Thursday, December 20, 2012

Doctor, Conspirator?

His name really was Mudd.

Today is the 179th birthday of the most vilified doctor this side of Mike Myers' Dr. Evil.

Samuel Mudd was born on December 20, 1833. Before his 32nd birthday, he was a convicted felon.

With the rebirth of Abraham Lincoln in our social consciousness (they even made a movie where Abe isn't a vampire hunter), now is a good time to remember Dr. Mudd, who was convicted along with several others for conspiring to kill the president in 1865.

Justice moved a lot quicker in those days, for good and for bad. The president was assassinated on April 14, 1865 (he died in the wee hours of the 15th). Less than a month later, Mudd and his co-defendants were on trial. By the end of June, Mudd was convicted along with the others.

It was Mudd's prior acquaintance with assassin John Wilkes Booth that planted the seeds of conspiracy.

Mudd first met Booth, history says, in November 1864 in a church in Bryantown, MD. Booth used a guise of a real estate hunt as an excuse to visit the town, but his real intent was to scout out an escape route in his plot to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him for the release of Confederate prisoners of war. During this first Bryantown visit, Booth allegedly met Dr. Mudd and even stayed overnight at the doctor's farm.

Historians pretty much agree that it's unlikely that the doctor would have knowingly participated in Booth's kidnap plot, though a second Booth-Mudd meeting occurred in December, which included drinks at a tavern and at Mudd's farm. The nature of the meeting is unknown.

Mudd's farm was only five miles from Bryantown.

Co-conspirator defendant George Atzerodt claimed that Mudd knew of Booth's plot ahead of time, which turned into one of the murder variety.

You know the rest. Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater, and sought medical assistance at Dr. Mudd's farm later that night. The doctor treated Booth's broken leg (suffered while leaping from the balcony onto the stage after the shooting) and let Booth spend the night. It's unclear---and this is a biggie---whether Dr. Mudd knew, at that time, that Booth had murdered Lincoln.

The doctor didn't help his own cause. Mudd failed to contact authorities until several days after Booth left his farm, fueling speculation that Mudd was part of some sort of plot.

Mudd was also less than forthcoming about whether he had met Booth previously, once authorities were able to question the doctor. Mudd at first denied ever having met Booth, then retracted and confessed to the first meeting in Bryantown in November 1864. It wasn't until he was in prison that Mudd confessed to the December 1864 meeting. Both denials were, obviously, big mistakes.

Mudd served less than four years in prison. It always helps to have friends in high places; Mudd's defense attorney, Thomas Ewing Jr., was influential in then-President Andrew Johnson's administration. This connection was a big factor in Johnson's pardon of Mudd in February 1869. Mudd returned home in late March.


Dr. Samuel Mudd, as he appeared while in prison


Thanks to the pardon, Mudd resumed practicing medicine and in 1877 he even ran for the Maryland House of Delegates as a Democrat. He lost.

Mudd died of pneumonia on January 10, 1883. There is irony in his burial, which was in the cemetery of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Bryantown.

That's the church where Dr. Mudd first met John Wilkes Booth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Let's Get Serious

It's another of the talking points pushed by the gun camp, symbolically accompanied by the throwing up of hands in the air.

"If you ban guns, only criminals will have guns."

First, I am not in favor of banning guns. I fully believe in the Second Amendment to the degree that folks should have the right to protect their castles---even if deadly force is required.

I do, however, believe that reasonable, responsible gun owners can darn well protect themselves---and their homes and their families---with weapons that aren't designed to mow dozens of people down in minutes.

But here's the thing. These mass shootings that are being committed nowadays aren't being committed by criminals. In fact, many times the perpetrator has no previous criminal record. Not even a parking ticket.

Like Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old monster who shot up Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT.

Lanza had no criminal record.

Neither did the shooter in the recent mall incident in Oregon. Same with the Aurora, CO theater shooter last summer.

The kids who committed the atrocities at Columbine weren't criminals, either. Nor was the perp in the Virginia Tech massacre.

Loners? Yes. Troubled? Definitely. But not criminals.

Criminals aren't committing mass shootings. Armed criminals typically rob or steal. Or trade on the black market. If they stockpile artillery, it's to sell. They don't acquire automatic weapons so they can shoot up a mall, a school or a movie theater.

Those are facts.

The folks who are arming themselves to the hilt, throwing on military-style vests and camouflage gear, aren't criminals. They're suffering from mental illness.

Until we start treating root causes rather than symptoms, we're going nowhere in the effort to try to make what happened in Connecticut on Friday a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy.

It's time to start educating about mental illness, which is still, in the 21st century no less, terribly misunderstood.

Look no further than the reports that Lanza may have been autistic, or afflicted with Asperger's Syndrome.


Adam Lanza


Neither has ever been directly connected to violent behavior of any serious degree. Yet you just know that there is a segment of the population that will take the autism and Asperger's thing and run with it. And you know that those afflicted with said disorders will now be looked at sideways.

There is so much we don't know about mental illness. I'd say we'd better start getting a handle on it, because it ain't going away.

If there is any common ground I can find with those on even the most extreme side of pro-guns, it's that people are ultimately responsible for their actions. The gun provides them with the means of destruction, but not every gun owner commits mass shootings, so that should be a clue right there.

Lanza's mother, Nancy, who was gunned down first last Friday, has been taking some posthumous heat for her decision to have guns of the magnitude that was used by her son, in the first place.

But even his own mother clearly didn't understand the scope of Adam Lanza's troubled state.

This is a time for experts in many arenas to sit down, together, and start hashing some stuff out. To do whatever we can to prevent another atrocity like Newtown from happening again is going to require serious, honest discussion from everyone across the gun, mental illness and law enforcement spectrum.

You're afraid that only criminals will have access to guns?

It's not working too well when the non-criminals get a hold of them, either.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Undercooked Rice

Susan Rice tried to take one for the team, but she put it behind the eight-ball instead.

Rice, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, today yanked herself out of the running (that she presumably was in) to be the replacement for the retiring Hillary Clinton as President Obama's next Secretary of State.

In a letter to the president, Rice wrote, in part, "the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive, and costly -- to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country."

The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. And Rice just paved another one with her premature bailing on the president.

If you believe the conspiracy theories---and this one seems to have some merit---the GOP assault on Rice's competence to be SOS, which was odd in of itself for its "jumping the gun" nature, is part of a scheme to bring Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to the fore as Clinton's successor. Why? So Kerry's ultimately vacated seat could be filled by, say, recently defeated Republican Scott Brown.

Far fetched? Hardly.

Phase One of that plan is complete, with Rice's too-soon withdrawal from contention.

I must say, I'm disappointed in Rice, a woman in whom I thought was more fight.

She thinks she's doing right by her president and her country, when she is, in fact, putting Obama in a box and feeding into a negative stereotype.

The stereotype is that women are weaker than men, emotionally, and when the heat gets turned up, they do things like Rice did.

It also shows that bullying works, another bad message to send to our young men and, especially, women.

Rice should have hung in there. She should have stood with the president, if it came to his nominating her. Obama is already taking some heat for not supporting her strongly enough, which supposedly led Rice to the decision that she made.

But what was Obama to do? Once Rice tendered the letter, it pretty much forced his hand.





Rice should have floated the notion of withdrawing past the president, first, to test the waters. I'm confident that Obama would have encouraged her to not withdraw, even if he ended up choosing Kerry (the only other likely candidate) instead.

Rice bailed far too early. Frankly, she had an obligation to stick it out. She let down her president, her country and her gender. I imagine there are "binders full" of strong, independent women out there (NOT necessarily feminists, either) who aren't too pleased with this decision.

Perception is reality. And from where I sit, I see a bunch of angry white men who bullied a black woman out of contention for SOS. And she let them get away with it, without much of a fight. 

If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, is how the saying goes. Only, Susan Rice didn't get anywhere near the kitchen, yet she still failed her gender. How ironic, huh?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Deli Advertising

The sandwich board is making a comeback.

I'm not talking about literal sandwiches here, like the kind you eat.

I'm talking the term often used for the signs those poor folks are holding or wearing these days, hawking a variety of retail outlets, from cell phone stores to oil change places.

The sandwich board was so named because of its original incarnation, which was usually two pieces of wood, connected with rope or twine, which the wearer would sling over his shoulders, advertising on the front and back, creating a sort of human "sandwich."

The sandwich boards started showing up in earnest in the late-1920s and early-1930s, which were, not coincidentally, the days of the Great Depression. But in those days, often the human sandwich was promoting himself, not any company.

The sandwich board is back, but in a more streamlined fashion. It used to be that the only businesses in recent years who commissioned people to stand on the curb and wave people in, holding a sign, were car washes (the fundraising kind) and, during tax season, tax preparers (with typically someone dressed as Lady Liberty or Uncle Sam).

Now, there are so many sandwich boards and signs out there, I'm surprised they're not bumping into each other.

There's this one dude who works for one of those companies that buys and sells gold. I see him every Friday when I'm on my way to cash my check on Rochester Road, and I have seen him for over a year now, rain, snow or shine. He wears headphones and is swiveling his sign like mad, all the time. And I just see him on Fridays. Doubtless he works the whole week as well.

The thing is---and granted, it's hard to tell just by driving by at 40 mph once a week---he seems perfectly happy to be doing it. Not bored at all. He walks up and down, forward and back, swiveling his sign.

To be honest, I don't even know where his employer's store is located. I only see him, not the actual store front.

But he's there, every week, with his gold sign with black print, walking up and down that tiny stretch of Rochester Road. He looks to be in his 20s, and physically fit.

I wonder what they pay people these days to be human sandwiches?


Back in the day, the sandwich board advertised people, not businesses


Is it worth the cost? Is such advertising really effective? Using my Friday Guy as an example, maybe not. You'll notice I have made mention of driving by him, but not knowing the name of his company, nor exactly where the store is located. And I've seen him do his thing for well over a year.

Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of having him there?

I also drive by an oil change place every night on my way home from work. That dude strays from the sidewalk, however, and damn near stands on the street. Kind of dangerous, if you ask me.

But again, does his presence make me want to get my oil changed?

Does any human sandwich influence your wanting to drop some dollars at the sandwich's business?

Regardless, there's no question that the human sandwiches are increasing in number. I guess it's the new wave of guerrilla marketing.

We've come a long way, I guess, since "Eat at Joe's" was the sandwich board of the day.

Not sure if that's good or bad.

Friday, December 7, 2012

From Zero to 60---In His Grave

One of the greatest ironies these days is that if you're off to Lansing via car, chances are you just might have to travel on the Reuther Freeway, aka I-696, for a portion of that trip.

That would be the Reuther, as named after Michigan labor pioneer Walter P. Reuther. The same Reuther who is spinning in his grave right about now with great centrifugal force.

If only Ford Motor Company had acquiesced to organized labor back in the late-1930s as quickly as the Michigan Legislature ramrodded the first stage of the so-called "right to work" bill through session yesterday.

Reuther, eventual head of the UAW, paid for his union organizing efforts physically, at the famous Battle of the Overpass at the River Rouge plant, in 1937, when he and Richard Frankensteen were beaten severely by henchmen hired by Ford. The auto company was unhappy about Reuther and his fellow organizers handing out pro-union leaflets along the overpass.

So what would Reuther, and other labor organizers and champions of the early movement, think of the "right to work" bill, and its potential to take down labor unions?

This isn't exactly what Reuther had in mind when he worked tirelessly to ensure union representation for autoworkers some 75 years ago.

I wonder how many of today's young state lawmakers even know who Walter Reuther was. I wonder if they know why the Department of Transportation named I-696 after him?

I wonder if they know the sacrifices that Reuther and others made so that the middle class could be fortified and have peace of mind?

I wonder if they care.





For now, it's all about not only union busting, but Democrat busting. It's no secret that labor unions, while not as strong as they were 10-15 years ago, still form a good portion of the base of the Democratic party. And wouldn't the state GOP just love to hack away at that base, which they are now beginning to do by shoving the "right to work" bill onto Governor Rick Snyder's desk at warp speed.

Weaker labor unions---the bill would prohibit unions from requiring membership as a condition of employment---would be a boon to the Republicans.

But of course, the bill is being propped up as something that will ensure fairness and keep Michigan competitive in terms of salary and benefits, when statistics from other "right to work" states suggest mostly the opposite.

More likely is that the bill would become a slippery slope down which salaries, benefits and the middle class itself would all slide.

The manner in which the bill made its way through the Legislature, complete with protests and pepper spray, is, for now, worse than any of its residual effects. The Republicans' zeal for this bill is so blatantly partisan and filled with not-so-hidden agendas that it's either something to laugh or cry at. Nothing in between.

I know which one Walter Reuther would pick.

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More on the game:

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cult Politics

I have this crazy, mixed up thought that the politicians we elect are supposed to represent those of us who elected them.

Yet there is one man who has a Svengali-like hold on the Republican wing of Congress, a hold that I'm not sure is disturbing, annoying, reprehensible or all of the above.

His name is Grover Norquist, and apparently Grover's interests and marching orders trump those of the electorate when it comes to the GOP members of Congress.

Norquist, back in 1985, started Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), apparently at the behest of President Ronald Reagan. Norquist has never held political office, nor has ever run for so much as city councilman. Yet he has somehow managed to convince dozens of Congressmen (and women) to be his lapdogs.

Norquist is the originator of The Pledge, which holds to the fire the feet of every member of Congress (and Senate) who has taken it. It's a pledge to never raise taxes, under any circumstances.

From Norquist's Wiki page: Prior to the November 2012 election, 238 of 242 House Republicans and 41 out of 47 Senate Republicans had signed ATR's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge", in which the pledger promises to "oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and to oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."

"I'll have to check with Grover," one of the new U.S. Reps from Michigan actually said when the Detroit Free Press recently asked if that rep would support modest tax increases on the wealthy.

I'll have to check with Grover?

The GOP is no longer a party; it's a political cult. And Norquist is their Jim Jones.


Grover Norquist

Norquist has steadfastly refused to reveal the identity of those who fund his ATR, but it's widely speculated that the contributors are wealthy individuals, foundations and corporate interests. Big surprise, I know.

I have a fundamental problem with a non-elected person---Norquist himself; he IS the ATR---wielding so much power and influence over those elected and who are sworn to represent their constituents.

As the nation teeters on the brink of the so-called "fiscal cliff," Norquist has become front and center in the debate, as one-time sensible, independent thinking politicians have been revealed instead to be members of Norquist's cult.

There isn't any wiggle room for common sense, reasoning or debate in ATR's pledge. Only now are some pledge takers beginning to see the light of the oncoming freight train and backing away from Norquist's outdated, outrageous pledge.

Norquist appears to be a one-man lobby and special interest, all by himself. He wields power a lot of elected officials could only dream of having.

As long as actual members of Congress are saying things like "I'll have to check with Grover" when confronted with issues affecting our national economy and children's future, something is seriously wrong.

You want to talk about pledges?

How about the one to the American people.