The Missourian, the comedian, and a famous political statement

We meant to tell you this story yesterday but news got in the way.

June 5 is the anniversary of one of the most famous and often-quoted and mis-quoted political statements in American history.  It was uttered by a Missourian 130 years ago and when we found a reference to it in William Safire’s Political Dictionary were were immediately reminded of a political satirist named Pat Paulsen.

This is how Pat Paulsen becomes linked to General William Tecumseh Sherman, at least in the mind of a reporter whose thinking has perhaps been warped by forty years of covering the Missouri legislature.

For those too young to know who Pat Paulsen was, let’s just say that he was his generation’s Stephen Colbert.

In a corner of my closet, still in its original mailing tube, is my 1968 “Pat Paulsen for President” poster.  I think it also has my large PPP lapel pin in it.

Enough time has passed since PP died in 1997 that a generation or two of Americans and American politicians don’t know who this man was—and what his relationship is to that famous Missourian William Tecumseh Sherman, he of the march through Georgia fame.

Before Stephen Colbert sought the presidency in 2008 and formed his Super PAC and hit the trail in ’12, Pat Paulsen  was at large.

Pat Paulsen was part of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a television variety show that was cancelled in the late 1960s because its performers did not hesitate to skewer political leaders in a way that seems quaint in today’s political satire but caused considerable political backlash and disagreements with CBS management which pulled the plug in 1969.  Paulsen was a deadpan comedian who played the role of the poorly-spoken, uncomfortable, not-altogether-there kind of guy, sort of a basset hound in a suit.  The man who wants to be a politician but doesn’t want anybody to know it.

Pat Paulsen’s breakthrough announcement was made in an “interview” with Tom Smothers on the show in ’68.

AUDIO: Paulsen :62

Paulsen continued to lampoon presidential candidates and their campaigns until a year before he died.  You can see a documentary about his presidential quest on Youtube. It’s narrated by Henry Fonda, whose narration is a satire on the self-serving films made for candidates in that era.

Stephen Colbert was only about 14 years old when Paulsen made his first, uh, run.  Only two election cycles went by after Paulsen’s death before he picked up his satirist heritage.

But what does any of this have to do with William Tecumseh Sherman?

General Sherman, who lived in St. Louis–and is buried there—was seen by many people after the Civil War as presidential material, as Americans had seen George Washington almost a century earler as the kind of figure who could lead a nation in peace as well as in war, as Americans saw John J. Pershing after World War I, and Eisenhower after World War II, and Colin Powell after the first Iraq War.  It was the kind of public attitude that made Ulysses Grant the President in the era where the “Sherman Statement” was born.

But Sherman was having none of that.  A buzz at the 1884 Republican National Conveniton was that General Sherman would be a great candidate.  But the blunt-speaking Sherman sent a message on June 5 to Convention Chairman John Brooks Henderson (remind me to tell you someday about this former Missouri Senator, including how he got to be the convention chairman) that has been used in various forms for various purposes all these years since:

“If nominated I will not accept.  If drafted I will not run. If elected I will not serve.”

And unlike generations of candidates or non-candidates since, Sherman meant it.

The statement has been used in various forms many times since Sherman wrote it.  Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas probably thought of it when he spoke even more frankly at a time when some people were suggesting he replace Harry Truman on the 1948 Democratic presidential ticket.  “I ain’t a-runnin,’ and I ain’t goin’ tuh,” he said.

One month from today (July 6) would have been Pat Paulsen’s 87th birthday.   We doubt that anybody has ever gotten more laughs or more mileage out of the “Sherman Pledge” than Pat Paulsen.


A few folks have had the courage to confess, although not in front of large audiences, that they are readers of these irregular entries which have been even more irregular than usual.  We apologize for failing to more regularly supply pithy, entertaining and/or informative observations in recent days.  We have been severely short-staffed in the Missourinet newsroom and have focused our energies on feeding the on-the-air beast.  The deprivation of the usual wisdom dispensed on these pages is soon to be moderated with the return of Mike Lear from a well-deserved opportunity to live a normal life with normal people–most  notably his wife and five daughters–for several days.

May music

Some great public events in May begin with music that produces goosebumps from tens of thousands of people when the first notes are heard. “My Old Kentucky Home” is as much a part of the Kentucky Derby as the horses that run at Churchill Downs. “Maryland, My Maryland,” is ingrained in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, in Maryland.
And last weekend we were on pit road just a few yards away from Jim Nabors as he sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” moments before the engines fired for an extraordinary Indianapolis 500. He’s not going to do it again.

Jim Nabors is 83 now, living in Hawaii, has had some health problems, and finds the long trip to the Speedway more than he wants to tackle every year.
We have written before about the place in personal culture the race occupies. But within that culture has been a special place for those days when we consume the race off a television screen in the living room. While other things might be going on in the house during the pre-race broadcast, they stop when the track announcer introduces “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
A few years ago, health problems kept Jim Nabors from performing the song. The Speedway put the words to the song on the large video screens throughout the track and the crowd sang the song. I think I was in the press area inside the first turn that year and I sang like a native Hoosier. I sent a letter to the Speedway management suggesting they seek a Guiness Book of World Records designation of the event as the world’s largest choral performance but I don’t think they ever did.
The music of May highlights a dismal situation in Missouri.
Name one significant event in Missouri—and, sadly, we have nothing that matches the horse and car races of Kentucky, Maryland, and Indiana–where someone sings our state song.
Just one. Name one.
Opening day of the baseball season in Kansas City and St. Louis?
First home game of the Missouri Tigers?
Opening night of the American Royal?
Inauguration of a new Governor?
Would we dare have anyone sing The Missouri Waltz before a Super Bowl in either of our big cities? We can surely hope not. It would be embarrassing.
Missouri’s state song was a political mistake by the legislature in 1949. And while our legislature finds it significant to argue about which dog should be a state dog, or pass a law designating a tasteless, crumbly pastry as the official state dessert (the ice cream cone–with no mention in the law that ice cream would be in said cone), or designate a state exercise, it shows an appalling lack of interest in finding a new song that will be as meaningful to Missourians as the songs sung in May in Kentucky, Maryland, and Indiana.
We haven’t heard every state song but we can tell you that the first words of Missouri’s state song, “Hush-a-by my baby; slumber time’s a-comin’ soon,” will never have the emotional impact of the first words Jim Nabors has sung at the Speedway almost every year for almost four decades, “Back Home Again in Indiana…”
Right, Jim?

Jim Nabors
(photo by Rick Gevers)

Lincoln Soldier’s Portrait

This is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  And this is the story of one of his soldiers.  And the soldier’s great grandson.  And the words of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln’s soldier was six weeks short of his nineteenth birthday when he and several other boys and men from the Moultrie County town of Lovington, Illinois and from the nearby county seat of Sullivan answered the President’s call to put down a rebellion by the southern states. This was territory familiar to Abraham Lincoln.  It had been part of his area as a circuit-riding lawyer years before. Some of the President’s family members still lived in Decatur, where the soldier would live out his days after the war.

The men who signed up that September 4, 1862 became Company A, 126th Illinois Infantry.   This soldier became a fifer, a soldier who played a loud and piercing instrument sometimes used for signaling, audible over the sounds of artillery at times, or so the story goes.   Drums were more often used, though, as signals from commanders. The fife and drum unit of each regiment more often played music to inspire the soldiers to victory or to build morale.  During battle, fifers often became medics because fifers weren’t needed when the armies had collided.  Over time, bugles gained favor as a signal instrument.

Lincoln’s soldier was witness to battle early. By late November the unit was in Tennessee, one of only two states with more battles and skirmishes than Missouri had. They were part of the campaign that opened a penetration point in the South’s Mississippi River flank that ultimately led to Sherman’s famous March to the Sea.

By early 1863, they were becoming part of Grant’s move against Vicksburg.  The 126th Illinois was part Sherman’s exterior line during the siege from May 28 until the city fell on July 4. A monument marks where the unit served.

Lincoln’s soldier, the young fifer, moved with his unit to Arkansas three weeks after the end of the Vicksburg operation to move against Confederate-held Little Rock.  They fought at the battle of Bayou Fourche, sometimes called The Battle of Little Rock on September 10, a Confederate effort to slow the Union advance so Confederates could evacuate the Arkansas capital.  The Union forces, however, forced the Confederates out of their positions and took Little Rock later that evening.

Union forces quickly moved to secure their positions in northern Arkansas and moved the 126th Illinois to DeValls Bluff, an important port on the White River for the delivery of troops and supplies as federal forces increased their control of the state.

Lincoln’s soldier and his unit spent the rest of the war in the Pine Bluff area before being mustered out on July 12, 1865.  It is likely he walked back to Illinois by way of Missouri. A total of 202 of his colleagues did not survive the war but only six were killed or mortally wounded in Action.  All of the others were lost to disease.

He returned to Decatur, married, and he and his wife had several children. He died sixty years after his Civil War service ended. Two of his daughters remained in the family home while other family members scattered, occasionally returning for visits.  A family photograph shows all of the children and grandchildren together with Lincoln’s soldier and his wife.

One of the grandchildren, then living in Kansas, moved back to Decatur to find work because the Dust Bowl and the Depression had wiped out opportunities in Kansas.  And it was in Decatur that the great-grandson of Lincoln’s soldier was born and where he often visited the home of the Civil War fife player.  And when he was nine years old, the soldier’s grandson and his wife, and the great-grandson moved to the Moultrie County seat of Sullivan.

Last April, the great grandson of Civil War musician Pvt. Robert T. Priddy was the narrator for a performance of  Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” with the Jefferson City Symphony.

Other, more prominent, figures have filled the same role in other performances of this uplifting work. Few, probably, have felt the responsibility of honoring Mr. Lincoln and one of his soldiers more than the great-grandson did that night. But in truth, it is not the speaker of those words in such performances that is important.  It is the words themselves and their near-scriptural eternal meanings that count.

One final note:  The great-grandson, unlike his musician ancestor, Mr. Lincoln’s soldier,  cannot read a note of music.