Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Confirmation Memories


I love finding these old photos from a seemingly simpler era. These two portray my Confirmation, 63 years ago today, September 22, 1957.

In the first photo, we are all in two lines (as we so often were in those days), wearing our confirmation gowns (red for boys, white for girls) and holding our all-important name cards. I guess I was looking directly at some family member holding a camera - all the while very attentively guarding my name card. Whatever its theological and spiritual significance, I experienced confirmation primarily as just another rite of passage. Indeed, some years later at my 8th grade Baccalaureate Mass, the priest referred to confirmation as "something that just happened to you when you reached a certain age" (in contrast to our graduation which, he suggested, represented more of an actual accomplishment.) 

What was particularly important to me about confirmation was that I got to choose a name. I chose Michael for my confirmation name, because I was attracted by the bellicose militaristic image of Michael the Archangel in the prayer which we then regularly recited as part of the so-called “Leonine Prayers for Russia” recited after Low Mass. Because that was what I cared the most about, that is the part of the ceremony I best remember.

When my turn came to kneel before the Bishop on his faldstool in front of the High Altar, a priest took the card out of my hand and announced my confirmation name to the Bishop (in what I would later learn was the nominative case). The Bishop then addressed me (in what I would later learn was the vocative case): Michaele, Signo te signo crucis; et confirmo te chrismate salutis. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. ("Michael, I sign you with the sign of the cross and I confirm you with the chrism of salvation, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.")

The second photo shows the Bishop who pronounced those momentous words. He was a Dutch Augustinian, Peter Canisius van Lierde (1907-1995), who at that time held the office of "papal sacristan," a post he occupied for 40 years from 1951 through 1991. (A year later, as papal sacristan, he would be the one to administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction - better known now as “Anointing of the Sick” - to Pope Pius XII, a service he would repeat again in 1963 for Pope Saint John XXIII.) Ordained a priest in 1931, he earned doctorates in both theology and philosophy, and then headed the Augustinian College of Santa Monica in Rome, where he sheltered various refugees, military officers, Jews, and anti-fascist politicians during the war.

(There is actually a YouTube video about him in late life, Pietro Canisio Van Lierde, which ,despite its Italian title, is almost entirely in French:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oudl5CUpzKA )

In September 1957, Bishop Van Lierde was visiting my Bronx, NY, parish of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine to consecrate the finally finished upper church and then celebrate the parish’s Golden Jubilee Mass on September 9 and 10 respectively. (The parish was staffed by Augustinian friars and its patron saint was a 13th-century Augustinian friar and the first Augustinian to be canonized. Their province patron was Saint Thomas of Villanova, on whose feast day I was confirmed.)  

At Mass earlier that day - unusually for that time, my Confirmation took place on a Sunday, so of course we all attended Mass earlier that morning - an older student said "Congratulations" to me. I remember I thanked her, although what about being confirmed quite warranted congratulations was not completely obvious either then or now, since it was, after all, "something that just happened to you when you reached a certain age." More accurately, of course, for most of history Confirmation was something that happened to you when a bishop happened to be available. But, in 1950s New York, there were plenty of bishops and so Confirmations occurred regularly and thus appeared to be determined more by one's age (or grade-level in school).

As I recall, Confirmation seemed less of a big deal than the energy invested in it would seem to suggest. But it was part of a way of life sanctified by the building in which it occurred. It was that great gothic-towered parish  church, that dominated the neighborhood both physically and socially, that took me out of time and beyond the narrow confines of my limited space, and that that taught me that to go to the altar of God would give joy to one’s youth. (Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam, as we were then happily taught to say.) That was something I never forgot – both in brief intervals of ephemeral, fleeting success and in times of devastating, frightening failure. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Supreme Court and the Looming Struggle over Democracy

On February 13, 2016, on the day Justice Antonin Scalia died, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell famously said: "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president." On September 28, 2020, on the day Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, however, he hypocritically abandoned his newly contrived precedent and took the exact opposite position: "President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate." Needless to say, the difference between the two situations has nothing to do with the constitution or legal precedents, and everything to do with the Republican party's determination to grab for itself another Supreme Court seat.

Of course, the Constitution says nothing about such situations. It simply authorizes the president (presumably as long as he is president, i.e., until 12:00 noon on Inauguration Day) to "nominate" Justices, dependent on the "advice and consent" of the Senate (Article II, Section 2). In 2016, President Barack Obama, as he was surely entitled to do, nominated Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. The Senate, as it too was entitled to do, decided not to consent to his nomination. In 2017, the new president nominated someone else, who then received the requisite confirmation from the Senate.

That Supreme Court appointments carry such weight is an extremely unfortunate aspect of how our political system has evolved, a reflection of the excess power the Supreme Court has arrogated to itself over time, a process that has made it, in David Kaplan's famous words, "the most dangerous branch." In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself famously pointed out the judicial over-reach in Roe v. Wade, arguing that "a less encompassing Roe, one that merely struck down the extreme Texas law and went no further on that day ... might have served to reduce rather than fuel controversy."

Maybe some future Congress will reassert the constitutional balance, but for that it would be unwise to hold one's breath in expectation. For now, we are stuck with an over-mighty Supreme Court and the distortions this causes in our politics - not least that the composition of the Court was a major motivator for many Trump voters in the 2016 election and may well become a major motivator for voters on both sides in the 2020 election.

The Supreme Court constitutes one part - a very consequential part - of the looming struggle over democracy. A president elected by a minority of Americans and a Senate elected by a minority of Americas, and their political party apparently determined at all costs to exclude the majority from political power, will probably proceed to seat on the Supreme Court some creature of the Federalist Society, who can be counted on to preserve, protect, and defend the capitalist oligarchy.

What would an alternative, majoritarian, agenda look like?

In the event such a movement were to acquire control of both the presidency and both houses of Congress, some basic steps to restore democratic legitimacy might include:

1. Abolishing the filibuster (itself a recent innovation, the abolition of which would be essential in order to accomplish almost anything else)

2. Immediately passing pandemic relief legislation and provisions to strengthen our weakened public health infrastructure

3. Restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act the Republican Court destroyed in 2006 in Shelby v. Holder, with additional adaptations to address more recent voter suppression efforts and new challenges from foreign interference

4. Expanding Medicare, Medicaid, and the ACA to ensure universal health care coverage for all Americans

5. Finally passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform

6. Offering full statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico

7. Increasing the number of Supreme Court Justices  

8. Sending to the states a constitutional amendment establishing suitably staggered 15 year terms for Supreme Court Justices.

That should keep a new Congress and a new President busy for a while!

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Il Venti Settembre

Not only Rome but any number of other Italian cities have a Via XX Settembre, a street named to commemorate the conquest of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy 150 years ago today, the event that ended more than a millennium of papal rule over Rome. In fact Rome had actually been proclaimed the capital of the new Italian kingdom in 1861, but at that time Emperor Napoleon III's French troops were still stationed there to keep Rome papal. With the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in the summer of 1870, however, those troops were recalled. That, followed by the precipitous French defeat, freed Italy to conquer Rome.

Apparently, King Victor Emmanuel II's government had been willing to leave the so-called "Leonine City" (much of which is today papal territory again as Vatican City) under the Pope's de facto control. But Pope Pius IX remained intransigent in his insistence on papal sovereignty over Rome. The Italians then marched across the papal frontier and besieged Rome. After a token - purely symbolic - resistance, during which the Italians famously breached the Aurelian Wall at Porta Pia (where the Via XX Settembre now begins), the Pope surrendered the city. The unification of modern Italy was complete - territorially at least.

Neither Pope nor King benefited from the 59-year cold war between Church and State that ensued. Midwifed by Mussolini, the 1929 Lateran Treaty benefited both Pope and King, both the Church and the Italian State - something Pope Saint Paul VI in effect acknowledged when, on the 100th anniversary of the conquest, he celebrated il significato "provvidenziale" di quella perdita del potere temporale.

The "providential" significance of that loss of the temporal power! Providential.

An atavistic affection for a long-lost Christendom once institutionalized in the fiction of the "Holy Roman Empire" still survives in certain quarters, reflected in a surprisingly uncritical attachment, for example, to the anti-democratic (and increasingly secularist) European Union. For the most part, however, history has moved on. Paul VI was right in recognizing as "providential" the Church's liberation from the downward drag of temporal power. To be sure, the contemporary context creates its own problems for the Church's mission in the world. But the Church is more free now to carry out its mission effectively than it was when the Pope was saddled with the status of a European sovereign, ruling a principality in a severe state of decline and pointlessly standing in the way of his own citizens' political and social aspirations.

(Photo: Porta Pia 2012).

Friday, September 18, 2020

Rage (The Book)

It's only been publicly available since Tuesday, but by then its contents were already familiar to us from countless pre-publication excerpts, interviews, and, of course, the now famous tapes. Those tapes in turn have given rise to some debate about what Woodward should or should not have done with them at the time, and whether it might have mattered in terms of people's responses to the pandemic. While not unimportant in itself, that debate  is also something of a distraction, both from the main argument of the book and from the important issues in this election. Bob Woodward is not running for President. Donald Trump is. His character and his handling of the presidency for the past four years are at issue in this election, not this book or the judgments of its author. While the author is not the candidate, his book is, however, a source of further information about the character of the candidate.

Trump books are proliferating, but Bob Woodward remains the establishment star when it comes to presidential journalism, a journalism that goes all the way back to the Watergate story which made him famous in the first place. Trump also cooperated personally with Woodward, with 17 interviews, both in the Oval office and over the telephone, the first of them just as the House was about to impeach the President and about three months before the pandemic took over the world. (He had not cooperated with Woodward on his 2018 book Fear: Trump in the White House.

The book's title too comes from the President himself - from a conversation which Woodward and Robert Costa had with Trump in March 2016. When Woodward referred "a lot of angst and rage and distress" in the Republican party, Trump said "I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have.". Few truer words have been uttered in the course of this presidency!

Since the book is already so familiar, there is no need to to repeat what we have all already heard. Much of the book is, in fact, a recapitulation of familiar history, especially as seen by and through the establishment figures who initially agreed to serve in the Trump Administration - the "guard rails" as the media have often referred to them, "guard rails" that were in the end ineffectual and are now largely gone in any case.  The story of General James Mattis is illustrative. Maybe Mattis was right to take the job of Secretary of Defense when Trump offered it to him. Or maybe not. Woodward recounts how, having been offered the post of Defense Secretary, he called his 94-year old mother, a World War II Army Intelligence veteran, who, he knew, hated Trump. “How can you work for that man?” she asked him. Maybe his mother was right! In the end, as we all know, Mattis finally felt he had to quit. Woodward quotes Mattis: “When I was basically directed to do something that I thought went beyond stupid to felony stupid, strategically jeopardizing our place in the world and everything else, that’s when I quit.”

But, at this late stage in the story, we hardly need another book - even one by Bob Woodward - to tell us all this. Or to remind us of the failures of Trump's management style, what former Chief-of-Staff General Kelly called "Crazytown." Or of the President's barbarous assault on the international institutions and structures built up largely by the U.S. in the post-World War II era. Again, we already know all this.

What we did not know, at least not in detail, was how Trump truly reacted to the pandemic, and it is Woodward's singular contribution to have recorded in his interviews the President's real-time reaction to the crisis from its start. After detailing how Dr. Fauci and Dr. Redfield responded to the first revelations from China, Woodward introduces us to the President's own responses in his 8th interview (March 19, 2020). At this point it was clear to Woodward that Trump understood the severity of the situation.

“Part of it is the mystery,” Trump said. “Part of it’s the viciousness. You know when it attacks, it attacks the lungs. And I don’t know—when people get hit, when they get hit, and now it’s turning out it’s not just old people, Bob. Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people.” 

So it seems that all those people who endanger themselves and others by their refusal, for example, to wear masks out of fealty to their Dear Leader are expressing their fidelity to a presidential posture that contradicts what the President privately knew to be the case.

On February 7, Trump told Woodward about "the 'dynamite behind every door,' the unexpected explosion that could change everything." Woodward's account reinforces his conclusion "that the 'dynamite behind the door' was in plain sight. It was Trump himself. The oversized personality. The failure to organize. The lack of discipline. The lack of trust in others he had picked, in experts. The undermining or the attempted undermining of so many American institutions. The failure to be a calming, healing voice. The unwillingness to acknowledge error. The failure to do his homework. To extend the olive branch. To listen carefully to others. To craft a plan."

Based on the picture his account portrays, Woodward unsurprisingly concludes: "Trump is the wrong man for the job."

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

We Liked Ike


Tomorrow's Dedication of Washington DC's new memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (photo above from the official Eisenhower Memorial web page) had originally been planned for May 8, the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, an altogether fitting occasion to remember and celebrate the man who led the Allied invasion of Normandy and as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Western Europe successfully completed his mission with Germany's unconditional surrender. But then Covid-19 intervened and forced the event's postponement until now

As usual on such occasions, there has been the customary controversy about the design and appearance of the memorial, in this case particularly about the statue of Eisenhower as a boy.  As with all such monuments, there is also always the intriguing question what the person being honored might have thought of it. None of that is unimportant, but it is all less important than the fact that finally the 34th president is at long last receiving the honor that is surely his due.

My father, a member of the 'greatest generation," who happened to share a birthday (October 14) with General Eisenhower, served in the European theater in World War II. Then I in turn grew up in the glorious years of the Eisenhower presidency. It is hard to overstate what a difference the 1950s were from the decades of Depression and War which had preceded, how even people of very modest means, like my parents, experienced those years as a time of new opportunities and possibilities. Thus, when Senator John F. Kennedy was contemplating seeking the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1956, his father wrote to Sargent Shriver: "you are going into an atmosphere where over 65 million persons are working and getting better pay than ever before….So you have an economic condition that is excellent; you can’t offer anything to anybody from laborer to capitalist that can persuade him that he can do better." [Quoted in Fredrik Logevall. JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century NY: Random House, 2020, p. 627.]

Of course, I had been spared both the Depression and the War and so took the amazing socio-economic progress of the 1950s for granted. To the extent that I paid attention to politics, my opinions were conventional. The topics I was most aware of and most interested in were foreign affairs, i.e., the Cold War, especially its periodic crises - Hungary and Suez in 1956, Lebanon in 1958, Kruschev's visit to the U.S. in 1959, and the U-2/Parish Summit Crisis in 1960 - and the space race, precipitated by Sputnik in 1957.

Through all of that, Eisenhower was a constant - a dignified, reassuring, encouraging presidential presence - comparable perhaps to Kaiser Franz Josef's symbolic resonance in pre-World War I Austria. Everything about the presidency seemed - and was - more dignified then. When there was a crisis in Hungary or Suez or wherever, the President addressed us on TV from the Oval Office, and the National Anthem was played at the end of his speech.

In the decades since Eisenhower, presidential scholars, notably my Princeton mentor Fred I. Greenstein, have retrieved his reputation and revealed his political skill, practical wisdom, and good sense, qualities that coexisted with the modesty and humility that made him successful both as a military and political leader and as a person empowered to represent and symbolize a nation. Eisenhower also set the Republican party on a course which it would have done better to remain on, instead of the misguided detours it has taken since the disastrous election of 1980. Thus, he famously said in 1954:

“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Stupid they may still be, but negligible they unfortunately no longer are!