Wednesday, August 2, 2017

“Charlotte without a car, can it be done?”


This essay was first publish on CharlotteAgenda.com on August 1, 2017

It may sound un-American, and living in the heart of NASCAR Country it could be sacrilegious, but can you live in Charlotte without a car? 
Coming back to the city after more than a decade, we moved Uptown, bought bus passes, made sure the Lyft and Uber apps were working, found the local rental car offices and decided to give it a shot. 
There were naysayers.  When my wife got her driver’s license, the examiner told her it was impossible to live here without a car.  A fellow on the local planning council acted like I was an alien from another world.  Most people simply can’t consider the possibility of life without a car.
Okay, it takes courage, but having lived in several large cities, it didn’t seem unreasonable.  Public transportation in Charlotte isn’t perfect, but it’s improving.   We’ve walked to the grocery store, taken the Blue Line for dinner, ridden the trolley to the ABC Store and climbed aboard buses for shopping, church and the Symphony at South Park. 
Overall, we’ve averaged about $150 a month for transportation, certainly cheaper than car payments, insurance, repairs, parking expense, and gas.
 The secret is simple.  Plan ahead, don’t get in a hurry, and don’t get upset if you encounter a glitch in the system – like the ticket machines on the light rail, which always seem to be broken. Flexibility is the key.
Besides, driving isn’t what’s it’s cracked up to be.  Thanks to Madison Avenue, cars have become a symbol of freedom and independence, interestingly the names of two major boulevards in Charlotte.  Car commercials show happy folks speeding along in a convertible on an open country road, the sun shining and the wind blowing through their hair.  That certainly isn’t I-77 at rush hour.
There are disadvantages.  Uptown shopping is limited, and not top quality.  It’s a pain to find a reasonably priced rental car for spur of the moment travel.  There was the threatening panhandler on the free trolley and the terrifying experience of trying to cross a busy Charlotte street.
After four months, what did we do?  You guessed it, we bought a car – a small red convertible.   Thank you Madison Avenue for the dream.  Our first trip was to Fresh Market in Dilworth, where I wandered about as if I had been transported to gourmet wonderland.
I will still take public transportation to work, walk to restaurants, museums and concerts in the Uptown parks, enjoying life in the center city, but I now have the freedom and independence to escape to the mountains and the seashore.

Yes, you can live in Charlotte without a car, but it is better with one, especially a little red convertible.

© David Lee McMullen 2017

Saturday, June 24, 2017

“Me, Me, Me” Is the Mantra of the Trump Administration


This essay was first published by the History News Network on June 11, 2017.  It was also published by Yubanet.com on June 13, 2017.


While Trump and his circus of chaos continues to both entertain and terrify the world, providing fascinating talking points for political pundits, talk show hosts and late-night comics, it is also distracting us from some of the more significant changes that are taking place behind the scenes, changes that are distorting both our national persona and our global image. 

For almost 400 years America has seen itself as a “city on a hill,” an example of goodness and virtue for the rest of the world.  (Ronald Reagan added the adjective to the phrase, "shining city on the hill.")  It is an vision chiseled into the American ethos, seemingly as indestructible as the presidential faces carved into Mount Rushmore.

America first imagined itself as a shining city more than a century before the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence. The vision comes from John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” given to a group of Puritan colonists aboard the Arbella, the flagship of a fleet of eleven ships in route to the newly created Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. 

In his sermon, Winthrop provided a simple and inclusive message of love, explaining that in the struggle ahead, the colonists “must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens.” The origin of Winthrop’s words can be traced to the Sermon on the Mount, part of the bedrock of Christianity, where Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world.  A city on the hill cannot be hidden.”

Those who believe this country is unique among the nations of the world have long pointed to Winthrop’s sermon as a foundation for the principle of American exceptionalism.

Over the years some of our most famous Presidents have also drawn upon Winthrop’s words, speaking of the responsibility of this nation to set a positive example for the rest of the world.
Days before his inauguration as President, John F. Kennedy addressed the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Quoting Winthrop, JFK spoke of historic qualities such as courage, judgement, integrity and dedication.

“Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us – and our governments in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill – constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities,” Kennedy said.

Ronald Reagan, in his Farewell Address to the Nation, explained his own perception of the role of this nation on the global stage.

“I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.”

Any serious student of American History understands that the shining city has yet to be achieved, rather it is a ring for which the nation has continually grasped.

For more than half a century, since the end of the World War II, the world has looked to America for guidance.  We have been the leader of the Free World.  During those years we expanded our definition of diversity, we sought to build a better world for all, not just the rich and powerful, not just those inside our own country.  We shared our wealth with the rest of the world, knowing that by doing so we were making it a better place for all.  We believed in Winthrop’s model of charity and we tried to live up to his expectations.

Today the eyes of the world remain fixed upon this nation, but in this new Trumpian Era what they see in no way reflects the shining city that Presidents Reagan and Kennedy described.  The old image of a nation “open to anyone,” inhabited by individuals “aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities” is rapidly crumbling away. 

At the White House they abandon old alliances, they talk about building walls, closing doors, turning America into an armed camp, hostile to the rest of the world.  They rattle their nuclear sabers, abandoning concern for civil liberties, human rights, and the environment, as they shout down those who question their actions.  They unabashedly incite the mob, dividing Americans with lies designed to spread fear and hostility, all so that they can fill their own greedy pockets.

It is not just the President who is changing the image of America.  Congress is filled with equally greedy politicians who publicly parade their Christianity at every opportunity, but ignore one of its primary tenets – simple charity.   Instead, they would have the nation abandon the poor and needy, not just beyond our borders, but within our country as well.

Many of the individuals in positions of power have begun to resemble the infamous moneychangers Jesus is said to have driven from the temple.  

Unfortunately, driving out these greedy individuals is no simple task, especially since their corruption is supported by the hypocrisy of millions who pretend they are setting a morally upright example for others.  They talk about freedom and democracy as they promote their own selfish agenda, ultimately facilitating the destruction of one of the pillars of the America Dream. 

Where America once took great pride in being the best hope for the world, our shining city on the hill has become nothing more than a quagmire overflowing with greed, a dark and dingy ghetto teeming with hate.  “Me, me, me” seems to be the new national motto.


And unfortunately this dog-eat-dog example is being watched and replicated around the world. 

© David Lee McMullen 2017

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Box Full of Memories

Also published at Medium.com on January 16, 2017





Almost 45 years have passed since the death of my father and yet memories still linger. They lurk in the back of my mind, stimulated by little things that make old connections.
One of those items is an old silver tie clip, one with an Art Deco design that dates back to the 1940’s or perhaps earlier, that was once his. Because it slides on, rather than clamps, I often use it as a money clip, especially when I travel in cities where I don’t want to always be reaching for my wallet.
Recently, on an evening with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Usher Hall here in Edinburgh, I lost it. I’m not sure where, perhaps it was at a pub called Shakespeare’s next to the concert hall or when I was buying drinks at intermission. Regardless, when I returned home it was gone. I checked all my pockets several times, but it was nowhere to be found. I felt certain that it was gone forever.
While Dad’s old tie clip must be at least 75 years old, it has little monetary value. Its value is strictly sentimental, one of a few tangible items I still have that connect the two of us. As a result, my sense of loss was great.
We tried calling the places where it might have been dropped, but it was a holiday and no one answered the phone. Given that it was so small, there seemed little hope of recovering it because it was the kind of thing that could easily be vacuumed away by the cleaners without being noticed.
Mourning its loss, I began thinking about other mementos stored in my jewelry box, currently packed away in storage in the U.S. For most of us, the stuff we keep in such places is usually insignificant, at least with respect to its economic value. It’s the memories contained within them that are important. Mine, for example, is overflowing with things that retrace my life and make connects with departed individuals.
Although my old jewelry box is almost four thousand miles away, I can easily recall many of the items in it. There is a 1923 “Peace” Silver Dollar, minted the year my mother was born, and a little gold band that was my baby ring, a tradition that seems to have disappeared from our society. There is the miniature sergeant’s badge I was given for being on the Safety Patrol in junior high school, as well as an assortment of items from my service in the Marine Corps, including metal chevrons, marksmanship badges, a grenade pin and a good conduct metal.
Juxtaposed against the military items are the pin I got when I served in VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps, and a beaded roach clip from the 1960’s. There is a Lenin pin from my days with the American Bar Association, given to be me by a member of a visiting delegation of Soviet lawyers, and there are assorted lapel pins from various organizations to which I once belonged. There is even a Cub Scout pin earned for taking my oldest son to pack meetings.
Included among this assortment of mementoes are five other tie clips, including another silver one, very similar my father’s, that once belonged to his grandfather, a man who lived into his late eighties, dying when I was just ten. He was a tall stoic fellow, a Baptist deacon, who was born just five years after the end of the Civil War and served as Tallahassee’s police chief during World War I.
There are two gold tie clips, the hinged kind that bite like alligator jaws, that once belonged to uncles. One has a large Masonic seal on the face and belonged to my Uncle Milford, a giant of a man who stood more than six feet five inches tall. He was a crane operator who had a glass eye, walked with a limp and was never without a joke. The other belonged to my Uncle Fred and has his name in a raised script. Fred was the first person in the family to earn a graduate degree, and the man who introduced me to British literature and classical music. If it hadn’t been for World War II, he might have become a music professor because of his knowledge and intense love of music.
I also have two tie tacks, the kind that pierce the tie and hold it to the shirt with a little chain. One is black with a gold rampant lion, the royal symbol of Scotland. It is the only one that is just mine, dating back to my college days. The other is gold with a large letter M. It came with matching cufflinks, given to me by my first wife’s Aunt Irma because I was the only one in the family whose last name began with the same letter as her late husband, a flashy dressing salesman of the 1950’s named Malone.
All of these odd little relics provide connections with the past, bringing back fond memories of people I knew and loved. Thus, it is easy to understand why I felt so sad at having lost my father’s tie clip, one of the most important items in my collection.
Then, two days later, as I left our flat, I happened to look down at a break in the wet, black curb stone, just a few steps from the front door of the building. There I saw something shiny. As I reached down to examine it, I realized it was my father’s tie clip. I must have dropped it getting out of the taxi on our return from the concert. As I picked it up, it seemed a little shinier than I remembered and I put it back into the safety of my pocket knowing that this was one connection I would hold a little bit tighter in the future.
© 2017 David Lee McMullen

Monday, November 21, 2016

Three Writers Along the Way

Falling into the category of interesting connections, our recent journey from Florida to New York led me to the memorials for three fascinating writers. 

 Paul Hemphill


In Atlanta, our first stop was Manuel’s Tavern, a famous watering hole for  journalists and politicians.  I wanted to see the memorial for my old friend Paul Hemphill.  Paul was a Southern writer and a journalist who wrote numerous books about the region and its diverse culture.  His most famous books dealt with subjects such as Hank Williams and NASCAR.  Others dealt with his personal experiences, such as trying to hike the Appalachian Trail with his son and playing minor league baseball. My particular favorite is his autobiography, Leaving Birmingham, in which he traces his awakening as an intelligent and progressive southerner.   

W.J. Cash



In Charlotte, walking with a friend through Uptown amid all the new construction, we were attracted to an interesting building dating back to the early 20th Century.  Beside the front door was a plaque noting that it was once the residence of W.J. Cash, an editor of the long defunct Charlotte News and author of The Mind of the South, one of the most insightful explorations of southern culture ever written, a book that has remained in print for more than 75 years and is a staple of Southern History. Published in 1941, it provides some extraordinary insights into the region as it began to emerge from the torment of the Civil War.

William Cullen Bryant


Finally, during the last week of our American journey, we visited friends in Roslyn on Long Island.  Founded in the 17th Century, the heart of the village still retains the charm of colonial America.  On a driving tour, we stopped at Cedarmere, the home of William Cullen Bryant.  I remembered him from an old collection of American poetry, which included Bryant’s most famous work, ”Thanatopsis.”  While he spent most of his life editing the New York Evening Post, his poetry explored the connections between nature and the human spirit just as the Industrial Revolution was being born, an event that changed the world.

Three writers, all working journalists, each confronting important issues of their generation, each providing food for thought as we continued our journey.

© 2016 David Lee McMullen

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Disappointment in Grosvenor Square


I made my first trip to London forty years ago this December.  As part of that trip, I took a half-day bus tour, a sort of quick orientation to the city.  During the tour, we passed the U.S. Embassy on Grosvenor Square in central Mayfair.

Grosvenor Square is a place that has been central to America’s presence in Great Britain since the beginning of our republic.  John Adams established our first mission there in the late 18th Century, Eisenhower had his headquarters there during World War II, and today the square is dominated by a statue of President Franklin Roosevelt, as well as a September 11 Memorial Garden and the Eagle Squadrons Memorial, commemorating an RAF unit that included many Americans.  It is also where Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee for President in 1952 and 1956, suffered a fatal heart attack.

The current embassy was built in the 1960’s and stretches across the entire western side of the square.  It is a massive building that, like all embassies, is sovereign territory, a sanctuary within a foreign land.  Since my first trip, I’ve been comforted by the fact that as a United States citizen, should I need assistance, the embassy is there to help, something I have not needed until our recent arrival in the United Kingdom.

It wasn’t a major problem, not something I expected the embassy staff to resolve.  I just wanted a friendly face and a little direction on how I might resolve it.

With these thoughts, I took the underground from our temporary residence in the Penn Club off Russell Square to Bond Street and walked to Grosvenor Square.  Along the way I took a photograph of FDR’s statue and the Stars and Stripes flying atop the embassy.  I had a warm feeling that this would be my last opportunity to stand on U.S. territory for many months to come.

That, however, was where the good feelings began to fade.  The street in front of the embassy is barricaded.  There is an iron fence around the building and access is provided through one of two small glass buildings outside the walls of this massive fortress – one for those seeking visas to the U.S. and one for American citizens. 

With my passport, Global Entry card (I mention this because there was a big Global Entry sign beside the door) and proof of my service in the U.S. Marine Corps in my pocket, I confidently approached the appropriate entrance.  There I pushed a white button and waited.  Looking through the class, the inside looked very much like a TSA security checkpoint, with an x-ray machine and metal detector. 
After a short wait, a man in a nondescript security uniform – no Marine guards here - leaned out through the door and asked me what I wanted.  I explained my problem.  He leaned in and out several times, speaking with another person, and finally handed we a tiny piece of paper with a phone number.  That was that. 

There was no friendly American face or voice, no opportunity to stand on American soil in a foreign country, and no real help with my problem.  I thought about the film Bourne Identity and how Matt Damon’s character Jason Bourne had to fight his way out of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, so perhaps I was fortunate to have been denied entry.  Regardless, I was disappointed.  My rather na├»ve view of what I thought was one of the key roles of our embassy was destroyed.

Intellectually I understand that we live in a world filled with terrorists, but as a historian I understand that this is nothing new.  I understand that security is an important concern, especially internationally.  I understand that my personal problem that morning would not have budged the needle on the State Department’s priority meter.   I understand that we live in a terribly divisive political environment in which fear seems to be the one common denominator, keeping friends and relatives at arm’s length.  I understand that the world is far more congested than it was back when John Adams set up housekeeping on Grosvenor Square in 1785, establishing America’s diplomatic relationship with the Court of St. James.

Yes, I understand all of that, and yet that innocent young man inside me, the one who first came to London forty years ago, still found himself wondering why.  Why was the American Embassy in London unwilling to offer even a modicum of help to an American citizen in a foreign land?

Intellectually I understand, but emotionally I found myself remembering the opening lines of a poem I memorized in high school and have never forgotten.  It’s titled “My Native Land,” and was written by the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott not long after Adams’ time in London.

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!

Sadly, that is how I felt as I walked back through Grosvenor Square, away from the American Embassy, passing the statue of FDR, one of my favorite Presidents, and passing the house where John Adam once lived.  I felt like a man without a country.

© 2016 David Lee McMullen


Monday, October 24, 2016

A Visit to the Carter Center

During our recent visit to Atlanta, we walked to the Carter Center, a short distance from where we were staying.  The museum and library are located in Freedom Park, a tranquil area woven into the fabric of the surrounding neighborhoods.  The center is surrounded with ponds, a rose garden and numerous places to simply sit and enjoy nature in the midst of a dynamic metropolis.  In innumerable ways the center seems to capture the spiritual essence of the former President and First Lady.

One of the most important features of Freedom Park is a trail connecting the Carter Center with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, symbolically uniting all the citizens of the South, regardless of color.

Personally, I have long believed that Jimmy Carter is our most underappreciated modern President, a man whose heart was in the right place and who continues to devote his energies toward the goals of peace and human dignity.  I also believe that the biggest weakness of his administration was the quality of some of his staff – the Georgia mafia as they were called back then – who went to Washington with him.  Sadly, many of them took the values of the Old South with them, not Carter’s vision for a better world.

I lived in Tallahassee when Carter was elected governor of Georgia, replacing the openly racist Lester Maddox, perhaps the most repugnant Georgia governor in modern times.  I have fond memories of Carter’s campaign for President in 1976, because it was the first time I voted for a winning presidential candidate … and the last until I voted for Obama in 2008. 

Carter is perhaps the one modern President who grew up in a world I understand.  Our families have much in common.  Like Carter, my family farmed the same red clay that fills the fields of South Georgia and North Florida.  Like Carter, I was raised a Southern Baptist.  And, like Carter, I am a southerner who has struggled to overcome the racism and anti-intellectualism of the region. 

The Carter White House is also the only one I was given an opportunity to enter.  A college friend from Florida State was one of his speechwriters and treated me to lunch at The White House Mess. Certainly a memorable experience.

Touring the Carter Center I was reminded of the enormous responsibility that goes with being President and was struck by a quote by Rosalynn about how she had to learn to get used to the fact that one crisis simply follows another, that they never stopped coming.

Despite his early retirement in 1981, Carter did not retreat to the golf course.  While the next President, Ronald Reagan, took the country in a very different direction, Jimmy and Rosalynn stayed true to their values.  They continue to work for positive change, facing challenges such as affordable housing, universal health care, quality education, human dignity and world peace.

Change, of course, is never easy.  It is a perpetual two step, forward and backward, forward and backward.  We only hope that each step forward is a little bit bigger than the backward step that follows. 

While there are some who still fail to appreciate the contributions of the Carters, especially in their native South, I believe history will ultimately come to recognize the numerous accomplishments that they’ve made toward building a better world.


© 2016 David Lee McMullen

Monday, September 19, 2016

A View from Beyond the Wall


Originally published by the History News Network on September 19, 2016.

For most of the month of August I lived beyond the wall.  I know that sounds a bit like the opening line from a Stephen King novel, but for those who follow Presidential politics, it refers to one of the many machinations of Donald Trump , the one in which he promises to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.  Anti-immigrant rhetoric is one of the cornerstones of his campaign.
Trump is a devotee of what an old friend of mine, an Atlanta PR legend, has long promoted – the idea that, “It is better to be known as the village idiot than not to be noticed at all.”  Thus no statement is too ridiculous if it keeps your name in the headlines.  Such a strategy is not new, it’s been around for centuries.
During World War I in Britain, there was a Trump-like character who mesmerized the British public in much the same manner.  His name was Horatio Bottomley, a businessman, a journalist, a Member of Parliament and a crook who ultimately ended up in prison for fraud.  Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw explained Bottomley’s success as, “The man gets his popularity by telling people with sufficient bombast just what they think themselves and therefore want to hear.”  This is clearly Trump’s strategy. He is long on bluster and short on specifics.  He allows his supporters to fill in the blanks – drawing upon their own personal opinions about what is wrong with our country and what will “make America great again.”
Nineteenth Century America had an earlier version of Trump.  P.T. Barnum, famous for his circus and celebrated hoaxes, was more than the showman extraordinaire.  He too dabbled in politics, serving in both the Connecticut legislature and as mayor of Bridgeport.  Like Trump, Barnum was honest about his primary goal in life.  He openly admitted that everything he did was designed to make money.  In fact, he was a proponent of what he liked to call “profitable philanthropy,” doing good deeds that made him money.
Our world is filled with con artists, flim-flam men, hucksters, profiteers and charlatans.  Bottomley, Barnum and Trump are just three prominent examples.  Their fame and fortune are based on an idea erroneously attributed to Barnum – “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Living beyond the wall, even for a short period of time, offers a welcome respite from Trump’s outlandish oratory.  It also provides a reality check on one of his central campaign tenets,  that we need to be protected from immigrants, especially those from Mexico.
Mexico is a wonderful country and, in my experience, the Mexican people are honest, hardworking and family-focused.  They are not rapists and murders as Trump suggests.  The vast majority of Mexicans are good people, with the same basic needs and desires as their neighbors to the north.
Sadly, too many Trump supporters fail to recognize that they are being sold a wall that is as absurd as the fraudulent selling of the old Brooklyn Bridge.  The problems that make them so violently angry are not caused by their fellow North Americans, they are created by greedy, dishonest con men like Donald Trump.
Thinking about Trump’s proposed wall, I am reminded of President Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 West Berlin speech when he called upon the Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down that wall.”  In that speech, Reagan also noted that “We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.” 

President Reagan was not afraid of Mexico.   Perhaps we should take his advice and build a more open relationship with our neighbors to the south.  The odds are good that such change would be beneficial to both nations.

© 2016 David Lee McMullen