“No other act can project simultaneous hints that he is in the act of playing Commodore of the Yacht Club, Joseph Goebbels, Robert Mitchum, Maverick, Savonarola, the nice prep school kid next door, and the snows of yesteryear,”

Norman Mailer on William F. Buckley, Jr.
 

One of the things about growing older is that, one by one, all the iconic figures of your childhood and early adult life die off. Over the years, you watch them parade by on the television, and slowly come to realize that a whole generation of people whose existence you just took for granted is passing away.

Today, William F. Buckley, Jr.—patriarch of the American conservative movement, perennial pundit, and (almost self-parodying) icon of erudition—died at home. He died, at 82, as he would have wanted—quite possibly writing a final witty column for publication. Author of 45 books spanning the literary spectrum and countless articles and speeches, he was found in his study, slumped at his desk. He died, it would seem, as he lived: fighting the conservative fight in the public arena with, we can presume, wit, poise, and civility.

Next to his (in)famous erudition, it was perhaps his civility that most stands out today. In the present partisan climate, replete with vicious personal attacks, rage-fueled diatribes, and emotional ‘arguments’ on each side of the aisle, Bill Buckley stood aloof, refusing to abandon reason for passion. As others flung handfuls of mud, hoping some might stick out of the sheer volume, he refused to be hurried, and fired his own measured shots at his own pace.

Buckley’s greatest gift was his infectious love of life and political discourse, which led many of his rivals and critics to nonetheless enjoy his company. He was a sort of political scamp, impishly speaking his mind and sparking controversy. Just when you’d think you’d figured him out, suddenly he’d issue a statement, perfectly consistent, but utterly different from your assumptions. A moral conservative who proposed legalizing drugs; a former supporter of segregation who freed the conservative mainstream of the John Birchers and Randian Objectivists; a staunchly conservative pundit who enjoyed the company of many on the left: Bill Buckley was frequently an iconoclastic icon.

Perhaps his self-deprecating wit is best exhibited, as the New York Times obituary remarks, by a line Buckley wrote for a KGB official in “Who’s on First:”

Do you ever read the National Review, Jozsef? It is edited by this young bourgeois fanatic.

All jests aside, William F. Buckley, Jr. was the very opposite of a fanatic. Where fanatics are notoriously humorless about their cause, he was all infectious wit and merriment. Where fanatics eschew the company of those who refuse to see the light, he reveled in it. And where fanatics make it clear by every action that human life is subordinate to the holy cause, Bill Buckley made it clear by his every action that the conservative cause exists to serve human life. To him one did not live to be conservative, one was conservative in order to live to the fullest. As if orchestrating a life-long jest this “hammer of the secular humanists” was a vigorous and life-long champion of real humanism.

In paradisum deducant te Angeli;
in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem.

Chorus angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere
aeternam habeas requiem.

Resquiat in pace, Bill!

George Washington, Feb. 22, 1732 – Dec. 14, 1799

I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.

Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.

I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.

—George Washington (various sources)
 

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George Washington seems a strange choice for this series, which is (after all) about those forgotten greats. How can we include a figure so well known, so omnipresent, and so publicly venerated as George Washington: Founder of the Country, First President, First in Hearts of His Countrymen, etc.?

But fame is as a great a peril as obscurity if our goal is to remember the man and not the legend. And Washington is great precisely because he was a man—a man of his time and class—and not a myth. He was not the flawless saint of the classic “cherry tree” story. He deceived others from time to time (though perhaps only after deceiving himself). He was, at times, guilty of poor judgment, of jealousy, of passionate anger, of greed for wealth that lead to involvement with speculative schemes.

And for all his modest demurements, and socially correct (for the time) public rejections of ambition, he was certainly an ambitious man. One who took considerable pride in the good name he had won through his deeds, and one who could be jealous of his perquisites when challenged.

Indeed, that very ambition is one of the great things about Washington. He was a man who, in Britain, would have been doomed to obscurity by his relatively low birth. At best he might have risen to a modest career in the military, and perhaps eventually earned a minor peerage. But certainly he would not have risen to be ranked among the wealthiest men in his nation, nor risen to a role not only on par with the Prime Minster’s but above it in every way. But in America, his talent for being in the right place, at the right time, with the right plan; his noble good looks and regal bearing; and his upright moral character and sheer persistence allowed him to climb steadily up the ranks of society.

And so this, above everything else, makes Washington worthy of our praise: that after he had risen to the top of the heap, after his enemies domestic and foreign had been vanquished, when he was not only handed the laurel of victory but offered the imperial scepter, then he demurred. He who could have been King chose instead to be President.

And with a firm understanding that everything he did would be immortalized, and that his slightest act might become precedent for the office he held, this very ambitious, talented, and passionate man became the very model of restraint. A man who had bent the efforts of long years to rising in wealth and status now became almost passive, in order to ensure that nothing extravagant or unnecessary would attach to the office he was establishing each day by his actions.

This is not to say that he did not act, he did, and with force, when he felt it necessary. But he realized just how fragile the new nation was, and how fragile its rule of law was. If its first President had been a bad President, all might have been lost. Just as Pompey and Cesear had turned the offices of consul, dictator, and imperator into the trappings of tyranny, Washington could easily have hijacked the Republic and made it his. Not only be the crude method of being declared King, but by subtler methods: undermining Congress through direct appeal, having political enemies quietly eliminated, running for re-election until dying in office.

Any of those methods might have strangled the United States before it grew strong enough to survive them. And Washington understood this deeply, and bent all his intellect and will to ensuring that it did not happen. And he crowned those efforts with his greatest act: voluntarily stepping down and choosing not to run for election, and then lawfully handing over the office to a man who had publicly vilified his policies and privately vilified him. And then he took up station quietly on his farm and refused, largely, to engage in political debate for the remaining years of his life.

George Washington did many great things for this nation, and made many wise pronouncements about matters foreign and domestic. He was a force for moderation between extremes and for patriotism before party loyalty. He would have despised any notion that a man’s political affiliation should be more important than his principles or character. He crafted a foreign policy that sought, and ensured peace for a critical few decades as the country grew. He, and his administration, built many institutions that endure to this day, and without which we cannot imagine the nation.

But none of those were his greatest gift to the United States. His greatest gift was the incredible restraint which enabled him to do much, but not too much. To make sure that the nation would be shaped in We the people’s image and not simply George Washington’s image. And for that, we owe him eternal gratitude.

With due humility, I will take issue with one wise counsel given by President Washington:

We ought not to look back, unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors and for the purpose of profiting by dear bought experience.

I propose that there is another reason to look back, as good as these: to celebrate. Not to dwell in the past at the expense of the future, but to remember past victories as well as past defeats, and past wisdom as well as past error. In that spirit, let us remember our First President, who is truly worthy to be First in the Hearts of his Countrymen!

Happy Presidents Day Everyone!

Danny Thomas (born Amos Alphonsus Muzyad Yaqoob), Jan. 6, 1912-Feb. 6, 1991.

Success has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It’s what you do for others.

—Danny Thomas

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Many Americans today have probably never heard of Danny Thomas, as he belonged definitively to the twilight of the Golden Age of Cinema (starring in the 1952 remake of The Jazz Singer) and the dawn of the Golden Era of Television (starring in, what else, The Danny Thomas Show and producing such shows as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Mod Squad). And before all that, he was a stand-up comic touring the Midwest nightclub circuit under an anglicized form of his given name, Amos Jacobs.

In any event, it is not for Danny’s entertainment talent that we honor him today. Of all his long work in the studios, only a couple of his many shows are still shown frequently. But though most do not know him by name, nearly everyone knows him through his greatest legacy: The St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

At an early moment in his career, when the nightclub circuit was looking particularly grim (he was languishing in Detroit, no less), Danny knelt down in prayer and asked St. Jude Thaddeus (patron of hopless causes) to “show me my way in life.” Soon Danny found himself in Chicago and his career finally moving. When he next went to St. Jude in prayer at another turning point, he pledged to build a shrine if he ever had the means to do so.

His career took off, and Danny found himself wondering just how to fulfill his vow. Working with a group of businessmen in Memphis, he hit upon the idea to build a research hospital dedicated to curing the most catastrophic diseases afflicting children. A key point here: Danny Thomas didn’t just found a hospital—which after all can only treat the children that come through its doors—he founded a research institute dedicated to researching, applying, and publicizing cures for free.

And Danny did more than just found the place, he returned to the community of his birth, Lebanese Americans, to secure ongoing funding. From his efforts, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) was founded—with the sole purpose of supporting St. Jude. Today, ALSAC—still exclusively dedicated to St. Jude—is America’s third-largest health-care charity. Thus, the efforts of Danny Thomas and the Arab-American community produced a fundraising powerhouse that today transcends ethnicity, geography, and ideology to reach across America.

With an initial focus on pediatric cancer, St. Jude has helped increase the cure rate of acute lymphocytic leukemia from 4% to 80%, seen its budget grow from $1 million per year to $235 million, and branched out to study HIV-AIDS (devastating the children of Africa) and numerous cancers. Today it engages in cutting edge gene and stem cell therapies and is a highly rated scientific institution.

Leaving aside the 4900 patients seen each year, St. Jude has saved the lives of thousands upon thousands of children around the world through its contributions to basic and clinical research. Protocols developed at St. Jude have helped raise the survival rates for childhood cancers from under 20% to around 70%, with several key cancers having survival rates 90% or higher. And now it sets its sights on the diseases and therapies of the 21st Century. In the best American fashion it does not simply treat the symptoms of the ills it fights, it seeks to eliminate the root causes.

All from the vow of a stand-up comic, with help from a few Memphis businessmen and the unstinting assistance of the Arab-American community. Danny Thomas represents precisely what is right about America: he had opportunity, seized it, succeeded, and then stopped to consider how he could use his success to improve the world.

Of course, as with our other Great Americans Walt Disney and George Marshall, there are detractors. Some point to the sheer impossibility of curing childhood diseases and the tendency of charities to metastasize over time. To these folks the size and scope of St. Jude aren’t strengths but weaknesses—weaknesses that a group of smaller more focused institutions wouldn’t have. Others point out that as nasty as the diseases St. Jude fights are, they’re nothing compared to the childhood deaths from starvation, war, and exploitation. Wouldn’t all those millions be better spent fighting these more lethal, but far less scientifically “sexy” killers? Doesn’t St. Jude commit the classic American blunder of the Big Plan when less ambitious, more targeted efforts would work better?

There’s a point to all the carping, to be sure, but it still misses the point. Here, as always, the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good. Trying too hard to get the perfect solution is a great recipe for doing nothing. While others carp, hopeless cases still find hope at the place Danny built.

Still, I don’t think Danny would mind if those critics of his got busy building their competing visions. They might give ALSAC a run for the money, but I can’t help but think that Danny would just look down and urge them on.

After all, there’s still more than enough childhood misery to go around, sadly.

I’d like to kick off a new semi-regular feature here at the Angry Men, a celebration of Americans of all different stripes and backgrounds who have all, in their way, made America and the world a better place. They will be politicians, generals, entrepreneurs, scientists, and inventors; famous, and obscure; figures of history and thoroughly modern folks. But together they will remind us of the diversity and unity of the United States, of our greatest principles and of the great promise of America: you are free to pursue your dreams as best you can.

Without further ado, let’s raise a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to our inaugural Great American: Walter Elias Disney:

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The first few decades of Walt Disney’s life reads like an almost stereotypical American success story: born the son of an immigrant, growing up across the Midwest in big cities and small towns, sneaking off to World War I as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross, hustling to get started in his chosen career, getting breaks from his brother and returning the favor, and making and losing businesses and fortunes. All by the age of 33.

But in 1934, Disney did something destined to change American entertainment forever, and catapult him to new heights: he produced a full-length animated film featuring both realistic human characters and fantastic cartoon characters. This doesn’t sound like much these days, but back then it was “Disney’s Folly” because it had never been done, and conventional wisdom said it couldn’t be done. Disney bet the farm that conventional wisdom was wrong, and his competitors bet that he’d lose that farm.

Of course, as we know, Disney was right, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was wildly successful, playing to standing ovations and winning an Oscar (well, actually one large and seven small Oscars, in fact). More than a personal triumph, it ushered in the golden age of American animation, and set the stage for the staggering industry of animated features around the world. It also launched Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and bankrolled a skilled studio of master animators. Disney would go on to produce a whole cavalcade of classic animated films: Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (which brought the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Wind in the Willows to many for the first time), Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Cinderella, and many, many more. Many did not make much money, some were quite successful, but all have endured the test of time surprisingly well and stand as a tribute to Walt Disney’s vision that rich, complex stories could be told through animation.

After the Second World War, Disney brought his vision for a child’s fantasy amusement park to life in Disneyland, setting it on a huge lot and surrounding it by one of his favorite things in the world: a train. Throughout the 1950s Disney Studios worked on Disneyland and released major live-action and animated features. Disney also turned his eyes towards the stars and worked with NASA (and Werner von Braun) to promote space travel through films.

The 1960s saw Disney at the peak of his success, with Mary Poppins sweeping box offices and Disney debuting his vision of the future at the 1964 Worlds Fair. Not content with a one-time display of that vision, he laid the plans for an expanded and enhanced Disneyland known in development as “Disney World” and sited on 27,000 acres in Florida. Although plans included an expanded amusement park (to be known as the “Magic Kingdom”), resorts, and hotels, the centerpiece was to be Disney’s vision of the perfect future community, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). In Disney’s expansive vision, EPCOT was to be a working future city, whose residents would focus on innovative science and advanced technology.

Sadly, Walt Disney would never live to see the fulfillment of this vision, as he died from lung cancer in 1966, just two years after beginning the new project. His brother Roy came out of retirement to manage the project (and company) and open the first stage of the new park, now formally called “Walt Disney World Resort” in October 1971. By December of that year, Roy too was dead.

EPCOT as envisioned by Disney never came to be, though the modern Epcot park does provide a showcase for future technologies, and embodies the spirit of international cooperation in its World Showcase. And Disney’s Celebration community, built by Disney Imagineering as a model planned community, comes closer to the original goal of EPCOT (though in a suburban rather than urban mode).

Of course, as we remember the man and his legacy we should not overlook the darker side. Walt Disney never trusted organized labor, and his prejudice led him to make unsubstantiated allegations during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. He spied on union activity for the FBI for years and may well have illegally intimidated union activists. He was, as many visionaries are, a notoriously difficult man to work with. In short, he was a man, with a full share of faults and limitations.

But he was also a visionary in the best American mode, with an optimistic and enthusiastic take on society, technology, science, and the future. He built places devoted to bringing joy to children and inspiring them to dream deeply. He gave the world the vast legacy of his dreams in film and concrete and has inspired millions around the world with a vision of pluralism, tolerance, kindness, optimism and joy. For all of these reasons, whatever his human faults and foibles, Walter Elias Disney is, indeed, one of the Best of Us.

UPDATE: Welcome Fark.com! After you read this, feel free to have a look around. You’ve probably already seen this and this, but check out this fine piece about the One Laptop per Child program, this one about that nutcase Chavez, and, of course, this classic challenge.

On Friday, a most remarkable thing happened. “Evel” Knievel, that most American king of daredevils, died. In bed. Of something utterly mundane. After a career of spectacular stunts and even more spectacular failures, injuries, and traumas, Evel’s end might have been that of any elderly American.

But, as the Washington Post writes, however mundane his death, his life remains “larger than life:”

Any time ABC showed a Sunday afternoon Knievel stunt on “Wide World of Sports,” you could expect half the neighborhood to show up in the cul-de-sac immediately afterward, in an act of instant emulation. Someone would get a piece of plywood or a couple of 2-by-4’s and a cinderblock. Everyone had their bikes (bicycles, that is — Huffys, BMXs, with the banana seats and faded Wacky Packages stickers) and would perform jumps. You could get the little kids to lie flat on the asphalt in a row next to the ramp. (I can jump all four of you.) Kids would jump until the wood broke, or, more wonderfully, a daredevil got hurt and ran home bleeding.

In a way, Evel inspired a generation (if not to greatness, at least to extremes). Whether they know it or not, the skateboarders of the 1980s, the Extreme sportsmen of the 1990s, and the “Jackasses” of the 21st Century all owe their debt to Evel Knievel. He moved daredeviltry away from actually succeeding at apparently dangerous tasks to attempting truly, spectacularly dangerous tasks. And because, by sheer force of showmanship, he succeeding in that shift, his failures never really damaged his legend.

Because the story of Evel Knievel isn’t about success, or failure. It’s about daring to do the (sometimes literally) impossible. Defying death, sense, and sometimes even physics to reach for a dream—even if it really can’t be done. If nothing else, Evel taught us that you can defy all the rules and, if not walk away from it, at least be carried off with a thumb held high. In Evel’s stunts, raw courage and optimism were set against brutal reality. And if, brutal reality usually won brutally, you never stopped hoping against hope that this time, just this once, Evel would prevail.

In that, Evel Knievel truly symbolized America, in all her glory and folly. And he symbolized America too in his final embrace of God and Jesus Christ, realizing at last that there are some things man need not face alone. In Evel was played out the longstanding paradox of America: materialistic and faith-driven, huckster and preacher, worldly-wise playboy and humble penitent. In those latter days, no less than before, Evel was quintessentially American.

Requiest in pace, Evel.