Pandemic Politics

“Pandemic” was an adjective before it was a noun.

It means, “prevalent over a whole area, country, etc.; universal, general . . . .” It is usually applied to disease, thus giving rise to its use as a noun, “a pandemic,” meaning, “a disease which is pandemic.” But it could really be used for almost anything that is widely distributed over the world. 

Politics is pandemic. As was oft remarked of Chickenman, “It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!” 

No, Fair Reader, you can’t escape it; for, as Aristotle observed, “Man is a political animal.”

In the midst of our current angst over COVID-19, President Trump has been accused of downplaying the threat. Trump’s opponents have been accused of weaponizing the fear of a dread disease. Players on both sides of the line of scrimmage are ripping up the Astroturf, wailing, “Unfair! They are politicizing a national disaster!” 

So, what else is new? 

If you read this blog regularly—a Recommended Best Practice—you may wonder, “Whence comes this commentary on current events? Is not this blog supposed to be about ‘seeking fresh meanings in our common past’?”

Okay, Dear Reader. You asked for it:

It Was Ever Thus

Politicians have made political hay out of all things sacred since the moment after time started. Many earnest combatants believe that everything is political; that exploiting all events to advance one’s political agenda is the purest form of service. (“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”—Rahm Emanuel, 2008.)

Those who seek to serve society must understand the political context in which they operate. Military leaders, in particular, often feel that war should be exempt from politics. But they would be extremely foolish to suppose that it actually is.

General Promotions

Elihu B. Washburne U.S. Congressman, Secretary of State, Minister to France. Mathew Brady-Levi Corbin Handy photo. Public Domain.

During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant showed a canny cognizance of the political winds which blew all around him. In that conflict, almost every general, North or South, was appointed and advanced politically. Even Grant, who demonstrated the highest ability, would never have received the opportunity to demonstrate that ability without the sponsorship of his local Congressman, Rep. Elihu Washburne. The Congressman put Grant in for a brigadier general’s star, immediately began thumping for his promotion to major general, and in every possible way championed Grant’s career.

In 1863, Grant was tasked with taking the city of Vicksburg, which President Abraham Lincoln saw as “the golden key” to unlock the Confederacy. Take Vicksburg from the rebels, and you re-open the Mississippi River to Union navigation. At the same time, you dreadfully complicate Confederate efforts to get men and materiel from the Trans-Mississippi West (Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas). Vicksburg in Union hands would be the beginning of the end of the rebellion.

Major General U.S. Grant. Public Domain.

Trouble was, Grant’s first try—aided by loyal subordinates Sherman and Macpherson and the ambitiously disloyal McClernand—had come to naught, for reasons beyond Grant’s control. “The strategical way according to the rule,” Grant wrote in his memoirs, “would have been to go back to Memphis; establish that as a base of supplies; fortify it so that the storehouses could be held by a small garrison, and move from there along the line of the railroad, repairing as we advanced, to the Yallabusha, or to Jackson, Mississippi.” 

However, “At this time the North had become very much discouraged. . . . It was my judgment at the time that to make a backward movement as long as that from Vicksburg to Memphis, would be interpreted, by many of those yet full of hope for the preservation of the Union, as a defeat, and that the draft would be resisted, desertions ensue, and the power to capture and punish deserters lost. There was nothing left to be done but to go forward to a decisive victory.

What Grant delicately omitted was that political powers in Washington wanted Grant removed and replaced with McClernand—an officer who, despite his loyalty to the Union, was unfit for high command. So long as Grant was actively campaigning against Vicksburg, it was not too hard for Lincoln to resist these demands for his scalp. But any movement that appeared to be a retreat—back to Memphis, for example—would  most likely seal his fate. I am not the first to suggest that if Grant had done anything other than what he did—go forward through the Mississippi lowlands with no established supply line, feeding his army off the land—he would have lost his job. So that’s exactly what he did.

Grant could not afford to ignore politics.

In the end, he found a way to win without losing his job.

So What?

How does this history apply to the present day? Simply in this: Those who wish to serve the country need to be entirely apolitical; but they cannot afford to ignore the politics of the situation.

There are a lot of players, political and otherwise. One is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, an interesting figure. He is on the opposite political team from the president—but neither of them can afford to make trouble with the other in facing the coronavirus challenge, both for political reasons, and for the sake of people’s health.

Cuomo, like any experienced governor, knows quite a bit about handling emergencies. I saw him on TV the other day, revealing one of the key things about emergencies—a lesson I learned years ago as a worker in Wisconsin’s state emergency operations. There are two things, Cuomo said—I’m loosely paraphrasing—two things: One is the objective state of things: the resources, the damage, the things that need to be repaired; or in the case of a pandemic disease, the infection rates, testing kits, all that operational stuff. The other thing is the public perception of the situation. The latter is what drives rumors, panics, compliance with relief plans or the lack of compliance, etc. Often, Cuomo said, that second factor, the public perception, gets to be a greater problem than the disaster scenario itself. 

Cuomo is dead accurate on that. (Your New Favorite Writer’s note to self: Write a blog post sometime about the 1996 Weyauwega, Wisconsin, train derailment.)

The only thing leaders can do about the second factor, the public perception, is to provide a steady flow of factual information from official sources. Credibility is key. People know when they’re being lied to, and it’s the kiss of death in handling an emergency.

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. NIAID photo, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Enter Dr. Anthony Fauci, and his sidekicks Dr. Deborah Brix, Admiral Brett Giroir, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams. These people are the key medical players on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. They are physicians with impeccable credentials and experienced public health leaders. Their usefulness on the task force is based on their ability to help move key decisions. But just as important is the straightness of their dialog with the American public as principal briefers of this ongoing emergency. 

What makes them useful is that they never say anything that is not factual. Their credibility is gilt-edged. It is a remarkable feat, day in and day out, to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, from the epicenter of a hurricane of fear, anxiety, and political games. 

As Executive Branch employees, they work under the authority of President Donald J. Trump—a gargantuan figure and one who speaks in momentarily expedient approximations. Fauci ranks as a genius, saying what is true and correcting what is false, while affirming truths uttered by the president and never crossing swords with him over statements that may be less reliable. 

Without being himself a politician, Anthony Fauci knows how to survive in a tough political environment, giving good service and straight advice with an easy grace. 

He reminds me of Ulysses S. Grant, who made virtues of necessities and got the military job done without having to bother Abe Lincoln overmuch with messy details.

Funny how often parts of the present resemble parts of the past.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Onward and Upward, with Missionary Zeal

After a recent family reunion in Portsmouth, Virginia, my wife and I drove across North Carolina and stayed a couple of days with old friends in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Chattanooga!”

It sings. 

In fact, it has been mentioned in songs like “Chattanooga Choo-choo” and “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.” With two doubled letters, it echoes the magic of  “Mississippi” and “Walla Walla.” With four syllables, Chat-ta-noo-ga, it is redolent of “Chattahoochee,” a river that has a song of its own.

The city has its own dedicated typeface, Chatype, released in 2012. It boasts the fastest Internet service in the Western Hemisphere. But I’m getting carried away with present-day embellishments. Whereas this blog, you know, kinda focuses on the past.

Lookout Mountain, 2007. Photo by Teke, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“Chattanooga” may derive from a Creek word that means “rock rising to a point.” That would be Lookout Mountain, where they fought “the Battle Above the Clouds.”

Major General U.S. Grant. Public Domain.

You can’t imagine Chattanooga without remembering the Civil War. Tennessee was desperately contested from early in the conflict. President Lincoln wanted badly to protect the pro-Union folks in East Tennessee from being swallowed by the Confederacy. But first things had to come first: General Grant invaded West Tennessee. His hard-won victories at Fort Donelson and Shiloh meant the North would stay in the South. 

The next order of business was Vicksburg. The guns on its heights controlled traffic on the Mississippi. Grant wrested the city from the Southern grasp on July 4, 1863. The Confederacy was effectively broken into two parts.

Next Stop: Chattanooga

Chattanooga stood on the Tennessee River, in a place where great ridges of the Cumberland Plateau came together. A key point for river and rail transport, Chattanooga would be the ideal staging point from which to invade Georgia. On September 9, 1863, Union general Rosecrans occupied Chattanooga. That was the easy part. 

General Braxton Bragg. Public Domain.

Rebel general Braxton Bragg, failing to oust Union forces in the Battle of Chickamauga September 19-20, laid siege to the river city and tried to starve the bluecoats out. In mid-October, Grant—now commanding all Union forces in the region—wrote, “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards, I will be there as soon as possible.” He arrived four days later and immediately began planning a campaign to break Bragg’s siege. 

After a month spent building a logistical advantage, Grant’s troops assaulted the rebel-held high points on Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, and Missionary Ridge. 

Seeing the Sites

Our friends and hosts, Andy and Janet Johnson, longtime Chattanooga residents, graciously showed us the battle sites.

Lookout Mountain, its top preserved as part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, is as impressive now as it was then. It’s hard to imagine General Hooker’s men fighting their way up it to dislodge Bragg’s troops—but they did. 

The other two high points, Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge, have been developed as residential real estate, but you can see the layout clearly from the top of Lookout Mountain. The final battle for Chattanooga was at Missionary Ridge. Union troops under Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George H. Thomas stormed the steep heights. 

Sherman’s troops stalled on their way up the north end of the north-south ridge. In the center, George Thomas’s division stalled after capturing Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. As they milled around, having gained what many appaently thought was their final objective, rebels poured fire down on their heads from the top of the ridge.

On, Wisconsin

Officers and men of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry knew what the real objective was. They started up the hill, but their color bearer was wounded and dropped the flag. Civil War units used their flags as rallying points. It was crucial the men of the 24th be able to see the colors  mounting the hill ahead of them. 

“On, Wisconsin!” Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur leads the 24th Wisconsin at Missionary Ridge. Painting by Michael Thorson. Used by permission.

Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur, an 18-year-old, snatched the flag from the fallen soldier’s hands and dashed up the hill, shouting, “On, Wisconsin!” The regiment responded with a ferocious charge. Other units left and right did the same. The seasoned Confederate soldiers manning the guns at the top of the ridge experienced what can only be described as a moment of simultaneous panic. They ran. General Bragg chased them, implored them to turn and make a stand, but he did not get the stampede under control until his Army was safely in Georgia. Chattanooga was secure.

Major General William T. Sherman. Photo by Mathew Brady. Public Domain.

Chattanooga capped a long string of victories in the West for Grant. He became general-in-chief of all Union Armies, and moved on to Virginia for the final confrontation with Robert E. Lee. Grant’s right-hand man, Sherman, was turned loose to range from Chattanooga through the State of Georgia. His march to the sea, still remembered with more than chagrin by Southerners, once again subdivided the Confederacy. 

It would be more than a year before the final battles in Virginia and North Carolina, but Chattanooga played a decisive role in the outcome.

What’s the Big Deal?

If you’re not interested in the Civil War, this may all seem frightfully dull and remote. But everything runs into everything else. 

For his actions at Missionary Ridge November 25, 1863, Arthur MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890. Later, he would serve as military governor of the Philippine Islands, when the U.S. won them in the Spanish-American War.

Just as important for history, Arthur MacArthur fathered a son, named Douglas, who became an American military legend in his own right, was himself awarded the Medal of Honor for his defense of the Philippines in World War II, dictated the reconstruction of Japan along constitutional democratic lines after the war, and rescued South Korea from North Korea’s invasion in 1950.

“Plunge Right Through That Line”

And, by the way, Arthur MacArthur’s battle cry, “On, Wisconsin!” came to be  immortalized in a pretty catchy football tune.

And I, Dear Reader, will be eternally grateful to our Chattanooga friends, Andy and Janet Johnson, who helped me with my Civil War itinerary. As an unabashed Grantophile—any man who can’t hold his liquor is okay by me!—I had visited the sites of all Grant’s major victories, except this one. Now that box is checked.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author