Commentary Magazine


Topic: Milwaukee

An Exceptional Life

I admit to being a fan of obituaries, not only those of the most famous or infamous but also of those whose lives were not played out in daily headlines. They are tiny history lessons and morality tales. They are vivid reminders that ordinary people are capable of doing remarkable things, and they prod us to ask: what would I have done?

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a gem. We learn:

Shortly after German troops invaded Belgium in 1940, Gaston Vandermeerssche, a Belgian university student, bicycled 800 miles to the south of France and became a spy.

Mr. Vandermeerssche, who died Nov. 1 at age 89 in Milwaukee, joined the resistance and ferried microfilm documents over the Pyrenees to Spain, where intermediaries sent the information on to London.

Later in the war he helped organize the Dutch underground, which came to comprise hundreds of agents and safe houses. After his network was penetrated by the Germans, he tried to escape, but was arrested near the Spanish border. He spent 24 months being interrogated in prison, but by his own account never broke.

The details of his exploits are eye-popping. (“He became a courier, making weekly trips from Brussels to Toulouse to Barcelona. The last leg involved trudging over snowy passes in the Pyrenees by moonlight. The microfilms he carried bore information collected by members of the underground on shipyards, gun emplacements and the like.”) But it is also the details of his very unextraordinary life — the son of a furniture maker who ended life in the U.S. as an executive of Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. — that remind us of the innate decency and capacity for greatness that ordinary people possess. Indeed, it was Vandermeerssche’s unexceptionalness that confounded his captors:

Mr. Vandermeerssche was arrested in Perpignan, France, in 1943 with a cache of microfilm stuffed into butter tubs. His German interrogators suspected his role in the Dutch underground, but couldn’t prove it.

“I was so young, the Germans did not believe that this kid was the head of that large network,” he said in the oral history. “And I told them, ‘Are you crazy? I couldn’t have done this.’ ”

Months of brutal interrogation and solitary confinement failed to break Mr. Vandermeerssche’s will. He was betrayed by another member of the underground, and was sentenced to death in a military trial. But he was freed by American troops near the end of the war.

Although shattered by his experiences in prison—he said he couldn’t eat or sleep normally for a decade—Mr. Vandermeerssche resumed his studies, earning a Ph.D. in physics.

You can understand my fondness for obits.

I admit to being a fan of obituaries, not only those of the most famous or infamous but also of those whose lives were not played out in daily headlines. They are tiny history lessons and morality tales. They are vivid reminders that ordinary people are capable of doing remarkable things, and they prod us to ask: what would I have done?

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a gem. We learn:

Shortly after German troops invaded Belgium in 1940, Gaston Vandermeerssche, a Belgian university student, bicycled 800 miles to the south of France and became a spy.

Mr. Vandermeerssche, who died Nov. 1 at age 89 in Milwaukee, joined the resistance and ferried microfilm documents over the Pyrenees to Spain, where intermediaries sent the information on to London.

Later in the war he helped organize the Dutch underground, which came to comprise hundreds of agents and safe houses. After his network was penetrated by the Germans, he tried to escape, but was arrested near the Spanish border. He spent 24 months being interrogated in prison, but by his own account never broke.

The details of his exploits are eye-popping. (“He became a courier, making weekly trips from Brussels to Toulouse to Barcelona. The last leg involved trudging over snowy passes in the Pyrenees by moonlight. The microfilms he carried bore information collected by members of the underground on shipyards, gun emplacements and the like.”) But it is also the details of his very unextraordinary life — the son of a furniture maker who ended life in the U.S. as an executive of Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. — that remind us of the innate decency and capacity for greatness that ordinary people possess. Indeed, it was Vandermeerssche’s unexceptionalness that confounded his captors:

Mr. Vandermeerssche was arrested in Perpignan, France, in 1943 with a cache of microfilm stuffed into butter tubs. His German interrogators suspected his role in the Dutch underground, but couldn’t prove it.

“I was so young, the Germans did not believe that this kid was the head of that large network,” he said in the oral history. “And I told them, ‘Are you crazy? I couldn’t have done this.’ ”

Months of brutal interrogation and solitary confinement failed to break Mr. Vandermeerssche’s will. He was betrayed by another member of the underground, and was sentenced to death in a military trial. But he was freed by American troops near the end of the war.

Although shattered by his experiences in prison—he said he couldn’t eat or sleep normally for a decade—Mr. Vandermeerssche resumed his studies, earning a Ph.D. in physics.

You can understand my fondness for obits.

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Obama’s Rhetoric Only Widening the Enthusiasm Gap?

The big news in all the polls is the astounding gap in electoral enthusiasm between voters intending to vote Republican and voters intending to vote Democratic — Gallup has it as a 25 point difference, it appears. Rich Lowry explains in a fine column today that the president is trying to close the gap by appealing to his base:

While most people want less of Obama’s program, his base wants more. Obama could ease off his spending to try to take the edge off the brewing backlash, but that would anger his supporters. Instead, he promises his union-member allies yet more infrastructure projects. His new proposals for business-tax breaks are paid for not with spending cuts, but with countervailing business-tax increases, lest the Left throw a fit.

Obama is in a peculiar position here. The trick for him is getting the ideological word out to those who are profiting from his policies (public sector workers primarily) and unvarnished Leftists — without worsening the picture among independent voters, who seem driven almost entirely by their disgust with excessive spending.  But how can a president fly under the radar? Obama apparently believes he can attack Republicans, and do so vociferously, without cost because independents don’t like the GOP much either and deeply partisan Democrats hate them. But what is the effect of  a president describing his opponents, as he did in Milwaukee,  in patently sophomoric ways? “If I said the sky was blue, they’d say no,” he said. “If I said fish live in the sea, they’d say no.”

I could be wrong, but I very much doubt this is the kind of tone Americans want from a president. This is the president we’re talking about here, not some shlepper running for city council. It’s understandable that the president and the Democrats believe they need to get hard-hitting to draw distinctions, that this is their only hope. It is, however, hard to fathom how the White House and partisan Democrats can believe they can close the enthusiasm gap by making such pedestrian use of the bully pulpit. Rhetoric like this may only increase the sense among people who are paying attention that he is not handling this job well. And that might even include some of his own base, who really fell in love with High Obama, the natural aristocrat who spoke in front of those fake Greek columns at the Democratic convention and acted as though he were the second coming of Pericles.

The big news in all the polls is the astounding gap in electoral enthusiasm between voters intending to vote Republican and voters intending to vote Democratic — Gallup has it as a 25 point difference, it appears. Rich Lowry explains in a fine column today that the president is trying to close the gap by appealing to his base:

While most people want less of Obama’s program, his base wants more. Obama could ease off his spending to try to take the edge off the brewing backlash, but that would anger his supporters. Instead, he promises his union-member allies yet more infrastructure projects. His new proposals for business-tax breaks are paid for not with spending cuts, but with countervailing business-tax increases, lest the Left throw a fit.

Obama is in a peculiar position here. The trick for him is getting the ideological word out to those who are profiting from his policies (public sector workers primarily) and unvarnished Leftists — without worsening the picture among independent voters, who seem driven almost entirely by their disgust with excessive spending.  But how can a president fly under the radar? Obama apparently believes he can attack Republicans, and do so vociferously, without cost because independents don’t like the GOP much either and deeply partisan Democrats hate them. But what is the effect of  a president describing his opponents, as he did in Milwaukee,  in patently sophomoric ways? “If I said the sky was blue, they’d say no,” he said. “If I said fish live in the sea, they’d say no.”

I could be wrong, but I very much doubt this is the kind of tone Americans want from a president. This is the president we’re talking about here, not some shlepper running for city council. It’s understandable that the president and the Democrats believe they need to get hard-hitting to draw distinctions, that this is their only hope. It is, however, hard to fathom how the White House and partisan Democrats can believe they can close the enthusiasm gap by making such pedestrian use of the bully pulpit. Rhetoric like this may only increase the sense among people who are paying attention that he is not handling this job well. And that might even include some of his own base, who really fell in love with High Obama, the natural aristocrat who spoke in front of those fake Greek columns at the Democratic convention and acted as though he were the second coming of Pericles.

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Just Words

“Don’t give in to fear,” President Obama said Monday, in a campaign stop in Milwaukee. “Let’s reach for hope.”

When Obama said those words in 2008, they were empty. Now, more than 18 months into his presidency, they are discredited.

The public is rising up in massive numbers against Obama’s version of “hope and change” — and Obama’s party is going to suffer massively because of it.

“Don’t give in to fear,” President Obama said Monday, in a campaign stop in Milwaukee. “Let’s reach for hope.”

When Obama said those words in 2008, they were empty. Now, more than 18 months into his presidency, they are discredited.

The public is rising up in massive numbers against Obama’s version of “hope and change” — and Obama’s party is going to suffer massively because of it.

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Plus ça Change Department

There is a move afoot in Congress to legalize Internet gambling by repealing a 2006 law that forbade banks to transmit payments to or from Internet-gambling operators.

The law hasn’t stopped Internet gambling, which, it is estimated, Americans spend $6 billion a year on. There are just too many ways these days — prepaid credit cards, online payment processors such as PayPal, etc. – to transmit money. But the effort to repeal the law does not stem merely from the fact that it doesn’t work. It also comes from the need for tax revenue, which might reach as high as $42 billion over 10 years. According to the Times, “Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California, said in an interview that the money was an attractive source of financing for other programs. ‘We will not pass an Internet gaming bill,’ Mr. Sherman predicted. ‘We will pass a bill to do something very important, funded by Internet gaming.’”

This is all very reminiscent of an earlier effort to stamp out bad habits among the general population by a means that didn’t work. That effort also was repealed in order not to correct a mistake — being a politician means never having to say you’re sorry — but instead to raise revenue.

Prohibition was supposed to get rid of demon rum so that husbands would go home to their families and not spend their paychecks at the local saloon. What it got us was Al Capone. It proved impossible in a democratic society to prevent the illegal production and distribution of alcohol, which millions in the population saw nothing wrong with. Rum runners imported millions of gallons of illegal alcohol over the border from Canada and by sea. Moonshiners produced millions more. Bootleggers distributed all this efficiently. Lavish bribes corrupted police and local officials, who looked the other way (and often drank themselves). Organized crime received a vast new cash flow and grew exponentially. Commercial disputes were settled in parking lots and alleyways rather than in court, the tommy gun being the means of choice. At least Prohibition produced a rich literary and cinematic genre that now rivals the western in extent. And NASCAR developed out of the souped-up cars used to deliver booze and, if necessary, outrun the police cars chasing them.

But it is axiomatic that it is much easier to pass a law than to repeal it. And it was only when the Great Depression caused unemployment to soar and tax revenues to plummet that the federal government moved to loosen and then repeal the 18th Amendment. Shortly after taking office, Franklin Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act, which had given legislative flesh to the constitutional bones of the 18th Amendment. It changed the definition of “intoxicating beverage” from .5 percent alcohol to 3.2 percent. On signing it, FDR — no teetotaler he — said, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” The brewing industry, moribund since 1920, sprang back to life, hiring thousands of workers in places like St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Congress had already proposed repealing the Amendment (on February 20). Knowing that many state legislatures were firmly in the grip of the “preachers and the bootleggers,” Congress specified that the 21st Amendment be ratified by a special convention in each state instead of by the legislatures, the only time that they have been used to amend the Constitution. Ironically, Utah, dominated by non-drinking Mormons, was the 36th state to ratify, the number needed to put the 21st Amendment into the Constitution. The most calamitous social-engineering experiment in American history was dead, and tax revenues began to flow copiously into federal and state coffers.

There is a move afoot in Congress to legalize Internet gambling by repealing a 2006 law that forbade banks to transmit payments to or from Internet-gambling operators.

The law hasn’t stopped Internet gambling, which, it is estimated, Americans spend $6 billion a year on. There are just too many ways these days — prepaid credit cards, online payment processors such as PayPal, etc. – to transmit money. But the effort to repeal the law does not stem merely from the fact that it doesn’t work. It also comes from the need for tax revenue, which might reach as high as $42 billion over 10 years. According to the Times, “Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California, said in an interview that the money was an attractive source of financing for other programs. ‘We will not pass an Internet gaming bill,’ Mr. Sherman predicted. ‘We will pass a bill to do something very important, funded by Internet gaming.’”

This is all very reminiscent of an earlier effort to stamp out bad habits among the general population by a means that didn’t work. That effort also was repealed in order not to correct a mistake — being a politician means never having to say you’re sorry — but instead to raise revenue.

Prohibition was supposed to get rid of demon rum so that husbands would go home to their families and not spend their paychecks at the local saloon. What it got us was Al Capone. It proved impossible in a democratic society to prevent the illegal production and distribution of alcohol, which millions in the population saw nothing wrong with. Rum runners imported millions of gallons of illegal alcohol over the border from Canada and by sea. Moonshiners produced millions more. Bootleggers distributed all this efficiently. Lavish bribes corrupted police and local officials, who looked the other way (and often drank themselves). Organized crime received a vast new cash flow and grew exponentially. Commercial disputes were settled in parking lots and alleyways rather than in court, the tommy gun being the means of choice. At least Prohibition produced a rich literary and cinematic genre that now rivals the western in extent. And NASCAR developed out of the souped-up cars used to deliver booze and, if necessary, outrun the police cars chasing them.

But it is axiomatic that it is much easier to pass a law than to repeal it. And it was only when the Great Depression caused unemployment to soar and tax revenues to plummet that the federal government moved to loosen and then repeal the 18th Amendment. Shortly after taking office, Franklin Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act, which had given legislative flesh to the constitutional bones of the 18th Amendment. It changed the definition of “intoxicating beverage” from .5 percent alcohol to 3.2 percent. On signing it, FDR — no teetotaler he — said, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” The brewing industry, moribund since 1920, sprang back to life, hiring thousands of workers in places like St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Congress had already proposed repealing the Amendment (on February 20). Knowing that many state legislatures were firmly in the grip of the “preachers and the bootleggers,” Congress specified that the 21st Amendment be ratified by a special convention in each state instead of by the legislatures, the only time that they have been used to amend the Constitution. Ironically, Utah, dominated by non-drinking Mormons, was the 36th state to ratify, the number needed to put the 21st Amendment into the Constitution. The most calamitous social-engineering experiment in American history was dead, and tax revenues began to flow copiously into federal and state coffers.

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He Said What?

Barack Obama came riding in on his heroic steed to defend his wife Michelle from monsters in the media who dared take words out of her mouth and…and…quote them.

“For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country,” Mrs. Obama said on Monday in Milwaukee, and clearly it was not an unplanned outburst, because she repeated it later that same day in Madison with a softening qualification: “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.”

Here is Barack Obama’s response to the criticism of her words:

Statements like this are made and people try to take it out of context and make a great big deal out of it, and that isn’t at all what she meant. What she meant was, this is the first time that she’s been proud of the politics of America. Because she’s pretty cynical about the political process, and with good reason, and she’s not alone. But she has seen large numbers of people get involved in the process, and she’s encouraged.

Let’s review. Michelle Obama reached her majority in 1982. Has nothing happened in American politics of which she could be proud before her husband began causing teenagers to faint dead away and sing ditties to him on YouTube? Nothing? Not even the dollar coin with Sacajawea on it? She is a liberal, so it would be folly to expect her to consider, say, the passage of landmark welfare-reform legislation in 1996 anything to be proud of. So let’s just keep it to matters that gladden a heart that leans to the starboard port side.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991. The elevation of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. The Brady Bill. The Oslo Accords. Bill Clinton’s 1997 balanced-budget deal. Not to mention the rise of gay partnership rights at the local and state level. The lifting of sodomy laws. How about the suspension of the death penalty in Illinois?

“She has seen large numbers of people get involved in the process,” Obama says by way of explanation for Michelle’s new pride. Hmm. Between 1996 and 2004, voter turnout rose from 49 percent of the electorate to 61 percent. Perhaps she didn’t vote? Well, I guess she did. In 2004. For Barack Obama in his winning bid for the Senate. Even that, apparently, wasn’t enough to make her feel pride in American politics, at least according to her own husband.

Barack Obama came riding in on his heroic steed to defend his wife Michelle from monsters in the media who dared take words out of her mouth and…and…quote them.

“For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country,” Mrs. Obama said on Monday in Milwaukee, and clearly it was not an unplanned outburst, because she repeated it later that same day in Madison with a softening qualification: “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.”

Here is Barack Obama’s response to the criticism of her words:

Statements like this are made and people try to take it out of context and make a great big deal out of it, and that isn’t at all what she meant. What she meant was, this is the first time that she’s been proud of the politics of America. Because she’s pretty cynical about the political process, and with good reason, and she’s not alone. But she has seen large numbers of people get involved in the process, and she’s encouraged.

Let’s review. Michelle Obama reached her majority in 1982. Has nothing happened in American politics of which she could be proud before her husband began causing teenagers to faint dead away and sing ditties to him on YouTube? Nothing? Not even the dollar coin with Sacajawea on it? She is a liberal, so it would be folly to expect her to consider, say, the passage of landmark welfare-reform legislation in 1996 anything to be proud of. So let’s just keep it to matters that gladden a heart that leans to the starboard port side.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991. The elevation of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. The Brady Bill. The Oslo Accords. Bill Clinton’s 1997 balanced-budget deal. Not to mention the rise of gay partnership rights at the local and state level. The lifting of sodomy laws. How about the suspension of the death penalty in Illinois?

“She has seen large numbers of people get involved in the process,” Obama says by way of explanation for Michelle’s new pride. Hmm. Between 1996 and 2004, voter turnout rose from 49 percent of the electorate to 61 percent. Perhaps she didn’t vote? Well, I guess she did. In 2004. For Barack Obama in his winning bid for the Senate. Even that, apparently, wasn’t enough to make her feel pride in American politics, at least according to her own husband.

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Hillary’s Woes

Hillary Clinton is not amused. Her opponent, the fellow who she contends is infatuated with Ronald Reagan, handily won the Maine caucus, his fifth win since his 13 Super Tuesday wins. She sacked her campaign manager and is pleading with John Edwards for an endorsement. She has gone ballistic over David Shuster’s inappropriate remark about her daughter. (The remark was uncalled for; the reaction was over the top.) She might try to revive the Michigan and Florida delegates. However, all of her frenetic activity is somewhat beside the point: her delegate lead is slipping away.

She may be banking on Ohio and Texas on March 4 to revive her prospects. Ohio offers plenty of downscale Democrats who care more about healthcare than inspirational rhetoric. Texas offers her Hispanic voters who so far have favored her. But it might be too late by then. If she loses the Potomac primary on Tuesday as expected and Wisconsin on February 19, March 4 may be for her what Florida was for Rudy Giuliani (too little, too late).

So rather than March 4, her real firewall may be Wisconsin. Will the students and progressives of Madison spell her defeat? Or can she count on the working class voters from Milwaukee to save her candidacy? Obama has figured out the pivotal role of Wisconsin and will be there to hear the Potomac returns. If she is smart, she will head there as well and recognize that if she loses on February 19, there may not be enough lawyers (to contest Michigan and Florida) or enough superdelegates to save her.

Hillary Clinton is not amused. Her opponent, the fellow who she contends is infatuated with Ronald Reagan, handily won the Maine caucus, his fifth win since his 13 Super Tuesday wins. She sacked her campaign manager and is pleading with John Edwards for an endorsement. She has gone ballistic over David Shuster’s inappropriate remark about her daughter. (The remark was uncalled for; the reaction was over the top.) She might try to revive the Michigan and Florida delegates. However, all of her frenetic activity is somewhat beside the point: her delegate lead is slipping away.

She may be banking on Ohio and Texas on March 4 to revive her prospects. Ohio offers plenty of downscale Democrats who care more about healthcare than inspirational rhetoric. Texas offers her Hispanic voters who so far have favored her. But it might be too late by then. If she loses the Potomac primary on Tuesday as expected and Wisconsin on February 19, March 4 may be for her what Florida was for Rudy Giuliani (too little, too late).

So rather than March 4, her real firewall may be Wisconsin. Will the students and progressives of Madison spell her defeat? Or can she count on the working class voters from Milwaukee to save her candidacy? Obama has figured out the pivotal role of Wisconsin and will be there to hear the Potomac returns. If she is smart, she will head there as well and recognize that if she loses on February 19, there may not be enough lawyers (to contest Michigan and Florida) or enough superdelegates to save her.

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