The Dirty Dozen: Ranking the Top 13 Speakers of the House of Representatives

These are the men, and woman, who had the unenviable job of trying to wrangle a horde of politicians into a body politic that could actually function. Welcome to FTKC, and today we are counting down our picks for the dirty dozen Speakers of the House. For this list we are including the men and woman who, for good or bad, used their influence and power to manage the House of Representatives.

# 13 Frederick Muhlenberg (1789-1791, 1793-1795)

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No list would be complete without the first. Frederick Muhlenberg served as the first and third Speaker. His Speakership oversaw the passage of the Jay Treaty and the smooth transition of government from a Confederated States to a federal union. Two legends are also attributed to Mr. Muhlenberg. The first is the Muhlenberg Legend which says that by a vote of 42-41 with Muhlenberg casting the deciding vote German just missed becoming an official language of the United States. The second legend is that it is because of Mr. Muhlenberg that we call the President by the title “Mr. President” rather than “His Elected Majesty” as John Adams had suggested.

#12 Nancy Pelosi (2007-2011)

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The first woman Speaker. The first Speaker from California. The first Italian-American Speaker. But these are not the reasons that Mrs. Pelosi makes our list. Like her or not, Mrs. Pelosi was able to draw in her rank and file party members and get things done. The first on her agenda was her 100-Hour plan, a six-day whirlwind legislative extravaganza which saw five bills make their way through the House, on to the Senate, and finally signed by President Bush (three bills died in the Senate). As Speaker, Pelosi was instrumental in organizing the Democratic caucus and pushing through President Obama’s health care plan despite not having a filibuster proof majority in the House.

#11 Thomas “Tom” Foley (1989-1995)

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Nothing is certain except death and taxes. And for Tom Foley, one of those was the hallmark of his tenure as Speaker. As a part of the 1990 deficit reduction deal, Mr. Foley successfully forced President Bush to accept tax increases, and then again, when Bill Clinton was elected Foley worked with the new President to get his 1993 budget plan passed 218-216 without a single Republican vote. He went against the majority of his Democrat Party when he sided with President Clinton on ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Despite all this, by most measures, Foley ran a House that was more civil than any Speaker after him and won praise from many Republicans for his fairness.

#10 Dennis Hastert (1999-2007)

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Like Pete Rose, Dennis Hastert’s legacy will be forever linked to a scandal. Namely, his indictment and conviction in a hush money cash case. But to deny either acceptance to a ranking of influential members of their respective professions is to deny their body of work. For Hastert, that body of work is lengthy befitting his nearly ten years serving as Speaker. He played a key role in the impeachment of Bill Clinton, but he also worked side by side with Clinton on significant policies like New Markets Tax Credit program and Plan Colombia. He oversaw the implementation of significant Bush policies like No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, and the creation of Medicare Part D. However, Hastert will be remembered most for his use of the “majority of the majority” rule–later termed the Hastert Rule–in which only bills supported by the majority of Republicans (the party in power at the time) could come to the House floor for a vote.

#9 James Polk (1835-1839)

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Jeopardy time: Presidents for $500–This is the only person to have served the Speaker of the House of Representatives and as President of the United States. Who is James K. Polk? Nicknamed “Young Hickory” because he defended every policy of President Andrew Jackson (Old Hickory), Polk’s brief four years as Speaker were filled with tumult. He led the House through the bitter battle over rechartering the Second Bank of the United States, and because of his relationship with Jackson all of Jackson’s enemies in Congress became Polk’s. Congressman John Bell, once Jackson’s ally, worked tirelessly to undermine Polk’s authority with obscure parliamentary challenges and questioning every decision Polk made. However, Polk was a shrewd tactician and knew the rules of debate like the back of his hand so he was only overruled once. So his enemies turned to the issue of slavery to cause disorder. They proposed a bill to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia. A raucous debate ensued leading Polk to push any bills on slavery into a special committee stacked in his favor to ensure that no slavery bill would make it to the House floor.

#8 Nicholas Longworth (1925-1931)

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In an ironic twist of politics, Nicholas Longworth was instrumental in both the demolition of a powerful Speaker (#4 on our list) and his stranglehold over the House, and the re-institution of those same powers. To prove his dominance over the left leaning Progressive Republicans in his House, Longworth stripped them all of their seniority, even the ones who sat as chairs of various committees. He commandeered the reins of both the Steering Committee and the Committee on Committees (the committee in each party that places members on… well, committees). He also put his own men on the Rules Committee ensuring that only bills he wanted to come to the floor would be debated. He did not completely alienate the Democrats in the House, either. He drew in the minority leader John Nance Garner and between the two of them they were able to maintain a smooth House. Plus, he’s got a House Office building named after him. Not bad.

#7 Tip O’Neill (1977-1987)

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Tip O’Neill was one of the last old-fashioned, staunch liberals that even many of his peers tried to steer away from resembling, and he relished every moment of it. He battled Democrats and Republicans alike especially Presidents Carter and Reagan who each waged a personal war against the entrenched political insiders and they considered O’Neill the penultimate insider. O’Neill believed in rewarding Democrats for party loyalty while Carter tried to reduce government spending. Reagan and O’Neill differed on their opinions about government: Reagan saying that government was the problem that prevented economic and social growth while O’Neill believed that government was the solution to all social problems. O’Neill used his power to name committee members to his advantage in numerous House votes. Once, when 44 Democrats voted against the party O’Neill wrote each and every one of them reminding them that he was “extremely disappointed” with them and that “disciplinary measures” were in consideration. One of O’Neill’s greatest achievements as Speaker was his role in the peace process of Northern Ireland from 1977-1985.

#6 Champ Clark (1911-1919)

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It is not often that a speech given by the Speaker of the House can influence the election in a foreign nation, but one given by Champ Clark did just that for Canada. In 1911, regarding a reciprocity treaty with Canada, Clark told the House that he looked “forward to the time when the American flag will fly over every square foot of British North America up to the North Pole.” The Canadian Conservative Party, who opposed the treaty, used Clark’s imperialism in their favor and handily won the election. As Democratic leader–prior to his Speakership–Clark was instrumental in leading a revolt against Speaker Joseph Cannon by manipulating the rifts forming in the Republican Party. As Speaker, Clark restored a responsible and responsive role of the Speaker. He used his power to muster Democrats against William H. Taft’s policies and in support of Woodrow Wilson’s. However, Clark did fight against President Wilson on two fronts: The Federal Reserve Bank and the entrance of the United States into World War I.

#5 John William McCormack (1962-1971)

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Nicknamed “The Archbishop”, John William McCormack was, according to a January 1962 Time magazine article, “the other man from Massachusetts.” McCormack shared more than just location in common with John F. Kennedy. They were both Catholic firsts–President and Speaker. His nine years as Speaker found him overseeing the Great Society Congress where he championed civil rights legislation, voting rights, and much of Lyndon Johnson’s social programs. His one vice, his unequivocal support for the Vietnam War. His term as Speaker was often marred by rancorous, young members of his own party who demanded better committee positions and felt that power in the party was concentrated in the hands of a few old white guys.

#4 Joseph Gurney Cannon (1903-1911)

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If at first you don’t succeed, try and try and try and try again. For Joseph Cannon, the fourth time at becoming Speaker of the House was a charm. Cannon saw himself as the protector of the intent of the Constitution which meant he needed to lead the House to check the powers of the Executive. In order to do this, “Uncle Joe”, as Cannon was called, used the enormous powers that had accumulated in the Speaker’s position during the 1890s to block Theodore Roosevelt at every turn despite both being Republicans. At his disposal were committees packed with old school Conservatives loyal to him and he blocked bills that he didn’t like from being voted on. And he didn’t like a lot of what the Progressive Republicans had to offer. He didn’t care about tainted food or child welfare, taking down monopolies or the men who controlled them, the banks or even nature. “Not one cent for scenery,” Cannon chided over a bill for forestry. True to the definition of “conservative” Uncle Joe detested changed. “I am goddamned tired of listening to all this babble for reform,” he said, “America is a hell of a success.” Uncle Joe was so powerful that even the “bully pulpit”, “Big Stick” Theodore Roosevelt had to work with and around Cannon to get his Progressive Agenda passed. With his power, Cannon could have been one of the most powerful men in Congress, passing bill after bill, but, instead, he used his power to maintain a status quo that he felt was best for America. That was until the Progressives were able to oust him from power in an ugly, public revolt.

#3 Thomas Brackett Reed (1889-1891, 1895-1899)

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If you think that Congress is an obstructionist, do-nothing building packed with bloviating narcissists you might just be right, but you haven’t seen the worst of it. To do that you’d need to go back in time to the late 19th Century. Then, the House was a smoking lounge for old, crotchety men who loafed around reading the newspaper and spitting chewing tobacco into spittoons. And they could. These men had manipulated the House (parliamentary) procedures to the point of stalemate. One in particular, the requirement set forth by the Constitution for a quorum to exist before the House could do any business, meant that nearly nothing of significance could get done in the House unless everyone was on board. So, nothing got done. To pull this off, the party in the minority, at the time the Democrats, used what was called the “disappearing quorum” where members who were present in the House chamber would just not answer to the roll call, thus, they weren’t there so no quorum. That all changed when Thomas Brackett Reed assumed the Speaker’s podium. With a simple command to the clerk ordering him to count all people present in chamber and with a note that they are refusing to vote Reed was able to make the disappearing quorum vanish. This became known as Reed’s Rules and it allowed him to quickly expand the role of government leading him to become known as Czar Reed. He pushed for expanded Civil Rights legislation for blacks and got the Lodge Fair Elections Bill pushed through the House. He also presided over the “billion dollar Congress” which passed more bills and appropriated more money than any other preceding peacetime Congress.

#2 Sam Rayburn (1940-1947, 1949-1953, 1955-1961)

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Serving just over seventeen years Sam Rayburn is the longest sitting Speaker of the House. He’d served Presidents FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy and was instrumental in the rise of a then Senator Lyndon Johnson to Vice President and eventually the Presidency. Unlike many of his predecessors, Rayburn ruled the House not by driving or forcing its members, but through reason and persuasion. To do this, he relied heavily on intimate relationships and the loyalties he cultivated in both parties. The first test of his leadership came in 1941, just four months before Pearl Harbor, when isolationists tried to block an extension on draft regulations. Rayburn championed Truman’s foreign policy and helped him get the Marshall Plan and other policies through the House. Domestically, he supported Truman’s Fair Deal and was instrumental in ushering through the Housing Act (1949) and Social Security changes. As an old guard Democrat from Texas, Rayburn stood against FDR and Truman’s civil rights proposals, however, Eisenhower’s plans were more palatable and he helped pass legislation in 1957 and again in 1960.

Honorable Mentions

Newt Gingrich (1995-1999)

Carl Albert (1971-1977)

Nathaniel Macon (1801-1807)

#1 Henry Clay (1811-1814, 1815-1820, 1823-1825) 

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“The Great Compromiser.” “The Great Pacificator.” Both nicknames for probably one of America’s greatest leaders, Henry Clay, who was so important to the development of the United States that upon his death in 1852 he was the first person to receive the honor of lying in state in the U.S. Capital rotunda. Clay took his seat in the House in 1811 and on the first day of the first session he was elected to the Speaker’s position, a feat never since repeated and only done once before during the very first House session in 1789. His magnetic personality drew men to him, but his ability to scheme and manipulate bills to his will earned him the animosity of many of the same men. Henry Clay transformed the Speaker’s role of mediator and rules enforcer into a position of incredible power second only to that of the president. He used that power to influence the United States into war with Britain in 1812 and then to sit as one of the negotiators at the peace process afterwards. Though a slave owner, he disapproved of the system and became the president of the American Colonization Society and advocated gradual emancipation. While Speaker, he fought for the independence movements of Latin American nations and in some nations became as popular as Simon Bolivar. He negotiated the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and fought, unsuccessfully, for the Five Civilized Tribes to maintain their lands. But the crowning achievement of Clay’s Speakership was his creation and implementation of his “American System“, an economic program that would eventually shape the economic and political policies of America. Henry Clay influenced so many of America’s future political leaders that he could be considered the father of American politicians. A young Abraham Lincoln noted that Clay was his “beau ideal of a statesman” and he would adopt much of Clay’s political ideological style.

Do you agree with the list? Which Speaker of the House do you think deserves to be #1? Comment below and let FTKC know what you think. Follow FTKC for more Dirty Dozen lists and other perspectives on society and history.

The Dirty Dozen: 13 Song Themes that Might Not Be As Popular Today

Unless you are a new band looking for instant publicity or an individual not afraid of public scorn and ridicule, we’d suggest avoiding these themes in your music or belting these tunes out on the subway. Join FTKC as we look at 13 songs that were once popular, though not necessarily chart topping, but might not go over so well with certain segments of the population today. Since music is a representation of the attitudes and emotions of a society, the themes in these songs fit the time that they were released, but, as societies always do, change makes the themes and concepts of the songs on this list the proverbial fish out of water. And for some of these songs we are grateful of that.  For this list, we’ll be looking at songs that had their run in either the social consciousnesses or on the charts.

#13 I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself (1972)–Elton John

Checking in at lucky #13 is a depressing topic. Suicide. But for Americans, this one is a double edged sword. One the one hand, suicide is viewed by nearly three-quarters of American’s as “morally wrong” in a 2010 Gallup poll with only 15% saying it was “morally acceptable.” However, doctor assisted suicide shows a truly divided America with 46% of Americans saying that it was “morally wrong” and an equal 46% of those polled saying hooking oneself to a mercy machine is “morally acceptable.” We suppose the message here is that mopey teenage angst songs about cutting doesn’t… well, cut it, but sing about terminal life choices and you might just set your music career on a terminal destination.

#12 God Bless the USA (1984)–Lee Greenwood

“God Bless the USA” charted at No. 7 in Billboard’s Hot Country Singles in 1984 and for good reason, Americans in the 80s were all agog about America. However, that patriotism has dwindled, despite the song reaching No. 16 on the Pop Chart in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 disasters. For the younger generation, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free” just is not something they would agree with. According to Pew Research, only 32% of Millennials agree with the idea that the U.S. “is the greatest country in the world.” Compare that with the Silent Generation (born between 1925-1945) with 64% of that group saying that America is the best. A Gallup poll found that only 54% are “extremely proud” to be an American with 43% under age 30 agreeing to that.

#11 Johnny 99 (1982)–Bruce Springsteen

Only Bruce Springsteen could take unemployment, poverty, robbery and murder and turn it into a rockabilly song. In “Johnny 99”, a young auto worker gets laid off, gets drunk, and kills a man. When he is sentenced to 99 years in jail, young Johnny asks to be executed instead. When Bruce wrote this song nearly 70% of Americans favored capital punishment, however, that number has declined significantly and again is a divisive subject for Americans. Currently, only 55% of Americans agree with Johnny 99’s death wish (for murderers) with just over a third of Americans opposed to capital punishment. Be careful what you wish for Johnny, you might get your hopes up.

#10 Whistle While You Work

If you’ve been to any number of southern plantations and taken one of their tours, you may have heard your guide tell you the story of the “whistle walk.” Basically, since the kitchen was separate from the main house, the slaves were ordered to whistle while they walked (or in some stories, while they worked in the kitchen) so that they couldn’t sample the food. Historians have found this tale to be somewhat apocryphal so we can discount this aspect.

However, this does not let the famous mouse off the hook! When Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was first released in 1937, society had very distinct attitudes towards the roles of women and men. Namely: Women stayed home and men went to work. Disney’s first princess was more than content to sweep up the messy house; cleaning up after the new men in her life. Thirty years later, almost 50% of mothers with children under 18 were stay at home mothers. That number has decreased to 29% today, and that’s with 55% of women agreeing that it is better for children for a parent to stay at home. And if that wasn’t bad enough, mothers trying to re-enter the work force are often seen as less competent and committed than non-mothers. Worse still, there is a stigma surrounding stay/work-at-home mothers as either lazy welfare queens or Stepford Wives that resemble The Walking Dead zombies rather than engaged spouses. While it might be motivating to whistle a little tune while you work, just don’t suggest that others do so too.

#9 I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (1987)–U2

Unlike a few of U2’s songs like “40” off of War that are clearly religious in nature (the song pulls its lyrics from Psalms 40), “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is a subtle overture to religion and faith. For the Joshua Tree, U2 branched into “American” music and gospel specifically and no where is a better example of this found than with “I Still…” For a mega band like U2 to dabble in religious themes is one thing, but America’s attitudes toward faith and religion is on a slow decline and may not resonate with the same audience. According to a Pew Research survey more Americans are identifying themselves as being atheist, agnostic, or no religion; this is especially true among Democrats and Independents (28% in 2007). This is despite the fact that 83% of the respondents agreed with the statement: “I never doubt the existence of God.” U2 may be able to infuse their music with religion, but that theme is slowly fading from both music and society.

#8 Wives and Lovers (1963)–written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David; performed by Julie London, Jack Jones, Wayne Newton, Frank Sinatra, among others

How can you go wrong with a song that opens:

Hey little girl, comb your hair, fix your make up, soon he’ll open the door.

Don’t think because there’s a ring on your finger, you needn’t try anymore.

What is the difference between a married wife and “little girl” after all? The song is a tidy list of things that a good wife should do for their husbands in order to maintain a wonderful home. We’re wondering if Mr. Bacharach and Mr. David had a copy of Edward Podolsky’s 1943 book Sex Today in Wedded Life open beside them as they wrote this song. “Don’t bother your husband with petty troubles and complaints when he comes home from work,” Podolsky admonishes. “Remember your most important job is to build up and maintain his ego (which gets bruised plenty in business). Morale is a woman’s business.” Based on the song, we don’t think Bacharach and David would disagree. Though we dare you to try and sing this to your wife today, but if you do, FTKC is not liable for the damages. Better yet, make this your first song at your wedding reception!

#7 America (1984)–Waylon Jennings

The first of two songs titled “America” on this list, it would seem from the music industry that this is a pretty darn good country with a lot to be proud of. When Waylon Jennings sings “Well, I come from down around Tennessee/But the people in California/Are nice to me, America” and “And my brothers are all black and white, and yellow, too” it sounds like one wonderful family that is our great nation. But not so fast. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans feel that America has become more divided over the last decade, and that we are more divided now than any other time in recent history save the Civil Rights era. Sadly, 20% of Americans feel that going forward the U.S. will remain united as one country. While you may want to think that coming from Tennessee to Californee you will find people that are nice to you, you may find just the opposite.

#6 Over There (1917)–George M. Cohen

Propaganda be damned this is still one fun ditty, but it’s message has become outmoded in our recalcitrant almost isolationist society. Written by George Cohen, who would later received a Congressional Gold Medal from FDR for this and other songs, “Over There” had one simple purpose: Foster national pride and unity among men able to serve in WWI and get them to enlist. However, the notion of sending our troops “over there”–nicely vague–has lost favor among Americans today. True, a vast majority of Americans–nearly 80%–believe that the military contributes a lot to society, only a tiny majority of those who could have actually served since 9/11; a paltry 12% of American men in their late 20’s post 9/11 have spent time in our armed services. And sending them “over there” is not something Americans want to see anymore. Even to defend Israel should they be attacked–53% of Americans are opposed to sending troops in that situation. Since the Vietnam War, Americans have become more and more leery about the use of troops abroad. So, unless you are North Korea or Iran (two countries who surveyed Americans really do no like or trust), you probably do not have to worry about American troops coming over there any time soon.

#5 America (1981)–Neil Diamond

The second song on this list called “America”, this song is catchy as hell, and more than a little inspirational. Neil Diamond’s 1981 ballad of immigrants reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and could very well be the new inscription on the Statue of Liberty. With lines like “Got a dream to take them there/They’re coming to America/Got a dream they’ve come to share” you cannot be anything but patriotic and hopeful. However, the immigration issue has become contentious, if you’d believe some Republicans, and “America” might not be seen as such a wonderful song. Post 9/11, Clear Channel listed “America” as one of the songs that couldn’t be aired. According to a Pew Research study, attitudes towards immigrants is split across party lines with 63% of Republicans saying that immigrants are a burden on society while 62% of Democrats feel that immigrants strengthen society. In 2013, Reuters found that 30% of Americans felt that most illegal immigrants should be deported while 23% felt that all illegal immigrants should be deported. So, before you break out your best sparkly, blue glitter suit from the ’70s and bust out singing, know your audience.

#4 Gimme Back My Bullets (1976)–Lynyrd Skynyrd

Before music purists get on us for this song, please allow us this disclaimer:

“Gimme Back My Bullets” is not about guns and ammunition, but rather about the “bullets” that appear before a song on the Billboard list indicating that the song is rising in the charts. Lynyrd Skynyrd is singing about wanting to get back up on the charts.

Now, for the reason this song makes our list. There were any number of songs that we could have chose for this topic and place on our list, and we almost went with “Janie’s Got A Gun” by Aerosmith. However, though the song is not about ammunition, the title gets people talking anyway, especially about gun control. In the wake of the recent school shootings and other violent rampages utilizing guns, gun control is about as radioactive a topic as the trees around Chernobyl. Everyone from the President to Girl Scout leaders are talking gun control, gun safety, and what America should do with guns in general. There are those defending their rights under the 2nd Amendment and those who say, “Fine, you can have your 2nd Amendment rights with 2nd Amendment era guns. Have fun shooting your muzzle loading Long Rifle.” Gun control/Gun Rights is an incredibly divisive topic in America today where 47% of Americans currently support gun rights while 50% of Americans support gun control. And the gun control group’s numbers have sharply increased since December 2014. Broken down by party affiliation, one can see how radically divided Americans are on this topic: 73% of Democrats support gun control vs. 26% of Republicans, while only 25% of Democrats support gun rights vs. 71% of Republicans. Tread carefully about singing (or talking) about having a gun, using a gun, or wanting your bullets back. (percentages accessed on 10/22/2015)

#3 (You’re) Having My Baby (1974)– Paul Anka with Odia Coates

We’re not sure if Paul Anka missed the memo that the Feminist Movement was reborn in the 1960’s and in full bear by the 1970’s or that the Supreme Court had just ruled on abortion in the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision a year prior to his release of a surprising #1 chart topping hit, but, either way, Mr. Anka went out on a limb in writing his love song to his wife and four daughters. Though Rolling Stone magazine trashed the song as overly sappy and sentimental, it really earned its venom from feminists just based on the title alone. Nothing says misogynist better than you’re having my baby. Not our baby. My baby. The National Organization for Women gave Mr. Anka their ignominious “Keep Her In Her Place” award for lyrics like “what a lovely way of saying you love me” by having my baby. Ms. magazine awarded Anka their “Male Chauvinist of the Year” prize.

But that’s not the worst of it. Despite the hot button issue of abortion, Anka went ahead and wrote

Didn’t have to keep it/Wouldn’t put you through it/You could have swept it away from your life/But you wouldn’t do it

In one fell swoop, Anka managed to ruffle the feathers of both the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice camps in 1974. The Pro-Life audience felt that Anka was trivializing abortions, while the Pro-Choice listeners felt that he was demonizing those who chose abortions. With 38% of Americans feeling that abortion is “morally acceptable” and 50% saying it is “morally wrong” only gay and lesbian relations and doctor assisted suicide are more controversial topics. So, if you are going to sing about abortion, try to do it with a little panache and take a cue from Mr. Anka and tick off everyone while you are at it.

#2 I Shot The Sheriff (1973/1974)–written by Bob Marley, charted with Eric Clapton

Saying that tensions between society and law enforcement are high right now is like saying that islands are surrounded by water. Since the Ferguson unrest in 2014, or maybe since Rodney King in 1992, or the riots in NYC over Clifford Glover’s death in 1973, or possibly since the death of Nation of Islam member Ronald Stokes in 1962…. or, well, okay, it’s been going on for a while. And the dynamics of this argument are as simple as black and white. From there, everything turns a murky gray depending on which side of the argument you lie. Debates abound along cultural, societal, politically motivated, and behavioral lines, but what is clear is that the tensions between society and law enforcement are not easing any time soon. For blacks, only 16% felt that relations between police and minorities will improve in 2015. And it does not get any better among whites where only 21% feel that relations will improve. In fact, 52% of blacks and 34% of whites feel that things would get worse in 2015. In an April 2015 Economist/YouGov poll only 11% felt that the police were more honest than most people, 61% about the same, and 24% felt they were less honest. Though relations appear bleak and honesty is teetering, for the majority of Americans their confidence in the institution of law enforcement remains high and people show more faith in our police forces than most other public institutions. So, while fringe groups may be chanting “What do we want? Dead cops!” and “Arms Up, Shoot Back”, society as a whole may not be ready for you to go off and shoot the sheriff lyrically.

#1 N****s Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha! (1916)–Harry C. Browne; AKA “The Ice Cream Truck Song”

Note: This song is ridiculously racist. We know there are sensitive people who may be reading this, but this is a part of our nation’s history so read at your own caution.

The song link below contains no lyrics. In fact, you’ve probably heard this song nearly every day growing up during the summer.

Minstrelsy. If you are not familiar with this style of music, you are not missing much, but as it is a part of our cultural heritage, a brief history: Though minstrelsy shows existed prior to the Civil War–as evidenced by the popular song “Jump Jim Crow” in the early 1830s, they really took root in American society on the eve of the Civil War and during the Antebellum years and served as a humorous and exploitative look at the struggles of blacks during Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the early 20th Century. Often, white performers would dawn black face and adopt pathetic or feeble black characters in order to uphold white superiority in a post-slavery society, and help reinforce negative, often damning, stereotypes of blacks in America. We chose this song to represent the entire genre because of its familiarity. And then it went away, but not after leaving a dark legacy of stereotypes and caricatures of black society. Here’s to hoping it never comes back.

If you can’t see the stereotype in Harry Browne’s lyrics, we are not going to spell it out for you. Warning: The following link is to the song by Harry Browne

But before you start putting nails in the tires of ice cream trucks and hunkering your children in your basement as the catchy tune slowly reaches a crescendo with the languid approach of the neighborhood ice cream truck, we need to clear up a few things.

  1. Yes, Browne’s lyrics are horribly racist and one of many songs that minstrelsy has brought to society through the years. And we are glad the genre died in the early 20th Century.
  2. No, Browne did not write the music. That was around since the early 19th century in the form of the widely popular fiddle tune “Turkey in the Straw” and that may have been based on an old Irish tune called the “Old Rose Tree”. Neither of which are racist, derogatory, or spiteful in anyway.
  3. “Turkey in the Straw” was still a popular fiddle song in the early 20th century when Browne used the music for his song.
  4. You can find the tune “Turkey in the Straw” in cartoons ranging from Disney (Donald Duck loves playing this tune), to Warner Bros. (Foghorn Leghorn or any time animals are key to the plot), to the Animaniacs (those of you who had children in the 90s, or were children in the 90s). Here’s a link to Wakko Warner of the Animaniacs singing all the States in America to the tune

It would be a stretch to say that the ice cream man, or any ice cream company is blatantly racist because they use the tune. So, let your children out of the basement, let them whistle the tune, and be sure in your knowledge of history and where it has taken us.

Do you agree with the list? Do you think that there is a topic or theme that warrants a place here? Let FTKC know. Follow FTKC for more Dirty Dozen lists and other perspectives on society and history.

 

 

Lies That Altered U.S. History (Part 3)


 

Ragged Dick and the American Dream

Ragged Dick and the American Dream

Event: The Writings Of Horatio Alger

Lie: “A good many distinguished men have once been poor boys. There’s hope for you Dick, if you’ll try.”–Horatio Alger, from Ragged Dick, p. 75. One of many “pluck and luck” books written by Horatio Alger from 1867-1890, Ragged Dick tells the tale of a young bootblack who works hard and rises to middle class respectability.

Born in Massachusetts in 1832, Horatio Alger was surrounded by Puritan legacy. His family could trace their origins directly to Plymouth Pilgrims and they were staunch Congregationalists, so much so that Horatio’s father had decided his eldest son would pursue a life in the ministry. It was here that young Horatio got his first lessons in what would later be called the “American” or “Calvinist/Puritan” work ethic.There are countless examples of the notion that hard-work was the path to greatness: Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard”–“All things are easy to industry, all things difficult to sloth”; Election of 1840–William Harrison was portrayed (falsely) as a man of the earth, from a log cabin in the west, and hard cider drinker while his opponent, Martin Van Buren, was portrayed as a wealthy elitist from the East; Abraham Lincoln–a man born simple in a log cabin rises to President. By the time Horatio Alger sat down to write his stories of young boys who worked hard and rose the social ranks in life, the ideal of the “Calvinist work ethic” had become firmly entrenched in the American conscience.

Lasting Impact: In the years following the Civil War, the United States saw an influx of immigrants from Europe. Some immigrants came because of religious persecution at home–Russian and Eastern European Jews. Many came because of troubling economic times at home–including high unemployment and limited opportunities. And some came for the “American Dream”. It was the work of Alger that captured the imagination and hopes of immigrants. With a little hard work, the American Dream could be realized. Having faced a world with limited opportunities Ragged Dick and the many other novels inspired waves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants to filter through Ellis Island, settle in New York or Boston or Chicago, and strive for the elusive American Dream.

What the immigrants found instead were ghettos, tenements, corrupt local officials, unscrupulous factory managers, and uncaring factory owners. The vast majority of immigrants never found the American Dream no matter how hard they worked. However, their work ethic prevailed. You could see it in the way Americans faced the adversity of the Great Depression and World War II. Recently, this work ethic has come under assault as being either blatantly racist or elitist (Source and Source). Their argument is that the wealthy abused the poor to get their status, in turn bastardizing the Puritan work ethic. The other view could be that without the hope of a better life for their children and maybe themselves, the immigrant’s “work ethic” toward an American Dream may have been weaker and the accomplishments made during America’s Gilded Age may never have been achieved. Either way, this ideal made popular by Horatio Alger had a major impact on America today.

Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Luck. Sometimes for a lie to work out you need a little luck. For Horatio Alger a little luck in timing and place helped his “lie” roll into an ideal. Having failed as a minister–because he probably he had an “unnatural familiarity with boys”–and as a school teacher, Alger’s “pluck and luck” books proved the work ethic. He persevered, found a niche, and filled it. His niche just happened to be during one of the greatest influxes of immigrants in American history who attached to his message like infants to the teat. Whether or not you accept that the “Calvinist/Puritan” work ethic was good or bad for America, it must be conceded that without it this nation would look remarkably different.


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Event: Mexican-American War

Lie: “…after a long-continued series of menaces [the Mexicans] have at last invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil.”– President James Polk’s War Message 1846.

On the eve of the Mexican-American war, the United States had been “reawakened”. A second wave of religious fervor swept the nation, primarily its western states–Kentucky, Tennessee–and there was a general feel of accomplishment and achievement–except for anyone who identified as Native America, women, or slave; but things were on the eve of change for most of them, also. America had experienced a period of “good feelings”–though those good feelings were about as great as the feelings of week-long incontinence. In this specter of joy, a newspaper editor and political hack, John O’Sullivan, wrote about American destiny. He called it Manifest Destiny and by 1845, the notion dictated every aspect of American politics and society. However, the concept wasn’t new. In 1776, a writer–only known as Salus Populi–wrote a piece called “To The People Of North-America On The Different Kinds Of Government“. In it, the author declared:

I cannot help cherishing a secret hope that God has destined America to form the last and best plan that can possibly exist; and that [H]e will gradually carry those who have long been under the galling yoke of tyranny in every other quarter of the globe, into the bosom of perfect liberty and freedom in America.

Polk was a political ally of Andrew Jackson–working with Jackson during his Bank War. He also understood the political climate of America and while men like Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren were trying to distance themselves from expansionism, Polk dove headlong into it declaring that Texas should be “re-annexed” and Oregon “re-occupied.” This stance got Jackson’s personal blessing and would thrust Polk into the White House.

The Cat and the CockLasting Impact: Two words: Civil War. The Mexican-American War is often characterized as one of darkest blemishes on the face of America. Polk’s behavior in Mexico could be seen as the modern equivalent of Aesop’s “The Cat and The Cock” fable where the cat finally catches the cock and then has to devise a reason why it should devour him. But, we cannot forget that Mexico had a part in this behavior also–they impeded American commerce and often plundered it, imprisioned American citizens, spurned all the envoys that Polk had sent to negotiate. Today, we view “the strong and the weak” as a test of right and wrong. A strong nation, the United States, should never have behaved toward Mexico, the weaker, in the ways it did; however, weakness should not justify impudence, insolence, or threats. 

The war happened. Live with it. The Mexican-American War’s lasting impact has little to do with how crass or absurd or wrong American expansion was during the 1840s, but the impact of Texas’ annexation had on the people of the United States. Abolitionists in the New England states were right in their beliefs that the annexation of Texas may have been justified under the concept of “Manifest Destiny” or an attempt to bring those living in tyranny into the loving bosom of the United States, but it was morally wrong. It was morally wrong to grab land in the West just to expand slavery. America was just expanding its own tyranny westward.

Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Conscience. Or a lack there of. When a person lies enough, they tend to believe the lie as truth. In this case, the lie was our manifest destiny to do God’s work, but somehow that work got distorted in a myriad of other issues. James Russell Lowell warned America, specifically the annexationists, of the harm in believing the lie and moving it into the collective conscience and eventually moving into Texas when he wrote in his poem “The Present Crisis” (1845) “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide/In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side…. They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.” We are still burdened with the issues that Manifest Destiny wrought upon the U.S. in 1845.

 

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 4 here

On Doublespeak: Words Are Our New Great Divider

What ever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.– Buddha

It is just a word. A simple one really. It comes from the old French word destreit meaning “straits.” And at one point in time it was synonymous with American ingenuity and prosperity. Now, it has become a strange focal point for two political camps who have now taken semantics into the dark, vile recesses of American political discourse.

Detroit.

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How can one word invoke such confusion? Well, if you read all the comments of posters on the left and the right, it is really all about doublespeak. You know, “downsizing” not firing. “Gone to meet their maker” not died. “Detroit” is now in the lexicon of what is is.

On the one hand, the right argues that when Obama said, on 13 October 2012, that “We refused to let Detroit go bankrupt” he meant the city of Detroit. Seems logical to assume that since he did mention Toledo and Chicago later in the address. Here’s a link to some funny right wing comments from The Blaze the home of some right-wing thinking.

However, the left is claiming that the word “Detroit” was a metaphor? parallel? simile? for the auto industry. When the President said “We refused to let Detroit go bankrupt” he meant GM and Chrysler. Here’s a link to Media Matters (“A non-profit progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the media”) on the subject.

So, which is it? Did Obama mean Detroit the city or Detroit the automaker? Well, this is where our media, our politicians, and our own handlers (those people we chose to follow in the media be they movie stars, musicians, athletes, bloggers [yep, like me], or journalists) prefer us to remain, stuck on one word.

Honestly, I can see it both ways. Like I said in my intro, Detroit was synonymous with the auto industry. No, Detroit itself didn’t build cars, but our largest manufactures called it home. And, Detroit is a city. It is a city facing and urban blight, mass-emmigration, and now bankruptcy. I also think this was a clever way for the President to handle the situation. If he came out and said “We will not let GM and Chrysler go bankrupt” he has put the onus on his administration to see to it that those two companies succeed. If they fail, then his opposition has words to damage him with. But by saying “Detroit” he’s created a cleaver doublespeak that leaves him relatively undamaged in the eyes of his constituents (go the to Media Matters link to see that evidence), and gives him leverage in any assault from the opposition.

However, there was a flaw in his speech; a flaw that seems to be going unnoticed by all the message board hounds, bloggers, journalists, and talking heads. If you go back to his speech, it would appear that the President did mean the city of Detroit, and for that matter, every city in America.

More than a million jobs across the country were on the line – and not just auto jobs, but the jobs of teachers, small business owners, and everyone in communities that depend on this great American industry.

“And everyone in communities that depend on this great American industry.” By saving the auto industry with his bailouts, the President was, in turn, saving our communities, our cities, our jobs. Without these secondary jobs where would the tax support for our communities come from? Our communities would go be the way of Stockton, CA, San Bernadino, CA, and now Detroit, MI. Obama wasn’t going to let either GM or Detroit go bankrupt.

This is not to cast Detroit’s bankruptcy at Obama’s doorstep. Detroit needs to own its bankruptcy like it owned being the center of American auto-making for decades. But, the President needs to own his own words, also. Detroit is Detroit. It was an auto-manufacturing city, but it is still just a city. A broke one. (See… more doublespeak!).

No matter. The left will say that Obama meant GM and the right will try to lay Detroit’s bankruptcy at the President’s doorstep. Either way, words are becoming more and more politically divisive each day.

The language of friendship is not words but meanings. –Henry David Thoreau

Something to Celebrate today! 9 July 2013

On today’s date, sixty-two years ago, the United States formally ended the war with Germany. Yep. 9 July 1951. You can read the request from President Truman to the Vice President (President of the Senate) here.

Why so late?

The answer is complicated in its simplicity, so let me try.

The Soviets.

There’s the simple. Now, the complicated…

After World War II, Germany was torn asunder by the allies (and to a lesser extent the Germans themselves). The Soviets and the United States each had plans for the occupied country. The U.S. followed Wilsonian ideals of self-determination, democracy, and the spread of capitalism. The Soviets, on the other hand, wanted to demolish Germany. They’d been invaded three major times through and by Germany. They vowed never to let that happen again.

Hence, the divided Germany which lasted until 1989.

So. Happy V-E-G day to everyone. Let us all hoist a stein in honor of this momentous day…

…or, like I say, just another excuse history gives me to drink a beer!