Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell

I have just finished reading this rather amazing book, which is basically a travelogue of places connected in one way or another with the first three of the USA's four assassinated presidents: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. It's less macabre than it sounds, and a whole lot more fascinating, mostly because of Sarah Vowell's intensely readable style but also because of her magpie mind. She's a sort of flypaper for trivia, a description that would fit me too: though if Sarah Vowell got hold of you at a party she'd be more likely to enlighten you on the plays in which John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin appeared than on how Mozart made the world's first bootleg recording, or that Wagner had a Newfoundland dog called Russ. So it goes.

At the end of the book she ascribes her fascination with presidential assassinations to having grown up with this record in her parents' collection:


(Spooky - though if we're being picky Booth wound up in a barn, not a warehouse.)

There were a few passages I thought worth sharing.

While technically Maryland remained in the Union during the Civil War, it was the border state, a schizophrenic no-man's-land with the North at its door and the South in its heart.

Listen to its state song. Sung to the tune of the German Christmas carol "O Tannenbaum", "Maryland, My Maryland" was written as the Civil War was breaking out in 1861. The first line goes "The despot's heel is on thy shore." Who is the despot? The new president, Lincoln, who, it's worth remembering, had to sneak into Washington for his inauguration to avoid the assassins waiting to jump him in Baltimore, a city which in the song is rhymed with "patriotic gore", commemorating the blood spilled on its streets on April 19, 1861, when a mob of local secessionists attacked a Massachusetts regiment passing through town. "Maryland, My Maryland", the song says, "spurns the Northern scum!" the song also calls for seceding from the Union, to stand by its sister state Virginia, going so far as to allude to that state's motto Sic semper tyrannis:

Virginia should not call in vain,
Maryland!
She meets her sisters on the plain -
Sic semper! 'tis the proud refrain

Sic semper was of course the proud refrain hollered by Maryland's own John Wilkes Booth after making good on shooting the aforementioned "despot" Lincoln at war's end. One might think that a state song hinting at presidential assassination would have eerie echoes when that state's native son assassinated said president and therefore it might be headed for the title of "state song emeritus", the dustbin into which Virginia herself tossed its racist favorite "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny". But "Maryland, My Maryland" did not become the official state song until 1939. Despite the occasional nice try to ditch it, it remains the state song to this day.

All of which could just be written off as harmless symbolism, almost laughable anachronism. However, careful readers who are also symbolism devotees would have noticed that the date in 1861 when the Baltimore mob clashed with the Massachusetts soldiers was April 19 - Patriots' Day - the anniversary of Lexington and Concord, when the first shots were fired in the Revolutionary War. It is also the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City he was wearing a T-shirt. On the back of the T-shirt, perhaps as a nod commemorating Patriots' Day, was the famous quote from Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." On the front of McVeigh's shirt was a picture of Abraham Lincoln. Printed under Lincoln's face was the caption "Sic semper tyrannis". McVeigh ordered h
is shirt from a catalog sent out to subscribers of Southern Partisan, the pro-Confederate magazine. As if McVeigh wearing the shirt isn't disgusting enough, the catalog sold out of most sizes of the shirt after McVeigh made the news. People actually heard that a mass murderer responsible for 168 deaths was wearing clothing celebrating another murder and they wanted to dress up like him.

Then there's this, a propos the attempted assassination of President Reagan:

The reason I well up with liturgical emotion on seeing that entrance to the Hilton is not because Reagan was attacked here, but because his press secretary, James Brady, was. That Brady will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair is cause enough for empathy. That he and his wife Sarah turned this rotten luck into the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is downright heroic. And not the soft-focus treacle that "heroic" often implies. I'm on their mailing list, and the most impressive, lovable thing about them is their rage. The last mailing I got, seeking help to close the gun show loophole laws that allow terrorists and criminals to purchase all the firearms they want as long as it's at folding tables set up at fairgrounds, featured a letter from Jim that opens "I'm sitting here in my wheelchair today, mad as hell, trying to control my anger", and another one from Sarah in which she tells a story about how right after Jim was shot, her son was playing with what he thought was a toy gun in a family member's truck, but it turned out to be real and when she learned this she stormed over to the phone and called up the National Rifle Association, telling them, "This is Sarah Brady and I want you to know I will be making it my life's work to put you out of business!" Unbelievably, two years after the assassination attempt President Reagan addressed the NRA's nation convention - the only sitting president ever to do so. Who should have known more than he that backing an organization lobbying against (especially) the control of handguns is against the self-interest of every president. After all, only John F. Kennedy was shot with a rifle; the other three successful presidential murders (and the the attempted assassinations of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, harry Truman, and Gerald Ford) were committed with handguns.

Or this, from the journal John Wilkes Booth kept while on the run. Evidently, like Anders Breivik after him, he saw himself as a patriotic hero and was miffed that the press all viewed him as a vile murderer:

After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gun boats till I was forced to return wet cold and starving, with every mans hand against me, I am her in despair. And why: for doing what Brutus was honored for, what made Tell a Hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.... I struck for my country and that alone.

Yup, just like Breivik's insistence that his slaughter of children was necessary to save his country from the "evils" of socialism, multiculturalism and Islam. Buddy Starcher was more right than he knew: history does repeat itself.

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