In the final moments of The War, the new miniseries by Ken Burns, the camera gazes out over a country horizon at sunset. Lilting in the background are the soft chords of a solo piano, accompanied by the murmur of crickets. Then, the husky voice of pop stylist Norah Jones eases in. “For those who think they have nothing to share,” she sings as the faces of World War II veterans and their families begin to flash across the screen, “Who feel there are no heroes there …” After some two minutes of plaintive photographs, the film closes with Jones in a last patriotic refrain. “America, America,” she sobs, “I gave my best for you.”
On Jan. 28, 1982, Ronald Reagan visited the Smithsonian Institution to view an exhibit on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The event was largely ceremonial, one of those innumerable camera-ready moments that make up the life of any modern president. Following the tour, Reagan moved on to a luncheon with the Roosevelt descendants, then a series of meetings on unemployment, and at last dinner with conservative columnist George Will.
In the end, Eric Rudolph didn’t really mind being arrested.
By 2003, when a local police officer found him picking through a Save-A-Lot dumpster, Rudolph had been hiding out in the North Carolina mountains for almost five years, living off the nighttime discards of nearby towns, frying up salamanders to eat when food was scarce. During that time he had become not only a proud member of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list but also a folk hero of sorts: a “lone wolf” who managed, for all his moral failings, to single-handedly outwit an army of federal agents.
In 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter declared, not altogether persuasively, that Barry Goldwater was not a conservative. According to Hofstadter, Goldwater was a pseudoconservative, a term Hofstadter borrowed from social critic Theodor Adorno to describe the most ardent and least self-critical McCarthyites. The pseudoconservative, in this view, was a dangerous absolutist disguised as a mere Republican, the sort of person today’s bloggers might label a CINO, or conservative in name only. In 1964, with Goldwater’s towering defeat by Lyndon Johnson, Hofstadter saw little immediate danger in the pseudoconservative crusade. Still, he warned, no American should ignore the extreme nature of the far-right vision, “with its paranoid suspicions, its impossible demands, and its millennial dream of total victory.”
On Nov. 17, William F. Buckley Jr. celebrated his 80th birthday at the Pierre Hotel in New York. Once the enfant terrible of mid-century conservatism, Buckley has aged, if not mellowed, into a hallowed figure among friends and allies. His life story has become something of a creation myth for modern conservatives: Out of the wilderness of sneering 1950s liberalism came a single man who stopped the tide of creeping socialism and remade conservatism as America’s most popular political creed.
In 1758, young George Washington decided to seek a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He had been stymied in an earlier bid, he believed, by one crucial error: he had not “treated” the voters properly—which is to say, he had not provided them with sufficient alcoholic refreshment. This time, determined to correct his ways, he purchased some 144 gallons of wine, rum, hard cider, punch and beer for distribution to supporters. At more than two votes per gallon, Washington’s effort proved successful, launching a rather distinguished career in American politics.
More than a century and a half later, after the American temperance movement had finally won its fight to prohibit alcohol, a considerable percentage of the nation’s populace remained staunchly faithful to the founders’ tradition, using their ingenuity to acquire any and all available alcohol. They drank hair tonic, flavoring extracts and patent medicine. They patronized speak-easies and bootleggers, helping to boost a nationwide industry of organized crime. They stole liquor from government warehouses. They posed as priests and rabbis to acquire sacramental wine.
It was late at night, in the middle of a hard-fought union campaign, when a friend confessed that he wondered if he had “made the right choice.” He had just quit graduate school to become a labor organizer and was having second thoughts about his decision. I asked him if he was worried about the long hours, the political frustrations or the frequent travel.
“No,” he said bluntly. “I’m worried that there won’t be a labor movement in 30 years.”
On a warm July night in 1919, a gang of whites dragged a black man off a streetcar in Washington, DC, and beat him in full view of the evening crowd. Ossian Sweet, then a medical student at Howard University, happened to be walking by. He watched in horror as the beating continued: “the sickening sound of fists and boots slamming against bone, the victim curling his body into the fetal position to avoid the blows, the stream of blood filling the cracks in the cement,” as Kevin Boyle imagines the scene in his wonderful new book on the unrelated court case that would soon make Sweet a political martyr (p. 97).