• ×

    Misery, Thy Name is Rumsfeld’s Vacation Home

    Eyes widened and jaws dropped around the Utne Reader
    editorial table this week as an editor shared with us a tidbit she
    picked up at the weekend’s Minneapolis satellite dispatch from the
    annual Bioneers
    conference in San Rafael, California. It was a small side-note in a
    speech by Democracy Now host Amy Goodman, a detail
    just too bizarre and worrisome to let lie. I hit the internet,
    eager to learn more, to verify or discredit what I ultimately found
    out to be true: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld owns a vacation
    home named Mount Misery, an infamous 19th century manor where
    unruly slaves were sent to be broken by owner Edward Covey. The
    most famous of these slaves was a rebellious, teenage Frederick
    Douglass, who describes his brutal and formative experience there
    in his 1855 book,
    My Bondage and My Freedom.

    Writes Douglass, ‘I shall never be able to narrate the mental
    experience through which it was my lot to pass during my stay at
    Covey’s. I was completely wrecked, changed, and bewildered; goaded
    almost to madness at one time, and at another reconciling myself to
    my wretched condition.’

    The news of Rumsfeld’s settlement in a place of such sinister
    history kicked up a flap in June with a brief mention in a breezy
    piece in the
    New York Times travel section. The
    article focused on the up-and-coming crabbing town of St.
    Michaels, Maryland, where in recent years, Vice President Dick
    Cheney, press secretary Tony Snow, Rumsfeld, and other DC
    powerbrokers have purchased multimillion dollar vacation homes.
    Tucked between cheerful descriptions of the town and the
    politicos’ homes, was a smidgeon of historical context:

    Thomas M. Crouch, a broker at the Coldwell Banker office in
    town, says one legend attributes the name to the original owner,
    said to have been a sad and doleful Englishman. His merrier brother
    then built a house, and to put him on, Mr. Crouch supposes, named
    it Mount Pleasant.

    But there is some historical gravity to the name, too. By 1833,
    Mount Misery’s owner was Edward Covey, a farmer notorious for
    breaking unruly slaves for other farmers.

    And it was this brief mention that some readers — unimpressed
    by how many bathrooms the homes have or the fact that these men can
    reach their retreats in ‘less than 30 minutes in a government-issue
    Chinook helicopter’ — homed in on.

    After the article was published, bloggers exploded onto the
    scene. Some cried racism, as others mused on the
    super-villain-hideout nature of a name like Mount Misery, yet
    overlooked its depraved past. (Strangely, some bloggers, like
    Michelle Malkin, blasted the Times for
    essentially inviting terrorists to Rumsfeld’s home by publishing
    pictures of it, though the paper had permission to run the

    The reactions testify to the all-around ickiness of a
    pro-torture, war-mongering Defense Secretary spending his downtime
    in a physical memorial to this country’s darkest, most violent
    days. But there are deeper conclusions to be drawn, as shown by the
    astute observations presented the
    Commonweal Institute‘s newsletter,
    Uncommon Denominator. In the piece (a
    version of which appeared in
    Baltimore Sun
    in August), Ian Finseth, a senior writer
    at the institute and assistant professor of American literature
    at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, argues that the problem
    with Rumsfeld’s ownership of this house is not just that it
    reflects an administration ‘whose power is based on intimidation
    and on the subservience of others,’ not just that it
    demonstrates a reputed lack of concern for African-Americans.
    Rather, most alarming is that his ownership of the leisure
    estates reflects ‘an attitude toward American history in which
    legal property rights take precedence over the uncodified right
    of the people to their shared cultural past.’

    Go there >>
    Talking Points: Ghosts of Mount Misery
    Go there too >>
    Weekends with the President’s Men
    Go there too >>
    My Bondage and My Freedom

    Related Links:

    Related Links from the Utne

    Comments? Story tips?
    Write a letter to the editor

    Like this? Want more?Subscribe to
    Utne Reader

    Published on Oct 1, 2006


    In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.