Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sometimes Something Somehow Reminds Us of All That Is Right About America

The Ford Mustang turns 50 years old this year, marking a half century of symbolizing what is great about America.

What makes the Mustang such an important product?


Ford Motor Company's compact Falcon had sold well in the beginning, but its no frills boxy style soon bored customers.  Instead of engineering a new car from the ground up Ford took the chassis of the Falcon, put a V 8 engine on it, and gave it a sleek convertible body.  The famous line requoted by every news outlet this week has been how they "turned a librarian into a sexpot."

Ford figured out a lesson often forgotten.  Making smaller cars fun creates excitement about the product.  Toyota has produced generations of cars that seem to mostly update the old Ford Falcon idea of a smaller four door boxy car.  Ford asked "why be stodgy?"

The company eventually did drift away from the idea that the car ought to be fun, but also practical and affordable.  Back seat space shrank and the cost went up. Pontiac's G models probably evoked the spirit of the original Mustang as well as any car in the last ten years.


It built on a growing American desire to take their lives on the open road.  Many still took trains and buses for long distance travel in the 1960s.  Don't believe me?  Watch North By Northwest and wonder why the main character did not just escape by car into the anonymous countryside.  Although no self-respecting television show or movie then or now depicts long range driving on an interstate, the new superhighways pulled Americans onto the open road in greater numbers than ever.


Simplicity marked the Mustang.  The previous decade featured tail fins, different light configurations, and any number of doo dads designed to increase a car's appeal.  Mustang designers did not invent the more simple design, but they implemented it in a classic way.  The sleek lines contrast with the previous decade's most timeless designs and stand up well to those from later decades.

Like Led Zeppelin, who started just a few years later, the original Mustang's style never has looked dated.


Ford's unveiling of the Mustang prefaced modern roll outs of Apple products and other technology.  They crammed ads into the premium time slot on all three networks.  2,600 newspapers carried its image in their advertisements.  Both women and men could experience the rejuvenating power of the right car, according to the marketing.  Perfect timing for a generation emphasizing gender equality.

Form following function; style following substance.  The Ford Mustang was one of the great American products.  Happy 50th!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch . . .

In the past week, the Bundy ranch incident has quietly split the American conservative movement.  Was the arrival of armed Americans in defense of the Bundy ranch and its cattle a fundamentally American reaction to government overreach?  Or was it the wrong action at the wrong place at the wrong time?

The Bundys have very little legal footing.  They have grazed their cattle on public land since the 1870s.  Properly speaking it is federal land, although ranchers since before the Civil War have chafed at the overwhelming amount of land owned by the government.  Since the 1980s, ranchers grazing on federal land have agreed to pay grazing fees intended to maintain the land.  The Bundys contend that the fees have started funding policies that undermine their ability to compete and decided to stop paying.  Somewhere along the line a turtle got involved.

Government officials, after 21 years of litigation, sent a small army complete with automatic weapons to rustle the Bundy family's cattle.  In opposition, a small army of fellow ranchers and others brought weapons and horses, surrounded the federal agents who then relented.

Opponents within the conservative movement see the ranch militia as a different kind of Occupy movement.  They fear that it will put a radical face on conservatism that could make it less appealing.  Also, they point out that the federal government has the property rights in this case.  So they see the arrival of armed citizens as a hysterical overreaction, despite conceding that the federal agents themselves did the same.

A problem of understanding comes from regarding this as a single incident.  If anyone looked simply at the Boston Tea Party, they would wonder why Americans so irrationally opposed a small tax on tea.  Only looking back over the course of the preceding years would reveal the logic of the colonists' rage.

Same here.  Americans just do not decide to go down the road to put themselves in the way of armed federal agents.  Not even in Nevada do Americans in large numbers go out spoiling for a gunfight.

The Bundys are likely in the wrong.  But dismissing the anger that led to the reaction is a huge mistake.  Also, the men and women who showed up in Nevada included property owners, veterans, former elected officials.  Not the floatsam and jetsom of society, but its foundation.

Why?  Why so much anger?  Decades of a government that refuses to leave the people in peace have done this.  Farmers in California with fields dried up, irrigation cut off due to a salamander.  Power plants in West Virginia about to shut down because of the EPA.  Farmers facing fines because the government says they have too much dirt.  Federal agents spend $1 million, mobilize a SWAT team, and trump up drug accusations to stop a farm from selling raw milk.

The anger is real.  Agree or disagree with the reaction, but there is logic and there are years of reasons why this happened.   You can't build a country's foundation on rebellion against tyranny and not expect resistance to the federal government pushing the people too hard.

Lest anyone forget, this was a peaceful protest.  No one fired a shot.

Monday, April 14, 2014


Sacredness transcends boundaries of religion and faith.  National shrines can bring about the same shared sense of spiritual reverence and sacrifice. Arlington National Cemetery is one such place.

Last Friday, I attended a funeral service for a man who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Vietnam, then went on to become a soft spoken leader among foreign correspondents.

Solemn dignity pervades the grounds, despite its encasement in one of the world's most powerful metropolitan areas.  We drove from the understated modern Administration Building in a line to the gravesite.  There the chaplain briefly delivered a warm remembrance bracketed by appropriate New and Old testament readings. Soldiers held a flag over the grave, folded it, and presented it to his wife. The honor guard, standing about 50 yards away, fired three times, and then a Marine delivered a perfect rendition of Taps.

As they left, the soldiers marched away in perfect step, their boots softly clacking on the pavement in unison.

Everything in this sacred ritual reinforced that the veteran now joined an eternal brotherhood of Americans who served and sacrificed.

Before the service, I took about an hour to walk the grounds.  Washington rarely has Goldilocks days for walking; this was one.

In some areas, officers of high rank in all services got clustered together.  Generals and admirals on one hillside had their own bluff.  In other parts, however, one could see an admiral's final resting place positioned beside a non commissioned officer.

The dignity of the place even touched the large groups of middle school children touring the grounds in easily identifiable school tour shirts.  All of them looked ready to burst with childlike energy and enthusiasm, but the place and its air of respect kept them as quiet as possible.

What struck me the most about Arlington was perfection.  Washington DC does not always pay strict attention to aesthetics and detail.  For example, temporary fences and road barriers ring the White House, interrupting the sublime beauty of the place.  Many areas in the capital have little touches of shoddiness.  Not the Arlington National Cemetery.  Almost everything reflects and effort to honor the fallen in the most immaculate way possible.

Except . . .

the centerpiece of the grounds.

Arlington National Cemetery surrounds the former house and grounds of Robert E. Lee.  Lee spent a lifetime literally and figuratively paying for the misdeeds and shenanigans of generations of Virginia's least favorite black sheep family.  His father, "Light Horse" Harry Lee, served courageously in the Revolution.  He also embraced a number of get rich quick schemes, blasted the popular Thomas Jefferson in one of his books, and had to flee to the Caribbean to escape creditors.

Robert E. Lee led a spartan and disciplined life as he sought to pay family debts and establish his own independent reputation.  He impressed many while serving in the Mexican War, but grew frustrated trying to raise a family on an army salary.  Eventually his thrift and fortitude enabled him to buy the mansion which still sits atop the hill in the center of Arlington.

He could only enjoy it a few short years before the onset of the Civil War.  His front porch offers a commanding view of the national capital and the grounds surrounding his home would likely have been productive.  The Greek Revival portico gives the illusion of grandiosity to a house with an otherwise unassuming size.

Lee looked forward to spending his middle age watching over his home, enjoying the company of his family and his cat Tom.  War intervened.  Lee turned down the offer of field command of all Union forces to serve in the military of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Despite mixed feelings about secession and opposition to slavery, Lee enlisted to fight what he saw as the federal invasion of his state.

Federal forces soon occupied the house; the only Lee remaining home was Tom.  Government officials deemed that their enemy's home deserved to lie at the center of the human toll tallied by the cause Lee served. Indeed the graves of fallen soldiers and officers come within 10 yards of the house itself.

The house today, officially known as the Robert E. Lee Memorial, contrasts sharply with the rest of the grounds.  It has the appearance of genteel poverty compared to the meticulously maintained surroundings.  Lee would be surprised to see his home with peeling paint and ramshackle wooden stairs and walkways surrounding his front door.  The gardens remain beautiful, but maintenance of the house itself appears to be an afterthought.

Lee still touches a nerve in American history while evading understanding.  He fought to defend secession, yet opposed it.  His country vowed to continue slavery, yet he criticized the institution.  Other leading Virginia military luminaries, like "Stonewall" Jackson and Jubal Early, shared Lee's concerns, yet fought anyway.  Historians and their students still have difficulty sifting through the complexity of it. Perhaps that is why Lee's home and memorial have fallen into such rough shape.

Yet even this forms part of the story of America that Arlington tells, a story still unfolding.