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Updated on July 6, 2017


When I was younger, a lot of us would get together in twos, threes, fours, or whatever to discuss great men. Well, we might have talked about great women, too, but it did not seem natural or relevant. Being young, we talked a great deal, even if we hardly knew what we were saying. It was the argument that mattered. Somebody had to be greater than somebody else. It might have been one against one, two against one, or everybody against everybody. Some of us took these matters a bit too seriously and voices would rise in pitch regardless if alcohol were involved or not. The main thrust of everything was that there were these greats, almost all of whom were long since dead and buried, and they now shone like torches meant to guide us on life's journey. As we got older, we lost touch with one another, but the concept never quite lost its attraction. In fact, many writers and filmmakers are still cashing in on this selfsame sentimentality. Usually, back in the day, we felt a sense of abstract awe and respect for those whom we revered, but I doubt if any of us ever contemplated that the elusive quality of greatness, and now let us apply it to women, too, included the despised as well. It all depended. Since the world has become global and shrunk, as it were, in size, we realize more than ever that we are not having impolite, academic conversations anymore, but, in certain circumstances, often without intent, stirring up trouble.

It is a tangled mess. Are there any greats anymore? Is there any greatness? All the same, whatever the answer, there are lives. As before, some transcend the ordinary levels of existence within which we mostly struggle. One can never underestimate human ingenuity, only condemn cultures that discourage its breeding. That is why we keep legislating on behalf of the underprivileged, cognizant how a flawed system can eliminate the kind of men and women we want to again begin to argue about, who achieve greatness, not just a flash in the pan. It requires only a small amount of effort to discover that the greats of yesteryear often as not came from the most unpromising backwater places imaginable. I mean in every country, including ours. It makes for terrific trivia, but there is more to it than that.

First in War


General Washington

How did I get into the Revolutionary War? It might have been a passing interest in the Civil War of recent vintage, along with suggestions from my computer, as though it were actually a thinking, sentient being. It was also this: the fact that King George III actually had a strategy to which he held throughout the war. It was, in short, to cut off New England by means of control of the Hudson River. A recent publication (Revolution on the Hudson by George C. Daughan) explains the details, many of which give the impression that not only was King George a bit "off", but that Great Britain lost opportunity after opportunity to take full advantage of an opposing army that was poorly clothed, armed, supplied, paid and trained -- at least at the outset. The war dragged on so long that one can only assume the Continental Army eventually lost whatever fears or negative feelings it had and, in at least a single encounter, mercifully spared the lives of British soldiers in what might otherwise have been a slaughter.

Naturally, there is only so much one can say in two paragraphs. But to make them count here is the main thrust. The author contends that the war, like all wars, was unnecessary, had King George only done the right thing, so to speak. In my opinion, a war was absolutely required. That the new nation won was indeed a small miracle that needs looking into. Cornwallis's mistake in Yorktown, forcing him to surrender, stunning all England, seems to have begun an irreversible slide into defeat. I recommend the book to just about anyone interested, though it is a bit of a letdown for those like me, largely ignorant of the entirety of the war. I kept hoping for an attack on New York City, which the British possessed the whole time. Two hundred years later, in 1976, from a sublet in Manhattan, I was able to watch many historic ships move up and down the Hudson. I can only imagine how breathtaking it must have been to have seen such a magnificent fleet enter New York Harbor for both Patriots and Loyalists alike.

First in Peace

Pope John XXIII
Pope John XXIII | Source

AKA The Good Pope

He is sometimes referred to as such, the Good Pope. His election might have seemed underwhelming to the unindoctrinated, which includes me. It was in October of 1958 that Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli assumed the throne of St. Peter. It was nearly five in the afternoon and victory entailed almost forty votes from Cardinals. I suppose I am thinking of those highly commercialized Professor of Symbology flicks to provide the undercurrents of drama. But the biography (by Thomas Cahill) somehow conjures the rudiments of an inner movie, sight unseen. First and foremost is the man himself, whose personality went a long way toward fostering a more rational, peaceful mood in an era defined mainly by prolonged hostility. It was, after all, the Cold War that infused just about every political action whether in word or deed. The second was the use of an unofficial position or station with which to prevent an undesirable escalation and keep both Communists and anti-Communists from destruction. After all, neither side could tolerate the other.

This is not to say that Communism was not anathema to the papacy because it was. Nevertheless, the poison (our position, and theirs, too, years later) thrived at the time in Italian politics, too. It was a trendy. Statistics estimate that about a quarter of Italian voters opted for the Communist Party of Italy. One hastens to add that this was by no means a vote of confidence for the U.S.S.R. Italian politics probably did not even include a passing glance toward Austria just over the border. However, in 1961, after the Berlin Wall went up, Premier Khrushchev, atheist, and dedicated Communist, praised Pope John for being a man of peace. This is much nicer than what the Russian leader might have had to say on behalf of the Kennedys, whom he possibly condemned for a hardline stance that probably matched his own. It interests me how an unwinnable war is once again being buffeted about in the air just as it was then since threats in both instances go beyond the pale. It is also interesting that Pope John, President Kennedy, and Premier Khrushchev were only briefly in power inside a mutual time zone overlapping the late 50s and early 60s.


President Carter's Reminiscences

There are many divisions among people. One of them, likely a remote subdivision of sorts, has to do with those who read books and those who do not. Then, of course, there is an even further division having to do with the books themselves. There are too many to choose from so that reading becomes, by its very nature, a highly personal matter. President Carter's A Full Life, copyright 2015, is a great piece of nostalgia for those who lived through an action-packed if controversial period during which the presidency, as it were, reconstructed itself after Watergate, all but forgotten now. Recently, another biography (owing to the fact that one preceded it) came out naming James Buchanan "the worst president ever". Very often, conversationally, President Carter somehow claimed this dubious accolade based primarily on two items: inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis. These were just unlucky events that might have besieged any chief executive's administration. But "Reflections at Ninety" is nonetheless a good read -- especially since by now so much has passed as we, day by day, sink deeper and deeper into our brave new era.

A Full Life is worth the while. Near the end, President Carter summarizes parts of his post-presidential, writing career. He may have hit a rock with the title, Peace, Not Apartheid, but the question remains, can the Middle East solve its problems or must the world, in self-defense, impose an external solution? As to his poetry, I never read it, but I remember when it came out. I was trying to write, too. I am a contributor to the Carter Center, which helps people far away who lack the means to help themselves. President Carter's post-presidency has also been praised as perhaps the most successful. It is, to say the least, multi-faceted. The monitoring of foreign elections, of course, could only have met with limited success. At least someone of influence worked on behalf of a more universal Democracy. I recall a few remarks jotted down in Reflections at Ninety about how today's candidates are allowed to mount billion dollar campaigns while once they were prohibited from doing so. This last election is an acid test of sorts to find out if money will win out as the chief factor in a model democracy meant to represent the masses in addition to individuals of whatever stamp.

The Greatest of Them All.

Who was Greater?

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You, Too, Can Be Great.


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