Posted in Rants on May 24th, 2017 by Ed

There's nothing meaningful about anniversaries per se; they are but a convenient excuse to raise and recall historical events that are interesting, relevant, or important. Sunday was the 90th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic from Roosevelt Field to Le Bourget in Paris. Truly, honestly, it stands as one of the most incredible (if pointless in the practical sense) feats a person has ever accomplished. A modern equivalent might be someone named Jane Doe showing up at a spaceport with a capsule she made in her yard and flying to Mars by herself while Elon Musk and NASA look on and predict her imminent death…followed two years from now by footage of her standing on Mars waving.

I could talk endlessly about the technical aspects of the accomplishment, so I will stop myself in advance. Suffice it to say that papers called him "Lucky Lindy" not simply because it sounded cool but because the quest to fly the Atlantic from New York to Paris produced nothing but an impressively long list of corpses until Lindbergh did it, and continued to kill well funded, highly experienced crews in technologically sophisticated aircraft for years after. To point out just two examples, pioneering French aviators Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli flew a technological marvel called L'Osseau Blanc to their deaths in an Atlantic crossing attempt shortly before Lindbergh's try. And Richard Byrd's team, which included both a dedicated navigator and a radio operator, survived its crossing flight but missed its intended arrival point in Ireland by nearly 800 miles. They crash-landed in France, essentially hitting Europe at all only because it is too big to miss if one flies (generally) eastward. Lindbergh, meanwhile, flew what was essentially a powered box kite alone, navigated with a pad of paper on his knees and zero forward visibility (the windshield was blocked with a gas tank), and landed exactly where he said he would, to the foot.

More to the point, Lindbergh's act achieved him a kind of fame that has no modern equivalent. The news cycle is so short today that the kind of all-encompassing, smothering, planetary fame that met Lindbergh will probably never be repeated. He became famous to the point that living anything resembling life became impossible for him and more or less destroyed him. It led directly, through constant reports about details of his home life, to the kidnapping and murder of his son in what was, until the OJ Simpson Trial (more on that in a moment), the Crime of the Century.

So, parts of us feel sympathetic to the idea that Lindbergh might be driven by the harassing pressures of fame and adulation to become…a little odd. Maybe develop something of an antipathy toward his fellow man. He could have been forgiven a curmudgeonly, even misanthropic, leaning or two. But that's not what happened. What happened was not forgivable. In a high school auditorium in Iowa in 1941, Charles Lindbergh doused himself in gasoline and lit a metaphorical match. His speech on non-intervention, coming on the heels of years of uncomfortable flirtations with Nazism, "America First" boosterism, and the very darkest corners of the generally already quite dark Eugenics movement, ended Charles Lindbergh with an immediacy and finality that was nothing short of breathtaking. It is impossible to think of another example of a person who went from universally admired public figure to persona non grata as quickly and totally as Charles Lindbergh. OJ Simpson is a rough equivalent, although his popularity never reached the heights of Lindbergh's. Bill Cosby comes to mind as well, although he was already well past his peak of esteem by the time his public defenestration came. Lindbergh went from proposals to name new states after him to He Whose Name is Not Spoken literally overnight.

It is more than a bit striking, then, to read the text of Lindbergh's career-ending speech now, in light of the knowledge of the revulsion with which it was greeted and how thoroughly it destroyed the public reputation of a man who until that moment could virtually do no wrong. Does it not seem almost…tame, by today's standards in American politics? Far from being career suicide, giving that speech today would merit a book deal, a syndicated talk show, and a career in Republican electoral politics. Compare this to the writings of people who currently occupy positions of authority in the damn White House and Lindbergh practically comes off as some sort of reasoned moderate. My point is not that Charles Lindbergh's anti-Semitic, eugenics-guided fascist sympathy adds up to an idea that is defensible or has merit; the point is that none of this would hurt him or his reputation much today. The actual President would shower him with praise, which contrasts neatly with FDR's take ("If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this, I am absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.")

There was a time when being at least borderline into Nazism was a liability in America. Apparently that time has passed. Of course, until WWII began Lindbergh's views were not exactly unique among Americans. However, rather than continuing to reject them based on the lessons learned during that almost unimaginably destructive conflict, we are now content to move backward and claim that perhaps we had things right all long back in the days when Madison Grant was respectable reading. I don't need to explain in much detail what that kind of thinking led to, I hope.