Human Rights, Little Bighorn

A Good Day to Die…

Sitting BullcusterThe Little Bighorn…a Battle Never Really Over

Sometime in the afternoon of June 25, 1876 – 134 years ago today – George Armstrong Custer and more than 200 troopers of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry under his direct command died on the hills and in the ravines along the east side of the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s Last Stand, Sitting Bull’s Triumph, whatever it has been called, never seems to be as distant or as “historical” as other even more important moments in American history. A fabulous new book about the battle The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick goes a long way to explain why the lopsided encounter on that hot June afternoon never seems to be ready to move to the back shelves of our history.

Philbrick does a commendable job of telling a balanced story. He doesn’t detest Custer, although there is much to detest, and he doesn’t glorify the mostly Sioux and Cheyenne warriors – particularly Sitting Bull – who messed up the obsessively ambitious Custer’s opportunity, potentially, to win a great victory and position himself for a political career.

It’s fun to speculate about Custer the candidate. He was a shameless self promoter, a passably good writer, articulate – although he spoke very fast and this reportedly made him difficult to understand – and, even though his famous golden hair was thinning by the time he rode into the valley of the Little Bighorn, he was a good looking fellow.

He was also a partisan Democrat when Democrats need an attractive candidate for the White House. Who knows? He could have been a contender. Custer could also be a bully, a prude and, as it suited him, an extraordinarily attentive friend and husband. In other words, he was, well, complicated.

As Salon noted in a review of Philbrick’s extremely well written and researched book: “Today, Custer has long since become an embarrassment to educated white Americans. But the effort we’ve put into debunking him amounts to admitting we’re stuck with him. From the Goldilocks hairdo he’d actually rid himself of before Little Bighorn to the final, almost certainly inaccurate, tableau of The Last White Man Standing as the ‘hostiles’ close in, he’s the horse’s ass we rode in on.”

My own view is that the Custer story continues to generate interest and books – the General, really Lt. Colonel, even has a website and a “re-enacter” – for several reasons.

Even with Philbrick’s fresh retelling, we will never have the final word on the battle. The confusion of the battle – it played out over some distance in difficult terrain – and the selective or flawed memory of those who survived – and none directly with Custer did survive – combine to leave many details impossible to pin down. What really happened will forever remain a mystery.

America, even in 1876, loved a flamboyant character. Custer was all that. He rode into Civil War battles wearing his own specially designed black velvet uniform. He once organized his entire regiment into companies defined by the color of the horses – a black horse company, a grey horse company, etc. He skillfully courted the press. One of the men who died with him in Montana was a newspaperman along to report on his exploits. Custer was a personality. Cable TV would have loved him.

Philbrick makes a compelling case that Custer, had his customary luck held that long ago day, just might have prevailed. He had used similar tactics before to raid Indian villages and had his subordinates – Marcus Reno and Frederick Benteen – not hated Custer so much, and been better soldiers, they just might have pulled off the attack they launched against the massive native village. Sitting Bull shared that belief early on that hot afternoon, saying that he thought his warriors might well be routed.

Finally, the Custer of Hollywood and heroic paintingts has survived and thrived because his very best publicist was his handsome wife, Elizabeth or Libby. She lived a long life, dying in 1933 at age 91 and, playing the role of “professional widow,” she pulled out all the stops to burnish he departed husband’s reputation and keep his memory alive. A profile in American Heritage noted that her last letter to Custer ended this way: “My thoughts, my dreams, my prayers, are all for you. God bless and keep my darling. Ever your own Libbie.”

As the Wall Street Journal has noted in its review of Philbrick’s book, the author is generally even-handed and displays, I think, just the right amount of disdain for Custer. Philbrick also continues the historical advance of the Custer story from “tragedy” to “cautionary tale.”

By the summer of 1876, the United States was in transition from a post-Civil War focus – Reconstruction would officially end with the election of 1876 – to a nation with imperial designs. The prevailing political and military sentiment was to contain the “hostiles” on confined reservations in order to advance the nation’s economic development and population expansion.

The Little Bighorn was but a momentary pause in that march for, as the Austin-American Statesman notes: “After the battle, Sitting Bull’s huge village quickly scattered, and virtually every band surrendered to federal authorities within a few months. Reservation life brought only despair and deprivation. ‘This victory, great as it was,’ Philbrick writes of the battle, ‘had simply been the prelude to a crushing and irresistible defeat.'”

For a long time, I thought it strange that we named the battle after the guy who had lost. Why not the Great Sioux and Cheyenne Battle? Or, Sitting Bull’s Battle? Former Montana Congressman Pat Williams answered the question when he told me a while back that during his 18 years in Congress, he caught as much flak for sponsoring the legislation to change the name of the battlefield – from Custer Battlefield to Little Bighorn Battlefield – as anything he ever did.

Custer died 134 years ago today, but then again he never really died.

Little Bighorn, Uncategorized

This is Work?

Idaho Judge Pinch Hits in Yosemite Idaho Judge Pinch Hits in Yosemite

Interesting story in the New York Times earlier this week about Idaho federal Magistrate Judge Larry Boyle.

Who’d a thunk it, but the majestic national park at Yosemite in northern California has a federal courthouse. When the previous federal judge, who typically hears misdemeanor cases – guns, drugs and alcohol in the park – was forced to resign for health reasons, Judge Boyle offered to sub until a permanent replacement could be named. The judge and Beverly Boyle recently finished a two-week stint dispensing justice in what His Honor calls “the Garden of Eden”

Boyle was an eastern Idaho District Judge and a member of the Idaho Supreme Court before his appointment as a federal magistrate in 1992.

Little Bighorn, Uncategorized

August in Wisconsin

WisconsinThe Land of Cheese…and Other Things

Random notes from the north of Wisconsin.

The signs of the dog days of summer are everywhere you look in Wisconsin right now.

The Wisconsin State Fair – one of the big ones in the Midwest – is going on this week in Milwaukee. Chocolate covered bacon is the new food sensation this year. More on that later. The lovely, sweet cherries are just about perfect in Door County in the north of the state hard by Lake Michigan.

And, of course, the Packer training camp is up and running. (I buried the lead, based upon what really dominates the news here.) The general manager of the storied Green Bay franchise caused a bit of a stir among the green and gold faithful by suggesting that the dog fighter Michael Vick might, just might, be a suitable heir to Brett Farve or Bart Starr.

A Rich Political History
Wisconsin politics, like its food and football, have never been dull and are frequently fascinating. The state’s colorful political history boasts many characters. Going way back, the State Fair proudly notes that a prospective candidate for president visited in 1859. Abraham Lincoln knew a battle ground state when he saw one.

More recently, the Congressman representing northern Wisconsin, Rep. Steve Kagen a Democrat from Appleton, had two of his town hall meetings on health care reform disrupted this week by very noisy protesters. Apparently this type of engagement is now standard, part of a national effort to make life miserable for members of Congress on August recess.

Kagen seemed to handle the hubbub pretty well. At least he used the right analogy in talking to the press. “There was a significant amount of anger there,” he told the Green Bay Press-Gazette, “as if the referee made the wrong call in a Packer game.”

This alleged “battle ground state” – maybe in name only – hasn’t gone for a Republican since Ronald Reagan’s second term. Barack Obama rolled up 56% of the vote in Wisconsin in 2008, exactly the margin for that other untested Illinois politician in 1860.

Arguably the greatest political figure Wisconsin has produced – and one the most independent -was Fighting Bob La Follette, a early progressive of the western type, who served as governor and then as one of the most influential United States Senators. La Follette was once hung in effigy for opposing U.S. involvement in World War I, but still managed to spawn a Midwestern political dynasty.

La Follette, a nominal Republican, bolted his party in 1924 – he wasn’t a Coolidge fan – and gathered in more than 16% of the popular vote running as an independent presidential candidate. His running mate on the Progressive Party ticket was another “radical” and a nominal Democrat from Butte, Montana – Senator Burton K. Wheeler. The La Follette-Wheeler ticket carried only Wisconsin in 1924, but the Progressives – anti-monopoly, anti-interventionist in foreign affairs and anti-Ku Klux Klan – ran far ahead of the Democratic ticket most everywhere in the Northwest, including Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Over many years, Wisconsin’s has had its share of “radicals” of both the left and the right. Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day and made common cause over his Senate career with Frank Church of Idaho on many environmental issues, including the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act. Both Nelson and Church lost re-election in the Reagan landslide of 1980.

One other Northwest-Wisconsin connection of particular note was the close friendship between Senator Herman Welker, a one-term Payette, Idaho Republican, and Joe McCarthy, a favorite son of Appleton, Wisconsin. Often described as McCarthy’s “best friend in the Senate” or “little Joe from Idaho,” Welker never abandoned his Wisconsin Republican colleague even when being McCarthy’s friend became a liability. Welker served as McCarthy’s chief defender when the Wisconsin senator was censured in 1954 for his increasingly reckless behavior in attacking those he suspected of Communist sympathies.

Cheese and brats…a growing issue
Wisconsinites, by all appearances, are not making the mistake of spending too many lovely August days worrying about health care reform or cash for clunkers. These are days for cheese, beer, brats and cream puffs, after all, the four main food groups. As a result the expanding Wisconsin waste line seems to be – sorry – a growing issue.

A columnist in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel set aside the usual polite Midwestern reserve this week to challenge fellow cheeseheads to admit the obvious: “Half of us are fat; a quarter, really fat. If bands don’t play ‘Too Fat Polka’ at weddings around the state anymore, they should. Make it our song until we can tie shoes without gasping for air between the left and the right.”

To sum this up: one more political connection.

Another of Wisconsin’s true political radicals was Senator William Proxmire, a gadfly, skinflint and physical fitness nut who served 32 years in the U.S. Senate. Proxmie replaced McCarthy in the Senate and never spent more than a few hundred buck on a re-election. He also created the Golden Fleece Award to spotlight wasteful government spending and was known to run to work in the Senate – ten miles a day.

As the New York Times noted after his death in 2005, “Tall, thin and bald as a young man, Mr. Proxmire was unusually vain about his looks. He had a series of hair transplants and a face lift, and in 1973, he published a book about staying in shape: ‘You Can Do It: Senator Proxmire’s Exercise, Diet and Relaxation Plan.'”

I’m betting the State Fair’s new chocolate covered bacon would never have caught on with ol’ Bill Proxmire.

American Presidents, Andrus, FDR, Little Bighorn, Obama

The Survival of the Republic

FDRFDR and “the Jew Deal” and Obama “the Kenyan”

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so.” Mark Twain

OK, I admit it. I don’t need more evidence that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, two years after Aloha land became the 50th state. I am convinced the president is native born and therefore qualified to exercise the executive power of the government under the Constitution. It is a closed case for me, but apparently not for many so called “birthers” and even, at last count, eleven members of Congress who are sponsoring legislation requiring presidential candidates to produce their birth certificates.

All of this talk of birth certificates comes hard on the heels of the persistent rumor that Obama is a secret Muslim.

What’s going on here? A Constitutional crisis? An updated version of UFO sitings?

None of that. The Obama “stories” are, I submit, in league with a long, colorful and frequently disquieting chapter in American presidential history. It is the chapter where some Americans never quite get to the point of accepting the person in the White House. Presidential history is full of “facts” from the fringe that, if true, would surely “disqualify” the offender in the Oval Office.

The president in modern times most aggressively vilified in this way was surely Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As George Wolfskill and John A. Hudson document in their book – All but the People – Franklin D. Roosevelt and His Critics – FDR was – pick your poison – mentally ill, unable to handle the strain of office due to his polio, a shadow Communist (or Fascist), a warmonger and a Jew.

A contemptible collection of crackpots, including the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin who commanded an audience that Glenn Beck would envy, and a southern demagogue by the name of Gerald L.K. Smith, rumor mongered the anti-FDR lies constantly. As Wolfskill and Hudson note, Smith’s Christian Nationalist Crusade mailed out thousands of copies of a phony Roosevelt genealogy, purporting to “prove” FDR’s Jewish ancestry, during the presidential campaign of 1936. A footnote read: “Every sensible Christian and loyal American will fight the campaign of Leftist, Communists, Jews and Internationalists to return the Roosevelt dynasty to power.”

Roosevelt won that 1936 election, by the way, in an historic landslide that only convinced his critics that he was determined in a second term to advance not the “New Deal,” but the “Jew Deal.”

In earlier times, the detractors of President John Adams contended he harbored secret ambitions to declare himself King and, despite Adams role in the American Revolution, as president he was determined to tighten bonds with England.

Andrew Jackson came to believe that the death of his beloved wife, Rachel, was a direct result of the vicious attacks directed at him, but aimed at her. One charge – the Jacksons were bigamists.

More recently, John F. Kennedy had to counter the widespread belief, advanced effectively by his political opponents, that his election as the first Catholic president was sure to install the Bishop of Rome – the Pope – as White House chief of staff.

George W. Bush had to contend with conspiracy theorists in the wake of September 11th and some Americans will never get over his “illegitimate election” by a 5-4 vote of the United States Supreme Court.

“Politics ain’t bean bag,” as they say, and for sure the game has always been played as a full contact sport. Good advice to any politician: Don’t climb in the ring if you can’t take a punch and a low blow has always been part of our politics. You want fair play – go to a cricket match

Still, the speed and viral nature of today’s rumor spreading, fueled by the Internet, 24 hour cable news, and bloviators like Lou Dobbs and Beck is nearly impossible to fathom or refute. Spreading rumors in the age of instant communication makes “old media” reporting, the kind that actually seeks out the facts, even more important as an antidote to the nonsense.

But, there is another old adage – the truth never catches up with the allegation – that keeps theses stories alive for days, weeks and beyond.

Considering all the rascals who have occupied the White House – from a secret Jew to a secret non-citizen – it is a real wonder the Republic has survived at all.