October 15, 2016

First for a reason

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” ~ Voltaire
While I still think this may be one of the greatest quotes in the history of democracy, I always assumed it was uttered by a famous personage from the Revolutionary War — from one of our Founding Fathers.
Ah, but we have a large sign in the newsroom that says to “never assume” … that it has the potential to make an “ass (of) u (and) me.”
Yet, in researching the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and other subsequent amendments, it became as clear as muddy water that British author Evelyn Beatrice Hall passed along this quote gleaned from French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher François-Marie Arouet — commonly known as Voltaire.
If it was Voltaire, or whomever first uttered the words is not the point — it’s the words themselves.
They go right to the heart of American democracy and the First Amendment.
Now, I firmly doubt one in 1,000 Americans can tell you exactly how many amendments there are to the U.S. Constitution — it may be one in 10,000, who knows.
Or that 33 amendments to the Constitution have been proposed by Congress, and that six were never ratified over the course of our nation’s history. The 18th — Prohibition — was repealed by the 21st.
The first 10 amendments to the Constitution collectively are called the Bill of Rights — sacred to our democracy, to our government and our way of life.
We have the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms; and we have the Sixth Amendment, the right to a fair trial.
We are in the midst of one of our amendments — the 12th — since it deals with presidential elections; the 13th abolished slavery; the 16th deals with income taxes; the 19th granted the vote to women.
The 27th and last dealt with congressional pay — and I think Congress slipped that one past us.
But the First Amendment is first for a reason. It is by far the most important, and without it, none of the other 26 amendments have nearly the weight or substance.
The First Amendment is that important.
And for all its importance, it is short and sweet and to the point.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
This nation was founded on these bedrock principles, and to breach them in any way — to me — goes against everything the Founding Fathers, the Continental Army and Americans of the 13 Colonies fought, bled, suffered and died for those many years ago.
There are scores of famous quotes throughout American history that affirm and re-affirm the First Amendment.
My favorite is from President Harry Truman: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
Or this quote, from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas: “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
Again, great words, but also a great warning.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”  The words from President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address — perhaps the most famous speech in American history — ring out today amidst the super-heated rhetoric over the office of the presidency and the Nov. 8 election, as they did for Lincoln in 1860.
Free speech debate, protected by the First Amendment, is the only way Americans can look at this election, or any of our daily endeavors.
Yet, free speech and free thought come with caveats, that the speech not be so intemperate, or that our position or thoughts are such that we only consider one side of the debate without truly taking the time to listen to an opposing view.
I’ve quoted this before, and I will quote it to my dying breath, from the late Professor Tibbie Shades, who hailed from my neck of the woods — “Always listen to what the other guy has to say, because he may just be right.”
His words are as astute and genuine and thought-provoking as any president, supreme court justice or philosopher.
Americans who don’t head them, do so at their peril — and the peril of American democracy. 

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. 

October 8, 2016

The road to 270

Great seal of the United States ~ 1890s

Since our founding and George Washington became this nation’s first president, there have been 56 presidential elections and a total of 44 presidents — including current President Barack Obama.
We are within a month of voting in the 57th presidential election in our nation’s history, and as has been the history of this nation, no one can be absolutely sure who will win election or what the final vote will be — if one candidate or another will capture a majority of votes, or for that matter, win the election without winning the popular vote.
As I have outlined in several previous columns, America is unique in its vote for president. We have the popular vote, which most-times determines the president of the United States, but the Founding Fathers gave us the Electoral College, which always determines the winner.
Well, almost always.
Four times in American history the candidate garnering the second-most votes in a presidential election actually has been elected president.
Sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it?
The earliest presidential election in which a presidential candidate failed to win the popular vote was in 1824, when John Quincy Adams was elected president over Andrew Jackson.
Jackson received 38,000 more popular votes than did Adams, yet because of the way the Founding Fathers set up our system of electing a president, Adams claimed the most votes by a 99 to 84 margin in the Electoral College.
Yet, to become president, a candidate needed 131 electoral votes and neither candidate had that.
Because of the so-called “Corrupt Bargain” of the era, the House of Representatives voted Adams the winner, since the vote did not meet the required 131 needed in the Electoral College for victory.
It was left to the lower body of Congress.
I know, I didn’t say it was a perfect system.
In 1876, Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes won the election by a margin of one electoral vote, despite losing the popular vote by more than 250,000 ballots to Democrat Samuel J. Tilden.
Again, it’s our system.
In 1888, just 12 years later, Republican Benjamin Harrison bested Democrat Grover Cleveland by a solid 233 to 168 margin in the Electoral College vote, yet lost the popular vote by more than 90,000 ballots.
Of course, most Americans — other than millennials — will remember the presidential election of 2000.
Republican George W. Bush was declared the winner of the presidential election and became the 43rd president, but he wasn’t even close to winning the popular vote with Democrat Al Gore.
Gore holds the dubious distinction of winning the popular vote by 540,000 votes, yet lost the election in the electoral vote 271-266.
Of course, the final outcome of the Presidential Election of 2000 ended up being one of the closest in the nation’s history — and precedent setting.
The voting results were not known until the following day after voting had taken place, and waited on Florida, where the tiny margin of victory for Bush hinged on litigation over the mandatory recount.
The litigation ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and in a contentious 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore, the high court announced an end to recounts of disputed and contested ballots on Dec. 12, 2000.
Thus, the high court awarded all of Florida’s electoral votes to Bush, granting him an improbable victory, given the disparity in the popular vote favoring Gore.
The 2000 election, as in many other presidential elections, also had a monkey throw his wrench into the mix, since third-party candidate Ralph Nader pulled a fairly small, but historically significant number of votes away from the main contenders.
Third-party candidates, of which there are two in this election cycle, help make every presidential election different, giving each of today’s main contenders — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — different paths to determining just who will be our next president.
This is one of the main reasons that as popular as presidential polling has become in America, it never paints a precise picture — until all the votes are cast and recorded, and electors have voted.
If one candidate wins a state like California by 10 votes cast out of multi-millions of voters, that candidate captures all 55 of the West Coast state’s massive electoral votes — and it takes 270 electoral votes to capture the presidency.
By the same token, one candidate can win a state like Oklahoma by a million votes, but that candidate only gets 7 electoral votes, because California has 10 times the population of Oklahoma — 38-plus million to 3.8 million.
So, one candidate can lose badly in a number of states in the popular vote, yet edge or even trounce an opponent in electors.
Our presidential elections are unique, each unto themselves.
Simple, yes?
We will see come Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle.

October 1, 2016

Politics and parody

Ben Franklin's political cartoon "Join, or Die" from May 1754

Someone asked me if I watched the Sept. 26 presidential debate, and my immediate answer was — “No, I don’t watch reality TV, and I really don’t watch un-reality TV. I deal in history past, not history in the making.
That’s for a column in about 50 years.
Yeah, right.
However, a kind gentleman dropped off a really nice book about presidents for fellow columnist Jeff Mullin and me to peruse on Wednesday titled, “The Glorious Burden” by Steffan Lorant.
Wow, talk about a  nice, thick tome packed with great illustrations on 959 slick pages. 
Sadly, I’ve grown accustomed to gleaning information for columns over the Internet, and less and less these days using a book.
My bad.
The book covers every president from George Washington through Lyndon B. Johnson, and I was amazed at the number of political cartoons from history past, and the quality and the sometimes nastiness and subtlety of the political cartoonist.
Some things never change, except, the farther back you go in presidential history, the more elaborate and more thought-provoking the cartoons become.
It took me 10 minutes to decipher the first one I turned to in the book, which just happened to be during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
Cartoonists weren’t kind to Old Abe — or other politicians of the day.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast brought us the elephant and the donkey as political party symbols.
But the art of the political cartoon has two elements — caricature, which parodies the individual, and allusion, which creates a situation or context into which the individual is placed.
This, from “A Brief History of Political Cartoons,” at xroads.virginia.edu:
Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die” cartoon, which depicts a snake whose severed parts represent the Colonies, is acknowledged as the first political cartoon in America. The image had an explicitly political purpose from the start, as Franklin used it in support of his plan for an intercolonial association to deal with the Iroquois at the Albany Congress of 1754.
It came to be published in virtually every newspaper on the continent; reasons for its widespread currency include its demagogic reference to an Indian threat as well as its basis in the popular superstition that a dead snake would come back to life if the pieces were placed next to each other.
Franklin's snake is significant in the development of cartooning because it became an icon that could be displayed in differing variations throughout the existing visual media of the day — like the "Don't Tread on Me" battle flag — but would always be associated with the singular causes of colonial unity and the Revolutionary spirit.
OK, so we have Ben Franklin to thank for yet another great institution that found its way into newspapers of the day — and is still going strong as I write.
There’s nothing better or more compelling than a good political cartoon breaking through all the barriers and the BS to make a point that some wordy writer can take many hundreds of words to make in columns and editorials — myself included.
We are a visual people who like our political jabs — point and counterpoint.
Political satire in cartoon form began almost from the first first days of Washington and Congress. All presidents were soundly parodied, except for GW, and few took it on the chin like President Andrew Jackson.
But the quality of the political cartoon came into its own during the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln may have been parodied more than any of our presidents.
After all, we were in the midst of the Civil War.
I found one political cartoon rather striking, of Union Gen. George B. McClellan — the Democrat's candidate for president — restraining both Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who stand at opposite ends of a great map of the United States, and are tearing it apart in tug-of-war fashion, with McClellan as the peacemaker.
It was done during the Presidential Election of 1864, by one of the cartoonists working for the lithographic company of Currier & Ives.
The balloon captions had Lincoln saying, “No peace without abolition,” and Davis saying, “No peace without separation.”
And, in a subtle jab at both leaders, McClellan says, “The Union must be preserved at all hazards.”
Gen. McClellan is a distant relative, so I’m rather partial to him, even if he wasn’t the best battlefield general the Union Army had to offer.
The point is political cartoonists have forged a niche in American politics that carries over to this day.
A good political fight on the national level would not be the same without the political cartoon.
They make a point visually, and as American history has unfolded since the days of the Revolutionary War, can with the stroke of a pen make a point without a thousand-word essay. 
So, a historically speaking “tip-of-me-cap” to the political cartoonist.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle.

September 24, 2016

Death by friendly fire

Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson

Just in the past week, we learned of several friendly-fire incidents in the Syrian civil war turned international crisis, in which Syrian troops allegedly were killed by U.S.-led coalition planes, and a humanitarian aid convoy was attacked by Russians.
Since there seems to be at least three sides in that conflict — and maybe a dozen, who knows — as a historian it’s simply déja vu.
Friendly fire in wartime is as common a commodity — and as certain to happen — as it is one side in a conflict will attempt to kill soldiers of their enemy.
It’s a simple concept we seem to be surprised about every time it happens.
As soon as I heard of Syrian soldiers dying from friendly fire, I thought of history past.
Have you ever seen the opening 27 minutes of the Academy Award-winning film “Saving Private Ryan?”
I have, easily more than a dozen times. If you haven’t, you should.
It is utter chaos, of soldiers continuously being shot and maimed and killed by the dozens and hundreds, each man enduring his own private hell — of fear, of sights and sounds and smells no sane person would ever want to hear again.
That is war.
It is not glorious, it is not coherent, it is not humane, it is not civilized. But it is real, it is mind-numbing. That’s why soldiers die from friendly fire.
You can curry-comb the pages of history past for friendly-fire incidents, and they are legion. Every war going back to the 1600s has had them — likely, every war before that as well — and those incidents simply have been forgotten or weren’t recorded.
During the American Revolution at the Battle of Germantown, two brigades of Continental soldiers opened fire on one another because of late arrival at the battle and lack of coordination. They simply failed to recognize that they were fighting on the same side, and both fled the battlefield in confusion.
At the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781, after several musket volleys and cannon fire between Continentals and British troops, the smoke of battle obscured the view of both sides, almost blinding soldiers and making breathing difficult.
In the confusion that is war, British Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis of Yorktown fame, ordered cannon to fire on the Americans and British alike, for lack of being able to see. Many British soldiers died in the artillery fire.
World War I and World War II were absolutely rife with friendly fire incidents.
At Chateau-Thierry, American machine gunners described a night attack in 1918 by massed German troops, who were singing and locked arm in arm in a suicide charge over a Marne River bridge.
In fact, they were Allies of the French 10th Colonial division from Senegal, trying to cross the river to friendly lines. This incident was suppressed, and no German records were ever found of any attack on a bridge during the battle, which caused great loss of life.
In April of 1944, during the nine-day rehearsal for the D-Day landings at Normandy and Utah Beach, Exercise Tiger killed more American soldiers than the actual landing and fire by the Germans.
American troops during the live-fire training at Slapton Sands on a British beach, crossed over an area being shelled with live ammo by the British heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins.
Some 308 American soldiers died that day — from friendly fire. During the actual landing at Utah Beach, casualty figures for U.S. soldiers were 197 — from enemy fire.
Friendly fire is a hazard and a consequence of war — all war.
The single greatest incident from American history that came to my mind as soon as I heard of the Syrian incident, occurred in the tangled, vine and tree-choked depths of The Wilderness during the American Civil War — and as likely as not, hastened the end of that war.
Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was a legend during his military career, and in history books since America’s 1861-1865 trial by fire.
His tactics, generalship and brilliance during the Shenandoah Campaign of 1862 are studied to this day at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — fighting, beating and winning against Union forces four times his size over 48 days.
The greatest victory by Confederate forces in that war occurred in May 1863, at Chancellorsville, when Jackson marched his men across the front of the Union Army in the thick Wilderness area of Virginia, slammed into the Federal right flank, basically winning the battle in a single blow.
After nightfall halted the attack, Jackson rode forward of the lines to reconnoiter, and while returning he and many of his staff were shot down by Confederate troops in the confusion.
Hit three times, the brilliant Jackson had his shattered left arm amputated and he died of pneumonia on the Sabbath — from friendly fire.

David Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle.