Finding America’s soul

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is one of the greatest pieces of Americana ever put to screen. From the frenetic singing and snappy-but-dated dialogue, the Michael Curtiz-helmed biopic of George M. Cohan is filled with patriotic fare. But what makes it so wonderful is that it’s deliciously subversive. See, the film stars James Cagney, who was regularly labeled a communist and the film was somewhat seen as a way to save his reputation.  And throughout the film, we see America’s warts as well as its glories. Cagney – and Curtiz – aren’t about to shy away from the issues America faces. This is typified by the final scene in which the butt of the movie’s final joke is an ignorant American soldier heading off to fight in World War II. Now, don’t get me wrong. This film doesn’t address all of America’s ills. It just doesn’t deny they exist. It also shows how we often use the arts to hide our ills. In that theme, it’s almost as good as Childish Bambino’s effervescently and brilliantly challenging “This is America.”

As I read Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America,” I kept thinking about “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “This is America,” and the themes that it brings up: patriotism, what it means to be an American, how we struggle, generation by generation, for a “more perfect union.”

Meacham is one of America’s best historians and he wrote the book in response to the divided times we live in and how they give us a sense of hopelessness. Though it’s only 300 pages, plus 100 pages of notes, the book is incredibly thorough for a canvassing of such a wide-ranging topic.      

He takes readers on a voyage from the Civil War through the Johnson Administration, with some detours to prior eras and today, while showing us how we’ve overcome plenty of divided times. He doesn’t shy away from America’s biggest failures: slavery, Japanese internment, voting restrictions, Jim Crow, Joe McCarthy, the Red Scare. As someone who minored in American Studies and has two bookcases of already read history books, I learned new things on every page. His gift in this book is to illuminate bygone eras and bringing a needed perspective. He shows readers how those who stood up to McCarthy eventually toppled him, for example. And he doesn’t shy away from how destructive Trumpism is to the nation that progress has built.

The idea Meacham is pushing isn’t a patriotism epitomized by bluster, bumper stickers and empty recitations of anthems. It’s the patriotism of the men who sweated out hot summer days in 1780s Philadelphia, of Malcolm Jenkin’s raised fist, of the men and women who knew they would be unjustly rejected but showed up to vote anyway, of the immigrant making a place for themselves in an unknown land. Most of the time, that patriotism takes the form of the sitting president, often as a foil to the current oval office occupant. This is most evident in the depiction of Roosevelt standing up to Nazis abroad and at home as he is still guiding the nation out of the depression. But it also takes shape in the people whose daily struggles pushed our nation forward. To Meacham’s credit, we also see where great men have failed. Again, this is best seen in Roosevelt, who chose not to push as hard for civil rights as he could have, didn’t fight hard enough to save European Jews, and also interred the Japanese.

One thing you see from our best leaders, whether they occupied the oval office or not, is an immense sense of hope. You see it in FDR, in Lyndon Johnson, in Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. You see it in the suffragettes and Martin Luther King.

Meacham never outright says it, but the stories he tells and the people he shows you do. The greatest part of this country has never been it’s military winning victories in far off lands. It’s the struggle that the everyman or the president makes to build a better community.

Meacham tells us about an actor who is part of a ceremony to honor a veteran for his interred family, who said:

Blood that has soaked into the sand of a beach is all of one color. America stands unique in the world: the only country not founded on race but on a way, an ideal. Not in spite of but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American Way.”

That American actor, speaking the decade “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was released to honor a prior generation’s popular entertainer, would go on to be president. While holding the office, he would officially apologize for the nation’s actions interring the Japanese.

If you haven’t, pick up “Soul of America,” and cherish it.

Finding America’s soul

An interesting viewpoint

I am hip deep in a wonderful book, Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America.”

It’s my second Meacham this year – “Franklin and Winston” was solid – and this might be one of the best comprehensive histories of the nation I’ve ever read. I’ll toss up a deeper review later, but I wanted to point out this passage on Joe McCarthy.

The book itself is a response to Trumpism. Meacham digs down into some of the grimy areas of our nation’s history and plucks out what virtue or luck kept us moving toward that more perfect union.

I’ve long thought there were parallels to McCarthy in Trumpism, particularly the vainglorious thug who capitalizes on the fears of the populace. But I think this press reaction is an interesting point.

But I feel compelled to say this: It shouldn’t just be McCarthy and Trump whom the press points out as liars. Now, these two trafficked in it so regularly, it couldn’t be avoided. But the idea that something should be reported without a check in the hard news story is absurd. Journalists have an obligation to their readers and the facts to point out the demonstrable lies. I point this out not to worship at the altar of Both Sidesism, but because one of the defining moments during my lifetime in this country is the Iraq war. The national press still too often cowrtows how much the public was misled in that episode.

We cannot afford that under Trump or his successors. We must learn our lessons.

An interesting viewpoint

A few questionse

This list includes a very diverse group of countries. For example, the populations are immensely different. China has 1.3 billion people, Russia has 144 million, Greece has 10 million.

But it’s a telling graphic.

We hear a lot of talking points from people in denial about what causes our school shooting problem.

That the breakdown of the family has led to this problem. If you think that, here are a few questions for you: Which of those countries has a lower divorce rate than the United States? Which of them allows gay marriage? Which of them allows abortion?

That it’s about our violent culture? Again, a few questions: Can you buy “Grand Theft Auto” videogames in any of those countries? Can you see a movie like “The Equalizer” or “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” in those countries?

That it’s about mental health issues? Do those countries do not have people with similar mental health issues? Do those people have easier access to mental health support, and if so, are you pushing for reforms here?

That it’s about bullying or boys who are rejected by girls. These rancid trains of thought are gathering steam. A few final questions. Does bullying not happen in those other countries? When did it become an idea that young boys – or men – have a right to another person’s body? Do other countries not allow women to deny the advances of a man?

Maybe it’s something else that has led to these mass shootings. Maybe we should look at how accessible guns are in these countries and what someone needs to be able to do to own one.

A few questionse

The music these kids listen to

I did something I never thought about having to do as a dad. I downloaded music solely because my kids like it.

My musical tastes a varied, and often terrible. If I could only listen to Stevie Wonder, Scott Joplin, Billy Joel and U2 for he rest of my life, I’d be happy. I’d also probably not complain if I could only listen to movie scores and musical soundtracks. But you won’t find me change the channel if “Break my Stride” or a modern pop song comes on.

I doubt I’ll ever be the dad who complains about what my kid listens to because I figure I’ve forced them to listen to far too much Sly and the Family Stone, Foreigner, and Bernstein. My poor kids know the soundtrack to “Man of La Mancha” and the entire “Innocent Man” album by heart by now. But I also remember rolling my eyes so hard when one of my siblings espoused a fondness for Justin Bieber’s music that I pulled two muscles.

But Michael is really into “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons. So I bought it on iTunes. Then Minnie asked for Taylor Swift. I suggested “Shake It Off,” but she went for “Bad.”

The musical selection in the house is no longer under my control.

That’s probably a good thing.

The music these kids listen to

Real life Lois Lanes

Margot Kidder died Monday. She was most famous for her raspy voiced, tough, yet effervescent portrayal of Lois Lane in the 1980s “Superman” movies.

I entered the newspaper business as the Comic Book Movie genre exploded. It was easy to point out that Peter Parker and Clark Kent spent their days in newspaper offices. I often grimaced watching movies and TV shows that featured journalists trying to give the character gravitas by saying they were a “Pulitzer Prize-winner.” It was often clear that the writers didn’t even know what earns someone a Pulitzer and that there are hundreds of other impressive awards out there. This most bothered me with portrayals of Lois Lane. She’s often a solid portrayal of what a newspaper writer is like: dogged, confident, thorough, etc.

Lane’s character has transformed over the years. From a two-dimensional plot device as a damsel in distress and love interest, she became a fully fleshed out character.

One of the best parts of my journalism career was working among dozens of excellent journalists who were dedicated to their craft and community. They were real life Lois Lanes.

Some, like Joan, Amy and Buffy were my bosses. They taught me valuable lessons I use not only journalism but in day-to-day life. I worked with photographers like Emily, Kate and Chris, who brought wisdom, whit and tenacity to any story you worked on them with, alongside great photographs. Reporters like Sarah, Ashley, Charlotte, Patrice, Angie, Caitlin, Courtney and Emily could find the best and most fascinating stories, filled with accurate facts and compelling narratives. And there were editors like Sarah, who knew every grammar rule, Wanda, who made sure your stories were thorough, and Leo, who Bethany, provided guidance. Coworkers like Stacia, Teresa, Laura and Cristy and Patti who made you think more deeply about your job and enjoy coming to work.

If more readers knew how fantastic these women were, they’d realize how lucked they are to be reading the work those women produce.

Real life Lois Lanes

Going to summer school

Michael skipped up the street as I trudged along behind him. I couldn’t believe it. Isn’t there a constitutional amendment that bans skipping on Mondays? Just a few minutes earlier he had groaned when he asked “Is it a school day” and I told him it was. He moped toward the door, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. “OK,” he said, dragging out the “Oh” for several sad beats. As we walked out onto the porch, I realized Mary’s carriage was in Molly’s trunk. She was probably halfway to Scranton by then. This left me with an unexpected choice. Did I want to drive the boy to school or walk? If we walked, I’d have to carry Mary the six blocks. I weighed that with the idea that we’d be wasting gas and I needed the exercise and picked walking. But I was tired, it was Monday, and I figured Michael would inevitably whine the whole trek. I pushed that aside, plopped Mary onto my shoulders and began the walk, up hill, toward Michael’s school. About halfway up the hill, Michael started skipping.

Continue reading “Going to summer school”

Going to summer school

A dour founder

Check out this cynical take on American democracy.

But will you say our elections are so pure? Be it so; upon the whole. Do you recollect in history, a more Corrupt Election than that of Aaron Burr to be president, or that of DeWitt Clinton last year. By corruption, here I mean a sacrifice of every national Interest and honor, to private and Party Objects.

I see the same Spirit in Virginia, that you and I see in Rhode Island and the rest of New England. in New York, it is a struggle of Family Feuds. a Fewdal Aristocracy. Pennsylvania is a contest between German, Irish and Old English Families. when Germans ad Irish Unitr, they give 30,000 majorities. there is virtually a White Rose and a Red Rose a Caesar and a Pompey in every State in this Union and Contedtd and dissections will be as lasting.


That hefty dose of optimism came from His Rotundity himself, John Adams, in an 1813 letter to Thomas Jefferson.

I’m looking forward to reading Jon Meacham’s new book, “The Soul of America.” It is a reaction to our current national disasters and how we have overcome similar issues in the past.

I’m betting this Adams’ quote won’t make the cut. But the election of 1800 will no doubt be mentioned.

A dour founder