Sunday, June 06, 2004

The Passing of another American Icon

This afternoon, my beautiful redheaded wife and I were driving out to the hardware store to get some stuff for the barn.  We heard on the radio that Ronald Reagan died.  Later, we went to Barnes & Noble to sit around and read and drink good coffee.  As usual, I spent some time in the photography section.  On the way out of the bookstore, we noticed that they already had put up a sales exhibit with books about Mr. Reagan. 

This got me to thinking: I feel bad that I missed the opportunity to commemorate the death of another great American Icon.

Back on April 22, 2004, it was the twentieth anniversary of the death of Ansel Easton Adams.  (born 2-20-1902 in San Francisco, California
died 4-22-1984 in Monterey, California, at  age 82)

In this post, I explain why Ansel Adams was an American icon, and why I still have some respect for Ronald Reagan. 

From David Hume Kennedy's article

I met Ansel when I was the official photographer during President Gerald Ford's administration. I had admired his work, and we had started a correspondence. I arranged for Ansel to come in and meet with President Ford, and to give the president his views on the national parks. Even though some members of the press joked that Ansel was the first environmentalist the president had ever met, Ford was in fact a strong supporter of the national parks, and had been a park ranger at Yellowstone when he was a young man in 1936.

[...] Ansel was a big bear of a man, hearty and good natured. But during the meeting with Ford, despite the bluntness of his words, he spoke in soft tones, and the president responded in kind, often leaning in to hear more clearly. I think that one of the things that attracted Ansel to the president was that, like himself, Ford was a very modest, self-effacing man.

As a result of the meeting, President Ford wrote to Ansel agreeing with him that the policies of the Park Service "needed a fresh look," and reported to him that he had commissioned a task force to redefine the priorities of the service. He also reiterated in the letter his commitment to the national park system, and among other things, supported Ansel's desire to preserve open space close to large urban centers, which would serve local recreation programs.

The 74-year-old photographer's letter and proposals struck a deep chord within the president. On Aug. 29, 1976, against the backdrop of Yellowstone National Park, Republican President Gerald R. Ford stunned the environmental world. He announced that he would be submitting to Congress the "Bicentennial Land Heritage Act," a 10-year, $1.5 billion commitment to double the present acreage for national parks, recreation areas and wildlife sanctuaries.

"Moon and Half Dome"
Yosemite National Park, 
California, 1960

Copyright © 2000 Ansel Adams 
Publishing Rights Trust/CORBIS

If you are interested in Presidential history, I urge you to read Kennedy's article about Ford and Adams.  It is an interesting study of personalities.  As a clinical aside, both personalities were psychologically healthy, although very different.
 Given the rapprochement between Adams and Ford, one would be tempted to assume that a subsequent meeting between Ansel Adams and Ronald Reagan would have a amicable and positive outcome.  Not so. 

"This visage meek and humble,
and hear this confidential plea
voiced in reverent mumble:
give me Shylock, give me Fagin
but, oh God, spare me Ronald Reagan!"
 - Ansel Adams

This quote appears on timmareca.com; I cannot vouch for its validity.   Getting back to Kennedy's article:

After Ansel met with President Reagan in July of 1983 he sent me another of his trademark typed notes, this one on the back of a card that featured an Edward Weston nude from 1936 on the front. He said:

"The meeting with RR was not funny; it was very discouraging. He is very gracious and persuading, but it was like confronting a stone wall . . . I was told I had '15 or 20 minutes' but I ended up with 50! He talked for a time at first and I was scrambling for my priorities. I said most of what I had to say. I think it is a marvelous country when a citizen can talk with the President and tell him he (the citizen) thinks he is seriously misinformed. I felt with a sinking feeling that this country is in very poor hands. The subsequent interview might do some good; it has been published all over the world. WAKE UP, AMERICA (AND KENNERLY!!) We are facing disaster! ALL BEST, as ever!"

Ansel never got another chance to try and make Reagan come around to his passionate point of view about the environment. He died nine months later on April 22, 1984. When I got word of Ansel's passing, I was in the People's Republic of China covering President Reagan.

A different perspective, but with the same conclusion, is found on the Housatonic Museum of Art's website

In subsequent years, he was invited to discuss American environmental policy with several Presidents, including Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and received from the latter the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By way of contrast, Adams conducted a war of words with President Reagan. He described Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James Watt's policy of allowing strip mining and timber harvesting in the national parks as an indefensible policy of "rape, ruin and run!" 12

12 "Playboy Interview: Ansel Adams - candid conversation,"; Playboy vol. 30, no. 5 (May 1983).
I went to the Playboy.com website to try to get the interview, but for some reason they don't keep an archive of such things.  (Note to beautiful redhead: If you look through my browser history and see something you don't like, there's a perfectly good explanation.  Really.)
I was able to find places that would sell me an old copy, but I guess I'm not that interested.  You can't see it on the little copy of the cover, but one of the articles in the May 1983 issue of Playboy was:  "The Targeting of America: A Special Report on Terrorism" by Laurence Gonzales.  Some things never change.  And won't change, no matter how may hundreds of billions of dollars we spend. 

I tried to find other references to the meeting between Ansel Adams and Reagan, but was not able to do so.  There were newspaper articles at the time, but that was before newspapers started using the Internet.   In fact, 1983 could be considered the year the Internet was born, because that's when ARPANET converted entirely to TCP/IP, and the Domain Name System was introduced.   The WWW, though, was not established until 1992. 

The newspaper reports about the meeting between Ansel Adams and Reagan were not extensive, and I recall only the overall negative tone, not the specific content.  Perhaps the only transcript of the meeting, if there is one, is in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.  The library, however, does not have much on line. 

So far, my patient readers have learned that Ansel Adams was an American icon, that Gerald Ford was not a bad guy, and that Adams said, of Reagan's leadership, that "I felt with a sinking feeling that this country is in very poor hands."

Reagan did some good things.  His defense spending, while extravagant almost beyond belief, contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.  Never mind that he ran up deficits so enormous that George H. W. Bush had to break his "no new taxes" pledge, which, by the way, is what opened the door to the Clinton Presidency; Bush 41 lost the support of the "Reagan Democrats" when he succumbed to the economic reality that classic tax-and-spend Republican policies simply are not sustainable. 

I believe that RR was genuinely patriotic, and that he really thought that his economic and foreign policies made sense.  He wanted the United States of America to be a good place.  He wanted people to be nice to each other, and he set a good example with his own behavior.  He did not start any wars, and he did not have any intention of using bizarre political doublespeak to justify taking taxpayer money and handing it over to huge corporations, thereby transforming rich people into filthy rich people (reference to Halliburton and KBR.) 

If RR knew that "reducing the size of government" would lead to private contractors getting paid over one hundred thousand dollars a year to do what used to be done by an E-3 for eighteen thousand, he would have put a stop to it.  If he had known about the Iran-Contra scandal, he would have put a stop to it.  If he had understood that the Strategic Defense Initiative would be a colossal waste of money, he never would would have proposed it.  If he had been in office when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, he would have shut it down immediately, not months later. 

The anniversary of the passing of Ansel Adams should be a time for reflection upon the importance of artistry in the advancement of political causes.

The passing of Ronald Reagan, likewise, should give us pause to reflect on the virtues that contribute to a great President.  As reported on Netscape, in the words of Bill Clinton:

"Hillary and I will always remember President Ronald Reagan for the way he personified the indomitable optimism of the American people, and for keeping America at the forefront of the fight for freedom for people everywhere."

And from Jacques Chirac:

"A great statesman who through the strength of his convictions and his commitment to democracy will leave a deep mark in history."

And finally, from George W. Bush (as reported  in WaPo):

"This is a sad hour in the life of America," Bush said after speaking with Nancy Reagan by telephone. "A great American life has come to an end. Ronald Reagan won America's respect with his greatness and won its love with his goodness. He had the confidence that comes with conviction, the strength that comes with character, the grace that comes with humility and the humor that comes with wisdom."

Both Adams and Reagan were artists: Adams a great photographer; Reagan a mediocre actor.  Both had political agendas: Adams with little influence; Reagan with tremendous influence.  Both were nice guys.  Both were American Icons.  Only Ronald Reagan got a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier named after him.  Nobody is going to name a warship after Adams, but perhaps we could rename the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge the Ansel Adams National Wildlife Refuge. 

(Note: The Rest of the Story/Corpus Callosum has moved. Visit the new site here.)
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