Mormon Archipelago

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Book Review: To the Rescue

It’s been awhile since I got down to less than 80 pages in a book and felt sad that it was coming to an end! This is how I felt as I finished Heidi S. Swinton’s, “To the Rescue”, the official biography of Thomas S. Monson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As a young person I noticed that President Monson often sprinkled stories of hospital and nursing home visits in his talks. I also noticed his meeting with leaders of other faiths, his friendship with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake and his involvement in Scouting. For the young or new member of the LDS Church, or the person who is not a Mormon but wants to learn more about this dynamic leader, “To the Rescue” brings the reader up to speed on these unique aspects of President Monson’s ministry, which spans half a century. It also provides an insightful account of President Monson’s central role in the LDS Church’s establishment in East Germany before the razing of the Berlin Wall. The book also mirrors President Monson’s unique teaching style by stringing together anecdotes from President Monson’s repertoire that by themselves constitute inspiring sermons.

Examples of such “sermons” include one of President Monson’s boyhood Thanksgivings when a neighbor boy, Charlie, leaned at the fence and asked Tommy (as President Monson was known then) about the wonderful smell coming from the Monson home. After a short conversation between the boys, Tommy Monson came to realize that not only had Charlie never tasted Turkey, but didn’t even know what chicken tasted like. Tommy soon realized that the cupboards at Charlie’s house were bare. On his own initiative, the young Tommy Monson gave the neighbor his two “prized” New Zealand White Rabbits to have for a Thanksgiving meal. Instructing Charlie to take them to his dad, Tommy said they tasted similar to chicken. Charlie later stated that it was the finest holiday meal their family had ever known.

The best biographies of great men don’t give a short shrift to one’s youth. For it is in one’s youth that a man or woman learns—or doesn’t learn— the lessons that will be applied later in life. In this book we read of President Monson’s mother serving food to tramps during the Great Depression on the west side of Salt Lake City and of the loads of family members who lived in Monson’s old (and now defunct) 6-7th Ward. Not all of these people appear to have been gung-ho Mormons in terms of Church activity. And the happiness of these blue-collar families appears to be based on their family connections and their Vivian Park fishing trips rather than material prosperity. We read of Thomas Monson’s father taking a crippled “Uncle Elias” for Sunday drives to see the town, something Elias would otherwise be unable to do. We see a young Bishop Monson reaching out to experienced church members who thought they were “passed over” for Church callings. We see an Aaronic priesthood youth learning to fellowship others. Above all, we see the value of memory and the applications of life-lessons learned in the early days of one’s accountability and perhaps even before.

Reading this book has turned my own heart toward the chums of school days, aging grandmothers, inactive Church members, old neighborhood friends and the hard working, unassuming folks who provide services—often without thanks such as gas station attendants, garbage men and others who President Monson would notice. I have thought of orphans, widows…the poor. Finishing this book just before Christmas has filled me with a spirit of Christmas and a desire to make visits, to say “thank you” and to lend a smile to every person met—all hallmarks of President Monson’s ministry. It has also turned my thoughts to my own children (wasn’t it President Monson who said “prime time for teaching is fleeting”?). I want my own children to see their parents caring for the aged, bringing to mind the “old acquaintance” and inviting those inactive in church to “come back”.

The style of this biography deviates just a bit from those of other Church leaders I have read, including Eleanor Knowles’ “Howard W. Hunter”, Sheri Dew’s “Go Forward With Faith” (biography of Gordon B. Hinckley) or Bruce Hafen’s biography of Neal A. Maxwell, “A Disciple’s Life”. Similar to many other biographies of Mormon leaders, “To the Rescue” begins by retracing genealogy. One can hardly avoid mentioning a leader’s roots in a biography (especially a Mormon one!) but even for genealogy buffs like me, the one or two chapters devoted to this subject can get a bit dry and sometimes confusing.

But Swinton largely avoids delving too deeply into family history and where she does, she deftly connects the stories of President and Sister Monson’s forbears to present day circumstances and provides inspiring stories about their forbears’ early encounters with Mormonism and the missionaries. The book is also different in that it focuses primarily on President Monson’s own personal stories about his life and buttresses these accounts with contextual research and interviews with family members and Church leaders. In this way, the biography probably constitutes the greatest anthology of what many Latter-day Saints might refer to as President Monson stories. Nearly each page and chapter leaves the reader feeling warm and uplifted. Adapting this style of biography to another leader might not work but was probably the only effective way of telling the story of a man who at once can be very revealing and personal while also retaining a protective wall of privacy around his wife and family.

At the book signing I asked Swinton if she had read Thomas S. Monson’s journals (knowing that Sheri L. Dew had done so in researching “Go Forward with Faith). I was impressed with her response that she had “read all his journals”. Having read “Faith Rewarded” (a collection of President Monson’s journal entries about the opening of East Germany to missionary and temple work) I get the feeling that President Monson’s journals are focused on faith promoting experiences and recording the positive deeds of others. I doubt they include a lot of sensitive information from Church councils or private family information. Only President Monson and Heidi Swinton know the answer to that though. But the entries quoted in this book are in many ways an example of what writing a good diary is all about: keeping a positive record that will uplift one’s posterity and enlarge one’s own memory.

Swinton has authored other books covering topics that include Mormon history and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The only other book of hers I have read was “In the Company of Prophets”, a jewel of a book which recounts the personal experiences of D. Arthur Haycock, a secretary to several Church Presidents. Even so, I am going to take a guess and say that “To the Rescue” may well be her greatest professional accomplishment to date.

I hate to sound like a barker for Deseret Book, but I do believe this book should be a part of every family library. Singles and students would do well to put it on their bookshelf. If you can’t afford it, check it out at the library or borrow a copy from a friend. You won’t regret it.

Overall the writing style complemented the format of the book and provided appropriate commentary on President Monson’s own accounts. In the final analysis, this was a great biography—somewhat old fashioned (with a modern twist), always inspiring, a lot like President Monson himself. This book became an instant favorite and I am sure I will read it again. Thank you Sister Swinton for your skilled contribution and thank you President Monson for living a life that constitutes a minister’s greatest sermon.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Disaster and Sorrow

Photo: Don Meyers/Salt Lake Tribune

This morning I was driving to work and saw smoke rising from the Center of Provo. As I got closer I uttered a prayer: "please God, not the Tabernacle!"

Alas, my prayer was not answered the way I would have liked, but I accept that.

I almost titled this post "Unmitigated Disaster" but this disaster is not unmitigated. No one has been injured. The firefighters have served honorably and safely. Wonderful memories remain. But the sadness is piercing and even my normally philosophical heart and mind are asking "why?".

A few years ago the people of Springville had their hearts pierced when one of their historical chapels was razed following an arson. (A suspect was recently identified). There is no reason to suspect arson in the case of the Provo Tabernacle, but whatever the cause, I feel as though I have lost a loved one.

One woman's YouTube video was linked to KSL this morning.

One last note: I had planned for my next post to be a book review of To the Rescue: President Monson's official biography. That will have to wait. In the meantime I should note that President Monson spoke in the beloved Provo Tabernacle many times and I am certain it is a building he loved.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Compromise and the Constitution

Today I visited the website of Utah’s “Patrick Henry Caucus”. I chuckled when I read “We, the Patrick Henry Caucus, unite to sustain…the Constitution of the United States.” If I started a group with the goal of sustaining the U.S. Constitution I might name it after Washington, Madison, Hamilton or other inspired Federalists who framed the Constitution 223 years ago. I would not name it after Patrick Henry who avoided the Philadelphia Convention, claiming he “smelt a rat”. Henry would later put his vote where his mouth was when he voted against the Constitution as a Virginia Delegate in 1788.

But unlike those who demonize their opponents as “anti-Constitution”, I will not engage in slamming Patrick Henry. While I am personally grateful that Alexander Hamilton’s vision of America—with its modern financial system, vibrant cities and world stature—has come to pass, I respect the attitudes held by anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry during the ratification era. Demonizing Henry would overlook his patriotism during the Revolution and the fact that many anti-Federalists peacefully acknowledged ratification and fought for the Bill of Rights as a concession from the Federalists.

Ironically, activists trumpeting themselves as “Constitutionalists” are often among those advocating an anti-Federalist worldview, not the views advocated by the Founders at Philadelphia. Some demean Congress and other institutions, not realizing that the Founders’ greatest contributions were lasting institutions that by design require compromise. Do those eschewing compromise realize our beloved Constitution includes myriad compromises—including the Grand Compromise that gave states equal representation in the Senate but retained proportional representation in the House? The Founders were willing to compromise toward a “more perfect union” and I am grateful they did. A recent but short lived attempt at compromise was Senator Bennett’s approach to health care reform. Following 2008, the Democrats had large majorities in both chambers and were poised with gavels in hand. Republicans realized they had a choice: try to influence the legislation or get steamrolled. Ultimately they were steamrolled. One ponders whether strident conservatives prefer President Obama’s recent health care law to one that might have had Republican input.

Bennett’s father, the legendary Wallace Bennett, once stated something along these lines: “We legislate at the highest quality at which we can obtain a majority”. In a nation of 300 million, strident liberals and conservatives will never obtain a majority for their proposals. The trick to good legislating is to try and kill the worst bills while leaving your own imprint on the rest. Ronald Reagan understood this during his days as Governor in Sacramento and wrote in his memoirs that compromise was anathema to “the most radical conservatives” who “wanted all or nothing”. Reagan understood compromise was necessary, but lamented that radical conservatives “never got used to it.”

Had Madison, Hamilton and others stubbornly clung to their personal ideas in 1787, the Philadelphia convention would have disbanded and the attempt at creating a united Republic would have failed. I for one believe the U.S. Constitution was no accident and that the Founders were inspired to compromise.

I also believe that the Revolutionary generation would look with admiration upon today’s America. While America has her problems, our forbears could scarce have imagined their nascent coastal Republic would one day stretch from sea to shining sea and become the world’s greatest, most prosperous nation. In times of financial stress and political change strident views and conspiracy theories tend to make brief comebacks. But wiser heads remember that periodic recessions are a fixture of free markets and presidents of both parties come and go. It’s true that tough decisions lie before us. But hearing activists and office seekers make dubious assertions about the Constitution sheds no light on today’s problems. By coming to truly understand the U.S. Constitution, including the polarized debates that led to it, I believe we will grow in appreciation for that sacred document and put some of today’s heated arguments in better perspective.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Salvatore Giunta Decorated with Medal of Honor

Americans from every state and of every creed and persuasion pause today to reflect on a hero from Hiawatha, Iowa. Today Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta received the highest decoration America gives to one of her heroes: the Medal of Honor.

The ever-humble Giunta was quoted last September by the AP as saying "'It was not me doing everything". Indeed, President Obama noted that everyone in the platoon had shrapnel in their armor, five were wounded and two died. The parents of the deceased soldiers were also honored today at the White House. Giunta is the first Medal of Honor recipient in almost four decades to be decorated both while alive and during the ongoing conflict.

While watching the video of today's presentation, these words of the President's struck a chord [Speaking of the men in Giunta's unit]:

"They volunteered. In an era when it’s never been more tempting to chase personal ambition or narrow self-interest, they chose the opposite-they felt a tug, they answered a call, they said 'I'll go'. For the better part of a decade they have endured tour after tour in distant and difficult places, they have protected us from danger, they have given others the opportunity to earn a better and more secure life. They are the courageous men and women serving in Afghanistan even as we speak."

Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta - Medal of Honor Operation Enduring Freedom
Official Citation

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded, in the name of Congress, the Medal of Honor to Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta, United States Army. For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:

Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, on October 25, 2007.

While conducting a patrol as team leader with Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry Regiment, Specialist Giunta and his team were navigating through harsh terrain when they were ambushed by a well-armed and well-coordinated insurgent force. While under heavy enemy fire, Specialist Giunta immediately sprinted towards cover and engaged the enemy. Seeing that his squad leader had fallen and believing that he had been injured, Specialist Giunta exposed himself to withering enemy fire and raced towards his squad leader, helped him to cover, and administered medical aid. While administering first aid, enemy fire struck Specialist Giunta's body armor and his secondary weapon.

Without regard to the ongoing fire, Specialist Giunta engaged the enemy before prepping and throwing grenades, using the explosions for cover in order to conceal his position. Attempting to reach additional wounded fellow soldiers who were separated from the squad, Specialist Giunta and his team encountered a barrage of enemy fire that forced them to the ground. The team continued forward and upon reaching the wounded soldiers, Specialist Giunta realized that another soldier was still separated from the element.

Specialist Giunta then advanced forward on his own initiative. As he crested the top of a hill, he observed two insurgents carrying away an American soldier. He immediately engaged the enemy, killing one and wounding the other. Upon reaching the wounded soldier, he began to provide medical aid, as his squad caught up and provided security.

Specialist Giunta's unwavering courage, selflessness, and decisive leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon's ability to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American soldier from the enemy. Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta's extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, and the United States Army.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Anti-Matheson Hyperbole and a Terrible Ad

A document widely circulated in these parts states that it is not common for the voice of the people to choose that which is not right. I feel that particular nugget of wisdom was vindicated yesterday—at least in Utah’s Second District.

Ironically, those who worked hardest to smear Jim Matheson in the past few weeks had a friend in Matheson on the two issues that mattered most to them. Mr. Kirkham, the Tea Party and others who helped defeat Senator Bennett had two main issues: TARP and healthcare. And yet these ideologues, (who ostensibly focused on issues, not party affiliation), suddenly zeroed in on Jim Matheson in the final weeks of the campaign. That’s ironic since Jim Matheson voted against TARP and against Obama’s Health Bill! A few days ago I heard David Kirkham on the radio saying he is starting to make peace with Senator Hatch but he then used most of his time to attack Matheson on non-substantive, vague issues like being “Pelosi’s puppet”. One must assume that there will always be some who just can’t get over the “D” label.

Critics of Jim Matheson said over and over that Jim was Nancy Pelosi’s “puppet”. This charge was the exact same talking point used by Republicans challenging Blue Dog Democrats nationwide. Hmm…when a candidate does nothing but regurgitate NRCC talking points, who’s the real puppet?

The problem is that most of these critics can’t name a vote where Pelosi and Matheson voted together and actually criticize that vote on the merits. I did not hear a single ad or statement by a Philpot backer explaining how Matheson and Pelosi were together on a substantive issue. On the substantive issues that riled Republicans the most: TARP, Obama’s health care bill, bailouts and cap and trade, Jim Matheson voted with the Republicans! That's why Morgan Philpot, David Kirkham, Barbara Baker and the dudes on FM 105.7 never brought up the specifics or they would have lost even more Republican votes to Jim Matheson. Instead they attacked Jim’s patriotism and implied he had "taken away our freedoms". Baloney. I ask them to name one “freedom” Jim Matheson has voted against. Freedom of speech? Nope. How about the freedoms of religion, assembly or right to bear arms? Nope. As of Tuesday I still had my greatest American freedom: the right to vote. And I used it to cast a vote for my favorite Congressman: Jim Matheson.

Barbara Baker’s ad against Matheson made me sad. Every American cherishes his or her Patriot heritage from the Revolutionary War. One of my forbears was a Minuteman in that conflict. To state that “freedom is again under attack”, allude to the American Revolution, and then accuse Matheson and those who support him of being against “freedom” is ludicrous. I strongly disagree with many of my friends and neighbors but I have never likened them to Tories in the Revolutionary War, let alone Communists or Fascists. Such accusations are not helpful to voters trying to make decisions on the merits. And again: Baker, Kirkham, Philpot and Co. failed to show us just how Matheson was the bad guy. They could never produce specifics because the real specifics undermined their own cause.

Utah is a great state and we abhor negative campaigns. I hope Utah will continue to produce public servants like Olene Walker, Bill Orton, Scott Matheson, Wallace & Bob Bennett and Wayne Owens. These are public servants that have brought us respect nationwide. Jim Matheson is one of them.

The far left dislikes Jim just as much as the far right and that is fine with me. Go Jim Matheson!