Cool Outdoor Stuff with Andrew McCown – Winter on the Shore


Editor’s note: It is with unusually great pleasure for the Spy to publish the latest installment of Cool Outdoor Stuff with Andrew McCown. After a rather lengthy sabbatical, the naturalist, musician, Chesapeake storyteller, and director of the Echo Hill Outdoor School, has once again returned to celebrate the natural world of our region and we, like his countless fans, could not be happier.

It seems particularly fitting that Andrew picks up the ongoing series by celebrating the remarkable natural wonders found locally even in the dead of winter.

This video is approximately three minutes in length. For more information about the Echo Hill Outdoor School, please go here.


The Life and Times of Jameson Jones – Chapter Five: A Place to Stand by Jamie Kirkpatrick


Sometimes destiny crashes the party and sometimes it just settles in for a quiet fireside chat.

On the eve of his fiftieth birthday—50! Half a century! Jameson shakes his head in utter disbelief—he is sitting on the balcony of “his” farmhouse in a comfortable Adirondack chair, sipping a gin and tonic (“summer in a glass”), watching his first mate—an old-soul vizsla named Kozi—sniffing the grass under the towering old elm that shades the back of the house. The Clinton rodeo is on its second go-round just a few miles down the road. It’s the last weekend of summer: tomorrow Jameson will host his own party down on the patio, recover on Labor Day, and then begin another school year, his fifth in this hallowed place. He shakes his head again, this time because he can’t quite believe his own good fortune.

The screen door bangs as Jameson goes back inside to build another cocktail: a measure-and-a-half of Hendrick’s, a fresh bottle of tonic, a slice of cucumber. Kozi barks once, the signal that he’s ready to come in. Jameson goes downstairs to open the backdoor so he and his canine pal can resettle on the balcony and watch the first fireflies begin their evening pantomime.

The Romans built straight roads, but that was then. This is now. That his own road has meandered to this place is almost more than Jameson can comprehend. Yet here he is, a teacher, a coach, and most of all, a college counselor to another generation of boys. Moreover, he is a trusted colleague and an integral member of a reasonably functional school family complete with all manner of surrogate brothers and sisters, the close-in-age siblings he never knew. But on this evening, he and his co-pilot are feeling reflective at the end of another summer vacation and maybe it’s the slant of September light or maybe it’s just the gin, but whatever it is, Jameson suddenly recalls a phrase from one of his favorite John McPhee stories: looking out over the quiet fields that surround the house—a green oasis amid Washington’s suburban sprawl—he feels he has finally “come into his country.”

His is a quiet, ordered existence. In the morning, he and Kozi walk to work across the fields and along the tree line. In the afternoon, they retrace their steps, maybe stopping to watch a practice or a game or to chat with a friend. As commutes go, this one is king-of-the-hill; Jameson’s car doesn’t have to move all week. The globe that once spun so dizzily has come to rest here.

Jameson doesn’t own a crystal ball, but if he did, he would see in the years to come a couple of record-breaking blizzards; springs full of scented lilacs, peonies, and azalea in bloom; trees in autumnal splendor; more football, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and baseball games than he can count; nearly fifteen-hundred talented students heading off to college and beyond. He would see a lot of great joy, but some profound sorrow, too, the sorrow cutting deep. He would see a blissful sabbatical: four months at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, two more in a hilltop town in Tuscany. Twenty-two years in all, seventeen of them comfortably ensconced in this old farmhouse—more years in one place and in one house than at any other time of his ever-lengthening life, a peace and stability he has never known.

Archimedes of Syracuse was a Greek mathematician and philosopher, one of antiquity’s greatest minds. Although he did not invent the lever, he explained the principle involved in his work On the Equilibrium of Planes: “Give me a place to stand,” he wrote, “and I will move the earth.” To Jameson, this old farmhouse and this proud school will be his place to stand; this is where he will move the earth.

Or so he thinks.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is

Op-Ed: A Disease of the Soul by George Merrill


“I’ll give you the gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands.” This statement has appeared variously over the years. It’s been canonized (no pun intended) in America recently when then president of the NRA, Charlton Heston concluded a fiery speech with this same phrase while he triumphantly raised an old flintlock in his hand high in the air.

The message is clear, but the deeper meaning of it is more hidden and insidious. I have not read or seen any media coverage of conversations about where the passion originates for owning firearms, especially the kind designed exclusively to kill other human beings. They are not for target practice, skeet shooting or for hunting deer or rabbits. The assault weapons are for war and conquest, not for a for a day’s shoot at the gun club. Their primary purpose is to kill an enemy efficiently and quickly.

If you’re not in combat where the passion for having the gun makes sense, in a civilized society this passion seems odd, out of place, as if it’s addressing an unacknowledged need that has been kept hidden and only expressed obliquely.

Is there some driving force about this disturbing trend in gun violence – so far perpetrated exclusively by men or boys – that has not reached the light of day? I suspect there’s a strong possibility that some of the same priapic obsessions that have recently come to light as the sexual abuse epidemic has exposed wealthy and powerful men, also relates to the sense of power and dominance that owning and shooting guns may produce in some gun enthusiasts. Men are three times as likely to possess guns than women, and from all appearances, the ones mostly inclined to use them in mass shootings.

As vigorously as the NRA tries to recruit gun ownership among women, guns remain a guy thing.

Human sexuality has always been a delicate matter to examine openly. Historically women have been more candid than men have and Freud’s revelations, while informing us, rocked society for generations. If human sexuality was a tidy matter, it would not be coming up today in ways that expose how little we have known about it and how our sexuality insinuates itself into all aspects of our lives, not infrequently through violence. In common banter, a man accused of shooting blanks is an insult to his virility. All of the variations in the themes of our sexuality are slowly being recognized and discussed but not all are comfortable in recognizing our discoveries or even talking about them.

What has characterized all the mass shootings is the powerful exercising their power over the powerless. The shooters are all male and each seems seem driven by dark forces of the soul of which they remain unaware. Essentially, having the weapon empowers the shooter. The victims have little if any means of protection. They’re sitting ducks. I suspect such power can be the ultimate aphrodisiac. Although not lethal, the sexual predator demonstrates a similar power by exercising his will over those who, who for a variety of social or professional reasons, cannot resist or fight back.

The mass killer and the sexual predator have this much in common: in addition to being male, a dread of psychological and social impotence and very likely other kinds as well.

I think we are talking here about a disease of the soul that is becoming a national epidemic.

Montaigne, the wise observer of our human condition wrote this four hundred years ago.

“ . . . the diseases of the soul, the greater they are keep themselves more obscure: the most sick are the least sensible of them . . . they must often be dragged into light by an unrelenting and pitiless hand. . . from the caverns and secret recesses of the heart.”

In order to treat diseases, they first have to be identified and then the public alerted and remedial action taken. Our congress may be our best hope right now. Congress has a majority of men with extraordinary social and economic capital who can exercise significant power on behalf of the powerless . . . like our children.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

The Danger of Distraction by Craig Fuller


During a drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge earlier this week, I listened to a good portion of the hearing held by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence with the leaders of our Intelligence Community. Held to focus on the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment of the United States Intelligence Community, it provided one of the few public looks into what are seen as major threats facing our nation. The director of National Intelligence provided an initial statement and the 28-page document is available here [ ]. His opening points are below.

After listening to the broadcast, my thoughts turned to the dilemma we face. In a world with real and serious issues, we have a White House in turmoil focused on the latest inside intrigue that, while important in many ways, distracts the leadership of our nation from the important work requiring their full attention.

When it comes to security threats, those who lead the dastardly efforts outlined below DO NOT: tweet; get driven by the news story of the day; turn over their top staff; tolerate people who can’t get security clearances…just to name a few differences.

The truth is that we have a very resilient system of government and things do get done. But, leadership really does count and it is required hourly, daily, every 24 hours. Someone needs to be driving the system and we have very distracted driver!

You can bet our nation’s Intelligence Community is looking for leadership on how to cope with the very daunting list below, as outlined by DNI Coats.

From Dan Coats opening statement:

Competition among countries will increase in the coming year as major powers and regional aggressors exploit complex global trends while adjusting to new priorities in US foreign policy. The risk of interstate conflict, including among great powers, is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The most immediate threats of regional interstate conflict in the next year come from North Korea and from Saudi- Iranian use of proxies in their rivalry. At the same time, the threat of state and nonstate use of weapons of mass destruction will continue to grow.


  • Adversaries and malign actors will use all instruments of national power—including information and cyber means—to shape societies and markets, international rules and institutions, and international hot spots to their advantage.
  • China and Russia will seek spheres of influence and to check US appeal and influence in their regions. Meanwhile, US allies’ and partners’ uncertainty about the willingness and capability of the United States to maintain its international commitments may drive them to consider reorienting their policies, particularly regarding trade, away from Washington.
  • Forces for geopolitical order and stability will continue to fray, as will the rules-based international order. New alignments and informal networks—outside traditional power blocs and national governments—will increasingly strain international cooperation.


Tension within many countries will rise, and the threat from Sunni violent extremist groups will evolve as they recoup after battlefield losses in the Middle East.


  • Slow economic growth and technology-induced disruptions in job markets are fueling populism within advanced industrial countries and the very nationalism that contributes to tension among countries.
  • Developing countries in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa face economic challenges, and many states struggle with reforms to tamp down corruption. Terrorists and criminal groups will continue to exploit weak state capacity in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
  •  Challenges from urbanization and migration will persist, while the effects of air pollution, inadequate water, and climate change on human health and livelihood will become more noticeable. Domestic policy responses to such issues will become more difficult—especially for democracies—as publics become less trusting of authoritative information sources.


We can only hope this and the full testimony going into further detail can bring greater focus to the important mission of meeting the national security challenges facing the nation.

Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore with his wife Karen.

The Playroom by George Merrill


My mind is slowing down. It’s retaining data more selectively. The missions I assign to my mind take longer to complete than before. The whereabouts of a misplaced pen, the glasses I just put down, determining why I went from the den to the living room; although irritating, fortunately these quirks are not crippling. Negotiating life’s basic tasks just takes a little longer, that’s all. And then, of course, living life is all about our use of time, anyway.

As my thought processes slow down, I’ve grown more interested in just how my mind performs for me, in the way we pay greater heed to our dwindling resources than we did before when they were plentiful.

As I was searching my mind for ideas the other day, I drew blanks. This happens regularly. The process always leads me to wonder about the creative process itself and how it works. I think people associate creativity with the arts or sciences but I believe the phenomenon is universal – a part of our humanity – and it appears in varying degrees in all of us. The laborer is creative, as is the salesmen, the politician, the artist, the clergyman and of course, writers. Then there’s the stay-at-home mom whose capacity for creativity is tested every minute. With a house full of kids, all of whom require strategic interventions of one kind or another, mom’s creativity is stretched to the max. Children, however, have the greatest capacity for creativity. They are the least likely of any of us to place constraints on their imagination. Kids love to just let it rip.

Of all our spiritual attributes, creativity is the most arbitrary. It doesn’t do well when forced.

My potentially creative imagination invariably bombs if I go at it full bore and try to squeeze it for some immediate project. In my experience creativity is activated the way seeds grow. First you plant them, let them be for a while, until you see something emerge. The fruits of creativity arise from imagination and surface only at their own pace.

Take creativity as it’s demonstrated in the biblical book of Genesis; the creation narrative proceeds ex-nihilo; it comes from out of nowhere, from nothing. God seems matter of fact about his momentous achievements of creating a universe but most of us would greet such special creative moments with ecstatic expressions like, ‘Eureka,’ or ‘Hot damn.’

In 1950, the legendary science-fiction writer and author of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, wrote “The Veldt.” In it he describes a playroom “with television monitors lining each wall and the ceiling. Walking into such an environment, a child could shout: River Nile! Sphinx! Pyramids! And they would appear, surrounding him, in full color, full sound and why not? Glorious warm scents and smells and odors . . . All this came to me in a few seconds.”

Whimsical? Kid’s stuff? Absolutely. He’d had that vision in his mind’s eye since he was a small child. As an adult, it all came back to him in a flash, “in a few seconds.”

Augmented reality has long sounded like a wild futuristic concept. I read recently in the New York Times that Augmented Reality is here to stay and The Times is offering it on line. AR is all about superimposing computer-generated images on top of our view of reality, thus creating a composite view that augments the real world. In effect, excepting for smells, this describes Bradbury’s playroom to a T. And I bet smells will soon be on the way.

This is one among many instances of our mind’s capacity for the kind of imagining that reaches well beyond exigencies of time and place to see into a reality that has not reached its moment in history. In Bradbury’s case I would say his Playroom vision was a byproduct of wonder. Our minds have an insatiable appetite for awe and wonder. They feed on it.

There are people whose imaginations have the capacity for a special kind of creativity. They are able cut through the illusions which imprison us and see clearly into the future. They, too have visions of wonder, but their kind is more about hope. There are three biblical prophets I immediately think of who shared a similar vision pertaining to the future of the Jewish people. I read it also as a vision of our destiny as a human family. The prophetic proclamations are introduced with the phrase: “In the last days” meaning these proclamations are to come about at a future time. It is a vision of the way the human family will ultimately live together, but only after time.

Especially today, in the climate of war mongering and national arrogance, this prophetic chapter from Isaiah I find simply stunning.

“And many people shall go and say, come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Similar visions appear written in the prophetic books of Joel and Micah, as if the idea captured the minds of the ancient world which was as contentious and war-torn as ours is today.

The bronze sculpture “Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares,” created by Soviet artist Evgeny Vuchetich, was presented to the United Nations on December 4th 1959 by the Government of the USSR. The sculpture, depicting the figure of a man holding a hammer aloft in one hand and a sword in the other. It’s an inspiring work of art.

This remarkable vision of hope still lives in our human consciousness after first appearing around 800BC. That’s a long time ago.

Do you suppose as Bradbury once imagined his ‘Playroom’ as a young boy, and saw it realized as an adult, and that Isiah’s vision, conceived early in the life of the human family will be realized “in the last days? “The vision is now indelibly planted in human consciousness. Generation after generation the vision keeps reappearing. It may not be realized yet, but neither after all this time has it gone away.

I believe it will have its day when the right time is here.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Spy Minute: For the Love of Pippin with WC’s Ernie Green


For anyone who fondly remembers the Broadway musical Pippin as they were growing up in the 1970s, it is tough to imagine a bad version of that classic. Filled with memorable songs, a relatively simple plot, and lyrics that seemed universal, Pippin was, and is, the kind of theater production that any would succeed anywhere if given the opportunity.

And one such opportunity comes to Chestertown fast and furious this week. As a project of the music department at Washington College, a very limited production of the such will be performed next Thursday and Friday in the Gibson Center for the Arts on campus.

This bit of news made the Spy curious about a few things about this “pop up” production and we tracked down the director and Washington College faculty member Ernie Green about this short-lived student effort.

While Ernie, a Peabody-trained conductor, lecturer in music, and director of Live Arts Maryland, is comfortable in the academic canon of classical music and other diverse, and sometimes very challenging, forms of music, he admits in the Spy interview of his lifelong love for Pippin. The project also connects him back to a former career when he often was a frequent collaborator with the late Marvin Hamlisch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, and Broadway talent.

As his cast of students prepares for their free performance on Thursday and Friday night at the Daniel Z. Gibson Center for the Arts we talked to Ernie about the role of student productions, the magic of musical theater, and the endearing and enduring impression it can make on all ages.

This video is approximately two minutes in length. For more information about Pippin please go here


End the Debate, Get Serious by Al Sikes


Planes were turned into bombs! New York and Washington were under attack. These facts and the gruesome aftermath awakened America and its intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

As various post-9/11 inquiries made clear, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies had, to be charitable, misinterpreted signals that an attack was in preparation. In the aftermath of the attacks, with new found resolve and highly focused action plans, America was again safe although not invulnerable.

Periodically questions are asked about both internal and external threats. Often the heads of various executive agencies and legislative committees speak of the hundreds of threats that were discovered and blocked. It is said the details of the intelligence and police work have to remain undisclosed because methods and sources need to be protected. Fair enough.

I wonder how many potential domestic shootings have been blocked. All we know is not nearly enough.

Now, we can all concede that stopping a lone actor is very difficult; witness the suicide bombings that bedevil both police and military around the world. This complexity alone means that all of our intelligence and law enforcement resources must act in intense concentration and coordination if school, workplace and public gathering attacks are to be minimized.

One thing is certain, the next attack is only a week or so away and those who survive will indicate shock that such an egregious act was possible in their community. And then law enforcement and the press will begin to connect the dots and it will quickly become apparent that the shooting or vehicle or knife attack could have been foreseen or at the very least, suspected.

In the Florida shooting case, the New York Times reported: “Almost immediately after Mr. Cruz turned up at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Wednesday and, the authorities said, killed 17 people with a semiautomatic rifle, the disconnected shards of a difficult life began to come together. Students and neighbors traded stories of their experiences with him and wondered if anything could have been done.

Some of the stories fell within the bands of typical teenage mischief-making. But others — including a comment on YouTube Mr. Cruz may have posted last year saying he wished to be “a professional school shooter” — were considerably more troubling. The comment, left under the name “nikolas cruz,” was reported to the F.B.I. by someone who did not know Mr. Cruz, and the agency said on Thursday that it had been unable to determine who had posted it.”

My guess is that if the YouTube post had been made by a person with a Middle Eastern name and the stated intention was to plant a bomb, the FBI would have located the person who made the post.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, predictable arguments underscored how feckless our leaders have become. The lack of better gun control was cited as the problem. Mental illness was a close second. We can agree that if the shooter had been weaponless or stable this would not have occurred. We are, of course, constitutionally barred from emptying America of guns. And, taking signs of mental illness as sufficient evidence to put people into protective custody would fail on both legal and operational fronts.

After the shooting President Trump said several things, but this sentence captured, perhaps, a thin thread of hope: “Later this month, I will be meeting with the nation’s governors and attorneys general where making our schools and our children safer will be our top priority. It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference, we must actually make that difference.”
So what should the public expect—a show of concern without a plan or the intention of concentrated and coordinated work? Or worse, another in a long line of debating moments about guns and mental health? Or just perhaps, the kind of resolve that followed September 11, 2001—an action plan?

America has top flight intelligence resources. They can, if intensely focused, predict and act. But without top rank intelligence, no plan will succeed.

It is hard for me to imagine a more important goal than securing our nation and its schools, churches, workplaces and public gathering spots. It is not acceptable for these all too frequent events to be relegated to debates and calls for prayer. American intelligence and law enforcement agencies can be smart and must be.

And if they need better information on gun ownership, then those that seek to block such access should not hold public office. Social media activists can undoubtedly shine an intense light on the blockers.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Art Review: Joanne S. Scott at RiverArts by Mary McCoy


Visiting Joanne Scott’s show, Elements, at RiverArts is almost like visiting her studio. On view through February 25, it’s a chance to see what this accomplished Chestertown artist is working on currently, but you also get a fascinating taste of her work over the past five decades.

Half the show presents recent work, intriguingly mixed with an equal number of works dating back as far as 1965. It’s a teasing glimpse, kind of a half retrospective, of Scott’s fresh and engaging work, and it makes you wish you could see more.

Deeply influenced by her many years of living near the water, both in the Chesapeake region and on Maine’s Monhegan Island, Scott is primarily a landscape painter. She explores both open vistas and intimate views of the living world, always experimenting with color, composition and ways of capturing the mood of each moment. Throughout her work, there’s a sense of awe at the beauty and pure aliveness of the natural world.

“Orme’s Buy Boat,” watercolor 1972

The broad marsh flooded with light in “River Marsh,” an acrylic painting from 2017, hums with vitality as the billowing, heat-hazed trees beyond lean inward as if in conversation with two luminous white clouds. In her close-up paintings of flowers, such as “Eight Poppies” from 1985, each blossom is an individual, full of energy and character. The effect is even more so in her three new poppy watercolors painted in 2017 where each flower is animated with sketchy pencil lines and crisp washes in delicate shades of pink casually but succinctly defining their papery petals.

In work that is all about close observation, Scott explores how shadow sculpts the deck of a buy boat, how leaves spread out to catch sunlight, and how the weightlessness of a luminous moon underscores the quietude of the nocturnal earth below. Her work has always hovered between realism and abstraction. Sheets of ice around a boat dissolve into washy fields of textured color, while the clouds towering over a flat Eastern Shore landscape become a study of color and radiant energy.

Part of the pleasure of Scott’s work is that she celebrates the things we love so much about the outdoors. There’s a warm, familiar feeling about her water-rounded pebbles, graceful boats and rippling water. Without pretension or romanticizing, she paints them in a clear, forthright way.

But while her work may seem effortless, there’s a great deal of skill and planning behind it, and it’s fun to scout out her methods in the underlying sketches and the layers of brushstrokes describing shimmering light and water. Through decades as a working artist and teacher of drawing and painting, Scott has honed her process, and there’s a sense throughout this show that she revels in finding both bold and nuanced ways to convey her experience of each scene. Perhaps that’s why she included “Belfast Series #3 Study and Print” from 1986. It offers a fascinating look at how the study, a confident pencil sketch of light and shadow falling across a gabled house, served as a planning tool for the print, an inviting aquatint etching.

“Heron Point Look Out,” a watercolor from 2011, says a lot about her skill in conveying her deep affection for our watery landscapes. In this snow scene, she captured a grove of slim trees glimpsed in a slow, graceful dance as if mimicking the marshy creek below as it winds out to the river. Masterfully simplifying her forms, a few strokes of gray wash convey a distant riverside house and the merest suggestion of Chestertown bridge beyond.

“Heron Point Look Out,” watercolor, 2011

There’s something about the work of an elder artist that is spare and radiant—look at de Kooning’s late paintings or Matisse’s cut-outs. Scott, too, has found this uncomplicated simplicity, and it’s a pleasure to share in her appreciation as she reveals our familiar world in pencil and paint.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.


Out and About (Sort of): “First Draft of History’ by Howard Freedlander


The gripping movie, The Post, described and portrayed a historic time in American history in terms of pitting national security against freedom of the press. It did so in a fast-paced presentation of a courageous newspaper run by a publisher still tentative in her decisions, and a president determined to block publication of reports that described a war that had few moorings in truth.

Based upon the fraught publication of the highly classified “Pentagon Papers,” the much-heralded movie portrays a precedent-setting battle between a major newspaper and the White House. As one of the characters in the movies said, media coverages of daily news—whether local, state, national and international—represents the “first draft of history.” This initial documentation, later interpreted by historians, can be a sloppy one.

The Pentagon Papers detailed faulty and deceptive decisions about a divisive war that ripped apart our country. It remained undercover for a reason.

Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department military analyst, was a hero to many, a menace to others. He covertly removed the Pentagon Papers from the Pentagon, initiating a constitutional crisis.

The movie’s plot line was also about assumption of huge responsibility by a woman, Katherine “Kay” Graham, who had never been encouraged to believe she could be a business leader. She lacked confidence at first, patronized by men and highly respected by women…

Ironically, women’s issues were bubbling to the surface at the time., Kay Graham epitomized the struggle, as well as small but significant victories. She became a role model, as captured by a scene in the Supreme Court building during the hearing about the legality of publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Steven Spielberg, a renowned director, is a genius in telling history in a remarkably accurate and dramatic way. He is an accomplished storyteller, using an exacting camera, superb script and world-class cast to seek and achieve commercial and artistic success. Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and Schindler’s List are among his best works for this viewer.

The gutsy publication of the Pentagon Papers came amidst the conversion of the family-owned Washington Post into a public corporation dominated by men obsessed with the possible degradation of value (stock price) spurred by a constitutional crisis over the strength of the First Amendment. Kay Graham overcame the “bankers’” objections.

Tom Hanks was an aggressive, ambitious, take- no prisoners Ben Bradlee, the Post’s combative executive editor. Meryl Streep portrayed a tentative, frightened and insecure Kay Graham who grew mightily into her role as a publisher imbued with class and steely determination. Her presence on the screen evolved as her confidence increased.

For full disclosure, I read Mrs. Graham’s Pulitzer-prize winning autobiography, Personal History, some years ago and came away impressed with her startling candor. She was easy to admire and respect.

To state the obvious, Hanks and Streep are premier actors whose range of cinema characters is astounding. They never fail to capture the essence of their roles and an audience’s rapt attention.

The news operation as portrayed in the movie resonated with tension, creativity and single-minded attention to news gathering and dissemination. The newsroom wreaked of an unquenchable thirst and hunger for newsworthy information; the “budget” meetings (selecting top stories) accurately portrayed competition between string-willed editors and the press and composition rooms (still using lead type) reflected deadline pressure.

Scenes in the movie brought me back to my newspaper days when I often stood by the presses to await my paper, particularly if I thought it was a good one. It was exciting watching an inanimate printing press produce a living document that could affect readers’ lives and connect a community.

The movie absolutely captivated me. Did it portray Nixon as a manipulative and vengeful president prone to misrepresentation? Yes. Was Ben Bradlee careless and ruthless, determined to situate the Post as comparable to the New York Times? Yes. He was reckless, driven to impose his will on the Post.

Some might draw parallels between Nixon and Donald Trump in light of their views of the media and the First Amendment. Nixon was paranoid, insecure and intelligent. Certainly, our current president has similar traits, lacking, however, Nixon’s keen intelligence and in-depth curiosity.

Freedom of the press remains a battleground, unfortunately,

Evident creative flaws in the movie were not readily apparent to me. One obvious criticism of the content might be the lack of appreciation of the government’s argument against the release of stolen classified documents that showed the Vietnam War to be rife with the deception that resulted in the loss of 58,000 American lives.

The movie posited the use of stolen documents was justified by the light placed upon corrupt government decisions. That might be so, but that can become troublesome, leading to Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents/codes to Wikileaks regarding because he disagreed with U.S. foreign policy.

Arrogance was present on both sides, the Post and the White House, during the Pentagon Papers episode. Though former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and probably Richard Nixon knew that success in Vietnam was wildly exaggerated, they didn’t want to admit failure. And though Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee knew they were on thin legal ice, they proceeded in the name of the First Amendment.

It’s important not to hide shoddy journalism behind the veil of the freedom of the press; fortunately, that was not the case here.

Spielberg’s direction focuses on historic authenticity while ensuring the drama is commercially appealing, even spellbinding. He’s one of the best.

Eating popcorn almost seems disrespectful. Spielberg gains and keeps your rapt attention.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.