The King’s Other Speech


King George VI broadcasts his Christmas Speech in 1939

Anyone who has seen the 2010 film, The King’s Speech, knows that the speech in the movie title refers to King George VI’s speech on 3 September 1939 to the peoples of the British Empire upon Great Britain’s declaration of war with Nazi Germany.

Obviously, it was an important speech, but there was another speech by the King that, to my mind at least, was equally as important, perhaps even more so. For a King not known for compelling speeches, this one would be a landmark. It united King and Country in a common cause and inspired people to hold fast. After all, at this point in history, no one knew whether the Allies would triumph. Great Britain was to face five more years of war and brutal bombing by the German Luftwaffe before the day of liberation would arrive. The war in Europe itself would not be finally resolved until May 1945.

The occasion for this other speech was the King’s annual Christmas broadcast to the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the rest of the British Empire. This was the King’s first wartime Christmas radio broadcast to his country. At the time, Great Britain and its Empire were in the middle of the so-called “Phoney War” – the relatively quiet period at the start of World War II between the declaration of war by the Western Allies (United Kingdom and France)against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939 and the German Blitzkrieg (lightning war) in April 1940 that was marked by a lack of major military land operations by the Allies on Germany’s Western Front. The expected air onslaught on Great Britain had not yet come and many of the children who had been evacuated out of the cities had returned home. Although the German Navy was already harassing Atlantic convoys and on 13 October 1939 had managed to penetrate the defenses at Scapa Flow, off the northeast coast of Scotland, and sink the battleship HMS Royal Oak with the loss of over 830 lives, the general mood in the country was one of apathy and complacency.

Recognizing the need to change the mood from indifference and contentment to one of confidence and determination, the King finished his Christmas speech – a grueling experience for a man who suffered from a debilitating stutter – with a poem entitled “God Knows” (sometimes called “The Gate of the Year”), written by Minnie Louise Haskins that appeared in a collection, The Desert, published in 1908. The poem had been drawn to the King’s attention by his wife, Queen Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mother, and the lines were to be recited sixty-three years later at her own funeral in 2002.

The speech was very well received and the poem became one of the most widely reproduced of the twentieth century. Dressed in the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet and sitting in front of two microphones on a table at the royal residence at Sandringham House, King George VI spoke to offer a message of reassurance to his people. It was to be a momentous speech and was to have an important effect on the listening public as they were plunged into the uncertainty of war. He began: “A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle, we shall remain undaunted.”

Great Britain was, of course, at war (and, it is worth noting the obvious fact, obscured by hindsight, that at the time no one knew if Great Britain would win the war). “I believe from my heart,” King George VI continued, “that the cause which binds together my peoples and our gallant and faithful Allies is the cause of Christian civilization.”

The King closed his nine-minute speech by quoting from the poem, “God Knows.” He said: “I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you: ‘I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown. And he replied, Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way! So I went forth and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.’ May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.”

The Christmas of 1939 was a shaky time, but great leadership by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill would hold Britain steady against the Nazi aggressors. The speech was a call to trust that the future should be welcomed with confidence and that light would overcome darkness. The way ahead was incredibly dark. No one knew where it would lead. The nation was to go through extraordinarily dark days as would the rest of the world as the war became global in nature. The poem quoted by King George VI hints at that situation. It speaks about being led into the unknown in order that we may begin to discover that “Almighty Hand” who will guide and uphold us all – even in those dark places. The first glimmers of light began to be seen after the completely unexpected and almost miraculous victory of the Battle of Britain in 1940.

After 107 years, the Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem still retains its power to inspire and encourage us as we move forward into the future with hope and confidence. At times, the world and life can seem very dark. Seventy-six years ago, when the King of England read those inspirational words of Minnie Louise Haskins, it must have seemed incredibly dark. And today, things are also dark. We still live under the shadow of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria, and any of the many nations that are embroiled in civil war; or the shadow of terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, San Bernardino; or the shadow of violence rampant on the streets of major United States cities such as Chicago, Charleston, Baltimore, and Colorado Springs. For many, this is a particularly dark period. We ask, what is next? Who is next? Will 2016 be any better? Are there any glimmers of light?

In her Christmas address this year, Queen Elizabeth II, the elder daughter of King George VI, struck once again the theme of light as had her father some seventy-six years earlier when she said: “It is true that the world has had to confront moments of darkness this year, but the Gospel of John contains a verse of great hope, often read at Christmas carol services: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’. . . The customary decorations have changed little in the years since Victoria and Albert’s tree first appeared, although, of course, electric lights have replaced the candles. There’s an old saying that ‘it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’ There are millions of people lighting candles of hope in our world today. Christmas is a good time to be thankful for them, and for all that brings light to our lives. I wish you a very happy Christmas.”

As you read this, my hope is not only for a happy Christmas, but also for a peaceful New Year.



Light Up the World

candle LIGHT OF THE WORLDHalford E. Luccock, one of the great preachers of his generation, who for some twenty-five years was Professor of Homiletics at the Yale Divinity School, made it as one of his primary goals to teach his students how to preach with wisdom and, if possible, with wit. He wrote that his goal was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” For the most part, Luccock was successful in both aspects of his objective. Luccock, always the great story-teller, relates the following account about himself.

It was December and Luccock invited his two granddaughters to spend the Christmas season at his home. As Christmas drew nearer, he asked them, “What do you want for Christmas this year?” And both young girls said, “We want the world!” He said, “You want the world?” They explained that they wanted the world on a stand, a world that spun around. It was with that clarification that Luccock understood that what they wanted was a globe.

So Luccock went shopping and found one, and put it away. On Christmas Day, he pulled his gift from its hiding place and gave it to the girls. They opened the package and looked at the globe for a while, but then did not seem very happy at all about the present that they had received. They hardly played with it the rest of the day. That night, when Luccock put them to bed, he said, “I want you two to level with me. What’s wrong with the present that I gave you? You said you wanted the world and I gave you one.” They said, “Yes, Granddaddy, you gave us a world, but we wanted a lighted world and you gave us a dark world.”

So the next day Luccock went back to the store and stood for a long time to return the “dark world” that he had purchased for a lighted one that came with a little electric bulb. He was not successful at that store, so Luccock then went from one store to another trying to find a lighted globe. After visiting several stores, he finally found one and bought it for his granddaughters. He took it back to the girls and they were delighted.

Later, Luccock told one of his friends about that incident and the friend said, “Hal, what did you learn from all that?” Luccock thought for a moment and then with great wisdom said, “I learned one thing that I will never, ever forget. A lighted world costs more than a dark world.”

We live in a very dark world right now. It is a world where right is wrong and wrong is right, and things are upside down. It is a dark world where common sense is as much a thing of the past as is morality. It is a dark world where the love of others has cooled considerably. It is a world where there is so much information out there, but so very who few speak truth and even if one can find a bit of truth, it is so hard to distinguish fact from fiction. It is a dark world where violence seems to be the norm. It is a world where a child is murdered by a gun every other day in the United States. Even Pope Francis has weighed in. The Pope told churchgoers during mass at the Basilica di Santa Maria recently that Christmas this year is going to be a “charade” because “the whole world is at war.” His speech came after a rash of notable violent incidents, including the now infamous terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino and said, “We are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war. It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”

It is no wonder that in such a dark world, people are fearful, terrified, and afraid. Like Halford Luccock’s granddaughters, we, too, want a lighted world.

I vividly recall attending a patriotic show at the old Baltimore Stadium during World War Two. These were the dark days of that war when it was far from certain that the Allied forces would be victorious over the Axis forces. Near the end of the show that evening, the public address announcer spoke to the assembled crowd. He said: “You were given a candle when you came into this stadium. Now is the time to light those candles.” The lights in the stadium were extinguished and then slowly there was a flicker of light here, then another over there, until finally, the entire stadium was aglow with the light from those individual candles. The message was clear: In the darkness that we were experiencing, one light would not bring illumination, but brightness would be accomplished if we all put our lights together.

I see “light” as a metaphor of what we can do with our lives. We are not the source of the light. But light – be it truth or understanding or knowledge – is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if we shine it. We are a fragment of a light whose whole design and shape we do not know. Nevertheless, with what we have, we can shine light into the dark places of this world – into the dark places of human hearts – and change some things in some people. Perhaps others seeing it happen will do likewise. This is what we are about. To shine the light into a darkened world is what gives meaning to our lives.

Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow once said: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. . .”

Children, of course, know what know that such sentiments are true and have echoed this understanding every time they sing an old gospel song:

            This little light o’ mine,

            I’m gonna’ let it shine,

            This little light o’ mine,

            I’m gonna’ let it shine,

            This little light o’ mine,

            I’m gonna’ let it shine,

            Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.


Jewish Christmas Songs

white christmas7If you want to hear the real sounds of Christmas, you can forget the sound of footsteps trudging through the snow, or of crackling logs in the fireplace, or of children laughing, or of bells ringing at those red kettles that the Salvation Army puts out each year.

No. The true sounds of the festive season of Christmas are these: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!, The Christmas Song (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” – that one), Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, Silver Bells, Santa Baby, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, and the blockbuster of all blockbusters of Christmas classics, White Christmas – by all standards and statistics, not only the most successful Yuletide song of all time, but also one of the most successful songs of all time. PERIOD.

What do all of those tunes, all originating more or less from the Tin Pan Alley era of American songwriting, plus many more like them, have in common? They were all penned by Jewish songwriters.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Jews flocked to the music industry. It was one business where they did not face overwhelming anti-Semitism and although celebrating the birth of Jesus was not something these Jewish songwriters would do, they, nevertheless, could feel comfortable composing more secular Christmas songs.

Let me be very clear here. These popular Christmas songs are not about Jesus and his birth. Rather, they are about sleigh bells and Santa Claus and the trappings of Christmas. Some are about winter and snow. They are not religious songs in any sense of the term and I, for one, am not offended by the non-religious nature of these Christmas songs. I know that Christians who are far more pious than I will not agree with that statement. Nevertheless, these songs are now part of the fabric of our larger culture, and the modern Christmas celebration is far richer because of them.

In their music and lyrics, Jews captured Christmas, not only as a wonderful, wintry time for family gatherings, but also as a distinctive American holiday. What they drew on was their background as the children of European-born Jews, or as immigrants themselves, as in the case of Israel Isidore Baline (Irving Berlin), a Belarusian-Jewish immigrant to New York City.

Jewish songwriters’ own successful assimilation and gratitude to America pervaded their mid-century Christmas songs and other ditties, and appealed to a country that wanted to feel brave and united as it fought World War II.

These songs made Christmas a kind of national celebration, almost a patriotic celebration. Actually, about half or more of the top twenty-five most popular Christmas songs in any given year are from a highly varied collection of songs written in the middle of the last century in part or in full by composers of Jewish origin, from Irving Berlin (White Christmas, Happy Holiday) to Mel Tormé and Robert Wells (The Christmas Song), Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow), Johnny Marks (Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, Have A Holly Jolly Christmas), Joan Javits, Philip Springer and Tony Springer (Santa Baby), Felix Bernard (music only: Winter Wonderland), Walter Kent and Buck Ram (I’ll Be Home For Christmas) Eddie Pola and George Wyle (It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year), Gloria Shayne Baker (music only: Do You Hear What I Hear?), Robert Allen and Al Stillman (Home For The Holidays), Jay Livingstone and Ray Evans (Silver Bells), and Mitchell Parish (lyrics only: Sleigh Ride).

By the mid-twentieth century, European Jewish émigrés were thoroughly assimilated into the great American cultural melting pot and Jewish songwriters had become a crucial part of the American music establishment, penning songs from patriotic anthems (God Bless America by the prolific Irving Berlin) to hit Broadway musicals (Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser, West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and Damn Yankees by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, to name just a few).

But it remains intriguing nevertheless that Jewish writers were so remarkably adept at identifying, reflecting and in some ways helping to crystallize the modern essence of a celebration in which they did not even strictly partake – albeit a celebration that was fast becoming increasingly secular and commercialized.

To appreciate the unique story of why Jewish writers have given the season such a cheerful tone is in many ways to tell the story of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, so here is that story.

The story begins (I suspect it is apocryphal) with Berlin racing into his office in 1940 and saying to his secretary: “Miss Smith, grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written – hell, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written.” The song, of course, was White Christmas. Berlin later dropped the original verse that poked fun at a well-off Californian who, amid orange and palm trees, longs for traditional Christmas “up north.” but kept the now-famous choruses that begin: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know.”

Actually, the song that would become White Christmas was conceived by Berlin on the set of the film Top Hat in 1935. Berlin hummed the melody to Fred Astaire and the film’s director Mark Sandrich as a song possibility for a future Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle. Astaire loved the tune, but Sandrich passed on it. Originally released in 1942, and sung by Bing Crosby (all of these Jewish-penned hits were sung in the first instance by good Christian boys, such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Andy Williams), White Christmas topped the charts in 1942 and launched popular Christmas music, encouraging many others – Jews and non-Jews alike – to write more odes to the holiday.

And yet, like most of the songs discussed here, White Christmas defies obvious assumptions as to how and why it came to be.  Berlin actually wrote the song for a 1942 film entitled Holiday Inn, a musical starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, based on the idea of an inn that opened only on public holidays, hence the title. Berlin’s assignment for Holiday Inn was to write a song about each of the major holidays of the year. He found that writing a song about Christmas was the most challenging, due to his Jewish upbringing. In addition to White Christmas, Berlin also wrote a Christmas Eve song (Come To Holiday Inn), two New Year’s Eve songs (Happy Holiday, and Let’s Start The New Year Right), a Washington’s Birthday song (I Can’t Tell A Lie), a Lincoln’s Birthday song (Abraham), an Easter Song (Easter Parade), two Fourth of July Songs (Let’s Say It With Firecrackers, and Song Of Freedom), a Thanksgiving song (I’ve Got Plenty To Be Thankful For) and a Valentine’s Day song, (Be Careful, It’s My Heart). It was the latter song that Berlin predicted would be the breakout song of the film. He did not expect that the Christmas song would have such an impact. But what an impact it had! The immense success of White Christmas became something many songwriters sought to emulate.

For all of its snowy imagery, White Christmas was actually the product of a writing retreat to sunny California. Here lay the song’s essence – a desire for something familiar and wholesome in an unfamiliar environment, and Berlin’s Jewish roots were crucial in this regard. Within his Jewish culture – as in many cultures – there was always a mixture of joy and sadness; good cheer and melancholy. White Christmas is actually a rather poignant song of longing; it is not a jolly song in terms of Christmas songs or Christmas carols. It is a song for anyone of any creed who is away from home at a particular time of year or is away from family at this time of year, and it is about that yearning – a longing that everyone on this planet can relate to, regardless of one’s culture or religion.

Released at a time when many tens of thousands of American GI’s were overseas fighting in World War II, most of whom yearning to be home “where the treetops glisten and children listen” and “to hear sleigh bells in the snow,” certainly contributed to making White Christmas an unprecedented sensation. Berlin could relate to the holiday from its secular point of view, while respectfully staying away from the religious side. Above all, White Christmas is a song written from the heart, and it is about a celebration the appeal of which – like the full pageant of American holidays from Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July – Berlin was instinctively brilliant at expressing. Berlin was a genius at tapping into that nostalgia that we all have.

Take away its religious significance and Christmas becomes a rather strange multi-ritual, omni-cultural mixture, stitching together as it does bits of German (trees), Dutch (Santa Claus) and Italian/German/English (carols) traditions, so it was perfectly reasonable for American writers who happened to be of the Jewish faith to become involved in its celebration, if only in a secular way.

Whether the song is White Christmas, or Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer or The Christmas Song or Sleigh Ride or Winter Wonderland, or the myriad of other secular Christmas songs written by Jewish composers, each song is unique. While distinctive, however, all these songs share a set of defining characteristics: all are emotionally warm, longingly nostalgic, and utterly secular. And above all, they are not exclusionary in any way. The greatest Jewish Christmas songs are remarkably consistent in their universality, in their inclusiveness, and in their lack of hypocrisy – all for the simple reason that the people who wrote them never pretended to be something they were not.

The genius of these great Jewish-American songwriters is they all managed to successfully capture the love that the Christmas season can elicit in each one of us, and they achieved this by viewing the holiday that is at the very heart of Christianity through the prism of their unique Jewish sensibility. Jewish Christmas songs? Why not? After all, Jesus was a Jew.

So Ho! Ho! Ho! May your days be merry and bright and may all your Christmases be white.


Why I Am Thankful Barack Obama is President

BarackObama_jpg_CROP_promovar-mediumlargeI have a friend who sends me emails on a regular basis. For the most part, they are forwarded messages from some anonymous writer who is obviously a paranoidial Republican. Most of the emails are Ad Hominem attacks on President Obama. Some are rather vicious; none are complimentary. To this day I really do not understand why some people have such negative feelings toward President Obama. While I will be the first to admit that he has not been perfect, considering the circumstances he inherited and has had to deal with since becoming president, I think he has done a pretty damn good job. Especially considering that from the very beginning of his presidency, Republicans have tried to sabotage him at every turn.

Because people have forgotten just  how bad things were when he was elected and because too many of those same people had unrealistic expectations as to what he could actually do without a Congress willing to help him do it, and because the conservative media did such a great job at filling our means of communication with so much false information about him that most people could not decipher fact from fiction, I thought that I would try to clear the air of some of the false information about the president and list some reasons why I am thankful that Barack Obama is our Commander-in-Chief. So here goes.

I am thankful Barack Obama is President. . .

  • Because. . . he supported and signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, legislation that reinstates prior law and makes clear that pay discrimination claims on the basis of sex, race, national origin, age, religion and disability “accrue” whenever an employee receives a discriminatory paycheck, as well as when a discriminatory pay decision or practice is adopted, when a person becomes subject to the decision or practice, or when a person is otherwise affected by the decision or practice.
  • Because. . . he sees sending in large numbers of American ground troops into another war – a war that would almost certainly result in heavy casualties – is a last resort, not the first option as many Republicans seem to advocate.
  • Because. . . he signed the Affordable Care Act into law, millions of Americans have gained health insurance who would have otherwise gone without.
  • Because. . . he proposed and Congress passed a financial stimulus package in 2009 – with almost no support from the Republican party – that stopped the economy from spiraling even further out of control, helped save the American automobile industry, and made it possible to avoid another Great Depression.
  • Because. . . he still managed to reduce budget deficits by over $1 trillion since he was elected, the largest deficit reduction since World War II despite all of the problems he faced entering office following the catastrophic Bush presidency. Continuous private-sector job growth has occurred every single month since March of 2010, creating well over twelve million jobs and the current unemployment rate is five percent, lower than at any time during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
  • Because. . . he has out-performed President Reagan on jobs, growth and investing no matter what propaganda Republicans try to perpetuate about him.
  • Because. . . he has supported lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, the LGBT community has progressed further during his administration than under any other president in United States history, as proud gay Americans are now serving their country without fear of being kicked out of the military for their sexual orientation, and same-sex marriage is now legal in the entire United States.
  • Because. . . he understands that climate change is a real and present danger to planet Earth, he has proposed The Clean Power Plan that sets achievable standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by thirty-two percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
  • Because. . . he knows that we cannot call ourselves the greatest nation on Earth if we turn our back on thousands of desperate women and children fleeing a terrorist group that wants to slaughter them.
  • Because. . . he knows that the greatness of the United States is built on hope, optimism and courage – not on fear, hate and anger.

While all the above are reasons enough for my being pleased that Barack Obama is our president, the following is my number one reason because it reveals what I consider to be a necessary quality in any human being, and especially, in a president of the United States.

I find this story highly apropos, especially in the wake of the senseless tragedy last week at San Bernardino in which fourteen people were killed and twenty-one were wounded. The account comes from Joshua Dubois, the former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Executive Office of the President of the United States. Dubois writes the following in his book, The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings That Inspired President Obama, a book of 365 daily lessons containing spiritual and moral guidance appropriate for both gifted world leaders such as President Obama and ordinary people, such as you and me.

Dubois recounts the Sunday after the heinous shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, when Adam Lanza fatally shot twenty school children and six adult staff members. Dubois had received word the day before that the President wanted to meet with the families of the victims. What happened that day was done quietly. There were no fanfares. No political photo-ops. No headlines. Just the President and those grieving families, and. . . well, I’ll let Dubois tell the story:

“I left early to help the advance team – the hardworking folks who handle logistics for every event – set things up, and I arrived at the local high school where the meetings and memorial service would take place. We prepared seven or eight classrooms for the families of the slain children and teachers, two or three families to a classroom, placing water and tissues and snacks in each one. Honestly, we didn’t know how to prepare; it was the best we could think of.

“The families came in and gathered together, room by room. Many struggled to offer a weak smile when we whispered, ‘The president will be here soon.’ A few were visibly angry – so understandable that it barely needs to be said – and were looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Mostly they sat in silence.

“I went downstairs to greet President Obama when he arrived, and I provided an overview of the situation. “Two families per classroom . . . The first is . . . and their child was . . . The second is . . . and their child was . . . We’ll tell you the rest as you go.”

“The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.

“Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away – many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all – the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.

“And then the entire scene would repeat – for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. After each classroom, we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families, and then the president would dive back in, like a soldier returning to a tour of duty in a worthy but wearing war. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.

“The staff did the preparation work, but the comfort and healing were all on President Obama. I remember worrying about the toll it was taking on him. And of course, even a president’s comfort was woefully inadequate for these families in the face of this particularly unspeakable loss. But it became some small measure of love, on a weekend when evil reigned.”

What I like best about this story is that President Obama has never spoken publicly about those meetings. Yes, he addressed the shooting in Newtown and gun violence in general in a subsequent speech, but he did not speak of those private gatherings. In fact, reports indicate that he was nearly silent on Air Force One as he returned to Washington that day, and has said very little about his time with these families since. It must have been one of the defining moments of his presidency: quiet hours in solemn classrooms, extending as much healing as was in his power to extend. But he kept it to himself – never seeking to teach a lesson based on those mournful conversations, or opening them up to public view. Sometimes, the holiest things, the most painful and important and cherished things are done in secret. They are not for public consumption and display, but as acts of service to others.

President Bill Clinton was fond of saying, “I feel your pain.” President Obama does not need to say it; he shows it. President George W. Bush called himself a “compassionate conservative.” President Obama, while he never will be labeled a conservative, has always worn the mantle of compassion. And compassion is the operative word for me. How many more families will the President have to show his compassion for and give his comfort and consolation to before Congress does something about America’s mass-shooting problem? In case you do not remember, it was mostly Republicans who disgustingly thwarted ninety percent of public opinion and struck down gun control laws after Sandy Hook. Since Sandy Hook, there have been at least 1,029 mass shootings, killing some 1,300 people.

As I said earlier, I know President Obama is far from perfect, but considering the circumstances he inherited and the blatant Republican obstruction with which he has had to deal, I think he has done a damn good job. And I will take his compassion anytime over any of his Republican wannabes!








Immigration Irony



The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World – Edward Moran 1886

As the Republican leadership blows the hot flames of xenophobia on the subjects of immigration – and most recently – of Syrian refugees, it is both fascinating and fun to learn things about American history and then present it in order to show the abject hypocrisy of the Right.

The United States has debated immigration since the country’s founding, and the iconic Statue of Liberty – a potent symbol for immigrants – is often invoked as an argument for why we should usher in those who seek safety and opportunity with open arms. A little-known fact about “Lady Liberty,” as the statue is often called, adds an intriguing twist to today’s debate about refugees from the Muslim world. The statue itself was originally intended to represent – get this – a female Egyptian (Muslim) peasant as a Colossus of Rhodes for the Industrial Age! How ironic.

That fact might be surprising to people more familiar with the statue’s French roots than its Muslim ones. After all, the statue’s structure was designed by a Frenchman, Alexandre-Gustav Eiffel, and “Lady Liberty” was a gift from French citizens to their American friends in recognition of the two countries’ commitment to liberty and democracy and their alliance during the American Revolutionary War, which had begun 110 years earlier.

The statue’s designer, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, was also French, but he found inspiration not in France but in a very different place – Egypt. In 1855, Bartholdi visited the Nubian monuments at Abu Simbel in southern Egypt that feature tombs guarded by gigantic colossus figures. Bartholdi became fascinated by the ancient architecture and developed what can only be described as a passion for large-scale public monuments and colossal structures. Eventually, he channeled that passion into a proposal for the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869.

In 1867, Bartholdi went to see the viceroy of Egypt, Ishma’il Pasha, the reigning khedive, who was visiting Paris during the Universal Exposition (Exposition universelle [d’art et d’industrie] de 1867), and proposed a colossal statue be erected at the entrance of the Suez Canal, then nearing completion.


The initial concept of Bartholdi for the Suez Canal

Bartholdi envisioned a colossal eighty-six foot tall monument featuring a robe-clad woman representing Egypt to stand on a forty-eight foot tall pedestal at Port Said, the city at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal in Egypt. To prep for this undertaking, Bartholdi studied art like the Colossus, honing the concept for a figure called Libertas who would stand at the canal. He envisioned this statue in the form of an Egyptian female fellah (peasant), holding aloft a torch. The statue was to symbolize Ishma’il Pasha’s efforts to modernize Egypt and would be called “Egypt (or Progress) Carrying the Light to Asia.”

The statue was also to serve as a lighthouse – recalling the Lighthouse of Alexandria, another of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and in appearance drew heavily on yet another ancient “wonder” – the Colossus of Rhodes, which in tradition appears carrying a flame, thought to serve as a beacon.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal cautioned Bartholdi that there were not sufficient finances to fund his project. He was proven right and Bartholdi’s statue was rejected, simply due to the lack of money.

Bartholdi returned to France. Unable to sell the idea to the viceroy of Egypt, Bartholdi remained determined to erect a colossus on the scale of the one in ancient Rhodes. In 1865, Bartholdi had been a dinner guest of Édouard René Lefebvre de Laboulaye, who hosted the affair. Over dinner they discussed their admiration of how the Americans had resisted oppression and succeeded in winning their freedom. It was the same type of democracy they were seeking for their own country. Laboulaye commented in light of the American centennial just eleven years hence: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people in France gave the United States a great monument as a lasting memorial to independence and thereby showed that the French government was also dedicated to the idea of human liberty?” It is not by no means clear that Bartholdi even liked Americans. But it did not matter; it is likely the statue was of more importance to him than the country the statue graced. Of Americans, he is quoted as saying: “What is lacking in the cities and most of the men is charm and taste.” The original idea was intended as a gift from France to the United States in celebration of its first one hundred years as a nation. France too, was fighting for its own liberation. The United States was most recently finished with its Civil War among the states and slavery was abolished.

So it was that Bartholdi sailed to America to drum up support for his idea with drawings of the Muslim woman now transformed to the personification of Liberty As he entered New York Harbor, Bartholdi noticed a small, twelve acre piece of land near Ellis Island, called Bedloe’s Island. He decided it was the perfect spot for his statue. Bartholdi spent the next five months traveling around the United States getting support for the statue. Then he went back to France, where the government of Emperor Napoléon III (Napoléon Bonaparte’s nephew) was openly hostile to the democratic and republican ideals celebrated by the Statue of Liberty. They would have jailed him if he had spoken of the project openly – so Bartholdi kept a low profile until 1874, when the Third Republic was proclaimed after Napoléon III’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Bartholdi went back to work. He founded a group called the Franco-American Union, comprised of French and American supporters, to help raise money for the statue.

Bartholdi’s insistence that the ideas for the statues for Egypt and the United States were just coincidental seems highly unlikely. According to Bartholdi’s own published account, written in 1885, the seeds for Liberty were, in fact, sown by Laboulaye as early as 1865. But the first hints of the project in Bartholdi’s private papers appear in December 1869, which was just a few months after his trip to Egypt had failed to receive funding. Then he went to America in 1870. It would therefore appear that upon returning from Egypt in the fall of 1869, Bartholdi sought to convert failure into success by re-directing his Egyptian project toward the 1865 United States idea of Laboulaye.


Illustration from U.S. Patent D11023, filed 2 January 1870 by Batholdi

The convergence of “Suez Progress” and the “New York Liberty” can be seen in what appears to be the earliest model for Liberty, dated 1870. Its torch-lifting pose closely resembles the Egyptian project, but it is identifiable as Liberty by its classic costume and by the broken fetters at its feet.

Since as early as 1738, the United States began to use in poetic symbolism, the deity of Columbia, a name supposedly meaning “land of (or discovered by), Columbus.” Columbia was seen as a quasi-mythical figure. By the 19th century, Columbia would be visualized as a goddess-like female and the national personification of the United States. The image of the personified Columbia was never fixed, but she was most often presented as a woman between youth and middle age, dressed in flag-like bunting. Other nations used similar figures, notably the French Marianne and the British Britannia. Often she was decorated with the stars and stripes. Her headdress though varied, is most often seen as a laurel wreath or a cap of liberty. Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean was written in 1843 and served as an unofficial national anthem in competition with Hail, Columbia and The Star-Spangled Banner until the latter’s formal adoption as the national anthem of the United States in 1931.The twin ideas of Progress (Egypt), and Columbia (United States), are clearly combined into the Statue of Liberty.

Bartholdi used the same torch idea in the Egyptian version as he did the American statue, though instead of providing navigation assistance for boats going through the Suez Canal, the torch would light the way for immigrants coming to the United States.

Bartholdi worked with structural designer Alexandre-Gustav Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower in Paris) in designing the new American statue, with the year 1876 in mind for completion to commemorate the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence. Eiffel’s massive iron pylon and secondary skeletal framework allowed the statue’s copper skin to move independently yet stand upright.

The Statue of Liberty was a joint effort between the United States and France and it was agreed upon that the American people were to build the pedestal and the French people were responsible for the statue and its assembly here in the United States. However, lack of funds was a problem on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In France, public fees, various forms of entertainment, and a lottery were among the methods used to raise funds. In the United States, benefit theatrical events, art exhibitions, auctions and prize fights assisted in providing needed funds.

In the United States, fund raising for the pedestal was going particularly slowly, so Joseph Pulitzer (noted for the Pulitzer Prize) opened up the editorial pages of his newspaper, New York World to support the fund raising effort. Pulitzer used his newspaper to criticize both the rich who had failed to finance the pedestal construction and the middle class who were content to rely upon the wealthy to provide the funds. Pulitzer’s campaign of harsh criticism was successful in motivating the people of the United States to donate.

Financing for the pedestal was completed in August 1885, and pedestal construction was finished in April 1886. The statue was completed in France in July 1884 and arrived in New York Harbor in June 1885 on board the French frigate Isère that transported the Statue of Liberty from France to the United States. In transit, the statue was reduced to 350 individual pieces and packed in 214 crates. The statue was re-assembled on her new pedestal in four month’s time. On 28 October 1886, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, renamed Liberty Enlightening the World.

And thus the statue that began as a young Muslim fellah (peasant) woman who would guide travelers through the Suez Canal was a centennial gift to the United States – more than ten years after the original 4 July 1876 deadline. Well, better late than never.


An ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty. Scene on the steerage deck. Published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1887