Rocky – no, not the Boxer!

I grew up in upstate New York in the 1960s, and for me, there only ever was one governor – Nelson A. Rockefeller (yes, that Rocky!)    He was the guy everyone always complained about – yet he was elected governor four times.   He died (somewhat scandalously) in 1979, and for many there are two enduring symbols of his tenure – the Attica uprising, and the state government complex in Albany (crudely termed “Rocky’s Last Erection.”)  Yet, there is so much more about the man, as historian Richard Norton Smith has revealed in his critically acclaimed biography,  On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller.

Before he was a politician, Rockefeller was an art-lover and a keen fan of building projects.   Shortly after graduating from Dartmouth in 1930, he became one of the planners of Rockefeller Center, as well as a member of the board of the brand-new Museum of Modern Art in New York City.   He adored modern art and what is known as “primitive art”, the art of pre-industrial societies (this was a passion shared by his son Michael, who disappeared in 1961 while exploring the jungles of New Guinea).  He also was passionate about Latin America, and this is how he landed his first political work, as an adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Working for the State Department in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Rockefeller met with many leaders of Latin American nations to try to establish strong alliances.   Fluent in Spanish, and an admirer of Latin American painters, sculpters, and writers, Rockefeller made a significant contribution to cementing relationships that would prove vital to our national security during and after World War II.  Of course, it can be argued that there was a major conflict of interest in his activities, since the family oil business  had profited from Venezuelan oil fields for years,  but Rockefeller also worked hard to establish air routes, open shipping lanes, and encourage Latin American leaders to improve working conditions in their nations.

He ran for governor of New York State in 1958, winning easily on the Republican ticket.  He immediately brought his energy to improving infrastructure and education.  The New York State Thruway, linking New York City to Lake Erie, was constructed during his first and and second terms, and Rocky vigorously lobbied the federal government to build Interstates 81 and 88.  The State University of New York system is one of the largest in the nation, with some 27 campuses scattered across the state.  Here, too, we see Rocky’s passion for style and architecture:  each campus has its own unique building style, admittedly not always appropriate  (one of the buildings on the Fredonia campus is built like a pyramid, which makes many of its exterior doors unusable during the winter, when the winds from Lake Erie can blow a person off the side of the building).

But Rocky’s liberal Republicanism was falling out of style by the late 1960s;  he had already been shunned by the Republican national leadership in 1964.  He hadn’t helped his own chances  at getting to the White House when he divorced his wife of over 30 years and married a much younger woman who was forced to give up custody of her own four young children, this in a time when no divorced man had ever been elected President.  His handling of the violent Attica prison uprising, in which dozens were killed,  all but destroyed his hopes of becoming a national figure,  but he was lucky:   he had befriended a Michigan politician named Gerald Ford, who asked him to become his vice-president after the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974.    However,  it was obvious that the Republican party was moving to the right, and Rocky was dropped from the ticket when Ford ran for election in 1976.

By then, Rockefeller knew his career was over.   For the next couple of years, he dabbled in various projects, ultimately beginning to write his memoirs.   In January 1979, he died suddenly while “working with his assistant” on his autobiography.   HIs assistant was a young writer who was rumored to have met the paramedics while wearing her bathrobe…  While Rockefeller’s extramarital infidelities were widely known, even by his wife Happy,  it still seems a tragic end to a fascinating life.

Christmas and Creativity

What is it about Christmas that makes people feel creative?   TV is loaded with cooking shows featuring  candy, gingerbread houses, and all types of holiday food.   People who rarely open a cookbook the rest of the year pull out (or find on Pinterest) cookie recipes requiring three kinds of sugar, parchment paper, and careful monitoring of their ovens.  I myself used to indulge in this culinary orgy, making my own peanut brittle, chocolate covered pretzels, and my sons’ favorite, peanut butter cookies (the ones with the Hershey’s kisses).

I grew up with parents who were ultra-creative.   For my first Christmas, my father built me a toy-box – but no ordinary toy-box.  This was a red-and-yellow wagon that at least six toddlers could fit in, with wooden wheels and hand-painted circus animals.  On each side, my dad hand-lettered “Pretzel’s Circus” (my nickname as a toddler was Pretzel for my propensity to lick the salt off all the pretzels then put them back in the bag).  There was a bench seat on one end, and a handle so that this circus car could be hauled around.

Over the years, Pretzel’s Circus held a variety of items as my brother and I grew up:  Barbie Dolls, Tonka backhoes, GI Joe and his Jeep, Matchbox cars, my collections of Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew mysteries, and, after I left home for college, my mother’s sewing patterns, fabric, and yarn.   It was moved out of my parents’ old farmhouse when I had my two sons, who turned it into a Circus firetruck, complete with fire extinguisher and fire boots.  Sadly, it collapsed after too many fire calls in our driveway!

For one Christmas, my parents built a railroad out of cardboard boxes and papier-mache.   It took up a good part of the living room, and was absolutely adorable, but the mice in our attic enjoyed nibbling at it in the off-season, so it never made another appearance.  After that, my parents tried to be more practical with their creative efforts, producing elaborate holiday centerpieces, napkins, and table-cloths.   My mother made dolls out of paper, and my father produced a rocking horse and then a little “Bear Chair” for his grandsons.

I’ve continued their creative efforts ever since, not only in baking, but in sewing pajamas and quilts, knitting socks and sweaters, and encouraging my sons to make ornaments.   We decorated our own ornaments for several  years, and then moved on up to more professional results by going to a glassmaker in Corning, New York to blow our own glass ornaments (which I treasure – I know the sons would love to get theirs back for their own trees, but so far I’ve resisted the hints).

For a few years, we even made our own Irish Cream liqueur, using a recipe I found in some Holiday book.    It was pretty potent stuff, I recall!  Since my sons were underage, we also produced a non-alcoholic version that tasted like a very rich chocolate milk, but I’m reminded of our distilling efforts every December when my husband and I open a bottle of Bailey’s.

This Christmas will be no exception to the urge to be creative – so be warned!





Lace-Makers on the Reservations


Beginning in the 19th century, American Indian tribes were forced to give up their native lands, and ultimately many of them were forced to live on reservations. Living conditions on the reservations were harsh;   the infant mortality rate was extremely high, and other diseases also took their toll.   While the U.S. government gave lip service to job creation, in reality there were few job opportunities on or near the isolated reservations.

Christian missionaries on the reservations were particularly aware of the horrific living conditions, and many of them encouraged the development of native American crafts such as basket-weaving (particularly among the Creeks and Cherokees) as well as the making of rugs and blankets (the Navahos are most well-known for this craft, but  women from other tribes also practiced this craft).   These were traditionally women’s work within the tribes. By the early 20th century, there was a growing market in the east for these craft products.

However, in 1890, a white missionary to the Ojibway Reservation in Minnesota began teaching the women there a  craft that had deep European roots – lace-making.  That missionary, Sybil Carter, had travelled extensively through the Far East, and had observed the skill with which Japanese women made lace;  they had been taught this art by European missionaries.   Carter believed that Native American women could also be taught to make lace, but first she had to teach herself how to make it!   Then, in Minnesota, she trained a dozen Indian women how to make lace collars, bedspreads, tablecloths, and other items.   She then arranged to sell those items to wealthy women back East.   Her idea spread to at least a dozen other reservations through the Midwest, where eventually dozens of Native American women tatted lace or used bobbins.


In 1899, 18 women at the Onondaga Reservation in central New York were introduced to lace-making.    They produced handkerchiefs embroidered with English point, Battenburg and Houton Lace, and their products were quickly snatched up by wealthy matrons such as Mrs. Pierpont Morgan and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt.

In 1904, Sybil Carter established the Sybil Carter Indian Lace Association, which distributed hand-made lace items to markets and retail stores in the eastern U.S.  While the Association proudly marketed the work as that of Native Americans, Carter and others did not trust any leadership roles to Indian women;  Carter, like many other white missionaries, saw Indians as being child-like and incapable of more than manual labor.

Her Association disbanded in 1926, largely because lace no longer was in demand by modern women.   The government also changed its Indian policy after the 1920s, giving tribal governments more authority.   Lace-making was not a traditional Native American craft, so few women were encouraged to continue producing items.  However, the work they did produced was beautiful and today are collector’s items.




Sewing for a Cause

I spent a good part of yesterday sewing pillows for breast cancer patients as part of a benefit held at the local Y;  it was a terrific experience, not only because of the cause, but also the comfort of being in a room with other sewers.   The sounds of scissors and sewing machines, as well as the smell of freshly ironed fabric, are so relaxing, at least to me!

I was taking part in a ritual that has involved women for centuries.   Unable to participate in warfare or other public events, women have used other “weapons” to fight conquest, disease, national disaster, and poverty.    During the American Civil War, for example, women joined groups around the country to “roll” bandages;  this involved cutting up fabric (usually muslin) into long strips, then rolling them up into cylinders and hand sewing them together.    Other women knit socks, gloves and hats, while others hand-sewed military banners and flags as well as uniforms.


During World War I, American women knit caps, socks, and gloves for the troops.  There was an effort to knit sweaters for the beleaguered citizens of Belgium (misguided, as it turned out, because Belgians didn’t wear sweaters, and Belgian women promptly unraveled the sweaters to knit shawls and blankets!)   Although many young American women disdained this type of work – hundreds volunteered as ambulance drivers or nurses instead-  local organizations, including the Red Cross and YWCA, sponsored events similar to the one I attended yesterday, in which a group of women would meet together for a day of knitting or sewing.  Newspapers and magazines offered free patterns for women to use to show their support for our war effort.

And even when the country wasn’t at war, women were still asked to knit or sew for the “needy”:  sewing sandbag casings to fight flooding in the Tennessee and Mississippi Valleys in the 1920s and 1930s as well as knitting sweaters and blankets for orphaned children.

Even today, besides the non-profit organizations that provides, free of charge, pillows for breast cancer patients, there are hundreds of organizations that rely on volunteer knitters and seamstresses:  knitted caps for newborns and preemies, teddy bears and stuffed toys for children impacted by disasters and tragedies, quilts and other blankets for refugees and accident victims.  These contributions are little noticed or acknowledged by the general public, but are considered vital to non-profits and charities.  I am proud that I am part of a long tradition such as this.






Eugenics and America

I finished Adam Cohen’s terrific book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buckk, in which he examined the American Eugenics movement and the 1927 Supreme Court decision that affirmed the right of the government to limit the reproductive capacity of certain people.   It is a fascinating and horrifying case.

Carrie Buck was a poor white girl who had been removed from the care of her widowed mother and placed with a foster family (who treated her as a servant).  When she became pregnant at age 17 (as a result of a rape by a relative of her foster mother), her foster family requested that she be committed to the Southwest Virginia Institution for the Feeble-Minded.   Obviously, the term “feeble-minded” is a vague one – and it was just as vague back in the 1920s.  It was a term that had been used for decades, and advocates of the new intelligence tests also used it.  Intelligence testing was still in its infancy, and unscrupulous “experts” used it in various ways.  For example, in the first decade of the 20th century, one so-called “expert” was permitted to give intelligence tests to new immigrants at Ellis Island;  his results, he claimed, proved that more than 60% of those immigrants were either “morons” or “imbeciles” (yes, there was a difference in those terms;  “morons” were considered higher functioning than “imbeciles”).  Despite the many flaws in this bureaucrat’s methodology (he didn’t take into account differences in language, education, or culture when giving these tests), Congress seized on his results to enact restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s.   Some states, such as Indiana, used intelligence testing to determine who should be institutionalized, and, after 1907, who should be sterilized to prevent the creation of another generation of the “feeble-minded.”

Poor Carrie Buck was given an intelligence test, which indicated that she was an “imbecile” (interesting result, given that she had completed 6th grade before her foster parents pulled her out of school to work full-time, loved to read, and wrote beautifully, as her letters to family members and friends demonstrated);  her mother, who had been sent to the same institution a few years earlier, also tested at the “imbecile” level.  The fact that both mother and daughter were given the same classification thus made Carrie a perfect target for Virginia’s new sterilization law.  Sadly, the baby she bore in early 1927 was also classified as an “imbecile”, although how Virginia authorities could determine that in early infancy is anybody’s guess.

Ironically, the author of Virginia’s law had his doubts as to the ethics of the law, so he urged the supervisor of the institution housing Carrie, Dr. Bell, to use Carrie as a test case to make sure it would bear constitutional scrutiny.  By the spring of 1927, her case, known as Buck v. Bell, had been argued in front of the Supreme Court.    The attorney for the Commonwealth of Virginia provided the Court with a great deal of information, not all of it accurate.  In particular, he relied on data and arguments provided by the Race Betterment Foundation, headquartered at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, New York, which was the leading advocate of eugenics in the U.S.

“Eugenics” was a term coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, in 1883.  The eugenics movement called for social control of human breeding, or “purposeful social selection.”   Influenced by both the work of Thomas Malthus (who studied population trends in the mid- 19th century), and Charles Darwin (who distanced himself from eugenics), it had a large following in Europe, and American proponents of selective breeding included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger and other Progressives.   By 1914, more than 30 states had forcible sterilization laws that targeted the “hopelessly defective and criminal classes.”  At the end of World War I, that war’s devastation increased the nation’s support for eugenics as it seemed that “the best and the brightest” had been mowed down in the conflict.  Many supporters argued that certain immigrant groups (those from eastern and southern Europe specifically) also weakened the “American stock”.   Over 300 American universities offered eugenics courses in the 1920s, and the American Eugenics Society disseminated its ideas through popular magazines, movies and comic strips;  it also sponsored “Better Baby” contests, invariably awarding top prizes to blue-eyed, fair-haired, white infants.  One of the best-selling books of the early 1920s was The Passing of the Great Race, whose author, Madison Grant, was an unabashed eugenicist.   Eugenics even made its way into one of the classic novels of the era, The Great Gatsby:  Daisy Buchanan’s philandering husband, Tom Buchanan, goes off on a drunken tirade about immigration and race during a party.

So Carrie Buck had little chance to protect her reproductive rights;  her lawyer did little to defend her, and the Supreme Court, led by the highly respected Oliver Wendell Holmes, did not do anything to protect her rights either.   Holmes wrote the majority decision, in which he famously stated “three generations of imbeciles is enough” (alluding to the determination by Virginia authorities that Carrie, her mother, and her own newborn daughter were all “imbeciles”), and upheld the right of states to forcibly sterilize its citizens.   Carrie was sterilized, although there is little evidence she understood what the operation really was;  later, her only sister also would be forcibly sterilized after being told she was going to have her appendix removed.

The popularity of the eugenics movement, however, did subside after 1927, especially after Hitler rose to power and began to implement his own version of eugenics in Germany, but the damage continued to be done at the state level.   California, North Carolina, and Virginia were only three of the states that continued to forcibly sterilize its citizens, and by 1979, when the last of these draconian statutes was repealed, nearly 70,000 people (most of them poor women) had lost their reproductive rights.

Carrie Buck was released  from the Virginia institution shortly after her sterilization; she never was reunited with her only daughter, who died before her 6th birthday of diptheria.   Carrie married twice, held  a series of jobs, and had an active social life until her own death in the early 1980s.   She seemed to hold no resentment against the state officials who had not protected her, although she always regretted never having a family of her own.   She would have liked to have had the right to choose to become a parent again.

The case of Buck v. Bell is an interesting lesson on the power of ideas, the state, and basic human rights.




The Columbus Controversy




Columbus Day will be celebrated in the U.S. on Monday;  it is a federal holiday, so schools, banks, and the post office will be closed, but most private sector employees still will have to report to work.   It is a controversial holiday, but its history is fascinating.



Although Columbus Day has only been a federal holiday since 1937,  various U.S. cities began honoring Columbus almost since our nation was founded.  In 1792, New York City celebrated the 300th anniversary of the landing of the NinaPinta, and Santa Maria.   In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation urging Americans to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing, and cities large and small did just that.  In Syracuse, New York, over 100,000 people (as estimated by one of the daily newspapers) gathered in the downtown area for a parade and lots of flag-waving.  The organizers of the parade were leaders of the small Italian-American community, who saw this anniversary as an opportunity to show the rest of the citizens of the area that Italian-Americans were as patriotic as they were.   Marchers in the parade included over a dozen bands (including a 15 piece “Indian” band, supposedly made up of residents of the Onondaga Nation as well as  a 200 piece Italian Society band) and various school groups.   Local politicians used this event to promote ideals of patriotism, and local store windows featured images of not only Columbus but Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.

Italian-Americans were particularly sensitive to criticism levelled at them by native-born Americans.   Eager to demonstrate that they could be assimilated into mainstream American culture, leaders of Italian-American communities around America lobbied state and federal lawmakers to make Columbus Day a federal holiday.  They also were the chief organizers of annual parades, many of which are still held annually.  New York City’s Columbus Day parade is the largest.


But beginning in the late 1970s, various protests have been held at Columbus Day observances.   In the early 1980s, demographic historians and social historians began to publish scathing indictments of the European treatment of the Native Americans they encountered in the New World, some of them going so far as to term it “genocide.”  Anthropologists and archaelogists also made new discoveries that questioned the wisdom of the use of  the phrase “Columbus’s discovery of America.”   As Indian tribes in the U.S. regained federal and state recognition of their sovereignty,  they demanded more respect for their native cultures.


In 1991, as the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyages neared, 150 protestors shouted “Genocide” at then New York Senator Al D’Amato (who was very proud of his Italian heritage) as he laid a wreath at the base of the Columbus statue in Columbus Circle in downtown Syracuse;  the following year, a debate at Syracuse University over the legacy of Columbus turned into a shouting match, and the police had to intervene to avoid its escalation.

As a teacher, I was very careful in the way I approached Columbus and the holiday we use to honor him.   It was an opportunity to discuss public perceptions of racism, patriotism, and pride.   It was also a chance to talk about how our views of famous men have changed over time.  It was always a lively discussion!


“Who Am I? Why Am I Here?” and Other Memorable Moments from Modern Political Debates

Tomorrow night, as you probably already know, the two major party candidates for President go face to face in a nationally televised debate.   This is an historic occasion, since it will be the first time a female Presidential candidate represents one of the two major parties;  it also will be held on the 56th anniversary of the very first televised debate, the first of three 1960 debates between ,Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy.

Those early debates have been studied and dissected by historians and media experts for years, and one conclusion all have come to is that the visual message is as important – probably even more important – than the actual words the candidates use.   For example, one set of polls taken after that first debate showed that while those who just listened to the debate on radio believed that Nixon was the better candidate (or “winner”),  viewers of the televised debates were more impressed by Kennedy.   (How could they not be?  He looked relaxed, had just gotten a tan, and had an artfully applied layer of make-up;  Nixon, on the other hand, looked at times like he was an extra in a 1930s gangster movie).


Nixon certainly learned his lesson from that experience;  although he ran for president two more times (and won), he avoided any televised debates.

It wasn’t until 1976 that the networks got the two major candidates to agree to debate one another on television.  Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter met face to face in the fall of 1976,  but the debates did not go smoothly.  First, a transformer blew, eliminating the audio feed.  For 27 minutes,  the two candidates stood in front of the cameras, trying to look relaxed, but obviously uncomfortable.  Each was afraid to move away from their microphones just in case the audio was restored.   Certainly an awkward episode for the candidates, their handlers, the networks, and the audience!


Then, to make matters worse for Gerald Ford, at another debate, he insisted “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”   Ouch!    He never quite recovered from that!

Skipping a few elections, in 1992, there were three candidates in front of the television cameras:  George H.W. Bush, fresh from victory in the first Gulf War, youthful looking Bill Clinton, and the man with a pronounced Texas twang, billionaire H. Ross Perot.   Perot certainly injected interest into the debates, and even the other two candidates seemed to enjoy their experience in front of the cameras!


Sometimes, the issues seem to be overshadowed by the little quirks of the candidates, as in one of the 2000 Presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore;   Gore was roundly criticized for his audible sighing at some of his opponent’s responses.  (Maybe if he hadn’t sighed so much, the Supreme Court would have ruled in his favor in December 2000?  Just a thought).


But some of the most entertaining political debates have been between those running for the #2 job – Vice-President.   In 1984, for example, Democratic V.P,. nominee Geraldine Ferraro accused her opponent, Republican V.P. George H.W. Bush of being “patronizing” when he corrected her on a minor issue of foreign policy.


And then, there was the moment in the 1988 V.P. debate when Republican nominee Dan Quayle defended himself from criticism that he was too young and inexperienced to be V.P. by comparing himself to John F. Kennedy.  After pausing for a couple of seconds, Democratic nominee Lloyd Bentsen pointed out to him that “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”  A bit obvious, but Democratic viewers loved it. While Dan Quayle did become V.P., his reputation never quite recovered (and it’s unfortunate, because he  knew more about the workings of the U.S. Senate than anyone else in the government).

presidential-debate-1988-bentsen-and-quayle presidential-debate-2008-biden-and-palin

The 2008 V.P. debate was probably the one most watched, largely because the Republican V.P. candidate was a source of amusement and curiosity:  Alaska governor Sarah Palin.   She had proudly asserted she was something of an expert on the former Soviet Union because “I can see Russia from my front porch”.    Of course, the debate came after several weeks of SNL skits featuring Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, so the audience had been primed.  (Apparently, many of the viewers of the actual debate enjoyed it even more by playing a drinking game)


But, for me, no debate, whether between Presidential candidates or their running mates, has had a more surreal moment than in the 1992 V.P. debate. The three V.P. candidates were V.P. Dan Quayle, Democrat Al Gore, and Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, who, to begin his opening remarks, asked two important, questions:   “Who Am I?” and “Why Am I Here”?  No one watching him could answer either of those questions at the time, and after the debate, few people could be sure that even Stockdale knew the answers.   But, being a historian,  I did some digging into Stockdale’s background, and discovered that not only was he a retired Naval Admiral, but he had been the commander of one of the U.S. Naval ships supposedly attacked by the North Vietnamese in August of 1964 in the Tonkin Gulf.  That incident (or series of incidents) led to the U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam.  However, many historians are now convinced that at least one of the incidents never really happened…hmmm….

Tomorrow night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump should be interesting;   I think it will be best for my marriage if my husband, a conservative Republican, and I, a liberal Democrat, watch it in separate rooms…or maybe we should try one of those drinking games????