Monday, January 29, 2007

I'm Tired of Being the Paris Hilton of My Own Blog

Who is Paris Hilton? I remember asking myself this question when, ignorant of the notoriety she had achieved via such media sources as Page Six, she started showing up staggering in and out of parking lots on Celebrities Uncensored or some such show on E!. Since then, like the rest of the world, I have come to discover that she is, of course, an heiress of the Hilton Hotel fortune (the great-granddaughter of Hilton founder Conrad), a notorious party girl and unauthorized sex-tape star, and a some-time actress/TV personality/pitchperson/pop star/model. Just an ordinary 21st century girl, really.

Interestingly, she has become a descriptive icon as well. By doing a Google search of the words "the Paris Hilton of" I have discovered that calling someone a "Paris Hilton" is far from employing a one-dimensional epithet. Indeed, the art of using Paris Hilton as a belittling tag has developed into a pattern of subtle nuances and protocols that even the Bard himself could not help but admire. Some notable examples:
  • Earlier this week, Fox News spokesperson Irena Briganti was calling CNN's Anderson Cooper "the Paris Hilton of television news" after he criticized Fox for airing unsubstantiated gossip about Barack Obama's early education, saying that Cooper's lecturing is "yet another cry for attention."
  • Boomer Esiason called Bears quarterback Rex Grossman "the Paris Hilton of quarterbacks" on CBS's NFL Today -- to which Chicago sportswriter Elliott Harris replied, "No way the Bears QB has been sacked that much."
  • The blog All Hat and No Cattle labels our current President as "the Paris Hilton of U.S. Presidents."
  • Armageddon Cocktail Hour says that Rudy Giuliani, while weighing his own presidential prospects, may not have the stomach for "trying to preserve some personal dignity within a process that seems designed to make him look like a man of undisciplined appetites, like the Paris Hilton of Presidential Politics."
  • Writer John Doyle of the Globe & Mail calls footie star David Beckham "the Paris Hilton of the Sports World" because "he's rich, blonde, beautiful, none too bright, and shrewd about the matter of staying famous."
  • wonders, "How did the pomegranate suddenly become the Paris Hilton of the food world?" And so do I.
  • "It"-physicist Caolionn O'Connell, flushed from the publicity she received after appearing on NOVA, worried in the pages of her Quantum Diaries that she was becoming "the Paris Hilton of physics -- totally over-exposed, but thankfully, without the sex-tape with slimy ex-boyfriend." What does it mean, dear Paris, when your life is becoming a cautionary tale to which even a physicist pays heed?
  • Defective Yeti notes that "Duct tape is like the Paris Hilton of hardware: it has this huge reputation, despite having never done anything useful."
  • Hampton Roads sportswriter Bob Molinaro called the 2006 Washington Redskins "the Paris Hilton of hype." Even without a detailed analysis of the merits of such a comment, one has to admit that it seems like a redundancy at the very least -- or literary overkill, at worst.
  • Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is "the Paris Hilton of the federal judiciary," because he won a poll sponsored by the blog Underneath Their Robes. A former 1960s-era Dating Game contestant, Kozinski previously was elected "Number 1 Male Superhottie" of the federal judiciary in the same blog.
  • In a similar vein, I suppose, legal tabloid Above the Law refers to Georgetown Law Professor Neal Katyal as "the Paris Hilton of the Legal Elite" for the swooning publicity over his victory before the U.S. Supreme Court in Hamsdal v. Rumsfeld.
  • Iranian film actress Zahra Amir Ebrahimi is "Iran's Paris Hilton" after appearing in a sex video that ended up on the Internet.
  • According to C/NET News reader "DarianKnight," the virtual reality social space Second Life is "the Paris Hilton of 3D" because "there is a lot of money involved, the media love it for no particular reason, and in the end it's famous for simply being famous."
  • "Like the Paris Hilton of corporate finance, Sarbanes-Oxley is always, it seems, in the news," according to
  • Energy writer Byron W. King suggests that Cambridge Energy Research Associates may very well be "the Paris Hilton of the energy consulting gig" -- as if we could all be so lucky.
  • Memphis Daily News columnist Lindsay Jones calls her cat Dandelion the Paris Hilton of her household because she is "pampered, indulged and reckless in her self-assurance."
  • Pia Zadora was apparently "the Paris Hilton of the 80s," Marie Antoinette was "the Paris Hilton of the late eighteenth century," and, gynecologically speaking, Joan Crawford was "the Paris Hilton of the 30s ... only with talent and movie roles."
Matt Haber helpfully provides a field guide to various Paris Hiltons around the world, crowning new Paris Hiltons in Russia (reality TV host Ksenia Sobchak), India (Bollywood "it"-girl Negar Khan), England (the ubiquitous and big-breasted Katie Price, aka Jordan), Canada (Liberal MP Belinda Stronach) and even in "red state America" (Ann Coulter, of course -- who has also been called the "Paris Hilton of Conservatism," the "Paris Hilton of postmodern politics," and "the Paris Hilton of Fox News", among other things).

The bottom line here is that calling someone "the Paris Hilton of" something-or-other has been a useful, textured way of describing some person or thing for about four years.

Time to move on, folks. If a consumer trade journal reviewer can be tempted to write that the Karcher RC 3000 is "the Paris Hilton of robot vacuums" because "it can't clean well, it wanders aimlessly, and it's pricey -- but it sure is pretty" -- well, then we have seriously run this particular cliche into the ground.

Let's entomb it within the OED, and try to find another tiresome metaphor as soon as possible. It shouldn't be difficult. Remember, there's an "it" girl starlet around every corner, just waiting for you to publicize her. We'll be accepting nominations for the new "____ is the ____ of _____" in the comment section of this post.

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Barney Oldfield

Auto racer Barney Oldfield was born Berna Eli Oldfield on this day in 1878 in Wauseon, Ohio.

Oldfield served as Henry Ford’s proxy on the racing circuit, driving Ford’s 999 sports car in 1902 in races around the country (beating, among others, Ford's rival Alexander Winton). Winton hired him away from Ford and sent him on tour in his Winton Bullet, in which Oldfield became the first driver to achieve the speed of a mile-per-minute (at Indianapolis on June 15, 1903). In 1910 he set another record, hitting 131.724 mph in a 200-horsepower Blintzen Benz, in a match race against African-American heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson, who had boasted he could beat any professional driver. For racing an African-American, the American Automobile Association suspended Oldfield and banned him from AAA-sanctioned meets.

He was a bit past his prime, although still probably the most famous racer in the U.S., when he starred in a Mack Sennett adventure-comedy short, Barney Oldfield's Race for Life (1913), in which he raced a train to get to Mabel Normand and untie her from the tracks.

Oldfield died on October 4, 1946 in Beverly Hills, California. He never finished higher than fifth in the Indianapolis 500.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ellen and William Craft

The story of Ellen and William Craft is a unique and dramatic triumph of sorts in the sad history of American slavery. Ellen Craft was born to a half-African/half-Caucasian slave and her white master in Clinton, Georgia in 1824. As a result of her ancestry, she was exceptionally light-skinned -- so much so that she was often mistaken by visitors for one of the master's legitimate children, which unnerved the white mistress of the house, who gave her to one of her daughters in Macon as a wedding gift. There she met and married William Craft, together with whom she devised an escape plan.

Two years later, they made their move, with Ellen posing as a white man (since traveling alone as a white woman with a male slave would have been considered inappropriate), her face and right arm wrapped in bandages to obscure her lack of facial hair and illiteracy, and with William posing as her slave. They made their way North by train and boat, reaching Philadelphia undetected on Christmas Day, 1848.

They were immediately embraced by the abolitionist circles of the North, led by William Lloyd Garrison, and they went on the lecture circuit. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), however, they found themselves at risk of being shanghaied back to Georgia, so they fled to England, where they raised a family and studied at an agricultural training school while continuing to lecture publicly against slavery.

In 1860, William published his autobiography, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. They returned to the U.S. in 1868 and settled in Georgia to farm cotton and rice, briefly opening a school. Ellen died there and was buried under a favorite tree in 1891. William later moved to Charleston and died there on this date in 1900.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Mind of Hand

"[A] judge is . . . pulled by two opposite forces. On the one hand he must not enforce whatever he thinks best; he must leave that to the common will expressed by the government. On the other, he must try as best he can to put into concrete form what that will is, not by slavishly following the words but by trying honestly to say what was the underlying purpose expressed. Nobody does this exactly right; great judges do it better than the rest of us. It is necessary that someone shall do it, if we are to realize the hope that we can collectively rule ourselves." -- Learned Hand.

U.S. federal judge Learned Hand was born on this day in 1872 in Albany, New York.

Hand served a record 52 years as a federal judge, and although he was never appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, he is generally considered to have been among the greatest American judges of the 20th century, combining a profound, skeptical mind with a deliberate, succinct writing style and a wide breadth of reading and allusion, peppering his opinions with illustrations from such diverse sources as Plato, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Joel Chandler Harris.

Hand studied philosophy (under William James and George Santayana) and law at Harvard, and began the practice of law in Albany in 1897. After moving to New York City, President Taft appointed Hand to the federal district court for New York in 1909, and President Coolidge elevated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit) in 1924.

In 1945, Hand rendered the final decision in the lengthy Alcoa antitrust case after several Supreme Court justices disqualified themselves, ruling that evidence of greed was not necessary to prove a violation under the Sherman Act ("Congress did not condone 'good monopolies' and condemn 'bad ones'; it forbade all."). At times seemingly liberal (he upheld the lower court ruling that James Joyce's Ulysses was not obscene), he also upheld the convictions of several Communist leaders under the Smith Act for conspiracy to overthrow the government -- evidencing his ongoing, evolving concern with distinguishing between the proper exercises of government power from unreasonable restraints in the name of public welfare.

Hand firmly believed in the importance of judges knowing the great works of history, philosophy and literature, because in constitutional matters "everything turns upon the spirit in which [a judge] approaches the questions before him," and he felt that the words of laws were "empty vessels" without a judge's ability to draw upon his reading to fill them.

It is said that as Chief Justice, Taft kept Hand off of the Supreme Court for a number of years due to Hand's support of Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" presidential candidacy against Taft in 1912. A persistent legend (perhaps apocraphyl) holds that President Hoover intended to appoint Hand to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that he offered the vacancy to Charles Evans Hughes out of political necessity, fully expecting Hughes to reject the offer since Hughes' son would have to resign as Solicitor General if Hughes were on the Court; according to the legend, Hughes astonished everyone by accepting Hoover's offer, and Hand remained the greatest judge never to be elevated to the Supreme Court. Hand died on August 18, 1961 in New York City.


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Friday, January 26, 2007

Eugene Sue and The Mysteries of Paris

"Our sole hope is that we will draw the attention of thinkers and of honest folk to some of the great afflictions of society." -- Eugene Sue.

Novelist Eugene Sue was born on this day in 1804 in Paris. The son of a successful surgeon in Napoleon's army and godson of the future Empress Josephine, Sue originally studied medicine and served as a surgeon in the French navy during the 1820s. After the death of his father, Sue took his inheritance and moved to Paris, devoting himself to womanizing, spending lavishly, and writing. His earliest published works were adventure novels with maritime settings (including Atar-Gull, 1831, and Le Salamandre, 1832), leading him to be praised as "the French James Fenimore Cooper." To put that in perspective, we must remember that at the time Cooper was one of America's best known adventure novelists -- although critical opinion about him was not necessarily uniform. As Mark Twain once observed: "In one place in Deerslayer, and in the restricted space of two thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record."

In any event, following these successes, Eugene Sue showed his capacity for adapting to the prevailing literary tastes of his time, turning his hand to historical novels (such as Latreaumont, 1838) and eventually to the serial romance -- of which his serial autobiographical novel, Arthur, 1837-9, was an early precursor. His popularity growing, with the publication of the widely-read romance Mathilde (1841), Sue became the most successful serial-novelist in France, getting paid by the line for works of high melodrama appearing in installments in the newspapers.

In the 1840s, under the influence of his friend, the Socialist playwright Felix Pyat, Sue became deeply interested in the problems of economic injustice. The subject matter of his serials quickly turned from tales of the aristocracy to the lower classes, resulting in Sue's most famous work, The Mysteries of Paris (published as a serial in 1842): an enormously popular, vividly drawn picture of the Paris slums, it focused on the activities of a highly-principled, almost super-human avenging angel, Rodolphe, a wealthy German prince disguised as a common workman who dispensed rough justice to evil men who tormented the poor and socially disadvantaged.

His next best-selling novel, The Wandering Jew (1844-45; filmed in 1933, starring Conrad Veidt), was based on the legend of the Jewish cobbler who was condemned by Christ to wander throughout eternity for having refused to give him water on his journey to Golgotha, again explored the persecution of the poor.

In 1850, Sue won election to the National Assembly as a Socialist, but showed no stomach for public debate and was widely criticized for proofing the galleys of his novels while sitting in the Assembly chambers. After the 1851 coup d'etat which resulted in Louis Napoleon's accession to power, Sue left France for Savoy, dying in exile there on August 3, 1857.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

So Long As I Can Sing and Dance

"I belong to a race that sings and dances as it breathes. I don't care where I am so long as I can sing and dance." -- Florence Mills.

Florence Mills was born Florence Winfrey on this day in 1895, in either Washington, D.C. or Virginia.

The first African-American singer/dancer to headline at the New York Palace Theatre, Mills conquered Broadway before it was acceptable for African-Americans to appear in big time venues. Possessed of a high, quavery voice, she enchanted audiences with her brightness and elegant bearing as the star of Sissle and Blake's groundbreaking revue Shuffle Along in 1921. In 1926, Mills starred in Blackbirds, first in New York and subsequently in Paris (where it was Paris' first-ever all-black revue) -- a show that the Prince of Wales, for one, is said to have seen over 20 times.

She died on November 1, 1927 at the age of 32 while hospitalized for an appendectomy. As her funeral cortege marched down Seventh Avenue, a plane flew overhead, dipped its wings, and released a flock of bluebirds in tribute to her.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Violinist Michel Warlop was born on this day in 1911 in Douai, France.

Trained as a classical soloist, Warlop took up jazz instead, influenced by the black music served up in Montmartre clubs. In 1930, he joined the Gregorians, a French big band featuring Stephane Grappelli (who gave up his violin spot when Warlop arrived to play piano with the band) and played with them on and off during the early 1930s. By 1936, he had more or less forsaken big bands to front small combos, playing with Django Reinhardt, among others.

Warlop was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940, but his mental and physical health was seen as fragile and he was soon released. Shortly thereafter he formed his String Septuor, considered along with Reinhardt's Hot Club of France Quintet as one of the most original French groups of the time, playing Warlop's hybrid, Debussy-esque symphonic jazz compositions such as "Harmoniques" and "Nandette." As for Warlop's playing style, some say his nervous, edgy playing reflected his tragically skittish psyche. For a good sample of his work, try Modernistic, a selection of tunes from 1933 to 1943 on the Epm Musique label.

Warlop died on March 6, 1947.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Wrong Way Corrigan

In 1938, Douglas Corrigan was an obscure 31-year old pilot/mechanic -- a grease monkey at Ryan Aeronautical when the company built Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis -- who spent most of his free time nursing an ancient, radio-less Curtiss Robin J-6 monoplane he had picked up in an auction for $325 through failed inspections and bumpy, tentative flights around southern California.

After a lot of pleading, he finally received clearance from the department of commerce to fly from Long Beach, California to New York, which he did in June 1938 in less than 28 hours. Held back from returning to California right away due to bad weather, on July 17 he told officials at Floyd Bennett Airfield that he was leaving that morning to fly back to California; but when he took off, ground crewmen dropped everything as they watched Corrigan fly off over the Atlantic in his junk of a plane.

Flying through thick fog for 24 hours, Corrigan landed at Baldonnel Airport in Dublin, Ireland and, with a wink and a grin, he explained that he had thought he was flying to California and had only "accidentally" flown the wrong way across the Atlantic. Although no one took him for a fool and knew that he was an ambitious if somewhat reckless character, he stuck to his story, blaming the fog, a faulty compass and his lack of radio communication for his mistake. When he returned to the U.S. he was welcomed as an unlikely hero -- given public congratulations by U.S. ambassador to Great Britain Joseph Kennedy, a ticker-tape parade in New York City, and several ad endorsement contracts.

He subsequently portrayed himself (somewhat stiffly) in a film version of his misadventure (The Flying Irishman, 1939, written by Dalton Trumbo) and during World War II tested bombers for the U.S. government. In 1946, he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate from California on the Prohibition Party ticket, and finally retired to a 20-acre orange grove in Santa Ana, California, all the while still claiming, at least officially, that his precarious transatlantic crossing was inadvertent -- although privately he admitted that he had been telling that story for so long that he was beginning to believe it.

Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan was born on this day in 1907 in Galveston, Texas. He died on December 9, 1995 in Orange, California.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Vice President Breckinridge

John C. Breckinridge was born on this day in 1821 near Lexington, Kentucky.

A bona fide member of the Southern political aristocracy (his father was a member of the Kentucky legislature and his grandfather, John Breckinridge, was a U.S. senator and attorney general), Breckinridge set up a law practice in Burlington, Iowa after reading law at Princeton and Transylvania University (Kentucky). He served with distinction in the Mexican War and parlayed his name, war service and affable charm into a political career as a Democrat -- first in the Kentucky House (1849-51) and then in the U.S. House (1852-55).

While in Congress, he shuttled between friends Stephen A. Douglas, Senate chairman of the committee on territories, and President Franklin Pierce, smoothing out support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which effectively repealed Henry Clay's Missouri Compromise and allowed each state to decide the slavery issue by popular vote. For this, although he represented a border state and was merely trying to effect a compromise between the South and Northern Democrats, he was branded as a Lower South extremist.

The Democrats chose him as James Buchanan's running mate on the successful 1856 ticket, although Buchanan completely ignored Breckinridge once in office, and Breckinridge was looking forward to leaving the administration and entering the U.S. Senate in 1861. Meanwhile, when the 1860 Democratic National Convention broke up over the slavery issue, the Southern wing of the Party nominated Breckinridge for president, while the Northern faction nominated Douglas. Breckinridge proposed that he and his friend both decline and try to bring the Convention back together, but when Douglas refused to back down, Breckinridge reluctantly went ahead as well. The two old compadres split the Democratic popular vote (although, by electoral votes, Breckinridge swept the South, while Douglas won only two states), leaving Abraham Lincoln as the victor in the 1860 election.

Breckinridge attempted to stay neutral over secession while in the Senate, but when Kentucky declared itself pro-Union, Breckinridge, under threat of arrest for treason, defected to Virginia and the Confederacy. He served, rather successfully, as a brigadier general in the Army -- thereby becoming the first vice-president to take up arms against the U.S. -- unless you count Aaron Burr.

In February 1865, Jefferson Davis appointed Breckinridge secretary of war, which at that late date was little more than a "winding-down" assignment, consisting mainly of preserving records, advising Gen. Joseph Johnston on the terms of surrender, and urging cooperation and orderly repatriation. Fearing arrest, he fled to Cuba after the War, and lived in England and Canada before returning to the U.S. in 1869 after Andrew Johnson issued a general pardon. He stayed away from electoral politics after his return, although he did publicly denounce the Ku Klux Klan and other devices of Southern revenge.

Breckinridge died in Lexington on May 17, 1875.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

The Family Ski Vacation

I have to admit that before I got married, I had no concept of what a family ski vacation was all about. I never had one when I was a kid. Other kids did that kind of thing, not me; and for all I knew it involved yodeling and lederhosen and big St. Bernard hospice dogs with kegs of brandy tied around their necks.

My wife, on the other hand, more or less grew up skiing, Every year, the family ski vacation, with Uncle John, Aunt Patty and the cousins and their kids, is penciled-in on next year’s calendar before they even start lighting the 4th of July fireworks. It’s serious stuff with these folks. My wife's father ran a ski resort, her brother used to work in a ski shop, and my wife herself spent some time as a ski instructor.

Last year, I managed to join the ski vacation without actually doing any skiing – but that was a gimme, and I could expect no such gift under the tree this year. We arrived at the house generously rented for us by my wife’s Aunt and Uncle on Saturday, and it quickly became clear that El Niño didn’t really want us to ski, at least not right away. It was 58° F when we arrived, and the slopes were brown-green. Perfect for a nice hike, something more my speed. We took advantage of the time, trudging up and down Mt. Minsi and then enjoying a wine and cheese tailgate party.

By Tuesday night, however, temperatures were falling and the wife and I found ourselves drifting off to sleep to the sonorous rumble of snow machines. On Wednesday morning, it was like waking up to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, and the kids could barely be bothered with something so mundane as breakfast.

No excuses now. There was officially nothing standing between me and the slopes.

DAY 1: With a mish-mash of borrowed skiwear, I fought my way through the rental shop and soon found myself walking around in a pair of rented ski boots. It was a most unnatural experience, and the posture it put me in made me feel more like J. Fred Muggs than Jean-Claude Killy.

Mercifully, at the first resort we went to, the lodge was at the top of the slope, meaning that I would not have to take my inaugural ski lift ride until after going down the slope for the first time. And, of course, under my wife’s instruction, it took me about an hour to make it down that first time. While my wife was telling me to bend my knees and, rather inscrutably, to “spread the peanut butter, then spread the jam,” little Cousin Jack, in his bright orange and black ski jacket, and his stylish sister Erin flew past me every ten minutes or so, possibly wondering where my wife could have found such a klutzy husband.

I became intimate with the snow on more than one occasion, and by the end of my first run I wondered to myself why I couldn’t just throw away the skis and just use the poles. They seemed so much more practical at that point. “Buck up, Ron,” laughed Aunt Patty, floating past on her brand new Silver Perla Elans. “Everyone skis in this family -- better get used to it!”

Getting on the lift was a piece of cake, but getting off required a better understanding of gliding on skis than I had mustered up to that moment. By the end of our quick tangle at the top, my wife was nursing a nice purple bump on her shin. But, then, of course, love means never having to say you’re sorry when you jab a ski into your wife’s shin. Right?

I made two more “runs” that day, if you want to call them that. “Flailing, Meandering Topples” might be a better descriptive term for them.

DAY 2: I went to ski school, taking a private lesson from Inga. Within minutes, Inga -- barking instructions at me in some sort of Alpine accent I couldn’t otherwise identify -- had me waddling behind her along the flattish surfaces like a dutiful duckling. There was no question that the previous day under my wife’s tutelage was anything but a waste of time – all I really needed was to get that first day out of the way.

Inga’s best advice came from watching me come off the lift several times and giving me a few pointers on how to avoid slicing the other skiers. These turned out to be invaluable, although I continued the practice of warning people about me before jumping on the lifts with them, giving them the option of going alone for the benefit of the public at large.

By the end of the lesson, I realized I had experienced a moment of conversion, in which I suddenly saw the poles as pointless and the skis as being the best thing going. I rode the lift a few times without Inga, tentatively skidded down the bunny slope a few times without Inga, my poles completely off the ground, and called it a day … the end of a good day.

DAY 3: I arrived at the mountain with everyone else, but I chose to ski alone for much of the day, consigning myself to the bunny slope while the rest of the family went on the higher lifts -- to practice making turns and avoiding the sullen snowboarders who collected themselves like manatees at the summit.

Late in the day, though, the bunny slope was basically acquired by our family. We took it over. While almost a dozen of us skied together, another few family spectators waited at the bottom of each run, cheering us all on. Even the youngest, our two-year old cousin, got into the act. While gliding down the slope between my wife’s legs, he paused for a moment to point out the summer waterslide that stood, snow-covered, at one side of the bunny slope. “Can we go on that one next?,” he asks, standing firmly in his starter skis, half way down the mountain.

All I can say is, this kid gets it. This is what the family ski vacation is all about. It’s about spending time with your family in circumstances of all-out reckless abandon. It’s listening to your Dad say, “Faster, faster,” and not “Stop that, you’re gonna get hurt.” Authority is abdicated, and everyone is intoxicated by the thought of it.

What I’ve come to discover is that skiing, among other family sports, is a uniquely spiritual endeavor. It involves Balance – not the Aristotelian-Augustinian ideal of moderation, but that other kind of balance, the kind promoted by that other noted philosopher, the late Karl Wallenda; it involves a good dose of Looking out for the Other Guy – if only, in this case, to avoid getting hit by the other guy; and it involves Faith. Faith in Newtonian physics, in the properties of white powder and ice, and ultimately, in the Lord Almighty. As in, "Lord Almighty, I hope I don't take a header."

Next year, I'm bringing the brandy kegs. No dogs allowed.


Studying by Forgetting

"There is an easy way to become a Buddha: refraining from all evils, not clinging to birth and death, working in deep compassion for all sentient beings, respecting those over you and pitying those below you, without any detesting or desiring, worrying or lamentation -- this is what is called Buddha. Do not search beyond it." -- Dogen.

One of the most important religious thinkers in Japanese history -- the man who articulated for Japanese Buddhists the relationship between the life of the model monk and the quest for spiritual enlightenment -- Dogen was born at the beginning of the 13th century into the luxuries of a noble household. He was a child prodigy, lovingly encouraged by his elders, although his father died he was 2 and his mother died when he was 7. At the age of 4, he was reading Chinese poetry, and by the age of 9 he had become deeply immersed in Chinese Buddhist treatises.

Through the indulgence of an uncle, he entered monkhood at 13, but found monastic life in Japan at the beginning of the 13th century lacking in discipline and depth of thought; by and large, Japanese Buddhism at that time held that salvation lay in merely following a set of simplified tenets. After traveling through Japan looking without success for a great teacher, in 1223 he went to China. There, under the tutelage of the Ts'ao-tung Buddhist master Ju-ching, he began to see for the first time the expression of religious practice through daily chores, as well as through the practice of zazen (Zen meditation in a cross-legged sitting position).

While receiving instruction from Ju-ching, Dogen experienced enlightenment when Ju-ching noticed a sleeping monk and quipped, "In Zen, body and mind are cast off. Why do you sleep?" He stayed on with Ju-ching for two more years, and before returning to Japan, Dogen received the seal of succession from his master, thereby bridging the traditions of Chinese Zen Buddhism with a young Japanese master and marking the beginning of the Japanese Soto Zen sect.

Back in Japan in 1227, Dogen gained a reputation as a virtuous character and severe training techniques, and attracted many followers during the 1230s, monks as well as laymen. He was the first major Zen master to deliver homilies in Japanese instead of Chinese.

Dogen's essential message was that practice, in the form of zazen, and enlightenment were one, and in his treatise Fukanzazengi (1227), he described in minute detail the correct posture for sitting in meditation and gave specific instructions for proper practice. Through concentration on one's posture and other physical regimens, Dogen's notion of practice was to obliterate the self, or as he articulated it with almost mathematical rigor: "To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barrier between one's self and others."

Beyond practice, Dogen also concerned himself with metaphysics and ethics. While he shared the view of other Buddhist philosophers that there is an eternal consciousness, his original contribution to a Buddhist metaphysics (in his major work, Shobo-genzo, 1235-38) was his recognition of impermanence, the ever-changing reality (a unity of being and time, expressed similarly by the 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger) in which the Buddha nature could be revealed. Out of his metaphysical observations about unity of all beings grew an ethical system, recognizing a unity and equality among all men and women and calling for altruistic love for humanity.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Greatest

"You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned? Wait 'til I kick Foreman's behind!" -- Muhammad Ali, 1974.

Brash. Stylish. Principled. Proud. These are just some of the words which come to mind when you think of Muhammad Ali. Not just a boxing champ, he was a media sensation who brought an audience back to boxing that had slipped away during the sport’s dark years -- a period in which the Kefauver Commission had explored boxing’s connections with organized crime and rendered the whole enterprise suspect. After bringing the fans back, he stood up for his race and religious principles, suffered greatly for his courage, and fought his way back to the top as only a man of Ali’s enormous self-confidence ("I am the greatest!" was his mantra) and larger-than-life stage presence could have done.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on this day in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, he exploded onto the boxing scene by winning the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Olympics in Rome in 1960; and in an act of defiance after returning to the U.S. and being refused service in a Southern diner, he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. "My holiday as a White Hope was over. I felt a new, secret strength," Ali later recalled. His frustration with American race relations was a constant theme during his career, and by the force of his personality he somehow managed to rise to stardom without having to play by all the "Jim Crow" rules which other African-Americans had to follow. Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Sammy Davis, Jr. -- these near contemporaries would all have to play by white men’s rules to some degree, being polite and subservient by word and deed, even if their impact would be felt in their ability to beat whites at their own contests.

A group of white businessmen in Kentucky sponsored young Cassius Clay’s professional career, wisely letting him become the charismatic politician/star he was born to be as they saw to his training and conditioning. Even in the ring he was unconventional, dancing around with his arms dangling, and he wasn’t given much of a chance against the scowling champ Sonny Liston in February 1964, but he beat him in 7 rounds to become the undisputed heavyweight champion. In his rematch with Liston later that year, Clay dropped Liston in the first round, then stood over him in one of the most unforgettable tableaux of 20th century sports, shouting "Get up, you bum!" through his mouthpiece.

During that first year of his first title, Clay converted to the Nation of Islam through the influence of Malcolm X, shed his "slave name" and became known as "Muhammad Ali" -- a gesture which unnerved white fans. After the Liston fights, Ali successfully defended his title 8 times, until in 1967 he was threatened with a jail sentence for refusing to enter U.S. military service in Vietnam on religious grounds, and his title was stripped from him by the World Boxing Association. Jack Johnson, similarly, had his title yanked from him behind the scenes after being convicted under the Mann Act in an episode that also had the unmistakable stench of racism. True, Ali was succeeded by another African-American, Joe Frazier, but Frazier was not an avid purveyor of "black power"; to white America at that time, Frazier was safer.

In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction, and Ali returned to boxing, losing to Frazier in his first attempt to regain the title in 1971. By 1974, when the towering new champ George Foreman agreed to face him in Zaire, fight fans feared for Ali’s life; but with a combination of pre-bout mind games and sheer stamina in the ring (employing the now famous "rope-a-dope" defense), Ali outlasted Foreman’s brutal punches and knocked him out in the 8th round to regain the title. After 10 more defenses (including the classic "Thrilla in Manilla" against Frazier in 1975), Ali somewhat jadedly fought another Olympic gold medal winner, Leon Spinks, and lost on points in February 1978 -- only to steal the WBA title back 7 months later.

He then promptly retired, his body failing to live up to the expectations of his always ready mouth. Driven by financial difficulties, he fought once more for the title against Larry Holmes in 1980 at the age of 38, and once more again in a disastrous non-title bout the following year, before Parkinson’s Disease made it impossible for him to fight and slowed his speech to a silence out of which not even Howard Cosell could coax him. His overall record, which seems like a mere meaningless footnote: 56 wins (37 knockouts) and 5 losses.

Everyone, it seems, has a story about meeting Muhammad Ali -- which means that he's probably personally touched more lives than almost any other living human being I can think of. I've met him twice -- once at a trade convention in New Orleans, and again at a Parkinson's benefit. He instantly commands a room, and he bears his role as living icon with powerful dignity, and with an unfailingly wry sense of humor.

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Monday, January 15, 2007


Maurice Herzog was born on this day in 1919 in Lyon, France.

Herzog led the first successful expedition on Annapurna in the Nepal Himalayas (June 3, 1950), at that time the first peak above 26,000 feet ever to be climbed successfully. Herzog paid dearly for his effort, however: as a storm approached, Herzog lingered on the summit, taking his gloves off to remove something from his pack, and watching in horror as the gloves blew away down the mountain -- a lifetime of manual dexterity suddenly observed as two distant, tiny dark specks hurtling down an unfriendly glacier. Herzog survived the snowstorm, but lost all his fingers to frostbite. He later served as France's minister of sport.

"Annapurna to which we had gone empty handed, was a treasure on which we should live for the rest of our days. With this realisation we turn a new page: a new life begins. There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men." -- M. Herzog.

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MLK Day 2007

In case you're looking for it, last year's post on Martin Luther King, Jr. can be found here.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Yellow Kid

Richard F. Outcault was born on this day in 1863 in Lancaster, Ohio.

Originally a painter employed by the Hall Safe & Lock Co. in Cincinnati to paint pastoral scenes on the front of bank safes, Outcault got his big break as a newspaper illustrator freelancing for Electrical World magazine at the 1888 Centennial Exposition. His sketches of an Edison electric light display sufficiently impressed the Franklin Institute to hire Outcault to move to West Orange, New Jersey to work on illustrations for a project on Edison’s life and work. He once startled Edison in his lab late one night when the old inventor was testing his phonograph by singing opera; in the darkness and confusion Outcault whacked the singer with a ruler, thus beginning a lifelong friendship.

He traveled to Paris with Edison in 1889, and on his return became a regular contributor of humorous comics to magazines and newspapers, dwelling on subjects and situations among the urban poor, his single frame comics swarming with motley groupings of kids, dogs and goats in the New York slums. His series called Hogan’s Alley, featuring a little bald, jug-eared, barefoot kid in a soiled nightshirt, became a fixture in the funny pages of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895, and it became a sensation among World readers.

With the popularity of the series, the World began to print Outcault’s cartoons in color on Sundays, and the little kid in the nightshirt (an Irish lad, not an Asian as is generally assumed, named "Mickey Dugan" by his creator), suddenly became a star, nicknamed the "Yellow Kid" for the color ultimately chosen for his nightshirt. So huge was the Yellow Kid’s popularity, that there were Yellow Kid cigarettes, Yellow Kid crackers, and even a Yellow Kid musical on Broadway. The popularity of Outcault’s street urchin spread across the country as newspapers imitated the World’s Sunday color cartoon supplements.

At the height of Outcault’s popularity, William Randolph Hearst lured him away from Pulitzer to the New York Journal with an outrageous salary increase, giving critics a handy moniker for Hearst’s vulgar, predatory tactics -- "Yellow Journalism." Thereafter, Hearst had a hand in directing the evolution of the Yellow Kid, including sending the Dugans on a ‘round-the-world trip in a highly publicized series of episodes.

By 1898, however, the Kid had become outdated; Outcault returned to the World for awhile and continued the series, but he eventually moved on, creating the Buster Brown comic for the New York Herald, featuring a mischievous boy in a little Lord Fauntleroy suit and his scrappy little dog named Tige.

Although he was not the father of the comic strip form as some have claimed, it would be accurate to say that he was the father of the Sunday funnies, being the artist at the center of the newspapers’ adoption of that tradition. Outcault died on September 25, 1928 in Flushing, New York.

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Friday, January 12, 2007


Philosopher and Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Levinas, whose most original work focused on the ethical implications of one's experience of the Other (Time and the Other, 1948; Ethics and Infinity, 1982), was born on this day in 1906 in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Levinas grew up in a Jewish family at the confluence of the rich cultural currents of Lithuania just after the beginning of the 20th century: since Lithuania was a center of Talmudic scholarship, yet strongly within the orbit of Russia, Levinas read Lithuanian, Hebrew and Russian (in particular Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy). His experience of Russian literature led him to Strasbourg to study under Charles Blondel, but soon, by way of Bergson and Proust, Levinas became attracted to Husserl's lectures in Freiburg, and studied Heidegger's Being and Time (although later regretted being taken up by it).

Receiving French citizenship in 1930, he served in the French Army during World War II as a Russian and German interpreter, but was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Germany while most of his family in Lithuania were killed by the Nazis. After the War, he began to devote himself to philosophy, ultimately with a chair at the Sorbonne.

His philosophical works (Totality and Infinity, 1961; Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence, 1974) mainly concerned the experience of Otherness (alterity) and the ethical experience inherent in the recognition of a relationship with the Other. For Levinas, the conscious self is by definition separate and apart from the fact of being -- the "there is" -- while the unconscious self is completely united with the "there is," and therefore oblivious to it. For the conscious self, then, "there is" represents a deeply frightening ambiguity; but it is only in the epiphany of this horror, and the recognition of an Other's being, that the conscious self is challenged into developing a sense of justice and responsibility for the Other. A concept of Self is, indeed, only possible through a recognition of the Other, according to Levinas, and so it is common to say that ethics precedes ontology in his thought.

In addition to his works of ethical philosophy, Levinas also published a series of confessional writings, often concerned with Judaism after the Holocaust and intertwined with commentaries on the Talmud, in which he famously observed while discussing the concept of forgiveness, "One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger."

Levinas died on December 25, 1995 in Paris.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hereward the Wake

Hereward the Wake (his nickname meaning "the watchful one") was an obscure Lincolnshire squire at the time of William the Conqueror's invasion of England who sided with the Danes in a last ditch effort to keep the Normans from conquering the island. In order to keep a Norman abbot from taking over Peterborough Abbey and acquiring the monastic treasury there, in 1070 Hereward and his motley band burned the town and looted the Abbey. The Danes took the treasury and soon departed, leaving Hereward at the mercy of the Normans. By legend, the Anglo-Saxon fought back at Ely, employing a disguise to gain intelligence about the Norman plans and routing a Norman charge, but when the Normans finally managed to conquer the town, Hereward allegedly escaped to continue his rebel operations in and around the Fens.

His legend became a rallying point for what remained of the English resistance to the Normans, and as the Normans took hold, against the excesses of Norman rule. In anonymous tales which sprung up around his memory a few years after his death (collected in the Gesta, early 12th century), Hereward was portrayed as a quick-minded guerilla leader who went into exile, fighting a monstrous bear in Northumberland and rescuing a damsel in distress in Cornwall -- a hero who would someday return to England and battle the Normans again for what rightly belonged to the English.

In 1866, Charles Kingsley wrote a novel embellishing Hereward's happy-go-lucky exploits as an English freedom fighter. Documents unearthed in the 1970s finally suggest that Hereward was a petty criminal for whom the sacking of Peterborough Abbey was second-nature and who was not above kidnapping and extortion; that after fleeing the Normans at Ely, he returned to England from exile in Flanders in 1078; and that he was subsequently accused of the murder of a Cornish nobleman, tried and executed.

Were these documents simply a Norman whitewash to counter the English accounts of Hereward's heroism? Or was Hereward an opportunistic thief who capitalized on the uncertainty of the times for his own benefit? English tradition continues to see him as the last hope of a purer moment in time, even if he was a bit rough and roguish.


Monday, January 08, 2007

April Freshness

"Renaissance artists and writers were emphatic in their insistence that Giotto was their true ancestor. Perhaps at no other moment in the entire history of painting has a single idea achieved so rapid, widespread, and well-nigh complete a change." -F. Hartt.

The painter Giotto died on this date in 1337 in Florence.

Universally recognized, even in his own lifetime, as the first great Italian master, Giotto was born around 1266 in Vespignano, near Florence, and early on was apparently a student of both Cimabue and Nicola Pisano. Yet Giotto's work represented an astonishing departure from the works of his teachers, the first draft of a bold line between the formalistic religious painting of his Medieval predecessors and the foundations of the Italian Renaissance.

In his earliest work, a cycle of frescoes of the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ on the walls of the Arena Chapel at Padua, Giotto immediately reveals a new, more naturalistic vision of religious painting. Unlike his predecessors who, influenced by the painting traditions of Byzantine iconography, arranged stylized figures on gold leaf backdrops with little discernible emphasis on dramatic intensity or personality, Giotto drew from nature and portrayed his weightier figures in the midst of psychologically familiar moments; imbued the Arena Chapel scenes with clear, uniform light; placed his characters on firm, solid ground with vegetation and architectural ornaments providing a real-life context; and, most startlingly, used beautiful glowing colors -- blues, greens, reds and ivories.

Noting the contrast with Giotto's earlier contemporaries, the critic John Ruskin called attention to the "April freshness" of Giotto's panels; forgiving the modern association of that phrase with laundry detergent, Ruskin's observation is accurate when one looks at the drearily gilded panels being painted in Italy at the time. Giotto's other important works included frescoes at Santa Croce in Florence and a panel, the Ognissanti Madonna.

Just before his death, Giotto designed and began the building of the campanile (bell tower) for the Duomo Cathedral in Florence as official architect of the city. He was one of the best known personalities of his day when he died, and his name was celebrated in the works of Dante and Boccaccio. Dante, incidentally, by legend once asked the homely Giotto why his children were so ugly, to which the artist replied, "My frescoes I make by day, and my children by night."

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Charles Sumner

"Where Slavery is there Liberty cannot be; and where Liberty is there Slavery cannot be." -- C. Sumner.

Abolitionist leader Charles Sumner was born on this day in 1811 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Our 21st century view of Charles Sumner is marked by distinctly contrasting indications. Having had the pleasure of working one summer for editor Beverly Wilson Palmer on the Charles Sumner Papers, I have some additional insights about the man. Sumner was an expert on the arcanities of American jurisprudence and probably among the most brilliant men in politics in his day, but he could come off personally as a marshmallowy romantic schoolboy, remaining a shy bachelor all his life; a living martyr to the anti-slavery cause, he was an American hero, yet his bloodthirsty conduct during the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson was anything but heroic -- although it may have been perceived that way by some of his contemporaries.

Sumner attended Harvard and studied with Justice Joseph Story, and later he served as a reporter for the U.S. Circuit Court and published 3 volumes of Story's decisions. After an extended stay in Europe, he returned to the U.S. in 1840 to edit a 20-volume set of Supreme Court reports.

His opposition to the Mexican War drew him into the public arena, where he distinguished himself as a passionate, highly literate orator. In 1851, he was selected to fill the large shoes of Daniel Webster as Webster's successor to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. There he quickly became the leader of the hardcore anti-slavery caucus, and during the 1856 debates over the question of permitting slavery in the new state of Kansas, Sumner delivered his classic two day-long speech, "The Crime Against Kansas," in which he spared no literary excess in denouncing the Southern advocacy of the slavery system.

Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina thought he detected in Sumner's marathon speech an insult against his uncle, Senator Andrew Butler, and in retaliation tracked Sumner down at his desk on the Senate floor and beat him into unconsciousness with his cane. Sumner survived the attack badly injured, and was hailed as having given his body to the abolitionist cause. The North saw in Brooks' attack symptoms of generic Southern brutality -- although Brooks himself was championed as a hero in the South.

Sumner kept his seat in the Senate, but spent much of his time in Europe and elsewhere, recuperating. Yet he was energetic in his Senate appearances, calling for the emancipation of the slaves by President Lincoln, introducing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1864, and initiating the bill which became the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which outlawed racial discrimination in public places until it was nullified by Justice Bradley in the Civil Rights Cases (1883).

As President Johnson's program for a lenient Reconstruction of the South began to emerge, Sumner loudly led the charge for Johnson's impeachment and removal, and even called for Johnson's impeachment again after Johnson was acquitted at trial before the U.S. Senate in June 1868. He later attempted to show compassion for the South by proposing that Civil War battles should not be listed on the regimental colours of Union regiments. For his efforts, he was censured by the Massachusetts legislature, but the censure was later repealed.

Much of Sumner's later career in the Senate concerned foreign relations, backing the American claims against the British for providing ships to the Confederacy during the Civil War and opposing President Grant's proposed annexation of Santo Domingo. Having turned down the Liberal Republican nomination for governor of Massachusetts, Sumner died on March 11, 1872, while still serving in the Senate.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Judge Crater, Please Call Your Office

Years after his unexplained disappearance, Judge Joseph F. Crater's wife Stella mused: "I have wondered often whether Joe simply walked out of the life we had together. What woman wouldn't? Yet, always, I tell myself that he would not have run away. He was too much of a fighter. No matter what anyone says, he was a decent, fine, wonderful man."

New York Supreme Court judge Joseph F. Crater was born on this day in 1889 in Easton, Pennsylvania. A graduate of Lafayette College and Columbia Law, he was a Manhattan lawyer, a law professor at Fordham and NYU, and a footsoldier in New York City's Tammany Hall political machine when Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to fill the unexpired term of a resigning trial judge in April 1930.

On August 6, 1930, Crater hailed a cab on West 45th Street, waved goodbye to the couple with whom he had dinner that evening, and was never seen again. Earlier in the day he had withdrawn $5,100 in large bills from two of his bank accounts and carefully collected a bulky file of legal papers from the files in his office.

Did he go into hiding on his own? Was he murdered by political enemies? Theories about his disappearance abounded: some said he went off on a toot with a showgirl (he was fond of the theater and popular with show people); a punch-drunk fighter claimed he found Crater operating a bingo joint in Africa; a man going to the electric chair in New York told the story that Crater was murdered by gangsters as revenge for Crater sending one of their associates to jail after he accepted a bribe to let him go free; and some earnest prospectors out West said they met him out in the desert, presumably looking for Jacob Waltz's Lost Dutchman mine.

All efforts to find him failed, and he was declared legally dead in 1939. There was evidence that he may have been involved in a shady real estate deal involving the City of New York, and he disappeared during a highly visible investigation of Tammany Hall. Stella always maintained that politics had been the reason for his disappearance.

In 2005, Mrs. Stella Ferrucci-Good, a 91-year old Queens housewife, died leaving behind a letter claiming that Judge Crater was murdered by her husband, a New York cop, and a cab driver, and that he was buried under the boardwalk at Coney Island, at the present site of the New York Aquarium. Although police confirmed that human skeletal remains were found at the Aquarium excavation site in the 1950s, they were immediately buried in a Potter's Field on Hart's Island, making any possibility of an identification just about hopeless.

For many years, Crater's disappearance was a popular parlor room puzzle, and the object of many jokes. "Judge Crater -- please call your office!," became a favorite graffiti slogan, found around the world for a number of years.

Incidentally, Crater wasn't the first New York Supreme Court judge to disappear. 101 years before Crater's disappearance, Judge John Lansing also disappeared under mysterious circumstances -- without any showgirls, Tammany Hall intrigue or Queens widows to provide pat explanations.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Principle and Compromise

"I'm just an old-fashioned garden variety of Republican who believes in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, in Abraham Lincoln, who accepts the challenges as they arise from time to time, and who is not unappreciative of the fact that this is a dynamic economy ... and sometimes you have to change your position." - Everett Dirksen.

Today, as the Democrats assume the leadership in the Senate and the House, it is perhaps fitting to remember the legacy of a great Republican U.S. senator, Everett Dirksen, who was born on this day in 1896 in Pekin, Illinois.

Everett Dirksen was the most important Republican leader during the Democratic Kennedy-Johnson years in Washington, serving as Senate minority leader from 1959 to 1969. Known for his stentorian voice (just this side of "gravelly") and florid oratory, Dirksen was long held to be a conservative: he opposed Roosevelt's "New Deal" as a young congressman, and defended Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist Army-McCarthy hearings at the beginning of his Senate career. During his tenure as Senate minority leader, however, Dirksen provided crucial support for major pieces of Kennedy-Johnson legislation, including the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Dirksen mounted a short-lived campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1944, withdrawing to support Thomas Dewey. In 1966, he had a spoken-word hit record (which peaked at #29) with "Gallant Men," which won a Grammy for Best Documentary Recording in 1967. Dirksen died while still in office on September 7, 1969. His son-and-law and political protege, Howard Baker, later served as Senate Republican leader.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Muslim Princess

Noor Inayat Khan was born on this day in 1914 in Moscow, Russia.

A direct descendant of India's last Muslim ruler, Tipu Sultan, her father was a Muslim mystic invited to Nicholas II's court by Grigori Rasputin. She moved to Paris as a youth, and after receiving her education there joined Paris Radio as a resident writer of children's stories, publishing Twenty Jataka Tales in 1940.

When the arrival of the Nazis, however, Noor moved to London and joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, and secretly infiltrated France under the code name "Madeleine" in June 1943 as a resistance radio operator, the British War Office's first woman spy in Nazi-occupied France. The War Office ordered her to return after growing concerned about her safety, but she refused on the grounds that she was the last radio operator in the resistance.

Later that fall, she was finally captured by the Nazis, refusing to give them information or to sign a declaration that she would cease her activities -- although they did manage to break her coded messages and send false messages back to London, culminating in the arrest of 3 more British spies. She was imprisoned in solitary confinement in Karlsruhe, and eventually taken to Dachau concentration camp, where she was executed on September 13, 1944 for her refusal to cooperate. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the Croix de Guerre and an MBE.

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