[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman writes the bi-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
I have always had mixed feelings about the seven inaugurations I’ve covered because they fell on my wedding anniversary and I had to work and leave my wife to celebrate alone.
Not this time, for this one belongs to the ages, as someone once said. And I’ll be at home, warm and watching, and celebrating with my Evelyn and considering those other times.
Most of us of a certain age have said at one time or another that things - education, entertainment, music, movie stars, sex - were better back then. And inevitably someone reminds us that every generation says that.
That may be true. Maybe nostalgia is a sign of age. But that doesn’t mean we’re wrong.
Mine is a generation with memory. And I’m here to insist that in one realm with which I am familiar – politics - we have come a long way down in the last 20 years or so.
Perhaps that is about to change, for my hope and expectation is that beginning now, Barack Obama and team, as well as many of the new members of Congress, will reintroduce us to civility in politics and restore it as a calling for public service. That’s the politics my generation has grown up with.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not sanguine or overly romantic about the rough and tumble of politics. I learned about what has been called “the art of the possible,” in Texas as a cub reporter for The Houston Chronicle. This gang that is leaving did not practice politics, as I’ve known and written about it. There was only take, and no give. There was deception, downright lying, hypocrisy and self aggrandizement. There was no love for the institutions of our republic and almost no public service.
But I digress: My early political teachers included Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice-president, John Nance (Cactus Jack) Garner, who I was sent to interview on his 96th birthday in Uvalde, Texas. He’s the fellow who, when John Kennedy asked Lyndon Johnson to be his running mate, advised Johnson that the vice-presidency “isn’t worth a bucket of warm piss.”
Garner, who served two terms with Roosevelt, then broke with him because he felt FDR was too liberal, confirmed that was what he said. Nevertheless, he praised LBJ, who as a New Deal congressman brought an old people’s home to Austin by getting the contract to build it for a Texas firm that became a supporter.
Thus Johnson was also one of my teachers and he and his fellow Texan, Sam Rayburn, virtually ran the country for a while, when Johnson was the Senate majority leader and Rayburn was House speaker and Dwight Eisenhower was president.Johnson was the personification of the wheeler-dealer and one of my favorite stories about his political style comes from a Texas novel about him. Asked if he believed in the political maxim, “half a loaf is better than none,” Johnson replied, “Hell, one slice’ll do.”
I also covered the new Republican county chairman, in Houston, Harris County, George H. W. Bush, who, with his eastern finishing school-bred wife, Barbara, were a breath of fresh, civilized air among the generally racist, UN-hating right-wingers, mostly former Democrats who eventually took over the party of Lincoln. Looking back, Barry Goldwater seems a moderate; the elder Bush was a throwback to noblesse oblige.
The murder of John F. Kennedy had given Johnson great power and new stature when I arrived in Washington in 1965 to cover the Congress for the Knight Newspapers and the Detroit Free Press. Johnson, of course, was president and Hubert Humphrey, who had been one of Minnesota’s senators, was vice-president.
They were an odd couple; Johnson the southerner who grew up with segregation and Humphrey, the northern liberal who had driven Strom Thurmond out of the Democratic Party on the issue of race. But together, they gave the country activist, liberal government the like of which had not been seen since the New Deal.
But – and I’m getting to my point – they did it with the help of a Congress, especially the Senate, filled with people who I believe were deeply committed to politics as public service. Many of them had come from service in World War II into reform politics. And like several of the Vietnam and Iraq veterans now serving, they came to make a difference.
The House of Representatives of the 90th Congress had its stars – John McCormack was speaker, Gerald Ford was the minority leader. But the bigger names who personified what was best in American politics at that time were in the U.S. Senate.
I’ll name a few, in no special order, and you’ll see what I mean.
After Humphrey, his successors in Minnesota were Walter Mondale, a future vice-president, and Eugene McCarthy, both of whom eventually ran for president.
William Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson, of Wisconsin, the latter a father of the modern environmental movement and Earth Day.
Philip A. Hart, of Michigan, a war hero who was called “the conscience of the Senate.”
Wayne Morse, of Oregon, who had the courage to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that put us into the Vietnam War.
J. William Fulbright, of Arkansas, who challenged his own party’s president to end the war.
Sam Ervin, of North Carolina, a constitutional scholar who got to the sordid truth in Watergate.
George McGovern, of South Dakota, who fought Richard Nixon on the Vietman War.
Robert F. Kennedy of New York, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Edmund Muskie of Maine, Frank Church of Idaho, Henry (Scoop) Jackson of Washington, Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, whose hearings made Ralph Nader famous and Mike Mansfield, of Montana, the gentleman majority leader.
The Republicans also included people of stature who believed in politics as public service, among them, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the minority leader; Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the only woman in the Senate; Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first black since Reconstruction; Jacob K. Javits, of New York; James Pearson of Kansas; Howard Baker of Tennessee; Charles Percy of Illinois; and Mark Hatfield of Oregon.
Sure, there were a few louts and know-nothings, like Republican Roman Hruska, of Nebraska, who once said the “mediocre” people needed representation on the Supreme Court; or segregationists Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and James Eastland of Mississippi.
But when the time came and Johnson wheeled and dealed and appealed to their better nature, Republicans helped Democrats break southern filibusters and to pass a series of landmark civil rights bills, as well as the gems of the Great Society, Medicare and Medicaid and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, all of which stand today.
All that ended with the first inaugural I covered – that of Richard Nixon, on January 20, 1969. I watched Johnson and Ladybird smile with relief at the moment, at noon, when their burden was lifted. But they had accomplished much. The nightmare year of 1968 was over.
You know what happened next. The brand of politics I loved and enjoyed was brought down, eventually, to Al D’Amato and Ted Stevens. I believe the most important single cause – which stands as a lesson for the new political generation – was a corrosive, expensive and unnecessary war.
We’ve waited a long time for an inaugural that gives us hope for a return to some good old days. Hail to the Chief!
[The story bin at The Elder Storytelling Place is empty so until some new ones arrive, let's revisit some from the archive. Today, Aunt Sue and the Electric Typewriter from Nancy Leitz. All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]