history

Best Decades of the Decade

Everyone seems to be coming out with “Best of the Decade” lists recently. Best books, best movies, best songs, best political scandals, best masturbatory practice. Turns out it’s masturbation. For the millionth decade running.

The decade isn’t over for another year, but whatever. I thought we had finally figured this shit out in 2000. I know we like the big round numbers in our base-ten system. But last time I checked, it’s base-ten because we count from one to nine.

The 2010s are coming to an end this week, not the decade. So all of these numbnuts should be making their “Bet Food Recipe of the Teens” instead of “of the Decade.” But then we wouldn’t click on it because we’d assume it’s a list of recipes the writer liked when they were a teen. And if they’re a Baby Boomer, we already know that the first two ingredients will be bacon fat and cocaine.

But I don’t have a “Best of the Decade” or a “Best of the Teens” list, primarily because my short-term memory is a sieve. Crap, I can’t even remember what my last post was about. When I was wrapping Christmas presents, I found a birthday present I was supposed to give Wife back in July. I thought about wrapping it for Christmas, but it really is more of a summer gift. Anyone want to take wagers on me finding it again next December?

So if I were to create a list of items from the past ten years, it would be a nightmare. Who the hell remembers what TV shows they watched nine years ago? Do they jot things down as they go? This blog technically could serve as notes on what I was interested in at any given moment, but it’s not like I’m going to go read all my old shit just to curate my decade. Heck, I keep threatening to put some of my best blog posts together to self-publish, but I can’t get my head around looking through my old posts for the sake of cutting-and-pasting, much less gleaning what year they canceled “Selfie.”

(My blog post about them canceling “Selfie,” btw, is one of my most viewed posts. I doubt it has anything to do with the tv show. Just that when you google “Wombat selfie,” there aren’t a lot of options.)

I’ve actually perused some of those lists, because dammit, they’re called click-bait for a reason. But every time I do, I see things to which I react, “That was 2011? I could’ve sworn that came out in 1985.” It’s one of the problems of growing older. When I wrote about “All I Want for Christmas is You” last week, I didn’t have to look up what year it came out, because I was in college. I can remember who my roommates were, which told me it came out my junior year, and I backfilled from there. But if a song came out in 2004 or 2014, it’s all the same to me now. Imagine my shock when my students had no idea who the Black Eyed Peas were. What do you mean, “Let’s Get it Started” didn’t come out two years ago?

So, let me see… Best TV Show of the 2010s: Quantum Leap. Best Song: Yesterday. Best Movie: Casablanca. Best blog post? Certainly not one of mine.

But hey, I’m an amateur historian and my long-term memory’s doing perfectly fine. So maybe I should use the last days of this decade (the Teens, dammit!) to list off the best decades.

2010s. Ha ha, just kidding. This decade has more or less sucked. Not necessarily from a stuff happening standpoint, but from a historical perspective, this decade will pale in comparison to its predecessor. The 2Ks had 9/11 and a “Great Recession” and the first black president. This one had Marvel movies. We might have topped off the decade with a newsworthy impeachment, but it’s the second one in the past twenty years. And the Republicans might be right when they say this will become the norm going forward. Thirty years from now, when we’re following the seventh impeachment in the past fifty years, we’ll probably trace it back to a blow job in the 1990s, not a snow job in the 2010s.

So yeah this decade might not be as shitty as, say the 1930s or the 1970s, but it ain’t gonna make any “Best of…” lists. Even if I do love me some Mumford and Sons.

Wait, Sigh No More came out in 2009? Wow, this decade really can’t get a fucking break.

3rd Place (Tie). 1980s/1950s.

These two decades are more or less interchangeable. Each started a half-decade after the end of a war that most of the population was trying to forget about. In the fifties, it was the World War II vets looking to hide their own experiences in a world of conformity. In the eighties, it was the draft-dodgers and other hippies realizing that peace, love, and understadning are great, but they pale in comparison to junk bonds. Each decade was marked by an alleged conservatism championed by a doddering old president parlaying his pre-politics career. And when we’re busy sweeping turmoil under the rug, the society really gets to thrive! Optimistic music, advancements in television (color in the 1950s, cable in the 1980s). And can you really rank leather jackets and day-glo sweatshirts against each other? If one of those is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Each decade has one huge year from a historical perspective.  In 1957, you had Sputnik and the Little Rock Nine and the Dodgers and Giants moving west. In 1989, you’ve got the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I’d probably take 1989 in that toss-up, but the rest of the decades were no slouch, either. Hungarian uprising, Suez crisis, and Kitchen debate in the 1950s, Challenger, Iran-Contra, and MTV in the 1980s. At least the signature moments of the 1980s weren’t fraught with the fear of nuclear annihilation. Unless you count a “WarGames” scenario. We’d traded “Duck and Cover” for “99 Luftballons.”

Goodness gracious, great balls of fire.

And both decades helped in the whole freedom,  standard-of-living thing. The Civil Rights movement and the aforementioned fall of communism. Not that things were wonderful for African Americans in 1960 or Eastern Europeans by 1990, but I’d rather be in either of those situations than a decade before.

Beyond that, we’re splitting hairs. I’ll take “I Love Lucy” over “Family Ties,” but I’d listen to Billy Joel in a heartbeat over Elvis.

And if I had to choose between Marilyn Monroe and Christie Brinkley, could i just have both?

2nd place. 1920s

This seemed to be a pretty kick-ass decade. No war, and at least from an American perspective, the last war was relatively easy to get over. The flu was substantially worse, but if your best friend died of the flu, you’re probably not walking around with the 1,000-yard stare for the next ten years.

So when you’re not whining about the war and you have no clue that the worst economic calamity of modern times is knocking on your doorstep, what are you going to do with yourself? Well, there’s a whole bevy of things to choose from.

Everything was new and exciting and approachable by an emerging middle class. You could go watch Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play some baseball in the Bronx. Sports not your thing? How about checking out this emerging movie industry? Over the course of the Jazz Age, movies became longer and more intricate, with fully formed plots and rising stars., like Rudy Valentino, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. By 1927, you’ve even got talkies. It can’t get any better than that! Seriously, I show silent movies in my US History class, and you’d be surprised at how often they keep modern teenagers’ interests. The comedies are legitimately funny and the horrors – I mean, holy crap, have you seen Nosferatu? Off the screen, Hollywood also had its fair share of unsolved murders and scandalous producer/engenue affairs that would make Harvey Weinstein blush. Seriously, Mary Miles Mintner was like 16 when she started banging William Desmond Taylor, and she was all of 19 when she might or might not have murdered him. And I’ll let you Google the Fatty Arbuckle Trial.

What else was there to do? Well, I called it the Jazz Age, so you know, there’s jazz! The most genuinely American music might have existed before 1920, but this was the decade  it hit the masses. Under the guidance of Duke and Satchmo and Jelly Roll, it transitioned from quaint Dixieland to fully-orchestrated swing. Whatever music you listen to today, from rock to hip-hop to country, owes its lineage to 1920s jazz.

And you could listen to it on the radio, a technology that hit its saturation point in the 1920s. Same with electricity and telephones and refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. It’s not quite TV On Demand or the Internet, but I imagine it would’ve been a fun decade to live through.

Of course one glaring problem prevents this decade from reaching number one: Prohibition. The fact that, out of any decade in history, this is the only one you couldn’t get a goddamn drink when you wanted one is a definite black eye. It’s like picking the one George Lazenby movie as the best James Bond flick. Or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens as the best Super Bowl champion. Seriously, how can you be the best football team if you didn’t even have a starting quarterback?

Although, to be honest, even the worst part of the decade is one of it’s cooler aspects, right? After all, none of us would be able to single out the 2000 Baltimore Ravens if it weren’t for Trent Dilfer.

Speakeasies and bootleggers and Al Capone. And bathtub gin! Who’s with me on the alcohol-induced blindness!

The magic and the mysticism of the Roaring Twenties all stemmed from the lengths people would go to get illegal booze. It’s like a decade-long high school party. As long as you live in a big city. For everyone else, you were shit out of luck. Have some bathtub gin and a smile and shut the fuck up.

And for that reason, on general principal, the 1920s cannot be the best decade.

First place. 1890s

Ah, you didn’t see me going here, did you? Thought I’d stick with the 20th century? Maybe pick some random obscure debate like the 1650s? Great time to be a Puritan. Not so much if you enjoyed sinful things like Christmas or theater.  Or if you were a witch.

But a turn of the century that didn’t include a Y2K scare that turned us all into hoarders who felt very foolish the next day? That totally sucked. It’s bad enough when you wake up next to someone whose name you don’t remember on New Year’s Day. It’s so much worse when you wake up in a sea of Vienna sausage tins.

The 1890s were generally an optimistic time. The gilded age, le belle epoque, the fin de siecle. How the hell were they supposed to know they were less than twenty years from the self-imposed hellscape of trench warfare?

The Nifty Nineties were the birth of the modern age. I often start my Industrial Revolution unit by asking students the most important invention in their lives. Most of them say their phone (invented in 1876). A few try to go highbrow by picking electricity (light bulb invented in 1879). Then I ask them how their day-to-day live might be different without, say, a toilet. Thomas Crapper perfected the S-bend and the ballcock by 1880. And sure, the toilet might not be as useful if I couldn’t play Bubble Witch on my phone while sitting there, but if I had to take one…

You’ll note that none of these inventions actually came about in the 1890s, but the saturation point of inventions used to take much longer. The key is that most cities underwent redesigns in the 1880s to make use of things like telephones and electricity and sewage. Street cars and subways could get you where you needed to be. The Eiffel Tower popped up in 1889, and the Ferris Wheel came a few years later. Parks and spectator sports and newspapers. And think about the impact of the bicycle, invented in 1885. All of a sudden you didn’t need to buy a horse in order to get somewhere faster than a run.

And keeping with the themes of cable tv and jazz radios, impressionist art really started the whole “indivualism in art” thing. It might be fun to catch an art show or artist’s party. Just go easy on the absinthe and leave as soon as Van Gogh gets there. Dude was whack-a-doodle.

Oh wait, he died in 1890. So much the better.

Whenever my students ask me the “if you had a time machine” question, I always set the clock at 1890. Not that I would necessarily go back to that precise point, but I wouldn’t go any earlier. I think, with a little bit of practice and concentration, one coming from the 21st century could fudge their way though the 1890s. There would still be a number of differences, but we’d at least be able to recognize certain things. It might be tough not being able to google everything, but again… flush toilets!

Most of these descriptions could fit the 1900s as well. Plus the first decade of the twentieth century sprinkled in a first flight and the best president in our history for good measure. And if I could cheat as much as those saying the decade ends this week, then sure, I guess I could just bullshit 1890-1910 as a decade. Or really, 1896-1908. But if I have to split hairs, I’m taking the first half of that era.

After all, there was just a tad bit more historical going on in the 1890s. It had one of the worst economic depressions up to that time, and maybe second only to the 1930s. Not saying depressions are fun or anything, but it was the first depression with skyscrapers that businessmen could throw themselves out of. Nothing like a thoroughly modern suicide.

And if you go to the end of the decade you have that “splendid little war” between the United States and Spain. Sure, there was a war in the 1900s, too, but it featured Japan and a Bloody Sunday. Plus I’m American, so huzzah! Oh, and Teddy Roosevelt, the one main draw of the next decade, got his rise to fame in that war. Heck, he had a much more dynamic nineties than aughts. Civil Service Commission to police chief to San Juan Hill to Governor. And if you extend the decade to 1900, as you should, all the way to Vice President-elect.

Oh, and Wizard of Oz wouldn’t exist without the election of 1896.

Pretty impressive for a decade to have both a depression and a war, but still be seen as an optimistic time. The Nifty Nineties, the first decade to earn a nickname. The first decade that was, well, a decade, at least as we think of them today. When the approach of a year with a magical zero at the end makes us all try to define the previous ten-year span and make stupid predictions for the next one.

Except I have one prediction that I know will come true, at least for me. Expect the next 24 hours, 365 days, and possibly even more, to listen to a hell of a lot of Barbara Walters impressions.

Tonight! On Twenty-Twenty!

Wherefore art thou, Easter?

I don’t get Easter.

I mean, I understand it’s a holiday based on, depending on your religion, the resurrected Jesus Christ or the fertility goddess Ishtar. Ishtar, of course, is the one associated with bunnies and eggs and super long movies with virtually no plot that fall flat at theaters despite a star-studded cast. It’s like Dune, but it takes place in the desert. Wait, Dune takes place in the desert, too? Hmm… I’m starting to note a trend. Better tell George Lucas before he sets half of his Star Wars movies on Tatooine.

The thing I don’t get about Easter is its staying power as a major holiday.

Again, not questioning the importance of the date in the Christian mythos. But again, that ain’t got shit to do with the fact that bunnies like to fuck.

Let’s be honest, we’re becoming a much more secular society. Our “Holy Days” have become holidays. Last time I checked, we don’t take Ascension off work. Or Epiphany. If we really want to see how much we celebrate major religious holidays, check out all the Catholics sporting the ash on Ash Wednesday. I think I saw, like, two. Back when I was a “Good Catholic,” I remember being regaled all day with such erudite religiosity like the phrase, “Hey, you got a smudge on your forehead.”

And sure, we’re a predominantly Protestant nation, but then shouldn’t the Protestants be explaining to me why Catholic practice, vis a vis the ashes from the fronds burned on the previous Palm Sunday as an inadequate representation of the Word of the Lord, per the sola fide doctrine of Martin Luther. But nope, they only tried to wipe some grease off my forehead. When I explained to them that Ash Wednesday was the beginning of Lent, and it was all based on Easter, the holiday with Peeps, they could only wonder why the ash wasn’t pastel-colored. Maybe because the groundhog didn’t see his shadow that year.

The Holy Days that have stuck around as holidays, of course, are the ones that have secularized themselves. Saint Valentine’s Day, for instance, has become a day where we celebrate a brutal Prohibition-era gang murder by showing our internal organ and painting everything the color of blood. Similarly, Saint Patrick is widely celebrated as the inventor of Guinness. We no longer celebrate All Hallow’s Day, but rather its Eve, when the spirits of all of our ancestors put on skimpy nurse costumes. Oh Grandma, I didn’t need to see that.

And let’s not forget the Fourth of July, when Jesus, en route to bury gold plates in Pennsylvania, stopped just long enough to shove a bayonet up King George’s candy-ass. Then he ripped off his robes a la Hulk Hogan and shotgunned a brewski. At least, that’s what the bumper stickers on the truck with the Confederate flag driving in front of me seems to think is the true message of Independence Day. The day, not the movie. Actually, on second thought…

And then of course, there’s Christmas. I’ve written before about how the holiday itself is based on the birth of the Roman god Saturn, not Jesus. And virtually everything we associate with it – trees, logs, lights, presents – comes from old pagan rituals based on the shortest day of the year. Or as a marketing ploy for Montgomery Ward.

But it’s cool. A few “Put Christ back in Christmas” whiners notwithstanding, most of us are cool with the secular nature of Christmas. Take away the Jesus, and I’ll still be there for the gingerbread lattes.

Which brings me back to Easter. Again, those of you who are devout Christians, I totally get that it’s pretty much the most crucial holy day. If dude didn’t wake up from his three day nap, then the whole religion is kind of a sham.

And I’ll even concede to them the most frustrating thing about Easter: that it can’t make up it’s fucking mind. The moving nature of Easter is what shows us that, unlike Christmas, it’s actually based on the Bible. It’s always the Sunday after the first full moon of Spring, because that used to be the basis of their calendars. None of this December 25th bullshit.

But the Easter that I’m critiquing is the secular one. The world of Easter egg hunts and disgusting chocolate and jelly beans. Why is that still a thing?

My mom asked what I’m doing with my daughter this weekend, and I told her I’m leaving her to curl in Seattle. She was surprised that they would schedule a curling bonspiel on Easter weekend. I shrugged. It’s always been the third weekend of April. It’s not the curling club’s fault that Easter decided to crash their plans.

But it didn’t stop with my mom. Half my fucking family wants to send my daughter a new basket or a gift card or a new bonnet.

Bear in mind, my mom hasn’t been in a Catholic church for any reason other than a wedding or a funeral since John Paul was pope. And, I’m guessing Ronald Reagan was still president. My wife’s parents have been churchless even longer, but we’re under strict instructions to call them every second of the day on Easter so they can ask if the Easter Bunny left a bunch of rabbit shit on our back lawn.

But the second I talk in a dismissive manner toward the holiday, I get scolded. I better not blaspheme about not really caring for Cadbury Creme Eggs. That colored sugar in the middle must somehow symbolize our fallen Lord.

But not our risen Lord, because that’s clearly the jelly beans.  I’m pretty sure Saint Peter, when he saw the stone rolled away from the cave, didst spake, “Hey, do you smell pectin?”

And don’t get me started on ham. I can’t be the only one who goes through this conversation every spring:

“What are we doing for Easter dinner?”

“Uh, I don’t know. Ham, I guess?”

“That’s what I was afraid of. What about steak?”

“Yeah, steak sounds good.”

“…”

“…”

“So, ham?”

Well, at least I’ll have some deviled eggs to go with the ham sandwiches I will be packing in my lunch through Labor Day. Because clearly they don’t make ham in any size smaller than seventy-five pounds. Costco is known for selling the smallest hams on the market, right?

And yeah, I know there’s the whole hunt for eggs thing. But the kids grow out of that a shit-ton faster than any of the other things, right? I enjoyed trick or treating well into double-digits. And Santa Claus’s present are still fun. But finding some plastic oval with some shitty candy into it? Aren’t most kids over that by seven or so? The Easter Bunny is much closer to the Tooth Fairy than it is to Santa Claus.

And really, what matters the most isn’t if it’s still fun for the children, but if it’s worthwhile for the parents. If the joy I see on my daughter’s face outweighs the pain in the ass it is to prepare, then it’s worthwhile. Again, Halloween is totally worth it. Christmas? As annoying as it is getting “Allen Wrench Fingers” putting together a bicycle after downing a bottle of wine Christmas Eve, it’s all forgotten when she comes down the stairs the next morning.

Okay, maybe it’s not all forgotten, because I’m still mentioning it in April. But it still seems worth it

But Easter? I spent an hour coloring eggs last weekend, and I’m already over it. Hell, even hard-boiling the eggs prior to the coloring was a pain in the ass. And you know those eggs are never going to be eaten, because I’m totally going to forget to make deviled eggs out of them and I’m going to have to eat the ham by itself because I’m too busy trying to remember where I hid all the crap on the lawn.

Back in the 1970s, my parents hid the hard-boiled eggs, too. Except we didn’t find one. Sometime in June, we couldn’t figure out where that horrible sulfur smell was coming from until we lifted the couch and found something that smelled like it had been buried in the cave with Jesus.

Which is why I don’t understand how Easter’s still a thing. Especially now that we’ve added leprechaun traps to St. Patrick’s Day and Ewok villages to Arbor Day, what is worthwhile about Easter?

Wait, don’t we make Ewok villages for Arbor Day? We should totally do that. Not that Arbor Day is a thing anymore. Because, unlike Easter, it knew that it was overstaying its welcome. And anything Arbor Day can do, Earth Day can do better.

Which should be the situation Easter finds itself in, too. Dinner is better on Thanksgiving. Candy is better on Valentine’s Day and Halloween. The obsession with sex is better on those two holidays, too. Easter used to symbolize the changing of the seasons, but I’ll take Memorial Day and Labor Day for that task. And if we’re really focused on a holiday specifically for springtime, we’ve got St. Patrick’s Day for that. And green is way more pleasing to look at than pastels.

Heck, even the religion elements of Easter are outdone by the pagan holiday that is Christmas.

But you wouldn’t know any of this by talking to my family or my wife’s family. All of them want to know what special plans we have for this Sunday. Which, and how many, egg hunts are we taking her to? And how many chocolate bunnies is she getting? And how many courses is dinner going to have?

And again, none of these people who are super excited about what we’re doing with our daughter has been to a regular church service since the twentieth century.

And they’re sending her shit in the mail. My mom sent her a full basket. My aunt sent her leggings and wanted to know what gift cards she would like for Easter. I don’t know, is Target a proper spot to have a conversation about capital punishment techniques used in the conquered areas of the Roman Empire? My wife’s family is out of town, because similar to my curling bonspiel, they always have the same week of the year at a timeshare they own, and Easter can’t make up it’s fucking mind. But they want to make sure we send them pictures of the eggs and the hunting and the baskets and the bunny ears. Which totally sucks, because if not for that request, we probably wouldn’t have to deal with the eggs and the hunting and the basket and the bunny ears.

Not that I’m going to be dealing with it. I’m going curling.

Because Easter can’t make up its fucking mind.

Oh, and when is it next year? Yeah, I got a thing that day, too…

Best Presidents

A year ago I commemorated Presidents’ Day by shirking conventional wisdom and maligning the mediocre, and in many ways subpar, presidency of one Abraham Lincoln. Since then, there has been a clamoring of demand for my opposite list: “If Abraham Lincoln was not a good president, then who, oh, American-marsupial-who-also-studies-history, do you think is a good president?” And by “clamoring of demand,” I mean one dude clicked “like” on my last post. Anyone want to wager he’s from the South?

Other than Lincoln, my Top Five is going to have some overlap with the “Official Lists.” It’s hard to ignore Jefferson. The Louisiana Purchase might have just fallen in his lap, but still, he had to go against his own beliefs to do it. As a “small government” guy, Jefferson did not think the president had the power to unilaterally make that purchase. But he did it anyway, and if you’re an American west of the Appalachian Mountains today, you can thank him.

Sure, “going against what you stand for” might not be seen as a hallmark of greatness, particularly by today’s standards. But I wish more presidents would put the strength and progress of the nation ahead of your own personal goals and fortunes.

Plus, with that act, Jefferson set the presidential precedent of breaking campaign promises. What could be more American?

The other president that usually appears in most people’s “Best of” list is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Again, this is a hard one to argue against. His leadership during World War II was instrumental, and even if his results in battling the Great Depression were mixed (as was every other non-Dictator’s on the planet), he infused optimism when it was desperately needed.

However, I always take FDR with a grain of salt because of how long he was president. He had three terms compared to everyone else’s one or two.  (He was elected to four terms, but died a few months into his fourth term, so that barely counts.) Had he stepped aside in 1940, like every other President in history, would he be remembered as being so great? If all of those pictures of the Big Three victors of WWII featured John Nance Garner or Wendell Willkie, would FDR still be at the top of the list for his Fireside Chats alone? I’m not sure.

So, yes, FDR is one of the best, but he cheated.

Here, then, are my Top Three Presidents. Two of them are not overly surprising, as they usually appear in the second grouping of presidents, with one often “On the Bubble” of the top list. But Number Three is largely forgotten in history, and I’m not sure why.

#3 James K. Polk. The general consensus of historians is that, after Monroe, the only two nineteenth-century presidents of note were Jackson and Lincoln. Not so! Sure there were some abysmal presidencies, but there were a few bright spots. John Tyler had a pretty solid presidency, especially considering he was the first “accidental President” after dumbass William Henry Harrison gave an inaugural address that ended up killing him. Later in the century, the Garfield/Arthur combined presidency as a particularly accomplished one, as well. And not only because it gave us both a hilarious cartoon cat and the greatest sideburns in history.

But Polk stands as the best president of the nineteenth century. He was elected as Manifest Destiny was sweeping the country and he promptly went out and gobbled up the rest of the continent. He annexed Texas and then provoked the Mexican-American War. Maybe that’s seen as too proactive and violent. I guess we like our presidents to sit there and have the war fall in their lap. But at least in the Mexican-American War, we kicked some ass. None of this “almost losing a war in which we have numerical, technological, and economic superiority,” which I like to call the Lincoln Special.

But Polk wasn’t just about war, he was about stretching from sea to shining sea in the most efficient way possible for the United States. Because after winning the war against Mexico, many of his supporters wanted to take on England for the northern half of the Oregon Territory. Ever heard of the motto “54’40 or Fight?” Guess what? We did neither. The border between the United States and what would become Canada was negotiated to be the 49th Parallel by President Polk. So just like Jefferson, he knew when to tell the stalwarts in his party to shut the fuck up for the good of the nation.

And thank God he did. 54’40 would include all of British Columbia. I mean, there’d be a bunch of Canadians in America. Don’t they drive on the other side of the road? No? Isn’t maple syrup their national drink? Are you sure? Oh, I know! They have the metric system. But wait, they wouldn’t if we had taken them in 1848? Dammit! Stanley Park is beautiful – England, is it too late to renegotiate this thing?

But the most impressive thing about President Polk is that he was only president for four years. One term and he was out. He’s the anti-FDR. Why? Because that was his campaign promise.  He said he would only run for president once and he would take over the rest of the continent in that time. And he did.

No wonder he doesn’t make people’s list. Getting shit done and keeping your promises? That, sir, is NOT what we look for in our Presidents.

#2 Harry S. Truman. I understand why Truman was overlooked for most of the last seventy years. He came after FDR, and he made a number of controversial decisions. Correct decisions, but controversial and unpopular at the time.

Nobody knew who Truman was when he became president. FDR had picked him as a new Vice President for his fourth term, so he had only been Veep for a few months when he became President. However, FDR knew he was dying and knew that, for the first time in our history, one person alone was going to pick the next President.

Then again, had FDR told the people that he was on his death bed when he was running for his fourth term, he might have helped Truman’s popularity a little bit when the inevitable happened. It might also have helped if he had mentioned the whole Manhattan Project thing to that hand-picked successor.  Ah, FDR – America’s first dictator.

And of course, that pesky Manhattan Project ended up being one of the definitive decisions of Truman’s presidency. I don’t think it was the right call, since Japan seemed willing to surrender. But I still give props to a guy who went from junior Senator from Missouri to Vice President to first new President in many people’s lifetimes in the span of a year to get up to speed and have to make that decision.

But the atomic bomb kind of fell in his lap, and I never like basing the strength of a President on things outside of his control, like the plebians do with Lincoln. So instead I like to point to a few of Truman’s later decisions to judge his fortitude.

Truman went toe to toe with Stalin in the early Cold War, and almost always came out on top. The Berlin Blockade and the crises in Greece and Turkey that led to the Truman Doctrine could easily have gone against him. But he showed the country and the world that we were the new superpower in the world. Sure, the idea of containment would end up biting us in the ass twenty years later, but if Truman hadn’t stood up for Berlin and Greece, there never would’ve even been a South Vietnam for us to fuck up.

President Truman also knew when to back down. In the Korean War, when MacArthur wanted to advance into China, Truman told him no. MacArthur went to the American people, who backed him. A President with less testicular fortitude would have backed down to the experience of the World War II-winning general. But Truman not only stood up to MacArthur, Truman fired him. Whoa!

Again, this was an unpopular decision, but it was the right decision to make. I don’t know how many of the forty-three presidents can consistently say they cared more about the future of the world than the future of their job.

As there are fewer and fewer people who remember Truman, or remember their parents complaining about him, he is slowly starting to rise up most historians’ lists. Hopefully in another twenty years, he’ll take his deserved place near the top.

The opposite seems to be happening for our best president, whose confidence and braggadocio makes many of today’s Americans uncomfortable.

#1 Teddy Roosevelt. How amazing is it that a guy who voluntarily put himself in front of enemy fire just three years before becoming President, then went on to fight monopolies, reform the government, and create the national parks and Panama Canal is usually referred to as the “other Roosevelt.”

Oh, and we also carved his face into a mountain. But that was all before his distant cousin took over and relegated him out of most historians’ Top Five List.

But they are wrong. Instead of Lincoln and FDR, Teddy should be everyone’s definition of a President.

Much like Truman, he was a Vice President who took over after the death of his predecessor. But unlike Truman, he was not hand-picked to be the next President. Quite the opposite. The party bosses were worried about the popular upstart after he brought his own photographer to his Spanish-American War soiree. He had already made some major reforms as New York City Police Chief and then as Governor of New York.

So they put him in the most feeble and pointless job in the United States to stop him from making waves.

Oops.

The weakness of the vice president is predicated upon the president staying alive.

To list the achievements of his seven-year presidency would push this already long entry way past the tl;dr designation. He didn’t sign the Sherman Anti-Trust Act but he swept off the twenty years of dust it had been collecting. Everything from food inspection to civil service itself were greatly solidified under his watch. He even invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House, the first African-American to ever have that honor.

He did most of this without overstepping the power of the presidency. Most of reforms either involved enforcing laws that were already on the books or using his popularity to get what he wanted passed in Congress. Some later critics complained about his use of gunboat diplomacy in Panama or his harsh policies dealing with insurrection in the newly-acquired Philippines, but he had to pursue the best goals of his country (See above: Polk, James K.). And, hell, the fact that he only threatened, and didn’t actually attack, Colombia to secure the Panamanian land, made him positively pacifistic by early-20th Century standards.

More than anything, though, Teddy symbolized how Americans saw ourselves, and how many still see ourselves today. A rugged individual with boundless energy, halfway between city slicker and frontier cowboy. Someone who seized every opportunity given to him, but rarely for personal glory or gain. And someone who rose to the highest position in the country only to blow up the status quo once he was there.

And if only some of our more recent presidents and politicians could remember the first part of his Big Stick adage. Always speak softly.

Dishonest Abe

In honor of President’s Day, here comes the Writing Wombat again to shatter everyone’s historical myths.

I’m just going to throw it out there early: Abraham Lincoln was not a very good president.

I know, I know. Then how did he get on the penny and the $5 bill? And a Memorial built to him?

Remember when we used to celebrate both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays this month? It used to be two days off, one for each. Then we fused two together to just make it President’s Day, and instead of putting it in the middle, we put it as close to Lincoln’s birthday as possible. Some schools still throw a second day off in there, either making it two 3-day weekends in a row, or taking Friday off to make it a 4-day weekend. They will often call the extra day off Washington’s Birthday (to distinguish from the REAL President),  even though it’s nowhere near poor George’s birthday. This year, if a school took the Friday off and pretended it was “Washington’s birthday,” it was actually on February 12, ten days before Washington’s birthday. One day after Lincoln’s.

To be fair, Washington wasn’t all that great of a President, either.  I don’t think he was bad, there just wasn’t a lot of political strife to deal with at the time. Shoot, nobody even ran against him for his second term.  It wasn’t until John Adams came along that most Americans even became aware you could dislike the President. Washington was a popular figurehead in charge of unifying the new country while the real stuff was being done by those policy wonks (Hamilton, Jefferson, and Randolph) behind the scenes .

So Washington wasn’t great, but he was fine. But Lincoln? Let me amend my earlier statement. It’s not just that he was not a very good president. Lincoln was a BAD president.

Historically, he is helped by the fact that, even as a bad president, the guys before and after him were worse. James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce were quite possibly the two worst Presidents we’ve ever had. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, was the only President to ever be impeached before Newt Gingrich decided that Slick Willie’s mistress wasn’t as cool as his own. Then again, Lincoln dumped his first Vice President to give the job to Andrew Johnson, so if Johnson was a bad President, that’s still on Lincoln. Had Lincoln stuck with his first VP, we would’ve had President Hannibal Hamlin after Lincoln died. I don’t know if he would’ve been any good, but how cool would it be to have had President Hannibal? After Johnson, there were a slew of bad to mediocre presidents – Grant, Hayes, Garfield.

All you have to know about how bad these guys were is the fact that Grover Cleveland was President, lost the race for re-election, then beat the guy that replaced him four years later. Imagine if we brought back Carter or Bush, Sr. four years later. I know, I know – different party structure and nomination/campaigning process, and blah, blah, blah. But to have a President be so bad that you bring back the guy you couldn’t stand four years ago? Even Mitt Romney thinks that’s crazy.

So a large portion of the Abraham Lincoln myth might stem from this time period. An American in 1890 looking back over the ten presidents of the previous forty years would have fixated on Lincoln as the least shitty. Much like a stage-four cancer patient might wistfully recall that minor bout of syphilis he had in his twenties.

The other source of the myth comes from historians and laity wrongfully assigning actions and motives to Lincoln, in either an honest or calculated desire to create a hero. The biggest lie of them all, of course, is that Lincoln freed the slaves. Of course, slaves were a constitutional issue, so only a constitutional amendment could free them.  So the Emancipation Proclamation was just the first in a long line of executive actions that said, “Constitution? HAHAHA!” Had it actually freed some slaves, it certainly would have been thrown out by the Supreme Court.

Fortunately the Emancipation Proclamation had absolutely nothing to do with freeing any slaves. In fact, its purpose was the exact opposite: to allow states to keep their slaves. Issued in September, 1862, after the first major Union victory at Antietam, it stated that any slaves in any state that was still rebelling as of January 1, 1863, would be freed. In other words, if you stop fighting us before the new year, you can keep your slaves. But if you keep fighting us and we conquer you, we’re taking your slaves just like every invading army in history.

The slave states already in the Union, like Kentucky and Maryland? They got to keep their slaves. Lincoln’s hope in issuing the order was that states like Louisiana and Virginia would decide their slaves were more important than their namby-pamby Confederacy. It didn’t work, so when January, 1863, rolled around, the Civil War became about freeing the slaves. Or at least freeing some slaves.

Of course, the war was two years old by that point. But hey, making up the cause of the war as you go along is the stalwart of many a great wartime leader. Like George W. Bush. I’m sure they’re planning on carving his face into a mountain any day now, right?

The similarities don’t end there. In many ways, Abraham Lincoln was the George W. Bush of the nineteenth century. Almost losing a war where you had a 4-to-1 population advantage? Check. As well as being more advanced in technology and industry? Check. How about refusing constitutional protections to American citizens who may or may not be helping the enemy? Shoot, Lincoln wrote the book on that shit.

The wars themselves even had some similarities. In 2003, most of the Iraqis were just minding their own business, wanting to be left alone. But there was an American president with an ego and an army. Bush needed to outdo his father, who he felt  had let Hussein off the hook in the first Gulf War. Ironically, Bush, Sr. could have easily knocked off Hussein in 1991. But as a former CIA Director and a man who believed in silly ideas like diplomacy and allies, Daddy Bush realized that might be a bad idea. Too bad W. was coked out during all of those family dinner conversations about sectarian violence.

In Lincoln’s case, the metaphorical father he was chasing was a mild-mannered little English bloke named George III. Okay, maybe he wasn’t all that mild-mannered. But how nice would you be if you were known as the king that lost the American colonies? Nobody wants to be the guy in charge when half the country bolts. So when one Jefferson (Davis) evoked another Jefferson (Thomas), Lincoln dug deep within his inner tyrant and let out a grandiose, “Oh, HELL no!”

So he picked up what was left of the army after all the Southerners bolted and invaded those bastards who had the audacity to besmirch his place in history. Then he spent the next two years getting his ass kicked (“Whoa, Texans are better with guns than Vermonters?”) and stumbling about for a reason why the war was just. A reason the Northerners, many of whom had the “just let them go” mentality, could rally behind.

Visit most political blogs, on both sides of the aisle, today and you’ll find a similar sentiment.  How much better would my half of the country be if those [Rednecks/Hippes] were in another country?

Although it’s nice to not have to exchange money when we want to go look at Mardi Gras titties. Just as our forefathers dreamed.

And we have one man to thank for that. No wonder we get two days off for the guy. Abraham Lincoln saved the Mardi Gras titties!

Never mind, I’m back on board. Greatest President ever!

And I didn’t even have to go into his stellar vampire hunting skills.

War on Saturn

Every December, I get annoyed by all of those cultural warriors that try to re-write history and put their own spin on what this holiday season is truly about. They’ve even gone so far as to change the name of the holiday itself, trying to force us all to use a different greeting than was originally used. Unfortunately, the holiday was named after a person, or a personified deity, so when they change the name, they’re taking it away from the true basis, the true meaning of the holiday season. It’s almost as if they’re trying to eradicate the poor person whose birthday falls on December 25.

Jesus? No, not that charlatan. He was probably born in early spring, by most interpretations.

The person I’m talking about is Saturn, the “Reason for the Season” of Saturnalia.

Oh, we could throw Yule in there, too, but I really don’t if that’s a person or a season or just some other random crazy thing the Krauts came up with.

Oh, you thought Yuletide was a Christian thing? Because Jesus didst spake unto the Rich Corinthian Leathers, “Bring unto me a chopped down tree that is in no way indigenous to the region. Oh, and a log that burns for a really, really long time, like maybe a Duraflame.”

No, Jesus wasn’t born in December and most of the things we associate with Christmas were around long before Christianity. Even if a specific birthdate existed, that date probably would correlate to our current calendar. December, based on its name, was the tenth month of the year. Ever noticed that? September, October, November, and December translate to seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth month. But then a couple of Caesars came by and wanted their own months plopped into the middle of the year, so the rest of the months got pushed back. While Julius had already been there by 1 AD, so maybe there was a July by then, Augustus had not shown up yet.  I don’t know if there were ten or eleven months on the calendar that year, but I do know that December 25, 1AD would not be the same as December 25. Except that December 25 would not be listed on the birth certificate, anyway.

That’s why Easter changes its date every year. It falls on the Sunday following the first full moon of spring. Had Jesus’s birthday ever been noted, it would have had one of those kooky always changing dates. If he was lucky, “Three Days after the Winter Solstice” would have sufficed. But it probably would’ve been based on the last full moon of autumn, which would’ve been hard for the Apostles to buy him presents.

Oh, and by the way, Easter is named after Ishtar, a goddess of fertility. Hence all the bunnies, eggs, and other fornication references. Wow, another holiday the Christians stole. I would chastise them for ignoring the 7th Commandment, but they stole those from the Jews, anyway.

So who was born on or around December 25? Saturn, the Roman god. But even Saturnalia’s date moved around a bit, as December shrank from 36 days down to 31. Because even Roman gods would have to move their birthdays around as the first day of winter changed.  After all, the Solstice is the REAL reason for the season.

Every primitive society had some sort of celebration around the Solstice, be it Yule or Saturnalia or Festivus.  I include Festivus because I can think of no better definition of “primitive” than standard def and having to sit through the commercial breaks.

Why the celebration of Solstice? It is the shortest day of the year. So the day after it, the sun begins its return. And if the sun is one of the things you pray to and define your life by, then you celebrate the fact that he/she/it is coming back. I know, it sounds so silly and pagan to say your god was born with the return of the sun. I mean, the son of God being born that day is totally logical. But an actual god? Don’t make me laugh.

Birthdays and gods aside, though, there was a much more practical reason for celebrating the first days of winter. The weather is about to get worse. Food is going to become scarcer. There will  barely be enough food for the humans to make it through the next three months, much less the animals.  So you keep a male and a female and slaughter all the rest. Then you enjoy them, maybe with some gravy, because it’s the last time you’ll by full before April.

In fact, the Agricultural Revolution was caused in large part by a dude named Turnip Townshend. In addition to playing the guitar with a distinctive windmill motion, he also discovered that turnips replenish the soil better than leaving it fallow. Even better, people now had a whole bunch of turnips that they could feed to the livestock through the winter. Livestock living through the winter equals a more stable food supply equals farmers being freed up (or forced) to move to the cities. Add coal and iron and, voila, instant industrialization.

But back to these solstice festivals. In addition to the culinary element, they were usually marked by gift giving and the upheaval of social conventions. Lords and peasants switching places. Getting drunk and making out with your co-worker. Secret Santas. No wait, that came later.

So early Christians were trying to get converts A Roman guy says, “Gosh, your religion sounds great, what with all the rising from the dead and the turning of other cheeks and whatnot, but it’s hard for me to give up the revelry of Saturn’s birthday.”

So the Christians didst respond, “Oh, hey, our guy was born that day, too. We just call it Christmas. But all the other shit’s the same.”

The Roman looked skeptical.

“Seriously. Just put up this nativity scene, and then you can do all of the pagan pipers piping you want.”

And, lo, Christmas was born.

Then it died.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church frowned upon Christmas because it was too tied up with superstition and paganism. The Puritans then banned it, to the extent that December 25 was the only day of the year that British were not allowed to go to church. The Puritans were also the Pilgrims, so the alleged first American colonists didn’t celebrate Christmas. I say “alleged” because the Pilgrims actually showed up thirteen years after Jamestown was founded. But I’ll leave that for another day, because I can only destroy one misconception at a time.

But the next time a “War on Christmas” yahoo talks about the founding fathers being upset at what is happening to Christmas, be sure to tell them that the founding fathers didn’t celebrate Christmas. Even though most of them were Anglicans/Episcopalians, not Puritans, Christmas and its debauchery had fallen out of favor with many.

But like any good Christian, Zombie Christmas rose from the dead. Actually, better to call it a vampire, because it was much more intelligent and calculated than the randomness of a zombie.

What brought Christmas back from the dead? The very same thing that defines it still today. Love and joy? Ha ha, good one. No, I’m talking about money, money, money.

Our modern conception of Christmas comes from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. You know the one. Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by some ghosts and learns the true meaning of Christmas and Kermit the Frog and blah, blah, blah. But Dickens wasn’t describing the actual Christmas spirit that he observed, he was making up what he thought it should be.

So think about that. The true “spirit of Christmas” is based on a borderline Marxist attack on wealth inequality. I’m pretty sure Fox News leaves that part out.

The rest of the things we associate with Christmas were mainly marketing ploys. Rudolph? Invented by Montgomery Ward. Santa Claus, the way we conceive him now, was more or less solidified by Coca-Cola ads. Interestingly, the reason Coca-Cola used Santa so much was because they were not allowed to make any ads that specifically targeted or showed children. So they used Santa to market to kids without getting in trouble. Ah, consumerism!

Then there’s eggnog. Honestly, I have no idea where eggnog came from. I only know where it’s going: directly into my belly.

So enjoy your holiday, whatever holiday that may be, because we’re all really just celebrating the same thing. Go ahead and sing along with me the perfect carol for this wondrous season:

“Here comes the sun, do do do do, here comes the sun, and I say…

“It’s all right!”