Australia Diary Australia

Diary Australia: 8 September 2012

8 September 2012

6:00 AM

8 September 2012

6:00 AM

The Deep South

Vicksburg, Mississippi is the place where the American Civil War was decided. Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant knew it. So did the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. The hardest of the Union generals, William Tecumseh Sherman, declared that the South was mad to fight on after the loss of the strong point out on the bluffs of the Mississippi. The day after Robert E. Lee was thrown back at Gettysburg, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered the Confederate Army of Mississippi to Grant, who had waged a six-weeks siege, with the Union Navy bombarding the city from out on the river. Vicksburg controlled ‘the father of waters’. With its capture by the Union, Lincoln declared that the river now ran unvexed to the sea. It was Independence Day, 1863.

••• 

As a Civil War buff, it has been my great pleasure to walk most of the battlefields of the bloodiest conflict in American History. Vicksburg’s recreation remains astonishing, and in the late but punishing summer heat, you have some idea of the circumstances in which the siege was fought. The only relief is to be found in the marble Illinois State Memorial, which approaches the grace of the Jefferson Memorial in D.C. The breezes restore the spirits.

••• 

My travelling companion and I are on a road trip from Chicago to New Orleans, following the successful 20th Anniversary Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Washington and New York. The most enjoyable part of my time in New York was seeing a revival of Gore Vidal’s play The Best Man. First performed in 1960, the play won a Tony for best revival on Broadway this year. It has a stellar cast including Angela Lansbury, but the show-stealing performance is given by James Earl Jones as the Harry Truman character. Vidal may no longer be with us but he has left a body of work which is an extraordinary chronicle of the American democratic experiment. It is a shame that contemporary conventions have lost the passion and intensity of earlier gatherings.

••• 


From Chicago to St Louis via Springfield, and the local Democrats are feeling the pressure of a $10m Political Action Committee (PAC) campaign run by the Republicans to unseat Senator Claire McCaskill (Democrat, Missouri). The Republican challenger, Congressman Todd Akin, later falls far from grace with some ill-informed views on a woman’s right to choose. If McCaskill holds, there will be a major impact on the Senate outcome in November, at which the Democrats may just hold a majority, including the likely support of (Governor) Angus King, an independent, running in Maine.

••• 

As the Presidential campaign unfolds, the Republicans have the money, unlike in 2008. But the Obama campaign is tougher, more focused and sharper, and it tells in the serrated edges of the Democrats’ advertising (or more accurately, the PAC’s. Thank you, US Supreme Court, for Citizens United).

••• 

The city of Memphis is the end point of various pilgrimages. Whether to Gracelands for the King or to Sun Studios for homage to the early rockers including Jerry Lee Lewis, people arrive in their millions. But the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr Martin Luther King’s murder, is of greatest significance. The rooms in which the King party were staying prior to James Earl Ray’s assassination of the great civil rights leader are as they were the day of the murder. Authentically, this includes full ashtrays. It’s good to see that political correctness has not yet overwhelmed accuracy. (And it would be impossible to sanitise Jerry Lee Lewis).

••• 

In Jackson, Mississippi, we lunch at Sophia’s in the hotel where the cast of the splendid movie The Help stayed. As we are shown around the hotel, I notice a portrait of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, prominently displayed. As I enquire, a lady of some refinement enters the lobby and responds spontaneously thus: ‘Oh, we just tell everyone that that’s Mr Jefferson. People think we are talking about Thomas Jefferson.’ William Faulkner was right: especially in the South, the past is never dead. It isn’t even past.

••• 

Baton Rouge is extraordinary for Huey P. Long’s capitol building, constructed in 1930. But it is even more remarkable that at the memorial inside the capitol where Senator Long was slain in 1935, there is no definitive statement regarding his assassin. Dr Carl Weiss, according to T. Harry Williams’ brilliant biography of ‘The Kingfish’, was the probable murderer. But as with all conspiracy theories in the US, from JFK and Dallas to the moon landing and 9/11, there is now apparently some doubt as to the doctor’s guilt. This is America, and every historical fact is, apparently, subject to challenge from some quarter or other.

••• 

New Orleans has recovered from Katrina. But not all is good. The US Army Corps of Engineers is doing a magnificent yet massive job with a Congressional budget of some $14 billion to protect the city from the elements. But the engineers know that out on the Gulf there is another storm that one day may well overwhelm the defences which they are constructing. It may not be Hurricane Isaac, but it will arrive.

••• 

In the French Quarter, Bourbon Street has become, in part, a sink auditioning to be a sewer. There is no charm on some blocks, given over to sleaze. Frenchmen Street, a few blocks away, is much more gentle, with clubs, bars and restaurants offering the best food, wine and music in pleasant surroundings. Bourbon Street seems headed for Times Square status in New York City, circa 1980. The Big Easy needs to act.

Stephen Loosley is a former Labor senator and national president of the ALP.

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