Missing the Boat

The Smithsonian magazine has an article about seven famous people who might have sailed on the Titanic but who, for some reason or other, missed the boat. They included Theodore Dreiser, Guglielmo Marconi, Milton Hershey, J. Pierpoint Morgan, Henry Frick, and Alfred Vanderbilt.


Dreiser had shifted to the Kroonland to save money. Hershey, of candy bar fame, had the money and had actually made a deposit on a ticket, but some business matter detained him and he had to cancel. What seemed like bad luck at the time actually turned out to be good fortune. Had things proved otherwise, the Titanic would have proved an even bigger disaster; our grandfathers might have grown up in a world without Hershey’s bars.

Lefty Gomez once remarked, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” What constituted good or bad might have been obvious on the baseball diamond, but things were less obvious in the more complex arena of everyday life.  The Chinese had a story to describe the ambiguity of fortune.

… there lived an old man on the northern frontier of China. One day, his horse disappeared … few months later, his horse came back with another horse that was even better. His neighbors came to congratulate him on his gain. But … the old man … said this “good luck” might turn out to be misfortune in the end. Strangely, he was right again. A few days later, his son fell from the new horse and broke his leg … since his son was lame after that accident, he was not chosen to be a soldier to fight in the following war so that he lived with family safely.

Fortune into misfortune. Misfortune into fortune. The loss of the USS Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea was the down payment on the victory at Midway. In exchange for Lexington‘s loss, the Zuikaku and Shokaku were too mauled to sail with Nagumo on that fatal 4th of June. But you wouldn’t know it as the Lady Lex was going down. The role that event played in the greater scheme of things had yet to be revealed.


Of course, if Nimitz had lost at Midway the Lady Lex’s loss would have been just a loss.

When Mariano Rajoy followed socialist leader José Luis Zapatero to become Spain’s prime minister in 2010, he may have thought he had won the electoral lottery. But what he may actually have done was replace the metaphorical Edward Smith as captain on the Spanish ship of state.

Voters turned to him in hopes of alleviating the pain of Europe’s debt crisis. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Mr. Rajoy’s longtime rival, had stepped down as prime minister as the elections approached in the face of widespread resentment over Spain’s economic woes.

But since then, Mr. Rajoy has seen his own popularity sink steadily, as Spain’s recession has deepened and unemployment has reached 24 percent, the highest in Europe.

What is the future of Mariano Rajoy?

One of the most common reasons why fortune can turn into misfortune is that the long-term consequences of the apparent good luck are very expensive. This idea is embodied in a chess concept of the “poisoned pawn,” where you are offered a free pawn in exchange for creating a fatal flaw in your position. It’s an experience many American students know about.

If student loans are good debt, how do you account for the reaction of Christina Mills, 30, of Minneapolis, when she found out her payment on college and law school loans would be $1,400 a month? “I just went into the car and started sobbing,” says Mills, who works for a nonprofit. “It was more than my paycheck at the time.” Medical student Thomas Smith, 25, of Hamilton, N.J., is $310,000 in debt and is struggling to make ends meet even before beginning to repay his loans. “I don’t even know what I eat,” he says. “I just go to the supermarket and buy the cheapest thing I can and buy as much of it as I can.” Then there’s Michael DiPietro, 25, of Brooklyn, who accumulated about $100,000 in debt while getting a bachelor’s degree in fashion, sculpture, and performance, and spent the next two years waiting tables. He has since landed a fundraising job in the arts but still has no idea how he will pay back all that money. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an obsolete idea that a college education is like your golden ticket,” DiPietro says. “It’s an idea that an older generation holds on to.”


Probably the most famous example of a “poisoned pawn” in military history was the German attempt to bleed the French army to death at Verdun. It was said that the German General Staff in 1916 had concluded that the best way to defeat France was to give them a rock to smash their heads against. They would take a position on the French line and watch the French exhaust themselves in counterattacks.

The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass breakthrough—which in any case is beyond our means—is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death

The Germans, of course, failed in 1916. But forty years later the French would fall for the same gambit in a distant Indochinese valley called Dien Bien Phu. The French paras easily won control of that isolated valley. But it was holding it, as Vo Nguyen Giap had foreseen, that proved fatal. General de Castries, facing defeat, saw the parallel immediately. “Diên Biên Phu, c’est Verdun sans la Voie Sacrée” — Dien Bien Phu is Verdun without a resupply route.

Time will tell whether November 7, 2012, will prove to be Barack Obama’s greatest moment of fortune or misfortune; it will show whether Mitt Romney missed his chance to be Mariano Rajoy. Leo Linbeck III wrote at the time:


The President ran a brilliant campaign. He ran overwhelmingly negative ads, early and focused and targeting the battleground states. He was able to define Romney, and his messaging was perfectly calibrated for his target audiences. Given his first term record, he really had no other choice, and his execution was first-rate.

But now he will reap what he sowed. His pretense of being a uniter, someone who can reach across the aisle and work together to solve pressing problems, lies in ruins. Whatever reservoir of goodwill and trust that existed in January 2009 is now bone dry.

So, yes, he won. But it will almost certainly be a Pyrrhic victory. He chose to divide the country deeply to win his second term. He will find that the nation he will again lead is not governable by him, and he may have tipped it to where it is not governable by anyone. He is so deeply despised by so much of the country that he will never be able to do what needs to be done (assuming he even wanted to, which does not appear likely).

The reaping will begin sooner than he probably expects. The ship of state is heading toward the Scylla and Charybdis of the fiscal cliff (in 2012) and Obamacare (in 2013). At work, we have been looking at the impact of Obamacare, and all I can say is that the average person has absolutely no idea how enormous the impact will be on their life. It will be an enormous shock to the system, and it will hit almost everyone in the country.


The president will, in other words, be saddled by the legacy of the previous administration. He bought the next four years at a great cost. Will it pay off? Or will he be like those college students who’ve found that getting into big time debt to get a degree in fashion, sculpture, and performance doesn’t pay off? Maybe 2013 will be Verdun without the Voie Sacrée.

The most important thing about Allen West’s demand for a recount in Florida is that unlike Romney, he’s not giving up and is making the administration pay for every bite of that poisoned pawn. Is he doing this in the belief that he can really reverse the anomalies? Or is he doing it because he intuitively understands that he is ironically in a very enviable position: he has the freedom to attack what the other side must defend, at whatever cost?

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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