Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Political update


At best, only a handful of persons will have any input into the questions asked to the potential presidential nominees during their debates. I have a few questions I would like to see answered by the wannabees far more than I want to hear the pat answers the candidates’ staffs have written out for them about social security or any of that rot:

1. “Once nominated, you will undoubtedly say something that can be interpreted in a way that is offensive to some person or group if you stretch it far enough. The offendee, your opponents and the media will demand, at the price of your not getting to talk about anything else, that you not only apologize, but that you not hedge your apology in any way (in other words, no saying “If I offended anyone, I am truly sorry . . .”). Every unbiased person will, of course, know that you didn’t mean anything offensive or intend to shoot your campaign in the foot. Will you pledge now not to apologize just because someone could possibly take offense, or would you prefer to abjectly and generically apologize in advance to everyone?”

2. “After the election, some uppity reporter will ask you if you meant the really nasty thing you said about your opponent during the campaign, at which time you will say something like “Well, campaigns get pretty heated, and you sometimes say things you don’t really mean”. Will you pledge now not to take back the rude things you said about your opponent, or would you rather just state in advance that you don’t really mean anything you say during the campaign and we should just pretty much ignore you?”

3. “During your campaign, one of your staff members will make some unfortunate statement, or something will turn up in their background that will make the media and your opponents demand you fire him or her. Will you promise not to fire staff just because they attended a free speech rally also attended by NAMBLA or because they had six DWIs, or would you rather just fire everyone now and avoid all trouble?”

4. “In order to get nominated, you are going to have to slide over to your (right/left) to satisfy your base. Once you are nominated, you have to sidle back to the middle to win the general election, all the while pretending that there is no difference in your behavior. Can you give us a score card in advance of all the positions you intend to take that will be red meat to your base, but which you will retract or soften once nominated?”

5. “If you win, you will undoubtedly vocally thank God for your victory right at the beginning of your acceptance speech. Do you concede now that if you lose, it means that God picked your opponent over you?”

6. “At some point during a debate a reporter will ask you to admit to a character flaw. We all know that, like all candidates, you are prepared to state a “weakness” that is more likely to be seen as a plus, “I’m a perfectionist” being the classic response. Can you pledge that when asked that question you will choose either admit to a humiliating failure (preferably in the bedroom) or some variant of “I’m a ____head”.”

7. “When you come into high office you will have to promote the integrity and ethics of
your administration. But, inevitably, we are going to find out what really goes on with
you and your cabinet. Do you have the courage to pledge now that you will not have the most ethical presidency of all time?”

8. “What type of scandal do think that you and your cabinet will most likely cover up, and why do you think you will feel compelled to do it despite all we know about their lack of success? As a follow up, how high in your cabinet or staff are you willing to go in choosing a scapegoat?”

9. “Do you have a personal statute of limitations on blaming the last administration when things go terribly wrong, and, if so, how long?”

10. I always get stuck on ten. You give me one.

Bill Richardson

Richardson hadn’t announced when I last covered the 2008 free for all. I have always liked this guy. If I could form an independent party and draft whoever I wanted, he would be on my short list of nominees. The pundit world is unified that he is the most experienced of all the Democratic candidates in terms of foreign affairs (being a former U.N. ambassador and a globe trotting troubleshooter under Clinton), executive functions (he’s New Mexico’s governor) and working in an administration (Clinton’s energy secretary).

Richardson has a couple of qualities that are very attractive to the American populous. He has an Anglo-Saxon name, and he has that ordinary guy thing about him. I suspect he’s a loveable dad, although I probably would have said that about Bing Crosby. Watch him talk. I’ve seen him make a speech with his left hand in his pocket. How casual is that? Everyone else is gesturing all about like they are doing Shakespeare. He does have some pat lines he likes to spout (“President Clinton used to say I send Richardson, because the bad guys like him” and “I can solve these problems in two words – vote Democrat”) but otherwise, he seems fairly unscripted. Of course, that may just be because he can’t afford writers.

Many pundits also agree that he is running for vice president. Like Tom Vilsack, the Iowa governor who was first in and first out, there just isn’t enough fund raising money available to him like there is for Hillary and Obama. Richardson came on stage at a recent presentation of the Democratic candidates and said he wanted everyone to pledge they would only campaign positively. Hah, hah, hah, hah, hah. Oh, that was rich. Good luck on that one. Not too long after the two leading prospects had knives their knives drawn.

Still, he is a guy who offends no one, who Republicans respect, and, although clearly in the Democratic/liberal camp, doesn’t come across as an ideologue (another reason he can’t win). He can almost certainly bring with him the highly sought after Hispanic vote, and, of course, his own State (New Mexico -- who cares) and possibly some neighboring states. He would add experience to anyone’s ticket, and gives the impression he could easily stand back and play second fiddle (unlike, for example, a Clinton or a McCain or Giuliani).

Despite the fact that I like him, I can’t make any great predictions for Richardson. He is rock bottom in the polls, and I don’t think he can last long without an influx of money. In fact, a recent Pew Research poll said that only 38 percent of Democrats or Democratic leaning persons had heard of him (compared to 98 percent for Hillary and 78 percent for Obama). He isn’t very telegenic (although he made sure he lost a lot of weight this year) and he doesn’t have a lot of charisma (as if Hillary does). Frankly, his neutral qualities are one of the things I like about him, but it will not get him very far.

Any outside chance? Despite his bad polling, just possibly. 12 percent of Democrats or Democratic leaning persons said there was a “good chance” they would vote for him (Pew again). That doesn’t sound so bad given that only 38 percent had heard of him at all. Realistically, his only chance would be if Obama had to drop out for some reason and their was a big desperate push for an Anti-Hillary candidate. Don’t count on it. More likely, we would see Richardson standing beside one of the front runners on the convention stand, nominated for what John Adams called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”.

Al Gore

There is a lot of squawking about when and if Al Gore will throw his hat in the ring.

Gore’s time has passed. He seems to have a good life, whatever you think of the global warming. Why ruin it by putting yourself in a place where half the people in the country hate you?

If he decides to, I have some advice for him: Drop 30-50 pounds. I just don’t believe Americans will vote for a fat guy. Fat guys are the bad guys in movies or the second banana (the exceptions, John Candy and Chris Farley all seem to drop dead, and besides, they are comedians – different thing). The presumption is, you may drop dead of a heart attack, and, for some people, that you don’t care about yourself.

The last really fat president we had was Taft, but he was out of office in 1913, way before television. Clinton was a little puffy, but not fat. A lot of women found him cute. I don’t think women find Gore cute.

I suppose the right fat guy with the right marketing at the right time, could get himself elected president (being a fat atheist, I really have no shot). But I would bet we will see the first black, Jewish or woman president way before a fat guy (and fat girl – forget it).

David Geffen

I love the fact that everyone ignores the first part of David Geffen’s statement that created such strife between the Obama and Clinton camps: “All politicians lie . . .”. Given his proximity to politicians, that is quite a powerful statement. Not that we all didn’t know it. I just enjoy the fact that we are all so inured to political Pinocchios, that no one pays it any attention. I wonder if you asked Geffen whether he was including Obama, he would find the courage to say “Well, yeah” instead of “By all I meant most”.

Why do we vote for someone?

Pew is my favorite of all of the pollsters. They seem like they have no axe to grind and have polls about many things other than politics.

A recent poll by Pew concentrates on voters impressions of the candidates and is filled with interesting statistics. My favorite part is the series of questions that asks what qualities about a candidate make the subjects more of less likely to vote for them.

The most important quality turns out to be military service (48% more likely), Next was being a Christian (38%) and the only other thing even close was the candidate’s experience in Washington D.C. (35%). These have to be things John McCain is happy to hear. That Christianity is so highly rated is not surprising. It’s nearly twice as important to voters as the candidate having gone to a top school (22%).

61% of Republican and only 32% of Democrats found Christianity a positive trait in assessing a candidate. It is probably even more important than military service, despite the finding. This country has elected many presidents without any service, starting with the second, third and fourth ones, but has never elected a non-Christian. There are no non-Christians running (unless you are among those who believe that Mormons are not Christians).

Atheism is still the leading disqualifier. Far more people are “less likely” to vote for someone because he/she is an atheist (63% less likely) than because they were a Muslim (46% less likely) despite the concerns about Islamic terrorism. Not surprisingly, 86% of Republicans found atheism to be a disqualifying trait. However. well over 50% of both Democrats and independents felt the same way.

Only 30% of the people polled said that Mormonism would be enough to make them less likely to vote for a candidate. Other things perceived not as bad as being an atheist include being black (only 4% less likely), smoking (18%), past drug use (45%), taking anti-depressants (36%), having an extra-marital affair (39%) and being a homosexual (46%).

There's nothing quite like a Pew Poll. Go to and have fun.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

America's Mayor

Rudy Giuliani is blowing away John McCain these days in every poll. This has actually been true for a while, but now it’s sometimes by a huge amount. He’s blowing away the Democrats too.

I’m not voting for him. Well, I should hedge a little. I am not voting for him unless I become convinced he has truly, truly changed from the power hungry, angry and “Nasty Man” (according to former Mayor Koch, now one of his biggest supporters) that he was while mayor of New York City.

Let’s start with his seeming abhorrence of any free speech values while he was mayor. Free speech is a basic American value and written into the First Amendment to the Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights.

But, to “America’s Mayor,” no one had free speech if they were saying something he didn’t like (which is exactly the reason we have a first amendment). Take a deep breathe -- while he was serving as mayor, various courts had to stop him from:

• refusing to allow yellow cabs to protest by proceeding across the
59th Street Bridge in any reasonable numbers.

• making child welfare employees get city consent before talking to
reporters about non-confidential child welfare information (and thus
keeping the public from knowing what was going on from those who
knew best).

• enforcing a police department policy making officers who wanted to
talk with reporters about non-confidential police business without
city consent (and thus keeping the public from knowing what was
going on from those who knew best – to be fair, he did win the part
about making them give notice to the department, but when he lost
the consent part – the city gave up and dropped the whole

• giving summonses to Socialist Workers Party candidates for meeting and soliciting in a park.

• making artists get a license to sell or show their stuff in public
places (free expression in public forums is a bedrock principle).

• forcing Time Warner Cable of New York to show political news shows on channels set aside for municipal use (yes, of course, FoxNews).

• stopping a church from distributing condoms in a park.

refusing to allow a magazine to place ads on city busses that made
fun of him (oh, grow up, you big baby – you have paraded around in a dress when you wanted to have fun).

• keeping the Public Advocate (who was a political opponent not under his control) from getting his hands on records regarding the conduct of the New York City Civilian Complaint Board.

• refusing to honor a freedom of information request about a police
operation in Queens (the police gave up before the court acted).

• limiting to 25 and then 50, the number of reporters on the steps of
city hall for a press conference.

• when he lost that one, retaliating by closing the steps entirely
supposedly for security reasons).

• again in retaliation, allowing use of the public steps only for
events sponsored by a government official.

• severely limiting a rally in Harlem by a black group.

• completely stopping a second rally.

• severely restricting the reasonable use of amplified sound in Times

• dismissing a police office for participating in a controversial

• arresting a cab driver who asked officers why cabs could not cross
the Queensboro Bridge in a protest (acquitted by the jury).

• giving summones to people who were celebrating the winter solstice on a beach for trespassing.

• revoking a black religious group's long held sound permits and
threatening them with arrest (settled by the city, who essentially
gave up, paid damages and promised not to do it again).

• refusing to recognize a Latin NY police department group who wanted to march in parades under their own banner (yes, other ethnic groups are allowed – remember the Emerald Society).

• firing a police officer who was publicly critical of the department
after the Amadou Diallo killing.

• trying to evict the Brooklyn Museum from a city building because it
had a show containing a display disrespectful to Catholicism (and
yes, it was offensive – but too bad, we don’t need protection for
speech everyone likes).

Whew! Didn’t he win any?

He did win his sex industry battle, basically zoning adult entertainment stores out of many desirable spots in the city. Municipalities almost always win those fights as long as they leave some room for the strippers and such.

You might agree with the Mayor on some of these cases. And I’m not suggesting there shouldn’t be reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech which we all rely on so as to maintain an ordered society, or that there aren’t good reasons to terminate a police officer, etc. I am just saying that America’s Mayor must have set a record concerning one of the most important freedoms for all of us all. Could all of those judges and juries been wild eyed lefty hippies out to destroy civilization?

For me – that’s enough never to vote for this guy unless I was truly convinced he has evolved, but there is so much more. As Mayor Koch pointed out in his book on Giuliani, written before 9/11 happened and he began bowing at Mayor Giuliani’s altar (by the way, I otherwise have a high opinion of Mayor Koch), Giuliani was not content to win a battle; he wanted to destroy his opponents. He was a bully and a “Nasty Man”; hence the title of his book.

Here’s what we can learn from Koch about Giuliani. Some of these may events may ring a bell with you. The fact that Koch now backs Giuliani doesn’t make these things not true, or a real concern:

• While a U.S. prosecutor, Giuliani (RG) had stockbrokers handcuffed in their office and paraded out in front of their co-workers. All charges were eventually dismissed. Many people, including Koch, thought the handcuffing was an unfair publicity stunt (RG told Koch he had nothing to do with it).

• Also while a prosecutor, he had the daughter of a Supreme Court Judge taped by her own emotionally troubled daughter (again, RG, told Koch he told her not to do it, and it happened by accident – yeah, that sounds likely).

• Micromanaging the police department to the point of even deciding who gets detective badges (in other words, good bye merit promotions – either support RG or no advancement).

• Publicly demeaning the school chancellor, Ramon Cortines, because he would not fire people RG did not like. Cortines resigned (Koch predicted that the police chief would be next, and guess what?).

• Attempted to impoverish the Citizens’ Budget Commission, a watchdog group that exist to criticize government for misspending money because it criticized him, as it does every mayor. The City’s budget director who called Trustees of the Commission, all of whom in some way who did business with the city, and urged them not to attend the commission’s fund raising dinner. Ironically, RG defended his assistant on FREE SPEECH GROUNDS. All of a sudden he believes in it. Oh, c’mon. If that wasn’t a blatant attempt to squash free speech by the government, what is?

• Drove away his highly successful police chief, William Bratton, with whom he had to share credit for the falling crime rates (which, by the way, were falling all across the country).

• Stood on the stage of Lincoln Center and demanding that Arafat leave a performance. You probably aren’t a big Arafat fan either. Fine, but he didn’t actually sneak into the country to go to a show. The event was sponsored by the City and the United Nations at the event. Would RG like it if someone did that to Putin or Hu while he was president. I don’t think so. Koch, who is a big Israel supporter and dislikes Arafat, claims to have been terribly embarrassed by RG’s behavior.

• Destroyed the merit system for picking judges. Rudy wanted and got political appointees and even the power to get rid of some of the ones he did not like (which is the way to make sure you get bad, but politically connected judges).

• Fined by the Campaign Finance Board, Giuliani later threatened to cut off the Board’s operational budget.

• Reached down deep into lower level City employees and firing those who he thought did not support his agenda. This type of thing happens all the time and is always reprehensible. Doesn’t make it right for him though.

You’ll have to read Koch’s book if you want more. Throughout the book, Koch acknowledges RG’s administrative abilities and many accomplishments. He was just troubled by his partisanship, bullying, showboating and over the top tactics.

Of course, RG is now a national hero, in the manner we now make heroes out of people who really haven’t done anything heroic (RG did not run up the stairs in the Towers and carry out anyone – in fact, if you saw him on tv that first day, he looked like he was in shock -- not that you can blame him). He was mayor for 9/11, did a good job, tried to be calm and inspirational, channeled Winston Churchill and went to a gazillion funerals. Unfortunately, for some people, that is enough to vote for him for president despite some frightening personal characteristics. You can commend him for his actions and not vote for him.

What people might forget was that once he got a handle on things after the 9/11 tragedy, he tried to push his mayoralty past his elected term, by proposing to stay on three months after the elected mayor’s inauguration. Now that is the Rudy that scares the hell out of me. We switch elected officials even during our worst times, Rudy, just like your hero, Winston Churchill, came in during World War II.

Koch initially had reservations about RG, but endorsed him after RG assured him that the events behind his concerns were false. Koch soon stopped believing that. I guess he believes them again as he seems to think the world of Giuliani now

This has been a pretty negative post. So, if I am shown to have misstated that whirlwind of fact above, I will correct myself here. I will also leave an open mind. If RG can convince me that he is no longer the virulent autocrat who cannot take being bucked, then he might be a fantastic choice. But he would have to say something like – “I was a virulent autocrat and I have changed”. Don’t count on it.

Last thought -- If you find George Bush too partisan or too authoritative (“I’m the decider”) then just wait until Rudy gets into office. You ain’t seen nothing yet. And if he does win, I better blow up this blog.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Sicilian Adventure

A few weeks ago I wrote about the tendency of writers to compare the war in Iraq to the Athenian adventure in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War. For the next few weeks I waited for someone in the press to bring up the topic so that I wouldn’t look like a liar. I didn’t have to wait very long.

In the past few weeks Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has mentioned the ancient invention twice. The first time was on January 23, 2007, when he wrote -

Forget the Vietnam analogy that critics of the Iraq war usually toss out. A more trenchant analysis of Iraq-style adventures appears in the histories of Thucydides, written 2,400 years ago.

Great Athenian diplomats of the day, like Nicias, warned against military involvement in Sicily, calling it ''a war that does not concern us,'' according to Thucydides. But smooth-talking neocons of the day, like the brilliant Alcibiades, said in effect that the Sicilians would welcome the Athenians with flowers. He promised that they would be treated not as occupiers but as liberators.

''We shall have many barbarians join us,'' Alcibiades declared, and he argued that the enemy would be easily defeated ''rabble.'' ''Never were the Peloponnesians more hopeless against us,'' he told the crowds.

So the Athenians rallied around the flag and dispatched a huge force. But as Thucydides notes, they had suffered a grievous intelligence failure: they did not get the support they had counted on, and the enemy was far larger and more organized than they had anticipated. The war went badly, and eventually Athens was forced to confront two options: withdraw or escalate.

The Athenians, deciding that defeat was not an option, went with the ''surge.'' They dispatched an additional 70-odd ships and 5,000 troops.

The result was a catastrophic defeat. Thousands of Athenians were killed far from home, and others were sold into slavery. The Athenian navy was destroyed, and the double-or-nothing gambit meant that other nonaligned states sided with the Athenians' enemy, Sparta.

Within a few years, Athenian democracy had collapsed, and Athens, the great city-state of the ancient world, had been conquered by Sparta.”

Kristof followed up on January 6, 2007 in a related article that “Thucydides’ account of the failed “surge” in the Sicilian expedition 2,400 years ago is newly relevant

So, I got my proof twofold. First, that the Peloponnesian War is on the mind of commentators about the Iraq War, but also, that no one really explains what they mean when they compare the two wars. Kristof has gone further than most, giving at least some information about it. Unfortunately, some of it is wrongor at least incomplete. Actually I like Kristof’s articles for the most part. Just about everyone is either too far left or too far right for me. He is too far left. But even very successful columnists like Kristof seem to rarely research the historical analogies they make.

So, just to refresh your memory, the Persians had been defeated in their attempt to conquer Greek thanks to the superior army of the Spartans and the unparalleled Navy of the Athenians. Before that war was even won, Sparta retreated within itself and Athens greatly expanded. Though reasons for the Peloponnesian War are not certain, many authors believe it was due to Sparta’s fear that Athens would grow to powerful. Sparta invaded, but could not penetrate Athen's famous “Long Walls”. They traded victories back and forth until several hundred Spartan’s were trapped on an island and Sparta surrendered rather than sacrifice the soldiers. During the truce that followed, Athens invaded Sicily. Here is that story, and how it compares to the modern war. To me, the most interesting aspect is not what happened to Athens, but our one glimpse of a half-Spartan general named Gylippus, a remarkable soldier, who rose from nothing to become an astonishing success.

Athens had been asked to intercede in a war between Greek colonies on the island of Sicily. The first time Athens help was sought they tried to raise some support from other Greek colonies to help their ally fight on Syracuse, the big power on the Island. They were not successful. But about a decade later, around 415 B.C. (dates and even years are not always certain when you go back this far) Athens was once again approached. Taking a payment for the first month’s expenses they began to debate it among themselves.

In early Spring 415 the Athenians selected three generals to lead an expedition of 60 ships. One of the generals, Alcibiades, was a young general loved by many and possibly hated or distrusted by as many more. He actively sought out the command and believed in it, much as Kristof writes in his article. Nicias, an older and highly respected general, believed it was a mistake to invade, again, just as Kristof says. He could not, however, safely avoid being part of it. A third general, Lamachus, was probably meant to balance the other two.

But a few days after the Athenian democratic assembly voted to go forward with the invasion, Nicias desperately tried to get them to reverse itself. Mostly, he was afraid they wouldn’t win and that a united Sicily would team up with Sparta in a new war against Athens. He also attacked Alcibiades for his lack of piousness, which was always a good tactic back then.

However, Alcibiades was not famous for nothing. He easily deflected the fears raised by Nicias and convinced the assembly there was nothing to lose in risking a mere 60 ships, given the condition of the Greek colonies on Sicily. He also applied to the Athenians sense of pride, pointing out how they were an active nation, and suggested that if they became passive, they would die. He piled it on – they had given their oath to help the smaller colonies – Sparta was in a weak condition – it was more likely that Syracuse would join would Sparta if they did not attack them, and so on. Moreover, if they won, Athens would probably control all Greece. That had to sound good.

In fact, the great ancient historian of the war, Thucydides, who was also a general in the war, believed that protecting the smaller colonies was merely a pretext for the real reason -- Athens taking over the entire Island of Sicily. Given Alcibiades argument, at least some of them believed it. We are not about to find out the truth any time soon.

Because Nicias fought so hard to convince the Athenians that they would face formidable opponents and problems, he was given carte blanche to ask for whatever he need. They ended up with, counting Athens and their allies, about 135 triremes (their ships), about 5000 hoplites (the guys with all the armor and pikes) and another 5000 light infantry (in another words, the poor guys without all the armor). Thirty cargo ships were also sent for food, tools, etc. Despite stating strong concerns about the Sicilian cavalry, Nicias did not require one, and they had only about 30 horses and riders with them. Big mistake.

Just before they left, the city was hit with a huge religious scandal that looked deliberately made to stop the invasion. It ended up with Alcibiades leaving with the knowledge that he would have to return to face these charges. As soon as they left, the religious madness resumed and Alcibiades was sent for to be tried at once. I tell you all this just in case you think its only now that people act like idiots about religion. To the contrary, at least in this country at this time, religious differences are handled more civilly and safely than at almost any other time in history.

The invasion started poorly. Allies wouldn’t help. The generals disagreed whether to attack immediately and surprise the Syracusans (Lamachus), or wait until they had local allies to help (Alcibiades), or just to make a show of power and go home (Nicias). In the meantime, the ship that was sent to get Alcibiades and his friends for return to Athens for trial arrived. Alcibiades found out they were coming and made a beeline for Sparta. He was tried in absentia in Athens, and, of course, found guilty. Anyone who came across him was directed to kill him (sounds like a fatwa). Back in Sicily, the Navy sat in their ships and waited.

The two sides jostled for advantage and Athens won the opening battle, at least, technically. But after that, Nicias failed to follow up. He sent home for money (not his fault; the expected money from local allies did not come) and calvary.

The Syracusans were not wasting time. They began training their citizens to fight and, although a democracy themselves, like Athens, gave special powers to their generals to make decisions on their own. They also sent to Sparta, and another powerful Athens-hating city, Corinth, who founded the colony, for help. In the meantime, Alcibiades arrived in Sparta, and tried to convince them that Athens intended to take over all Greece and more (which was, after all, his idea), and tried to convince them to attack Athens in Sicily and in Athens.

The Spartans did no such thing. They did do something, however, which is somewhat unique. They sent one Spartan, or actually, one half Spartan, which made a big difference to them. In fact this half Spartan’s father had been disgraced. In their minds, this general couldn't be much. His name was Gylippus. With him he took only two Corinthian ships and two more from the Peloponnesian peninsular. Some scouting operations were bigger.

In the Spring of 414 B.C., it still did not look so bad for the Athenians. They had control of the sea outside Syracuse, were positioned to turn back any substantial Spartan aid, and soon, when their cavalry arrived, were able to set up a fort to help control the plateau above Syracuse. They then took over the counter-wall the Syracusans were building and cut off the pipes supplying water to the walled city. But Syracuse fought back. While Athens managed to destroy another wall set up by Syracuse, the Syracusan cavalry managed to put a dent in the Athenian phalanx and even killed General Lamachus. That left only Nicias, who was now not only reluctant to be there at all, but very sick.

Despite that rally, without water, it looked like the Syracusans would have to give up. That’s when Gylippus arrived with his small entourage. Quickly he managed to drum up allies which were rallying to Syracuse’s cause. In no time, he had raised a few thousand soldiers and a couple of hundred units of calvary. In the meantime, another Corinthian general managed to get through to Syracuse and convinced the Syracusans not to surrender, but to wait for Gylippus.

Gylippus was all the Syracusans could ask for. He inspired them to fight as well as Winston Churchill would later inspire the British. When he first arrived, the Athenians had almost completed the wall that would have allowed them to totally blockade the city. Nevertheless, he arrogantly told the Athenians they could have a truce if they left within a few days. Sounds like Churchill. From then on he began to make the Athenians sorry they didn’t accept. When he lost a major battle due to a mistake, he took responsibility right away, increasing his good reputation. With a few important tactical victories he completely destroyed the Athenians attempt to surround the city.

In fact, Nicias, who had never lost before, was now desperately trying to find a way to escape. However, he realized that to do so, it might result in his exile or other punishment at the hands of the Athenians, who had little patience with unsuccessful generals. In fact, Thucydides was himself exiled after an important loss during the larger war. That was a good thing for posterity, as if he had died instead, we would have lost our major source of information about the war, and the beginnings of serious history would have been delayed.

Nicias wrote home. While avoiding blaming himself, he said that circumstances required Athens either giving him permission to withdraw or sending another force of the same size. To his surprise, that’s what Athens did. They sent some more generals, including, in my humble opinion, their best fighter, Demosthenes, and many more forces.

But Athens wasn’t the only one to escalate. The war with Sparta had now resumed with Athenian raids near Sparta at the behest of an ally. Now Sparta and Corinth poured men, soldiers and ships into the battle of Sicily. Moreover, ally after ally came forward with every Gylippus victory.

The Athenians were still a dominating force at sea. Nevertheless, the Syracusans, with Corinthian aid came up with novel ways to defeat them. That was unheard of at the time. They reinforced their boats for collisions, lined their triremes with javelin throwers, used smaller more elusive boats with javelin throwers, and even dropped dolphin shaped weights from cranes onto the enemy ships. They also threw rocks, which were easier to aim in rough waters. When all appeared lost, the second Athenian fleet arrived with Demosthenes. As Nicias requested, it was nearly as large as the first fleet.

Demosthenes went to work right away with a sneak attack that seemed to work. But somehow, the Athenians wound up confused in the darkness. Strangely, they became frightened by the singing of some of the opposing troops and then by the counter songs of some of their own allies. Routed in their panic, many Athenians were chased off cliffs. Many of those who did not were hunted down and killed.

Eventually, the Athenian generals determined to flee to the open sea, where the Athenian navy would again have an advantage. Ironically, Nicias was now the most reluctant to leave, partially because he was afraid that the Syracusans would learn of the tactic and block them. He also admitted that if they left he feared being put to death in Athens for his failure.

In two great battles in the Syracuse harbor, the former defenders, but now the hunters of the Athenians destroyed the mighty and still larger fleet in battle. The last battle was fought in view of the cheering Syracusan citizens lining the harbor walls. The Athenians tried to escape in a breach down the middle but were set upon. A general melee ensued. The Athenians were defeated and fled to shore. Led by Nicias and Demosthenes, the soldiers and sailors tried to cut across the country and were cut down or taken prisoner. The two generals were caught and soon put to death. End of the Sicilian adventure.

I leave the rest of the war to your review of my earlier article, or the excellent books on the subject, my favorite of which is Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War. More recent, and more of a best seller, is Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like No Other. Thucydides himself did not live to complete the story although it is still the major source for scholars. Believe it or not, Thucydides own account can be found in book stores.

So, can we compare this unfortunate invasion by the powerful Athenians with our current predicament in Iraq? In some ways, there are obvious comparisons. In each of these ways the U.S. resembles Athens in the ancient war.

-An overwhelmingly powerful force confronts a less powerful force in their distant homeland.
-The less powerful forces comes up with creative ways to battle and stymie the superior force.
-The wars were deemed great wastes of precious lives and blood. The more powerful forces were not fully supported by its allies.
-Both wars were geographically limited (Iraq and Sicily) but were seen as a part of a larger war (the War on Terror and the Peloponnesian war).
-Both defenders were given help by a small group of related outsiders who are also at war with the aggressor (Al Quaeda and the Spartans).

But in other ways, the two wars are nothing alike:

-In Iraq, the presently constituted government still wants the United States’ forces to stay. There was no central government in Sicily.
-Our enemies in Iraq are not united as were Athens’ enemies. In fact they are most often busy trying to kill each other.
-There is little chance that the U.S. forces will be decimated, however much the casualty list grows, as opposed to the Athenian forces, which were destroyed).
-This is not a war between two democracies (both Athens and Syracuse were democratic).
-The Iraq War is not between groups within one culture, as was the Greek war.
-Athens would have gladly destroyed all of Syracuse if it could. We are trying, however unsuccessfully, to rebuild Iraq.

Kristof’s article, which I started out with, is, unlike this blog, a brief opinion piece, so I don’t want to be that hard on him. But it appears he doesn’t realize that the Sicilian Greeks were not Peloponnesians (as the Spartans were), as his article implies. He seems to have no clue as to the role Sparta played unless they are his “non-aligned” people who supported Syracuse (in which, case he is wrong – they were aligned against Athens, even if temporarily at peace with them). The Syracusans were not really “larger and far more organized” than the Athenians had counted on, as Kristof says. In fact, Athens had nearly defeated them when Spartan and Corinthian aid arrived.

Nor is he correct that Athenian democracy soon collapsed. They were defeated ten years later after many more victories, and tyranny was briefly forced upon them when they lost. In fact, as I have said in the last article, it is Sparta which soon faded after their victory, and Athens, once again a democracy, which prospered. And Alcibiades was not an ancient version of a neocon, as Kristof also suggests. Neocons are, if nothing else, idealistic, whether you agree with them or not. Alcibiades was the quintessential opportunist.

Kristof is right that the Athenians’ options became retreat or escalate at one point, but I do not see how nearly doubling the force, as Athens did, can be taken as a “surge” (the escalation in Iraq is adding only roughly 15% of troops). In fact, despite what looks like only a vague knowledge of the Peloponnesian War, Kristof may be right on the main point. As Donald Kagan, who has been writing on the war since at least the 1960s, if not earlier, wrote sometime prior to the recent Iraq war:

“Their error, in fact, is one common to powerful states, regardless of their constitutions, when they are unexpectedly thwarted by an opponent they expected would be weak and easily defeated. Such states are likely to view retreat as a defeat and as a blow to their prestige, and while unwelcome in itself, it is also an option that puts into question their strength and determination and with it their security. Support for ventures such as the Sicilian campaign generally remains strong until the prospect for victory disappears.”

Whether you believe retreat or escalate is the right answer, this seems to be what happened.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Vickie Lynn and me

I heard something like on Saturday on 1010 News, a radio station that strings together headlines, apparently not with a lot of thought:

“Two possible fathers for Anna Nicole Smith’s baby have come forward and now Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband has said he may be the father. And there may be a fourth. Barak Obama officially announces later today.”

To be fair to the announcer, you could tell he saw the humor in it, and the next time around, the items were in a different order. Still, wish I had tape handy at the time.

It’s time for all men who have had sex with Anna to come forward and make a bid for the money. Apparently, who ever gets custody of the kid (Good Lord, a five month old – who cares? -- I’ll buy five nannies) gets the half a billion dollars or so.

I first met Anna in 1987 when she was dancing in a bar in the deep South. There was something special about her. Her breasts were enormous, of course. Did I mention she had big breasts. She told me her name was Bambi or Barbie or something like that while I was getting the lap dance, but later that night when we were recuperating from the passionate sex we had had, she gave me her real name, Vickie Lynn Hogan. I always knew her as Vickie Lynn during our 20 year on again off again affair.

I only realized that she and Anna were one and the same after her sad death this past week, and only then when I had time to focus on how much money was at stake. I understand that the lawsuit over the half billion or so prize . . . er, husband’s estate, is still being litigated. Now it's estate against estate, as the testator and the possible beneificiaries are all dead. But suppose, we should lose and Anna (therefore child, therefore guardian, therefore me) and I only get ten million. I have to tell you, that’s enough for me. In fact, in order to get our adversaries on my side, I'll stipulate to that right now.

Here’s my plan. I claim paternity. Let’s see. What would my memory be. Oh, I got it. In 1983 Vickie or Anna or whatever her name was and I froze some of my sperm in the outdoor freezer behind her trailer. It wasn’t a big deal. On the same day we froze her recently deceased dog and a clump of her hair that she had accidentally pulled out in a drunken stupor. About a year or so ago I received a call from her asking me if I remembered where we put it. I seemed to recall we had frozen the sperm in an empty mayonnaise container along with an explanatory note, cleverly encoded in pig latin. She thanked me (in pig latin) and hung up. That’s the last time we spoke.

Once I win the battle of the baby, I will move down to the Bahamas, where the kid lives and where its relatively cheap to survive while awaiting a gravy train. Frankly, its likely that someone will put me up for free just for the celebrity status and the chance for a cool buck. Once the money rolls in, well, then it’s a home in Beverly Hills (I too will now be a celebrity and might even get a movie deal) and probably one in East Berlin near Brad and Angelina (my next conquest – keep that under your hat).

I may have to cart the kid around for a while just to make it look good, but they have to sleep sometime. I mean how often do we see celebrities without their children anyway. I’d say all the time. Was Diana’s kids with her when the car crashed? Are Pam Anderson’s kids with her when she gets photographed coming from some man’s apartment or home in the early morning (let’s hope not)? Besides, there is an argument to be made that a good boarding school is the best place to raise a kid (thank you, royal families all over the world).

And to be fair to myself and the other possible fathers, it’s really about the money, and the kid (notice, I haven’t bothered to learn her name – I wonder if the other guys know it) comes in second place.

What will I do when she comes of age and wants her money.? I’ll say “Kid, (although I’ll likely know her name by then) I invested it, and, well, that’s why you can never rely on your parents and have to learn to take care of yourself. After all, your Mom worked for her half a billion dollars, and so can you”. If she inherits her mother's looks and silicone capacity, she should have no trouble.

A news station had a question for the public the other day – What is the best way to win the war in Iraq – wait, no, that wasn’t it. It was – how will you remember Anna Nicole Smith? I’m sure for some it will be her enormous breasts (I probably should have used that phrase more in this article - enormous breasts, enormous breasts) and for some it will be her impersonation of someone with severe cognitive difficulties. Others for her acting ability (yes, believe it or not, there was at least one film).

For my part, Vickie Lynn, I will remember your money, for as long as it lasts.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Another early American murder mystery

These events happened quite a while ago, in 1841 to be precise. It is still an interesting and unsolved mystery. We only know about it at all from the recollections of a young lawyer who represented one of the defendants. There is a kicker at the end, too.

Three brothers, William, Henry and Archibald Trailor lived in the burgeoning Midwest in or near a small town of about 3500 citizens. Archibald was the youngest of them, a bachelor of excellent reputation about 30 years old, and lived in the town itself. He made his living as a carpenter along with partner and fellow boarder, Myers. Archibald’s brother Henry, was a couple of years older than him, was a farmer who lived with his family about 20 miles outside town, and who also enjoyed a solid reputation. A few years older still was William, who lived furthest away from where these events occurred, perhaps a hundred miles or so. His wife had passed on and he was raising his children himself, enjoying the same reputation for character as his brothers.

William had a neighbor, whose name was Archibald Fisher and who had no family and no real home, moving from lodging to lodging. He was, however, not poor. He was well known to be “economical” and many believed that he had squirreled away a large sum in savings.

Sometime in May of that year, William decided to go visit his brothers. Fisher, who was lodging at William’s farm at the time, decided to go with him. By horse and buggy they first traveled to Henry’s home, and the next morning with Henry on horseback, they continued into town where they met up with Archibald. They all stayed at Archibald’s lodging.

After lunch, the four gentlemen went out on the town to look around. Sometime later the Trailors returned separately, but Fisher did not come back with them. His disappearance was well noted by other lodgers and the Trailors went back out to look for him. They all returned without any sign of Fisher. The next day they again searched for him, starting out before they had breakfast and again afterwards. After lunch, William and Henry decided to leave for their homes without Fisher, despite the complaints of Archibald’s fellow boarders that Fisher would have no way to get back himself.

A few days later, Henry returned to continue the search for Fisher. Archibald and some of the boarders joined him. It was fruitless and Henry left again. Few in town even knew that anyone, much less Fisher, was even missing. That was about to change. Soon after William arrived home, his local postmaster wrote to the Springfield postmaster and advised him that William had arrived home alone bragging that Fisher was dead and had left him $1500 (keep in mind, its 1841; $1500 goes a long way). William’s behavior was suspicious and the postmaster wanted to find out exactly what had happened.

This set the small city into an uproar. The state attorney general happened to reside there and he and the mayor spearheaded a search. Many seekers walked abreast to try and cover every square inch of ground. Refuse pits, basements and even freshly dug graves for dogs were all looked into in order to find an expected murder victim.

After searching a full day or more, officers were sent off to arrest not only William but also Henry. Archibald was well known in the capital, and it was not suspected that he might have something to do with a murder. While the unsettling search continued, rumors arose about William and Henry spending Fishers money. Soon Henry was arrested and zealously interrogated for days. He denied his guilt, again and again.

But finally, he cracked. He still insisted that he was innocent, but now said that the William together with Archibald had murdered Fisher. He himself had been unaware of it until just before he and William were set to leave, when his brothers confessed to him their evil deed. When Henry and William supposedly left town they actually met just outside town inside a thicket of trees. The two murderous brothers went deeper inside the wood, leaving Henry as a sentinel, and came back with a body that Henry thought looked like Fisher. They put him inside the buggy and left Henry there, heading in the direction of a pond. They returned shortly thereafter saying they had put him in a safe place. After that they parted.

Naturally, Archibald was immediately arrested. Given the anger the murder had aroused, being locked up probably saved his life. A search of the wood was made, and signs of a struggle found. They then found a trail which led directly to the buggy tracks. At the pond they could see where the buggy had backed up to the water’s edge. The evidence all matched Henry’s story.

They now attacked the pond by the hundreds, searching every inch of it. With no good result, they then cut down a dam and allowed much of the water to be drawn off. Still, they could not find Fisher.

At about this time the officer charged with bringing in William arrived with his prisoner in tow. That’s when things got really strange. Along with the two expected arrivals was a third person, one Dr. Gilmore. The doctor had caught up with the officer and William on the road, chasing after them to advise the officer that Fisher was in fact at the doctor’s own home. He expected William to be freed immediately.

Not surprisingly, the officer determined that he could not trust Gilmore and he returned with William anyway, and with the doctor too. Once in town, Dr. Gilmore restated that Fisher was his house. Naturally, Henry was confronted with his fact. He steadfastly maintained that his story was true. Once that was learned by the populous, they quickly concluded that Dr. Gilmore was merely an accomplice of the killers.

A legal examination before two judges began on the Friday following William’s return. Both he and Archibald were charged with murder. Although the law at the time required a body, Henry’s testimony to having seen Fisher dead would suffice.

Henry was called to the stand and maintained his story. A “respectable lady” who knew Archibald testified that she had seen him enter the woods just where Henry later described with someone she now believed was his brother William and also a man who fit Fisher’s description. Only William and Archibald came out a few hours later. Other witnesses also testified that they saw the brothers enter the woods at the time Henry and William were supposed to be leaving, just as Henry had described. Still others testified that William and Archibald had been passing gold pieces since the disappearance. The location of the buggy tracks and the signs of struggle in the wood were also brought in. The prosecution rested.

The defense called Dr. Gilmore. He lived a few miles from William. While out one morning, he heard that William was arrested for Fisher’s murder. But when he returned home he found Fisher himself there in a weakened condition. Fisher could not explain what had happened to him. At that point Dr. Gilmore left Fisher to recuperate and chased down the officer who had arrested William. Dr. Gilmore had known Fisher for years and knew him to sometimes become deranged due to a head injury he suffered in his youth.

Dr. Gilmore was apparently very persuasive, because despite Henry’s adamant testimony that his own brothers were murders, and Archibald and William making no explanation at all, the court discharged the defendants. The large crowd was in general agreement.

On Monday, Archibald’s partner Myers arrived in town and brought Fisher with him. The alleged victim seemed perfectly fine. Myers had set out for Gilmore’s home to prove that Fisher was still alive. Still, the mystery was never satisfactorily explained. There was the testimony of the witnesses, including that of Henry, who would never speak of the matter again. William and Henry both died young men within two years, also giving no explanation. Fisher either didn’t want to or could not recall.

But Fisher’s sudden appearance is not the kicker I promised you at the beginning of this post. And I have played a little unfairly too. The gentleman who has wrote down this story five years after it occurred, in 1846, was a well known lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, where this strange event occurred. If that is not enough of a hint for some of you, he was later the sixteenth and some think the greatest president of the United States. He is also the American writer I most admire, although this was not one of his greatest productions. It was, of course, was Abraham Lincoln.

William was represented by Lincoln in the matter but never paid him. When William died, Lincoln sued his estate. Lincoln himself could not provide a rational explanation to explain this mystery either, but did express his satisfaction that Fisher had been found by Dr. Gilmore, without which occurrence, Archibald and William would have surely been convicted, and perhaps even executed.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Those wacky forefathers

Our ever lovin’ forefathers really were impressive. Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison were among the most knowledgeable persons of the day and each capable of great creativity and staggering output. Undistracted by tv, movies and the internet, they read and wrote more in a year about serious topics than most people today do in a lifetime. Washington, although not as well read or philosophical as the above group, had his own sense of decency and practical philosophy which led to his being the one person almost everyone trusted to be the first president. As was said at one of his many eulogies, he was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen”. When his nemesis, King George III of England, heard that Washington was not trying to hold onto his power, he reportedly said “If true, he will be the greatest man in the world”.

Recently, a friend of mine told me about a documentary he had seen on the Adams-Jefferson relationship which had surprised him concerning their long standing antagonism. Not surprising, as most people who do not delve into their history probably assume that these great men who formed our country probably were in concert and got along well. We learned nothing in high school that would tell us differently. But it is not so. Although there were great friendships among them, at least temporarily, there was also great rivalry. When you contemplate the animosity between the conservatives and liberals of our times, it will not seem much different than that which existed in the first “Greatest Generation”. Like now, the reasons then were mostly political.

When Washington took office, there were no parties. In fact, the idea of parties was looked down upon. But during Washington’s governance two parties developed, the Federalists and the Republicans (to make things more confusing, the Republican party was also called at different points in history Democrat-Republicans, federalists, anti-federalists, and Democrats, but I will just call them Republicans here; but that party has no connection with the present day Republicans, whose first elected nominee was Lincoln). The Federalists were for a strong central government and were usually more pro-British. The Republicans were for a weak central government, strong State governments and were usually more pro-French. For the most part the Federalists controlled the federal government until 1800 when the Republicans took the presidency (Jefferson) and Congress. The Federalist party, which would die out within twenty years, still controlled the Judiciary. The Republicans saw it as a “second revolution” as they believed the Washington-Adams-Hamilton party had strayed from the revolution’s principles. The forefathers I am talking about here broke down like this.

George Washington - Federalist
John Adams - Federalist
Alexander Hamilton - Federalist
Thomas Jefferson - Republican
James Madison - Republican
Aaron Burr - Republican

Here is how they got along, at least in a summary fashion:

George Washington versus John Adams . Well, almost everyone loved or at least respected Washington. But at one time or another, Washington had a falling out or problems with all of the other forefathers above. Just as Washington was the first president, Adams was the first vice president. Adams had been a supporter of General Washington during the revolution and thereafter, and did nothing to work against him while vice president, unlike Thomas Jefferson, who was the secretary of state. However, Washington’s presidency was an experiment, as they were all trying to figure out how the president should act in a republic. Adams, who knew he would likely be the next president, thought that the president should be called “his majesty the president”. This seemed ridiculous to most, and one suggested Adams should be called “his rotundity,” mocking his pomposity and his weight. Unfortunately for Adams, it stuck. Adams continued to fight for the more exalted title, even lecturing the Senate during their debate on it. In doing so, combined with his arrogant posturing, he became “odious” to Washington, who thereafter simply cut Adams off from active participation. Adams’ eight years as VP under Washington was a misery. He wrote “My country has contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”.

George Washington versus Alexander Hamilton. Most of the time, these two were extremely close, Hamilton being almost like an adopted son. Yet while the war raged on, Hamilton, a very young man but key Washington aid, and the General had a terrible falling out. The fight was generated by Washington blowing his famous stack when he thought that Hamilton had slighted him by keeping him waiting two minutes while he finished a conversation. Although Washington soon apologized, Hamilton refused to accept it, and resigned. The real reason was that Hamilton wanted to get into the action instead of being a staff officer. Leading troops into combat was where the glory was, and Hamilton was incredibly desirous of glory. He got his wish at the last great battle of the war, Washington seeing to it that he lead the charge at Yorktown. This mended all fences. Hamilton ended up Washington’s secretary of state, and many even thought of Washington as Hamilton’s puppet.

George Washington versus Thomas Jefferson. The principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence and our third president, Jefferson was one of the greatest backroom plotters of all times. Unfailing polite and mild in debate, he used every deceptive move he could through political operatives and journalists to fight against the Washington administration despite the fact that he was his secretary of state. Hamilton, the Secretary of Treasury, and Jefferson went at each other so hard through their journalistic mouthpieces that Washington had to beg them each to cut it out, which they refused to do. But Washington, not Hamilton, was president, and Jefferson did everything he could to undermine the administration he served, and whose policies he deplored. Jefferson himself wrote in what amounted to a diary, that one day Washington had a temper tantrum about the writings of Jefferson’s mouthpiece in the press, who had insinuated that Washington wanted to be King. Jefferson lost most of his battles while serving as secretary of state, and resigned after a few years.

George Washington versus James Madison. Only Hamilton was probably tighter with Washington among the forefathers. Madison, much later the fourth president, had a natural connection with Washington as brother Virginians, although Washington was much older than he was. Working in unison since the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, their friendship was key in getting the constitutional convention held and the constitution adopted. However, Federalist and Republican politics again got in the way. While Washington was president, Madison was a leader in the House of Representative and usually in opposition to the administration. He was essentially Jefferson’s second in command. After fighting a series of proposals made by Hamilton on behalf of the administration, Madison pushed it one too far for Washington, by opposing a treaty with Great Britain (the controversial Jay Treaty). Madison would never again be a guest of Washington at Mt. Vernon. Although Madison still respected the older man, their great collaboration was at end due to their political differences.

George Washington versus Aaron Burr. Because Burr has been vilified throughout our history for killing Hamilton in a duel and for a military expedition many saw as treason a few years later (he was unsuccessfully tried for it), it is often forgotten that Burr was a great military hero during the war, rising to Colonel as a very young man, and thereafter one of the most influential lawyers and politicians of his day. He was also ahead of his time in his manner of educating his daughter and his beneficent treatment of his slaves (like many forefathers, he was against slavery, but had slaves). Burr had served on Washington’s staff even before Hamilton. It did not last long. Burr longed for military action and, unlike Hamilton, got it. Washington had little use for Burr, refusing him a commission when the war broke out and later passing over him for a commendation, even though Burr was a bona fide war hero at the time. Washington would later speak disapprovingly of Burr’s morals.

John Adams versus Thomas Jefferson. You cannot do this interrupted friendship justice in a paragraph or two. They started out like gangbusters, serving on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence together (which Adams later said was mere theatrics for which Jefferson got all the glory). They thereafter served in France together as diplomats and became the closest of friends. After the war, both served under Washington. Adams became a Federalist and Jefferson, the head of the Republican party. After Washington’s two terms, they ran against each other in 1796 election. Adams defeated Jefferson. However, because Jefferson received the second highest vote total, he was Adams’ vice president (that is how they did it at the time) and severely undermined Adams in many ways. He secretly drafted the Kentucky resolutions, which, if made law, would have given the states the right to disobey federal law, and, by using newspaper writers to criticize the president and his administration. Jefferson referred to the Adams Administration as the “reign of witches”. The 1800 election was particularly vicious. Adams had a miserable presidency, partially thanks to Jefferson. He probably never would have forgiven Jefferson, if not for the intercession of a mutual friend, the famous physician and politician, Benjamin Rush, who persuaded Adams to write his former friend. Their voluminous correspondence, occasionally boring, but most often fascinating, lasted from 1812 until 1826, when they both died within hours of each other on the very same day – which also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams versus Alexander Hamilton. Adams was certainly the more respected of the two as far as the nation was concerned, being deemed the “Atlas of Independence”. He was not only elected the first vice president, but the second president. However, within politics, the wily and less principled Hamilton was far more influential than Adams, who was often described as prickly, acerbic and arrogant. While Adams was left out as vice president for eight years under Washington, Hamilton, in the less glamorous role of secretary of state, ran a huge operation that set the tone for the nations economy, and really became the head of the federalist party. When Adams ran for president in 1796, Hamilton, although in the same party, circulated a tract against him. It was supposed to have remained a secret but was published. If that wasn’t bad enough, Hamilton openly slammed Adams’ character in another publication during the 1800 election. When Adams became president, he nobly but foolishly kept on Washington’s cabinet, all of whom secretly reported to Hamilton. Adams famously referred to Hamilton as "the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler," and it is somewhat hard to blame him. Hamilton frustrated him at every turn.

Thomas Jefferson versus Alexander Hamilton. This was a heavyweight fight. Both led their parties. Both were devious and underhanded in playing politics. They battled fiercely through surrogates, with Hamilton sometimes writing under pseudonyms, while both served in Washington’s cabinet. During these years Hamilton usually came out on top. Both of them had a strong flirtation with Hamilton’s sister in-law, Angelica Schuyler Church, and some suspect Hamilton of having had an affair with her. Jefferson undoubtedly would have liked to have done so. It is not too much to say that the policies they battled about are to a degree the same fights Republicans and Democrats have today. Late in the 1790s, a Jefferson partisan, who made his living writing scurrilous things about Jefferson’s enemies, hinted strongly that Hamilton had had an illicit affair and behaved improperly when in office. The first part was true, the second false. To stave off the attack, Hamilton published his own pamphlet admitting the sexual affair but defending his conduct as secretary of the treasury. Hamilton also threatened to publish an article on Jefferson’s attempt to steal his best friend’s wife. Ironically, because of his dislike for Adams and Burr, Hamilton helped Jefferson, whom he at least respected, get elected president in 1800.

Thomas Jefferson versus Aaron Burr. Another great rivalry for which there is just not enough ink. Burr started out on Jefferson’s side helping the Republicans sweep to power. Everyone, including Burr, understood that Jefferson would be president and Burr vice president. But when they surprisingly tied in electoral votes, and it went to the House of Representatives for a decision, Burr would not give in. Eventually, Jefferson, through devious machinations, broke the stalemate, making Burr VP. During the first term (near the end of which Burr would kill Hamilton in a duel) Burr, as President of the Senate conducted the trial of a Federalist judge who Jefferson wanted thrown off the bench. Burr, one of the most experienced trial lawyers in the country, handled the trial firmly but fairly, and the judge was acquitted, to Jefferson’s great chagrin. After Burr left office, he organized a military operation to conquer Mexico and possibly slice off Western states and territories. Jefferson had Burr tried for treason. The judge was another Jefferson nemesis, John Marshall, who was also Jefferson’s own cousin, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Burr was acquitted on all charges, but it essentially ended his entire career.

Alexander Hamilton versus James Madison. They were buddies during the run up to the Constitution, both working to get the convention started. Hamilton was for an elected and inheritable monarchy, which everyone else was against. He did not think much of the constitution when it was drafted. Still, once it was proposed by the convention, the two worked together on what are now known as The Federalist Papers, a lengthy series of newspaper articles aimed at convincing New Yorkers to ratify. It is still the most quoted political writing by the Supreme Court. Once the government was formed, with Hamilton as Secretary of State and Madison as a leader in the house, their enmity was almost a certainty, and just as Washington and Madison could no longer be friends, neither could Madison and Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton versus Aaron Burr. The most complicated of all the relationships and also the most well known, as it ended in a death. Both were young men who rose to prominence during the war. Both were on Washington’s staff, though at different times. Both were brilliant lawyers’ who soon dominated the New York bar, trying case after case together, including the famous Manhattan Well murder trial which has been written about in an earlier posting on this blog. Their lives were intertwined in many ways, Burr even acting as an honest broker when Hamilton was first accused of dishonesty in office. Burr actually interceded to stave off a duel between Hamilton and James Monroe (the fifth president). Then Burr had a duel with Hamilton’s brother-in-law, John Church over the very same Manhattan Well, during which duel Church shot off Burr’s belt buckle. Burr was furious that Hamilton threw his weight behind Jefferson during his and Burr’s standoff for the presidency. Hamilton felt that Jefferson was wrong in his vision for a rural America dominated by individual states, but at least he believed in something, whereas he found Burr completely unprincipled and guided only by self-interest. When it was clear that Burr would not be vice president the second term, he ran for New York’s governor. Hamilton thought he would win. But, when Burr lost, he believed that it was due to Hamilton’s behind the scenes machinations. When Hamilton was reported to have said something exceedingly disparaging to Burr’s character during a dinner party, Burr demanded an apology. Hamilton would not back down, and after the requisite back and forth attempts to forgo the duel with honor, they fought with pistols at Weehawken, NJ, across the Hudson River from NYC. Burr killed Hamilton with one shot, and then fled south for a while, before resuming his office as Vice President.

Nothing above is meant to argue that these founders were not amazing and brilliant men, about whom we can’t read, write or talk about enough. But, as with all heroic figures, we can't humanize them enough either.

As a bonus I offer the following top ten presidents list, which I hope will cause disagreeable comment from you and name calling that would make the forefathers proud.

10. John Adams (navigated away from war with France, and despite over long vacations, he managed to stave off crisises while fending off Jefferson on one side and Hamilton on the other; the two most formidable oponents of the day)
9 Lyndon Johnson (for the civil rights, not the war)
8 Harry S. Truman (tough time to step in as President, but he did an
excellent job and took the heat)
7 James Polk (you might not like the way he did it, but he greatly
expanded this country to its modern continental borders)
6 Ulysses Grant (a recent spate of biographies convinced me he was a far better president than he is given credit for)
5 FDR (even if he screwed everything else up as his critics claim, what do you rate for WWII alone – most polls rank him just below Lincoln and Washington)
4 James Monroe (Although not one of the Olympian like forefathers, he is highly underrated as a president)
3 Theodore Roosevelt (Perhaps the most unique president, he helped establish America as a world power, while working to stave off the worst aspects of our corporate powers)
2 Abraham Lincoln (If nothing else, for his writing, although you might like him for his success in making certain the Union still stood)
1 George Washington (Made the mold)

I used to have Woodrow Wilson in my list (I believe in place of Adams) and he might pop back in one day. But more research left me unsure whether he was a great president or a horrible one. I have never been an Andrew Jackson fan, and although I admire some aspects of Ronald Reagan, I cannot help but believe his presidency was a seed and a catalyst for the current hostility and paralysis in government today. Feel free to disagree.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .