Obama Reminds Alfalfa Club Members of Robert E. Lee

Last night Barack Obama attended the annual Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, D.C.  It’s one of those private/elitist dinners where members celebrate themselves and poke fun at one another.  Much is being made of the president’s comments in reference to the origin of the group and the timing of the dinner.  The organization was founded in 1913 and was meant to honor the life of Robert E. Lee.  On the face of it, not a big deal, but according to Tommy Christopher at the Political Machine the Lee connection has been almost entirely ignored by the press as well as by Obama’s White House Staff in the days leading up to the dinner.  Somehow word of this got to the president who chose to reference the connection in his opening remarks:

I am seriously glad to be here tonight at the annual Alfalfa dinner. I know that many you are aware that this dinner began almost one hundred years ago as a way to celebrate the birthday of General Robert E. Lee. If he were here with us tonight, the General would be 202 years old. And very confused.

No doubt, the reference garnered a laugh or two from the audience, but how many members scratched their heads in confusion?  Apparently, the connection with Lee has slackened in recent years according to a 2007 Washington Post article:

It is such an obscure factoid that an informal poll of some of last night’s revelers produced none who’d ever known this to be true — and who apparently would rather not have been asked, judging by the defensiveness that ensued.   “I don’t think that has any meaning today,” Sen. Norm Coleman (R- Minn.) said of the Confederate connection. “I will be sitting across the table from Kenneth Chenault, the African American chair of American Express.”   Jack Kemp hadn’t heard of the Confederate connection either.

The irony of our first black president reminding a predominantly white audience (I assume) of their connection to Robert E. Lee must be savoured like a fine wine.

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8 comments… add one
  • Craig Feb 4, 2009 @ 8:08

    Okay. It was $15,000 over a period of 60 years, not $150,000. But if you figure there might easily have been a million or more Civil War pension benificiaries between 1865 and 1925, the total government expenditure for pension benefits in those six decades had to have been in the billions with annual budgeting of several hundred million dollars. The point is that Social Security and the New Deal came into being in the vacuum created by a Civil War pension system that disappeared when the last Civil War veterans and their widows died. Would a social security system have even been conceivable without the experience the government acquired administering Civil War pensions?

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 2, 2009 @ 0:38

    Good morning, Kevin,

    I am trying to tailor my comment to fit the general flow of comments, but I must confess, I don’t understand comment 7, so I’ll just make my comment.

    I don’t see Barack Obama as the next FDR, JFK, Lincoln, or anyone else. He is Barack Obama, a President like our nation has never seen before. Very fitting for a new century. Obama’s Presidency, coupled with the election of Michael Steele as the head of the Republican National Committee, can’t help but bring about real and needed change. For now, though, that change is in its infancy. My hope is that we really do become a nation united, and that the extremes of both parties quit running the country, before there is no country left to run.

  • Craig Feb 1, 2009 @ 17:26

    Has anyone done any research on just how much federal money was spent on Civil War pensions? My great great grandmother’s brother enlisted in February 1864 and was mustered out in January 1865 with a disability payment that exceeded his monthly pay as a soldier. His wife was still collecting $30/month when she died in 1928. The last six months of his enlistment were spent recuperating in a military hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. He spent March and April going through basic training in Madison, so his actual active duty consisted of May, June and most of July, culminating with a wound incurred in the Battle of Atlanta. His three months of active duty at age 19 resulted in more than $150,000 in pension income. Twenty year old soldiers in 1865 were 55 years old in 1900 and 85 in 1930. Can it be assumed then that the federal government had very few Civil War pensions still in payout when the stock market crashed in 1929? Is there a sense in which the New Deal was simply a redirection of the ‘big government’ created by the Civil War Pension system?

  • Charles Lovejoy Feb 1, 2009 @ 14:59

    Is it just me? I see Obama’s presidency in line with FDR, dont see the Lee or Lincoln comparison. Massive economic chaos , banks failing , employment looking like there is no end in sight, international wars on the horizon ect ect. Im seeing Obama more of a potential FDR than any of the rest.

  • Rebecca Feb 1, 2009 @ 13:40

    I’m savouring it! I saw that Grimsley mentioned this on facebook this morning, and I had commented, now, over to Levin to tell us what it all means, and here I find you have done so. Thanks! And thanks for the small distraction from my really terrible essay. 🙂

    • Kevin Levin Feb 1, 2009 @ 13:43

      It’s too perfect. Good luck on the essay.

  • Woodrowfan Feb 1, 2009 @ 9:19

    that “wompf” sound you just heard was JosephineSouthern’s head exploding.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 1, 2009 @ 9:20

      Hilarious, but be nice. 🙂

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