On Tyranny

Could the unthinkable ever happen here in the United States? Could we all end up living in a dictatorship? If we are not careful, we just might. And it might happen sooner than anyone might expect. Sure, we live in a democracy today, with rule of law, freedom of the press and a constitution complete with checks and balances. But what if these safeguards fall away one by one? What then?

book review “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” Yale University history professor Timothy SnyderIn his very brief yet very important book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder points out our nation’s Founding Fathers created a system with three separate branches of government specifically to prevent tyranny. The framers of our constitution studied the rise and fall of the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome and took lessons from philosophers such as Aristotle, who warned of inequality, and Plato, who warned of demagoguery. The author also reminds us that many functioning democracies in 20th Century Europe devolved into dictatorships, after periods of political stability.

If you ask me, our own country today is headed down the wrong path, a dangerous path. I see many ominous warning signs. Consider that our president and officials in his administration openly lie about even the most easily disprovable of matters. He calls those working in media (which includes me) “enemies of the people.” There are no more White House press briefings. Not that it matters anymore, since the most recent press secretary — the daughter of a preacher, no less — was forced to admit under oath that she slandered a government official, one who was fired in an attempt by the president to obstruct justice as he openly admitted on national TV.

Also consider that half the cabinet secretaries now are “acting” secretaries, thereby circumventing the Senate’s constitutionally mandated confirmation process. This is not normal, nor it is acceptable. Yet it happens. Members of the administration flout the law with a smirk on their faces. They say down is up and right is left, that our allies are our enemies and our enemies are our friends. They call those seeking legal asylum in this country “animals” and treat them worse than animals. They ignore congressional subpoenas and defy court orders. All the while, they are cheered on by crowds of angry people worked into a hate-filled frenzy at political rallies. Yes, the gathering last night in North Carolina was a hate rally.

If you are as troubled by these things as much as I am, you might want to get a copy of this pocket-sized book. It’s brief, yet in my view very important. You could read it on the subway to work or even on your lunch break. It’s essentially just a collection of short proverbs. Among the lessons are things such as “Defend institutions,” “Beware the one-party state” and “Investigate.” These are words to live by, if you ask me.

Still Life: American Concert 1981

In 1981, the Rolling Stones were at the top of their game. They had a No. 1 album, “Tattoo You,” from which the first single, Start Me Up, was a smash hit on the radio. They also had videos running constantly on a brand new cable station called MTV. The band’s tour that year was arguably the biggest any rock band ever done to date, filling large outdoor stadiums and sports arenas, including the Pontiac Silverdome. (I happened to be just starting high school at the time, and was therefore too young to go to the show.) Opening acts for the Stones that tour included Journey and George Thorogood. With the exception of bass player Bill Wyman, the lads were all still in their 30s. Mick Jagger, trim and fit and with long hair, wore football pants and performed shirtless through much of the show. Then for the encore (usually the song Satisfaction, some nights Street Fighting Man), he would come out on stage wearing a colorful cape made of the British and American flags sewn together. He sang into a cordless microphone, which he stuffed into his crotch while running about the stage during the instrumental bits.

Documenting this tour was a live album, released the following year, called “Still Life: American Concert 1981.” This is not considered one of the best Rolling Stones albums, but it was the first one that I ever bought. I got it at Meijer Thrifty Acres. I remember the DJ Allison Harte talking about the album on WLAV when it came out and playing songs from it. I also remember that at first I was not hugely impressed. My biggest complaint was the album’s length. It was just 10 songs! For some reason I thought this was a recording of a complete concert. I wondered what kind of band would only play for 45 minutes? It was not until years later that I learned that the Stones played 25 or more songs on that tour, for close to three hours each night.

At some point I was in my room playing the record with all the lights off (as I did back then) and it was one specific moment in the song Twenty Flight Rock, where the other members of the band give a brief pause while Mick sings a line, that got me. I can’t explain it. It was something about the band’s ability to do that, to be so precise, so tight, that got me hooked. I learned later that Twenty Flight Rock was an Eddie Cochran song that the Stones were doing a cover version of. They also did a cover of the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song Going to a Go-Go, which got airplay on the radio and on MTV. But it was the song Twenty Flight Rock, all one minute and 45 seconds of it, that initiated my love for the Rolling Stones.

Here are a few additional notes about the 1981 Stones tour and the “Still Life” album:

  • The album contains an “intro” of Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train and an “outro” of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner from Woodstock. Both the intro and outro were played at the concerts, the latter as fireworks exploded over the crowd.
  • The album artwork is by the Japanese artist Kazuhide Yamazaki, based on his colorful stage backdrops used on the tour.
  • In addition to the album, there was also a concert movie, directed by Hal Ashby, called “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” which was filmed at the 1981 Stones shows at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., and at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. The movie came out in 1983 and was shown in movie theaters.
  • There was also a televised pay-per-view special with radio simulcast for the final show of the tour, at Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia. In 2014, this concert was released as a CD/DVD set, titled “From the Vault: Hampton Coliseum (Live in 1981).”
  • Following the 1981 tour of the USA, the Stones went on a big tour of Europe in 1982. They did not tour again until 1989.

If you get the “Still Life” album, listen to the song Twenty Flight Rock and let me know what you think. Also listen to the song Let Me Go (from their 1980 album Emotional Rescue, which opens Side 2) and tell me if you can count the number of different ways Mick sings the word “hey” and how he turns that one word into a whole sentence just about every time he sings it. You might also get hooked on the opening song, Under My Thumb, or by Shattered, or by Let’s Spend the Night Together, which is played with guitars rather than on piano.

And then there’s their live rendition of Time Is On My Side, which is played and sung with such emotion. By this time the Stones had been performing so long together that his song had real meaning for them and their fans, yet I was just starting to get to know them.

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Warren G. Harding

Our nation’s 29th President was Warren G. Harding, a Republican. He was the immediate successor to Woodrow Wilson. Harding died in office, and Vice President Calvin Coolidge succeeded him. A number of scandals engulfed Harding’s presidency, most of which did not come to light until after his death. One of the scandals involved the Veterans Bureau, but the most notorious came to be known as the Teapot Dome affair.

John Dean biogaphy of Warren G. HardingTeapot Dome was an oil well in Wyoming. Harding’s Interior Secretary, Albert B. Fall, was convicted of accepting bribes and ultimately served a year behind bars. Fall became the first cabinet secretary to do time after being convicted of wrongdoing. As a result of the Teapot Dome scandal, a number of Congressional oversight norms were established, including the ability of House and Senate committees to issue subpoenas compelling members of an administration to testify, and the ability of Congress to have access to any person’s tax returns. It should be noted that these oversight functions remained in place for the better part of a century — until the current administration began to openly defy them. It remains to be seen whether the courts will ultimately uphold these oversight functions of Congress or defer to the executive branch.

Anyway, let’s go back to the 1920s for a moment, and to the Harding presidency. Warren G. Harding was among a long line of presidents to come from Ohio. Before Harding got started in politics, he was a successful editor and publisher who owned his own newspaper, The Marion Star. He served as a state Senator in Ohio and later as lieutenant governor. In 1910 he ran for Governor of Ohio but lost. In 1914 he was elected to the United States Senate, where he served throughout World War I while Wilson was president. In 1920 he was elected President, defeating the Democratic candidate James M. Cox, also of Ohio. Franklin D. Roosevelt was Cox’s running mate!

Warren G. Harding teapot dome
Warren G. Harding portrait by Harris & Ewing (public domain)


As president, Harding kept the United States out of the League of Nations and negotiated separate postwar peace treaties with Germany, Austria and Hungary. He presided over a global disarmament conference in Washington, which at the time meant building fewer warships. On the domestic front, Harding sought lower taxes, higher tariffs, and budget cuts. He vetoed a cash bonus to World War I veterans because he felt it would balloon the federal budget deficit. There was also widespread labor unrest during this era. Harding largely sided with management over labor, although the eight-hour workday became standard under his watch.

On civil rights, Harding was less than heroic. He had been elected with the support of many blacks in the South and as president he spoke out against lynchings, but beyond that he did not do much. He signed legislation that imposed quota restrictions on immigration. Harding pardoned about two dozen political prisoners, including Eugene V. Debs, a former Socialist candidate for President whom Wilson had thrown in jail for speaking out against the war.

Harding was on a trip to the West Coast in 1923 when he died of a heart attack in a hotel room in San Francisco. At the time of his death, Harding was popular. His body was returned to Washington, where he received a large funeral. He was buried in an elaborate tomb in Ohio.

Here are some additional details about Harding:

  • He was the sixth president to die in office and the third to die of natural causes. Three others had previously been assassinated.
  • The G is for Gamaliel.
  • Some of Harding’s political opponents spread rumors that he was black.
  • He had at least one extramarital affair, and after his death a woman wrote a book in which she claimed to be Harding’s illegitimate daughter.
  • Harding is the first president elected in an election in which women were allowed to vote.
  • Harding appointed former President William Howard Taft as Chief Justice of the United States.
  • At the 1912 Republican national convention, Harding delivered the nominating speech for Taft.
  • Harding was the first sitting U.S. Senator to be elected President. Kennedy and Obama were the only others to be elected to the presidency while serving as Senators.
  • Future president Herbert Hoover was Harding’s Commerce Secretary.
  • Harding gave long-winded speeches with complex language that was heavy on alliteration. He self-deprecatingly referred to this speaking style as “bloviating.”
  • Harding was president when the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on May 30, 1922.

According to John W. Dean, author of the biography “Warren G. Harding,” part of the American Presidents series, Harding was unfairly tarnished after his death for scandals that he was not responsible for. Yes, this is the same John W. Dean who was Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, the guy who famously told the Watergate committee that he had told his former boss that there was “a cancer growing on the presidency.” I am open to Dean’s interpretation, but I feel he did not make a very strong case.

If I were to give Dean’s book a letter grade, I would give it a C-minus. In my view, if Dean wants to rehabilitate Harding’s image, he needs to make a stronger argument. A skimming of the bibliography lists mostly previously published biographies and very few references to original source material. Dean also uses imprecise language. For example, Dean writes that in 1919 President Wilson “lay in a coma, partially paralyzed.” While Wilson had indeed been incapacitated while still in office, there is no evidence that he was ever in a coma, and if he had been in a coma he would have been completely paralyzed, not partially.

Further, Dean speculates that Harding was largely blameless not only for the Teapot Dome but also for a Veterans Bureau scandal, but he overlooks the fact that Harding allowed the perpetrator of that outrage, Charles R. Forbes, to flee to Europe before he could be held accountable. Forbes later returned to the United States, where he was convicted of conspiracy and sent to prison! Toward the end of the book, Dean also speculates that Harding probably did not father the illegitimate child, but according to the Wikipedia page for Harding, DNA testing later confirmed that he had. Or as Maury would have said to the president: “You ARE the father!”

Taft Harding and Lincoln
Chief Justice William Howard Taft, President Warren G. Harding and Robert Todd Lincoln, at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on May 30, 1922. (National Photo Company, public domain)

Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s own hand

Today after work I visited the New York Public Library, where an original manuscript of the Declaration of Independence was on display. This is a rare, handwritten copy in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand, one of only four in existence. Congress had removed passages from the original proposed text condemning the slave trade, and Jefferson wanted to preserve his original version. So, after the Declaration was adopted on July 4, 1776, Jefferson hand wrote several copies to send to some of his friends. These documents, part of the library’s permanent collection, are so priceless that they are only on display two days each year. I waited in line for two hours to just view and to take these pictures — which I color-corrected in Photoshop, as the lighting inside was dimmed.

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copy of Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s own hand