A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Friday, November 11, 2016

Barack, We Hardly Knew Ye

After Jack Kennedy was killed, I promised myself I would never fall in love with a politician again. And I was able to keep that promise for 50 years until a skinny guy with a funny name called Barack Obama came along.
He was everything JFK was, minus the philandering. Whatever else you think of him, you have to admit: The man has style.
I can't decide which is my favorite Obama picture, but it has to be one that shows his special connection with children. I can't help smiling every time I see the one in the Oval Office when he pretended to be caught in a web cast by a 2-year-old in a Spiderman costume.
But the picture that moves me to tears every time is the one of him bending over to let a little African American boy touch his hair. Yes, little boy, the President's hair is just like yours.
But as proud as he made me, nothing compares to his conduct last week, when he so graciously welcomed the man behind the birther movement as his successor. He must have been dying inside, but he never let it show. He has more class in his little finger than that man has in his whole body.
He wanted to change the culture of Washington, but on the day he took office he was handed a crisis not of his own making that he couldn't have anticipated: the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. And the Republicans blocked him at every move. As Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for Obama to be a one-term president."
When Tea Party rallies featured signs depicting him as a gorilla or a witch doctor, they just smiled and looked the other way. When birthers said he wasn't a legitimate president because he was really born in Kenya, they never uttered a peep of disapproval.
When right-wing talk show hosts slandered him, they rubbed their hands in glee. But did they ever stop to think how his daughters must have felt when saw signs depicting him with a bone through his nose?
But as bad as it got, he never complained. He just kept doing his duty - saving the economy, reforming health care, signing an agreement with Iran to diffuse its nuclear weapons, ending the Cuba embargo, taking the first steps toward curbing climate change, killing Osama Bin Laden, and welcoming LGBTs into the American family.
And now it's all going to go away. The new president has promised to dismantle everything Obama accomplished; and with both Congress and the Supreme Court on his side, he's likely to succeed. We are entering a dark age from which we might not emerge for a long time, if ever.
But there's one thing they can't take away: The memory of a time when there was a president who appealed to the better angels of our nature, rather than our worst hatreds and fears. If you think you miss him now, just wait a couple of months.
Ask ev'ry person if he's heard the story/And tell it strong and clear if he has not/Don't let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment that was known/As Camelot.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Greatest Story Never Told

(Above: On May 11, 1994, First Lady Hillary Clinton and five of her predecessors -Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson - in an unprecedented joint fundraising effort to create the National Botanical Garden on the National Mall. The only living First Lady unable to attend was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was then terminally ill, and died a week later. Photo from the Clinton Presidential Library.)

I thought I was being so clever, waiting until this morning to run this story on the California magazine the day after Hillary Clinton's smashing election victory. Needless to say, it didn't quite work out that way, and this story will never see the light of day - except here:

Now that Hillary Clinton has been elected America's first female president, the top item on her to-do list, even before she tackles ISIS and the economy, is: What are we going to do with Bill?
"I wouldn't be surprised if she named him ambassador to Tokyo," says Daniel Sargent, Associate Professor of History at Cal. "Getting him out of Washington would be the most prudent move she could make."
But why Tokyo?
"Because we don't have an embassy in Antarctica."
Seriously, though, Bill Clinton presents a challenge for both the president-elect and the rest of us, starting with what to call him: First Gentleman? First Spouse? Or, as Sarah Palin used to call her husband Todd, First Dude?
"I think 'First Gent' has a nice ring to it," says Carl Anthony, official historian at the National First Ladies Library and author of a dozen books on the subject of presidential spouses, including individual biographies of Jackie Kennedy, Nellie Taft, Betty Ford, and Florence Harding. "It's short, sweet, and a little jaunty."
Whatever we call him, how will our first male presidential spouse change the job?
"The question is complicated by the fact that Bill will not only be the first man in that role, he'll be the first former president, too," says Sargent. "But in the end, it's the dynamics of the marriage and the tenor of the times that have always determined what the role is, and that role has fluctuated over the years. For instance, before the 1950s we had several first ladies who exerted considerable political influence, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith, who became the de facto president for the last year of his term after he suffered a stroke. It's striking that it was she, not the Vice President, Thomas Marshall, who took over.
"But after World War II we had a retrenchment, a redefinition of the role into a symbolic, maternal, feminine figure, like Mamie Eisenhower. It's easy for historians to characterize the '50s as a period of traditional beliefs that have been set in stone since time immemorial, but it's more accurate to say it was a time of self-conscious reaction against the assertiveness of the pre-war period."
Of course, even the most political First Ladies have taken pains to play down that aspect of their role. In her autobiography, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, "The political influence that was attributed to me was nil where my husband was concerned. If I felt strongly about anything, I told Franklin, since he had the power to do things and I did not. But he did not always feel as I felt."
But in his book Eleanor and Franklin, Eleanor's protégé Joseph Lash describes their daughter Anna squirming uncomfortably at the dinner table as Eleanor hectored FDR over some policy issue and finally blurting, "Mother, you're giving Father indigestion!"
Anthony says the position of presidential spouse is actually a combination of two different roles, and each occupant of the position has balanced them differently.
"One the one hand, you're the spouse. On the other, you're First Lady. One role is personal; the other is ceremonial. It's been slightly over 100 years since we haven't had a presidential spouse in the White House - the period from the death of Ellen Wilson in 1914 to the president's second marriage a year later. We had no presidential wife, but we still had a First Lady - actually, two: Wilson's daughter Margaret and Ellen's secretary, Helen Bones. Together, these two women fulfilled the ceremonial role. So that's the first scenario: no spouse, but a female relative standing alongside the president at public ceremonies.
"Go back a little deeper into the 19th Century, and we have a slightly different twist on this duality. For instance, Andrew Johnson's wife Eliza had tuberculosis, and when they moved into the presidential mansion in June 1865, two months after the Lincoln assassination, it was announced in the newspapers that Mrs. Johnson, given her delicate health, would not be performing the public role as hostess in the White House. So her married daughter, Martha Patterson, took over the public role. But Eliza still performed her private role as presidential spouse. She sustained him emotionally during his impeachment trial and gave him advice. So that's scenario number two – private yes, public no.
"The third variation on this scenario is the times when we had presidents who were widowers when they entered the White House, like Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and Chester Arthur, so we had neither a presidential spouse nor a First Lady. Most history books will tell you that Jefferson's daughter Martha, Van Buren's daughter-in-law Angelica, and Arthur's sister Mary Arthur McElroy performed the hostess duties, but that's just a summary, and in a summery the truth gets lost.
"The fact is that Jefferson was president for eight years, but Martha came up to the White House for only two social seasons. All the 'female' decisions – selecting the China patterns, choosing the guest list, planning the menus – Jefferson did all that himself.
"Same thing with Van Buren. Angela didn't marry his son Abram until the last year of his term, and most of that time was spent on honeymoon in Europe with her husband. So for most of his administration the China patterns, guest lists, and menus were selected by the president himself. The same thing was repeated in the Arthur administration. And as recently as Richard Nixon, you have a president who was weighing in on choices for food and wine that were being served to guests at state dinners.
"So there is nothing in history to suggest that Hillary Clinton can't do it. All those chuckles and hoo-ha about Bill choosing the menus are just not the case. The Clinton situation is not going to provide one ultimate 'right' choice in terms of historical precedent. She might have Bill or Chelsea serve as surrogates on particular social occasions – for example, the First Lady's afternoon teas, which have been going on since the McKinley administration. The First Lady doesn't actually serve the tea, she just stands in the receiving line. So all those chuckles and hoo-ha about Bill serving tea are just not the case. None of them served tea.
"Then there are the occasions when the head of state of another country visits the White House. He or she is welcomed on the North Portico by both the President and First Lady, and Bill has already done that. The only difference this time is that she will be making the welcoming speech instead of him."
"So you can see that there's no one 'right' way to be First Lady. It can be whatever the Clintons make of it. There's historical precedent for whatever they choose."
But Dan Mulhern, a lecturer at Cal's Goldman School of Public Policy, says that though the public role of First Lady waxes and wanes from administration to administration, the private role – presidential spouse – is just as important as ever. And he speaks from personal experience; he spent eight years as First Gent of Michigan when his wife, Jennifer Granholm (who graduated from Cal in 1984 and currently heads Hillary Clinton's transition team), served as governor from 2003 to 2011.
"The best advice I ever got was from a former First Lady of Michigan, Paula Blanchard," he says. "She told me, 'Your primary role will be emotional. Your wife is going to get assailed from a thousand different directions. Even your closest friends will have an agenda. She's going to be on stage 24/7, so she'll need a safe harbor.' I knew in my bones she was right. I knew it was true, and it remained true, and it's more true now than it was then."
And he's shared this advice with Bill Clinton.
"I talked to him about this in 2008 during the primary campaign. I told him, 'The most important thing you can do is support Hillary. Help her be her best, be a sounding board, and remind her of her heart, her vision, and why she's in it in the first place when it's getting ugly or when you're going through a difficult stretch.' And he was receptive. We haven't talked about it since."
But make no mistake: This will be a life-changer for Bill.
"When you're in this role, it's not unlike an altar boy to a priest or a caddy to a golfer," Mulhern says. "It's not about you and your strengths, and Bill's strengths are extraordinary. He's going to face the challenge of being on the sidelines, of not having knee-jerk reactions and writing tweets at three in the morning. People come up to you, look right past you, or use you to get to your wife. They think you're just a nice piece of arm candy. Women have a lot more experience dealing with that B.S., but he's going to have to learn."