Friday, October 20, 2017

Happy Birthday, General Sickles

Few events in history have been more fascinating to me than the American Civil War. As an adolescent, I learned the names of all the corps commanders at the Battle of Gettysburg, and was even familiar with some of their quirks. For example, Confederate General Richard “Baldy” Ewell could not sleep in an extended position, but had to curl his frame, wooden leg included, around a stool, before he could doze off at night.

But in the Department of the Grotesquely Outrageous (or is it Outrageously Grotesque?), Baldy Ewell is nothing compared to Union General Dan Sickles whose birthday it is today.

Sickles was born to a wealthy and prominent New York family and quickly became accustomed to deferential treatment from those around him. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he used his political connections to wangle an officer’s commission in the U.S. Army. This was in spite of his lack of significant military training. The truth is, however, that he had already become famous before the war, having made headlines as a flamboyant politician and notorious womanizer.

His first political position was as an assemblyman in New York’s state legislature where he came to be known for his numerous love affairs and for escorting Fanny White, the well-known owner of a local brothel, into the Assembly’s chambers. He doubled down on this scandal by taking Fanny with him on a trip to Europe – leaving his pregnant wife home alone. According to Wikipedia, Sickles presented Fanny to Queen Victoria, introducing her with the name of one of his political opponents.

In February of 1859 Sickles discovered that his beautiful young wife was having an affair with Philip Barton Key, the son of the composer of America’s National Anthem, and the District Attorney for Washington, D.C. Sickles, a man of action, confronted Key one Sunday in Lafayette Square in the heart of Washington, and, crying out, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die!” shot the unarmed Key multiple times, thoroughly killing him. (Reports that Sickles actually declared, “My name is Daniel Sickles. You have shagged my wife. Prepare to die,” are apparently unfounded.)

Washington’s District Attorney was now dead, of course, so Sickles promptly surrendered himself to the city’s surviving authorities and was taken to jail.

Again, from Wikipedia:

“He received numerous perquisites, including being allowed to retain his personal weapon, and receive numerous visitors. So many visitors came that he was granted the use of the head jailer's apartment to receive them. They included many congressmen, senators, and other leading members of Washington society. President James Buchanan sent Sickles a personal note.”

The murder trial took place in the spring of 1859 and Sickles secured as his defense lawyer Edwin M. Stanton, the future Secretary of War, a man of considerable political ambition. Stanton based his case on the idea that the infidelity of the beloved Mrs. Sickles had driven the Congressman insane with jealousy and, not being of sound mind during the shooting, could not be found guilty of murder. Sickles was acquitted on April 26, 1859, the first person ever to win a case on the basis of temporary insanity. Today, in reference to the Sickles acquittal, February 19 is celebrated as “Temporary Insanity Day.” I’m not sure why it isn’t February 27, the actual day of the murder, but, in any case, I understand that appropriate eCards are available.

As a Civil War general, Sickles clung to his outrageous ways. He maintained that he still loved his young wife, but he also found the company of other women (of varying reputations) irresistible. He was aided in his affairs by his friend and superior officer, General Joseph Hooker, who was so connected in the public mind with ladies of the night that a spurious theory arose claiming that the noun “hooker” was derived from association with this general’s name. Charles Hanna writes in his 2010 book Gettysburg Medal of Honor Recipients, that “Accounts at the time compared [the army headquarters of Sickles and Hooker] to a rowdy bar and bordello.”

At the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863, Sickles, as head of the Third Corps, helped thwart a crushing blow against the Union Army, turning a potentially catastrophic defeat into a merely humiliating one. But it was at Gettysburg two months later where Sickles’ behavior stirred up some controversy. He had been ordered to maintain a solid line of defense along Cemetery Ridge, but he decided, on his own initiative, to advance his corps forward, thus leaving a gap between his troops and those of his fellow Yankee generals. When the Confederates attacked, Sickles’ corps was almost annihilated and Sickles himself lost a leg to a rebel cannonball. Though some commend Sickles’ maneuver, most regard it as a dangerous blunder that almost cost the Union the battle.

Sickles’ mangled leg was amputated, but it was saved as a relic of the battle, and it, or at least its bones, can be seen today at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.

After the war, President Grant made Sickles the U.S. minister to Spain. It may be that the president was hoping to put an end to the scandals that surrounded the former general, but if so, this plan was not entirely successful. For soon after arriving in Madrid, Ambassador Sickles, apparently undiminished in his raffish impulses, stirred up rumors of an affair between him and Queen Isabella II. America’s next war, of course, was with Spain, but I don’t claim any known connection between Sickles’ unremitting debauchery and the War of 1898.

Upon his return to the U.S., Sickles struggled for years to bolster his reputation as an outstanding general who made all the right moves at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the other battles in which he was a participant. He died in 1914 at 94 years of age, but, if he could communicate with us today from the beyond, he would surely claim for himself a “10” in the area of generalship.

That’s about all I have on General Sickles. I just thought it might be fun, in honor of the general’s birthday, to think back on a time when churlish, self-important blowhards held sway in Washington society.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

One Trick Pony

Donald Trump is an idiot.* On that, reasonable people can agree. But that’s not the worst of it. Donald Trump is also a scoundrel. This means that, he not only pursues clueless policies that are bad for the country, but he pursues self-serving policies that are also bad for the country.

I suppose I should qualify the “Trump is an idiot” point, given that some might argue that if he were really all that dumb, he wouldn’t be president.

Point taken. It is true that Trump did manage to weasel his way into the White House, with an assist from Vladimir Putin, but this only demonstrates two things:

        A. He has one skill; he is good at getting people
        to believe nonsense that is patently false (like
        Mexico will pay for a magnificent border wall),


B. There are a lot of voters who are seething with so much resentment and so lacking in education that they readily fall for the manipulative bullshit that Trump routinely peddles.

On Point B, consider this: Trump just issued executive orders that will make it harder for people to afford health insurance. Obviously, he did this because he wants to stick it to Barack Obama. Throwing millions of Americans off the insurance rolls is his way of thumbing his nose at the former (and significantly more popular) president. Remember that when running for office, in addition to vowing to have Mexico pay for the wall, Trump also promised he would replace Obamacare with a much better health care system. This was a patent lie, of course, but a lot of people seemed to believe it.

I’m not really saying anything new here. Many people have pointed out that Trump is a con man. Probably the most famous person to make this point was Mitt Romney who, back in March 2016, said this about Trump:

“Look, his bankruptcies have crushed small businesses and the men and women who work for them. He inherited his business, he didn’t create it. And whatever happened to Trump Airlines? How about Trump University? And then there’s Trump Magazine and Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks and Trump Mortgage. A business genius he is not.”

But wait, there’s more:

“Dishonesty is Donald Trump’s hallmark.”

“Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities. The bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics.”

“Mr. Trump is a con man, a fake.”

And so on.

But here we are presented with an ironic twist. Once elected, Trump immediately conned Mitt Romney by suggesting that he could be Secretary of State. Now Romney at this point no doubt thought in terms of “serving his country” and all that sort of thing, but he also clearly dreamed of being a big player again. On this basis, he was lured into accepting Trump’s invitation to discuss the appointment, whereupon Trump arranged to have the two of them photographed at dinner – where Trump looked triumphant and self-satisfied while Romney squirmed with embarrassment.

With this one photograph Trump conned Romney, reducing him to irrelevance.

I suppose the lesson for Romney is that when you know somebody is a slick-talking con man, don’t put yourself in his manipulative hands.

I just wonder how long it will take for the voters who were conned into voting for Trump – as more and more of them lose their insurance - start to feel like Mitt Romney and realize they trusted a man whose only skill is slinging bullshit.


*Notice my restraint here; I did not refer to Trump as a “fucking moron.”

(The quotations are from a speech Romney gave at the Hinckley Institute of Salt Lake City as reported in the March 3, 2016, New York Times.) 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Strangelove 2.0

A dangerous dead end. That’s the best way to describe the point to which our incompetent president has dragged us in our dealings with North Korea. Trump seems to believe that childish name-calling will bring about some kind of useful result in our relationship with this small but dangerous nation. Granted, Kim Jong Un has also engaged in name calling, but, let’s face it, it was Trump who first made the war of words personal.

The fact that Kim Jong Un is a self-absorbed, lying egomaniac does not excuse the self-absorbed lying of Trump. Both of these psychologically questionable leaders routinely conjure up ridiculous claims about themselves. Kim Jong Un, for example, claims that the first time he played a round of 18 holes of golf, he made 11 holes in one and ended with a score of 34. This empty boast is even more preposterous than Trump’s phony, self-published Time Magazine covers honoring himself that he has plastered all over his properties. At least Trump doesn’t claim (as Kim does) to be descended from a line of heavenly ordained ancestors, born on the slopes of a sacred mountain. At least not yet.

Our immediate problem is that we (and by we, I mean Americans and Koreans) are at the mercy of two dishonest egomaniacs, each of whom believes the best way to get what they want is by “being tough.” And each seems to define “tough” as spewing out crudely belligerent insults supplemented by threats to use sophisticated weaponry, including nuclear weaponry.

The only way to make this situation less dangerous is for each side to drop the public threats and insults and have their representatives sit down to talk about the best way to avoid war. War, after all, would be horrific for all sides, and quite problematic for Japan and China as well. In fact, the best kind of conference for discussing an end to current tensions would be one that included all affected parties: North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., Japan, and China.

It may, at this point, be impossible to completely block North Korea’s nuclear program. Kim believes that having nukes is the best way to preserve his administration. He sees Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi as having been destroyed by the U.S. or with American help, mainly because they lacked such weapons. This is a driving force behind his determination to get such weapons. Another factor is national pride which, in North Korea, is closely tied to its nuclear program.

The U.S. has no compelling reason for overthrowing a non-nuclear North Korean government. And, as of now, there seems no way to prevent North Korea from getting a nuclear missile without our launching a military attack. Such an attack, even without nukes, would likely result in a horrendously bloody war on the peninsula. North Korea’s military holds the city of Seoul, South Korea, hostage by virtue of having thousands of missiles and artillery pieces within range of it.

But the worst nightmare for the U.S. would be a North Korea with hundreds of long-range nuclear missiles capable of hitting us. In such a scenario, North Korea could do almost as much damage to us as we could to it.

Perhaps the best deal that can be reached at this point is one which allows North Korea a verifiably small nuclear arsenal – one or two missiles – which it could see as both a deterrent to an American attack and a glorious victory in its long struggle to become a nuclear nation. Such a scenario would still make North Korea vulnerable to annihilation by America’s huge nuclear arsenal, but would, of course, render us vulnerable as well, though without our having to face the existential threat of hundreds of enemy missiles in the hands of a belligerent egomaniac.

I keep thinking of the opening lines of a famous graduation speech given by Woody Allen. A version of this speech pertinent to our current situation would go something like this: "Two paths lie before us. Down one lies trouble, anxiety, and endless difficulty. Down the other lies total annihilation..."

Right now, we are faced with two such paths. One is a continuation of threats, saber-rattling, and name calling, which is likely to spark a military showdown and possibly disastrous war. The other would be a conference in which all interested parties sit down and work their way toward a stable, peaceful relationship acceptable to all sides. If such a relationship could be established, especially if it included increased communications between the governments and citizens of both sides, it would very likely evolve eventually into the sort of semi-cooperative rivalry that we currently have with China and Russia. That would allow us to push the second hand on the Doomsday Clock back by a few precious ticks.

Unfortunately, our president as of now seems to think the name-calling and threats are the way to go. Let us hope his advisors can coax him onto a path of intelligent reason before he leads all over a Strangelovian cliff.