Saturday, November 19, 2005

Maybe All It Takes Is One Tough Democrat

I was in Youngstown not long ago, collecting oral histories for an historical project about the Mahoning Valley. And the most absorbing subject of all was a tough old guy named Don, a former steelworker who later became a politically well-connected lawyer and judge. I drove him around town a bit, and he would occasionally ask me to stop the car, so that he could talk to this person or that. He nodded to all the cops, whom he obviously knew. Later, as we slowly climbed the back stairs to his office (he now walks with the aid of a cane) I noticed he didn't lock the door. "They always bug me about locking the door," he said of his young partners and his daughter, also an attorney, "but who the hell's gonna rob us? We already represent most of the crooks in town."

His workplace was a museum, a testament to his decades at the intersection of local and national politics and the law. The pictures covered every available inch of his large office (where a sign on the wall said: Crime pays, but politics pays better) and the even larger conference room. The war stories, prompted by my questions about particular photos, unfolded over several hours. My favorite? He recalled once picking up Truman when he came to Youngstown as an ex-pres, and how the tough old Kansas City haberdasher demanded his mid-day drink. When he poured Truman a drink of bourbon in the hotel suite, the ex-pres didn't mince words. "What kinda fuckin' drink is that?" he asked of his young gopher, who quickly filled the glass to the top.

Eventually the talk got around to present-day politics, as I knew it would, and Don began shaking his head about how weak, how seemingly scared of their own shadows the national Democrats were these days in the face of the Republican onslaught over the war in Iraq. Jesus, he said, these guys never served, and a guy who was a military hero, Kerry, couldn't make the point that he'd be better on defense? If only he were 20 years older, he seemed to be suggesting, he'd get up out of that chair and show those sissies how to play the old smash-mouth brand of politics.

I immediately thought of him when Congressman Jack Murtha uncorked his righteous protest about the war this week. His timing was exquisite: according to the polls, about two-thirds of the country now, finally, understands that the Bush-Cheney imperium has no clothes, and can't be trusted any longer with protecting American lives. Some adults in the Congress will have to step up and see to it that that's taken care of. And who better than Murtha, a legendary strong-defense Dem of the sort that mostly no longer roams the halls of Congress. The jowly Pennsylvanian, a former Marine drill sergeant, knows he'll get the full attention of the Republican wind machine, and he sounds ready for it. As I watched him blow through the cuddly centrism of PBS's Newshour and knock down the tired Rove-Cheney evasions like so many toy soldiers, for a moment, he almost reminded me of Sam Ervin, the crafty country lawyer who slowly worked his way through the layers of Nixonian smoke screens, educating his countrymen about democracy's checks and balances as he went. God seems to place these characters from central casting in the middle of our democratic drama when they're needed most.

I think Murtha's natural charm has much to do with the part of the world he comes from. The Cleveland-Youngstown-Pittsburgh corridor was once called America's Ruhr Valley, for obvious reasons. And these areas were once ruled by tough old ethnic working-class politicians like Don. Murtha is squarely in that tradition, a no-bullshit Democrat who doesn't bother catering to the sillier whims of the national party, and who thus isn't saddled with any of its prissy baggage. In the current New Yorker, Peter Boyer wonderfully describes how a guy named Casey, the son of the former governor, is running strongly for a Pennsylvania Senate seat against the right-winger Rick Santorum by sticking to simple platform that mostly mirrors his constituency. Like his constituents, he's squarely for the right to bear arms and against abortion.

Murtha's opposition to the war may or may not prove to be the tipping point in finally bringing some sanity to this invertebrate Congress. But he is certainly a timely reminder about what authentic leadership looks like. The old Marine taught us a lesson this week about intestinal fortitude and how to stand up to bullies, including those with five draft deferments. We'll soon find out if the country is paying attention.


At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Roldo Bartimole said...

John: I love your writings this a.m. I watched some of the debate last night with emotions I don't think I've felt as deeply since the late 1960s. I've been reading a bio of Carey McWilliams and his leadership of the Nation in the 1950s and these times remind me of the McCarthy hysteria.

Maybe,hopefully, the vile words and face of Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt as she smeared a true military hero as a "coward" will induce someone to repeat the Joseph Welsh sentiments to McCarthy: Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last."

Welch also said, "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness."

Schmidt reflects those Republicans who now sink to that level. Don't you see Rove's hand in this?

At 12:44 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for stopping by. It does feel a bit like McCarthy all over again. Or at least it has for the last few years. But I've been encouraged recently that perhaps the fever is beginning at long last to break, as important parts of the country begin waking up to the threat (and yes, Rove is in his own way behind most of it). For me, I think a lot of the opposition began with, of all things, librarians banding together and engaging in civil disobediance about the more egregious sections of the Patriot's Act, when most of the media was taking a pass. In the process, that profession became even more heroic, in my book. Courage is contagious, isn't it?

At 12:34 PM, Blogger mistersugar said...

Excellent post, John.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Jeff Hess said...

Shalom John,

Great post. But why don't you give us Don's last name?



At 4:48 PM, Blogger Daniella said...

Maybe courage is what is needed to defeat the evil force that is making our current politics so destructive and sordid. Your morning post was a vision of hope that maybe the tide has turned. If Don and Sam and Jack can do it, others will as well. Everyone who has been secretly disagreeing with this administration’s corrupted philosophy must now find their voices.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Anton, glad you find something here worth reading. Jeff, the Don to which I refer is Don Hanni, for what it's worth. Suppose I omitted it mostly out of writerly economy (no words included unless they're doing some work, and I'm not sure his full name mattered much to the larger story I was telling).
And Danielle dear, people are indeed increasingly finding their voices. I'm so glad you've found yours, with all its lovely Montreal inflections. It happens to be one of my favorites.

At 9:58 PM, Anonymous Ron Copfer said...

I am proud to call you my friend. Great post!

At 10:23 PM, Blogger Jill said...

John - What a lovely, deep and well-written post. I learned and smiled. Thanks. Have a great holiday.

At 1:15 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Ron, kind of you to say that. But of course, I've been proud to call you my friend for many years. I can count the number of people I know on one hand who have been both building interesting businesses over many years while simultaneously trying to be truly good citizens, speaking up honestly about what's going on and letting the chips fall where they may. I don't know if you're the index finger or the thumb--perhaps that finger that flips the bird would be more appropriate--but you're in there somewhere. And Jill, I'm especially happy to learn I've helped make you smile on a holiday, since your writing has been making me smile for a long time.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Wendy Hoke said...

Well said, JE.


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