So why are you a Democrat? Me? I'm a Democrat because of the power of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fireside chats and speeches like this one.
While I'm sure that may be the case for many Democrats, I'm not sure if that's as usual for most 25-year-old Democrats like me.
You see, I don't really have much business being a Democrat necessarily. While my mom voted that way for many years (until the 2000 and 2004 elections, sadly) she never talked politics with me. But my dad... my dad was an outspoken Republican that adored Ronald Reagan and hated Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and who blamed Democrats for all the ills of the country. Further, in school my teachers who talked politics were Republican, my small town was Republican and my county was Republican.
Still none of that was a match for my yellow dog Democrat grandma, (I called her Baba), a woman who proudly served as a Democratic election judge in suburban Cook County for decades and impressed upon me the importance of voting as if it was a sacrament akin to baptism or communion, and who moved to my rural town to be closer to my mom and her grandkids following the death of my grandpa when I was 6 years old.
While I am sad my Grandpa Louie died when I was too young to know him well, I can't imagine what my life would be like or what I would be like without having the chance to spend so much time with her after school and during my summer vacations as I was learning to quilt, baking cookies, doing puzzles and talking history and politics with a woman whose liberal heart was still filled with warmth from the glow of the fireside chats coupled with progressive policies that helped get her family through the Great Depression and inspired her and her husband through World War II as well as paving the way for her children and grandchildren to rise up the ladder of society and get college degrees.
It was because of those fireside chats she voted Democrat her whole life (she was born in 1915 and died just two months before the 2004 election) and why she had faith in government to be good and just most of the time and faith in people to act good and just most of the time. It was because of the power of those fireside chats she described FDR and his policies so passionately more than forty years after his death and that she instilled in me the same faith in and expectations for government.
Tears well up in my eyes when I think about how much I wish Baba was still alive to see this election and ask her what she thinks of it. I desperately want to tell her how much I think Barack Obama saying "Yes we can" makes me feel the way that she felt hearing that she had "nothing to fear but fear itself."
Looking back on those times, she did have reason to fear. In 1932, the year FDR became the first presidential candidate to attend a convention and give an acceptance speech in person which he did in Chicago, Baba entered her senior year in high school but wound up having to drop out and move to a family friend's store in another town an hour away from her Eastern European immigrant parents in Chicago as a way of helping them out.
Her family had already spent much of her life moving around with her father trying to find work whether it was working in dangerous Southern Illinois coal mines (one of her brother's births -- she had four siblings -- saved her dad's life because her father leaving work to come home for it saved him from being there when a mine collapsed) or Chicago factories.
A brilliant woman who retained her mental faculties until the very end even after her sight and mobility failed, Baba never was able to pursue her dream of being an English teacher after she dropped out, but strangely she never held any bitterness for that.
Instead when she talked of the past it wasn't of the missed personal opportunities for herself (eventually becoming a beautician rather than a teacher) or the sacrifices she made, but about what the community accomplished together and the blessed life she had with a tight-knit family and a multitude of friends.
You see FDR didn't just inspire my grandmother to vote Democratic for 60 years and through her inspire her daughter to vote Democratic many of those years and inspire me to vote Democratic, though that is something. FDR got more out of my grandma than just votes the same way he got more than that out of most of the folks of the Greatest Generation. FDR inspired her family to plant a victory garden, inspired her husband to enlist in the Marines after Pearl Harbor and inspired her to work in a factory to help out the cause as well, inspired her to make sacrifices of material goods as everyone joined together to support America's effort in the war, inspired her to work to improve things in her community as she and her friends set up a civic association following World War II. It inspired her to be a citizen and involved and pay attention to what was going on in the world. In turn she inspired me as a child to be a citizen and always involved and pay attention to what was going on in the world.
FDR also instilled in her a sense that government is good and if it isn't everyone should be doing what they can to make it good. That sensibility prompted her to patriotically purchase U.S. savings bonds on her grandkid's birthdays long after that was fashionable and elicited compassion from her for people who may need government help recognizing the way that the government was there for her, a first generation American. You see thanks to FDR her brothers were able to get work through the CCC and they got college educations thanks to the GI bill. Thanks to labor reforms my Grandpa Louie, also a first generation American, was able to following the war support his wife and daughter and help her pay for her college degree on one salary that even gave him a full pension (though the factory closed just as he was retiring and so that pension could have very easily slipped away were it not for some luck) and wages fair enough so that if they saved and spent wisely they could live a full life within their means and that combined with Medicare and Social Security gave my grandma the chance to live comfortably 15 years after her husband passed. Even though she spent her last few years in a nursing home, when she was gone she even had a little left to pass on to her daughter and grandkids. The American dream had worked for my grandma who grew up poor to parents who didn't speak English and went on to see her grandkids become an engineer, a pharmacist and me... let's just say a professional citizen is how I think of it.
But more than any monetary sum, Baba passed on to me the inspiration she got from Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other Democrats like John F. Kennedy, who also stirred her and whom she saw in person when he made the trip in 1960 to a Chicago suburb near her.
Here he talks briefly about how the Democratic party can get this country moving again during the campaign.
He challenges the public to civic duty in his inaugural address.
In 1963 he delivered a stirring address at American University talking about his strategy for peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. Here's a snippet:
Sadly though, JFK was taken before his work was complete and that opened up a wound in my grandma that never completely healed.
In the biography she left her grandchildren she wrote:
I don’t remember what all happened in 1963. Whatever may have happened would be overshadowed anyway by what happened on Nov. 22. Ask anyone where they were and what they were doing on that day and they can tell you.
It was just before noon. I was sitting exactly where I am right now, at the dining room window enjoying the bright sunshine of this cold day. Remember I mentioned before that Mrs. Holder started me on a quilt while I was confined to my bed at my parents home? That was in 1948 and here it was 1963 and I was just finishing my first quilt listening to the radio.
The program was interrupted by a news bulletin saying President Kennedy had been shot. The news was shocking. I listened to the updated news – sewing and crying and finally the news that the president had died. Louie heard the news at work and Kathie at school. Her eyes were red when she came home – she said most of the kids cried.
For several days following the assassination people were glued to their T.V. sets – from morning to night. Every detail of the event plus the military funeral was shown. The long procession from the Capitol building to the church to the cemetery where the eternal flame burns day and night.
People didn’t leave their homes unless absolutely necessary. It was so tragic and sad. And it was to go on and on with the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald and his assassination by a bystander (Mr. Ruby) as he was being escorted from one jail to another.
History books will tell the whole story but everyone felt part of the unfolding story. I was so thankful that we saw the president live at the Villa Park High School."
Some years later following the death, she got an enlarged copy of the Bill Mauldin cartoon that appeared in the Sun-Times following JFK's death and framed it to hang on her living room wall.
It was that cartoon I thought of when I cast my vote for Barack Obama in the first day of early voting for the Illinois primary on Jan. 14.
All that said, I know from my own experience that not everyone feels so inspired by FDR and JFK.
My 59-year-old father had no such attachment to them and quite honestly little attachment to the community as a whole. His collection of agrarian ancestors from Ireland, Scotland, England and Sweden had been in America from anywhere between 80-150 years by the time he was born yet even so his family had to toil greatly to make a living. His father was too old to have served in World War II and too young to have served in World War I. While his mother was Methodist, his family didn't attend church. Growing up in the rural north on a family farm a few miles from the closest caucasian Mayberry-like hamlet, issues like segregation or urban unrest were causes foreign to him he didn't come into contact with until he became the first person in his family to attend college when tensions over civil rights and Vietnam were in full bloom. While there he started out aspiring to be an engineer, but unfortunately he had no one to encourage him to keep going after he got a C on a math test and his doubts and insecurities about being a hayseed who couldn't cut it kicked in and so he switched his major to agriculture and he went on to a career in agribusiness. During college he was lucky enough to not have his draft number called, but if he had been chosen to go to war he would have. He didn't have time to join in protest marches or debate the country's policies because he was working all the time to pay his tuition fees as well as the costs of staying in the boarding house where he lived during school. And besides... those hippies were pretty weird anyway. And what was up with that funny smell coming from their room? ;)
It is with this background my father had his political awakening in returning back to a small town and getting married and starting his family. It is with this background my father first got politically aware seeing a man campaign for president with whom he had a lot in common when he was campaigning in 1976. Yes, Ronald Reagan was a movie star-turned California governor. But in terms of his background and thoughts about work ethic and personal responsibility he was still a lot like my dad and my dad's father. In fact Reagan had grown up in rural Illinois about an hour away from the birthplace of my grandpa, who was also born in 1911 and the small college Reagan attended is about an hour away from the town where I grew up (I drive on a highway by this college to get to my brothers houses when I go to visit them). Now in raising me, my father was not racist so much as racially insensitive on some occasions (though he has gotten so much better in the last ten years and is so much more open-minded it's unbelievable), but his father had used the n-word so it shouldn't be that surprising that Reagan's dogwhistles about welfare queens preyed on my father's fear and frustrations about what he saw as unfairness as a man who grew up white and poor yet had made a good life for himself through tons of hard work but didn't understand why society was taking his tax dollars and using their power to give special privileges, preferential treatment and in his mind, handouts, to other people he thought had no more difficult a time in his life than he had. He also, like just about everyone, was pretty disillusioned by the 1970s between the unrest over Vietnam, the economic downturn, the hostage crisis and Watergate.
Then came Ronald Reagan with his lofty rhetoric about "morning in America" and "shining city on the hill" combined with his new brand of conservatism that didn't believe government was good and didn't trust government with the people's tax dollars and rather than idealizing the common good, instead elevated the pursuit of self-interest rather than collective interest as not just an inalienable right, but somehow paradoxically turned it into a sign of morality.
My FDR-loving grandma HATED Reagan. Baba was too much of a lady to curse, but boy did his $4 trillion debt make her blood boil (and mine as she pointed out how that was paralyzing debt he was passing on to me and all of my generation). She was also not a fan of George H.W. Bush's first Iraq adventure just to get the Middle East oil, in her opinion.
My father, on the other hand, adored Reagan and couldn't agree with him more that the government was terrible, politicians were corrupt, unions were corrupt and hurting business, lawyers just caused trouble. Like most Reaganites, he had the cynical viewpoint that since all government money is going to be misspent anyway then taxes should be as low as possible.
It was these two ideologies that competed for my heart and mind when I was a child. My grandma's more optimistic vision of government won out so I'm a Democrat. Thank God. But that doesn't mean I can ignore the hold Reagan held over people in the 1980s and the way his charisma and words have shaped public opinion and voting patterns for years (my father has never voted for a Democrat for president, but that is going to change this year when my Dad takes a Democratic primary ballot for the first time and casts a vote for Obama despite the traumatic experience for him of receiving an e-mail from Ted Kennedy).
Reagan knew the political power that came from charisma and lofty rhetoric that inspired voters to turn out en masse and engendered their loyalty and assistance in achieving political goals. Reagan revolution, much? That's why he patterned much of his style after FDR.
In fact, when Ronald Reagan accepted the GOP nomination in 1980 he actually used an FDR quote from when he accepted the Democratic nomination in 1932.
That's crazy! How could he say nice things about a presidential icon of another party, especially one so ideologically diametrically opposed to his professed beliefs?! How can he reach out to the other party? That must mean he's a moderate! Oh but wait... he just used rhetoric like that to seduce Reagan Democrats and won in a landslide and wound up using his aw-shucks popularity and charisma and celebrity to get through a right-wing agenda that was further to the right than the public was.
Hmmmm... maybe Reagan was on to something there with that whole disagreeing without being disagreeable thing. I wonder if any Democrats could work something like that... OK, enough sarcasm.
In Reagan's speech he says:
More than anything else, I want my candidacy to unify our country, to renew the American spirit and sense of purpose. I want to carry our message to every American, regardless of party affiliation, who is a member of this community of shared values.
Sound like any candidate we know? Oh and just something else that caught my eye looking at this...
Never before in our history have Americans been called upon to face three grave threats to our very existence, any one of which could destroy us. We face a disintegrating economy, a weakened defense, and an energy policy based on the sharing of scarcity.
Does that sound like the problems we face this year or what?
It was with this non-hyperpartisan perspective on history that I just rolled my eyes at the fuss made by the liberal blogosphere and the Edwards/Clinton campaigns when Barack Obama dared speak with intellectual honesty about how Ronald Reagan was a transformational candidate as was JFK, while Nixon and Clinton were not.
Historians know Obama was speaking truth there and how it is not at all unusual for a president aspiring to be great to emulate a president who is thought to be great.
From a piece written in 2000:
Even though Reagan worshiped Calvin Coolidge, he wanted to emulate Franklin D. Roosevelt. Reagan positioned himself as the president who saved America from a decade of drift and from three decades of big government; he played Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter's Herbert Hoover. But Roosevelt, like John Kennedy, knew how to charm intellectuals; Reagan, like Andrew Jackson, did not care about them. Reagan's aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart patriotism, his Reader's Digest common sense, his impatience with policy details or abstractions, and his tendency to mistake celluloid memories for actual recollections earned popular approval and intellectual disdain. As a result, historians may praise Roosevelt's political genius for telling two speechwriters fighting over contradictory policies to "weave the two together"; that Reagan settled arguments by smiling and saying, "Okay you fellows work it out" proves to historians that he was a dolt.
Of course, Ronald Reagan was no Franklin Roosevelt. At most, Reagan slowed the growth of big government. He was too pragmatic, and too politically weak, to do much more. The Democratic Congress and the characteristic incrementalism of the American political system shackled Reagan. He shifted course by a few degrees, but did not succeed in veering right overnight. It took time for the Reagan revolution to restrain the courts, weaken the bureaucracy, reorient the body politic. Today, under a Democratic administration, America seems further away from the Great Society than it did at the end of Reagan's reign. But it was Reagan's appointments that revolutionized the judiciary; it was Reagan's small-government rhetoric along with his astronomical deficits that have kept Americans budget conscious even amid growing surpluses.
Considering Reagan's political strategies were successful for actually getting an agenda passed rather than just winning an election, can someone tell me what's so terrible about a presidential candidate employing them to charm and inspire the electorate so that they are willing to support a candidate who wants to get a progressive agenda moving through the country and rebrand this party for a new age? Cause I'm just saying, this rebranding combined with frustration over what the Republicans have done with this war and Katrina and the economy worked on my dad and is getting him to vote Democrat for the first time ever and I think it might work on some other folks.
can someone tell me what's so terrible about lofty rhetoric when the presidential ambitions were only realized because of Abraham Lincoln delivering the speech that "a house divided against itself cannot stand"and based off his oratorical performances in debates with Stephen Douglas?
Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by, its own undoubted friends -- those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work, who do care for the result. Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us. Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy. Did we brave all then to falter now? -- now when that same enemy is wavering, dissevered, and belligerent? The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail -- if we stand firm, we shall not fail. Wise counsels may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later, the victory is sure to come.
While his hook during the 1860 election was no "mother from Kansas-father from Kenya" back story I think Honest Abe's homespun tale about his birth in a log cabin and his railsplitter image took him pretty far.
And I see some people talking derisively about how superficial and empty this Obama campaign is because of the soaring, not-always specific rhetoric, the celebrity support this campaign has and the feelings it engenders in people prompting things like this that people say don't mean anything:
They wonder what good it can be to wed political rhetoric and art.
To that cynicism I say this:
If they have to write songs about what's going on here you know you got a MOVEMENT here.
And then there's this whole HOPE thing.
Who was the original "man from hope"? Well E.J. Dionne said it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in this fantastic WaPo piece from 1997.
The civic sense Roosevelt created expanded beyond his own expectations. FDR, unlike his wife, Eleanor, was timid on the question of race. But the civil rights movement, begun in earnest during the New Deal years by A. Phillip Randolph and others, was made possible in part by the new expectations for citizenship created by Roosevelt. A young journalist describing his reporting in Harlem told political writer Samuel Lubell in 1940, "Negroes feel Roosevelt started something." They were right.
But, yes, the New Deal was also about expanding government. Roosevelt was occasionally apologetic but mostly unashamed about his expansion of Washington's role.
Defending deficit spending, Roosevelt declared in 1936: "America got something for what we spent -- conservation of human resources through the CCC camps and through work relief; conservation of natural resources of water, soil and forest; billions for security and a better life. While many who criticize today were selling America short, we were investing in the future of America."
This approach was a major change in American life. "Roosevelt called not only for a centralization of government, but also for a nationalization of politics," wrote political scientist Beer. "He not only said that the federal government would take the lead; he also urged the people to demand and shape that lead."
Sound like anyone we know?
Whether anyone realizes it or not, for all the talk about Obama being like MLK or JFK or RFK or Lincoln or even Eisenhower this campaign that Obama is running sure feels like the rebirth of a reenergized New Deal coalition to me.
The question is whether that group can come together on Tuesday in time to deliver Barack to success. Maybe it's hopemongering but I guess I'm thinking...
p.s. You remember that bit about how Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy while Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln? Well in researching this diary I discovered FDR has a degree from Harvard and a law degree from Columbia while Obama has a degree from Columbia and a law degree from Harvard... very interesting. Also Obama is from the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago while FDR had his home base of Hyde Park, New York. :)
Hey you over there. I see you. If you're not doing anything why not help out the final hours of the Obamathon started by Populista.