Archive for the 'History' Category

Bush 41: Pragmatic, civil and stately

The year was 1988. The setting was Mrs. Walton’s sixth grade Social Studies class. The conflict was a debate between a long-forgotten Dukakis / Bentsen supporter and me, the class’ Bush / Quayle surrogate.

As an eleven-year-old, I followed the 1988 presidential campaign like a hawk, clipping newspaper stories and creating my own election scrapbook.

My grandfather drove me in his roller skate of a Mazda 323 to the local Republican headquarters. There, I stocked up on Bush / Quayle yard signs, buttons and bumper stickers.

I was ready for the big debate.

My suburban middle Tennessee county was sufficiently conservative, so I would really need to flop not to win.

In addition to my policy points, I had my jokes lined up. This was sixth grade, after all. Not everyone followed politics as closely as I, much to my surprise.

“What does an old car sound like when it can’t get going?” I asked. “Dukakis, Dukakis, Dukakis.”

George Herbert Walker Bush rode to victory that year on the back of his predecessor’s legacy, his wife’s wit and his vice president’s good looks.

During his time in office, he served the nation with strength, resisting both an Iraqi dictator and a ballooning government. Bush was rightly concerned about federal overspending, especially with an overseas war pending.

In a 1990 budget deal with a Democrat-controlled Congress, Bush agreed to raise certain tax rates which contradicted his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge from 1988.

Ironically, the deal reduced government spending significantly and instituted a pay-as-you-go (“PAYGO”) rule requiring new spending or tax cuts be offset by spending cuts or tax increases.

It created the framework for a balanced budget in 1997 and several budget surpluses in the years that followed.

Robert Reischauer, director of the Congressional Budget Office at the time, called the 1990 budget “the foundation upon which the surpluses of the 1998 to 2001 period were built.”

Bush’s willingness to compromise in order to make some progress arguably cost him his job in 1992 when a silver-tongued southern governor made him pay for breaking his tax pledge.

A remarkable quality of our 41st president was that he did not hold a grudge. He supported his successor and even partnered with him on charitable missions in their years out of office.

While Bush took his surprise 1992 election defeat quite personally, he quickly rose above the fray, leaving a handwritten letter in the Oval Office for the newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton.

“You will be our President when you read this note,” he said, “I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

That, friends, is class and grace and perspective like we’ve never needed more.

Bush moved on with his life… to Astros games and skydiving and watching his children and grandchildren reach the highest levels not of power, but of service.

Scripture says you will know a man by his fruit. Regardless of your political agreement with 41 and his offspring, you cannot argue their high moral character.

Our nation lost an honorable man Friday. We should follow in his civil and stately footsteps.

 

Kevin Thompson writes regularly for The Boerne Star. He can be reached at kevin@kwt.info.

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What Reagan might say about the caravan

Outgoing leaders often save their best for last. In quiet reflection on their years of service, they concretize what matters most in their final addresses to those they led.

The superfluous, the peripheral and the minor take a backseat. What the leaders really believe comes forth.

President George Washington’s farewell address in 1796, with its warnings against political parties, is one example. President Ronald Reagan’s final address in 1989 is another.

Reagan knew when to stand up to bullies and when to let down his guard. Reagan challenged heavy taxes, big government, and communism. He also disarmed his political opponents with wit and respect.

At the conclusion of his farewell address to America, Reagan spent several minutes clarifying a concept to which he had long referred: pilgrim John Winthrop’s description of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a city upon a hill.”

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it,” Reagan said.

“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.

“And if there had to be city walls,” Reagan continued, “the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

Reagan concluded that America is “still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Today, a caravan of central Americans waits at our southern border. Having travelled thousands of miles, many on foot, these sojourners clearly had “the will and the heart to get here,” as Reagan said.

Many of the caravaners started in Honduras, a country marked by poverty and crime. My sense is a vast majority of these people have good intentions. They are not criminals looking for easy prey. Evil doesn’t flee from evil.

They’re coming for opportunity, for freedom, for the best America has to offer. If they could have come with proper papers through an efficient, legal and understandable pathway, they would have.

Three years before his final address, Reagan had signed an immigration reform law that legalized more than 3 million undocumented immigrants who were living in the United States. He was likely thinking of these people as he put flesh on his vision of America in his farewell message.

He may have also been thinking about economics. He knew vibrant economies need expanding workforces. They need substantial labor to expand infrastructure, make manufacturing competitive and keep services affordable.

If the Gipper were alive today, I think he would say, “Welcome the pilgrims. America can effectively incorporate them into its democracy and into its economy. It has many times over for more than two centuries.”

And if Reagan were to give us a one liner about immigration, I think it would be this:

“Don’t just talk about the walls. Talk about the doors.”

The secret to Lincoln’s greatness

Last month marked the 150th anniversary of the death of President Abraham Lincoln. As John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger that fateful night, Lincoln’s bodyguard drank whiskey in a saloon across the street. It happened on a Friday, Good Friday.

Only six days had passed since the South surrendered, ending the four-year-long Civil War. The City of Washington and half the nation celebrated. The whole nation mourned its losses. All the while Booth changed his plans from kidnapping to killing.

Lincoln always knew his end might come this way. After his election in 1860, Lincoln traveled a somewhat circuitous route to his first inauguration. From Illinois, he journeyed across the Midwest, up through New York and down the Atlantic coast.

On a stop at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he made a brief speech about his commitment to the ideas that came to life there four score and five years prior.

The Declaration of Independence, he said, “gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world for all future time… But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

Abraham Lincoln was prepared to live or die on Liberty Hill.

“I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by and, if it be the pleasure of the Almighty God, die by.”

Lincoln believed the principles that sprang forth from Philadelphia in 1776 had the power to change a country, a continent and the world. He was willing to defend them to the death. While the South considered the Civil War an act of northern aggression, Lincoln held a different perspective.

“There will be no bloodshed unless it is forced upon the (U.S.) government, and then it will be compelled to act in self-defense.”

As we know, there was in fact bloodshed and no shortage of it. Seven hundred and fifty thousand men fought and died for their concept of liberty. At each death count,Lincoln was surely tempted to call off the carnage, bring home the troops and resign himself to the coexistence of two nations. He never did.

Lincoln’s greatness stood on this: He knew when to set loose and he knew when to bind up. He set free the slaves and then bound up a torn nation. For the emancipation to live, he knew the division must die.

Through the force of his resolve and the sacrifices of his men, he saw, for six short days, a nation reunited.

After his death, Lincoln’s body backtracked by train to Illinois following roughly the same route by which he came to the presidency. The exhumed remains of WillieLincoln, Abraham’s son who died of typhoid fever three years earlier, joined him on the journey. Like those he had led through the valley of death, Lincoln was no stranger to loss.

By day, open casket viewings of Lincoln’s body drew hundreds of thousands. By night, millions of mourners lined the tracks to pay their respects amidst a bonfire’s glow.

Abraham Lincoln died on Good Friday. In his wake arose a nation more free and more resolved that, in his own words, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Follow Kevin Thompson at http://www.kwt.info.

When ambition becomes ambiguous

Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” profiles the political brilliance of Abraham Lincoln. In the book she references a French aristocrat who visited a burgeoning America in 1831.

Alexis de Tocqueville was sent on a royal mission to examine America’s prisons. But after touring the United States for two years, he published a broader work in 1835 entitled “Democracy in America.” Its insights are timeless and its warnings are timely.

As Goodwin notes, Tocqueville captures the spirit of the age in which Lincoln and his contemporaries rose to leadership. As children of the American experiment, these men recognized the experiment’s distinction from European aristocracy and its value for social mobility.

Tocqueville writes:

“When both the privileges and the disqualifications of class have been abolished and men have shattered the bonds which once held them immobile, the idea of progress comes naturally into each man’s mind.

“Ambition becomes a universal feeling… Every American is eaten up with a longing to rise.”

Lurching forward 175 years: Is ambition a universal feeling in America today? Does every American have a longing to rise?

A handful of factors makes me think not.

First, the post-modern culture ridicules ambition. Take the latest McDonald’s commercial in which a high school freshman scans extra-curricular options: debate team, math team, chess team and then this innovation: “The Chill Out with a McCafe Iced Coffee Team.”

Two less-than-eager team members lure recruits by leaning coolly back in their chairs and sipping on sugary, caffeinated bevs.

Second, the consumer culture levies high finance costs. Consumer lusts leverage future income and limit financial flexibility. Committing tomorrow’s money today makes the present look brighter than the future. It’s tough to see the way up when one is paying the minimum $86 payment on a $8,000 credit card balance.

Third, government benefits neutralize ambition. When taxing authorities provide more and more goods and services, people get complacent. When basics are met apart from a person’s hard work and determination, it zaps his/her drive to ascend. Poor decisions then beget poor decisions.

Fourth, government regulation postpones or eliminates the rewards of ambition. When a business owner has to spend more time complying with laws and regs, the payoff of risk-taking makes less sense. Heavy government intrusion squelches the drivers of growth and mobility, namely, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Fifth, relational inadequacies are growing. In Lincoln’s day, young people served as apprentices and proteges. They built the trust of older generations. They needed these connections in order to survive and they wanted them in order to advance.

Today, TV, movies, video games and Internet browsing often interrupt relationship-building. They can diminish ambition. Very little of modern media is productive or creative. Most is consumptive and reactive.

Not everyone is made to be an entrepreneur. However, everyone is made to create in some way. Media consumption crowds out creativity, and, without creativity, there is no ambition.

Elsewhere in “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville warns against a democracy of unambitious citizens.

In their ignorance and materialism, they are susceptible to a despotic government that “does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born.”

 

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star. Follow him online at www.kwt.info.

Remembering Operation Overlord

“I know the sorrow this message has brought you and it is my hope that in time the knowledge of [his] heroic service to his country, even unto death, may be of sustaining comfort to you.”

A half day of heroism seventy years ago today put that sentence in 2,500 heart-wrenching War Department letters to wives and mothers across our great country. Nearly two thousand families in Britain and Canada received similar missives.

June 6, 2014, marks the seventieth anniversary of Operation Overlord, more commonly known as D-Day.

Men died in many ways on and before D-Day. Some fell during cliff-climbing exercises on the southern coast of England in the weeks leading up to the invasion. Others died early that morning parachuting in behind enemy lines.

Offshore, heavily armored “swimming tanks” sank. According to one soldier, “Them poor guys, they died like sardines in a can, they did. They never had a chance.”

Then there were the courageous souls aboard the flat-bottomed boats. The watercrafts, designed by Louisiana entrepreneur Andrew Jackson Higgins, were invented to save Mississippi River flood victims. As their ramp doors lowered off the coast of Normandy, the boats did anything but save.

Infantrymen, many grossly seasick from the choppy ride across the English Channel, hopped into frigid, waist-deep water under ominous overcast skies. German machine gun, mortar and artillery fire welcomed them into the water and onto the shore.

“There were bodies floating around, no end of them,” one survivor recounted.

Another remembered, “You couldn’t lay your hand down without touching a body. You had to weave your way over top of the corpses.”

Lt. Col. William Friedman: “Rank had nothing to do with anything on that beach… Not by unit, not by role, everybody individually…did what they had to do… [Men] started yelling, God*****, get up, move in. You’re gonna die anyway, move in and die!”

Void of self, many moved in and died. God rest their souls.

A comrade recalled the scene: “I walked by, oh God, the guys that died that day — all those beautiful, wonderful friends of mine, the day before, the night before, kidding and joking.”

Why did so many have to die?

In short, so that 130,000 infantrymen and 20,000 airborne troops could land safely after them.

In medium, so that a continent could be liberated from a madman.

And, in long, so that you and I could have the freedom to say, write and do what we want.

Lt. Gordon Osland of Michigan was one hero who fell that day. Three days earlier, he had written to his pregnant wife for a final time. He describe her as Sweetheart, Darling, Honey, precious and beautiful. He acknowledged the mission before him but seemed not overwhelmed by it. “I am very calm and not the least bit nervous.”

In a P.S., he asked for her help on one matter: “If anything should happen to me, please pay H.J. the $25 I owe him.” An odd request given the weight of the moment, but also an inside look into a soldier’s honor.

Maybe H.J. stood by her side when the Adjutant General’s letter came two weeks later. I’m quite confident he at least considered the debt paid in full – paid not by U.S. currency but by the blood of a patriot on a beach called Omaha.

 

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at www.kwt.info.


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