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Irvin Molotsky
Irvin Molotsky
The Flag, The Poet and The Song
ISBN: 0525946004
The Flag, The Poet and The Song
Every American knows "The Star-Spangled Banner," even if we can't sing it to save our lives. But how many people know what really happened through the perilous night that led a Washington lawyer to pen his historic ode?

Like the subjects of Cod or Longitude, our national anthem is something taken for granted. But it was not always so. In this remarkable, flawlessly researched book, New York Times reporter Irvin Molotsky tells the story behind the story and, in the process, reveals an important piece of our country's heritage. Molotsky brings both legendary and unknown events and figures to vivid life-from the flag's seamstress to the military heroes of the War of 1812. In witty, accessible language, he charts the little-known events leading up to the war, and the far-reaching impact this obscure conflict has had on our national psyche. The Flag, the Poet, and the Song also uncovers the facts and fallacies surrounding the flag and the song, from the tremendous size of the flag to why we continue trying to sing our anthem to this day.

Brimming with fascinating Americana, The Flag, the Poet, and the Song is a book that will be readand reread, whether you're a lover of history, a patriot, or just waiting for the umpire to say "play ball!"
—taken from jacket of the book

The Flag, The Poet and The Song
Program Air Date: September 9, 2001

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Irvin Molotsky, author of "The Flag, The Poet & The Song," what's your book about?
Mr. IRVIN MOLOTSKY, AUTHOR, "THE FLAG, THE POET & THE SONG": Oh, it's about all those three things.
LAMB: What's the flag?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: The flag is the star-spangled banner. The--the flag that led to the composition of the poem that became our national anthem really was a particular object and this is about that flag. It's about the poem that was inspired by that flag and about our national anthem and the man who wrote the poem that became the national anthem. All that in one book.
LAMB: Why do you think somebody wants to read about this?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Oh, I think it's a good story. I hope it's well told.
LAMB: When did you get the idea?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I didn't get the idea. Up until very recently, I was a reporter at The New York Times, the last 21 years in the Washington bureau. And I--among my assignments every year has been the Smithsonian Institution, and I wrote several pieces about the effort to restore the flag that's pictured on the cover of that book at the Smithsonian. And the last time I did a piece, it was in 1999. It was given a very big splash in our Science section. Cory Dean, the science editor, liked the piece and ran a lot of pictures with it and it caught the eye of an editor at Dutton, a man named Doug Grad. And he called me up the next day and he said, `I think there's a--there's a book in this story.' And I said, `I'm your man, but I'll check with The New York Times first because it's a New York Times story.' I did the story as a New York Times reporter. And they said, `Fine. Do it.' And so I did.
LAMB: In the middle of your book there's a little story that you say most Americans don't know about and it's how did the War of 1812 come about.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Well, which story do you mean? There's a lot of them. There are a lot of stories.
LAMB: Why did--why did they burn Washington?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: That--that was the biggest discovery that--that I made. Obviously, it's not a discovery to serious historians of the subject. But the reason that the British burned Washington was because it was in retaliation for the Americans burning what is today--today Toronto. It was then called York. It was the principal city in British Canada. And the commander of the British forces in the Western hemisphere gave instructions to his forces that as soon as they could, they should do the same thing to Washington that the Americans did to York. I didn't know that the Americans had even invaded Canada, let alone burned down their capital.
LAMB: What were we doing up there?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: We were--a lot of people thought that Canada was a good candidate to be one of our states. A lot of people thought that that would be one way of keeping the British off-balance, is to attack them before they--the British could attack the United States. It was never a very good possibility that the United States could conquer Canada, but there were a lot of people who thought that it would be good. For one thing, not too many years before that the United States, in the Jefferson administration, had engaged in the Louisiana Purchase, and a lot of that territory would be naturally in the South and they would be slave states. Some anti-slavery people in the North thought that if they could annex parts of Canada, these would become northern states, they would be anti-slavery states and that could balance against any new slave states that came into the Union.
LAMB: How many American soldiers went to Canada?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Oh, just a few thousand, perhaps. They were led by, among others, General Pike, for whom Pike's Peak is named. General Pike had the misfortune of being killed in the battle there. The building that held the explosives, the dynamite or the black powder, the weapons of the British blew up. They don't know whether it was blown up because of a stray shot got lucky from the Americans or whether the British blew it up to keep it from falling into the hands of the Americans. But it did blow up and 30 or 40 Americans were killed, including General Pike.
LAMB: There's a quote that you have in the book by a man named Carl Benn.
LAMB: Who is he?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Carl Benn is the historian for the city of Toronto.
LAMB: Did you talk to him?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes, I did. He's a marvelous man, and he was good enough to read over that chapter for me, to cast his critical eye on it. And I asked him why is it that Americans don't know anything about the American attack on Canada, and he said that's the most--one of the most interesting things he finds in Canada. They ask people what they've learned after tourists come and visit the historic sites and—in CA--in Toronto. And he said 80 percent of them said, `I didn't know the United States attacked Canada.' And if--if you walk out on the street here today, on North Capitol Street, you'll find nobody knows this. Maybe after they read the book, everybody'll know it.
LAMB: Well, there's another quote, though, from him that I wanted to ask you about. Carl Benn, a Canadian, says "There is a strong propaganda quality to American history in the United States. I don't think there's another Western democracy that abuses its history to affirm a nation's goodness as much as the United States does. From our side of the border, it's all very amusing."
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes, well, I guess Canadians are easily amused. I don't know. I--I wrote that down because he said it and I thought it was a very good and strong point of view. I don't know if that's so. We know for--well, the Japanese are certainly not a Western culture, but there is a dispute that's been going on since the end of World War II. The Japanese history books will not acknowledge the rape of Nanking. They will not acknowledge the use of comfort women in Korea. The French--I don't know what the French textbooks say, but I would be very surprised if the French were not more chauvinistic than Americans.
LAMB: You--on that same page, you--you have down here that Francis Scott Key, who--had objected to the war—the 1812 war--on religious grounds.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes. He was against war. He was a--he was a pious man, at least by his contemporaries' descriptions of him. And he didn't join up until the British were actually in Chesapeake Bay. So he put off for a long time going to war. He was against going to war with Britain. And--but he did sign up with the militia and he did participate as a young officer in a principal battle here outside of Washington called the Battle of Bladensburg.
LAMB: What was that?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: The British, on their way to Washington, defeated an American Army unit in Bladensburg. And you're a resident of this area. You've probably driven through Bladensburg many times and not been aware that something important happened there. I certainly was not aware of it. It is a major battle. Scott Sheeds, the historian at Ft. McHenry, where is where most of the activity for the "Star-Spangled Banner" occurred--Scott said that Bladensburg was a very important battle and he wishes that Americans knew more about it.
LAMB: What happened there, and why did it happen?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: The--it was on the ro--the road to—to Washington. The--the British were going to punish the United States for the burning of Toronto. And when they got to Bladensburg, the Americans were waiting for them and the British force was clearly superior and put them to a rout. James Madison, who was then the president, was actually there and was witness to this. He had an assistant, a free black man, and he sent his assistant to the White House, which wasn't called the White House then but we'll call it the White House. It didn't have its coat of white paint yet. He sent this man to the White House to tell his wife, Dolley Madison, to pack up and clear out because the Americans were being routed and he didn't want Dolley to get caught by the British. It would be a pretty embarrassing circumstance.
LAMB: But you say at the White House that he was so sure of himself that they had a--the--the dining room set up to feed 40 people with wine and everything.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: That's right.
LAMB: Explain that.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: They--the Americans were overconfident. They--they probably didn't have really good intelligence as to how big the British force was and they thought they would—I mean, how are you going to defeat capture? First of all, his secretary of the Army, secretary of war, said that Washington would not be a target. He said, `Don't worry about fortifying Washington.' Well, he was fired soon thereafter. So the Americans were overconfident. And as you say, the table at the White House was set for dinner for 40 people and the wine had been brought up from the cellar. And it was consumed, but it wasn't consumed by Americans. It was consumed by the British.
LAMB: There's a point in your book where you talk about Admiral--Is it Coburn? Is that the way it's pronounced, or Cockburn.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I--I--probably Cockburn. I--I don't know.
LAMB: Yeah, the--the Coburn brothers who write...
LAMB: ...pronoun--spell that way but it's...
Mr. MOLOTSKY: You're thinking about the port--importers or exporters?
LAMB: Well, I'm thinking about the writers, the--Andrew and Alexander Coburn, who we see so much of …
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Oh. I'm thinking about another Coburn where they--they make port in--from Portugal and they--the British drink a lot of it.
LAMB: Admiral Coburn, or Cockburn, sat in the speaker's chair in the House of Representatives and asked, `Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?'
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Everybody said yes. And they did it.
LAMB: All the British said yes, burn it?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Everybody there. All the British knew that that was what they were going to do.
LAMB: How did he get to the speaker's chair?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: He got in there and there was--there was nobody there. Everybody fled. This--the city of Washington was not prepared. They thought there was no real reason for the British to attack Washington. It was--there was no strategic importance. Washington had only been the capital for, at that point, 12 or 13 or 14 years. They were—they were no--there was a Navy yard in what is now south--southeast Washington. There were all of the buildings of government but there was really no strategic reason. They didn't realize the--the propaganda value of one country capturing the capital of another country.
LAMB: This was in 1814 when they actually burned.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: That's right.
LAMB: How many American soldiers were involved at that point, and would this be James Madison's finest hour, or one of his worst hours?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I don't know exactly how many soldiers were involved. It was not a lot because, as the United States went into war, it did not have a large army. Teddy Roosevelt, writing in 1882, blamed Madison and Jefferson for getting involved in a war with the world's greatest power and not having anything to back it up. Roosevelt was, of course, a leading Republican of--of that day and we think of him today as a leading Republican. Jefferson and Madison were members of the party that evolved into the Democratic Party today. So you have a case of a Republican political leader criticizing the Democrats for not being well prepared militarily. It's the same thing that has happened in the 20th century. I remember when Ronald Reagan was running for president against Jimmy Carter. One of the big things he said was that Carter had let the armed forces run down. Teddy Roosevelt said that about Jefferson and Madison.
LAMB: What role does the War of 1812 play in your whole scenario in your book?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: The war gets us to the point of writing the anthem. After the British burned Washington, their next target was Baltimore, which was a more important target. Baltimore--Americans don't think of Baltimore now as a major city, but in the 1810 Census it was the third-largest city in the United States. It was important for shipbuilding. It was important for commerce. The privateers that sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean to attack British shipping, most of them were made in Baltimore. So Baltimore was a larger military target. And the only way that the British could capture Baltimore would be by sea, by coming up the Chesapeake Bay and up the Patapsco River, because they didn't have a large enough land force to march from Washington to Baltimore. If they had had enough in their armed force--in their Army as opposed to their Navy forces, they could have marched from Washington to Baltimore and captured Baltimore. And who knows what might have happened then in the--for the course of the war. But they didn't. And, in fact, most of the army that Britain sent to North America, they sent to Canada. If they had sent those people to the Washington area, to Philadelphia, they could have captured--you know, they could have captured most cities on the coast.

So they didn't have enough land forces to go the 30 or 40 miles from Washington to Baltimore, so they had to sail down the Potomac into the Chesapeake, up the Chesapeake to the Patapsco and attack Baltimore. But they couldn't capture Baltimore without going on land. They had to attack it—they had to attack Ft. McHenry, which is sitting in Baltimore harbor, and that is where the flag was. That is where the flag was that Francis Scott Key saw. Francis Scott Key saw that flag after the great battle of Baltimore and that's what inspired him to write down his poem, which became "The Star-Spangled Banner." He called it at first "The Defense at Ft. McHenry," but the next day it was--by the next day it was changed to "The Star-Spangled Banner." It became an immediate hit. Everybody was talking about it in Baltimore. Word of it spread all over the United States and it be—soon became very popular.
LAMB: The poem.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: The poem. But it was set to--it was sung. When Francis Scott Key was sitting on a little boat in Baltimore harbor while all of this attack was going on, he had in his mind a popular song of the day. It was called "The Anacreontic Song" or "To Anacreon in Heaven." It has two titles. It's an English drinking song. And Americans of the day wrote parodies based on that song. So Key had the song in his mind when he sat down and--or stood and wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner." Every word in his song exactly matches the notes in the English drinking song.
LAMB: In a side figure that you give, the British had 600 warships and we had 16?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Something like that, yeah.
LAMB: How many ships had they brought over here?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Well, they couldn't bring them all over. In the beginning they can only send a few over because they still had Napoleon to deal with. After they defeated Napoleon, then they could take all those assets and start bringing over more. So the defeate of Napoleon was very bad news for the Americans.
LAMB: There's one admiral you talk about in here, a British admiral who had to watched Napoleon at St. Helena.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes. He--he was in charge of--he was Napoleon's baby-sitter. He was one of the people earlier in the American campaign. Can you imagine watching over Napoleon? He was put in charge of an island in the South Atlantic, the middle of nowhere, and his main duty was to make sure that Napoleon didn't get loose again because, as you know, he—he was once held in Elba and he was able to get back to France and do mischief.
LAMB: How many years did you spend with The New York Times?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Thirty-four years.
LAMB: What are you doing now?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I--well, I don't know. If this program is broadcast later on--we're--we're taping this now in July. I am working as a summer editor at the National Herald Tribune in Paris. I took early retirement in April from The New York Times after 34 years. And our plan--my--my wife Iris and I plan to live in Paris for four months each year. We hope to spend a month in Italy every year and then seven months back in Washington each year. And I would be a contract writer for The New York Times for the period that we're in Washington. So I am looking forward to a very active early semi-retirement.
LAMB: How did you get to The New York Times, from what location?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I've been a newspaperman all of my working life. I was at Newsday on Long Island immediately before going to The New York Times. And before Newsday I was at a news--newspaper in Trenton, New Jersey, called The Trentonian. And before that I was a copy boy at the Philadelphia Inquirer from about age 18. So I've been nothing else except newspaper work, so you're kind of limited in the number of questions you can ask about my professional career, unless you want to talk about the newspaper business.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I grew up in Camden, New Jersey.
LAMB: Where'd you go to school?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I went to Camden High School in Camden, New Jersey.
LAMB: How about college?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I went to Temple University in Philadelphia.
LAMB: What intrigues you about this business of journalism?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I don't know. Like many people in journalism, I--I didn't set out to become a reporter or an editor. It happened. I got a job as a copy boy at the Inquirer and that paid for my education at Temple University. I worked my way through school. That's also where I met my wife, so that's a pretty important couple of things that I got out of journalism. A lot of my colleagues never set out to become newspaper people. A lot of them did, obviously. They went to journalism school, but I didn't. And I never regretted being a—a newspaper reporter or an editor and it's been very enjoyable and very fruitful and I've en--I've enjoyed it.
LAMB: What book is this for you?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: It's my second book. I should say second and a half. I wrote a book about 15 years ago on mail order catalogs, of all things. The half book that I wrote, I ghost wr--wrote a book for a celebrity, who then neglected to give me credit for it.
LAMB: Who was the celebrity?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Well, let's not say.
LAMB: Why didn't they give you credit for it?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: She said she forgot.
LAMB: So no one knows that you wrote that book?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Well, my wife knows. My kids know. I got a flat fee for doing it, and I--I was able to pay for our first vacation abroad from the proceeds of that book. So it was not a complete loss.
LAMB: What intrigues you about Paris and Italy?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Paris and Italy.
LAMB: Why do you want to live there?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Every--I'm sort of nonplussed. What is there not to like? I mean, the food is wonderful. Paris is beautiful. Italy is beautiful. And I--I still love Washington. I can see doing this for many years, to have all of these things—have the possibility of working at the Herald Tribune for four months each year and having free time to--to explore Paris. I think—I don't know if you had it but you had--your--your network had Adam Gopnik's book on. And he writes charmingly about Paris. I--I would never write about Paris, because I can't imagine spending enough time there. I could write about Italy. I hope to write about Italy sometime. It's Old World. It's great food. It's great wine. There's lots wrong with it, obviously. They don't do plumbing very well, especially in Paris. A smile of recognition there.
LAMB: Back to your book, The Clocker.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: The Clocker.
LAMB: Who's The Clocker?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: It's a guy named Zimmerman at Sports Illustrated. I was--yes.
LAMB: Here's his picture. I'm just going to show that.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Right. Among the things I've done for The New York Times is cover sports. And I was in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium a couple of years ago for a Redskins game and they were playing "The Star-Spangled Banner," the Redskins band was. And I was in the third row and I became aware that there was somebody about two rows down yelling, `Faster, faster.' And I had no idea who he was yelling to or who he wanted to do something faster. One of the other reporters told me that this was Zimmerman and that he clocks the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" for every sporting event that he goes to and his goal is to get--to break the record. He wants "The Star-Spangled Banner" to come in at under 51 seconds. And he'll yell. Of course, they can't hear him. There's 40,000 or 50,000 people there. There's a band and he's way up there, but he's yelling for them to go faster.
LAMB: And you say that he's clocked 1,283 sports events?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes. That's one of those figures where you--you make it more precise to give it an air of verisimilitude.
LAMB: So does he have a watch?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: He has got a stopwatch.
LAMB: And who's the shortest ever to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner"?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I don't remember who the shortest singing was. The shortest performance was John Kiley, the organist at Fenway Park for many years. I think Kiley came in the fastest. Plenty of people have come in slowest.
LAMB: Pearl Bailey. Two...
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Pearl Bailey.
LAMB: Two hours--I mean, two--two minutes and 28 seconds.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Probably felt like two hours to some people, yes.
LAMB: And a rock singer named Leola Giles, two hou—two minutes and 34 seconds.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes. I missed that one, too, but I found—I found a record of it.
LAMB: Now what do you think of the idea of singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a sporting event?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: It's unnecessary. The networks have recognized that it's unnecessary because, for the entire season, when "The Star-Spangled Banner" is performed, the networks go and sell beer or telephones or cars or tires or whatever they sell. So the networks recognize it and have voted with their buttons that it's not necessary.
LAMB: Why is it unnecessary?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Why is it unnecessary? There was one man I found, he said, `Macy's doesn't play "The Star-Spangled Banner" every morning when it opens for business.' It--it's a--it's a--to me, it a--it's an artificial form of patriotism. We don't need to have 50,000 people listen to a band, and Zimmerman is probably on the right track there. But our patriotism is a lot deeper than listening to a performance at a--at a stadium. It's like these car dealers with their American flags on Washington's Birthday. `We're having a sale.' We were in Paris for--I think it was Ascension Day, but it may have been Pentecost, holidays that do not get a lot of recognition in this country but in a Roman Catholic country like France, it's a big ho--those are big holidays. And my wife Iris said, `Isn't this interesting. In the United States, a holiday would be a cause for Macy's sales and things like that.' But in France, and I imagine in the other countries in southern Europe like Italy and Spain, the people actually take the day off and they don't go to work. We--we do it just the opposite in this country and I feel the same way, I think, about using patriotism for commercial gain like that.
LAMB: Before radio stations and television stations were 24 hours a day, they'd always begin and end the day with "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Mr. MOLOTSKY: That's right. I'd forgotten about that. I--I—if I had remembered that, I would have put it in the book.
LAMB: Well, I--I'm old enough to remember working at a radio station that used to do that. My question to you is was that necessary?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: No, of course not.
LAMB: Well, when do you need it then? When do you use your "Star-Spangled Banner"?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I think if you use it for really important events, then it becomes more meaningful. They--it's not meaningful if, when they play it at 162 baseball games and the players--they--they tell the players, `Be careful where you scratch yourself,' because, you know, they're sitting there waiting for--standing there waiting for it to get over and you've got all these people watching them. You've got to be careful what you do. And nobody's paying much attention. You know, in--in Baltimore they pay attention because there's a line when they all yell `Oh' at the same time. And I'm told that in Atlanta, in the line `the home of the brave,' they make it `the home of the Braves.' Get it? So they do pay attention. But they don't pay attention much. Most of the places people are out getting beer, hotdogs and it--I think it loses a lot. They play it at the opening night at the opera. Well, play it opening night. That--that's all right. They play it at opening day of the baseball season, that would be all right, and for the World Series and for the All-Star game the other day, which I missed. For some reason, it was not big news in France. Cal Ripken hit a home run; there was not a line about it in the French papers.
LAMB: What about the flag? Where did that come from?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: The flag that we're speaking of for...
LAMB: Just the original American flag.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: The original American flag was not done by Betsy Ross, if this is your--your subtle way of indirection. When--I mentioned that I was from Camden, New Jersey. Usually people arch their eyebrows when I say Camden, New Jersey. You're one of the first people who hasn't. Camden is across the river from Philadelphia, and when I was a boy, my father took me to the historic sites many times; to Independence Hall, and he took me many times to Betsy Ross' house. So it never occurred to me to question that Betsy Ross didn't do the first flag. She didn't do the first flag. There's no evidence that Betsy Ross ever made a flag. The first mention of it was by a descendant of hers many years after she was dead. But it's a story that caught on. I think we like legends--not just our society. It's easier to identify with a legend. Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus. That's such a good legend. Betsy Ross made the flag. No—absolutely no evidence that she did.
LAMB: Where does that come from?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: From her grandson. Her grandson wrote in the mid-19th century that his grandmother was commissioned by George Washington to make the first American flag. Absolutely no evidence that that ever happened. He would bask in the reflected glory of his grandmother. How he got that notion, I--I don't know. I--I did enough research into that one paragraph to be able to say with some confidence that Betsy Ross didn't make the first flag. But there's a bridge between New Jersey and Philadelphia called the Betsy Ross Bridge. So if you tell a good enough story enough, you'll get a bridge named after you.
LAMB: Is there a bridge named after Pickersgill?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: No, not that I'm aware of. This is the...
LAMB: Mary Pickersgill?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes. This is one of our--one of our heroes. She actually did make a flag. Now it wasn't at the revolutionary period, which is what Betsy Ross is associated with. She is the one who sewed that flag that's on the cover of the book. The picture was taken in 1873, so it was in black and white. The publisher took a little bit of a liberty to make the cover more colorful by putting in the red stripes and the blue field, but that's the flag that Mary Pickersgill sewed in Baltimore in August of 1814, so that it would be able to be flown at Ft. McHenry because the commander at Ft. McHenry wanted the biggest flag he could get and he--show to the British--because he knew an attack was coming--so he could show to the British that the Americans were still there and that they were not going to be able to defeat him and his fort, and they would not be able to capture Baltimore. And he was right. It was a little bit of arrogance on his part. He wanted the biggest flag he could get, and he got it.
LAMB: Where did the stars and stripes come from originally--the whole idea?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I have no idea. It's one of those things that we've lived with for so long, I've never even thought to ask about it. We do know that there were 13 stripes for the original colonies and the original flag had 13 stars, but why somebody thought stars and stripes would make a good combination, I--I have no idea. It was obviously an inspired choice, because it--the--this flag, the American flag stands out so much. Now maybe it's because our nation has been so successful that it stands out, but there's something about that combination. If you look at the flag on the cover there, it had 15 stars and 15 stripes, because by that time, there were more than 13 states in the country. There were actually 18 at the time of the War of 1812, but Congress had halted the practice of adding a star and a stripe for every new state at that point, and about seven years later, Congress got into the habit of adding a star every time a state joined the union, and we're old enough to remember Hawaii and Alaska. But they went back to the original 13 stripes. Can you imagine if we had a flag with 50 stripes? It would look like pinstripes. It wouldn't have the majesty that it has.
LAMB: Now this flag that's on the cover, is that the one that was at the Smithsonian?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: That's right.
LAMB: And you started by telling us that the fellows that--Dutton, who asked you to write this book--got it from the story you wrote about those--that flag.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes, in The New York Times.
LAMB: Why is that a story? Why is that re--you know, the original--that that flag at the Smithsonian a story right now?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Because there is a great amount of concern that if they don't do something, if they don't arrest its deterioration, that it'll fade away, it--it'll disintegrate, and because of its iconic status as the flag that inspired our national anthem, they've been able to get enough commercial support, donors, to pay for the--what will wind up to be a fair amount of money. We're talking about tens of millions of dollars.
LAMB: You said $18 million.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yeah, but you know how it is in Washington, Brian. That's--that's how we start. They--they have to clean it. In the early 20th century, it was mounted on a linen backing, and for all the years that we saw it at the Smithsonian, it was displayed vertically. The flag really should be horizontal, but it was displayed vertically. And we only saw one side of it. The other side was covered by this linen backing, and millions--hundreds of thousands of stitches...
LAMB: You say 350,000.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: An enormous number. But who actu--this may be like the number of times that somebody has clocked the star-spangled banner. It's one of those numbers that's hard to count. So many of those--the stitches are linen. The flag, the stripes, are wool. The blue field is wool. The stars are cotton. The dye on linen fades at a different rate than the dye on wool. So over the years, imperceptibly--imperceptibly—the dye on the linen threads faded and s--a gauzelike effect developed that you wouldn't know from looking at it. The researchers said that when they removed all of that—the linen threads, the colors came more alive. They could see them without this haze of all of those little pieces of linen thread in the way.
LAMB: Somebody said to me the other day that they may never hang that flag again, that they're having trouble?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: They--they don't know. They--one of the things--one of the things they have to decide is what to do. A flag has two sides. We've only seen that one side for all these years. They have to decide how they're going to display it. Now they may have decided something since the book came out and since I've been in Paris. That's quite possible. Somebody mentioned something about reading something in The Washington Post, but I--as I mentioned to you before we started, I practically just got off the plane, so I'm not really up to speed on what's been happening with the flag in the two months since I've been gone.
LAMB: Do you think it's worth spending $18 million plus on restoring a piece of cloth?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Well, that's a good question. What are our priorities? I'd spend it.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Because of the symbolism, bef--because of what it represents. It--it was a turning point in our history. I wouldn't go so far as to say that if Baltimore was lost—or lost, the--America would have lost the War of 1812. Certainly Americans would be learning more about it today. Americans don't know anything about the War of 1812.
LAMB: What did happen at the end? How did the war end?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: The war--the most important battle of the war was fought after the war ended. The Americans and the British were negotiating in Ghent, which is...
LAMB: Where is Ghent?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Ghent is in Belgium today. In 1814-'15, it was part of the Dutch nation. After a lot of negotiation, the war was ended. Everybody agreed the war was over, so word came over on ship, and while word was coming over that the war was over, the British attacked New Orleans, which was one of their big mistakes. Not only it was a mistake because it was after the war was over--they didn't know--it was--it was a terrible outcome. The British lost--well, I don't have the figure in front of me--something on the order of 1,600 men, dead, and the Americans lost 12--something like that. The Americans were led by Andrew Jackson, which helped his career, obviously. Andrew Jackson had an army that was made up of local people from Louisiana, Army people, Navy people, and a contingent of free blacks.

And Theodore Roosevelt, who I mentioned earlier, had a really keen observation on the use of free black soldiers. Because the British ended slavery around 1806. The United States, of course, had slaves--slavery at that point and up until the Civil War. Here was a large contingent of free blacks defending New Orleans, defending a way of life that was keeping people of their race in slavery. Roosevelt, writing in 1882, found a great deal of irony in that, and I can understand why. I enjoyed very much reading Teddy Roosevelt's views of the War of 1812.
LAMB: What about the--I don't know whether it was irony or not--irony or not, but you point out that Francis Scott Key ha--owned slaves.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Francis Scott Key owned slaves and he was a member of the Colonization Society. This was an organization of people who wanted to free the slaves, but not to let them remain as American citizens, but to resettle them in Africa in what is today Liberia. Completely losing track--it's--was a racist thing. It completely loses track of the fact that most of these black slaves were not from Africa. They were born in the United States, and this co--Colonization Society wanted to remove them from the United States, have them resettled--have them settled--not resettled--have them settled in--in Liberia. The capital of Liberia is Monrovia, named after the president who succeeded Madison. And so a fair number of blacks did get their freedom and were able to go to Liberia.

I imagine if you tell a black person, a slave, `Well, you can stay as a slave or we'll let you go to Liberia,' well, most people, I think, given that choice, would go to Liberia. But the slaves should have been released. We--we had to fight a whole Civil War. That's a whole different subject. So Francis Scott Key wrote in "The Star-Spangled Banner" that this is the land of the free and the home of the brave. The land of the free, and he had slaves. You know--and I've watched your program over the last few years--when you did the presidents, just tick them off on your fingers. George Washington had slaves, Adams did not, Jefferson had slaves, Madison had slaves, Monroe had slaves, John Quincy Adams did not, Jackson did.
LAMB: Andrew Jackson?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I know that some people wi--will say this is 2001. We can't judge those people by our standards today. But I--I think, to my mind, it's inescapable. Jefferson said he wanted the slavery to be against the law. He--I guess it's because of--there's an economic basis to--to slavery in that regard. He wanted to enjoy living the good life, but he couldn't enjoy a good life if he freed his slaves and his competitors didn't. So there's an economic basis to a lot of history.
LAMB: You say it was not until 1931, in Hoover's time, that the national anthem was adopted.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Right.
LAMB: What does that mean? I mean, it was--the poem was written in 18...
Mr. MOLOTSKY: 1814.
LAMB: ...14, and it took till 1931 to decide what our national anthem was?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes. We did not have a national anthem.
LAMB: How did it work? How did we get there?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: We got a national anthem because there was heightened patriotism during World War I. The soldiers who were in World War I came back. The Army and the Navy had adopted "The Star-Spangled Banner" as their official song, let's say, in around 1895. So these American soldiers who came back would now be very familiar with it as an anthem. And the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other patriotic and veterans organizations began a campaign soon after the war ended in 18--in 1918, and it took them until 1931 to persuade Congress to adopt "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem. Until then, we did not have one.
LAMB: Were there other songs in the running?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes. "America the Beautiful," which still gets a lot of support today. A lot of people find it easier to sing.
LAMB: Anybody tried to change our national anthem in the l--in the last 70, 80 years?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Sure. Last 10, 15 years I--I've written about congressmen who have introduced bills, and I--I went over my clips while I was working on this book, and I found something that I wrote in 1984 interviewing a congressman, and he sad, `Mark my words, "America the Beautiful" will be the national anthem by the year 2000.' Well, he's not in Congress anymore and we still have the same national anthem.
LAMB: Is there folklore that's been created over the years about this song, how hard it is to sing and...
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Well, you know it's hard to sing. Everybody knows it's hard. The--the range is too great. It's about an octave and a half. The only people who can sing it without butchering it--switching octaves--are people with trained voices. I interviewed Robert Merrill of the Metropolitan Opera-slash-New York Yankees for the book. He loves the song. He says he's inspired by it. He likes "America the Beautiful," too, but Robert Merrill would never want us to stop "Star-Spangled Banner" as our national anthem.
LAMB: You say Francis Scott Key--first of all, what wa—what was his profession here?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: He was a lawyer.
LAMB: In Washington?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: In Washington. Another Washington lawyer story.
LAMB: Went to St. John's, a little school up in Annapolis.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: That's right.
LAMB: A great book school.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: That's right.
LAMB: What impact did he have on that school?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: He had a great impact on that school. He helped save it from going out of business. He was an old boy and a grad, and it fell on hard times when he was in his maturity, I guess in--in the 1820s or thereabouts. It had received support from the state of Maryland, which then withdrew the support, and Key rallied the former grad—the ex-grads--the grads of St. John's to rally around and keep St. John's functioning. And, as you know, it's today one of the finest small colleges in the United States.
LAMB: The flags, you say, played an important role in the Civil War.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes. The flag did not have what I call an iconic status until the Civil War. Proof of that is people took pieces of the flag as souvenirs. They--they did not regard it as a sacred object. At the Smithsonian, they've made a verb out of souvenir. They say, `People souvenired the flag.' The man who was the commander of the fort, Major Armstead--Armistad, took possession of the flag after the war, and evidently people came up to him after the War of 1812 and said, `Could I have a piece of the flag?' `Yeah.' They took a piece. The Flag Museum in Baltimore has eight or nine pieces of the flag that it has acquired over the years, and that's why it's not as big today as it was when it was made. It was a gigantic flag when it was made. It's still gigantic, but it's lost several feet.
LAMB: What's the biggest flag that's ever been made?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Oh, there was some flag--it had to be in California, right? It was--must be 10 times the size of this flag. In fact, it was in Washington 10 years ago or so. I must have been off that day because I didn't see it, but little—little tidbit that we threw in the book. It's in the--if anybody is really interested, the largest flag in the world can be found in the Guinness Book of World Records.
LAMB: When you went about finding out the material for this book--first of all, when did you start doing your research?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Well, soon after my article appeared. This would have been in the spring of 1999.
LAMB: Where did you go? Where were the different places you had to go in order to do your research?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Much of the research was done right here, right down the street at the Library of Congress. A lot of the research was done in Baltimore.
LAMB: What do you think of that facility over there?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: What, the...
LAMB: Ft.--doesn't Ft. McHenry have a...
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Ft. McHenry's marvelous. Anybody who is ever on a holiday in Baltimore, or somebody on a holiday in Washington and has to go north on I-95 to get, say, to Philadelphia or New York, just stop off there for a couple of hours. It--it's so important to our history, and the people there, Scott Sheeds and Anna Von Lontz, two of the park rangers that I spoke to, were just fantastic. They—they couldn't do more for me. Th--they said, `You want this?' They copied this for me, records from the fort to go into the book.

Then the other major source of information that I had—and we haven't gotten into this--was on the British side. I called a friend of mine--or sent an e-mail to her in London, and I said, `Will you please do some research on--for me on Robert Ross?' And--she's a historian. And she said, `The only Robert Ross I know is the good friend of Oscar Wilde.' I said, `No, not that Robert Ross.' I said, `It's Brigadier General Robert Ross.' She said, `Well, I can't do it, but I've got a friend, John Mason.' And John Mason went to the regimental records of the units that General Ross was with, and we got some really good stuff from there. And so that was another principle therein.

Ross, who we haven't gotten into, was the commander of the British land forces. He's the one who brought the troops into Washington so they could burn it, and he is the general who led them on the attack of Baltimore. The fleet dropped off their army units at a place called North Point, 15 miles below Baltimore, and the unit marched up to try to capture Baltimore. Very soon, a sniper shot General Ross and killed him. That led the Duke of Wellington to say that he questioned the wisdom of having his generals at the head of their troops. Ross was an inspiring leader. When he was in--here in Washington, he had his horse shot out from under him. He was very tough on horses. I found three other references to horses being shot out from under General Ross. He was a commander in the Peninsula Campaigns against Napoleon, and he got shot a couple times. Got--got hit in the chops, as he put it, in a letter to his wife. And he said that after the battle of Baltimore, he was going to return to his wife and--and never go to war anymore.

But a sniper got him, and it so depressed the British troops that, someone wrote, a moan went up in the ranks and they lost their will to fight. Who knows? If we--if Ross had not been killed, I can't say that the war would have had another outcome. That's the `what if' school of history and I--I can't deal with that. But he was a marvelous character and a person I'd never heard of until I started doing research on the book and until my friend's colleague in London got the regimental records.
LAMB: Now as you know, it's a small book as books go. Can hold it up, it's a couple--230-some pages and sells for $22. Was there a decision made to keep it small?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: It was my decision. It's--it doesn't have as many words in it as I contracted for, and the--this was pointed out to me by the publisher. And I said, `I've said what I've had to say. I think if I did more, it would be padding. Can't we just end it here?' And maybe I was--persuasion, maybe I was stubborn, but we ended it where I ended it.
LAMB: So what's the value of a book--book like this for somebody?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I think it's a good story. I--in my new life as a sometimes free-lance writer, I agreed to do a piece on the new Visitors Center at the Capitol for the magazine of the Pew Charitable Trusts. And they asked for an author's ID, and I wrote--I wanted to promote the book. I--I wrote that I was a former New York Times person and that I'd written this book, and I said, `It's a history of "The Star-Spangled Banner."' And about a day later, it occurred to me I don't—I don't want to call it a history, so I wrote back--e-mail is wonderful. Sent back an e-mail and I said, `Can you change that from "a history" to "a story"?' And he had a good sense of humor. He wrote back. He said, `You mean you want to be known as a storyteller and not as a historian?' And said, `Yes.' So he said, `Fine.'
LAMB: Well, let me go back then to that quote I read earlier from Carl Bern.
LAMB: I'm sorry, Benn. B-E-N-N.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: All right.
LAMB: `There is a strong propaganda quality to American history in the US. I don't think there's another Western democracy that abuses its history to affirm a nation's goodness as much as the United States does. From our side of the border, it's all very amusing.' Carl Benn running the Toronto city history museum.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes, he's the--he's the curator--the historical curator for the city.
LAMB: In your life of writing, how often have you found American historians to embellish the situation, to not tell the real story?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Oh, I--I don't know that I agree that American historians set out to embellish American history. The story of the War of 1812 was hardly touched on when you and I went to school. So maybe it's natural that if it's hardly ever touched on, that it--some of the im--things that I think now are important were not mentioned, like the American attack on Toronto, and the American attempt to conquer Canada. They also--the Americans also burned what is now Niagara in Canada and several other places. I never knew that, and I'm hoping that my--as you put it, my little book will--will inform some people of this unusual event.
LAMB: How badly did the British burn the United States Capitol and the White House?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Well, the--it completely burn--the—the difference between the American attack on Toronto and the British attack on Washington is that the British commander said, `Just burn public buildings.' The American commander gave no such order. He said, `Burn the place.' They burned the place. There was a lot of looting. The Americans broke into the city jail, let the people out, and they joined in the looting. Many private houses in Toronto were burned down, and none in--in Washington.
LAMB: Going to write another book?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: I hope so.
LAMB: Got a subject?
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Yes, a couple of subjects. I would like very much to write a book about Italy with my wife, because I think if I have some writing ability and if I combined that with her knowledge of Italian food and Italian art, I think it could be quite a combination. We--we have to persuade a publisher that it would be a good book to publish, because there are more than one book on Tuscany on the--on your local bookstore shelves today. Someday I'd like to do a book on my hometown of Camden, New Jersey, which I'm afr--I regret to say today is the worst city in the United States, and I would like to be able to say how it got that way. I don't know if I'll be able to say how it could be fixed. I don't know if I have answers, but I could certainly say how it got to be in such a sorry state that it's in.
LAMB: Here's the cover of the book. "The Flag, The Poet & The Song." And as Irvin Molotsky, our guest, says, "The Story of the Star-Spangled Banner." Thank you very much.
Mr. MOLOTSKY: Thank you for having me.
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