from The Zephyr Archives..Oct/Nov 2008
It may seem impossible in 2008, but there was a time when presidential candidates had the courage to confront power and greed in this country, even the crooked ones. Here are some memorable examples:
FDR…”and I welcome their hatred.”
On the evening of October 31, 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt nears the end of the presidential campaign. His opponent Governor Alf Landon, is favored by most polls to unseat the first-term president. Before a standing room only crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York, FDR delivers a fiery address to his screaming supporters.
First he names his adversaries: “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, organized money.” The audience is on its feet.
“Never before in all our history,” Roosevelt declares, “have these forces been so unanimous in their hatred for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
The crowd cheers loudly and FDR can barely be heard over the roar.
He continues, “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it, the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match.”
He waits for the din in the hall to abate.
Roosevelt looks confidently but grimly at the thousands before him. “I would like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master!”
A week later, FDR defeated Landon by one of the greatest margins in American history.
RFK on the GNP
How does this country measure its wealth? Find a politician today who doesn’t turn to the Gross National (Domestic) Product as the ultimate barometer of American prosperity. You must travel back in time 40 years, to April 1968, to find a politician with the courage to speak otherwise.
Less than three months before his death, Robert Kennedy noted that if we judged our country’s worth by its Gross National Product (GNP), it would include the cost of the locks on our jails, the “television programs that glorify violence,” our air pollution and health care costs, the price of a nuclear warhead, “and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.” What it does not reflect, he said, included, “the health of our children…or the joy of their play…or the beauty of our poetry.
“It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. It can tell us everything about America except why we are proud we are Americans.”
On June 5, Bobby Kennedy was gunned down By Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, just minutes after he claimed victory in the California primary.
Jimmy Carter’s Energy Speech
If you ask conservatives today about the world energy crisis and the need to develop alternative sources, even the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity will say, “Of COURSE we support alternative energy development, but that’s years away. We need to drill now.” Had they listened to a man loathed 30 years ago by Republicans and Democrats alike, those “years to develop” would have occurred decades ago and life today would have been dramatically different.
On April 18, 1977, President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation about its energy future. Here, in part, is what he told us:
“Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history…The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.
“We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.
“Our decision will test the strength and character of the American people and the ability of the president and congress to govern. This difficult effort will be the ‘moral equivalent of war,’ except we will be uniting our efforts to build, instead of destroy.”
He concluded, “If we fail to act soon, we will face an economic, social and political crisis that will threaten our free institutions. But we still have another choice. We can begin to prepare right now. We can decide to act, while there is still time.”
His speech was ridiculed by most Republicans and ignored by many Democrats. Unwilling to play pork-barrel politics with either party, his support even among Democrats began to wane. When he lost his re-election bid in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, many Democrats breathed a sigh of relief. Jimmy Carter was too principled, too honest and too farsighted to work with a “good ol’ boy” system. They called him stubborn and inflexible.
But 30 years later, he sounds like a prophet. Because he was.
The Kingfish…Huey P. Long
Huey Long of Louisiana was a rogue and a scoundrel, and a ruthless tyrant. He used the political system to amass unprecedented power and wealth, rewarded his allies and destroyed his enemies, and planned to challenge FDR in the 1936 election. He was hated and feared by many and derided as a clown by most.
To common people in Louisiana, black and white, he was beloved, even half a century after his death.
It could be said that Huey Long had no scruples whatsoever, but in a good way.
When he became governor in 1928, Louisiana was practically owned by the giant petro-chemical corporations, especially Standard Oil, who paid very little in taxes for the stunning profits they reaped. The state was the poorest in the nation. Huey cut backroom deals with all of them to get elected, then promptly kicked their collective ass.
He broke the backs of the corporations, levied new business taxes, and began to use the money for the people. He eliminated property taxes for the poor and reduced assessments to the middle class by 20%. He created night schools for adults and 175,000 illiterates learned to read and write; he made textbooks free to all children.
And in the racially segregated Old South, Huey seemed to be colorblind. He came to the aid of blacks and whites alike. He infuriated the Ku Klux Klan and when its Grand Wizard threatened to come to Louisiana, Huey advised reporters, “Quote me as saying that that Imperial bastard will never set foot in Louisiana, and that when I call him a son of a bitch, I am not using profanity, but am referring to the circumstances of his birth.”
He had run for governor with the slogan, “Every man a king.” Now he set his sights on the ultimate office. He planned to challenge Roosevelt in 1936 and FDR was worried. Huey presented his “Share the Wealth” program on nationwide radio. He proposed that “personal fortunes be limited to $5 million and annual income would be limited to $1.8 million, but no one would earn less than $2000. He promised pensions for the aged, bonuses for veterans and free education for the children.
Ultimately, Huey’s power went, as it always does, to his head. He held absolute power in the state of Louisiana. For all intents and purposes, Huey Long banned democracy. He darkly hinted that after he became president (to Huey it was an assumption, not a hope), he would declare himself dictator and cure the ills of the country without interference from meddlesome politicians.
The presidential election was barely a year away when Huey Long was gunned down in the corridors of the Louisiana state capitol. He died two days later.
LEE ATWATER’S CONFLICTED LEGACY
*Note: Lee Atwater wasn’t technically a politician, but since he was so heavily involved in the tactics of the Republican party for so many years, we offer him as a “cajones-bonus,” if you will.
Lee Atwater taught Karl Rove everything he knows. He was a political strategist, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and the architect of George H.W. Bush’s successful presidential campaign in 1988 against Democrat Governor Mike Dukakis.
He orchestrated one of the dirtiest campaigns in recent history, made most memorable by the infamous “Willie Horton” tv advertisements. Horton, a convicted murdered, had somehow been released via a Dukakis early release furlough program, and had gone on to murder again. Atwater made it a campaign theme. Atwater was unapologetic. “I make no bones about who I am, what I am and what I do. Very few people in politics are like that, but I just don’t make any bones about it.”
But just 14 months after Bush’s election, Atwater was struck down by brain cancer. It changed him profoundly, in the way confronting one’s own mortality often does. In an interview with LIFE magazine, he shocked his friends and enemies alike when he bared his soul…
“In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I would strip the bark off that little bastard and make Willie Horton his running mate. I am sorry for both statements.
Long before I was struck with cancer, I sensed something stirring in American society. It was a sense across the country, among Republicans and Democrats alike, that something was missing from their lives. Something crucial. I was trying to position the Republican Party to take advantage of it. But I wasn’t exactly sure what ‘it’ was.
My illness helped me to see that what was missing from society is what is missing from me. A little heart. A lot of brotherhood.
What power I wouldn’t trade for a little more time with my family. What price I wouldn’t pay for an evening with friends.
It took a deadly illness to put me eye-to-eye with the truth.
But it’s a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime.
I don’t know who will lead us into the 1990s, but they must be made to speak to the spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society.
The tumor of the soul.”
Lee Atwater died a few weeks later. His words are mostly forgotten.
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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