All the Pretty Horses tells of young John Grady Cole, the last of a long line of Texas ranchers.
As usual, McCarthy’s views on life and death and good and evil won’t leave any sane person skipping down the street while whistling and looking for rainbows, but he’s so skilled that even his grim outlook has a kind of dark beauty to it. — Edited customer review.
Reflections on Race, Politics, the Election, and a Conversation with Mom, or
Whither the Democrats?
By John Ross
Copyright 2004 by John Ross. Electronic reproduction of this article freely permitted provided it is reproduced in its entirety with attribution given.
My Grandfather, Charles Ross, was a boyhood friend of Harry Truman, and when Truman became President, Granddad became Truman’s Press Secretary. Truman had a habit of dictating angry letters when something irritated him. Granddad never tried to talk the President out of his outbursts, but instead would wait 24 hours before submitting the letter for Truman’s signature. Without fail, the President would laugh, say “Hell, I was just letting off steam,” or something similar, and throw the letter in the wastebasket. Since Granddad never took any days off, he never had a substitute that he told about his procedure for when the President was infuriated with someone.
Then one day in 1950, Granddad had a massive heart attack and died at his desk in his office. A day or two later, a music critic savaged Margaret Truman’s singing in a scathing newspaper review that enraged the President. The new guy didn’t know the drill, had the letter typed up, handed it to Truman immediately for signature, dropped it in the mail, and the rest, as they say, is history.
None of that is particularly relevant, but it always comes to mind whenever I think of the grandfather I never met, or Harry Truman. And I confess I’ve been thinking of Harry Truman a fair amount this past week.
The first thing that you need to realize is that political parties gradually change over time. Remember that the Democrats in the south 150 years ago were the party that supported slavery, but Truman was the one who desegregated the armed forces in 1946. When I was a little boy, in the early 1960s, my general feeling about the two political parties was that Democrats were the ones who held out a hand to those less fortunate. My parents were good examples of this—they lived in the city during the school year, made generous gifts to local organizations dedicated to helping those in poverty, and vociferously stood up to racist incidents that happened in their presence. They refused to patronize businesses that discriminated against blacks, such as whites-only restaurants or movie theaters with segregated seating areas. They encouraged me to make friendships with the black kids in the area.
Most of my classmates at the private grade school I attended had parents who were Republicans, and lived outside the city. When visiting a classmate’s house, I’d occasionally hear a friend’s parent (usually the father, but not always) make a racist comment, and I’d be embarrassed. In secret, though, I envied these Republican families. They got to live in neighborhoods where they left their garage doors wide open and nothing ever got stolen. I hated living in the city. I got my first bicycle at age six, and it was stolen off our front porch less than a week later. In the ensuing seven years, I had nine bicycles stolen, sometimes out of the back yard, sometimes out of a locked garage, all with locks on them. Twice, my parents caught someone in the act of trying to cut the chain off my bike. One time, a gang of kids surrounded me and forced me off my bike so they could take it.
The bike-jacking incident happened the day before I went to a friend’s house to spend the night. At the dinner table, my friend told his family what had happened to me, and where (it was, after all, a pretty big event to a little kid.) His mother, a lovely woman of about thirty, smiled sadly at me and said “TNA.” When the father saw my puzzled expression, he translated:
“Typical nigger activity.” I could feel my face flush in embarrassment. I changed the subject.
That was my simplistic view of the two parties forty years ago: the Democrats wanted to include, despite the risks, and the Republicans, at least the Republicans I knew, wanted not so much to exclude, as to insulate. I didn’t know any members of hate groups. None of my friends would be discourteous to blacks they passed on the street or in the store. They just didn’t want to have to deal with all the break-ins and the robberies if they didn’t have to.
Over the years, my views about the two parties evolved, along with the parties themselves. Eventually, the Democratic Party morphed into something I no longer felt I understood at all. The biggest change that puzzled me (and still does) was the gun issue. Why were so many of the Democratic candidates for all offices so dead-set on taking away my gun rights? Why would you take a large group of people who a) pay more taxes than the average American and b) have no criminal records, and alienate them so thoroughly? It made no sense. The idea of Granddad’s old boss Harry Truman championing a ban on firearms based on whether or not they had flash reducers on their muzzles or stocks with protruding wooden or plastic grips is absolutely ludicrous. Truman would have fired on the spot anyone in his cabinet who proposed such a foolish idea.
In 1980, Democrat-turned-Republican Ronald Reagan won the Presidency in an absolute landslide, and the Iranians released the American hostages about five minutes later. When that happened, a very good friend opined that the Democrats’ problem was that the people who set Party policy and determined what candidates got serious financial support were the same Vietnam-era bunch from ten or twelve years before, and the landscape under them had changed considerably. I thought this made good sense.
In 1992, George Bush Senior squandered a 91% approval rating and lost the Presidency primarily because of three things: Breaking his “no new taxes” pledge, alienating millions of gun owners with a pointless import ban on certain military-appearing guns, and losing votes to Ross Perot.
The Clintons came in, and immediately shot themselves in the foot by making their two biggest priorities putting gays in the military and enacting socialized medicine. Gays in the military? That’s your idea of America’s most pressing issue? And after watching the free market give us a rocketing economy for seven years under Ronald Reagan, you want to nationalize one-seventh of the nation’s economy? Maybe you should have said you didn’t exhale. The resulting 1994 massacre of the Democrats in Congress was Bill Clinton’s wake-up call, and it brought him absolutely, 100%, wired-on-amphetamines awake.
First, he got his harridan partner to STFD and STFU. Next, he masterfully adopted much of the Republican agenda, such as cutting Welfare, and even announced (with a straight face) that “The era of Big Government is over.” Then, he turned either (take your pick) a) the terrorist bombing, or b) the botched ATF sting operation, into political gold by aligning Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and everyone who disagreed with Democratic policies with Timothy McVeigh & Co., and with this masterful stroke, won reelection.
At this point, another good friend whose political savvy I admire said something very perceptive:
“The Democratic Party is going to be very different in not too many years. Perhaps fifteen.” He went on to explain that people’s views are shaped by their experiences and memories. Memories are very powerful, and most adults, when they think of themselves, bring up the memories of when they were in their twenties. “The Clintons are my age,” my friend pointed out. “Bill imagines protesting the Vietnam war, getting out of the draft, and smoking pot while getting blown by a skinny blonde with a big rack and a peace sign tattooed on her ass. Hillary imagines going after Richard Nixon for Watergate. You’re old enough to remember Vietnam protests and Watergate well, even if you weren’t quite old enough to vote at that time.
“But the people under 30, they don’t have those memories. They have no more personal connection to Vietnam and Vietnam protestors than you do to Korea and Korean War protestors, of which there were a bunch. The Watergate scandal to them is like the Teapot Dome scandal is to you—some political thing that happened before your time. And consider this: the under-30 generation never knew the 15% inflation, 15% interest rates, and 15% unemployment of the Carter Years. They were in kindergarten. By the time they got in their teens and started paying attention to world events, the Berlin wall was coming down, the USSR was imploding, and the economy and the stock market were going like your Viper with the throttle stuck open. Antiwar protests, and avoiding the draft? What’s the draft? The only people in our military today are ones who chose to join. The younger voter’s only personal experience with American warfare was the 1991 Gulf War, where the battle lasted only four days. Four days of watching news footage of precision-guided bombs going exactly where they were supposed to. Their memories are news footage of Iraqi troops surrendering in such mass quantities that our soldiers ran out of the plastic zip-ties we were using for handcuffs. The Vietnam-era, loathe-the-military types like the Clintons will be gone from the Democratic party within twenty years.”
This made me think of something. “Bill Clinton said ‘the era of big government is over,'” I reminded my friend. We talked about the significance of Clinton making that statement. Neither of us believed Clinton really wanted a smaller government, of course. But it implied that socialism, like racism decades before, was becoming socially unacceptable.
In 1960 in many places, if a black man saw a white woman approaching on the sidewalk, he’d step into the street and avert his eyes. Ten years later, there was none of that. There may have been a few people who thought things should still be that way, but no one said it out loud. It was universally understood by 1970 that such beliefs were not socially acceptable. Similarly, no politician was standing up in 2000 and saying “I wish Franklin Roosevelt had made the Social Security program even bigger than he did. And we need to spend even more on our other social programs.”
I had been planning on doing a column on what I saw as the near-future nature of the Democratic Party, using the above-mentioned themes. And then John Kerry got the Democratic nomination. And what my college friend had said in 1980 about Vietnam-era leftists controlling party policy came flooding back. And I feel that I understand the Democratic Party less right now than I have at any time in my life.
Six months ago, my mother bet me $5 that Kerry would win the election. She is a single-issue voter (pro-choice), and was hopeful that Bush would be ousted. The results from Tuesday discouraged her, not only Kerry’s loss but also the many other pro-choice candidates here in Missouri that were defeated. I went over to see her the other night, to try to lift her spirits (and also to collect my $5.)
We talked about the election and the two parties. I told her that given the fact that America was currently at war, I could not understand why the Democrats would field a man who made his war record central to his campaign, given the specifics of that war record: getting his medals with self-inflicted wounds, testifying to Congress that “every U.S. soldier” committed atrocities, and having his less-than-honorable discharge changed during Carter’s Amnesty period. She agreed it did not make sense.
Then I pointed out that the core of the Democratic Party was comprised of voting blocs that had absolutely no connection with one another, and often real animosity. For example, some 80%-90% of black voters are Democrats. The activist members of the gay community are also almost all Democrats. Yet the blacks I know all hate gay men, with an intensity that must be seen to be appreciated. Mom was with me on this one, as she had seen this, too. The trial lawyers are all Democrats, as they don’t want any caps on lawsuits (Mom didn’t realize this, which surprised me. She is savvy about most things.) The teachers’ unions are all Democrats. So are the pro-choice groups. So are the medical marijuana folks. Yet none of these groups has any connection to (or wants to have anything to do with) any other.
Then I dropped the hammer. “I know that in your eyes, I’m Johnny One-Note, with my involvement with Second Amendment issues. And I know you have no interest in guns or shooting. But would it be a true statement that you personally don’t have any problem with adults like me with no criminal records being able to buy and own whatever guns we want, regardless of how long or short the barrels or stocks are and whether the muzzles have threads or the stocks have pistol grips?” She agreed that that was true. “And with 46 states having a provision for honest adults to get concealed carry permits, and with permit holders committing far fewer crimes than police officers, do you agree that there is no need to repeal the concealed carry law here?” She also agreed with that.
“Then you need to understand that many people in this country take their gun rights very seriously. Every single Democrat in Missouri that lost his or her race on Tuesday is anti-gun. Why are they antigun? What earthly reason is there for them to be that way? The gun issue is absolutely killing Democrats everywhere outside the big cities. You’re disappointed Claire McCaskill didn’t beat Matt Blunt for Governor. Blunt’s only 32, has little legislative experience, and yet he squeaked out a win. How did he do it? All the unions endorsed McCaskill, she had much more experience, was strong enough to unseat a sitting Governor in the primary(!), and had lots more money. She lost because gun owners vote their gun rights. No gun-owning union member I know will vote for any antigun candidate, period, regardless of what the union leadership tells him to do. McCaskill wanted to repeal concealed carry, and it cost her the election.
“Mom, you yourself admit that people like me with our guns aren’t any problem at all. All the candidates you like that lost on Tuesday would’ve won if they vigorously supported the Second Amendment. Why do almost all Democrat politicians today want to disarm honest, taxpaying adults? Why is that one thing so all-important to them? Why? You believe in pro-choice as a freedom issue. You oppose mandatory waiting periods for abortions. Why won’t your pro-choice candidates oppose waiting periods for guns? If they did, they’d be more likely to get elected or re-elected, pass the pro-choice legislation they want, and keep abortion available, safe, and legal. Isn’t that the most important thing to them and to you? Isn’t it much more important than taking away my guns?” She nodded, so I went on.
“Would you expect a black voter to ever vote for a candidate who had repeatedly and consistently voted for bills that would let cafes segregate their lunch counters once again?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she answered.
“Then how can you hope people like me might support John Kerry, when he voted for every antigun bill put in front of him, and against every progun bill, in the last 20 years? Why do John Kerry, Claire McCaskill, Tom Daschle, and all the other Tuesday losers want to disarm me? Can you imagine Harry Truman wanting to disarm honest adult Americans?” My mother admitted she could not.
As I left, my mother looked energized. She said something about bringing up the points I had made with the Party leaders, as she believed she still had some influence there. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.
I don’t understand the Democratic Party at all any more.
John Ross 11/5/2004