THE WILD MAN FROM FIFTH AVENUE

The Old Bloviator has long held that that southern history holds the keys to unlocking practically any contemporary conundrum, including, in this case, explaining how and why someone so thoroughly dedicated to being utterly repugnant can actually be the front-runner for the Republican nomination. In fact, this one is something of a pushover in that Trump could well have stolen his playbook from no less towering a presence in the storied annals of Georgia politics other than Eugene Talmadge, who ran for governor five times, won four times but expired before taking office for the final term. From the governor's office, he ruled Georgia with an iron, albeit reckless, hand, usurping the prerogatives of the Comptroller General or the Public Service Commission whenever it suited his purpose, prompting one historian to denounce him "as a dictator, a demagogue and a threat to the tranquility of the state." (Sound familiar, DT?) Not for nothing was ol' Gene known as the "Wild Man from Sugar Creek," which actually trickled through his Telfair County estate, for his campaigns featured all manner of histrionics and audacity, such as showing up for a rally driving a set of oxen after strapping on his trademark red suspenders and sometimes drenching himself in corn whiskey. In a typical stump speech carefully choreographed to seem impromptu, he ridiculed his political opponents and critics, among whom he listed both "them lying Atlanta newspapers" and his favorite punching bag, the racially tolerant scalawag Atlanta Constitution columnist "Rastus," [a.k.a.] Ralph, McGill.

            Talmadge's behavior, like that of such counterparts as Jeff Davis in Arkansas and Ellison D. "Colton Ed" Smith, was easily written off to the apparently endemic ignorance and depravity of southern political leaders, not to mention that of those who kept electing them, but there were sound structural incentives that encouraged and reinforced such contrived rascality. Not the least of these was the "white primary," a device implemented as a sort of final filter meant to screen out any blacks who had somehow breached a veritable Siegfried Line of barriers to voting--from the poll tax, to the literacy test, to property requirements--and therefore remained eligible to exercise the franchise on election day. Determined that even this tiny minority of blacks would not have their say at the ballot box, state Democratic parties across the South had simply declared themselves private organizations, which allowed them to forbid black participation in their nominating primaries for state offices. Though this move may have seemed unnecessary, it was actually critical precisely because the aforementioned artifices, all of them keyed in one way or another to disfranchising the economically and educationally disadvantaged, had all but eliminated the prospect of voting by blacks and low-income whites who had a history of supporting Republican, Populist, or any other Independent candidates. With a Democratic triumph in the general election now a foregone conclusion, the Democratic primary was now the only meaningful game in town for statewide political aspirants (and just to make sure it served its purpose, anyone who ran in the white primary was required to foreswear any subsequent candidacy as a Republican or Independent.) Since the only realistic path to state office led straight through the Democratic primary, it frequently attracted aspirants in large numbers. With the overwhelming majority of those likely to really see things differently now on the outside looking in, differences among the candidates on concrete issues were infrequent, to say the least. The challenge of a large, relatively homogeneous group of competitors encouraged efforts to separate one's self apart as vividly, even histrionically, as possible, while lumping all the rivals together. In an especially crowded race for governor in 1932, Gene Talmadge simply dismissed his faceless opponents as "the baseball nine." Likewise, the virtual absence of fundamental differences on issues encouraged both personal attacks on one's rivals and tirades against a variety of sinister, impersonal, and frequently contrived forces. Over in Mississippi, for example, two-term governor Theodore G. Bilbo, who had recently called one of the state's sitting U.S. senators "a vicious, malicious pusillanimous, cold-blooded, premeditated, plain, ordinary liar," soon won a Senate seat himself, vowing to wreak vengeance on "farmer murderers, corrupters of southern womanhood," and "skunks who steal Gideon's' Bibles from hotel rooms."

            Needless to say, incumbents with established bases of support were likely to benefit from a crowded field of candidates, just as fields were more likely to be crowded when, as in 1932 in Georgia, there was no incumbent in the race, and so it is in a 2016 Republican primary line-up, which includes not only the outrageous Mr. T, but sixteen would-be rivals, the closest running a mere fifteen points behind him in current polls. Though he is actually a better showman than P. T. Barnum, Mr. Trump clearly subscribes to the old Barnum dictum that "there's no such thing as bad publicity."

            His most recent ventures into over-the-top audacity appear to have cost him an event or broadcast contract or appearance opportunity here and there, but what the heck does that mean to a guy worth $10 billion? Not only do these intended rebukes simply bounce off his Kevlar-encased ego, but they afford further opportunities to tout himself as the only, red-blooded, non-wuss GOP option, in the much way the disapproval of  the "better element" served as badges of distinction for the Talmadges and Bilboes. Meanwhile,  his tremulous opponents agonize over jeopardizing their conservative creds by venturing out of the far right lane just long enough to chide him for being too forthright and visceral in expressing and defending views on immigration, health care, women's issues, etc. that generally differ little from their own. Thus, the currently trumped non-Trumps sit gaping as he careens all over the road, mocking party icon John McCain, ridiculing Rand Paul, and flat-out dissing both Jeb and his brother. Surely the O.B. has told you enough about Gene Talmadge by now that you could easily see him giving out Ralph McGill's phone number, much as Trump did with poor old Lindsay Graham. Although Trump's refusal to foreswear an independent candidacy would have gotten him booted out of the white primary, neither his individual or cumulative excesses to date have sufficed to send him tumbling down amongst his competitors who, at this point, are left to paddle back and forth in a tepid puddle of "meh" awaiting what they keep telling themselves is Donny's inevitable downfall.

Though Trump hardly qualifies as a much of a "populist," he seems to have tapped, however crudely and tastelessly, into a rich vein of throbbing discontent, not all of it necessarily partisan, with the rigid code of political correctness that frequently seems to govern public action and thought these days. This is to say, that some, perhaps many, of those who disagree with the substance of what Trump actually says nonetheless find it hard not to admire the exuberantly unhesitant manner in which he says it. In fact, as it was with ol' Gene, his most endearing trait to many supporters may well be that "he just don't give a damn!"

            In the practical political sense, however, the trouble with The Donald is that he is not exactly overstocked with such traits. Trustworthiness? Likability? The Common Touch?  "Nope" 3X. Ironically,rather than taking solace in the fact that the very same deficits might be cited in the lurking, looming, inevitable, nine-lived Hillary, Republican leaders must find it more than maddening that, from a field of nearly two "baseball nines," their party has yet to come up with no more viable opponent than someone whose every attempt to capitalize on her negatives is all but certain simply to call further attention to his own.

 

(Where the ol" Bloviator's opinions are concerned, the problem has never been supply, but demand. Since the tragic shooting in Charleston on June 17 and the ensuing moves against the Confederate battle flag as public symbol, the OB and other hoary denizens laboring in the normally tangled obscurity of the southernological jungle, have been engulfed in a gnat-like swarm of exceedingly persistent media types. actually bent  on soliciting their views, though intent primarily, it seems, either on simply appropriating them as their own  or distorting them so grotesquely as to made the kindly, unsuspecting prof  seem like a complete ninny. Realizing that he could accomplish the latter just fine on his own, a weary OB finally gave voice to his own voice in an outcry actually heard and passed on by a few semi-respectable outlets. What follows is an expanded and updated version of his Cri de Coeur.)

           

The most striking aspect of the Bamberg, South Carolina, grade school class photo (ca.1980) is not the nine black youngsters scattered among the twenty-three white pupils. Bamberg schools had been integrated under a court order roughly a decade earlier. Rather, the real eye-catcher in the shot is the little girl with the flowing black hair and skin only slightly lighter than that of some of her African American classmates. A few years earlier, this little girl and her sister had also stood out among the contestants at the annual Miss Wee Bamberg Pageant where, in the wake of school desegregation, it had become the practice to crown both a white and a black winner. Though she seemed irresistibly huggable in her ruffled dress and black patent shoes, there would be no crown for contestant No. 40, for she and her sister had introduced an unforeseen and unwanted element of racial ambiguity that left pageant officials fearful that neither the white or black parents in the audience would accept the two little brown-skinned daughters of an immigrant Sikh couple in their racial category.  What may well prove to be the most striking of all the many ironies in the life and career of Nikki Haley, born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, came when, at her mother's request, she was at least to perform her talent number, a very capable rendition of "This Land Is Your Land." Anyone searching for a compelling visual testimony to the brutal absurdity of the American South's racial obsessions surely need look no further than the photo of little Nikki, still standing thereafter on the pageant, uncertainly clutching the wrapped package containing the fittingly deflated  beach ball  that she and her sister received as consolation prizes for their disqualification.  Surely no one in attendance that night, save, one senses in retrospect, perhaps the little girl herself, that some thirty-five years later, a not-exactly thriving Bamberg ( Population : 3,600. Major Points of Interest: A Hardees fast food restaurant and a Dollar General Store.) would boast four signs welcoming motorists to the "Home of Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina."

It is tempting to see a story of both personal triumph and regional redemption in the meteoric political ascent of this woman who was born an "other" to blacks and whites in a society where skin color really mattered. Yet contrary to deep-seated liberal presumptions, Nikki Haley has proven to be anything but the empathetic, compassionate champion of minorities and women that her background seemed almost to mandate. Instead, if anything, for a savvy young woman like Haley, growing up almost astride the color line may have encouraged a rather precocious decision on which side of the racial divide offered the better prospects for fulfilling her ambitions. The same was true of the partisan divide as well, for South Carolina was already an established GOP stronghold when she entered the 2004 primary where she stunned the pundits by knocking off the longest-serving incumbent in the state House of Representatives before sailing unopposed in an overwhelmingly Republican district through the general election to take her seat as the first Indian-American member of the South Carolina legislature.

Haley's success in this contest was surprising, but it paled in comparison to her victorious shoe-string gubernatorial campaign which ultimately dispatched three better-known and better-funded primary rivals and opened the door to the governor's mansion for its first-ever female and non-white occupant. Haley's gender had earned her no gentlemanly deference during a campaign marked by persistent rumors of her marital infidelity and a fellow Republican politico's reference to her as a "f**king raghead." This public display of bigotry was a bit over the top even in South Carolina, and it doubtless helped Haley more than it hurt her, as state and national Republican leaders rallied to her defense, including Sarah Palin, who praised her as "the proud daughter of immigrants who worked day and night to achieve the American dream."

            Such an endorsement might seem a tad hypocritical coming from someone who has hardly distinguished herself as a friend of immigrants or people of color in general, but then, truth be told, neither has Nikki Haley, an early Tea Party favorite whose votes and positions as a legislator and governor amount to a checklist of Palin's favorite things. For example, she is an ardent opponent abortion rights, gun control, higher taxes on high incomes, and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.  As governor, she championed a new law requiring state-issued photo IDs for all voters, and despite her state's large indigent population, she refused the Obama Care plan's offer of increased Medicaid funding, flatly declaring "we will not expand Medicaid ever." On the other hand, Haley is just fine with forking over lavish public subsidies to new employers who also have the governor's personal assurance that "we'd rather die than have unions here."

Truth be told, Haley's stance on any of the foregoing issues is hardly unique among today's Deep South governors and her unwavering faith in bringing in new industry at any cost has long been nothing less than gubernatorial gospel in the region. Forced increasingly to weigh their obligations to preserve segregation against the development imperative, the balance began to tip in favor of the latter in the 1960s, when concerns about the potentially harmful effects of racial violence and defiance on industrial recruitment helped to pave the way for the initial desegregation of public schools and other public facilities and accommodations. A similar consideration has factored heavily in more recent disputes over removing the Confederate battle flag from state property or excising it from the flags of several southern states.

             In South Carolina, that flag might still be flying atop the state capitol had a torrent of threatened economic and tourist boycotts and pressure from the state's business community not forced the legislature fifteen years ago to at least move it to the capitol grounds. Though this placement was still far from satisfactory to most black South Carolinians, Governor Haley had shown no public inclination to move against it until the cold-blooded slaughter of nine African Americans inside their Charleston church by a Rebel flag-worshipping gunman became both catalyst and premise for a step that southern white political officials had been at once eager but too timid to take. The flag issue has long been the proverbial elephant not simply in the room but squarely astride the shoulders of southern GOP governors and congressmen, not to mention business and development leaders. Not only did it pose a threat to party unity, but clinging to such a divisive and seemingly hostile and provincial symbol is hardly indicative of a state or community ready to host a major production facility of an international and even global corporation. Make no mistake about it, the moves by Nikki Haley and her counterparts in other southern states amounted in no small sense to what a proponent of ditching the Confederate insignia on the Mississippi state flag once called a "strategic business decision." Without questioning the sincerity of their expressions of horror and grief over the Charleston tragedy in the least, distancing their state and their party from what so many see as an emblem of hatred and persecution seems to have a huge upside for southern and national Republicans, especially those with presidential (or perhaps, vice-presidential) ambitions like South Carolina's Senator Lindsey Graham or perhaps even, its governor as well. One thing is certain,with the flag now furled and consigned to a museum, Governor Haley's brilliant, genuinely impassioned leadership over the last three weeks truly dwarfs anything Sarah Palin accomplished as governor of Alaska.

Newsweek's decision in July 2010 to herald Nikki Haley on its cover as "The Face of the New South" may have startled some at the time, but this has become a common trope in recent days. Its aptness, however, rests not in Haley's skin color or gender but in her politics. Lest we get a tad carried away here, let's note that, over the last generation or so, the GOP has gradually abandoned its old blatantly racialized "southern strategy" in favor of a new, ostensibly "colorblind" but hardly race-neutral conservatism anchored in the rigidly anti-tax, anti-welfare, anti-labor but pro-gun, pro-voter suppression, and indisputably ardent pro-corporate attitudes that essentially define Governor Haley's mindset. For Haley and her cohort, that mindset is unlikely to change anytime soon, regardless of what flag flies where.  All of that said, however, regardless of whether her motives were at least partially political or not, she has done the right thing. History is hardly so flush with examples of right things done for precisely the right reasons to afford us the luxury of being picky.

 

 

 

THE OL' BLOVIATOR GETS THE "SECOND DEGREE."

So many nice things have happened to the Ol' Bloviator here of late that he is totally on edge, fearful that any second now that the Almighty will get wind of it, leading to what the market gurus call a "major correction" wherein he will be exposed for the worthless lout he really is and cast into the wilderness to wander for the remainder of his days, with nothing to eat but kale and nobody but Barry Manilow on his Ipod. Regardless of when--no need to waste an "if" on this one-- his day of reckoning comes, however, the O.B. will still be thanking the wonderful folks up at Washington and Lee University for awarding him an honorary doctorate in humane letters. Simply put, he can scarcely imagine a more generous and deeply gratifying form of recognition that could ever come his way. Despite his indelible ties to the nation's first state-chartered university (1785), he has long felt a special affinity for W&L, founded in 1749, generously endowed by a certain Mr. Washington in 1796 and revived after the Civil War by another Virginian by the name of Lee, who served as its president from October 1865 until his death five years later.

Of course, neither Robert E. Lee or George Washington are really dead on a campus marked by so much statuary and truly imposing architecture bearing their names and likenesses. Though the Lee connection has grown socially problematic at times, as recently as last summer, in fact, W&L's dynamite prez, Ken Ruscio, a stand-up dude if ever there was one, has steadfastly maintained  that the school's special place in history is integral to its identity. Lest ye be deceived, President Ruscio's position does not imply dogged defense of an ossified, uncritically venerated past, but quite the opposite. As he told his commencement audience last week:

There's the old joke about how many Washington and Lee alumni it takes to change a light bulb. Five: one to actually change it and four to talk about how great the old bulb was....Washington and Lee does have a storied past....We preserve what matters in our history. And we learn from it. But we are a university, not a museum, and while the past shapes us, it doesn't dictate our future. That is up to us, and it is up to each one of you.

It is for this very insistence on reason over emotion and thoughtful discourse over shouting that, since the O.B.'s first visit to the campus nearly twenty years ago, he has been a walking infomercial, touting Washington and Lee as the place to go if you want to see undergraduate education done right, and his more recent trips have not only affirmed but, if anything, strengthened that conviction. A student/faculty ratio of 8:1 obviously doesn't hurt, especially when buttressed by an overarching commitment, not simply to teaching, but to challenging an impeccably credentialed student body replenished annually by freshmen classes whose average SAT scores may run close to the 90th percentile.

Despite expanding its need-based financial support efforts, W&L's sticker price for tuition, room, and board can add up to a four-year price tag in the rather exclusive neighborhood of $200 grand, and by and large, its undergraduate scholars come from some of  the most heralded private and public elementary secondary schools in the nation. (Roughly 85 percent of the students hail from outside Virginia.) Noting that 80 percent of undergraduates belong to Greek organizations, the casual observer might mark W&L off as a nice little place in a quaint little town (Lexington, Va.) where pampered rich kids can come for further pampering, not to mention some serious partying. Please allow the OB to curb-stomp this misconception right here and now.  Freshmen who show up with the idea that their prodigious G.P.A. and SAT numbers will allow them simply to skate through the next four years will be back home before you can say "Tonya Harding." This much is made abundantly clear before a student even applies, and from the OB's personal observations, it is reaffirmed every day in the classroom, where it is a given not only that the instructor will be superbly prepped for each session, but that no less will be expected from every student in his or her charge. Even if this expectation is not always met, from the first campus visit to the day the sheepskins are handed out, the message that this is a place where learning comes first never seems to fade.

It was certainly coming through loud and clear on May 28, 2015 when the OB was on the receiving end at a commencement ceremony for the first-time in four decades. As the famously excitable Bulldog scene-setter, Larry Munson, might say, "Get the picture":

It's a beautiful, though warmish morning, and, bedecked in tightly aligned white chairs, the sloping lawn forming a sort of natural amphitheater between Washington Hall and the Lee Chapel is "Masters Green" and groomed to match. Moving in that direction, the presidential and faculty procession halts to allow all 475 of the capped and gowned almost-grads to move ahead in two columns before splitting to line either side of the faculty's path. The OB has to confess that, had he been elsewhere, he would have been more than a tad apprehensive about having to pass so slowly through a gauntlet of students who might easily have had all manner of scores to settle with their former profs. The platform party and the faculty reached their destinations unscathed, however, and remained standing until all the degree candidates had reached their seats. After President Ruscio and a student body representative delivered some brief remarks and, and after hearing a very generous citation, read by Provost Daniel Wubah, (Ph.D., UGA,1990,BTW) a long-time "hood-er" of grad students became the "hood-ee" for a change. From there, it was straight into the business at hand, as each and every one of the graduates passed across the platform to hear their names called and their academic honors announced, shake hands with Dr. Ruscio and pick up their diplomas.

The most striking thing about this process to the OB was how frequently that, based, he admits, primarily on appearance and the cheers they received from their classmates,  he sized up an individual graduate approaching the platform as a purebred party animal, only to hear his or her name suffixed with "Phi Beta Kappa" and "summa cum laude." An extended stay on the campus would doubtless knock some of the stars from the Ol' Bloviator's eyes, but even allowing for the possibility that the tremendous, ego-balming honor bestowed on him by the university may have imbued his spectacles with a slightly roseate tint, he believes knows this place and its people well enough to vouch for the imposing substance behind its captivating style.

Even with values so obviously out of whack at so many institutions today, it would still be hard to find a university president who didn't assure you that academics are absolutely his or her paramount priority. Although most of these presidents still truly mean what they say (and the OB has absolutely no doubt that UGA's Jere Morehead does), their words start to ring hollow in a hurry if they are out of sync with campus realities. As both a student and then a faculty member at his beloved alma mater, the OB could not be prouder of the dramatic upgrade in those realities that we have seen around here over the last forty years. He also recognizes that, in achieving and sustaining those upgrades, a small, well-heeled  and highly-selective private university enjoys decided advantages over a large public one with almost fifteen times the undergraduates but less than two-thirds the endowment. Still, even if the W&L model can't be fully implemented here, I can't help but think that we would do well nonetheless to emulate it as best we can. For example, the percentage of their students in fraternities and sororities may be three times ours, but where our freshmen have already been gobbled up by the system before they have even set foot in a classroom, theirs will at least have a semester of classes,unconstricted interaction with each other, and a variety of on- and off-campus experiences under their belts before they have to ask themselves if going the Greek route will significantly enrich their social life or complicate their academic one.  Whether we do our educating on 430 acres in Lexington or 759 acres in Athens, our key concern should not be how our students answer their own question in this or similar cases, but in fostering an environment and nurturing a mindset that encourages them to ask it in the first place.

w&l LYRAJIMcomp.jpg

(Washington and Lee's oldest degree recipient in living memory and his Main Squeeze, who is summa cum laude in everything she does.)



THIS APRIL SHOWERED US WITH HISTORY

(April may not always be "the cruelest month" for historians, but with the wind-down of the Civil War Sesquicentennial observance, this surely has been one of the busiest on record.  What follows is a modified version of a piece that the Ol' Bloviator did for TIME.COM on April 9, the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.)

Confederate leaders may have believed they had built a unified nation when they framed a new government and sent their troops off to war with hearty assurances of a quick and glorious victory in 1861. Amid the centennial observance of these events, however, Robert Penn Warren would suggest that a sense of common southern identity had actually been "born" only on April 9, 1865, when "Lee handed Grant his sword" at Appomattox. Indeed, even in the wake of Fort Sumter, many enlistees had vowed to fight only "in defense of Virginia" or "my home state," and some even restricted their allegiances to "the loved ones who call upon me to defend their homes from pillage."

            The challenge of instilling new national loyalties in a population whose regional loyalties were in many cases still suspect loomed even more daunting because Confederate identity would have to be constructed on the fly. The delegates gathered in Montgomery in early February 1861  managed to draw up the constitutional and governing framework of the Confederate States of America in only five weeks, but in scarcely five more weeks, their brand new nation-state would be plunged into a war that many of them had persuaded their constituents--and perhaps even themselves--would never come.

Reluctant to acknowledge the hard truth of their own Vice-President Alexander Stephens's declaration that slavery was the fundamental "cornerstone" of their new nation's existence, Confederate propagandists were reduced to the none-too-compelling rationale that they were not actually repudiating the Union but seeking simply to restore what they saw as its founding principles of state sovereignty and federal restraint.  The Confederacy's identity and persona would thus be assembled from recycled components, largely appropriated from the nation its people had just abandoned and would soon be fighting. Not the least of these was a constitution that, save for a wrinkle or two, was basically a replica of the one that, until recently, Confederates had been swearing to honor and protect since 1789. Having co-opted the founding document of the nation they were leaving, they also seized on its founding father by placing a likeness of George Washington on the Great Seal of the Confederacy as well as on its currency, bonds, and postage stamps. Finally, in the "Stars and Bars," with its circle of white stars on a blue field surrounded by bands of red and white, the Confederates adopted a national flag whose pronounced resemblance to "the Stars and Stripes" quickly proved it unsuitable for the battlefield.  In view of all this symbolic copycatting, the number of southerners who actually continued to celebrate July 4th well into the hostilities seems a bit less surprising.

Although secessionist firebrands like Henry Lewis Benning had led their fellow southerners out of the Union under the banner of "state rights," their new government was actually no more a "confederacy"(and perhaps even less so) than their old one, but rather the "consolidated Republic" dominated by slaveholders that Benning had envisioned from the start. Even early on, when the military effort was going well, the exigencies of wartime demanded centralized control of production and distribution, leading quickly to complaints over shortages, inefficiency, and corruption.  Further inflamed by obstructionist politicians like Georgia's Joseph E. Brown, Confederate critics would grow exponentially more strident and intemperate as the tide of war turned.

            One enduring constant, however, was widespread public affection for the outmanned, under-supplied Confederate fighting men whose valor and resilience quickly commanded the enduring loyalty on the home front that the Confederacy as a political entity had failed to elicit. This shift in allegiance came through in the popular habit of displaying, not the national flag, but the starred St. Andrews Cross that had supplanted it on the battlefield, where, General P. G. T. Beauregard noted, it had been "consecrated by the best blood of our country." For all its inspirational value, however, the battle flag itself conveyed little sense of attachment, either to an unpopular government or to any cause other than military success.

Within days of Lee's surrender, poet-priest Father Abram Ryan immortalized that now "Conquered Banner," which, though furled at Appomattox, was "wreathed around with glory" and destined to "live on in song and story." Like General John B. Gordon's equally sentimental first-hand account of the striking of the colors that day and, for that matter, like the colors themselves, Ryan's weepy ode would be pressed into service repeatedly in the years to come in order to rally white southerners yet again to the defense of their racial institutions. This time, however, instead of the decidedly parochial, localist constituency that had confronted them in 1861, postbellum southern nationalists could draw on the experience and legacy of men who had not only fought shoulder to shoulder with comrades drawn from distant states but in many cases traversed a vast region inhabited by people whose lives and values seemed strikingly similar to their own. As a consequence, these men and their descendants, noted W. J. Cash in his 1941 classic, Mind of the South, were now more likely to respond to the word "southern" with an emotion once reserved solely for "Virginia, or Carolina, or Georgia." If strickly speaking, the birth of the South as what Cash called "an object of patriotism" had actually come somewhere in the course of a fierce, four-year "conflict with the Yankee," Warren would surely have been justified nonetheless in dating its confirmation to the ceremonial acknowledgement of the Confederacy's bitterly painful but ultimately unifying failure that, 150 years ago, marked this month at Appomattox.

Five days later , of course, Grant's commander-in-chief would be dead, a fact that further boosts the historic import of this particular April because it  seemingly impinges  so  heavily on the long- and short-term meaning and consequences of what happened at Appomattox, though not nearly so much, the OB submits, as the counterfactual scenario offered by James Thurber in "If Grant Had Been  Drinking at Appomattox:"

The soft thudding sound of horses' hooves came through the open window. Shultz hurriedly walked over and looked out. "Hoof steps," said Grant, with a curious chortle. "It is General Lee and his staff," said Shultz. "Show him in," said the General, taking another drink. "And see what the boys in the back room will have." Shultz walked smartly over to the door, opened it, saluted, and stood aside.

General Lee, dignified against the blue of the April sky, magnificent in his dress uniform, stood for a moment framed in the doorway. He walked in, followed by his staff. They bowed, and stood silent. General Grant stared at them. He only had one boot on and his jacket was unbuttoned.

"I know who you are," said Grant. "You're Robert Browning, the poet." "This is General Robert E. Lee," said one of his staff, coldly. "Oh," said Grant. "I thought he was Robert Browning. He certainly looks like Robert Browning. There was a poet for you. Lee: Browning. Did ya ever read 'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix'? 'Up Derek, to saddle, up Derek, away; up Dunder, up Blitzen, up, Prancer, up Dancer, up Bouncer, up Vixen, up -'".

"Shall we proceed at once to the matter in hand?" asked General Lee, his eyes disdainfully taking in the disordered room. "Some of the boys was wrassling here last night," explained Grant. "I threw Sherman, or some general a whole lot like Sherman. It was pretty dark." He handed a bottle of Scotch to the commanding officer of the Southern armies, who stood holding it, in amazement and discomfiture. "Get a glass, somebody," said Grant, .looking straight at General Longstreet. "Didn't I meet you at Cold Harbor?" he asked. General Longstreet did not answer.

"I should like to have this over with as soon as possible," said Lee. Grant looked vaguely at Shultz, who walked up close to him, frowning. "The surrender, sir, the surrender," said Corporal Shultz in a whisper. "Oh sure, sure," said Grant. He took another drink. "All right," he said. "Here we go." Slowly, sadly, he unbuckled his sword. Then he handed it to the astonished Lee. "There you are. General," said Grant. "We dam' near licked you. If I'd been feeling better we would of licked you."

NB: John Wilkes Booth was not exactly a tee-totaler, himself, as befits the only presidential assassin whose name adorns a cocktail. Makes you wonder what might have happened had he knocked back a few extra before proceeding to Ford's Theater the fateful evening of April 14, 1865.

THE NAMING GAME

One of the many undertakings that have kept the Ol' Bloviator away from these cozy confines of late was an effort to hack his way through a veritable genealogical jungle, an undertaking sometimes rendered all the more frustrating by the misleading trail markers left by genealogists intent on loading their family trees with as much high-end fruit as possible. This problem was particularly pertinent to the O.B.'s enterprise because it involved sorting out two strands of his own family. One of these was the prosperous and influential Cobbs of Athens, Georgia, (whose most notable figures, Howell and T.R.R. Cobb, played key roles in leading Georgia out of the Union in 1861) and the other, his branch, who settled about forty miles up the road in Hart County, where they embodied that class of whites that Populist Tom Watson called "the horny-handed sons of toil." In addition to dramatic disparities in wealth and lifestyle, one of the things the O.B. found most striking was that while his male forebears specialized in taking brides from the Smiths and the Sullivans; the Athens Cobb line offered union after union with the wealthy, powerful, near-dynastic clans of Ol' Virginny. Well before Howell Cobb and his younger brother T.R.R., a.k.a. Tom, ventured onto the sea of matrimony in the 1830s and 1840s, from their great-grandfather down through their father and uncles before them, their male forbears had made in-laws of some of the oldest and foremost families of the Old Dominion. Marrying oneself only to blood as least as good as your own, if not better, pretty much obligated you to advertise all those bonafides surging through your bloodline by giving your offspring first and middle names that flaunted these prestigious monikers. If you accompany the O.B. on a brief genealogical saunter, he will show you why the Athens Cobbs are a primary case in point. George Reade, who came to Virginia in 1640 and served on the Royal Council for the colony, begat Thomas Reade, whose daughter Mildred married wealthy land- and slave-holder Maj. Phillip Rootes. Their grandson, Thomas Reade Rootes became a prominent jurist and politico, whose spawn included Martha Jacquelin Rootes, who married Howell and Tom Cobb's uncle, Howell, and Sarah Robinson Rootes who married their father, John Addison Cobb. Needless to say, Howell and Tom eagerly embraced this "marry-up" legacy. As an aspiring jurist, Tom Cobb didn't exactly injure his prospects by his union with the daughter of soon-to-be state Supreme Court Justice Henry H. Lumpkin. Ditto and more so for Howell, who, whether by design or good fortune or most likely both, managed to win the affections of Mary Ann Lamar. Miss Lamar was not only strikingly attractive, but co-heir with her brother and Howell's college chum, John Basil Lamar, to her father's estate, which at his death in 1832, three years before she plighted her troth to Howell, included 220 slaves and more than 15,000 acres down in Baldwin and several adjacent Georgia counties.

Since, then as now, money also means never having to explain how your kid got his or her name, in this case the deadly combination of inbred wackiness and great wealth led to the grandiose likes of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar (Kind of makes Thomas Reade Rootes seem to roll easily off your tongue, doesn't it?), Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, Lavoisier LeGrand Lamar (At least, its alliterative.), and my personal favorite, Gazaway Bugg Lamar, which is actually at least in part a mash-up of family names, for the Virginia Buggs were entwined with both the Lamars (through the union of Basil Lamar and Patience Bugg) and the Cobbs (through the union of the aforesaid T. R. R.'s uncle, Henry Willis Cobb, and Obedience Dutiful Bugg). Given their surnames, it is probably safe to assume that the Bugg girls grew up with minimal exposure to feminist doctrine. (Preachy and stultifying as the naming practices of the Buggs may seem, they seemed positively light-hearted compared to those of the Puritans. There was ol' "Praise-God" Barebone, who hung "If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst- been-damned" Barebone on his son. Not without cause, the O.B. maintains, was H. L. Mencken so fond of saying "Show me a Puritan, and I'll Show You a Son-of-a-Bitch.")

   We rednecks have taken our unfair share of ridicule for our supposedly incestuous proclivities.  Jeff Foxworthy to the contrary notwithstanding, however, the squirearchy's  penchant for continually re-fortifying the family creds at the altar that actually made their reunions prime opportunities to check out cousins by the dozens, undeterred by the very real prospect that the flesh you craved might already be your own. Margaret Mitchell was not just 'whuffin' about Ashley and Melanie; the best calculations we have suggest that, among the South's wealthiest planter families, slightly more than one in ten marriages made husband and wife of a pair of cousins. Such unions could produce circumstances that were not infrequently awkward and sometimes just plain weird. In the case of Howell and Tom, consider that their mother's sister, Martha Jacquelin Rootes, was first married to their Uncle Howell and then to Henry Jackson. This latter union produced Henry Rootes Jackson, who once again kept it in the family by marrying his cousin, Tom Cobb's daughter, Sarah Addison, whose great-aunt suddenly became her mother-in-law as well. Elsewhere, my Athens Cobb kinsman, Milton Leathers, recounts an incident stemming from the marrying and, for want of a better term, inbred, naming habits of two historically prominent local families, the Billupses and the Phinizys. It seems a young Phinizy descendant was taking his date to visit his grandmother. As they approached the house, "Cudd'n" Milton reports, the boy cautioned his date that "my grandmother has a real funny name. She's Mrs. Billups Phinizy." Clearly startled, the young lady responded, "That is really amazing. Because MY grandmother is Mrs. Phinizy Billups!" 

Although the pattern of intermarriage among the South's self-styled aristocratic families might seem to evoke that Homer and Jethro classic, "I'm My Own Grandpa,"  these entwinements served to consolidate and concentrate wealth by assuring that, insofar as possible, capital flowed within a tightly interconnected circle. In our day and time, some of these folks may even have married themselves into an anti-trust suit. The same could be said of social and political pull, of course. Every time Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb affixed his signature to a document or letter, he was flashing his ancestral bling, courtesy of a name that evoked not one but two power-house Virginia families and thus conveyed an almost hereditary right to rule. The problem here was that the born-on-third-base types like Tom actually internalized the aura they sought to project, rendering them infallible and invincible in their own minds as well.  Brigadier General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb would be terminally disabused of this notion at Fredericksburg, in December 1862, by a minie` ball or piece of shrapnel that didn't give a damn about his bloodline but played hell with his blood flow. Having assured his fellow Georgians that secession would not even lead to war, much less to desolation and defeat, Tom Cobb had paid for his arrogance and presumption with his life. Unfortunately, however, by April 1865, the same could be said for roughly 750,000 of his fellow Americans.


(A somewhat briefer version of this piece appeared last week at TIME.COM on MLK Day, on which date, its author was actually giving a talk on Robert E. Lee to a wonderful audience at Washington & Lee. Go figure the odds on that. Confirmed masochists may view the video of the talk here, beginning about 19 minutes in.)


The Auburn Avenue neighborhood where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in January 1929 was both a spatial and human embodiment of Atlanta's paradoxical reputation for both strict racial segregation and black economic success. Noted journalist and renowned apostle of the "New South," Henry W. Grady, may have strained the credulity of his New York audience in 1886  when he insisted that he bore no resentment toward his beloved Atlanta's arch-nemesis, General William Tecumseh Sherman, but  Grady's claim that "from the ashes he left us... we have raised a brave and beautiful city" was more than the idle boast of a shameless booster. Atlanta's speedily restored railroad connections and postbellum emergence as the Southeast's principal trade and transportation hub all but assured its magnetic allure. By 1900 it was home to 90,000 people, more than a third of whom were black. A bloody race riot in 1906 left at least a dozen and quite likely more black Atlantans dead, yet--with the city's "Forward Atlanta," crusade for economic growth proceeding apace--the city's black population continued to swell. It stood at 90,000 by the time King was born into a well-established black middle class of merchants, lawyers, educators (the city boasted six private black colleges well before 1900) and ministers, concentrated in the city's West Side on and around Auburn Avenue, which a prominent resident once called "the richest Negro street in the world."

            If Atlanta had established a reputation as a relative mecca of upward mobility for black Georgians looking to better themselves materially, it had proven no less a font of opportunity for those of a more spiritual bent, including the infant King's father and maternal grandfather, both of whom had been born into sharecropping families in nearby rural counties. Martin (né Michael) Luther King, Sr., had arrived in Atlanta as an aspiring, though scarcely literate, young minister in 1918. His determined efforts to improve himself and his circumstances did not suffer in the least from his fortuitous marriage to Alberta Williams, whose own father's meager rural origins had not prevented him from building his small congregation into the powerful Ebenezer Baptist Church, where, upon his death in 1931, he would be succeeded in the pulpit by his son-in-law.

Growing up, the younger Martin's solidly middle-class background offered some insulation from brutalities of the Jim Crow system, but there were no guarantees. Scarcely a year after King was born, Dennis Hubert, a sophomore at Morehouse College and also the son of a prominent black minister, was brutally murdered for allegedly insulting two young white women. For all this atrocity said about the limitations of middle-class standing for the city's blacks, the young man's white killers were arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison, an outcome highly unlikely, to say the least, in any rural county anywhere in the state at that point.

            It was not surprising that a historian of that era found Atlanta "quite evidently not proud of Georgia" or that, across the state, all but a very few whites heartily reciprocated the sentiment. Indeed, this was the primary reason that Georgia's overwhelming rural legislative majority had taken formal action in 1917 to quarantine the capital city's insidious racial and political moderation. This was accomplished through the brazenly anti-urban artifice of the "county-unit" electoral system, which effectively guaranteed that the preferences of voters in Atlanta, population 270,000 in 1930, could be neutralized completely by those of voters in the state's three smallest counties, which had a combined population of scarcely 10,000.

This was a situation tailor-made for a rustic, race-baiting demagogue like Eugene Talmadge. Peppering his speeches with the "n-word," stonewalling efforts to improve the schools, and reveling in the impotent rebukes of "them lying Atlanta newspapers," Talmadge claimed the governorship for the first of four times in 1932. For all he might have done to impede progress across the state as a whole, however, Talmadge's impact on Atlanta itself was notably less severe. Despite the economic reversals of the Great Depression, the infusions of cash from a variety of New Deal programs had already paid off for Atlantans by the end of the 1930s, with a greatly expanded and modernized infrastructure and dramatic improvement in schools, hospitals and other public institutions.

The overpowering urge to show the world that Atlanta was back and better than ever was more than apparent in December 1939 when the film version of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind premiered at the Loew's Grand Theater. In keeping with the city's now well-known penchant for self-promotion, PR-savvy Mayor William B. Hartsfield spared no exertion to assure a glittery Hollywood presence for the event including, of course, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and the film's other white actors. Fearing repercussions from local whites, however, he extended no such hospitality to Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen or other black cast members. In the end, the only black participants of note in the entire affair were the members of the choir at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, including the son of its pastor. Just shy of his 10th birthday, Martin King sang along as, in keeping with the film's blatant racial stereotyping, the group, dressed as slaves, performed spirituals for an all-white audience at a Junior League charity gala.

King and Hartsfield would cross paths frequently in the years to come. Under Hartsfield's leadership, Atlanta would leave a racially fraught Birmingham, Ala., in its dust as it rode the crest of World War II economic expansion to undisputed preeminence as the South's most dynamic city. Steadily changing with the times, the popular and uber-connected Hartsfield would draw on his gift for orchestration again and again as he presided over the desegregation of downtown businesses and the city's tiny but notably uneventful first steps toward integrating its public schools. Meanwhile, returned to share Ebenezer's bully pulpit with his father, the younger Rev. King began to cast doubt on the mayor's vaunted claim that his city was "too busy to hate" by consistently pushing the envelope of social change further and faster than Hartsfield had envisioned. This not only made King a sometimes troublesome presence for the image-obsessed Hartsfield, but vice versa, as the mayor's moderating interventions in conflicts over King's protests may have forestalled some of the uglier racial confrontations that ultimately served King's purposes best.

Atlanta had found its breezy, boosterist persona in the artful and charming Hartsfield. It would be slower, however, to acknowledge as its conscience the 1964 Nobel Laureate who, the day after returning from Oslo, immediately antagonized the local business establishment by venturing scarcely two blocks from his church to join workers picketing for better wages at the city's Scripto Pen Company. Not surprisingly, Hartsfield joined his mayoral successor, Ivan Allen, Jr., in a frantic effort to persuade  key white business leaders whose feathers King had just ruffled that, lest the world see their city as reluctant to embrace its globally acclaimed native son, they must, however grudgingly, lend their high-profile presence to an upcoming gala celebrating his achievement. Sure enough, among the 1,500 people in attendance on the appointed evening were several members of the local business elite, including none other than James V. Carmichael, the president of Scripto Pen. Ironically, but surely fittingly as well, some 30 years later, his plant's remains would be bulldozed in order to provide parking for visitors to the city's Martin Luther King, Jr., Historic District.


(A somewhat briefer version of this piece appeared last week at TIME.COM on MLK Day, at which point, its author was giving a talk on Robert E. Lee to a wonderful audience at Washington & Lee. Go figure the odds on that. Confirmed masochists may view the video of the talk here, beginning about 19 minutes in.)


The Auburn Avenue neighborhood where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in January 1929 was both a spatial and human embodiment of Atlanta's paradoxical reputation for both strict racial segregation and black economic success. Noted journalist and renowned apostle of the "New South," Henry W. Grady, may have strained the credulity of his New York audience in 1886  when he insisted that he bore no resentment toward his beloved Atlanta's arch-nemesis, General William Tecumseh Sherman, but  Grady's claim that "from the ashes he left us... we have raised a brave and beautiful city" was more than the idle boast of a shameless booster. Atlanta's speedily restored railroad connections and postbellum emergence as the Southeast's principal trade and transportation hub all but assured its magnetic allure. By 1900 it was home to 90,000 people, more than a third of whom were black. A bloody race riot in 1906 left at least a dozen and quite likely more black Atlantans dead, yet--with the city's "Forward Atlanta," crusade for economic growth proceeding apace--the city's black population continued to swell. It stood at 90,000 by the time King was born into a well-established black middle class of merchants, lawyers, educators (the city boasted six private black colleges well before 1900) and ministers, concentrated in the city's West Side on and around Auburn Avenue, which a prominent resident once called "the richest Negro street in the world."

            If Atlanta had established a reputation as a relative mecca of upward mobility for black Georgians looking to better themselves materially, it had proven no less a font of opportunity for those of a more spiritual bent, including the infant King's father and maternal grandfather, both of whom had been born into sharecropping families in nearby rural counties. Martin (né Michael) Luther King, Sr., had arrived in Atlanta as an aspiring, though scarcely literate, young minister in 1918. His determined efforts to improve himself and his circumstances did not suffer in the least from his fortuitous marriage to Alberta Williams, whose own father's meager rural origins had not prevented him from building his small congregation into the powerful Ebenezer Baptist Church, where, upon his death in 1931, he would be succeeded in the pulpit by his son-in-law.

Growing up, the younger Martin's solidly middle-class background offered some insulation from brutalities of the Jim Crow system, but there were no guarantees. Scarcely a year after King was born, Dennis Hubert, a sophomore at Morehouse College and also the son of a prominent black minister, was brutally murdered for allegedly insulting two young white women. For all this atrocity said about the limitations of middle-class standing for the city's blacks, the young man's white killers were arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison, an outcome highly unlikely, to say the least, in any rural county anywhere in the state at that point.

            It was not surprising that a historian of that era found Atlanta "quite evidently not proud of Georgia" or that, across the state, all but a very few whites heartily reciprocated the sentiment. Indeed, this was the primary reason that Georgia's overwhelming rural legislative majority had taken formal action in 1917 to quarantine the capital city's insidious racial and political moderation. This was accomplished through the brazenly anti-urban artifice of the "county-unit" electoral system, which effectively guaranteed that the preferences of voters in Atlanta, population 270,000 in 1930, could be neutralized completely by those of voters in the state's three smallest counties, which had a combined population of scarcely 10,000.

This was a situation tailor-made for a rustic, race-baiting demagogue like Eugene Talmadge. Peppering his speeches with the "n-word," stonewalling efforts to improve the schools, and reveling in the impotent rebukes of "them lying Atlanta newspapers," Talmadge claimed the governorship for the first of four times in 1932. For all he might have done to impede progress across the state as a whole, however, Talmadge's impact on Atlanta itself was notably less severe. Despite the economic reversals of the Great Depression, the infusions of cash from a variety of New Deal programs had already paid off for Atlantans by the end of the 1930s, with a greatly expanded and modernized infrastructure and dramatic improvement in schools, hospitals and other public institutions.

The overpowering urge to show the world that Atlanta was back and better than ever was more than apparent in December 1939 when the film version of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind premiered at the Loew's Grand Theater. In keeping with the city's now well-known penchant for self-promotion, PR-savvy Mayor William B. Hartsfield spared no exertion to assure a glittery Hollywood presence for the event including, of course, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and the film's other white actors. Fearing repercussions from local whites, however, he extended no such hospitality to Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen or other black cast members. In the end, the only black participants of note in the entire affair were the members of the choir at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, including the son of its pastor. Just shy of his 10th birthday, Martin King sang along as, in keeping with the film's blatant racial stereotyping, the group, dressed as slaves, performed spirituals for an all-white audience at a Junior League charity gala.

King and Hartsfield would cross paths frequently in the years to come. Under Hartsfield's leadership, Atlanta would leave a racially fraught Birmingham, Ala., in its dust as it rode the crest of World War II economic expansion to undisputed preeminence as the South's most dynamic city. Steadily changing with the times, the popular and uber-connected Hartsfield would draw on his gift for orchestration again and again as he presided over the desegregation of downtown businesses and the city's tiny but notably uneventful first steps toward integrating its public schools. Meanwhile, returned to share Ebenezer's bully pulpit with his father, the younger Rev. King began to cast doubt on the mayor's vaunted claim that his city was "too busy to hate" by consistently pushing the envelope of social change further and faster than Hartsfield had envisioned. This not only made King a sometimes troublesome presence for the image-obsessed Hartsfield, but vice versa, as the mayor's moderating interventions in conflicts over King's protests may have forestalled some of the uglier racial confrontations that ultimately served King's purposes best.

Atlanta had found its breezy, boosterist persona in the artful and charming Hartsfield. It would be slower, however, to acknowledge as its conscience the 1964 Nobel Laureate who, the day after returning from Oslo, forfeited the acclaim of the local business establishment by venturing scarcely two blocks from his church to join workers picketing for better wages at the city's Scripto Pen Company. Not surprisingly, Hartsfield joined his mayoral successor, Ivan Allen, Jr., in a frantic effort to persuade  key white business leaders whose feathers King had just ruffled that, lest the world see their city as reluctant to embrace its globally acclaimed native son, they must lend their high-profile presence to an upcoming gala celebrating his achievement. Sure enough, among the 1,500 people in attendance that evening were several members of the local business elite, including none other than James V. Carmichael, the president of Scripto Pen. Ironically, but surely fittingly as well, some 30 years later, his plant's remains would be bulldozed in order to provide parking for visitors to the city's Martin Luther King, Jr., Historic District.

"Gone With the Wind": It's Not Too Late to Read the Book!

            The excitement and acclaim that greeted both the Peachtree and the Broadway premieres of producer David O. Selznick's adaptation of Gone With the Wind just before Christmas seventy-five years ago seems genuinely cringe-worthy today, after multiple indictments over recent years of Margaret Mitchell's novel as racist and historically distorted. Mitchell is clearly culpable on the first count, although by no means uniquely so, but latter-day critics who charge her with distorting history would be well advised to consider the history she had to work with and, in some aspects, even undertook to revise.

Released in mid-summer 1936, Mitchell's book had already sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone by January, 1937. Rather than disappoint a multitude of adoring readers poring obsessively over their favorite lines, the screen writers ultimately opted for scrupulous fidelity to Mitchell's text. Yet, the film's opening credits, introducing it as "Margaret Mitchell's Story of the Old South," were more applicable to its dialogue than to some of the actual meanings Mitchell meant to convey. This much was clear to Mitchell and her more thoughtful readers--even before the first scene--in the scrolled lines setting the story in "a land of Cavaliers and cotton " where "the Age of Chivalry took its last bow." Mitchell took great exception to this spin on her story that, she consistently maintained, was actually intended to insert some historical realism in an Old South narrative long shrouded in fluttery romanticism. "I certainly had no intention of writing about Cavaliers," she insisted, pointing out that "practically all my characters, except the Virginia Wilkeses, were of sturdy yeoman stock."

Mitchell's words certainly rang true in her depiction of prominent planter Gerald O'Hara as a semi-literate "bogtrotter" who fled his native Ireland under suspicion for the murder of an English rent collector. "Loud-mouthed and blustering," Mitchell's Gerald proceeds to parlay his facility at poker and his "steady head for whiskey" into ownership of a run-down plantation, and after marrying well above his own social station, he ultimately satisfies his "ruthless longing" for a respected place in planter society.

In the film, by contrast, the means of Gerald's socioeconomic ascent is never addressed, much less the more questionable aspects of his Irish background. Mitchell had also presented Tara as a "clumsy, sprawling" structure with a simple whitewashed brick exterior. The filmmakers, however, remained deaf to her several pleas for an "ugly, sprawling and columnless" O'Hara residence in keeping with typical plantation houses in a Georgia upcountry still not long removed from the frontier. Despite Mitchell's attempts to revise key aspects of both popular and scholarly myth, producer Selznick made it clear that he had no intention of poking holes in what remained a delightfully marketable plantation legend. Thus, Mitchell was left to conclude that she and a tiny cadre of southern historical realists might "write the truth about the antebellum South . . . until Gabriel blows his trump, and everyone would go on believing the Hollywood version."

In truth, the film did a little better in capturing Mitchell's disdain for the legend of the white South's heroic "Redemption" from Reconstruction by a resurgent planter aristocracy. After the war, her high-minded, genteel families like the Wilkeses flounder and fail, especially Ashley, who seemed wonderfully grand in the Old South but proves woefully inept in the New. Scarlett, meanwhile, summons the grit and gall that is her patrimony from the low-born Gerald, rising above her despair in the garden at Twelve Oaks and heading off to a rebuilding Atlanta, where there was "still plenty of money to be made by anyone who isn't afraid to work--or to grab."

Scarlett quickly proves that she is hesitant to do neither. Her "harsh contact with the red earth of Tara" has transformed her into a thoroughgoing economic realist who grimly concedes that the Yankees were right about at least one thing: "It took money to be a lady."  Ironically, her only means of feeling like a lady again was to "make money for herself, as men made money."

Suffice it to say, Mitchell's black characters reveal no such complexity or depth but remain steadfastly and stereotypically one-dimensional. Hence, the widespread perception today of her novel as nothing more than what one critic called "a racist, revisionist Southern apologetic" written by a wealthy white Atlanta debutante still embittered about the outcome of the Civil War. This facile exercise in regional stereotyping is unfortunate, to say the least, especially given the current anger and division nationwide over what appears to be a pattern of undifferentiated racial profiling by law enforcement, the courts, and let's face it, a lot of white citizens as well. Accordingly, Americans would do well to reconsider such conveniently narrow sectional pigeonholing of a book that was actually quite compatible with white racial attitudes, both popular and scholarly, prevailing nationally at the end of the 1930s and well beyond. Such a reconsideration might even mean that the next time an Eric Garner is killed by police outside the South, we could at least be spared the long since predictable, almost willfully naive reaction registered by a recent "Justice for All" protester who exclaimed, "This isn't the Deep South. This isn't Mississippi in the 1960s. This is New York City in 2014."

Novelist Pat Conroy has suggested that, for still-angry and defiant white southerners, Gone With the Wind amounted to "a clenched fist raised to the North." This is doubtless correct, but there is little evidence that many white northerners interpreted it this way at the time. Nor was there much indication that Mitchell's racist language and depictions were particularly offensive to whites outside the South in an early 1939 Gallup survey suggesting that some 14 million Americans had read her book in its first 30 months in print and positing a likely national audience of some 56.5 million viewers for the eagerly anticipated film based on it.

 If neither Mitchell nor the great balance of her national readership appeared to give much thought to the disturbing racial realities behind the seductive southern legend, the same could just as easily be said of a great many white academic historians, North and South. Mitchell was thoroughly conversant with the relevant (white) scholarship at her disposal, and her airbrushed portrait of slavery and casual indulgence in racial stereotypes are hardly at odds perceptions offered by two distinguished Ivy League historians in the most widely used collegiate U.S. history textbook of the day. "Sambo," they assured students, did not fare badly in bondage because, despite the horror stories served up by the uptight abolitionists, "the majority of the slaves were adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy."

Likewise, Scarlett's charge that emancipation "just ruined the darkies" fairly echoed the sentiments of Columbia University's profoundly influential historian of Reconstruction, William A. Dunning, who insisted that "the freedmen . . . could not for generations be on the same social, moral and intellectual plane with the whites." The sole aim of Dunning and his many students and disciples, charged W. E. B. Dubois, was "to prove that the South was right in Reconstruction, the North vengeful or deceived and the Negro stupid."

 Such biased and offensive treatments had already passed for scholarship far too long when they finally came under concentrated assault by black activists and educators during World War II. The blatant hypocrisy of a Jim Crow army fighting in defense of freedom and democracy abroad, as well as the greater economic and political empowerment that the war engendered, had borne fruit in a more insistent, unremitting resolve. African Americans must at last be granted the full measure of both their rights as citizens and the dignity and respect those rights conferred. Still, although white and black scholars alike would soon be undertaking dramatic revisions of historical interpretations of slavery as well as Reconstruction, not until 1960s would either the now-notorious "Sambo" passage be excised from the still-popular textbook or the racist and inaccurate Dunningite portrayal of Reconstruction meet with full-blown refutation.

Although Gone With The Wind consistently ranks second only to The Holy Bible as Americans' favorite book, a new Economist poll shows that only 20 percent of Americans have actually read it, while less than 30 percent of those under thirty have even seen the movie. These figures might strike some as positive rather than negative indicators, but there is a real sense in which all Americans, regardless of age, race, or region, would benefit from reading Mitchell's book for what it is, not simply as a white southerner's distorted defense of her region's uniquely horrific racial past, but as a strikingly clear window into a national past whose burdens confront them even today. Although it may fall short of being a great one, Gone With The Wind is--and always was--a thoroughly American novel.


P.S. This bloviation is a streamlined version of a piece posted over at likethedew.com.

P. P.S. The ol' Bloviator knows "Cobbloviate Heads" near and far will not feel as though Christmas is really here until they receive the traditional greetings of the season, courtesy of his faithful ol' pickup, which is still flashing away after 20 years and 100k+ miles. Merry Christmas to you all, and, as always, to the Techsters, who may still be celebrating their-once-in-a-blue moon victory with a "Blue Moon" (ugh!) or several about now, "Felice Bobby Dodd!"


            The Ol' Bloviator has not gotten so old that he doesn't recall ranting about the "get-drunk-party-till-you-puke-or-pass out-or-both" culture that dominates the student scene at far too many of our universities these days. Since this comprehensive report on the pathological potential of  booze-fueled fraternity life ran in The Atlantic a while back, outrageous accounts of massive alcohol abuse linked to deaths, physical injury and especially to sexual assault, have become standard fare in major newspapers and magazines. Despite individual and programmatic efforts by campus administrators to curb it, binge drinking appears to be a regular activity for four in ten of today's students. Recent data shows roughly 1,800 college students die each year from some sort of alcohol-related injury, and some 97,000 annually report sexual assaults where alcohol was a contributing factor.

Escalating concerns about rapes committed on and around campus took on even greater urgency after Rolling Stone's recent piece about this problem at no-less-storied an institution than "Mr. Jefferson's University" in Charlottesville, which was already under serious federal scrutiny for its inadequate handling of previous sexual assault charges. RS's report centered on "Jackie," a female student who claimed that she had been brutally gang-raped as a freshman after attending a party at the Phi Kappa Psi house in 2012 and that, while apparently sympathetic, university officials discouraged her from pursuing her claim or discussing the incident publicly and took no action against her accused assailants.

Skeptical of some of the details of Jackie's account, the Washington Post  and other media outlets opted for a little fact-checking on their own and are now reporting that certain of her claims about the identity of her alleged assailant and the place and date of the alleged assault could not be corroborated, Rolling Stone's representatives admit that they may have given Jackie too much benefit of the doubt and that they ran the story without securing comment from those she accused. Jackie continues to stand by her account, however, and her supporters point out that confusion about details is not uncommon among deeply traumatized victims of sexual assault. Still, this sorry and reckless excuse for journalism is certain to bolster the skepticism of those who think the prevalence sexual victimization on campus is overblown.

            For their part, however, UVA administrators, who responded to the initial RS article by clamping down hard on Phi Kappa Psi and other campus fraternities, have not leapt forward to claim vindication merely by virtue of the holes poked in Jackie's story as it was reported. Rather, in what may be a classic case of better late than never, they have reaffirmed their awareness that university has some serious  'splainin' to do where handling sexual assault charges is concerned. Thus quoth UVA prez Teresa Sullivan: "Over the past two weeks, our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today's news must not alter this focus. Here at U.Va., the safety of our students must continue to be our top priority, for all students, and especially for survivors of sexual assault."

This stance is, to say the least, prudent. Not only because of the federal investigators who continue to hover about, but because UVA's history in this area demands it. The university's "honor code," which not only forbids acts of academic dishonesty but demands that students report such acts by others, is a genuine point of pride among students, faculty, and alums. The thing is, however, although  183 students have been expelled for honor-code violations since 1998, there is no record of  a single matriculant having been expelled for sexual assault, including those who have admitted to it. Given the revelations of countless investigations and surveys of the incidence of sexual assaults on campus, a ratio of 183-0 would seem pretty hard to justify.

For all the questions about the details of Jackie's personal account, the RS piece nonetheless provides credible evidence of an entrenched social hierarchy whose exclusiveness not only discourages female students from filing claims of sexual assault but aggressively stigmatizes and marginalizes those who do. The OB has always wished that his own university could achieve a greater semblance of the powerful sense of academic purpose that pervades the UVA campus, and he still does. Secretly at least, he has also been taken with the notion as one student put it, "the most impressive person at UVA is the person who gets straight A's and goes to all the parties." The more he ponders the significance of such a student role model, however, the more the O.B. is forced to consider its full implications. What happens to all the kids bent on establishing their bonafides as both budding scholars and big-time drinkers when pursuing both goals proves mutually exclusive? Outfit yourself with the emotional maturity of an eighteen-year-old, even a very bright one, and venture a guess as to which aim is most likely to be compromised.

            All of the dangerous and potentially disastrous possibilities that arise when young people are put in a situation where they are free to choose beers over books (and most anything else) are brought home quite literally in this Chronicle of Higher Education story that shows our beloved Classic City virtually Dawg paddling in '"a river of booze.".As these things go, this piece seems reasonably balanced, notably more so than the RS expose on UVA. There are concerned people, like UGA Police Chief Jimmy Williamson and alcohol counseling specialist Liz Prince, who seem to be doing what they can to reduce underage drinking or excessive drinking in a downtown which offers 50 bars within a quarter of a mile of campus, as well as roughly that many more restaurants that also serve alcohol.

            Ironically, legend has it that Athens was chosen over nearby Watkinsville as the site for the nation's first state-chartered university because the latter was already home to a prospering tavern likely to corrupt the college lads. The writers trace Athens's history as  "a big booze town" to the 1980s when, with downtown businesses closing or migrating out to "mall-ville" and only a relatively few bars downtown, UGA officials began trying to cut down on drinking at frat houses, even issuing a ban on keggers. Fearful that downtown would continue hemorrhaging businesses to the 'burbs and eager to accommodate thirsty young collegians, municipal officials did not limit the number of bars or restaurants that started to pop up, especially after the city's music scene exploded. Despite credible efforts to make bar owners and bouncers more accountable, however, for local officials it all came down to, as one tavern-keeper put it, "they hate we're here, but they love the money." One reckons so, since Athens-Clarke County reportedly collects seven cents on the dollar for every mixed drink, in addition to a three-cent excise tax and a twenty-two-cent levy for every bottle of booze emptied. Needless to say, the proprietors of Athens's drinking establishments are not particularly opposed to making money either, and they scramble mightily to keep their places packed into the wee hours. To remain competitive, some bars resort to unannounced "specials" involving one-cent beers, free drinks for women, etc., all of which are spread instantly across a vast network of texters and tweeters leading, practically in the blinking of an already bloodshot eye, to wholesale migration of committed young boozers from one watering hole to another. And so it goes, until mandatory closing hours force them to disgorge their drunken denizens onto the streets of Athens, where the scene can easily turn from celebratory to scary in the drooping of an eyelid.

For example, a Chronicle writer looks on as UGA police discover a young man "lying on a public bench, at the end of a trail of vomit. He is unconscious; his front pocket gapes, a wallet falling partway out. An officer shakes him, and again, finally rousing him. 'How much,' the officer demands, 'have you had to drink?'" The kid's response of "Zero, Zero?" is needless to say, undermined by his present condition and circumstances; the trusty Breathalyzer simply confirms the obvious, and he is off to jail. "I can't just leave him on a bench with a citation in his pocket," Chief Williamson explains.  "A citation's not going to sober him up."

There is also the student who "has tripped and fallen after a night out and hit her head. Officers arrive to find Jacqueline, a nineteen-year-old with long, honey-colored hair, stretched out on the cold slab of a bus stop, surrounded by concerned friends. After falling she was unresponsive, for maybe thirty seconds, maybe a minute or two--no one seems quite clear--but long enough to prompt a call to 911. Now an egg-shaped welt has begun to swell next to her right eye, and her speech is slurred. Asked who is the president of the United States, she names her sorority president." (This is no laughing matter, of course, but the image of Barack Obama trying to bring a meeting of chatty Tri-Delts to order might well serve as a metaphor for his efforts with the Senate.) In this case, Jacqueline is bundled off to the ER,  but UGA's campus cops are reportedly making 900-1,000 underage drinking arrests a year, and although they have caught considerable flak for being too aggressive on this front, even casual observers of the early morning scene downtown will surely see this figure as indicative of a restrained approach.

It is hardly news that college students drink a lot and always have, but if you are using this to persuade yourself that there is nothing to be bothered about here, your head is buried not in sand, but concrete. As the writers note, "Average blood-alcohol levels in students stopped by the police have risen steadily--this year one blew a 0.33, more than four times the legal limit. With heavier drinking, the police now make drunk-driving arrests in midmorning, pulling over students on their way to class still intoxicated from the night before."

The O.B. has no reason to doubt this based on the number of students he has encountered in morning classes who show up smelling as if they just crawled out of a vat of Natty Light and proceed immediately to surrender themselves to the clutches of Morpheus in a head-thrown-back, mouth-wide-open-pose that seems de rigueur when sleeping off a world-class bender. It is hard to think of a more underweighted or unrepresentative stat than the 25 percent of college students who admit to academic difficulties brought on by alcohol abuse. If you could throw in those who don't even recognize this has happened and those who do but simply won't admit it, that number would doubtless shoot up dramatically.

We might well yammer back and forth forever about whether universities or law enforcement officials have done enough to try to curb student alcohol abuse without realizing that we are letting one critical group of culpables off scot free. Chief Williamson notes that the mother of the aforementioned young "Zero, Zero," who was found virtually insensate on a public bench, practically begging to be robbed and/or assaulted, did not take kindly to his arresting her innocent little boy. He is quick--and correct--to point out that, thanks to this kind of indulgent excuse for parenting, too many freshmen show up in Athens with a firmly established drinking habit as part of their baggage. Though he speaks to thousands of students a year about the dangers of excessive drinking, "How can I do something in five minutes," he asks, that their parents "couldn't do in 18 years?" The Chronicle writer adds that "too many parents have failed to talk to their children about responsible alcohol use. They've looked the other way. They've dismissed binge drinking and other risky behavior with, 'Kids will be kids.'" In reality, so thinks the O.B. anyway, they have actually done worse than that by trying to be kids along with their kids, succumbing to some nostalgia-blinded notion that it's OK to relive their own collegiate years through their children, as if the perils and pressures awaiting their college-bound offspring are no different than they were thirty years ago. The O.B was around back then, and, in outright defiance of fate, gravity, and public opinion,  he is still around today. He knows better, and if the Moms and Dads of today's collegians would drop the Peter Pan fantasy and face up to reality, they would, too. It's much easier, though, to abandon any pretense of trying seriously to discourage underage and/or excessive drinking, wink at fake I.D.s and reports of prodigious alcohol ingestion, and chuckle about Tara and Trey simply being chips off the old one-time champion chugger block. This may be a sure-fire way to endear yourselves to your kids but it's  also a no less certain means of putting them at greater risk. The O.B. has never been too keen about universities operating in loco parentis, but by golly, when the parents abdicate their responsibilities and go plumb loco themselves, a poor substitute seems better than none.



  






Electile Dysfunction

           Now that, for the time being at least, the last mud pie has been flung and the last stink bomb hurled, the Ol' Bloviator deems it safe to emerge from his bunker, where he was fully prepared to slurp down a cyanide capsule the very next time ol' Zig-Zag Zell talked up Michelle Nunn in one ad only to endorse Nathan (Double) Deal-er in the following one. In fact, the O.B. even dares at this point  to toss out a few little "drive-by" observations about this most recent demonstration of our state's chronic electile dysfunction.

The first is that a bunch of blindly optimistic liberals high on polling data churned out by everybody and his first cousin who happens to have a telephone and a calculator is a recipe for a resurrection that turns out to be a wake . We can go a long ways toward explaining how so many pollsters could be wrong about what unfolded in Georgia by allowing for the fact that their ranks are so swollen that they were probably surveying each other half the time. It seems that one presumed short cut to institutional legitimacy these days is opening up a brand new polling center. (Ask yourself if there was really ever any reason to suspect that a Quinnipiac University existed before there was a Quinnipiac poll. Didn't think so.)  As a result, you've got a bunch of pollsters who have so little experience and training in survey research that they not only don't know what they're doing, they don't even know why they are doing it. Things only get worse when you throw in a bunch of political media slugs who are no less addicted to "momentum shifts" than their counterparts who call football games. Recall how many times you have heard sportscasters seize on the fact that Vandy actually made two consecutive first downs at the end of the first half  as evidence that Bama will have a fight on their hands in the second, and you can better understand why some of the liberal persuasion in these parts were all prepared to really whoop it up when the Democratic governor- and senator-elects rode down Peachtree through a blizzard of tickertape in an open Mustang ragtop on loan from Barrack Obama. Beloved, as ol' Brother Dave Gardner would likely say, clear your heads of such foolishness. The demographers and survey researchers and assorted sunshine pumpers leaping to absurd conclusions may shout all they please that Georgia is getting "bluer" by the minute, but they would be a lot more accurate -and get a lot less attention, of course--if they described it as gradually "purpling" instead.

GeorgiaCountycorrectcrop.jpg

As a testament to that gradualism, that map yonder shows the 34 Georgia counties (in blue) carried by Barack Obama in 2008. These also account for all the counties carried in 2014 by Democratic senatorial candidate Michelle Nunn and gubernatorial aspirant Jason Carter, except for the two (in lighter blue), Henry (carried by both) and Wilkinson (carried by Carter). In many of the old Obama counties, the margin was razor thin to non-existent. Nunn battled to a flat-footed tie down in Baker, which Carter lost by 13 votes. The counties captured by Nunn and Carter include all those with black majorities, and, save for the little hotbed of sedition and free love that we Athenians call home, none of their remaining counties are less than 40% black. Black ballots were clearly very much a factor in about the only good news to come out of this otherwise disastrous election for the Democrats, the breakthrough in Henry County, where the black population share has now grown to 40 %. Mitt Romney managed a 3,000-vote win there two years ago, but both Nunn and Carter squoze by this time with about 400 votes to spare.

However pleased Democrats may be to see some apparent movement in their direction in Henry, things were at an almost dead calm in the six additional metro counties that have gone Democratic in the last two presidential elections. Nunn and Carter ran within a point of Obama's percentages in 2012 in all of them. Obama gobbled up about 98% of the black vote statewide in that contest, compared to 92% for Nunn and 89% for Carter this year. As always for Democrats in these parts, however, the problem was not with the black support. Exit polls show Nunn and Carter receiving but 23% of the total white vote, precisely the share apparently claimed by Obama in 2012.

 It might be worth noting that there was something of a departure from recent precedent along gender lines among whites this time out. In recent years, the gap between the voting preferences of white women and white men in the South has been negligible, and, if anything, enthusiasm for the Repubs was slightly higher among the former.  The eight-point advantage Nunn enjoyed among white women as opposed to white men in this election might simply be ascribed to gender loyalty, were it not for the nine-point male-female differential favoring Carter. As with most such shifts in voter behavior, we won't know what, if anything, this one means until it's election time again.

One thing we definitely know hasn't changed is the rock-hard resistance of working class  white southerners to any and all Democratic entreaties and advances. Five majority white counties showed average weekly wages below $500 in 2012. Sure enough, that sweat-shoppin' outsourcin' son of a gun, David Perdue, carried all of them resoundingly, three of them by more than 80%. In fact, ol' down-sizin' Dave actually ran a teency bit stronger with whites making less than thirty grand a year than among those knocking down more than a hundred.

It is no less striking, of course,  that white Georgians would re-elect a governor who, by all rights, should be stamping out license plates, instead of signing bills into law. One thing is clear, both Carter's and Nunn's disappointing showings demonstrate that political coattails go threadbare in a hurry once nobody is actually wearing the coat itself.

            There was a time when moderates could sell themselves as more conservative than they were, as Jason' grandpa did in 1970, when he managed to pull in enough Wallace and even Maddox voters with a bunch of jawboning against busing and government social programs to whup that liberal elitist Carl Sanders in the Demo Primary and breeze into the governor's mansion past hapless Hal Suit, the nominee of a bunch of equally hapless Georgia Republicans. Not so today, however. The Republicans are firmly ensconced at the top of the political pyramid, and there is absolutely no chance of their letting you con voters into thinking you are anywhere near as conservative as they are. Still, to varying degrees, both Carter and Nunn were ultimately reduced to employing what amounts to the "I'm-more-like-my-opponent-than-you -think" strategy, and their altogether predictable failure simply affirms that if you're running against a Baptist preacher, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" just doesn't cut it as a campaign theme.

(The data cited above was drawn almost exclusively from CNN Election Central. Any errors you detect are almost certainly theirs. A somewhat briefer version of this rant will show up in honest-to-God ink this week in America's favorite indie, The Flagpole.)

 

Bloviate:

"To orate verbosely and windily."

Bloviate is most closely associated with President Warren G. Harding, who used it frequently and was given to long winded speeches. H.L. Mencken said of Harding:

"He writes the worst English that I've ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the top most pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

Cobbloviate dedicates itself to maintaining the high standards established by President Harding and described so eloquently by Mr. Mencken. However,the bloviations recorded here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the mangement of Flagpole.com,nor,for that matter, are they very likely to be in accord with those of any sane, right-thinking individual or group anywhere in the known universe.

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