Tag Archives: presidents

the day after (54/99)

Summer Sky (2)

freaky looking summer sky outside our house. photo by me, taken july 10, 2013

When I was in 9th grade, our homework assignment for November 20, 1983 was to watch the ABC TV movie “The Day After.”

For those who don’t remember the early 80’s or the controversy this particular movie caused, suffice it to say that it created a shitstorm.  Parents were outraged at the prospect of their 14-year-old children watching a movie about nuclear war; today, the backlash seems positively quaint. I seem to remember an alternative assignment being offered for those who were forbidden to see it, myself among them. (Correct me if I’m wrong, high school classmates who have better memories than I do.)

And I remember going to school the next day, a Monday, and seeing the terrified and shaken faces of my classmates who watched “The Day After.”  I guess that’s to be expected when you’ve just seen a coming attraction of how the world would end.

I mention all this because after watching Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at last night’s Republican National Convention, and waking up feeling so empty and defeated this morning, I realized there was something oddly familiar. If this is bad, I thought, imagine how horrible November 9 and January 20 will be. The days after. It will feel like we’re watching the end of the world.

One of the things that was so frightening about “The Day After” was that it seemed so real. Again, I didn’t watch it — never have — but from what I remember then and now, it was plausible.  So realistic. This could actually happen IN OUR LIFETIMES. You have to put into context the times, I guess. We were living in a Reagan presidency and “Star Wars” was more than just a movie.

Now it’s decades later, and the threat of our way of life changing dramatically or even ending altogether looks quite like the reality show this election has become. And yes, there’s lots to poke fun at and laugh about and salivate over like the gluttonous, obscene, morally and culturally bankrupt creatures we are.

But the presidency of the United States of America isn’t a reality show or a made-for-TV movie. And when you get right down to it, that’s exactly why there’s a very strong possibility that Donald Trump could win this thing.  He’s a master of combining fear-mongering and showmanship, and he knows how to package it into something we can’t resist. If there’s anything that Americans crave, it’s the need to be entertained.  Constantly. When presented with someone who’s a snarling doppelganger of Heat Miser, who has no compunction about touching his own daughter quite inappropriately (this really needed to be more of a national story today, for real), the glitz and entertainment factor will always win. We eat this shit up and this gluttony, combined with our complacency, has the very real possibility of giving us more than a bad case of indigestion.

That sick, sinking feeling of terror, hopelessness and despair is not something I want to experience on November 9 or January 20.

Or any of the days after.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #54 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.



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A Few Book Reviews by The Husband (25/99)

I’m not the only one who writes book reviews in this house.  All of The Husband’s reading is history-related nonfiction and presidential biographies, and he’s been churning out quite a few longform-style reviews on his blog.

Since I’m at a work event this evening and he’s holding down the homefront, it’s more than apropos for his words to take over the blog tonight, too.

Here are some of his recent reviews:

Five Presidents

Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford by Clint HIll 

The First Congress

The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government by Fergus M. Bordewich

Prisoners of Hope

Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, The Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism by Randall Woods 

This is post #25 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project (We’re a quarter of the way there!)

99 Days of Summer Blogging

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Book Review: Reagan: The Life, by H.W. Brands (a guest post by The Husband)

ReaganThe Husband has started writing a bit again (thank you God) and is allowing me to share his book reviews with you. 

Without further ado, I give you The Husband’s words about Reagan: The Life, by H.W. Brands. 

As a history aficionado, there is something special about reading about a period of time in history during which you first learned of the events by opening the newspaper – that is, about a time in history that you lived through.  This is not possible, for instance, when reading about Lincoln and the various tragedies he dealt with during the Civil War. For those of my increasingly-advancing age, however, it is possible when reading a biography of President Ronald Reagan. The most recent such effort is from H.W. Brands, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin.

The book is 737 pages, so bring a snack. Brands does a wonderful job of translating the enigmatic Reagan into a flesh and blood human being with strengths and flaws.  This is no easy task.  People tend to view Reagan either as a deity or, well, as the opposite of a deity. Brands makes ample use of Reagan’s own diaries, which are an invaluable resource to historians.  Unfortunately, because of the onset of Alzheimer’s, they also proved a resource for Reagan himself in recalling things that were slowly disappearing from his accessible memory.

Perhaps the central theme or thesis of Brands is a bit Freudian: because of his alcoholic father, Reagan spent his entire life conveying an eternal optimism [to counter the reality of what he came home to as a boy when his father had been drinking] that made him irresistible to tens of millions of Americans. Unfortunately, Brands argues, that eternal optimism led to a resistance on his part to dealing with unpleasant realities [think Iran-Contra] that nearly ended his presidency.  Indeed, it was only because enough people refused to believe that Reagan was lying about knowing that money from arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the Contras in Nicaragua that Reagan wasn’t impeached.

The first 238 pages of Brands’ tome deal with Reagan’s life prior to his 1980 run for the White House. It’s a good primer on how ‘Reagan became Reagan’. One area of particular note is the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the effect FDR had on Reagan. Those not familiar with the 40th president are often shocked to learn the reverence with which Reagan held FDR. It’s important to remember, though, that for the first half of his long life, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat. And, like all Americans living through it, the Great Depression left indelible impressions on Reagan. And how FDR tackled the Depression meant a great deal to Reagan – even if he came to believe that government was the problem, not the answer.

This seemingly contradictory hero-worship of FDR is just one of the many conundrums faced by students of Reagan. While he praised FDR for his leadership and his compassion, when Lyndon Johnson sought to extend the New Deal 30 years later – just as Reagan was preparing to run for Governor of California – Reagan castigated LBJ and the Great Society. The famous line Reagan used when someone asked him why he left the Democratic party was, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party – the Democratic Party left me.”

As for Reagan the president, Brands makes a strong argument for something I’ve believed for some time: Ronald Reagan was not an empty-headed performer repeating well-scripted lines. Certainly by the end of his presidency there were moments when that is exactly what he had become. But that was because of illness. Although Nancy Reagan cites a fall in 1989 as the beginning of Reagan’s Alzheimer’s, I’ve always believed that – in the last two years of his Presidency – Reagan was in the early stages of the disease. That, when he told various investigators, “I just don’t remember” something pertaining to Iran-Contra, that he really didn’t.  He was still aware enough, though, to know that he could have checked his diaries to find some of those answers – and Reagan never mentioned the diaries until after he’d left office. For his first six years in office, however, Reagan was a heavily engaged chief executive.  Certainly not the micro-manager his predecessor had been [indeed, Brands argues that had Reagan been more like President Jimmy Carter, Iran-Contra would have never happened]; but someone who was leading his Administration’s policies, not merely mouthing the words.

Because I don’t want to write a 700-page book review, here are a few snippets from some of the seminal events of the Reagan presidency and how Brands treats them:

1) Assassination Attempt -Here, Brands drops the ball. He does not delve into enough detail regarding the seriousness of Reagan’s injuries – namely, how close to death Reagan truly came. The fact is, a delay of even five minutes in getting Reagan to the emergency room would have meant the presidency of George H.W. Bush would’ve begun nearly eight years earlier than it did. Brands does do a fine job of detailing Nancy Reagan’s trauma and the long-term effects Reagan’s brush with death had on her and how she worried about her husband. It also introduced astrologer Joan Quigley into the nation’s life. From the assassination attempt to the end of his life, Nancy Reagan relied heavily on Quigley – to a level that not even President Reagan knew – in influencing Reagan’s calendar of events.  This stemmed from Quigley’s claim to Nancy Reagan that – had she been consulted – she could have told Reagan not to travel on March 30, 1981.

2) Air Traffic Controllers – One of the reasons why the air traffic controllers were fired is they didn’t believe Reagan when – on August 3, 1981 – he told the press clearly that he would fire any controller who did not return to his/her job by August 5th. Most of the members of PATCO [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] thought Reagan was posturing. This was a fatal error. One of Reagan’s heroes – in addition to FDR – was Calvin Coolidge. As governor of Massachusetts in 1919, Coolidge had won national acclaim for firing striking police in Boston.  Indeed, it was that action that was the largest contributor to Coolidge being named to the Republican ticket with Warren Harding one year later. Like Coolidge, Reagan did not believe the controllers had a right to strike. For Reagan – as for Coolidge 60 years earlier – there was a clear distinction between the public and private sectors when it came to strikes. Those in the latter group had a right to strike. Those in the public sector did not.

3) Gorbachev – Perhaps the two most influential men in the second half of the 20th century were Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Brands does an excellent job in providing a blow-by-blow account of the to two biggest summits between the two men – Geneva in 1985 and Reykjavik in 1986. While the latter was initially viewed as a colossal failure, it actually paved the way to the eventual arms treaty signed by the two men in 1987. Ultimately, the one issue the two men could not get past was Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative [SDI], skewered by critics as ‘Star Wars’. Although Gorbachev came to Reykjavik with virtually every concession requested by Reagan at Geneva, Reagan would not abandon the testing of SDI, while Gorbachev insisted that any testing remain ‘in the laboratory’ for at least ten years.  Of course, we now know that SDI was never developed [President Bill Clinton killed it in 1993] but at the time Reagan held onto the concept of being able to shoot down incoming missiles. Although many derided Reagan at the time for the fantastic concept, Reagan argued that he wasn’t interested in SDI to prevent a Soviet attack: he was worried about a ‘lone mad-man’ with a nuclear device. Although seemingly paranoid in 1986, in the aftermath of 9/11, one can see Reagan as being more prescient than paranoid.

4) Iran-Contra – Nothing defined Reagan’s second term – not even the treaty with the Soviet Union – as much Iran-Contra did.  Brands concludes that Reagan knew well that we were trading arms for hostages; but was completely blindsided by the subsequent diversion of proceeds from those sales to the Contras in Nicaragua.  At the heart of the matter, according to Brands, was Reagan’s humanity. According to numerous sources – including his own diary – a daily question Reagan asked his staff was “Any word on the hostages?” Every day. It consumed him. He had berated and belittled Carter for being unable to deliver the hostages held in Iran and here he was completely helpless to free [at one time] six Americans held in Lebanon by Hezbollah. In Reagan’s mind, he constructed a framework whereby he was not really trading arms for hostages. Rather, he was making a gesture to Iran [arms, despite the fact that doing so was a violation of U.S. law] with two goals in mind: a) to begin to thaw the ice between the two countries with the long-term goal of working with Ayatollah Khomeini’s successors on reestablishing relations; and, more importantly, b) so that Iran would use its influence with Hezbollah to get them to release the U.S. hostages. Brands argues that Reagan is to blame in that his free delegation of authority bred an Oliver North and John Poindexter.  Reagan also made it clear to both men that he wanted the Contras helped, to keep them together “in body and spirit” despite the Boland Amendment which prohibited aiding them. With a lack of oversight and unmistakable instructions from Reagan that he wanted “everything possible” done to help the Contras, it is little surprise that North and Poindexter made the decision to divert the Iran funds without telling Reagan.

Brands’ work is strong. Although obviously very lengthy, it is an easy read and provides non-history aficionados with enough of an historical background to make those who were not alive appreciate and understand the times in which Reagan lived and led. In many ways Reagan will always remain an enigma.  The book only casually covers two of his deepest mysteries: his complicated relationship with his children from two marriages; and the fact that even those whom he considered his closest friends claim to have never really gotten close to him.

Brands’ work does bring Reagan closer to us. And what we find reminds us of why we liked him in the first place.

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The Sunday Salon: In Which I Ask My History Expert Husband to Recommend Some Good Books for Your 4th of July Reading

The Sunday Salon

Me, to The Husband: “I thought I’d write a blog post on good books to read for the 4th of July. Any suggestions?”

The Husband: “Huh?”

Me: “Well, I know there’s the David McCullough books that you like. And the Joseph Ellis one you just got from the library. Other than them, what would you recommend?”

The Husband: “Those two.”

(This is probably a good time to mention that The Husband happens to have an advanced degree or two in the American Presidency and that the majority of what he reads in his leisure hours are presidential biographies and the like. So, it makes sense that he would be my go-to-source on this topic.)

Me: “I need more suggestions.”

The Husband: “This is ridiculous. Like anyone is going to read an entire book in one day.”

Me, rolling eyes in exasperation: “You don’t GET IT. It’s to INSPIRE my blog readers. Maybe they’ll want to read something patriotic for the 4th and, you know, into the next week.”

I click onto his Shelfari page and annoyingly start rattling off titles.

“How ’bout this? Or this one? Oh, and yeah! Remember when I got you this from that little library when we lived in the townhouse in 1994? Did you like it? Would my blog readers like it?”

Hammering out the Constitution wasn’t this damn difficult, people.

I’m pleased to say we have a final document, people, just in case the upcoming 4th of July holiday gives you a hankering to read up on your American history.

The Husband tends to enjoy works by Joseph J. Ellis, particularly First Family: Abigail and John Adams; Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation; and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson; and His Excellency. (He has Revolutionary Summer out from the library now.) 

Pittsburgh native son David McCullough (who will be honored next week with a bridge named after him, accompanied by a lecture that The Husband will be attending) is an amazing historian. For our purposes today, The Husband recommends David McCullough’s 1776 and John Adams.

Jon Meacham”s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power and American Lion are also excellent reading choices for the Fourth of July.

The Husband also suggests:

Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and The Future of America, by Thomas J. Fleming

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg

The Radicalism of the American Revolution, by Gordon S. Wood

Go forth and read!

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Book Review: Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal, by William H. Chafe

Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal 
by William H. Chafe 
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
370 pages 

“At Yale, [Bill] Clinton found an answer – another person, equally bright, just as driven to break barriers and change the world. She was almost as complicated as he was – perhaps even more so – with a family history that came close to his in its crazy dynamics. Hillary Rodham would change his life. He would change hers. And from the moment of their meeting, they created a partnership, both political and personal, that helped shape the course of the country.” (pg. 64)

I’m fascinated with the Clintons. You already know this. (“Play It Again, Bill”, 9/7/2012) So, it makes sense that this would be of interest to me – and it was.

I should say, however, that I haven’t read Bill Clinton’s memoir My Life. Nor have I read First in His Class by David Maraniss or The Clinton Tapes by Taylor Branch (a longtime friend of Bill and Hillary’s). I did read – and enjoy – Hillary’s memoir Living History, as well as All Too Human by George Stephanopolous.

Drawing from all of these (especially My Life) and accounts from Clinton associates (especially Betsey Wright), Chafe gives his reader the biographical details of both Clintons’ lives – their childhoods; their time at Oxford and Wellesley, respectively; and their years together at Yale Law School. In some ways, the biographical information seems slightly redundant. Perhaps that’s just because it is a narrative that most of us of a certain age know by now, having grown up not really knowing a time when the Clintons weren’t headline news for one reason or another.

Chafe does seem to emphasize their early years (especially Bill’s). That’s important to the premise of the book: the belief that, like many of us, Hillary and Bill’s personalities and character were each shaped by their upbringing and the family environment that they grew up in. Chafe takes pivotal moments in the Clintons’ political life together and examines them within the context of their personalities, their strengths and flaws, and the dynamics of their personal relationship.

In doing so, Chafe doesn’t skirt around the reason why most of us would probably be reading this book: to gain the ultimate inside scoop on Bill and Hillary’s relationship, and why and how, after all the womanizing and after all the scandals, they stayed together.

We see this pattern early and often in their relationship, and it is one confirmed by close friends. There are new names revealed in this biography; for example, I’d never heard of Marilyn Jo Jenkins before Bill and Hillary, but apparently Bill was in love with Marilyn Jo so much that he asked Hillary for a divorce in 1990, before deciding to run for President. (Obviously, she told him no.) Personally and politically, things would have been very different indeed, had that occurred. You could probably say that our very country would have have been different.

Make no mistake: Bill and Hillary isn’t a fawning love story to the Clintons nor no wistful look back at the way things were. Chafe reminds his reader of the six weeks of bombshells that the 1992 campaign withstood between January 23 and March 7 (Gennifer Flowers, Bill’s Vietnam draft dodger issues, and questions about Hillary’s work at the Rose Law Firm) followed by the dysfunction and chaos of the early days of the Clinton presidency – which was very, very much a co-presidency. The American people definitely got their “two for the price of one” deal that Bill Clinton infamously promised.

“For better or worse, the chemistry of this relationship suggested a degree of emotional attachment (and dependency) rarely on display in American public life. It was almost impossible to speak of one of the Clintons without having the other in mind as well.” (pg. 138)

It still isn’t.

All the rest of the scandals we’ve come to know are recounted too – Vince Foster, Whitewater, Troopergate, Travelgate, and of course, Monica Lewinsky. (There’s new information – to me, at least – on the latter, although it could be from her tell-all tome about their relationship; I haven’t read that one either.)

While Bill and Hillary could be viewed as a hatchet job, I didn’t read it as such. I thought Chafe presented the facts and historical events quite fairly – with a little inside baseball for those of us who remember those days. With each one of these scandals, Chafe successfully makes the case that the cause can be traced back to the dynamics of the Clintons’ personal relationship. It’s more than just having a crappy childhood and needing to win the approval of others. That’s a big part of it, sure, but

“[a]s one person close to Bill observed after the Lewinsky affair broke, ‘in deed and expression, you could see he was trying to do everything he could to make it up to Hillary…Whatever Hillary wants, Hillary gets.’ She, in turn, had something to give. Her forbearance and love permitted him to survive, even to ‘come back.’ No one else could rescue him as she could. No one else could make right what was wrong. The exchange even worked romantically. When she was in charge of defending him, they were a team once more, affectionate with each other, sensitive to each other’s feelings. ‘It was hand-holding,’ one of the White House lawyers said, ‘arms around each other, lots of eye contact.’ In some respects, their partnership achieved a new intimacy and camaraderie when she stood by him in the face of his misbehavior. Thus, in the strangest of ways, Clinton’s reckless sexual behavior actually enhanced their personal ties. It made their relationship more functional and productive. Arguably – and in the strangest irony of all – it was at the heart of their partnership, the centerpiece that made it work.” (pg. 299)

Depending on what side of the aisle you’re on, it could be said that that partnership did or did not work for America. I think it’s both, which is the position Chafe seems to take. It seems to be working for them, because they seem to be doing okay. But the fact remains that, whether we like the Clintons personally or not, their relationship and its dynamics not only had the power to influence a generation, but to change an entire country.

I am an Amazon.com Affiliate. Making a purchase via any of the Amazon.com links on The Betty and Boo Chronicles will result in my earning a small percentage in commission, which will be used to support the upkeep of this blog, as well as the real-life versions of Betty and Boo. Thank you!

copyright 2013, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

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The Sunday Salon: Kicking Off The Big Game’s On Read-a-thon!

Anyone hear mention of some sort of football game today?

Yeah, me neither.

Usually my interest in the Super Bowl is determined by whether one of my teams is in contention for the Lombardi Trophy. Or if I’m a fan of the halftime act.

Since one of my teams is the Philadelphia Eagles, that hasn’t been an issue since 2005. (I’m also not a Beyoncé devotee either.)

However, football-speaking, I also happen to have much affection for the Pittsburgh Steelers these days. (It is a necessity, living around these parts.) Dare I say, they’re becoming a strong contender to upset my Eagles as my favorite team.

Being a Steelers fan means that this year’s Super Bowl is an occasion that many of us here in Steelers Nation would prefer to get over and done with as soon as possible. It’s painful; it is a lose-lose proposition to root for either our rival (the Baltimore Ravens) or the 49ers (who, should they win, would tie us with having six Super Bowl rings … something that is only a dream in the fantasy football world of Eagles football right now).

Therefore, I will (as is my custom) be ignoring the whole thing by hiding in a tub of guacamole with a book … because I’ll be participating in The Big Game’s On Read-a-thon.

My reading will be somewhat sporadic. Some close friends from Philly are in town and we’re planning to see them for lunch today. So, my reading will be in the morning and probably during the actual game itself.

(I wrote some of this post ahead of time. It’s now 4:53 a.m. on Sunday and sadly, I’m awake. On the positive side, I’ve already read 5 pages. Whoot! Game on! Get this party started!)

As for what I’ll be reading, I’m in the middle of Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal by William H. Chafe, so I’ll likely just continue with that (even though I like to read books suitable for reading in one sitting during read-a-thons). I do have a few of those in my stacks, so its possible that I might change my mind midstream.

This one is pretty interesting, though it does have much of the Clinton narrative that we’ve all come to know over the years, but there are a few new details and insights that I hadn’t heard before. And, it doesn’t skirt around the elephant in the room: the issue of Bill’s serial womanizing and the Monday morning quarterbacking analysis of why and how Bill and Hillary stayed together all these years despite his sexcapades.

For whatever reason, I seem to be on a nonfiction kick lately. Maybe it has to do with finishing two great fiction books in a row – The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker and George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December -and wanting a change of pace before diving back into more fiction.

A change of pace is certainly what I got with The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner, which I read this week. The “controversial dictionary” would be Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published in 1961. Although there are some interesting parts to this – particularly around how the changes in America’s lifestyle, culture, demographics, and historical events changed our vocabulary – this was kind of a dry read. Somewhat disappointing.

Reading-wise, January was a pretty good start to the year. I read 5 books and listened to 1 audio book (2 fiction, 1 memoir, 1 short story collection, and 2 nonfiction). My favorites were The Age of Miracles and Tenth of December, with both of these being possible contenders for my best of 2013 list. Always nice to start out the year like that.

Here’s the January list:

(my rating: 4 out of 5 stars)

Eggshells and Elephants: My Cancer Journey Thus Far, by Jane Freund
(my rating: 2 out of 5 stars)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark (audio)
 (my rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars)

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker
(my rating: 4 out of 5 stars) 

Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
(my rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars) 

The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, by David Skinner.

(my rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars) 

How about you? Do you have a favorite team in the Super Bowl? Or will you, like me, be reading (and eating) instead?

I am an Amazon.com Affiliate. Making a purchase via any of the Amazon.com links on The Betty and Boo Chronicles will result in my earning a small percentage in commission, which will be used to support the upkeep of this blog, as well as the real-life versions of Betty and Boo. Thank you!

copyright 2013, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles. Please do not reproduce this content without written permission. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

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Living History Once More

Below, I give you an encore post from February 16, 2010 “Living History (or, Spending Valentine’s Day in the Presence of Greatness). I hadn’t met Dabney Montgomery when Barack Obama was inaugurated the first time, which I would imagine would be an unbelievable experience for someone who has lived the life that Mr. Montgomery has. I couldn’t help but think of what Martin Luther King Jr.’s former bodyguard on the Selma march must have thought of this day. 

Dabney Montgomery and Henry L. Smith,
two former Tuskegee Airmen who I met on February 14, 2010.
Photo taken by me. 

“And I stood in the corner and thought, how can I change this situation peacefully? And that thought stayed in the back of my mind for many a month and year.” 

~ Dabney Montgomery, Tuskegee Airman and bodyguard of Martin Luther King Jr., 2/14/2010

Walking into church on Sunday morning, Valentine’s Day, was like taking a walk back in time.

A walk alongside Martin Luther King Jr., en route from Selma to Montgomery.

A walk along the tarmac with the Tuskegee Airmen.

I knew that this particular service, commemorating Black History Month, was on the schedule, but I had forgotten that it was planned for Valentine’s Day. All I knew was that I was in need of a pick me up from the weather and from writing my previous blog post about the killing of Jennifer Daugherty.

And so it was that I found myself in the presence of greatness.

Dabney Montgomery, a Tuskegee Airman and former bodyguard of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, was the guest speaker on Sunday at our Unitarian Universalist congregation. Of the 5,000 Tuskegee Airmen, there are only 280 still alive.

“And you have two of them with you today,” he said, nodding to Henry L. Smith, seated in the audience.

We listened, a rapt audience of nearly 200, as Dabney Montgomery told us about a time where people believed African Americans were incapable of flying a plane, that because the arteries in their brains were shorter than others, they could not be taught such skills.

We walked with him down the tarmac, as he recalled Mrs. Roosevelt (“you remember Mrs. Roosevelt, don’t you?”) demanding to be flown by an African American pilot.

He received an honorable discharge from the Army in 1945, and upon returning home to his hometown of Selma, Alabama, he only had one thing on his mind.

Registering to vote.

We walked with Dabney Montgomery as he went to register to vote, and was told to go around back and enter through the back entrance, as he was handed three separate applications to vote. The applications needed to be filled out by three separate white men who could vouch for his character.

Not only was I black, Mr. Montgomery said by way of explanation, but I “didn’t have enough money in the bank [to vote], didn’t have a house.”

“And I stood in the corner and thought, ‘how I can change this situation peacefully?’ And that thought stayed in the back of my mind for many a month and a year,” he said.

Dabney Montgomery volunteered to be one of Martin Luther King’s bodyguards on the historic Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. We felt the spit from onlookers as the marchers walked by.

“After the march, I took the soles off the shoes I wore,” Dabney Montgomery explained. “You can see them for yourself in the back, there.” 

Several months after that march, The Voter Rights Act of 1965 was signed.

We walked back into the room with Dabney Montgomery as he registered to vote.

“And this time, there was a black woman behind the desk,” he laughed.

And then he turned serious again.

Whatever the situation is, “it can be changed through nonviolence, but you must stand and never give in. Don’t compromise. [We need] nonviolence not only in the schools, but in the home,” he said, referencing recent bullying attacks and the shooting by a professor in Alabama.

“Nonviolence is a must if we are to survive,” Dabney Montgomery concluded.

We’ll walk hand in hand someday …” we sang, as the closing hymn, and as we joined hands and I reached for the African-American man’s hand next to me, I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. (I hate crying in public, but in this case, I wasn’t alone.)

Afterward, I was chatting with people I hadn’t seen in months as Betty rushed through the door. 

“Look, Mommy, they have cake!” she exclaimed, pointing to the refreshments.

“We can have cake,” I said, “But first, there’s somebody who I want you to meet.” 

I told Betty that I wanted her to shake this man’s hand and thank him for his service to our country. That she would understand why when she was older.

We approached the throng of people surrounding Dabney Montgomery, taking photos with him as if he was a movie star. He welcomed all of this, even basked in the attention. 

What does one say to such a hero? I thought.

“Your words were so inspiring,” I said. “Thank you for your service to our country. It is a real pleasure and honor to meet you.” 

“Thank you,” Mr. Montgomery replied. A former ballet student, he bent down and shook Betty’s outstretched hand. And then, we all ate cake. 

I went to church on Sunday seeking a spiritual boost. 

But what I got was so much more.

“Hey, so many things I never thought I’d see
Happening right in front of me
I had a friend in school
Running back on a football team
They burned a cross in his front yard
For asking out the home coming queen
I thought about him today
And everybody who’s seen what he’s seen
From a woman on a bus
To a man with a dream
Hey, wake up Martin Luther
Welcome to the future
Hey, glory, glory, hallelujah
Welcome to the future …”
“Welcome to the Future” ~ Brad Paisley

photos and text (except for Brad Paisley lyrics) copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo’s Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

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