Toby Cole had something to say.
In early April 1970, you had to push tension out of your way when you walked across the drill field at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Tucked between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains, Blacksburg was slow to experience the unrest of the 1960s. In October 1965, when David Miller burned his draft card in New York City, there was barely a ripple in Blacksburg.
But in that first year of a new decade the full force of student angst was bearing down on this small college town.
And Toby Cole had something to say.
Cole didn’t make a sign. He didn’t bark from a megaphone or burn anything. He didn’t mistake bravado for bravery. Toby spoke with needle and thread.
He sewed the American flag on the seat of his pants.
That Cole had the audacity to sew an American flag on the ass side of his blue jeans and walk across campus rubbed some edges raw.
I was a sophomore then, and one of the few members of the dwindling VPI Corps of Cadets. Until 1964 the Corps was mandatory for most students. But now on a campus of over 12,000, there were fewer than 500 of us who wore a uniform, woke up to reveille, and marched in formation to dinner every night. As news of Cole’s flag wearing reached the Upper Quad, cadets were incredulous. We had taken an oath to uphold the constitution and now a grub (our slang for non-cadet students) was poking a finger in the eye of America.
While cadets groused and fumed, another group on campus went into action. The Block and Bridle Club, an organization of agricultural and farming women and men, took matters into their own hands. To be precise, they took Cole into their hands. They grabbed Cole and held him captive.
As word of Cole’s capture spread, swarms of grubs marched and chanted, Free Toby Cole, Free Toby Cole, Free Toby Cole.
Cooler heads prevailed when the Blacksburg police encouraged the Block and Bridle students to release Cole. It was a short-lived citizen’s arrest. The message was clear. Don’t mess with the flag.
Bosses at the college were quick to reprimand Cole. That only sparked more unrest. Even though the Block and Bridle Club captured Cole, student ire was aimed at the Corps. To protestors the Corps’s presence on campus was a visible arm of a repressive government. On April 14 a flyer circulated calling for protests against the Corps. The flyer said, People, the Corps must go!
The next day students faced off with cadets on the drill field. The university quickly issued an injunction to stop further drill field protests, but whoever expected impassioned students to follow campus-issued injunctions was living a different reality.
The Toby Cole incident and the disruption over the next few days were a whisper of things to come. On April 29 the United States invaded Cambodia. Protests began to shut down college campuses across the country.
Then, on May 4, four students were killed on the Kent State Campus, shot by members of the Ohio National Guard. Two dead were 20; two were 19. Four Dead in Ohio.
Americans killing Americans on an American campus.
The next week 107 students occupied VPI’s Williams Hall. Tolerance was short-lived. The State Police were called in, the doors of Williams Hall were yanked off their hinges, and 107 students were removed, arrested and suspended.
In 1970 we were pushed to pick a side. Are you with the Americans dying or the Americans killing? That was Nixon’s America.
In 2020 Americans are still killing Americans, this time on American streets. And people are still being pushed to pick sides. Are you with the Americans dying or the Americans killing?
The flag — and our country — can be stretched only so far before it frays and disintegrates.
This is Donald Trump’s America.
Toby Cole was ahead of his time. Cole took needle and thread to the flag and his pants 19 years before the US Supreme Court decided on June 21, 1989, that using the flag - or burning it - to express an opinion of a political nature was protected by the First Amendment.
And who wears the flag today? Take a look. The worm turns. Not for the better.
I went to Iowa.
I made the 1500-mile drive from Virginia to Iowa to be in the middle of the first serious moments of the 2020 election season. I already tolerated seven Democratic Party debates. Each more disappointing and useless than the one before. But now the field would finally begin to winnow. At least that’s what I thought then. We all thought Iowa would matter.
Des Moines was crawling with candidates and media. With film loaded, batteries charged, and a bag of camera gear, I made photographs.
“Just pay attention, Philip,” I reminded myself.
But I didn’t.
I didn’t pay attention to the news that a man in Washington was diagnosed with coronavirus on January 21. I missed that the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global emergency on January 30. I didn’t know that 259 people were dead in China by January 31. Or that Italy was a simmering pot soon to boil over in a rage.
By the time I stepped through my front door back home another 1,000 were dead in China.
I’m paying attention now.
So what about those photographs from Iowa? And the political commentary I intended to piece together? They’re in quarantine.
My mind’s on other things. I’ve been thinking about the folks I met in cities and towns across those 1,500 miles.
- That fellow in Indianapolis who made the best falafel I’ve had since Tel Aviv 32 years ago.
- The silent cowboy who sat in a coffee shop looking at his phone for hours without ever looking up or taking a sip of coffee. What did he see that I didn’t?
- A guy at Scenic Route Bakery who sat with a newspaper on his lap, intermittently reading and napping. I believe that sofa was a refuge for him.
- The man I shared a table with at Java Joe’s who told me to buy Good Economics for Hard Times. (I did. I need to read it.)
- The gentleman in the apron and yarmulke who talked to anyone that would listen. He was always smiling. Except when he turned toward a private moment. Then the smile faded.
- Folks sitting in booths beneath a panoply of signs that look back on an America when people were social without the help of Twitter, Instagram or YouTube.
- A barkeep barista in Oskaloosa who drew a beer for a lady and made an espresso for me.
- A classically trained violinist gigging to earn a living at the Raucous before the Caucus. The violinist was fantastic. The raucous wasn’t.
- A woman running a pizza out to a guy sitting in a truck on snow covered 4th St in Des Moines. I blinked and there she was with that pizza.
- All-around good folks hanging out together sitting and standing close, rubbing shoulders and elbows. Having fun.
I wonder how those folks are faring? Did any of them lose their job? Are their businesses making it? Are falafels still selling? The coffeeshops? The restaurants? The people enjoying good times?
I wonder how - or if - life has changed for the 900,000 people living in Indianapolis and the 16,000 in Indianola? For the 3 million in Iowa and the 12 million in Ohio? I wonder.
So, no political photographs for this commentary. No Trump. No Biden.
And, Bernie? No. No Bernie.
Just a few photographs of really fine folks that you can see here.
So many roads, so much at stake
Too many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity
(Dignity, lyrics by Bob Dylan)
On February 4, 2020, Americans were cheated.
Either as a Trump supporter or a Never Trump’er, we were entitled to a bit of dignity during the State of the Union address (SOTU). Instead Democrats and Republicans came together in a bipartisan moment of disrespect.
We’ve been here before under similar circumstances. We did measurably better then.
Impeachment loomed over the country in 1974 and 1999. Still, two different presidents and an opposing Congress managed to give dignity a front-row seat in the People’s House. I was in my early 20s when I watched Richard Nixon’s January 30, 1974 SOTU, and in my late 40s twenty-five years later when Bill Clinton delivered his on January 19, 1999.
Both speeches were judged as either brilliant or bunk, depending on where people placed their loyalties. Nixon, a Republican, gave his 1974 address to a Congress controlled by Democrats. Clinton, a Democrat, gave his 1999 address to a Congress controlled by Republicans.
While informal Watergate hearings were well underway, the formal impeachment inquiry of Richard Nixon started on February 6, 1974, just seven days after his SOTU. Nixon and Speaker Carl Albert shook hands. And Albert presented Nixon to Congress with “distinct privilege and high personal honor.” At the end of Nixons’s address, Albert again extended his hand. Nixon took it and the men shook hands.
Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 19, 1998, thirty-one days before his 1999 SOTU. Because Clinton’s Senate trial was already underway (it started on January 7, 1999), there were suspicions that Clinton might postpone the SOTU. Rather than withering and whining in the face of impeachment, Clinton gave his address as scheduled.
Bill Clinton shook hands with Dennis Hastert, the newly elected Republican Speaker of the House. And Hastert introduced the President of the United States with “high privilege and distinct honor.” Like Nixon and Albert, Clinton and Hastert shook hands again at the end of the SOTU.
Nixon dodged the matter of Watergate through his formal remarks, but added a personal note before leaving the rostrum. Nixon called on Congress to bring investigations to an end declaring that “one year of Watergate is enough.”
Nixon got it half-right. The investigations didn’t end. But one year of Watergate was enough. Facing certain impeachment and removal from office, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.
Bill Clinton didn’t mention impeachment at all during his 1999 SOTU. Instead, Clinton reflected on giving the final address of the twentieth century; a century of discovery, depression, war and revival. Then he said, ”A hundred years from tonight another American president will stand in this place and report on the state of the union, and he — or she — will look back on the twenty-first century shaped in so many ways by the decisions we make here and now.” Clinton and Congress ended the final SOTU of the twentieth century on a high note for the America.
And so it was with this backdrop I set my expectations for 2020.
Knowing that impeachment hung over the evening, and guessing thatTrump’s words would be both lofty and barbed, I still expected the speech to be bookended by a show of dignity. It wasn’t.
Trump immediately thrust the first foil. Handing his written remarks to the Vice President and the Speaker, and seeing Pelosi’s extended hand, he passed it by. Not by mistake. Intentionally.
Pelosi parried by dispensing with the traditional formal presidential introduction. No high privilege and distinct honor for Trump. Pelosi’s introduction was bitter and terse. Strangers on the street would do better. In fewer than sixty seconds the absence of dignity was obvious.
At the end of the president’s address, with Trump’s breath still warm from saying “God bless America,” Pelosi began ripping up his written speech. Not casually. Deliberately. Meant to be seen. Sure to be noticed.
Why expect Trump to shake Pelosi’s hand? She was the face of impeachment. And knowing full well that Trump was going to be acquitted by the Senate in fewer than twenty-four hours, why expect Pelosi to show Trump any respect?
Because we deserved better. For those ninety minutes the public deserved to be spared political indiscretions. Partisan knocks should have been saved for on-air pundits. Or for off-air living room and barroom brawls.
Watching Pelosi’s reactions to the braggadocious speech, and seeing Trump’s gallery antics, I was hoping Pelosi would search her memory for her first SOTU as Speaker of the House.
With the then president’s approval rating on track to hit all-time lows, Nancy Pelosi said she had the “high privilege and distinct honor” of introducing George W. Bush to Congress for his January 23, 2007 SOTU.
Then, beginning his remarks, Bush gave Pelosi an historic introduction.
He said, ”Tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the state of the union message with these words. Madam Speaker.”
Pelosi introduced Bush. Bush introduced Pelosi. And they shook hands. Politics aside, dignity carried the evening. Not just dignity. Class.
I wondered what was different now. What changed from 2007 to 2020?
Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed. Dignity never been photographed…