Monday, September 1, 2008

Conventional wisdom, from E.B. White (1944)

It's Labor Day -- the unofficial end of summer, and (at long last) the beginning of election season in earnest. While the hot dogs are on the grill and the G.O.P. convenes in St. Paul this week, here are a few words about Republicans and their 1944 convention published in E.B. White: Writings from the New Yorker, 1927-1976.

White's description of the event -- a barker outside a girl-show tent -- may find familiar echoes in this year's big top. History was not on the Republican side then, either; the 1944 election was a blow-out for FDR, even though the G.O.P. gave it that old electoral-college try. They brokered the governor of New York (Thomas Dewey) and the governor of Ohio (John W. Bricker) on the ticket. It didn't work, but not all was lost in the lopsided FDR victory, his fourth -- at least Bricker carried his home state. (Four years later, Dewey went on to lose again, this time to Harry Truman, famous Chicago Tribune headline to the contrary.) It was not an exceptionally bright era for Republicanism. Still, we all know we're about to be taken for quite a ride this week. Hang on to your straw hats.

The thing we remember of the Republican keynote speech, as it came in over the air, is the summer heat in the long grasses of the June night outside the window, and our feeling of sin and futility. It was the same feeling a boy has at the county fair, on the hot midway in the suggestive summertime, as he passes before a barker outside a girl-show tent, with the smell of fried food in his nostrils and the enticements of girls in his mind, lost in the immemorial sheepishness of humanity and its deliberate exploitation by the ancient devices of oratory.

The keynoter in Chicago indicated that the Republicans were against aggression, New-Dealism, and the man-eating shark. There was to be no more aggression because the Republicans do not tolerate any evil thing like aggression. The speaker gave no indication that the reorganization of a shattered world would require anything more than a mere extension of American culture and habits, as exemplified by past and present Republicans. In this summer night we felt we were armed, bloody, and tired standing and listening to this slick spiel, outside this gaudy and unlikely tent -- listening and knowing all the while that we were about to be taken.

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