful with one House under their control and this will almost surely make it impossible for the Democrats to pass any major legislation for the next two years.  Moreover, as I have just discovered, the aggregate data suggests that this is the most encouraging election for the Republicans to have taken place in many years.  Hold on to your hats while I explain why.

In 2016, while Donald Trump was narrowly defeating Hillary Clinton while losing the popular vote, the Republicans won the popular vote in House elections quite narrowly, by 63.2 million votes to 61.8 million, or 49.1 percent to 48 percent.  That was good enough for a substantial 241-194 majority in the House, which suggests that Democrats very validly complained about the impact of Republican gerrymandering in various states--I don't know exactly how to do the math, but I don't think that a 1 percent edge in the overall vote should have produced a 47-seat edge.  The turnaround two  years into the Trump administration was quite astonishing.  This time the Democrats polled 60.6 million votes (53.4 percent) to 50.9 million for the Republicans (44.6 percent.)  That gave them a 41-seat gain and a 235-200 majority.  That also seems to me a somewhat low majority result for a 6 percent edge in the national popular vote.

Gerrymandering also seems to have played a role in the 2020 elections.  While Joe Biden was beating Donald Trump with a seven million popular plurality, 51.3 percent to 46.8 percent, the House Democrats did only slightly worse, winning with 77.5 million votes to 72.8 million, and 50.8 percent of the Congressional vote to 47.7 percent.  They nonetheless lost 13 seats, leaving their majority at 222-213, which once again looks a bit harrow to me given their 3 percent edge in the popular vote.

Well, brace yourselves, sports fans.  In the last midterms the Democrats had won 60.6 million votes for 53.4 percent of the total.  This year the incomplete tally shows them with 49.7 million votes and just 47.3 percent of the total.  The Republicans, with 53.4 million votes, took 50.8 percent of the total. This means, to begin with, that so far, with votes still being counted in some areas, the turnout was about 7 million votes lower than in the last midterm election.  It means that the Republicans did much better in this national vote than in any of the three previous ones.  It also looks to me as if gerrymandering didn't help them at all.  A 50.8-47.3 percent majority, I would think, would be expected to give them a significantly higher majority than they now project to have.

Now progressives tend to set the tone of Democratic commentary, perhaps because they now rule the nation's newsrooms. They are not only treating this result as a Democratic victory--instead of a warning of impending disaster next time around--but also crediting enthusiastic young voters for it.  Some that I know are also crowing that old Republican voters are dying off.  Unless the CNN exit polls were many miles off base, that is a fantasy.  According those polls, the 18-29 age group was 12 percent of the vote and 63% of it voted Democratic.  That was by far the highest Democratic percentage of any demographic slice, but it amounts to just 8 percent of the total vote, or about 17 percent of the total Democratic vote.  The 30-44 age group, only 21 percent of the electorate, voted Democratic by only 51 percent, making 11 percent of the total.  After that things get much worse for the Democrats.  The 45-64s (mostly Xers) were by far the largest bloc, 39 percent of the vote, and they voted Republican 54-44 percent, a landslide.  That still makes the Democratic Gen X vote 17 percent of the electorate, that is, a larger share than either their Gen Zs or Millennials.   The 65 and overs (basically Boomers with some Silents) were 28 percent of the electorate and 55 percent of them voted Republican--almost the same proportion as for Gen X.  

Now David Shor, a very sensible Democratic analyst, has argued that  the Democrats did better than expected because many independents and some Republicans voted Democratic because of the abortion issue and the shadow of Donald Trump.  The abortion issue clearly had a remarkable impact in Michigan and Minnesota, where the state legislatures flipped Democratic, and I expect there will be some referendums about it next time around, which might help Democratic turnout.  Donald Trump also appears to be a big loser in this election as well, perhaps in part because Republicans haven't woken up to how well they actually did, either.  Trump's demise, however, stands to hurt the Democrats a lot.  Any apparently reasonable Republican candidate, including Ron DeSantis, looks like a good bet for 2024, all the more so since we have no idea who the Democratic candidate will be if Biden, as seems likely, does not run.  If the Republicans simply allow local abortion votes to take their course and abandon Trump, their prospects look fairly bright.

I will try to update this post in a few weeks when final numbers are in.



Sunday, November 13, 2022

A Blast from the Past

 To begin with, I always say that if you are really smart, you are never afraid to say "I don't know" or "I was wrong."  And I was wrong two weeks ago (along with everyone else) about what was going to happen in the election, and I'm glad that I was. Nate Silver seems to agree with me about this and I'm looking forward to his explanation of why their House forecast was significantly off.  Meanwhile, it seems quite possible, though not probable, that the Democrats will even keep control of the House.  I would also not rule out the possibility that enough Republicans might defect from their party to swing control to the Democrats, if they initially emerge with a narrow majority and McCarthy is voted down for Speaker by the Trumpers, as seems quite possible.  I will defer any election analysis for later.

Meanwhile, over the last few days, I relived what remains the most exciting night of my life: November 8, 1960, when the nation barely elected John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon.  Youtube is a wonderful thing, and the entire CBS broadcast of that night is available there in three chunks. I watched the whole last chunk, from about 11:30, when a Kennedy victory seemed certain, to about 5:00 AM, when they signed off having called a majority of electoral votes (including Illinois) for Kennedy.  This wasn't exactly reliving that night because I watched Huntley, Brinkley and the rest on NBC then.  (A very edited version of their coverage is also available.)  I was 13 then and this was the first election that I ever followed closely.  My father was working in the campaign and had brought me to the DNC headquarters on a couple of Saturdays, where I actually met Robert Kennedy for the only time. I don't think, though, that I had given any thought to the possibility of his getting an administration job if JFK won, and I was very unpleasantly shocked a few months later when I found out that I would be spending the next two years in West Africa as a result. That, however, is another story.

Walter Cronkite anchored the broadcast, of course, and four correspondents covered the East, the South, the Midwest and the Far West, respectively.  The East, beginning with Connecticut--perhaps the only fully automated voting state--broke quickly for Kennedy, with Connecticut and New York joining Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania following suit thanks in part to a very big Catholic vote for him in the  Philadelphia area.  Northern New England however remained solidly Republican.  The South was one of the big stories because Kennedy did so well there.  While Mississippi chose an unpledged state of electors as a protest against the pro-civil rights platforms of both major parties and Alabama added a few of those as well, Nixon carried only Florida, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, while Kennedy took Georgia, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and above all Texas, his running mate's home state.  The broadcast featured a late night interview with Elmo Roper--the second-leading pollster in the country at that time after George Gallup--who claimed that Texas had appeared to be going for Nixon, as it had twice for Eisenhower, until right-wingers roughed up Johnson and Mrs. Johnson at a Dallas campaign event.  I had forgotten that incident.  Kennedy carried Texas by 46,000 votes, far more than have ever been stolen in any US election that I know of, and far more than the half-dozen Rio Grande Valley counties that gave him margins of 80 percent or more.

The dramatic action took place in the Midwest and to a lesser extent in the Far West.  Nixon surprisingly took Ohio, probably because of anti-Catholic prejudice in much of the state, while Kennedy rapidly secured a substantial lead in larger Illinois, of which more later. CBS News had given Kennedy Illinois, and with it a narrow electoral majority, by the time they signed off, although they did not "call" the election.  The midwestern cliffhangers that night were Michigan and Minnesota, which no one dared to call until the next morning, when Kennedy turned out to have taken Michigan by 67,000 votes and Minnesota by 22,000.  The network gave Kennedy New Jersey and Missouri early in the evening, but rural votes eventually reduced his margins in those states to 10,000 and a mere 4,000.  The western states, meanwhile, went almost entirely for Nixon--but California, the big prize with 32 electoral votes (New York then had 45) looked to be Kennedy country for hours after it began reporting in the middle of the night.  Kennedy jumped off to a big lead, and the commentators, who had plenty of sophisticated historical data at their command, reported that no Democrat had never lost such a lead in a California election.  CBS had not given the state to Kennedy when it signed off.  I went to bed around 3:00 AM, and woke up around 7:00, when NBC was signing off after having called California for Kennedy and called the election for him on that basis.  Within an hour or so, they had changed their minds.  Kennedy remained ahead when all the election day votes were counted, but eventually lost the state to Nixon by a margin of 36,000 votes after all the absentee ballots were counted. Only Nevada and New Mexico, and eventually Hawaii went Democratic among the western states.  It was a shock to me to realize yesterday that California had voted for only one Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, in all the presidential elections from 1952 until 1992.

As for Illinois, it has become a Republican myth that Mayor Richard J. Daley stole the 1960 vote for JFK, with the false implication that Nixon would otherwise have won.  Kennedy wound up with 303 electoral votes and would have had 276 and a majority without it.  Forty years ago, as I pointed out in The Road to Dallas, a political scientist named Kallina effectively debunked that myth with a very careful analysis of the Cook County vote. What I realized watching the broadcast was that the sequence of events during the night did not support that myth either, and indeed suggested that if anyone was manipulating the vote late at night it was downstate Republicans.  When CBS signed off around 5:00 AM that night, the count showed JFK ahead by 101,000 votes.  As it turned out, Nixon won 55 percent of the 877,000 votes that remained to be counted--most of them downstate--and the margin narrowed to just under 9,000 votes. 

The economic, demographic and political decline of the American Northeast and Midwest is perhaps the most striking impression left by watching the broadcast.  Pennsylvania that night had 32 electoral votes, tied with California, and Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan had 25, 27, and 20.  Florida had 10 and Texas 24.  In 2024 New York will have 28, Pennsylvania 19, Ohio 17, Illinois 19, and Michigan 15,  while the three largest are California (54), Texas (40), and Florida (30).  The broadcast's figures on the Middle West and the West illustrate other changes: Democrats and Republicans are competitive throughout those regions, although most of the South, then as now, is one-party territory.  Yet there is also an extraordinary difference in the tone of the coverage.  It is resolutely impartial.  Again and again Cronkhite points out that either Kennedy or Nixon will be the first president born in the 20th century, and European correspondent David Schoenbrun adds that they will be decades younger than any European leader with whom they will have to deal.  The commentators play down the issue of religion in the campaign, noting correctly that it might have helped Kennedy more than it hurt him, but ignoring that it clearly did determine the votes of millions of Americans on both sides.   Cronkhite remarks at one point that probably no president has ever been elected at a more dangerous moment in the history of the the nation and the world--a clear reference to the Cold War, then at its height--but he says that calmly, as he does everything else.  Nixon and Kennedy belonged to his generation--as do all the correspondents, I believe--and they had fought in or covered the Second World War and seen the nation emerge victorious from it. This election for them and for me at 13 was a critical episode in the great adventure that was the history of the United States.  I recommend at least a few minutes of the broadcast to all my readers as an artifact of a lost world.


Friday, November 04, 2022

Emotional Survival in a Difficult Age

 I began writing this blog eighteen years ago at a rather dark moment in US history.  George W. Bush's re-election campaign was in full swing, and the nation was mired in his Iraq War and a mad attempt to police the entire globe to halt international terrorism.  And while I have often in subsequent years been quite pessimistic about where the country was going, I know that many posts have been written in the hope that they might improve.  Now I am not so sure. Not only are the Republicans almost certain to win control of the House of Representatives next Tuesday, they also have a 50-50 chance of regaining control of the Senate as well.  That means another round of budget fights, government shutdowns, and endless Republican investigations of Democratic wrongdoing.  And that is not all.  Today news reports announce that if the Republicans are successful, Donald Trump will immediately announce his candidacy for a second term.  He leads Ron DeSantis, his closest rival for the Republican nomination, by a 2-1 margin.  Worse yet, I doubt very much that either Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, now the obvious heir apparent, could beat him.  I do not think that Trump really embodies the passions and the views of all Republicans, but it seems clear that his presence at the top of the ticket has not been, and probably will not be, enough to disrupt the normal rhythm of modern American politics, in which an unhappy electorate--and the electorate is very unhappy these days--takes out its anger on the party in power. The Democrats have in many ways staked their future on the idea that Trump's re-election would be a catastrophe. They are right, but I am not convinced that that position will ever have enough electoral appeal.

"Every epoch is immediate to God," wrote Leopold von Ranke, the founder of modern history, in the nineteenth century.  I am not religious enough to use language like that, but I agree that every epoch manifests certain aspects of human nature.  My most important political values--free speech, representative government, the idea that reason can drive policy, and most of all a concept of equal citizenship--have actually held sway for relatively small portions of modern history, in relatively restricted areas. They first emerged in the ancient world, but were overthrown in the late Roman empire by corruption and Christianity, as I discovered reading a remarkable book by Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind.  It took about 1000 years for the Renaissance to re-establish the classical values, and that began about four centuries in which they steadily gained ground in Europe and spread elsewhere. Now they are in retreat, above all in the academy, which has abandoned its responsibility to maintain them.  Literally anything could happen, I think, in the next fifty  years.

My inspiration George Orwell entertained some terrifying visions of the future, most notably in 1984, but he died, very young, in 1950, while civilization still seemed to be advancing.  I don't feel that it is now, for many reasons.  So the question arises:  without a great deal of hope about our future, how do we sustain our interest in life for how long is left us?  Both history and literature, I think, offer some answers.

I have actually spent a good deal of my life living in the more or less distant past with the help of primary and secondary sources.  I have written about some great human catastrophes, most notably those of the two world wars to which I devoted one section of Politics and War.  So far, while history sometimes goes in the wrong direction for a long time, it does eventually take a big turn for the better.  I am more and more doubtful that I will live to see the next one--but that doesn't mean that it will not take place.  And when it does, to judge from the past, the great human achievements of earlier eras will come to life again--including the first two hundred years of the history of the United States.  People may rediscover some of my favorite books.  Even my own might survive.

Meanwhile I have been thinking of a favorite poem by one of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats.  Entitled Lapis Lazuli, it was written in the 1930s in the shadow of an impending war, to which the opening stanza explicitly refers.  In one respect this poem is a challenge to 21st century readers because it repeatedly uses a three-letter word that has now acquired a new meaning.  I am sure there are critics out there now who would argue that Yeats was consciously or unconsciously using the modern meaning, but trust me, he wasn't.  In a remarkably short space, Yeats draws on both history and art to express eternal hope while the world teeters on the edge of a catastrophe.  The poem also reminds me how much my own favorite works of art, literature, music and history have meant to me throughout my life, including, or especially in difficult times.  I will end by reproducing it in full.

Lapis Lazuli

(for Harry Clifton)

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilizations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.