After Dallas: Searching for Peace in a Violent World

In the wake of the Dallas shootings and others across the United States this week, I have felt at a loss for words. This is not a good feeling for a writer, but so much senseless violence, whether motivated by racism or fear or just hate has made me stuck.

I did find this quote from Shakespeare, however.

“How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds / Make deeds ill done!” –Shakespeare, King John.

We need to make it more difficult for people to do ill deeds. I believe that people have a right to own guns to protect themselves and their families from people who would harm them. However, I don’t think the Founding Fathers could have envisioned semi-automatic weapons or rogue police officers. The proliferation and misuse of weapons isn’t our only problem, though.

We also have racism.

The Founding Fathers didn’t envision a society where people who did not look exactly like them would rightfully demand equal rights under the law. All men are created equal? The fine words of the U.S. Constitution didn’t remotely ring true in the 18th century. This week’s events, among others, has made it clear that we still fall short of thinking that everyone is equal.

Many of the Founding Fathers committed “ill deeds” by owning slaves. Sometimes the slaves escaped or even managed to revolt and use weapons against their masters. In many ways, our country still suffers from the evils of slavery.

White and black people too often look at each other with distrust. And when a gun is handy for either side, the results are often disastrous.

Babies aren’t naturally born with a racist gene. They have to be taught to distrust someone who looks different from them. Laws that limit the sale of weapons that only need to be used in war and require background checks are all well and good. However, if children continue to be taught by their families or by their everyday experiences to hate people who are not just like them, ill deeds will be perpetuated.

Presidential Pets: Socks, First Cat of the Clinton White House

When Chelsea Clinton finished a lesson at her piano teacher’s house in 1993, she had no idea that she would take home a kitty. Though Socks had been a stray, he was intent on finding a home. He and another cat had been hanging out in the teacher’s yard, and as Chelsea came out of the house, Socks jumped into her arms.

Socks settled in at the Clinton’s house. Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas at the time, and Socks had the run of the house and grounds. He could chase squirrels and other furry creatures to his heart’s content.

Socks’ life changed when the Clintons moved into the White House. Though he had the distinction of being the first cat to live in the White House since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, his owners decided it was unsafe for him to roam the 18 acres of his new home. They knew how much Socks liked to hunt, and that he might squeeze through the iron fence. Socks could go outside, but he stayed on a long leash on the South Lawn.

Even though he couldn’t hunt much, being the president’s pet had some advantages. For example, he got to sit on President Clinton’s shoulders in the Oval Office. He also made many new friends among the staff. One of his favorite people to visit was the president’s secretary Betty Currie.

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Official Portrait of Socks the Cat, 1993

 

As First Cat, Socks had certain duties to perform. He often accompanied Hilary Clinton on visits to hospitals and nursing homes. Socks seemed to enjoy the attention he got from kids and senior citizens. During these visits, he sat on Hillary’s lap and purred away. He also knew how to make an entrance. When he went anywhere, Socks travelled in his own carrying case with the presidential seal on it.

Socks became the first presidential pet to have his own webpage. An animated version of Socks guided children through the White House website. He also got a lot of fan mail from kids. The Clintons made sure that Socks sent a card back to his fans with a paw print.

In 1997, the Clintons got a Labrador retriever named Buddy. Everyone was thrilled–except for Socks. Hilary Clinton said that Socks “despised Buddy from first sight, instantly and forever.” Socks enjoyed being the only furry member of the family, and couldn’t stand having to share the spotlight with a boisterous dog.

To be fair, the dislike seemed mutual. As Hilary Clinton said, “if they were left together, Socks would be found hissing, fluffed up and with his back arched, while Buddy tried to chase him under the sofa.”

Bill Clinton’s second term ended in 2002, and the family decided it would be best to separate Socks and Buddy. Socks left with his old friend Betty Currie for her Maryland home. Even though he was no longer First Cat, Socks still made appearances with Betty for charities.

Socks died in 2009 at the age of twenty. Some of his ashes were scattered at the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas. A plaque near the mansion’s back porch reads: “Socks. 1991-2009. First Cat of Arkansas 1991-1993. First Cat of the U.S. 1993-2001.”

History Book Review: When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Instead of trying to tell the main character’s whole life story, this engaging picture book focuses on Marian Anderson’s singing. Readers follow Marian’s development from a young girl singing in her church to a professional performer. Elements of Marian’s personal life are only included if they influenced her singing. For example, we learn that Marian’s father died in an accident because his passing filled Marian’s voice with sadness.

From the illustrations the reader knows that Marian is African American, but she isn’t discriminated against until she tries to apply to a music school. While waiting in line, she hears the person behind the counter blurt out “We don’t take colored!” Despite this setback, Marian took private music lessons. She became a popular performer throughout the U.S. Still, she still had to travel in railroad cars that were separate and dirtier than the ones reserved for white people.

The most obvious example of discrimination came in 1939 when Marian attempted to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The manager refused and said only whites could perform there. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt heard about this, she publicly resigned from the organization that sponsored the hall. With the permission of President Franklin Roosevelt, Marian got to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Her encore performance of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” silenced the crowd of 75,000 people.

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Painting of Marian Anderson by Betsy Graves Reyneau

Though Marian is portrayed as a determined person, the author also makes her human. For example, Marian was often nervous before her performances and sometimes sang with her eyes closed. Anyone who ever gave a presentation at school or work can relate to how Marian felt. Not everyone gets to study music in Europe as Marian did, but readers can still understand Marian’s homesickness.

The author points out that even though Marian was determined to achieve her dream of someday singing at the Metropolitan Opera, she had help along the way. Marian’s mother encouraged her to continue her private lessons when her daughter was rejected by the music school.

Famous music teacher Giuseppe Boghetti was less concerned with Marian’s skin color than with her talent. He told her that after two years with him, she would be able to sing anywhere. In addition, Marian’s church community helped out by paying for her lessons with Boghetti.

At the end of the story, Marian finally realizes her dream of singing for the Metropolitan Opera. She had to wait 16 years after her performance at the Lincoln Memorial, however. Readers can takeaway from this book that dreams can come true, but it might take time and some support from other people to accomplish them.

The back of the book contains a helpful timeline of important events in Marian’s life, including those the story doesn’t cover. I was disappointed that the CD that came with the book did not include Marian’s voice (it’s a narration of the book), but the bibliography says where readers can find recordings of her performances. Unfortunately the bibliography is hidden in the author’s notes at the back of the book, making it somewhat difficult to find.

In summary, this book does a wonderful job of introducing kids  and adults to a courageous African American woman who realized her dreams despite some people’s prejudices.

Book Review: The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler

The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler by James Giblin 223p.

Giblin’s middle grade biography traces Hitler’s life from nearly homeless artist to ruthless dictator.

The first chapter is short and sets up the story with what kids will know about Adolph Hitler: he once ruled Germany and he’s dead. Giblin explains that while young people might not know exactly who he was or what he did, they have older family members who were influenced by Hitler’s actions. Questions that kids might ask about Hitler, such as why didn’t people stop him sooner, are posed and the author promises to explore them in the book.

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Adolph Hitler as a baby

Giblin’s straightforward storytelling of Hitler’s childhood makes him, at least at this point, more relatable to young people. For example, kids that tried out and didn’t make a sports team could understand Hitler’s disappointment when he didn’t get accepted to art school. Any one who has lost a family member can understand why Hitler didn’t want to accept his mother’s cancer diagnosis.

The book goes on to explain Hitler’s crushing disappointment after World War I. He had nearly gone blind trying to defend his country, but Germany lost anyway. Like other German soldiers, Hitler resented the Versailles Treaty which made Germany pay nations like Britain and France for the cost of the war. When the German army needed instructors to teach the evils of Communism and the importance of nationalism to the troops, they had little idea that they were helping to launch the career of a dictator. Through his speeches Hitler learned that he had the power to persuade audiences–a skill he would use again and again in the coming years.

Unlike other biographers, Giblin does not pretend to have all the answers. For example, while other biographers have speculated that Hitler may have disliked Jews because his mother’s doctor was a Jew, Giblin points out that Hitler only had kind words for the doctor. Giblin comes to the conclusion that there is no obvious reason for Hitler’s feelings but that hating Jews was a main feature of Hitler’s life from 1919 until his death.

The book points out why the Nazi party was popular with some Germans during the Great Depression. Hitler’s rise to power coincided with an increase in jobs and better working conditions. People were healthier, too. Hitler even suggested that an affordable car called the Volkswagen (the people’s car) be produced so that the middle class could drive around town and go on vacations. Though the lives of Jewish people were increasingly restricted, Hitler often didn’t emphasize his anti-Semitic beliefs in his pre-World War II speeches.

As Giblin explains, World War II came about because of serious misunderstandings between Hitler and the British and French. Britain and France didn’t want another war, so they stood by while Hitler took over territories like Austria and Czechoslovakia for Germany. Britain warned that it would stand by Poland, however. Hitler thought the British were bluffing and proceeded with his invasion only to find himself at war with Britain, France, and eventually the Soviet Union and U.S.

Although Giblin does talk about the Holocaust, his coverage of the extermination of the Jews is somewhat brief, perhaps because Hitler delegated the working of concentration camps to other Nazi officials. The book does quote Hitler’s book Mein Kampf which outlined his hatred for Jews. It also covers the laws restricting Jewish participation in society in the 1930s.

Giblin does a good job of incorporating stories from and about young people. He includes  members of the Hitler Youth, a group that indoctrinated young people in the policies of the Nazi Party. Hitler’s troubled relationship with his niece Geli and his odd romance with the young Eva Braun are explored. In addition, Giblin includes stories of young people like Sophie Scholl and her brother who bravely opposed Hitler’s political agenda.

Extensive photos help Giblin’s gifted storytelling come to life. Included are rare photos of Hitler in private, family photos and paintings, and photos of Hitler’s Nazi followers.

Readers would have benefited from short summaries of important people in Hitler’s political life. It can be hard for young readers to keep track of people with similar names, such as Himmler and Heydrich.

The book ends with a cautionary note: leaders like Hitler can still come to power under the right conditions, but hopefully future generations will use their knowledge of others’ mistakes to prevent such an event.

Overall, The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler provides young people with a solid introduction to the career of one of the most infamous men in history.

President Lyndon Johnson and his Dogs

When Lyndon Johnson became president, he brought two beagles named Him and Her to the White House. Both Him and Her attended official White House functions. Even though Him once left a puddle on a chair during a party, the president refused to make Him stay elsewhere while his master entertained. Both Him and Her had the run of the Oval Office. Johnson signed the law that created The Great Society–a set of programs that gave more rights to African Americans and poor people–in the presence of his dogs.

Johnson often combined press conferences with dog walks. Most of the time, these walks went well. The walks made good copy for reporters because the public loved seeing the president with his beagles. Johnson tried to get his dogs to do different tricks for the cameras. He stuffed his pockets with candy-coated doggy vitamins to get Him and Her to perform.

One act, however, made the American people and Johnson’s dogs howl. During a press conference, Johnson picked one of the beagles up by its ears. Animal rights groups complained that Johnson was mistreating the dogs. Suddenly Johnson and his dogs were front-page news. Other than that incident, however, Him and Her seemed to enjoy their time as presidential pups.

After Him and Her died, Johnson felt pretty lonely in that big house. Fortunately his daughter found a stray running along the highway. She stopped at a gas station to ask whom he belonged to, but no one knew. She decided to bring the little white dog to the White House.

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Lyndon Johnson Family on Christmas Eve 1968. Johnson is holding Yuki

 

Johnson loved the little mutt and named him Yuki. Johnson said that Yuki was “the friendliest, the smartest, and the most constant in his attentions of all the dogs I’ve known.” The president took Yuki with him everywhere. He and the dog travelled together on Air Force One. Yuki attended cabinet meetings, though he did so under the table. Unlike President Harding’s dog Laddie Boy, Yuki did not sit in his own chair for cabinet meetings.

One of Johnson’s favorite things to do with Yuki was to howl with him. Johnson claimed that Yuki “had a Texas accent.” Yuki and the president howled together in the presence of important visitors like the Chancellor of Germany, who was a bit shocked at the performance!

The president needed the support of his loyal dog as protests against the Vietnam War increased.

Yuki went back to Johnson’s Texas ranch after his master retired from the presidency. He was at Johnson’s side in 1973 when the former president died.

President Theodore Roosevelt and his Dogs

During President McKinley’s time in office, the White House was pretty quiet. He and his wife had no children and only two pets, a parrot and a cat. When Theodore Roosevelt came to the White House, he brought a zoo with him. Snakes, a coyote, and a zebra were among the Roosevelt’s many animals. However, dogs were the family’s most cherished pets.

The Roosevelt dogs ranged in size from Rollo, the enormous St. Bernard, to Manchu, a tiny Pekingese given to the president’s daughter by the Chinese Dowager Empress.

Rollo’s size did not stop him from being a loving friend to the kids. As one newspaper noted, “No doubt visitors to the White House or Sagamore Hill [Roosevelt’s home in Long Island, New York] were often startled to see the Roosevelt children racing across the lawn, pursued by the bounding Rollo, who looked like some huge beast, ready to destroy them. But Rollo was a children’s dog, and he protected the president’s children as efficiently as the Secret Service men.”

Most of Teddy Roosevelt’s dogs were not quite as large as Rollo. Roosevelt’s son Kermit had a Manchester terrier named Jack. Jack would have enjoyed his time at the White House much more if the cat hadn’t tormented him. The cat thought jumping on Jack was great fun.

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Jack, the Roosevelt family dog at the White House, 1902. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

 

Though he never made friends with the cat, the rest of the family adored Jack. The president described Jack as “absolutely a member of the family.” He thought Jack was a gentleman, even though Jack sometimes chewed on the president’s books.

When Jack died, he was buried behind the White House. Roosevelt’s wife Edith refused to leave Jack there after her husband’s second term as president. She worried that Jack would be “beneath the eyes of presidents who might care nothing for little black dogs.” Jack’s little coffin was brought to the family home in Long Island, New York.

Roosevelt’s son Archie loved a dog named Skip. Skip may have been a rat terrier or a mutt. Teddy Roosevelt found the dog while he was on a bear hunt, and he probably liked Skip best. Roosevelt took pride in Skip’s courage. The dog stood his ground when facing a bear. Similarly, the president stood up to members of Congress.

President Roosevelt often took Skip on his hunting trips. When the dog’s short legs got tired, Roosevelt scooped him up and let Skip ride on his horse. On a typical evening, Skip raced down the halls of the White House with Archie. Once the kids fell asleep, Skip would find the president, who was usually reading. Skip climbed up on his master’s lap and snoozed. Skip died the year before the Roosevelt’s left the White House.

“We Like Ike”: The Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower

Dwight Eisenhower already had his famous nickname while growing up in Kanas. “Little Ike” also had such a temper that he once beat his fists against a tree until he started bleeding. His mother bandaged up his hands and tried to teach him to control his temper. Ike took the lesson to heart. Throughout his life Ike would reign in his emotions because he wanted people to like him.

He did not, however, share his mother’s pacifist views. The only time Ike remembered making his mother cry was when he left for West Point. After World War II, General Eisenhower returned home as a hero. Ike’s popularity was so great that both political parties wanted him to be their candidate for president. Ike didn’t want to declare his politics right away. By 1952, Eisenhower felt disenchanted with the policies of President Truman and agreed to run as a Republican.

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Official Portrait of Dwight Eisenhower

Unlike other presidential candidates, Eisenhower was not an intellectual. The only books he enjoyed were western novels. Instead of great speeches, Eisenhower preferred to use sayings such as “Everybody ought to be happy every day. Play hard, have fun doing it, and despise wickedness.” A war-weary public found his simple style appealing.

Eisenhower won the election by promising to end the Korean war. He even vowed to go there himself. Though he did end the fighting, he did so by stepping up aerial bombardment of North Korea and threatening to use the atomic bomb. Whether he would have used the bomb is questionable, but Eisenhower’s tough talk led to a peace agreement. From that point on Eisenhower liked to say he was “waging peace” by keeping America out of foreign wars.

The supposedly peace loving president allowed America to stockpile nuclear weapons, however. He also secretly authorized spying on Russian nuclear missile sites. Meanwhile, he invited Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to a summit that would have limited nuclear testing. During the summit, an American spy plane was shot down by the Soviets. Eisenhower had to admit that he knew about the spy mission. An angry Khrushchev left the peace summit. No agreement on nuclear testing was reached.

Eisenhower’s administration has been criticized for failing to respond to domestic issues, especially civil rights. During his presidency the Supreme Court decided that public schools should be desegregated. Eisenhower didn’t believe that a law would change the hearts of Southern whites. When nine African American students tried to integrate a white high school in Little Rock Arkansas, a white mob threatened the students’ safety. Despite his disagreement with the Supreme Court, Eisenhower sent in the National Guard to protect the students.

Although Eisenhower believed in saving money, he also believed in many of the FDR’s programs. Eisenhower expanded the number of people eligible for Social Security and left labor laws in place. He also added a project of his own. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 pledged federal funds would be used to build interstate highways. The highways insured that the automobile became the primary means of travel for Americans instead of trains.

 

“Give-’em-hell-Harry” The Presidency of Harry Truman

Future president Harry Truman had a difficult childhood. A kid wearing glasses was a rare thing in the farm town of Independence, Missouri, and his schoolmates teased him. Since he was not very tall, they nicknamed him “little four eyes.”

Young Harry Truman also had different goals than most other children. He loved music and hoped to become a concert pianist. As a result of his father’s bad investments Truman could no longer receive piano lessons or even apply to college. Although he hated it, he worked the family farm until his father died. Truman then tried his hand at various business ventures, all of which failed.

Despite his poor eyesight and the fact that he was past the draft age, Harry managed to serve as a combat artillery captain in World War I. He discovered his ability to lead other people and gained the respect of his men. The experience boosted his confidence. He returned to Missouri as a war hero and married his sweetheart Bess Wallace.

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Official Presidential Portrait of Harry Truman

Truman needed to support his family and had to find work. After another business failure, he decided to try politics. It helped that he had kept in touch with the other veterans he served with during World War I. With the help of his friends and Democratic Party boss Tom Pendergast, Harry got elected first as a judge and later to other county offices. Despite his association with Pendergast, who had criminal ties, Harry became known for his honesty and his desire to help the common man during the Great Depression.

In 1934 Truman was elected to the U.S. Senate. He served as chairman of a committee that uncovered the Defense Department’s wasteful spending. The public found Truman’s honesty and even his swearing so refreshing that they nicknamed him “Give-’em-hell-Harry.”

During the 1944 presidential election Truman was selected as President Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president. Only a few months after he became vice-president, Roosevelt died and Truman had to take over. At the time he thought, “There must be a million other men more qualified for the presidential task. But the work was mine to do, and I had to do it.”

Chief among Truman’s tasks was to bring World War II to a successful conclusion. Even after Germany surrendered, the fighting with Japan dragged on. Truman believed that if the war in the Pacific continued, up to 100,000 American soldiers could die. He decided that if Japan refused to surrender, he would use the new atomic bomb.

On July 26, 1945, Truman warned Japan that it would be destroyed if it continued to fight. The Japanese Emperor still would not give up. In August, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs, one on the town of Hiroshima and one on Nagasaki. Finally, the Japanese Emperor surrendered and the war was over.

Truman received criticism in later years for using the atomic bombs, which mostly killed Japanese civilians. He never regretted his decision, however. As Truman put it “The greatest part of the president’s job is to make decisions…he can’t pass the buck to anybody.”

After World War II Truman turned his attention to stopping the spread of communism. The start of a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union worried voters, and Truman’s popularity suffered. In 1948 he was probably the only person who thought he would be re-elected president. He took the campaign seriously and made hundreds of speeches throughout the country on his “Whistle-stop campaign” tour. Truman’s confidence proved to be prophetic when he won.

Truman’s second term was dominated by his decision to support South Korea when it was invaded by communist North Korea. He never asked Congress for a declaration of war because he feared the public would be reminded of World War II. As the war went on, Truman’s popularity took a nosedive.

Even though he had a poor approval rating, the public was still shocked when he announced that he didn’t plan to run for president again. He took delight in returning to Missouri and becoming “Mr. Citizen.” Truman lived to see much of his reputation restored. He became known not only for overseeing the end of World War II but also for desegregating the military and banning racial discrimination in the federal government.

 

Before the Great Depression: President Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover was born in Iowa, which made him the first president to be born west of the Mississippi River. Though he was orphaned at age nine, he managed to get a geology degree from Stanford University. When he was evaluating mines in Australia, he sent a telegram with a marriage proposal to his future wife and Stanford graduate Lou. Lou had always wanted to marry someone who appreciated the outdoors, and Hoover did. Even as president he took time to go fishing.

During World War I, Hoover headed a relief effort for starving Belgian citizens. In Europe he was known as “the food czar.” Back in the states he also organized a relief effort after a massive flood along the Mississippi River. As secretary of commerce under Harding and Coolidge, he opened up new markets for business and helped standardize products like car tires.

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Official Presidential Portrait of Herbert Hoover

Hoover was so popular that he easily won the presidential election in 1928. Even he seemed to realize the possible dangers of people viewing him as “some kind of superman”, however. He worried that some catastrophe would occur during his time in office. When the stock market crashed and left many Americans unemployed and hungry, Hoover had the catastrophe he feared.

One of Hoover’s errors was his belief that local governments and volunteerism could stop the Great Depression. He opposed direct federal government aid for most of his presidency, though he did authorize loans for state and federal government projects in order to create jobs. Hoover also made some poorly thought out statements to the press that gave people the impression that the multimillionaire didn’t care about them.

To be fair, the depression continued for eight more years even with Franklin Roosevelt’s federal aid. Despite mistakes, Hoover’s administration introduced some progressive ideas. For example, he invited prominent black leaders to the White House, something his predecessors avoided. He also supported tax reductions for the poor.

Though he knew he would not win another term, Hoover’s love for America never wavered. After all, he had signed a law making The Star-Spangled Banner America’s national anthem.