Category Archives: History

The candidates as the cast of a WWII B movie

battleground

How did I get on this subject? Well, Bryan had said something about liking Scott Walker before he dropped out, and I said he failed to stand out and distinguish himself. All the other candidates have a shorthand character people can describe, for good or ill. For instance, Lindsey Graham, who did no better in the polls than Walker, was known as the hawkish guy with the wisecracks.

So I got to thinking about how we all think we know the candidates, even though we don’t really know them any deeper than we do the characters in a cliche-ridden B movie — as a group of familiar types.

So let’s treat them like old-style contract players and cast them in an imaginary flick about World War II, since most of us are familiar with the genre. The title of the film? I dunno. “Hell is for Sad Sacks,” or something like that.

Here we go:

LuzLindsey Graham‘s the wise-cracking guy who nevertheless can give a pretty good speech about why we fight, and though he’s obviously no John Wayne, he’ll likely be a passable soldier when the shooting starts. Think L.Q. Jones — the character, not the actor who played him and adopted the name (even though he was poorly cast) — in “Battle Cry.” Think the book version. Only Leon Uris fans will get that, so never mind. Instead, think George Luz in “Band of Brothers.”

HallScott Walker is the replacement who gets killed at the start of the first battle, and no one in the unit can remember his name. Or maybe he was a member of another company entirely who ended up fighting alongside the main characters because the drop zones were all messed up. Think Private Hall in “Band of Brothers,” the guy who is the first character killed on D-Day. Or, to switch genres, anyone in a red shirt on “Star Trek.”

FrankoTed Cruz is the blowhard who talks big about how many Krauts he’s gonna kill, and the first time he’s within hearing of the guns he’s found cowering, quivering, in his foxhole. Everybody hates him — he’s always figuring an angle for getting ahead, at the expense of the other guys in the platoon — so they’re inclined to leave him there in the hole, but someone calls the medic. In “The Dirty Dozen,” he’d be Victor Franko.

RicklesDonald Trump is the utterly corrupt quartermaster who runs the black market operations in the area. A real weasel, although a tremendous businessman (ya gotta give him that) he’s all about insulting the other guys in the battalion. He’s even trading with the enemy; anything for the deal. He gets along great with Starshina Putin, his counterpart in the Red Army unit just over the hill. Think Don Rickles in “Kelly’s Heroes.” (He’s not smooth enough to be Milo Minderbinder.)

earnest young officerJeb Bush is the well-meaning but largely ineffectual officer who lives under a huge shadow. His father was a general and even his ne’er-do-well big brother made a name for himself earlier in the war. He got great grades at West Point but thus far hasn’t distinguished himself. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not the kind of guy the men are all that eager to follow into battle. Picture Tom Hanks’ kid in “Band of Brothers.” (I’m not going to be cruel and call him Lt. Dike.)

PopsBernie Sanders is “Pops,” the impossibly old guy who somehow got drafted anyway. The young guys all think he’s great and look out for him, even politely listening to his crackpot ideas about politics, the Army, etc. He likes to freak out the recruits by popping his teeth out without warning. For some reason I’m picturing James Whitmore in “Battleground,” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Can anyone think of somebody better?

Savalas 2Chris Christie is the crusty sergeant who’s been there and done that and rides the younger guys pretty hard, calling them “craphead” and “boy in the bubble” and such. Maybe Telly Savalas, in either “Battle of the Bulge” or “Kelly’s Heroes;” take your pick. But not in “The Dirty Dozen” — totally different character. Was James Gandolfini ever in this kind of movie? That would be perfect, but I don’t think he ever was.

WebsterMarco Rubio is “College,” the guy who earned half a degree before deciding he’d better join up. He’s a slick talker and will probably get into politics when he gets back home. The guys respect him for his ability to talk his way out of KP and such, but he hasn’t proven himself to them yet, and some wonder how he’ll measure up in combat. Think of David Kenyon Webster, the Ivy Leaguer in “Band of Brothers.”

StrayerJohn Kasich is the battalion executive officer, like Major Strayer in “Band of Brothers.” (Yeah, I keep citing “Band of Brothers,” which doesn’t fit the mold of the stereotype-ridden B movie. But there were just so many characters to choose from.) He’s regular Army and he knows his way around and the guys pretty much respect him and accept him in the No. 2 role, but people just aren’t sure how he’ll lead if the Old Man gets hit. This guy doesn’t usually have a lot of lines in the movie.

rooseveltI don’t know who Hillary Clinton is. It’s tough, since the Pentagon hadn’t yet rubber-stamped an OK on women in combat. I’m still working on it… She’s not a nurse (unless we’re talking Nurse Ratched, and that’s the wrong genre), and I don’t see her as the dame back home who wrote you a Dear John letter and broke your heart. Maybe she’s the long-suffering wife of the good-time company commander who chases all the nurses — Deborah Kerr in “From Here to Eternity.” But I don’t see her with Burt Lancaster. Maybe I’ll just say she’s Eleanor Roosevelt. She should like that…

‘The Nation’ on politics and race in South Carolina

My headline might make you cringe a bit, but the piece isn’t bad. It doesn’t really say anything about us that I haven’t said, or that you don’t already know.

After all, we are the state that seceded first, and some of us would do it again with just a modest amount of encouragement.

It’s tone-deaf in a couple of spots, though. For instance, it equates Strom Thurmond, the segregationist, with Ben Tillman, the advocate of lynching. Most of us can see the gradations of wrongness there rather clearly. And speaking of Thurmond — the writer either doesn’t know or has forgotten that the senator cleaned up his act in the last few decades of his career. In other words, he spent far more years in the Senate NOT being a segregationist than most people spend in the Senate.

That leads to confusion. After noting approvingly that Paul Thurmond says a lot of enlightened things — which he does; he’s a fine young man — the writer observes,

I leave Thurmond’s office wondering whether what I’ve just heard can be real. He seemed like a sincere man, but he, too, was eager to get beyond race. “My generation has not been taught to hate people based on the color of their skin,” the son of South Carolina’s most notorious segregationist told me.

Yet someone taught Dylann Roof and Michael Slager, the cop who shot Walter Scott in the back. The Confederate flag may finally be on its way to a museum, but the attitude of racial arrogance that the flag represented is very far from being a mere artifact. That’s a fundamental truth of our national life—though not one that’s easy to see from Iowa or New Hampshire. Perhaps South Carolina’s role in our politics is to remind us of all those parallel universes—not just Republican and Democratic, or rich and poor, but yes, still black and white—we work so hard to ignore. We always have a choice. We can carry on pretending that it’s still morning in America, that we’re all in this together. Or we can take a good hard look in the mirror.

Yep, Strom was a notorious segregationist, before he wasn’t. (Oh, and do I think it’s because he had some road-to-Damascus transformation, like Tom Turnipseed, the opponent of integration who did a 180 to become possibly the most ardent, sincerest progressive in South Carolina? No. The world changed, and Thurmond adapted. Early in his career, it was helpful to be a segregationist, so he was one. Later it was not, so he wasn’t. But it’s still true that he wasn’t.)

And the fact that Dylann Roof is a racist does in no way demonstrates that Paul Thurmond is lying when he says he wasn’t brought up that way. Possibly, Dylann Roof wasn’t brought up that way, either. I have my doubts about the old saw that children have to be taught to hate. I strongly suspect that people are capable of getting there on their own. Anyway, almost no one Paul Thurmond’s age was brought up that way, although his father certainly was. We live in subtler, politer times.

But there is no doubt that, decades after the Southern Strategy transferred the Solid South from the Democrats to the Republicans, race is always, always on the table. The article gets that right. It just misses some of the nuances…

Will the U.S. never disentangle itself from WWII?

Here are the two top stories in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:

  • The Bundeswehr Backs Away From the Brink — Since the end of the Cold War, NATO members’ defense expenditures, which include arms as well as personnel and facilities, have dropped dramatically. Now, Germany plans to increase its military spending, in large part to repair and maintain the Bundeswehr’s deteriorating equipment.
  • The Battle for Okinawa — Growing discontent in Okinawa has the potential to reverberate beyond Japan’s borders. If Washington and Tokyo wish to maintain the bases there, they must be prepared to address the historical and political issues that have led Okinawans to reject them.

By modern standards, we should all be wringing our hands that we are still not rid of the challenges arising from that mess we got involved in back in 1941.

At the moment, I’m reading a fairly new book about the battle in the Ardennes in December 1944 (a.k.a., Battle of the Bulge), and I’m reminded of how Hitler hoped it might give him a chance to fight to a stalemate in the West, so he could concentrate on his main enemy, Russia.

If some modern American leaders had been in charge back then, he might have succeeded. The nation would be in political shock from the disasters of Market Garden and the Hurtgen Forest, that a modern president might have seized upon the Ardennes as an excuse to quit and seek a negotiated settlement.

Then, he could have bragged about having “ended the war in Europe.” Of course, that would have been totally bogus, but not by our standards today…

Doesn’t everybody think of history this way (sort of)?

history

Tim Urban, Wait But Why

I found this piece in The Washington Post over the weekend interesting and enjoyable, but odd:

The history of the world, as you’ve never seen it before

Quick, what famous historical figures were living roughly 500 years ago?

A few creative people might bring to mind the rhyme “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and recall Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella. Some clever souls might recall that Michelangelo finished the Sistine Chapel in 1512, and recall from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a few other names — Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello. Or real history buffs might recall the astronomical work of Copernicus, or Henry VIII’s diva dips in the early 1500s.

But for most of us, what will come to mind is probably the hum of nothingness, or the gentle chirping of crickets. Most of what people remember from history class is pretty pathetic, a weak smattering of names and random anecdotes, like Eli Whitney and his revolutionary cotton gin, or Ponce de Leon looking for the fountain of youth in Florida.

We tend to learn about history by following a particular life or a conflict through the years – what Tim Urban, who runs the blog Wait But Why, calls “understanding history in a vertical sense.” But in a new blog, Urban offers another fascinating approach to understanding history: Taking a big “horizontal” slice to look at who was alive around the world in a certain year….

I say “odd” because… this is sort of the way I’ve always thought of history, not “a way you’ve never seen it before.” I mean, it’s not like I have this infallible database in my mind about when famous historical figures were born and died. I wouldn’t be able to construct a graph like the one above off the top of my head. In fact, I don’t really think in terms of precise dates, beyond the obvious ones such as 1066, 1492, 1776, 1800, 1861-65, 1939-45, and so forth.

But I think of people and events in context. I know roughly who was whose contemporary, because the events they were involved in were happening at about the same time.

How can you avoid knowing, for instance, that Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Horace Greeley, George Armstrong Custer and John Mosby were all alive around the same time? They were involved in the same issues during the same era. Admittedly, it’s harder to remember that Karl Marx was a contemporary, too, since he wasn’t involved in the same events and issues. And I had to check to see that The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital straddled the Civil War years. But I knew they were around that time — that is to say, roughly mid-century. I knew Crime and Punishment appeared in the 1860s, and I had this vague idea that Dostoevsky was interacting with Marxist ideas, and… to simplify, I see connections, even if they aren’t as organized as on Mr. Urban’s blog.

It seems to me odd that anyone would think about it any other way. I’m thinking some of y’all probably think of history in this “new” way as well…

WWII: The experience that everyone shared (and yeah, I know that’s a huge cliche)

Everyone, that is, except me, people around my age and of course, those much younger.

And yeah, I know the ubiquity of the war experience is pretty much a cliche, but I keep getting reminded of it in ways that make the notion seem fresh.

My history classes in school never got around to the war, even when it was right there, near the end of the textbook. I always sort of figured it was a low priority for my teachers because in their minds, well, “we all lived through it, right?” So I had to read about the events that most immediately shaped the world I grew up in on my own.

In typing my mother’s childhood memoirs, I’m reminded yet again of how the war shaped the lives even of those who never went overseas.

So I know all that, and have known it since childhood, but every time I run across by-the-way mentions of the war experiences of various famous people, I’m reminded that, unlike Vietnam and definitely unlike the War on Terror, pretty much everyone who was eligible did go.

61t3in9FBcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Last night, I started reading one of the books I received for Christmas, Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Anthony Beevor. (It was sort of an ironic experience, opening that present and seeing on the cover the beleaguered soldier in the snow — on a Christmas Day in the 70s.)

On the second page, I had another of those “Wow, everybody was in this” experiences. The author was explaining how, in August 1944, things were still unsettled in newly liberated Paris, which is why Eisenhower was pretty much ignoring FDR’s wishes and showing support for de Gaulle, who he believed could stabilize things in his rear while his troops moved on to Germany.

Within that context, I read this, in the middle of a paragraph:

…Together with a comrade, the writer J.D. Salinger, a Counter Intelligence Corps staff sergeant with the 4th Infantry Division, had arrested a suspect in an action close to the Hôtel de Ville, only for the crowd to drag him away and beat him to death in front of their eyes….

I mean, think about it: This guy was a famous recluse my whole life. We all knew two things about Salinger: He wrote The Catcher in the Rye, and he was a recluse. You didn’t see him anywhere. And yet here he is popping up in the middle of things in Paris during the war.

Ex-Sgt. Salinger

Ex-Sgt. Salinger

Months later, in the battle that this book is about, Kurt Vonnegut would be captured, along with my father-in-law — both soldiers in the ill-fated 106th Infantry Division, that new unit of green troops who had been placed at the center of the line, where things were supposed to be quiet.

I’m not a student of Salinger — if I were, I’d be well aware of his extensive experience in the war — but it immediately occurred to me that maybe experiences such as that one in Paris help explain why he turned into such a hermit. And sure enough, I see that he was hospitalized for a few weeks with “combat stress reaction” — although he waited until the Germans were defeated to have his breakdown.

Anyway, it’s just a small thing, a footnote, but such things interest me….

How is Tim Scott like Strom Thurmond?

Well, I’ll tell you…

Did you see this item in The State over the weekend?

Tim ScottSCOTT SEEKS HIS OWN TERM

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, is expected to run for re-election in 2016. The only African-American Republican in the U.S. Senate, Scott was appointed to the seat in late 2012 after Jim De-Mint resigned to run a conservative think tank. Scott, the state’s most popular pol, won a special election in 2014 to complete DeMint’s six-year term. Now, he must seek his own term on Nov. 8. Do S.C. Democrats even field a candidate?

Catch that? Scott is “the state’s most popular pol”?

Think about that for a moment. What is Tim Scott known for? How has he distinguished himself? What has he done in office, for good or ill?

Not much, near as I can recall.

And South Carolina voters love that. That’s why they loved Strom Thurmond, at least for the last three or four decades of his career. During my adult life, Strom never did much of anything. OK, he did one thing: He had warning labels put on bottles of alcohol. He worked on that one from 1971 to 1988. After 1988, he kicked back let constituent service occupy him — or at least, occupy his staff — for the rest of his time in office.

Floyd Spence followed pretty much the same approach. He provided constituent service, identified himself with a strong national defense, and kept his head down. Except for that brief “You lie!” eruption, his successor, Joe Wilson, has followed a similar pattern.

And if Strom were still in office today, he probably wouldn’t even have messed with the warning-labels thing, since the surging libertarian wing of his party would probably regard it as nanny-state meddling.

Anyway, Tim Scott is sticking with that formula, and it works for him. Our other senator, Lindsey Graham, tries to do stuff, and that just gets him into trouble with the base.

In fact, in a sense he’s more like Strom than Strom’s own son is. Paul Thurmond is retiring from the SC Senate after this year — after only a single term! That boy fell a long way from the tree…

I’ve been way busy on this week off

My great-great grandparents, C.L. and Mattie Pace, with their three eldest children, before my grandmother was born.

My great-great grandparents, C.L. and Mattie Pace, with their three eldest children, before my grandmother was born.

Just to let y’all know I haven’t forgotten about you…

I’m off from work this week, ,which should mean plenty of time for blogging. And indeed, I’ve spent most of the week busy at my laptop.

My Uncle Braxton in formal uniform, about the time of the Korean War, in which he was a tank platoon commander.

My Uncle Braxton in formal uniform about the time of the Korean War, in which he was a tank platoon commander.

But rather than writing about the events of the day (and I think you’ll agree with me that these days have been pretty uneventful), I’ve been writing about things that happened 60, 70, 80 and more years ago.

My Mom has been working on family memoirs. Every since her brother Braxton suggested the project, she’s applied herself very industriously, and I am her typist. I thought I would be wrapping up the typing phase today, but Mom just handed me 20 more fairly densely-packed pages, so my goal now is to finish before going back to work Monday.

I’ve been pausing in the typing every few pages to work on scanning in a great trove of family pictures. Eventually, I plan to create a family website for relatives far and near, consisting of my Mom’s work and perhaps other members’ contributions.

This project has had precedence. I’ll get back to blogging more regularly ASAP.

Just to give y’all an extra treat… Most of what I’ve been helping to chronicle deals with things that happened before I was born (and I’ve learned a great deal from it). But on a separate track, we’re in the middle of having family home movies and videos digitized. Below you see me in a low-res image from an 8 mm film. I’m strolling in a park in Charleston in 1956. In those days, you see, a gentleman kept his bow tie on for such activities…

balloon

‘Hands up, don’t shoot!’ makes list of biggest canards

As you probably know, The Washington Post has a fact checker feature which involves regularly checking the veracity of various claims that make news, and awards “Pinocchios” to indicate the relative level of falsehood. The biggest lies get four Pinocchios.

The Post has now published a year-end list of “The biggest Pinocchios of 2015,” and as you might expect, the list is dominated by the 2016 presidential candidates. In just six months, Donald Trump has earned 11 Four-Pinocchio ratings — far more than any other candidate.

Politicians, of course, are easy targets. Their statements are regularly subjected to great skepticism and close scrutiny.

What struck me as most intriguing (and not just because it was more of a 2014 thing than 2015) is that the Post chose to include, on this list of biggest lies, the “Hands up, don’t shoot!” meme out of Ferguson. In other words, the Post is highlighting that thousands of morally outraged people who thought they were speaking truth to power were in fact perpetuating a falsehood.

The belief that Michael Brown raised his hands and said “Don’t shoot!” was embraced without question by protesters across the country, and helped to launch the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

The thing is, though, that to the best of our knowledge, it did not happen. As the Post states, “But various investigations concluded this did not happen — and that Wilson acted out of self-defense and was justified in killing Brown.”

The irony here, of course, is that there are other incidents across the country more deserving of protesters’ indignation — Walter Scott being shot multiple times in the back, the shocking killing of Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner suffocating in a police chokehold.

But unfortunately the Michael Brown killing — which was never as clear-cut a case of police brutality as other incidents — was the one that got the ball rolling. And it’s appropriate, in the interest of historical accuracy, to take note of the fact that the protesters didn’t know what had happened.

Reminds me of the Boston “Massacre.” The British soldiers involved were later acquitted, and rightly so (John Adams was their defense attorney, which took a lot of guts and a profound faith in the rule of law).

That didn’t mean the Revolution that followed was without merit. On the whole, I’d call our independence an excellent thing. But sometimes people are initially radicalized by the wrong things…

Do you get any EXTRA rights if you get 100 on a citizenship test?

100 percent

As anyone who does get 100 percent on a U.S. citizenship test knows, the answer to that question is “no.”

Although at the moment, that seems particularly unfair to me.test screen

Yes, you guessed it! I just took a citizenship test I saw promoted on the Christian Science Monitor site, and I crushed it — got all 96 questions right! (I did it while eating lunch, by the way, not when I should have been working).

And yeah, I know I shouldn’t be gloating at the expense of yearning, wannabe Americans who have to sweat over this test, but, hey — I am humiliated almost every week by the Slate News Quiz, which not only asks esoteric questions but is timed (timed tests always rattle me), so I need these little boosts now and again. (And yeah, I know we’ve done the citizenship thing here before, but I found it fun to take it again — and, you know, crush it again.)

If you take it, you will find it’s pretty easy for anyone who keeps up with this blog. In fact, a little too simplistic now and then. For instance, note the question below. None of the answers is precisely right, since the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t, in the strictest sense, “free the slaves.” As Lincoln well understood, it took the 13th Amendment to do that. But it’s pretty obvious that the simple answer that is sort of right beats out the others, which are all totally wrong.

So don’t be afraid. Take the test. I’m sure I’ll be far from the only 100 percent…

emacipation

A few thoughts on ‘Spotlight’

One thing they definitely got right: The disaster area that is the typical reporter's workspace...

One thing they definitely got right: The grubby disaster area that is the typical reporter’s workspace…

I’ve had an extremely busy day and haven’t been able to keep up with the news. In any case, I was tired because I didn’t get home from the theater until about 10:30 last night, and then couldn’t resist popping my DVD of “All the President’s Men” into the player. I didn’t watch all of it, mind you, but… I was tired this morning.

I doubt that many of you have seen “Spotlight” yet, but you should. And against the day when you do see it, I thought I’d go ahead and share some of the things that struck me about it, most of which I shared with the audience last night during our panel discussion after the show.

First, a plug: That was my first time attending a show in the new Nickelodeon, and it was great. You should give it your custom if you don’t already. Andy Smith and the gang are doing a good job.

Now, my impressions…

I had said I was eager to see whether it really was the best newspaper film since the aforementioned Redford-Hoffman vehicle, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, given that the cinematic art has improved over the last four decades (or is it me?), it was better in a number of ways, although there were one or two things ATPM did that this did not (I loved the awkward, naturalistic, disconnected conversations Woodstein had with their sources — very much like real interviews). I was particularly impressed by how thoughtful and nuanced “Spotlight” was. If you watched the trailer, you could be forgiven for thinking it would be a cartoonish, black-and-white depiction of courageous, hard-driving journos relentlessly bringing down wicked Cardinal Law and his army of perverts. It was way more intelligent than that.

The few, the intensely interested: About a third of the audience stayed for the panel discussion.

The few, the intensely interested: About a third of the audience stayed for the panel discussion.

For instance, while the film did show how a newspaper with the right resources and good leadership can peel away the layers hiding a dark secret eating away at its community, it did the opposite very well. By that I mean, it showed how a newspaper can fail to get that story, year after year. In a different context during our panel discussion, Charles Bierbauer mentioned the old saw that journalists live by, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That very skepticism caused this team and the newsroom in general to fail to grasp the enormity of what they were facing. Yeah, they had a story about a pedophile priest on their hands, similar to a case they’d thoroughly covered years ago. But as indications emerged that maybe there were as many as 12 or 13 such priests in the archdiocese, then maybe as many as 90 (which would represent 6 percent, which a researcher told them they should expect — after all, that’s roughly the proportion of pedophiles in the adult male population), they just could not believe it. It was too outlandish; it didn’t fit their expectations in any way. John Slattery (of “Mad Men” fame) as Ben Bradlee Jr. spoke for all when he cried “b___s___!” to what the team had found at one point.

The members of the Spotlight team — three reporters and “player coach” Walter Robinson, played by Michael Keaton — were time and again dismayed to learn how they had missed the story over the years. After Robinson and a reporter ambush and harass a lawyer who has been dodging them, demanding that he provide the names of priests his clients had made claims against (leading to settlements that were sealed by the court), the lawyer finally explodes at them and says he had given the paper the names of 20 such priests several years ago, and the paper had essentially done nothing with it. Look at your own damn’ clips, he told them as he walked away. They look, and find a story buried inside. (This isn’t made clear, but I’m assuming they didn’t actually publish the names of the priests in that story — it would have been amazing if they had, without the kind of exhaustive investigation they were finally conducting at the time when the film is set, 2001-2002. You don’t run something like that on one lawyer’s say-so.)

The paper had also in the past brushed off a victim turned victims’ advocate, Phil Saviano, and an experienced editor can easily see why. When Saviano meets with the team and presents them with what he has, he starts out patient and then keeps slipping back into deep resentment that he had been ignored by others at the paper in the past, which causes him to lash out angrily. As he excuses himself to go to the bathroom, the reporters exchange a look behind his back. Yeahhh… one of those. We all have experience with sources like that. Full of passion, and full of stuff you can’t prove, and they come across as a bit unbalanced. Maybe he was abused, and it sent him over the edge. Or maybe the thing that sends him there is his frustration that no one believes the truth. At this point, the team is determined to find out if he’s right.

That the paper had missed opportunities in the past doesn’t mean the Globe is a bad paper; it’s far from that. This was just a particularly difficult story to a) believe, and b) nail down. Why, you wonder? Couldn’t they just go look at the court cases? No, they couldn’t. Lawyers for the victims who made claims — a small minority of the number of actual victims — generally didn’t file lawsuits in court. They went straight to the archdiocese, settlements were mediated, and the records were sealed. There would be a case over here that came to light, then one over there — and the paper covered those extensively, and everyone felt like they were on top of it. That there were so many priests, so many victims, that Cardinal Law was aware of the scope of it, that guilty priests would be shunted from one parish to another after useless “treatment,” all came as a shock as the resources of the Spotlight investigative team were devoted to the case.

And how did that happen? How was the decision made to have Spotlight drop what it was working on and bring to bear the kind of resources necessary to get the story at long last? That was interesting. It was the arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron, from The Miami Herald. He was an outsider in a newsroom full of people with deep Boston roots. He was Jewish in a Catholic town (all the members of the Spotlight team were raised Catholic, although apparently none were attending Mass any more). He wasn’t even interested in the Red Sox. He comes in feeling pressure to cut expenses, and focuses on Robinson’s team — four extremely talented, experienced reporters who only turn out a story about once a year (not because they were lazy, but because they put that much into their stories — making the team a very expensive luxury). And then he raises the question, if we’re going to have this team, why not have it look further into these sex abuse cases? He suggests they drop what they’re working on (some sort of police story) and turn to this. They do.

But it’s easy, if you’re not a journalist, to focus on the superficialities in the situation. A member of the audience asked me about that aspect of the story — the Jewish outsider being the only one who could make this bunch of hometown mackerel snappers take on the church in the most Catholic city in the country. I pointed out that he was missing the most salient aspect of Baron’s outsider perspective. It wasn’t that he was Jewish, or that he didn’t care about baseball. It was that he was from Florida — born in Tampa, coming up through the Herald‘s newsroom.

I could identify with his perspective. When I arrived at The State after having spent most of my career to that point in Tennessee, I was shocked to find out how much of public life in South Carolina could remain hidden — closed records, closed meetings. In Tennessee, we had had a Sunshine Law based on Florida’s groundbreaking open-government law. We’d had it when my career started. It spoiled me. I would hear stories of the bad old days before the law, when government bodies could go into something called “executive session” and shut out the press and the public, and I would shudder at the idea of such a thing. Then I came to South Carolina, where government bodies regularly go into executive session. It was like I’d been transported to the Dark Ages. Shortly after I arrived here, Jay Bender came to brief editors on improvements to FOI law that he and the Press Association had managed to push through the recent legislative session. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I kept saying things like, “That’s an improvement? You’re kidding me! You couldn’t do better than that?” I don’t think I made a good first impression on Jay.

(As governmental affairs editor, I was determined to break through the culture of closed doors. This led to an embarrassing situation one day. I left the newsroom to go check on my reporters and see what was happening at the State House. There was an important meeting going on somewhere that I was concerned we were missing. I spied a closed door, to one of the rooms off of the lobby near the exterior doors that open to the sweeping outdoor steps, and I strode over and put my hand on it. One of the loungers in the lobby called out that I shouldn’t barge in; there was a meeting going on. Aha! I thought. I self-righteously (I mean, I really made an ass of myself) replied, in a dramatic tone, “I know. That’s why I’m going in!” and pushed the door open with a flourish. It wasn’t my meeting. It was a couple of guys having a private chat, and they looked at me like I was crazy. I muttered something, backed out sheepishly, closed the door and endured the laughter of the lobby as I resumed my search.)

So, when Baron expressed surprise that it was so hard to get access to records in the sex-abuse cases, I felt his pain. And it made all the sense in the world that he would decide to overcome the barriers whatever it took, and suggested Spotlight drop what it was doing and get all over it. Which, as I said, they did. And they got the job done, against the odds.

I spoke of nuances. I loved a couple of the touches that undermined popular prejudices about the church, even as the film told in detail of the exposure of the church’s darkest secret. Sure, Law was the villain of the piece, but he was no Snidely Whiplash curling the ends of his mustache. Early on, when he meets Baron — one of those meetings that a new editor routinely has with key people in a community — he speaks of when he, too, had been an outsider, standing up for civil rights in Mississippi.

As for the old saw about a celibate priesthood being the culprit — hey, you don’t let ’em get married, so they take it out on the kids — there was a very interesting touch in the film. Stanley Tucci, wearing an impressive hairpiece, appears as attorney Mitchell Garabedian — as an Armenian, another outsider — who has decided he will try to make the abuse problem more public by actually suing on behalf of his victim clients in open court. He’s an irascible guy, and it takes some time for reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) to build a relationship of trust with him. At one point as they’re getting to know each other, Garabedian asks Rezendes whether he’s married. Rezendes says he is (although apparently, it’s complicated). Garabedian asks whether his demanding job causes problems in the marriage. Rezendes admits it does. Garebedian says yeah, that’s why he never married: His work is too important, and he just doesn’t have the time. Which, you know, is the rationale behind priests being celibate — that they’re supposed to devote themselves entirely to being shepherds.

All in all, a rich feast of a film, that never falls back on easy answers. You should see it.

Funniest SNL skit ever… to me… at least on paper…

 

I say “to me” because it was inside humor; it could not possibly have been as funny to someone who has not sat through thousands of news meetings just like the one portrayed, and suffered just the way Phil Hartman’s character suffers in the skit. (I’d love to know who wrote it. It had to be a fellow sufferer, because only someone who has been there and listened to such nonsense could possibly have come up with some of the touches in the dialogue.)ATT_b1_Bradwarthen_233x233_011515_d2

And I say “at least on paper” because, to my disappointment in going back and watching it again, I see that the actors were a bit off. There were stumbles by Rob Schneider, and even Phil Hartman, who otherwise is brilliant as the one sane man in the room. I wish in retrospect that they’d shot it as a short film in advance, as SNL sometimes does, to iron out those little problems with timing. I find myself wondering whether the actors just lacked energy because, having never been newspaper editors, they just did not understand how hilarious this was.

Unfortunately, the live audience hardly laughed at all, which probably persuaded Lorne Michaels that insider newspaper humor doesn’t sell.

Anyway, I’m sharing this because of a Twitter exchange I had Saturday night:


Perhaps so. I forget what the show did right after 9/11. But that reminded me that, ironically, one of the funniest things SNL ever did was about Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, the skit ran 50 years to the day after the attacks, and that amount of time having passed gave the show license to make fun.

And it was just so, so real. How many times have I been in such meetings, trying to sell something important as the lede story, while my fellow editors oohed and aahed over minor crime news, or the fact that “the lady bulldogs have a chance of going to the state finals this year.” And as one who has always had little patience with other editors’ overreaction to the weather (my general guiding principle on that is that if I want to know what the weather is, I’ll step outside) this is a battle cry that resonates in my heart:

“I’ll tell you what’s happenin’ in the weather: IT’S RAININ’ BOMBS IN HAWAII; that’s what’s happening…”

There’s just one brilliant line after another, such as “Do we have one Japanese person in Turrell?” and “Now Bill, that is something that affects our readers — they’re going to have to pay for those typewriters!” Someone had to have been taking notes during real newsroom budget meetings to come up with dialogue such as that.

But the very best touch of all is when you see the paper roll off the press, and the Pearl Harbor story is played at the bottom of page 7, under the news that Phil Hartman’s character has, understandably, shot himself. It appears under this savagely brilliant, one-column headline:

Asians
Attack
“Base”

… because, you know, you can’t be too careful. Do we KNOW that they were Japanese? And we’d better put “base” in quotes rather than step out on a limb…

McCartney’s enthusiasm for Guy Fawkes Day creeps me out a bit

I say that on account of my being Catholic and all.

I reTweeted this from Paul McCartney yesterday, which included a picture of him that appears to be from his “Maybe I’m Amazed” period:

But this was a classic case of a reTweet not constituting an endorsement.

Now, y’all know that I’m an Anglophile from way back. I generally love English traditions, including some of those involving fire.

But I’m a bit squeamish about the one that involves burning in effigy a Catholic-rights activist who in reality was tortured by English authorities before being drawn, hung and quartered.

OK, granted, we’re not talking Pope Francis here: Guy Fawkes was a terrorist who intended to blow up the king and Parliament and had the explosives to do it.

But still. The English had already been oppressing Catholics for Fawkes’ entire life and then some, and they used the Gunpowder Plot as an excuse to step that persecution up and continue it for most of the next 400 years. The celebration, unless I mistake, was of a victory over the Pope and papists as much as over a terrorist cell.

Which I kind of resent, because, you know, we’re not all terrorists.

So excuse me if I’m not too thrilled about your bonfire there, Paul…

 

This is why readers see media as negative

I couldn’t help reacting this way this morning:

Yeah, I know: The first American soldier killed in Iraq in four years is definitely news. But, of course, the reason no Americans have been killed is that we haven’t had Americans engaged in combat on the ground for four years. I can see how, if we had been conducting successful commando raids in Iraq every week, and this was the first time we’d lost a man, then yeah, that casualty would be the one fact you would choose for your headline if you could only fit in one.

To me, looking at the big picture here, it seems that the main news is that we sent men into ground combat in Iraq for the first time in four years. See it as good news or bad news, that’s the news. That, and the fact that the action was successful. The loss of a man is important, and terrible, but it is a result of the first thing, which is the big news…

And hey, you couldn’t work in that the raid succeeded in saving 70 people who were about to be killed and dumped into mass graves? No, they weren’t exactly the peshmerga fighters we went in to save, but apparently we still saved 70 people from the bad guys.

I honor Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler. He was a great soldier, as I know from the fact that he was with Delta Force. We — and those people he helped save — owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. I am in awe of what he did, and his sacrifice.

But I would not have mentioned his death as the only thing worth noting about that raid.

Let’s take ourselves out of our immediate, narrow, 2015 frame of reference and consider another example, from another time…

Lt. Den Brotheridge was the first Allied soldier killed on D-Day. He is known for that, and honored for it. He was charging a German position across the bridge now known as Pegasus Bridge just minutes after midnight, leading his glider-borne platoon that had just crash-landed a few yards away.

But what we remember is that his British unit, part of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, took that bridge, which was critically important to protecting the landings that would begin on the nearby beaches a few hours later.

We remember Lt. Brotheridge for the way he died. He is not forgotten. But we remember the deed, the feat of arms, and why it mattered, more. Stephen Ambrose’s book about that remarkable coup de main operation is named “Pegasus Bridge,” not “The Death of Den Brotheridge.”

But we don’t look at things that way any more, do we?

Yeah, that’s what I always say about term limits

An argument against term limits, not for them.

An argument against term limits, not for them.

On the day of the Democratic debate, ThinkProgress had an essay headlined, “The First Democratic Debate Is Tonight. Too Bad The 2 Most Qualified Candidates Are Banned.”

When I saw the Tweet promoting the item, I clicked just out of morbid curiosity to see who else in the world they thought should be on the stage that already included the marginal O’Malley, Webb and Chaffee. I imagined it being someone to the left of Bernie Sanders, this being ThinkProgress.

But… again,this being ThinkProgress… their “two most qualified candidates” turned out to be… Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

And I found myself granting them the point, to a certain extent.

Not that I want a third term of either man (if only for their own sakes — I saw how the job aged them, and those extra terms killed FDR), but I’m always glad to see someone willing to challenge term limits.

Now if you’re going to have term limits, I suppose the chief executive would be the office to be thus limited — for all the cliche reasons such as preventing the development of a de facto monarchy and so forth.

But as the piece notes, the timing of the 22nd Amendment was pretty weird, and a little hard to accept as being at all about good government. The Republicans who had just gained control of Congress rammed it through shortly after the passing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had shut them out of four elections in a row.

At almost any other time in history, one could have made a somewhat credible argument for limits that didn’t involve crass partisanship. But not at that time. Roosevelt’s was one of the most successful presidencies in our history. His time in office was a sustained argument against limits, not an argument for.

But set aside Roosevelt and partisanship. In general, limits are of dubious value for these reasons stated in the piece:

Term limits, moreover, come at a high price. They lock the most experienced potential executives out of office. They periodically place untested leaders in power who may not have the seasoning necessary to handle difficult issues that arise early in their term. They increase corruption by shifting power towards lobbyists. And they strip voters of their ability to make their own decisions. If the American people actually are uncomfortable with a third Clinton or Obama term, they have an easy solution: they can vote for someone else.

Yeah, I know. The 22nd Amendment is here to stay. But some of those same arguments militate against acting to limit other offices. Which is why I’ve used some of them in the past…

Alexandra nails it: Old Hickory should go, not Hamilton

Alexandra P

Alexandra Petri, making Hamilton’s case with sweet reason, plus an appropriate dollop of moral indignation. Harrumph.

I’ve become something of an Alexandra Petri fan, but just over the last couple of months. Which means I missed her excellent piece back in June about why it is so very wrong to replace Alexander Hamilton on the sawbuck, and not Andrew Jackson on the twenty.

She totally nailed it, as usual:

Word leaked Wednesday night that, yes, by 2020, there will be a woman on our currency. But not, as the campaign Women on 20s suggested, on the $20. On the $10 bill — in place of Alexander Hamilton.

This is horrible.

This had better be a stealth campaign by the U.S. Treasury to gain support for removing Andrew Jackson from the $20 and replacing him with a woman. Otherwise, it’s unforgivable.

This is change I do not believe in.

What cretin decided to make Hamilton go and let Andrew Jackson stay? Andrew “Indian Removal Act” Jackson? Andrew “Literally Murdered A Guy” Jackson? Andrew “Who cares what the Supreme Court rules” Jackson? Andrew “The Coolest Thing I Did As President Was Throw A Giant Cheese-Themed Houseparty” Jackson? He gets to stay? Look, I’ve thrown giant cheese-themed parties. I don’t belong on any currency. And, unlike Jackson, I had no responsibility for the Trail of Tears….

She nails it so well, I’m going to risk the wrath of The Washington Post‘s lawyers and go to the edge of the Fair Use envelope and jes’ stretch it a might, the way ol’ Yeager used to do out there over the high desert (as they haul me off, I’ll be screaming, “Call E.J. Dionne! He’s a friend of mine! And I know Kathleen Parker! And her husband, Woody! Do you know who I AM? I once had lunch with George Will!”), because I’ve just gotta give her reasoning for why Alexander Hamilton is so deserving:

Never Hamilton! Hamilton is a hero. Hamilton built this country with his bare hands, strong nose, and winning smile. He was the illegitimate son of a British officer who immigrated from the West Indies, buoyed by sheer force of intellect, and rose to shape our entire nation. His rags-to-riches story was so compelling that if he hadn’t existed, Horatio Alger would have had to make him up. Hamilton gave us federalism and central banking and the Coast Guard! He served as our first Secretary of the Treasury. He fought in the Revolutionary War. He started a newspaper. He weathered a sex scandal! He saved us from President Aaron Burr. He successfully imagined our country as the federal, industrial democracy we have today and served as an invaluable counterweight to Thomas Jefferson’s utopian visions of a yeoman farmers’ paradise. He founded the Bank of New York! He was so good at what he did that the Coast Guard was still using a communications guidebook he had written — in 1962! He was a redhead! He should be on more currency, not less. He should be on all the currency!…

Amen to all of that.

Had I lived back in those days, I’d have been a Federalist, so it’s good to see someone sticking up for our guy. (Although, as Federalists go, I prefer John Adams.)

Since I’m so late acknowledging this fine piece, here’s a video in which she reiterates her points (and which is on the Post’s website today):

Crazy SC GOP is throwing it all away

Jeb Bush -- the guy who would normally win in South Carolina -- at a campaign event in Columbia in August.

Jeb Bush — the guy who would normally win in South Carolina — at a campaign event in Columbia in August.

South Carolinians who are not Republicans know their vote in the general election for president doesn’t count for much; our state’s electoral votes will go to the Republican.

But at least, thanks to our open primaries, we all get a say in which Republican is on the ballot in November. And since 1980, South Carolina has always picked the eventual winner, nudging the party toward a candidate who might get some of us independents, and maybe even a few Democrats, to vote for him.

That is, we always did until 2012. But that was a one-time fit of craziness, right?

Apparently not. And as much as I have dreaded saying it, The Washington Post has no such qualms. This story on today’s front page paints a portrait of a state that is throwing its national influence away:

Much like in Washington, where the abrupt withdrawal from the speaker’s race of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) signaled total party chaos, the view is fading that, eventually, this presidential contest will get back to normal.

Support for former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who recently called South Carolina a “lock,” is at 5.7 percent here, according to theRealClearPolitics average. That’s good enough for only fifth place, 28 points behind front-runner Donald Trump and 12 behind former neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Four years ago, on his way to losing the state’s primary, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney never polled lower than 13 percent. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), another establishment favorite who is ahead of Bush nationally and rising in recent polls, is currently even further behind in South Carolina, with a RealClearPolitics average of just 5 percent.

“The pattern of crowning the nominee has been broken,” said Barry Wynn, a former South Carolina GOP chairman whose office is festooned with Bush memorabilia, down to a “I Miss W” coffee mug….

A big part of the problem is the lack of GOP leadership to pull the party together around a candidate who can win. Once, that sort of leadership was provided by Carroll Campbell. Now, Nikki Haley seems uninterested, and Lindsey Graham is muddying the waters with his own quixotic campaign, which has sucked up name support that might have automatically gone to someone like Jeb Bush.

Meanwhile, when it comes to tearing the party apart, most of the state’s congressional delegation is a big part of the problem, and it’s hard to imagine them ever being part of a solution.

After the 1988 primary, when my reporter was having trouble coming up with a lede for a story summing up the results, I suggested he write, “Now we know what it feels like to be an Iowan.” It was plain that we, too, had become a state with outsized influence on the GOP nomination process.

We may not be feeling that feeling much longer, if this trend continues. And I, for one, will miss getting that early close look at the candidates.

front Wash

“Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline…”

We were talking about good songs for this rainy, flooded weekend on the last post, and no one mentioned the most appropriate song of all, Randy Newman’s magnificent “Louisiana 1927.”

This one’s got it all — Newman’s irony mixed with pathos and sympathy for the common man, his orchestral sensibility, history, and his inimitable touch with lyrics. This is, of course, from his wonderful “Good Old Boys” album, which kicks off with the one truly brilliant Newman song that you will never, ever hear on the radio in this country — “Rednecks.” (If anyone overhears you listening to that one, and that person lacks a sense of irony, watch out. But I do recommend it, long as you’re not one a them college boys from LSU who went in dumb, come out dumb too.)

I prefer the original album version, which is below, but I used the one above for the pictures.

The song, of course, is about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which Wikipedia calls “the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States” — although we seem to be trying to give it a run for its money this weekend.

Lincoln and Trump: Does it get more incongruous than that?

Lincoln

Someone shared with me this link to publicity about an event, and I was immediately struck by how grossly inappropriate it is to juxtapose a photograph of the Lincoln monument with the name “Donald Trump.” And yet there it is, imposed right across Honest Abe’s left shin.

Yeah, I get it. Someone seeking the Republican presidential nomination, and the first Republican nominee to be elected president. On a very literal, superficial level, I can see how that might make sense to somebody.

But, having watched (most of) the first episode of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” again last night, I am particularly mindful at this moment of Lincoln’s stature as the most careful, thoughtful and profound speaker in our history. He was always careful to say exactly the right thing at the precise moment when it would have maximum effect in moving the nation toward emancipation and reconciliation. Not a word was out of place or ill-timed. He said exactly what needed to be said, for the good of the nation, at exactly the moment when it needed to be said.

He was always about appealing to “the better angels of our nature.” And he succeeded amazingly, at the moment in our history when we were most divided.

And then there’s Donald Trump, who is the opposite of all that. He’s the one person in public life that we can depend on to say precisely the wrong thing (if you define right and wrong according to Lincoln’s priorities of national unity and preservation) whenever he bloody well feels like it.

Putting them together this way is… jarring.

A trip through the Wayback Machine

wayback

While working on a presentation later this week on the subject of blogging, I went back and looked at some of my early efforts.

Specifically, I went back to January 2008, my peak blogging month ever.

Looking back, I’m fairly impressed.

If you want to go back and explore, just click on the image above, you’ll go back in time, and you’ll find the links work (or at least SOME of them do) and everything.

Enjoy.

In defense of “The Great Escape”

About a decade or so ago, I persuaded one of my daughters to sit and watch “The Great Escape” with me. My motivation was that I wanted to share something that had been, without a doubt, my favorite movie when I was a kid.

Early on — I think it might have been the scene in which Steve McQueen’s character, Hilts, and his new Scottish friend Ives, are sent to the “cooler” for the first time — my daughter raised an objection: What’s with the light, sprightly music in the background? This is about men at war being held prisoner of the Nazis and risking their lives to escape. They’re being put in solitary confinement, a harsh punishment that can cause lasting psychological damage (and as we soon find out, has pushed Ives to the edge of cracking up). Why the cute music? Why does it seem the actors are playing it for laughs?

She knew that her grandfather had spent the rest of the war in such a camp after being captured in the Ardennes, and it was a sufficiently horrible experience that he never, ever wanted to visit Europe again.

I had never noticed that incongruity, because, well, I had first seen the film at the age of 10, and I thought it was awesome in every way, and had never questioned the out-of-place comical touches that, after all, made watching the film all that much more fun.

I tried to explain that films were different in the ’50s and ’60s — Hollywood tended to sugarcoat everything — and war films especially. The country had this hugely positive feeling about the Second World War, and over the past couple of decades had sanitized it to the point that, to kids of my generation, it looked at times like one great lark. I knew at least in theory of the cost of war — I used to look at those pictures of American bodies in the surf at Normandy and Saipan in the big Time-Life picture books about the war. Still, the fact that the war was something we all felt good about was something I didn’t question. For instance, I watched the film starring Audie Murphy in which he re-enacted the deeds that made him a hero, and nothing that I saw in the film prepared me for what I learned years later — that Murphy had a terrible time with PTSD after the war.

And I knew, by the time my daughter pointed out that problem, that the true story of The Great Escape had definitely received the Hollywood treatment. To begin with, Hilts was complete fiction, and although there were some Americans in the camp, their roles in this escape were fairly marginal. (I think. I’m finding some contradictory info about American David M. Jones.)

Still, even though I know all that, and even though the film doesn’t hold the exalted position that it did in my personal list of favorites, I got a little defensive this morning when I read about the death at 101 of the next-to-last survivor of the escape, Australian Paul Royle. This was the part that got me:

Paul Royle revealed last year on the 70th anniversary of the tunnel escape in March 1944 that he was no fan of the Hollywood interpretation of the story.

“The movie I disliked intensely because there were no motorbikes … and the Americans weren’t there,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp., referring to McQueen’s dramatic bid to outrun the Germans on a motorbike.

Gordon Royle said his father was angry that Hollywood would create an adventure out of soldiers doing their often tedious and dangerous duty of attempting to escape.

“He felt the movie was a glamorization of the tedium and the drabness of the actuality,” Gordon Royle said.

“The idea that they got on a motorbike and soared over a barbed wire fence is far from the reality, which was darkness and cold and terror,” he said….

First, Mr. Royle had a million times greater entitlement to an opinion on the film than I ever will have. That said, allow me to raise some objections to his criticism:

  • True, no Americans were involved in the escape, as they were moved to another part of the camp before the tunnel was ready. However, one author who wrote about the escape notes that earlier, “US airmen watched out for patrolling Germans during the tunnel’s construction.” Marginal, but participation nonetheless.
  • I accept service completely on the fact that Hilts was entirely a fabrication, from his cowboy insouciance to his baseball and glove. But I should point out that if you paid close attention to the film, you’d see that the three Americans depicted as being in the camp were not central to the escape effort, except for Hendley — and he had the fig leaf of technically being in the Canadian air force and therefore not officially an “American.” The fictional Hilts was a complete outsider, playing no part in the X organization. The essentially true story of the escape planned and executed by British officers with a few allied pilots thrown in was clearly told.
  • While the entire story was fictionalized, there was at least some verisimilitude between the central character, Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, and his real-life counterpart, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Their stories are a fairly close match. Bushell had been captured and tortured by the Gestapo after a previous escape, and had developed an intense hatred of the Nazis by the time he became Big X in Stalag Luft III.
  • The central facts of the plan — the simultaneous digging of three tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry, and the discovery of Tom by the Germans — are accurately depicted.
  • The grimness of the experience was there, despite the veneer of jazzed-up adventure. There was Danny’s terror in the tunnel, Ives’ eventually suicidal despair, and the central fact of the murder of the 50 — the men to whom the film is dedicated — by the Gestapo. No reasonable person watching this would conclude that being a POW was fun.

    Ashley-Pitt demonstrates how they'll get rid of the dirt.

    Ashley-Pitt demonstrates how they’ll get rid of the dirt.

  • The film showed only three men making it all the way to freedom, and that’s how many did — even though in the film one of them was Australian, like Mr. Royle, and that was not accurate. (Two were Norwegian and one was Dutch, although all three had flown for the RAF.)
  • The role that Mr. Royle played — distributing dirt from the tunnels by releasing it from bags within his trousers and mixing it into the compound dirt with his feet — was clearly depicted. Although in the film that is most closely associated with naval officer Ashley-Pitt, played by David McCallum (whom our generation would later know as Illya Kuryakin), you see that a large number of men participated in that part of the operation. (And frankly, that’s always been one of the most amazing aspects of the escape to me. It’s astounding that they got away with it. How did the guards not notice something on that scale?)
As a kid, I had this poster on the wall in my room.

As a kid, I had this poster on the wall in my room.

In the end, it’s hard to defend the role Steve McQueen played in the film — except in this convoluted way: His jump over that fence at the Swiss border on that German motorcycle was the most exciting thing I had ever seen in a film to that point in my life, and the one thing that solidified it as my favorite. Yes, it was a complete lie. But it engaged my lifelong interest in the escape, and caused me to read books about the true story later in life.

So in that regard it served a purpose. Although I can easily see how a man who suffered through the actual experience would find it irritating in the extreme, and I’m sorry for that. He certainly has the facts, and all the moral weight, on his side. I just thought I’d speak up for something that meant a lot to me as a kid.