DAILY: May 19, 2019

Welcome to my DAILY dive into Politics and Culture.  This will also be where I now compose a kind of Meta-Memoir as I once did over on Facebook.  Welcome.

(1) I read a lot of stories yesterday about Rep. Amash, the libertarian-leaning Republican congressman from Michigan, who called for the impeachment of Trump.  Here is one from Politico.  Good for him.  But I didn’t read anywhere this angle re: that story.  In calling for impeachment, he has shown more courage than Pelosi and Hoyer and all the other Democrats in the positions of “leadership” in the House.  I will put quotation marks around the term “leadership” for as long as they do not lead us during this dark time in our history at this critical juncture when our very constitutional republic is at stake.  Pelosi and Trump are becoming a kind of distaff dystopian version of George and Martha – the Albee versions not the country’s – in which a bewigged Trump as Martha bewitches the professorial Pelosi as George with his belligerence and bellowing and below-the-belt verbal assaults while she, as George, sits back and takes it in a kind of superior stupor.  They enable each other.  They are symbiotic partners in all this.  If Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a play about a couple of  gaslighters lighting into each other in order to keep a false narrative alive until it, alas, is dead then Pelosi and Trump are perfectly cast in their own national narrative inflicting their respective party game of “Get the Guests” on us all.

In Act One, called “Fun and Games.” George fires at Martha with a gun but an umbrella pops out of its little snout-nosed barrel.  It is a perfect metaphor for Pelosi’s dithering approach, her lack of fire power re: impeachment.  By the end of the play, George is reciting sections of the Libera me (part of the Requiem Mass, the Lain mass for the dead.  Our constitutional republic is dying before our eyes.  And Pelosi as George can only murmur:

Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo, dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Quando cœli movendi sunt et terra
Dies illa, dies iræ, calamitatis et miseriæ, dies magna et amara valde.

[I am made to tremble, and I fear, till the judgment be upon us, and the coming wrath,
When the heavens and the earth shall be moved.
That day, day of wrath, calamity and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness]

Yeah, I’m becoming embittered by it all.  Can you tell?


Photo of Carolee Schneeman by Janette Beckman.
Photo of Carolee Schneeman by Janette Beckman

(2) SMALL-TOWN HUDSON.  Yesterday we celebrated the life of local upstate artist Carolee Schneeman who died on March 6th of this year and  whose multidisciplinary take on her creative impulses transformed the definition of art, especially the discourse concerning the female body, female sexuality, and gender. The history of her work is characterized by research into archaic visual traditions and pleasure itself wrested from suppressive taboos.  She foisted the body of the artist – her body – into a dynamic relationship with the suppressive social body which so often stood as a male censorious behemoth before her.  She explored what she termed “vulvic space,” especially in one of her most famous and controversial performance pieces “Interior Scroll” in which she pulled one from her vagina and read it aloud.  Schneemann’s need to explore female sexuality came as a direct response to an apparent disconnect between women’s experiences of their bodies and the historical and cultural representations of them.  She wrote 1991’s “The Obscene Body/Politic”: “I didn’t want to pull a scroll out of my vagina and read it in public, but the culture’s terror of my making overt what it wished to suppress fueled the image; it was essential to demonstrate this lived action about ‘vulvic space’ against the abstraction of the female body and its loss of meaning.”  Scheenman was a pioneer.  A visionary.   Even posting this photo below from her initial performance of “Interior Scroll” which occurred on August 29, 1975, at an East Hampton, New York, art show titled Women Here and Now which honored the United Nations’ International Women’s Year, can still shock.  In fact, I debated whether to post it or not.  But one of the advantages of posting my daily musings here at sessumsMagazine.com is that the censorious behemoth of Facebook does not stand before me with a disapproving or approving eye.

I went to Hudson Hall yesterday to view the documentary about Schneeman and her work titled Breaking the Frame by Marielle Nitoslawka.  I didn’t make it to the dance party celebration of her life at Second Ward because I fell asleep after binge watching Game of Thrones in preparation for the show’s finale tonight.

But after witnessing Schneeman’s work and then watching the narrative of the two battling female leaders that HBO series who have so far left nothing but destruction in their wake, I began to understand better the week we just went through re: abortion in this country and how it plays into a greater narrative of fear of female empowerment.  This is not about “innocent life” but the bodies of women not being innocent.  And even typing that, I realize that male fingers typed it.

Indeed, if John Snow ends up sitting on that Iron Throne tonight after we have been shown that women are too emotional and destructive to lead, then Game of Thrones after all these seasons just ends up being the same old game played by the same old rules told by the same old tired male narrative voices in our collective head.

Interdisciplinary art.  Abortion and the Iron Throne.  Everything conflates.   We are all living in a vulvic space. Thank you, Carolee, for your life’s mission. And your art.


Here is a link to the New York Times obit of Schneeman.

(3) My friend Tim Murphy’s new novel Correspondents came out last week.  His novel Christodora remains on of my favorites.  Tim suggests you buy your copy from you local independent bookstore or its own website.  But here is a link to Booksamillion.com where you can buy it as well.  “Murphy artfully connects multiple narratives to produce a sprawling tale of love, family, duty, war, and displacement. It is above all a stinging indictment of the ill-fated war in Iraq and the heavy tolls it continues to exact on its people.”–Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner


(4) In case you missed Brenda Wineapple’s recent op-ed in the New York Times titled “Impeachment Is a Form of Hope,” I am reprinting the whole thing here.  Some folks can sometimes be stymied from reading links to the New York Times because of its paywall.  So here is the whole thing.  It is an important contribution of the national debate at the moment.

The House of Representatives’ impeachment committee in 1868. From left, standing, are James F. Wilson, George S. Boutwell and John A. Logan. Seated are, from left, Benjamin F. Butler, Thaddeus Stevens, Thomas Williams and John A. Bingham.CreditMathew Brady Studio/Corbis, via Getty Images


When we talk about whether to impeach President Trump, we cite the near impeachment of Richard Nixon or the actual prosecution of Bill Clinton. Oddly, though, we don’t talk much about the first-ever presidential impeachment, which very nearly succeeded in removing Andrew Johnson from office.

In the spring of 1868, his impeachment trial was the hottest thing in town. Walt Whitman often sat in the Senate gallery, and Anthony Trollope finagled a seat when he visited Washington. Men and women lucky enough to receive a color-coded ticket — a different color for each day’s hearing — handed it to uniformed Capitol police officers, who checked them for explosives before they were allowed to enter the building. Reporters pushed into the Senate gallery, furiously scribbling, and newsboys shouted the latest on Washington streets.

That year, Congress faced questions about presidential power strikingly similar to the ones being debated today. Johnson was said to obstruct justice, defy the Constitution, disregard Congress, issue executive orders willy-nilly, to consider his attorney general his chief propagandist and even to call for the execution of perceived enemies.

Of course, the impeachment of President Johnson took place in the aftermath of a brutal war, a presidential assassination, and the struggle not just to end slavery but also to create a fair, equal and just republic. Many of Lincoln’s fellow Republicans had initially assumed that Johnson, although a Southern Democrat, would help heal the country and eradicate the pernicious, lingering effects of slavery. Otherwise, as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania warned, white supremacy “will germinate and produce the same bloody strife which has just ended.”

Almost immediately, though, Johnson showed his true colors: He flouted Congress, declared this was a “country for white men,” and began pardoning former Confederates to the tune of 100 per day. By 1866, he had offered amnesty to more than 7000. He vetoed the Civil Rights bill and campaigned against the ratification of the 14th Amendment during a Barnum-like stumping tour widely mocked as “Andy’s Swing Around the Circle.” Traveling from Washington to Chicago through upstate New York before heading west to a memorial ceremony in honor of Lincoln’s former rival Stephen Douglas, Johnson shouted to crowds in city after city that members of Congress who defied him should be hanged. “Was there ever such a madman in so high a place as Johnson?” asked Henry Raymond, publisher of The New York Times.

To stop him, Congress overrode Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act and then passed a series of Reconstruction measures. One of them was to use federal troops to register black men to vote in the former Confederacy. Soon black men were holding government offices throughout the South. But Johnson had encouraged white Southerners to defy these laws, warning against “Negro domination.”

But 1868 was also an election year. Congress was conflicted. Wasn’t it better to lie low, wait out Johnson’s presidency and work instead to make sure the popular general, Ulysses S. Grant, who waited in the wings, won the White House? For no one quite knew where impeachment might lead. Although Representative Stevens and other Radical Republicans had been pushing hard, Congress was struggling to define the conditions for impeachment, which were as unclear then as they are now. President Johnson had not committed an actual crime. But that raised a question: Should impeachment be understood narrowly, in terms of specific infractions of specific laws, or more broadly, as violations of the public trust?

The matter remains debatable, though as Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 65, noted, “an abuse or violation of some public trust” can be grounds for impeachment. That is, if impeachment is a political process, as Stevens and others argued, and not a legal process, then political crimes, not legal crimes, are grounds for impeachment and must be prosecuted in the Senate.

Johnson’s crimes surely included his abuse of power — and his racism. To the impeachers, the war to preserve the Union had been fought to liberate the nation once and for all from slavery — and to enshrine freedom and equal citizenship. “The impeachment of the president,” Frederick Douglass said, “will mean the Negro’s right to vote, and mean that the fair South shall no longer be governed by the Regulators and the Ku-Klux-Klan, but by fair and impartial law.” The radical gadfly Wendell Phillips agreed. “The epoch turns on the Negro,” he declared. “Justice to him saves the nation, ends the strife, and gives us peace; injustice to him prolongs the war.”

Yet previous attempts to impeach Johnson had gone nowhere. The first call for impeachment came early in 1867. The matter was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which scrutinized Johnson’s actions, his indiscretions, even his finances. It investigated Johnson’s responsibility for the murder of loyal citizens by Confederate mobs, particularly but not exclusively in New Orleans, and wanted to know if Johnson had given preference to former Confederates when the railroads seized during the war had been sold.

The Judiciary Committee initially voted against impeachment. Later that year it changed its mind, but the vote failed in the full House. Quoting Thaddeus Stevens, Mark Twain called Congress a bunch of “damned cowards.”

Still, many in Congress believed Johnson ought to be held accountable somehow. That is, if Congress failed to remove the president, people like Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts wanted future generations to know that the president’s white supremacy was not condoned, that a president was not a king and that he could neither ignore Congress nor the ideals on which the nation had been founded. “This is one of the last great battles with slavery,” Sumner explained. “Driven from these legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found refuge in the Executive Mansion.”

Ironically, Andrew Johnson temporarily resolved the question of whether impeachment should be defined narrowly, as an infraction of law, or broadly, as abuse of power, when he stepped on a statute. He violated the dubious Tenure of Office Act, passed in 1867, which stipulated that cabinet members and other officers who had been appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate could not be fired without the Senate’s approval. Congress had passed the act to protect the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. Stanton was in charge of the military, and the military was protecting black men at the polls. When Johnson fired Stanton without the Senate’s consent, the House voted overwhelmingly, 126 to 47, to impeach the 17th president.

During that spring of 1868, the broader interpretation of impeachment — abuse of public trust — was lost in the weeds of legal bickering. And at his trial in the Senate, one vote saved Andrew Johnson. It was cast by Senator Edmund Ross, Republican of Kansas, who may have been bribed. Ross was heartily praised by John F. Kennedy in his “Profiles in Courage,” which promoted a longstanding view: Johnson’s impeachment was the brainchild of partisan fanatics rather than thoughtful, even visionary people who, having abolished slavery, were determined to alter the direction of the country.

Yet despite their loss, those who fought courageously for Johnson’s impeachment, knowing it might be an uphill battle, did get some of what they wanted: Andrew Johnson was not nominated to run for president in 1868 by either party, and the discredited supremacist is remembered, when he is remembered at all, as the first American president to be impeached and tried by the Senate.

If different people take different lessons from Johnson’s impeachment, one is unforgettable: Impeachment is a constitutional process meant to restore good government and thus our faith in it; in so doing, impeachment suggests hope, the glimmering hope of a better time coming, and a means for making that happen, peacefully, reasonably and with dignity.

Bening and Letts as Kate and Joe Keller in All My Sons. Photo by Geordie Wood for The New Yorker.

(5) SMALL-TOWN NEW YORK.  I recently saw the production of All My Sons by Arthur Miller at the Roundabout Theatre.  I got a rush ticket at the Today Tix app and sat on the front row.  I was nervous about being that close because sometimes the stage can be too high from that vantage point and it is like watching a puppet show with half the bodies of the actors cut off and no view at all of the upstage area.  There is a reason they sell those front-row seats at such a steep discount.  But for this production it gave one the sense of being in the rehearsal hall with the actors.  The vantage point gave one a clear view of the action and presented a purview of the emotions being conjured.  It was a remarkable evening.

Jesse Green in the New York Times gave the production quite a mixed review and if I trusted critics I would have steered clear of this production.  But thank God I don’t.  And I didn’t.  I have come to trust my own critical faculties during my many decades of attending theatre.  I often disagree with what a critic tells me to think and feel.  Moreover, this production had a complicated journey itself and I was curious to see how it turned out. Miller’s daughter Rebecca, who oversees his estate, objected to the production’s initial director Gregory Mosher casting the siblings of George and Anne Deever with African Americans in what, I guess, was color-conscious casting instead of the colorblind casting that its ultimate director Jack O’Brien did when he replaced Mosher because George Deever is, in fact, played brilliantly by the African American actor Hampton Fluker.  His sister is now played by a white actress, Francesca Carpanini.  Miller seemed to be worried about the Deevers being a black family and that not being historically accurate, and yet the paternalism (or maternalism) inherent in the colorblind casting of the brother in the context of this controversy – which one then has to assume is a white man being played by a black actor in order to be historically accurate and in order for him to be the brother of a white sister which seemed to be the sticking point – is itself rather bothersome to me.  Indeed, the doctor’s wife next door is played beautifully by an African American actress, Chinasa Ogbuagu.  Are we too see her as African American, as I did?  Or are we – to be historically accurate as demanded by Rebecca Miller – to see her as a white woman being played by a black one?  I would have had no problem with the initial decision by Mosher to cast the siblings both as African Americans.  I think it would have given another kind of narrative texture to their father having been the fall guy in the plot. But I don’t oversee the estate.  It’s a complicated issue.

Miller based the story on real one set in Ohio.  In 1941–43 the Wright Aeronautical Corporation in Ohio had conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines destined for military use. It was a scandal in the Truman administration.  Taking that as his jumping off point and using perhaps The Wild Duck by Ibsen – Miller is our American Ibsen in many ways – the playwright structured a narrative which presents us with the tragic figure of Joe Keller,  a Midwestern factory owner who barely escaped being imprisoned after his company produced defective cylinder heads during World War II, resulting in the deaths of 21 American pilots.  He and his wife Kate have lost their own son to a plane accident in the war.  Their other son Chris survived his own wartime experiences and his own homecoming is complicated by his love for his dead brother’s former girlfriend, Anne Deever.

All My Sons was Miller’s first commercial success and this latest revival – with all this production’s own drama, or maybe even because of it – has emerged to be a stirring and moving and devastating evening.  With all the emphasis early on re: the supporting cast we might have forgotten that the play focuses on the three main characters –  Joe and Kate and Chris.  The three actors playing those roles – Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, and Benjamin Walker – are all remarkable.  They are heart-wrenching.  Letts lays back for lots of the action until he lets loose with a primal sorrow that guts himself and us with his guilt.  Bening – in her first performance on Broadway in 30 years – reminds us that she is one of our greatest actresses.  What we thought was denial on her part throughout the play is revealed by the end to be the steely strength at the stoic heart of it all; it stuns us, as does Bening in the role.  Walker is a revelation as  Chris.  His conflicted sense of ethics and fealty to family  brings him to his knees –  a wounded howl of grief for himself and in its way for the country itself – in a final tableau with Bening as his mother that leaves us longing for any sense of innocence when we know that innocence died in us and this country long ago.

It is a tableau that is tattooed onto this country’s bloated flesh at the moment, as the timelessness of this Miller play attests.  We are not innocent.  We are lost.  But are we doomed?

Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo, dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Quando cœli movendi sunt et terra
Dies illa, dies iræ, calamitatis et miseriæ, dies magna et amara valde.

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

  • Show Comments

  • Kevin Sessums

    Comments are welcome ..

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *