Dropping A Jackson


According to J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999), “it is our choices, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” While she was mainly addressing individuals, the same can equally be true for distinct groups and nations. This can be seen in how we deal with our friends and our adversaries; how we handle the weakest and the strongest of us; and how we choose our leaders. More symbolically, it can be seen in the people we honor and the ways we choose to do so – be it anything from a grand monument or a street name to something that all of us probably have in our wallets, pocket, or purses – money. This month’s History Rhyme will briefly examine the faces that are currently on the money of the United States and an intriguing effort to use social media to broaden the list of those who have been so honored.

In our day-to-day economic lives, many probably do not think much of who is on our money let alone the significance of those faces. However, the roster of honorees can reveal what a nation’s leaders wish to convey about the past they feel should be emphasized. I discovered this first hand in the mid-1990s while attending a summer language school in Poland. At that time, the Polish government was making major changes in its currency. Not only were they dropping four zeros from their money (the złoty) in an effort to make purchases easier for stores, but also as a way to further eradicate reminders of the era of Communist control and oppression. Since it would be impossible to instantly remove all of the old currency at once, the Polish government began a phased transition where both old and new zlotys were in circulation. I am not ashamed to admit that it was rather difficult at times to remember if my old 50,000 złoty note was worth 5 new złoty or 50. The one good thing of visiting Poland at that time was that I could then still find the humorous t-shirt that said “I made my first million in Poland” (which with the old złoty meant about $50 by the exchange rate at the time). Ah, the small joys in life!

While the mix of old and new currencies was confusing (thank goodness I rode with honest cabbies), it did offer a prime example of using symbols to change a national narrative. While the new złoty were populated by historic kings and queens of Poland’s distant past, the Communist-era notes had either harmless, non-political Poles such as the composer Frederick Chopin, the scientist Marie Skłodowska-Curie, or the astronomer Copernicus (who were all used to convey the legitimacy of the Communist government), or obscure Socialists and Communists from Poland’s past such as the socialist activist Ludwik Waryński or the Soviet General Karol Wacław Świerczewski (neither of which were familiar to this student of Polish history) in pointed attempts to emphasize Poland’s historical ties to Communism and socialism.

While the government of the United States is not so heavy-handed in its efforts to use its currency to promote a certain version of the past, we can still look to see what messages those faces convey. On the paper currency, all those honored are white men. All but two (Alexander Hamilton on the $10 and Benjamin Franklin on the $100) were presidents – although both Hamilton and Franklin played crucial roles in the creation of the United States. On the coins, almost all those honored (exempting generalized figures like “liberty”) were also white, male presidents. The only exceptions were Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea who both were on the poorly circulated dollar coin. What does this say about the history of the United States? First, it demonstrates the importance presidents have had in American politics and history. Second, it reminds us that as of 2015 we have not had a female president. Third, it reminds us that as of 2015, all of our deceased (a requirement to be put on money) presidents are white.

In an effort to address the lack of gender diversity on widely used currency denominations and perhaps to also address the lack of racial diversity, a group calling themselves “Women On 20s” (@WomenOn20s on Twitter) has started an online campaign to select a woman to be memorialized. Since President Barack Obama favors placing a woman on the money and that process does not require approval of congress, it is a very attainable goal. The reasoning for choosing the $20 as the proper venue for the selected woman is explained as follows: 2020 will be the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution which gave women the national right to vote; the current resident on the $20, Andrew Jackson, does not exactly embody the kind of past many want to emphasize; and because it seems odd and inappropriate to have the bank-hating Jackson is on a back note.

The process for selecting the fifteen women for voting is explained in much detail. After starting with 100 candidates, WomenOn20s had a panel of experts limit these to the final fifteen. The criteria for section were the impact the woman had on society, and the obstacles they faced in pursuing their goals. Some of the women selected were better known to the general public (e.g. Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks) while others were more obscure (e.g. the environmentalist Rachel Carson and Congresswoman Patsy Mink). A list of the next fifteen who just missed making the voting final list is also included on the website. Some of those names (e.g. Sally Ride, Helen Keller, Maya Angelou and Amelia Earhart) would undoubtedly be more familiar to the general public that some of those selected. Of those who just missed the cut is one with a connection to The History Rhyme – Jeannette Rankin who was featured here in The First of Many. Those who made the final fifteen represented a wide variety of careers – ranging from politicians (such as Frances Perkins who was the first female cabinet member as Labor Secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt), to medical professionals (such as Clara Barton who founded the American Red Cross or Margaret Sanger who founded Planned Parenthood), to social activists (such as feminist Betty Friedan or abolitionist Sojourner Truth).

In mid-April, the final four candidates were announced. Three were selected by hundreds of thousands of voters from the fifteen original candidates – Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. A new woman was added to the list after what the website calls “strong public sentiment that people should have a choice of a Native American to replace Andrew Jackson.” She is former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller. The winner of the final vote will be recommended to the Secretary of the Treasury. All of these women have traits that merit their selection. Roosevelt (who was also in the earlier History Rhyme post Ladies First) served in many official and unofficial capacities for the American people. Parks and Tubman were fighters for civil rights for African-Americans during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Mankiller was the leader of her people. However, if this election is like many in America, name recognition will play a vital role in the final choice. So, in the opinion of this History Rhymer, the most known name of this group will be selected. Considering the national attention that the civil rights struggles led by Dr. Martin Luther King and the continuing relevance for so many even today, I predict that Rosa Parks will be the victor. In any case, hopefully there will be a new face on the money and a new national message to be sent from person to person in their daily lives of commerce. Visit WomenOn20s to vote and to see who will be selected.

The Laboratory of Human Experience


In 1999, Bill Gates said “the Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.” Many things happen in a town square on a daily basis – commerce, leisure, entertainment, and the sharing of news. Since Mr. Gates made his observation, the world of social media has taken our village in new directions that he was unlikely to have foreseen. This edition of the History Rhyme will briefly focus on the news gathering and disseminating part of this role and then look at why historians are so important in helping us to make sense of what we have heard in Mr. Gates’ town square.

Up until recently, news and opinion on the events of the world have been available mainly through websites created by traditional print and broadcast media (e.g. the Wall Street Journal or CNN). In the past couple of years, the contribution by social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn has started to be gain significance in the global village. The news and information that are available through these channels may lack some of the polish of those offered from more traditional media, but they allow a variety of persons to help readers to better understand our world. Examples of this can been seen both locally and internationally. In the United States, events in Ferguson, Missouri were brought to a more personal level through the comments and pictures of the people who were eye witnesses to the various protests and riots that occurred throughout the year. On the international level, information about events such as the Russian occupation of Crimea were enhanced by the words and pictures of eyewitnesses. Although access to such information makes people more aware of events (if they choose to look) it does not necessarily help them to understand what is going on – more on that later…

Today (this blog was written on March 28, 2015), there was another example of how the Internet village spreads news through social media – the election of a president in Nigeria (which was covered extensively on Twitter under the hashtag #NigeriaDecides). From my viewpoint in the United States, the election appeared to be between a sitting president, Goodluck Jonathan, who had been accused of corruption and incompetence, and his primary opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, who took power in Nigeria in a bloodless coup in 1984 and then was deposed in another coup in 1985. Without context, it would appear to be a choice of the lesser of two evils (incompetent civilian or military dictator). Thankfully, the Internet village has offered me the chance to at least try to understand better what is happening through the help of Nigerian and fellow historian – Adejoke Rafiat Adetoro (found on Twitter @lyabadan). Her activity on Twitter and that of others she follows has kept me informed and updated on the voting that occurred today. These Nigerians gave me a feel of what it was like to discuss the issues of the campaign, know what it was like to stand in the long lines at polling stations, read the election results, and consider what Nigeria will be like after the elections. I am grateful for her help in offering this American a window into how the election has been perceived and experienced by those it affected the most – the Nigerian people.

A couple of weeks ago while discussing the upcoming election with my fellow historian, Ms. Adetoro made a comment that is the real focus of this month’s blog – the need for historians in our world. She mentioned to me that “politicians are busy re-writing history to suit their campaign.” Although acknowledging that this is not a new development, she felt that the example in Nigeria was especially troubling since the study of history is disappearing from Nigerian curriculum and that history departments in Nigerian universities are focused on Nigerian diplomacy. This leaves the Nigerian people vulnerable to a twisting of the past to justify anything. As a fellow historian, I certainly could not argue with her view that the study of the past has great value to understanding the present. As stated many times before, that is the reason for the History Rhyme to exist. I know that we are not the only ones who feel that way. Hopefully, if you are reading this blog, you feel the same way too.

To close this month’s blog, I will bring to our attention a short essay entitled “Why Study History?” that was written in 1998 by Dr. Peter Stearns of George Mason University. It offers good ammunition for us historians to use when someone starts saying that there is no value in the study of history (which Stearns says gives us “access to the laboratory of human experience”) or in the training of historians in our modern world. Stearns makes some excellent assertions on the value of historical study for society (e.g. “history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave,” and that “history provides data about the emergence of national institutions, problems, and values – it’s the only significant storehouse of such data available.”). He also makes very valid points on the types of “soft skills” learned studying history that makes the student valuable to the corporate world – the ability to assess evidence, the ability to assess conflicting interpretations, and experience in assessing past examples of change. Sterns’ general conclusion, which mirrors the comments of my source for Nigerian news these last few weeks, is simply that “historical study, in sum, is crucial to the promotion of the elusive creature, the well-informed citizen.”

Keep learning from others and let them learn from you. Until next month…

From Chuck To Gil

In the world of psychology and literature, stream of consciousness is a technique used to convey the flowing and perhaps even rambling way that our minds connect thoughts and past experiences. The same technique can be applied to the world of history. As this blogger has expressed on numerous occasions, the events of today can be seen as reflections of past events. In effect, it is a stream of history. For those who are unaware of past events, the echoes or rhymes are not discernible – leaving such people bereft of the instructive possibilities of the past. For those who are aware of past events, the possible connections between events can be diffuse and sometimes surprising. This month’s History Rhyme will attempt to take you into this blogger’s mind the see how the current change of power in the United States Senate can be tied to the songs of an (unfortunately) obscure poet/singer from the 1970s, whose topics and observations are still very relevant to today.

We begin our journey with a February 2, 2015 article by Lauren Fox in the National Journal entitled “This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year.” A regular reader of this blog may have noticed that I live in the state of Iowa and have commented about Iowa political figures from time-to-time (e.g. “The First of Many,” “The Right Thing To Do” & “The Will of the People”). So, the fact that my senior senator is now the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee naturally caught my attention. Despite the optimistic title, the article notes that Senator Charles “Chuck” Grassley is not in line with the current ideas of his party in regards to criminal sentencing laws. The Republican Party is moving away from its stronger “tough on crime” views. Despite the fact that American prisons are bursting with people serving long sentences for minor drug crimes (up to 42% of the federal prison population) and who are disproportionately black males, Grassley still is a strong adherent to the traditional Republican view that a touch stance on crime is needed and stated in May 2014 that “current mandatory minimum sentences play a vital role in reducing crime.”

The story of my senator opposing reduction on mandatory sentences started the river of thoughts flowing in my mind which led me to remember how in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy were strongly advocating a “war on drugs” from which many of the sentencing guidelines mentioned above spawned. As I do often when a topic makes a link to a memory, I went online to see if my mind remembered things correctly or whether I might have (to quote Roger Clemens) “mis-remembered” what happened. My search led me to an earlier “war” by an American president about which I had previously known very little – Richard Nixon’s “war on crime.” Considering what we now know of Nixon and his tendency to skirt the rules (to put it mildly), this interest in crime seems ironic since he was later pardoned for all crimes by President Gerald Ford on September 8, 1974. However, in the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s, crime was a very important issue that helped him become president and for the Republican party to emerge triumphant in that multitudinous era.

Examining the policies and speeches of President Nixon on the issues of crime and his later pardon, drew my mind to a spoken introduction to a 1975 song entitled “We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis)” by the poet/singer Gil Scott-Heron.i In this song, Scott-Heron expresses his disgust for the way that Nixon was pardoned while many poor, black men were going to prison for minor offenses with no hope of pardon when he says: “We beg your pardon America. Somebody said ‘brother-man gonna break a window, gonna steal a hubcap, gonna smoke a joint, brother man gonna go to jail.’ The man who tried to steal America is not in jail. Get caught with a nickel bag brother-man, get caught with a nickel bag, sister-lady on your way to get your hair fixed. You’ll do Big Ben, and Big Ben is time. But the man who tried to fix America will not do time.”

The connection of the pardon of Nixon and the song by Gil Scott-Heron leads us to the final stop on the journey through my thoughts. It is with an effort to help more people to become familiar with more of Scott-Heron’s songs (most in collaboration with flutist Brian Jackson). He has been somewhat forgotten as time as passed and I think that is a loss for those who want their music to have some social relevance. His songs covered a wide variety of topics that are remarkably relevant to today. Besides “We Beg Your Pardon,” songs like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Winter In America,” and “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” deal with racial problems. Topics like materialism, illegal immigration, and substance abuse are covered in the songs “Madison Avenue,” “Alien (Hold On To Your Dream), ” and “The Bottle.” The only major way his songs diverge from the activist perspective of today (which I confess still has me puzzled) is that he was strongly opposed to nuclear power while more and more in the modern environmental movement seem to have come to terms with the problems of nuclear power. Examples of songs expressing his views on the topic are “Shut ‘Um Down” and his excellent telling of the time in 1966 when “We Almost Lost Detroit.” Unfortunately, Scott-Heron was eventually a victim of substance abuse too and it shortened his career and, in 2011, his life. Hopefully after reading this month’s blog, you too might help him to be remembered and appreciated by future Americans who are looking for music with a meaning.


i The topic of presidential pardons (other than the Nixon’s) was discussed in a previous History Rhyme (“A Christmas Gift”).

A Historical Legacy: A Tribute To Professor Anna Cienciala


On Christmas Eve 2014, Anna M. Cienciala of Lawrence, Kansas passed away in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She was 85 years old. Although she was not well known outside her area of expertise (Polish history), her life and her passing are of special importance to this historian. She was my dissertation adviser at the University of Kansas. This edition of The History Rhyme will not follow the typical style and focus of the blog. Instead, I will offer a few brief memories of the professor who played the greatest role in my development as a historian.

Professor Cienciala was born on November 8, 1929 in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). Her father was involved in the business aspects of the budding Polish shipping industry in interwar Poland and was a strong supporter of the governments led and influenced by Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. When Poland was attacked by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939, Professor Cienciala, her mother, and sister fled from Poland to Romania, then to Spain, and then to France. Shortly after her arrival in France, the “phony war” of 1939-40 ended with the German invasion in June 1940. The Cienciala’s were then forced to flee to Britain for the duration of the war. After the war and the betrayal of the Polish exile government in exile by the Allies at the end of World War II, many of the Poles in Britain never returned to their homeland. Anna eventually decided to study diplomatic history in order tell the story of Poland during the interwar period.

A woman seeking to become a professor in the 1950s was uncommon and not without criticism (she was told more than once that she was taking a place away from men and that she should become a housewife). Yet, her determination helped her to overcome adversity and to receive a Bachelor of Arts from Liverpool University in 1952. She then moved to North America to continue her education at McGill University (M.A. – 1955) and Indiana University (PhD – 1962). She taught Eastern European history at three universities, University of Ottawa, University of Toronto, and (starting in 1965) at the University of Kansas. During her career, she wrote Poland and the Western Powers:1938-1939 (published 1968) and co-wrote, with Titus Komarnicki, From Versailles To Locarno, Keys to Polish Foreign Policy, 1929-1925 (published 1984). She also wrote numerous articles and participated in many panels on the topics of Polish diplomatic history and especially on the Katyn Forest Massacre. As a professor, she helped guide several budding scholars. The last of her doctoral students (me) completed his work in 2001 after which she retired to emeritus status in 2002. In 2014 she was awarded the Commander’s Cross with Start of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. After her death, services were held in Lawrence with the Polish Consul in Chicago attending, in New York City at St. Stanislaus church and in Warsaw.

There have already been several memorials to the life of Professor Cienciala. In this blog, I will simply take the opportunity to share a few of my memories of being her student and some thoughts on what I learned from her. When I first met Professor Cienciala (it still feels wrong to call her Anna), I was 23 years old and had some vague ideas on historical topics. I learned quickly that I needed to have a better grasp of my facts and a firmer foundation to my arguments. The incident that comes to mind is shortly after I arrived at Kansas when I made a vague comment about nobody being explicitly to blame for the outbreak of World War I. She told me that it was “soft-headed thinking” and then proceeded to give me a multitude of documented facts showing that the Germans had been prepared for a war with Russia for quite some time. Her insistence that I support my ideas made me a better scholar. I also learned quickly that she was fearless in her defense of her views. When the former President of Communist Polish, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, spoke in the middle 1990s at Kansas State University, my professor was there asking him hard questions about his suppression of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s.

While Professor Cienciala could be demanding of her students, we all knew that she was looking out for us too. When I was presenting a paper at a conference on the use of messianic themes by Poles in exile during World War II (which served as the basis for a journal article on the topic), an older gentlemen who had opposed some of the people I quoted started to grill me. I was unable to answer some of his assertions as they were well outside of the scope of my topic. My professor, who had been in these types of ideological skirmishes for years, came to my rescue. I was very grateful. When I was first preparing to visit Poland in 1995, she not only give me a letter of reference that allowed me to meet with the director of Poland’s National Archive, but also gave me practical advice on how to handle someone trying to give me drinks at a party (“pour it into a nearby plant while they are not looking”).

Finally, Professor Cienciala was also the source of some very humorous stories about Central and Eastern Europe (some of which included herself) which were helpful in explaining the sometimes confusing history of that region. So, in closing, I will try to retell one of her stories that I especially enjoyed that explained the decline and fall of the Soviet Union. In this story, the Soviet Union is a train and that its citizens are operating the train.

During the time of Lenin, the train works for a while but eventually has problems. Lenin goes to the engineers and urges them with great zeal to overcome the obstacles they face. The train is fixed and continues on. Later, during the time of Stalin, the train once again comes to a halt. Stalin orders the engineers to be shot and new, more loyal ones to replace them. With great efforts, the train is fixed and continues on. During the time of Khrushchev, the train once again comes to a halt. The Soviet leader responds by getting a new and very expensive engine which then continues down the track – albeit without a way to pay for the repairs. Finally, during the time of Brezhnev, the train once again comes to a halt. The Soviet leader says “just shake the curtains and pretend we are still moving.”

Kicking The Tires


You want to pick the perfect one but are not sure which that is. The advertising for each product is so enticing and reassuring. The packaging is all so polished. Yet, you have been fooled in the past and suffered long periods of buyer’s remorse. Some have been touted as durable and tough, others promoted as thoroughly tested, and others guaranteed to be different from anything you had previously. Right now, you are temped to be skeptical and about ready to give up on the whole process. However, you know you are going to end up with a new one no matter what you do (or not do). You might as well be a part of the transaction so that your opinion may be heard (even if your choice is not selected). So, being a “smart” consumer, you have decided to research your options before making your final selection. You will make the right choice this time. You know it!

The above description is familiar for Americans during the holiday buying season we are experiencing. It is the time of buying a gift for others or yourself at a time when the world of commerce is eager to have your money. However, in this History Rhyme we are not talking about buying a new toy, car, or electronic gadget. Instead, it is the process that many politically-minded Americans are beginning which will culminate in November 2016 with the selection of the 45th President of the United States. In order to help in this process, this month’s blog will look at the political careers of a few of the top possible candidates to see what level of experience they have, look at the per-presidential political careers of some of our past presidents, and see what we might gain from the past to help us in the upcoming future.

How can we know if the next person we elect will be a good choice? Each candidate will promise that they will do great things when elected. Whether or not they can or will fulfill these promises will remain unknown until after the election. The resume; however, is different. It shows what level of responsibility in governance each candidate had. Some events would seem especially relevant to the job of President, who is both the CEO of this great “corporation” and the one chiefly responsible for America’s interactions with other nations. As preparation for those presidential responsibilities, not all political roles are equally valuable. A state legislator has neither an executive component nor is intimately familiar with the interactions of the federal government with the rest of the world. The same can be said of time in the United States House of Representative. On the other hand, the role of governor does offer executive experience and that of United States Senator does involve a certain amount of international involvement (through the confirmation of our chief diplomats and in the approval of treaties). As of December 2014, no significant national figure has officially announced that they are a candidate. Yet, it is easy to discern who are the main contends for the Democratic and Republican nominations. Let us then look at the political resumes of these men and women.

The three most likely candidates for the Democratic nomination are former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Secretary Clinton has held two prominent elected or appointed political positions. She was the Senator from New York for eight years (2001-2009) and United States Secretary of State for four years (2009-2013). Both of these positions offered her the foreign policy exposure that a president needs. Yet, it is her time as First Lady (1993-2001) which offered the most unique perspective on how the presidency works. It is a qualification that no other likely (or even marginally likely) candidate will possess in the upcoming election. Although Vice President Biden cannot say that he has lived in the White House, his six years (2009 to present) as Barack Obama’s vice president is the next best thing, It has given him access to national security briefings, allowed him to interact with world leaders, and has given him the opportunity to remain in the national spotlight. Prior to 2009, he was the Senator from Delaware for thirty-six years. During that time, he was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee for eight years (1987-1995) and of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for nearly four years (2001-2003 and 2007-2009). None of the other candidates can claim such an extensive resume in the Senate. Senator Warren has the least noteworthy resume of these three Democrats. She has been a senator since 2013. Prior to that, she was the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard (starting in 1995). In addition, she has been appointed to two congressional panels.

On the Republican side of the presidential contest, there appears to be an abundance of possible candidates. For the sake of brevity, we will only look at the three that are receiving most of the attention from the political pundits: Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Senator Cruz has a political resume that is somewhat similar to that of Elizabeth Warren. He has only been in the Senate since 2013, was an adjunct professor of law at the University of Texas (2004-09), and has been appointed to roles within the government. In Cruz’s case, these tasks (in the period 2001-2003) were director of the Office of Policy Planning at the Federal Trade Commission, and Associate Deputy Attorney General. Unlike Warren, he was a law clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist and also held a state level position for five years (2003-08) as Texas’ Solicitor General. Senator Paul, son of frequent presidential candidate Ron Paul, has the smallest political resume of the three Republicans. He has been a senator since 2011, and prior to that, was an ophthalmologist and founder of Kentucky Taxpayers United. Governor Bush, second son of President George H. W. Bush and younger brother of President George W. Bush, is the only candidate with any elected executive experience coming from his eight years (1999-2007) as Governor of Florida. Prior to that, he was Florida’s Secretary of Commerce for two years (1986-88).

Looking at the various candidates described above, we see a variety of political experience and roles. Which of these would make the best president? Is executive experience the most helpful? If so, then Jeb Bush is the only possible candidate. Is foreign relations experience helpful? If so, then either Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden would be the smart choice. Then again, is time in power really that helpful in making a good president. In these times when public approval for Congress is very low, the appeal of an outsider is strong. For such voters, the relatively inexperienced Senators from Texas, Kentucky, or Massachusetts may be just what they crave. Since all of this is to be determined in the future, we really do not know what will be the right answer. As is the custom of the History Rhyme, we will now look into the history of past presidents to see if their political biographies are helpful in making the right choice in 2016.

In 2012, the website electoral-vote.com compiled data on the political resumes of past presidents in order to answer this question – How Good Are Experienced Presidents? They gathered date from twelve prominent presidential ranking polls to discern an average ranking (they call it a “consensus” ranking) for each president, tabulated the types and amount of political experience these men had, and presented the data in the form of a chart entitled “Greatness as a Function of Years of Experience.” The political roles included in the study are Vice President, Governor, Senator, Congressman, state legislator, and cabinet member. The results they obtained are perhaps surprising but are definitely interesting. The five men who had the most prior political service were James Buchanan (30.25 years), Lyndon Johnson (27 years), Gerald Ford (25.75 years), George Washington (24.5 years), and James Garfield (23 years). These five men are all over the best president rankings. Washington is the third best on the consensus ranking but is first in several individual rankings. Buchanan, despite all of his time in a wide variety of political positions (as Senator, Representative, legislator, and cabinet member), is the second worst in the consensus ranking.

The five men who had the least prior political experience were Chester Arthur (1.5 years – of which one was as a Civil War general), Grover Cleveland (2 years), Woodrow Wilson (2 years), Theodore Roosevelt (4.5 years), and Benjamin Harrison (6 years). These five men are also spread out on the “best” list with Roosevelt and Wilson ranked in the top ten (#5 and #6 respectively) and Arthur and Harrison in the bottom half (#26 and #30 respectively). What is even more interesting that man who is always included in the top three of any presidential ranking, Franklin Roosevelt, is the seventh least experienced president. If you move to the seventeenth and eighteenth least experienced presidents, you end up with the far extremes of the consensus rankings. Abraham Lincoln (10 years) is at the top of the best list while Warren Harding (10.5 years) is at the bottom.

Since total years of experience do not appear to be a good indicator of presidential success, we must look more closely at the data to see if any other trends emerge. We find that it is not the time that matters but the kind of work that appears to give us a better chance of predicting success. Six of the men in the top ten were state governors. Only two served in the Senate and only three in the House of Representatives. Conversely, six of the men in the bottom ten served in the Senate, six in the House, but only two of the bottom ten had been a state governor.

What do the past presidential resumes tell us that will be relevant in the upcoming 2016 contest? Historical data would suggest that familiarity with being the “CEO” of a state government is quite helpful in giving some guidance for being the “CEO” of the United States. It also appears that time in Congress is not as helpful even though these men were in the national spotlight, knew how things worked in Washington, and had some experience dealing with America’s relations with the outside world. If these past trends hold true for the future, it appears that the person with the best hope of being a great president would be Jeb Bush. Of course, elections are not often decided by an analysis of past data. Also, as they say in the radio commercials trying to get people to invest in gold, “past performance is no guarantee of future success.” If I were Jeb Bush, I would emphasize the past trends. If I were any other candidate, I would discount the top ten trend and try to convince the American people that this time it will be different.

It will be interesting to see in the next two years what happens and who is able to convince the most Americans to give them his or her vote. The History Rhyme will be there to help use the past to gain perspective on the developments that will come. In the meantime, have fun shopping!

The First of Many

Jeanette Rankin

We have come again to the favorite month of the year for this History Rhymer. First, October is the birth month of The History Rhyme (and its associated Twitter page). Second, it is election time and any regular reader of this blog will know that the history of political issues, parties, movements, leaders, and the close associates of political leaders are of special interest here. Third, autumn is the most beautiful time of year in Iowa (and also when every food establishment brings out a variety of pumpkin-related items). So, in an effort to tie all of these factors together, I will now discuss an important “first” that will most likely occur in politics this autumn in Iowa and tie it to three important firsts in American elections. However, unlike most other political blogs, commercials, and pundits, I will be brief in my musings. Don’t believe me? Well, continue on and see for yourself.

According to the Center for American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University, there are only four states that have never sent a woman to either the United States Senate or House – Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi and Vermont. When you add the office of governor, that list shrinks to only Iowa and Mississippi who have not elected a woman. This is not to say that in Iowa (my home state in case you were not paying attention) there have never been a major party female nominee to these offices. The most notable examples were Roxanne Conlin (D), who ran for governor in 1982 but lost to Terry Branstad and then ran for Senate in 2010 but lost to Chuck Grassley, and Bonnie Campbell (D) who ran for governor in 1994 but who also lost to Terry Branstad. As an aside, there has been a trend of having female Lieutenant Governors but they are rarely prominent political players in Iowa politics. In the upcoming election, it appears that Iowa’s dubious distinction may be removed since, as of late October 2014, senate candidate Joni Ernst (R) and house candidate Staci Appel (D) are in very close races. If Ernst wins, she will also have the extra distinction of being the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate.

Since this blog is all about looking at the past to try show how current events developed or to show the significance (or lack thereof) of current events, we will now turn our attention to those responsible for the change in politics that made Iowa’s dearth of female governors, senators, or representatives so noteworthy – the women who were the first to be elected to those offices in the United States. Although their names might not be known to Americans in 2014, their accomplishments are worth mentioning if only for the fact that they were the first or many to be elected. These women were Governor Nellie Taylor Ross (D-WY) who served from 1925 to 1927, Senator Hattie Caraway (D-AR) who served from 1931 to 1945, and Representative Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) who served from 1917 to 1919 and 1941 to 1943.

Nellie Ross (1876-1977) was appointed governor of Wyoming by a special convention to complete the term for her recently deceased husband William, but then went on to be elected in her own right after a special election in 1925. While governor, she advocated for tax and lending policies that favored small farmers. After being defeated for re-election in 1926, Ross served as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee and later was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt as Director of the United States Mint.

Hattie Caraway (1878-1950) was appointed to the United States Senate by the governor of Arkansas upon the death of her husband Thaddeus in 1931. She later was elected in her own right in 1932, and 1938. While in office, she served as chair of the Committee on Enrolled Bills. After losing a re-election bid in 1944, she served on the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board from 1946 until her death.

Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) was first elected to the United States House of Representatives from Montana in 1916. Prior to her election, she had been an active participation in efforts to give women the right to vote in Washington (1911) and Montana (1914). Once in office, she was actively involved in the passage in 1919 of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution (which was approved by the requisite number of states in 1920), which gave women nationwide the right to vote. In 1972, Rankin stated that If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.” Rankin gained more notoriety for her pacifist views when she was one of fifty representatives to vote against declaring war on Germany in 1917. After a failed attempt for a senate seat in 1920, she focused on the pursuit of peace. She returned to the house in 1939 which allowed her to once again vote against war in 1941. This time, she was the only “no” vote. After leaving office the final time in 1943, she continued to oppose US involvement in conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

Before we conclude our look at these first women and their differing political careers, it is helpful to consider two aspects of the phenomenon of women elected to prominent offices: (a) the electoral landscape of the United States prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, and (b) the reason why so many of the women who have been senators or representatives were not elected but appointed to their posts. Prior to 1920, a woman’s right to vote was dependent on the her location in the United States. Thanks to the activism and influence of the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (which has been partially documented in an earlier edition of the History Rhyme “The Will of the People”), most of the states west of the Missouri River allowed women to vote. For this reason, it is not surprising that the first elected governor and representative were from those states with long-established histories of women’s suffrage. The second aspect to understand when looking at women in office is that many of these women gained office by what is often called a “widow’s succession.” In fact it was not until Ella T. Grasso (D-CT) became governor in 1975 that a woman who was not the wife or widow of a previous governor, was elected to office. These women often gained their positions because they were the most politically safe person for the job since they had no political power base of their own and thus would not disrupt the balance of power of their husband’s party of choice. Although this factor does not diminish the accomplishments of important widows such as Governor Ross or Senator Caraway, it still must be acknowledged in order to understand that certain aspects of the roles women play in state and national politics have not come as far as might be hoped.

Will the state of Iowa be able to leave Mississippi as the only state without having an elected female governor, senator, or representative? In a few short days (from the time of this blog posting) we will know. If not, then it will be at least another two years until that may change. However, if Joni Ernst or Staci Appel is elected, then it will be up to future historians to see if they are in fact the first of many. In any case, this History Rhymer thanks you for all your support in the last year, and urges you to vote.

Eternal Vigilance


In 1809, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” This sentiment – expressed by a man who understood first-hand the highs and lows of the struggles for liberty – is one that would ring familiar in the ears of those living in the country he helped to establish. The world is certainly not a peaceful place and many across the globe view the United States as a symbol of the evils of that world (in a variety of guises – material, cultural, environmental, military…). In the years since the 9/11 attacks, there has been a marked and growing distrust by the American government and some of its citizens for those around the world who do not appear to share the “American” world view (even though that is a very fluid term even in the best of times). An important aspect of the fear is a belief that the United States is not as secure as it should and that some of this may be due to the presence of agents and traitors. A recent example is the assertion by a former CIA operative that President Obama’s loyalties are not where they should. Of course, a charge that important or influential people in the American government are working against their nation is not new. In this edition of The History Rhyme, we will present the current assertions about President Obama and his supporters and then will look back into America’s past – even before the time of Jefferson’s quote – to see what the rhyming events for our current situation tell us about our current predicament.

In the August 28, 2014 edition of WND.com – a conservative online news website that was founded in 1997 – a story by Garth Kant appeared with the provocative title – “Ex-CIA expert: Obama switched sides in war on terror.” On the same day, a summary of the article by Vicky Nissen with the more-provocative title “Ex-CIA employee admits President Obama is a radical Islamic enemy of America” appeared in another online news source called Examiner.com. These articles detail the opinions of a former CIA operative named Clare Lopez – assertions that the author of the WND articles states “a few members of Congress have confided to WND in private, but declined to say on-the-record. Lopez declares that the president and other officials like CIA Director John Brennan (who she calls a secret convert to Islam) have had essentially the same goals in the Middle East as Osama bin Laden, namely “to remove American power and influence, including military forces, from Islamic lands.” As an aside, she “mused” (the term used in the WND story) that the only reason who Obama finally had din Laden killed was that he “couldn’t delay any longer” and that he “thought it might look good” to let the special forces kill him. Another accusation in the story is that the Obama administration helped during the “Arab Spring” of 2010 to “bring down the secular Muslim rulers who did not enforce Islamic law.” To show that the actions of the Obama administration were not a whimsical change of view – but rather a deeper plot by America’s enemies – Lopez contends that the American government was being infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood as early as the Clinton administration and that the presence of these agents confused President Bush into believing that Islam was a “religion of peace” after the 9/11 attacks. Lopez’s final conclusion is that “for whatever motivations, there is no doubt this administration switched sides in what used to be called the Global War on Terror.”

What should we make of these charges? Are they true or just the partisan rantings of someone whose distrust of those unlike her has affected her judgment. In our increasingly partisan and media driven world, it has become harder and harder to find a view that is as free of partisan biases. In a world that often lacks a historical perspective, it is also easy to think that we have reached new depths of distrust of those living among us. In this same world, it is also tempting to assume there has never been a time that a president or his associates were accused of involvement in the kinds of activities that require Jefferson’s prescribed level of vigilance. Of course, this is not the case.

Since the creation of the United States in the late 18th century, there have been prominent examples where fear of those among us drove those in power to feel compelled to take actions in times of crisis that would have been unthinkable in times of calm. Some of the prominent examples of this include: the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which were signed into law by President John Adams as a reaction to rising tensions between the United States and revolutionary France. It resulted in the arrest of some opponents of the Adams administration – most notably the vehemently critical publisher of the Philadelphia Aurora, Benjamin Franklin Bache. The opinions on these acts were very partisan with Federalists initially being supportive while their Democratic-Republican opponents were bitterly opposed. However, the acts soon proved so unpopular that it helped Thomas Jefferson defeat Adams in the extremely bitter presidential election of 1800 and to serve as a prominent chapter in the fall of the Federalists from national prominence.

A more recent example is the investigation of the former State Department official Alger Hiss in 1948 by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Mainly due to the testimony of a former Communist spy named Whittaker Chambers, Hiss was accused of being a spy for the Soviet Union which Hiss denied. Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury but proclaimed his innocence for the rest of his life. It the heated atmosphere of the Cold War, the Hiss case and his innocence or guilt was a point of contention between Republicans and Democrats. For the most anti-Communist elements of the Republican Party, there was no question of Hiss’ guilt. For the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party, the actions of HUAC were a shameful example of the witch-hunting that occurred during the Red Scare era of the Cold War and that Chambers was an untrustworthy liar. It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the release of KGB documents in the 1990s that historians were able to determine that Hiss had actually been a Soviet agent.

Although the fear and distrust expressed in the comments of former CIA agent Clair Lopez can be found in the aforementioned events of the late 18th century and the middle 20th century, the accusations of treason against the president and his closest advisers are not (or at least not so overtly) found. However, that is not to say that those closest to a president have always escaped such charges. To conclude our look at how fear of a hidden enemy has shaped American politics in the past, we will consider the topic of a previous History Rhyme – Mary Todd Lincoln. As noted in the February 2014 edition of this blog (Ladies First), Abraham Lincoln’s wife has been much maligned by the general public and historians in the years since she became first lady. This negative appraisal is not too dissimilar to the one held about her during the time of her husband’s administration. During her time in Washington, Mary had prominent critics in the Washington press corps and among elected officials. During the early years of the war, she was investigated by Congress in connection to a White House gardener gaining access to a presidential speech before it was delivered. She was also generally condemned for her excessive spending on White House redecorating. Yet, it was not her questionable choices of confidants or draperies that are of interest to us in this History Rhyme.

Mrs. Lincoln is under our historical microscope this month because of the questionable loyalties of her half-siblings during the Civil War. Her father, Robert Smith Todd, was married twice in his life. The children of his first marriage, which included Mary, mostly remained loyal to the United States, while the children of his second marriage did not – including three of her brothers who fought in the Confederate army. Still, it was not just the actions of her relations that caused suspicion. Questions of the First Lady’s loyalties grew in December 1863 when Mary allowed her half-sister, Emily Todd Helm, whose husband had been a Confederate general until his death at the Battle of Chattanooga, to stay at the White House. There were also criticisms of a Mrs. Lincoln’s efforts for another of her half-sisters, Martha Todd White, to receive a pass through Union lines. According to several historians, most notably Carl Sandburg in Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Year and the War Years (published in 1954), concerns that there was possibly a Confederate spy in the White House were significant enough that the Senate’s Committee on the Conduct of the War met in secret to determine if there were validity to these claims. According to Sandburg, the president felt it necessary to appear before the committee with a sorrowful expression and with hat in hand to assure the senators that “I, of my own knowledge, know that it is untrue that any of my family hold treasonable communication with the enemy.” According to this account, the committee dropped their investigation in response. Although there are some who contend that this story is completely apocryphal, it is consistent enough with descriptions of Lincoln’s generally mournful countenance and the distrust of his wife that was felt by some in the Senate to at least seem plausible.

After looking at the various examples from the past on the need for Jefferson’s eternal vigilance, what can we say about the newest outbreak of the fever that seems to grip some in this country in times of trouble? First, we can certainly say that it is nothing new to believe that there are those around us with nefarious aims. The world is a dangerous place at times and there have been many who have viewed the United States as either an enemy or fertile ground for new supporters. Second, we can see that allegations of disloyalty against those in the highest levels of power are also certainly not new. Sometimes the allegations are backed by laws such as the Alien and Section Acts, by a congressional committee, such as the HUAC hearings, or just by the spreading of opinions in the guise of journalism as in our current case. Third, we can see that although it often appears from a short-term perspective that the level of animosity among our political factions is at an all-time high, this is a rather myopic assessment. Even though so-called journalists are accusing the president and his camp of essentially treasonous acts, there has been nothing to compare against the extravaganza of fear and accusations that was the HUAC hearings or the allegedly demeaning instance of a president having to beg a congressional committee to leave his wife alone. Furthermore, there is no effort underway by the defenders of the president to pass laws that would make their accusations punishable by time in jail. In the opinion of this History Rhymer, the relative sedateness of the animosity we see today is something for which we should be thankful.

The Naming Game


One of the great things about being a historian who likes to write about connections and themes in the interaction between the past and the present, is that I will not ever run out of interesting topics as long as I am paying attention. As I write in late August 2014, there are numerous topics in the news that would be excellent ways to examine how a short-sighted approach to history or just a general lack of knowledge of the past can cause contemporary men and women to make conclusions and assessments that might not be shared by someone with a little more knowledge of the past. The awkward Russian subversion of Ukraine can remind a reader of similar actions in places as distant in time and space as the German efforts to gain influence in Slovakia in the months leading up the World War II or even the CIA’s attempts to undermine a variety of pro-Soviet regimes during the Cold War in places like Chile, Congo, or Iran. The way the Chinese and Russian press are using the violent events in Ferguson, Missouri are very reminiscent of the way the Soviet Union would use American racial tensions in the 1950s and 1960s as a way to focus attention on the flaws of the United States while diverting attention from their own dubious human rights track records. However, it is not just the larger events that are great examples of the kinds of similarities (or perceived similarities) in history that this History Rhymer enjoys examining. In this months edition, we will look at a relatively minor event in a community in New Jersey that says a lot about our current political climate and the tendency for people to forget the rhyming events in our past. In this case, it is the renaming of a recreational center in Willingboro, New Jersey for President Barack Obama and the controversy that has resulted.

At a September 2, 2014 Willingboro city council meeting, the decision will be made on whether to change the name of a local recreation center and former school from the “Kennedy Center” to the “President Barack Obama Center.” In normal circumstances, the naming or renaming of a street, building, or even geographic location after a president or other elected official would not be a tremendously interesting topic for a History Rhyme. After all, it happens all the time. Every president from the very great (e.g. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) to the not-so-great (e.g. James Buchanan and Warren Harding) have had everything from plants to states named after them. Even most, if not all, of our vice presidents have been honored in a similar fashion. The current vice president, Joe Biden, has had a dwarf planet named after him. Even Franklin Pierce’s vice president, William Rufus de Vane King (who died before he ever made it to Washington D.C. or performed any of his official duties), had a county in Washington state named after him. The county was renamed in1986 after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but that still counts. However, since this is 2014 and the recipient of the honor is Barack Obama, it should be no surprise that someone is outraged in a very partisan manner. Two of the more colorful headlines to stories about the change are “Angry Reactions After Town Opts to Rename ‘Kennedy Center’ in Honor of Another President. (Hint: He’s Still Alive.)” from theBlaze.com; and “JFK Memorial Building To Honor Barack Obama Instead Because New Jersey City ‘Idolizes’ The President” from inquisitr.com. Although the mood of some local residents seem to be a mild form or opposition or even indifference, the online comments have been far from such views. The general tone of those comments, as seen in the comments section of a FoxNews.com story, concern the president’s unworthiness for such and honor (e.g. a person using the screen name your_kidding posting “I still don’t get it. He has done absolutely nothing useful.” or another using the screen name davestwin posting “The Barack Obama Unemployment/Disability Office (in every city) would be appropriate. Or how about having his face embossed on every SNAP’s card?”).

In addition to the posts in the comments section of the FoxNews.com story critical of the president, there are other posts that are of special interest to this edition of The History Rhyme. Those are the ones by avowed conservatives like the person using the screen name luvfreedomw68 who states that “To compare Obama with Kennedy is ludicrous and blasphemous. Not even close. Kennedy was a patriot and a gentleman,” or the person using the screen name azmanfromtx posting “Everybody is proud of JFK who has done more for this country than Obama every could.” However, the most interesting to me was the comment by the person using the screen name lydtoagin what asserted that the name change was because “JFK could not be welcome in Barry’s party.” Considering that the current Republican Party has moved to the right of Barry Goldwater, this last comment seems ill-considered at best. In any case, the positive views of Kennedy by these posters would imply that people did not oppose naming things after Kennedy in the aftermath of his assassination in 1963. While this is generally true, this History Rhyme will conclude with a short tale of when the “naming game” was not so favorable for our thirty-fifth president.

In the wake of the shocking assassination of Kennedy in Dallas, Texas in November 1963, President Lyndon Johnson was seeking ways to honor the memory of the fallen president and at the same time gain support for his new administration by the American people. One of the ideas that LBJ had was to rename Cape Canaveral (the whole region – not just the space launch facility) after Kennedy. The idea had originated from the slain president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, but the scope of the change was all LBJ. On November 27th after just three hours of using the famous “Johnson treatment,” the new president was able to convince the Department of Interior’s Board of Geographic Names to rename the entire area Cape Kennedy. If we were to simply use the comments section entries to the various stories about renaming the Willingboro center, it would be unthinkable that someone would have opposed such a change. After all, even acknowledged Republicans love him now and think him worthy of such an honor. Certainly LBJ felt this way as shown in his fawning letter to Mrs. Kennedy when he noted that “I am delighted to see that the reaction at Cape Kennedy and at the Kennedy Space Center has been one of deep gratification. It is clear that once again you have hit with unerring taste on the right thing to do” (see note). However, looking at the newspapers of the time shows a different result. According to the Associated Press story of December 8, 1963 entitled “Cape Kennedy Remains Despite the Opposition” (which appeared in identical form in newspapers such as the Victoria (TX) Advocate and the Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune) “many residents in Brevard County, in which the cape is located, protested the name change and flooded the desks of their congressman with telegrams and letters.” Local chamber of commerce groups protested the move and even the Florida Library and Historical Commission’s chairman stated that “the name of the geographical point – the cape – should not be changed.” The issue was not about whether Kennedy was deemed worthy or that naming the space center after him was inappropriate. Instead, it was that making such a wide-sweeping move to rename the whole area was more than locals wanted. Eventually, the geographical location would be rechristened Cape Canaveral in 1973 while the Kennedy Space Center remained to honor the president.

What can we learn from examining these two examples of playing the “name game” to honor our presidents? First, it tells us that it is unlikely that everyone will ever be pleased with the decision to honor someone by renaming an existing structure or location after them. If even renaming something after a popular president, who had just been assassinated in such a public way and whose memory had united the nation in the months after his death, would receive resistance; we should not be surprised that an effort to rename anything after an unpopular president in a deeply partisan nation would encounter even more resistance. Second, we can see that if a past leader is taken out of context, his accomplishments magnified, and his shortcomings ignored, it is easy to feel disappointment with our present leaders. In the case of the conservatives who praised Kennedy in the articles about the Willingboro center, it seems unlikely that they would have been so positive in their comments if Kennedy had been alive and was in office. Fortunately for those of us who love and appreciate the nuances of history, we can look at these events and see all that a study of the past has to offer for our understanding of our modern world. Keep looking and learning!


Note 1: Lyndon B, Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 19.


The History Rhyme posts and additional information about the author are also available at TheHistoryRhyme.com.

“The Right Thing To Do”


The people of the United States, with the notable exception of Native Americans, came to this country sometime since the seventeenth century. Some came, as my ancestors did, to avoid religious persecution, others came for a chance for a new prosperous life, while others tragically came here against their will. Yet, all of these people were immigrants. The poem “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 about the Statue of Liberty, describes the kind of nation many hoped to find. One that says “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” While some of those arriving were able to come to established communities and join family members, others were not so fortunate. This edition of The History Rhyme examines two cases of the latter type of immigrants – those who come with nothing – to see how different political and economic conditions within the United Sates can affect the receptiveness of this new Colossus.

Despite the eloquent words from Ms. Lazarus, the United States has not always been so eager to live out the sentiment of that poem. American history is littered with a variety of rules, regulations, and quotas that were designed to limit who could come to America and when. A notable examples of this was the quota system were set by the Immigration Act of 1924 which limited yearly immigration for an ethnic group to the United States to 2% of that group’s population in the U.S. in 1890. This had tragic consequences leading up to World War II since it severely limited the number of people who could enter the United States from Southern and Eastern Europe. Even after that point, the pace of legal immigration has been slow, at best. Since the 1980s, the rate of illegal immigration has increased greatly, especially across the porous southern border with Mexico, resulting in millions of illegal immigrants residing in the United States. From this, the issue of immigration reform has become a major political issue that has been inflamed by the increasingly partisan culture. There are numerous stories in the press and in blogs that argue that the immigration issue is a “winner for [insert party here].” Although this does help address the underlying issues behind the rise of illegal immigration (e.g. the lack of stability in Mexico and Central America, the inability of American employers to find legal Americans to take their demanding, low paying jobs, etc.), it does make good fodder for political attack ads and bombastic political pundits.

The latest chapter in the immigration saga concerns the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children at the US/Mexico border since October 2013. As with most crises these days, the first question that is asked in America is not “what is to be done” but rather “who is to be blamed.” It is not surprising that the political right blames President Obama for what Senator Rand Paul (R-TN) calls as “humanitarian nightmare.” It is also not surprising that some like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has called for Obama’s impeachment. More surprising is that the President is also being criticized by members of his own party for what has been perceived as a lack of decisive action by the nation’s leader. As of late July 2014, there are still no answers to this crisis in sight.

While the blame game is played at the highest levels, the question of “what is to be done?” still remains – especially with an overwhelming number of immigrant children needing care. One answer was to move children to camps in the states bordering Mexico. In some cases, this has encountered local opposition. The most notorious example was when a group of protesters confronted a bus filled with children in Murrieta, California on July 4, 2014, with people in the crowd carrying signs such as the ones that read “Stop Rewarding Start Deporting” and “Send Them Back With Birth Control.” In addition, the option of sending children to various states was considered, but this met with resistance from the governors of those states. One of the governors who said he would not accept any of the children was Terry Branstad of Iowa. In a July 15, 2014 story in the Des Moines Register, Governor Branstad explained why he did not want children sent to Iowa when he stated “I do want empathy for these kids, but I do not want to send the signal to send these children to America illegally.” The response to the governor’s stance has followed generally party lines. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) reacted by saying “I am disappointed that Gov. Branstad has stated that we somehow shouldn’t take these kids. Why not? Why can’t we help protect these kids and open up our arms to them, help them here to keep them safe and give them every reasonable opportunity to apply for asylum?” On July 18, 2014, the editors of the Des Moines Register chastised the governor for for abandoning Iowa’s long history of helping those in need. At the same time, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) focused his energies on passing a bill that would require the Federal government to inform states that children were being sent to the various states This arose after stories emerged that the Federal agencies were sending children to states such as Iowa without informing local officials.

This edition of The History Rhyme is concerned with this issue is that the response of the Iowa governor brought to my mind (as a lifelong Iowa resident) and to the mind of others like Senator Harkin a very different response to the plight of desperate people needing help of an earlier Republican governor of Iowa, Robert D. Ray (governor 1969-83). In the aftermath of the fall of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in April 1975, a “humanitarian crisis” much more serious than the one encountered recently at the Mexican border emerged. Within months, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese fled to overcrowded and under-supplied camps in neighboring countries such as Thailand. Included in that total were over 1,000 Tai Dam people who had been refugees in Laos since the 1950s when they had fled North Vietnam to escape the Communist government. With the takeover of Laos in 1975 by the Communist Pathet Lao, the Tai Dam were forced to flee again to the camps in Thailand. Arthur Crisfield, a former United States employee in Laos who had worked with the Tai Dam, wrote 30 United States governors asking for a place for these refugees. President Gerald Ford also asked the governors for help. Not only did governor Ray feel that helping these people was “the right thing to do,” so also thought it important to make sure that the Tai Dam were not separated. The governor asked President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to allow all the Tai Dam to be resettled together into Iowa. In Iowa, Ray ensured that the support the state gave emphasized work over welfare, because he felt that was the best way to ensure that their community would remain cohesive in the values and cultural identity they had fought so hard and so long to maintain. Ray later explained his views on the crisis by saying “I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, ‘Let those people die.’ We wouldn’t want the rest of the world to say that about us if we were in the same situation… Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” (see NOTE 1). Because of his efforts, the largest Tai Dam population outside of Southeast Asia is in Iowa.

In 1979 (when Terry Branstad was his Lieutenant Governor), Ray repeated his efforts to help Vietnamese refugees after he viewed a heart-wrenching report by Ed Bradley on the plight of the “boat people” – those fleeing Vietnam in rickety boats on perilous journeys to Malaysia (see NOTE 2). Ray led the relief effort by lobbying President Jimmy Carter to act, touring a camp in Thailand, speaking before the National Governors Association Meeting to promote acceptance of the refugees, and urging the people of Iowa to welcome more refugees into their communities. With the help of his efforts, 168,000 Vietnamese refugees were resettled in the United States and in 1980 the Federal refugee law was rewritten to ensure that there was a permanent and standardized process for accepting refugees.
It might be enough to stop this History Rhyme at this point and make comparisons between the actions of Governors Ray and Branstad. On the surface it seems that there are similarities and differences between the two cases. Both are circumstances of helpless people in need of aid so it would be easy to look poorly on the resistance of Governor Branstad to taking in children. However, there are significant differences between the two cases. In the case of the Vietnamese, the choice of how America and Iowa would respond was entirely up to us. The refugees were half a world away. In the current case, there are tens of thousands of children arriving at the border and action of some sort must be taken. There is something about being asked to help and being forced to help that can change attitudes. In addition, the current situation fits into the hotly contested issue of how to handle illegal immigrants in a way that the refugee situation in Southeast Asia did not. If anything, there was more sentiment for the Vietnamese refugees since their plight was due to our inability to defeat the Communist there. Yet, these issues really miss the humanitarian heart of Governor Ray’s response. He was not concerned with policy but with people. It is easy to see images of a bus being confronted by a mob or video taken from a helicopter of thousands of children trying to get to the United States and lose the personal aspect of the crisis.

In order to bring this story back to the plight of the people in these two cases, I will conclude with of my own personal story. During the late 1970s, I was an elementary school student in Iowa. We saw on the television the stories of the “boat people” and were told by our teachers that some Vietnamese families would be coming to our community. The next year, I moved to the community middle school where I met one of the Vietnamese kids, who was assigned as my locker partner. What started then was a friendship that strongly affected how I viewed the world and how I have taught my children to do likewise. I learned about his culture, his people, their cuisine (including a very weak form of iced tea that I still prefer), and their intense desire to succeed in this new opportunity. My friend excelled at everything he did and that was inspiring to me. I am sure that things were not easy for them and they probably encountered discrimination that I did not understand. Yet, they never lost their gratitude for the chance for a new life. I gained from it an exposure to differences that a white, middle-class, suburban, Iowa kid would not have had if not for the actions of Governor Robert Ray. For that I am eternally grateful. Perhaps that same good-fortune might come to others like me if they have the chance to interact with more people unlike them. Hopefully they will.


Note 1: Governor Ray’s thoughts on the crisis are presented in a series of short interviews.
Note 2: An example of Ed Bradley’s reporting on the situation can be seen in a June 1979 edition of 60 Minutes.

The History Rhyme posts and additional information about the author are also available at TheHistoryRhyme.com.

The Harvey Way

Harvey Girl

Here at the History Rhyme, we have come to the Summer vacation season. This is the time to get away from too much serious stuff and have a little fun. Unfortunately, it is the time when kids have way too much free time and start driving their parents crazy with a constant droning of “I am bored,” or “this is so boring.” After a few attempts to get the kids to do something educational like reading a book or going to a museum, it is not long before the idea of a vacation somewhere comes up. Depending on one’s budget, this could entail a flight or it could be a car ride. In any case, unless you are having a “stay-cation,” there will be some traveling involved. I do not know about all of you out there, but I do not want too many surprises when it comes to issues of food and facilities. Simply stated, I want to go from place to place and know that I will find safe food, clean bathrooms and friendly attendants. In other words, I want consistency. Thankfully, it is far easier to find that than it has been in the past. I tell myself that this has occurred recently in the Midwestern United States because of the expansion of Iowa-based convenience store chains like Casey’s and Kum & Go (yes, that is its name), but this Iowa boy is very biased. However, this trend of a safe food, clean facilities and friendly staff predates all of us. In fact, our modern idea of travel convenience dates back to the post-Civil War period. So, without further adu, in this month’s History Rhyme, we ask that you give us a tiny bit of our summer to help remember a pioneer in the type of consistent and convenient traveling experience that we have come to expect (and comment about on websites if we don’t) – Fred Harvey.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), one of the definitions for “convenience” is “freedom from discomfort.” When it came to traveling to the Southwestern United States in the decade or so after the end of the Civil War, the situation was anything, but discomfort free. When traveling on the rail lines across the region, it was very hard for a traveler to find a good meal and a clean place in which to eat it. Instead, it was not uncommon to find rancid meat and stale bread in dirty rail cars or at shacks along the tracks. Fred Harvey, a traveling freight agent with a background in the restaurant industry, recognized that something needed to be done and he felt he had the answer – provide clean and safe food prepared in a consistent manner, presented in attractive dining halls, and served by a well-mannered staff. That may sound rather obvious to us, but at that time it was a revolutionary concept. In 1875, Harvey was able to convince the head of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF) to allow him to open a couple of eating houses along their tracks in Kansas. In 1878, he opened his first official “Harvey House” in Florence, Kansas. Eventually, he would branch out into operating AT&SF dining cars and even had a few Harvey House hotels. The Harvey Houses were a great success and Mr. Harvey’s methods were so consistent and admired that his method of operations was known as the “Harvey Way.” By the time of his death in 1901, Harvey had opened 47 Harvey House restaurants and 15 Harvey House hotels across the 12 states that the AT&SF covered, and operated 30 AT&SF dining cars. At its peak, there were 84 Harvey House locations. Harvey Houses continued to offer the service for which it was famous until the 1960s. (see note below)

The reason why this story is suitable as a History Rhyme is because some of the elements introduced by Fred Harvey and his company have strongly influenced our opinions of what a convenient and pleasurably travel experience should be. The most important of these elements are in the areas of logistics and hospitality. Just like any modern chain of restaurants, hotels or convenience stores, a consistent and reliable logistics plan is required. In our modern era in the United States of interstate highways, a logistical network is possible due to the vast fleets of trucks that supply locations. The reason why the Harvey House concept was possible was because of Harvey’s strong relationship with the AT&SF railroad which provided Harvey the ability to move meat and dairy products to the various locations at little or no cost. If not for the network of tracks upon which the Harvey Houses were originally located, the rapid growth of the first restaurant chain in America would have been immensely more difficult.

The other main aspect of the Harvey House story that has an influence on our modern world concerns Mr. Harvey’s ideas on what kind of people should be serving his safe and clean food in his attractive locations. He needed a work staff that was reliable, civilized and consistent. Starting in 1883, Harvey’s answer was to put advertisements in newspapers across the United States seeking young, single, white women to become what was eventually known as his “Harvey Girls.” These women were to be of good moral character, well mannered, and have at least an eighth grade education. These women were meant to serve as a civilizing influence on the region and their black and white uniforms were designed to purposefully minimize the feminine form. It can be argued that this was an early form of “branding” that is such an important aspect for companies in our modern consumer society. This concept was so successful that the “Harvey Girls” were the subject of a 1942 novel by Samuel Hopkins and an MGM movie in 1946 starring Judy Garland and Angela Landsbury. Of course, there are elements of the “Harvey Girl” concept that are at the very least problematic to modern eyes (e.g. discriminatory hiring practices, and the total control the company exerted over the girls lives while employed), but that does not change the fact that the Harvey Girl model was innovative for its time and its emphasis on professionalism of service has been emulated to this day. So, as you are traveling along the roads this summer and you are looking for a place to stop for some food or a place to sleep, remember the efforts of Fred Harvey and his army of Harvey Girls. If not for their efforts, the “freedom from discomfort” that so many of us crave when we are hungry, tired, or just simply in need of a clean bathroom, might be less convenient to find.


NOTE: For more information on the development of Harvey Houses, there are several websites devoted to the subject. Examples are the Harvey Girl Historical Society, A Harvey House Home Page, and Harvey House Restaurants.


The History Rhyme posts and additional information about the author are also available at TheHistoryRhyme.com.