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The Party Isn’t Over

The Parties: Republicans and Democrats in This Century

by Henry Fairlie
St. Martin’s, 236 pp., $8.95

Not to know of [Robert] Taft—not to let him into one’s mind, into one’s very bones, even if it is only then to expel him—is not to live and breathe the politics of America in this century, and not to have one’s being in it. [The Parties, p. 77]

It is difficult for any man to look serious while prescribing for all Americans a Robert Taft bone-implant. And it does not help to permit a subsequent Taftectomy. Fairlie does not improve things when he divides his book into elephant and donkey sections. The symbols are flogged with relentless cuteness. In fact, animal similes turn the book into a mad little animal farm. When the Republicans are not elephants (usually with two broken tusks), they resemble dead fish afloat; their candidates are horses from Caligula’s stable. Journalists are birds twigged with the lime of a phrase (he says this!). Roosevelt’s cabinet was a team of horses marvelously driven. Readers in the Library of Congress are grazing deer. Dewey was the runt of a litter, none of which deserved survival—but Dewey least of all:

They had picked a loser, and they stuck to the runt. It would have been a great deal better if, like a sow, they had just rolled over on the wretched creature. But instead they suckled him. Was ever a drying teat offered to such an undeserving mouth?

The analysis (indeed, the grammar) is on a level with this imagery. Fairlie, an Englishman, loves “old politics” of the machine sort—repeatedly praised as “rough and tumble.” He hates the “lavender” effetes of either party who refuse to tumble roughly—sissies like Stassen and Scranton, Adlai and Gene. Al Smith, Roosevelt, and Truman are the Fairlie heroes, and much of the book pits against their idealized portraits furious caricatures of everyone else. Feeling sorry for Nelson Rockefeller was not a knack I had acquired until I read Fairlie’s pages of impassioned vituperation:

So one turns to the most lackluster of them all: to the man who throughout the whole period has been perhaps the most ineffably incompetent politician on the national scene, the All Star of Born Losers, the black hole of the Republican universe into which astronomers gaze wondering if there can be such a thing as absolute nothingness, the leader who did not have to be buried in 1976 because he had self-destructed so often, the most dishevelled of them all, Nelson Rockefeller. It appears from the first pictures from Mars that there is no life on the planet: not in the sense of someone like a person walking about on its surface. But we must consider that if a spacecraft landed on our own Earth, and showed pictures only of Nelson Rockefeller, we might not recognize it as life. If in an earlier age his disembowelment had been ordered, he would probably at once have been declared a saint by his bewildered torturers when they discovered that from this man who had walked and breathed there was not even a length of gut to be extracted: that within this life there had only been a space.

Fairlie gets so worked up by the targets of his hatred that he becomes incoherent. Look at that sentence about a space ship landing so that we cannot recognize something on “our own Earth.” Or what was clearly meant to be a devastating comment on Wendell Willkie: “That is the liberal Republican: caught not with his trousers down, but with them up, as clothed as he ever is.”

Fairlie’s biases are comic. He attacks a Stevenson follower for elitism when she says, “We who were so lucky had great obligations.” But the Squire of Hyde Park is praised by Fairlie in the same terms: “It was part of his obligation as a ‘have’ to do something for the ‘have nots.”’ Though Fairlie says this country should have two “governing” parties—i.e., capable of governing as well as getting elected—he finds no beginning of such capacity in the Republicans (having performed his own Taftectomy). On the other hand, real flaws in the Democratic party’s history—e.g., its finessing of civil rights for so long, its military interventionism—are overlooked, to concentrate on the prissy rhetoric of Adlai and Gene. Despite a gesture or two at objectivity, Fairlie takes up a cheerleader pose before the Democrats. He even compares the party to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant: it “has borne on its own body the injuries of the nation…it has borne the sufferings of the nation, carried its wounds as its own…it has borne the wounds also of the Depression, and it has been a casualty also of the struggle for civil rights.”

It is hard to know where to begin on such an inadequate analysis of the parties. But some of the things Fairlie ignores or distorts can be listed.

—Though Fairlie says our political system will not regain its health until it has two governing parties, the normal condition of American politics is to have a stable majority (governing) party and a stable minority party. Fairlie treats as a scandal the fact that Democrats have been ascendant for forty-six years now—with only superficial intrusion by a nonpartisan Eisenhower and by a Nixon profiting from a split in the majority party. But he does not look at the long reign (seventy-two years) of the Republicans before 1932—with, again, only two intruders: Grover Cleveland when the Republicans suffered from reform and populist movements; Woodrow Wilson when the Republicans suffered the Bullmoose split.

—Fairlie says the Republicans cannot govern because they do not feel at home in America—i.e., not at home with the Eastern Establishment. But that feeling is widespread, and not more provincial than Eastern contempt for “the hinterland.” In representing that feeling, the minority party performs its normal function of including what might be left out. As V.O. Key noted, the national minority party is a majority party within many enclaves and electoral units. It survives like marbling in a cake, strong within confines. At the local level, many Americans have always lived under one-party rule (not necessarily the rule of the national majority party).

—Fairlie rhapsodically celebrates the “realistic” tactics of ward and precinct without noticing the conditions that make such tactics irrelevant to much of modern politics. The role of the city machine was to handle the large influx of immigrants in a paternalistic way. There was a trade-off of largesse for votes. But federal welfare undercuts this process, ‘replacing the bosses’ hack “Santa Claus” with civil servants. Besides, increased literacy and mobility, campaign-finance reform, and a broadened electorate have loosened party ties at the local level, increased ticket splitting, and expanded the role of radio, newsreels, and then TV. Fairlie’s nostalgia for Al Smith gives no guide to politicians trying to cope with these conditions. He mentions a few of them, to be dismissed with a flat assertion that the parties’ death has been prematurely announced.

So Fairlie’s “method,” if it can be dignified with that term, is to cheer heroes, boo villains, and yearn for the good old days. The irony is that his idealization of Roosevelt and Truman makes him overlook the “rough and tumble” realities of the New Deal coalition. He argues that the party became truly national and governing under those presidents because of a heroic inclusiveness. This explains what he considers the near miracle by which the Democrats have retained the South despite their benevolent attitude toward blacks: “It is hard to think of any other party in any of the Western democracies that has so instinctively and then so resolutely been ready to identify itself with a subject minority in the nation.” Thus, when Carter ran in 1976, he could include all of the South. Fairlie twice cites with approval this explanation of the result: “The blacks, the farmers, and the rednecks. Who else is there?” But, 1) it is still to be seen whether the Democrats can retain the South; and 2) Carter did not win the rednecks in 1976—he narrowly lost the white Southerners’ vote; and 3) the South cannot be reduced to Fairlie’s three categories; and 4) the Democrats succeeded in the South precisely when they were not willing to “bear the wounds” of blacks.

This latter point is systematically whitewashed by Fairlie. Roosevelt retained the “solid South” by opposing anti-lynch and anti-Klan planks and laws. He repeatedly told NAACP director Walter White that not only could he not introduce an anti-lynch law, he could not give support to any bill introduced from the Hill. When, in 1938, he allowed himself to say something in favor of abolishing the poll tax, he quickly retreated when challenged by Senator Pat Harrison: “At no time and in no manner did I ever suggest federal legislation of any kind to deprive states of their rights directly or indirectly to impose the poll tax.” Even Roosevelt’s defender, Frank Freidel, concluded that he “seemed ready to leave well enough alone in questions that involved white supremacy; Mrs. Roosevelt was sometimes accused of tinkering with these matters, but not her husband.”

Roosevelt ran with a defender of the racial status quo, “Texas Jack” Garner—as Stevenson ran with Sparkman and Truman with Barkley. (By the time Kennedy, to the horror of his liberal supporters, struck the customary deal with the South, his running mate was no longer blatantly racist—but neither was he the civil rights reformer he would become after Kennedy’s assassination.)

Fairlie is just as starry-eyed about Truman. He says that the civil rights plank of 1948 was “passed with the president’s approval,” that the party “was ready with the support of its leader to risk the defection of the South.” Actually the famous Clark Clifford memorandum of 1947 convinced Truman that the South would not split over the introduction of a civil rights bill, a bill which had to be introduced, according to Clifford, to meet the real danger from the left, Henry Wallace’s third party effort. When Clifford proved a false prophet, Truman sent him to the Philadelphia convention to finesse the problem by retaining the toothless plank passed four years earlier. Hubert Humphrey blocked this White House strategy; but Truman’s famous campaign of 1948 undercut the Dixiecrat threat by concentrating on the do-nothing Republicans on the Hill, not the powerful Southern chairmen protecting white supremacy. Civil rights played no part in that famous upset—except by the absence of reference to the issue.

Fairlie wants to praise Roosevelt for being tough and pragmatic; but then he presents him as messianic. It is true that the black vote, what there was of it, was part of the New Deal coalition. But only managed blacks were allowed to vote in any formidable way down South (where the post-civil-war Republicanism of blacks was sentimental when not self-defeating). The great migration of blacks north had not yet occurred, and registration and voting levels were low in the black population that did exist there.

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