Saturday, June 21, 2014

Who is your Charles A. Lindbergh?

Charles A. Lindbergh is buried behind a small church on the south shore of the Hawaiian island of Conde Nast voted world's best island for 19 of the last 20 years (it came in second place once), but it is still a remote location where residents don't have electric, telephone, or water service. It was the perfect place for the reclusive Lindbergh to spend his last years, and a quiet spot for a final resting place.
Maui. It is a stop on the "Road to Hana," a common tourist destination. The road is winding, narrow, and, in parts, unpaved. This part of Maui might still be on the island that

I find Lindbergh a puzzling historical figure. He was both famous and later infamous. Lindbergh skyrocketed to fame as "Lucky Lindy" for his daring, solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Thirteen years later, the symbol of American spunk, innovation, exceptionalism, daring, individualism, and countless more attributes, warned his country to stay out of the European war. As the biggest spokesperson for the American First Committee, Lindbergh became the nation's most prominent isolationist. Errant foreign policy views might be more easily forgiven if they had not been compounded with so many favorable comments about nazi Germany. Although he flew combat missions in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, his pre-war pro-nazi statements are what stand out. He picked a very poor issue on which to step out of the shadows and stake his enormous prestige.

To draw on popular representations, can the Lindbergh of Jimmy Stewart's The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004) be the same person? The same question can be asked of other historical figures, particularly our presidents. How can Lyndon Johnson be responsible for ushering through long overdue civil rights legislation, and, at the same time, the catastrophic policies in the Vietnam War? How could Woodrow Wilson successfully compromise to gain passage of key pieces of legislation that served as the foundations of the liberal state fail to do so over the League of Nations? There are countless other examples, but I think you get the point. The answer is, of course, we, as humans, are full of contradictions. Exploring them is one of the things that make being a biographer and historian so fun and interesting. Was the good a person achieved more beneficial than the harm they are responsible for? I thought about this question a lot as our tour bus meandered along the Road to Hana, and I have to admit, that I think I will remember Charles A. Lindbergh more as "Lucky Lindy" than as the "ex-hero" or the "copperhead."

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