Eighty-seven years ago today, Jack and Irene Cannon welcomed their first son into the world. They lived in New York City, although they would soon move to Nevada. Even though it was the midst of the Great Depression, for Jack going out West meant returning home -- he was born and raised in California's Mother Lode country. Irene, whose maiden name was Kohn, was born in Hungary and brought to Philadelphia as a young girl. Or maybe she was born in Philly. We don't know for sure. What we do know was that the couple raised two boys, the oldest of whom became an acclaimed newspaperman and author. He is my father.
Best known for his books on Ronald Reagan, Lou Cannon also wrote a book on the Rodney King case, the ensuing criminal trials of the police officers charged with beating him, and the Los Angeles riots. "Official Negligence" is the definitive book on that searing chapter in U.S. history and contains haunting lessons about race relations and policing that are once again relevant this week. But then, so much that is old is new again.
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RealClearPolitics' co-founder Tom Bevan asked me the other day if this is what 1968 was like. With riots raging across the country, I told him that it sure feels similar. But that's not all -- 2020 must also be what it was like in the the grim days of 1918, when Americans were at the mercy of a virus that was killing human beings in every corner of the globe.
In 1918, we had a president who considered it unpatriotic to even discuss the pandemic, let alone do much about it. The nation was at war, after all. So Americans dealt with the threat the best they knew how. Staying home from work was unthinkable, but many donned makeshift face masks. Most industries kept on as before, hoping for the best. Major League Baseball was among the exceptions: The owners cut their season short, although Woodrow Wilson's "work or fight" edict had more to do with it than public health. The World Series ended by Sept. 11. It might not have happened at all: So few fans were willing to jam themselves into close quarters as the second wave of the pandemic hit that players threatened to strike over reduced gate receipts.
In stark contrast to the government's hands-off approach in 1918, this year state governments' response to the coronavirus was to mandate "social distancing," which saved lives while also crashing our economy, with all its attendant social pathologies. Among them is massive unemployment, meaning that 2020 is also like 1929 and 1930.
Back then, a majority of Americans decided the president wasn't up to the job. So, is Donald Trump our generation's equivalent of Herbert Hoover? The RealClearPolitics polling average suggests this may be the case, although Hoover had been a globally acclaimed humanitarian before assuming the presidency, not a reality-TV host -- and Joe Biden seems an unlikely Franklin Roosevelt. If an unpopular incumbent president is the test, 2020 could be 1980, which seems unfair to Jimmy Carter, but as John F. Kennedy once said, who said life is fair? Speaking of which, if you are one of the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump, the last three years may seem like 1860 and 1861, when half the country decided it was so angry about the results of the presidential election that they decided not to abide by it.
Each weekday for nearly the past 10 years, I've written about anniversary events in U.S. history. They aren't chosen at random. I try to select one relevant to our own times, and one underlying theme in these homilies is that we've been through tough times before, and that we get through them, often stronger than we were before. But if this is 1918, and 1929, and 1968 all rolled into one, well, maybe we really are up against it this time. I still think we'll make it, but success isn't preordained. If we're to prevail, we must perform under pressure. Some humility about the future would help. Optimism is as American as apple pie, but smug overconfidence is not.
Which brings me to a final historical milestone this morning. It was on this date in 1888 that the poem "Casey at the Bat" appeared. It was published in the June 3, 1888 editions of the San Francisco Examiner. Although it ran without a byline, the author was Ernest L. Thayer, a former editor of the Harvard Lampoon who'd been college chums with both William Randolph Hearst (whose family owned the Examiner) and a future Massachusetts congressman of imposing physical appearance named Samuel Winslow -- captain of Harvard's baseball team.
Thayer's poem was made famous later that summer by a powerfully built actor with a booming voice, William De Wolf Hopper, who recited it onstage to a Broadway audience that included Cap Anson's Chicago White Stockings and the New York Giants. The two teams had played that day at the Polo Grounds where Anson's team had beaten the local nine 4-2 -- the same score that "the Mudville nine" loses by in the poem. Anyway, after the mighty Casey struck out, the crowd went wild -- the crowd at McCaull's Opera House, that is.
But Casey's failure wasn't only due to baseball's inherent difficulty. It was also born of hubris. Remember, the prideful slugger disdainfully looked at the first two pitches without swinging. "That ain't my style," sneered Casey at the first pitch. He also ignored the second strike. You know what happened on the third pitch, so I won't belabor the point. But just as there was "no joy in Mudville" after the mighty Casey had gone down swinging, there's not a lot of joy in America right now -- and we don't even have baseball to help us take our minds off our troubles. Will we get through this? God, I hope so, but I believe the ballplayer we ought to be emulating right now is not the cocky Casey, but instead the noble Jackie Robinson, one of my father's boyhood heroes.
"There's not an American in this country free," he once said, "until every one of us is free."
Happy birthday, Dad.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.