Politics for the People December Column on IVN

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REVIEW: Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America” Gives Americans a Much Needed History Lesson

Here’s a passage that brings historians’ public value to life: “The only way to come to understanding is by knowing the history that has shaped us,” writes Jon Meacham in his evocative, The Soul of America (p. 259).
What Meacham asserts is profound. What appears to be new in America’s politics is often anything but. A more likely description, Meacham contends, is that it’s the newest episode of ‘America’s eternal struggle.’
“I’ve wondered why the next generation can’t profit from the generation before,” Meacham quotes a flummoxed Harry Truman. “But they it never does until people get knocked in the head by experience.” (p. 259)
So true: Live it and know it. But let’s wish it were otherwise. If Americans could actually learn from history and practice accordingly—especially now, living as we are, in the Age of Trump—we’d be so much better off as a nation.But they don’t. And that’s what makes this book so important: Meacham tells many Americans ‘what they never knew.’

If history were truly our guide, then each and every time we scream—“Trump! There he goes again! –we’d appreciate what may be the most poignant passage of Meacham’s book: “And yet and yet—there is always an ‘and yet’ in American history.” (p. 103, bolding added)

America’s script, Meacham argues, is a constant yin and yang—of taking two steps forward (sometimes one) and one step back (sometimes two). He describes it as “the war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest” (p. 7).

Each American president engages in that very same struggle. For example, LBJ exerted moral leadership when he signed The Civil Rights Act—knowing full well that he was likely signing over the South to the Republican Party. Richard Nixon showed a very different temperament—and paid a steep price—when he conspired in Watergate.

Then there was Andrew Jackson, the president who took a Hobbesian view of the presidency (that is, every single day is a war). Jackson, whom Meacham describes as “the most contradictory of men,” ”spoke passionately of the needs of the humble members of society…and made the case for a more democratic understanding of power.” But he (also) “massacred Native Americans in combat, executed enemy soldiers, and imposed martial law” (p. 29), while constantly blaming others and expressing self-pity with regularity.

I’ve come to see Woodrow Wilson—once my presidential hero—in that contradictory way, too. Wilson led America during the era of suffrage triumph and argued vociferously for what eventually became the United Nations. But he also squelched free speech through The Sedition Act (1918) and was adamant about keeping African Americans out of government (they don’t have ‘the intelligence,’ he surmised).

Thank goodness we had activists then (as we have today) that got into Wilson’s face and fought him every step of the way. Alice Paul (my new hero) is one example.

But neither Jackson nor Wilson—add Nixon to that list, too—was a one-off. “If we expect trumpets to sound unwavering notes,” Meacham observes, “we will be disappointed. The past tells us that politics is an uneven symphony” (p. 103).

Consider this: for all the great things FDR did for America, keep in mind that he interred Japanese-, German-, and Italian-Americans during WWII. And he wouldn’t support anti-lynching legislation—despite Eleanor’s constant urging—concerned that he’d lose Congressional votes for his New Deal.

Of course, many of us would trade Wilson or FDR for Donald Trump in a heartbeat. Trump—an extreme version of the losing side of what Jon Meacham calls, “the battle for our better angels”—is the reason he wrote this book: “I am writing now,” Meacham scribes, “not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president so rarely does,” p. 13).

But staying true to the theme of this important book, Meacham doesn’t see Trump as unique. In many ways, he’s a 21st Century version of that damnable 20th Century figure, Senator Joe McCarthy.

It’s a valid comparison, too. “Our fate (as a society) is contingent upon which element—hope or fear—emerges triumphant,” Meacham writes (p. 7). Lincoln and Obama exuded hope. McCarthy and Trump peddled fear. That’s why—to better understand Trump—it’s advisable to learn more about McCarthy.

“He (McCarthy) exploited the privileges of power and prominence without regard to its responsibilities,” Meacham writes. “A freelance performer who grasped what many ordinary Americans feared,” McCarthy knew that “the country feared Communism…and he fed those fears…. A master of false charges, of conspiracy-tinged rhetoric, McCarthy could distract the public, play the press, and change the subject—all while keeping himself at center stage.” (p. 185)

Sound familiar? Well, there’s more. Even after McCarthy was disgraced publicly, polls showed that 34% of Americans still supported him (p. 201). And McCarthy’s primary advisor—Roy Cohn—later advised a young, New York real estate developer … named Donald Trump (p. 206).

What does Meacham’s work mean for independents? For an answer, I recommend reading the book’s conclusion, “The First Duty of an American Citizen” (p. 255-272). In it, he offers a recipe for response—and two of five ingredients speak directly to what it means to be Independent.

Respect facts and deploy reason: Being able to uncover facts, weigh facts, and come to a reasonable conclusion requires cognitive skills and stick-to-itiveness. It also requires the capacity to disassociate claims from claimants, especially claimants who masquerade as Pied Pipers. To do otherwise, Meacham writes, “is to preemptively surrender the capacity of the mind” (p. 268). The take-away message: think independently.

Resist tribalism: “Wisdom generally comes from a free exchange of ideas, and there can be no free exchange of ideas if everybody on your side already agrees with one another,” Meacham observes (p. 268). Put another way, ‘following the party line’ has costs—not only in terms of constraining the idea pool, but by infecting the public domain with (what I call) the politics of affiliation. To wit: you must go along to get along, especially if you want to get ahead in the party. The take-away message: act independently.

The bottom line is that Jon Meacham’s book is an important read—especially today. Yes, today is probably another chapter in what Meacham calls our ‘eternal struggle,’ but it’s an especially ornery one. To address it effectively, we must learn from the past. But that’s no small order in a society where a lot of folks don’t read much or at all; don’t engage in multifaceted political dialogue much or at all; and get a good share of their news (if not all of it) from friends, social media, and 24-hour ‘news’ networks.

Sadly, there isn’t a lot of depth, understanding, and perceptivity across America today. That makes it easy for the public to be duped, and duping opened the door for Donald Trump.

But duping doesn’t serve democracy—not the kind the Founding Fathers had in mind; not the kind you embrace; and not the kind America needs to be that “Shining City on the Hill” Reagan referenced during his valedictory (1989).

It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that the character of our nation rests solely—even primarily—on the back of the person in The White House. Meacham, among others (Ralph Waldo Emerson, too), believes that it rests with the character of the people (p. 40).

Character. Leading for the public good.

The time is now. The stakes are high. There aren’t alternatives, Eternal Struggle or not.

Reader’s Forum – Frank Fear, Sr. and Frank Fear, Jr.

Rosenthal Demystifies America’s Health Care System and How to Fix It


Frank Fear, Jr. and Frank Fear, Sr.

When beating cancer costs $17,000 a month, what do you do?read the newspaper headline. “1,495 Americans describe the financial reality of being really sick” reads another.  It’s no wonder that health care weighs heavily on the minds of America’s voters as they head to the mid-term polls.

That’s no surprise to Frank Fear, Jr., former vice president of a community hospital and current chief information officer at a regional health system. It’s no surprise to his father, Frank Fear, Sr., a cancer survivor.

Cancer had an indelible impact on Fear Sr.—and not just because of the disease. It was also because of the cost, which totaled tens of thousands of dollars. Fear’s cost-share was manageable. He had employer-sponsored health/medical insurance.

Fear, Sr. was fortunate. Many are not. That’s a problem. It’s America’s problem.

And it’s why Elisabeth Rosenthal’s An American Sickness is such an important book. A physician and journalist, Rosenthal shares her grounded perspective understandably and persuasively. “In the past quarter century,” she begins, “the American medical system has stopped focusing on health or even science. Instead, it attends more or less single-mindedly to its own profits.” (p. 1)

Profit-making isn’t a new story and it’s not even a bad story, either—at least on its face. It becomes a problem when for-the-public-good operations get out of balance, focusing too much on money and not enough on public obligations.

To make that point, Rosenthal analyzes the system’s components—insurance, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceuticals, testing services, medical devices, billing, and general management. The centerpiece of her critique is what she labels, “Economic Rules for the Dysfunctional Medical Market” (p. 8).

If you read nothing else from this book, read that material! The reason? Rosenthal pinpoints what needs to change, things like: More treatment is always better. Treatment is preferable to a cure. There’s no such thing as a ‘fixed price.’

Rosenthal doesn’t believe our current plight is caused by bad people doing bad things. Indeed, she recounts story after story of people and organizations doing good things. They share a common characteristic, though: swimming against the tide trying (as hokey as it may sound) to do the right thing.

What’s the answer? Rosenthal’s answer is clear: “return the system to affordable, evidence-based, patient-centered care” (p. 328). For that to happen, she says, “we need to…become bolder, more active and thoughtful about what we demand in health care and the people who deliver it. We must be more engaged in finding and pressing the political levers to promote the evolution of the medical care we deserve” (p. 329).

The “we” to which Rosenthal refers is us— everyday citizens. She’s right, but there’s a hitch, and a big one, too. Rosenthal’s advice applies to other areas in need of public reform (the cost of public higher education, for example), which require citizens to roll up their sleeves, be bold and knowledgeable, and get the political system to work as it should.

In all of those situations, resolution also requires ‘smarts,’ including the ability to figure out solutions that don’t generate a new set of problems. That’s especially important when change-seekers want BIG change (as they do in health care) by replacing existing systems with entirely new ones. (For Rosenthal’s critique of the single-payer model, go here).

That’s why the option we prefer involves fixing the system that exists in America today—the market-based system. That system isn’t the problem. The problem is that it’s not patient-centered.

What would it take to make that happen? First, the system needs to operate the way that other (and perfectly sensible) customer-driven systems work. And, second, the system needs to be wellness- not illness-focused.

Fixing the first problem means making costs more transparent and for health vendors/providers to be more accountable. Rosenthal gives plenty of examples of how to do both, including providing patients with upfront figures regarding the full costs of medicines, tests, and medical interventions—even enabling patients to price-compare. Doing that just makes common sense.

The second matter involves changing the mindset that drives the system, including the way that many of us think about health, doctors, and hospitals. Rosenthal gives examples of how organizations, states, and the Federal government have incentivized the health system to keep people healthy vs. paying them to treat patients when they’re sick. Examples include the Boeing Company (p. 289) and the State of Maryland (p. 298). Another example is Medicare Advantage.

What’s it all mean? The clock is ticking, just as it is with other critical issues facing America (e.g. climate change). In the meantime, too many people are being hurt as we stumble around trying to figure out how to improve the system.

At issue is figuring out what change is workable (politically and economically) and how to make change a reality. It’s with those objectives in mind that Elisabeth Rosenthal gives America a get well card—how to figure out both.

Frank Fear, Jr. is Chief Information Officer at Covenant Healthcare (Saginaw, MI), a non-profit health care system that serves twenty counties in central and northeast Michigan. Frank served previously as vice president at Memorial Healthcare (Owosso, MI), a non-profit hospital offering inpatient and outpatient services to those living in its 100,000-person service area. He received a B.A. in psychology from Albion College and graduated from Michigan State University with an M.A. in counseling psychology.

Frank A. Fear, Sr. is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member and worked in a variety of administrative positions. He is primarily interested in how public and nonprofit institutions serve the public good. Frank currently works as Managing Editor/columnist at The Sports Column (Baltimore, MD) and writes regularly about social issues for the Los Angeles-based, LA Progressive


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An American Sickness

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Mary Bowser’s Secrets Are Ours

A Review by Frank Fear

Reading engages you. You start and stop, reflect, make notes, ponder, and visualize, interacting with the text all the while, slowly and progressively.

That experience intensifies when reading historical fiction. You imagine what it was like “back then,” speculate what you might have done, and ponder what the story means in contemporary terms.

Historical transposition was my specialty while reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The academic in me enjoyed learning about an important historical figure. But vocation, I soon found, was trumped by something more powerful.

I’ve known hundreds of ‘Mary Bowser’s’ in my life. None of them was as bold in character or as important in history, but they did important things, still.  

Some ‘Mary Bowsers’ turned their backs on privileged positions with institutional accouterments. Others fought from within—as Mary did—as ‘guerillas of the bureaucracy.’

All of them jettisoned chains that had once entrapped them. They stopped playing the role of ‘made-up self’—a self that ‘assumed the position’ and parroted ‘the party line.’ And they all experienced that’ moment: “Enough!” “No more!”

Mary’s ‘secrets’ are theirs, too—and ours—in a collective sense. That’s because social activists share much in common, irrespective of time, place, or issue.

Reaching that conclusion made it possible to align Mary’s story (see text quotes that follow) with stories I’ve heard over the years.


At the start, Mary and others thought their evolution wouldn’t be difficult.

“I been a slave wishing for freedom my whole life. Being a free woman play-acting as Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverslavery can’t be harder than that.” (p. 48)

But they soon found it wasn’t easy—even after discovering they had companions on this new journey.

“I knew Miss Bet was playing a necessary part in front of our fellow passengers, that she was reminding me of the need for me to play my part as well. But her words stung me hard. As we took our seats, my head hung heavy with loneliness.” (p. 55)

Life quickly turned on its head.

“All my childhood, we in the house were allied in constant conspiracy with Miss Bet. I learned from watching Mama and the rest to smile and nod at her, but then roll eyes and mimic her words once her back was turned…. Now here I was in the North, and about the first thing I had to do was defend her, and to a colored woman.” (p. 66)

It was easy to be angry at this, angry at that, and—especially—angry at self.

“I was angry at that weasel-faced woman for sending me back to that bench, angry at the Quakers for having such a bench at all, angry at the elderly colored man for sitting on that bench for five decades or more…. But I was most angry at myself, for forgetting what Mama and Papa taught me, the thing that guided every moment of my life in Richmond…. I berated myself for not remembering their most important lesson.” (p. 116)

It would have been SO much easier if the targets of angst were always up to no-good. They weren’t, though. They were flawed, though. They’d talk about the real world as if they really knew something about it. But what they offered came mostly from privilege, not practice.

“The slavery I was born into…was very different.” (p. 126)

So how did Mary and my colleagues respond to hogwash? They learned to parse words carefully, that’s what. Speaking out/acting up less was better than speaking out/acting up more—even when egged on.

(Theodore to Mary)

“Your audacity that evening was quite impressive. I was longing to say something to that lot of pompous fops myself.’” (p. 138)

“They’re as predictable as parrots, repeating the same dull phrase over and over.” (p. 144)

“You are as fresh and unspoiled as the first breeze of spring coming through the window of a house that’s been shut up all winter.” (p. 148)

Political viability required cultivating the art of ‘picking one’s spots.’

Yes, the old life was easier. This new life, on the other hand, was chock full of unknowns, risks, and dangers.

“The first time I ever saw McNiven, I’d feared what threat he might be, to Mr. Jones and to me. Now because of him, I’d been in the greatest true peril I ever knew—but he’d had as much to do with getting me out of it as with putting me into it.” (p. 179)

Rather than wilt under pressure, though, they drew strength from peril—strength that was apparent in language. Expressed lyrically, their words were uplifting, grounded in values and lathered with principles.

“We hear folks speaking of compromise, and containing slavery, and preserving the Union. But what is to be compromised, contained, or preserved, for the husband who has a wife in slavery, the mother who has a daughter in slavery, the brother or sister, the child a father?” (p. 198)

“John Brown dies this morning. But Dangerfield Newby is already dead. John Brown did a great thing in the name of justice. But Dangerfield Newby did as great a thing in the name of love. John Brown is an exemplar to many in the struggle to end slavery. But Dangerfield Newby is a hero of our own. It is his death we must mourn, must honor, and must be ready to die ourselves, if need be.” (p. 201) 

This new life was about convictions—convictions shared with kindred spirits, including people they never dreamed would become allies.

“When I first met McNiven, I couldn’t have imagined I’d take pride or comfort in knowing he meant for us to ally together. But back then I couldn’t guessed I’d ever connive to travel back across the Mason and Dixon’s line, either.” (p. 213)

Those associates stood tall, always in opposition to others’ backpedaling and intransigence.

“Compromises. Congress would continue carrying on with its compromises…. Decades and decades of them, and every one made to protect slaveholding.” (p. 229)

How inspiring! It confirmed that ‘the cause’ was right, proper, and just.

“The thing that seeps so sweet and warm it makes you feel like every day is the first day of spring.” (p. 241)

Exuberance was necessary, too. The fight wouldn’t end quickly, no ‘sixty-day war’ (p. 284) would it be. Persistence was required, especially when defeat seemed imminent.

What then?

“I wasn’t about to give up so easily. After all, Mama raised me on a steady regimen of stealth and surreption, especially when it came to doing right by those in need.” (p. 266)

“…Mr. Ralph Emerson’s Essays. I had read them years before, in Philadelphia…. Mr. Emerson’s theme of following one’s moral purpose rather than succumbing to the weight of social convention was inspirational.” (p. 268).

Flowery prose wasn’t enough, though. Skills and capacity were. Getting progressively better at playing one’s role was required to counter “their” ingenuity.

“Sketched on the bottom of the missive was the oddest-looking maritime conveyance I’d ever seen. She had no sails, and most of the hull sat below the squiggly marks meant to show the waterline…. The Virginia was an iron-clad monster of the sea.” (p. 298)

And they did just that.

“A balloon big enough to life men into the air and carry them over the battle lines, so they may observe the Confederate defenses.” (p. 317)

Going to that next level of proficiency often came after a ‘hot button’ was pushed. It fueled anger. The use of duplicitous language was one trigger:

“We do not fight for slavery…. We fight for the right of States to govern themselves.” (p. 311)

Self-serving assertions were another:

“Everything will return to how it was.” (p. 318)

But the worst moments came …

…when they aided what they were fighting against…

“Papa was likely…making bayonet stocks for Confederates to use to impale the very men who were fighting to make him…free.” (p. 334)

…when they recognized that the fight was about many things, not just one…

 “What was smallpox but another form of suffering in a world full of pain and misery? ….Colored or white, the infectious corpses of the smallpox dead met the same ignominious end—the incinerator….” (pp. 343, 346)

…when they realized this fight was unending.

“I realized how vulnerable negroes were, even in their own houses in the North…. Freedom from slavery, maybe, but clearly not freedom from harm.” (pp. 363, 364)

In the face of all that, how far would they go for ‘the cause’? Not as far as you might speculate. Ethics prevail.

“What you describe is a despicable act, and if it occurred as you say, there is no excuse for it. But there is no excuse for us to behave their way, either.” (p. 395)


Do Independents have a role to play in these dynamics? You bet.

Unencumbered by strictures that otherwise constrain, Independents are society’s best hope for championing ‘the cause,’ that is, serving the public good. There is no higher calling in America’s politics.

Mary understood that.

You do, too.

Many others will.

“The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.” Eugene O’Neill

(Cited by L. Leveen, Reader’s Guide, #12, The Secrets of Mary Bowser)



Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty-year years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Find him on Twitter @frankfear and on Tumblr, “For the Public Good”.  Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column.


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The Secrets of Mary Bowser


Reader’s Forum–Frank Fear

Book Image

A Friend Helped Me Write This Review  

Sometimes you need a friend. Writing this review was one of those times. I could go only so far with it. I needed help. But before I get to my friend’s part, let me share what I have to say.

I recommend Greg’s book to anybody who’s thinking about running for elective office as an Independent. It’s an especially good read for newcomers to the political scene. They’ll read about the personal experiences of a person who has experienced the fire of American politics.

I also think readers will find Greg’s work to be illustrative of the ills that face America politically. I especially like the way he writes about “The Legislator-Industrial Complex” (p 182-183)—how politicians shift positions to fit the direction of political winds…and the campaign money that comes with it.

But, truth be told, I wanted more than Greg had to offer. I found the book’s sub-title—“how to restore the American Dream”—to be hyperbolic. And while Greg’s critique of the current political system is good, I had read most of it earlier and elsewhere (e.g., “money is the mother’s milk of politics” (p. 141).

Most importantly, I stumbled over a number of Greg’s assertions. One example is his contention that the Democratic Party has become progressively liberal (p. 155). A bond that connects me with many of my Independent friends is that we believe the mainstream Democratic Party has evolved into a centrist party. It’s not liberal enough. That’s why we left it.

More concerning, though, is Greg’s numerous categorical statements about Independents. Here’s one example (p. 23): “…one of the real strengths of Independents—they’re able to approach an issue with an open mind and see all sides of an issue.” That contention doesn’t jibe with my experience (some do, some don’t). And Chapter 12 is full of assertions that need to be validated. That includes what Greg claims about “The Shared World View of Independents” (pp. 261-263), “Shared Independent Principles” (pp. 263-265), and “The Independent Approach” (pp. 265-266).

That’s when I turned to a friend for perspective. In response, she told me something that I hadn’t thought about before.

“To be independent is not always the same as being an Independent,” she pointed out.

To make the case, she talked about the student organizing movement underway in the wake of the Parkland tragedy. “Those students are showing what it means to be independent,” she asserted. “What’s more, they aren’t addressing any, old topic. It’s the dicey, tumultuous politics of gun control where progress of any kind is agonizingly slow and treacherous.”

“I get it!” I responded. “They’re operating in a different paradigm from politics as usual.”

“For sure,” my friend said. “In the conventional paradigm, there’s the Independent option vis-à-vis the Republican and Democrat options. But when you think about politics that way, danger lurks. The Independent option can end up looking and acting like a political party, especially if the primary goal is getting more and more Independents elected.”

“Gosh, that’s business as usual,” I responded. “Yes, it is,” she said. “What America really needs is a radical political movement—a radical movement to change the status quo of America’s politics.”

“Ok,” I said. “And one of those pathways involves everyday Americans organizing for change.” “You bet!” she responded.

“Think about it,” she continued. “The Parkland students didn’t come to their organizing work by way of extensive background or even with much aforethought. What’s more, they aren’t in authority positions. They don’t represent any organization or group. They’re independent political actors speaking up, acting out, and demanding change—not as politicians, but as political activists—motivated by personal experience with a brutal act.”

“Gosh!” I said. “Americans everywhere can do what those students are doing, and they can do it on any issue they choose.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said my friend. “Sick and tired of political inaction, they’re assaulting the formal political system through good, old-fashioned people-power.”

“What do you make of that?” I asked.

“I’d say they’re doing their part to restore The American Dream.”


frank-fearFrank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty-year years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Find him on Twitter @frankfear and on Tumblr, “For the Public Good”.  Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column.




A Declaration of Independents

How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream


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