June 29, 2020

All the kids called last Sunday for Father’s Day. We talked, as we always do, about visiting, which is being pushed farther into the indistinct future. “On the road” has pretty much become “up the street to the hardware store.” We tried to fake a reason to get out of town. Maybe it will work out next month.  Meanwhile, I have chores to finish.

Pausing for that moment, Father’s Day is one of those Hallmark holidays, like Valentine’s Day—nice, but not really commemorating anything. This year it was swallowed up in the hoopla over the Trump Tulsa rally, which came along with the new pandemic surge. It’s spreading where a month ago people were saying they’d never wear a mask or stay home. The turmoil that followed Floyd’s death didn’t abate for that special Sunday, either. People were in the streets in D.C., in Tulsa, in Seattle. One month and everything seems worse.

Seems worse, is worse. Getting to 123,000 covid deaths will do that. We are traumatized by the collective grief, and by the invisible threat. I think of Londoners in the 1940 summer of the Blitz, German bombs nearly every night. The true-believer Trump cadre still insists it’s a hoax and that masks are for Democrats. On Friday Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert, used the word “protean” to describe the dynamics of covid infection. I wondered: do those guys in cammies and carrying guns get that?

We know one thing. A working baseline for thinking about the pandemic is that the Trump administration attitude reaffirms Stalin’s cynical insight: one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.

Beyond the pandemic, the wrenching polarization of the culture has had another, little-noticed effect: Americans, with their political opinions, have become obnoxious at worst, insufferably boring at best. Either you’re certain Trump and his family are ripping off America for every nickel they can squeeze, or you’re convinced that Joe Biden and the Dems will tear down every statue in the country, not stopping with Confederate generals.

So we recognize all that. Then we can move on, back to our own lives. Two members of our running group are doing that: they’ve bought homes in southern states, after decades in northern Virginia. They’re heading for the beach, warmer weather, lower taxes, less congestion. It may seem like an immutable law of nature: get close to retirement, think about the next step, typically cast as upgrading “quality of life” by changing the scenery.

We’re not standing still. I’m touching up the banged-up wall of the downstairs bedroom, replacing moulding in a couple of places, repairing ceiling tiles I installed years ago, and excavating and repairing the sump pump drain line. Never thought I’d be stuck with that one. If the mildew keeps attacking I’ll be powerwashing again, reliving the experience of last September (this blog, Sept. 30, 2019). And so on.

Truth is, I still would be blowing those things off if we weren’t thinking about moving ourselves. The moulding has been broken for years, same with the ceiling tiles. The gash in the bedroom wall is only eight months old, made by a plumber on an emergency call. Other than the minimum, like cutting grass and some painting, I quit on handyman stuff years ago. I have power tools stashed in the basement I haven’t touched in decades.

Rousing myself to take care of these things has not been easy, and I needed a serious push. The real point, the point beyond the point of thinking about the repairs is setting out to do them, just as our friends set out to find new homes. These are positives that force us to act, to focus on the real world, the nuts-and-bolts, executing complicated, usually annoying tasks that have a metaphysical dimension. They require serious attention to concrete, existential things: the tools, the materials, the measurements.  To fix the ceiling I have to pay attention to all that, plus the equally difficult act of balancing on the ladder.

If you tackle these things, the reward is a contribution to your own life and the family’s well-being. That applies even if the result is less than professional, if the moulding you installed is a little crooked, if there’s cement smeared where it shouldn’t be smeared. You could have hired a pro, but you didn’t. You might need to hire one for something else.

“Quality of life” requires small, deliberate steps. You don’t get past those steps listening to talk-show hot air that reinforces your opinions and prejudices. Those hours you spend with Fox or MSNBC and on the internet are gone forever. Those repair jobs still will be there, haunting you.

The home-repair thing is just an example, probably an obscure one, of what I’m thinking. Our friends will be setting out on great adventures in new communities, where they’ll reappraise their lives. The goal is joy and enthusiasm for whatever lies ahead. More than three decades ago we uprooted our family from a comfortable life in Tennessee and moved to New Jersey on a bet we ended up losing. After a year we did it again and landed in Virginia. Changing communities, changing states, is transformative—no other word works. The point, for the umpteenth time, is move forward, always forward.

There are other ways. We have friends who are awaiting the birth of a grandchild. They’re preparing to celebrate the coming of a new life to their family. They’re anticipating the joy of it. We’ve been through that, we know. Right now we’re stuck with the chores. I’m working on my attitude. Hope there’s some joy ahead.


June 22, 2020

Forty-one years ago, for one afternoon, Sandy and I visited Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. It was a detour, we were on our way from Nashville to St. Paul. Our month-old daughter, our first, was packed in the back of our cramped Toyota in one of those early baby restraint baskets.

I had read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as a kid and had to make the stop. Twain’s history there is a tourist attraction. We walked down to a pier to look at the Mississippi, brown, fast-flowing, nearly a mile wide. Barges crawled up the channel. It’s not much of a place, I thought. It probably wasn’t much of a place when he lived there, either.

Clemens, or Twain, is famous because he told us something about the country, and about ourselves. Huckleberry Finn resonates in American literature and American history, for some in the wrong way. Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain.” That book is a haunting, dark tale of America. So was Twain’s life.

Twain was an American hero. He was loved, admired, applauded. Oxford gave him an honorary degree. You can read his books, but they tell you nothing about his suffering. Four of his six siblings died before reaching 20. His son died at 19 months. His oldest daughter, Susy, died at 22, another daughter, Jean, drowned at 29. His wife Olivia, devastated for years by Susy’s death, passed at 58.

You can look all that up. But you don’t need research. Right now in America we need to be reminded that a sweet spot exists between heroism and pain, called dignity. Dignity is a function of moral strength—courage, if you like. Twain is remembered as a writer and a “humorist.” But he showed the America of his time the dignity of moving forward in spite of grievous personal loss. The novelist Oscar Hijuelos reveals Twain without the mask of the humorist. Hijuelos worked for 12 years on his magical Twain book, Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise.

Hijuelos isn’t a household name and never will be one, although he wrote nine novels and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990. He worked on Paradise until the day before he died of a massive heart attack in 2013. He was 62.

Today the pandemic is ravaging western and southern states. Some people in those places are chucking their masks, if they ever owned them, pushing into each other in bars and restaurants. Maybe they think they’re lucky. They should read Hijuelos’ books. They won’t, but they should.

Paradise invokes two heroes, Twain and British explorer Henry Stanley. Twain, in his novels, stories, and countless public talks, helped America understand its rich and tragic history. Stanley spent years blazing trails in Africa.

Clemens and Stanley were two of the most famous men in the world. Hijuelos conjures up a chance meeting on a Mississippi steamboat in 1859 that binds them together for life.

Stanley won fame for finding the missionary David Livingstone in present-day Tanzania in 1871. He grew up an orphan in Wales. While still young he shipped out to New Orleans. He served a short stint in the Confederate Army, was captured, and ended up in the Union Army. He then bounced around as a reporter and later was sent to Africa by Belgian King Leopold, then searched for the headwaters of the Nile. His story is controversial. But he returned to Britain a giant, called Bula Matari, “Breaker of Rocks.” The name is inscribed on his headstone.

Clemens’ novels, stories, and down-to-earth humor made him rich for a while. Bad investments bankrupted him. He crawled back by writing and traveling endlessly to give talks.

Hijuelos reports all that, but spins a tale of decades-long friendship between them that spanned continents and political beliefs. After hitting it off on the steamboat, Twain, then still Clemens, and Stanley traveled to Cuba. The Civil War separated them, they didn’t meet again for years. Stanley was a devout Anglican, Twain a dedicated agnostic. He hated the cruel march of European colonialism in Africa, which killed thousands. Stanley showed the colonizers the way, although historians differ over whether he was implicated in the abuses. He became wealthy and was knighted by the Queen. Twain battled financial ruin for years.

In Paradise, Stanley never fully recovered from the malaria he contracted in Africa. Eventually he suffered a stroke that incapacitated him. His wife, the painter Dorothy Tennant, kept Twain advised of his friend’s condition. Their friendship, in Hijuelos’ telling is elegiac—a bond of two Victorian gentlemen of letters who placed their pain and their political differences aside to remain gentlemen. Twain visited Stanley and Dorothy when he was in London, drank whiskey with Stanley, posed for Dorothy in her studio, reported on his globe-trotting adventures, and passed along his irreverent opinions on nearly everything. Their decades-long friendship represented mutual admiration, respect, love. Over the years, Dorothy develop a complicated, stirring affection for her husband’s best friend.

wp-15925055882632767795506662360043.jpgIn Hijuelos’ story, Stanley dies a drawn-out, agonizing death. He knows it’s coming, his wife knows, Twain knows. He lapses, then recovers, then grows weak, then weaker. Twain is in America, mourning the loss of Susy and caring for Livy, who like Stanley is slipping away. Dorothy writes Twain with the news.

Seven years later Twain returns to visit Dorothy, scarred by grief, still the erudite, old-school gentleman. Dorothy feels a mystical, unmistakable spark in his presence, the presence of a great man. Clemens looks back, telling her the story of that riverboat meeting. Finally he says, “Lest I get teary-eyed, I better go now, Dolly.”  He dies three years later.

Religious faith plays a small role in Hijuelos’ story, yet faith always is present. Twain carps about religion and the idea of an afterlife as he observes the suffering of the poor in America’s Gilded Age and Europe’s greed in exploiting its colonies. He struggled to pay bills while coping with searing pain. Yet he offered America the gifts of dignity and reverence for human life. Dignity and courage, when we find them, offer solace, peace, hope.  Hijuelos’ story, Mark Twain’s story, through all his darkness, becomes a beacon.

Two Places

June 15, 2020

Washington, D.C.

We still are groping with the insidious questions about the Floyd killing: why it occurred and what it represents: “bad apples” among Minneapolis cops or a strain of endemic racial bigotry affecting police forces. As Americans reacted to that nightmare video, local governments, paralyzed by public outrage, faced peaceful demonstrators, also looters and vandals. They sent out the police, then the Guard. Some police officers and Guardsmen knelt with the demonstrators. The anger, eloquent in some places and destructive in others, remains.

Traffic was light as I crossed the 14th Street Bridge into Washington last Tuesday and stayed light as I cruised up 14th. No one was coming into town.  I turned onto Constitution Avenue, then took a left on 11th Street. I parked at the corner of 11th and F. I put on my mask.

I hiked north along F toward 14th. The streets were nearly deserted. Construction workers were erecting plywood barriers to protect storefronts. Bank and hotel windows along F Street already were boarded up. “Black Lives Matter” and “BLM” were spray-painted on the plywood and on the building walls. Peaceful people had been here, but so were the vandals.

wp-1592065586999390583767145666100.jpgPolice cruisers and giant vans were parked at intersections, their flashers turned on. Officers had stretched yellow “Do Not Cross” tape across the south sidewalk at 14th and H, but the north side was open. More pedestrians and bike riders appeared, some wearing BLM shirts, all heading across 15th Street to Lafayette Park, and then to Black Lives Matter Plaza at the southern end of 16th Street.

The Park, which fronts the White House to the south and H Street on the north, was inaccessible, closed off by eight- or ten-foot-tall black cyclone fencing put up by the Park Service a day or so earlier (it has since been taken down). It had become an art gallery of protest. Signs conveyed anger, sadness, grief, defiance, along with some crudity and threats. They still were going up. Hundreds of men, women, and some children moved along and past the fence, some painting new messages on the street, others stringing letters as tall as me along the fence, spelling George Floyd’s name, “BLM,” countless other slogans, demands, and prayers. An elderly white man stood in the street holding a BLM sign above his head.

wp-15920656893724977071911785534495.jpgAcross the street at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a group was gathering. St. John’s, where Trump revealed himself as a coward while clutching a Bible, had become ground zero.

I walked up BLM Plaza. “Black Lives Matter” had been painted in street-wide block yellow letters, next to “Defund the Police,” a punchy sound bite that, we hope, no one will take literally.

Someone was addressing a group in front of St. John’s. It was hot, but the crowd kept growing. Camera crews were everywhere, reporters interviewed people who stopped and stared at wp-15920654795061106636908969753697.jpgthe art fence or contributed to it. I saw no police, no Guardsmen. Unlike last week, democracy was working. The site was calm. Protest was legitimate, peaceful, and powerful.

“Bad apples” can be got rid of. But the overwhelming problem, the origin, cultivation, and proliferation of racial hatred, still simmers. Scholars and politicians with theories are everywhere.

Petersburg, Va.

Petersburg is a good a place to think about racial bigotry. Petersburg ended the Civil War. I wrote about Manassas, which began the war, a couple of weeks ago.

On a bright and warm but silent Friday morning, Sandy and I walked around the earthworks of Confederate batteries at the Eastern Front site of the Petersburg National Battlefield. Petersburg wasn’t a battle. It was a ten-month-long campaign in which Grant’s 122,000-man Army of the Potomac ground down Lee’s 65,000-man Army of Northern Virginia. During the campaign some 90,000 men on both sides were killed and wounded.

wp-15920649675892686735284321266201.jpgGrant and Lee both knew that the rail hub of Petersburg, where five lines converged, was the key to Richmond. In early June 1864 Lee inflicted heavy losses on Grant’s army at Cold Harbor. Grant then attacked Petersburg but in four days failed to capture it. He began his siege, to last 292 days. In twelve bloody engagements from mid-June of ’64 to April, ’65 Grant’s superior forces exhausted the Confederates while taking terrible losses. The rebels were overwhelmed at Five Forks intersection on April 1. The following day the Yankees broke through to Petersburg. A week later, Lee surrendered, ending the war.

In his Personal Memoirs, Grant wrote generously of the Confederate soldiers’ bravery in battle and endurance of great suffering over the four years of war. He adds:

“But the South had rebelled against the National government. It was not bound by any constitutional restrictions. The whole South was a military camp. The occupation of the colored people was to furnish supplies for the army. Conscription was resorted to early, and embraced every male from the age of 18 to 45. … The slaves, the non-combatants, one-third of the whole, were required to work in the field without regard to sex, and almost without regard to age. Children from the age of eight years could and did handle the hoe … The four million of colored non-combatants were equal to more than three times their number in the North, age for age and sex for sex, in supplying food from the soil to support armies. Women did not work in the fields in the North, and children attended school.

wp-15920651326363106256741912623366.jpg“The arts of peace were carried on in the North. In the South no opposition was allowed to the government which had been set up … . No rear had to be protected. All the troops in service could be brought to the front to contest every inch of ground threatened with invasion. The press of the South, like the people who remained at home, were loyal to the Southern cause.

“As I have said, the whole South was a military camp. The colored people … were submissive, and worked in the field and took care of the families while the able-bodied white men were at the front fighting for a cause destined to defeat.”

After Lincoln’s death our racial history quickly grew uglier under President Johnson, who ignored Grant’s Appomattox pledge of amnesty for Confederate leaders and ordered indictments of Lee, Longstreet, and other generals. Grant, still commander of the Union Army, forced Johnson to back down. Meanwhile Johnson helped Southern state governments restore former officeholders.

The “Dictator” Union naval gun fired 218 shells into Petersburg

In late 1865 Grant learned from his commanders in the South of increasing white atrocities against blacks. On a tour of southern states he was showered with flattery. He was slow to learn about the motives of wealthy whites, but later regretted believing what he heard from them.

Ron Chernow, Grant’s biographer, writes that “by the end of 1865, so-called Black Codes began to forge a new caste system in the South, a segregated world where freed slaves worked as indentured servants, subject to arrest if they left jobs before their annual contracts expired. It was a cruel form of bondage, establishing the foundations of the Jim Crow system.”

Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, but Congress overrode his veto. Chernow writes that Grant directed his southern commanders to enforce the law, which abolished the Black Codes. Johnson was impeached in 1868 but escaped conviction by one vote.

Violence spread throughout the South. Hooded night riders murdered blacks and burned their homes and churches. In May 1866 Grant said, “Troops must be kept at all the principal points in the South for some time to come.” In June Congress passed the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States.

The story that follows is a hard one. An especially brutal white-against-black riot exploded in July in New Orleans, killing 34 blacks and wounding 160. General Philip Sheridan called it “an absolute massacre by the police, not excelled … by that of Fort Pillow.” In April 1864, at Fort Pillow, near Memphis, rebels slaughtered some 350 black Union soldiers.

Years of violence followed. In May 1921 Tulsa whites attacked a black neighborhood, killing up to 300. Despite federal law, and the crackdowns ordered by Grant, racial bigotry became embedded in Southern politics and culture. We know also the North was not pure.

From the vantage point of Petersburg, where one tragedy ended, another began. The Floyd incident is another in a convoluted, dark history, from Fort Pillow, then to Tulsa, Minneapolis, Louisville, Houston, New York, and countless other places. History stares us down. High time to learn from it.

Mountain Roads

June 8, 2020

We spent America’s week of bitterness driving through the high country of northwestern South Carolina. Main Street in Greenville was quiet when we passed through, folks strolled without masks and crowded into outdoor seating at restaurants. Local people demonstrated downtown calmly, while the state sent National Guardsmen to Washington “to assist local law enforcement,” the Guard said.

Meanwhile South Carolina, one of the first states to reopen, now is seeing covid cases increasing again.

Our daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons have settled in Upstate, the nickname for this region, tucked between North Carolina and Georgia. It’s hugely different from the coastal Low Country, which offers tidal marshes, Spanish moss and, in summer, stifling heat and beach tourism–for me, an alien world.

Upstate is frontier country, on the southern fringe of the Blue Ridge. Greenville is an hour from Asheville, North Carolina’s gateway to the Pisgah National Forest, which merges with the Great Smokies and crosses into Tennessee. You can see the pale blue silhouettes of the mountains from downtown.

So we escaped the tragedies racking the country for a few days. South Carolina, after all, is mainly a hard-red state; the governor, McMaster, and the two senators, Graham and Scott, are Trump groupies. The anger and grief playing out elsewhere seems muted here.

We explored the rough-edged country north of Greenville. The mountains show up quickly as the traffic falls away outside Greenville County. U.S. 25, the road to Asheville, takes you first into rugged foothills then to thick forest, sharp peaks, and cold lakes. This country isn’t the Rockies, but brings me images of the Shenandoahs and Massanuttens minus the granite carpeting.

wp-15915666893017622903784057342346.jpgI hiked a few miles on the Carrick Creek Trail, through deep Carolina forest along the narrow, thundering creek as it rims the sheer, balding face of Table Rock Mountain. The trail links to the 80-mile Foothills Trail, which runs to Oconee State Park through a series of spidery trail connections in both Carolinas to the Appalachian Trail.

The Greenville-Asheville axis has become a refuge for wilderness defenders, climate-change crusaders, and let’s face it, old folks. If you head west or north along winding backcountry roads you probably will traverse the 370,000-acre Sumter National Forest, then enter a larger and richer ocean of wilderness: the Cherokee, Pisgah, and Nantahala National Forests. The Chattahoochee NF then spreads out across northern Georgia, split by the fierce Dragon’s Spine west of Blairsville.

We skirted the area years ago, heading home from Nashville. We had stopped for a quick visit to Frozen Head State Park northwest of Knoxville, with its angry, jagged peaks, site of the infamous Barkley Marathon, the race almost no one finishes. The Barkley course passes through the site of the now shut-down Brushy Mountain State Prison, for a time the home of James Earl Ray. We stayed one night in Johnson City, then pressed on to Elizabethton and into the dense, not to say impenetrable Cherokee on U.S. 91. We drove around 15 mph for a couple of hours to Shady Valley, Tenn., a minuscule, shining gem, as close to Shangri-la as I’ve ever seen. It’s just south of Damascus, Va., another tiny, near-mythical place, but a key marker along the A-Trail. Anyway, that’s how I remember it.

wp-15915667768412149478396622293563.jpgThese places and roads stay with me. Years ago we traveled east from Nashville into Appalachia to Pikeville in Bledsoe County, Tenn. We used to visit Sandy’s aunt and uncle on their farm just outside town, in majestic country, the Sequatchie Valley along the Sequatchie River. The Valley extends north-south between nearly sheer cliffs, the Cumberland Plateau to the east and what’s called Walden Ridge to the west. Eventually they sold the farm and moved to town. We kept visiting Pikeville until they passed.

The memories become keener farther along the mountains to the southwest, still rugged and massive into Franklin County, where Sandy grew up. “Sewanee Mountain” was the summit, and 41A the road through Cowan, her hometown. Her family is long gone, scattered through the Volunteer State. The last time we visited we stopped at the cemetery. Sewanee, site of the prestigious University of the South, is just up the mountain. From there it’s an hour either to Chattanooga or Huntsville.

If you push southwest from Sewanee you’re still in rough country, and will find the Talledega National Forest in Alabama, and the state’s highest point, Mount Cheaha. It sits astride the Pinhoti Trail, which starts or finishes in northwestern Georgia, with half of its 330-mile length in each state. I ran part of Pinhoti’s pine-needle carpet two years ago.

If instead you head west, the mountains smooth into gentle hills and valleys through Huntland, Fayetteville, and Lawrenceburg. By Jackson the hills have flattened, the soil is just right for growing cotton. The country is transformed. Prairie stretches west for a thousand miles.

We tried going west two years ago, interrupted (I repeat myself) by medical things. We won’t be attempting it again. From  here in S.C. we’ll climb back up the mountains in the opposite direction to get home—for a while. We started some projects we should finish. The place needs work.

So we’ll backtrack through Charlotte, Durham, Richmond, Fredericksburg and wait for better days. Covid-wise, northern Virginia has not yet reopened. We’re still watching Mass on the internet, old folks are asked to stay home. Just as important, maybe more, the blasts from Mattis, Mullen, Powell, and other former four-stars are having an impact with the Republicans, or a few of them. I have faith they will go the way of all corruption. Meanwhile, we have three other kids to visit.

The Legacy

June 5, 2020

One day in the early 1980s, maybe ’82 or ’83, I walked up to the State House in Nashville, Tenn., to interview Governor Lamar Alexander for a free-lance magazine article. The building is an impressive perch, on a high point above the city, and a couple of blocks from St. Mary’s Church, where Sandy and I got married. The church, until 1845, occupied the site of the State House.

Alexander was a Republican star, inaugurated for his first term in January 1979 on a weekend evening to replace the corrupt Democrat Ray Blanton, who had been pardoning prison inmate friends of his political supporters. Alexander became known for walking the length of the state wearing his trademark plaid flannel shirt.

Anyway, the topic was Alexander’s efforts to transform the Tennessee economy by attracting new business, especially auto manufacturing, and to reform state schools, historically among the worst in the nation. He had just scored a huge win in persuading Nissan to build a big plant in Smyrna, just south of Nashville.

In our meeting he was dynamic, full of vision and enthusiasm as he mapped out his plans for improving performance standards for schools and raising teacher pay. He won rave reviews but also stiff resistance from the Legislature. He left office in 1986 still a political giant in the state. He went on to a huge career, serving as president of the University of Tennessee, then Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. He tried running for president in 1996 and 2000 but dropped out early. In 2006 he was elected to the Senate, where he chaired the Senate Republican Committee for five years. In 2015 took over as chair of the Health, Education, Pensions, and Labor Committee.

As a Senator he gained a reputation for cordial, courtly, serious bipartisanship. He announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection to a fourth term in 2020. Then, with the Trump presidency, he faded into the moral fog of the Republican Senate.

Alexander stayed silent during the impeachment hearings, prompting some talking heads to guess he might join two or three other Republicans in voting against Trump. Eventually that amounted to one, Romney. Afterward Alexander, like Collins of Maine and a couple of others offered that Trump’s phone call to Ukraine president Zelensky, in which he twisted the Ukrainian’s arm to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, was “inappropriate,” but not impeachment material. Last week, he released a stock statement condemning looting and burning in Nashville and called for “redoubling our efforts” to end racial discrimination. He then moved on to a message of sympathy for the death of a long-ago Tennessee football coach.

Lamar Alexander will pass from the Senate, like 99 percent of his current Republican colleagues, as a devout party apparachnik, remembered, like the rest, for brushing away any sense of integrity in order to pay homage to party over country and Constitution. All but Romney have been mute in the face of the pustule of scandal that has swollen around them for three years at the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and now infects them with the nauseating aroma of complicity.

Setting aside the ghastly wound already inflicted on America by the coronavirus, abetted by presidential indifference, with deaths still soaring and unemployment at double-digit levels,  the political and moral crisis of today becomes the Republican legacy. While the 53 senators who compose the majority may boast, in their earlier lives, of governorships, achievements in state legislatures, law degrees, and business successes, their careers already are stained with three years of cowardice in the face of Trump. Then too, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, who both stepped up occasionally to object mildly to this or that Trump act, chose to retreat to retirement rather than face their presumably outraged constituents.

Corker’s abdication opened the door to another Trump acolyte, Marsha Blackburn, who during her campaign threatened Tennessee voters with invasion by Hispanic immigrants and Middle Eastern terrorists if they voted for her Democratic opponent.

I wrote a while back, pre-pandemic, that Republican senators live in fear of a Trump tweet. That fear has metastasized to an abject, boots-shaking paranoia that some of their voters might be incensed by any show of courage in dealing with Trump. Those are the voters who somehow still believe that the moral desert of a failed real estate salesman’s character that drives his avalanches of lies; his treason in fawning over America’s enemies; his cowardice when called to serve in the military; and his perverse behavior with women—does not disqualify him from occupying the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Alexander’s current successor as governor, Bill Lee, last July signed a proclamation for a day honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, a native Tennessean, Confederate general, and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Facing criticism, he said he signed it because he was required to by law. In March the state House passed a law ending the tradition, and Lee has asked the Senate to do so as well. Progress comes in small measures, in the Volunteer State, and everywhere.