William Henry Harrison Gets Raw Deal

February 17, 2009

C-SPAN (for some reason) has come out with the results of its second Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership, “in which a cross-section of 65 presidential historians ranked the 42 former occupants of the White House on ten attributes of leadership.”

A “cross-section” of whom would be an operative question.  But let’s for the moment assume C-SPAN isn’t a network that features every right-wing historian who’s published anything longer than his full name, and take the list seriously.

On the list of 42 presidents, Richard Nixon was 27th, and he was impeached (technically, he  quit in the process of impeachment, but still.)

George Bush is 36,  below Hoover (ok there) but 2 above Warren G Harding.  Now Harding was an adulterer with illegitimate children and a drinking problem, so he’s much easier to relate to than Bush.  Harding’s major crime was the Teapot Dome scandal, where the government sold oil leases in a sweetheart deal with big oil.  So let’s get this straight: No attacks against the country, no entanglement in two hopeless wars, no violations of the Contitution, no growth in the power of the Presidency, and no worldwide economic depression — and he’s worse than Bush?  C’mon, 8 billion dollars completely disappeared in Iraq, and that isn’t even on Bush’s list!  There are Assistant Secretaries who gave away more money to private industry than Harding’s entire administration  So that’s not fair.

And defending Harding’s position based on his ignorance, stupidity, bad management or lassitude clearly won’t cut it.

Franklin Pierce is similarly a piker.  After all, his biggest claim to shame is being a direct antecedent to George Bush’s mother.

Far worse than Harding’s position is the outrage done to William Henry Harrison.  What makes Harrison one of our worse presidents?  He died about a month into office.  What crimes did he commit?  How did he make America a worse place?

He didn’t.  He was, in fact, impactless — you would think he should be 21st president, dead center, neither positive nor negative.

We can only hope that as the depression deepens, W will have a more accurate listing, and poor Mr. Harrison will get the neutral opinion he so richly deserves.

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Well, Yes

January 13, 2009

From a major Canadian newspaper:

If it is true, as Samuel Johnson once remarked, that “the chief glory of every people arises from its authors,” then the results of a Harris/Decima Research poll conducted on behalf of Heritage Canada are very disturbing. Half the people interviewed could not name a single Canadian author, living or dead.

Whose fault is this? Canadian authors, for not creating more world-shaking masterpieces, or Canadians in general, for being such ignorant philistines?

Well, yes.


Revolutionary Road Not Taken

December 8, 2008

Just when millions of people are losing their homes comes Revolutionary Road, a new Sam Mendes movie about the emptiness of the suburban dream.  The movie is in an unfortunate juxtaposition with history.  According to the film, the suburban dream is rife with adultery, abortion and insanity.

Granted, this may not be news to anyone with a television, but the movie posits this as revelation. I suppose the source material should be blamed, but Richard Yates wrote the novel of the same name in 1961, when a daring expose of suburban anomie was, if not prescient, at least,  interesting.

Tragically, with the movie being released during a new depression, it can only be seen as a hip putdown of the people who are desperately struggling to maintain a suburban living standard — or even just trying to keep the damn house.

Despite the movie, and the previous decades of revelations of suburban depravity, I think we will soon look back on the suburbs with nostalgia and no little envy.  The suburban period of American history — say, 1950 to 2007 — will be remembered as the golden age of the American middle class, a time when there were rising living standards, lots of inexpensive real estate, abundant energy, and a more equitable distribution of wealth.

We may never see such a time again.


The eBook Has Arrived

November 13, 2008

For a decade, the book publishing industry has been waiting to be chewed up and spit out by the digital beast.  Although the internet has significantly impacted how books are distributed and sold, nothing had changed the book as a medium — until now.

A recent article in the Times combines three signature events.  The first is  Google making a deal with writers and publishers over their Book Search project, which will result in the digitization and easy access of literally millions of books online (many if not most of them out of print).

The second is the (relative) success of Amazon’s Kindle.  The Kindle interface is still a kludge, but it’s standalone, wireless connection to Amazon via the internet to download books, magazines — even the daily paper — is positively elegant.

The third is the ubiquity of bookreading software for the iPhone, particularly in Japan.

eHeads are still waiting for Apple to do for books what they’ve done for music.  If such an event came to pass, the ebook market would explode.  Alternatively, Kindle, or Sony, which also has an ebook reader, could combine the Kindle’s ease of connectivity with the iPhone’s ergonomic wit, to create a book technology killer.

For publishers, print is so expensive to produce, distribute and market, they should cheer the devouring of their near 600-year-old technology by the beast.  But it’s very hard to reinvent industries from the inside, or even just to be excited by the prospect of a fresh start.