Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lincoln's Inauguration

I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning bio of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. It is the book on which the recently-released Spielberg film, Lincoln, is partly based.  But Spielberg’s film focuses only on the fight for the thirteenth Amendment; Goodwin’s book begins with Lincoln’s life as a boy, follows him as a young lawyer in Springfield Illinois, describes his part in forming the new Republican Party out of the wreckage of the old Whig party, charts his victorious campaign for the Republican nomination and presidency, and beyond. It includes the lives of Lincoln’s three rivals for the presidency, William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates, all of whom he tapped for important posts in his new administration: Seward as Secretary of State, Chase as Secretary of the Treasury and Bates as Attorney General. 
            More important, to me, Team of Rivals reminds one how hazardous was the situation facing the nation and Lincoln, even before he took office. Seven Southern states had seceded almost immediately after Lincoln was declared the winner in the November 1860 election. In the weeks thereafter, countless members of Congress from those southern states left their offices to take part in the rebellion. So did huge chunks of the officer corps, Robert E. Lee of Virginia being only the most conspicuous. Moreover, rumors were rife that a Southern plot existed to invade and seize Washington DC before Lincoln could even take office. Edwin Stanton, a member of then-president Buchanan’s cabinet (and later Lincoln’s Secretary of War), was convinced that the government was filled with traitors and spies, that “the army had been deployed in far-flung places,” with arms shifted from northern arsenals to various southern ones, and that if Maryland and Virginia could be induced to join the secession, the rebels would seize an essentially defenseless capital, including all the symbols of government, the treasuries, the army and navy, and assassinate the new President in the bargain. Stanton decided to become a spy within the lame-duck Buchanan government, initiating contacts with then-Senator Seward in late December of 1860 to neutralize potential traitors. Seward in response gave a major speech, without Lincoln’s consent, offering concessions to the South, rehearsing Lincoln’s resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to prevent any future Congress from interfering with slavery where it already existed, and taking steps to enforce the hated Fugitive Slave Laws. He even promised additional conciliatory changes to the Constitution to mollify the southern secessionists. Of course, Seward’s speech had no effect whatever on the southern states, but it is an important indication of where both he and Lincoln stood regarding slavery.
            Goodwin reminds us that it was not slavery itself that Lincoln and Seward and most of their allies in the new party objected to. It was the extension of slavery into the newly-forming states of the west. Lincoln himself said a number of times that he had no intention whatever to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed. He also insisted that he had no intention of trying to make slaves “equal” to whites, even in the free states, except in the most formal sense of being free of bondage. In fact, so unequal did Lincoln consider blacks, and so impossible did he consider the mixing of the races that he was a proponent of a plan to ship freed slaves back to their native countries in Africa (as well as one, about the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, to find a home for them in Central America). Both Lincoln and Seward calculated that if the Southern secessionists could be persuaded that they would be left alone to have their slaves and way of life, they would withdraw from the brink of civil war. They also had in mind that the border states like North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky could be persuaded to remain in the Union if  they saw how moderate and conciliatory the new Republican administration would be.
            Of course, they were wrong. The border states joined the rebellion, as did Virginia. Maryland came very close, with major riots breaking out by secessionists in Baltimore, even as Lincoln’s train was proceeding to Washington for his inauguration. So dangerous, indeed, was the inaugural situation that Seward and others prevailed on Lincoln to leave the main train transporting his wife and family members to Washington from Illinois, and board a separate train that would slip through Baltimore late at night. Lincoln did exactly that, and arrived safely.
            But the danger was far from over. Before a month was out, Lincoln had ordered the re-supply of Fort Sumter, which was bungled, the Confederate forces had attacked its fewer than one-hundred defenders there, and the outmanned and outgunned commander, Major Anderson, had surrendered. With the defection of Virginia to the Confederacy, the huge naval depot at Norfolk also fell to the rebels. Now it was a question of whether Washington DC itself could be defended. Maryland was wavering, and if it too joined the Confederates, the capital would be surrounded by Confederates. Though it did not come to that, it came close: a group of Baltimore delegates demanded that Union troops stay out of their entire state, and though Lincoln refused to comply, he could not prevent a mob of secessionists in Baltimore  from cutting all the telegraph wires in Baltimore and demolishing all the railroad bridges surrounding the city. Washington was at one stroke isolated from any communication with the north, and for the next week all Washington residents trembled behind barricaded doors and locked windows, able to see the campfires of the Confederate soldiers across the Potomac in Virginia, and knowing there was no army at hand to defend them.
            Fortunately, Abraham Lincoln maintained a calm exterior, though he hardly slept most of the time. This makes it all the more remarkable that when he finally gave his inauguration speech, it was filled with the stirring phrases for which he became known. On March 4, 1861, he continued to try to placate the South, as he had been advised to by Secretary of State Seward—who had made major revisions to Lincoln’s original draft. The new president repeated his promise not to “directly or indirectly interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists,” saying he had no lawful right or even inclination to do so. He pledged to uphold the Fugitive Slave provision of the Constitution requiring that “slaves shall be delivered upon claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” He also pledged not to invade or use force against the people of the South, though he was determined to defend government property—i.e. Fort Sumter. But he also made clear that there could be no separation of the American people from each other:

Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face; and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them.

Then he ended with the beautiful verbal music of which he was uniquely capable, though the original phrasing had come from Seward:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

            Goodwin titles her chapter with that magical phrase, ‘the mystic chords of memory.’ And though neither those “chords” of unity nor the “better angels of our nature” would emerge for many many years, if ever, especially where the pervasive racism of Americans is concerned, Lincoln was in the most fundamental sense correct: the Union would survive its most dangerous crisis, though it would take four years and the bloodiest war in American history to preserve it.
            Now, with yet another president offering a ringing inaugural address, the question, if not the details, is essentially the same: can the warring factions from different areas of this country ever come together on the strength of those “mystic chords of memory” to agree on a sane way out of our current crises? One would like to think so; but given the persistent lunacy and power of selfish interests that prevails, it’s going to take something like those ‘better angels,’ and more, to make it happen.  

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Esty: A Novel/Memoir

I’m happy to announce that my new book, Esty: A Novel/Memoir, is now ready for distribution and purchase. It is available from me directly—you can email me at lwdistasi@sbcglobal.net, for mailing and payment instructions; or you can send a check for $16.95 plus CA tax (if relevant) and $3.50 shipping & handling, to Lawrence DiStasi, P.O. Box 533, Bolinas, CA 94924—or on Amazon.com (be sure to key in the full title).
            I should explain a bit about the title (“Esty” was my grandmother’s nickname, short for Ezsther, which was her given name). I call the book a “novel/memoir” because in the manuscript my mother gave me near the end of her life, she began by writing a novel about her mother (Esty) and her romance with a nobleman for whom her parents worked, but then before too long drifted into a memoir about her own life: her birth in Hungary; the family’s ordeal during World War I; her 1920 emigration, with her mother and sister, to America to follow her father, who had left before she was born; her growing up in both Indianapolis and Brooklyn; and her own forbidden romance with my Italian-born father. It is the latter that provides the juice of the story, and the impetus for her attempt to remake herself. My contribution, in commentary, filling in episodes of her later life, and creating an imaginary dialogue between her and me, also partakes of both memoir and fiction. Hence, a “novel/memoir.”
            Rather than try to convince you of its merit, I’ll let a few others speak for me. Poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan, on the back cover, called Esty
“brilliant..a gripping family saga, an exploration of DiStasi’s past and heritage that is so fascinating and layered it is difficult to put down…This is a beautifully-nuanced book that is not to be missed.”

My blogging colleague George Giacoppe called Esty
            “a masterful treatment of a delicate set of issues…Normally an epilogue is space-filling gas, but Esty is an exception. The edgy discussion of the family history is an absolutely delightful treatment that adds to the mystery and the conflict…”

Historian and feminist scholar Lucia Birnbaum writes, “I’m about half way through and stunned by your perceptions…not to speak of your writing.”  Then there’s what I wrote to describe the book for my fundraising site:
“Esty is not just a family saga, though it is that. It’s also a rare collaboration based on an actual-not-imagined manuscript, and an observer’s eye that simultaneously accepts and questions and deepens the story it is telling. The rich tapestry that results gives us something like a postmodern origin myth. It is both innocent and self-conscious; both a mother’s attempt to revise her patriarchally abusive roots, and a son’s attempt to verify them; both a story of immigration, and a drama of call and response that generates a triple love story touching on female rebellion, the search for identity, and the yearning for liberation.”

Finally, about the cover (above). The image was taken in Hungary and depicts Esty with my mother at about age two, clinging to her mother’s hand. The full photo, from about 1916, can be found inside the book, along with several others. I’m hoping it makes you curious enough to read the whole thing (see ordering information above.)

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Leave No Soldier Behind

The following blog is written by my colleague, George Giacoppe (see link on this page). I thought it important to post here. 

Ah, for rhetoric to meet the truth
Of all we were told in our youth
Where black was so black
That we longed to attack
And white was so white
That we joined for the fight
Because we were the same
Seeking Justice and never fame
Shot on the field of strife
Some lost blood or life
While others lost touch with the world
Their colors forever furled
Invisible wounds so hard to find
In the soldiers we leave behind

Shortly before the recent holidays, I happened upon a gripping scene as I popped into a nearby Stater Brothers supermarket.  I saw this moving shadow of a man in a Vietnam War hat and a thin dirty jacket.  He was emaciated and frail and literally shaking in the wind.  We spoke briefly about Vietnam and I learned that he was riding shotgun on escort convoys leaving Da Nang in 1969.  I told him that my year was 1967-1968 and that I was further south in the Mekong Delta; gave him a dollar and went back to my car with this stark reality engraved in my mind:  we left this soldier behind.  The average wait for VA services is 13 months.  If on his own, this veteran will be dead in 13 months.  I went home feeling a little empty and guilty about the vagaries of fate.  That moment, I found a waterproof bag and loaded it with clean socks a heavy woolen sweater, T-shirts, sundry toilet articles and a flashlight.  Returning to the supermarket, I looked for the soldier.  He was gone.  I kept the bag in the car and returned to Stater Brothers almost daily over the next couple weeks.  My description must have been pretty good, because my wife Louise spotted him outside a nearby CVS on one of those days.  As she sometimes does, she ordered him to stay put and said that I was looking for him.  That day, I had bought orange juice and one banana.  The old soldier needed a ride home.  We gladly assisted.   We put his walker in the trunk and left him at home with the bag of goodies now enhanced with orange juice and one banana.  John’s wife Diana met us and explained that John had Agent Orange induced Parkinson’s and had PTSD as well as Alzheimer’s.  We promised to return.

On the next day, we did return with food and some additional clothing we bought from a nearby thrift store.  We were treated as warmly as cherished family.  This provided enough food for Christmas.  After another week, we returned with additional food and were invited in, but John was nowhere to be seen.  Diana explained that John often wandered, and that is why she wrote a note for him to carry in his wallet.  He had shown me that note with his address when we drove him home.  There was no money, just a note from his wife so that when lost, he could be returned to that “home.”  Diana had confided that they pay $825 per month for this hovel with a space heater and that John’s disability payments had been reduced by $800 per month since he began receiving Social Security about a year earlier.  This leaves the couple with about $200 per month for the luxuries of food and hygiene.  They now owe the VA $15,000 for ‘overpayment’ as a result of getting Social Security.  Nice touch.  Diana also commented that they hated to use the kitchen stove since it gave them shocks when they touched it.  When Louise and I entered that home, we were stunned to find a third world corner of Riverside, California.  Words fail to describe the chaos, grease and grime of this tiny fire-trap.  Dante came close:  “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”  Our nation left John and now Diana in the hell of no hope.

My clue to hope abandoned came when I told Diana that she had to solve the administrative problems one at a time.  To get long-term help, she needs her former husband’s death certificate from San Bernadino County.  They need proof of common-law status after living together for 20 years.  They need to get John’s divorce papers and his DD 214 (proof of service).  This stern advice brought a tear to her eye.  Clearly, navigating the tortuous paths of administration is not for the timid but I showed my inexperience as an advisor to the afflicted.  Oops, John and Diana don’t think like MBAs.

Why cannot the VA get the money to carry out its mission?  The one word answer is “politics.”  Will the current ideological House of Representatives allocate sufficient money for the invisible constituency of quiet disabled veterans when it would not willingly allocate money for very visible victims of Super-Storm Sandy?  An organization has been working this legal issue for about five years and only this month will learn whether the Supreme Court will hear the case referred by the 9th Federal District Court.  Veterans United for Truth has been joined by several additional veterans groups in this effort to force the government to recognize a forgotten cost of war, the human cost.   Will this make a difference when we fought two wars without putting either the Afghan War or the 2nd Iraq War on our national budget?  Ironically, the folks who cheered lustily for those two wars when VP Cheney stated “Deficits don’t matter” have suddenly gotten religion and want to reduce the deficit on the backs of the same people who fought the wars instead of those who gained power from the policy.  As we face language such as “entitlements,” the words of a recent presidential candidate scream in our ears.  These are the 47%, even if they fell into this pit through no fault of their own.  Now I hear “volunteers” used as a weapon against soldiers with traumatic brain injury and even less visible PTSD.  “They volunteered for this duty, why should all Americans pay for it?”  Subsidies to corporation-people are good.  Entitlements to breathing people are bad.  Oh, to be treated as a corporation-person and freed from the bonds of death.

The national answer is simple, really.  We are all in this together and if we cannot carry the injured a little further and if we cannot rehabilitate them and if we cannot respect them, then what kind of country are we?  The image of commonwealth where we share in the pain as well as the rewards to the greater good is fading.  It is being replaced with a cannibalistic frenzy where we feed on the less able and those whom we feel are holding us back.  We are leaving our soldiers behind.  What happened to compassionate conservatives?  What happened to “Christian virtue?”  What happened to fair play?  What happened to our safety net?  Where did our humanity go?  We have glorified our corporations with the trappings of humans where money is free speech and unlimited political force, but we cannot respect those real people who have given fully and freely until they can give no more and need to be “takers” in our commonwealth.  The scales tip still further, because we enshrine the practice of subsidies for those who have already been rewarded richly through the highest corporate profits on record.

John and Diana are real and they are in pain and they need help.  It is not a mystery and predestination itself is bunk, but especially when there is a fat thumb on the scales of justice that decide the fate of our least fortunate whether it is due to an enemy bullet or a political rebuff.  Let us review the real costs of war and, as a minimum, never enter another one without counting the soldiers we leave behind both during and after the war.  The costs are real and we need to budget for wars and we need to budget for the record suicides and the thousands of torn families and the physical and emotional pain inflicted on those who fight the good fight and sometimes lose.

It takes trained experts to help the helpless.  The Lord knows that I was trained as a soldier and not a social worker.  It takes experts to look under the right bridges to find the homeless and a trained eye to see the invisible wounds, but it takes us all to agree to help.  It takes us all to change our priorities to include helping the ones we have left behind.


George Giacoppe