Our dear columnist friend Steve Otto was writing for the Tampa Tribune back in 2000, when former basketball star and US Senator Bill Bradley ran for the Democratic nomination. He lost to Vice President Al Gore, and Gore in turn – well, you know that story. Anyway, when Steve reported that former county commissioner Fran Davin and former state representative Mary Figg were going to New Hampshire to campaign for Bradley, he labeled them "the Thelma and Louise of politics."
They still are at it. Although both are widows now and entitled to rest from their political labors, Fran told me recently that she and Mary plan to go to Kentucky to work for Democrat Amy McGrath against Republican Mitch McConnell. It's the same spirit that motivated them to run for office back in the day: Fran became Hillsborough's second female county commissioner in 1974, and Mary was our third woman in the state legislature, in 1982. Fran managed Betty Castor's campaign to be the first woman on the commission, in 1972, while Helen Gordon Davis and Pat Frank preceded Figg in the House.
It's hard to overstate how much genuine reform was implemented by these women. Prior to their activism, good ole boys in both state and local government routinely got away with crimes. Bribery was the accepted route for developers, who bought zonings that allowed them to build in swamps, and everybody's brother got a no-show government job. The League of Women Voters organized to bring an end to this sham of a democracy, and voters finally elected candidates who adopted the League's agenda.
So Fran and Mary, both of whom once were League presidents, will be off to Kentucky later this year to try to create reforms there. That state has been devastated by Mitch McConnell's allies in the coal and tobacco industries, and it very much needs a modern environmental and economic plan. It (and the rest of us) also need a new approach to transportation, which never will come with Donald Trump's current secretary of transportation – who happens to be McConnell's wife, shipping magnate and multi-millionaire Elaine Chao. Yes, she is an immigrant, but Trump's anti-immigrant attitudes stop where money starts.
Lieutenant Colonel Amy McGrath, on the other hand, served twenty years in the Marine Corps, most of it as a fighter pilot. She flew 85 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan – whereas Mitch McConnell, like his friend Donald Trump, avoided their generation's war. McConnell served a few months in 1967 before getting a discharge because of an eye problem, something that wasn't serious enough to stop him from spending decades as a deal-making Republican in Washington.
McGrath, who is endorsed by Vote Vets, has the courage and the credentials to defeat McConnell – and if we don't win the Senate, winning the presidency won't mean nearly as much. Let's join Thelma and Louise to ditch Mitch.
DEATH IN VENICE
Although he won the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature, I didn't like German novelist Thomas Mann when I read him in college, and I still don't. I confirmed that recently; I decided to give him another chance and picked up a volume of his short stories to read at Hubby's hospital bedside. It had been so long on a shelf in our study that it literally fell apart as I read it, and I deposited its pages directly into a VA wastebasket.
So why am I writing about this? It's because his most famous work, "Death in Venice," is relevant right now. The tale is set in that artistic Italian city in 1912, and I suppose it drew literati attention because of the male protagonist's obsession with a beautiful boy. He never attempts to establish a relationship with the child, but even the allusion to pedophilia was innovative.
Because they are Poles, not Germans, the boy's family is among the last to leave their mutual vacation hotel when cholera breaks out.
The epidemic was first reported in German newspapers by Germans who fled Venice, but the Italian press had nothing to say, even as streets became deserted. Trying to determine the truth, our protagonist eventually went to the British embassy, where a low-ranking official reluctantly confirmed the seriousness of the disease. Yet both his government and the Italian government refused to protect the public health because of the damage that negative publicity would do to the economy.
More than a century later, we see the same phenomenon in China, where the government initially tried to censor word of the current epidemic because officials prioritized business over safety. Thousands of people have died as a result of this wrong-headed emphasis on money, and now the virus is spreading to other continents. Presumably it is the main factor in Wall Street's thousand-point drop on Monday, although it could be that the big guys finally are starting to see Trump's overblown economy for what it is.
But it is clear that without the World Health Organization, we would be living 1919 all over again. That's when the virus called Spanish Influenza killed some 50 million people – many more than the recently ended first world war. One in every three people on the planet was infected, and there was no international governance to slow its spread.
But germs are no respecters of belief systems or boundaries, and Europeans caught on to that faster than Americans. Global health organization began just after the war ended, with the emergence of the League of Nations in neutral Switzerland. Led by President Woodrow Wilson, Democrats campaigned for the League, but the Republican Senate refused to ratify the treaty. Three decades would pass before the World Health Organization began under the United Nations and the leadership of another Democrat, Harry Truman. You think there's a pattern here?
PLAGUES IN PERSPECTIVE
At the same time that the media plays and replays the China crisis, other modern plagues are ignored – of course, I'm sure, because they have less impact on global business. Children in Syria freeze in tents while hiding from bombing planes, and almost no one realizes that more than six million people have been displaced in that long war. A few hundred miles south, starvation is a real possibility in northeastern Africa, as hordes of locusts have devastated harvests. Because the nations affected are poor in the best of times, famine looks likely.
Reporters described the locusts as coming from nowhere, covering the sky like an umbrella, and eating everything in sight. It is a plague akin to the one that Jehovah sent when Pharaoh refused to liberate his Jewish slaves. We've had such inexplicable attacks in America, too, and I quoted a remembrance of one in my Foreign and Female (1986). Swiss immigrant Elise Isely, who settled in frontier Kansas, had overcome frost and flood in the spring, followed by drought and disease in the summer. She was chatting happily with a neighbor when:
"Suddenly to the west we saw what seemed to be a glistening white cloud…only it came faster than a thunderhead. Taking short leave of Mrs. Hatfield, I hurried for my own home, three quarters of a mile away. Soon I realized that I could not reach home before the storm struck, and I was worried about my baby whom I was carrying in my arms. Racing toward me, the cloud obscured the sun… I had not quite reached home when it descended to the earth… It fell about me, not a storm, but a plague such as ravaged Mosaic Egypt. Millions of grasshoppers lit all around… In a few hours our prospects for a bountiful crop were gone… Trees stood under the August sun as naked as in the winter."