Today is the 140th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, which essentially ended the American Civil War.As a (white) child growing up in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s, I looked forward in history class to the tale of the Appomattox surrender, because it marked the end of the interminable period of time we spent studying–or more accurately, saturating ourselves in–the War Between the States each year. Indeed, such was the extent of our wallowing in the Confederacy that we rarely made it past World War I in American history.Far beyond elementary school, in the broader southern white culture I grew up in, there was an odd exultancy about Appomattox that had nothing to do with vicarious relief at the end of that brutal war. No, we drank in the details of Lee’s peerless dress and manner at the moment of surrender, and were encouraged to think of the shabby Grant’s generosity in victory as little more than the acknowledgement of a superior being–and a superior, if Lost, Cause. A Cause, moreover, that was about everything other than the ownership of human beings–about states’ rights, about agrarian resistance to capitalism, about cultured Cavaliers defending civilization against philistine Puritans, about Honor, about Duty.And that was the essence of Confederate Nostalgia in those days: a cult of romantic defeat, denial, self-pity and pride. I never quite shared it, even as a child, but never quite understood its pathological depths until its mirror images in Serbian and (some parts of) Arab culture became part of world events in more recent years. And remarkably, I get the sense Confederate Nostalgia is not only surviving, but perhaps even reviving among people too young to know its nature and political usages.So now, in many heated conversations with my fellow white southerners–and occasionally with Yankees who’ve been caught up by the Romance in Grey–I find myself insisting on an acknowledgement of the reality of the Confederacy, and its consequences for our home region.It was an armed revolution led by a planter class that could not tolerate restrictions on the “right” to transfer its human property into the territories.It was a “Cause” centered in the states most dependent on slavery, made possible by a secession bitterly opposed by poor white farmers in much of the region, and imposed on them by the narrowest of margins.It was a rebellion whose success entirely relied on the calculation that the people of the North would not sacrifice for abstactions like the Union and Freedom.Its inevitable defeat plunged the South and all of its people into a century of grinding poverty, isolation, and oligarchical government. Its heritage has been used again and again to justify racism and every other sort of reactionary policy.I look at Appomattox and see the end of a disastrous folly that killed over 600,000 Americans, maimed far more, and made life miserable for those of my ancestors who survived the Planters’ Revolt. No romance. No victory-in-defeat. Just carnage and destruction in a bad cause made no better by the good men whose lives and futures it claimed.It is far past time for southern pride–which I share to an almost painful extent–to attach itself to everything, anything, other than those four disastrous years that ended at Appomattox Court House.
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By Ed Kilgore
When Fritz Mondale passed away this week, I eulogized this Democratic leader at New York:
Some career politicians who achieve national fame are known as policy innovators or political insurgents, while others flame out and return to obscurity thanks to bad luck or bad behavior. Walter F. “Fritz” Mondale was another type altogether: a reliable public servant in all of the many jobs he held and a steady steward of the Minnesota liberal political traditions he inherited. He was also, by all accounts, a decent man, and it was characteristic of him that just before his death this week at the age of 93, he sent a grateful email to former staffers, saying “Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side! Together we have accomplished so much, and I know you will keep up the good fight.”
Mondale was fated to spend much of his career in the shadow of other leaders. A protégé of Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party legends Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman, he was appointed state attorney general by Freeman in 1960 and then four years later occupied Humphrey’s Senate seat when his mentor became Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president. Like Humphrey, Mondale was a rigorous New Deal liberal who was quick to support the labor and civil-rights movements and slow to abandon the Vietnam War. He began and quickly dropped a presidential candidacy in 1974 after Humphrey’s ill health kept him from running; Mondale famously said he didn’t want to spend the next two years living in Holiday Inns. But when eventual Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter needed a northern running mate with close ties to labor, Mondale signed up after securing a pledge from Carter that they would form a true partnership in office.It speaks well for both men that Carter kept his promise and Mondale redefined the vice-presidency, “with full access to intelligence briefings, a weekly lunch with Mr. Carter, his own office near the president’s and his own staff integrated with Mr. Carter’s,” noted the New York Times in its obituary. His elevated role made it possible for Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden to become similarly significant veeps. And he served as something of an internal lobbyist for the progressive tendencies of a sometimes conservative Carter administration, while remaining loyal, which had particular value when Carter was challenged by Ted Kennedy in the 1980 primaries.
The wheels soon came off for the coalition Carter and Mondale had put together in 1976, and when Mondale finally ran for the top spot in 1984, the Republican ascendancy that had been delayed by Watergate and Carter’s southern identity fully arrived. The Minnesotan narrowly won the presidential nomination against forward-leaning candidacies by Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart, but eventually won just his own state plus the District of Columbia against the “Morning in America” reelection campaign of Ronald Reagan. The Mondale presidential campaign’s only positive legacy was his pioneering choice of a woman, New York’s Gerald Ferraro, as running mate. Again, All Things Veep was Mondale’s signature.
He returned to public office when Bill Clinton reclaimed the White House, spending over three years as U.S. ambassador to Japan, where he is still remembered for his efforts to scale back the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.
But after he returned to Minnesota to practice law and semi-retire, this paragon of party loyalty had one more bitter cup to drink. He was drafted in 2002 to run for his old Senate seat after Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane accident just 11 days before the general election. A close race turned into a Democratic defeat, after a boisterous Wellstone memorial service that offended some voters. Mondale finally retired from politics.
His and Carter’s longevity (the former president is 96) made them the longest-surviving ex-president and vice-president ever. And the strong personal qualities of both men have allowed their political mistakes to fade over time.
Upon news of Mondale’s death, President Biden released a statement crediting his vice-presidential predecessor with offering him sound counsel when Barack Obama chose him as his 2008 running mate. And in some respects, the old-school liberal tradition Mondale typified is shared by Biden, who served with him in the Senate for eight years (four when Mondale was president of the Senate) more than four decades ago. Ideology aside, both men unfashionably viewed public service as an honorable profession. One lives in the White House, and the other lives on in many fond memories.