Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Rambling With Bill Clinton To The Theatre

So where did I get to? You will recall (if you haven't anything better to do) that I was illustrating the sport of Internet rambling - aimlessly drifting around the Internet following a series of semi-random links. So far the trail had taken me from a gramophone via Cicely Courtneidge, Van Gogh's "The Mousmé", the Clarion Newspaper, and Walter Crane, to the Project Gutenberg Library where you left me reading ST Snow's riveting account of his 50 years as an accountant. So now read on.....
With the best will in the world I soon got bored with Mr Snow - brass founding and accountancy make a soporific cocktail - and in the best traditions of Internet rambling I began to browse through the collection of thousands of free books available from the site. For no particular reason, my attention eventually focused on G K Chesterton's 1922 book "What I Saw In America". I have always had my doubts about Chesterton : his politics stunk and his religious views were a trifle suffocating. However, I read his thoughts on his lecture tour of the USA with growing interest. Let me just quote a couple of sentences from the chapter entitled "Presidents and Problems".
"All good Americans wish to fight the representatives they have chosen. All good Englishmen wish to forget the representatives they have chosen. This difference, deep and perhaps ineradicable in the temperaments of the two peoples, explains a thousand things in their literature and their laws. The American national poet praised his people for their readiness 'to rise against the never-ending audacity of elected persons.' The English national anthem is content to say heartily, but almost hastily, 'Confound their politics' "
I am always slightly suspicious of exercises in blanket analysis - "the difference between the British and Americans is ...", "men are from Mars, women are from Heckmondwyke", that kind of thing - but I was intrigued by the claim that "all good Americans" wish to fight the representatives they have chosen. It dovetailed into something I heard on American radio news the other day: the claim that the Obama Honeymoon was already drawing to a close. So I went rambling in search of some evidence.
The above graph comes from the Wall Street Journal website and seems to give support for the Chesterton Theory : after electing Presidents there is nothing Americans like to do more than to fight them. There are, however, some notable exceptions to the prevailing shape of the support curve : notably the trend in support for President William J Clinton. What was Clinton doing that the other Presidents were not. Before choosing the obvious and the salacious answer I decided to go rambling through the William J Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Initially, this was a somewhat disappointing adventure : the Museum authorites seemed to want me to pay $5 to look around and - even worse - travel to Arkansas to do so (I have nothing against Arkansas, it's just a long way). I tried taking the virtual tour of the Museum but the camera angle kept swinging wildly, making me feel somewhat seasick. Even if you follow the "Research" link you mainly get either lists of documents which are stored in the library or photographs you can download at $5 a time. You can download the President's Daily Schedules for all his eight years' of office but who wants to do that when there is interesting stuff like paint to watch drying.
In search of something interesting, I switched Presidents and called in on the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project. This is much more like it : there are buttons to press, movies to watch and songs you can download and sing along with. I was particularly fond of one called "King Alcohol" which will in future be an integral part of my repertoire when staggering back from the pub quiz on a Friday night. Perhaps you would like to join me in singing the chorus:
King Alcohol has had his day
His kingdom's crumbling fast
His votaries are heard to say
Our tumbling days are past.
I rambled on to the official Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Museum and Foundation, a more sober destination and again one which seeks to sell you tickets rather than provide you with information. To get your hands on the source information you need to visit the collection of the Complete Abraham Lincoln Papers which are stored at the Library of Congress. You could wander through this collection for weeks or months : it is absolutely fascinating. I found myself reading a copy of the letter from James S Knox to his father. Knox and decided to go to Ford's Theatre on the night of the 14th April 1865 and there he witnessed the assassination of President Lincoln. The letter tells of the event with some force and feeling and you can easily imagine yourself with Knox as he jumps onto the stage in pursuit of John Wilkes Booth. And it is on the stage at Ford's Theatre that my ramble must end for today. But I will resume and conclude the adventure on Thursday.


  1. Although Chesterton strikes me as a hidebound old so & so, he may have had a point in this case, at least on the U.S. side. There is a strong anti-government streak over here, & it can manifest itself in both happy & appalling ways. As an Obama supporter, I'd say that much of what I see & hear these days falls into the latter camp. It's also worth noting that there are exceptions to this; sadly, the two that come to my mind are Reagan (esp. in his first term) & the most recent Bush (ditto). Disliked both of them a good deal, but it seems I was in the minority, at least for a good while. By the time folks figured out Bush, he'd already done immense damage.

  2. I'm still trying to work out whether the English side of the hypothesis holds true. There have undoubtedly been British Prime Ministers I would like to forget but unfortunately can't.


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