The Last Grown-Up

It gets tiresome. You know the drill. Republicans are the grown-ups in America – because they know there’s no free lunch. You make it on your own, or you don’t, and of course they hate everything that happened with FDR – particularly the government running a mandatory retirement system, where almost everyone is required to chip in so almost all old folks, who have left the workforce to make way for the younger folks who can actually do the job, have at least something to live on now that they’re useless or obsolete or whatever. Their argument is that the Social Security system, as soon as good and honest and self-reliant people started paying into it, turned them into something like children – they weren’t taking care of themselves, planning for their own retirement, they expected someone else to do that for them. When George Bush, narrowly reelected in 2004 to a second term, tried to privatize Social Security, which would mean you could take what was deducted from your paycheck and invest it in the stock market or however you wished or not at all, he was really arguing that the government should treat Americans like grown-ups. Yes, set it up so folks have the opportunity to have some money to live on once they’re generally superfluous, but let them decide what to do with the money withheld over all the years. They might lose everything when the markets crater now and then – you have to time things carefully – but they’d be in charge of their own lives. You make it on your own, or you don’t after all.

Needless to say that went nowhere. Not only did no one want to spend most evenings and weekends of their working life as a day-trader, arguing with their broker about what to buy and sell on any given day, and at what hour, the whole thing seemed like a gift to Wall Street. We’d soon have more certified financial advisors in America than lawyers, and God knows we have enough lawyers already. Additionally, all the major brokerage firms would make out like bandits. Something smelled fishy.

Bush’s second-term centerpiece initiative died after a few weeks. It seems most Americans felt just fine having the money taken from their paychecks safe and sound. Yes, what was set aside didn’t jump in value when the markets soared, but it also didn’t dwindle to next to nothing when the markets crashed every eight years are so, and they knew just what they’d receive when they were put out to pasture. It wasn’t much, but it was fixed and safe and guaranteed – backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government. If that made them children, so be it – and maybe those who love bet-it-all risk-taking are the real children here. Responsible adults don’t take foolish risks with their very lives. Big rewards may come from taking big risks – many Republicans who worship clever entrepreneurs will tell you that, and tell you that’s the American way – but so may poverty and death. America said no thanks, but there is still lingering disagreement of who were the grown-ups in this dispute. Republicans still maintain they are.

There are other matters too, having to do with regulation. FDR left us with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FDIC and a host of banking rules regarding capital requirements and who could do what. This too was seen as treating American like children. Responsible bankers and businessmen could regulate themselves, as bad actors would be shunned as bad for business by their peers and driven out of the system by mutual agreement, or consumers wouldn’t deal with them and they’d fail. Allen Greenspan, an acolyte of Ayn Rand, believed that, but then in 2008 testified to congress that he was deeply distressed to find that things just don’t work that way – it seems he thought everyone in banking and the financial services industry were grown-ups. He even admitted that this might be a basic flaw in his ideology.

That was soon enough forgotten. Romney is once again, with the banking and the financial services industry, arguing against Dodd-Frank and any new regulations at all – that sort of thing stifles growth and innovation, and we’re all adults here and don’t need such things. The same argument can be used to slam the EPA or FDA or the Department of Agriculture or the FCC or FAA or anything set up to protect the environment or the people – we’re all grown-ups here, intelligent actors in a free-market system. There’s no need for the government to treat us like children. We’ll work things out on our own. Only weak children expect mommy or daddy to step in and fix things for them.

This list could go on and on. In the sixties, Lyndon Johnson managed to twist enough arms to get us Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start and all that anti-poverty stuff, along with all those civil rights laws. Why couldn’t we take care of those things ourselves? Rand Paul is still arguing that all those civil rights laws were stupid – people would do the right thing, eventually, without the government butting in like some sort of overprotective parent. Now it’s the Affordable Care Act – people should take care of themselves, like adults. That too is none of the government’s business. Americans should just grow up.

Yes, Republicans are the grown-ups in America – because they know that you make it on your own or you don’t – which makes the Democrats the party of whining children, always claiming it’s just not fair! That’s why Romney is doing so well – he appeals to people’s sense of self-respect and their seething resentment of other people who only want their stuff, who won’t take care of themselves, basically because they never really grew up. That’s what Romney’s Forty-Seven Percent comment was about, although he’s since taken that back – it was about children versus adults. That is what American politics seems to be about.

On the other hand, in the recent issue of The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz offers what he learned in India about the public good:

Overflowing dumpsters; unpaved streets lined with garbage; smoldering trash fires; little rows of shanties tucked into corners of the neighborhood for the local servant class, the kind of miserable hovels that stretch for miles in places like Mumbai; and a small, polluted lake that no one in their right mind would have swum in. We never drank from the tap, of course; even certain kinds of produce were said to be unsafe. The phone was temperamental, too, and so was the television cable.

So he is interested in our debates over “you didn’t build that” and American infrastructure in particular – which is an argument about who is responsible and adult and all the rest – and he thinks there’s a lesson one learns when one realizes what it’s like to live in a place where you can’t take public services for granted:

We have been able to live well, and do well, because we inherited a rich, well-functioning country, but for a long time now – I’m thinking of the tax revolt that began in 1978 – we have refused to do our share to keep it going. Essentially, the bootstrap crowd is living off the civic-minded willingness to sacrifice of those who came before.

Those who once had a civic-minded willingness to sacrifice, to keep the county humming along smoothly, were the real adults. The bootstrap crowd is now no more than a bunch of spoiled brats.

This can play out in other ways. At CNN there’s Joanna Brooks, the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith – who has just about had it with Mitt Romney’s underlying argument, that he’s the adult in the room, just like all Republicans. Yes, Mitt is a Mormon too, but he’s hardly the adult:

There are two moments and two moments only that made my soul sit upright during Tuesday night’s presidential debate:

President Obama, speaking about the loss of manufacturing jobs to low-wage economies like China: “There are some jobs that are not coming back.”

Obama, speaking about four lives lost in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya: “I am the one who has to meet those coffins when they come home.”

Morbid? Not at all. I’m just a believer in the gospel of hard truths.

That’s why she’ll be voting for Obama. He’s the adult here:

What I really wanted from the debate was more of the hard truths that Obama seemed to be on the verge of saying:

“This recession is fundamentally different than other recessions, and there are no short-term fixes.”

“Our old strategies for managing Middle Eastern conflict through military intervention or propped-up dictators don’t work. And there is no easy way forward.”

“The only thing the $3 trillion Iraq war produced for the United States was a mountain of debt and a legion of disabled Americans.”

“We need to have a serious discussion about Social Security.”

“Debts don’t get paid down without adjustments in revenues.”

These are the kind of hard truths that speak to the same part of me that took notice when Obama at his inauguration quoted the Scripture: “It is time to put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13: 11).

This inverts about eighty years of the underlying American political narrative. The Republicans are supposed to be hard and strong and adult, and the Democrats the girly-men always whining about something or other, in essence, the children in the room. Ignore them. They’re always wrong about everything. But Joanna Brooks knows a real adult when she sees one. Adults tell you hard truths – they ask you to face facts. That’s the only way to deal with the real world.

Brooks may be onto something here, and Obama is not something new. One of the hard-truths guys just passed away:

George McGovern, the United States senator who won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972 as an opponent of the war in Vietnam and a champion of liberal causes, and who was then trounced by President Richard M. Nixon in the general election, died early Sunday in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90.

The man ran a terrible campaign that year, but a few days earlier, on the right, there was the severely libertarian Conor Friedersdorf:

Over the course of his career, McGovern made a lot of arguments that I personally find unpersuasive. But he sure did get the most important issue of his time right. Think of all the Americans who’d be alive today if the country had listened to McGovern rather than his opponents about the Vietnam War. Think of all the veterans who’d have been better off. Think of how many Vietnamese civilians would’ve been spared death by napalm.

The country would eventually come to see Vietnam as a mistake.

But ours is a people who are dismissive of men who lose presidential elections. We behave as though the electoral outcome discredited their ideas, even on matters where they’re ultimately proved right.

And McGovern was right:

A World War II veteran, he liked to say that he’d been persuaded by Dwight Eisenhower, under whom he served, about the dangers of the military industrial complex. The Democratic Party grew comfortable with it over time. But McGovern never did.

When America launched its war in Iraq, a lot of Democrats signed on. McGovern opposed it. “I oppose the Iraq war, just as I opposed the Vietnam War, because these two conflicts have weakened the U.S. and diminished our standing in the world and our national security,” he wrote. He was right again.

And McGovern was an adult:

McGovern was a decorated combat veteran, a college professor, a three term senator, and a humanitarian who worked for years to alleviate global hunger, among other things. As he lays dying in hospice, his country remains as beholden to the military industrial complex as ever, years after the decisive defeat of its only credible geopolitical foe. When the obituaries are published, they’ll note McGovern’s electoral loss. It’s far less likely that they’ll note the two ruinous wars America would’ve been spared had its leaders and voters taken McGovern’s advice.

The failure wasn’t his, it was ours.

Maybe we just don’t like adults, and see Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72:

The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes… understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.

That had to happen, as the obituary at notes:

McGovern could not escape the embarrassing missteps of his own campaign of 1972. The most torturous was the selection of Missouri Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton as the vice presidential nominee and, 18 days later, following the disclosure that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy for depression, the decision to drop him from the ticket despite having pledged to back him “1,000 percent.”

It was at once the most memorable and the most damaging line of his campaign, and called “possibly the most single damaging faux pas ever made by a presidential candidate” by the late political writer Theodore H. White.

After a hard day’s campaigning – Nixon did virtually none – McGovern would complain to those around him that nobody was paying attention. With R. Sargent Shriver as his running mate, he went on to carry only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, winning just 38 percent of the popular vote in one of the biggest landslides losses in American presidential history.

“Tom and I ran into a little snag back in 1972 that in the light of my much advanced wisdom today, I think was vastly exaggerated,” McGovern said at an event with Eagleton in 2005. Noting that Nixon and his running mate, Spiro Agnew, would both ultimately resign, he joked, “If we had run in `74 instead of `72, it would have been a piece of cake.”

At least he had a sense of humor. Most adults do. And he really was a war hero by the way:

In a December 1944 bombing raid on the Czech city of Pilsen, McGovern’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire that disabled one engine and set fire to another. He nursed the B-24 back to a British airfield on an island in the Adriatic Sea, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. On his final mission, his plane was hit several times, but he managed to get it back safety – one of the actions for which he received the Air Medal.

Not that it mattered:

While McGovern said little about his decorated service in World War II, Republicans depicted him as a weak peace activist. At one point, McGovern was forced to defend himself against assertions he had shirked combat.

He’d had enough when a young man at the airport fence in Battle Creek, Mich., taunted that Nixon would clobber him. McGovern leaned in and said quietly: “I’ve got a secret for you. Kiss my ass.” A conservative Senate colleague later told McGovern it was his best line of the campaign.

John Kerry should have tried that, and Joan Walsh argues McGovern deserved better:

More than 30 years before Karl Rove and friends Swift-boated Vietnam War hero John Kerry, Republicans managed to turn a decorated World War II combat veteran, a devout Christian and a son of the Depression-era Plains heartland into the elite, effete counterculture candidate of “amnesty, abortion and acid.” But when Republicans destroyed the 1972 presidential candidacy of George McGovern, who died early this morning at the age of 90, they had more than a little help from Democrats.

Years after Robert Novak tarred the South Dakota senator and Democratic nominee with favoring “amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot” (over time “pot” got replaced with the alliterative “acid”) in a column attributing the quote to an unnamed Democratic senator, the right-wing columnist revealed that his source had been Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton – who briefly served as McGovern’s running mate in 1972. Ironically, Eagleton himself probably sealed McGovern’s losing fate when it was revealed that he’d undergone electroshock therapy for depression and hadn’t told the campaign (he then stepped aside for Sargent Shriver).

With friends like that, who needs enemies? And it was more than Eagleton:

Despite a strong pro-labor voting record, McGovern’s opposition to the war helped alienate him from hawkish union leaders, particularly AFL-CIO president George Meany. Although McGovern declined to be the standard-bearer for the anti-war Dump Johnson campaign, he briefly jumped into the 1968 race after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in June, representing Kennedy’s delegates at the disastrous Chicago convention. He wound up far behind Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy in the delegate count, and immediately endorsed Humphrey. Unlike McCarthy: the Minnesota senator and some of his supporters in the party’s liberal anti-war wing arguably helped elect Nixon, by withholding support from Humphrey until Johnson announced he would stop his bombing campaign on the eve of the election, and even then, support was grudging. That disrespect for Humphrey worsened the split between big labor and the New Left that was already weakening the Democratic Party. Center right Democrats got their revenge by abandoning McGovern in 1972.

Before the South Dakota senator won the nomination, Meany’s top lieutenants drove the Stop McGovern movement, backed by southern Democrats including Jimmy Carter who believed McGovern was too liberal to win the presidency. Tom Eagleton’s infamous interview with Novak was part of the effort to marginalize him.

It’s no fun to be right about things, and it ticks people off:

In the end, the stubborn Meany managed to withhold the AFL-CIO’s endorsement from a candidate who had a 93.5 percent voting record on the Federation’s scorecard. As Bruce Miroff recounts in “The Liberal Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party,” Meany worked hard to prevent even state and local affiliates from helping McGovern. While nominally neutral, he went golfing with Nixon, and in an appearance on “Face the Nation” weeks before the election he called McGovern “an apologist for the Communist world.” It was probably overkill; McGovern never really recovered from the Eagleton disaster or labor’s mutiny.

Ron Rosenbaum, embedded in the 1972 McGovern campaign, offers this:

I had learned something from George McGovern back in 1972 – and once again 2003. Back then I’d learned to admire his steady stoic grace, as with a sad face, reedy voice, and steely determination he pressed forward because of his belief in the morality of his mission – in this case, to stop the senseless killing of Americans and Asians. Killing that Nixon had secretly and illegally spread beyond the boundaries of Vietnam, destabilizing Cambodia with his secret bombing, and thus setting up the Khmer Rouge genocide to come. All the while deceiving the American people on the foreign policy front with false promises of peace and – on the domestic side – an array of dirty tricks designed to seal the deal and suppress dissent once he’d won. I’d learned that losers on the wrong side of the electoral tally could be right about history.

Rosenbaum also asks a counterfactual question:

What if those smart aggressive print reporters had treated the campaign less like an all-expenses-paid tour of America, and had instead followed Woodward and Bernstein’s leads? What if the illegal break-in, burglary, and wiretapping “plumbers’ squad” had come to light before the November election? What if the link between the Watergate break-in and the Nixon White House had been made clear – along with the dirty money, cover-up payments, and the rest lurking beneath the surface? You never know. But when it did come out, Nixon fled the White House in disgrace. Wouldn’t he have fled the campaign if the dirty illegal acts he ordered had been revealed? …

I’ve criticized Woodward and Bernstein for failing to nail Nixon to the original Watergate break-in order, not merely the cover-up. But their achievement remains heroic, and if you go back and look at the state of play before the elections, it was a close run thing whether Nixon would manage to keep the plumber’s squad’s head, Howard Hunt, from spilling the beans and wrecking Nixon’s campaign because of the pressure Woodstein was putting on the whole conspiracy.

And – it’s not inconceivable, though improbable considering the reverence for power the press displayed – what if another contingent of reporters had decided to follow up on the leads in the Pentagon Papers, listened to Daniel Ellsberg, and exposed the illegal bombing that set the stage for Pol Pot? One feels America didn’t want to know, but it’s not that the knowledge would have been impossible to obtain. It might have made a difference. Not the killing, alas, but the lying.

It may be time for a reassessment:

I do feel that McGovern had a case that he shouldn’t be portrayed as a loser, but a victim. Not even a noble loser because that sends a message that all morally driven politics is destined to fail nobly. He was the victim of a crook and liar covering up an illegal war killing our own people and countless innocent Asian peasants. He was the misfortune of competing against a man who had no regard for the Constitution he had sworn to defend.

Rosenbaum thinks George McGovern deserves to be remembered as a winner.

That may be a stretch, but at least McGovern deserves to be remembered as one of the few adults in the room at the time. Yeah, yeah – Republicans are the grown-ups – but it just doesn’t seem that’s true. It wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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