Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Desert Island

If you were going to be stranded on a desert island, what books would you hope were packed in the bags that floated ashore with you? Not the most original question, but always fun, and it does take some thought. The rules are loose. Collections are allowed. Ten fiction, ten non-fiction, plus three miscellaneous.


1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Because it is hands down the best single volume history book I have ever read. Large personalities, personal drama, commando raids, last minute escapes, brilliant scientists and some of the most compelling, detailed but understandable, physics imaginable, all with the backdrop of WWII. Rhodes never needed to write another book. I learned more from him than any other author except Will Durant, and that was after already reading a number of books on the bomb. If you love history, or even just WWII history, read it. You will generally understand how an atomic bomb gets made and why it goes boom after you are done and actually have a good time on the way. Ironically, I never read his follow up, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb.

2. The Snow Leopard: Published the same year as The Making of the Atomic Bomb, it thrills in a completely different way. It is the personal journey of the adventurer/author, Peter Matthiessen, to Tibet, after his wife died, ostensibly in search of the snow leopard. It is his evocative natural descriptions, the unpretentiousness of the Sherpa guides, the Buddhist lore, and his somewhat strained relationship with naturalist George Schaller that make this a frequent re-reader for me. Puts me at peace, it does.

3. Will Durant’s Story of Civilization (11 Volumes): It makes me sad that these books are so rarely read today. No historian has ever written as well, and I am not sure anyone has ever had the depth of historical knowledge he did. There is no filler material in these books, but the more impressive aspect is the synthesis he brings to each topic. The perfectly written philosophical renderings at the beginnings and end of chapters could make a book themselves. Of course, as Durant says, you can’t read everything (although he comes closer than anyone else I know), so if you can only take a few volumes on your island, I recommend the first four, Our Oriental Heritage, The Life of Greece, Caesar and Christ and The Age of Faith.

4. The Library of America’s Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (2 volumes): I have read the Lincoln/Douglas debates over and over. His humor, self deprecation, logic, eloquence and passion run amok in these two volumes. Sissy that I am, I got tears in my eyes the first time I read his thoughtful letter to a mother explaining the death of her sons during the war (featured in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan) and laughed out loud during his letter explaining how an early romance went awry. His speech at Cooper Union, the First and Second Inaugural, letters to his generals, political correspondents and friends are all here and mostly gems. You can learn as much or more about Lincoln in this collection as in a full biography.

5. Herodotus’ The Histories: This is where it all started for the western civilization in terms of recorded history. For me as well, when I jump started my reintroduction to history at age 19 by speeding through Herodotus’ unprecedented review of the Persian/Greek conflict with side trips to Egypt and other civilizations. Watching the great traveler reason out what must be myth and what history is enthralling. My only doubt is that I may have put this down too far on the list.

6. Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy: The only writer who makes it twice, this small volume, available in paperback, makes philosophers we wish we had the patience to read, available and comprehensible. The chapters on Plato, Schopenhauer and Spinoza are favorites, but each one shines. He plays no favorites, and you get the best and worst of each of these deep thinkers.

7. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: The second book I remember reading (the first being Joy Adamson’s Born Free), and one that helped form my personality, likes and dislikes, as will be seen in the fiction list below. Hamilton is a modern day Ovid. Why do I like it better than Bullfinch’s Mythology or the several mythological encyclopedias I own? Maybe because it was the first one I read, but I think there is more to it than that. Something magical here.

8. Lucretius’ On Nature: Not nearly so old as Herodotus, but considerably before Christ, Lucretius wrote this tour de force in verse. Of course, he was wrong about many things, but it’s the reasoning process without the benefits of modern science that makes this poem so phenomenal. Glean from it an ancient Roman's view on atoms, multiple worlds, psychology, the soul, the fear of death, the senses, love, the formation of the universe, the beginnings of life, people and civilizations, and even a bit on the weather.

9. Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue: An early book by this best selling travel (and now science) writer. Bryson, who, unlike all other writers on this list except Matthiessen, is very much alive, and would make a great guest on the island. Here he tracks the English language and its changes over time. I learned some of my favorite words from him, including velleity, a mild desire to do something that leads to no action. Also aposiopesis, the sudden breaking off of thought, which is my most annoying mental problem -- what was I saying? Given the depth of the other books on this list, this might be too modern and a mistake. But it feels right.

10. Any comprehensive encyclopedic dictionary. Still have to look up some words, and it’s almost like having an almanac with you. I started off reading dictionaries as a kid, and still sleep with one on my bed (possibly one reason I’m alone).


1. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: If you have read it, you know why it is first here. Maybe even if you have just seen the movies. It works as a swashbuckler, a rendering of Norse and Germanic mythology and culture, as a linguistic puzzle, as philosophy, a tale of good and evil, and as just great writing. Those who love it are astonished that there are those who don’t. My favorite LOTR moment: When Frodo is whining about having to suffer through the evil he faces and Gandalf replies: “So do I . . . and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

2. The Once and Future King: There was a time when I thought these four volumes were better than The Lord of the Rings. I was wrong, but it is great nonetheless. Caveat: Do not, I repeat, do not read the Fifth Volume, the Book of Merlin, which was not published during T.H. White’s lifetime. It was awful. Worse than awful, and not a true sequel. As with Tolkien’s Hobbit, the first volume of TOFK, The Sword and the Stone (where the Disney movie of the same title comes from), seemed to be written for children, but the seriousness of the books grew as the number of volumes did. Another tip. Find a separate copy of The Sword and The Stone because it contains an original combat scene between Merlin and a witch, Madame Mim, which was for some strange reason left out when the four volumes were combined to be sold as a single unit.

3. The Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs). Originally written in Old German, this is a breathtaking saga of swords, magic and revenge. The great hero, Sigurd, Brunhilde, the formidable love interest, Attila the Hun, even Theodoric and Hildebrandt play a role. Same basic story source as Wagner’s Ring Cycle, if that is more familiar. Magic dwarves, rings, swords, dragons. I probably am not going to wait for the island to read it again.

4. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The first prose ever written, as far as we know. How this Babylonian tale of its great king-villain-hero is still so little known, amazes me. It has the first version of the Noah story, evil goddesses, sex and a search for immortality. Most of all, it is the story of the friendship between Gilgamesh and the half animal/half human, Ekidnu, originally created to destroy him. That’s packing a lot in for the first novel ever.

5. The Iliad. You couldn’t pay me to see the recent movie, Troy. Some things shouldn’t be messed with and The Iliad is one of them. I’d make an exception for Masterpiece Theatre or Peter Jackson. Here’s the quickie version. Tenth year of the invasion of Troy by the Greeks because a Trojan prince, with a little help from the goddess of love, steals a Greek king’s wife (you have probably heard of Helen of Troy, if nothing else). The story actually starts because the high king of the Greeks infuriates their greatest warrior, Achilles, by taking his slave girl, and Achilles refuses to fight anymore. But when his close friend, dressed in Achilles’ armor, is killed, Achilles goes all Bruce Lee on the Trojans and kills their great prince, Hector. Odysseus, Diomedes, the Greater and Lesser Ajax, and other dynamic Greek heroes vie for honors. The goddess Aphroditeeven blackmails Helen into having sex with her new husband and the Goddess Hera seduces Zeus so the other gods can kick some ass. Odysseus outfoxes everyone. What’s not here? Achilles’ death and The Trojan Horse. If someone named Homer actually existed, and wrote about that too, we don’t have it, and have to rely on other versions.

6. The Odyssey. What happened to Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War? He had a really bad decade, but gets home in time to rescue his wife from her suitors and his son from death. Meet the Cyclops and Kirke, a prototype witch. Who’s the real hero, Odysseus or prudent Penelope who fended off the suitors while remaining faithful to her husband? I’m going with Odysseus because he’s pretty much the last of a dying breed of superhumans, whereas Penelope is merely admirable.

7. Speaking of Shakespeare (someone is somewhere) -- an annotated Shakespeare collection: I’m not sure if it matters very much which complete Shakespeare you go with, but I am selecting the 1988 Rouse edition. If any writer has the reputation to speak for himself, Shakespeare does and we will not belabor it here.

8. Three Complete Novels: John Le Carre: The Smiley trilogy all wrapped up in one book. This is the cold war classic literature. Too show you how good Le Carre was at his best, go into any bookstore, find a spy novel, and read the dust jacket. Somewhere in it there will be a reference to the “new Le Carre” or something like that. That’s like comparing mid-western pizza with New York pizza – pointless, and practically an insult.

9. The Three Musketeers corpus: By that, I mean all five volumes in Dumas’ classic story. TTM is actually only the first fifth of the entire tale, the best other volumes being Ten Years After and The Man in the Iron Mask. But TTM is the best, the most action packed, the most mysterious and the funniest. I’ve read it three times and have yet to tire of it.

10. The Leatherstocking Tales: Cooper’s early American epic is another five version job, only three of which are worth it: The Deerkiller, The Pathfinder and The Last of the Mohicans, all tracing the life of Natty Bumppo, a/k/a, Hawkeye. Since this island is a fantasy, let’s pretend you can get all three volumes together without the other two. In real life you can’t. The Library of America puts all five together, although it’s well over a hundred bucks. The recent movie, The Last of the Mohicans, was great in its own way, but completely distorted Natty’s character. In the books, he was tall, thin, ugly, and about as spiritual as you can get and still be a stone dead killer with a long rifle, or La Longue Carabine, as the French and Indians called it.

Miscellaneous: I also want an annotated Bible and, if possible, presuming one exists, an English version of Tthe Mahabharata, which is the Indian Bible, so to speak, although 40 times longer than its Canaanite cousin. I’ve never read it, except for the small part called the Bagavad Gita or Song of God, and a short children’s version of the whole book. I figure it should take me the rest of my life to read the rest, but I expect it will be worth it.

You have to leave some books out, or there is no point to this fantasy, but never reading the Flashman series again is too much to bear. So, it’s coming along too. They are, without fear of intelligent objection, the best historical novels ever written, and the multi-language speaking, horse back riding yellow belly, rogue and hero Flashman, one of the great creations of modern literature. Go Flashy, go.

Last, give me a subscription to The New York Times, dropped by plane each morning, and I’m a happy man. You can read what you like on your island.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Would you have Father Abraham for your father?

To most Christians and Jews, or at least those who regularly go to church/temple, or suffered through Sunday School, there are two images of Abraham the patriarch. The first, is the often painted scene (including by many celebrated artists like Caraveggio and Rembrandt) of Abraham

about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at the direction of God. This is straight out of the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis.

The other story which is frequently heard is that of Abraham smashing his father’s idols, making him, reportedly, the first monotheist. This is not in the Bible at all. Although taught to children all over the world, it is actually part of what is known as the Midrash. These are Biblical interpretations, written many centuries after the Bible was first memorialized, although there may have been an oral tradition. That's not a knock, as traditions plays a large roll in all religions.

It’s hard to blame rabbis or modern religious school teachers for adding something to the story which reflect well on Abraham as there are more than a few parts that do not, even by contemporary biblical morality. If you have not read Genesis (or in a while) this may surprise you.

Abraham was born, Abram. His father, Terah, was at least 70 at the time, and would live until he was 205 (whcih is not long by biblical standards). He actually had two brothers, Nahor and Haran, although it is not clear if they were triplets. Haran had a son, Lot, therefore Abraham's nephew, who plays a sizeable role in the story.

Abram married Sarai, who was ten years Abram’s junior. She was, unfortunately, barren. Later rabbinical literature identified Sarai with Haran’s daughter, Iscah. This does not make that much sense as Sarai and Iscah were mentioned in the same verse, and not identified with one another.

When Abram was 75 he took Sarai, Lot and his followers or servants to Canaan, destined to be the promised land of his people. At some point, Abraham moved along to Egypt and that is when things get weird.

Abram was concerned that the Egyptians would take one look at Sarai, who was at least in her 60s, if not older, and kill him so that they could have her. He convinced her to act as if she were his sister (which, he later claims she actually was). Pharaoh’s talent scouts spotted her and she moved into his home to become his wife, and, as her brother, Abram made out just fine. If this sounds shocking, all I can do is promise you, it’s in the Bible.

There is no word in the Bible of either Abram or Sarai being particularly stressed about the situation. God, on the other hand, wasn’t pleased at all, and, in some unknown way, began punishing the Egyptians. Don't confuse this with Moses and the ten plagues which is much better known and happens later. Word must have gotten out why they were being punished, as the Pharaoh brought her back to already richly rewarded Abram. Instead of killing Abram, he just said, “Hey, why didn’t you tell me?” and told them to go and to take all the good stuff Abram had acquired. Maybe it was worth it, as it seemed to change their lives for the better.

It would be easy to just say, well, this was a different era, and perhaps allowing your wife to marry someone so they didn’t kill you, was par for the course, but we can see by God’s and the Pharaoh’s reaction, that is not so. It is hard to understand why Abram wasn’t punished by God for his bad behavior as Moses and David would later be, but apparently he was the favorite.

So, Abram, Sarai and Lot went back to Canaan. There was a falling out between Lot’s and Abram’s herdsmen, which created enough bad blood that they split off from one another. Lot got a good look at Jordan, and went there. We are given a early warning that the men of Sodom, where he was headed, were evil.

Abram is again told that all Canaan will belong to his people and that there will be a lot of them (not the best biblical prediction).

At this point there is a big war and a Lot is captured. Old as he was, Abram morphs into Indiana Jones, and goes to the rescue. He split his 318 men into two groups and was able to rescue Lot. From this, some people have concluded that Abram was a great war leader, starting the Israeli military tradition. It takes an awful lot of conjecture to reach that conclusion. We have no idea how many people the 318 were pitted against, or who had the advantage in weaponry, etc.

Soon afterwards, God tells Abram that he will have a son, and while he's talking, throws in the whole Exodus story. Abram had been intending to leave everything to one of his servants, which was actually one of the nicer things he did, but now has a son to think about.

Apparently God was in no hurry. Sarai, hoping to build a family in a thoroughly modern way, gives her maidservant, Hagar, to Abram, and he gets her pregnant. Not surprisingly, Hagar decides she hates Sarai, probably wanting to get the whole kit and kaboodle. Unlike the episode where Abram pimps his wife, there is no indication that providing your husband with your maidservant is frowned upon. Maybe she was just returning the favor of letting her spend some time with the pharaoh.

Sarai, not pleased with Hagar either, gives Abram an earful, and again not surprisingly, he says to leave him alone and do what she wanted with her servant. Big of him, right?

Sarai gives Hagar a real hard time (some description would have been nice) and Hagar takes off. God’s angel finds her and tells her to go back home and submit to Sarai, and then God would make her descendants multiply.

Leaving aside the class warfare, and the obvious side God takes, this is the first appearance of an angel in the Bible. Our earliest knowledge of the Bible comes from the Greek language, and “angel” in Greek, means means messenger, just as evangelist means “messenger of good news”.

Apparently, a multitude of descendants was worth the beatings or whatever else Sarai would do to her, so Hagar went back. Abram was 86 at the time of her son Ishmael’s birth.

Jump ahead 13 years to when Abram is 99. Given his father’s longevity, this is not real old, but apparently he thinks so. God tells him that Abram shall now be known Abraham and Sarai will now be Sarah. She, now 89, would have a child the next year (apparently he wasn’t just going to say “presto chango” but there would have to be a real pregnancy). God also promises that Ishmael, his first son, will be the father of many nations.

There is some debate about what the change from Abram to Abraham means. Some believe it means “father of many nations” but there are others who disagree. When the “H” was added, the middle part of his name could now be translated as “he who covenants,” and that is consistent with what follows. The precise meanings of ancient words and name can usually only be speculated upon, and you shouldn't put much faith in the above.

God now tells Abraham something else which must have been hard to swallow. He offers a deal that he will favor Abraham’s descendents if all of the males all cut the foreskin off their penises. If we believe that the Bible is an explanation for certain traditions, it still hard to figure whose idea this was at first, or who was the first volunteer, regardless of what health benefits there may be. For obvious reasons, I’m guessing a woman thought of it.

The next year God comes back with a couple of angels at his side. This is the first time in the Bible that God appears with angels in tow. He is certainly not yet omniscient as he has to ask where Sarah is, even though she is within hearing distance.

God again foretells that Sarah would have a child. Sarah overhears and has a good laugh. God hears her laughing and they have a weird conversation where God asks her what she thinks she is laughing about, being that he’s God and nothing is too tough for him. Sarah says, pitifully, “I wasn’t laughing” and he just calls her on it with an “Oh, yes you were” type of statement instead of turning her into a pillar of salt or something else equally horrible.

Their little squabble doesn’t ruin the party and Abraham actually walks God outside when he is leaving (just as we might do at a modern party). He decides not to keep from Abraham that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sinfulness. He may have been talking to the angels when he says that – there is so much that is not clear.

Abraham, again showing he’s not a bad guy if you can forgive him pimping his wife, negotiates with God into saving the Sodom and Gomorrah if there are 50 righteous men there. God says okay and Abraham slowly negotiates him right down to 10 righteous men. At first it seems that God is not much of a negotiator until you realize there aren’t going to be any ten righteous men. In fact, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is pretty much the only righteous man you can find in those towns at all.

When the two angels show up at Sodom, Lot intercepts them and tries to offer them hospitality. They decline at first, but finally accept. From what follows, you can’t blame them for being cautious. The next thing you know, all of the men in town, of every age, show up at Lot’s place and demand that he turn the visitors over to them for sex (hence, the term “sodomy”). Lot tries to talk them out of it, but they basically call him a foreigner and threaten him with worse than rape. You have to wonder what they had in mind that is worse than gang rape, but not as bad as death, which they probably would have said directly. I’m guessing making him a eunuch, but since there is no way to tell, fill in with your own punishment.

Now Lot, trying to arbitrate between the two groups, kindly offers the townsmen his own two virgin daughters to gang rape (see how righteous he is). But, apparently, despite the fact that we know there are children who were born in the town, the men aren’t bisexual, they are as purely homosexual as one can be, and turn down the virgins. It is not recorded whether the girls were relieved or insulted, if they knew about it at all.

No worries. The angels smote the townsmen blind, rescue Lot and tell him to get out of town and take his kids (if you were an angel, would you leave Lot’s children with him) and sons-in-laws with him. His son-in-laws laugh at him, so he takes his wife and daughters while God is raining sulfur down on Sodom and Gomorrah. There is modern speculation that God used atomic weapons, but a natural tragedy is probably a better guess as to the source or inspiration for the story. You already know happens to Lot’s wife – she looks back against the angels’ instructions and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Lot hides in a cave with his daughters. Keep in mind, he has already offered his daughters virginity to a mob outside his home. If they knew, they weren’t offended. In fact, dad was looking good to them. With no eligible bachelors around, they get Lot drunk on successive nights, and take turns sleeping with him. Serves him right. Again, we are not led to believe this was thought to be okay, as the Bible tells us that Lot was unaware of what they did. Of course, if he is not an idiot, he figures it out when they start showing.

There is a bit of the national creation myth in it, as two nations known from the Bible spring from these unusual couplings -- the Ammorites and the Moabites.

Back to Abraham. He moves again, and what do you think he does? Same game telling the local king that Sarah is his sister. This time God approaches the king and accuses him of sleeping with a married woman. The king denies sleeping with Sarah and God says something like “Ummm, I knew that. In fact, I kept you from sleeping with her. Now return her before I get really mad”.

The king goes to Abraham and says, basically, are you nuts? Are you trying to get me killed? This is when Abraham reveals that Sarah, aside from being his wife, is also his sister. This makes the argument that she was his niece even more confusing. Abraham explains that he asked Sarah to do this to show her love for him, by saving his life. Some might just call it a little kinky. God, feeling better, unseals the wombs of the king’s women, which, of course, a punishment hard to square with God claining that he knew the king hadn’t slept with Sarai.

Abraham’s letting his wife go off with kings so that he doesn’t get hurt also flies in the face of the argument that he was a great military leader, which was fostered by his rescue of Lot earlier on. The History Channel recently ran a documentary with experts arguing for this interpretation, but it doesn’t look sensible in consideration of all reported events.

Eventually, now back with Abraham, the elderly but apparently still desirable (even while pregnant) Sarah gives birth to Isaac. She says that everyone will laugh with her. Indeed, Isaac’s name means “he laughs”. Sarah’s good mood lasts long enough to tell Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, after she sees Ishmael making fun of Isaac.

God, who really plays favorites, says “Go ahead. Do what she says. Don’t worry (wink, wink). I will make Ishmael the father of a nation too”. So, off goes Hagar again. This time, running out of water, she lays her son under a bush and walks away so she doesn’t see him die.

Another angel, or maybe the same one, pops by and points out to her a well that was obviously in walking distance if she had bothered to look. He also gives her the same Ishmael will be the father of a nation speech.

Ishmael does grow up in the desert and becomes a great archer. His mom finds him a nice Egyptian girl for a wife. It has been argued that he becomes the father of the Arab nation, but, like most things in the Bible, it is debated. Certainly, it is the view taken in Islam, although not in the Koran, but the Hadith (which are traditions much like the Midrash serves in Judaism).

Abraham gets his big moment to sacrifice Isaac at God’s instigation, until God, mercifully steps in. You have heard the biblical version, but not likely this one. Woody Allen satirized it perfectly (which I found at This book was written decades ago. Is everything on the internet?):

“And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, "I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on." And Isaac trembled and said, "So what did you say? I mean when He brought this whole thing up?"

"What am I going to say?" Abraham said. "I'm standing there at two A.M. I'm in my underwear with the Creator of the Universe. Should I argue?"

"Well, did he say why he wants me sacrificed?" Isaac asked his father.

But Abraham said, "The faithful do not question. Now let's go because I have a heavy day tomorrow."

And Sarah who heard Abraham's plan grew vexed and said, "How doth thou know it was the Lord and not, say, thy friend who loveth practical jokes, for the Lord hateth practical jokes and whosoever shall pull one shall be delivered into the hands of his enemies whether they pay the delivery charge or not."

And Abraham answered, "Because I know it was the Lord. It was a deep, resonant voice, well modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that."

And Sarah said, "And thou art willing to carry out this senseless act?" But Abraham told her, "Frankly yes, for to question the Lord's word is one of the worst things a person can do, particularly with the economy in the state it's in."

And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham's hand and said, "How could thou doest such a thing?"

And Abraham said, "But thou said ---"

"Never mind what I said," the Lord spake. "Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?" And Abraham grew ashamed. "Er - not really … no."

"I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it."

And Abraham fell to his knees, "See, I never know when you're kidding."

And the Lord thundered, "No sense of humor. I can't believe it."

"But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?"

And the Lord said, "It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice."

And with that, the Lord bid Abraham get some rest and check with him tomorrow.”

(Woody Allen. Without Feathers)

I’ll speed it up here as the good stuff is done with. Sarah dies at 127 years but Abraham lives to 175 and is buried next to his wife in a cave he bought from some Canaanites. Before he goes, Abraham sends a servant to his brother’s people to get a wife for Isaac, now 40, and he returns with Rebekah, Isaac’s cousin, a marital relationship certainly not frowned upon until recent days.

Pretty good stuff. Lots of sex and violence. Yet despite the whole wife sharing thing, which to a modern eye, would seem a disqualifying event to even run for president, Abraham becomes the father figure of the Jews. He also appears in the Koran, where he plays a role as the patriarch, but mostly to foretell Islam. The New Testament does not have any stories about Abraham, although, through his role in Judiasm, he is also deemed the forefather of that religion as well.

You have to give the original Jews credit for not whitewashing the original wicked story, Unless, of course, the stories were even worse than recorded, and we just don't know it.
Obviously, according to the text, Abraham did have a personal relationship with God, although he was preceded in that by Adam and Noah, and for religious people, it is that which counts most.

The Bible makes great reading, but despite being one of the most popular books in the world, is rarely read sequentially by believers. It is actually a pretty good story, if you just blip over the "begats" and poetry. For my money, you get the most bang from your buck from Genesis, and “righteous” forefathers like Abraham and Lot.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Civil War chase

Movies usually have happy endings. When I was a teenager, a friend of mine had a collection of 8 millimeter tapes (still the pre-video error) including a lengthy silent era film starring Buster Keaton, The General. It had a happy ending.

At the time I took the movie as it was and did not consider its historical basis. It was in fact loosely based on an actual event in 1862 during the Civil War. Sometimes it called the Great Locomotive Chase, and as is often the case, the true facts are more interesting than the movie, which was great for other reasons, all of them Buster. Two other film makers have recreated the great chase, but, according to accounts (I didn’t see them), none realistically.

One of the two heroes of this tale was James J. Andrews, a 33 year old spy who was assigned to the Army of the Ohio. His commanding officer, General Ormsby Mitchel, was trying to advance the Union’s lines to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it seemed like a good idea to try and interrupt the Confederacy’s railway from Georgia.

Andrews, a native of Kentucky, was no novice as a spy, and had in fact made a number of trips into the South under the guise of a quinine salesman, as the South was in dire need of that drug to fight malaria. Not long before the raid, after a failed mission, he went to Atlanta where he was able to see and get copies of the railroad schedules. The plan was to steal a locomotive at a town called Big Shanty (now Kennesaw), Georgia and head for Chattanooga, burning bridges behind them as they went.

He suggested to General Mitchel that he and a crew of two dozen soldiers, dressed as civilians (which Andrews alone was) would make their way to Marietta, Georgia in small groups, where they would meet up under his command. In fact, the method they chose to get to Marietta, was to head to Chattanooga, and then take the very railroad they were intending to disrupt.

Nineteen of the twenty four men expected showed up, meeting up at a hotel. They were not all pleased, as the train ride revealed a large number of Confederate soldiers in that rail corridor, and a big military base at Big Shanty itself. They would have to steal the locomotive right literally under the Confederate army.

Andrews, who seems James Bondian cool in retrospect, and would calmly bluff his way past numerous suspicious Southerners, would not give up the plan, despite the likelihood of death, and even gave the typical speech that anyone who wanted out should leave, with no hard feelings. Naturally, no one did.

The scheme actually worked beautiful. Big Shanty was a scheduled stop, where everyone would get out to eat at the local hotel, including the train’s personnel. This was quite common in those days. When they did, Andrews and some of the men, two whom were engineers and one a fireman (meaning he would feed the fire, not put it out) went into the engine. The others jumped into a car and locked themselves in. Andrews stood with a foot on the step and waited until they all clambered on. The engineer, William Knight, set them off.

All this was actually done right in front of a Confederate soldier, with other troops moving about. But they moved to slowly, as frequently happens when a bold move is made, no matter how many guards there are. No one quite believes it until it is too late. After a brief problem, which almost stalled them and Knight rectified, off they went to the amazement of the real crew. The train had a name, later made immortal by Keaton: The General.

It so often seems to happen in warfare that one remarkable man will somehow come up against another equally remarkable one. To Andrew’s misfortune, the conductor of the Southern train was an indomitable soul by the name of William A. Fuller. Due to lack of a telegraph at Big Shanty, which was why it was selected by Andrews, he could not wire ahead to block off the train. Instead, Fuller and another man, without transportation started following the train tracks on foot. They weren’t crazy, as Fuller, familiar with the traffic going back and forth, was well aware that The General would eventually be stopped by congestion on the tracks. Except at stations, the trains were on single tracks, and there were trains due from the other direction.

Soon, the two men found a handrail and began moving faster along the track. At one point they were derailed at a spot where Andrews had stopped the train and broken up the tracks, sending the car and the two men flying. They were soon able to quickly right themselves and continue on.

Here’s where things started going awry for Andrews and the soldiers. The date of the raid was April 12, 1862. It was to coincide with General Mitchel’s own military attack on Chattanooga. Unfortunately, due to rain, the Army arrived late, and the confusion Andrews had counted upon did not occur. In fact, even the efforts of Mitchel, would have the opposite effect.

As The General moved along, Andrews would stop it every once in a while and tear up the tracks and telegraph wires. He also stole railroad ties for the fire and obtained water at scheduled stops, explaining always that he was in a hurry to bring powder to the front.

He also made a couple of mistakes, at least with twenty-twenty hindsight. At one station, another train was found, ready to go. Andrews could have easily disabled the train, but it would have given away his game, and he simply proceeded onwards. Not only was this a key mistake, but they also could not, in front of Southeners, stop and destroy a key bridge. Soon, they arrived at another station, where The General pulled over to a side rail as another train was due coming the other way, as Andrews knew from his schedule.

When the other train came, it had a signal up indicating it was being followed by yet another train. This meant that Andrews could not take off. He demanded to know what the hold up was, and was told that Mitchel was on the attack near Chattanooga (at Huntsville), and they were moving their things in his direction along the rail. This bode poorly for Andrews to complete his escape.

It got worse as Andrews had to wait until three trains passed before he could gain the right of way. He did not know yet how close his capture was.

A few miles out he stopped the train to rip up more tracks. While they were occupied doing this they heard a whistle behind them. They knew what it meant. Someone was pursuing them. They were right. It was Fuller. Arriving at the station where the train awaited that Andrews could have put out of commission (The Yonah), Fuller alerted some soldiers and took the train. When he got to last the next station, where the three trains that had blocked Andrews were, he simply skipped ahead to the last train and reversed it in pursuit.

Fleeing now, The General came to yet another station where a train had pulled over to the side. He learned that an express train was coming from the next station. Andrews gambled and won. He arrived at the next station nine miles away just as the express was pulling out. He had to persuade the conductor of that train to get out of the way.

In the meanwhile Fuller and his team came to where Andrew’s had torn up the track and had to stop. Again, unrelenting, they pursued on foot. Eventually they came up to the train from which Andrews had learned about the express train ahead. They were permitted to take the train, known as The Texas, and reversing, headed after The General.

The General’s delay waiting for the three trains to pass had taken so much time that even though temporarily stopped, Fuller still caught up. At this point, now past the express, Andrews had clear sailing to Chattanooga. Not wanting to take a chance, they stopped again to take out another rail.

While doing so they heard the whistle again and saw the steam from The Texas, close behind them. They were close enough to see well armed men on board. They jumped back on the train and fled again. Not having had the time to pull out a rail they instead tried the tactic of dropping cars along the track. It did no good. Fuller merely picked up the two separate cars and pushed them ahead.

Andrews stopped to take on more water and destroy more telegraph wires, and got away ahead of Fuller who dropped off the cars in his path at another station. Now, it became a real race as the two trains raced through the local towns, with Fuller keeping a steady whistle blowing, perhaps in frustration or to frighten Andrews. At some point he dropped off one of the men and told him to find a way to telegraph Chattanooga, which Mitchel had not captured. The message, which was only partially received said “My train was captured this a.m. at Big Shanty, evidently by Federal soldiers in disguise. They are making rapidly for Chattanooga, possibly with the idea of burning the railroad bridges in their rear. If I do not capture them in the meantime, see that they to not pass Chattanooga.”

Now Andrews was, unbeknownst to him, in a pinch, as troops at Chattanooga were bracing to stop him. They needn’t had bothered. The General was going to run out of fuel, if it did not have time to pick more up.

In desperation, the men on The General dropped a rail which Fuller’s train merely bulled aside. Stopping now, right near a Confederate encampment, Andrews men set a car on fire and pushed it into the middle of a wood bridge hoping to set the whole thing on fire. As they got away, Fuller was approaching. Rain had started and retarded the fire. Fuller again was able to simply push the obstacle out of his way.

Time was running out for the Northerners. The General’s running out of fuel was imminent. The men got together to decide what to do. Two suggestions were made, fight it out with their revolvers, which seemed suicidal in the middle of the South, or, simply head for the Northern lines en masse. Andrews vetoed both and told the men to simply head North, but split up, every man to himself.

Knight, before he got off, set the train to running backwards, so that it would smash into the pursuers. But running out of fuel, it slowed down, and Fuller merely picked it up like the other cars. Realizing that it was empty, they began pursuing the raiders.

They caught most of them quickly, and the rest within a week or so. In June, Andrews, who had a fiancée waiting at home, actually managed to escape from jail, which we do not have an account of, but was recaptured the next day. He was hung a few days later with seven others, including the one other civilian.

Fourteen others were imprisoned in Atlanta and managed to escape by attacking their guards. Six were recaptured and later paroled. One of those recaptured, Private William Pittenger, 22 years old at the time, became a Reverend and lived until 1904. He published a book and an article, from which much of the material retold here comes from.

The men who returned to the North were treated as heroes, and many given the medal of honor. They were young men and some of them lived into the twentieth century, the last dying in 1923. General Mitchel died the year of the raid, but of yellow fever.

William Fuller lived a long time, until 1905. His grave marker says as follows: “On April 12, 1862, Captain Fuller pursued and after a race of 80 miles from Big Shanty Northward on the Western & Atlantic railroad, re-captured the historic war-engine General which had been seized by 22 Federal soldiers in disguise, thereby preventing the destruction of the bridges of the railroad and the consequent dismemberment of the Confederacy.”

After the raid, Fuller, was made captain of a special guard to protect the railway. In 1950, long after his death, his son accepted a special gold medal issued by Georgia in his honor.

In the obvious sense, Fuller won the contest. He lived and Andrews died. Perhaps the plan was foolish, as General Buell, no fan of Andrews, later said. Then again, Buell was soon forced to retire due to his great unpopularity. Or maybe it was just a dangerous mission, and Andrews should get full credit for his fearlessness and cool under fire. Had the rain not kept the car they put on fire and the bridge from going up too, or had they had a few minutes more at any spot to destroy the tracks, it might have turned out differently. Perhaps Fuller was successful because of his perseverance and would have been under any circumstances. It is somewhat like debating who was greater, Grant or Lee. Grant won, but you can find many Lee men to this day.

The General and The Texas both still exist, the former kept on display at Kennessaw, Georgia, after a long stay in Chattanooga, and the latter, in Atlanta.

I have never understood why movie makers need to change historical events, or great literature like The Three Musketeers or The Last of the Mohicans in making movies, when the original stories need or admit of no improvement. Time for a new, and accurate film.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Move over Einstein -- The Man of the Century is . . .

When Time Magazine picked Albert Einstein for The Man of the Century, they slightly misfired. Perhaps Einstein might be better suited for Man of the Twenty-first Century, as technology takes over to an even greater extent. Despite the innovations he brought to scientific thinking, it is quite likely that atomic energy would have been born without him (he did not believe it was even possible until a friend explained it to him) and there are just not that many technologies dependent on his theories (GPS being one which is impossible without accounting for relativity). Yeah, yeah, brilliant, great man, definitely in the top five and all that, but there is a better choice.

This is the most subjective of topics, and any pick will immediately cause a storm of criticism at the person picked and praise for the runner-ups. Time Magazine’s runner-ups happen to be Franklin Roosevelt and Gandhi, both which, are, of course, pretty good picks (dirty little secret – Elvis Presley was the pick of readers who actually voted, which advice the magazine thankfully ignored).

Maybe there shouldn’t be a winner and just an undesignated list of one hundred. But since there has to be one, Winston Churchill should have been the Man of the Century. No doubt, he had a checkered career, starting off as a war correspondent who made headlines after he escaped from a prisoner of war camp in South Africa, parleying it into a political career (after his father), was held responsible for a military disaster during WWI and cashiered, went to the front lines to lead a battalion, bounced back and forth between the Conservative and Labor parties, and led a fruitless call to arms against Germany in the 30s, in what are often called the Wilderness Years.

Yet, when called to leadership after the war was bungled from the beginning, he seemed to hold off the might of Germany with his words, and what they inspired, until he was victorious in the end, much thanks to help from all of Britain’s allies, including the good ole U.S.A. Still, he was voted out of office soon after the war, before coming back one more time to lead his nation.

And yes, he said many bad things about Gandhi, which hurt him then and now, and seemed more than a little hypocritical in all his words about freedom when Britain still controlled India and other colonies around the world. However, without defending Britain’s colonialism, his main concern seemed to be that religious war between Hindu’s and Muslims would occur if Britain left, and kill millions. He was sadly right.

Churchill’s hallmark from the beginning was his unparalleled way with words, both written and spoken. He wrote his own speeches, and one after the other was brilliant. Alexander Hamilton biographer, Ron Chernow, described his subject as a “human word machine”. It immediately brought to mind Churchill, who perhaps combined for the last time in history Hamilton’s unending imagination and spirited reasoning with Lincoln’s awesome ear for the inspiring phrase. Today’s political speeches, even the best of them, are poor and spindly relations even to Churchill’s most mediocre efforts.

I try in this blog not to write about things that have been done to death. In any tribute to Churchill, it’s hard to accomplish that feat. So, I will try and steer clear of classic Churchill, except for these two following pearls from WWII speeches, which must be some of the most stirring words ever written, and have given some solace to many a terrified soldier. It thrills even to type them:

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

and, greater still . . .

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

It is because of crackling speeches like these, that when 9/11 came, politicians and pundits wrote books about, and made reference to Churchill and the German Blitzkrieg over Britain in order to inspire the public. Not FDR, not Gandhi. Churchill. Whether you are watching William Wallace or Aragorn in the movies, trying to inspire their troops, or even George Bush in his speech following 9/11, they are all channeling Churchill, and falling short.

So much for the most brilliant fireworks. Dip into Churchill anywhere and you pull out gold. Reading his words now gives the strange feeling that he had a way to reel in the news from the future, predicting not only WWII, but the cold war, and the hemorrhage of blood and life upon Indian independence, and other disasters which he hoped to avert. Reading his speeches from the 30s, the threat he foresaw seems so obvious now, but was not transparent to others.

So, having said that, let’s start with one where he went arguably wrong, even if you solely blame the Arab world for all of the Middle East problems and Israel for none. Churchill was a great friend to the Jews and supported Zionism. He once tried to convince a Muslim delegation in Jerusalem of the benefits of a Jewish homeland to them:

[I]t is manifestly right that the scattered Jews should have a national center and a national home in which they might be reunited, and where else but in Palestine, with which the Jews for 3,000 years have been intimately and profoundly associated. We think it is good for the world, good for the Jews, and good for the British Empire, and it is also good for the Arabs dwelling in Palestine, and we intend it to be so. They shall not be supplanted nor suffer but they shall share in the benefits and the progress of Zionism.

I draw your attention to the second part of the Balfour Declaration emphasizing the sacredness of your civil and religious rights. I am sorry you regard it as valueless. It is vital to you, and you should hold and claim it firmly.

This one is about Iraq (Mesopotamia), and seems typically prophetic, particularly if you substitute the U.S. for Britain and India:

I cannot say in regard to Mesopotamia that there are primary, direct, strategic British interests involved. The defense of India can be better conducted from her own strategic frontier. Mesopotamia, is not, like Egypt, a place which in a strategic sense is of cardinal importance to our interests, and our policy in Mesopotamia is to reduce our commitments and to extricate ourselves from our burdens while at the same time honorably discharging our obligations and building up a strong and effective Arab government which will always be the friend of Britain and, I will add, the friend of France.”

Speaking of the Arab world, here’s another one that will seem modern and familiar:

“ A large number of Bin Saudi’s followers belong to the Ahab sect, a form of Mohammedanism which bears, roughly speaking, the same relation to orthodox Islam as the most militant form of Calvinism would have borne to Rome in the fiercest times of the religious wars. The Ahab’s profess a life of exceeding austerity, and what they practise themselves they rigorously enforce on others. They hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahabi villages for simply appearing in the streets. It is a penal offence to wear a silk garment. Men have been like killed for smoking a cigarette, and as for the crime of alcohol, the most energetic supporter of the temperance cause in this country falls far behind them. Austere, intolerant, well-armed, and bloodthirsty, in their own regions the Wahabis are a distinct factor
. . . . ”.

Probably words the Saudi Arabian government, officially Wahabi, will not be putting on its official website.

Still, another speech probably just reflects Churchill’s understanding of political parties, and why we can never seem to get it right. It is just as apropos today:

The great leader of the Protectionist party, whatever else you may or may not think about him, has at any rate left me in no doubt as what use he will make of his victory if he should win it. We know perfectly well what to expect – a party of great vested interests, banded together in a formidable confederation, corruption at home, aggression to cover it up abroad, the trickery of tariff juggles, the tyranny of a party machine; sentiment by the bucketful, patriotism by the imperial pint, the open hand at the public exchequer, the open door a the public-house, dear food for the million, cheap labor for the millionaire.

Churchill frequently disarmed opponents with a political sense of humor perhaps only matched by Lincoln. Speaking of a prohibitionist who had defeated him in an election, Churchill quipped that he “possessed all of the virtues I despise, and none of the sins I admire.” After being called a “robber” by detractors -- “The more exuberant Members of the party opposites have for some years, at elections at any rate, been accustomed to salute me by the expression ‘murderer’, and from that point of view, ‘robber’ is a sort of promotion. It shows that I am making some headway in their esteem.

Unfortunately, Churchill’s most famous one liner, purportedly said to Lady Astor, who claimed that if he were her husband she would poison him, to which he supposedly replied “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d let you,” is almost certainly apocryphal.

Even one of his more memorable insults to Gandhi was so well written, you could forgive him a little:

It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor. Such a spectacle can only increase the unrest in India.

Ok, dead on about Hitler, unfair to Gandhi. No one is perfect, and Churchill had more than his share of faults. Perhaps, at least during WWII, those faults came in handy.

Modern American conservatives might want to adopt this bit of Churchilliana as their own, given their view of liberals like the leaders of the House and Senate:

Historians have noticed, all down the centuries, one peculiarity of the English people which has cost them dear. We have always thrown away after a victory the greater part pf the advantages we gained in the struggle. The worst difficulties from which we suffer do not come from without. They come from within. They do not come from the cottages of the wage-earners. They come from a peculiar type of brainy people always found in our country, who, if they add something to the culture, take much from its strength.

Our difficulties come from the mood of unwarrantable self abasement into which we have been cast by a powerful section of our own intellectuals. They have come from the acceptance of defeatist doctrines by a large proportion of our politicians. But what have they to offer but a vague internationalism, a squalid materialism, and the promise of impossible utopias.

These must suffice for now. Quite often it is hard to read the words of long dead writers just because we are so accustomed to short breezy novels and even non-fiction. But whether you pick up Churchill’s multi-volume The Second World War or A History of the English-Speaking People, a book of his speeches, or any of the many other books he has written, it will be real hard to be bored if you have any liking for history. Not for nothing did he win the Nobel Prize for Literature but “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values".

Topping even the Noble Prize, in 1954, the Parliament and Queen Elizabeth II named him “The greatest living Briton” in 1954. It would be hard not to feel full of oneself when the world is trumpeting your superiority.

For those of you who are sure stirring words are not your cup of English tea, I can only suggest following the advice of the great Theodore Geisel, who got his start during WWII:

You do not like them.
So you say.
Try them! Try them!
And you may.
Try them and you may, I say.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The first Republican debate

Ah, the debate. Ten Republicans lined up like ducks at a shooting gallery. Chris Matthews can be a little loud and show offy, and will shoot off at anyone who offends him. But he seems ready to put aside the opinion guy, and be the anchor guy right now.

Giuliani got the first question. It seemed like a set up. It involved Ronald Reagan. Giuliani went right for the optimism angle. Ironically, for a guy who never sounds like he is making a speech, he sounded like he was making a speech. When Giuliani is asked about Israel, he is tempered and moderate. Well, why not? Giuliani is smooth. He sounds so compassionate. I’m fighting my memories though. Still, I give him credit. When almost everyone else said Roe must go, he said it is OK if it did, and OK if it didn’t. Then he surprises me when he is asked a question about the Christian right and quickly runs away with a wimpy answer and on to something else. I got chills.

To McCain, a first question on Iraq. Fair? Not sure. But he fielded it well, and became passionate. Not too optimistic, but not too pessimistic either. Later though, he is given an Iran question. I still like his hawkish answer. What is your trip wire to war with Iran, he is asked. He plays the nuclear card, but is reasoned and moderate. The message is, we will protect you America, but we will not go off halfcocked. McCain takes a question about Tancredo and turns it into a question about Osama. He will follow him to the gates of hell. See what he is going for? Islamic extremism, if you missed it. He also pounds on spending and gets some laughs. If I were one of the lightweights, I’d be angry at how many raw meat questions he gets. A new wrinkle on me, he is big on the line item veto too. He punts once on a question of what Democrat, other than Joe Lieberman, he would put in his cabinet.

I haven’t taken Romney too seriously yet. Not until the public seems to recognize him. I doubt he would be noted in a crowded room, although he came off presidential. On his second question, he seems so knowledgeable. Hmmm. Romney is asked what he doesn’t like about America, and, of course, gives an eloquent paean to America. Oh, and kisses Ronald Reagan’s . . . . He also covers the abortion flip flop. No one will care on the conservative side, as long as he is pro-life now. He answers other faith questions well for the crowd he has in front of him. He has impressed me with his poise.

Those are the big guys.

Tommy Thompson was ready for his Iraq question and made several original sounding suggestions for his opening shot. Not bad, but I could hear America saying - who are you? Asked if Iraq was partly Bush’s fault – he punts. And when he gets a global warming question he says – what? It was eloquent but said nothing. Should a company be able to fire a gay worker? Yes? That he is sure about. He is very religious, apparently. Didn’t know that. But then, in response to how many killed in Iraq and how many injured he says that several thousand were injured. I think it’s more like 25,000.

Sam Brownback came off well. He is much demonized by the left because of his social values (pro-life; anti gay rights). He surprises by saying he will support a pro-choice Republican candidate. He comes across as the most religious of the group. Late in the day, he showed courage bucking Nancy Reagan’s pet program in her own house.

Huckabee is just so huggable. He looks presidential and comes across like a tv dad (pre-Simpsons anyway). What was his answer. Not sure I care. With Duncan, he is excellent VP material. A Southern governor with conservative credentials. I almost forgot he was there at one point. Didn’t know he wants to get rid of the IRS. This is not a good way to show off his skills. He is at his best when he can show his Southern charm.

Jim Gilmore. There’s that swell in the air again. Who are you? He is almost left out of the debate and I believe will soon be gone. He is asked at one point if he would appoint Karl Rove, his friend, to an office in the White House, if he won. I couldn’t believe he didn’t really answer. If he says he was governor of Virginia one more time, or that he lives up to his word . . . . Oh, God, he said it again.

And Ron Paul – the anti-war guy. Dr. Paul is the libertarian in the group and one of the traditional constitutional conservatives. He would get rid of the IRS immediately if he could. Who wouldn’t like that? But he admits, our culture would need to change first. Like Gravel on the Democratic side, he believes strongly in his values, and can’t understand that no one cares. Given an opportunity to talk about a big critical decision he made, he couldn’t think of one. His best moment was in speaking against a national I.D. card.

Tom Tancredo, whose whole game is immigration, is asked an Israeli question. Fumbles it. too. It is passed to Giuliani – will they ever come back to him? They do, and ask him a useless question about Karl Rove, who we learn would not be in his White House. Who thought that would really happen anyway? As they move along, he makes sure he gets in a Ronald Reagan plug. The play of the day, apparently. When he finally gets an opening, he runs with the immigration ball and acts as if he is the only one thinking about it.

Hunter Thompson also seems left out at times. At one point he jumps in with an answer about Iran that he wasn’t asked, trying to grab some thunder. He also jumps in after McCain makes a speech about Islamic extremism and points out his experience. Does the same with immigration which he is as strong on as Tancredo is. Give me serious questions, he seems to say. This debate may not do him any good, although he is a strong figure. I did learn that he believes global warming is important.

Matthews did well at the end of the day. He kept control, was personable and moved it along. MSNBC has hit upon a good way to do debates. It flies and forces the politicians to speak quickly and get to the point. He goofed once making a rude comment after one candidate's answer.

I know this was Reagan’s presidential library, and the candidates were trying to please conservatives, but Reagan wasn’t king for goodness sake. Leave him lie.

These debates make me laugh. Do they really think they are getting rid of the IRS or getting a flat tax? I loved the question about who didn’t buy evolution. Three raised their hands, but you couldn’t see who, except TomTancredo. I am guessing Brownback and Huckabee, but I really don’t know. Security is mentioned a bit, but it was not the main show. 9/11 did not coming up a lot.

Who won? I think the big three did real well. I am not sure that any of the others made the impact they needed. Paul was different enough that he might be remembered, but he is too far out to have it do him any good.

I find that personal bias plays such a role in who you think one. Is my thinking McCain won a result of my preference for him? Probably, but my honest opinion is he may have gained something with conservatives. But I also think Romney made an excellent impression, and that Giuliani held his own. It might change the polls a little, but there was already a slight trend towards McCain up and Giuliani down.

Did it change many opinions as to whom voters would want to see nominated? Probably not. How many watch these debates, anyway. An impressive bunch of guys. Too conservative for my taste as the Democratic candidates were too liberal. What is a moderate to do?

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 . . . .