FLOTUS Showdown

Greatest film of all time? Vertigo, according to the Sight and Sound poll. Greatest album? Sgt. Pepper, says Rolling Stone. Best college men’s basketball team? AP has Syracuse at the top (for now). We live in an age of lists. While list-making is to a certain extent just a parlor game, as well as a handy way to sift through information overload, such a list can be a fairly reliable yardstick for fluctuations in reputation.

The Siena Research Institute periodically polls historians to assemble their rankings of the U. S. Presidents, but many people probably don’t know that Siena also ranks the First Ladies. The latest edition of the First Ladies rankings has just been released, and it has inspired considerable commentary (including this CNN piece). In the rankings’ top spot is Eleanor Roosevelt, who, apart from her famous marriage, was one of the great public figures of the twentieth century. In fourth place, almost exactly 200 years after she and her husband left the White House, is Dolley Madison, often credited with creating the role of the First Lady as we know it.

50 Years On: LBJ’s War on Poverty

Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty, NPR is beginning a series on the legacy of this initiative. The first installment, which revisits the Kentucky county where the iconic front-porch photo of LBJ was taken, may be found here. Half a century later, many residents could not survive without services such as food stamps and energy assistance, which date back to LBJ’s administration. Still, times remain very tough in this Appalachian community, due partly to a scaling back of the coal mining industry that was the region’s lifeblood for generations.

A Place for Each Season

Many people picture Vermont with handsome barns overlooking rolling pastures, white country churches punctuating hillsides of blazing maples, and small villages clustered around gracious greens. While not inaccurate, this image does little justice to the architectural richness of a state that retains so significant a variety of building types, landscapes, and historic environments that it was declared a national historic treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Here is a seasonal sampling of places worth a look, drawn from Buildings of Vermont by Glenn Andres and Curtis Johnson (whose photographs also enhance the text), the latest volume in the Buildings of the United States series published by the Society of Architectural Historians and the University of Virginia Press.

A School That Would Be Different

Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America is the fascinating history of the early days of the University of Virginia and how the institution’s survival was hardly a foregone conclusion. The book has recently received good reviews from both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and is now the subject of a feature in the University of Virginia Magazine. In the following piece, coauthor Carlos Santos considers how Thomas Jefferson’s insistence on separation of church and state extended to the university he founded, a radical idea in a time when religious instruction was central in higher education.

Critics considered Thomas Jefferson’s unorthodox views of Christianity evil as hell fire. Political enemies dubbed him an “audacious howling Atheist.” Ministers called him a tool of French secularism, while others argued that declaring for Jefferson was declaring for no God.

Elected president in 1800, tradition holds that the women of New England hid their Bibles in wells, convinced that Jefferson, aided by his atheistic allies, would fuel bonfires with the Good Book.

Pressure Points

It’s been way too long since we have run a piece by Mr. and Mrs. Dog author Donald McCaig. Many of you have read his series of posts about a little sheepdog named Fly (including this one…and this one). In this latest piece, human understanding runs up against dog understanding. Guess who’s smarter.

At the first Sturgis National Finals SDT trial hosts had decorated the field in a patriotic motif. The fetch, drive, and crossdrive panels were vivid red, white, and blue. Which created a problem for the sheep. Put yourself in their wool: here they’d been living quiet sheepy lives on some butte somewhere, been snatched up, loaded into large aluminum trailers (from which no sheep had ever returned), and plopped down in unfamiliar pens (“Where are we, Martha!!!”), until they and three others were taken by a mounted cowboy and a couple dogs and spotted for an unknown dog to suddenly appear and take AWAY!

A Seaweed Thanksgiving

Before you say no thanks, just know that this exotic approach to Thanksgiving is being proposed by Jeffrey Greene, who has already introduced us to the elusive pied de cheval oyster and foraging in the Carpathians. The man knows his food. Like those earlier pieces, this one grew out of research for his next book, on wild edibles.

While Henry James observed famously in a letter that “it’s a complex fate, being an American,” and James Baldwin struggled to define what being American even means, I rarely ponder quandaries of national identity, even living here in France.  However, it’s a complex fate for anyone to explain the codified American phenomenon called Thanksgiving. My mother, in her eighties, assiduously observes American Thanksgiving, though she lives in a remote canal village in Burgundy and is obliged to make a special order for a whole turkey, usually available in France only at Christmas.