Politics & Policy

Their Bad War, &c.

There came a time when liberal Democrats decided Afghanistan was the Good War and Iraq was the Bad War. This was about the time the Afghan effort appeared successful and the Iraq effort not. So the big word became “distraction”: The Afghan War was necessary — at least defensible — but the Iraq War was a mere “distraction.”

Barack Obama, obviously, sings from this book. It’s not just that he appears not to have an original thought in his head — he appears not to have a thought outside liberal-Democratic orthodoxy. So, while visiting Afghanistan, he said, “I think one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made strategically after 9/11 was to fail to finish the job here, focus our attention here. We got distracted by Iraq.”

Yes, and if we had let the threat of Saddam gather and he had created further, worse havoc in the Middle East — would anyone be complaining more obnoxiously than Barack Obama?

I’ve said it a hundred times before: No one likes a preemptor. Preemption is an almost completely thankless job — you have to invade Poland before the world can act against you. At least, a great many people see it that way. And about nothing are the Democrats more irresponsible than about Iraq.

But they are set to take power . . .

By the way, a great many of the people — on both left and right — who oppose the Iraq War, opposed the Afghan War, too (whether they’ll tell you today or not).

‐A reader writes,


I know you’re always interested in chronicling the wonders of our bumper-sticker culture. so here you go: I was tooling about Bloomingdale, Ill., when I stumbled across the following very slight modification of Scripture: “Faith . . . Hope . . . Obama.”

Yes, and the greatest of these is Obama, right?

Oh, yes.

‐Was quite interested to see this headline from the Associated Press, on July 17: “US changes tact [I guess they mean “tack”] on Iran, giving diplomacy a chance.” Excuse me, but what else have we been doing these past many years?

‐I trust you have your current issue of National Review. It contains many valuable articles (if I may say). The cover story, by Kevin Williamson, is about adoption. There is also a John J. Miller picture of Governor Pawlenty. Lowry & Ponnuru give advice to McCain. Etc.

My own contribution is a bit peculiar (no comments from the peanut gallery, please). It concerns “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the song written in 1900 and sometimes known as the “black national anthem.” It made the news earlier this month, one of the most unexpected turns of the season.

Do you remember what happened? The mayor of Denver gives a State of the City address. And this year, they invited a local woman named Rene Marie to sing the national anthem. But a funny thing happened on the way to the microphone (or whatever it was): She sang “Lift Ev’ry Voice.” Or rather, she sang the words of “Lift Ev’ry Voice” to the tune of the national anthem. She presented her own concoction.

And a little bit of hell broke loose.

The mayor — John Hickenlooper — gave a statement, to wit,

We all respect artistic license and support freedom of expression [yeah, yeah]. But in a tradition-laden civic ceremony . . . making a personal substitution for the national anthem was not an option [hear, hear]. We asked for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and that’s what we expected. . . .

We will do whatever it takes to ensure that a situation like this never occurs again, even if I have to sing the national anthem myself.

I don’t know what the city can do to prevent a future Rene Marie-style stunt. But those last words from the mayor form one of the most charming remarks I’ve heard from a politician all year.

By the way, I interrupt this item to comment that “Hickenlooper” was the natural name of Olga Samaroff, the famed pianist and pedagogue who married Leopold Stokowski. Madame Samaroff was born Lucy Hickenlooper in Texas. She reinvented herself — which made her an ideal mate for ol’ Stoki (who, however, took off for other mistresses and wives).

As for Ms. Rene Marie, she was utterly unbowed and defiant. She talked about her standing as an “artist” and her need to “express” herself. Incidentally, have you noticed that more and more people — especially more and more musicians — are calling themselves “artists”? That reminds me that we should really reserve the term for Leonardo, Degas — even Judy Chicago.

Rene Marie — who is black, we must note — is terribly full of herself. But she is an interesting and thoughtful woman (as I observed in my NR piece). If you’d like to hear her musings, visit her website. Obviously, she is torn by age-old questions of race and identity. She told a reporter she does not “feel like an American.” And she decided, at some point, never again to sing our national anthem.

Anthem-gate intruded in the presidential campaign, forcing Senator Obama to say, “‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ is a beautiful song, but we have one national anthem.”

It certainly is a beautiful song — and noble, and stirring, and divine. It was written, these 108 years ago, by two brothers: James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson. The former wrote the words, the latter the music. They did so for a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in their hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. For the words of “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” consult the Wikipedia entry.

As I said in my NR piece, James Weldon Johnson was one of the most remarkable men in American history — and certainly one of the most versatile. He did pretty much everything in his 67 years (1871 to 1938). He was a poet, a novelist, an anthologist, a politician, a civic leader, a professor, a diplomat . . . He took part in the Harlem Renaissance; he himself was a fair definition of “Renaissance man.”

Let me cite just a couple of choice bits from Johnson’s bio: He was U.S. consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua, under Theodore Roosevelt and Taft. He was the first black head of the NAACP — the previous ones had been white. And he was a man of tremendous poetic sensibility.

The title of his Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is unforgettable. So too is the title of his collection of sermons, God’s Trombones. And then there is the title of a poetry collection: “The Glory of the Day Was in Her Face.”

Here is how the title poem begins:

The glory of the day was in her face,

The beauty of the night was in her eyes.

And over all her loveliness, the grace

Of Morning blushing in the early skies.

Toward the end of his life, Johnson helped Ignatz Waghalter, a Jewish refugee, found the American Negro Orchestra. Johnson wanted black Americans to have the best of Western civilization, and to contribute to it. And there is no question that he regarded himself, and all blacks, as part and parcel of America. This fact is reflected in the titles of some other books — such as Negro Americans, What Now? (1934).

Johnson was as American as anyone, and more than most.

As for his brother, J. Rosamond, he was less dazzling, maybe — but he was still a remarkable figure. In addition to composing, he sang — appearing in the original Porgy and Bess. And he made arrangements of spirituals, some of which were championed by Marian Anderson.

I should note, too, that these Johnson brothers were no relation to Hall Johnson, one of the greatest of all spiritual arrangers.

No matter what else they did, it is for “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” that the brothers will forever be known. In my piece, I quote James Weldon on it, in 1935: “The lines of this song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.” The song is sung by choirs and individuals throughout America (but especially in the South, I would wager). Sometimes it is jazzed up. It is best when it is stately, soulful, and majestic.

As I say in my piece, the finest recording of the song, in my judgment, comes from Leontyne Price. It is on her 1982 album God Bless America (still in print). “Lift Ev’ry Voice” follows “The Star-Spangled Banner” — an order Miss Price surely intended, for she is a fierce, One America patriot.

(By the way, the only thing that spoils this album is cheesy, soupy arrangements — but even those grow on you after a while, possibly.)

You often hear that white Americans know little about Black America — and this is undoubtedly true. The country is in important ways segregated. How often do whites listen to black talk radio? Black Americans know about the majority culture, as they cannot help doing. But white Americans can live their whole life without knowing much about this minority culture.

I believe it was John Podhoretz who once said that all conservatives are bilingual — we have to be. (We speak liberal and conservative.) But liberals tend to be monolingual — they don’t need to speak our language, or to know much about us at all.

Well, thanks to the candidacy of Senator Obama, white Americans are learning a thing or two about Black America. And this is slightly surprising. Why? Because Obama’s roots in Black America are shallow, or so you might claim: His father was Kenyan, and his mother is white. But some learning is taking place — and not all of it is pleasant.

Think of the teachings of Jeremiah Wright. It no doubt shocked a lot of white Americans to hear that the U.S. government invented AIDS for the purpose of decimating black people. I doubt black Americans batted an eye. Same with the allegation that the government spread drugs throughout black communities, so as to have a chance to lock black youth up.

But there is so much that is beautiful to learn — such as “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Black history is not just for February, and black culture is a lot more than hideous rap and baggy low pants. (Those things, whites know.)

How many remember Marian Anderson? How many either black or white? She used to be called “The Lady from Philadelphia.” I wonder how many Philadelphians under 50 (70?) know who she was. Hell, I talk to young conservative audiences, and they don’t have any idea who Bill Buckley was.

This isn’t necessarily bad. In any case, it is normal — time marches on, blah, blah, blah. But we have to husband our patrimony (as WFB might say).

In my NR piece, I told a little anecdote. Years ago, when I was a teenager, I was a summer-camp counselor in Illinois. This was Camp Wa-ta-ga-mie, a.k.a. Camp Want My Mommy. Every day, we had a flag-raising, and this ceremony included a patriotic song: the national anthem, “God Bless America,” “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” what have you. Well, when it was my turn to lead the ceremony, I introduced the kids to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

There were obvious social reasons for doing so. But, these aside, it is such a great song, everyone should know it. Since writing about this Rene Marie business, I haven’t been able to get the song out of my head. And I’m glad.

Anyway . . . peruse your NR, in good health.

‐Let’s have a little language: Englishman Ian Poulter, who finished second in the British Open over the weekend, said, “I can only do what I can do. And I done my best.” I like it a lot.

‐And a little music? For a review of an organ recital by Jane Watts, go here. For a review of a piano recital by Menahem Pressler, go here. And for a review of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert, with Lang Lang, piano soloist, go here.

These pieces were published in the New York Sun.

‐Speaking of music, let me quote from a press release I received by e-mail. I was moving quickly to delete it — as is my custom — but something caught my eye. I read,

Wesley Chinn, General Manager and Artistic Director of the new company, says of its inaugural production, “I can’t actually pretend to quote myself in a release I’m writing myself just to satisfy the conventions of press-release style.”

That prompted me, for now, not to block this sender from my inbox . . .


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