Category Archives: Sean Holton

An Afternoon at TJ’s

Here with friends at the Jefferson Memorial we remembered our pal, Sean Holton, marking one year since his passing. He loved this spot, called it TJ’s.


Claudine Hellmuth, Paul Lester, David Blank and Craig Crawford (12/1)

Recited in the above video:

Gone From My Sight
by Henry Van Dyke

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me — not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

And that is dying…
 
 

Orlando Sentinel: Former editor Sean Holton chronicled death with a writer’s eye

Remembering a Friend [VIDEO]

Trailmixers gathered last Sunday at Gloucester Harbor, Massachusetts, to remember and celebrate a fine journalist and true friend, Sean Holton.


Images by daleblank.com
Bagpiper: Dick Chane, Gloucester MA
Edited by Craig Crawford
Painting by Fitz Henry Lane (“Gloucester Harbor, Stage Fort Beach“)
Thanks to Sean’s brother, Brian, for bringing the bicycle!
Trouble viewing? Click Here

By Sean Holton

The Last Mile

Cranes for the Brain

One Avenue, Two Faces

A White House Mystery

Dick Cheney vs. Bob Dylan

Family Frodo

Revenge of the Mask

Family Frodo


Sean Holton 1959-2011

Our great friend Sean Holton’s lost battle against brain cancer began with this tribute on his blog to his incredible siblings, who nursed him through the last 28 months of his 52 years with truly awe-inspiring dedication and love. Though living in various states — Brian, Ellen, Kathleen and Tim — they made sure to rotate visits so that he was never without them. As we prepare to formally say goodbye on Saturday, Dec. 10 in Orlando (6-8pm, Baldwin-Fairchild Funeral Home, 301 N. E. Ivanhoe Blvd.) our hearts go out to a family that simply defined what family is all about. And, of course, Sean said it best right here:

Sean Holton
August 21, 2009

One of my favorite parts of “The Lord Of The Rings” has always been the scene in Part One where the hobbit Frodo wakes up to find himself safe and sound in an impossibly comfortable, pillow-covered bed after many days of unconsciousness following a series of harrowing adventures that left him wounded and nearly dead. Frodo is resting in the House of Elrond, located in the secure oasis of Rivendell, home of the Elven-wise lords from beyond the furthest seas. “They do not fear the Ringwraiths,” his ancient wizard friend Gandalf tells him from the bedside. “For those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power.”

Holton family circa early 1960s. From left: Tim (b. 1949); Edward (1919-2006); Kathleen (b. 1947); Sean (b. 1959); Lucille (1921-2007); Ellen (b. 1961); Katherine Smith (Mom's mom, 1898-1983); Brian (b. 1958)

When I got home from the hospital a couple of days after my July 26 brain surgery, I felt just like Frodo must have felt at that very moment of awakening. I was in my own house, completely under the protection of my siblings. That wonderful feeling of security and being taken care of at a time of weakness was due entirely to the efforts and attentions of my two brothers and two sisters, who had flown in from all over the country; leaving their own families to come to my side. Kathleen, Tim, Brian and Ellen came to Orlando, respectively, from Las Vegas, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Los Angeles to help me out. And each of them did their part in their own distinctive way. My oldest sister Kathleen (who is convinced she was an Irish charwoman in a previous life) immediately set to work getting my house in order; running back and forth to the grocery store to make sure my fridge and pantry were well-stocked with all the goods I’d need to regain my strength. She even entirely reorganized my laundry room and linen closet, classic Saturday-afternoon projects that I had perennially ranked behind more important tasks such as ‘Take Nap” and “Drink A Beer” since the day I’d moved into my house in 1999. Kathleen was horrified one day when a full bottle of olive oil slipped out of a grocery bag she was carrying and shattered on my kitchen floor. She was making arrangements to hire a steam-cleaning company to come over and clean up the mess even after she had already mopped it up with paper towels to a degree that was infinitely beyond my satisfaction. I told her don’t bother with the professional cleaners, and after much insistence she finally backed off. Brian is also very task-oriented. He did a bunch of chores around the house, put himself in charge of planning and grilling tasty family meals, and he ran errands like going to Target to buy an upgraded electric shaver so he could give me a nice buzz cut. Tim walked my two dogs, helped cook and clean and also kept track of television schedules so we could make sure we were tuning in only the most interesting and relevant baseball games (translation: The Cardinals) at any given moment. Ellen, my baby sister, is a very gentle and spiritual person. She hung up colorful Buddhist prayer flags from one ceiling fan and made sure the general energy level in the house was always most conducive to rest. Sometimes that meant telling the boys to pipe down. I also asked Ellen to go out and choose bandanas for me to wear to cover up my surgery scar, because I knew she’d get the coolest ones.
More by Sean Holton


There is so much that is enriching about traditional family gatherings that involve spouses, kids, various aunts and uncles from older and younger generations. But this unplanned reunion under not-so-great circumstances was something special, too. As I rested in my room for another day or so coming in and out of sleep, I would often hear the murmur of their voices from the front room as they talked about this or that. It reminded me of when I was a kid listening to late-night conversations reverberate through the wall of my childhood bedroom, which was directly adjacent to the family room of our house on Westport Road in Independence, Mo. It was like going back through time. Now it was just us five kids again. Brothers and sisters in a Blessed Realm.

I hate to think about all the anxiety my current medical situation must be causing them. We all love each other so much. I think it would almost be worse to be in their position than it is to be in mine. So I guess in a twisted way that makes me selfish when I say if any one of them ever got a brain tumor, I would trade places in a heartbeat.

“You have talked and reckoned more than is good for you,” said Gandalf. “You will soon be sound again. Elrond has cured you: he has tended you for days, ever since you were brought in.”

A Magnum in the Rough

Sean Holton 1959-2011

I have so enjoyed the many Trail Mix thoughts and memories about our friend, Sean Holton, and wanted to share this letter from a mutual friend, Claudine Hellmuth (Click Here to see her delightful blog), daughter of Ann Hellmuth, a wonderful journalist who was once our boss. I happened to be with him when he received this letter, and it was one of the last times he was well enough to read aloud. He was very touched by it, giving him comfort through the pain and fear of his last days.

“Dear Sean

I remember first meeting you when I was at mom’s office in Kansas City. Magnum PI was one of my favorite shows and you looked exactly like Tom Selleck with your mustache! My 8 year old self was completely star struck at your likeness to Magnum — I expected you to start running down a beach with two dobermans at any moment, music soaring in the background.

I remember lots of Kansas City Star parties and Burning Down the House playing on the stereo, everyone was dancing in the living room. I can not hear that song and not think of you.

Remember “Gossip Queen Abdicates”? What I would call the most witty, hilarious and touching story you wrote for my mom describing our Buick as pink (it was sand colored, ahem). When that car became mine, every time I drove it thought of you calling it a pink Buick and it would always make me giggle.

Claudine Hellmuth
When I moved to DC, you helped me find an apartment and took me door to door until we found a place. Frantic phone calls were made to landlords, you even ran to help me get copies of the lease, all of this while the Oklahoma City Bombing was a breaking story, and you needed to be at the office. Thank you.

I looked so much forward to our “Melrose Monday’s” at Craig and David’s. I always cherished spending time with you guys and it was my highlight of every week. Remember how Craig would leave the vacuum out because he had spent so much on it he thought it should have a prominent place in the living room? I remember watching Babe the Pig while you declared it BBQ night. Going to see Sense and Sensibility at the Uptown theater in Cleveland Park. I can’t pass by The Dupont Italian Kitchen without thinking of you.

Thank you for giving a reading at our wedding. Thank you for your writing, your humor, your wit, your awesomeness. You are the brother and uncle I never had, all wrapped into one.

I love you Sean.”

Claudine Hellmuth

So Long, Sean

Sean Holton

This morning our longtime Trail Mix pal Sean Holton, known here as Lardass Liberal, moved on to his next assignment.

A great journalist, friend and wit, he joins our other lost trail boss, Patsi Bale Cox. Both were so memorable on our pages that we’ll be quoting them along the way, or imagining what they would have to say about the latest news.

Our hearts go out to Sean’s fantastic siblings – Brian, Ellen, Kathleen and Tim – who cared for him these past 28 months of his fight against brain cancer with awe-inspiring love and dedication.

Sean’s Obituary

Sean’s family is hosting a Memorial Tribute 6-8pm, Saturday, December 10th, 2011 at the Baldwin-Fairchild Funeral Home – Ivanhoe Chapel – 301 N. E. Ivanhoe Blvd, Orlando, FL 32804

“Sean Holton Chronicled Death with a Writer’s Eye”
The Orlando Sentinel

Act 5

Our longtime Trail Mix friend Sean Holton determinedly took a break from brain cancer yesterday to post this response to Facebook well-wishers:

“Thanks to all who have left so many encouraging messages of support on my wall during the past couple of weeks. Your support has meant the world to me as I shrivel up in a state of near nothingness each afternoon watching cooking shows and storing my bodily waste in pickle jars and waiting for these damn Mormons to finish my blood transfusion so I can watch Ice Station Zebra one more time — (with apologies to Howard Hughes).”

While he wrote, I told him I know it’s sad but you’re making me laugh. And that’s exactly why we love him. It was more than two years ago, in his first month of this epic battle, he wrote the following piece for his blog. It’s as though he was preparing us all those many months ago:

Sean Holton
by Sean Holton
Same Time Tomorrow
(How Sean Holton Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Have Brain Cancer Instead)

August 24, 2009

I’ve been thinking lately about why the idea of the individual case of terminal cancer commands such enduring dramatic interest in our society. There are plenty of other life-ending cards people are dealt that are just as horrible and way more tragic in the end. People can be struck dead in a random instant in all kinds of ways — by lightning, in a car or airplane crash, in a shooting or fire, in an accidental fall from a great height. There are other incurable diseases that are equally or more debilitating over the long haul – those who suffer from multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis come right to mind. People have heart attacks and die on the sidewalk all the time. They get hit by buses. Or they suffer from mental illnesses that lead to suicide or fatal substance abuse. Or they waste away with Alzheimer’s disease. And let’s not even get ourselves started on the tragedy of the individual deaths that pour forth from wars, genocides and natural disasters.

Right now, I’d rather be dealing with my terminal but potentially manageable brain cancer than to be in any of the situations I just listed. In that twisted sense, I feel lucky.

So what is it about terminal cancer, then, that seems to set it apart and get people so wound up, so personally invested, time after time? How is it that there is this ready-made narrative that people seem to know by heart and are able to latch onto so instinctively?

I think it’s because people naturally respond to drama, and lots of cancer cases have all the classic elements that make for the best drama. At the core of the cancer drama is that it is viewed paradoxically as “incurable” but at the same time is known to be ”beatable.” There is sadness, yet it is mixed with hope. From that essential conflict, you can just cue up the basic, five-act narrative structure that has been a bankable formula for packing cinema multiplexes and theater houses since Shakespeare made it so popular in Elizabethan England, and going back even further than that to when it was perfected by the ancient Greeks.

Act One unfolds by introducing us to both the too-young-to-die protagonist and the evil villain that is the devastating diagnosis. Then Act Two carries things forward by bringing in more complexity and texture, more medical details, the rallying of doctors, family and friends, the wearing of yellow bracelets and bandanas or the shaving of heads in solidarity. In Act Three, we get the marshalling of all available scientific resources to confront the dark force as we approach the climax of the uphill battle against all odds to “beat” the “unbeatable” disease. But dramatic tension is preserved because the final outcome is still unknown (this is crucial).

Acts Four and Five take us through either the heroic recovery of the protagonist or his tragic death and the resulting fallout from either outcome. And either ending does make for a good story in a strictly dramaturgical sense. So that’s that.

Now let’s look at the other examples I mentioned of how death commonly expresses itself in individual human stories and consider how they fail on the level of sustainable drama:

1. Sudden accidental death of any kind. Failing: The play is over before it can begin.

2. Wasting incurable, diseases of all sorts. Failing: The outcome is known from the start, there’s not a lot of action to follow and the movie runs too long.

3. Mental illness, substance abuse and suicide. Failing: Too dark. People don’t like talking about it, and they just turn away. Nobody’s going to buy tickets for that.

4. Alzheimer’s and old age: See #2 and #3.

5. Wars and natural disasters. Failing: These make good action movies, but individual human lives are mere props here. (See Joe Stalin: “An individual death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”)

I don’t go into all of this to be blithe about the nature of my specific illness, nor to minimize the real human pain that cancer doles out to its individual victims and their loved ones. But all of those other manifestations of individual death and disability I mentioned deal out equally intense human pain at all of the very same levels.

I saw a slice of this myself when I was coming out of my fog in the intensive care unit after the surgery to remove my tumor. Whole families would file past my door and down the hall, wide-eyed and wondering what they would find when they stepped past a curtain into their loved-one’s room — a loved one who most likely had suffered a sudden, unexpected heart attack or been mortally wounded in a common accident or shooting. And often I would see those families going back the other direction a few minutes later in tears, adults and kids devastated and crying, holding up each other for support as they walked away. Chances are, I thought, there is to be no further drama in those sad stories. The outcomes have already been written. No one will be shaving their heads in solidarity with those people. They’ll just be going to a funeral in the next day or two and scattering some ashes or shoveling dirt on a grave.

People ask me how I can remain so positive and upbeat about my situation in the face of such uncertainty. Part of the reason is that I don’t see my cancer diagnosis as a drama. I don’t conceive of it as an uphill battle against all odds to beat something that is unbeatable. As a 49-year-old man who already has experienced a lot to be grateful for and who has no immediate dependents, I’m not really interested in that kind of story right now anyway.

Right now I see my diagnosis as something else entirely. It is a gift that will give me the opportunity to learn more than I thought I would ever know about the mysterious line between life and death.

In the meantime, it will teach me to love the people I love even more, and to hold them more closely than ever. It will bring me incredible amounts of life-giving strength from the support of friends, past acquaintances and even total strangers. Many people don’t ever get that chance. They either just live, or they just die, and they never get to see what’s in between. But my diagnosis puts the idea of death in slow motion. It lets me pick up death in my hand and turn it over again and again to study it in its every small detail. I can hold it up to the sunlight each precious day that I remain alive and see it illuminated from any angle I choose.


It is as if Death has softly perched itself on my shoulder in the form of a wild and rare bird. In this form it will neither kill me immediately nor has it yet chosen to kill me slowly and inevitably – as it routinely does to so many people in its so many other, more fearsome forms. Instead, it will allow me to hold it for a while and to look it calmly in the eye. It may even talk to me. After that, of course, the Death Bird may decide to burrow itself into my head and build another nest to lay a second egg-shaped tumor in my brain — and so kill me in that fashion. Or it may just fly away from me as unexpectedly as it landed, never to visit again until the time comes for it to return to me years or even decades from now; not as a bird, but in another of its myriad forms.

I hope the bird does fly away one day, and I think there is a pretty good chance it might. I guess then I will be able to say I have “beaten” cancer. But I will not gloat, because I will not have beaten Death. No one ever does.

More of Sean’s writings:

Sean Holton spent 25 years as an award-winning newspaper journalist. His widely-recognized work as a reporter, writer and editor focused on land development, public policy, politics and governmental issues, including nine years as a Washington DC correspondent and bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel, and as Associate Managing Editor based in Orlando. Sean holds a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in English and Political Science from Rockhurst University.

The digital image “Bird of Death” is by the artist Judith Barath, more of whose work can be found at: judithbarathart.com

Dick Cheney vs. Bob Dylan, American Smackdown

Sean Holton
by Sean Holton
Same Time Tomorrow
Sept. 10, 2009

Comparing a politician to a poet would be dicey under any conditions. Except for an obscure coincidence in their lives, it would never have occured to me to stand most-powerful-vice-president-in-history Dick Cheney next to world-class-poet-and-mystic Bob Dylan to see how the two stack up in terms of their lifetime achievements as well as their overall contributions to country and humanity.

The obscure coincidence: Both men were born in 1941.


I mentioned that fact in an earlier post, using the Cheney-Dylan deal as a throwaway example of how issues of aging and generational politics are far more complex these days than what you see portrayed in typical media coverage of politics. People such as Cheney tend to be treated as “patriots” and “traditional Americans” — who simply by virtue of their age, physical appearance and life experience automatically are assumed to have some sort of direct-dial access to what the Founding Fathers always intended our country to be. People like Dylan really serve only to muddy up that simplistic storyline — at least as far as the television cameras are concerned. We’d rather just think of them as forever young, even as they grow old. So how could such people possibly fit into any conversation about the greatness of our nation as envisioned at its founding so long ago by Men Wearing Knickerbockers?

Sean Holton is not only my best friend and a renowned journalist, but a longtime Trail Mix pal. For more than two years he has fought a rough battle against brain cancer and lately we have have been enjoying some of his great writings. — Craig

Sure, it may just be a quick illustration of the extremes in sensibility that can be present within just a single generation. But I thought it would be fun to go ahead and push the dichotomy forward. So let’s compare Cheney and Dylan in the 13 key categories that professional historians and everyone else universally agree are important in order to determine which man really is the greater American. As our source material, we’ll use the unassailably reliable Wikipedia biographies of each man supplemented by random snatches from my own memory of the lots of stuff I’ve read over the years about both. (You want real research? Buy a newspaper.) And then we’ll throw the answer right back at the cameras and dare them to film it instead of another town-hall meeting on health-care reform.

More of Sean’s writings:

Seniority: Cheney has been a living, breathing, sentient human being four months longer than Dylan. THE EDGE: Cheney


Humble beginnings: Cheney was born in Nebraska, raised by working-class parents in Wyoming, flunked out at Yale before getting busted for a DWI at age 21 and applied for and received five draft deferrments to avoid military service during the 1960s. Dylan was raised in Hibbing, Minnesota by parents who were both children of Jewish immigrants and he dropped out of the University of Minnesota after his freshman year to move to New York, play the guitar and shag groupies. THE EDGE: Tossup

Overall Life Trajectory: Dylan had already achieved worldwide fame and immortality as a folk singer and songwriter by the early 1960s — when he was still in his 20s. He subsequently went through several career transformations — from electric, to born-again, to all sorts of other weirdness, including traveling with the Wilburys and doing voice over for lingerie commercials as well as time more recently as a radio DJ. But enthusiasm for his work has never really diminished. Movies and documentaries are still being made about his life and work. Cheney toiled in relative obscurity as a draft-dodging, snot-nosed intern and low-level Washington bureaucrat until his mid-30s, when around 1975 he succeeded Donald Rumsfeld as President Gerald R. Ford’s White House Chief of Staff. [That same year, Dylan released his critically acclaimed Blood on the Tracks album and could have retired right then, done nothing else for the rest of his life and still been more revered than any of his contemporaries]. Starting in 1979, Cheney served five terms as a Wyoming congressman before becoming Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush after the Senate rejected womanizing drunk John Tower for the job. After spending the Clinton years out of power, he returned to the scene in 2000 when he led George W. Bush’s vice-presidential search team to the conclusion that he, Dick Cheney, was the best man for the job. He then went on to be arguably the most powerful man in America — at least during Bush’s first term. He was running the government and calling most of the shots on the fateful, tragic day of Sept. 11, 2001 and he and his aides shaped the framework for the immediate U.S. response in the so-called “War On Terror” that followed. Today Cheney is seen as the cantankerous, vocal standard-bearer for out-of-power Republicans who can’t stand where the country is going. He might even hate America now. Who knows? THE FINAL ANALYSIS: While Dylan has been famous far longer and has made a contribution likely to be far more enduring, Cheney did succeed fabulously in achieving what he spent a lifetime training for — becoming a world-famous, angry, old man with lots of secrets to protect. THE EDGE: Tossup


Vision: Dylan is a modern mystic with an unyielding poetic vision and the musical gifts to express it. At around age 24, he wrote the song “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, which contained the following lines: While preachers preach of evil fates/Teachers teach that knowledge waits/Can lead to hundred-dollar plates/Goodness hides behind its gates/But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked. Cheney has been an incredibly gifted bureaucrat, competent manager and Washington political infighter who never really developed the vision to be a national leader in his own right. During Gulf War I, there was probably no one better qualified than Cheney to be Secretary of Defense. I personally remember being thrilled to have him calling the shots at the Pentagon back then. Yet at the pinnacle of his career, which came with the 9/11 attacks, Cheney had a failure of vision. On an entirely human level, this failure makes him almost a tragic figure. His reaction was to be afraid and to lead GW Bush and the rest of us down the path of fear. For the sake of vast simplicity, let’s just say there were 10 paths the country could have gone down after that day. Nine of those paths were wrong, so maybe we should cut Cheney and Bush some slack for being only human when they picked one of the nine bad ones. After all, there was only one right path, and we still aren’t sure which one it was. But a great leader would have stepped back from the immediate fear, imagined the world we wanted to be in 10 years hence, recognized the right path to get there and chosen it at the beginning. We elect our national leaders because they are supposed to have more than competence and knowledge and power – we expect them to have vision to lead the country. Think about how Roosevelt positioned the United States to face the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, or how Churchill led his nation during the relentless, sustained air attacks (not just four in one day) of the Battle of Britain. THE EDGE: Dylan.


Dealing with criticism: Both Dylan and Cheney have been undaunted in the face of withering criticism. Dylan was castigated by the old-line folkies when he plugged in an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and he has been castigated at every turn in his career ever since. But he hasn’t cared. He hasn’t really answered many questions about it and hasn’t been defensive. He’s just gone on doing what he wants to do, for decades. Cheney, too, has been unapologetic in the face of criticism both during and after the Bush Administration about things like war, torture and domestic spying. But he has been a bit too showy as he plows through all this adversity – seeking out speaking engagements in front of friendly audiences and TV appearances to mount his defense over and over again while attacking his successors in office. Dare I say he’s been a bit too defensive? A bit of a martyr? Maybe even a big baby? THE EDGE: Dylan.

Overall excellence within their chosen field: Let’s go to the history books for some perspective here. If this were 19th Century America and we were looking for examples of great poets and great political leaders who were rough contemporaries, we’d have to look no further than Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln. History’s verdict is that both easily make the cut as great Americans. Dylan, I think, will be spoken about in the same exalted terms as Whitman in terms of artistry and cultural impact after he’s long gone. But Cheney and Lincoln? In the same conversation? THE EDGE: Dylan.

Accidents, having them: Dylan crashed a Triumph street bike in 1969, supposedly breaking several vertebrae, nearly killing himself and taking himself out of the public eye for nearly eight years. He explained the accident by saying he’d been up for days without sleep, and that he had taken his bike out for an early morning ride and was topping a hill facing into the sunrise when, ”I went blind for a second and I kind of panicked or something. I stomped down on the brake and the rear wheel locked up on me and I went flyin’.” Here’s my theory: Dylan was a sissy who didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle. I’ve seen pictures of him on his Triumph, and he looks like he has no idea what he’s doing. His feet aren’t even on the footpegs, and his grip on the handlebars makes it seem as if he’s holding a high-voltage power line. In short, he looks like the president of the chess club who has been forced by the guys on the wrestling team to try to ride a motorcycle. No wonder he crashed. Now onto Cheney’s accident: He shotgunned his buddy in the face while out pounding beers and bird hunting in the middle of a big Texas ranch. Then he went back and had a big roast beef dinner. Now THAT’s manly. THE EDGE: Cheney.

Accidents, dealing with them: As can be seen from the quote above, Dylan almost literally was able to turn his accident into song lyrics (See: “I went flyin’”). And the rebellious nature of being out on a motorcycle coupled with his disappearance from public view only heightened the overall mystique of his legend. Cheney, on the other hand, shotgunned his buddy in the face while out pounding beers and bird hunting in the middle of a big Texas ranch. Then he went back and had a big roast beef dinner. Now THAT’s dumb. THE EDGE: Dylan.


Hard power: This one is simple. It’s just a matter of adding up albums sold and gate receipts and comparing those figures to wars started, nations subjugated, weapons systems funded and lives committed to battle. Look up the numbers yourself. THE EDGE: Cheney.

Soft power: When Dylan dies, the world will mourn the passing of a great poet and cultural icon who will probably then be elevated to “prophet” status. Great intellectuals will be called to hold forth on “what Dylan meant.” It will make what we just went through with the recent death of Michael Jackson look like a global cotton-candy binge. People such as Cheney — no matter how much hard power they amassed during their lifetimes — are ultimately only functionaries on history’s stage. When such people die, the world usually just burps and asks what’s for dessert. THE EDGE: Dylan.

Who’d win a physical fight: We’re talking about a couple of 68-year-old dudes suiting up in wrestling tights here, so this isn’t going to be pretty no matter how it turns out. But it would all pretty much come down to how much Dylan’s medical history of cigarette smoking, substance abuse, weight fluctuation and those broken vertebrae will handicap him even against a Heart-Attack-A-Year man like Cheney. I don’t have height and current weight stats for either man. But I think I’ll go with Cheney in this category, if for no other reason than he must have learned a lot of cool secret death grips from the CIA and Blackwater over the course of his Washington career. THE EDGE: Cheney.

Best dinner companion: I’d rather be seen having dinner with Dylan. But, in reality, I’d be way too scared to actually have dinner with either Cheney or Dylan, for entirely different reasons. So I’m saying neither. THE EDGE: Tossup.

Greater apparent ’patriot’ (whatever that means): In the photos I posted up top, Cheney is bald, has an angry look on his face and is wearing an American-flag lapel pin. Dylan has unusual facial hair, an enigmatic look on his face and is wearing a cowboy hat and some sort of sissyfied shirt. THE EDGE: Cheney.

PRELIMINARY TALLY: Dylan–5; Cheney–5; Tossup–3.


TIEBREAKER 1: Love for America. Bob Dylan has railed about America’s hypocrisy in the past and seems non-commital at best about our country’s place in the world today. But as mentioned above, I think right now Cheney may actually hate what America really is. So I’ll say they’re still tied.

TIEBREAKER 2: Whose face would I rather have on my T-Shirt as I drove across America? Or as I traveled around the world? Bob Dylan, no contest.

FINAL SCORE: Bob Dylan is a greater American.

Sean Holton spent 25 years as an award-winning newspaper journalist. His widely-recognized work as a reporter, writer and editor focused on land development, public policy, politics and governmental issues, including nine years as a Washington DC correspondent and bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel, and as Associate Managing Editor based in Orlando. Sean holds a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in English and Political Science from Rockhurst University.

The Last Mile


When the time comes I’ve promised our Trail Mix pal Sean Holton (Lardass Liberal) to spread some of his ashes at the Fisherman’s Memorial in Gloucester, MA where he and fellow travelers ended a cross-country bicycle trek 14 years ago. (Of course, Trail Mixers nearby are welcome to join us.) Here is Sean’s recollection of that journey from his blog.

Sean Holton
August 29, 2009

“They That Go Down To The Sea In Ships.”

In 1997, I quit work for 12 weeks to ride my bicycle from coast to coast on a 5,100-mile journey that took me through more than a dozen states and a couple of Canadian provinces. The trip began June 8 in Bellingham, Wash., where 17 of us in the “Cycle America” group dipped the back tires of our bicycles in the Pacific at Bellingham Bay. The trip ended Aug. 29 in Gloucester, Mass., where the same 17 celebrated by dousing our front tires in the Atlantic at Gloucester Harbor.

Today is the 12th anniversary of riding that “last mile.”

That mile was definitely the goal we had all worked for and dreamed about as we trained separately in the months leading up to the trip. We’d all built it up in our minds sort of as this Rocky Balboa moment where we’d reach the ocean and raise our hands over our heads in triumph. But in the end, and even now looking back on it years later, it turned out not to be the most important mile at all. It was everything that came before that mattered most. That’s where I learned the lessons that stick with me today.

I learned that the toughest people in life aren’t the ones that look tough or pretend to be tough. Our core group was kind of a gang of mismatched misfits. Only two of the members of our group even knew each other before the trip began — Jeff Hochbaum and Marty Siegel, a couple of weekend cycling buddies from New Jersey. The rest of us had arrived from 15 other places and we ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-60s. It took a couple of weeks for us “coast-to-coasters” to even sort one another out and get to know each other amid the ebb and flow of larger groups of cyclists that joined us for a week at a time to travel across a single state. Some of us were in better shape than others. One rider was an anesthesiologist from Chicago named Bill Zimmerman who made it a point of pride to say he had only ridden 40 miles total on his brand new bike in preparation for a trip that would take us over three major mountain ranges, hundreds of miles of desert, open flatlands and rolling hills. Bill about died every day the first three weeks of the trip, but he never got off the bike and eventually he got into shape.

More of Sean’s writings:

A couple of the other guys — Gordon Whittaker and Paul Chaikowski — were experienced touring cyclists who had taken long solo or group trips in various locales all over the world. They were both very generous in sharing their experiences and helping the rest of us through rough patches. Then there was Brian Wimer, an Accu-Weather meteorologist from State College, Pa., who would become our official trip weatherman. There was a kid from New York named Thomas O’Brien who was legally blind with macular degeneration, but who was still able to make the trip. Another younger guy named Mike Bredehoeft hardly ever said a word. I just called him “Quiet Mike.” Another cheerful fellow who tended to keep to himself but laughed alot was Will LaJack. There was a group of “old guys” approaching or over 60 — Jerry Hassemer, Ed Krimmer, Don Brenner and Dick Avery — who’d always be the first to pack up their tents each morning and get on the road, often by daybreak. Then there were the only two women along, both good Irish girls: Katie O’Connor from Chicago and Cathy O’Brien from New York City. The strongest cyclist in the group was a fiftyish man named Richard McAteer, from New Hampshire, who generally was the first to finish each leg of the trip. But he was very humble and quiet, and never once pointed out that he was the first to finish.

What made the main coast-to-coast group most special was that nobody in it turned out to be a blowhard or a showoff. Imagine that. Maybe it was because we were all there as individuals on equal footing. There were no pre-formed cliques. Nobody was out there trying to pretend they were Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong riding in the Tour de France to outrace everyone. And we even made a point of talking about and avoiding the undesirable outcome of allowing ourselves to develop into a clique as we covered more ground together over time. Even deep into the trip, after reaching Ohio and Pennsylvania, we’d make sure each week to reach out to the newcomers for that week, introduce ourselves and develop bonds with them and include them in our fun. And we were rewarded. Some of them turned out to be the most memorable characters of the journey.

Every once in awhile, though, certain people deserved to be ignored. There were a few groups of those Type-A cycling types I call “hammerheads” who would show up for a week and try to take over the whole tour. The rest of us would just laugh at them. They’d have these brightly colored racing team jerseys and matching shorts, they’d get in their little pacelines with their shaved legs and hi-tech bikes outfitted with the latest gizmos such as aerodynamic disc wheels and tapered helmets, and they’d constantly be checking their aerobic performance on their heart rate monitors. They were the standard loud, insufferable Alpha Males (and some Alpha Females) that you might find in the pace line on a typical weekend cycling club ride back home, but out here they just looked silly. Meanwhile, the glorious and timeless vistas of a Glacier National Park or a Yellowstone National Park would elude the hammerheads because they were too busy riding wheel to wheel, literally with their noses up each other’s butts as they tried to maintain some ridiculous pace. And for what? They totally missed the point of what touring cycling is all about. They were too fried at the end of each day to take in the small towns with their county fairs and arcades and little-league baseball games and pig races where the rest of us would go to relax and unwind after a day on the bike. Based on their demeanor, I’m not sure the hammerheads were even having fun.

Too often in life, we allow people with this type of personality to assert themselves as “leaders” and give them the power to shape our everyday existence — whether it’s in politics, at work or even in our social lives. But we should ignore people like this. They are not leaders. They are all about bluster papering over insecurity, and they don’t know how to live.

I learned that the worst headwinds are much harder to ride through than the highest mountains are to ride over. And the thing about wind is that it doesn’t show up on a map like mountain ranges do. You can plan for the mountain ranges and study them over and over again in advance and visualize yourself “conquering” them. But the wind just hits you when it decides to hit you. In the same way, life’s toughest challenges and obstacles are probably going to be the ones you never gave much thought to in advance. So even when you’re hit by the unexpected things, you should at least know enough not to be surprised.

I learned that you should never count down the miles. That’s a surefire way to make a bad ride seem twice as long. Even if it’s too hot and you have a 25 m.p.h. wind in your face, just ride. Don’t keep checking your odometer. Don’t keep counting telephone poles.

And while you’re at it, stop looking up the value of your 401(k) at the close of each day of trading, and stop checking zillow.com to see what your house is worth today. It will all still be there tomorrow.

I learned something from a corny banner hung up over a row of lockers at a high school where we camped for the night in Holland, Michigan: “It is good to have an end to journey toward,” the banner said, “But it is the journey that matters in the end.”

I learned that even when you think you’ve “conquered” or “kicked the ass” of something big, like a continent, there’s always something even bigger out there that can kick your ass right back, like an ocean. This lesson was driven home to me right in the middle of our Rocky Balboa moment at Gloucester Harbor. We were gathered on the waterfront around the city’s Fisherman’s Memorial, which was dedicated in 1923 to all the fishermen who had died plying their trade from that port in the three preceding centuries. The memorial depicts a fisherman struggling at the wheel of a listing ship in the midst of a fearsome storm. The inscription on the memorial is simple and stark. It just says: “They That Go Down To The Sea In Ships.”

I remember feeling a big lump in my throat when I read that inscription.

I have thought back alot to that summer of 1997 in recent weeks as I’ve started another journey through the treatment of my brain cancer. Much of what I learned on that trip is helping to shape my attitude for this one. I’m not really thinking much about what the last mile of this journey will look like or be like, whether it’s good or bad. I’m just enjoying all of the miles that I know will come between now and then. I take comfort in that knowledge each weekday, when I hop on my bicycle and ride from my house to my radiation treatments at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

The distance is exactly one mile.

One Avenue, Two Faces: White House, Crack House

Long before “Occupy Wall Street,” journalist Sean Holton occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Southeast for this look at how the powerless live on the other end of the President’s street. (A longtime Trail Mix pal — and my best friend — Sean is facing a tough fight against brain cancer and sends thanks to all those here who wished him well yesterday on his birthday weekend.)

Sean Holton
The Orlando Sentinel
Author: Sean Holton, Sentinel Washington Bureau
Date: Jan 26, 1992

Up there, on the northwest side of Washington, D.C., is the most impressive address in America: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But down here, down on the southeast side of town, visitors to that address won’t find the White House. They won’t even find a building, or an official listing on the tax rolls. Nearby they’ll find a torn-down gas station, a McDonald’s restaurant and one or two shivering beggars on the sidewalk.

This is 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Southeast – the flip side of official Washington. It’s part of a world where drug dealers, not lobbyists, fight for power, where guns are more essential than fax machines. It’s in a neighborhood where middle-income homeowners band together to march against fears that otherwise would keep them locked indoors. It’s a place on the verge of getting better and on the verge of getting worse.

Tuesday night President Bush will deliver a State of the Union address to a nation that is wondering whether it’s on the verge of getting better or getting worse. His speech, written at the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “up there” on the northwest side, will be broad in scope and cover a variety of topics, foreign and domestic.

But down here, down in southeast Washington, a small slice of the truth about the state of the union exists too. It comes from a perspective separated from “official Washington” by more than city blocks.

“That’s the corner of 1600 Pennsylvania Southeast. . . . You stand on that strip, and you take in everything,” said John “Peter Bug” Matthews, 42, a community activist who runs a shoe-repair academy for neighborhood children. “And you can see how deserted, how unattended that strip is compared with 1600 Northwest. What’s the difference? Nobody important ever lived here.

“The president is the most important person in the United States. . . . but how do the people weigh in?” Matthews asked. “If there are no people, can there be a president?

“Who comes first?” he asked.

‘Greatness of the Empire’

When architect-engineer Pierre L’Enfant laid out the plan for Washington, D.C., in 1791, he said he wanted “the greatness of the empire” reflected in the design.

What evolved was a city centered on the U.S. Capitol, divided into quadrants and organized along a symmetrical grid of streets criss-crossed diagonally by avenues.

Each quadrant has its own set of numbered and lettered streets, which increase numerically and alphabetically outward from the Capitol. Each quadrant is a rough mirror image of its neighbor. So in a purely cartographic sense, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E. is the direct reflection of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.

Sixteenth Street never actually crosses Pennsylvania Avenue up by the White House, and the same is true down here. About 100 yards before 16th Street Southeast can reach Pennsylvania Avenue, it withers to an end, rubbed out by a block of row houses. Where the streets would intersect, there are only the remnants of the gas station – a lightpole, a concrete island, an abandoned gas pump shut inside a rotting, wooden box.

To the south and east, past Barney Circle, the filthy Anacostia River slithers by under the John Philip Sousa Bridge. The waterway and its tributaries have served as a dumping zone for car tires, refrigerators and 55-gallon drums containing who knows what. Although local and regional governments have launched a restoration plan, toxins such as PCBs and chlordane make the water unfit for fishing and swimming.

Last Sunday a pipe at a petroleum company just downstream from the bridge ruptured and sent about 2,000 gallons of fuel oil gushing into the Anacostia. The resulting slick spread for a mile.

Just north of the bridge is the Congressional Cemetery, where J. Edgar Hoover and some 75 former congressmen are among the buried. Three or four blocks beyond that are D.C. General Hospital and Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

RFK is home to the Redskins, contenders in today’s Super Bowl and one of official Washington’s most celebrated institutions. D.C. General is a less likely destination for the city’s powerful.

The hospital serves “increasing numbers of substance abusers, babies born of addicted mothers, the poor, the homeless, violence-related trauma cases and a growing number of HIV-infected patients,” according to a recent annual report. In 1990 the hospital spent $1.3 million caring for abandoned infants, known as “boarder babies.”

Moving west from the hospital, back to Pennsylvania Avenue at 13th Street, is the Potomac Gardens public housing project. Its grungy brown buildings cover a city block. Its sphere of influence – as a center of crack-cocaine trafficking and related violence – envelops the entire neighborhood.

“There’s two ways you get in the paper here in Washington, D.C.,” Matthews said. “You’re either a screw-up politician or you die. . . . You are killed.”

At Potomac Gardens it’s usually the second way.

In The Washington Post, in the front section, the world of the White House is chronicled for posterity. In the back pages, reports of life and death at Potomac Gardens are filed and forgotten:

Front page: “VIDEO SHOWS ENTIRE BUSH COLLAPSE.”
Back pages: Potomac Gardens, Jan. 10, 1992 – “Police Seize AK-47 Rifle in Southeast Arrest; Man Also Had Pistol, 37 Bags of Cocaine”

Front page: “ENDING SILENCE, INSIDER LIFTS CIA VEIL; FIERS TELLS PANEL GATES DID NOT KNOW DETAILS OF IRAN-CONTRA”
Back pages: Potomac Gardens, Sept. 20 1991 – “Man Slain in Complex in Southeast; Residents Witness Morning Shooting”

Front page: “COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF LEAVES MILITARY DETAILS TO PENTAGON”
Back pages: Potomac Gardens, Jan. 19, 1991 – “Youth, 14, Charged in Hill Slaying. Lawyer Was Killed in Car at Light.”

Every once in a while, the two sides of Washington intersect at Potomac Gardens. Jesse Jackson used the project as a backdrop for a press conference to announce he wouldn’t run for president in 1992, calling it “the urban crisis personified, the epitome of national neglect.”

Former White House aide Oliver North performed some of his court-ordered, 1,200 hours of community service there before his Iran-Contra conviction was overturned.

“I think he gave them some hot dogs or something,” Matthews said.

The Power of light

On a shelf in Eleanor Hill’s dining room is a reminder of the other Washington. It’s a photograph of Secretary of State James Baker, standing right next to her and smiling broadly. It was taken at her 1989 retirement party, when she left the State Department after 34 years as a data-processing supervisor.

But Baker’s smile, and all his power, seem so distant when Hill walks through her neighborhood.

“This is the torch area – the hot area, as we call it,” Hill said as she stood on a street corner not far from her home. “It’s the drugs more than anything else.”

Her husband, Stanley Hill, said, “All types of crime. You got the muggings. You got the break-ins – all types of crime.”

Eleanor, 58, and Stanley, 60, a retired Defense Department employee, live in a well-kept row house a half-block from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E. Like many of the middle-income black residents here, the Hills bought in the 1950s, reared children, put them through college, and are now growing old and wondering where the next generation is taking the neighborhood.

One possibility is suggested by an influx of young government workers – a second wave of Stanleys and Eleanors – seeking cheaper housing than what can be found further up Capitol Hill. Another possibility is suggested by Potomac Gardens and its crack-house satellites.

As leaders of the Barney Circle Neighborhood Watch, the Hills are doing what they can to stave off the second possibility.

They patrol the streets nightly with about 25 others, armed only with two-way radios, flashlights, clipboards and orange hats. Besides patrolling, they aim to choke out drug traffic by writing down license plates of cars that stop at crack houses.

“When you get out there and start, they (drug dealers) do try to intimidate you,” Stanley said. “But if they intimidate you, and drive people back into their houses, then they’ve got control of the area.”

Police credit the neighborhood watch for helping make the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue a safer place to walk at night. The area is part of the 1st Police District, which recorded the city’s sharpest drop in crime last year.

“That was the first time we’ve had a killing around here in a while,” Eleanor said nonchalantly as she walked past the Domino’s Pizza, at 15th and Pennsylvania, where Andre Joseph Kenny Jr. was shot dead Jan. 7.

The muggings by the 7-Eleven at 14th and Pennsylvania seem to have dropped off, too, her husband added. Maybe it’s just the cold weather, he said, or maybe it’s the fluorescent lights the manager installed.

Eleanor said, “To deter crime, all you need is light.”

Stanley added, “It’s amazing, in a way: people running from the light.”

‘You’d See the Blood’

Here, on this side of Pierre L’Enfant’s looking glass, the faces of official Washington dissolve, and their voices fade to nothing.

Marvin Thomas, 25, has heard of President Bush but just barely. He draws a blank when asked about White House officials such as Richard Darman, the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

But Thomas doesn’t care much about Darman or the federal budget. Going from table to table to beg customers for money in a Pizza Hut restaurant at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E., he’s worried about a budget considerably smaller than Darman’s.

“Me and my friend, we go to different places to panhandle. He gets $5, and I get $5, and then we go to get a dime rock (of crack cocaine),” he said. “We do that about seven times a day.”

Thomas is a client of Community Connections, a non-profit agency at 1512 Pennsylvania Ave. that helps victims of chronic mental illness manage their lives.

Thomas said he gets a $422 check each month, from which the agency deducts his rent and grocery bills so he can’t use the money to buy crack.

He has held a job only once, he said, and attempted suicide three times. Because he can’t read, Thomas can plug into official Washington only when he’s around a television set. Even then he picks up the bare minimum.

“I just have to listen to find out what they’re talking about. I know they’re talking about something important, like when we had the war. A lot of people were talking about the war and everything,” he said.

“I know we were fighting over oil – and it came down to we had to have war,” Thomas continued. “I know they was sending troops over there, from here, to fight.”

Now he has to go. The Pizza Hut shift manager has spotted him and doesn’t like him bothering the customers.

“He’s just pitiful,” Gregory Campbell, 36, said of Thomas after shooing him out the door of the Pizza Hut. “We know the bad ones. We’re weeding them out, slowly and surely.”

Hard Work of Freedom

The annual State of the Union address brings the president, his Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assorted agency heads – everyone who’s anyone in official Washington – under one roof. The U.S. Capitol becomes a hall of mirrors, the powerful reflecting one another’s glory.

The president was interrupted by applause 53 times during last year’s address, according to the official transcript. An example: “We’re determined to protect another fundamental civil right – freedom from crime and the fear that stalks our cities. . . . We need tough crime-control legislation, and we need it now. (Applause).”

Campbell, a born-again Christian, is taking a stand against this drug-infested neighborhood, which he also describes as “pitiful.” He has drawn the battle line at Pizza Hut’s door. The first step was to put locks on the bathroom, where addicts such as Thomas once would go to smoke or shoot up dope.

“You’d see the blood; you’d see the needles. . . . You could smell the crack in there,” he said.

“And as we fight crime, we will fully implement our national strategy for combatting drug abuse. . . . We will not rest until the day of the dealer is over, forever. (Applause)”

Next, Campbell confronted drug dealers who came to loiter in the booths, and booted them out.

“A lot of people got the attitude, ‘Why should I risk my life? I’m not going to get involved. I’m just going to do my work and go home,’ ” Campbell said. “But we need to get involved. This is a rough situation. But it can get better, and it has gotten better.”

Now he has time to worry about whether the cucumbers and onions in his salad bar are sliced to the specified thickness of one-eighth of an inch.

“We all have something to give. So if you know how to read, find someone who can’t. If you’ve got a hammer, find a nail. If you’re not hungry, not lonely, not in trouble, seek out someone who is. Join the community of conscience. Do the hard work of freedom. And that will define the state of our Union. (Applause)”

Thomas, meanwhile, just goes about his business.

He and his buddy Howard Moody mill around a filthy, barren courtyard at the rear of Potomac Gardens. They’re waiting to buy their next rock of crack. Before going into the dealer’s apartment, they agree to pose for a photograph.

The Capitol building, swollen with applause, and the White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., are just a mile or two away. But from this side of Pierre L’Enfant’s glorious grid, they are at the other end of an empire.

Sean Holton spent 25 years as an award-winning newspaper journalist. His widely-recognized work as a reporter, writer and editor focused on land development, public policy, politics and governmental issues, including nine years as a Washington DC correspondent and bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel, and as Associate Managing Editor based in Orlando. Sean holds a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in English and Political Science from Rockhurst University.

Also by Holton: A White House Mystery

A White House Mystery

When my friend and former Orlando Sentinel DC Bureau colleague Sean Holton told me in 1994 the White House is fake I thought he was nuts. Sure enough, he was right. See the story below, a revelation I’ve never seen elsewhere (and certainly something White House tourists are never told). A longtime Trail Mix pal whose birthday is today, Sean (aka Lardass Liberal, native of Independence, Missouri) continues a 2-year struggle with brain cancer but hasn’t lost the irreverent attention to detail this story vividly demonstrates:

WHITE HOUSE IS IN WASHINGTON, RIGHT? OR IS IT?

Sean Holton
The Orlando Sentinel
Author: Sean Holton, Sentinel Washington Bureau
Date: Mar 26, 1994

Put your ear to the ground. Listen carefully. The footsteps of dead presidents still echo here. The echoes rise from an unmarked grave on a small Army post, beneath an open field now used as a baseball diamond.

This is where they buried the White House. There! Can you hear? The old second floor, still creaking under the weight of William Howard Taft. And listen: The private curses of Abraham Lincoln, witnessed only by the plaster walls of a long-lost hallway.

And that? Whispered prayers rising to the ceiling of the East Room, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt lay in a flag-draped casket.

In 1950 and 1951, the dump trucks came across the Potomac River to Fort Myer, laden with rubble from the demolition of the White House interior. The wrecking job, which spared only the sandstone facade of the White House, was the first stage of President Harry Truman’s reconstruction of the building.

More than four decades later, memories of the Truman demolition have faded. For many, it has taken its place in a long succession of much less significant “redecorations” and other cosmetic changes.

Earliest known photo of the White House (1846)
Relatively few Americans are aware that the reconstruction left the most famous building in Washington – the ultimate symbol of power in America – a gutted shell of the house begun by George Washington in 1792. That shell aside, the real structure is a mere 42 years old.

Fewer still are aware – or have even considered – what became of the bulk of the old building torn down by Truman.

And almost no one, including the post historian at Fort Myer, realizes that the forgotten dump under the ball field at the Army post is the likeliest final resting place of most of the old White House.

“Every now and then somebody comes by looking for where they buried the White House,” said John Parker, 69, facilities and maintenance chief at Fort Myer who came to the post in 1955 and is the senior employee. “I’m afraid the only people who could tell you about this now are in the cemetery.”

That’s exactly the way the government wanted it. The commissioners who oversaw the White House renovation reused a fraction of the old interior materials, gave some articles to museums and sold some bricks and fragments as souvenirs.


But the great majority of the White House – tons of surplus material and rubble – was disposed of quietly. It was either parceled out for use by other government agencies, burned or buried in the Fort Myer dump.

The records of the commission, preserved at the National Archives, show that the board was adamant about making sure the salvaged materials and the debris lost their association with the White House as quickly as possible.

“They were rather mysterious at the time,” White House architectural historian William Seale said of the renovation commission. “You can imagine how that would have been turned in a story – about the original White House going to the dogs.”

On one level, the story of what happened to the White House is just a story about trash. Nobody keeps track of trash, and nobody cares about it much once it is thrown out, especially if it was thrown out four decades ago.

But, as archaeologists say, much about a civilization can be learned by studying its trash. So consider, for a moment, the rubble of the White House. Listen to what it teaches.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was upstairs at the White House last June, leading NBC News reporter Katie Couric and a nationwide television audience on a tour.

“There is a wonderful feeling to this house,” the First Lady said. “Because when you think that this is the corridor that, you know, Thomas Jefferson walked up and down and that Abraham Lincoln walked up and down . . .”

It is the same corridor only in a metaphysical sense. Physically speaking, Clinton and Couric were standing in an entirely different corridor, at the heart of a modern building that Jefferson would barely recognize from the inside.

Harry S. Truman
Thanks to Harry Truman, the White House of today is an 800-ton structural steel skeleton fleshed out by nearly 8,000 cubic yards of concrete, 110 tons of reinforcing steel and 257,500 square feet of wire mesh. At least a third of the building’s 1.5 million cubic feet lie below ground, in sub-basements and subterranean mechanical areas that extend out beneath its lawns.

The halls that Lincoln walked, supported by huge timbers anchored in load-bearing, masonry walls, no longer exist. The interiors that Hillary Clinton surveys today are a facsimile.

Truman had to do what he did because the old building was falling down. Walls were cracking. Floor beams were splitting. Ceilings were pulling away from their moorings.

In 1949, he pushed Congress to set up a commission to study the options and oversee the project. Commissioners decided to keep the outer walls of the White House intact, tear down everything else and construct a completely new building within.

Only the hollow facade of history would be preserved.

The White House had been renovated before. After the British burned the building in 1814, it took three years to make the gutted structure habitable for President James Monroe.

Theodore Roosevelt had ordered a substantial renovation of the mansion in 1902 and built the West Wing, where the Oval Office is located. In 1927, Calvin Coolidge had raised the White House roof to convert the attic into a roomy third floor.

But what Truman did was unprecedented.

Before demolishing the interior, the renovators had removed furniture and major ornamental objects such as mantelpieces. They carefully cataloged, dismantled and stored wood paneling, trim and doors, and plaster cornices on the assumption that they would be used in reassembly.

Then the wrecking of floors and walls began. The tons of bricks, plaster and timber that had been the backbone, ribs and muscle of the old house were reduced to rubble. The debris was shoveled through windows, down wooden chutes and into waiting dump trucks.

Gutted White House (National Archives)
Photographs of the gutted White House taken in early 1950 are shocking to view today. The cavernous interior, stripped of all partitions, looked like the inside of a huge gymnasium.

“The shell made an enthralling sight, much in demand among those who could get clearance to go and see it,” Seale writes in The White House: The History of an American Idea. “President Truman delighted in showing the spectacle.”

The wide-open space stretched 168 feet by 86 feet from outer wall to outer wall and some 80 feet from the roof to the excavated, dirt floors of two new sub-basements.

Truman, in keeping the original sandstone walls intact, had preserved what he thought was the soul of the building.

But many of the workers had a less than sacred view of the site. Preserved at the Archives are penciled notes from weekly contractors’ meetings, recording the problem of “too much urinating in corners upstairs” and, in one instance, “in door to state dining room.”

The building that emerged from Truman’s renovation – the White House of today – is architectural taxidermy, American history stuffed and mounted.

The historic skin, the sandstone exterior walls, once supported the entire building. Now they are responsible only for holding up their own weight, and masking the mid-20th century structure inside.

The new, steel-spined White House would prove an apt metaphor for a renewed, post-World War II nation with a powerful, new executive branch.

Viewed more cynically, it would become a symbol of an American penchant for coating the harsh realities of its new role with a sentimental, historic veneer. And today it stands as the true centerpiece in a city of masks, where the truth lies hidden behind the public scenery of news conferences, committee meetings, talk shows and photo opportunities.

But Harry Truman left much more than a sparkling new building to the ages. He left something else in a dump across the river. That something, the newer building’s silent, older counterpart, is a monument to a buried past.

Is the carved, marble mantelpiece that John Quincy Adams leaned against in 1828 a more historic object than, say, the galvanized metal pipe through which Calvin Coolidge drew a glass of water in 1928?

Once you start investing any physical object – let alone an entire structure such as the White House – with an abstract notion like ‘historic value,’ you’re headed down a slippery slope. If the fireplace must be saved, why not the plumbing? If the wooden door frame, why not the wooden lath? If the woven rug, why not the rubber floor runner?

“Where do you put your values?” White House historian Seale asked. “And we usually put it on ornamental things.”

That was the stance taken by the White House renovation commission when deciding which materials to use in the rebuilt structure and which to discard.

Some ornamental objects, such as mantels and the paneling in the State Dining Room, were reinstalled.

Other material was reused in a different form, such as old floor timbers that were remilled as basement paneling.

The remainder, the overwhelming bulk of the old White House, was deemed “surplus material” and divided into four categories defined by the commission.

White House Renovation (National Archives)
“Class I” included identifiable objects “which have intrinsic as well as historical value” but for which there was no room to reuse. This category was small, including mainly the surplus mantelpieces – 20 in all – distributed to the Smithsonian Institution and other museums across the country.

“Class II” included “usable building materials of considerable practical value . . . with little or no sentimental value.” Thus, 95,000 bricks were sent to Mount Vernon for use in restoration work at George Washington’s home. Another 10,000 bricks went to Fort Myer to build a dance patio at the enlisted men’s club.

The Washington, D.C., prison at Lorton, Va. got 12 crates of White House window trim, three crates of door frames, 22 crates of used doors, one truckload of assorted trim and three truckloads of tile, according to commission records.

The prisoners also got some of Calvin Coolidge’s plumbing.

The commanding officer at Fort Belvoir, Va., happily received 12,000 square feet of White House wood flooring. He used it for a roller rink.

Surplus materials in “Class III” got the most publicity. These were small pieces of stone, brick and wood that were of no practical value but were parceled out in “souvenir kits” to the public in 1951.

The commission compiled nearly 24 shelf-feet of paperwork tracking individual souvenir sales, but those records were thrown out by the Archives in 1962. Tracing those bits of the White House now is like tracking ashes scattered over the ocean.

Even after all that distribution, commission records indicate, the bulk of the old White House remained to be dealt with.

So there was a final category of surplus materials known as “Class IV.’ This was defined as “material either of no value, or which has disintegrated into what is normally classified as trash,” according to an early draft.

This included the tons of broken plaster, crumbled bricks, splintered boards and shattered flooring that came from the main demolition. By definition, such material had no identifiable value so very little was written about exactly what it was.

But somewhere amid this unrecognizable heap was the ceiling of the State Dining Room, wrecked on Feb. 3, 1950, according to weekly demolition reports. Then, on March 1, the East Room ceiling came down. Then, March 17, the brick walls on the famous first floor were cut to bits.

In his research a decade ago, Seale interviewed commission officials who described a caravan of trucks rolling “from the White House to Fort Myer and back for 22 days, hauling building debris to be used as landfill. This was done in some secrecy, to avoid bad publicity . . . ”

Seale reports that as workmen rushed to complete the renovation, crates of the old White House woodwork and other relics that had been carefully cataloged and stored for reuse “were being thrown on the trucks and removed to landfill.”

There simply was no time to restore those pieces fully. The new White House would be trimmed with new, machine-pressed woodwork.

Rex Scouten, a Secret Service agent for Truman and now the White House curator, said from time to time an old plaster ornament from the building turns up in the hands of a private collector.

The commission did not record the precise location of the landfill on the Fort Myer grounds. Today Army officials at the post are stumped, claiming they have no record of it or any other landfill from that era.

John Parker, the maintenance and public works chief who goes back further than anyone else at Fort Myer, arrived in 1955. That was three years after the White House renovation was completed, so he has no firsthand knowledge of the project.

But Parker does know that the large landfill under the baseball field was the base’s main dump from 1939 to about 1960.

Ft. Myer Army Base, VA
A lengthy Army history of Fort Myer from 1951 mentions completion of an “earthfill” that year on the other end of the base, near the generals’ quarters, but Parker said that area was an unlikely site for a trash dump.

The post “history” records such minutiae as the 185 teeth pulled that year by the post dentist, the vaccinations of “sixty-six (66) pets” and the results of Ping-Pong tournaments.

But not a word about where they buried the White House.

Was Truman right? Did the soul of the White House reside in its skin? Or did it go to the dump?

“It’s very interesting,” Seale said. “Because it’s interesting from the point of view of what is real and what is not, and what do you believe and what you do not.”

What does Seale believe is real?

“You know, the rubble served its time,” he said. “I don’t think it’s sacred.”

First of all, he said, the current White House has absorbed the history of 42 years and nine presidencies since its renovation. That counts for a lot.

But more importantly, he said, the real power, or soul, of the White House lies not in its physical reality but in its role as a symbol.

“I, myself, as well as I know it . . . cannot stand in the Blue Room and not think those are the same floors Dolley Madison stood on holding her telescope looking for the British to come,” he said. “It’s a magical sort of thing.”

The historian compares its enduring value to that of a Shinto shrine in Japan that has been ritually torn down and rebuilt – in exact replica – every 20 years for the past 1,000 years.

“The White House has been pulled apart, rearranged, gutted by fire and renovation, reassembled; yet it is always the same,” he writes. “Its idea has become its essence.”

But what about the forgotten rubble here at Fort Myer, just over the hill from Arlington National Cemetery? If the soul of a thing is truly all that matters, why do people visit graves?

No matter how long you listen, the answer to that question does not rise from this ground.

Here, there are only echoes.