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Thoughts on My 75th Birthday

Today is my 75th birthday, and I thought instead of a regular column, I would write about my thoughts and feelings about reaching this milestone. To use the Yiddish vernacular, I’m now officially an alta cocker, which when younger we used as a term for those old Jews who sat on benches in the non-hip Miami Beach of yesteryear. Pretty soon I’ll be able to join -- if only I could be funny -- my brethren who post entries on “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”

In a slightly more serious vein, as I face the reality that I’m entering my twilight years, my thoughts turn to that which has seen me through both good times and bad. I’m fortunate to have had a wonderful marriage for some thirty-seven years to my wife Allis, with whom I now write books, and to have marvelous children and grandchildren. My son Daniel in Brooklyn and his wife Gina have three fantastic kids (Milo, Margalit and Seraphina), and my daughter Laura in Berlin and her partner Silke have two beautiful girls (Malka and Noemie). And our son Mike and his wife Jen, who live nearby us in Maryland, have an always-on-the-go, energetic one year old named Evan. As everyone knows, this is what life is all about, and it affords me great pleasure.

I still have friends not only from high school, but from elementary school as well. About two years ago, I went to New York City where at one of the clubs, a group of old friends from P.S.173 in Washington Heights, where I grew up, met for a wonderful dinner of talk and reminiscences. All four of us, I’m happy to report, were successful in life and have made great contributions in our chosen careers. One of them is a now retired top editor and writer, another a player in Democratic Party circles and a lawyer of renown, and the third a highly regarded New York character actor, whom you have undoubtedly seen on the stage or in various television programs. We all remembered vividly, as if it were yesterday, events from the days in our old neighborhood. Memories do stay with us.

Last week, while on a research trip to West Branch, Iowa, for the book Allis and I are writing on the presidency of Warren Harding, I was able to meet one of my best friends from high school, who works as an artist and is now retired from Cornell College in that state. Seeing old friends and remaining in touch with them is yet another blessing to be counted.

The passing of the years has also led me to reflect on what keeps me going with columns, articles, and books -- instead of supposedly enjoying going to the golf course every day (a problem anyway -- since I don’t play golf) or constantly traveling to exotic locales. One is supposed to slow down as time goes on, take it easy, enjoy simple reading, watch movies, and just enjoy oneself.

Instead, I find myself angry and as motivated as I ever was to try and tell what I consider to be the truth, and to take up and challenge all the charlatans that surround us. The past few days I have worked hard on an article to appear in the next issue of The Weekly Standard, a review-essay on the new TV documentary series and book by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick titled Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States. Watching the episodes literally made my blood pressure rise. I was quite simply infuriated at what I watched and heard Stone come up with.

I knew that others would not have the expertise and background to take up the misinformation he offers Americans who listen to him and think they are learning the truth about our past. My anger and disdain for a culture that allows Stone’s celebrity as a Hollywood filmmaker -- to present himself as a historian who has anything to contribute to comprehending the American story -- led me to realize that I had to deal with him, because in most likelihood no one else would.

That desire to answer the likes of Stone has a lot to do with my leftist childhood and adolescence. As readers of my memoir Commies know, my decision to become a historian in the first place came from the inspiration I had from a Marxist-Leninist history teacher at my high school, who told me that “Marx said history is the queen of the sciences.” I don’t know if indeed Marx said that, but I remember the teacher whom I regarded highly telling me that. (One can be influenced by high school mentors a great deal, which is why I think Paul Kengor is correct to call attention in his book to the influence on Barack Obama of the president’s mentor in Hawaii, Frank Marshall Davis. I reviewed it here.)