Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 2, 2012

For Liberals It’s Always 1936

On June 14th, 1936, two days after Alf Landon accepted the nomination of the Republican Party for president, a New York Times columnist wrote:

The stage show looked like America, but the convention hall did not. The crowd seemed like the sanctuary of a minority — economically wounded capitalists in shades from eggshell to ecru, cheering the man . . . and trying to fathom why they’re not running the country anymore. The speakers ranted about an America in decline, but the audience reflected a party in decline.

Oh, wait a minute. My mistake. That was Maureen Dowd writing yesterday. My, how time stands still when you’re having fun.

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On June 14th, 1936, two days after Alf Landon accepted the nomination of the Republican Party for president, a New York Times columnist wrote:

The stage show looked like America, but the convention hall did not. The crowd seemed like the sanctuary of a minority — economically wounded capitalists in shades from eggshell to ecru, cheering the man . . . and trying to fathom why they’re not running the country anymore. The speakers ranted about an America in decline, but the audience reflected a party in decline.

Oh, wait a minute. My mistake. That was Maureen Dowd writing yesterday. My, how time stands still when you’re having fun.

In 1936, the Republicans were indeed wondering why they weren’t still running the country. They had been, after all, since 1896, with the exception of 1913-1921, when a split in the party had given the election to Woodrow Wilson. And they certainly hankered for a return to the glory days of Calvin Coolidge, while the Democrats recognized that the Great Depression had changed things forever. While the country was still mired in depression, it was in much better shape than it had been four years earlier. In 1936, unemployment averaged a dismal 16.9 percent. But that was down from over 25 percent. The Dow reached 194.40 in June 1936. It had been at 40.21 in June 1932, barely half a point above its first-ever close in 1896.

In his great Second Inaugural Address (after trouncing Alf Landon in the election) FDR said, quite accurately, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” But as Michael Ledeen points out, the economic world of 1936 is a vanished world. No one today in this country lives in anything like the sort of poverty that millions of sharecroppers in the South and unskilled industrial laborers in the North knew in 1936. By the standards of 1936, most American families are filthy rich and those who aren’t receive massive assistance to raise them above the poverty line.

The national debt in 1936 was 40 percent of GDP. Today it is over 100 percent. The deficit in 1936 was 5.5 percent of GDP, this year it will be over 7 percent.

But for liberals like Maureen Dowd it is always 1936. The problems of 1936 are the problems today. The solutions for 1936 are the solutions for today. And the Republicans are a few people in mink coats and dinner jackets going down to the long-vanished Trans-Lux theater to hiss Roosevelt.

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Smearing Reagan Never Goes Out of Style

There is a longstanding tradition on the political left to attack contemporary conservatives by comparing them to the right’s leaders in the past. That means that Republicans who were reviled by liberals during their lifetimes are sometimes treated kindly in retrospect because it serves the political purpose of diminishing the reputations of their successors. But in some precincts of the left, bashing Ronald Reagan never goes out of style.

That’s the motivation for a thin hit piece published in the New York Times Sunday Review under the sensational headline, “Reagan’s Personal Spying Machine.” The conceit of this article is that Ronald Regan “spied” for the FBI against fellow actors in Hollywood and then used the FBI for personal spying on his family. The author’s intent is to shock a public that thinks well of the 40th president as well as to brand Reagan as a hypocrite since he was a proponent of limited government. But the problem here is that there is nothing especially shocking about any of it. Reagan’s principled anti-Communism is well known and is the foundation of his political reputation, not a skeleton in his closet. As for the FBI “spying” on Reagan’s family, this appears to be much ado about nothing and would not have attracted much criticism even if it had been aired when he was running for president.

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There is a longstanding tradition on the political left to attack contemporary conservatives by comparing them to the right’s leaders in the past. That means that Republicans who were reviled by liberals during their lifetimes are sometimes treated kindly in retrospect because it serves the political purpose of diminishing the reputations of their successors. But in some precincts of the left, bashing Ronald Reagan never goes out of style.

That’s the motivation for a thin hit piece published in the New York Times Sunday Review under the sensational headline, “Reagan’s Personal Spying Machine.” The conceit of this article is that Ronald Regan “spied” for the FBI against fellow actors in Hollywood and then used the FBI for personal spying on his family. The author’s intent is to shock a public that thinks well of the 40th president as well as to brand Reagan as a hypocrite since he was a proponent of limited government. But the problem here is that there is nothing especially shocking about any of it. Reagan’s principled anti-Communism is well known and is the foundation of his political reputation, not a skeleton in his closet. As for the FBI “spying” on Reagan’s family, this appears to be much ado about nothing and would not have attracted much criticism even if it had been aired when he was running for president.

Reagan’s cooperation with FBI investigations of Communist cells in Hollywood is something we know about because he spoke about it himself. Though author Seth Rosenfeld claims that newly released government files “flesh out what Reagan only hinted at,” there’s nothing new here. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan thought it was his duty as a citizen to cooperate with the government. He was right. The Communist Party was not, as it has often been portrayed by the left, a club of well-meaning liberals but a group under the orders of a foreign, totalitarian power actively pursuing subversion. The Soviet Union was at that time not merely a rival of the United States but a tyrannical, anti-Semitic dictatorship intent on smothering freedom. Those who aided its efforts on these shores deserved to be exposed.

That charge may stick with some of the Times’s left-wing readership but not on the rest of the country. Yet Rosenfeld really thinks he’s got the goods on Reagan with his revelations about the future president’s family. It seems that his daughter Maureen moved to Washington at the age of 19 and moved in with a married policeman in 1960. That may not seem like such a big deal to some people today but it shocked both Reagan and his ex-wife, actress Jane Wyman. Through a friend, Reagan reached out to friends in the FBI to find out about the man who was living with his daughter.

The FBI granted the request and did some minimal investigation of a situation that was clearly not a government matter and then reported their findings to the Reagans. As it turns out, Reagan was right to be concerned. Maureen Reagan did marry the cop but eventually revealed that during the brief marriage her spouse beat her. This was an improper use of government personnel and shouldn’t have happened. But the fault here lies not with a worried father desperate for help but with a government agency eager to help a celebrity (this was several years before the start of Reagan’s political career).

The other supposedly shocking tale concerns the other child Reagan adopted with Jane Wyman, his son Michael. It appears that as a young man, Michael Reagan was a friend of Joseph Bonanno Jr., the son of a mafia boss. Joe Junior wasn’t in the family business and Michael doesn’t appear to have done anything criminal either. But Bonanno was subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney to testify about his father. In 1965, some in the FBI team investigating the mafia thought to interview Ronald Reagan about anything his son might have told him about his friend’s family. But, according to the files, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told his agents not to try and gather any hearsay from the actor but merely tell him that his son was in bad company.

While this is an interesting tale, again there is no evidence of wrongdoing here on Reagan’s part or even on Hoover’s, though perhaps the mere mention of that liberal boogeyman is supposed to horrify readers.

Rosenfeld concludes by saying that Reagan’s cozy relationship with the FBI was confirmed when he asked the agency for a briefing about campus radicals once he became governor of California later in the decade. As Rosenfeld put it, Reagan then used the government to spy on “other people’s children” by seeking FBI help in coping with violent demonstrations at the University of California. Hoover complied and shared the bureau’s domestic surveillance files:

Here was Ronald Reagan, avowed opponent of overdependence on government, again taking personal and political help from Hoover.

Perhaps now and then we all need a little help from Big Brother.

This piece of snark will, no doubt, elicit a chuckle from the left. The FBI’s practice of compiling files on anyone that piqued Hoover’s interest was wrong but there were some people who deserved scrutiny. Violent campus radicals were a threat to public safety as the victims of Weathermen bombings and shooting attacks would learn in subsequent years. In both the 1940s and the 1960s, Reagan was right to align himself against those who sought to tear down American democracy. Neither those incidents nor any concern about his family damages his reputation in the least.

If this is the best the Times can do to trash a conservative icon of the past, they should stick to their lame attempts to besmirch the reputations of his successors, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

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Dems Put Aside Resentments About Obama

If four years ago, Barack Obama was the magnetic force around which Democrats rallied, today the relationship between the president and his party appears to be a bit cooler. The president still has his idolaters and they will be conspicuous in Charlotte this week. But, as Politico reports today, Democratic officeholders and many party activists regard the man whose re-election is the centerpiece of their efforts this year as a distant and somewhat aloof leader. While his current political strategy appears to be in tune with others on his ticket in terms of class warfare and demonizing the Republicans, they are keenly aware that he regards himself more as a “party of one” than the ringleader of a coalition. More interested in branding himself as above politics, he remains “oddly unenthusiastic about other Democrats.”

That has proven sufficient to create enough disgruntled sources for a piece that reinforces the already widespread impression about the president’s arrogance. Though rank and file voters may not care much about his attitude, those who have been asked to carry the water for the White House in Congress and vote for unpopular measures like the stimulus boondoggle or ObamaCare resent it. This has been a White House that loves to play favorites when it comes to the political fortunes of his party members. Yet they have little choice but to swallow his arrogance. They must fight for him or find themselves swamped by another Tea Party tide, as was the case in 2010.

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If four years ago, Barack Obama was the magnetic force around which Democrats rallied, today the relationship between the president and his party appears to be a bit cooler. The president still has his idolaters and they will be conspicuous in Charlotte this week. But, as Politico reports today, Democratic officeholders and many party activists regard the man whose re-election is the centerpiece of their efforts this year as a distant and somewhat aloof leader. While his current political strategy appears to be in tune with others on his ticket in terms of class warfare and demonizing the Republicans, they are keenly aware that he regards himself more as a “party of one” than the ringleader of a coalition. More interested in branding himself as above politics, he remains “oddly unenthusiastic about other Democrats.”

That has proven sufficient to create enough disgruntled sources for a piece that reinforces the already widespread impression about the president’s arrogance. Though rank and file voters may not care much about his attitude, those who have been asked to carry the water for the White House in Congress and vote for unpopular measures like the stimulus boondoggle or ObamaCare resent it. This has been a White House that loves to play favorites when it comes to the political fortunes of his party members. Yet they have little choice but to swallow his arrogance. They must fight for him or find themselves swamped by another Tea Party tide, as was the case in 2010.

Complaints about the White House are a perennial of electoral politics and have been heard every four years no matter which party is in power. But Obama’s behavior seems to be a particularly egregious example of a man at the top acquiring an “Après moi, le deluge,” outlook on his followers. He has satisfied some of his party’s key constituencies, especially those on the left, with his stands on gay marriage, oil pipelines, cap and trade and other environmental extremism as well as his executive order preventing the enforcement of immigration laws. But, as Politico puts it: “his allies say his timing on such issues suits his own needs, not those of the party.” Obama’s fealty to liberal ideology on those issues has helped his own fundraising but often left Democrats outside of deep blue enclaves on both coasts in a difficult position.

That hasn’t created a strong bond between the president and Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate. Reportedly, the president is as sick of House Leader Nancy Pelosi as the Republicans but he appears to respect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid because he doesn’t whine as much as the former speaker. However, Democrats know they have to put their resentments aside in the next two months. The only way to ensure that the Democrats hold onto the Senate and not lose more ground in the House is a Barack Obama victory in November. For these next few days and the fall campaign to follow, the backbiting will cease, as Democrats will extol the president’s virtues though without getting much love in return.

But should he prevail, expect these petty resentments to play a not-unimportant role in the four years that will follow. Second terms are always unpleasant affairs in which party loyalty to a lame duck wears thin. The simmering anger about the president’s arrogance will, no doubt, be vented as investigations into White House security leaks, “Fast and Furious” and other scandals to come, increase.

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