Portraits of Courage

portraits-of-courage-cover-george-w-bush

I mentioned the other week that I had pre-ordered President George W. Bush’s new book, Portraits of Courage, and now that I’ve finally devoted some time to it I can wholeheartedly endorse it. This compilation of more than ninety Wounded Warriors painted by their former Commander in Chief is very touching and well done. You will be inspired by their stories and you will gain a greater understanding of the painter/author through this work.

Most of the men and women in the book befriended Bush at one of the annual golf tournaments or mountain biking events he hosts for service personnel and it is clear that he is humbled and honored by their friendship. The more I look at the paintings he has done, the more I can see the time and effort Bush put into capturing each individual’s unique character, and the more I admire this greatly maligned and casually dismissed world leader.

The title, Portraits of Courage, is clearly a play on, or an homage to, Profiles in Courage, the 1957 Pulitzer Prize winning book by then Senator John Kennedy, which tells the stories of past senators who made unpopular decisions they believed to be right and suffered for it. I think it’s safe to suppose that Bush sees himself in the same vein as the politicians Kenney admired; as a man who will be vindicated by history. It is often said that history depends on who writes it but it is equally important who reads it and what they choose to focus on in the records.

For example, when assessing Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, will future generations recall comedian Bill Maher ridiculing the President for comparing Saddam to Hitler? “Saddam Hussein is Hitler like Oasis was The Beatles.” Or will they look to Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Elie Wiesel, who also compared Saddam’s brutality to the genocide of the Nazi’s and directly told Bush, “Mr. President, you have a moral obligation to act against evil.”

When parsing out blame for the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, will people fifty or a hundred years from now place more weight on the photo of Bush looking down on the disaster from Air Force One, allegedly detached and unsympathetic to the sorrow below:

Bush Katrina airforce one

Or will they find the sea of unused school buses to be more telling about the failure of local officials to act in the first place?

Katrina-school-buses

No one can be certain how these interpretations will play out but it does appear that Bush’s post-presidential years will play a large role in any final assessments. Only the most cynical and unrealistic critics can discount the level of commitment that Bush has demonstrated to the troops who sacrificed so much for his decisions. One does not spend hours, weeks, months, and years, getting to know people and painting their portraits as a PR stunt or a passing fancy. Clearly, Bush believes in the choices he made, yet he cares deeply about those who paid the price for them. And, unlike JFK, who merely supervised the writing of his book on courage – leaving the bulk of the text to be penned by his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen – W. has put his heart into every brush stroke and word of the courage he depicts.

Negative reviews of Bush’s book, or more so, complaints about his public, “rehabilitation,” thanks to the book and recent positive press, keep popping up in my Google newsfeed. For many left-leaning pundits the temptation to slip into the same old mantras (e.g. “Bush lied,” “Bush is stupid”) is simply too great. Thankfully, we need not follow their emotional lead.

president-bush-painting

A Trump in the Crowd

I recently rewatched a classic cautionary tale about the dangers of populism and mass media, A Face in the Crowd (1957). It’s the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drifter with no moral center, a talent for playing the guitar, and the gift of gab. When he is given the opportunity to become a radio personality in a small market his new career takes off and before you know it he has his own national TV show and he is an important political figure. Lonesome is billed as the, “Voice of the Mid-South,” a man of the people, and he breaks all the rules of standard broadcasting while making people laugh and telling them what to think. He also attracts a host of unscrupulous people who want to use him for their own ends, from the office boy turned talent agent to the corporation peddling useless energy pills to the corporate boss and his isolationist Senator friend who dreams of the White House.

A Face in the Crowd poster

Lonesome’s arrogant lust for power, his general disrespect for the rest of the world, and his closeted insecurity are fueled by his alcoholism until *Spoiler* everything falls apart when the general public hears what he really thinks of them over an open mic during a seemingly private rant. In some ways the film is a bit dated and tame but overall it holds up well and the message will forever be true. There will always be charming, charismatic, and seemingly good individuals who step out from the crowd and attempt to direct it with simplistic slogans and self-serving motivations. Unfortunately, if the film’s cynical view of humanity is to be taken as fact, it is fairly easy for the masses to get swept up into a mindless mob when the right (or wrong) populist figure comes along. Sadly, my own reading of history, along with my own personal history (I voted for Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura), largely agrees with this assessment of human nature.

A Face in the Crowd film strip

It’s easy to find parallels and make connections between the fictional Lonesome and many historical and contemporary American pundits, from Father Coughlin to Glenn Beck, along with American politicians, from Huey Long to John Edwards, and truly despotic international figures, like Mussolini and Hitler. The man that most viewers probably had in mind when A Face in the Crowd first come out was Joe McCarthy, despite that fact that the film’s director, Elia Kazan, claimed the story was not about McCarthy.

Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy was a World War II Veteran – Tail Gunner Joe – from Wisconsin, who gained national fame when he claimed he had a list of communist agents in the State Department. Just how many people were on the list and why he would not produce it was never clear but many people came to see McCarthy as a champion of the common man and the American Way of Life in the global struggle against the commies (including Bobby Kennedy, who worked as a McCarthy staff member for awhile and fellow Senator John Kennedy). When McCarthy turned his attention to hunting for communists in the Army, during live, televised hearings, his lack of substance and mean-spirited nature was finally made clear to most citizens watching along at home and his fellow Senators, who publicly repudiated him in 1954. He died nearly friendless in a hospital bed three years later, most likely from a lifetime of hard drinking, the same year that A Face in the Crowd hit theaters. Some people on the fanatical fringe of the conspiratorial-minded right wing (e.g. The John Birch Society) continued to pretend that McCarthy was a hero, brought down by communist forces in the U.S. Government, including President Eisenhower, who were too powerful for McCarthy to take on alone. There are even a few fanatics today who continue to back McCarthy, like Trump Super Fangirl Ann Coulter, who wrote a book attempting to defend McCarthy. Most reasonable people, however, have come to see “McCarthyism” (i.e. behaving like McCarthy) as a bad thing.

mccarthy trump hands outWhen I first saw that Donald Trump was running for President I thought it was a big joke and poked fun at the idea by imagining what his next Reality TV show might be like:

Trump has said some crazy and hateful things during this campaign, from labeling illegal Mexican immigrants as “rapists” to belittling women as unstable when they have blood coming out of their “wherever,” none of this seems to matter to his faithful fans, who miraculously fail to see these comments as revelation about his true character. His most loyal adherents even sound giddy when they explain how much they love the fact that Trump, “isn’t politically correct;” as if his racist, sexist, and otherwise deplorable behavior could be considered correct by any measure.

For me the straw that broke the camel’s back and showed the true heart of the man was when Trump attacked John McCain. I know that a lot of self-styled “real conservatives” think McCain is too liberal, or too unreliable, or too whatever, but to attack the man on his war record and suggest that he’s not a real hero is lower than low. While Trump was dodging the draft and living the life of an up and coming millionaire playboy, McCain spent five-and-half years, two in solitary confinement, in a North Vietnamese prison camp, ironically called the, “Hanoi Hilton.” Yet, in Trump’s worldview, McCain is, “not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

mccain-pow trump draft dodger

Trump’s supporters claim that he loves the military because he has given money to veteran groups and told them what they want to hear. But the real truth is there for anyone willing to listen. “People who were captured,” that means all POWs throughout American History, are not some losers who failed to do their duty. They are, typically, men like McCain, who refused to give up even when all hope was lost. That kind of perseverance and sacrifice doesn’t register with a man like Trump, who speaks of “winning” in much the same way as Charlie Sheen.

Another canard popular among Trump supports is that he is a great businessman, which will magically make him a great President. Obviously, he has been more financially successful than most when it comes to his own, personal enrichment, but it’s not like he built the ladder from scratch himself and climbed his way out of the basement to the top of Trump Tower. He took the final steps to the top from where his daddy placed him, with a “small” million dollar loan and a network of connections. I don’t fault him, or anyone, for being born into wealth, but you’ve got to do something more impressive than real estate deals and sensationalistic TV to convince me that you are such a mega genius in business that you can solve all of America’s problems.

Trump is reminiscent of Lonesome Rhodes and Joe McCarthy, minus the alcohol problem. As one of the characters in A Face in the Crowd explains, “We’ve got to face it. Politics have entered a new stage, the television stage. Instead of long winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans. Time for a change. The mess in Washington. More bang for a buck. Punchlines and glamour.” That reality in many ways has only gotten worse with the birth of the Internet and Trump is the embodiment of populist politics at its worst in our 140 character attention span age, where fame comes without importance and everyone’s right to have an opinion is more significant than the facts. Like the fictional Rhodes and the real life McCarthy, I am confident that Trump will come to a very unglamorous end. The only question is: What damage will this self-centered braggart inflict on the rest of us before he goes down?

mccarthy trump america

 

Back when McCarthy was riding high on the populist wave, almost none of his fellow Republicans would speak out against him. Even General Eisenhower, who privately told McCarthy in very blunt terms how much he disliked the Senator, stood beside the blowhard in public while running for the Presidency. Perhaps McCarthy could have been taken down much faster if Ike had acted differently, or perhaps it would have only inflamed the reflexively anti-establishment “patriots” to greater levels of madness? We’ll never know. What I can say is that there was one man who didn’t cower in the face of McCarthy’s one-hit-wonder popularity, Senator Prescott Bush (father of President George H. W. Bush). At a campaign appearance, with McCarthy seated behind him and a vehemence crowd in front of him, Bush said that he disapproved of his fellow Senator’s methods. His words went over no better than his grandsons’ warnings about Trump today but the similarities in both cases should give thinking people reason to pause.

I have never been so disappointed in my fellow citizens than I am now at the prospect of a President Trump. As the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre famously proclaimed two centuries ago, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” If the American people choose a bigoted, sexist, flip-flopping, conspiracy theorist, repeat adulterer, who studied at the feet of McCarthy’s attack dog, Roy Cohn, who thinks nothing of abusing eminent domain and throws out insults like candy, then they will have proved de Maistre correct.

trump take that america

A few recent arguments

I continue to have the same ongoing dilemma about how much I should spend time answering questions from conspiracy theorists, or arguing with them? At what point am I just wasting my time? Sometimes the decision when to end a conversation is made for me. I was recently kicked out of a Facebook group where I was told by more than one person, “you don’t belong here.” They only wanted to hear from one side of the story, and the less your “facts” were connected to reality the better. One of the last things I posted there was a video of former FBI Agent, Robert Frazier, the lead firearms and ballistics examiner on the assassination case in 1963. Someone had told me that Frazier did not agree with me on the case, so I found this excellent short interview to rebut him:

I love how you can feel the emotion of what Frazier lived through and his confidence that Oswald alone did the shooting. BTW, the person I was replying to with this video never responded to it.

A couple days after that exchange I received a Facebook message from a man I’ll call D (since he was not posting in a public space). He said he watched my film, Conspiracy Theorists Lie (2015) and liked it. He said he learned some things, like the stuff about the nutty John Birch Society, who thought Earl Warren was a communist agent, but then he asked me what I thought of the film, JFK: The Smoking Gun (2013). That film advocates a really fringe theory, where the fatal head shot was accidently fired by a Secret Service Agent in the car behind the President. I told him that I tried watching the film when it was on the Reelz Channel and it was so sensationalistic and distorted that I couldn’t even get 30 minutes into it. I pointed out some things I believed to be wrong with it and he jumped back with a barrage of questions, details, and links that could easily take days, or longer, to debunk. I told him, in so many words, that I was not going to waste my time playing this wack-a-mole game. I know for a fact that he has not found some great, hidden, secret truth that all the scientists, investigators, and historians have missed or lied about. This theory has been around since the 1970s and it has never gained traction because it is so clearly not true. Reelz Channal got some attention for themselves by updating this outlandish story but that doesn’t make it any less outlandish and there is no reason for me to dig into it further just because D is personally obsessed with it.

D kept asking me questions so I cited this blog post by Emmy Award Winning animator and author, Dale K. Myers, who has made the most accurate 3D model of the Kennedy Assassination out there. Myers found The Smoking Gun and the film’s argument to be laughable, and so do I, but D was relentless. He said things like, “And remember – dismissing or filtering out evidence that doesn’t conform to current belief is exactly what conspiracy theorists do…” and “Sorry, but you sound exactly like a conspiracy theorist who refuses to debate facts, all of your claims amount to “if it were true it would be the official story”, which is simply not a rational argument.” I was amazed that this conspiracy theorist was accusing me of acting like, “a conspiracy theorist,” for not addressing every little false fact he could throw at me, while at the same time he was comfortable ignoring the 400+ people who worked on the Warren Commission and the hundreds of others who worked on the HSCA, and every serious historian out there. CTers always seem to have a very skewed notion of what, “burden of proof,” means. For them, the most impossible things are perfectly plausible and equally valid as anything else (e.g. a Secret Service Agent discharged a weapon and there is no hard evidence of this, including photographic evidence from the many cameras going off in the area, then hundreds upon hundreds of people over multiple generations have covered up the truth and they are still doing it to this day). The only thing that matters to a CTer are their personal beliefs and their selective, “evidence;” the rest is just an, “official story,” which can be dismissed merely because it is an official.

I finally had to block D. I’m not going to bang my head against a wall for his amusement. This was not, however, my worst encounter with a CTer last week. Hajj Amin (at least that is his name on YouTube) came across my film, You don’t know Hitler (2006), which uses Nazi propaganda films and other material to tell the story of Hitler’s horrific reign.

Hajj posted in the YouTube comments section, “I thought I would see a balanced view here but usual bull,” and then went on to link to a film glorifying Hitler. I got into an exchange with him, trying to explain what a misguided view of history he has and he threw back the usual Jew Hating crap (e.g. he doesn’t hate Jews, he just hates the International Zionists who are trying to rule the world, and blah, blah, blah). Like D, he tried to paint me as close minded and intolerant of different opinions, or a blind follower of the official story; because there are, “always two sides to any issue” (an often repeated and misleading axiom). Hajj claimed that, “history is written by the victors,” (another often repeated but rarely true axiom) and he insisted that the, “common view,” of Hitler and the Nazis is just, “political correctness.” The icing on the cake was when he accused me of being a, “German hater.” I finally blocked him too.

These may be extreme examples but I see this kind of mentality all over the place. How many times have you heard people like Donald Trump invoke, “political correctness,” when they doesn’t want to admit that their a-hole comments are a-hole comments? How often do you hear people talk about respect for, “my opinion,” when the question at hand is one of facts, not opinions? I hate to be pessimistic but sometimes I feel like the majority of people are not very good at thoughtful, rational thinking. The saving grace for most people, however, is that they keep their mouth shut when they don’t know anything about the subject (like me when others are talking about sports or cars). Then there is that aggressive minority, which seems to reveal in their ignorance, and my work attracts them like a flypaper.

Okay, I’ve ranted enough. Back to the grind. Have a great day!