It's an annual ritual for millions of Catholics around the world, but when Vice President Joe Biden appeared in public with ashes on his forehead on Ash Wednesday, some newscasters and commentators found it quite remarkable. And at least one, Democratic strategist Bob Beckel, found it quite humorous. Beckel was participating in a Fox News telecast about President Obama's economic stimulus, when Biden appeared on screen. Beckel began to laugh and then offered the following "apology":
There is a saying about well-intentioned but misguided friends that takes on a special meaning this time of year: "God save me from my friends — I can protect myself from my enemies." And no, I don't mean friends or even family members who might better have given to charity the money they have spent on gifts for you they think are perfectly charming, but from which you derive no pleasure and for which you can find no use. No, I mean the well-intentioned friends of Christ who launch an unofficial campaign each year to "Keep Christ in Christmas."
It has been widely reported that Rep. Joe Barton has embarrassed the Republican Party. That by itself might be considered a monumental achievement, given what it usually takes to embarrass politicians these days. But Barton's offense is most egregious. He apologized to BP (formerly British Petroleum) for what the Texas Republican characterized as a "shakedown" by President Obama in getting the company to agree to put $20 billion into an escrow account for the compensation of victims of damage done by the explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon rig and the massive and ongoing spillage of oil off the coast of Louisiana.
If Robert Taft had been a baseball player instead of a United States Senator, he might have led the league in left-handed compliments. As it was, he was often “damned with faint praise” by people who, while paying tribute to the power of his intellect, quite often suggested both the man and the mind had come of age in the wrong century. The Ohio lawmaker would hear himself praised as one possessing “the best eighteenth-century mind in America” by people who obviously considered an 18th-century mind ill-suited to mid-20th-century politics. Others, frustrated by the Senator’s stubborn insistence on examining the facts of any controversy before deciding whether to go with or against the prevailing political winds, were fond of saying, “Taft has the best mind in the Senate — until he makes it up.”
John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State in the administration of President James Monroe, offered a toast to his native America on July 4, 1821. The Republic was yet young, just 45 years after declaring its independence of Great Britain. The glories of its destiny were mainly to come. But the glories foreseen by Adams, the son of America’s second President and destined to be its sixth, were not triumphs of conquest, but rather the majesty of a nation leading truly by the force of example instead of the example of force.
John Stark was a genuine hero of the American Revolutionary War or, if you prefer, America’s War for Independence. That he is not generally known beyond the borders of his native New Hampshire is hardly surprising. After George Washington, not many Americans can name a general of that war. And New Hampshire has made General Stark so much its own that his famous saying, “Live Free or Die,” has been adopted as the state motto and been engraved on all the state’s noncommercial license plates since 1969, replacing the word “Scenic.” The motto has not been universally appreciated, however, and one citizen’s insistence on taping over it became a legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wars are seldom tidy, and often the unfinished business from one war provides the spark and tinder for the next. The forts that guarded Charleston Harbor in the latter half of the 19th century were part of a series of coastal defenses planned after the War of 1812 to protect all the principal seaports of the United States. Like most of the system, the forts in Charleston were still unfinished in 1861. Not long after the war with the British, America became preoccupied with battles within, as wars with Indian tribes continued through most of the century.
“Avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican liberty.”
— George Washington, Farewell Address, September 17, 1796
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
— Dwight Eisenhower, Farewell Address, January 17, 1961
Long before President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about the dangers of “an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” in the “Farewell Address” he delivered 50 years ago last month, Americans were familiar with the “unwarranted influence” of “overgrown military establishments.”
It is sometimes said regretfully that many Americans today get their “slant” on the news from TV’s late-night comedians. But today’s “baby boomers” and Generation X-ers and Y-ers are not among the first Americans to find their politics strained through the filter of humor. More than a century before Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert began coming into people’s living rooms via broadcast and cable television, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to readers around the world as Mark Twain, was infiltrating the same sanctuary via newspapers, magazines, and books. In a 2008 article for Time magazine, humorist Roy Blount, Jr. showed just how topical, yet timeless, Twain’s humor was and is.
Is it merely a coincidence that Election Day comes so soon after Halloween? The voting is always in early November, perhaps in consideration of farmers who may be busy harvesting crops through October. Whatever the reason, the campaigns are at or near their climax as witches, ghosts, and goblins appear on the scene and horror movies are on the TV and movie screens to try to scare the populace more than the politicians do. It's a tough challenge for the ghoulish creatures, since the candidates tend to run for high office on the principle that fright makes right.