Saturday, May 26, 2012

White Like Me


Here in Florida the sticky waterless spring is deepening into summer.  Our bags are packed.  When next I rant, it will be from the hills of Photoscenic New Hampshire.

The Trayvon Martin shooting and the embroilments of its legal aftermath have started me musing about race in America.  Race relations during my lifetime.  It's been a choppy graph.

In 1960 a novelist named John Howard Griffin published a book called Black Like Me.  Griffin, a susceptible white man, had dyed his body black and floated around the Jim Crow South of the later fifties.  He had been insulted, condescended to, and brutalized hour by hour as he hitchhiked through the Old Confederacy, and hearing it from an educated Caucasian had quite an impact on genteel white America.  Martin Luther King was rising.

During the same decade, the fifties, I put in my two-year hitch in the U.S. Army.  The spring of 1957 I went through basic training in the reconstituted Fourth Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas.  Roughly half of my fellow trainees were black.  The Negros of the period, as they were then called, probably spanned a cultural range wider than their white counterparts.  The few I had known in college were a select culling -- one of my classmates, Cliff Alexander, went on to become Secretary of the Army, and another, my friend Nat Lamar, was no doubt the most promising novelist of his generation.

The draftees in my platoon during basic were unquestionably more representative.  But across an enormous social range.  One mild soul with whom I boarded the Army bus in Minneapolis that carried us to Texas was an accountant in civlian life.  We hit a rest stop in Arkansas, where he was not only refused counter service but denied access to the washroom. He'd have to hold his water. The South was rising again.

My sharpest memory of interrace conflict during our training months involved a face-off I managed to get into in the barracks after hours.  I was already in my middle twenties. The days of double-timing for miles and tossing fragmentation grenades over barriers produced a definite craving for sleep by nine PM, when the lights went out, and as I lay on my upper bunk the blaring rock and roll coming out of the transistor radio of a black teenaged kid across the aisle was keeping me awake, night after night.  In time, I blew.  After asking -- semi-politely -- that this harebrained jitterbug turn the frigging thing off, I swung down clad solely in my boxer shorts and went for the radio. 

The kid reached into his locker and grabbed  an entrenching tool, a heavy stubbed foldable shovel that would have served nicely as a mace, perfect for laying my head open.  A few steps before I got squarely into range, through the last of the twilight, another black recruit, a huge but amiable fellow I later learned was a Christian minister in the deep South, slipped in between us and gripped each of us by the wrist and hoisted us both off the floor.  We dangled like chickens in a poultry shop.  "Now, mens," he recommended in his deep, soothing voice, "does you really have to fight like this?  They catch you, you wind up in the stockade fo' years.  Ain't hardly worth it, seem lahk to me."

We both stopped wriggling.  The minister dropped us.  The jitterbug slumped over and turned the radio off.  I slouched across the aisle and swung back up onto my upper bunk.  The Lord had been served.

I'm still a hothead, but that was a lesson I never forgot.  It tuned me up for the incidents later on.
Stay tuned.

As always,

Burton Hersh

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Great Hair Ticket II


I thought last week that once around about the John Edwards/Bunny Mellon tragicomedy was enough, but so many of you came back with astute and often enough amusing comments that it forces me to take another look, if only to quote what you have to say.  Money, politics, and the ancient human urges ignite a combustible mixture.

One pal, Vern Farnsworth, sums up his days in politics with a reminiscence of having come home puffed up after lunch in the prestigious Tavern Club in Boston with Elliot Richardson and Senators Saltonstall and Henry Cabot Lodge.  His wife "listened patiently to my account of the luncheon and then told me to take out the trash.  So much for arrogance."

Another acquaintance of several decades, a fixture in our intelligence structure who understood right away in 1992 that my book The Old Boys represented a revolutionary interpretation of the history of U.S. intelligence despite the anguish of her colleagues at having so many of their deepest secrets and most profound embarrasments out there in print, felt profoundly the predicament of Bunny Mellon.  The heir herself to the traditions of one of America's oldest and most respected families, my friend confessed that her "heart goes out to a withdrawn, private Bunny Mellon who is at that age and condition where a conniving little xxxx like the dapper Edwards can make her feel that mortgaging her house to fund his next misadventure...serves some greater purpose."

I responded privately that, whatever the fallout publicly, it was my impression that as the heir to the Lambert fortune as well as Paul Mellon's estate Bunny was no doubt well provided for.  But then I read in the NY Times of May 9 that "Mrs. Mellon, an heiress, had given more than $6 million to his [Edwards'] campaigns and causes and an additional $725,000 secretly through Mr. Young to care for Ms. Hunter."

Perhaps we were talking real money. Meanwhile, my friend the intelligence bureaucrat came back with an e-mail that revealed how much more she knew than I did about Bunny Mellon's predicament.  "Yes, Bunny has plenty of assets," she wrote, "but not a lot of money.  A common problem for the elderly rich who live grandly.  She had to sell the NYC place, and some houses in France, for liquidity.  And her financial retinue has begun asserting controls on spending."  The tens of millions that Edwards and Young attempted to extract to underwrite some sort of "foundation" that Young would run probably set off alarm bells all over the accounting houses of Manhattan.

"Families grow concerned that you will be taken advantage of, snookered, start funding some n'er-do-wells," my friend writes.  "Or worry that their inheritance will be frittered away in your final years.  Every contact is fraught with expectations, distrust, psychological/medical snooping, and gossip. become a prisoner of the trappings of wealth rather than one living out final days in splendor with few worries."

What can I add?

Blogs to come will probably become a little more intermittent over the next month or so while I take a quick research trip to Costa Rica and we then embark on our late-May resettlement for the summer in New Hampshire.  Stay tuned in.  There is more to come.

Buck up.  See -- poverty hath its privileges!

Burton Hersh      

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Great Hair Ticket


As the tabloidization of the American psyche proceeds, each new sensation
heaves into view the ghosts of sensations past.  I have been reminded of how
this operates by the attention even the more august papers have been giving the
last few weeks to the court testimony of Cheri and Andrew Young.  Young was
the aide whose adoration for Senator John Edwards was such that he agreed to
'fess up that he himself was the father of the baby that Edwards sired with his
adventurous mistress, Rielle Hunter.  Edwards was the vice-presidential
candidate John Kerry picked in 2004.

As things happened, I had a sort of remote advisorial role in the Kerry cam-
paign, and found myself more and more taken aback by the extent to which
the leaders of the ticket seemed to be cruising along, disinterested in political
reality.  While he was still angling for the Democratic nomination I suggested
to Kerry that he consider disavowing his vote for the resolution to go into Iraq,
which was already turning into a fratricidal disaster.  He dug a long forefinger
into my chest and lectured me on consistency.  A year later, when photos of
the Senator were being released to the newspapers featuring him hang-gliding
in a wet suit off some soigne overseas beach while the Bush brothers in shirt-
sleeves were handing out bottles of water after the Punta Gorda hurricane, I
questioned the p.r. implications of that.  Nothing registered.

I go into this to suggest the obliviousness that tends to overtake political
candidates once they are into their campaign burn.  I suppose something like
that happened with John Edwards.  His girl friend's pregnancy must have
seemed like just another awkward detail, something the staff could fix.  And-
rew Young apparently stepped forward.  The participant who surprised me
here was Rachel -- Bunny -- Mellon.  I spent five years during the seventies
hanging around Paul Mellon in preparation for writing The Mellon Family.
Bunny, Paul's wife, was certainly no pushover.  A natural manager, she latched
onto Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once Jack was headed toward the White
House and designed the Rose Gardens.  Bunny could take on anybody.

Perhaps in her nineties she softened up.  Still, her nephew, a long-time friend,
tells me that even now, at one-hundred plus, Bunny is still adroit, still tending
her gardens at Upperville.  Perhaps in the cavalier John Edwards she spied
another JFK.  What did a little womanizing amount to at those social alt-
itudes? The lawyers could deal with the rest of it.

Google has rejiggered the format of this blog again.  Please forgive any irre-
gularities.  And Godspeed.

Burton Hersh