Sunday, July 29, 2007

Stick to What You Know

















Everyone's a critic!
by Charlie Leck

I received the following note right after posting my last blog about Dick Cheney. I thought it only fair to share it with all of you. You might want to comment on what Jonathan has to say.


Chas:
I need to complain. I go to your blog 3 or 4 times each week because I enjoy your writing. That is, I enjoy it when you stay away from all that stuff that is best left to editorial writers at the Star-Tribune or the NY Times. Your material is really great when you are writing personally, about your own experiences and about your family and your own activities. It breaks down when you try to comment on Vice President Cheney or national politics. Stick to what you know best. That always makes for better writing.
Your friend,
Jonathan


I don’t want to get defensive and protest a great deal; however, I sometimes get very riled up about national affairs and the direction our nation has taken in the last 6 years. It’s difficult to keep it all bottled up and it comes spilling out. I try to write it well and say it clearly.

Jonathan, I do stick to more personal material most of the time – subjects that are based on personal experience. And, I agree with you, that makes for better writing. However, partner, I sometimes need to take on these guys who I feel are fully, fiercely and frighteningly f’n me over.

I’ll try to do less of it, but you will occasionally just have to put up with some of it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

To Impeach or to Not Impeach


The absolutely incredible Vice Presidency
of Dick Cheney
by Charlie Leck


Constant emails are getting through to me from every possible kind of organization – substantial and thrown-together – urging me to join the movement to impeach Dick Cheney (you know, the weird guy who plays our Vice President in that movie that is just so wildly insane that no one really believes it as possibility). When one looks closely at the actions of Cheney over the last six years, one is tempted to join ranks with Dennis Kucinich in his “rabid” attack on the Vice President.

Hendrick Hertzberg, in the 9 July 2007 issue of The New Yorker, says a Broadway play about Cheney/Bush would be “irresistible.” He says it would be the “story of the scowling, scheming, domineering, silently sinister Vice-President and the spoiled, petted prince who becomes his play thing… -- …set in a pristine White House, played against an ominous unseen background of violence and catastrophe, like distant thunder, and packed with drama, palace intrigue and black comedy.”

My wife called my attention to the Hertzberg commentary. She regularly downloads articles from the New Yorker to her IPod. “This is crazy! You won’t believe this,” she said. Funny, though, because I believed every word.

The Hertzberg condemnation of Richard Cheney is magnificent, funny, powerful and surgical. Don’t miss it if you’re interested in this question about whether or not Cheney should be impeached. http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2007/07/09/070709taco_talk_hertzberg
The only thing good about this administration is this palace intrigue. It is certainly better than the finest thriller fiction and it pushes the reader to the edges of credibility. One puts down the book occasionally and breathlessly asks: “Is it possible?”

In my lifetime, no occupants of the main offices in the White House and Executive Mansion have been so zany. It’s like the craziness of the Adams Family without the slapstick comedy! It would be totally laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous. Hertzberg refers to Cheney as Elmer Fudd. Think of Cheney in his duck blind and the appellation fits.

It has been the so-called War on Terror that has given Cheney excuse for such looseness (as in “loose cannon” or as in “monster on the loose.”) Again, as Hertzberg says, Dick Cheney, more than anyone else is the man who, through his actions and policies, has “…inflicted unprecedented disgrace on our country’s moral and political standing.”

The indictment, more than any other, that drives the organizations that want to impeach Dick Cheney is that he has been responsible for launching this war (Iraq) under false pretenses. In is not an indictment against the President mind you, because, again, he is seen only as a palace prince.

Dick Cheney lives in disgrace even in the eyes of real conservatives – I’m not talking here of those Bible thumping idiots who can’t see beyond some easily quotable words of scripture that they aren’t even capable of fully understanding. They love Cheney.
Cheney’s roll call of dishonor surpasses anything I know about in history.

Cheney was the force behind the firing of those U.S. Attorneys for fully political reasons.

Cheney was responsible for the tax cuts for the rich that went even far beyond anything the President thought wise and politically safe.

Cheney has built for this administration an environmental policy that is an absolute disgrace in the eyes of nearly the entire world. These policies have resulted in a breath-taking disregard for the safety of our air and water and invited a level of pollution into our environmental infrastructure such as we never dreamed could happen.

It was Cheney who single-handedly invented the EPA rule that allowed refurbished power plants to NOT install modern controls against pollution. This action, it turns out, is what caused Christy Todd Whitman to resign as EPA administrator.

And, it was Cheney who convinced his palace prince to ignore calls for national action and global cooperation in the battle against greenhouse gases.

The new Supreme Court Justices, Samuel Alito and John Roberts, were hand-picked by Dick Cheney. We now have a majority that will do this nation great harm for many years to come. It is the Court that recently ruled that conscious racial integration and conscious racial segregation were moral equivalents.

Now here is the scary part. Dick Cheney still has 18 months of control over this nation yet to go.
I’ve printed out for myself the four-part series in the Washington Post that Hertzberg refers to in his New Yorker Magazine piece: http://blog.washingtonpost.com/cheney/ …it runs for over 40 pages in very small type. It is an extremely cautious bit of reporting that documents every single accusation, charge or claim it makes. If you’re sitting on the fence about this impeachment movement, this series of articles may push you into the Kucinich camp. This magnificent piece of journalism is done by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker. They will receive some major awards for this remarkable work. It drew on interviews with more than 200 men and women who worked closely with Cheney or in opposition to him.

Cheney’s most remarkable achievement, which will stand as his legacy – whether you regard it positively or negatively – is that he has vastly expanded the war making authority of the President. This is a power that congress, especially over the last 60 years, has allowed the Executive Branch to slowly and conclusively steal from them. Cheney/Bush finished the deal!
Though it is not likely to be permanent, Cheney has also reshaped the roll of the Vice President in Executive Branch policy making. Clearly, Cheney is the most influential and powerful V.P. in the history of the nation. No Vice President has made decisions that had the force of changing history until Dick Cheney came along. Former Vice President Dan Quayle speaks of Cheney as a “surrogate chief of staff.” This is the first time I have ever said this, or dreamed I would say it, but Quayle’s words ring wise and true. George W. Bush is not a strong enough person to handle such a Vice President and is unable to keep Cheney in his historic place; that is, out of the decision making loop. To many, it is the Vice President, and not the President, who is “the Decider” on many, many issues.

Cheney has access to every meeting and every important discussion that takes place within the White House. He may voice his opinion about any matter, at any time. And, he usually has the President’s ear last in all controversial discussions. Most importantly, Gellman and Becker point out in their Washington Post series, the Vice President also intervenes in discussion at the sub-cabinet level when the President is absent from those discussions. In those meetings, Cheney speaks with the force of the Presidency.

What are the issues that Cheney keeps on his plate and works on regularly? How important do you think the following list is? (1) Economic Issues; (2) Security Concerns; (3) Energy Policy; (4) White House Legislative Agenda; (5) Nominations and Appointments.

The Washington Post Series has not drawn significant criticism from the Vice President’s office or from the Republican Party. In many ways it draws a very positive picture of Dick Cheney. His is far more intelligent than the President. He understands the working of the Executive Branch as well as anyone in government (remember, he served as Chief of Staff to President Gerald R. Ford). He routinely works harder than the President, beginning his reading before 5 A.M. on most mornings. He is more familiar with the relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches of government and, as President of the Senate, moves freely and easily between both. So familiar is he with the workings and inter-workings of these two worlds that I doubt he has one shred of worry about his possible impeachment.

If Dick Cheney were on the side of liberals, fighting for their issues, I don’t believe they would have one problem with him. We all like tough guys when they’re on our side. None of us are afraid of bullies who are our buddies.

Even with that in mind, one has to remember that any reading of current history points to Chaney as the author and enforcer of the policy regarding terrorist prisoners that carefully circumvented the intentions of the Geneva Convention regarding torture. It appears he was also the chief author of the evidence that pointed to Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. Was he fully aware that the evidence did not exist and that the carefully constructed reasons for war were false? Likely. These two issues provoke the possibility of impeachment.

I can imagine how forceful Dick Cheney was in convincing a gullible President of the importance of these two matters. In impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill that would be very difficult to prove as fact.

What I find totally curious about Dick Cheney is his absolute indifference to public opinion. Most politicians have a constant thermometer stuck up the rear of the public, checking the heat constantly. Cheney doesn’t mind the heat. He’s told countless people to get out of the kitchen if they couldn’t take it. Cheney’s attitude may have led the Administration directly into the problem that strangles it today – polls that show no confidence on the part of the American people.

Read, if you will, Gellman and Becker’s remarkable description of Cheney roll in economic and tax issues and his leadership in the legislative fight for multiple tax cuts for the very wealthy – cuts that went even far beyond what the President thought economically and politically wise. The third and fourth sections of their series deal with these subjects and with Cheney’s impact on environmental matters.

The so-called environmental left, the tree-huggers, are hard on the impeachment band wagon. No one else in history has taken such a hard line on issues that do serious damage to the environment than Dick Cheney. It infuriates me and I wonder if we can endure 18 more months of such harmful policies. The impeachment band-wagon looks inviting, but I still conclude that it will do more damage politically to the Democratic Party than it can stand.

Between the war in Iraq and our absurd policy regarding the world’s environmental health, the image of the United States of America is at its lowest ebb in all of history. We are held in disdain by most other nations of the world. The tough guy, Dick Cheney, doesn’t care. I wonder if he ever wonders if the rest of the world might be correct on this matter and that he might be wrong. I doubt it.

Your homework, class, if you wish to continue in this course, is to go to the Washington Post web site to read these four extraordinary documented essays about Dick Cheney and his amazing influence on life in America. This is not elective. It is required. http://blog.washingtonpost.com/cheney/

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A Game of Integrity

It is not hogwash, my friends!
by Charlie Leck
Gary Player caused great consternation in the golf world this week – especially at the professional and higher amateur levels – by contending that he has evidence that steroid use among golfers is significant. For those of you who don’t know, Gary Player was a golfer of impeccable integrity and sportsmanship. Along with Bobby Jones before him, Player set the standard for proper behavior while playing the game.

The response to Player from many people is one of disbelief. “This wouldn’t happen in the game of golf,” they replied, “because golf is a game of such high integrity.”

Some in the news media responded to such claims of integrity with guffaws. I heard one sports talk radio personality call such an idea of special integrity nothing but plain old hogwash. “Too much money is at stake,” he said, “in both purses and endorsements.”

I felt as if someone had struck me full force in my solar plexus. Is it really being unrealistic to think that golfers carry a different concept about sportsmanship, ethics and adherence to the rules than competitors in other sports?

I want to loudly answer: “No!” Golfers are different. They understand that the survival of competitive golf depends on player integrity. The playing field in golf is too vast to expect every player at every moment to be monitored. Misbehavior is possible! Fudging on the rules is easy!

One needs to hope that the concept of honesty in golf has been so deeply embedded in the very spirit and tradition of the game that players just simply accept it as part of their responsibility to the game itself.

I volunteer as a Rules Official for the Minnesota Golf Association. I have enormous personal respect for the important rules of the game and what they mean to competitive play. I have never sensed in one single player, at any adult championship in which I have been involved, that any player would think of circumventing the rules. They, naturally, want to get every advantage that the rules of the game will give them, but they wouldn’t dream of playing outside the rules.

The golf world must hope that Gary Player is incorrect. Instituting a drug testing program would be enormously expensive at the professional level. It would be virtually impossible at the championship amateur level.

The United States Golf Association has done a wonderful job over the years of portraying the importance of integrity and sportsmanship in the game. Very few rule books within organized sports begin with a section on etiquette, sportsmanship and honesty. Golf’s rule book begins with just such a section.

Every golfer worth his salt knows the following story. For those of you who do not, it explains the very heart of the game. This is as Don Wade tells the story in his book, And Then Jack Said to Arnie.

In the 1925 U.S. Open at Worcester Country Club [Bobby] Jones called a penalty upon himself, stating that his ball had moved when he addressed it. Nobody but Jones had seen the ball move, and the ensuing one-stroke penalty put him into a playoff with Willie Macfarlane, who beat him the next day. Later, when Jones was praised for his sportsmanship, he bristled.


“There’s only one way to play the game,” he said. “You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank as to praise him for playing by the rules.”

Monday, July 16, 2007

As Pretty as a Lady Bird



Sometimes, somehow, a first lady can really make a difference
by Charlie Leck




I have direct evidence. Lady Bird Johnson made a difference right here in Minneapolis and all around Minnesota. I’ll be forever grateful to her. And so, on this day when she is laid to rest I want to offer my personal salute and I want to wave goodbye to her.

Thanks, Lady Bird, you came on up here to Minnesota and told us our city could be prettier. You looked it over and said flat-out that we needed more flowers, more fountains, more sculpture and more color.

Then you went and found some money for us by prodding Congress and we were able to build the pretty mall that runs right through the heart of our downtown area. I can’t tell you how many hours how many people have enjoyed on that mall. There are lots of outdoor cafĂ©s there now, Lady Bird. They wouldn’t be there had you not encouraged us to get prettier and be more livable.

And yes, before I let you go, let me tell you that highways all over my state are more beautiful because of you. Again, you got those tightwads in Congress to loosen up the purse-strings a little bit and spend some money to allow our nation to beautify its highways. Now, instead of billboards we can see beautiful wild flowers and lovely blooming shrubs everywhere.

It was contagious, Lady Bird. Pretty soon even the small cities and towns were sprucing things up. Flower gardens started appearing all over the place. People figured out how to build attractive fountains and artists produced some really creative outdoor art for our parks and sidewalks – and even our shopping malls.

I took a walk this morning down the main shopping street of one our pretty villages out here on Lake Minnetonka. Lady Bird, it would have taken your breath away had you seen all the pretty flowers. I stopped at a place that could serve me a croissant and a café au lait as I watched the sailboats out on the lake. I sat outside in the beautiful sunshine and thought of you, Lady Bird, and figured I had to write this little thank you note and to say goodbye. Sleep well.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Senator Coleman Must Go


Coleman fails on many levels
by Charlie Leck [11 July 2007]

U.S. Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota should lose his seat in the 2008 national election on the merits. He hasn’t done a good job.

Coleman has carried water for the President of the United States from his first day in office. No, change that! He’s carried the President’s water from the first day of his campaign for the office. During his first four years he didn’t look at issues from a Minnesota perspective. He evaluated votes based on what the President wanted him to do.

I believe his eye was on future national office and he tied that possibility to the success of the George W. Bush administration. Obviously, Coleman went down with George W.

Hard core, far-to-the-right Republicans will want to return Coleman. So will big business in Minnesota. The heart of the Republican Party, real conservatives who are to be admired, will have a fight on its hands because they will want another candidate with a real chance to win.

If you like observing and following local politics – the best politics of all – you’ll have a good time in Minnesota over the next 16 months.

First and foremost, Senator Coleman bit hook, line and sinker on the President’s misinformation about WMD in Iraq. Coleman had unfavorable things to say about people who didn’t come aboard on the plan for war. The reputation of George W. Bush may never be repaired because of this disastrous mistake and the manner in which this mistake was sold to the American public. I think Coleman is in the same boat (to continue the fishing metaphor) and his boat is taking on water rapidly.

Only when things began looking really bad for Coleman did he begin looking at legislation from a Minnesota perspective. He has, only in the last year, begun trying to build a record that will show he was working hard for the interests of our state. It’s too late. We need to make sure Norm Coleman does not return to Washington.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The USGA Slips Up


What’s going wrong?
Bring in John Feinstein!
by Charlie Leck [9 July 2007]

It’s pretty exciting for me to write this blog every few days, knowing that there are now dozens of regular readers. I know most of you are not golfers, so I hope you’ll forgive me for writing occasionally about this passion of mine. This is one of those occasions.

Something is rotten in Denmark!
Make that Far Hills – as in Far Hills, New Jersey! Something is rotten in Far Hills and I do not like the smell of it.

The USGA – the United States Golf Association – is one of the most important organizations in the world to me. Something isn’t quite right. It’s in air. That is, the smell of it is detectible – even obvious.
What’s going on?

Walter Driver is in charge these days. This, I think, is not a good thing. The pundits are calling him “Non-conforming Driver!” That’s kind of inside! If you’re not a connected golfer, you might not get the joke.

My membership in the USGA has been one of the most important “connections” in my life. This has been a great and an important organization to those of us who love golf. From a distance, the USGA has always been an organization to admire and appreciate. It has always been strong and decisive in protecting the game. Even in moments of controversy, the association has been a pillar of decency and unquestioned high ethics. No one ever supposed that a bottom line, or a matter of profit, might be more important than doing what is absolutely right and required for the good of the game of golf itself.

Now the air is changing. The aroma of something not quite fresh and clean drifts in over the game and that worries me. It began with the cut-back of benefits to staffers (employees) of the USGA. We members have always felt that the staff – the grunts who do the daily work and carry out the decisions of the lofty and temporary members of the Board – were the heart and soul and the future of the USGA. Now, questionable messages have been sent to them. The rumblings are not loud because USGAers are not that way; however, they have been quietly clear.

Word comes now that a couple of significant staffers have been sent on their way. Maybe the firings are justified; yet it has not been done well. The USGA is now operating in that corporate world attitude that declares: “We don’t have to explain anything to you!” It comes across in the press as more of a gutting, once again for financial reasons. Outsiders realize that Walter Non-Conforming Driver is a bottom line guy. What members want is a top-drawer guy. We are the stock holders – we who send our bucks in every year – we who’ve bought shares in the USGA – and we want to know what’s going on.

Selena Robert, writing in the NY Times, verbalized a worry that many of us have about Walter Driver and his modus operandi: “He is the corporate cowboy with luxury tastes who is forcing a Wall Street approach on a nonprofit organization. … The U.S.G.A.'s grassroots slogan is ‘For the Good of the Game.’ Yet Driver projects what's good for him as a member of at least three private clubs with reputations for discriminatory practices: Pine Valley in New Jersey, Augusta National and Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta. Why join one cabal of bias when you can learn secret handshakes at all three?” [Selena Roberts, NY Times, 16 June 2007]

I’ve been in Tim Moraghan’s company a few times and had one very interesting and helpful, long conversation with him a few years ago. He’s one of those guys – and there are dozens of them at the USGA – who reek of loyalty and commitment to the integrity and health of the game of golf. Now Moraghan has been trimmed away. I didn’t know Marty Parkes, who has also been fired, but people do speak highly of him, too. Now there are murmurs about David Fey going next. This is the guy responsible for the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, one of golf’s greatest and most memorable moments. He is an extraordinary spokesman for the USGA and for the game of golf. He is a great favorite of the membership and presents the right feel and message about the importance of the game above everything else.

Members will be watching closely, ready to make bottom-line decisions about whether or not they will continue to mail in their bucks in support of bottom-line guys who don’t get it about the spirit and life of the game that is more than a game to us out here looking in. One of the fearful things is that the USGA doesn’t need its membership any more. Membership dues seem now to be just a tiny slice of the pie chart that demonstrates bottom-line profits. TV, corporate sponsors and championship event income is much more important. “A typical United States Open is estimated to net more than $25 million for the association,…” [Bill Pennington, NY Times, 11 June 2007]

Here’s my suggestion. Let’s bring John Feinstein in for the investigation. Let him dig into the USGA and it would make one of his finest books – a real thriller like Hamlet.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Thelma Jones


You just know a real writer when you read one, don’t you?
by Charlie Leck
[6 July 2007]


You know, when you pull a book down off your library shelf early in the morning – one that has been there, untouched and unread, for about 20 or 30 years – and you crack it open and begin reading , and, you shuffle and shift your body into a more upright position and keep reading and turning page after page, and forget the time or where you are or what you have to do, and suddenly your back begins to ache and you realize that you haven’t stirred in 3 or 4 hours, and so you get up to stretch and hold the book out before you and realize you’ve nearly read it through and haven’t enjoyed anything so much in years and years, it’s a really wonderful way to begin a day.

Such it was yesterday when I grabbed this old faded copy of a book by Thelma Jones, Once Upon a Lake. Who’s Thelma Jones? Duknow! She says in the book she was a librarian right here in Wayzata for years. She wrote another book that I did read years ago, called Piety Hill. It was nothin’ to write home about, believe me!

But this book – this wonderful book about Lake Minnetonka – well, it is just so beautiful that I can’t quite believe a hoard of people haven’t told me about it. From the opening sentences of the Preface to the delightful closing lines, it is just marvelous: “What was left to Lake Minnetonka was domesticity. From shore to shore she was ringed with domesticity, substantial, devoted – and tame. But she had her memories.”

This librarian was a writer. She built these incredible pictures in my mind by swirling together words in the most delightful and delectable manner. Why, Hemmingway couldn’t have carried her jock stra…. Oops, that must be some other kind of undergarment worn by woman about which I do not know… That’s how wonderfully she writes. You know, I don’t know anything about her. I think I’ll stop in at the bookstore today – the one that faces out over the lake – and I’ll ask Peggy about Thelma and just who she was – other than a librarian, of course! It doesn’t appear she wrote any other books. Why, for heaven’s sake, why?

Let me read to you just these opening paragraphs and, then, you see for yourself…



“In May 27 of 1852, as the northern hemisphere of earth tilted toward the direct rays of sun, beams of light fell upon a United States that was exuberant, questing and quickened with the sense of its own power.



“As earth turned upon its axis, the sun’s rays touched the free state of Maine, fell like a warm promise upon the bundles and boxes of herded, expectant people at the Port of New York, sped over the Appalachians, dyed gold the Great Lakes and the rivers braiding down to the Gulf of Mexico, and lit the patterned green of the Ohio
Valley, where for the first time in creation land had been measured and staked into true squares for man to own and husband.



“In Michigan, Iowa and the slave state of Missouri, that May sun beamed upon whiskered crews with surveyor’s chains and tallymarkers tattooing such six square mile squares upon the body of the continent, and the boss men among them, cheered by the sun, shouted carelessly, 'Oh, tie down your corner marker, boys. Blaze your witness trees. If it ain’t accurate, we’ll be the last white men to see it, anyway.'



“In New York, the sun’s first light touched the curly head of an exhausted little State of Maine woman who had just prepared a time-bomb called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly, and in Illinois the sun fell upon the shambling figure of a lawyer who could not stay out of public life and illumined it and stretched his long shadow to infinity – but no-one much except a few abolitionists were too worked up. For the most part the country was oblivious to the threats of disunion; it was a buoyant era.



“Before the sun’s rays crossed the central sea of grass and the Rocky Mountain snow to start sweat upon the backs of possessed men sluicing gold in the valley of the free state of California – before that, the sun’s rays gilded the top of a rectangle of hardwood forest dropping, remarkably, down into prairie land. This watchfob of forest, forty miles wide, a hundred miles long, lay in the Territory of Minnesota at a latitude exactly equidistant between the equator and the North Pole, lay, one might say, upon the solar plexis of the continent. So thick-bolled and tall and compact were the trees of this peninsula of forest that though in May the leaves were mere pencillings of green, the sun did not penetrate to the forest floor. At its center, the land rose and the forest upon it surged in waves over hills and down into valleys that were always dark with dampness. Here, in this rippling forest, like a sunburst of jewels, glittered an enormous and beautiful and strangely-shaped lake. Its shoreline was so cut into bays, straits, channels and long, reaching headlands that it appeared to be not one but sixteen bodies of water.



“There were a number of islands in the lake, and upon the lee side of the largest one, several young men sat about the ashes of a fire. They were eating fish which they had wrapped in wet paper and baked over the dying coals, and their spirits were as high and as bold as the national mood.” [Jones, Themla: Once Upon a Lake, Ross and Haines, Minneapolis, 1957, pps 15-16]


I’m sorry. I can’t write anymore today. It would be disrespectful!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Of Course, Mr. Hitchens, Of Course!





How Stupid Can Religion Be?
by Charlie Leck

A Case Study:
The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara
by David Kertzer

Zealots, such as Pope Pius IX and dozens of
contemporary Christian fundamentalist radicals,
give religion a very bad name and cause most of
the reasonable people of the world to turn away
from faith. Stop it Pat Robertson! Stop it all of you!



In a powerful new, best-selling book, God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens bemoans the fact that religion is manmade. Of course it is! This is no great revelation, Mr. Hitchens. Of course religion is manmade! Religion is man’s response to his faith in God. Do not blame God for poor and imperfect religion! God has nothing to do with it!


That being said, I am constantly stunned by the stupidity of most religious expression. There are so many extreme examples of bad religious expression – within Christianity and every other organized religion in the world – they would weary us in trying to present the case studies. And people of faith wonder why so much of the world is uninterested in their silly expressions that they try to sell as deep faith.


Let me present only one powerful example. Don’t confuse it with a charge against the Roman Catholic Church; for no faith and no institutional church is immune from these same chanrges.


Last year we had the opportunity to see the extraordinary new Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. What a thrill. I cannot imagine that there is a finer theatre complex in the world than this extraordinary facility.


We saw the play, Edgardo Mine, by Alfred Uhry. It is based on an extraordinary work of non-fiction by David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The dramatic presentation so moved me that I stopped at the theatre’s gift shop on the way out and purchased Kertzer’s book. I gave it nearly full attention over the next few days even though Thanksgiving Day was fast approaching and I had many chores to accomplish in order to get ready.


As absolutely devastating in power as the play was, I quickly discovered that it told only a fraction of the miserably stupid story of just how spectacularly evil religious zealots can be.
Did I really need such additional evidence in a world where revolutionaries kill hundreds of innocent people in the name of their god and bring such wretched agony to the families of those murdered? Could I not see such stupidity in my contemporary world when a president of my own nation can refer to an invasion and occupation of another nation, half-way around the world, as ‘a crusade?’


What more evidence do I need than that presented in my own nation by evangelical zealots who claim that their own path to salvation is indeed the only one and that they are guaranteed eternal life while those who do not believe as they shall not realize those rewards? What unharnessed and vile stupidity!


In 1858, Pope Pius IX actually ordered the kidnapping of a Jewish child. The great, pompous, religious leader of the Universal Catholic Church, demanded that this six year old boy be taken from his parents and brothers and sisters and that he be brought into the sanctuary of the Holy Catholic Church.


Oh that I had time and space to explain the complex historical background in which this dastardly event took place. I can only sketch it out for you.


The Pope, at that point in history, also saw himself as a divinely appointed King. His kingdom did not amount to much, but world concepts were still fairly limited in those days and a guy who held sway over a few provinces in Italy could delude himself with the idea that he really had a vast kingdom. The Kingdom of Pope Pius IX amounted to a crescent of a few hundred miles, extending from just south of Rome over to the Adriatic Sea and up to and including the important city of Bologna. It did not, however, include Florence or any of Tuscany or Milan, Genoa or Venice. Neither did it include Sardinia or the vast area south of Rome, including Naples and Sicily.


As well, Pope Pius IX was being heavily pressured to give up his claim to state sovereignty and concentrate on his more divine duties as the ruler of the church universal. This pope was more than a big egoist and he resisted these pressures. The last thing he needed was an intense amount of negative notoriety in the world press. Nevertheless, that’s what he got from the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.


Excuse me my Roman Catholic friends, but I must say it loudly. This guy was a jerk even though Kertzer says he may have been “the most important pope in modern history.” [74] Except for the Apostle Peter himself, Pius IX reigned longer than any other pope in history. This is attributable to the extremely young age at which he was coronated as both King and Holy Father. At the age of 53, Father Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti came into his office at a time when there were “new currents sweeping Europe, the movement away from the old regimes of autocrats and noblemen toward a system of nations based on constitutional rule and the separation of Church and state.”


I mustn’t burden you with more history and I must go back to the story at hand, regarding the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. How did such an incredible incident take place? It all springs from the superstitions and falderal that religion can create and sprinkle on the heads of its unquestioning adherents.


Edgardo Mortara was the innocent son of Momolo and Marianna Mortara. They lived in the Jewish sector of great city of Bologna. Momolo was a somewhat successful businessman and the family was certainly able to afford a servant to help with the care of their large family of children. As an infant, Edgardo took on a serious fever and fell seriously ill. His mother watched over him for hour after hour. One evening, exhausted, she was taken away by Momolo so that she might rest. The servant girl, a Christian, was put in charge of watching over the child. During her watch, the girl noticed that the child was growing worse and that death was both imminent and certain. In a panic, thinking the child was destined to go to eternal punishment in Hell, the girl reached into a nearby basin of water and baptized the child exactly as she had heard the priests do in her own little church. When morning broke, so had the child’s fever. Edgardo’s mother was ecstatic at her son’s recovery and proclaimed it a miracle. Naturally, the servant girl attributed the miracle to her own alert and holy actions.


Now, unfortunately for the Mortara family, their servant girl was a bit of a wench and she dabbled in sex quite indiscriminately. Her lovers often included one or more of the soldiers from the company appointed to protect the Pope’s limited empire. She readily told the soldiers the story of the great miracle she had performed. The account slowly spread from the soldiers to the holy priests and eventually to the Pope himself.


Of course, any Catholic rube could now see that it was unjust to allow Edgardo to continue to live outside the confines of the faith. He had to be removed from the evil that surrounded him and he had to be brought inside the church itself. The great miracle made that all so evident to Pope Pius IX. And so, he ordered that the child be removed from the family and that he be brought into the protection of the church.


Unbelievable fiction? No, it is unfathomable non-fiction.


The little child is kidnapped. He is hidden within the church and is raised there for the rest of his life. His entire family is left to grieve and mourn forever over its lost child. The boy grows to become a priest, believes he has been saved from eternal damnation and lives out his life in Austria, France and Belgium.


The incredible and shocking event set in play the final stages for the Catholic Church as ruler of any secular state. The press clippings were not good. Protests extended far beyond the Jewish community and arose throughout Europe and, eventually, in America. The empire of the Catholic Church would soon collapse, Italy would be reunified and the papacy would retreat into the Vatican.


Uhry’s play is magnificent. It portrays the agony of Momolo and Marianna so dramatically. Though the play also makes it clear that the leaders of the church believed ardently in what they were doing, Uhry also raises the question about the stupidity of irrational religious faith and doctrine. Uhry is a master story-teller, as evidenced by the success of his previous dramas, including Driving Miss Daisy. However, as good as the play was that night at the Guthrie Theatre, Kertzer’s extraordinary book is more compelling and dramatic and tells the story to its awful end.


Kertzer enables us to follow poor Momolo through his time in jail, through his trial for murder and then on to his death only a month after his acquittal of the charges. We also follow Edgardo through his training and eventual ordination as a priest.

“Known as a scholarly man – reputed to preach in six languages, including the notoriously difficult language of the Basques, and to read three others, Hebrew
among them – Father Mortara dedicated his life to spreading the faith, singing the praises of the Lord Jesus Christ, and traveling throughout Europe, going where he was most needed. As a preacher he was in great demand, not least because of the inspirational way he was able to weave the remarkable story of his own childhood into his sermons. As he recounted it, his saga was the stuff of faith and hope: a story of how God chose a simple, illiterate servant girl to invest a small child with the miraculous powers of divine grace, and in so doing rescued him from his Jewish family – good people but, as Jews, on a God-forsaken path.” [295]
As for Marianna Mortara, the story is sad enough to break the reader’s heart. She had been charged as a conspirator in the murder for which Momolo was accused. I refer you to Kertzer’s extraordinary book if she want to read further about the murder accusation and the trial of Momolo and Mariana Mortara. All of the years from the time her son was kidnapped were difficult for the poor mother. Her mental health grew poor and she was subject to a great deal of irrational madness.


Marianna died in 1890 with several of her children, including Father Pio Edgardo, at her bedside. She had made a kind of peace with her son and she was at peace with him. Such was not the case for Edgardo’s siblings. They developed and retained a deep, abiding dislike, bordering on hatefulness, for their brother. As Marianna lay dying, her son, the priest, attempted to persuade his mother to convert to the Christian faith in order to save her soul, but, to the end, she declined.


Father Pio Edgardo Mortara would die in a Belgian abbey where he had lived for many years. He was 88 years old. In only a matter of weeks following his death, soldiers of the Nazi Reich would stream into Belgium and begin rounding up those of Jewish blood in order to purge Europe of this wicked and weakened race.


The entire case is little known in Italian history. It has been relegated mainly to the narrow focus of Jewish scholars concerned with the persecution of Jews by the Catholic Church. Church historians have ignored the case because of the embarrassment it causes and the memories it rekindles. Yet, there is a wealth of original source material documenting the story in great detail and Kerzer has dug deeply into that documentation.


In this one place I recommend both the play by Uhry and the extraordinary book by David Kertzer. Be assured that Kertzer’s work it careful and scholarly. He doesn’t take short cuts. His logic is precise and accurate. His sources are tested and well noted. Kertzer leads the reader carefully and precisely through the entire story with no confusion as to the time-line or the steps taken to get to where one is going.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Conqueror Returns

The land, from the inner reaches of China, out across Mongolia, through Siberia and into Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Germany and France, has been conquered by the 1919 Essex and its crew of innocent, daring Americans, Andrew Fulton and Warner Bruntjen. Though thousands of miles away, we join their grand celebration and raise a glass in toast to the memory of one of the world's great travelers and adventurers, Worth Bruntjen. Some of both his spirit and earthly frame have been left behind on the route of the great rally. It is fitting, appropriate and marvelous. A son has honored his father as gloriously as it has ever been done. Rest in peace, Worth.

The story of the great rally is not mine to tell and so I won't. We'll wait for the big, tall, gangly fellow from Kenwood to tell the tale as it should be told. It will be wonderful, touching, funny and spell-binding.

I can only laud him here for a job well done, a gallant goal met and sweet, sweet victory. Car #12 will always be an important part of our family memories.

I raise another glass to Warner.