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REFLECTIONS: On Being Too Nice

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-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. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections Watching this Democratic Congress wasting our time reminds me of when I first became aware that what often ails American liberalism are liberals.

I was sitting in the Senate Press Gallery some years ago watching the floor action on a minor issue now obscured in my memory. I do remember that the protagonists were a liberal senator from Maryland, Joseph Tydings, from a distinguished political family, and Louisiana’s Russell Long, from a more infamous political heritage; he looked exactly like his father, Huey.

All I can recall is that Long, a conservative Democrat who called himself the “oil senator” (‘hell, I even use Vaseline in my hair”) and who had been in the Senate since 1948, out-maneuvered whatever it was that Tydings was trying to do and sent him from the floor frustrated. One of my colleagues had it right when he said, “Tydings is just too nice.”

That didn’t much matter back then; politics then was mostly civil. But recalling that now got me wondering if too many liberals are too nice for today’s highly partisan, ideological political wars.

Liberals, by nature, rarely have been as aggressive as committed conservatives who are passionate defenders of our brand of capitalism. And Marx criticized liberals because they were part of system but sought to save it by ameliorating its worst excesses.

Nevertheless, many liberal-voting Democrats today are timid about being called liberal while Republicans clamor to be labeled conservative, which was a pejorative not too many years ago. Those Democrats who are proudly liberal, like Representatives Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Alan Grayson of Florida and Freshman Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, are considered by colleagues to be too far out or too outspoken.

And if a liberal Democrat shows some toughness, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who has been disappointed with Obama’s endless search for the mirage of bipartisanship, she’s criticized as being imperious or worse (rhymes with witch).

A senator friend a few years ago analyzed for me why liberals may indeed be considered too nice or soft: Almost by definition, he said, a liberal tends to be more introspective than a conservative, questioning his or her positions, giving weight to the possibility that he or she may be wrong and that the opposing position may have merit.

Thus, liberals seek to reach out to conservatives, even when they get their hands bitten off to a stump. Sound like a president you know? But liberal leaders in Congresses past weren’t always such pushovers.

I was in Texas when I began covering Congress, when it was run by a pair of Texans, Sam Rayburn, the House Speaker for 17 years and his political son and protege, Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority

Leader. Both were yellow-dog Democrats, loyal to the New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. Here’s an example of their tough-minded liberalism. In 1956, despite panicky pleas from colleagues, they refused to sign the so-called Southern Manifesto denouncing the Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling.

Rayburn’s mantra for members was said to be, “go along to get along,” and in those days the speaker had more powers than today. But Rayburn’s personal integrity became obvious when he died of cancer in 1961. His estate amounted to $15,000 plus his ranch in Bonham, Texas, where he was born. But his power also derived from his commitment to his party, his politics and his personal style.

At Rayburn’s “Board of Education,” the after-session meetings in one of his rooms in the Capitol where there were drinks, poker and politics, members and the leadership laid out strategy and dealt with the problems of members, promising help on tough votes or threatening punishment if a member strayed unnecessarily. It was considered an honor to be invited to a “board” meeting. Here was utilitarianism in real time: “Self interest rightly understood.”

Lyndon Johnson, a member of the House and an ardent New Dealer since he came to the House in 1937, became a senator in 1949 (with Truman’s upset victory) and in his second term, in 1954, he became Senate Majority Leader, probably the most powerful and influential in history.

He and Rayburn helped President Eisenhower pass his domestic agenda, including the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and the building of the interstate highway system with money from gasoline taxes. Johnson helped keep Eisenhower out of Vietnam. But the two Texans laid the political foundation for the Democratic victories of 1958 and 1960.

Johnson was said to be the greatest gatherer of intelligence on every member of the Senate, understanding their states, their political and personal needs. His Senate allies included a powerhouse of liberal legislators including John F. Kennedy, Paul Douglas, Albert Gore, Sr., Stuart Symington, Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Henry (Scoop) Jackson, William Proxmire, who had replaced Joe McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey who was ostracized by southerners for his civil rights stands but adopted as a Johnson protege.

Johnson’s power and the liberal Democrats’ clout were further enhanced when the elections of 1958 brought in a post-war wave of more than a dozen feisty liberals who gave lie to those who believe today’s dithering, dishwater Democrats are representative of liberalism. Among them: Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett, the first senators from Alaska; Thomas Dodd, Connecticut; Philip Hart, Michigan; Ed Muskie of Maine; Jennings Randolph of West Virginia; and Gale McGee of Wyoming.

These Democrats, for 30 years, into the presidencies of John Kennedy and Johnson, gave the nation the most liberal legislative accomplishments since the New Deal, much of which the current crop of Democrats don’t seem able to defend even from a minority of Republican crackpots. Starting with their leader, the president, they seem to run for cover at the slightest rustle of dissent.

Democrats and liberals should get real: Sarah Palin is an empty, ignorant demagogue; Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are clowns who can be challenged but aren’t. I can understand why Republicans fear them, but when will the Democrats and liberals really take on these liars who are so far to the right of either Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan that they would be appalled?

Tom Dodd’s son, Chris, has virtually been run out of office and still runs from the bank lobbyists and Republicans rather than drive financial regulation through his committee.

New York’s Charles Schumer was quick to desert Attorney General Eric Holder’s constitutionally correct decisions to try terrorists in civilian courts.

In Indiana, Evan Bayh, the son of John Kennedy’s close pal, Birch Bayh, quivers at the possibility that health reforms may include a public option that would hurt his wife’s finances, then quits because the going is too tough in the center and endangers the party that has given him sustenance.

And the man who holds Johnson’s post, among this group of tough-minded liberals, many of whom had been in the war, Harry Reid, does not seem to know how to wield the power he has. I heard a commentator say, “He’s too nice.” Maybe.

A truly nice, professorial guy, Mike Mansfield, replaced Johnson but he was effective because the liberal cadre of Democrats in the Senate supported him. Reid is the “majority leader” but he complains that a majority of 59 is not enough - but even 60 did not seem enough either to keep the Republicans from running over him.

In Johnson’s day, one needed 67 votes to end a filibuster but it was rarely used except to bar civil rights legislation. Still, LBJ would not have put up with obstructionism, especially from Democrats. Democrats like Reid and Lincoln complain they’re in tough races; maybe if they showed some spine, their voters would respond. I can’t blame voters who don’t know what their Senators believe. There was no mistaking what LBJ stood for.

Perhaps I’ve gone on too long criticizing today’s “pathetic liberals,” as my favorite commentator, Chris Hedges, calls them. Maybe that shoe belongs on the presidential foot, but I hesitate to call Barack Obama a liberal; he seems proud that he’s not ideological.

Those of us who have sense know he’s not a socialist, which is too bad. But is he a liberal? I don’t think he knows, although he sounded like one in the campaign. But if so, he acts like the softie, dithering liberal LBJ would not have liked.

How else to explain it when he praises right-wing Republican Representative Paul Ryan for being as person with “ideas” when they include privatizing Social Security and ending Medicare? Or when Obama says the obscene salaries of the bankers who screwed us were okay because it was part of our free enterprise system. As Paul Krugman remarked, “Oh God...we’re doomed.”

Said Hedges, in a December 7, 2009 essay posted on Alternet:

“The gravest danger we face as a nation is not from the far right, although it may well inherit power but from a bankrupt liberal class that has lost the will to fight and the moral courage to stand up for what it espouses.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jeanne Waite Follett: Leaving Windows Open


Saul: Do you suppose Mr. Obama would read this wonderful history lesson if you pushed the FWD key? It couldn't hurt. :) Dee

Someone once called me a liberal and I realized it was not meant to be a compliment.

In today's world, if someone is nice he/she is considered weak.

I, along with Dee, wish you could forward this to those now in power.

It is very rare to find fighters -- people who will endure and even thrive on the sheer unpleasantness of hard nose politics -- who come from and live in circumstances that are comfortable. Politics is tough stuff.

When you get one who comes to it toughened by life, yet relatively undamaged (not too pompous or vindictive or happily uninformed) you've really got something. I think they've always been rare, but at the peak of the American empire, we naturally have even less of them. Postwar WWII generations have not needed to be those people, so we haven't become them.

Here, here!

Saul, you are a wise man, indeed.

While the medicine dose may be bitter, I always enjoy your perspective.

Liberals - they just don't make 'em like they used to.

Amen !!!

I'm with Paul Krugman. Oh God, we're doomed.

You are so right. On the other hand, the Senate, in those glory days didn't have nut jobs like Jim Bunning who worried more about that he missed a basketball game than that he destroyed a lot of voters lives. Sanity has left the building.

Thank you as usual.

Personally, I have felt so beaten down by the last two years, I haven't had the heart to cry Uncle with Krugman. God's not interested. We've got a lot of time left on the meter with Obama. We liberals won't get another chance for many years if this administration fails. Again, how can we get the message through to the President and to our Democrat legislators that we urge and will back toughness?

Thanks again. I just remarked to my husband today that Mr. Obama is "too nice and polite" (to those who oppose him) and that he needs to get some tougher liberals to get the job done-- meaning saving Social Security and Medicare from Republicans determined to destroy them, getting a public option for health care, better consumer protections, etc. He's always bending over backwards to accommodate them when all they want to do is give him a push and knock him down. The rest of us would go down with him, including most Republicans--those who aren't rich.


I sorely wish that your wisdom and historical perspective could be force-fed to the party "in power". Because despite all our medical advances, we have yet to manage a spine transplant.

Thank you for speaking out.

Wonderful perspective. I wonder what's happened. Those old-time liberals took responsibility and they did not let conservatives bully them around. Maybe that's the key.

You're kidding. Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank are too nice???

I cannot regret the passing of the backroom deal-making that excluded women and African-Americans from these gatherings of poker, hard whiskey, and cigars.

On the other hand, I agree that liberals are too nice.

I have never heard, for example, of a hard-core liberal shooting to death a pro-Life leader, whilst abortion supporters and physicians must fear for their lives.

The Daily Show pokes harsh fun at Sarah Palin, Rush, Glenn and all of Fox News. But it's too narrowly focused a market segment to have much impact.

My very use of the term market illustrates part of what's wrong -- voters are no longer addressed as citizens but as market segments. In the end, Rush and Glenn and even John Stewart are less political commentators than sale reps for the highest advertising bidder and the show must go on.

Thank you for an interesting and insightful column that reminded me of The Way Things Were.

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