The “Ollie North for President” T-shirts on South 17th Street this summer were the last straw. When are Americans going to grow up, learn a bare minimum about their own national history and stop being the Alfred E. Neuman grinning loose cannons on the spaceship Earth? Not soon, to judge by the way we seem to be substituting rule by terror for constitutionally mandated government.
I boycotted the Senate’s Iran-Contra hearings this summer (although I did sneak a tedious summary every day or so on NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition—but even these formerly estimable news services were dribbling away into drive-time repeats and pre-promoting what’s coming up as repetitiously as our commercial competitors.
Know what I was doing while you all hung in front of your teevees mesmerized to the brink of drool? I read two new books that tell me more about our present condition than a week of detergent drama “investigations.”
One is a memoir of a journalist who had done it his way for 70 years. George Seldes is now 97, and Witness to a Century (Simon and Schuster, $19.95) is just as fresh a look at the first three quarters of our troubled century as ever you’ll find anywhere. And although he’s a leftie, he’s a damned independent one, having been booted by no less terrible a trinity than Lenin, Mussolini and Franco.
But what I found especially germane in the era of Ollie North T-shirts was his report on Teddy Roosevelt’s vaunted charge up San Juan Hill. Seldes reports that the horses hadn’t arrived yet, that the terrain was too flat to be honored as a hill, and that, anyway, a company of “colored” soldiers was already there! They myth was fashioned by William Randolph Hearst, who also chided Frederick Remington when the illustrator called that there wasn’t any war to report, that he should supply the pictures and Hearst would supply the war.
The other alternative media experience I enjoyed that corroborates Seldes like a glove is Gore Vidal’s Empire (Random House, $22.50). The tackiness of our “liberation” of Cuba from Spain to protect our sugar investments is there in gory detail, as in our turning on the Filipino liberator Aguinaldo so that we could give our “little brown brothers” (in the phrase of William Howard Taft, the military governor) a taste of white Christian civilization.
Vidal makes the “fictions” of yellow journalism the leitmotif of his gloss on the shabby way America entered the stage of World Empire, full of self-righteousness about the while man’s burden and self-delusions about our moral superiority. Vidal garnishes this repast with saucy asides from the forlorn heirs of the original Republic—Henry Adams, Henry James and Lincoln’s private secretary, John Hay.
It’s not as nutritious as his Lincoln, but given the pablum of the hearings, it’s a much better investment of media time. And the half hour I spent seeing Vacation Nicaragua at PhilaFilm makes me positive we’re 180 degrees from reality down there.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 18, 1987