III. Lost Eden: The party of Roosevelt

I ran into Annie a day or two after the Kerry debacle. She's nothing if not resilient. She had diagnosed the problem: it was John Kerry. "We need a man like Roosevelt," she declared. "Brilliant. Charismatic. But men like that are just so rare."

Now nobody admires Franklin Roosevelt more than I do. But I can't agree with Annie that his gifts are so very rare. Brilliance and charisma are, if anything, all too common. Nixon and Johnson were brilliant and Kennedy and Reagan were charismatic. Admittedly, Reagan was stupid, Kennedy shallow. Nixon, though brilliant, was... well, charismatic is not the first word that comes to mind. And Johnson lived a little too soon for hick accents to be cool. Annie has a point: none of them quite put it together the way Roosevelt did.

But I can think of at least two Democrats in recent years who had both, and whose careers came to naught.

One of them is Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, who is as bright a guy as you could ever hope to meet, and who could charm the birds out of the trees. But Mario achieved next to nothing in office, and had to sit and watch helplessly as the political ground vanished under his feet in favor of the Republicans. This is in New York, mind you, a state so Blue it looks frostbitten. By the time of Cuomo's final, doomed run for governor, he was reduced to removing tollbooths from highways -- in the last two weeks of the campaign -- as a last, desperate gesture to the Angry White Guys in their cars. What was that about Democrats taking care of the environment?

But of all the brilliant, charismatic failures, the gold standard has got to be Bill Clinton. People who have met him tell me that in person, he is irresistible, and nobody ever said he was stupid. In a purely technical sense, he showed remarkable political gifts: getting elected in the first place against an incumbent Prsident, recovering from the debacles of his first term and improbably getting elected again, beating back an impeachment and evading the consequences of his pathetically sordid romantic life.

Clinton may well have come closer than any of his recent predecessors did to combining the Roosevelt charisma and the Roosevelt intelligence; and yet what a great gulf divides the immense achievements of Roosevelt from Clinton's painfully squalid chronicle of temporizing, mendacity, and surrender. Brilliant and charismatic Clinton may have been; but history will treat him with cold contempt. Can we really believe it was all a matter of personal qualities? Roosevelt may have gone to Groton; but Clinton went to Oxford. And Clinton, unlike Roosevelt, had to work to get there.

The Democratic Party of Roosevelt -- the party that's embedded in the race memory of liberal voters, even if they're not old enough to have seen it themselves -- was a moment, not an institution. Not even Roosevelt could sustain it; it began to fall apart even in his lifetime, as the social crisis of the Depression receded. Under the pressure of that crisis, Roosevelt was enabled to take the Jim Crow party, the Ku Klux Klan party, and turn it -- improbably, and temporarily -- into the party of labor and social progress and even civil rights. By accommodating, to a point, the forces of social upheaval, he very likely saved the American political and economic order. Whether he did us a favor, in the long run, is a fair question; but his virtuosity can't be denied.

To appreciate Roosevelt's achievement, we need to take a quick backward look at the material he had to work with - the Democratic Party. When Roosevelt first took office in 1932, his party would have appeared to be about the most unlikely imaginable agent of social change.

Since the Civil War, the Democrats had borne - quite justly - the taint of rebellion and slavery. From 1860 up until 1932, eleven Republicans had been elected to the White House, and only two Democrats - Cleveland and Wilson. Looked at in this perspective, the seldom-interrupted Republican hegemony since 1968 looks very much like a return to the post-Civil War, pre-Depression status quo.

Then as now, the Democrats were the institutionalized second banana, the professional also-rans, who might get a turn in office once in a blue moon, whenever the dominant party bungled especially badly. And then as now, there was no real difference between the two parties on any matter of importance. In particular, except for the interesting "Populist" years when William Jennings Bryan was the party's perennial candidate, there was no sense in which the Democratic party was more "left" or "progressive" or "liberal" than the Republican party. Indeed, on the issue which nowadays more than any other defines left versus right - the issue of race - the Democratic party was decidedly more reactionary than the Republican party. The Democrats had been the party of slavery before the Civil War, and they became the party of Jim Crow after it - a role which they continued to play well into living memory.

It was with this unlikely instrument that Roosevelt reconstructed the American political and economic order. A virtuoso turn, no doubt about it.

But it wasn't just a matter of virtuosity. No amount of virtuosity would have enabled Roosevelt to do what he did under ordinary conditions; but Roosevelt came to the Presidency in conditions that were far from ordinary. The party, and in fact the entire American social order, faced a wildfire on its Left, a conflagration so hot and so out of control that the party bosses and the economic elites feared a serious scorching. The Great Depression had given birth to a vigorous, expanding, and militant labor movement, with actual, honest-to-God Communists in control of many unions. Similar conditions in Europe had brought Communists and Fascists out fighting into the streets, and "regime change," in a very robust sense of the phrase, appeared to be on the agenda.

By the end of Roosevelt's long tenure, all had changed. The United States had been at war for two and a half years and was winning. Everybody was employed one way or another, and social conflict had been contained. The Communists, on orders from Moscow, had filed into the Democratic fold, like the children of Israel into Egypt -- and as with the children of Israel, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Insider Democrats of all stripes felt that the social crisis was over: time to return to business as usual.

Roosevelt's wildly left-wing Vice-President Henry Wallace was replaced on the 1944 ticket by party hack Harry Truman, an old-line machine politician from Kansas City. This tactic was directed above all at calming the restless Southern segregationists who had always been the core of the party, but who were understandably alarmed by the anti-racist attitudes of Henry Wallace and the other Left elements that Roosevelt had brought into the tent. In each of Roosevelt's four Presidential elections, he would have won even if he had lost the entire South; but as the ecnomic crisis receded, party planners seem to have begun anticipating the return of politics-as-usual. Perhaps they were right -- or perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Neither Henry Wallace nor Harry Truman in themselves were figures of much consequence, except insofar as Roosevelt, for reasons of his own, made them so; but the replacement of Wallace by Truman is as good a milestone as any to mark the beginning of the Democratic Party's long march down from its short-lived New Deal apogee.

The line of march wasn't always straight. Truman initially "governed to the right" after Roosevelt's death in 1945. That's what he was there for, and a good many Congressional Democrats -- especially Southern ones -- had beat him to the punch and were actively colluding with the Republicans to dismantle Roosevelt's New Deal. Truman's blundering ineffectuality led to a catastrophe in the midterm Congressional elections of 1946, returning control of both the Senate and the House to the Republicans for the first time since before the Depression. The Republicans took advantage of this opportunity to pass, among other things, the Taft-Hartley act, which remains to this day the biggest single reason why the American labor movement is so enfeebled; union activities taken for granted elsewhere in the developed world are largely illegal here.

But Truman reversed course and ran to the left in 1948. Everybody has seen the famous photo: Truman, grinning broadly, holds up a newspaper with the banner headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. Of course, Dewey, the Republican candidate, didn't defeat Truman, though he probably would have if there hadn't been not one, but two, vigorous "third parties" in the picture. (Third parties are vital to the health of American politics, in spite of received wisdom to the contrary. We will take a closer look at third-party roles in this election and others in chapter __, and consider why they are still important in chapter __.)

Moreoever, Truman brought a Democratic majority back to Congress after the the Republican bacchanal of 1946-48. Even so, after running to the Left in '48, Truman notoriously headed back to his roots on the right after the election was over, and we got McCarthyism and the Korean War in his second term.

Why? Why did Truman do an about-face, right to left, before the election, and then about-face right back afterwards, though he confronted a Republican congress in 1948 and had a Democratic one behind him thereafter?

The short answer is, that's what Democrats do. They may run to the left, or even govern to the left, if they have to; but they govern to the right whenever they can, because they want to. If you don't hold their feet to the fire every minute, they'll sell you down the river every time.

That's the short answer. But the longer answer is interesting, and contains the seeds of much that has happened since. And a big part of that story is the civil rights movement.

There is nothing stranger in American political history, though we now take it for granted, than the rapprochement of the Democratic Party with African-Americans -- unless perhaps it is the rapprochement of racist whites with the Republicans. The two parties essentially switched sides on the question -- and in the process, not coincidentally, African-Americans took an immense step forward. Civil rights is probably the postwar Democrats' greatest and most remarkable achievement -- and, in the current state of their thinking, the greatest single cause of their decline.

Nobody has ever given a realistic historical account of the Democratic Party's conversion to civil rights. Reluctant and partial it may have been, but it undeniably happened. Truman, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson did move the ball on this issue, and Johnson especially moved it quite a distance. (Their successors in the party have worked very hard to distance themselves from this aspect of the Democratic legacy -- though of course they still expect African-Americans to come to the polls and vote for them.)

Historians generally accept at face value the party's own self-serving story about this remarkable change of course -- that civil rights was a matter of conscience and principle. But of course anybody who knows politicians knows that they never do anything because of principle. The more honest among them may occasionally decline to do something because of principle; but no politician will walk up to the altar and sacrifice himself by taking an initiative on principle. People who have that kind of personality get weeded out of electoral politics very early in the game.

FDR's own opening to the civil rights movement had more than one motive. Most obviously, it formed part of his strategy of controlling the Left by assimilating it. A strong commitment to civil rights constituted a large element of the Communists' appeal, and in the steamy political climate of the Thirties, it's easy to understand why the American elites might fear Communist leadership emerging among African-Americans: Red and Black, the two great nightmares that have disturbed our rulers' sleep over the years.

The civil rights movement presented a challenge to social control and stability, and thus needed to be dealt with. But besides presenting a problem, the movement also presented an opportunity.

The Democratic Party had long been dominated by patriarchs from the South. Until the Depression, this state of affairs was something that Northern Democrats - mostly from the urban political machines - could tolerate. The interests of these Northern Democrats were more local, the Federal government played very little role in their calculations, they had relatively few African-American constituents to worry about, and they were content to leave Congress in the hands of the seersucker crowd.

But once the Depression hit, and the economic measures of the New Deal were devised to cope with the crisis, a fault line opened up. The Southern patriarchs viewed Roosevelt's economic reforms as a threat to the established order in their region, while the Northern bosses considered those same measures essential, because they truly wanted to serve their constituents, or because they had their eyes on public-works pork-barrel spending, with the consequent opportunities for self-enrichment, or because they wanted to head off revolution (or, of course, all three).

Moreover, the great migration of African-Americans from the rural, agricultural South to the industrial, urban North was under way even before the Depression, and the Depression, with its catastrophic effect on the prices of farm products, accelerated the process. Black emigres from the land of Jim Crow knew very well that the Democratic party was their ancient enemy, and had been since before the Civil War. But the urban machines needed to find a way to incorporate these new voters. Conflict between the Northern urban machine bosses and the old Southern "courthouse gangs" was inevitable.

From FDR's own point of view, this apparently sticky situation was in fact ideal. His artistry as a politician consisted, in large part, of playing various components of his untidy coalition against each other. Having Southern racists and left-wing Northern "nigger-lovers" on the same team was, for Roosevelt, just like Brer Rabbit's briar patch: it was exactly the kind of situation that gave his genius for manipulation the fullest possible scope, and afforded him the greatest possible freedom of maneuver. In hands as gifted as Roosevelt's, the internal conflicts of the party paradoxically became a source of strength; just as the monolithic DLC consensus in the present-day Democratic party is, paradoxically, the etiology of an ingrained, institutionalized weakness, a weakness that no individual's genius can possibly cure. (We will return to this important principle in chapter __.)

Intelligence, as far as it goes, is a good thing, though, and the lack of it can be a problem. Truman possessed nothing like Roosevelt's virtuosity, and his ham-handed performance after he took office in 1945 had landed him in Brer Rabbit's briar patch without Brer Rabbit's cunning.

The left wing of the Democratic party, unhappy with Truman's lurch to the right, had bolted before the1948 election to the Henry Wallace third-party campaign. Convinced that Truman was doomed, some of the party leadership pressed for the inclusion of a strong civil-rights "plank" in the Democratic party platform; their reasoning seems to have been that since they couldn't win the election anyway, they might as well conciliate the civil-rights forces before the election, and have them to blame for the defeat afterwards. (The McGovern debacle of 1972, to which we will return, presents a somewhat similar story.)

But fortunately -- and unexpectedly -- for Truman, the most right-wing and racist elements of the party were so infuriated by the civils rights plank that they also bolted, to the Dixiecrat party of Strom Thurmond. The terrible possibility, later made real by Richard Nixon, that the racists would join the Republicans, was thus averted for the time being; and the fluidity of a four-party election, so different from the sclerotic lockstep of two mirror-image parties, opened up possibilites that would not otherwise have been available. Long-time Democratic insider James Loeb, reflecting in 1970 on the 1948 election, said that "except for the fact that Truman clearly lost New York because of the Wallace thing, I still think that Wallace was an asset, because the Wallace campaign put him in the middle of the road position. Certainly many of the congressional people felt that they were better off by having this little splinter party."

Another important Democratic figure from this period, Samuel Brightman, agrees: "[Third parties] were a problem to the extent that they took votes. I think Mr. Truman would have carried New York without the Wallace candidacy. I'm not sure that the Thurmond thing was that devastating in the South. In a sense, all this was a blessing in that it gave Mr. Truman a freedom that he would not have had if he had been elected solely by populated urban areas or if the segregationists in the South had been his margin of victory. As it was, he came in without really anyone having any due bills on him."

The Wallace and Thurmond candidacies enabled Truman -- or perhaps, forced him -- to run to the Left, with a success that surprised all the experts, including his own supporters. Unlike his more recent successors, Truman was not able to count on the left wing of the party, including the most energetic civil-rights advocates, to accept their captivity. The fact that these people had other options, or believed they did, made Truman take them more seriously. And as a result, he took what were, arguably, more important and concrete steps in the direction of equality for African-Americans than Roosevelt ever had to do.

But try telling Annie that. She can't stand Truman. She says it's because of the atom bomb and McCarthy and Korea, which would certainly be reason enough. But more viscerally, I think, it's because she compares him with Roosevelt, and considers Truman a moron. What Annie hasn't quite figured out yet is that the party she keeps voting for was always essentially a Truman party. It became something different under Roosevelt for -- depending on who you ask -- eight years, or twelve, or maybe just four. Then it went back to its old tricks. But Annie'e memory has turned the great exception into the norm. So naturally she gives Roosevelt the credit for the Democrats' civil rights connection -- among many other things.

But though Annie is wrong on the details, she's right in a deeper way. It was Roosevelt, after all, who had the penetration to see both the imperativeness and the usefulness of the "Negro problem". He never had to do much about it himself, but he bequeathed to Truman -- and Kennedy and Johnson -- the dilemma of civil rights, as a kind of institutional legacy. He gave his party both the opportunity for its greatest triumph, and the time bomb that blew it to Kingdom Come in 1968, when the angry white guys took center stage. (We will consider the angry-white-guy problem -- and opportunity -- more fully in chapter __.)

Annie is certainly right that Roosevelt was a remarkable man: as crafty an old fox as ever raided a henhouse, who probably never in his life did anything on principle. But in a politician, genius of Roosevelt's stamp is arguably better than principle -- though high-minded, good-hearted Annie might not agree with this idea. What she undeniably has gotten right, though, is that Roosevelt's genius earned him the place his portrait held for many years on the walls of African-American homes, and still holds among those who remember. I yield to no one, not even Annie, in admiration for the old boy.

But again: genius alone is not enough. Roosevelt's success crucially depended on the existence of a threat from the Left -- "thunder on the Left," as the historian Charles Beard rather melodramatically called it -- and from outside the party. The same can be said, on a smaller scale, for Truman's surprise victory in 1948.

In a sense, Roosevelt's own strategy of co-optation ultimately undermined itself, though Roosevelt himself was long gone by the time the bills came due, and he was laughing at the spectacle, I hope, from a suitably distinguished address on Mount Olympus. Once the Left opposition was thoroughly domesticated in the Democratic Party, it ceased to be a threat, and the old Party dinosaurs began to drag their bloated bodies back into the sun. They -- and more recently, their offspring -- have been basking ever since, with a reptile complacency that grows with every passing year. We will examine some of these misbegotten creatures more fully a little later on.

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