With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Media's Take on the News Archives 11-26-03 to 12-26-03

This page includes excerpts from media stories about history related to current events. This page is updated constantly. Click here to access the archives.

Click here to return to top of page.

Strom Thurmond's Mercenary Character (posted 12-26-03)

Brent Staples, writing in the NYT (Dec. 26, 2003):

The Strom Thurmond who emerges from these recollections is a mercenary character. He had already been elected to the State Legislature and was laying the groundwork for the campaigns that would land him in the governor's office and lead him to the United States Senate. To see this plan through, he needed to prevent news of the black daughter, well known in the black community, from jumping into the white press.

When Ms. Washington-Williams said she wanted to go college, Mr. Thurmond naturally suggested South Carolina State, the segregated black college whose budget he would later control as governor. As a state official, he could visit there without fear of being outed. He ensured Ms. Washington-Williams' silence by manipulating her emotionally — and funneling to her the envelopes full of cash that allowed her to pay the tuition.

Ms. Washington-Williams sees the meetings and cash transactions as proof of affection. But while doling out the money, Mr. Thurmond sometimes asked how she felt about having to keep their relationship secret and how she was holding up under pressure from reporters who had gotten wind of the truth. As an abandoned child, Ms. Washington-Williams made an understandable calculation; she decided that a fraction of a father who met her in back rooms but disowned her in public was preferable to no father at all.

Since Mr. Thurmond's black daughter came forward to claim him, his descendants have been fretting about how people look at them in church — and whether they will be invited to the right parties. The tragedy of this case played out in the life of a needy child who was abandoned by her father and then misused for political purposes. If the Thurmonds are looking for something to be ashamed of, this is it.

Click here to return to top of page.

Strom Thurmond ... Was He Guilty of Rape? (posted 12-26-03)

Jeffrey Gettleman, writing in the NYT (Dec. 21, 2003):

There may not have been a more lowly and vulnerable position in Edgefield, S.C., in 1925 than that of a teenage black maid.

But that was how Essie Mae Washington-Williams's mother, Carrie Butler, was employed when she and a young Strom Thurmond, the scion of a powerful white family, had what Mrs. Williams described as"an affair."

Affair? That's the language many people have used to refer to the liaison after Mrs. Williams broke a lifetime of silence last week and revealed that she was the mixed-race daughter of one of the South's most powerful and segregationist politicians.

But some historians argue that the word"affair" makes it too simple - that intimidation was organic to that time and place, and therefore part of any relationship of this sort, whether consensual or not. South Carolina was an apartheid state in 1925, completely segregated, where the racial code was enforced. At the time, Mr. Thurmond was an unmarried teacher and a high school coach in the little town of Edgefield. Mrs. Williams's mother, swept floors and did dishes in the Thurmond family home.

"White men were king,'' said Valinda Littlefield, a professor of African-American history at the University of South Carolina."She was basically a child. He can do with her what he wants. She's more or less the family's slave."

No one is saying that Mr. Thurmond forced the teenager to have sex. But at the time, Dr. Littlefield said, many black families who sent their daughters off to work as maids equipped them with straight razors or tried to get them placed in homes without young men. The fear of rape was very real for blacks, while white men saw access to black women as a coming-of-age ritual, an unspoken custom of white men having early sexual experiences with black women.

"There was this uncontrollable, unconscious attraction to the otherness of black people," said Edward Ball, author of the memoir,"Slaves in the Family" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998)."I believe there was a little Strom Thurmond lurking in many white men's hearts."

Black men were powerless to stop these intrusions, knowing at the same time that if they even cast a glance toward a white woman, they could be swinging from the branches of the nearest magnolia tree.

Racial mixing was something that could never be acknowledged because Jim Crow society teetered on the shaky premise that blacks and whites were separate species, even if a look around proved otherwise.

"Everybody knew this was going on," said Jack Bass, co-author of"Ol Strom" (Atlanta: Longstreet, 1999), a biography of Mr. Thurmond."But what was talked about was the number of mulatto children on the next plantation, not those on your own."

There was another reason for the silence. The law. Often these"affairs" were illegal, under a number of provisions. And had Mr. Thurmond been caught and prosecuted, history might have been a little different. In 1925, a man convicted of illicit sex could have lost his right to vote - and hold office.

Click here to return to top of page.

Michael Novak: America Is Showing Its Spartan Side (posted 12-26-03)

Michael Novak, writing in his blog (Dec. 22, 2003):

During long periods, America looks too pacific to be a threat to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Too much like Athens gone soft. But at times such as the present--with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--the Spartan dimension of our civilization becomes visible to all doubters. The biggest thing that most Europeans don't know about America is its Spartan side. Our founders chose the eagle as the symbol for the nation because the eagle is supreme in war, seeing unblinkingly and at great distances. Once fixed on its prey, the eagle is not easily deterred.

Our founders well knew that democracy of itself softens manners, tames--even coddles--the human spirit, and pulls great spirits down to a lower common level. No democracy will long survive, they knew, that does not toughen itself to face adversity, to raise up warriors, and to keep ready a warlike spirit. A democratic army should be small, under civilian control, they insisted, kept safely away from political power, but committed to keeping those who serve in it fearless and invincible.

In a word, in order to survive and to prosper, democracies need to infuse a Spartan spirit into their Athenian thinking. To maintain the peace, prepare for war. A democracy too soft will soon perish.

In this respect, TIME magazine was wise to choose as its"Man of the Year" this last week of 2003"The U.S. Soldier." What soldiers! Just two years ago, a mere one hundred of our best-trained"green-berets," dropped stealthily into Afghanistan to hook up with the Afghan resistance, brought down entrenched Taliban power in a matter of fifty days. They were aided by spectacular air power, but what made that air power so deadly were the direct aiming devices focused on targets by the green berets. At times these most advanced of warriors rode about the Afghan countryside on horseback, in rough nineteenth- century cloaks and scarves, directing the airplanes with radar and targeting beams focused on enemy forces hidden in the mountains.

Click here to return to top of page.

Bush Is the Most Irresponsible Steward of the American Economy Since Nixon (posted 12-22-03)

Noam Scheiber, writing in the New Republic (Dec. 22, 2003):

In the history of presidential politics, only Richard Nixon rivals George W. Bush's level of cynicism about the economy. Nixon used just about every economic trick in the book to ensure his 1972 reelection: Throughout 1971, he made good on the generous social spending he'd promised in that year's State of the Union address. Late that year, he took the dollar off the gold standard so the Fed could increase the money supply without restraint. By early 1972, Nixon was reportedly even ordering his Cabinet to spend money, which helped turn a $3 billion surplus into a $23 billion deficit in less than two years. The consequences were hard to miss once Nixon lifted wage and price controls in 1974: Inflation spiraled, and interest rates rocketed into the double digits. Before long, the United States was on the edge of one of the deepest recessions since the 1930s. 

But even Nixon's irresponsibility pales in comparison with Bush's. What makes W. qualitatively worse is the larger fiscal dynamic at work. That is, to ensure his own reelection, Nixon needed to focus on only one objective: buying off swing voters. But, thanks to the rise of the conservative movement, Bush actually has two objectives: He must buy off swing voters but also appease his conservative base--often the people most incensed by the policies used to accomplish goal number one. How does Bush square that apparent circle? With lavish, long-term tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy. 

Politically, the effect is positive: Swing-state voters are happy because they have their manufacturing jobs and their farm subsidies. Conservatives are happy because they have their tax cuts. The problem is that, economically, each tactic reinforces the negative effects of the other: Monkeying around with the dollar the way Snow has drives up long-term interest rates; so do the massive long-term deficits caused by the administration's upper-income tax cuts. Meanwhile, tariffs and quotas drive up prices for consumers, which, among other things, leads to inflation and ultimately higher interest rates as well. Keep heading in that direction and don't be surprised if, not long after 2005, Bush's strong recovery turns anemic. Of course, he could always trot out John Snow to redefine the word"strong" again. 

Click here to return to top of page.

Dick Cheney Uses the E-Word (Empire) (posted 12-21-3)

Timothy Noah, writing in Slate (Dec. 17, 2003):

[Dick] Cheney violated the Bush administration's policy of never saying the e-word [empire] in a Christmas card he and his wife sent out to various supporters and important Washingtonians. (Chatterbox did not receive one.) Along with their best wishes for this holiday season, the Cheneys included the following quotation from Benjamin Franklin:

And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?

Franklin said this at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 by way of suggesting that the proceedings begin each day with a prayer. It is a favorite touchstone for those, like Cheney, who believe that the separation of church and state has become overly fastidious. (These people seldom go on to mention that Franklin's suggestion was rejected by the other delegates.) For Cheney, though, it was a twofer, because it also allowed him to state (using the words of another) that America need not be ashamed of its empire. Although Chatterbox fears that Cheney's motive—in blazing past whatever warnings his aides likely extended about using the e-word—was fanaticism, he can't help but applaud Cheney's honesty. It's time for America's empire to come out of the closet.

Pedant's corner . Why did Franklin use the word"empire," when he so easily could have said"nation" or"republic" or some such? A mere decade after the Revolutionary War, wasn't"empire" a dirty word? Chatterbox posed this question to Franklin biographer Edmund S. Morgan ."It didn't carry the kind of freight that the word carries today," Morgan explained, adding that Franklin's use of the term probably reflected his Anglophilia and his desire to spread the new nation's dominion westward. (Doing so, of course, would subject various Native American tribes to foreign rule, but people didn't think that way at the time.) Franklin, Morgan said, did not mean to indicate any desire to conquer foreign lands, a notion he would have found distasteful. Walter Isaacson , another Franklin biographer, said much the same when Chatterbox caught up with him a few hours later, and pointed out that the negative connotations we attach to"empire" were in that time attached to the word" colonial":

He was very opposed to colonialism. That was a bad word. He believed that any nation or"empire" that had territories should treat all inhabitants, in the far-flung territories as well as near the center, as equal citizens with equal democratic and legislative and governing rights. In other words, he was against" colonialism" but he never used"empire" in a pejorative manner.

Dick Cheney may be fully aware of what Franklin meant when he uttered the word"empire," but even so it can't have escaped his notice that the word's contemporary meaning is much more provocative.

Click here to return to top of page.

Strom Thurmond's Black Child No Shocker to African-Americans (posted 12-19-03)

Brent Staples, writing in the NYT (Dec. 18, 2003):

African-Americans and white Americans are so deeply entangled by blood that racial categories have become meaningless. When discussing the issue in public, I typically offer my own family as an example. We check "black" on the census and appear black to the naked eye, but we are also descended from white ancestors on both sides. Despite appearances, I told an audience not long ago, "I am as 'white' as anyone in this room."

White people -- mainly blank-faced and perplexed -- typically don't get it. But black people get it fine: they chuckle, cover their faces in mock embarrassment or nod in quiet agreement. Racial ambiguity is a theme they have heard discussed in their families and communities throughout their lives.

Black families have always talked openly about white ancestors and relatives. In hotbeds of race-mixing like New Orleans or Charleston , S.C. , black and white branches of a family sometimes lived so close at hand that they ran into one another on the street, and black children were warned that their pale relatives could react violently if approached. Black parents who passed on news of white ancestry to their offspring were not trying to arrange family reunions. They were debunking racism by showing their children that black families and white families were more closely connected by ancestry than racists liked to admit.

White families, by contrast, were terrified by blackness in the family tree. Relationships that could not simply be ignored were deliberately buried. The cover-up hatched 200 years ago by Thomas Jefferson's family was blown away a few years back after genetic evidence showed that Jefferson almost certainly fathered Sally Hemings's final son, Eston, born in 1808. This led historians to conclude that Jefferson fathered all of her children in a relationship that lasted more than 35 years.

The big lesson for historians in the Hemings-Jefferson case was that the oral histories passed down by slaves and their descendants were more reliable than the official written record. This put historians on notice that they should give the oral tradition more credence, especially when working on issues of interracial intimacy....

The biographer Nadine Cohodas dismissed [the Thurmond story] as a "legend in the black community" a decade ago in her book "Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change." Another writer of the South described it as apparently without foundation -- a phrase that is used all the time to dismiss the black oral tradition as apocryphal.

In the 1998 biography, "Ol' Strom," however, a journalism professor, Jack Bass, and a Washington Post reporter, Marilyn Thompson, went back to the oral stories of black South Carolinians, some of whom knew the household, as well as the accounts of a black elevator operator who recalled seeing a light-skinned black woman riding the elevator to visit Mr. Thurmond when he was governor.

How could Mr. Thurmond, who sought the presidency on a segregationist platform in 1948, have lived publicly as a racist while secretly helping to support a black daughter? This was a common practice in the South, where slaveholders and their descendants produced mulatto children. While some white fathers treated their mixed-race children like dirt, others supported and educated them. They refused to acknowledge them to keep the nonexistent barrier between the races firmly intact.

Click here to return to top of page.

In Indonesia It's the Suharto History Vs. Sukarno History (posted 12-19-03)

Devi Asmarani, writing in the Straits Times ( Singapore ) (Dec. 15, 2003):

Ideologically, next year's election in Indonesia is being viewed by some as a showdown between two recurring political forces in the country: the Old Order of Sukarno and the New Order of Suharto.

The Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar - as well as a string of other smaller parties - represent the two major forces respectively.

But for families of the country's first two presidents, the competition may be a little more personal.

The daughters of Indonesia 's first two presidents are vying not just for power but also to maintain their family's political turf by keeping alive the legacies left by their fathers.

Their involvement in the upcoming elections reflects the deeply rooted oligarchic nature of Indonesia 's politics.

From the Sukarno clan, the trio of daughters dubbed 'Charlie's Angels' by the local media - comprising incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Ms Rachmawati Sukarnoputri and Ms Sukmawati Sukarnoputri - are competing next year.

The rival Suharto clan is represented by eldest daughter Siti Hardijanti Rukmana, better known as Tutut, who announced her political comeback last week.

The women lead four of the 24 political parties participating in next year's polls.

Except for Ms Sukmawati, they will likely run for the presidency but only Ms Megawati is not considered a political lightweight compared to contenders that include Cabinet Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, former defence minister Wiranto and National Assembly Speaker Amien Rais.

But their presence in the poll reinforces the notion that when it comes to choosing their leaders, Indonesians are still drawn to familiar names from the past.

In the nearly four decades of Indonesia 's history, the battle for power has continued to involve the same family names. Historian Hermawan Sulistyo said that is hardly a surprise.

He told The Straits Times: 'Our elites are the result of years of political inbreeding; outsiders will have a hard time breaking in.

'If we look at the elites' family trees in the last half of the century, the core of it come from Menteng families,' he said, referring to the posh residential areas in Central Jakarta where most of the old money and power-holders live.

'The majority not only grew up with one another, they are related to one another possibly from long lines of marriages,' he said.

For example, former president Abdurrahman Wahid, who was impeached and replaced by Ms Megawati in 2001, is the son of Mr Sukarno's first religious minister as well as the grandson of the founder of the country's largest Islamic grouping, the Nahdlatul Ulama.

Now, one of his daughters Zannuba Arifah Wahid appears likely to follow in her father's footsteps in politics.

But although next year's election will be the first democratically held one involving the two clans, the Sukarno versus Suharto history stretches back to 1967, when then army general Suharto took over power from Mr Sukarno.

He then led Indonesia for the next 32 years, bringing economic prosperity and political stability while quashing political dissidents to maintain his power.

But his leadership was rife with allegations of corruption involving his children, abuse of power and human rights violation.

In May 1998, he quit in the midst of a reform movement led by students after his Cabinet ministers resigned en masse.

Analysts said Indonesians have a capacity to forget the sins of their former leaders once they become disillusioned with the current one.

The late Mr Sukarno is hailed as a visionary, a nation-builder and a captivating orator. But his leftist leanings resulted in a disastrous end to his career.

Click here to return to top of page.

How Howard Dean Is Changing the Democratic Party (posted 12-19-03)

Ronald Brownstein, writing in the LAT (Dec. 15, 2003):

As a political movement, Clintonism arguably was born on May 6, 1991, when Bill Clinton delivered a seminal speech on his "New Democratic" vision to a conference of the Democratic Leadership Council in Cleveland.

Political historians may conclude that Clintonism was eclipsed as the dominant set of ideas in the Democratic Party on Tuesday, when Al Gore, Clinton 's vice president, endorsed Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race.

Dean has demonstrated many assets in his bid for the Democratic nomination. He's run a groundbreaking campaign that has changed forever the way candidates look at the Internet. He's shown the capacity to inspire great passion among Democratic activists. He speaks the way a boxer jabs, with sharp thrusts that strike many voters as heartfelt and uninfected by political calculation.

But whatever his other virtues, it's difficult to argue that Dean upholds the political philosophy that Clinton advanced. Indeed, Dean is probably the Democratic contender who most directly rejects Clinton 's vision.

By endorsing Dean, Gore has continued the journey away from Clinton that began in Gore's own 2000 presidential campaign. More important, the former vice president's endorsement suggests that just three years after Clinton left office, key portions of the Democratic establishment most associated with him are willing to acquiesce, if not to help, as Dean moves to redirect the party.

Clinton and Dean offer diametrical visions of how the Democrats can capture the White House.

Clinton 's overriding political assumption was that Democrats could not win solely by mobilizing their hard-core partisans. Instead, Clinton argued that Democrats had to craft policies that attracted swing voters while maintaining the allegiance of traditional Democrats.

In the central line of his 1991 speech, Clinton memorably declared that Democrats had to redesign their agenda to recapture middle-class voters who had abandoned the party since the 1960s. "Too many of the people who used to vote for us," he said, "the very burdened middle class we are talking about, have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interests abroad, to put their values into social policy at home, or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline."

Dean starts from precisely the opposite perspective.

Throughout his campaign, he has disparage