Failing Hamilton, Failing us all

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These crazy and terrifying political times have caused me to dust off my old copy–or more accurately, my father’s old copy–of The Federalist Papers. The paperback edition I have was published several years before I was born, but the issues described within its covers are timeless.

Tonight I pondered, as I have on many occasions over the past month, the subject of impeachment. A president has never before been successfully impeached and removed from office. It’s a rare and, quite honestly, a desperation tactic. It’s the “In case of fire, break glass” tool that should never need to be used. But these are not normal times, and we should be grateful that Hamilton and the other founders gave us this tool.

The tail end of Federalist #77, written by Alexander Hamilton, puts a very fine point on the reason for having a check on the authority of the president:

“The election of the President once in four years by persons immediately chosen by the people for that purpose, and his being at all times liable to impeachment, trial, dismission from office, incapacity to serve in any other, and to the forfeiture of life and estate by subsequent prosecution in the common course of law. The precautions, great as they are, are not the only ones which the plan of the convention has provided in favor of the public security. In the only instances in which the abuse of the executive authority was materially to be feared, the Chief Magistrate of the United States, would, by that plan, be subjected to the control of a branch of the legislative body. What more can an enlightened and reasonable people desire?”

Speaking strictly for myself–a fairly enlightened and reasonable citizen of the United States–here’s one thing that I want in America, 2017: a Congress that isn’t afraid to exercise their right to “control” the president and remove him from office. It’s not a question of whether he’s disqualified himself from office: The refusal to release tax returns, the backchannel discussions with Putin while President Obama was still in office, and the attacks on the legitimacy of the judiciary are all enough, taken by themselves, to establish that the current president has crossed a line and must leave office immediately.

The process for impeaching the president relies on the House of Representatives approving articles of impeachment against a sitting president, and then a vote in the Senate, after a public trial, to convict and remove the president from office. But Paul Ryan and his republicans in the house, and Mitch McConnell and his republicans in the senate, will not lift a finger to remove Trump. At least a few of them probably believe that they are sufficiently “safe” from any meaningful opposition in the 2018 elections. So instead they leave Trump alone and let him do whatever damage he wants to do. It’s a complete and utter abdication of the responsibilities entrusted to them by the Constitution.

Here’s what I’m asking for, Mr. Hamilton: A congress with integrity and courage. The congress we have now will not act, since they are clearly unwilling to give Trump his walking papers. Hamilton couldn’t see this situation coming back in 1787, so now it’s time to hunker down and hope we can survive until the 2018 midterm elections. Once those elections get here, we better damn well make sure that all politicians with an R next to their names get voted out of office. They have failed Hamilton and, by extension, they have failed us all.

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The battle is joined

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Yesterday I wrote that I wasn’t too happy to call myself an American. Today I take it all back.

250,000 people in Chicago–my wife and younger daughter among them–participated in a march that grew so large that there was no marching to be done. Cities around the country, and even around the world, also joined in, and the total is easily in the millions. Not a single person of those millions was happy about the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, either.

Trump sent out his press secretary to lecture the press about inauguration crowd size estimates, and basically try to shame the press into reporting the things that Trump and his people approve of. Oh, and deflect attention away from the marches that were going on at the very same time. It was an awful performance, but if it serves to get the people more fired up and ready to go than they already were, it will be a great thing, indeed.

I wasn’t able to attend the march today, but I did pass by it at one point. I noticed a sign saying “History has its eyes on us,” which is an obvious reference to Hamilton. The pro-Trump crowd will desperately search for something else–anything else–to put their eyes on at the end of this terrible day for them. But the message has been delivered, and Trump and his people would be terribly unwise to ignore it.

Hamilton and what makes America work

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I’ve written before of my fondness for Hamilton: An American Musical. I’ve listened to the songs–over and over and over again–but haven’t seen it on stage, and don’t think that I will for a long time, if ever. Not because I don’t want to, but the price of tickets precludes that from happening right now. But maybe someday…

It’s beyond ironic to me that Hamilton’s life story has been ignored for so long. There was talk of removing him from the ten-dollar bill before this musical came along, but it’s pretty safe to say that it won’t happen now. In fact, if Hamilton wasn’t already depicted on our currency, we might be calling for his inclusion somewhere. But he’s there, and he’s not going away, nor should he.

Hamilton was an immigrant who contributed mightily to the birth of the United States, both on the battlefield and as a political mover and shaker. And, as the Ron Chernow biography of his life–which inspired the play–points out, it’s quite possible that he was powerfully attracted to John Laurens, a fellow revolutionary. Two of the groups that Donald Trump and Mike Pence have targeted can claim Hamilton as one of their own.

So when Mike Pence went to see the show on Broadway yesterday, it’s possible that he understood this about Hamilton’s own life story. But then again, perhaps he did not. I certainly did not know either of these things before 2016, and I’m glad to have a fuller understanding of who Hamilton was and how he contributed to the country I call home.

When immigrants, gay people, and those who support and love them have an opportunity to address someone who is on the record as opposing them, they must seize it. They must not, in the words of one of the show’s main songs, throw away their shot by remaining silent. They waited until the show was over, and then addressed the vice-president elect with warmth and hope. Nothing disrespectful was said, or even suggested, by the remarks delivered from the stage. It was a message on behalf of Americans, who may not have voted for Trump and Pence but will still be affected by the decisions they will make.

But the Trump supporters went bonkers. Perhaps they want actors, musicians, poets, and everyone else who creates art to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. But our Bill of Rights unequivocally protects their right to speak their minds freely. To misunderstand that is to miss what America is all about. And Trump’s demand for an apology would be laughable if it weren’t so clueless. Who has more to apologize for that Donald Trump? Yet he won’t do it, so why should anyone else? Particularly when nothing improper or offensive was done or said.

I’m not looking forward to a Trump presidency, but I’m expecting all Americans who oppose him to feel empowered to protest and speak out, because that’s what make America what it is. Silence and acquiescence are not American values, and shame on us if we ever allow them to become so.

So I will apologize to Donald Trump, since he seems to need one. My apology to him is that America will not be bowing down to him, his family, his cabinet members, his advisors, his donors, or the thugs who now feel like it’s open season on the Other in this country. We’ll reserve our rights, and exercise them freely, at every opportunity over the coming four years. Sorry if you don’t like that—well, on second thought, nevermind.

No apologies will be forthcoming. If Pence and Trump want to lead America, they must accept that Americans are going to do the American thing and speak out. And any attempt to vilify that course of actions is where a true apology would be needed. Not that we should ever expect to see one, of course.

One Last Time

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Not that I’m trying to be cute, but Life is like the World Series: Sometimes you have finality, but more often you don’t. When this year’s Series went to seven games, we knew that whoever won that game would be crowned champions, and whoever lost would have a long offseason to think about how things turned out.But not every Series goes that far, and most are decided in four, five, or six games instead.

My friend Mark was a presence in my life from kindergarten until we graduated from high school together. I saw him thousands of times, and we passed through–or at least we started to pass through–the difficult period of transitioning from children to adults with each other. But for all that, nobody ever told me when the last time I would see him would be. Try as I might, I can’t even remember it myself.

When I learned a week ago that Mark died in a New York hospital over the summer, I was hit very hard by the news. I hadn’t seen him since probably August of 1986, before he went away to study at Arizona State. I went off to a different school the following month, and our paths had forever diverged. I had hoped to see him again someday, somehow, but it won’t happen like that. And that’s why I want to get a few words down, to record what this feels like.

I went to the chalk mural that sprang up at Wrigley Field during this year’s playoff/World Series run last Wednesday, and wrote Mark’s name among the thousands of others that covered every available inch of space. I couldn’t find a good spot on the walls, so I used the ledge of a ticket booth instead. I wrote his name and the years of his birth and death, and took a picture to commemorate the event. It proved, in case anyone ever needed to see it, that Mark–who wasn’t a Cubs fan, at least as far as I knew–was there, at least in spirit. It felt very good, and very humbling, to be able to do that for one of my oldest and best friends.

Yesterday, less than 72 hours after visiting the mural, I drove past it and was saddened to see it had been removed and fenced off. I could see the wall, and the booth where I had written Mark’s name, but none of the names and artworks and victory messages were seen. Again, nobody told me it was going away, so I had no way to know that I was getting in at the end of the process. But I will be forever glad that I did.

As I have probably mentioned here before, I love the music from the Broadway show Hamilton. And my favorite song of all is “One Last Time,” which speaks to finality and the importance of making a known parting of the ways matter. When we get this finality on lives we must savor it, but we must appreciate all the other times in life when finality may (or may not) be present. An old Stones song that says “It may be the last time, I don’t know” is equally fitting. This could be my last blog post, I don’t know. I hope it’s not, but if it is, at least I enjoyed putting it together.

And now on to the rest of the weekend…..and hopefully not my last one, either.

In the #HamZone

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The Tony Awards are tonight, and I plan pay attention to them this year because of the Hamilton phenomenon. I’m surprised I haven’t written about it here, because I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for months on end. If Prince hadn’t died in April, it would now be month three of solid Hamilton listening for me.

The music tells a fantastic story, and has succeeded in bringing history into the mainstream and–more importantly–making it relevant to schoolkids. That’s something of a miracle, in its own right. I taught history for several years in the Chicago Public Schools, and always tried to make the past interesting. But music has charms that I never possessed, either.

So I’m figuratively in the Hamilton zone, for sure. I think this will last through the end of the year, at least, because the first Hamilton run outside of New York opens in Chicago this fall. Hamilton will open in other cities after that, and the diffusion of this show will bring new excitement along the way. How lucky we are to be alive to see it.

But I’m literally in a Hamilton zone of a different sort. I’ve written before about outliving people–usually writers–and musing about the random nature of life and how much of it each of us is allowed to have. Whenever someone dies now, the first question I ask is how old they were when they passed. For instance, I am younger than Muhammad Ali, and older than Christina Grimmie, when their days came to an end.

Ali himself said “Don’t count the days, Make the days count”  so age isn’t a measure of very much. But in terms of sunrises and sunsets, I’ve had more than Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, Albert Camus, and many others. And I’ll keep having them until further notice, however long that may be.

But whether I’ve passed Hamilton or not is an open question. Everyone knows Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr in the summer of 1804, but when he was born isn’t so clear cut. He considered his birthday to be 1757, and gave that as his birth year when he immigrated to America in 1772. By this count, he would have died at the age of about 47 and a half.

But the official documents from the island of Nevis tell another story. They indicate he was born in 1755, making him two years older than he told the world he was. We would all, at a certain point in life, like to be two years younger than we really are, and Hamilton lived his life this way.

So the birthday I have coming up in two days is the first of two in what I’m calling the #HamZone (Hamilton has devised all sorts of interesting hashtags of this variety, so I’m running with it here, as well). I’m already older than Hamilton told the world he was at the time of his death, but still younger than what he may actually have been. And in a year when Hamilton’s life has become relevant through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s amazing show, it’s a pretty cool place to be, I must admit.