My paternal grandmother, before she married, clerked in an upscale home furnishings store in Albany, and must have scored a very impressive trousseau when she left to wed a struggling young pharmacist. She had a really nice china service, sterling silverware and even a sterling table scraper with a little crumb pan to match. Among those treasures was a pair of delicate ebony candlesticks, about a foot high.
One Sunday afternoon, probably in 1940, I was killing time in the parlor while the old folks sorted through the news. Bored, I set one of the ebony candlesticks on the floor and, reciting. “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick!” leaped over it. Almost. The result was a little pile of ebony bits beyond reclaiming.
Years later, when Gramma Lange died, I discovered she’d left me not only the silver dessert spoons she knew I loved, but the surviving candlestick, as well. I’ll never know whether it was a matter of irony, reproach or sentiment; but there it is, all these years later, reminding me of the effects of my carelessness.
Which also reminds me, as does almost everything else this week, of the current shambles in our nation’s capital. The president is, at this writing, about to be acquitted of self-serving misdeeds, thanks in part to a lawyerly defense positing that any elected official who believes his reelection is in the public interest, cannot be impeached for deeds which in a normal course of events would be considered sufficient grounds for removal.
The media indulge frequently in terms like “unprecedented,” “historical” and “death of democracy.” Many have hinted darkly at the comparison of the impeachment trial’s outcome with the Enabling Act of 1933 in Germany, which transferred the power to make laws from the Reichstag to the Cabinet — in effect, Chancellor Hitler. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire has, for obvious reasons, also been cited as a prediction of the future path of our all-too-fragile republic.
Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” suggests perhaps it could. His writing was informed by that of his wife, Dorothy Thompson, whose beat was Europe during the rise of fascism. It was also, at the time, considered a warning about Huey Long, a powerful, bullying senator from Louisiana who, cueing on the horrors of the Depression, was warming up to challenge Franklin Roosevelt in the 1936 election. We’ll never know how that might have turned out, as Huey was assassinated in 1935, shortly before the novel was released. “Seven Days in May,” a 1960s-era novel, details the near-success of a military coup (Burt Lancaster was magnificent as a hard-bitten true believer in the movie) against the president and Congress. The conclusion is clear that, if the American public should be as careless with its treasured Constitution as I was with Gramma Lange’s candlestick, it could indeed happen here.
And yet, we’ve been here before. Just yesterday, plowing again through Ken Burns’ magnificent companion volume to his series on the American Civil War, I came across this: “’Little did I conceive,’ William Howard Russell wrote of Bull Run and its impact toward the end of the year (1861), ‘of the ... magnitude of the disaster which it had entailed upon the United States ... So short-lived has been the American Union, that men who saw it rise may live to see it fall.’”
It didn’t, though it’s still interesting to speculate how things might have turned out had Lee managed to get between Meade’s army and Washington, D.C., in 1863. A scant 70 years later, as the Great Depression tumbled long-held assumptions about democracy into disarray — it’s probably impossible for most people today to appreciate the fear and despair of those years — fascism and communism flowed into the sump of our national consciousness. Madison Square Garden filled with roaring crowds who saw Hitler as a savior. American cultural idols like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh praised Hitler and implied that “Jewish bankers” were leading us into war. Could we get more broken than that?
Jill Lepore, in the Feb. 3 issue of The New Yorker, describes the period in terms reminiscent of today: “American democracy, too, staggered, weakened by corruption, monopoly, apathy, inequality, political violence, hucksterism, racial injustice, unemployment, even starvation.” But, just as 1861 brought us Lincoln, who took hold of the notion of an indissoluble Union and refused to let it go, whatever it cost, 1932 brought us FDR, whose first inaugural gave us the mantra that the only thing we really have to fear is fear itself. Today, with the United States Senate apparently in thrall to PAC-funded, heavy-handed, carrot-and-stick executive tactics, and about to permit the modern version of the Enabling Act, it would be easy to submit to a sense of hopelessness and doubt that any of our efforts can make a difference.
Thus, it’s critical to remember we’ve been here before, and have somehow mustered the resolution to pull ourselves out. The delicate single candlestick on my windowsill reminds me that, though carelessness has consequences, something of beauty remains, to be cherished and nourished.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.